Monday, 26 November 2018

The Golden Apples of the Sun - Ray Bradbury

This collection of Bradbury short stories dates from the early Fifties, before he had committed himself wholeheartedly to science fiction. Thus most of the stories here are not sci fi. By and large they are fantasy, some tilting more towards allegory.

It might not be the usual Bradbury field but it is definitely the usual Bradbury standard of writing. That is to say, exceptional. These stories might have appeared in pulp magazines but Bradbury still polishes his phrases, looks out for and treasures the occasional quirk, and leaves nothing on the bone. My personal favourites are 'The Flying Machine' (set in a mythical ancient China and definitely allegorical), 'Hail and Farewell' about a boy "twelve years old with a birth certificate n his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago', and the opener, 'The Fog Horn' in which a sea monster perhaps a million years old answers the call.

All in all, classy ephemera.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Death of Anton - Alan Melville

Alan Melville (1910-83) was one of those bright young men who became a jack-of-all-trades with the BBC (producer, writer, performer) before World War II. I remember him on television in the Sixties. He is almost entirely forgotten now and I for one did not know he had written crime novels in his twenties. So many thanks to the British Library for adding Death of Anton to their Crime Classics reprints series.

The detective, Chief Inspector Mr Minto (there is no first name) is such a brilliant creation that you can't help wishing he had spawned a series. His much younger sister is about to marry a vacuum salesman and Minto is in town for the wedding, which will be conducted by his brother Robert, a Catholic priest. Carey's Circus is also in town, and the Mintos are at Dodo the clown's party when Anton the tiger-tamer is found dead in the tiger cage. The initial view is that the tigers mauled him, but Minto of the Yard is not fooled. He spots three bullet wounds.

Melville was a famous wit and this is therefore a light-hearted romp. Minto is very funny - but nobody's fool - and the circus setting guarantees a cast of eccentrics for Melville to play with. The mystery is well-plotted and I certainly did not guess who had done it or why. Entirely satisfactory on every front. As I say, the shame is there was no follow-up. After the war Melville channelled his comic talents into musical theatre and that is somewhere I wouldn't venture at any price.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Black Seconds - Karin Fossum

Helga Joner's ten-year old daughter disappears on her way to the local shop. Inspector Sejer therefore starts his investigation as a missing person inquiry. As time passes, and Ida remains missing, the chances of finding her alive diminish.  After a while the child's distinctive yellow bike shows up, undamaged. Some time later the body itself is found, badly damaged but not sexually assaulted, and dressed in a brand new nightgown. Bizarrely, she seems to have been frozen.

There are suspects - in Ida's family and in the local community. Ida's cousin Tomme pranged his car the same night Ida disappeared - are the two events connected? And then there's the local eccentric - the grumpy, monosyllabic village idiot Emil Johannes, who rides a three-wheeler motorbike with a trailer that could easily accommodate a child.

Black Seconds won the prestigious Martin Beck Award in 2002 and it is easy to see why. It sits wholly within the Beck tradition - patient, productive police work and understanding of human frailty - rather than the lurid psychopathy of Jo Nesbo. The scenes in which Sejer questions Emil Johannes are beautifully done and utterly riveting. I'm a big fan of Fossum - many of her other novels are reviewed here - and Black Seconds is one of her best.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Earthlight - Arthur C Clarke

Two hundred years in the future (from 1955) Earth has colonised the planets of the Solar System. Generations of humankind have been born and lived off-Earth. The situation is not much different from that of the British Empire in 1939 - the subordinate states are too big, the dominant hub too small and too demanding. The Earth is considered to be withholding essential heavy metals from the Federated planets. Conflict is inevitable and imminent.

For this reason Bertram Sadler, accountant, is sent to the Moon to try and track down whoever is leaking secret information to the Federation. The Moon consists of Central City and peripheral specialised bases, like the Observatory Sadler is officially auditing. But the Observatory's work is hampered by unknown traffic. It turns out an unauthorised base is being built nearby. Is this the first act of war by the Federation?

It all sounds like the perfect plot for a sci fi thriller. But, this being Arthur C Clarke early in his career, there are no thrills. Indeed, we are lucky to get a plot. What Clarke is interested in is the science. Sixty years on, of course, the science is faintly risible. Men have colonised the solar system but are still reliant on teleprinters and analogue radio. Even television scarcely figures. The standout sections for me were the ones about light beams on the Moon and the limited effect of atomic weapons in space. I sincerely hope Arthur C was right on both counts.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

I first found Erik Larson when I acquired his book about Crippen and Marconi, Thunderstruck, reviewed here in February 2016. In that review I alluded to this book, which likewise combines the US serial killer H H Holmes with the building of the Chicago World's Fair, which effectively supplied him with victims during the summer of 1893.

The idea, on first glance, seems terrific, but like Thunderstruck there are problems. In Thunderstruck it was the fact that not only did Crippen and Marconi never meet, they were rarely in the same country. Marconi did not invent wireless telegraphy in order to catch Crippen, it just happened that his invention was used in Crippen's capture. Also, the point of interest with Crippen is that he was such a meek man, the worm who literally turned on his appalling wife. No one can accuse H H Holmes of similar shortcomings. He was the ultimate predator, killing for the simple pleasure of being there at the death. Then there is his purpose-built hotel of horror, with its built-in gas chambers and chutes to the basement for easy disposal. On the other hand Marconi was always interesting in everything he did, whereas Daniel Burnham was only one of many architects who worked on the World's Fair, albeit he was the team leader. His partner John Root was the visionary behind the scheme but died before work began. Far more interesting than Burnham are the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, driven mad by overwhelming toothache, and the mercurial George Ferris who came up with the awesome wheel which saved the fair's financial bacon and was probably the single defining legacy of the show.

The main problem, however, is that the six months of the fair was only part of Holmes's murderous career. In a sense it was a deviation from his usual practice, which was to kill wives, mistresses and business partners for their life insurance. Too little is known of Holmes for him to be anything other than an enigma. He was not caught until more than a year after the fair ended and during a long time in prison he wrote his own story for money - three 'confessions', each more appalling than the last. How much, if any, was true? How many did he really kill? We will never know. One mystery that sticks with me is who did he leave the money to? Tracing his heirs, several of whom he had almost certainly killed and others who probably were not as legally entitled as they assumed, would be a real tangle to unravel.

Larson's research is again hugely impressive. I love his declaration that "I do not employ researchers, nor do I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story." You and me both, Erik - not that I could afford to use researchers even if I wanted to. And he writes like a dream, always pitch-perfect, never remotely dull. I will certainly snap up the next book of his I come across. I quite fancy Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Rampage - Harold Schechter

Rampage is one of a series of short, true-crime stories published as Amazon Originals. The collection is called Bloodlands. This one is a good place to start because it covers the first modern rampage shooting spree, the 1949 case of Howard Unruh.

Now, I fancy myself a keen student of true crime but to be honest I'd never heard of Unruh. This I find odd. The spree itself is unbelievably bad - he shot and killed thirteen, including three children - and survived. That's perhaps the oddest thing. Most spree killers are their own final victim. Others turn on the police, knowing they'll be killed. Unruh did take a few shots at the local cops when they arrived at his home, but he soon surrendered. He not only answered questions at the time of arrest, he went on answering questions for the remaining sixty years of his life. He wasn't executed, he never even went to prison. He was incarcerated in the local mental hospital. No time limit was set but in Unruh's case it meant life. He was 89 when he died, 29 when he went on his fifteen minute spree in Camden, New Jersey.

And despite all the questions, he never really explained what made him do it. His neighbours were simply getting on his nerves. He thought they talked about him, about the fact that he didn't have a job and lived with his mother. But some of those he shot were unknown to him, some were children, far too young to have interacted with the asocial but polite young man. Schechter, who has written dozens of full-length true crime books and has a distinguished academic career, hints at the possibility of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Private Unruh served in the later years of WW2 and was something a crack shot - but possibility is all it is. Unruh never claimed to have been traumatised by anything. He knew he had done wrong, he seemed to regret it, and knew he would be rightly punished.

In lesser hands, Unruh's story could have been stretched and padded interminably. Schechter recognises that the defining quality here is brevity: the short time the spree lasted, the alarming number of victims (almost one a minute), and finally the long enigmatic and persisting lack of explanation. Schechter's prose is precise and purposefully flat, letting the horrific facts speak for themselves. It's a perfect commuting read and the presentation, with contemporary photos and the checkmarks from the cover ticking off each victim, is really clever. I have already bought others in the Bloodlands Collection and will doubtless buy more. There are currently six.