Monday, December 31, 2012
It certainly has an epic sweep to it. It opens with a Himalayan explorer witnessing an asteroid crashing into the mountains, killing his companion. But this is no asteroid. It is part of a spaceship, propelled by a catastrophic explosion to the far side of the galaxy. The explorer finds an amazing manuscript in the wreckage. After much effort he deciphers the document. It is nothing less than the history of an alien civilisation, a civilisation from the star Psi Cassiopea.
These aliens referred to their planet, rather confusingly, as Star. There were actually two intelligent races on this planet, one species very like ours and another inferior species more like an ape but with close to human intelligence.
The civilisation of Star had more than its share of ups and downs. At one point a plague followed by a suicidal mania almost entirely destroyed the superior species. The few survivors took refuge in gigantic spaceship called abares. These were more like artificial asteroids than anything we think of as a spacecraft. The lesser species, the repleu, then dominated the planet for centuries, spending most of their time slaughtering each other and indulging in drunkenness and debauchery. The superior species, the Starians, meanwhile colonised the satellites of Star.
The descriptions of the strange cultures of these strange satellite worlds comprises the most interesting part of the novel. And Defontenay certainly did not lack imagination. One of these satellites is a transparent world, inhabited by transparent creatures.
Science fiction often has more to say about the era in which it was written than about the future and this novel certainly reflects the author’s thoughts on subjects like the rising tide of socialism, colonialism and fears of the decay of civilised values.
While it has to be admitted that Defontenay had remarkable powers of invention and a fund of interesting ideas the sad truth is that this is a rather dull novel. And I say this as someone who is a huge fan of 19th century French science fiction.
There are two main problems with this book. The first is the author’s habit of including large samples on Starian literature. Apart from a wealth of poetry there are several complete short plays! While this is an impressive example of world-building it does not make for easy reading.
The second problem is even more serious. This is more of an imaginary history than a novel. There is no central character with whom we can identify and no narrative drive. While an imaginary history spanning thousands of years is an awesome achievement, the result is more than somewhat turgid.
Of course those readers who value world-building more highly than I do may find all this more entertaining than I did.
Star, or Psi Cassiopea remains an important early step in the development of the science fiction genre but it cannot be recommended as an entertaining read.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
None of what I am about to tell you constitutes a spoiler. This is all just the set-up and it all happens very early in the book. The suspense will come later, and there will be plenty of it, and many many ingenious plot twists.
Tom Denning is a very successful businessman. He is an aircraft designer who owns his own aircraft factory. He is happily married and has a daughter with whom he gets on well. Tom has everything a man could want. So why does he deliberately try to crash his plane into the ground?
The answer to that is that he is haunted by a murder he committed. Not that he feels any regret for the murder itself. He believes the man he killed deserved to die. And it was not even murder, not really. He didn’t mean to actually kill the man, although he’s glad that he did. What haunts Tom Denning is the wait for the knock on the door from the police. What haunts him even more is that the body has not been found, even though he went to elaborate lengths to ensure that it would be found. He put great care into staging a mock accident, believing he had been careful enough to make it look convincing. But what Tom Denning was relying on was that the body would quickly be found, the coroner would bring in a verdict of accidental death, and he could then get on with his life.
It all seemed so easy. But every day he scans the newspapers, and there is no mention of any body being found. Finally he can’t stand it any longer. He returns to the scene of the “accident” but the body has gone. But if the body has gone, how to explain the fact that nobody has discovered it?
Weeks go by, and nothing happens, while Tom goes slowly mad. Of course eventually something does happen but the subsequent course of events is unexpected as Coppel spins a series of clever plot twists that keeps the tension building right up to the very last page. Tom will try to unravel the mystery, so we have an amateur detective who is in fact trying to find the solution to a murder he himself committed. As he tries to solve the puzzle his nightmare just keeps finding new ways to torture him.
There is plenty of irony in this tale. Tom is in fact guilty of nothing more than manslaughter and given his previously unblemished character and various extenuating circumstances the worst he could have expected was a short prison term. But Tom had to act to protect his daughter, and in trying to make the killing look like an accident he has only succeeded in making it look like cold-blooded premeditated murder. Now if he is caught he will hang. Tom is caught in a trap of his own devising. And not knowing if he will eventually be caught or not adds an exquisite touch of torture to the whole situation.
The plotting is masterful but this novel has more than clever plotting going for it. We have a murderer who is the hero of the book and he’s a sympathetic character. We can’t help hoping he gets away with it, but we won’t know until the final page whether he does or not. It’s a fascinating character study of a man under extreme stress. Coppel’s style is pleasing and this really is a delightfully wicked and clever crime story.
Coppel adapted his own novel for a 1952 film version starring Sir John Mills, and the movie is well worth tracking down as well. The novel and the movie are sufficiently different to make both well worth the effort of finding them.
Monday, December 17, 2012
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was born in Greece and brought up in Ireland. He relocated to the United States at the age of 19 and earned his living as a journalist. In 1890 he visited Japan and he fell in love with the country, remaining there until his death and becoming a naturalised Japanese citizen. He is best known for his writings about Japan, especially his classic volume of Japanese ghost stories, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (which was made into a superb movie by Masaki Kobayashi in 1965).
Some Chinese Ghosts shows that Hearn was already fascinated by the Orient even before his move to Japan.
This is a very slim volume and contains six very short tales. They are not translations but stories based in some cases on ancient Chinese tales or in other cases on various snippets of folklore. Hearn’s style is elegant and the stories are like tiny jewels, intricately wrought and beautiful. Hearn was not concerned with linking the stories together but with capturing a particular mood of weird beauty, and he succeeds admirably.
The Chinese concept of a ghost is clearly very different from what we are accustomed to in the west. The existence of ghosts is taken for granted and while ghosts may be malignant they are much more likely to be benign or even benevolent. Mortals can fall in love with ghosts and live to tell the tale. These are not horror stories although they are certainly tales of the supernatural.
The Story of Ming-Y is the closest these stories come to what we in the west would consider a conventional ghost story, and it’s a small treasure of a story, the tale of a young man who thinks he has fallen in love with a woman when he has actually fallen in love with a ghost. Even here the mood is more one of gentle melancholy than of terror.
The Legend of Tchi-Niu is another tale of a mortal in love with a ghost but this ghostly encounter is no punishment for meddling in forbidden things; it is a reward for virtue.
This volume also contains a fanciful tale of the discovery of the tea plant and another tale of the gods who taught men to make porcelain, and of the price one man pays in order to create porcelain of the most exquisite beauty. It is a high price but he will be rewarded for his sacrifice.
An odd but enchanting little collection.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Edmund Crispin was the pen name under which noted composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978) wrote crime fiction. His creation, Oxford don Gervase Fen, is one of the most charming of all fictional detectives. Fen is mildly eccentric, erudite without being obnoxious, not exactly scatter-brained but gives the appearance of moving in his own private world, and a gifted amateur detective.
This time around Professor Fen has made the curious decision to enter politics. Having no real interest in politics he stands as an independent candidate in a by-election. His campaign takes him to the village of Sanford Angelorum. The village, indeed the whole district, is in an uproar over the escape of a lunatic from the local asylum. The asylum is located in Sanford Hall. The present Lord Sanford is an enthusiastic socialist so he’s turned the hall over to the state and lives in the dower house on the property.
Fen is lodging in the Fish Inn, and the denizens of this public house are so eccentric that you can’t help wondering how the local police are supposed to identify an escaped lunatic among so many strange and rather crazy people.
One of the other guests at the Fish Inn is an old acquaintance of Fen’s, Detective-Inspector Bussy. Bussy is unofficially investigating a case of blackmail and murder. He persuades Fen to lend him a hand and Fen is soon drawn much more deeply into the case than he expected when a second murder and then another attempted murder follow hard on the heels of the first slaying.
Crispin takes the opportunity of Fen’s election campaign not only to have a great deal of fun but also to make an impassioned attack on political enthusiasm. Fen becomes more and more convinced that politics is really all about hate and that the great strength of the British political system in the past had been the apathy of the voters. When he makes a bizarre speech putting forth his true views on politics he makes a disturbing discovery. Instead of having the effect he’d hoped for, of ending any chances of his being elected, he has now become the front-runner in the by-election.
The plot is typical of golden age detective fiction - it’s convoluted and somewhat implausible although it has to be admitted that the clue that leads Fen to the solution is a very clever one. What distinguishes Crispin from the true golden age detective writers is his wickedly funny sense of humour. The Gervase Fen books are effective mysteries but they are also among the treasures of English literary humour.
Buried for Pleasure is an immensely entertaining romp and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an exquisite pleasure from beginning to end.