Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE IRON ANGEL by Edward D. Hoch

The late Edward D. Hoch wrote close to a thousand short stories with over a dozen series characters, and this is one of the more intriguing. The detective in this one is Michael Vlado, a Romany (or gypsy) living in then-contemporary Romania, and halfway through the series he gets to deal with the realities of the collapse of Romania's Communist regime, something I'm sure Hoch didn't expect but probably relished.

Michael Vlado was born (as a literary character) in 1985 for an anthology entitled The Ethnic Detective, and later stories were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine sporadically until 2002. He's not quite the romantic vagabond mystical pulp-fiction gypsy we're so used to in B-movies, but part of a permanent village of Romany in modern-day Romania, and the series is firmly grounded in everyday life under the Ceausescu regime, which was no picnic.

That being said, Hoch does manage to fit in some genuine Gypsy lore and sometimes the stories do take a bend for the bizarre. The title story, "The Iron Angel," has Vlado called to Bucharest when an acquaintance (an American drifter introduced in an earlier story, a tragic character in search of something, anything to make her life whole) was the witness to the death of a gypsy, whose last words were "the three eyes of the iron angel." While it sounds supernatural and occult in nature, the ultimate solution is mundane, if a bit exotic.

And that's something that turns up a lot in this series. While the setting and some of the trappings may be exotic, human passions and evil are the same all over, and murder is still murder. "The Gypsy Treasure" does involve a treasure, of course, but also human greed. "The Murder of a Gypsy King" involves some esoterica of Romany tradition, but also the tragedy of a robbery for profit. "The Gypsy Delegate" involves the realities of post-communist Romania, when it seemed possible that the exiled King Michael might return to rule. "The Puzzle Garden" has a crumbling mansion with a weird garden and a possible treasure, but the old emotions of rage and greed still apply. And the last two stories in the collection, "The Starkworth Atrocity" and "A Wall Too High," directly address anti-Romany prejudice that still exists in Europe.

Hoch also shows his strength as a technician of plot, although not always the most gracious stylist. And given these stories were written over almost a quarter-century, you do see a certain evolution in his style as it goes along. The one thing that bugged me is that this is not a complete collection. There's a list of all the published Vlado stories in the back, and I supposed this is a best-of collection. I'd have appreciated a complete collection.

The Iron Angel is a great collection in two ways. It entertains with well-written mysteries with good plots, but also educates about a nation and a way of life that is alien to most of us. And let's be honest, I was a sucker for anything about a gypsy sleuth, and you likely will be too. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November's Night Out at the Movies!

Just before Thanksgiving, we need a break from the ratrace. We gather in our favorite restaurant, discussing all that's gone on in our lives, and avoiding discussion of the elections by mutual consent. We eat lightly, much to the distress of the waiter, but we're all anticipating the pig-out later in the week.

And after splitting the bill (Rose, really, I can't let you keep springing for me...but thank you...), we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so much.

Tonight's show is the 1935 mystery drama Midnight Phantom!

Yes, it's pulpy, and displays its Poverty Row origins on its sleeve, but it's still good fun, right?

The movie over, we wander down the street for one last drink at that small cafe...hoping we all survive Thanksgiving....


Hooray! Back to more book reviews! Sorry, folks, I was sidelined for a while by various factors, including a serious illness in the family, my own struggles to find a job, and being sent reeling by the election results. It's been a rough few weeks, although it looks like I have a couple of interviews coming up so here's hoping.

Anyway...The Tower at the End of the World is Strickland's sequel to the first Barnavelt novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It opens with the Barnavelts being invited by Rose Rita's Grandpa Galway to visit him on an island in Lake Superior, where he's house-sitting for a wealthy Navy friend, for a holiday full of sailing and exploring. It all sounds good, until Uncle Jonathan is attacked in the house's basement and the long-shut door in the coal bin, that leads to heaven-knows-what, is pried open. Although there are disquieting footprints, nothing is taken, and they're willing to dismiss it as a burglar.

On their island holiday, Lewis is given a letter with some macabre drawings on it, Mrs. Zimmermann, an accomplished witch, feels something is off about it, but can't put her finger on it. Meanwhile, the crew are sailing on the lake and come across an island where none was before, an island decorated by bizarre sculptures and a tall, sinister tower. They explore briefly, but are too freaked out to stay.

Back in New Zebedee, Lewis has a number of frightening experiences, including an encounter with a Japanese evil spirit, the Kuchisake Onna, or Wide-Mouthed Woman. It's obvious that Lewis is being targeted by some supernatural force....but who? and why?

It turns out that Isaac and Selenna Izard, who had built the house the Barnavelts now live in, and who had planned to destroy the world, had a son, Ishmael Izard, and he plans to not only get revenge on Lewis but complete his parents' work. The team has to work to not only save Lewis from being devoured by supernatural beasties, but also locate and destroy the new Doomsday Clock.

It's entertaining for fans of classic horror and ghost stories; part of the plot is (obviously) based on "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James, including a mention of the evil wizard Karswell. There's also an amusing reference to real-life crackpot mystic Hans Horbiger, who believed the universe was made of ice.

There's a lot of good teamwork here, with Lewis and Rose Rita being open with the adults about what's going on, and more trust evident. The solution to the story is a little obvious, but maybe it's because I'm so steeped in esoteric lore that the minute I read that the mysterious isle was called Gnomon Island I immediately knew the nature of the new Doomsday Clock.

Still, it was a good read and definitely one of the better ones. It was sadly lacking any Edward Gorey art; Gorey had passed away and further books would be without his special style.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


This was a random library find, and a good one.

It's Portland, Maine, in 1892. Deputy Marshall Archie Lean is called in when a grotesque murder takes place; a prostitute has been found gruesomely stabbed with a pitchfork through her throat and a bloody cross cut into her torso. Bizarre findings around the body point to some sort of ritual, and criminalist Perceval Grey, who is part Native American, is called in to look at the crime scene. He and Grey get along well and team up to find the killer.

This was a pleasant surprise, as the plot is steeped in the Salem Witch Trials, The murderer is obviously attempting some sort of black magic here, but what? The involves fortune tellers and spiritualists, and a medium who does seem to have real powers. Even though I'm a hard-nosed skeptic, I did enjoy how the story straddled the line between the mundane and the mystical.

The addition of supernatural gothic elements to a historical procedural mystery were very entertaining. The characters were also fun; Archie Lean is a father-to-be, rather old-fashioned, but with a sense of humor and of what's wrong and right. Perceval Grey is all science, young, exotic, and sometimes an exasperating stick-in-the-mud. There is a somewhat contrived romance that does take away from the story, but only in a very minor way.

There's a sequel I want to get to, but it seems the Lean and Grey series ended there; I saw a note on the author's page that his publisher had declined on a further story. Let's hope he find some one else to publish it, because I think Shields is on to something here.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Phantom Puppet Show for November!

I came across a great video, and thought I'd do something a little different for November. We're all having our Halloween hangovers (I'm certainly still in the mood) and this delightful video, based on the old song "Mysterious Mose", is great fun. The song is the source of that "da-da-da-da-DAAA-DUM!" musical riff that we associate with spookiness and haunted houses. I can't give an exact date for the song, but it's likely from the late 20s; it was used in a 1930 Fleischer cartoon that featured a very early appearance by Betty Boop, before she was officially called by that name, and while she was still a anthropomorphized poodle.

Anyway, here's Screen Novelties' fun puppet show version:

And what do you's another puppet show to the same tune....

And what the hey, here's the Betty Boop version as well.

I'll be back soon...make your November great!