Thursday, January 31, 2013

Michigan mystery writers

     I was examining the magazine rack at New Horizon Book Shop recently when I noticed the latest issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine had a story by Doug Allyn, a Michigan author whom I once interviewed for Detroit Monthly magazine. That in turn reminded me of a couple of other Michigan mystery writers whom I used to read.
      Everyone's heard of Elmore Leonard, and Loren Estleman is also fairly well-known for Detroit P.I. Amos Walker novels and a series of historical Detroit mysteries, but there are many more crime and mystery writers here. The state seems peculiarly rich in them. Here are a few with whom you might care to curl up on a cold winter night.
     Doug Allyn has nine published books (so far), all but two of them connected to one series character or another. First, there were the Lupe Garcia novels, about a Detroit police detective: The Cheerio Killings and Motown Underground. These were OK, but didn't stand out for me. 
     Next were  three novels about Michelle “Mitch” Mitchell, a deep-water diver who inherits a bar in the Upper Peninsula when her father dies under mysterious circumstances: Icewater Mansions, Black Water and A Dance in Deep Water. I loved the first two books, but the third seemed to fall flat. Maybe Allyn or his publisher felt the same, since he didn't write a fourth. At least the first two did well enough to be reprinted in paperback.
     Then he wrote a collection of stories and one novel about veterinarian Dr. David Westbrook: All Creatures Dark and Dangerous: The Dr. David Westbrook Stories and The Burning of Rachel Hayes. I haven't read these, or his other short story collection, The Hard Luck Klub, or his most recent novel, Welcome to Wolf Country. 
     All of his books are now out of print except for a short story available for the Kindle, The Christmas Mitzvah, and the Suburban Library Cooperative doesn't seem to have any to lend either. A pity, but most seem to be available used from Amazon.

      All of Rob Kantners books -- 10 novels and one short story collection -- are about Ben Perkins, a handyman for a suburban condo community who freelances as a private detective and likes to fly ultralite planes. The first six were published by Bantam with a distinctive cover design, featuring Perkins' face showing through a stencil of the book's title: Back-Door Man, The Harder They Hit, Dirty Work, Hell's Only Half Full, Made in Detroit and The Thousand Yard Stare. The next three were published by Harpercollins with covers in a style more appropriate for some English tea cozy mysteries: The Quick and the Dead, The Red, White and Blues and Concrete Hero. There have been two more since then, this time in hardcover and paperback: Trouble is What I Do: Ben Perkins Stories and Final Fling. Some of the plots involve white supremacists, the Pope coming to Detroit and a plot to ruin an Alan Almond-type radio DJ. Except for the two most recent books, these are also out of print, and -- because they were paperback originals, I guess -- they also aren't currently stocked at the Suburban Library Cooperative. Used copies are sometimes available though. I wouldn't mind seeing all of them reprinted.

From Grove
      All but one of Jon A. Jackson's books -- the historical Detroit crime novel Go by Go -- concern Detective Sgt. "Fang" Mulheisen:  The Diehard -- not the basis for the Bruce Willis film! -- The Blind Pig, Grootka, Hit on the House, Deadman, Dead Folks, Man with an Axe, La Donna Detroit, Badger Games and No Man's Dog. I read the first six and enjoyed them, but towards the end they were getting repetitive. There was a character named Joe Service in the first few books, who never met Mulheisen but whose activities (he was a sort of fixer for the Mob) intersected. Gradually, he moved to center stage and it almost became a serial with Mulheisen pursuing him from book to book. I liked the character, but didn't like what Jackson was doing with him. I meant to check in on Jackson again, but other books beckoned. Jackson's books have all been released in hardcover, some are still in print and many are available at local libraries, so I think Ill give him another try.
     Do you have a favorite, underappreciated Michigan crime author? Let me know.

From Dianetics to Scientology and Beyond

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief

By Lawrence Wright


From Random

     The Church of Scientology doesn't like this book, but -- to the best of my knowledge -- they haven't tried to ruin the author's life with threats of legal or physical harassment, at least not yet.
     That's progress, I guess. Critics of the organization haven't always been that lucky, according to those critics anyway; Scientologists usually deny it.
     Scientology, in case you've never heard of it, is a religion and church, at least for IRS purposes. Sometimes its members say that it doesn't conflict with belief in Jesus Christ or his teachings. It involves application of dianetics, “the modern science of mental health,” and denial of psychotherapy, especially the drugs used to control mental problems.
      Both Scientology and dianetics were created -- or revealed, discovered, whatever word you care to use -- by L. Ron Hubbard, a writer of science fiction and other fictional genres. More than most religions, Scientology's scripture involves science fictional concepts, such as alien overlords and spaceships. Those science fictional revelations arent supposed to be revealed until you've reached the right spiritual level because premature knowledge of it might harm you. Attaining that spiritual level requires auditing and courses, all of which must be paid for by the acolyte. Some members who join the churchs Sea Org inner circle must sign billion year contracts. Celebrities are courted to become Scientologists because its believed this will generate good publicity and help spread the message of the church, which will help save and elevate humanity. Those who choose to leave the church are often visited by other members to attempt to persuade them to return. The church denies charges by critics that threats are used, or that contact with family still in the church will be denied if they don't return.

     The first time I remember learning of Scientology was in the book What Really Happened to the Class of ’65 by Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky. This book -- which followed the lives of some students from the graduating class of Palisades High School, referenced in a Time magazine article -- included a chapter on Jamie Kelso, “The Idealist.” Kelso, not long before the authors began working on the book, had signed his standard “billion year” contract with the Church of Scientology, so they contacted CoS to interview him (figuring, as they put it, he had a few years left on the contract), only to discover that he was no longer there, the Church representatives weren't supposed to talk about him, but were still looking for him and would appreciate it if the authors would tell them where he was if they found him. When they located Kelso, he explained that he had become one of the top Scientologists in the world, only to become disillusioned when he learned what they believe, i.e. the whole Xenu galactic warlord story (if you’re not familiar with it, look for the South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet”). At that time, he had joined the John Birch Society, which he claimed was misunderstood. (Currently he's a white supremacist who used to work for David Duke).
     Next, I heard about dianetics, the precursor to Scientology (as The Fountainhead is the precursor to Atlas Shrugged or The Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings), in “My Affair with Science Fiction,” an autobiographical article by Alfred Bester (you can read it online here). John W. Campbell, the famed and respected editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later renamed Analog) asked Bester to remove some Freudian terminology from a story because L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics had made Freud and psychotherapy obsolete. Campbell had Bester read Hubbard's first dianetics article on the spot, then tried to get him to use dianetics techniques to recall harmful events from his past that were damaging him. Bester tried to prevent himself from laughing at this man he liked and respected, and instead said “You’re absolutely right, Mr. Campbell, but the emotional wounds are too much to bear. I can’t go on with this.”

     I don't remember when I next encountered Hubbards Bridge. Maybe it was the publication of his novel Battlefield Earth, which was followed by the 10-volume Mission Earth (all mention of which is absent from the main text of Going Clear, along with allegations that there was manipulation of the sales figures to get them on the New York Times bestseller list). Maybe it was news stories about Scientologys attacks on its critics.
     I'm not sure if Scientology was mentioned in Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, or in the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal's magazine Skeptical Inquirer, or Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi. I do know that I never found it an attractive philosophy or organization, and nothing in Going Clear made it sound more attractive.

     Expanded from a New Yorker article about Academy Award-winning director Paul  Haggis, who left Scientology over its apparent homophobia and support for a ban on gay marriage (Haggis two daughters are gay), Going Clear gives a brief biography of Hubbard and his development first of dianetics and then Scientology, based on first-person accounts, private documents and the public record. Much is based on former Scientologists testimony, which the church denounces as untrustworthy because they hold a grudge.
     Its true that all current and some former Scientologists quoted in the book deny most of Wrights charges of physical and mental abuse. If true, it seems people stay and take the abuse, either because of fear, brainwashing or because they still believe Scientology is the only true path to salvation.
     If even half of what the book says about Scientology is accurate, Hubbard seems to have been crazy in his later years. Id always assumed he was just a hack sf writer and con man (he was alleged to have said something like “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion”). I guess that's progress, too.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fun, retro science fiction

 Thrilling Wonder Stories, 
Volume 1: Summer 2007
edited by Winston Engle
(Thrilling Wonder LLC)
From Barnes and
     Once upon a time, say the 1930s-1960s, there were many different science fiction magazines on the newsstands. The ones that are usually combed through for reprints now are the more serious ones, such as Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog). Others, such as Thrilling Wonder Stories, are now largely forgotten. They had more of a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon appeal, with covers featuring heroes fighting bug-eyed monster (BEM) aliens, clutching a ray gun in one hand and a barely clad glamour girls in a bubble space helmet in the other. They're what people have in mind when they sneer at science fiction.
     Yet there was good fiction in those magazines as well. Ray Bradbury, possibly the most respected science fiction author outside the science fiction community, penned many of his Martian Chronicles for these magazines.
     A few years ago, Winston Engle tried to relaunch Thrilling Wonder Stories with an anthology combining old and new stories. It only ran for two issues, so I presume the project is dead, but both are still available through the usual online vendors. I recently ran across the first issue, and it's a lot of fun.
     I confess the main reason I bought Thrilling Wonder Stories - Summer 2007 was because it contains The Portable Star  by Isaac Asimov, a short story of which the author was ashamed and deemed unsuitable for republication in anthologies or any of his many books. He said that in this story he had succumbed to a trend in science fiction of adding sexual elements to stories, and had done so in a cheap way.

     Well, naturally that made me want to read the story! (I presume that's one reason it's in this book.)
     Alas,  Dr. A was sometimes a poor judge of his own work. Not only is there no sex in the story (only a kiss), but the story is poor for reasons having nothing to do with sex. Four space travelers -- two married couples -- are stranded on an asteroid, and surrounded by curious telepathic aliens who manipulate their emotions and actions. Its a puzzle story -- how can they escape? -- of which Asimov was a master, but this one just isnt good. 
     Fortunately there are other stories more than worth the price of the anthology, including the classic The Moon Era by Jack Williamson (which Asimov had previously collected in his anthology Before the Golden Age). It's not a great story -- it's nonsense scientifically, and to describe the prose style as dated would be charitable -- but its fun. There's also The Irritated People, another fun (if not great), never-reprinted short by Ray Bradbury about a Cold War fought not with deadly weapons but merely irritating ones.
     New stories by Eric Brown (Three's a Crowd) and R. Neube (The Love Seat) deserve unreserved praise, not least for being modern and yet fitting in with the Thrilling Wonder Stories anthology concept.

     The issue/volume also has a couple of interesting articles on science fiction films and on science fiction fan Forest J. Ackerman (credited with coining the term sci-fi, though I was more familiar with him for his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland). 
     In addition to the contents, the book just looks good. It's on good paper, with black-and-white interior illustrations, old and new, and an attractive, colorful retro cover in the style of the ones I mentioned above.
     The second issue/volume is also available, featuring David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven and other writers associated with Star Trek (I guess he was hoping to hook into the show's fan base to improve sales), but I haven't read it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Frankenstein Variations, Part 2

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
Directed by Jack Smight
Written by Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood
(Universal Studios)

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont
(Sony Pictures)

     I hope no students attempted to get out of reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by watching either of these two film versions. If so, the grades they received must have been rather low.
     Of the hundreds of versions out there, from the 1910 version for Thomas Edison's company to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, the two with seemingly the greatest pretensions to faithfulness, based on their titles, are Frankenstein: The True Story, a 1970s TV version, and Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. Fidelity does not guarantee quality, however, and although the latter is closer to the plot of the novel, the former is far more interesting and a better work of art.
     (Another version, which I've only seen parts of, and not for decades, Victor Frankenstein, is available on DVD as Terror of Frankenstein. Even the creation sequence took place in a cottage, not a castle, and was decidedly low-tech.)
     The most disappointing thing about both F: TTS and MSF is that is that while both adaptations do include rather more of Shelley's plot elements and characters than most, Frankensteins creation is so much less articulate than in the novel where, although he is born with a mind like a new-born babe, he becomes eloquent and educated by teaching himself to read Goethes Sorrows of Young Werther, among other tomes.
     Another thing that bothered me about both films is that in neither does Frankenstein discover the secret of creating life himself; that feat belongs to his mentor. Frankenstein just follows instructions.  Also, when the mentor dies, he takes his brain and places it in their creation (Shelley never cites the origins of the brain, thus avoiding troublesome questions of whether it's memories and mind would survive intact).
     Additionally, in Branaghs film, when the Creature kills Elizabeth, Frankenstein uses her brain in the Creatures mate. However, she retains her memories, and commits suicide rather than continue living in such a state -- a twist that seems to have been lifted whole from another film, the 1990 Roger Cormans Frankenstein Unbound  (based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, a curious mix of the novel, Shelleys life and time travel).

       By making the creature look and sound like Robert De Niro, I knew the picture was in trouble from the start. While I don't ask for total fidelity, he neither looks or sounds like the books creature, being bald (the creature had luxurious black hair and white teeth because Frankenstein was trying to make him beautiful) and unable to speak clearly because of an injury to his mouth that was evidently part of the reanimation process. He is also clearly a patchwork collection of body parts, the stitches everywhere evident, although Shelley never describes any such stitching. That was an invention of Universal Studios' Jack Pierce.
     (You can argue that they would have to be visible, since the creature is described as being made from parts of dead people AND animals, but Shelley wasnt writing a realistic story.)
      The monster De Niro most closely resembles is the shoddy creature from Frankensteins Daughter (1958), and no one should aspire to that.
         Looking at one-star reviews of the film on Amazon, most seem to object to the "birth scene," in particular to Branaghs Frankenstein not wearing a shirt, but thats actually my favorite scene in the film. Branagh and the screenwriters have decided to get away from the strictly electrical means of bringing the creature to life (Shelleys Frankenstein doesn't explain how he brought the monster to life for fear someone will try it again) for one involving chemicals, fluids and an artificial womb or similar.

     On the plus side, it does begin and end in the Arctic, when Capt. Walton finds Frankenstein pursuing the monster, and ends with the monster apparently committing suicide (as the creature in the novel swore to do), and follows many other key points from the book. Still, it fails to feel like a true adaptation of the book and I dont like it. What a lost opportunity.

    You might think I would be harder on something claiming to be the True Story, implying either that it is completely faithful to Shelleys novel (which its not) or that Shelley got it wrong and heres how it really happened, but this TV miniseries, co-written by Christopher Isherwood and his life partner Don Bacardy (primarily a portrait artist), is truer to the feel of the book. It's a Romantic adaptation, and the deviations seem organic and, in a sense, true.
      Leonard Whiting is Frankenstein, David McCallum is Henry Clerval (in this version, another doctor who is working on creating life) and Michael Sarrazin is the Creature.
     Significant characters not found in Shelley include Prima, a female creation, portrayed by a young Jane Seymour, and Dr. Polidori -- another creation-minded scientist, named for Lord Byrons personal physician (who was present when Shelley began Frankenstein) and based in part on Dr. Praetorius from the film The Bride of Frankenstein -- played by James Mason.
     F: TTS only follows the roughest outline of Shelley's book, but is entertaining and playful, not ugly and somber (as was MSF). Young Frankenstein meets Clerval, an older scientist with a bum heart (foreshadowing!) who is already trying to create life. Together, Clerval and Frankenstein assemble a creature. When Clerval dies, Frankenstein puts his brain (which does not retain his personality or knowledge, except on rare occasion) into the creature's body, which he then brings to life in a pyrotechnic display powered by solar energy (it was the 70s). The creature awakens looking beautiful (well, if you find Michael Sarrazin beautiful, anyway), perfect and unscarred, and with a childlike personality. Unfortunately, Frankenstein slowly realizes that the reanimation process is causing the body to decay, so soon the creature looks ugly and Frankenstein is clearly repulsed by him. The now ugly creature attempts suicide by leaping from a cliff, but he survives. Eventually, after much mayhem, the survivors end up on a ship bound for the Arctic, and Frankenstein acknowledges his culpability, leading to an ending similar to the ending of the first play based on the novel, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake.
     I hope to live long enough to see a really good AND faithful film version of the book.
     (True Story is currently available on DVD, as is Branagh's film.)

'Pride and Prejudice' at 200

     It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
-- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

From Wikipedia
     That’s one of the most famous opening lines in literature, right up there with “Call me Ishmael” and “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (Actually, it’s much better known than the latter, which comes from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but I’ve always liked it.)
     Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular have dealt a severe blow to the male critical perspective that Austen is just a woman’s writer. Rex Stout, creator and author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, once believed that no woman could be a great writer. Then he read Jane Austen and changed his mind. He said that thereafter he re-read Pride and Prejudice every year.
     Pride and Prejudice was first published 200 years ago today.

     The novel has been much praised and much adapted, too. In literature, there have been numerous sequels and rewrites from another character’s point of view, including an entire Mr. Darcy series and books focusing on Caroline Bingley, Charlotte Collins and Georgiana Darcy, not to mention the first of the literary mashups with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Marvel Comics even did a graphic novel adaptation. Other books explore the culture’s obsession with Austen, such as Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club (filmed in 2007) and Susannah Fullerton’s nonfiction work Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Classic

     You can read the original for free online or in dozens of print and e-book versions, listen to audiobook adaptations or watch a film. There was a 1940 Hollywood version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, a 2005 film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, the popular 1995 mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, even a 2004 Bollywood musical version, Bride and Prejudice, with Aishwarya Rai, and that just scratches the surface.

     If you have a copy of Pride and Prejudice around the house, or if you happen to in a bookstore or library this week, pick it up and start reading the first few paragraphs. Maybe you’ll be hooked.