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.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The 4400: Fifty-Fifty

Fifty-Fifty (episode 3.12)
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Ira Steven Behr & Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Sean Marquette, Jody Thompson
First aired 27 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: Terrible Swift Sword
Next episode: Season Four

Here be spoilers aplenty.

"The end of a journey is always the beginning of another," says narrator Jordan Collier near the end of the episode. What he means is that the end of a season is geared to start up another. Season three's final episode of The 4400 is a launching pad for season four.

"Fifty-Fifty" primarily on the spread of promicen among non-4400s. Interspersed amid the plot are sequences designed to carry characters into the next season, to promise greater, elevated excitement for season four in a desperate scramble to pick up (and maintain) viewers and increased ad revenue. Though this entire episode is a set-up for season four, I must admit that despite the all-too obvious agenda, The 4400 staff did a good job at delivering an entertaining episode.

It turns out that Ryland's super soldiers group had some casualties: half of the twenty original volunteers died, leading to the episode title. This fact only arises after the first public experiment leads to the death of Devon, an act designed to undermine Collier's plan to distribute promicen to the world at large.

Devon's death is telling of the problems with standard network or syndicated television. Essentially, killing off a third-tier character is a pretense at risk-taking. With shows ranging from the brilliant Oz to the inconsistent Walking Dead, sacrificing major characters seemingly on a whim builds a genuine threat to the people within the show's universe. Essentially, no one is safe. Yet The 4400 is not prepared to permanently sacrifice a major player, and therefore never successfully generates the sense that the characters in The 4400 universe are in any way truly threatened. We do not feel the tension that is supposed to be generated by Shawn's vision of a ruined future that is highlighted by Tom Baldwin's death simply because we know inherently that the future is safe and Baldwin will not die. The show has not presented us with any indication that this apocalyptic scenario, presented as a possibility, is actually possible.

Instead, a false sense of danger is created through the death of a familiar and likable face who is not a major player. Though Lily Moore Tyler's death at the opening of season three was not planned (it came about as a result of the actor not being available), her sacrifice promised to escalate series tensions, yet proved anti-climactic as every other major player remained quite safe. Moreover, many other third tier characters who could easily have been sacrificed were let off the hook. Gary Navarro fled to Canada and both Kyle Baldwin, Alana Mareva and Jordan Collier were only temporarily disposed of when their services weren't required. Brought back when they were. All this to say that I like Devon, was saddened by her demise, yet did not for a moment believe others are now at risk and did not worry needlessly for the safety of other likables.

The death of Boyd Gelder is also an interesting point for discussion but for a different reason. For one thing, it elevates Collier to cult leader status as his followers are now willing to give up their lives for him. Though his death is never actually confirmed, there is no doubt Gelder is dead since the soldiers that were with him in the room are confirmed dead, an act which also makes Collier a murderer, though the script writers conveniently avoid mention of this. Collier would likely explain in his straightforward manner that their death was for the good of mankind. What is most interesting in here is that Boyd Gelder is an important asset to Collier's team and his cause, and there is no logical reason Collier should have sacrificed him. As Isabelle herself states, it is inconceivable that he should think he can kill her; she's already proven herself indestructible through conventional means. So why kill off such an incredibly useful ally? Even the powerful Magneto went to great lengths to defend his own chameleon, without whom he would not have been as powerful as he was. Perhaps Collier did not read comic books.

Additional mourning, though on a more subdued level, comes to us in the form of Tom Baldwin watching son Kyle depart yet again, this time as a kind of recruitment representative or travelling adviser for the 4400 Centre. I've mentioned before that I like Kyle, and I do hope his wanderings bring him back to the show in season four, though he hasn't been among the writers' favourites, and this brief and convenient send-off comes across as a sweep under the rug.

A well-handled sequence is Shawn's interrogation. Initially Alana is brought in against her will to do the interrogation via her universe creating talent. The drama here is that her 4400 loyalties are being compromised, pitted against her loyalty to lover Tom, yet she is saved from having to use her talents against Shawn when another interrogator is brought in: the mighty Isabelle. Though the drama of Alana struggling through such an ordeal is pulled out from under our feet, it does not come across as a cop-out because we are promised greater drama with Isabelle. High tension is usurped by even greater tension. If you think about it, this was a crafty writerly bit of doing, and I wonder if this was brought about by writers trying to decide which would be best for the episode, and rather than sacrificing one possibility entirely, they manage to sneak it in there. Good technique.

Interestingly, Isabelle tells Shawn that the reason she teamed with Ryland is that if both sides had access to promicen, meaning the side of Ryland and the side of Collier, then there would be a standstill and lives, particularly Shawn's, would be saved. Are we to believe that she is not the daemon she is often presented to be? It does make sense though, since her childish selfishness could have been the driving force behind her collaboration with the bad guys.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Diane takes Maia away from the Centre, fearing for her daughter's safety. Maia objects as the class is where her only true friends reside, and cutting her off from that environment is equivalent to transforming her into a loner. Of course this is a set-up for one of the episode's climaxes, implied by Maia's flat-out statement: "This isn't gonna work." The Isabella needle comes into play later in that classroom, and as I'd suspected (see previous post), daddy Richard is the one to take her down. I don't mind the lack of surprise here since the act fits into the character development and Richard's consistent evolution. Besides, Richard rocks!

"For a second I really thought you were gonna shoot her." The Tom shooting Isabella is a bit unreal considering the reports and investigation a government agent has to go through when discharging a weapon... in a classroom no less. The shooting serves a dual purpose: dramatic effect and to let the audience know Isabelle is done. As in powerless, not dead. As in we shouldn't expect season four to open with the imp Isabelle spouting how it was all a ruse to help unleash her great evil plan.

Not only does he take down daughter Isabelle, it is Rockin' Richard who turns against Collier rather than Shawn, as viewers were being led to expect. As a result, Richard becomes a prisoner of Tess. This is a neat pairing as one uses his mind to shift objects while the other uses her mind to shift will. Suggestion beats out telekinesis as Richard can do nothing to get the better of mind controller Tess. Internal tensions do little in preventing promicen from being delivered to the outside world. (At least to the streets and alleys of the U.S., since nothing is mentioned of international promicen delivery. Moreover, since it is Collier dispersing the stuff on the streets, it's not likely any of the stuff would make it onto a plane.

The final scene is the topping that launches us into season four. A brief scene in which many people are lining up to receive their own doses of promicen, including April Skouris, Diana's lovelorn sister. There's a good final turn to the camera, as the promicen distributor asks the audience if they want a shot of the stuff. This kind of acknowledgement of the audience invites discussion: would you risk your life for the chance to develop a super power? Remember, fifty percent chance you will die, and if you live you cannot choose your power, so you might end up with an extra head. Well, maybe not much discussion.

Having come so far with promicen, I wonder if the writers and producers remember that the point of these 4400 people returning to this time and place is part of a plan to divert a great, Earth-ending catastrophe. It's interesting to note that so few of the 4400 are part of this battle, and that Isabelle is now powerless, making me wonder how her conception and existence, now that she is so average, plays into this grand scheme of future humanity.

Along with plot set-up and Isabelle taming, this finale offers up some disappearances. First off Ben wants to take Diane and Maia to Spain, though we know they will return, so really what is the point. Perhaps to avoid needing to develop the Diana/Maia teen drama that was taking its course through season three. Some time together in a foreign land will help, we suspect, unite the two with the bond of previous seasons. This way the writers of season four can focus on other dramas.

The other disappearance, far more interesting and certainly welcome to those like me who find the empath a little tiresome, is that of Alana. Maia says to her in relation to the Spain trip: "We'll be back, but you won't be here." Then Alana disappears, seemingly abducted. Hopefully this time for good.

"You want the shot?"
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As of 24 December 2015