Dangerous Ways: Selected Mysteries Hardcover – May 2011
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The superb novel The Man In The Cage won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from Mystery Writers of America in 1960, and amazingly holds up in today's zeitgeist. Set picturesquely in 1950's North Africa during the conflict between French and Arab interests in Algeria, aspects on pan-Arabism resonate even today with contemporary readers. This page-turner is also one of Vance's Suspense-Mysteries, wherein the protagonist falls into dire jeopardy - hence not only its published title, but its working title: No-One Knows Where He Went. (Another Vance Suspense-Mystery is The Dark Ocean, this time with a female protagonist who is similarly resourceful & persevering in overcoming an apparently hopeless ordeal; it is well worth finding).
As the excellent Introduction to this collection elucidates, this and the other two novels are not so much "whodunnits" as they are really intriguing "why- and how-dunnits". (Yet Vance did write purely whodunit-style Mysteries; for example, his very popular Sheriff Joe Bain mystery novels.)
The featured initial novel, The Deadly Isles, is set in the South Pacific, and as with many Vance mysteries, the non-detective protagonist is forced into fulfilling the detective role. In fact, the fascinating stance of this novel is that it is a Reverse-Mystery: the would-be victim survives and soon identifies his attacker - albeit unknown to this attacker, who believes incorrectly in the success of his assigned killing - and then commences to track him covertly, and unravel all the mysterious circumstances. The story effortlessly carries the reader along as it unfolds, and is nicely paced. Period timeframe of this story stays modern-day and immaterial, (for even if it is actually the 1960's, it easily could be yesterday).
The last featured novel, Bad Ronald, is Vance's Suspense/ Thriller, and while it would certainly fall under the rubric of Crime Fiction, it contains no traditional Mystery per se, at least for readers. It is instead a `hider-in-the-house' gambit. As the Introduction relates informatively via mention of other Vance titles and villains, this `hider' reflects an acclaimed Vance character type: the artist-criminal. His being sensitive, creative, but misunderstood helps defray some of the repugnance for his crimes. His fantasy realm of Atranta effervesces with Vancian imagination. Of interest, he might actually be a prototype for this category of Vance anti-protagonist. Published in 1973, and also made into a television movie in 1974 (still available online, including Amazon), [but its ending is toned down: no killings], a finished draft of this existed in 1955, where its initial apropos title was Something Awful; thus this last published book of this collection's trio actually pre-dates the other two novels, (not to mention other Vance artist-criminals of this same enthralling ilk - for more on this see the book's Introduction).
This appealingly varied selection of Crime Fiction novels - an award-winning Suspense-Mystery, a clever Reverse-Mystery, and a seminal Suspense/ Thriller - help show Jack Vance for the superlative Master of Fiction that he is. Highly recommended.
All I can say is that I liked the book. Vance could probably write a telephone book and make it interesting. "The Deadly Isles" is murder and mayhem - with a soucon of sex - on the high South Seas. There is sailing, derring-do and disgiuse aplenty. "The Man in the Cage" is a superb adventure in Morocco during the Algerian rebellion, with drug-smugglers, gun-runners, Arab nationalists and jaded expats. There are pretty girls and fast cars, dingy bars and a mysterious letter.
In both the first two stories, the protagonist is an everyman hero, to some degree or other - remembering that at the time (the early 60's) it was pretty likely that an "everymen" had done military service and depending on their age, may well have served in a shooting war or two. Certainly there is an easy familiarity with guns and combat. The last story, "Bad Ronald" is told from the point of view of a sex criminal and murderer - a teenage boy with poor impulse control and an artistic temperament. Its well written, interesting - and the last 50 pages are some of the most horrifying stuff I have ever read, truly heartbreaking. Its not gratutiously written, its not the script for Saw 7, its just sheerly terrifying because it is made so real and possible. Watching Ronald's slow descent into madness is well done, but it's a bitter tale by the end, and its plainly meant to be sad and bleak, with only the faintest hint of an upbeat ending.
Having said that, its all superbly done. If you like thrillers, or Jack Vance - or even better, both - then this is a great read.
Dangerous Ways is a compilation in one volume of three of Jack Vance's mystery/international intrigue novels. These are full-length genre novels, no short stories.
The novels in Dangerous Ways are not all of a piece, not a series or having any other linkage, other than having been written by the same author and being restricted to just one of his oeuvres. This makes it a little troublesome to assign a single rating to the entire book. The Man in the Cage and The Deadly Isles are certainly five-star, perhaps because the settings -- Morocco and the South Seas, respectively -- offer Mr. Vance the opportunity to work his magic with exotic locales and foreign customs. I like both stories a great deal, and consider The Deadly Isles my overall favorite within Mr. Vance' mystery/intrigue oeuvre. Bad Ronald, which has historically been hard to find (to the extent that on-line sellers have asked ridiculous prices for old copies), is well-written, but I don't like it as much for reasons I will try to make clear:
Bad Ronald uses third person narration to present the villain, rather than the hero, as the main character of the story. Ronald is well delineated, but a creepy individual that I just didn't enjoy spending almost the entire book with. This is a bias on my part against a certain type of story, rather than a flaw in writing or conception -- though it also didn't help that Bad Ronald, taking place in small town America, lacks the colorful settings of the other two stories.
Bad Ronald is well-named in terms of its character's character, and if you don't mind spending most of a novel in the mind of a psychopath, you'll probably like this story.
The book overall gets five stars, whatever I may think of Bad Ronald. For Deadly Isles and Man in the Cage alone, Dangerous Ways is more than worth the price.