Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/05/2015]

Another disappointment was THE COMPLETE BOOK OF WEREWOLVES by Leonard R. N. Ashley (ISBN 978-1-56980-159-8) (not a McFarland book), at least the chapter on cinema. Ashley starts by claiming this is "the most exhaustive annotated werewolf movie list to be found." Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but it has it flaws. Ashley expands the list to include all sorts of transformation films, including some (but not all) Jekyll and Hyde films. The title of both the Val Lewton film and the Paul Schrader film is "Cat People", not "The Cat People". CRY OF THE WEREWOLF has been seen by many living souls (we have two copies on tape, both recorded off television well before the 2001 publication of this book). Ashley must not have looked very hard if he could not find anyone who had seen BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA. He questions whether Santo was always played by the same actor (he was--his real name was Rodolfo Guzman Huerta). He spells Nigel Kneale's name as "Neale". He claims no one has seen CAST A DEADLY SPELL, a nifty little Lovecraftian film that I have frequently recommended. He bizarrely briefly discusses "Mummy" movies. And in his biggest blooper, he says that Lugosi is the mad scientist in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS!

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/10/2004]

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF EGYPTIAN WHODUNNITS edited by Mike Ashley (ISBN 0-786-71065-9) is a collection of mysteries set in ancient (and not so ancient) Egypt. As in Ashley's other anthologies, the stories are all well-written, although these are a little harder to follow because of the alienness of the setting, and the occasionally unwieldy (to modern ears) names. Recommended for mystery fans with an interest in Egypt (obviously).

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/24/2005]

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF NEW JULES VERNE ADVENTURES edited by Mike Ashley (ISBN 0-7867-1495-6) is twenty-one new stories and two reprints based on the writings or life of Jules Verne. They are arranged chronologically by their connection to Verne's life, though Ashley does find reason to spread out the Captain Nemo stories rather than have them consecutive. (One serious flaw of the book is that there is no chronological bibliography of Verne's works. They are mentioned in the introductions, but there's no way to get the "big picture".) For each reader, the stories that will be most appealing or enjoyable will probably be those which are based on the works familiar to that reader. So for me, stories based on "Maitre Zacharius" or THE CASTLE OF THE CARPATHIANS are harder to appreciate than those centering on THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND or JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. I probably should admit that while as a teen I read and re-read THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND until it literally fell apart, my knowledge of most of the other works is more through the movies. (Even for those for which I read the books, I have seen the movies many more times.) As with most Ashley anthologies, there is a good assortment here: some straight sequels, some alternate histories, some works which include other authors' creations as well (to say which ones would be to spoil some of the stories), and some which are a bit of this and a bit of that. Recommended, but obviously more for people familiar with Verne's work.

To order The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures from, click here.

ROYAL WHODUNNITS edited by Mike Ashley:
THOU SHALT NOT KILL edited by Cynthia Manson:
THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN by G. K. Chesterton with annotations by Martin Gardner:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2003]

I have been doing a lot of "popcorn" reading--short mystery stories that can fill in short periods. This included Mike Ashley's anthology ROYAL WHODUNNITS, as well as Cynthia Manson's anthology THOU SHALT NOT KILL, and THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN by G. K. Chesterton with annotations by Martin Gardner.

The first is one of a series of mammoth mystery anthologies by Ashley; in fact, many are called "Mammoth" (e.g., THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF HISTORICAL DETECTIVES). He has also done science fiction and fantasy anthologies (e.g., THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF COMIC FANTASY) as well as other categories, and may be the British Martin H. Greenberg. Though the forward of this book, by Paul C. Doherty, talks only about English kings (and queens), the book also include Scottish, Bohemian, Italian, and Russian royalty as well in its twenty-five stories. (I find it interesting that Morgan Llywelyn, best known for her many books about Ireland, wrote instead about Anatasia of Russia.) I got started on Ashley's theme anthologies (for so they are, with all the stories written especially for this volume) with his two on Shakespearean mysteries. I have since branched out, and find them all pretty good for what they are--basically puzzle stories with an occasional literary piece thrown in. (I miss the sort of science fiction puzzle story one used to see fifty years ago or so.)

Cynthia Manson's THOU SHALT NOT KILL has only a dozen stories, centering on clerical sleuths.

And reading the Chesterton story in THOU SHALT NOT KILL led me to re-read THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN. I know these have their (dare I say) devout followers, but I find them far less engaging than the Holmes canon, or even the better pastiches (such as Solar Pons). In part this is because they are a very different style, but also because they seem to have underlying flaws. Gardner points some of these out in his all-too-sparse annotations. He says he is attempting to do with his annotations what Baring-Gould did for Holmes, but he fails. Most of the annotations are to give explanations of British usages that are clear from context, and little to examine other details. He does, however, point out the major logic errors in some of the stories' plots. And I find Father Brown annoying in his speech. (I also don't agree with his theology, but I don't think that is why I have a problem with the stories--I think A CASE OF CONSCIENCE a fine book.)

To order Royal Whodunnits from, click here.
To order Thou Shalt Not Kill from, click here.
To order The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown from, click here.

SHAKESPEAREAN WHODUNNITS edited by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf, ISBN 0-7867-0482-9, 1997, 422pp, trade paperback):

This anthology of twenty-five stories should appeal to most Shakespeare lovers. That means it will probably still have fewer sales than, say, Psychic Cat Detectives, but one can't have everything.

Let's start with what isn't covered. No one deduces who the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets was. And no one deduces who wrote Shakespeare's plays (other than that Shakespeare wrote them). The stories fall into two major and one minor categories. The minor category (two stories) includes mysteries set in the real world of Shakespeare and centering around the writing of the plays. The two major categories are stories which attempt to unravel a mystery within a play (e.g., how did Mamillius really die in "The Winter's Tale"?) and stories which follow the action of a play (e.g., what happened to the people left alive at the end of "King Lear"?).

To the purist, of course, the former is more satisfying. It takes only what Shakespeare has given us and derives its story from that. It is like the "deductive puzzle" mystery in that we have all the information necessary; while additional details are revealed in the story, the basic facts are already established.

The latter is a bit dicier. The author can add all sorts of characters and events to the existing story. But he or she must tread carefully to avoid having a completely unrelated mystery that just happens to have Marc Anthony as the detective who solves it. (I made this one up. No one does anything this blatant.)

Ashley organizes the stories as follows: those based on the histories, in event-chronological order, then the rest of the stories based on plays, in historical order based on the plays' settings (though I don't agree with his placement of "King Lear" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), and finally the stories based in Shakespeare's real world. The problem with this from a reading perspective is that there's a fair amount of heavy history all in a lump at the beginning. It also violates standard anthology placement: strongest first, second strongest last. At the beginning of each story, he briefly recounts the events of the play so that those of us who are a bit rusty on what exactly happened in "Coriolanus" (for example) are brought up to speed. (I suppose I should note that I have actually read all the plays as part of my reading plan a couple of years ago. That doesn't mean I remember them all perfectly.)

And the stories themselves? Well, I'll list them all, with the plays upon which they are based, but comment only to the extent that seems necessary.

King John: "When the Dead Rise Up" by John T. Aquino: Not an auspicious start for the anthology, in that the play is not one of the most familiar. To some extent it creates its own mystery.

Richard II: "The Death of Kings" by Margaret Frazer: This actually looks at what might be considered a real mystery in the play, which makes it one of the more interesting stories to me. (The fact that "Richard II" is one of my favorite plays might have something to do with this.) It also seems inspired by Agatha Christie, but I won't say more than that.

Henry IV: "A Villainous Company" by Susanna Gregory.

Henry V: "The Death of Falstaff" by Darrell Schweitzer: A well-written story, with a disappointing resolution.

Henry VI: "A Serious Matter" by Derek Wilson: A bit of an attempt to create a mystery where none existed before, with a somewhat predictable ending.

Richard III: "A Shadow That Dies" by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer: Well, it's not very hard to pick a mystery regarding Richard III. Reed and Mayer decided to take a psychological approach rather than a forensic one; I think I prefer Josephine Tey.

Coriolanus: "Mother of Rome" by Molly Brown: An interesting interpretation of Coriolanus's death. One of the better stories in the book.

Timon of Athens: "Buried Fortune" by Peter T. Garratt: Garratt borrows an idea from "Hamlet" as well in this mystery.

Julius Caesar: "Cinna the Poet" by Tom Holt: A straight mystery based on the rioting following Caesar's assassination. While there is nothing in it that requires it be connected with those events, it works well and feels right.

Cymbeline: "Imogen" by Paul Barnett: As with many stories, this one looks at the events in the play and asks whether Shakespeare was accurate. While that's a valid approach--and Barnett writes a very atmospheric story--the problem is that this approach occurs too often in this volume.

King Lear: "Serpent's Tooth" by Martin Edwards: Another look at "what really happened" in the play in question, this one taking place a generation later, which adds a completely new set of people to keep track of.

Macbeth: "Toil and Trouble" by Edward D. Hoch: It's not surprising that the best stories in the anthology are by the best-known authors. Hoch tells the story from the perspective of the three witches in a way that one might expect from a woman author. Or it is just that men rarely write female main characters? In any case, he does an excellent job.

Hamlet: "A Sea of Troubles" by Steve Lockley.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream: "A Midsummer Eclipse" by Stephen Baxter: Another story which really has nothing to do with the play it is linked to. Somehow it doesn't work as well as "Cinna the Poet"--maybe it's the inclusion of fantasy characters in what is basically a mundane mystery.

Much Ado About Nothing: "Much Ado About Something" by Susan B. Kelly: Adds more levels to the impersonations in the play, with another predictable ending.

The Winter's Tale: "Who Killed Mamillius?" by Amy Myers: This story is one of those that finds (or creates) a mystery in the original play. Whether it succeeds depends in large part on whether you find the claim of mystery convincing.

Twelfth Night: "This Is Illyria, Lady" by Kim Newman: Another one of the gems. It's short, and deals more with the general tone and setting of the play than any specific murder or robbery.

Romeo and Juliet: "Star-Crossed" by Patricia A. McKillip: As the introduction says, if Friar Lawrence arrived at the tomb after everyone was dead, how did he know what happened?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "The Banished Men" by Keith Taylor: Sets up a mystery during Valentine's time among the bandits.

The Taming of the Shrew: "The Shrewd Taming of Lord Thomas" by Mary Monica Pulver: Focuses on the framing story of Shakespeare's play. Or rather, the framing half-story, since after starting off with the conceit of having a sleeping beggar dressed as the lord of the manor and treated as such when he wakes up, no existing versions of the play have anything at the end to wrap up what happens.

Othello: "Not Wisely, But Too Well" by Louise Cooper: More about the motivation behind what happened in the play, but no additional mystery per se.

As You Like It: "Murder As You Like It" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre: Well, it certainly a different take on the impersonations going on, with a distinctly down-to-earth approach, and a lot of understated word play. Not for all tastes, I suspect.

The Merchant of Venice: "The House of Rimmon" by Cherith Baldry: Well, I never thought the ending of The Merchant of Venice a particularly happy one, and Baldry seems to agree, with a story that helps put the original in perspective.

"An Ensuing Evil" by Peter Tremayne: A mystery set in the world of Shakespeare's theater.

"The Collaborator" by Rosemary Aitkin": I can't tell if Aitkin is seriously proposing what the main character discovers in Shakespeare's plays, or parodying literary criticism, or what. As a result, this formed an unsatisfying end to the volume, though its content made it a logical conclusion.

So the best ones (in my opinion) are "The Death of Kings" by Margaret Frazer, "Mother of Rome" by Molly Brown, "Cinna the Poet" by Tom Holt, "Toil and Trouble" by Edward D. Hoch, and "This Is Illyria, Lady" by Kim Newman, and "The House of Rimmon" by Cherith Baldry. But even the others are interesting, even if only for their settings. If you've read this far, you're a Shakespeare fan, so I feel safe in strongly recommending this. As Ashley notes in his introduction, not all the plays are covered, so there's still material for a companion volume if this one is successful.

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