Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiteout Volume Two: Melt by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber

OK, I feel more than a little guilty including a second graphic novel in the Antarctica category of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. As I said in the last post, Whiteout Volume One, I was desperate to find mystery/crime/thrillers set on this continent.

U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko is back in what I think is the stronger of the two Whiteout stories. It is also much stronger as an action thriller. In fact, I would put it in the James Bond class.

The story opens with a brief history of human activity on Antartica and The Antarctic Treaty that declared that the continent was to be used for peaceful purposes only and anything of a  military nature is forbidden.

An unknown group has blown up the Russian research station of Tayshetskaya and killed the scientists. Tayshetskaya was the name of a Stalinist gulag which is an interesting name to choose for an Antartica base. Carrie, on vacation and enjoying the warmth and greenery around her, is bribed into investigating what happened at Tayshetskaya. She is the most experienced lawman handy and is offered a transfer off the Ice if she cooperates. Carrie has been in Antartica for five years and accepts.

On arriving in Tayshetskaya, Carrie stumbles upon evidence that the base was an arms depot that included nukes. Accompanied by a Russian investigator named Aleks, she takes off cross country to intercept the commandos responsible for blowing up Tayshetskaya and recovering the nukes.

As with Whiteout Vol. One, the illustrations are black and white which works well with most of the action taking place on the ice. It is fast paced, suspenseful,  with snappy dialog and good action sequences. Oh, and some hot igloo sex along the way. Lieber does a terrific job conveying the stark desolation of the interior of Antarctica.

Does Carrie get off the Ice? I'll just say that Rucka leaves the story open for another volume.

Whiteout Volume One by Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber

With time running out to complete the 2010 Global Reading Challenge and desperation setting in, I am turning to the graphic novel to meet the Antarctica component of the challenge.

I was happy to find that the writer/illustrator team of Rucka and Lieber had created two graphic novels with U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko exiled to McMurdo Station (Mactown) for a past transgression that could have put her in jail for a long time. Antartica might not be that bad. Carrie is also the only law and the only one authorized to carry a weapon on the continent.

As this action thriller opens, Carrie and the station doctor are looking at a body, frozen to the ice, the face obliterated. Five men were in the party, this is the only body. Who is he, where are the others, and why is the body surrounded by core sample holes. As Carrie launches her investigation, other people die and Carrie is attacked, several times. Something happened out on the ice that person or persons unknown do not want revealed.

Whiteout was nominated for several awards -- "Best Writer","Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team" and "Best Limited Series,Eisner Awards, and in 2000 it was nominated for the "Best Graphic Album" Eisner Award (Wikipedia). The 2009 movie, on the other hand, was panned. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 7% approval.

I thought the McGuffin -- what was found on the ice -- was implausible and the weakest part of the story. Despite that weakness (my perception), which only shows up at the end, it deserved all the award nominations. Rucka's lean writing and Lieber's stark illustrations blended to make an exciting read.

I do not read many graphic novels and am selective what I choose to purchase. What I admire about a good graphic novel, like Whiteout, is the ability to convey so much in so little space. Several panels in a graphic novel can represent a page or more of written text. The eye has to take in the illustrations, the words, and the way the words are lettered. The reader has to supply the description for what the eye sees in the illustration. The illustrator has to create a scene that matches what a writer is trying to describe, The letterer has to convey the emotion of the words. It is a remarkable collaborative achievement to create a good graphic novel.

Highly recommended IF you like graphic novels AND you like action thrillers.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mixed Blood, Roger Smith

Henry Holt and company, 2009, 304 pages.

I am starting this blog where my interest in African crime fiction started, with Roger Smith's first novel, Mixed Blood. I was reminded of how I approached Mixed Blood when I read Mike Nicol's post in Crime Beat, Crime Beat: That alien genre fiction, where he discusses the opinion of a book reviewer that crime fiction, to have literary value, needs to probe the society that produced it to be taken seriously. The reason I mention Mike's article is that I opened Mixed Blood expecting to learn something about South Africa. Before it arrived in the post, I had gone through the text, video, and slides on Roger's website, read his twitters, corresponded with him, explored Cape Town on Google Earth, and read about Cape Flats on Wikipedia and other websites. I doubt if I will ever again do as much preparation before reading a book. I knew I was getting an action thriller but I also knew something of the truth of the setting.

The Book
Jack Burn has a gambling problem. Back in the U.S., a large debt put him in the middle of a robbery that left a cop dead. Jack escapes with a large part of the loot and takes his pregnant wife and young son to Cape Town, South Africa. With a new identity and lots of money, Jack feels safe until a random home invasion by a couple of drug dealing gang-bangers puts him in the sights of Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard, physically and morally repugnant, and corrupt cop. Rudi senses that there is more to Jack than just another American expat and sees him as a means of solving his need for money, lots of it. Also drawn into the picture are vengeance seeking ex-con named Benny Mongrel and the Zulu Special Investigator Disaster Zondi who wants to settle an old score and at the same time take down a bad cop.

Mixed Blood is a solid thriller with the plot, action, and violence that make this type of story enjoyable. Roger also delivers excellent character development which is good to see in a plot driven genre. While I enjoyed it as a thriller, there is something much more that makes it stand out for me, the role South Africa plays in the story.

Consider Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard. His nickname comes from the signature South African sandwich, the gatsby, that he favors (see the photo). With his horrible body odor, sumo-sized gut, air bag-sized butt cheeks, yellow teeth like bone fragments in an open wound, and a love of "Jesus Christ, gatsbys, and killing people" you might dismiss him as a caricature of the bad cop.  But Rudi is a holdover from South Africa under apartheid who somehow survived the transition. About Disaster Zondi, "He knew men like Zondi. Hell, he'd spent a whole chunk of his life hunting, torturing, and killing them." Do a Google search with the terms apartheid and apartheid hit squads and you will see that Rudi is a composite of real people and events.

Moving through the story, almost like an observer, is BennyNiemand, aka Benny Mongrel. A Cape flats career criminal recently out of Pollmoor Prison after a 16 year stretch, Bennie has stolen, raped, and killed most of his life. Yet there is still a sort of dignity about him. Pulled from a heap of garbage shortly aft his birth, the only creature he has ever felt affection for a mongrel dog named Bessie, Benny seems the most tragic character in the story.

Cape Town itself is a character. Gatsby has made the aeolian sand flat known as Cape Flats his personal fiefdom. It blasted by winds in the summer and many areas flood in the winter. Here are the government-built townships,  apartheid's dumping ground, where non-whites were forced to move. They are a place of terrible poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence. In contrast, Jack Burn and his family live on the wealthy Atlantic side. Take a look at the videos on Roger's website and the slide show of images of Cape Town and Cape Flats that will give you a good picture of the settings in the book.

Together, Rudi Barnard, Benny Mongrel, and Cap Flats and it inhabitants show you that the face of horror doesn't need the supernatural. True horror can be of our own making.

I enjoyed Mixed Blood as a straight-up thriller and also for the intense sense of place that Roger was able to weave into the story. Recommended highly for thriller readers who don't mind stomach churning violence.

Next up, Tooth and Nailed by Sarah Lotz

The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers

The House Without a Key, published in 1925, is the first novel by Biggers to feature Charlie Chan. I read the Kindle version.

I am interested in Yunte Hoang's book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendevous with American History but thought I should read some of the stories first. I was surprised to learn that Biggers only wrote six novels with Charlie Chan. My ignorance is forgivable when you find out that there have been over four dozen Charlie Chan movies (Wikipedia) which might lead one to conclude that there are more books..

Though now billed as a Charlie Chan novel, note that he isn't mentioned on the dust jacket of the 1925 edition (right).  Chan doesn't show up until nearly a quarter of the way through the story. Ah, but when he does ...

John Quincy Winterslip, of the Boston Winterslips, is on his way to Honolulu to retrieve his Aunt Minerva. The family back east fear that she has fallen under the sway of the semi-barbaric tropics which isn't at all proper. And proper certainly describes young John Quincy, a banker. Minerva is staying with her cousin, Dan Winterslip, the black sheep of the family. He has the "gypsy strain" which is even more cause for concern.

The story is about the temptations of John Quincy as he makes his way from Boston, to San Francisco, to Hawaii. The temptations begin in San Francisco when a relative offers him a position suggesting that it would be good for him to loosen up a bit. Later, he meets a beautiful and free-spirited young woman on the ferry. Her playful mocking prompts him to toss his silk top hat into the bay. A foreshadowing?

With John Quincy on the ship to Hawaii is his second cousin Barbara, Don Winterslips daughter and only child, and Don's lawyer, Harry Jennison. Barbara and Harry appear to be very close though Jennison is stiff and standoffish to Barbara's playfulness.

The ship arrives too late to disembark the passengers and they have one more night aboard ship. In the early morning hours before they pull into port, Dan is murdered by a knife to the chest.

Minerva decides that a Winterslip must participate in the investigation and nominates John Quincy though he is initially opposed. Oddly, the police do not have a problem with a civilian involved in the investigation. Enter Charlie Chan, "very fat ...His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting." He is also the best detective on the force. John Quincy finds himself attached to Chan, a circumstance Chan embraces.

The story now becomes more of a detective procedural with the collection and analysis of evidence, seeking to identify links between Dan and suspects. When John Quincy discovers that the daughter of the chief suspect is the same young woman he met on the ferry in San Francisco he finds his feelings in conflict with the case.

Throughout it all, John Qunicy continues to be seduced by the Hawaiian lifestyle. From the lush descriptions that pepper the story, Biggers must have loved Hawaii. Several characters express sorrow at the changes they see happening around them (remember this is 1925) believing that 80s, before Hawaii was annexed by the U.S., were the best times to be in Hawaii. What would they think to see Honolulu today? Someone remarks:
I knew Honolulu in the glamourous days of its isolation, and I've watched it fade into an eighth carbon copy of Babbittville, U.S.A.
Charlie Chan was a late addition to the story. Biggers added him after reading about  Chang Apana and Lee Fook tow Honolulu chinese-American detectives. As a type, he has had mixed reception. Some see him as perpetuating stereotypes with hi bad grammer and subservient behavior. Others note that he is portrayed positively compared to other depictions of Chinese at the time. (Wikipedia). He might seem overly obsequious but he doesn't brook any nonsense. To Minerva he says:
Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us."
I don't entirely agree about the charge of bad grammer. Chan does have elaborate and ornate speech patterns but in the story we learn that he perfects his English reading poetry. I also wouldn't put it past him to put on a show to disarm people he is questioning.

As far as Chan's methods, he has a little of The Great Detective:
Begging most humble pardon, he said, that are wrong attitude completely. Detective business made up of unsignificant trifles. One after other our clues go burst in our countenance. Wise to pursue matter of Mr. Saladine.
But more like Father Brown Chan also says:
Finger-prints and other mechanics good in books, in real life not so much so. My experience tell me to think deep about human people. Human passions. Back of murder what, always? Hate, revenge, need to make silent the slain one. Greed for money, maybe. Study human people at all times.
The House Without a Key is a fun, uncomplicated, witty read. You should be able to figure out who did it and who will end up with whom easily but I don't think a complicated mystery was the aim. Biggers writes lovingly about Hawaii enjoys poking fun at starchy uptight Easterners, but not maliciously. John Quincy reads a comment left in a guest book that might be a valuable clue with an amusing reaction:
"in Hawaii all things are perfect , none more so than the hospitality I have enjoyed in this house ..."
John Quincy turned away, shocked. No wonder that page had been ripped out! Evidently Mr. Gleason had not enjoyed the privilege of studying A. S. Hill's book on the principles of rhetoric. How could one thing be more perfect than another.
I look forward to reading the next book, The Chinese Parrot, when Chan has the main role. Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Kindle so it is off to Book Depository or Abe Books or Alibris I go.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Having found this blog, you might be wondering: what's the scope of the blog, why AfricaScreams, and why is this American writing about Africa.

AfricaScreams is going to look at Africa, primarily South Africa, through its literature, primarily crime fiction. I'm using crime fiction as an umbrella term to encompass all the sub-genres, mystery, detective, legal, procedural ... Since this is my blog I reserve the right to toss in anything that interests me.

Why did I pick the name AfricaScreams for my blog? I'm horrible at naming things and work myself into a swivet whenever I have to come up with a title. Most of the Africa themed  names that occurred to me were taken. Then a 1949 Abbott and Costello movie named Africa Screams sprang to mind. I remember the movie chiefly due to the amorous gorilla but the name fits. Events in some of the books I will write about should make you scream. And there is a horror novel set in South Africa coming out next year that I have in my sights and screaming and horror go together.

Why Africa? The crime fiction market is huge and competitive for readers' attention. I credit Roger Smith for igniting my interest in South Africa. I had read several of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe series but they didn't focus my attention on Africa. Then I encountered Roger Smith and his first two novels, Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead. Roger writes cracking good action thrillers and I might have left them at that if it hadn't been for his descriptions of Cape Town, Cape Flats, gangs, Pollsmor prison and his memorable characters. I wanted to know how someone like Gatsby (Mixed Blood) came to be and is Piper (Wake Up Dead) realistic. I was hooked and decided to make African crime fiction my special interest.

I need to own up that I might be predisposed to an an interest in South Africa. From 1952 to 1956, my family lived in Pretoria. My father was in the U.S. Air Force and a crewman on the C-47 assigned to the U.S. Embassy. I was 6 our first year in South Africa and your basic self-absorbed kid, interested in comic books and Cadbury chocolate. Later in life though, when my father went into a nursing home and I helped my mother clean and organize, I revisited South Africa through the photographs, slides, and home movies I pulled from a closet. When I started reading more about South Africa, it sunk home that I was there during apartheid, that pass laws were enacted the year we arrived, that we had a nice house and two live-in servants on a TSgt's pay. Sobering now to realize that I benefited from apartheid, even if unaware that it existed.

So this is how I came to start this blog. With the next post I will return to the book that got me started, Mixed Blood.

Between books, I will show you photos and movie clips from Africa in the 50s. To get that aspect of the blog started, here are two photos of me as a schoolboy attending Waterkloof House Preparatory School. "First day" is written on the back of the B&W photo. I still have the blazer.

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