Wrong Way Down
So as you’ve probably guessed by now, this column -- like many things in my increasingly unmanageable life -- doesn’t always turn out the way I had planned.
Unless I’m on a particular writer (or I’m neck-deep in interviews, as is the case right at the moment with a bunch of crime writers you’ll be hearing about at a later date), I usually do my best to come up with a coherent theme. Although I think the other Bookslut contributors, most notably Colleen Mondor, more consistently come up with a much more cohesive sense of their subject matters, I do try. You’ll have to trust me on that one.
But this was one of those months where I started out thinking about one place and ended up in half a dozen. I wanted to write about Africa, or at least I thought I did, since it kept coming up in my peripheral vision.
I’m not really one for reality shows, but a few years I stumbled across one called Long Way Round, starring Obi-Wan himself, Ewan McGregor, as well as his mate Charley Boorman. Charley, by the way, happens to be the son of the legendary film director John Boorman, who so memorably gave us the first Richard Stark adaptation Point Break and John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, among others (see, there’s always a mystery liaison in there somewhere). Anyway, after riding their killer BMW all-terrain motorcycles from London to New York -- going east, mind you -- in Long Way Round, they decided last year that they would ride from John O’ Groats in Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, and call the new trip Long Way Down. I just got the multi-region-region DVD box set, finally, and the show is fantastic watched beginning to end. Not only are Ewan and Charley very personable -- my friend Jen, to whom I recently loaned the shows, finds the boys’ frequent nudity quite inspirational while her husband Mike can’t stop shouting “Road of Bones!” in a terrible Scottish accent -- but the absolute splendor of off-road Africa is stunning beyond words.
Thus inspired, I thought I’d launch myself into mysteries set in Africa. This will be great, I thought. The country has a hugely rich literary heritage and so surely I’d find a treasure trove of books that I haven’t read. I’ll go dig up Robert Wilson’s Instruments of Darkness, and those Karin McQuillan novels from the '90s starring an African safari guide, and maybe take another pass at Heart of Darkness. I figured there would be a wealth of material, but as usual, I got distracted.
I recalled that the last brush I had with African mysteries was in meeting with Alexander McCall Smith, raised in southern Africa, whose No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series starring Mma Precious Ramotswe has launched a thousand book clubs and gotten a whole new swath of readers interested in the continent. I asked him at the time what he thought people should know about the place.
“I suppose I would want people to know that sub-Saharan African countries are not just the problematic places that the media presents,” he said. “The media is reporting on things that actually do happen, real suffering and real disaster. What I would say is that is fine and it is part of the picture. But, the other side of the picture is one of really fine people in those countries with a good culture behind them. These are cultures which have very attractive features. Botswana, for example, is of course is a very well run country and does not have the profound economic or political problems that you find in many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, it does have a major problem with HIV/AIDS, unfortunately. All that I’m saying is that there is another side. The full picture of Africa includes very decent people living very good lives with great generosity of spirit.”
Well, that’s no good. In my head I imagined great, visceral stories of adventure, jeeps loaded with .50-caliber machine guns bounding over grassy plains, zebras scattering to the winds, and dead-eyed mercenaries engaged in gunrunning illicit arms to evil warlords. Actually, come to think of it, I could probably get some of that sort of thing from novelist Phillip Caputo’s 1980 novel Horn of Africa, one of the more neglected books in his gallery of war stories. The story is one of those absurd disasters that only Americans can think up, consisting of a plan to send a three-man team of mercenaries to train, equip and unleash a rebel tribe into the conflicts of eastern Africa.
Of course, after the gravity of Caputo’s more serious literary writing, I thought perhaps I should sample something a little closer to the spirit of adventure that I’d been seeking. During one of my bi-weekly trips to the library -- you’d think I’d be satisfied with all the advance reader copies that flood this office but in reality, I’m a boon to circulation statistics wherever I go -- I stumbled across a copy of one of the first modern African adventure novels: King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard, starring his unbeatable adventurer Allan Quatermain.
Like most people, I’ve always been aware of the character, primarily because of his subsequent appearances in books like Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the various ghastly film adaptations in which the character appears, as well as its inspiration to blokes like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. To revisit the book was actually something of a fascinating exercise. Once I got past the dated language and the startling colonial British worldview, the pacing of the book is brisk and hits its marks as surely as any of the more modern-day adventures that follow it, from The Lost World to Indiana Jones. There’s also a surprising amount of tension, as exemplified by this passage, in which the intrepid adventurers lay trapped within a remote mountain.
Putting aside the terrifying thought of our impeding doom -- for the bravest man on earth might well quail from such a fate as awaited us, and I never had any great pretensions to be brave -- the silence itself was too great to allow of it. Reader, you may have lain awake at night and thought the silence oppressive, but I say with confidence that you can have no idea what a vivid tangible thing perfect silence really is. On the surface of the earth there is always some sound or motion, and though it may in itself be imperceptible, yet does it deaden the sharp edge of absolute silence. But here there was none. We were buried in the bowels of a huge snow-clad peak. Thousands of feet above us the fresh air rushed over the white snow, but no sound of it reached us. We were separated by a long tunnel and five feet of rock even from the awful chamber of the dead; and the dead make no noise. The crashing of all the artillery of earth and heaven could not have come to our ears in our living tomb. We were cut off from all echoes of the world -- we were as already dead.
That’s pretty much where I lost the thread. By the time I finished King Solomon’s Mines, I was absolutely craving a flat-out, kick-ass, proper adventure novel, even if it strayed from the theme I was trying by now to hold together with spit and garroting wire. It is great, it’s true, to be able to filter through the hundreds of new books still being fired from the dying ashes of the publishing house forges, but sometimes I need to revisit an old favorite. So let’s go to Asia for a bit.
So I’ll recommend a title for you, but you’re going to have to go dig to find a copy because it’s tragically out of print. Run to your biggest paperback used book store, follow your finger through the B’s to Stephen Becker, and buy every copy of The Chinese Bandit.
If you’ve ever read the book, even its first line will ring in your memory, as it does mine.
That summer, they hanged a fat man at the Western Gate as a warning and example to all. In those days, the penalty for most crimes was death. They swung him from a fresh gallows on the city wall, where twelve horsemen in silks could ride abreast, and once had. For sure he deserved it. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
The book is the first in Becker’s once-popular and currently hard-to-find Far East Trilogy, which also includes The Last Mandarin and The Blue-Eyed Shan, but The Chinese Bandit remains among the late author’s finest work. Its hero is Jake Dodds, a thirty-one-year-old Marine sergeant and war hero now stationed in Peking in the year 1947. The most fascinating thing about the character is that in a time when China is almost entirely closed off from the West, Jake has gone native, having developed a fluency in the language and a taste for the local pleasures. It looks like Jake is headed for a long stretch in Leavenworth after he smacks around a superior officer in a bar brawl, but he’s smuggled out of the city by his compadre Kao, the fat man who comes to the bad end referenced above. Dodds winds up joining a caravan smuggling gold and other goods across the steppes of Mongolia. There are some antiquated notions in the book, not to mention a series of imaginative profanities that would curdle milk, but the story holds up surprisingly well considering it was first published in 1975, and is well worth seeking out.
After I finished The Chinese Bandit and idly searched for more information on Becker to refresh my memory of his biography, I was surprised to see that Gary Lovisi (founder of Gryphon Books) had dug up the fact that Becker wrote a pulp fiction novel, Shanghai Incident, published by that classic line, Gold Medal, in 1955. Of course, that led me off in another direction entirely.
I know that pulp fiction, and especially pulp adventure novels, are unfairly maligned, but I still think the world needs them. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Our buddies at Hard Case Crime have a plan (they always have a plan) and if he gets his way, founder Charles Ardai and his cohorts in scribbling intend to make The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt as famous as Indiana Jones or Doc Savage. To get a taste of the two-fisted adventure that awaits, you go visit www.huntforadventure.com and I’ll get Charles on the horn to see just what the hell he’s up to. As you can see, we’re obviously both barking up the same tree.
“I love crime fiction -- but it's not the only type of fiction I love, nor even the only type of pulp fiction,” Ardai explains. “I grew up reading everything from science fiction and fantasy to war stories and westerns and loved them all. One of the categories I loved most was adventure fiction, the sort that inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to create Indiana Jones. We're talking H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling and Sax Rohmer and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Doc Savage and The Avenger, the real swashbuckling stuff with pistols and swords and men leaping from parapets onto horses below or duking it out in an underground diamond mine. This is the stuff that makes your heart beat faster as you read it, the sort of thing that sets a match to the dry tinder of your imagination. And no one's publishing it these days. You do get the occasional military-styled ‘men's adventure’ book, all muscles and machine guns and ticking digital readouts and meth labs in the jungle -- but that's not high adventure, that's not leather boots and shirts open to here and swinging across a chasm on a rope. It’s the same thing with all the Da Vinci clones, with their crypto-mystical huggermugger and tortured Vatican conspiracies. It's not fun, not in the way a great adventure story is. I'm looking for a yarn that wakes up the 12-year-old boy inside me, one that leaves me with the same sort of enormous grin on my face I had that day in 1981 when I walked out of a theater showing Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
To that end, Ardai and his crew have dreamed up Gabriel Hunt, who will star in a series of novels that will take the elusive adventurer to exotic locales like Borneo, Guatemala, Turkey, Egypt, Antarctica, and the Kalahari Desert. The books will be written by different writers, but all with the same visceral sense of adventure that Ardai is shooting for in his own entry, the second in the series. The first title, due in 2009, has been written by cult classicist James Reasoner, the author of more than 200 novels including the crime classic Texas Wind. Stoker Award nominee Nick Kaufmann takes a crack at the third novel, while Hard Case Crime convicts Christa Faust (Money Shot) and David J. Schow (Gun Work) scribe the follow-ups. “Batting clean up,” as Ardai tells me, will be popular novelist Raymond Benson, who has his own superlative way with series characters, having taken the most popular post-Fleming run at James Bond in six novels and a multitude of other media.
So what exactly are we looking at here, anyway? Ardai, who has created a bible for the series that ensures its flavor will remain intact throughout the line, lends a few hints about what sort of fellow we can expect to find in the series.
“Gabriel Hunt is a modern-day adventure hero who goes all over the world in pursuit of lost artifacts and buried treasure, getting himself into more trouble than any one man should be able to survive and somehow, just barely, getting himself out again,” Ardai says. “It's not a parody or a spoof -- like Hard Case Crime, it's done with a completely straight face. Gabriel takes his situation completely seriously, as you would, too, if someone were coming after you with a big knife or a blowgun full of poisoned darts. But that doesn't mean we can't have fun reading about it, and writing it. I think I've had more fun coming up with adventures for Gabriel Hunt than with any other project I've ever undertaken.”
At this point, I’m so lost I’m not even sure where I started, but at least if you pick up the books we’ve touched on, at least there will be some fun to be had. It’s a brand new year, and there are new places to go, and there’s nothing wrong with getting a few kicks now and again. We could use a little more fun around here, that’s for sure.
But I’m telling you now: bring a map. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get lost in these jungles.