Pennies From Heaven by James P. Blaylock
Drugstore Indian Press (PS Publishing) pbk £14.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Okay, true confession time, American fantasy writer James Blaylock is one of my favourite writers of fantasy and one of the bookshelves in Hunter Towers groans under the strain of a lot of his books from his various trilogies or series, many of them signed at a previous World Fantasy Convention, where he was sitting beside his good friend and fellow fantasist, Tim Powers, who also has a shelf devoted to him.
These books and shelves aside, I would urge you to check both Blaylock and Powers out if you haven’t already, as what we get here is another fantastic treat, and one I have a taste for given the tale is compressed into six days across 53 chapters and an epilogue, so it is my sort of page-turner – no thirty-page long chapters here, phew, and Blaylock makes his story flow by focussing on each of his major characters, and then leaving them in a nail-biting, perilous situation and, of course, skipping to another character to them through their own jeopardy.
But what of the story? Well, it is something that is possibly a mash-up of the old screwball comedies of the 1930s and the film “Beetlejuice”. If you don’t know what a screwball comedy is, check out the marvellous “Bringing Up Baby” on BBC iPlayer and you’ll get the template of a couple thrown together, misunderstandings, oddball characters, a nasty protagonist (usually a member of their own family) lots of chases, peril, and maybe a pet animal thrown into the mix. In Blaylock’s novel, our couple have been thrown together already and are happily married and have moved recently to Old Orange the old historical part of the City of Orange in California (a favourite hunting ground for Blaylock). They say opposites attract, and it was clearly the case here as we are introduced to Jane and Jerry Larkin, although truth be told, it wouldn’t be that difficult to be different from Jerry who comes across as an amiable lazer, a daydreaming bumbler who bumps along between whatever takes his fancy and has enough money behind him to fund his waster life. Jane, on the other hand, is more focused and is busy helping the Old Orange Co-op, which is a sort of social enterprise that is involved in a whole lot of local “stuff”, from organising events to maintaining gardens and running a farmer’s market. Two other important things in their lives are their lovable rascal of a dog called Peewee, and the old historical house they live in. Ah, but their house just isn’t any old house, some of the locals have theories about that house. Especially Lettie Phibbs a lovable eccentric who runs the local library and museum, and Jane strikes up a friendship not knowing that Lettie covets the treasure she believes may be hidden in, or under, the house. She also doesn’t know that Lettie isn’t as loveable or eccentric as she seems and has settled in Old Orange after a life of crime, including committing the odd murder, and possesses hidden depths of menace as the Larkins will soon discover. This is all because Jerry makes a discovery of his own. Finding some treasure in the house after an earthquake, and of course, in true screwball style he doesn’t tell Jane about it, nor the fact that it is guarded by a ghost, but it certainly lights the blue touch paper beneath Lettie, and thus we are off into a madcap adventure that is part farce, part screwball comedy and part supernatural hijinks. Oh, and did I mention that a big storm is coming? Just what you don’t need right now.
Blaylock delivers a tale that is fun, fast and as furious as the storm that is gathering, populated by a great cast of main and supporting characters, ingenious plotting, a well-rounded sense of place, punctuated by desperate measures, dastardly deeds and a seasoning of black humour, oh, and a cute dog, which all adds up to an entertaining read. If you haven’t read Blaylock before – and he has published novels regularly since the early 1980s – this might be the perfect place.