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Review Round-up: Dead Dolls, Discoveries, Tides and Thieves

Some recent reads, old and new, fantasy and crime. Including Lin Carter's Discoveries in Fantasy, Day Keene's Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Brooke Magnanti's The Turning Tide, David Benioff's City of Thieves and the first two volumes of Thieves' World.



Lin Carter's Discoveries in Fantasy (1974)

The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series - edited by Carter - is a pretty amazing body of work. Easily the closest thing I've seen to a 'Penguin Classics for fantasy'. The complete list is here, including the 'pre-cursors' and 'leftovers', and it includes an impressive combination of books now recognised as classic-classics as well as some curious unknowns. Carter clearly had delightfully far-reaching taste, and it is delightful to see authors like Cabell rubbing shoulders with the Deryni books and even Lovecraftian pastiche. 

That said, Discoveries is a pretty weak entry into the 'canon' (although one with an AMAZING cover, I mean, wow). It reads more like a sampler or a sales brochure than a holistic collection in its own right.

Carter's gathered short stories by Ernest Bramah, Donald Corley, Richard Garnett and Eden Phillpotts, and loosely united them with the twin themes of 'these guys should be more popular' and 'I'm going to be publishing them before long!'. Carter's introductions are similarly cursory, possibly because he was expecting to write more when he published the authors properly. Sadly, only Bramah made it into print before the series was canned.

I like the effort (the 'these guys should be more popular' approach is thumbs up in my book), but these stories just aren't very good. Bramah's contributions are a pair of non-Kai Lung Bramah tales that are ornately Orientalist; parables without much substance. Garnett fares the best of the four, but these vaguely comic Grecian pastiches are far from his best efforts (although "The Poet of Panopolis" is easily the best this book has to offer). Corley's two stories flounder somewhere between the two. Vaguely Burtonesque tales of the pseudonymous 'East', they're not as ostentatiously constructed as Bramah... but not as clever as Garnett. And the Phillpotts contribution - a lengthy Grecian ode called "The Miniature" - is excruciatingly dull, a thought-exercise drawn out to an uncomfortable length. The Olympic pantheon discuss the Nature of Man in a humorless and repetitive way while observing the Earth from afar. I'm hoping that, somewhere in his 200-odd publications, Phillpotts wrote better. Certainly he couldn't have done much worse.

As a curation of lost literary, um, curiosities (I'm drawing the line at using 'treasure' here)... sure. But as a showcase of the Adult Fantasy line-up, Discoveries in Fantasy is best left unexplored.

Dead DollsDay Keene's Dead Dolls Don't Talk (1959)

Dead Dolls fuses two common tropes and wraps the whole thing in a weird little character twist. The result is another solid entry by one of noir fiction's lesser-known contributors.

The tropes: Dead Dolls is set up around the trial of Harry Cotton. A burly crop-duster, he shacked up for three days of lovin' with Bonnie Deering. But on the third day, he woke up and she was gone - leaving nothing but a puddle of blood on the floor and a knife in his hand. Oops. Harry's quickly convicted, and our hero, Hart, is on the jury. But Hart - after the trial - gets a hint that Cotton was set-up: pillow talk resulting from Hart's ill-advised fling with Cotton's ex-wife. So now it is Hart Against The System, trying to save the man's life before he's executed. He wouldn't really care, but it was Hart who persuaded the last 'Not Guilty' juror to change her mind. 

Second trope: Cotton's ex-wife is also murdered. And Hart is, of course, Wrongfully Accused. He's on the run, trying to preserve both Cotton's life and his own. Gasp!

Fortunately, Hart is - and this is kind of charming - a pharmacist. I've never read pharmacy noir before, but here we go. And Hart's secret pharmaceutical powers prove very handy: he knows how drugs are mixed, he can heal wounds (1d8+WIS), he's got a pharmacist badge (seriously!), and he's part of a community of drugstore owners that all keep an eye on their neighbourhoods. Also, he's got his girl Friday, or in this case, Gertha, his 18-year old assistant, who came to LA to get into acting, but fell into looooove instead. 

Gertha, bless her, is actually the story's weakest point. As Hart scampers around California (and a bit of Mexico) solving crimes, he's partaking in a lengthy internal debate what to do about Gertha. His issue is that she clearly wants him, and a man, he can't be expected not to have sex with her. That's what Men do. We get a lot of - surprisingly earthy - sexual detail in their courtship. Although it seems to be set up as romantic, their love comes across as unpleasantly dated, and mostly showcases the generational age difference between Hart and his ladyfriend.

(More worryingly - and never addressed - Gertha has a bloodthirsty side. And when Hart stops her, saying she'll kill (the person she's kicking or shooting), she coldly claims "I'm trying to." Twice!) 

The whole thing wraps up... tidily. There are a few too many threads for even Hart's pharmaceutically-enhanced powers to tie up, but, in another (less impressive) trope, the police sweep in to save the day at the end. The lesson, I suppose, is actually counter-intuitive for the noir landscape - Hart should've trusted the system. If Hart hadn't dicked around with his fellow jurors... or had sex with a witness... or tried to take matters into his own hands... well, the bad guys would've gotten caught a lot sooner, and everything would've been totally fine. It is his individual decision-making - from the selfish to the Quixotic attempts at heroism - that created, and then sustained, this mess.

Quick takes

Turning TideBrooke Magnanti's The Turning Tide (2016) is terrific - like the Scottish Elmore Leonard novel I never knew I wanted. There's sizeable cast of schemers and connivers - including MPs, gangsters, radio hosts and a frustrated housewife - all of whom, however dodgy, wind up getting you on side. They all have their own voice and motivation, and you wind up cheering for everyone. It is fun, funny and charming, with a tidy resolution that (hopefully) promises more of the same. A timely novel as well, set in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum.

David Benioff's City of Thieves (2008) is good - possibly even great. Ostensibly the story of Benioff's own grandfather, Lev, it is set during the siege of Leningrad, and the Russian army is in dire straits. Lev is due to be executed for looting, but he and his cellmate (a charismatic deserter named Kolya) are given a chance to live - if they can find a dozen eggs for the NKVD colonel. What follows is a bleak comedy that combines the palpable frustration of Catch 22 with, curiously, the irrepressible romance of The Princess Bride. The latter is down to the glib Kolya, who despite starvation, imprisonment and the German invasion still refuses to take things seriously, and somehow manages to saunter his way through one of history's grimmest moments. It is a dark book, but not a gloomy one, and despite the horrors encountered by the protagonists, there's something beautiful in the way it captures friendship, love and, of course, hope.

552357Thieves' World (1979) and Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn (1980) are the first two books in a shared world, edited by Robert Asprin. Shared worlds were definitely in vogue at this time - Thieves World, Man-Kzin Wars, Merovingen Nights, Wild Cards - you name it. (Sadly, all the non-GRRM-headlined ones seem to have faded into the night.) Thieves' World is great - setting up the city, the core conflicts (political, religious, class, you name it) and the key characters, from drug-lords to inn-keepers. It also sets the rules well: seemingly important people die and 'biased' multiple perspectives on the same characters. John Brunner, Lynn Abbey, Poul Anderson and Robert Asprin contribute the strongest tales, and create a world so compelling that even the cheesier offerings from Marion Zimmer Bradley and Andrew Offutt manage to find their place.

Vulgar Unicorn, however, is disastrous. It is hilariously proto-grimdark, complete with sexual violence, baby-killing, rampant slaughter and, generally speaking, the worst of human nature. Divine nature, as well, as Vulgar embraces the theory of Terrible Sequels and goes epic in the worst possible way, with gods, wizards and immortal protagonists stomping through the streets of a setting that was previously low-magic (or at least, restrained). A mediocre - and over-long - pulp from Philip Jose Farmer starts the book off on the wrong foot, but then po-faced and lacklustre entries from David Drake and Janet Morris derail things entirely, as the city of Sanctuary becomes Ground Zero in a slap-fight between sulky deities. Ironically, Offutt's contribution is now one of the book's strongest, which says volumes about the quality difference between the two. Asprin's conclusion is interesting in a meta-textual kind of way, as he uses the "last word" to tidy up messes made by some of the other stories and essentially reboot the setting. There's a tongue in cheek afterword from Asprin addressing reader concerns that the first book was too dark, but, of the two, Thieves' World was not the problem here...