My short story collection Bad Men is reviewed by Kevin Tipple over at his blog today. I had a lot of fun writing those stories, and there’s a wink or a smirk behind most of them. Only “The Leap” and (especially) “Payday” are entirely sincere. The whole premise of “Grace, Period” is that a mobster in witness protection uses his former methods in his new career – bookselling. (It also includes a James Patterson joke.)
If anyone is interested in buying this e-book (only 99 cents! 14 cents per story!) here’s the link:
Bad Men by Graham Powell
Dr. Priestly had not seen his old friend Sir John Claverton in almost a year when he received a note asking him to come round for a visit. When Priestly arrives he finds that Clarverton’s sister Mrs. Littlecote and her adult daughter Helen have taken up residence, and Claverton’s nephew through his other sister, Durnford, is also lurking about.
Priestly sees Claverton soon enough, and learns he’s been ill for some time. Nothing serious, according to Dr. Oldland (a mutual friend). But Oldland is oddly insistent that he and Priestly share a car as they leave Claverton’s residence, and he soon makes the reason clear: Claverton is only just now recovering from a severe spell caused by arsenic. Oldland is unsure what to do about this – he can’t accuse anyone without at least some idea of who did it – so he asks Priestly to keep look in on old Claverton from time to time and see what he can turn up.
Unfortunately, they are too late. Claverton dies two days later from a gastric attack that bears the hallmark of arsenic. Priestly is convinced of this, and convinced he knows who is responsible, and is more than a little surprised to find out he is completely and totally wrong.
Author John Rhode belonged to a school of Golden Age writers in England who were more concerned with the mechanics of plot puzzles than with characterization or prose style. As Julian Symons said, “”Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it.” They were called the “humdrums”, and no book written by any of them could possibly have been more humdrum than The Claverton Affair.
No character in this story exhibits more personality than the precise amount called for by the plot. The prose is impeccably precise, and the events happen in a sensible order. The story doesn’t seem particularly dull, but neither is it particularly interesting. An episode of Dragnet has more suspense and more laughs. Halfway through I began to amuse myself by imagining Dr. Priestly speaking in the most pompous manner possible – Claude Rains, for example, in one of his aristocratic roles. This was much more entertaining than the book itself.
The mystery is eventually explained, at length, and the malefactor is brought to justice. But I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone with more than an academic interest in it. Some books deserve to be forgotten.
Dr. George Matthews, New York psychiatrist, has a new patient, well-to-do young man named Jacob Blunt. Blunt has a good reason for visiting a shrink: he thinks he’s going crazy. Although he doesn’t need the money, he’s begun working for a leprechaun who pays him a dollar a day to wear a specific flower in his hair. Another leprechaun pays him to give away quarters to strangers. Dr. Matthews, naturally, is inclined to agree with his new patient: he is crazy.
The Jacob asks him if he’d like to meet one of the leprechauns, who turns out to be surprisingly real, though not a real leprechaun. He’s a little person, a former circus performer, and he says Jacob hired him. Before Matthews can sort all this out, he’s off on another job, to deliver a percheron – a kind of draft horse – to a well-known actress.
That night the actress is killed, and a drunken Blunt is found banging on the door of her apartment building, the percheron tied to a lamppost. Matthews is summoned to bail him out, but then, on a subway platform, he falls…
…and wakes up ten months later in an insane asylum, where his name is John Brown.
First, forget about the terrible title. It has only a slight relationship to the book itself, as the percherons (yes, there are two of them) are mostly incidental to the plot. This book is an entry in the “innocent victim or manic killer” genre, of which there are not nearly enough, and it keeps you guessing almost to the last page.
It is in fact very similar to Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, though it doesn’t have the manic narrative style of that book, and because the middle section of Percheron doesn’t have the urgency of the rest of the book. In addition, in Rogers’ book it’s left unstated that the evidence points to the narrator himself as the killer, though it’s clear to everyone – the narrator, the police, and most especially the reader. Bardin’s book is much less subtle.
But it’s still a great book! The fact that it suffers by comparison to maybe the best book in its class isn’t a knock; it’s a superior example of its type.
Earlier today I heard about the controversy over six writers withdrawing from the PEN America event next month over the selection of Charlie Hebdo as the recipient of the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Naturally, I was outraged, calling it “some big ol’ bullshit.”
Ban their books! Hell, burn their books! Right? RIGHT???
No. Not right. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was now part of the Internet Hate Machine, which I loathe. Are these writers – the most notable of whom is Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient – dead wrong? Yes. Do they deserve criticism? Yeah, I believe they do. Do they deserve to have shite hurled at them? No. After all, this debate is about freedom of speech.
The writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo can be assholes, frankly, and can stir up shit that they really don’t need to. That’s their right. Those same people were also told they would be killed if they didn’t stop. They didn’t, and many of them died. That took courage.
Salman Rushdie, who himself was targeted for death over The Satanic Verses, should get the last word: “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Don’t join Internet lynch mobs, folks. Or real ones, either.
« Back to the Past
Martin Edwards has spoken highly Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law on his blog, so when I saw a copy in the local used bookstore, I snapped it up. I’m very glad I did.
It’s late 1939. World War II has started, but Britain remains mostly unaffected, suffering only the irritations of a shortage of manpower and a nightly blackout. Against this backdrop, a rather pompous judge named Barber sets out with his retinue to ride the assizes of the (fictitious) Southern Circuit. The judge finds a certain wartime expediency extremely irritating: the customary trumpeters who mark his passage to court every day have been dispensed with.
Trouble rears its head in the very first town. The judge hears that a man to whom he once gave a very stiff sentence has been released, and is in fact nearby. To soothe his nerves the judge drinks a bit more than usual at dinner; and while driving home he runs a man down in his car. Fortunately the man is not killed, but by coincidence it’s a well-known concert pianist, who loses a finger as a result.
As the tour continues, strange incidents pile up. Is the newly released prisoner behind them? The pianist? His girlfriend, an acquaintance of the judge’s wife whose hostility is returned in full measure? And are these pranks, or serious attempts on Barber’s life?
The truth behind these acts is a bit of a muddle until the very end of the novel, though the ultimate resolution is surprising indeed, but this is not really the point of the novel. It’s much more a comedy of manners. Tragedy at Law is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, despite the fact that the author never stoops to anything as vulgar as a joke (with one exception – that judge’s marshal is in fact named Marshall). In its own way it’s as funny as the Rumpole stories, which similarly feature a barrister, but whose tone is much more jolly.
If you like bone-dry British humor and a well-done legal mystery – and the point of law on which this book turns is very obscure – I can guarantee that you’ll find this book enjoyable.