Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Old Time Radio interlude: The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen

I'm a big fan of Old Time Radio (OTR as it is known online), going way back to my childhood. When I was a kid growing up on Vancouver Island, I had an insatiable appetite for any kind of fantastic narrative. We did not have a television (which was probably a good move by my parents, looking back) so I read a lot and listened to the radio a lot. One of my favourite things was on Wednesday night on CFMI, an otherwise mediocre AOR light rock station, they had one hour of comedy followed by one hour of classic radio shows, usually two of a half-hour each. I don't know what was the impetus behind this programming, but I am grateful for it, as it gave me so much entertainment. I used to record the shows on cassette and still have a case of recorded cassettes in my parents basement. The Shadow, The Whistler, Suspense, Gunsmoke, Boston Blackie, X-1 were on regular rotation. Each episode (really even just the intro) pulled me into another world. I don't know if it is a function of the medium itself or nostalgia, but even today those shows have a power on me that goes far beyond even the most awesome 3-D movie spectacle, an ability to really make me feel like I am in another world.

I also mention the great CBC, which used to also play them on weekend afternoons from time to time. Sometimes we would listen to them together as a family while making lunch or just hanging out. I think it may have been part of The Mystery Project, but I'm not sure.

For the longest time, getting one's hands on OTR episodes was quite hard. You could buy cassettes of them, but they were really expensive. Later, when CDs were the standard, they still seemed hard to come by. I understand there was a whole network of people who used to trade them. Sometimes you could find used cassettes for more reasonable prices at used bookstores.

Enter the internet. In the last 10 years, everything has changed. You can find pretty well every existing old-time radio show online in .mp3 format. There are also several podcasts that will deliver them to you on a regular basis, sometimes with some great background info such as The Radio Detective Story Hour (though I wish the host, Jim Widner, would chill on the spoilers in his otherwise excellent and thorough introductions).

So I've really been in pig heaven when it comes to old-time radio shows. A friend gave me a DVD that had literally hundreds, including entire series and I went hogwild for a while. But I also listen to many different podcasts on the regular and they soon crowded out my OTR listening, except for the aforementioned Radio Detective Story Hour (and of course the top-notch Decoder Ring Theatre podcast, which is a show produced today, but done in the spirit of the old-time shows; highly, highly recommended).

Which brings me finally to the title of this blog: The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. For some reason, I never came into contact with this great series until a few years ago, when I saw it mentioned on a game designer's blog. Checking around, I found it had an excellent reputation and the set-up certainly seemed right up my alley: it's the tale of a freighter ketch, the Scarlet Queen, and the adventures her crew gets in during their voyage around the South Seas and mysterious Orient. It was considered a big budget show at the time and was a big succcess, though considered a bit broad by the critics of the time. The show's producer and also the actor who played the lead character, captain Philip Carney was Elliott Lewis, a pretty succesful player in the radio game back in the day.

Each show begins with the captain's log, which is actually written after the events in the show, just as the boat was leaving that port, thus giving a hint to the adventure to come. Though each episode stood alone, it had an overarching plot. The Scarlet Queen was on hire to one entrepeneur Kang, who was in a race to find these ancient Chinese treasures worth $10 million. There was his evil counterpart, who was constantly working to undermine the Scarlet Queen's mission.

What inspired me to write about it, is that I have been listening to the 33-episode series slowly over the last year or so. I have to admit that around the 15th episode, they started to blur together a bit. But yesterday, while on a long walk with the dog, my interest was piqued again, as I listened to several episodes in a row and realized that they were actually wrapping up the overall narrative about the Chinese treasures. There was a three-episode arc (episodes 19-21) where they actually did that! It was very cool. I've never encountered a radio series that did that and I found it very satisfying. In the following episode, captain Carney goes on to his first mate how great it feels that they can now just go wherever, do whatever without any long-term guiding rules. I suspect this is exactly how the writers felt as well! I'm curious to see how it plays out in the next dozen episodes or so, if they will all simply be one-offs, if they will start on a new longer-term adventure or if the old one will come back again.

It's a great show, with excellent production values and rip-roaring adventure in farflung ports of the Pacific, rife with mystery and intrigue. If you like that sort of thing, I definitely recommend it. You can find them all here:


Also, here is a great website that contributed to my knowledge of the series and its production history:


Thursday, May 26, 2011

33. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich by Stephen Leacock

Several years ago at my grandfather's funeral, I was admonished by a friend of the family's for not knowing who Stephen Leacock was. "He's Canada's greatest humourist!" And these were French-Canadians telling me this! So I've had his name in the back of my mind for a while now and was happy to put down a dollar for this slim volume, to at least get an introduction to his work and style.

I didn't realize quite how far in the past he is from and was suprised to see that this book was written in 1914. It is a fictional portrait of a small northeastern American city (though I later read that many think it was modelled after Montreal). It isn't a single narrative, but rather a series of loosely connected vignettes, each one poking satirical fun at the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. This isn't laugh out loud funny, but it is quite clever. There is lots of great dialogue with the wealthy and powerful speaking with complete earnestness about how they support the workers revolution, all the while lambasting the waiter for daring to bring the wine slightly off-temperature. The central theme of the book is that capital is all powerful, but must be guised in the rhetoric of social and spiritual welfare. In that, it certainly seems relevant today and reminds me that the struggle between private and public wealth is an old one indeed.

I was a bit disappointed that this book was not explicitly Canadian, but learned that he deliberately made that choice to expand his audience and that much of his other work, including the classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, does take place in Canada. I shall keep my eyes open for that one for sure.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Spring bonus: my wife reviews Richard Stark's The Hunter

Though I am constantly ranting and raving about Richard Stark and Parker at home, I can honestly say that I never actually tried to encourage my wife to read any of the series. We also have a neat little tradition where she buys me 3 or 4 of the new University of Chicago Richard Stark reprints for my birthday in January, which I've been re-reading and blogging about here. So I was quite excited when she asked me one day if I thought she would be interested in reading one of them. She explains why she turned her head towards the best series of books ever in her own blog as well as giving a thoughtful review of the first book. You can read it here.

Now let's see if I can get her to read the entire series! ;)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

32. Spectrum 3: a third anthology of science fiction selected and edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest

I tend to avoid short stories and anthologies in general, but I picked this one up because it has some classics in it and is edited by Kingsley Amis, whom I had learned not long before stumbling on this book was a big defender of science fiction in a time and place when it was truly treated with disdain by the literary set. The introduction to this book is pretty aggressive. Amis goes after a few named critics specifically for their ignorant and snobby derision of the science fiction genre. So as a small artifact of the early literary history of science fiction, this was a nice find. The stories themselves were also quite good, though suffering (at least for me) from some of the lack of depth that comes with the form. The stories range from 1945 to 1960 by the following authors: Theodore Sturgeon (it was his Killdozer! that really drew me to buy the book; it's about a bulldozer that gets taken over by malevolent energy and starts killing everybody), J.G. Ballard (meh), Poul Anderson, Mark Rose, Peter Phillips, Murray Leinster, Alfred Bester (his Exploration Team was my favourite, about an illegal settler with a team of three uplifted kodiak bears and an eagle eking out survival on a deadly planet) and Arthur C. Clarke.

If you are interested in some of the best names of classical sci-fi and want to get a good sampling, I would definitely recommend you pick this up (or any of the other Spectra, I suspect, that Amis and Conquest edited). Good stuff.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

31. The Moon of Skulls by Robert E. Howard

I picked this up at a flea market in Oakland. I'm a big fan of Robert E. Howard, but most of his work is like maple syrup: you don't want a big bowl full. Most of his work are short stories, so I only tend to read a story at a time. The Moon of Skulls is a perfect set-up, with one long novella and two much shorter stories, featuring the 16th century Puritan warrior, Solomon Kane. Kane is english, but spends most of his life in dark, adventurous places like central africa, uncovering the occult remains of ancient civilizations while battling off evil and savagery.

What I notice about Kane is that he does a lot of walking. He's constantly moving forward, ignoring warnings about travelling through the swamps at night, climbing straight up mountains, charging through lines of slavers. He's very puritan about his forward momentum. The plots of the stories are quite minimal, the last one almost seeming like a vignette. It's the rich atmosphere and robust energy that makes Howards' writing so great. Kane seethes with fury at injustice and when captured, his hatred for his slaver captor is so potent that the sheikh physically recoils. Here is how tough he is:
Even when they had him stretched out and piled man-weight on him until he could no longer strike with fists or foot, his long lean fingers sank fiercely through a matted beard to lock about a corded throat in a grip that took the power of three strong men to break and left the victim gasping and green-faced.

When reading this, I really wonder how Howard's writing would have evolved had he not killed himself. He was a prodigious writer and had an imagination large even for the pulps. I suspect he would have kept on experimenting and done some really interesting work.

Monday, May 09, 2011

30. Curtains for the Copper by Thomas Polsky

I feel like The Lantzvillager gave me this book, but I can't rightly remember as it has been sitting on my on-deck shelf for the longest time. A combination of concern over the physical state of the book and a lack of anything particularly compelling in the mystery kept me putting it off until now.

It's a light, slightly implausible, story-heavy but kind of entertaining urban mystery set in a nameless town somewhere on the east coast. The protagonist is a sort of hero reporter who seems to have extremely high status such that he can order chiefs of police around (this is the unrealistic part) named Grid. A young, promising police officer on the beat is shot in a doorway in Night Town, the bad part of town. The murder is made to look like a suicide, but Grid knows different and starts to nose around, unravelling a complex situation involving graft, kidnapping, drug pushing and a pretty large cast of characters.

I'll say this, that while I felt the book went on a bit too long and took too many twists and turns, the mystery itself was rather well thought out and made logical sense within the world of the book, such that you the reader were challenged but actually had a decent shot at figuring most of it out. So I did respect the work that went into the book at the end. On the other hand, I also learned that despite my love of narrative, even for me there can be too much story. Things keep happening in this book but after a certain point, I just wanted it to be over. I didn't care all that much about the characters and though the setting was kind of neat, more things happening meant me waiting longer to find out what really happened.

It's a neat looking book with a beautiful illustrated cover. The icons in the background are continued on the inside first page, which makes for a nice touch. It also is one of those books that came with a map, which while not really necessary for solving the murder really helped me to understand the geography of Night Town, where most of the book takes place. More maps in books please! I've scanned those pages in if you are interested.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

29. The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines

What a great book! The Gamekeeper vaults to the top spot of the books I've read so far in 2011. I know its early days still, but it is going to take some competition to unseat this book. I would almost argue that, within its limited category (documentary fiction?), it is a masterpiece.

I can't even remember where I found it, but the price on the upper right corner says I only paid a dollar for it. It's been sitting on my shelf for a couple years now, tempting me. I was both strongly attracted to its subject matter but also quite nervous about its dangers. It's the story of a gamekeeper on a Duke's lands in Northern England in the '70s. I was quite excited about reading about the nature of the work, the setting and the social relations. My fears were that it would either be masochistically self-pitying throughout like some British works from that period or that it would have some terrible turn of events, such as a brutal and forced change of lifestyle for the worse for the protagonist or some terrible cruelty to animals. I'm sensitive about these things and generally won't read books where I know that the plot hinges on those elements. To me, it is a form of pornography for certain readers who get off on feeling others' pain. I have nothing against pornography, it's just my kind of literary pornography involves capable men dealing efficiently with difficult situations.

I actually had this trepidation throughout at least the first half of the book. It wasn't until I was very close to being done that I realized, with a great deal of satisfaction, that Hines was not going to pull any kind of narrative trick to force an emotional response. On the contrary, by simply telling the story of a year in the life of a gamekeeper, he elicits a powerful sympathy to the plight of the working man and lays bare the utter insanity of the hierarchical social system in England. Even that social argument is delivered subtly and really only comes out at the end. Most of the book is a beautifully written and detailed account of the life and work of a man whose responsibility is to raise pheasants and grouse in a privately-held forest in Northern England so that the owner of the land, the Duke, can come and shoot them once a year.

I would not recommend this book for everybody and I recognize that a part of my appreciation for it is that its subject matter touches on so many of my own personal interests (the pastoral countryside, self-sufficiency, British class relations). Nevertheless, I can definitely argue that this is an excellently-written book. The descriptions of the land, the sounds, the colours and the activities will take you away from whereever you are and put you right in that countryside. He also describes geography, interior layouts and technical procedures (how certain traps work, the different processes for hatching pheasant eggs, the cleaning and loading of a weapon) with a facility that makes it easy to picture and understand for the layman (as well as making it interesting and engaging even for someone who may not care about such details). The book has no chapters, with sections separated by double spaces, and it just flows from one activity to the next. The focus of each section is what the gamekeeper is doing, but it includes all the small side details and especially the human element.

George Purse, the gamekeeper in question, is stoic, hardworking and conscientious about his job almost to a fault. You learn that he took the lower-paying job to get out of the steel mills. He has an equally hard-working wife and two boys. They live in a small cottage on the property that isolates them socially from the families that live together in the council housing estates. His job is to raise as many pheasants as possible and to do this he captures them every year, mates them and oversees the hatching of their eggs. He also encourages wild propogation as well. He has to constantly battle against predators such as foxes, rats and crows and he goes after them with a cold efficiency and a nation's memory of tricks. He also has to fight against poachers, who hunt the birds to supplement their own meagre income or for their dinner table.

There is a lot of subtext about who has the right to the land. I don't know if the situation is still the same in England today (this was written in 1975), but it seems insane that there are huge tracts of country that are solely dedicated to the hunt. This argument, I suspect, is a big one in Britain and I will do some research into it later. On the other hand, these gamekeepers take very good care of the land (though in a very controlling way that emphasizes pheasant growth over all the other creatures), probably better than if nobody or private interests owned it. The contradiction of spending a year taking great care of these birds only to have them massacred is not lost on George either.

And the hunt itself really is weird. I've heard of beaters before, but I never realized how totally lame this entire method is. Basically, a bunch of aristocrats show up (these are called Guns). Each has a loader who has prepared their two guns. They go into a butt (a little hut) and wait. The beaters walk in a line, beating the ground and trees, driving all the birds forward so that they come out in a clearing and the Guns just start blasting away. Once they shoot, the loader hands them their second gun and re-loads the first. This goes on intensely for 45 minutes or so until the beaters come up to the butt. Then they take a break, pick up the hundreds of dead birds and start from the other side. There is some skill in aiming and firing steadily, but otherwise, for the Guns, this is not even something I could honestly call a hunt. It's really just a shooting gallery.

I note that there is an economic element. The Guns all get some birds to take home and the host cooks up a bunch for their meal, but the majority are sent to markets and restaurants all over Britain. I think there is a traditional day as well, the Twelfth, when people dine particularly on pheasant. The whole operation from beginning to end is so work-intensive and involves such a complex hierarchy of labour and money that it can only exist in a society that is firmly entrenched in its rigid social structures. You can see hints of these structures finally starting to break down in the book: the land that was once all owned by aristocrats is going over to industrialists, the beaters organize a minor strike for a raise, schoolboys tear down some butts (which is seen as an act of pure vandalism, but is actually misguided political will). And every now and then Hines will juxtapose the incredible wealth of the upper classes with that of the men that serve them. A single hunting shotgun is worth far more than several years of George's salary for instance. The shotgun was given to a landowner by his tenants as a gift for his 21st birthday during the height of the depression and massive strikes in Britain.

I did some reading on Hines and he is considered to be a part of the Angry Young Men movement of Britain in the 60s and 70s. It's not super obvious from The Gamekeeper, but you get hints of it. I suspect in his other novels the politics are much more apparent. His first is about a working class athlete who conflicts with the system (sounds a lot like The Sporting Life) and his best known about a working class boy who can only relate to a bird of prey he tames. Based on the total success of the Gamekeeper, I'm very curious to read more of Hines' work, but I'm a bit freaked out about the others being not as subtle as this one. If anybody else is familiar with his work and has some recommendations, I'd love to hear them. In any case, a great book.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

28. Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley

This was the third and final book in the stash I found hidden away at my job. I have never read anything by Sheckley, but have since learned that he was a very successful, popular and critically-acclaimed science fiction author who eventually became the managing editor for Omni magazine. Dimension of Miracles was written in 1968 and while I respect this kind of science fiction, it really isn't my cup of tea. These guys wrote in a period when ideas were more important than story and they really do have a lot of cool ideas, but without a strong narrative, I find myself getting distracted often.

This book, for example, is ostensibly about a human from 1968 New York who is mistakenly given a galactic prize. The mistake is that only species who are able to travel about in space, time and dimensions are eligible to receive this prize. Tom Carmody, is thus left adrift in space time whatever where he received the prize having no idea of how to get back to his right place time and version. Furthermore, because of the universal law of predation, by being taken out of his own place in the hierarchy of eaten and eater, Carmody has now a predator on his tail whose sole raison d'être is to eat him.

It kind of sounds like fun and the back and front cover copy make you think of some kind of world-spanning chase. [As an aside, this is one thing I don't get about sci-fi publishers from this period. They always had the most abstract, trippy cover art that never had anything at all to do with the content of the book juxtaposed against the most blatant, lowest-common-denominator copy. Why were they willing to be all speculative and creative with the cover art, but completely pandering with the copy?] Instead, as I had expected, we get an excuse to put the protagonist in many different situations where ideas of philosophy and crazy science can be discussed. He meets a god who is the sole inhabitant of a planet and stuck in an existential crisis. There is a builder of worlds (who reminded me a lot of Slartibartfast), who built earth on God's request and wanted to apologize to him for cutting corners. We go to super-consumerized Manhattan where everybody talks in advertising jargons. We meet an intelligent city whose nagging personality has driven away all the citizens. And so on. Some of it was clever. This book reminded me a lot of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in its tone.

But ultimately, it all kind of fizzles out because there is no real storyline and I'm not super concerned about the fate of the protagonist as it seems kind of random to me anyhow. It's not a bad read and it fired off some synapses in the lazier parts of my mind, if you enjoy this period of science fiction. It has helped me to get a better sense of what elements of that period I do and don't enjoy.

Monday, May 02, 2011

27. The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark

Well what a delicious tonic that was! After the bummer that the last book I read was, I needed something to cleanse the palate and though I felt it may have been a bit too indulgent, I also knew the Stark would deliver, so I went right to the next Parker book on my list: The Rare Coin Score.

I have definitely read this one before, but I have never owned a copy, so it is possible I had only read it once before, because I barely remember any of it, which is a great thing! The Rare Coin Score is an important book in the series because it marks a significant transition in Parker's romantic life. He meets Claire. I have mixed feelings about Claire and the role she plays in Parker's life. Though early on in the story, I became worried about how Parker was behaving, this is nevertheless a great heist story, from beginning to end, arguably in the top 5 of the series (though I'll need to quantify such a claim at some point).

The book begins with Parker at loose ends, not financially, but psychologically. He has money and really should be laying low after all the heat generated by the heist of the gambling island of Cockaigne in The Score. But he's restless and nervy and wants to work. Bedding a series of different women in party towns does nothing to calm the restlessness either. So when he gets a call from an old colleague about a job to hit a rare coin collector's convention, he goes for it, even though the finger man is a complete amateur his contact is fresh out of the joint and too desperate. Even more out of character, Parker hooks up with the woman who is behind the finger man and keeps hooking up with her during the planning of the heist!

Stark justifies this change in Parker's traditional patterns through both Parker's own psychology and Claire's intrinsic qualities. It makes sense for me how Parker, as cold as he is, still has a need for an intimate partner in his life. But I remaink somewhat skeptical about Claire's character. First of all, she is kind of a cipher. All of Parker's interactions with women are filtered through the cultural mores of the mid to late 60s as well as Parker's own particular way of dealing with them (basically telling them what's up as bluntly as possible, waiting for them to come on to him and then accepting or rejecting as the case may be). So Claire doesn't get a whole lot to say and what she does say is made up of those weird curt little phrases that seemed to pass for relations between the sexes in the '60s. She does demonstrate a strong will when dealing with men she doesn't want and she knows her role and plays it cooly in the planning phase.
She was a good woman, good to look at and good to be with. Sensible and independent. Not full of foolishness. [page 72]

You don't get a whole lot more than that, but it's enough for me and for Parker. Where I get skeptical is when shit gets violent, Claire totally freaks out. She actually goes into a state of severe shock, first catatonic and then talking childish nonsense. The end result is that while she is ethically completely okay with Parker's method of supporting himself, she herself can't stand to be anywhere around it. I'm not quite sure exactly what it is, but I don't totally buy it. She understands from the beginning the implications of what she was getting into and is totally cool about it, but somehow the violence when it actually happens totally freaks her out. Wouldn't there be at least some trepidation about that beforehand? The extremes just strike me as being too far apart in the same person and that, coupled with their stilted conversations, result in me never really feeling like I have a grasp on who Claire is. I will investigate this further in the forthcoming books.

I would like to point out another staple of these books: Parker reading some new acquaintance and implicitly judging him (usually correctly). As the reader, you can almost always tell who is going to be competent and who incompetent by Parker's initial impression of their physical appearance. Here is new heister Jack French when the string is first introduced:
He thought French looked all right; lean and rawboned and self-contained, maybe thirty-five, with level eyes and an expressionless face. French said, "Good to know you," and sat down again.[page 15]
Among other things, it's the levelness that is important to Parker, both physical and mental. Not only is his body self-contained, but so is his speech. No need for a joke here or any other verbiage. Just a greeting and let's get down to business.

Same with Wemm, the black sign-painter working at the shady auto-body shop who has been given the job of doing the fake lettering on the side of the getaway truck:
He had the self-contained movements of a man about to be asked to show how good he is, a man who knows he is more than good enough. His hair was gray but he had the face of a young man. [page 62]
(note to self: spend week practicing being self-contained). I think the gray hair and young face is also an indicator of Stark's world view: the positive combination of physical youth and mental wisdom. First impressions do count and Park can judge a book by its cover.

Finally, I am going to share two more great Westlakian metaphors with you:

Billy was at his most nervous, looking around like a possum coming out of a hole. [page 72]

When he saw Claire, a surprised smile creased his face, looking strange there, as though it had been delivered to the wrong address. [page 73]

That's Ninja-level writing right there.

I have distracted you all with some side analysis because I don't really have a lot to say about the meat of the book, which is the heist, its planning and execution. I don't have a lot to say, not because there isn't a lot to say about it but because it really is just much better for you to go ahead and read it. I can talk about those beautiful ribs on the bbq, how the sauce was made, how long I smoked it for, and so on, but wouldn't you rather just dig in? This is a good one, that's all you need to know.