Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dr. No, The Fugitive Pigeon, Recalled to Life, Almost Dead

Audible was having a big sale, including lots of James Bond, so I bought Dr. No as a bit of a lark. The book was actually a surprise in a few ways. Probably the biggest one was the treatment of Bond's love interest, Honey Rider. He has moral qualms about possibly taking advantage of her (and never does so through the novel), she ends up escaping from her trap before he does. Bond himself is also portrayed a bit less cold-bloodedly than I remember.

On the negative side, Dr. No is not a very interesting villain. His plan is pretty pedestrian (interfere with US missile communications to have the missiles drop into the ocean), and it might as well not be there -- I think it's mentioned for one paragraph in a throw-away, and Bond never even goes to the trouble of shutting it down. Dr. No seems more interesting in torturing Bond for no particularly good reason. On the whole, it was a fun read; at 7 hours it's a very short book, and in these days of logorrhea, that's not a bad thing.

If amazon can be believed, The Fugitive Pigeon was Donald Westlake's first comic caper novel. These are stories where the hapless protagonist blunders into a situation and ends up having many people chasing him for their various nefarious reasons. The problem with many of these stories is that the whole plot is always based on some initial misunderstanding, and so the ending can be a letdown -- they journey's the thing, not the destination. The Fugitive Pigeon, though, manages to avoid this problem. By the end of the book, with the whole mob chasing after our hero, it turns out there wasn't a misunderstand; there was a deliberate frame that he was placed into. In all, if this was Westlake's first such novel (they'd later become one of his staples), it's a remarkable example of the genre.

I wasn't so enamored of the last couple of Dalziel & Pascoe novels I read (Bones and Silence and Underworld), but Recalled to Life is a return to form. There's the playfulness moving from the title, through the epigraphs from each chapter being obviously from A Tale of Two Cities to the cute "It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes etc". More importantly, there's a nice balance between Pascoe's private life and the main story, as well as a nice balance between Dalziel and Pascoe.

On a side note, this novel also shows one of the positives of a series vis-a-vis a stand-alone novel. We can see the steady degradation of Pascoe's marriage over time in a way that would be difficult in a stand-alone novel. It's not really interesting enough to make the focus of a novel; if anything, it gains poignancy from the fact that there aren't any major dramatic moments. There are also enough fits and starts to make me hope that they work it out in the long run...

I pretty much swore off Charlie Huston after A Dangerous Man. It wasn't so much bad as just disappointing, and I just looked back and realized I never even blogged about it. I do see that in my post about Six Bad Things, I said "Huston doesn't break any new ground with this novel, but he does the same-old-same-old so well that I know I'll be reading the final book in the trilogy." Unfortunately, that same-old did start get old. But amazon was offering Almost Dead as a free download, and I figured that maybe a totally different sort of novel would reinvigorate my interest.

Almost Dead has an intriguing premise -- a hard-boiled vampire detective novel set in New York. Huston fleshes the setting out with 5 vampire clans competing for territory while trying to stay hidden from humans. The book was fun while it was lasted, but I have no particular desire to read more of the series. It's partly that vampire books don't really push my buttons, but also the book is too self-conscious about the various genres it's mixing -- Huston has a clan of kung-fu vampires, another drawn from mob stories, another that's a parody of socially-conscious movements, a biker gang, and so on. You can see the literary antecedents of each one, and Huston is just a little too over-the-top with each one.

It's funny -- it just occurs to me that I lauded Reginald Hill for doing something similar in Recalled to Life. I think the big difference is that the Tale of Two Cities references mostly lie there in the background, not really calling much attention to themselves. They add an extra resonance (or even just a moment of pleasure at the cleverness) if you recognize them, but Hill isn't constantly drawing on Dickens, or throwing in Darnay/Carter equivalents.

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