Sunday, March 31, 2019

24. The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but it was enough that I bought it new from Dark Carnival.  As always, reading a translated version of a french author always leaves me with a little protestant guilt.  I also suspect that some of the phrasing that seemed a bit awkward here would probably be more easily accepted in french.  His books are short so I may just make that one of my challenges, to find a nice used version of one of his untranslated novels and see how hard it is for me to read in la langue de Molière.

I guess Manchette has the reputation of reviving or at least revisiting the genre of pulp fiction and he is often compared to the french new wave filmmakers, though he came a bit later.  The Prone Gunman read pretty much like it could have been from the 50s or 60s.  Only some references to music (a Brian Ferry song) really reminded me that it wasn't the 60s.  He goes into some detail about clothes and interior decor and these all felt more 60s than 80s, but I think that is because the point he was making about the garish taste of working class people with money.  Also, some gun detail that I suspect was not anachronistic. Otherwise, it kind of felt similar to Queenpin, an ersatz pulp.

The other thing that reinforced that was the way Manchette describes the protagonist.  He never actually feels any emotions.  Only strange expressions on his face suggest to the reader that he might be having emotions.  It's very odd and I couldn't tell if this would go over better in translation or if this is a deliberate writing technique to somehow comment on the genre.

Here is the plot:  a professional killer decides he wants out.  Turns out he always had a plan to work for 10 years, go back to his small town and marry high high school sweetheart.  The gang wants him to do one last job and start making his life hell.  It gets quite nasty and I wasn't totally feeling it at first.  It gets more interesting when we learn about his backstory and he makes his play against the gang.  The ending is weird, though.

Not a bad book, but I need to read more of his work or somebody else's deeper understanding than mine to properly appreciate it, I suspect.

Friday, March 29, 2019

23. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Image stolen from much better review here.
This is the third and final book in Mary Stewart's trilogy series about Merlin and King Arthur and it took me a long time to get to it.  I held off because I've been trying to find the Coronet version with the same design as the first two I already have.  I finally gave in and just snagged this at Moe's.  I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because I forgot a lot of the first two and had also read the The Once and Future King books in between, so was getting that mixed up with Stewart's interpreration when trying to remember back.

It wasn't a huge deal as The Last Enchantment stands on its own.  This is the chronology that lines up most closely with the Knights of the Round that we know in popular culture and medieval history.  Arthur pulls the sword at the end of the second book and here we have his victories, his consolidation of power in England, Camelot and the betrayal of Guinevere and all that.  Mary Stewart adds and changes a ton from the original source material (not that I know it well; she has a handy afterward where she lays out all the differences).

The Last Enchantment is all about Merlin.  He was the narrator in the first two but the story felt less about him than Arthur and the goings on around him.  Here, though Merlin remains his extremely humble self, and even loses much of his power, it is really his story we are reading here.  He travels all over England, meets cool characters, does some good spying, continues to guide Arthur while encouraging his kingly autonomy, falls in love, gets buried alive, gets to have a brief, wonderful retirement in an ideal British cottage and so on.  It's all very satisfying and quite moving at times.  You get the feeling that Stewart really wanted some nice stuff to happen to Merlin and though there are challenges, she really gives it to him.  He's just a great dude in this book.

I've read quite a few of her other gothic thriller novels and it is really something to compare them.  I don't have enough material, nor enough of an understanding of the gothic genre yet to really understand her work.  What stands out to me is how different the characters behave and think in the Merlin books than they do in the thrillers.  My current belief is that Stewart is a really good writer and she has freedoms with male characters that she did not with female ones.  Merlin is thoughtful, even worrisome and quite romantic, yet he never seems to behave or think in the excessively doubting and anxious way her female characters act and think.  Likewise, there are some serious great ass-kicking moments, both in real physical action but also in psychological and social conflicts.  Stewart is very British and she is up there among the best thriller writers in knowing how to subtly display superiority or high skill in really exciting ways.  I often found this lacking in her gothic thrillers, where the heroines would pull back or be passive while the male secondary character did something bold (though often not subtly).  She clearly has the writing skill.  Was it because these books came later or because the protagonist is male? Again, very unformed and possibly erroneous thoughts but something to keep an eye on as I continue reading her books.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

22. Frankincense and Murder by Baynard Kendrick

I now cannot remember from whom I received the recommendation to read Baynard Kendrick.  His name has been on my hunt list for years.  I finally found two hardcovers at Dark Carnival which I normally wouldn't buy but the threat of that gem going out of business has me buying anything of interest they may have (which is a lot) so I picked them both up.

I would not say that I was disappointed with Frankincense and Murder (nice little title btw), just a bit non-plussed.  It's a good mystery but felt very workaday, something that is part of a series that might have been a decent TV or radio show back in the day.  It's very New York City mad-men period, which I am starting to find less and less interesting (partly because I am trendily anti-trendy but also because the inherent sexism and erasure of anybody who is not white honestly starts to get me down; like seriously dudes were just straight up marrying their secretaries). 

Despite these concerns, it is a well-written mystery and the detective being blind really makes the detection cool and interesting.  There was also some very specific and detailed look into the perfume manufacturing industry that I quite enjoyed.  The financial forensics were less interesting (though wow tax rates and assumptions about them have changed vastly!) and despite two people and a dog getting murdered, it never felt like the stakes were all that high.  That lightness is what made it feel like a decent TV or radio show.  I can imagine that Kendrick was a favourite for a lot of people and his latest book was picked up as soon as it came out.  I am curious to see how I like the other one on my shelf.

This is from 1961.  91% tax rate!  If this is MAGA, I'll take it.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

21. The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser

A solid hollywood noir Graphic Novel with a particularily well done cover and trade dress makes it seem something more than the story actually is.  This is okay, because the story is quite good.  It's just that it being in a comic format kind of throws you at first (as well as the excessive promotional quotes by other authors, like this is a pretty good book but it's not the equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro, Joe Hill). 

It's just that when you start to have some experience with pulp and noir fiction in print, the story of Fade Out doesn't seem all that special because we have seen a lot of it before.  That being said, Fade Out hits some pretty cool marks.  The story is nicely dark and the protagonist a well-done take on the self-loathing, broken anti-hero.  The set up is cool, too.  Charlie Parish was a gifted writer who had his spirit broken in the war.  He is now a studio screenwriter and secretly continues to work with his blacklisted mentor, because he, Charlie, can no longer actually write.  So his bitter, alchoholic mentor does the actual writing and Charlie does all the day-to-day work, while also trying to ensure that his mentor doesn't show up drunk to awkward for both of them situations.  Charlie is pretty much an alchoholic as well and the story gets going when he wakes up from a blackout on an unknown couch after a big studio party.  He quickly stumbles on to the dead body of the upcoming star of the movie they were working on.  Trouble ensues.

There are lots of great characters ( I appreciated the cast of characters spread at the beginning as well to help the reader keep track) and the corruption of Hollywood near the end of the studio system is well portrayed.  The studio security guy was a particularily nuanced character, who comes off as the strongarm but then later reveals a more intelligent side (though perhaps never moral).  He reminded me a bit of the Comedian from the Watchmen. 

Rock solid noir thriller that is more fun to read because you get pictures.  Recommended.

Friday, March 15, 2019

20. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

As a younger person, I did not like this style of cover design.  I think it felt old-fashioned and chintzy.  The image itself still evokes that sense of cheapened glory (like Hollywood Squares) in me, but today I find the overall design to be really compelling.  I love the white space and right alignment.  The colours are particularily appealling. I don't know if it was originally supposed to be true-white or if the eggshell was deliberate as the book is quite old, but the green on the off-white really works for me here.  I guess this paperback was from 1964, but I would have pegged it as later. 

I have mixed feelings about the book as well.  I mostly enjoyed it and there is no doubt that Mary Stewart is a good writer.  I am still not well-versed enough in the gothic romance genre to be able to differentiate what are the writer's choices and what are staples of the genre.  The setup is absolutely fantastic and sucked me right in.  The lack of satisfaction for me in a lot of these thrillers is the distribution of the tension and mystery.  Here, it felt like you were pretty much ignorant of the details on anything nasty going on except for just the menacing feeling of everything. Once you do learn that there is indeed something real going on, you learn it all quite quickly about halfway through the book.  There is one central mystery that remains right up until the end and this whether or not the love interest is part of the evil plot or not.

Let me get to the basic plot before going on.  Linda Martin is a well-bred young British woman who had been raised in Paris and then on to England before her parents died in a car crash.  As a grown-up orphan, she became a ward at an orphanage.  Because of her sense and good work, she is recommended to become a governess to a recently-orphaned 10-year old boy who lives now with his uncle and aunt in the Chateau de Valmy in rural France.  The aunt is lovely, the boy is pale and sickly but good and the uncle a penetratingly handsome ex-rake who is now confined to a wheelchair.  The uncle in particular unerves young Linda Martin but he always behaves very decently towards her and she does a very good job with the boy.  The chateau is enormous and beautiful and everything is going fine until the boy gets "accidently" shot at while on the walk in the forest and the uncle's son, Raoul arrives, who is as good-looking as his father and can walk.

Here is where I started to get a bit disconnected.  One thing that is odd about this time is how quickly characters "fall in love".  I sort of thought the whole thing was to take your time back in these virginal times, but this book started to make me think that it was the opposite. Because you couldn't have sex right until you were married, you had to fall in love, get engaged and get married as soon as possible.  They go out on one date, albeit a fantastic one, and she has to admit the next day that as much as it pains her, she is hopelessly in love with Raoul. 

The other weird thing is that Raoul is not totally an asshole, he actually seems pretty good overall. It's just that he is so intense and aggressive. It's really worse than that.  He is always getting mad and all intense and brooding (about other things but also because he too seems to be equally in love with Linda).  He is also almost crashing into her with his over-powered car that he drives too fast or grabbing her and crushingly kissing her.  He never kisses in a gentle, slow way. It's pretty gross by today's standards, but it's not just simply that, there is some weird way they interact even verbally that seems stunted and off-putting to me. 

Accidents continue to happen around the boy and she becomes more and more suspicious.  She then learns that there is indeed a plot to murder the boy (who is set to inherit the entire estate) and she may be the one to be scapegoated for it. She is sure of some of the perpretators but is her beloved, yet weirdly aggressive Raoul in on it as well?  Things reach a climax and she realizes she has to run away with the boy and get him to safety (to his other uncle who seems good).

I really liked the main character.  She is smart and practical and makes the strong moral choice right away.  Very much the young female version of the British archetype.  What's problematic with the narrative is that while she makes the right choices that lead her down a difficult path, they end up being for the most part useless, as she lacked info that would have made her realize there was no need to run and hide with the boy.  And it's funny because when I was reading the exciting run away scenes, I kind of just wanted to get through it and see what happened.  I think I suspected there was not enough info to confirm her suspicions and was thus not totally bought in.  It's a shame because the description of some of the locations and their walk together was really beautiful and cool.

I guess for the readership they were targeting, the real suspense is whether the dashing aristocrat is true or not.  In that view, then, the mystery of the conspiracy and the thrill of the escape is all side business to the real climax.  This may be a simplistic reading, but it could be the equivalent to the romance in a man's adventure book being the side dish to the real climax of the baddy being killed or the objective achieved.  Could be a thesis in there somewhere, but I will need to read more of these books.

There is also a side character, a young, healthy and handsome British man she meets in town who is staying in a cabin doing some forest research.  He hilariously and obviously represents the staid, practical man a character like Linda Martin is supposed to end up with (and probably most of the readership). He is a very nice and cool-seeming guy and gets treated like an utter door mat in the face of her passion for the french aristocrat with the fancy car.  Total friend-zone. 

Saturday, March 09, 2019

19. Mission for Vengeance by Peter Rabe

This was another exciting find in the great Friends of the Oakland Public Library haul of xmas 2018. Any original Peter Rabe is a find, even a less one, which I suspected this might be.  The cover is quite generic and not very inspiring and the mixed messages of the promotional text didn't help.

The story here is about John Miner, a man on a ranch outside of San Francisco who is waiting for his fiancee, Jane Getterman, to finally come and live with him.  When she arrives, her dad is unexpectedly there and his presence makes Miner's stomach tight.  This is not just traditional annoyance with the father-in-law as we soon learn that Mr. Getterman and Miner have a criminal past together and his presence at the ranch means that something from it has arisen and there is trouble.

Trouble there is indeed and it is in the name of Farrett, a resentful loser that Miner had hired for the gun running operation that he had set up with Getterman and a few others.  It got busted up and they had gone their separate ways, but Farrett had now reappeared and his very name makes Miner worried, especially now that he has Jane.

It's a good premise but an uneven book.  The point of view jumps from first person (from Miner's perspective) to third (Farrett and several others).  The tone and pacing is also inconsistent.  Farrett is really frightening and we slowly learn more and more how crazy he actually is, while we also learn more and more about their gun-running operation.  Those threads were engaging, as were many of the locations and the writing overall.  Rabe is a skilled writer and he portrays odd yet real situations, often in quite rundown and depressing settings.  These are strong.  But the storyline itself bogs down at times, with lots of details about flight times and too many times where Miner is stuck then not stuck.  Finally, there is a major plot hole at the end, where a crime that would have been quickly discovered and quite quickly connected to Farrett is overlooked so that he can continue to be a narrative threat.

It is also quite nasty, especially the section when Farrett tracks down his old girl friend at the diner owned by her and her husband. Rabe did not pull his punches and there are some dark, sexual details here that surprised me for being from 1958.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

18. Traitor to the Living by Philip José Farmer

This was a really bad book.  I have read a few clunkers in the last year or two, but objectively speaking, I think this is probably the worst.  It's just boring, badly structured, full of lame ideas and unfunny sexist sexuality.  It honestly feels like a self-published e-book by a prolific 17-year old male who didn't have a social life.   Ostensibly, it takes place in the future and is about the invention of a device called MEDIUM that allows people to talk to the dead.  There is a mystery/detective/thriller about how the supposed actual inventor died and the man who claims the invention.  There is some wishy-washy debate over whether or not it really is the dead that are being contacted.  There is some supposed social commentary on the controversy this technology causes.  There are a lot of gunfights and explosions, all of which are boring, excessively violent without any real emotion and inconsequential.  Every woman is described in terms of her sexual features (which tend to be exaggerated in most cases).  Just really fucking bad.  It's a bummer, because I remember really enjoying the Riverworld books in high school.  Let's hope this is an aberration and represents one of his worst efforts.