Finally! Friday: Murder With Monsters by K.T. Katzmann

(I’d like to say I’m kicking off a spooky theme for October, but this differs from my usual Friday how? Also, I’ve never reviewed anything by someone I follow on Twitter before, so I’m a bit nervous: this plays into my twin fears that 1) people will never read this site and 2) holy crap, people might be reading this site. Anyway…)

Why Finally? After lots of eager reading, a few years ago I found myself no longer enthused about paranormal books—and just when the genre and its assorted subsections really took off, too. Part of this might add up to some hipster suspicion of “things other people like,” but really, why did I stall out on the fifth book of  more than one series?

Eventually I decided it had to be the multiple mythical creatures. I’ve been reading books about only ghosts, only vampires, and the like since childhood and never getting tired of them, but when you have enough monsters running around that you need interspecies politics and logistics, my interest wanes like a werewolf’s light source. That makes sense, right? Question answered!

So along came K.T. Katzmann’s Murder With Monsters and its whole monster manual of characters to prove that, like that guy on Game of Thrones, I know nothing.

mwmcover

The Premise: Forever sixteen on the outside, vampire police detective Mildred Heavewater works in a very diverse section of the NYPD staffed by humans, Universal Studios refugees, and creatures you will have to look up. A new murder case seems to point to a golem as the culprit, but the Jewish Mildred can’t believe that: after all, they’re “programmed” not to hurt people. Assisted by her human partner and the cute new sasquatch M.E., it’s up to Mildred to investigate in the Orthodox area of Brooklyn while being very, very unkosher.

Know that I am waving my arms and yelling “THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD!”

“J.A.,” you are likely saying, “is this one of your silly things again?” It is! and thank you for noticing. But it’s not just a book that reads like Lovecraft wrote a season of Law & Order and the whole thing was sent up in a Kent Montana novel; there’s a lot of heart here, even if the protagonist’s generally refuses to beat. Watching Mildred navigate her cases, her friendships, and a personal life she doesn’t quite seem to feel the right to have, we get a sense of a complex character for whom too many things have been put on hold, and whose “girl detective” appearance is the final layer of awkwardness on top of her other problems. The supporting characters—which include a werewolf, a harpy, a shoggoth with an excellent phone manner,  and some ghosts— are also (pardon the pun) fleshed out, and I found the whodunit reveal genuinely shocking.

Me being me, the cameos by Isaac Asimov and Carl Kolchak didn’t hurt, either.

The Verdict: *waves arms and yells “THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD!!” again*

I am delighted to see that this is intended as the first of a series; there are so many characters to follow in Murder With Monsters, and I will be delighted to do so. Especially if the shoggoth gets her own story, but I’m weird like that.

Might go well with: Sushi.

 

Next time: An aeronut. That’s a pun, not a typo.

 

Finally! Friday: A View From A Hill

I decided to postpone the other stuff and stick with last week’s theme of British ghost story adaptations, so this Friday we turn to the BBC’s 2005  A View from A Hill.

Why Finally? Like “Mrs. Amworth” author E.F Benson, M.R. James was a British writer of classic ghost stories, the most well-known of which may be the gothic “Count Magnus.” (And like H.P. Lovecraft, James has inspired an excellent podcast. ) “A View from a Hill” is, hands down, my favorite James story… and, so far as I can tell,  pretty much no one else’s. So it’s easy to imagine how happy I was when I saw this adaptation available on Amazon Prime.

The Premise: Archaeologist Dr. Fanshawe travels to Squire Richards’s country estate. When Fanshawe sets out to tour his surroundings, he takes a pair of handmade binoculars the squire inherited from a strange and sinister antiquary named Baxter. It turns out Baxter’s glasses can see into the past, letting Fanshawe see intact buildings instead of the ruins that surround him—but he’s looking through dead men’s eyes, and it comes at a price.

Not this Price. A different one.
Not this Price. A different one.

I keep trying to articulate why this is my favorite James offering, and the closest I can come is that I sympathize with Fanshawe completely, unlike the legions of mad resurrectionists, seance-holders and ignorers of warning signs who usually populate ghost stories. The moment I read about those binoculars, I wanted them to be real, and mine, and damn the consequences. Quite aside from the spectral penalties for meddling in that which humankind was never etc., etc., this story has such a great main idea that I always get really excited about it. Necromantic augmented reality!

Like Pokemon Go, but for 16th-century English architecture.
Like Pokemon Go, but for 16th-century English architecture.

The biggest difference from the 1925 original is the way the TV production treats class issues—which is to say that it does so at all. In the James story, Dr. Fanshawe and Squire Richards are friends; in this version Fanshawe has been hired to appraise the squire’s possessions, so he’s a social inferior, even though the squire is being forced to sell things to keep up his estate. Richards’s failing finances are a good expansion on the idea of decay that drives Baxter to his historical meddling in the first place, and it all adds a new underlying tension to the story.

The Verdict: For obvious reasons, I love this, especially the scenes of Fanshawe at the abbey. I have a few minor quibbles about this production, but most are because I really like that break-it-down-in-the-drawing-room, expository style of old ghost stories; I can hardly fault a TV production for taking a more visual approach to the scary parts. If you love the story as much as I do—alas, you probably don’t—you’ll really enjoy this. If instead you’re meeting “A View from a Hill” for the first time, this is still a great, creepy dramatization.

Might go well with: Whiskey, a bracing cup of tea, your favorite period drama, and, if the thought of academics on bicycles warms your heart, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House.” The central conceit also reminds me of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago books, so you might check those out as well.

 

Next time: We’re wrapping up “Double Danger” not with a bang, but with many bangs and a sort of trumpeting noise.

Finally! Friday: She Walks In Shadows Anthology

SWiSbook

Why Finally? This one’s a finally! on two levels: one, of course, is that I said I was going to finish reading the book weeks ago—I think I even mentioned it here on the Omelet. The other is “Finally! Check out this anthology of Lovecraftian fiction, poetry and art all created by women.”

The Premise: See above.

H.P. Lovecraft is a hard author to like, given the man’s egregious racist and classist opinions and the way he spread adjectives around his stories like a thick layer of peanut butter. (It can be hard when reading Lovecraft not to reach a point in the prose where you think,”You know what? If it’s so darned indescribable, maybe stop trying to describe it.”)

My own liking for Lovecraft is partly personal: I can’t consider the author, a funny-looking bookish person with unstable parents and a sense that he arrived in this world when the good part was already over, without feeling that there but for the grace of Cthulhu go I. When your family dynamics start trending toward the Gothic, it’s easy to wonder if the monster is already lurking inside you, and that idea forms the basis of so much of Lovecraft’s work. (More prosaically, Lovecraft was at the center of my most memorable high-school slacking: I’m pretty sure everyone in my English class thought I was reading The Master Builder for our group project, but I stumbled onto “The Rats in the Walls” instead and faked my way through the Ibsen report. The story’s still kind of about architecture, I guess.)

She Walks in Shadows collects several current authors’ spins on stories and ideas in the Lovecraft mythos, punctuated by black-and-white artwork. Check out the page at Innsmouth Free Press for more information and a peek at the content.

The Verdict(s): The trouble with evaluating stories written “in the spirit of ____” is that you find yourself basing your opinion on both the quality of the stories and on how much they draw from the original material you like best. A riff on a story I love is going to seem better than a riff on a story I think is okay, so let me say first that I enjoyed the entire book. My special favorites, though:

  • “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” Molly Tanzer’s take on “The Thing on the Doorstep” in which, as is so often the case, horror lives in high school;
  • “Lavinia’s Wood” by Angela Slatter, a sort of prequel to “The Dunwich Horror” with more Whately family dynamics;
  • Jilly Dreadful’s “De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae,” in which one of those ancient tomes that drive folks mad receives a proper cataloguing. (Stories about books are nearly always my favorites.)

For my taste, it could have used more Innsmouth, but I am obsessed with sea-people of all sorts.

The little jerk actually swatted my hand when I tried to take it away.
The little jerk actually swatted my hand when I tried to take it away.

Might go well with: An awful lot of things I’ve already written about. Also, Amazon Prime video has an updated adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that’s worth checking out. Not as good as the story mentioned above, I thought, but interesting.

 

Next time: Robot season!

 

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Final Appendices + Wrap-Up

Why Found-Again? Because this book used to be everything to me, that’s why.

 

"Goodnight, Joe." "Goodnight, Frank."
“Goodnight, Joe.” “Goodnight, Frank.”

There really isn’t a lot more to cover, since the last three sections are both well-written and still relevant today. We learn a bit about the criminal justice system:

For example, we learn why citizens' arrests aren't totally rampant.
For example, we learn why citizens’ arrests aren’t totally rampant.

More about surveillance, with diagrams and glossary:

As a wee thing, I used the term "check tail" so often, even my father learned it.
As a wee thing, I used the term “check tail” so often, even my father learned it. My poor, confused parents!

And the history and general nitty-gritty of fingerprint identification.

TheFinger
Give it a…oh, you know. Bad pun goes here.

And that’s all she they wrote.

The Verdict: I’m so glad I picked this up to reread: in a way, it explains an awful lot about me and the existence of this site in the first place. A little embarrassing, a lot of stuff to learn, and the occasional unfortunate hairdo: The  Hardy Boys Detective Handbook isn’t just a part of childhood, it’s practically a mirror of  childhood.

Might go well with: Anything tagged “Mystery” here on the Omelet.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook Glossaries

Helpful Reference Volumes
Helpful Reference Volumes

Why Found-Again? Mostly because of stuff like the 3:25 point in this:

Who hasn’t taken a bit of delight in TV or movie crimespeak?

The Premise: We’re covering two glossaries in this short peek at the end of the book: the first section is general criminal argot, and the second deals with various illegal drugs and what they might be called if you want to buy them…while under cover, presumably.

“Dictionary for a Detective” is interesting on several fronts, one of which is whether some terms are slang at all: I doubt “decoy” was ever seen as “one of those weird words the young hoodlums are using these days,” for instance. (This shows up in the drug glossary as well. Was there really a time when “locked up” wasn’t seen as physically descriptive of incarceration?)

A few of the entries are still current…

Only one of those seems really outré...and a little less so than the word "outré," really.
Only one of those seems really outré…and a little less so than the word “outré,” really.

But I realized as I continued reading that what this list is really handy for circa 2016 is parsing the lingo in old Bugs Bunny cartoons and old-time radio detective shows.

In honor of the video clip.
Here are a few in honor of the video clip above.

And then there are the ones I don’t believe at all: if anyone reading this can cite even anecdotal evidence of someone saying “knowledge box” and meaning “school”—or indeed meaning anything normal at all—I will eat a hat of my choice.

See also "croaker joint."
See also “croaker joint.”

By contrast, the “High Danger” Chapter about drugs is quite informative and not as, well, goofy: it discusses the classes of drugs, street names of drugs (many of which are still used today) and terms you might hear around the buying and selling of drugs (also with much overlap with the present day). Its most dated aspects include a warning about “drug culture” that sounds lifted from you-know-what and the contents of the list itself: this was written before Ecstasy, for example, and a lot of the tranquilizers mentioned appear to have gone out of use/abuse entirely.

The Verdict: This week’s reading surprised me. I’ve spent so much time watching now-silly ’70s and ’80s crime shows that I expected the drug-slang section to be hilarious, but the terminology has been surprisingly stable between handbook-publication time and today…which I suppose could raise the question of whether “drug culture” has lost (or should lose) its scare quotes. We’ve got two more appendices to go, and then we’ll be done learning the art of detection for young people.

 

Next time: We go with the Quests on a field trip to a nerve-gas factory.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 7

"Frank, are we being...followed?"
“Frank, are we being…followed?”

Why Found-Again? Because learning to follow people quietly is the one thing in this book most kids could do with no gear or prep. With a whole farm to practice on, this was my favorite chapter when I was a junior would-be crimefighter.

The Premise: The crime for this chapter is a triple threat: an arson occurs at a jewelry company as part of a distraction for a diamond heist, and all in service of the culprit’s drug habit. I’ve watched a jewel-heist movie or two in my time (and I may be the only one who remembers the one in the last link; the reason will become apparent in next week’s Friday post), so this was excellent.

Once again the suspect in “The Trail Beyond the Smoke Screen” is an employee of the business that’s been burgled—give the book credit for sticking close to real life here—and the process of tracking him largely falls to Frank, Joe, and Chet, who use their awesome three-man surveillance skills so adeptly they almost get murdered by drug dealers.

The drug plot ends about the way you’d expect:

I'll just be over here trying not to mention Dragnet—dammit.
I’ll just be over here trying not to mention Dragnet…dammit.

and the stones are recovered from the Fridge of Crime:

I wonder where he kept his Turkish cigarettes?
I wonder where he kept his Turkish cigarettes?

My favorite part of this story, though, was a pair of revelations—revelations to me, anyway.

The first one, and good news for the citizenry, is that Bayport PD is apparently big enough to have non-Hardy specialists.

So they probably have as many as 15 police.
So they probably have as many as 15 police. Whew!

The second is that, despite remembering Chet, Tony, Chief Collig, and even the unmentioned-in-this-handbook Aunt Gertrude from other Hardy Boys adventures, I did not remember that Mrs. Hardy is still alive. And this is where my reading went off the rails and into a new literary analogy:

  • Frank and Joe Hardy: Parents send them off to do good somewhere else with their special skills
  • Nancy Drew: Parent death, spends lots of time with family servant
  • …so Nancy Drew is Batman and the Hardys are Superman??

This is now likely to be my favorite chapter of The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook forever. Well done, pseudonymous author + FBI consultant!

The Verdict: More mixed than it sounds; this one was high on intrigue but, unless you have two friends to help, a little low on technique. That’s because the last few chapters of the handbook are storyless appendices about various aspects of crime and detection, and surveillance is covered in more depth there. This is also why we have a…

Special Note: Since the coming chapters aren’t proper stories, I’m going to try taking them two at a time, and the writeups will probably be shorter than our previous peeks into the handbook. On the upside, we’ll get to see how much drug slang has been around since the ’70s.

 

Next time: Are you ready to meet Pasha Peddler? If not, you’re going to really hate The Quest for Monday!

Found-Again Friday: Barton Fink

It’s got to be better than Beyond Therapy, right?

Why Found-Again? In the words of The Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo, picture it: creative writing class, 1993.

There are people in these classes who are, bluntly stated, unreasonably up themselves. The ones who think they need to drink like the Beats to write well. The ones who never seem to depart from a certain subset of “literary, but ‘edgy'” authors in their inspirations. The walking prototypes for the main character in Valerie on the Stairs.

In this class, I managed to get sandwiched between two of these guys, who spent the first half of the semester talking literally over my head about movies and beer and Carver and Updike (Palahniuk wasn’t a thing yet) until I thought I’d pull a Bertha Mason and run mad.

They were obsessed with Barton Fink, and I was soon sick of not knowing why, so on my next trip home I grabbed my friend K. and set up a movie night. My first indication that my movie nights are cursed was my decision to watch The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Barton Fink in the same night. I remember it only as a long night of shared art-film pain (well, that and the revelation that John Goodman is an amazing actor), and I haven’t touched either movie since.

By now, of course, I know there are Coen Brothers movies I like—and even love—so perhaps I was a little hard on Mr. Fink. Let’s find out.

The Premise:  In 1941, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, and it goes spectacularly badly. He has writer’s block, he has a neighbor from hell—perhaps literally?—and he tries to get advice from a washed-up author who is a fictional analogue of William Faulkner, all while slowly slipping into the writers’ version of the Hollywood studio meat grinder. And then there’s the murder.

I was right about one thing all those years ago: the movie can sometimes be a little slow. That said, this quickly shot up from my previous estimation (sort of a dull groan) through “quite bearable” to “good.” It’s a fascinating combination of noir, psychological study, and to some degree a meditation on religion and ideals: Barton’s idea of serving his fellow man doesn’t long survive actually meeting his fellow man, and this drives most of the plot.  Barton Fink is one of those films Found-Again Friday was made for, and I am happy to relieve it of that other word I used to put in the middle of the title.

"She finally gets it! Drink!"
“She finally gets it! Drink!”

The Verdict: Twofold. One, this was a fun rewatching of something I thought might be agony (remember Beyond Therapy?) and provides some interesting backstory and comparisons to the Coens’ most recent release, Hail, Caesar!, since the same fictional movie studio appears in each. The second thing? After having a similar experience watching and rewatching  Mister Frost, I’m starting to suspect I can’t watch a certain kind of film too late at night—art films.  And here I’d always assumed it would be zombie movies…

Might go well with: The Shining, Miller’s Crossing, an explanation of why 90% of typewriters in movies and television are Underwoods. Really, what did Olivetti do to Hollywood?

Next time: The Quests take Hadji for a ride.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 6

(As you may notice, this week’s Friday post is on Saturday because the website went spoink! yesterday. In other news, I now know one elementary way to unspoink a website.)

Why Found-Again? Because for some reason no one’s gotten around to making CSI: Bayport yet.

My favorite part of this one is the way Joe(?) is side-eyeing my pretty ruler.
My favorite part of this one is the way Joe(?) is stink-eyeing my pretty ruler.

The Premise: We’re back in sit-Chet-down-and-talk-at-him mode for the beginning of this chapter, “The Clue of the Broken Pencil,” while all three Hardys take the poor lad through the basics of crime scene photography and recording. They start, however, with this howler:

Hardypocrites

To put this in context, every person involved in the above conversation was standing over a murdered policeman’s body in Chapter 5, and every person involved is still not a law-enforcement officer*. (This is one of the things I miss about having a kid’s perspective on this book: when I first read it, well, of course it was okay for teenagers to be hanging around multiple crime scenes! Kids are smart, right?)

No sooner have the Hardys taught Chet how to graph items on scene sketches—and as ever, my respect for the real-life people who did all this stuff by hand only grows with each chapter—than word comes in of a burglary. A burglary at a factory that makes gold- and silver-rimmed eyeglasses. That’s right, somebody spends time in this story running around with a literal chest full of gold. Arrrrrr.

The chest is recovered in the woods, and one of Chet’s crime-scene sketches eventually reveals the robbery was an inside job. The police catch up with the crooked bookkeeper, and a search reveals the titular broken pencil.

This is the handbook's version of suspect search. Seems way more involved than the frisking you see on TV.
This is the handbook’s version of suspect search. Seems way more involved than the frisking you see on TV.

(Those of you still seeking tips for budding villains can now add “Make sure your car isn’t likely to break down” to the list. At least it wasn’t Turkish cigarettes this time.)

When confronted, the bad guy actually says “You’ve got nothing on me, copper,” for which alone he deserves jail time.

The Verdict: I liked the apprehension of the suspect (and the box o’ gold), but all in all, this wasn’t one of the better chapters. It’s a slightly dry subject, there isn’t a lot of integration with previous chapters, and the story leans too hard on Chet making all the good discoveries in the first half. When we find out the villain said the police were hicks, we shouldn’t have sympathy for his opinion—but they were just schooled by a teenaged tyro.

 

*I can’t say for sure that Fenton’s not some kind of honorary deputy, since this is the only Hardy Boys book I’ve read in 20+ years. He certainly should be if he’s just going to hang around all the time.

 

Next time: Get a rope.

Finally!(?) Friday: Frankenstein: The True Story

Why Finally? This 1973 version was recommended while I was in mid-rant about the odd Franken-kick I went on with last year’s Friday posts, during which I watched Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (I didn’t write that one up), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I still haven’t seen the Branagh version…and just realized that it’s been *mumble* number of years since I took time from my college studies to watch Haunted Summer. At least we know what to look for in 2016…

The Premise: After his brother dies, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting, who was Romeo in the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet—many Americans will therefore recognize him as “the guy whose butt we saw in 9th-grade English”) is despondent. He decides to conquer the secrets of life, first being as snotty about it as possible to his fiancée Elizabeth. Even before he spends part of the movie reminding everyone he’s a doctor, you quickly realize this is the sort of man who reminds everyone he’s a doctor.

Victor hooks up with another mad scientist, Henry (David “Ducky on NCIS” McCallum), and together they plan to build their monster out of workmen killed in a building disaster.  Henry has a weak heart, however, so when a setback in their process manifests, he dies before he can tell Victor—and his brain is popped into the monster. Waste not, want not.

The overarching goal of the production, explained in a spoiler-filled intro by a gentleman standing at Mary Shelley’s grave, is to tell the story more as it appeared in the original novel and less like the 1930s movies. This it certainly does, and with a number of visual touches that would have fit perfectly into Ken Russell’s Gothic, even as it hits many stops familiar to fans of the old films. The cast is magnificent: Whiting and McCallum are joined by John Gielgud, James Mason, Agnes Moorehead, and Jane Seymour (I wasn’t familiar with Michael Sarazzin, who played the monster, but he gives a heartbreaking performance as the creation who falls from grace through no fault of his own).

The Verdict: To put it bluntly, this may be the only 3-hour film I’ve ever enjoyed that didn’t have a dragon in it somewhere. Yes, some parts are the purest fromage; it’s an old TV movie/miniseries. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the Frankenstein lore—which I am largely not!—it’s very good and cheaply available on DVD.

Random Note: Judging by this film, being the Fourth Doctor was just something Tom Baker did in between playing rough-spoken, bearded sea captains. And I’m okay with that.

Might go well with: Tea, opera, any of the other five zillion Frankenstein movies.

Next time: Who needs a special-forces guard when you have a kid with a basket?

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 5

Why Found-Again? Because I’ve watched more cop shows than you’ve had hot dinners. Heck, given Law & Order marathons, probably more than I’ve had hot dinners.

Quick! How many coins are lying around the book as a silly observation exercise?
Quick! How many coins are lying around the book as a silly observation exercise?

The Premise: This week’s chapter is about observation and memory, and we’ve got an actual murder for this one! Police chief Collig’s rookie-cop nephew has been killed at a traffic stop, and the chief and the Hardys are investigating—which seems less weird when you remember how few police officers Bayport seems to have. Sure, it’s a conflict of interest, but they’re probably down to nine guys and one over-18 civilian!

Sidekick Chet once again along for the ride, the boys set about looking for clues while teaching their chum how to train his powers of observation. This starts with simple memory exercises and then, once they find the car involved in the shooting, moves on to a discussion of how law enforcement records things out of the ordinary in their surroundings. Sure enough, our bad guy was recently questioned by another cop, at which time he gave a terrible alias:

Someone needs this as a nod d'internet.
Someone needs this as a nom d’internet ASAP.

Granted, his name is Amos Chipman, so it’s not as bad as it seems (and this may be a good time to point out that every villain in this book has a name that sounds picked from The Big Book Of Fictional Longshoremen). Through some canvassing the area, the Hardys find their man, leading to the noirest illustration in the whole handbook.

In case you're worried, they just wing him.
In case you’re worried, they just wing him.

The Verdict: I liked this one, even if the chain of clues is started by the pure dumb luck of Chet spotting the car. The writers ably made up for the lack of technical detail in this chapter with a pretty good story—though there’s yet another cigar/cigarette clue. I wonder how much case clearance in Bayport would drop if everybody just quit smoking.

 

As a bonus, one of my favorite movie scenes about observation, from the Holmes-Watson role-reversal comedy Without A Clue:

 

Next time: We start a new Jonny Quest! I’ve been waiting to say that for weeks.