Friday, November 23, 2012

Jerry Jay Carroll, Inhuman Beings (1998)

Carroll, Jerry Jay. Inhuman Beings, New York: Ace, 1998. 249 pages

Cover by Victor Stabin

Inhuman Beings at Goodreads
Inhuman Beings at the ISFdb

Rating: 7/10

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

Cynical noir-type detective Goodwin Armstrong is approached by professional psychic Princess Dulay who claims that aliens are attempting to take over the Earth. Since the private detecting field has been experiencing difficult economic struggles of late, particularly with Security Concerns nabbing up most of San Francisco's clientele, Armstrong accepts the princess's case when she offers him an astonishing salary. As expected, there is some truth to the psychic's claim, and Armstrong is soon enmeshed in an interstellar conspiracy.

After having released three novels in three years, author Carroll limited his publishing to columns and I'm curious as to why. Inhuman Beings is an entertaining read, providing a good mystery, humour and some tight genre writing. The plot adds little to either the Body Snatchers concept, or to the investigative mystery/science fiction hybrid, but nonetheless delivers a read-worthy novel.

Structurally the novel is organized as a kind of triptych. It is patterned across three distinct parts: the investigative, the fugitive and the apocalyptic. The first segment features our cynical hero investigating strange occurrences while protecting his psychic client; the second follows Armstrong as he is simultaneously fleeing and pursuing the aliens, while the last third has him among a band of government officials in a desperate attempt to deal a final blow that would rid the earth of its unwanted and hostile guests.

My favourite third is the investigative, as it best blends its separate genres and provides the most entertaining narrative. Narrator Armstrong reveals that the detecting profession isn't glamourous, nothing like what you see in the movies, and yet proceeds to act like a 1940s noir detective. Aside from this bit of nifty irony is the fact the dame that walks in to hire him, a conventional noir trope, is not the stunning, curvaceous and sultry cigarette-smoking babe we would expect from noir mysteries, but an overweight psychic. There is suspense during the mystery's unravelling, even though the reader is fully aware that the aliens are real. Not only are we aware of this for there would be no book otherwise, but the cover declares: "If it walks like a human and talks like a human... run."

This is not to say that the rest of the book is a letdown. For one thing it would be inappropriate to maintain the humourous cynicism when our hero is running for his life, and the fugitive sequences feel fresh and maintain the excitement. It's also great to see our narrator become so self reliant and effect this process of change. The last portion is the novel's weakest, and by then I was ready for the conclusion, which offered little surprise. Armstrong sits back a little amid the collection of official and military personnel, and the narrative is becomes less detailed. Because it was the narrator himself who was so engaging throughout the first chunks of the work, having him settle back is not the most compelling way to bring the story to its end.

Despite the waning portion and the generic finish, the novel is vastly entertaining and a good addition (though nothing revolutionary) the mystery/science fiction genre.

What is also interesting in the novel is that we never really get to meet the aliens. Sure we encounter a few throughout the book, but they are constantly held at a distance, and we don't learn a thing about there origins or their culture, only that they are malevolent things with advanced electronic technology bent on taking over the Earth. It is not Carroll's aim to create a hard scientific or cultural analysis of another race or, inherently, of ourselves, but to deliver a science fiction mystery with elements of adventure. Therefore, because these creatures are kept at a distance, the threat itself is more ominous and untouchable.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Haddon, Mark, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, NY: Doubleday, 2003. 226 pages

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Goodreads
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at IBList
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at IBDoF

Rating: 6/10

A popular book when released, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time appears to receive an extremist range of reactions, from those lauding its emotional power and sensitivity, to those declaring it to be trite, dry and emotionally manipulative. My response it completely middle ground, and what I found problematic had little to do with its actual subject matter.

While I did enjoy the novel overall, it is strictly mainstream and appealing to a general public. Haddon does well with his portrayal of how a boy with Asperger's Syndrome experiences the world around him, though I've been pointed to other, "better" and "more accurate" works on the subject. The humour, character portrayals and tensions are real enough and believable enough, and I did like the narrow-minded interests that narrator Christopher Boone is filling his manuscript with (by "narrow-minded" I simply mean that he sticks to topics that interest him, as a boy with his condition would).

Unfortunately one of the most appealing aspects of the work as a novel of fiction is deceiving. Essentially, the story sets itself up to be an unconventional murder mystery (Who killed the neighbour dog Wellington?), when in reality it is not a murder mystery at all. The novel fails as a mystery in that its early focus only pretends to be the mystery and Christopher's investigation of it, when it's clearly a trope to later build upon family drama, the real focus of the novel. Now there is nothing wrong with family drama; this is not the issue, but there is something wrong with making a book into something other than what it initially pretends to be. Christopher (Haddon, really) consciously focuses on classic mystery conventions, deconstructs Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and even contrasts itself to that classic tale. Baskervilles is a murder mystery involving a dog and set in the Devonshire moors, and collects a group of interesting neighbours as suspects, some with startling family secrets. Night-Time spends nearly its first half as a murder mystery collecting a group of neighbours as suspects, including one with a startling family secret. Yet Night-Time's murderer is obvious early on, and the book diverges to become part family drama and part young adult runaway tale. To emphasis the idea that Night-Time is a play on the classic murder mystery, it was given that excellent title. I sincerely like the attempt that Haddon made in using classic mystery conventions to build his story, but I am less than impressed that the concept is applied heavily at the outset, only be entirely dropped. Though the mystery is somewhat built around Doyle's Baskervilles, it is lacking in a concise resolution. The murderer confesses (by this time the reader has figured out the identity of the murderer), and yet not in any way as a kind of parody or examination of the convention. At that point the novel is no longer interested in its own premise, and I am left to wonder if I too should be so disinterested.

I like mixing genres but not when there is pretense. I have the impression that Haddon emphasized the murder mystery elements in order to grasp the interest of potential readers, and what I ended up hoping for was an unconventional mystery, a murder mystery that plays with convention but is really dealing with something entirely different (Alain Robbe Grillet's The Erasers comes to mind) yet what I receive is a half mystery, soon forgotten and entirely unsatisfying.

The teenage runaway sequence is itself a runaway sequence, dragging on for too long. Later Christopher says there is no need for such detail, and I wonder he didn't realize that a little earlier. The family drama element works because the characters are completely imperfect, not terribly likeable but not unliked, and it does not overstay its welcome. There are just enough pages to make it interesting, and the lack of total resolution was a great choice on the author's part.

Though I am being critical of the novel I enjoyed it quite a bit. The lagging in the middle is truly unfortunate, and concepts of mystery fiction and the unconventional mystery are my own and need not trouble other readers.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, The Hound of the Baskervilles, serialized The Strand Magazine, August 1901 - April 1902.
______, The Hound of the Baskervilles, New York: Dell Books, August 1959. 224 pages (my edition, pictured)

The Hound of the Baskervilles at Goodreads
The Hound of the Baskervilles at ISFdb

While I did enjoy the Sherlock Holmes short stories and various movie and television productions as a kid, I managed to miss out on the longer works. This missing out continued into my adult years despite an old and slightly tattered Dell edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles sitting on one of my many "to read soon" piles (notably the to be read soonest of the soon piles). More impressive is that I still knew nothing of the popular novel's plot, and it wasn't until I was on page sixty-nine of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that I pulled Baskervilles from the upper middle of point of its pile. In his 2003 novel, Haddon does a bit of deconstruction with Baskervilles, nothing revolutionary but nonetheless reveals the main aspects of Doyle's book. Just as Haddon's narrator begins his analysis, I began the novel.

Baskervilles is a detective novel that is deeply embedded in western popular culture. It has been repeatedly filmed across a range of styles, and with a wide range of distinct interpretations of the popular Holmes, including those of Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone and Peter Cook (even the voice of Peter O'Toole). The book even lent its title to a medical study, "The Hound of the Baskervilles effect," whose objective reads in the US National Library of Medicine: "To determine whether cardiac mortality is abnormally high on days considered unlucky: Chinese and Japanese people consider the number 4 unlucky, white Americans do not." As part of Sherlock Holmes lore, the work is a return to the character by its author following an eight-year absence, as well as following Holmes's death in the short story "The Final Problem" (1893). As fiction it's an early example of the detective novel, featuring a variety of both distinct and subtle clues and red herrings, as well as withheld information and false inventions that modern mystery authors and readers tend to get irritated by. More on this shortly. It also plays a part in popular contemporary fiction, deconstructed in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

In brief, the novel involves the death of kindly Baronet Sir Charles Baskerville from a heart attack believed to have been brought on by the legendary Baskerville Hound. In the Devonshire moors (Dartmoor), this creature is believed to be part of the Baskerville family curse which, without going into too much detail (you've probably already read the book or seen a filmed version), involves a mean old ancestor and a hell-hound that has returned to wipe out the family line. In light of this curse the only remaining heir, Sir Henry Baskerville is in danger.

The novel holds up due primarily to its complication rather than its premise or resolution. The premise itself is interesting enough, yet as soon as we leave the Holmes home on Baker Street we are confronted with a variety of events and details which make for an entertaining and suspenseful read. The red herrings work well, and I honestly couldn't tell if the hound would be real or not, though I did figure out a major aspect of the mystery early on, while being surprised by others.

The book is also populated by varied characters, though I would have preferred to read more of the despicable yet entertaining lawyer Mr. Frankland. Sir Henry is from Canada, and I like reading about Canadians in non-Canadian novels (though I do get nervous when they are in danger).

The problem lies in the resolution (I will be vague enough not to spoil the story). Modern readers will note that Doyle cheats quite a bit in the novel, since aspects of the crime are either revealed in the last two chapters (the sudden introduction of a character who played some part, though small), some detail withheld from the reader (though since it was consciously withheld from narrator Dr. John Watson this can, I suppose, be excused) and a major detail that Doyle doesn't even attempt to resolve, essentially how would the criminal get away with collecting the Baskerville estate after eliminating the known heirs? Perhaps one of the films attempts to approach this issue.

We are of course in the calendar year of 2012 (the world still intact, I'm happy to point out), a long way from 1901/02, and the novel as well as the mystery has evolved considerably. Doyle's stories featuring Holmes, as well as other early nineteenth century mysteries employing unfair techniques, are nonetheless quite enjoyable, and do feature great mystery concepts, as the hound does in Baskervilles.

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