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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold in the Earth. Aline Templeton. Hodder (2005)

A compelling and engaging crime story with a great cast, brilliantly realised location and a tightly wound plot. Following the death of her mother Laura Sonfeldt decides to investigate the disappearance of her older sister fifteen years previously. In Galloway in Scotland, a remote farming community is hammered by the outbreak of foot and mouth in their sheep and cattle herds as well as the discovery of a skeleton. Detective Marjory Flemming has to investigate the case as well as keep public order in a community splintering under the impact of the mass slaughter of the flocks of animals. The threads of the plot are carefully woven together, the reveals are brilliantly staged, and the climax packs a considerable punch.
The context for the plot is superbly done, an isolated community under savage pressure that is attacking the focus of its identity, a farming community being forced to watch its stock be destroyed. Marjory Flemming, a police officer, a farmer and a farmer's wife is stretched across the fault lines and forced to make damaging choices. She is smart, resilient and dedicated playing a poor hand with force and thoughtfulness. Laura Sonfeldt, trying to recover her bearing in life after the death of her mother develops strongly throughout the story.
There is a glorious supporting cast who are all vying for the readers attention, they are full of life and vigour, none are stereotypes or shortchanged by Aline Templeton. A pleasure.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hellboy. Masks and Monsters. Dark Horse Books (2010)

Two very enjoyable cross over stories featuring Hellboy, Batman, Starman and Ghost. The first story, Batman/Hellboy/Starman written by James Robinson, art by Mike Mignola, colours by Matt Hollingsworth and lettered by Willie Schubert is a Hellboy story with a different cast.In Gotham City, Ted Knight, the original Starman is kidnapped by a mysterious group. This draws the attention of Batman and Hellboy and they combine to discover that it is a secret Nazi group that have kidnapped Ted Knight and taken him to their South American base. While Batman has problems in Gotham to deal with, the current Starman, Ted Knight's son, fly out to rescue him. The story unfolds wonderfully, with a great Hellboy Nazi/Elder God plot bubbling away, plenty of smart dialogue and action. The reveals are clever, the art is glorious and the whole package tremendous fun.
The second story Ghost/Hellboy written by Mike Mignola,pencilled by Scott Benefiel, inked by Jasen Rodriguez, coloured by Pamela Rambo, lettered by Sean Konot takes a different tack. Ghost is the vengeful spirit of reporter Elisa Cameron, who deals out death to criminals. Ghost enters a netherworld and in pursuit of peace of heart pulls Hellboy into a netherworld ruled by a wearing a metal mask. The reveals are sharp and unexpected, the action is excellent and the conclusion sour and satisfying.
The contrast between the two stories is interesting, James Robinson writes a very straightforward Hellboy story, in essence substituting Batman and Starman for some of the regular Hellboy cast. Their presence does not fundamentally make any difference to the dynamic of the story. The presence of Ghost in the other story is central to whole structure and tone of the story, she is much more significant. To an extent it is a Ghost story with Hellboy as the guest star, one who does have a vital part to play. It is very noticeable how Mike Mignola takes Ghost, who is a signal example of the sleazy coyness that infects comics, and gives her a personality that is bigger than her breasts. She is very much a character, a clear individual voice that plays strongly against Hellboy and drives the story. A very enjoyable collection with more punch than may be anticipated.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Simon Winchester. Penguin Books. (1999)

The astonishing story of one of the most important contributors to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is gripping and constantly surprising. The Oxford English Dictionary was a stereotypical Victorian project, it was intended to project the power and majesty of English, the language of Empire. More than simply providing a source of explanation, it was intended to be a biography of the language, capturing the current as well as deceased aspects of the language with a confident sweep and authority. The structure of the dictionary would include both a definition of the word as well as quotations that tried to show how the word had entered the language, shifted in meaning and possible passed out of usage. It was an extraordinary project, one that breathes the steely assurance of the English Victorians.
Simon Winchester traces the general development of dictionaries as well as the extraordinary development of the OED itself. In particular he examines the lives of two men, James Murray who was the most important editor of the first edition of the OED and Dr. William Minor who would become one of the most important contributors. James Murry, the son of a Scottish farmer, rose due to his intellectual force and determination to being appointed as the editor of the OED. He proved to be exactly the right person for the job, combining a range of organisational skill, willpower and lively, deeply informed curiosity needed to push the process forward.
William Minor was a convicted murderer who was confined to Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. Minor was an American, a doctor in the Union Army who had been at the front line of the horrifying battle of the Wilderness. From Broadmoor he contributed an invaluable series of quotations for the dictionary and was recognised for his contributions in the introduction to the first volume.
Simon Winchester tells the intertwined story of the OED, James Murray and Dr. Minor with skill and care. It is a riveting story. What lifts the book to unexpected heights is that George Merrett, the man Dr. Minor murdered, is not lost in the shadows of the story. He is recognised as being more than a a footnote to a larger narrative and this honest remembrance gives the book an unexpected depth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol 10. Eiji Otsuka (Writer), Housui Yamazaki (Art) Toshifumi Yoshida (Translator) Dark Horse Magna (2010)

A superb mix of gore and black humour with a brilliant story premise and a engaging and very well defined cast. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service are a group of people who locate corpses and deliver them according to the corpse's last wishes. The first story in the collection presents a problem to the Kurosagi team, corpses appear to be disappearing and when they do find one they do not want to assist it. They find that they are not the only ones looking for corpses and when they encounter a policeman with a very particular interest in them a deeply sad and gripping story unfolds. The second story takes a Japanese legend about the murder of a guest and gives it a very modern and grimly funny makeover. The final story ties up a television programme featuring a "psychic" and look at the background of one of the team. The mix of satire, comedy, gore and character is astonishing.
The most striking aspect to the collection is the variety of the stories, they use the same premise and team and manage to follow very different directions in each case. Eiji Otsuka has a talent for mixing up genre requirements with the unexpected and entirely appropriate, the comedy and gore sit very comfortably with the strongly emotional currents within the stories. The cast are given room to shine over the effects. The clean lines and detail of the art by Housui Yamazaki are a pleasure to read. The corpses have a satisfying grimness to them, their injuries are explicit, their rage is clear.
An outstanding aspect to the book is the final section, "Disjecta Membra" by the editor Greg Horn. Not only does it include a very informative essay about Japanese written characters, it is a glossary of the sound effects and other items within the comic. They are funny, surprising and hugely enjoyable, very much like the stories themselves. A great read.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Terracotta Dog. Andrea Camilleri. Stephen Sartarelli (Translator) Picador (2002)

A wonderfully atmospheric crime story set in Sicily with a clever plot, an engaging cast and a superb leading character. Inspector Salvo Montalbano has a most unexpected meeting with a leading Mafioso which ultimately leads to a hidden cave which proves to have multiple secrets. A pair of lovers, embracing in death, was laid to rest there fifty years before, with a large terracotta dog keeping watch over them. The story twists and turns as the inspector tries to unravel the mysteries of the cave. The reveals are cunningly staged, the cast are bursting with life and vigour and the conclusion is heartfelt and very satisfying.
The major character in the story is Sicily itself in all its contradictory glory. The extraordinary sense of place that Andrea Camilleri is able to conjure up without it ever becoming a travelogue is vital. The context provides the stage for the wonderful strutting cast to play upon, they are so strongly at home that the action feels completely natural. The epidemic corruption and the accommodations to it as well as the struggle against it saturate the story without ever obscuring it.
Inspector Montalbano is as much a pleasure to read about as it would be a terror to work with. He is clever, forceful, terrified of public speaking and utterly dogged. He is a great mix and emerges with force and clarity, the rest of the cast are to a lesser or greater extent in his shadow, they all are demanding to be noticed too. It is the determined vitality of the cast that gives the book its weight and grip. This is a great story brilliantly told.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Zimmerman Telegram. Barbara Tuchman. Papermac (1958)

This is the extraordinary story behind the event that finally propelled the USA into the First World War. The event was a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary to the German Ambassador in Mexico sent via the German Ambassador in the USA on the17 January 1917. The telegram announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would be recommenced and much more significantly Germany would support and attack by Mexico on the USA. Barbara Tuchman provides both the wider context for the plans announced in the telegram and the impact it had as well as the amazing story of how it was intercepted, decoded and finally revealed.
At the heart of the story about how the telegram was found and used is the essential problem that any spying activity has to confront, how to use the information that has been discovered without revealing the process used to uncover it. This was particularly acute in this case as the British had cracked the German codes early in the war and the Germans never knew and this provided a steady stream on critical intelligence. Any risk to this had to avoided, yet the information in the telegram was recognised as the key to getting the USA into the war which was the only chance the Allies had to survive let alone win the war.
The German plan was based on both sound strategy and wishful thinking, unrestricted submarine warfare would quickly and efficiently bring England to economic ruin and military standstill. This strategy was recognised as being very likely to bring the USA into the war, the wishful thinking was that a domestic war front could be opened with Mexico that would distract the USA from Europe. As Barbara Tuchman makes clear it was not an entirely implausible plan, it fatally misjudged the situation due to the overwhelming need for it to be true.
The espionage aspect to this story is beyond the wildest realms of spy fiction, fiction is constrained by the need to be credible and the actual events are absurd in the extreme. In particular the events surrounding the acquiring of a releasable version of the telegram in Mexico are jaw dropping.
The whole book is superbly written, the gripping story in given force and clarity and the whole context of the war provided in just the required level of detail. Unmissable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Princess of Burundi. Kjell Eriksson. (Translated by Ebba Segerberg). Thomas Dunne Books (2006)

A low key, engrossing and sad story of a crime and its consequences. A man is reported missing and is found tortured and murdered in a park in a park. While his brother has a long criminal history the victim has been settled for a long time. At the same time Vincent Halm is planning on revenge on those who bullied him in school. The police investigation unfolds with care and attention to detail as the impact of the crime is revealed on the large cast. The setting for the story, in a Swedish city in winter is brilliantly conveyed and the large, and largely depressed cast struggle with their lives and the results of the murder. The reveals are nicely done, the conclusion is thoughtful and unforgiving.
Kjell Eriksson does not hurry the story along, it meanders along the intersecting lives of the cast all of whom seem to be having some sort of a crisis in their lives, either as a result of the murder or made worse by it. It is very striking that this cumulative weight of misery does not render the book unreadable, the cast are self aware rather than self centred. They are trying to manage their lives and this gives enough momentum to make them engaging rather than tiresome.
The police investigation and Vincent Halm's quest for revenge form the spine of the story and both are skillfully developed, they provide the context for the cast and consistently provide enough action to propel the narrative forward. The book takes the opportunities provided by the genre to travel quite widely, the author respects the genre enough to ensure that it is a very thoughtful crime story too.
This story has a quiet compelling force and a willingness to invest in its cast that make it a strongly flavoured pleasure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tainted Relic. The Medieval Murderers. Simon & Schuster UK (2005)

This is a very engaging and enjoyable anthology of linked stories that start in 1100 at the sack of Jerusalem and finish five hundred years later in London, all the stories are linked by the tainted relic of the title. The stories are all very enjoyable with a couple standing out.
The opening story by Simon Beaufort sets the scene, at the sack of Jerusalem, a relic is cursed by its murdered guardian. Whoever touches the relic will die a gruesome death as soon as the relic leaves their possession. The tension between the value of such a relic, said to be part of the True Cross and the danger of possessing it drive the plots of the following stories. The force of both of these elements are nicely captured in the story as the relic is moved from Jerusalem. It appears in England, in the possession of a man heading to Glastonbury to sell it, he is murdered and robbed before he can do so. Bernard Knight writes how Crowner John, one of the newly created coroners, investigates the crime. The story has a vivid cast and a strong plot, the relic is central and is used to provide a sharp focus for the cast, the politics and personal tensions of the era are strongly drawn.
A decapitated monk in Oxford in 1269 is the start for a search by William Falconer to uncover the truth in a story by Ian Morson. The story is very well constructed, a big cast are introduced effectively, story threads are cleverly woven and sharp humour is welcome.
In 1323 in Exeter, a number of murders seem to have links to the relic and Michael Jecks' Sir Baldwin has a problem in making sense of what has happened. This is one of the two best stories in the book, the plot is very cleverly constructed, the reveals excellent, the cast are forceful and engaging. Michael Jecks manages the constriction of space with ease. The following story set thirty years later in Cambridge , written by Susanna Gregory is the other stand out story. It is a remarkable piece of compression, the story feels much more expansive than it is, the cast are superb and the plot gripping.
The final story by Philip Gooden and set in London is clever and amusing. It features the most unusual and effective court witness I have read about and and very neatly resolves a question about the relic. An epilogue set in 2005 provides a very sharp final sting for this excellent collection.
As with any period stories the detail in the stories is crucial and in all cases it is woven into the context of the stories with skill and care. The strong plots allow the cast to move through their various locations and times with confidence and the reader gets to enjoy the story and the scenery with equal pleasure. Great fun.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Prince Valiant. Volume 1: 1937 - 1938. Hal Foster. Fantagraphics Books (2009)

A stunning outsize production that presents the first year of the Prince Valiant pages in the vibrant colours that Hal Foster intended. Prince Valiant, the son of an exiled king who lives on an island in a marsh in England, leaves home after his mother's death and heads for the mainland. After encounter with Sir Launcelot, Valiant decides to go to Camelot and become a knight. He become a sqire to Sir Gawain and launches himself on a series of adventures that include battling Morgan Le Fey and Viking pirates. The stories are superbly staged, the details are beautifully portrayed, the action is fierce and compelling and the cast are busting with life and energy.
The art dominates this book, it is extraordinary. There is a very rapid development from the initial pages as Hal Foster hits his stride and his flowing mix of panels, art and captions. The art is detailed and dramatic,the panels are full but never crowded. The varying size of the panels is used to strong effect to drive the story forward. The colouring is one of the most striking features, it is used to very dramatic effect to give depth and detail to the context.
The stories themselves are suitably dramatic and romantic, high adventures that have enough twists and turns to maintain the tension and suspense. The stories read very well in a collected volume, they do not trip over each other nor does the small recap at the start of each page get in the way. Hal Foster was willing to assume that he had the attention of his audience from week to week and concentrated on forward motion.
The large format of the volume allows the story room to be read to the full and the art room to breathe. This is comics archeology at its best,using technology to present comics in a way they deserve. Wonderful.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Railway Detective. Edward Marston. Allison & Busby Ltd. (2004)

This is an engaging and enjoyable period crime story. In 1851 the London to Birmingham mail train is robbed in a very carefully executed operation. In addition to robbing the train, it is also derailed. Detective Robert Colbeck is in charge of the investigation and he quickly comes to appreciate the intelligence and ferocity of his opponents. As he steadily uncovers the wider plan at foot he finds that the closer he gets the greater danger he and those about him are in. The reveals are neatly staged, the plot is thoughtful, the cast are lively.
The story does not quite ignite as it should, there is a restraint in the book that keeps the tone and action just too low key. Robert Colbeck is thoughtful and credible, a man who has nice shades of character. He is a dedicated police office who is just ahead of existing police policy. The villains are well detailed and the motives are mixed and natural. The friction between the police and the criminals never produces heat, there is not enough thrills.
The period details are lightly woven into the book and serve the story well. The disruptive impact of the railways on English society is captured with skill. The large cast are all given clear voices and the space to make an impression. Edward Marston treats his cast with considerable sympathy and the story benefits greatly from it. The major strength of the book is the way the cast draw in the reader and bring the context to warm life. This a good fun book, it needs a slightly sharper edge.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mr. Holmes & Dr. Watson. Their Strangest Cases. Mark Ellis (Editor). Transfuzion Publishing (2010)

This volume reprints newspaper strips that ran for a short period in the 1950s, and which were written and illustrated by Edith Meiser, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Frank Giacoia, carefully reconstructed by Melissa Martin-Ellis. There are two original stories and two adaptations in the volume, the two original stories are by far the better. The adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is frankly terrible, its sole value is as a curiosity.
The first story "The Adventure of the Thumbless Man" is a first rate adventure. The murder at the docks of the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica leads Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson on to smuggling,piracy and very great danger. The art is lovely, the context is drawn with skill and care and the story has strength and grip. Sherlock Holmes shows his full range in the story.
The second story "Black Kill's Ghost" is even better, it has Sherlock Holmes battling against the vengeful ghost of a pirate. The story is full throttle melodrama and benefits hugely from it. It has all the elements of a Victorian pot boiler, a dispute over a house, a damsel in distress, a bloodthirsty ancestor come back to seek revenge and best of all the observant, scientific Mr Sherlock Holmes. Great pacing and striking art give the story additional punch.
The third story, an adaptation of "The Sussex Vampire", suffers from trying to be too faithful to the original, a greater willingness to reshape the story would have been better. Still the art is very nice.
The first two stories are more than enough reason to get this book, along with the informative essays by Martin Ellis. They may not be the strangest adventures, they are exciting and gripping ones done with care and energy. A pleasure.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Land of the Blind. Jess Walter. Coronet Books. (2003)

An interesting book that uses the form of a police procedural to tell a story that does not really fit into the genre. It does not quite succeed, it is an honorable failure. Caroline Mabry is a Spokane detective in the middle of a distinct career slump. She is on duty when a down and out is brought in, then man wishes to make a confession, Caroline lets him do so. His confession is of a murder and as it develops Caroline find herself investigating it. The two narratives overlap, the confession and the investigation, the action is low key, the reveals slight, the climax is subdued.
The most significant problem with the book is the underlying lack of momentum,the crime that is the subject of the confession and investigation is of secondary importance to the two lead characters. Both are attempting to deal with lives that have slipped away from them. The confession becomes a biography that attempts to provide the context and explanation for the man's life, addressed to the detective, it becomes an elaborate shaggy dog story. The investigation provides Caroline with a means to recover her sense of purpose. The lack of intensity in the book lowers the stakes for everyone.
There appears to have been a murder, a violent death at least, it proves to be a slippery topic and never actually central to the story. The unreliable narrative of the confession is punctuated by the investigation and a greater picture emerges. All told the form does not support the intent of the story, the cast are engaging enough to follow down to the end, it has an unsubstantial flavour.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our Little Secret. Kevin Flynn, Rebecca Lavoie. Berkley Books (2010)

An engrossing and frequently very surprising account of a murder in New Hampshire in 1985 and the twenty year delay before the murderer was arrested and brought to trial.
In November 1985, Eric Windhurst shot a man he had never met because he believed that the man was a child abuser who had sexually molested a girl he knew. The twenty years that elapsed between the crime and his arrest were not due to his ability to stay quiet and lay low, they owe much more to a unspoken consensus that the victim, Danny Paquette had it coming.
The very nature of the crime made it very difficult to investigate from the start, Danny Paquette was killed by a single shot from a considerable distance, a level of skill that created a persistent concern of an unlucky accidental shot. The brutal simplicity of the crime also meant that unless those directly involved confessed there was no way that they could be convicted.
Kevin Flynn and Rebecca Lavoie tell an extraordinary story with great restraint, skill and detail. By its very nature the people in the story all have a stake in the story and are more or less unreliable. The authors do not stand in judgement, they are more concerned to have as complete a story as possible. The person who is treated the most sympathetically is one of the most unlikely, Danny Paquette's brother Victor. Victor fought for twenty years to bring his brother's killer to justice, he is a man of very rough edges and ultimately the reminder that murder frequently has multiple living victims.
The most interesting aspect to the story is the unenforced silence so many people maintained for so long. Eric did tell a lot of people about the murder, they chose not to tell the police. How the crime came to be solved is as unexpected as the way it was hidden. This is a great story, skillfully told.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Anubis Slayings. Paul Doherty. Headline Book Publishing (2000)

This is an excellent crime story with a vividly realised setting and a superbly crafted plot. In Egypt the female Pharaoh, Hatusu, had defeated King Tushratta of Mitanni and was organising a peace treaty to seal her victory. In the temple of Anubis, the jackal headed god,murder and the theft of a very valuable and sacred jewel place the negotiations under strain. Hatsu calls on the judge Amerotke to solve the crimes. The story unfolds with great pace and, the threads of the plot are very cleverly woven together, the reveals are brilliantly staged and the final unravelling is a sharp pleasure.
Ancient Egypt is brought to credible life with deceptive ease and telling detail.There is no slabs of information that interrupt the flow of the story, the context is revealed in a natural and light handed way. The emphasis is on the cast and the way that they interact with each other. The leading players are developed very strongly, Hatusu emerges as a powerful and supremely confident leader. Her will to achieve and retain power does not define her, she is a complex and engaging woman. Amerotke is thoughtful and very capable, nicely he is not an Egyptian Sherlock Holmes, he is astute and observant. The rest of the cast are all given room to breathe and the story gains strongly from the layers that each cast member brings with them.
Underneath the wonderful clothing of Ancient Egypt a cunningly constructed plot drives the action. It is credibly tied to the cast and the context, the plot mechanics are lightly laid down and the cast drive the action themselves. The shifting reveals give the cast new chances to reveal themselves and they do so. Utterly engaging, smart and very satisfying, a pleasure.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hellboy. The Crooked Man and Others. Dark Horse Books (2010)

A great collection of short Hellboy stories, all written by Mike Mignola with art by different artists, Dave Stewart does the colouring for all the stories and Clem Robins the lettering. A nicely varied collection that all have the strong ideas and clever inventiveness that are typical of Hellboy stories.
The title story, The Crooked Man, has striking art from Richard Corben and a wonderful setting in the Appalachian mountains. In 1958 and Hellboy meets Tom Ferrell who has returned to the area after twenty years. They travel together to find a local witch and when they do they find themselves entangled with The Crooked Man, a man returned from Hell to do evil in the area. The plot is straightforward, the details of the narrative are superb. There is a siege of a church by The Crooked Man as his band of witches that is horrifying and astonishing in how it creates a logical and utterly unexpected assault. The conclusion is sourly satisfying. Richard Corben's art draws the atmosphere tightly around the story, the locations are grim and hard, the cast look like they belong and the The Crooked Man himself is grasping and malignant.
"They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships" co written by Joshua Dysart has art by Jason Shawn Alexander is a great pirate ghost story. Blackbeard was decapitated and his body tossed overboard. When the skull is stolen from an antique store the story of a very strange reunion unfolds. The threads of the story are very nicely woven together and the conclusion is superbly staged. The art is dark toned and dramatic, it captures the flavour of the story perfectly, mixing the romance and fierce reality of pirates in just the right way.
"In the Chapel of Moloch" has art by Mike Mignola and is a nice little story, it is a very distilled Hellboy story. The way that the supernatural lays hold of someone, who the supernatural force is are both done with economy and outstanding skill. How a hidden history of the world is suggested is a joy, the sheer mater-of-fact way Hellboy acts are all reminders of why Hellboy is such a pleasure to read.
The final story "The Mole" with art by Duncan Fegredo answers a most interesting question, if Hellboy had a nightmare what might it be like? Creating a credible dream for a creature like Hellboy, whose business is dealing with nightmares is a tricky task and this story does it with a sharp wit. For once having someone realise that it was a dream is not an easy exit from a narrative trap, it extends the character instead.
A really enjoyable collection requiring no knowledge of Hellboy continuity to read with pleasure.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Preacher. Camilla Lackberg.Steven T. Murray(Translator). HarperCollins (2004)

A simple and superbly orchestrated plot and a large, active and engaging cast make for a gripping and hugely enjoyable thriller. In the small Swedish town of Fjallbacka, the discovery of the body of a young woman and the two skeletons marks the start of a very difficult case for Detective Patrik Hedstrom. While the case draws in a local and bitterly divided family, the Hults, the lack of clues makes progress agonisingly slow. When a second young woman disappears the the pressure on everyone involved grows to dangerous levels. The reveals are cunningly staged and the cast are given plenty of time and space to establish themselves. The conclusion is fiercely sad and fitting.
The shifting viewpoints among the large cast that allow the reader to see each cast member from their own point of view and from that of others creates a rich and varied context for the mystery at the heart of the story. The cast have independent lives beyond the mechanics of the mystery and as they reveal themselves the grip of the story intensifies. The actions of the cast as they respond to the crimes and to other pressures in their lives gives the crimes a depth and proportion. The increasing levels of collateral damage created by the old and new crimes is steadily revealed as the cast are forced to confront their own actions.
One of the very enjoyable aspects to the book is that the strongest feature of the police investigation is simple, unrelenting persistence. The obstacles the investigation encounter are incompetence and indifference much more than any clever criminality. The messy lives of the cast are sympathetically dealt with, with flashes of sharp humour that are a pleasure to read. A big generous story that is subtly disciplined and controlled, a great read.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. Mike Mignola, Katie Mignola , Dave Stewart, Clem Robbins,Pat Brosseau, Dark Horse Books (2010)

A great collection of very funny stories that are also wonderfully imaginative adventures, quite brilliants comics too.The first story features one of the most remarkable action heroes I have ever encountered,Screw-On Head is an agent for Abraham Lincoln. A mysterious document fragment has been stolen from by Emperor Zombie, it possibly shows the whereabouts of a jewel that gives monstrous power to whoever possess it. Screw-On Head heads out to prevent disaster, encounters Emperor Zombie and his evil assistants, a demon intending to destroy the world and manages to be funny, thrilling and amazing. The story conclusion is terrific.
The second story is a clever and sharp version of Jack and the Beanstalk that takes the elements and shakes them up in a most unexpected way. The third story "The Magician and the Snake" is by Mike Mignola and his young daughter Katie. The background is provided in the notes at the back. This is a touching and heartfelt story of friendship and magic.
"The Witch and her Soul" is an extended joke, the set up is very well paced and the punchline is funny, unexpected and exactly right. "The Prisoner of Mars" is my favourite, if only because it is by far the cleverest and the funniest riff on H.G.Wells "War of the Worlds" it has been my pleasure to read. It is packed with great ideas, absurd gags and one of the very best endings I have ever read.
The great pleasure of the book is the way that these slight stories are treated with such care and attention to detail. The art is uniformly a pleasure to look at, Dave Stewart's colours subtly support the stories and give them a glowing life. The lettering by Clem Robbins and Pat Brosseau is both unobtrusive and strongly expressive.
When a comic has no intent beyond straightforward entertainment and does so with the confidence, craft and sparkling talent that this one does, it shines. A reminder of the tremendous pleasure to be had from reading a comic.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

9. Shane Acker (Director). Focus Features (2009)

Brilliantly animated, imaginative story of a post-human world. After a brutal conflict between humanity and insurgent machines, humanity is wiped out. A small creature made from sacking, a zip and some electro-mechanical bits comes to consciousness and sets out to explore the devastated world. Number 9(Elijah Wood) finds another, number 2(Martin Landau) who gives him a voice and when number 2 is kidnapped by a skeletal mechanical cat, a mission. This mission brings him into direct conflict with some others, in particular number 1(Christopher Plummer) who wants to avoid trouble or conflict. 9 leaves with number 5(John C. Reilly) and after being rescued by number 7(Jennifer Connelly), inadvertently resurrects the chief machine. A struggle for survival and the future of the world follows.
Packed with stunning visuals, frequently clever ideas, brilliantly staged action sequences, great characters and a nice touch of bittersweet optimism the film is a treat.The ruined city where the action takes places is astonishingly realised, the ruins and the wreckage are depicted with care and attention, the details give it depth and solidity. They deliberately hark back to the ruins and battlefields of the First World War, the machines have an antique futuristic look that works very well.
The cast of dolls are lively and distinctively individual, the voice talent is superbly matched to the animation to imbued them with real personality. Christopher Plummer gives number 1, the cautious seeker after safety a querulous and honest determination, Jennifer Connelly as the action hero number 7, wearing a bird's skull and never willing to back down for anyone is superb.
That the film shows how a electro-mechanical animated puppet would get high in a credible and funny way as well as creating a genuinely nightmarish mechanical caterpillar and these are just two of the many delights is wonderful. Thoughtful, with the minimum levels of sentimentality, a pleasure.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Affairs of the Heart. Patrick Wade. William Heinemann Ltd (1985)

Beautiful art and a savage humour create a glorious collection of cartons about love, sex and relationships. The cartons nicely sidestep the frequent cliches of domineering or overly enhanced women and submissive or sorry looking men. The cast look like humans and there is a strong sense of personality about them that adds force and depth to the punchlines. The writing is very vivid and matches with the art to create a pitch perfect balance. A rather faded looking man on the phone to a retailer complaining that he had ordered a Victoria Principal blow-up doll, on the bed behind rests a Margret Thatcher doll. What gives the multiple punchlines in the cartoon a real lift is that it has been done without malice, the man is not treated as a social inadequate, he is allowed be an annoyed customer first.
While the cartoons that have straightforward punchlines are excellent, the best cartoons in this collection are the ones which hint at a greater context outside of the moment in time spotlighted by the cartoon. A man caught is an absurdly compromising position calling out to his wife that he "can explain almost everything." That almost is the stamp of greatness, it allows the reader into the situation in the most vivid and direct way and gives the situation a life beyond the page.
A cartoon called "The Conversation Piece" is bitingly funny, the body language of the cast is eloquent. It also highlights one of Patrick Wright's astonishing skills, he can draw clothes than drape and fold naturally, suggesting the body underneath in fluid and subtle way. This masterful collection is a joy, funny and observant, biting without cruelty, astonishing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Solomon Kane . Michael J. Bassett (Director) Epic Tales Ltd (2009)

Superb and enthralling adventure film, anchored by a brilliant central performance, great action and superb storytelling. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) a reformed pirate is trying to avoid violence in order to keep clear of the devil. He encounters a Puritan family planning on emigrating to America and they find themselves travelling though a devastated landscape. The family are attacked and Kane finds that he has to resume his violent ways to rescue the daughter. The action on the way to the thrilling conclusion is superbly staged, the cast are full of life and the supernatural elements are handled with flair.
The film tells the story of how Solomon Kane became the extraordinary character he is in the stories by Robert E. Howard. There is noting very original in the story of a man forced back to violence to do good, it all lies in the the telling. The film has the strength of mind to take itself and the story seriously, there is no winking at the audience. This gives the film a terrific force and allows the cast to bring their characters to vivid life. The budget has been well spent on the glorious locations and the great sets, the context for the story felt solid and severe.
James Purefoy is simply outstanding as Solomon Kane, convincing in every aspect of the story, the moment when he becomes the terrible Puritan avenger of the Howard stories is signalled with beautiful grace. Pete Postlethwaite as the father of the family Kane encounters on the road is a warm and credible. The villains are exactly as melodramatic as they should be, lead by the masked Overlord (Samuel Roukin), they still have a genuine menace and relish for mayhem.
This is a model of how to make a fantasy film adventure, it mixes the elements with care and attention to detail, catching the spirit of the stories with breathtaking skill. This film is an undiluted pleasure.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Necropolis Railway. Andrew Martin. Faber and Faber Ltd. (2002)

This is an enjoyably, slow burning period thriller which serves up lashings of atmosphere and a cleverly crafted plot. Jim Stringer has always wanted to work on the railways and in 1903 he is given the chance to move to London to do so. He is assigned to work on the service to Brookwod Cemetery run on behalf on the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. The rest of the crew on the service are hostile and Jim finds that he is replacing someone who mysteriously disappeared. The story is unhurried, Jim Stringer is no fool, he is new to London and Waterloo railway station. The story unfurls carefully with a great cunningly staged reveals that hide more than they expose. The conclusion is clever and unexpected.
The momentum is slow in this story, the story takes it time to develop into something tangible. The atmospheric period details are allow to take centre stage and Jim Stringer is a credible lead player. The story takes it pace from his narrative as he finds his way through the overwhelming confusion of his new job, London and the unexpected reactions of those he meets. The arcane details of working on a steam railway are provided with a light hand and the cast are very much at home in their context.
The large cast are very well drawn, the hierarchies in the working life of the railways is cleverly used. There is a nicely subdued romance that arises naturally and easily. The central mystery emerges slowly, like a train emerging from a steam cloud, it neatly ties up the strands in the story and is strongly rooted in the cast and their activities. Low key and beguiling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Drinking at the Movies. Julia Wertz. Three Rivers Press (2010)

Covering the period from Spring 2007 to Winter 2008 this book chronicles, in an highly entertaining and engagingly unreliable way, Julia Wertz's move from San Francisco to New York and what befell her there. Julia has a series of jobs, none of which end well, lives in a series of unsatisfactory apartments, drinks a significant amount, is involved in some family crises and gains some small purchase on a creative living. There is no large event or turning point in the story, it is concerned with small and ordinary details. In Julia Werttz's hands this unpromising material is transformed into a wonderful one person performance, from the brilliantly staged opening to the clever ending this story has been shaped and managed with care, attention and huge talent.
Julia Wertz has a deeply enviable ability to turn an incident into an entertaining and engaging story. This book is not a memoir nor a diary, it is a cunningly shaped work of art, designed for an audience. Julia Wertz has grasped the essential fact that it is the story that counts, not the storyteller. She hides herself behind her graphic avatar, who is given enough depth and colour to be a good companion and sets about converting experience into performance.
The story deliberately casts her graphic persona in a disreputable light, prone to poor decision making, drinking too much, swearing like an Irishman and more than a bit feckless. This neatly removes the obvious signs of ego from the story and the self-depreciating humour gives the book a nice flavour. What it also does is to hide the sheer determination, hard work and discipline actually needed to create a book like this.
The art is the equal of the storytelling, simple and clear, it hides its skill and depth in plain sight. The details in the book are all relevant and carefully chosen, the emotional states of the cast are easy to read and provide real depth to the stories. Julia Wertz has a distinctive creative voice and it is a great pleasure to spend time in her company.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trophy Hunt. C.J.Box. Berkley Prime Crime. (2004)

Superb crime story with a vivid cast and a beautiful setting in rural Wyoming. The Town of Saddlestring in Wyoming is having a minor boom thanes to the development of Coal Bed Methane drilling. It is also undergoing a rash of animal mutilations that are being attributed to a wandering grizzly bear. Joe Pickett, the local game warden is not convinced and when two men are found mutilated in a similar fashion finds himself plunged into a gripping and very tightly wound plot. The reveals are brilliantly staged, the action is thoughtful as well as sharp and brutal, the conclusion is superbly set up and utterly satisfying.
This story is a masterful example of plot mechanics, the action is cunningly set up, the plot developments are neatly dovetailed. The plot never feels like it is driving the cast, the action arises from the cast in a very natural and unforced way. The motives are credible and the swirls of animosity and friendship that tie the cast together are strongly drawn. One of the major strengths of the book is the large cast, this gives C.J.Box a chance to expand the action and strong context for the cast. Joe Pickett and his wife Maybeth are at the heart of the book, their relationship is full of hard work and movement that makes it real. The beautiful Wyoming countryside is a star cast member, the descriptions are vivid and memorable, the attractions of the area are strongly felt. There is a very nice and very well handled supernatural element in the book, it hovers at the fringes and adds a slight and welcome aspect of the unexplained to the story. The knot at the heart of the action is brutal, bitter and intense, the villains are credibly baleful. As part of a series, continuity is cleverly referenced without ever being required. A page turning, gripping pleasure.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

B.P.R.D. War on Frogs. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers). Dark Horse Books (2010)

This is a very enjoyable collection of stories that call back to various parts of the B.P.R.D. continuity. Roger the Homunculus makes a welcome return, in a story that returns the B.P.R.D. to the Ground Zero of the series, Cavendish Hall. The story follows up a loose end and ties it up with care. The art by Herb Trimpe and Guy Davis is suitably subdued until the action drives it forward. The second story also with art by Guy Davis features another lost cast member, Captain Benjamin Daimio. It is a sharp story about the layers of meaning the desire for a new world can contain. Given the path that Captain Daimio was to follow, it is a very nice use of continuity. The art by John Severin on an Alien-like story of a hunt on a deserted submarine is beautiful, it captures the tension, fear, stress and finally the stone cold courage of the B.R.R.D. team.
The story of Johann Kraus's tangle with ghostly frogs is wonderfully served by the art of Peter Snejbjerg with colours by Bjarne Hansen. The out of body sequence is a tour de force superbly capturing the story ideas. The final story with art by Karl Moline is brilliantly structured, it reveals itself neatly and with real feeling.
The final story is my favourite in the collection, it uses an oblique angle on the haunting of Liz Sherman to great effect. Using another strong and capable female as the central character gives it a welcome lift.
The quality of the stories overall is very high and none feel like fillers nor are they irrelevant to the overall B.R.R.D. narrative. They add depth and force to the massive struggle talking place in the main story. They show the individual cost of the war with the frogs at one end and the scale of the war by focusing on the sheer ferocity of small encounters. The stories use continuity without being trapped by it, they are straightforward enough to be comprehensible to a new reader, for anyone who has been following the series they are a clever, thoughtful pleasure.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo. Kevin Reynolds (Director). Touchstone Pictures (2002)

A superb swashbuckler,great performances drive a classic story with vigour, wit and passion. Edmond Dantes(Jim Caviezel) is falsely accused and imprisoned in the fearsome Chateau d'If, an island fortress. Here he is brutally treated by the wonderfully sardonic warden, Armand Dorleac(Michael Wincott)and encounters another prisoner, Abbé Faria(Richard Harris). The Abbe agrees to teach Edmond in return for his help in digging an escape tunnel. Dantes does finally escape with the secret to a fabulous treasure and returns to France as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo. He follows his plan to revenge himself upon his accusers and his ex-fiancee. The action is superbly staged, the plot drives at a great pace and the conclusion deeply satisfying.
While Jim Caviezel is better at being the innocent Edmond rather than the driven count he is still worth watching, the real star of the film is Guy Pearce as Fernand Mondego,a man consumed by bitter envy at the way Dantes can enjoy his humble life. Guy Pearce glows with a resentment that creates the emotional context for the film, he is simply astonishing. His final confrontation with the returned Dantes is brilliant, it has a depth of passion and rage that are electrifying.
Richard Harris as the Abbe is clearly enjoying himself and his humour is grimly enjoyable. Michael Wincott is a joy as the mordantly sarcastic warden, he has a relish for his activities that is amusing and horrifying. Dagmara Dominczyk as Mercedès Iguanada, Dantes fiancee who marries Fernand Mondego believing Dantes is dead, is more than a romantic toy. She reveals a very welcome strength and depth of character.
This is a hugely enjoyable film, it takes the classic adventure story and cleverly distills it into crisp romantic tale, a pleasure.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blacksad. Juan Diaz Canales (Writer), Juanjo Guarnido (Art), Anthya Flores, Patricia Rivera (Translation). Dark Horse Books (2010)

Outstanding collection of stories about a brilliantly re-imagined pulp version of 1950's America. John Blacksad, a private investigator, becomes involved with the death of a former lover, a nasty outbreak of white supremacist activity and with the tangled politics of nuclear paranoia and anti-communism. The stories are sharp and crisp, the action is hard and furious, the reveals are brilliantly staged. The atmosphere is noir, nearly everyone is on the make or trying to be, wealth, power and greed drive the plots. The cast are superb, a collection of losers trying to be winners and winners trying to prevent anyone else from winning, a sprinkling of those trying to do the right thing, even if they are no longer sure what it is.
Initially the most striking thing about the stories is that the cast are all human shaped animals, this only serves to emphasise the humanity of the cast. They are not animals pretending to be humans, they are humans parading their animal possibilities.
The astonishing art by Juanjo Guarnido creates a large and expressive cast, rarely has body language been so eloquent, the facial expressions are a joy. The panels are full of details that serve to add depth to the story, they create a entirely convincing context for the actions of the cast.
The trappings of the pulp stories and the noir films are so easy to imitate that they verge on the meaningless, Juan Diaz Canales has captured the bruised romance that underlies the originals. The struggle not to be overwhelmed by the nihilism that florishs with overrunning greed is central, to believe that there is a point to trying to do the right thing. There is a savage price to be paid for this and it is extracted in full in these stories. Everyone is compromised in some way, how they respond to it is at the heart of their actions.
These are stories with a real heartbeat, they draw in the reader and make the reader care abbout the cast. The mysterious spark of creativity is buring brightly in this wonderful book, a triumph.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trail of Blood. S.J. Rozan. Ebury Press (2010)

This is a very enjoyable and superbly structured crime story. Lydia Chin, a Chinese-American private investigator, is hired to locate some jewelry stolen in China and smuggled to the US. The items belonged to an European Jew who fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. As Lydia and her partner investigate the history of the family who owned the jewels and their whereabouts in New York, both stories twist and turn. The reveals are very well staged, the layering of the stories from the past and the present is done with sure, subtle skill and the conclusion is surprising and deeply satisfying.
S.J.Rozan has accomplished a considerable feat with this book, she has escaped the traditional restrictions of the genre and created a credible, optimistic, funny and tough female lead. Lydia Chin is very engaging, neither bitter nor battered, she is smart, fallible and open. Lydia has family concerns rather than family problems, is actually, genuinely friendly with a police officer and is stubbornly persistent. There is no shortage of unpleasant people in the book and the plot is steeped in violence and betrayal, the human element shines through.
The Chinese context to the story, both in pre-war Shanghai and New York's Chinatown is fruitfully woven into the story. The lasting power of traditional values and forms is explored in a very natural way, they are integral to the story. The history of the Jewish refugees to Shanghai is surprising and handled with considerable care, the dreadful impact of the war on Shanghai is revealed. The whole cast come to life with quiet assertiveness and the coils of the plot are sharpened strongly by their actions. A treat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. Roy William Neill (Director) Universal (1943)

An enjoyable adventure that picks up very considerably in the second half. Sherlock Holmes is involved in a plan to smuggle a scientist out of Switzerland and away from the the grasp of the Gestapo. The scientist, Dr. Tobel. has developed a bomb sight that is of great accuracy and therefore value to the Germans and the British. Dr Tobel makes plans to control the manufacture of the bomb sight and then is kidnapped. Sherlock Holmes has to rescue him from the grip of Professor James Moriarty, the action is great fun, the clues are clever and the resolution very satisfying.
The opening sections of the film are weighed down by the propaganda aspects to the story, they are too much to the foreground. After Dt Tobel(William Post Jr.) is kidnapped and Professor James Moriarty(Lionel Atwill) enters the story the film picks up greatly. The personal battle between Sherlock Holmes(Basil Rathbone) and Moriarty is made clear and this give the film a considerable tension and dramatic edge.
The use of the Dancing Men code is a fun aspect to the story and the action sequences are wonderfully melodramatic. Basil Rathbone is a excellent, he has the vigour and barely contained annoyance at the limitations of others captured nicely. Lionell Atwill is superb, his mixture of enjoyment of the challenge represented by Holmes and the desire to be rid of him make their scenes together crackle. The struggle between them is one where victory is proof of intellectual superiority. A very enjoyable film.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Witchfinder. In the Service of Angels. Mike Mignola (Writer), Ben Stenbeck (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters) Dark Horse (2010)

A superb adventure story about Queen Victoria's special agent fighting the occult, Sir Edward Grey. After a number of very suspicious deaths, Edward Grey learns of an expedition to Egypt which uncovered a lost city and a odd set of bones. The members of the expedition were the first victims of a creature which returned to England with them, it becomes increasingly more murderous as Grey attempts to track, trap and kill it. The story is superbly well done, the reveals are very well paced, the cast are very engaging and the conclusion satisfyingly grim.
Mike Mignola has taken a background character from his Hellboy stories and given him a story of his own. The same care and craft that goes into the Hellboy stories is evident here. The central plot is carefully garnished with a wonderful cast and array of ideas, suggestions and lurking conspiracies. These give the story a strong context and sense of time before and after the action described in the story. Edward Grey is a melancholy character, competent yet somewhat out of his depth and aware of it. He moves through the layers of London without ever really fitting in anywhere, this awkwardness opens up the story and allows the human element never be dominated by the supernatural.
Ben Stenbeck's art is a joy, it is full of suggestion, shadows and corners abound where there is probably something going on. London, high and low is given a nice solidity that creates a vivid stage for the supernatural activities. The cast are drawn with great vigour and animation. They fill their spaces with spirit and manage to be ordinary and vivid at the same time. Dave Stewart uses a muted palette of colours to extraordinary effect, the colours rest within the art to provide additional depth and force. Clem Robbins lettering manages to be invisible and decorative at the same time, it blends in with the rest of the book and is unerringly easy to read. This is a great comic, produced by a hugely talented team of creators, an undiluted pleasure.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Niels Arden Oplev (Director). Momentum Pictures 2010

A gripping and superbly acted thriller that has a light varnish of social and political advocacy over a brutally enjoyable plot. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist(Michael Nyqvist) is asked to investigate the decades old disappearance of the member of a powerful industrial dynasty. He encounters Lisbeth Salander(Noomi Rapace) a semi-socialised hacker and they continue the investigation together. The story develops nicely with horrific secrets and crimes being uncovered. The action is superbly staged, the reveals are cleverly done and the plot resolved neatly.
This film is saturated with sexual violence, there are three explicit rape scenes which are far more concerned with force and power than sex, the plot is explicitly concerned with sexual violence. It does lack the subtle victimisation of the female cast that so often accompanies such violence, the female cast are notably independent and capable.
This really is two stories loosely tied together, there is the investigation of the disappearance and the murderous secrets that lie behind it. This is a grimly efficient thriller that makes the most of a not terribly original plot with superb acting, terrific pacing and brilliantly engineered tension. The second story is that of Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace is astonishing as the she shows the carefully guarded venerability and steely strength of the character. The most significant gap in the film is the link between both stories, it is explicitly raised and then ignored in the film.
What the film lacks in cohesion it more than makes up for in engaging drama, vivid storytelling and a simmering rage at the abuse of power. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Living on a Prayer. Sheila Quigley. Arrow Books. (2006)

This is a very enjoyable crime story with a savagely bleak undertow. A teenager is found hanging at a local scenic spot, the assumption is suicide. Neither the boy's mother nor Detective Inspector Lorraine Hunt are convinced, if for very different reasons. Richard's friends, a group of teenagers, each one with significant family problems appear to know considerably more than they are willing to say. A man is brutally assaulted and a group called the Blessing Guides have established themselves in the area. The story moves quietly, the extensive cast is given plenty of space to move, there is as much attention given to the lives of the cast as to the action. The reveals are cleverly staged, the action is sharp and nasty, it arises very naturally from the actions and personalities of the cast.
Sheila Quigley has developed a considerable reoccurring cast and uses them very well to frame the central plot. The people living in the Salthills estate, few working , most on some form of benefit are all involved to some extent with marginally legal or simply illegal activities in an effort to have enough to raise their families. Sheila Quigley clearly has both great affection and sympathy for them, without ever being blind to their weaknesses. This gives the story a tremendous context, the plot has real and visible consequences and implications for the cast.
One of the most striking aspects to the story is the way that the astonishingly grim plot is carefully covered by the warmth of the writing. The villains are credible in their callous greed and callous manipulation of wounded teenagers. They depth of their brutality is revealed clearly, without any hyperbole. It sneaks up on the reader making the full realisation of what is going on all the more effective.
The central romance is also handled with flair and quiet humour, there are enough complications to generate tension and the writing is good enough to make it enjoyable rather than cringe inducing. A gripping read.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell. The Real Sherlock Holmes. Alan Mackaill, Dawn Kemp. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (2007)

A short and very charming account of the connection between Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell who provided a central inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Joseph Bell was a member of a distinguished medical family in Scotland and the author of a number of significant medical textbooks. He lectured in clinical surgery and one of his students was Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle must have impressed Joseph Bell as he appointed Doyle as his out-patient clerk.
Joseph Bell emphasised the importance of observing a patient, reading them, as part of the diagnostic process. He used to amuse and amaze his students with how he read a patients occupation and life from the details of their clothes and bearing. One of his favourite stories showed how he managed to get a reading absurdly wrong, he wanted to emphasise that it was part of the process, not a replacement for dealing directly with a patient.
Through the imaginative genius of Arthur Conan Doyle, the teaching of Joseph Bell became the deductive process of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle always freely acknowledged his debt to Joseph Bell, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was dedicated to Dr. Joseph Bell. This book gives Joseph Bell the credit he deserves for his own considerable accomplishments as a medical professional and nicely underlines Arthur Conan Doyle's own medical background. While both men are to an extent overshadowed by Sherlock Holmes and both felt a little diminished by it, this lovely book rightly gives them the limelight.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Elephantmen. Wounded Animals. Image Comics (2007)

This is first rate science fiction combining huge ideas and superb execution. The Elephantmen are human animal hybrids created by Dr. Nikken as super soldiers to be sold to the highest bidder in the war between Africa and China taking place in plague devastated Europe. The surviving Elephantmen have been rehabilitated and integrated into human society and the stories in the collection follow the uneasy aftermath. There is not a central narrative spine to the stories, there is a common cast and threads of continuity as the stories overlap each other. The cast is very engaging, the stories are sharp and very cleverly structured, the art frequently luminous and they exploit the possibilities of comics in a gripping and thrilling way.
The creator and lead writer of the series, Richard Starkings, has managed a very impressive feat, he has embodied the structural ideas that drive the stories effortlessly in to the actions of the varied and credible cast. None of the leading characters are somewhat animated symbols, they are rounded personalities who are responding credibly to their circumstances. This gives the stories a depth, flavour and texture that makes them a pleasure to read. The problems that the Elepthantmen have with their current situation and their past are woven carefully together with the problems that humans have with the Elephantmen. The interactions are not all negative and that can be a problem as well as a pleasure, the skillful, subtle storytelling allows for a wonderful range of possibilities.
The extraordinary art by Moritat, Chris Bachalo, J. Scott Campbell, Ian Churchill, Nick Filardi, Henry Flint, David Hine, Aron Lusen, Joe Madureira, Tom Scoli, Dave Stewart and Chris Weston combines the high concept and the mundane to establish the world of the Elephantmen as a physical reality. The human cast are varied and expressive, the Elephantmen are a triumph. They are both human and animal without compromising either, their personalities are sharply and clearly embodied in their gestures and actions. The difference in scale between them and the human cast is captured effectively without overbalancing.
The collection contains the pirate fairytale "Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy", written by Joe Kelly. That the story sits so comfortably in the collection is due to the tremendously skillful way Joe Kelly captures the themes of the other stories in an way that is entirely appropriate to a significantly different context. An outstanding collection, a must read.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Brass Verdict. Michael Connelly. Orion (2008)

This is a very gripping and hugely entertaining thriller. Mickey Haller is getting ready to resume his career as a defence lawyer after emerging from an active addiction to pain killers, when another lawyer he worked with is murdered. Mickey finds that he has been nominated to take of the murdered man's cases, including a very high profile murder case. Mickey has to decide if he is ready for the pressure, in particular as he is told that the dead lawyer was probably killed by one of his, now Mickey's, clients. The plot twists and turns at a great pace, the reveals and counter-reveals are cunningly staged right up to the close of the book. The cast are lively and engaging, the legal detail used to considerable effect, the whole story is thoroughly satisfying.
As a first person narrative, the book is carried by Mickey Haller and he does so with ease and confidence. Faced with the decision to return much more suddenly than he had planned the way that he copes with the pressure is credible and thoughtful. The pressure is as much a force in returning him to stability and strenght as it is a sapping demand on his ability to cope. The way that Mickey rediscovers his hunger to work and his desire to assert himself through his professional skills is compelling.
The double helix of the plot, the murder case that Mickey has inherited and the murder case that created the inheritance, is brilliantly spun. They do not crowd each other out, when one falls out of the spotlight the other one emerges in a very natural way, the tension is consistently maintained and the way they are resolved is masterly. The rest of the cast are roundly drawn, Mickey is telling the story, it is not just his story, the supporting cast emerge with force and clarity. The masterful control that Michael Connelly has over the material is nearly invisible, the story flows with such confident ease that the reader is free to simply become absorbed and enjoy the experience. Superb.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunnits. Mike Ashley (Editor). Constable and Robinson (2007)

This is a hugely enjoyable anthology of murder and mystery stories that take elements from Charles Dickens's life and works as their starting points. The spine of the book is the chronology of Dickens's life, the short and informative introductions by Mike Ashley provide the context for each story. The quality of the stories is uniformly excellent, there are a number of stand out entries. There is an enjoyable variety in the tone and strategy chosen by the writers. Some of the stories pick up directly on events from Dickens's life, others use characters from his stories and some blur the distinction very nicely. All of the writers are sufficiently confident to ensure that none of the stories feel like a Dickens's knock-off. Some of the stories match more closely to Dickens's writing patterns than others, they carry it off because the intent is flavour rather than straight imitation.
"Awaiting the Dawn" by Marilyn Todd, a superbly structured story that uses Dickens's response to the public execution of Fredrick and Maria Manning for murder is one of the stand out entries in the collection. It packs a very considerable amount into a short space without ever being crowded and has a breathtaking heroine. "Miss Havisham's Revenge" by Alanna Knight is gripping and horrifying, it takes one of Dickens's great characters and without any violence to the original casts a superb and ghastly light on their life beyond the novel.
"Tom Wasp and The Swell Mob" by Amy Myers draws a sad contrast between the inspiration that Dickens used for a famous character and the short and desperate life of a girl from the slums. "Encounter in the Dark" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre is an astonishing story that centers around a possible meeting between Charles Dickens ans Edgar Allen Poe, this is a grim story that allows both complicated artists shine brightly.
My favourite story in the collection is "The End of Little Nell" by Robert Barnard, it is sharp, funny and a wonderful reminder of the acid truth in Oscar Wilde's famous remark about the death of the girl who was simply too good to live. This collection is superb fun in its own right, as a reminder of the unparalleled pleasures of Charles Dickens's novels it scores a double header.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Scar Night. Volume One of The Deepgate Codex. Alan Campbell. Tor (2006)

This is an excellent fantasy story with a great setting, a sinuous plot and an outstanding cast. The city of Deepgate is suspended both on great chains over a bottomless abyss and in a war between Heaven and exiled angles who live in the abyss. Dill, last of the battle angles who protected Depgate is about to assume his duties, Rachel, a Temple assassin is assigned to tutor him. The city is haunted by a rouge angel, Carnival, who kills once a month on Scar Night. All three become caught up in a plot started to protect the city but which threatens its final destruction. The reveals smart and fast, the action is superbly staged and the cast busting with life.
The twin pillars of the city of chains and the theology that created it and sustain it are developed with great confidence and clever, unexpected detail. Both have numerous surprises in store and they are revealed in a very entertaining fashion. The cast are very much grounded in the physical and supernatural realities of the city and its surroundings, the plot uses the details with relish. The cast are revealed and develop through action, they are constantly in motion with just enough time and information to grapple with the immediate problems and never enough time to think about the bigger problems they have.The shifting narrative means that the reader is just barely ahead of the cast in knowing what is going on, the plot grips tightly, the twists and turns never undermine its credibility.
Dill is a little of a blank slate, which given his carefully structured upbringing is unsurprising. Rachel is sharply etched, confident and capable as well as feeling isolated and unsure. The rest of the cast emerge with force and determination as they struggle to shape events that are running ahead of them. This superb fantasy adventure is gripping, thoughtful, constantly surprising and hugely enjoyable, a treat.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Lindbergh Child. Rick Geary (Writer and Artist). NBM Comicslit (2008)

On Tuesday, March 1st 1932 the infant son of Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, one of the most famous men in America, was kidnapped from his bedroom. Rick Geary tell the story of the events prior to and following the discovery of kidnapping. It is a remarkable story with a cast of characters that could grace any crime story. While a man was tried and convicted of the crime there are enough questions remaining to leave room for doubt.
Charles Lindbergh had gained worldwide fame with his sole flight across the Atlantic in 1927, he was a national hero in America and possibly the best known man in the country. The kidnapping of his child was "The Crime of the Century" and attracted an astonishing array of official investigators others who involved themselves in the case for a variety of reasons. One of the most horrifying aspects to the case is the way the kidnapping was exploited by fraudsters, not always for financial reasons. While a ransom was paid, after a near farcical process, the child was not returned. Subsequent events led to his discovery. A suspect was finally arrested in 1934, he was traced via the ransom money. He was tried, convicted and executed.
Rick Geary presents the whole story, being careful not to add to the story, he sticks to what is known and avoids speculation, in a very clear, comprehensive and gripping fashion. The introduces all the relevant people clearly and concisely, the multiple details of the investigation are presented with great clarity. Rick Geary remains non-judgemental throughout the book, he presents the details and the questions that remain. His art is detailed and clear, the panel layouts are carefully used to provide as much information as possible without crowding the page. This superb comic treats a sensational topic with care and respect, informative and compelling it is well worth reading.

Friday, June 4, 2010

To Kill or Cure. The Thirteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (2007)

Very engaging and enjoyable period murder mystery with a great cast and a superbly constructed plot. In 1357 Matthew Bartholomew, a Fellow of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge and a physician, is facing serious problems. Richard Arderne, a "healer" has arrived in the town and is providing miraculous cures and turning the townspeople against Matthew and the other college physicians. At the same time a very serious dispute about rents is developing between the University and the town's landlords, the landlords want substantial increases and the University are opposing it. The usually uneasy relations between town and gown are becoming dangerously strained when one of the University Fellow is murdered and Richard Arderne raises someone from the dead. The tension is expertly developed, the reveals are cunningly staged and the conclusion surprising and very satisfying.
Susanna Gregory creates a vivid cast in an interesting context and very nicely twists together the threads of the plot. Matthew Batholomew and the rest of the Fellows of Michaelhouse are lively and well developed. Their interactions are sharp and colourful, they way that they manage their students and spar with each other is very engaging. The relationship between the town and the University is very well developed, the mutual interdependence rankles as much as it is required and the escalation of the dispute is credible and menacing. The limits of medicine in the times are nicely outlined, as well as the residue of fear and resentment left by the Black Death.
The story is not overburdened with historical detail, there is enough to make the context clear, the actions of the cast reveal the times much more effectively than exposition would do. They factions and politicking of the University staff and the maneuverings of the town's merchants are confidently developed and frequently sharply witty. The balance between cast and plot is beautifully achieved, well worth reading.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nylon Angel. Marianne De Pierres. Orbit (2004)

A very engaging science fiction adventure story. Parrish Plessis lives in the Tert, a giant slum on the coast of Australia situated on the outskirts of the supercity, Vivacity. Parrish works for one of the gangsters who control the Tert, Jamon Mondo, as a bodyguard. She is trapped in the job, Jamon does not let people leave his service and she is desperate to break free. She agrees to look after two fugitives accused of murdering a media star and also takes a job from another Tert gangster which promises her freedom from Jamon. Parrish soon finds that she knows far to little about what is really going on and has no choice but to forge ahead and rely on her wits and strength to stay alive. The breakneck pace never flags, the reveals are very well staged, the action is furious and the conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
Marianne De Pierres has created a very believable and nicely detailed context, a dystopian future that has a nice plausible feel to it. Parrish Plessis is a great charachter, tough, uncompromising and really good in a fight, she is also thouroughaly confused and trying not to be stupid. She has the drive required to push the story forward and the depth of personality to be consistently engaging. The plot threads that wind about her are very well constructed and are balanced very carefully with opportunities for the cast and context to come to the fore.
The supporting cast are credible and full of life, there is a strong sense of the pulsing competing life in the Tert, it crowds the page and frames the action very well. Great fun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Special Assignments. Boris Akunin (Writer). Anrdew Bromfield (Translator).Wiedenfield and Nicolson (2007)

These two stories about cases involving Court Counsellor Ersat Fandorin, special investigator for the Governor-General of Imperial Moscow, are hugely enjoyable. The first story, "The Jack of Spades" opens with a brilliant swindle carried out by the con man, The Jack of Spades, involving the Governor-General himself. Ersat Fandorin and his new assistant Anisii Tulipov set out to trap the Jack and find that he is a very slippery and enterprising opponent indeed. The story twists and turns very cleverly and comes to a very smart and satisfactory conclusion. The second story, "The Decorator" is about the pursuit of a vicious serial killer who may have connections with Jack the Ripper. This story escalates in a very suprising way and the conclusion is harsh and credible.
The settings for both of these stories, pre-revolutionary Moscow is superbly evoked. The extraordinary and pervasive bureaucracy of Imperial Russia is shown in action as the the cases are investigated. Ersat Fandorin is a nicely fallible character, he is subtle and shrewd, very observant and quick thinking, at the same time he is not infallible. The rest of the large cast are very well drawn, they live and breathe, in particular the two villains.
The Jack of Spades has the desire both to put one over his victims and to get the credit for his cleverness. The money is a very nice reward, it is proving his superiority that really drives him. The Decorator on the other hand is a genuine monster, his blood lust is constrained by his desire not to be caught, his mixture of depravity and cunning survival is horrifying. This mix does allow Boris Akunin to push the second story in a very dark direction without doing damage to the lighthearted tone he frequently uses. The translation has retained an essential non-English flavour while flowing smoothly and easily. Very engaging, well worth reading.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Zorro. The Dailies. The First Year. Don McGregor (Writer), Tom Yeates (Art), Tod Smith (Co-Penciller). Image Comics (2001)

Excellent swashbuckling adventures combining well crafted plots, swift action and a strongly developed cast into first rate Zorro stories. The first story "Tusk Envy" is set among the La Brea tar pits where it appears Zorro has been trapped by Captain Monasterio and Quickblade. At the same time a giant skeleton has risen up from the tar, disturbed by an earthquake and a local farmer and his son are trying to salvage. The constrained locale and the desperate fight Zorro has on his hands is inter cut neatly with the attempts to get the skeleton out of the tar. The action is concentrated and the skeleton has a sharp surprise in store. The second story "Dead Body Rising" continues directly from the first as the body of a murdered Indian woman rises to the surface. This story has some clever use of continuity from the first story as well as a much more extensive cast and setting. There is a furious chase and a very dangerous carriage journey as Zorro demonstrates both his compassion, will courage and sheer adventurous spirit. Best of all so does Eulalia Bandini, a waitress at the local cantina who shows sparkling, witty courage that all to many female characters are denied.
These stories succeed on a number of levels, each of them impressive in their own right, collectively they are a triumph. The stories are superb Zorro stories, not simply masked adventurer stories, they are very specifically Zorro stories. The details of the context that define them are firmly involved, not just the dual identity, it is also the relationship with his father and the native Indians and the poor that gives Zorro his depth and place. The lighthearted adventurer covering the deep compassion is shown clearly and naturally, victory is hard fought and the struggle ongoing.
The strips avoid the common problems of newspaper adventure strips, they do not slow down to recap to allow occasional readers catch up and follow. They have a strong narrative flow and the changes in action allow the story to be picked up at a lot of points and still be coherent. The art is clear and flowing, it has as much detail as the small format allows for without being crowded. The carriage chase in the second story has a remarkable degree of dynamism, the restricted space is utilised to give the action tension and economy. Excellent comics.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

1974. David Peace. Serpent's Tail (1999)

A compelling, deeply unpleasant and unsatisfying crime story. Eddie Dunford has been just appointed as the crime orrespondent for the Evening Post in Yorkshire and starts to follow a story about a young missing girl. The girl's body is found and Eddie finds himself being overshadowed by a more senior crime correspondent. Eddie pursues the possible connection to a previous case of missing girls and finds himself involved with a brutal and corrupt police force and the suspicious activities of some local property developers. With muddy reveals and a conclusion that ties up all the plot threads, the story is effective without ever being engaging. The staccato writing style does make the book compelling to read, the short sentences and the way they are laid out on the page create a clear momentum, they push the reader through the story. The problem is that it also amplifies the two most significant problems with the story.
The narrator, Eddie Dunford, is a hopelessly self-pitying and relentlessly, unpleasantly self-centered. The reader is never given an opportunity to feel sorrier for Eddie than he does for himself, Eddie is swept up in events he does not understand and is treated with merciless brutality by the police and others. Eddie responds with an apathetic frustration and frightened obstinacy while at the same time he treats the women in his life with a deeply callous disregard. When he finally moves to take action at the conclusion of the story, it is done without any sort of emotional crescendo, he is enraged in a entirely dull way.
The whole emotional tone of the story is a dull monotone of whiny self pity with infrequent outbreaks of self-centred rage. Eddie Dunford is such a monumental wet blanket that the brutal events that he is involved in loose their power, it is as if all the action is taking place under water. There is a strong enough story hidden beneath the narration to inspire the reader to finish the story, it is a struggle however.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rocco Vargas. Daniel Torres (Writer and Art). Dark Horse Comics (1997)

Glorious,sweeping,interplanetary romantic science fiction. This volume contains the first four Rocco Vargas stories by Daniel Torres. In the first story, "Triton" club owner and science fiction writer, Armando Mistral finds himself being drawn into a grand adventure. Earth is in the grip of a drought and Dr. Covalsky has developed a plan to haul an iceberg from Triton, one of the moons of Neptune, to Earth. Dr. Covalsky requests Armando Mistral's or as he calls him, Rocco Vargas' help with the plan,Rocco refuses. Later the doctor is murdered and Rocco is drawn into a desperate attempt to carry out the plan. In the second story "The Mystery of the Whisper" and the third story "Saxxon" Rocco Vargas is pulled into a savage war being fought on Saturn's sixth moon between the natives and an invading army from Venus. Rocco encounters people from his past as well as spies, mercenaries and danger. In the final story "The Distant Star", the story of how Rocco Vargas became Armando Mistral is revealed.
The most instantly striking aspect to this volume is the extraordinary development of the artwork across the four stories, it goes from being rather chunky and angular in the first story to being much softer and more detailed in the final one. The transitions are not jarring as the art is consistent within each story, the volume overall has the nice sense of an artist finding his own style and developing his artistic voice. The art is never less than attractive, while I prefer the final style, the previous stories have strength and dynamism.
The stories bring together the wide-eyed space adventures of Golden Age romantic science fiction and film noir clothes styles and plot flourishes and makes a coherent whole from them. Space is full of adventure, waiting to be explored, there are multiple political factions and wars going on creating the opportunities for tough adventurers to benefit from the. Beautiful spies and unexpected enemies, long lost friends and a square-jawed hero. The clothes are are joyous mix of the 1930's, 1950's and futuristic, the architecture and vehicles are an equally eclectic and harmonious mix. This is the most striking aspect to the stories, the way that Daniel Torres has found to tell these deeply old fashioned stories in a modern way without compromising them. He has created a vision of an unironic nostalgic future which is true to itself. It is not a parody or a pastiche, it has an essential core of self-belief that allows the reader to simply enjoy them for what they are. Dashing interplanetary adventure has never been so much fun.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Song of the Gladiator. Paul Doherty. Headline (2004)

A really enjoyable mystery story set in Imperial Rome. The Christian Church having survived a savage persecution by Diocletian has emerged as a public force under Emperor Constantine and more significantly his mother, Helena. The church is riven by theological disputes and Constantine invites leader to a debate at the Villa Pulchra. At the same time the gladiator Murranus discovers his opponent has been poisoned, enormous bets have been placed and it appears someone wants to ensure a profitable result. Claudia, Murranus' lover and Helena's spy is summoned to the Villa Pulchra where she finds that there is no shortage of plotting. When as scared relic disappears and one of the churchmen is violently murdered the situation becomes critical. The plot moves very swiftly, encompassing imperial politics, murder and deadly gladiatorial games with sure confidence. The reveals are very well stages and the conclusion highly satisfactory.
Paul Dohery creates a large and very lively cast within a vividly realised setting. The story moves easily from the Imperial debates at the Villa Pulchra with the treacherous undertows that swirl around it to the dangers of being a gladiator. The greatest danger was not necessarily within the arena, there at least the opponent was clearly identified and rules did apply. Outside the arena with so much money at stake the dangers were much greater and much better concealed.
Claudia is a great character, she has keen wits and great courage. She acts to drive events and to control and shape them, as do the rest of the cast. This makes for an exciting and swift narrative, there are no passengers in the story. Everybody wants to be seen and heard and Paul Doherty has the skill to ensure that they are without the story loosing form or focus. Highly entertaining with a very well developed mystery at its heart, well worth reading.