Themes: / Fantasy / Undead / Kings / Mistaken Identity /
Marius dos Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.
And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
I made the mistake of going into this book with too high expectations. It was a comedy fantasy with a criminal protagonist and was narrated by Michael Page. I was hoping for another The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s not. Despite this, I was nearly won over.
This is the tale of the merchant’s son turned-bad Marius. He is a master at assorted cons and gambling. Yet he has nothing to show for his talents. He has picked up, almost by accident and certainly against his better judgement, a dimwit of an apprentice. Surprisingly death seems to bring out the best in Gerd and he is a much more intelligent character after he dies. Whether this is intended I’m not sure, as he is only criminally dim until the point when he dies.
The middle of this book takes Marius on tour of assorted locales, including the delightfully and accurately named Dog Crap Archipelago, before closing in on the target of his quest. As entertaining as parts of this journey were, it felt almost random and aimless. I’m still not sure what they contributed to the whole of the story to justify their presence. Marius is no-doubt meant to grow from these encounters, but it was done far too subtly for me to follow.
The story has a stronger finish as Marius and Gerd embark on a caper to steal a corpse and then escape.
A good concept with great wordsmithing. Sadly the character growth and sense of the world were only given lip service. The plotting and resolution came together more because that was how the story was to finish than that it was where the story actually led. In short, this book needed a few more times through with an editor to tighten up a pretty, but weak story.
Michael Page is a delight to listen to. His characterisation is rich and plummy.
Posted by Paul [W] Campbell
Here’s the first review by a long time internet ally, fellow proponent of all things Donald E. Westlake, and soon a guest on The SFFaudio Podcast.
By Ed McBain; Read by Michael Prichard
8 Cassettes – Approx. 8 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Books On Tape
Themes: / Crime / New York / Humor / Murder / Mistaken Identity /
Michael Barnes is in New York on business. He has a couple of hours to kill before his plane leaves. It’s Christmas Eve. When he stops for a drink, he finds a young woman very attracted to him. He swells with masculine pride. But soon Michael’s wallet and then his rented car are stolen – only to resurface on the other side of town in unexpected company – a corpse!
There’s nothing quite like picking up a book (metaphorically) you’ve never heard of and know nothing about and discovering that you’ve stumbled across a classic. This was my experience with Ed McBain’s Downtown.
A classic? Strong words, there, Trent. But I mean it. I just recently read Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, which I loved and which is considered the classic comic crime novel. Downtown is nearly if not just as good (although very different).
Our protagonist is Michael Barnes, an orange-grower from Florida who is about to fly out of New York City on Christmas Eve, after a meeting with his advertising agency, when he gets hustled by a gorgeous woman and her fake police detective accomplice in an airport bar. His drivers license, credit cards, and money now gone, he goes downtown to report the crime to the police, getting his rental car stolen along the way. From there, he ends up on the lam accused of murder, running hither and thither meeting all sorts of strange people and ending up in all sorts of strange situations as he tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.
Tempering this craziness is the fact that Michael Barnes has some serious emotional baggage–he’s a cuckold and bitter about it, has issues with his mother, and was scarred by his combat experience in Vietnam (although he’s not an offensive psycho stereotype, thank God). These emotional scars are played upon masterfully by McBain, for dark humor or for grounding moments of pathos as appropriate, and they give Downtown a humanity that makes the whole farce unexpectedly powerful.
I don’t know why Downtown isn’t better known. Maybe Ed McBain just pumped out so many books that lots of his stuff falls through the cracks while readers get stuck trying to read the 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope novels in order. Maybe it’s because nobody made a movie out of it (although see below). Maybe, and this is a strong possibility, the style of humor doesn’t appeal to a broad enough audience.
Whatever the reason, Downtown deserves much better than obscurity. It’s clever, witty, touching, and terrific.
That’s the book review portion of this write-up, but I don’t want to end without bringing up something that struck me while listening to Downtown.
With a movie director figuring prominently in the plot, Downtown is loaded with film references (including to Evan Hunter/Ed McBain films The Birds and Fuzz). A movie not mentioned is one that Downtown bears a great resemblance to–Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.
If you’re not familiar with this film (too few people are), After Hours is a comedy about a fairly-average Joe who meets all sorts of strange people and ends up in all sorts of strange situations in late-night Manhattan. Oh, and he also gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
The setting and several story elements in After Hours are very similar to Downtown. The style of humor (dry with repetitive absurdity) also bears a marked resemblance. Both even feature prominent references to The Wizard Of Oz.
Coincidence? Homage? Rip-off (I doubt that)? Subconscious borrowing? We’ll likely never know. But if you liked After Hours, you’ll probably like Downtown, and vice versa. And if you’re not familiar with either, do yourself a favor and check them both out.
I listened to the 1992 edition of Downtown from Books on Tape, read by Michael Prichard. When I started the book, I thought his reading was stiff, but I quickly recognized that he had done a great job capturing the somewhat-uptight, neurotic lead character. Mr. Prichard is also quite skilled in creating voices to distinguish the many other characters without resorting to ridiculous exaggerations or outrageous accents (in a book with a lot of ethnic characters, no less). Downtown is written in a highly rhythmic style, with lots of short sentences and lots of repetition. Prichard grasps this and captures the novel’s rhythms superbly. It’s a really good reading.
There are two other editions of Downtown (both available at Audible.com), an abridged version from Phoenix Books read by Stephen Macht and an unabridged version from Brilliance Audio read by David Regal. For the sake of comparison, I listened to the available samples of both.
Downtown is a lousy candidate for abridgment, but even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t care for Stephen Macht’s reading, which is overdramatic.
David Regal’s reading is considerably better. His interpretation is quite different from Michael Prichard’s, making Michael Barnes sound like a traveling salesman. I would have to hear more to have a real sense of how well this works but I heard enough that I think I can judge it a solid effort. Go with the Books on Tape edition if you can find it, but if you can’t, Regal’s version will likely do as a substitute.
Posted by Trent Reynolds
This 100 year old story of a very Canadian bank heist, authored by Canada’s greatest literary humorist, could encapsulate a good part of that elusive Canadian culture we say were always looking for.
My Financial Career by Stephen Leacock
When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me.
The moment I cross the threshold of a bank and attempt to transact business there, I become an irresponsible idiot.
I knew this beforehand, but my salary had been raised to fifty dollars a month, and I felt that the bank was the only place for it.
So I shambled in and looked timidly round at the clerks. I had an idea that a person about to open an account must needs consult the manager.
I went up to a wicket marked “Accountant.” The accountant was a tall, cool devil. The very sight of him rattled me. My voice was sepulchral.
“Can I see the manager?” I said, and added solemnly, “alone.” I don’t know why I said “alone.”
“Certainly,” said the accountant, and fetched him.
The manager was a grave, calm man. I held my fifty-six dollars clutched in a crumpled ball in my pocket.
“Are you the manager?” I said. God knows I didn’t doubt it.
“Yes,” he said.
“Can I see you,” I asked, “alone?” I didn’t want to say “alone” again, but without it the thing seemed self-evident.
The manager looked at me in some alarm. He felt that I had an awful secret to reveal.
“Come in here,” he said, and led the way to a private room. He turned the key in the lock.
“We are safe from interruption here,” he said; “sit down.”
We both sat down and looked at each other. I found no voice to speak.
“You are one of Pinkerton’s men, I presume,” he said.
He had gathered from my mysterious manner that I was a detective. I knew what he was thinking, and it made me worse.
“No, not from Pinkerton’s,” I said, seeming to imply that I came from a rival agency.
“To tell the truth,” I went on, as if I had been prompted to lie about it, “I am not a detective at all. I have come to open an account. I intend to keep all my money in this bank.”
The manager looked relieved, but still serious; he concluded now that I was a son of Baron Rothschild or a young Gould.
“A large account, I suppose,” he said.
“Fairly large,” I whispered. “I propose to deposit fifty-six dollars now and fifty dollars a month regularly.”
The manager got up and opened the door. He called to the accountant.
“Mr. Montgomery,” he said unkindly loud, “this gentleman is opening an account. He will deposit fifty-six dollars. Good morning.”
A big iron door stood open at the side of the room.
“Good morning,” I said, and stepped into the safe.
“Come out,” said the manager coldly, and showed me the other way.
I went up to the accountant’s wicket and poked the ball of money at him with a quick, convulsive movement, as if I were doing a conjuring trick.
My face was ghastly pale.
“Here,” I said, “deposit it.” The tone of the words seemed to mean, “Let us do this painful thing while the fit is on us.”
He took the money and gave it to another clerk.
He made me write the sum on a slip and sign my name in a book. I no longer knew what I was doing. The bank swam before my eyes.
“Is it deposited?” I asked in a hollow, vibrating voice.
“It is,” said the accountant.
“Then I want to draw a cheque.”
My idea was to draw out six dollars of it for present use. Someone gave me a cheque book through a wicket and someone else began telling me how to write it out. The people in the bank had the impression that I was an invalid millionaire. I wrote something on the cheque and thrust it in at the clerk. He looked at it.
“What! are you drawing it all out again?” he asked in surprise. Then I realized that I had written fifty-six instead of six. I was too far gone to reason now. I had a feeling that it was impossible to explain the thing. All the clerks had stopped writing to look at me. Reckless with misery, I made a plunge.
“Yes, the whole thing.”
“You withdraw your money from the bank?”
“Every cent of it.”
“Are you not going to deposit any more?” said the clerk, astonished.
An idiot hope struck me that they might think something had insulted me while I was writing the cheque, and that I had changed my mind. I made a wretched attempt to look like a man with a fearfully quick temper.
The clerk prepared to pay the money.
“How will you have it?” he said.
“How will you have it?”
“Oh”—I caught his meaning and answered without even trying to think—”in fifties.”
He gave me a fifty-dollar bill.
“And the six?” he asked dryly.
“In sixes,” I said.
He gave it me and I rushed out.
As the big door swung behind me I caught the echo of a roar of laughter that went up to the ceiling of the bank. Since then I bank no more. I keep my money in cash in my trousers pocket and my savings in silver dollars in a sock.
And here is the 1962 National Film Board adaptation:
Posted by Jesse Willis