Feb 072013
 
I read this book the beginning of last month having only learned of its existence around Christmas when it was named one of the Best Books of 2012. Sailor Twain was published in October last year and for the past four months has been celebrated by professional reviewers, bloggers and graphic novel fans all over the world. I feel that with so much well deserved attention for this marvelous and singular graphic novel that anything I might have to offer would be like plopping ketchup on the world's most perfect steak. Instead I'll give the most bare bones summary and allow you to get lost in the artwork.

The story takes place in nineteenth century upstate New York and incorporates all sorts of legends and history about the Hudson River, a brief overview of the passenger steamship business, mythology both old and new about mermaids and sirens, and -- probably my favorite part -- displays an obvious love for books and book collecting.

That's it from me. Let Mark Siegel's evocative charcoal drawings mesmerize you as they did me. No doubt you, too, will find yourself under the magical spell of this nameless mermaid, headed against your will to your local bookstore where you will demand a copy of Sailor Twain be produced at once. You'll have to own a copy. It's a beautiful book both as an object and a story, one I know I'll hang onto for a very long time.



 Posted by at 5:50 pm
Oct 312012
 
Ex-Nazis, terrorism via biologic tampering, Celtic folklore and legends, reincarnation, mind control, immortal beings -- all this in one book? All this and more, my friends! General Charles Kirk, Marcus Levin and his wife Tania (whose previous adventures are reviewed here and here) are all on hand once again battling possible supernatural beings and investigating microbiological terrors in John Blackburn's unique genre-blending thriller For Fear of Little Men (1972). The little men of the title come from an oft heard Celtic verse:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen.
We dare not go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
There are no little men per se to fear in the context of the story. Professor Rushton, an archaeologist digging in the mountains of Wales, lectures the characters on local folklore and legends and alludes to that verse. He is hoping to unearth proof of the existence of an pre-Celtic race who were the forbearers of the fairies, leprechauns, pixies, and what have you of Irish and Scottish mythology. He proposes his theory that the "little people" are the genetically mutated descendants of a powerful superhuman race who had arcane powers connected to Earth's natural forces. Rushton's lecture though it appears early in the book will have startling ramifications as the story progresses.

Kirk has been enlisted by the government to investigate possible terrorist activity in the form of toxic pollution being purposely emptied into the water supply on the Welsh coast. The pollution has been traced to D.R. Products, an aerodynamic manufacturing company. On their staff is Hans Graebe, a known high ranking ex-Nazi who escaped punishment through a technicality during the war crimes trials. Kirk and his Home Office associates believe that Graebe is perhaps in league with a foreign government and has hatched an insidious plot to poison the marine life and kill the population dependent on the fishing industry in that part of the UK. Kirk sends Levin, a trained microbiologist, to gather samples of waste, run tests looking for identifiable toxins, and question Daniel Ryder, the head of D.R. Products, about the dangerous effluent being discharged in the waste water at his factory.

As in The Young Man from Lima there is a substantial portion of the story devoted to a scientific explanation for the poison that has been tainting locally fished shellfish. Levin runs a series of experiments and discovers that the toxic waste, rather than being created or biologically engineered contains an accidentally mutated bacillus that seems to have evolved from the polluted waste water. Interspersed with this scientific thriller plot we get a variety of intriguing incidents like the archeology project in the mountains and their determined efforts to reveal the existence of the mythic home of Daran, legendary immortal leader of a Celtic race; the mysterious death by falling of Daniel Ryder, an expert mountaineer, whose mangled and crushed body is found in a rocky ravine; the frequent test flights of a newly designed airplane with a sinister built-in extra that threatens to case havoc with the population of the entire country.

And what of those hippies Ryder invited to camp out on his land? Why are they still there after his horrible death? Do they figure in the story at all?  Frequent references to them seem arbitrary. Yet nothing in this story that seems to be made up of haphazard incidents is ever random or inconsequential. All the seemingly unconnected threads will all tie together to form the fabric of a wicked plot. The eyebrow raising finale is suitably nightmarish enough for a Hammer horror movie.

Blackburn was perhaps the earliest genre writer who saw the nightmarish possibilities of eco-terrors.  He along with John Creasey whose Dr. Palfrey novels mined this area were true pioneers in the burgeoning, yet to be formulaic, techno-thriller we have today.  The X-Files, The Andromeda Strain, and other similar thrillers dealing with biological horrors owe a lot, whether conscious or not, to Blackburn.
 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Mar 262012
 
Abercrombie Lewker, a garrulous, somewhat pompous Shakespearean actor and avid mountain climber is one of the more unusual amateur sleuths in detective fiction. In his travels and rock climbing adventures he inadvertently stumbles across violent deaths that invariably turn out to be nasty murders.

Here, in the third book in the series Lewker's annoying, very artificial speech is considerably diluted from his debut in Death on Milehigh Buttress which I never finished because of the arch dialogue. Lewker has an irritating habit of peppering his speech with quotes from Shakespeare, Webster, Wilde, Shaw and other classic writers of the British stage. But I muddled through the first three chapters of this one and the engrossing story overshadowed all the dialogue eccentricities.

The story includes witchcraft, Welsh legends and lore, and hidden cache of paintings. I figured this one out very early on, but the rock climbing and the character contrast between the youthful suspects and the middle-aged Lewker made for a good read nonetheless.

Most of the good books in this series, including this title, have been reissued by Rue Morgue Press. One of their reissues - Death under Snowdon - is a book that is practically impossible to find in its original edition. A handful of the other Lewker books (not reissued by RMP) are also very scarce and fetch exorbitant prices in the used book trade.

Last year I reviewed Lewker in Tirol, one of the later books in the series. The post can be found here along with the full bibliography of the Abercrombie Lewker series.
 Posted by at 5:01 am