28 December 2014

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Yep. Another Stephen King. This one is pretty much a pure detective-adventure novel. It features a retired detective named Bill Hodges, who had investigated a bizarre mass murder committed by an unknown person who drove a large Mercedes Benz 12-cylinder sedan into a crowd of people waiting in line to get into a job fair. The murder was unsolved at the time of Hodges' retirement.

When we meet Hodges, he has settled into an uneasy routine of mostly doing nothing, watching afternoon TV (a show is described that sounds a lot like Jerry Springer), and  contemplating suicide with his father's .38 calibre revolver.

Hodges receives a letter from someone who claims to be "Mr. Mercedes," the murderer in question, and seems to be goading Hodges toward suicide by taunting him with his failure to identify and apprehend the killer.

The investigation and subsequent action build up to speed quickly. Several interesting characters come into the plot, including one Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the car (it was stolen from her, there is no doubt, but there is some belief that she may have left the key in its ignition, thereby making the murderer's job a little easier). Trelawney's sister Janey comes on the scene as well, and is an important part of the story.

One remarkable thing about this book: it is a detective novel, no more, no less. There are no aliens, no supernatural beings, no other dimensions of reality. There is no time travel, no element of weirdness or horror other than those found in real human beings. There is plenty of evil in the character of Mr. Mercedes (we find out who he really is before long), but it is the evil of real life: he is a psychopath.

New York Times review

26 December 2014

December 6, by Martin Cruz Smith

Harry Niles is an American by birth, brought to Japan by his missionary parents somewhere around 1920, perhaps a little before. His father's zeal left him largely unsupervised, living with his alcoholic Uncle Orin in Tokyo, and Harry, running in the streets with Japanese boys,  became more Japanese than gaijin.

In this book, we read of Harry's adventures on the title date. Niles, a self-professed con man, owner of a night club, successful gambler, has come into possession of information about the Japanese military's plans, and a peculiar point of view as regards them.

Harry's luck is legendary, and propels him through the amazing plot in the day and hours leading up to the invasion of Pearl Harbor. I'm sure that historians could argue over the accuracy of the time and place, but however fantastic the story might be, I read this from cover to cover in a short time. It is suspenseful and fascinating.

LA Times book review

22 December 2014

Seattle Times Best Books

Gleaned from the 14 December 2014 Seattle Times, books to read:

  • Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford
  • The Stories of Jane Gardam
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (requested from PCL)
  • The Museum of Extraordinary Things,  by Alice Hoffman
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (M. requested from PCL)
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (non-fiction, by a lawyer who defends the most hopeless of criminals) 
From the Crime Fiction List: 

  • Destroyer Angel,  by Nevada Barr
  • Love Story, With Murders,  by Harry Bingham
  • Jack of Spies, by David Downing
  • Darkness, Darkness,by John Harvey (this is described as the last in a series about a detective named Charlie Resnick, in Nottingham -- might be good to read some of the earlier ones in the series)
  • Day of Atonement, by David Liss (author of Conspiracy of Paper,  read and entered recently in here. The main character is one Sebastian Fox, a young, Jewish "thief taker." This reminds me of things in Conspiracy.)
  • Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney

21 December 2014

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, by Edgar Allen Poe

I probably read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" when I was a teenager. I don't remember, but Auguste Dupin does seem to be someone I've met before. A friend inspired me to re-read this story yesterday. He emailed, saying that he was surprised to discover that A. Conan Doyle's concept of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson was less than original. My friend is a copious reader of Doyle's Holmes adventures--his email address includes a reference to the famous but fictional detective.

From my friend's email:

I never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue before, until now.  Edgar Allen Poe.  ...it is as if Arthur Conan Doyle simply lifted the structure of the work and made it his own.  The detective in the Poe story is a blueprint for Holmes.  His friend and sidekick is the model for Doctor Watson.  Having read all the Doyle books several times I could also pick out one or two details in the Poe story that [were] lifted...and used in the Holmes stories.

I was SHOCKED at how close it was.  All this time I thought ACD had come up with the greatest detective in fiction all on his own.  Doyle liked to talk about a professor he had in college that was the inspiration for Holmes...but if you've read Holmes half as much as I have--or not, just knowing Holmes and Watson would be enough--and then read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, then I think you would agree with me that ACD simply ripped off Poe.

I'm not sure if I've ever read anything from anyone else talking about this, but I'm guessing they have and I just haven't seen it.  To me the rip-off seems obvious.  On the other hand, LOTS of authors use the same structure; a brilliant, observational, logically thinking, detective, with a less brilliant side-kick/assistant who is astonished at how his friend can figure all these things out.  But in a way I wish I had never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue because it made me disappointed in Doyle...

...It might not be possible to be original.  There are only seven basic plots, according to Shakespeare.

My reply:

Well, you have inspired me to get out my "Complete Works" of Poe and re-read "Rue Morgue," which has led to me beginning to read the "Mystery of Mary Rogêt" as well. You have a good point. I am, however, inclined to let Doyle off the hook.

There is much imitation in art, and I think that modern reaction to plagiarism in various art forms is a bit exaggerated. John Fogerty was, after all, threatened with legal action when he produced a record album on which he sounded too much like John Fogerty to please his former record label. 

Doyle may well have gotten his idea for Holmes and Watson from Dupin and his (I think nameless?) companion. The idea that they roomed together and that both were somewhat removed from normal society, inclined to spend their time in eclectic pursuits, certainly does sound a bit like a description of the Sleuth of Baker Street and his friend. 

In my humble opinion, Doyle created enough original material on this framework that I cannot find him guilty. If there are only seven basic plots, how many basic plots can there be in the genre of murder mystery? There's certainly the basis for a term paper, if not a PhD thesis, here, and I'm not going to attempt the analysis.

Let's not forget some other Dupin-similar detectives, such as Hercule Poirot (and his sidekick, Captain Hastings). One of the paragraphs in "Rue Morgue" consisted of several questions, and in reading them I found that I had the voice of David Suchet as Poirot in my head. Another was Nero Wolfe, with Archie Goodwin. There are more, with varying degrees of Dupin-ness.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll just quote John Hartford's lyrics from "Tryin' to do Somethin' (to get your attention)" 

I tried real hard to make this song not sound like some other song I've written before.
If I did it's because my style and style is based on limitations.
I tried real hard not to make this song sound like some other song some other singer-songwriter might have written before.
And if I did, that's 'cause it's music, and music is based on repetition.
 It wasn't hard to find this discussion [by Drew R. Thomas] of the subject, which points out Doyle's direct reference to Poe and Dupin (whose name, I read somewhere while searching the 'net, can be seen as very close to "dupe," or "duping") in "A Study in Scarlet." Now I've certainly read that story at least three or four times, yet I had no recollection of this passage:

"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."

~from "A Study in Scarlet," by A. Conan Doyle
Thomas's article is quite interesting and complete; there's no reason to repeat more of it here, but I do recommend it to the reader interested in this topic. It is most gratifying to find a nugget such as this in the midden-pile that is the Internet. Oh, and don't miss the second part of the article, either. Mr. Thomas has given us some good work here.

It is evident that Doyle "borrowed" quite a bit from Poe. In today's litigious environment, there might be more said about this than was in the late 19th century. Thomas points out that, though Doyle used a lot of Poe's material, he most certainly created a wonderfully well-written body of work. For example, Thomas cites Doyle's use of dialog:

Poe's writing often included long, narrative passages with little dialogue. Doyle's stories have a lot more dialogue and are much more memorable and dramatic because of it. His dialogue sparkles, and Sherlockians love to quote from passages, such as the following:
  • You consider that to be important?" he asked.

    "Exceedingly so."

    "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

    "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

    "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

    "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
                                                               --from "Silver Blaze"

I did not find "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" to be as entertaining as "Rue Morgue." In fact, I had a hard time staying awake while reading it. There is a dense and complicated discussion of logic and reason as it applies to the case (which apparently is a fictionalization of a murder that actually did happen, though the real murder happened in New York City, and Poe's story is set in Paris), and at the end, instead of revealing the truth of the mystery, and telling us "whodunit," in the manner to which we modern mystery-readers are accustomed, we are merely assured that Dupin closed the case to the satisfaction of the police (and received payment from them), and then are treated to more of Dupin's lecture about logic and reason.

There is a third Dupin story, "The Purloined Letter." I will eventually get around to reading that one, I hope, but for the moment I think I'll put Poe aside.

All in all, I'd say that Doyle's stories are much more readable, as well as plentiful, and if he's guilty of a little borrowing, more power to him.

I read these stories in my copy of Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,  which I've owned for years. This book is published by Doubleday, Copyright 1966, and numbers 821 pages, including a biographical note at the end.

Wikipedia Entry for C. Auguste Dupin

An item of minor interest occurred to me while reading Poe. I have noticed this before, but never gave it much thought. In fiction of a certain vintage, the authors often employ the device of seeming to protect names of people and places, and even the exact date, by giving only the first letter (or number) and following that with an em dash. In the Dupin stories, the Prefect of Police is named "G-.," for example. In addition, Poe will give a date such as "June the twenty-second, 18--."

It's not hard to understand the desire to make the exact date vague, as one's readers will not have to be distracted by knowledge of actual events in a specific year. Modern writers of fiction generally dance around this issue by simply not mentioning it, if that is the best way to handle it, or may hint at the exact year intended, or state it outright.

The masked names of people and places may come from a desire to make the fiction seem more like a report of actual events. In such a report, one would be constrained by the threat of a libel action against naming people specifically. In addition, perhaps writers in a former time were worried that they might offend someone if they gave a name coincident with that of a real person. The consequences of offense of that kind might have been fatal in Poe's era. I think they were still dueling back then.

15 December 2014

Lisey's Story, by Stephen King

Completely absorbing, entertaining, beautifully done, as only Mr. King can do it.

Lisey is Lisa Landon, widow of successful writer Scott Landon. We meet her about two years after Scott's death, as she begins the work of cleaning up his study and dealing with his books and papers. Quickly it becomes evident that the Landons have had both a singularly great marriage and an extremely unusual life -- as only Mr. King could imagine.

The story of their love and their closeness of mind and spirit is worth the trip. Yes, there's plenty of otherworldliness, alternative dimensions, fantastic beings, and the kind of reality that most of us don't experience when we're awake, but I don't think it takes away from what is a beautiful story about the love between an imaginative, creative man and his extraordinary wife.

No doubt there's a little autobiography in here. In the author's statement at the end of the book, King points out some similarities between the Landons and the Kings. Lisey's Story is, still, a work of fiction, and one of fantasy.'

New York Times Sunday Book Review

Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner

An audio book. While I was "reading" this book, the so-called Senate Torture Report became a major news item. That was unintentional; I read the book on the recommendation of a friend.

Legacy of Ashes is, among other things, a good review of American History since World War II. It is also a sobering look at just how dishonest, desperate, and corrupt the political leaders of this country have been in that period of time, and how willing they were to quickly abandon principle to accomplish their ends -- even though, so very often, the projects of the CIA failed miserably.

An alternative title for this book might have been Why They Hate Us.

As an American citizen, all I can say to the people of the rest of the world is, most of us have no control over these things. Our system has gotten away from us. It isn't exactly our fault, but then, I suppose, it is...

A review on the CIA's website.

A NY Times review.

An article about the CIA in The Guardian. A snippet: "Even the agency’s most successful mission – slowly bleeding out the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s by arming the mujahideen – paved the way for the worst terrorist attack on the US in its history."

09 December 2014

The Black Book, by Ian Rankin

An Inspector Rebus novel, (copyright 1993) in which Rebus becomes involved in several mysteries at once, which he, in his inimitable fashion, ties together, during which process he offends and alienates much of the Edinburgh police force.

This is a great book, a great mystery, and full of colorful language. While reading this book I decided to keep a list of what I imagine are "Scottish" words. Some of these I know the meaning of, some I guessed from context, some I need to look up. Page numbers are from my St. Martin's / Minotaur paperback edition, ISBN 0-312-97675-5.

  • harr, n. Scot. and North Eng., a thick, wet fog along the seacoast.
    [1665–75; north var. of HOAR]*
  • polis -- police
  • ca' canny -- be careful?
  • snell, adj. [Appears on p. 18 "weak sunshine and a snell wind" and 247.] Chiefly Scot. 1.    active; lively: a snell lad.
    2.    witty: a snell remark.
    3.    severe: snell weather. [bef. 900; ME, OE; c. OHG snel (G schnell) quick, ON snjallr excellent]*
  •  stews -- I lost the page number for this one, but here's the quote I wrote down: "The Edinburgh establishment has never bided too far from the stews." (brothels)
  • guttered -- "is he guttered?" [p.96]
  • tadger -- penis [p.115]
  • bunnet -- some kind of headgear [p.131]
  • gey -- extremely? "...guide dogs are gey expensive these days..." [p.160]
  • skited -- slipped, skidded? " ...nearly skited on wet linoleum..." [p.172]
  • gardyloo -- "stepped under a gardyloo bucket..." [p.180] gardyloo, interj.
    (a cry formerly used in Scotland to warn pedestrians when slops were about to be thrown from an upstairs window.)
    [1760–70; Anglicized form of F gare (de) l'eau beware of the water]*
  • heid-the-ba -- henchman? [p.189]
  • keech -- shit? "They used to chuck all their keech out of the windows and onto the street ... the locals called it the Flowers of Edinburgh..." [p.190]
  • blether -- talk, conversation [p.193]
  • pulses -- beans? [p.241]
  • fly-halfs [p.251]
  • scoor-oot [p.263] -- a scattering, like throwing a handful of coins on the ground for children to scramble after -- search this page for "scoor-oot." Also, there's a rather expensive dictionary of Scottish words and phrases on Amazon.com with this word as its title.
  • thrawn [p.321]
  • teuchters [p.322]
  • donnert [p.325]
  • glaur -- mud? shit? [p. 333] 
*Thanks to my friend R.S. for these definitions

Another wonderful bit of color from the book: at one point, Rebus visits an elderly aunt that he hasn't seen since he was a child. She surprises him by grabbing his wrists and reciting the following grace before they eat:

     Some hae meat and cannae eat
     and some hae none that want it
     but we hae meat and we can eat
     so let the Lord be thankit

The Black Book is violent, funny, and beautifully written.

Rankin's favorite moments from his books, in The Guardian

Summary of The Black Book on Ian Rankin's website

07 December 2014

Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear

I don't think I've read anything by Greg Bear before. I'm happy to say that, as he has written quite a lot, and I will be looking forward to reading more of his work.

Darwin's Radio is science-fiction set ca. 2000. Notably absent from its technology and current events are ubiquitous "smart"  phones, the overwhelming presence of the Internet (it's there, just not as "there" as it is now) and the security-hysteria of the post-11 September 2001 age. The book has its own security-hysteria, though, which comes from the general misunderstanding of a biological phenomenon that is observed as a 48-hour virus which affects heterosexual couples (there aren't any gay people in this book, either, come to think of it) and their subsequent pregnancies.

I'll admit to being more or less snowed by most of the biology in this book, but I found that I could just kind of plow through it and accept that I didn't really understand it, and still follow the story, which has more to do with the lives of its characters, and with the political mess that ensues as this phenomenon begins to proliferate.

Due to a virus, I had little ambition to do much of anything except read this weekend, so I completed this book between Friday night and Sunday morning. It's well worth reading, entertaining, and provocative.

I'm a little uncertain about Bear's politics. He seems more or less OK by my standards, but there is a mention of "Fox News" that gave me pause.

One thing I'd like to mention about this book: toward the end there is a description of childbirth that is graphic and moving. I don' t know that I've ever read a better one. While I, like Mr. Bear, have the handicap of being unable to have this experience, and so I'm not really qualified to judge its authenticity, it certainly had me convinced. 

An Interview with Greg Bear.

This site numbers Darwin's Radio among "The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction."

SFReviews.net review

04 December 2014

Electric Reading

I just read a story called "Safety Tips for Living Alone," by Jim Shepard, which reminded me that I do read a fair amount of really excellent stuff online that never gets mentioned here.

"Safety Tips for Living Alone" can be found at this location.

Here's yet another great story from Electric Reading, entitled "Of The Fountain," by Kathleen Winter.

About a week ago I found myself reading stories at Pithead Chapel, "An online journal of gutsy narratives," and there are many worthwhile works there.

So, if you're bored, and sitting at a computer, there are some alternatives to Twitter and Craigslist out there.

03 December 2014

Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King

Wow. Just wow. This is the second book I've picked up lately that I nearly finished in one day. Sitting at home trying to recover from a cold, I read about 7/8 of this novel, the sequel to The Shining that has been fairly well publicized.

Yes, it's a fabulous bit of fantasy-horror, but I remain firm in my opinion that Mr. King's work will stand the test of time. His knack for portraying children, and the lives of children, if no other aspect of his work is worthy of admiration, is enough to make him great in my mind.

Fearless Jones, by Walter Mosley

This novel is narrated by a character named Paris Minton. When Paris gets into some serious trouble, he springs his friend Fearless Jones from jail. Jones helps Minton unravel the mystery. Set in LA, soon after World War II.

I haven't read anything by Mosley in a while. This novel was about a 3-1/2 on a scale of 1 to 5. 

Cell, by Stephen King

This is more or less a zombie apocalypse story. The zombies get that way by using cell phones, and only people who were not using cell phones at the time of the "Pulse" remain normal. This becomes the story of a handful of "normies" (King likes to use AA slang) as they travel north, trying to find a way to survive and perhaps re-create civilization.

Cell wasn't as good as the last King that I read (Dr. Sleep), but it wasn't bad, and I love it for making cell phones the root of Evil.

01 December 2014

A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss

The copy of this book that I have is an advance reader's edition, apparently prepared to send to reviewers before the book is released to the general public. There is a request on the back cover not to quote directly from this edition, but to refer to the official edition when it is released for exact quotes.

This is interesting, as the book I read contained many errors, mostly simple typographic errors, but also lapses of style. I noticed the phrase "I blush to own" used at least three times close enough together to be annoying. Perhaps the final edition was somewhat improved.

Conspiracy of Paper is a pretty good mystery, but I got bogged down in it toward the end and found myself wishing that the author had trimmed perhaps a hundred pages. It is set in London in 1719. The protagonist is Benjamin Weaver, a retired prize-fighter who has gone into the business of finding things and people for people, for a fee. The story begins with a request to discover the truth behind a suicide: the dead man's son believes his father was murdered--and further, believes that Weaver's own father, also thought to be a suicide, was murdered as well.

The book is written in a style that was probably intended to evoke the period in which the story is set. This is partially successful, but at times I was too aware of it.

An interesting aspect of the story is its discussion of the emergence of stock markets and paper money, and the intrigue and deception that those new inventions facilitated.

New York Times review