Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 9

  1. Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers - the second Wimsey/Vane novel puts the two characters on a more or less equal footing, both in terms of their dominance over the narrative and in terms of their contribution to the investigation of the mystery--the murder of a professional dancer on a secluded beach. This is a more complicated story than Strong Poison, with a great many elements--eye-witness accounts, forensic evidence, common deduction--coming together to form a coherent picture of the murder like so many puzzle pieces (all the while, of course, Sayers is holding back the final, crucial piece). The result is clever, if at times too deliberately so--the timeline of events surrounding the murder is crucial right down to the minute, so Sayers makes all of the relevant characters compulsive about accurate time-keeping (three or four different characters take trouble to assure the detectives that they reset their watches every morning according to the radio clock, which, please)--to the point that one begins to see Wimsey and Vane as rather ghoulish creatures, more interested in demonstrating their intelligence than in solving a brutal killing. My only real complaint about the novel, however, has to do with its ending and the rapid tone shift it makes from chipper to grim. Two paragraphs from the end, we discover that, although the murder has been solved, there isn't enough evidence to arrest the killer. The end. There isn't enough room to process this miscarriage of justice, and I put the book aside feeling a bit whip-lashed.

  2. The Wrong Case by James Crumley - Crumley is the author of The Last Good Kiss, by far the finest mystery novel I've ever read, and I was therefore a little nervous about making another foray into his bibliography. The Wrong Case isn't quite as good as Kiss--not as focused in either plot or characterization--but it is a damn fine novel, and yet another example of how the noir detective genre can successfully be transplanted to a more modern era--in this case, the mid-seventies--and of how a canny writer can manipulate the genre's trappings to reflect his own moral and political agenda. The novel begins with the traditional noir opening--a beautiful, mysterious woman comes to our detective with a seemingly simple problem--and almost immediately derails. Crumley is more interested in sketching the portrait of a small town going to seed, and in describing its least fortunate inhabitants--drunks, aging hippies, runaways, failed mobsters--than in solving a mystery, and a significant portion of the novel is taken up with following the detective--Milo Milodragovitch, the unhappy, permanently drunk scion of an influential family--as he bounces from bar to bar, meeting up with friends and acquaintances, telling us their life stories (as well as the history of his own family) and making several half-hearted attempted to go straight and make something of himself. Most noir assumes that everyone is corrupt (including the detective) and damns them for it. In The Wrong Case, Crumley assumes that everyone is corrupt and pities them for it, and the result is a novel that is at the same time tragic and kind, a heartfelt, loving ode to weakness and despair and to the people overcome by both.

  3. Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks - it seems that third time was the charm for me and Mr. Banks. The Algebraist was fun but ultimately inconsequential. Consider Phlebas had plenty to say and went about saying it for several hundred pages longer than it had to. Feersum Endjinn strikes just the right balance between whimsy and seriousness, and describes its fanciful far future with an admirable economy of words. There's a tremendous wealth of detail here, including the greatest city on Earth, a castle built on a gigantic scale--the heads of gargoyles are hollowed out and made into houses, and wars are fought between the clan situated in the great hall and the one in control of the chapel--and a virtual reality as complicated and as unpredictable as the real one, which has grown dangerous and corrupt with the passage of time and which doubles as an afterlife for the inhabitants of the city. Banks introduces us to this strange future and its intricacies with an admirable elegance, all the time moving forward with an intricate plot--four, in fact, one for each of the novel's main characters. Feersum Endjinn proceeds towards its climax with an almost geometric precision, and therein lies the novel's only fault--after so much build-up, after so much careful work, we expect the coming together of the novel's plotlines to be explosive. Instead, it is clever, neat, and not a little bit mannered--satisfying, but not as much as it might have been. Nevertheless, Feersum Endjinn is a fantastic read, and I will definitely be picking up more of Banks' writing.

  4. Y: The Last Man, Volume 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughn and Lucifer, Volume 1: Devil in the Gateway by Mike Carey - it's been two years now since I finished reading Sandman and I think it's time, after several successful and not-so-successful forays into standalone graphic novels, to make another stab at a serial. Vaughn and Carey's work has been getting a lot of good press, and although both volumes have some obvious teething problems, I can definitely see myself continuing with both stories. I approached Y: The Last Man with some trepidation--one can only imagine the many ways in which a male comic book writer could make a story about a world populated (almost) entirely by women unspeakably offensive. For the most part, I think Vaughn dodges the bullet--although the choice to have the first woman to recognize that all the men on the planet have died do so as she's putting a gun to her head was, perhaps, an unfortunate one. In fact, in some cases I get the impression that he was trying to hard to avoid or actively contradict stereotypes, including those too obvious or too silly to warrant acknowledgment (are there really people on the planet who still think that all women are pacifists?), and his depiction of Israelis had me alternately cringing and laughing uncontrollably. What I truly liked about Y, however, were the characters--last-man-on-Earth Yorick Brown and his protector Agent 355--which, this early in the story, is what should be happening, and more than enough inducement to pick up the next installment in the series.

    Lucifer builds on a character introduced in Sandman--the lord of hell who packed up shop and went off to bum on beach in Australia and, later, play piano in a trendy LA bar. The first volume is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat Sandman-derived. Lucifer is sent on a quest by heaven, travels through realms of myth and mystery, and encounters creatures both magical and mundane while accompanied (somewhat unwillingly) by a young human who may turn out to have great power. There isn't yet the sense that the story is moving in its own direction, or trying to find its own tone. Still, being too much like Sandman isn't exactly the worst thing one can say about a story, and from what I've gathered the series takes on its own character pretty quickly.

  5. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt remains one of the most interesting, thoughtfully constructed alternate histories I've ever read, and the Mars trilogy, which charts the colonization and terraforming of the red planet starting in the early 21st century, is allegedly his masterpiece. There's a lot to like here--Robinson's vision of how transportation to an alien environment both alters us and makes us more ourselves than ever is intricate and carefully thought-out. In the novel's earlier parts, he carefully charts the intense bonds and enmities that form between the member of the 'first hundred'--the scientists and engineers who establish the first human settlement on the planet. Later on, as human presence on Mars explodes, these same characters embody various, sometimes conflicting, approaches to creating a new sort of human community--the revolutionary, the pragmatist, the liberal, the mystic, the visionary, the conservationist. Unfortunately, the interesting political and philosophical plotlines are interspersed with far, far too much information about Martian geography and geology, descriptions of technology, and some extremely silly generalizations about nationalities (it's one thing to say that the Swiss tend to be more detail-oriented and anal than other nations, but they're not all like that, and so on in that vein with regard to Americans, Russians, Japanese, and, of course, Arabs--who are, for the most part, treated as a block instead of a conglomeration of ethnic groups). From what I've read, it seems that the two sequels--Green Mars and Blue Mars--step up the info-dumps and move away from political questions and towards political answers, of a very specific stripe. I somehow doubt I'll get around to them.

8 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

I'm curious about the "several successful and not-so-successful forays into standalone graphic novels". Could you elaborate?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, to be honest, there were more unsuccessful or just OK experiences than downright successful ones.

The two truly great standalones I've read in recent years are Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and Epileptic by David B. Joss Whedon's Fray, Neil Gaiman's 1602, Watchmen and Persepolis were good-to-middling, and I was not very impressed by In the Shaodw of No Towers, The Dark Knight Returns, and Blankets.

Raz Greenberg said...

Hmmm. "In the Shadow of No Towers" really isn't a good introduction to Spiegelman's work. His masterpiece "Maus" is a must-read.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Oh, I've read Maus - a good ten or fifteen years ago. It's one of those works whose reputation has so throughly transcended their genre that they can be consumed by outsiders without necessitating access to the genre. Which is obviously a good thing for the work in question, but not necessarily good for the genre, as the work's consumption doesn't encourage any further exploration.

Matt said...

FWIW, I've read all of Banks SF work up to but not including Algebraist, and I think Use of Weapons is by far his best novel. It was actually his earliest novel, though rewritten before it was eventually published, and the prose is a little rocky, but I feel like it has the most to say while still providing Banks' mix of humor and darkness. Feersum Endjinn is probably his second best (and by far his most cheerful).

If you didn't love Red Mars then definitely stop, it's downhill from there for all the reasons you stated and more.

Having read some (certainly not all) of the notable graphic novels like Sandman, Dark Knight Returns, Transmetropolitan, etc. Watchmen is the only graphic novel I found truly great (although V for Vendetta was certainly worth the read).

the.exile said...

I read Feersum Endjinn earlier this year, and was amazed by Banks' prescient envisioning of 1337 sp34k (provided in narrative in every third chapter by Bascule), as well as the way that brilliantly simulated electronic worlds mixed with mysticism, years before the Matrix.

It's the first of Banks' genre novels that I've read (I also read The Wasp Factory on the tube a few months back), and I will confess it gave me a bloody big headache, but it did give me a lot to think about.

Katherine said...

I think you've misinterpreted the ending of Have His Carcase -- it's not "oh dear, not enough evidence", but more the police saying "we might not be able to make this stick, and is it worth trying if we can't?" To which Harriet points out that Weldon is likely to kill the next man who tries to cut him out of his mother's fortune, so they have to try.

In fact, I have my copy of Gaudy Night with me, and my interpretation is confirmed there, as Harriet refers to Weldon being a man who would have killed again "if he hadn't been stopped".

Peter's despair comes not from not having caught Weldon but from having caught him and thus being responsible for sending a man to the gallows; it's a recurring theme in the Wimsey books that Peter gets caught up in the intellectual puzzle of a crime and only at the end realises the magnitude of what is at stake. As you observe, the shift of tone involved with this is not always handled very well.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Having taken another look at the final pages of Have His Carcase, Katherine, I think you're probably right. Now that I think about it, there is a scene in Gaudy Night in which Harriet discusses her ambivalent feelings about sending murderers to the gallows, which I suppose is where the reference to Weldon comes from.

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