Friday, September 25, 2020

Plague Books: Operative

The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett, Selected Stories and Short Novels, edited and with an introduction by Lillian Hellman, Vintage Books, 1989, originally published by Random House, 1966

Provenance: The volume, shown right, is from the collection of John Rateliff, known to the 'net as Sacnoth. John has been cleaning out his library, and a lot of his mystery novels have found a space at Grubb Street. So while his shelves start to sort themselves out, mine groan with Hammett, Stout, Allingham, Sayers, and Peters. The copy I have is more grey than green, but that may just be from age.

Review: Our protagonist for all but one of these stories is only known as the Continental Op - an agent of the Continental Detective Agency. We don't know a lot about him. He's middle-aged, shorter than most and little wider, but we only know him by his actions - he will lie for a good cause, he will make deals with criminals if he must, he'll feel bad shooting a woman but will do so if he needs to. No one calls him by name that he records. He narrates in first person. He is a bit of a cipher, one of the first of the hard-boiled, noir detectives. 

The bulk of the stories in the volume are from the 20's, when Hammett dominated Black Mask magazine, and given my preference for that era, I enjoyed the tales a great deal. Due to the movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (also Hammett), I tend to mentally put Hammett's work in the Depression and the War Years as opposed to the Roaring Twenties, but it fits just as well here. 

One of the things that strikes me, going through stories, is the neatness of his language and the broadness of his scope. Hammett does not use five words where three will do. And when I don't quite get what the Op is up to, I just have to wait a few paragraphs before all becomes clear. By broadness of scope, we see a medley of situations and places - not just San Francisco in the second quarter of the century. The Op goes to a pocket kingdom in Europe. The Op goes to Arizona and hangs with cowpokes. The Op goes to Chinatown and Beacon Hill as well, but he carries his noir with him, and fits in equally well.

One story is from a later period, his unfinished book, "Tulip," exhumed and presented here. And it is a unfinished first draft and tough read. A former Army buddy looks up a friend and they tell stories. A lot of the stories sound like things Hammett experienced. Here the sparceness of his prose works against it, and the lack of the formula for a detective story leaves it without a central spine. Good words, though.

This volume takes its name from the final story, which is two stories, one story carrying that name, then a second tale added almost as a coda. A mastermind puts together an ultimate heist - calls in criminal talent from all over the country, and they hit two banks in the same morning, sealing off the streets and making a clear getaway. Then all the participants get bumped off by the lieutenants in the robbery, who are then bumped off by their higher ups. A very corporate chain of command. And all the wise guys and grifters have names like Bluepoint Vance and Red O'Leary and Happy Jack Hacker. Just the plot itself makes for a great Gangbusters adventure, or with a little more eldritch horror, a Call of Cthulhu evening. With Hammett's hands on the typewriter keys, it shines. I am surprised that this hasn't become a film over the years. Amazon Prime, take heed. 

Turns out I have a later edition of the book on my shelf, tucked between The Dain Curse and Red Harvest. The Big Knockover makes me want to revisit them and reminds me that this is the stuff that set American detective fiction up as a country in its own right, and made San Francisco its capital.

More later,

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus - Under the Smoke

Railroad Sunset by Hopper

Month Six, in which the outdoors has been taken away from me.

You have seen the news about California being on fire and San Francisco looking like a set from Bladerunner. The fires in California and Oregon (mostly brush, not forests, mostly lightning-started, not gender reveal parties) have pumped a lot of smoke into the air, which has drifted north into our neck of the woods, leaving the land consumed by an acrid-tinged fog. My neighbor has a smoker, and I would often return at night to the smell of alderwood or hickory in the air. This is nothing like that. It is the entire Puget Sound area in a toxic smoker, with relief tantalizingly offered by the weather report, then denied.

As a result, I am approaching full shut-in status. No longer can I spend the after-hours on the back porch, sipping Cuba Libres and reading the New Yorker. Well, I can still do all that indoors, but its not the same. Even checking the mailbox leaves me a little wheezing. Winter, I can tell, will be difficult.

As seclusion continues, my bad habits are slowly re-instituting themselves. I am reading five books at a time again, as opposed to finishing one, writing about it, then moving onto a new volume. Currently reading a collection of Hammett's Continental Op stories, a slender volume from Michael Chabon, a book of pirate fantasy short stories, something by Frederick Brown, a Nisi Shawl, and the occasional chapter of Mary Beard's book on Rome. Books are scattered through the house. Should any of those conclude I will post about them. 

Part of this recidivism has been the result of my latest COVID project - reorging the hardback shelves. When we moved in 20+ years ago I had them organized, but twenty years of pulling stuff out, and putting things back in the approximate location has taken its toll. Have actually taken a Marie Kondo approach to this. Does this book bring me joy? Does it feel like something I will go back to, either for research or for enjoyment? Does it spark a pleasant memory? A lot of big thick SF novels are meeting their demise this way, along with some of the lesser books by Hunter Thompson and other authors I have accumulated by habit. Could not get rid of all the Garrison Keillors - my Lovely Bride would not let me, and I still have way too many Stephen J Goulds still stacked on the shelf. But there is actually blank spaces on my shelf (awaiting more books, of course).

Look, Honey! Tile!
As far as Kate is concerned,  HER big project has been putting tile behind the stovetop. When we lived in Lake Geneva, we re-did the bathroom in tile, and she saved the remains of the tile and shipped them out here to eventually do something with them. So she found something to do with them. She still has to grout them

Our largest cat, Keckovar, has been scratching his face open, and as such is now being medicated and wearing a pink "Cone of Shame". He is not amused, but has forgotten that his head is now three times as wide as before. Kia, the small ninja kitty, is amused by this turn of events.

Despite the smoke, we are continuing our Plague Pod of six people, almost all (except the Lovely Bride) who work from home. We usually gather at Sacnoth's backyard, but with the smoke and shrinking daylight have moved the festivities to our living room, where we push the sofas back against the wall for social distancing.

I realize how important the Internet has been during our seclusion We lost it briefly over the weekend because of laundry. OK, let me explain. The Lovely Bride was folding laundry while watching Tivo. Tivo is not updating. In the process of trying to reset the Tivo, we brought down the entire wifi system, and spent four hours resetting it (ultimately - unplugging everything and plugging it back in). During that time I kept picking up my iPad, intent on checking something online, and realizing I was totally isolated. Surprisingly frustrating. So, yeah, the Internet should be a utility.

In the outside world, we are aware that there are still shortages and reductions of the variety of items. The latest short supply has been in canning lids (A neighbor ran out and could not find them, but we ALSO had a supply, brought from Wisconsin over 20 years ago). Cleaning supplies are also a case of not getting your preferred brand. The good news is that whenever I get to the local store, masks are aplenty and worn correctly. 

The local newspaper, the Seattle Times, is hitting its own challenges. I am very aware of the fact that the (two) sections are smaller, and the margins are larger. With Sunday, the area of the headlines is carrying a lot more whitespace. The good news is, with the return of soccer and pro football (both without crowds, the noise pumped in), they have other things to write about. 

And so we row on. Working from home continues. The browning grass is revealing exactly were the septic system runs. Pedestrian passing our frontage are fewer. And the smoky fog is with us, yet to dissipate.

More later,

Monday, September 14, 2020

Recent Arrivals

[Blogger's Note: I had this entry all written up with all manner of individual photos of the games, but the most recent incarnation of Blogger is a pig as far as layout is concerned, and in the process of formatting the dratted thing, I ended up deleting the entire text, and the blank file was immediately saved to the cloud and lost entirely. Blogspot has made its platform less usable. Thanks, guys.]

For someone who hasn't been going anywhere lately, I continue to accumulate gaming material. Part of this is from Kickstarters resolving, part of it purchased from t my local comic shop, Fantasium, thatis back in business, and from the occasional field trip elsewhere. 

All of this that follows are not reviews per se - I believe you should actually play something before your review it. This is first-glance stuff, initial impressions, surface judgements, and I reserve the right to think otherwise after I dig into it. Your own mileage may vary. Here goes:

The Mythic Odysseys of Theros (WotC, purchased at the Fantasium) is a nice single-book world. Like the earlier Ravnica, Theros is based on a Magic The Gathering campaign, turning the MTG background world into the basis of an RPG campaign.The idea of combining MTG and D&D has been around since WotC bought TSR back in the 90s. and the campaign settings chosen have been relatively "small" worlds - Ravnica being an urban setting while Theros pulling heavily from Greek Myth, to the point of you recognizing the characters they are playing off of. I like the 5E approach of combining Players and DM info in a single book, though wonder if they are going to hit the same problem as 2E where we had way more campaigns than time to play them.

I actually warmed up to Spectacular Settlements (Nord Games, Kickstarter) as I dug into it. My first reaction was "Hey, there are a lot of tables here." as the heavy (450+ pages) book is filled with tables telling you how to fill out everything about settlements from trading posts to capitals. But where it excels is when it takes that data and creates playable baseline towns and cities for the DM to slot into their campaign.I liked it.

On the other hand, A Time for Sacrifice: (New Comet Games, Kickstarter) just ground my gears. A series of Call of Cthulhu adventures set in the Yucatan seems to be a perfect set-up - during the 1920s, the Mayan cities were the great lost civilizations, their statues enigmatic, their writing impenetrable. Sadly, the first adventure requires knowledge of written Mayan to solve some of its puzzles, and there is a pre-Columbian contact book in the local library, which can be read even through the Mayan written language was almost completely destroyed and only recently deciphered. That sort of thing just put me off a bit, and I don't know if I will get to the rest of it, or ever run it. Time for Sacrifice is not the only Cythulhu to get lost in the jungles of the Yucatan - Pagan's Mysteries of Mesoamerica has some similar pitfalls as well.

Absynthe in Carcossa (Pelegrane Press, purchased at Gabi's Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey) is an oddity. Created for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, and descended from the Gumshoe system, the book itself is missing any game text, but rather is one of those game-adjacent projects the Pelgrane does every so often. It is a scrapbook of clippings from other sources to describe La Belle Epoque in Paris. Like any good mythos tome, you have to really dig into it to figure out what it is all about. I believe this won and ENNIE this year, which is nice, but I need to really read it.

Zafir (Zafir Press, Kickstarter).I kickstarted this one, but picked up my copy personally from the designer - he's local Seattle. It is a magitech-flavored fantasy RPG, which gives us access to ballistic vests and zeppelins, but where it shines is the level of detail in its combat. It is definitely a descendant of old wargames, addresses three-dimensional movement and combat head-on, and has a lot of D&D Fourth Edition's DNA in its rules. Leafing through it reminded me a playing 4E with Bill Slavicsek on Thursday nights way too many years ago.

Lancer (Massif Press, Kickstarter) has that same crunchy-bit rules approach as Zafir, but its bloodline comes more from Battletech (which is to say, managing the heat of your battlemech). It is a strongly anime-influenced game where you are a mech pilot in the far future. The humans have spread throughout the Orion Arm, and there are great peacefu lhuman civilizations at the heart of it all. For a lot of humanity, it is a golden age. You aren't there - you and your squad are in the outlands, the border kingdoms, the scrapyards where previous human expansions have petered out. The art is beautiful, and the mech designs are frankly wild. I look forward to digging into this one.

Pan Am (Funko Games, a Target exclusive, so I masked up and braved an actual chain store for it). A friend of mine raved about this board game, which if from the designers of the Waterdeep board game and sharing a lot of its mechanics. The idea is that you are running small airlines in the Golden Age of Air Travel (20s to 60s). You're gaining rights to air routes around the world, and then Pan Am will roll in and pay you big bucks for your work (which you then use to buy Pan Am stock). It has a lot of fiddly mechanics to it, and while the Lovely Bride and I enjoyed ourselves with it, a later four-person game with members of our plague pod turned into a long, painful slog. Maybe three players are the sweet spot. 

A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City (Superhero Necromancer, Kickstarter) is a gem. Part of a 'zine initiative in Kickstarter, it is a 60-page description of a half-sunken city at the end of the world. It is system agnostic, but the company's web site gives ideas of working it into the major game systems, include 5E and Blades in the Dark. Amusing in that it gives you a half-destroyed Hogwarts infested with pirates. Good world-building. Good stuff.

The Excellent Traveling Volume Issues 11 and 12 are simply great I am an avowed Petal-head, a fan of Tekumel and the Empire of the Petal Throne RPG. James Maliszewski has, after a long hiatus, returned to both these fanzines and his Grognardia blog to create wonderful stuff. If you are a fan, you should really take these books in. And his blog. Consider this one a review.

That's it. I made more comments on all of these originally, but they are lost to the ether. Let's see if I can keep this version alive long enough to publish. 

More later,

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Exchange of Views


You’re wrong.

Totally wrong.

He never said that.

He never did that.

That can’t be right.

You must be mistaken.

You must have heard it wrong.

It was a misinterpretation.

They're lying.

You’re lying.

I don’t want to hear it.

Fake news.

Who says that?

Who would even say that?

They must have an agenda.

Anonymous sources don’t count.

Only traitors say that.

Why don’t people come forward?

There has to be proof.

A report means nothing.

Witnesses mean nothing.

A video means nothing.

Confirmation means nothing.

He didn’t mean it the way you take it.

It was taken out of context.

You have to listen the full tape.

You have to admire him for admitting it.

We all do stupid things.

Why didn’t you say something before?

Why are you going on about it?

Why did you wait so long?

That was then. This is now.

What’s done is done.

It’s too late to do anything.

You should have said something at the time.

Why must you persecute him?

Why is it such a big deal?

Why is that a surprise?

Everyone knows about it.

Old news.

He's changed.

Must you fixate on it?

What more do you want?

More important things going on.

You're going over old ground.

Why stir things up?

Ancient history.

That was in another country.

And besides, the wench is dead.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Plague Book: Loom of Myth

Circe by Madeline Miller, Back Bay Books, trade paperback edition 2020

Provenance: Selected by my Science Fiction Book Club at work, to be finished by the end of July. Ordered from Amazon. Did not finish until the first week of August. Took this long to put a review together.

The argument of whether this is a "science fiction book" can be made, but really that does not matter. No, it is not SF in that there are no aliens, robots, or other futuristic trappings. And I could argue against fantasy as well, as it is well-grounded in mythology. But ultimately, genre terms like SF and Fantasy are marketing terms - "If you liked X, you will like Y". Like all those fantasy books in the 80s that were "In the tradition of Lord of the Rings", no matter how tenuous the connection was. Ultimately, genres are a mall map, telling you where in the bookstore you can find books that are science-fictionish (remember bookstores? I remember bookstores). Amazon, by the way, slots SF and Fantasy in a more generic "genre fiction" categories and trusts to its algorithms to send the consumer to related works.

But the nature of genre marketing reaches down into the physical presentation of the book itself. From initial contact with the dead-tree copy you can tell this is "Literary Fiction", or "Bestseller Fiction", or even "New York Times Bestseller Fiction". The book cover is dramatic and high-concept, it is embossed and foiled (this stuff ain't cheap, in book terms). Two-color endpapers, a map on the inside cover. Listing of praise and awards on glossy insert on page 1, five MORE pages of praise follow that one, concluding with one from Gwyneth Paltrow, actor and owner of Goop. Reading Group Guide in the back and recommendations for further reading. Everything about it says "This is literary! This is important!"

This is marketing.

But what about the words themselves, Jeff?

Actually, it's pretty good.

Review: Here is the short version: All gods are A-holes. Humans are only marginally better.

Circe is a goddess. A very minor one, but a general-terms a goddess nonetheless. And despite her goddess status she gets kicked around a lot. Her family are notable names in the mythos. She is the Daughter of Helios (pre-Olympian Titan of the Sun), sister to Aeetes (original owner of the Golden Fleece), and Pasiphae (Mom of the minotaur). There is not a thimbleful of empathy or self-reflection anywhere in the family, and that's what sets Circe apart from them. Circe has a sliver of concern for others, and worries about her own lot in life. She discovers real magic, she creates the monstrous Scylla out of petty jealousy, she is exiled to an island lest she upset the Olympian gods (shown here as another godly crime family), hooks up with Daedalus and later Odysseus, raises Odysseus' child, and ultimately comes to terms with what she wants in the world. 

 A lot of what I just said is already in the mythology. I knew Circe primarily from the Odyssey, and yeah, I get her confused with Calypso, with whom she shares some traits (has an island, has powers, slept with Odysseus). There is a lot of Circe threaded through Greek Mythology, and more got added over time. Miller weaves together all these connections to create a solid tale with Circe at the center.

 In writing this up, I went to the Emily Wilson translation of Homer's version for the traditional story of Odysseus. In that version, Odysseus' men are welcomed, fed, and transformed by Circe, with no idea why she acts that way. One sailor escapes to warn Odysseus, who is then given a cheat code (antidote) by Hermes, and when he does not fall to her spells, Circe throws herself at the hero's knees and begs his forgiveness. Mind you, the story doesn't make a lot of sense, but then it is Odysseus' retelling of the encounter. Miller's makes much more sense, grounding Circe's actions, and her heroine is taking the measure of clever man who will not walk blindly into a trap. Miller is much more sympathetic to Odysseus as well, and more grounded, portraying him both as hero and villain.

And through the bulk of the book, no act of kindness, sympathy, or honesty goes unpunished. Miller's Circe lives in an unjust world, and has to deal with that continual injustice. She gets her moments - her relationship will the brilliant human Daedalus, raising Odysseus' child, life with Penelope after Odysseus' death, and there is even a reference at the end of a wandering carpenter and his wise-woman wife which bespeaks of the new god that will replace the old (but perhaps I read too much into it). Having confronted a horrible world, Circe ultimately dreams of making a better one.

Miller's Circe its into the category of a lot of modern retelling - take a traditional villain and turn her (it is often a her) into a fully-rounded protagonist. Wicked. Hook. The latest Beowulf translation with more space allotted for Grendel's Mom. Challenges to a (usually male-dominated) traditional canon, adding nuance to the tale. Miller weaves like Circe at Daedalus' loom, pulling the scraps and threadbare references together, adding new work entirely, to end up creating a better portrait of what has been a traditionally wafer-thin antagonist. 

More later,