All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Tag: crime

Where the Terrors Keep

A Review of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep

John Flack – Book Cover, 1982, Goldmann

Crime stories have been a staple of my childhood, long before I picked up any science fiction or fantasy books, I was most likely engrossed in some thriller. My reading started with a lot of German books that combined crime with humorous story-telling. When I started to read English language books, I had moved on from my obsession with crime stories. Now I return to one with fresh eyes in this Review of a German translation of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep, which is the first entry in the series of books about the detective J.G. Reeder. The German title is John Flack.

Really in light of current events, I feel it is even more necessary to point out, that this work should at least be read with the idea of “copaganda” in mind. Terror Keep neither accurately reflects current or historic police work, nor does it offer any worthwhile views into mental health. Any story about fighting crime in the traditional sense centres a view of crime that ignores any socio-economic factors, and makes police officers into heroes as they fight “real evil”. This book offers no different perspective. It at best entertains, but you can’t escape the ideas that fiction of its kind normalises. Crime in the real world is rarely as devoid of social context as it is here.

The Physical Book

Back to the book at hand. My copy is a 1982 paperback edition hand-me-down published by Goldmann. Of course, this book has seen better times, the paper has browned with age and feels coarse, and the jacket is showing signs of wear and tear as well, but it’s holding up reasonably well for the time it’s spent being read and being stored on various bookshelves and in numerous storage boxes. It isn’t particularly long, and about 30 pages are devoted to informing the reader of various other books in the publisher’s catalogue.

The Setting

Now, Terror Keep is set in 1920s UK, predominantly in London and an imaginary town called Siltbury on the cliffed coast of southern England. Both places are treated as backdrops that only need description where it figures into the plot. Siltbury is left to the reader’s imagination and familiarity with southern English towns, and London stars as the world-famous city it is with a handful of recognisable places.

More important than Siltbury itself, however, is the mansion in which much if the second and third act of this book takes place: Lamar’s Keep. It’s a cliffside manor, with a horrifying dungeon and curious inhabitants and visitors.

The Characters

Cliffed Coast, with a wall atop and white clouds drawing over a clear sky

Most of the characters show up at Lamar’s Keep and its surroundings over time, but that’s not the interesting thing about them. Well, the interesting thing about them is that they are not interesting in and of themselves. They are pretty flat, maybe some of them are more well rounded over the entire length of the series, but they stick closely to archetypal versions of a detective story.

We have in order of appearance the mentally insane, empathyless and driven villain, who happens to be a criminal mastermind. He, fundamentally, is just an ableist trope. We have the well-experienced investigator, who doesn’t shy away from a fight. We have a love interest for the investigator, who becomes a damsel in distress. We have multiple other policemen, who are either characterised by incompetence or as mere cannon-fodder and, finally, we have multiple henchmen of the villain, who all get a weird name pointing to earlier wrongdoings.

The most striking departure from this character template has to be Miss Bellman, ostensibly the damsel in distress and love interest, who at least for first half of this book seems to hold out pretty competently and well for herself, but the realities of 1920s ideas of womanhood will get to her soon enough.

The Plot

JG Reeder fighting his way up the rigged stairs

The characters aren’t, what makes this book a gripping read though. The thing that kept me riveted to the book was the ease of how different elements of the plot flowed into each other, how the characters, setting, and plot intertwined. And lead from one page to the other.

There’s not much to be said about the plot that wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s constructed with clear intent, keeping the reader guessing without alienating them with too contrived plot-twists. Some explanations and crimes mentioned within this story fall onto the gimmicky side of plots, but they were not gimmicky enough to rip me out of the flow of reading this book. There’s a well-crafted tension that was pulling me along throughout the entirety of the book.

The Writing

Edgar Wallace wrote many of his books by way of dictation, and the casualness of his writing certainly shows, the point is not to tell a story in its most beautiful manifestation, but a good thrill and a gripping story. In this vein, the writing is mostly unremarkable.

There were a few moments and passages in this book where certain word choices pulled me out of the book, but I think I have to pin those down on the translation, which certainly seemed somewhat clunky at times. Often maybe through no fault of the translator. After all, there’s at least one passage of basically untranslatable wordplay around the suites of playing cards, which the translator solved by annotating explanations of these jokes. But there might have been more passages where the translator was considering such annotations but eventually decided against them to avoid interrupting the flow of the book.

Summary

This book certainly is a gripping read and a fun one at that, but it isn’t a book that makes a good point about life or anything. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun story meant to entertain a reader, sitting in bed on a stormy night, or watching the waves on a sunny beach.

There are, without a doubt, problematic parts in this book, that suggest ideas about our world that might not be worth repeating because they’re demonstrably untrue. And these parts make me question if this book is worth reading in 2020. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Far from it, I enjoyed it myself, but I don’t want to recommend this book. It’s a well-crafted thriller from almost 100 years ago. It’s showing its age. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se, but there are also better books to search out. It’s probably a guilty pleasure for me.

My last book review was about Terry Pratchett’s The Long War: The Long Wait. My next review will be about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Two Strands.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Who Let the Dogs out!

A Review of Wolfgang Schorlau & Claudio Caiolo’s Der Freie Hund

Again, this is a German book. And I don’t really know why I’m still doing these reviews of new German books in English, but apparently, this is what I’m doing now. As with my last review, I got this book as an advanced reader copy through vorablesen.de where you can find a short review of this book (German). This is a crime story coming out later this spring. Its authors are the quite prolific writer of political crime thrillers Wolfgang Schorlau and the relatively unknown Claudio Caiolo who seems to be an Italian actor, I’ve never heard about before. That, however, isn’t surprising because I’m not really knowledgeable in the world of the famous.

Now with the last book, there was in my opinion pretty solid hints that an English translation could at some point be available. For this book, however, I don’t think that is at all likely to happen. The primary author doesn’t even have a stump of a Wikipedia page in English, and as far as I can tell none of his books is available in English. So why am I writing this review in English? Well because I want to!

The Physical Book

This book as the last one was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a paperback. This one a bit more sturdy, with thicker paper, and thicker cover, even with flaps folding out from the inside of the cover. God knows, what they are called. Maybe, one of you will enlighten me.

The cover is I think a pretty classic one for a crime story, a photo of Venice with a cruise ship beneath the dark looming clouds of a storm. Not un-striking, but also not particularly interesting in my opinion.

The Setting

Venice is a beautiful city. Perhaps, it is too beautiful for its own good. Considering the torrential outpours of tourists it receives every day. Capturing a city so fundamentally torn apart in a crime novel is definitely an interesting idea, even though a famous one. After all, that’s what Donna Leon has been doing in by now almost 30 instalments of her Guido Brunetti series, that has found a wide TV audience in Germany by way of our public broadcasting’s thirst for crime shows.

As a setting now for Schorlau and Caiolo’s novel, Venice takes an interesting role. Especially the tourism and the political, environmental and structural problems it poses are integral to the setup of the quite political plot. That aside, however, Venice also lacks descriptive depth for me. At no point did I really feel at home, felt included within the city of the novel. We did get a tour through the city by the way of a somewhat shoe-horned in love affair of our protagonist, being an architectural student. Even the auditory experiences our protagonist experiences on a short trip to Cefalù on Sicily, let me feel more at home there than in Venice. And while that discrepancy actually fits in quite well with the emotional connections the protagonist is experiencing, it left me a bit too distant from the main location this book takes place in.

The Plot

The plot of this book is relatively straightforward with a few twists that genuinely took me by surprise strewn in. At times, it gets quite violent, and the authors don’t shy away from describing splattering blood, death and crime scenes.

At the very least this plot manages to navigate within a very interesting field of topics between politics, corruption, and the Italian mafia. Repeatedly there are hints to past tragedy and a long history of the protagonist with the mafia, that work as an interesting subplot to the story of a murder. Little time is spent on forensics, more so on personal relations and a somewhat uncanny ability of our protagonist to unveil the lies of others.

The plot however definitely does take a while to pick up and really only captured me in the second third of this book. Especially the romantic encounters the protagonist Antonio Morello experiences took me out of it too much from time to time.

The Characters

As with the plot, there’s not really much I have to say about the characters. Our protagonist Antonio Morello is reasonably well fleshed out, some minor characters lack a bit of depth and motivation beyond that what would generally be expected in a whodunit.

Morello is an interesting character, between his relationship with the mafia in Sicily and his transfer to Venice, we learn a great deal about his history and the reason why he seems incredibly adept at picking up sensory clues beyond the visual. And while the trope of disability coming with extraordinary savant-style advantages is definitely tired, I don’t think this leans too heavily on the experience of Morello’s blindness in childhood.

As for representation, this book definitely venters around heterosexual men. There’s a gay character, but his homosexuality is framed more like an extension of his role as a villain than as something that adds anything to the plot. It’s not queer coding per se, just a weird addendum in an otherwise presumed to be a straight world of characters.

Especially in the way the authors describe women that only show up once or twice within the book, there’s an excellent example of what one could call the straight male gaze. Appearances are described with the underlying intent of explaining which woman seems worthy of sexual attraction. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not male and still attracted to women, but there’s a degree of objectification in describing the stockings of a maid, even if it furthers the characterisation of one of the police officers as a sexist, that gets resolved later.

The Writing

And this sexism is not at all a problem of plot and characters alone, it manifests within the writing or at least diminished my enjoyment of it. I just don’t really want to read objectifying descriptions of women. What I found interesting, however, was unique stress on experiences outside the visual. Descriptions of auditory and olfactory sensation were incredibly immersive to me and went beyond what the average crime novel offers in my experience.

Other than that the writing seemed acceptable to me even if I especially at the start before I got used to it, sometimes the abrupt switches between scenes and characters made me think I had jumped a page accidentally.

Summary

I don’t think I would really recommend this book. It was an okay read, thoroughly captivating at points, but also somewhat flawed in its writing and treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. It brings an interesting mix of ideas to the table, but that didn’t suffice to convince me to want more of this book or more of this as a series.

If you’re really into political thrillers and crime stories involving the political this book may be worth picking up, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this book never gets a release in English. I’m not sure if I’m interested in picking up more books from the same writer, but I also wouldn’t frown at getting one for my birthday.

My last book review was about Qube by Tom Hillenbrand. And my next book review is about the very short collection of Essays Gratitude by Oliver Sacks.
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Incidental History

A Review of Micheal Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a special book for me. It’s a book that accompanied me for some troubled months of hardship, turmoil, and uncertainty. It’s a record holder. It is the book that took me the longest to finish. I have laboured longer on certain books. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen comes to my mind, but I’ve never laboured this long on a book and not put it away unfinished. Putting a book away is not a failure, but there’s a difference to having to put a book back in its place with the knowledge that I won’t come back to it for a long time or potentially even forever. This book was different.

It never managed to excite me enough to finish it quickly, but it also never bored me enough to not want to read further along. In a way that was torturous, but in a meta way it was also a very interesting experience. Of course, that experience was contingent on my shaken up mental health, but we don’t need to get too far into that right now.

Life's Library Book Club

I got to this book through John Green‘s internet bookclub Life’s Library. It was read and talked about there throughout June and July 2019 and it was at a point where I could jump in after Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost had made me miss two reading periods. (Maybe that too is a book I could talk about in future.) Anyhow, I started reading it about 10 days into the reading period, and it took me on a now 5-month ride, I want to tell you about.

The Physical Book

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Gallows Pole

To my shame, I have never been a paying member of Life’s Library but had always worked to find the book in question through other means, sometimes in a German translation. To my further shame, my lingering depression made it seem the easiest to ignore my intentions to patronise the local bookstores and to order it on Amazon.

The copy I ordered, is the UK paperback edition of the book published by 4th Estate, London in 2010. And its cover struck me with its noirish tones and imagery. Two detectives facing each other, cigarettes stuck in each face, framed by a fedora and an opened collar. I quite enjoy that kind of punchy design, though I don’t think it’s my favourite book cover I could find in my collection of mismatched books.

The Story & The World Behind IT

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange book that in its own way defies categorisation. It is a mystery thriller, maybe with a dollop of the political set in a world that deviated from our current political world sometime around 1948. It hits on everpresent Jewish themes like life in the diaspora, blatant antisemitism, but also on finding and building a new home and personal trauma.

The plot unfolds in cyclic circles, expanding into the world, gaining greater reach, and then folding in on themselves hitting closer to home again. Though for the first part the book reads to me like a frankly crawling and cliched police procedural just with the odd flair thrown in here and there. The world-building gains more importance in the second part where the plot picks up on speed and twists. Frankly, that is where my reading speed picked up considerably too.

The Characters & The Writing

The Protagonist Meyer Landsmann is fleshed out to be a broken man. He’s the divorced and alcoholic police detective who doesn’t care for the rules too much. Through unfortunate circumstances, he came to work with his ex-wife as his boss and she very much enjoys the rules Landsmann doesn’t care for. But here the biggest problem of Chabon’s writing looms. He doesn’t write female characters that well. Throughout this book. Female characters even more so than male ones fall onto trodden tropes, become at times even just golden calves to drive the action, but they don’t feel lifelike. Their decisions feel at times unmotivated or ill-conceived.

I don’t think Chabon’s male characters in this book are amazing, but they are considerably more well-rounded than the women that surround them. There’s some room for a favourable interpretation of some of the flaws around female characters. Certainly, the story’s point of view character Landsmann doesn’t have favourable views of women. In a sense, the narrator’s bias against women fits in with the noirish tropes of a brooding and hurting detective. A question remains: are Chabon’s female characters in other books any better?

As much as the female characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are flawed, that doesn’t detract much from the story, Chabon tries to tell, largely through the regrettable fact that the women in this story, for the most part, play a role on the sidelines of the action. They are witnesses, judges hovering above the action but they aren’t directly and emotionally involved until the book hits its finale.

There’s a fool of a devil in him that wants to feel the thrum of current, there’s a current in him that wants to feel the devil in the wire.

Page 293

What fascinated me most about Chabon’s writing is his command of similes and rhythm. His descriptions of the world enthralled me at times, they showed his research and they showed an inventiveness that was very enjoyable to me. Though this talent of style doesn’t necessarily extend to talent in crafting suspenseful arcs. Especially the first half of the book felt like a slow drag. Like an investment needed to get to the faster-paced and tighter written second part, when the circles widen from a pure provincial crime procedural to a wider and wider conspiracy.

Another uniqueness of this book is its slang. Chabon took it upon him to at least develop a rudimentary form of local slang for the colony of Jews in Alaska. It is heavily influenced by Yiddish as the title would suggest. Switching languages, especially between English and Yiddish, remains a constant occurrence in relationships to the outside world. The reader doesn’t have to follow these switches, they are fleshed out only in the dropping of certain slang words, the reader can either pick up on or look up in the glossary some editions provide. To me, the allusions to Yiddish didn’t assume the role of a big obstacle, as Yiddish is more closely related to my native German than to many other languages, but it certainly makes reading a bit harder. Especially in interaction with a full list of names and their variants, it can at times get confusing.

Summary

I am conflicted about this book. On the one hand, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union casts its feathers and becomes a suspenseful read somewhere around the midpoint; on the other hand, the first half is a bit of a drag. On one side, the book offers a rich world and an interesting conundrum, on the other side, the writing and characters are hard to get through at times. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t super interested in alt-history and crime, but then I don’t think this is the best these genres have to offer.

Mrs Dalloway and The Gallows Pole

On to other books, my next projects in this department are Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. The first of which has been waiting in my to-be-read-pile for about 2 years now. It was a Christmas present made by my then-girlfriend. And The Gallows Pole has been started and unfinished since a trip to London in the summer of 2018. Buried behind work and more exciting or pressing books to read. Maybe I can finally make a dent in it.

This is my first book review on this site, many more might follow, but they aren’t here yet. If you enjoy my reviews, I’d like to direct you to my reviews of 1956’s Eurovision Song Contest entries: for example: Speaking like a German Melancholist.

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