Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.

A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Hackish Pulp/Noir on Steroids

Title: Killing Floor
(Jack Reacher – Book 1)
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Pages: 407
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I know a couple people who are really into the Jack Reacher novels so I decided to give them a shot. This felt like what some of the more hackish pulp/noir authors of the 1920’s-50’s would have written if they had been allowed to use more profanity and gore.

The first person narration is clipped with 3-5 word sentences and fragments galore (and way too much info-dumping). Our protagonist/narrator is a bit of a sociopath. He is brutally, murderously pragmatic in how he handles his enemies, clinically and remorselessly describing the violence he is inflicting on them. For him, law and order might be useful tools, but they get in the way as often as not. His relationships with people he “likes” could be described in terms of protectiveness and/or mutual lust but are otherwise cold.

The overall plot wasn’t especially plausible, even for this kind of story: the coincidence that gets him involved in whatever shadiness is going on in small-town Georgia defies credibility; one minute he is making deductions of Sherlockian complexity and the next is missing painfully obvious clues; police officers chirpily go along with (or at least turn a blind eye to) his murderous and illegal activities; and I could go on. The bad guys’ conspiracy and government’s response to it is riddled with absurdities, but I don’t want to spoil it so I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, if you’re into violent but intelligent tough-guy characters you might enjoy this, but I think I’ll stick with the hacks from the 20’s-50’s when I’m in the mood for this sort of thing…I prefer snark to profanity and am okay with violent scenes not describing the sensation of a person’s skull shattering.

Diotima Takes the Lead

Title: Death on Delos
(Athenian Mysteries – Book 7)
Author: Gary Corby
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5

Nicolaos (Socrates’ fictional older brother and slightly bumbling agent / investigator / fixer for Pericles) and his wife Diotima (historically, one of Socrates’ teachers) are back for another case. I love how the author always centers the action around a major historical event in Athenian history. This time it’s the seizure of the Delian League’s treasury by the Athenians…for safekeeping, of course!

The murder mystery is well-constructed as usual with plenty of red herrings and a convoluted but believable solution. This time Diotima, ten months pregnant by the Athenian calendar, gets to take the lead. This isn’t isn’t too different than usual as she’s generally the smarter of the two, but this time it’s official.

I don’t read much historical fiction or mysteries (other than vintage noir), but I love this series, and this book was no exception.

A Pudgy Little Spy

With the recent release of A Legacy of Spies I’ve decided to read through all nine of John LeCarré’s George Smiley books. The first seven will be re-reads for me, but last time I read them a bit out of order and spread out over several years so I’ll get a more coherent story this time. George Smiley is a stodgy, wistful little academic who is happier studying obscure German poets than moving (and sacrificing) human chess pieces during the Cold War. Unfortunately, his brilliant mind and sense of loyalty continually pull him back into the world of “The Circus” (basically, MI6). Here are mini-reviews of the first three books:

Title: Call for the Dead
Author:
John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 172 (including 15-page intro)
Rating: 4 of 5

A member of the Foreign Office commits suicide after a seemingly positive interview with George Smiley following an anonymous denunciation. Details just don’t add up, and the more Smiley examines the matter the less sense it makes. Smiley has a more actively-in-the-field investigative role in this book than he does in many of the others, but it is a good introduction to his character (as well as his protege Peter Guillam  and a major character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). The style and themes are fairly typical of the other Smiley novels with plenty of twists and turns, not a lot of high action, and a clear depiction of the ugly human cost of the Cold War spy game.

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Murder Mystery
Pages: 173 (including 15 page intro)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is the odd one out of the George Smiley books in that it has nothing to do with international espionage. We find Smiley, during one of his not-employed-by-the-Circus phases, pulled into the investigation of a murder at a prestigious boarding school. Despite being purely a murder mystery, LeCarré preserves the same world-weary tone as his other books. I must say that from the writings of Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and John LeCarré I have a pretty dim view of English boarding schools since they are consistently portrayed as havens of snobbery, brutality, and other perversity. Overall, this is a decent mystery that indulges in some cutting social commentary and does some character development of George Smiley, but it is probably completely skippable if you’re in this purely for the spy stuff.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5!

This is THE Cold War spy novel! It features an intricate chess game between the Circus and the Abteilung (LeCarré’s version of East German Intelligence) centering around a plot to eliminate the head of the Abteilung. George Smiley is very much in the background of this book, doing things behind the scenes as others take center stage. In addition to a masterful plot where nothing is as it seems, the book delves into concerns about the brutal pragmatism and wastefulness of human life by both sides. The spy business is ugly and LeCarré is perfectly willing to point it out without offering nice pat answers that make us feel good about the moral superiority of “our side.” If you only ever read one Cold War espionage novel, this is the one to read! It can definitely be read by itself, but, if you have the time, the relatively short Call for the Dead provides helpful backstory that makes for a richer reading experience.

Poirot’s First

Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 178
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Hercule Poirot is already in fine form in this, his first novel. The small, dandyish Belgian with a penchant for spouting off French phrases sails through this case of poisoning at the manor house with aplomb. At times, I find Poirot’s smugness and withholding of relevant information until right before “the big reveal” to be a bit annoying, but fans of the little detective should enjoy this.

The case itself is entertaining enough. There are plenty of believable suspects with good motives and a few red herrings to keep you guessing (the narrator falls for all of them, of course). What actually happened is fairly convoluted, but not to the point of being completely unbelievable. Overall: an enjoyable “cozy mystery.”

A Condescending Whodunnit

Title: I Am Providence
Author:
Nick Mamatas
Genre: Mystery (with a touch of Cosmic Horror)
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

A Lovecraftian, nihilistic worldview underlies much of the narration, in this book, but this is no Lovecraft pastiche. It is primarily a murder mystery set at a Comic Con style gathering of Lovecraftian writers and fans. The book as a whole lampoons fandom in general and Lovecraftians in particular. I recognized characters who were clearly S. T. Joshi and Robert M. Price and if I were more into this particular fandom I’m sure I would have gotten other in-jokes. While the satirical portrayal of rabid fandom was fairly amusing at times, it felt just plain mean spirited and condescending for the most part. With very few exceptions, the convention-goers (and Lovecraft fans in general) are portrayed as creepy white male social outcasts who spout racism, sexism, and/or some other form of prejudice…apparently if you like Lovecraft’s fiction you’re likely to be as horrible of a person as he was.

The story is narrated from two points of view: the first-person lingering/disintegrating  consciousness of the murder victim (probably the creepiest/cleverest part of the book), and a third person account which follows a first time convention-goer who is a female author (one of only three at the convention) and proud vegan (which has next to nothing to do with the plot but is mentioned repeatedly and self-righteously). Both characters reminded me unpleasantly of Holden Caulfield in the foul-mouthed, derogatory way that they talked/thought about practically everyone else; an impression heightened by the dead guy having written a mashup called Catcher in R’lyeh. The mystery itself was okay with the resolution striking exactly the right note for a Lovecraftian book. Overall, everyone in the book was so unpleasant that this just wasn’t a very enjoyable read.

Holmes + Wooster = Wimsey

Related imageTitle: Lord Peter Views the Body
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 281
Rating: 4 of 5

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey could be described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster. This creation of Dorothy L. Sayers (friend of C. S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings) is a somewhat dandyish bibliophile with a keen analytical mind that he uses to solve crime as sort of a hobby (assisted by his talented butler, Bunter).

Unlike most of the Peter Wimsey books, this one is a collection of short stories. In some of them the “whodunit” is fairly obvious, but the light, breezy style and frequent literary references make them worth reading anyway. There was, perhaps, a bit more humor in this collection than in the novel-length stories, but I think it was a nice tradeoff for the complexity that is lost in the short story format. Overall: well worth reading for fans of “cozy mysteries” or the Inklings.

Murder in Chicago

The Fabulous Clipjoint: A Mystery/Detective, Post-1930, Pulp Classic By Fredric Brown! AAA+++Title: The Fabulous Clipjoint
Author: Fredric Brown
Genre: Mystery/Noir
Pages : 168
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I needed a break from philosophical C. S. Lewis reading so I grabbed something from my go-to escapist genre: mystery/crime from the 1920’s-50’s.

There was nothing fancy about this book; no snappy dialogue like Hammett or Chandler and no steadily building dread like Goodis or Woolrich. However, it had a decent plot with some good twists and turns. The story follows 18-year-old Ed Hunter as he and his Uncle Ambrose (a carnie) try to track down his father’s killer in Chicago. The tale features the usual noir fiction assortment of drunks, gangsters, crooked cops, and a femme fatale or two. I guessed whodunnit pretty early on, but there were enough red herrings and obscure motives that I didn’t get bored with it. There is also the added interest of this being something of a “coming of age tale” for Ed. I was a little disappointed that the carnie angle didn’t play into the story as much as I’d hoped, but I guess you can only fit so much into 168 pages. Overall: exactly the kind of escapist read I was hoping for.