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Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike Resnick

June 27, 2014 7 comments

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof Mike Resnick

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike Resnick (Seventh Street, 2014) is the third outing for Eli Paxton who’s one of these throwback PIs. For no terribly good reason other than he’s getting on in years, this is a man who has studiously avoided the adoption of any of the modern technology the rest of the world takes for granted. That means no cellphone, no computer or internet connection, no GPS in his clunker, and so on. Like one of these actors waiting for the next bit part to break his name into the big time, he spends most of his time watching classic Hollywood noir movies on cable while keeping his dog, appropriately named Marlowe, by his side. Fortunately, he has a stellar reputation with some of his buddies in the local Cincinnati police department, and this leads to him being called out at an unGodly hour of the morning to attend the scene of a homicide. Jim Simmons believes in his own power to solve the murder, but the distinctly unhappy widow (not grieving, you understand) wants her cat, Fluffy, found ASAP if not before. This sets our dogged detective off on the trail. When Marlowe finds other cats but not the missing moggy, the angry widow has him arrested. Apparently she thinks Paxton must be finagling with the feline (possibly for ransom purposes). Having talked his way out of the calaboose, he decides to persist in tracking down the kitty, wondering why the widow thinks it so valuable. The answers are very entertaining.

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

One of the reasons I enjoy first-person PI novels is the opportunity to watch a mind thinking through a problem. While this has no pretensions to apply strictly deductive reasoning to the analysis of facts and the process of investigating, the common sense approach on display here is a positive delight. To get the best value out of the situation, Paxton gets a sidekick. While by no means stupid, this individual is there largely to make all the elementary mistakes and to sit there applauding as Paxton sets him right. Since he’s a mob enforcer from Chicago, he’s hardly the most reliable of partners when it comes to slapping the manacles on the mouser but, in the end, he does prove his worth when the Bolivian connection comes out to play.

The first two Paxton novels are tied fairly directly to a competition or sporting event involving animals. This allows Resnick to show off his considerable knowledge of dogs and horses. This novel features a tabby as the catalyst for the whole shooting match to get underway, but the whole is really a classic PI novel with no inside knowledge of felines required (although some state law might be useful). Putting the whole package together with considerable wit and style, Resnick delivers a genuinely amusing trail of breadcrumbs for our hero to follow, and although he might not end up rich on the fees earned, he does at least get the see a Bengal and live to tell the tail (sic).

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire

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

The Trojan Colt by Mike Resnick

June 6, 2013 2 comments

The Trojan Colt

Being old, I’m allowed to ramble. It’s considered one of my more endearing qualities and, out of respect for my advanced years, you will smile benignly during this opening salvo on Will F Jenkins (who was also known to write under the name Murray Leinster). During my completist days, I used to collect his work for fun. There were just so many books to aim for, it was years before I got anywhere near a complete set, but it was so satisfying when I almost made it. It was the early Westerns that defeated me. I managed all the science fiction and mysteries. . . My point is that when I was young, authors wrote and we bought — those of us who came late to individual races, struggled to catch up. Today, years can go between books in a series. Back in the good old days, a different publisher could be bringing out a new title under a pseudonym by an author we were collecting every four to six months. If you were enjoying an author, you didn’t have to wait long for the next thrilling instalment. That’s one of the things I like about Mike Resnick. He’s old school both in years and in his approach to publishing. If there’s someone out there ready to publish something he’s written, he publishes it and is writing the next one. If you have a look at his Wikipedia page, you get an idea of just how busy he’s been and note this has not represented any loss of quality — he‘s been nominated for Hugo Awards thirty-six times. Never let anyone tell you quantity does not equal quality. If you can write, you can write. Mike Resnick can write, and then some.

Anyway, way back in 1995, our heroic author launched himself into an Eli Paxton Mystery called Dog in the Manger. This was not just any missing pooch. This was the Weimaraner (don’t ask) that won best in show and then went missing. Such a classy case for a man who hardly brings quality to the ranks of PIs in Cincinnati, was a way for our author to cash in on his own hobby of dog breeding and established our PI as the standard less-than-successful businessman with the problem-solving skills of a Sherlock — I’ve never been clear why such crime solving exploits don’t translate into more business than the hero knows what to do with. You would think he would have clients lining up three deep at the door for an appointment. But that would break the mould which finds our hero wondering where the next dollar is coming from at the start of this new book in the series, The Trojan Colt (Seventh Street, 2013). After my opening paragraph, note the irony in that our heroic author has followed the modern pattern of allowing eighteen years between the first and second in the series.

Mike Resnick going undercover at the undertakers ball

Mike Resnick going undercover at the undertakers ball

This time our PI is to guard a young horse. Not just any horse, you understand. This colt has the breeding to suggest it might be the next Secretariat or Man o’ War, i.e. to be able to run faster than your average Dobbin. Our hero takes up residence with the horse, Tyrone, and his groom, Tony Sanders, at the Keeneland Summer Sale in Lexington, Kentucky. This time, everything is going well until the day of the sale. Fortunately for the owner, it’s not the animal that disappears, it’s the groom. With the colt sold to an Arab billionaire for more than $3 million (just small change), our hero is employed by the young man’s parents to find out what happened to their son. The result is a fascinating ride through the world of horse breeding (which is not the same as horse racing).

Like any specialised world, an outsider never knows what’s going on and, assuming the author has done his research properly, this is a fascinating insight into the mechanics of money-making applied to the breeding of horse flesh. In practical terms, it’s about as exciting as horse racing. All you have to do is lay down your money to buy a yearling based on its parentage and then sit back to race it when it has grown strong enough. If you get the bet right at the auction, you end up with a winning stallion or mare you can breed for more champions. So millions of dollars are at stake both in the auctions, then the training of the yearlings and the races where the quality of the beasts is finally proved. That means the tightest security must be in place. There must be no doubt which horse is which. Fortunately, there’s no problem of identification with this horse. It has a very distinctive scar on its neck. That’s what makes the disappearance of the groom all the more puzzling. The horse was sold at a record-breaking price. What would make the groom suddenly walk away? More importantly, why should someone take pot shots at our hero when he starts to ask questions? He has no idea what he’s supposed to know that might make him a threat. When the answer finally emerges, it’s all rather elegant. As you would expect from Mike Resnick, the ultimate professional when it comes to writing more or less anything. The Trojan Colt comes up on the rail and, in the final furlong, flashes into the lead — another winner from his pen.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire

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

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick

March 11, 2013 3 comments

Blasphemy

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon, 2010) is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with material that may be taken as showing a certain lack of reverence for Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. So if you are sensitive on matters of religion, this is probably not the book for you. We have five short stories and two longer pieces that were originally published as free-standing novels. “Genesis: The Rejected Canon” is quite a pleasing joke, nicely paced with a good punchline. “God and Mr Slatterman” shows that some bartenders have real people skills when it comes to dealing with difficult customers who might interrupt a crap game at a tense moment just to talk metaphysics. “The Pale Thin God” is a very elegant inversion of expectation demonstrating that judging cause and effect is always a matter of perspective. “How I Wrote the New Testament, Ushered in the Renaissance, and Birdied the Seventeenth Hole at Pebble Beach” is probably the most successful of these short pieces with the true story of the Wandering Jew while “Interview With the Almighty” is less successful — it tries too hard to be amusing.

One of the old favourites when it comes to fables about typecasting is the story of the scorpion that wants to cross a river. After some negotiation, he persuades the frog to carry him with the predictable results. “Walpurgis III” is a very elegant variation on this theme, albeit with more types to make the political point clearer. Let’s start with the psychopathic personality who has refined his skill set to such a point, he can rapidly rise to leadership roles where he’s able to kill increasingly large numbers of people. Up to a certain point in society, it’s the job of police officers to catch the killers. Unfortunately, some killers rise to a point where they become untouchable. Indeed, the increasing irony is that it becomes the job of the police to protect the psychopathic leader. Then there are the politicians, i.e the thinking members of the community who were in power before the psychopath came along. They have to decide what their role should be. Finally, some politicians may decide the best course of action is to hire an assassin to dispose of the leader. This will be an individual who has supreme skills as a killer. He will not judge the task given. It will be irrelevant whether the target is considered a good or bad person. The individual is motivated by the nature of the challenge and the financial rewards. At his level, he can pick and choose which tasks to accept. The idea of penetrating a leader’s security and killing him might very well appeal to him. The result is beautifully orchestrated, switching between the assassin, the policeman and the leader as required. Although the tone is rather different, it reminded me of Wasp by Eric Frank Russell in which a one-man terrorist operation disrupts a world. Thematically, this has a world that’s on the cusp of destruction through the actions of the new leader but only a few truly understand the extent of the danger. The arrival of a single assassin has an increasingly dramatic effect on the lives of the people who live in the vicinity of the leader. Mike Resnick is very careful to strike a balance between the mechanics of the morality play, the description of this rather unique planet, and the excitement of the assassin’s progress towards achieving his goal. It’s a terrific read even though it works out in a fairly predictable way — or to put it another way, the resolution accords with the most commonly accepted principles of morality. To explain the relevance to the theme, the planet has been settled by all the different cults and groups who believe in satanism and the other sources of dark magic.

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

“The Branch” is playing the most interesting game of the book. Many moons ago in the late-1950s I read Messiah by Gore Vidal. It wasn’t much liked by the critics of the time. They were more inhibited by social convention in those days and the somewhat violent satire on the Christian Church was deeply unpopular. For those of you who have not read it, the primary figure is John Cave. He’s a professional embalmer and so does not consider dying to be a bad thing. When he begins to talk about this belief to the world, a new religion springs up. When he’s assassinated, the meaning of his words is taken up by theocrats who end up ruling over the USA. As an atheist, I’m more comfortable with this exclusively naturalistic approach. The notion one man’s moderately innocent words about the need to accept death might, through televangelism, become the basis of a new credo, is an interesting study in the politics of religion. With the suicide rate rising fast as his followers begin distributing the new drug Cavesway, those with access to power must decide how to react. Mike Resnick, however, muddies the waters by having his figure be a not very bright young conman who slowly comes to realise he’s literally the Messiah the Jews and other followers of the Old Testament have been waiting for. This is not, you understand, a good and inspirational person. Indeed, early on he decides he’s going to challenge a local crime boss for a share in his business. It’s only when bullets seem not to have a permanent effect on him that he and the crime boss come to recognise he’s something “special”. The virtue of the story is that it never blinks. Both the Messiah and his Nemesis behave as you would expect as they struggle to understand the implications of the young man’s arrival and how the world should react. Since one of the expectations of the Messiah is he will restore the Kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem, the current government feels somewhat under pressure when the reality of the “man” and the number of his followers become clear. The other established churches are also disconcerted because this man’s arrival tends to suggest Jesus was not quite what they thought. On balance, the first half of the story is more successful than the second. Although I think the development of the plot is not unrealistic, I feel it lacks conviction. Things happen because they must to produce the ending the author wants to achieve. This leads us away from what I suspect might be the more realistic scenarios. This is not a serious criticism. There is quite a pleasing quality to the conclusion, although I think the epilogue unnecessary.

Put all this together and Blasphemy proves to be never less than interesting at, at times, rivetingly exciting. Mike Resnick proves himself a master storyteller who can take controversial material and make it genuinely entertaining.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick

January 10, 2013 1 comment

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a very pleasing collection with one or two outstanding stories all rather beautifully bundled together by the good folk at Subterranean.

We start off with an African story, “Seven Views of Orduvai Gorge”, which poses two interesting questions. Suppose we have a race that develops intelligence and tool-handling ability. In due course, it develops the capacity to travel to the stars and builds an Empire. Later, when it has died away, a team comes to its planet of origin, Earth, to examine the historical record. What can six random snapshots of the past tell us about the history of such a race. Second, as the one with the power to interpret the evidence and inform the team of his findings, what duty does He Who Views have to pass on what he sees? Is it the role of a “historian” to filter what is communicated? Should he impose his own moral standards in deciding how much to tell those in the team? “Barnaby in Exile” is a rather thin story about a chimp that’s reared in a lab and encouraged to think and communicate by signing. When the funding for the experiment is lost, he’s sent out into the jungle, the unsympathetic humans assuming he’s somehow genetically aware how to survive in such an environment. Continuing with animals, “The Last Dog” just about avoids sentimentality as the last man befriends the last dog and then loses out to the alien that’s been going round killing everyone. As a story, it actually makes little sense. Is this alien one of these dedicated, do-it-the-hard-way types that wants to track down the last man without the benefit of his advanced technology? If it knows this is the last man, it must have a way of scanning the Earth and finding no other human alive. Why does the last man seem to know the alien? I could go on but you should understand from this that it’s not very good.

“Article of Faith” makes a serious attempt at a difficult subject. For those who believe in the practical reality of souls, it would come as a shock if it were to be suggested that robots could have one. Mike Resnick is to be commended on having the intellectual honesty to describe the outrage the evangelicals might feel, particularly if high rates of unemployment were caused by their arrival in local factories. Unfortunately, I find the result competent but unexciting. But “The Big Guy” turns that round neatly. One of the other rather clichéd robot plots is the problem of the “emotion” chip. Machines can’t be programmed to feel although they can simulate the more obvious emotions in their behaviour if this is required. This story produces a very ingenious way of looking at the phenomenon of free will and investigates how a robot might go about learning how to feel. “The Boy Who Yelled Dragon” is a rather slight fantasy story written for the YA market.

Mike Resnick with his blue mug from Atlantis

Mike Resnick with his blue mug from Atlantis

“Alistair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is the best story I’ve read so far this year. Admittedly the year is only a few days old but it’s going to take something outstanding to beat it. In tone, it reminds me of Peter Beagle as two old men set off on a final trip down memory lane before taking the fast elevator to the Pearly Gates. On the way, there’s just enough magic to make their final days less painful. “Distant Replay” is another old fogey story but it doesn’t work quite as well. There’s a sense of wonder about the set-up but the pay-off is just too pulpy to be satisfying. “The Bridge of Frankenstein” continues in this slightly sentimental sequence of stories, this time avoiding mawkishness by creatively engaging with the problems of Mrs Frankenstein as she learns to accommodate Igor and accept the monster as a marriage guidance counsellor. This has a delightfully wry sense of humour about it. And talking about humour, “The One That Got Away” explains why the howls of some coyotes are just a little bit more frustrated than you might realise.

“All the Things You Are” is a wonderful set-up but it fails to deliver because Mike Resnick does not follow the logic of the story. If we have a telepathic alien who can read everything in the target mind, it knows exactly why the hero has come to this planet. For it then to say that our hero has caught on more quickly than those who went before is absurd. His forerunners were innocent victims and might never understand what had happened. I also find it less than satisfying that our hero is not immune or less addicted. He’s gone into this situation with his eyes open. There’s no reason for him to follow the pattern. More interestingly, why does he not kill the pilot and leave himself on the planet but with a lifeline? I could go on but you should understand my frustration from these sample thoughts.

“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a rather pleasing story in which everyone tells the truth as they perceive it within their own terms of reference yet, paradoxically, the man calling himself Captain Nebula is as crazy as a loon (or not as the case may be). And, finally, “Six Blind Men and an Alien” presents us with a rather elegant version of the old story of the elephant and the sample “feels” taken by each man. One of the most difficult of all choices made by an author is the length of the finished product. This is a very clever idea and each of the “feels” is interesting. Fortunately, the author has the good sense to stop before the interest runs out. Put all this together and you have one of the better collections of the year.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick

January 10, 2013 1 comment

The Cassandra Project

To start us off with The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick (Ace, 2012), I need quickly to remind you about Cassandra. You may remember all that kerfuffle over Troy when that Helen babe was abducted. Well Cassandra was the nut who kept telling everyone this was a really bad idea. She’d fallen out with Apollo and he cursed her with the power of prophesy (which is pretty cool) but ensured no-one would ever believe her (which is deeply frustrating). “No don’t take the wooden horse inside the walls, you twits!” was one of her better lines. All of which erudition bring me to the idea of conspiracy theories. These are the “secret” deals and cover-ups by the politicians, the military and the monied power-brokers. Needless to say, there’s never any real evidence of such back-room deals, but we’re all invited to believe them as true. As examples of such potentially paranoid delusions, think about the mythology surrounding the JFK assassination, whether the moon landing in 1969 was a government hoax, and the idea that George Bush allowed the 9/11 attacks to justify attacking Iraq. Obviously these are not the kind of prophesies Cassandra would have made.

Jack McDevitt still remembering how to salute

Jack McDevitt still remembering how to salute

So this book is about the moon landing program in the 1960s. I remember not going to work so I could watch the television coverage of the Eagle setting down and then that moment recorded indelibly in the memory, “That’s one small step for man. . .” I always wonder how long it took the PR people to come up with that line for Neil Armstrong. It’s a beautifully crafted moment. Coming to this book, we have a perfect example of plausible science fiction — that’s the best kind. It’s the truth ripped from tomorrow’s news headlines. Let’s take Heinlein novels as good and bad examples. Rocket Ship Galileo has our juvenile heroes finding a Nazi base on the moon — seem to remember Iron Sky (2012) rerunning that idea. The Man Who Sold the Moon sees a wealthy businessman invest every last nickel in getting to the moon. The persistence of a lone capitalist opens up “outer space” for commercial exploitation. Who needs government when you have men like Delos David Harriman?

Mike Resnick with his identity confirmed

Mike Resnick with his identity confirmed

At this point, I need to remind you about Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which boldly went into alternate history territory with a story about a mission from the Apollo program ending in the death of the crew. Those of you who can remember back to the 1960s will recall all the missions returned safely. It’s a pleasing variation on the “what if” theme, in this case inviting us to speculate whether the moon missions would have continued had there been such a public disaster. This novel is also playing a “what if” game and, although it’s by no means original, it has the virtue of being the first time I’ve seen it tied in with the Apollo program. Put very simply, the authors want us to consider what might have induced the Americans and the Russians to collude in a cover-up. This was more or less at the height of the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh in everyone’s mind. The two superpowers were still effectively on a war footing. Why should they suddenly agree to collaborate? Even more surprisingly, what would the connection be with the Watergate scandal in 1972. History is very clear that the republican President Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters for political purposes. It’s impossible there could be any connection with the moon landings, isn’t it? Yet this book suggests a different motive for the break-in.

All in all, The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick is a slick and professional job, rewriting history not only to explain the original problem, but also to justify the cover-up — the whole being a genuinely impressive puzzle-solving mystery. Confronted by the same set of facts, I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but I concede the risks of a major conflict at that time were significant, so a safety-first approach along these lines might have been expedient. As to the politics at the time the action is set in 2019. . . Well, I suppose it’s all plausible given likely continuing tensions in the Middle East and other parts of the world. This might be the time to let the dogs continue their fifty year sleep. So from this, you can see the book is appealingly thoughtful on both the alternate history front and the politics of it all. On the way, there are moments of amusement as the authors take potshots at the PR industry, publishers and other easy targets. It’s a top class read!

For reviews of other books by Jack McDevitt, see:
Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt
The Devil’s Eye
Echo
Firebird
Time Travelers Never Die

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick

November 20, 2012 1 comment

dreamwish beasts and snarks

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon 57, 2009) takes us off hunting in a collection ranging from allegory to a traditional African culture transplanted to another planet to gain the chance of maintaining their culture, to slightly more fantastical beasts caught in the crosshairs of the author’s imagination.

“Hunting the Snark” is one of these safari stories which dumps a group of four immensely wealthy people on a planet that’s never been explored let alone surveyed for dangerous wildlife. The tour company provides a highly experienced hunter, beaters, skinners and cooks. It promises to do its best not to let anyone die. The notion of virgin territory for hunting commands a very high price. Unfortunately, this planet proves to have a predator on top form and so begins the game as, in one kill after another, the home ground advantage proves decisive. The story also asks some nice questions about the different between sentience and intelligence. Not surprisingly, it was nominated for the Nebula Award for Novelette 2001. “Stalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera” and “Stalking the Vampire” are full of practical hints and tips for the hunter. Remember to take notes as you read these essential guides and, when you leave on the next hunt, don’t forget that vital comb. “Two Hunters in Manhattan” is an alternate history story in which Theodore Roosevelt is mayor of a rather different New York. As a part of his drive to rid the city of organised crime, he finds he has hired Dracula to do what he cannot do: eliminate the kingpins. Unfortunately, Big D prefers draining them rather than handing them over for trial. This makes him a murderer in Roosevelt’s book and so begins a contest. Although this is relatively modern, being published in 2007, it has a pulpy feel to it which makes it rather superficial albeit reasonably entertaining at this length. “Safari: 2103 AD” is true to its ironic theme which is that, to a generation that has no conception of what a wilderness looks like, a walk in the park is a dark and dangerous experience. So what to these futurians is excitement personified is rather pedestrian and dull to us.

In “The Lord of the Jungle”, Lucifer Jones encounters a Tarzan substitute avoiding his English creditors in the heart of the rain forest and working with the gorillas to create a socialist republic. Fortunately the good Lord earns enough to pay off his creditors through his language skills and Mike Resnick cracks some good jokes. “Bwana” is one of the Kirinyaga stories and rather beautiful. Suppose an African tribe takes the opportunity to relocate to a new world that can be shaped into a Utopia for them. They can live in balance with nature, respecting the environment and relying on the animals they take with them for the better management of life and death. If that balance were to be disturbed, there might be some who would call for outside help but that would be dangerous. It might tempt the tribe into forsaking the old ways and embracing new technology. To prevent lasting harm would require great wisdom, and it’s provided with elegance and subtlety by an old man who acts as a guardian of their traditions and religion. This is a story of great passion and an outstanding meditation on the role of a leader who must understand when being seen to do nothing is actually the most aggressive posture.

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

Finally, we come to “The Soul Eater” and “Nicobar Lane — The Soul Eater’s Story” which examine what makes a person a hunter through the joint lens formed out of Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick and the fate of the Flying Dutchman. Back in the early days of humanity, the ability to hunt meant survival. Later, the role of the hunter changed to the more routine task of food provider for a community. As farming took over, the majority of hunters quit, only a few persisting as hunting became a sport. The mentality required once basic skills have been perfected is patience and self-confidence. You have to trust yourself to survive and have the patience to keep learning about the animals being hunted. Top professionals will study the anatomy and habits of their favoured prey, identifying the best places to find the animals and the best angles from which to take the shot. This kind of dedication often makes the hunter solitary. From there, it’s only a short step to loneliness and obsession. In this pair of stories, the hero, for want of a better word depending on your view of hunters, is paid by museums of natural history and zoos to hunt down different rare species of animals. His preference is always to kill but, if the price is right, he will control the urge and merely capture. In the longer first story, he finds himself increasingly fascinated by a strange creature he finds out in space. Except, given the vastness of space, if he meets it more than once, is this his superior tracking skills or is the beast seeking him out. If he should finally kill it, what would he do afterwards? Although the story is more than thirty years old and shows its age through a slightly pulpy style and lack of characterisation, it nevertheless nicely captures the nature of the man and the life choices he must make. The second switches point of view and views the hunter from the creature’s side of the relationship — yes, as the pursuit develops, who’s to say the creature’s view of the hunter does not evolve.

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks is still available to buy at a discount directly from the publisher who deserves our support. There are far too few publishers who believe in the power of the short story, novelette and novella. Golden Gryphon deserves to survive. As to Mike Resnick, there’s no better writer of short fiction around. When he’s on song, the music flows and the ideas are richly developed. Even when he shows his more pulpish side, he’s still immensely readable.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick

June 10, 2012 1 comment

Humour is one of these slightly irrational human reactions. If A prods B with a sharp stick, excluding situations where scantily clad partners intend erotic reactions, it’s reasonable to predict an angry response. It’s more difficult to predict what will amuse or make people laugh. Assuming, of course, that the ultimate point of humour is laughter. Indeed, that assumption may be putting the cart before the horse. Does humour actually have a point? Often the things we find amusing are the results of situations where someone looks ridiculous or is the victim of an unfortunate accident. Yet people actively seek amusement which would suggest that humour has a social function. We obviously enjoy different types of stimuli and, whether by reading or joining in some activity, hope to relieve the tedium of existence with the resulting smile or laugh.

 

Let’s put aside what others find comic. When I look back at a lifetime spent reading, I recall rarely cracking a smile when ploughing through P G Wodehouse more than fifty years ago, but falling about in helpless mirth when absorbing some of the early Tom Sharpe. I suppose the best comedy lies in the contemporary moment when authors are able to address their audience in real time. Once even a decade has gone by, so many of the allusions and assumptions have changed, it grows harder to remember what people might have found amusing. As to humour from America, there were standout moments. Back in 1962 before onboard terrorism became a threat, an air stewardess asked me to stop reading Catch 22 because my laughter was disturbing the other passengers. But, in general, I’ve found even less to make me laugh in US fiction with the exception of some short stories in the 1950s and 60s by Henry Kuttner, Robert Sheckley and the pseudonymous William Tenn. I have the sense that comedy does not comfortably pass over linguistic and cultural borders unless the content is universalised as satire or absurdism. For the most part, I appreciate the cleverness of what’s intended to be comic writing. The craftsmanship of the wordplay can be genuinely pleasing. But it doesn’t make me laugh (or smile very often, for that matter).

 

All of which brings me to Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick (PYR, 2008). This follows the exploits of John Justin Mallory, a PI stranded in an alternate Manhattan and featuring in Stalking the Unicorn (1987), Stalking the Dragon (2009) and a collection of short stories titled Stalking the Zombie due later this year (2012). The hook is reasonably conventional. Our hero starts off his miserable existence in our New York. Like all noir PIs, his wife has succumbed to the charms of his partner and, left to his own devices, his business is going from worse to diabolical. As with any hero down on his luck, he takes to the bottle and so is less than impressed when an elf appears and offers him money to track down a unicorn that’s gone AWOL. This moves his business into an alternate reality in which the supernatural is accepted as perfectly normal by all who live there. Not surprisingly, our laconic Mallory takes everything in his stride, cracks the case and settles down in this new world. This leaves him down on his luck and struggling to earn enough to cover the rent on his new office. Plus ça change and then some.

Mike Resnick offers free coaching on belly dancing

 

So how does Stalking the Vampire measure up in the comedy stakes? Following the rescue of the unicorn, this book continues the strict adherence to the Aristotelian unity of time. As has now been popularised by the television serial 24, each chapter follows real time with the clock progressing an identified number of minutes. The convention is that the action in each book or story should be completed in no more than 24 hours. Second, this is the fish-out-of-water trope with noir meeting whimsy. The humour is intended to flow from our practical gumshoe’s reaction to the madcap world around him. Except, of course, many of the supernatural beings are as deadly in this world as they have been in ours. So our hero can’t verbally brush off all-comers. He needs the help of locals to navigate the waters safely. Hence, the regulars are Felina, a real catwoman, and Col Winnifred Caruthers who’s a female big game hunter. For the purposes of this book, we add Bats McGuire, a pusillanimous vampire, and Scaly Jim Chandler (better known as Nathan Botts), a dragon who writes very bad PI novels —a sample is included as one of the appendices. Finally, there’s Grundy who, in Sherlock Holmes terms, represents the local Moriarty. Were they not on opposite sides, they would be friends if only because Mallory is completely unimpressed by the demon’s villainous approach to life (or should that be afterlife — difficult semantics when talking about a demon interacting with the human world).

 

There are a number of individual moments when I smiled in admiration of a nice touch. Unfortunately, Mike Resnick relies on running jokes that, after the first few miles, grow lame. As the miles rack up, they get blistered and limp. In other words, at this length (248 pages of novel plus 20 further pages of appendices and a biography), the repetitive nature of the different styles of humour wears out its welcome. Had this been 150 pages in total, there would be less chance of the jokes recycling too many times. But every time Mallory talks with Felina, their conversation follows exactly the same pattern. She’s heavily into cupboard love and skritching, while he’s always negotiating to get her constructive co-operation in the investigation. Goblins relentlessly try to sell him silly things at inflated prices. And so on. When not into situational humour, we get verbal humour. When not into absurdity, we get nonsense. Even puns appear from time to time. You have to admire the dedication of the author to the cause.

 

So here’s the final view. Stalking the Vampire is well-imagined and, in short bursts, highly readable. But, unless your sense of humour is on this single wavelength, you will not find this uproariously funny. I understood where I was supposed to find things amusing, and one or two of the individual jokes do hit the mark. But, to my jaded palate, the set-piece passages slow down the development of the urban fantasy plot. Ah yes, the plot. This is very professional as, without a description of the vampire in question, Mallory and his sidekicks must find the fiend and bring an end to proceedings before the clock runs out. It does all hang together, but you need to be strong to get to the end in a single sitting.

 

As a final thought, Mike Resnick has sold the film rights to the John Justin Mallory books and stories, so this is yet another film we almost certainly will never see.

 

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
The Trojan Colt

 

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