Archive for Short Stories

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2013 by davehurwitz

Two Englishman at CricketWhile many readers of modern day Victoriana believe that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have their criminal opposites in Professor Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran, this isn’t really the case.  The Professor and the Colonel, though they have been portrayed as a Holmes-and-Watson type duo in countless non-canonical books, TV shows and films, never share a scene together in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Nor do they appear in a great many Doyle stories.  “The Napoleon of Crime” appears in two, while “the second most dangerous man in England” only rates one.  Conan Doyle created both men to fit specific plot purposes.  He invented Moriarty in order to kill Holmes.  After a change of heart, he used Moran to bring him back from the dead.  Once these ends were accomplished, both characters were quickly discarded.

More worthy of comparison to Holmes and Watson, but less familiar to American audiences, are A.J. Raffles and “Bunny” Manders, gentlemen thieves.  Raffles and Bunny are hardly master criminals.  They don’t sit at the center of a vast criminal network, but operate alone.  Rather than pull off elaborate, impossible-seeming thefts, they choose easy scores and careless victims.  Nor do they cross swords or match wits with famous master detectives.  They have enough to do outwitting their victims and evading the ordinary police.  Though less impressive than the exploits of France’s Arsene Lupin, their crimes have a more credible, less fanciful feel.  Compared with Moriarty and Moran, Raffles and Bunny seem more like real people with genuine motives and emotions.

Is his hair realy black?  Can't be!

David Niven as Raffles from the 1939 Film

A.J. Raffles is a sensation seeker who views his burglaries as ‘sport’.  In the story “Gentleman and Players” he professes to be bored with cricket–which he excels at–because it does not compare with crime.  As he says, “What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when  you want  his spoons?”  Scoring points in a mere game does not satisfy like stealing silver.  Were it not for an ill-defined code of gentlemanly conduct, Raffles might go further still.  In “Willful Murder” Raffles and Bunny contemplate silencing their blackmailing fence, Angus Baird.  Over dinner at his club, Raffles proclaims “the biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder and not yet been found out….  Just think of it!  Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you’ve done it; and wondering how they’d look if they knew!  Oh, it would be great, simply great!”  Circumstances prevent Raffles from testing this theory, but it’s clear that the possibility of being caught adds zest to Raffles’ exploits.

By contrast, our Watson-like narrator Bunny Manders is both more moral and more cowardly.  He dreads exposure, and his conscience needles him every time he participates in one of Raffles’ crimes.  But these misgivings are completely overwhelmed by his admiration of his bolder friend.  Bunny first met A.J. at school, where he became the older boy’s dogsbody–a relationship that is taken to institutional levels in British public schools–and helped him commit petty misdeeds.  Though both are now adults, the basic nature of their relationship remains the same.  Critics and parodists have suggested that Bunny is a repressed homosexual, and there is some evidence for this.  In “The Ides of March” Bunny dwells on Raffles’ “curly black hair” and “strong, unscrupulous mouth.”  He calls him “irresistible” and “masterful.”  However, this is the first ever Raffles story, and some description of the man’s appearance and character is required.  Gay or straight, Bunny is completely under Raffles thumb.  And so, by extension, is the reader.

Taken together, Raffles and Bunny represent a peculiarly European phenomenon, upper class gentlemen who are too poor to afford the “polite society” into which they have been born and to “well brought up” to work.  Neither members of the peerage nor the professional classes, they are literally at loose ends.  You can see similar men cluttering up the Drones Club of P.G. Wodehouse.  Bunny tries to make an honest living, but the only thing he can bring himself to do is write poetry.  Raffles would make an excellent businessman, but disdains such dull labor.  Given their social standing and character flaws, it seems inevitable that they would turn to crime.

Though the stories that make up The Amateur Cracksman (1899) were first published individually, taken together they read like a continuous narrative.  Hornung followed up with two further story collections–The Black Mask (1901) and A Thief in the Night (1905)–as well as a full length novel–Mr. Justice Raffles (1909).  The Raffles stories were quite popular in their day and are still read a remembered in UK even now.  It’s easy enough to see why.  The stories are light, entertaining, and composed in a highly readable style.  I recommend them to anyone who enjoys Victoriana, but wants a break from Steampunk and Sherlock Holmes.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by davehurwitz

I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks.  The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief.  Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal.  Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast.  Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.

Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break.  In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub.  Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways.  Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own.  Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five.  All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.

A Charm Bracelet 'O Crime!Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print.  (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.)  In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man.  This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it.  In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze.  A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife.  Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original.  So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud.  Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad.  There’s just one problem.  The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds.  Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia?  Will he actually get paid?  Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.?  There’s only one way to find out.

Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me.  (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.)  If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.”  Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations.  I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take.  I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2.  It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds.  After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful.  Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel.  This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.  If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.

Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document.  The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine.  Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership.  Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.

The Novel by Caitlin Kiernan‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes.  Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind.  Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease.  My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor.  The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it.  Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench.  Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock.  All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.

If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong.  Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent.  Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult.  Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer.  Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.

Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals.  If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure.  As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation.  All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go.  We know too much, and we are out of options.  To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Bagatelle’ by John Varley

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by davehurwitz

A naked man & a naked woman. In space!For those of you familiar with his work, John Varley is a not-terribly-prolific writer of old-school science fiction novels and stories in the grand tradition of Heinlein, Asimov, and other post-war authors.  His career stretches back to the mid-seventies, and my acquaintance with his work goes back nearly that far.  I can remember begging my parents to buy me mass market editions of his work at Crown Books in UTC, back when I was still a young nipper and there was no such thing as Borders or Amazon.com.  I incurred the wrath of my junior high teachers by reading Varley’s Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, & Demon) during classes.  It did not help that, because of poor eyesight, I always sat in the front row.  Regardless, I’ve carted those three books around with me from place to place, from junior high through graduate school, from shared apartments to a home of my own, for the best part of thirty years.

One of my favorite Varley characters is Anna-Louise Bach, a police officer on Luna, the heavily colonized moon of the future.  (I told you I liked weird police procedurals.)  Bach featured in a series of stories that took her from rookie beat cop all the way to chief of police.  Two of the best were ‘The Barbie Murders,’ which involved a homicide within a cult with genderless, virtually identical members, and ‘Bagatelle.’  Though I haven’t read either of these stories in years, I was pleased to see the complete text of ‘Bagatelle’ pop up on the Subterranean Press website as a teaser for their upcoming Varley collection Goodbye Robinson Caruso and Other Stories.  You can read it there for free.

Creepy idential folks in in grey jammies.In the opening scene of ‘Bagatelle,’ a mobile, talking nuclear bomb rolls down a crowded shopping tunnel of New Dresden, Luna, saying things like “I will explode in four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds” and “I am rated at fifty kilotons.”  Chief Bach commandeers the services of Roger Birkson, a Terran expert in disarming nuclear I.E.D.s, interrupting his round of golf at a nearby resort.  It transpires that the talking bomb contains the brain of an actual human being who, for obscure philosophical reasons, has allowed himself to be engineered into this weapon of mass destruction.

If all of this suggests a bleak sort of comedy to you, you’re not far off.  Certain scenes in which Bach–half naked in clothing-optional Luna–and the golf-togged Birkson interrogate the bomb have a Monty Python edge of weird hilarity.  But Varley doesn’t let the reader forget the terror of the situation for long.  We feel Bach’s stress as Birkson’s behavior becomes more and more bizarre.  We see the reactions of her junior offers–one of whom is pregnant–as they throw up or pass out from unendurable tension.  Although New Desden is saved, the way the story ends leaves a hollow pit of horror in the stomach.

‘Bagatelle’ was originally published in 1974, during the Cold War, when nuclear immolation seemed both inevitable and imminent.  It’s a fear I remember well and can’t say that I miss, the poisonous background radiation of my childhood and adolescence.  The nuclear terrorism Varley envisions here has not yet come to pass.  So far as the general public knows, no sub-national cadre of ideological nut-jobs has succeeded in assembling a nuclear bomb.  But no one would deny that it could happen.  Like the Cold War itself, it’s just something that we live with.

For those of you not up on your French, in addition to being a rather ridiculous pub game, a bagatelle is a task of little importance or one that is easily accomplished.  Indeed, Varley makes it look easy here, with a story that is readable, entertaining, and still relevant twenty-nine years down the road.  John Varley is a writer who all fans of science fiction should get to know, and I can think of no better place to start.

Dave Hurwitz

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by davehurwitz
A big dude in robes and a crown holds a big coin.

Four of Pentacles:
Radiant Rider Waite Deck

This is another story from Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One from Subterranean Press.  It was originally published in Thrillers 2, an anthology title from Cemetery Dance Publications.  Unfortunately, both of these fine books are now out of print.  Given their limited printings and high production values, both are liable to be a bit pricey on the secondary market.  While I’m trying not to review things that will be hard for you–the reader–to get at, I also really want to finish up this Kiernan collection.  If this review intrigues you, I suggest that you roll on ever to your favorite bookseller and purchase the mass market paperback of Daughter of Hounds, a Kiernan novel that has it’s roots in this particular story, and one of my personal favorites as well.  Beyond that, apologies, and I’ll try not to do it again.

As long as I’m in a conciliatory mood, I may as well mention something else.  Attentive readers will have noticed that I have not quite delivered on my new year’s resolution to review one short story per week, having allowed myself to get sidetracked by a novel and–more recently–a film.  Since variety is supposed to be the spice of life, I am hereby revising my resolution.  For all of 2013, I promise to review something each week.  On any given week, that something will probably be a short story, but may be something else.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even throw in a post that isn’t a review every now and then.  But you will hear from me every week.  That much I promise.  Now that that’s settled, on with the show.

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ takes place in the attic of a large yellow house on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island.  The yellow house–a recurring location in a number of Kiernan books and stories–is a real building in Providence that also inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale ‘The Shunned House.’  In the Kiernan version, the upper floors of the residence are occupied by sliver-eyed vampires, while the basement and associated caverns are the home of the ghul, a race of corpse-eating, wolf-like bipeds that may be werewolves, or possibly aliens.  Both are served by the Children of the Cuckoo, infants stolen from unwary parents and raised by the monsters.

Is that a violin or a tentacle?Pearl is a prisoner in the attic of the house on Benefit Street.  Pearl is still a child, though she has been kept in the attic for seventy-five years.  Time stops, you see, whenever the trap door leading into the attic from the main house is closed, which is most of the time.  We meet Pearl on one of the rare occasions when that door is opened, this time by a boy named Airdrie, a know-it-all Child of the Cuckoo.  Airdrie has been sent to deliver food and toys, but unwisely sets out to explore the attic.

The growing conflict between Pearl and Airdrie is punctuated by several seemingly unrelated vignettes.  One features a Confederate deserter dying of his wounds in the wilderness of Knox County, Tennessee.  Another deals with a man whose shabby apartment is surrounded by an impenetrable fog.  Another is a rather nice science fiction chase scene.  Many of these micro-narratives end in death.  All contain suffering of one kind or another.  All of them hint that these events have occurred before and will occur again.

The meaning of these narratives–and the reason behind Pearl’s imprisonment–becomes clear when Airdrie discovers the prized possessions of Pearl’s father, who is referred to only as The Alchemist.  A circle of curio cabinets deep within the attic holds what looks to be an enormous collection of snow-globes.  Upon closer examination, they turn out to contain the stolen moments described above.  In each of the thousands of spheres trapped people sufferer an endless repetition of the worst hours of their lives–hours of pain and fear that should have ceased–unfolding forever.

This is a very accomplished story, one that can be read and appreciated without any previous experience of either Kiernan or Lovecraft.  As with many of Kiernan’s better tales, ‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ leaves a melancholy aftertaste, one that can linger for several days.  To me, the story’s most ingenious detail is the fact that creatures we would consider evil have taken it upon themselves to punish The Alchemist by imprisoning Pearl.  It’s a shocking suggestion, the notion that there are some crimes that even monsters won’t countenance, and that they are committed by human beings.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Spinach’ by E.F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2013 by davehurwitz

An man in obvious vascular distress claps his hands to his head. Ow!Despite the image to the right, I’m reading the Carroll & Graff edition of The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, which I have called forth from long term storage in the basement of SDPL’s central library downtown.  First published in 1992, this edition is presently out of print.  Clearly E.F. Benson is not a wildly popular reading choice.  Regardless, I’m enjoying Benson’s work a great deal, and anyone who is interested in doing the same is directed to Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, published by Wordsworth Editions in June of last year and still very much available.  If you’re not yet familiar with Wordsworth, they are certainly the best friends any aficionado of gaslight horror ever had.  They publish vintage horror in very affordable trade editions.  For example, at a massive 720 pages containing more than fifty stories, Night Terrors will set you back a mere ten dollars.  I already own their editions of The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder and The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James.  Once my renewals expire, I’ll be throwing down my saw-buck for Night Terrors as well.

Ludovic and Sylvia Byron–formerly Thomas and Caroline Carrot–are highly successful full trance mediums with a wealthy clientele.  At the promptings of Asteria, Ludovic’s spirit guide or ‘control,’ brother and sister agree to take a couple of weeks off from their daily seances.  A wealthy widow, Mrs. Sapson, offers them the use of her cottage near Rye, and the two proceed down to the remote costal village.  Ludovic brings along photographic equipment, eager to add spirit photography to the Byron repertoire.

The Byrons do not get much of a rest.  Almost immediately, they are contacted by the spirit of Thomas Spinach–Young Spinach, as the villagers called him–the recently departed soul of one of the cottage’s former occupants.  Young Spinach is desperate for the Byron’s assistance.  Before his own death, Spinach had murdered his uncle, a heavy drinker who had blackmailed his nephew into becoming his servant and laborer.  Having poisoned the old reprobate, Spinach had secreted the corpse in a temporary hiding place and gone out to dig a grave in the vegetable garden, only to be struck dead himself by lightening.  Thrust into the afterlife, Young Spinach found himself haunted by his uncle’s unburied corpse, the location of which he could not now recall.

As the names of the characters suggest, Benson plays this story for laughs.  The opening paragraphs, which describe the Byron’s spiritualist operation, are quite funny.  The humor comes from the combination of earnest belief and practical huxterism the siblings display, as if they simultaneously believe in their psychic abilities and suspect that it’s all bullshit.  The later half of the story settles this question, of course, but maintains the lightness of tone.

For me at least, this became a problem.  The situation Benson sets up–two mediums searching for a dead body in a remote beach house, goaded to the task by the increasingly agitated ghost of a dead murderer–suggests nerve-grinding tension.  The story as written offers none.  Indeed, the corpse is found soon after this situation is established, leaving no narrative space for nail biting.  While I enjoyed Benson’s prose style and his sly digs at Spiritualism, I could not help but mourn the unexploited possibilities for suspense in this story.  ‘Spinach’ is a fun read, but I’d like to see what happens when Benson decides to really turn the screws.

Dave Hurwitz

For more on the subject of Spiritualism, see Chris Kalidor’s post on Vaginal Ectoplasm and Teleplasmic Third Hands.

“Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” by Liz Williams

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by davehurwitz

No glass, but plenty of shadow.  And a cat!As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I like a good supernatural police procedural.  Although I’ve read Liz Williams’ autobiographical Diary of a Witchcraft Shop (co-written with Trevor Jones), I know her work almost exclusively through her Detective Inspector Chen series.  The D.I. Chen books take place in Singapore Three, a fantastical port city where business and high technology exist along side magic and ancient religion.  The walls between worlds are thin in Singapore Three, and Hell–the Chinese version of if–is only a slip away.  While “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” takes place in the Chen universe, it features neither Chen himself nor his demonic partner Zhu Irzh.  Indeed, none of the characters from the series are present, unless the nameless narrator is a younger, more reckless version of Exorcist Lao, though I’m probably reaching here.

The Wu Zhiang Zombies are a band specializing in something called Anarchy Hardcore, which I gather from the story is rather like Death Metal.  To promote their new release, “Chainsaw Killa,” the band’s leader, the titular Mr. Animation, decides to conduct a seance between sets at the release party.  All goes according to plan until Mr. Animation is snatched into Hell and the band’s label sues for lost royalties.  Wackiness, as they say, ensues.  “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” is told from the point of view of the drummer’s elder, geekier brother, who is more than a little responsible for the unfortunate turn the seance takes.  Though I found this tale amusing, it did not satisfy as much as other Singapore Three stories I have read.  The full glory of the Chinese afterlife and its intricate mythology, one of the main pleasures of the D.I. Chen series, isn’t really on display here.  Still, I look forward to reading the other, largely non-Chen, stories in this collection.

This story appears in the collection Glass of Shadow from NewCon Press, which can be purchased (along with Diary of a Witchcraft Shop, mentioned above) as a very reasonably priced ebook from Smashwords.

Dave Hurwitz