Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Interview with James Reasoner

‘It’s human nature to ask, What if?’ 
That’s the appeal of alternate history’

© James Reasoner
This interview with James Reasoner—renowned and prolific American writer of Western novels and Civil War books—could not have happened at a better time. For, I have just learned that Western Fictioneers is honouring Reasoner with its fourth Life Achievement Peacemaker Award. Since writing his first Western novel thirty years ago, Reasoner has authored several hundred novels and short stories in numerous genres, both under his own name and various pseudonyms. It is a richly deserved award. Congratulations, Mr. Reasoner!

The real occasion for this interview is my April 7 review of James Reasoner’s The Blood of the Fallen: The history that never happened. I was fascinated by the short story that turned Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg speech on its head and offered a side to the Civil War president that I never thought of. But that’s Alternate History for you.

I asked James Reasoner about the story as I was curious to learn more about it and especially how he came to write it, and he was very kind to respond to my questions.

How did the idea for The Blood of the Fallen: The history that never happened occur to you?
I was asked to write a story for an anthology called Alternate Gettysburgs. I was writing the ‘Civil War Battles’ series at the time, and the editor on those books was the same one who edited Alternate Gettysburgs. So the theme of it was there from the first.

What were your reasons for choosing Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg speech as the subject of your story?
I didn't want to write a story about the battle—I'd been writing about various battles in my own series—and Lincoln's speech seemed to be the best-known thing about Gettysburg other than the battle itself. I started thinking about how I could change it around and come up with a different result.

© Rough Edges Press
How long did it take you to write it? What was the writing process like?
The actual writing probably took a couple of days. There was quite a bit of research leading up to it, though, because I wanted to get all the details as accurate as possible and follow the history closely up until the point where the story diverged from what really happened.

Was it difficult to write the story given Lincoln’s vastly significant contribution to American history?
No, not really, if anything it was easier because there's such a wealth of research material about Lincoln in general and the Gettysburg Address in particular.

While writing the story, did you picture Abraham Lincoln as one who might cry out for “vengeance” and swear to shed “rebel blood”?
Actually, that seemed like something that Lincoln wouldn't do under normal circumstances. Many historians have speculated that Reconstruction wouldn't have been so harsh on the South if Lincoln had lived. So what I had to come up with was a circumstance so traumatic for Lincoln that he would go against his natural inclinations, something that would make him hurt so much that he would lash out at the most convenient target—in this case, the Confederacy.

I read somewhere that a lot of people find “alternate or alternative history” entertaining? Why do you think this is and how would you best describe the term?
Well, a lot of people are interested in history, period, and it's human nature to ask, "What if?" I think that's the appeal of the alternate history genre, the endless speculation of the ripple effect caused by one or two simple changes in what really happened.

Have you written any other stories with a similar theme?
I wrote one story, The East Wind Caper, about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but that's my only other alternate history story. I'd be interested in doing more but just haven't had the opportunity (or the right idea).

How different would America have been today if the events retold in The Blood of the Fallen had actually happened?
I don't know. That would probably take a whole novel to figure out—which is something I've actually thought about doing, if I ever get around to it. Nathan Bedford Forrest is an interesting, if somewhat controversial, figure in American history and I'd be interested in writing more about him. That's where you'd have to start to get to where we'd be today if that history was different.

Would you consider Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as one of the greatest speeches delivered by a world leader or statesman?
Certainly. For a speech to be that short, yet that powerful and memorable, is quite an achievement. Would that all politicians spoke so well—and so briefly!

How is Abraham Lincoln seen by the American people today? And how relevant is his ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ in our times?
When asked about the greatest president, Lincoln is usually the first or second choice, so I think people generally still hold him in very high regard. At the time, I think the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was more of a strategic political move than anything else, but it's important because it was the start of something that had to be done and its consequences wound up being much more far-reaching than just helping Lincoln get reelected.

Finally, as a veteran writer and historian, what is your own view of President Lincoln and his achievements?
It's probably going too far to consider me a historian! I'm a storyteller more than anything else, and Abraham Lincoln, in many ways, is a larger-than-life character, so it was fun (although in a bleak sort of way, considering how the story turned out) to write about him. His achievements are legendary and so is his personality. I remember reading a biography of him when I was seven or eight years old, so it was nice to be able to write about him, to peek behind the historical figure, all those years later.

Thank you, Mr. Reasoner.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Friend, Ron

© Buddies in the Saddle
Last night, I went to bed with a heavy heart, for I learnt that my friend, Ron Scheer, had passed away following illness. Like many of my blog friends, I dreaded the news even though I knew it would be inevitable one day. 

Can someone whom you never met in real life be your friend? Ron Scheer proved that you can in more than one way.

I met Ron through our blogs and especially his, Buddies in the Saddle, where he delighted readers with penetrating reviews of western novels and films, and interviews with some of America’s finest western authors. There was a perceptive depth to all of his writing. His blog was a definitive work on western fiction and film, and will be relevant for all time.

Following his illness, last year, Ron took to a new kind of writing: he started a Sunday journal where he wrote bravely and candidly about his thoughts on life and death, his personal beliefs, on philosophy, and such light-hearted matters as his cooking of chicken soup. They were good for our soul. Reading his journal you wouldn’t know he was ailing. His posts were positive and inspiring and laced with humour. I looked forward to reading his diary every weekend often forgetting the context he wrote in.

As Patti Abbott observed, “His journal from the last year touched me every week. He turned his death into poetry as few people can. Never maudlin, always brave and honest it was a model for all of us.”

Ron, who was an authority on frontier fiction as he liked to call western fiction, was a blogger with a big heart. He first visited my blog in January 2012 and didn't stop until a couple of months ago. He was both supportive and appreciative of my posts and left behind generous comments. I particularly looked forward to his feedback on my reviews of western novels which, henceforth, will miss hearing his authoritative voice.

Like many among us, I’ll miss Ron very much and I’ll cherish our virtual friendship, which was more real than a real one.

I offer my deepest sympathies to his wife, Lynda, and their children.

Tributes to Ron from our common friends

Patti Abbott — Pattinase 
David Cranmer — The Education of a Pulp Writer
Charles Gramlich — Razored Zen
Richard Wheeler — Wheeler's World
Elisabeth Grace Foley — The Second Sentence
Brian Busby — The Dusty Bookcase

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Citadel by A.J. Cronin, 1937

Three of my favourite authors made a successful writing career out of their chosen professions—Scottish physician A.J. Cronin in medicine, American lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner in law, and British aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute in aviation. Their stories often reflected their obsession with their vocations. They wrote some fine novels, each in his distinct style. Their books spawned many films and television series. Reading their novels is always a pleasant experience. 

A replica of my copy of the book.
Last month, I read The Citadel (1937), the fifth novel by A.J. Cronin. It is set in the medical profession, like several of his novels are, including Grand Canary, Shannon's Way, The Judas Tree, and A Pocketful of Rye, and novellas such as Country Doctor, Kaleidoscope in ‘K’, Vigil in the Night, and The Valorous Years.

My own favourite Cronin novel is the non-medical Beyond This Place.

The Citadel tells the story of Andrew Manson, a young, idealistic, and ambitious doctor—a fairly common protagonist in many of his novels—who moves to a small and little-known mining town called Drineffy in the English countryside. He works as assistant to the ailing Doctor Page though he did not know before arriving from Scotland that his mentor was an invalid.

However, Manson soon finds that he is dealing with more than he’d bargained for—his senior’s overbearing sister, Miss Page, handling medical cases, including the difficult ones, all by himself, his meagre wages, and poor conditions in the Welsh town. Not long after, he falls in love with the very proper Christine Barlow, the petite school teacher, gets married, and moves to another coal mining town where he immerses himself in medical research, quite successfully. But there is always an unpleasant turn in the life of every happily married couple, even in the life of the good doctor.

© Wikipedia
The Citadel refers to Andrew Manson’s hard-fought and hard-earned life as an honest doctor and how it comes crumbling down when he succumbs to greed and the spoils of the medical profession in London, jeopardising his marriage to the woman he loves, only to rebuild it in the end, and reconcile his ideals and ethics with the profession he worships.

A.J. Cronin’s writing is beautiful, his characters are intense, and his narrative is seamless. There is an old charm to it all. He is often considered as a rather depressing writer but I have never felt that way. There is always hope behind despair in his stories, which makes them realistic. I’d like nothing better than to sit in one place and read his book while the hours pass by.

Of this groundbreaking novel, Cronin said, “I have written in The Citadel all I feel about the medical profession, its injustices, its hide-bound unscientific stubbornness, its humbug… The horrors and inequities detailed in the story I have personally witnessed. This is not an attack against individuals, but against a system.”

The novel was made into a film in 1938. It starred Robert Donat as Dr. Andrew Manson and Rosalind Russell as Christine Barlow. It has also been adapted for television more than once. The Indian film industry borrowed it liberally, the 1971 Hindi version titled Tere Mere Sapne (roughly, ‘Yours and My Dreams’) being more popular of the lot.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Blood of the Fallen by James Reasoner, 2002

© Rough Edges Press
There are some stories that you can’t review without spoilers. The Blood of the Fallen: The history that never happened by prolific American author James Reasoner is one of them. 

The 18-page story is narrated by Stark, the captain of the military guard assigned to protect President Abraham Lincoln. I’m not sure if the detail actually existed but it seemed to have preceded the Secret Service formed in July 1865 under the Department of the Treasury. Apparently, the legislation creating the agency was on Lincoln's desk the very night he was assassinated.

But that’s not really the story.

The Blood of the Fallen refers to President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg speech in November 1863 dedicating a new cemetery to the soldiers whose Union army defeated the Confederates in the Battle of Gettysburg. Just before his speech, Lincoln learns from Stark that his youngest son, Thomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln, had succumbed to a fever and that his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, overcome with grief, had hanged herself. The double tragedy comes not long after the death from illness of his elder son William ‘Willie’ Lincoln. In real life, however, Mary outlived her husband and three of her four sons; Tad Lincoln died in 1871 of heart failure and not fever. 

An 1864 photo of President Lincoln 
with his youngest son, Tad.
© Wikipedia
Remember, this is history that never happened.

In spite of his great sorrow, Lincoln delivers his landmark address beginning with “Four score and seven years ago…” and ending with “…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish…” as we have known it for more than a century.

But something snaps inside the president. Haunted by the deaths of his wife and sons, Lincoln reveals a side to him that you’d scarcely think of. Delineating from his prepared speech, the president, “his face dark with anger and hatred,” swears vengeance on the Confederacy, the southern states that ceded from the United States in 1861 leading to the Civil War.

Lincoln’s extempore remarks changes the course of the war, in a way that left me speechless and at the same time marvelling at James Reasoner’s imaginative telling of the story. I was quite unprepared for it, I admit.

I very much enjoyed reading this tale of alternate history by the author of the Civil War Battles series and hundreds of other books. It made me think how different history might have been if we looked at other epoch-making events of the world in a similar manner. For instance, what would have happened if Mahatma Gandhi hadn't been thrown out of a first-class coach of a train at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, one of many humiliations he suffered and which provoked him into returning to India and fight for independence from the British?

The Blood of the Fallen, which originally appeared in the anthology Alternate Gettysburgs, is available at Amazon. Highly recommended.

Note: Previous reviews of short stories by James Reasoner: The Red Reef and The Man in the Moon.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, 2015

I intend to read this 288-page book after it is released on July 14, 2015, exactly fifty-five years (thanks, Sergio) after the celebrated but reclusive author wrote her award-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

© Harper
Go Set a Watchman, a title borrowed from Isaiah 21:6, is said to be a prequel to Harper Lee’s debut novel. She wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird, her only published novel till date, though media reports have labelled it as a sequel.

Describing Go Set a Watchman as “An historic literary event,” Publisher Harper said it was originally written in the mid-1950s. Harper Lee first submitted it to her publishers but it was never published—“Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.”

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch-Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving (her father) Atticus, (his attitude toward) society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

“Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.”

It’d be interesting to read Go Set a Watchman and then immediately reread To Kill a Mockingbird and connect the lost thread between the two novels that have somewhat similar covers. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Musings on a Good Friday

As far as my reading in 2015 goes, I have begun the year with woes rather than wows. I’m running out of excuses and lamentations on why I’m reading and reviewing fewer books and blogging even less, although I have been managing to visit a few blogs. And yet, I find there is no dearth of alibis and they’re all genuine; that is if alibis can, indeed, be genuine.

Over the past few days I have been caught up in both personal and official responsibilities like a fortnight of major home repairs, helping a friend look for a new house, a Wi-Fi router on the blink and in need of immediate replacement, a brief out-of-town visit to my company’s annual sales conference, braving above 32-degree Celsius (90 F) temperature that is so humidifying as to take the fun out of reading in non-air conditioned trains—my library on wheels—and single-handedly writing, editing and filing stories for my paper and portal. 

An illustrative picture of an autorickshaw.
© Wikimedia Commons
It’ll be a while before I regain my mood to read books and improve my statistics that nearly hit the bottom in March. I’ll cover that in two sentences in my next post. For now, I’ll tell you about my travel to the annual conference. 

Thursday morning, I took the ‘local’ train to a distant suburban railway station from where I took a “sharing” autorickshaw to the venue, a resort, located some 15 km (9 miles) on National Highway-8. “Sharing” means you share the auto and the fare with five or six people. It’s a popular money-saving concept in India. We were seven passengers and three of us, including myself, sat next to the driver on a seat that was no bigger than a large pillow. My left leg and half my ass were out. Don’t ask me how I managed. The incentive was the fare per passenger, Rs.40 (0.64 cents). 

© Prashant C. Trikannad
As I got off at the station, called Naigaon, where “nai” means new and “gaon” means place or village, I felt as if I’d got off at a station in the countryside hundreds of miles from Mumbai when, in fact, it was less than 30 km (18 miles) from the bustling suburb where I live. As you can see from the picture, the station was so deserted, I found it spooky. If you’re from Mumbai, you’re not used to such empty platforms. From 7 am to 11 pm there are no less than a thousand people on the platforms at each of the dozens of stations within the city and its neighbouring suburbs.

At Naigaon, there were no buildings on the east side where I was headed; only a creek, salt pans, and open land almost till we touched NH-8. The place wasn't quaint or anything like that. But it struck me as odd because I realised development hadn't even remotely touched this distant suburb, ironically, in spite of its proximity to India's financial capital. It's a good thing it hasn't. The last thing we need is one more urban jungle ill-defined by narrow thinking and claustrophobic living.

I resisted the urge to drive down to the venue because a fast train cuts travel time by half and besides you get to read on the 45-minute single journey, as I did yesterday. On the way back I listened to some good old Hindi film songs, equivalent to 50s & 60s hits in America.

Today is Good Friday, a public and bank holiday in India. I don’t have an official holiday but my Christian colleagues are entitled to take the day off. I walked in late as I had to sort out a few things with the contractor and his kadias (masons) at home. I thought I’d file this piece before I left office later this evening. In case I don’t come back on the weekend, here’s wishing ‘Happy Easter’ to all my blog friends and their families.

Friday, March 27, 2015

America, America by Elia Kazan, 1962

This would be my sixth review under my “First Novels” challenge and, I’d assume, a deserving entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase, which is being handled by Evan Lewis at his blog Davy Crockett's Almanack today.

My copy of the book.
Elia Kazan, the renowned Greek-American filmmaker, wrote his first novel America, America in 1962 and made it into an award-winning film a year later. It was released as The Anatolian Smile in the UK.

By then, however, Kazan, who The New York Times called “one of the most honoured and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history,” had already produced and directed many acclaimed films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, The Arrangement (based on his book), and The Last Tycoon. He also acted in a few films including City for Conquest alongside James Cagney and Ann Sheridan.

I’m familiar with Kazan as a filmmaker but not as an author of some half-a-dozen novels, including The Arrangement which he wrote in 1967 and filmed in 1969, besides nonfiction works like Elia Kazan: A Life, his autobiography.

I was, therefore, surprised when I came across the first 1969 Sphere Books edition, pictured above. At first I thought it was a work of nonfiction; perhaps, a book about filmmaking; he has written those too. Instead, it turned out to be semi-autobiographical where Kazan gives us more or less a fictional account of a youth who spends his life in hardship and poverty and his burning desire to run away to America and start a new life. Kazan was born in Istanbul, to Cappadocian Greek parents who migrated to the US.

The 186-page novel has an introduction by playwright-screenwriter Samuel Nathaniel Behrman titled ‘An Effrontery of a Director.’ It is set in and around a poor village situated at the foot of Mount Argaeus in Anatolia, known as the Asian part of Turkey. I believe the period is late 19th century when the centuries-old Ottoman Empire ruled by Muslim Turks persecuted the Greek and Armenian minorities.

It is the story of Stavros Topouzoglou, a young handsome Greek and the eldest of five brothers and three sisters, who feels stifled in his large simple-minded but poverty-afflicted family. His yearning for America keeps him out of the house a lot of the time and he spends a good deal of it with a proud and fearless Armenian rebel called Vartan whom he idolises. The Turkish rulers terrorise the Armenians more than the Greeks and during one brutal crackdown on an underground meeting, Vartan is killed.

Fearing for his family, Stavros’ father, Isaac, entrusts him with all the family wealth including jewellery, rugs, utensils and clothes, and sends him to distant Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), to a cousin who deals in rugs. The obedient Stavros, bound by respectful traditions like bowing before his father and kissing his hands, agrees to undertake the “mission of hope” and sets out on a donkey.

America, America is all about that momentous journey Stavros takes, in the hope that he will do well by his family and also realise his dream of going to the ultimate land of freedom and opportunity. But, man proposes, god disposes. The young man’s journey soon turns into a nightmare. In addition to being obedient and honest, Stavros is also naïve and trusting, and for the reader infuriatingly dumb. He is set upon by a thieving opportunist who befriends him, robs him of everything, and betrays him to the law, eventually forcing Stavros to murder his oppressor. By the time he arrives at his uncle’s home in Constantinople, he is penniless; even his donkey has run out on him.

Stavros finds himself homeless and hungry, scavenging for food and doing hard jobs for survival. But does he learn his lesson? Does he realise his dream?

There is more to the novel than I have let on. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven't read it. Elia Kazan has written a brilliant and moving story of one man’s dream and in a style that is at once captivating. I'm not sure if Kazan wrote it in English or if this is a translated work. Either way, the language is simple yet emotive, a reflection of the way it was probably spoken in rural Turkey more than a century ago. For a frame of reference, think of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, though not in the same way.

Elia Kazan’s narrative is also unintentionally funny as you will see from the following dialogue..

Aleko releases a sort of sigh: “Ach…ach…”

Other brothers: “Ach…ach…ach…”

Aleko: “Too much. Too much food!”

Other brothers: “Too much! Too much!”

More sighs. Then, one by one, they undo the top buttons of their trousers, and thus ease out their bellies.

Aleko: “I tell those women don’t put so much food on the table, but they don’t listen.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Musings from my Facebook page

This would be my first Musings post this year. I’d forgotten all about it. I thought I’d share with you some of my inane jottings on my Facebook page under the heading ‘Odds and Ends’ which is neither here nor there, or anywhere else for that matter.

March 25: The fat is really in the fire. It’s an absolute scorcher out there, 41 degree Celsius (105.8 F) at 2 pm, up from 33 (91.4 F) on Monday. Wet with sweat? No, it’s much more than that. It's sweaticles! This is the time I wish I’d heeded my mother’s advice—“Finish your graduation and get a nice job in a bank,” she said. “You can stay there till retirement,” she said. “You’ll get free bank loans and so many holidays,” she said. Free bank loans? Never mind. I'm thinking of all the public holidays and no travelling to work. Right now, I'm staring at next fortnight’s calendar and asking myself—“Why couldn't I have had an employer like RBI, our federal bank?” What a generous fellow! Take a look.

March 28: Ram Navami (the day Lord Ram, the Hindu god, was born)
March 29: Sunday
April 1: Annual Closing of Accounts (at least no customers)
April 2: Mahavir Jayanti (the day Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was born)
April 3: Good Friday
April 4: Half-day, being Saturday
April 5: Sunday

Withdraw your money in advance. Later, there’ll be a run on ATMs. The machines will dry up, that is, if the heat doesn't melt your card first. You can’t bank on anyone these days.

March 24: I'm putting my neck on the guillotine. It is two months since I jumped on the Fb bandwagon and here is my verdict. It does wonders for the bruised ego, for the ego is always bruised. All these likes (and yikes), comments (and laments), and shares (and tears), making you seem popular and notorious at the same time, or notoriously popular if you like. A mild and harmless activity, really, even if a self-conscious and self-absorbing one. An occupational hazard, for the more prolific you are here, the less productive you are elsewhere. I, me, myself, 24x7, well almost. So here I am: addicted to my status, for all it is worth, 7 likes and 4 comments.

March 23: A week ago, it was 24 degree Celsius (75.2 F) at Churchgate. Either the winter gods had overstayed their visas or the sun gods were in snooze time. Today, it is 33 degree Celsius (91.4 F) and climbing, and it looks as if the hot gods are making up for lost time—they're throwing flames out there. One singed my eyebrows, another seared my earlobes and I can
already feel the skin peeling off my back in April-May.

While I can’t run off to 14°C (57.2 F)  Darjeeling, here's what I'm going to do to take some of the heat off from the fire-breathers in heaven—cut down on tea and coffee and drink four bottles of water a day, with a couple of fresh coconut water thrown in; eat plenty of fruits and salads without sugar and salt; cover my head with a wide-brimmed hat like the sombrero, they come in many colours; wear loose cotton clothes, preferably a poncho for maximum cross-ventilation; remain indoors, switch on the air-conditioner, and forget about next month’s electricity bill; speak less, that way I scream less; and finally, meditate, to keep a lid on my simmering temper—the sun total of all our troubles every summer.

March 20: I'm back in the 8.03 am local. Me and my fellow commuters are doing things without actually doing anything. Scanning financial newspapers, playing with cellphones, snoozing and snoring, reading books without turning pages, staring aimlessly into space, staring at each other, listening to music without earphones, reading shlokas and scriptures...a compartment of collective boredom and symbolic gestures. Aren't we the fortunate ones?

March 19: With so many logins and passwords online, it’s a wonder we don’t forget our own names. It’s not always easy to remember which login goes with which password and where, especially if you haven’t written it down somewhere. I usually devise my passwords by mixing and matching titles of, and characters from, books and comics and films and television series as well as memorable lines from all of these sources. I like them long. I find them easier to remember and I mostly log in successfully in my first attempt.

Sometimes I have a lot of fun thinking up weird and whacky passwords like these.

youmiserablethumbsuckingswine (you miserable thumb sucking swine)

whatthebloodyhell (what the bloody hell)

youlistentomeandyoulistengood (you listen to me and you listen good)

keepyourfilthypawsoffme (keep your filthy paws off me)

I think I'll lay off crime fiction and crime films for some time.

March 18: Every time I sit to meditate, I remember what the mystics say, "Witness the flow of your mind. Let your thoughts come and go." Thoughts come and go, all right, only to be replaced by newer and more robust ones. They are a formidable lot, these thoughts of ours. They play musical chairs in our head. This morning, for instance, try as I might, I couldn't remain immune to my thoughts, particularly one nagging thought that just wouldn't go away—“what shall I post on Fb today?” I found myself very eager to answer the question.

March 17: This morning, Mumbai woke up to pleasant weather and a cool breeze. It's March 17 and the temp is 24 degree Celsius at Churchgate, 9.25 am. Let's not wake up the sun gods.

Friday, March 20, 2015

No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, 1939

Another week, another review for my “First Novels” challenge and for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Like The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), the first novel by Erle Stanley Gardner I reviewed last Friday, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), the first novel by James Hadley Chase does not require a full-scale review. Most readers, and especially fans of crime and mystery, have read both these hardboiled novels featuring some very hardnosed characters of mid-20th century noir fiction. I'm sure both these novels must have set a trend, in terms of characterisation and plotting, for at least some of the crime stories that followed.

I can’t help thinking that both Gardner and Chase wrote their first novels as something of an experiment and in spite of much success and acclaim, they changed tack—Gardner, in his characterisation of Perry Mason from a gruff and tough lawyer-detective to a suave and smart attorney, and Chase, by toning down the vileness and violence in his stories. Either way, it worked for both the authors.

In No Orchids for Miss Blandish, also known as The Villain and the Virgin, Chase takes the immoral high ground in his stark and brutal depiction of a high-profile kidnapping and the villainous characters behind it. The abductors of the beautiful and diamond studded Miss Blandish, the daughter of a Kansas City millionaire, are both small-time thugs and big-time gangsters, although she spends months of drugged existence in captivity of the latter, namely the Grisson gang led by the fat and repulsive Ma Grisson and her knife-wielding psychopathic son, Slim, who takes a wicked shine to the girl.

Unlike in The Case of the Velvet Claws where Perry Mason is around to fight for his client, Eva Belter, there are no heroes for Miss Blandish in this novel; at least not until much later when her father, John Blandish, frustrated by the failures of the local police and the FBI, hires underworld reporter turned private investigator, Dave Fenner, to look for his daughter. Dave is tough and street smart but he’s just a good guy who knows the gangsters inside-out. His investigation finally leads him to the nefarious gang and the horrible truth behind the girl’s abduction.

As you read through Chase’s fast-paced and gut-wrenching narrative, you can’t help agreeing with John Blandish, that his drugged and deflowered girl, even if found alive and rescued, is better off dead.

There are no major characters in this story, which is both scary and sickening. There are only a handful of bad guys and good guys whose fate, one way or other, revolves around the one person who says and does the least—Miss Blandish herself. This gripping novel owes its success to an imaginative plot and some clever writing by James Hadley Chase. It's the kind of story that can be reviewed with a liberal use of adjectives, as I have done here.


Note: J. Kingston and Keishon have posted excellent reviews of No Orchids for Miss Blandish over at their blogs Rap Sheet and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, respectively.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do you get turned off by TV drama?

Last week, I decided to stop watching Downton Abbey, the television drama which chronicles the trials and triumphs of an aristocratic English family and their servants. I was discouraged by the last episode, S4/E4, where Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), a lady’s maid to the Crawley family, is raped by a visiting valet in the deserted servants’ quarters while everyone is engrossed in a performance by a famous opera singer.

Until the crime, Anna and John Bates (Brendan Coyle), her husband and butler to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, were the perfect couple—madly in love, fiercely caring and loyal, kind and thoughtful, and of charitable disposition. They have had their share of trouble in the wrongful conviction of Mr. Bates for the murder of his ex-wife. He spends weeks on death row before Anna investigates and finds proof of his innocence. Mr. Bates is released and they are back in Downton where the two lovebirds rent a cottage and live happily.

And then the rape happens and their happy little world comes crashing down, and with it my interest in the television drama.

Couldn't the makers of this refined soap opera have at least spared the Bates? Weren't they content with the many instances of misfortune and tragedy that strikes both the Crawleys and their servants? Why drag Anna and John into it?

The fact that Anna and Mr. Bates continue to share a beautiful relationship, in spite of the heinous crime and its sad aftermath, wasn't enough. They ought to have been left alone. Maybe, I'm getting old and sentimental. The family explained that the makers of Downton Abbey were being realistic and that such things happened to normal people in real life, so why not to characters in a television show. It was merely part of the script. I wasn't convinced. 

I think a part of me wanted the goodness and perfection represented by the Bates to go on forever; perhaps, because we see far too much of the opposite of the two virtues in the real world.

I don’t recall the last time I was so affected by something I saw on television or in film. Maybe, this is why.

Two episodes later, when Mr. Bates finds out what happened to Anna that night and why she had distanced herself from him, this is what takes place between them.

Anna: But I am spoiled for you, and I can never be unspoiled.

Bates: You are not spoiled. You're made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you have been put through. You're my wife and I have never been prouder nor loved you more than I love you now in this moment.

It was an affecting scene and I was glad, at least, the makers of Downton Abbey had maintained the sanctity of the Anna-John relationship.

Does this sort of thing happen to you?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Photo Essay: Books by Weight is back!

I could have browsed all night…

As the title suggests, this post is largely pictorial. The Books by Weight exhibition of Butterfly Books in South Mumbai, of which I wrote about in 2013, is back again. Millions of books—paperbacks and hardbacks
are on sale according to their weight. General fiction weighs at Rs.100 ($1.6) a kg, children’s, literature and reference books Rs.200 ($3) a kg, and books by premium authors are up for Rs.300 ($4.7) a kg.

Books by Weight, currently on inside the sprawling Sunderbhai Hall near Churchgate Station, is the brainchild of entrepreneurs, husband and wife Ajay and Madhavi Gupta, who personally  oversee the exhibition which opened on March 4 and will run through April 1.

The exhibition is a sight for sore eyes. A lover of books can spend an entire day browsing through the horizontal stacks. There are also open cartons filled with books specific to genres like science fiction and children’s literature, particularly Enid Blyton. This afternoon, I spent two hours at the exhibition and though I found many books that I’d have loved to buy, I couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I bought four novels, one each by Don Pendleton, Carter Dickson, Donald E. Westlake, and Ed McBain, weighing less than 1 kg and costing a total of Rs.70 ($1.1). The books were in good condition.

The main categories of books on sale include, apart from fiction, biographies, sports, law and academia, children’s literature, science fiction, health, craft and cooking, travel, antiques, interiors, astrology, religion, war, history, wildlife, gardening, and photography.

I’ll be going back for more as the venue is less than a kilometre from my office, which doesn’t help my reading cause.

Where does it end?

A few popular authors.

Cartons of science fiction.

Another row, more books.

More famous authors and their books.

Hardbacks on parade.

Books, books everywhere...

© All photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

I review this novel as part of my own “First Novels” challenge and for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog, Pattinase.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), the first Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner, is unlike any Perry Mason I have read. 

Mason doesn’t go to court, so there is neither a court trial nor a court battle. There is no district attorney Hamilton Burger or Lieutenant Arthur Tragg. A young and emotional Della Street and a sleepless and hardworking Paul Drake assist him on the case. There is a beautiful and seductive client who hires him to rescue her out of possible blackmail, involving her and an ambitious politician. She pays him a handsome retainer, flirts with him, lies to him, pleads with him, and turns around and accuses him when her husband, the owner of a society rag, turns up dead. Finally, there is Mason himself who, in spite of being in serious trouble, refuses to ditch his client and dump the case.

The Case of the Velvet Claws requires no introduction or review. Most readers of mystery and legal thrillers and especially fans of Perry Mason have read it. The tale of blackmail and murder has enough grit and grime and reads like the plot of a hardboiled novel. What really elevates the story is the hardnosed character of Perry Mason who pulls out every trick from his legal hat to extricate himself from the mess and sticks his neck out to prove his crafty client’s innocence. In this, he is both gangster-like and gentlemanly.

During an emotional lip-locking scene between Perry Mason and Della Street, Gardner uses a term which, I thought, best describes his character in the novel—“gruff tenderness.”

Fans of Perry Mason will enjoy The Case of the Velvet Claws for the excellent storyline and characterisation and because, like I said, it’s unlike any Mason novel you are likely to read subsequently.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Spontaneity is the art of life

One July afternoon, four years ago, I finished my lunch in office and on an impulse decided to draw something. I typed “scenery” and “landscape” in Google images and found one I thought would be easy to sketch in half an hour. After all, I was being paid to bring out a newspaper, not give vent to my creative juices. I picked up my HB pencil and rubber, flicked an A4-size paper from the printer, and proceeded to replicate the image sitting on my desktop. I don’t know what inspired me at the time. It was probably the canteen food laced with sodium bicarbonate. Two days later, my pet dog, who was less than a year old, made a nice meal out of my sketch. Luckily, I’d got it scanned. This was the end result. 

Copyright: Prashant C. Trikannad

I might add that professional art runs on my mother’s side though just about everyone in the family dabbles in it. I might also add that I posted just this sketch on my blog in July 2011. Back then, I was new to blogging and didn’t know many bloggers. Okay, now I'm fishing!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mack Bolan needs a new home

Mack Bolan #1 by Don Pendleton
On March 6, fellow blogger Evan Lewis reviewed a Mack Bolan action-thriller The Executioner 42: The Iranian Hit by Stephen Mertz on his blog Davy Crockett’s Almanack. There, thanks to a comment by Steve Lewis, I learned that Gold Eagle, publisher of The Executioner series, had decided to close down, leaving Mack Bolan homeless, at least for now.

I completely missed Gold Eagle’s announcement, June 12, 2014, on its website—“Gold Eagle will be closed down in December 2015. All of the series belonging to Gold Eagle have been cancelled. Whether Mack Bolan will find a new home with a different publisher remains to be seen.”

When Gold Eagle says “All of the series belonging to Gold Eagle have been cancelled,” I assume it includes, apart from the 400-plus Mack Bolan novels, spinoffs like Super Bolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force, and Stony Man.

Mack Bolan, universal soldier, is a fictional character originally created by American writer Don Pendleton (1927-1995) who wrote 37 of the novels before selling his rights to Gold Eagle in 1980. Since then, Gold Eagle went on to publish some 700 novels, more than half of which include Mack Bolan standalone adventures. All of these have been written by a number of ghostwriters that include Stephen Mertz, Mike Newton, Thomas Ramirez, and Mel Odom.

Mack Bolan #442 by Mike Newton
I first read Mack Bolan in the mid-eighties. I was in my teens. I saw this paperback, whose title I don’t remember now, sticking out from under a pile of books at a private circulating library. I took it out and said to myself, “I can draw this picture.” In those days drawing and painting was a serious hobby, influenced by professional artists on my mother’s side. I found the cover attractive and proceeded to replicate it in an A4-size drawing book.

I don’t know what happened to my illustration but I read the novel and was hooked on to Mack Bolan—the warrior, the one-man army, the fighting machine. But then, I forgot all about The Executioner series in the nineties and until the close of the last decade when I revived my reading and collection of Mack Bolan and the spinoffs. They are not easily available in India but I have managed to buy some two dozen of the books, brand new from used bookshops.

So even if Mack Bolan doesn’t find a new home soon, I still have plenty of his books to read. Bolan novels are seldom boring. They are as quick as his trigger finger.

Friday, March 6, 2015

All’s Fair… by Richard Wormser, 1937

Today is Holi in India, the ancient Hindu religious festival also known as the spring festival and, more popularly, as the festival of colours or the festival of love. People light a bonfire the previous night and step out on to the streets next morning to smear and bathe each other in a riot of dry and wet colours, and sing and dance and make merry. I stayed indoors, as I do every year, and used the public holiday to do something useful, like writing this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“We want you to go in there," the scarred man said, "and find out who killed young Gowan. Why, how, everything. But you'll have to work undercover.”

Before I get down to my brief review of All’s Fair…, here’s a word about the New York-born author. Richard Wormser (1908-1977) has claimed to have written seventeen Nick Carter magazine stories during 1932-33. I have never read Nick Carter as a pulp fiction private detective who made his debut in 1886. I have only read his latter-day adventures as an AXE spy called Killmaster.

The novella All’s Fair… is about young MacBlair who travels from one mining county in California in the West to another in Ware County in the East ostensibly to learn how labour is taken care of and how miners are handled.

“They got a right to know about unions. So we sent this man in. Told him to play it easy, avoid the rough stuff. Hell, it's fertile ground there!

In reality, Mac is an organiser and a troubleshooter. He has been sent all the way to Ware County by union leader Lawrence to find out who killed his son, Gowan, and help bring the killer to justice.

The brave and feisty Mac operates undercover, disguised as the son of a fictitious mine owner in the west.

In Ware County, he encounters big old John Alastair and old Harford Rand, two rich and powerful mine owners who run the county with an iron hand. They are backed by corrupt deputies, foremen, and spies who help them keep a tight lid on union trouble.

Mac stays with the Alistairs who believe he is, in fact, the son of a fellow mine owner on a study tour, and enjoys their hospitality. Openly, he learns their mining ways; secretly, he investigates Gowan’s murder.

It’s not long before Mac falls in love with blue-eyed Sue Alastair who discovers his identity and the purpose of his visit to Ware County. She surprises Mac by revealing she is on the side of the miners.

The Mac-Sue love story, subdued as it’d seem, is soon overshadowed by the miners who, led by Lawrence, now in their midst, strike work. Sue is kidnapped but safe. And Mac finds himself in the crossfire between the mine owners and their gun-toting henchmen on one hand and the striking mine workers on the other.

In spite of its fast pace, All Fair’s… is a moderate story about mine owners and their treatment of mine workers. It’s all quite atmospheric, in fact, and probably reflective of the state of union labour and the condition of miners prevalent at the time. I agree with the description that “It is more than a stirring love story” and that “Its setting is a turbulent mining county where money and corrupt politicians rule with guns” into which Mac walks to solve a murder. No single character, not even Mac's, stands out which doesn't make this novella any less readable.

“I don't get you, mister,” Mac said, mopping. “I’m from California.”

“Yeah?” One-eye sneered. “And me, I’m from the moon. What the hell, have the conservative unions gone in for boring from within now? I thought they left that to us?”

Judging from All’s Fair…, Richard Wormser, I suspect, knew a thing or two about the mining business and how it worked. At times I felt the novella read like a western for there were shades of it.

The author
Richard Edward Wormser wrote pulp and detective fiction, screenplays, and westerns, some of it under the pseudonym of Ed Friend. He is believed to have written 300 short stories, 200 novelettes, 12 books, and even a cookbook titled Southwest Cookery or At Home on the Range. He was fairly known for his Nick Carter stories. His two murder-mystery novels are The Man with the Wax Face and The Communist's Corpse. I’m interested in reading his pulp fiction.