Monday, June 25, 2012

Short Bits: What I've Read Lately

So I've been reading a number of things lately that aren't worthy of entire blog posts themselves, but are worthy of here goes...

As a gay kid, the Doc Savage books fascinated me, largely because of their covers. The muscular man in a tattered shirt recalled my childhood crush on Race Bannon (I'm not joking), and even as an adult I can't help but snicker a bit looking back; the images of Doc had him tailor-made to be a gay lust object, even though everyone seemed blissfully clueless about it. And even in the stories...he avoids emotional entanglements, hangs out with five other guys...hmmm, seems suspicious, eh?

Levity aside, I reread the first Doc Savage book, The Man of Bronze. It's a pulp classic, full-throttle pulp energy, throwing everything at the reader while still serving as a decent introduction to its characters and milieu. Doc's father, Clark Savage, Se., just died from a mysterious illness, and his son "Doc," aka Clark Savage, Jr., sets out with his five best friends to avenge his death. But he's attacked in his lab by mysterious assassins who seem to be Mayan, and the trail leads to a lost valley in Central America, a pocket of ancient Mayans, and to a confrontation with a vicious criminal who uses germ warfare to control a valuable resource.

It's nonsense, but it's energetic nonsense that's a ton of fun. It's got Haggardian lost civilizations coupled with Doc's slightly sci-fi gadgetry (what might now be termed "dieselpunk"). It's a worthy introduction to the series.

I mean, c'mon, how gay is this?

And then I dipped into more pulp...

Eyes of the Shadow is the second Shadow pulp novel, and suffers in comparison to the energetic first book. The second one's a bit turgid, with a slightly muddled plot about stolen Russian jewels and a group of criminals trying to kill off a series of men who were in on the secret, along with an elderly criminal who's pulling the strings and seems to get away at the end. It's OK, and has a few harrowing scenes, but was overall unmemorable.

As an aside, I recently listened to an audio version of Daniel Pinkwater's sprightly kids' book Attila the Pun, which besides being most amusing, has a character named Lamont Penumbra, who has a huge nose and skulks around by night wearing a slouch hat. Hm.

I just finished Cleek of Scotland Yard, one of Thomas Hanshew's countless Hamilton Cleek novels. Like the first, it's full of melodrama, but isn't as over-the-top enjoyable. It's basically a short-story collection given some connecting tissue, but the stories themselves are often letdowns. One mystery is a naked reworking of Doyle's "Silver Blaze." Two stories involve mysteries that turn out to be accidental, a theft that wasn't and a seeming attempted murder that turns out to be a bizarre twist of fate. One mystery is solved because by coincidence, Cleek had happened to spot the criminal doing something suspicious a year before. Another case is solved because Cleek just happens to know that a certain costume was all the rage in the Paris cabarets for a while. There are one or two noteworthy mysteries, including one of a boy who seems to vanish from a greenhouse-type room, but overall the book was a letdown.

Cleek himself becomes insufferable. He's almost moved to tears about the possible murder of a young boy, but it's so overdone and dramatic that it seems insincere. He's impossibly noble and forbearing, as well as profoundly judgmental and frequently correct in his snap judgments of people. And naturally, it ends with him being offered the crown of the country he's prince of (he's an exiled prince of a central European county, y'know), but he rejects it out of love for a common woman.

Some have wondered if Cleek was a Mary Sue for Hanshew; he's impossibly noble and blessed with every virtue, as well as being an actual prince and the object of adoration for nearly every person he meets. Not knowing much about Hanshew, I can't say.

Last up is The Benson Murder Case, the first of the Philo Vance series by S. S. Van Dine, aka Willard Huntington Wright. In this, Philo Vance, wealthy dilettante, is allowed by his pal District Attorney John S.F.X. Markham to poke around a real murder scene. Vance figures out who must be the murderer right away, and leads everyone else on a merry chase as lets on that he knows but won't share his methods or knowledge until the end.

It's a little annoying, to say the least. The crime itself isn't all that interesting (a broker is found shot in his home), and the jumping from one interview to the next gets a bit tedious. Vance himself is quite annoying at times, superior and supercilious, very affected in manner and speech, often seeming like a total prissy queen. However, it's kind of interesting on a meta level, as it was based on a real murder (the unsolved shooting of bridge expert Joseph Browne Elwell in 1920), and a method used in the book of determining a shooter's height is utter nonsense.

On the plus side, it's overflowing with real 20s atmosphere, something I always enjoy.

So, that's a sampling of some less-than-thrillworthy stuff I've read lately...entertaining enough, to be sure, but not always up to the standards one would like to employ.

More fun stuff on the way....


Jordan179 said...

Doc Savage is an immense, and immensely-fun series, which I very heartily recommend. It's also genuine science-fiction, and (in terms of Doc's technology) reasonably well thought-out science fiction at that. (The bad guy technologies are a bit weirder and more dubious).

The great good thing about it is that "Doc" and his Crew can wind up adventuring pretty much anywhere on, above or under the Earth of the 1930's. The bad thing is that Status Quo Is God, so nothing Doc does can greatly change the society around him -- though, in a world in which Doc had been real, no doubt many of the technological wonders of WWII and the postwar era would have actually derived from his and his Crew's researches. One could easily retcon the lightweight bulletproof shirts, for instance, as some early or variant form of Kevlar (in fact, the 1930's saw some of the first practical applications of hydrocarbon-based plastics).

Even the most controversial of the things he does -- the surgical reform of criminals, which seemed so impossible to Philip Jose Farmer that in Farmer's Doc Savage fanfic he felt bound to ascribe it to Savage's insanity -- is looking more and more plausible the more we learn about the localization and artificial stimulation of specific brain functions.

The Doc Savage stories were technically hackwork (a series written to order for a publisher), but they were good hackwork, written well, and a joy to read even today.

Vagrarian said...

Thanks for the comment, Jordan. I plan on reading all of the Savages. And like you said, they're hackwork but good hackwork. Hey, even folks like Poe and Shakespeare could be described as hacks. Johnson once wrote, "No man but a fool ever wrote except for money" which I think is very true. Even James Joyce's "Ulysses" was written with the intent of making money.