A Rage In Harlem – Chester Himes

a-rage-in-harlem

“Just why did you come here, Brother Jackson? Why did you come to me?”

“I just wanted to kneel here beside you, Reverend Gaines, and give myself up to the Lord.”

“What!” Reverend Gaines stared as though Jackson had uttered blasphemy. “Give yourself up to the Lord?  Jesus Christ, man, what do you take the Lord for?  You have to go and give yourself up to the police.  The Lord won’t get you out of that kind of mess.”

***

Source: Bought Copy

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Date of Publication: 1957 as The Five Cornered Square

 

Jackson is a simple man, a “square” as it were, a black man just trying to get ahead in 50’s Harlem, trying to do right by his lady Imabelle and shower her with the finer things in life.  So when Imabelle introduces him to Hank and Jodie, a couple of cool cats who have devised a way to turn Jackson’s life saving of fifteen hundred bucks into “Fifteen Grand!”, even a God fearing man like Jackson succumbs to temptation.  Alas, for Jackson, stupidity rather than pride comes before a fall, and when the fall comes, it’s to the tune of fifteen hundred bucks.  Jackson, facing financial ruin, compounds the interest by stealing from his employer and investing his ill gotten gains in a game of craps, a game at which he is…well…crap.

Now on the run from an ersatz U. S. Marshall and desperate to repay his former employer, Jackson enlists the help of the only person who might thread this needle of misfortune, namely, the good sister Gabriel, a hustler who works the streets by day in the guise of a Sister of Mercy, and spends the nights as a dope fiend. She’s otherwise known as Jackson’s ne’er do well brother Goldy.  What Jackson lacks in street smarts, Goldy makes up for in spades, and while Jackson just wants back his sweet Imabelle, Goldy is more interested in the trunk of gold she’s been known to travel with. However, to retrieve Imabelle (and the gold), Goldy and Jackson have to outsmart Hank and Jody’s crew, all the while keeping the law off their trail. Before they’re done the streets of Harlem will run red with blood, but it’s an even bet as to whose.

***

The confidence game is a hallmark of great crime fiction, especially when it ends badly. Don’t believe me? Just think of Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly at the end of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. Combine a con game with a pinch of noir and a dash of the hardboiled, top it with a generous dollop of the absurd, and you’ll find yourself reading A Rage in Harlem, the perfect introduction to the dark noir of Chester Himes. Described in the introduction of my copy as a “comedy caper”, a more apt description would be, “absurd noir”, for there are times when Hime’s black humour sorely tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief. A dedicated reader, managing to push through the more ridiculous aspects of the novel will find their patience well spent, for what it lacks in realism, this tale of greed, deception, and murder makes up for in sheer murderous fun.

A Rage in Harlem also provides the reader their introduction those iconic Harlem detectives, “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, a pair of black detectives who can go where their white counterparts dare not. Carrying “specially made long-barreled nickel-plated .38 calibre revolvers”, and being very free in their use, these two detectives have convinced the people of Harlem that they would shoot a man dead for not standing straight in line.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they did respect big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said that in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.

Skirting the edges of the law they’re sworn to keep, these two detectives believe in their own brand of street justice while their superiors believe in looking the other way as long as they bring results.  Those results generally bring a lot of business to the local undertaker. That’s not to say they’re corrupt, but the delineation between right and wrong for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed depends on their own moral compass rather than any set of formal rules. Having found an audience for their peculiar brand of justice, Himes’ A Rage in Harlem became the first of what became known as the Harlem Detective series.

As for our cast of characters, Jackson is the epitome of the hapless protagonist, unwilling to recognize Imabelle’s true nature and innocent to a fault.  His brother Goldy is another creature altogether, street smart and cunning, saddled with an addiction to both drugs and the greed of easy money, and yet altogether more sympathetic than his simple brother, mostly because he’s aware of who and what he is, and of course, what motivates Imabelle.  Jackson may not know it, but he’s run afoul of the femme fatale, although Imabelle would be hard pressed to admit it, perhaps even to herself. What can be said for certain is that she’s plenty capable of handling herself and the men around her, even those that recognize her for what she is, at least until she meets Grave Digger Jones.

Hank and Jody are the least interesting of this cast of characters, a couple of soulless killers with little depth of character, merely a means to an end, so despicable as to make the reader root for the dimwitted Jackson and his shady sidekick Goldy, and to humanize Grave Digger and Coffin Ed when they step outside the lines of what we generally consider acceptable behaviour in those charged with protecting society from its baser instincts.  They’re men in need of murdering, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are up to the task.

Within the pages of A Rage in Harlem, Himes has combined all the elements of a classic crime novel, creating a Harlem I’m not entirely sure ever existed, and populating it with classic tropes of the genre.  We’ve got the Mcguffin, evidenced in Imabelle’s trunk of gold, the misplaced love of a good man, and the object of that love, the femme fatale, personified in Imabelle herself. Add to that a couple of hard-boiled detectives working just this side of the law, and you end up with a magnificent addition to the genre.

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The Revenant of Thraxton Hall- Vaughn Entwistle

 

 

 

 

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police.  If you believe a murder has taken place–“

“No Mr. Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem.  I need you to solve a murder…that has not yet taken place.”

Source: Review copy from publisher

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date: March 28, 2014

1894—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has committed murder most foul, and feels not the least regret.  With the death of Sherlock Holmes, his body washed away in the waters below Reichenbach Falls, Doyle is finally free to write the fiction he wants, stories of substance to be remembered beyond his lifetime—stories with greater depth than the trivial “Penny Dreadfuls” the public clamors for.  Yet Holmes’ devoted fans will have none of that, and their erstwhile adoration has turned to indignation at the demise of Britain’s most famous consulting detective.  Doyle’s relief at being free of Holmes’ shadow turns to dismay when he finds himself the object of the public scorn.

At the very same time Doyle is finding London less than conducive to his health—both physical and mental—he receives a summons from an anonymous woman with an unusual affliction and a penchant for melodrama.  She wants to enlist his help in solving a murder—her own as it stands—a murder that will take place two weeks hence.  The mysterious woman claims to be a renowned medium, utilizing her clairvoyance to pull aside the veil of life and glimpse what lies beyond.  Unfortunately for her, what lies beyond is death by murder.  Yet to her mind there is some hope of avoiding that fate, a hope maintained because of the one face she sees clearly in her visions—the face of Arthur Conan Doyle.

At first Doyle is skeptical, but after witnessing a performance of Daniel Dunglas Hume’s astounding levitation and “feats of psychic wonder” with his good friend and confidante, the irreverent and debauched Oscar Wilde, he begins to wonder.  Shortly thereafter, his fate is sealed when he receives a summons to appear as a prospective member of the Society for Psychical Research at Thraxton Hall, the matriarch of which is one Hope Thraxton, a young medium with an unusual affliction…

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is first in a series of novels known as The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicling the exploits of Doyle as he examines um…well…the paranormal.  It’s a mystery blending historical reality and paranormal fantasy as Conan Doyle explores the world of 19th century Spiritualism, a subculture populated either by paranormal charlatans or characters finely attuned to what lies beyond the mortal coil .

Before reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall I was only vaguely aware of Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and most unaware of the Society for Psychical Research, a group that astonished me by its mere existence.  Skepticism is apparently much more a part of my nature than I thought, and so it was that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief while reading this novel.  Accepting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was somewhat of a sleuth in real life is really quite easy.  Accepting that he was a sucker for the pseudo-science of Spiritualism is not.  However, one should not argue with history, so let’s agree for the moment that Doyle was as fallible as the rest of us and go on from there.

What I found while reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is that while Entwistle has come up with an intriguing idea, his execution of the storyline was rather uneven.  While doing an excellent job of incorporating historical characters of the SFPR into this tale of paranormal intrigue, there were times where the background, the characters, or the situation, were rather stereotyped.

An example would be the setting.  Thraxton Hall is a formerly stately manor fallen to disrepair (if only to provide a suitably creepy setting for the novel) in which the characters find themselves conveniently trapped for the majority of the novel due to a raging storm and its isolated locale.  It’s the house on haunted hill without the hill, a setting particularly suited to ghost stories, mysteries, and almost every Scooby-Doo episode.  Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if there are any English estates that don’t harbor a multitude of secret doors and passages to sepulchral crypts.  And yet it is par for the course with regards the supernatural, a manor reminiscent of Hell House or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.

As to the characters, they represent a mélange of the eclectic and cliché, from Madam Zhozhovsky, renowned Russian émigré (possibly of Barnsley in Yorkshire) and noted palm-reader/medium/charlatan, to Lord Webb, a rather compelling mesmerist (and stuffed shirt) whose motives are not altogether forthright. Then there’s Mrs. Kragan, the crotchety head housekeeper with her own motives, and Greaves, a blind butler who knows the ins and outs of Thraxton Hall like the back of his hand—by  necessity. There’s Frank Podmore, skeptic (and historical figure) obsessed with unmasking the frauds he believes to infest the society, especially with regards Daniel Dunglas Hume, “the greatest psychic medium in the world!” another historical figure whose affinity for levitation borders on the absurd.  There’s Hope Thraxton, heir to Thraxton Hall, a talented medium and heiress who suffers an unusual affliction that necessitates her living in continual darkness and that may eventually lead to dementia—if it already hasn’t.  An amusing nod to the Sherlock canon resides in the character of “The Count”, a European aristocrat who sports a three-quarter mask reminiscent of certain Bohemian King for much the same purpose.

Lest we forget, this is a novel taken from the paranormal casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet it is in him that we find the least flamboyant character.  He’s dismissive of his fictional sleuth, yet envious of Sherlock’s analytical abilities.  He’s duty bound by the conventions of the 19th century, conflicted by his physical attraction to young Hope Thraxton and the guilt of such thoughts in the face of his wife Touie’s long illness.  He also plays the role of the straight man to his eccentric friend, the bohemian Oscar Wilde.

It’s with Oscar Wilde that I as a reader found a character both ridiculous, yet delightful.  Wilde is portrayed in the novel as (I hope) a caricature, outrageously flamboyant, charming yet prissy, bombastic yet squeamish. He’s also easily bored and very, very bohemian, in affectation if not reality. Wilde is a compelling sidekick, a marvelous friend to Conan Doyle, and frankly a lot of fun, but there are moments when his overbearing personality rises to extreme proportions.  Then again, I suspect such was true of the man upon which this caricature is based.   Finally, we have the eponymous Revenant of Thraxton Hall, an entity that may or may not be influencing the behavior of several characters and a specter to whom I’ll let the reader introduce themselves.

As for the situation, Conan Doyle’s investigation into Hope Thraxton’s murderous vision was dealt with in a generally appealing manner, yet there were times when it felt as though he was making leaps of logic rather than working from the observable facts.  There’s also an aside, a “locked room murder” mystery within the mystery that for the life of me HAS NO MOTIVE.  A character is killed for no discernible reason whatsoever (and believe me, I searched the text several times for a motive), leaving me as the reader distracted by a puzzle with no solution.  There’s a how, when and where, but no why?*  The plot tended to meander rather than evolve and there were times when Doyle seemed to stumble to conclusion rather than solve the mystery.  However, there is a scene near the end of the novel involving a telegram and a train that makes up for most of the meandering in one fell (redemptive and clever) swoop.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall was a delightful idea, combining Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism with his natural talent for mysteries, yet this idea was unevenly executed.  I suspect that’s more the result of this being a debut or inexperience rather than any lack of ability and that with a sophomore novel, the writing will even out.  Even though The Revenant of Thraxton Hall wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I would heartily recommend it to die-hard fans of Conan Doyle.

Vaughn Entwistle maintains a website (and blog) at www.vaughnentwistle.com and has a sequel, The Dead Assassin, to be published in June of 2015.  Based on the description, and being one of those die-hard fans, I suspect I’ll be checking it out.

 

 

*If you discover the motive behind the locked room murder, please leave a note in the comments.  It would be much appreciated.

 

Who Thinks Evil–Michael Kurland

 

 

 

 

WhoThinksEvil“We need, we must have something–someone–different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm.  Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and illicit, and who is trusted by these men who trust no one.”

“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”

“Exactly!” said the Duke, thumping a thick forefinger on the arm of his chair.

“So you’ve sent for me,” said Moriarty.

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: March 7, 2014

The year is 1890, two years since “Saucy Jack” preyed on the prostitutes of London’s East End, yet he’s still very much on the mind of many a streetwalker as they go about their illicit business.  From the dimly lit streets of Whitechapel to the bedrooms of posh “gentlemen’s clubs”, horror at the Ripper’s crimes and anger at the inability of the Metropolitan Police to bring him to heel are still fresh.  When a prostitute at one of London’s more fashionable bawdy houses is murdered in a manner reminiscent of the Ripper, the forces of Scotland Yard and agents of the Queen herself are gathered to both quell rumours of his reappearance and catch the perpetrator on the sly—before the cauldron that is public opinion boils over into violence.  Complicating their surreptitious investigation is the identity of their prime suspect, the last known patron of the victim—namely one Albert Victor—Crown Prince and heir to the throne of England.  Further complicating matters—his sudden disappearance and the inability of both his minders and the police to find him.  Victoria’s men have their work cut out for them—either prove the heir apparent’s innocence or bring him to justice without jeopardizing the royal succession.

Meanwhile, the one man (Sherlock Holmes aside) capable of unravelling the various threads of this royal plot is languishing in the deepest cells of Newgate Prison, himself the victim of an elaborate frame-job.  Who else but Professor James Moriarty, a.k.a. the “Napoleon of Crime’, would have the contacts and resources within the criminal underworld, not to mention the criminal insight, to stop this fiendish scheme?  With the enthusiastic help of American journalist Benjamin Barnett, Moriarty’s diminutive majordomo Mummer Tolliver and the rather reluctant help of the brothers Holmes, Moriarty must solve the murder, clear the name of the heir to the throne and thereby provide his own salvation.

Michael Kurland wrote the first of his Moriarty novels, The Infernal Device in 1978, going on to write three sequels, the last published in 2006.  Since then, the Napoleon of Crime has been on hiatus, at least until the publication of Who Thinks Evil earlier this year.  Previously only attainable in e-book format, the entire series is now becoming available as Titan Books reissues the series for those eager to add Moriarty’s tales to their collection of Holmesian novels.

As a fan of the Holmes mythos but not having read Kurland’s earlier novels, I found myself looking forward to seeing the world as Moriarty does, and as a result was far from disappointed with this unique spin on the Consulting Detective’s nemesis.  Instead of the one dimensional epitome of evil one thinks of upon hearing the name “Moriarty”, Kurland has created a well-rounded villain, both nuanced and with depth of character.  Professor James Moriarty is not evil for evil’s sake, but rather a practitioner of a certain “pragmatic” evil. Moriarty’s crimes are revealed as selfishly altruistic—necessary to fund his scientific endeavors and therefore essential to the betterment of mankind.  Perhaps selfishly altruistic is not the right phrase—narcissistically altruistic?  Either way, the practice of science can be expensive and Moriarty is more pragmatic than malicious in his affairs.

James Moriarty is an unusual character, having evolved over the years from a minor (yet consequential) character in the Holmes canon to a legend towering above lesser literary villains.  Kurland treats Moriarty as a misunderstood genius and flips the relationship between Moriarty and Holmes and their relative claims to brilliance on its head.  In Who Thinks Evil, Holmes is not so much Moriarty’s equal but a decidedly lesser intellect— almost “Lestrade- like.”

Whereas inspector Lestrade traditionally plays an inept counterpoint to Holmes obvious aptitude for affairs deductive, in this tale Holmes himself acts the comic foil.  Sherlock may indeed be the world’s foremost “Consulting Detective”, but Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime,” and by far the superior intellect. Kurland amuses the reader time and again as we watch Holmes’ bumbling efforts to “unmask” Moriarty’s villainy.  One scene in particular demonstrates Moriarty’s easy intellectual superiority and involves the delivery of tea and cookies for Holmes to enjoy whilst the consulting detective “surreptitiously” surveils Moriarty from a bush.  Sherlock’s scientific method of observation is so much more finely honed in Moriarty and this, combined with both an eidetic memory and startlingly high I. Q. makes Holmes a simpleton by comparison.  Yet Moriarty respects Holmes even though he can be (and is) a great nuisance to Moriarty’s affairs.  Given every chance to remove the meddlesome Holmes from the equation, Moriarty proves his malicious nature more myth than fact.

Just as Holmes needs a biographer in the form of Dr. John Watson, Kurland provides Moriarty his own chronicler in Benjamin Barnett, another man of letters and associate by way of gratitude for the help Moriarty afforded him years earlier.  He’s clearly Moriarty’s stand in for Watson and a capable sleuth in his own right.  Together with Mummer Tolliver, they act as Moriarty’s proxy in the hunt for the murderer of London’s prostitutes while he focuses his time on foiling the plot to undermine the monarchy.

Overall an excellent novel, there are a few quibbles to be had with Who Thinks Evil, the first of which is whether or not this is actually a mystery or more properly—a thriller.  To me, the hallmark of a good mystery is how the author handles the Reveal—that moment when everything comes together and we as readers know exactly whodunit.  Once you have the Reveal, there’s no longer a mystery, hence the earlier the Reveal, the less the novel is a mystery and the more a thriller.  Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a good example of this.  We as readers know within a couple of chapters who the killer is—mystery solved, as it were.  Granted, the protagonist(s) don’t solve the mystery until much later in the novel, but there’s no mystery left for the reader.  At that point the novel becomes a thriller, and if handled properly, it’s not too much of a letdown to know the identity of the culprit before the protagonist does.  I myself enjoy a good mystery, preferring to figure things out for myself or be surprised at the end of the novel rather than knowing too much too soon.  In other words, I like some mystery in my mystery.

Who Thinks Evil relinquishes the pretense of being a mystery about halfway through, once the antagonist(s) are introduced and we start seeing things from their viewpoint.  From then on, it’s a straight line to thriller and the suspense no longer lies in whodunit, but rather how Moriarty and company will resolve the situation.  Thankfully, Kurland adeptly makes the transition from mystery to thriller, leaving the reader satisfied without feeling ripped off by the early reveal.

The second quibble I had with Who Thinks Evil revolves around the climax of the novel.  In the moment when Moriarty’s plans have all come together and the trap is set, something happens that makes a shambles of his meticulous preparations.  An unforeseen turn of events demonstrates that all the planning in the world is subject to the vagaries of fate.  It’s more outrageous fortune than meticulous schemes that foil the conspirators, and not so much a matter of giant intellect as having a girl who’s handy with a hatpin.

However, these are mere quibbles that don’t ever rise to the level of complaint. All in all, Michael Kurland has demonstrated a unique perspective with regards to the accepted mythos of Sherlock Holmes and enlightened us as readers to the misunderstood brilliance that is Professor James Moriarty.

B+

 

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes–George Mann

TheCasebookofNewburyandHobbes

Source: Review Copy

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date:  September 24, 2013

I was first introduced to the World of Steampunk a few years ago when I happened upon a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman A wonderful read, it’s the story of a young man named Orphan living in a Steampunk Victorian England and trying to track down “the Bookman”, a terrorist responsible for the death of his paramour.  My interest stoked by this delightful tale, I then took a chance on the works of Stephen Hunt, who, with The Court of the Air deserves (as far as I’m concerned) the title of King of Steampunk.  However, if Hunt is the reigning King, then George Mann may very well be known as the Crown Prince.  From The Affinity Bridge to The Executioner’s Heart, Mann has created an alternate Victorian England populated by characters heroic and sinister—and sometimes both—and created an investigative duo whose exploits rival those of a 221B Baker Street’s consulting detective and his trusty biographer.

Over the course of four novels, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have combatted foes both technological and occult, serving as agents of the crown to protect and foster the interests of her majesty, Queen Victoria.  They’re not alone in their endeavors, at times enlisting the help of, at other times being seconded to, Sir Charles Bainbridge, chief inspector of Scotland Yard.  Yet we’ve never heard Newbury’s (or Hobbes for that matter) origin story, and The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is Mann’s way of fleshing out their back story during the periods not chronicled by the novels.  It also reveals a ghost of the past in the person of Templeton Black, Newbury’s former assistant, and introduces the future in Peter Rutherford, a member of the British Secret Service who will go on to create his own legacy.

The collection consists of 15 eclectic stories, so let’s run down the list:

  • The Dark Path –Wherein Newbury and his former assistant Templeton Black discover the virtues of smoking and an old witch discovers the perils of over-enthusiastic horticulture.
  • The Hambleton Affair –Wherein Newbury relates his account of the disappearance of an old school mate’s wife and his discovery of the extent a man may go to to preserve his marriage.
  • The Shattered Teacup –Wherein Newbury and Bainbridge investigate the suspicious death of Lord Carruthers and discover the fowl truth of the matter.
  • What Lies Beneath –Wherein Newbury takes a constitutional at the home of an English “gentleman” and discovers the gentleman is anything but.
  • The Lady Killer –Wherein Newbury meets his match in the form of the lovely Irene Adler Lady Arkwell and discovers that while women are the fairer sex, this particular lady is not willing to play fair.
  • The Case of the Night Crawler –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes enlist the help of a certain consulting detective’s biographer to hunt down a mechanical creature bent on revenge.
  • The Sacrificial Pawn –Wherein Sir Charles Bainbridge finds himself an unwitting participant in Newbury’s game of chance with a cult by the name of The Cabal of the Horned Beast.
  • Christmas Spirits –Wherein Newbury finds himself unintentionally re-enacting a popular Dickens’ tale on Christmas Eve while in an opium daze and discovering that not all spirits bring redemption.
  • Strangers from the Sea Wherein Newbury comes across a long-lost note from a colleague, and the prescient warning contained within while reminiscing about a not so merry trip to the beach.
  • The Only Gift Worth Giving –Wherein Sir Charles lends a hand to Newbury and reinvigorates his spirit with a challenge.
  • A Rum Affair –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes discover that punch can be spiked with much more than rum.
  • A Night, Remembered –Wherein Peter Rutherford makes introductions to both the reader and Maurice and discovers the most disturbing truth behind the sinking of the S.S. Titanic.
  • The Maharajah’s Star –Wherein Rutherford meets Professor Angelchrist and discovers that the Maharajah’s Star is more dream than reality.
  • The Albino’s Shadow Wherein Rutherford consults with Ms. Veronica Hobbes in his efforts to hunt down one of the most wanted men in the Empire, a peculiarly pale criminal mastermind by the name of “Mr. Zenith.”  Little does he know, Zenith is just as interested to meeting him.
  • Old Friends –Wherein Angelchrist relates the events leading to his association with Newbury and Hobbes and Rutherford brings a smile to an old man’s face.

According to the author’s notes, each of these stories can be found in other venues, but this is the first time they’ve been compiled into a comprehensive collection.   Overall, it’s an excellent addition to Mann’s Steampunk universe, filling in some of the details of Newbury’s past and looking forward to the future of his “Ghost” series of roaring twenties novels, set in a Steampunk inspired New York.  Stand out stories include his Sherlock homage, The Case of the Night Crawler and his tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Strangers from the Sea.  My personal favourite is The Shattered Teacup, which brings to mind the best of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  It’s a fun murder mystery with obvious Steampunk influence in the clockwork owl that proves essential to solving the case.  The only story that falls flat (for me, at least) is What Lies Beneath, but honestly, that owes more to my distaste for epistolary writing than anything Mann did with the story.

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is a seamless blend of Victorian detective story sprinkled with Steampunk elements and a dash of the occult.  Mann seamlessly captures the flavour of Victorian mystery fiction usually identified with Arthur Conan Doyle while adding his own flourishes to it.  It’s a great addition to the universe of Newbury and Hobbes mysteries, fleshing out the series for those fans that want to see a bit more.  An added bonus is the inclusion of several new characters, from Templeton Black to Peter Rutherford, and of course, an arch nemesis for Newbury in the form of Lady Arkwell.  However, if you haven’t been a follower of Newbury and Hobbes from the start, this may not be the book for you.  Simple solution for those who are unfamiliar—get yourselves to a bookstore and catch up on the series before delving into this wonderful back story of Newbury and Hobbes, agents of the crown and occult detectives.

B

The Holy Thief-William Ryan

The Holy ThiefGregorin’s voice sounded guarded. “He mentioned she was mutilated.  Tortured, you say?  The poor woman, I only hope you catch the killer quickly.  A madman by the sound of it.”

“Well, Comrade Colonel, it wasn’t pretty.  Not pretty at all.  He used electricity to burn her–I’ve never come across that before.  I wondered whether it was a method State Security had ever encountered.”

Korolev’s question hung in the air like an artillery shell at the top of its flight and Korolev didn’t have to look at Yasimov to know he’d now gone deathly pale.

Gregorin, however, after a long pause merely sighed.  “Comrade Korolev, you’ll be well aware that torture is prohibited by the Soviet Criminal Code as a means of interrogation.  You aren’t suggesting that the NKVD would ever flout that prohibition, are you?”

Source: Bought copy.

Publisher:  Minotaur Books

Publication Date:  August 31, 2010

1936…

Captain Alexei Korolev is a well-regarded detective within the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia.  He’s a rising star within the C.I.D., having just come off a case in which he tracked down and apprehended a serial rapist, so when a young woman is found brutally murdered—tortured—and left posed on the altar of a derelict church, his superiors put him on the case, knowing he has the best chance of solving her murder.  Korolev is methodical and relentless, using his mind rather than brute force to elicit confessions, bolstering his resolve with both a fine sense of duty and empathy for the victim.  He’s also a modern Soviet man, convinced that while the methods of the State are sometimes unnecessarily harsh, it’s not his place to question why but rather to go about his business and remain as apolitical as he can.  After all, it’s safer that way.

When a Chekist colonel with his own suspicious agenda takes an interest in the case, coupled with the circumstances of the young woman’s torture—reminiscent of interrogation methods used by the Soviet Secret Police—Korolev realizes that this extraordinary case is a tangled web that he must most carefully unravel without incurring the wrath of an utterly ruthless organization.  But what is the connection between a young girl and the State security apparatus? And what is her connection to a thief whose body turns up shortly thereafter bearing wounds that share the same hallmark?  Discovering the truth of the matter will be no small feat.  One small misstep and his life, and that of those around him, will be forfeit to a paranoid regime that values secrecy over life.

With The Holy Thief, William Ryan has created not just a compelling mystery but a stunningly realistic portrayal of the subtle horror of everyday life under the Soviets.  Ryan has set his story in 1936, just before the advent of the Great Purge, in which Joseph Stalin’s cronies “cleansed” both the Communist Party and government of what they considered to be, “enemies of the people.”  This purge later evolved into wide-scale repression of the peasantry and eventually gutted the Red Army leadership, leaving them ill-prepared for war with Germany in 1941.  When the novel begins, things have not progressed to that point, yet Korolev and his compatriots in the C.I.D. are very conscious of the danger involved in any perceived criticism of the State or its methods.

There are several themes woven into The Holy Thief, most importantly the interaction of personal Religion and State sponsored Atheism.  As our protagonist, Korolev proves himself time and again to have an ingrained respect for and belief in religion, but as a modern Soviet man, he’s theoretically an Atheist.  Reality is more complicated.  Religion may be banned under the Soviets, but the traditions and faith of the people remain a hidden yet omnipresent fact of life, and Korolev goes to great lengths to hide his personal belief.  He secrets a bible in his apartment, unconsciously uses religious phrases and looks upon the desecration of the church by the Komsomol with disgust, even while extolling the virtues of Communism.  It soon becomes obvious that the vicious crimes he’s investigating are connected to the value people put on religious artifacts, specifically, the religious Icons that hold sway over a society firmly rooted in belief in the supernatural.

The second major theme running through the novel is the ubiquitous fear pervading Soviet society under the reign of Stalin.  The citizens of Moscow are living in a time and place where the State intrudes into every facet of life and with that intrusion comes the realization that everyone, from lowliest peasant to highest official, could be taken at any time for any reason by agents of State security.  This fear is highlighted in the relationship between Korolev and his superior, General Popov.  It’s a sure sign of the overwhelming power of the State when a man of such an important position within the city militia is fearful of speaking bluntly to a subordinate in the nominal privacy of his own office.  Yet both Korolev and Popov have seen the results of appearing critical of the party or its ideology, and by the end of the novel Korolev has experienced it directly.

As for the characters of The Holy Thief, they are essential to the appeal of the novel.  Korolev, for instance, is refreshingly real.  He’s not the superhuman detective that inhabits many mystery novels.  He’s intelligent mind you, but not overly so.  Nor is he a superhuman physical specimen.  When hit, he suffers the consequences, and they stick with him.  Hell, in the latter half of the novel, he’s dealing with the physical, sometimes debilitating effects of a self-inflicted concussion. He’s also a morally conflicted character, witnessing the excesses of the revolution but still ideologically naïve enough to believe that these excesses are necessary to further the cause of international Socialism.  I will admit that he is surrounded by somewhat stock characters.  The earnest rookie, embodied in his protégé, Semionov, the consummate lickspittle, embodied in Larinin, the wizened superior, embodied in Popov—all stock mystery characters, yet their familiarity to the reader is not detrimental to the story.  If anything, they lend a certain authenticity to Korolev, being personalities we’ve all met at one time or another.  As for Gregorin, the Chekist colonel, while it’s easy to see him for the villain he is, Ryan manages to keep his motivation a secret until late in the novel and leaves the reader wondering what his role in the dastardly affair is.

I don’t usually feel the need to comment on world-building with regards to mysteries, generally saving it for talk of Sci-fi or Fantasy novels, but it must be examined for a moment here.  Ryan has managed to build a convincingly realistic portrayal of Soviet society and specifically that of Moscow in the late thirties.  From the Metropol Hotel to Tomsky Stadium, home of FC Spartak and one of the novel’s murder locations, Ryan has paid close attention to detail, right down to the team’s nickname.  Accurate portrayals of Petrovka Street and the Moscow Criminal Police headquarters, the Komsomol club in a former church on Razin Street and the novel’s central crime scene, even the scene in an interrogation room of the dreaded Lubyanka lend a ring of historical accuracy to the novel.  One cannot be help feeling immersed in the life and times of a certain Captain Korolev, right down to the specific model of cars driven and the brand of cigarettes he smokes.

The Holy Thief is a beautifully constructed novel of what can only be called Soviet Noir and a wonderful introduction to the life and times of Alexei Korolev, investigator of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Moscow Militia and whose exploits I look forward to in the next novel of the series, The Darkening Field.

A

The Ethical Assassin–David Liss

the Ethical AssassinI probably wouldn’t have said it without the beer, but I’d had the beer. 

“Okay, fine. Meat is murder.  But you know what else is murder?  Wait, let me think.  Oh, yeah.  I remember now: Murder.  Murder is murder.  That’s right.  Killing a couple of people who are minding their own business.  Breaking into their home and shooting them in the head.  That’s murder too, I think.  The Smiths have an album about that?”

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: March, 2006

Lemuel Altick is just a kid, selling encyclopedias door to door in the trailer park township of Meadowbrook Grove, a charming accumulation of worn down trailers permeated with the musk of the local pig farm waste lagoon.  He’s good at it, a natural seller, and the profit he makes from this travelling summer job (Champion Encyclopedias!) should just about cover tuition for college in the fall.  So, when he manages to charm his way into one last trailer before knocking off for the day, he’s ecstatic.  Between the disinterested palooka by unlikely name of “Bastard” and his gullible “wife” Karen, it’s an easy score for a talented salesman like Lem.  And so it goes—the pitch is made—the cheque is written, and Lem is on his way to a $1200 commission. Everything’s clockwork, right up until the moment a spikey haired blonde assassin in black jeans and a button down shirt bursts in on them and shoots his almost clients in the head.  Lem’s commission, and possibly his life, are now forfeit.

Luckily for him, this particular assassin has a peculiar code of ethics, not so much the “no women, no children” of Leon Montana (The Professional), but rather one in which he will not kill those he considers innocent.  However, his definition of “innocent” is the peculiar part.  So, Lem is offered a deal.  His silence, coupled with his fingerprints on the murder weapon—just in case—and things will be cool.  Unknown to either Lem or the assassin, things are most definitely not “cool”, as Bastard and Karen are much more than the uneducated hicks they seemed pre-mortem.  Add a corrupt cop, a wannabe pedophile, a low-level mobster, a meth operation, and most importantly, $40 000 in missing cash to the mix and you have the bizarre ride that is The Ethical Assassin.

I first saw a copy of The Ethical Assassin in a store window while walking down Queen St. West in Toronto, way back in 2006.  What caught my attention were the title and the question that popped to mind.  Is it possible to be ethical when one’s chosen profession is the killing of others?  After all, murder is not exactly what the masses would call an “ethical” profession.  Sure, there are reasons to kill: self-defense, the “politics by other means” known as war, maybe even (if you’re pro-death sentence) execution as punishment for one’s crimes. Melford Kean, the titular “Ethical Assassin” kills not for money, or revenge, but due to a deep rooted—and decidedly odd—sense of morality.

Kean is not so much an ethical assassin as he is an ideological one.  Charming on the surface, yet more empathetic to the animal kingdom than his fellow Homo sapiens, Melford has an uncanny ability to argue his position, making an intriguing portrait of a zealot.   Mired in the idea of moral relativism, what seems/is amoral to Lem, Melford accepts as the price to be paid for his activism by other means.  Without giving out too much detail as to why Melford does what he does, let’s just say it’s not about the money or the drugs but more about his profound sense of egalitarianism of species.

It becomes obvious during the course of the novel that Lem, while terrified of Melford’s predilection towards extreme violence, is also somewhat taken in by his charming nature, and while not exactly becoming friends, they share a relationship that borders on it.  And that’s the thing about Melford—he’s a zealot, and a persuasive one.  Lem is smart enough not to be taken in by his ideology, but their time together and some of his subsequent choices show that he’s definitely influenced by Melford’s arguments, even if only on a subconscious level.

As for Lem, he’s a charming portrait of a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An earnest and upstanding kid, simply trying to make the best of the bad deal he’s been dealt in life, he spends the novel trying to extricate himself from a situation not of his making while not getting killed in the  process.  There’s some irony in the fact that he doesn’t really have to worry about Melford—ethically Lem is in the clear—but his perceived association to the crime by those seeking revenge, and the $40K in drug money.  His problems are also compounded by Melford’s desire to look out for him, all the while proselytizing about his system of ethics while trying to sort out the situation in a way that keeps Lem from harm.

While Lem and Melford are the focus of David Liss’ novel, the villains of the story are interesting in their own right.  The relationship between B.B. and Desiré, meth kingpin/pedophile wannabe and his sexy former addict/consigliere, a truly vile corrupt cop by the name of Joe Doe and a former mafia heavy by the unlikely name of Kenny Rogers (hence the nickname “the gambler) demonstrates an odd alliance of interesting characters.  B.B. seems an unlikely kingpin, more concerned with “advancing” the moral character of young men, while Desiré finds herself questioning her allegiance to a man who may have saved her from the gutter but is on a downward spiral into behavior she can’t countenance.  Doe is a delusional character who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room while continually proving he’s not, and the Gambler is actually somewhat sympathetic.  He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while his chosen profession is suspect, it’s the only way a former mob heavy can pay his mounting medical costs.  Brought together in opposition to the partnership that is Lem and Melford, they all discover that the ethical assassin is not someone to be trifled with.

There are times when The Ethical Assassin feels like social activism parading as fiction, yet it’s so well written that the author can be forgiven for injecting his particular world view.  David Liss has been interviewed on several occasions regarding the animal rights message of the novel and is very adamant that he’s not suggesting direct action, claiming that the character of Melford is written so outrageously as to make this obvious.  However, there are times in the novel where his claim falls short and it devolves into a lecture on the evils of both the commercial farming of animals and the demerits of choosing to be a carnivore.  I’ll take his word on that (re: direct action) but reserve the right to question his sincerity as to whether or not he’s lecturing the reader.  It’s a narrow path to follow, creating such a charming and persuasive character while still showing the flaws of their argument.  It’s also hard to review without delving into the controversial subject.

Having said that, The Ethical Assassin is a charming novel, well written and entertaining, and deserving its place in the pantheon of unusual crime fiction. 

B