Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bad Ronald by Jack Vance

...he deeply resented the terms 'sex offender', 'deviate', 'murderer' when used in connection with himself.  Such words simply didn't fit the case; they implied a vulgar ordinary criminality which Ronald was far above and beyond.
I don't read many mysteries or detective stories, and when I do it is usually ones whose attraction isn't so much the actual detection aspect, but the violence and suspense.  I'm more interested in the psychological and adventure elements than in keeping track of clues and trying to figure out "whodunit" along with Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot.  But a few years ago I started looking at the mystery sections of used bookstores, hoping to find mysteries by Jack Vance.  I love Vance's writing style, and I was curious to learn if he used the same style for his detective stories and if this style would engage me as it had in so many of his SF stories and novels (which, of course, are often detective stories set in a far future milieu of space ships and ray guns.) At the Half Price Books in West Des Moines my search was rewarded with the discovery of a hardcover edition of three Vance mysteries, published in 2011 by Subterranean Press and entitled Dangerous Ways.

My copy is in pretty good condition (I believe I must be the first person to read any of it), and a look at abebooks and Amazon suggests it may be worth some money, which is odd because I think I paid like twenty bucks for it.  I know I didn't pay the cover price of $45.00.  Maybe the people at Half Price blundered, or maybe the value has risen dramatically since I purchased it.  I should probably sell it on ebay tout suite rather than read it.  Well, if I hang on to it maybe it will continue to increase in value, even after I've read it.  

I guess the cover painting is OK, but I don't understand the fonts used.  The font used for the title and author on the cover looks like something that belongs on a book about cowboys, while the font used for titles on the inside looks like it should be in a book of stories set in the Jazz Age.

I decided to start with the third included novel, Bad Ronald, because I had the impression it was more of a horror story about a loony tunes freako than a mystery in which a divorced flat foot would sit down and write out a list of clues while waiting for the lab results to come in and griping that the feds were trying to steal his big case. I'd heard that the title character was sort of like some of the mental cases pursued by Kirth Gerson in the Demon Princes books, which sounded good to me.

Bad Ronald was published in paperback in 1973 by Ballantine, who advertised it as a "suspense novel" and compared it to "The Boston Strangler;" whether they refer to the real life murderer of women, the journalistic book about the killer, or the movie based on the killer's exploits, or all three, I don't know.  Bad Ronald was made into a TV movie, but, if the summary at Wikipedia is accurate, they radically toned down Ronald's criminality.

Ronald Wilby is a teenage boy, living in a big Victorian house.  Ronald's parents are divorced, and he hasn't seen his father for ten years.  The boy has no friends and girls don't care for him, and he spends much of his time writing the history of, and creating maps and illustrations of, a fantasy world of his own devising. This is quite like the villain in the final Demon Princes book, The Book of Dreams.

On his seventeenth birthday Ronald, after being humiliated by a blonde girl his age whom he has a crush on, encounters an eleven-year-old blonde girl in the street and, on a sort of impulse, rapes her in the yard of a nearby house.  When she won't promise to keep this crime a secret, Ronald strangles her to death.  Ronald tells his smothering mother of his misdeed; the police will be along shortly, as Ronald left his jacket and other clues behind at the murder scene.  So, Mom helps him build a secret lair out of a small bathroom under a staircase; Ronald is to live in this diminutive room, being passed meals through a small secret door, until Mom has saved up enough money for them to skip town.  This could take months or a year!

Ronald hides in the tiny room for months, more or less content with his art projects and books.  But then Mom suddenly dies and the house is sold to the Woods, a married couple with three blonde teenage daughters.  Ronald installs peepholes and spies on the family, and, when the youngest girl is home alone, drags her into his lair to be raped and murdered.  He does the same to the middle child when he gets a chance.  Finally, the older brother of his first victim, who is dating the oldest of the Wood girls, figures out what is going on, and Ronald is dramatically expelled from his hiding place.  The relatives of his victims each get a chance to strike him in the ensuing melee, and then the police take Ronald into custody.

Even though Bad Ronald is not a first person narrative, it is told mostly from Ronald's point of view.  Much of the novel is about Ronald's psychological state. Ronald is obviously a sociopath or psychopath, though Vance doesn't use psychological language like that to diagnose Ronald, and he doesn't pass judgement on him; what Vance does is give us Ronald's own thoughts and words.  The novel is written in an understated way, never openly condemning Ronald, leaving that to the reader.  This reminded me of Vance's depiction of Cugel the Clever, the self-important and self-deluded protagonist of the two best of the four Dying Earth books. Cugel commits various crimes, rape included, but Vance never directly condemns him.

Vance also spends a lot of time describing how Ronald survives in the little room; what he does to occupy his time, how he acquires and prepares food, how he manages to flush the toilet without the Woods hearing it.  I found this compelling, and there is real tension when Ronald sneaks out of the secret room to seek food, information, or just to stretch his legs.

I like Victorian stuff, but it seems like when the novel was written and the story takes place, Victorian homes were out of style.  One of the interesting things Vance does is, through the dialogue or thoughts of various characters, subtly personify the house, give it a malign character.  For example, Ronald thinks of his "lair" as "brain of the house, the pulsing node of intelligence and passion...."  When they first move in, the most sensitive and creative of the Woods girls thinks the house has an evil 'atmosphere."

The book has some humor; Ronald's incongruously low key attitudes about his crimes and the danger he is in produce some subtle dark humor, and then there are the Woods' dismissive references to hippies and Democrats.  Science fiction fans might also enjoy the reference to Vance's buddy Poul Anderson, and to the Lord of the Rings and Oz books.

I thought Bad Ronald was effective; it is interesting and entertaining.  There are hints of the Vance style there, though the late 20th century setting stops Vance form having everybody speak in the elaborate and baroque fashion so many of his fantasy and science fiction characters do.

Despite my complaints about the title fonts, Subterranean Press seems to have done a good job putting together this volume.  I don't recall any scanning errors, which plague some of these reprints of classic genre literature (I'm thinking specifically of Night Shade Books' first volume of Karl Wagner's Kane stories and NEFSA's first volume of Poul Anderson stories, both of which I have read, and Nonstop Press's The Very Best of Barry Malzberg, which I have only heard about.)  I wish I could find all of their Jack Vance hardcover titles at bargain prices the way I did this one!     


  1. I've also been quite interested in Vance's non-sf work, but have yet to be able to happen upon the bargain you did. Will you be reading more? (I think one of the novels in your omnibus won an Edgar award...)

  2. I'll probably read them, though maybe not soon.

  3. Nice haul -- Subterranean Press is a boutique/collectible publisher, so everything they produce has a print run in the very low thousands. Lots of signed-and-numbered editions, alternate covers, that kind of thing. That's why it sells for so much on the secondhand market.

    Anyways, I've never been half as impressed with Vance's non-SF novels as his SF, since they aren't as baroque and unique. This one is probably his weakest in terms of pacing/plotting and writing, so it's really scraping the bottom of the barrel for Vance. The other two in that collection are a bit better IMO, but Vance just wasn't as Vancian outside of SF.