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Charlie Human on Five Memes that Deserve to be Novelised

Review Round-up: Molly Tanzer, Daniel Polansky & Modesty Blaise

Three more highly recommended books (all of which deserve fuller reviews than they're getting here).

A Pretty MouthMolly Tanzer's A Pretty Mouth (2012) is easily the best collection I've read this year and, honestly, for as long as I can remember. Effusive praise, but utterly well-deserved, as A Pretty Mouth combines skillful pastiche, gut-churning horror, atmospheric weirdness and atmospheric poignancy.

The stories trace the descent of a single family through time, with Ms. Tanzer's prose changing to incorporate the appropriate Edwardian, Victorian or Gothic style for each tale. My favourite is the Wodehouse/Lovecraft mash-up, but the author does justice to every tale. But, most importantly, despite being a stylistic chameleon, Ms. Tanzer's prose is insightful, clever and distinctly her own. (I suppose the closest approximation would be some sort of prose Voltron formed from Lavie Tidhar, Kate Beaton, Jesse Bullington, Stella Gibbons and Edward Gorey. Which, now that I think of it, would be the best Saturday morning cartoon ever. TanzerForce: Defenders of the Universe! "Tanzers UNITE!")

Peter O'Donnell's A Taste for Death (1969) was my first Modesty Blaise novel, and, having now read four, still my favourite of the lot. A Taste for Death was Mr. O'Donnell's second novel, and it has a simplicity of structure (and lack of self-reference) that's absent in the later books. A collection of villains, most notably the brutal Simon Delicata, are looking for lost treasure, and need the mysterious divining ability of Dinah Pilgrim (blind / innocent / extremely attractive). One thing leads to another and both Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are brought in to save the day (and the girl). It seems to be the template for a Blaise adventure. Scheming, captivity, rescue, improbably odds, mano y mano combat, a touch of the supernatural, a bit of philosophising about heroism. 

I think two things about A Taste for Death combine to make it my favourite of the Blaise adventures (so far). First, there's a very interesting and pronounced distinction between the human and the inhuman. Dinah and Steve (Modesty's chap o' the moment) are both ordinary people, from their perspective we understand how talented Modesty and Willie are. But Mr. O'Donnell is always clear to explain how Modesty and Willie got the way they are through hard training, tough upbringing and infinite practice. At the same time, Modesty and Willie are juxtaposed with the physical and mental extreme that is Simon Delicata: someone that is just 'born' with inhumanly exceptional attributes. Even Willie is terrified by the villain, referring to Delicata as "having a hex" on him. 

Second, A Taste for Death has very few scenes from Modesty's point of view - in fact, I can only recall one (a pretty spectacular swordfight). I don't object to Modesty as protagonist (she's awesome), but Mr. O'Donnell seems more comfortable writing her at arm's length, where she can be safely discussed (and repeatedly objectified) by all the male characters. Modesty's own narrative voice always rings a bit false. Steve Collier, Modesty's 'everyman' boyfriend is perhaps the most interesting voice in the book. Despite his physical relationship with Modesty, he's the only one that doesn't view her as a sexual object or alien force - he appreciates and admires her, while also being a little intimidated by her ability to kill at 67 paces with a bit of gravel.

Overall, for action, fun, pseudo-philosophical gooblydegook and hot people doing cool things, the Modesty Blaise series is tough to beat, and, from my limited experience, A Taste for Death is a good place to start.

Tomorrow the KillingDaniel Polansky's Tomorrow, the Killing (2012) is the second in the author's Low Town sequence. Last year's The Straight Razor Cure was good stuff. Warden, Mr. Polansky's cynical, drug-dealing, fallen 'cop' (or secondary fantasy world equivalent thereof) was perfectly morally ambiguous. He wasn't so evil that the book lacked empathy, nor was he a shining paragon of virtue. My main issue with The Straight Razor Cure was that the mystery was a bit naff. In attempting to set a Hammett-style noir novel in a fantasy world, the whoddunnit and whydunnit was pretty transparent to those familiar with noir tropes. The novel was ambitious in all the right places: combining styles, admirably imitating its predecessors and introducing a charismatic new character and an extremely flexible new world. Twas good.

Tomorrow, the Killing, however, is excellent. The book steps out from the shadows of Hammett and Lynch (or Leiber or whatever) and fully embraces its own originality. Tomorrow flips back and forth between Warden's own past (as a grunt in a wonderfully frustrating WWI-styled trench campaign) and his present as the self-serving crimelord of "Low Town". Naturally, the two eventually intersect, as do the themes of honour and virtue, war and futility, duty and sacrifice. It is a gorgeously plotted book that expands Warden's world as the twin stories unfold. Like The Straight Razor Cure, there's a mystery at the heart of it (and a few characters - including a cranky old General - them seem lifted from Gold Medal paperbacks), but the real conflict is internal: Warden struggling with the ghost of his more virtuous former self. 

A good comparison would be Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin, which combines a bit of epic background with an urban mystery and introspective, interesting characters. Tomorrow, the Killing can also be the entry point in the series - reading Straight Razor Cure is always recommended, but not necessary to understanding Tomorrow.