Monday, January 28, 2013

The Adventure of the Haunting that led to the Riddle of the Travelling Skull

It was obvious, when I was stopped by the Russian, that no good would come of our encounter. For what good has ever come from a Russian stopping a person on the street, especially one of Polish descent? The person that is, not the street. But the Russian did stop me, and a conversation did take place. For I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary. Alas! At that time I knew nothing about Harry Stephen Keeler, nor the Dutchman, nor the mysterious Ramble House and the strange goings-on in the blogosphere.

“Ah, Patreek! Hit eess yew!” the Russian exclaimed. “Haff yew a meenit?”

I knew the Russian. Sergey, I believe his name was, and an informant he had become for everyone over the last several years. For he seemed to know everything. All one had to do was to stop him and ask him a question, and answer it he would. And over time, as these things tend to happen, people began to call him "the Russian" or "the Gogol." I knew not the reason for this nickname, but it seemed to fit him.

“Well,” I replied, “I suppose I could spare some time. For I wasn’t doing anything in particular. As a matter of fact, I was heading back home to read my brand-new book, The Purple Parrot by Clyde B. Clason. But if you want something, I suppose my literary endeavours can wait.” And with that, I tucked Mr. Book back under my coat.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The name's Parker. Just Parker.

Anyone who follows my blog regularly knows that I am a very big fan of the late, great Donald E. Westlake. I enjoy his work when he is writing a comic crime caper, and I equally enjoy it when he writes a dark, gritty tale. Parker is one of his most famous characters. Writing under the name “Richard Stark”, Westlake created an utterly amoral thief named Parker, who doesn’t kill people not out of any moral notions, but because it makes for a nastier legal mess. Casual murder is not his style, but if he has to do it, he will kill anyone to get his way. His actions are dictated purely by logic, not by emotions of any sort. And somehow, Donald E. Westlake took this utterly amoral figure and made him into a fascinating anti-hero.

We’ve seen Parker on screen several times. Point Blank is still perhaps the greatest adaptation of a Parker novel ever filmed, starring Lee Marvin as “Walker”. Payback starring Mel Gibson as “Porter” was also pretty good, although the (shorter) director’s cut is far better than the original theatrical version. One thing has been common in every adaptation – nobody has been allowed to use the name “Parker”. And so when I found out about the new film Parker, I got excited. Someone was finally allowed to use Parker’s name??? What sort of sorcery was this? And then I found out the movie was due to be released in October before being pushed back to January, which isn’t always a good sign. So what is this movie? A gem to be embraced, or a crappy movie that’s being flushed out with the rest of the trash this time of year?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

007 Reloaded: Moonraker

James Bond is looking forward to a bit of a break. Having taken care of the Mr. Big threat, he is relaxing back home in England, living a dull office life and wondering when he might get another summons from his boss, M, to signal the start of another mission. It happens a lot sooner than he bargains for, but M is acting strangely. It turns out that M hasn’t got any mission in mind, but he wants to ask Bond for a personal favour.

You see, M is a member of Blades, an elite club for gentlemen who wish to play cards. Its membership is highly exclusive and prized among the upper classes, and M is one of the club members. Another member is Sir Hugo Drax, the brilliant industrialist who is currently building the Moonraker, a revolutionary rocket that will place any European capital within England’s firing range. He is admired by the people and revered by the media. He also cheats at cards.

In a London that is still run to some extent on the old-boy system, why would Sir Hugo commit the one crime that stings more than any other crime among gentlemen? Why risk his reputation and his club membership in order to win a few card games? M doesn’t know for certain, but if the story falls into the wrong hands, it might mean the end of Drax… and possibly the end of the Moonraker project. M asks Bond to come to Blades and find out how Drax is cheating and to stop him before he destroys himself.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nobody Does It Better

I recently had an e-mail discussion about the James Bond films, when the talk turned to the Bond theme songs. That was when I attempted to describe Madonna’s horrific contribution to the series with Die Another Day: “Imagine Alvin and the Chipmunks singing out-of-tune through a fan, and then the music editor printing out the sheet music, feeding it through a propeller blade and reassembling the tune in whatever order came out. And you have her theme. Atrocious stuff.” Unfortunately, that description could work just as well for much of today’s music, or at least the stuff I hear. I'm afraid I've long been driven away from the world of music. Crap spews forth from the radio in seemingly-endless waves. When I go to a store or to a coffee shop I can't escape it, but I choose not to listen to any of it on my own free time.

But strictly speaking, I do listen to a type of music. I absolutely love listening to musical scores from movies, such as the work of Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Rises, Gladiator, and Inception are among my favourites). Another one of my passions, in case you haven’t noticed over the last little bit, is James Bond. I positively love the books of Ian Fleming and also love the series of films that they inspired. Many of these films were scored by the legendary John Barry, and I love listening to them. Some scores are better than others, of course, but Barry provided the music that kept tying the series together despite all the different actors portraying 007 throughout the years. I guess it was only a matter of time before somebody wrote a book about the music of James Bond. Enter Jon Burlingame, author of The Music of James Bond.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

007 Reloaded: Live and Let Die

James Bond, introduced to the world in Casino Royale, would see the light of day once again one year later, with the publication of the novel Live and Let Die. 007 is sent to the most bizarre, exotic location you could possibly imagine: The United States of America. Specifically, he starts off on the streets of New York City. Old gold coins have been showing up all over the States, and these appear to be part of a legendary treasure. But how did they get into the country? Somebody is smuggling the gold into the country, and in this case, all the roads lead to the larger-than-life gangster Mr. Big.

Larger-than-life is a literal description in this case. Mr. Big is simply an enormous man, the most powerful black criminal in all of America, possibly the world. He strikes terror into the heart of the black community and is believed to be the incarnation of the feared Baron Samedi, of the voodoo religion. They say he cannot be killed. They say that anyone who opposes him will meet death face-to-face. And they also say that he is an agent of SMERSH, the secret Russian organization that James Bond tangled with in Casino Royale.

Monday, January 14, 2013

007 Reloaded: Casino Royale

Note: This will be the first review in a series of James Bond reviews. In 2013, I intend to go through all 14 of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books in order of publication. This means that 007 will be appearing quite a bit for the next little while. These books hold a very special place in my heart, so I only hope that these reviews will convince someone unfamiliar with Fleming’s books to give them a chance.

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Thus begins Casino Royale, the 1953 novel in which Ian Fleming introduced readers to the exploits of James Bond, secret agent extraordinaire. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Word has gone around to the British Secret Service that Le Chiffre, the undercover Paymaster of a Communist-controlled trade union, is in financial trouble. He gambled his clients’ money on a string of brothels, but a new law was passed in France that banned his houses of pleasure. And thus, almost overnight Le Chiffre lost his investment.

In a desperate attempt to recoup his financial losses, Le Chiffre has come to Royale-les-Eaux. His plan is to win back his money in a high-stakes baccarat game. That’s where 007 comes in. His mission: humiliate Le Chiffre by beating him at the card table and thoroughly cleaning him out. Killing him would be futile – the opposition is already displeased with Le Chiffre, and SMERSH (a contraction of the Russian phrase smyert shpionam– “death to spies”) has reportedly sent a man to deliver punishment to Le Chiffre for bungling.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Quincannon's Game

It’s San Francisco in the 1890s. John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter have partnered up and formed their own detective agency: Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services. They have a bit of a reputation for solving bizarre crimes that are often impossible – see Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services, a short story collection written by Bill Pronzini and published by Crippen & Landru. Well, Carpenter and Quincannon have now made their long-awaited debut in novel form, and Bill Pronzini was joined by his wife Marcia Muller (creator of Sharon McCone) to write The Bughouse Affair.

As these cases often do, The Bughouse Affair begins as a relatively simple matter. Sabina Carpenter is hired to catch a ruthless lady pickpocket. Meanwhile, John Quincannon is hired to tackle a house burglar who seems to be working his way down an insurance company’s list. These cases have no apparent connection to each other, but after some investigation, the detectives realize that there is a connection between the two crimes. But almost on cue, a bizarre locked-room murder takes place, and the detectives are left with no clues. Into all this is thrown a crazy Limey who calls himself Sherlock Holmes. This is nonsense of course, since Mr. Holmes has been dead for a while now. But this bughouse Sherlock proves to be a constant nuisance, snooping around the crime scenes and looking for clues that probably don’t exist.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Book That'll Kill Ya

I admire the mission behind Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. Some mastermind (whose plots make Ernst Blofeld’s look positively humble by comparison) has brought together some of the world’s finest crime writers from all four corners of the globe. These writers were asked to write a piece on a “book to die for”. It’s defined as follows: “If you found our contributors in a bar some evening, and the talk turned (as it almost inevitably would) to favorite novels, it would be the single book that each writer would press upon you, the book that, if there was time and the stores were still open, they would leave the bar in order to purchase for you, so they could be confident they had done all in their power to make you read it.”

It’s an admirable idea, and after all, what could go wrong? Sure, a volume of this sort is bound to contain some omissions, but at least its inclusions should be excellent, and the different viewpoints should cancel each other out. For every author who is convinced that nothing is better than noir you can have one author who is convinced that plotting in the Christie mould is the best policy. For every author who prefers characterization and setting you can have one who prefers plotting and action. And thus, this collection should contain a book for everyone, and at the very least give you a balanced portrait of the genre.

Ha! In a perfect world, maybe. But we live on this world, and in our world we got a highly biased and highly problematic book. Some of the individual contributions are brilliant, but just as many (if not more) are very bad indeed and in only gets worse the further you read.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Name's Fleming. Ian Fleming.

James Bond is an international phenomenon. I nominate that sentence as my contribution for the coveted Understatement of the Year Award. When Skyfall, the 23rd Bond picture, was released last year, people flocked to the cinemas en masse, and as a result the movie generated over $1 billion in revenue. It’s amazing that a character whose exploits were first published in 1953 remains relevant to this day, and all this was the product of Ian Fleming’s fertile imagination.

I’ve read almost all the Bond novels – You Only Live Twice is the only exception – and I’m a big fan. But I knew nothing about the author, Ian Fleming. What was he like? How did he get the idea for Bond? I had no idea. All I could tell you was that he was British and that his Jamaican house was called Goldeneye. As readers of my blog might recall, I decided that in 2013 I would read all of Fleming’s Bond novels. But to do this properly, I felt it was best to first learn more about Ian Fleming. And so I picked up Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond by Andrew Lycett.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Problem of the Parasol

The Umbrella Man opens on Inspector Samuel Tay of the Singapore CID, having a relaxing time in his garden. And then he hears the explosions: two of them almost simultaneous, followed by the third. Singapore is under attack: three hotels (The Hilton, the Marriott, and the Grand Hyatt) have been targeted. Hundreds of people are dead, and thousands lie injured. Tay himself winds up in the hospital.

But upon awaking, Tay discovers that he is being shut out of the investigation. His superiors suggest taking a leave of absence, while Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) take over the investigation. Tay has made himself a nuisance in certain corners, and now ISD is demanding that he be shut out of the investigation. And so Tay finds himself investigating an ordinary death in some remote corner far away from the terrorist plot.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Jack Reacher

I’ve never read the books of Lee Child. So I couldn’t share the outrage of fans when it was announced that Tom Cruise would play the character Jack Reacher in the new movie of the same name. I can sort-of understand the frustration of some, but I cannot empathise with it. In fact, I didn’t even know who Jack Reacher was when I first saw the trailer for the movie, a trailer that made me laugh out loud. Tom Cruise as some badass “I’m-not-a-hero” antihero, obviously looking to reboot his action star career and possibly feed his ego? Who would want to watch that? But then I found out who Jack Reacher was, and the more I found out about the movie the more curious I became. Usually, I read a book before seeing the movie upon which it is based, but I decided to make an exception in the case of Jack Reacher. Boy, am I ever glad I did!

I have no idea what kind of books Lee Child writes. For all I know, they could be as preposterous as The Da Vinci Code. But if his work is even half as entertaining as Jack Reacher, I want to read these books! Okay, so the plot: a sniper named Barr takes out five random people, is quickly arrested and is going to be prosecuted. But Barr refuses to admit his guilt, and will only write down the words “Get Jack Reacher”.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Look Back on 2012 and a Look Ahead to 2013

Well, it’s New Years Day today, which means it’s a time for reflections, resolutions, and the like. So today I thought I’d spend some time looking back on the year that was 2012 and giving you all some hints as to what you can expect come 2013.

2012 was an interesting year by any definition. Back in January, I watched and reviewed the second series of Sherlock, one that was far more rewarding and intelligent, I felt, than the first series. And then to end the month I got to “meet” and interview Paul Halter, an author I’ve long admired. It was a fascinating discussion where I asked M. Halter about his more recent work, work that wasn’t covered in Roland Lacourbe’s excellent interview for the simple reason that so much had yet to be written.