Two book reviews this time: one old short story collection, one new.
I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.
Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911). The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).
Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.
The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.
Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.
I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading
October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently. Continue reading
I’ve been a bit behind on the blogging, it’s true; but I’ve still been reading. Here’s some notes on a few of the books I’ve been reading these past few months. I received a free review copy of The Mark of the Shadow Grove; the other three books I bought and read on my own.
EDIT 8/31/17: The Emby press edition of Help for the Haunted has unfortunately gone out of print. So Tim will be printing all 13 stories from the collection, one a month in chronological order, at his blog, starting 9/1/17.
When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.
The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.
The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.
Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.
Just a quick note to let you know that my review of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-language Fiction is up at The Mantle. Didn’t you wonder where my sudden plunge into Latin American fiction came from? Well, maybe you didn’t, but this is where.
It’s an enormous volume, but it was well worth the read.
From a course assignment cum letter from Kurt Vonnegut to students in his “Form of Fiction” course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Good advice for writing book and story review blog posts, no?
You can read the entire letter at Slate, here.