Monday, March 25, 2013

MURPHY'S LAW by Rhys Bowen

I came across Rhys Bowen at random in the library, and was intrigued by the notion of an Irish immigrant detective in New York of a century ago, and after figuring which one was the first (because I'm a bit anal that way), grabbed it and checked it out.

Molly Murphy is an Irish lass who's on the run. At the beginning of the book, she's fleeing her home village after accidentally killing an English nobleman who tried to rape her. She makes her way to Belfast, and quickly befriends a young mother with children who's going to board a ship for New York. Stroke of luck: the mum has TB and knows she won't be allowed on board, so she gives Molly her ticket. Molly poses as the children's mother as they go to New York to meet their father.

OK, yeah, I admit it, it's rather contrived. Actually, the least believable is how quickly the mother comes to Molly's rescue (she was being confronted by a policeman) and her unbelievably quick trust of her. But it's a minor element of the story, so I'm willing to forgive.

Molly goes as a steerage passenger to America, and Bowen's depiction of life in steerage is vivid and uncomfortable, much unlike the romanticized vision we get in the movie Titanic. And landing in America, and the processing at Ellis Island, are all very well-depicted.

Molly was harassed on board by a swaggering bully, and his throat is slit in the immigrants' dormitories on Ellis Island. Molly, who was fetching back a sleepwalking child, is suspected, as well as Mike, a steadfast young Irishman she befriended, who got into a scuffle with said bully on board ship.

As Molly connects with the children's father and tries to explain the situation, she also is filled with concern for Mike's welfare as he's arrested for the crime. She takes it on herself to seek out the real killer.

Now, I have to say this much: the mystery is a bit flimsy; it's resolved rather hastily and the perp is someone who's off to the side and not much of a player. That being said, I loved the book's depiction of New York of 1900 is vivid and fascinating. Molly observes that it's really not a truly American city, but a conglomeration of European neighborhoods, which probably isn't far off the mark. And the depiction of the struggle of immigrant women is affecting; there's the difficulty of finding a job, of squalid lodgings, of coming to America to meet a long-gone husband and realizing the marriage is over, of police shelters and women's homes run by Bible societies, of snobbish placement agencies, and work as a servant.

And I'm a bit amused, after my last post about compassion and the detective as societal outsider, that we get a detective motivated by compassion, and who is quite the societal outsider.

The book ends with a blossoming romance between Molly and an Irish policeman, and with her deciding to take up a career as a sort of private eye specializing in finding lost relatives of incoming immigrants. And to be honest, despite the failings plot-wise, the milieu is rich enough, and I like the character enough, to want to read the next book. And that's something right there.

Not bad at all, good for historical mystery buffs.

Monday, March 18, 2013

March's Night Out at the Movies

March is being typically unpredictable. A few days ago it was beguilingly warm, but tonight is cold and rainy and dreary and miserable. Our regular dinner out is a warm one by the restaurant's fireplace, with the last bolstering dishes of winter being served.

After laughs, conversation, and genial haggling over the bill, we head up the street to that strange old movie house we visit so much...

First up, in honor of the season, is Segundo de Chomon's cute 1907 holiday card, "The Easter Eggs."

And from the same year, here's some fun from George Melies..."Satan in Prison".

And finally the feature presentation, 1932's "Sinister Hands"!

The show over, we huddle our shoulders against the cold and head up the street to our favorite cafe, all the while wondering what adventures can happen unexpectedly...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Crime and Compassion

A dear friend gave me a great Christmas present: the entire Danger Man/Secret Agent series, starring Patrick McGoohan. I'm working my way through it, disc by disc, and having a great time with it.

In the first season, which was a half-hour show, American agent John Drake works for NATO and is called all over the world to attend to various affairs, ranging from rescues to murder investigations that have touchy international aspects. Danger Man was created by the same team responsible for The Avengers, but has a radically different feel from it and from the James Bond films. Danger Man is gritty and down-to-earth; plots revolve more around intrigue and realistic situations, rather than outlandish attempts to take over the world. And a lot is in the character himself.

Patrick McGoohan reportedly refused the roles of James Bond and Simon Templar (aka The Saint), largely because he objected to how both characters were sexually promiscuous. A devout Catholic, McGoohan had certain ideas of how a hero should be, and when offered Danger Man he had a number of demands that writers were happy to work with.

As a result of McGoohan's input, John Drake was not a womanizer; in fact, he remained emotionally remote, viewing sex and romance as an unnecessary entanglement, and anyway many women he met were treacherous themselves. Drake is rarely armed; in only one episode of the entire series does he actually shoot a man dead. He uses gadgets, but they're generally very grounded ones that were easily available to consumers, like folding binoculars and Minox cameras. Drake uses his wits and charm to outsmart or trick his enemies, rather than overpower them. Still, he makes mistakes, plans fail and go awry, and the unexpected happens, and he always deals as best he can.

But remarkable for the time and genre is how compassionate Drake is; he's aware that he's dealing with human beings and is aware that everyone has some good and bad in them. In one episode, "The Traitor," Drake tracks down an Englishman in India who's selling secrets to the East; however, he comes to realize the man is desperately ill and the only way he can afford medication is to sell information. He still turns him in; he HAS to. But it's clear he hates himself for doing it.

"Find and Return" has him tracking down a lady spy...but in the end, realizing she is more sinned against than sinning, he secretly destroys an incriminating forged passport that would have led to more severe punishment for her. And in "The Gallows Tree" he tracks down a master spy, long thought dead, suspecting the man is responsible for secrets being passed. However, he finds the man enjoying a quiet retirement, and it's really his daughter who is spying, and Drake shares in the father's horror and sadness. In some episodes good people suffer unfair consequences, and you can tell it pains Drake.

While I was watching these, I was suddenly reminded of another compassionate crimefighter, Father Brown. I'd recently watched the ITV series featuring Kenneth More as G. K. Chesterton's sleuth, and the padre is an epitome of the caring detective. He's usually more interested in saving souls than avenging wrongs, and when he spots the killer will often seek to have the person seek redemption and turn themselves in. His best friend is the detective Flambeau, whom Brown convinced to give up a life of crime and seek honest employment. And when a crime occurs, Brown is usually more saddened then horrified or outraged.

Of course, these were all examples of the evolution of the hero. Father Brown dates from a century ago, and was an expression of Chesterton's worldview, and later his own Catholicism. Brown utilizes reason but works on philosophical points rather than scientific truths. Chesterton admired Sherlock Holmes but sought to do his own spin on the genre.

But also, Father Brown is in a unique position as a societal outsider, which gives him perspective and compassion. Too many heroes of pulp fiction of the era were jingoistic Establishment types like Bulldog Drummond and Tiger Standish and Nayland Smith who battled various outsiders who were Not Like Us. They saved compassion usually for those who were Like Them, and to hell with everyone else. Or you had folks like A. J. Raffles, the gentleman burglar, who viewed his own escapades as sporting exploits, and held his victims in contempt. Compassion wasn't a big feature in British thriller fiction until another outsider came along.

Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin was a half-Chinese, half-British author who achieved international fame under the pen name of Leslie Charteris. An outsider himself, Charteris emigrated to the US in the 30s but couldn't become a full citizen for years because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented anyone "50% or more Asian" from immigrating to the US. Eventually an act of Congress allowed him to become a citizen.

But Charteris' most famous character was Simon Templar, the Saint, who was rather unusual for his time in also being somewhat compassionate, in a sea of 30's pulp fiction hardboiled heroes. In books like The Last Hero and Knight Templar, the Saint has an odd role of being a sort of violent pacifist. When faced with villains who want to start a new world war, Templar feels it's worth killing some evil people to prevent the horrors of war from being felt again, and countless millions dying to enrich a few plutocrats. Simon himself was something of an outsider, a career criminal who had a ring of criminal-fringe associates, an orphan of unknown parentage who carved out his own place, showing respect for the lower classes and puncturing the pretensions of the upper crust. And he had a girlfriend, Patricia Holm, with whom he had one of the earliest literary examples of an open relationship.

As the series progressed, Templar could be surprising. In the 50's, Charteris published The Saint in Europe, a short story collection featuring one called "The Spanish Cow." In it, Templar is lounging on the beach at Juan-les-Pins with a shallow socialite when they spot a fat ugly widow, the "Spanish Cow" of the title, who owns a ton of jewelry. The Saint initially feels that such lovely jewels are wasted on such an unattractive woman, and sets out to steal them. However, he's taken aback when he sneaks up to her room at night, and finds her singing sadly to herself, looking at her jewels. He realizes that the fat ugly woman he mocked was young and beautiful once, and her seeming vulgarity is more due to loneliness and a desire to hold on to her youth. Moved, he turns and leaves empty-handed.

Compassion in detection was a rarity through the 50s, the reign of hardboiled pulps and semiheroes like Mike Hammer. It came along in the 60s, though. Author Thomas B. Dewey created a new private eye, "Mack," who often operated out of a sense of compassion and sentimentality, rather than just for money or a desire for revenge. James Bond, who is simultaneously Establishment and an Outsider, mellowed a bit in his later years; in the short story "Octopussy" he allows a murderer a chance to commit suicide before being dragged through a lengthy trial. In "The Hildebrand Rarity" he ignores evidence of a battered wife murdering her husband, and in "The Living Daylights" he shoots a sniper's hand rather than killing her, figuring that would end her career anyway.

In the 80s and 90s, there was a surge in publications of softboiled mysteries, by authors of both sexes. Private eyes still were paid but also often had a conscience and often would go above and beyond in their duty. Amateurs would seek to help those in need, protect loved ones, or look into things out of a sense of compassion for the deceased. One of Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles novels, I think it was Rosemary Remembered, had a scene where China finds a murdered body of a friend, and there's a lengthy passage describing her grief, sorrow, anger, and outrage at the crime, which was a great moral and ethical view of why so many read mysteries and want justice served and crimes solved.

Compassion is now a regular component of mystery fiction; the Vicious hardboiled stuff seems to be a thing of the past, at least from what I've seen. Compassion reigns even in Historicals; Anne Perry's detectives are often emotionally involved in their cases. You don't have to be an outsider to show compassion, although there's still quite a few detectives who are societal outsiders. And those who do want to restore the status quo do so for noble reasons, usually.

We'll see how it continues to evolve in the genre, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye open for it as I read more in the future. I also might work on an article about societal outsiders at some point; it's an aspect of mystery fiction that doesn't get explored sufficiently.

Hope this makes up for my lack of reviews lately....

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dust & Corruption Calendar for March 2013

Warm weather is coming and in some areas is already here, but where I am we're dreading a possible snowstorm in a few days. Still, if you can get out, there an array of fun things to do...

As always, the Observatory in Brooklyn, NY, has a schedule of fascinating talks and workshops.

And Atlas Obscura always lists interesting things in different cities.

Saturdays: Speakeasy Saturdays continue at The Big Hunt; shows start at 9:00, and every Saturday is something different.

3/4 - Cine Salon: Horror and Scary Films. Discussion and screening of locally-made horror films. The Creative Alliance, Baltimore, MD. Doors 7; $5/free for members.

3/6 - The Capital City Showcase presents The Wonderland Circus! Variety show with music, comedy, and burlesque. The Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon, Washington, DC. Showtime 8:30pm. Free!

3/7 - Hot Todd Lincoln Presents! The start of a new monthly engagement in one of DC's new burlesque/variety venues, with Cherie Sweetbottom, Ruby Rockafella, Kitty Bermuda, Sunny Sighed & Bal'd Lightning, and bellydancer Abby, and hosted by my pal Hot Todd Lincoln. The Bier Baron Tavern, 1523 22nd St NW, Washington, DC (a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro). Dinner service starts at 7:30, showtime 9pm. Tix $10 in advance (available here), $12 at the door.

3/8 - Carnivalesque! A historic assemblage of burlesque and variety talent with a list too long to give in full, but includes many friends of mine. Tonight it hits Roxy & Dukes, Dunellen, NJ.

3/9 - Carnivalesque! And tonight it's the last show. The State Theatre, Falls Church, VA. (I'll be there)

3/12 - The Mason Dixie Burlesque Tour. Stars Deanna Danger, Uta Uberbusen, Porcelain, and Hazel Honeysuckle, all representing either the North or the South. The Ottobar, Baltimore, MD.  Doors at 8, show at 9. Tix $10 adv, $15 at the door.

3/14 - Michael Golden Talk and Signing. The renowned comics artist comes to Richmond, VA, to discuss his career. In connection to an exhibit of his illustrations for "The Tell-Tale Heart." Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, VA. Doors at 6; $5 suggested donation.

3/15 - Epic Win Burlesque Goes to Washington. An evening of burlesque, nerd chic, and geeky naughtiness, hosted by NYC's own Nelson Lugo. The Black Cat, Washington, DC. Doors at 8:45 and 11; tix $12 in advance and $15 at the door.

3/16 - Shocked and Amazed present the New York Variety All-Stars with the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow. An evening of sideshow bizzarerie and burlesque, sponsored by the sideshow magazine "Shocked & Amazed" and hosted by its editor, James Taylor (another friend of mine...they're all over the place). The Artisphere, Arlington, VA. Doors 8pm, showtime 9pm, tix $15 at the website.

3/16 - Burlesque Classique presents: The Burlesque of Broadway. Clothes get shed to classic Broadway tunes. DC Arts Center, Washington, DC.  Showtime at 10; tix $15, available here.

3/16 - The 2013 Cask of Amontillado Wine Tasting Among the Bones. Wine tasting in the catacombs near where Poe is buried. With entertainment, a mask contest, and a silent auction. Westminster Hall, 519 W Fayette St, Baltimore, MD. Fun starts at noon; tix $25 and available here

3/17 - St. Patrick's Day! Or as I call it, Freakin' Amateur Night. Be careful out there...too many young lightweights consider this Binge Night.

3/17 - Tilted Torch Presents: Modern Elegance. My wonderful pals at Tilted Torch present their usual mix of dance, music, comedy, burlesque, and belly dance, all with their usual creative use of light. Bossa Bistro & Lounge, Washington, DC.  Doors at 8, show at 9; tix $12 and available here.

3/21 - The Vernal Equinox! The first day of Spring! Hopefully it actually will be springlike. Enjoy the open air, sing a song, pick some flowers, dance around a fire, pray outside, whatever brings you joy and connects you to nature. Yeah, even though I'm an atheist, I'm down with those who pray and observe a thoughtful, humble faith.

3/23 - Twisted Knickers Presents: Sci-Fi Double Feature! The lovely ladies of Twisted Knickers burlesque present Tapitha Kix, Beaujolais Nouveau, Petra Precocious, Crystal Swarovski, and more in a tribute to science fiction, hosted by my wonderful friend Hot Todd Lincoln. The Yellow Sign Theater, 1726 N Charles St, Baltimore, MD. Doors at 8, show at 9; tix $10 and available here.

And as always, if you know of something I haven't mentioned, please feel free to let me know.

A Phantom Ballad from the Country

We're off visiting friends in the country, enjoying a rest before spring and summer bring on their flood of busy-ness. But we see the signs of spring here and there; snowdrops and crocuses are blooming.

We take an afternoon walk across some old farm fields, and look over some crumbling buildings. We're back at our host's home for a good meal. After dark, we're gathered around the fireside, reading and conversing, when someone brings out a guitar and sings an old ballad...

We trade glances...we DID walk across that hayfield, and past a crumbling old hayrick. But come on, this ballad could apply to any old farm field, right? But then a cry rises from that direction; of course, it could be just a barn owl...but still....

Dean Gitter was a record producer who was responsible for Odetta's first album, and also recorded this album of traditional ghost ballads. (As far as I can tell, it's his only recording.) He's also a noted real-estate developer, venture capitalist, and meditation teacher. Yes, you read that last one right.

I may start featuring more ghastly ballads as a change from the usual classical stuff. We'll see how things develop....