Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Friday, September 19, 2008

Short takes on Various books

No, I’m not dead yet. Nor have I given up this blog. You know how it is, I just got busy, blah blah blah. Plus with things a little stressful at work, it was hard to reapportion my time properly.

I think I might be back more or less for good now, though. Part of the problem is that I have to read these things before I talk about ‘em to my satisfaction, and there’s always the bother of trying to accumulate the books first, of course. Next up to bat is Ira Levin, for instance, but I’m having a hell of a time finding A KISS BEFORE DYING and THIS PERFECT DAY and even SLIVER. So far. I will, though. Stubborn cuss, I am.

(After Levin comes Wouk: THE CAINE MUTINY and YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE for sure, after that? Probably MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR and DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL, unless somebody somewhere can really give me some persuasive reasons why I should read the WW 2 duology.)

What I plan to do is come in here from time to time in between the big stuff and do a short take thing on what I’m reading now. These are not meant to be the more serious considerations of an author’s career ala the big stuff, frankly a lot of these authors I either already have opinions on or I don’t have much new to say outside of the consensus.


John Buchan -- Well, I’m halfway through my Buchan period, and I’ve read all the Hannay novels (THE 39 STEPS; GREENMANTLE; MR. STANDFAST; THE THREE HOSTAGES). Amusingly I was reading the big Godine collection on the Philly subway one day when a gentleman in a rather ridiculous looking safari hat and butterfly-hunting shorts complemented me on my reading choice. That doesn’t happen all the time, especially with guys who look like Pnin. Brothers in arms -- except I don’t look like Pnin (ahem).

But anyway. My take on Buchan to date is that he had great ideas, and wrote great books, but rarely in the same breath. Of those four novels, the two most interesting to modern sensibilities are certainly THE 39 STEPS and THE THREE HOSTAGES. 39 is the origin of the “innocent man sucked up in a conspiracy not of his own making and has to go on the run for it”, which is a clichéd trope in thriller fiction now but as far as I can tell Buchan invented it, and THREE, though far lesser-known nowadays, seems to me to be an early incarnation of the James Bond-style super villain, intent on taking over the world. (Yeah, I think that notion really begins with Moriarty, but after having read a lot of Fleming I really think the major influence on him, anyway, was Buchan. Note that Fleming’s bad guys are all freaks in some basic sort of way -- the same hold true for the bad guy here. Also, while Moriarty is a super villain, he doesn’t hold the same kind of apocalyptic ambitions that Buchan’s and Fleming’s do. Doyle‘s incarnation of this figure -- as seen by the popular fiction he probably read, ala Dumas and the like -- is semi-demonic, frankly, while Buchan‘s is, too, but in a more explicit political/global power sense.)

That said, those two books, while worthwhile, aren’t as well-rounded or complete feeling as GREENMANTLE (which presages recurrent jihads troubling the West) or MR STANDFAST (I think probably Buchan’s best Hannay novel considered as a novel, it marries the thriller form to a voyage of spiritual self-discovery while neatly presaging home front ‘distrubances’; both of these books are extremely interesting to read in light of current events today.) Still, neither of these, as satisfying as they are, have the zip of 39 or THREE.

And so it goes. A very interesting writer, Buchan, I have more to read before I make a final pronouncement on him (PRESTER JOHN, JOHN MCNAB, WITCH WOOD, and maybe one or two others, I think.)

Alexandre Dumas -- This guy fascinates me in many many ways, I think he’s as pure an example of a “writer” as you can pick, in fact, but one of the reasons he’s so interesting -- and one of the reasons so much of his stuff is out of print in the states, alas -- is that his work is so inconsistent.

The Musketeer saga ebbs and flows like the tides -- I actually think the second volume, TWENTY YEARS LATER is the best in the series, the most put together as a whole, but taken as a series it starts high, peaks, hits intermittent notes with VICOMTE DE BRAGGELONE (inexplicably a favorite of Robert Louis Stevenson’s), almost collapses with LOUISE DE LA VALLIERE -- then reaches it’s fascinating, tragic peak with the majestic THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, which unfortunately you really need the background of everything else in the series, yes, even the dreary LOUISE, to fully appreciate.

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO similarly has passages which rank with some of the best sheer storytelling I’ve ever read, anywhere (this is in translation, too!) and passage of sheer unadulterated tedium. Yes, I understand Dumas was writing for serials and yeah, I understand how that would affect the work -- but so what? We need to see how Dumas reads now.

From what I can gather from dipping into other Dumas volumes, what seperates the lesser works from the Musketeer saga and COUNT is that they’re even more inconsistent. Right now I’m reading CHICOT THE JESTER, the second volume of his “medieval” trilogy, and it seems to be holding up to the same level of quality of LA REINE MARGOT -- some passages of utmost jaw-dropping brilliance, some workmanlike passages, some hoohaw, some tedium.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that the system essentially worked with Dumas: I’ll continue reading him because I’m a fan, but I’m convinced his best work is his most famous work. I do question why we’re being graced with translations of minor Dumas efforts like THE WOMEN’S WAR and not, say, JOSEPH BALSALMO. Or even CHICOT THE JESTER.

(As a side note I also read Arturo Perez-Reverte’s THE CLUB DUMAS, solely because I was interested in how he would work in the Dumas references. In fact the first third or so of this is really good, an inventive mystery/thriller with some Dumas appreciation and some spooky occult references worked in. The second half…not so much. Too much in contextual horseplay around, and I detect the smell of Umberto Eco in the corner. And he smells like a fat old man who just got up.)

William Marshall -- I am not a big fan of police procedural novels -- I don’t really care much about the police per se, and am not really interested in either the details of their personal lives or the intricacies of “how crimes are really solved”. I think that after you’ve read a few Ed McBain novels and maybe Wambaugh’s THE BLACK MARBLE you’ve read basically the best this very limited subgenre has to offer.

The more interesting police procedural novelists are not really police procedural novelists either -- they don’t care much about the intricacies of the form themselves. Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels are “police procedurals” I guess, if you’d have to pigeonhole them, but essentially they’re about “being French” -- the point is the snapshot of French life in various locales, not the “mystery”. KC Constantine (who I suspect was heavily influenced by Simenon) is essentially doing the same thing -- albeit with him it’s Rocksburg PA (a stand-in for Greensburg PA, a town I’ve actually been in a few times).

My all-time favorite police procedural novelist is William Marshall, whose Yellowthread Street series of books are pretty indescribable…imagine, though, maybe, a novel that uses the police procedural as a kind of springboard for metaphysical speculation. That’s basically what they are, though even describing them as such seems to diminish them, to me. For one thing, they’re immensely entertaining: very tricky novels with a legitimate mystery at their heart; careening back and forth from the most outrageous sort of slapstick to heart wrenching pathos.
There’s usually an absurdity at their heart, too: in WAR MACHINE, the last one I read, ancient Japanese soldiers from WW2 emerge from underground in Hong Kong to finish off one last burst of violence. Just an eye-catching scenario on it’s face, and what’s better is that Marshall sells the absurdity. In FROGMOUTH a slaughter of animals at the zoo becomes one of the more heart wrenching tragedies I’ve ever read in the genre. In THIN AIR the seemingly inexplicable death of a vanful of people on a highway becomes a meditation on mortality and the inexplicability of fate itself.

Just great, great stuff. Grossly underrated writer -- much much better than most writers plowing this field, maybe because he doesn’t really care all that much about police procedure. Track down any William Marshall book you can find and read it.

John D. Macdonald -- One of my pet peeves in the mystery genre is this strange notion that while Macdonald was best known for his Travis McGee books, his real achievement is his non-McGee novels. This pov is promulgated all over the place, and is basically the consensus: I would recommend Ed Gorman and Dean Koontz as especially good exponents of it.

I think it’s a load of crap. Macdonald became famous for the McGee series because that’s the best thing he ever did. He wrote a lot of non-McGee novels, and they’re all over the map in terms of quality, but none of them, I assure you, hit the heights of, oh, THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD, PALE GREY FOR GUILT, or THE LONG LAVENDER LOOK.

Part of the reason was that Macdonald had real limitations as a writer -- the series format happily shut them out but outside of the series he was free to indulge them. Read enough Macdonald novels and you’ll run into all the same characters -- I just finished MURDER IN THE WIND and it’s as good an example as any: The Weak Man Who Puts Up a False Front of Machismo; The Failed Woman Redeemed by Sex; The Strong Man; The Strong Woman Who Will Subordinate Herself to the Strong Man; The Seemingly Low Class Wheeler Dealer Whose Sins Are Obvious; The Atavistic Throwback; The Slut Who’s Almost Childlike. He also relies on the stock scenario of The Crisis that Throws These Disparate Characters Together ala Grand Hotel. That doesn’t make the book bad, exactly, but it does make it rather pompous and not “good”.

In these early “classic” period books MacDonald tended not to have much compassion for his characters, either. That irked me in WIND. In Macdonald’s mind there’s just winners and losers, and if you’re not one you’re the other, full stop. Only later did his vision seem to expand to include the failures -- later novels like A FLASH OF GREEN and ONE MORE SUNDAY are much more rounded, and the better for it.

And I think that’s because of McGee. McGee taught him compassion, not the other way around. By restricting him to one viewpoint and one pov, McGee forced him to inculcate differentiating viewpoints and the ups and downs of life in a way that the other books simply didn’t. Read a lot of Macdonald’s non-McGee’s and the constantly shifting povs start to seem neurotic, a case of a man not willing to really test his assumptions about people and see where they go. Or, maybe, a man with the end clear in sight, and no truth will obstruct him from that flow. Read a lot of McGees and you’ll see that the requirement to stick to a single forced him to create -- hello! -- a genuinely real, felt life.

Look, there’s no question that Macdonald will be remembered for the McGee books, full stop. There are good things to be found in the rest of the oeuvre -- and loads of puh, too. Thou hast been warned.