Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Matter of Britain, Pirates, and Tough Guys

Statue of Boudica in London
I'm diving back into Henry Treece's Celtic tetralogy for Black Gate this coming week with Red Queen, White Queen. It's set during Boudica's bloody uprising against the Romans in 60 AD. Instead of the bloody queen, the book's perspective is from two soldiers, one Roman and the other a Briton. Where Artos and Medrawt in The Great Captains (reviewed at Black Gate) were building the great myths themselves, the protagonists here are only mortal moving through a legend-wreathed and spirit-haunted world.

Caractacus faces the Romans

The remaining books in the quartet are The Golden Strangers and The Dark Island. The first is set during the invasion of Britain by bronze using proto-Celtic tribes and their conquest of the stone age natives. The second is about Caractacus' war against the Romans.

I continue to be enthralled by the myths and history of early Britain. Even though my own roots are with the Saxon invaders, these stories have suffused the earth of the island itself and imprinted themselves on to all its inhabitants, including me through my ancestors. British resistance to foreign domination, be it Spain, France, or Germany, feels like it has its roots in the battles of Caractacus, Boudica, and Arthur. The seemingly endless struggle to bring a modicum of justice in times of chaos that lies with those stories as well.

I just finished off Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood books: Brethren of the Main, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, Captain Blood Returns, and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. I'll go into more detail on them later (with Howard Andrew Jones - the worst instigator of book buying around these days). For now, just let me say that they, are rollicking, swashbuckling adventures of the first order.

I've also gotten back into some good hardboiled books as well. I finally picked back up and polished of Bait Money, Max Allan Collin's first Nolan book. The reason I hadn't finished it was it wasn't grabbing me. Nolan's a little too nice and the caper wasn't shaping up as something too thrilling. I think part of the problem was that years ago a friend told me Nolan was nothing more than a Parker knockoff and I went in expecting something more brutal and cynical than it is.

While inspired by Richard Stark's master criminal, Collins had his on take on that archetype and explains it afterword. He wanted to look at that sort of a man in the later years of his career as well as exploring Collin's own baby boomer generation through the character of Jon. But when I first started reading the book I was expecting something different.

Well, I'm glad I returned to it. The end is explosive and a great setup for the sequel, Blood Money. And don't get me wrong, there's a fair amount of cynicism, it's just tempered compared to what you find in the Parker books.

I'm also in the middle of Fast One by Paul Cain. I'd never hear of Cain until seeing him included on Jones' (Chris Hocking's actually) list of hardboiled books the other week. In keeping with its title, this is one of the most fast-paced books I've ever read. Within a few pages it's like getting hit by a train, a bloody, booze-soaked train. Not done yet but great so far.

Based on that list I also bought The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis, The Complete Casebook of Cardigan: Vol. 1. by Frederick Nebel, Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer, and The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe. All look like a lot of fun, but I have to admit I bought the Davis book because it's got a big dog in it.

There are really a lot of similarities between hardboiled fiction and swords & sorcery. Both are tougher, more cynical and feature heroes more concerned with staying alive or getting the money than fighting evil. Richard Stark is to Agatha Christie as Karl Edward Wagner is to Prof. Tolkien. This has been talked about before (can't find the links, but trust me, people have discussed this), and reading the Cain and Collins only reinforces this belief in me.

So that's what's going on off the pages of Black Gate for me bookwise. I'm not even sure what heroic fantasy book I'm going to pick up next. I think I need to find something truly odd and from off the beaten track (of course, lazy as I am, I probably won't make the effort and I'll just grab something I've read already).


  1. Solomon's Vineyard, AKA The Fifth Grave, is one of the best hardboiled novels I've read. Pure fun.

  2. Just looked at the opening paragraphs and it looks pretty cool.