Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Combination Plate 18

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and endings.

Mike Ashley, ed. The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, a collection of short mystery stories

Somtow Sucharitkul, Mallworld, a fix-up SF Novel

Fantasias and Trons: clones by Disney

Death Race (2008), SF film

Bernard Knight, "The Crowner John" series

Mike Ashley, ed.
The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries
Carroll and Graf

This collection contains thirty short stories that focus on perfect crimes, supposedly those so well planned out that the perps couldn't be identified, and those that couldn't possibly have happened, such as the man in a glass telephone booth, in plain sight, who was killed by an ice pick or a man who entered a cable car alone and is found dead when the car reaches the bottom even though the car was visible the entire route.

Some of the authors are Mike Ashley, Richard A. Lupoff, Bill Pronzini (author of the Noname Detective novels), Peter Tremayne (author of the Sister Fidelma historical mysteries), Barry Longyear, and Bernard Knight (author of the great "Crowner John" historical mystery series).
I knew Richard A. Lupoff and Barry Longyear from their SF stories and wasn't aware they wrote mysteries also.

This is a great collection to have when there's only short periods available for reading.


Somtow Sucharitkul, Mallworld, a SF novel?

Sucharitkul's Mallworld, although marketed as a novel, really is a collection of short stories that could have been published separately in SF magazines and are loosely connected by a frame. Earth has been quarantined by a galactic federation because humans are too violent and unpredictable. The entire solar system out to Saturn has been enclosed in a small pocket universe. Humans can't get out, but tourists can visit the reservation. The linking is simple: every so often, a member of the federation government comes to observe humans to determine if they have matured enough to be allowed back into the universe. The stories, therefore, represent examples of human behavior upon which the Observer will make his decision.

All stories take place on Mallworld, a huge shopping mall the size of a planet built out around Saturn's orbit. It's the biggest shopping center ever built and has over 20,000 shops and claims to have over a million visitors every day. It was built after the quarantine was imposed. Apparently, the humans decided that if they couldn't explore the universe, they could at least go shopping.

The stories tend toward the comic and the bizarre. One of the establishments at the mall is a suicide parlor where one can select from a list of over three hundred types of suicide. One of the most popular choices is "death by vampire." Another store is Storkways, Inc. where one can order a custom-made baby. But, miss a payment and the repo team is dispatched.

This is also a great book for those times when only short periods are available for reading. One can ignore the interlinear links, and each story is independent, although a few characters do appear in more than one story.


Fantasias and Trons

In 1940 Disney presented the world with Fantasia. To call it simply another cartoon is to grossly devalue the film. It was, and still is as far as I'm concerned, a revelation in Light, Color, Motion, and Sound. It is Disney's creative staff strutting their stuff, saying "Look at what we can do." It's a perfect marriage of the visual and the audio sensory worlds. It's one of my favorite films, and one which I view regularly.

Forty-two years later, in 1982, Disney gave the viewers something new and exciting--Tron. With the use of SFX, Disney opened up the world of cyberspace. He used the new special effects techniques to show us a possible view of what the inside world of those techniques might look like. The story line was acceptable, but the SFX made the film a very enjoyable viewing experience. I immediately thought of Disney's earlier masterpiece Fantasia. All Tron lacked, I thought, was the blending of Sound to Color, Motion, and Light at the level of Fantasia.

Then, inexplicably, in 1999, Disney comes out with Fantasia 2000--almost sixty years after the first film and seventeen years after Tron, which was a celebration of newer techniques. It, sadly, was just a remake of the original film with different music and visuals. It added nothing that hadn't been already accomplished in the original film. I was disappointed. It was good, but I found it nowhere as creative or innovative as the 1942 Fantasia.

In 2010, as should have been expected, Disney produced a second clone, Tron: Legacy. The plot was very similar to the first one (and the first one wasn't really that terrific). Surprisingly, I thought the 1982 version seemed to be more typical of a digital world than the 1999 version. Since I've never experienced the "digital world" of cyberspace, I'm obviously only guessing at this. But, it seemed to me that Tron: Legacy seemed to be in a more organic world than its predecessor. It frequently seemed to lack the sharpness of light and color, and the objects found there were rounder? softer? --characteristics I would associate more with the organic/analogue world than the digital world of cyberspace. Obviously, I'm not too sure of what I mean here and I'm really groping for the right words.

I don't know why the clones were produced, unless it was simply for profit. There's a psychological principle known as the Recency Principle which states that people remember best what they experienced last. That means that my memories of Fantasia and Tron have now been overlaid by the memories of the clones. That's sad. I think that the most effective cure would be to see Fantasia (1940) and Tron (1982) again.


Death Race

This version came out in 2008. It is based on an earlier film, Death Race: 2000, which appeared in 1975. I don't remember seeing the earlier version, but the IMDB listing says that this is a new script, so it may be quite different.

The plot--well, it does have one. Jensen Ames, in a economically depressed US, sometime around 2015 loses his job and is framed for the murder of his wife. He ends up in Terminal Island, a privately run prison. He is persuaded to take part in the Death Race, a televised special that has high ratings. The drivers are prisoners who take part because one who wins five races gets released.

It's a throwback to the days of the Roman games, specifically the chariot races, when blood, carnage, and death were the main attractions. In fact, one of the encounters in this film comes directly from the famous chariot race in the film Ben Hur. In this modern version, the cars are heavily armored and armed with 50 cal. machine guns and whatever else they can scare up. Generally the survival rate is around 60%. The powers-that-be decided one race wasn't enough to take up the 90 minutes, so it's held in three heats.

Acting skills are minimal, except for the Coach, who is played by Ian McShane. His laid back attitude contrasts with the rest of the cast who specialize in macho-a-macho glowering throughout most of the film, and that includes Hennessy, the female warden played by Joan Allen, who must have seen too many Nazi concentration camp films during her formative years. Coach just looks around and smiles, possibly the only person in the cast who realizes how silly all this is.

Overall Reaction: recommended for those who enjoy demolition derby "races" featuring armed and armored vehicles.


Bernard Knight "The Crowner John" Series
Historical mystery, technical detective category

Earlier, when I discussed the collection of stories about impossible crimes, I mentioned Bernard Knight, the author of the superb "Crowner John" series. I first encountered Knight in a novel by Priscilla Royal, Wine of Violence. It was an enjoyable read, and one of the most interesting characters in the novel was the crowner, an king's appointee who served as the king's representative for that area. Royal at the end of the novel stated that she based the character of the crowner on Bernard Knight's "Crowner John" series. So, I went looking, found them fascinating, and am now busy reading my way through the series, which now includes fourteen novels.

He has also begun a new series, featuring a forensic pathologist who sets up a private practice in England in 1955. Knight has spent many years as a practicing forensic pathologist in England and is past president of the Forensic Science Society.

The "Crowner John" series is set during the late twelfth and early thirteenth century in Exeter. Sir John de Wolfe has been appointed to his position by Richard the Lion-Hearted and is one of the first individuals to hold that position. His responsibilities include protecting the king's interests, mostly financial, by recording "all serious crimes, deaths and legal events for the King's judges." The quotation comes from the six page glossary provided by Knight.

Sir John de Wolfe, therefore, is the first coroner in Exeter. He is the second highest law officer in the area, second to the sheriff. Unfortunately the sheriff, Sir Richard de Revelle, is also his brother-in-law who strongly resents de Wolfe's presence in the area for two reasons. One is that he doesn't like someone looking over his shoulder; it cramps his grasping for ill-gotten wealth. The second is that de Wolfe is a strong supporter of King Richard, while de Revelle has thrown his support to Prince John and has been involved in several schemes that bordered on treason. Because of the marital relationship, de Wolfe kept quiet about what he knew of de Revelle's part in several plots to overthrow King Richard.

Those who enjoyed Ellis Peters' "Brother Cadfael" series will like this one. Both Sir John de Wolfe and Brother Cadfael are survivors of the various European conflicts and crusades. Both have gained considerable knowledge of wounds and injuries and the types of weapons that might be responsible. And, both, after long years in the military, have picked up considerable knowledge about diseases and possible cures.

Knight has also gathered several interesting characters as de Wolfe's aides. His assistant is Gwyn of Polruan, a huge Cornishman, who had been de Wolfe's bodyguard and friend for many years on the battlefield. His battlefield experience helps de Wolfe in various ways, from various incidents involving hand-to-hand combat to the simple autopsies that were possible at that time. Since neither he nor Gwyn could write, de Wolfe relies on Thomas de Peyne, a defrocked priest to keep the necessary records. His knowledge of Church rituals, rites, and rules also comes in handy at times, as is his ability to work his way into the confidence of the local clergy, most of whom are unaware of his disgraced status.

The first book in the series is Sanctuary Seeker. I found it surprising just how involved the whole procedure of claiming sanctuary really was. While each novel does stand alone, I would recommend reading them chronologically as the relationships among the characters--de Wolfe, his wife, the sheriff, de Wolfe's mistress, Gwyn, and de Peyne--do vary a bit.

Overall Reaction: a great series, one of the best historical series I have found--especially recommended to those who liked the Brother Cadfael series.


  1. Fred,

    I love short stories. Thank you for sharing this. I was just wondering the other day where I could find some mystery short stories, as I'm not well versed in that genre. Leave it to you, Fred, to have the answer.

  2. Cheryl,

    Thanks for the kind words. It's an excellent collection.