Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Summer of Sherlock

Last month, I got my hands on four Sherlock Holmes books that I've been wanting to read for a long time - all written by other authors than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a sub-genre of sorts;  you never know what you're gonna get.  I remember attempting to read Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula around 2000 and giving up because I couldn't figure out where Loren D. Estleman was going with it after a long sequence describing a cargo ship that had been ravaged after a vampire attack.

That reading had been with a copy borrowed from the library. This time, I'm giving it a 2nd chance because I own it now. The challenge (which you can follow along), is to read one Sherlock Holmes pastiche a month through this coming summer. I'll review the book I read, promote the next book I'll read, review that, and so on. To start, I'll just review the first book right now...because it was a library copy and I had to return it...

The Perils of Sherlock Holmes by Loren D.  Estleman

Encapsulate the plot of this book in one sentence?

A collection of short Sherlock Holmes mysteries and essays by the author includes encounters with Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, Doc Holliday,  the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future...and a new revelation about The Shadow's link to the world's greatest detective.

What's your verdict?

Nice. Estleman's specialty is writing crossovers, so we get a lot of that here. In this case, I get the feeling that these were ideas for potential novels that wound up as short stories instead, for whatever reason.  They're essentially skits, sketches...I was more impressed with the essays. I remember "On The Significance of Boswells" was the introductory essay in Signet's two-volume paperback reprints of the canonical stories by Doyle; it's a great profile of Dr. Watson which was updated to include Estleman's praise of the two recent movies with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes & Watson, though he makes no mention of Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman, which is...interesting. I wonder if he's seen that, or even Johnny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu?

And then there's "Was Sherlock Holmes the Shadow? (A trifle)"...if I needed just one reason to pick up this book, here it is. Estleman muses on Sherlock Holmes,  post-"His Last Bow", moving to the United States and applying his skills and resources in distinctly new ways to take on 20th Century evil...wherever it may dwell...even suggesting that Watson, Irene  Adler and brother Mycroft joined in on the fun, under different names,  of course. It almost makes me want to check our those reprints of old Shadow pulp novels...then I remember I've already tried reading those...but it's a great essay. time, I'll review Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula...and see if the 2nd times the charm. The book is available in stores and online in a cool new paperback edition,  so feel free to check it out...and tell me if it's good to keep me from bailing out...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Luke Skywalker's Nightmare...or Ours?

I don't believe we'll see a new Star Wars film from Walt Disney Pictures in's too soon - that date is just to get us, the fans, all abuzz with excitement.  That photo of the cast assembling for the first reading of the script assured us that Luke, Leia & Han are back, albeit looking ready to collect their social security checks in a galaxy far, far away...and that few women exist within that universe...and Andy Serkis is there, perhaps in person or in a motion-capture suit.

But there was another announcement...buried within...that gave Star Wars fans a case of the blues...

They're ignoring the books.

The new trilogy is going to start fresh and ignore the continuity created by the long-running series of Star Wars novels - most of which were set after Return of The Jedi  but many are set before that and in different eras of the series. This decision is clearly meant to make the new films accessible to audiences who love Star Wars,  but don't follow the books closely,  or at all.

It just seems so...ironic. We have a genre of feature films based on trashy "young adult" romance novels...what's wrong with adapting Star Wars novels into films? The only answer I can give to that question is not entirely satisfactory: the filmmakers do not feel obligated to adapt what were essentially tie-in merchandise to fulfill a demand for new adventures. None of the James Bond novels written by John Gardner or Raymond Benson were adapted into films by Eon productions after they ran out of Ian Fleming material to adapt (and they really dipped their pens into that well long after it went dry) , and some of those books were better than the original stories written for the screen.

It's not clear if we should also infer that none of the characters introduced in the novels will appear, either.  I was imagining Dana Delany as Luke's wife, Mara Jade Skywalker, but I couldn't picture anyone as the Jedi kids, who became adults as the series progressed: Jacen,  Jaina & Anakin Solo (I know he was killed off, but whatever) and Ben Skywalker. Maybe J.J. Abrahams and Lawrence Kasdan were upset about Chewbacca getting killed off in Vector Prime and were like, "Oh, hell no!!"  and that became their excuse to ignore it. Who knows? Or maybe the decision to turn Jacen Solo into a villain who gets killed in a final duel with his sister, Jaina, after killing Mara Jade in Sacrifice?  Who knows? Or maybe it's that there are only four or five novels that are highly regarded? * Who knows?

There is precedent: there were only two instances where the films used material from the novels: the name of the planet Coruscant and the name of the speeder bikes that appeared in Return of The Jedi: "Swoops". That is all.

With that kind of track record,  maybe Luke's sweet tooth for cups of hot chocolate will find a way in the new movies...

*I'm not a fan of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, but a lot of fans love it. I remember enjoying Steve Perry's Shadows of The Empire. The only novels I still own are Star by Star and The Unifying Force, from the New Jedi Order's all imaginary stuff...from long, long ago...coming soon to a used bookstore or Goodwill/Salvation Army store near you.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: The Chill by Ross Macdonald

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

Private eye Lew Archer is hired to find a runaway bride - a college student framed with the death of her professor and linked to two more murders in the past.

What year/edition was this book published?

This is a "Vintage Crime/Black Lizard" reprint from the late-1990s; the book was first published in 1963.

What's your verdict?

So-so. My reasons for reading this were more interesting than the book, although when I finished it, I understood why it might have been so highly recommended.

Two months ago, I rented a DVD of the film Harper, starring Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper. The movie is an adaptation of The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel written by Ross Macdonald. In the DVD commentary, screenwriter William Goldman talked about how the plan for a second Lew Harper film immediately following would  have been an adaptation of The Chill, which Goldman thought was the 2nd-greatest American detective novel of all time, behind The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Newman turned down the opportunity to film Chill, though he later reprised the role of Harper in The Drowning Pool.*

Goldman's praise for The Chill got me curious, since I've encountered Macdonald's novels before on library shelves and could never decide which one to read - each book, in summation, seemed to have the exact same plot or plot threads; only the covers kept them from appearing identical. All Lew Archer ever did was track down missing persons. As a detective, he could deliver a witty remark as good as any, but his investigations were always a series of endless question-and-answer sessions. It's only in the final pages, when Archer sifts through the lies and makes his conclusion, that we're impressed at all, but the journey there could've used a shortcut or three.

As the novels progressed, Archer's cases resembled American hard-boiled noir fiction in a superficial sense and had more in common with Agatha Christie whodunits, particularly her cold case mysteries, aka, "Murders-in-retrospect". The Archer books often feature wealthy/upper middle-class families torn apart by crime and buried secrets uncovering the truth behind awkward/complex behavior among family members. In The Chill, a secret marriage is the link to the three murders and the true culprit is not revealed until the final two pages.

The surprise twist at the end of this book is probably what caught Goldman's imagination and made him want to adapt it into a screenplay; prior to reading it, I was beginning to suspect he felt that way because at the time of adapting The Moving Target into Harper, Chill was the latest entry in the series and must have felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the more conventional Target, which may explain why his script added new elements that are more in line with Chill, such as the close ally of Harper who turns out to be knee-deep in the mystery while pretending to be a vaguely disinterested party.

Upon reaching the end, my final thoughts were that it could've been better; I can imagine Goldman's script for Chill would've integrated the info-dumps with the characters better and heightened the suspense by highlighting the double and triple-crosses among the culprits, because there were many. In the end, the book ends in a way that will have you scratching your head, going, "That's it? His wife was pretending to be his mother?"  And why didn't he build up that reveal more?

What surprise did the book have, if any?

...maybe I'm bored...but I'm convinced Macdonald had a different solution in mind, which would've been controversial for a mystery novel at the time of publication. There is a passage that vaguely leaves room to imagine Roy Bradshaw could  have had a relationship with the too-good-to-be-true Dr. Godwin, of whom Macdonald devotes a lot of time setting up for a fall that never happens. All that remains is a bit that suggests an idea that might've been dropped before writing the last thirty pages.

Give us a good quote?

Of course. Check out the gallery below.

*The reason why Archer's surname was changed to "Harper" was because Ross Macdonald's agent was trying to negotiate with Warner Brothers to buy the film rights to all the Archer books, insisting that they didn't have the rights to the Lew Archer character unless they did so. Warner's adapted "The Moving Target" and changed the last name to "Harper" anyway. The adaptation of "The Drowning Pool" followed suit.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: Don't Ask by Donald Westlake

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

A gang of crooks reluctantly attempt to steal a relic to help representatives of a tiny country gain a seat at the United Nations: the femur of their patron saint, a promiscuous teenage girl, at present in the  hands of representatives of a rival country with a cargo boat for an "embassy".

When was it published?

1993. This edition was a paperback from 1994.

Where did you get it? Why did you get it?

Unfinished business - I had tried reading library copies of this book twice before years ago, then found an unread copy for a good price at a used book store back in January...I decided then and there to give the book one more chance and finish it this time...whether I liked it or not.

What's your verdict?

Too long - all of the books Donald Westlake wrote in the 1990s appear to have been written to fulfill a quota: heavily padded, at no less than 400 pages. The theft of the femur bone takes up less than a quarter of the book - much of the plot is spent on the gang of thieves assembling, planning, then getting revenge with a different caper...and then it ends with a dumb joke. Westlake's best books were usually half this length and his more-acclaimed were the Parker novels written under the "Richard Stark" pseudonym.

A fault I  find with Westlake's writing across the board are the long sequences that become hard to visualize...possibly because Westlake is describing something he's never really seen or experienced firsthand and is drawing from his own imagination. He'll have characters make entrances and exits through shafts, tunnels, corridors, windows, rafters, rooftops, sewers...and it's never clear what's happening until that sequence ends...five, six, seven pages later. One of the Parker novels (Comeback) involved a showdown at an abandoned building that had once been renovated so that the elevator shaft had been converted into closet spaces for every of course, our characters will make this discovery and start breaking through the floors of these closets and going through the shafts to one-up eachother. It's clever, but overwrought and lacking the eloquence to realize how cool an idea it was.

What surprises did the book have, if any?

I enjoyed the sequences featuring the minor secondary or even tertiary characters and not necessarily the leads. I love reading any scene in the Dortmunder novels when Arnie the fence shows up, or when Dortmunder's girlfriend May appears, and the from-out-of-left-field subplot involving an insurance claims investigator who carries himself like he's Sam Spade and shows off his findings in an Agatha Christie-style "I have gathered you all here today..." gathering that is actually a trap for his client (!) - this part of the book could've easily been it's own story.

What genre would you say this book is?

A "Comedic Crime" Caper novel. In these types of books, the so-called "MacGuffin" - in this case, the femur bone - becomes irrelevant for most of the middle of the book and the real plot is the thieves attempt to avoid getting caught or get revenge for a doublecross in the aftermath. The "comedy" usually comes from a bad case of Murphy's Law: Anything bad that can happen, will happen. Characters arrive late, thieves get robbed by other thieves, the prize gets lost in ridiculous ways, key players end up in jail under different circumstances - all in various ways. Often the books end with the thieves breaking even or no better or worse than when they started at the beginning.

What other works have you read by this author?

Mostly the Dortmunder novels, but I have read some of the Parker novels, as well as Lemons Never Lie, the Groffield one, but I would recommend you look for Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Why Me? and Get Real, Westlake's last Do rtmunder adventure, in which the gang is cast in a reality show about a gang of thieves plotting a caper...and they opt for robbing the production company behind the show instead.

Can you give us a good quote from THIS book?

Sure. Check out the gallery below.