Tuesday, January 23, 2024

5. Needles by William Deverell

I've been looking for this book for a while and I finally found it in a pretty appropriate place: the Pulp Fiction on Commercial.  He is a B.C./Vancouver writer after all.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), it is a first edition hardback and I paid a whopping $21 for it!  This was the book that started it all for Deverell, as it loudly proclaims on the cover.  He is quite a productive person, a journalist, editor then a lawyer and finally an author who also started the B.C. Civil Liberties Union in his spare time.  He lives on Pender Island now and probably has a sweet pad there.  What I find quite odd is that I never heard of him as an author or a local celebrity while we were on the Island (Vancouver, not Pender).  The literary scene in Canada is quite small and on the island even smaller (Margaret Atwood once stayed at a friend's dad's house and we found out about it because the news travelled up the town that she was swimming in the bay).  My mother had never heard of him when he's written a very popular series and won a Hammett.  I've got no explanation.

I discovered him myself thanks to Andrew Nette, who specifically recommended this book.  I forgot his exact words, but my memory of his portrayal was that it was quite gritty.  This set up some false expectations for me, because though this book has a great portrayal of seedy Vancouver in the 70s, it is far from gritty.  Rather, I liken it to that collection of really readable mystery/legal/thrillers that are almost over the top, along the lines of Ross Thomas and Carl Hiassen.  Right at the beginning, we are introduced to Vancouver drug kingpin Dr. Au, a pretty racist (though probably considered the opposite at the time) portrayal and a way over-the-top badguy.  He gets his sexual kicks by expertly torturing people (using a buffet of various orientalisms) and then slicing off their genitals before killing them.  That is not quite "gritty".  So I was a bit thrown off.

Once we got into the case and the main narrative, about hotshot lawyer and (recently backslid) heroin addict Foster Cobb who has the case to prosecute Au for the murder thrust upon him, the book gets quite enjoyable.  There isn't a lot of suspense here as the reader knows what actually happened.  The conflict is whether or not Cobb can maintain his skills while maintaining his addiction and the cops on his side can overcome Au's pressure on the witnesses and the corrupt mountie with whom he is working.  The court case has some exciting moments and there are lots of great little scenes in various parts of sketchy Vancouver that are also enjoyable.  The ending is also a bit silly, with a final action scene on the west coast of Vancouver island, but very beautiful.  And oh yeah, Cobb's other big conflict is that his marriage to his super hot, young ski pro wife is on the rocks and he has to decide whether or not he should get with his super hot, super smart also young Chinese-Canadian lawyer assistant in the case who is a hippy and smokes dope and throws herself at him.  It's all very much of his time, but nevertheless quite entertaining and you can see how the later books are worth following. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

4. The Japanese Girl by Winston Graham

This is a book of short stories that I picked up entirely on the basis of the cover design, a classic 1970s Fontana photo cover paperback.  These stories were not my usual jam, but almost all of them were very readable and kind of fun.  Graham writes with a rich yet easy prose.  The themes often involve chance encounters between men and women, relationships that get delayed or strained somehow with hints of the supernatural.  Many of the stories have very light twists at the end.  I've said before that I am not a big fan of short stories because I prefer a longer and more involved narrative.  Because of the exploration of consistent themes, this collection was somehow more satisfying than I expected, even if many of the individual stories were somewhat light or ended ambiguously.  

The only story that I didn't really like was the last one, "But for the Grace of God", which was about another Jesus who was a contemporary of the real Jesus.  I find Christianity super boring and I didn't really get what the point of this one was about.  Some of the highlights were the titular "The Japanese Girl" about a frustrated bank clerk who plans to steal from his bank, give it to his mistress and then do the time to get out to be with her.  They share a love of travelling and plan on taking the money and go around the world  when he gets out.  Things go wrong, of course, but not in the way you would expect.  I also enjoyed "The Basket Chair" about a wealthy director of a paranormal society with a heart condition convalescing at his niece's who encounters the paranormal for the first time.  It had such an obvious twist but somehow I was totally fooled.  Graham is a good writer.  "The Cornish Farm" was also a great little horror story about a couple who purchase a hobby farm and discover it has a nasty past. 

Graham is best known for his historical Poldark series, about which I know nothing.  I see he also wrote several thrillers, which I will definitely check out.  Hmm, actually I may have to read the Poldark series too.

Friday, January 12, 2024

3. Cold Steal by Alice Tilton

I think I must have found this in a Montreal free box, because it has a stamp inside that says "JM Albot, Robertsonville, Que, Canada" and I usually don't buy mapbacks unless it is an author I know, despite the temptation.  It is really beautiful.  It has three pages of guiding info at the beginning, which I did not read until after I had finished the book:  a "Persons this mystery is about-", a "What this mystery is about-" section and a "Wouldn't you like to know-".  I'm glad I didn't because I probably would not have wanted to read the book.

I did some reading on the author before I wrote this.  I usually do it after to be neutral, but this book was so different than anything I read or expected.  I guess it's supposed to be super funny, kind of a slapstick, Nick and Nora style mystery with aspirational elements.  I found it very difficult to read and not funny at all.  There is tons of dialogue where the main thread keeps getting interrupted by silly double entendres of others characters not letting the speaker finish their sentence and thus misunderstanding them.  I guess audiences of the time find it funny, but it fell very flat for me.

The plots, such as it is, starts out on a train.  Our protagonist, Leonidas Witherall, is returning to his newly built home that he has not yet seen.  He oversees a woman surreptitiously putting a package into a garbage can and then a whole lot of wackiness ensues, almost all of it taking place in his new home.  It centers around a mean wealthy woman who opposed the building of the home being found dead in the car of its new garage.  I'm so exhausted from forcing myself to get through this book and the plot is so convoluted and unresolved that it's not even worth making any more effort to write about.

I hope others in our modern times can enjoy these as I appreciate a prolific female author (she wrote a lot to survive the depression), but these are just not for me.  Well now I know.

Monday, January 08, 2024

2. Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

I discovered this book along with several others in this great article from Publisher's Weekly "10 Most Puzzling Impossible Crime Mysteries"  As I've said before, I am a very lazy mystery reader, preferring to be led along by the narrative but the books from this list have started to push me somewhat to try and figure out the mysteries myself.  Some people are really good at this (I remember reading about someone in Murder Ink who reads the first few chapters, then tries to guess it and then skips to the end; if they are wrong, they will then read the book, otherwise they don't bother!).  I'm still on the hunt for The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't figure out the main twist of this mystery, especially as it should be easier (spoilerish hint coming) in these more woke times.

The story started off in an infuriating way! Not in the sense that the book itself angered me but the actions of the characters pissed me off so much that I was all fuming in bed about it and it triggered adolescent revenge fantasies.  Faustina Cayle is a new art teacher in an elite all-girls school in Connecticut who is called in by the headmistress and fired after only a few weeks into her year-long contract.  The headmistress won't tell her why, only that her character isn't right, nor will she give her a reference. Despite paying her for the first 6 months, it's super fucked and actionable, but Cayle is shy and accommodating and doesn't want her own reputation ruined.  We soon sense that there is something going on with her reputation at the school by the behaviour of the girls, the maid who is supposed to clean her room and the other teachers.

It's not super spoiler ish to reveal what it is but if you are interested (and this is a good book), I'd recommended that you stop reading here.  One of the teachers, Grisela, is an educated and upper class European refugee (this is right after WWII) who is sympathetic and happens to be romantically linked to the New York state psychiatric coroner Dr. Basil Willing.  She writes to him and he sense something quite serious is a foot.  The deal is that Faustina seems to have a doppelganger.  The students and the maid have spotted her at the same time in two locations (or so close in time that it was physically impossible) and it has so spooked them that she becomes a pariah.  This is what pissed me off so much, the Yankee puritanism of the time where instead of helping her, they just ship her out.  Fucking puritans are so triggering!

It's very well-written and an easy page turner.  I enjoyed the rich depiction of the milieu of post-WWII New York and New England.  I also found it kind of scary at moments and even at one point got a bit freaked out thinking about it after reading it late at night.  It is one of those mysteries that has depth and several characters, but McCloy is skillful enough that the reader has no problem remembering them, their movations and characters.  So they mystery is quite hard but she does lay it all out for you in a fair and enjoyable way.  You can just read it or try and figure it out for yourself.

There was some digression in discussions between Grisela and Willing about the supernatural, which given how impossible the facts were made sense. I also think these ideas of spiritualism were somewhat in vogue at the time.  I found these somewhat distracting although interestingly, she never fully denies that there may be a spiritual element.

I would have loved to have found an original paperback, but I appreciated this reprint with a cool, illustrated cover.  McCloy is another great female author who has unfairly disappeared.  I found her book to be an interesting contrast with Mary Stewart's The Moon Spinners, written 15 years later.  Somehow, though the gender mores of McCloy's world are even more strict than Stewart's, she as an author comes off as less sexist.  You could make a similar comparison with Dorothy Hughes earlier books who was her contemporary.  I need to think it through more and this is also a potential undergrad thesis for somebody, a study and comparison of female authors and their relative internalized gender discrimination (or something).  In any case, McCloy is worth a look.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

1. Zero History by William Gibson

I rediscovered Gibson with, Spook Country, the second book in what is called the Blue Ant trilogy.  This is the conclusion and even though all 3 work alone and he doesn't really like to consider it a trilogy, it would have been better to have read them in order and closer together.  A lot of the value in this last book comes from knowing (and remembering) what happens in the first two, especially the second one.  I actually found this one to be quite a drag up until the end.  There just isn't much going on and Gibson as usual keeps the back story vague, sort of like a mystery.  The problem is I couldn't connect with any of the characters and nothing of what they were working seemed to have any impact until the backstory was sort of revealed and then it keeps getting explained over and over again.

The two main characters are Hollis Henry, the ex-singer of a successful 80s band and Milgrim, the now recovered pill addict.  Both are being led around on various missions by Hubertus Bigend, the corporate hipster super-boss of design/marketing/whatever firm Blue Ant who is the puppet master in all 3 books.  They are on the hunt for various clothes and the designers who made them that are somehow connected to military uniform contracting.  It's all a bit convoluted and obscure and much of the action in the beginning is them going from hotel to hotel in different European cities with maybe some people following them and maybe not.  I found it all a bit boring and sadly Gibson's excellent prose style that I usually love seems to come off pretentious and tired.

It does pull itself together in the end somewhat, with a somewhat cool hostage exchange whose conclusion connects all 3 books.  There is a very arbitrary unromantic reconnection between Hollis and her ex-boyfriend that I guess was supposed to move us and a more effective one between Milgrim who comes out of his manipulated addict shell and a motorcycle courier, but ultimately it all left me unmoved.  It may have been more effective had I read Spook Country just before but overall it just felt like an unnecessary stretching out of a story that just didn't have that much substance to it.  Too bad.