Thursday, December 18, 2014

Learning to Read by the Colors

I attended Highland Elementary School in National City, Calif., through third grade before moving to Chula Vista and starting at Lauderbach Elementary. I've mentioned elsewhere that I was motivated to read mostly because Uncle Bob, well-intentioned though he was, was not very good at reading comic books aloud. Although those comics of the early Silver Age served as my primers, I also got a big reading boost in the classroom through the SRA Reading Lab, a series of color-coded "reading cards" which helped children improve vocabulary and comprehension as they were entertained with engaging stories or interesting articles. As I progressed from card to card within a particular color coding, I gathered more and more reading skills, and by the time I reached the last card in a color I was ready to start in on the next color, which required a larger vocabulary, higher levels of comprehension, and featured more complex subjects or plots. As I recall, most kids in my classes didn't like the SRA Lab exercises anymore than they liked anything else required in school. Personally, however, I enjoyed them so much I barely realized they were actual classwork, and might have worked straight through them to the exception of all else, had my teachers not exercised their dictatorial powers.

Donald H Parker
The SRA Program was the creation of Donald H Parker, who was a reading teacher in rural America and noticed that his students did not do well when taught from the same reading book all at the same time. Some lagged behind, becoming frustrated when they were pushed to keep up, while the better readers in class experienced frustration from being held back by underachievers and normal readers. In 1950, he invented a system of teaching reading skills on an individual basis while in a communal classroom environment. After receiving his PhD from Columbia University, he approached Chicago-based Science Research Laboratories and pitched them the idea for a program marketed to schools nationwide. If you want to read about his struggle to bring his idea to market a great article has been posted by SRA Reading Labs on its website.

I have to admit, when I was initially evaluated for SRA placement, I was pretty far down the ladder, not quite at the bottom, but uncomfortably (and embarrassingly) close. But tests are not always as revealing, or as accurate, as they are touted to gullible school administrators. To the amazement of all, except myself, I went through those early lessons like a blowtorch through butter. First, the teacher thought I was deluded, that I had convinced myself I was a good reader when I was not, then she was certain that I was somehow cheating, even if she did not know how. Silly teachers! It was not till third grade that I was assigned a teacher with a brain, a sensible lady named Mrs Decker, who not only let me proceed through the SRA Lab for my grade at my own speed (which was fast), but also encouraged me to write my own, anyone who has a beef with my writing can probably blame Mrs Decker.

Unfortunately, third grade does not last forever, but I was looking forward to fourth grade for a number of reasons--I would be back in the main building rather than in the original two-room schoolhouse (alas, now demolished), I could look down on third graders (metaphorically, since I was the shortest kid in class), my marble-shooting skills had really improved (yes, I will win all your marbles), and I would be moving on to the upper level SRA Reading Lab (yes!). I had big plans for fourth grade, but the best-laid plans of mice and schoolchildren oft go astray.

In the summer of that year, my parents moved us ten miles south to Chula Vista, back in the days when a veteran could qualify for a home with $1 down and a mortgage payment a bit less than 25% of one person's income. I was wary of the move. Yes, I would be glad to have my own room, but what about the school? I didn't know what a "Lauderbach" was, but it didn't sound good. Of course, my parents told me everything would be all right, but parents always make baseless statements like that, don't they? A school was a school, they said, and I probably wouldn't even know the difference. "Sigh." On the first day of school, I learned the horrible truth--the school building was of a "modern" design, I didn't know who to look down on since they were all strangers, no one at the new school played marbles, and, worse of all, this school didn't use the SRA Program. When I walked into class, I looked around and asked the teacher (nameless here to protect the guilty) where the SRA Reading Lab was. She didn't know what I was talking about. Silly teacher!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fourth for the Three Dogs

The fourth book in the Paws & Claws series, The Death & Life of an American Dog, is now available. Fourth. Hard to believe, for me at least...

When I wrote the first book in the series, I did not anticipate writing any other books about the Three Dog Detective Agency. It was a project I had long discussed with Levi, but I had never gotten beyond the general concept, and did not actually undertake until 2012, as part of National Novel Writing Month, the process of which I shared here. Had I known then that I would write more than just the one book, I probably would have given it a different title, probably the subtitle, A Three Dog Mystery instead of Paws & Claws. Since then, I have revised the text, added photos of locations and characters, and created a new cover. But I kept the title, mostly because it always annoyed me when I would buy what I thought was a new book, then find out it was one I had already read, published under a new title.

Speaking of titles, when I decided early in 2013 that I wanted to continue telling the adventures of Levi, Sunny and Yoda, I sat down and charted a course, not through outlines or a series of synopses, but by way of a list of titles. I don't know if other writers use this method of stimulating the little grey cells, but it's one that works for me--the title suggests a situation, which requires the right setting, which suggests the best opening and characters, and...well, once the characters get involved, I just write down what they say and do. Of course, it means I'm at the mercy of my characters, and sometimes they do double-cross me, as Levi did in K-9 Blues, where he was supposed to smell one scent but reported something completely different, forcing a complete rethinking of the plot and climax. Back to Paws & Claws notebook starts with a list of more than a dozen titles, none with any explanation, and the fourth is The Death and Life of an American Dog.

The title suggested a canine veteran, a war dog, and since I had been in the Army, it made since that the dog had as well. The title also suggested a kind of rebirth, a return to life from a deathlike state. It reminded me of The Light of Day, a 1962 book by Eric Ambler about Arthur Abdel Simpson, who finds himself in a very dark situation and yearns to return to the light of day. It also brought to mind Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz, also published in 1962, in which a corrupt land owner in post-Revolutionary Mexico must journey back in his mind to find a state of grace.

So, I had a war dog who was in a bad place, a dark place, perhaps a prisoner of his own fears, trapped in a trauma-caused dream. But did the danger stem purely from the depths of his own mind? Obviously not, otherwise Levi, Sunny and Yoda would have to open the Three Dog Psychiatric Agency, and I had no plans to write the canine equivalent of Flowers for Algernon. The story needed villains, and they had to come from the land where it all had to start--Afghanistan.

Of course, the setting is a given--Chula Vista, for that is the home of the Three Dog Detective Agency, almost a character itself. From Afghanistan to Chula Vista, with villains following...the back story begins to form, and it's when a back story is revealed, piece by piece over the course of the plot that all the twists begin to straighten, all the puzzling incidents begin to make sense. As for an opening, there are always two in the Paws & Claws series, the prologue and the story itself, and this book was no different. As I thought about the plight of the war dog and how it all might have started, I heard a voice shouting "Iblis! Iblis!" from the midst of flames. I then realized the Army dog was having a nightmare, and the nightmare became the prologue. As for the start of the story itself, I saw Yoda, the impetuous and usually snarky Pomeranian of the group, on a solitary patrol one day and...well there you are.

I hope I have not bored anyone too much with this account of how The Death & Life of an American Dog came into being (and if I did, why are you still reading?), but I'm always interested in how writers create stories, and thought I would share. Of course, this was just the start of the story, for even fiction requires research. A long time ago, Isaac Asimov wrote, "I don't look to fiction for facts, but I don't look to it for errors either." It's a maxim I've always taken to heart, which is why I extensively research, of which only about 10% actually makes it into any book or story. For this book, I researched dog breeds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, military dog training, how pizza is made, the Veterans Administration, PTSD, Islamic mythology, folklore, Battlestar Galactica, herding calls, storm drains, Victorian architecture, and a host of other subjects.

No matter how the book starts, however, no matter all the various bits and pieces poured into it to create an interesting and moving plot, it's always about one thing--the dogs. I always keep in mind that my main characters are not detectives who are dogs, but dogs who are detectives. A subtle note, perhaps, but one which makes all the difference in the world. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Shedding Books...Reluctantly

For everyone who collects, accumulates or hoards books, there eventually comes a point where you have to shed books. No doubt, if you fall into one of those three categories, you have changed residences at least once in your life, meaning you already know what it's like to lose friends and/or family. The last time I moved (which was the last time I moved), my father was one of the people who foolishly volunteered to help. After about the twentieth, maybe it was the twenty-fifth, box of books, he looked at me and said: "If you move again, Chula Vista is going to see its biggest bonfire...ever." Maybe he was just kidding, or maybe his back was hurting and he was feeling a little cranky--well, he is slightly older than I am, or used to be before my last birthday--but I decided not to take a chance, and have not moved since. Of course, losing friends and family is one thing, but losing books is another.

Arimintha's Complaint

Regular readers of this blog (I'm sure there must be a couple) will remember a similar complaint from Arimintha, our favorite playwright and game designer. Her reasons were valid and her solution very much a product of 21st Century technology (Kindle), but she did have to shed some real books, a process repeated very recently when she moved yet again, this time to beautiful and quiet Panorama City. The upside to all her moves is that with each relocation I receive books she previously "borrowed," and some new ones as well. I figure, two or three more changes of address and I might actually get back almost all the "borrowed" books. And, then, there's that whole Man, Myth & Magic set that takes up so much room...hint.

There have been two times in my life in which books have flowed out of my library rather than in, both a long time ago, the first time involuntarily, the second...well, not exactly voluntarily, but I had no other choice. The first time was when I enlisted in the US Army. I stored all my books with my mother (books [bunches], sci-fi & mystery magazines [lots], and comic books [lots more!]) and thought they were safe. Little did I know then, but not long after I boarded the bus for Los Angeles, Chula Vista was the site of an epic yard sale. Yes, painful when I found out, but you can't hold a grudge, not against your mother...well, not for more than two or three years.

The second time was in the 1980s, and was actually more painful than the first because I had to do it myself. I suppose if I had to describe it, it would be, maybe, self-surgery, like hacking off a limb or plucking out an eye, no anesthesia. If you've had to get rid of books, you already know what it's like, so there's no point in rehashing it. How did it happen? Hired away from a book company by firm of naval architects, only to be laid off six months later, and there you go. You think another job is around the corner, then the next corner, and the next, and the next...well, as it turns out, it's just corners, no jobs, and then you're standing on a corner with a tin cup. Nope, didn't do that...too much pride, same as what keeps a person from tying his life to the government dole (once they have you, they don't let go). Times were tough, I didn't have any prospects, but I did have books, lots of them (I restocked after that whole mother-yard-sale thing) and some were collectible.

By the time I finished going through my shelves, I had two paper bags full of books that I could lose without pain...well, not unbearable pain. All I had to do to follow through with my plan was to think of my family. Despite my rampant bibliomania (a "gentle madness" it's called) I really do value my family more. With my two bags of books in arm, I took the bus downtown and made my rounds of the bookstores. My first jaunt to downtown San Diego had been more than twenty years earlier to find several dozen bookstores, from vast emporiums to tiny hole-in-the-wall places sandwiched between sleazy bars and gritty tattoo parlors. This time, however, I found only a handful of survivors of those halcyon days, most being kept afloat, not by the reading public but by the collecting elite. Somewhere along the way, reading had become a lost art, a trivial and foolish waste of time.

Since reading was no longer a recreation of the masses, a few "common" books went back home with me. The others were collectible enough to warrant offers from booksellers, some of them at least. Most sellers were no longer buying because the marketplace was dying, but a few stores justified my long and depressing trip downtown. By the time I finished, I had three checks in my pocket and a half-dozen books I was glad to take home. I cashed the checks at a bank downtown, took the thirty pieces of silver, and waited for the bus home. Of course, things have changed downtown over the ensuing three decades, most notably in number of bookstores. Now, there are none; they have all gone under, though one did go up in smoke. And to make the transformation of downtown complete, the bank where I cashed the checks (showing my library card as a second ID) is now a hotel and most of the bars and tattoo parlors have been replaced by parking lots and empty government-subsidized buildings.

But, as I wrote earlier, if you yourself are a collector, accumulator or hoarder, you already know what this is like, the pain of shedding books, the depression as you look at the small stack of bills in your hand. No matter what you received, it isn't enough, and will be gone far too soon. Personally, I try not to think about how much money I did or didn't receive. Instead, I choose to console myself with the knowledge that two bags of books (minus a half-dozen) bought eight bags of groceries...but I still do miss the books.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Afterlife of HP Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft
(20 August 1890 - 15 March 1937)
During his lifetime, fantasy and science fiction writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft often averred that he believed in nothing, in no form of afterlife, neither the Heaven (or Hell) of his Puritan forebears nor the reincarnations of the Eastern religions. At death, he held, there was merely oblivion, a nothingness, a state he thought much more bearable than life, as there were no wants or desires, no pain or anguish. Before our births, he said, there was nothingness, so why make a big fuss about returning to it at the end? But when Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937, was that really the end for him? Perhaps personally, if his beliefs were correct, but not for his name, his stories, or his ideas. It may not be reincarnation in the tradition of our Hindu brethren, but HP Lovecraft continues to touch minds and change lives 115 years after his birth.

More than forty years ago (though sometimes it seems like a thousand), I sat in a high school homeroom class before the start of the actual learning day. It was a time used by my fellow students to do the homework they were supposed to have done the night before or to gossip about who was doing what with whom or to sit sullen-eyed and brood about the unfair vicissitudes of their lives. My homework, however, was completed, as usual, I didn't have any gossipy friends (hardly any friends at all, really), and though I was prone to brooding it was not usually a public activity for me...people just thought me one of the "quiet ones." On this particular day, I was doing what I did every day -- committing to paper stories about people who had never lived in lands that had never existed. As I neared the end of a story about a man foolish enough to venture upon the mist-laden moor alone I felt a dark presence looming over me. My heart froze and my gaze darted frantically to my left. Yes, Mr Vigil, my homeroom teacher, was standing next to me. He asked me what I was doing, I admitted my deed in a barely audible voice, and he asked if he could read it. I have often wondered what my life, or at least my writing life, would have been like if I had bucked authority (as was the fashion in the 60s) and said, "No way, man!" But I didn't, and he did read it, and I sat all sullen-eyed and brooded about the unfair vicissitudes of my life, and interfering teachers; toward the end of class, he handed back "The Moor" and said, surprisingly: "It was really good, and I'd like to read it when it's finished." And then he asked the question: "Have you ever read HP Lovecraft?" As it happened, I had not, but all that was about to change and my writing life take a big left turn.

Back in those days, bookstores were everywhere. Even a tiny burg like Chula Vista (pop approx 20K) had two, and that was not counting the two newsstands and the three department stores that had book departments. Downtown San Diego had more than thirty bookstores. But, as it happened, the day after Mr Vigil asked the question, my parents had to go to the Lemon Grove Shopping Center for some reason or another, and I found myself walking the aisles of the late and once great Pickwick Bookstore; one clerk eyed me suspiciously when I asked for Lovecraft (probably thought it was one of Dr David Reuben's books) but a more knowledgeable clerk knew exactly what I needed, and I left with several of the outre-covered editions published by actually being worth something back then, I was able to buy all the titles they had with my yard-work allowance, and get change back. I read them, and was amazed at Lovecraft's cosmic themes and soaring flights of imagination, at his sheer genius in stringing the right words together to invoke myriad moods. And I marveled at his ability to challenge even my vocabulary.

It was not long before I started seeking out other editions of Lovecraft's work. I suppose I could make a rational argument for acquiring the hardcovers published by Arkham House (collector's value, durable editions, and all that) but I think I would be at a loss to explain why I have multiple paperback editions of the same story collections. Thank goodness publishers later edited the stories by theme for I could then quite truthfully (yet truly mendaciously) claim I did not have the book in my library. I cannot even claim I was replacing worn and discarded books, for I still have the paperbacks I bought at Pickwick's and "discard" seems to be the one word never to have made it to my working vocabulary.

 Of course, if you get collecting Lovecraft, you don't just stop with his writings. You also collect things written about him and even stories that other people wrote based upon his writings. Eventually, if you become a full-fledged citizen of Lovecraft-land, you also start writing about him and write stories based on his ideas, and there was no time better for that activity than the pre-millennium decades, when print fanzines, chapbooks and booklets were rife, and the small press was a cottage industry engaged in by thousands of people, dozens of whom became my correspondents and sometimes my collaborators in fiction.

Lovecraft Studies 7
"The Old Man & the Sea"
by Ralph E Vaughan
Crypt of Cthulhu 1992
Cover by Nick Petrosino
"Lovecraft & Antarctica"
by Ralph E Vaughan

"The Adventure of the Ancient Gods" by Ralph E Vaughan
First story ever published with Sherlock Holmes & HP Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft in the Comics
by Ralph E Vaughan
A complete survey of comic book adaptations,
one of the rarest of Lovecraft-related books.
In addition to The Adventure of the
Ancient Gods
, this collection from 2015
featured other Lovecraftian themed
Sherlock Holmes stories.

"The Quest for the Dreaming Detective" by Ralph E Vaughan
First story of Sherlock Holmes in HPL's Dreamlands

Even in the stories and books I've written that do not overtly evoke the shade of Lovecraft and his ideas, he always seems to be in the back of my mind, pointing out shadows even when more than one sun illumines the land, reminding me that even the most bucolic landscape is but a thin veneer over ancient secrets, that the reality we see is but a pale manifestation of the of the reality hidden from our severely limited senses.

I've thought of writing this little homage to HP Lovecraft for quite awhile, and I've hinted of my debt to him in other posts, but the time never seemed quite right. But it is today, the 115th anniversary of his birth. He lived less than 47 years, and if his beliefs were correct he entered oblivion on 15 March 1937, but, at the same time, the most important aspects of his life survived the demise of his mortal shell, perpetuated by the work of every writer, artist, filmmaker and reader whose life he touched, and, to a writer, that may be the best kind of afterlife for which to hope.

Subscribe to our mailing list and join the Best Readers in the World

* indicates required

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Enter The Saint

George Sanders (AKA The Saint)
Like many people my age (sorry, it's classified) I first encountered the colorful character of Simon Templar, known as The Saint, in the form of actor George Sanders, who played The Saint in several big-screen films, though in that particular series from RKO he was preceded by Louis Hayward and followed by Hugh Sinclair. At the time, I had no idea they were based on books, but perhaps I can be forgiven since most of them were not really based on books at all, but were original stories based on the character of The Saint, also known as the Robin Hood of Crime. It took me awhile to figure out just who The Saint was...not a detective, not a gangster, certainly not a policeman. He was hated and feared by hoods, was obviously an enemy of evil and crime, and though it was apparent he was not trusted by the police there was at least a grudging admiration from some of them, especially his counterfoils in the NYPD and Scotland Yard. Eventually, I figured out he was Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood and Bulldog Drummond, all rolled into one suave, and dangerous, package.

Leslie Charteris (L) and Sir Roger Moore (AKA The Saint)
But, even I, who first saw The Saint as George Sanders, really think of The Saint as Roger Moore, star of the long-running and still very popular television show. So identified did Moore become with the character that when he replaced Sean Connery as James Bond, I was probably not the only person who asked, "Why is Simon Templar calling himself 007?" But, of course, The Saint is not George Sanders or Roger Moore or, for that matter, perhaps not even Simon Templar. He is, in fact, a fabulous figure from the imagination of Leslie Charteris, a Chinese-English writer who was born as Leslie Bowyer-Yin in 1907, son of a Chinese doctor and an English mother, a racial combination that caused him much trouble in the United States because of the Oriental Exclusion Act, which denied US immigration and residency to anyone with 50% or more Oriental blood. His name change by deed-poll in 1926 was more to do with the commercial world of writing, but it can't be denied that most people imagined that Leslie Charteris (after a notorious gambler, rogue and con artist of the 18th Century) was every bit as English as Simon Templar. Just as Charteris was not who people thought he was, Simon Templar was also more than he seemed to be...he called himself Simon Templar, but at various times he called himself other "ST" names, such as Sebastian Toombs and Sugarman Treacle. Indeed, why "The Saint"? Perhaps from his initials, perhaps from the haloed stick figure he left at his "crimes," perhaps because he saw himself in a war against the "ungodly." As with many aspects of The Saint, it is a mystery.

In the 1960s, as I was discovering the exploits of The Saint on television, I found The Saint in print, both in book form (at Pickwick Books) and in magazine (at the Third Avenue Newsstand). The magazine was quite entertaining to a young mind, as it not only featured adventures of The Saint, but work of other writers as well. The magazine, however, ceased publication in 1967, after 141 issues. The books in paperback continued, spurred by the popularity of the television series, both in its original run and in syndication when it ended in 1969. The character of The Saint remained quite popular, even if the jaunty style of the books started to become dated, so much so that another television series, The Return of The Saint, debuted in 1978 and ran for two years with the dapper Ian Ogilvy in the lead. I suppose it would be appropriate to say a word here about the 1997 Val Kilmer film called The Saint, so I will: Rubbish! The film was terrible, was horribly acted, contained nothing of The Saint or his world as conceived by his creator, did not have a plot, and the only thing it accomplished was to send potential readers running away from the books, as fast as possible.

Over the years, I've managed to build a fairly complete collection of The Saint in hardcover and paperback, in various editions from different publishers. I've found that they're not difficult to find, especially in this brave new digital age when readers don't have to rely on advertisements in the backs of cheesy magazines or the luck of getting on a bookseller's snail-mail list. However, these days you don't have to settle for foxed and sometimes brittle copies, as The Saint has found new life in print and e-format, proof that not even a film as bad as The Saint can kill off a character as colorful and captivating as The Saint. The new editions are coming from two fronts, one an established British firm, the other a controversial American upstart.

First up, we have Mulholland Books, an imprint of longtime Charteris publisher Hodder & Stoughton. The goal was to bring all The Saint books back into print for a new generation of readers, and as you can see in the graphic to the left, they are handsome editions, with new covers with a touch of art deco retro and incorporating the famous little stick figure that has always been a part of The Saint's adventures. According to the Leslie Charteris site, they are being brought out in both print and e-book editions.

The second publisher of Leslie Charteris' The Saint books is Thomas & Mercer. Haven't heard of that particular company? It's an imprint of Amazon Publishing, and is named for two streets that intersect near the company's headquarters. Since the imprint is yet another head sprouting from the Amazon Hydra, some people don't consider it a legitimate publisher, but it is bringing out new work from established and rising star writers, as well as bringing back into print out-of-print books like The Saint series. And even though we're talking about Amazon, which immediately brings to mind visions of e-books and Kindle, the new editions will be offered in trade print editions as well. All in all, things look pretty good for The Saint, both for those reading about him for the first time and those who want new reading editions to augment their collection of fragile vintage editions, now preserved on shelves or in polybags. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Really Really Ugly

Downtown Chula Vista, as it was

My first professionally published piece of writing was a book review, and this is how it came about: back in the 1960s, the Chula Vista Star-News, a heavily subscribed twice-weekly broadsheet newspaper serving a community of about 30,000 people, posted an announcement that they were looking for a book reviewer. My mother saw the announcement, mailed the editor a copy of a book report I wrote (actually, this bears a striking similarity to how I ended up in the US Army, but that's another story), and it was not long until the report was published and I received an invitation from co-publisher Lowell Blankfort to visit him at his home in bucolic Bonita. My father had to drive me up a winding hill, past the exclusive and isolated houses to Lowell's estate near the summit. There, he officially informed me I had been hired as the Star-News' book reviewer, that I was expected to review 3-5 books weekly, and that he was sure that this experience (i.e., no pay) would greatly expand my abilities as a writer and journalist. Then he threw open his cupboard, which contained review copies of books sent by publishers all over the country, and told me to take all I could carry. That weekly appearance in the newspaper brought me some notoriety at school, sometimes helped me with my English teachers, and taught me about writing on a strict schedule in a limited space. By the time I gave up the job a few years later, I had reviewed more than 600 books.

Fast-forward to now. The Star-News is still published, Chula Vista has a population of 250,000, but the newspaper is free and no longer has a book section. Most community newspapers these days have either vanished or become free publications, supported by a mostly unpaid staff and cheap rates to local advertisers. Book reviews, once seen as a social imperative, have become a luxury they can no longer support because book reviews generate no revenue. This is also true in larger newspapers where once stand-alone book review sections have been either incorporated into "Lifestyles" or done away with entirely. In the cutthroat world of newspaper economics the bean-counters who call the shots point out that books generally appeal to an older and more elite readership, not a group they want to consider in this demographic-driven age. When the San Francisco Chronicle drastically cut its book review section, the move brought a paltry 400 complaints.

At one time, most books carried snippets from newspaper book reviews on the front and/or back covers. If it was a mystery, you could almost be certain it would carry a blurb from the San Diego Union, because that newspaper once had an entire section of mystery and detective book reviews by veteran mystery writer Robert Wade. Now, you're much more likely to find a cover blurb from another writer or a reader with name recognition who was given an advance copy. Now, it's rare that any book not written by a best-selling or "celebrated" writer will get a mention in the atrophied and increasingly irrelevant newspapers of the 21st Century. When people read a book review these days it's usually from one of the numerous book-oriented blogs, some website like Library Thing or Good Reads, or that bastion of literary good taste and erudite opinions...Amazon.

I've seen many people write that they will not buy a book on Amazon till it has at least five reviews. However, it is my experience that before I can use a review on Amazon (or any other other site for that matter) to evaluate a book, I have to evaluate the reviews themselves. Sadly, most of the reviews published are not worth the electrons they are written with. Thus we get...
  • "I don't know why I bought this book, but I wouldn't buy it again. Otherwise it was okay, I guess."
  • "Best book ever! But since I have to write at least twenty words before the review can be posted on"
  • "Hated it, and if you don't like that don't ask me to write a review again."
  • "As I read this book I imagined the author, if you want to call him that, flouncing around the basement of his mother's home in his pyjamas, from time to time coming to his computer like a butterfly to a flower, typing another precious word, taking a sip from his mug of hot coco, then then returning to his prancing as he waits for mommy to tell him his waffles are done."
  • "I liked this book, but I don't know why. I think you'll like it too."
  • "I'm giving this book one star because I couldn't download it in my country."
  • "I bought this book but never got around to reading it."
The demise of newspapers and the rise of the Internet has democratized the book review. While that means giving a soapbox to every screwball, knucklehead or nutter with an ax to grind or a character to assassinate, or who just want to see their names in print, it also means that many intelligent, insightful and well-spoken people now have a venue to express their opinions about the books they love, the books they hate, and the books they love to hate. If you can disregard the bottom-feeding reviewers and the sock-puppets of poor writers (they are obvious), then reading the worthwhile reviews gives you something not possible back in the age of newspapers--a consensus of opinion. Personally, I like that the Internet has freed me from the tight limits of the newspaper column, and I can say a bit more about books that deserve the effort.

In 50 years of publishing in print and on the Internet I've written thousands of book reviews. I don't hold up my own efforts as a template to anyone, but, like everyone else in the world, I tend to measure others by my own yardstick. I try to put into my own book reviews what I would hope to see in the reviews of others:
  • What is the basic theme of the book, or what is the author trying to say?
  • What genre is the book?
  • Without giving spoilers, what is the book about?
  • What's interesting about the setting and/or characters?
  • What insights can you give me about the book or its author?
  • Why did you like (or not like) the book?
  • Is this book part of a series, and how does it measure up?
  • How well written is the book?
  • Was the book a satisfying read?
  • What audience will this book appeal to?
  • Do you recommend it?
Of course, that's just a partial list and not every point is going to be appropriate for every book. Just as you hold a history book to a different set of standards than you would an historical novel, so different books require different approaches when reviewing them. For example, my review of Brian Ritt's excellent Paperback Confidential is very different than reviews I gave to Lawrence Block's Grifter's GameDavid Goodis' Night Squad or Say It With Bullets by Richard Powell, all books written by authors profiled in Brian's indispensable book. However, no matter the book, no matter the genre, no matter the author, when a reader finishes one of my reviews, he will have a pretty good idea what the book was all about, why I liked a book or not, and whether he wants to invest the time, energy and money to read it for himself. And that's nothing less than what I want when I read someone else's review.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Scotland Yard's Newest Manhunter

In the realm of mystery fiction, Scotland Yard (AKA the Metropolitan Police or The Met) is a legendary crime-fighting organization based in London, England, tasked with combating criminality and all sorts of evil in Greater Metropolitan London, often sending their ace detectives to the various English counties when needed or even to foreign lands in the pursuit of justice. In the real world, New Scotland Yard very nearly lives up to its fictional reputation, being one of the most recognized and respected police "brands" of all time, perhaps even eclipsing the vaunted FBI for top spot. Founded in 1829 by an Act of Parliament, it was not long before the actions of its detectives captured the public imagination, first in fiction, then in memoirs written by retired CID (Criminal Investigation Division) detectives. As society changed, so did the portrayal of Scotland Yard manhunters in fiction, from near-superhuman sleuths to foils for private detectives like Holmes and Poirot to doggedly competent and world-weary civil servants in grimly realistic procedurals, like John Creasy's Commander George Gideon and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury. In you're interested in an in-depth book at the transition of the Scotland Yard detective in fiction, I refer you to an essay by crime novelist Andrew Taylor in BBC magazine.

Although I enjoy all forms of the English detective novel, I am always on the lookout for good police procedurals set in London. They are not as easy to find as you might expect, and are actually better represented in the medium of television than in print. PD James' Adam Dalgliesh is the choice of many looking for a more cerebral sort of investigator, known for solving crimes and writing poetry. Richard Jury is favored by those looking for a more approachable sort of detective, melancholy and moody, a modern incarnation of Austen's Mr Darcy, who is, nevertheless, as spectacularly unsuccessful in the romance department as he is successful in solving crimes. My favorite, however, is Commander George Gideon ("Gideon of Scotland Yard"), a down-to-earth copper with a prodigious memory, an ability to handle multiple cases, and a decidedly "hands on" approach to dealing with all sorts of miscreants. He began his career in 1955 and cut a swath through the underworld of London in 26 novels, five of which were written after Creasy's death in 1973. For me, Gideon was most successful in putting aside the dubious mantle of Inspector Lestrade, a detective who could rise to the reputation of the fictional Scotland Yard, near-superhuman feats of crime fighting while remaining a bloke with a badge. Recently, I came across a series of books featuring another ace of Scotland Yard who gave me the same sort of thrill as did Commander Gideon--Detective Chief Inspector Michael Gregory, the creation of writer John Rigbey.

So far, there are four books in the series. The first, The Strange Michael Folmer Affair (2007), sets DCI Gregory against a foe who is commemorating the Jack the Ripper murders by committing new murders on the exact dates and in the same places as Jack did back in 1888. In the sequel, From the Beatles to Blair (2011), a professional hit on a retired "bent" Scotland Yard detective takes DCI Gregory on an intense journey through the gangland of London from the decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s, involving colorful real-life gangsters such as the Kray Brothers and corruption in the corridors of power. In The Luciano Legacy (2012), the torture/murder of a mysterious old woman in the heart of London, followed quickly by the similar murder of a disbarred solicitor nicknamed "the Gabardine Swine," involves DCI Gregory in a mystery that began in America shortly after the end of World War II and the deportation of notorious real-life mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. In Mr Rigbey's latest book, Professional Standards (2014), the DCI tackles robbers, corruption, Masons, and malefactors in Scotland Yard itself.

In many ways, DCI Michael Gregory is a return to the almost infallible manhunters of Scotland Yard's earliest accounts. He thirsts for justice, pursues his cases with the legendary tenacity of the British Bulldog, and does not let anything deter him from his role as an avenging angel for law and order, no matter the cost to his personal or professional life. No matter who or what gets in his way, he will see his criminal in the dock of the Old Bailey. It is his indefatigable sense of justice which endears him most to the reader who is looking for a champion who does not give up or give in, but it is this trait of his character which causes the most turmoil in his life. Over the course of the four books, his marriage goes from rocky to destroyed, as his wife decides she can no longer abide "The Job" that has come to define Gregory as a person. Likewise, his single-minded pursuit of crime and empathy for victims, as well as his complete disregard for workplace politics, has earned him many enemies among those who see crime fighting and public safety subordinate to their roles as social and political activists, primary among these being Inspector Marsh of Professional Standards Department, Scotland Yard's equivalent of Internal Affairs; fortunately for Gregory, his abilities as a detective and his unequaled record of successes has earned him friends in high places, but even the staunchest friends can become fair-weather in nature if the wind changes.

One of things that impressed me about all the books was the sense of verisimilitude, the feeling that I was encountering real Scotland Yard detectives. This is perhaps explained by the fact that John Rigbey was himself a detective in Scotland yard's CID until his retirement in 1972. In that role, he became an expert in London's gangland by direct experience, which explains the sense of authority you get when reading the second book. His acquired knowledge in organized crime and the Mafia of the 30s and 40s is very much in evidence in the third book. After a career in Scotland Yard, Rigbey stayed in the realm of criminal justice when he founded the West of England Detective Agency (later The John Rigbey Consultancy) in 1989. I think it is this mix of public and private detection experience that allows Rigbey to write authoritatively and with empathy about life on both sides of the fence.

Although there are only four novels in the series, so far, I am hopeful more will be forthcoming. As a fan of the British police procedural, I find DCI Michael Gregory a breath of fresh air. If you're interested, you can follow John Rigbey on Twitter and on Facebook. And I also encourage a visit to his website. Happy reading, and good hunting.

Update: 12 Feb 2015

I'm happy to update this particular blog entry because it means Scotland Yard's Michael Gregory is back on a case. Actually, he's on two (or three) cases, the deaths of former Detective Sergeant Sid Barton and former Detective Inspector Charlie "Artful" Barrett, killed separately and mysteriously on the same day, and yet as inextricably tied to each other as they are to the execution of a child murderer fifty years earlier. The book is Who Killed Charlie Artful and was published a few weeks ago, as I write this.

As impressed as I was by the first four books in the series, I was even more affected by this book, by the advances made by author John Rigbey in terms of plotting, characterization, dialogue, and storytelling. I was not, however, surprised by his maturation as an author, for between his last Gregory book and the present volume, he published a non-series book entitled A Week on the Island, an exercise in storytelling, character, locale and pathos, a very engaging tale of a man who, while trying to solve a mystery from his past solves the mystery of who his father was and who he himself is. If you have not already read it, I recommend it highly.

But back to the mystery at hand. One of the first things we discover in Rigbey's new novel is that Detective Chief Inspector Gregory is now Detective Superintendent Gregory. He has apparently triumphed over all the activist and bureaucratic forces within Scotland Yard that were not only trying to tear him down, but toss him out. That, of course, does not mean he is any less blunt and straightforward that he was, nor does it mean that the bureaucracy of the Metropolitan Police is any less fraught with danger than it has always been. If anything, DS Gregory is a much bigger target, a much larger giant to topple, but, as with the biggest trees in the forest they are much more dangerous to cut down. Also, Gregory is three weeks married, this time, hopefully, to a much better woman. As in the previous books, Gregory's investigative and deductive skills are brought to the fore, handling a case which would have baffled a lesser copper. In addition to the two subtle murders in the present, he must also contend with investigating (and validating) the execution of a man who murdered two children more than fifty years earlier. In doing so, Gregory finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of controversy, holding off officialdom who wants it all to go away, a venomous press corps more concerned with a criminal fifty years dead than two murdered men in the hear and now, and a company of shady solicitors who will not hesitate to pervert the course of justice to keep their secrets hidden. All make for a great story that fans of the genre should not miss.

Here are links to my reviews of all the books on GoodReads:

Update: 4 July 2015

I admit I am a bit late in updating this entry about John Rigbey's writing, but I had given thought to starting a new blog entry about his latest book (since it is not in the same series), then got distracted by other projects. In the end, I decided to keep all his books together, as Rigbey is a wonderfully talented writer and a taste of one book will lead you to want to read them all.

With A Week on the Island, Rigbey ventures into the field of literature while still providing a legal-based mystery steeped in history and full of local color. The island of the title is the Isle of Wight, which during the course of the story almost becomes a character in itself. Years ago, during the Second World War, Jerry Ramsey was a lad on the island, his father a solicitor. The Isle of Wight was his home till his class-conscious mother sent him away to boarding school. Years later, he is a retired school teacher, living a solitary but satisfactory life in a village near England's New Forest. His seemingly idyllic life is upset when he receives a letter from the law firm on Wight at which his father worked till his retirement in the late Forties. The advent of a legacy from a man he never heard of might not have been enough to pull Ramsey back to the Isle of Wight, back to the world of a father he never understood, but then he starts to wonder if his present life is as satisfying and fulfilling as he has convinced himself. In the end, he decides that a week on the island might be a pleasant diversion from what is actually a rather boring and uneventful life. His stated goal is to solve the mystery of the unexpected legacy, but since it came to him, as it turns out, because he is his father's son, he might have no choice but to find out more about the emotionally distant father who was always an enigma to him, a man whom he never drew close to. He has convinced himself he is there only for the legacy, but he realizes in the back of his mind that it will also be a long delayed homecoming. As with any homecoming, there is the familiar and the strange, not to mention the strangely familiar. Though the book is tightly plotted, the real attraction for the discerning reader is the deep characterization, the rediscovery of forgotten (or denied) relationships, and the pleasure of vicariously spending a week on an island that you will want to visit before ever you close the book.

Here is a link to my review on GoodReads, from which you can also go to Amazon and other retailers:  A Week on the Island

Subscribe to our mailing list and join the Best Readers in the World

* indicates required

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Journey Into the Realm of Steam...and Goggles...and Stuff

Gaslight Gathering 4 Poster
Last weekend (May 2-4, 2014) I attended Gaslight Gathering 4, a steampunk convention. I was invited to give a 2-hour presentation on the continuing adventures of Sherlock Holmes and how he fitted into the steampunk universe on Friday, to participate in a panel on the genre of steampunk literature on Saturday, and to autograph copies of my books for an hour in the Vendor Hall. Wait, oh, you have a question, do you? Okay, well, what is it? Quickly now, out with it. After all, we have a blog to get into, so if you have any questions let's get them out of the way. Speak up, I can barely hear you. All right, that's better. What is what? What is steampunk? What do you mean, 'What is steampunk?'" Oh, very well, but you had better take notes since there will be a quiz later.

A simple answer is that steampunk is a form of science fiction based on alternate history (think Star Trek's Mirror Universe or Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle), heavily influenced by the literature on the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the technology of those periods. The real answer is a bit more elusive in that it depends on what aspect of steampunk you're talking about. As Diana Vick, longtime veteran of the Seattle steampunk scene, explained, there are three basic aspects of steampunk: 1) Literature 2) Sub-culture and 3) Aesthetic. The literature aspect is pretty much as I explained it above, and includes films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Wild Wild West, and  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The sub-culture is a bit harder to explain, but includes costuming, music, art, imagineering, crafting, role playing, gaming and tea dueling. For many people costuming is both their gateway into the sub-culture and the avenue of their expression. Here are a few photos taken by Ed Cavanaugh during the convention...

As you can see, the Victorian Era echoes through all these creations, and yet there is something more. For, as Diana pointed out, if everyone were just going to wear Victorian clothing, it would be nothing more than a historical reenactment group and we would all just sit down to a nice cuppa. But if you have additions like goggles and weapons, as well as accouterments from other cultures such as Japan and China, Native American tribes and France, the Wild West and Germany, not to mention vampires, zombies, super heroes and ghosts, as well as incursions from other literary genres, such as mystery, spy thriller, pulp fiction and romance, you have something more than just an afternoon stroll through Victorian London. As to the "aesthetics" of steampunk, that's more a matter of form than function, a sense of style and design. Cars, coffee makers, jewelry, washing machines, slide projectors, and houses can all be designed with a steampunk aesthetic, and really have nothing (or not much) to do with the literature or sub-culture of steampunk. And, actually, steampunk literature need not have anymore to do with steampunk sub-culture than a modern day Goth would with a Gothic novel. For more insights on the sub-culture of steampunk, please see Diana Vick's essay on the Seven Fallacies of Steampunk.

Much of how those involved with steampunk see it depends on the gateway through which they entered. I came first through literature, then by film and finally music. Long before the term steampunk was coined, I read everything written by Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, three authors who constantly inspire modern steampunk authors. Additionally there were Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger fit solidly into, respectively, the Victorian and Edwardian eras) and American writer HP Lovecraft, who wrote with a Victorian sensibility even though his stories were often set in the 1920s. And then there is Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote one of the very first works claimed by the steampunk community, "The Balloon Hoax," published in 1844. Books that also pulled me in were Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air (1971), Phil Farmer's The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973) and Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates (1983). I was attracted to those books, not because they were steampunk (there was no such term at that point) but because they dealt with alternate history themes, the idea there were worlds where history had followed different paths, a genre that has always fascinated me. Like merging roads, my interests in alternate worlds, Sherlock Holmes, Barsoom and the technological terrors of HG Wells came together in the world of steampunk.

Like many other people, I was a fan of The Wild Wild West, the CBS television show that ran 1965 - 1969, with made-for-television films in 1979 and 1980. In a sense, that show was steampunk before steampunk was steampunk. Creator Michael Garrison pitched it as "James Bond on horseback," which could easily be a description of a modern spy-themed steampunk novel, though these days the horse might be steam-powered. The steampunk sensibilities of the series were fully developed in the 1999 film version, where we have a steam-powered bicycle, a steam-powered tank, and a giant steam-powered spider striding across the landscape. Before that, though, there was 1958's The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, and 1961's Master of the World. Also on television, we had Q.E.D. (1982), the much-missed Adventures of Brisco County Jr (1993), and the even-more-missed Legend (1995) where Richard Dean Anderson played a writer of Victorian western adventures and John de Lancie an avatar of inventor Nikola Tesla.

All those books and films softened me up, so to speak, for the sub-culture of steampunk. Actually, I was quite surprised by the existence of the sub-culture. It never really occurred to me that people might dress up and live out the lives depicted in my reading material. I probably should not have been surprised, for I had known a long time about science fiction and fantasy conventions where costumes were worn, not to mention Comic-Con, where costuming was even more important. But surprised I was, and enchanted. And then I discovered steampunk-influenced music, first through the works of my friend Paul Roland, then by others like Professor Elemental, Abney Park, Steam-Powered Giraffe and Vernian Process. As you know, I've also written a steampunk novel and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories with steampunk overtones, and am working on another of each, so it does not look as if I will escape the clutches of steampunk anytime soon. I don't know if I'll be invited to Gaslight Gathering 5 in the fall of 2015, and I don't know if I'll attend other steampunk conventions (I'm not the lone wolf type) before then, but I do know that I had a lot of fun, enjoyed meeting like-minded people, was astounded by the costumes and gadgets, and loved autographing books and participating in panels. I end with just a few of the many photos I took at the convention.

An elegant mode of travel

Boston Metaphysical Society

The Brass Wardrobe

Where are that steam-dog's goggles?

Handsome couple with handsome fezzes
celebrating Fez Friday

An airship captain, but his parrot
seems to have...tentacles?

Adam Green: "Put up your dukes, mate!"

Parasol decorating

Steam-powered skateboard

Weapons from 1873 Expedition to Mars

Rapper Poplock Holmes

Tea dueling gents

Tea dueling at its unruffled best...

Tea dueling intimidation

I don't know what it does, but it looks cool.

Old Bill

Poplock Holmes on a Pennyfarthing

Time Machine

Professor Elemental