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Dangerous Ways
Jack Vance, edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan
Subterranean Press, 562 pages

Dangerous Ways
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance
SF Site Review: This is Me, Jack Vance!
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Reader
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Lurulu
SF Site Review: The Dragon Masters
SF Site Review: Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl and Madouc
SF Site Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
SF Site Review: Night Lamp
SF Site Review: Tales of the Dying Earth
SF Site Review: Big Planet
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Richard A. Lupoff

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Who doesn't know the works of Jack Vance, one of the great prose stylists and stirring tale-spinners of modern science fiction? Three-time Hugo winner (for The Dragon Masters, 1963, The Last Castle, 1967, and his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance!, 2010), the Jupiter Award (The Seventeen Virgins, 1975), and World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Spanning the years from the mid-1940s when he first appeared in the hallowed pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories to the Twenty-First Century, he has solidified a role as one of the great stylists in the field, a writer who achieved a brilliant level of quality that was never diluted by his prolonged and prolific output.

Not as well known in the science fiction field is Vance's output as a mystery writer -- eleven novels under his full official name of John Holbrook Vance, three as Ellery Queen, and several more under other pseudonyms. The Vance admirer who knows him for the mannered, intensely colored writing of his science fiction will assuredly be surprised by the deliberately matter-of-fact, almost flat, style of his mysteries.

Editors Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan have assembled an omnibus of three Vance novels covering a remarkable range of sub-genres within the mystery field. The three novels also reflect the breadth of Vance's interests and travels.

The Man in the Cage, first published 1960, is the earliest novel in the omnibus. It received the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and deservedly so. The setting is North Africa during the Algerian War of Independence from France. Vance draws upon his love of travel and sense of place, as his protagonist, an American whose scapegrace brother has disappeared in the region, arrives to search for him.

Reading this book very nearly gives one the feeling of having fallen into the world of Casablanca. Wait a minute, isn't that Bogie in a white dinner jacket presiding over Rick's Saloon? Isn't that Dooley Wilson tinkling out "As Time Goes By" on the rolling spinet? And isn't that Ingrid Bergman in the picture hat? And Claude Rains in his natty police inspector's uniform? Conrad Veidt, Cuddles Szakall, fat Sydney Greenstreet and the obsequious Peter Lorre....

But no, it's two decades later, the Nazis are gone and the local citizens are battling their French occupiers while an international community of grifters and spies drink and flirt, scheme and lie and betray, as the world around them goes up in flames. As a mystery, Edgar or no Edgar, this reviewer cannot give The Man in the Cage very high marks as a mystery novel, but it's one hell of an adventure yarn, more Oppenheim or Fleming or even Le Carré than Hammett or Spillane or MacDonald.

But for some reason The Man in the Cage is sandwiched into the middle of this huge book. The omnibus opens with The Deadly Isles, a tale that reflects Vance's love of travel and of the sea. He had served as a merchant mariner during the Second World War. The Deadly Isles, first published in 1969, however, does not hark back to those days, instead taking place in contemporary times. The story involves a group of wealthy vacationers sharing a cruise among the islands of the South Pacific.

Vance's protagonist through this novel is a mainlander-gone-islander who is the target of a nearly-successful murder attempt. The would-be killer is a mysterious dark figure. His planned victim must unravel the identity of the dark figure. That he does pretty quickly and easily. Determining the motive is another and more complex problem.

The action moves from island to island and from boat to boat. Vance's strength for communicating local color and nautical detail is impressive. Unfortunately, at least for this reader, his plotting was not nearly as strong, and the novel has to be written off as a nice idea that just didn't quite work.

Bad Ronald, originally published in 1973, is dramatically the strongest of the three novels. It starts out on a relatively light note as a tale of high school kids living in an affluent California suburb, nubile teenage girls showing off their newly matured wares to hormone-boiling boyfriends while the school nerd struggles desperately -- and unsuccessfully -- to worm his way into the In Crowd.

A chance encounter between this loser and the younger sister of the chief object of his lust leads to a horrendous crime. In one dreadful sequence semi-farce turns to stark tragedy. What to do? What to do now?

The criminal's widowed mother hides him. The town is in an uproar. The boy is nowhere to be found. But then his mother... No, I'll stop there. You'll have to read this one for yourself.

Imagine Dean Koontz writing with a pen dipped in Robert Bloch's inkwell. Horror builds upon horror, suspense upon suspense until one can almost hear Bernard Herrmann's music on the soundtrack. The result is a book all but impossible to go with, yet utterly impossible to put aside.

Dangerous Ways is an absolute feast for the Vance fan. The only problem is whether to dole it out to oneself in small bits so as to make the experience last longer, or to plunge in and wallow in the sheer story-telling genius of an authentic, curmudgeonly, difficult, lovable, living treasure, Jack Vance, John Holbrook Vance.

Hats off to Jack Vance for writing these three novels and dozens of others, to Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan for compiling and editing this omnibus, and to Subterranean Press for making it available to those readers lucky enough to come across a copy.

Copyright © 2011 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff is a prolific and versatile author of fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. His recent books include a novel, The Emerald Cat Killer, a multi-genre collection of stories, Dreams, and the forthcoming novel Rookie Blues. His chief contribution to Lovecraftiana is Marblehead: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft, available at www.ramblehouse.com.


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