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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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Doom Patrol Archives Vol 2. Arnold Drake (Writer), Bruno Premiani (Story Art), Bob Brown (Cover Art). DC Comics (2004)

Mad science and beautiful art combine to create an outstanding comic. The Doom Patrol, The World's Strangest Heroes were Elasti-Girl, who could change her size at will, Robotman, a robot body housing a human brain, Negative Man, who has the ability to project a radioactive being for sixty seconds from his body and the Chief, the wheelchair bound scientific genius who leads the team. Facing off against the Dom Patrol are the Brotherhood of Evil, led by a brain in a jar,Mallah a talking, intelligent gorilla and Madame Rouge whose powers rival Elasti-Girl's. They also battle an alien criminal mastermind called Garguax, are aided by an egotistical man with great mental powers called,Mento.
The great joy of these stories is the utterly uninhibited way these elements are embraced, Arnold Drake takes the lovely absurdity of the Doom Patrol very seriously and creates stories that build upon that absurdity. The plots are full of invention and great action that tests the Doom Patrol to the limit. The team has to work very hard to prevail, their weaknesses are exploited by their enemies, Robotman is fed into a set of rollers that flatten out his body, Elasti-Girl is trapped in a clock, her strength proportional to her tiny size, Negative Man is trapped by a ray that slows time and keeps him from returning to his physical body in the required time. Even the Chief has to head out to a duel in his amped up wheelchair. Underneath all this high concept action Arnold Drake gives the Doom Patrol real personalities and emotional entanglements, their banter has a genuine emotional undertow.
Bruno Premiani's art brings the the cast to exuberant life, the Doom Patrol are wonderfully expressive, neither being swathed in bandages nor encased in a robot body makes their body language any less potent. The extraordinary situations that are set up all are given weight and solidity by the art, the proportions and perspectives are so well done that the reader is never distracted from the story. These wonderfully sophisticated comics are an undiluted pleasure.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Shoot A Butler? Georgette Heyer. Redwood Editions (1933)

A sparkling country house murder mystery, sharp and engaging. Frank Amberly encounters a woman standing by a car containing the body of a man who had been shot. He reports the crime without including the presence of the woman. The dead man was the butler at a nearby country house, Norton Manor, where a school friend of Frank Amberly's is staying. Frank Amberly is requested by the police to become involved in the investigation and a second, possibly accidental, death occurs. The plot unspools with very clever reveals and increasing tension. The conclusion is smart and gripping, the revelations well worth the wait.
Georgette Heyer assembles all of the required elements for a classical country house mystery, a rural location, a limited pool of suspects, mysterious outsiders and servants acting suspiciously. Added to the presence of an amateur detective and a struggling police force and all the pieces are present for an arch game of snobbish murder. Georgette Heyer avoids any whiff of staleness with a wonderfully witty and sharply written story that breathes vital and engaging life into the formula. She has a lightly sarcastic tone which frees her cast to be lively and forceful.
The cast are busy keeping their secrets and pursuing their aims, the way they overlap and misunderstand each other creates many opportunities which Georgette Heyer happily takes to develop the cast and cunningly advance the story.
One of the great pleasures of the book is that the very smart plot at its heart gets its momentum from the natural actions of the cast. It does not feel as if they are acting as they do because they have to to satisfy plot requirements, they drive the plot forward by being themselves. Beautifully written, beautifully constructed, a treat.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Orbital Vol 2. Ruptures. Sylvain Runberg (Writer), Serge Pelle (Art), Jerome Saincantin (Translator). Cinebok (2009)

A great science fiction adventure story. Caleb,(a human) and Mezoke(a Sandjarr) are agents of an intergalactic diplomatic corps. They are on the planet Senestam to mediate in a dispute between humans and Javlods regarding the mining for the valuable Trelium. There are factions within the human colony on Senestam, within the Javlods and within the diplomatic corps all of whom are pursuing their own agendas. With the human colony under attack from very aggressive insects called Stilvulls, the diplomatic mission becomes increasingly fraught. The plot moves at a fast pace, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion surprising and satisfying.
As the second part of a story, this book sidesteps most of the continuity problems that bedevil comics. There is enough information provided in a natural and effective way to easily identify all the actors and for the plot to be completely coherent. The story takes great advantage of the possibilities of science fiction, the scope of the story is widespread and the cast varied. The conflict is nicely balanced between local and the galactic. The actual crisis is local and the factors driving it are clearly shown, the political context intertwined with this conflict between two species is nicely displayed. The galactic implications are also shown, scale is an important aspect to the book. The cast, human and non-human, are well developed and very engaging.
The art is a joy, it is detailed and concrete. The locations, on the human colony, a sentient spaceship or the Javlods' home planet are designed to be sufficiently lived in to feel right. The spaces look futuristic and naturally inhabited by the cast. The art provides a solid context for the actions of the cast. The cast are drawn with a quiet expressiveness that is a pleasure to read, they are communicating with body language as easily as with words and this gives the action an edge and force. Thoughtful, articulate, exciting science fiction comic storytelling, bliss.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Plot aginst Pepys. James Long and Ben Long. Faber and Faber Ltd. (2007)

A brilliant piece of historical research and a highly entertaining story. In 1679 Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty became entangled in the fit of national paranoia and savage politics known as the Popish Plot. The Popish Plot had it roots in the actions of a con man, Titus Oates, it quickly developed a independent life in the feverish context of the times. There was a genuine popular fear of Catholic terrorists operating in England, this was used by anti-Royal political forces as a weapon in their struggle. An accusation was virtually the equivalent of guilt, fighting against the charge was an extremely difficult and fraught process. The accusation of treason against Samuel Pepys, a well known and important supporter of the King, was an invaluable opportunity to strike against the King himself. Pepys found that he had to battle the accusation alone, the King did not dare interfere. The book tells the story of Pepys' fight against the charge and his accuser Colonel John Scott.
The story is a riveting one,Pepys was imprisoned and deserted by the King, he had to rely on staunch friends and contacts to do the investigative work. Pepys has to establish his complete innocence, not simply be found not guilty, he had to prove that the charges of selling Naval secrets to the French were untrue. At the same time he had to discover why a man he had never met had laid the charges against him. James Long and Ben Long follow the two threads of the story with great skill and a wealth of detail. The fraught efforts to find plausible evidence in France to establish his innocence, directed by Pepys from his prison cell are gripping. Even more extraordinary are the details of the life and exploits of James Scott. He was an adventurer in the fullest positive and negative senses of the word and it wonderful to have him rescued from obscurity.
The single most startling revelation in the book is the reason that James Scott laid the charges against Pepys and the Long's deliver the reveal with the flourish it utterly deserves. An enthralling story brilliantly told, a pleasure to read.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Killing the Beasts. Chris Simms. Orion (2005)

A gripping, thoughtful and low key crime story that very effectively utilises a splintered narrative. In Manchester a woman is found dead, she has been killed in a very unusual fashion. Detective Jon Spicer is assigned to the case, taken off an ongoing investigation into a series of thefts of very expensive cars. DI Spicer is concerned about his friend Tom Benwell whom he has not seen for a while. The narrative loops back some months to the lead up to the Commonwealth Games due to be staged in Manchester and follows DI Spicer, Sly a car thief, Tom and a very odd man called George. As the story shifts time and perspective the threads start to weave together, the reveals are very cunningly staged and the plot meshes in a compelling and unexpected fashion. The conclusion is superbly orchestrated.
The structure of the book takes a little getting used to and Chris Simms is willing to take time to tell a story before it becomes clear how it relates to the criminal plot. By taking the time Chris Simms gives the principal cast the opportunity to fully establish themselves. As the story of the murder investigation moves forward Chris Simms skillfully exploits the opportunities he creates in the flashbacks to develop the plot.
One of the very nice things about the book is the absence of the overly theatrical serial killer that frequently haunts similar stories. While this can be an effective element in a story, in this case the low key approach has a substantial pay off. This is a really enjoyable, superbly crafted and gripping story.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Distant Echo. Val McDermid. HarperCollins (2003)

This is a enjoyable and well constructed murder mystery. Four drunk college students stumble a dying woman dumped in an old burial ground in Scotland. They find themselves suspects in her murder and while the pressure on them is colossal the case is never resolved. Twenty five years later and a major cold case review is launched by the police, with the Rosie Duff case included in the review. The review does more than stir up old memories and fears, one of the students is murdered. The plot gathers considerable momentum as the action escalates steadily up to the gripping conclusion.
This is a really well constructed mystery, Val McDermid sets the story up very well from the finding of the body through the initial run of the investigation and the impact it has on the four friends. The four students all respond to the pressure in different and interesting ways, they way that suspicion undermines them is nicely done as it the ferocious frustration of the police and the victim's family. Pushing the story twenty five years ahead and picking up the threads is clever and effective. It means that the four students have become four new adult characters, as they are drawn back into the case the contrast with their previous lives are nicely played out.
Val McDermid uses a large cast and multiple viewpoints to considerable effect, she uses the scope to add depth and tension to the mystery as competing agendas and perspectives are spotlighted. The cast are lively and distinctive and all of them are actively engaged in the story. This is one of the very nice things about the book, there is constant motion as the cast push each other in search of answers. The story escalates in a very natural way as the plot coils tighten. Smart, sharp and very enjoyable.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hellboy. The Ice Wolves. Dark Horse Books (2009)

A very well written supernatural thriller with an excellent central idea. Werewolves are suddenly appearing all over the globe and launching murderous attacks. Hellboy hears about an ancient artifact, the Kiss of Winter and the rise of the Black Sun. The wolves appear to be converging on Boston, which is in the grip of an unnatural winter storm. Hellboy heads for the Grant Mansion in Boston, with the son of the current owner and his friend in tow, to search for the Kiss of Winter. At the mansion they are besieged from the outside by werewolves and from within by the many ghosts and secrets contained in the house. The reveals are very well staged, the story unfolds with great imagination and energy and the conclusion is smart and satisfying.
Mark Chadbourn has written an excellent supernatural adventure story featuring Hellboy that is not a Hellboy story. Hellboy is presented with no back story or explanation, he clearly demonstrates that he is an experienced occult adventurer, there is no reliance on prior knowledge to understand his role in the story. The rest of the cast get the attention. William Lynch who owns the Grant Mansion, Brad his son and Lisa Mafrici Brad's companion all are given depth and time to reveal themselves. Each of them have significant events in their past that that have to confront and these confrontations are skillfully woven into the fabric of the story.
The Grant Mansion, with its tortured history, its horrible secrets and its mysterious inhabitants is a great character. It looms large in the story as it actively tries to preserve itself and its secrets from both the wolves on the outside and the people on the inside. The secret of the Black Sun itself is well thought out and substantial. This highly entertaining story is well worth reading.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Run for Home. Sheila Quigley. Arrow Books (2004)

A great cast and a savage plot combine very enjoyably in this gripping thriller. A long buried headless corpse is uncovered and a young girl, Claire Lumpsdon, is kidnapped. Detective Inspector Lorraine Hunt heads up the investigations into both events and finds a connection to other missing girls. Claire's mother realises that her darkest fears about the past are coming back as she hears details of the corpse. As the police investigation and the family's efforts to find Claire develop a terrible web of violence, hatred, revenge is uncovered. The plot has great momentum, the reveals are really well staged, the conclusion is brutally effective.
Sheila Quigley has created a great cast in a brilliantly realised context, a run down housing estate in the North of England. The poverty and dismal atmosphere of pervasive long term unemployment are established quickly and vividly. The impact of these elements on the cast are made brutally clear in the lives of the Lumsdom family and their neighbours. The hidden factors which target the Lumsdon family in particular are revealed in a very natural way, the reactions and responses of the family are very engaging.
Lorraine Hunt is a forceful and energetic character. Ambitious and competent, she is given enough space and trouble to demonstrate a genuine depth of personality. She is credibly steely as a professional police officer and faced with a devastating personal crisis responds with heart and passion. One of the very striking aspects in the book is the very clear demarcation between the career criminals, ultimately betrayed by the vicious stupidity and greed that led them to crime and the illegal activities rooted in poverty. The deadly selfishness of the criminals is quietly contrasted with the strained community and generosity of those they exploit. Gripping and thoughtful, this is a great read.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Grave Talent. Laurie R. King. Bantam Books (1993)

This is an enjoyable thriller with a few, significant, structural problems. A child is found dead on Taylor's Road, a small community outside of San Francisco. Two more children are abducted, murdered and their bodies found on Taylor's Road. Newly promoted detective Kate Martinelli is paired with experienced detective Alonzo Hawkin to the case. It becomes apparent that the killer is likely to be one of the people who live on Taylor's Road and when it emerges that one of them served a sentence for a child murder she becomes the focus of the investigation. The story moves rapidly, the reveals are mostly well staged, the investigation develops in an interesting way and the conclusion is crisp and sour.
The chief suspect, Vaun Adams, is a painter of genius who has a previous conviction for murdering a child in her care. The problem is that Laurie R. King goes to extensive lengths to convince the reader of Vaun Adam's genius. She is not content to have it as an established fact in the story, she puts considerable, misguided, efforts to prove it. These efforts add nothing to the depth of the character nor are they intrinsic to the plot. They are a boring distraction that ultimately undermine somewhat the character they are supposed to be supporting.
Kate Martinelli suffers from a very poorly set up reveal and some indigestible slabs of exposition, they sit in the story like stones in a cake. This is really unfortunate as Laurie R. King has the talent and craft to develop and reveal personalities in action. Alonso Hawkin is a great cast member, he is introduced with great economy and develops naturally throughout the story. He is revealed by his actions and reactions. Kate Martinelli is the same, the excess baggage given to her is a very considerable drag on the story, as she is a central character the loss of momentum has a significant impact on the story. The problems do not overwhelm the story, on balance it is an enjoyable read.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Locke and Key:Welcome to Lovecraft. Joe Hill (Writer), Gabriel Rodriguez (Art), Jay Fotos (Colours), Robbie Robbins (Letters). IDW Publishing (2008)

A superbly creepy and unsettling horror comic, low on gore and rippling with tension. After the murder of their father, the three Locke children, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode as well as their mother Nina move to the town of Lovecraft to stay with their uncle and Nina's brother -in-law at the Key house. Bode finds an odd key and a door that has a extraordinary power, he also finds someone trapped in a well in the well house. While Tyler, Kinsey and Nina all slowly find ways to come to terms with the violence they endured, Bode is slowly drawn into a savage plot. The story coils steadily tighter and tighter and the conclusion is chilling and ominous.
The most striking aspect to this story is the complete lack of hurry, the reader is increasingly aware that terrible events will unfold, there is no rush to the action. The story splits the narrative and coils back on itself before reaching the bleak climax. The cast are given the chance to breathe, develop and change and just as they are seeming to emerge from the shadows of the past they are plunged into horror once again. The real trouble is not happening in the foreground of their lives however, it is taking place at the margins with the most unreliable possible witness. The structure of the story is remarkable piece of craft, it reveals the presence of an extraordinary malevolence, threatening everyone and visible to none.
The disciplined and slightly cartoony art expresses all the varying moods of the story with force and clarity. The cast are given a great vitality and motion, they never seem to be completely still, they are so busy with memories and mental strategies that they are always doing something. The cast are moved with care through their attempts to recover themselves, the critical moments for each are superbly caught.
The colours are done with such skill that they nearly vanish below the perception of the reader, they are just so subtly tuned into the nuance and atmosphere of the story that they virtually absorbed by it. The lettering is unobtrusively expressive, it is a pleasure to read.
While the story closes with an obvious intention to continue, the story is satisfyingly complete in itself. This is confident comic, using the possibilities of the medium in clever, thoughtful ways to draw the reader into chilling, unyielding grasp. Brilliant and haunting.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Mind's eye. Hakan Nesser. Laurie Thompson (Translator). Pan Books (2009)

A hugely enjoyable and mordantly funny crime story. Janek Mitter awakes from a drunken sleep and finds his wife murdered. He has no memory of the night and no idea what happened to his wife. He is sent to an asylum for assessment and a fragment of memory returns. He is murdered in his cell. Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren investigates the two murders, sure that the key lies in the past of the murdered woman. The investigation uncoils at a steady pace, the plot threads are cleverly played out, the reveals very well staged and the conclusion equally sad and satisfactory.
DCI Van Veeteren is a superbly cranky and compelling character. He is a competent and professional policeman who is deeply committed to his work. He has a natural depth of perception allied to considerable experience that makes him impatient with his colleagues and frequently with himself. The rest of the cast are well developed, Van Veeteren does not dominate the book. The rest of the police are allowed to be competent and effective, they are critical to the investigation. Janek Mitter is a very engaging character, he is given a complicated and credible response to his situation and a sharp and resilient approach to dealing with it. His trial is very cleverly constructed and brilliantly written set piece. The least developed character is the killer, trapped by past events and compulsions, there is little scope for development.
Hakan Nesser has written the book with a sardonic tone that is a pleasure to read. The action is framed with snarky editorial comments that do not either overwhelm the action nor throw the reader out of the story. They are a flavoursome addition to the story, they add strongly to the telling. Superb.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Red Pavilion. Robert van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press (1961)

A excellent period crime story set in Imperial China. Judge Dee is returning home from the capital and stays for the night on Paradise Island, an amusement resort of gambling, drinking and brothels. A colleague requests that he adjudicate over a suicide that took place a few days earlier as the colleague has urgent business elsewhere. A second death takes place and Judge De finds that the roots of the deaths may stretch back over thirty years. The plot is very well structured, the reveals are carefully staged and the conclusion is sharp and thoughtful.
A very striking aspect to the story is the way that the setting, Paradise Island, a pleasure resort is intrinsic to the plot. The actions are not simply overlaid on an exotic locale, the very nature of the business done at Paradise Island drives the plot. The cast are very well developed, Robert Van Gulik has a tremendous gift for creating memorable characters, they take to the stage with great confidence and expression.
Judge Dee is cranky and formal, he is also full of insights into human actions and acts with surprising tolerance and consideration. His assistant Ma Joong, an ex boxer and highway man, is allowed to be more than a simple enforcer. The female cast are strongly written, they are not defined by their social or professional roles, they are allowed to be complex people. The context of legal prostitution in which the story moves is treated with care, the uneasy mix of compulsion, revenue and the possibilities open to the courtesans at to top of the system are explored without any queasiness. The lovely illustrations by the author throughout the book are a delightful bonus. This is gripping, first rate crime writing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

F Minus. Tony Carrillo. Andrews McMeel Publishing (2007)

This is a collection of Tony Carrillo's clever, snarky and very funny single panel cartoons. While the cartoons follow no particular content theme or strategy, the format is consistent. The cartoons do not have captions, usually one of the cast within the panel is speaking which provides the text element.
The art is very distinctive, Tony Carrillo uses the minimum level of detail required to enable the person or object to be identified, the facial features of the human cast are expressive and minimal. The body language of the human cast is wonderfully expressive, it is very subtle, there are rarely any dramatic gestures. The underlying attitude of the person could not be clearer.
The power of the cartoons lies in the clever and very pointed ideas that they are expressing. One cartoon has a young boy returning home from school, the school bus is visible in the background, standing just inside his front door wearing just his underpants and school bag thinking "Hmm... Feels like I should have woken up by now."
There is a very astute balance between the elements in the cartoons in the collection, the art and text act together, they do not opposes or repeat each other. The work has an enjoyable sour tang at times, one carton has homework graded "C" fixed to the cistern of a toilet while a father tells a little boy " Sorry Mikey, you know the rules. Only A's go on the fridge."
There is a welcome range of topics in the work, some are absurd and some simply silly, all have been carefully set up to deliver the maximum punch. This is smart work that bears considerable re-reading without loosing its impact or humour.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Last Duel. Eric Jager. Arrow (2006)

The remarkable story of the last judicial duel in France, a fight to the death between two knights to prove the innocence of the survivor or the guilt of the dead knight. Saturday 29th December 1386, Jean de Carrouges and Jean Le Gris met in mortal combat after de Carrouges had accused Le Gris of raping his wife. If de Carrouges was killed and Le Gris vindicated, de Carrouges wife would be burnt alive at the stake right away for perjury. This enthralling book tells the extraordinary story of the circumstances that led up to the duel and its aftermath.
Trial by combat, where the two principals in a case fought to the death, subjecting themselves to the Judgement of God, had a long history, it was declining as a process. This duel was the last time it was used as a judicial, legal process in France. Eric Jager explains in vivid and compelling detail the long history that lay behind the case. The rape case is clearly placed in the context of a long history of personal animosity and political friction between a group of Normandy aristocrats.
The risk being run by de Carrouges and his wife Marguerite in pursuing the case to the point of a trial by combat are explored in full by Eric Jager. The twists and turns of the case are fascinating in and of themselves and the likely reasons that this duel was approved when many others had been refused is suggested by the author. The description of the duel itself, drawn from contemporary accounts is horrifyingly tense and dramatic. The details are brutal and sad.
Eric Jager has presented a sliver of history where the personalities of the people involved emerge strongly and clearly, the context for their actions is described with precise economy. This is as gripping as any thriller, superbly well written and thoughtful.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Murder's Immortal Mask. Paul Doherty. Headline Publishing Group. (2008)

A very enjoyable period crime story set in Imperial Rome. Two prostitutes are found murdered and mutilated, creating fears that a notorious killer, Nefandus, had returned to the city. Attius Enobarbus, suspected in the past of being Nefandus, is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Attius was involved with plans being made by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena and his death raises questions that need to be answered. Helena gives her favourite investigator, Claudia, the task of finding out who killed Attica and finding Nefandus. The case is severely complicated by the recent rise in power by the Christian Church and the location of one of its most important and sacred sites. The story is very well structured, the reveals are well staged, the plot lines are carefully bound up together and the conclusion is very satisfying.
The sturdy plot and the well designed mechanics are not the greatest pleasure of the book, that lies with the cast and the context. Paul Doherty has a considerable gift for creating engaging and credible characters who fit into their environment. Claudia moves through a brilliantly evoked Rome like a native, from the dreadful slums to the Imperial Palace she confidently carries out her investigation. She is confident and competent, she works hard at the problems presented to her. The supporting cast, including a superbly unpleasant villain, are very well developed, they all have the spark of life within them. Rome itself, with is narrow streets, bustling crowds and myriad smells is sharply realised, the barely restrained brutality of life in the city is made clear and adds depth and colour to the story.
Thoroughly engaging and very well written, a pleasure.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mouse Guard. Winter 1152. David Petersen.Titan Books (2009)

The second book in the Mouse Guard series is a beautifully illustrated and subtly written story of loyalty, betrayal and adventure. The Mouse Guard headquarters of Lockhaven are suffering shortages of supplies as winter settles in, A group of the the guard are sent on a mission to the other mouse settlements to get supplies and issue invitations to a meeting at Lockhaven. Returning from the settlement of Sprucetuck, they are attacked by a predator and find themselves separated into two groups. One of them above ground, the other in the old weasel stronghold of Darkheather. The story unfolds with very well staged reveals, excellent action and the cast reveal a great deal more about themselves.
The art is sumptuous, the winter colours are used with great skill, the frozen landscape is both beautiful and utterly menacing. The details of the mouse settlements are shown without crowding out the panels. They look lived in and and cared for, they have a nicely medieval sense to them. The wooden construction of Sprucetuck constants well with the stone in Lockhaven. Out in the open the sense of scale is provided, the mice are very small and the predators are huge, the threat is clear and imperative.
The art is so striking that it almost overshadows the story, almost but not quite. The action is much more contemplative in this book, there is a much greater emphasis on the characters of the cast, their various personalities. The action is used to reveal and develop them, while at the same time being exciting and engaging. Threads from the first book are picked up and followed in a very considered way. David Petersen has so fully imagined the world of the Mouse Guard that he can imagine the possible consequences of the events in the first book and a good enough storyteller that knowledge of them is not necessary to enjoy this book. A wonderful comic and a great read.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Brooklyn Follies. Paul Auster. Faber and Faber Limited (2005)

This is a beautifully written and optimistic book. Nathan Glass returned to Brooklyn where he spent part of his childhood to recover from his divorce and to continue to recover from lung cancer. He has a serious row with his daughter and finds himself alone. He meet his nephew Tom Wood, who is also in Brooklyn trying to find a new direction for his life. The two meet regularly and Nathan develops a friendship with Tom's employer, Harry Brightman. Out of the blue, Tom's niece, Lucy, who refuses to speak, appears on Tom's doorstep. A number of events follow that offer the prospect of change and renewal that are embraced and a warm and deeply engaging story of people willing change and accept happiness emerges.
Paul Auster challenges the old idea that there is no drama in kindness, that happiness is a shallower emotion than sorrow. Nathan Glass is a nice man who works very hard to assist those he loves. He does not interfere in their lives, he is deeply involved with them and acts with them not on them or for them. He is not a saint or a magician, the story is as much of his follies as his successes. None of the varied and lively cast are passive actors in their own lives, they are all trying to make sense of their lives and to actively be happy and contented. The interactions among the cast are truthful, frequently humorous and tolerant. They have not been soured or exhausted by life, there is a considerable number of sharp conflicts in the book, the cast are prickly and defensive, blessedly they are free of malice, with some exceptions.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the exactness of the writing, Paul Auster is generous with words in the book, there is a pleasure in their use, none are wasted or irrelevant. The relaxed confidence underlying the writing allows the reader to slip fully into the story and enjoy it to the full. There is a horrible misjudgement that nearly unbalances the entire book, that it does not do so it the highest compliment I can pay to the extraordinary quality of the work. A genuine addition to the sum total of human happiness.