Monday, February 28, 2011
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, 1992
Anno Dracula has a premise that should ensure excellence. As a lover of Victorian literature, the idea of Inspector Lestrade and Dr. Jekyll rubbing elbows with Fu Manchu and Mina Harker is pretty much irresistible. A mixture of fantasy, alternate history and literary mash-up has the potential to be a fantastic book.
It's too bad that Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is such a shapeless mess, especially considering the can't-miss premise. The novel is incompetent at best and downright dumb at worst. It's a thriller that doesn't thrill, a horror novel that doesn't scare, a love story that doesn't compel.
The year is 1888 and Dracula is the Prince Consort of Victoria. London is overrun with vampires, both in the lower classes and the upper classes. Tensions between the new breed and the "warm" are high, and they come to a boil when a serial killer begins stalking Whitechapel, murdering vampire prostitutes. A serial killer named Jack the Ripper.
Newman attempts to prove his literacy and cleverness by throwing in just about every character from late-19th-century fiction you can think of (and a few historical characters, too). It's a bold stroke, and it makes for a lot of amusing cameos. Even Barlow from 'Salem's Lot gets a mention.
Unfortunately, amusing cameos can't make up for dull characters, purple prose and a plot that's about as exciting as a long bus ride. Newman's potential far exceeds his achievement.
Problem No. 1 is the cast of characters. Newman has a tin ear for dialogue and no talent for description. His heroes are vaguely sketched and uninteresting and his villains are wooden mustache-twirlers. Not a single character in the book stands out for me; even Dracula (when he finally appears) is a predictable disappointment.
No. 2 is the plot, which hinges on the murder spree of Jack the Ripper a.k.a. Dracula's Jack Seward. This story holds zero suspense, since readers know Seward is the Ripper on page one. There's no mystery and precious little action. Our intrepid heroes spend most of their time tooling aimlessly around Whitechapel, uncovering clues that are either already known to the readers or are completely irrelevant. The story could have worked if the passages from Seward's point of view were chilling or compelling, but Newman is not an able enough author to pull it off.
Which brings us to Problem 3. Kim Newman, while a creative inventor of fantasy worlds, isn't that great a writer. His word choice and sentence structure is consistently awful and his descriptions are around the quality of your average Harlequin romance. He--well, he doesn't make me believe his universe is real and tactile. His world is quite literally a hodge-podge of elements cribbed from other, better works. There is no spark to it.
The only area of the novel that Newman's turgid prose serves him well are the book's wild, over-the-top vampire fight scenes, which are enjoyable mostly for their ridiculousness:
The Chinese changed. His neck elongated, dividing into prickle-haired insect segments. The arms extending from his bell-shaped sleeves were several-elbowed, human-shaped hands as big as paddles. His head swung from side to side on his snakeneck, a yard of coiled pigtail lashing his shoulders. The queue ended with a spiked ball woven into his rope of hair.
Something at once wispy and prickly brushed her face. It was a cobwebby rope grown from the vampire's face. While she watched his hands, he had reached for her with his joined eyebrows. Hairs like pampas grass scratched her skin. She felt a trickle on her forehead. The creature was trying for her eyes. She made a fist and swung her forearm against the brow-snake, wrapping it about her wrist several times. She pulled hard; thin strings cut through her sleeve and noosed her wrist, but the vampire was off-balanced.---(page 216)
I'll give Newman this: the book is not really boring. For one thing, it's too short. For another, it has too many changes in perspective. Also? Eyebrow-snakes? Hello.
I must admit, when I first heard about Anno Dracula, I expected more than eyebrow-snakes. I had high hopes that, based on the concept, it would be Really Good. Unfortunately, it's just a piece of mediocre pulp fiction, not entirely unpleasant for its short duration, but not at all memorable or satisfying. I almost wish a more skilful author could take over the premise and start the book over from scratch.
NEXT UP: Ian Rankin. I'm excited.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Enemy by Lee Child, 2004
Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is really a very odd one when you stop and think about it. There are no recurring locations and precious few recurring characters. The series focuses like a laser on one thing only, and that thing is Jack Reacher. To an extent, the entire series is a lengthy character study on the subject of Reacher, who, luckily, is an endlessly fascinating subject.
The Enemy is the first novel in the series to take place entirely in Jack Reacher's past as a military police officer. My all-time favorite Child novel, Persuader, featured an excellent and lengthy flashback to this same time period. For series fans, it's a wonderful opportunity for some insight into everyone's favorite badass drifter, as well as being yet another kinetic thriller/mystery story.
The book begins very early in the morning on New Year's Day, 1990. Jack Reacher has just been mysteriously assigned to a position on a sleepy North Carolina base when a two-star general turns up dead in a local motel. The general appears to have been meeting a prostitute and an all-important briefcase he was carrying appears to be missing. Reacher being Reacher, he digs deeper and uncovers a deadly conspiracy that travels both up and down the ranks of the US Army.
If Child has a fault when it comes to his plots, it's that there's a certain sameness to them. The Enemy, thanks to its status as a prequel, is able to shake up the typical Reacher formula. It's a combination of military thriller and classic whodunit, less reliant on action than the usual Lee Child adventure.
This is both good and bad. It's good because it's nice to see a Reacher novel with a somewhat slower pace and bad because the plot as a whole suffers a bit from the reduced speed. The book's middle sags a bit under the weight of too many clues and too much information, but Child characteristically turns things around for the ending, delivering one of his trademark knock-out climaxes (think two things: "tanks" and "execution").
Child is still an underrated master of mystery and he puts together a very complicated plot in a pretty logical way, but I still had three-quarters of the ultimate solution figured out a long time before the unraveling. There's nothing here to match The Hard Way's multiple jawdroppers.
The Enemy's appeal mostly lies in the unusual setting and plot and its status as Jack Reacher's "origin story." In an atypical move, Child includes a subplot about Reacher's dying mother, an unabashedly emotional moment for our stalwart man of steel. These scenes are well-served by Child's terse prose, but I think the subplot could have been worked more gracefully into the main story.
Reacher's relationship with fellow MP Summer is also a little awkwardly handled. Reacher almost always has a disposable female companion and it's getting a little overdone. Summer is a likable character whon serves her function well, but we know that she's never going to show up again and that cheapens her romance with Reacher.
At least Child is still on top of his game, writing-wise. There are few authors who can evoke so much with so little. His action scenes are fantastic, but that's not all he can do:
What is the twentieth century's signature sound? You could have a debate about it. Some might say the slow drone of an aero engine. Maybe from a lone fighter crawling across an azure 1940s sky. Or the scream of a fast jet passing low overhead, shaking the ground. Or the whup whup whup of a helicopter. Or the roar of a laden 747 lifting off. Or the crump of bombs falling on a city. All of those would qualify. They're all uniquely twentieth-century noises. They were never heard before. Never, in all of history. Some crazy optimists might lobby for a Beatles song. A yeah, yeah, yeah chorus fading under the screams of their audience. I would have sympathy for that choice. But a song and screaming could never qualify. Music and desire have been around since the dawn of time. They weren't invented after 1900.
No, the twentieth century's signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street. that sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin. Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, and Seoul and Saigon. It's a brutal sound. It's the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference. Tank treads squeal and clatter and the very noise they make tell you they can't be stopped. It tells you you're weak and powerless against the machine. Then one track stops and the others keep on going and the tank wheels around and lurches straight toward you, roaring and squealing. That's the real twentieth-century sound. --- (pages 316-317)
Like all of Lee Child's works, The Enemy is a well-written joy to read. He writes thrillers better than just about anyone and his sharp dialogue and minimal description are as stylistically distinctive as Elmore Leonard's stream-of-consciousness prose.
It's a bit of a shame that The Enemy doesn't have a little more impact considering its unique status as the series' prequel volume. The plot is just a bit laborious and the Reacher family subplot seems like a big missed opportunity. As it is, it's an entertaining footnote in the Reacher series, but unlikely to make my Top Five list any time soon.
UP NEXT: Kim Newman's horror/fantasy/alternate history/thriller Anno Dracula.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880
I'm not going to lie: the experience of reading The Brothers Karamazov is not fun for anyone who isn't a masochist. Getting through TBK is sort of like trying to kill an angry bull with a soup spoon. It's long, messy and tiring, but it's also a huge accomplishment. Although killing an angry bull with a soup spoon would probably be exciting, so my analogy is far from perfect.
Dostoevsky's two most prominent novels--Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov--have always been held up as the "best of the best" by hoity-toity literary types. If nothing else, Dostoevsky had the ability to be a masterful philosopher, and there's a great deal of intriguing philosophy and religion in his work.
What Dostoevsky is not is a great storyteller. The Brothers Karamazov is, in my edition, 700 pages long--in many editions it's over a thousand--and roughly half of that length would have easily told the actual story. The rest is purely extraneous.
What is the actual story? Sometime in the nineteenth century, in a small Russian town, there live three brothers (excited yet?). One of them is emotional and headstrong, another is cold and intellectual, the third is kind and good. The lives and beliefs of Mitya, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov intertwine after their father is murdered and Mitya is accused of the crime. There's also a tangle of soap-opera subplots that would take pages to unravel, so I'm not even going to go there.
Anyway, the plot isn't the point. If it was, no one would remember what the The Brothers Karamazov is.
The point is the philosophic and religious commentary, which take the form of several essay-like sidebars. Dostoevsky's main questions are the existence of God and the essential goodness or badness of humankind, as well as the interrelationship between the two.
It is these passages in which Dostoevsky shines. His ideas and concepts are genuinely arresting and certainly thought-provoking. Even though Dostoevsky was a profoundly religious man, he presents several extremely strong arguments against religion.
These appear in "The Grand Inquisitor," a particularly celebrated chapter in which Ivan outlines his revolutionary beliefs to the pious Alyosha. The chapter, which is an essay to all intents and purposes, has real energy and some fairly brilliant observations to make. Dostoevsky is better-suited to this kind of writing than to the creation of believable characters or compelling stories:
"Well, I know nothing of it [mankind's ability to love] so far, and can't understand it, and the innumerable mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether that's due to men's bad qualities or whether it's inherent in their nature. To my thinking, Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods. Suppose I, for instance, suffer intensely. Another can never know how much I suffer, because he is another and not I. And what's more, a man is rarely able to admit another's suffering (as though it were a distinction). Why won't he admit it, do you think? Because I smell unpleasant, because I have a stupid face, because I once trod on his foot. Besides there is suffering and suffering; degrading, humiliating suffering such as humbles me--hunger, for instance,--my benefactor will perhaps allow me; but when you come to higher suffering--for an idea, for instance--he will very rarely admit that, perhaps because my face strikes him as not at all what he fancies a man should have who suffers for an idea. And so he deprives me instantly of his favour, and not at all from badness of heart. Beggars, especially genteel beggars, ought never to show themselves, but to ask for charity through the newspapers. One can love one's neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it's almost impossible. If it were as on the stage, in the ballet, where if beggars come in, they wear silken rags and tattered lace and beg for alms dancing gracefully, then one might like looking at them. But even then we should not love them. But enough of that. I simply wanted to show you my point of view. I meant to speak of the suffering of mankind generally, but we had better confine ourselves to the suffering of the children. That reduces the scope of my argument to a tenth of what it would be. Still we'd better keep to the children, though it does weaken my case. But, in the first place, children can be loved even at close quarters, even when they are dirty, even when they are ugly (I fancy, though, children never are ugly). The second reason why I won't speak of grown-up people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation--they've eaten the apple and know good and evil and they have become 'like gods.' They go on eating it still. But the children haven't eaten anything, and are so far innocent. Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers' sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth. The innocent must not suffer for another's sins, and especially such innocents! You may be surprised at me, Alyosha, but I am awfully fond of children, too. And observe, cruel people, the violent, the rapacious, the Karamazovs are sometimes very fond of children. Children while they are quite little--up to seven, for instance--are so remote from grown-up people; they are different creatures, as it were, of a different species. I knew a criminal in prison, who had, in the course of his career as a burglar, murdered whole families, including several children. But when he was in prison, he had a strange affection for them. He spent all his time at his window, watching the children playing in the prison yard. He trained one little boy to come up to his window and made great friends with him. . . . You don't know why I am telling you all this, Alyosha? My head aches and I am sad." --- (Constance Garnett translation, pages 220-221)
Yes, that is in fact one paragraph. And the two chapters in which Ivan lectures Alyosha are full of 'em. This novel is not for the faint of heart.
Dostoevsky's philosophy is truly interesting and surprisingly relevant. "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" represent Ivan's main thesis against the existence of God and the companion chapter, "The Devil. Ivan's Nightmare" is a dreamlike encounter with an evil demon. These chapters have spirit and strength, even though they are all completely irrelevant to the story.
The story itself, however, doesn't have the artfulness of the philosophical chapters. Dostoevsky is a writer of ideas, not of people. His characters, despite their explosive emotions and melodramatic outbursts, are shadows, mere vehicles for theme and message.
The characters of The Brothers Karamazov are unsubtle and shallow and worst of all, they don't feel real. Even after hundreds and hundreds of pages, I feel only the most tenuous of connections with the book's main characters. Alyosha, Ivan and Mitya are not characters in their own right; they perform their roles in the story like mechanical automatons. There's no texture to them, no sense of reality.
And the supporting cast is probably worse. Dostoevsky has yet to write one female character that I find even marginally believable. Katyta and Grushenka, like their male counterparts, are very dull and completely unbelievable, especially in long dialogue scenes (loosely related sidenote: every character in this book speaks like a raving maniac at least once and it's incredibly annoying).
As for the novel's plot, suffice it to say that it lumbers along like a three-legged elephant. Dostoevsky could give Victor Hugo a run for his money as the author of some of the most excruciatingly tedious passages of prose I've read. It wouldn't be so bad if the book wasn't so long, but over and over again, I found myself running out of patience for Dostoevsky's achingly slow pacing.
The story's best moments are when Dostoevsky uses his grasp of psychology to make a philosophical point. Here's one atypically interesting exchange between Alyosha and Lise, a girl who is being consumed by mental illness:
"There are moments when people love crime," said Alyosha thoughtfully.
"Yes, yes. You have uttered my thought, they love crime, every one loves crime, they love it always, not at some 'moments.' You know, it's as though people have made an agreement to lie about it and have lied about it ever since. They all declare that they hate evil, but secretly they all love it."
"And are you still reading nasty books?"
"Yes, I am. Mamma reads them and hides them under her pillow and I steal them."
"Aren't you ashamed to destroy yourself?"
"I want to destroy myself. There's a boy here, who laid down between the railway lines when the train was passing. Lucky fellow! Listen, your brother is being tried now for murdering his father and every one loves his having killed his father."
"Loves his having killed his father?"
"Yes, loves it, every one loves it! Everybody says it's so awful, but secretly they simply love it. I for one love it." --- (Constance Garnett translation, page 532)
Unfortunately, Dostoevsky's moments of clarity come rarely. For the most part, The Brothers Karamazov is a novel bogged down with melodrama, with characters who act to further the philosophy and the plot. It's a book that can stun you with a small moment of genius and then leave you bored silly for the next four chapters.
Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's second-biggest achievement, had many of the same faults, but it also had a tighter, more compelling plot and more psychologically complex characters. The Brothers Karamazov is a strange mix of novel and elongated essay. If nothing else, it is rather fascinating in its strangeness and individuality. It's the sort of book no one actually wants to read, but it's quite the literary test of endurance, and it is rewarding in the end. Dostoevsky may not have been a brilliant writer--at least, not in my opinion--but he had some brilliance in him.
The experience of reading TBK reminds me of the quotation: "I hate writing. I love having written." Likewise, I sometimes hated reading The Brothers Karamazov, but I kind of love having read it.
But thank God it's over.
NEXT UP: A new entry in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2008
Unlike many people, I can't get much enjoyment out of a book that's solely designed to get a couple together. As a whole, the actual romance genre holds little appeal for me. Maybe it's the predictability, or the hackneyed storylines, or the lurid covers.
Literary romance, at its best, is an additive, a spice that flavors a story that would be interesting on its merits anyway. I've read a lot of fantastic novels with romance as a main element and there are a lot of fictional couples that I love (I'm looking at you, Jamie and Claire Fraser), but very few come close to Julia Spencer-Fleming's mystery series. The woman knows her way around mystery, too, but it's the sizzling relationship between her two leads that really make her series special.
I Shall Not Want, the series' sixth installment, had to follow in the footsteps of the dazzlingly good fifth book, a novel so good that I would have assumed that it was near-impossible to top.
Well, ISNW comes damned close, even surpassing its predecessor in some ways. It's definitely the second-best of the series, both a tight, entertaining mystery and an incredibly effective romance.
As the book opens, Russ and Clare are still reeling from the death of Russ's wife. Neither is sure where their relationship is destined to go, but they are brought together by the discovery of three dead Latino men. The public begins to suspect there is a serial killer on the loose in Millers Kill and--natch--it's Russ and Clare who have to put the pieces together before someone else ends up dead.
This is a mystery novel that doesn't even really need a mystery. Spencer-Fleming's world and her detailed cast of characters are plenty engaging on their own. Over the course of five books, she's quietly built up a web of connections, secrets and recurring elements (who doesn't love Sterling Sumner and his ubiquitous scarf?). In this volume, a new major player gets added: untried rookie officer Hadley Knox.
Hadley is a likable addition on her own, but Spencer-Fleming hits a goldmine of awesomeness when she pairs her with Kevin Flynn, the goofy second-youngest cop on the force. Kevin has always been a stealthily wonderful supporting character and he's utterly delightful when given a bigger role. Watch for this subplot to become a highlight of future books.
The novel's actual mystery plot is, as always, solidly entertaining. It's not one of Spencer-Fleming's most ingenious stories and there's a laid back, unhurried feel to it (which couldn't be farther from the last book). The climax is excellent, though, and, besides, the focus is really more on the characters and the central romance.
And that central romance gets pleasantly steamy, too. After dragging out the tension between Clare and Russ so long (they didn't even kiss until the third book), Spencer-Fleming can finally let them be a real couple:
He dug his fingers into her hair and pulled her to him, kissing her, deep, hungry kisses that tasted of chocolate and peppermint. She moaned in the back of her throat and wrestled her hands free from around his waist to twine them about his neck. He bumped against the kitchen table and bent her back, kissing her, kissing her, her mouth and her jaw and the pulse trip-hammering in her throat. He felt something huge and powerful racing through him, sparking every nerve end, blanking out everything in the world except Clare, the taste of her, the sound of her, panting and gasping, the feel of her, oh, God, better than anything he had ever fantasized, as he yanked open her pajama top and pushed it aside and touched her, touched, touched her.
She cried out, and he shut her mouth with more kisses, wet and dark, remembering they had to keep quiet even though he couldn't remember why. She pushed at him, tugging at his shirt, and he reared back, taking her with him, the two of them standing hip to hip and toe to toe, frantic to remove his uniform blouse without letting any space or light or air between them. She undid the two top buttons and he yanked the shirt off over his head, tossing it on the table, and it was Clare, warm and alive and half naked in his arms. His eyes nearly rolled back in his head from the feel of her skin on his.---(page 126)
Ahem. So it's clear that the Russ/Clare fireworks are alive and kicking. Their relationship has always been the heart of the series and it doesn't look like the intensity is going to let up anytime soon.
More and more as this series progresses, we can see the easy superiority of Spencer-Fleming. These books are so much more than mere whodunits; they're smart, literate stories of human passion. Spencer-Fleming's dialogue and description get better and better and her characterizations get sharper and sharper. I Shall Not Want is a lot more than just a mystery novel. It's rich, moving and thrilling. I can't wait for the next one.
NEXT UP: Either The Brothers Karamazov or David McCullough's celebrated biography John Adams.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon, 2003
I've written at length on this blog about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, an incredible blend of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure and romance. There aren't many authors that I enjoy as much as Gabaldon--or series that I enjoy as much as the Outlander books--so reading the Lord John Grey series, an Outlander spinoff, was a no-brainer.
Lord John Grey is a minor character in the Outlander novels, although popular with fans. A British officer with a hidden sexual orientation and an unrequited passion for Jamie Fraser, Grey is a constant presence in the main series, and one I've always enjoyed. His spinoff series, unlike the main Outlander books, is focused more on mystery and crime than romance, with Grey in the role of eighteenth-century detective.
In Private Matter (which takes place roughly during the events of the main series' third volume Voyager), Lord John finds himself entangled in two seemingly separate mysteries. On the one hand, the Army has assigned him to the case of a suspected spy's brutal murder. On the other, he finds himself forced to investigate his cousin's fiance, who he thinks is cheating on her. Little does he suspect that his two problems may be one and the same.
Gabaldon's signature is usually the enormous scope of her work, but with this novel, she demonstrates her ability to work within a smaller canvas, which she does admirably, while still providing readers with the wealth of tactile detail that is her trademark.
As a whole, I enjoyed the novel more on its own merits as a standalone historical mystery than as another piece of the Outlander saga. Despite a few small references to Jamie and Claire Fraser (and, of course, the presence of Lord John), Private Matter feels very much like its own animal. I doubt that many unenlightened readers would be aware that it was a spinoff at all.
Of course, for those in the know, it's easy to recognize Gabaldon behind Lord John's narration. There's the effortless evocation of the time period, the colorful characters and, natch, the endless sex (readers will learn far more about eighteenth-century brothels, both heterosexual and otherwise, than they ever wanted to know). Gabaldon seamlessly mixes the historical setting with her own quick wit, which helps lighten up the novel significantly:
"On the other hand, whoever stamped on his face didn't like him much," Tom completed the thought shrewdly. "That was no accident, me lord."
"No, it wasn't," Grey agreed dryly. "That was done after death, not in the frenzy of the moment."
Tom's eyes went quite round.
"However do you know that? Me lord," he added hastily.
"You looked closely at the heelprint? Several of the nailheads had broken through the skin, and yet there was no blood extravasated."
Tom gave him a look of mingled bewilderment and suspicion, obviously suspecting Grey had made up the word upon the moment for the express purpose of tormenting him, but merely said, "Oh?"---(page 60)
The novel's setting and characters are completely top-notch, as I would expect from Gabaldon. Even the most minor details are just right, from the smells of the streets to the the textures of various fabrics. Her characters, as always, are rich, poignant and vivid. Lord John is an interesting protagonist with a lot of intriguing inner conflict; I can certainly understand why the series is centered around him.
The actual plot is a little weaker. It starts out very strongly, but ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Gabaldon is good at keeping the story engaging; her problem is making it all fit together in a satisfying way. By the end, the tangle is so ridiculously complicated that it feels like a bit of a cheat and there's no decisive climax.
Good mysteries are hard to write and they require at least one "Ah-ha!" moment during the unraveling, a moment that Private Matter sadly lacks. Not to say that the solution doesn't make sense, it's just not too satisfying.
Still, the book is extremely likable and entertaining, if not earth-shatteringly good. Gabaldon's writing habits tend to be slapdash and it shows. Had the plotting been streamlined a bit, Private Matter could have been an excellent novel rather than just a fun historical mystery. For ravenous Outlander fans, it's a tempting morsel. For mystery fans, it's a diverting read. And hey, any book that can combine transvestite prostitutes, bizarre cures for syphilis, military spycraft and a flamboyant German with a plumed helmet can't be all bad.
NEXT UP: Possibly The Brothers Karamazov. Possibly the next Julia Spencer-Fleming novel, I Shall Not Want. Hmmm. Which do you think I'll finish first?