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When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

‘You know,’ Carter said, as the cheering faded, hoping this would solve everything, ‘I do love magic. By itself, for its own sake.’

Ledocq nodded. ‘So. If you do a trick and no one notices, does that satisfy? Or is it like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it?’

Carter sighed. His curse in life was to be attracted to people who understood him. With a sip of beer, he said, ‘I feel sorry for that tree.’

I cannot count the number of times I have taken this novel down from a shelf in a book store and then not bought it. For one reason or another, I never made that last trek to the cashier. Since Glen David Gold’s debut novel was first published it has attracted a rake of plaudits and praise. I sometimes suspected this was another one of those popular novels that actually is not all that good, but somehow managed to attract the newspaper literarti. I’m very contrary like that, always plumbing for the obscure over the well known. Turns out I was very wrong.

Gold’s novel is a fictionalized account of events involving real historical persons. President Warren Harding did die suddenly, during an administration notable for corruption scandals and falling public approval. He is still referred to as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. The book’s main character Charles Carter was a popular magician and contemporary of Houdini’s. Gold takes the lives of these two men and intertwines them, effectively ‘framing’, his hero for the President’s death.

For in this revision of history, President Harding attended a performance of Carter’s and after taking part in the show stopping illusion known as ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, returned to his hotel and died only two hours later. The magician flees the scene of the crime, with special agent Jack Griffin in pursuit. The government agent becomes obsessed with the history of his quary and the book skips backward and forwards in time, relating the events in Carter’s life that the search uncovers, as well as revealing his origins as a magician to the reader.

Early in the novel Carter’s first steps as a magician lead him to a fateful encounter in a snowbound house. Still a child, he comes face to face with a madman who captures both him and his little brother James and beats them horribly. Using what he has already managed to learn about escape artists, Carter frees himself and his sibling and rushes to find help – only to be dismayed when no one believes his story. It is a frightening and disillusioning experience for the young boy and his later obsession with illusions seem to indicate a fascination with truth and belief. Magic, he learns, is all about misdirection. The spectacle is designed to exploit human psychology, their willingness to believe what their eyes can see over all else.

Gold fills the books with period details, in keeping with choosing real-life personages such as Harding, Carter and Philo Farnsworth as characters. The early faddishness of psychoanalysis is touched upon, as well as the cult of personality enjoyed by Houdini. Conspiracies and new exciting breakthroughs in technology are revealed. By choosing this period, Gold introduces contemporary readers to an age of wonder, when invention and the need of the status quo to financially control such advances in technology, grappled. Thomas Pynchon brought to light the same conflict in Against the Day and H.G. Welles’ wrote The Open Conspiracy revealing how science could become a tool of control, with the greater public remaining in ignorance of its benefits.

This is a gripping and fascinating historical drama, with thrilling intrigue and murderous plots to keep the pace racing.

Leonard started the car as the brothers came out of the café, stood on the sidewalk and looked at us. Leonard watched them a moment, backed out and drove off.

‘Trouble?’ he asked.

‘No. But I will say this. It’s not every day you can actually step into a science-fiction episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance.’

Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of books, contributed to a number of short story collections, comic book anthologies and even had some film adaptations of his work. So why is it so damned hard for me to track down his Hap and Leonard series. I have evolved a habit of snatching his books off the shelf as soon as I see them. I read the fourth book Bad Chilli first, then the second Mucho Mojo and this morning on the train to Sydney finished the third. Consequently I have a very confusing understanding of this pair of righteous country boys’ adventures, kicking ass and righting wrongs across Texas. And I don’t care.

Hap Collins is still blue after having been dumped by his lover Florida for the local police lieutenant in the last book. The only interruptions in his moping are provided by his best friend Leonard’s habit of burning the local crackhouse to the ground. This being the third experiment with arson, Lieutenant Marvin Hanson has them brought to the station and offers the pair a deal. He agrees to look the other way one more time, if they run a little errand for him. Florida has vanished. Last Marvin heard she was chasing down a lead on a story involving a possible wrongful death in police custody and voodoo rites in a place called Grovetown. If Hap and Leonard have a look around and see if Florida is okay, he’ll let bygones be bygones and drop the arson charges.

Leonard agrees to the deal, despite the Kmart-loving police sergeant Charlie’s warnings of the dangers a black man would likely face in Grovetown. Apparently the clocks stopped there some time back in the sixties. Civil rights are seen as a liberal conspiracy and an offshoot of the Klan holds great sway in the town. Hap and Leonard march into Grovetown ready to bust heads, but find themselves up against bigger odds than they expected. The local sheriff has a ruptured testicle and a permanent bad mood. He welcomes the pair with a death threat. There is no sign of Florida anywhere and the ‘victim’, who’s memory she was trying to defend was a hateful son of a blues legend who enticed a record company rep with the promise of undiscovered music tapes and murdered him for his wallet. Everywhere the pair go, it seems they have big, fat targets scrawled on their backs. Maybe they should have just agreed to do time for burning down the crackhouse?

Lansdale has a filthy sense of humour, a love of confounding expectations and inverting traditional notions of machismo. Hap and Leonard often find themselves beaten and bloody after a fight, but are always ready with another quip to aggravate their opponents. They just don’t know when to stop. Split down the middle they are a very opposite duo. Hap is white, votes Democrat, hates guns and tries to see the best in folks. Leonard is black, gay, Republican and just loves cracking heads. Also he plain distrusts most people and often seems to be correct in his assessments.

There is a great moment when Leonard tries to explain to his boyfriend Raul that what he and Hap have is a bit like love. It reminded me of a speech I saw Sean Connery give once at the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. There were sniggers when he referred to Brokeback Mountain as an example of male friendship, but jokes aside, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. Lansdale is interested in what makes a man, a man. Leonard is homosexual, but tough as nails and macho as they come. Hap is ruled by his emotions, but acts according to firm principles of honour. The pair also are skilled in Korean martial arts, something of a hobby of Lansdale himself. Whenever I try to describe these books, I often say try to imagine Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, as played by Chuck Norris.

Blackly comic, offensive, filthy and laugh out loud funny, if you haven’t been in Hap and Leonard’s company yet, I’d advise you to look them up some day.

That night, back in my office. I say office – it’s actually my bedroom, but I think of it as an office. It sounds better if you say to a client, ‘I’ll need to run a few tests back in the office,’ rather than, ‘I’ll have a look at this with a magnifying glass after I put my PJs on.’

From Australian children’s authors let’s skip across the planet to Ireland. If that makes you feel slightly dizzy, try to imagine how I feel! Wexford-born native Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived. A modern, witty take on Irish mythology and contemporary society….with farting leprechauns, just to make sure kids paid attention. Half-Moon Investigations is a new series from Colfer and I am happy to report, is also a very successful humour book for children.

Fletcher Moon is the town joke in the small community of Lock. A twelve year old boy who likes to ‘play at detective’. He even insists on showing off a detective’s badge, which he insists is genuine. His kind parents indulge the fantasy, but hope he’ll grow up and notice girls some day. The other children are not so understanding and have branded Fletcher with the nickname ‘Half-Moon’. He’s a weirdo, a nerdy kid with delusions of grandeur.

What most people don’t know is that Fletcher is an accredited private investigator. Sure he used his dad’s birth date and credit card to apply for the two year course. Nevertheless he has a real detective’s badge and know’s the course books off by heart. He dreams of one day working for the FBI as a forensic investigator, like the kind on CSI. In the meantime he’s hoping to score a real case and maybe even a real fee. Mostly the school kids he has helped pay him in chocolate.

Fletcher soon learns to regret his ambitions when popular ten-year old April Devereux hires him to investigate a series of mysterious robberies. The prime suspect is one Red Sharkey, the heir apparent of Lock’s local criminal gang lord Papa Sharkey. He doesn’t appreciate the attention Fletcher is drawing to him and does not hesitate in letting his feelings on the matter be known. What’s more, the boy detective soon discovers the danger in becoming too involved in a case, after he finds himself first assaulted and then framed for a serious crime. Is April Devereux ten Euro retainer enough to cover his growing legal fees and bail?

This is winning, fast-paced stuff, a kiddy version of a Sam Spade mystery. There is even, in the classic detective format, two mysteries that overlap for Fletcher to resolve. In many ways this resembles an Irish take on Rian Johnson’s Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with all the tropes of detective fiction entertainingly inserted into this schoolyard adventure. There’s even a tween stool pigeon and a pink loving femme fatale.

On the weekend I happened to catch five minutes of a television series based on Colfer’s novels. Not only was the action relocated to England, but I felt the spirit of the novel was lost, with the usual generic and insipid child actors standing in for the preternaturally worldly-wise heroes and villains of this yarn. A real shame and a missed opportunity I feel for the Irish film and television industry not to have kicked Colfer’s door down for the rights (but then, that is not an unusual error on their part).

I would strongly recommend these books for children between the ages of 10 – 15 and adults who enjoy a wry chuckle. I am looking forward to gobbling down the rest of these books like I did the Artemis Fowl series.

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

Do I dream? Cried Manfred returning, or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why does thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for – Ere he could finish the sentence the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him Lead on! Cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition.

The Castle of Otranto is a book that has achieved immortality courtesy of first year English students in college. It is a literary virus, passed on from one generation to the next, thanks to this –

It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Castle, and Walpole by extension is arguably the forerunner to such authors as Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.(wiki)

It is a footnote, a book no one ever reads outside of completionists and academics. So while I knew of it, I never bothered to investigate. I was surprised to find that I liked it.

Walpole’s tragic tale begins with Manfred the lord of the castle Otranto preparing for his son’s wedding. He is eager to continue his family line and despite the sickliness of his heir Conrad, rests all his hopes on his union with Isabella, the daughter of a missing lord with a rival claim to his lands. Manfred’s grandfather inherited the castle and its territories from Alfonso. His claim to it is weak and he fears the return of Isabella’s father from the Crusades. He is also aware of an obscure prophecy, which hints at a dire fate for his family line.

On the night of the wedding tragedy strikes when Conrad is found crushed beneath a giant helmet. The castle is thrown into confusion – although secretly Isabella is relieved as she felt little love for her arranged match. Manfred flies into a rage when a mysterious peasant points out that the helmet belongs to the statue of Alfonso. He orders the stranger to be kept captive beneath the helm that crushed his own son. This macabre command shows how his rage has begun to warp his judgment. Manfred in desperation to avoid fate decides on a new course of action. He commands his pious wife Hippolyta and daughter Matilda to remain in their chambers and asks Isabella to join him. When they are alone he attempts to force her to consent to marry him. He blames his wife for producing an unsuitable heir and has decided to divorce her. Isabella refuses and flees in terror. Manfred becomes a man possessed and orders the castle searched to find her. As the night continues there are further signs of the supernatural within the grounds. Spirits and agents of God’s divine will makes themselves known, condemning Manfred’s desperate madness.

Reading Walpole’s novella it is obvious the influence it had on books such as Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are corrupt lords and foul deeds hidden behind castle walls. Unnatural portents and the very real threat of damnation. What surprised me was the influences contemporary readers can detect in Walpole’s own novel. The plot bears a slim resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, once again due to palace intrigues and lordly haunts. Furthermore though there are occasional comic scenes, with servant girl Bianca and the idiotic duo of Jaquez and Diego stretching Manfred’s patience to breaking point with their babble. These scenes of aristocrats growing increasingly impatient with their ‘domestics’, owes a lot to Shakespeare’s comedies, such as the encounter between Dogberry and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

There is also doomed romance and melancholy princes, as well as a silent knight whose presence threatens Manfred. All in all a gripping yarn.

It deserves better than to be a footnote in a college text book. Jan Svankmajer appears to agree.

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