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The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments

The_Drawing_of_the_Dark_by_Tim_Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8

July 22, 2014 20 comments

Naniwa_Shonen_Tanteidan-p1

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) continues the story from the Keigo Higashino novels Naniwa Shonen Tanteida (1988) and its sequel Shinobu Senseni Sayonara (1996). Episode 5 sees the serial shift to a more personal and less investigative mode with our hero, Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe), sidelined from the main action by an attack of appendicitis. Naturally both Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) and Yoshihiko Honma (Koji Yamamoto) are dancing attendance in the hospital ward. The only result of their competition is to annoy our patient who prefers peace and quiet. After all, she’s due to go before the school board to see whether her position can be made permanent. That’s why she’s delaying the operation. But, of course, the old woman in the bed opposite behaves in a way that attracts interest. She and her husband run the tobacconist shop in her neighbourhood. They are known as solid and reliable people (and sharp traders). Yet there’s something distinctly odd when her husband comes to deliver a change of clothing. When he returns to the shop that night, he’s tied up and the shop searched. This brings Shuhei Shindo and Susumu Urushizaki (Yasunori Danta) into play, but the old man offers no explanation for this attack and search. The next night, someone breaks into the hospital ward and tries to attack the old woman but, despite the pain, our hero chases him away. One of the schoolboys in the junior detectives’ class is also acting oddly and the detectives are on the job to find out what’s wrong. In the end, they follow him to a police station where he drops off some banknotes. In due course these are shown to be forgeries. Now it’s just a case of getting a confession out of the boy, persuading the old woman to tell the truth, and extracting the appendix from our teacher.

 

Pursuing this rather quieter theme, the next episode gives us a little history as to how our hero came to fill a vacancy in this school. A slightly overweight boy was injured when trying to use a vault. No-one is entirely clear how the vault could have become so unstable, but one thing is clear. The teacher was not properly supervising the pupils in his class. The parents complain and he’s moved to another school. This leaves a minor mystery and, when our hero thinks one of her students is bullying another, she intervenes in the family situation and, by accident, solves the mystery of the unstable vault. It’s not a great episode in amateur detective mode, but it has a heart-warming quality as difficult emotional relationships are managed and improved.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and  Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka)

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka)

 

The next episode begins with a not untypical argument between our hero and Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka), her mother who accidentally breaks the softball trophy most prized by her daughter. In the heat of the moment, the daughter throws her mother out. This sets the theme as the need for all children to have an adult to depend on. The meat of the story is that the stepfather of one of the girls in our teacher’s class lets out a rundown building to an unemployed man who can’t afford to pay. They get into an argument and a pushing-match sends the stepfather into the wall and unconsciousness. When he wakes up, he has a knife in his hand and the man is dead. The key to understanding what happened is the unemployed man’s son who has gone missing. The teacher and her detectives organise a sweep of all the streets and eventually track him down. She takes him home and cooks him a meal, thus releasing the inner parent. Now all she has to do is solve the problem of how the stabbing occurred and make up with her mother.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Hiroshi Hatanaka (Akira Takahashi) and Osamu Harada (Oshiro Maeda)

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Hiroshi Hatanaka (Akira Takahashi) and Osamu Harada (Oshiro Maeda)

 

We now have one of these slightly clichéd episodes. The problem is not so much the fact this is less a mystery and more a commentary on the nature of family life in Japan when a working husband moves from a provincial city to Tokyo, it’s that the mechanism involved is obvious from a very early stage. Although there’s one element of uncertainty even that disappears about three-quarters of the way through. So we’re left to reflect on two of the continuing threads. I’m increasingly of the opinion our hero is never going to marry. For all she’s twenty-five and people keep suggesting she could be left on the shelf if she does not take action soon, she’s seems oblivious to the two men so ardently pursuing her. This episode gives her the chance to completely ignore one and treat the other very shabbily (much to the amusement of the junior detectives). The other issue is the realism of the ending. Personally, I would have expected there to be shouting screaming and bloodshed. It’s very disappointing things seem to settle down again so quickly.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

July 21, 2014 4 comments

Murder in Pigalle

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2014) is the fourteenth book to feature Aimée Leduc as our private detective who specialises in corporate security and computer investigations, finds herself pregnant at the most inconvenient time — taxes are due, people who owe the agency money are slow to pay, and the daughter of one of her friends decides to go missing. We’re steadily moving through history and have now arrived in June 1998 with the world (and France) caught up in the excitement of the World Cup. In one sense, this is the perfect moment to commit crimes because the attention of the majority is caught up in the “excitement” of hosting the competition. Yes France won the right to host for the second time and was all out to put on a good show both on and off the field (for those of you who don’t follow the game, France beat Brazil in the July final). As an aside, the baby’s father is Mélac, a police officer who’s at the bedside of his critically injured daughter in Brittany. Aimée hasn’t yet told him of his impending fatherhood which should tell you something of the nature of their relationship.

 

So there have been three rapes on young girls in and around Pigalle but, at the start of this book, the police have not connected the dots. Unfortunately, Zazie a thirteen-year-old girl who hero-worships Aimée has been inspired to investigate. One of her friends has already been raped and together, they have put together an identikit picture of the man. Zazie has also been talking to an old lady who was in the Resistance during the war, so she’s picked up quite a lot of the lore of secret message drops, surveillance, and so on. She’s even been into Pigalle at night and has photographs which, she thinks, show the man responsible. Sadly, Aimée is distracted when this subject is broached and does not listen with all her attention. So when Zazie fails to come home that evening, she’s caught by guilt and sets off to find her young protégée. That same night, Sylvaine Olivet, another of Zazie’s friends in found dead. It looks as though the rapist has turned into a murderer. It’s possible Zazie was a witness but the Brigade des Minuers is not interested in making Zazie’s disappearance a high priority.

Cara Black

Cara Black

 

As is therefore required in books like this, she and René Friant, her business partner, are pitched into a race against time to find the missing girl. The problem for Aimée is to reach the point where she might look beyond the serial rapist to what else might be going on in Paris (other than the football, of course). It’s easy for the readers because Cara Black sends quite an early signal the answer is going to require some lateral thinking. Nevertheless, Aimée bulls ahead and, as if to prove she’s on the right track, someone takes a shot at her, killing the woman she’s with. Yet, as all seasoned readers know, nothing is ever as straightforward as it first appears.

 

Putting all this together, we have an interesting serial rape case to work through. It’s actually based on a real-world crime and therefore has a certain plausibility about it. The setting in Paris is done well. That said, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line on how much of the French language to include for local colour. Strictly speaking, all dialogue should be in English. Translating all but everyday words like “bonjour” is slightly insulting. This does have characters breaking out into phrases every now and then which is, I suppose, not unacceptable. Setting this in 1998 was an interesting choice, not only because of the football, but also because Pigalle was beginning a gentrification from a more seamy, sex-oriented area to a more respectable middle class area. So both Aimée and the location are in transition. The discussion of the pregnancy and how she will adapt her lifestyle to incorporate a baby are done well (we even have her absent mother helping from hiding and an interesting comment on the circumstances of her father’s death). The thriller elements also work well and put both mother and baby at risk (which is how it should be if the author is aiming for some degree of realism). This leaves Murder in Pigalle as one of the better books set in France with a good puzzle for our hero to resolve and a not unsympathetic view of the French law enforcement agencies and the complex way in which they are required to work.

 

For a review of another book by Cara Black, see Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

July 20, 2014 1 comment

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Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) is the first in the ®Evolution trilogy. As in all good allegorical novels, it begins in the ultimately ironic way. The young paint this century as the best ever because of the unprecedented degree of interconnectivity. Misguidedly, they see only benefit in being soaked in microwave radiation from birth. But, as this author points out, this slow cooking can be bad for the brain. So, as ever more people become mobile receivers for inward transmissions of all varieties, they begin to shut down. This medical condition is dubbed The Syndrome. In the past, when the world faced a catastrophe, it always came up with the best possible names. Think Black Death and our two shots at a World War. These resonate through history. So with depopulation by internet coming to an iPad near you, scientists set to and devise a genetic manipulation that will keep the next generation alive. And while they were saving the world, they decided to create a set of specialised subclasses of workers.

“What?” you all cry with one voice (which is pretty clever when you think about it). “Not another of these ‘they cloned my mother and made a race of Martians’ books?” Well, unapologetically, yes! Although there have been few good examples of this trope over the decades (and an awful lot of bad ones), this proves to be very good, i.e. it transcends the lack of originality by the intelligence of its approach. We start off some time in the future. The world has seen itself recover from the population and economic losses to build a technologically quieter environment for humans to inhabit. When it has had a chance to draw breath and reflect on the means, the norms recognise this minor renaissance has been achieved on the backs of a new race of indentured slaves called gems. In a moment of political bravery, the world takes a step back and, by implication, performs an act of manumission. Whereas all the product of the gene companies had been deemed their property, the gems were liberated. There was just one problem. It’s one thing to sever links between an owner and its property. It’s quite a different kettle of fish (some of the genetically modified were equipped with gills and designed to work underwater) to enact laws to give all these modified humans formal rights and prevent discrimination against them.

Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter

To help people understand the issues, a team is appointed to spend a year producing what’s intended to be an objective report recommending what should be done. The leader of this group is Eli Walker and, even though his reputation as a genetic anthropologist is unimpeachable, he comes under serious pressure from the gene companies who want to recover ownership of their property. Very late in the day Zavcka Klist, a senior officer of one of the gene companies, gives him a video showing one of its gems running out of control. She tries to persuade Eli there’s a genetic flaw in a significant number of the gems which makes them a danger to the norms. The gem’s leader as we come into the opening of this conference on Christmas Eve is Aryel Morningstar. This should give you a very solid clue about the symbolism of this book. Many of the characters have names directly or indirectly relevant to the Christian belief system, and the point of the book is to discuss the morality of an explicit slavery or an unadmitted form of servitude. For these purposes, we have a mainstream church, a group whose self-appointed mission is to protect the norms from gems by operating as vengeful godgangs, the corporate “ex-slave owners”, the scientific community, the police, the politicians, and the gems themselves in all their myriad glory (or not because many have been seriously abused by the gene companies and left disabled). By shifting the point of view and showing interaction between representatives of the different groups, the range of arguments is rehearsed.

From this, you’ll understand this is a relatively quiet book of ideas rather than some action-packed adventure yarn of mutants saving themselves from abuse and so making a brave new world for all. Equally, it’s not really a dystopian novel although the gene companies are the predatory capitalist exploiters we might expect. In a sense, we’re invited to see this as the story of individual families and communities under pressure, with their leaders facing difficult decisions. This is not to say the book is without action. There are a number of violent deaths and, as you would expect, there’s a big climax at the end where the symbolism almost gets too obvious (in spirit, it reminded me of the revelation at the end of Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke, although it equally borrows something from one of the X-Men movies). Putting all this together, Gemsigns is an impressive first novel with an an overarching sense of intelligence well to the fore. This does not make it “literary science fiction”. Rather Saulter has found a useful set of metaphors through which to explore what it means to be human and under what circumstances, if any, a human might lose the right to be treated with respect. It will be interesting to see where the second book takes us in this future world in ethical transition.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Poison Pill by Glenn Kaplan

July 19, 2014 1 comment

Poison Pill by Glenn Kaplan

Poison Pill by Glenn Kaplan (Forge, 2013) is presented to us as a sophisticated financial thriller in which a Russian billionaire sets his sights on acquiring a traditional medium-sized pharmaceutical manufacturer because of a drug in the pipeline he believes will make him even richer. This pits the target company’s CEO, Emma Conway, against her ex-husband Josh Katz who heads the corporate raider with the brief to mount a hostile takeover. OK let me stop there. We have all the elements in those opening sentences to make this a real pot-boiling melodrama. Feuding ex-spouses and their young son Peter have this love-hate relationship. To amp up the emotional baggage to be carried through to the end of the book, the Russian’s daughter Tanya, gets pregnant thanks to Peter Katz’s unprotected efforts. So with the odd girlfriend, current lover, and other stereotypical characters lurking on the margins, we’re expected to find this farrago of rubbish not only interesting but exciting. Some hope!

Glenn Kaplan

Glenn Kaplan

Josh Katz is one of these amoral characters who’s fought his way up from a poor background to be “someone”. On the surface, he’s supposed to be the modern embodiment of the Gordon Gekko greed-is-good Wall Street manipulator but, within that titanium exterior there beats a heart. Emma Conway, on the other hand, is one of these women born into a family culture where the business and what it represents is everything. She’s as far as it’s possible to get in the company-as-a-person stakes. This is a pharmaceutical company that may be run for profit but her family has always seen its mission as being the benefit of patients around the world. It’s also about all the jobs locally and the strength of community people can feel in being a part of a company bent of doing so much good in the world.

The plot, for want of a better word, is boldly stated in the title. The pharmaceutical company has a poison pill defence all lined up should any takeover be threatened. To beat this, our Russian billionaire has one of his soldiers infiltrate the main factory and dump a large quantity of cyanide in the vats making the biggest selling painkiller. When trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing Conway recalls every last pill the company has made to maintain the public’s trust, this is a massive blow to the company’s profit. It’s share price drops like a stone and it gives a basis from which to argue for a very generous rescue bid.

Unfortunately, this is as far as the detail of the “business” goes. My money says that any author worth his salt who wants to write a financial thriller should tell us in far more detail how the takeover has to be managed and how the poisoned pill defence works. We never get to hear any of the detailed discussions of corporate strategy on either side of the battle. The primary focus of the book is on the five characters who, between them, represent the source of all the problems and then their solution. For this book to be even remotely credible, Emma Conway would have to be a tough, ruthless CEO who will let nothing stand in her way when it comes to defending the company. Unfortunately, this would probably make her relatively unlikeable. Culturally, many readers are disturbed by “strong” women characters who beat the pants off the men around them. This leaves us with a woman who comes over as a pill-hugging, save-the-world type who threatens to burst into Kumbaya at the end of all her inspirational speeches. Her son is one of these game-playing teens who’s so full of shit, he thinks he’s going to bring his parents’ marriage back to life. while Tanya is almost completely unrecognisable as a human being, so spoilt and petulant is she. Theres no way she’s going to let herself be married off to her father’s choice so, in the best traditions of a coincidence, she sleeps with Josh not knowing or caring who he is. Isn’t it wonderful how, sometimes, all the elements of a plot just come together as if by magic. Or put another way, Poison Pill is a woeful example of a thriller that should have been left in a bottom drawer and never allowed to see the light of day.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4

Naniwa_Shonen_Tanteidan-p1

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) is based on the Keigo Higashino novels Naniwa Shonen Tanteida (1988) and its sequel Shinobu Senseni Sayonara (1996). Our first view of Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) comes as she berates a driving instructor for being overly critical of her driving skills. In its own right, this is a bravura performance, inciting fear in all who see her in full flow. However, she’s been lucky enough to land a temporary role as a homeroom teacher at Ooki Elementary School in Osaka, Japan. Her mother Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka) has begged her to keep her temper in check. Since this is a probationary post, any violent outburst is likely to be her last. Half the fun of watching this serial is waiting for the chance for her to show her volcanic side. Fortunately, the head teacher Yukio Nakata (Fumiyo Kohinata) is one of these world-weary professionals who’s seen everything in a long career and is prepared to see people as a mixture of good and bad. So long as the bad does not dominate, he’s prepared to see only the good. The problem comes with Mika Haruna (Fumino Kimura) who has tenure and strongly disapproves the exuberant enthusiasm of the newcomer.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe)

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe)

 

On her first day at school, one boy does not appear and she quickly learns his father has been murdered. As a lifelong fan of detective fiction, she can’t resist tuning in to all the gossip about the boy and his family. She’s very quickly as knowledgeable as the two detectives assigned to deal with the case. There’s Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) the good-looking young detective, and Susumu Urushizaki (Yasunori Danta) the seasoned detective who’s most likely to get on the right track. We therefore get a twin-track view of each investigation. In this first case, the detectives go carefully through all the locals who might have had motive and opportunity but can’t find a suspect. The only piece of information that might mean something is an older lady’s assertion she saw a truck being driven by a ghost. From the other side, Shinobu Takeuchi soon crosses swords with Shuhei Shindo and is quicker to understand the significance of where the truck used to be parked when father and son sold hot meals from the back. It’s a really pleasing moment in a completely delightful first episode. Our first view of the titular junior detectives is also encouraging. They are Tetpei Tanaka (Tatsuomi Hamada), Hiroshi Hatanaka (Akira Takahashi) and Ikuo Harada (Koki Maeda) with Osamu Harada (Oshiro Maeda) allowed into the team through the cronyism of his brother. The parents of the latter pair are Masao Harada (Yoichi Nukumizu) and Hideko Harada (Yuki Saito) who run a bar/eatery.

 

They feature in the second episode. Their marriage has been under strain as she enters a form of midlife crisis, preferring the fantasy of a Korean soap star to the reality of her life in the eatery. She decides to learn to drive as a gesture at establishing her own independence. Unfortunately, the driving instructor is handsome and looks not unlike her star, so she’s tempted into the idea she will stray. Unfortunately, before she can act on this, there’s a serious crash while she’s driving. Her instructor ends up in the ICU. So the problem is to decide who’s responsible for the accident and why dog shit has been appearing outside Shinobu Takeuchi’s home. Yes, unlikely though it is, there’s a connection. Although it’s a slight story, there’s an essential amiability about the emerging sense of community on display as local people wander the streets and keep out an eye for each other. The faintly comic car chase at the end seals an enjoyable episode. To help get everyone involved, Susumu Urushizaki is also smitten by Taeko Takeuchi, offering us the chance for the two police officers to marry into the same family — no wait, Taeko Takeuchi is married, but not averse to feeding the detective his favorite dishes whenever he’s in the area.

Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike)

Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike)

 

The third episode sees a potential triangle emerging as Yukio Nakata, head teacher, sets up a “blind date”. In Japanese society, he and her mother both go to a neutral venue to meet Yoshihiko Honma (Koji Yamamoto), a potential young man with the right qualifications of status and salary for marriage. Of course, he’s not only completely unsuitable, he also seems to have used this meeting as his alibi to commit a murder. This gives an edge to the investigation as Shuhei Shindo is jealous and has the power to make life for the rival difficult. So this all comes down to a question of opportunity with the three (or possibly four) suspects having an alibi. Naturally, our girl is quick to see the problem with her potential fiancé’s story — it’s all to do with when it started to rain and where he might have been when that happened. This is quite pleasing. Susumu Urushizaki is able to trick the real killer into an admission which is a bit contrived but it does just about tie up the loose ends before it all gets too confusing.

The junior detectives

The junior detectives

 

The fourth episode treads a narrow line between entertainment and a learning opportunity for viewers. We start off watching our heroic teacher team-building through softball. During this happy hour, she impresses both Mika Haruna with a softball through her classroom window as she’s trying to teach music, and Senbai Nishimaru Keizo Kanie http://asianwiki.com/Zen_Kajihara , an old man who allowed his son, Shoichi Nishimaru (Zen Kajihara) to take over the running of the family company. Unfortunately, the son is making a mess of this task and the old man wants to headhunt our teacher to show him how a group should work together to get the best results. Interestingly, the old man is magnificently miserly, but apparently has a heart of gold. Except, when our hero and the three young detectives are in his house, one of his employees dies. This may be a murder, suicide or accident as the man is found dying under a broken fourth storey office window. The old man runs inside the office block while our hero calls for ambulance and police. When she goes into the office block, the old man is just coming out of the lift. Reluctantly, he allows them all up to the office. He unlocks the door and lets them see the office which has the dead man’s shoes in front of the window. When she looks, she sees the man’s keys on his desk. So it seems he locked himself inside the office and then jumped, i.e. it’s a suicide. Our two police officers then arrive and our hero brings them up to speed — she’s now very much a part of their team. Indeed, when she later goes home, she finds them waiting for her eating her mother’s cooking. Susumu Urushizaki is distinctly more interested in her mother than the case. The answer to the case is actually very clever and fits in nicely with the message to give the autocratic son as manager. The other feature of this episode is that Yoshihiko Honma has met Mika Haruna. They share exactly the same interests and would be ideally suited. The problem now is for our hero to realise this is her escape from a marriage fate worse than death. All she has to do is push this pair together.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

July 17, 2014 2 comments

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.

We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo

“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.

“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.

Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.

For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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