Monday, 23 November 2020

The Devil, by Ken Bruen | review by Rafe McGregor

The Devil by Ken Bruen. Transworld Ireland, 304pp, £12.99, May 2011, ISBN 9781848270206.

I first came to Ken Bruen in 2002.  I was researching for a military police procedural series that I hoped would launch a writing career and was reading or watching every mystery with a military setting I could find.  I read a review of The Guards (2001), the first Jack Taylor novel, and because either the review or my concentration were lacking came away with the impression that it was about a murder in a London barracks.  Not even close – it’s actually about an alcoholic ex-guard (Irish police officer) who works as a private investigator in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland.  I devoured it anyway and immediately sought out the second in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers (2002), which had just been published and which I read in a single sitting.  Like his protagonist, Bruen has suffered from addiction and his no-holds-barred noir fiction is nothing short of addictive itself – extremely difficult to stop once one starts, even if one later wonders if it was the wisest use of one’s time.  While I was waiting for the third Jack Taylor, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), to be released, I got stuck into Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant series, police procedurals set in south-east London: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000), and Blitz (2002).  I also read two excellent standalones, The Hackman Blues (1997) and London Boulevard (2001).  The fourth Jack Taylor, The Dramatist (2004), won the Shamus Award, but it was at this stage that my appetite for Bruen started to wane.  First, there was simply too much personal tragedy in The Dramatist and too little mystery for my taste.  Second, it was at about this time that I realised The Magdalen Martyrs, which I had also loved, was essentially an inferior retelling of London Boulevard (which is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard).  I read the next three Jack Taylors and Brants with a strong sense of diminishing returns and gave up in 2008 with Sanctuary (the seventh Jack Taylor; the Brant series ended with Ammunition, published the previous year) and Once Were Cops, a disappointing standalone.

One of my problems with both the Jack Taylor and Brant series is that all of Bruen’s characters are not only deeply flawed, but seriously self-destructive.  In consequence, their lifestyles soon take tolls on their physical and mental health, which is not conducive to a lengthy series without some authorial innovation.  Taylor, for example, has most of his teeth knocked out and is left with a permanent limp by the end of The Killing of the Tinkers, adds Class A drug addiction to his alcoholism in The Magdalen Martyrs, and is deaf in one ear by the time I left him in Sanctuary.  Which is not to say that he can’t still be a detective – Cormoran Strike is missing half of one leg before J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Strike and Ellacott series even starts – but that Bruen adjusts neither the style nor the substance of the stories as the series progresses.  Taylor is still trying to be an Irish Philip Marlowe, but is increasingly unable to imitate him with conviction as his physical capacities deteriorate.  On reflection, I think Bruen is best suited to the standalone and that his best work is a set of three noir thrillers themed around different poets: Rilke on Black (1996), Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (1998), and Dispatching Baudelaire (2004).  There is something about the way in which he combines poetry and noir in both his form and content that makes these novellas exceptional and it’s such a shame that they are all out of print.

In spite of my unfaithfulness, I was delighted when Bruen hit the big time two years after I stopped reading him.  In 2010 (the year in which The Devil was published in hardback) the Jack Taylor series was released as a television series of the same name by TV3 Ireland, with Iain Glen in the title role, and London Boulevard was released by Entertainment Film Distributors as a feature film directed by William Monahan and starring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, and Ben Chaplin.  The following year the fourth and best Brant – Blitz – was released as a feature film by Lionsgate, directed by Elliot Lester and starring Jason Statham and Paddy Considine.  A second season of Jack Taylor was screened in 2013, a third in 2016, and a fourth is currently in production.  Blitz is pretty much what one would expect from a Statham vehicle, which is not necessarily a criticism, but London Boulevard is one of the most underrated crime films of the twenty-first century, perhaps of all time, with outstanding performances from both Farrell and Knightley.  As such, Bruen’s critical success has finally been matched by commercial success and the Jack Taylor series is currently on its fifteenth instalment, Galway Girl, which was published in 2019.  I decided to return to Bruen because of my interest in occult detective fiction, reading in reviews that I attended to more carefully than in 2002 that the supernatural elements of The Devil made it Bruen’s ‘marmite’ novel, meaning that it polarised fans of the series (though apparently didn’t do his sales any harm.)

The novel opens with Taylor at Shannon Airport, attempting to fulfil one of his long-term ambitions by emigrating to the US.  He has exchanged some but not all of his previous addictions for Xanax and is managing to keep a lid on his alcoholism.  When he is refused entry to the US, he nonetheless heads straight for the airport bar, where he is joined by a mysterious ‘Kurt’.  One of the airline staff tells Taylor that Kurt has been following him ever since he arrived at the airport and she subsequently dies in suspicious circumstances.  Several reviewers have made much of this prologue and three chapters in which Bruen uses third person omniscient narration instead of his usual first person from Taylor’s point of view.  If one applies Occam’s razor to one’s literary criticism – the principle that the simplest solution is usually the right one – there is nothing to suggest that Kurt, who also calls himself Mr K and Carl, is anything other than a very dangerous psychopath.  Taylor is Galway’s most famous (if not most successful) private investigator so it is little wonder that a serial killer seeking attention would stalk him.  When Taylor returns to Galway he is hired to find a missing student, who becomes Kurt’s second victim.  The shape the story takes as a work of crime fiction is not the whodunnit – we know Kurt dunnit from the prologue – but the howdunnit, with the suspense created by the question of if and how Taylor will catch or kill him.

In chapters nineteen to twenty-one (of twenty-three), the howdunnit suspense is intensified by Taylor’s self-confessed unreliable narration (regarding what actually happened to Sawyer, the meeting with Father Ralph, and the purchase of the Zippo).  By the time the narrative reaches its climax – the confrontation between Kurt and Taylor – Kurt has killed six people and Bruen has suggested three possibilities as to his identity.  The first and most likely is that Kurt is a serial killer pretending to be the Devil who has, in consequence of his personal magnetism, acquired a small cult following.  In order for this solution to be plausible he would also have to have some command of magic (the art of illusion rather than genuine occult power) and to research his victims carefully, neither of which would be out of character.  The second and third possibilities are that Kurt is either a man who has been possessed by the Devil or is the actual Devil incarnate on Earth.  Whipping out Occam’s razor again, there is no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural until the final chapter, which is deliberately – deliciously, perhaps – ambiguous.  The eleventh-hour twist (often, but not always, including a reversal of fortune for the protagonist) is a trademark of Bruen’s narratives and in this instance the last chapter is discontinuous with the rest of the novel.  Keeping one’s razor stropped, I think the answer is to read that chapter and that chapter alone as a case of unreported unreliable narration, too much Xanax, a post-traumatic breakdown, or some combination of the three.  Others might prefer to take the conclusion as retrospectively infusing the occult into the rest of the narrative and, in truth, there is little to choose between the two interpretations.

Bruen provides a metafictional clue as to his intent, but it is just as ambiguous as the conclusion.  In chapter twenty-one, Taylor recalls a conversation with a man from years before, who told him: ‘It’s known as horror.  Occult fiction, I call it the Further-Out genre, like in David Lynch movies.  You’re in the middle of a crime story.  But then the camera finds, say, a painting.  Pushes into it.  Turns a corner into the realm of the metaphysical.  Which, in the sense of the real origins of suspense, might actually take us closer than men with guns ever could.’  Is The Devil noir fiction with occult misdirection or Bruen’s first stab at further-out fiction?  Either interpretation is valid, but I think I’ll give the last word to another Irish crime fiction writer, Declan Burke.  In his review of The Devil, he writes that everything ‘that happens in (all the) Taylor narratives are subordinate to the needs of Taylor himself.’  Taylor, according to Burke, combines both self-loathing and narcissism in equal measures and that is why, while I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Taylor’s world, I also remembered why immersing oneself in that world becomes tedious if indulged too long or too often.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Burials in Several Earths, by Radiophonic Workshop (Room 13) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic music for BBC programmes, innovating all the while, and inspiring more than one generation of electronic musicians. After some surviving members reunited for live performances, they went on to make this excellent instrumental album. Four of the tracks are so long that two CDs are required, and when it is playing I’m never quite sure what is happening, but I like it a lot. It reminds me of classic Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri and Zeit. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell | review by Rafe McGregor

Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell

Tor.com., 202pp, £9.99, April 2019, ISBN  9781250220189

It would be an exaggeration to state that Tor.com rescued the novella as a literary form in the twenty-first century, but that form certainly appeared to be in an irreversible decline by the end of the last century and Tor.com’s series of speculative fiction novellas has made it a commercially-viable option for authors again.  The revival of the novella (and, to a much lesser extent, the short story) may also be a consequence of the shift from hard copy to hard and digital copy over the last two decades, however, as the chunky – and often clunky – ‘airport’ novel seems to be as popular as ever.  Notwithstanding, Tor.com deserve credit where it is due and the renaissance in which they have at the very least played a significant part has been achieved in the simplest and most effective way possible, by publishing great novellas.  In the last four years alone, these have included: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016, reviewed in TQF here), Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (2016) and A Song for Quiet (2017, TQF review here), David Tallerman’s Patchwerk (2016, TQF review here), and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier (2017–2020) series.  Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased about this.  If one follows Stephen King’s definition, the novella as a narrative of between twenty and eighty thousand words, it is my preferred form for most genre fiction.  It not only suits speculative fiction, but crime fiction too and almost all of Agatha Christie’s ‘novels’ as well as all four Sherlock Holmes ‘long’ stories were in fact novellas.  This review is of a particular combination of the two, an outstanding occult detective story that fits the novella form with pleasing perfection.

Holly Craig left Pontyrhudd, a small fictional town on the south-west coast of Wales, for London fifteen years ago, after she nearly drowned in a river at the scene of her mother’s unsolved murder seventeen years before.  Holly’s near-death experience coincided with her discovery of a supernatural gift, her ability to see the good and evil of people’s souls in the same way that other people see light and dark.  She refers to the object of this sense as ‘souls’ only because she cannot find a more appropriate secular term.  ‘Selves’ might be closer, but her description of it as ‘a talent for picking up on a person’s shame and remorse’ is probably the best, although it fails to do justice to the full extent of her extrasensory powers of perception.  When psychiatrists and counsellors failed to ease the burden of the gift, Holly discovered that exhaustion and whisky were the only things that could provide relief and has been working and drinking to excess ever since.  The longest explanation of the gift is only a single page and this is in keeping with Gareth Powell’s crisp, economical style of writing.  He makes use of the minimum number of words required to drive the plot forward and no more, just enough to prompt the reader’s imagination before moving quickly to the next character, setting, or action.  Powell has an enviable affinity for evoking a rich combination of sensory, affective, imaginative, and intellective experiences with a single phrase, for example: ‘pub regulars with roll-ups dangling from faces hacked out of boiled ham’; her ‘hands looked like sausage skins filled with walnuts’; and his ‘beard was the speckled colour of a badger’s ass’.  Motivated by her mother’s murder, Holly joined the Metropolitan Police Service, specialised as a detective, and rose quickly through the ranks, reaching detective chief inspector by the age of twenty-seven.  The suggestion is that this career trajectory is courtesy of her analytical mind and relentless work ethic, but the gift couldn’t have done it any harm either.  Following an incident at a school where she was unable to prevent a multiple murder, Holly left the city for Dyfed-Powys Police, the largely rural force that covers central and south-west Wales.  No sooner is she back in country – before she can even unpack her bags or visit her late grandfather’s house – than she is leading another murder inquiry.

A young, local woman named Lisa has been run over by a car and killed and Holly is the only police officer to recognise that the evidence points to murder rather than manslaughter.  With the exception of Detective Sergeant Scott Fowler, she finds her squad of officers severely lacking in both experience and expertise, placing the burden of responsibility for solving the case firmly on her shoulders.  One of the many aspects of the narrative that I loved was the way in which the plot begins with a case that is like the vast majority of murder investigations handled by the police, contrary to what we are used to seeing on television or reading in crime fiction.  The murder has been planned poorly, the suspect – Lisa’s boyfriend, Daryl – is obvious, and the focus quickly shifts from mystery to manhunt.  When Daryl is found, he is not only dead but has been murdered in the same bizarre, ritualistic manner as Holly’s mother three decades ago.  At this point the plot takes a more sinister and more complex turn, the already brisk pace picking up with a second ritual murder.  Holly and Scott identify a single suspect that is connected to all three of the deceased and the possibilities once again appear to be narrowing in her favour.  There is an attempt on her life on her way back from police headquarters at Carmarthen and when she is discharged from hospital hobbling on a crutch she is told that there has been a third ritual murder – of that very suspect.  Holly and Scott decide that the murderer must either be a jealous spouse or someone connected to her mother’s death and, for the first time in her life, she begins to seek answers to the latter.  Her mother, known locally as ‘Ragged Alice’, has passed into local lore as a ghost who haunts the riverbank where her body was found and when Holly identifies a suspect with links to past and present, he disappears.  There is a danger that the narrative is going to tip from the thrilling to the ludicrous at this stage – there have been four murders in as many days and the novella is just over the halfway point – but Powell avoids this with great skill, maintaining the suspense of the second half with clever detection rather than gratuitous corpses.

My only criticism, which is minor, is that while the dénouement is both compelling and plausible, the narrative does not offer any clues to it.  In other words, Powell deprives his readers of the intriguing irritation of realising that had they only been a little more astute, they could have worked it out for themselves.  This lack detracts from Ragged Alice as a murder mystery, but Powell more than makes up for this failing with a setting that combines the eerie and chilling with the everyday and commonplace in an entirely convincing manner.  His conclusion, too, is very satisfying indeed, leaving one with the sense that the novella ceases at precisely the right place and that this destination has been inevitable from the very first page.  These days it is rare that I pick up a book that hasn’t been recommended to me or whose author I am unfamiliar with and am nonetheless immediately and relentlessly gripped by the narrative.  Ragged Alice is the first in a long time.  As such, I can honestly say that this novella was a total joy to read and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who likes either horror, murder mysteries, or combinations of the genres.

Friday, 13 November 2020

The Vision, Vol. 1: A Little Less Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was an unexpected treat, and I can see why it got a lot of attention. The art is terrific, and the story is a real tragedy, as the Vision tries to set up a home with his synthezoid family and step by step things get worse and worse. It reminded me of The Leftovers in that way, and was somehow just as moving despite the protagonists being robots. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, by James Lovegrove | review by Rafe McGregor

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 408pp, £11.75, October 2020, ISBN 9781789094695

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902 and then published as a novel (or, more accurately, a novella) by George Newnes the following month. The tale is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and is certainly one of the most filmed, with big and small screen adaptations stretching from 1914 to 2016 at the time of writing, including retellings in both BBC One’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and CBS’s Elementary (2012–2019) series (The Hounds of Baskerville in 2012 and Hounded in 2016 respectively). I think it may also be the narrative about which I have written the most, in terms of number of publications: a review of one of the sequels, David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein (1995) in TQF24 (2008); an article for Crime and Detective Stories (2008) in which I propose an alternative solution to the case; a review of SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel in TQF29 (2009); a chapter in Josef Steiff’s Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (2011) in which I suggest that the novella is primarily a work of horror rather than crime; and a short story sequel, “The Wrong Doctor”, first published in TQF50 (2015) and reprinted in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 20 (2016) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). The reason for my fascination – or perhaps I should say fixation – is my interest in crossover between crime and horror fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, the occult detective) and my agreement with Christopher Frayling’s claim that The Hound is one of the four great Gothic horror stories of the first century of the genre, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the chapter for Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy I examined both the creative context of the novella, which was originally intended to be a supernatural story co-authored with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and the narrative itself to show that the mystery plot is underpinned by tropes much more common to the horror genre.

If my fascination is a fixation, I am at least not alone in my neurosis. My alternative solution (which made the case for Dr Mortimer as the mastermind behind the conspiracy) followed Arthur Robinson’s “Justice Deferred: Deaths on Dartmoor” (2006), also in Crime and Detective Stories, which identifies Henry Baskerville himself as the villain, and Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles (2007), in which Beryl Stapleton takes centre stage.  Until reading James Lovegrove’s novel, which is advertised as ‘Continuing the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on the cover, I had read three sequels: Michael Hardwick’s The Revenge of the Hound (1987), Davies’ The Tangled Skein, and a short story I have been unable to track down since. Though I enjoyed The Tangled Skein when I first read it, in retrospect none of the three comes close to doing justice to Doyle’s original.  If anyone can, Lovegrove seems to be the author to do it. He has been publishing novels since 1990, has written for children, young adults (as Jay Emory), and adults, has a military science fiction series called The Pantheon, and currently writes for the Firefly franchise. He is also the foremost writer of Sherlockian pastiche, publishing three separate sets of novels in imitation of Doyle: six titles in Titan’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series; The Cthulhu Casebooks Trilogy, the first of which I reviewed for TQF here; and two standalone novels, Sherlock Holmes and Christmas Demon (2019) and Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons – all since 2013.

The Hound was published after Doyle had terminated Holmes’ career and life (albeit half-heartedly, with no corpse) in “The Final Problem”, which was published in the Strand in 1894 and explicitly dated to 1891. The Hound was not intended to be Holmes’ resurrection – that would come in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, published in the Strand in October 1903 – and, as such, is one of the cases undertaken by Holmes and Watson prior to the detective’s apparently fatal clash with Professor Moriarty. The dating is somewhat vague, prompting much speculation among Holmes enthusiasts, and my own choice is autumn 1888. Lovegrove has selected the equally convincing autumn 1889 and begins his novel with a foreword by Watson that addresses precisely this question and is itself dated to 1903. The foreword, as well as Lovegrove’s occasional discussions of Sherlockian lore – solving, for example, the mystery of Watson’s disappearing dog in A Study in Scarlet (1887) – will endear him to the audience to which he has dedicated his novel, ‘HOLMESIANS AND SHERLOCKIANS EVERYWHERE’. What might not endear him to that audience is his representation of Watson, who is more petty and more timid than Doyle’s original and, maybe more importantly for contemporary readers, than either Martin Freeman or Lucy Liu’s Watsons. This is a personal preference and, in consequence, a minor criticism, but I favour pastiche that recognises Watson’s own extraordinary qualities. He is, after all, something of a polymath – a doctor, a soldier, a detective, and a bestselling author.

Let me state at the outset that Beast of the Stapletons is by far the best of the three sequels to The Hound that I have read (I exclude my own from the comparison, of course). My main – and only substantial – problem with the novel is its structure, to which I must draw attention before proceeding to its content. The novel is composed of three parts of six, sixteen, and eighteen titled chapters respectively (for a total of forty). Part I begins with an incident that establishes the personality of Lovegrove’s Watson, is followed by four chapters in which Benjamin Grier, Baskerville’s friend, consults Holmes, and ends with a detailed recap of the first case. I understand the need for the recap, but it constitutes an entire chapter and, combined with the preceding four chapters of exposition, facilitates a reading experience in which we are told rather than shown the sequence of events. This experience extends to Part II, the whole of which is a summary by Watson of Holmes’ recounting of the week he spent on Dartmoor while Watson remained in London. Lovegrove’s play of similarity and difference to and from the original is inspired, but his reversal of the Holmes–Watson dynamic in The Hound (in which it is Holmes who – ostensibly – remains in London) detracts from the suspense of the narrative. As readers, we immediately know that whatever may have transpired during that week, Holmes has escaped entirely unscathed. Part III employs a more engaging style of storytelling, involving a more active and adventurous Watson, but Lovegrove applies the brakes as soon as the pace picks up: Chapters 26 to 29 are all set aboard a Transatlantic steamer as Holmes, Watson, and three accomplices pursue the villain, who has been revealed in Chapter 25. It is very difficult not to read these chapters as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a delay in the narrative that has no parallel in the original.

The premise of Beast of the Stapletons is straightforward but intriguing: history is repeating itself in Dartmoor, with the victim being Baskerville’s wife rather than uncle and the murder weapon a huge Calyptra moth rather than a giant black dog. The appearance of the vampiric moth seems to implicate Stapleton, the villain of the original, who was an entomologist by inclination and whose body was never discovered. Whether the moth (if it exists at all) is Stapleton’s ghost or a corporeal servant he has spent the last five years breeding, is (like the true nature of the hound in The Hound) all part of the mystery, but given that Doyle never involved Holmes in the occult, it is fairly obvious that Stapleton has not returned from the dead (which is not to say that he has not returned at all). Lovegrove revisits the pleasures of the original by setting up a similar pool of suspects: Mortimer, Frankland, Laura Lyons – and of course Grier and Stapleton (if he survived). As soon as this pool is established, however, it is drained almost as quickly as Grimpen More, which is being emptied by an enterprising Grier in search of Stapleton’s skeleton. One of Holmes’ suspects commits suicide by the same method used to murder Audrey Baskerville and conveniently leaves the solution to the puzzle of the moth in a cupboard (readers familiar with Stoker’s unfinished The Lair of the White Worm will have anticipated this particular dénouement). Case closed, or so it seems until Holmes concludes his recitation with: “There is something about it that I cannot put my finger on. I feel that I am missing something obvious, something so glaring that by rights I should have seen it long ago.” Three days later Baskerville’s son, Harry, is kidnapped and one of his servants, Mrs Barrymore, poisoned. Once the perpetrator of the crimes is identified, the novel changes form from a murder mystery to a crime thriller, with the thrills coming courtesy of the dual attempts to rescue the child and apprehend the suspect – or, suspects. Once the sea voyage is over, the action rises quickly and there is a tense climax consisting of a spectacular variation on a Mexican standoff. The novel concludes with a deathbed confession that imbues retrospective meaning into the narrative and foregrounds the depth of Lovegrove’s engagement with the original and with the Sherlock Holmes canon as a whole.

While avoiding spoilers, I am compelled to commend the author for noticing two features about both the canon and The Hound. The former is concerned with Doyle’s recycling of certain names and certain syllables within those names. This was probably unconscious on his part as he did not keep any kind of database or even detailed notes on the stories, in which there are numerous inconsistencies (the most famous of which is probably the location of Watson’s war wound). The latter is concerned with the physical similarity between one of the canon’s villains and a character in The Hound. I cannot say any more, but as far as I know, Lovegrove and I are the only ones to have both identified these phenomena and put them to use in fiction. As his novel will have a much greater readership than my short story, I look forward to the idea reaching a wider audience and maybe even being used in future pastiches and adaptations. Lovegrove has nonetheless made an error in Beast of the Stapletons, albeit a forgivable one: he appears to have forgotten that Dr Mortimer had a wife. The following is by Holmes from Chapter 6 of The Hound: “There is our friend Dr Mortimer, whom I believe to be entirely honest, and there is his wife, of whom we know nothing.” The mysterious wife is only mentioned once more in the novella (by Mortimer) and never seen at all or, strangely, considered to have played any part in the case whatsoever. My suspicion is that Doyle himself forgot about Mrs Mortimer – he wrote very quickly and used very few drafts – and was not the last author to forget the details of his own plot (Raymond Chandler’s comments on the murder of the chauffeur in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, spring to mind).

In closing, the compilation of a history of my own engagement with The Hound inspired by Lovegrove’s striking sequel reminded me that I’ve now been reviewing for TQF for twelve years…which is two years longer than I’ve ever committed to any job, though not quite as long as my marriage… long may they both continue.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Vampires vs. the Bronx | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stranger Things partners with Fright Night and moves to the city to take on gentrification 

Kids find out vampires are trying to take over their neighbourhood. Adults don’t believe it. And so a familiar scenario plays out in Vampires vs. the Bronx, directed by Oz Rodriguez. Lots of clichés in this one: hissing, baring teeth, gathering weapons, taking notes from movies. However, one thing does set this film apart from other vamp flicks: the predators use the guise of a real estate firm to pursue their malicious goal. They even go so far as to enlist some of the neighbourhood thugs to help them.

All kinds of “coming soon” signs hang on vacant buildings in Miguel/Lil Mayor’s (Jaden Michael) Bronx neighbourhood. The signs advertise upscale restaurants and high-end retailers – The Butter Shop, for instance – that don’t exactly fit the vibe of this minority community. Another thing the signs have in common is Marnau Properties’ wicked gothic font logo. 

Meanwhile, Miguel is on a quest to “Save the Bodega,” a convenience store that doubles as a hangout where kids can do homework or play video games. Miguel and friends soon discover the true identities of Marnau Properties’ employees. Here’s a hint: they dress in black and they only come out at night.

These all-white vampires are stand-ins for the greedy developers that enter urban neighbourhoods and snatch up as many properties as possible. Out go the low-income minorities. In come the high-earning whites. Bloodsuckers, indeed. 

At a couple points in the film, characters allude to the Bronx being essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Both locals and invaders suggest that if any residents went missing, nobody would really care.

Miguel, a good boy whose mother repeatedly embarrasses him, is the unspoken leader of the trio. Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) is a Puerto Rican (and less crude) version of Richie (Finn Wolfhard) from It. Luis even reads Stephen King (i.e. Salem’s Lot, of course) and, interestingly, wears a Slayer T-shirt at one point. The other member of the trio is Bobby (Gerald Jones III), a black boy who is on the brink of getting seduced into violence by older gangbangers.  

One irksome element of Vampires vs. the Bronx is a young lady who periodically enters the scene to comment on neighbourhood developments via live stream on a social media channel. This was also an annoyance in Adam Sandler’s recent Hubie Halloween

Vampires vs. the Bronx is cute and funny at times, although highly derivative.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

The Dark Knight Rises | review by Rafe McGregor

The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Bruce Wayne, Bill Gates, or Donald Trump?

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the third instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy, which began with the unimaginatively-named Batman Begins in 2005.  The latter title was selected to indicate that Nolan’s trilogy is a reboot, starting the story afresh after Warner Brothers’ initial film series ended with its fourth instalment, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which was very poorly received by critics.  As the title of the Trilogy suggests, Nolan wanted to return to the hardboiled realism of Frank Miller, Klaus Jackson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) rather than continue the comedy that Schumacher brought to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin, which was reminiscent of the camp humour that popularised ABC’s Batman (1966–1968) television series.  Batman Begins finds millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) setting out to train himself as an outlaw in order to return to Gotham (a fictionalised New York) and perform the role of a law enforcer – against the threat of organised crime – a role that the corrupt police department cannot fulfil.  In Bhutan, he is trained by the League of Shadows, which initially appears to be a monastic order but is subsequently revealed as a kind of Hegel-inspired insurgency that has existed for centuries and shapes world history by destroying civilizations when they become too decadent.  Wayne escapes when he learns that Gotham has been selected as the League’s next target and returns to save the city from organised crime as Batman, with the benefit of his physical and mental training at the hands of the League and the technology produced by Wayne Enterprises.

As Batman combats both organised crime and the corrupt police department, the public demonstrates an ambivalent attitude towards him, somewhere in between friend and foe.  When he delivers Gotham from a biological attack by the League, he is acknowledged as a saviour and the film finishes with the newly-promoted and incorruptible Lieutenant Jim Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) establishing Batman as Gotham’s guardian angel by means of the Bat-Signal.  The Dark Knight (2008) sees Batman pitted against the Joker (played by Heath Ledger), who terrorises Gotham using a trademark combination of hyper-violence, complex planning, and lack of regard for the safety of either himself or his henchmen.  The Joker succeeds in turning the citizens of Gotham against Batman and when Batman decides to accept responsibility for murders committed by District Attorney Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) in his guise of Two-Face, he makes the transition from hero to villain.  The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years later, with Gordon as police commissioner, organised crime in Gotham all but eliminated courtesy of the extra enforcement powers bestowed by the Dent Act, Batman as an outlaw, and Wayne living as a recluse, disabled by his exertions against the League, the Joker, and Two-Face.  Meanwhile, Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a mercenary captain who was expelled from the League of Shadows for his extremism, kidnaps a nuclear physicist and establishes a base in Gotham’s sewers.

The plot of The Dark Knight Rises draws on Miller, Jackson, and Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns as well as two other Batman storylines: Jim Starlin, Bernie Wrightson, and Bill Wray’s Batman: The Cult (1991) and Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Alan Grant, Dennis O'Neil, and Doug Moench’s Batman: Knightfall (1993–1995).  Although organised crime has been destroyed and at least some of Gotham’s financial elite persuaded to invest in the city’s welfare, large numbers of homeless people live in the sewers, turning Bane’s mercenary band into a small army of the discontented.  When this army is discovered and Gordon injured, Officer John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to Wayne for help and Wayne employs new technology to overcome his disability and return to the role of Batman, albeit still as an outlaw.  His return is for the specific purpose of saving Gotham from Bane, who is determined to complete the League’s final mission, the destruction of Gotham.  Bane defeats Batman in single combat and sends him to the prison where Bane was born, an anonymous pit in an undisclosed country.  He then lures most of the police department into the sewers and traps them there.  As befits his name, Bane has planned a twofold destruction for Gotham.  He empties Gotham’s prisons and takes over the city with his army of mercenaries, the homeless, and convicts, creating a Reign of Terror by the formerly disenfranchised.  At the same time, he activates a nuclear bomb that will destroy Gotham in five months, telling the citizenry that it is simply the instrument of their liberation, i.e. a nuclear deterrent is required to save the city from outside interference by the US military.  Bane’s real motivation is to prolong the destruction of Gotham, but the interim period provides some kind of communist experiment in which the capitalist order is inverted, a city run by the poor for the poor with the rich pushed to the margins, forced into hiding to escape victimhood.  The final act of the narrative – and indeed the Trilogy taken as a whole – begins with Batman’s escape from prison to take on Bane for a second time.

Bane’s Gotham is framed by Nolan as a worse option than either the laissez-faire metropolis of Batman Begins or the security state of The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises presents a mirror image of the situation in Batman Begins.  In the latter, Gotham is administered by a wealthy elite and a corrupt police department, both of whom are in league with organised crime.  In order to become a (true) law enforcer, Batman must oppose the (official) law enforcers.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane’s communist experiment has turned the former law enforcers into outlaws and the former outlaws into law enforcers so that Batman recovers his status as law enforcer by opposing the (new) law enforcers once again.  What is particularly interesting about Batman’s repeated role changes in the Trilogy – from friend or foe to friend to foe and then finally back to friend – is the perspective they offer on Gotham’s employment of mass incarceration.  The full scope of incarceration (and homelessness) is only revealed when Bane arrives in Gotham, transforming his mercenary band into an army by emptying the prisons (and feeding the homeless).  In reality, the US has over two million of its three hundred and twenty-seven million population behind bars and double that under community supervision – by far the highest proportion in the world.  Nolan provides a comprehensive perspective on mass incarceration through Batman, who begins the Trilogy by filling up Gotham’s prisons and is then incarcerated in Bane’s prison himself.  Batman’s reversal of fortune does not cause him to reflect on the effectiveness or efficiency of custodial sentencing, however, but simply creates an urgency for escape, the pressing need to return to Gotham and put the criminals back in prison (and the homeless back in the sewers).  This is a missed opportunity by Nolan – a deliberate omission that reinforces the directorial perspective from which mass incarceration and other hyper-punitive measures are represented in the narrative.

In Batman Begins, Batman is sensitive to the poverty and inequality in Gotham as well as to the pernicious influence of organised crime, but The Dark Knight replaces concern with welfare with concerns about security and the need to increase police powers to combat the threat of the Joker.  The question of social security and economic inequality is not raised again in The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan frames Bane as an unproblematic supervillain, secretly undertaking Gotham’s destruction (with the nuclear bomb) while inflicting the chaos of self-rule on the populace in the remaining months.  The destruction that Bane brings to Gotham provides an unambiguous endorsement of the measures used to prevent that destruction – the mass incarceration of the population and ubiquitous poverty – and Batman’s goal is the restoration of pre-revolutionary Gotham.  This callous and callow conclusion to the Trilogy seems to confirm the view that Batman is just a rich white bloke beating up the poor and mentally ill, captured concisely by Dare Obasanjo in a tweet last year: ‘It’s like Bill Gates focusing his money on beating up junkies in Seattle.’  The problem with Nolan’s reboot is that one doesn’t have to have ‘snowflake’ sensitivity to realise this.  The moral of the story, the message thinly-veiled in the cinematic medium, is completely clear, conveyed with very little subtlety.  Nolan's Gotham needs extrajudicial methods to prevent it collapsing into chaos and mass incarceration and ubiquitous poverty are simply necessary evils required to prevent the destruction of life as we know it.  It is not difficult to see Batman’s shadow behind Trump, his very own guardian angel, or perhaps even a younger, trimmer Trump in the Bat-Suit himself. ***

Monday, 9 November 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle | review by Rafe McGregor

Tor.com, paperback, £8.82, February 2016, ISBN 9780765387868

Read on its own, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine example of a novella in the hybrid genre of the weird tale – or perhaps, more accurately, the new weird.  In The Weird Tale (1990) and The Modern Weird Tale (2001), S.T. Joshi defines the weird tale as a retrospective category of speculative fiction, published from 1880 to 1940, that is essentially philosophical in virtue of representing a fully-fledged and fleshed-out world view. The new weird was initially associated with China Miéville in the UK and subsequently Jeff VanderMeer in the US (although both Miéville and Joshi reject the term). In their introduction to the short story collection, The New Weird (2008), VanderMeer and his wife, Ann, distinguish the new weird from the weird tale in terms of the former combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. Read in conjunction with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, which was first published in Weird Tales in January 1927, The Ballad of Black Tom is a deliberate and definitive deconstruction of the original short story. LaValle takes one of Lovecraft’s most overtly and viciously racist narratives and reimagines the character, action, and setting represented by Lovecraft from a twenty-first century that is conscious of racial prejudice, social injustice, and police impunity. LaValle dates his story to 1924, when Lovecraft and his wife, Sonia Greene, were living in Flatbush and the real horror of Red Hook for Lovecraft was the extent of its multiculturalism, which stimulated his racism and xenophobia and fears of miscegenation and evolutionary reversal. In contemporary terms, Lovecraft believed he saw first-hand at Red Hook evidence of the white genocide conspiracy theory, which is one of the reasons he returned to his sanctuary in Providence, Rhode Island, after less than two years. LaValle is an African American novelist and short story writer from Queens, who lives in Washington Heights, and his complex relationship with Lovecraft is revealed in the dedication of the novella, ‘For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings’.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is a traditional occult detective story and Lovecraft’s occult detective – Thomas F. Malone of the New York Police Department – is a sensitive, cerebral hero who pursues his supernatural inquiries while serving the public in his role as a police detective: ‘He had the Celt’s far vision of weird and hidden things, but the logician’s quick eye for the outwardly unconvincing; an amalgam which had led him far afield in the forty-two years of his life, and set him in strange places for a Dublin University man born in a Georgian villa near Phoenix Park.’  The ‘Dublin dreamer’ was a poet in his youth, is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, and employs his ‘experiment in police work’ to investigate the macabre, the rotten, and the terrifying that lurks beneath the veneer of the everyday.  Lovecraft employs a third-person narration that adheres very closely to Malone’s perspective, with which the reader is intended to empathise. The story is divided into seven sections, the first of which introduces Malone with pathos, a tall, well-built, ‘wholesome looking’, ‘normal-featured, and capable-looking’ man who is convalescing in Pascoag, Rhode Island, and suffering from some kind of post-traumatic psychological disorder brought on by a particularly harrowing incident during his police service. LaValle’s novella consists of eighteen short chapters, divided into two equal parts, “Tommy Tester” and “Malone”.  The novella is also narrated in the third person, from Charles Thomas Tester’s (known first as Tommy and then Black Tom) point of view in the first part and Malone’s in the second.  The chapters written from the point of view of Tom, a twenty-year-old African American hustler with a limited command of both music and magic, adhere closely to his perspective, inviting the reader’s empathy. In contrast, LaValle maintains a narrative distance from Malone in those chapters written from his perspective and Tom replaces Malone as the protagonist of the story. LaValle’s Malone is described as follows: ‘Tall and thin and lantern-jawed, his eyes dispassionate and surveying.’ Malone is dispassionate, insensitive, and pitiless. He has been assigned to the Butler Street station in Brooklyn for the last six years and is content to be complicit in the structural, institutional, and interpersonal racial violence perpetrated by the police in order to pursue his supernatural inquiries. This departure from Lovecraft’s characterisation is indicative of departures from the original sequence of events to come, with LaValle employing the conceit that Lovecraft based his story on unreliable newspaper reports of the events.

In both the short story and the novella, the sequence of events that underpin the plot are initiated by Robert Suydam, the wealthy scion of an old Dutch family who lives in a mansion in Martense Street in Flatbush. Suydam is a student of the occult who has acquired some magical ability and whose researches have brought him into company frowned upon by his family, most notably that of the Southern European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian immigrant communities in Red Hook and Five Points. Suydam’s relatives are attempting to have him pronounced mentally incompetent, ostensibly out of concern for his wellbeing, but actually out of concern for their inheritances. In The Ballad of Black Tom, they have hired a pathologically racist private investigator, Ervin Howard (a thinly disguised Robert E. Howard), and used their social influence to secure police assistance in making the case against Suydam. Malone has been assigned to assist Howard in consequence of his well-known interest in the occult. Suydam is, however, completely compos mentis and preparing to initiate a two-stage plan: to first found a cult dedicated to the worship of the Sleeping King and to then enact a ritual to wake the Sleeping King. The Sleeping King is a reference to Cthulhu, the most famous of Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones, who was introduced in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, which was first published in Weird Tales in February 1928. The Great Old Ones are initially represented as gods who have been imprisoned, but are subsequently revealed to be powerful aliens at rest in either the remote regions of the Earth, other dimensions, or both. Cthulhu lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in the ruins of the sunken city of R’lyeh, a circumstance to which his devotees allude in their chant: ‘“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”’

Suydam decides that his recruitment drive will take the form of a party in his mansion and target society’s marginalised, oppressed, and victimised on the basis that they will be more receptive to what amounts to a religious revolution followed by an apocalypse. Suydam recognises Tom’s ability as a conjurer and hires him to assist at the party to which he has invited members of the immigrant communities with which he is already familiar as well as African Americans from Harlem. With Tom’s assistance, Suydam is successful in inaugurating his cult, although he is of course yet another rich white man assuming a leadership role over men and women of various shades of brown. Suydam then sets about the second part of his plan, the waking of the Sleeping King, once again with Tom’s assistance.  Malone meets Tom during his surveillance of Suydam, attends Suydam’s hearing, is pleased by his successful defence of his mental competence, and returns to his work on illegal immigration. In the weeks following Suydam’s hearing, his name is mentioned with increasing regularity in Red Hook and Malone suspects that he is involved in either criminal or occult activity, or both. Malone discovers that Suydam has bought three tenement buildings on the seafront and moved in with a gang of fifty hardened criminals, led by an African American known as Black Tom. He does not make the connection with Tommy until later and the racial prejudice he shares with Suydam results in both men underestimating Tom’s mastery of the situation. In pitting Malone (and Howard) against Tom, LaValle provides an explicit commentary on the racial, social, and political problems that have given rise to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and its various component organisations, including Black Lives Matter. He also addresses the related but distinct phenomenon of police militarisation in the US directly in spite of his historical setting. LaValle’s great achievement is that he succeeds in both telling a weird tale and providing overt political commentary without ever straying into the realm of the didactic. This is a difficult bit of authorial magic to pull off because the enjoyment of a tale well told and reflections on contemporary violence typically pull the reader in opposite directions, each distracting from the other.  Not so with The Ballad of Black Tom. I shall nonetheless conclude on a note of regret, that the circumstances to which LaValle draws attention seem to have deteriorated rather than improved since the novella was published.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Supergirl: Book Four, by Peter David, Leonard Kirk and chums (DC Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Reasonably enjoyable but surprisingly religious adventures of an odd Supergirl. Not Superman’s cousin, nor quite the protoplasm Supergirl either, she’s a mixed-up kid who merged with the protoplasm while dying to become, well, an angel. Trying to do good while keeping her secret identity under wraps, in this book she learns that her literally god-given talents have an expiration date. Though not so obviously aimed at men as earlier books, it’s still not the Supergirl you’d pick out for girls. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Poison City, by Paul Crilley | review by Rafe McGregor

Poison City by Paul Crilley

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £15.49, August 2016, ISBN 9781473631588


I’ll begin this review with a confession: for idiosyncratic reasons in which the readers of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will have no interest, I have a soft spot for police procedurals set in Durban, South Africa’s ‘third city’ (after Johannesburg and Cape Town).  As far as I know, Poison City is the only police procedural set there aside from my own novella, The Secret Policeman (2008).  In consequence, I may have approached this novel in a less critical frame of mind than usual.  Having said that, this is not Durban as I or anyone else who has ever lived there knows it.  Scottish author Paul Crilley invites his readers to imagine a world similar to that of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), in which every legend, myth, cult, and religion ever invented by humanity is true and in which the orisha – these supernatural beings – all exist.  The difference between Crilley’s and Gaiman’s fictional worlds is twofold: first, Crilley is not afraid to confront the monotheistic religions and his God is simply another orisha, albeit one of the most powerful; second, the orisha are free to migrate where and when they wish rather than being reliant on humanity for their transportation and have accordingly dispersed across the globe.  A world where human and orisha live side-by-side requires a special police force and an international organisation of police officers along the lines of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) exists precisely for this purpose.  These Supernatural Divisions are part of the regular police forces of each country, clandestine units with obscure names run from secret headquarters whose primary purpose is to serve as peacekeepers, enforcing the Covenant, an ancient truce between humanity and orisha.  In South Africa, the Supernatural Division is called Delphic Division (DD), is part of the official Occult Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS), and is based in Durban.  DD is nominally under the command of Divisional Commissioner Ranson, a political appointment, but actually run by Major Olivia Armitage, an Englishwoman in her fifties, and her senior investigator is Lieutenant Gideon Tau.

Tau is the protagonist of a novel that merges the genres of occult detective, police procedural, and urban fantasy.  He is a Londoner who served in the Metropolitan Police Service, resigned for undisclosed reasons, and worked as a private investigator in Los Angeles before moving to South Africa and joining the SAPS.  Tau is no stranger to personal tragedy, with his father committing suicide when Tau was twelve and his daughter murdered three years before the narrative opens.  His wife left him after the loss of their child and he lives with his spirit guide, an alcoholic dog who has neither a name nor a breed, in a one bedroomed-flat just off the Golden Mile, the four-mile stretch of beach that constitutes Durban’s main tourist attraction.  He has a fondness for designer suits, mobile phones, and whisky, a fear of heights, and drives a beaten-up old Land Rover.  Tau is known as “London” or “London Town” to his colleagues and was recruited to DD by Armitage, who has become something of a mother figure to him.  Tau has ‘second sight’, the ability to see orisha in their true form and is a conjurer, i.e. able to use Shinecraft, like all of his colleagues at DD (some of whom are human, others orisha).  New recruits to DD are given a bone wand to assist their conjuring and a spirit guide as a mentor for the duration of their probationary period, by the end of which they are expected to have specialised in and mastered a particular branch of Shinecraft.  Tau has been in DD for five years, but failed to specialise – a literal jack of all trades and master of none – which is why he retains both the wand and the dog.  In addition, he has two Chinese dragons tattooed on his back and limited mastery of Sak yat, Chinese tattoo magic.  In the finest tradition of the occult detective, Tau must battle both human and orisha enemies, and like his more conventional police colleagues in South Africa, is heavily-armed for a typical tour of duty, with the wand, a magical silver dagger, a Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol, and a shotgun.

Crilley employs first-person narration by his protagonist, a convention popular in hardboiled detective stories, but writes in the present tense instead of the more common past tense.  I am not sure why he employs this device as it serves no obvious purpose, but it is used skilfully and he avoids the main pitfall of present tense narration, distracting the reader.  The novel is divided into twenty-four chapters and the first twenty-three take place over a single week, Sunday to Sunday in late November in a year that is presumably contemporary with the year of publication (or perhaps the previous year).  The first two chapters serve the dual purpose of introducing Tau and his world and immersing the reader in an exciting action set piece.  The plot begins in the next, but it is supervenient upon a particular complex sequence of events.  Lilith – Adam’s first wife, ‘First Mother of the Illium’, ‘Mother of the Watchers’, ‘The First Ruler of Eden’, and apparently Empress of the Vampires – has come to the decision that the Covenant is not in the interests of the orisha.  The Covenant prevents an apocalyptic war between the orisha and humanity, but over the last three hundred millennia it has facilitated the overpopulation of the earth by humanity and the reversal of Lilith’s preferred status quo, in which the orisha were the dominant species.  She plans to destroy humanity – or at least the majority of humanity – by means of sin, exploiting the for the most part secret practice of sin-eating.  Sin-eaters can be both orisha and human and can eat the sins of either species.  The way the process works is that a being who feels guilty about a sin they have committed consults a sin-eater, who eats their sin for a price, removing all memory of it.  The sin-eater does more than this, however: ‘“See, the sins are not just sins.  They hold memories and feelings.  Everything associated with where and when the sin took place.  The sin-eater takes all that into his very soul when he takes on a sin.”’  As such, sin-eaters have become a valuable resource and created a global corporation.  No sin ever disappears so before a sin-eater dies he or she must pass on their sins to their apprentice, otherwise the sins will return to those who committed them.  This has made sin-eaters not only a valuable resource, but sources of vast amounts of information.  Many human beings in the upper echelons of the financial, social, and political elite have taken advantage of the corporation’s services, contracting their own sin-eaters and attending the annual sin party, an orgy of violent and sexual harm, all physical and mental evidence of which is erased by the hosts by the following morning.  Crilley’s conceit presumes, of course, that the dominant emotion felt by members of the elite who perpetrate harm is guilt rather than, for example, satisfaction or pride, which is open to question, but the internal logic of his fictional world is entirely consistent.

The third chapter of Poison City ends with Armitage and Tau being called to the scene of a murder.  The victim, Jengo Dhlamini, is a ramanga (a low-level vampire) who is subsequently revealed to be a sin-eater and whose soul contains knowledge of the Sinwalker, the first sin-eater, who ate God’s sins and can only continue to contain them by sleeping.  Dhlamini was killed by a sin-eater working for Lilith, but his death proved useless as he had taken the precaution of hiding his soul.  When Lilith’s sin-eater fails to acquire the soul by committing a second murder, she captures Tau, who manages to escape.  Lilith’s sin-eater commits a third murder, but once again fails to acquire either the soul or the knowledge it contains.  The pace of the investigation – and the personal and public stakes – pick up when Tau discovers the existence of the corporation and the crescendo and climax of the narrative are planned and executed to perfection by Crilley.  Poison City is the first in the Delphic Division series, which follows Tau’s investigations and adventures in the occult.  Unfortunately the second, Clockwork City (published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2017), is a disappointment, replacing the murder mystery plot with a caper story that just doesn’t work.  At the time of writing there is no third novel on the horizon so we may have seen the last of Tau.  That’s a pity because aside from my interest in Poison City’s setting, Crilley has created a charismatic character with a rich and intriguing past that might have taken his readers to other locations in South Africa, Los Angeles, or beyond in future instalments.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Angel's Inferno, by William Hjortsberg | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel’s Inferno by William Hjortsberg

No Exit Press, 384pp, £8.19, October 2020, ISBN 9780857304131


The late William Hjortsbjerg (1941–2017) was a Hollywood screenwriter best known for his screenplay of Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) and his novel, Falling Angel (1978), which was filmed as Angel Heart (1987), directed by Alan Parker.  I recently reviewed Angel Heart for TQF, discussing the film and the novel, in consequence of which this review includes spoilers for both.  Hjortsberg was not a prolific writer of books, publishing seven novels, one collection of short fiction, and one biography, with only Falling Angel achieving critical acclaim.  He published a single novel in the last twenty years of his life, Mañana (2015) and his last before that was Nevermore (1994), which may have been the inspiration for James McTeigue’s disappointing The Raven (2012), though I’ve found no acknowledgement of the connection.  Nevermore is considerably better than The Raven, featuring Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle as a detective duo (they were real life acquaintances), a fine example of an occult detective story that blends fact with fiction.  I’ve been interested in Hjortsberg for some time, but – like so many screenwriters – details of his work and life are difficult to find.  I stepped up my efforts when I reviewed Angel Heart and was surprised to learn that not only had he been working on a new novel at the very end of his life, but that it was a sequel to Falling Angel.  (There is no mention of the book on his own website, which is the most comprehensive source of information on him: http://williamhjortsberg.com/.)  I had to re-read the final chapter of the latter to refresh my memory as to whether a sequel was possible without employing retroactive continuity… it is and it was first published by Centipede Press in July 2020, as a limited edition hardback paired with a new edition of Falling Angel that sold out on pre-orders.  The specialist crime fiction publisher No Exit Press, which is part of the Oldcastle Books Group and seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance of late, released the paperback and Kindle editions three months later.

Falling Angel and Angel Heart were both paradigmatic occult detective stories and their achievement lies in maintaining a rigorous internal logic, by means of which the crucial tension between the rational detective and the extra-rational setting is maintained.  There is a special relationship between detective fiction, including occult detective fiction, and narrative representation.  In every narrative there is a real or imaginary sequence of events that takes place in the storyworld.  In an autobiography, this sequence of events would begin with the author’s birth or – more likely – the birth of his or her parents or grandparents and end shortly before the decision to write the autobiography or with the publisher’s decision to publish the manuscript.  In a detective story, the sequence of events readers or viewers are invited to imagine begins with the murderer planning the murder or with a disappearance and ends with the murderer being identified and usually (but not always) brought to justice or with the missing person found, whether dead or alive.  Regardless of whether the representation is documentary or fictional, however, the story itself – the words or words and pictures on the page or the images and sounds on the screen – does not represent all of these events.  Usually, a detective story will start shortly before the discovery of the corpse and end before the trial begins.  In this way, in both documentary and fictional narratives, the narrative representation is a superstructure underpinned by the base of the real or imaginary sequence of events.  Detective fiction standardly dramatises, stages, or thickens the relationship between story and sequence of events by presenting both the story of the crime (the sequence of events) and the story of the investigation (the story) together, the progression of the detective involving him or her repeating, retracing, or revisiting the progression of the criminal.  Occult detective stories standardly begin with a detective fiction plot, which they may or may not follow through to the conclusion as the supernatural intrudes into the investigation.  What is essential for the suspension of disbelief is that when the supernatural does intrude, it intrudes in a manner that is consistent with the logic of the storyworld.

The main difference between detective fiction and occult detection is the variations that are available to the author or director in terms of the protagonist and the setting.  The detective can be identical to a crime fiction detective, such as Detective John Hobbes (played by Denzel Washington) in Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1998), or a crime fiction detective with esoteric knowledge, heightened sensitivity to the supernatural, or both, such as Sarah Monette’s Kyle Murchiston Booth (2007). The detective may have some supernatural powers him or her self, such as Mike Carey’s Felix Castor (2006), or be a supernatural being, such as Cassandra Khaw’s John Persons (2016). In this respect, the Harry Angel of Falling Angel and Angel’s Inferno is almost identical to a crime fiction detective. The setting can similarly be almost – but never actually – identical to the real world, as in Mark Valentine and John Howard’s The Collected Connoisseur (2010), or one in which the illusion of the everyday conceals a supernatural reality, as in ABC and Showtime’s Twin Peaks (three seasons, released in 1990, 1991, and 2017).  Alternatively, the setting can be one in which the supernatural is a ubiquitous to the real world, as in David Tallerman’s Detective Fièvre stories (two, published in 2009 and 2015), or a different world entirely, itself a speculative fiction, as in Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Hell in his Thomas Fool series (two novels, published in 2015 and 2016). Once again, Angel’s world is almost identical to the real world of 1959 and most of Angel’s Inferno is set in Paris in that year. The combination of a more or less realistic detective with a less or more supernatural setting provides the subgenre with its great variety, from Kat Richardson’s Greywalker (2006) to Gerlado Borges’ Philosopher Rex (2010) to Fox’s Sleepy Hollow (four seasons, from 2013 to 2017) to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy (2019).

Falling Angel ends with Angel being arrested for a murder that he did not commit, but for which there is conclusive evidence of his guilt and for which the arresting officers, Lieutenant Sterne and Detective Deimos, are seeking the death sentence.  Angel is stoic and his resignation suggests that he thinks Louis Cyphre, the client who framed him for multiple murders, is actually Satan himself.  Angel’s Inferno begins minutes later, at the crime scene, with Angel in handcuffs.  Hjortsberg exploits both the particular tension between rational detective and extra-rational setting that he established in Falling Angel and his mastery of horror fiction in terms of much of the content being implicit rather than explicit.  As such, the Angel of Angel’s Inferno (unlike the Angel of Angel Heart) is not even sure that he is Johnny Favorite, the singer who sold his soul to Satan, let alone convinced that Cyphre is the owner of that soul.  The plot of Angel’s Inferno is thus driven by two puzzles: first, whether Angel is Angel or Favorite; and second, whether Cyphre is Satan or just a convincing imposter.  An affirmative answer to the second question entails an affirmative answer to the first, but an affirmative answer to the first does not entail an affirmative answer to the second.  Angel’s plan, once he escapes from custody, is to find Cyphre and kill him – whether for the purpose of revenge for setting him up for murder or whether to avenge his daughter’s murder is not entirely clear.  One of the ways in which the Angel-Favorite puzzle is set up with both strength and subtlety is the change of style in the first person narration.  It is immediately obvious that Angel in Angel’s Inferno is just not as likeable or sympathetic as Angel in Falling Angel.  He escapes from custody by killing Deimos and exhibits neither remorse nor regret.  I initially thought this was a symptom of the four decade gap in the writing of the two novels, but it quickly becomes clear that Angel’s tone is a symptom of the internal struggle between Angel and Favorite.

One of Hjortsberg’s skills as a storyteller is the way he effortlessly subverts his readers’ expectations: having structured the narrative around the two puzzles, it comes as a surprise when the answer to the first is solved one sixth of the way into the novel and the second three quarters of the way through.  Angel’s actions and motivations have all been focused on discovering Cyphre’s whereabouts while evading both Sterne and the Paris police.  He is not just focused, but obsessed, fully prepared to die trying to kill Cyphre should Cyphre indeed prove to be Satan.  Instead of creating an anticlimactic final hundred pages, however, the revelation of the identities of both the protagonist and antagonist actually increases the suspense, once again subverting my expectations about the conclusion towards which the narrative was making its inevitable way.  Once Angel has solved both puzzles, he is offered a price for the opportunity to kill Cyphre by the Circle of Thirty, an occult cabal.  This can only be bought by skinning a human being of the Circle’s choice alive, making an audio recording of the torture, and then delivering the skin and the recording in person.  Hjortsberg has planned this moment from the very beginning, foreshadowing the identity of the victim using formal rather than substantive means.  Bijou Jolicoeur, Angel’s mature black lover, has a tattoo of Baron Samedi on her right breast, ‘wrinkle-free ebony features’ as ‘luxuriant as midnight’, a complexion that is ‘smooth darkness’ and ‘molasses’, and – most ominously – undresses like ‘a snake shedding her skin’.  It is from this point, the last forty pages of the novel, that suspense escalates to terror in a series of staged climaxes that build to an incredible crescendo that closes the narrative as it opened, in medias res.

I have only three criticisms, all minor.  Chapters 19 and 20 (of 52) are both exposition and nothing else, pure ‘information dumping’ as Angel reads a book on comparative religion.  Given Hjortsberg’s aesthetic achievements in and with the novel, these two unwieldy chapters back to back provide an unwelcome interruption to one’s reading pleasure.  He also makes use of two real people: William S. Burroughs has a supporting role and Albert Camus a walk-on part.  There is nothing necessarily problematic about this (I have just praised Nevermore for using Houdini and Doyle), but the two are introduced in consecutive chapters (17 and 18) alongside mention of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and I found the sudden appearance of a handful of historical characters a distraction from an otherwise engrossing storyworld.  Like the two chapters of exposition, it was too much too quickly.  Finally, I may be wrong, but I wasn’t sure about whether some of Angel’s language wasn’t either anachronous or out of character – particularly ‘gender’, ‘cancer stick’, ‘Beatnik’, and ‘smack’.

I was well into the novel before I realised that I’d been quoted in the front matter: the first page has nine comments on Falling Angel, including one from me, published in 2009.  As my name appears between Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, I think my career as a reviewer has just peaked.  If Falling Angel is exemplary occult detection – which, like Angel Heart, it clearly is – then Angel’s Inferno is exemplary occult noir.  In fact, to stay with that first page of praise, Thomas Keneally, who is best known as the author of Schindler’s Ark (published in 1982 and filmed as Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg in 1993), describes Falling Angel as a ‘sort of ultimate detective story’.  I think he is absolutely right, in which case the final sentence of Angel’s Inferno announces the sequel as the ultimate noir fiction.  Hjortsberg is at the height of his powers as a novelist and Angel’s Inferno is well worth the forty year wait.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Incendiaries, intrigue, and insurrection: finding the female voice in a world “where women might as well be house cats”.

What kind of place relegates women to groups with names like Econowives, Marthas, Handmaids, Pearl Girls, and Unwomen? Where might one see a Particicution in which normally meek and submissive women grow enraged and literally tear apart men convicted of crimes? Gilead, of course… the fictional setting of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.   

The novel’s action takes place 15 years after that in Atwood’s groundbreaking near-future sci-fi opus The Handmaid’s Tale, written 35 years ago. When the sequel opens, the Republic of Gilead, located within the northeastern US, appears to be thriving with its strict rules and severely hierarchical structure. However, “beneath its outer shell of virtue and purity,” points out Agnes Jemima, “Gilead was rotting.”

The story unfolds from the perspectives of three characters. Agnes is a girl coming of age in Gilead. She is selfless and grateful if naïve. Like many of her peers, she does not want to be married off to an older man, yet that is priority number one for her new stepmother. 

Daisy, a girl living in Canada, understands the unfairness within Gilead, where “women might as well be house cats and everyone [is] a religious maniac”. She undergoes a family tragedy and later discovers a connection to Gilead. The contrast between the girls’ viewpoints, one influenced by lifelong membership in a cult and the other shaped by a world similar to our own, offers plenty of fodder for how one’s environment guides one’s world view. 

Aunt Lydia, the third and most compelling character, has used her wiles to ascend to the top female position within Gilead, of which she is a founding member. Her status as Aunt means that she does not have children, is not married, and lives in Ardua Hall – no men allowed here – with the other Aunts, all of them intent on helping keep Gilead’s women in line. 

Agnes and Daisy’s narrations are presented as “transcripts of witness testimony”, whereas Aunt Lydia’s narration is referred to as a “holograph” that has been hidden within Ardua Hall’s library. In the audiobook version, Atwood herself participates, fortunately only to read the chapter titles – each time she speaks, she sounds as if she’s about to fall asleep. 

For years, Gilead has been trying to locate Baby Nicole, whose mother escaped with her. This child, “practically a saint in Gilead”, is a symbol of hope for the republic. To complicate matters, someone within Gilead wants to bring down the entire regime. This person is in cahoots with a secret group called Mayday, which helps people, particularly females, escape the shackles of Gilead and start life anew. 

The tension grows as both Agnes and Daisy discover things about themselves and confront increasingly dangerous circumstances. All the while, Aunt Lydia manipulates people into getting her way. 

The Testaments showcases Atwood’s versatility. As the story shifts between the three narrators, the reader gets immersed in what could be three different novels. Daisy’s story, full of intrigue and the discovery of a greater purpose, has the feel of a young adult novel. Conversely, Agnes, as she comes to understand the shortcomings of a society in which women are scapegoats, typifies the likeable protagonist in a cult story. Aunt Lydia’s machinations summon a Shakespearean drama. Then there is the unorthodox conclusion, which takes place as a lecture in the late 22nd century.

Gilead and America 

The central theme in The Testaments is, not surprisingly, the oppression and emergence of women. This staggeringly hierarchical society forbids girls to read and breeds them to be submissive wives. The female’s greatest use, according to Gilead, is her ability to have children. 

In this culture of arranged marriages, it is not uncommon for older men to wed girls in their early teens, then dispose of them if they get tired of them. Commander Judd, a top dog in the Gilead pyramid, has had a series of young wives, all of whom have come to untimely ends. Women in Gilead live in fear that at any moment, they could be snatched away or have their lives completely upended. It’s all based on the whims of men. 

And who’s at fault? The women, of course. Agnes talks about being unable to go on a swing because it might entice the males to look up her skirt. It’s as if the men are wild animals and the women are encouraged not to carry open foods. 

If women do not have children, they have little value in Gilead. How much does this mindset translate to contemporary America, where girls who say they don’t want children are told, “You’ll change your mind” and women who elect not to have children are labeled “selfish”. 

Agnes Jemima can only wear pink, white, or plum dresses. How apparent will those same colors be if one takes a stroll down the girls’ toy aisle in the local store?  

A favorite passage in this novel involves Aunt Lydia directly addressing the (presumed female) reader. She implies that women can be so much more than just a receptacle and a caretaker. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****