Cool Hand, Warm Gun : Rene Goscinny, Morris – “Lucky Luke”

“I am a lonesome cowboy, I’m a long long way from home.”

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“Lucky Luke,” some 60 + adventures into his journey, is second only to “Asterix” in my Franco-Belgian BD catalogue (I suppose Spirou and Fantasio are a close third). Belgian cartoonist Morris created ‘Lucky Luke’ in post-war France and eventually hooked up with Rene Goscinny (the sprightly, witty writer of ‘Asterix’ with Albert Uderzo, and of “Iznogoud” with Jean Tabary). The saga is one of Western tropes through French binoculars, (call it the baguette Western) but has some actual historical worth to it, plus more jokes than your average John Wayne oater.

Lucky Luke is a purely Mediterranean character, olive-skinned, cigarette dangling, (surgeon general be damned). He has been disrupted  from his siesta into showing loco Americans how not to kill each other over fool’s gold prospects. Accompanied by his trusty stallion, Jolly Stomper, as well as clueless Rin Tin Can, (the Inspector Closeau of the canine kingdom), Lucky Luke meets all the Wild West greats in non-flattering encounters: petulant Billy the Kid; the Daltons (same face, different heights); a Robin Hoodian Jesse James; Frank James, as Shakespeare-quoter; easy-going Calamity Jane; and prank-loving dimwit Cole Younger.

There is so much to explore in this great masterful series, I simply can not recommend it enough. The Cinebooks edition do a great job of translating the French puns, or figuring out alternate English jokes. “Lucky Luke” should not be missing in any library of the world’s iconic comics.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!

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Not Easy Being Greene : S. S. Van Dine – “The Greene Murder Case” (Philo Vance #3)

“Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ”-

“Hamlet,” William Shakespeare

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Society detective Philo Vance is still best described as “puckishly pedantic” ( S. S. Van Dine’s words!) but I enjoyed book 3 in the series, “The Greene Murder Case.” Here, the endangered folk are the wealthy, entitled, vitiated members of the Greene family, (a family where legacy has turned into degeneracy.)

Initially, it appears that an intruder has broken into the Greene mansion and, during a highly unconvincing attempt to make off with the china, has tried to murder 2 of the Greene sisters. Does anyone believe in the “random outsider” theory? It is not a spoiler to say that, like in that old Carol Kane flick with the pre-caller ID babysitter, the problem is always Coming from Inside the House.

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ABOVE: For the classicists.

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ABOVE: For the rebooters.

Up to this point, S. S. Van Dine, (through Vance and District Attorney Markham) has extolled a world in which wealth and witty quotes from Bartlett’s are the standard to admire. But something odd happens in “The Greene Murder Case,” and suddenly New Yorker socialites seem downright scummy:

“We’re not an ideal home circle, by any means. In fact, the Greenes are a queer collection. We don’t love one another the way a perfectly nice and proper family should. We’re always at each other’s throats, bickering and fighting about something or other. It’s rather a mess—this ménage. It’s a wonder to me murder hasn’t been done long before. And, of course, all of us are too rich to know how to contribute to society or make a decent living. A sweet paternal heritage!”

Things go the “And Then There Were None” way soon, but who could miss the Greenes? They’re assholes one and all! In contrast with this sneering look at high class, the series is ahead of its time in extolling the work of blue collar (literally?) cops. This is atypical for even the best Golden Age whodunits: cops are nameless plebeians to Christie and Sayers, but Van Dine takes time to credit all the lowly interrogators, forensics doctors, and beat cops who may serve no big intellectual role in solving the puzzle but who help gather the pieces for Vance.  This is distinctively democratic for the times, interpreting police work as the result of a number of individuals and not just the work of one main officer like Superintendent Japp or Inspector Lestrade in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

RATING: COOL!

P.S.: But here are some demerits. The number of woodcuts, room maps, and footnotes that S. S. Van Dine clutters his plot with may be intended to provide verisimilitude, but the passage of time has not been kind to them. Tell me if you see anything in this list of References below other than a desperate need to prove the author spent some fruitful hours in a trip to the New York Public Library.

“Among the volumes of Tobias Greene’s library I may mention the following as typical of the entire collection: Heinroth’s “De morborum animi et pathematum animi differentia,” Hoh’s “De maniæ pathologia,” P. S. Knight’s “Observations on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Derangement of the Mind,” Krafft-Ebing’s “Grundzüge der Kriminal-Psychologie,” Bailey’s “Diary of a Resurrectionist,” Lange’s “Om Arvelighedens Inflydelse i Sindssygedommene,” Leuret’s “Fragments psychologiques sur la folie,” D’Aguanno’s “Recensioni di antropologia giuridica,” Amos’s “Crime and Civilization,” Andronico’s “Studi clinici sul delitto,” Lombroso’s “Uomo Delinquente,” de Aramburu’s “La nueva ciencia penal,” Bleakley’s “Some Distinguished Victims of the Scaffold,” Arenal’s “Psychologie comparée du criminel,” Aubry’s “De l’homicide commis par la femme,” Beccaria’s “Crimes and Punishments,” Benedikt’s “Anatomical Studies upon the Brains of Criminals,” Bittinger’s “Crimes of Passion and of Reflection,” Bosselli’s “Nuovi studi sul tatuaggio nei criminali,” Favalli’s “La delinquenza in rapporto alla civiltà,” de Feyfer’s “Verhandeling over den Kindermoord,” Fuld’s “Der Realismus und das Strafrecht,” Hamilton’s “Scientific Detection of Crime,” von Holtzendorff’s “Das Irische Gefängnissystem insbesondere die Zwischenanstalten vor der Entlassung der Sträflinge,” Jardine’s “Criminal Trials,” Lacassagne’s “L’homme criminel comparé à l’homme primitif,” Llanos y Torriglia’s “Ferri y su escuela,” Owen Luke’s “History of Crime in England,” MacFarlane’s “Lives and Exploits of Banditti,” M’Levy’s “Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh,” the “Complete Newgate Calendar,” Pomeroy’s “German and French Criminal Procedure,” Rizzone’s “Delinquenza e punibilità,” Rosenblatt’s “Skizzen aus der Verbrecherwelt,” Soury’s “Le crime et les criminels,” Wey’s “Criminal Anthropology,” Amadei’s “Crani d’assassini,” Benedikt’s “Der Raubthiertypus am menschlichen Gehirne,” Fasini’s “Studi su delinquenti femmine,” Mills’s “Arrested and Aberrant Development and Gyres in the Brain of Paranoiacs and Criminals,” de Paoli’s “Quattro crani di delinquenti,” Zuckerkandl’s “Morphologie des Gesichtsschädels,” Bergonzoli’s “Sui pazzi criminali in Italia,” Brierre de Boismont’s “Rapports de la folie suicide avec la folie homicide,” Buchnet’s “The Relation of Madness to Crime,” Calucci’s “II jure penale e la freniatria,” Davey’s “Insanity and Crime,” Morel’s “Le procès Chorinski,” Parrot’s “Sur la monomanie homicide,” Savage’s “Moral Insanity,” Teed’s “On Mind, Insanity, and Criminality,” Worckmann’s “On Crime and Insanity,” Vaucher’s “Système préventif des délits et des crimes,” Thacker’s “Psychology of Vice and Crime,” Tarde’s “La Criminalité Comparée,” Tamassia’s “Gli ultimi studi sulla criminalità,” Sikes’s “Studies of Assassination,” Senior’s “Remarkable Crimes and Trials in Germany,” Savarini’s “Vexata Quæstio,” Sampson’s “Rationale of Crime,” Noellner’s “Kriminal-psychologische Denkwürdigkeiten,” Sighele’s “La foule criminelle,” and Korsakoff’s “Kurs psichiatrii.”  

 

PRESENTING: THE SUPER REMIXED COUNT OF MONTECRISTO!!!

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Dear Imaginary Reader:

SO, I am a complete failure at self-advertising (my idea of pushing my stuff is close to: “I have a book. It’s terrible, I’m sure….You don’t have to read this… I mean… I wish you would… But I understand… You’re busy… Reading is for nerds… Oh Gosh I’m so sorry for Having Wasted Your Time… This is so embarrassing…“)  That said, my new book,

THE SUPER REMIXED COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO 

is now available for sale at Amazon!!! I’m kind of excited to share it with y’all, and I hope it’s the beginning of a longer journey for us. I say “new book” with some hesitation because, as some of you may know, the project took a few years to complete. (Time-Traveling Memo to Self About Seven Years Ago: Maybe Don’t Tackle a 1,350 Page Novel as an Inexperienced Young Fool!)

Anyway. There it is. I hope you buy it, rent it, check it out, steal it, I don’t care, as long as you read it and it makes you smile. If it doesn’t make you smile, then my revenge shall be slow, methodical, and implacable. You have been warned.

Below, is the Prologue, in case you haven’t read along with some of my earlier, less polished experiments like The Super Remixed Marie Antoinette Saga (now in the process of being renovated from the ground up, so as to make it actually presentable to human eyes):

PROLOGUES AND EXPLANATIONS

Q: What the heck is “THE SUPER REMIXED ™ COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO”?

A: It’s Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the famed and perpetually popular epic saga of revenge, intrigue, and redemption! Except now it has been SUPER REMIXED ™ by me, Hans. That’s self—explanatory, peeps!

Q: Ok. So is this Fanfiction?

A: ALL OF LITERATURE IS FANFICTION. No book ever issued unsullied out of some artsy abyss. Writers do what they do because at some point in their susceptible youths they read SOMETHING and their reaction was: “Well, I want to write THAT…but MY WAY. And I want X to have sex with Y instead of with Z.”

The rest is just a magician’s act of misdirection, usually accomplished by merging two or maybe three of the writer’s favorite obsessions. If something ever strikes you as truly “original,” it might be that it’s merging FOUR of the writer’s obsessions into some unholy “original” mix. Say, a novel that simultaneously honors James Joyce, Star Trek (and specifically DS9), Rumiko Takahashi’s “Inu-yasha”, and the Ramayana. Go ahead and give that mix a try! You’re bound to win a National Book Award and / or  puzzle people with your dazzling originality!

There is no shame in fanfiction. Go back as far as you can, to “Genesis”— and that’s already Sumerian fanfiction. John Milton’s ”Paradise Lost”? “Genesis” fanfiction. Dante’s “Divine Comedy”? Basically a feverish mash—up of the “Book of Revelations” and Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” “The Aeneid,” of course, it’s Homer fanfiction. There’s hardly a Shakespeare play that didn’t start as someone else’s characters and situations. Willy just contributed his iambic pentameter, his incredibly filthy jokes, and…you know… his unrivaled poetic genius.

Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” often gets shouted out as the “First Western Novel”— and it’s already a loving parody of “Amadis de Gaula.” Which borrowed its best bits from the “Matter of Britain.”

(As an aside, do yourself a favor and check out DQ’s wondrous Chapter 6, in which we get a glimpse of the many works of fanfiction “Amadis” inspired: “Son of Amadis” “Amadis of Greece!” “The Return of the Son of Amadis!”)

So to reiterate,  it’s fanfiction turtles all the way down.

Except this. This is not fanfiction.

Q: But you just said…

A: Next question.

Q: So fine, if it’s not fanfiction, what is it? A parody?

A: Nope. A parody attempts to imitate certain exaggerated features of a writer’s style, usually for the purposes of mockery. There are MOMENTS of parody within, but this is not, overall, parodic of Dumas’ style. There’s plenty of other places for that.

Q: Ugh. Is it an abridgment, then?

A: Good question! You would think so, right? But not exactly. The main purpose of an abridgment is to make things shorter, and the main purpose of this enterprise was to make things… weirder, I guess? I may actually have EXPANDED upon some sections. Also, I hate abridgments and find them sacrilegious. It’s a SUPER REMIX ™, I told ya!

Q: Can you further discuss what you consider to be the similarities and differences between SUPER REMIXES ™, fanfiction, homages, pastiches, remakes, sequels, parodies, retellings, up—datings, and reboots?

A: I *CAN* but then my Portobello and Pesto Panini would go uneaten, and that would make me hostile. It’s almost lunchtime, you know.

Q: What would you say to your Dear Imaginary Readers who wonder why they should read something so familiar? I mean, SPOILER, the COUNT ESCAPES PRISON AND GETS HIS REVENGE!

A: I say there are FOUR Great Reasons:

  1. If you’ve never read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and don’t know what awaits, then you’re just a lucky critter, because you’re about to jump into one of the most timeless, powerful, thrilling, immersive novels of all time, except now it has 27% more baguette jokes. I wish I could be you!!!
  2. If you HAVE read it, then here’s your chance to experience it entirely anew in a SUPER REMIXED ™ version that nonetheless hopes to retain everything that made you fall in love the first time.
  3. If you started to read it at some point and somehow your eyes glazed over when you saw the cast of characters was 10 pages long… I getcha! The times have a—changed! This is speedy, accessible and with 1/3rd the literary calories.
  4. If you started to read it and somehow your eyes glazed over and you were like: “Forget it, I’ll Netflix the movie” and now you think you know the plot…YOU KNOW NOTHING, JEAN NEIGE. No wimpy 2—hour movie can do justice to the tangled web the Count weaves. None of the versions even try: they keep the premise, a couple of early scenes, and then abandon the plot altogether. Except that anime where the Count was a psychedelically inspired alien-elf. That one was exactly what Dumas envisioned, obviously.

Q: Who’s Auguste Maquet, aka Auggy Mack?

          A: Dumas’ main homey. Maquet collaborated with Dumas during the intensely prolific period that saw “Monte Cristo”, “The Three Musketeers Epic,” “The Valois Trilogy,” “The Marie Antoinette Saga,” and a handful of other gems like “The Black Tulip,” “Olympe de Cleves,” and “The Bastard of Mauleon.” Maquet was far from Dumas’ only collaborator. His collaborators number the dozen, and of note are Gerard Nerval, the Countess Dash, and not one but three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, Paul Meurice. Think of it like a television show. Very rarely does the creator actually write every single episode by themselves- they have a writer’s room!- and Dumas was very much a showrunner. It is safe to say, though, that Dumas’ biggest novelistic hits were with Maquet. The Mack kept Alex on schedule with tight outlines and historical research, on top of which Dumas added his wit and flair. Also, you can bet Maquet was the one in charge of keeping the coffee hot on the pot.

Q: How many volumes will there be?

A: I love the concept of the serial, the “roman feuilleton.” In classic Dumasian tradition, there will be 5 volumes: “The Fall,” “The Rise,” “Patience and Faith,” “Deaths,” and “Resurrections.” They will be released every three months for your reading delectation. I’m hungry, let’s wrap this up.

Q: No one reads prologues anyway. Why is this one so long?

A: It’s a long project, it deserves a long prologue. I have a lot more to say, but you may be right, I’ll save the rest for an equally long epilogue.

Q: Speaking of long: what possessed you to tackle one of the longest novels of all time? Ambition? Hubris?

A: I may have bit off more than I can chew.

Q: Yeah! What were you thinking, you fool?!?

A: I was talking about my Portobello and Pesto Panini! This Prologue is over!

 

Being Double – William Shakespeare : “The Comedy of Errors” (Re-read)

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ABOVE: Two sets of twins, and not a single Marx-Brothers mirror routine?

Every couple of years I decide to have a marathon in which I read Shakespeare chronologically: a play a day during one intense, immersive month, (and six or seven days, depending who you ask). Naturally, that means I get distracted sooner than you can say “hey-nonny-nonny” and decide to have a CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE marathon instead (doesn’t happen either), and just resort to re-reading the faves here and there, occasionally attempting the Histories, my Shakespearean blind spot (I have not ventured too far into those.) It ALSO means that I have read “The Comedy of Errors” about a dozen times in my life, which is maybe 10 more times than it deserves.

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ABOVE: “Dudes, where is our carriage?”

Shakespeare’s first play, (at least until we learn otherwise), “The Comedy of Errors” is, like many debut / apprentice works, closely modeled on another play, a trusty scaffold in which Shakespeare hangs his jokes. That play is “The Menaechmi” by Plautus, and Shakespeare’s main addition to that plot is that, instead of merely having a set of identical twins who keep being mistaken for one another, he adds ANOTHER pair of identical twins: their clownish servants. Plausibility is not an issue.

Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, has the bad luck of landing in Ephesus at a time in which those two city-states are in a (historically imaginary) war. Syracusans caught in Ephesus are immediately condemned to death, which is only fair since the same happens to Ephesians caught in Syracuse. Egeon doesn’t seem to mind death: after all, he’s had an unfortunate life where he has lost his loving wife, his twin sons, AND his sons’ twin servants. Those are losses of a  Jobian magnitude.

Egeon’s sons, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, accompanied by Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse respectively, now collide in the streets of Syracuse- or rather they DON’T collide, but keep on crossing paths, confusing Adriana, A. of S’s neglected wife, not to mention merchants and soldiers and each other.

Mature Shakespeare would have turned this set-up into an exploration of identity. Beginner Shakespeare only sees an opportunity for farce and repetitive slapstick scenes in which one of the Antipholus (Antipholi?!) unwittingly orders the wrong Dromio to do a task, and then runs into the OTHER Dromio and beats HIM up for not having fulfilled that task. (Dromio feels like a kicked ass- notice that “hippodrome” is a horses’ racecourse.)

Two reasons why this twin mess doesn’t make it to the top tier, despite having a lot of laughs.

One: The characters are dumb, failing to see there’s a logical explanation for the confusion. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have NO excuse for their stupidity: they’re actively looking for their twins! They KNOW there’s two dudes who look just like them in this city, which would explain everything!

Second: The characters are not sympathetic. Slapstick is an undeniable stage tradition, but we’re supposed to laugh at the “heroes” constantly abusing their – let’s call them what they are- SLAVES. I’m not necessarily saying that torturing slaves at the slightest perceived transgression isn’t hilarious stuff, but not ALL the time, you know? Switch it up, Antipholi, variety is the spice of life!

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ABOVE: Notice how the cop says: “Good sir, be patient.” When the cops are you telling YOU not to use excessive force, that’s when you know you have a problem.

The play’s funniest, most vulgar joke is, er, “problematically fat-shaming”: when a rather overweight kitchen-maid develops a crush on Dromio, the servant likens her to a globe, grossly equating several parts of her anatomy with places on Earth. The punchline? “So where is Belgium?” “Oh, I didn’t look that low.” *Ba-dum-bum* (Funny! Specially if you know that Belgium is “the Low Countries,” and that “country”‘s first syllable sounds like…Well, it’s Shakespeare, what can you expect? It’s filthy stuff.)

Only Adriana’s feelings emerge as recognizably human. She moves us as the wounded wife, clinging to her dignity but fretting at the possible infidelity of her husband, (a cad who seems to be on first-name terms with every Hetairas in the Hellenic world).

His company must do his minions grace,
While I at home starve for a merry look:
Did homely age the alluring beauty took
From my poor cheeke? Then he has wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?
If voluble and sharp discourse be marred,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard.
Do their gay vestments his affections bait?
That’s not my fault: he’s master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruined? Then he is the ground
Of my de-features. My decayed fair,
A sunny look of his, would soon repaire.

Shakespeare’s shortest and breeziest, it’s of course worth one or two reads. NOT TWELVE. When will I learn? I almost recommend tracking down Rodgers and Hart’s musical take on this, “The Boys from Syracuse.” It throws in some classic tunes, like “Falling in Love with Love.”

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! among mortals, merely GOOD by Shakespeare standards

Mindful Meditations : P. D. James – “A Mind to Murder” and “Unnatural Causes” (Adam Dalgliesh #2, 3)

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the Court of Justice, none of us should see Salvation.”

“The Merchant of Venice” – William Shakespeare

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ABOVE: The Shadow knows.

Fresh off his historic debut in “Cover her Face,” Adam Dalgliesh, chief inspector and cheesy poet, goes deeper to find “A Mind to Murder.” In P. D. James’ second novel, Dalgliesh  investigates a murder that takes place at the Steen Psychiatric Clinic, at a time when such institutions ran crazy electricity bills due to their penchant for shock treatment. (The patients also get tons of LSD with their morning vitamins, because what else can you expect in 1963?) However, as might be expected, the murder suspects are not the inmates, but those running the asylum: pompous psychotherapists, stern nuns, and fidgety nurses. Don’t overly worry about who’s in what room at what time with what weapon: it’s the little hostilities between the suspects that need keeping a tab on. Dalgliesh spends most of his time questioning and probing in little therapy sessions that have the characters reveal their muddy subconscious to the eyes of justice. We get one or two brief mentions of Dalgliesh’s love interest, Deborah Briscoe…

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ABOVE: Incidentally, LSD must have inspired this cover.


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ABOVE: Row, row, row your boat

…. And yet in the next Adam Dalgliesh mystery, “Unnatural Causes,” Dalgliesh is pondering his seemingly inevitable marriage to Deborah Briscoe! Romance was NOT P. D. James’ forte.

“Unnatural Causes” opens in a startling manner: a corpse is floating downstream on a dinghy. This is the corpse of mystery writer Maurice Seton, and it has the distinction of having both hands chopped up. What’s more startling is that this opening scene matches one suggested to Seton by fellow author Celia Calthrop, as Celia lets Inspector Dalgliesh know right away. Dalgliesh, who is visiting his aunt Jane as a way to delay his above mentioned nuptials, winds up in a close-knit community of writers and writer-adjacent characters (the critics, the typing assistants)- a community that counted Seton as one of its own. But have artistic jealousies led someone in the literary salon to hand-chopping extremes?

As usual, the P. D. James mystery characterizes itself by, well, characters who are psychologically deeper than the ones from the Golden Age of Mystery. But those characters are not necessarily ones I like. P. D. James is much more conservative than Agatha Christie, (closer to the classist spirit of Dorothy L. Sayers) and with that conservatism comes a certain contempt for their character’s social failures. Because Christie never really had to worry about “psychology,” she didn’t judge her characters. They were all supposed to be more or less civilized adults, any of which could end up as a potential deadly killer or  a completely harmless and fun dinner companion, depending on what the parlor scene decided. But P. D. James is writing in the 60s, not the 30s.  She thinks she knows a lot about her characters, so they must have their sexual foibles, their psychologies, their pathologies (notice how in the original book cover of a “A Mind to Murder,” the woman is literally holding on to a fetish.) She’s judgey, and everyone is some sort of scum under that clinical eye.

I suppose that’s what keeps me at a distance from the P. D. James novels I’ve read so far. I’ve enjoyed them, but I’m not thrilled by them. They are too historically recent, and yet too psychologically of their time. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey (I will talk more about Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn in the future) live in an alternate world, a timeless and delightful alternate world that I love to visit even if the parks and gardens are ridiculously cluttered with dead bodies.

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ABOVE: You gotta hand it to whoever made older covers. This one goes for the graphic, instead of the “evocative, empty boat” of the newer edition.

But Adam Dalgliesh lives in a “real” world, and P. D. James attempts to describe a real society of her time, and sometimes she moves clumsily in it. Here’s how an edgy playboy talks in the novel: “Never go to bed with a woman if either of you would be embarrassed to admit the fact next morning. It’s a little restricting to one’s sex life but now you can see the practical advantages.” No character would say something that sexually cool in an Agatha Christie novel! (“cool” in both the “suave” and the “detached” way.)

But then, P. D. James is aware of the tradition she fights again. Re: a Christie-ish author:

“She kept to familiar characters and settings. You know the kind of thing. Cosy English village or small town scene. Local characters moving on the chess board strictly according to rank and station. The comforting illusion that violence is exceptional, that all policemen are honest, that the English class system hasn’t changed in the last twenty years and that murderers aren’t gentlemen.” 

RATING: COOL, and yet I have reservations about James. More admire than like. In fact, I feel COLD about her novels.