Category: Book Review

Book Review: Before Midnight

Editor’s Note: A version of this review originally appeared 9 years ago.

How annoying can a client or set of clients get? Nero Wolfe finds out in Before Midnight.

After the death of a hotshot advertising executive, his firm hires Wolfe not to find the killer, but to locate the dead man’s wallet which contained the answers to a verse-guessing contest with $800,000 in prizes at stake.

The story plodded along. While some of the suspects were interesting, I couldn’t consider most of them as likely suspects for either the murder or taking the wallet. The focus was on the contestants, four of whom came from out of town. To go to a place you don’t know, commit a homicide, and evade detection by the police is a tough task, and nothing made me believe any of these out-of-towners would do it.

What held the story together was watching Wolfe’s clients from the advertising firm of LBA, who represented the most annoying and foolish clients Wolfe ever had the misfortune of taking on. There was a pleasure of seeing these guys in action that wasn’t unlike watching a trainwreck. Wolfe had been about his leisurely pace of crime solving for 20 years, LBA was in a mode of “hurry up and do something,” even setting a deadline for Wolfe.

Their battles with each other and Wolfe continue for most of the book. Toward the end, just when we’re expecting Wolfe to spend a few chapters and several glasses of beer unraveling the mystery, we’re thrown for a loop with a plot twist that leaves Wolfe reeling, embarrassed, and determined to get a daring soul who committed a murder right in Wolfe’s office.

The twist makes up for the weakness of the book, which was a letdown after the pure brilliance of Murder by the Book. Still with a twist ending and some classically annoying clients, I’ll give it a:

Rating: Satisfactory (4 stars)

Book Review: Dick Tracy: Dailies and Sundays: 1931-33

Dick Tracy is the legendary detective created by Chester Gould whose comic strip adventures continue until this day. Dick Tracy first hit newspapers in 1931 and this book collects his first strips from October 1931 to May 1933.

This collection is notable for what you won’t find: any of Tracy’s garish rogues gallery. No Flattop, Mumbles, or Pruneface. The most prominent villain is Big Boy, but in here he’s a regular mob boss. The colorful villains would come much later for Tracy. This book features Tracy taking on thieves, kidnappers, and racketeers that were typical 1930s villains.

The book opens with the father of Tracy’s fiancée being murdered. Tracy joins the police force in order to catch the killer. The most unrealistic part of this entire collection is when Tracy is so quickly graduated and placed in a leadership position on the force with no explanation. Three months later, he slacks off because of personal problems with Tess and is demoted to uniform duty and complains about how he was demoted despite all he’d done in the three months on the force. 

Once you get past that silliness, the book is good. The crimes aren’t outlandish and Tracy’s methods are pretty solid for a 1930s newspaper strip, featuring some real detective work. The book also did go for some “ripped from the headlines” cases. For example just after the Lindbergh kidnapping, Tracy had to solve a similar baby kidnapping case.

Other than introducing Tracy and Tess Trueheart, the book’s important contribution is introducing Junior, the homeless, seeming orphan who Tracy adopts, or perhaps it may be he adopts Tracy.  He becomes part of the action on several occasions and you can see why he’s often viewed as a precursor of teenage sidekicks like Robin, the Boy Wonder and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes.

The art in the book starts off looking a bit primitive but as Gould continues to draw, it becomes a lot more polished. The book is mostly in black and white with the exception of the earliest Sunday strips. These strips didn’t follow the daily strip plot, opting instead for a separate mystery or  sometimes just a one-off gag strip. They continued until May 1932.

The book also includes an interview with Gould by his successor on the Tracy comic strip, Max Allan Collins. 

Overall, while the book doesn’t capture Tracy at the peak, it does manage to capture Tracy’s beginnings and also help readers understand how Tracy became so popular in the first place with fun and exciting stories, detective work, and a broad-based appeal to multiple members of the family with character drama and a kid sidekick. Worth a read for both Tracy diehards and those who are curious about the beginnings of this iconic character.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Deathgame

In the Hardy Boys casefile Deathgame, the Hardy’s friend Biff Hooper is big into survival games and decides to go to an exciting survival camp. Biff tells Joe the truth, but tells his parents he’s visiting his cousin.

When Biff doesn’t return as scheduled, the Hardy Boys and his parents go to Florida to look for him, but the camp claims never to have seen him. Biff’s parents insist he must be there as he doesn’t lie (apparently forgetting about the whole cousin visit thing.) The Hardy Boys set out to find their lost friend and face off against dangerous foes.

We get to see a little of the Hardy’s sleuthing but this is most a set up for them and some other teens to get involved in a take on The Most Dangerous Game. It deals a bit more heavily in the adventure/suspense elements than the typical mystery elements.

For what is, the book is fine. It’s a light, breezy 152-page read that has great pacing, featuring short chapters that end on generally solid cliffhangers.

The book is not for everyone. Deathgame was released in 1987 and it shows as the villains and the plot feel very 1980s. The main villain (the aptly named Colonel Hammerlock) reminds me of Karate Kid villain Sensei John Krese. If the A-Team van had rolled in, it would not have been out of place.

In addition, there’s a certain conceit about the entire Case Files series that you have to acknowledge. The books were released as pocket paperbacks (as opposed to the 6″ x 9″ size of many kids books) and had action packed pictures on the front and occasionally dealt with topics like terrorism that made them seem more grown up. At their core though, they were still written for 10-year-olds.

So this is the type of book, you’ll like if you grew up with the Hardy Boys case files, enjoy 1980s mystery adventures, or if you’re a child who likes to read mystery and adventure stories and don’t mind that they were written before they had a cell phone.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Graphic Novel Review: Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan is inspired by the 1946 Superman Radio serial: The Clan of the Fiery Cross. 

Teenagers Tommy and Roberta Lee move to Metropolis with their parents after their father gets a job as Metropolis’ chief bacteriologist. Tommy is a good pitcher and gets picked for the Unity House baseball team that Jimmy Olsen is a manager of.  Tommy displaces the team’s existing pitcher, Chuck Riggs, who is kicked off the team due to his bad sportsmanship. Chuck tells his Uncle Matt, who is a leader of the Ku Klux Klan stand-in, the Clan of the Fiery Cross.  The clan burns a cross on the Lee’s front yard and it’s up to Superman to protect the Lees and Unity House and bring the clan to heel.

This is not an exact adaptation of the radio story, but it captures the spirit of it. The book manages to be mostly true to the era the story is set in but also make changes to fit a modern audience. Superman was written as much more of a boy’s adventure story, and Tommy’s sister wasn’t even named.

In the novel, she’s a central character and provides a lot of emotional insight.  She’s sweet but awkward. She reflects that she felt out of place and like she didn’t belong even in China. She’s wonderfully relatable and interesting as a character and she has a superb bond with Superman. 

This also has a good portrayal of Superman, though it took me a while to see what he was doing. For example, in the earlier pages, he had Superman still “leaping tall buildings” rather than flying, even though by 1946, Superman had been flying in both the comics and the radio show. However, as I read the book, I saw exactly what writer Gene Yang was doing.

Yang incorporates more recent ideas about what it was like for Clark Kent growing up when he started to manifest his powers, which led to people becoming afraid of him, and him becoming an outsider, and having to hide who he is and what he can do in order to fit in and have a normal life. 

It’s a different take on Superman that’s still very true to the character. Even many of the writers who write Superman don’t get him and it’s popular for many fans to cast Superman as this distant unrelatable character. However, Yang succeeds in giving Superman a solid character arc.

The basic plot does follow along the lines of the radio serial, though it does try to enhance it. Like many modern Superman stories, the writer wants to have Superman face a real threat, and the thing I least like about that is how they do that. The Atom Man (the most dangerous villain Superman ever faced over radio) is introduced and dispatched in the first section of the novel, but his technology is used as a plot device in the hands of the Klan. It’s a clunky way to raise the threat level, but I can forgive it because I’m satisfied with how the book plays out in the end.

The overall tone is preachy, but keep in mind i’ts based on a radio serial that was far preachier.  This one fleshes out the characters and helps the readers empathize with them in a way that works for modern audiences and it has  good light moments. The art is clean and kid-friendly as well.

The book is great for kids if you want to introduce them them to the story of the 1946 radio series or if you want them to understand the history of the groups like the Klan and how they operated and were ultimately defeated. It’s also a well-done adaptation of a classic Superman radio story that does the original creative team behind the radio story proud.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Book Review: Tekwar

This 1989 novel written by William Shatner (with Ghost Writer Ron Goulart) is set in the 22nd Century. Former Cop Jake Cardigan is released early after being wrongfully convicted on corruption charges. In the future, criminals sent to prison are put into suspended animation.

In the four and a half years he’s been incarcerated, his wife has divorced him and left him an empty apartment. Cardigan finds out the reason he was released was because the private investigation firm that his old partner worked for wants to hire him to find a missing scientist and the scientist’s daughter in Mexico, where Cardigan’s ex-lover Warbride has become a powerful rebel leader.

What Tekwar does really well is worldbuilding. It spends a great deal of the book establishing a realistic and intricately designed world for Greater Los Angeles and Mexico. It manages to create a solid hybrid world of a detective story set in a world with cyborgs and androids.

One of the interesting concepts was that he meets an android duplicate of the scientist’s daughter who has all of her memories and acts like her, so he starts to fall for the daughter before he meets her. I did wonder about the rationale for the criminal justice system freezing offenders. It gives up on  rehabilitation and appears to be a cost-cutting measure that instead just prevents them from learning to be better criminals while in prison. Also, I had to chuckle that some technologies in the book harken back to that symbol of late 1980s cutting edge technology–the fax machine.

The only characters who grabbed my interest were the daughter’s android duplicate and Warbride. Beyond that, the best you could say for the rest of the characters is that they avoided being annoying (with the exception of one character whose role was relatively small.)

The story’s pacing is off. This is a full-length novel with enough story to fill a good novella or an hour-long TV episode. For the length, I expected a mystery and resolution that was a lot more satisfying than what I got. The dialogue is functional, workmanlike, and occasionally dull.

Overall, Tekwar is a bit frustrating. The world has so many good ideas, so many intriguing possibilities as to what could be done, but ultimately fails to deliver a story that falls far short of its intriguing concept. Still, Shatner’s storyworld has great potential, if he hired the right ghostwriter to revise it.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5

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