Friday Flotsam: Dean Koontz and more Agatha Christie

1. It has been an odd week for me. I’ve been strangely listless and unable to settle down to anything (I mean, more so than usual). I really don’t know what to ascribe it to: depression, anxiety, medication side-effects, or just old-fashioned vice. Suppose the only way to find out is simply to keep working at it and see what works.

2. On the way home from my sister’s place I listened to Dean Koontz’s Tick-Tock (well, after finishing another Agatha Christie: Lord Edgware Dies. That one’s pretty good, though in retrospect it depends on Poirot making a major mistake early on to avoid solving the mystery in about ten minutes). It was…odd. The more I read of Mr. Koontz, the more I find that he has a tendency to let his stories get away from him, where things start to go absolutely nuts as the plot progresses. This was one of those: it starts off as a creepy supernatural horror thriller, then maybe half-way through takes a hard left into an almost cartoonish comedy, while maintaining the gruesome imagery and concepts of the early parts. Or maybe that was intended from the get go, but it was an odd experience nonetheless, and I confess I think I would have preferred a more straight-fire thriller, since the premise itself was really good. I chalk this and similar books up to his being a pantser who works things out as he goes.

(Also, this book hails from the mid-nineties, when ‘super-witty and competent chick paired with nervous, out-of-his-depth, wimpy hero’ was still considered cute. That aspect hasn’t aged well at all).

3. I don’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I dislike Mr. Koontz’s work. On the contrary, I usually enjoy him a lot. The Odd Thomas series is great, as is From the Corner of His Eye and The Good Guy (among the ones I’ve read). Strangers had a great opening, but I thought the payoff was a letdown (though to be fair, it’s really hard to come up with a good payoff to books like that), ditto, though to a less extent, for Phantoms. I remember liking Watchers a good deal too. I didn’t finish Intensity because, well, it was too intense. I took a breather and never went back. Not ‘light’ reading that one.

In any case, as I say, I generally like Mr. Koontz’s work, and even in his more disappointing books I love his style. He’s a wordsmith with a sense of humor, and you can’t ask for more than that.

4. Speaking of Agatha Christie, I also recently revisited Murder on the Orient Express. I think that’s probably the best gateway book if you want to begin reading her work (not least because Poirot spoils the ending in many subsequent books): it’s a strong premise and a fantastic plot, and Poirot has to make some brilliant deduction to solve it. It’s also a pretty delightful cross-section of interwar European society, if you’re into that sort of thing (and who isn’t?).

Of course, the only trouble is that it’s a very famous book and most people already know the solution. If you, by any chance, haven’t already heard it, I urge you to do your best to avoid finding out! Just pick up a copy and read it: you’ll be glad you did.

Then after you’ve done that, pick up the 1974 film version starring Albert Finny as Poirot and a truly staggering collection of stars as everyone else. It’s a great film, even apart from the mystery and the sheer delight of seeing Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Ingrid Bergman, and more acting together.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
“Mais oui!”

(I haven’t seen the 2017 Kenneth Branagh version, but I think it’s fair to say the odds of its being as good are tres petit).

Friday (Saturday) Flotsam: Agatha Christie

1. Missed yesterday, obviously. I’m currently on a kind of personal mini-retreat at my sister’s, which meant being on the road or otherwise occupied for the past few days.

2. On the way up I listened to the Miss Marple novel They Do it With Mirrors. It isn’t one of Dame Agatha Christie’s best (I successfully guessed the solution the first time I read it), but like most of her work is hugely entertaining anyway.

Agatha Christie’s storytelling really does not get enough appreciation, I think; her intricate detective plots are brilliant, of course, but she also excels at mixing up a lot of different subplots in her work to try to keep you guessing. Usually, I find, there’s the actual plot (the murder), at least one major subplot (typically a romance: Dame Christie almost always worked romantic subplots into her books) that serves as a key smokescreen, plus two or three minor ones.

So, an Agatha Christie novel is set up as more or less a series of different, semi-connected plot lines all laid one on top of the other. Most have nothing to do with the murder, but they seem like they might. This also (I suspect) gave her the chance to explore other kinds of stories that she wanted to write anyway, but which were outside of the detective form.

(Upon reflection, I suppose all stories could be thought of like that, though in the case of a mystery novel, the subplots don’t have to contribute to the main plot at all. Their simply being there to muddy the waters is an adequate reason for their existence).

3. Another thing about Dame Christie’s work: she mastered the trick of making the most logical person guilty without making the solution obvious.

In most good murder mysteries, there are at least three suspects: the one everyone in the book thinks is obviously guilty, the one the audience is supposed to think is guilty, and the one who is actually guilty.

Say you have a man shot in his study. Is the killer A). his unscrupulous butler who was embezzling from him and about to get caught? B). the secretary in love with the man’s much-younger wife and whose story doesn’t quite hold together? or C). his very respectable lawyer who has a cast iron alibi and no obvious motive?

Of course it’s C (the lawyer actually had been embezzling from him for years and was about to be ruined). Dame Christie’s particular genius, however, was to make it turn out to be A after all, but in such a way that you would think he had already been cleared of suspicion. She didn’t do this all the time, but often enough. It keeps you on your toes.

4. The thing is, Dame Christie’s characterization and so forth isn’t usually brilliant: the characters are generally fairly clear ‘types’ with a few tweaks added on, but they’re well-realized and appealing types, which is really the important thing. The point of the story is to entertain, and as far as that’s concerned familiarity, or at least being able to get a picture of the character quickly is more important than depth. Not that you shouldn’t have both if you can, but in a detective story you usually don’t have the time for a whole lot of depth.

Besides which, the driving question of a detective story is ‘who did it’? And what gives the question its sting is the fear that someone you like is going to turn out to be the killer. So we need to set the characters quickly and clearly, in fairly broad strokes (the gruff military man, the pretty young woman, the middle-aged widow, etc.) so that the reader knows what’s at stake and can begin to try to figure out which one he thinks did the deed.

But then again, I’m generally of the opinion that vividness – that the characters stand out or stick in the reader’s mind – is more important than depth – that the characters show many different sides or layers and have a complex psychology. But that’s a topic for another time.

Amazin’ Amazon Holiday Book Sale

Over eighty kindle books are available for $0.99 or less over Thanksgiving weekend. Several are free, including such modern independent fiction classics as Monster Hunter International (Larry Correia’s first book: badasses shoot monsters in the face for fun and profit) and The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin (cute girl with a perfect memory has adventures in a school for magic while blowing the world-building and magic system of Harry Potter out of the water). Also works by the likes of Richard Paolinelli, John C. Wright, Bokerah Brumley, Kit Sun Cheah, Caroline Furlong, J.D. Cowan, Declan Finn, Alexander Hellene, and more!

Also included in the sale is Fantastic Schools vol. 2, featuring a story by your humble servant called Halloween Dance. It’s all about the trials and complications of young love, particularly when the boy has a troubled past and is covered in scales, the girl is outgoing and friendly but can’t show her face without killing someone, and both are attending a school for monsters where unspeakable evil can strike at any time.

In any case, a good chance to pick up any of those great works of independent fiction you’ve had your eye on, but which your Scrooge-like ways couldn’t permit you to try.

Find them here

Fantastic Schools Vol. 2 is Live!

Fantastic Schools Volume 2 is now live!

https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/517ywgcMzJL.jpg

Well, mostly. We’re still waiting on the paperback. So, think of it as ‘live’ in the sense of Frankenstein’s Monster when he first awoke, but was too disoriented and confused to form any kind of conscious thought or intention. It’ll be a few hours before he can stumble out of the laboratory to look at the Sun for the first time, if you follow me.

But it is available for Kindle purchase as of now, so you can pick it up and enjoy a dozen different stories by massively talented authors, plus my own Halloween Dance, all dealing with the trials and tribulations of life at fantastic schools.

(As you might guess, my own story is pretty seasonally appropriate. Just throwing that out there).

Thoughts on ‘The Andromeda Strain’

Just finished reading Michael Crichton’s 1970 novel The Andromeda Strain (I don’t know; felt in the mood for it for some reason). It’s quite a page turner, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with a taste for hard sci-fi.

The story has a US Military satellite bring an extraterrestrial microbe back to earth as part of an effort to collect, study, and possibly weaponize microorganisms from the upper atmosphere. It lands outside of a small Arizona town, and the locals get it before the Air Force can and one of them foolishly opens the capsule, releasing the bacteria, which swiftly kills everyone in town except for a crotchety old man and a two-month-old baby. The government recovers the capsule and moves it to a top-secret bunker designed specifically to study and combat alien microbes, while the hand-picked team of doctors and scientists (four in all) set to work trying to break just what the thing is and how it works.

The best thing about Andromeda Strain is the way it presents scientific research as a kind of complex detective story. After they’ve arrived and started work on the capsule, the team first has to discover whether the organism is even still present, then whether it is alien or terrestrial, what its composition is, and how it kills. This involves a lot of very careful tests and looking for very subtle clues to follow, some (perhaps most) of which turn out to be misleading. And, of course, part of the problem is that they all know full well that the organism might not follow the normal ‘rules’ of life as they understand it at all.

Much kudos to Mr. Crichton for making the tedious scientific struggle so interesting. He fills out the pages with realistic-looking documents, print outs, and diagrams which I have no idea whether they are accurate or not, but they certainly feel legitimate. I also liked the simplicity of some of the experiments, one of which was simply putting progressively larger screens in front of a rat to test how big the organism was.

The other most interesting element was the theme of technology. In this story, as, I believe, in many of the author’s other works, the characters are surrounded by the most advanced, sophisticated technology available, yet the recurring theme is this does not put them in control. Again and again, sophisticated and carefully planned out systems fail, either because of human error or because the situation turned out to be different from what they expected or just simply from random happenstance. The brilliant scientists make mistakes from hubris, embarrassment, or simply because they’re tired. At one point crucial information gets missed because the ultra-powerful computer had a bit of paper stuck in it that prevented the ringer from going off.

Crichton seems to have had a consistent theme in his work that all of man’s technological prowess and intelligence ultimately can never shield him from the vagaries of fate, nor make him the master of his world. This, of course, is a common theme in science fiction, though I find, from what little I’ve read of him, that Crichton seems to push it more than most. His driving thought seems to be less that man will destroy himself, or that there are things that man is not meant to know, but that at the end of the day you are never going to engineer your way to anything like paradise or even safety.

I don’t know what Crichton’s religious views were, thought I doubt they were favorable (“grouchy, independent materialist” is the tone I get from what I’ve read), but this attitude is certainly fitting from a Christian point of view. Eden’s gone and we’re not going to get it back through technology. Almost all technological advancement is a double-edged sword that leaves us, at best, in much the same position we were before, just with different variables. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen to the end of time, whatever defenses we put.

I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw any topical conclusions from that.

The ideas and plot of the book are its main point: I didn’t get much from the characters one way or another (the crotchety old man survivor was my favorite). I also will say that, without going into spoilers, I thought the ending was a bit of an anti-climax; even a cop-out. But your mileage may vary, and the rest of the book is interesting enough that it doesn’t really matter. I also like that we don’t get answers to some of the questions the book raises, such as why the satellite went off course in the first place, much less where the Andromeda Strain came from.

Recommended.