Saturday, January 31, 2009

THE SILENT BULLET by Arthur B. Reeve

Never heard of Reeve? How about Craig Kennedy? No? Not surprising.

In the early part of the 20th century, Craig Kennedy was an enormously popular character, "the American Sherlock Holmes" as he was dubbed. Novels and short stories featured this fearless scientific detective. Movies were made about him. Why has the character dropped off the radar?

A good explanation may be that the Kennedy stories focused on science, and in our age the "groundbreaking" discoveries that were featured in the Kennedy stories are, well, mundane. Lie detectors? Seismographs? Oxyacetylene torches? Gasp!

There is a certain amount of fun in rediscovering these tales, though. The "amazing" technology used can be amusing, especially when Reeve and Kennedy are dealing with outmoded concepts and debunked theories. And the milieu (New York in the 1910s) is kinda fun, like peering into a silent movie.

THE SILENT BULLET was the first volume of Kennedy stories, published in 1912. A brief introduction makes us aware that the hero is Craig Kennedy, professor of chemistry at Columbia University, and his Watson is his journalist roommate, Walter Jameson. Although Kennedy is a chemist, he appears to be adept in all sorts of branches of science, as are revealed in the stories.

The first story is "The Silent Bullet," in which a supposed suicide in a brokerage firm turns out to be a murder committed with an exotic item, a silencer, and is solved by surreptitious use of that new invention, the lie detector. This story also has a terrible cringe-inducing line, toward the beginning, about how another murder was solved and proven to be committed by a black man, because a trace of blood from the scene tested similar to a gorilla's (apparently, caucasian blood reacts similar to a chimpanzee's). I'm willing to give Reeve the benefit of the doubt here, because he's quoting research from the Carnegie least, I'm assuming it's genuine research, although Reeve could have been making it up off the cuff. But that's really the only slur in the book, so I'm thinking it was done out of ignorance rather than sheer racism. It's really a lot better than the racism that exudes from Lovecraft and Rohmer.

Next up is "The Scientific Cracksman," which gives us a wealthy man is found dead by an open safe, which was open, but no money taken. Who did it? How did he die? Kennedy uses an electric drill and a dynamometer (we're told he had permission to copy Bertillon's dynamometer), but ultimately the crime is solved psychologically, using a word-association test.

"The Bacteriological Detective" is next. A mysterious and suspicious case of typhoid shows up in the New York elite. The murder is solved through immunization records and handwriting analysis.

"The Deadly Tube" starts to get gothic, with its tale of a woman horribly disfigured, apparently through botched x-ray treatment for some blemishes. Kennedy suspects it wasn't an accident, and to clear the doctor discovers a hideous plan with the help of a hidden microphone. It's actually fairly up-to-date and uncomfortable, and has echoes of some other books I've read in recent years.

"The Seismograph Adventure" has a bit more gothicism; a wealthy man is throwing huge amounts of money at a spiritualist who is supposedly bringing him into contact with his late wife's spirit. As the title implies, it's solved via a seismograph that can differentiate between footsteps, before a murder can occur.

"The Diamond Maker" concerns itself with a murder and a spectacular diamond robbery. What could have burned a hole in the impregnable safe? Kennedy teaches us about the new chemical thermite (he calls it "thermit" but you know what it is); the criminals (including a faux-alchemist) end up being trapped by a crude solar cell.

"The Azure Ring" has echoes of the Holmes adventure "The Devil's Foot," with two people found dead in a locked room. There's a charcoal brazier in there, but the bodies show no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning. It turns out to have been committed with a poison new to western science, curare.

In "'Spontaneous Combustion'" a wealthy man burns to death, and the big question is over his will. Kennedy dismisses the spontaneous-human-combustion angle (a phenomenon still debated today) and uncovers the murderer with bloodspot analysis.

"The Terror in the Air" overflows with period atmosphere. A pilot friend of Kennedy is having trouble with his aeroplanes (that's what they called 'em!), especially when his new gyroscope device burns out mid-flight and causes a crash. Kennedy uncovers a villain using a Tesla-type broadcast energy device to burn out the gyroscopes!

"The Black Hand" is an early story of the Mafia, in which Kennedy and Jameson come to the aid of an opera singer whose daughter has been kidnapped. Italian-Americans are treated with respect, and Kennedy closes the case using a dictograph.

"The Artificial Paradise" is a bit problematic. Kennedy has always been a law-and-order type, but this time he aids and abets a crime. He's called in to find a rubber manufacturer who has disappeared. It seems the man is part of the revolutionary junta in the South American country of "Vespuccia," and has been smuggling guns and ammunition from New York to his comrades. We're to understand that the revolution is a noble cause, but it's also stated that Kennedy invested money in Vespuccian rubber, and the revolution will benefit him monetarily. It's not something I was entirely comfortable with reading the story. It turns out the missing man was involved in a mescal-cult, and the end is totally over-the-top, when the missing man, supposedly dead of an overdose, is electrically resusitated!

"The Steel Door" is the final story, in which Craig aids a police raid of an illegal casino, protected by a thick steel door. There's a lot of great atmosphere in the club, and Kennedy not only bypasses the door with an oxyacetylene torch, but also uncovers the rigged games. It's also rather modern in its depiction of a casino regular who's addicted to gambling.

Reeve started off as a journalist, and his style is evident in the stories, which are straightforward in their storytelling. No flowery language here, just straight-ahead plot with little character development (if any). Reeves continued the series through the 20s, writing screenplays around Kennedy and also for Harry Houdini, until the film industry migrated to California and he preferred to stay in New York. He declared bankruptcy in 1928 after a film deal went sour, but re-emerged in 1930 as an anti-racket crusader, and Kennedy shifted from being a scientist to a gangbuster. Reeves died in 1936, at the age of 55. I've been unable to find anything about his personal life and I'd love to know.

I'll be reading more Reeve/Kennedy in the future, so stay tuned. If you want to read them yourself, it's easy. Much of Reeve's work has fallen into the public domain, and THE SILENT BULLET is available through Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, and Munsey's, and probably a number of other sites, so go look around...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Belated Holiday Reading: GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS, edited by Richard Dalby

OK, so it's been a few weeks since Christmas was over, but hell, at least it's still January. I'd hate to be reading Christmas-themed stuff when the leaves are out and the birds are singing and all that...

GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS is a fun anthology, edited by the genre stalwart Richard Dalby, who's edited many great anthologies of ghost, horror, and mystery stories. It's well suited for those days of bleak midwinter, when you're taking a break from all the holiday hoo-ha, or the cold moonlit nights, when you're warming your feet by the fire and glancing over your shoulder at the darkness that covers the rest of the room.

There's 30 stories in the collection....let me run through them real quick.

"Our Ghost Party" by Jerome K. Jerome. An essay about the holiday tradition of fireside ghost stories, from a great Victorian humorist.

"The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," by Charles Dickens. I don't like Dickens much, but this reads like a precursor to "A Christmas Carol."

"The Ghost Detective" by Mark Lemon. A cute tale of a crime solved by the ghost of a living person.

"The Dead Sexton" by J. Sheridan le Fanu. The Devil shows up for the soul of a departed sinner. May not be a classic, but hell, it's le Fanu, and worth checking out.

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson. A man commits a murder for gain, and a ghost, and guilt, torment his conscience. Not particularly appealing to me.

"The Ghost of Christmas Eve" by J. M. Barrie. Yeah, the guy who created Peter Pan. An OK story of an apparition of a living man.

"The Real and the Counterfeit" by Mrs. Alfred Baldwin. A delightfully cruel tale of a practical joke that goes horribly wrong when a ghost shows up to spoil the show.

"Number Ninety" by Mrs. B. M. Crocker. Unfortunate name, but a crackerjack story of a man spending the night alone in a haunted house. An unforgettable scene toward the end, when the narrator looks through the keyhole, and a burning red eye looks back! Very unsettling.

"Thurlow's Christmas Story" by John Kendrick Bangs. Another humorist that normally I'm not much for, but this time, he's got a metastory going on. A writer submits his excuse for not writing a ghost story for a magazine's Christmas issue...only to tell a fairly good ghost story!

"Their Dear Little Ghost" by Elia W. Peattie. The title says it all...rather cutesy and twee, not my bag at all.

"Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen. A classic thriller author of the era, and a gloriously dark tale of preChristian hauntings. Loads of fun.

"A Ghost-Child" by Bernard Capes. Also rather precious and twee, not my bag.

"The Kit-Bag" by Algernon Blackwood. A lawyer preparing for a Christmas vacation packs the wrong bag. A fun, nasty story, from a master.

"The Shadow" by E. Nesbit. From a writer most famous for her children's stories, this is an effective, shuddery tale. Not brilliant, but with an impact.

"The Irtonwood Ghost" by Elinor Glyn. Glyn was a very famous novelist in the 20s, but is most famous today for being played by Joanna Lumley in the movie THE CAT'S MEOW (which I should blog about someday). This is a standard tale of an inheritance set to rights by a phantom visitor, but while it's nothing special, it's a solid piece of genre writing.

"Bone to His Bone" by E. G. Swain. A nice little story, from an author influenced by M. R. James, and part of his "Stoneground" series, which I'll blog about someday. Really.

"Transition" by Algernon Blackwood. Another story from the master, although not as good as the other one. Actually, it's a sort of tale that's been told dozens of times before, so it's a bit of a disappointment.

"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" by M. R. James. Nothing one can say about this, but c'mon, it's M. R. James, of course it's going to be magnificent.

"The Sculptor's Angel" by Marie Corelli. I've read some other Corelli, and liked what I read...but for some reason, this just fell flat. Can't say why, it just didn't connect.

"The Snow" by Hugh Walpole. Chilly bit of nastiness as a vengeful ghost stalks a heartless woman. Fairly unpleasant, and not in a good way.

"Smee" by A. M. Burrage. Something odd happens during a game of hide-and-seek in an English country house. It's all rather obvious, but Burrage builds up the menace and atmosphere very nicely, and it's got more than its share of shudders. A longtime favorite of mine; I first read it in an anthology back in the early 80s, when I was in high school. It's one of the stories that led me to be the fan I am.

"The Prescription" by Marjorie Bowen. One of those stories when you KNOW a writer can do some really good stuff...but what you're reading isn't up to the usual standard. Not bad, but still....

"The Demon King" by J. B. Priestley. An unexpected cast member shows up for a Christmas pageant. Again, all very predictable, but for what it is, a solid example of what it is.

"Lucky's Grove" by H. R. Wakefield.'s a good bit about how a Christmas tree chopped from a grove sacred to Loki can create havoc, but it's got the faults of Wakefield's later work, when he tended toward the pointlessly violent and nasty, sometimes almost hateful.

"'I Shall Take Proper Precautions'" by George H. Bushnell. Interesting wartime tale of time slippage and ghosts. Not bad.

"Christmas Meeting" by Rosemary Timperley. A charming vignette that dodges the cutesy and twee with some genuine emotion.

"Someone in the Lift" by L. P. Hartley. A child spending Christmas in a hotel finds Christmas a rather disturbing experience. No ghosts, so it doesn't really belong.

"The Christmas Present" by Ramsey Campbell. I disliked this story, but I'm not much for Campbell anyway.

"Christmas Entertainment" by Daphne Froome. A fun look at the old-style "ghost entertainments," with the line being crossed between fakery and genuine supernatural.

"Gebal and Ammon and Amalek" by David G. Rowlands. The most recent of the tales, it actually hearkens back to the old-style antiquarian ghost story, and therefore brings the collection full-circle.

All told, this was a very worthwhile collection, and in the end greater than the sum of its parts. It's a great companion on your holiday visits, good for when you snatch those quiet moments alone. Pick up a copy during the year, and keep it stashed away for Christmas of 2009.

Dalby edited another holiday anthology, CHILLERS FOR CHRISTMAS, which I may try to dip into before the spring comes. We'll see.

What I've Been Doing Lately

As I'm sure everyone is well aware, Washington DC has been a madhouse for a couple of weeks now. My own life was wild as well.

In a flurry of post-holiday activity, I used a generous holiday check from the family to purchase a tuxedo! Me! In a tuxedo! Fortunately, Men's Wearhouse is having a sale on designer one, get one free. So I bought a tux and got a free business suit. What the hey, I was going to buy a suit anyway, and everyone says that if you rent a tux more than twice you've pretty much paid for it anyway.

The tux served me well, as I ended up going to a pre-inaugural gala at DC's Corcoran Gallery, hosted by Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, for whom I did some volunteer work a few years ago, during his campaign to unseat a long-term incumbent (who I swear, the few times I've bumped into her since, has always given me a dirty look...or is it me?). Here I am, at the Corcoran, all dolled up...

Everyone says I looked great, but I felt bloody awkward. I guess you always feel that way when you dress up in evening wear the first time.

Anyway, there was also an inaugural-themed burlesque show, "Obama Wonderama," that was surprisingly jubilant and patriotic. There was also the "Smudging of the White House," organized by comedian Kate Clinton, that took place in DC's Dupont Circle, as the White House area was under "Code Fuschia" security-wise. Then the morning of the big day I watched the ceremonies live on the big screen at the AFI Silver, with shockingly shoddy and amateurish coverage courtesy of the hacks at TV One, who talked through half the ceremony, including the "Simple Gifts" performance by Yo-Yo Ma & Co. Their coverage of this solemn and historic event was a shameful farce and rest assured they've heard from me about it, and probably a number of other people as well.

That evening, I donned the tux again for the Art of Change ball, an un-official event for DC's artistic community. I figured, as a blogger and critic, sometime writer and amateur photographer, I belonged. It was an interesting time, unfortunately I didn't stay as long as I would have liked. All the fatigue from the last few days caught up with me, and I felt my energy level and my mood dipping pretty darned low. Realizing I wouldn't be much fun for anyone, I left before midnight. Sigh.

So the remains of the week were spent getting up to speed at work, and then last night I celebrated the end of the inauguration season by attending the In Series' production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

This was great zany decadent fun, an operetta that's still relevant after 150 years and holds up well to modernization and translation. The audience was cheering and clapping along to the famous galop infernal (better known as the can-can) toward the end, and the singing and music were all exquisite. It was a grand night out.

As for my promised review of Clark Ashton Smith's remaining stories in A Rendezvous in Averoigne....I'm ashamed to say that I can't do them. Seriously, I've tried and tried over and over to start reading them, and I can't. I guess I've reached a Smith overload and can't handle much more of him at the moment. So I'm setting him aside and going on to other things....

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Poe Bicentennial

2009 is a big year for horror's Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday!

Last night I drove up to Baltimore for the first night of the Poe birthday celebration, held every year at Westminster Hall, the former church where Poe is buried. (More information can be had at the Poe Bicentennial site....a few tickets are still available for the shows on 1/31 and 2/1.)

I've been doing this for years, and last night was blissfully easy driving conditions. I've gone up in snow and sleet and freezing rain, and it's a damn miracle I haven't been killed doing this. Last night, it was just bitter cold, but I was warm when I took my place in line. I dressed up a bit for the shoes, black slacks, black silk shirt, black cashmere sport coat, and the capper, a big black wool cape (Bosnian military surplus) that I rarely get to wear except to cold-weather occasions like this.

Westminster Hall was all lit up and ready for the fun; they were opening early because of the cold, for which I was thankful. Inside, there were several vendors set up, including official souvenirs from the Poe House, official Poe Bicentennial t-shirts, glasses and knickknacks from the Raven Beer company, more t-shirts from the Poe Decoder, a refreshment table, a stand from the Postal Service selling Poe stamps and commemorative envelopes, and an exhibit of Poe memorabilia from the Poe Society of Baltimore. There was also a gorgeous, gorgeous cake, a perfect scale model of the Poe monument (pictured above, a few autumns ago), that was being raffled off. I didn't even enter; I'd want to eat the whole thing myself and I need to lose weight!

There was also a lovely little shrine to Poe; a white bust of him, looking down sadly, as if under a great weight, and draped in black. It was wreathed with lilies and had a pair of candles and a bouquet of red and white roses before it. It was lovely in its 19th century-ness and I wish I had a picture. (The Poe show bars photography, so I didn't take my camera, but that didn't stop other members of the audience...)

I had a very good seat, second row, and a great view of the stage. But I browsed around, buying way too many souvenirs (including a sheet of Poe stamps...which I WILL use), looking at the exhibits, and people-watching. The crowd ranged from local folks in jeans to others decked out in 19th century costume, and anything in between. It was entertaining, to say the least. I also had two books of Poe stashed in the cape pockets, so I sat and read some poems while waiting, in between madly scribbling notes in my little notebook.

Finally, the show started. Poe museum director Jeff Jerome (Hi, Jeff!) was the master of ceremonies, and the first event was the official Baltimore unveiling of the new Poe stamp. Baltimore Postmaster Bill Ridenour gave a quick speech, but it was all rather sarcastic since the stamp has received a huge amount of publicity already, and had been previously unveiled elsewhere, and many of us had purchased sheets of the stamps before the show. Still, it was the official unveiling for Baltimore, so it was fun.

Then, local soprano Paula McCabe rose and sang an arrangement of Poe's poem "Annabel Lee," which was lovely. After that was a dramatization of "Hop Frog," told in a blackly comical way with life-sized puppets. It wasn't entirely faithful to the story, having a different ending, but it fit the tone they were doing. In the end I found it reminiscent of the "Struwwelpeter" tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

This was followed by local actor Tony Tsendeas doing his one-man version of "The Tell-Tale Heart," an old favorite. I've seen him do this at previous celebrations. He does his makeup and costume onstage, giving a little talk as he does about establishing the character. Then he launches into his recitation, which is most effective.

After an intermission, an old desk and chair were placed on the stage area, and John Astin (yes, John Astin, as in Gomez Addams, that John Astin) ascended. He read Poe's poem "Alone," then the short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Then he launched into his own explorations of Poe's poetry and its relation to Poe's relationships with the women in his life. It was interesting to hear his discussion of how "The Raven," for instance, was an expression of Poe's fear of his wife's impending death. He also recited "El Dorado" as an expression of Poe's resiliency and determination to make it as a writer.

Then Jeff Jerome returned to the stage, and led the traditional toast to Poe. Paula McCabe took the stage again to close the show, singing "Amazing Grace" and "Auld Lang Syne."

It was a lovely evening, and the weather held up. Although the show was sold out, there were some empty seats, largely because of an inauguration event in Baltimore the same day. There were dire reports of the city being lost in gridlock, but aside from a few street closings, I had no problems getting up there or back. I did kind of wish for a bit of snow; one year I remember looking out a window at the snow falling on the graves in the ridiculously gothic graveyard outside, a scene so evocative and peaceful that it's lingered in my head for years.

As I left, I stopped by Poe's grave to pay my respects. I had thought of reading his poem "Spirits of the Dead" there but there were too many people milling about. Maybe some other time.

It was a great evening, wonderful Gothick entertainment. Tonight's show drops "Hop-Frog" and "Tell-Tale Heart" for a dramatization of "Some Words with a Mummy," which sounds fun, and if anyone wants to report on that, please do.

More stuff is planned for the Poe Bicentennial...check out Nevermore2009 for future events, including a public Poe funeral in October.

Poe's real birthday is the 19th; we'll see when the Poe Toaster makes his appearance. One of these years I'll apply to be a watcher in the church; that would be too much fun.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


And I'm back!

Today I finished Karen Harper's novel THE TWYLIGHT TOWER, her third novel in a series of mysteries that feature Elizabeth I as a detective.

Yes, you read that right.

Now, Elizabethan-era mysteries are all over the place. I've read most of Edward Marston's novels featuring Nicholas Bracewell and his theatrical troupe, Lord Westfield's Men, and I've read a number of Fiona Buckley's novels that feature Ursula Blanchard, a secret agent for Elizabeth I. But Harper took it all one step further by actually centering her novels on the queen's court and having the queen herself as the main character.

In this installation, Elizabeth is not quite so sharp as she's been in other novels, as she's a bit too besotted by Robert Dudley. When a court lutenist falls from a tower, she too easily blames it on drunkenness. But the rest of her "Privy Plot Council," which includes former nurse Kat Ashley, herbalist Meg Milligrew, actor Ned Topside, mute artist Gil Sharpe, and Elizabeth's real-life adviser, Sir William Cecil, all suspect something more's going on.

This all leads, through circuitous routes, to the death of Robert Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, which is actually a great unsolved historical mystery. Robert Dudley's marriage to Amy Robsart seemingly began as a love match but eventually proved to be an unhappy one. While Dudley tarried at court, romancing the Queen and obviously hoping to install himself as consort, Amy lived away from town at Cumnor Place. Amy was slowly dying of breast cancer (or perhaps an aortic aneurism; it is known it was a painful chest complaint, but the current historical opinion seems to favor breast cancer). Although some claim that Amy was basically a prisoner, evidence does seem to favor her being at liberty.

On Sept. 8, 1560, the day after the Queen's 27th birthday, Amy gave permission for her staff to attend a fair in nearby Abingdon, practically ordering reluctant staff to go. When they returned, her body was found, her neck broken, at the foot of a shallow flight of steps that led from her room to the hallway. (This painting is a Victorian imagining by William Frederick Yeames, exhibited in 1877.)

The death was announced to the Queen and Dudley, and both were shocked by the news. Dudley sent a friend to check on the situation and did not attend the funeral. The resulting controversy and scandal effectively ended any chance of Dudley marrying the Queen and also greatly reduced Dudley's influence at court.

Speculation abounds. If Dudley or Elizabeth ordered Amy's death, then it was a stupid move. There were already rumors that Elizabeth and Dudley were to wed, and that Amy would be removed, so an obviously suspicious death would be an obstacle. If Amy was truly dying, all they needed to do was wait out her death. Her ordering the servants out of the house is viewed as odd; many feel she had some reason to be alone. There is a school of thought that she committed suicide, despondent over the pain she was in and/or her husband's abandonment of her. There is a recent theory that her death was purely an accident, a spontaneous fracture caused by the porous bones that often accompany breast cancer. And there's the theory that her death was engineered by one of Elizabeth's courtiers who wanted to see Dudley brought down.

It's a fascinating puzzle, and Harper's novel offers a solution. It is, however, mixed up with an insane stalker plot, and an attempted assassination. THE TWYLIGHT TOWER isn't a bad entertainment; it has its flaws, and could be better (the Queen's dismissal of the lutenist's death at the beginning is just too convenient), but is an agreeable way to spent a winter afternoon.

One cool thing about the book is the introduction of a new addition the Queen's advisers, scientist and philosopher John Dee. THE TWYLIGHT TOWER downplays any connection he had to occultism, and makes him out to be a scientist and bibliophile. It also has a major inaccuracy, having Elizabeth meet him long after she became Queen, when in truth he was her adviser from the start, choosing her coronation date. He'd already had a troubled relationship with Elizabeth's predecessor, Queen Mary (aka Bloody Mary), after she rejected his proposal to build a national library, and at one point successfully defending himself from charges of treason against Mary.

And, of course, he was an occultist. This was the time when science and magic were very intertwined, and Dee's study of mathematics, astronomy, and navigation crossed over with his investigations into mysticism and natural philosophy. Harper's novel dismisses any notion that he's a magician, but history...and popular culture...say otherwise. He may not have been a full necromancer, as various stories would claim, but his experiments in divination and other occult sciences are historical fact. I may have to investigate any historical fiction about him; he's an interesting character.

And how much Elizabethan horror is out there? It's a ripe era for supernatural fiction; one wonders what's been done with the idea, if anything.