Wednesday, December 9, 2020



Django (1966)

]directed by Sergio Corbucci
script by Sergio Corbucci
lifted uncredited from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo

"What did you say?

   It doesn't matter. What matters is that you're about to die."

                                                                    Django responding to a Red Shirt

Django has one of the coolest openings ever:  

This is not a great movie (unlike Corbucci's 1968 masterpiece, The Great Silence {which I wrote about here}), but it is packed with some brilliant, lunatic scenes that make it worthwhile viewing. 

According to Wikipedia, Sergio Corbucci was filming another movie and was approached by a novice producer in need of a quick hit. Corbucci jumped at the offer and decided to do a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai movie, Yojimbo. Sergio Leone had already done that with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and set Clint Eastwood on the path to superstardom. Corbucci, a more overtly political director had something else in mind.

Where there was no obvious racial animosity between the Mexican and American gangs in Leone's movie, outright racism was going to be at the heart of Corbucci's. Again, in the earlier film, politics are nonexistent. In Django, while superficial at best, they are there and serve to justify the Mexican gangs actions, at least a little.

Franco Nero

The movie opens with Django (Franco Nero) appearing out of nowhere and coming across a group of Mexican bandits preparing to whip a woman for the crime of running away from their boss, Hugo (José Bódalo). As the punishment begins, shots ring out and all the Mexicans are killed. A band of Americans, all wearing bright red scarves have suddenly appeared. While they untie the woman, they don't free her, instead they immediately prepare to burn her alive for the crime of miscegenation. That proves too much for Django and he up toward the Americans. Soon, they too lie dead in the mud, and this time, the woman, whom we've learned is named Maria (Loredana Nusciak), is freed.

Eventually the viewer learns that under the command of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a band of inveterate racist Confederates have made their way into Mexico where they've been helping the Mexican government against revolutionaries led by Hugo. Jackson is an old enemy of Django and Hugo is an old friend. Soon, Django is killing and plotting, which in turn leads to more killing and more plotting. What's inside that coffin he's been dragging around turns out to be so cool it's probably the one thing everyone who has ever seen the movie remembers.

The movie suffers from a weak, slapdash script. Again, according to Wikipedia, the script was being written and rewritten constantly. In a 2001 article in The Guardian, Nero said, when shooting started, Corbucci had little more than a "scaletta," a synopsis. It tells with slack dialogue and hackneyed motivations. The terrible dubbing doesn't help matters whatsoever. The whole movie has a feeling of having been done on the fly at times. None of these things, though, make it unwatchable, only disappointing considering how much better it might have been.

Eduardo Fajardo
Despite its flaws, Django still provides a good kick or two to the gut in the best possible ways. I think Corbucci making Major Jackson and his Red Shirts the real villains is similar to what was done with South Africans in Lethal Weapon II (dir. Richard Donner, 1989): blood and murder are made more virtuous by the presence of dastardly racists. Still, racist Americans in a Western in 1966 are pretty-in-your face and on target. By then, the rest of the world was getting a good look at American racist and their fight against black civil rights. I have to believe the despicable Jackson and company captured foreign reaction to that pretty well. I may not normally care what an Italian communist has to say about America, but if the proverbial broken clock can be right twice a day, he can at least once in his career. 

Then there's the violence. There's some pretty brutal killings in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (dir. Leone, 1965), but nothing that quite compares to those in Django. The killing of Jackson's men and the attack on the Mexican Army detachment are industrialized murder on a scale not seen in a many Westerns before. There may not be the gallons of blood Peckinpah would unleash a few years later in The Wild Bunch (1969) (see here), but it's nearly as intense, and done with such vigor and sure handed playing to the audience it's easy to get swept up in it and cheer it on.

Django also looks good. Considered the first part of Corbucci's "Mud and Blood Trilogy" (which also includes The Great Silence and The Specialists (1969)), it's got an exhausted, filthy look that as much as the plot demythologizes - hell, anti-mythologizes - the West. Too many American Westerns look too clean. That was rarely the case with Spaghetti Westerns and Corbucci brings on the muck and mire by the truck loads. 

Nero and Nusciak
The same ugliness applies to the cast. The whores aren't pretty, most of the men are unshaven and dirty and most are ugly. Major Jackson looks normal, but at least we see how misshapen his soul is right away. Even the youthful and handsome Nero's face is obscured by makeup to age him and whiskers.  Whether only the ugly inhabit the West or the West deforms its inhabitants, it's not a pretty place. Only Maria starts and remains beautiful through the whole movie. 

Corbucci's West isn't John Ford's land of mesas and strong-hearted men with noble codes. It's not Boetticher's stripped down and hardboiled West, either. It's a vile place filled with Gothic flourishes and it's full of pulpish goodness and badness. It's an intense place and Django, maybe more than its better made Leone predecessors the herald of the increasing bizarreness of Spaghetti Westerns to come.

Django, censored in the UK, without an official US release until 1972, still became an international hit and made Franco Nero a star. There are more than thirty sequels, only one of which, Django Strikes Again (dir. Ted Archer, aka Nello Rossati, 1987) is official and stars Franco Nero. The name Django was even added to Italian mobster movies because it had been such a hit. Of course, most recently, Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained (2012), an homage to the original and featuring Nero in a cameo role. 

Rating  - B: When I first saw this about twenty-five years ago, I totally loved it. That opening, the big reveal on what's in the coffin, it just hit me as totally cool. Now, I'm more "eh," and I shrug my shoulders. I've seen so many more Spaghetti Westerns that I know just how good they can be (and, again, with The Great Silence, just how good Corbucci could be), that I know it isn't wrong to want more than some shiny-shiny things from them. Nonetheless, those shiny-shiny bits are a lot of fun, and it's always exciting seeing a young star on the make. Franco Nero - even badly dubbed - just looks right and swaggers with the best of them. If you haven't seen Django, watch it, if only to find out what's in Django's coffin. 

Django's Historical Location: somewhere along the  US-Mexico border after the Civil War

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear and like most Italian Westerns it wasn't filmed anywhere remotely near the real West. Instead, it was filmed in the Tor Caldara nature reserve near Anzio and in a run down Western town on the Elios film set near Rome. If you look up the latter on IMDB you'll see over a dozen different Westerns were shot there.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

More Tolkien Covers

Last time I posted Barbara Remington's Lord of the Rings covers for Ballantine. Those were the first versions of Tolkien's books I read. They were my dad's and they eventually fell apart. When I bought a new set, they had covers featuring paintings by Tolkien. As much as I love Remington's on-the-nose sixties art, I prefer Tokien's. I love his art nouveau-influenced style and the rare chance to see an author's actual vision put to paper. I'm still looking for good shots of more of his art to post, but these four covers will do in the meantime.

depicted: Bilbo and the dwarves escaping the Elf King's hall

depicted: Hobbiton

depicted: Fangorn Forest

depicted: Barad-dûr

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Beautiful Ballantine Covers

Many of the books I'm hoping to read for my new Black Gate column were published by Ballantine books, some as precursors to and others as part of the famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. That's got me looking at my shelf-full of them and their beautiful covers. Several times over the years I've written about the quality of old book covers compared to modern ones. It should come as no surprise I think the old ones come out on top most of the time.

While Gervasio Gallardo is probably the single artist most recognized from the Ballantine AF books Lin Carter edited, there were other artists of note, especially for the pre-Carter books. Here are some of my favorites, all by the recently deceased Barbara Remington.

These hippy trippy covers were my first vision of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien couldn't understand them, but that's because Remington wasn't able to read them before doing the covers. She said she would have done something very different if she had, but I'm glad she didn't. I love these ludicrous artifacts from stranger days. 

I particularly love that together they form one lunatic vision of Tolkien's world

The first three of these are by Barbara Remington, while the fourth, possibly by a different artist, is uncredited. I hope to tackle Worm sooner rather than later, but I make no guarantees. These covers are remarkable. I love the ouroboros motif and the high middle ages depictions of the knights and castles. The dogs and lions on Mistress have a heraldic quality reflects perfectly echoes Eddison's medieval stylings. 

I look and look at both these sets of covers and I wonder why must we continue to suffer God awful photoshopped covers. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Back in the Saddle Again: A New Monthly Column

After nearly two years of retirement from Black Gate, I'm coming back. I'm brushing the cobwebs out of my brain, flexing my writing muscles, and gearing up for a return to the electronic pages of the best fantasy (and horror, and sci-fi, and crime fiction) magazine around. The luminous Mrs. V. has already signed back on to edit my work so it'll be coherent. 

There'll be two significant changes. The first is I'll be posting monthly, not weekly. Each new article will post on the first Friday of the month, starting in December. I figure a lighter schedule is the way to go. Five years of reading and reviewing three books and a half dozen or more short stories every month burned me out.

The other is I'll be reading classic works I haven't read before (or only once a long time ago - I've always got to give myself some sort of wiggle room - which specifically mean Gormenghast). The first book, which I've already started, is Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. The Last Unicorn, and The Ship of Ishtar, as well as some Gothic romances, including Melmoth the Wanderer and Frankenstein, are some others I think I'll give a go. I can imagine reading things not as old, but I definitely want to focus on some of the books most important to the evolution of fantasy literature. 

I want to dig into fantasy from before genrefication took hold. That's what I call the point when fantasy got locked down. It was as if clear limitations were staked out marking out what is and isn't fantasy. Fantasy was reduced to no more than a commodity and tropes have come to supplant the unique and strange. Much contemporary fantasy seems to be written by authors for whom only other fantasy exists and those are their only influences. It's a copy of a copy, not something inspired and drawn up from the deeper wells of our shared cultures and myths. It often reads like a gaming campaign, complete with detailed magic systems and character classes. There's also the whole grimdark business which seems intent on eliminating the fantastic from fantasy much of the time. 

I think it was the explosion of epic fantasy series in the eighties and nineties and the commercial success of the genre that much of the strangeness went out of it. When Lester Del Rey deliberately set out to find a Xerox copy of the Lord of the Rings and discovered The Sword of Shannara (reviewed here) can be seen as the actual start of all this. For over a decade we were blessed with an endless slew of often hard to differentiate epic series. Now, with grittiness all the rage, everyone is aping George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. The tropes have changed a bit, but we're still getting lots of not very dissimilar epic series - just "grittier."

I know well-received books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that don't limit themselves to the tired and true (hey, I haven't read that, so I might add it to the list) still appear from time to time, but they are anomalies. A few writers are still inspired by pulp and older fantasy (James Enge, Howard Andrew Jones, and Raphael Ordoñez  among them), but there's little room for the dreamlike imagination of many early fantasies or the magpie mixtures of sci-fi, horror, and anything else that suited the fancies of writers like William Hope Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith. If you're not new here you know this is one of the hobby horses I ride the hardest. I'll make every effort to not be a bore.

I'm also hoping to get some Western movie reviews up again. It's not like I haven't watched a ton of them since the last time I posted a review (here).

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood by P.J. Thorndyke

 It's been nearly two years since I wrote anything for Black Gate. Save a few posts here, I've not done much writing at all. Every now and then, John O'Neill, captain of the good ship Black Gate, sent me an inquiry to try to entice me back into the fold. Until last month none of them proved tempting enough. Then I got P.J. Thorndyke's Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood.

The book is absolute gold, albeit on a subject that rarely shines: sword & sorcery movies. They're mostly tripe, but, the story around them and about their creation is fascinating. I recommend Thorndyke's book to anyone with the slightest interest in low-budget movies as well as any S&S reader looking for a great resource on, no matter what the films' quality, an important part of the genre's history.

For the full review go HERE.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A Horror Favorite: Session 9

Every October, the luminous Mrs. V. and I sit down to watch spooky (but not too spooky) movies together. I've long thought one of my favorites might be too much for her, but rewatching it last year, I realized it isn't. Unfortunately, while she indeed didn't find it too creepy, she also didn't really dig it. Oh, well, it's still one of my favorite horror movies. 

Session 9 (2001), directed by Brad Anderson

When it all comes together - story, atmosphere, acting - you get something that will you haunt you a long time after the screen goes dark and the house lights come up. Played by Peter Mullan, Gordon Fleming runs a faltering asbestos removal business. In hope of saving it, he takes on a seemingly impossible contract to clean up a massive old asylum in one week instead of the anticipated three.
Session 9 was filmed on the grounds of Danvers State Hospital, a closed facility outside of Boston. Built in 1878 and designed for 500 to 1000 patients at best, by the 1940s over 2000 people were housed there. Like most such facilities across the country, budget cuts, changing approaches to mental health treatment, and horrible conditions, it was closed. Since the movie was made in 2000 most of the complex has been demolished despite efforts to preserve it. 

The men on his crew, including a terrific David Caruso, balk, but the chance to make a big bonus is enough to get them all on board. When they discover a cache of interview tapes with a notorious resident of the hospital things start to get strange. Then they get terrible.

Session 9 builds much of its atmosphere out of relics, real as well as props, from the brick corpse of the asylum. Real photos from long-dead patients decorate the walls of one room, and the place really was plagued by ancient, crumbling plaster and asbestos. The graveyard is actually fake, but it was modeled on the real one nearby. 

When I saw this the first time (at the Angelika), I had no idea what I'd be getting. I knew it was a horror flick, but I only knew Brad Anderson from his excellent comic Next Stop Wonderland. Every time I've watched it since, it still manages to raise a chill. Like The Haunting, it puts to the viewer the question of whether events are supernatural or not.

Peter Mullan
The titular session tapes from an infamous killer once held in the hospital are fake. Nonetheless, they sound real enough. Each tape brings the cast (and the viewer) closer to a shadow prowling the ruins' hallways. Whether their final revelations are real or not is a question that persists until the film's final frames.

I have my own opinion on that, but the movie as it stands (there are deleted scenes that can be seen as strengthening one of the two sides) leaves the question unanswered, a black ambiguity that leaves Fleming's actions mysteries to the very end. This, plus the atmosphere of a place that was a real-life house of horrors and the cast, make this a movie that holds up under repeated viewings. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Early Thoughts on Esdaile's The Peninsular War

El 2 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goy

I'm a good piece into Charles Esdaile's The Peninsular War. That's the name given to the complex and ferocious war fought across Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814. Spain, suffering from centuries of corruption, political and religious repression, and was facing revolution in its colonies in the Americas, had been forced into an alliance with the French Empire. Together, they had invaded and conquered British-allied Portugal. They had failed to capture the Portuguese royal family and treasury, both of which had been safely evacuated to Brazil.

 Despite the battlefield victory, Spain continued to be a state in turmoil. Machinations between various parties led to complete chaos, with followers of the king, Charles IV, facing off against followers of his son, Ferdinand VII.

 To ensure Spanish acquiescence to French plans, Napoleon began moving troops commanded by several of his marshals into eastern Spain. In the chaos that followed, King Charles IV abdicated and his son, Ferdinand VII, attempted to assume the throne. Napoleon forced them both out, installed his adoring older brother Joseph on the throne in Madrid and attempted to occupy the whole of the country.

 The invasion lead to a massive uprising against the French conquerors. Despite retaliation by the French, the uprising proved impossible to suppress. Spanish regular forces under General Castaños forced the surrender of nearly 18,000 French soldiers at Bailén. This led to British intervention, followed by Napoleon himself taking over the reins of the French forces. Then the British retreated, with their commander, General Moore getting killed, and the French in control of much of Spain and part of Portugal. Napoleon returned to France to raise troops to fight the resurgent Austrians and left his generals in command once again. It was only then that Arthur Wellesley arrived on the scene with a renewed British commitment to fight the French. At that point there were five more years of brutal fighting ahead.

El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goya
That's as far as I've gotten in the book and it's been packed with examples of military and political incompetence and atrocities of all sorts. Like most guerrillas before them, the Spanish and Portuguese partisans, unable and unwilling to confront the French in the field, carry out murders of collaborators and messengers. Most of the Spanish generals are mildly competent at best and the poor Spanish infantry are often untrained and poorly armed as well as underfed and ill-clothed. The French wantonly sacked and raped their way across the country side. The second, and successful, assault on Zaragoza left 20,000 Spanish soldiers and 34,000 civilians dead after months of siege and weeks of house-to-house fighting.

Abbey of Santa Engracia by Louis-François Lejeune
from the Second Siege of Zaragoza

The British fare no better in the book. Most were Anglican or Methodist and anti-Catholic and had a strong dislike of the Spanish priests and monks, seeing them as lazy parasites living on the largesse of the citizenry. For the Spanish army, they had little regard, treating it with contempt and derision. Without a dedicated supply train, the British army, like the French (and the Spanish, as well), lived off the countryside, routinely plundering whatever farm or village they come upon.

Saragossa 10 February 1809 by Harold Hume Piffard

I've never read much Napoleonic history, but I was still taken aback by the murderousness of the war - and this is only in the early stages. It's clear, already, why the fighting came to be called the Spanish Ulcer. It may not have been cause of Napoleon's great defeat - that was the Russian Campaign followed by the battle of Leipzig - but the deployment of so many troops away from his greater objectives was a significant contribution.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna by George Jones
Esdaile's book is very clear in his explanations of the assorted factors that led to the war and where it fits into the greater history of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. What it doesn't do is give long, complicated descriptions of the battles - which in this sort of history, that is one covering a lengthy war - I quite like. Instead of describing the movement of every Spanish and British company at the battle of Talavera, Esdaile concentrates on the French and English strategies that led to the battle being fought in the place it was fought.

I'm going to take a break from The Peninsular War for a few days. I'm going to dive back into Perez-Reverte's The Siege. Then, it's onto War and Peace. It's funny, when I decided on the latter as the follow-up to Doctor Zhivago (more on that later), I didn't consciously pick for its being set during the Napoleonic Wars. It was just synchronicity.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Whiling Away Days in Quarantine

You'd think with all the free time in these days of enforced lockdown I'd get some serious reading done; nope. I mean I am reading and I did actually finish two books - The Footsteps at the Lock and Hidden Moon - but I'm working really hard to finish the three others I've got going on - Doctor Zhivago, The Peninsular War, and The Siege. All are very good and very dense and I will finish them, but, man, oh, man, it's taking me a long time. 

I was excited to get the latest issue of Tales from the Magician's Skull but I can't read it, at least not now. I'm amazed that I still can't read fantasy. It makes sense as it's about all I read for five or six years. Now, I can barely work up any enthusiasm for the genre, no matter how good it looks. It's getting to be a bit of a bummer. I've got books that I really want to read, but when I pick them up any interest just dries up like a puddle in the Sahara at high noon. I couldn't even finish a very good Tim Powers (one of my favorite authors) book I started during all this. I know I'll get back up on that horse someday, but right now it's way beyond the horizon.

We did just watch the Hulu series, Devs, from Alex Garland, starring, among a bunch of other good actors, Nick Offerman. Essentially, a tech mogul is attempting to determine if the universe is completely deterministic. I have all sorts of problems with the way the show discusses the question as if it's never been done before, and the end is not good. Nonetheless, the acting is very, very good, with Offerman and Jin Ha being my favorites. The whole show is, from the woodland campus and gilded quantum computing center to the fog-shrouded hills above San Francisco is beautiful. Within its own universe, it's a tense and riveting show. It's been hinted that Garland wants to do something entirely different with the same cast and I would definitely be up for that. 

As for how I'll while away future days in captivity, it'll be more of the same. Some work on the computer followed by computer games and movies with sporadic bouts of reading. The luminous Mrs. V. has us trying to get various projects done and I'm sort of game for it.

Actually, I do sort of have my future reading goals laid out. Once I've finished Zhivago, I'm just going to go for the brass ring and pick up War and Peace. It looked so ridiculously long when I was a kid, but, seriously, when fantasy fans routinely read multi-volume thousand-page-a-book series, it's not much at all. Alongside that, I've got Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, a horror novel set on Svalbard, and Tim Willocks' South African-set Memo from Turner. It's not too lofty a goal, so just maybe I'll achieve it. Stranger things have happened.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I don't think I'll be writing much about any of the Russian books that I read this year. Far better things have been written about any of the works I'll get to for there to be anything I can add. If you doubt me, check out this blog. Still, I will slap together a few quick takes, nonetheless. (Note: apparently, this is not true, and I'll be writing too much, probably)

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) greatest work, The Master and Margarita (1940),  was never published during his lifetime. Much of his work, reviled by the Soviet literary establishment, was suppressed. Even during the post-Stalin thaw under Khrushchev, the book remained unpublished for a long time and didn't appear until a censored version came out in 1967. The full text wasn't available until 1973. The first English translation was in 1967.

The Devil and his retinue
by Alekshey Galushkov
One hot spring day, the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow. When he comes upon the head of the writers' union, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, lecturing the poet, Ivan Bezdomny, that it's not enough to portray Christ as a comical figure, but instead he must be shown to have never existed at all, he is excited.

The visit brings down chaos on the citizens of the capital, exposing many of the vicious little ways people have accommodated themselves to the corruption and evil of the Soviet Union. Shortages of most luxuries and even many necessities have turned many ordinary people cagey and covetous. When the writer Berlioz is killed, having slipped and fallen under a tram, his uncle's first thought upon hearing the news is not one of sympathy but of how to claim his large Moscow apartment. Poets conform their words to the official dogma while loudly condemning all who don't. People, for no apparent reason most times, disappear in the middle of the day from their apartments, never to be seen again, and no one ever speaks of it.

In the middle of all the Satanic shenanigans, there's the tale of Margarita and her lover, the writer known only as the Master. For writing a book presented as a non-supernatural tale of Pontius Pilate and a prisoner called Yeshua Ha-Notsri, he was blacklisted and eventually went mad. Selections from the Master's novel are spread throughout the book.

Margarita spies
the Master watching her
I've read this book numerous times over the past thirty-five years and loved it each time. This time around, though, my enjoyment came more from the satirical anti-Soviet elements than the artistic and philosophical/theological ones. I've read a bit more about the period and Bulgakov's life and  While very funny, Bulgakov never softens his depictions of the brutality and moral decay wrought by the Soviet government.

What surprised me on this reading was how much I remembered and how much I forgot. Few specific scenes surprised me; Professor Woland holding forth on the existence of God, Pilate interrogating Ha-Notsri, the magic show in Moscow, and Satanic ball. It all came back to me.

Azzazello, Behemoth, and Korovyev
What threw me was the novel's overall flow. Despite its title, while hinted at, both Margarita and the Master don't show up till nearly halfway through the book. Even Pilate get much less time on the stage then I believed. The travails of the government poet, Ivan Bezdomny, and assorted writers and theater employees make up most of the first half of the book. I suspect it's this part, far more than the Pilate chapters, that ensured Bulgakov's book would never see the light of day in the USSR.

Moscow is a city of limits. Despite the modernity of its streetcars, theaters, even the thoughts, and ideas of its citizens, it is bereft of much. For artists, only the luckiest have adequate living space and only those who regurgitate state dogma have access to fine cuisine. Even the refreshment stand at Patriarch's Ponds on a hot day has no cold beer or seltzer, only warm apricot juice.

While there are obvious allusions to the sudden disappearance of innocents who fall afoul of the state's terror apparatus, most people manage to live in, even if only willful, ignorance of such terrors. Instead, they simply live lives that seem threadbare and bereft of most simple comforts, let alone luxuries. It's a gray world where the only light comes from Margarita's love for the Master.

Pilate and Banga

Despite finding myself drawn more to the Moscow chapters this reading, the Pilate ones are still the heart of the book. Bulgakov's Pilate is miserable, pained by endless headaches, brought about by Jerusalem's heat, his hatred of the endless plotting by the Sanhedrin, and what he sees as the Jewish fanaticism. His only real fellowship is with his dog. Suddenly, confronted by Ha-Notsri's unwarranted goodness, he senses the possibility of relief, even redemption.

When I first met the luminous Mrs. V., I gave her The Master and Margarita to read. She didn't finish it, put off as she was by the retelling of the Pilate's and Jesus' story. Yeshua Ha-Notsri isn't divine (though his insights seem to be), he has no real disciples, and he isn't preaching salvation or messiah hood. For me, no less orthodox in my theology, it was never a problem. It's a story within a story, it's the Master's novel. In the end, a character in a book, his deliverance must come from his creator, not the Creator.

Mikhail Bulgakov
A line from the book, "Manuscripts don't burn," became well-known in the Soviet Union. In the book, it referred explicitly to the Master's novel about Pilate being given to him despite having burned the original manuscript. It came to pertain to politically unpublishable novels being memorized by their authors.

It's a powerful notion - that art persists despite the savagery of the world. Bulgakov's works were kept unpublished, his plays shut down after a performance, and Stalin would not allow him to emigrate. In the end, he died from an inherited disease, his greatest work unknown to anyone outside his immediate circle. Today, it's considered one of the great works of Russian literature, so maybe he was right.

When I started this whole Russian thing, I thought I'd be focusing largely on the writings of the great 19th and early 20th century writers - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and the like. Instead, I started with a post-Revolutionary novel and I've already started on a second - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I'm  also looking forward to a collection of Soviet-era short stories my mother-in-law's giving me this week. Aside from just being good books, they're fascinating for their portrayal of Soviet Union from within. It was the great threat to the world for much of my life, it murdered untold millions of its own people, and now it's just gone. It's gripping to get a glimpse from the inside through the eyes of actual Russian writers instead of histories written by outsiders. I'm going to get to the 19th century at some point, but right now, I'm going to be sticking to the 20th.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Christmas Mailbag

While I've set out to try to focus on Russian fiction this year, I've also found myself drawn to Golden Age detective fiction again this year. So far, I've read Ngaio Marsh's first Roderick Alleyn book, A Man Lay Dead, and I'm well in to Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The luminous Mrs. V and I are also rewatching for the many-manyieth time the inimitable Joan Hickson Miss Marple tv-show.

Golden Age detective fiction refers to a certain type of puzzle-heavy mystery featuring some sort of detective, be he or she an amateur or a professional, and written between the two world wars, and largely, though not exclusively, from Great Britain. While most the earliest examples focused on the puzzle aspect almost to the exclusion of character and atmosphere, this began to change fairly quickly with a growing focus on psychology and motive. While the era is generally considered to have ended in the years immediately following WWII, the sort of mystery Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers wrote is clearly still the template for a lot of crime fiction written today. There may be more gore and the sex more explicit, but complicated crimes and clever detectives are definitely not a thing of the past.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

I remembered seeing this last year when I was doing research on Margery Allingham, so I figured it was worth a look. About a third of the way in, I can tell you it's terrific.

Not only is Edwards a mystery author himself, he's the president of the Detection Club. The club's founding members included Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkley (Francis Illes), Agatha Christie and most of the other British mystery writers of the day, and GK Chesterton was the first president.

As much as a history of the genre and its development, it's one of the club and its members. I knew a little of Sayers' and Christie's lives, but not as much as the book details. Edwards tells some fascinating stories, particularly where his subjects' writing overlaps with real world murder.

If you've any taste for these sorts of stories, this book is definitely one to add to your shelf.

As I'm making my way through The Golden Age of Murder, I'm being blown away discovering just how many authors wrote detective novels in the Golden Age. There are easily a half dozen or more for every one I know. Going along, I'm making notes of what looks especially interesting.

The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox

One of the books that immediately caught my eye was this one. Set during a canoe trip along the upper reach of the Thames, this sounded fun, so I grabbed it.
Knox was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. In addition to many serious religious works, he wrote several successful and respected detective novels featuring Miles Bredon, a sheepdog-like agent of the Indescribable Insurance Company. If that company name doesn't make it obvious, from the very beginning, many authors were having fun with the genre, taking it no more seriously than it needed to be.

Knox, one of the founding members of the Detection Club, had also written a set of rules to be followed when writing detective fiction:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Written only partially tongue-in-cheek, this is a great set of guidelines that would seem perfectly applicable today. 

Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

So, reading about Edwards regarding The Golden Age of Murder, I saw he had the first book in a new series available cheap, so I bough it. It's just the way I am, I guess. Rachel Savernake, daughter of a judge and amateur sleuth, gets caught up in crazy, murder-filled contretemps in foggy London in 1930. 

I loved the first Inspector O book, A Corpse in the Koryo, and hope to get to its first sequel soon. This time around, North Korean police inspector O is directed to solve a bank robbery, a crime that would seem impossible in his country. Church is the pseudonym of a long-serving American intelligence officer serving in the Far East. I expect really good things from this book.