Wednesday, January 29, 2014

THE DREAM DOCTOR by Arthur B. Reeve

I'm fond of Reeve's Craig Kennedy stories, not because they're well-written (they're OK, if sometimes clunky), but for the verve with which Reeve gloms on to every scientific fad, even if it was disproven five minutes later. His works end up having a steampunk air to them that's fascinating.

Again, The Dream Doctor (1914) is made up of a series of unconnected cases, and is really a string of short stories put together as a novel...but at least this time has a framing story of Kennedy's Watson, the reporter Jameson, tailing him for a solid month just to see how many cases he deals with. It's also got a slightly interesting structure, in that the cases don't neatly begin and end with chapter openings and closings, but will end and start midchapter. OK, that's not all that revolutionary, but I did say it was slightly interesting.

The Dream Doctor opens with the mystery of a wealthy stockbroker, who falls dead on the street after leaving behind a cryptic letter that some say is a suicide note. His wife claims to have had a premonition in a dream of his death. It's through the examination of several typewriters, and examination of the wife's dreams (done in Freudian style, as if Freud's ideas were a one-size-fits-all proposition and psychology was an exact science) that Kennedy spots the culprit. Then an actress is found dead in a beauty parlor; the cause is not evident, but there are weird glowing spots inside her mouth. It appears she was killed by a phosphorus-tainted enveloped that she licked; but who did it and why? It takes use of a "rayograph" (to detect forgeries) and a "string galvanometer" (a primitive device for recording electrocardiograms) to reveal the killer.

A string galvanometer. I'm glad my cardiologist doesn't use one.
In his next case he comes to the aid of a diplomat who's being threatened by a Balkan terrorist group who wants to keep "American dollars" out of Europe and not incite wars. The solution involves a bizarre telephone that connects through a light bulb (?!??!) and poisoned wallpaper. Then a wealthy art collector is worried about threats to his private museum. For some reason green objects, and green only, were being stolen, but now other things are being swiped. He nabs the thief with a sort of primitive electric eye called an "optophone" and some outdated ideas about absinthe.

An optophone.
Next up, another millionaire (Kennedy moves in only the best circles, you see) calls up; it seems his cook has been stabbed to death in the kitchen. Kennedy at once realizes it's not a normal stabbing, but was done with " a Behr bulletless gun" which apparently fires a knife blade into the body. Kennedy can't touch a mystery that doesn't have a bizarre method of murder...or that doesn't require esoteric equipment to solve. He uses a then-new-to-the-public sphygmomanometer, or what we know today as a blood pressure reader, and some spurious-sounding "blood crystal analysis" to uncover the culprit. The Kennedy is called on to investigate the death of an actress who was the scion of a prominent family but who had been estranged from her clan. She had a drug problem, and Jameson is suspicious of a "queer-looking Jap" that hangs about (oh, that early-20th-century racism!). We also find out Kennedy can be depended on to engineer a truce in a Tong war. There's some basic ballistics involved here, and some exotic "narcotic bullets" that carry a dose of morphia to knock people out with only a slight graze. Of course, someone is not who they seem to be, and a major drug ring is smashed as a result.

Next up is a rash of jewel thefts being pulled by a slick gang of shoplifters. He uses a telegraphone again (he used one before), basically an old-school method of wiretapping, and a galvanometer to test suspects' skin conductivity to catch the of whom is a real kleptomaniac more deserving of pity than censure. Then we have his investigation into the murder of a scientist who was on the verge of perfecting synthetic rubber. This ends up being the most bizarre motive and crime I've seen in a while; the murderer is afflicted with sleeping sickness after a bite from tsetse fly, and has dosed on poisonous medications so much he needs to replace his blood with someone else's! It's straight out of a horror film with Lionel Atwill and George Zucco, and makes little sense.

Then a bomb is sent to the district attorney's office; it doesn't go off, but is a scare. The DA's office is involved in a war against a local vice lord, and the safe assumption is that they sent it. Kennedy sets out to uncover the criminal's identity, a chase leading from a seedy cabaret to an underground bomb factory, and he uses a now-common device, a thermopile, and a hydraulic ram to solve the mystery. After that, Kennedy is contacted by the Navy when secret documents are stolen. (And announced in the paper, one of the most unbelievable things in this book.) It turns out the papers were dealing with new work in "telautomatics" or what we today would call "remote-controlled drone ships". Kennedy uses an audion, an old-style wireless wave detector, to nab the culprit.

This mild-mannered object is an audion.
Jameson himself approaches Kennedy with a new case; his paper has received an anonymous note questioning the death of a young banker so soon after his family bank collapses. On the tail of that comes word that his mausoleum had been broken into, and a blackmail note is sent to his widow. What's going on? A Crookes tube and spectroscope to uncover the truth...a story so bizarre and unlikely the denouement is unintentionally funny. And finally, a man is imprisoned for murder, and his wife begs Kennedy to prove his innocence. A fish-eye lens peephole, like in so many apartment doors, comes in handy, especially when connected to a camera, and Kennedy uses an ultraviolet lamp as well to detect a forged will.

A Crookes tube. That would make for a cool lamp.
So, how was it? Enjoyable, if cockeyed and often contrived. Everyone turns to Kennedy when there's a problem, and he's simultaneously a private eye for the wealthy and a top government agent, it seems. It's entertaining, and sometimes preposterous, although seeming to lack the courage of its own preposterousness at times, if that makes sense.

The Dream Doctor is easily available from multiple sources as a free or low-cost ebook. Used copies are out there, but can cost the earth.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Couple of Recent Reads

Getting some reading done lately...and here's two samples from the bookshelf.

I came across Frank Tallis' A Death in Vienna in the local library and was intrigued. It's first in a series set in Vienna of the early 1900s, a setting I've always found fascinating. And it didn't disappoint.

Max Liebermann is a psychologist, a student of Freud, and something of a maverick in his focus on talk therapy for patients rather than crude electrotherapy or other discredited treatments. He's friends with Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective, who calls his friend in to help him when a young medium is found dead. She's posed as if it were a suicide, and shot in the chest...but there's no bullet. And the room is locked from the inside. It's a classic locked-room mystery with a twist in the setting and characters. Which of the medium's regular clients could be responsible?

Lots of cool atmosphere here, and the descriptions of Old Vienna are fun. Oskar applies the latest police methods, and Max applies the latest psychological ideas, and are a great team. The story is great classic detection; the medium is revealed as a fraud, and they dip into the issues of fake mediums of the era. And there's echoes of the quiet firm step of the Nazi party coming down the line, with some characters being openly anti-Semitic. We get a lot of the character's inner lives, with Oskar coping with his anniversary, and Max getting engaged...but by the end appears to be having second thoughts.

My only complaint is that I wish we knew more about how the two became friends...but maybe that comes in a later book. This is a series I definitely want to read more of...this one left me craving strudel and Strauss, so maybe I can whip up some treats and play some waltzes next time I dip into it.

The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is R. Austin Freeman's first novel, and the work that introduced pioneering medical detective John Thorndyke. It spends a bit of time establishing characters, and is inevitably narrated by Thorndyke's Watson, Dr. Jervis. Thorndyke was a very new type of character, really. He used his medical knowledge and all the latest knowledge, and was also written with style and verve. Thorndyke was also a very handsome man; R. Austin Freeman's way of thumbing his nose at the then-current literary habit of having heroes and detectives being unattractive or even rather ugly. (Sapper's Bulldog Drummond was described in the books as a fairly ugly man, although he was played by the dashing Ronald Coleman in film.)

Young Reuben Hornby has been accused of theft form his uncle's gold and silver business; most damning is a bloody thumbprint that is unmistakably Hornby's, even though he claims innocence. It's up to Thorndyke and Jervis to figure out how it happened, and find evidence that the thumbprint is faked....and how?

There are debits in this novel, partly because the crime itself is a bit dull, and really, this is something that could be a longish short story and sometimes feels padded. Problems with plotting aside, it's well-written and with good characterizations, and the final courtroom confrontation, when it's revealed how the thumbprint was faked, is exciting and excellent reading. I definitely want to read more of these.

More coming up....

Monday, January 20, 2014

RETURN FROM THE DEAD, edited by David Stuart Davies

Another example of Wordsworth's efforts at bringing back a slew of obscure and half-forgotten supernatural literature, this anthology has quite a bit of interest for some...although for me it was a bit of a slog.
First off, I have to say that I got all giddy when I saw the dedication..."To Richard & Tom, with fond memories of when we were the walking dead emerging from Eighty Eight's in the early hours." A bit of asking around confirmed it; he's talking about my own friends, the late Richard Valley and his partner Tom (I am leaving out his last name as he's still around but the last I heard had distanced himself from the genre community, and I'm not sure how he would react to having his name cited here.) Anyway, having an unexpected personal connection to the book in your hands is always a thrill.

This anthology is weird, though, for containing an entire novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker. It takes up most of the book; there's 273 pages and Jewel takes up 187 of them. And, honestly, I found Jewel to be rough going. Maybe it was me or my mindset, but I found it horribly slow-moving and lacking in clear menace. It's about an Egyptologist who had the mummified body of Tera, a witch-queen of ancient Egypt, who seems to have prophesied her own reincarnation...or resurrection. And it's hard to tell if she's a menace or if there's some other force at work. They decide to do a ritual to resurrect her...but why? There are times when character motivations are unclear. And I'll get the very end, it seems to be suggested that Tera's spirit starts to go to her body to reanimate it, but then another evil force takes over and inhabits the body. But that's all up to the imagination of the reader; it's not explained. One interesting thing here is that it's given the original dark, bleak ending that Stoker gave it, with most characters dead or awaiting death, and an evil force on the loose...but with the second edition Stoker was convinced to give it a happy ending, and the new ending is also provided.

Thankfully, this is followed by two humorous pieces, "The Mummy" by Jane Webb, and "Some Words with a Mummy" by Edgar Allan Poe. The latter, especially, has some pointed political commentary that's a bit surprising and still fairly relevant today. Poe is undervalued as a satirist, in my opinion.

Wrapping up the collection are two very good and fun stories from Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Ring of Thoth" in which a man, trapped in a museum overnight, witnesses a ancient ritual performed by an immortal Egyptian, and "Lot 249," a very fun story of a reanimated mummy wreaking havoc on a university campus.

Is this worth it? Eh...I question the judgement of putting a novel in an anthology. They could have very easily done a separate edition and dug up some other stories. The only other story here that hasn't been frequently anthologized is Webb's, and it's not all that great anyway. Doyle's stories are great but you can find them in other collections. So save your money, folks. This one is a bit of a letdown, although with good intentions.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

January's Night Out at the Movies!

It's a cold January night, and we're trading stories of our holiday experiences over dinner, laughing and commiserating over family travails and New Year hangovers. And soon it's time to head up the street to that slightly shabby old movie theater where they're always happy to see us....

Tonight's show starts off with an 1899 short from Georges Melies, "Cendrillon."

And the feature presentation, the 1932 comedy/mystery "The Crooked Circle."

We have a grand time afterwards, slinking up the dark street to our favorite cafe, clowning and pretending we're in an old mystery movie...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Update on Poe's Birthday in Baltimore

There will be no big celebration of Poe's birthday in Baltimore this year...but there will be a subdued event.

I've received word that there will be an informal, outdoor observation at the Poe Monument in the Westminster Burying Ground (at the corner of Fayette and Greene Streets in Baltimore) from 5pm to 6pm on January 19th. There will be readings and an assortment of re-enactors, plus a cake giveaway and other surprises.

Doors open at 4:50pm; I'm going to try to be there but no guarantees. (Still no wheels, alas.) If anyone reading this is going and wants to meet up, drop me a line in the comments.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Dust & Corruption Calendar for January 2014!

January is being extremely cold here in the states; reportedly a historic cold wave is coming over the next few days. So if you can get out and enjoy yourself safely, do so, but feel free to stay home, keep warm, and curl up on the couch with a good book or movie.

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.

1/6 - Epiphany. Wait for some gifts from La Befana.

1/10 - DC When It Sizzles. Wait Until Dark Burlesque presents a scintillating evening of bumps and grinds, with Anna Steasya, Indiana's Jewels, Ellie Quinn, Gigi Mar Vista, and Luscious Curves, hosted by my pal Hot Todd Lincoln. The Bier Baron, 1523 22nd St NW, Washington, DC. Doors 7:30, show at 9:00. Tix $15 at the door, $12 in advance.

1/10 - Brews & Burlesque. Richmond's own Those Freaking Weirdos presents their monthly evening of burlesque, featuring newcoming Mina Corbeau. Strangeways Brewing, 2277 Dabney Rd, Richmond, VA. Show at 9:00; tix $10 at the door, $8 in advance.

1/11 - Great Bad Films! Twisted Knickers Burlesque presents a salute to classic and not-so-classic films, with Tapitha Kix, Cherie Nuit, Kiki Allure, Cherie Sweetbottom, Ruby Spruce, Valeria Voxx, and introducing Shy Violet, and hosted by the ever-present Hot Todd Lincoln. (That bastard is everywhere. And I say that out of love.) The Yellow Sign Theater, 1726 N Charles St, Baltimore, MD. Doors 8pm, show at 9pm. Tix $12 at the door, $10 in advance.

1/11 - Limelight Cabaret. Baltimore's own Gilded Lily Burlesque troupe travels to Northern Virginia for this show, starring Maria Bella, Tyler Fyre, Nona Narcisse, Gigi Holliday, Reverend Valentine, Candy del Rio, and Lauren Marleaux. The State Theater, 220 N Washington St, Falls Church, VA. Doors 8pm, showtime 9pm. Tix $20 at the door, $17 in advance.

1/17 - 1907 Vaudeville: The Finest Variety Show! DC's Palace Productions presents an array of talent, with Shortstaxx, Lady Rockwell, Chris Scarborough, Hula Pixy, and hosted by Corn Mo. The Black Cat, 1811 14th St NW, Washington, DC. Two shows: 8:45 and 11:00. Tix $15 at the door, $12 in advance.

1/17 - The Skullduggery and Strange Show! Shocked and Amazed, the journal of sideshow arts, presents an evening of sideshow adventure, with Albert Cadabra, Donny Vomit, Kyle Petersen, and Marlo Marquise. The Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA. Showtime 9pm. Tix $18 at the door, $15 in advance.

1/17 - Sleepover at the Mutter! Yes, a chance to spend the night in one of America's most notorious museums, the Mutter Museum of Medical Curiosities. With a movie, pizza, a seance, a flashlight tour, a campfire and ghost stories (weather permitting), and breakfast in the morning. Sounds like a freaking blast! The Mutter Museum, 19 S 22nd St, Philadelphia, PA. Tix $200.

1/18 - Edgar Allan Poe Birthday Bash. Twelve hours of performances, talks, and signings, with a midnight toast. Poe House and Museum, 1914-16 E Main St, Richmond, VA. Noon to midnight, and no ticket price listed, so I guess it's free, but check up on it yourself.

1/19 - Animal Kingdom Burlesque. Those Freaking Weirdos again, in their latest production, with Cherie Sweetbottom, Dante the Inferno, Lily Liqueur, Melody Magpie, Moxie Labouche, Scarlet Starlet, and Vixen Vigor. Richmond CenterStage, 600 E Grace St, Richmond, VA. 8pm. Tix $12 advance.

1/20 - Martin Luther King Day. Observe as you see fit.

1/24 - Pasties and Popcorn! My friends at Tilted Torch present the latest show, a mixture of short films, burlesque, and sideshow acts. With Miss Joule, Shortstaxx, Abby, Mab Just Mab, and Reverend Valentine, and a full film program. U.S. Navy Memorial, Burke Theater, 701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tix $20 in advance.

1/25 - Basics of Burlesque. My lovely friends at Gilded Lily Burlesque present a workshop on how to start off as a burlesque dancer, explaining many of the ground-level concepts and skills. The Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave, Baltimore, MD. 1:30 to 4:30pm. Tix $60 members, $65 public.

1/25 The Weirdo Show! They now do a regular gig every fourth Saturday, and this time the Weirdos have the Schadenfreude Circus, Kay Sera, and Baska D'Joy. The Bier Baron, Washington, DC. Doors 8:30, showtime 10pm. Tix $15 in advance.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day in the Phantom Concert Hall!

No matter where you were or what you did, I hope everyone had a great New Year's Eve. Sorry I was so quiet for a while; I was away for a week with my mother and she doesn't have internet access, and when I got back to civilization I was so busy catching up on other stuff I didn't have a chance to blog at all. But now I'm here. And here's some fun music for the day.

The new year always makes me feel Viennese for some reason, and I crave waltzes and even operettas. And especially now, after such a stressful few months, I'm glad to leave 2013 behind, and I'm sure a bunch of my readers are as well. (My mom is burning all the 2013 calendars she can find.)

Johann Strauss II, the composer of the above piece, was a composer of light works like waltzes, polkas, and operettas, but as many musicians and performers can tell you, light music is serious business. Getting the right dance rhythms right can be pain, and it takes a certain muse to successfully incorporate things like popping corks, train whistles, typewriters or meowing cats into your piece. Singers often say that operetta is a more demanding art form; not only do you need the vocal chops and some acting ability, but the ability to handle the vocal gymnastics often present in operettas more than in opera, plus the often-required comic timing...and dancing! (Much the same as how actors and critics will often point out that comedy is harder than drama, and that comic acting is seriously undervalued.)

So this year, as always, let's appreciate the lighter stuff as well as the more serious, as much as we can!