Thursday, November 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

THE BEAST MUST DIE by Nicholas Blake

We've seen the set-up before: a mystery writer who decides to kill someone, and tries to make it a "perfect" murder. We've seen it on Columbo. We've seen it on Murder, She Wrote. And we even saw it in real life when Agatha Christie's husband was very nearly executed for her murder.
I'd like to say this book started it all... but it didn't. The concept had been around before this book was written in 1938. It also wasn't the first book to feature a sympathetic murderer. It is, however, the earliest book I've found which combined both elements, and it stands today as a book that has weathered time unusually well.
The concept is simple: a widower's young son has been slain by a hit-and-run driver. The police investigation has turned up nothing. As a successful crime novelist, the father decides to launch his own investigation. It might take him days, months or longer, but he will find the man who killed his child and he will murder that man.
The first part of the book is constructed as the author's diary. It allows the reader to get inside the mind of this fundamentally decent man as he works toward his goal, and provides a way to develop both the character and, by reflection, the people with whom he becomes intimate on his path to revenge.
The second part of the book is a traditional murder mystery, with the author's series detective shifting to the starring role. Despite the obvious buildup as to who the killer must be, from the first part of the book, the author manages to produce an interesting, somewhat twisted narrative that manages a few surprises both in plot and character. The dialogue is sharp but somewhat dated, and some of the observations about humanity have not borne out (my favorite occurs in the book's second paragraph, where the author rejects the notion of a sociopath) but overall the book is engrossing and satisfying.

Five stars out of Five

THE BREAKDOWN / TRAPS by Friedrich Durrenmatt

I'm counting this book from its original publication date, 1956. That was when The Breakdown (Die Panne) was published in Germany. It was translated into English in the early 1960s and published under its new title "Traps" by the Ballantines.
A man named Alfredo Traps suffers the poor luck of a vehicular breakdown in a small town. Finding no available room at the only true inn, he manages to secure lodging with an amiable elderly local who sometimes hosts the inn's overflow guests.
The homeowner is a former judge, and he invites his boarder to join him and his friends for dinner. The food and conversation are both excellent, and afterward the elderly locals decide to play a familiar parlor game: they stage a mock trial. They were all litigants of one sort or another, and they find it keeps their minds sharp.
Traps acquiesces... and events quickly spiral out of control. The author keeps the reader guessing, laying equal hints that their pastime is merely a game and that there are more dire aspects to it. The discovery that one of the guests was formerly the official executioner, for example, adds to the reader's uncertainty.
The book is a psychological thriller, and it is skillfully rendered, but I was displeased by it. It relies upon the main character to drive the plot and many of his choices, while plausible, seemed unlikely. That could merely be my own viewpoints sneaking through, however. Traps is an everyman if a desire for importance and relevance trumps the manner in which fame is achieved. I'd like to think that isn't the case for most people, but reality television has been proving me wrong for the past decade.
The size of the book also cannot be overlooked. It is ridiculously short; 120 page novels were not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s, but each page only has 21 lines of text. This is not a novel, it is a novella.
This book could easily be rewritten as a play; in fact, I'd be surprised if it has not already been turned into one in the author's native Germany.

Four stars out of Five

THE COUCH by Robert Bloch

This book was produced by Bloch in 1962. It's a novelization of Bloch's original screenplay, which was inspired by an original story by Blake Edwards and Owen Crump.
I don't know how much there was to the "original story". I'm open to the possibility that it was thoughtfully plotted and published somewhere, but I have never found any evidence to that effect. Instead what I've found is a book which is pared down to the bone without sacrificing characterization or developmental scenes. Bloch manages to give us a look at 1960s Los Angeles, and by so doing plays an interesting manipulative game with the reader.
Bloch played in many fields. He was a screenwriter, a humorist, a Mythos writer, and wore other hats besides. He is best known for his authorship of Psycho, which was famously the inspiration for the Hitchcock film.
He didn't write the screenplay for the film, however. And far, far more people have watched the film than have read the book.
At his best, he was a shining star of a thriller writer, able to take a hackneyed mystery plot and make it sing with action and believability. He does this for The Couch, which deserves recognition (like The Scarf) as among his best work in the short novel form. It is a great example of a master craftsman making something memorable out of inferior material.

Four stars out of Five

--Bill Lindblad