Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Life’s been busy lately, but here are some thoughts on a couple of books I’ve read.

Cause for Alarm, which I liberally quoted in a couple of postings back, is a 1938 pre-World War II spy novel written by one of this noble genre’s founding giants, an intelligent, patriotic Englishman of the old school, Eric Ambler.

An old-school novel it is, indeed, and that’s reason enough for some of you to track it down. The tale tells the adventures of an ordinary, young, struggling engineer, Nicholas Marlow, whose new job as European rep for an English machine tool company takes him to pointedly unglamorous Milan, Italy. Not the glorious romantic Leonardo Italy, but the sinister industrial Italy of fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Almost upon Marlow’s arrival in this pool of sinister shadows, events take a strange turn as he discovers that he’s succeeding a previous rep who met with one of those non-accidental “nasty accidents.” Marlow becomes an unwilling pawn in a sinister espionage match between the fey and sinister General Vargas, who’s conniving to steal weapons manufacturing secrets from the British, and a thoroughly Americanized Russian agent names Zaleshoff.

This isn’t only a pre-James Bond novel, it’s a pre-everything spy novel. Nicholas Marlow is an ordinary bloke trapped in extraordinary circumstances, the kind of character that seems to have vanished from today’s ultra-professionalized, high-tech genre novels: a sad evolution, now that I think on it. Furthermore, the Oprah-izing of today’s professional superheroes with emotional problems doesn’t make them any easier to identify with, in my lights (really, what exactly is recognizably human about the inhuman Matthew Bourne)? Often these stabs at humanizing feels more like dabbed-on psychobabble. (OK, I’m anti-touchy-feely. Oprah will never give me a car, or let me into her book club, either). The only authors working now I know of who seem to avoid this problem are John LeCarré and Alan Furst, who sets his spy novels in . . . World War II.

The violence in
Cause for Alarm is infrequent and handled in low-key, non-bloody fashion. Amber’s more interested in his smoggy gray atmosphere, elegant, careful story line and plot twists, Marlow’s increasingly frantic state of mind and, most significantly, the larger political struggle into which the poor man is drawn.

Ambler was a British socialist of deep patriotic stripe. Like so many western liberals back in the day, he took the naïve view of Stalin’s Soviet Union, though, as I’ve said, his take on fascism still rings true. (In his defense, I doubt if any of us alive now could say we’d have been the wiser back then; sure as hell, Roosevelt and Churchill weren’t and they otherwise knew what they were doing, too.) His heroes don’t, thank God, get in touch with their feelings, but they achieve a wider moral awareness by the end. As Mr. Marlow learns, business is never simply and innocently business, but forever tied to ideas of politics, power and justice.

Speaking of heroes getting in touch with their feelings, once I returned
Cause for Alarm to its spot on the shelf, I jumped into the time machine that is my bookcase and powered seventy years into the future—into 2007 actually—and landed in the comic book world of Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, a sometimes funny romp into the troubled psyches of comic book super heroes and super villains, especially one who goes by the swell moniker of Dr. Impossible.

I discovered this one when the author, also a noted game designer, gave a hilarious reading at one of the Litquake events at the estimable Borderlands Books on Valencia in San Francisco back in October. Besides the humor and wit, I couldn’t resist the comic-book colored dust jacket design.

Still, I felt trepidation. I worried that, like a lot of books (including my own), this would turn out to be a flashy and funny, but somewhat empty camp exercise.

Sad to say, I might be right.

By transplanting comic-book characters from the vivid universe where they live into the plain black and white code system of the novel, Austin Grossman hopes to take readers inside their hearts, minds and souls. The trouble is, once we’re there, it’s sometimes funny, but, like Quentin Tarantino movies,
not terribly interesting, .

The antagonist is the perfectly brilliant, fantastically evil Dr. Impossible, who gets most of the good lines, of course, as the Devil is wont to get. The bad doctor turns out to have a past as a rejected college physics geek expunged from respectable scientific society when his most-brilliant experiment ever goes fatally awry. This embittered outcast joins the colorful secret underground of comic-book super villains in their relentless, and relentlessly frustrated, plots to take over the world and force it do their evil bidding! Zounds!

The super heroes meanwhile, are a medically depressed, fractious lot of social misfits themselves. Their story is narrated by the insecure, self-conscious half-cyborg Femme Fatale. Grossman’s notion that being a super-anything is to spend life a sad neurotic outcast from normal human society is clever and valid (and perhaps an idea that plays better in the first
Spider-Man movie). He’s a heckuva funny writer, but unfortunately, this book never finds a compelling story, nor does it create as rich and believable a world for its characters to do battle in as the one we see inked in classic comics, both old and new. This is one old-style tale that, to me, would work better as a new-style graphic novel.