Friday, April 14, 2017

FFB: A Beastly Business - John Blackburn

THE STORY: Bill Easter, conman and rogue for hire, will do nearly anything for the right price. He’s recovered stolen goods, he’s located missing persons, he’s even committed murder. Now he’s been hired to dispose of a dead body in the ground floor apartment of a landlord who can’t bring himself to enter the place. The body turns out to be Henry Oliver, a enormously overweight and hirsute recluse who is suspected of having been a mass murderer known as the "Mad Vicar". After successfully disposing of the body employing unorthodox and slightly illegal methods Easter also uncovers some puzzling documents that hint at the existence of a valuable jewel encrusted relic that Oliver brought back from his travels in the Nueva Leone, South America. Easter’s detective work leads him to eccentric adventure J. Molden Mott, also looking for the jeweled relic. Easter along with his sidekick and sometime lover Peggy Tey find themselves in Scotland and knee deep in a macabre adventure that involves Russian spies, a mutating fungus, a mad scientist, the legend of a South American conquistador, and werewolf mythology that all adds up to A Beastly Business (1982).

THE CHARACTERS: Bill Easter is John Blackburn’s lesser known series characters. He, along with Peggy Tey, appeared in four books prior to their last appearance in A Beastly Business. This is also the only crossover novel to feature both Easter and General Charles Kirk, Blackburn’s primary series character whose work with foreign intelligence has often led him into the world of paranormal activity. The Easter books differ greatly from Blackburn’s other occult and supernatural thrillers because they have a very black humor. Easter is a vulgar, opinionated, often foul mouthed rogue who is out only for himself. Peggy is no better. They are often secretly double crossing one another when money, jewels or valuable treasure are involved.

Easter is hired by Allen Smeaton a pseudo-posh banker who thinks very highly of himself. Yet he and his corrupt wife Cynthia are all too easily tempted by the chance to get rich quick. Easter does all the work while they drool greedily in the background demanding he risk his life and what little reputation he has left to recover the treasure and split it four ways. Clever readers know that split is never going to be four equal shares. Someone is bound to be left out if not eliminated altogether.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Blackburn's thrillers we get an abundance of weirdness, macabre deaths, strange legends and his usual trademark touch of an insidious organism, in this case a botanical fungus, as the cause for much of the mayhem. He always found new ways to invigorate old horror motifs.  The werewolves in this novel are like no others you have read about or seen in the movies.

This is much funnier than any of Blackburn's other books I've read, but you do have to be sort of a sicko to enjoy his vulgar jokes and black humor at the expense of other characters. I unapologetically admit to being one of those sickos. Revenge is served piping hot and supersweet in A Beastly Business and I very much enjoy seeing the wicked suffer punishments in Grand Guignol fashion.  Theatre of Blood, one of my favorite satiric horror movies, kept coming to mind as I pored over this entertainingly perverse book. Those familiar with that Vincent Price cult classic will have an idea of what kind of beastly business Blackburn gets up to.

QUOTES: "Owing to your wanton stupidity [Allen] I had to live over a monster. To nurture a viper in my bosom."
An unjust and inaccurate cliche. Even the smallest of vipers couldn't have found shelter between Cynthia Smeaton's skinny breasts, and I wouldn't have blamed her husband if he'd lost his temper and clouted her.

"Peg go could go to bed with [the reverend] if she wanted, though it was unlikely he'd fancy her. But during the last two hours I'd had a dead lamb lobbed at me. I'd been threatened by a twelve-bore shotgun and nearly killed by the bailiff's motor bicycle [...] and earned the displeasure of Sgt. Gillespie. I'd achieved quite a lot and what had Peggy done? Mrs. Tey had confided in an oily non-conformist minister and spilled the beans."

THINGS I LEARNED: One thing I must have known as a kid, but clearly had forgotten. The real name of a well known figure from the Russian Revolution turns up over the course of the book. If you're hip to this facet of world history and know it well, then you won't be taken in by a ruse of General Kirk's. Bill was. I was. And most readers will be. Sadly, part of this ruse is spoiled by the blurb on the rear cover of the new reprint edition. Do yourself a favor and don't read that before you read the book.

EASY TO FIND? Those savvy devils at Valancourt Books have done fans of 60s & 70s horror a great service in reprinting John Blackburn's books. A Beastly Business is yet another in their ever growing library of forgotten classics being revived for new generations of lovers of the macabre, be they the lugubrious and melancholy horror of 18th century Gothics or 20th century monsters on the rampage. I don't often see used copies of the original UK edition of A Beastly Business for sale as it's one of his scarcest titles.  If a copy should turn up expect to see it outrageously priced. Best to stick with the $17 paperback from our good friends at Valancourt. This new reprint is also the first and only US edition.

6 comments:

  1. I've only read one of his, his first I think, but this sounds like my idea of fun - count me as another sicko such as yourself - and on that note, have a great Easter chum.

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    1. I needed a little dark humor to distract me from my annual post-Winter/almost Spring blahs. Thanks for the Easter wishes, Sergio, and the same to you. Easter is no longer a big day for me now that my parents are gone and I've forsaken my Catholic upbringing. But Joe and I will most likely do something celebratory and Spring-like being the sicko pagan infidels we are. ;^)

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  2. I want to thank you sincerely, John, for turning me on to this author. I'd never heard of John Blackburn, but after reading this recent review, plus going back through your other older ones, I've ordered three of his novels, including this one. Right now I'm halfway through NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT and am enjoying it immensely. Tautly written with oodles of atmosphere and incident. Very happy to have been turned on to these books!

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    1. At your Service, Jeff! Blackburn's books are wholly unique, IMO. One of the few horror and weird fiction writers who took tired conventions, monsters and supernatural fiction motifs and added his own very original spins. Some of the later books seem to be retreads, so best to stick with the ones form the 1950s and 1960s before reading the late 70s and the few books he wrote in the 80s. He wrote a handful of detective and spy novels that have no horror or supernatural elements. I'm just starting to track those down.

      NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT was turned into a movie with Christopher Lee and I saw that first. Still haven't read the book. It reminded me a lot of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED.

      Almost every book I've read by Blackburn I've reviewed on this blog. The only I didn't do was BURY HIM DARKLY only because it seemed to be (at the time) his most popular book, was easy to find in the used book market, and was written about on several sites. If you like Lovecraft, then BURY HIM DARKLY is for you. It's the most traditional horror novel of Blackburn's I've read and the closest to Lovecraft with shades of M. R. James as well as Blackburn's trademark biological horror thrown in for good measure. Valancourt has a new reprint edition of that one, but it's still pretty easy to find in numerous, much cheaper, vintage editions.

      I enjoyed A BEASTLY BUSINESS so much I'm going to pull out all the Bill Easter Books I have and write them up on the blog in the next couple of months. There were three others, but only one has been reprinted by Valancourt (THE CYCLOPS GOBLET, #3 in the series). I have a copy of MISTER BROWN'S BODIES (#2) but the first in the series -- DEEP AMONG THE DEAD MEN -- is so ridiculously scarce that I'll probably never find a copy unless I travel to the UK and scour used bookstores over there.

      I just realized that I posted a review on Good Friday about a book with a character named Easter. Sheer chance, not at all planned. And it took me three days to see that connection!

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    2. Thank you for your detailed reply and recommendation, John! I'll definitely look into those titles. I devoured NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT in a few hours, and found it very enjoyable (if pretty grim stuff overall, and the final resolution pretty far-fetched, if clever). The other two Blackburn's I bought (all three for Kindle) were THE BAD PENNY (I know you didn't recommend the later novels, but it was cheap, and featured both Easter and General Kirk) and A BEASTLY BUSINESS. Many of Valancourt's reprints aren't available for Kindle as of yet (including A SCENT OF NEW-MOWN HAY) but I'll end up getting all the ones that are. Thanks again for the info!

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    3. Of course you live in Japan, right? Digital books are easier and cheaper for you. I'm surprised Bury Me Darkly isn't an eBook. It was one of the first Blackburn books they reprinted. Must have something to do with copyright.

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