Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Black Company: Glen Cook

The Black Company is the first book in a fantasy series by Glen Cook. Per Wikipedia...
The series follows an elite mercenary unit, The Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, through roughly forty years of its approximately four hundred-year history. Cook mixes fantasy with military fiction in gritty, down-to-earth portrayals of the Company‘s chief personalities and its struggles.
The saga spans nine novels, plus one spin-off novel. The Black Company has a code, and although the company is hired out to whatever contractor can pay, once hired, they do not switch allegiances lightly. At the beginning of the first book, they are in a contract with the Syndic of Beryl, and continued association with him may mean the end of the company. The Syndic has been offered an alliance with the Lady, a very powerful wizard, but has refused. The Black Company then agrees to serve the Lady, who commands 10 lesser (but still very scary) wizards with varying powers. The rest of the book follows the Black Company as they fight for the Lady, and begin to wonder if the new situation is any better than before.

My thoughts on the book:

The first couple of chapters I was lost. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of talking and I did not know what was going on. The reader is immediately immersed in the world of the Black Company with little background provided. Through those two chapters dribs and drabs of some background are supplied, but I was still confused. In the end I decided that this element is related to the way that Cook builds his world. He doesn't use a lot of expository text to lead up the main story, but just throws you in there and lets you get it by osmosis, through actions and conversation in a way that seems normal, and doesn't break up the pacing of the story. I am assuming in subsequent books this isn't an issue.

What kept me reading? I found the story to be very well written and I began to get to know some of the characters. The narrator of the story is Croaker. He is the physician and the archivist of the Black Company. The history of the group is important to those who fight for it.

This is military fantasy. I have enjoyed military science fiction (which I find surprising), but I never really thought about military fantasy. The Black Company series is often cited as one of the first examples of "grimdark" fantasy, a forerunner to later examples such as novels by Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or George R.R. Martin.

Others disagree. I don't know enough about the fantasy genre or its subgenres and I haven't read anything by the authors listed above. Grimdark fantasy appears to be an area where the definition is hotly debated. I found the topic so intriguing that I spent a good amount of time researching the definitions and the arguments for and against grimdark as a fantasy sub-genre.

This book is grim and it is dark, and I assume that the other novels in the series have these same characteristics. But there is not much graphic violence, and especially compared to contemporary grimdardk novels.  Yes, the main characters in this novel may be flawed, and they may be fighting battles for evil masters, but it is their good characteristics that shine through. They are concerned with the moral ambiguities of their actions. They are loyal to each other, and they are a family.

The Characters:

There are several aspects of this book that I loved. I loved Glen Cook's writing style, including the first person narration by Croaker, and the dry humor. Also very high on the list are the characters.

Croaker is the most important. The story is told as if this is the annals of the company as written by Croaker. This sounds like it would be very dry, but the story telling is very informal, as you expect with someone who doesn't have much time to write what has occurred, in between doctoring the wounded and the ill, and taking part in some of the missions. The Captain, the leader of the company, is not one of the more prominent characters, but he is important and you can sense that he feels a strong connection to all of the men under his command, yet knows that his responsibility is to make the best decisions for the company as a whole. One Eye is one of the minor wizards within the company; another is Silent, who may be my second favorite character after Croaker. He does not talk but Croaker often extracts advice and information from him by the strange method of communication they have. Raven is a new member of the company, who doesn't always fit in. He brings in a young girl, Darling, also mute, who was orphaned as the result of a battle; she becomes very important to the saga of the company.

So, all and all, I enjoyed the book and will continue the series. I have read and reviewed a fantasy / detective novel by Glen Cook, Sweet Silver Blues, the first book in the Garrett, P.I. series. That one was fine but I liked this one better.


Publisher:   Tor, 1984. 
Length:       319 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       The Black Company, #1
Genre:        Fantasy
Source:      Borrowed this book from my son.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Background to Danger: Eric Ambler

In my monthly reading summary in May, I described this book as a typical spy thriller by Eric Ambler, with the innocent bystander being pulled into a conspiracy unawares. Since I have only read four books by this author, it is a bit presumptuous of me to speak of his typical style of book, but Ambler is known for a recurrent theme of the amateur who gets involved with criminals or spies.

Kenton, the hero of this story, is a freelance journalist, and the reason that he is so good at his job is that he has the gift of being able to speak a foreign language as if it is his own. This gives him an edge in reporting on European politics and he gets the interesting stories more easily. However, he also has a major flaw; he cannot hold on to money. He has gambled all his money away while in Nuremberg, Germany and now owes money to a friend. He is headed to Vienna in hopes of borrowing money to pay him back. On the train, a stranger asks him to carry his money over the border; Kenton only agrees because the man promises to pay him three hundred marks, three times what he needs to repay the debt. And this is what leads to his involvement in the nefarious plot of this book.

This was a fun, entertaining spy story, not overly serious. Kenton meets up with Andreas Valeshoff and his sister Tamara, who are Russian agents. Valeshoff and Tamara are interesting characters and there are lots of adventures and thrills. And twists and turns that confused me at times. I liked reading a spy thriller set in Austria that was written before World War II had begun.

Background to Danger was initially published as Uncommon Danger in the UK. The book was made into a film starring Peter Lorre, as Valeshoff, Sydney Greenstreet as a villain, and George Raft as the hero (called Joe Barton in the film), and with a screen play by W. R. Burnett. Tamara was played by Brenda Marshall. I enjoyed the film and in general it kept to the same plot as the book. At first Peter Lorre as Valeshoff did not fit the picture I had of that character, but as I got used to him in the role, I changed my mind. There were two major differences that distinguish the film from the book, but I think the film is more enjoyable not knowing about those, so I will just recommend that you read the book and watch the movie.


Publisher:  Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 2001 (orig. pub. 1937)
Length:   280 pages
Format:   Trade paperback
Setting:   Austria
Genre:    Espionage fiction
Source:   I purchased my copy

Sunday, August 21, 2016

See Also Deception: Larry D. Sweazy

See Also Deception continues the story of Marjorie Trumaine, set on a farm in rural North Dakota in October, 1964. The area is affected by a drought, with a severe impact on the crops and livestock on the farm.  President Kennedy was killed in the previous year, and that still affects the nation. There is a cold war going on, very visible in Marjorie's state, with missile silos being drilled into the ground.

I read the first book in this series, See Also Murder, just over a year ago, and I was very impressed with it. In the second book, Marjorie's best friend in the area, a librarian, commits suicide. At first it is a major shock to Marjorie to realize that her friend has been in enough pain to kill herself and that Marjorie was not aware of this. Then she slowly begins to suspect that the suicide was faked.

Marjorie is a strong character, and in this book her gutsiness and her determination are in full force. Background to this story is that although Marjorie and her husband are owners of a working farm, her husband Hank is a quadriplegic due to a hunting accident. All of the responsibilities of keeping the farm running in difficult times fall on her, plus the care of her husband. She has a few neighbors willing to help, but it is a constant struggle to pay the bills and get the work done. And on top of that, Hank's health has been gradually getting worse.

One way Marjorie pays the bills is by creating indexes for non-fiction books. It is this aspect of the book that drew me to the series from the beginning. I think indexes in books are wondrous things (if they are done right) and I can only imagine the work that goes into creating one. Marjorie's natural bent towards orderliness and list making, plus intelligence, make her perfect for that job. And it also makes her a perfect amateur detective. I am not usually a fan of amateur detectives but this series is very convincing and works for me.

I am not sure why, but I liked this book even better than the first one; maybe it was only because I was familiar with the characters and the setting. Some of the secondary characters are further developed in this entry in the series. Although the deaths were more graphic in the first book, the villain is just as intensely scary in this one. There is no way that this a cozy mystery series. Marjorie's isolation on a rural farm leaves her open to attacks and builds up the tension. I came closer to guessing the perpetrator in this one, but Sweazy did a great job of distracting me and keeping me guessing.

This is a wonderful picture of the 1960's in rural North Dakota. The secondary role of women in society at that time is explored. I was a teenager in these times, in a big city in the southern US. I remember the impact of John F. Kennedy's assassination during those years. It was eye opening to read about a totally different part of the country at that time.

Links to other reviews and an interview:

Larry D. Sweazy (pronounced: Swayzee) is the author of twelve novels, including two Western series and two standalone novels (see the list at Fantastic Fiction).  He has two new novels coming in 2017, a third Marjorie Trumaine mystery, See Also Deadline, and another standalone, Where I Can See You.


Publisher:  Seventh Street Books, 2016.
Length:      237 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Marjorie Trumaine #2
Setting:      North Dakota
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Forgotten Books Not Yet Read

A couple of years ago I did a post on some forgotten books I had recently bought but not yet read. Lacking any other subject for a blog post this week, I thought I would try that again. This time I am featuring recent reprints or omnibus editions of older books.

Death Brings a Storke / 
Cradled in Fear  by Anita Boutell

From the back of the book....
In not at the birth but not long after the death is Dr. Archibald "Archie" Storke, when during a pleasant breakfast one morning with his wife Janey he receives a urgent call from the housekeeper at Whiteleaves,  home of Andrew Herrick, informing him that her employer has been discovered dead in his sitting room, with a ghastly gunshot wound to his head. It is thought Herrick committed suicide, but the doctor is doubtful... A classic tale of detection, Death Brings a Storke (1938) was the first published crime novel by Anita Boutell, an American expatriate chosen by mystery fiction scholar Howard Haycraft in his book Murder for Pleasure (1941) as one if the rising stars of British manners mystery, and has now been reprinted for the first time in nearly eighty years.

In Cradled in Fear. . . After a whirlwind courtship of three weeks, young Molly Nash, mostly alone in the world, married Sheridan "Sherry" Prescott. Now she has traveled with her handsome new husband to the old family mansion at Prescott's Point, Connecticut, a gloomy Victorian edifice clinging to a forbidding cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. But what did Molly really know about Sherry, and just what grim mysteries are hidden behind the walls of the house at Prescott's Point? What Molly does not know could be the death of her. . . .

Cradled in Fear was Anita Boutell's fourth and final crime novel and her only one set in the United States.

In 2014, I reviewed one of Boutell's other two books, Death has a Past. I was thrilled to discover this double volume, with a very detailed introduction, including biographical information, by Curtis Evans. See the post at The Passing Tramp about this book and lots more information about the author.

Poor Poor Ophelia  by Carolyn Weston

Next up is the book that was the basis for the pilot episode of the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco. Poor, Poor Ophelia was the first book in a brief series by Carolyn Weston. The series featured a pair of homicide detectives but in the books they were based in Santa Monica, California. Brash Books has brought these novels back into print. 

Just about a year ago I reviewed the second book in that series, Susannah Screaming. Now I plan to read this book and then re-watch the pilot of The Streets of San Francisco. We are big fans of this show. We have watched all the episodes of the first four seasons over the past year or so.

See this detailed post at the Rap Sheet, and the review at Col's Criminal Library.

David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s  Edited by Robert Polito

Last but far from least is this omnibus of novels, which includes Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar, The Moon in the Gutter, and Street of No Return.

I purchased this book because I have been wanting to read Dark Passage for years... and then watch the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Every time I look for a copy, everything I find is more expensive than I want to pay. Including this volume. What I really wanted was a vintage paperback, but those were even more expensive. So I finally gave in and now I will have access to four other novels by Goodis. Books that gather several novels in one book are not my favorites because they are heavy and unwieldy to read, but I will admit that the Library of America series of books are very nicely done.

Check out these very interesting posts on this volume:
At Criminal Element
Reviewed by Martin Walker at Mystery*File

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Case of the Restless Redhead: Erle Stanley Gardner

My summary of TCOT Restless Redhead:

Perry Mason is at the courthouse in Riverside to pick up some papers from Judge Dillard. While waiting, he watches a trial in progress in Dillard's courtroom. A young lawyer, Frank Neely, is defending a redheaded waitress, Evelyn Bagby, who had been arrested for theft while stranded in Corona waiting for her car to be repaired. He ends up giving some advice to Neely, which leads to the waitress being acquitted.

Evelyn had been on her way to the L.A. area to seek acting work in Hollywood. She stops by Mason's office in L.A. to thank him for the help. Evelyn has very little money and Mason helps her find a job waitressing for the time being. Very shortly she is implicated in another crime and this time it is murder.

It has been so long since I read a book in the Perry Mason series that I don't remember if this book is a typical story or how it stacks up against the others in the series (about 80 novels). I do think it is typical for Mason to take on the client before the actual murder happens, and in this book, we are nearly 1/3 of the way into the story before there is a murder. That works fine for me, I like the plot to build up to the crime and give me an overview of the characters in advance.

These are other things I noticed about this novel:

Mason must be doing pretty well financially to be able to drop all his other work to pursue justice for a waitress whose case he becomes interested in. There is no indication here that he is rich and he doesn't flaunt his status at all, but he appears to be able to take cases that appeal to him whether or not they will pay off for him financially.

He comes to the aid of a young lawyer in Riverside who has been assigned a pro bono case. The young lawyer is making rookie mistakes in the first trial and Perry Mason helps with tips and advice. This lawyer remains in the picture throughout the story, but mainly as a demonstration of Mason's generosity, in sharing both his expertise and not charging for the advice.

Mason falsifies and meddles with the evidence, but not to the extent of breaking the law (I think). I guess he walks the tightrope between doing something illegal and just bending the rules to prove a point. Of course, in the end it all comes out well for his client and District Attorney Hamilton Burger turns up looking pretty silly for not taking some precautions with the evidence and the witnesses.

There do seem to be some logical inconsistencies. Mason indicates by his actions that he thinks his client is being framed, but his advice seems to put her in obvious danger. Yet, with the fast paced action and the entertaining courtroom scene to tie the story up, the inconsistencies don't seem bothersome.

A very interesting tidbit is that The Case of the Restless Redhead was the basis for the script for the first episode of the television series.

Is this a good read? Yes. The story is fast-paced. The characters may be stereotypes but they are interesting characters regardless. The plot is intriguing, regardless of the inconsistencies. My only disappointment was that I was expecting an even better story.

However, this was mitigated for me by the fact that the first trial takes place in Riverside, California (where I lived for several years) and some of the action early in the story takes place in Corona, a city nearby. I worked for 5 years in Norco (short for North Corona), so I can picture what those areas were like in the 1950s. Corona was small townish and surrounding areas were fairly rural even in the 1970s, so in the 1950s I am sure that they were more so.

I knew that the Perry Mason series was set in Southern California, and that Mason had his offices in L.A. I did not know that Erle Stanley Gardner spent so much of his life in California. He was born in Malden, Massachusetts, but he graduated from high school in Palo Alto, California (in the San Francisco Bay area). In 1921, he joined the law firm of Sheridan, Orr, Drapeau and Gardner in Ventura, California (about 35 miles south of Santa Barbara). While working there he wrote and published a lot of short stories, and wrote his first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, published in 1933. At that time he left the law firm and moved to Temecula, California, where he lived and wrote until he died in 1970. Temecula is in the southwestern corner of Riverside County.

This book is my selection for a 1954 book for the Crimes of the Century meme, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. Every month he designates a year and bloggers contribute a post on a crime fiction book (or film, TV, comics, or short story) published in that year. There is still time to join in for August.


Publisher:   Pocket Book edition, 4th ed., published 1967. Orig. pub. 1954.
Length:      229 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Perry Mason
Setting:      Southern California
Genre:       Legal Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2012.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Big Clock: Kenneth Fearing

George Stroud is an editor at Crimeways, one of many magazines that are published by Janoth Enterprises, run by Earl Janoth and his right-hand man, Steve Hagen. George Stroud is clearly unhappy with his job; he describes the corporation he works for and the machinations that go on daily as a big clock, sometimes running fast, sometimes running slow, but always seeming meaningless. He gets involved with Janoth's girlfriend, and when she is murdered, he is pulled into a  manhunt for the culprit.

That sounds like a pretty straightforward story, but there is nothing simple and easy about this book. To start with, there are seven first person narrators. The story is mainly told from George's point of view, but the switching around of narrators can get confusing. Each chapter title includes the narrator's name, but if you skip chapter titles, like I sometimes do, it can take a while to figure out who is talking. Not that I am complaining. I enjoy stories told from the point of view of several characters.

George is married and he doesn't want to lose his wife and daughter. George's wife is named Georgette and their daughter is named Georgia. And to complicate things further, Georgia calls both of her parents George. That sometimes makes reading dialogue difficult, and I am sure there was some symbolism to it that I missed.

All of this sounds like I did not like the book and that is far from the truth. The characters are not fully fleshed out but the book is paced nicely. Any one who has been in the working world and felt like they have lost control of their own life and time or anyone who has dealt with meaningless bureaucracies can empathize with this story. This was a complex, dark novel and the symbolism of the clock worked well.

A personal plus for me was the setting in the publishing world. This story is about a big business and how its workers are subjugated. I worked in a smaller, family run business. But still, publishing is publishing; we did produce serial publications and we were in competition with other publishers.

A quote...
One runs like a mouse up the old, slow pendulum of the big clock, time, scurries around and across its huge hands, strays inside through the intricate wheels and balances and springs of the inner mechanism, searching among the cobwebbed mazes of this machine with all its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits, hunting for the true opening and the real prize. 
Then the clock strikes one and it is time to go, to run down the pendulum, to become again a prisoner making once more the same escape.  
For of course the clock that measures out the seasons, all gain and loss, the air Georgia breathes, Georgette's strength, the figures shivering on the dials of my own inner instrument board, this gigantic watch that fixes order and establishes the pattern for chaos itself, it has never changed, it will never change, or be changed.
The book was adapted into a film also titled The Big Clock, directed by John Farrow, and starring Ray Milland as George, Maureen O'Sullivan as his wife, and Charles Laughton as Janoth. We watched the film in early 2014, and it was over two years before I read the book. I had plenty of time to forget the intricacies of the story, although I remembered the basic plot and the clock imagery. When we watched the film again after I read the book, I was surprised by the differences between the two.

The film contains less sexuality than the book. I assume this is because of the mores of that time. George does not have an affair with Janoth's girlfriend in the movie, he just spends an ill-fated night on the town with her because he is exasperated at his boss and he is drinking too much. The only real flaws he has in the movie is heavy drinking and poor judgement. George is not a very likable character, in the movie or the book, but it is more obvious in the movie.

Thus the novel is much darker, more serious, and realistic; the movie is more fun and less confusing. The movie conveys the symbolism of the clock very well but doesn't really give us a hint why George feels like he is on a treadmill. Even though it is obvious (fairly early) that he has a demanding and unscrupulous boss, his job seems pretty good to me. I liked the book better but the film is great too.

There is a more recent film adaptation, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. That film is a very loose adaptation. I have not seen it, but it has been recommended, and I do want to try it.

See thoughts on both the book and the film at Tipping My Fedora, and posts on the film at Riding the High Country and at LILEKS.COM.


Publisher:    New York Review Books, 2006 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length:        175 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        US
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copy.