Thursday, August 11, 2016

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, Ghost Stories (1987)

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, eds., Ghost Stories, New York: Exeter Books, 1987

Illustrated by Jan Dungel

Overall Rating:     7/10

Ghost Stories at the ISFdb
Ghost Stories at Goodreads

For this week's Friday Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Among the numerous twentieth century anthologies of nineteenth century anthologies, the lazily titled Ghost Stories mixes some overly-anthologized stories with a couple of lesser known works. As the stories themselves go, they are all worth reading, but the anthology itself is, despite its physical attractiveness, at times confusing due to its packaging.

The anthology lumps a bunch of supernatural and psychological tales together and claim they are about ghosts. Though the idea of ghosts can be broadened to include more than just the spirits of the dead, the collection is really about apparitions, including hallucinations and projections along with specters. Since of the nine stories included only four actually feature ghosts, the anthology should have been just as lazily titled Apparition Stories.

The other confusing packaging element is the art. Each story is complemented by one or two full-page colour illustrations and a handful of small black and white works. Artist Jan Dungel did read each story since the illustrations sometimes borrow from minor details, though his interpretations are sometimes outside the scope of the tale, particularly with the Maupassant story, where a hallucination is drawn with the head of a leopard-like humanoid that is an invention of the artist himself.

Regardless, though the anthology does not add to the numerous books of its kind, it was good to revisit each of these stories and I do generally like to see such works illustrated. The inclusion of the all-too-common (though excellent) Dickens and Poe stories, is balanced well with the introduction to a strong piece by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and an amusing one by Doyle, both of which I first read here.

The translator for Chekhov's piece is is not credited, and I can assume it is from an early translation (Constance Garnett?) in the public domain in order to publish something inexpensively. The French and German stories are translated by Stephen Finn.

Véra by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam     7/10
First published in La Semaine parisienne, 7 May 1874

This little known story was perhaps first anthologized as a supernatural tale in the 1950s. In fact, the story has been collected so rarely in English that it has barely seen print in that language, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's work in general is mostly forgotten. "Véra" is a complex little supernatural tale involving a man who loses, all too suddenly, his new bride, and isolates himself on his estate with his most trusted servant, while pretending that his love is still by his side. His devotion to this belief essentially brings her back, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam adds a little concrete finish to prove to his audience that the woman did indeed materialize, and not just in her lover's aggrieved mind.

The complexity of the story lies not in its little twist, but in the hints of eastern mysticism that is blended subtly into the text, linking its supernatural element to something concrete and recognizable. Ghosts do not exist in the rational western world, the author seems to be stating, but can be evoked via a foreign mystic influence.

Don Giovanni by E.T.A. Hoffmann     6/10
First published as "Don Juan" on 31 March 1813

While at his hotel in a small German town, a man learns that his room is connected via a passage to a private box in the theatre next door, which is currently performing one of his preferred operas: Mozart's Don Giovanni. A serious admirer of the opera, the protagonist purchases a ticket and seats himself in the box, quickly overcome by the incredible production. He becomes, however, annoyed by the presence of someone in the box, only to be surprised to discover it is the soprano playing the part of Donna Anna.

Hoffmann's "Don Giovanni" is an interpretation of portions of the opera rather than a conventional short story. Or more accurately, through the medium of fiction Hoffman is exploring certain aspects of Mozart's opera. What Hoffman is doing is quite unique at the time, since in 1813 the short story was still far from becoming the art form Hawthorne, Poe, Chekhov and others helped to develop over the years ahead. Rather than write a straightforward essay or commentary, Hoffman published this ghost tale anonymously; a story with a plot so slight and an ending so conventional that what remains with the reader is the stream of ideas he leaves on one of the most popular operas of its day and ours.

Though the ghostliness of the story is secondary and  utilized only to help Hoffmann bring his ideas to the public, it is technically a ghost story. The ghost idea is that the actress is slowly dying during the performance,hence her spirit wanders and finds itself in the narrator's box, and this element helps to heighten the emotional aspect of the opera, adding melodrama that only helps Hoffmann's arguments get across to his readers.

Him? by Guy de Maupassant     6/10
First published as "Lui?" in Gil Blas, 3 July 1883

In a letter to a friend, a devout bachelor and womanizer reveals that he is soon to be married, and to a woman he has no feelings for and barely even knows. He wishes to get married not for love or fortune but for the sole purpose of no longer being physically alone. A very simple story with an interesting construction, Maupassant offers an ambiguous tale of an apparition that is most likely a figment of the narrator's imagination, but a figment that leaves him forever altered and forever in a state of fear.

Structurally the story begins with a humourous tone and builds mystery upon mystery. At first our avowed bachelor discusses the act of taking a bride while allowing the reader to wonder why. Following this is a character sketch which itself leads into the mystery of the narrator's hallucination. The convention to illustrate character at the opening of a story was commonplace at the time, utilized as well by Poe in the following story, whereas the humourous opening to a tale of dread is quite unique and inventive.

The story has also translated as "The Terror," which is a more appropriate title. The story is not about the hallucination itself but the tragedy involves its aftereffects. In French the story was publishes as "Lui?" and this is simply a straightforward translation of the word.

The illustrations in this anthology reveal the apparition to be a cat-man, a human figure with tiger face and paws, dressed in a suit. It is unclear why Dungel chose to illustrate it as such, though I do understand that the story offers less to an artist since details are few.

William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe     8/10
First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, October 1839

As he awaits death, the debauched narrator "William Wilson" tells of of the sordid tale that brought him to this awful fate. Like the protagonist in "Him?" Wilson hallucinates a figure that is a manifestation of his conscience, or perhaps the kinder side of a split self which is attempting to balance out his character.

Poe's excellent doppelgänger story can be interpreted in varying ways, that Wilson's double is a manifestation of the narrator's troubled mind, or that the double is the narrator's conscience that is balancing out Wilson's own amoral self. As with Maupassant's piece, the apparition in "William Wilson" is a projection of the narrator's, seen only by him. Rather than a ghost story, it is one of many psychological horror pieces included in the anthology.

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov     9/10
First published as "Чёрный монах" in 1894

Scholar Andrey Kovrin visits his former guardian Yegor and Yegor's daughter Tanya at their rural estate in order to rest after a bout of nervousness. Kovrin soon falls into a state of elation, falling for Tanya while becoming increasingly devoted to his academic pursuits. Moreover, he begins to see the image of a black monk who convinces Kovrin that he is chosen by God to do great things. Once married to Tanya, however, she learns of his hallucinations and she and her father set out to cure Kovrin of his madness.

"The Black Monk" is a high caliber story from one of the great modern short story writers. Impeccably written with such great deal that everything, from character to the wondrous garden setting, comes alive and remains embedded in the reader's mind's eye. The ambiguity in this tale is that Kovrin is happy only when he is in a state of heightened elation, a state that comes along with madness. While normal he is unproductive and in a continuous state of lethargy, yet while the reader might understand that madness for Kovrin is his ideal state, Chekhov gives us an ending that provides fruit for thought.

Selecting a Ghost by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle     7/10
First published in London Society, December 1883

Having retired with a small fortune, a former shop-owner purchases an old house, a once castle that is equipped with everything one would desire in a home, from medieval ramparts to its very own mote, and is lacking only in the presence of a ghost. Undaunted, our hero sets out to find his very own spirit.

Published before the Sherlock Holmes explosion, Doyle provides some genuinely humourous moments in his ghost tale, particularly with the wonderful sentence construction and ironic character delineation. Of a purely comic construction, this haunted house story (or haunted house wannabe story), does not struggle with the notion of reason versus the supernatural, but takes it for granted that the supernatural is readily available, even though it seemingly doesn't exist (but for the mention of a potential haunt at the neighbour's residence). A truly delightful discovery.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens     8/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

One of the better known supernatural tales of its day, and one of the most anthologized in ghostly collections, Dickens writes about a wandering narrator who meets a signalman with an unusual tale. This signalman appears to see a vision that warns of impending doom, and our narrator is somehow taken by the man and his story.

In a lengthier analysis (which I am working on), the apparition in "The Signalman" is not a ghost but a prophetic manifestation triggered partly by a mesmeric relationship between these men. As revealed at the end of the story, the prophesy is not quite what the signalmen believed it to be, and a close reading can lead one to speculate that the narrator is more than just your conventional rational outsider, particularly since Dickens was a believer in mesmerism. A great little film version by television director Lawrence Gordon Clark, with great performances by Denholm Elliott and stage actor Bernard Lloyd, alludes to this by a couple of brief additional shots of the narrator being in a sense summoned to the signalman's work station.

Dr. Cinderella's Plants by Gustav Meyrink     7/10
First published as "Die Pflanzen des Doktor Cinderella" in 1905

A man on a hallucinatory journey comes across a genuinely creepy house of plants made from parts of human anatomy. The story is dream-like and hence difficult to assess, while the so-called plants are more horrifying than most contemporary authors can evoke in an age that has exceedingly less censorship.

The Haunted House by Edward Bulwer-Lytton     7/10
First published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, August 1859

A rational man and his servant are set on spending a night in a house reported to be haunted, and to investigate the haunting. This is the shorter version of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's seminal haunted house story, which excises much of the pedantic and highly interesting though perhaps overly long narrative on reason and the supernatural. This version, the one included primarily in collections aimed at younger readers, focuses on the actual events and action of the story. It holds up very well despite the use of what are now the most common tropes of haunted house stories, from the pattering of feet to ghostly figures, locked rooms, blazing fireplaces and people dying in fright with eyes wide open.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935)

McCoy, Horace. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? New Tork: Simon & Schuster, 1935.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at Goodreads
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at IBList

Rating:     8/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Book, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

A minor anecdote in history, the marathon dances of the 1930s, proves to be an appropriate setting through for examining the individual's place in the world. Having worked in such a setting, Horace McCoy makes vivid not only the torturous experiences of the event, but helps to illustrate the desperate reality of suffering during the Great Depression, as people storm to the humiliating dances in order to obtain bed and food, to seek the illusive fame and fortune of Hollywood, or simply to get away from a bleak day-to-day existence. Yet even the era of the Depression is secondary to the individual's inability to make a place for oneself in the absurd world in which we live.

The novel focuses on a passive and naive young man who aspires to become a film director, and a pessimistic and aimless runaway, who are trying to earn jobs as extras in Hollywood productions. Gloria convinces Robert Sylverton to enter a dance marathon starting up on the waterfront, and the unlikely duo join up. The rest of the novel is a fast-paced view of the inner workings of the event as we follow the pair through the various trials, physical and emotional, of the event.

Aside from the vivid portrayal of the reality of the event, author Horace McCoy equates the futile and desperate struggle of the marathon event with the equally futile struggle of daily life. The world is likened to a merry-go-round, and Gloria stresses that there is no purpose in what we choose: where we get on is where we get off. Moreover, a strong connection is made between people and horses. In the marathon people suffer through the ordeal of the derby, where dancers must rush around an oval track, much as merry-go-round horses rotate in an unending circle. People just like horses must work hard and often suffer for their livelihood, and in essence their fate is the same, illustrated with the shooting of Gloria as it is contrasted with the shooting of horses. The life of man and the life of beast are equally irrelevant. Like horses we are forced to perform for a master and when we are no longer useful we are put down. Additional comments are cleverly inserted by McCoy to elevate this comparison, such as Robert's comment "I didn't have a leg to stand on," implying that that when a horse breaks a leg it must be shot dead.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an innovative crime novel whose genre is seemingly incidental. The murder element is not the focus of the plot, and the plot is progressed by it only structurally. We know from the start who did it and what he did do; the mystery lies in the why. Though the novel fits the categories of crime fiction and its later descriptor, noir fiction, because its focus on character and situation trumps the criminal element, it stands out. The killing itself is also different: a mercy killing with no gain for the killer; the criminal is sympathetic and driven by sleep deprivation, not villainy. He is essentially an incidental murderer.

On a side note, the movie that Richard hopes to be cast as an extra in is most likely the aptly titled Crime and Punishment. Director Josef von Sternberg is Richard's idol, and the film was released in 1935, a year after the novel's setting.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Jennifer McMahon, The Night Sister (2015)

McMahon, Jennifer. The Night Sister. New York: Doubleday, 2015
______. The Night Sister. Toronto: Anchor Books, 2016 (my edition)

The Night Sister at Goodreads
Anchor Books, 2016
The Night Sister at IBList

Rating:     7/10

I received a copy of the Anchor Books edition from the publisher through a Goodreads giveaway, and am offering up this review in return.

Jennifer McMahon's The Night Sister is a construct of two prime elements: plot and character. The two are entirely intertwined; just as character relies on plot for its development, characterization is also limited as a result of plot requirements. This produces unevenness as some characters are required only for certain specific aspects of the plot, and remain flat throughout many sections. Regardless of these shortcomings, the novel is a highly enjoyable dramatic suspense story.

The novel opens with the apparent murder-suicide of Amy Slater and her family, with the exception of her daughter Lou, who is found hiding on the roof. A former friend of the killer's, Piper, returns to London, Vermont, to grieve and to help take care of her emotional pregnant younger sister Margot. Finding herself back in the town of her youth, Piper becomes involved in the mystery of the killings and uncovering secrets surrounding Amy's family.

The novel is split into three distinct time periods: the present, a summer in 1989 when Amy, Piper and Margot were young teens, and 1959-1961, focusing on Amy's mother Rose when she was teen. The timelines are clearly indicated (a little too clearly), and though each period revolves around a central mystery, each section has a distinct story-line, which is an achievement. The present is somewhat less interesting than the two pasts and takes up less of the novel (excluding the framing sequences). In the present plot moves slowly as Piper, and on occasion Margot's cop husband Jason, pursue the mystery in brief spurts as each event leads us back to one of the two pasts. Moreover, characterization in the present is limited, as even Piper focuses mostly on her youth and youthful obsession with Amy, while Jason is stock and Margot is present and pregnant only to intensify the eventual climax.

Characterization is strongest in 1989, where we focus primarily on the charismatic, impatient and unlikable Amy, mostly from Piper's point of view. As the girls interact in their corrosive relationship, they stumble on some fragments of Amy's family's past. Amy lives in the motel that her grandfather owned, the Tower Motel, named after the tower he had built for his British wife. Being also the central time period, 1989 is the link between present and the distant past, where the actual mystery begins to unfold. We learn in the 1959-1961 sections that Amy's mother Rose was jealous of sister Suzie, and moreover believed her to be a mare, a changeling able to take on animal form. Rose would follow her sister out to the tower late at night where she would be sneaking around, and hence giving us the novel's title.

The ending is expected but there is nonetheless mystery along the way, as McMahon for the most parts builds upon suspense. The pacing is effective, generating momentum from complication to the climax. The final sequence I found lacking, but this is a symptom of the genre and not poor construct on the author's part. A requirement for the thriller, in book and particularly film, is that after the final reveal there is some kind of action, which rarely plays up to the rest of the work.

Setting also plays key a role. The bulk of the novel is set at the motel and its accompanying tower, with limited time spent in other town spots. Like other elements, setting is important in relation to plot, since the movement of characters and their locations at specific points of the story are defined by the plot.

Doubleday, 2015
The novel has disappointed readers as a result of it skirting different genres. Advertising it as a horror novel is certainly not accurate; The Night Sister is a suspense story with elements of horror, fantasy and a strong dose of sisterhood/friendship drama. Since so much emphasis is placed on the relationships between the women in the book, it might be more accurate to describe it as a novel about friendship with elements of suspense, horror and fantasy. This does not make it a lesser book, but provides a better descriptor for those looking for something entirely different.

And in terms of sub-genre, The Night Sister and its Tower Motel fits into the suspense universe of the hotel/motel variety, though will likely not be remembered as clearly as some of its counterparts, namely Robert Bloch's Bates Motel. Hitchcock's adaptation of Psycho is mentioned, and the film is the leader in motel horror as evidenced by the fact that had McMahon refrained from mentioning the 1960 film directly, it would regardless have entered our minds from inference simply at the reference to Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. There are other allusions to the film, such as the Tower Motel losing business (at around the same time as the film's release) due to the construction of an interstate. Other staples in the motel/hotel psychological horror variety are the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining and its Stanley Kubrik film counterpart (which I personally prefer), and the suspenseful 2003 James Mangold film, Identity.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini, Academy Mystery Novellas Vol. 2: Police Procedurals (1985)

Greenberg, Martin H. & Bill Pronzini. Academy Mystery Novellas Vol. 2: Police Procedurals. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1985.

Academy Mystery Novellas 2 at Goodreads
Academy Mystery Novellas 2 at IBList

Overall Rating:  6/10

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

"The Empty Hours" by Ed McBain. Ed McBain's Mystery Book #1, 1960.
"The Sound of Murder" by Donald E. Westlake. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 1962.
"Storm in the Channel" by Georges Simenon. "Tempête sur la Manche." Police-Film, 20 May 1938.
"Murder in the Dark" by Hugh Pentecost. The American Magazine, February 1949.

In 1985 Academy Chicago Publishers released a four-volume series of books featuring rarely re-printed novellas by popular mystery writers. The books were divided into four mystery sub-genres and included four novellas apiece. The volume titles and themes were: Women Sleuths, Police Procedurals, Locked Room Puzzles and Great British Detectives. The series featured sixteen stories by sixteen different authors, with no writer appearing more than once. Though labeled as novellas some were actually longer short stories, or novelettes. Many of the stories saw little print, which is not surprising as it has always been difficult to publish and re-print stories of such awkward length. The series itself was later reprinted, in 1991, as a boxed set by The Readers' Digest Association.

Volume two in the series is well balanced in that it features two strong stories and two average ones, two real novellas and two novelettes, and though each work follows police procedure, the stories themselves are diverse within the sub-genre. The better works are the first two: McBain's "The Empty Hours" and Westlake's "The Sound of Murder." While the Simenon and Pentecost stories are not bad, they are not memorable and, with so many stories out there, questionable in their re-print worthiness.

McBain's "The Empty Hours" is a cold, distant telling of the murder of a young woman who, despite her modest situation, lived in an expensive apartment with expensive things. The mystery expands and reveals itself very much through official procedure, and culminates in a tragic denouement. Westlake's story is similar in that it too is genuinely tragic, but while McBain's tragedy is brought on by the gritty reality of the urban landscape (specifically New York City), Westlake's tragedy in "The Sound of Murder" is internalized and the petty needs of humanity are reflected in a neurotic and sensitive middle-aged detective.

Georges Simenon's novelette "Storm in the Channel" is a far lighter story than the first two. It involves a recently retired Jules Maigret on holiday with his wife, stranded in a rooming house during a rainstorm, where one of the employees gets murdered. Though there are procedural elements in the investigation, much of the focus is on humour so that it reads more like a cozy than what a reader might expect a procedural to be; paired down to its investigative elements and removing the lightness could have led the story toward its own dramatic tragedy, but instead the death and motivation feel almost incidental. Similarly Hugh Pentecost's "Murder in the Dark" is an uneven story that reads like a fusion between different sub-genres, with the procedural aspect being not among its most notable. In an interesting change the detective is relegated to observer as a secondary player, an initial suspect, abducts the narrative and investigates in a clumsy, inefficient way. Add a love story and other tidbits from assassins to the locked room ("where in the hotel are those diamonds?") and the mish-mashing is complete. The story's greatest achievement is in the confessional written out by our protagonist, and the details in diamond-smuggling, appraisal and retailing that I found fascinating.

With the exception of Pentecost's piece, the investigators themselves play an important part in the story itself. The gritty down-to-earth qualities of McBain's detectives are very much a part of the dark New York landscape. Westlake's detective is a self-questioning and neurotic late middle-aged man whose awareness of his own mortality makes the reader aware of general human mortality, and his self-concern is in striking contrast with the waste in which human life is eventually equated to. Finally, Simenon's detective is more comical and unaffected by the tragedy of the victim in his story, and to me this unfortunately diminishes the characters themselves. In Pentecost the characters are more pastiche, and the detective is a bit player who stands grinning in the background.

Though overall the anthology is somewhat above average, it is certainly an interesting overview of the procedural, at least for the twenty-five years leading up to 1962. I'm certain there are other, more comprehensive anthologies out there dealing with police procedurals, though perhaps not devoted on the longer short form.

Readers' Digest reprint
With forty years of anthology publishing, Martin Harry Greenberg's name appears on a library's worth of books. Usually working as co-editor with the likes of Charles G. Waugh, Isaac Asimov, Stefan Dziemianowicz and of course Bill Pronzini, Greenberg's work featured anthology series, first-run stories, reprints and underprinted stories, in the genres of mystery, science fiction and fantasy. Being a busy anthologist, the late Greenberg, despite having collaborated on much of his work, released a number of books containing errors in their bibliography, and the Academy Mystery Novellas series is among these.

At the top of this page I have listed the initial printing of each of these stories. The bibliographic information provided by the book's copyright page is largely inaccurate. Westlake's story is listed with the incorrect first publication date, claiming it was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in February 1960, when it was published in the December 1962 issue. Meanwhile all of Simenon's dates are incorrect: the original publication year of 1944 is actually the publication date of the story's first appearance in a Simenon collection, not its first appearance in print, which was in 1938. Moreover, the "First published in the U.S.; Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, 1966," is also inaccurate, as it first appeared in that magazine in the December 1978 issue, translated by Jean Stewart.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vincent Eri, The Crocodile

Eri, Vincent. The Crocodile. Jacaranda Press, 1970.

The Crocodile at Goodreads
The Crocodile at IBList

Rating:     7/10

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

The first novel in English to have been published from a native of Papua New Guinea is Vincent Eri's The Crocodile. Set before and during the World War II New Guinea campaign which saw the invasion of the nation by Japanese forces, the novel centres primarily on a young man, Hoiri, and his growing awareness of the colonial world in which he lives. Though Hoiri is the main character of the work, the story focuses primarily on the broad effects of Australia's occupation, and on the co-existing world views of traditional Papuan culture and Christianity within a small community.

The novel is structured in an episodic format; there is no linear plot, and the reader witnesses an evolving society through the major events in Hoiri's life. This is important since the purpose of the novel is to illustrate how a traditional culture has been affected by the modern rationalism of the west. Though the locals have adopted financial economics, there is still a good deal exchanged through trade; while Christianity's tenets are tossed about in common conversation, the belief and fear of traditional spirits nonetheless drives people's actions. The pairings of the old and new systems are so interwoven that the world Eri describes both fascinates us and makes us uncomfortable as our own western ways are being indirectly challenged. The disturbing aspect is that as Hoiri and his society age, and as they experience a war brought to them by the occupying west, it becomes clear that the original customs are, rather than intermingling with the new, being replaced by them.

While the novel is certainly educational and fascinating, it is, as a novel, highly flawed. The episodic format does not allow for strong character development, and most of the players are flat and underdeveloped. Leaps in time are sudden and awkward, and though we are following Hoiri on his life adventure, we learn many important details, such as his interest and engagement to the woman Mitori, almost in passing. There is no notion of point of view since we are inexplicably brought into the thoughts of secondary and even tertiary characters, and dialogue is used often as an expository tool, coming across as unnatural.

Despite these obvious flaws, the purpose of The Crocodile is achieved, and our sympathies for Hoiri extend to the entire Papuan populace. It is the notion of the crocodile and its dichotomy that directs most of the novel. The indigenous population respects and fears the crocodile. The creature is described as a powerful predator that nabs its victims and, before devouring them, displays their bodies as they are clenched helplessly between its teeth. Mirroring the crocodile are the white Australian officials who, in their own predatory fashion, manipulate the locals to support them in their own war. Caught between the predators of their natural habitat and those of the external ruling forces, the natives of Papua New Guinea have little choice but to adopt this new way of life, yet nonetheless remain instinctively bound to the old.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Hugh Pentecost, Murder in the Dark (1949)

Pentecost, Hugh. "Murder in the Dark." The American Magazine, February 1949.
______. "Murder in the Dark." Lieutenant Pascal's Tastes in Homicide. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1954.
______. "Murder in the Dark." Academy Mystery Novalles Vol. 2: Police Procedurals. Eds. Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini. Chicago: Academy Chicago Press, 1985.

Rating:     5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

This novella highlighting diamond retail and shipping is, for the most part, a standard mystery for its period. It features so many overused tropes that the final dozen pages or so, intended to be tense, come across as comical. However, the first half of the book, the build-up or complication (to borrow Aristotle's term), is quite strong, particularly the finer details in diamond processing. The fascinating world of diamonds is a constant in fiction, and Pentecost (Judson Philips) does well in detailing the gambles inherent in processing the stone in its raw form.

The murder of elderly George Rawn in a hotel room leads Lieutenant Pascal to investigate the murderous pursuit of a package of speculative diamonds. Two suspects are conveniently found at the murder scene, one of whom, hot-headed Kelly Cotter, reveals the backstory via a written explanation requested by Pascal. We learn that Rawn and Cotter recently made a comfortable fortune on an engineering invention, and through some detailed back-backstory concerning Rawn, found themselves with a box of speculative diamonds: a parcel containing raw diamonds whose contents might amount to a fortune, or far less. Since so many people out of the woodwork are suddenly interested in that parcel, it appears something is afoot, and not only is Rawn now dead, the diamonds have gone missing.

The best part of the story is Cotter's narrative, and the best part of his narrative are the details in diamond speculation. Pentecost likely framed the story around those facts, but the story itself falls into the mould of convention. Interestingly, the bulk of the story is not carried by Pascal,though the narrative does open with him, but instead we pursue Cotter in his hot-headed need to uncover the identity of Rawn's killer, tossing out as many accusations as there are suspects. Add in a love story between Cotter and diamond dealer Carla Van Rooten, some sentimental details concerning Rawn, and a mysterious diamond hunter, and you have a somewhat entertaining, standard detective story.

It is interesting that Lieutenant Pascal is merely a bit player, despite being the lead investigator. Though it is Cotter who discovers the murderer and binds, though almost accidentally, the strings together, the mystery of the diamonds' whereabouts is left to the deductive mind of Pascal. This is the note the story ends on, so that the narrative, despite being driven by Cotter, is framed by Pascal.

Pentecost wrote a small number of stories featuring Lieutenant Pascal, and in this one he is merely on the periphery of the story, which is odd as it does nothing to help further develop the character. I can only deduce that he was likely not among Pentecost's favourite creations.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Georges Simenon, Storm in the Channel (1938)

Simenon, Georges. "Tempête sur la Manche." Police-Film, 20 May 1938.
______. "Tempête sur la Manche." Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret. Paris: Gallimard, 1944.
______. "Storm in the Channel." Translated by Jean Stewart. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 1978. Vol. 72, #6. pp 110-140
______. "Storm in the Channel." Translated by Jean Stewart. Maigretʻs Pipe: Complete Maigret Short Stories Vol 2. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977.
______. "Storm over the Channel." Great French Detective Stories, ed. T.J. Hale. London: Bodley Head, 1983.
______. "Storm in the Channel." Translated by Jean Stewart. Academy Mystery Novellas: Vol. 2: Police Procedurals. eds. Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini. Chicago: Academy Chicago Press, 1985.

Rating:     6/10

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

In this novelette, a recently retired Inspector Jules Maigret is on holiday in Dieppe with his wife when a fierce rain storm hits. Stranded in an inexpensive boarding house discovered by his thrifty wife, Maigret knows not what to do with himself, but, as often seems the norm for vacationing retired police inspectors, a murder takes place. The local police inspector arrives at the inn to announce that one of the maids, Jeanne Fénard, was shot dead in a nearby alley, and of course the guests are all suspect. As we expect, Maigret reluctantly helps out and eventually betters the local inspector, albeit modestly, in discovering the identity and motive of the killer.

"Storm in the Channel" is a mid-range mystery. Though the deduction, brief and simple, is interesting, the treatment of the material is a little awkward. Unlike Ed McBain's "The Empty Hours," the story is designed in such a way that we have little sympathy for either victim or killer. The tone is light and humourous, focusing largely on the whimsical characters, from the restless Maigret and his fussy wife, to the comical innkeeper Mademoiselle Otard. In fact, the comedy nearly trumps the mystery, so that the reader is distracted from delving too deeply in the story's underlying implications, specifically in the treatment of victim Jeanne Fénard.

Though her appearance in the story is brief, it is made clear in the last pages of the novelette that Fénard is a bad person--so late, in fact, that it comes across as an afterthought. She is introduced as a twenty-something single mother of a four year-old, and later revealed as an embittered man-hating woman opportunist. The reader is expected to accept this off-hand, a shake of the head and a "tsk-tsk," and otherwise revel in the story's comedic antics. However, if the reader takes a moment to consider the implication of this opportunist, we should instead be steeped with sympathy for her.

Offering up a bit of a spoiler here, Personally, I applaud Jeanne Fénard's opportunistic ways in light of the fact that she has been taken advantage of by a careless money-grubbing man and left to raise a child on her own in a small French town in the 1930s. Opportunities for work and social contact for a woman in this predicament, in the bowels of 1938, and particularly in a small town where one's unfortunate circumstances are judged and advertised, I would hope she was opportunistic, and as a result am saddened by her death. Had she succeeded in filching money from the guilty party she would at least have a chance to begin anew in an anonymous town and offer a future for her child. Moreover, nowhere does anyone seem interested in the detail of that four year-old, now motherless, who comes across as a detail less crystallized than the newspaper Maigret occupies his time with.

Simenon chose humour over tragedy and yet the social circumstances cannot be removed from the text. Unfortunately, though it is not a bad story and mostly enjoyable, it left me feeling inappropriately awkward.

On an entirely different note. The recording of the publication history of the Simenon's "Storm in the Channel" is fraught with errors and inconsistencies. The original publication date is usually given as either 1938 or 1944, which is easy to explain since the story was first published in the periodical Police-Film (earlier known as Police-Roman, which published a single crime story per issue) in 1938, and first collected by Gallimard in 1944, which is likely the version translators have been using as their source document.

The inconsistencies lie in the translations into English. It seems clear to me that the first translation, by Jean Stewart, was first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in the December 1978 issue. Confusion was generated by a copyright notation that appears in that issue of ©1965. The copyright page of the Martin H. Greenberg/Bill Pronzini-edited anthology, Academy Mystery Novallas 2: Police Procedurals, states: "First Publication in the U.S.; Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, 1966." This last is clearly an error, one of at least two (of four entries) on that single copyright page. (Though he might have excelled at getting anthologies printed and out to the general public, Mr. Greenberg's publication data gathering left much to be desired.) The fact that the translation had a copyright date years before the first publication is not unusual, particularly for a work of its awkward length that is difficult to place in a magazine. There was only one Maigret story published in EQMM in 1966: "Inspector Maigret Deduces" ("Jeumont, 51 minutes d'arrêt," 1944), in the November 1966 issue, which has a translation copyright date of 1961.

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