Friday, January 2, 2015

Tunnels and trawls - William Dear's 'The Dungeon Master'

Hello, and a happy new year!

Over the Summer break I've been reading The Dungeon Master William Dear's recount of the James Dallas Egbert case. In fact, I read the book in two days around other activities, as it was so engrossing. I previously covered the book and its effect here, and Shaun Hatley provides a summary and commentary on the book and the story behind it, including a fascinating contemporary snippet from Dragon magazine here. Consider yourself informed!

Now, I found the book at a local refuse recyclers shop - Trash Palace, of all places. Seemingly a fantasy/SF reader was having a tip-out, but this is the only title that really got my attention, amid the Silverbergs, Asimovs and, er, Brookses ( they’re going to be filming Shannarah in NZ! Eek!) I read it quickly, thanks to a plane trip and a few hours to kill travelling; it helps too that it’s quite readable.

Dear is an informal and engaging writer, somewhat prone to self-promotion but sympathetic to the object of his investigation, and well he might be. Dallas Egbert, as hindsight reveals, was not only a troubled soul but caught in a time when the best care was not available, and his tragic disappearance – as sensational as it seemed (and reads in Dear’s version) should be viewed as a remarkable episode in a short and unhappy life. The author make repeated points in retrospect about the lack of care Dallas received as both a very young student and a gifted individual with issues around his identity, the people around him and his well-being. Dear’s claim that Dallas simply wasn’t being protected by his university seems to go straight to the heart of the boy’s disappearance, and at least some way towards his ultimate fate, but the book concerns itself less with Dallas as a known individual, and relies more on the young man as a mystery in himself, which, given its retrospective nature, doesn’t help things. Dear is the writer and the protagonist of his own memoirs, and we never escape the fact that this is being written with the breathless energy of a missing persons case file first and foremost.

There is, nevertheless a concerted paternalism in his attitude towards Dallas, which book-ends the investigation itself during which Dear goes ‘method’ – living close to campus (although a more youthful colleague goes one better, it’s insinuated), experimenting with some of the troubled Dallas’ extracurricular pursuits, including ‘tresselling’ (an eye-opening chapter in which the detective lies in front of an oncoming train aping the boy’s occasional habit), and of course roleplaying in a session that, with its close parallels to features and the geography of the case seems questionable in its authenticity, if not unintentionally amusing in places. And then there are the steam tunnels – oh, those steam tunnels

Dear skips the homosexual liaisons and drug taking, however, virtually sub-contracting these areas to a couple of individuals outside his firm – surprisingly, this bears more fruit than Dear's meanderings, alongside an odd game of cat-and-mouse which ultimately leads to the ‘discovery’ of the boy. It’s a strange case – no wonder the more sensational parts contributed to the Satanic Panic of the early Eighties, and proved so ripe for adaptation by the schlockier end of writing at the time. Dear’s version of events cuts to the case for the most part, but the author’s attempts to mingle Dallas’ motivations with the then still-recent phenomenon of D&D paint him as not only a fish out of water, but an over-thinker. And something of a self-promoter: you may well roll your eyes at reading about his stellar career, his expansive mansion, his impressive case history and uncanny human touch; you may also wish to avert your eyes at Dear’s more recent forays into revisiting old and sensational crimes.

Still, despite itself, it is a human story, and an affecting one for its being based on real events. Ruefully, I admit that even without the hokey RPG session and larger-than-life Texan detective protagonist, played straight the book would make for a diverting documentary or film . Apparently, the options were recently purchased, so who knows?

Recommended, with slight reservations!

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