Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Reasons to Engage the Edge of the Mysteries Field: Books by Stephen Seitz and Dave Zeltserman

There are at least two dozen authors who are on my "automatic" list: I know that I enjoy their mysteries and/or crime fiction reliably, and I mark my calendar for when the next book by one of these is coming out. When I look over the list, I realize I've become a fan of, umm, character-driven dark mysteries in which someone has to dig deep into inner resources in order to solve the crime -- or even just to survive.

But I do read outside this core quite a bit, and that includes urban spoof/caper mysteries, cooking mysteries (I check the recipes first), plenty of espionage, lots of thrillers that start on university campuses, almost anything with a strong female lead, and probably way too many books that involve threats and death. (By the way, I've discovered that when life serves up the "real thing," I stay away from the book version. Shudder.)

Thanks to some bold authors who say "Hey! Read this!," I also find some gems that don't fit into any of my usual areas. For instance, Dave Zeltserman writes some of my favorite -- although very dark! -- crime fiction, mostly set in the Boston area. But sometimes he zigzags off into horror, a genre I normally don't endure. Still, if it's by Dave Z, I get curious. So, a while back, I read and really, really enjoyed his horror parable (yep, really) The Caretaker of Lorne Field. And that led me to his newest title: MONSTER: A NOVEL OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Set firmly in 19th-century Germany, complete with religious twists, extremes of poverty and wealth, and curious rituals of friendship and courtship. MONSTER spins out from the mind and heart of Herr Friedrich Hoffmann, broken on the "wheel" as an accused murderer of his own fiancée and soon patched together in Dr. Victor Frankenstein's obscene experiment. Yes, in case you've forgotten, "Frankenstein" wasn't the inventor's monster -- it was the name of the inventor, in the old tale. In Zeltserman's adept narrative, the Monster becomes a distraught and terrified individual coming to grips with how his soul has been installed in a terrible body, and the evil perversions of his "creator" threaten to turn him into a true monstrosity. Grief at such horrors spurs him to action:
I bellowed again in rage, and stopped only when I realized that the leather strap that had been tied around my chest had broken. The slow trickle of strength that had been ever so slowly ebbing back into my body must have turned into a raging torrent over the last few days, for in my rage I broke that strap, which was something not even a wild beast could have done. I sat up with ease and tore apart the strap that bound my legs to the table as easily as a child might have torn a paper ribbon.

I was free.
But what is the true nature of this reborn Friedrich Hoffman? May he assert the compassion of his former self? Or must the evil of his re-creator stain him and turn him into perversions that mock his best efforts?

Zeltserman kept me turning pages, aching for resolution.

MONSTER came out this spring through the audacity and continued courage of The Overlook Press, which continues to prove there are still publishers who value diversity and outrageous creativity. The press even presents P.G. Wodehouse books. Diverse!

Another such press, which I only discovered through agreeing to read its newest book, is MX Publishing. This firm is based in the United Kingdom and specializes in "NLP, Sherlock Holmes, Property, and Children's books." Turns out that NLP is neuro linguistic programming. I don't think it's connected in any way with the line of Sherlock Holmes books -- but I can't be sure.

At any rate, MX Publishing boasts "a large stable of the best modern Holmes writers with traditional stories and short fiction through to fantasy and other unusual adaptations." And its newest is SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE PLAGUE OF DRACULA by Vermont author Stephen Seitz. If that title makes you shake with uncertainty or despair, you're not alone. I wasn't sure I wanted to open this one ... Dracula has never been a passion of mine. Vampires are great in Charlaine Harris's "True Blood" series, but the original Vlad the Impaler? Hmm.

Well, the first chapter hooked me. Who can resist prying into how Dr. Watson's relationship with Sherlock Holmes stressed his marriage -- when the take is spun at least 90 percent convincingly in that voice so familiar from A. Conan Doyle's classic detective fiction? And for the sake of more Watson-and-Holmes intrigue, I was willing to admit that Mina Murray -- the protagonist of the Dracula novel -- could actually have brought to Holmes the case of her vanished fiancé, Jonathan Harker.

Seitz stays closer to Conan Doyle's "no spiritualist solutions" than the Holmes creator ultimately did, for Dr. John Watson tracks Holmes's insistence that the "vampire" effects must be explained scientifically. It's a great twist, and the team's journey to the hazards of Dracula's castle is well told, a great tale in classic form. Did it match 100 percent with an original Holmes story? Well, not quite. But it's so close that I could brush aside the occasional dissonance and revel instead in the adventure and solving the puzzles provided.
October 2, 1890

It is a bitter, dark day for justice.

We took photographs of the poor girl's desecration. Holmes measured every square inch of the tomb and collected several samples. We had Van Helsing in our very palms, and Lestrade despatched constables to bring him in.

Yet we have been frustrated again.
Oh yes, for those who are Holmes afficionados: Seitz has a brand new take on what actually happened at the Reichenbach Falls.

So, that's a pair of quirky new novels to try out, if you're in the mood for something very different. Let us know which parts you enjoy most -- or whether one book or the other is creepy enough to keep you checking the door and pulling out the garlic and such. It's all in good fun, I think.

No comments: