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. "TempĂȘte 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.

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