Monday, January 25, 2016

Bete Noire #3 (2011)

BĂȘte Noire #3. A.W. Gifford & Jennifer L. Gifford, eds. Grayson, GA: Dark Opus Press, 2011.

Bete Noire #3 at Goodreads
Bete Noire magazine's website

Overall Rating:     6/10

26495434The third issue of BĂȘte Noire features seven short stories, along with visual art and poetry. For the visuals we have the photo "Forgotten Key," by Vince Darcangelo, the illustration "Skull Star," by Denny E. Marshall, and the cover design by co-editor A.W. Gifford. For poetry we have "Obscured," by Rhanda Parrish, "James Town," by Marge Simon and Michael Roderick Fosburg, "Elegy," by Krikor N. Hohannesian, and "Shadow People," by Richard H. Fay.

The stories are all half-decent, with no single standout and nothing terrible. Some of the stories could have been a lot better had they been better edited, and the unfortunate typos can be distracting, whereas the grammatical errors are downright embarrassing.

A Warm Place by William M. Brock     6/10

In what is seemingly the near future, humans are co-existing with an arachnid-like alien through a seemingly beneficial arrangement. This story is so short that a longer description would give too much away. Short is all this piece needs; a neat yet simple concept that works nicely. I wonder what the story could have been if told through the third person. We would have a little more distance and emphasis would like on the darker side of the presented reality, rather than the current lightness of tone. Moreover, this first person narrator is oddly presented at times, since the narrator describes a room sees on a daily basis. I can't imagine walking into my office and describing it's appearance; I'd naturally be taking it for granted. If there is a specific audience, the narrator would be detailing more about the situation, since much is only hinted at. A small point though some attention would improve the story; it is nonetheless entertaining.

Charlie's House by Cody Rosevear     5/10

A mother is awoken by her daughter who claims there are sounds in the walls keeping her from sleeping. An effective little piece with a good ending is unfortunately marred by problematic prose and poor grammar. The opening sentence, "Susan's dreams crumbled away from her like sand turning to mud in the wake of an ocean wave," is nonsensical. The process of sand turning to mud has no relation to the act of crumbling, but instead is a form of dissolution. Many sentences are similarly over-written, and such a brief piece should be building tension which is better accomplished through brief and direct statements. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night" is a better option. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night. There was someone in her room." And so forth. Moreover, there are too many clunky details that also prevent mounting tension, with every "she said" accompanied by an action or a thought or a detail of some kind. Quick dialogue in the context of the plot would better serve the story.

"[H]er skin wrinkled with worry, like old paper." I didn't think old paper could worry itself to wrinkling. Aside from some grammatically ambiguous sentences, or where the subject fails to meet its predicate, are elementary tense switches. The story opens in the past tense and an early paragraph is suddenly in the present. Lastly, the story title along the top of each page is printed in plural: "Charlie's Houses."

Truly unfortunate as the story has potential, and I genuinely like the ending for reason I cannot discuss since it would spoil the work.

Lucky Buck by Jim Valenti     6/10

In a library book Buck finds a dollar on which is written "Lucky Dollar." From then on Buck receives all kinds of luck, but not the kind one would hope to have. (Reminds me of a great story I read years back, "The" by Name and Name.) A quick and amusing piece, with a neat title as it is an alternate way of saying "lucky dollar."

Crossfire by Tony Haynes     6/10

A crime noir private investigator piece, with our tough-talking hero Lasky being jerked around through a scenario in which he is clueless. Entertaining with some genuinely good lines, it is more parody as our hero lacks the brains of the likes of Sam Spade, seems never to get the girl, nor does he profit financially, which is what many of his noir counterparts rely on. Far less of a parody, however, than Robert Coover's excellent 2010 novel Noir.

Invasion by Lawrence Buentello     6/10

Farmer Otis is alone at his farm where he is determined to have a final stand against the locusts that are swarming his property. In fact, locusts are swarming several states, and neither farmer nor government can defeat them. (While the U.S. states are slowly being devoured, we never learn of the rest of the world, so I suppose here in Canada we are safe. A good consequence in a U.S.-centric story.)

Overall a good read, but there do lie a number of problems. Farmer Otis comes across less sympathetic than intended, but I couldn't always take him seriously. There are problems in logic as well: Since the locusts infested every interior, covering the insides of the barn and the truck's engine, how come there isn't a single insect in the house? Not a one. How could he sit in that house without a single locust? Instead of fleeing to the city, the entire city should take refuge in that house. Moreover, the locusts have eaten all the crops, so why are they still there? Normally they move over in search of more food, but these guys just hang around, and more even join the clan, despite the fact that is nothing left for them to eat. Why doesn't farmer Otis just wait it out in the house where he is safe, until the locusts just collapse from starvation.

Finally, some of the story is over-written, and that opening paragraph is not necessary. A better opening sentence would have been one taken from the second paragraph: "The Agriculture Department promised that the infestation would dissipate in a week or so." Now there's mystery for ya.

Despite the issues I had with the story, I nonetheless enjoyed the thing, and the author certainly did well in presenting these locusts as a threat.

Full Circle by Chrystalla Thoma     5/10

Fantasy told through the point of a huntress appointed by God to deliver fallen angels. The story is told via a conversation between our huntress Luna, and a minor angel and archer Ayil, a figure Luna has feelings for. These kinds of stories are really not my thing, but this one was well written, the necessary information well handled and delivered, so my interest was kept.

Funhouse Mirror by A.W. Gifford     5/10

A young couple visit a funhouse, the husband overly excited while the wife reticent, even fearful. As we expect, some kind of horror in the hall of mirrors will ensue. From the co-editor of Bete Noire, the story is fairly standard, though while we do expect the worse, we don't necessarily see the form in which it comes. Unfortunately, the numerous typos make for clunky reading.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Donald Westlake, "The Sound of Murder" (1962)

Westlake, Donald, "The Sound of Murder," Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 1962. pp. 102-130
______, "The Sound of Murder," This Day's Evil, London: Four Square, January 1967
______, "The Sound of Murder," Death Can Be Beautiful, New York: Dell, May 1972
______, "The Sound of Murder," Academy Mysteries #2: Police Procedurals, ed. Martin H. Grenberg & Bill Pronzini, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1985
______, "The Sound of Murder," Levine, NY: Tor, May 1993
______, "The Sound of Murder," Playing Detective, ed. Robert Eidelberg, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2014

Rating:     7/10

The Sound of Murder at ISFdb (though I'm not sure why)
The Sound of Murder at IBList

For more of this week's FFBs, Please visit Todd Mason's blog.

In four years four Donald Westlake novelettes featuring Detective Abraham Levine of Brooklyn's Forty-third Precint were published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (1959-62). Only two other stories were later published: one for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in 1965, and the final Levine story in the collection Levine (Tor, 1993). Abraham Levine is an aging, neurotic detective, overly conscious of his mortality.

In "The Sound of Murder," while obsessing over his heart rate and struggling with quitting smoking, Levine investigates a murder based solely on hearsay. The precinct is visited by nine year-old Amy Thornbridge Walker, who claims her mother murdered her stepfather, and likely many years ago killed her father as well. The girl believes her mother generated some great sound that gave her step-father a heart attack, and though the story appears weak and phone calls to coroners indicate there is nothing to indicate any foul play, Levine and partner Crawley feel there might be something to the story. They receive permission to investigate for two days only, and there is little at this point they can do but research Amy's reliability. This develops the story's plot and makes for an interesting procedural.

Yet while the investigation is interesting, it is Levine's response to the scenario, as he is obsessing with his own weakened heart and impending death, that makes this piece a strong read. The denouement is genuinely tragic and helps to illustrate that Levine's down-beaten view of life stems directly from his work and the cases he investigates. Levine is very much a victim of the urban landscape and its skewed morality, of the tragedies engendered by people, and the tragedy of this investigation is quite extreme.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Ed McBain, The Empty Hours (1960)

McBain, Ed, "The Empty Hours," Ed McBain's Mystery Book #1, 1960
______, "The Empty Hours," The Empty Hours, 1962
______, "The Empty Hours," Academy Mystery Novellas 2: Police Procedural, ed. Martin H. Greeburg and Bill Pronzini, 1985
______, "The Empty Hours," Sleuths of the Century, ed. Ed Gorman and Jon L. Breen, NY: Carroll & Graf, 2000

Rating: 7/10

The Empty Hours at Goodreads
The Empty Hours at IBList

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

This lesser known novella of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series is a quick, well written procedural, and though the overall idea has been seen in different forms, McBain (Evan Hunter) combines the grittiness of New York's darkest moments with a bittersweet tale of two bound women.

The novella follows the investigation of a young woman found murdered in her shabby apartment. Yet despite her meager dwelling, her drawers are filled with new clothing, wears expensive underwear, stores large amounts of cash in a safety deposit box, and has a second bank account comfortably weighted with $60,000. McBain intersperses the investigative scenes with descriptions of the city, some characters, and some bits about life and writing. My favourite aside is the opening to Chapter eight, which works as a great passage on writing and the reality of investigative police work, which both sheds light on and contradicts the writing itself.

"There are no mysteries in police work," McBain write. "Nothing fits into a carefully preconceived scheme... There is no climactic progression; suspense is for the movies." It's true that fiction is a stylized form of reality, where a certain level of order exists and in many cases is required in order to maintain its own sense of reality, to generate its inner reality that most readers require. Of course McBain's stories contain their own structure and order, and "The Empty Hours," like any other successful work, is approached with its plot and certainly has a climactic progression. Admittedly, though, McBain's story gives the allusion of plotlessness, as though the events are unfolding of their own accord. As though his plot is being churned out by the events themselves. It is a statement of his skill that the story unfolds with the straightforward, gritty nature of an actual investigation.

Moreover, the scenario of the two closely linked women and the unfortunate tragedies they encounter is tinted with genuine sadness, and the pathos is heightened by the straightforward telling of their circumstances; had we encountered an emotional write-up it likely would not be as affecting.

A story worth hunting down.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Steve Hamilton, A Cold Day in Paradise (1998)

Hamilton, Steve, A Cold Day in Paradise, Minotaur, 1998
______, A Cold Day in Paradise, Minotaur, 2000 (pictured)

Rating: 7/10

A Cold Day in Paradise at Goodreads
A Cold Day in Paradise at IBList

For this week's list of FFBs, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Steve Hamilton's first novel, also the first novel in the Alex McKnight series, is undeniably strong. I enjoyed it not primarily for its mystery and suspense, which does waver throughout, but for its presentation of its main character and his integration within the plot and locale.

In brief, Alex McKnight is a former Detroit cop now retired in the backwoods of northern Michigan. The early retirement was a result of having been shot three times while on duty in an incident that left his partner dead. An incident that also left McKnight heavily and understandably scarred. Fourteen years following the event, as McKnight is practicing to become a local private investigator while maintaining his late father's hunting shacks, Maximilian Rose, the madman who shot him, has re-surfaced in his community of Paradise (hence the novel's title).

The focus that Hamilton places on Alex McKnight's psyche over what happened so long ago, and how it drives him in the wake of seemingly impossible events, works particularly well. It is deeply entangled with the plot and mystery that it never appears heavy-handed, and our concern for the suffering McKnight is genuine. It helps that McKnight is a less than stellar model of the ethical individual, nor is he a fearless former cop who thrives in the wake of violence. McKnight is instead headstrong, often impatient and rude, qualities that might win him some minor battles as a P.I., but in the long run won't garner him any favours. More striking, however, than his reactionary attitude, is the crippling fear that has been plaguing him his entire life, heightened by the shooting in Detroit. This is McKnight's central flaw, one that prevented him from acting against Rose and played a role in his former partner's death, and one that promises to be a handicap for any potential career as P.I. Like Lawrence Block did with Matthew Scudder, Hamilton has set up a protagonist who was directly responsible for the death of an innocent, and gains our sympathy as we read of their struggles and changed moral outlook.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the contrast between McKnight's overcoming his fear yet establishing a deep form of isolation within his community. Though some relationships with minor characters do not change, every positive relationship he has or has had with any important character devolves to the point that, aside from his pub buddies, he is left completely alone. The only exception is, arguably, Leon Prudell, who despite not being a friend establishes the possibility of becoming a future ally.

I mentioned early that the plot wavers, though it is not a drastic wavering and it never gets close to being derailed (no real spoiler here as I only hint at the issue). Half-way through the novel a man is taken down whose involvement in the mystery is obviously a plant. From this event we are led off the so far well maintained plot path, yet the confusion it seems to want to generate only led me to reasoning out the main elements of what was actually transpiring. The problem is that it is so obvious a plant that rather than becoming scattered, my (usually scattered) mind became instead focused, and the spell of suspense was cracked. Regardless, the denouement is satisfying and the character climax, more important in several respects, works nicely.

The novel was generally well received, and also garnered a number of award nominations and awards, including the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel by an unpublished writer. Following publication the book received Best First Novel awards from both the MWA (Edgar Allan Poe Best First Novel) and the PWA (Shamus Best First Novel), and was a finalist for the Anthony and Barry First Novel awards.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981)

Schwartz, Alvin, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, J.B. Lippincott, 1981
______, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, HarperTrophy, 1986 (my copy)

Rating: 7/10

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at Goodreads
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at ISFdb
     (view a list of editions, printings, covers, etc.)

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

Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to its widespread popularity, the folk tale often lacks its intended wallop of surprise. Unless, of course you, are a youngster first encountering these tales. In my youth I was introduced to many such tales through reading young adult fiction (or as we called it back in the 80s, kids' books), including re-tellings of classic tales; one particular volume I recall having had a blast with was The Headless Roommate and Other Tales of Terror, collected by Daniel Cohen (M. Evans & Co, 1980). I don't believe I've before encountered Alvin Schwartz's popular volumes, and reading them for the first time now evokes mixed responses. The book is certainly fun and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are downright brilliant--unfortunately Schwartz's writing is at times indolent. His notes on these tales and their origins, however, are interesting, and it is great that he made the effort to share these stories with a younger contemporary audience, helping not only to spread them but to conserve them.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is divided into four distinct sections. "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" collects jump stories, tales that are strictly oral and require that the teller, at the moment of high climax, screams in order to frighten the listener(s) and perhaps elicit a scream in return. This is the weakest portion of the book and is intended primarily for fun, to pass along an oral tradition of frightening others. The narratives themselves are not actual stories, only premises, and it is not surprising there are so many variations of each one.

"He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs..." collects ghost stories of various types. Schwartz does well in selecting variety, including a wraith, an animal ghost in the form of vengeful wolf, a haunted house, and one of the many tales of guests spending the night at a house they learn the next day has burned down, while leaving physical evidence that they indeed were there for the night (for a twentieth century take on this idea, please see my note on Oliver Onions's "The Cigarette Case"). These stories are the basis for many classic ghost tales that appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the modern short story, still in its infancy, frequently recorded standard oral tales, or variations of these. "The Cigarette Case" is only one example, and the once periodically anthologized Frank Gruber story, "The Thirteenth Floor," is another variation. This chapter is the closest we come to modern narrative, and the tale closest to the modern short story form would be the enjoyable "The Haunted House." In fact, this would make a great classic ghost tale, and I would not be surprised if it has already been rendered into one back in the period of Mr. Onions.

The third chapter, "They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose," assembles a mixed batch of tales, from a death warning ("Room for One More") to a tale of the wendigo ("The Wendigo"). There is no distinct pattern in this chapter, nor is one offered by the author. I do like this version of the wendigo quite a bit, and its neat to see that the neat non-fantastical Twilight Zone episode "The Grave," which featured a powerhouse cast of character actors including Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and James Best (later known for his role on Dukes of Hazzard), had its basis in the folk tale here titled "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave."

Urban legends are collected in the next chapter, "Other Dangers," including the ever famous "The Hook," "High Beams" and "The Babysitter." We all know the story of the escaped convict/madman with a hook for a hand and the unsuspecting car that drives off with its grim prize. "High Beams" exists in various forms, and one version was filmed as the opening sequence of Urban Legend, while another tale with slightly different versions, "The Babysitter," was popularized in film via the Carol Kane/Charles Durning 1979 feature, When a Stranger Calls. Perhaps because of the twists, the creepy premises or simply the modernization, the stories in this section would seem more effective through the eyes of youngsters.

Image result for Schwartz, Alvin "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"Finally, "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" retitled from the first chapter, collects stories to make the listener laugh rather than scream. The humour is of course mingled with some element of spookiness, and whether one laughs depends really on one's tastes. Personally, I always liked the cats in "Wait Till Martin Comes," while "Aaron Kelly's Bones" is probably more amusing for the adult than the child.

As fun as these tales are, this particular collection is best remembered for its original artwork by Stephen Gammell. For a sampling, simply search for the art online as its splattered all over the internet (my tri-sampling here is minimal in light of the numerous art for a 111-page book). It's great that in 1981 publishers were not too concerned over distributing such disturbing images to young readers, while the readers were excited and often terrified by them: accounts of nightmares or covering up certain pages can be found on some Goodreads reviews. At some point the modern HarperCollins did feel the need to tone down the volume and re-issued Alvin Schwartz's text with brand new, and entirely different (essentially sanitized), artwork by Brett Helquist.

The complete table of contents:

1. The Big Toe
2. The Walk
3. "What Do You Come for?"
4. Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!
5. A Man Who Lived in Leeds
6. Old Woman All Skin and Bone

He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs...
1. TheThing
2. Cold as Clay
3. The White Wolf
4. The Haunted House
5. The Guests

They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose
1. The Hearse Song
2. The Girl Who Stood on a Grave
3. A New Horse
4. Alligators
5. Room for One More
6. The Wendigo
7. The Dead Man's Brains
8. "May I Carry Your Basket?"

Other Dangers
1. The Hook
2. The White Satin Evening Gown
3. High Beams
4. The Babysitter

1. The Viper
2. The Attic
3. The Slithery-Dee
4. Aaron Kelly's Bones
5. Wait Till Martin Comes
6. The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Fiction Desk 8: New Ghost Stories II (2014)

Redman, Rob, editor, The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II, 2014

The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II at Goodreads
The Fiction Desk website

Overall Rating: 6/10

I have fallen behind in my reading of The Fiction Desk and other periodicals. Partly it's because I'm behind on all reviews, having been away, busy, and reading more contemporary fiction that I don't frequently review for this site. Partly it's because I haven't been reading periodicals as much lately, or short stories in general. Partly because my two and-a-half year-old is entertainment enough. And my reading lately has evolved toward picture books.

New Ghost Stories II includes eleven original short stories and a reprint of a medieval poem. Overall I did not enjoy it as much as previous issues, nor as much as their first ghost stories anthology, but there are some good tales included. Though many stories have a fantastical element, and those that don't have the suggestion of one, there aren't too many actual ghosts in the book. This of course is not a bad thing, since it offers a nice variety of subjects, from traditional ghosts to none at all, and some nice ambiguity in between.

Incomers by Amanda Mason     7/10
Emma and Jamie spend the New Year weekend at a port-side retreat where they've rented an old house. Soon Emma is troubled by feelings of a presence in the house, and of Jamie's seeming disinterest in her. The point of view is third person but limited to Emma, and we learn of her insecurities toward Jamie's bond with his former partner and of her feelings of inadequacy in relation to what are, essentially, Jamie's hobbies and interests. Meanwhile, through some acquaintances we discover the history of the house they are staying in, and of a certain scorned woman who once lived there.

"Incomers" is among the ambiguous ghost tales of the bunch. The existence of a ghost depends on the reader's interpretations, since there is no direct explanation offered. Personally I like the ambiguity, and my own rational leanings will conclude that the feelings of a ghost are the result of Emma's own heightened anxieties. Her suspicions that Jamie does not love her are founded on emotionally wrought, though likely accurate readings, evoke the sense of a ghost, and the eventual guilt for something clearly not her fault, despite her having secretly hoped for it. Ghost or no ghost this is among my favourites of the group.

Ms. Mason's other contribution to The Fiction Desk was also a ghost story and also quite good: "No Good Deeds" from the first ghost story collection.

The Bear Got Me by Matthew Licht     4/10
A government worker driving to a base in Alaska is chased by a ghost bear. Again closely limited to a single point of view, though here we have only one character and hence nothing external to interpret. The humour is not my thing and I rushed through the story as quickly as Garson rushed from that bear. Again, there is no evidence that the bear was there, ghostly or otherwise, and in the case of this story with its less than reliable narrator, I am left to believe it was a figment of the driver's overwrought imagination.

This is Licht's fourth appearance in The Fiction Desk, following "Dave Tough's Luck" (Various Authors), "Across the Kinderhook" (Crying Just Like Anybody) and "Washout" (New Ghost Stories).

Next to Godliness by Matt Plass     7/10
Strange occurrences in the home of a young couple lead them to suspect that their deceased little girl has returned home. Told through the father's point of view, it is the mother who wants to welcome the ghostly girl home, while the father is reticent. A strong story steeped in tragedy, well written and quite moving. Ghost or no ghost, the story's plot hinges on the possibility of a ghost and in that regard it is a ghost story.

The Table by Tamsin Hopkins     6/10
The death of the family matriarch reunites her husband and their three children. Told through one of the daughters' point of view, we learn that the mother had a vision of two girls seated perpetually at the titular table, a vision shared at one time by the children. A good and unique little read, it is also surprisingly touching, not just in its final moment, but with the notion of all we let go of as we grow up. "The Table" is most certainly a ghost story.

The Armies by Miha Mazzini     5/10 (Translated by Lenart Pogacnik)
A child's escapism from the unhealthy influence of his mother and grandmother's relationship. Not at all a ghost story since the visions are intentional figments of the boy's imagination, a form of escapism within the self. "The Armies" is, however, potentially more unsettling than many a tale of spectres, and can be included in the psychological horror category (if one were inclined to seek a seb-genre). This is Mazzini's second story for The Fiction Desk, following "I'm the One" from TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody, and "In the Walls" from TFD6: New Ghost Stories.

The Time of Your Life by Lucinda Bromfield     5/10
After the sudden death of his father, a young lawyer inherits his father's position as well as his watch. The wearing of the watch leads to changes in our hero, and gives meaning to memories of his father's visits to a certain mysterious old man. The fantastical element is present, but not spectral, and though not a bad story it is somewhat lacking.

End of the Rope by Melanie Whipman     6/10
At school our young narrator is buddied up with the strange new girl in class, and the two outcasts soon become friends. Escapism and implications of abuse propel the narrative and the bond between the two girls. The title serves a dual purpose: escaping off the ground as well as from reality. The ending is reminiscent of some the original Twilight Zone stories of escapism. The ghost element depends once again on interpretation, as the narrator's vision at the end is not supported externally, and can hence be a creation of her own over-wrought imagination. Granted she is a trustworthy narrator, but recent knowledge and experience is helping shape her outlook on things.

According to her website, Melanie Whipman's first short story collection, titled Llama Sutra, is to be released later this year by Ink Tears Press, and based on this well written story, it's a collection to look out for.

Hell for Leather by Bernie Deehan     5/10
Technician Terry is called up to install a security system at a bar that is soon to re-open. The same bar that, in its initial incarnation, served as the launching pad for a tragic event in Terry's youth. "Hell for Leather" is a fairly standard ghost story and hence predictable. I don't mind the coincidence of Terry being the one to be called to the bar, but I am suspicious that an establishment that's about to have its grand opening orders a security system at the last minute. You'd think it would be one of the first things the owners would get organized, rather than leaving the place un-secure while the renovations and preparations are being done, especially when we learn the place is already fully stocked with booze.

Twice a Day with Water by Die Booth     5/10
In this one, loner druggie Bren hallucinates the existence of a "spirit" that enters his body whenever he consumes pretty much anything. An interesting idea with a strong ending, I just could not care for the character who is never quite fleshed out, but presented as an agoraphobic user and seeks sympathy from that fact alone. The ghost element is a figment in the mind of Bren, particularly in light of the fact that as she is presented, she would not be able to bake a cake or pour a glass of vodka. This is Booth's third appearance in The Fiction Desk.

Watching Kate & Gustav by Alice Adams     6/10
Trapped in the apartment in which she was murdered, a woman's ghost watches the new tenants and their gloomy cat, and attempts to reach out to them. A good story with an unfortunately flat ending. Something a great deal more tragic could have been achieved with the circumstances at hand, and while the implication of tragedy is there, it comes across as passive as its narrator. Despite this, I genuinely liked the narrator, our ghost, and new tenant Kate, and would have enjoyed reading more of their exploits.

In Yon Green Hill to Dwell by Jane Alexander     7/10
A woman is troubled by her husband's lethargy and the memory of his former lover. Well written with a strong ending, I was strangely not as engaged in this one as in some of the others. Alexander's story received the prize for best ghost story and despite my lack of connection with it, I agree with the decision. The story is not only well written, but its thematic elements are well presented. It was inspired by the Scottish traditional tale in verse, "Tam Lin," which is reprinted after the story.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Ball, John, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Harper & Row, 1965
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books, July 1967
______, In the Heat of the Night, London: Pan Books [X711], 1967 (pictured right)
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books [020], 5th printing (my edition, pictured below)

In the Heat of the Night at Goodreads
In the Heat of the Night at IBList

Rating: 6/10

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

In the Heat of the Night is best known in that it helped generate a remarkable and memorable film. It's been years since I've seen the film, and having now read the novel I am inspired to re-watch it, but not before writing this review since I want to focus only on the book. Incidentally, the novel received the 1966 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, whereas the film received the Academy Award for Best Movie.

The small South Carolina town of Wells is faced with handling the murder of white Italian musician Maestro Mantoli, who was instrumental (pun intended) in organizing a large-scale music festival in the hopes of generating a tourist economy for the suffering region. The conductor's body is discover by deputy Sam Wood in the middle of the night, and in search of suspicious characters he picks up a well-dressed black man at a train station, who turns out to be Pasadena violent crimes investigator Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs is brought in on the case as a potential fall-guy so that the city council can save face over such a high profile investigation, should anything go wrong. Essentially, blame the unsolved crime on the incompetent black guy. Tibbs, however, proves to be highly intelligent and an excellent investigator.

Racial discrimination is certainly a major focus, as Tibbs, in the few days he spends on the investigation, faces various forms of racism. Some are extreme and stem from plain ignorance, while more complex forms of racism are explored via Sam Wood, a relatively positive character. Unlike the other inhabitants of Wells, with the exception of the northern and progressive Italians, Wood recognizes and quickly admires not only Tibbs's intelligence and training, but also his respectful demeanor. Throughout the investigation, the emotional and at times hard-headed Wood finds that his views on race are being challenged, that he has been conditioned to view certain people, black or Italian, through the society in which he was raised, rather by reason, and finds himself by the end of the novel not only admiring Tibbs, but in love with an Italian woman.

Another focus is an interesting situation with the Wells head of police, Chief Gillespie. It is made clear that Gillespie is incompetent and has been hired because of his inexperience. The town council can in this way control the police force and pressure the chief to do their bidding, since his post is not too secure, and since he does not have the respect of the rest of the force. Plot-wise this allows Tibbs to handle the investigation as he sees fit, since Gillespie's involvement becomes minimal. An intelligent and conscientious officer would have taken on the investigation rather than be impressed by an outsider, black or white.The adverse effect of this element, however, is unfortunate. As intelligently as Tibbs is presented, the fact that the law enforcement of Wells, particularly its chief, is less than average, undermines Tibbs's own efforts. Simply put, Tibbs would be truly extraodinary had he managed to solve a murder that baffled a competent police force.

The novel is written through a problematic point of view. The third person is limited to three characters for the most part, Tibbs, Gillespie and Wood, with minor awkward interference from others. Most of the point of view rests with the white men, however, so that Tibbs, the character we should be following, is relegated to the role of outsider. Since he is the outsider in the town, it is as though the readers should be identifying themselves with the racist locals rather than the progressive Californian. Of course Ball was focusing not only on a standard who-dun-it plot, so that point of view had to be stretched out. Wood's point of view in particular is required in illustrating how ridiculous it is to judge a person by their skin colour, and his coming to terms with his own prejudice is important to the novel and the genre. Moreover, by relegating Tibbs's investigation to second-tier focus, Ball is able to withhold evidence that Tibbs uncovers early on, and springing it at the reader at specific points in the text. On one end this gives the novel an artificial feel, while on another it increases drama and allows the mystery to maintain its weight against the book's important and inherent social commentary.

Though the investigation itself is quite interesting, the resolution is a little anti-climactic. Not because it is predictable (that it certainly isn't), but because it is so unremarkable. I was piecing together a council conspiracy which, admittedly, would have been an obvious suspect.

The love story sub-plot is unbelievable and poorly delivered. Aside from allowing Wood to fall in love with an Italian, it serves little purpose. Moreover, though author Ball does well in presenting non-white characters, he unfortunately fails in delivering positive, or even realistic female characters.

Interestingly, the N-word is used quite liberally in the novel, yet only in full by the less than likable councilmen, including the mayor, Gillespie's boss. Other, more positive characters, have the word on the tips of their tongues, such as deputy Sam Morton, who occasionally mutter the word's first syllable, as Ball, wanting these characters to be likable despite their views on race, prevents them from saying the despised word while still portraying them as locals of a deep-rooted racist community.

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