Reviews of:

Novel: George C Chesbro, Shadow of a Broken Man; Shogun is on perpetual hiatus.
Collection: ?
Journals: more
SQ Mag and Bete Noir, Unthology 3 (Unthank Books) and more classic issues of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
Anthology: so many... eventually
Anthology TV: The 4400 season three plods slowly along

Thursday, July 17, 2014

George C. Chesbro, Shadow of a Broken Man (1977)

Chesbro, George C., Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977
Simon & Schuster, 1977
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, London: Severn House, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet (reprint), ca 1983
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Dell, December 1987 (my edition)
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, Apache Beach, October 1999

Shadow of a Broken Man at Goodreads
Shadow of a Broken Man at IBList

Rating: 6/10

Dell, 1987
George C. Chesbro's semi-popular dwarf private detective, lecturer and criminologist Dr. Robert Frederickson, better known as retired circus acrobat "Mongo the Magnificent," first appeared in various magazines in the early 1970s, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. Chesbro was fundamentally a mystery writer, but much of his work was infused with elements of the supernatural, as were the Mongo novels. AHMM was not averse to publishing mysteries that contained elements of the supernatural, and featured many mixed genre mystery stories, including a handful by Chesbro himself. The novella that was the basis for the first Mongo novel, Shadow of a Broken Man, was titled "Strange Prey" (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, August 1970), and featured the plight of telepathic New York architect Victor Rafferty. The novella predates "Mongo," and did not feature an investigating detective of any kind, but instead pursued Rafferty's plight from agents wanting to recruit him for talents that could help transform him into a natural, undetectable super-spy.

Shadow of a Broken Man is set several years following the events of "Strange Prey." Detective Mongo is hired to find the missing architect. For those reading the novel without having read the novella, the secret to Rafferty's disappearance is one discovered alongside our detective's own investigations, while those who have read the novella are aware of many of the facts Mongo is in the process of unveiling, and there is less suspense offered to the reader. I had read "Strange Prey" a number of years ago, but was not aware of its connection to the novel, and only when I was well into the book did I realize that the elusive Victor Rafferty was the sympathetic character in Chesbro's novella, which as a pre-teen was among my favourite AHMM stories.

Severn House, 1981
Most striking between the two narratives is the perception of character. In the shorter version we read of Rafferty's experiences coping with his new powers, whereas in the novel we are quite removed from the man, and he comes across as cold and confident, not at all the sympathetic anti-hero of the earlier version. Of course the novel is set years later when Rafferty has taken on a new identity, has properly trained himself to control his powers and, most importantly, has found a purpose in life for his new, "improved" self. Moreover, this change is actually properly in tune with where Rafferty, having made a decision to take charge of his fate at the end of "Strange Prey," is expected to find himself years later. Otherwise the stories are closely connected, and the novel for most part, even in smaller details, follows the events of "Strange Prey" quite accurately.

Shadow of a Broken Man begins as a conventional mystery, as Mongo is hired by the former Mrs. Rafferty's new husband to investigate the possibility that Mr. Rafferty is still alive. Our detective follows the expected path in interviewing and investigating, and it isn't until we're quite drawn into the case that the reader becomes aware that there is a supernatural element involved, and even later as to the extent of that element. The work is quite solid and satisfying, and though I like "Strange Prey" and loved it as a kid, I do wonder how I would have responded to the novel not knowing the nature of our mysterious Rafferty; namely how I would have responded to the supernatural element and its introduction into the mystery.

One clear distinction in the novel form is the incorporation of action and violence. I mentioned that the work fuses elements of mystery and the supernatural, but the novel also interweaves elements of the thriller, as acrobatics are provided and bullets whizz by, many making their mark and leaving a bloody path of corpses. Not my thing usually, but I didn't mind it here. There was some violence in "Strange Prey," but primarily the defensive kind as Rafferty protects himself by lunging out with his mind. Chesbro does nonetheless manage to sneak in some flying bullets.

Apache Beach, 1999
One element emphasized in both versions is that of suffering and anguish of its protagonist. In "Strange Prey" Rafferty's mental torture of having no control in reading the minds of others, forcing him to keep away from others, including his wife, is at the heart of the story's premise, and what leads Rafferty to eventually be discovered by the government. In Shadow of a Broken Man, hero Mongo must suffer horribly at the hands of an evil Russian and his own inner strength is challenged in the process, though in this case that anguish is necessary to the plot, but since that would be a spoiler I won't go into any more detail.

Comparisons aside, the first Mongo novel is highly entertaining, competently written, and well plotted. The resolution becomes obvious and what really is going on in that climactic scene is not something the reader can't figure out as soon as the scene begins. In a sense, though we are witnessing events occurring years after "Strange Prey," the ending is essentially the same, only Rafferty himself is a different person. As far as I know there are no additional sequels or stories featuring Rafferty, as Mongo finds new supernatural mysteries to detect over the course of another nineteen years and thirteen novels.

Many a cover has Shadow of a Broken Man seen. The first edition Simon & Schuster is quite excellent, and I like both the Signet paperback reprint (ca. 1983) and the Apache Beach from 1999. I like the Dell (1987) which was a mass market series reprint, though the image of those ghostly sensual hands has no bearing on the story. Dell projects a cool, sexy Mongo, while that Severn House from 1981 is satisfied with a more emotional and reactive detective.
Signet reprint, 1983 (?)

Signet, 1978

Friday, June 13, 2014

George C. Chesbro, "Strange Prey" (1970)

Chesbro, George C., "Strange Prey," Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, August 1970
_____, Strange Prey and Other Tales of the Hunt, Apache Beach Publications, December 2004

_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977

"Strange Prey" at ISFbd
"Strange Prey" at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

As a pre-teen in the late eighties I used to pick up back issues of different magazines in a neighbouring used bookshop for mere change. My favourite at the time was The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and I'd nab those ugly colourful browning issues from the 1960s and 1970s off the crowded shelves. The excitement whenever the little cluttered shop received another wave of those issues is fondly remembered. One reason I liked AHMM is that, other than the colourful interior artwork and the fact that I was, thanks to my mother's healthy influence, a huge fan of the director himself (who had nothing to do with the magazine outside of image and name and nepotism--his daughter Pat was involved), there was a wide range of stories collected. The magazine did not shy from stories that fused mystery with science fiction or fantasy, a feature which at that impressionable age was a welcome novelty, and I looked forward to stories from the likes of John Keefauver and Theodore Sturgeon in the AHP anthologies, and Robert Twohy and George C. Chesbro in AHMM. With Chesbro there were two stories that particularly gripped me: "Short Circuit" (AHMM, October 1971) and the novella "Strange Prey" (AHMM, August 1970).

"Strange Prey" features renowned architect Victor Rafferty, recent survivor of a terrible car accident and miraculous life-saving operation, who learns that he has the ability to read minds, and albeit with some painful difficulty, telekinetic talents. Rafferty is pursued by the government that wishes to use him as a super spy, a potential weapon against, among others, the Soviets. Rafferty, however, wants only to be left alone and to live happily with his wife Pat. At the time the story was no doubt original, whereas now it reads like a plot-line from the X-Files.

At that time this was among my favourite AHMM stories, as it featured elements of science-fiction along with suspense, a fast-paced plot, government corruption and a non-conclusive ending. Though the story holds up well enough, I wouldn't rank it today as among my favourites. Then again, my jaded adult self probably wouldn't rank most of these stories as highly as I did back in that era of innocence. I recently discovered that the story was the basis for the first of the "Mongo" books, Shadow of a Broken Man, and having read it before my "Strange Prey" re-read, am surprised to find that pretty much the entire novelette is adhered to by the novel, as detective Mongo tries to discover the mystery behind the architect's death and possible resurfacing. (I will post my review for the novel soon enough.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Robert Coover, Noir (2010)

Coover, Robert, Noir: A Novel, Outlook Press, 2010. 192 pp

Noir at Goodreads
Noir at IBList

Rating: 8/10

An unusual entry for Friday's Forgotten Books, Coover's short novel Noir is not only recent, but (outside of France) never garnered a large audience, left many Coover fans disappointed and mystery readers unfamiliar with Coover's approach, confused. Hopefully in time the work will garner a greater slice of the general audience, along with better appreciation. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Robert Coover's postmodern detective novel Noir is not a parody nor a satire of the noir detective mystery, though it does contain elements of both. Instead it is an examination of the sub-genre and its relationship with the reader, proposing that the genre is a wholly artificial fabrication designed to elude even the cleverest of deductive readers.

The novel is composed entirely in the second person, and follows the "you," private investigator Philip M. Noir, during an investigation of a widow's former husband and some shady dealings in which he might have been involved. Second person is placed amid a semi-surreal narrative in all its exaggerated noirish glory, and by creating an incompetent protagonist destined to fail and refering to him as "you," Coover seems to be making the point that the reader makes a poor detective. His comment on the genre is that whatever the outcome and whatever the mystery, its plot connections are fabricated and unreal, so how is a reader to piece together something that simply is not there? "What's the connection?" the narrator asks. "No idea. Connections probably an illusion... Illusory connection." (113) The links throughout the novel that bring us from one plot point to another and toward its eventual convenient conclusion do not exist: we are brought to that conclusion via artificial craft and not deductive logic: "Some knots, like the twist your thumped brain's in now, cannot be untangled." (186) The reader is destined to fail as detective because the mystery is intertwined in such a way that no reader can piece its parts into a cohesive whole.

Moreover, the novel is filled with distractions, character delineations and back stories that are interesting, even fascinating (such as the tattooed prostitute), yet have no place in the story as a whole. The novel is filled with these sidebars, and are among the more entertaining points of the work. In any mystery distractions serve to confuse the reader, leading them on false trails and overstuffing the brain with needless detail. Coover makes light of this in his wild ramblings on underworld dealings and Noir's own absurd past experiences.

And Noir's experiences are more than just distractions.

The novel's title embodies the whole: Noir is both genre and character, and the two are expertly encapsulated in the whole. Coover brings together all the elements of classic noir from both book and film: its damsels and thugs and hard-living detective and urban sprawl, and also its language, the secondary settings from dockyards to alleys, and its filmic details with foreboding shadows and lights filtered through slats of cheap office window blinds. More than genre, Noir is character. Protagonist Philip M. Noir is such a presence that his character is elevated above the plot. We are not reading about this particular case, but rather about a man, a caricature who has faced many cases, many hardships, though in essence each one is like the other. Our detective, however, is altered from standard detective hero to substandard incompetent, and aside from its commentary on the mystery reader and the unsolvable tangled plot, the transformation makes for a great comedy.

Coover's final point, in that jumbled resolution pointing at a thousand possibilities, indicates that the solution is not inevitable, that despite plotting and character solutions are interchangeable, any possibility can be made reality. This reminds me of my disappointment as a kid when the movie Clue was released, advertising three different endings. Even at that young age I pointed out to my mother, a mystery lover, that any mystery with three possible endings can't be a good mystery since one resolution can so easily be exchanged with another. At a young age I did not realize that the three endings, aside from being a good marketing concept as different theatres advertised different endings, follows the tradition of mock mysteries heightened in the 1970s by Neil Simon's Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective, is among the main points of such a parody. Coover's work is different in that not only does it poke fun, but it even approaches its subject academically, deconstructing the flaws, twisting them inside-out, and inserting them into this great mish-mash.

Commentary and examination aside, Coover creates a novel that is fun, energetic and genuinely hilarious. His language is precise, capturing the rough-edged detective voice while managing silliness and humour. The use of familiar settings, stock character types with names like Fingers and Rats, an arch enemy police chief named Detective Blue, shady drinking holes, an office with its couch that makes up our supposed hero's bedroom, and so on, are made utterly fresh in the stew that Coover has concocted. The plot converges on a somewhat hallucinatory finale that has confused many readers, and yet is mostly clear if read closely. Readers expecting a traditional denouement should, after only a few paragraphs, understand that Coover is headed in a completely non-traditional direction, and by non-traditional in the sense of a detective novel, this essentially means that the mystery is not quite solved, not quite explained, which is understandable since the mystery itself is never quite made clear.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Patrick Modiano, Missing Person (1978)

Modiano, Patrick, Missing Person, translated by Daniel Weissbort, London: Jonathan Cape, 1980
First published as Rue des boutiques obscures, Paris, Editions Gallimard, September 1978

Missing Person at Goodreads
Missing Person at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

After eight years as assistant to Private Investigator Hutte, who is now taking his retirement, Guy Roland can undertake the investigation of his own past. Suffering from severe amnesia, Roland was once Hutte's client, named and trained by the man, and finding himself with no specific purpose, he takes on the task of discovering his identity.

Roland's past is set in occupied Paris of the 1940s, and is weighted with paranoia, persecution and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. His life is a collection of fragments that cannot form a cohesive whole, and there is no satisfying link between the man he was and the person he is now. Jumping from identity to identity, when we are finally satisfied with who he was once was, it turns out that person might also have been on a borrowed identity. Indeed, no character is fully him or herself, since in the midst of occupied Paris most people lived on false papers. Even now, in the 1960s, paranoia is still rampant, and the people Roland interviews have only vague recollections of their own pasts.

The translated title Missing Person refers to the narrator, a man in search of a missing self. The original French title, Rue des boutiques obscures, is named after a street in Rome, and a literal translation can be The Street of Gloomy Shops (or Dark Shops, etc.). Identity was a commodity in 1940s Paris as we learn that the supposed Roland of that time sold passports to foreigners stuck in the city. In the present day, however, identity is seemingly no longer in crisis, yet the city is filled with the people of that time, and Roland is stranded as he is unable to regain his original self nor take on a new one. The novel's emphasis on its urban landscape is itself handled gloomily, Modiano taking us through much of Paris on foot, pointing out its streets and dark, concrete surfaces.

Stories of amnesiacs abound, but the solid writing, atmosphere and thematic considerations makes this among the stronger ones I have encountered. The ambiguous ending is not a let-down, and we do learn at some point the tragic cause of Roland's amnesia, which is tragedy indeed. The novel it received the prestigious national Prix Goncourt prize.

Friday, April 11, 2014

aside: Hard copy of Shimmer 16

Recently I received an email requesting a copy of Shimmer #16. Because I collect periodicals and because I like to keep a copy of anything I review, I am not willing to give mine up. The issue is sold out over at shimmerzine and other than suggesting The Book Depository and other online vendors, I am absolutely of no help.

Anyone with any ideas on how to obtain a copy, or willing to part with their copy, feel free to drop me an email.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (2011)

Kiesbye, Stefan, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, Penguin Books, 2011

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at Goodreads
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at IBList
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at ISFdb

Rating: 7/10

The striking title of Germany-born Kiesbye's novel brings immediately to mind and ear the great Tom Waits song "Jockey Full of Bourbon." Yet the title actually references the English nursery rhyme "Ladybug Ladybug" which was eventually Americanized as "Ladybird Ladybird," and the slight differences between the original and the American are reflected in the differences between Waits's lyrics and Keisbye's title (namely "Your Children All/Are Gone").

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is a book made up not of interrelated short stories, but instead of interrelated episodes. A few of the episodes can be read as stand-alone stories, but as we move further into the work, the reader relies on knowledge of character relations and previous information to piece some puzzles together, such as the mystery of the mad woman raving about missing children. Many of the stories do not read like the modern short story, and the book fits nicely into that limbo between novel and short story collection.

Like a novel it deals with specific themes, utilizes multiple characters, maintains tone and elemental focus, yet is lacking in a defined plot, overarching resolution or any Aristotelian idea of a unified poetic work. The book cannot accurately be described as a collection of interrelated stories since, in the traditional modern sense, most of these chapters are not proper short stories. Some stories overlap too much into others, and many important character elements are incorporated into a tale via another story. We rely too much on the whole to understand each individual part. Instead, as the title implies, the episodes function not in the way a modern story would function, but rather in the way a fairy tale might. There is a simplicity of structure and authorial freedom in these tales of cannibalism, incest, patricide, rape, and so forth, while the complexities lie not in the parts but in the whole.

Each story is told through the point of view of one of five townsfolk, grown up now but telling of the years spanning childhood into teens. The narratives are for the most part distant and unaffected, no matter of the horrible incidents the narrators are recalling. The voices are similar, but the women are more sympathetic, and their narratives are thereby more involved since they maintain an emotional component that is lacking in the tales of the men. This lacking is not a bad thing, however, but striking, as we read, for example, a matter-of-fact retelling of the cold innocent killing of a sister.

A series of tragedies delivered in a matter-of-fact tone. The distance works well in creating tragedy without melodrama, and unlikable characters without judgement. Unique and powerful, I look forward to Kiesbye's follow-up.

The stories are broken up by their narrator's names, and are as follows:

The four remaining childhood friends meet for the funeral of the fifth. Told through Christian's point of view.

The annual Thanksgiving cooking competition, when Martin's mother takes on the town's baker. Humour with a shocking, Shirley Jackson-inspired resolution. A striking introduction to the nature of this isolated post-war town. A great lead-in chapter as it does well not only in introducing the town, but in implicating the townsfolk in a horrible crime.

At the visiting carnival Christian meets a man he believes is the devil, and who promises him a visit to hell if he brings him his sister's soul.

Linde's father is in love with his fellow gardener, a young mother who cares for her bastard son, while the town women speak ill of her, believing she is trying to steal their men. In this one, genuine sympathy for the characters elevates the tragedy.

With his eldest sister pregnant and the culprit's identity suddenly clear to him, Christian seeks vengeance.

While out skating the boys bet Holder fifty marks to retrieve an axe from the icy river. There is something truly sadistic to this one, and I felt more affected here than with most, though it's not the strongest of chapters. This event is an important one, shaping some of what is to follow. The mean-spirited Alex, heir to the town pub, the only non-narrator who attends the prologue funeral, is introduced and returns with his streak of mistreating others.

At the town's influential Manor House, Linde meets a child-like man who seems to live in the garden maze. Strong character descriptions, and an episode that again reveals the nature of the town rather than its selctive characters. The Manor House is a prevalent place and symbol of leisure and success for the town and its people.

Youthful sex games at the old mill lead to Bernhard getting lost. Evokes ghosts but no ghosts dwell, I found this episode to be on the weaker side.

Linde arranges a revenge performance on the town apothecary who once caught her stealing, and we are introduced to the town's mad woman.

Continuing from the previous tale, this once reveals the mystery of the mad woman's ravings.

Anke and Linde enter the Manor House as the latter interviews for a scholarship. Tragedy ensues and one friend betrays the other.

Befriends her sickly neighbour, which delivers additional tragedy to the occupants of the Manor House.

Alex's brother Olaf returns from the sea to take up his life and his abandoned wife. Family secrets and a strong sequence that works well on its own, despite the references to other characters and episodes.

Alex, now chauffeur at the Manor House, appears at Anke's who desires nothing other than to be the mistress of the manor.

The discovery of a ghost town just outside Hemmersmoor.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shimmer #18

VanderMeer, Ann, Shimmer Number Eighteen, Salt Lake City: Shimmerzine Press, February 2014

Shimmer website
Shimmer 18 at Goodreads

Overall rating: 7/10

Guest-edited by illustrious editor Ann VanderMeer, the eighteenth Shimmer is to this date my favourite, featuring an eclectic octave of superior modern genre fiction. As though taking my comments on Shimmer 17 into consideration, its follow-up features the diversity in story content and writing I felt was absent in recent issues, as well as the lengthier stories I was suggesting. Eighteen also includes more graphic violence, though in appropriate context. This includes back-to-back stories featuring splitting heads, which works nicely alongside two stories that employ the word "fragments." There is less fantasy in a good sense, and instead a healthy combination of fantasy, science fiction and psychological horror.

Add to this a great cover (and related back cover) by Kurt Huggins.

In the Broken City by Ben Peck     7/10
In the Broken City our narrator is waiting to be released from the hospital after voluntary amputation of a healthy leg. Here he meets and quickly falls for nurse Lily. In the Broken City inhabitants are incomplete without actually being debilitated. The mystery is neatly wrapped up, and the Broken City looms large, as though it were harbouring other tales itching to be told.

The Birth of the Atomic Age by Rachel Marston     6/10
A fourth person telling of atomic tests in the (Nevada) desert and its mutative effects. A neat semi-apocalyptic fiction set in the recent historic past.

Psychopomp by Ramsey Shehadeh     5/10
While recovering some souls, a semi-wayward, comparatively sensitive demon has his age-old morals challenged by a challenging young soul. While I like fuzzy morals, the characters, demonic and mortal, are not interesting enough, and unlike "In the Broken City," the narrative invests too much in its world rather than allowing its characters to bring their world to the foreground. (In all fairness, though, "Psychopomp" is dealing with two worlds.)

Introduction: The Story of Anna Walden by Christine Schirr     6/10
Dealing with stark loneliness and offering some disturbing images, this pseudo-psychological study with footnotes manages nonetheless at times to charm and amuse. This is the almost genreless psychological satirical horror story of the bunch. The pseudo-academic story with footnotes is not uncommon (comes to mind is Ashley Stokes's great "A Short Story about a Short Film" from Unthology 1).

Anuta Fragment's Private Eyes by Ben Godby     7/10
Anuta is an office head cleaner, particular about the cleanliness she affects at work, while her employers are particular about how she "cleans" other situations, since Anuta is also a "cleaner" in the sense of an assassin. Unaware of what she does, she is being secretly engineered to be the perfect killing machine. A strong story not just in terms of its plotting, though definitely suspenseful, but also in its depiction of Anuta, allowing the reader to sympathize with this oversized killer. While the play on "cleaner" is neat but obvious, the title is a nice bit of fun too.

Unclaimed by Annalee Newitz     6/10
Private Investigator Leslie Tom left the police force following a monstrous and violent encounter, and finds herself investigating the disappearance of author J.J. Coal, whose penned series The Scorpian Diaries has since become a major franchise backed by Pixar-Disney. A PI mystery set half a century in the future, it is highly entertaining though the resolution is obvious from the start. The story toys with franchises along the lines of The Scorpion King and the hoped-for franchise of Disney's John Carter (neither of which I've actually seen) whose creator Edgar Rice Burroughs might still be working in an underground lab somewhere. Like "Anuta Fragment," this story features violently splitting heads.

Fragments from a Note by a Dead Mycologist by Jeff VanderMeer     5/10
Hit-or-miss tale of love and death. Not a bad piece of writing but a story I could not get into. I do appreciate its inclusion in the name of diversity.

(VanderMeer is partner to issue editor Ann VanderMeer, a fact amusingly owned up to in the introduction. Mr. V is the author of much fiction, including the very fine "At the Crossroads, Burying the Dog," from the excellent anthology Dark Terrors: The Gollancz Book of Horror (edited by Stephen Jones and David A. Sutton, London: Vista, October 1996) which I should have reviewed a while back.)

The Street of the Green Elephant by Dustin Monk     8/10
Young Auw works in her father's illegal (peyote-like) tea shop at a time when the Sotiriraj are ruling over of the Pbenyo. Auw is a half-breed, and through this tale of revolution, fire and flood, we learn a great deal about the world she lives in, just as she learns a great deal about human nature and grows to cultivate culture and tradition. An excellent story, Monk manages to create a distinct and believable society, with its people and its customs and its politics and its geography in a mere twenty pages. This is a world worthy of more stories.

Monk is the author of the also good "What Fireworks" from Shimmer 15.

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