Friday, April 26, 2024

24. Every Man a Menace by Patrick Hoffman

This is the second Patrick Hoffman I read.  I found it, if memory serves, at the Oakland White Elephant sale.  I had read The White Van and quite enjoyed it but very little of it stayed with me.  I hope Every Man a Menace stays with me and it should because it really impacted me as I read it.  I had to wait a couple of days before jumping into my next book as this one was so enjoyable (and went by so fast, I basically read it in a day) I wanted to marinate it in my mind for a while.

The title is great and broadly fits the book as you are reading it (as most of the people in it are menacing) but becomes specifically very apt at the end.  It could also have been retitled "and those who aren't a menace are victims and the trap is closing tightly around them and it is just a matter of time before they realize it when it is too late."  This is a rough, unforgiving book.  I don't normally enjoy books where bad things happen to people, but Hoffman successfully walks that thin line where you know the character is screwed while understanding and believing how impossible his position is without it being too obvious or unnecessarily cruel.  It is divided into 3 parts with 3 arguably 4 main protagonists and a variety of geographical and character diversions that round out into a rich morality play about crime in the age of globalism as well as a thoroughly enjoyable fictional documentary on the logistics and relationships of said crime.

The crime in question is the smuggling and distribution of large quantities of ecstacy coming from Asia and into the United States.  The first part of the narrative involves Raymond Gaspar a young Californian man recently released from prison where he was the right-hand man to Arthur, a powerful, connected drug dealer.  Arthur sends him to check up on a straightforward and lucrative deal that he had put in place years before where a Filipino woman picks up a bag of ecstasy and sells it to an older white guy who has recently been acting eccentrically.  Arthur gets a 10% finder's fee on this deal every time but for reasons that are not clear, he wants Raymond to check it out and possibly cut out one of the two players and take over that side for himself.  Things immediately are not as easy as they seemed.  I want to highlight a great scene where he goes to meet the supposedly eccentric ecstasy recipient and the guy is truly unsettling and weird, forces him to take acid and then tells Raymond "you crazy son of a bitch!  You're crazy!"  It's hilarious.

The scene shifts to Miami in part 2 and we learn about the two Israeli expats who met in the IDF and are the ones bringing in the ecstasy from Thailand.  This section goes into detail in their background and how they were able to connect to the big asian drug gangs.  It's very cool.  The third section brings in a new player that I won't reveal as the fun is in the reading.  Suffice it to say that a lot of wild shit goes down and it's a lot of dark fun.  I read this in 24 hours (took a reluctant break to go to bed; proud of self-discipline) and enjoyed every page.  Hoffman was an investigator himself and I don't know how realistic all the details are in this book, but they felt real.  I think you could make a good analysis that this book is also about globalism and the impact of corporate decisions on individuals.  Though more directly violent, there isn't a lot of difference in the way people are exploited between a "legit" global corporation and an illegal narcotics network.  Anyhow, a great book.  Strong recommendation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

23. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

I am actually looking for Kagan's other book, Mirabile, however since she has only published three books, I was happy to find Hellspark.  She is a lost author whom sci-fi heads really respect and whose loss at only 61 due to Lyme's disease and other immune complications still leaves a quiet sadness among the community.

Hellspark is real science fiction in that its main purpose is to investigate and explore a very human concept in the context of technological advances and space travel.  The concept is language and how humans communicate across cultures, but extrapolated here to a future or a galaxy where humanity is spread across solar systems and the language differences go far beyond just spoken language, but cultural and physical ways of communicating.  The set up is that the protagonist, Tocohl Sosumi, is what is known as a Hellspark Trader.  She is responsible for trading between worlds, but this seems almost secondary to her skill in languages and cross-cultural communication. 

Tocohl is hired by a member of a survey team who has been investigating Lassti, a super electrified planet for an exploratory/exploitative company called EKM.  In this world, there are strict rules about which planets can be exploited and the big one is if they have sentient life.  Lassti has these feathered humanoid creatures labelled "Sprookjes" who seem only able to exactly mimic the words of the surveyors but haven't demonstrated any specific signs of sentience.  The leader of the survey team quickly sends a final report saying there is no sentient life but most of the surveyors object so Tocohl is hired.  Also, one of the surveyors died in a suspicious accident.

It is not a super action-packed story.  Most of the narrative is Tocohl interpreting first the various cultures among the survey team and helping them to better get along with each other.  She also has a companion "interpolative computer" which is what we could call today AI called Maggy and a lot of the story is Maggy also learning about how these various galactic humans communicate as well as how sentients in general behave.  The main mystery is whether or not the Sprookjes are sentient and if so how can it be discovered?  The accident/murder, though central to everything else is almost kind of an afterthought.

This kind of book is really not my jam, but I just found it slow-going rather than annoying wanking in some sci-fi books that want to explore a theme.  In many ways, it was very ahead of its time as now with the global internet and cultural understanding being such a big part of public discourse.  I struggled to stay focused on the puzzles of interaction between the various humans, but the deduction of how the Sprookjes commuicate and how it is a function of their environment (constant electrical storms, plants that shock, etc.) is really cool and well thought out.

Hellspark was written in 1988 and it really reminds me how much this horrid wave of consnerdatives whose loud and tiresome voices have polluted nerddom.  This book would probably be considered "woke" by these losers, but it really was much more a general reflection of the broad ethos of sci-fi at the end of the 20th century: the general goal is to be caring and respectful of others and try and work together for the betterment of all. It is pleasant to read a book that doesn't have to be fighting against that notion but just assumes it.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

22. Tether's End by Margery Allingham

I tried to read Margery Allingham years ago (More Work for the Undertaker), when I was way too young.  I may have even read it twice and both times was thoroughly confused and unentertained.  The wise Kenneth Hite who has excellent taste in literature, among other things, recommended this one  (under the title "Hide my Eyes") in one of the Ken and Robin Consume media posts.  He said:

Chief Inspector Luke suspects a killer operates from the London backwater of Garden Green; Campion agrees. After a riveting prologue, Allingham reveals the killer cubist-fashion from multiple perspectives over the course of one day’s investigation. Superbly constructed crime thriller with Allingham’s gifts for character and observation (especially of the grimier parts of London) tuned to perfect pitch.

You can see why I was inspired to hunt this one down.  It took me a while despite Margery Allingham being not hard to find in most used book stores.  I think it was because of the different titles, (also called "Ten Were Missing").  I finally found it at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale.

I can't disagree with most of what Hite says above, except perhaps the "perfect pitch" part.  I found the book at times really enthralling and at other times somewhat frustrating.  It's not a mystery so the suspense was not in figuring out what happened but whether or not the innocent people would fall victim to the sociopath.  His elaborate alibi plotting was quite interesting as was the police's investigation.  However, I felt that at times the suspense was elongated because of unrealistic human behaviours.  Several times, the police haughtily dismiss clues as being worthless, which just seemed fake since they were desperate to figure the case out.  Likewise, the young hero (whose adventurous day with the murderer was quite fun to follow) behaves with this weird chivalry of avoiding the police so the young girl he loves name won't be besmirched.  It all felt a bit forced to me.

The plot involves a widow who runs a curio museum in a side alley in London's east end.  She is friends/surrogate mother to a charming man who we learn quite early on is also a sociopathic murderer.  She has written to a distant niece by marriage hoping that she will come and inherit her shop and even possibly marry the man.  The niece's younger sister comes instead (as the elder sister is already married) and happens to write a young man, Richard Waterhouse, who is from her village as a precaution.  Richard smells something fishy (and is slightly jealous) with the sociopath and investigates.

If I were desperate, I would not hesitate to pick up another of Allingham's books, but since I have a plethora of British women mystery writers already to choose from and I suspect her style is not so much to my liking, it will probably have to be specific circumstances or recommendations for me to read her again.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

21. Black Reaper by Roger Blake

Actually a nice illustration
Pulp slave fiction is not really my jam, but I bought this one (part of my Encore Books mini-haul) because it was from the New English Library.  The NEL is of course now known among paperback-heads for its  quite rare skinhead series.  I have never seen one in the wild, so thought I should pick this one up.

Wow, is it ever bad!  The n-word is used extensively, but the real offense in this book is the utter lack of any skill or effort at any of it.   I was about to go into detail about the lack of structure, the random jumping between characters perspective, the jumbled exposition but really the entire thing feels like it was written in one go in a day with zero editing (though to be fair, everything is spelled correctly and the grammar is error free), which it probably was.  Nothing in this book evokes the slightest emotion in the reader.  The characters are empty stereotypes.  When things happen, they are told in such a dull, rote manner that you don't care.  The action scenes have zero energy.  Even the sex scenes, of which there are many, are maladroit and the opposite of titillating.  

I guess the point of the book was to sell copies based on the 70s trend of the history of slavery.  The cover is basically Kunte Kinte, no?  And maybe the thought of some violence and black on white sex would further move copies.  Imagine my surprise when I read that this is the sequel to Black Harvest! (The same author also wrote Black Summer and Black Fury.)  I can not begin to imagine how the backstory would hold any interest.  

The story such as it is involves Hester Grange who owns a bunch of land in Canada (!) where she attracts runaway slaves but actually basically treats them like slaves.  Now Canada did not treat runaway Black Slaves very well and we have a shameful history and ongoing present of racism in this country, but Roger Blake clearly did not even try to base this on reality.  The book begins in confusing medias res with Grange ordering a slave hunter to shoot Paul, the slave who was supposed to kill her husband.  The rest of the book is the slave hunter plotting to get revenge on Paul and Hester (though it's not clear why other than racism that he is so particularly mad at Paul who didn't do anything but run away).  This is interspersed with Paul making friends with the local Ojibway tribe and falling in love with the chief's hot daughter.  Meanwhile Hester is sending all her men to hunt down Paul because he was a witness but really because she lusts after him.  She has the markings of an interesting character but her being a tyrannical outpost leader whose downfall is her libido is just a mess.  Even though she is super hot, nobody wants to have sex with her.  She gets Paul drunk, forces herself on him and then spends the rest of the book trying to abort the baby they made.  I know it sounds grotesque and over the top in a pulpy way but really it is all so incompetent that you just don't care.

To top it off, the glue holding the cover to the spine disintegrated and now it is falling apart. I can't bring myself to just recycle it as it is a book after all, but it's in such a bad condition and I really can't imagine anybody else wanting to read this that I don't know what to do with it. 

Friday, April 05, 2024

20. Miss Bones by Joan Fleming

I discovered this at Encore Books purely by going through the shelves.  It was a whim to buy it (and one more by her) based on the great cover design, the weird name and blurb and that it was a woman author.  I thought based on the design and blurb that it was going to be a supernatural or horror book, but it turns out to be more of a classic, almost cozy, suspense/murder mystery of British mid-twentieth century.  It's culturally interesting to compare it to The Ferguson Affair, also published in the same year.  Very different books, though both have hints of how the protagonist/author are weirded out, even disgusted, by the first waves of the new youth movement.

The book starts out with compelling intrigue.  Thomas, a young man of a good family (father a peer and ambassador in Argentina) takes on a job restoring pictures for a very weird guy named Walpurgis who runs an antique shop in Shepherd's Market, London.  The real pleasure in the book is the first half where Thomas doing his best to get along with the quite ugly and aggressively but vaguely cheery and open Walpurgis also tries to figure out what the hell is really going on.  He also gets to know the new neighbourhood and the various characters who come and go, including a pixieish young woman with heavily made-up eyes and bizarre antique clothes (the Miss Bones of the title).  

Unfortunately, as it went on, the narrative moved away from the intrigue and weird to more of a banal, though well thought-out, crime set up.  I figured it out before Thomas did (which isn't hard; he is portrayed as somewhat naive and traditional).  At about halfway through, Walpurgis disappears.  The plot becomes somewhat muddled as Thomas investigates while getting in and out of suspicion with the police.  There is a big twist (that I also saw coming) and a really kind of lame denouement where he is basically handed the pixieish girl deus ex machina (not unrelated to his own rescue actually) that rendered the book quite soft and traditional.  So I was somewhat disappointed in the ending.  I like a neat narrative where everything works out, but Thomas doesn't really do very much and is kind of a nice, passive guy and gets saved and the girl, so it felt forced.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

19. The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald

We went to Encore Books in NDG as a family as my wife wanted to do some hunting.  I had been here before and was somewhat disappointed.  They have a quite good collection of science fiction with a lot of older paperbacks but there mystery section was quite disappointing, all new big names.  However, I discovered a random shelf on the back side of an island that was four rows of old pulpy paperbacks, lots of men's adventure (some beautiful Fontana Eric Amblers) from a range of times.  This is the magic of the cluttered used book store!  I grabbed this Ross Macdonald on a whim, thinking it was Ross Thomas and because the first sentence grabbed me (probably more a nostalgia instinct because those 80s paperbacks were all around my house as a child).  It was only when I got home that I realized it was Macdonald, which also wasn't a bad thing and maybe even better.

So I jumped in and was surprised and to be honest reflexively disappointed that this wasn't a Lew Archer novel.  I continued on and became further disappointed when I found the initial setup kind of clunky and then downright bummed when it turns out the protagonist, defense lawyer Bill Gunnarson, has a pregnant wife at home who is naive and that he neglects.  I unfortunately am now all too aware of the Millar's rough marriage and their terrible, near-abusive treatment of their daughter and I could feel some of that post-WWII dysfunctional gender dynamics in the narrative.  Gunnarson has this super crazy rough day where he comes upon an antique store owner with his head bashed in when then dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital which leads to all kinds of other craziness and when he comes home hours late for the lamb his wife especially made for him, he refuses to tell her anything because he "can't"?!  I mean what the fuck white people from the '50s.  I'll grant you being hours late for dinner, but not even calling and then having no explanation. The behaviour all rests on such deep sexism that the woman is not only supposed to be at home but she shouldn't even be privy to your day's work because of some made-up lawyer code.

I would argue that this behaviour was even more sexist than was normal for the time period.  And what's even weirder, is that as I read through the book, I really started to get the feeling I was reading a Margaret Millar book.  So many of her themes are foremost in this book.  Now I need to read more Macdonald, as I suspect both their themes overlap so I could be wrong here, but I mean we have the private club with the swimming pool, we have a sympathetic look at the Mexican American community and several key characters, we have deep family secrets that go waaaay back.  Even the tone felt more Millar-like than Macdonald.  I know she did a lot of editing of his books and I'm wondering how far it went with this one (and maybe part of the reason why it isn't a Lew Archer).

The good news is that as the book went along, it got better and better.  The plot structure by the end is quite brilliant, delivering so much more than I anticipated from the opening set up.  We get a great set of really broken characters and a rich look at how they got there.  What I love about this book is that you learn these backstories via detecting.  It is shown in the sense that Gunnarson keeps digging until he finds their families and goes and talks to them and you get the whole damaged mess not just through what happened to them but seeing the old version of the people who did it to them.

Just for the record, the story involved initially a gang of burglars who appear to have some connection to the hospital for figuring out who is not at home.  The case appears to be broken open by the murder of the antique dealer who may have been selling the stolen goods, but starts to get much messier when an ex-movie star who is recently married to a Canadian oil tycoon (nice legit CanCon also here thanks to the Millars) gets kidnapped.  These two seemingly disparate cases are connected by a handsome but sleazy lifeguard at the club who has also disappeared.  Things get complicated and fun.  Recommended.