Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book and Pulp reviews

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls by John R. King: A young vagabond Thomas Carnacki goes on a picnic with a woman he just met, the beautiful Anna who claims her father had died there a year before. Suddenly, they witness a struggle up above and a body goes plummeting over the side. Rushing to the river, they fish out a still-living amnesiac and find themselves pursued by his assailant. Thus the ever rational Thomas Carnacki finds himself in a battle between Moriarty and a Sherlock Holmes not in full mental capacity. The case quickly starts taking on elements of the supernatural and he must decide who he can trust and how to counter demonic possession.

A fun book that looks at the years of "the great hiatus", the period of time when Sherlock Holmes let Watson and the world think he is dead. There is a great exploration of what set Moriarty on a life of crime and his connection with Jack the Ripper. It also serves as exploration of how Carnacki would become the rational occult detective of the William Hope Hodgson and create the electric pentacle.

If the book has any flaws it is that the narrative which starts off switching from 1st person points of view between Carnacki and Holmes (along with an extended section of memoirs by Moriarty) to limited 3rd person but never giving Anna her own narrative voice. Switching to the 3rd Person just highlights a writer unable to tell the whole story in the narrative style that he originally chose. It weakens it. Although, it is interesting to note that while this book gives 1st person narratives to Carnacki and Holmes, the original stories of the two had narrators to chronicle their adventures.

Another weakness is the supernatural/horror angle never really gels that well. Compared to the Hodgson stories or even some of Doyle's supernatural tales, the sense of terror and gothic dread is more akin to horror found in television's Buffy or Angel. Likewise, the transition of the rational Carnacki to one embracing supernatural happenings and methods to combat them just sort of happens. There's not much evolution to the character, he easily accepts the occult angle of things with minimal research and exposure. Whereas, Holmes' denial of the supernatural at the end of the book seems odd after all he had experienced by that point.

The book serves as a wonderful example of how to do something not as a pastiche. Most Holmes stories fall in the pastiche category, working hard to recreate the Doyle experience and style. Failing that, Watson is usually sidelined and substituted with the writer's own character to allow an easy out for where it doesn't quite match up with the Doyle/Victorian style. Here is a book that does not attempt that, but to tell a story that fits in the Doyle canon using Holmes (and Watson and Carnacki) as characters. The book follows its own beat and style and a fun read from beginning to end.

Doc Savage: Hex/The Running Skeletons. I picked this up because "The Running Skeletons" turned out to be one of the few Doc stories I didn't have. Sadly, it doesn't really live up to its expectations or promise. It starts off strong with a sense of dread and menace, but it takes too long to get to its title and cover. By the time it does, the story is at the slam-bang climax.

"Hex" is more fun as members of Doc's crew come under the spell of a witch and Doc must unravel this supernatural menace. A tight, strong tale.

Of interest, the editorial compares "Hex" to "The Hooded Circle" in the Halloween volume of the Shadow. But, other than a seeming supernatural menace (here it's a druid cult), there is nothing that suggests any real comparison or link. The stories deal with different types of crime, different type of menace, and the story flows and rhythms are unique to their characters and writers.

What is further interesting is that a scene from "The Hooded Circle" does appear in another pulp, but it's not Doc Savage. It's in "Murder on the Loose" starring the Black Bat reprinted recently in High Adventure. A plot that the crooks use halfway through "The Hooded Circle", to con victims into placing their valuables in an armored car that is actually manned by the crooks is the climactic action packed finale to the Black Bat story. The story is otherwise notable with an interesting and physically capable second in command of the crooks, a master of judo that easily manhandles the Black Bat strongman Butch. Sadly, the lieutenant gets sidelined rather quickly.

The lead Black Bat story in the reprint volume, "Blind Man's Bluff" has the Black Bat having to contend with a mysterious blind man who has returned to friends and family who had long thought him dead. Both stories are enjoyable mystery adventures of the early superhero.

"The Notes of Doom" has the Phantom Detective tracking a killer going after a group of men, already on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin, leaving behind old bank notes where each had signed his life over to death. The whole case suggests a man killed on the battlefields of WWI enacting long delayed vengeance. "The Dancing Doll Murders" has a murder predicting the deaths of different members of the heirs to a fortune through dolls done up with the face of the victim and signs of the way they are to die. The master villain also has a unique and eerie way of communicating with his lieutenant, rising out of a dank pool in the basement of an abandoned house via a diving suit and underground waterway.

The Phantom Detective had not been a favorite pulp hero of mine, but these stories and the character are much better than average. The villains and plot are more than the pedestrian menaces he usually is pitted against. Likewise, he comes across not as generic but a powerful superhero in his own right. It's interesting these tales also do not feature a romantic interest, the usual Muriel Havens is not even mentioned. Bits of his background and training are peppered through the stories, making the character seem even more like Batman complete with samurai training in the Far East and his own crime lab.

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