Thursday, September 25, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Princess Maritza, by Percy Brebner

Princess Maritza, by Percy Brebner

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a pretty obscure book, I'd say -- at least to me. I had never heard of the book or the author until I saw it in an antique store just off Highway 55 40 or so miles north of St. Louis. But it was clear that it was a Ruritanian story, and I have a bit of a weakness for that subgenre.

Once again, the best online source of informaton on this non-SF writer was the Science Fiction Encylopedia. Percy James Brebner (1864-1922) was an Englishman. He wrote mostly romantic adventures, at least a dozen novels. Some of his books were written as by "Christian Lys". The SFE is interested in five of his novels that had (mostly somewhat slight) fantastical elements, particularly The Fortress of Yadasara: A Narrative Prepared from the Manuscript of Clinton Verrall, Esq. (in a magazine in 1898 as by Lys, in book form as The Knight of the Silver Star in 1907 as by Brebner) and The Mystery of Ladyplace (1900).

Princess Maritza was first published by T. J. McBride and Son in 1906 according to the copyright notice in my edition, which is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint. (The SFE gives 1907 by Cassell -- perhaps that was the first UK edition?) My edition has two rather nice illustrations by Harrison Fisher, a fairly well-known illustrator of that time, noted in particular for his depictions of women.

As I noted, it's a Ruritanian story, indeed nearly as pure an example as might be found this side of the original, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda. Of course it is not nearly as good as that book, but I did rather enjoy it. It opens with the disgraced soldier Desmond Ellery wandering the downs near a friend's house, when he encounters a beautiful 18 year old girl, who tells him that she is playing hooky from the local finishing school ... and also that she is a Princess, though her family's throne, in the apparently Balkan country of Wallaria, has been usurped. Her ambition, though she is but a female, is to return and retake her throne, despite the fact that the Great Powers all oppose this, feeling that Wallaria is best kept in its current state for balance of power reasons. And indeed Desmond's friend Sir Charles Martin informs him later that Princess Maritza's family were terrible rulers.

But Desmond feels there is nothing left for him in England, after he was unfairly dismissed from his military post due to a false story of cheating at cards. So he heads to Sturatzberg, capital of Wallaria, and offers his services to the King. (A curious move, this, as if he was so intrigued by Princess Maritza, why would he swear to serve her enemies?) After a couple of years of no action, he is summoned by a mysterious Frenchman to a meeting with a woman who turns out to be the Queen -- and it seems she will soon have a mission for him, to travel to the secret headquarters of the brigand Vasilici and recruit him to her mission -- which is to rise up and throw out the foreigners who have dominated Wallaria through the weak King. Chief among these seems to be the British Ambassador, Lord Cloverton.

Desmond, in the interim, spends time at court, and becomes associated with the beautiful Countess Frina Mavrodin. Lord Cloverton recognizes Desmond's worth, but is concerned that he will be a problem. Desmond is also kidnapped and brought to a meeting with a masked woman, who warns him against involvement with the Frenchman's schemes ... And there are rumors that Princess Maritza has run away from her English school and returned to Sturatzberg.

Things continue in this vein. Desmond Ellery, torn between his promised service to the Queen and his obsession with the memory of Princess Maritza, dallies with Frina Mavrodin for a while (not realizing her true loyalties) before finally being sent on his mission to Vasilici. He gains a new companion on this trip, a beardless youth who is a brilliant marksman. He learns some of the truth about the scheming Frenchman. There is a duel, and noble men and women are tragically placed on opposite sides of the struggle, and there is a love triangle or quadrangle. Desmond and his loyal servant and the mysterious beardless youth (I defy anyone to guess his identity [grin]) are hopelessly trapped by the brigands in an abandoned castle. The city rises in rebellion ...

Brebner doesn't really miss a trick here. And it mostly works fairly well. It's all quite silly of course, and often implausible, and as with many novels published in this time frame, the shadow of World War I hangs heavily over all the fustian, for a present day reader, anyway. (That said, there is a vein of realpolitik in Brebner's treatment of the place of Wallaria in events of its time.) The ending is, within the constraints of its genre, somewhat believable. The characters are types, of course, but nicely done types -- Desmond is just dense enough to be almost human despite his near-perfection in other aspects; his servant Stephen is an OK comic foil; the Princess is likeable and brave and the tragic Countess is also admirable. The slimy French villain is perhaps a bit too stock and over the top; but what do you expect? The prose is efficient, a bit on the wordy side but not at the expense of readability. Certainly this is not a book that demands revival, but it's still a book I'm happy enough to have encountered.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An Old Fantasy Masterwork: Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

a review by Rich Horton

This probably doesn't really qualify as an old "Bestseller", nor certainly does Dunsany qualify as "forgotten", but these books (six are considered here) were certainly old, and though Dunsany is not forgotten he is perhaps less read these days than he deserves. This is a review first published in 2000 at SF Site, with slight revisions.

Lord Dunsany's full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany (of the Irish peerage). His niece was Lady Violet Powell, nee Pakenham, the wife of the great novelist Anthony Powell and the sister of the notorious Earl of Longford. Lady Violet's memoirs include a depiction of time spent in Lord Dunsany's somewhat old-fashioned Irish home.

Lord Dunsany is widely regarded as a seminal 20th-century writer of fantasy, the originator of many of the tropes we see in story after story, and a master stylist. However, he is not all that widely read any more (or so it seems to me). Speaking for myself, prior to receiving this collection for review (back in 2000), I had read only the odd story or three that I found reprinted in Weird Tales or some anthology. My copy of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy reprint of The King of Elfland's Daughter is still mouldering on a shelf in my basement, shockingly unread. Perhaps I could have been forgiven if I had thought that Dunsany might be more of an "originator" than a "keeper," or that his reputation as a "stylist" might be built on prose more ornate and flowery than is much appreciated these days.

Well, this new collection, the second in Millennium's much to be praised series of Fantasy Masterworks (a companion to their excellent SF Masterworks series), would seem to have been intended to reach readers like me, and to set Dunsany's record straight. And so it does: the best stories in this book are excellent, written in lovely prose that is indeed ornate, but to good effect, often rounded off with an ironic barb, stuffed with lush images, and suffused with the odour of "regret," which Michael Swanwick has called central to "Hard Fantasy." And the bulk of the stories here are excellent or just a step below.

That said, a few caveats are necessary regarding this particular edition. My main issue is with the presentation of the stories. For a major writer like Dunsany, dead these 43 years, I think a collection of this nature should include at least a small amount of critical/biographical/bibliographical apparatus. I'd have liked to see an introduction discussing the history of these stories, and discussing the rest of Dunsany's career. And I'd have liked to see a longer biographical treatment than the brief paragraph on the back cover. (I might also add that there were rather more typos than I like in the stories themselves.) I suppose, however, that we should be happy with any such large collection, and with such a reasonable price as well.

My second caveat is more in the nature of a warning. This book collects Dunsany's first six collections of fantasy stories: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, A Dreamer's Tales, The Book of Wonder, and The Last Book of Wonder. For some reason, The Gods of Pegana, Dunsany's first book (1905), is presented last. Time and the Gods, his second book (1906), is presented first. I chose to read the collection in order of writing, and frankly I almost bogged down in the first two books. The Gods of Pegana is a collection of closely linked fragments, dealing almost entirely with the title beings. As an imaginative creation, the book is interesting, but there is no plot, and the "gods" did not come to life for me. Time and the Gods consists of less closely linked stories, but it is still dealing with, essentially, faux "creation myths," and varieties of "Just So Stories." I remained mostly unconvinced. In addition, in these collections Dunsany seemed more prone to his style descending to what might be called "forsoothery," as with so many bad Dunsany imitators. There are a few high points, such as "The Cave of Kai," about a King who wishes to be remembered, "The Relenting of Sarnidac," about a dwarf who is mistaken for a god, and especially the last two stories. "The Dreams of a Prophet" is a brief piece, memorable mainly for a real stinger of a line. "The Journeys of the King" is the longest story in the entire (larger) collection: a moving account of a dying King and the prophets who tell him where he will go on his "last journey."

Thus, I would recommend leaving the two earlier collections until later, or perhaps only sampling them. Dunsany seemed to hit his stride with the remarkable stories in The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908). In these stories the focus is on humans. Also, they incorporate actual plots. There is still the ornate writing, but put to better effect. Furthermore, for all that it is ornate, it is wonderfully balanced. The rhythms, as well as the imagery and the alliteration, are seamless and beautiful. The gods and other odd beings are still present. "The Sword of Welleran" is one of the best, about a once war-like city, now guarded only by the statues of the heroes of its past. Another astounding story is "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save by Sacnoth," which would be memorable for its glorious title alone. The story itself is a veritable prototype of hundreds of followers in the genre: the land is troubled by an evil wizard who can only be vanquished by a miraculous weapon, the sword Sacnoth, so our hero literally wrests the sword from the spine of an alligator, then sets out on his quest to the "fortress unvanquishable."

The stories continue in similar modes through the rest of the six books included. As time goes on, Dunsany makes connections with Earth more explicit, and by the last couple of books much effort is spent mourning the departure of "Romance," pushed out by modern times, industry and suburbs and so on. (One amusing story, "A Tale of London," turns the tables somewhat, presenting a vision of a marvelous London from the viewpoint of a Sultan's hashish smoker.) Certainly these books were of their time -- just prior to the First World War.

The dominant fantasy landscape here is vaguely Oriental cum Arabic. Much is made of trackless deserts, wondrous cities with their Minarets and Sultans and robed inhabitants, the smoking of hashish, etc.  The dominant mood is regret for what is lost or about to be lost. And most of the stories end sadly. The hand of fate lies heavy on the characters herein. The most common length is very short: 1000 to 2000 words or so. But despite the outward sameness, and with the exception of the weaker earlier books, I was not bored with the stories, nor did I feel that Dunsany repeated himself. In fact, taken together the stories gain strength. The collections as a whole are almost stronger than their individual parts: a very rare thing for anthologies.

Perhaps a sample or two of Dunsany's prose would be in order. Here is the opening of "The Fall of Babbulkund":

    "I said: 'I will arise now and see Babbulkund, City of Marvel. She is of one age with the Earth, the stars are her sisters. Pharaohs of old time coming conquering from Araby first saw her, a solitary mountain in the desert, and cut the mountain into towers and terraces. They destroyed one of the hills of God, but they made Babbulkund. She is carven, not built, her palaces are one with her terraces, there is neither join nor cleft...'"

From "Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean":

    "Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the East there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind."

Though many of these stories are melancholy, Dunsany is not above dry humour, either the odd dig (on seeing a sheep smoke a pipe: "-- an incident that struck me as unlikely; but in the hills of Sneg I met an honest politician."); or stories with sharply ironic points, or pure entertainments, such as the stories about the pirate Shard, which are among the best collected here ("The Loot of Bombasharna" and "A Story of Land and Sea"). All in all this is as fine an extended collection of fiction as I've seen in a considerable period.

Besides the virtues of the stories themselves, they are significant influences on the fantasy and even the SF of our time. The most obvious derivative works are the many sword and sorcery tales which borrow, too often ineffectively, the quasi-Oriental settings, the quest plots, and broad echoes of Dunsany's prose style. But the influences run elsewhere: certainly Leigh Brackett's Martian landscapes owe something to Dunsany. And even a nominally "hard SF" writer like Arthur C. Clarke (quoted on the back cover calling Dunsany "One of the greatest writers of this century") shows in his romantic visions a distinct heritage from these fantasies.

I recommend this collection of exotic and colourful fantasies to readers interested in the originals from which much contemporary sword and sorcery derive, to those interested in a true master of English prose of the older style, and to those ready to immerse themselves in a melancholy and wholly different world view. Thoroughly involving.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Man from Scotland Yard, by David Frome

The Man from Scotland Yard, by David Frome

a review by Rich Horton

This book might not have been a real bestseller but it seemed to do OK: the edition I have was the fifth printing (in about a year) of the Pocket Books edition. Indeed, its publication history is interesting (to me), and a bit of a window on publishing history in general.

The first edition, in 1932 was from Farrar and Rinehart. This company was founded in 1929 by John C. Farrar and Stanley Rinehart, Jr. This was the first of two prominent publishing firms founded by Farrar -- the second of course is the legendary Farrar, Straus and Giroux, founded as Farrar, Straus in 1946. Stanley Rinehart was the son of famous mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. He and his brother Frederick had worked at the firm George H. Doran (which published the last book I reviewed, You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner), but which became Doubleday, Doran after a merger in 1927. Stanley and Frederick then joined Farrar in his new venture, taking their mother and her future books with them. After Farrar left Farrar and Rinehart, the company was called Rinehart and Company until 1960, when a merger with two other companies, Henry Holt and John C. Winston, created the prominent firm Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

There were no mass market paperbacks in the early '30s, so the first inexpensive edition of The Man from Scotland Yard was a hardcover from Grosset and Dunlap in 1934, one of the (perhaps THE) leading reprint hardcover houses. The mass market paperback was essentially invented by Pocket Books in 1939, so this book, first reprinted in paperback in 1942, was a fairly early example. And my edition, I should add, was a wartime edition, and the publishers made special note of that, with this disclaimer: "In order to cooperate with the government's war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations concerning the use of certain materials." There is also a sort of PSA at the end urging people to "HELP WIN THE WAR! Don't waste anything."

As for the author, "David Frome" has a somewhat interesting history. Frome was a pseudonym for an American writer with the unlikely name of Zenith Brown (nee Jones). Zenith Brown was born in California (daughter of a missionary to Indians), and was educated at the University of Washington (in Seattle), and briefly taught there, but lived much of her life in Annapolis. Her husband, Ford K. Brown, was a Professor at the very well regarded liberal arts school St. John's College in Annapolis: known primarily for their "Great Books" curriculum. Zenith Brown (1898-1983) published her first novel in 1929, when she was living in London: In at the Death, as by Frome. Her English-set books continued to be published under the Frome name, but she also wrote a great many mysteries set in the US (mainly in the DC area) as by "Leslie Ford", and also a few books as by "Brenda Conrad". As "Leslie Ford" she was apparently a regular in the Saturday Evening Post. She stopped writing )or at least publishing) in 1962.

Well, after all that blather, what was the book like? I quite enjoyed it. It's billed as "A Mr. Pinkerton Mystery", as were most or all of her British-set books. Mr. Pinkerton is a mousy Welsh widower, free at last from the domination of his horrible wife, but with nothing in his life except his (apparently accidental) friendship with Inspector J. Humphrey Bull of Scotland Yard. Pinkerton is not really central to the book, though he's an important character. The story is told from multiple points of view, but Bull's POV is most important.

It opens with a pair of young men noticing an acquaintance of theirs, the somewhat older (but still beautiful) Diana Barrett, looking distressed and heading to a moneylenders'. It seems she is known as a reckless gambler on horse racing. And indeed Mrs. Barrett is next seen begging Mr. David Craikie for extra time to pay back her £5000 loan. But it seems she must ask David's brother Simon instead, and he is not in. Then we meet handwriting expert Mr. Arthurington, returning from holiday in France. When Mr. Arthurington gets home, he is shocked to discover a dead man in his house, which had been rented but (mysteriously?) vacated a short time previously. Next up is Inspector Bull, looking into the matter of an odd note claiming "a mother and three little ones" have been killed and buried in the back garden of a small house ... only to find that the murdered creatures are cats. And finally we meet Mr. Arthurington's daughter Joan and her friend Nancy, also returning to England in the company of their duenna, Miss Mandle.

All this seems terribly complicated, and it is. Before long another murder has occurred, and Inspector Bull is on the case, soon realizing that -- perhaps -- the two murdered men are in fact the moneylenders Simon and David Craikie. Or are they? The two brothers were reclusive people, and the identification doesn't seem absolutely certain. Mr. Pinkerton shows up begging to help, and to get him out of his hair Bull asks him to investigate the matter of the murdered cats ... and somehow Pinkerton, largely by accident, finds out, or helps Bull find out, and unexpected connection between that disquieting but trivial incident and the double murder. As for all the other characters ... Mrs. Barrett, the Arhuringtons, even the two young men in the opening scene ... they are all connected to each other -- mostly they are neighbors, and indeed they also have at least slight connections to the Craikies, or to the Craikies' lawyer.

Complications build on complications. There is a Craikie sister and a (missing) Craikie daughter. The Australian tenant of the Arthurington house might be implicated. Social climbing Americans are mentioned. Mr. Arthurington's handwriting expertise comes into play. And Mr. Pinkerton goes off to Liverpool ...

The whole construction is highly improbable and overcomplicated, but it does pretty much hold together, and it makes for a satisfyingly intricate mystery with a fairly believable solution (believable under the implicit conditions of this subgenre). Inspector Bull is an pretty well-realized, if somewhat stock, character, and enjoyable to read about. There are moments of suspense and danger, and the book is always readable and interesting. It's far from a great work -- it's an artificial construction. But on its own terms it's quite fun. Edmund Wilson (not a favorite of mine ... wrong about Lovecraft, wrong about Tolkien, wrong about entertainment in general -- though to be fair, pretty much right about the likes of Nabokov and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) famously asked "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?", and of course that's a classic case of entirely missing the point. No, we don't really "care" about Ackroyd -- or, in this book, the Craikies -- in any deep way: the pleasures are different and doubtless shallower, but this sort of book does what it does (when done well) effectively.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Old Bestsellers: You Know Me Al, by Ring W. Lardner

You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner

a review by Rich Horton

You Know Me Al remains, I think, fairly well known, even 100 years after it was first published, as a series of short pieces in the Saturday Evening Post. The book version came out two years later, in 1916, from George H. Doran. I confess I had assumed it was a bestseller: Lardner was a popular writer, and the book was immediately famous and sequels followed. But apparently it sold only modestly at first -- perhaps because so many people had read it first in the SEP. (My edition is a 1992 trade paperback reprint from Prairie State Books, an imprint of the University of Illinois Press, with an introduction by well known baseball novelist Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly.)

Ring Lardner was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner in 1886, in Niles, Michigan, in the Southwest corner of the state (nearish to Chicago, and an area I'm moderately familiar with). He disliked his full first name and insisted on being called Ring ...but then he named his son Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, Jr. (Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten screenwriters -- he won Oscars before the blacklist (for Woman of the Year) and after (for M*A*S*H, though supposedly he disliked that film because director Robert Altman changed the script so much (I had thought he allowed his actors to improvise and change lines?))

Lardner (Sr.) was, like Irvin S. Cobb who I've mentioned here previously, rather precocious, and became a reporter on the South Bend Tribune as a teenager, moving to Chicago, and eventually the Chicago Tribune, soon after. Lardner spent time on the baseball beat, covering the White Sox, and that became the genesis of You Know Me Al. You Know Me Al is considered his only "novel", but that's a stretch -- structurally, to me, it is a collection of linked stories, with admittedly something of a narrative arc. Lardner went on to publish many more stories about Jack Keefe, the hero of You Know Me Al, and indeed it became a comic strip in the '20s. Lardner published many excellent short stories on other subjects than baseball, perhaps the most famous being "Alibi Ike" and "Haircut". His editor, later in life, was Maxwell Perkins, who begged him for a novel -- or at least a novella! -- that never came. Lardner died quite young, in 1933.

You Know Me Al is a sequence of letters from a young man named Jack Keefe to his best friend, Al Blanchard, back home in Bedford (which is presumably a rural town in Indiana or Michigan). Keefe has been pitching for Terre Haute but is bought by the White Sox. The book, in 6 chapters, tells the story of Keefe's first two or three years in the major leagues. He's a pretty talented pitcher, though not so talented as he thinks he is, and he's arrogant and lazy. Over the course of the book he has some ups and downs, though it seems that when he pitches regularly he does quite well. But he also messes up some, doing things like hitting a man on purpose with the bases full, and he finds himself sold to Milwaukee, and out of a job, and eventually back with the Sox but on the second team. He is also naive about money, insisting he will hold out for much more money than he ends up settling for, etc.

We get some details about baseball training at the time -- it seems the White Sox trained in California in those days. There's a bit of inside baseball, and some hints about the other ways teams tried to make money -- barnstorming, foreign trips, etc. And there are a lot of tidbits about the famous players of the time, like Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Tris Speaker.

But all that makes it sound very little like the book really is. It's definitely a baseball book, yes, but not in a dry way at all. For one thing, Jack Keefe's personal life is also central -- he has a lot of woman trouble, taking up with two different women who end up throwing him over when he seems in danger of losing his job with the Sox, then marrying the sister-in-law of one of his teammates, who leaves him for a time after a quarrel. He has a child eventually, who he loves but doesn't quite know how to deal with. And he is quick to threaten a fight, if slightly slower to follow through, and he likes his liquor and his food rather too much. In fact, he's kind of a jerk -- a blowhard, rather stupid and not very aware of it, careless with his money and with others and yet very cheap at times as well, not always a good teammate (constantly blaming his fielders for any runs he gives up, that sort of thing).

The real joy of the novel is the language. Jack Keefe is not an artful writer, nor speller, though he's a facile writer, and Lardner captures his voice beautifully. Here he describes Tigers' manager Hughie Jennings trash-talking him before a game: "Jennings says You ain't going to pitch that bird are you? And Callahan [Sox manager] said Yes he was. Then Jennings says I wish you wouldn't because my boys is all tired out and can't run the bases." Here he asks Charlie Comiskey, the owner, if his wife can come to spring training: "He says Sure they would be glad to have her along. And then I says Would the club pay her fair? He says I guess you must have spent that $100 [that Comiskey had advanced him] buying some nerve. He says Have you not got no sisters that would like to go along to? He says Does your wife insist on the drawing room or will she take a lower birth? He says Is my special train good enough for her?"

And much more like that. So, it's a fine work, a good picture of life in the early part of the century, and of baseball at that time, and engagingly written. It did drag a bit after a while, though -- I wonder if it read a little better in installments as originally published. Later stories apparently took Keefe to World War I, among other things. Lardner, a huge baseball fan, apparently gave up on the game after his beloved White Sox threw the World Series in 1919, in the worst scandal in the game's history, however, and that was the end of the Jack Keefe stories as well.