Friday, August 28, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XIV

This quatrain is fairly straightforward, and Edward FitzGerald seems to be quite satisfied with it since I can find only minimal changes over the five versions.

First Edition
Quatrain XIV

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes--or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two--is gone.

Second Edition
Quatrain XVII

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes--or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two--was gone.

Fifth Edition
Quatrain XVI

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes--or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the desert's dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two--is gone.

The most significant change that I can find, and it's not really that significant, is the change from "is" in the last line in the first edition to "was" in the second edition and then back again to "is" in the fifth edition, thereby going from present tense to past tense to present tense in the final edition. I have, again, no evidence to explain the change, but I could guess that perhaps he felt that it was more consistent if all the verbs in the quatrain were in the present tense.

On the other hand, the fifth edition was published posthumously, so if he had lived another decade or two, we might have had a sixth or perhaps even a seventh edition, for FitzGerald's Rubaiyat has always struck me as being a work in progress.

The theme seems fairly straightforward: regardless of whether people's hopes fail or come true, the results are ultimately the same. One leaves ashes, brief and unsubstantial, while the other, like snow in the desert, lasts only a hour or two, also equally brief and unsubstantial.

This, I think, echoes both the Buddhist and the Taoist teachers who tell us that success and failure are the same and should be viewed in the same light--both are ephemeral and both can quickly become the other. Sophocles suggests something similar at the end of Oedipus Rex when the chorus tells us "let no man be counted blessed in his life/ until he is in the grave."

One last echo is Francois Villon (1431-1489) in his poem, "The Ballad of Dead Ladies," (probably sounds more elegant in French), in which he lists a number of fair and great ladies of the past and ends with a quatrain of his own:

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,--
But where are the snows of yesteryear?"

The brevity of our time here and our dreams has been noted in earlier quatrains and is a persistent theme throughout.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another thought on authorial musings on detectives

This is, of course, the last paragraphs of Chandler's essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." I had hoped that getting stuff down here about detectives and detecting in the last post would free me of them. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet. A thought struck me so strongly that I had to return and deal with Chandler's essay one more time.

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I'm quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks--that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."


Chandler is fairly specific about the detective who walks down the mean streets of LA. or Chicago or New York or Boston or Philadelphia: he is an honorable man, a proud man, a poor man, a common man, a decent man, an honest man who speaks the truth.

Actually this man sounded more familiar the more I thought about it. I believe I've encountered him somewhere else. Along with those paved urban streets, could he also have walked down the dusty unpaved streets of a small town out west?

Gary Cooper's Marshall Will Kane in High Noon for example.

Alan Ladd as Shane?

Richard Boone as Paladin in Have Gun--Will Travel.

or John Wayne

or Jimmy Stewart

or Clint Eastwood

or James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon in that quintessential TV Western--Gunsmoke.

What do you think? Is Chandler's description limited to the detective or is he somehow a basic element of American mythology--the loner who comes in when legitimate authority is unable to handle the situation, deals with it in his own simple, straightforward way, and then rides off and is never seen again, until he is needed to set things straight once more.

Any comments?

Some Authors' Musings on Detectives and Detecting

This post is Raymond Chandler's fault. It's not really a coherent commentary, but closer to an exorcism I would guess. I was reading an essay by Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," which I found interesting, even if I didn't agree 100% with him. But, it was the ending that started me off and eventually was responsible for this collection of quotes taken from a few mystery writers, one or two who may be considered Classic while others are too new to have reached that exalted level.

Chandler's essay started me thinking, especially about his thoughts on the detective and detecting. I noticed that some other writers had done the same, and I now began paying more attention to these little asides that now stood up and waved at me. Now that I have become aware of them, something must be done about them. So...

So, the ending of Chandler's essay:

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I'm quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks--that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

Are Chandler's detectives like this--Philip Marlowe, for example. Does Chandler come close, or do you think he meant the above more as an ideal to strive for, rather than something that could be achieved?


After reading the above, another example immediately surfaced --Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and his attempt to explain to Brigid O'Shaughnessy just why he was going to turn her in:

"Listen. this isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around--bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing. The only way I could have let you go was by letting Gutman and Cairo and the kid go. That's--"

I wonder what Chandler would have thought of Sam Spade. Does Spade fit Chandler's description of what a detective, or at least his detective, must be like? Is Spade a lonely man, a proud man, an honorable man? What would Chandler have thought of Spade's affair with his partner's wife?


Hakan Nesser is one of the writers too young to be considered a classic, but he's won a number of awards for his detective novels in his native Sweden. This quote isn't so much about detectives but about the art of detecting. The novel's title is Borkmann's Point, and I misunderstood it to be a geographical location. It isn't. Borkmann was Chief Inspector Van Veteren's mentor when he first joined the Swedish police force. Borkmann's rule refers to a specific point in an investigation:

"In every investigation, [Borkmann] maintained, there comes a point beyond which we don't really need any more information. When we reach that point, we already know enough to solve the case by means of nothing more that some decent thinking. A good investigator should try to establish when that point has been reached, or rather, when it has been passed; in his memoirs, Borkmann went so far as to claim that it was precisely this ability, or the lack of it, which distinguishes a good detective from a bad one.

A bad one carries on unnecessarily."

Any thoughts? It's a rather large claim being made here. I know there have been times in the past when I was doing research for a paper, and at some point, I had to simply stop the search for more information and start to write. It was at that point that I felt I was losing track of my initial idea and was being buried under mountains of data. More often than not, I found I had too much data, and seldom did I have to do more research because I lacked information.


Thomas H. Cook's detective in Sacrificial Ground provides us with a different view of the detective--the angst-filled cry of a lonely man, tormented by what he has seen and now struggling to justify himself to himself. He is neither Philip Marlowe nor Sam Spade.

"He returned to the living room and once again sat down on the sofa. He felt the need to view his life as some kind of whole, as if it could be captured in a single tone or color. But nothing held firm. Nothing but his work, his pursuit--however blind and full of error--of something which could be called justice, or at least, retribution. People had to pay for what they died, and he was one of the ones who made them pay. It was the badge which gave him the right to do that, and he suddenly found ;that he wanted to cling to it with all his remaining strength. Nothing could bring back Sarah, or Angelica or Ollie Quinn, or any of the scores of others whose bodies lay torn and broken in his memory, but whose spirits still moved sleeplessly through him They were more real to him than all the living who crowded the streets and buses. They lived more fully in his mind, and their flesh was warmer and more tangible. It bled and bled, as if the one great heart of all the unjustly dead still beat on through the ages, their cries still ringing out through time, heard like a low moan in the ground or like a scream echoing above it."

He strikes me as being a very different sort of person. Is he too much involved with the victims to be able to step back and think rationally about the crime? Should his feelings help him or hinder him in bringing the killer to justice?


Here's another take on detectives and detecting--this time by W. J. Burley, author of a series of mysteries featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, a representative of one of my favorite type of mysteries--the British police procedural. Wycliffe is on recuperative leave in a small seacoast town, in which a murder has taken place. He manages to stay clear of it for some time, but as in all novels with this premise, it isn't long before he gets involved. His reaction to his involvement, even though he's on medical leave?

"[Wycliffe] went to his room and replaced the photograph and the report in Gill's file. He would never have admitted it but for the first time since the start of his enforced holiday he was beginning to enjoy himself. He was indulging in the most delectable kind of pleasure which is both anticipatory and lightly spiced with guilt. Yesterday he had felt tantalisingly excluded from the community of the village, a spectator on the outside; now with this drab-looking file he was licensed to become a privileged interloper . Now, if he wanted to, he could probe into their lives; winkle out their secrets.

Often, at the start of a case, he would savour the prospect as one might turn the pages of a new autobiography or take a peep into a bundle of someone else's letters. The chance to live vicariously in other people's skins; for him, one of the attractions of the job. He knew it to be unworthy and salved his conscience with the reflection that he was rarely censorious, never malicious though always insatiably curious."

Burley's Wycliffe is a different sort of detective, one who in some ways resembles what others always assume police officers and PI's are--the snoop who gets a thrill out of looking through other's dirty laundry. I wonder what Chandler and Hammett and Nesser and Cook would think of him. Which detective of the four authors I just mentioned would most understand Wycliffe? Or would any?


One last one--this comes from John Maddox Roberts' series of Roman mysteries featuring Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus and is set approximately 50 b. c., give or take a few years. Caesar has not yet finally demonstrated that the days of the Republic of Rome are over.
At one point in the novel, SPQR III: The Sacrilege, Decius meditates on the art of detecting:

"There are stages in the investigation of a crime, conspiracy or other mystery that involves many people acting from many motives. At first, all is confusion. Then as you gather evidence, things get even more complicated and confusing, But eventually there comes a point when each new fact unearthed fits into place with a satisfying click and things become simpler instead of more complex. Things begin to make sense. I now felt that things had reached that state. It seemed to me that my guardian genius, my ferret-muse, hovered near and was aiding me to untie this knot of murder and intrigue.

Or perhaps it was just the wine."

In wine, there is truth, so perhaps it was just the wine.


Of course, these are only a few of the ways that writers have written about detectives and the art of detecting. But, these are the ones that have stayed with me for some time now. In spite of the variety of methods and attitudes of the detectives, some of which seem almost contradictory, they most always get their man or woman in the end. That must mean something, but I'm not sure what.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920--

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the great writers of our time--Ray Bradbury. He has done it all, and, fortunately for us, he keeps doing it: novels, short stories, SF, fantasy, mysteries, screenplays.

Some Novels

The Martian Chronicles
The Illustrated Man
Death is a Lonely Business
Fahrenheit 451

Some Short Stories

"The Fog Horn"
"There Will Come Soft Rains"
"The Veldt"
"The Playground"
"The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit"
"All Summer in a Day"
"The Pedestrian"

What makes his writings special is not just the plot or the characters or his point-of-view; it is his language, the way he makes tracks on paper. Below is a quote from his short story "The Fog Horn" which later became a film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The film is a typical creature feature, a large scaly thing that destroys cities and squashes humans before it too is destroyed. The film captured nothing of the story.

"The Fog Horn" has a simple plot: every year something comes up out of the ocean depths in response to the Fog Horn. Just what it responds to is not certain; perhaps it mistakes the sound of the fog horn for the call of its mate, or perhaps it is simply responding to the loneliness in the call.

In the story, the lighthouse keeper tells the young apprentice his theory about fog horns:

"One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, 'We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I'll make one. I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like a empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.' "

Go, read "The Fog Horn" and maybe a few others by Ray Bradbury. Take your time, read slowly. It's the best way to read him. It's time well spent.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XIII

As usual, I'm using the first edition as the base and then turning to the 2nd and 5th editions to see what changes FitzGerald made.

First Edition:
Quatrain XIII

Look to the Rose that blows about us--"Lo,
Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

Second Edition:
Quatrain XV

Look to the blowing Rose about us--"Lo,
Laughing," she says, "into the world I blow:
At once the silken tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

Fifth Edition:
Quatrain XIV

Look to the blowing Rose about us--"Lo,
Laughing, " she says, "into the world I blow,
At once the silken tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

I think there's a sense of the brevity of life here. The Rose comes into the world and "at once" her "Treasure," pollen I assume, is spread about the garden.

FitzGerald changed this quatrain less than any other so far. I can see only one minor word change and several punctuation changes, along with reducing the number of nouns that are capitalized, something which has been consistent so far.

In the first edition, he writes "Look to the Rose that blows about us..." This, in the second and fifth editions, becomes "Look to the blowing Rose about us..." I think the revision flows more smoothly. There's almost a break, a caesura, in the first edition between "Rose" and "that," while the line flows uninterruptedly with "Look to the blowing Rose about us." Perhaps he opted for the more continuous flow.

This stanza gave me, and to some extent, still gives me some problems. The first has been resolved, but the second still raises a question each time I read it.

The first problem was the word "blow" and "blowing" in the first and second lines of the three versions.

"Look to the blowing Rose about us--"Lo,
Laughing," she says, "into the world I blow:"

I was reading the word as related to the wind in some way--"the Rose that blows about us" and also describing apparently the way the Rose came into the world, blowing like the wind. Somehow it just didn't fit. I checked the dictionary and found my problem. An old, almost archaic meaning of "to blow" is "to bloom." So, substituting bloom and blooming into the first stanza, it would read

Look to the blooming Rose about us--"Lo,
Laughing," she says, "into the world I bloom:"

I think this makes better sense than seeing "blow" and "blowing" as related to the behavior of the wind.

The second, and so far unresolved problem, relates to the word "tear" in the last line of the quatrain. The problem is not that it doesn't make sense in the context, but that there is a sense of violence here that doesn't go with either the earlier reference to "Laughing" or to anything else in The Rubaiyat.

"At once the silken tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

Right now, I can't think of any reference to violence in the poem. Death is brought up a number of times, but I never got the sense of violence in any of the quatrains. It stands out. I checked the dictionary for variant or archaic meanings for tear and could find nothing but a suggestion of "haste," as in "tear along a country road."

When I read this stanza, another poem comes to mind, which again seems to convey the sense of violence in a sexual context that seems inappropriate. The poem is Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and the reference is to the last lines of the poem. The narrator is urging his love to remember that they will not always be young and should make haste for " my back I always hear/ Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near" and "The grave's a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace."

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

In this poem, I guess an argument could be made that "tear" is being used in the sense of "making haste." And the "Rose," well, a rose lives only one season, so it has to hurry and spread its pollen quickly before summer is over.

So, I'm leaning toward a sense of "haste" in both poems, tentatively anyway.

Any comments?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Combination Plate 7

Tom Robb Smith
Child 44, a novel
Mystery: police procedural
Setting: Soviet Union, under Stalin

I guess the novel is best described, as far as a type of mystery anyway, as a police procedural, since Leo Demidov, an officer with the MGB, the State Security Agency, is the investigator. He has two problems. The first is to identify and apprehend the individual who has been killing children over a period of at least a decade or two. The second is to get the MGB to admit to the presence of a serial killer. The problem is that the ideology of Stalin's regime defines the society as the perfect society in which serial killers can not exist. Only the societies of the decadent West could produce such monstrosities. To insist that a serial killer could develop under the present system, communism, is to cast doubt on the entire system--a criticism of the system and, worse, a criticism of Stalin himself. This is treason, and there can be only one penalty for treason--swift and sure execution.

At the beginning, Leo Demidov is a true believer: anything and everything can be done to bring into existence the future Edenic state promised by Marxist-Leninist ideology, including the need to install terror into society. He has performed acts that he would rather not have done, but it was in the name of the future good of society. His disillusionment begins with the loss of his idealistic and unrealistic views of society and his relationship with his wife.

The major problem that I found, and no doubt many others will argue this is actually a strength and not a weakness, concerns the emphasis of various topics or themes in the work. Smith's main emphasis is on getting across to the reader what it was like to live in Russia under Stalin. Second in importance is what it is like to be an MGB officer. Least important, or so it seems to me anyway, is the mystery itself .
Perhaps Smith should have written a novel about life under Stalin and forgotten about the mystery element.

I borrowed this book for a discussion group from the local library, and it seems as though someone at the library agrees with me since the novel is listed as fiction, and not as a mystery.

However, I must also say that this is a remarkable first novel. Smith is able to convey the claustrophobic oppression that all suffered under Stalin, including the MGB officers themselves. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?-- or "Who will watch the watchers?" The answer is --other watchers, who are also being watched.

I have heard a second book in the series is out or almost out, and I plan on taking a look at it. Perhaps he will devote more time to actual police procedures in this one. If so, it should be a very interesting read.


Jo Nesbo
Redbreast, a novel
Mystery : police procedural
Setting: present day Norway

Harry Hole is a detective with the Oslo Police Department, much to their dismay at times. Some of his colleagues and superiors regard him at best as a loose cannon. Nesbo has now written seven novels detailing the exploits of Harry Hole. From what I can gather, Redbreast is the fourth novel in the series, but the first to be translated into English. The fifth book in the series, Nemesis, has just recently been translated.

In Redbreast, Harry Hole's case has its roots in the past, WWII to be precise. The case involves in some way those Norwegians who fought with the Germans against the Russians; some no doubt saw Russia as a greater threat to Norway than the Germans, while others had absorbed the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as Aryans.

My major problem with the novel is that I'm not certain if the novel is primarily about Norwegians who fought on the Russian Front with the German army or about the solution to several crimes that take place today in Norway, at least an half century later. The problem is actually similar to the one I discussed in the comments about Smith's book. The novel spent too much time in the past on the front lines and in a recuperation hospital
and too little time ihn the present solving the crimes. I realize that the novel's argument is that the roots of the present day crimes lie back in the past, but even Freud recognized that the issues have to be resolved in the present as it is impossible to go back and resolve them when they happened.

Again, like Tom Rob Smith, I find Nesbo to be an excellent writer and one that I will look into again, hoping he spends more time in the present in his other works. I have heard that the next book to be translated, Nemesis, is much more tightly written and has fewer excursions into the past. That sounds promising.

In both novels, Child 44 and Redbreast, we see talented writers with considerable skills creating police procedurals with interesting characters, on both sides of the law. I'd like to see more emphasis on them and less on the past.


Northanger Abby: the film version, 2007
Director: Jon Jones
Screenplay: Andrew Davies
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland

Perhaps I should begin by saying that dramatization lasted around 90 minutes. A director can't do much more than present the skeleton of the plot in only an hour and a half. At the end, I thought about renaming the film to Northanger Abbey Lite. The basic structure is there: she travels to Bath, meets some people, is invited to stay with some of them (the Tilneys of Northanger Abbey), has some adventures there, mostly embarrassing for her, and gets sent home, rudely and inconsiderately. But, all is not lost...and they live "happily ever after," although if one reads Austen's last paragraph closely, one might have some doubts.

I have read Northanger Abbey several times and have felt it is an incomplete novel (see post Combination Plate 6 on July 4). Actually, it seems to me to be two separate novellas: the first being a comedy of manners in Bath, while the second is a satire on Gothic novels and those who spend too much time reading them. (I wonder what Madame Bovary would have been like if she had read too many Gothics instead of too many romances, or Don Quixote, if he had read too many Gothics instead of fantastic tales of knight errantry.)

Some one must have felt the same way for, during the first half of the novel, we see interspersed with the scenes in Bath some of her imaginative flights of fancy, all obviously influenced by thse Gothic novels. These do not appear in the novel. Somebody, Davies the screenwriter or perhaps Jones the director, felt that something needed to be done to prepare the viewer for the satiric Gothic elements in the last half of the film. And whoever made the decision got it right.

The casting wasn't bad, except for the choice of William Beck for John Thorpe. In the novel, John Thorpe is a mostly harmless, self-centered, pompous fool, one who "rattles about" according to his best friend, James Morland, Catherine's brother. Instead Beck comes across as a nasty-looking villain, one belonging more rightly in a Gothic tale than in a comedy of manners.

What is missing? Well, the skeleton is there, but most of the flesh is gone.

Overall: a pleasant 90 minutes or so.


Chronicles of Riddick, a film
sequel to Pitch Black

Chronicles of Riddick
takes place some five years after the events depicted in Pitch Black (see post Combination Plate 6, on July 4). Again Riddick is being hounded by mercs ( bounty hunters). He is surprised to find that there is now an excessively high price on his head, but he must be brought back alive. He is also surprised to discover who put the high price on him.

Civilization is being threatened by a horde of religious fanatics whose tactics are simple: convert or die. While their death rates are exceedingly high, they always find plenty of replacements after conquering the planet. Riddick's task is to stop them. I hope there's a third, because the ending really seems to be a new beginning.

As usual, the special effects are great. Vin Diesel is the star of the show, playing a role that seems designed with him in mind. He has plenty of opportunities to glower at his enemies, and few can manage to glower as well as he can. However, Riddick does seem to mellow a bit in this film. A third film should tell us whether this was only a momentary loss of focus or whether he is in the process of becoming a soft-hearted, sentimental marshmellow. Riddick a marshmellow? Can't happen. Well, let's wait for the third, if there is one.

I'm not counting the animated version which is also out. I will see it some time in the future.

Overall rating: lots of high tech stuff and interesting settings. Good clean fun.


Pat Murphy
The Falling Woman, an SF/F novel

In the cover blurb, Samuel R. Delany, critic and author, describes this novel as "A lovely and literate exploration of the dark moment when myth and science meet..." Generally blurbs found on the covers, front and back, usually provide strong support for the theory that there really are many universes in existence and that blurb writers seldom live in the same one the book exists in. This is an exception.

The science is archeology and the myth is Mayan. Elizabeth Butler is leading an archeological expedition working on a Mayan site on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. She has been separated for decades from her husband who has just recently died. Diane, her daughter, whom she hasn't seen in many years, has come to spend some time with her at the dig. She's not sure why she came--perhaps to reestablish some sort of relationship with her mother, now that her father has died.

The story is told by both Elizabeth and Diane in alternating chapters. Interspersed are several unnumbered sections of three to four pages each which are supposed to be notes from a book Elizabeth is writing. Actually it's a clever way of getting some information about the Mayans and archeology across to the reader without seriously disrupting the narrative flow. Those who wish to read the sections can do so; those who aren't interested can skip the sections and continue on with the narrative.

Elizabeth has a reputation for being a lucky expedition leader. Her digs frequently come up with discoveries that shouldn't have been found because there was no evidence to suggest anything of importance being buried there. And this dig is no different. She told them to dig where no one could see anything that even suggested something was underground there.

Actually Elizabeth cheats. She sees things that other people don't see; she sees people that others can't see. It's as if she can see into the past and get glimpses of the people who lived at this site. At times she can see the place as it was centuries ago, if not thousands of years ago. But, something is different at this site: she not only can see them, but at least one of them, a Mayan priestess, can see her. And, they can communicate to some extent.

A series of accidents occur, injuring one young worker. The local inhabitants insist that the place is haunted and demand a curandera be called in. The curandera performs the necessary ceremonies. But, before she leaves, she warns Elizabeth that both she and Diane must leave. If not, at least Diane must be sent away or there will be a tragedy.

It's a quiet novel--that's the best way I can describe it. There are no monsters here, but there is a slowly growing sense of danger which affects everybody on the dig to some extent. All will be glad when this one is over.

Overall Rating: good novel, meant to be read in a quiet place and in long segments.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

THE NIGHT LAND: A Fantasy by William Hope Hodgson

Millions of years in Earth's future, Night has finally defeated Day, and in the darkness are monsters--physical, psychological, and spiritual--waiting for the day they can destroy The Last Redoubt, the last haven for humanity.

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was only 40 when he was killed in an artillery barrage at Ypres during WWI. Yet, he has an extensive bibliography that includes five novels and somewhere between 90 and 100 short stories. Most of his tales occupy the literary domain of the supernatural, of horror, of bizarre events and creatures, and of some that can be either SF or Fantasy or both. I find it difficult to classify The Night Land except to say it combines features of SF, Fantasy, and horror.

I see the novel as comprising three parts, even though the novel consists of seventeen chapters and is not divided beyond that.

Part One: The Beginning
The first part consists of Chapter I. It takes place in a contemporary setting, apparently the late 19th or early 20th century. The Night Land was first published in 1912. Chapter 1 tells the story of two people: the beautiful Lady Mirdath and her nameless lover, who is also the narrator throughout the novel. We learn of their meeting, courtship, marriage, and her early death in childbirth.

Part Two: The Quest for the Fair One
Her death does not end the tale. Chapter II begins some millions of years in the future, when there is only darkness over the land and the remaining humans, many millions of them apparently, have retreated to the Last Redoubt, a huge pyramidal structure that spreads over miles and soars many miles upward, so much so that those wishing to live at the top must become acclimated to the reduced oxygen in the air.

Humans have retreated into this great fortress to protect themselves from the monsters, both physical and immaterial, that now roam the land. The humans have devised a protective shield that is powered in some fashion by energy drawn from the earth itself. The energy source is not limitless, so all know that some time in the future the defensive shield will go down and humanity will then cease to exist.

In Chapter II, the narrator tells us that he has strange dreams in which he becomes a young man who lives in this night land, millions of years in the future. These remains dreams until at one point, he actually moves into his dream and becomes the young man in his dream. As such, he has both sets of memories, of the one who loved Lady Mirdath, and of the young man who has lived all of his life in the Last Redoubt. He doesn't understand this; he simply accepts it.

There are stories of a second Refuge, somewhere out there, but nothing has been heard from them in centuries, until a faint telepathic message is received from them. They are doomed, for their source of energy is almost exhausted and soon the energy shield will go down. The nameless narrator discovers that one of the inhabitants is Naani, a young woman. He immediately recognizes her as Mirdath, and she believes she also knows him, but not how and very vaguely, as if in a fading dream. In their brief conversations, it becomes clear that she has at least partial memories of Mirdath. Their souls had once again been reunited, some millions of years in the future.

He of course can not leave her to this fate, not after having come millions of years into the future, only to be separated by death once again. The following chapters tell of his journey to the second Refuge, the monsters he encounters and mostly avoids through stealth and cunning. In Chapter IX, he reaches the Refuge, only to discover that it is too late. Their shield has failed, and the horrors outside have attacked. The Refuge was no longer a refuge but a death trap. Thus ends what I call Part Two.

Part Three: The Journey Back

The third part begins with Chapter X and the discovery that Naani and some others had escaped from the Refuge. As they are able to communicate with a rudimentary form of telepathy, he is able to find her. Typically, the story would, at this point, progress rapidly to the safety of his home, The Last Redoubt. Another option would be to continue the adventure, only having them encounter other and more horrible monsters than he met on his way here.

Hodgson found a third way: an extensive delving into the ways of a man and a maid in this culture. The road to true love is not always a smooth one, as our narrator and the reader soon learn. There is, of course, much billing and cooing during the first part of the trip. However, this soon changes. In his eyes, she becomes willful and disobedient. It begins when near the end of each travel period, he decides she is getting tired and picks her up to carry her in order to make better time. She objects that she isn't tired, etc. He ignores her, and she becomes angry. She then begins to disobey him in various ways, and on at least one occasion acts almost to cause her death and his as he rescues her.

As the Wyf of Bath would have it, the problem is maistrie--who is to be the Master in the house. The narrator sees no problem here; the man is naturally the master. And, what is more, a real woman wants it that way. For how could she really love a man who is not the master, one whom she can control. He believes the problem is that Naani is not yet fully matured, that she is part girl-child and part woman. The woman part recognizes that he is to be the master, while the other still resists the idea, thus the disobedience and willfulness.

The situation deteriorates until it reaches the point where he feels he must discipline her--first he strikes her hand several times, then hits her shoulders with a branch with its branches and leaves removed (as he tells us, much as a parent would an unruly child), and finally strikes her bare shoulders several times on one occasion, again with the branch.

At this point, she now begins to be "obedient," much as a slave would be to her master, she tells him. This, of course, is not what he wants. This interaction between the two is the most significant part of the return journey, even though they still encounter serious, life-threatening dangers.

In the most serious attack on the journey, he is seriously wounded during an melee with a large number of the humpt men (neanderthals?) and would have been killed if she had not distracted them by jumping into the fray, stabbing one, and then getting them to go after her. She leads them a merry chase through the woods and returns when she sees that he is up and now able to defend himself. They barely make it to an island in the center of the lake they had been circling when they were attacked. She then nurses him back to health.

While nursing him, she takes full advantage of the situation, ordering him about 'for his own good." Being weakened, he can't struggle with her; beside, he likes being mothered at times. The problem of maistrie never arises again, except for some mild teasing.

However, the monsters are still about, and the dangers are many. Near the end he thinks he has lost her again.

It is probably the most unique horror/fantasy/supernatural tale of terror I have ever read. Just as the anonymous narrator has his obstacles to overcome, the reader of The Night Land also has a few obstacles while reading. The first is the archaic language (one commentator called it a pseudo-archaic style). There is a certain amount of repetition of phrases; for example, when he attempts to explain something, he frequently ends by saying this is only his guess and the reader shouldn't take it as fact. On his journey outward, he repeats very frequently how much he longs to be with his fair maid and his own true love, and how he constantly thinks about her.

I suspect some? many? will be disturbed by the narrator's unquestioned beliefs regarding the relationship between a man and a maid. I don't think that will go well in the 21st century, and I'm not that certain it went well in the mid and late 20th century. And, I have my doubts that it ever went well with a significant part of the population at any time.

Overall: an unique work that is worth the time and effort spent reading it. I read it many years ago, and it's always remained with me. It was for this reason that I searched for a copy and reread it after many years. It's an experience.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: August 3, 1909--Nov. 10, 1971

Today is the birth date of an exceptional writer, but unfortunately one who will probably never be listed in the first rank of great American writers. Why? Limited output is the villain.

Clark has only three novels, a number of short stories, and some poems to his credit. Critics and scholars would argue that these are too few to really judge an author's ability and therefore a position in any literary ranking. Yet, I would argue that even this limited body of work demonstrates his skill in depicting settings for his finely detailed and carefully crafted characters and their actions.

Clark has frequently been relegated to the western ghetto because his works are set in a western setting. But, this is similar to putting Austen's novels into the romance category, as I have seen some booksellers do. Most of his work is set out west, but the themes in his stories are found everywhere, not just in the land of sagebrush and saguaros and are still prevalent today. Here is one example:

The Ox-Bow Incident:

First Paragraph--
"Gil and I crossed the eastern divide about two by the sun. We pulled up for a look at the little town in the big valley and the mountains on the other side, with the crest of the Sierra showing faintly beyond like the rim of a day moon."

It opens as many western novels and films have begun--one or two riders cresting a ridge and then seeing the small town down in the valley surrounded by mountains. We next are given a description of the Edenic countryside, for it is Spring and the summer heat has not yet appeared. They then leave Eden, ride down to the town, and head for the saloon. One of them even gets into a brief brawl, for they've been isolated during the winter and have come down to loosen up a bit.

But shortly afterwards the real theme of the novel appears--that oxymoron called "vigilante justice." We hear that a man has been killed and cattle stolen, something has to be done. The story is a depiction of the dynamics of the growth of a lynch mob. The sheriff is a few hours away, and the rustlers may get away. They form a posse and capture three men who have a small herd that they claim they bought from a local rancher. But, there is no bill of sale.

The posse soon divides itself into three groups: those who are for hanging them now, even though there is a sheriff and a judge in town. These argue that the law can't be trusted, and some smart lawyer will get them off. These people are around today, arguing that at times we must ignore the law and act on our own, even if it breaks the law.

A second and smaller group insists that the men and the cattle should be returned to town and to let the law handle the situation.

But by far, the largest group is the undecided and the fearful. Among the fearful are the two POV characters who rode into town. They along with some others would just as soon turn them over to the authorities, but they are afraid to vote this way for fear of what the others may think. By voting against the hanging, they could be seen as showing sympathy for the captured trio and the others might think they are in with them.

In a farcical parody of a trial, the posse votes to hang the three men. Only five vote to bring them back to town and to let the law handle it: among the five are one who would be characterized as a "bleeding-heart liberal minister" by many today, a black man, the son of the Southern gentleman leading the mob, and two others.

A film was made of The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Harry Morgan. It was fairly close to the novel, but somebody decided the ending was too bleak, so Henry Fonda's character acted more heroically than he did in the novel.

I've often wondered about the title--it's an incident, something really very minor and inconsequential.

Clark's other two novels are The Track of the Cat and The City of Trembling Leaves. The first was also made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. I haven't seen it yet, but it's in my Netflix queue, and I'll been watching it soon. The second, The City of Trembling Leaves, has no violence, no car chases, no exploding buildings and no shootouts, and therefore nobody has thought about making film of this one. After seeing what Hollywood does to other novels, I'm actually happy that they haven't gotten their hands on this one.

The Track of the Cat has what appears to be a simple plot. A panther or large cat has been killing cattle. Several brothers decide to kill it, and I suspect that the film limits itself to this theme. In the novel though, at the same time as the threat from the large cat, the sons and daughter are getting dissatisfied with their very restricted and regimented lives. This puts a severe strain on the family cohesiveness.

The third novel, The City of Trembling Leaves, is the story of a young boy, Tim Hazzard, growing up into manhood in Reno, Nevada, where Clark himself grew up and lived for many years. Some of the events, especially of Tim Hazard's teen years, seem so real that one can only wonder if Clark himself hadn't experienced them.

The novel opens with a "Prelude," with its musical inflections, for Hazard will grow up to be a composer.

"This is the story of the lives and loves of Timothy Hazard, and so, indirectly, a token biography of Reno, Nevada, as well. Now, whatever else Reno may be, and it is many things, it is the city of trembling leaves. The most important meaning of leaves is the same everywhere in Reno, of course, and everywhere else, for that matter, which is what Tim implies when he calls moribund any city containing a region which you can look all around and not see a tree. Such a city is drawing out of its alliance with the eternal, with the Jurassic Swamps and the Green Mansions, and in time it will also choke out the trees in the magic wilderness of the spirit."

Tim Hazard is, among many things, a mystic, though he doesn't know it, and probably wouldn't know what you meant if you told him so. He has a unique relationship with place, and a philosophy, though he doesn't call it that, that at times verges on Taoism.

I think I've rambled on long enough now, so I'll close here. Sometime in the future, I will write about some of his short stories.

All three novels are great reads and well worth the time spent reading them.