Saturday, October 31, 2009

Non-Being and Somethingness

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Non-Being and Somethingness: Selections from the Comic Strip "Inside Woody Allen" (Random House, 1978).

I had a short little recurring gag over at my Reprint This! blog earlier in the year. I heard that Abrams was releasing a collection of the 1970s Inside Woody Allen comic strip by Stuart Hample and pretended not to believe such a thing existed, because, well, who would believe that there was ever a Woody Allen comic strip? It wasn't a very good gag, and I only used it twice, but you must admit the idea's a little wacky, especially when the book was supposed to carry an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. He's been dead for over twenty years!

Well, there really was a Woody Allen comic strip, and Abrams' book, Dread and Superficiality, really does exist, and it really does have an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. It will be released next week, and money's been tight enough to suggest that I probably won't be getting a copy, but what I did find was Non-Being and Somethingness, the first collection of Woody Allen comics, released back in 1978 and drawing from the strip's first eighteen months. Fuller, then in his 80s, contributed the deeply strange introduction, a ten-page comic in which a small group of polygons and geodesic shapes, drawn in scratchy ballpoint around typewritten captions and balloons, debate philosophy.

I think Allen's self-imposed exile from the mainstream has gone on so long that we've forgotten how popular he once was, and how riotous his standup act had been. That's the Woody Allen of this comic, a funny, bespectacled, neurotic guy hopping from therapist to therapist, unable to grasp that maybe football players aren't the best people to give advice on the question of free will. The comic, full of playful, rhetorical questions about faith, dating and celebrity, was written and drawn by Stuart Hample, and an excerpt from his own introduction to the new book appeared in the Guardian earlier this month.

Well, I say Allen was popular, but I'm pretty sure my parents always despised him and I'm certain that Inside Woody Allen never appeared in any of the Atlanta papers. The references to sex and religion would have certainly made this a no-go in the area back then. It's certainly an odd strip, rarely if ever laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly unique and occasionally quite clever. Eventually, though, I came to appreciate the collection more for bringing me a slice of cultural history that I'd completely missed the first time around than for its actual comedy content.

Spoiled by modern strip collections, I found Non-Being and Somethingness's presentation really aggravating. The designer, who, as the text-filled cover might indicate, appears to have been something of an idiot, seems to have thrown panels onto the pages at random, and there's an awful lot of wasted space. A 96 page book should have had room for at least a couple of hundred strips, but several pages here include just three panels in a diagonal tier. I really wouldn't mind popping back in time thirty years and smacking the designer in the head with a copy of a Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts book.

I am betting that Abrams' new collection looks a lot better, and is much more comprehensive than this version, and if you click the image of the old edition above, it will take you to an Amazon page where you can order the new one. While I wouldn't rank Inside Woody Allen anywhere near the top of American comic strips, it's certainly a neat curiosity and fans of the form might enjoy looking through it. Next, be on the lookout for Hipster Dad Books' first release, in the summer of 2010: a collection of the Buddy Hackett comic strip. With an introduction by Dwight Eisenhower.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures volume 2

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures (volume two) (Dark Horse, 2009).

The history of Indiana Jones comic books is a long and often disappointing one, full of scattershot miniseries by rotating banks of creative teams. For my money, the best of all of them was Marvel Comics' Further Adventures of Indiana Jones in the mid-80s, but as this second Dark Horse omnibus demonstrates, even it had its share of flaws.

The omnibus is an attractive format; it reprints about 350 pages (15 issues) in color in a size just slightly smaller than the original comics. It's very good value for money at around $25. Yet the comics are anything but attractive. Between lazy, shortcut inking which tries to render entire crowds with the barest minimum of lines and the saturated, dayglow colors from a palette that screams "the 1980s," these are, emphatically, very ugly comics. I posted some particularly egregious examples from the first volume at my LiveJournal back in February. Several more can be found here; I don't know what possessed Marvel's colorists to just make a character and all his clothing red, or a huge crowd one solid pink, or set any of them on backgrounds of mustard yellow never seen in nature, but man, it looks hideous and sloppy and doesn't flatter the original linework at all.

The stories are pretty good. Several writers, principally David Michelinie with assistance and fill-ins from others, like veteran Larry Lieber, crafted some pretty good action-adventure hoops for Indy to jump through, with intricate conspiracies, nasty cults and weird, unknown civilizations. Sadly, however, none of the art rises above "workmanlike." Most of it is by Herb Trimpe, who, while mercifully no longer under instruction to try and copy Kirby, rarely finds any standout visuals. Jackson Guice, similarly, strides a line between "boring" and "what the script requires." Steve Ditko handles one fill-in with a minimum of enthusiasm; it's the best-looking episode in the book, but nowhere close to what I hoped a Ditko-drawn episode of Indiana Jones would look like.

That pretty much sums up the collection. I really got the impression that it was only Michelinie who took the assignment as the opportunity to create something memorable; those who worked with him didn't bring any fire-filled bellies to the table. As Indiana Jones adventures go, at least conceptually these aren't at all bad, and if you're willing to overlook the 1980s conventions of godawful coloring and characters who are constantly explaining the plot to themselves in thought bubbles, you can probably enjoy them for what they are. Recommended for Indiana's fans.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01 (Rebellion, 2009)

Rebellion has released the first in a planned four-volume collection of the ongoing ABC Warriors saga "The Volgan War" by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. It's part of the company's periodic hardback line, and it is completely wild and wonderful.

Over time, the story of the Warriors has gotten a little continuity-heavy, but this volume goes out of its way to be friendly to new readers. It follows on from the 2003-06 series "The Shadow Warriors" (reviewed a couple of months ago) with the decision to put their small-minded, demented member Mek-Quake into a sanitorium for some long-overdue rest, and this prompts our centuries-old robot heroes to reminisce about their earliest adventures, predating our introductions to them. It turns out there was a lot more to their backstory than we were ever told, and they're each surprised to learn that each of them crossed paths with a mysterious, flamethrowing "special forces" robot called Zippo...

"The Volgan War" really completes the long overdue resurgence of this once-classic title, which spent the 1990s a shadow of its former self. Mills has rarely been weirder or more inventive in throwing completely bizarre concepts at his readers, and while he's writing for a more mature audience than the ten year-olds who gobbled up the original series, with its bazooka-totin' robots on dinosaurs, he's still able to balance an intricate plot with high-wire ideas. So we get armies of multi-armed Hammersteins locked in combat with giant Mecha-Stalins, and taxicabs which can be converted into weapons.

But it's the artwork that drives this one out of the park. I've certainly admired all the great artists who've contributed to the series over the years, from Mike McMahon to Simon Bisley to Henry Flint, but in Clint Langley, the definitive Warriors visuals have at last been found. Langley's computer-created world is unlike anything we've seen in 2000 AD before, fully-realized, three-dimensional depictions of decaying future war battlefields populated by hundreds of rusting mechanical soldiers. In the comic, it looked pretty amazing. On the better paper in this book, the results are eye-popping.

This edition reprints the story that originally appeared in "Prog 2007" and issues 1518-1525 of the weekly, beefing it up with some extra pages - nothing too extravagant, usually just some double-page spreads - along with a long-overdue Warriors' Timeline, explaining things for new readers and clarifying some of the points that have caused some confusion in the past, along with the now-standard introduction and commentary by Mills. It's truly an amazing collection, and on the short list for the year's best book; yes, it's as good as that.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Island of Lost Maps

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Island of Lost Maps (Random House, 2000).

Chances are, most of the people who read my reviews are collectors of one shade or another. But I expect few of my readers are as nuts about crazily-expensive old maps as the dealers and buyers who make up the cast of this fascinating little story. It's a tale of true crime where the victims are fragile, ancient indices in the rare books departments of large libraries, and the criminal who vandalizes them is Bland by name, bland by nature, and vulgar in deed.

The story starts in Baltimore, 1995. While millions of us were thrilling to the fictional Homicide: Life on the Street on NBC, real-world cops in the city had picked up a man who'd been taking razor blades to books in the Peabody, silently stealing ancient maps to resell from his Florida-based antique business. Gilbert Bland had multiple identities, the trust of a growing circle of traders and property pilfered from quite a few universities and private collections before he finally made a mistake and was caught... but that was just the beginning of the story.

To be honest, the story itself was fascinating, but I was occasionally disappointed with the carefree way that Miles Harvey told it. I found a very good 2002 review of this book by Richard Strassberg (available here) which I found very much in line with my thoughts. Harvey personalizes his narrative too much; his research, interviews and groundwork should have given us a more objective, fact-based story, and let the curious characters he meets, like the ostentatious millionaire Graham Arader, provide the color. But Harvey allows himself far too much intrusion into other peoples' stories, resulting in tacky inventions, narrative fiction and navel-gazing psychoanalysis unsuited to the tale.

In all, it's a fine story, and I believe that anybody curious about incunabula or capers will find much to enjoy in it, but readers will also tire quickly of the way Harvey tells the story. George Peabody's ghost really has no place in a work like this. I have to recommend the book with reservations; the original article from Outside (available here) tells the story in a far more succinct and entertaining way than this book.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Louche and Insalubrious Escapades of Art D'Ecco

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Louche and Insalubrious Escapades of Art D'Ecco (Fantagraphics, 2006).

While I'm not certain I've ever encountered the words "louche" or "insalubrious" prior to this, I know that Roger Langridge is a huge Bookshelf favorite, and I'm always glad to stumble across his work. I found this a couple of months ago at McDonough's quite excellent Bunjee's Comics and spent a couple of days grimacing over 160-odd pages of the most ghastly, teeth-crackingly awful puns you've ever read. The back cover cogently points out that Langridge is a virus from outer space, and it's all downhill from there.

Originally serialized in the late 1980s across two periodical titles and two special editions, the comics in this book were a collaboration between Roger and his brother Andrew, who wrote the material and who perhaps can be blamed for all the lovely puns on every page. The structure is very loose, and each strip is little more than a skeleton to hang ridiculous comic interplay or neat disruptions of accepted panel layout. In one sequence, the story in the panels travels in a spiral around the page. In another, a character reaches outside the frame structure to retrieve an object from himself in another. When the characters are briefly imprisoned - by guards who resemble the Beagle Boys from Scrooge McDuck (and not far from the revelation that Karl Marx, making a quip about putting something on his bill, is actually Karl Barx in disguise) - Art d'Ecco actually grabs the panel borders, transforming the page into a prison cell.

As for the ostensible structure, we meet Mr. Art d'Ecco, a square-jawed oaf who apparently wants to be a 1920s dandy, but is held back more than a little by his idiot roommate, a triangular mess called the Gump. They get embroiled in one hot situation after another as the Langridges cook up ridiculous stories and adventures. Many of the larger details quickly fade into the background because the wild goings-on are so memorable and so odd, and so I can't really tell you what the plot of the sixty-page "La Trahison des Images" is, just that it's full of eyepopping visual gags and crazy wordplay. At one point, a familiar brick gets thrown, and you'll think, "Yeah, this is about as anarchic as Krazy Kat."

Put another way, this is a book where we meet a clean-up-teevee campaigner named Margie de Sade, who was once an actress who starred with Art as a character called Harlot Mascara. If you're with me in thinking that's about the best name for a character in all of fiction, then you need this book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Saw You...: Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of I Saw You...: Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections (Three Rivers Press, 2009).

While in Boston this summer, I stopped into one of our nation's very best comic shops, the quite awesome Million Year Picnic, and picked up a few things. Among them is this very interesting anthology edited by Julia Wertz. Apparently, and this is what I get for never having paid any attention to either traditional classified ads or to Craigslist, there's a whole subculture of people who are too shy to approach attractive people in public, and so they resort to leaving optimistic little mash notes somewhere they hope their crush will read. That strides a deliciously uncomfortable line between "desperate" and "pathetic," doesn't it?

Obviously, there's a great potential for comedy in this odd, odd approach to meeting, and the dozens of cartoonists who have contributed to Wertz's book find takes ranging from slapstick to wistful to mean-spirited. Kazimir Strzepek, Shaenon Garrity and Alec Longstreth contributed particular favorites.

Many others weren't to my taste. Some of the artists choose to work in styles which I found confusing or difficult to read. Some of them are totally ready for prime time. Some of them, like Pete Bagge and Shannon Wheeler, have been there for years. Nothing in it really bowled me over. Some comics made me scratch my head and wonder what the heck I just read, but more of them made me smile and laugh. Certainly worth a look for older readers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The 86ers

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The 86ers (Rebellion, 2009)

Rebellion, publisher of My Favorite Comic(TM), has recently suffered the aggravation of having some books solicited for direct-market distribution by Diamond, only to have the distributor turn around and cancel the orders. One of the books impacted by this was the collected edition of Gordon Rennie's The 86ers, released in May of this year. The book is available, therefore, to proper bookstores in Britain, and easily obtainable online, but not from local comic book shops. The series is a sequel to Rennie's 2002-2005 run on Rogue Trooper. A few months after his last episodes of that series, we met up again with Rafe, a genetically-engineered pilot introduced as one of Rennie's new supporting cast. She's transferred to the 86th Air Support Reconnaissance Squadron and tasked with protecting supply routes to a strategically important mining planet. The series could have been an engaging mix of future war, ancient superweapons and political intrigue, but unfortunately, it never really gelled as a serial.

It's my habit to not sit down and really reread the contents of the Rebellion trades if it's a reprint of material I haven't yet come to in my Thrillpowered Thursday reread, so perhaps I'm being unfair to The 86ers when I say that other than Rafe and the briefly-seen villain Colonel Kovert, a baddie from Rogue Trooper's original run, I have no idea who any of the characters in The 86ers are. There are a lot of them, and a lot of subplots, but after the ten episodes in 2006 (published in three batches over nine months) and the six that came six months later, none of them had made an impact on me at all. Rather than slipping the series quietly under the rug after that, Tharg commissioned six wrap-up episodes earlier this year from Arthur Wyatt, in order to get enough material to warrant publishing a collected edition at all. Rennie, clearly disinterested by this point, had moved on to work for some video game company. I'm sure Wyatt did the best anybody could hope for with what he had to work with, but neither the original run a few years ago, nor a refresher that I gave myself shortly afterwards, nor a quick thumb-through of this edition to confirm what was in it has provided my memory with the name of a single character other than Rafe or Kovert.

In many ways - and this is something we will definitely come back to in Thrillpowered Thursday - The 86ers exemplifies Smith's tenure as 2000 AD editor. He's done so much that is very right during his time in the hot seat, but his biggest failing has been the reversal of the semi-residencies that were common while David Bishop was editor. Ongoing series simply need extended runs of at least 10-13 weeks every year in order to make a consistent impact, particularly if they're going to have many recurring subplots and characters. There are occasional dramatic, exciting moments in The 86ers, and the art, initially by Karl Richardson before PJ Holden takes over, is quite good throughout, but there's too much talking between characters who take forever to do anything.

As a collected edition, The 86ers is nevertheless an impressive one. Released just a few weeks after it concluded in the weekly, the book contains all 22 episodes, along with the single installment of Rogue Trooper that introduced Rafe, some of the series' original covers and sketchbook art from Richardson and Holden. It's a truly fine collection of a sadly inessential series.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gahan Wilson's America

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Gahan Wilson's America (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

With the release of Fantagraphics' massive collection of Gahan Wilson's complete Playboy work just a week or two away, it's not a bad time to look back at one of the artist's earlier releases. Gahan Wilson's America was originally released in hardcover in 1985. A paperback edition, with a slightly modified cover, came out the following year.

It's a really sketchy sort of collection, which seems to feature comics and panels from several magazines, but nothing here is annotated or credited. Many of the longer pieces probably came from National Lampoon - I believe that he would have a 3-4 page strip there a couple of times a year - and some of the panels possibly came from Playboy or The New Yorker, and some might be new to the book. Who knows? The book's name is irrelevant to its contents, and might just as well have done to be called "Modern Life." Each chapter of 4-8 pages features some loose theme like doctors or technology or, of course, kids, and then presents a few Wilson cartoons which roughly fit the chapter title.

I've been noticing a lot more of these sorts of collections since I've been paying attention to the "humor" section in good used bookstores. This one came from the mighty McKay Books in Knoxville, and despite a couple of tears and dings in the dust jacket, it was well worth three bucks, much like the old Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperbacks are always worth picking up. But much in the same way that Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts series has changed the way that we can read that series, the forthcoming Wilson Playboy collection has changed the need to get many of these older titles - and there were apparently quite a few Wilson collections in their day, similar to this. Other than the old edition of National Lampoon's Nuts (mentioned last month by Chris Mautner at Collect This Now!), I don't think there's really any need to pay a premium price for any old Wilson book, since we know that there's better on the horizon - properly archived work presented with better reproduction on better paper. Still, for three bucks, you just can't argue with work as charming as this.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Red String, Volume One

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Red String, Volume One (Dark Horse, 2006).

At this year's Anime Weekend Atlanta, I resolved to purchase something completely new to me, and directly from its creator, if possible. Purely on a "best value" case, this proved to be Red String by Gina Briggs, a well-written romance story, told in that not-always-agreeable style where the influence of Japanese cartoons overwhelms every other artistic trope.

It is not unpleasant to look at, and Ms. Briggs' linework and penmanship is often lovely, but I did not see much in this first volume that really stood out as the artist's own identity shining through the hodgepodge of influences. While her inking, clothes design and use of effects are all first-rate, I was often confused and bewildered as to who the characters were. There is too great a reliance on basic body types among her cast; Miharu's fiance, father and uncle all appear to be the same age.

The story is a simple and engaging romance about a teenage schoolgirl who is informed by her mother that she'd arranged a marriage for her many years previously. As it turns out, Fujiwara is an attractive enough catch, and such a hunk that he immediately catches the eye of Miharu's scheming cousin, the ostensible villain of the piece. There are sidebar subplots about Miharu's school friends and a popular volleyball player, and our heroine's musings on destiny and love, and if you can stomach the sort of girly-girl daydreams of slow dances and nice boys without wondering why the heck you didn't pick up that collected edition of Frontline Combat the other week instead, then you'll probably enjoy this for what it is. I'm by no means the target audience, but I've read far worse in the genre, and would happily recommend this to middle school-aged girls.

The first three volumes were published by Dark Horse; a fourth was self-published by the artist, who continues the story as a webcomic. All are available from her website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ménage à 3: Round One

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Ménage à 3: Round One (Pixie Trix, 2009).

You know, this blog's a fine place to turn for suggestions about mindless violence and cerebral detective fiction, but it's been sorely lacking in bawdy sex comedy. Well, a few months back, I followed a news story about a collected edition of the web comic Ménage à 3 by Gisèle Lagacé and David Lumsdom, read the archives and mostly enjoyed the heck out of it. Actually, what I liked almost as much as the wacky goings-on was the obvious plan, from an early stage, to assemble the comic in digest editions from the outset. With just a simple tweak, the strip is revealed to be laid out perfectly for the digest-sized format common to Japanese comics, and the first edition is now available for purchase.

Ménage à 3 opens with a skinny, dorky wannabe cartoonist in Montreal coming home to find that his two roommates have fallen in love, broken his light table and are moving out. Fortunately, they were good enough to already place a notice for two vacancies, and before long, the hopelessly virginal Gary is shacking up with an overcharged, unemployed pervert called Zii, who resolves to do something about Gary's lack of a sex life, and Didi, a voluptuous free spirit who never can find her own satisfaction.

It kind of goes without saying that wacky hijinks ensue. That's all this is, really, is wacky, bawdy, R-rated hijinks. It's like a naughtier Three's Company, which suggests that no matter how often you get naked, or who you're with when you do so, a ridiculous misunderstanding and disappointment is always seconds away. The writers suggest the book's intended for older teens and above, and they're not kidding. There's nothing erotic here, but there's plenty of comedy nudity and downright inappropriate behavior. I liked it a lot, but the nice thing about web comics is that you can try it out yourself and decide whether it's worth the investment.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Pennant for the Kremlin

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of A Pennant for the Kremlin (Doubleday, 1964).

There's not much available that I could find about Paul Molloy, the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist who penned this Cold War-era comedy. I ran across a copy at a long-forgotten used bookstore here in Atlanta's Poncey-Highlands neighborhood and chuckled at the cover art by "Franklyn Modell," about whom I can find no information at all. It reminds me of a style you used to see in Playboy cartoons in the sixties and seventies and so I figured, rightly, that it was worth a couple of bucks.

A Pennant for the Kremlin suggests that through a quick comedy of errors, the Soviet government ends up owning the Chicago White Sox. In a fit of pique that would one day inspire the sort of behavior that would drive my parents to loathe Ted Turner, an ultra-rich hotel magnate wills everything to the Reds - no, not the ones in Cincinnati - while finalizing plans to buy a consortium that owns, apart from some desired hotel properties, the White Sox. Then he dies and the Soviets end up owning an American baseball team, and send a Hollywood-approved group of Russians to manage their interest. You've got the wiser-and-shrewder-than-he-looks new manager, who dresses in a half-suit/half-Sox uniform, and his cute twentysomething daughter, who gets to fall in love with the world-weary team star, and you've also got a minder who keeps grouchily reporting everything back to Moscow and who signs all the players up for subscriptions to the worker's newspapers, and if you can read this guy without visualizing Peter Bull, who played the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, then you weren't paying close enough attention to the movie.

I say "Hollywood-approved," and frankly, the whole thing feels like the novelization of a film that never actually happened. Even setting aside the unchallenging nature of the storyline, from one plot contrivance to the next, it really feels like everything happens in an entirely predictable series of beats. You can even see the slow dissolves from one scene to the next. If you tried to film this today as a period piece and even got the designers from Mad Men to make it look right, I doubt it would work. It's emphatically a product of its time.

That's not to say it was a disappointing read, just a quick and dated one. There are certainly some funny moments, particularly when Pravda sends a propaganda-spewing idiot to cover what's going on, and he sends back a scathing first-hand report of a Cubs game while the Sox are out of town. There are also some really well-written and touching moments, especially when our Soviet friend - his eventual defection coming as no surprise whatsoever - reflects on the great variety of truly different people that he's encountered in pre-Wal-Mart America, a scene which goes on for several beautifully-written pages.

But in the end analysis, this is hardly a book screaming out for a new edition and a reappraisal. The grouchy, played-by-Peter Bull character pulls a third act Kremlin scheme to replace the Sox with ringers from Cuba, a ploy which explodes in his face (guess how) and prompts an international incident which must be discussed at the United Nations. The resulting scene is the most dated thing you can imagine, and not just in the way it starts so solemnly and importantly before all the diplomats start engaging in light-hearted banter about their countries' national pastimes. Never mind that the book was written in a time when the Athletics were still in St. Louis, this was written back when the general public still held a great deal of optimism and hope for what the UN might accomplish. These days, one way or another, people's minds have been made up. Worth tracking down as a curiosity for readers intrigued by how perceptions have changed over the last several decades.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Unnatural Causes

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Unnatural Causes (Faber & Faber, 1967).

A couple of months ago, I wrote a short review of Cover Her Face, the first novel by P.D. James, and suggested that readers curious about her detective fiction might do better to start with the fourth, Shroud for a Nightingale. Clearly, I didn't have my brain working that day, because I evidently had either never read or somehow completely forgotten about her third Adam Dalgliesh adventure, Unnatural Death, which is really special and deserves a look.

The story would probably have been a corker under any writer's direction: Superintendent Dalgliesh's aunt lives in a small Suffolk community of authors, playwrights and critics, and one of their number, a noted mystery writer, turns up dead in a dinghy with his hands severed. What threw me for a very satisfying loop, however, is the way that James completely subverted the rules of the genre and told a story considerably more "meta" than anybody else would have. It's very much a product of its time, with elements of the sort of thing that Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton might have done in their plays. The first page of the novel, where our victim is unveiled in a single-page chapter, turns out not to have been written by the book's narrator. The chapter that we read turns up later on in the novel as a page of evidence mailed by the person who dismembered the victim. That was so darn neat that it made my head spin.

Even without the "meta" plays at the structure of novels and tweaks at the genre's conventions, this really would be a fantastic book. The action moves from the community to an exclusive London club to a seedy Soho dive and back again to an isolated beach where another victim turns up, and an unbelievably bitter motive is found. Oddly, I was a little let down by the conclusion, in which, similar to Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body?, far too long and detailed a confession is provided post-mortem, but getting there is a real treat. Otherwise, from every raised critical eyebrow about Dalgliesh's parallel career as a poet to the violent bludgeoning of his body and heart that he suffers in the last thirty or so pages, every word in the novel feels honest and I really felt like the events within it mattered both for very real characters and for me as a reader. I truly am enjoying the fun of rediscovering P.D. James. I'd recommend new readers start with this one, and don't leave it too long.