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Desperate Days: Selected Mysteries
Jack Vance, edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan
Subterranean Press, 568 pages

Desperate Days
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.

Jack Vance Website
ISFDB Bibliography
>SF Site Review: Dream Castles: The Early Jack Vance Volume Two
SF Site Review: Dangerous Ways
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 Matthew Hughes

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Jack Vance is justly revered as one of the grandmasters of science fiction, fantasy, and that strange middle ground, science fantasy. But, as a writer, he once had another incarnation.

In the 60s and 70s, John Holbrook Vance (his full name) churned out mystery novels and short stories, including some for-hire jobs under the name of Ellery Queen. But, although he won an Edgar Award for The Man in the Cage, his parallel career as a crime writer never gained full traction. After Bad Ronald, a creepy tale of a teenager sex-killer hiding in a secret room of an innocent family's house, and The House on Lily Street, (one I've never read, but which also considers strange psychopathology) he devoted himself to the tales of wonder and irony that have won him the undying regard of sff fans all over the world.

Some years ago, a dedicated group of those fans took up a unique challenge: to restore to their original form every story that had come from Vance's pen. Working with the original manuscripts and guided by the author's recollections, they put back the carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs that editors had chopped out, often for the non-artistic reason that there was only so much space in the magazines they were putting together. And over several years, word by carefully checked word, they created the Vance Integral Edition -- the complete and definitive Vance oeuvre, an achievement to last through the ages.

This remarkable accomplishment has led to the reissue of several Vance titles in their VIE texts. Desperate Days is the second volume of a series edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan for Subterranean Press (their first was Dangerous Ways) that collects John Holbrook Vance's crime fiction (although the name on the spine is Jack Vance). The omnibus volume, in a deluxe hardcover, brings together two mysteries that were published in the 60s, The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders, and one book, The Dark Ocean, that Vance was unable to place when he wrote it in 1966 but which was published as a limited edition in 1985 by Underwood-Miller.

The Fox Valley Murders introduces Joe Bain, a thirtyish deputy sheriff in fictional San Rodrigo County in central California. An ex-military police sergeant and lettuce picker, he lives in an old farm house with his mother and his teenage daughter, his wife having run off with a guitar player two years after their shotgun marriage.

As the story opens, corrupt old Sheriff "Cooch" Cucchinello has just died, leaving Joe as acting chief lawman for the county. But there's a very good prospect that, after the next election, a new-broom hotshot who's planning to run for the office will fire Joe. So he needs to decide whether he wants to stand for election himself. Meanwhile, Ausley Wyett, a local boy, has just been released on parole after serving eight years for the rape-murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. Wyett always maintained his innocence and, once out, he mails letters to the witnesses who helped send him away, asking how they intend to make it up to him. And then those letter recipients start turning up dead.

It's a good plot, ably worked out, nicely paced, and satisfyingly concluded. But what compels is the character of Joe Bain, an honest everyman who doggedly rises to the occasion, whether dealing with murderers or crooked politicos. Even more engrossing, though, is the eye for detail that Vance applies to his fictional California county, which so resembles the real farming country in which he grew up. There's a very real "sense of place" in the book, along with skillfully drawn portraits of the odd mix of characters -- the salt of the earth, the shiftless, and the just plain strange -- that the author renders in a minimalist style as perfect as a Picasso sketch.

The Pleasant Grove Murders starts out with the bludgeoning to death of a mailman in the middle of his route, along a street of upper-middle-class homes in the community named in the title. Joe Bain, now the legitimately elected country sheriff, begins to unravel the mystery. As with the first tale, it's a well plotted whodunit, but again it's Vance's rendering of the character against the landscape that draws the reader deeper into the story than the usual welter of clues, suspects, red herrings, and switcheroos that are the mystery writer's tool kit.

Indeed, editors Dowling and Strahan, in their introduction, theorize that Vance's concentration on the former instead of the latter may have been the reason that the original publisher, Bobbs-Merrill decided to pass on a third Joe Bain outing, The Genesee Slough Murders, which exists only as "a generous and tantalizing" outline.

The crime writer in me says, "Too bad," although the lifelong reader of Jack Vance's sff works has to disagree. If he'd been permanently diverted into murder and sleuthery, imagine all of the masterworks -- like the Lyonesse trilogy -- that would never have been birthed.

The third novel in the omnibus, The Dark Ocean, is what today would be called a "cozy" mystery. Young Betty Haverhill, having finished school at twenty-two, declines to marry bumptious Ted Bunpole and instead books passage on the Italian freighter, Garda, traveling from her home in San Francisco to Italy by way of Los Angeles, El Salvador, and Panama. Ted impulsively decides to go along, too, hoping to win her over, but soon has a fistfight with the brutal and sinister Mik Finsch whom he interrupts in the act of forcing his attentions on his intended. Next thing we know, Ted has disappeared off the ship at sea, leaving a typed suicide note. And away we go, with further unexplained deaths and with young Betty as a prime suspect.

Vance could not sell this one, perhaps because he did not dip deeply enough into the aforementioned tool kit. The character we're pointed at as the murderer throughout the unwinding of the plot turns out to be not a red herring after all. But that doesn't really matter, because the true Vancephile, especially the aficionado of the stories that former merchant marine seaman Vance appears to have himself loved the best -- the ones about a naïf who signs on as crew on a space freighter -- will find another one of those picaresque adventures playing out on an earthly sea.

And the style, unlike the more straightforward diction of the Joe Bain tales, has more of those distinctive Vancean turns of phrase that combine to create his inimitable voice. One example out of a plethora:

  Covertly she inspected the four people playing cards. Four minds, four unique citadels full of private thoughts. How fascinating, this riddle of personality! Each one of these persons feels differently, sees life in different colors. Consider Harry Mayberry: a baby-pink satyr, or by virtue of his gray tonsure, a derelict monk. Betty studied him, trying to see past the outward semblance which rather repelled her. He held his cards firmly, played decisively, without waste motion. That must mean something. Nello was full of flamboyant motion, snapping down the cards as if he were killing insects. He played recklessly and without calculation. A small matter, but Betty decided she liked lecherous old Harry Mayberry more than handsome young Nello.  

Betty Haverhill may not have been much of a sleuth, but as a protagonist she could hold her own with young Myron Tany, the supercargo on the tramp freighter Glicca in Ports of Call and Lurulu. Readers who know and love Vance for his sff will not be disappointed in her or in Desperate Days.

Copyright © 2012 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy and crime fiction. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts, Interzone, Alfred Hitchcock's, Storyteller, and Blue Murder. Booklist has called him "heir apparent to Jack Vance," but he calls himself a huge fan of the grandmaster. His latest novels are The Other and To Hell and Back: Costume Not Included. His web page is at www.matthewhughes.org.


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