Book Review: Crime Seen by Michaelbrent Collings

cfrimeseenMichaelbrent Collings has built a reputation for himself as an extremely prolific author of mostly fast-paced thrillers steeped in horror. He continues that tradition in CRIME SEEN, a short novel about a police detective pursuing his wife’s murderer. Because it’s a Michaelbrent Collings novel, though, you can be sure that nothing is exactly as it seems.

Evan White and his partner, the hard-nosed Angela Listings, are pursuing leads to the brutal murder of Evan’s wife when they come across the madman who probably did it. There’s a problem though: it appears that the killer can’t be stopped with mere bullets and can disappear or reappear in the blink of an eye. How exactly does a ghost – if that is indeed what he is – kill people, and why is he taunting Evan, daring Evan to catch him? Coming to question his own sanity at times, Evan has no choice but to follow the tantalizing clues the killer leaves. The path leads Evan to Tuyen, a young Vietnamese-American woman who runs a mystical trinket shop and is somehow involved. The deeper Evan gets into his investigation, the more the weirdness begins to mount, especially once all the evidence points to the murderer already being dead, raising the question “How do you kill a man who’s already dead?” That’s all I want to say about the plot and resolution of the novel, as the premise requires a gradual series of revelations about the characters and the nature of the crimes and I don’t want to ruin it for other readers.

CRIME SEEN begins as a straight-forward police procedural hunt for a murderer, but weird elements – things that can only be supernatural – start playing an important role almost immediately. These are genuinely creepy at times and lend a real sense of menace to the proceedings. What initially seems a straight-forward, linear kind of mystery is anything but. While there aren’t a great many characters in the novel, Evan and his partner Angela are aptly drawn, and it’s interesting watching their relationship develop and be revealed. CRIME SEEN is a short novel that is fast-paced and doesn’t take long to finish. You’ll have to allow yourself to go with the flow in CRIME SEEN. Be patient – wait for events and revelations to play out. The pay-off is worth the wait. Recommended, especially if you are looking for a quick read and enjoy supernatural elements mixed in with your police procedurals.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead by George Mann

Sherlock-Holmes-Will-of-the-Dead-By-George-MannSherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead
By George Mann
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781160015
2013; $12.95 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE WILL OF THE DEAD continues Titan Books’ series of new Sherlock Holmes pastiches that are notable for their inclusion of steampunk or other science fictional elements. George Mann is no stranger to Holmes: he has edited a collection of Holmes stories (ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, also from Titan Books). Titan will be publishing another of Mann’s Holmes novels (THE SPIRIT BOX) and a second edited collection of stories (FURTHER ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) later in 2014. His pedigree for Victorian mysteries is strengthened by his authorship of the popular Newbury and Hobbes series (five published so far, beginning with THE AFFINITY BRIDGE, plus another couple short story collections) and his editorial direction of two Sexton Blake collections. Given all of that, this should be an exciting new Sherlock Holmes novel, but unfortunately, it’s merely good but not great.

The mystery begins simply enough: a wealthy old man dies in a fall down the stairs leaving a handful of nephews and a niece behind. His will is nowhere to be found. It all seems ordinary enough, but clearly Sherlock Holmes sees more to the story than the reader does because he immediately agrees to investigate the case. Here we come to the crux of the problem: the major weakness of the novel is that it is essentially composed of two separate plots that are seemingly unconnected until the very end. The first plot is what seems to be a simple, run-of-the-mill inheritance dispute after a man dies and his will disappears. The second plot is a rash of brazen home invasions by a group of “iron men” who smash their way into the homes of the wealthy and carry off valuables occurring at the same time as the inheritance dispute. We only know about the iron men at all because Watson periodically reads about the latest home invasion in the newspaper and asks Holmes if maybe he might want to help the police with that case. The reader wonders the same thing. While obviously fantastical, the case of the iron men certainly sounds more interesting than the dull inheritance mystery. So why isn’t the book about the second plot instead of the first? Having read the novel, I just don’t know why Mann chose to virtually ignore the fun and steampunky plot for a very run-of-the-mill one – he has certainly never shied away from the fantastical in his other novels.

Sherlockian purists might also be a little annoyed with the injections of some chapters that are accounts of key events told from the perspective of characters other than Watson or Holmes. Mann even feels the need to append an apology to the front of the book for this, so while this didn’t bother me, I wonder why he didn’t choose to restructure the narrative to avoid this practice entirely, as these accounts add very little to the story. Periodic anachronisms of speech are peppered throughout the book, often leading me to think that Mann never did capture the dialogue of Holmes and Watson. It’s a minor quibble, but it was distracting at times.

I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did. Characterization remained shallow throughout, and the dialogue was sometimes just jarring enough that it proved a distraction. Those weren’t fatal flaws; my only significant criticism was that the book was, for the most part, all too mundane and boring. Throughout, I often asked myself why Holmes wasn’t interested in getting involved in the iron men case. Robots seem to be rampaging through the streets of London, and instead of reading about that, we’re left with a plot that pales in comparison with the events we know are occurring off-stage at the same time. Recommended mainly for those who are big fans of George Mann’s work and those who really crave new pastiches of Sherlock Holmes.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

81yRTT97T3L._SL1500_The Devil Rides Out
By Dennis Wheatley
Bloomsbury Reader
ISBN: 978-1448213009
2013; $15.00 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

One of Dennis Wheatley’s most famous novels, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is a supernatural thriller originally published in 1934, and the first of Wheatley’s so-called “Black Magic” novels that explore a series of confrontations between Satanists and those seeking to stop them. It has just been republished as part of a new set of attractively bound trade paperback reprints by Bloomsbury Reader. While Wheatley wrote a large number of very popular thrillers and adventure novels, this was the first of his works to explicitly deal with the occult. It’s a doozy, full of plenty of action and occult menace, though it’s also what I would describe as a “mannerly” thriller, depicting the actions of a clique of genteel aristocrats and upper-crust Brits.

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT picks up shortly where one of Wheatley’s earlier novels, THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY, leaves off, and the early pages of DEVIL reference the earlier events. I’d say that it isn’t necessary to have read FORBIDDEN before this one, but reading the earlier work certainly would expand the characterization of the protagonists and make them seem much more fully fleshed out. Wheatley’s recurring protagonists include: the elderly but still spry French exile, the Duc de Richleau, who knows a great deal of occult lore and leads the group in opposing the Satanic cult; the wealthy Jewish banker, Simon Aron, who is in way over his head and has inadvertently fallen under the sway of evil; the brash young American adventurer, Rex Van Ryn, who falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Tanith, a psychic of great power and a member of the Satanic cult; and well-connected, upper-crust Brit, Richard Eaton, a skeptic about the occult who has settled down to life with his new wife and infant daughter.

The novel opens simply enough: Richleau and Rex discover that their friend Simon Aron has become involved with a Satanic cult led by the charismatic sorcerer and high priest Mocata. To Simon, his involvement began as just dabbling in the occult, but it’s quickly become apparent that he features prominently in Mocata’s plans, and is destined for a bad end (and by that, I mean, drained of his wealth, mystically mind-controlled to commit unspeakable acts, and eventually sacrificed). The situation is complicated by the fact that Mocata wields true supernatural power – this isn’t just a matter of lunatics playing around with meaningless rituals, but people who are capable of working actual spells, summoning demons, and the like. Wheatley is not coy about how the supernatural – and specifically black magic – is represented here: magic is real, the Devil is real, and he is capable of actively intervening in the world when called upon to do so by his followers. Richleau is the only one of the heroes to have any knowledge of the supernatural, while the rest have to witness the power of black magic before they’re convinced that anything supernatural is going on. I don’t want to spoil the plot’s twists and turns, but I will say that it’s a mix of adventure and occult horror that’s ultimately more thriller than pure horror. There’s a genuine sense of menace throughout though, and very real stakes: innocent lives are at stake, with the penalty for failure by the protagonists being the triumph of truly depraved evil-doers and the ritual murder of a child.

Some critics have complained that Wheatley occasionally uses too much exposition (coming from the mouths of his protagonists) to convey the fruits of his research on magic, occult lore, esoteric practices, and the like. Those passages are present here, and occasionally slow down the plot a bit, but I think they only serve to enrich the story and add a touch of verisimilitude to the proceedings, even if the delivery may come off a little forced at times.

I should also note that the book was the loose inspiration for the eponymous – and notorious – Hammer Horror film from 1968 (screenplay by the late, great Richard Matheson), starring Christopher Lee in a fine performance as the Duc de Richleau. If you’re a fan of Hammer films, you probably owe it to yourself to read the original novel, even though its plot only bears a superficial resemblance to the film.

Certainly recommended, if only so you can see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the iconic Black Magic novels of Dennis Wheatley. This is a good entry point to Wheatley’s fiction. It’s fast paced, and while it’s not a gorefest, it holds up very well against other pulp adventures, especially if you’re looking for an occult thriller.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers