Tuesday, May 4, 2010
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad
THE BEASTS OF VALHALLA by George C. Chesbro
When this book was released in paperback in 1987 (original publication, 1985), I was working at a bookstore in a mall. I saw the cover, and immediately wanted to read the book. Unfortunately for me, the cover scene… a woman sitting on the edge of a bed in what appears at first glance to be a normal hotel room, but as the eyes scan right is revealed to be underwater with a drowning man trying to break the surface.… has nothing at all to do with the book. Fortunately for me, it didn’t matter. After reading the book, I put it on the short list of my ten favorite books.
Flash forward twenty-three years, and I’m rereading the book for this column. After finishing it, the book resumes its place as one of my ten favorite books. It’s that good.
The protagonist alone is enough to make a potential reader abandon the book as worthless. Robert Frederickson is a private detective, which is not unusual for a main character in a mystery novel. He’s also a dwarf. And a karate black belt. And a college professor. And an ex-circus star acrobat.
The fact that Chesbro found a way to make Mongo believable is a testament to his skill at characterization. In this novel, however, Chesbro decided to perform his juggling act not merely with characterization, but also with plot development. We’ve got parallels to The Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring cycle. We’ve got intelligent gorillas. Death by rare wasp venom. Actual Damascus steel. Spontaneous devolution. Telepathic interrogation.
Somehow, the author managed to keep my interest and my disbelief suspended through all of this. I believe it was because during the ride, he was addressing matters of philosophy and religion as well as human and national relationships, and he was doing it in a way which was neither preachy nor simplistic.
It’s not enough to find that there is a fluid being perfected which should affect large segments of the human population when exposed. The question of why arises, and everyone has a different interpretation of what the fluid will actually do (render people obedient, diminish their intelligence, devolve them to the status of apes) based on their own prejudices and desires.
Underneath it all, there’s a fine action story with some strong suspense and horror elements. There are also some interesting technical work, both in sentence and paragraph construction and in the parallels to more famous works. It’s a wonderful, fun, book that shouldn’t merely be on any mystery, horror, or science fiction lover’s shelf but should also be high on their to be read pile.
Five stars out of five.
THE SATAN SLEUTH #2 : THE WEREWOLF WALKS TONIGHT By Michael Avallone
Remember all of the nice things I said about The Beasts of Valhalla, above? Invert them, and it’ll give you an idea of how bad this book is.
There are a few types of paranormal detective. The most popular version of the past involved a normal if brilliant detective who happened to know all sorts of mythic lore, who would intervene in odd cases and either eliminate a supernatural or otherwise uncanny menace or expose a supposed weird mystery to its mundane roots. The most popular today involves an investigator who possesses one or more paranormal abilities and uses them to foil occult plots and crimes. There are others, however. In the Teddy London books by C.J. Henderson, for example, or the Kolchak stories initiated by Jeff Rice and Richard Matheson we are given an example of the investigator who happens to fall into cases which have supernatural elements.
And then there is The Satan Sleuth. This character falls into the subset of investigators who debunks the supernatural. Consider them a cross between a private detective and James Randi. They were never the most popular of the supernatural detectives, but there were far more of them in the past. I suspect one reason for their decline may have been this book. It was published in 1974, and thankfully was never reprinted.
People, it’s really terrible. The dialogue alternates between wooden and preposterous. Characters are lucky when they’re elevated to having two dimensions. The mystery, if approached from the position of knowing there will be a mundane explanation, is both predictable and stupid. The main character puts Doc Savage to shame… brilliant, heroic, incredibly strong, astonishingly handsome, experienced; all women are enthralled by him and all men envious of him. He is among the most famous men in the world. Yet he can don a disguise consisting of differing clothes, a mild limp, and a false name and be completely unrecognizable.
If anyone wishes to perform Mystery Science Theater 3000 for audio books, this series needs to be recorded. Mockery is the only reason I can come up with for reading it.
One star out of five.
LADY SATIVA by Frank Lauria
I judge books by their covers. It’s a reasonable thing to do, at least initially. I can’t judge a book by its content prior to reading it, so for the initial determination of whether I might be interested in a book the cover is a significant factor. Other things include recommendations, reviews, and reading a sample of the work.
The cover for this book is completely deceptive. Not merely the cover, in fact, but also the title: Lady Sativa. While the title character is undoubtedly important to the story, she is at best a character of suspicion, not the key antagonist. Instead, she falls into a love affair with the protagonist who is uncertain of her loyalties.
Would Ian Fleming have titled “Goldfinger” as “Pussy Galore”? Of course not. Worse, then, is the decision to hype in title and cover copy a character who may not even be working against the hero.
And what a hero it is. Dr. Owen Orient: Scientist, Psychiatrist, Psychic Researcher, Master of the Occult, and Telepath Extraordinaire. One thing he is not, as he reminds people a few times throughout the novel, is a detective. A more accurate statement would be that he is not a particularly good detective. By the seventh chapter he is also not a particularly good werewolf.
What is surprising here is how solid the mystery is. The setup is contrived, there is at least one explicit sex scene, much of the novel is taken up with Orient failing to decipher an obvious clue (after immediately recognizing deeply obscure clues) or alienating his few confidantes by excluding them from his efforts to rid himself of lycanthropy. With all of this going against the book there is no expectation of a good mystery. The author gives us one anyway.
This 1973 novel would have made an strong novella, but it suffers from unbelievable angst and dubious decision-making which reads as if the author were trying to pad the story for word count.
Three stars out of five.
THE DEVIL IN VELVET by John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr is a legend, but not for his horror or suspense work. The man is one of the key figures in mystery and detective fiction. He is generally acknowledged as the master of the locked room mystery, and many of the known “solutions” to the locked room format were invented by Carr. When I saw that he had a supernatural detective story, I had to read it.
This was a mistake. Not because the novel was bad; it wasn’t. Not because there was no supernatural element; there was. It was a mistake because both the mystery and the supernatural element of this story are merely window dressing for what is an elegantly prepared and presented historical novel, originally published in 1951.
The protagonist is a collegiate professor who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to go back in time a few centuries and prevent a murder. The devil agrees to the bargain and Nicholas Fenton soon awakes in Restoration era London. Armed with his knowledge of the period and his contemporary learning, he strives to prevent the death by poisoning of a woman he has grown to adore from painted images of the time.
The mystery element is an engaging puzzle and the supernatural element is undeniable. Of particular interest in that regard is the effort to explain how people are only able to comprehend the devil within the boundaries of their own perceptions. Still, the star of the book is Restoration-era London, from the local places and personages to the linguistic differences between modern and historical England to the finer points of fencing.
If you enjoy a good historical novel, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If you’re not, and you’re looking for a more traditional horror novel, you should probably pass this one by.
Four stars out of five.
THE DREAM DETECTIVE by Sax Rohmer
This is a collection of nine stories, collected for publication in 1920, which were written by the creator of Fu Manchu. They involve Moris Klaw, an early example of a supernatural detective who possesses paranormal abilities. In this case, however, the paranormal ability is unusually minor: he possesses the ability to gather images left by strong emotions at a crime scene by sleeping there on a specially cleansed pillow.
While this is a unique plot device, it is still somewhat effective, mostly because Rohmer had his finger on the pulse of what worked within many pulp stories. Klaw was unbelievable but was outrageously so, owning a small curio shop from which he would venture only to take on truly unusual cases, being accompanied by his incredibly beautiful and devoted daughter everywhere he went, and having a tendency toward speaking in hyperbole and abnormal phrases.
The saving grace for the stories is that others find him as unbelievable as the reader does, which adds a nice touch of pseudo-realism. Of course, the other characters quickly come around to his way of thinking, often being mesmerized by the depth and brilliance of a character who consistently speaks grotesquely foolish things… but with authority!
When Klaw gains a mental picture, it is inevitably key to solving the crime. When he selects a crime to investigate, it is typically because of a rare artifact involved in the crime’s commission. Klaw believes that crimes happen in cycles, repeating generally every few hundred years with similar circumstances when associated by historical treasures.
Moris Klaw is ridiculous in his theory and his presentation, and some of the stories border on the offensive with their racial, commercial and sexual stereotyping. But as classic pulp fiction, they are a lot of fun.
Three stars out of five.