Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective – Arthur B. Reeve

Like a lot of Kindle offerings, this is a huge collection of reading material – some 13 books.  And most of them are in turn a collation of short mysteries, so if your reading time is more bite sized chunks than long sessions that’s another advantage.

I’m not a big mystery buff, so I hadn’t heard of Reeve or Kennedy.  The price of the collection was low enough to risk it, and it turned out well.  A good way to describe it is a “CSI’ set in 1914.  Kennedy uses his science to determine the bad guy and collect evidence.  He then collects everyone into his lab to ‘put the finger’ on him.  Some of the techniques are old hat, but others are still a bit exotic to this day.

The setup is very ‘Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson’ –  the other main character is a news reporter who tags along with Kennedy and chips in with some help.  The stories tend to be more cerebral than physical.  The stories move about through different strata of society, so you get a picture of life at the time, or at least what could be printed in a classy magazine.  So it may not be gritty, but I imagine there is a kind of realism that the readers would expect.

There are a few books that don’t fill the pattern.  Two use Kennedy, but you won’t recognize him.  Instead of being a loner scientist genius, he’s in love with a lovely rich girl and is as dumb as a post.  He continually leaves his girl to be snatched by the bad guy and his minions only to rescue her.  The explanation is that these were adapted movie scripts that he did, and read much like the Perils of Pauline

There is another collection of stories about a woman “Detective”, Constance Dunlap.  It is interesting because the moral view is a lot more ambiguous.  She starts out helping her husband embezzle money from his company, but in the end he kills himself to shield her involvement.  After that, with a comfortable amount of money, she tends to help out those getting the short end of things –  one case she helps a man who was urged by his company to behave illegally and was being made a fall guy for it.  In several others she is faced with opposing a detective who moves from being mistaken towards being corrupt.  She uses some of the tools that Kennedy uses herself to defend her clients.

Good reading – even the movie adaptations read well, if you ignore the idiot character factor.

Amazon Link


The Art of War – Sun Tzu

I picked up this book a while back on Kindle – I think it was a free edition – a while back.  This edition had a pretty good translation, and his comments about the translation, the organization of the book, and about the other annotators added something.

To those who haven’t read it, the book is a collection of short statements by Sun Tzu.  Over time, some later writers have added their own comment about many of the statements.  These vary in quality from those that add a lot to the comment, those that are interesting but not too related, and those that don’t seem to add much or make sense at all.

Anyone who has read a blog comment stream is familiar with this!   It is amusing to see it over centuries in an ancient book.

If you are interested in strategy, the book is well worth reading, if not the revelation it has recently been touted as in business schools.  Its collection of short quips makes it easy to pick up and put down, as there isn’t a narrative thread to be lost.  And you can’t beat ‘free’.

Battle Studies – Ardant du Picq

Ardant du Picq was a French officer in the 19th Century.  His work on the behavior of men in combat was published after his death in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and has remained relevant to this day.

du Picq studied reports of armies in combat from ancient times to the present and demonstrated several interesting effects that seem contradictory.  For example in ancient battles, although the danger lies to the front, it is troops in the rear that break and run first.  Lacking the exertion of actually fighting for their lives, they have nothing to do but face the fear.

Ardant du Picq

Ardant du Picq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In modern times, similar rules apply. Troops want to defend themselves by firing back as quickly as possible.  The theoretical orderly firing by lines or platoons or by volley basically breaks down at once into each man firing as fast as he can.

The vaunted ‘bayonet charge’ is also found to be impossible to locate.  Most degraded back into a firefight, and the remainder had the defender retire before the two sides came into contact at all.

The situation is even more extreme with a cavalry charge.  One side or the other breaks off before contact is made.

du Picq did emphasize the offensive as the best way to impose your moral force on the opponent, but those who claim him as an ultimate ancestor to the offensive à outrance theory of World War I are misguided.  For one thing, is dismissal of the bayonet charge and recommendation of using skirmishers is contrary to the ‘human wave’ nature of the theory.

And also, as Zuber seems to have demonstrated in The Real German War Plan, both the Schlieffen plan and the French offensive plan that countered it were straw men put up to give post war Generals something to hang the defeats on besides themselves.  For one thing, the military manuals describing the new “Offense to the Limit” were not distributed until months before the war.  Most troops would have never trained even once using these new theories.

It is a lot easier to say that some dead guy messed up the plan than to say that the troops I trained just weren’t ready for combat – or that you messed up in the action yourself.

du Picq was one of the first men to look at how men react in battle as men, rather than look at alignments, technology or even leadership.  His conclusion is that most of the time, those last three matter a lot less than everyone imagines.

The Real German War Plan: 1904-1914 — Terence Zuber

Like his book on the Battle of the Frontiers, this is a new look at World War I..or rather in this case the planning of the Germans on how to act in the war that everyone was expecting after the win in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  And as in that book, the revision is backed up by an analysis of copies of the actual war plans and exercises the Germans performed in the period before the war.

I picked up this book on Kindle – the first new book I have done that with. Before I was reading huge collections of public domain books.  I have no complaints with the edition, the maps were as visible as can be expected from a unit the size of a paperback book.  I will have to view it in the Kindle Viewer on a larger screen and see how it improves.

The first figure to topple is the Schlieffen Plan itself.  Schlieffen, who was in charge of the planning in the beginning of this period, is the author of the German Master Plan to swing the right wing through Paris and destroy the French in one huge battle.

The first interesting fact that comes out is that the exercises Schlieffen performed, none were of this plan.  There were also other problems.

First, at the time Schlieffen crafted this plan, the French had a superior artillery arm, the recoilless ’75.  Since the gun did not recoil, it could fire much faster than the German equivalent.  It also could add a gun shield to protect the crew.  Until the Germans produced a matching gun, going to war would lead to defeat.

A second issue is the plan itself.  In order to have enough forces, the plan had to invent over twenty new divisions that did not and never did exist, and even then found that this preponderance of force did not allow the plan to work.

A third strike is that the plan itself, which was not found in any official location, was written after his retirement!  It seems clear that this was some sort of thought experiment rather than a real plan.

Apparently at some point after the war, this was put forward as the supposed plan – whether to make a case for war guilt against Germany, or for surviving staffers to use to club the former high command for screwing up the ‘perfect plan’ isn’t clear.

After knocking down the supposed actual plan during this entire period, Zuber then trots out the actual plans for this period, and reports of exercises testing out these plans.  None resemble the Schlieffen Plan.  They adapt with time to changing political events – at one point some plans assume the Italians would deploy divisions to help out on the Western Front.  Some are predicated on war with Russia alone, and thus remain on strict defense on the Western Front.  As time went on, this plan became unrealistic and only one War Plan remained – deploy most forces to the west, defeat the French on the frontiers and then redeploy forces to stop Russia.

Not surprisingly, this is just about how it went when the war started.

This puts a bit of a nail in the coffin of a lot of the critiques of Moltke the Younger in the campaign – the transfer of troops east was not a critical lapse away from a perfect plan but following the actual plan, be it good or bad.  In the Frontier book Zuber himself relates how the High Command lost its grip on the Army Generals and the Generals lost their grip on the situation.  Given the situation, leading huge armies for the first time, this isn’t all that shocking.

Zuber also relates to a lesser extent the evolution of the French plans, and how they became more offensive in character with time.  Oddly, though, the massively criticized after the fact French emphasis on Elan could not have had any effect on the early battles, as the manuals were not published and distributed until just before the war, and the lax French training standards meant that virtually no troops would have been influenced by them.   And in his book on the Frontier Battles he shows that in fact, the French were often hesitant and confused in unexpected combat situation and that caused the huge losses, instead of the legend of ‘bayonet assaults onto trenches’ in these early battles.

Many of the readers of the book are irritated at Zuber’s relating that the German plan was less offensive in character than the French.  Personally, these kind of issues bore me, as losers always get the guilt.  But it is true that the French plan was to strike the Germans fast, and in the war itself the first battles were all on German turf.  Would the Germans have advanced too? Sure.

Look at the Politicians for who does or does not get the guilt for starting the War. Plans are just Plans.  In this period, the USA had plans for fighting Canada and invading it, fighting the British Navy, and so on.  And Canada had plans for invading the USA.  That’s how the world works, then and now.

The Mucker Series – Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read these three novels on the Kindle – “The Mucker”, “The Return of the Mucker” and “The Oakdale Affair”.  Billy Byrne is, oddly, not a smart or educated fellow, but instead a small time thug.  He starts making a place for himself in the criminal gangs of Chicago.  But this happy life is aborted when he is named the killer of a shopkeeper by the police.  He’s innocent, and only a warning from a cop that he saved from a beating allows him to escape.  He flees to San Francisco, and is shanghaied onto a ship and becomes a sailor.

This is actually good for him, as the lack of drink and hard work gives him some pride.  However, the ship and crew are involved in a kidnapping conspiracy to grab the daughter of a rich man for ransom.  At first he hates and resents her, but as time goes on he begins to try to win her respect.  The escaped ship is wrecked on a Pacific Island inhabited by a tribe of strange Japanese Samurai – Headhunter crossbreeds.  When the girl is kidnapped, Billy rescues her and together they live on the island, where she teaches him to speak and behave better.  Weeks later, her father and fiancée arrive at the island and are captured too. Billy rescues them, and leads the savages off after being severely wounded.  Believing him dead, the others escape the island, leaving him behind.  But Billy does survive, and eventually makes it back to the US and becomes a fighter.  He and the girl meet and even though in love, Billy leaves her to marry the man of her class.

In the second book, Billy goes back to Chicago and is arrested.  He escapes and becomes a hobo, along with Bridge, a poetic gentleman hobo.  They drift down to Mexico, where the country is torn by criminal bands.  There they run into the girl and her father, who apparently have just as bad a selection of vacation spots as ever.  Billy has to save pretty much everybody, and get them to the US.  There, instead of being arrested he finds that the true killer has confessed and he is cleared.

The third book is only related by the character of Bridge – it is a ‘hobo chic’ story of a young girl escaping a marriage by becoming a hobo, a proto “Scooby Doo” mystery haunted house, a gypsy and a semi trained pet bear, and a couple of murders and robberies and kidnappings to solve.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  In the end, it is revealed that Bridge is a rich guy and he and the runaway girl have fallen in love.  Presumably they return to a life of status, or maybe they go on being hobos.

Like all of Burroughs’ works, these books read easily.  Billy’s personal growth in the first book is a nice change of pace.  The other two are more conventional stories with the standard hero-girl-adventure-love arc that is pretty common in stories of this era.

The Land that Time Forgot (plus 2) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Land that Time Forgot began a series of three linked ‘Caspak’ novels set on a mysterious island in the Pacific populated by extinct species.  The sequels The People that Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss.  I obtained all three from a Kindle collection and enjoyed them all.

The start of the series is interesting because it starts on a freighter in the North Atlantic during WWI. (!)  The Hero, Bowen J. Tyler and his dog are travelling to England when the freighter is sunk.  He survives with the lovely Lys La Rue, and are rescued by an English tug.  The Tug encounters a U-boat as well and is also sunk, but the crew manages to capture the vessel.  Sadly, they still are attacked by the Royal Navy and cannot land, so they sail away from England, holding the German crew prisoner.

The Germans overcome them and sail even farther afield, into the Pacific.  (this U-Boat has a heck of a range!).  The allies manage to take the sub back, but their attempt to land on the West Coast of the US is folied by the sabotage of a Communist traitor and they are lost in the South Pacific with their supplies poisoned.  Their only hope is to land on the mysterious land they find there, only accessible by a submarine through an underground river.  There they find a land stuffed with extinct species.  Soon while the crew explores, the German crew revolts and sails away, leaving them stranded. Then primitive tribesmen attack the camp and carry off Lys, and Bowen heads off to the rescue.  He manages to do so, and tosses the manuscript into a bottle in the sea.

In the second book, the manuscript reaches Bowen’s family and a friend, Tom Billings, heads a rescue expedition.  Tom himself is flying a small plane over the land when it is attacked by a Pterodactyl and he crashes.  He meets up with a fully human native girl Ajor, saving her from death.  He decides to get her back to her tribe and then look for his friend.

On the way Tom finds out about the odd biological system on the island.  Every critter is more or less immortal, and evolves upward through the evolutionary stages itself.  If they live long enough they become advanced enough to give birth to regular kids rather than spawn fish eggs like most females do.  One unmentioned consequence is that in fact everyone on the island is killing and eating their own babies and relatives.  Ick.

During the adventure Tom meets several human tribesmen who wake up and realize that they belong to the next, more advanced tribe down the valley and ‘move on up’ the evolutionary chain.  Tom finds his friend and the rescue party scales the cliffs and everyone leaves – except Tom who stays with his lovely lady on the island.

The third book follows the remainder of the crew, one of whom (Bradley) is snatched by a race of winged men that have evolved on the island and are trying to perfect their race by snatching advanced humans from the regular tribe for their breeding program. There he meets a lovely human girl and rescues her from the winged men.  They meet up with the rescue party from Book 2 and escape to the outer world.

All in all a trio of pretty faced paced, interesting books.  This series has a little less of the ‘crap, Princess Dejah is in trouble again’ plot line that got a bit tiring in the second and third John Carter books.  I hadn’t read any Burroughs before these six books and I enjoyed them all.


Three John Carter Novels – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Sorry to lump The Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars all into one post, but if I don’t I may never catch up.  These were all Kindle volumes, part of an extremely large collection that Amazon sells for a dollar or two.

I’d never read these, although I had heard of them.  John Carter is a Virginian Civil War veteran, who conveniently is immortal.  After the war, out west he is trapped by hostile Indians in a strange cave, passes out and wakes up on Mars.  Mars is a dying world, full of hostile tribes and city states, with everyone at war with everyone else.

Carter’s Earth body makes him stronger than anyone on Mars, and he uses that strength to defend the oppressed, as befits the honor of a gentleman.  He rises from prisoner of the Green Martians to a leader, by right of combat.  Then the tribe captures the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and Carter decides to help her get back to her home.  Needless to say, it is not as simple as that, and after adventures, imprisonment, escape, and a myriad of complications – which shows its origin as a serial in a magazine that needs a cliff-hanger every chapter or so – he gets her home and marries her.   After a decade of marriage, a final adventure where Carter saves the entire planet when the air plant fails, he is somehow returned to Earth, where he narrates the story to his nephew Burroughs. Ten years pass as he yearns to get back to Mars and his wife.

Well, it would be a short series if he did not, and in the second and third books he gets back.  And unsurprisingly, straight into trouble.  as he meets his Green Martian friend Tars Tarkas in a fight against impossible odds against a pack of vampire-like plant creatures and white apes.  From Tarkas, he learns that this is the Martian ‘heaven’, where custom says all go after a thousand years of life to rest and be at peace.  Being devoured by monsters is not part of the myth.  It turns out this religion is a lie, run by the evil Tharns.  To return to Dejah, Carter must escape and break the hold of the religion on the planet.

But of course, it is not that simple. For an advanced race of black skinned pirates capture him – they exploit the Tharns as the Tharns exploit the planet.  And they are ruled by another false religion, and the priests devour the captives they take.  There he meets and eventually recognizes his son, who was hatched from an egg after he left.  I guess they grow up fast, since he is a warrior second only to Carter.

They escape, and return to Helium only to find that the rightful rulers have been lost searching for Carter’s son, and Dejah herself had just left to escape the clutches of a usurper.  Soon they find that the Black Martians have her, and she will be eaten after her year is up.

…and so it goes.  They are fun books, if you don’t take them so seriously. Lots of desperate fights against impossible odds, imprisonments, escapes. sneaking into enemy camps and lairs, the whole works.  In the third book you start to wish Dejah stayed home, as she keeps getting kidnapped and re-kidnapped by evildoers over and over from one side of the planet to the other.

The Poison Belt – Arthur Conan Doyle

This is another quickie Kindle story involving Professor Challenger and his friends. It went quickly enough – Challenger is in the news again and collects the same four who went to the Lost World with him to come to his estate – with an oxygen tank.  He has been predicting the end of the world, you see.

When the four get there, they find that he thinks the Earth is entering a poison belt in the ether, and soon everyone will die. Well, soon everyone is dying, but the oxygen seems to help and just before the last tank runs out the Earth leaves the belt and the four (and Challenger’s wife) survive.

They spend some time driving around, even finding another survivor, an invalid who had her own air tank.  Then those ‘killed’ start coming back to life, aside from those killed in the train wrecks and burning cities he described in the first part.

This one, while well enough written, isn’t one to come back to, unlike the fun romp of the first Challenger book.  The waiting for death section is naturally gloomy, and the ‘never mind’ ending doesn’t make up for it.

The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle

Another old classic on Kindle for virtually nothing!  In this romp Edward Malone, who wants to do something important and manly to impress the lovely Gladys, is sent to meet the violent Professor Challenger, who has a tendency to beat up reporters.  Challenger says he has proof of a plateau in South America where extinct animals still live, but others scoff at the evidence, which drives him berserk.

After a rocky start Malone actually makes friends with the unstable Challenger, and joins the expedition to prove or disprove the evidence. The others on the trip are Lord John Roxton, adventurer, and rival Professor Summerlee.  The three are joined surprisingly by Challenger himself and the four go to find the “Lost World”.

They find a way onto the inaccessible plateau but are trapped, and then have a difficult time with the dinosaurs, a race of ape-men, and even the friendly natives who don’t want them to leave.

This is a nice adventure story, and very amusing – it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all.  Challenger’s huge ego and bombast is played for laughs, and I did find more fun in that the only way the other two men could get the Professors out of bickering with each other is to mention a third Professor that they could both revile together!

In the end, the four have fame, fortune (Roxton finds diamonds and splits the take), but not love, as Gladys went and married an accountant, instead of the hero and world-changing man she told Malone she wanted.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne

I finally finished this Kindle book that I had started a while back but put aside for the David Drake-a-thon that I just finished writing up.

This is the least ‘light hearted’ of the Verne books I have read.  There are amusing moments, but the book as a whole is a little darker.

In the late 1860s a strange sea monster is spotted that alternately evades and damages shipping.  Finally a major expedition on the US ship Abraham Lincoln is sent to find and destroy this creature.   French Marine expert Professor Pierre Aronnax, his man Conseil, and Canadian harpoonist Ned Land accompany the expedition.  After a long search they encounter the ‘animal’ and in the conflict the three fall overboard and end up clinging to the beast, which turns out to be a vessel, the Nautilus, captained by the mysterious Captain Nemo.

Nemo takes them prisoner, and tells them they can never leave the ship to keep its secrets. For a time, the adventure of exploring the seas with Nemo makes up for the imprisonment, but as they learn more about Nemo’s one man war against the land nations, culminating in the attack and sinking of a ship they decide to escape when they can.  They get their chance when the Nautilus is sucked – or intentionally driven – into a huge whirlpool and make their escape.  Was the ship destroyed too?  The book never says.

These days, when undersea subs are an everyday thing the novelty of the voyage is reduced, and the sense of wonder the book originally had is mitigated.  Bur even so the glimpses of Nemo – genial host and captor, whale saver and whale killer, refugee and avenger are still compelling.