Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: THE GOLD BAG by Carolyn Wells

book cover Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: Mystery

Topics: Society, trust, family

Review by heidenkind:

Burroughs, a young detective, goes to West Sedgwick to investigate the murder of a millionaire. The old man was found dead in his study, and the only clue was a gold bag (and a flower petal, but the book's called The Gold Bag, so let's just focus on that). Was the killer the millionaire's beautiful niece, who stood to inherit his entire fortune? Or was it her sketchy fiance, or his secretary? Burroughs and a whole team of detectives just can't figure it out.

The Gold Bag is probably the worst detective novel I've ever read in my entire 29 years of reading mysteries. Even Inspector Gadget has more going on with his little gray cells than Burroughs.

Here's the thing: The Gold Bag is the second book in The Fleming Stone Mystery series. Stone is (almost exactly) like Sherlock Holmes: he can draw conclusions about people and events by observing the tiniest details. But calling The Gold Bag a Fleming Stone novel is like calling 21 Jump Street a Johnny Depp movie. Yeah, maybe his scene was the best one in the film, but it was just the one scene.

In The Gold Bag, Fleming Stone makes a brief appearance in the first chapter, then doesn't show up again until the very last chapter, and the last part of the last chapter at that. Meanwhile, Burroughs is the main character and "detective," and THE MAN IS AN INCOMPETENT IDIOT. He couldn't detect his way out of an elevator. And it's not played for laughs, either–Carolyn Wells seems to actually believe he and the other detectives (there's a whole slew of them, standing around doing nothing) are conducting some sort of legitimate investigation here.


My first inkling that this "investigation" wasn't going to go so well came in Chapter Four, during the coroner's inquest. Gregory Hall, the fiance of the victim's niece, was on the stand answering questions about his movements on the day of the murder. He'd actually been away on business that night–or so he claimed–but when asked where he stayed and what business, exactly, he was engaged in, Hall refused to answer with, "As it has no bearing on the matter in hand, I prefer not to answer that rather personal question."


Exquise me? This is a murder investigation, buddy, we decide what's relevant, not you. Instead of saying that, however, the coroner's like, "Oh, okay then, we'll respect your privacy. You obviously didn't do it, after all, since you were out of town!"


Then there's Florence Lloyd, who is clearly Suspect Number One. Her uncle told her he was going to cut her out of his will if she married Hall, AND she admitted to owning a gold bag like the one found in the office. But she gave it away, she doesn't remember to who. Florence is dismissed by Burroughs and everyone else out of hand because she's a pretty, wealthy young woman, so OBVIOUSLY she couldn't have killed anyone. In fact, Burroughs develops a tendre for her that kind of made me throw up a little in my mouth.

At first I assumed that the detectives were just lazy, or maybe in the past respecting people's privacy was more important than finding a man's killer. But really this is all about assumptions and labels and society. At one point someone suggests the victim's brother, who stands to inherit now that Florence is cut out of the will, might be the killer. To which Burroughs laughs and says–direct quote–"Don't be absurd! A man would hardly shoot his own brother."

Dude, have you heard of these two guys called Cain and Abel? That story ring any bells in your echoing headspace?

It gets even more ridic. When Burroughs finally finds the owner of the gold bag-the person who either killed the victim or was the last to see him before he was murdered-he lets her know he's coming, affording her an opportunity to write him a letter stating that she has no idea who did it and isn't involved in the affair at all. "I would go straight to you, and tell you all about it, but I am afraid of detectives and lawyers... But I am going to see Miss [Florence] Lloyd, and explain it all to her, and then she can tell you."

Inexplicably, Burroughs' reaction to this woman's letter is to smile and think to himself, "Marathon Park [where the woman lives] was evidently no place to look for our criminal." Say the fuck what? This is based on her handwriting and the fact that the tone of the letter made her sound like "a foolish little woman." As opposed to a woman who's clearly trying to avoid talking to the police?!?

At this point in the book, I really hoped Fleming Stone would show up and declare Florence to be the killer within three seconds, despite the fact that Florence was the only character in The Gold Bag I even remotely liked. That didn't happen. Honestly, I don't remember who the killer turned out to be, I just didn't care by that point. The only thing that kept circling in my mind was that Wells made Anna Katharine Green look like freakin Agatha Christie-a prescient thought, as it turned out, because guess whose books convinced Wells to start writing mysteries?

AKG strikes again.

Aha! I knew I'd seen that millionaire-who-was-killed-in-his-study plot before.

The Gold Bag is pretty awful. Not only is the crime solving lazy, so's the writing. L A Z Y. Wells did no research into her topic, put zero thought into her characters or story, and the only things remotely good about the book were stolen from other books. The Gold Bag is only original in its terribleness.

Download The Gold Bag by Carolyn Wells at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: SUPERMIND by Mark Phillips

(Pseudonym for Laurence Janifer and Randall Garrett)

book cover Original Publication Date: 1963

Genre: Proto-urban fantasy

Topics: Conspiracy, government, control, extrasensory perception, "the future"

Review by heidenkind:

FBI agent Kenneth Malone lives in a world where "psionic" powers such as telepathy and teleportation exist. In fact, Malone himself is able to teleport, a skill that makes him a valuable asset in the FBI's super-secret psionics division. When the director of the FBI, Andrew J. "don't call me Chief" Burris, asks Malone to look into a series of puzzling mistakes in government processing, Malone predicts his investigation will lead nowhere. It's the government, after all, they make mistakes all the time. But as Malone learns more about these mistakes, which aren't really mistakes, things become increasingly inexplicable, and Malone begins to suspect there's a cabal organization of super-powerful psionics influencing the country for their own ends.

I enjoyed Supermind quite a bit. It reminded me of a novel in a modern urban fantasy series, something along the lines of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books or Simon Green's Secret History series. Perhaps a bit predictable by today's standards, but still fun and entertaining.

There's an underlying tone of sardonic, wry humor running through the book from the very beginning, when Malone and Burris make fun of the government's inefficiency. I enjoyed Malone's voice and appreciated him as an everyman character, but what really made Supermind stand out were the secondary characters. You've got your obligatory lovable geek who likes technology more than people ('"Any man who would give false data to a perfectly innocent computer," Fred said savagely, "would—would—" For a second he was apparently lost for comparisons. Then he finished: "Would kill his own mother." He paused a second and added, in an even more savage voice, "And then lie about it!"'), a woman who believes she's Queen Elizabeth I, a sarcastic femme fatale who's always giving Malone a hard time, a snooty expert on psionics, and the most clueless spy in history, just to name a few.

Her Highness Queen Elizabeth I is by far my favorite character in the novel, not just because she's entertaining but because she's so useful and the way Janifer and Garrett employ her is so clever. See, Her Highness spent most of her life in an asylum–not just because she thinks she's Queen Elizabeth, but because she's telepathic and most of the world doesn't know psionics exist. Malone rescued her from the asylum in a previous book, and now he's one of her "knights." When they're interrogating people all Malone has to do is pick up a phone, think his question, and she can tell him whether the suspect is being honest or not without him saying a word or letting the suspect know what's going on. So clever.

Supermind doesn't really pick up steam until the middle of the book, when Malone and company travel to Russia to see if they're behind the US's lack of inefficiency and mistakes. The way Russians were portrayed in this Cold War-era novel was really interesting, I thought, and very evocative of a culture. I'm sure if it's Russia's actual culture the authors were evoking or one of their own imagination, but it read like a bizarro travelogue with just enough hijinks to keep Malone on his toes (and Malone requires plenty of hijinks). It's also after Russia that the story starts twisting into something more complex and Malone realizes he can TRUST NO ONE. Except maybe the Queen.

trust no one

I'd definitely recommend Supermind if you're into paranormal thrillers or tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy. It's definitely not edgy, but it's entertaining and a good way to pass a few hours. I'm kind of sad I read the last book in the series (there are two previous books in the Kenneth Malone series prior to this one) before reading the others, but I might get around to reading the others at some point.

Download Supermind by Mark Phillips at Project Gutenberg|Librivox