I think if I had to summarize the main difference between these books and the movie versions of them I've seen, it would be way less swordfighting. I don't know why this is -- it could be because the authors didn't know enough about swordfighting to write an accurate scene, or because there's a modern fashion for it in period movies, or because on the page it's just as easy to convey a tense conflict between two guys, but on-screen you can't do the same emotional stuff as easily with just talking.
The Mark of Zorro (Johnston McCulley):
Publication year: 1919
Number of important / unimportant guys killed: 1 / half-dozen (roughly)
Number of times he embarrasses a guy, says ha-ha!, and disappears into the night: 4
Intelligence of heroine: C- (but really, nobody else is too bright either)
Proactivity of heroine: B
Swordfighting skill level: Pretty good but not superhuman
Quality of villains: B (nobody really unusual, but the thuggish enemy guy is a good combo of ridiculous and mean)
Protagonist's motivation: Chivalry
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: He is always whipping out a pistol and threatening people to make them duel fairly with him, instead of being attacked by twelve guys and holding them all off with sheer skill
Ok, so I didn't know Zorro had a secret identity. Actually, come to think of it, the only thing I know about Zorro is he looks like the Man in Black with a sombrero, and he cuts Zs into things. Which he only does once in this book -- presumably it was some movie that popularized the move. Anyway, the book itself is nothing special. The plot doesn't have any real tension until the very end, and the couple swordfighting and acrobatics scenes are ok but not great. On the other hand, the overall concept is great -- Spanish California is a great setting to do a Robin Hood remix, it turns out I haven't read enough swashbuckling scenes involving horses, and a Batman/Cinderella type premise will never wear out its welcome with me. I assume this book has a skillion sequels; I wonder if any are good or if they're basically more of the same.
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: swordfighting. Or on horses. Or swordfighting on horses. He's really the only guy that's any good at either. (The Count of Monte Cristo is supposedly good at both, but we don't see any demonstrations of either, so he gets no credit.)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Emmuska Orczy):
Publication year: 1905
Swordfighting: none (!!)
Intelligence of heroine: B (just being described in the text as the smartest woman in London doesn't really count for anything)
Proactivity of heroine: B- (more active in screwing things up than fixing them)
Quality of villains: B+ (only the one, really, but he's smart and capable)
Protagonist's motivation: Being British
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: Failing to kick any ass
Despite the summary being written about the Scarlet Pimpernel, the protagonist of the book is basically the guy's wife. With that premise, the actions of the Scarlet Pimpernel actually detract from the story when he shows up in person -- suddenly the protagonist is no longer driving the story; we're just getting this Pimpernel dude as a deus ex machina in the end.
The thing I hadn't really realized about this book before reading is that 'Baroness' isn't just an affection in the author's name. She was an honest-to-goodness baroness whose parents got kicked out of Hungary due to the threat of a peasant revolution. So whereas I am kind of sympathetic to the French Revolution, what with the aristocrats being assholes and them inventing the metric system, Orczy hates those peasants fuckers. Given that, it's no surprise that when the French aren't being foxily fiendish, they're being slovenly and incompetent, and the moreso as the book goes on and the action moves to France.
On the other hand, the earlier bits are pretty decent -- nothing colossal, but some clever cons, some spying action, some blackmail, some angst. I've seen bits of one of the movie versions and it's better on the whole, but there is some worthwhile stuff here.
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: It was hard to find a way for him to beat the other heroes in a fight, given that he doesn't display any fighting ability here, but then I realized that 1) he's really good at planning and 2) he does demonstrate the ability to take a punch. So I figure he could beat the other protagonists at ... chess-boxing.
The Sea Hawk (Rafael Sabatini):
Publication year: 1915
Number of important / unimportant guys killed: 0 / dozens
Intelligence of heroine: C (the last chapter is a B; the rest is a D)
Proactivity of heroine: C
Protagonist's motivation: Revenge
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: Well, he converts to Islam*, he sets up to have his brother whipped to death, he sells a bunch of people into slavery. I suspect that the movie is really pretty different.
This is a pretty decent story about one of those situations where a normal dude is done wrong and then comes back to take revenge. It has a lot of piratey stuff, which is always good, and lots of exotic landscape, and danger and suspense and fighting and the usual Sabatini business. The main thing of note about the book is the weird design. There are about five sections which stay pretty separate, and while the folks from the first section show up again at the end, there's no real resolution for most of the characters in the middle. It's odd enough to make me wonder if he was planning something a little different for the conclusion and decided to go for a more conventional ending at the last minute.
Anyway, overall this is better than The Shame of Motley but not as good as Scaramouche. Sabatini is a go-to guy for classic adventure and this is no exception.
*Not that there is anything wrong with this in the absolute sense, of course, but I feel pretty safe in guessing it'd get cut in a movie version aimed at mainstream American audiences.
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: in one of those Ultimate Fighting unarmed cage matches. The protagonist here is as strong as an elephant and the other guys are at most as strong as a horse or similar quadruped.
Prince of Foxes (Samuel Shellabarger):
Publication year: 1947
Number of important / unimportant guys killed: 0 (but a lot of guys die because of him; just not directly)
Intelligence of heroine: A
Proactivity of heroine: A-
Protagonist's motivation: Power
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: Ditching the other girl after getting her pregnant
Seriously, people, what the hell. If books like this are going to be awesome you have to tell me about them or we will never get anywhere. I'd never heard of Shellabarger before and I guess he only wrote four books, but if the others are like this, they are absolutely going on the to-read list. Anyway, this is about an Italian dude in Renaissance Italy who works for Cesare Borgia and has a secret identity and flatters some people and duels others and has to steal a saint from a city and defeats this assassin and then hires him as a bodyguard and so on. He never actually kicks anyone in the jaw but you can see he totally would.
The other thing about this book, unlike the previous three, is the side characters are more than just plot tokens. The girl, in particular, doesn't feel like a playing piece who gets shuffled around by the author. Yeah, there's a romantic arc but it doesn't go exactly like you expect, and she's got her own opinions and motivations which aren't just there to complement the protagonist. Actually, you can say exactly the same thing about the sidekick, which is also nice (well, ok, except the romantic arc).
In conclusion: awesome!
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: He's not as good a sword-fighter as Zorro or as good a brawler as the Sea Hawk, but he is a Renaissance man so he could probably win overall. Perhaps in some kind of Renaissance decathalon, where first you talk your way into a castle, then you fight a duel, then you poison somebody, then you seize control of the throne, then you fight off beseiging armies, and then you jump into a canal in Venice and swim fifty yards.
Ashenden (W. Somerset Maughan):
Publication year: 1928
Number of important / unimportant guys killed: 4 / 0
Intelligence of heroine: Actually, I think the protagonist was gay
Protagonist's motivation: Ennui, or perhaps patriotism. It's never really clear.
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: Chivalry was one of the first casualities of the Great War
This shouldn't really be on the list, but I read it now, so I'm putting it up anyway. So the deal is, Somerset Maughan was a writer who worked for British Intelligence during WW1. This book is about a writer who works for British Intelligence during WW1. While presumably nothing is literal, knowing that there is probably some truth to it all adds an extra frisson when reading these stories about what a fuckup intelligence work is. And that's really the moral here: even when the operations go off as planned, most of the time the only thing you're doing is killing some guy who is basically the same as you, some low-level cog, only he happens to be working for the other side and hence has to be eliminated. The protagonist doesn't do any killing himself -- he's a writer, and not the macho Ernest Hemingway type of writer -- but his connections to the victims are direct and personal.
All in all, this was not the sort of book that qualifies for Classic Adventure Week, but it was nevertheless a good book to read then.
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: sent to Switzerland and put in a competition to see who could stay the most incognito. Or, uh, maybe a poetry-off.
The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas):
Publication year: 1844
Number of important / unimportant guys killed: 3 / 0 (although in this book it is more about how than how many)
Intelligence of heroine: B
Proactivity of heroine: C
Protagonist's motivation: Revenge, or the desire to spend a lot of money being awesome
Quality of villains: B- (a pretty good selection; possibly too many to keep track of)
Unchivalrous thing he does that is probably elided in the movie version: Although the movie versions are notoriously different, the only thing I think would probably be dropped for unchivalry rather than length would be the hashish addiction.
Well! Here's another one where I've seen the movie version, and it led me to expect a different sort of book entirely. I thought it'd be a revenge novel, which it is, but it's also very much a caper novel. Like, in The Sea-Hawk the protagonist is out for revenge, but this plays out by him just going and kicking their asses. Whereas here, the protagonist makes elaborate preparation and schemes and then pushes the domino and watches people start to fall, and the book focuses on the preparation rather than the ass-kicking (although with 1200 pages, it can easily afford to spend a lot of pages on the ass-kicking).
Anyway, as a caper this is pretty good. There is lots of elaborate plotting and scheming and while you can usually see things far in advance it is fun to watch them play out. As a revenge fantasy it is decent but not spectacular. The distinction here is with a caper, the puzzle needs to be equal to the protagonist's power, which it totally is; whereas with a revenge fantasy the crimes need to be equal, and the targets here haven't quite done bad enough things*.
*Two possible objections to this:
- They actually have done some more bad stuff, but it only comes up as the book goes along. This is true, but since it only comes up along the way, it doesn't count for the initial setup, which is when I decide if it's fair or not.
- The whole narrative point of a revenge story is that revenge turns out to not be the answer, so the crimes don't have to stack up. This is true but there has to be enough parity that the protagonist stays sympathetic. By the time we're halfway through the book, the guy's imprisonment was, like, 400 pages ago, and he is an ultra-zillionaire because of it, so I don't really feel like he's still owed anything.
The main problem with the book is that it's freakin' huge. With three separate families he's intendeding to get his revenge on it becomes hard to manage, especially when you throw in all the cross-family entanglements. I was always having to stop and remember which wife was sleeping with which husband, and this wasn't helped by some of them having changed their names since the first bit. Of course, being so large means it has room for all sorts of random bits, like the educated bandit, the paralyzed general, and the lesbian daughter.
Overall, this is good. I'm not sure it's really 1200 pages good, but it's good.
He could defeat the protagonists of the other books if they were: shooting at each other. Even putting aside the money and the elaborate revenge plans and stuff, he is apparently an expert shot. I should dig up the Bond books and see who is better.
P.S. keilexandra's non-bookclub review of the book and movies is here.
Next up: I collapse after finishing Count of Monte Cristo. Then I read New Amsterdam.