Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns by Paul Green (reference/analysis)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Traditional Westerns offer some of the best reading around, but an enthusiast also appreciates a blending of genres now and then. Westerns with crime-fiction tropes are fairly easy to find; that's just your average historical mystery with a different setting — and what Western doesn't include some sort of crime? But what about tales of the Old West that have horrific or supernatural elements? For that, you have to go to the "Weird Western."

But once you have decided to pursue more of this relatively obscure subgenre, where do you find more? Apart from coming across one accidentally, or finding the rare like-minded individuals to offer recommendations, it is hard to know where to look. Luckily, author Paul Green has solved that problem for the time being with his Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns.

From the beginning, it is clear that Green has an affection for his work. In the preface, he states that the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns "covers the history of [the genre, dating] back over 150 years." But he also warns that the reader will not find only classics within, that the quality "ranges from top-class and innovative to repetitive and formulaic," and that he has not left out works that "might be considered in bad taste or offensive. The weird by definition attracts the weird."

Green has compiled hundreds of titles and authors of (and characters from) Weird Western stories, novels, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and more. He covers the gamut from the only slightly weird to the truly odd, from early dime novels to current role-playing games, dividing them all into six basic categories: the Weird Western (with horror and fantasy elements), the Weird Menace Western (supernatural events with a rational explanation), the Space Western ("cowboy with a ray gun" — probably the most popular with the mainstream, it includes such favorites as Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter series, Star Wars, Firefly, and the recent Avatar), the Science Fiction Western (future technology, aliens, or post-apocalyptic themes — Green includes a very thorough rundown of The Wild, Wild West), the Steampunk Western (incorporating Victorian technology), and the inevitable Weird Western Romance (which is fairly self-explanatory; it seems like every genre has its "romance" offshoot).

Most surprising to this reader, all ages are represented, from the Indian in the Cupboard books and Four Feather Falls TV series for children, to the Djustine comic books for adults — a combination of the Marquis de Sade and the spaghetti Western that details the "sexually graphic adventures of the large-breasted female gunslinger and her fight with the supernatural including zombies, vampires, and Diabla, daughter of Satan." (I can hear the keyboards tapping into search engines already. That's one sure thing about Weird Western enthusiasts: the more outlandish it is, the better we like it.)

Given Green's experience as a comics artist (Marvel UK, DC Egmont, Golden Books USA) and a TV historian (A History of Television's The Virginian, 1962–1971), it's not surprising that the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns focuses more on visual media than on more traditional stories and novels — though it could simply be a case of "weirdness" being more acceptable in visual form. Green even makes sure to include Western-centered episodes of otherwise non-Western TV shows, like Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Highlander, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (you've got to love that holodeck!).

It is very easy to get lost in the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, so make sure to set aside a good deal of time when you pick it up to "just look something up." There are plenty of discoveries awaiting, and some old favorites to revisit. I'm sure some favorites have been inevitably omitted (the one I noticed was Steve Vernon's zombie buffalo novella Long Horn, Big Shaggy), but even Green is aware of this. As a supplement, he has created a weblog, called Weird Westerns, where he posts news and reviews of more recent titles. Jump on the robotic-horse-drawn stagecoach and ride into the world of the Weird Western.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wraiths and Worlds by Darrin Charles Wilson (dark fantasy)

Six years ago, I read author Darrin Wilson's debut novel, Pine Shallow, and saw behind the unpolished writing that there was an original thinker with a talent for storytelling. Since then, Wilson's writing has improved markedly, and he's still coming up with new ideas.

Wraiths and Worlds is a formerly online serial novel now available in print with a previously unseen ending. Tired of playing publishing games, for this story Wilson went straight to the Internet. He posted the first chapters and was about to move on to his next project when he received inspiration in the form of readers from around the world wanting to know what happened next.

The story concerns Grace Tiffen, a black, 23-year-old law student who dies in a car crash and finds herself naked in the middle of an Arctic wasteland. Helped by some other local denizens, she learns that this is the afterlife but that God has left. The one person Grace really wanted to see, her father, is also absent, so she and a fellow who calls himself Deacon go off to find them both. But soon people start dying, and what kind of afterlife kills you after you get there? And what kind of afterlife does God ditch when the going gets tough?

Meanwhile, during Grace's funeral, her psychic aunt Abigail is confronted by Jonathan Sand. He's looking for a book, and he has traced it to Abigail's grandmother. When Abigail find the strange, fleshy book in her library, Sand kidnaps her and takes her on a quest through the Middle East, including a place called the Devil's Needle, where wind storms can result in death by airborne scorpion swarm. When Abigail is able to make contact with Grace, things just get weirder, like the formation of a snowy crevasse in the middle of the desert.

Wilson combines tropes from sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, mystery, and horror fiction to produce a book that has a little something for everyone. He studied and combined numerous world religions to come up with the theology he presents here. I don't usually get into books with such a high reliance on "otherworldliness" — although my appreciation for it is increasing — but Wilson's characters are so well drawn I had to know what happened. Sometimes his words get in the way of his story, but there's enough pure talent in Wraiths and Worlds to carry the reader through to the end.

Wilson was probably right to avoid traditional publishing routes with this book, since they would not know how to market it. Which genre's audience do you focus on? In any case, Wilson poses some very interesting ideas about the nature of God, and he's left plenty of room for a sequel. Wraiths and Worlds is smart fiction, that rare kind that successfully brings a new perspective to an age-old concept.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Guest Blogger: Stephen D. Rogers, author of Shot to Death (short story collection)

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Stephen D. Rogers to the pages of Somebody Dies. His latest collection is Shot to Death, which features "31 Stories of Nefarious New England."

I asked Stephen about the origin of "Packy Run," one of the stories contained in Shot to Death.

"Before Neil met me, he didn't know what a packy was."

So begins one of the 31 stories contained in Shot to Death. Within that beginning lurks the ending to the story and everything that happens between the beginning and the end. Or at least it seems that way to me.

(In this part of New England, a liquor store is also called a package store, or packy. A "packy run" is thus a trip to the liquor store.)

That first sentence tells me that Neil and the narrator are new acquaintances, and that Neil is an outsider. Given the number of college students that migrate to New England, Neil and the narrator could easily be roommates.

The sentence sets up the narrator as a teacher, instructing Neil in the ways of the packy. That in turn sets up a future situation where Neil will teach the narrator something.

Since the story starts with the two getting liquored up, I tend to doubt that Neil intends to show the narrator a really neat card trick. I can't help thinking, "Before I met Neil, I didn't know the meaning of trouble."

As the first word is "before," I imagine the story will resonate with "after." As the emphasis is placed on the two meeting, I imagine the story will end with them parted.

Noted also is that the sentence doesn't read, "When I met Neil, I had to teach him what a packy was." The story will not be about becoming wiser, but about what "he didn't know."

I'm thinking that this story is not going to find a home at A Cup of Comfort for Roommates. Chicken Soup? Maybe broth is the only thing that stays down the next day.

I can see where this packy run leads. All that remains is the writing.

For a chance to win a signed copy of Shot to Death, click on over and submit your completed entry. Then visit the schedule to see how you can march along.

And then come back here to post your comments. Phew.

Stephen D. Rogers is the author of Shot to Death and more than six hundred stories and poems. He's the head writer at Crime Scene (where viewers solve interactive mysteries) and a popular writing instructor. For more information, you can visit his website, where he tries to pull it all together.

Shot to Death contains thirty-one stories of murder and mayhem.

"Terse tales of cops and robbers, private eyes and bad guys, with an authentic New England setting." — Linda Barnes, Anthony Award winner and author of the Carlotta Carlyle series

"Put yourself in the hands of a master as you travel this world of the dishonest, dysfunctional, and disappeared. Rogers is the real deal: real writer, real storyteller, real tour guide to the dark side." — Kate Flora, author of the Edgar-nominated
Finding Amy and the Thea Kozak mysteries

"Shot to Death provides a riveting reminder that the short story form is the foundation of the mystery/thriller genre. There's something in this assemblage of New England noir to suit every aficionado. Highly recommended!" — Richard Helms, editor and publisher,
The Back Alley Webzine

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spade and Archer by Joe Gores (the prequel to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett)

If you've just stumbled upon this page looking for information about shovels and arrows, let me educate you. This is a review of Spade and Archer, the prequel novel to possibly the best-known and most influential private eye novel (that it's one of the best goes without saying), Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the title characters are business partners in a detective agency.

The "Spade" of the title is Sam Spade, star of the novel, its 3 film adaptations, and a long-running old-time radio series. We don't learn much about Archer in The Maltese Falcon, other than that he's a bit of a lecher and that Spade is having an affair with his wife, whom Spade refuses to be the one to inform when her husband is murdered early in the book (in part due to his being a bit of a lecher).

I hope I'm not spoiling The Maltese Falcon for anyone who's not experienced it, but if you don't know and love it, why are you reading about a prequel? Anyway, what relatively few people know is that there was a sequel to the book written for the radio show Suspense. Writer/producer William Speir at the time was overseeing both Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade, and, great marketer that he was, thought it would be a good idea to get listeners of the former to check out the latter. Unfortunately, "The Khandi Tooth Caper" (broadcast in January 1948) is a weak attempt to resuscitate the major characters, so I'm not sure the experiment worked, especially since the radio Spade (as played by Howard Duff) is a much more light-hearted fellow than the one Bogart made famous.

So, it's about time somebody like author Joe Gores — a former P.I. himself, the winner of three Edgar Awards (for first novel, short story, and teleplay) and the author of Hammett the novel — made a really decent try at reusing these characters in a way that's not simply exploiting their popularity.

Gores does this and more. In giving us insight into the previous lives of Spade, Archer, and Effie, Gores actually enhances the experience of rereading The Maltese Falcon. So, what he's done here is not only create an entertaining novel of his own, but in the process he's also made the source material better! Gores does an excellent job with the period (1921–1928) and setting (San Francisco), even referencing the Fatty Arbuckle case, one that Hammett himself worked on while with the Pinkerton Agency during the same period Spade and Archer takes place. Gores also paints a realistic portrait of a younger Spade, not quite as jaded (though a colleague married Sam's best girl three months after he enlisted in the Army) but still nobody's sap.

It's 1921, and private detective Sam Spade has left the Continental Detective Agency (a thinly veiled portrait of the Pinkerton Detective Agency of which Dashiell Hammett himself was an operative) after "too much head-knocking and not enough door-knocking" and goes out on his own. His new secretary, Effie Perrine, is the first of four girls to answer his ad, and she smoothly tells the three that follow that the position has already been filled. The book continues and covers two other cases, in 1925 and 1928. Since this is a novel, the three cases are of course related, but Gores does a good job of keeping things interesting in the meantime.

Readers looking for a replay of The Maltese Falcon will find a less polished Spade with a penchant for undercover work. (Once he uses "Nick Charles" as an alias.) They may be less than interested in the decidedly unsexy mystery involving a stowaway teen and stolen gold, the death of a bank president, and the search for recognition by an illegitimate Chinese daughter. Also disappointing is the lack of a memorable supporting characters on par with Casper Gutman (except for Effie, who deserves her own book).

Reader Scott Brick's low-key delivery suits the noir atmosphere admirably in the audiobook version of Spade and Archer. His Spade manages to sound familiar without resorting to impersonation. (For a stellar recent interpretation, hear Michael Madsen in the Grammy- and Audie-nominated audiobook adaptation of The Maltese Falcon written and directed by Yuri Rasovsky. It also features stunning turns by Sandra Oh — who embodies the femme fatale using only her voice, quite a feat if you think about it — and Edward Herrmann, whose mimicry of Sidney Greenstreet is akin to resurrection.)

At over twice the length, Spade and Archer doesn't have the tight feel of its "sequel." But Gores' portrayal of Spade is authentic and multidimensional. It is what will keep you reading when the other portions no longer hold your interest. Rich with detail and character (I had forgotten that Spade wears green and white pajamas), it is a respectable companion that adds to the big picture and stands fine on its own.

Whether Gores has created a classic of his own remains to be seen, but Spade and Archer is as good an attempt to define Sam Spade as anyone could have done. Readers looking for deep insight into Archer will be disappointed, however, since not much is learned that wasn't already known from Hammett. But those simply wanting to see Spade solve another case (or three) will be more than pleased. Gores taps into the reader's nostalgia for the '20s (both real and fictional) with great success and leaves the reader smiling.

Further Reading:
Hammett by Joe Gores — the writer comes out from behind the typewriter to solve another case.
Devil's Garden by Ace Atkins — fictionalizes Hammett's work on the Arbuckle case.
Interface by Joe Gores — Thrilling Detective describes the ending as "possibly the best ... since Sam Spade refused to play the sap for Brigid O'Shaughnessy."

Friday, March 19, 2010

This Other Eden by Michael Hemmingson (collection of short stories and novellas)

Author Michael Hemmingson, whose works range from noir (Wild Turkey) to erotica (The Amateurs) to pop-culture scholarship (William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews), puts his wide-ranging pen to the medium of short fiction in the Dybbuk Press collection This Other Eden. All of the stories in this collection of short stories and novellas contain the word "Happen" in the title, and they all feel linked by tone if not always subject matter (though some themes do recur throughout).

Five of the tales in This Other Eden have been printed (and reprinted) in various media. (Only "What Happens When Things Happen to People" appears to be original to the collection.) Sometimes it feels like Hemmingson is trying to shock with his extreme characters; other times it merely seems like normal people aren't worth writing about (though it's often the "regular guy" who is swept up in the events).

Hemmingson has written over fifty books, and his experience shows. Not only does he inform the stories in This Other Eden with tangible details of the publishing industry, but he also imbues his characters with personalities that are displayed through his skillful use of highly individualized dialogue for each person.

"And Then It Happened" shows the dark side of winning the lottery -- or at least the dark side of people finding out you won the lottery. This story felt so real in the reading that I got stressed out whenever the phone rang for the rest of the night.

Two of the shorter pieces, "Nothing Like That Ever Happened" and "What Happens Between Literary Agents and Clients While in New York," feature barely pubescent bestselling female authors putting their sexual fantasies on paper. But each is approached in a completely different manner than the other, "Nothing" feeling more genuine emotionally while "Agents" takes a more outrageous tack.

In "What Happens When Things Happen to People" Edmond and Ivy move to the city, pursue careers, and get a hell of a lot more than they wished for. It's a terrifically told and totally engrossing story, filled with a detestable yet engaging supporting cast, that would fill a novel in the hands of a less strict prose-wrangler.

The centerpiece, at over a third of the book's length, is "Now That I Know What Happened, Could You Hold Me, Please, and Say This Is Love?" (recently expanded into the novel Shabby Town). It is the story of some time in the life of Paul Augustine, where he begins with thievery and ends with personal fulfillment. Yet nothing that happens inbetween feels forced or contrived purely to suit Hemmingson's purposes. It's a completely absorbing experience filled with real people, real problems, and really bad decisions that sometimes turn out OK.

These are stories of father and mothers, sons and daughters; of writers and teachers, agents and whores; of crack and pizza and champagne; of attacks variously political, physical, emotional, and sexual; of infidelity and loyalty; of friendship and love; of desire, ambition, and greed. Hemmingson covers the gamut of feeling and experience with This Other Eden, certainly the most impressive and consistently high-quality short fiction I've read in some time.

I didn't know anything about Hemmingson's fiction (apart from the private-eye/zombie story in Badass Horror) before I received this copy of This Other Eden for review. But based on the highly effective writing in this collection, I'm going to go searching for more very soon.

Further reading
Other Dybbuk Press titles:
Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre edited by Tim Lieder
The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

Other single-author collections:
The Overland Kid by Max Brand
The Nightmare Chronicles by Douglas Clegg
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Walk in Shadows by Nicholas Kaufmann

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dance of Death by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (book two of the Diogenes Pendergast trilogy)

Professor Hamilton's class sits paralyzed with horror as he stops in the middle of his lecture on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land to begin clawing at his face, drawing blood, and screaming, "Get them off me." Elsewhere, Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta is making dinner for Captain Laura Hayward when he is summoned by Constance Greene to her home. Her guardian, Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, has not been heard from since the events of Brimstone six weeks prior.

Assuming Pendergast dead, Constance gives D'Agosta a note Pendergast left for him. It passes on the responsibility of stopping his brother Diogenes from committing the "perfect crime" by January 28, a week away. D'Agosta's first task is to visit Pendergast's great aunt Cornelia (definitely one of the more interesting supporting characters in the series) to get info on Diogenes and the family, including a few intimate tidbits about Pendergast himself (reminding us that he is the "normal" one in his family only by comparison).

Information comes from a most unexpected source that Diogenes plans to kill everyone who was close to Aloysius — and that could easily include D'Agosta himself. But D'Agosta discovers that Diogenes has something even worse in mind, when he goes to a meeting with Hayward.

Meanwhile, newlyweds Nora Kelly and Bill Smithback (just back from the honeymoon that took place during Brimstone) are returning to work conflicts. Smithback's beat is being slowly abdicated by his fellow New York Times reporter, up and comer Bryce Harriman. And at the New York Museum of History, Nora's opinion (on whether to return a religious artifact to the tribe that sold it to the museum 130 years ago) differs from that of another returning employee, Margo Green, new editor of the museum's newsletter, Museology. Neither has any idea what's really in store for them.

In Brimstone, authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child briefly introduced readers to Agent Pendergast's brother Diogenes, who features largely in Dance of Death. We are not surprised to learn that Diogenes is criminally insane (since we learned in The Cabinet of Curiosities that insanity runs rampant throughout the Pendergast lineage, sometimes beneficially but usually not). So, if Pendergast is Sherlock Holmes, then Diogenes is both Mycroft and Moriarty. (Even his name is a reference to the gentlemen's club Mycroft frequents in the Conan Doyle stories.)

Making the crime personal this time around gives Dance of Death a greater emotional resonance and gets the reader more deeply involved. This makes the book more fully entertaining than the events in its predecessor (not least due to the absence of the labyrinthine plot that made Brimstone hard to follow). I would even say that readers interested mostly in the character of Diogenes could feel free to skip Brimstone and move right on to Dance of Death, since all the information needed to proceed is reintroduced.

Dance of Death does not suffer from the usual problems of the middle book of a trilogy. It stands alone, and in fact it improves on its predecessor by focusing on character over plot. We learn about Diogenes as an individual and not just his machinations (as the authors did with Count Fosco in Brimstone). And those who get caught up in the story will be glad to know that it concludes masterfully in the third book, The Book of the Dead.

After the end of the story, the Dance of Death audiobook also includes a short interview given by Preston and Child with Agent Pendergast (given prior to the events of the book, they are careful to say). In it, the subject (voiced by audiobook reader Rene Auberjonois) proves to be very Holmesian indeed in his responses to the authors' "vapid queries," including a comment accusing the authors of having "sensationalized" his cases.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard (heroic fantasy / sword and sorcery)

Kull: Exile of Atlantis is my first single-character collection from the recent reprints of Robert E. Howard. The other books I’ve read, in order, are The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Shadow Kingdoms: the Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One, and Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One. (Apparently, good old REH wrote so much, publishers have to either divide his work according to character and genre, or just split the whole thing into multiple books.)

This collection focuses (obviously) on Kull, the man born in Atlantis in 100,000 B.C. who usurped the throne of Valusia to become its king. A good deal of Howard readers know Kull only as the progenitor of his most famous character, popularly known as Conan the Barbarian, since the unsold Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” was rewritten into the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” with extra fantasy elements added to make it more palatable to editors.

Reading the former in the pages of Kull: Exile of Atlantis merely proved my original opinion (gained when I read the three primary Kull stories — those published in Howard’s lifetime — in the collections mentioned above) that Kull is a far more interesting character than Conan. Kull’s more thoughtful, and his stories are more based in reality, mythical setting notwithstanding.

Just comparing the two stories I mentioned in the last paragraph, it’s obvious just how many extra fantasy elements were added to the Conan version, while Kull uses sheer force of will to make his point known — and he does it with a shorter word count. Howard let his prose run unleashed while writing of the Cimmerian in a way not seen in his other, more tightly written tales. With the result that I consistently — even now, halfway through The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian — find my mind wandering while reading them, something that never happened with the stories in Kull: Exile of Atlantis.

Opening the collection is "The Shadow Kingdom," the first Kull story, in which Kull meets his own attempted usurpers in the Serpent Men, a fascinating race of snake-headed individuals who deal in mesmerism and shape-shifting. Kull has to struggle with his own doubts to maintain the throne.

Many consider Howard’s debut of another character, the Solomon Kane story “Red Shadows,” to be the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre, but "The Shadow Kingdom" also has its supporters for that title, with the main difference being the former's use of a realistic setting. Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C. and was born on a mythical island, while Kane is a 16th-Century English Puritan.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" finds Kull in a melancholy mood. His friend Brule the spear-slayer suggests a night on the town, but that does not appeal. Later, a blonde with "violet eyes" recommends a visit to Tuzun Thune, a wizard who shows Kull his hall of mirrors. Kull sits before one often, expostulating on which Kull is the real one. Sounds like Kull didn't take his meds. After such a heroic turn in "The Shadow Kingdom," this story may disappoint some. But perhaps it was merely the author's way of putting a little of himself in his work, given Howard's own notorious bouts with depression. It certainly seems like being king isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"Kings of the Night" brings Pict king Bran Mak Morn and Kull together through an ancient lineage. A wizard conjures Kull up from the ancient past when Bran's potential fighters ask for "a king, neither Pict, Gael, nor Briton" to lead them against the invading Romans. This is truly one of the great battle stories, with realism, history, and myth blended in ideal measure.

Other highlights of Kull: Exile of Atlantis include the novella-length “The Cat and the Skull,” the final Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” (which is far more powerful than the Conan story it later spawned, “The Phoenix on the Sword”), and some other fragments that featuring Kull's own progenitor, Amra of the Ta-an. I swear, sometimes reading these Howard collections is a bit like watching evolution in action. One gets to see how a single character developed from a Ta-an to the king of Valusia to the world’s most famous barbarian. It's a process that is available to the enthusiasts of very few authors, and we are lucky that so many of Howard's unfinished works have survived.

The unpublished stories in Kull: Exile of Atlantis give a terrific portrait of Howard’s method. Howard was never averse to plundering his slush for its best ideas and using them again in other stories. “The Phoenix on the Sword” is only the most successful example of this, but “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” also contains elements from “By This Axe, I Rule!” It also seems to be retelling the aspiring newlywed story from “The Cat and the Skull,” but there are enough other ideas — including the legendary Battle of the Stair — here to make it well worth the reading.

Similarly, included drafts of a few stories like “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Cat and the Skull” (the draft is titled “Delcardes’ Cat”) offer insight to those interested in Howard’s self-editing skills (or his incorporation of editorial suggestions, as the case may be). (I could have my timeline wrong as to when the stories were written, however, and perhaps “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” predates them both and Howard simply decided they belonged in separate tales.)

In short, Kull: Exile of Atlantis is another example of author Robert E. Howard's amazing storytelling. Those new to Howard's work may want to start with a more varied collection, like those mentioned in the opening paragraph, but readers who already appreciate Kull and what he has to offer — or those who just want to dive yet again into Howard's marvelous prose — will find a lot to enjoy here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (book one of the Diogenes Pendergast trilogy)

"Criticism is a profession which allows one a certain license to be vicious outside the bounds of normal civilized behavior. One would never tell a person in private that his painting was a revolting piece of trash, but the critic thinks nothing of making the same pronouncement to the world as if he were performing a high moral duty. There is no profession more ignoble than that of the critic—except perhaps that of the physician presiding at an execution." — Father Cappi in Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Agnes Torres enters the home of her employer, art critic Jeremy Grove, to find his eyes charred, his body apparently burned from the inside out. The cloven hoofprint on the floor suggests that the Devil had finally come for the town's most notorious resident. The following morning, the crime scene reunites a certain Aloysius Pendergast with Sergeant Vincent D'Agosta. (D'Agosta had left NYPD homicide as a lieutenant to write books, couldn't make a go of it, and subsequently had to get a lower-paying job with the Southampton PD.)

BrimstoneBut D'Agosta's politically ambitious pain-in-the-kiester boss, Lieutenant Braskie breaks up the reunion, seeing Pendergast only as a trespasser. When Pendergast later IDs himself as a special agent of the FBI, Braskie reluctantly welcomes him aboard.

The medical examiner has trouble determining Grove's time of death when the corpse's temperature still measures 108°F, and "good Old Testament brimstone" is found. Braskie doesn't want the lowly sergeant involved in such a high-profile case, but when Pendergast has D'Agosta named FBI liaison, the duo are officially working together again.

The next victim is Nigel Cutforth, dead it seems of a similar form of spontaneous human combustion, as described in Doctor Faustus and other tales of soul-selling ("the fire within" of the medievals), merely lending more evidence of the Devil's seeming involvement. Captain Laura Hayward takes command and demands that all be by the book, with regular meetings for updates and all paperwork cleared through her office. (For regular readers who may be wondering, regular series characters Bill Smithback and Nora Kelly are off on their honeymoon and do not appear in this book.)

While Preston and Child's characters are always interesting, a particular highlight of Brimstone is one Count Fosco — seemingly lifted part and parcel from Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White — whose pet mice here are robotic and who emerges from the book as one of the series' great villains. Other literary referents include Stephen King's The Shining and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," which lends itself nicely to a cliffhanger ending.

Brimstone briefly introduces readers to Pendergast's brother Diogenes, who we're not surprised to learn is criminally insane (since we learned in The Cabinet of Curiosities that insanity runs rampant throughout the Pendergast lineage, sometimes beneficially but usually not). If Pendergast is Sherlock Holmes, then Diogenes is both Mycroft and Moriarty. (Even his name is a reference to the gentlemen's club Mycroft frequents in the Conan Doyle stories.)

As the group works hard to solve the current case, a letter arrives for Pendergast from Diogenes; it's a challenge, and Pendergast works to complete this solution so he can focus his energies on his brother. Though Brimstone is the first of the authors' "Diogenes trilogy," his part is very small here; he will play a much larger role in the following two books, Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead.

Brimstone makes fine use of Preston's experience living in Italy (during which time he became involved in the Monster of Florence case) to paint authentic atmosphere in the second half, when the case takes Pendergast and D'Agosta to Cremona in search of a the Stradivarius violin nicknamed "Stormcloud." This violin was long thought lost because the virtuoso who had it last did not have it on his person upon his death. (As a fan of violin music, especially that of Sibelius, I found this part especially interesting and educational as the authors, in the person of Count Fosco, expound on the violin's history and what makes Stradivarius violins so special.) This results in a dead monk and unearths a information that lends more evidence to the Devil theory.

This historical section, along with discussions of the golden ratio and how it pertains to the end of the world, cement the authors' reputation as the premier writers of intellectual thrillers. But they don't stint on the romantic angle, although they make an unexpected choice for D'Agosta and Hayward's first "date" (I'll say this for D'Agosta: he sure knows how to get his paperwork pushed through).

It's probably because the producers attempted to distill (with the assistance of Andrew Loschert) the essence of a 700-page novel into six hours of listening, but the abridged audiobook of Brimstone seems to jump around a lot. I actually had trouble sometimes keeping up with what was happening, the scene would change so quickly. There's simply too much story for a successful abridgment. Strangely enough, this inhibited the pleasure of the experience only a little due to the power of the writing and the solidity of the characters, and I leapt right into Dance of Death with eagerness.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Antiques Bizarre: a Trash 'n' Treasures mystery by Barbara Allan (Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins)

Following her divorce, Brandy Borne moved back in with her mother, Vivian, in her hometown of Serenity. Since then, the Borne girls have become amateur sleuths of a sort, investigating murders in their formerly quiet little Midwestern hometown and generally causing havoc of one sort or another while getting in the way of genuine police investigation. (For a more thorough history, read my review of Antiques Flee Market, the third book in the series.)

Antiques Bizarre is the fourth in this increasingly entertaining series by married collaborators Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins writing under the pseudonym "Barbara Allan." The action picks up a few months after the events of Antiques Flee Market.

Brandy is now three months pregnant with the surrogate child of her best friend Tina (who is unable to bear due to cervical cancer) and experiencing a remarkable bout of morning sickness when she needs to drive Vivian to an appointment with Madam Petrova. Vivian plans to ask Nastasya to donate her Fabergé egg (the last one ever made) to be auctioned at an upcoming charity antiques bazaar with the proceeds going to local flood victims. (As a side of "friendly" competition, the group who raises the most money will be profiled in a regional magazine.)

By the end of the auction, both the owner and the high bidder will be dead, dozens of other poisoned, and the egg missing. But at least Vivian's team will be the ones in the magazine, and isn't that what's really important? In any case, given Brandy's state, she intends to stay away from any of her mother's attempts to solve the murders — though she does hesitate to let her "shrewd Nancy Drew–like detective's mind" lie fallow.

Like the devoted mystery readers they are, they first decide whether to approach the investigation like Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. Vivian eventually gathers all the suspects together like Christie while making surprise pronouncements like Stout, therefore offering the best of both worlds.

Though the authors have chosen the most obvious of motives for their killer — making this the most traditional entry so far in terms of the actual "mystery" — Antiques Bizarre still has a lot going for it. The Collinses work well together as "Barbara Allan." With this, the couple's sixth novel together in total, the division between their individual voices is all but indiscernible. It all comes through in a uniform, shared voice.

The Trash 'n' Treasures books have to be the funniest mystery series going. The humor of Antiques Bizarre comes from Brandy's and Vivian's somewhat skewed points of view. (Brandy's off her Prozac due to being pregnant, and both of them find this an improvement.) This makes for a genuinely funny read, with the authors mining the proceedings for all the humor they can get out of it. The jokes aren't all gems but they come at such a rapid-fire pace that you hardly notice. One could say the Collinses are the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker of the cozy mystery.

Like the previous books, Antiques Bizarre ends on a soap-opera-inspired cliffhanger that carries the continuing saga of Brandy Borne's parentage into the next book. And each chapter ends with a piece of advice on some aspect of antiquing. "Barbara Allan" has come up with another winner, and I'm already looking forward to their next, currently being written and tentatively titled Antiques Knock-Off.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Frames: a Valentino mystery by Loren D. Estleman

Valentino is an archivist with UCLA's film preservation department. Looking for a new place to live, his realtor shows him an old movie house up for sale. When he finds a cache of twenty-four film cans labeled Greed, it seals the deal. Valentino just may have discovered the Holy Grail of silent film on his hands: the original, full-length 8- (or 10-) hour cut of Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece (basically a filming of Frank Norris's classic novel McTeague in its entirety).

Needing help with the possibly volatile silver nitrate stock, he approaches his mentor, Professor Broadhead, who loans Valentino his intern, a junior copyright-law student named Fanta. When they look deeper into Valentino's new home, the trio locate a walled-off hidden room containing a Prohibition liquor stash and eighteen more film cans.

Oh, there's also a dead body, but reporting the death would make the theater a crime scene, and make the film evidence, endangering its longevity. So, they try to hide the film from the police. But when the investigating detective learns of its existence, she gives Valentino three days to make a copy on safety stock, or she'll send a cruiser to pick up the film — and him, for obstructing justice.

Three days isn't nearly enough time to do the job, literally impossible given that each frame of the forty-two reels has to be copied individually, so the only other option left to Valentino, Broadhead, and Fanta is to solve the case themselves in the next seventy-two hours. (The "film detective" gets to try on some real gumshoes.) Meanwhile, Valentino is being visited by the ghost of Erich von Stroheim, who is rather determined that his kindling be saved.

While author Loren D. Estleman's P.I. Amos Walker's adventures fall solidly on the hard-boiled end of the mystery spectrum, Frames tends toward the opposite, "cozy," end. There's only one murder, and it happens fifty years before the story begins. In fact, Valentino, Broadhead, and Fanta will be lucky to discover if the murderer is still alive! But classic film fans will eat this one up: Estleman has loaded his characters' dialogue with film trivia and fascinating information about film preservation, including the five stages of decomposition of silver nitrate film stock (the source of the moniker "silver screen").

This otherwise laid-back undertaking (apart from the suspense involved in whether the film will survive the storytelling) results in an emotionally intense denouement (at least as performed by William Dufris in the audiobook version of Frames) that is a surprise given all that happened before. With the addition of a romantic subplot with a crime scene investigator, the book is quite a pleasant and educational read, and I'm already looking forward to the next book in the series, Alone.
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