Wednesday, April 13, 2016

it's weird, it's obscure, but most of all, it's fun: The Mummy, by Riccardo Stephens

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1912
232 pp


There are just some times when I want to curl up with a cup of hot chai tea (milk, no sugar,  thank you very much) and read something just for fun. No serious thought needed, no brain strain, just fun. And it doesn't hurt when there's a mummy involved -- it brings back good memories of childhood not only in terms of sprawling on the couch on a Saturday afternoon to watch the old black and white mummy movies, but also of reading countless pulpy stories involving Egypt, which I found fascinating back then. So when Valancourt announced that they were coming out with this book, I pressed that buy button faster than you could say Imhotep. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but when I started reading it, it turned out that it's indeed much more of a good, old-fashioned mystery novel rather than a book where a mummy is brought back to life by tana leaves.

As it also turns out, it's a book I can't really talk about too much without spoiling things for potential readers. The basic outline goes something like this:  a certain Doctor Armiston, who lives and has his practice in the West End of London, is called upon one day to come to give his opinion on how a man met his death.  He is taken to the Albany where he finds a young man who has died from a broken neck. After giving his opinion on the matter and sending for the police, he gets up to leave.  Opening the wrong door to go out, he finds himself staring at a strange object, which he is told is a mummy case, with a mummy inside.  According to the good doctor,
"It was my first introduction to the Mummy. I wish it had been my last."
And indeed, there will be more deaths, and with each one, the mummy case is on the premises.   Eventually, Armiston learns that the strange writing on the outside of the case contains a curse, promising vengeance on anyone who dares to upset the mummy's rest.  Being a man of science, Armiston isn't buying it, but no one involved is talking.  He is brought in to a society of "Plain Speakers," where, now that he is a member, he is privy to the truth of things.  Armiston will take it upon himself to try and figure out exactly what's behind this so-called curse before there are any further deaths, which are still unexplained.

Now, if this doesn't grab your attention, I don't know what will.  Granted, it sounds like the prelude to a horror film, but I can guarantee that this is a first-class mystery with a number of elements that blend with that same pulpy aesthetic that I've always loved. There are gentlemen at their clubs, strange "bohemian" societies, science gone awry, and of course, the element of detection.  On the back of this book there is a blurb that says this book "bears comparison with the works of Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson," and that is a good description that I can live with.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is most certainly mine. Granted, it can be boggy and slow in parts, but patient readers will be rewarded.   Highly, highly recommended to anyone interested in vintage mysteries with a touch of pulp on the side.  Very high on my internal shrieks-of-delightometer.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

talk about dark! Whoa! Eyes Full of Empty, by Jérémie Guez

Unnamed Press, 2015
originally published as Du Vide Plein les Yeux, 2013
translated by Edward Gauvin
181 pp

paperback (read in March)

Ever on the lookout for new crime writers, somehow I found my way to Jérémie Guez.   Eyes Full of Empty is the third in his "Parisian Trilogy." I will skip my customary rant about translations not beginning with the first in series, but well, I'm still thinking it.  This novel is dark, and I do mean dark, sort of a noirish thriller that plays out in the streets of Paris.  Before anyone says  "I thought you don't do thrillers," let me say that there is a huge difference between the same old same old poorly-written action-packed crap and a novel like this one, which is intelligent,  well written and one that above all, made me wonder once again who the true criminals in any society actually are.  This is not also not the average crime novel set in Paris that celebrates the finer things about the City of Light -- most of the action in this book takes place in a Paris where much of life happens in darkness and shadow. 

The main character is Idir, who had been sent to prison and who had served six months.  After he got out, some ten years before the present story begins, his father, a prominent physician,  had wanted him to come home and "rebuild" his life, but Idir realized he just couldn't do it.  Now he works as a sort of PI, where he often takes on some pretty shady jobs for the wealthy, allowing them to keep their own hands clean.   As the novel opens, he's with Oscar Crumley, the very person who'd put him in prison all those years ago after Idir was hired to cave his face in.  Idir needs the money ("It lets me pick up some produce and eat something besides Tuna Helper") although he really wants to destroy Crumley, "just for kicks, because I feel like it and still can." Crumley wants to hire him to find his missing brother, 22 year-old Thibault. But things are about to get strange. Idir's best friend Thomas is obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating on him and Thomas' dad wants his very expensive stolen car recovered.  As Idir starts looking into all of these cases, he starts to get the feeling, and rightfully so as it turns out,  that something is just very, very wrong here. Ultimately, he will find himself in a position of having to balance loyalties while trying to get to the truth. 

Idir is an interesting  character. He's a different sort of self-styled investigator, one who comes from privilege, who went to the best schools, and yet he is someone who is also very much at home on the streets. He comes from a family of Algerian immigrants, with a grandmother who still bears Berber tattoos whose presence "protect her family from the evil eye and mourn her deceased husband" and a father who is a prominent physician.  Family gatherings are difficult for him -- he doesn't feel as though he fits in, since his presence seems to make everyone "uneasy."  Another thing about Idir is that he suffers from "mysterious crying jags," which can occur at any time, "disconnected from the reality of the moment."  He had, prior to prison, worked as a "basic fixer," mostly "doing people favors they were too embarrassed to handle."  Now he describes his work as following women "for jealous men," watching over kids for their parents, and sometimes threatening people if he has to.  He has friends everywhere in Paris, and has built a solid network of people he trusts and upon whom he relies when needed.  He is torn, "a depressive,"  world weary at his young age, looking for meaning in his life, and somehow hopes to find his own place in the universe. 
Eyes Full of Empty is not only dark, but rather bleak. Guez writes with a pessimism that is real; the novel is sharp and very powerful. It is in large part a social commentary on the "economic elite" - not so much in terms of money, but power.  It is also an atmospheric story that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go -- just my kind of book.  
I'm hoping the other two novels will be translated soon -- when they are, I'll have my finger on the buy button. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

*"I didn't know there was a book" -- Bunny Lake is Missing, by Evelyn Piper

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004
originally published 1957
219 pp


(read in March)

"If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say!"

I just noticed right now while looking at the ISBN on the back cover that at the time this particular edition was published, plans were in the works for a remake of the 1965 Otto Preminger film of the same name. The newer version never materialized, so for now, the '65 film is what we've got, which is kind of sad since a) the Preminger film has only what I'd say is  a tenuous connection to Piper's novel and b) the acting is less than stellar.

Picture this frightening scenario.  A young mother  has come to pick up her three year old daughter after her first day at preschool.  Since Blanche Lake hasn't been at the school before except just once while dropping off her child Bunny (real name Felicia) earlier that same morning,  she doesn't know any of the other mothers waiting there and, while waiting for her own little one, watches as all of the other kids make their way to their parents.   A search of the school and conversations with teachers and the people in charge reveals that no one remembers even seeing Bunny that day.   The police are called in, but soon it becomes apparent that even they are having trouble believing that little Bunny ever existed -- especially since there is nothing in Blanche's apartment to show that a little girl even lives there, not even a photograph.  In fact, anything that might help Blanche to prove to the cops that she does indeed have a daughter is simply non-existent, not helping Blanche's case at all.  When Blanche catches on that they think she's making this all up, she sets off during the night on a bizarre, at times surreal sort of adventure through streets of New York looking for her child or at least some sort of proof that there even is a child.

But of course, there's way more than just the search for a missing child here.  Blanche has moved to New York City from Providence, where she had an affair with a married man and became pregnant.  Remember -- this novel was written back in the late 1950s, when single motherhood was frowned upon, and as the story progresses, it becomes very obvious that Blanche is trying desperately  to keep her secret from being revealed. Her mom is no help, still not accepting of the situation, and a trusted friend with whom Blanche was staying while pregnant and just after Bunny's birth wanted to "help" her by adopting Bunny.  She is judged and found lacking, not only for Bunny's illegitimacy, but also because she's become some sort of unfamiliar monster in the form of a working mom.  As one person in this drama notes,  "If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say! That's what they learn them in college—how to drop their kids and leave them for others to take care of."  There are also a number of literary references throughout the story that bring the situation into perspective, such as the pronouncement by the shrink Dr. Newhouse, who realized that "this girl believed she was a wicked girl, and that she should be stoned through the streets with a big red A on her bosom."   

When all is said and done, Bunny Lake is Missing is a fine novel that examines motherhood, sexuality, the changing lives of modern women, and societal judgments just as much as it is a crime story.  There is much more, of course; in the edition I have there is an entire analysis in the back of the book which will shed even more light.  It's a very dark story that had me wondering if in fact, there really was a Bunny Lake, or, as is suggested, something horrific had happened to her.  While the ending (and the unraveling of the story) may leave a bit to be desired, the crime aspect of this novel, it seems to me, isn't really the point at all.  

Now to the film, which has some basic elements of the novel, but very few.  Most everything has been changed, including the location -- the story in the movie takes place in London.  Blanche is now Ann (played by Carol Lynley)  and she has arrived from the US to live with her brother Stephen (who is NOT in the novel and is played by Keir Dullea)  in an apartment there, owned by a disgusting perv played by Noel Coward.   Bunny Lake does go missing from the school (unexpected joy of all joys -- one of my all-time favorite actresses ever, Anna Massey, plays one of the workers at Bunny's school)  but rather than offering us the story as written, it gets changed big time here, winding down into one of the most bizarre, surreal and downright creepy endings I've ever seen.  The final scenes gave me a big case of the willies -- trust me, I'll never look at a swingset in the same way again.  In this case, book wins hands down, but the movie will definitely disturb and despite the not-so-perfect acting,  is well worth watching.  

I would read the book and then watch the film; both are definitely recommended.