Friday, April 18, 2014

FFB: The Body - Richard Ben Sapir

Good Friday. Today Catholics all over the world will attend special masses on this holiest of Holy Days of Obligation and remember the passion of Jesus Christ, the suffering and humiliation he endured on the day he was crucified.

In The Body (1983) Dr. Sharon Golban and her team of volunteer student archaeologists uncover a tomb in Jerusalem.  At first it appears empty, but then Sharon finds a wall of bricks unlike the stone walls of the rest of the tomb and when she removes some of those bricks finds a secret room. In that room there is a skeleton with orangish marks on the leg bones that are almost certainly an indication of oxidation from iron spikes, proof that the body was crucified. She also finds a kiln-fired piece of pottery inscribed with the Aramaic words Melek Yehudayai. Jewish King. Like the scientist she is Sharon considers these facts. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution reserved for criminals. A king would never be crucified. This must be an sign of a game of mockery that Roman soldiers engaged in. But wouldn't the disc say something more like King of the Thieves? The only person she can think of crucified and called a Jewish King was... But, no, that can't be. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His body shouldn't have remained on Earth in a secret room bricked up in the tomb where he was laid to rest. Sharon knows this could be a devastating discovery. She has to report it to her superiors.

Word spreads to the Vatican and they set up an international search to find a special man to head an investigation to prove or -- hopefully -- disprove that the body is that of Jesus. They select a very unusual Jesuit priest from Boston College named James Folan. Though many of the candidates for the job have backgrounds in science and archeology Father Folan does not. He is a college administrator who occasionally teaches a class in history. But he is also a former Marine who later worked in Laos for one year as part of an information gathering network for the CIA.  Because of some of his unique answers to the candidate interview process he is chosen as the man to lead the investigation in Israel. It will be a test of all he believes in leading to some drastic changes in his worldview.

Sapir is best known as one half of the writing team who created Remo Williams, aka "The Destroyer", one of the most popular and successful action heroes in the world of men's paperbacks. He also wrote a science fiction adventure novel called The Far Arena (1979) about the discovery of a Roman gladiator encased in ice who is brought back to life through some fanciful mad scientist experiments. Though much of The Body examines the political and religious implications of the possibility that all of Catholicism is based on a lie Sapir's background in pop fiction adventures unfortunately bleeds into the story. Sharon Golban is smart, feisty, and -- of course -- incredibly beautiful and highly sexualized. Father Folan does his best to fight his attraction to her, but succumbs to temptation. This is the only part of the book I found troublesome. Once Folan starts having sex with Sharon the whole books pretty much falls to pieces. His character and way of thinking drastically change. He nearly forgets the reason he is in Israel is as an emissary of the Pope for a very important task that could have earth shattering results for those who believe Jesus is God. Having Folan and Sharon become lovers cheapens a book that prior to these scenes was a thoughtful meditation on the mystery of faith and the importance of faith in the lives of devout Catholics.

I took an incredible amount of notes on this book and will try to put them into a digest form in a second post tomorrow. The Body has a lot to recommend it and provides a lot of food for thought. It would make a fantastic book club selection at any time of year not just this Easter/Passover season. Sapir includes all types of religion in the story with some provocative scenes that include radical orthodox Jews and a Palestinian living in Russia. Golban herself is half Iranian and her father an immigrant from Iran (though for some reason Sapir insists on calling it Persia). That's just scratching the surface.

The Body was also made into a movie in 2001 starring Antonio Banderas as Father Matt Gutierrez (Folan) and Olivia Williams as Sharon Golban. From one review I read online it seems to be very much updated to include all sorts of computer technology not present in the book and rewritten as one can guess by having a Latino priest in the lead rather than an Irish Catholic from Boston. It also apparently is pretty awful. Nevertheless, I've added it to my Netflix queue and plan on watching it soon. It'll be interesting to see just how different the movie is from Sapir's dense and thought provoking novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space I4 - "Author You've Never Read Before"

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Family Matters - Anthony Rolls

“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Man Who Could Not Shudder - John Dickson Carr

US 1st edition (Harper, 1940)
In slowly working my way through the works of John Dickson Carr I think I may have found a book to surpass the devilry and ingenuity of He Who Whispers as my favorite of Carr’s books. The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) is an intriguing mystery that not only features Carr’s most frequent recurring motif (a haunted house or haunted room) it presents two of the most ingenious impossible murders in the Carr (and Dickson) books I have read so far.

Martin Clarke is planning a weekend house party in which he hopes to show his guests the paranormal phenomena that pervade Longwood House, his newly acquired home with a reputation for fatal hauntings. Seems in the past a butler inexplicably grabbed hold of a chandelier and was killed when it came crashing down from the ceiling and landed on top of him. There have been reports also of furniture leaping out at visitors. The grandfather clock in the hallway supposedly stopped at the precise time the first owner, Norbert Longwood, died. And centuries ago Longwood himself was supposedly seen sitting by the fireplace the night after he was placed in his coffin. Clarke is ready for an all out ghost party and hopes to count among his guests a lawyer, a scientist, an architect, a spiritualist, and a priest. Clarke inadvertently invites danger to the house, too. Instead of fun and games with ghosts and poltergeists he has a weekend of violence. One of Clarke’s guests is horribly murdered and it seems that a ghost was responsible.

Benton Logan is found shot dead in a study in which an antique gun collection has been mounted to the wall above a fireplace. His young wife had entered the room just prior to the murder and swears she saw a gun jump off the wall and fire in midair. No one was in the room but she and her husband yet she was nowhere near the gun nor was her husband. Is it a possible that a ghost picked the gun off the wall mounting and fired it at her husband?

Gideon Fell shows up along with the police to help sort out the real from the illusion. Is there genuine psychic phenomena at work? Is Longwood House a cursed home inhabited by the ghost of a 19th century man rumored to have been involved in witchcraft? Or is it all the work of fiendish human hands adept at fanciful trickery?

UK 1st edition (Hamish Hamilton, 1940)
And remember that tale of the butler who went swinging on the chandelier only to have it become his deathtrap? There will be a chilling echo of that mysterious death and other threats and near murderous attacks before the mysteries are all rationally solved and the ghosts are put to rest. The solution when it comes is one of Carr’s most ingenious and gasp inducing finales. There are three obscure clues planted in plain view that can lead to an understanding of what exactly is going on in Longwood House, but only the most astute readers will catch them.

If you like your detective novels bizarre and puzzling, if the miracle problem or impossible murder is to your liking The Man Who Could Not Shudder will be right up your alley. The abundance of baffling situations will satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s the kind of book that makes a true fan of detective novels want to give the author a standing ovation.

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Reading challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space G4 -- "A Locked Room Mystery". I prefer the umbrella term "impossible crime" under which all "locked room" mysteries fall. Not all impossible crimes have a genuine locked room, but they are all related to the same subgenre.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

LEFT INSIDE: Hotel Elysée Postcard

Here's a postcard advertising a boutique hotel located in Manhattan's posh East Side that was left inside one of the many vintage paperbacks I recently purchased. Didn't make a note of the title of the book, though.

When I first saw this I thought perhaps it was an ad for a European hotel. It seemed too quaint an idea for a luxury Midtown Manhattan place.

Click to enlarge
On the reverse side is a brief blurb about the hotel.

And for those interested in seeing photos of the rooms and learning more visit the Hotel Elysée website.