Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Late to the Party

Surely I'm not the only one who's never caught an episode of American Idol, seen the movie Titanic, or read The Hunger Games. And maybe you, like me, have found your head spinning while binge-watching Mad Men episodes out of sequence or reading a series book when you haven't read any of the ones before it. Sometimes, if you skip even one or two series books, you have a brain-bruising task just figuring out what the heck happened since you last checked in.

This is my current experience with Brian Freemantle's Red Star Falling (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013), sixteenth in the Charlie Muffin series that began in 1977 with Charlie M, and third in the Red Star Trilogy after Red Star Rising and Red Star Burning.

It's been several years since I spent any time with the wily and insubordinate Charlie Muffin. He's a British Secret Service agent, a Columbo type whose rumpled clothes and stretched-out Hush Puppies enable him to blend into any crowd, shadow his man, or disappear. There's no one better at spycraft. Yet, because he neither looks nor acts the part, he's been the target of Machiavellian maneuvers by MI6 and the CIA almost as often as the FSB (formerly, the KGB), who's been after him for 30 years.

David Hemmings plays Charlie M
As Red Star Falling begins, MI6 and MI5 folks are sitting around a table. They're attempting to fix the blame for Charlie's wounding and capture at a Moscow airport. Before the airport fiasco, Charlie had uncovered a triple agent in an FSB plot against America so audacious, I laughed out loud. Now, the intelligence services of three countries are furious, and they're juggling the fallout like spinning plates on hand sticks. Charlie's secret wife, Natalia Fedova, who is an FSB colonel, and their daughter, Sasha, as well as a couple of other high-value Russian defectors, are in the hands of the British; an FSB agent is being held by the CIA; and Charlie and several other British agents are prisoners in Russia.

It's a sophisticated case of wheels within wheels, and much of the action consists of talk. MI6 director Gerald Monsford, an inveterate schemer, wanted to have Charlie, an MI5 agent, killed; now he tries to pull the wool over wary MI5 eyes, much to his own deputy's disgust. Similarly, the CIA and FBI distrust each other. Natalia, of the FSB, wants to help her husband, Charlie, but her English handlers wonder about her loyalties. Charlie tries to outwit his Russian interrogators and figure out whether his wife and child are safe and who at home betrayed him. After this brain food, I'll head back to the first two in the Red Star Trilogy.

Sometimes my desire to read the most recent book in a series makes me read the first series book first. I want to read Oliver Pötzsch's fourth book, The Poisoned Pilgrim (translated from the German by Lee Chadeayne, and published on July 16, 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), so I read the first, The Hangman's Daughter: A Historical Novel. It creates an amazingly detailed picture of life in the Bavarian village of Schongau in the mid-1600s and features appealing main characters.

German writer Pötzsch descends from an ancient and famous line of hangmen, the Kuisls. The hangman was considered such a dishonorable profession—despite people's avidity when it came to watching people executed—that hangmen's children married into other hangmen's families, and the job passed down through generations. In the book's prologue, we meet one of the Kuisls, 12-year-old Jakob, witnessing his father botch the execution of a young woman in 1624. It was almost too much for me and Jakob, who swears never to take up his father's vocation. But 35 years later, Jakob is Schongau's executioner and the town council's torturer.

In the late 1500s, Schongau executed 69 witches.
When the dead body of a young boy is pulled from the river, village residents are horrified to see a
witchcraft symbol on his shoulder. Because the boy was known to visit the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, suspicion quickly falls on her, and she is jailed. Town aldermen have many reasons—social, political, and financial—to want Stechlin to quickly confess, but she refuses, and Jakob is instructed to make her confess before the secretary of Bavaria's Duke-Elector arrives in several days. Jakob believes Stechlin is innocent, and he sets out to prove it with the help of Simon Fronwieser, the local doctor's son, who is love with Jakob's beautiful daughter, Magdalena. As more children bearing the mark die or disappear, the tension increases exponentially until the book's satisfying finish.

I can now happily read later series books, including The Poisoned Pilgrim.

The last time I was in Portland, Oregon, I picked up Volume 3 of Russ Kick's The Graphic Canon. This three-volume anthology depicts some of the world's greatest literature in comics and visual art by 100 artists, such as Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Roberta Gregory, Yeji Yun, and Vicki Nerino. (See here for a complete list of featured works and artists.) Volume 3 begins with Robert Conrad's Heart of Darkness and ends with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It was much too beautiful for me, and I also needed to ooh and aah my way through Volumes 1 (The Epic of Gilgamesh to Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos) and 2 (Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray).

But enough from me. Take a gander at Volume 3, below, as editor Kick kindly flips through the book for you. You can also view Volumes 1 and 2 on video, too.

Trying to make sense of a series book when you haven't read its predecessors can be trying, but in a way, it's like meeting an interesting person and getting better acquainted as he or she shares history and adds more information. It's impossible to get to every party right on time, or to read every series in order, but don't let that prevent you from partying anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I do that all the time - find myself "discovering" a new book only to find that it's the latest in a series I've not yet read. It's hell on the overflowing TBR! I start hoarding series titles as I find them.

    Oliver Potzsch is one I've done that with for sure, though I've not yet read the first book. I jumped in mid series this year with both of the Charles Todd series and have to go back to the beginning now. Normally I would only start at the beginning but it worked out ok in both of those cases.