Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Come Die With Me by James Eastwood

(AKA: Diamonds Are Deadly)
The third and final Anna Zordan novel is the best one of the trilogy. Too bad there were no more issued after this one was published in 1969. Perhaps the whole spy craze was starting to die down, maybe author James Eastwood wanted to move on to other writing. The world may never know why the series ended so soon. And the conclusion of Come Die hints there will be more to come. It has been forty years...we're still waiting.
The plot for this novel involves a script for a TV series by a British production company which was submitted to the "home office" for approval. As per the Official Secrets act, this sort of thing must've been routine. The series involves assassinations, sabatogue and political unrest designed to bring the UK down. In the interest of public safety, the production company was told that maybe this wasn't the best time to be creating a TV show on these topics and the idea was shelved.
But someone has started carrying out a series of terrorist activities. All of them are following the suppressed series. And someone just murdered the Prime Minister.
Enter Sarratt, the chief of the super secret intelligence service only known as "The Studio". Madam Minister once again summons the spy master to her house (kids playing in the background) and sets him loose. Naturally, he dispatches Anna Zordan after the script writer, who's fleeing for his life. Anna tracks him down quickly and gets at the bottom of his problems (hint: it has to do with family issues).
There's a side plot developing involving a financial wunderkind and his femme fatale traveling companion. They are detoured to an isolated island in the Mediterranean where a master criminal plots world domination. The mastermind has plans for Anna too and lures her to the island.
We learn a little bit more about Sarratt in this book. For instance, his lonliness is partly due to a wife who died 20 years earlier in childbirth. This explains his fascination with both Anna and the Minister. But we never do get a clear description of what he looks like. Perhaps this is part of the mystery.
It's a shame the series ended with this book. It was really taking off at this point.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Medusa by E. H. Visiak

#13. Medusa by E. H. Visiak
If David Lindsay had written Treasure Island in the throes of a peyote-induced religious experience...Well, if Coleridge had given Melville a hand on Moby Dick after a few pipes of opium....
-KEW, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels

E. H. Visiak (1878-1972) was better known by his real name of Edward Harold Physick. His interests reigned from John Milton to mysticism. He was also a close friend of novelist David Lindsay, the author of A Voyage to Acturus. He was also an authority on Victorian literature, which shows up quite clearly in this book.
Medusa is a novel which floats along. It begins with the author's childhood: how his parents perished at sea, how he was raised by a Spanish priest before being sent to his grandparents in England. There are no dates given, but I assume the time frame to be the early 19th century. After being sent to a boarding school, he escapes the harsh Dickens-type environment to live with the kindly Mr. Huxtable. This arrangement doesn't last long because Mr. Huxtable needs to go on an unexplained sea voyage and decides to bring the writer along.
The whole book is written in a very verbose Victorian style. And I must say, it is a chore to read. Not quite as painful as Melmoth the Wanderer, but close. Visiak is fond of phrase after phrase carefully strung together to make a sentence.
Before and during the voyage we are introduced to one very interesting character: Obidiah Moon, a salty old sailor and maybe a pirate. If there is a Long John Silver figure in this book, it's Moon. He's got plenty of secrets to hide.
I could go into the book in more detail, but it's hard to do that without spoiling the conclusion. I will say the last 50 or so pages of Medusa exist in some kind of dream world.
An interesting book if you want a challenging read.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Chinese Visitor by James Eastwood

Today we take a look at another one of the Anna Zordan spy novels by James Eastwood. Seduce and Destroy was previously reviewed. This was the one which stimulated my interest in the whole Anna Zordan trilogy. The Chinese Visitor is the novel which introduces Anna and her British secret service boss Sarratt. It has the same subtle humor of Seduce. There are a few plot devices which seemed outlandish, but for the most part the book is excellent.
In the first chapter a Chinese trade ambassador is assassinated while visiting the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Since this takes place around 1965 (the year the book was published), the cold war is in full swing. A mysterious woman is arrested in the scuffle after the killing, who turns out to be Anna Zordan. But she has nothing to do with the murder. She just happened to like visiting cemeteries.
Anna spends a few days in jail rather than pay a fine. She returns to her apartment to find it occupied by a mysterious stranger who wants information. It soon becomes apparent that the stranger is the killer who slaughtered both of her parents years earlier. There's a fight between her and the stranger where she over-powers the killer before putting two slugs in him (one for each parent). She calls the only person she trusts- Mr. Sarratt, who took care of her after the death of her mother and father.
The dead killer turns out to be a ruthless assassin named Hagmann. Sarratt links him to several other mysterious deaths. Soon she learns her father was working as a double agent for both the British and a sinister group known only as the Organization. Sarratt further uncovers information that the Organization is a front for a radical faction in the Chinese government intent on igniting nuclear Armageddon between the USSR and the USA. With time running out, he decides to recruit Anna into his secret service.
Although Eastwood isn't big on local culture in these books, the characters really stand-out. The prime minister whom Sarratt is beholden is obviously from the Labor Party and keeps a mistress on the side. There's an American general who's marked for death on the discovered hit list, but just can't avoid missing a dinner in his honor. And there's the leader of the Organization: Edwin Steiner, a portly American who appears to be running a charitable foundation.
Best of all is the Chinese official who runs his operation out of an outpost in Albania. Known only as "the god" throughout the book, he never appears to Steiner or the Organization. All his orders are carried out from behind a screen next to a huge Buddha statue. When he does make an appearance it's almost anticlimactic.
I've got the next book in the series on the way. Too bad there's only three.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fire-Spirits by Paul Busson

"A strange tale of a young man's involvement with a bewitching peasant child, mountain legends, and the quest for German unification. The English translation is said to be heavily expurgated, but I haven't read the German to compare."
-13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels, by Karl Edward Wagner.

One of the delights in reading through the KEW list is finding a real gem, a book I never would have encountered had it not been for his comments. The Fire-Spirits is such an example. Here is a book I've longed to read for the past 25+ years. It proved to be worth the wait. I would go so far to say this novel is one of the best I've read in the past year. And it's good to the last page. Hopefully, someone will bring out a new translation (the copy I borrowed was printed in 1929).
I've not been able to find much about Paul Busson, other than he was an Austrian writer and journalist who lived from 1873-1924. There's not much on him in German; he's considered and obscure writer of fantastic fiction. I know The Man Who Was Born Again, another one of his novels is available in an English.
The Fire-Spirits is a novel about Peter Storck, a young man who has traveled to the Tyrolean mountain area, now part of Switzerland and Italy. He's trying to find out what happened to his Uncle Martin, who disappeared from his house near the village of Sankt Marein. It's 1809 and the area is in the midst of the violence brought about by the Napoleonic wars. The Tyrolean region has been forsaken by it's traditional protector, the emperor of Austria, and handed over to the king of Bavaria. Add to this religion-the Tyroleans are catholic, the Bavarians protestant- and you have a deadly mix. Which is why the mountain people have no love for the Bavarian militarists and are planning a revolt.
At the village, Peter meets a number of colorful characters. The hunter Serafin Federspiel, a former university student who saw his family massacred by the french. He's the lone dissenter ("Germans shouldn't be fighting Germans!) in the village when everyone wants to take up arms against Bavaria . There's the innkeeper Christian Lergetpohrer and his niece Notburga, who ends up being Peter's housekeeper. And there is the local parish priest Father Archangelus, who urges the local populace to fight for the true faith against the foreign invaders. Early in the novel, Peter falls in love with the mysterious Julia, a woman held in awe by most of the village. To list all the interesting figures in this novel would take a score card, it's best for the reader to discover them on their own.
Peter Storck takes up residence in his Uncle Martin's house which is filled with curiosities in the study and guns in the basement. Martin Storck had been an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army before resigning after striking a french nobleman. Disgraced, he cursed the emperor and retired to the mountains. Peter soon learns that the local people believe the old officer perished when he tried to spy on the "fire-spirits", mysterious lights which appear in the mountains during the equinoxes. Legend had it the lights are the products of condemned souls who are released twice a year from hell to cool themselves in the glacier. If anyone encounters them, the interloper will be dashed on the rocks below. Peter is even shown the strange lights descending the mountains through the safe distance of a telescope.
Soon, Peter becomes involved with the hunter Serafin in a plan to discover the true nature of the lights. Are they smugglers sneaking down the mountains? Actual demonic creatures? Or something else? Survival of an ancient pagan cult is hinted at throughout the novel, but only resolved in the final chapters.
The theme of possession reoccurs through the book. The innkeeper Christian shoots a Bavarian drummer boy in an initial skirmish with royal troops and begins seeing the victim in his sleep. Peter steps off the carriage as he arrives in the village to see a priest trying to exorcise a nun. It's a theme which never is fully resolved.
The description of mountain warfare is grim. Peter and the rest of the villagers end up in an ambush on a Bavarian-French campaign which is described in gruesome detail. The sack of Innsbruck by the rebels also features prominently.
The Fire-Spirits is an forgotten masterpiece of literature. I can only hope someone will bring the English translation back into print.