Sunday by Georges Simenon

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Note: Georges Simenon has a complicated historical record during Vichy France. He collaborated financially with fascist media organizations. I had heard a bit about that but forgot it before I read this.

Sunday is a brilliant, spare yet detailed short crime novel of a man who runs a cottage in Southern France with his wife and has made up his mind to murder her. Emile is a talented cook who married into the tourist industry but feels owned by his wife Berthe and trapped within his sham of a marriage. His pride and misogynistic hatred of his wife has mixed with his affair with the odd servant girl Ada to inspire his criminal intentions.

The story is told in a series of free-floating, smoothly time hopping flashbacks. His humiliations, marital struggles, and murderous plans are revealed in systematic and revealing segments. The slice-of-life glimpses of the Southern French tourist town are vivid. This murder is all in the details, the small insults, the food and the weather. Simenon shows us the inside of a man who feels he has been pushed into an evil action. It’s chilling in its sympathy.

Sunday is an extremely effective character study of a man committing a crime of almost passionless passion. The end is a jolt of twist with a dash of revelation.

 

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

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The Man in the High Castle is the first alternate history book and the second Philip K. Dick book I’ve ever read and it is fantastic. The Axis powers won WWII and partitioned the world between them. Genocide is rampant in the German half of the world while the Japanese half of the world is in an uneasy and complicit relationship with the Nazis.

A book-within-the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, posits a world in which the Allies won and has taken the public by storm. Several characters in the Japanese territory of the Pacific States of America and the neutral and independent Rocky Mountain States navigate caste, race, duty, and reality itself in a world gone rotten.

High Castle is in a lot of ways a slice-of-life character study in almost a proto-Robert Altman mode, where characters enter and exit each others lives in a storyline that slowly builds together. I mean this is as a compliment.

Dick’s worldbuilding here is terrific with changes massive and minor dropped expertly into the background and the social stratisfication of this horrible new world explored in minute detail.

The moments of climatic violence are sudden, brutal, and almost beautiful in how they affect the characters involved in very real emotional and spiritual ways. These characters live, breathe and think. The secret sauce of truly great speculative fiction.

There is a preoccupation with position, status, and place in society that as is fascinating as the emphasis on Eastern philosophy, specifically the I Ching.

Gnawing at the edges of the Japanese-dominated setting is the fascist sickness of Nazi Germany.

Racism is explored in all its insidious triviality through a handful of characters, who, true to life and rarely to fiction, are more than just racist strawmen. The evil of evil is that evil is not entirely evil. That line’s probably stupid but it feels right.

The Man in the High Castle has instantly jumped to one of my favorite science fiction novels. In the past, I’ve enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and a handful of Dick’s short stories, but now I’m really excited to read more of his work.

Maybe I should finally try some Harry Turtledove, too, see if I’ve grown a taste for the alternate history subgenre.

Should probably check out the show, too.

Sam Gavel in “Fuel of Fools”

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Illustration by L.A. Spooner (courtesy Crimson Streets)

 

My new short story “Fuel of Fools” is up at Crimson Streets. It’s the second part in my Sam Gavel series after “Smoke Is My Shadow“.

Sam Gavel is a private detective who chased a crook into a chemical warehouse that exploded. But he survived! The exposure of experimental chemicals gave him the power to transform from a man of flesh and blood into a plume of living smoke.

In “Fuel of Fools” Sam tries to find out just what was in that factory that caused his transformation and stumbles upon a tale of espionage and conspiracy.

I hope that Sam will return in a future story because it’s so fun writing in a homage to both film noir and early pulp superhero comics, a dash of Hammett and Chandler with a touch of The Spirit.

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

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Westmark is a flintlock, mid-18th century style young adult fantasy novel about a printing press printer’s assistant who ends up on the wrong side of a tyrant councilor’s law and falls in with a charlatan snake oil salesman and his dwarf assistant.

Theo, the printer boy, is roped into Las Bombas’ deceits and swindling despite his moral objections to it. Las Bombas and company soon pick up a street urchin named Mickle who is more than she appears to be. (No kidding?)

There is also a good court doctor waging a battle of will and influence with the corrupt councilor for the grief-stricken king’s soul, a bohemian circle of resistance fighters who are not only anti-tyrant but also anti-monarchy in general, and lots of sincere questioning of morality in regards to both violence and truth.

I loved Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain as a kid and am happy to find, as an adult, that he’s still a really good writer. Westmark is a very entertaining read, with a nice, spare but witty prose style, and convincing sparks of action.

The book is short and I read it fast but the characters still stood out and the twists worked. The setting itself is a tremendous plus, being a kind of alternate version of Europe circa late 18th century or so, with no real magic to speak of, but with guns.

There are a few trite elements, including the half-cliché evil councilor, interesting only in his distinct lack of outward mustache twirling and austerity, and a twist in the back half that I will not spoil (but your common sense might). However, these flaws are outweighed by the overall quality of storytelling.

There are two more books in the Westmark trilogy and I definitely want to read them soon. I expect to enjoy them, especially if they can delve more into the democracy vs. monarchy angle. I haven’t quite seen that before in a fantasy series.