The Siren and the Sword by Cecilia Tan
Weirdness Rodeo: Tube Posters, Monsters and Smell

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.

In order to wangle another meeting with him, they wind up taking a job with his literary agent. Actual mystery ensues: a manuscript belonging to the estate of an eccentric poet goes missing. And so does one of Judy's friends! Gasp!

On one hand, mystery! On the other, it is punctuated with a certain juvenile escapism (new dresses! ice cream!). Bolton is, arguably, a sort of proto-feminist figure. She operates with the constraints of her narrative, and spends a lot of time waiting for (even predicting) the inevitable rescue. But she's also resourceful, clever and fearless. There are boundaries to her existence, but she's a freewheeling particle within them, and likeable for it.

Succubus-BluesRichelle Mead's Succubus Blues (2007) and Succubus on Top (2008)

I am a huge, huge fan of Mead's Vampire Academy series, and in Canned Rant #9755, I frequently point out that V.A. is a terrific, scaling fantasy series with cool magic, great plot, and lots of fun angst. Just like [epic fantasy series by a male author and with dudebro covers]. Basically, a lot of people, on both sides of the 'YA/epic' and 'male/female marketing focus' divides, are missing out on a lot of good stuff. If you liked Vampire Academy, try, say, Brent Weeks' AWSUM COLORZ. And if you liked AWSUM COLORZ, try Vampire Academy. Etc.

ANYWAY, learning that Mead had written a saucy adult urban fantasy series was enough to get me darting down to the shops. And I wasn't disappointed - these books are a blast.

Georgina Kincaid is a succubus - and a bookstore employee. She's actually pretty happy in her faux-mortal existence. She's got other immortal friends, she's got a weird-but-cool infernal manager, and she is, in a sense, belonging. But things get complicated. In the first, Succubus Blues, Georgina has to wrassle with immortal politics - people on both, uh, sides, are getting picked off, and Georgina's the unfortunate one with the job of investigating it. Succubus on Top has a vaguely magical plot as well - one that extends the world-building - but is more about Georgina's struggles balancing her mortal and immortal lives and livelihoods. What is it that really gives her, pardon the entendre, satisfaction?

The books are funny, charming, and, given that are very explicit: cute. Georgina is fun. She's got problems, but she's confident and clever. She's also a very small cog in a Big Immortal World, and there's no sense of 'Chosenness' about her or her stories - she's got Georgina-sized problems, and she solves them with moxie. Part of me wants them to be more like the traditional occult detective novel, just so I can use Mead to prod at another dudebro genre fallacy, but, ultimately... they aren't, and they're better for it.

Georgina Kincaid is very deliberately not special in that stereotypical trenchcoat-and-quarterstaff way - she's the center of her tiny universe, and the agent of her own story. Her quest for togetherness makes her all the more appealing. The conflict of juggling a flirtation, a small shop and the monster-of-the-week isn't exactly cosmic, but it is empathetic, and given that this is about a succubus, that's damn (ha!) impressive. The Georgina Kincaid books are very satisfying, and strangely slice-of-life, novels about saucy immortality - I recommend them highly.

Raymond F. Jones' The Alien (1951)

Space scientists! researching the remains of alien stuff in the asteroid belt find an actual alien. Because Science! they resurrect him and things go really badly wrong. Earth, as we learn repeatedly, is in a bad decline - desperate for leaders! and in a sort of proto-Foundation way, everyone is watching it happen and preparing for the consequences. But the alien really screws up this 'plan', and now Earth is united until an alien dictatorship so there's this mad scramble for more Science! and mind powers? and space travel and really this was pretty terrible.

The First StoneElliott Hall's The First Stone (2009)

Felix Strange is an archetypical private eye - down to his archetypically silly name. He's struggling, he's got a dark past, he's feeling betrayed, he's cynical, yet... he's strangely noble; kind to women and puppies. He's a 'knight in tarnished armor', to borrow from descriptions of Travis McGee.

A prominent political figure is killed, and the death reeks of a set-up - the deceased, a fiery radio pastor, is marked up with lipstick and left surrounded by carefully bagged drugs and artfully arranged pornography. Someone was out to bring the man down, in more ways than one. Strange is hauled in because he's an independent operator, far enough outside the system to avoid any leaks. 

The shtick is - The First Stone is set in the eerily near future, in which the United States has become an religious theocracy. There's a bit of background involved, but the key this is this: America's a very uncomfortable place, with official and unofficial crusaders sweeping back and forth like brooms of HELLFIRE. Strange, an veteran of the latest overseas military disaster, is particularly cynical - even by the standards of PIs - and is so far out of the loop that he's the perfect investigator. OR THE PERFECT PATSY. (dun dun DUN)

As far as a detective novel goes, The First Stone is solid, not spectacular - and that's no bad thing. Strange does what he needs to do to be a good, if unspectacular, narrator and guide. It is reminiscent, probably deliberately, of the Gold Medals and noir classics that defined the PI genre. This comfort allows for the novel's real story - the dystopia and how it came about - to seep through the edges. Moreover, The First Stone resists the urge to infodump (and damn, it must've been tempting). Instead, we follow the conventions of the genre as Strange blunders from place to place, opening new leads and doling out tantalising peeks at the world around him. It is an excellent way of using the familiar conventions of one genre as a way of tactically subverting the style of another.