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Review Round-up: Detectives, Aliens and a Succubus

The Yellow PhantomDid you know the goodie bag at the Oscars is worth something like $200,000?!

This goodie bag of belated reviews isn't. But it does feature detective stories by Margaret Sutton and Elliott Hall, as well as Richelle Mead's Georgina Kincaid and Raymond Jones' The Alien. So that's something!

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Margaret Sutton's The Yellow Phantom (1932)

Sutton's Judy Bolton was a 'girl detective' with the misfortune to be published at the same time as Nancy Drew. That said, Bolton's adventures ran for 38 volumes and have accumulated a certain fandom of their own. One critical difference is a sense of growth (and canonicity, I suppose). Unlike the freewheeling but ageless Drew, Bolton grows up, falls in love, gets married and tackles more of 'life'. 

Still, The Yellow Phantom is still - well - very much an artefact of its time. Judy and her friends travel to New York City where they meet a mysterious and handsome writer of handsome and mysterious books.

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"A defence of detective stories" by G.K. Chesterton

Detection

In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular.

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Ben Smith on "The Long Way Round to a Frances Marion Kickstarter"

Frances MarionI’m a huge Howard Hawks fan.

It’s my project to see every film he ever made - and without splurging box-set style, but instead to eke them out across the decades. I go for a new one every few years, as I'm in no rush to deny myself future pleasure. So it should come as no surprise that, a couple of years ago, I was filling in time by reading Todd McCarthy’s excellent biography of the man, Hollywood’s Grey Fox. From it, I learnt that Hawks had been part of Douglas Fairbanks' circle of energetic young men.

So then I searched out a Fairbanks biography, which was pretty remarkable, and then that led me to my first encounter with Frances Marion, named as one of his screenwriters and a close confidant of Mary Pickford.

Naturally, I then happened upon another book in a remainders shop, Joseph P Kennedy’s Hollywood Years, about JFK’s father - a banker, film producer, US ambassador and Nazi sympathiser. It contained an incredible story about Frances Marion and her husband’s ill-treatment at Kennedy’s hands. So I then picked up that author's other biography, this one about Frances Marion. Without Lying Down is so called because Marion spent her whole life looking for a man she “could look up to without lying down”.

I was completely sold on her. 

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Review Round-up: The Essex Sisters and Rules of Prey

Kiss Me, AnnabelA quick round-up of some recent reads: The Essex Sisters, four volumes of Regency hijinks by Eloisa James, and Rules of Prey, the first Lucas Davenport thriller.

Eloisa James' Essex Sisters (2005 - 2006)

Eloisa James's books are wonderful. They are charming, bantery romances that are almost entirely populated by nice people doing nice things for one another. I've written in the past about how epic fantasy could pick up some tricks from historical romance, and the Essex Sisters series ticks those boxes nicely. There's clever foreshadowing with the interrelated characters and perspectives, a casual approach to historical authenticity that balances empowered female characters with Regency world-building, and an openness to both humour and (of course) romance. These four books - about the marital prospects of four orphaned sisters - aren't quite as conniving or as surprising as the Desperate Duchesses series, but they certainly have their highlights. The third, The Taming of the Duke, is perhaps my favourite, as both the male and female leads have their obstacles to overcome. (I was a little disappointed by the final volume, as it recycled some tricks, and used a 'woman in peril' shtick that felt tonally different from the rest of the series.) 

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The Moonlit Way by Robert W Chambers

The Moonlit WayThere's good Chambers and bad Chambers and The Moonlit Way (1919) is firmly in the latter camp.

This ponderous and preposterous tale - that of an American artist drawn into a Prussian plot in the early days of World War I - is mostly an excuse for rampant jingoism and patriotic drum-beating. Virtually every other page is given over to a lengthy rant about 'Teutonic conspiracies' and the 'porcine Hun', as well as notes about how Britain fights on the 'side of Christ' and 'pacifism is a type of sexual perversion'. The latter is a lengthy diatribe given by a fictional doctor, so you know it is true.

Garry, our square jawed artist/scion of a rich family, is a typically Chambersian character and is painted by route. Although wealthy, he's committed to his art, and The Moonlit Way begins with him in Paris, pretending to be an impoverished student and enjoying himself immensely. It is there he encounters the dancer Thessalie, a beautiful young noblewoman who is the toast of Europe and the object of many a skeezy lordling's fantasy. Thessalie has been bartered to a French politician by the Teutonic Illuminati, and, when Garry meets her, she's hiding from her future husband.

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Review Round-up: Flamesong, Sledgehammer and The Gameshouse

Gameshouse - PK

Three recent reads - a vintage fantasy, a terrific new trilogy and a particularly heavy-handed crime thriller.

Claire North's Gameshouse trilogy (2015), with apologies, as I did my frothing fanboy thing on Twitter, but, these are simply brilliant. The trilogy is comprised of three novelettes (novellas? long shorts? maxistories? minibooks?), each with a different narrator, setting and - wonderfully - tense. All three feature players in the enigmatic Gameshouse - a location/organisation for those that gamble, and gamble to win. The outer room is for the games we all know and love. The inner room is for the real players, the ones that manipulate lives and nations. 

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Radio Drama: "The Thing from the Darkness" (1942)

Thing from the Darkness"The Thing from the Darkness"

Original air date: April 3, 1942, from the series Dark Fantasy.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Thoughts Before Listening

I am excited to hear this because the words ‘thing’ and ‘darkness’ are very promising. Things in darkness are often menacing except maybe things like bananas but I am confident this will not be about a banana in the darkness because they didn’t fuck around in 1942, this is probably going to be about something with teeth that eats people. Also, Dark Fantasy is the name of a chocolate biscuit in India and it’s really gross but I will not allow that to ruin my listening experience.

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Review Round-up: The Long Ride and After Midnight

The Long RideThe Long Ride (1961) is another corker from James McKimmey, who may be my personal favourite discovery of 2015. The story begins with a Midwestern bank robbery - one that goes horribly (bloodily) awry. The suitcase o' loot winds up in the hands of a complete bystander, a bitter young man. 

One thing leads to another, and our 'innocent',  an undercover FBI agent, and the bank robber all wind up sharing a car out to San Francisco. All, of course, under assumed identities and with (theoretically) no knowledge of the others. Also in the mix - and the car: four innocent (?) women, each with their own quests, motivations and suspicious backgrounds.

What follows is a road trip equal parts tense and comedic. Wells, the murderous bank robber, is a particularly chilling villain, a calculator of a man, with absolutely no regard for human life. By contrast, Allan is a hot mess, a small-time chiseler that's completely over his head. Sadly, John, the agent and our ostensible protagonist, is the dullest of the three men, and even the dash of romance inserted into his point of view chapters fails to liven him up. But his phlegmatic perspective gives the reader a relatively balanced view of the happenings, especially as Wells and Allan lose their respective grips on sanity.

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Review Round-up: Vanishing Ladies, The Big Guy, Along Came a Spider

Three thrillers from the late 1950s and early 1960s - featuring Ed McBain, Wade Miller and Maude Parker.

Vanishing LadiesVanishing Ladies (1957) is a stand-alone mystery from Ed McBain, originally written under the pen name Richard Marsten. I have a vague theory that the Marsten books are a little 'grittier' than the McBains, but there's a small sample size, and frankly, Vanishing Ladies disproves it - it could very easily pass as one of the more slapstick entries in the 87th Precinct. Detective Philip Colby takes his girlfriend, Ann, on a road trip.

Circumstances force the pair into a seedy, secluded motel, and, in the middle of the night, Colby realises Ann's gone missing. It gets even more odd from there - the motel is revealed to be a high-end brothel, and, in an act of Kafkaesque proportions, the local community all band together to convince Colby that Ann never existed. Frustrated, Colby calls for backup, and the middle part of the book is told from the perspective of Tony Mitchell, one of his colleagues.

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