Wednesday, February 25, 2015

THE INVISIBLE CODE by Christopher Fowler

Bryant and May are back! Fowler's "Peculiar Crimes Unit" series occupies a place of honor on my Required Reading shelf, and this one is a proud addition.

Bryant and May, the two aging detectives who form the core of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, are still going their eccentric way in one of mystery fiction's great bromances. They form a longtime partnership that nurtures and sustains them both, and while one may never say to the other, "I love you," in that best-friends-forever way, you can tell that both realize it and understand.

This time, we open with a woman being stalked by two children who think she's a witch. They follow her into a church and determine to kill her....and she dies. Her death is mysterious; no cause found. Meanwhile, a Home Office superior, who's long threatened to shut down the PCU, asks the unit for help. His wife is behaving oddly, seemingly having a mental breakdown and thinking she's being persecuted by supernatural forces. Witches? They're assigned to track her and figure out what's going on.

It all comes together very nicely, in sometimes surprising ways. Fowler takes us into the world of Eastern European immigrants and the privileged ranks of government officials and private clubs. The plot takes surprising, but perfectly reasonable twists, and does flirt with the supernatural, including an encounter with a fellow who seems like he'll be a menace in a future work.

It has a very satisfying conclusion, and the next book in the series, "Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart," is now available. I'll have to start on that soon to find out if my hunch is right...

Anyway, read this. It's a lot of fun. And read the rest of the series as well. You'll thank me.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Icy Thursday Night at the Cinema!

It's a frigid February night. We thought we were over the hump with winter but now there's record colds and snow heaped everywhere....will spring ever come? Or will we just lurch into an overheated, humid summer?

Our dinner at the usual restaurant is marked by laments over the weather and Valentine's Day horror stories. We finally settle the bill and a blast of frigid wind and driven snow greet us as we stumble up the street to that old movie house...

Tonight's offering is a 1934 thriller, House of Danger!

The movie over, we hail a cab as that cafe is too far to walk in this cold wind...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: Automata

"Automata" gives us Hoffmann in what appears to be an experimental mood, and not always succeeding. The story is in several parts, and it can seem as if the parts are greater than the whole.

It opens with the narrator going to visit his friend Vincent who's having a storytelling session. An attendee, named Cyprian (what a great name!) tells a memorably unsettling tale of a haunting which leaves people so traumatized that a teenaged girl is driven mad and now thinks she's a ghost. Some editors have cut that part from the story, and it's good enough to stand on its own, and has no bearing on the rest of the story.

Then another attendee, Theodore (maybe supposed to be Hoffmann himself?) tells a tale of the Talking Turk, a famous touring automaton which is very obviously based on the famous chess-playing Turk (pictured above) which I've written about before.

However, this Turk answers questions in a very macabre manner, and the story is of someone who asks a question, and gets a strange answer, and all sorts of twists and turns of fate that result. The automaton really doesn't play that big a role in the story, and it's more of romance and betrayal and fate...and then it just stops. Little is resolved, plot threads are left hanging, and the automaton's nature is unrevealed.

It's puzzling. The title really comes across as a misnomer. The structure is a bit odd and disjointed. The main story has no real ending and is unresolved.

But...given some thought, and a lot of this is coming to me as I write this, I wonder if this was meant to duplicate the experience of friends getting together and telling stories. Stuff just comes out, and sometimes an intriguing story just peters out because the person telling it doesn't know how it ends, or maybe, as so often in real life, things do just peter out unresolved.

So instead of an botched attempt at a weird tale, this could very well be a bold and experimental tale that prefigures postmodern literature. Damn, that Hoffmann was something else.

More Tales of Hoffmann coming soon!

Monday, February 2, 2015

An Evening at the Phantom Pub

It's a chilly February night, and for a change of pace we've gathered at a local pub for a pint and a bite. It's a warm, convivial place, and it turns out there's live entertainment on the menu...

This classic tune is known in many versions and has been around for centuries. Since President's Day is coming up, I'm posting it here as this good-natured song of humorous exaggeration was a favorite of George Washington, who was known to sing it to his friends' children.

Of course, I have no idea which version he sang, but this one is certainly charming, and now that I'm living in an actual port city, I like to imagine some sailors singing that in some smoky pub long ago...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Report from the Poe Birthday Celebration

This past Sunday was a big day; the Poe Birthday Celebration had been resurrected and was playing to a sellout crowd.

This is actually a big deal; funding had been cut, and there had been questions galore about whether it would continue after a subdued observance two years ago and a sketchy graveside ceremony last year. However, it seems that the University of Maryland School of Law, which owns Westminster Hall, got involved in the midst of public outcry and brought back the popular observance, with online ticketing this year, for a change.

The observance actually very similar to those in the past, which was actually a great comfort. There was an exhibit from the Poe Society, a table selling souvenirs, another with snacks, and Victoria Price selling copies of her biography of her father, Vincent.

The evening's observance was in two parts. The first was a presentation by Victoria Price about her father's life and career. I've always been a huge fan of Vincent Price, not only of his acting but also of how he lived his life, with an enthusiasm for art and cooking and just drinking everything in. I learned a lot during the presentation, including how he fell for his third wife, Coral Brown, and Victoria was at her best here, talking about how crazy her father was for Coral...and how much she and Coral hated each other as well. She also spoke glowingly of Tim Burton for introducing her father to a new generation of fans, both with the short "Vincent" and casting him in "Edward Scissorhands."

The second half was John Astin, doing readings of Poe poetry and discussing them in the context of Poe's life. It was very nicely done...but I have to admit, I've seen him do the same thing before. Still, my friend Cherie was in the audience and was in raptures over it; her mind was opened like never before.

After that was a musical tribute, the annual toast (led by Victoria Price), and a final song, "The Parting Glass," appropriate for Poe and a long favorite of mine.

I still had a good time, despite the fact that I was frequently coughing (I was in the early stages of what developed into a bad cold over the week). I got a signed copy of Victoria Price's book, and in one of those crazy coincidences, the fellow seated directly in front of me was a Facebook friend I had yet to meet face-to-face, which led to some spirited conversation and us being better friends than before. And after the show I joined some friends for dinner at Annabel Lee, a restaurant in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood with a Poe theme. It was a good meal and we spotted quite a few people from the show there, including a teacher and student from Indiana who were there on a whirlwind Poe weekend, visiting both Richmond and Baltimore before heading home. They were charm incarnate.

The next day, which I had off work as it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was a small wreath-laying ceremony at Poe's grave. It was quite a small affair, officiated over by Victoria Price, who placed the wreath while giving a short address about how Price would have overjoyed to have been associated so strongly with one of America's greatest men of letters, as Price was a great promoter of American arts and letters.

That evening, my dear friends at the Yellow Sign Theater had what promises to be the first of an annual event, the "Poedown." This was an evening of four Poe stories performed as radio dramas, which was a lot of fun although I probably wrecked the audio with my frequent coughing. I joked that I had the walking Red Death.

So, it was quite a weekend, and it's unfortunate I was left so ill over the week that I couldn't concentrate enough to post this earlier. But here's me with Victoria Price, at Poe's grave...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January's Night Out at the Movies!

We shuffle over the snowy sidewalks, careful not to slip, and stomp our feet before sitting down at our usual table at the restaurant. It's a chilly, wet, snowy night in January when we meet, exchanging tales of the holidays and our New Year's parties and heaven knows what else. The meal is warming and we joke over the bill, Then we pick our way up the street to that familiar old movie theater...

Tonight's film is an overlooked 1933 thriller, TOMORROW AT SEVEN!

Isn't that a cracker? It's a shame a delightful flick like this is forgotten these days, but at least we have YouTube and DVDs to preserve little treasures like this.

We step out in the dark January night, with the snow gleaming from the city lights, and growl of snowplows and salt trucks passing by...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Collections

Almost simultaneously, I finished two short-story collections, so I'll review them together.

The late Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008) was a master of the short story, having written approximately 950 of them. He created quite a few fictional detectives, like the seemingly immortal Simon Ark and Eastern European Gypsy detective Michael Vlado, but one of his more popular creations was Dr. Sam Hawthorne, an old-school family practice doctor working in small-town New England in the 1920s. The series was published in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" starting in 1974 and continued for over a quarter-century. His specialty was the impossible crime, a murder that shouldn't have taken place, but did.

The first story, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge", sets the tone. During a snowy winter, a man is seen driving his horse-drawn wagon toward a covered bridge. When friends go by later, they find the tracks going in...but nothing leaving on the other side, and no sign of man or wagon. Where is he? How was it done? It's a devilishly complex story and Dr. Sam's solution is well-done. Hoch plays fair, and most of the time you get almost all the clues and information you need.

Sadly, the next story is below par. "The Problem of the Old Gristmill" has an author renting an old mill dying mysteriously in a fire, although they soon realize he was dead before the fire started. And someone has stolen his notebooks. Why? It plays fair but still the solution seems to come almost out of nowhere.

The rest, however, are all equally good. Some are locked-room mysteries, with Dr. Sam figuring out how a murder was committed in a locked lobster shack, or a locked caboose, or a church steeple, or a voting booth. One is of a clever escape from a jail cell, with a nod to Jacques Futrelle's famous "Thinking Machine" stories. Or there's a man apparently murdered by a ghost, in full view of the town, or a child that seems to bilocate, or a wild-west burglar in a New England inn, or a corpse turning up in a buried time capsule, or a man seemingly strangled by an oak tree. 

They're all good fun and worth reading. They take place in a time period from 1922 to 1927, and capture the flavor of the times, with references to Prohibition and other aspects of life back then. They're well-researched and have a lot of period flavor. The collection, from Crippen & Landru, is available in paperback.

The lovely folks at Ash-Tree Press have a great series of "Ash-Tree Press Macabre" volumes available as ebooks. Each is a selection of macabre tales, many by noted authors, but the stories themselves will be lesser-known works. Volume One has stories from Patricia Wentworth, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome, Ford Madox Ford, E. C. Bentley, Hilaire Belloc, and John Buchan. The stories themselves range from regular Victorian-style ghost tales or haunted-house stories, to more experimental and visionary works. W. J. Makin's "Newsreel" is a good example of the latter, with a man watching a theater newsreel that eventually has dark meanings for his life. 

I have to admit...the stories were decent reads overall, but they didn't stick with me. A lot of them represent experimental or youthful works by authors noted in other genres, or overlooked works by minor authors. You're not going to find a classic weird work by a master of the macabre at the top of their game here! However, it's still worth seeking out for those who want to delve deeply into weird fiction. It's easily available from multiple online sources.