Tuesday, May 22, 2018

I dare you to come out of these unscathed: The Factory series, by Derek Raymond

"The black novel ... describes men and women whose circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed.  It deals with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle -- the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfillable, and where defeat is certain." 
            -- Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files, as quoted by James Sallis in the introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open (x).

note:  My editions, with the exception of Dead Man Upright are all from Serpent's Tail (bought eons ago), but Melville House has them all as part of their International Crime Series.

This is going to be a long post since it's going to be about five books. There are no spoilers at all, beyond what's already on the cover blurbs.  And since I don't really write reviews, I'll point you to people who know what they're doing and who are good at it:

Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Jeff VanderMeer
Doors Closing Slowly: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Patrick Millikin
The Visionary Detective, by Joyce Carol Oates

Ah, to have the talents of these writers, but such is not my lot, so on with my own take on these dark, unflinchingly raw, heartbreaking and excellent novels.

These five books are collectively referred to as the Factory series, based on the fact that their main character works out of a police station on Poland Street nicknamed "The Factory."  This detective sergeant has no name (becoming "the nameless one" in my head),  and works in A14, Unexplained Deaths.  It is "by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service," and the nameless one explains in He Died With His Open he and his colleagues there work on
"obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did."
At Unexplained Deaths, "no murder is casual, no murder is unimportant," and our detective sergeant prefers to work on his own without interference from the higher ups.  He refuses promotion, and in The Devil's Home on Leave, the point is addressed from the detective's end as to why, after one of his superiors tells him that if he remains a sergeant, he'll "always get the shitty end of the stick."  His answer:  "Maybe ...,  but I think that's the end where the truth is."  He knows he is not "inspector material, or Branch material, but just Unexplained Deaths material," and he is completely okay with it.  (29; 123)  The people at A14 "didn't see death" like others did, and certainly not in any kind of "civilised prepared way:
"We saw it without the church, without the priest, without the funeral parlour; no hymns, just the dead body stiffening, sometimes in one, sometimes in more than one piece; we saw death suddenly, when we had a hangover, called out to the raw dank place where death was when we weren't in the mood, like a cabbie picking up a client obliterated by the dark on an empty road." (Dead Man Upright, 24). 

Reading through these books we also come to realize that Raymond has given us an ongoing commentary about contemporary British society and politics.  As Paul Oliver reveals over at the Mobylives blog, 
"Raymond was a writer of great complexity, who wrote with a nearly unmanning combination of fury and compassion as he chronicled the austerity of Margaret Thatcher's England." 
His work here in the Factory series, as whoever writes the back-cover blurbs for Melville House says, is  an "unrelenting investigation into the black soul of Thatcher's England," but really, it's not difficult to see in these novels that Thatcher's England has become pretty much soulless; it's not just the buildings that are in decay and left to rot, but also the souls of some of its inhabitants.

That "fury and compassion" is alive and well here, transferred into the form of Raymond's detective, whose  work at A14 often takes him into the "sad, narrow streets" in which live
 "the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone."
He often encounters those "made invisible in their misery by the frozen night," for whom he could not get any justice "until they were dead" (How The Dead Live, 25-26); and as the series progresses, we learn why justice is so important to him and what it is that motivates him to solve these cases that are sent his way. 

In the first book of this series, He Died With His Eyes Open, the nameless one takes on the case of a man found dead in "a ghastly lonely area," laying there with his eyes open, severely battered; it looks like the work of two people.  The dead man has been identified as Charles Staniland, 51, and the sergeant's superior from Serious Crimes, Bowman, calls it a "derelict death," but when the detective begins his investigation, he realizes pretty early on that the "cheap suit" on the body belied someone "educated, reflective, intelligent."   After he listens to a number of cassettes and reads papers left behind by the dead man,  our nameless detective realizes that he had "started to think, dream, almost be Staniland by proxy."  In short, he has established a connection with this man who, while living, had suffered a tragedy leaving his life to take a turn for the worse, sending him as well as his  hopes and dreams into a downward spiral.  And now he wants justice:
"Though Staniland had died at the age of fifty-one, he still had the innocence of a child of six. The naive courage, too -- the desire to understand everything, whatever the cost...The fragile sweetness at the core of people -- if we allowed that to be kicked, smashed and splintered, then we had no society at all of the kind I had to uphold... I knew I had to nail the killers...Not just know them. Nail them."

 It is the detective's ability to establish this connection between his victims and himself that is at the heart of these five novels; it is also this particular quality which makes these books so emotionally taxing to the reader, since as the detective uncovers what it is that has brought these people to where they are now,  we simultaneously learn more about what it is about him that has brought this man to do what he does.   We also come to understand just how much the past continues to haunt the present, another idea that runs throughout this series.

The Devil's Home on Leave takes a bit of a different path, since at the beginning of his investigation of a most brutal, grisly crime, the killer's MO narrows down the identity of the suspect.  What's left in this case is for the detective to gather proof against the perpetrator, which is going to be challenging since this man has no conscience, no fear, and nothing to lose.   And while I didn't particularly care for the direction that this story ultimately took,  we learn much more about the detective's heartbreaking past and how it is that he has come to "understand murder" so well.

By the time I'd finished book three,  How the Dead Live, and book four, I Was Dora Suarez,  I was sort of wishing I hadn't read all four in a row.  I felt much like I did the time I binge watched the TV version of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet, after which I was like completely gutted. (Do NOT make that mistake; trust me on this one).    There is the deepest sort of pain to be found in both of these books; different, but pain all the same, and there's so much here that it takes its toll.   In How the Dead Live our detective is sent to look into the case of a missing woman, a doctor's wife whose absence had gone unreported.  His efforts are stymied as he  runs into a wall of silence from just about everyone in the small village of Thornhill, but when he finally learns the truth, it's his compassion that takes over in an extremely sad and tragic situation.  Meanwhile, his uncomprehending and unwanted superiors, sensing the headlines to be made over the case,  decide to bulldoze their way in, and the nameless one goes to great lengths to see the right sort of justice through, even at the potential cost to his career.

 While looking for reviews about these books, I came across an article in  The Australian mentioning that  crime novelist Ian Rankin once called Raymond's  I Was Dora Suarez "`English crime fiction's equivalent to Edvard Munch's The Scream."   I'd say that's about right.  He also notes in that article that Raymond's books are not only novels, "but also reports from a front line of casual cruelty in a world lacking empathy," again, spot on, and while that idea is apparent in each and every book in this series, it is especially true here.  Not only does the title character, Dora Suarez, live in a "world lacking empathy," she also inhabits a world where  the sickest, lowest, and meanest people lack any sort of conscience.

 Once  that book was over, not only had I had enough of  Derek Raymond for the moment, but I had to sit and regroup for two days before I could move on to the last book, the first night with sizeable portions of bourbon in hand.   James Sallis, in his intro to He Died With His Eyes Open, referred to I Was Dora Suarez as a book that sends electric shocks through your system (see below), which it did -- it is so powerful in fact, that I don't want to say too much about it.    It is not only tragic because of the horrid death of Dora Suarez and of  her older housemate but reading further into it, it's also a case that will drive the nameless detective further than ever in his quest for justice.   And how sad is it really, when a lonely, haunted man finds the woman of his dreams only after she's dead?   There's much much more indeed, but let's leave it there.  Of all of the books in this series, this one is best experienced cold, with not much known about it ahead of time.  What I will say is that in my opinion, in I Was Dora Suarez we find everything Raymond has written about in the previous novels fully realized in a way they hadn't been before to this point, and perhaps that's why I found it to be the most powerful of all of the Factory books.

And finally we come to the end, with Dead Man Upright, which is a bit of a departure from the rest of the series in some ways, but in others, not really.  For just one thing, there isn't a specific crime that brings the nameless one into the case, but rather a potential crime.  In a pub and drinking beer with a friend, our detective  hears from his old police buddy about the strange behavior of an older man, a certain Henry Cross,  in his building, whose dealings with different women have captured the interest of the detective's friend.  As he puts it, "there's something that smells dead off about it."  Once the nameless one assures his friend he'll look into it, he searches the older man's apartment, and finds some pretty chilling signs that his friend's intuition was right, and that the man most likely dangerous and needs to be off the streets.   But what he doesn't find is a body or any sort of evidence at all that points to a specific crime -- all he can do is warn the potential victim while he tries to catch what he believes to be a serial killer before it's too late.   But she's having none of it, since for her, he's her only chance at happiness in an otherwise dreary life.  And while I won't give away the rest, Dead Man Upright delves into one of the darkest places there can be -- directly into the mind of a psychopath. It is my least favorite of the five, but still very, very much worth the read.

As James Sallis says in his introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open,
"Five or six times in a life you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world." (vii)
 After finishing the entire Factory series  I can certainly attest to the "electric shocks skittering and scorching" that not only went through the whole of me, but also sort of imprinted themselves into my brain in their wake,  probably to leave a mark forever as to how I approach and engage with crime writing.   They are, as the back cover blurb from He Died With His Eyes Open notes (again quoting Sallis), "literature written from the edge of human experience," and they indeed seem to exceed the "limits of the crime novel and of literature itself."   The fact that the main character is a detective working for the police in London might make anyone believe that Raymond's novels are yet just another series of police procedurals, but that is absolutely not the case and reading them as such is just plain folly.    These books  are among the darkest of the dark in the realm of crime fiction,  and are not for everyone, and for those who do read them, beware the toll they take on your wellbeing for the duration.

I loved these books and there will never be anything like them again, I'm sure.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

*femme fatale indeed! The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories, by L.T. Meade (ed.) Janis Dawson

Broadview Press, 2016
Sorceress of the Strand serialized 1902-1903 in The Strand
311 pp


Over the last year I've read a number of older books featuring early examples of women in the detecting biz,  but no books that have focused primarily on women as villains. Irish writer L.T. Meade and her various writing partners  changed all that with their serialized crime stories, which feature some of the most diabolical women masterminds of evil who let nothing stand in their way of their evil goals.    Meade's stories ran in The Strand, and as you can from see from taking a peek at this website, her stories often found themselves alongside the Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Sadly, while  Holmes and Watson continue to entertain, LT Meade has gone the way of several women writers, fading into obscurity.  She is largely remembered for her novels about school girls but is little feted in the world of crime/mystery fiction, which is a bloody shame, if you ask me.  Luckily I recently discovered her work in this book, fell in love with her evil-genius female criminals, and bought two more books by Meade in anticipation of hours of entertainment.

Before we even get to The Sorceress of the Strand, in this particular edition from Broadview Press,  we are  treated to stories from three other works by Meade. It's kind of like the amuse bouche before the main meal, if you will, and it certainly whet my appetite for more.   The first of these is "The Seventh Step," from The Diary of a Doctor (second series) published in The Strand in January, 1895.  Her co-author on this one was listed as Dr. Clifford Halifax, who actually narrates these tales, but whose real-world identity was actually Dr. Edgar Beaumont.  In this story, Dr. Halifax's adventure begins on a ship sailing to St. Petersburg, where his compassion and curiosity lands him squarely in the midst of a most sinister plot involving a female mastermind of evil. Of this story, I'll say no more, except that for me, it had a sort of proto-, old style pulp feel to it as the story unraveled.  The second story, "At The Edge of a Crater," finds Meade writing with  collaborator Robert Eustace, in what will eventually become (after being serialized in The Strand in 1898) the novel The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings.  

1899, from LW Currey
Norman Head, who relates this story had, while in Italy some ten years earlier, "fallen victim to the wiles and fascinations of a beautiful Italian," a "scientist of no mean attainments," and because of her, became a member of the "Brotherhood of Seven Kings."  The woman here is a certain Madame Koluchy, who is, as the good people at LW Currey tell us,
"A Moriarty-like master criminal who is incredibly beautiful, intelligent and charming, and who commits extortion, blackmail and murder." 
While she is feted in London as a "marvellous woman" who "has succeeded where the medical profession gave little hope," Norman knows the real Madame Koluchy as having "bewitched London with her impostures and quackery."   And now he finds himself face to face with her again as he must stop a diabolical plot that has been set into motion, one that will take him from the salons of London to Mt. Vesuvius.   Finally, story number three is "A Little Smoke," from The Heart of a Mystery (1901), which finds a certain Rupert Phenays set against his deadly but beautiful enemy Francesca Delacourt, who is the ringleader of a "most dreadful gang of spies."  Sadly, Phenays enjoys no peace; he is on the run from Agents of the French Secret Service who believe him to be in possession of a "great secret" that he doesn't actually have.  All I'll say about this one is that dog lovers should beware.

my photo, from "A Little Smoke," p. 112

Entering into The Sorceress of the Strand itself,  we come across the title character,  Madame Sara, who reads like an early example of  the femme fatale, one whose fame and  respectability grants her entry into the homes of some of the finest families in Britain. She is, as her arch-nemesis Dixon Druce puts it, "a very emphatic somebody,"  and has wedged her way into the lives of the upper classes to the point where "London Society is at her feet."  Madame Sara is also what I'd term an evil genius, who has a background in science, can wear many hats (including that of dentist), and labels herself "a professional beautifier" who "claims the privilege of restoring youth to those who consult her."   She is an exotic, mysterious figure who looks as though she's about twenty-five, but "confesses that she is much older than she appears."  She is also, despite her appeal,  one of the most nefarious and shady female evildoers on the streets of London, something her victims would deny until, of course, they learn the horrible truth about Madame Sara. Unfortunately for some of these women and their families, the light bulb doesn't quite go off until it's much too late. Druce teams up with a doctor/scientist friend Vandeleur, and together they try to thwart Madame Sara's crimes; they aren't exactly detectives but they are on scene as the mysteries behind Madame Sara's actions unravel, trying to thwart her evil intentions before the worst can happen.

Sure, you can find a number of Meade's stories online but you'd be missing out on Janis Dawson's incredible work in this Broadview edition, including her discussion of the real-life counterpart for Madame Sara, a Madame Rachel who "specialized in swindling money, jewellery, (sic) and family heirlooms from her clients."  We also learn that at least one of her victims accused her of "magnetic influence" and "witchcraft," and that she ultimately died in 1880 while in prison. She also touches on Meade's criminal masterminds and "Fin-de-siecle Anxieties" (which are writ large in each and every story in this book) and then offers several appendices, beginning with "Contemporary Interviews and Reviews."  I'm one of those strange people who loves to get what she can out of a book by knowing more about its social/historical framework as well as the life of the author, so for me, this was a perfect introduction to Meade and to her mystery/crime writing.

Having no idea at all what to expect when I opened this book, by the end of it I became a confirmed LT Meade fan and plan to get my hands on and read every single crime story she ever wrote.  And anyone at all who is interested in Late Victorian/Early Edwardian crime writing, especially stories written by women, should read her work as well.   Beyond her historical significance in the genre, I have to say that some of her stories often read like rollicking adventure yarns, perfect for reading on a rainy day, cup of tea in hand while curled up in a blanket.  Seriously -- she's just plain fun.

Friday, May 4, 2018

*The Clue, by Carolyn Wells

The Best Books Publishing, 2018
originally published 1909
151 pp


The Clue is the first of a long lineup of books to feature Detective Fleming Stone.  In this particular story, Stone comes in towards the end and triumphs in solving the case, a feat that neither the police detective nor an attorney/amateur detective has managed to pull off before his arrival.  But more on that a bit later.

Wells caught my attention as I was scoping out which vintage crime novels to read this year. For one thing, I'd never heard of her and for another, this book, The Clue, appeared as part of the Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction.   Wells (1862-1942) was incredibly prolific, the author of "170 books, including detective stories, children's books, humour, parody and poetry," according to the blog Female Poets of the First World War.   The list of her crime/mystery/detective novels is huge, as shown here at stopyourekillingme.com., with the Fleming Stone series outnumbering all of her other mystery novels; her detective stories on the whole constituted the largest part of her work.

 Regarding her Fleming Stone novels, (all quotations below taken from the Ramble House blog)  Howard Haycraft wrote in 1941 that
"The surprising fact, perhaps, is not that some of the stories scarcely rise to the mark, but that have not perceptibly diminished in popularity.  Carolyn Wells is in many ways a remarkable woman ... She would presumably be the last to maintain that Fleming Stone belongs in the company of the immortals of detective literature.  The fact that his adventures have given harmless pleasure to many thousands of readers she undoubtedly considers full and sufficient reward."
 Other writers haven't been so kind; Dashiell Hammett said of her work that it was
"conscientiously in accordance with the formula as adopted as standard by the International Detective Story Writers' Convention at Geneva in 1904. One would expect that by now she would have learned to do the trick expertly. She hasn't."
and in 1982, Bill Pronzini wrote that Fleming Stone was
"as unreal an investigator as any of his dime novel predecessors.  In not one of his ... cases does he come alive as a human being, or as anything more than a two-dimensional silhouette with a penchant for pulling murderers out of hats on the flimsiest of clues and evidence."

original cover from Project Gutenberg Australia

While I won't go deep into plot here, the story begins on the eve of the wedding of a young heiress. She is found dead and it seems like her death will go down as a case of suicide, that is, until one of the doctors present discovers evidence that brings in the coroner and an inquest.  The suspects range from the servants to family to friends,  with the fiancĂ© at the top of the list of suspects, having entered the house with his own key; he is also the one who discovered the body and alerted the household.     His best man, a lawyer who fancies himself as a sort of amateur detective, decides to do some digging on his own, but eventually admits defeat.  It is at this juncture, towards the last few pages of the novel, that the bridegroom suggests  bringing  in Fleming Stone, a detective who had done "wonderful work in celebrated cases all over the country."  He is described as having "a most attractive personality," a man "nearly fifty years old, with graying hair and a kindly responsive face."  And really, that is pretty much all we learn about this man except that he is good at taking the most minuscule of clues and solving a crime that seems otherwise impossible.

from Project Gutenberg Australia 

The Clue is another novel that I'm glad to have read because it was written by a woman whose work seems to have faded into obscurity.  I have to say that it would likely be more at home in the library of a cozy reader -- the romance keeps it light in tone as does the amateur detecting going on. And even though all is put right once again in this house, the ending is a bit over-the-top melodramatic, actually causing an eyeroll on my part.   But it does have its moments, for example, in an interchange between two characters who make fun of detective stories; ironically  that discussion ends up with talk of a "Mr. Smarty-Cat Detective," who "deduces the whole story." I say ironically because that is precisely what happens here, with the arrival of Fleming Stone.  He is like the living deus ex machina who comes in, takes a look around and solves the entire case in a short time.  I'd try another one just to see if this is his pattern, just out of pure interest.   I suppose, like many mystery novels, the fun is in the getting there, complete with a host of suspects with motive, a few red herrings, and a crime that borders on the impossible.  

Sunday, April 29, 2018

*The Man in Lower Ten, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Bobbs-Merrill, 1909
first serialized in All-Story, 1906
372 pp


First edition indeed! Sadly it's pretty banged up, minus the dustjacket, and it has a library stamp in the front, but what the heck -- it still has that lovely onionskin (intact) paper covering the full-color illustration for the beautiful frontispiece done by Howard Chandler Christy, whose illustrations appear throughout the novel.

While The Circular Staircase is her first published novel (1908),   Jan Cohn, the author of  Improbable Fiction: the Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1980) tells us that The Man in Lower Ten is Mary Roberts Rinehart's first work of "book-length fiction."  She wrote it in 1905, and in 1906 it had been accepted for serialization in All-Story Magazine.   Considering she'd been writing short stories for just about a year and a half, as Cohn says, "Somehow in that frantic apprenticeship she had learned all she needed to know."  (35) For the serialized version of this work, Rinehart earned $400, her highest-paying story to that time.  Following the publication of The Circular Staircase, The Man in Lower Ten was published as a novel, and it was so popular that it ended up on the 1909 bestseller list (thank you, Project Gutenberg).  According to Simon and Schuster, The Man in Lower Ten was actually "the first detective novel to appear on national bestseller lists." 

The Man in Lower Ten  blends mystery, humor, dark atmospheric moments and romance in the telling and ends up being a satisfying read, meaning I never guessed the "who" at any point in time although my inner armchair-detective self made several attempts.  In this story, a young attorney named Lawrence Blakely recounts the "queer freak of the demons of chance" that set him off on the "most remarkable period" of his life.   It all starts when his partner and long-time friend Richey McKnight begs off the procurement of some very important papers having to do with an important court case, and asks Blakely if he wouldn't do it for him.  Blakely agrees, goes to Pittsburg (sic), takes a deposition, picks up the papers, and is on the return journey home when this story begins in earnest.  Blakely's ticket puts in him berth Lower Ten, car seven of the train, and by the time he's ready to go to sleep, he makes his way there for a good night's rest.  Imagine his surprise when he finds another man laying on his bed, sleeping soundly.  The porter agrees to let him use berth Lower Nine; by this time though, Blakely isn't at all tired and gets up to wander around before returning to his bed.  But there's yet another surprise for our hero -- his things are missing and he's found himself in Berth Lower Seven. But that's just the beginning, as the porter makes his way to Lower Ten and discovers that the formerly-sleeping occupant is now dead.  If that's not bad enough, all of the evidence points directly to Blakely, who probably would have been arrested at the next stop, had there been one, but a deadly train wreck intervenes.  Surviving the crash, Blakely must find a way not only to clear his name, but also to discover the real killer before the police have the chance to slap the cuffs on him.

after the train wreck: 
one of Christy's illustrations, between pp. 80 and 81
my photo

As I said, one of the elements found in this story is humor, and aside from the wisecrack remarks made by Blakely throughout the novel, she gives us a detective character who wryly pokes fun at Poe, Conan-Doyle and Emile Gaboriau.  Hotchkiss by name, he is on the train doing a bit of sleuthing after the murder. He introduces himself to Blakely, telling him that he uses
"the inductive method originated by Poe and followed since with such success by Conan Doyle. Have you ever read Gaboriau? Ah, you have missed a treat indeed."
Even after the train wreck, he follows Blakely where ever he goes, always taking notes, and later thinking he has his man, announces that "It's a great day for modern detective methods." He turns out be wrong, but it's a great bit of tongue-in-cheek irony. 

My personal favorite of Rinehart's books is The Album (1933) which I read as a kid and never, ever forgot because of the whole axe-murderer thing and the mystery leading up to the identity of the killer.  Since then I've probably read it about three times.    While I didn't find The Man in Lower Ten to be nearly as exciting and polished as that one (which is no surprise given it's her earliest book-length work), it was still a lot of fun.  The romance isn't too in your face, although I must say that Blakely spends a lot of time worrying about how to shield the reputation of the woman in the case -- how very Victorian we still are after the turn of the century here in America!   I also noticed right away that there are several places where we see this country on the edge between old and modern, for instance, in the use of automobiles vs. horse carts and hansom cabs.  One word of warning -- in 1905 our modern sensibilities about race were, of course, not in play, and I did get a bit of a jolt coming across words like "darky" and "Jap."

All in all, it's a fun read, and had this been my first introduction to Rinehart's work, I'd probably go on to read more.  As it is, I've read several of her books so in my opinion, while the stories may seem a bit thin to modern readers, she's an American mystery novelist worth exploring.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

*back we go again -- The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

Dover, 1987
originally published 1905
146 pp


Whew! I see that my last visit here was on April 14th; in the meantime I've been to Seattle, then home for a brief visit before moving on to South Carolina for just under a week.   Home now, and back to reading and I'm a happy camper. 

I actually finished The Club of Queer Trades some time ago but I gave it a quick reread last night just to refresh my memory.  Arthur Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes was published the same year as this book,  combining several stories published between 1903 and 1904  following a huge backlash from readers when he killed off his great detective in 1893.  I mention this because in Club of Queer Trades, Chesterton takes to the familiar Holmes and Watson-ish format to tell his own tales, following the adventures of detective Rupert Grant and Swinburne, the narrator of these tales, who is often dragged into Rupert's adventures.  And then, there's Rupert's  brother Basil who generally comes up with the real solution to Rupert's cases.   The thing is that, when all is said and done, Chesterton has given us much more of a detective-story parody here, but it's parody with a purpose.

There are six stories in this collection, and while I'm not going to delve into each of them individually, they all connect to The Club of Queer Trades itself:
"It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club, of which the absolute condition of membership lies in this, that the candidate must have invented the method by which he earns his living."
The rules say that the trade involved must be "entirely new," that it can't be an "application or variation of an existing trade." It must also be "a genuine commercial source of income," from which the member gains his livelihood.  And right from the very beginning of this book we know that we're in for some snarky and satirical observations about society in general, as Chesterton describes people who might pass by the building in which it's housed as the sort who wouldn't even be curious enough to take a look or ask what it's all about, as if
"the Thugs set up a Strangers' Assassination Company in one of the great buildings in Norfolk Street, and sent in a mild man in spectacles to answer inquiries, no inquiries would be made." 
Exactly what oddball trades are involved in the Club I won't say, since a) they have to do with the short cases in this book and b) half the fun is in figuring out exactly what each might be as you're reading each story and once you get the pattern of these tales down in your head.

 What I will say is that as far as the actual detection that happens in this book, there are some clever conundrums to be found here.  My favorite is the "Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit," which not only presents a clever little mystery but also made me laugh out loud.  And as far as the actual detective who is "solving" these cases,  Rupert takes himself quite seriously, but he has a habit of  never being  right in his deductions and ends up deferring to Basil who has a way of seeing exactly what's going on in each situation.   The law, morality, and society itself all come under scrutiny here, and what seems to be a lot of silliness actually has some serious purpose when all is said and done.  The trick is that you have to get to the end of the book before actually discovering what that purpose really is.

While it turned out to be anything but what I thought it might be, The Club of Queer Trades is actually a delightful and entertaining book.  People who enjoy Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries (not the later TV versions but the short stories themselves) will find that same sense of understanding of human nature in this book but this one makes for a completely different sort of reading experience.  It won't be for everyone, but it suited me just fine.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 2017
originally published 2014
translated by Jeremy Tiang
490 pp


The length of this book may seem daunting and potential readers may be wondering if a good mystery/crime novel can actually sustain itself over nearly 500 pages.  I had the same concern myself, but the author's done something very different here that put my worries to rest.  Instead of one long narrative, he offers us six shorter ones all connected via the main character and Hong Kong itself, ranging from 2013 to 1967.  No, I did not mean 1967 to 2013 -- this book runs chronologically backwards.  The Borrowed is a series of six crime puzzles to be solved, combined with a hefty dose of social realism; it's also a page turner with lots of unexpected twists along the way. 

At the end of this book the author explains that his original intention was to write a "classic detective novel," but decided against a book solely focused on "criminal cases." Instead, he says, his idea was to write "the story of a personality, a city, and an era." This "pivot" culminated in a series of six "stand-alone novellas,
"each one fuelled by mysteries and clues, but all six fitting together to form a complete portrait of society." 
 The star of this show is Kwan Chun-dok, who as the first story opens, lies dying of cancer in a hospital.  He is a retired police superintendent, respected and revered by his superiors and those below him in rank as well. He's that rare legendary figure, whose powers of deduction and his ability to take in everything about a case has given him the moniker of "The Eye of Heaven."  Kwan is also mentor to the other major (and younger) figure in this book, Sonny Lok.  Reading backwards, we follow the Superintendent's career from his latter days back to his origins as a beat cop; Sonny Lok also grows from rookie status to Inspector.  At the same time, the time frames in which each story plays out says something about different moments in Hong Kong's history; as just one example, the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997 plays a role in one of these stories.  They are all, as I said, puzzles to be solved, with plots ranging from the murder of a high-profile family member down to a series of politically-motivated bombings that launched Kwan's career.

Hong Kong, from Hong Wrong
The crime-solving aspects of this book are highly original, at least in comparison to most police procedural novels I've encountered.  I have to admit that the first story, "The Truth Between Black and White: 2013," nearly sent this book flying across the room because of what I felt was a wholly unbelievable premise. Cue inner groaning and eyeroll.  However, I stuck with it  and was rewarded with a big laugh -- it seems that the joke was entirely on me.  I mention this bit of information because what happens here might cause other serious crime readers to have my same reaction, so hang in there.  And while they're all quite good, my favorite of the six is "The Prisoner's Dilemma: 2003," which involves the struggle between two major triads, drugs,  and the case of a missing young woman.  The major twist in this tale blew me away completely, using a device that I thought was a stroke of genius on the author's part.

Whether or not you get the "complete portrait of society" in this book over time as the author intended will probably come down to reader perspective.  I will say that the book moves around various areas of Hong Kong and does include all manner of people within them, from the highest of the elites down to people on the street.  Mr. Chan takes us through turbulent political times and upheavals, examines the rampant corruption within the police department, resentment against the British as colonial masters; he sends us through the famous Hong Kong street markets, and on into neighborhood streets and then into areas ruled by competing Triads, etc., with much of the action taking place in the same areas over time.  And then there's the question that ran through my head the entire time of why this book goes backwards in time.  I'm thinking that perhaps it's more than just highlighting the career of the Superintendent and how things change yet remain the same over time;  at the end, for me (without giving away any spoilers on my part), it came down to one simple question that brings everything full circle back to the beginning of the book.  Hint: you have to be on mental alert for this one -- it's all in a name.  It also, I think, gives great insight into why Kwan has such a 360-degree view when it comes to crime solving, all stemming from a single event.

Overall, The Borrowed is definitely a no-miss book for readers who enjoy moving well out of the crime fiction mainstream and into something completely different.  And while I don't think it's perfect, it ended up being a page turner that I absolutely could not put down once I started it in earnest. Its originality will shake anyone out of his or her mainstream reading rut for sure -- after you read it, standard crime fiction fare will seem blah and tame in comparison.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Babylon Berlin, by Volker Kutscher

Picador, 2018
originally published as
  Der Nasse Fisch. Gereon Rath erster Fall, 2007
translated by Niall Seller
423 pp


Read earlier this month.  Actually, Babylon Berlin is a book I didn't even know existed until I watched the Netflix series with this title a few weeks back.  When I saw that it came from a book, I knew I had to read it.  I also have the second one, The Silent Death, sitting here but it will have to wait until I return from vacation.  Speaking of the Netflix series, anyone planning to read this book should know right up front that the book is not the series -- they are two very different entities, so a word of warning:  don't expect the novel to be a mirror to the television show.

If you don't make comparisons in your head as you go along, giving the book a chance to speak for itself,  this first installment of the series featuring Gereon Rath makes for a pretty darn good read.  It is set in 1929 Berlin, during the waning years of the rather decadent Weimar period, and is our introduction to Inspector Gereon Rath, who has come to Berlin from Cologne and has been assigned to the Vice division, thanks to his father pulling the right strings after he suffers a major disgrace in his home town.  While Rath is busy keeping down porn and making his way through the city's underground nightclubs, the Homicide Division is struggling with the case they've nicknamed "Aquarius." It's a case that is driving the division crazy; they have very little to go on aside from the fact that their victim was tortured before he died of a heroin overdose and the car he was in was sent purposefully into a canal.

 In the meantime, a tangle in his lodging-house room one night with a Russian man sets Rath on the trail of the prior tenant, who has dealings with underworld gangs and anti-Stalinist communists.  It's then that he hears the strange story of smuggled Russian gold, but more importantly, his own secret investigation, plus info he gets from Charlotte, a young Homicide department stenographer, gives him what he feels might be the upper hand in the Aquarius case -- a  "nasse fisch," (wet fish) --  now a case "put on ice."   Solving the case on his own is especially important to Rath for his own reasons -- he can't stand the "arrogant homicide detective" running Aquarius, and with his knowledge that he keeps to himself, he "looked forward to the day when he could show him up..."  But he's also carried a lot of baggage from Cologne to Berlin, which has some personal bearing on the importance of solving this case.

 Everything is looking great for this young and ambitious Inspector, right up until the time when things go horribly wrong, putting both his career and his life in serious jeopardy.

Inspector Gideon Rath, from the TV series -- Nordic Drama

Political struggles on the streets, seedy underground nightspots run by rival gangs, rival Communist factions, all pale in comparison to the real story here, which is the corruption that permeates all levels of this city.  For Gideon, who's still getting used to how things work in Berlin, trying to figure out who exactly he can trust also becomes a major issue. He's in an unusual spot of being both insider and outsider; he has no interest in politics, and in a very big way he comes across as being rather naive.

First novels in a series are generally the weakest, but this one is actually quite good.  I mean, the reality is that there is a book two and beyond so we know things are going to work out, but I swear, I was on pins and needles throughout,  wondering how Rath was going to fare.  But there's also the element of the here and now in this city that captured my attention; there are brief mentions of Hitler and of Nazis but this is a very "in this moment" sort of book that doesn't really give any clue as to where Germany will go in the next few years. 

One reader noted that this book reminded her of the novels of Marek Krajewski, but I'm not sure I agree with that assessment -- Krajewski's work gets down into the deepest decadence of this period in ways that this book and author never do.  I've also seen more than one comparison of Babylon Berlin to the work of Philip Kerr, but again, I don't think that's exactly accurate either. And to those readers who found this book "too long" and "tedious," well, there's also a graphic novel available.

If you can divorce yourself  while reading this book from the stunning Netflix series, it turns into a very good read.  Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment since aside from people and a couple of plot elements that carry from page to screen, the two are very, very different.  Do not miss the series though; unexpected twists in every episode will keep you glued and wanting to binge.

On to book two.