The Dream-Detective, by Sax Rohmer: A Review

There’s a brand of household cleaner, usually sold in the “organic / natural products” sections of American supermarkets, called “Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day.” One of their general kitchen cleaning sprays comes in a scent described as Lemon Verbena, and for a long time, I vigorously disliked it: something about the scent just struck my nose wrongly. However, after moving house in July, I’ve found that suddenly, I quite like it, and now find it rather fresh and pleasantly floral. I’ve no idea why: sometimes, these switches are just thrown in our brains.

The Dream-Detective, by Sax Rohmer (Dover Publications, Inc, 1977)

After reading Sax Rohmer’s collection of tales entitled The Dream-Detective, though, I’ve have a further association with the scent of verbena: that of the curious dealer in antiquities who inhabits shabby quarters in the East End of London, a sort of “psychic investigator” before such a term had been coined, the thin-haired man with the scragly white beard and a high yellow forehead, Moris Klaw. In my mind, the scent of verbena is now, thanks to this book, irretrievably linked with Klaw “applying a cooling spray of verbena to cool his overheated forehead,” before wiping it down with a handkerchief.

Best known for his creation of the deeply troubling character of Dr. Fu Manchu, Arthur Henry “Sarsfield” Ward, known by his pen name of Sax Rohmer, was a successful Edwardian novelist, who liked to dabble in the occult, mysticism, and the Egyptology which had captured the popular imagination of the day. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu proved to be his most popular and enduring character, but as those stories of an Asian master criminal, written on a wave of “yellow peril” jingoism and unembroidered racism, are rightly unlikely to ever regain any sort of societal currency, it doesn’t seem that Rohmer’s star will be in the ascendant again any time soon.

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The Worlds of Clifford Simak: Twelve Science Fiction Stories: A Review

Clifford D. Simak was both an American journalist and a writer of science fiction novels and short stories. His stories are often set in the American Middle West, specifically in the state of Wisconsin, a landscape in his day mostly of small towns and small farms (much as it is down to the present day, inplaces), with streams for fishing and long country roads down which mystery and alien wonder could always lurk. 

The Worlds of Clifford Simak (Book Club Edition), Simon and Schuster, 1960

Short stories were often an early method to quickly get your work before the reading public, and with the proliferation of science fiction magazines from the 1930s through to Simak’s death in 1988, and their wide-ranging content, there was never a shortage of venues in which to publish, once a writer had begun to build a following. For some authors (Ray Bradbury comes to mind), short stories were a way to tell a series of stories in either the same setting, as in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, or in a variety of permutations, as in Dark Carnival or it’s pseudo-revised edition, The October Country. In Simak’s canon, similar analogues are present: City is a series of connected narratives, while more often, Simak’s stories filled volumes like the present collection, The Worlds of Clifford Simak, from 1960.

A good short story writer doesn’t always make a good novelist: Sherwood Anderson’s most enduring work is the connected narrative volume of Winesburg, Ohio, while his contemporary Sinclair Lewis favoured the long single narrative (sometimes with varying degrees of success), but could still turn out a fascinating short story when he set his mind to it (qv. I’m A Stranger Here Myself). So it is with Simak: in a way, his journalistic style seems to support a story of fifty or so pages much better than a novel of two hundred – somewhere along the way, Simak’s novels sometimes seem to just *end*, rather than to reach a resolution that doesn’t feel altogether too pat, too rushed. I’ve made this note to myself and on this blog more than once before, although ever time I pick up another novel that I have yet to read, I hope for it to go better.

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Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson: A Brief Review

Perhaps the most striking thing about reading Stevenson as an adult is how familiar his work seems, and also how eminently readable he remains. For books that are generally consigned to the category of “boyhood romps”, tales like Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while embodying familiar themes repeated oft enough in filmed adaptations, cartoon, and even parody (Treasure Island According to Spike Milligan, anyone?), always feel familiar while still retaining the power to surprise and delight on a literary level. This is a mark of how deeply Stevenson’s novels penetrated Western culture, but also an indication of just how well Stevenson wrote. Not everything written in the late 19th century reads as well or as entertainingly as RLS, although the best authors of the time, from Dickens to Wilkie Collins to Mark Twain to Arthur Conan Doyle, frequently do. They feel almost modern, regardless of how much imbued with Victorian ideals and mores they may be. 

Sometimes, it’s just nice to read something in a really sumptuous leather-bound edition, even if the cover doesn’t give much away. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, published by the Easton Press.

Into this equation add Stevenson’s 1886 novel of the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion, Kidnapped. Told from the perspective of David Balfour, a young man of seventeen recently orphaned in the Scottish lowlands in 1751, Kidnapped is in turns straightforward adventure tale, historical novel, and social commentary. Although it slows at times, it never flags, and with the slightest of interest the reader remains engrossed in the tale straight through to the end. While David Balfour’s misfortunes never quite reach Les Misèrables proportions, the near-constant perils that the young hero encounters make for thrilling, edge-of-your-seat reading.

Upon the deaths of his parents, young David is sent to by the local clergyman to the grand house of Shaws, some miles away. There he learns, to his surprise, of his uncle, Ebeneezer, his father’s brother. There is no familial warmth in this meeting, however, as his uncle immediately sends David to retrieve a box from the top room of a tower, in the dark, in which the stairs would not currently pass health and safety standards. However, Uncle Ebeneezer seems to relent after this moment, and admits David to his household, apparently on good terms. A short while later, they make a journey to Queensferry, on the Firth of Forth, where David’s uncle claims to have business with a ship’s captain. This much is true, and after a short span David Balfour finds himself fulfilling the title of Stevenson’s novel: he is assaulted and taken aboard the Covenant, which puts out to sea. David is bound for servitude in the Colonies, to be left there and never to return to Scotland again.

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Doesn’t the Time Fly at the End of the World?

I never imagined it would be nearly four years between entries to this little book blog of mine. That’s no way to build a readership. Ask anyone.

Yet here we are, nearly four years since I put fingers to keyboard to write something pithy, with at least one grammatical error (because there’s always one, in every damn entry, despite my best efforts), about this or that book or series or set or whatever else happens to wander through my mind.

A lot can change in four years. Children grow older – hell, we all grow older. Careers begin and end. All of those little personal changes, too… sometimes, they happen in the face of unexpected, terrible events. In many ways, it hasn’t been a great four years… not for me, probably not for you, either, at least on some level.

Yet sometimes, a little piece of the dream version of life that you kept tucked away in the back of your mind comes true, and you find yourself moving house and library, and getting almost everything that you might ever have wanted along the way. Maybe that’s what it took to start me reviewing books again?

Through all of this, books remain. Reading continues to be a comfort and a therapy, and my writing about the books that I’ve been exploring may yet be of interest for other readers out there. Or an exercise in vanity. Maybe even a bit of both. We shall see.

Put the kettle on, or fire up the teasmade. Put Radio 3 on in the background, or Classic FM, if you can bear the adverts. Get a modest number of your favourite biscuits, put on your slippers, find a comfy chair, and settle in.

Sadly not the House of Games Teasmade…

Whoosh, gurgle, tea’s ready. Without further maundering, then, here we go again.

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Lost Horizon, by James Hilton: A Reflection

Occasionally, a popular book permeates the public consciousness so thoroughly that it remains long after the initial book is forgotten (or at least, before the current American kakistocracy, this used to happen). It imparts from itself to the language one or two key concepts or phrases which were never present before. Most people understand the concept of “the three musketeers”, inseparable, fast friends who stick by one another through anything, whether they’ve read Dumas’ novels or not. Or, to dip again into Dumas’ prolific well of ideas, the concept of a prisoner in an iron masque is familiar, even routine. And everyone knows phrases from Sherlock Holmes, even if they are wrong: “elementary,” “the dog in the night-time,” “my dear Watson.” For that matter, few people have read Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., but everyone knows what a robot is, whether it is Rossum’s, or Universal, or not (I’m told by family lore that Capek is a distant relative on one side, but that’s probably its own baroque fantasy). And to this list, which is obviously grossly incomplete, we may add one other: James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Do you refer to a distant, mythical, regenerative refuge as a “Shangri-La?” Are your ideas of Buddhist monasteries, or rather lamaseries, thoughts of tranquil repose among books and music in a secluded, unreachable mountain retreat? Then you have Hilton to thank. Or Hilton and one other, as we shall see.

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Lost Horizon, by James Hilton (Pocket Books)

Hilton was the textbook definition of a struggling novelist, even after the first publication of Lost Horizon in Britain in the spring of 1933. It wasn’t until the publication of a further novel, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, later that same year, that he became established as a novelist and his future in posterity was secured. In the U.S., Lost Horizon was the subject of favourable review by critic and Algonquin Round-Table member Alexander Woollcott (himself later best known for founding and editing the first volume of the Viking Portable Library); Woollcott went “quietly mad” over Lost Horizon, and soon the book stretched into multiple hardcover editions, and eventually, it became the first volume in a new series of paperbound “Pocket Books,” an influential American publisher.

Hilton’s novel, to give the plot in short, is the story of four people who are fleeing unrest in the Kashmiri town of Baskul. Conway is an unambitious member of the Foreign Service, a veteran of the Great War who has not been the same since that terrible conflict. He is accompanied by Mallinson, Barnard, an American oil-man, and Miss Brinklow, a missionary. Their flight, one of many leaving Baskul at the same time, is diverted by the pilot, who flies deep into the mountains, eventually crashing the plane at the foot of a high mountain valley. They are quickly rescued, however, by a party from the local lamasery, who lead them deeper into the valley, where the four discover a hidden world.

Mallinson is eager to depart; he is young and excitable. Barnard is ambivalent; for the truth of his identity means that a return to “civilisation” will mean prison for him. Miss Brinklow wants to arrange to bring missionaries to attempt to established a beachhead for her particular missionary brand of Christianity. But Conway is most taken with the monastery of Shangri-La, and seems to be most deeply impacted by the combined offers of Chang, the factotum for the High Lama, who offers Conway the chance to live several lifetimes in study and quiet amusements of the mind, much, it occurs to Conway, like his time as a don at Oxford (but presumably with fewer bicycles). For the truth is that Conway genuinely was wounded by the War, but as with so many of his generation, the wounds did not manifest themselves on his skin, and his passionlessness and quiet indifference to anything in his life which requires concerted effort is a result of seeing the utter futility of so-called civilised life. When the High Lama offers Conway the chance to remain in Shangri-La, and explains the benefits of an extended life there, the temptation to Conway is great.

But the High Lama’s explanation of the true purpose of Shangri-La is, as the Lama sees it, the intent to preserve the rudiments of human culture and civilisation in the face of an oncoming storm. One of the most chilling parts to readers of Lost Horizon in the 2010s must have seemed equally prescient in 1939, on the eve of war. As a storm springs up on the mountain above Shangri-La, Conway asks about the other storm, one against civilisation, which the High Lama has told him of, and in reply:

“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety in arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hour. Do you say I am mistaken?” (p. 186)

In view of current events, who wouldn’t want to retreat to a lamasery, removed from the rest of the world?

Lost Horizon is a tremendous book, and deserving of its continued status as a classic.

Reviewed 21 October 2017.

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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen: A Review

I came to Andersen’s book not knowing much about it. Honestly, I cannot even recall why I first ordered the book, perhaps I saw it discussed on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show? Regardless, having read it, I am pleased that I did so. Why have I waited on this review for so long then? We will come to that in a moment.

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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen

As it takes a book like Fantasyland several years to come about, so from Andersen’s perspective as an author, the fact that the 2016 election came along to validate his central thesis is a boon, if only in that limited sense. What is the central thesis of Fantasyland, the one validated by the [questionable] election of 2016? The clue is in the title: Andersen sets out to demonstrate that America is a land of fantasy, rather than exceptionalism, and that these fantasies drive the nation ever-further away from being the Enlightenment-founded stronghold of liberty, opportunity, and hope that some individual Americans sometimes still quaintly believe in.

The titular notion that America “went” haywire is an appealing one. It suggests that, contrary to what might seem to be readily observable facts, America was once a sane and decent country, living up to the highest expression of ideals in her most expansively hopeful documents (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, et cetera), and that the current period, among others in the country’s short history, like the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Watergate, or the worst excesses of the Klan in the South… these, we are meant to hope, are aberrations. Continue reading

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Grand Master, by Gladys Mitchell (writing as Stephen Hockaby): A Review

Some Background

Detective writer Gladys Mitchell (who I may have mentioned elsewhere) also wrote under two pseudonyms during her long career. In the 1960s and early ’70s, she was also Malcolm Torrie, and in this guise authored six interesting novels about a sort of architectural historian-cum-sleuth named Timothy Herring. In the 1930s, while she was also turning out the first dozen Mrs. Bradley mysteries, Mitchell also wrote under the name Stephen Hockaby. In this guise, she penned five novels and one juvenile title, placed in various historical settings. The last of these, published in the fateful year 1939 by Michael Joseph, was titled Grand Master.

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Grand Master, by Stephen Hockaby (Gladys Mitchell). First edition dust jacket, reproduced from Jason Half’s site.

I happened to look for Grand Master, and all of the Hockaby titles, in the WorldCat online catalogue when I was searching for something else entirely earlier in the summer. I found, to my surprise, that a copy was held in a university library in the United States. On a whim (and expecting my request to be rejected) I submitted an inter-library loan request through my local bibliothèque. Imagine my surprise, when, on returning home from vacation in July, I found a notification that the book was at my local branch, waiting to be collected.

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Here Comes a Chopper, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

Almost as though the pall of war had been lifted from her writing in a single gesture, Mitchell’s 1946 novel, Here Comes a Chopper, is a return to the form, in some ways, of her pre-War work. By this time, having been a working writing for over fifteen years, Mitchell’s pacing is assured, her characterisation is deft, and the authoritative voice of Mrs. Bradley cuts through all attempts at obfuscation, although in her own good time.

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Gladys Mitchell, Here Comes a Chopper (Vintage UK, 2014)

The childhood rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”, hauntingly employed two years later in the very different context of George Orwell’s 1984, is here only indirectly invoked by the title, but every English reader of the day would probably have been able to summon the full couplet:

“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”

(For those interested in a broader history of “Oranges and Lemons”, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start).

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How I Spent My Summer Holidays or, Fun with the Viking Portable Library

I’ve been quiet on the review front this summer, for which I apologise. The lack of posting wasn’t for want of writing, but just an inability to follow anything through to completion. To mask the symptoms of my mild ennui, I have been researching the Viking Portable Library, a collection of anthology volumes covering a broad range of subjects and topics, and published, in various forms, since 1943. I first encountered the Portables while I was in college, working my way through in a bookstore. What follows is just a little extract of a much larger article that I’m working on chronicling the Portables from their earliest days to their present incarnation (and I’ll explain why the notion of that “present incarnation” is problematic in a moment).

The Viking Portable Library was the idea of American writer and critic Alexander Woollcott, who had seen similar compact volumes in the hands of British troops while reporting from Britain in the opening days of World War II. With a deal for a first volume made with The Viking Press of New York City, he assembled a book entitled As You Were, intending it as a volume that could be easily carried by soldiers as the United States entered its second year in the War in 1943, and contain an assortment of quintessentially American prose and poetry. Although Woollcott died unexpectedly just a little more than a month before publication, the book was a rousing success, going through multiple editions. The editor at Viking, Marshall A. Best, quickly sought to commission more volumes. Despite shortages and restrictions on paper and printing (all World War II-era editions include a note in the colophon indicating that the books conform to wartime standards), the early hardcover editions are remarkably durable (although the dustjackets are often in poor condition when they are present at all). Within a month of the end of the War, there were fifteen volumes in the Viking Portable Library, and a raft of new titles arrived in 1946, by which time there were twenty-seven Portables, including a volume devoted to Woollcott, himself a minor member of the Algonquin Roundtable. By the end of 1947, there were thirty-five Portables.

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The Viking Portable Library, first fifteen volumes (except for No. 14, the Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald). Note that the number 2 only appears on the spine of the Portable Steinbeck because it is the first revised edition; the highly-collectible original did not have a number. Also visible is the sail motif which appears on the Portable Carl van Doren, but without a number.

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The Rising of the Moon, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

 

“…find out moonshine, find out moonshine!”
— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Sc. 1

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The Rising of the Moon (Virago Press, 1996) (Reprinted 2000)

I’ll make an admission by way of an opening: the works of Gladys Mitchell are comfortable. Considering the nastiness of the world outside (especially at this moment in history), even a past with murderers on the rampage is preferable to a treason-dripping chaos-looming present. Once the reader is immersed in Mitchell’s various worlds, they may even feel that they are in a comfortable, secure place, one which is all too often derisively described by certain self-proclaimed cognoscenti as “cozy.”

Obviously, I dislike that term for a certain loose genre of detective stories (generally defined as those that are English and published prior to the 1960s). Intended to draw a distinction between earlier writers and the “gritty realism” (read: sadism and deviance) of many modern writers, “cozy” often comes off to me as a judgmental, even as a derisory designation. But if there is anything “cozy” in the world of The Rising of the Moon, it is offset by some of the most savage murders to date in a Mitchell novel. Continue reading

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