Thursday, February 27, 2014

Three Recent Reads

Continuing on my quest to read all the Shadow pulp novels, I struggled through The Shadow Laughs. I love the character of The Shadow, but this book was a slog. I lost interest halfway through and set it aside for a few weeks until I made myself finish it. It's a rambling, unfocused story about gangsters and counterfeiters. The most interesting parts are a gangster's speculation about how The Shadow was really a hideously disfigured man fighting crime in a disguise, and an encounter between The Shadow and Lamont Cranston. In the famous radio show, The Shadow WAS Lamont Cranston. But in the novels, Lamont Cranston was a millionaire explorer whose identity was occasionally usurped by The Shadow when Cranston was out of town. And this is with Cranston's blessing.

So, not really thrilling.

I read this back when I was in elementary school and stumbled upon it in a used book store, so what the hey? And it actually turned out to be an interesting read.

The Mysterious Half Cat (1936) opens with teen detective Judy Bolton being excited about how her friend Scottie is coming back to town. But Scottie shows up grouchy and at her wit's end; she has a younger sister in tow, Carol, a strange creature who doesn't seem to hear spoken language but responds to music and whistling. Scottie is seeking her long-lost grandfather, who was first believed dead in a disastrous flood, but whom she now suspects is alive but laying low for some reason. And there's a series of thefts going on, and a reported haunting in the basement of a Chinese laundry...

It sounds a mess, but it works. Carol's problem is a real one, although it's called auditory verbal agnosia now, and Scottie's struggle to cope with it feels genuine. (Every Bolton book is said to be at least partly based on "something that actually happened" and this seems fact-based and decently researched for the time.) There's actually some psychological depth to the story of Scottie's grandfather and why he's laying low and not contacting his family. And there's some real detection in tracking down the ring of thieves.

But the best part is the character of Judy. She's different from Nancy Drew, who's so bland and so flipping perfect. Judy makes mistakes, she gets into tiffs with her friends, she experiences fear and second-guesses herself. Her friends can be short-tempered and sometimes play their cards too close to the vest. People don't always communicate. And the real thrust of the story is resolving the issues of Scottie, her sister, and their grandfather, and the thefts are almost a distraction, with the culprits never even being named! Nancy Drew and other detectives were often more about restoring material order, but Judy's about healing emotions and relationships, at least in this book, and I'm told that crops up frequently in the series.

Judy Bolton was the star of 38 books, all written by Margaret Sutton, a real person and not a house name. The series ran from 1932 to 1967. Judy actually ages in the series, gets married, and has a child. She's often called a better role model than Nancy Drew and others, because she's more believable and human. She's emotional and self-doubting, but conquers those self-doubts, while others never seem to experience fear at all. I read a few Drews long ago, and found her dull and priggish; even though this is directed at teen girls, Judy's a compelling character and likable.

I just finished this today. It's....peculiar. Not bad, but odd.

The Buried Pyramid has Sir Neville Hawthorne taking in his orphaned niece from American, Jenny Benet, a pistol-packing Western gal. Neville, a passionate Egyptologist, is planning an expedition to the land of the pharaohs to find a lost tomb of a good and holy king whose tomb was supposedly built by the gods themselves, then buried by sand to prevent their despoiling.

And so follows a very readable and enjoyable adventure story. It's well-researched and the milieu of Victorian Egypt is well-etched. There's hints of villainy around the edges but little real menace, unfortunately.

But that is all the first three-quarters. The last quarter of the complete fantasy.

The explorers go into another world and encounter Egyptian gods, and enable Ra to make his voyage to the east, defeat Apophis, and meet up with the wise king himself and undergo judgement.

The sudden shift is just freaking weird. It's as if the author realized she hadn't put in enough danger from the cult that supposedly guards the tomb zealously, or the rival archaeologist who wants to make the discovery their own, and threw in all the fantasy elements to make up for that. It certainly needed something. As readable as it was, there just wasn't enough danger and menace to really make it thrilling and exciting. The sudden entrance of the gods seems almost like a cheat...but I wonder if that was the author's intent all along. I don't know. It's readable, but it just didn't click for me entirely.

So, that's stuff I've read lately...what about you?

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