brendan halpin

books

Maps! Secret rooms! Forbidden knowledge! Libraries! This book checked a lot of boxes for me, and it’s definitely a fun, engaging read. Most of the big reveals were telegraphed pretty early on, so I can’t say anything that happened was terribly surprising, but still, I enjoyed the ride.

But of course I have some quibbles. Read on only if you’ve read the book—there are major spoilers ahead.

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I had a three-hour solo drive to do, so I went to the ol’ Libby app to grab an audio book. Ah, here’s Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song! With narration by a passel of respected celebrities!

I’m not a Dylan cultist, but I do know he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of (American, at least) popular music, and he has written some great songs, so I thought it would be entertaining to hear a well-informed master of the craft give some insights into various songs.

WOW, was I ever wrong.

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So I read Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds over the weekend. It’s a horror novel about cursed records that open a portal to the land of the dead. I’m a music nerd with a soft spot for stories about forbidden texts (or, in this case, records) filled with dangerous arcane knowledge. So this should be right up my alley.

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This is a weird book that I think only a big-name author like McDermid could get published these days. I picked it up because Scotland and also because of my ongoing project to read and watch more mysteries that don’t center police detectives.

(This is partly due to my political problems with police forces in general, but also the police detective has just been done to death, and I can’t stand the cliches of cop fiction anymore. Oh, he’s haunted by that one case? Oh, he drinks too much because he’s seen to much? Oh, he has a daughter and struggles to be a good dad despite the aformentioned drinking and caring too much about the job? Feh. Seen it. And then seen it again. And again.)

But back to 1979. It’s about a plucky young woman who gets stuck writing dumb “women’s page” stories and kind of lucks into becoming an investigative reporter. But here’s what’s weird about the book: the structure. The first two thirds of the book center on the nuts and bolts of putting two big investigative stories together. This is pretty compelling, but it’s neither mysterious nor particularly suspenseful. The last third concerns a murder that is ultimately solved offscreen by the police for which there are only really two suspects.

In short, this is a crime novel that features a lot of crime and almost no mystery or suspense. That’s why I think it’s weird. The protagonist is winning, but I’m not sure I’ll be on board for the next one. Then again, I’m not sure I won’t be. Like I said, It’s weird. I’m still making sense of it.

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Who doesn’t love some gothic goodness? Spooky old houses! Repressed sexuality! Dread!

I recently watched The Haunted Palace with Vincent Price. It’s about how Vincent Price inherits a gigantic castle in Massachusetts(!) and gets possessed by the evil spirit of his ancestor who originally owned the joint!

It’s a fun time, if not as colorful as Masque of the Red Death. Kind of like a Hammer movie with less cleavage. For a fun bonus, it features a couple of guys who were on every TV show in the 1970s! (If you watch the movie, you’ll know them immediately, and look them up on IMDB trying to figure out where you know them from, then realize it could be literally any network TV program from 1970-80!). There’s a pretty big plot hole, but the end is great and it delivers the spooky atmosphere. Disappointing that Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth are mentioned but never make an appearance in the film. Whaddya got against elder gods, Roger Corman?

The Last One Left is a gothic novel by Riley Sager about a home health aide who comes to care for an old woman who may or may not have killed her parents and sister years earlier. It’s a pretty engaging read, but…well, there are many pleasures to be had from reading, and, in the mystery genre, I realize that what I really like is spending time with a cool protagonist while they try to unravel the mystery. I’m less interested in the solution.

Well, this book is all about the solution. The protagonist isn’t much of a character—just kind of an information-gathering machine. The solution is unexpected and brilliantly constructed, but…there are like five big plot twists in the last quarter of the book. After the first one, I was like, “Oh, cool!” by the fifth one I was like, “Really? Another one?” Ultimately the whole rest of the book is setting up the cleverness of the last quarter. If you like a clever solution and multiple plot twists, this is a good pick for you. If you’re like me…well, it’s still a very entertaining book. But be forewarned you may be rolling your eyes at the end.

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I was sucked in by the setup—in 1968, a teenage boy searches for his missing sister. He knows she was kidnapped, but the cops think she’s just another hippie who dropped out, so he has to find her. For the most part, the novel delivers on the premise. What kept me from loving it was that the author seems to be interested in making this a coming-of-age novel in addition to a mystery, so the search for the missing sister unfolds at a pretty slow pace as the protagonist does some teenage boy coming of age stuff that was less interesting to me than the mystery.

REFLECTIONS THAT MAY SPOIL STUFF:

For a book that takes place in the 60’s underground and, for the most part, paints cops as ineffectual at best and malicious at worst, this takes what seems to me a pretty sharp right turn (politically speaking) at the end. Trotting out the right-wing myths of people on acid thinking they can fly (I mean, I guess it might have happened at some point?) and protestors greeting returning Vietnam vets with abuse (particularly weird in this book because how do the protestors know when the bus is coming with the returning soldiers on it?) both make an appearance, and, in the end, the problem can only be solved by men with guns.

Also, it has to be said that there is not a single well-developed female character in the book. We come closest with the mom, but even she is pretty one-note in the end.

So, overall, it was entertaining. Would have been better if it were a hundred pages shorter.

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Compelling, delightfully nasty satire of publishing that pulls off a neat trick rarely seen in satire: reveling in ambiguity. The protagonist is horrible and self-aggrandizing, racist and deluded and also right about some things. The wronged dead writer is wronged and dead and also an awful person, and the people on the outside investigating and commenting are right and also just as awful and self-aggrandizing as anyone else. A deeply cynical, suspenseful, and misanthropic read I'd put up with the best of Patricia Highsmith.

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