Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: The Transylvanian Trilogy (1934-40) by Miklos Banffy

So, does your country have a national literary epic? Something that captures the entire breadth of a society at a time of crisis over a period of several years or more? War and Peace is the obvious example, but then the Russians sometimes  seem to have written nothing but national epics: there's Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, And Quiet Flows the Don by Sholokhov, and August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn. French writers took a more scientific, incremental approach, x-raying their nation in novel series such as La Comedie Humaine by Balzac and Les Rougon-Macquart novels by Zola. Dickens and Trollope took the same approach for Britain. But what of the rest of the world? India has The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf; Sri Lanka's epic is The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne; The Cairo Trilogy for Egypt by Naguid Mahfouz; Syria`s The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami; and Italy`s Il Gattopardo by Lampedusa. An aside: despite it's size, diversity and rich history, the US has never produced a national epic. The U.S.A trilogy by John Dos Passos is an experimental (for the 1930s) attempt at an epic, but it doesn't quite come off. It's probably the size and diversity factor of America that's stopped writers from taking a shot at a single epic novel, but that doesn't explain why no author has tried to go the Balzac route and write a series of novels about the country.
Count Miklos Banffy

And so my point is that most nations with any kind of strong literary tradtion have produced a national liteary epic or two (come on, USA, you can do it!). One of the best I've read recently is The Transylvanian Trilogy by Count Miklos Banffy, which consists of They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. The trilogy was produced from 1934-40 and it's the national epic of both Romania and Hungary. Why both? Because Banffy was a proud Romanian with a huge ancestral estate in Transylvania, but he was also a politician in the Austro-Hungarian empire and after WW I he became Hungary's Foreign Minister. In short, Banffy could easily have been in a character in the national epic he wrote.

The central character in the trilogy is Count Balint Abady, and we follow his story through the ten years leading up to the outbreak of WW I. Abady is a voice of reason in the Austro-Hungarian government as the empire dithers and bickers its way into the dustbin of history. But politics is only one facet in this vastly entertaining trilogy. Banffy is a great storyteller, and he stuffs the novels with colourful, vibrant characters. There are frustrated, doomed lovers, dissolute aristos, scheming estate overseerers, gypsies, a barking mad count, and a couple of dozen other memorable characters. Add in duels, hunts, balls and sundry intrigues and you have 1,500 or so pages of addictive reading. Banffy wants to tell the often bitter truth about the world he knew and he wants to do it in the most vivacious way possible.

After WW II, Banffy, like a character in a tragic novel, ended up reduced to a landless nobody with a meaningless title in communist Hungary. He died in 1950 and his novels only became available in English relatively recently. The only drawback to the books are the titles. The individual novels sound like accounting texts, and putting Transylvania in the title of anything leads to thoughts of a very different kind of count. If you have a longish vacation coming up, or if you want to add a check mark to your bucket list of national literary epics, get online with Amazon now.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Film Review: Road to Utopia (1946)

If you're at all familiar with the Road movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby you'll be happy to know that this one offers more of the same silliness, songs, and comic one-upmanship. It's the fourth of the Road movies, and I wouldn't bother to review it but one thing about it makes it stand out: Utopia must set some kind of record for breaking the fourth wall. The concept of breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary wall between the audience and actors that allows for the audience's suspension of disbelief) had been around before this, and previous Road movies had indulged in it, but Road to Utopia omits the fourth wall almost entirely.

Things begin with Robert Benchley, a star of comedy shorts, introducing the film. He also pops into the corner of the frame in various scenes, commenting on the action and at one point mentioning that what we're seeing is a dissolve. Amongst other fourth wall breakdowns we get an extra in evening dress wandering through a ship's engine room who's asked by Bob and Bing if he's in the movie. He tells them he's just taking a shortcut to Stage Ten. When the music strikes up for one Dorothy Lamour's songs, Bob does a double-take looking for the source of the music, and at one point an Alaskan mountain becomes the Paramount logo. In fact, it would easier to list the moments in the film that don't break the fourth wall.

Road to Utopia is quite enjoyable, not as dated as you might think, and if you're an ironclad film nerd you need to see it to say that you've seen one of the finest examples of cinematic metafiction.

Book Review: The Death Defying Pepper Roux (2009) by Geraldine McCaughrean

Finding this book shelved in the teen section is a bit like having Anna Karenina stuck in with the Harlequin romances, or Metamorphosis kept in sci-fi/fantasy. This isn't just a great teen novel, it's a great novel. In fact, I'd guess that the publisher probably hurt sales by not marketing it as another Life of Pi. It should have been sold as an adult novel with a teen protagonist rather than as a young adult novel.

Pepper Roux is a 14 year-old boy living in a French coastal town. The time period is the early 1900s, but that's only a guess, and the era isn't too terribly important to the story. Pepper's family consists of a mother, father and aunt. Aunt Mireille is a religious fanatic who, on the day of Pepper's birth, claimed that St. Constance appeared to her in a vision and said that Pepper would die on his fourteenth birthday. Pepper's parents are under Mireille's thumb, or at least believe totally in her prophecy. Pepper has grown up certain in the knowledge that he will die on his fourteenth birthday. His whole life has been a preparation for his terminal day. The terrible day arrives and Pepper decides to run away from his fate. What follows is a novel with a structure that's part odyssey, part picaresque, but unlike most picaresque novels the main character is neither a rogue or a rascal, although Pepper does, in all innocence, commit some rascalish acts. It's hard to outline the plot without making the story sound overly whimsical, but Pepper becomes, by turn, a sea captain, a reporter, a meat cutter, a French Legionnaire, a horse wrangler, a telegraph boy, and a husband, all in an effort to disguise himself and thus hide from St. Constance's wrath. Along the way, as is the case with a picaresque novel, Pepper learns much about the human character, both it's nobility and its cruelty.

The general tone of Roux is light and humorous, but there are darker elements, particularly the anguish Pepper goes through as he tries to live with the constant fear of God coming down to snatch him up. The quality of the writing, McCaughrean's ability to craft striking sentences, metaphors and similies is what's most astonishing about this novel. I can't think of another recent novel I've read that shows more agility and  joie de vivre with the English language. Equally good is her skill at alternating dark and whimsical elements. Not getting the balance right can really ruin a novel, but McCaughrean manages it flawlessly. The best example is her handling of Yvette, an abused woman who  Pepper becomes a "husband" to. Yvette is nearly mute but the author makes her very real, and her pain is truly affecting but not so much so that it makes the novel uncomfortably serious.

I actually wouldn't recommend this book to teens unless they're up for a highly unconventional plot structure and an equally odd main character. This novel doesn't fit easily into most teen fiction genres. It has aburd, surreal moments but it's not a fantasy, nor is it about garden variety teen problems. Really, the novel it most closely resembles is Candide or perhaps The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So far, it's the best novel I've read this year.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What Makes a Conservative Conservative?

Republican or Democrat?
Have you ever wondered why someone chooses to vote Republican or Conservative? Or who agrees with the stuff that comes out of the mouths of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter? Is it simply the case that some people weigh the available economic and sociological evidence and, after due consideration, decide that the right wing is the right way to go? Or is there a psychological component to being conservative, especially at the angriest, spittle-flecked end of the right-wing spectrum? It turns out there is a compelling explanation for why people work for and support right-wing political parties and causes. The answer comes in a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) by Norman F. Dixon.

Dr. Dixon served ten years in the British Army from 1940-50 and, among other honours, became a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. His book is an attempt to explain why military organizations often encourage and promote people who are intellectually incompetent or psychologically unfit for the tasks they're charged with. Here's how Dixon frames his thesis:

"How, if they are so lacking in intelligence, do people become senior military commanders? And what is it about military organizations that they should attract, promote and ultimately tolerate those whose performance at the highest levels may bring opprobrium upon the organizations which they represent?"

One of the main reasons for this situation, as Dixon explains, is that the military tends to attract people with low self-esteem, weak egos, and/or severe anxieties about disorder. A military environment gives strength and value to those who see themselves as weak or outsiders, and order and structure to those who fear freedom and disorder. Here's how Dixon explains it:

"...displayed behaviour symptomatic of extremely weak egos. In this light, their behaviour typifies the neurotic paradox in which the individual's need to be loved breeds, on the one hand, an insatiable desire for admiration with avoidance of criticism, and, on the other, an equally devouring urge for power and positions of dominance. The paradox is that those needs inevitably result in behaviour so unrealistic as to earn for the victim the very criticism which he has been striving so hard to avoid."


"Incompetent commanders, it has been suggested, are often those who were attracted to the military because it promised gratification of certain neurotic needs. These include a reduction of anxiety regarding real or imagined lack of virility/potency/masculinity; defences against anal tendencies; boosts for sagging self-esteem; the discovering of loving mother-figures and strong father-figures; power, dominance and public acclaim; the finding of relatively powerless out-groups on to whom the individual can project those aspects of himself  which he finds distasteful; and legitimate outlets for, and adequate control of, his own aggression."

It's at this point that I want to extrapolate from Dixon's book the idea that what he says about the military mind and character applies equally to the right-wing mind. The two are not far apart. In fact, it would be hard to find a party or person of the right that doesn't offer vociferous support for the military or marital virtues. The most extreme form of this is fascism, in which politics becomes blended with militarism. Right-wing parties, whether it's the Republicans in the U.S. or the Conservatives in Canada and the U.K. are uniformly pro-military. These parties are quick, even eager, to undertake or urge military action, and military spending almost inevitably increases when they're in power. Dixon goes on to show that, unsurprisingly, the military also attracts authoritarian personalities:

"In the place of free-ranging, creative and inventive thought, an authoritarian's thinking is confined to rigid formulae and inflexible attitudes. He is intolerant of unusual ideas and unable to cope with contradictions...the authoritarian personality is intolerant of  ambivalence and ambiguity. Just as he cannot harbour negative and positive feeling for the same person but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hated people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues. To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality."

If the above passage was creatively rephrased it could stand as an oath of allegiance for Tea Party members. The desire to reduce politics and the world to the most simplistic terms has been a hallmark of rightist politicians from the local to the international level. George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" was one example, of many, of his attempts to turn the world into an Us versus Them situation. And the current crop of GOP presidential candidates go out of their way to boil all issues down to whether something is American (capitalist, Christian, pro-family, patriotic) or un-American (socialist, godless, liberal, elitist). Sarah Palin's success amongst the rightist demographic is based largely on her simple-mindedness; they can rest assured that she has no complex or contradictory thoughts, and her opinions proceed from a simplistic and unalterable set of values.

It would also seem that politicians who are, to put it scientifically, dumber than a bag of hammers, are invariably working for the right. It's a perfect environment for them; they have self-esteem issues from knowing that they're dunces, and right-wing parties keep things simple for them with policies and slogans a sixth grader can understand. Examples of dim bulb rightists are almost too numerous to mention. But I will: the previously mentioned Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and George W. All of these people have been the butt of late-night TV humour precisely because they are stupid. Finding an equal number of high-profile left-wing politicians this dumb is almost impossible. There are leftists who promote policies or causes that could be described as flawed, futile, inefficient or wrong-headed, but it's difficult to find a lefty who's transparently a slack-jawed yokel in the way that Dubya was. This isn't to say that the left can't attract wingnuts, which it can and does, but those wingnuts usually did very well in school.

I'm not arguing that all rightists are dimwits or psychological misfits. Some could be categorized as members of the patrician class, who feel that it's the right and duty of the upper-classes to control the levers of power. George H. Bush and Nelson Rockefeller would be examples of patricians, and British political history is stuffed with this type of politician. An even larger category of rightists consists of careerists. These rightists have chosen their political path because it seems to be a quick and easy route to the top of the political ladder. Even though Barack Obama isn't a rightist (at least by American definitions), his political life story provides a fine example of a careerist at work, constantly moving onward and upward without taking a strong stand on anything in particular on the way up.

I'd love to toss out more quotes from Dixon's book but then this post would run on forever. The conclusion that can certainly be drawn from it is that one's political preference is often determined by psychological traits. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence is not as dry a read as I may have made it sound. Dixon is a witty writer, and his stories of military ineptitude through the ages are fascinating and often jaw-dropping. I don't think it's still in print, but Amazon has it in Kindle format, and a good-sized library system probably has a copy or two.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Film Review: Almost Human (1974)

Yikes, this is a nasty piece of work. Italian cop films of the 1970s (known in Italy as poliziotteschi) are generally rough around the edges, technically and otherwise, but this one is simply ferocious, as well as having a decidedly right-wing agenda. Henry Silva plays Commissario Grandi, but he's really just playing second fiddle to Tomas Milian's villain. Milian is Giulio Sacchi, a petty criminal in Milan who we first meet as he's taking part in a bank robbery. It turns out Giulio's also a coward and he kills a cop in a moment of panic. The gang he's with is furious with his cowardice and gives him the boot after a quick beating. Giulio then gets the bright idea to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy Milan businessman. He recruits two friends for the job, both of whom barely qualify as petty crooks. The kidnapping goes ahead with much unnecessary loss of life, and ends as badly as it starts.

The character of Giulio is the main attraction of this film. To say that he's a mad dog criminal is overstating his boldness; he's more of a mad weasel villain, albeit one armed with some low cunning. There's nothing that's too slimy for him to do, including killing a child and his own girlfriend. He's also self-pitying and bitterly resentful of the middle and upper classes. In short, the filmmakers have made him the bogeyman lurking under the bourgeois bed. When panicky middle-class Italians were decrying the violence of the so-called "Years of Lead" of the 1970s it was men like Giulio they were most afraid of: the urban poor armed with a gun and with a political chip on their shoulder. Milian gives a very good performance, turning Giulio into a violently criminal version of Ratso Rizzo.

The politics of the film are resolutely right of centre. The original Italian title is Milan Hates: The Police Can't Open Fire. Not very elegant, but it gets the point across. In this film the cops are helpless in the face of even a lamebrain crook like Giulio, and can only bring justice to the streets through vigilante action. The film ends with Commissario Grandi executing Giulio outside a bar and then turning himself in for murder. It's an appropriately bleak ending for a film that starts out nasty and then gets worse. By the standards of Italian cop films Almost Human looks good and has a neatly constructed plot. This isn't a film that's easy to like, but it probably gives an accurate reading on the zeitgeist of Italy of the '70s. In the trailer below the film is called The Death Dealer, but on DVD and most everywhere else it's known as Almost Human.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge (2011) by John Gimlette

There are really only two kinds of travel books. The first is what could be called the travel autobiography, in which the author restricts his writing largely to what he saw, felt and heard during his travels. In these travel books there's usually only the most cursory mention of local history, customs, and flora and fauna. Paul Theroux is the king of this sub-genre. The other kind of travel book is what I'd call cut-and-paste travel writing. We get some firsthand experiences in these books, but we also get a lot of potted history and biography, all of it lifted from other sources. This pads the book out to a publishable length and makes the author look quite the scholar. I hate this kind of book. If I want to read the history of, say, Turkey I'll read a dedicated history of that country. When I read a travel book I want a story about travel: it's dangers, pleasures, frustrations and the subtle changes it makes to our character and the way we see other people. I don't want this:

"Over the centuries the island of Sicily has been occupied, raided or invaded by a host of warrior races and nations, and each has left its mark on Sicily's landscape, culture, architecture, and, yes, even it's cuisine. A very partial list of Sicily's various conquerors would include Phoenicians, Vikings, Franks, Turks, Barbary pirates, Venetians, and the Green Bay Packers."

You see? Until I mentioned the Packers you thought that was an actual piece of cut-and-paste travel writing. That's how easy it is to churn out that kind of travel writing; simply crib some info from Wikipedia, add in an anecdote or two about a bad bus ride or a spell of dysentery and you're good to go.

And so, in a roundabout way, we get to Wild Coast, which turns out to be a very good combination of the two kinds of travel writing. Gimlette takes us on a tour of Guyana, Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana, three neighbours tucked into the northeast corner of South America. He doesn't stint on the historical and biographical elements, which would normally annoy me, but these three countries (actually two countries and one department of France) have taken their respective histories from the bin labelled Bizarre & Bloody. All three places are the end products of slavery, plantation economies, rebellions and bad government, and today are mostly undeveloped and unknown.

One of the more interesting things to come out this book is the fact that racism comes in all colours in this region. The peoples of the Guianas are made up of blacks, Ameridians, East Indians, whites, and some Asians. The various racial groups regard each other with either suspicion or hatred, and within the black community the lighter-skinned look down their noses at the darker-skinned. It's all rather depressing, but it's clear this situation has its roots in the savage plantation economy of the past. The various racial groups were either brutalized or put in competiton with each other, and the toxic results are societies that seethe with resentment and distrust.

Gimlette is a good traveling companion. He doesn't shy away from taking the road less travelled because it's dangerous, dirty and smelly, and his writing style is breezy, rich with metaphors and always entertaining. The only knock against him is that he seems to get along with everyone he encounters. This is very polite of him, but not very believable. I prefer Paul Theroux's thornier personality in this regard. Gimlette's cheeriness aside, this is one of the better travel books I've read in a long time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Review: Death in the Truffle Wood (1978) by Pierre Magnan

Death in the Truffle Wood falls into the category of murder mysteries that don't actually involve a mystery. Yes, there's a murder or two or seven, but the author's emphasis is on quirky characters, most especially the character of Provence. Magnan writes about Provence with an affection and detail that makes his mysteries more like regional novels. We learn about local customs, slang, the character and features of the land, and what the seasons bring.

If Magnan's novels sound like travelogues, they aren't. His mysteries are too weird and nasty for the kind of twee, mystery travelogues some writers produce. In fact, the sheer oddness of Magnan's plots makes up for the lack of a mystery attached to them. In The Messengers of Death Magnan had a murderer who dressed as a Napoleonic soldier, and in Truffle we get a flock of bodies turning up in a crypt. The deceased were all killed by being bled like pigs. The reader can't possibly guess who the killer is, but the quality of the writing makes up for that. In one chapter, for example, Magnan dovetails the activity surrounding a large wedding reception with the discovery of a body in a hotel's freezer; it's a wonderfully written sequence that would be interesting even without the addition of a murder.

I can't say that Truffle rates highly as a straight mystery, but as a novel that captures the flavour and spirit of Provence it's highly successful.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: A Web of Air (2010) by Philip Reeve

The term "young adult fiction" sends shudders down the spines of a great many readers. Even young adults. For a lot of people it means Twilight and its dozens of pulpy clones. For teens it often means issue-driven novels about bullying, drug addiction, sexism, prejudice, and so on, all of them frightfully earnest and educational. Adults like to push books like these on kids with the introductory phrase, "Read this, it'll do you good." It's the literary equivalent of a multivitamin, and just as palatable.

A Web of Air is the second prequel to the Mortal Engines Quartet (consisting of Moral Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain), and you won't like it at all if you insist on your young adult novels containing vampires battling puberty or teens dealing with thorny issues ripped from last week's episode of Oprah. Author Reeve somehow manages to make a wildly entertaining novel without angst or the undead by relying on those old standbys imagination, humour, and a lean, fast, exciting plot. The world of the Mortal Engines Quartet is set in the far future after the obligatory global apocalypse. Civilization is back, roughly speaking, to the Victorian age, although there are a host of mad differences, not the least of which is that cities are now giant (seriously humungous) tracked vehicles that patrol the Earth literally devouring other, smaller, cities. It's called Municipal Darwinism. The prequels began with Fever Crumb and they're meant to describe how Earth's cities went from stationary to mobile.

Web again follows the character of Fever Crumb, a teenage girl from London who's also a member of that city's Engineer class, a monkish group devoted to engineering and science. Fever has fled London with a band of traveling actors and they fetch up at a city by the sea where, I'm guessing, Portugal used to be. The city is Mayda (located inside a volcanic/impact crater) and one of its residents is Arlo Thursday, a young man who is rediscovering the principles of manned flight. Fever assists him in building a crude plane, but there are those who feel planes would pose a grave threat to cities, and they'll do anything to stop Arlo and Fever.

So there you have it: the building blocks for a ripping yarn. But that's only half the fun. Reeve is a superbly imaginative writer, and his talent shouldn't be hidden in the young adult ghetto. His ability to create new worlds and societies (always the litmus test for a top-notch fantasy writer) is outstanding. J.K. Rowling could take lessons from him. In fact, in Fever Crumb Reeve drops in a Harry Potter joke that's as funny as it is cleverly set-up. Humour is another quality that separates Reeve from the pack. When you hear the term post-apocalyptic your first thought isn't, ooh, that'll be a laugh riot. Reeve's storytelling can be very dark and very bloody, but he realizes that these moments work better when there are brief, but alternating, moments of levity.

Web is Reeve at his imaginative best. The acting company Fever travels with (echoes of Nicholas Nickleby) is neatly described, and the city of Mayda is a brilliant creation with its stately homes and pleasure palaces mounted on funiculars traveling up and down the inside of the crater walls. Add in a cult that worships an aquarium ornament from our own time and some talking seagulls, and you have one more in a series of novels that will undoubtedly become a modern classic.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Film Review: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

The most shocking thing about this film, from a 2012 point of view, is that it wears its political heart on its sleeve. I mean, when's the last time you saw a film that made a political statement in a loud voice and did it in an imaginative and entertaining way? Hollywood occasionally lobs liberal spitballs at easy targets like Big Business, but generally speaking mainstream films are politcally emasculated. You know this is true when Fox News has to attack The Muppets when they want to find a film that's anti-capitalist.

Anti-establishment films were practically mainstream in the 1960s and early '70s, especially in Europe, and Investigation is one of the best. The plot is beautifully simple: the head of the homicide squad in Rome murders his mistress and then leaves an abundance of clues pointing directly to himself. He wants to see just how far his position and power protect him from investigation. Along the way the director and scriptwriter Elio Petri neatly dissects the workings of the fascist mind. The nameless head of the homicide squad is a strutting bully to his inferiors, a worm to his superiors, and contemptuous towards ordinary citizens, especially those who are left of centre.

Investigation is far from subtle in its point of view, but the filmmaking is first-rate. The Roman locations and interiors are often from the Brutalist, fascist school of architecture, with the notable exception of the murdered woman's flat, which is a riot of Art Deco design elements. The difference between her apartment and her killer's is startling and intentional. The cinematography is fluid and clever, and Enno Morricone's score is, as usual, weird and wonderful.

The real star of the film is Gian Maria Volonte as the head of the homicide squad. Most film fans will be familiar with him as the villain in the first two Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Volonte never made the transition to Hollywood films (he would have made a great Bond villain), and that's a pity because this film makes it clear that he was one of Italy's finest actors. He and Elio Petri, both members of the Italian Communist Party at various times, collaborated on several films, of which Investigation is the most famous, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It really deserves to be remade, perhaps with Kermit in the Volonte role and Miss Piggy as his mistress.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2010) by Jonathan L. Howard

Terry Pratchett isn't, unfortunately, going to be writing forever, but Jonathan L. Howard may well be his worthy successor. This is the second Johannes Cabal novel I've read (review here) and it's clear he's more than a one-hit wonder. There are fantasy writers who can come up with imaginative, well-plotted stories, and others who can write comedy, but it's really only Pratchett who's been able to combine the two. Jasper Fforde and Robert Rankin have tried to follow in Pratchett's footsteps, but they just feel like very pale imitations. Howard is the real deal. The key to his success is that he creates solid plots that work as an excellent framework for some very good comedy writing.

In his debut appearance Cabal journeys to Hell to strike a deal with Satan for the return of his soul, which he previously sold for assistance in learning the science of necromancy. Satan tells Cabal he can have his soul back if he provides him with 100 souls as compensation. Cabal agrees to the deal, and Satan lends him a supernatural traveling carnival as a means of ensnaring human souls. Cabal has one year in which to acquire 100 signed contracts from people who are willing to give up their souls to Satan in return for earthly power and delights.

The carnival and the deal with the Devil are handy plot devices for Howard to construct a string of supernatural and comedic set pieces around. With a lesser writer this plot structure might have felt clunky, but Howard gives his story a nice flow, smartly alternating scenes that are spooky with ones that are comic. No two stops the carnival makes play out the same way, and it serves one of Howard's strengths as a writer. In Johannes Cabal the Detective the novel ends with an epilogue that also works as an excellent standalone horror short story. In Necromancer Howard's ability as a short story writer comes in very handy as each stop the carnival makes creates an opportunity for a separate story. Not every stage on the journey has a short story attached, but when Howard does turns his hand to one the results are excellent. The standout in this regard is a chapter that's both a neatly constructed story with a sting in its tale, and also a pitch-perfect homage to the Nigel Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans.

Having read two of the Cabal books it's clear that Howard is also very good at writing about the supernatural. In Detective he tried his hand at Lovecraftian horror, and in Necromancer he gives us a more traditional ghost story that comes from the M.R. James school. The humour, both in tone and style, is what's most Pratchett-like about Howard. In fact, Pratchett's Discworld novel Eric seems to have inspired the opening section of Necromancer. The only minor drawback to the Cabal novels is Cabal himself. He's Blackadder in necromancer's clothing, and while that works well for comic purposes, after a certain point his constant, and sometimes cruel, self-centredness becomes a bit tiresome. There needs to be more variety in his character. And here's one last quibble: Howard needs to decide what time period the Cabal stories are set in. This one seems to be set in the 1930s, but the next, Detective, feels like it's set in the Edwardian era.