detective fiction

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Date read: 8.2.10
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

MW - Tezuka Osamu

Apparently not a single unpixellated version of this image wants to let me find it.

Whyyyy did I read this all in (pretty much) one sitting. Whatever the opposite of feel-good is, MW falls into that category. The whole time I was reading, I got the impression of Tezuka Osamu crowing, “Suffer in an agony of dread while I, the creator of such lovable, family-friendly classics of Japanese animation and comics as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, manipulate your feelings with this unrelentingly dark thriller about a serial killer and the priest bound to him by guilt and love! Bwa ha ha ha!” Thanks, Tezuka. By the time I hit the last 20 pages, I was so overwrought with fatalistic dread that I had to put the book down for a few hours, before returning to the equally depressing final scenes.

For an illuminating bit of background, Wikipedia provided me with the following context: “This manga series is notable because it can be seen as Tezuka’s response to the gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) artists who emerged in the 1960s and 70s and an attempt to beat them at their own game.The gekiga artists of this period created gritty, adult-oriented works that sharply contrasted the softer, Disney-influenced style that Tezuka was associated with, a style that was seen as being out-of-step with the times.” So I think I’m not entirely wrong in detecting a certain amount of authorial glee in the proceedings.

MW is also a response to the use of chemical weaponry during the Vietnam War. MW‘s resident sociopath, Yuki Michio, the charming, long-lashed scion of a renowned family of kabuki actors, is a sociopath because he was exposed as a child to a neurotoxic weapon – MW – leaked from an island containment facility owned by Nation X (i.e. America). Father Garai, Yuki’s confidante and extremely guilty lover, feels bound to protect Yuki’s identity from the authorities because he, as an erstwhile hoodlum, was holding a nine-year-old Yuki captive at the time. He and Yuki were the only survivors; Garai joined the Church some time thereafter in an attempt to escape both his horror at having witnessed the disaster, and his guilt at his relationship with Yuki. (Yes, do the math there. Tezuka reaches for pretty much every variety of shock value, and even by the standards of anime/manga,  most of it is awful.)

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Date read: 7.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from a cousin
Reviewer: Emera

Incomplete read – one of those books that you start to get a bad feeling about as soon as you notice the back-cover blurbs are all by third-rate authors and obscure newspapers. The Arcanum is a supernatural thriller that attempts to gather together Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, renowned voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (who died 38 years before the book is set, but oh well), and H. P. Lovecraft on the trail of some mystery involving the Cthulhu mythos. Blah blah blah, all been done before.

I skimmed about three chapters, and it reads like mediocre fanfiction or The Da Vinci Code, full of dun dun DUN chapter breaks and phrases like “carnal treasures” and “In a swirl of a black topcoat he was gone.” It does make a lot of sense if you consider that Wheeler is primarily a screenwriter, not a novelist.

Go to:
Thomas Wheeler

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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Date Read: 11.26.08
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Short version: Dexter S1.
Long version: Dexter, a serial killer of serial killers, works in the Miami Metro Police as a blood spatter analyst alongside with his foster sister Deb. We learn that Dexter was taken from a violent crime scene and raised by a cop. Upon learning that Dexter was prone to murderous intentions, his dad taught him the art of killing. Suddenly, a new wave of killings crop up and are accredited to the “Ice Truck Killer” and Dexter recognizes that these killings are somehow a message to himself. Using his skills as a killer and resources at the police department, Dexter helps track down the killer while trying to keep those that matter to him safe.

Review

Unfortunately, I have to say this is exactly what I expected. I watched two seasons of Dexter before picking up one of the novels (much to my shame), partly due to the horrible things I had heard about the books. Unsurprisingly, the writing was entirely mediocre, unsophisticated, and wholly disappointing.

dexter-s1-dexter-killing

Naturally, I couldn’t help but compare Darkly Dreaming Dexter to the TV series. The novel is told from Dexter’s point of view, and really does try hard to achieve the same dark, cynical, wry atmosphere that the TV adaptation manages to accomplish so well… but just falls short. The pacing of the book was alright, as in there was always some action each chapter to propel the story forward. I feel like I’m really at a loss for what else to say about the novel. It was just unremarkable (again, comparison to the TV series). There are some minor plot differences between the novel and show, except for the ending; however, I don’t really care because I’m not reading anymore books.

dexter-in-blood-lab

At the least, reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter has made me appreciate the TV adaptation immensely. You really begin to gain an understanding of the skill involved in developing Dexter’s character for the screen, piecing together the soundtrack and film style for that perfect cynical criminal atmosphere, and the screenplay is just impeccable. The TV show has really come a long way from the novel and certainly shaped a masterpiece from raw materials.

Go To:

Jeff Lindsay

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Date read: 8.3.09
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

I picked this and #15 up at a used book sale, partly out of a fit of pique that I couldn’t find anything else to my taste – even though I didn’t know anything about the actual quality of the anthology series. Luckily, every story in this was well written and solidly above average, which is more than can be said for most of the anthologies I’ve read in my life.

To begin with the best, my absolute favorites, in no particular order:

  • Kelly Link’s feverish, extremely unnerving “Stone Animals” (come on, even the title is creepy). Young couple with poor communication and two small children, including a sleepwalking daughter, moves into a new house where all is not quite well – classic set-up for horror, and Link plays it gleefully. I imagined her whooping maniacally while writing the story, truth be told.
  • Lisa Tuttle’s “My Death,” the story of a recently widowed writer who travels in search of new inspiration, and becomes strangely entangled in the legacy of an early 20th-century painter and his muse. This builds slowly, but goes places that are increasingly strange and tap into very primitive, raw forces. The ending was completely unpredictable and bewildering in the best way possible. Masterfully executed, all in all.
  • Michael Marshall Smith’s supremely atmospheric and ever-so-delicately frightening “This Is Now.” Describing it would ruin it, so I won’t. This gave me the most chills-down-the-spine read, yet the fear is so deliciously subtle and evanescent.

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Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

Go to:

China Mieville

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Date Read: 6.3.09

Book From: Library

Reviewer: Emera

A prequel to the first Dresden Files novel, “Welcome to the Jungle” is the first graphic novel addition to the series – a full adaptation of the first novel (Storm Front) is to come, apparently. The four-issue comic’s plot is boilerplate Dresden Files: a gruesome murder, this time at the zoo, has Lt. Karrin Murphy of Chicago PD’s Special Investigations calling in Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the phonebook. Harry has 24 hours to uncover the killer, and, of course, has no idea where to start. In the meantime, the murder has been pinned on one of the zoo’s prized (and innocent) gorillas, lending extra urgency to Harry’s search for the real culprit.

Unsurprisingly, the Dresden Files, with their spectacular action scenes, car chases, and colorful magical rituals, translate perfectly to comic-book form, with quick panels here capably taking the place of the lengthy descriptions required in the book. Indeed, Butcher explains in his introduction that his storytelling is strongly influenced by the multitude of comics that he read when young (something that I definitely sympathize with).

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