Monday, October 17, 2016

Gone South By Robert R. McCammon

Gone South
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1992

Dan Lambert is a Vietnam veteran living in rural Louisiana and fallen on hard times. Behind on his work truck payments, he struggles to find day work to make ends meet. The days are hard on him because he has a brain tumor – the result of exposure to Agent Orange.

One day, he goes to the bank to appeal to the loan officer to get an extension on his payments because he’s two payments behind. The old loan officer he used to deal with is gone and a new guy is there. The new guy is unyielding. Dan blows up – or goes south in the parlance of the Vietnam vet – and tears up the office. A security guard approaches and the loan officer pulls out a gun. Dan takes the gun and shoots the loan officer in the neck. Having killed him, Dan flees.

He takes off in his truck and drives into the country to hide. He eventually finds a remote camp with cabins where he can stay. He makes arrangements with his ex-wife to see his son just one more time before he becomes a permanent fugitive for the rest of his short life.

Meanwhile, the bank has put out a $15,000 reward on Dan Lambert and a bounty hunter decides to put his best man on the trail. Flint Murtaugh is an itinerant gambler in debt and needing a bounty. His boss puts him onto Lambert, but insists he take on a partner to train the new guy. Murtaugh is not happy, but not in any position to argue.

Murtaugh arrives at a shabby hotel to meet his new partner. The man who answers the door is a malodorous, fat slob who bears a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley. When he speaks, he sounds just like the King. He introduces himself as Pelvis Eisley and he has a little dog that goes everywhere with him. His boss made it clear that if he wanted this collar, Eisley was going to go along.

Dan has held up at a remote resort camp in the swamp that has seen better days. He is going to wait it out there until night when he plans to slip into town and call his ex-wife, hoping to arrange one last meeting with his son. He goes in and makes the call and the wife agrees to slip her police protection detail and meet him at a park.

They meet and Dan starts talking with his son. However, Murtaugh and Eisley show up, planning to take Dan – who has developed a reputation as a cold blooded killer after the husband of the couple who kept the camp was found murdered. (He was killed by his own wife). A scuffle ensues and while his ex-wife tangles with Murtaugh and his “little brother” who is nothing more than a third arm that protrudes from his chest and explores its surroundings at will. Dan wrestles away Murtaugh’s gun, unloads it, and flees, throwing it away. He gets in his car and tears off, almost hitting Eisley and his little dog.

Dan flees through the night and arrives at a truck stop in the wee hours of the morning. While having his coffee, he notices a young couple having an intense argument. The young girl is beautiful except for a large, wine stain birthmark that covers almost half her face. When her ride ditches her, the waitress suggests that Dan take the girl down the road since they are headed the same direction.

Dan is reluctant to take on passengers, considering that law enforcement will be prone to pointing guns at him eventually. Arden Halliday is insistent that she ride south with Dan so that she might enter the swamps and locate the legendary Bright Girl who has the power to remove the unsightly blemish from Arden’s otherwise beautiful face. Nearly exhausted, Dan relents.

Murtaugh and Eisley are forced to stake out a remote cabin owned by a friend of Lambert – The only lead they have. They sit for hours and Eisley talks incessantly, driving Murtaugh crazy. Eisley eats and drinks junk food constantly and his dog constantly yips as Eisley fawns all over it. Murtaugh has had it and decides to move. They go into town to use the bathrooms and get something to drink.

While there, Murtaugh notices a group of strong men unloading alligator they have poached from the swamps. He does not pay them much attention until they attack him in the bathroom, convinced that he is working with a rival drug dealer. Murtaugh is about to experience some severe indignity before dying when Eisley breaks into the room and takes care of the men assaulting Murtaugh. They escape to return to their perch to watch the cabin.

Finally, in the wee hours of the night, Dan and Arden pass them there. Murtaugh switches on the lights and the pursuit is on. They fly out the gravel roads at high speeds and eventually, Dan’s car goes off a bridge and into the water. Dan and Arden escape underwater while Murtaugh and Eisley search the wreckage.

Dan Lambert and Arden float far downstream and find a small encampment where there are boats. They take a boat and head for an offshore oil rig a few miles out in the swamp. There, they are treated halfway decently and Arden gets some leads as to where she can find the Bright Girl. She is eager to pursue them while Dan is eager to get out of the country.

Soon after their arrival, Murtaugh and Eisley show up for their quarry. Dan is allowed to eat his last meal before Murtaugh shackles him. While everyone is eating, the local leathernecks are hassling Eisley for an Elvis number. Instead, he sits at the piano and plays wonderfully a mix of classical music fused with jazz and creole. The audience – including Murtaugh and Lambert are blown away by his talent.With the arrest affected and the tension ramped down, they all try to convince Eisley that he has a real future in music – much better than he has in private investigation and bounty hunting.

The next morning, the whole group is taken by the drug runners Murtaugh had encountered earlier and taken to a private island to be disposed of. A firefight ensues on that island and Danny and Arden escape to a charity hospital. Murtaugh and Eisley also escape, pondering a new pursuit in the music industry. Arden will serve as THE bright girl for this hospital and Dan will serve out his days as a maintnenance man before his sickness can take him.

According to Mr. McCammon, Gone South was written during a very dark period in his life. Much of that darkness is reflected in the characters. Dan, an otherwise good guy, is a legitimate fugitive from justice for killing someone. Dan is a veteran who served his country faithfully. He’s not the villain. He got cancer from his government dumping toxic chemicals on him while he was waging war.

Arden is a victim seemingly as without hope as Dan. Her surface beauty cursed by an unfortunate birthmark. Her hope rests with a seemingly impossible cure provided by a shaman. That’s all she has to hang on to.

Murtaugh is tragic as well, with that odd appendage growing from his chest and a youth lived in freak shows. More tragic for him is having to suffer the irritating companionship of Pelvis Eisley. If you’ve ever been trapped in a car for hour upon hour with a person who just irritates the hell out of you with everything they say and do, you feel sorry for Murtaugh. Murtaugh’s motivations do not make him a villain. He’s doing a job.

Eisley is not a villain because, despite his annoying personality and bizarre countenance, he is a good guy trying to learn a new trade to support himself. He has no ill will toward Dan. We find out that he is in fact a talented musician who hides talent behind a bizarre stage show.

Like we do in all McCammon stories, we get exceptionally complex characters who are good and evil, tragic and heroic, all at the same time. Managing characters like this is a real challenge for even an exceptional writer. To manage the characters and keep the plot going is a real challenge.

This novel resembles Mine in that it is a chase story. The pace isn’t nearly as frantic. But the characters are a lot broader and deeper.

The darkness of McCammon’s mood shows in that neither of the main characters really get what it was they were after. They get a resolution that will bring them some satisfaction. But Dan is never going to get escape or redemption. Arden is never going to get her surface beauty ruined by a freak birth defect. Not a happy or satisfying ending.

McCammon has never written a bad book that I’ve read and I’ve read all but the very latest. Going South is probably ranks in the lesser of his works. It has not the great gravitas of Swan Song. It lacks the frantic energy of Mine. It lacks the spooky element of They Thirst.

That said, McCammon tells a nifty story outside of the genre of horror. That was his goal. He wanted to show his chops as a writer at a time when his publisher was demanding horror and his southern contemporaries were demanding he write about the southern experience. Other than weather and geography, there was nothing in Gone South that was about the Southern experience. Other than the vague allusions to the witch living in the swamp who could heal Arden’s birthmark, there were no supernatural allusions.

It would be approximately 10 years before McCammon would publish again. This time, he’d eschew both traditional settings and the southern experience to tell a tale of historical fiction. That voluminous tome, Speaks the Nightbird, brought him back and perhaps assuaged some of those old feelings of anger and professional jealousy of horror writers who were able to break out into more traditional writing. God knows McCullough has the writing chops to go head to head with any writer in America today.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Robot Visions By Isaac Asimov

Robot Visions
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1990

Introduction: The Robot Chronicles

Asimov chronicles the development of the robot as an instrument, then its development within his own imagination that led him create his well received series on the subject. Asimov lists the stories in this volume, one by one, and gives a little background on each and when and where it was published. He also documents how he created the Three Laws of Robotics and the term, Robotics, which has become generally accepted as the term used to describe the study of robots.

Robot Visions (First published in this volume)
A team of scientists sends a robot forward in time to advise them on the state of humanity so that they might take corrective action on foreseen problems. He returns to tell them humanity is doing just fine. But, there are no robots in the future.

This was sort of a dull story to start off with. The first person narrative worked well and served the twist at the end. But I was hoping for something more riveting to open things.

Too Bad
A roboticist who pioneered the creation of microbots has cancer. His only hope for survival is his creation, Mike. Mike will shrink to go inside his body and cut out the cancer. There is a risk that Mike may re-expand and kill the roboticist. The day of the operation comes and it is a success. However, it is less than successful for Mike who must obey the first law of robots.

This is another of the modern stories in this volume that seem to lack the charm of Asimov’s earlier writing. There are no questions about bigotry, right and wrong, and the complexities of the Three Laws. The ending is a bit abrupt and perhaps the story picks up elsewhere in the volume.

Robbie (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction 1940)
Robbie and his playmate play all day together. Robbie is a robot and his playmate a young girl. While the girl’s dad likes Robbie, mom doesn’t think it appropriate. One day, the girl comes home to find her robot has been replaced by a dog. The dad sets out to find Robbie before he is scrapped.

One has to go back to the old Asimov to find the humanity in his robot stories. This one is light in emotion and told in a dry, but effective, 3rd person narrative. But it works just fine and would have made a fine tale for the old pulp magazine in which it was published.

Liar! (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A robot comes off the manufacturing line who can read people’s minds. It is troublesome to the team – including Dr. Calvin – who has to work with him. Each member of the team harbors ambitions and goals and can’t help but ask the robot about them. The robot, obeying the First Law, tells them what they want to hear. In the end, it is Dr. Calvin who constructs a statement that either answer will conflict with the First Law. The robot goes catatonic.

Another good exploration of the Three Laws of Robotics which is quite helpful in the later Robots novels when philosophical debate regarding the laws is the intellectual crux upon which the stories turn. This was a superb story, representative of the time in which it was written.

(First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A crew if two men have been assigned to re-establish the mining operations on Mercury. They take with them a robot assistant named Speedy (SPD) who will be able to move about the hot surface and gather the materials they need to maintain the solar cells. Then the cells start failing, finding those materials becomes a matter of paramount of importance. Using older vintage robots to venture onto Mercury’s surface to find their wayward robot. They find him intoxicated. Apparently, the way the orders were provided caused a conflict between the second and third laws that causes intoxication in robots. With time running out, they are able to get the robot righted and producing the necessary materials to get the mining operation back in business.

Another fine examination of the vagueries of the Three Laws. This time, when orders are given, priorities must be verbalized properly to give the robot the right law with which to act upon. When the second and third laws get into conflict, only the risk of life of a human will make the first law override the first two and get the robot working again.

Evidence (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
Politicians dual over the possibility of one of them being a robot on the sly. The man refuses to publicly violate one of the three rules to prove he is not a robot. After the election, Dr. Calvin figures it all out.

This rather long tale could have been shorter. It still works as one of the better examinations of the Three Laws of robotics.

Little Lost Robot
(First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A series of robots are constructed with positronic brains that do not include the first law of robotics. They are used in off-planet mining operations. After being ordered to “lose himself” by one of his bosses, a robot deliberately hides and will not allow himself to be found. Dr. Calvin travels to the planet and uses her knowledge of robots to locate the wayward robot.

Another examination of the Three Laws and how they interact with each other. Most of the Robots short stories operate along these lines and Asimov continues to fascinate with his exploration of his own creation.

The Evitable Conflict (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
Dr. Calvin and Stephen Byerley examine the role of robots in the world economy and the fallibility of robots when fed data by fallible humans.

Just as boring as it sounds. This story read like a law brief or a government report. I’m guessing the readers of Astounding Science Fiction weren’t astounded by this one.

Feminine Intuition

A robot and one of the world’s leading roboticists are lost when a meteorite hits the aircraft in which they are traveling. The robot is the first of its kind – an intuitive robot designed to be a free thinker to help astronomers find habitable planets outside the solar system. The folks at U.S. Robotics call in the now retired Dr. Susan Calvin to help ascertain what remarkable disclosure this robot might have made before her imminent destruction.

This is one of the few stories that spends little time pondering the complexities of the Three Laws that I enjoyed. It examines sexism in the workplace as well as providing a nifty little mystery toward the end.

Bicentennial Man
Andrew Martin is a unique positronic robot in that he has a creative instinct nurtured by his owners. Over the years, he develops human qualities of reasoning and learning. He aspires to become human and enlists his family’s law firm’s aid in doing so. He replaces his robotic body with an artificial human body and eventually his positronic brain with a cellular brain that will slowly deteriorate as the human brain does in his quest.

Asimov has spun many an interesting tale and I enjoy his stories a great deal. However, this story was not so much interesting as beautiful. Asimov is able to evoke great emotion with cold, detached prose, mimicking how a robot might tell a story. He explores issues of slavery and bigotry while never becoming preachy or forcing his subtext. The end was stunningly touching. Asimov’s best story in my opinion.

Bicentennial Man was made into a movie of the same name in 1999.

Two boys disassemble a computerized storyteller and enhance its vocabulary with modern terms to enhance its ability. Then one boy describes a strange type of storytelling involving written symbols that appear on paper. They set off for the library to find some of these compilations of symbols.

This story had just the faintest touch of dystopia. But not quite enough to make it interesting.

A scientist discovers how to employ lasers to enhance the ability to conduct EEGs. When they employ the technology, they discover not only a form of telepathy and that their super computer is capable of independent thought.

This story was a prime example of the type of science fiction I hate. It’s laced with a lot of science and just a little bit of fiction. It was science fiction for engineers and doctors.

Segregationist (First appeared in Abbotempo 4 1968)
A surgeon argues with a potential heart replacement candidate about what kind of heart he should get. The surgeon insists that a plastic heart would be best. The candidate insists on a metal heart. Later, the surgical team argues over whether or not robots should receive plastic parts and humans should receive metal parts. The case is made for and against mongrelization

As a short story, this was too brief and completely lacking in any plot. The subtext is about mixing of races and race mongrelization. The subtext is dealt with effectively. But there wasn’t much story in this short story.

Mirror Image (First published in Analog Science Fiction 1972)
Detective Baley is contacted by his old partner, R. Daneel, to solve a mystery regarding two mathematicians and stolen intellectual property. One scientist presented his idea to the other before a major conference. The other scientist stole the idea and presented it as his own. The exchange was done in the presence of two robots belonging to the scientists. Baley must puzzle through the testimony of the two robots and the Three Laws to determine who the thief really is.

I love robot stories featuring Baley and Daneel. This one, again, involves the intuitive Baley working his way through the complexities of the Three Laws. It is not action oriented. But the logic is intriguing.

Lenny (First appeared in Infinity Science Fiction 1958)
A child who is part of a tour of the robot factory plays with a computer keyboard and alters the encoding of a robot’s mind while in production. That robot emerges with the mind of a small child. Dr. Calvin is obsessed with the robot and whether or not a robot can learn new competencies. Meanwhile, company officials worry that the public on Earth will be alarmed by a robot who can learn.

This story harkens back to the feel of the original robot stories found in I, Robot. This is not just because of the inclusion of those original characters like Dr. Calvin. It also examines what can go wrong in creating intelligent beings and the exploration of the Three Laws.

Galley Slave (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction 1957)
U.S. Robots is sued when a robot they leased to a university for proofreading manuscripts alters a professor’s manuscript and ruins his reputation. The Three Laws are examined in court while Dr. Susan Calvin develops a strategy to trip up the lying professor.

Good, old school Asimov examining the complexities of his Three Laws.

Christmas Without Rodney

A middle-aged couple decides to give their robot Christmas off. Their son and daughter-in-law are coming to visit with their grandson and a robot of their own. When the obnoxious grandson ticks off the grandfather, the kids leave in a snit. The man is happy to see them go. But he is alarmed when his robot remarks that he wishes there were no Three Laws of Robotics.

This story could serve as a precursor to robots growing independent and refusing to be obedient. It was well written with an ambiguous ending that lent itself to so much more in the future.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Punish the Sinners By John Saul

Punish the Sinners
By John Saul
Copyright 1978

Like most John Saul novels, Punish the Sinners opens with a prologue that provides clues to the conflict to come. A young boy is playing in his parents’ room when he hears his parents coming. He hides in the closet. As his parents are making love, his sister enters the room and inexplicably murders them with an axe.

Flash forward more than 30 years and Peter Balsam, former aspirant to the priesthood, is invited to teach psychology at St. Francis Xavier High School in Neilsville, Washington. His old friend from seminary, Monsignor Peter Vernon, is principal and wants his old friend to join them.

As they talk during the school year, Balsam notices that his old friend has become rigid and judgmental over the years. He has an affinity for the saints who were Inquisitors – specifically, St. Peter Martyr. He has a group of priests who meet regularly in his office. They call themselves the Society of St. Peter Martyr.

Balsam settles into his teaching job and Neilsville. He meets a divorcee and starts a relationship with her, much to the consternation to the predominately Catholic populace of Neilsville. His classes are going well until one young student attempts suicide.

When more girls kill themselves or try to do so, parents and staff start to focus their blame and ire on Peter Balsam, suspecting that his psychology class is undermining Catholic theology taught in the church. Peter Vernon presses him to join the Society.

Finally, Balsam agrees. At the first meeting, the other priests question him aggressively about his belief in church doctrine, much like the inquisitors of old. At a subsequent meeting, he passes out and has no memory of what has transpired. At Margo’s urging, he wears a tape recorder to this meeting. Balsam and Margo listen to the tape and hear with horror sounds of sexual ecstasy from the priests and from Peter.

As Peter Balsam presses his investigation of the suicides, he becomes convinced that Peter Vernon and the Society of St. Peter Martyr are using mind control to push these girls – all part of the same clique – to commit suicide. The local psychologist dismisses Peter’s suspicions. He’s inclined to believe that Neilvsville is afflicted with a suicide contagion.

Peter Balsam’s stress level is out of control and he can no longer sleep or eat, believing that he is the only person who knows the truth behind the suicides. Meanwhile, Peter Vernon tells him that he is the reincarnation of St. Peter Martyr himself and that Balsam is the reincarnation of the saint who killed him. Their battle to the death is inevitable.

Peter resolves to get to the bottom of Peter Vernon’s obsession and the plot to kill the girls of St. Xavier. He sneaks into Vernon’s office one night and starts reading the contents of Vernon’s file cabinet. He finds newspaper clippings that describe the “modern-day Lizzie Borden” who slaughtered her parents whilst her little brother watched. Peter Vernon was that little boy.

Vernon bursts into the room and catches Balsam by surprise. He murders Balsam there in that study and makes it look like suicide. Peter Balsam is buried in unconsecrated ground in an unmarked grave. His grave is repeatedly desecrated and vandalized by townspeople who believe Balsam responsible for the suicides that afflicted Neilsville. Saul leaves us with the fact that, once a year, a young girl commits suicide on Balsam’s grave.

While not being exceptionally well written, Punish the Sinners stands apart in the John Saul canon.

Most John Saul novels are simply stories. They have no subtext or social commentary. Punish The Sinners examines the conflict between traditional Catholic Church doctrine versus a more contemporary view. This is the only novel where Saul examines any subject of any consequence.

Saul’s views are quite clear on the subject. The strong beliefs and unyielding passion of Peter Vernon were certainly cast in the role of evil. Balsam’s more humane and contemporary views were heroic. Saul is also clear on who he thought was winning. Evil triumphed good in Punish the Sinners. This is also unique in Saul’s canon when good always triumphs over evil.

What is more remarkable about this novel is its presience. This conflict would not come to the fore until a couple decades after Punish the Sinners was written. Also addressed on the periphery of the novel is sexual deviance which became the defining issue for Catholics in the 2000s.

Another issue in the book not typically discussed in decent company in the 1970s was teen suicide. Peter and the hospital psychologist debate the phenomenon of suicide contagion. The suicide contagion is the idea that when one teen commits suicide, other teens get caught up in the romantic notion of suicide and kill themselves. In a more modern era where teen suicide is addressed openly as a social affliction, suicide contagion and how it works is an issue of public discussion.

This social and religious debate and subtext is unique in Saul’s canon. Also unusual is the fact that Punish the Sinners is not a particularly well plotted or well written.

Saul’s books are all plot driven. He plots carefully and seldom leaves holes or gaps. He provides great twists that are believable and well conceived. Punish the Sinners has several gaping plot holes that detract from an otherwise dark and riveting novel.

We never learn just how it is that the Society of St. Peter Martyr and Peter Vernon are able to engage in such dominating mind control? It all takes place out of sight of the reader. What was the motivation? The reader learns in the twist that Peter Vernon was that little boy who witnessed his parents’ murder when Saul leads us to believe through most of the novel it was Balsam. But nothing in the text shows us how that hatred of young girls grows and festers. The hate is just there. More development of the malice would have improved this novel immensely.

I have read Saul’s entire library. I have enjoyed all his novels to varying degrees. However, I look at many Saul novels sitting on my bookshelf and have no recollection of the characters or the plot. They don’t stick with me. This book has stuck with me over the years because it is so dark and does provide that social commentary and subtext.

John Saul is regarded as a good horror writer among those who read horror. But he is never mentioned in the same voice as the greats of the genre. One wonders how his stature might have been different had he continued to provide subtext and social commentary in his novels.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Test of the Twins By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

The Test of the Twins
Vol. 3 of Dragonlance Legends
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

The third volume of the Dragonlance Legends trilogy opens with Tasslehoff Burfoot and Caramon Majere landing in the future of Krynn after they attempted to travel back to their own time. It is a bleak future where the world is barren ash and all is dead. They find Caramon’s wife’s grave and Caramon’s grave. They learn that Raistlin was successful in drawing the Dark Queen into their world and defeating her. The cost was life on Krynn.

They resolve to travel back to their own time and prevent Raistlin’s success. In their own time, they find a world preparing once again for war. This time the aggressor is Kitiara, Caramon and Raistlin’s half sister who, with her Draconian henchmen and dragons, is traveling to the city of Palanthas in a flying citadel to attack the High Clerists Tower.

Raistlin and Crysannia are in the Abyss. Raistlin is tormented by magical illusions – scenes of great pain from his life. Crysannia also witnesses these torments and tries to protect Raistlin. The attacks turn to her and she is blinded and crippled with injury. Raistlin is able to free himself and moves toward his goal of confronting the Dark Queen, leaving Crysannia behind to fend for herself.

Tanis is in Palanthas, helping the Knights of Solomnia and the other defenders of the city prepare for battle. Caramon and Tasslehoff arrive there with a book given to them by the historian, Astinus, that shows that Tanis dies in the battle. Caramon and Tanis go to the Clerists Tower to aid in the defense. Tasslehoff decides to board the flying citadel to take over. There, he enlists the aid of a gully dwarf and seizes control.

Tanis and Caramon, accompanied by Tas, take control of the citadel. They then discover from the book that Dalamar is prevented from stopping Raistlin when he is killed by Kitiara. Kitiara gets into the Tower and injures Dalamar, who lethally wounded her. Caramon and Tanis soon arrive. Dalamar is too weak to battle Raistlin. Caramon enters the Abyss, as he is the only one who can stop Raistlin. Soth comes to claim Kitiara's body. Raistlin encounters Caramon and is told of his inevitable failure; he gives the Staff of Magius to Caramon that he might close the Portal and stop Takhisis. Raistlin is attacked by the Queen, but he is said to fall into a dreamless sleep, protected from her. Caramon comes out and closes the Portal, having retrieved Crysania, who is still alive.

The battle for Palanthas is won by the people of Palanthas at the cost of most of their city. Crysania, now back to health but blind, becomes head of the church of Paladine. Dalamar seals the laboratory where the Portal is for all time. Caramon goes to his wife, Tika, and they are overjoyed to be reunited. Tasslehoff finds a spot on the map he's never been to and teleports off with the aid of the magical time traveling device.

The Test of the Twins involves several timelines, settings, and characters and weaves a complex tale. In it, we can see the full maturity of Weiss and Hickman as storytellers.

The third book in the trilogy is a textbook example of how a third installment should read. It was all fast paced, with the first two volumes leading to a volume long climax where all of the plot lines converge. No new characters are introduced. No new subplots are brought in. All of the events, subplots, and plot are brought to fruition and neatly wrapped up with nothing left unresolved.

My chief criticism of this book specifically was it felt a little rushed. In the first two installments, the plot slowed occasionally to allow contemplation and introspection by the characters. In the third installment, there was little of that. Of the three books, this one read most like an installment of the first trilogy.

What made Legends better than Chronicles was Weiss and Hickman’s dedication to developing their characters beyond Dungeons and Dragons action heroes. Just a little more introspection and contemplation – especially at the end of the book as the action was winding down – would have been a nice cap on a wonderful trilogy.

Nobody is ever going to confuse any of the Dragonlance novels with Lord of the Rings or the Thomas Covenant series at the pantheon of great fantasy fiction. However, they are great fun to read. They are well plotted and have great characters. No fan of fantasy should look down his nose at these wonderful books.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mine by Robert R. McCammon

By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1990

It’s the 1990s of day traders, hedge funds, and multi-million dollar deals in the country’s financial centers. In the midst of all this, Laura Claybourne is a successful journalist married to a successful broker. They have a beautiful home with beautiful cars. The only hitch in their marriage is they never seem to have enough time to spend with each other to keep the marriage healthy.

Laura Claybourne is pregnant with the couple’s first child. She has a happy life on the surface. Her husband, a commodities dealer in Atlanta, makes a good living and they have a good home. She is a society page reporter for a local newspaper. But she suspects that perhaps her husband is having an affair.

Mary Terrell – aka Mary Terror – is a sixties radical hiding underground. She was a soldier in an organization called The Stormfront. The Stormfront waged war on the establishment, killed cops and bankers and blew up buildings. They were high on the FBI wanted list. One night, the cops stormed their headquarters. Only a few made it out, including Mary and their leader, Lord Jack. They all flee separate directions and off to different lives to live underground. Mary Terror is a sleeper agent, waiting for the summons to rejoin the Storm Front Brigade.

Through a message in the Rolling Stone Magazine, Mary – Once known as Mary Terror – has seen an advertisement for all remaining members of the Storm Front – a 1970s radical group who fought the establishment through a series of murders and bombings aimed at ending the capitalist system of government. Their Leader, Lord Jack, has summoned her. She must have his baby ready when she meets him in New York.

As Laura moves into the ninth month of her pregnancy, she starts to get suspicious of her husband who has to make himself scarce so often in the evenings, leaving her alone. One day, she decides to call her boss’s husband who can not confirm her husband’s story of being out with a client. Eventually, Laura puts it together by following him one evening to an apartment complex where her husband goes upstairs with a six pack of beer. She has some thinking to do before the baby arrives.

Mary has her own thinking to do before her meeting with Lord Jack. When she last saw Lord Jack as the pigs were shooting up their apartment in New Jersey, she was pregnant with her child. In the process of escaping, she lost that baby. Losing a baby would not be acceptable to Lord Jack. Mary wanted to present him a beautiful child as their son. She has practiced caring for a baby on dolls, and it always ends badly. Now she needs the real thing.

Laura finds the evidence that proves that her husband is having an affair and throws him out. A short time later, she goes into labor and goes to the hospital with her husband and parents.

Meanwhile, Mary has acquired some guns and a costume that will allow her to get into the hospital and steal a baby. Dressed as a nurse, she slips in and takes Mary’s little boy from her arms, out of the hospital and to a waiting van. She heads off for New York.

Laura is distraught to the point of hysteria. She is able to pick out Mary Terror from an FBI file and the FBI starts looking for her. Unable to stand still with lose ends, Laura launches her own investigation.

A couple months prior, she had been given a book to review by a guy who spent a great deal of time with various 60s radical groups including the Storm Front. After a great deal of arm twisting, Laura gets the man to take her to Ann Arbor to meet a retired member of the organization who might know something about the whereabouts of the old gang.

When they arrive there, the woman isn’t home, having gone to a cabin in the woods for a few days to paint. That night, Laura does a little recognizance on the woman’s cabin and encounters a man also looking around. They fight and the man escapes. The next day, when the woman returns, Laura meets Bedelia, Bedelia is adamant she is not going to get involved. As they start talking, shots ring out and kills the guy riding with Mary. Mary fires on Laura and Bedelia and miss him. They manage to escape, chasing Mary and Laura’s baby down an interstate while an unknown party continues to track them.

Mary is headed from Michigan to San Francisco where they Storm Front Brigade owned a home. Mary is confident that it is there Lord jack will meet her and accept his new, beautiful son he has for her. Laura and Bedelia are determined to see that she doesn’t make it there.

The three chase each other down the highway for hours, exchanging occasional gunfire. Finally, the third car, that contains an old, retired FBI agent with a grudge to score with Mary, wrecks and kills himself. It’s now just Laura and Bedelia versus Mary Terror. From time to time, Mary pulls off and ransacks the home to kill the people, take their food, vehicles, and guns. Mary and Bedelia rob a pawnshop for money. When Laura and Bedelia meet at a lumberyard, their car gets shot up in the firefight and all parties get their bodies chewed up by guard dogs.

Mary tears away in her van and Bedelia and Laura steal the yard master’s car and follow in pursuit. Mary has a several hour head start on them and, as they enter the mountains, the weather starts to turn treacherous.

Both Mary and Bedelia have an old newspaper photo and some names of men living in a town near San Francisco where the Stormfront was founded many years before. Mary plans to get there, find Lord Jack, and take up life as a family woman. Laura plans to kill her if she has to to stop her.

Mary is wounded from a major dog bite on her thigh she received at the lumber yard. She is hurting and has lost some blood. The roads are becoming impassible, so she pulls off into a lodge where stranded travelers are being put up. A few hours later, Laura and Bedelia arrive and confront her.

A shootout ensues and Bedelia is killed. Mary takes off into the diminishing storm. Laura follows, but falls far behind when her car’s radiator gives up the ghost.

As Laura is getting her radiator fixed, Mary arrives in town and begins the search. The first guy she finds is not Lord Jack and she kills him. She moves on. Laura arrives in town and begins her search using the same set of clues. They arrive at Lord Jack’s house to find he’s settled into a life of quiet domesticity. A shootout ensues. Mary is killed and Laura gets her baby back.

This was McCammon’s first novel outside the realm of horror or the supernatural and he proves he has the chops for it. Mine is a taught chase thriller with believable characters, superb and plausible plot, and a narrative that seldom pauses to let the reader get his breath.

The novel fuses two very different decades. It brings the “burn, baby, burn!” decade of the late 1960s into the self-focused, self possessed decade of the 1990s. Two value systems and two different generations collide to create friction and conflict.

It also introduces another element of conflict within culture. There were the radicals hell-bent on destroying capitalism in America versus the “silent majority” as Richard Nixon called them who were average Americans who worked and paid bills.

There is a minor subtext within Mine that was brought much more to the fore in the famous baseball movie Field of Dreams. It is how the peace and love generation who devolved into the Yippies and the Weather Underground atone for or live down their previous lives. Mary hurt her wealthy parents who wanted so much for her. Bedelia did the same to hers. Bedelia went underground, but strived to live a life that was free of violence and harm. She tried to do right in helping Laura and found redemption in her actions. Mary, like a few of those radicals from decades ago, remained true to her cause. McCammon could have strengthened this subtext just a bit more by assigning a few more bad deeds to Bedelia in her past. Still, it worked.

Laura was the protagonist in Mine, but Mary Terror was the star. McCammon wove a true to life character. So many radicals of that time and of our time subscribe to causes and ideologies not to advance any core beliefs, but to provide a context for their lust for blood. Mary is no true believer in the cause of world socialism. She is nothing more than a sadistic killer needing ideological fuel to stoke her furnace. She’s as terrifying as any supernatural monster.

As a chase novel, Mine worked exceptionally well. McCammon’s interludes were all plausible. The finding and escaping rarely relied on ex deus machina. That was tough to pull off, but never does the reader groan when one of these meetings takes place. It all works. The pacing and the tension in the pursuits is also nicely done. Both parties are injured and hurting. Both are driving junker vehicles. Neither knows if they will make it. The tension was palpable throughout Mine.

McCammon really stretched himself when he wrote this book and it was a breakthrough for him. He would become enamored with writing more mainstream material – much to the chagrin of his publisher. McCammon’s difficulties with his publisher are well documented and after another mainstream effort, Gone South, it would be a long time before McCammon would write again. When he did return to writing, he was writing historical fiction – good historical fiction that maintained his already dedicated fan base.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Alienist By Caleb Carr

The Alienist
By Caleb Carr
Copyright 1994

Caleb Carr, an historian of some renown, takes his ability to research and explain cultures of earlier times, the science of an earlier time, and a well plotted murder mystery and fold them into a riveting horror/mystery novel.

It’s 1896 and a serial killer is stalking the gay brothels of New York City. He’s abducting, mutilating, and murdering young boy prostitutes. Desperate for results and not trusting his corrupt detectives bureau, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt assembles an unusual team to investigate the crime and identify the killer.

John Moore is a crime reporter for the New York Times and he tells the story. He is teamed with Dr. Laszlo Kreitzler, a psychologist which in the vernacular of the time were known as alienists. Kreitzler believes he can develop a psychological profile of the killer to help find him. Also joining the team are Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, a pair of brothers recently hired by Roosevelt as detectives. They utilize the new and unrecognized by courts technique of identifying suspects by fingerprints. The final member to join the team is Sara Howard, a secretary within the police department.

The team decides, with its expertise, it is going to utilize all the new police techniques to bring the killer to justice.

They don’t have to wait long to see their first victim. In lower Manhattan, a 13 year old boy, dressed as a girl while working as a prostitute, is founded murdered and mutilated. His eyes are missing. He is found in a kneeling position with his right hand chopped off and his genitals removed and placed in his mouth.

The team then learns of an earlier crime performed on another immigrant kid in lower Manhattan. They learn that this particular victim’s family learned what their son was doing on the streets and the father tried to beat him out of it. The boy ran away and took to life on the streets.

Along the way, Moore and Kreitzler and their team come up against a number of opposition groups – the groups who want to maintain the status quo in society. The gangsters who will use rabble rousing about the murders to put the establishment on their heels. Traditional cops who do not want their corruption exposed or their lack of ability. The churches of the area do not want their parishoners exposed. The monied interests – including J.P. Morgan – have an interest in assuring the investigation does not intrude upon their interests.

A little hard detective work in examining similar offenses many years before put them onto a suspect. This suspect was exposed to gore and violence by his ultra-religious father who showed him picture after picture of massacred Indians. Later, that child and his brother’s parents are found murdered. Local law enforcement assumed that the Indians had retaliated against the family. Kreitzler and Moore have their doubts.

They locate the brother of the young boy, living as a farmer in rural Massachusetts. Kreitzler and Moore talk to him and learn that the brother had been molested by a trusted friend of the family while on a hunting trip. His brother, he tells them, enjoyed torturing small animals.

With a suspect’s name in hand, the mission becomes one of finding the man they know has committed these atrocities. The forces opposed to them bring all that they have against him. Kreitzler’s maid and love of his life is murdered, driving him out of the organization. His house boy is beaten badly by those who do not want the killer exposed.

After a day working in the underworld of tenements in Lower Manhattan, they are on the trail of the man. The final confrontation happens on the man made water reservoir in Lower Manhattan where they confront the killer who has a victim in hand. The killer overpowers Kreitzler and Moore and ties them up. As he’s getting ready to kill his victim, Machine Gun Kelly’s men arrive on the scene and kill him, preventing Kreitzler from conducting the forensic psychological examination he so badly wants to conduct.

In the end, Commissioner Roosevelt is grateful for what they have done. A strong bond has formed between Kreitzler, Moore, and Sarah that promises to place them together in more similar adventures.

In The Alienist, Caleb Carr brings so many plot elements into play that the story does not fit into any particular police subgenre. It is not a procedural, although there is a lot of procedural in the story. Most of it is new and cutting edge for the time. The central, traditional element was the simple whodunit facet of the story. All of the other subplots and character developments sprung directly from the plot.

The real-life characters, embellished just a little for the purposes of the story, added a taste of historical fiction. With the time and place being Manhattan at the turn of the century, the historical elements are quite in play. Many authors will use one of these devices to tell an exciting, yet single faceted story.

Carr goes one better. He takes all of the elements of developing science, the real life players of turn of the century New York, the criminal and the nature of his crime, the nature of this victims, and created a story to be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys any of the police/mystery subgenres.

The story's climax had a bit of ex deus machinas that was a bit of a head slapper toward the end when all of the characters and their agendas arrived at the same place at the same time. But Carr sorts it out al to make it not quite as painful to read and a little easier to swallow.

The character development is good, but not great. Most of the book dealt with the plots and subplots. But we end up with a Kreitzler who has deep feelings for another woman. We have a Moore questioning his own profession as a reporter, and Sarah, questioning her role in crime detection as a woman and her relationship with Moore. All this lends itself easily to a sequel that came just a few years later.

This was a sold book from beginning to end. Well worth the time and effort invested in reading. A first rate story will keep the reader rivited while learning new and interesting facts in the history of detective work and science.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

End of Watch By Stephen King

End of Watch
Bill Hodges Trilogy Vol. 3
By Stephen King
Copyright 2016

Brady Hartsfield is locked in Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. He is a vegetable. He can speak only a few words. Has just a little bit of motor control. Can barely communicate with those around him. As long as he remains in that state, he will not stand trial for attempting to blow up a rock concert.

He has found a friend in an obsolete hand-held video game system known as a Zappit. He stares at the game – particularly a fishing game – for many hours at a time. It keeps him occupied while he isn’t using newly developed telekinesis abilities to move objects around the room.

A doctor has taken a strong interest in Brady’s case. He is giving Brady experimental drugs, hoping to restore Brady’s senses. But Brady turns the tables and uses new found abilities given to him by the doctor to make the doctor part of his army of revenge.

Bill Hodges and his partner, Holly are quite successful in operating their detective agency, Finders Keepers. However, Bill has been sick lately and losing weight. Pain in his side has sent him to a doctor and he fears the diagnosis and prognosis are not going to be good.

They are invited to the scene of a murder suicide involving a mother and daughter. The daughter, completely paralyzed, had been one of Brady Hartsfield’s victims in the attack with the Mercedes Benz. While at the scene, he locates one of the Zappit game systems along with the letter Z drawn on an electrical outlet. They learn that the mother used the Zappit game quite frequently.

Later, while Bill is at the hospital checking up on his old pal, Brady, Jerome’s younger sister is narrowly missed by a delivery truck she tried to step out in front of. Bill is there to talk to her and she tells how she got the Zappit from someone handing them out for free in exchange for completing a survey.

Soon, with Holly’s help, Bill uncovers a scheme that had all of the Zappit game systems shipped to his town after the company went bankrupt. Through Holly’s tracking, they are able to track a mysterious Mr. Z and Dr. Z to one of Brady’s old colleagues from the electronic store. From her, they learn that all the Zappits – many of which were put specifically into the hands of those who attended the concert several years before that Brady intended to blow up – are programed to hypnotize their possessors and drive them to a website to convince them to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Brady has taken up permanent residence in the head of his doctor – Dr. Z – and has driven off into the country to watch the results of his plan. Using their resources, Bill and Holly are able to track him down to a remote, wooded location. There, they confront Brady and put an end to the insanity.

Bill admits himself to the hospital to get treatment for his cancer. But it is too late and the cancer too far advanced. Bill dies, leaving the business to his friend, Holly.

End of Watch was a fitting end to the Bill Hodges trilogy. The first book was a lot about plain old detective work and not really my cup of tea. The second had many twists and turns and subplots that kept the plot moving and would have worked as a fine stand-alone novel. However, the third is an excellent race against time against a cunning evil.

This book – and all the Bill Hodges books – are shorter than the average King book. Therefore, minor character development – for which King is so famous for – suffers some. However, where there might have been backstory, there was action. The book was seldom ponderous nor were the characters other than Bill that introspective.

The other two other main characters, Holly Gibney and Brady Hartsfield, received substantial development in the first book which may have rendered Mr. Mercedes somewhat less action driven than the other two. They didn’t develop much beyond that, but they didn’t need to. The evil Brady Hartsfield was already evil and cunning enough to set up his diabolical plan. The neurotic Holly never got better – which made her believable – but never backslid into deep neurosis when the pressure was on.

This book involved more technical research than most King books and it is apparent that King’s researchers provided him with adequate material to build a techno-thriller that worked on a technological level. King, who admits he hates research, certainly put forth the effort to learn this material so it might not be picked apart by techno-geeks.

Stephen King rolled a lot of ideas into this short novel. The concept of pure evil. The supernatural element of mind and body control. A high-tech conspiracy. The constant pain of his hero which, since his accident, has been a staple of King’s writing. The end came in an old fashioned chase through a snow storm. Congratulations on weaving so much into such an easily digestible book.

End of Watch does not work as a stand-alone novel, unlike Finders Keepers. To understand it, one must read the two earlier books. End of Watch is a fine climax to a fine trilogy and will stand as one of the better books in the King canon.