Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Knightsbridge Mystery by Charles Reade

Foregone conclusions
The Knightsbridge Mystery, a novel by English author Charles Reade, was originally published in 1882. The story takes place at a country inn called The Swan, located on Knightsbridge Green, which at that time was outside the city of London. Reade introduces us to the regulars who reside at this establishment and involves us in the routine of their everyday activities and relations. The peace and comfort of this rural retreat is shattered when one of the guests is murdered, presumably for his gold. Evidence points to a neighborhood drunkard, who is apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death. The inspector on the case, however, is not entirely convinced of the convicted man’s guilt.

The main problem with The Knightsbridge Mystery is that it is no mystery. Even before the crime is committed, Reade has already told you the identity of the killer, his motive, and much of his modus operandi. All that’s left for the reader to do is wait for the murderer to get caught. In that sense, The Knightsbridge Mystery bears less resemblance to most Victorian detective fiction in the Sherlock Holmes vein than it does to today’s cinematic crime stories, which often tell the detective’s and the criminal’s stories in parallel, the audience being expected to sympathize with both parties. In such villainless tales, the suspense arises less from the solving of the crime than from the emotional drama of the characters’ lives. In The Knightsbridge Mystery, however, Reade delivers the narrative in such a deadpan fashion that the emotional roller coaster of murder, inquest, and capital punishment is surprisingly flat and mundane.

The overall effect left behind by The Knightsbridge Mystery is one of frustration. Reade has crafted a complex crime story admirable for its legal and psychological authenticity. One can’t help thinking, however, that if it had really been treated like a mystery, with some questions left unanswered throughout, it would have been a lot more entertaining. When all is said and done, this book is a decent read but nothing to get excited about. Its brevity keeps it from being a waste of time. It leaves the reader with a suspicion that Reade may have the potential for great writing, and a hope that that potential is realized in some of his other works.
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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Essays in Humanism by Albert Einstein

A voice for peace in dark times
As a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Albert Einstein became famous for formulating the theory of relativity, the equation of mass-energy equivalence, and other important discoveries that changed the way we view the universe. During his lifetime, however, his renown as a scientist allowed him to extend his sphere of influence beyond the realm of physics. As a public intellectual, he also spoke out on politics, economics, and social issues. Essays in Humanism is a collection of Einstein’s nonscientific writings in these areas. First published in 1950 by the Philosophical Library, this collection has been recently rereleased in ebook form by Open Road Media. The 43 essays included, written from 1933 to 1949, were originally presented as public speeches, book forewords, or newspaper and magazine articles.

Because of the time frame in which these pieces were penned, World War II hangs like an evil spectre over the entire proceedings. Whether commenting on the rise of the Nazis before the war or the Cold War that immediately followed it, Einstein ardently advocates for world peace. Having contributed to the making of the atomic bomb, and having seen its effects in Japan, Einstein feels compelled to see that nuclear weapons are never used again, though Cold War antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union make Armageddon an ever-present threat. To prevent World War III, Einstein proposes that nations relinquish their military power to a supranational governing body, stronger than the United Nations, which would insure peace by settling international disputes through judicial rather than violent means. His proposal for this plan is outlined in great detail over the course of many of the essays included here. A Soviet counterargument is also reprinted, along with Einstein’s rebuttal. Surprisingly, even in the early days of the Cold War, Einstein publicly recommends socialism as an economic solution to many of the world’s problems, a stance for which he would likely be vilified today.

The essays in this book are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically. This one issue of international security through supranational governance takes up roughly two-thirds of the book. Then follows a series of several brief tributes to great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, and brief eulogies of departed scientific colleagues, including Marie Curie and Max Planck. The remaining quarter of the book deals with issues pertaining to the Jews, their persecution in Europe, and their attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Einstein praises settlement efforts in Palestine but argues against a totally self-governing Jewish state, as he fears it will only give rise to the sort of rampant intolerant nationalism that spawned the two World Wars in the first place.

Overall, Einstein’s writing is excellent. He states his opinions very articulately while expressing an undying compassion for humanity and a conviction for social justice. Most of the book’s faults are editorial. The goal here seems to have been to collect anything that Einstein wrote, regardless of worth. Some of the “essays” are only two paragraphs long, and there is quite a bit of repetition among the selections. Nevertheless, this book gives the 21st-century reader a great deal of insight into the world political climate of the 1930s and ‘40s. Much of what Einstein describes—xenophobia, fear-mongering, extreme income disparity—bears a disturbing resemblance to the world in which we live today. His insightful perspective provides great food for thought and a touch of hope in dark times.
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Friday, October 13, 2017

Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill

The consequences of denying one’s nature
Beyond the Horizon, a three-act play by Eugene O’Neill, premiered on Broadway in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year. The play takes place on the Mayo farm, located a mile from the sea. There, James and Kate Mayo live with their two grown sons, Robert and Andy. The drama opens the night before Robert is due to ship off to sea with his uncle Dick Scott, a salty old ship’s captain. Robert is a dreamer who, fueled by his voracious reading, longs for romance and adventure. The farm makes him feel awkward and confined. He desires to venture “beyond the horizon” to indulge his wanderlust and see the world. His brother Andy, on the other hand, is a natural-born farmer who enjoys working the land. Andy plans to stay put, run the farm, and marry Ruth Atkins, their neighbor on the farm next door. In the first scene, however, Ruth declares her love for Robert. The two brothers are then forced to pull a switcheroo, each acting against his nature, as Robert stays to marry Ruth and Andy angrily storms off to ship away with his uncle.

Like many of O’Neill’s early plays, Beyond the Horizon was a groundbreaking work of realism in American drama. His gritty, naturalistic plays were a marked departure from the sort of romanticized contrivances that previously occupied the stages of America’s theatres. O’Neill’s plays deal with the sort of real-life drama that audiences might experience in their daily lives: unrequited love, financial hardships, dysfunctional families, the death of loved ones, and shattered dreams. One problem with Beyond the Horizon, however, is that he lumps all those personal catastrophes onto one family, which results in a play that is a bit too melodramatic, overwrought, and operatically tragic to ring true.

The plot of Beyond the Horizon is built upon a contrast that often shows up in O’Neill’s plays. The sea equals freedom, independence, and opportunity, while the land equals captivity, dependence, and stagnation. If you’re living in an O’Neill play, the worst thing you want to do is get tied down. Love is the bringer of misery, and women are the root of all evil. If not for Ruth, the Mayo brothers would have lived their lives to their fullest potential. Though her part is written as an authentic multidimensional human being rather than a caricature of an evil temptress, O’Neill still makes it clear that everything is all Ruth’s fault.

It’s easy to see why actors and stage directors would love this play. It offers meaty roles and scenes with the potential for great emotional power. In the hands of talented actors, this could be a profoundly moving tragedy for the theatergoing audience. The experience of reading it off the page, however, is not as affecting or as effective as other O’Neill plays like Anna Christie or The Hairy Ape. There are no surprises here. You can see what’s coming a half an hour ahead of time. The reader spends a significant portion of each scene waiting for the characters to catch up to the inevitable.

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in 1936, and he may very well be America’s greatest playwright. His work is head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries and always worth reading. Beyond the Horizon is not a bad play by any means, but by O’Neill standards, compared to his other works, it is not among his best. It shows inklings of greatness, but he would go on to better things.
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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Common Man by Mack Reynolds

Hover cars are not enough
The Common Man is a science fiction novella written by Mack Reynolds. It was originally published in the January 1963 issue of Analog Science Fiction–Science Fact under the pseudonym of Guy McCord. Reynolds was a prolific sci-fi author who published dozens of novels and at least a hundred short stories under several pen names from the early 1950s until his death in 1983. I have read about a dozen of his shorter works and have found them to range widely in quality from works of bold genius to the merely mediocre. The Common Man, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.

The story opens with three scientists knocking at the door of an unassuming middle-class home in the Midwest. When the homeowner answers the door, the visitors inform him that detailed statistical analysis has determined that he, Don Crowley, is officially the perfectly average American. That in itself, however, is not the reason for their visit. They tell him that they require a specimen of his utter averageness to act as the subject of an experiment. They are testing a formula that endows the recipient with a certain superhuman power, and they need to gauge whether it will work on the typical American man. After some coaxing, Crowley agrees to be their guinea pig.

This story takes place at some point in the future. We know that because Reynolds mentions hover cars. Other than that, however, the setting is no different than the world in which we live. This is not the only story in which Reynolds inserts a flying car into an otherwise nonfuturistic tale. It seems as if he was required to do this in order to get his stories published in science fiction magazines, because, in fact, a lot of his stories are barely science fiction. Often, they are just expressions of his political or sociological opinions, but the presence of hover cars conveniently makes them sci-fi. In this story, the science of the experiment factors very little into the narrative. It is soon revealed that the scientists are not seeking to find out whether the formula will work on Crowley; they already know it will. What they really want to know is how he will behave once he is endowed with the superpower. What sort of ethical choices will he make? The study is psychological, not physical. Instead of a guinea pig, Crowley is more of a rat in a maze.

This comical premise is funny at first, but it devolves into kind of a dumb gangster story. Reynolds offers his commentary on human nature, but it comes across as both preachy and half-baked. His most biting and cynical satire is expressed in the personal qualities of Crowley as a representative of “the common man”: a high school drop-out education, gullibility, bigotry, sexism, poor morals—in general, a complete lack of sophistication and civility. Later in the story, Reynolds backs off from this scathing criticism by introducing a plot element that negates much of what came before. This revelation is intended to be a surprise twist, but if feels more like a cop out.

You just never know what you’re going to get when you dive into a Mack Reynolds story. I won’t tell you not to read his work, but I do recommend that you don’t read this one. So far the best writings of his that I’ve read are the novella Adaptation and the short stories “The Business, As Usual,” “Gun for Hire,” and “Compounded Interest.”
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Monday, October 9, 2017

The Trail of the Goldseekers by Hamlin Garland

A rather dismal Klondike travelogue
Jack London became a literary superstar by writing about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s in works such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he wasn’t the only author to venture up to the Yukon Territory during the great stampede to the North. Hamlin Garland, one of American literature’s pioneers of realism, also made the arduous journey to the Klondike River region, as chronicled in his book The Trail of the Goldseekers: A Record of Travel in Prose and Verse, published in 1899. Unlike London, at the time of the Gold Rush Garland was already an established man of letters, having achieved some degree of literary fame with books like Main-Travelled Roads and Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly.

The two also differ in that while London went North with the serious intention of striking it rich, Garland makes it clear that he is “not a gold seeker, but a nature hunter,” who went simply for the experience of the journey and to enjoy the beauty of the landscape. In pursuit of the latter end, he decided to take the longest route to the gold country, the overland route through British Columbia, also called the Long Trail. From his home in Wisconsin, he takes the Canadian railroad to the end of the line in Ashcroft, British Columbia. There, he and his traveling companion Burton purchase horses and supplies and begin the long haul northwestwards towards Dawson.

Though London’s trip to the Klondike was far from successful, he reveled in the romantic, adventurous spirit of the undertaking. Even his nonfiction writings on the Gold Rush are filled with admiration for the hardy souls who undertook the adventure and the savage wilds through which they passed. Garland’s account of his own journey, on the other hand, is dull and grueling by comparison, taking the form of a repetitive sequence of indistinguishable rivers, barren fields, and mosquito-infested, hoof-sucking swamps. In other works I’ve read by Garland, he has demonstrated a faculty for beautifully descriptive nature writing, but such passages are rare in this book. The beauty of the land is measured by the availability or scarcity of horse feed. Though he judges the Gold Rush as a foolhardy endeavor and opines that the goldseekers are rapers of the land, his own account presents a surprisingly unpoetic and utilitarian view of the natural landscape.

Nor does the book succeed very well as a journalistic or historical record of the Klondike experience. Garland clearly was better off than most of the men he encountered on the trail. Unlike the typical goldseeker, he could afford the finest horses and a boat ticket whenever one was required. In the final chapters, as he reaches the mining towns in Alaska and the Yukon, Garland finally delivers some first-hand perspective of the Gold Rush as a sociological phenomenon. For the better part of the book, however, he is off on a trail where he seems to be quite happy with minimal human contact. Unlike London, Garland doesn’t show much interest in the stories of the men he meets. More than anything, he just wants to write about his horse.

As its subtitle indicates, this book includes poetry in addition to prose. Each of its 26 chapters is followed by one to three poems. These are generally rather simple, straightforward rhyming stanzas of realistic natural imagery. Garland is no Robert Frost, but his verses are pleasantly evocative of the North and are a welcome addition to the narrative. As a whole, prose and verse combined, The Trail of the Goldseekers is just OK. I consider myself an admirer of Garland’s writing and am grateful for his contribution to American literary naturalism, but this is not his best work.
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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2017

Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro!
The Japanese-born British author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go has just been announced as the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ll confess I’ve never read any of his books, but perhaps some day I will. I’ve always found the roster of Nobel laureates a good list to draw from when looking for new authors to try from around the world. 

Here at Old Books by Dead Guys we prefer our Nobel laureates a bit more antiquated. As happens each year on this occasion, I present the cumulative list of works by Nobel Prize winners that have been reviewed at this blog. Since last year 15 new works of literature have been added, and four new authors make their debut on the list: Henrik Pontoppidan, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, and Boris Pasternak. If you’re looking for a Nobel-worthy read, check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America

Eugene O’Neill
 (1936 Nobel) United States of America

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China)

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany)

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union)

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America

See you next year!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Mycroft, Moriarity, and more marvelous mysteries
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1893, is the second anthology of Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, following 1892’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The American edition contains 11 stories; the British edition has 12 (too complicated to go into here, but the missing story was included in a later collection, His Last Bow), all of which were originally published in the Strand Magazine. Overall, the quality of the stories in The Memoirs doesn’t quite measure up to the groundbreaking Adventures collection, but it is still an excellent volume of detective fiction, and a few of its mysteries are among Holmes and Watson’s greatest cases.

Although this is only the second volume of Holmes tales, at times the franchise feels like it’s already losing a little steam. “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk,” for instance, is a fine mystery, but it feels a bit like a rehash of “The Red-Headed League” from the first collection. The boring and confusing “The Reigate Puzzle,” is the worst Holmes story I’ve read so far, and I’m still not quite clear on the motive for the crime. “The Resident Patient” is also a bit of a dud and features little of Holmes’s trademark deductive reasoning. There are also a few stories in which the mystery itself is not particularly puzzling, but merely serves as a vehicle for Conan Doyle to provide a back story similar to what might be found in his non-Holmes fiction. “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is just an excuse to tell a sea story, while “The Crooked Man” is yet another tale of the British military in India. Conan Doyle also seems to feel the need to vary the plot template so the stories don’t become too formulaic. Sometimes this works to his advantage and sometimes not. There are a couple of stories where Holmes relates mysteries from earlier in his life—before his fictional debut in A Study in Scarlet—and all Watson gets to do is sit in an armchair and listen. One of these is the aforementioned disappointment “The ‘Gloria Scott,’” but the other is “The Musgrave Ritual,” one of Holmes’s best stories and much better than the Basil Rathbone movie it inspired.

As a whole, The Memoirs contains more hits than misses. Like “The Musgrave Ritual,” “Silver Blaze,” about a missing racehorse, is often regarded as one of the best Holmes mysteries. On the other hand, “The Yellow Face,” is usually rated by Holmes fans as falling towards the bottom of the pack, but I enjoyed it because of the interesting view it provides into Victorian perspectives on a particular social issue. “The Greek Interpreter” is a fun and notable entry because it introduces Sherlock’s smarter older brother Mycroft Holmes, a fascinatingly quirky character who nightly attends a club for those wishing to avoid human contact. It may not be the most puzzling of mysteries, but the story is exciting throughout. “The Naval Treaty” is yet another suspenseful adventure in which Holmes and Watson must recover a missing document in order to avoid an international incident. Lastly, “The Final Problem” introduces us to Professor James Moriarity, one of the truly great villains in the history of fiction. In Conan Doyle’s original take on the character, the evil professor of crime oozes a chilling malevolence that is unmatched among his countless film portrayals.

By the time he finished the stories collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle may have grown tired of the character, but there’s still plenty for the reader to get excited about. Though we have been inundated by countless adaptations over the past century, the original Holmes and Watson stories are still the best incarnations of these immortal characters and still a joy to read.

Stories in this collection
Silver Blaze 
The Yellow Face
The Stock-Broker’s Clerk 
The “Gloria Scott”
The Musgrave Ritual
The Reigate Puzzle 
The Crooked Man
The Resident Patient
The Greek Interpreter
The Naval Treaty 
The Final Problem

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Naudsonce by H. Beam Piper

Unraveling a xenolinguistic conundrum
A contact team from the Terran Federation lands on a previously unexplored planet, soon to be named Svantovit after a Slavic god. The team’s job is to communicate with the planet’s native population and prepare them for Terran colonization and resource extraction. Svantovit is inhabited by an intelligent bipedal race with a civilization based around roughly Bronze Age technology. The team wants to introduce them to Terran tools and machines in order to accelerate their development and acclimate them to the technology necessary to establish large scale factories. The first step, of course, is to communicate. Despite their years of experience with xenolinguistics, however, the Terran scientists cannot make any headway in deciphering the language of the Svants (as the indigenous population has come to be called). Their native tongue does not correspond to the linguistic rules of any language the Terrans have ever encountered.

H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi novella Naudsonce was originally published in the January 1962 edition of Analog Science Fact – Science Fiction. In this story, Piper builds upon the fantasy of an anthropological explorer discovering a hidden culture in the wilderness, only in this case the wilderness is extraterrestrial and the natives have an alien anatomy. Like many explorers in Earth’s history, the Terran team has commercial motives for their expedition, but they also seek the benefits of scientific knowledge, cultural exchange, and galactic diplomacy. One of the great things about Piper’s fiction is he doesn’t confine himself to space operas or stories of astrophysical science. He writes speculative fiction about all branches of science, including, in this case, anthropology and linguistics. Piper has covered similar ground before in Omnilingual, his 1957 novella about scientists discovering an ancient lost city on Mars. Comparing the two works, Naudsonce is far less successful in capitalizing upon the joy of exploration and the thrill of discovery. While the science used to unravel the mystery of the Svants’ communication is interesting, the story just isn’t all that much fun. The Terran contact team, veterans in their fields, act as if such interspecies contact is old hat, and their blasé attitude is contagious.

Don’t expect to find any qualms about colonialism in this story. Piper acknowledges the moral sketchiness of imperialism, but doesn’t frown upon it. His libertarian political views are often evident in his work, and he makes it clear that an empire is OK with him as long as it’s a capitalist empire that thrives on free trade. For most of the story, the Svants are depicted as dumb primitives, just waiting to be exploited, though towards the end they start to develop more as characters and display some higher reasoning. Because it deals with the Terran Federation, Naudsonce is considered part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series. The story takes place about the end of the 26th century in that timeline, but the Future History stories are only loosely connected, so no prior knowledge of that series is required to read Naudsonce.

If you want to know what “naudsonce” means, you’re going to have to read the whole story. It isn’t explained until the final sentence, and I’m not telling. Unless you’re a diehard Piper completist, however, I wouldn’t recommend reading Naudsonce. If you’ve ever daydreamed about being an anthropologist who discovers a previously unknown culture, and you want to see how that might play out on another planet, I would highly recommend Omnilingual.
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Friday, September 29, 2017

A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings by Knut Hamsun

Witness to a dying marriage
Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun’s 1909 novel A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is the sequel to 1906’s Under the Autumn Star and the second book in a trilogy of works by the Norwegian Nobel laureate. In English translation, the two books have been published together in one volume entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer. The third book in the trilogy, The Last Joy (or, Look Back in Happiness) was published in 1912.

While Under the Autumn Star was little longer than a novella, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is a more substantial work, about twice as long as its predecessor. In both books, the narrator is a man named Knud Pedersen, which also happens to be Hamsun’s birth name. Pedersen has previously lived a life of means in a big city, but later in life he chooses to live as an itinerant laborer, traveling from farm to farm over the rural countryside to find work as a handyman. This second book opens roughly six years after the conclusion of the first. The narrator, still wandering, returns to seek employment at the estate of Captain and Fruen (Mrs.) Falkenberg, one of his temporary residences in Under the Autumn Star. Some of the supporting characters from that volume also return, including his coworkers Grindhusen and Lars Falkenberg and the servant woman Emma.

While the first book had the feeling of an autobiographical novel or memoir, this one concentrates more on the Falkenbergs, with the narrator playing the role of an outside observer. Much of the goings-on in the Falkenberg house are related through the conversations of their servants and workmen. The Captain and his wife are having marital troubles, and both are fooling around with other people. Frankly, I found this direction less compelling than the previous novel. Under the Autumn Star was more of a personal examination of the narrator: his wanderlust, his personal growth, his inner conflicts, and his time spent working amidst the natural environment of rural Norway. Here, the focus on the Falkenberg’s marriage is more melodramatic, and, since there’s little trace of autobiographical content, reveals little about the author himself. In the first novel, the narrator had a special connection to Fruen that is largely glossed over here. The attraction or obsession he felt for her is minimized as he seems to be content with playing the role of observer and benevolent servant. The marital power struggle of the Falkenbergs becomes repetitive as they engage in numerous squabbles and attacks.

There is no denying Hamsun’s power as a writer, however, and despite my disappointment in the choice of subject matter I can’t help but admire what he does with it. The ending is very powerful and redeems much of the shortcomings of the earlier portions of the novel. As in the first book, there are some incredibly beautiful passages of poetic prose in which Hamsun paints pictures of nature with a seductive lyricism and an acute eye for detail. Compared to the first book, however, such passages are few and far between, and one wishes there were more of them.

The resolution of this second book feels complete, to the point where I’m not sure how Hamsun is going to make a trilogy out of this, but I’m looking forward to finding out when I read The Last Joy. Though not on a par with his masterpiece Growth of the Soil, Hamsun’s trilogy—thus far, anyway—often displays the same degree of power and beauty that characterizes this exceptional author’s work.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

Pioneering and perplexing
Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered by many literary scholars to be the first modern detective story. Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, the star of this story, is often cited as an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and pretty much every other fictional sleuth who followed him. When reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” that influence becomes blatantly obvious. The narrator befriends a brilliant criminal scientist and becomes his sidekick. The two share an apartment that also serves as their laboratory and office, where clients and persons of interest come to call. Dupin monitors the crime pages of the newspapers, occasionally offering his services to the police. He frequently astounds his friend with displays of his prodigious reasoning faculties and likes to keep his theories to himself until the big reveal at the end. Since the plot devices established here by Poe pretty much set the template for thousands of detective stories to follow, there is certainly no doubt that the genre owes him a great debt. The amazing thing about “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that, despite the myriad mysteries to which we have been exposed in literature and film over the past 175 years, this one still comes across as an exceptionally smart, surprising, and satisfying specimen of the genre.

That’s not to say Poe got everything right on the first try. Though this story may have laid the foundation for all mystery narratives to come, there were still some kinks that needed working out. Poe opens the story with a boring exposition that likens the art of detection to a game of cards. This is followed by a scene where Dupin rather farfetchedly reads his companion’s mind, then offers a somewhat half-baked explanation of how he performed this feat. Next, as the sleuth and his friend dive into the newspapers, the text takes the form of a series of dry, detail-laden newspaper articles. Considering a brutal murder has been committed, this is all rather surprisingly dull. It isn’t until about halfway through the story, when Dupin visits the crime scene, that things really start to pick up and Poe’s brilliance shines.

In a fourth-floor apartment in the Rue Morgue, two women have been murdered and mutilated. Poe sets up two fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to solve the crime. How did the killer enter and exit the room where the killings took place? And what is the meaning of the mysterious voices that were heard by the neighbors and passers-by? After applying his powers of ratiocination to the case, Dupin unravels these enigmas and reveals his ingenious solution to the puzzling crime. If you’ve managed to make it through the past 175 years without hearing the secret to this story, you will be delightfully shocked when you discover it. Even the 21st-century reader can’t help but admire Poe for his audacity. The brutal violence of the tale is grisly by today’s standards; one can only imagine how startling it must have been to readers of the 1840s.

Though the first half of the story feels a tad bit rickety with age, overall “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” has stood the test of time well and measures up favorably to the vast majority of the detective fiction that has been produced since. Poe only wrote two other Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.” It is a pity he didn’t pen a few more. If he had seen the potential for a detective fiction franchise that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle capitalized upon, perhaps Dupin, rather than Holmes, would be the iconic household name in literary sleuths.
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Monday, September 25, 2017

Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Four

A good volume in a great series
I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. This is the sixth volume I’ve finished in the series, having previously read and reviewed volumes One, Two, Three, Seven, and Eight. (Rather than reading them in order, I’m just buying whichever volumes pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.) The stories and novellas reprinted in these volumes are frequently excellent, and even the worst selections are usually quite good. The breadth and depth of Simak’s speculative imagination and literary talent is just amazing. Having said all that, I must regretfully admit that Grotto of the Dancing Deer (Volume Four) is my least favorite of the volumes I’ve read thus far.

The title selection is certainly not the problem. “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” about a scientist studying prehistoric cave paintings, is a brilliant archaeo-sci-fi tale that manages to be both astounding and moving. Another excellent selection, in a more humorous vein, is “Crying Jag,” which features an alien who gets drunk on human sadness. “Hunger Death,” an exciting medical mystery that takes place on Venus, is also a strong entry, as is “Jackpot,” about a band of interplanetary thieves who stumble upon an enormous storehouse of goods that may or may not be priceless. Even this volume’s western novella (Simak wrote more than just science fiction), “The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch,” is one of the author’s better efforts in that genre.

The collection falters on a few fronts, beginning with “Mutiny on Mercury.” Originally published in 1931, editor David W. Wixon surmises that this is probably the first story Simak ever wrote for professional publication. Though it presents an interesting vision of what life might be like at a mining colony on Mercury, it is heavy with the mindless violence of the pulp-fiction era and displays little promise of the author’s mature literary style. Clearly, he had some growing to do when he wrote this one, but thankfully he would later go on to greatness.

About half of the stories in the collection don’t really live up to their full potential. Simak establishes an interesting vision of the future or of another planet, but the story he builds upon that foundation just doesn’t do justice to the premise. The aforementioned “Jackpot,” which gets a little weak towards the end, is the best of such cases. “Day of Truce” would be the worst. In this story, Simak establishes a dystopian, militaristic vision of suburbia, then squanders the social commentary on a MacGyver-esque tactical scenario. “The Civilization Game” likewise tries to make insightful points about humanity’s future, but those points feel a bit overstretched in its wargames plotline. “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a short-short entry that feels like a preliminary sketch for other better Simak stories. “Unsilent Spring,” which Simak cowrote with his son Richard S. Simak, a chemist, is another medical mystery like “Hunger Death,” but it takes place on Earth. Resembling an episode of the television programs Quincy or House, it has a strong theoretical foundation, but once the problem is diagnosed the plot just fizzles to an end.

I’ve come to expect great things from Simak, so I’m being nitpicky here. With the exception of “Mutiny on Mercury” and “Day of Truce,” these are all four-star stories or better. You really can’t go wrong with this series, but if I had to recommend a single volume this would not be it. Volumes One, Two, Seven, and Eight are all closer to perfection than this one.

Stories in this collection
Over the River and Through the Woods 
Grotto of the Dancing Deer 
The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch
The Civilization Game 
Crying Jag 
Hunger Death 
Mutiny on Mercury 
Day of Truce 
Unsilent Spring

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