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“What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is all a matter of the intellect.”

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the filming of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club‘ at the ABC studios. The opening discussion focused on fantasy fiction. It was quite enjoyable to listen to writers debating the merits and possible disadvantages of books with elves, dragons and magic.

As interesting as all of this was, I have to say though I am sick of people discussing The Lord of the Rings exclusively when my favourite genre is the topic of discussion. Half a century has passed since that tome was published and much has happened since. No mention was made of New Worlds (which launched many a morally ambiguous fantasy novel), let alone the New Weird. One point that was made though, by Lev Grossman, was that fantasy and genre fiction in general have become more popular because they actually trade in plots – unlike novels that struggle with the literary heritage of Joyce and Woolf.

What a wonderful thing it is to read an entertaining page turner? Which brings me to today’s book, Agatha Christie’s classic ‘whodunnit’, Murder on the Orient Express.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is actually en route to England when he finds himself swept up in an unusual series of events. Firstly he is approached by a vulgar American businessman Mr. Ratchett while boarding a train from Istanbul. Poirot turns the man down, despite his claims that his life is in danger. Instead he concentrates on enjoying the train journey and observing his fellow guests. His friend Bouc, the director of the train company (and the means by which he was allocated a berth on this unusually packed train)  draws his attention to the extraordinary mixture of people on board. Hungarian aristocrats, an American widow, a German maid and an English nanny, numerous class distinctions and backgrounds arranged side by side in the small travelling compartments of the train. Then after one night when the Orient Express became delayed by large amount of snow in the ‘Jugo-Slavian’ countryside, Mr. Ratchett’s body, with a dozen stab wounds, is discovered in his room.

Bouc is desperate to save the reputation of his company and enlists his good friend the famous detective to investigate the crime. Poirot sets about interviewing all the guests in first and second class, as well as the staff. In his own irascible way, the detective indulges in his patented form of inquiry, baiting those who are reserved, placating and gaining the trust of the more alarmed travellers and generally remaining inscrutable despite the repeated pleas of Bouc to explain exactly what is happening.

Half of this book’s pleasure is seeing how Poirot unravels the mystery from such a morass of complicated relationships and air-tight alibis. What is more when the true identity of the murder victim is revealed, few can argue that he did not deserve to die. For Poirot, however, it is a question of intellect, a puzzle which requires his preceise attention.

This book is a delightful puzzle box, one which has a surprising theme underlying the action. What Christie has fashioned is an intelligent outsider’s perspective on America and its unique contemporary multicultural mix. The contrast inferred with sleepy Old Europe is wittily observed. In many senses the book is quite self-aware – often the characters scoff at how the events resemble a detective mystery from a cheap book – and ultimately resolves itself into a ‘whydunnit’, instead of a ‘whodunnit’.

A classic detective mystery with a surprisingly subversive streak.

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

If LA isn’t the first true American city, she is certainly the greatest. I think so many journalists and tourists report condescendingly on her because they don’t being to understand the depth of the culture-shock they have experienced. A shock nothing like as immediate as the one you receive from New York, but one which is in my view far more lasting and harder to cope with.

I bought this book from a second hand store shortly after J.G. Ballard died. I had just read Michael Moorcock’s tender obituary and was thrilled to discover more about their friendship. The girl in the shop remarked that she had been surprised so many folk were buying up Ballard books before she heard the news. It was a curious friendship between the two men, both writers who appeal to quite different perspectives on the world.

Ballard’s writing evokes a fascination with a coldly objective world, where humanity itself is a passing phase and the remnants left behind, abandoned cities and nuclear fallout, have just as much a claim to life. There is a fascination with an ordered vision of a world stripped of human failings and mortality. Moorcock by contrast takes a perverse pleasure in the grit and grime of fantasy realms, where stories are all lies and wonder is to be found in the rotten core of human history.

What I find odd about the correspondence collected in this volume is that the style is indistinguishable from the crooked authorial voice of his fiction. Indeed I began to question just how real these sights and encounters with the strange denizens of Hollywood were, as the adventures of Moorcock the Englishman abroad seemed too similar to those of his character Colonel Pyat in Jerusalem Commands. If this is fiction disguised as travel writing, it is a fine joke.

We are not privy to Ballard’s replies in this correspondence and Moorcock makes reference to painful personal events during the course of his stay in the States. His marriage had just broken down and emotionally crippled, he travelled to L.A. to visit a writer friend from his New Worlds days, Graham Hall, who was himself dying.  Moorcock gives an unsentimental account of his friend’s selfishness and hurtful decision to drink himself to death. He is also deeply affected by what he sees as the waste of a potentially great writer’s talent. While Moorcock’s name is frequently associated with psychedelic drugs, he eschews puritan hypocrisy in his lamenting of a friend’s life destroyed by drink. He contrasts the aspirational character of Californians, living in a beautiful landscape of sun and surf, with the fatalistic affectations of English Bolshieness, would-be working class heroes with a college degree and ideology in a bottle.

Moorcock’s attempts to raise funds to rescue his soaring overdraft – courtesy of his estranged family relations back in England – land him a position as a script-writer on a revisionist King Arthur film. He identifies the director of the picture only as ‘Ike’, an old Hollywood player who has just had a great success with the space opera genre. I assumed this was a coded reference to Irvin Kershner and a quick google would appear to confirm this. At any rate ‘Ike’ is something of a cartoonish figure, a monstrous ego on legs who insists on Moorcock introducing a black character into the Arthurian cycle on one day and homages to Kurosawa on the next. The well-worn dictatorial relationship between the director and the screen-writer is ploughed through, with Moorcock emerging shaken and disturbed.

Once again I begin to wonder just how real ‘Ike’, is. He seems more a collection of Hollywood player clichés, which does not mean he does not exist. Just Moorcock’s flights of invective remind me more of a fictional dilemma than an actual account. An earlier encounter with a sf fan tattoo artist also raised suspicions. The character in question is identified by the name Gulliver and bonds with Moorcock over Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. The main character of which is memorably described as having a number of facial tattoos, and named Gulliver Foyle. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it made me curious nonetheless.

For Hollywood itself is a place filled with unreality, where the ‘English countryside’, of a Robin Hood serial is just over the hill. Trust Moorcock to prove to be such a winning guide to the darker half of sunny L.A. Evocative and very intimately written.

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