A Simple Murder [Book Review]

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

The story.  William Rees is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a grieving widower, and an itinerant weaver.  When his son runs away from his sister’s care to join a community of Shakers near Durham, North Carolina, Rees leaves his wandering to attempt to reconcile with his son but becomes entangled in the murder of a young Shaker woman.

What I liked.  I like historical mysteries where the emphasis in on human psychology and old-fashioned sleuthing.  The Shaker community, called Zion, appears to be a collection of simple, God-fearing souls but of course in no time is revealed to be a complicated mess of human frailties and of course murder.  Kuhn clearly knows the period and frequently puts in as much color as she can to help bring the period to live.

What I didn’t like.  This is Kuhn’s first novel, but Rees seems to have just a bit too much backstory, with constant references to previous murders that he’s solved, including one where he was the prime suspect, old partners in solving crime, etc.  I don’t know if Kuhn has these other stories in the form of unpublished manuscripts or is laying the groundwork for a future prequel, but it felt forced in the story.  It did have the effect of explaining why a traveling weaver would be called on to solve a murder when there is a sheriff in the area whose job it would be in the first place.

In addition there’s a romantic subplot involving proto-feminist Lydia Ferrell whose relationship with Rees seems rushed somehow, as does Rees’ conversion from basically telling her to not speak in his presence to missing her presence every time they are apart.

Then there’s the murder itself.  It is not a complicated affair and I think most readers will at least pick up on the primary culprit without too much difficulty.  I actually talked myself out of believing who it was based on the clues because I expected some clever twist, some missed detail, that would point to someone else.

My takeaway.  I’m always looking for things to use in my own storytelling, and the notion of a bucolic, even boring community holding dark secrets is one that I did like about this book.  Kuhn treads into the water of having religious people revealed as hypocrites, but there are enough genuine, kind people (usually those on the fringe of the Shaker community) to make it not too blatant.

Buy, library, or skip?  I probably won’t be re-reading this book, but it wasn’t bad, so I’m  calling it a library check-out option.

[books for gamers] All the Gold of Ophir

All the Gold of Ophir, written by David Drury, is half pulp detective, part hard-sci fiction story.  Private investigator Michael Flynn has been hired to look into the “accidental” death of a young man on a Jupiter space station.  The victim worked for the mega-corporation that not only owns the station and employs three-quarters of its thousands of inhabitants, but also has its own lethally-armed security force.  Flynn is assisted by corporate attorney Wendy Chadwick and opposed by Silvanus Drake, so improbably named that J.K. Rowling would even blanche.

Drury is a professor of engineering and uses his knowledge to tell the story, one laden with stereotypical characters: the Irish hard-drinking PI, the incompetent and belligerent head of the police force, even the psycho ex-girlfriend (whom I kept calling “Ira” after Spade’s ex in The Maltese Falcon).  The mystery was interesting and the action moved along well (although I had a pretty good idea of what happened fairly early on).

My only complaint, because I can let hackneyed, two-dimensional characters slide in a story like this one, is that in science fiction you have to give the reader certain boundaries of genre.  Faster-than-light travel?  Aliens?  Artificial intelligence?  You have to let the reader know what exists and what doesn’t, especially when you’re doing a mystery.  It isn’t fair to say, allow teleportation to exist in the last chapter if it is instrumental to the plot.  And Drury succumbs to this–after establishing the boundaries throughout the book he breaks one (as the underwhelming “shocker”) to tie up one of the loose ends.  Or in other words, you can get most of the mystery on your own, but you’ll never get the last ten percent because Drury breaks his own rules.  It is a frustrating end note to an otherwise fun weekend read.

From a gaming perspective, All the Gold of Ophir reminds RPG fans of how depending the gaming industry is on pulp-ish stories.  The Jupiter space station would make a fine sci-fi environs, big enough to introduce new elements but contained enough to keep players from running far off the beaten track (my biggest gripe with sci-fi RPG’s).

[books for gamers] Aftermath by Ben Bova

Terrible.  Just terrible.

I could leave it at those three words, if I wished.  Rarely have I found myself literally skimming the final chapters to see if anyone important dies or if possibly, possibly the plot moves in any real direction.  But no, this book may in fact be the weakest of the “Asteroid Wars” series, and that is saying a lot.

In the third book Bova introduces an alien artifact and its impact on Dorin, the psychotic mercenary and war criminal from the earlier books.  Dorin and his companion, an elderly artist who has found a new lease on life thanks to her exposure to the artifact, are on a strange mission to provide proper burials for all who died in the Asteroid Wars.  “Proper burial” meaning being crammed in an industrial incinerator aboard their ship, by the way.

The second plot involves a family separated by Dorin’s attack on the space station Chrysalis.  The father is back at the station, his family is adrift in a space literally years away from home.  Much of that plot revolves around the teenage son concocting ways to trying to get home safely while the dad tries talking someone into giving him a ship to go scour all of the solar system for his family.

Pancho Lane?  Gone.  Humphries?  Only a token presence as the mastermind being the forces hounding Dorin.  Ambrose?  More antagonist than charming side character.

Any purpose, history, or any plot movement on the whole alien artifact thing?  Nope.

In fact really it feels a lot like a non-finish, with the exception of resolving the whole family being separated thing.  I would expect the artifact to show up in other novels.  What also showed up in spades was something I had read about in other reviews, namely Bova’s latent misogyny.  All of his women characters are either mentally weak (like the mother and daughter or the family) or possessing what used to be called weak moral fiber.  For example most of the women who are not dim bulbs (Pancho Lane, Humphries rotating  cast of assistants, the captain of the ship the father ends up aboard) use their sexuality to advance themselves professionally.  In addition, there is the egregious example which follows below:

Spoilers Ahead

The worst example of this comes when the mother of the family is raped by a pirate captain in order to shield her daughter from the crew.  Having been away from her husband for several years, the wife is surprised to find herself “liking it,” and later the event is equated by her and her husband to his infidelity while aboard the space station.

Liking being raped?  Equated with the husband’s years-long marital infidelity?  Okay Bova, I’m sticking a fork in your backside–you’re done.

As I said: terrible, just terrible.

The Silent War by Ben Bova

Sigh.

On more than one occasion I’ve started an RPG campaign which I thought was the cat’s pajamas and then, after a few months said, “forget this, it isn’t working,” and went onto something else.  (My Star Wars campaign is a good example of this.)

The Silent War, the third book in the “Asteroid Wars” series by Ben Bova feels a lot like this.  After a pretty good set-up novel and a solid second one, the third book feels a lot like Bova said “enh, I dunno where this is going,” wrapped it up with a whimper and quickly moved onto a totally unrelated plot point.

What’s more, he begins the novel with a cutscene from several years after the events depicted in the book, revealing several major plot points in the novel that occur later in a way that just seems unnecessary.  But the point of the “sneak peek” is to have the author say to the reader, “Look!  Alien artifacts!  Get yourself through this novel and you’ll get alien artifacts in the fourth one!  Just bear with me while I tie a bow on this other stuff I spent two other novels laying out for you, and then I’ll get around that what I really want to write about!”

Because honestly, alien artifacts have nothing to do with the plot of the first three books of the Asteroid Wars.  It’s a sharp right turn that seems to be motivated only by Bova’s realization that he’s told this story before, and perhaps better, elsewhere.  To give credit where it is due, there’s some interesting utilization of technology in the realm of inter-space ship battles, like coating the ships with asteroidal rock as armor.  There’s also an extended scene where my favorite PC-as-book character Pancho Lane escapes the clutches of the bad guys using gear that looks like it was cribbed from the Stainless Steel Rat, but I like that kind of silliness so it is all good.

On the “books for gamers” note, as I said before I’m reminded of what happens when a GM/DM/judge runs out of juice on a storyline.  There’s lot of reasons why this happens–a better idea comes along, players don’t quite gel with what the GM thought it would be like, or it just doesn’t turn out to be as interesting in practice as in theory.  How a GM responds has a lot to do with his or her own skill and the group, but taking a storyline that the players are invested in, but the GM isn’t, and just letting it wither out doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Books for gamers

Far in the past I used to review books on another blog (back when I was cluttering up the blogosphere with multiple blogs rather than this single one) and I have been thinking about getting back to it here.

My idea is to share books that I’ve read, and evaluate their usefulness for RPG or wargaming enthusiasts.  There’s a lot of stuff out there about what is helpful and what isn’t, but this’ll be my take on it.  So what have I been reading?

The first two books of the Harbinger Trilogy by Diane Duane, Starfall at Corivale and Storm at Eldala.  Both of these are written for TSR away back as part of the Alternity RPG.  I will say this about both books–in the TSR corpus of novels many appear to be fantasy novels shoehorned into the D&D world by aspiring authors who couldn’t get their novels published otherwise.  As a result, there’s a lot of disconnect between the novels and gaming experience (e.g. the whole “Spellfire” nonsense)

Diane Duane is a graduate of that other paperback mill– Star Trek novels — but does in fact do her homework about the StarDrive setting for Alternity and sets up a pretty RPG-esque backstory of a ignomiously cashiered space marine teaming up with a wandering alien and going into the freelance spaceship-for-hire business.  In between cargo runs and speculative mining the marine character tries to discover why he was framed for murder.  Shuffled into the mix is a spooky unknown alien race creating legions of space zombies.  Good stuff.

By book two of the Trilogy the plot has gone completely off the rails and features a home-grown alien race, no real movement on the initial plot, and a sort of stone-induced-psychic bond that appears in the first twenty pages of most Anne McCaffrey novels.  And while I haven’t read the third novel, I have the sneaking suspicion that a lot of threads will be tied together a little too tidily.

I’ve read almost every book Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston has ever written, either singularly or together, and can honestly say that if you’ve read one, you’ve read most of them, especially the earlier works (their fascination with the distinctly unlikeable character of FBI agent Penderghast is beyond me).  That doesn’t mean that their novels are bad, on the contrary they can tell a good techno-horror-scifi-thriller story quite well, albeit over and over again.  Deep Storm has all the hallmarks of a Child/Preston work:

  • generic intelligent scientist protagonist
  • beligerent but attractive female character (whose development as love interest is as inevitable as it is underdone)
  • out-of-the-way exotic locale
  • bizarre unknown element slowly driving everyone crazy and/or killing them
  • crazy antagonist in some security-related position (classic “brains vs. bully” conflict)

Lather, rinse, repeat.  In the case of Deep Storm the hero is a former navy doctor going to a deep underwater laboratory, not to be confused with the geologist going to the antartic in The Ice Limit or the biochemist going to the American Southwest in Dragon Mountain.  There something has been discovered that is causing bizarre and ultimately homicidal medical problems in the crew.

My knocking the authors for their lack of ingenuity is a little harsh–what they have to offer for gamers in Deep Storm and elsewhere is a treasure trove of highly colorful characters, exotic locales and fairly straightforward plot devices that could easily keep any GM running a horror/techothriller RPG in business for years.  You could easily retool the stories for Shadowrun or d20 Modern or even Call of Chthulu with nominal effort.  You could even dial up or down the technology for fantasy or sci-fi.  I guess what I am meaning to say is that Child and Preston generated what would have been standard fare for the pulp magazines of previous generations, which in turn became the backbone of the RPG experience, and certainly provide more fodder for your RPG campaign than most “in house” novels published by game companies today.

The Only Book on the Seven Years War at my Public Library

I was excited at even the notion of a novel set during this time period being purchased by my library.  So I rushed down, snatched it up quickly, and started reading it at my office.  The book?

 Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon.

I didn’t know what I was getting into, but by page 14 he’s already into a relationship with his second lieutenant.  Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be informing my wargaming all that much either.  Sigh.

Seven Years War: the first book review

I finished Frederick the Great by Louis L. Snyder.  This book is part of a series called “Great Lives Observed” which includes such figures as Henry Ford, Jesus, Booker T. Washington, Hitler, and Joe McCarthy (which would make one really great poker game, in my mind).  The book is basically a collection of primary source material, sorted by type, each with a small introduction.  The real “gem,” according to the author, is the discovery of a letter by Frederick’s physician addressing the rumors regarding Frederick’s homosexuality.  This four-page missive instead reveals that Frederick’s lack of interest was more fueled by other, disease-related problems, instead.

Frederick the Great

TMI, Fritz, TMI…

The author’s fascination with gonorrhea aside, the book is actually quite good at capturing the qualities of Frederick, both as a ruler, general, and person.  There’s Frederick’s own perspective on the world, religion, philosophy, etc. and equal time given to what various figures were saying about him at the time.

It is a nice primer to the time period, and a fair biography, but woefully lacking in actual military history that could be used to inform a fledgling wargamer like myself.  Hopefully the Duffy book will be in soon, and I might have to make a journey into the “Big City” and see what I can find there.