Friday, April 29, 2016

Old Bestseller: Two Black Sheep, by Warwick Deeping

Old Bestseller: Two Black Sheep, by Warwick Deeping

A review by Rich Horton

I knew, when I started to write about old bestsellers from the early 20th Century, that sooner or later I would cover a Warwick Deeping book, but I have to confess that I could never get interested in the copies I saw of his most famous novel, Sorrell and Son (1925), even though it’s marginally Science Fiction. So I waited until I came across another novel – Two Black Sheep, from 1933. My edition is from Grosset and Dunlap. There is a curious note on the dust jacket: "The issuance of this new edition at a reduced price is made possible by a) use of the same plates made for the original edition, and b) the author's acceptance of a reduced royalty". The "reduced price" was 75 cents! As noted, the dust jacket, and the binding, indicate Grosset and Dunlap. However, the reuse of plates from the original edition extends to an internal designation as "A Borzoi Book, Alfred E. Knopf", and the copyright page says "Published September 8, 1933. First two printings before publication. Third Printing, September 1933.", which must also be from a Knopf printing. This does suggest it sold fairly well. The G&D edition must have been not too much later, as the back page listing of other Deeping novels shows none later than Two Black Sheep.

The first UK edition was from Cassell’s, earlier in 1933, and the novel was serialized (as “Black Sheep, Black Sheep”) between September 1932 and February 1933 in the Hearst magazine International-Cosmopolitan. There was apparently a movie version, called Two Sinners.

Warwick Deeping (1877-1950) was an English writer, originally a Doctor (apparently following in the footsteps of his father). He began publishing novels in 1903, but continued in his practice for some time. He served in the Royal Medical Corps in the First World War. Not long after that he stopped practicing medicine to concentrate on fiction.

He was very prolific, publishing some 70 novels and over 200 short stories. From the mid-‘20s to the ‘30s  he was remarkably successful, with a novel on the Publishers’ Weekly list of the 10 bestselling novels of the year for 7 consecutive years between 1926 and 1932. (So that it seems that Two Black Sheep may have been the one to break the streak!) The first of these huge bestsellers was Sorrell and Son, third on the list in 1926 and again fourth in 1927 (in which year his Doomsday was third). His literary reputation was never very high – he was disparaged for his melodramatic plots, his somewhat platitudinous beliefs, his sometimes strained views of sex and indeed of women, and, as George Orwell wrote, as one of those writers who simply “don’t notice what is happening”. That said, his novels were interested in significant and controversial social issues: the Wikipedia entry lists themes such as rape, euthanasia, women posing as men to achieve equal rights, slum conditions, pollution, and a wife justifiably killing her husband because of abuse.

I found a really delightful blog about Deeping, My Warwick Deeping Collection ( The writer became obsessed with collecting Deeping just a few years ago, and has copies of each of his books, and some of the periodical versions as well. He includes a brief description of each book, with some useful details on publication history as well, including sometimes serial versions, and also picture of multiple editions. Just my thing! With the blog owner's permission, I've reproduced a couple of those images here, one the original Cassell edition dust jacket, and the other the cover of the Sunday Ledger reprint.

Two Black Sheep opens in about 1915 as Captain Henry Vane, on leave from the front, visits a certain Mr. Belgrave, pulls a gun on him, and shoots him. Vane turns himself in immediately, and is sent to prison for 15 years. It seems that Mr. Belgrave had been fooling around with Mrs. Vane while Captain Vane was fighting in France, and got Mrs. Vane pregnant.

Now in 1930, Henry Vane has been released from prison. He’s an engineer, but has no job prospects due to his record. Luckily, he’s quite well off, and he decides to travel, figuring his case will be unknown outside of England. He ends up in Rome. Meantime, Elsie Summerhays, a woman in her late 20s, and her mother have been impoverished after the death of Mr. Summerhays (a writer) revealed a mountain of debts. Elsie decides she must take a position, and is hired as a governess by a spoiled and vulgar young widow, Mrs. Pym. Mrs. Pym and a friend are planning to spend some months in Europe, and she needs a woman to look after her daughter while she fools around with whatever men she fancies. So, Elsie too ends up in Rome, in the Pym entourage, dealing with young Sally Pym, a terribly spoiled little girl. As it happens, her room is next to Henry Vane’s, and they meet while relaxing on neighboring balconies.

Over the next couple of months, Elsie and Vane begin to fall in love. And Elsie, after much difficulty, seems to be making progress in taming Sally Pym. But a couple of disasters happen – first, Vane confesses his criminal history to Elsie, and she reacts in shock. Before she has a chance to reconsider and to talk again to Vane, Mrs. Pym, embarrassed both financially and romantically, runs off to the Riviera. And Elsie learns that her mother is dying. She asks Mrs. Pym for her salary, which that nasty woman refuses her, claiming she has no money on hand. When Elsie finds a bunch of cash that Mrs. Pym was saving for the casino, she takes enough for a ticket home (way less than she is owed), and is arrested, and thrown into jail – Vane having tracked her down just a day or so too late!

The rest of the novel is a depiction of Vane building a home for the two in the South of France while waiting for Elsie to serve her time – and it never surprised from that time forward, despite a couple of manufactured crises (a local woman has her eye on Vane, and Elsie falls sick in prison). I found the ending, thus, a bit lacking in tension, a bit overextended. I was also disappointed never to learn what became of Mrs. Pym (one hoped for a comeuppance for her), nor of Sally (one hoped for redemption for her) … but to be fair to Deeping, this aspect was fairly realistic and avoided convenient clichés, such as Sally ending up a happy adopted child in the Vane family.

All in all this was a reasonably entertaining piece of popular fiction of its time – somewhat melodramatic, somewhat sentimental, a plot based on coincidence, yes, all that, but still enjoyable enough. The depiction of Elsie and Vane’s romance is noticeably sexless, but rather nicely depicted in their conversations. Not a very good novel, and in this case not even really interested in any of the social issues that Deeping sometimes tackled – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you! One of those cases where it’s easy to see why a writer sold well in his day, and easy to see why he’s decidedly a niche interest now – though, I think, less forgotten than many of his contemporaries.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Significant Ace Double: The Genetic General/Time to Teleport, by Gordon R. Dickson

Ace Double Reviews, 95: The Genetic General, by Gordon R. Dickson/Time to Teleport, by Gordon R. Dickson (#D-449, 1960, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

So this time an Ace Double featuring a pretty significant novel in SF history, by a pretty significant writer. The Genetic General is much better known as Dorsai!, the title under which it was serialized in Astounding in 1959. The first couple of book editions were called The Genetic General, but the original (and in my opinion far better) title was restored, permanently I think, in 1971. The book version is also abridged (not uncommon for Ace Doubles), and apparently a full version didn't see print (except for the serial) until the mid-'70s.

The book on the reverse was also by Dickson, a short novel (really a long novella) called here Time to Teleport, though as far as I can tell the original magazine title was "No More Barriers" (Science Fiction Stories, September 1955). In this version it's about 37,000 words (quite possibly the same as the original, or just slightly longer). The Genetic General is perhaps 65,000 words. The Eds were responsible for the covers, Valigursky for The Genetic General, and Emshwiller for Time to Teleport.

Dorsai! was the first major story in Dickson's central series, called The Childe Cycle. (A short story, "Act of Creation", preceded it in 1957, and another possibly related story, "Lulongomeena", appeared in 1954.) The Childe Cycle was a very ambitious undertaking that Dickson never finished. It was to consist of three historical novels, three present-day novels, and six SF novels. Only the SF part ever appeared, the six novels, as well as some shorter pieces, and some pendant novels, including one finished after Dickson's death by his long time assistant, David Wixon. The central theme of the cycle was the three central human traits, Courage, Faith, and Philosophy. One story, "Soldier, Ask Not", from 1964, won a Hugo, and was later incorporated into the novel of the same title.

The Genetic General is about a young man of the Dorsai people, from the planet called Dorsai, orbiting Fomalhaut. The Dorsai are mercenaries, and Donal Graeme, as the book opens, is a very young man just ready to go out into the wider human civilization and take on his first assignment. Immediately he encounters a beautiful but scared woman, Anea, the Select of Kultis, one of the Exotic worlds. She has taken a contract to be an escort for the powerful merchant William of Ceta, and wants Donal to get rid of it. He of course realizes that would be a crime and a mistake, and so refuses, but he is set on a collision course with William.

The novel continues, to an extent a travelogue of human interstellar society. Donal take a contract as a Mercenary for Harmony, one of the Friendly worlds (religiously oriented). After doing his job there too well, he takes another contract, and has another spectacular success ... and he continues to gain experience and knowledge, for one thing spending time with the powerful and mystical Sayona the Bond, one of the most important people of the Exotic worlds. And things come to a head as William's maneuvering seems poised to deliver him power over the entire human civilization, and as he chooses Donal as one of his game pieces in this effort -- but naturally he has again underestimated Donal.

There are broad swathes of cliche to this plot arc, and indeed (as I noted elsewhere), a number of points of contact with the story of Miles Vorkosigan -- odd young man from a militaristic world becomes a mercenary, along the way attaches a nearly-psychopathic man to him as a loyal retainer, supplying the man's conscience ... To be sure, Graeme's ultimate fate is more grandiose that Miles's (very much more grandiose, as I understand from summaries of the remaining Childe Cycle books). And it's early Dickson, not as well done as some of his later work. But it is quite exciting, and Donal's military feats make good stories. And Dickson's ambition is quite apparent -- he is interested in deeper themes than just good adventure. I quite enjoyed the book.

Time to Teleport, the other half, is an earlier work of course. Indeed, in a sense it's Dickson's first novel, even though not quite novel length, as its magazine publication preceded any other Dickson story ever published as a book. It's set in a future in which humanity is divided based on the types of work people do; groups like Transportation, Atomics, and Metal. Eli Johnstone is the head of one of the smaller groups, Underseas, but he has managed to be a power broker, maintaining a tenuous political balance between rival factions.

One of the main controversies facing the world involves a group of philosophical researchers who call themselves Members of the Human Race. They are hoping to understand the evolution of new human powers, psi powers, as part of the next step in human evolution. But their opponents fear them, believing that "normal" humans will be swept aside.

Now Eli wants to retire, just as his main rival, Tony Sellars of Transportation, is stepping up rhetoric against the "Members". But Eli is ready to volunteer for an experimental operation, that will replace his worn out body parts with new ones. And so he leave, while Sellars increases his pressure, and makes his move to take over the world. At the critical moment, Eli must finally face his true nature ... which is not so hard to guess!

This is a minor work, but still somewhat interesting, and still showing Dickson interested in deeper philosophical themes. It was clunky enough to not quite work, but it's still an moderately enjoyable story.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Perfume of the Lady in Black, by Gaston Leroux

Old Bestseller: The Perfume of the Lady in Black, by Gaston Leroux

A review by Rich Horton

Back to the original focus of this blog with a true Old Bestseller, though this book’s best sales might have been in France. Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) was a native of Paris who inherited a lot of money and earned a law degree. But by about 1890 he was broke and working in journalism. He became an international correspondent for Le Matin, most significantly covering the 1905 Russian Revolution (one that didn’t stick). He began publishing fiction as early as 1887, and his first novel appeared in 1904 (La Double Vie de Théophraste Longuet, known as The Double Life in English). He quit journalism in 1907, more or less simultaneously with his first major novelistic success, The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That was the first of ultimately seven novels about a young journalist who acts as a detective, Joseph Rouletabille. He is of course best known for his 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera), which has been made into numerous films and one very famous musical.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room was a locked-room story, and is still regarded as one of the best locked room mysteries of all time. The book at hand, La Parfum de la Dame en Noir (The Perfume of the Lady in Black), from 1909, is a direct sequel to The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and it is also a locked-room mystery. Of necessity, the following will involve spoilers for the first book.

The novel is narrated by M. Sainclair, an older friend of Joseph Rouletabille, who seems fairly openly a Watson figure. We begin in a shabby church in Paris, as Mlle. Mathilde Stangerson marries M. Robert Darzac. We gather that Mlle. Stangerson and M. Darzac were involved in the events of the previous book. Mathilde’s father, Professor Stangerson, had been accused of a murder, investigated by a detective, Frederic Larsan, with the assistance of Joseph Rouletabille. At the end, Rouletabille proved that the actual killer was in fact Larsan, a master of disguise who was also known as Ballmyer and as Jean Roussel, under which name he had married Mlle. Stangerson in America. She had a child with him, who died young, but had become estranged, and fell in love with M. Darzac. After Larsan is convicted of murder, he escapes, and flees to America, but falls overboard and drowns on the way there, freeing his ex-wife to marry M. Darzac.

The book is interrupted for some extended exposition about the childhood of Joseph Rouletabille, where we learn that he was actually the supposedly dead son of Frederic Larsan and Mathilde, who ended up at a strict boarding school, before he was expelled on a false charge of theft. Living on his own, he managed eventually to work his way into journalism.

The scene thus set, the newly married couple head off on their honeymoon to the South of France. But on the way, Mme. Darzac is shocked to see Larsan. Sainclair and Rouletabille follow them to their destination, a curious castle/island just on the Italian side of the Riviera, owned by Mr. Arthur Rance, an American, and his wife Edith. Mr. Rance, it seems, was once desperately in love with Mlle. Stangerson, and Edith is terribly jealous of her. Their party consists, then, of the Rances, the Darzacs, Sainclair, Rouletabille, Edith’s uncle, Old Bob, an anthropologist who believes he has discovered the oldest human skull of all time, and occasionally a neighbor, Prince Galitch, a Russian who is a rival  of Old Bob, and who also seems inappropriately close to Mme. Edith. Other players are several servants, and, all fear, the mysterious specter of the apparently not really dead M. Larsan – whose continued survival would invalidate the marriage of the Darzacs.

All this takes a long, and frankly tedious, time to set up. Then the action commences, with strange behavior by Old Bob, flirtation and jealousy from Edith, and eventually a shooting, and the apparent disposal of the victim in a potato sack. But is he really dead? And, despite all Rouletabille’s efforts to make the castle impregnable, has Larsan found a way in? And how did the “extra body” somehow make his way into the Darzac chambers? And who was actually shot? And who is responsible for the death of one of the servants?

The whole thing is kind of convoluted and, as I suggested, often tedious. The characters never really come to life – it’s hard to much like any of them. (Part of this, to be sure, is because each character – even the narrator, Sainclair -- has to be presented as plausibly Larsan in disguise.) Leroux painstakingly describes, with diagrams!, the layout of the castle and of some key interiors. Things eventually come to a head, leading to a traditional wrapping up, with the detective gathering everyone in a room and explaining who is guilty – and with the bad guy, as is traditional, removing him- or herself  from an inconvenient potential trial by some precipitate actions …

The mystery, I suppose, is nicely enough solved, if it does depend rather too much on Larsan’s incredible ability to disguise himself. But beyond that, the novel just doesn’t work – it’s too long, too boring, with an uninteresting set of characters. Some of this, I suppose, might possibly be laid at the door of the translator. My edition, I should add, is a 1909 edition, probably a first American, from Brentano’s (I assume possibly related to the bookseller). There are numerous illustrations (including the diagrams). The illustrator and translator are both uncredited. (I note that the science fiction writer Brian Stableford, who had translated an immense amount of French popular fiction from the 19th and early 20th Century, has translated at least one of the Rouletabille books.)

I have no idea if other Leroux books are better – I’m not terribly likely to try any. I have, of course, seen a couple of versions of The Phantom of the Opera – the musical, at least, is very good.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin

an appreciation by Rich Horton

My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens, but my favorite British poet, I think, is Philip Larkin. Larkin (1922-1985) was a long-time friend of Kingsley Amis, one of my favorite novelists. He was a rather sad man, somewhat by choice I’d suggest (though I’d caution of course that that’s just me projecting my feelings on an outside view of his life), and on the evidence perhaps not a very nice man, certainly not above (in private letters) expressing some queasily racist notions, and also some rather sexist notions. He doesn’t seem to have treated the women in his life very well either. His longest relationship was with Monica Jones (sometimes suggested as the model for the awful Margaret Peel in Amis’ Lucky Jim) – it lasted from 1950 to the end of his life, though they never married: but Larkin had significant relationships with several other women in this time period, indeed at one time juggling three affairs at once. Larkin’s primary job was as librarian, most importantly at the University of Hull. He seems to have been highly regarded there, both for his work and as a colleague. Despite mostly living fairly modestly, in the end he accumulated a significant fortune, enough so that his primary beneficiary, Jones, left an estate of over £1,000,000 at her death in 2001.

Larkin’s early poems were primarily imitative of W. H. Auden, with other significant influences such as Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats. (Larkin was to some extent responsible for the rehabilitation of Hardy’s poetic reputation relative to his novelistic reputation.) His first book of poems was The North Ship (1945), which was all but ignored and has remained but a minor part of his oeuvre in the minds of most readers. To be sure, he was only 23. In the next decade he found his true voice, partly in association with the “Movement” poets (such as Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest). His three major slim collections were published at intervals of roughly a decade: The Less Deceived in 1955, The Whitsun Weddings in 1964, and High Windows in 1974. After that book he was all but done as a poet, even though he was only 54 – “Aubade” and “Love Again” are the only significant poems written later, the rest being often occasional poems, or unfinished. (I am also quite fond of an earlier uncollected poem, a bit of a joke based presumably on the sexual exploits of either Amis or Conquest, “Letter to a Friend about Girls”.) He refused an offer to be named Poet Laureate in 1984, a year before his death.

Larkin’s reputation suffered some blows after his death, mostly to my mind a result of score settling by rivals and by those whose poetic philosophies differed, and as a result of the publication of his letters and other revelations of some quite racist expressions. It certainly seemed to me that some second-raters were happy to suggest “Don’t read him, read me!” – as if anyone with sense would read their anodyne lameness. (OK, so I took some of that controversy a bit hard!) Larkin’s reputation has recovered, however, largely to my mind because people actually read the poems instead of obsessing about the personal life. It is probably fair to say that Larkin’s range was somewhat narrow, but I’m not sure that matters. And his rather po-faced attitudes can sometimes seem almost self-caricature. But within that range, and understanding the point of view he expresses, his poetry is stunning: lyrically expressive, syntactically complex and interesting, emotionally intense if not flamboyantly so.

Of his three major collections, I think the best is the middle one, The Whitsun Weddings. There are 32 poems, including several of my very favorites: “Faith Healing”, “Water”, “The Whitsun Weddings”, “MCMXIV”, “Dockery and Son”, “Reference Back”, “Wild Oats”, and, to close the book, possibly Larkin’s greatest poem, “An Arundel Tomb”. (There are of course other candidates for that title: “At Grass”, “Church Going”, “If, my Darling”, “High Windows”, even “This be the Verse”.)

I think best perhaps is to quote some lines …

From “Faith Healing”, I am always devastated by “That nothing cures.”

From “Water”: “A glass of water/where any-angled light/would congregate endlessly.”

From “MCMXIV” – another candidate for my favorite Larkin poem – and a poem which makes me think of Christopher Priest’s great story “An Infinite Summer” – the last stanza:

“Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.”

From “Dockery and Son”, the famous final four lines:

“Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then only the end of age.”

From “Reference Back”:

“They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.”

And, finally, “An Arundel Tomb”. That of course has a very famous last line: “What will survive of us is love.” So often quoted as a cloying sentimental truism. Which is to ignore the previous line: “Our almost instinct almost true:” – so undermining of the sentiment in the final line.

It’s just such a lovely poem, from start to finish. The first stanza loosely describing the somewhat faded tomb, with the crucial detail: “The little dogs under their feet.” The second stanza, revealing the most critical element of the carven tomb: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” “What will survive of us is love”, eh?

But then the next line, opening the third stanza. “They would not think to lie so long.” Is this a pun? To be sure, the Earl and his Countess are not thinking of “lying in state”, as it were, for centuries. But are they also not thinking of the “lie” the sculptor tells?

The next two stanzas suggest the changes wrought by time – both just by decay, but also by changes in attitude. I just love the fifth stanza (beginning at the end of the fourth):

“Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came”

And, sure, let’s quote the great final lines:

“Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”

Surely the point here is that the love of the Earl and his Countess – real as it may or may not have been, is not what survives. What survives, over centuries, is our hope, our sentimental hope, that our love will survive – that love is the most important thing, despite the possibility that the love was not real.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Little-Known recent novel: The Language Nobody Speaks, by Eugene Mirabelli

A little-known recent novel: The Language Nobody Speaks, by Eugene Mirabelli

a review by Rich Horton

OK, this wasn't a bestseller -- not even close. And it's not all that old. It might be sort of forgotten, alas. The real reason I'm covering it is, well, that I like Eugene Mirabelli (and his work), and that I hadn't finished my latest "Old Bestseller" (a novel by Gaston Leroux that I'm find hard going) and that I just finished my latest Ace Double (a Gordon Dickson pairing).

Eugene Mirabelli has written a number of mainstream novels ... the first of them dating all the way back to the my year of birth, 1959. (Indeed, he was born in Massachusetts in 1931 -- as was my father!) He came to my attention with a number of quite lovely SF/Fantasy stories, in F&SF, Asimov's, and Not One of Us. I used a couple of them in my Best of the Year books, and we've reprinted another at Lightspeed. I figured I ought to try one of his novels, and I picked The Language Nobody Speaks, which dates to 1999. I supposed I must admit that I was partly convinced to choose this one by the cover photograph, of a very beautiful and not very clothed woman.

The story is set in about 1956 for the most part. The narrator is Bart, a young mathematician. His car breaks down in Albany, NY, and he happens to run into Erin, a girl he had met and become very attracted to at a wedding a year or so before. She has a little time, so she agrees to have lunch with him. At lunch they happen to sit with a somewhat older married couple, Hollis and Lida, who seem quite taken with them. The older couple (not really that much older -- Bart and Erin are presumably in their mid- to late-20s, and Hollis and Lida in their 30s or perhaps early 40s in Hollis's case) convince the younger pair to accompany them on a brief excursion to Saratoga. Bart and Erin quickly realize they are falling in love, and they end up staying the night at a hotel in Saratoga, with Hollis and Lida in the neighboring room.

By various happenstances, the stay is extended a bit. Bart and Erin sleep together, talk a lot, about things like Bart's disenchantment with mathematics, and about how people can really know each other, and so on. They also witness by accident some of Hollis and Lida's sex life, which seems to have an S&M element. But though they are disturbed by this, they enjoy the older couple's company in the days, as they visit various New York locations. Inevitably, they are drawn closer and closer to Hollis and Lida, eventually visiting their home in the Berkshires, where certain variously ominous events occur -- some sleeping around, of course, and revelations about Lida's past (she was a Czech refugee who ended up in Italy at the end of the War, where her mother apparently became a collaborator, and where Hollis met her), and further revelations about Hollis's habits, and about their marriage, which is not nearly as strong as had first appeared. The question is, can Bart and Erin's relationship survive all this, even prosper, or will it founder on all this stress. Or will something more sinister happen?

I enjoyed this short novel a fair bit. It's reasonably erotic without being pornographic at all by my lights. It's very well written, and quite well observed. The denouement has elements of patness, but really it makes sense, it's believable -- just not, as the narrator even observes, entirely what the shape of the narrative may have seemed to promise. Good enjoyable work.

Mirabelli's other novels seem worth a look as well. He often writes on Italian or Italian-American subjects, and occasionally ventures into fantastical territory. He's still writing, and a new novel is due sometime this year.