Category Archives: Reading

Moriarty, retconned: The Valley of Fear (#SFWApro)

THE VALLEY OF FEAR, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, is Sherlockians’ best evidence that the Canon is, in a way, not canon. When Moriarty debuts in The Final Problem, Watson has never heard of him; in this retcon novel, set three years or so earlier, he’s fully familiar with the Napoleon of Crime.

(By the way, this is full of spoilers, so be warned).

The opening, as seen in the image (by Frank Wiles has Holmes receive a message in code from Porlock, a lowly drone in Moriarty’s hive of criminal industry. Worried his boss suspects him, Porlock unfortunately doesn’t send the follow-up letter identifying the book the cipher refers to (the numbers refer to words on various pages). Holmes, being Holmes, identifies the book, then cracks the code: something is going to happen to a Mr. Douglas at Birlstone Manor. And sure enough, Inspector MacDonald (like Baynes in His Last Bow, he’s one of Doyle’s capable detectives) shows up to report Douglas has been murdered.

What follows is a surprisingly straight murder mystery. We have the body, we have the clues, we have the details that don’t fit (why did the killer remove Douglas’ wedding ring, then restore the ring that was above it on the finger?), and Holmes has to put them together. There’s no chasing or pursuing as happens in Study in Scarlet and Sign of Four, nor as many diversions as in Dartmoor in Hound of the Baskervilles. It turns out the victim is actually Douglas’ killer, shot with his own gun. After years of running from his enemies (as established earlier in the story), Douglas saw a chance to fake his death and thereby end the hunt.

Who was he running from? Much like Scarlet, Part II takes us back a couple of decades, to Vermissa Valley in the U.S. It’s a “valley of fear” under the grip of the brutal Scowrers, a miners’ brotherhood that’s turned into a network of crime, enriching itself through extortion of the mine owners. A tough guy, McMurdo, arrives, joins up and becomes our viewpoint character witnessing life in the valley of fear. When he gets word that ace Pinkerton detective Birdy Edwards is gathering information to break the Scowrers, McMurdo gathers the ringleaders to trap Edwards. When they arrive, McMurdo reveals they’re the ones in the trap, for “I am Birdy Edwards.” He’s been the hero all along (a twist which completely blindsided me — I’m sorry I’ve spoiled it for you). The Scowrers go down.

(This is loosely based on the Molly Maguires, a similar fellowship busted by the Pinkertons. There seems to be some debate whether they were really villains, dupes of a Pinkerton agent provocateur or something in between).

It’s a stronger story than the flashback in Study in Scarlet. And when we return to the present, Doyle shows again his willingness to have Holmes’ clients come to a bad end. Holmes knows Moriarty’s crime ring helped the killer (for a price, of course) and that Moriarty won’t let himself be seen to fail: Douglas and his wife need to run. They take an ocean voyage … but Douglas falls into the sea and drowns in “an accident.” After an entire novel establishing him as a good guy, it’s a shock. The only consolation is that when Holmes broods upon Moriarty’s sins at the end, we know the professor’s doom is already sealed …

I don’t know if Doyle got an itch to write Moriarty, or just thought that was an angle that would help sell the book. Either way, it’s a well-done novel with some delightful moments, such as Watson tweaking Holmes’ vanity early in the story.

Next month, Doyle’s last Holmes hort story collection.

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Don’t you know there’s a war on, Doc Savage? Rustling Death and Men of Fear (#SFWApro)

This month’s two novels came out in January and February of 1942, which makes for weird reading. Understandably due to the time lag between writing and publication there’s not a single reference to Pearl Harbor. At the same time, they’re quite openly anti-Axis. Unlike the various stories the past couple of years hinting at A Sinister European Power behind everything (e.g., Devil on the Moon), THE RUSTLING DEATH and MEN OF FEAR make it thoroughly obvious which power we’re talking a about (spoiler: it’s Germany!!!).

Alan Hathaway’s THE RUSTLING DEATH (cover by Emery Clark)has a lot in common with his Headless Men, inasmuch as the villain as a cackling mad scientist (Krag) using a death ray for extortion. Instead of the heat ray of the earlier book, this one is a combination of heat with ultrasonics (causing panic in everyone in the vicinity). To Doc’s puzzlement, the price one senator has to pay for not being zapped is a string of minor bills. It turns out the bills include a dam that will benefit the bad guys.

Along with Krag, there’s the German villain. Not named as such (the Definitely Not Portuguese strategy), but he speaks a guttural mother language, has a somewhat Germanic speech pattern in English and wears a monocle. And he makes it quite clear the US is on the target list once the war in Europe is won.

There’s also a plethora of new gadgets including a throat-mike in Ham’s tie pin, a television unit for transmitting fingerprints to the government and ejection seats in Doc’s planes. It’s not a stand0out, but I enjoyed it.

MEN OF FEAR (cover by Clark again) has a great opening, when Monk, Ham and Johnny inform Doc his latest project is too risky, so they’re sitting it out. Which for anyone who knows Doc’s team is very, very weird. And their friend “Henry” has also convinced them that Doc shouldn’t risk his genius by so much adventure, so before long, they’ve kidnapped Doc. Hmm, is it possible their minds are somehow altered?

Well, of course. The culprit this time is “Vitamin F-E-A-R,” a treatment Doc worked on in conjunction with a European scientist, Prof. Jellant. After a Sinister European Power overran his country, said power’s agents came sniffing around the lab. Jellant fled to the US, but now the agents have him, and they want Doc to make large quantities of the fear-inducing formula. The leader of the enemy agents says thinks like “Sehr gut!” and there’s a reference to Jellant’s sister dying in a concentration camp.

It’s a fast-moving, entertaining yarn, and Pat gets a fair amount of action (she’s been practicing her juijitsu). Unfortunately there’s a throwaway line about how she craves action the way “a pickaninny likes watermelon.” That was painful.

I’m not sure when the magazine actually acknowledges we’re in the war, but it can’t be long.

All rights to cover images remain with current holder.

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Screen Rant: 15 Things You Need to Know About Apokolips (#SFWApro)

My latest article is now live. I think the biggest takeaway is that Jack Kirby’s Apokolips was shaped by the idea the struggle wasn’t Good vs. Evil but Free Will vs. Mindless Obedience (aka Life vs. Anti-Life). Something that’s missing from the New 52’s version (and admittedly lots of other attempts by other writers to tackle Kirby’s New Gods).

I’ll be posting about the Fourth World mythos soon, as writing the article gave me an excellent excuse to reread the old Bronze Age books. But for now, just go read my list, okay?

Images by Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Unconventional super-hero sagas and more! Books read (#SFWApro)

AMERICAN WAY by John Ridley and Georges Jeanty has young ad man Wes invited to join the Kennedy administration in 1961. It turns out the Civil Defense Corps — the Justice League or Avengers equivalent — are actually propaganda; their powers are real but their big epic battles are PR to keep public opinion upbeat. When Old Glory (think Captain America) apparently dies in combat (“He was a four-pack a day smoker.”) Wes hits on a scheme to introduce a Negro superhero to the team, thereby shoring up JFK’s feeble civil rights record. Unfortunately things go horribly wrong … This is the best handling of superhero as propaganda since Captain Confederacy, but it’s not as good. For one thing, the hero names don’t always work — East Coast Intellectual is just silly and no way would the government have a Human Torch-type Southerner named Southern Cross (to me it invokes cross-burning too obviously). And the ending tanked it: the villain unmasking comes out of left field, with no better rationale than I Like to Kill. Plus Ridley cops out on various arcs (the CDC collapsing, the CDC exposed in the media, etc.) to keep the balls in the air (we eventually did get a sequel).

ASTRO CITY: Confessions by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson (cover by Alex Ross, all rights remain with current holder) gives us Brian, son of a small-town doctor who died penniless; determined to Be Someone, he winds up as the sidekick to the shadowy Batmanesque Confessor in Astro City. But there are secrets the Confessor has not confessed … All of which takes place against the background of a series of mysterious events, heroes going bad, aliens infiltrating, the public turning against the heroes — yep, the classic superhero big crossover event except it’s just the background to the important stuff. This was my first introduction to Astro City and while the parallel plotlines sometimes fit together awkwardly, overall it’s fantastic.

HELLBOY: Into the Silent Sea by Mike Mignola and Gary Gianni fits into that period when Hellboy was drifting at sea while trying to make sense of his destiny (I’ve already added it to the Hellboy Chronology). Suddenly he’s on a 19th century sailing ship a female occultist is using to find and contact one of the Oghdru Jahad. Bad idea? Stuff and nonsense, it’ll work out great! This is minor fluff (about one step above a dream episode) but eerie enough I liked it anyway.

Moving to more conventional yarns, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: The Extremists by Steve Orlando and various artists has Batman putting together a new League on the grounds people need ordinary heroes they can identify with rather than gods like Superman and Green Lantern. And sure, Vixen, Killer Frost, the Ray and Lobo look so much more human and down to Earth, it makes perfect sense — not. Orlando’s better here than on Supergirl, but not good enough — the themes of order vs. chaos would have worked better if they’d been subtext instead of talked about aloud at length.

SUPERMAN: Multiplicity by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason is the kind of old school parallel-earth crossover I’ve missed since DC downplayed its multiverse: Superman discovers the sinister Prophecy capturing all the Superman across the multiverse as part of a plan to save his own universe. Needless to say, the prime Man of Steel ain’t gonna put up with that for long. Adequate, but no more, and the art didn’t work for me at all. Also the Swamp Thing opening story is as gratuitous as Hero Fights Hero stories invariably are.

Now, print nonfiction: Given how tired I am of people portraying Nikola Tesla as a modern saint (in contrast to the Satanic Edison), EMPIRES OF LIGHT: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes pleased me by taking a more low-key, realistic approach. Edison comes off as a tough businessman who can’t stomach being replaced as the Master of Electricity by Tesla’s alternating current; Tesla comes off as brilliant but on occasion too idealistic for his own good. The book does a fine job showing what a game changer electric power and lighting was, and the technical issues that led to Tesla and Westinghouse winning out.

 

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Is Our Writer’s Learning? Merlin’s Ring (#SFWApro)

Once again, none of the books I’ve read recently with an eye to Is Our Writer’s Learning worked for one reason or another. So once again I’m bending the rules to include an older book, H. Warner’s Munn’s 1970s fantasy Merlin’s Ring, with that striking cover by Gervasio Gallardo (all rights remain with current holder). If you think it jumbles a lot of elements together, well there’s a reason for that. Incidentally this is the last of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy books I’ve been reading over the last few years.

The story: This sequel to Merlin’s Godson has the eponymous Gwalchmai thawed out of the suspended animation by his Atlantean lover, Corenice (he’s immortal from an elixir, she’s immortal by being a disembodied spirit). They face the dual challenges of a)being together even though she can only take physical form by possessing other bodies and b)fulfilling Gwalchmai’s mission to tell Rome, or some suitable Christian monarch, of the existence of North America so they can colonize it. On top of which, Merlin’s spirit keeps adding other missions, such as delivering Excalibur to Arthur’s crypt for the day the king reawakens. The quests take Gwalchmai and Corenice from Iceland to Stonehenge to Faerie, east to China and Japan, then back to France to ally with Joan of Arc.

WHAT I LEARNED:

What’s unquestioned in one era looks real bad in another. Just as Merlin’s Godson suffered from the white savior trope, here we have an unquestioned embrace of colonialism. Even after learning that Rome has fallen to barbarians, the possibility of not encouraging Europe to colonize America never occurs to Gwalchmai (or, presumably Munn). In one part of the novel, Gwalchmai is involved in China’s plans to invade Japan. He comes to realize that the invasion is wrong and switches sides. There’s never a similar consideration regarding North America. Even when this came out, there was enough criticism of Columbus, it wouldn’t have been that radical to consider it.

On the other hand, I do like the couple’s repeated decisions to send various oppressed people (pacifist monks, Welsh refugees) west to find refuge beyond the reach of their enemies. Yes, it’s still colonialism, but the escape-from-oppression aspect makes it palatable at least to me.

Details are cool, even if not everyone gets them. One of the things I’ve noticed writing historical fantasy is that some details, even if I enjoy including them, probably won’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t read as much history. But if they’re good details, I think they’re worth including anyway. Apparently Munn does too as he throws in a lot of them. Most notably (for me) he has a reference to Prince Madoc, the Welsh nobleman who supposedly founded a colony on the Gulf of Mexico (this was a key point in Excalibur). I’m guessing most readers won’t guess this element has any basis in quasi-history, but it doesn’t hurt the book and it adds something for anyone who spots it.

Orson Scott Card was right. I’ve mentioned several times before that I’m a fan of Orson Scott Card’s story-types approach: Whether you start your story as a mystery, a character study, a thriller, etc., that’s how it should end. Merlin’s Ring is a good example.

This novel sprawls all over the map. It spans 600 years, multiple location and follows lots of side alleys: Joan’s fight against England, the fate of Roland’s sword, a quest for Prester John. At times it spirals out of control — I could probably have done with less of Joan, for instance. But what keeps it coherent is that the heart of the book is Gwalchmai/Corenice. The book opens with her reviving him and ends with them united in spirit forever. In between, their love is what keeps the story going, no matter where the plot leads us. It’s probably the strongest core Munn could have chosen.

We’ll see if next month I can find something more recent.

 

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Wonder Woman: So nice, she reboots twice! (#SFWApro)

In my last Wonder Woman post I predicted it would be a while before my next rereading post. But the issues launching the next soft reboot parallel the Greg Rucka/Liam Sharp Rebirth TPB The Truth so I figured I’d combine them in one post.

After exposing Morgan Tracy as the Master Planner, Gerry Conway’s follow-up issue (cover by Ross Andru and Dick Giordano, all rights remain with current holder) has Diana trying to get back to normal. However the unceasing violence of Man’s World is getting to her, as is the police inability to lock up bad people (because Miranda rights! Fourth amendments! Obviously guilty criminals getting off!). And learning Tracy arranged Steve’s death just rubs that wound raw. So Diana returns to Paradise Island, thinking maybe she’ll stay for good. Hippolyta decides the best way to make her daughter happy is to erase her memories of Steve (not the first time she’s mucked with Diana’s memories).

Everything is fine, but after a couple of issues dealing with extradimensional intelligences mistakenly thinking the Amazons are a threat, a plane crashes on Paradise Island. The pilot? Steve Trevor.

Diana doesn’t remember him, though she’s conscious she feels astonishingly attracted to him almost at once. A bewildered Hippolyta goes to ask Aphrodite who explains that this Steve Trevor is a parallel world version whose plane crashed through the dimensional barriers into our world (and there’s no way to figure out where his home Earth is). Aphrodite concludes that destiny is clearly a Diana/Steve ‘shipper, so there’s no point in fighting it. Instead, she magically erases the world’s memory of Steve Trevor’s death so that this Steve can take up his counterpart’s life unawares. Once again the Amazons hold a tournament to decide who will accompany Steve back to Man’s World; while reluctant to leave, Diana is obligated to compete and finally accepts she can’t let her fears hold her back. She and Steve head off to the US together.

This, of course, is close to Robert Kanigher’s late-Silver Age reboot, but that suffered from lack of clarity — was it a complete reboot? Set back in the 1940s? Or what? Here readers know exactly why the book is redoing the origin. In the same retro spirit, Diana would go on to become a military intelligence officer alongside Steve in subsequent issues—I haven’t read ’em yet but I remember them. Apparently it was a successful move as this reboot lasted close to sixty issues — nothing since they dropped that set-up has done that well.

I only wish The Truth had been as good a reboot. Capping off Rucka’s first two volumes, this finishes retconning the New 52 Wonder Woman away.

 

SPOILERS BELOW!!!

 

It turns out that Ares is imprisoned on Themiscyra to prevent him destroying the world with war madness; the Amazons are there to guard him. If Diana ever returned home, that would give a road map to Ares’ sons Deimos and Phobos, who could then free him and drown the world in blood. To prevent that, all her trips back to the island have been imaginary (presumably so have all her New 52 Olympian adventures). Now that she knows she’s exiled from Themiscyra forever, she starts over with Steve, and the story ends with them exhausted in bed after making love.

As I said after reading Rucka’s first two TPBs, I really like his handling of Diana, I just don’t like the story he’s telling. This could have been wrapped up in two or three issues instead of seven — did we really need the two issues were Diana was locked up in an asylum believing her mind has snapped? And wouldn’t it just have been easier for the Amazons to tell Di she could never return home than play these games? I know, that’s par for the course in retcons and reboots, but much as I disliked the New 52 WW, this didn’t work for me. And unlike Conway’s, it doesn’t look like this is leading anywhere good: the current arc is focused on the Twin Brother We Never Knew Diana Had and Grail, Darkseid’s Amazon daughter. As they were both introduced by Geoff Johns in his Darkseid War arc in Justice League, I wonder if the current writer picked them or Johns’ standing at DC means they must be treated as the next big thing. I imagine I’ll find out when the library gets the TPBs.

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Psychics, feminists, maps and guns: books read (#SFWApro)

WHISPERS OF WARNING is the second in Jesse Estevao’s Change of Fortune series about quasi-phony psychic Ruby who uses her powers to work as a medium at her aunt’s spiritualist hotel. In this volume a prominent suffragette and medium’s (almost certainly based on feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull) arrival in town brings lots of attention, some of it fatal, forcing Ruby to figure out Whodunnit after the cops write it off as a suicide. This was pleasant to read, though nowhere near as gripping as the first book — but then I’m not a fan of cozy series (so if you are, you might like it better).

BAD FEMINIST: Essays by Roxanne Gay is only partly about feminism (not enough to be useful research for Undead Sexist Cliches), as the essays are a scattershot collection ranging from competitive Scrabble to movies about slavery (she’s tired of ’em) to trigger warnings and rape jokes (not a fan of either), weight issues and why she prefers UPN’s old show Girlfriends to BET’s programming. Some good reading, but more that didn’t grab me.

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 12 MAPS by Jerry Broton looks at how maps in different eras have met the needs of a variety of different uses and communities — national myth building, scientific interest in the world, geopolitical threats (such as the Mackinder “world axis” map showing Russia as the pivot on which the world turns), business and trade, religious belief and the as yet unknown impact of Google Earth. I found Drawing the Line more readable, partly because Broton tells me more than I want to know (which isn’t his fault) and partly because he fills a lot of pages with extraneous information (which is) — I don’t see any reason the Google Earth chapter needed a history of computers and the Internet. Worth skimming, but not detailed reading for me.

STAND YOUR GROUND: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense by Caroline E. Light looks at how America in the 1800s rejected the time-honored British rule that if it’s possible to retreat from a confrontation, that’s preferable to using lethal force. In early America this was seen as unworthy of proud, independent men, so case law developed the right to shoot your way out, even if you have an alternative, and subsequent cases (not to mention the politicized NRA) only reaffirmed that. Unfortunately, this standard was heavily shaped by slavery and patriarchy — what was acceptable for Real Men was unacceptable for blacks and women, so that it becomes less about defense and more about preserving white male superiority (in one South Carolina case the prosecutor argued “stand your ground” laws only apply to fighting off strangers, not a woman fighting against her abusive husband). This stuff is interesting but Light spends much of the book on the history of race and gender relations to provide context, and most of that I already knew. So not as rewarding as I’d hoped.

Not a great week of reading, but here’s a picture of Trixie chewing on a toy to make up for it. Credit me please if you use.

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