Monday, August 22, 2016

Maigret and the Calame Report by Georges Simenon



Corruption and cover-up
Maigret and the Calame Report, published in 1954, is the 74th adventure of Inspector Jules Maigret, superintendant of Paris’s Police Judiciaire and star of the extensive detective series by Belgian author Georges Simenon. It was originally published under the French title of Maigret chez le ministre and can also be found under the name Maigret and the Minister. Simenon wrote the book during his decade-long stay in the United States.

A tragedy has occurred that has all of Paris upset. A building housing an orphanage has collapsed, killing 128 children. It is brought to light that, prior to the disaster, an engineer named Calame had written a report warning of just such an occurrence, but that report was suppressed and all known copies are missing. One late night, Maigret is called to the apartment of Auguste Point, the Minister of Public Works. Point informs Maigret that recently a man named Piquemal had delivered to him a newly discovered copy of the Calame report. However, 24 hours later, the report went missing, apparently stolen. Point realizes that if anyone were to find out that he had the report in his possession, he would be accused of hiding or destroying the document in order to protect those officials responsible for the disaster. He asks Maigret to find the thief, recover the document, and clear his name. Though reluctant to get involved in political matters, Maigret sympathizes with the minister and agrees to help him.

This intriguing setup makes for a very exciting mystery. Once hooked by the first chapter of this novel, I couldn’t put it down. Like all of Maigret’s cases, this one is brisk and brief, and I read the whole thing in a single day. Though Maigret novels are often unconventional entries in the mystery genre, this one follows a pretty standard detective novel format: description of the crime in Chapter 1, enumeration of the suspects in Chapter 2, interrogation of the suspects in Chapter 3, then a few chapters of gumshoeing until the big reveal in Chapter 8 and the epilogue in Chapter 9. The contents of these chapters, however, is anything but conventional or predictable. The book is enjoyable on three levels: First, you’ve got the detective work; next, you gain insight into Maigret’s personal character and his relationship with his wife; and lastly, there’s the added dimension of a political thriller. The fact that the crime involves members of the higher levels of government elevates the importance and urgency of the case. Maigret definitely feels the pressure, and spends much of the novel worried that he’s in way over his head. He knows his career is at stake. If Point goes down, he goes down.

This is one of the better Maigret books I’ve read, though not entirely typical of the series. I tend to say that with almost every Maigret book I review, however, so perhaps there really is no typical Maigret mystery. The author’s boundless inventiveness delivers a unique experience with each book. It’s a wonder that Simenon was able to crank out so many novels, and even more amazing that they are consistently of such high quality. Maigret and the Calame Report is a top-notch thriller and a totally engaging read.
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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Colonel’s Dream by Charles W. Chesnutt



The old Dixie home ain’t what it used to be
Charles W. Chesnutt
The Colonel’s Dream, published in 1905, was the last novel written by Charles W. Chesnutt, one of the great American realist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A man of mixed-race ancestry, Chesnutt wrote about black/white relations in post-Civil War America. His depictions of social, political, and economic conditions in the South are unflinchingly honest and sometimes brutally realistic. Such frank societal criticism may have been off-putting to audiences of Chesnutt’s day, but it’s that very frankness that makes his work all the more valuable to today’s readers as a literary record of American history. The Colonel’s Dream is yet another great novel in this author’s exceptional body of work.

Colonel Henry French is a former Confederate Army soldier who settled in New York City after the war and struck it rich in the business world. After selling his company, he decides to temporarily relocate to his hometown of Clarendon, North Carolina, partly to benefit the ill health of his son Phil. In Clarendon, the Colonel reconnects with some old friends and relives fond memories, but he finds the town much changed since his youth. Since the war, and the emancipation of the slaves, the town has stagnated. Many of the blacks, though free, can’t find decent work because of racial prejudice, while the whites, used to having their work done for them by slaves, have grown shiftless and idle. What’s worse, the Colonel discovers a system of servitude in place that essentially perpetuates slavery. Blacks are fined heavily for crimes like vagrancy. Their debts are then auctioned off to white employers who get their free labor for months or years. This system is supported by white supremacist William Fetters, a childhood classmate of the Colonel’s, who owns most of the town and whom almost everyone is in debt to. To reinvigorate Clarendon and break Fetters’s hold on the populace, the Colonel decides to inject some much-needed capital into the economy by building a mill.

Although Chesnutt had very liberal, progressive views on racial equality and civil rights, he sometimes expresses some rather conservative ideas about class. In his works, aristocratic “blood” and “breeding” are often cited as the true measure of a man. A specimen of poor white trash can rise above his condition and learn to run a profitable business, as Fetters has done, but he can never learn the true manners, dignity, and honor of a gentleman. The man with blue blood will always be his superior. Colonel French, the descendant of wealthy white landowners, is the epitome of this aristocratic ideal, and his every action is beyond reproach. Not only does this attitude dilute the socially conscious message of Chesnutt’s work, it also sometimes constitutes a departure from realism in favor of a romanticized ideal.

Chesnutt’s writing is not free of melodrama either. The plot contains a few love stories, a subplot about a hidden treasure, and a dramatic courthouse scene, but somehow it all works together. Given its frequent focus on economic matters, The Colonel’s Dream feels a little safe compared to other Chesnutt novels like The Marrow of Tradition, about a race riot, or The House Behind the Cedars, about mixed-race blacks passing as white. Nevertheless, it must have been quite controversial for its time, and its illumination of prejudice and exposure of injustice is still quite relevant today. The novel is extremely well-written, with an unpredictable plot and several emotionally stirring scenes. Though The House Behind the Cedars may be Chesnutt’s best novel, this one is a close second. For a writer whose every book is well worth reading, that’s saying a lot.
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Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories by English Authors: Ireland by Samuel Lover, et al.



Erin go blah
John Banim
This collection of Irish short fiction is part of the ten-volume series Stories by English Authors, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each of the books in the series focuses on a different setting, including volumes on England, London, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, The Orient, The Sea, and in this case, Ireland. Thus, the complete title, Stories by English Authors: Ireland would lead one to believe that this is a book of Englishmen writing about the Irish. Contrary to that implication, however, all the authors included in the book are in fact Irish. Nevertheless, the collection does have a feeling analogous to, say, Yankee authors writing about the American South, in that the Irish authors included here tend to depict their own countrymen as bumpkins or “characters” who drink, fight, and talk funny. Most of the stories are bad jokes that are dragged out far too long.

Most of the authors are overly preoccupied with demonstrating how closely they can phonetically transcribe the Irish brogue into written text. This sometimes results in mangled prose that’s anything but a joy to get through. Samuel Lover’s “The Gridiron” is almost unintelligible. I know there’s supposed to be a joke here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find the punchline. In “The Lost Recruit” by Jane Barlow, the annoyingly overdone accent is accompanied by a stupid and pointless plot. A young man dreams of joining the army, but his mother won’t let him, so he wanders off and something totally unrelated happens to him that simply brings the tale to an abrupt halt. Equally dismal is William Carleton’s story “Neal Malone,” about a diminutive tailor whose greatest wish in life is to get into a fight, but no one will take him up on the challenge because everyone likes him so much. To add injury to insult, this unfunny premise is protracted into a story of almost novella length that takes up a quarter of the book.

The remaining three stories aren’t great, but they can’t help but compare favorably to the aforementioned. “The Rival Dreamers” by John Banim is a sort of ghost story with some good suspenseful scenes here and there. Once again, however, the primary focus is on capturing the local color of that Irish brogue, which only serves to confuse and obscure the narrative. An anonymous piece entitled “The Banshee” features the legendary screaming female spirit of Irish mythology. After a dull nonfiction intro explaining the underlying folklore, it segues into a horror story that’s not bad. The best entry in the book is thankfully also its longest. In “The Emergency Men” by George H. Jessop, a dispute erupts between tenant farmers and their aristocratic landlords. The workers storm the manor house in a violent attack. It’s a well-written and exciting thriller, somewhat reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s film Straw Dogs. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, however, when you realize that the story’s overall message is that the lower classes are troublesome riff-raff who will rise up like wild beasts against their masters if the blue bloods aren’t careful.

This is the third volume I’ve read in the Stories by English Authors series, and the worst one so far. After three books, I find this series inferior to its two sister series from Scribner’s: Stories by American Authors, published in 1884, and Stories by Foreign Authors, published in 1898. With this Irish volume, it’s difficult to understand the intentions of an editor who would assemble a collection of stories that mostly paint the Emerald Isle in an unflattering light. If you’re hoping for a good introduction to 19th-century Irish literature, this isn’t it.

Stories in this collection
The Gridiron by Samuel Lover 
The Emergency Men by George H. Jessop
The Lost Recruit by Jane Barlow 
The Rival Dreamers by John Banim 
Neal Malone by William Carleton 
The Banshee by Anonymous

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Madeleine Férat by Emile Zola



Uncharacteristically prudish of Zola
Emile Zola originally wrote the story of Madeleine Férat as a play, simply entitled Madeleine, but its lack of theatrical success inspired him to rework the drama as a prose narrative. The novel Madeleine Férat was originally published in the pages of the magazine L’Evenement in 1868. It was later released in book form in 1882. This was the last novel Zola wrote before embarking on his masterful 20-novel series known as the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it does bear some stylistic resemblance to those later, greater works of literary naturalism. In terms of quality, however, this feels like an early, half-baked work by an author still trying to find his mature literary voice.

Madeleine Férat is one of the darkest love stories you’ll ever read. The title character is orphaned at a young age. When she reaches womanhood, she escapes the sexual advances of her guardian. Soon thereafter, she meets a young gentleman who takes her in as his mistress. Madeleine loves this man, but he sees her mainly as a plaything. Eventually he abandons her, and she finds herself alone once again. She then becomes the mistress of a second lover, named William. Unlike her first partner, William is a kinder, gentler sort of gentleman who truly falls in love with Madeleine. Despite warnings to never marry his mistress, he makes her his wife. William is a wealthy man, and for a time the two young lovers enjoy a comfortable life of newly wedded bliss. Reminders of Madeleine’s former life as a party girl and “kept woman” keep coming back to haunt them, however, putting a strain on the relationship between husband and wife. The fact that Madeleine once found happiness in another man’s bed may be too much for William to handle.

Nowadays, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that a woman is only allowed to sleep with one man during her lifetime, and if she breaks this rule, she must face a punishment of disgrace, ostracism, or crippling guilt. While in Zola’s time, obviously, sexual mores were stricter, he seems an unlikely spokesperson for this sort of socially enforced chastity. In his other works, Zola often treats premarital or extra-marital sex bluntly as a fact of life that must be accepted, so why the drastically different attitude here? In this novel, Zola advances the theory that once a woman loses her virginity she is essentially a physical and psychological prisoner to her first lover, who has left his mark of ownership upon her. Zola, who so often fought for social reform, seems here to be endorsing the moral code of a puritanical society. While he does illustrate how such an unrealistic double standard oppresses womankind, he doesn’t say much to refute it.

Zola was often accused of concentrating on the seamier side of life in order to deliberately shock and offend (and thus titillate) his audience. This is evident in some of his earlier works, and seems to be the case here. The love triangle in this book is not unlike that in Zola’s better novel Thérèse Raquin, but here the crime that binds the three main characters together is not murder but sexual promiscuity. Madeleine Férat is a relentless catalog of misery, loaded with as much imagery equating sex with death as Zola could dream up. The fact that the book is way too long only magnifies the unpleasantness. Each hour-long chapter ruminates the same dismal themes over and over again like the beating of so many dead horses. It’s hard to believe this was ever a play, because I don’t know who would want to sit through it. Madeleine Férat can be seen as a failed experiment by a great author, skillfully crafted in authentic detail but ultimately suffering from too many errors in judgment.
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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro by Alex Toth



Classic character, classic artist
This trade paperback, published in 2001 by Image Comics, reprints The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro as drawn by the legendary artist Alex Toth. This volume doesn’t provide the original publication dates of these comics, but a little research reveals they were probably produced sometime between 1957 and 1962. Toth drew these comics for Whitman/Western Publishing, which had a distribution deal with Dell Comics. It’s unclear under which of the three corporate names these comics were released. These adventures were published as a tie-in to a Zorro television series that was produced by Disney. All the preceding information is a bit sketchy, because the book’s brief introduction by Howard Chaykin and the equally brief forward by Toth are more casual reminiscences than informative history.

The character of Zorro, created by pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley, debuted in the novel The Curse of Capistrano, which was serialized in 1919 issues of All-Story Weekly and later reprinted in book form as The Mark of Zorro. The masked swashbuckler soon gained greater fame through movie adaptations starring Douglas Fairbanks and later Tyrone Power. In his forward, Toth expresses a fondness for Power’s interpretation of Zorro, and it shows in his art. The character that McCulley created is a masterful concoction of western adventure, swashbuckling heroes like The Three Musketeers, and romantic lore of Old Mexico. The atmosphere and general parameters of the narrative remain largely unchanged from McCulley’s original novel, though the names of the supporting characters have changed. Zorro is still the alter ego of Don Diego de la Vega, a wealthy caballero who pretends to be a lazy and cowardly dandy so no one will suspect he’s really the masked avenger.

It’s hard to imagine a comics artist whose style is more suited to this classic character than Toth. Though these comics were originally published in color, this volume reproduces Toth’s original inked artwork in beautiful black and white. Another artist has added an additional medium-gray tone, under Toth’s direction. The result is a film noir effect that rivals the silvery highlights and shadows of the Tyrone Power movie. Though Toth drew mostly comic books, his style is more in keeping with the artists of the classic newspaper adventure strips, like Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon or Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby. Like these artists, Toth is a master of light and shadow, and wields his ink-loaded brush with an economy of stroke that infuses each panel with life and activity. His figures strike a perfect balance between anatomical accuracy and romanticized caricature. Toth also does a great job capturing the period feel of early 19th-century California—its old missions, picturesque haciendas, and desert landscapes.

Unfortunately, the writing does not live up to the art. Many of the stories are only six pages long, which allows for only the most childish of plots. A few longer entries, up to 26 pages, are more complex and offer a glimpse into the true narrative potential of the character. In his forward, Toth, a notorious curmudgeon, complains about the stories Disney provided him with, and his lack of creative freedom on the Zorro tales. Perhaps his disgruntlement explains the noticeable inconsistency in his art. Some adventures are drawn with intricate detail while others look hastily sketched. In either case, Toth’s art is superb and worthy of five stars. The package as a whole, however, writing included, merits about a 3.5.

A page from Alex Toth’s Zorro comics

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Mercenary by Mack Reynolds



When corporations clash
Mercenary, a science fiction novella by Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the April 1962 issue of the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was later published in book form as Mercenary from Tomorrow, a title which really doesn’t make much sense because the plot does not involve time travel, though the story does take place in the future. American society has been split up into a rigid caste system, which makes it almost impossible for anyone, no matter how intelligent or hard-working, to rise above the station determined by his or her birth. One possible way to advance, however, is through military achievement. In this future, tension still exists between the United States and the Soviet Union (now known as the Sov-World). However, most combat takes place not between nations but between corporations. These commercial “fracases” serve not only to settle disputes between rival commercial enterprises but also to entertain the masses, who remain glued to their TV sets, watching the fighting while doped up on pills.

Joe Mauser is a veteran mercenary who has seen combat in several such conflicts. When a fracas is announced between Vacuum Tube Transport and Continental Hovercraft, Mauser chooses the former corporation, even though the latter seems to have the advantage in wealth and military might. Mauser hopes that if he can bring victory to this underdog, he will be rewarded with promotion to a higher caste.

I first became interested in Mack Reynolds because of his similarity to another sci-fi writer of the same era, H. Beam Piper. Both writers share common interests in military, economic, and political issues, and often base their fiction around such topics. (Piper even wrote a novella called The Mercenaries.) While Piper is conservative in his political views, Reynolds was raised on socialism, so his writings have a more leftist slant. I sympathize more with Reynolds’s politics, but I usually prefer Piper’s writing. I have read a few Reynolds stories that I really like, such as “The Business, As Usual,” “Compounded Interest,” and “Gun for Hire,” but as I delve deeper into his body of work looking for more, I often come up disappointed, as is the case with Mercenary. Piper manages to explore socioeconomic issues without sacrificing a sense of humor or the sheer fun of visionary sci-fi speculation. Reynolds’s stories, on the other hand, usually end up being more about politics than about science. Mercenary, for example, is really just a war story that happens to be dressed up in futuristic trappings.

Throughout the book, Mauser keeps alluding to a secret weapon he has hidden under his sleeve that will ensure a victory for Vacuum Tube Transport. Reynolds even resorts to establishing unrealistic rules for the fracas just to set up this plot device. All the foreshadowing, however, leads to disappointment as the underwhelming trump card is revealed. Mercenary is the first in a series of stories starring Joe Mauser, but Mercenary doesn’t make for an inviting debut. Though Reynolds’s futuristic caste system sparks some interesting debate between capitalist and socialist ideals, all the corporate and military bureaucracy is just boring.
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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Doctor Ox’s Experiment by Jules Verne



Comic antiflemitism
In America you occasionally hear jokes about Canadians—how they’re always so polite, passive, quiet, and reasonable. Apparently, in the 19th century, the French used to make the same jokes about the Flemish (the inhabitants of Flanders, or northern Belgium). Now imagine basing an entire novel around that stereotype. That’s exactly what Jules Verne does with his 1872 novella Doctor Ox’s Experiment. Verne is best known as a science fiction writer, but he was also somewhat of a geography nut. In all of his works, he goes to great pains to establish the settings of his stories in great detail, no matter in what exotic locales they may take place. In this book, Verne paints for us a picturesque village in the mountains of Flanders named Quiquendone, where the citizens never fight, complain, or raise their voices in anger. They are so prim and stuffy that couples even require a decade of courtship before they get married. Verne renders the scene with a broad brush and lays it on pretty thick.

Have no fear, there’s also a science fiction story going on here. Doctor Ox, a mysterious scientist, arrives in Quiquendone and donates his expertise in a scheme to technologically advance this backwater town. To elaborate further on his plan would be to spoil the surprises (and this is a pretty short book, so surprises are few). There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the science here, and the story is pretty predictable. The sci-fi component of the plot just serves to reinforce the dumb joke upon which the whole story is based. The anti-Flemish ridicule is by no means offensive (at least I don’t think so, and I’m 1/4 Belgian), but it’s just not all that funny. After the initial chuckle it gets old fast. Nevertheless, Verne delivers a lively fairy-tale story that does manage to keep the reader interested. I enjoy his adventure novels a lot more than his comedies, but he’s a great writer who rarely if ever bores. Needless to say, he has a lot of better and better-known works than this one, but if you’re a Verne fan looking for a quickie then you might find this novella mildly entertaining.

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