Friday, March 05, 2021

6. The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

This book was given to me in this trade paperback form by a friend who was clearing out his shelves.  I took it because I had heard of the film as well as Fearing's name.  I would have loved the original though normally I do appreciate some of the choices the NYRB puts out.  In this case, though, the introduction was really godawful and made me annoyed at the entire publication.  I don't know who Nicholas Christopher is but I hope he is not chosen to write an intro for this kind of book ever again.  His essay is mostly a recap of the entire storyline overlaid with pretentious and meaningless undergrad-style literary analysis.  So that is not just a waste of space since you are going to read the book anyways, but also full of spoilers.  There are tidbits of helpful biographical detail on Fearing.  However, Christopher seems to be wholly ignorant of the culture of post-war America and of the genre of crime and suspense fiction of the time.  He seems utterly confounded by the coded way sexuality is portrayed in the book and attributes it to the author as a failure rather than the standard of the times. Worse, though, it is just dripping with the kind of insecure, condescending literary snobbishness.  He laments that Fearing's poetry was somehow ruined by his other writing: "it is unfortunate that he never managed to insulate his poetic faculty from the wear and tear of hack journalism, pulp writing and public relations assignments".  Fuck right off. 

Sorry to rant about the introduction.  I read it after reading the book (as I always do) and it set me off.  Just gross and a big failure by the usually solid NYRB editors.  On to the book. It is the story of George Stroud, editor at a succesful and innovative crime magazine whose publishing house is struggling against competition. Stroud is the man in the gray flannel suit except with a bohemian twist (he likes art) and a more varied background (he had many other jobs including running a bar before settling down to the commuter life).  He ends up having an affair with the girlfriend of Earl Janoth, the powerful, charismatic boss of the publishing house and he drops her off at the end of a weekend getaway to see her run into said boss outside her apartment. The boss and she get in an argument, starting with his jealousy but then escalating into counter-accusations of homosexuality where the boss flips out and beats her to death with a heavy decanter.  

The book gets quite interesting here with a very similar setup to Chase's You Find Him, I'll Fix Him.  Janoth thinks he is in the clear except for the guy who dropped off his girlfriend (he didn't recognize him), so he needs to find that guy and silence him.  He chooses Stroud, because he is known for his investigative skills, to hunt this guy down.  Basically, the boss has ordered Stroud to hunt himself.  It becomes a complex cat and mouse game where Stroud leads a team to try and find himself while actually trying to delay the discovery for as long as possible.

It's lively and tight, with viewpoints changing from chapter to chapter, so we also get a fairly critical look at the main character as well, who is kind of a heel.  The ending is quite fun as well and fast, which I also enjoyed.  It is also quite realistic about sex in the city in 1946, which I think the film does not portray at all. It's a bit more poetically written than I usually appreciate and at first it kind of annoyed me.  That was the voice of Stroud.  As I got used to it, though, the prose became more natural. There is a lot of subtle depth here, with hints at corporate intrigue and inter-office politics and some nice asides about working for the system (the big clock).

Monday, March 01, 2021

5. The Cat's Paw by James Heron

I found this among a treasure trove of older paperbacks in one of those free book libraries, this one situated in the Little Italy/Rosemont neighbourhood below the Jean-Talon market.  I found a Ross Thomas and several WWII thrillers as well as a near-complete set of some historical work on Nazism.  It was slightly creepy so I left that.  I wasn't expecting much from this one but just loved it as a beautiful classic British 70s thriller.  I mean look at it!  Also in excellent condition.

I was further pleased to discover upon reading that it has a really cool premise.  It's preposterous but just enough.  The protagonist, Charles Hutchison is back in England after years in Nigeria.  He's down on his luck and nursing a drink in a bar where his last job interview fizzled when he is accosted by a man who looks almost identical to him.  This man, James Fitzpatrick, is equally surprised and they get to talking.  Hutchison pours out his life to the charming and wealthy Fitzpatrick who invites him to his office next week for a proposition.  

After some research (learning that Fitzpatrick is the chairman of a very successful publishing company) and trepidation, Hutchison makes the appointment. There he is met by Fitzpatrick and his efficient and gorgeous secretary. After asking him to strip and poring over his personal details, they make their proposition. Fitzpatrick is sick of his life and wants to leave it for 2 years to write a book on birds. For a significant amount of money and controlling stake in the company, he wants Hutchison to impersonate him for those two years.  As I said, preposterous, but Fitzpatrick and the author have thought it out well enough that you do believe it could work.  I won't go into details beyond some surgery and a fake breakdown, but you buy into it.

Of course, things are not what they seem and much of the fun of this book is first following Hutchison as he tries to fake his way into this new world and then second following him as he unravels what is really going on.  The second part is not as tight as an investigation as I would have like and many of the other characters are not all that clever.  Overall, though, the ride is a lot of fun.  There is also a ton of sex. This guys is getting laid constantly, with a wide variety of women who enjoy a wide variety of sexual practices.  Even with that, the relationship between Hutchison and "his" (actually Fitzpatrick's wife) is kind of fun and romantic.  Fitzpatrick was a workaholic who didn't really love her and didn't want the kids whereas Hutchison really likes children and comes to appreciate the wife.  It makes for an enjoyable side plot.  Quite a nice little find and will go on the shelf for its beauty and its content.

Such a sexy book I had to do a 3/4 angle

Friday, February 26, 2021

4. Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Like so many, I read much Agatha Christie in my younger years, I think as early as high school.  It has been a really long time.  I hadn't even thought of her that much, except for the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express and somewhere learning that quite a lot of young french readers also get into her.  I found this one in the free box on St-Viateur and though xmas is over, I thought it would be nice to check hour out again.  As it turned out, this is another nice entry to get my reading habits back up again. She is certainly most digestible.

The story takes place on a British estate in the holiday season.  Three sons (two of whom were long estranged) of the old, nasty lord as well as his newly-discovered half-Spanish grandaughter and the unexpected son of his old business partner all assemble at what later turns out to be his request.  We quickly learn that he was a big success in diamonds in South Africa, quite a wild young man and today a manipulative bastard who has nothing but contempt for all his sons.  He of course gets murdered inside his own locked study with all the guests downstairs and accounted for (at first).

Poirot, who is a friend of the Commisioner, just happens to be on the scene and he ends up supporting detective Sugden in the investigation.  Everything moves forward at a brisk pace. We meet the characters, learn quickly of their characters with several mysteries about their pasts sprinkled in.  Once the murder starts, we learn more about each of them as they are interviewed.  And then Hercule starts poking and detecting, with a pretty good reveal at the end.  These are classic mysteries with curious clues that scream "CLUE!" at the reader.  I was close to elements of it but definitely did not guess.

I guess compared to all the British mysteries I have since read, she feels somewhat blunt in her portrayals of the British Aristocracy and all its damaged progeny. The Spanish granddaughter was pretty bad in the cliches (she was beautiful and would cut the throat of her enemies).  The cozy element I quite enjoy and she does truly have a savage side, which makes it all work quite well.    

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

3. You Find Him -I'll Fix Him by James Hadley Chase

James Hadley Chase is a good author to help one get back into reading form.  This one started out solid got quite good, ended up a bit banal with a fun coda that made the mystery worthwhile.  Despite the pat ending, I have to give Chase his credit.  He is able to keep a story moving.  Ed Dawson is a newspaper man heading up the Rome office of an American paper.  He gets a call from the paper's owner asking him to watch over his daughter who is coming to Rome to take architecture classes.  Dawson meets her, finds her plain and basically drops the assignment.  A few weeks later, he runs into her again at a fancy party and this time she is a total babe.  Like any fool in one of these books, he starts to go around with her and then accepts her proposition that they spend a passionate weekend at a remote villa in Sorrento together.  Against his better judgement (basically because he has the total hots for her), he goes.  Of course it goes very badly when he gets there and discovers her body at the foot of a cliff.

This was all kind of straightforward and made even less interesting because the protagonist is not very smart.  He panics and puts himself in a worse situation.  Now I know we wouldn't have a book if he didn't get himself in a jam.  Fortunately, the jam itself gets more interesting for most of the middle of the book, as we learn more about the backstory of the daughter.  It's complex enough to keep you wanting to find out what goes on, though a few of the twists are quite obvious.  The ending, as I mentioned, is almost sappy, quite the opposite of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  However, there is a further reveal that reinforces the complexity of the backstory.  I apologize for speaking so vague, but I am pretty strict about spoilers.

The work of James Hadley Chase doesn't seem to merit a lot of analysis and maybe he was a bit of a journeyman.  I'll have to read more to know, but so far I have to appreciate his work.

Friday, February 19, 2021

2. Peel's England by J H B Peel

I can not even remember where I found this old hardback. I certainly didn't pay much money for it. I do remember my motivation for taking it. I felt that maybe a bit of non-fiction exploration of pastoral england in the 70s would help reinforce my appreciation of the context of a lot of the fictional books I read.  That goal was only somewhat achieved, not through any particular flaw in this book, but in my own inability to remain focus on facts and descriptions in text. 

I guess Peel was a well-known writer and commentator. He seems to be, at least in this book, one of those mild-mannered conservatives whose common-sense tone belies what we know today in post-Brexit england to be a pretty nasty jingoism.  Or maybe it was mild-mannered and has since evolved into the basic racism we see today.  In any case, the roots are there.  His real enemy, though, is progress and particularily the motor car and I am with him on that.  The entire book is him traipsing through all the regions of England, describing the scenery and a few specific locales like old churches or villages, adding tidbits of history, poetry and a few hints of the above mentioned politics.

Actually, as I think of it, it did give me a good broad sense of the various regions of England.  For instance, I finally get now that the legend of Arthur took place somewhere in the southwest, possibly even Wales.  I also think I know a bit about Cornwall, which is cool.  I knew a Cornish guy once and he had the black hair and an intensity of gaze, as Peel describes them.

Anyhow, that was perhaps not the best book to get my reading habits back up.  Now on to some fun fiction!

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

1. The Adventures of Ben Gunn by R.F. Delderfield

Past performance does not indicate future results.  Wow, after the last two years of consistent reading, I totally fell off in the end of 2020 and early 2021.  I gave myself a break after achieving my goal last year, played videogames, watched a lot of sports and too much twitter.  Somehow it turned into a pit of pleasant lassitude that is now catching up to me.  I did at least complete an entire videogame (Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and the expansions).  And the post-Trump insurrection social media world was entertaining enough to bring my addiction flaring back (at least when social media is stressful and depressing you are really motivated to get out of it).  I guess my struggle with laziness will last my entire life and I cannot ever let up my efforts.  Enough wanking, on to the review!

I am now a full fan of R.E. Delderfield and will pick up his books when I find them. This was a real score, a lovely Coronet paperback of his unofficial sequel to Treasure Island.  When I found it, I realized I needed to reread the original, which turned out to be a great pleasure.  The conceit of The Treasures of Ben Gunn is that James Hawkins, now a comfortable middle-aged landowner, became the employer of Ben Gunn, the castaway on Treasure Island.  Once the latter passed on, Hawkins felt he could tell his tale as Ben had told him.  This tale also tells the story of Long John Silver and the origin of the treasure. It's a great idea and most well executed, though one wonders if it is right to actually write down a tale that may have been better left for each reader's own speculation.  This applies not only to the backstory but also the fate of the characters.  I felt sort of sad at the end of this knowing that the rest of James Hawkins life, though a good one, did not lead to much more adventure.

Ben Gunn's story starts out on land, on an estate in England with a new Lord who is a tyrant about following the laws. His rigidity and his asshole, drunken loser son, make the lives of their tenants miserable.  Nick Allardyce, whose skeleton you may or may not recall, pointed to the treasure, was a young squire who runs afoul of the masters of the estate.  He and Ben Gunn, after an altercation where the son is killed, are forced to flee England.  Their paths in the oceans eventually lead them to Captain Flint, Long John Silver and a life of piracy.

The opening section feels very Delderfieldesque and brings the reader some righteousness at the injustice.  The middle part of the book, where we follow the adventures of the pirates, somehow lacked excitement for me. It was very historically accurate, rich in location and situation, but somehow there wasn't enough of a real foil or narrative through line to get me fired up the way Treasure Island did.  Once Ben Gunn gets marooned, we get a mini-Robinson Crusoe, which I always enjoy, as well as his redemption.  This development as it aligned with the Treasure Island narrative (when the pirates return) was quite fun to read.  So it does fill in the backstory nicely but somehow didn't grip me the way a good pirate story should.  I will have to read more Delderfield, but my sense is that his strength is in the long, slow narrative, punctuated with moments of satisfying character and Englishness rather than the flash bang of a true adventure novelist.  Still, very enjoyable and I am happy to have this on my too-full bookshelves.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

66. The Two-Headed Serpent by Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward and Matthew Sanderson

There has been a bit of a slowdown in traditional book reading here at Olman's Fifty.  Normally, I tend to crank it up in the xmas holidays, at I am at my parents which is very conducive to reading (not near my own computer, often times everybody is reading).  This year, having been an exceptionally busy one at work and having xmas at our own immediate family this year and me buying two new videogames, I am just generally taking a break from concentrating too hard.  The Two-Headed Serpent is a campaign for the Call of Cthulu tabletop role-playing game.  So definitely reading, but much easier to consume in small bites, as it is divided up into several different sub-adventures.

Once, when I was starting to really get into gaming (I had just discovered the incredibly rich world of RPGs outside of the big brand name game Dungeons & Dragons), I was at the Compleat Strategist in NYC, which was the big and really only tabletop RPG store in the city at the time.  I ran into a guy who was maybe 10 years older than I was who was asking about a few games.  He told me he used to play, but doesn't anymore but still buys RPG books for "non-linear fiction, you know."  I remember thinking that made a lot of sense, but was also a bit sad as you would just not get the same satisfaction of immersion and interaction from just reading these books as opposed to playing or running them.  And yet here I am, twenty odd years later, picking up game books with the almost sole intention of just reading them.  I do have a tiny hope to run something again.  It's just that there is so much material and so little opportunity and in the end I'll probably just make my own thing up as usual.

I'm not a big Call of Cthulu guy.  I am a huge fan of pulp gaming, though.  Together, they make a very nice mix. The pulp element elevates the Call of Cthulu setting out of its depressing (to me) death/insanity spiral base play and allows the players to go in half-cocked and blasting.  And the mythos world gives an endless possibility of conspiracies and bad things all over the world for pulp adventurers to go investigate and fight.  The Two-Headed Serpent sets the players are being hired by Caduceus, a global philanthropic organization that sends doctors and scientists to help crisis situations around the world.  I won't give any more away in case anybody is going to play it, but of course shit is not what it seems.  Lizard people are involved.


[warning some tabletop RPG nerdery/inside baseball talk in the paragraph below.]

Overall, it is extremely well put together.  It is a beautfully-produced book.  The adventures are in diverse and fun situations (chases through the crammed streets of Calcutta, disease outbreak in the Belgian Congo, mafia wars in NYC, expedition to Iceland and that's about half of them!).  The back story is well thought out and the badguys and other NPCs are a great mix.  My only hesitation to move this from really good to great is that it is all a bit old school.  Absolutely nothing wrong with the old school and while I vacillate, I am probably actually pretty old school myself at this point.  It's just that the overall timeline is basically a railroad.  I know that is hard to avoid with a long campaign in this vein. I just feel like there are innovative ways to present this material so that it is much more freeform and dynamic, which would allow the players more agency in the way things unfold, while still moving the campaign into all the great material provided here.  The few options are presented here as basically if then statements and they really ultimately only shift the order of things somewhat.  Likewise, there is no real connection set up between the material and the players.  So basically, their motivation is "you were hired by this organization to do some stuff".  If I were to run this, I think I would do some kind of hook-building process where I got the players to come up with two connections their character would have to something in the campaign setting.  I just find when they have those things, they tend to be much more motivated (or you just make the main bad guy kick their ass right at the beginning :) ).

Anyhow, really fun to read and would be great fun to play or run one day.