When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience. In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together. Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations. This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader. Electracy changes the relationship again. The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up. But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth. I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.
First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book. Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing. He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself. This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast. I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read. It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page. Somebody go build that!
Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State. Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them. At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote. The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.
Fan art will appear. The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work. This is storytelling in the digital age.
by Adam Christopher; narrated by Phil Gigante
The dark and shadowy world of Empire State is kind of like New York in the late 20s, but not quite. This tale of adventure, mystery, weird technology, and haunting atmosphere will have you running in circles, marveling at the buildings, and peering into the fog. A few thoughts:
The first half of the novel is fantastic. I mean that both literally — as in: it includes fantastical science-fiction elements and a complicated plot set in an alternate New York called The Empire State — and figuratively, in that it’s quite enjoyable. The second half, for me, was not quite as good. The novel explains more than I wanted it to, and the mysteriousness of the first half overwhelmed the result of the second half.
In mood, Empire State resonates with dystopian city sci-fi scapes like Brazil, The Manual of Detection, and Kafka. It also injects noir tropes and pulp science heroes into the mix. The result is a world that draws on many of the same tropes in vogue throughout speculative fiction right now, but does so with verve and gusto.
Most impressive about the first half of the novel are Christopher’s casual world-building moments. He excels in writing sentences that open new doors on the world, shifting the whole nature of what you see as you read. I enjoyed these moments so much that I’ve excised a lot of references from this review so that these syntactical gems can remain inviolate. To explain what I mean, though, consider the classic example from Heinlein: “The door dilated.” With the simple use of a word in a new context, Heinlein downloads a whole new set of expectations and ideas about the world. Christopher does this several times (at least three that I can think of), and it’s a delight.
At the same time, some of these reveals are cheats of narrative convenience. For instance, at least one “big reveal” from fairly late in the novel depends on visual information that, had we been watching this as a film, we would have understood from the beginning. Thus, the value of carefully excluding details.
I like that Christopher includes a playlist and an invitation to fan contributions at the end of the book. I’ll write more about that tomorrow.
All in all, very enjoyable. Phil Gigante does a good job handling different voices in the story, particularly given the complex relationships between some of the characters.
Judge Dredd, Volumes 3 and Volume 4 by Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel
Volume 3 finds Dredd in the wastelands, trying to track down criminals to save Mega-City one from “The Big Fail.” Think of it as “Dredd visits The Hills Have Eyes.” It’s a delightful, if goofy, adventure for everyone’s favorite Clint Eastwood doppelganger. Dredd’s celebratory return to Mega City 1 is hampered somewhat, by the return of a villain from a previous storyline, and the murder of oodles and oodles of judges. The tale continues to be enjoyable for its basic elements mixed up in new combinations. The short story one shots included in Volume 4 were particularly good.
Two Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner
When a mercenary gangster and a bored “camera girl” accidentally bump into one another on the streets of a futuristic London, all chaos breaks loose for a romping ride through the city. While the comic teems with funny ideas (as with the part of Chinatown where dudes in suits are shooting at one another all the time amid flocks of doves), the characters and the story never really come together for me. I also found the depiction of Rosi Blades, the girl who makes her living streaming her life and adventures 24hours a day, too exploitative without compensating for it with an interesting character.
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Vol 1 by Alex De Campi et al
“Bee Vixens from Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares” are both great schlocky titles, and the stories that accompany them are delightfully bloody and awful, in the way grindhouse movies were (and that Tarantino and Rodriguez captured so well in their double-feature). Alas, De Campi and the artists working the stories spent a lot of time on naked ladies as well, which detracted, for me, from the stories they were trying to tell. I suppose this is to be expected in a comic drawing on exploitation films, but I think the stories would have been more enjoyable if that aspect of the genre had been kept in check a bit more.
A Rumpole Christmas: Stories by John Mortimer, narrated by Bill Wallis
Everyone’s favorite cantakerous lawyer is back for more glasses of Pomeroy’s finest, carping at judges, and winning most of his cases. In this collection, Rumpole puts up with Helga’s changing plans for Christmas, resorts to a bit of arm-twisting for a good cause, and has a productive trip to the theater. This story collection is a delight for the Rumpole enthusiast, but doesn’t really do much new. As always, Bill Wallis brings the collection to delightful life.
One of the better Nero Wolfe novels I’ve read, In the Best Families starts off like a conventional tale of Nero and Archie — a lady comes into Wolfe’s office with a confidential problem. She doesn’t know where her husband — a younger man — is getting the money he uses to live his lavish lifestyle. She wants Wolfe to check it out. The case that arises is both more interesting and far different from most of the Wolfe stories I’ve read, and for that I love it.
Archie continues to be his irascible, witty self. Wolfe continues to confound us with his mysterious ways. And we see plenty of appearances from the usual cast of characters. But the storyline is different than many we’ve seen from Stout.
Not recommended as an introduction to Stout’s series, nor even a second or third book. But if you’ve read six of them, as I have, it’s a great place to go for some variety.
(Note — this is the third in a series of novels concerning a major side character. I have not read And Be A Villain or The Second Confession, but thorough readers may want to check out those two before they read this one.)
Detective Hank Palace just wants to solve this murder. But there are lots of things getting in the way: his colleagues and the coroner think it’s suicide, the mobile phone service is getting sketchy in his little Massachusetts town, the crime lab is backed up beyond belief, and other crimes are on the rise. And a giant meteor is going to hit the Earth in six months. This first novel in a trilogy wrestles with questions of ethics and philosophy at the end of the world, and weaves an interesting murder mystery on top of it. A few thoughts:
Many of Palace’s usual tools for investigation have gone missing in the beginning of the end — the network support structure, many of his colleagues, and the state crime apparatus, to name a few. In part, this provides the same environment that makes other writers return to the turn of the 20th century — one that lets the detective do the detecting, rather than relying on forensics and gizmos.
Motive has become the most difficult to parse out. The victim surely had a reason to kill himself, as does everyone in this world. But others also have much stronger motives for murder, since their ability to enjoy life is going to be quickly snuffed when a 6km rock smashes into the planet.
Most intriguingly, Winters gives Palace a convincing motivation to just keep going, despite it all. He focuses on this one death, this solitary injustice in the midst of chaos, and follows it where it leads.
The Last Policeman isn’t a great mystery, but it is a great book.
The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon
This month my Speculative Fiction book group (which reads about two or three fantasy books each year) selected Ken Harmon’s hard-boiled detective novel, The Fat Man, a story about Gumdrop Coal — the grumpy elf who founded the Coal brigade — trying to stop an overthrow of the big man himself. A few thoughts:
Harmon imagines the North Pole as “Kringle Town,” a fantastical place where all the figures from Christmas dwell, each with her or his own odd habits on display. This encyclopedic use of nearly every figure, from George Bailey to the Nutcracker to Ralphie, is the best part of the book.
Harmon also shows a thorough love of hard-boiled stories, filling his gritty, purple prose with similies and machine-gun patter dialogue. He works in titles of many Raymond Chandler novels, and builds a convincing hard-boiled story, even in the silly context of the Christmas land he’s built.
Mixed in throughout the story are Gumdrop’s regular musings about the importance of Santa in the landscape of Christmas itself. He understands Santa to be a sort of gateway drug (my words) to Jesus, suggesting that the Santa gifts children receive early in their lives build in a joy of the season that helps them, as they get older, understand the Christian approach to the holiday. Gumdrop’s own inner struggle with the idea of punishment for the naughty children also plays into the notion of the all-forgiving Jesus (though Hell is less clearly understood through the lens of the novel). I expect that Harmon did this proselytizing purposefully. He did it with a nuance that it doesn’t disrupt the story much.
The mystery itself is pretty good, and functions like most hard-boiled detective stories do, with each clue revealing new parts of the plot that re-frame the crime. There’s plenty of casual violence from both our hero and the people around him. And with his visit to Potterville, we get to see him interacting with the dregs of Kringle town.
The biggest negative to the book is its length — the mystery and the premise really didn’t support a novel quite as long as the one Harmon wrote. About 75 pages fewer would have brought the story into sharper focus.
The Fat Man is an amusing, twisty hard-boiled gingerbread house, slathered with the icing of Christmas fandom. A nice holiday read, if a bit longer than it needs to be.
The Colorado Kid is a crime story and a mystery steeped in place. Its setting and its storytellers are the crucial ingredient that makes the tale go. The plot, loosely described, is thus: two veteran journalists in a small town in coastal Maine tell a young journalist about a mysterious case they’d encountered a couple decades ago. A few thoughts:
This is actually a tale about how stories are told — the way journalists shape the articles they write and choose the pieces they tell. I’m not sure how true it is in its evaluation of the way journalists work, but it’s amusing.
The three main characters are compelling and interesting, and the audience is warmly welcomed into their intimate mentorship.
In some ways, this novel feels like King’s attempt at the historical mystery, his own run at The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Both tales concentrate on a mystery already told, and solutions whose visibility dims as the years go by.
Part of what drove me to pick this up was the television show Haven, which purports to be inspired by this novel. Alas, the two stories only overlap in the character of the town and the two reporters. All the things that make Haven interesting are missing from this novel that supposedly inspired it.
I read the “Hard Case” edition of the book, which has an hilarious cover that has nothing to do with the novel at all, save that one of the characters is a woman. The other covers I’ve seen on line for later editions of the book all have much more to do with the novel than does this one.
It’s nice to read a Stephen King book that’s not six hundred pages or more. That said, this wasn’t my favorite book — either as a mystery or a King novel.
I’d read this book before, of course, many years ago. As a classic of the genre and one of Christie’s three best/most known (the other two being And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) I’d also read about the book, and seen more than one version of the film. It’s a story I know, surely. I’m teaching it in my Detective Fiction course this semester, so I’ve returned and re-read it along with the students.
But maybe you don’t: Poirot, Christie’s foppish detective with waxed mustaches and charming Belgian malapropisms, finds himself on a last-minute journey from Istanbul to Paris on the Orient Express. During the night, a causic sonofabitch gets murdered, and the train gets snowed in. Thus, we have a locked-room mystery of the strangest type. With a dozen suspects and very odd set of clues, Poirot works diligently to untangle the web that has been woven.
One of my students commented that Christie excels at writing multiple voices, developing a large palette of characters in many flavors. Another added, “…and she sure hates Italians!” I don’t know if this last is true, but the Italian character in the book sure is stereotyped.This novel more than some highlights how much Poirot views murder as a game to solve. He’s reluctant to get involved because he’s in a hurry and he didn’t care for the victim; he only relents because his friend is a manager of the train line and he doesn’t want the bad publicity to harm the firm. Later, he accepts a subtle challenge from the murder with gusto.At the heart of the story (and revealed pretty early, so I’m not ruining anything) is a reference to the Lindburgh kidnapping, which was, of course, a sensation of only two years earlier. Thus, this novel includes a sort-of “ripped from the headlines” aspect.
It’s among her best — boiled down to its functionality and a fair play mystery to boot. Definitely worth reading if you haven’t done so.
A double review is a review of two movies united only by the fact that I watched them around the same time. That’s what this is.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic cold-war era spy story based on the novel by John Le Carre. It’s meditative and brilliantly acted, with lots of staring out windows and 1970s haircuts. In fact, it feels like a throwback to movies like The Conversation or The Ipcress File. Basic plot? British intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with rooting out the mole from among the “Circus,” the highest level of MI6.
Odd Thomas feels like an introductory movie meant to spawn a television show. It’s a very well made B movie with a solid cast (including Willem Defoe). It’s your standard “beginning of a series” movie with lots of exposition to explain the psychic Odd Thomas to us, and to introduce the scary aspects of the world around him. What follows is your usual supernatural detective story movie about all hell being unleashed, and the endangered hero doing his darndest to stop it.
Now for the synergy — what do you get when you watch these movies together?
Both films involve a lot of deception and double- or triple-bluffing. Characters have hidden motives, aren’t who they appear to be, and hide things even from their friends. Spies and mysteries both hinge on this sort of business, as it makes for exciting storytelling.
Both films build on aesthetics of other similar stories. As I mentioned above, Tinker Tailor draws on the aesthetic and storytelling style of the intellectual 1970s, giving the viewer plenty to think about and offering little in the way of signposting. Odd Thomas buys into the goofy aesthetic of shows like Pushing Daisies and the lamented lost Wonder Falls.
Montages — the films both use montages to solid effect. Odd starts with a fast-paced linear exposition montage that gives us many of the characters and settings of the world within the first ten minutes or so. Tinker Tailor ends with a fantastic epilogue via montage by way of a foreign-language version of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea.”
And the differences?
Despite the fact that these two movies were made at around the same time, they couldn’t have more opposed visual styles. Where Tinker Tailor uses languid, almost immobile cameras and long shots to set the mood, Odd Thomas uses the frenetic editing style one might call “Lock, Stock Syndrome.” It works for the jaunty tone of the film, but it’s still strikingly different than the British spy movie.
Odd Thomas also takes pains to make sure you understand what’s going on. Oddie, as his girlfriend calls him, is constantly explaining what’s going on. The film does this even to the point of disrupting truly creepy scenes by giving him telephone conversations with his girlfriend.
Both films are worth watching, but where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cinematic event, to be watched with the lights off and phone muted, Odd Thomas feels like a good B-movie, an evening of television both enjoyable and lighthearted.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce returns in this sequel to the extraordinary TheSweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Once again, the precocious tween tracks a killer through the countryside of her English town. When a famous BBC puppeteer comes to town, everyone is excited to have a show in the church. However, when he’s electrocuted during the performance, Flavia is on the case, with her chemistry and her sneaky sycophantic act.
While Bradley tells another solid story (with a well-crafted countryside murder), the book isn’t quite as good as the last one, if for no other reason than that it doesn’t really do anything new. A book like this really challenges the question of whether mysteries ought to be in series or not.
The mystery of the murdered puppeteer is compelling, but a little less so than was the murder in the last book, as Flavia’s family is not directly implicated.
Once again, the book confirms my suspicion that British towns have seething underbellies of secret passions and nasty secrets. Londoners are downright open books when compared with their judgmental, small-town cousins.
An enjoyable return of a great character, and well worth a read if you enjoyed the first book in the series. That said, I would probably wait at least a year in between the two, as they are very similar.
In the last six months, I read three different mysteries (loosely defined) centered on sheep.
Three Bags Full – a murder mystery in which a flock of sheep tries to find out who killed their shepherd. The author does a great job channeling the sheepish worldview, imagining what it’s like to be a constrained, fenced in animal. There’s a black sheep who has learned to live on its own and a group of meat sheep that are like the jocks of the pasture. But most of this plays for amusement rather than something deeper.
Wild Sheep Chase – an existential detective story in which a lazy adman goes on a journey to track down a missing friend and a strange sheep. Odd and ephemeral, the novel blends the modernist novel worldview (think Graham Greene) with odd twists on detective stories. And on top of it is a woman who looks plain until she sweeps her hair back behind her ears, after which she is gorgeous. She makes a living as an ear model.
Android’s Dream – a science-fiction thriller in which a lazy diplomat super-soldier goes on a journey to track down a missing sheep. In this case, it’s a bio-engineered sheep that’s needed for a political ceremony on an alien planet. It makes sense, really. The best part is that one can’t help but imagine the book will be in conversation with the Philip K. Dick novel to which it’s title refers, when in fact there’s very little to connect them. (There are some overlaps, just not many.)
My hope was that after having read these three novels I would have something significant to say about sheep and mysteries and novels and life. Alas, I got nothin. All three books were enjoyable in their own ways, so I’d recommend them if they sound interesting. But don’t expect your life to change.
I don’t envy anyone tasked with assembling a book like this. You’d want to be original, but you couldn’t skip the best things. You’d need to hit many of the major figures while not ignoring minor gems. You’d want to hit every flavor and node.
Hillerman and Penzler did a fine job, selecting many moving and startling stories for the collection. Several made me laugh, some made me shiver, some stayed with me for days. At the same time, some seem out of place for tone, others for content. Rather than discuss every story (there are 46, after all), I’ll list my five favorite and the five most out of place.
Let’s start with the out-of-place ones:
“The Comforts of Home” – Flannery O’Connor is a stark story, but isn’t strictly a mystery, nor is it pleasant
“Do with Me What You Will” by Joyce Carol Oates feels too ham-handed– a story about something instead of being a story that makes you think about something
“First Offense” by Evan Hunter has the same problem — it’s too “on the nose”
“An Error in Chemistry” by William Faulkner – tries to be a clever mystery but falls flat. It’s also written in a confusing way, revealing details in the wrong order.
“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather feels like a rambling story that isn’t really a mystery at all.
The five best stories. I’d like to be clear — there are many great stories in this collection. I’d have no trouble assembling a list of 10 instead of five. But five will do:
“The Dark Snow” by Brendan DuBois seethes with the daily torments of modern life, and challenges the reader to rethink easy dichotomies of good and evil.
“The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the most horrifying story of the book, followed in a close second by Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber still holds as one of my favorite stories ever. A tale of petty bureaucracy and orderliness.
“A Jury of her Peers” by Susan Glaspell brings the early 20th century feminism into bright relief, and works wonderfully.
“The Moment of Decision” by Stanley Ellin prods our conscience, asking how we’d act if a harrowing moment presented itself.
Overall, a very good read. The anthology takes a pretty broad view of what a “mystery” is, but it can be forgiving since this broad definition yielded so many gems. Get your own copy from Amazon.
When Thomas Llewelyn inadvertently attacks a young woman with whom Cyrus Barker has a mysterious relationship, he gets himself into a world of hurt — and not just by getting his shoulder located. This third book in the Barker & Llewelyn series follows the pair as they investigate the murder of Llewelyn’s predecessor (and Barker’s former right-hand man) through the dangerous streets of London’s Chinatown. We get closer than ever to learning about Barker’s origins and introduction to Eastern philosophies, and we have a cracking good time. A few thoughts:
Once again, Thomas crafts an enjoyable romp that thoroughly explores a niche of Victorian London culture. It’s a good model, but I think reading these books too close together would make the seams in the stories show too strongly.
We continue to see Llewelyn and Barker grow into their trust of each other and their roles as detective, but Llewelyn still scrambles as he’s once again out of his depth in this subculture. He’s also constantly in the position of the man with a lot to prove and nowhere to go but up. His interactions with the Irish shopkeep girl were a clear sign of that in this book.
The fighting scenes in the book are great — with solid description that leaves enough to the imagination without being vague. While I can’t attest to the authenticity of the strategies the fighters use, they feel real enough to me.
Thomas walks a fine line that dips into humor without making the book a comedy, as with Barker’s battles with his housekeeper and his chef. In that way, these novels often feel more like Nero Wolfe books than Sherlock Holmes stories. Since Barker spends some of this novel staying indoors in his home, this has an even stronger flavor of Rex Stout about it.
I felt like some of the side characters / suspects weren’t as strongly drawn as they have been in previous books. Perhaps this is because there were many of them (rather than a smaller number that could have been more fully developed). Either way, they were still enjoyable.
Overall, a good addition to the Barker/Llewelyn series–neither much better nor much worse than Kingdom Come.
When the Surgeon and Bailiff Hugh de Singleton is called to the scene of an accidental death by St. Andrews chapel, little does he anticipate the trouble it will bring. Starr’s second novel in the Singleton chronicles continues the carefully-crafted medieval world and strong characterizations that made up such a big part of the first novel (The Unquiet Bones). A few thoughts:
The pacing of the novel is slow, but manageable and still good. But this isn’t a rip-roaring thriller. In fact, it neither rips nor roars.
Starr does an excellent job elaborating on the economic relationship between Hugh’s Lord and the people who live on his land’s. The hand-to-mouth existence the peasants live is pitiable, but Starr also adds some romance to the tale, making the simple, honest life seem pleasant. That said, we never forget that the Black Plague and similar terrors lie close by.
The other advantage of a medieval novel is that the detective must rely entirely on his little grey cells. There are no lab tests, no fingerprints, etc. It’s all wits (and head-bonking).
One of the failings of the novel is nonetheless a necessity. Hugh has a very modern perspective — he’s on the right side of issues like women’s rights (at least, in terms of spousal abuse), of medical practice, and of history. These opinions arise despite their inauthenticity in the setting. But they aren’t too jarring. It’s not like he uses a cell phone or anything.
Overall, it’s a good book, a fine addition to the series and worth reading.