Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alistair MacLean's Bear Island

Bear Island was the sixteenth novel by Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) and generally seems to be regarded as the last of his really top-notch thrillers. Published in 1971, it also includes most of the characteristic MacLean signatures.

In Bear Island MacLean returns to two subjects that obsessed him, the sea and the Arctic. That these subjects interested him is not surprising - his wartime naval experiences  included service on two of the horrifically grueling Arctic convoys to Russia.

Most of the novel takes place on board the converted trawler Morning Rose which has been chartered by a film production company, Olympus Productions. The company intends to use Bear Island to shoot location footage for its next feature film. The bleak island, located well to the north of the Arctic Circle, might seem to be an odd choice for a film company but that’s one of the mysteries that will be explained in the course of the novel. And the setting certainly suits MacLean’s purposes.

The first-person narrator of the novel is Dr Christopher Marlowe (his parents had rather literary tastes), employed by Olympus Productions as their unit doctor. You might think that  his duties would not be particularly onerous but in fact he will be kept very busy indeed as members of the film company and the ship’s crew start dropping like flies. Dr Marlowe puts this down to an outbreak of food poisoning but after three deaths the mood on board the Morning Rose is anything but cheerful. And these will not be the last deaths. By the time they reach Bear Island it’s fairly obvious that something distinctly sinister is going on. It’s also starting to become apparent that Bear Island was not chosen as their destination because of its suitability for film-making purposes.

MacLean had two great strengths as a thriller writer - his ability to tell a suspenseful story and his ability to enhance the suspense by the effective building of atmosphere. He was a powerful descriptive writer and the sea and the Arctic inspired his descriptive abilities to a very high degree. As in his earlier (and absolutely superb) thriller Night Without End the Arctic itself becomes in effect a major character, in fact in some ways it becomes more menacing than the actual villains. 

While MacLean is usually thought of as a slightly old-fashioned and fairly straightforward spinner of stories he was prepared to experiment a little. Bear Island features a first-person narrator who is perhaps not an unreliable narrator, but certainly a narrator who is less than candid with the reader. We might not suspect Dr Marlowe of actively misleading us but we certainly get the feeling that he is concealing some fairly important facts from us. It’s a rather bold narrative strategy for a thriller writer but MacLean carries it off quite successfully. Structurally the novel can be considered to be as much a mystery as a thriller, with much in common with golden age detective fiction which delighted in isolating a group of people with a murderer running amok amongst them.

MacLean was somewhat notorious for being weak at creating female characters, and for almost invariably calling his main female character Mary. Bear Island features not just one Mary, but two! The accusation is accurate enough but it’s rather irrelevant. MacLean knew his strengths and his weaknesses as a writer and quite sensibly he played to his strengths while avoiding his weaknesses. 

While the plot of Bear Island has nothing in common with Night Without End the formula is quite similar - take a group of people, isolate them in a hostile environment, throw in one or more murderous villains and then ratchet up the tension as the situation becomes a battle for survival against both Nature and human villainy. Bear Island doesn’t work quite as well as Night Without End but it’s still a gripping and well-crafted thriller and it still delivers plenty of entertainment.

The plot of the 1979 movie adaptation has almost nothing in common with the plot of the novel. Not that it’s such a bad movie; it simply has little connection with MacLean’s book.

MacLean was one of those writers who enjoyed immense success in his lifetime, followed by rapid eclipse. During the 1960s he was arguably the most successful living writer of thrillers, outselling Ian Fleming by a comfortable margin (no mean achievement given that Fleming is one of the bestselling novelists of all time). 

It’s rather interesting to compare MacLean’s career, and his style, with Fleming’s. They had a lot in common, while there were also very important differences between them. Both were Scottish and they were more or less contemporaries (Fleming was born in 1908 and MacLean was born in 1922). Both served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War (Fleming was an officer in naval intelligence while MacLean was an enlisted man and saw considerable active service). Both achieved success quickly and at about the same time. Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale, came out in 1953. MacLean’s first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, appeared in 1955. Both men had a reputation for hard living and both died prematurely as a result. Both were subjected to a considerable amount of critical derision. Both gained a reputation for writing the sorts of novels that men enjoy very much but that women don’t. Both confined their attentions mostly to the thriller genre and both tried their hands at writing screenplays. Virtually everything Fleming wrote has been adapted for film while no less than eighteen of MacLean’s novels and stories have been made into movies.

The difference between them were however quite important. The Fleming formula was to take the pre-war British thriller and add more glamour, a lot more sex, a lot more graphic violence and just a dash of sadism. MacLean generally avoided not only sex but also romantic subplots. There’s plenty of violent mayhem in MacLean’s novels but it’s not overly graphic and the hint of sadism is noticeable lacking.

 MacLean’s reputation has not lasted anywhere near as well as Fleming’s and there are several reasons for this. MacLean did not create an iconic hero in the mould of James Bond. MacLean did not create any series characters at all. He also did not create the kinds of memorable villains that Fleming created. The popular writers who achieve lasting popularity and who develop cult followings are generally those who do succeed in creating truly iconic heroes and/or villains. And those writers have a chance of eventually attracting the notice of academics who are interested in them as pop culture phenomena. As a result MacLean, despite his immense success during his lifetime, has been largely ignored even by those who take an interest in popular literature. Also counting against him is the fact that even his most ardent supporters admit that the quality of his writing declined dramatically during the 1970s.

This is somewhat unfair. MacLean had some very real virtues as a writer and at his best he could produce some of the most effective works in the genre. He is overdue for rediscovery. Bear Island is thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

John Dickson Carr's The Witch of the Low-Tide

In addition to being the acknowledged master of the “locked-room” mystery story John Dickson Carr also wrote a number of historical detective novels. The most interesting is The Devil in Velvet, a wonderfully entertaining concoction that combines crime fiction, horror and science fiction.  He also wrote three more conventional detective novels with period settings, as a kind of tribute to the evolution of the Metropolitan Police. Fire, Burn! was set in 1829 and The Scandal at High Chimneys takes place in 1865. It’s the third and last of these books, set in 1907, with which we are concerned however - The Witch of the Low-Tide.

Dr David Garth is a prominent London doctor, a pioneer in the fields of neurosurgery and psychiatry. He’s also a man with a secret. He is in love with a young widow, Betty, and she’s a woman with a secret. In fact everybody in this novel has something they’re trying to hide. Garth’s friends Marion and Vince and Marion’s former guardian Colonel Selby are no exception.

These interlocking webs of deception lead to murder, and to a battle of wits that pits amatuer sleuth against professional police detective (in this case the hard-bitten Scotland Yard man Inspector Twigg). Carr manages to insert two locked-room puzzles into the novel, as well as plenty of satisfyingly obscure plot twists. 

Not everybody enjoys John Dickson Carr’s style, but I find him to be consistently entertaining and I particularly like his historical mysteries, although I’ve yet to track down a copy of Fire, Burn! despite my best efforts. Carr wrote The Witch of the Low-Tide  in 1961, and it’s a nice combination of Edwardian period detail with juicy sex scandals, which makes it even more fun. I liked this one quite a bit.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Trail of Fu Manchu

The Trail of Fu Manchu was the seventh of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, appearing in 1934. This is a rather different Fu Manchu - this is Fu Manchu at bay. His nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith has gained the upper hand. Fu Manchu’s organisation has been seriously weakened and he is in failing health. As Nayland Smith will find out, he is still a formidable adversary.

Dr Fu Manchu has struck back, using the daughter of of Nayland’s Smith’s friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Petrie as the means for his revenge. And Fu Manchu has ambitious plans that may yet restore his powers and his fortunes. He has discovered a secret that eluded the medieval alchemists. In fact, as we will discover, he has discovered several secrets sought by the alchemists.

As so often Nayland Smith is hampered by the necessity to thwart Fu Manchu’s plans without risking innocent lives. He does have a useful ally in the person of the indefatigable Detective Chief Inspector Gallaho, a man of considerable resource.

The story opens with a typical Sax Rohmer flourish - an amazingly life-like statue that turns out to be more life-like than it should be!

This adventure takes place entirely in London although this does not quite mean that Nayland Smith has the home ground advantage. The slums of Limehouse are not exactly congenial territory in which to wage a battle against a Chinese master criminal. The battle will be waged beneath the streets of London in a hidden world of mystery and danger. There are explosions, secret laboratories and there’s much general mayhem.

There is a reason Fu Manchu is the greatest of all fictional diabolical criminal masterminds.  As Fu Manchu himself would doubtless point out he is a criminal merely by necessity, not by inclination. Lacking political power he must make use of whatever methods serve his purpose. And he is not actually evil as such. He has a vision of the future, a world of harmony and order and even beauty. To a westerner like Nayland Smith this ideal world might seem inhuman and even nightmarish but there is no doubting Fu Manchu’s sincerity. He is not a man who delights in destruction for its own sake. Indeed, he is more interested in creating than in destroying. It just happens that in order for Fu Manchu’s world to come into being western civilisation will have to be subjugated.

Sax Rohmer’s theme is the clash of civilisations. Nayland Smith represents the virtues of western civilisation - individualism, initiative, flexibility and respect for freedom. Fu Manchu is the exemplar of a very different civilisation but one with its own virtues - discipline, order and obedience to authority. Both civilisations have their weaknesses. The western world is somewhat chaotic. Fu Manchu’s civilisation is inflexible and tolerates no dissent. It is fundamentally totalitarian.

While Fu Manchu has the greater intellect his followers he has the disadvantage that his followers are little more than automatons. Fu Manchu himself must provide the imagination. Nayland Smith on the other hand has allies rather than followers, men who will risk their lives willingly and who display a certain amount of initiative.

To see Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books as racist is to misunderstand them in a very fundamental manner. Fu Manchu is never portrayed as a representative of an inferior civilisation, merely one which has very different values and priorities. In some ways Fu Manchu represents intellectual attainments that are superior to those of the West. Rohmer certainly believed the two systems were inevitably going to clash, but his views on race were clearly more complex than the usual Yellow Peril idea. 

Fu Manchu’s worldview is not wildly dissimilar to that of Rohmer’s other great diabolical criminal mastermind, Sumuru. Sumuru also dreams of a world of peace, harmony and beauty and her methods of bringing this about are equally totalitarian. The Sumuru novels, beginning with The Sins of Sumuru, are also worth reading. Rohmer’s supernatural fiction (in collections such as The Leopard Couch) and his occult detective stories (The Dream Detective) are also excellent.

Sax Rohmer’s work was immensely varied and always fascinating. The Fu Manchu books do need to be read in sequence, starting with The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913, also published as The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu). The Trail of Fu Manchu is not the best of the series but it’s still enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sea Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts

The Sea Mystery confronts Inspector French with a particularly perplexing case. A body has been found in a wooden chest in an estuary in Wales. The body is clad only in underclothing and there seems to be nothing whatsoever to provide even the slightest clue to his identity.

Published in 1928, this was the fourth Inspector French mystery written by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Joseph French is not a man to be easily dismayed. There may be virtually no clues but he does notice that one of the man’s socks has been darned with the wrong colour wool. In his usual methodical way he makes a note of this. It will turn out to be quite important and it’s typical of French’s painstaking approach.

First of all French has to discover where the body came from in the first place, which he does in a tour-de-force of patient and meticulous reasoning backed up by experiment.

In this case Inspector French displays his strengths as an investigator but he also makes, as he freely admits, some serious errors. His careful methodology however ensures that even when he finds himself running down blind alleys he will eventually discover his errors and will in the fullness of time find the correct answers. He is a patient man and he does not give up.

One rather amusing aspect of his novel is the guilt Inspector French feels about having given a suspect the “third degree” - it’s amusing because his methods of interrogation would be considered extraordinary mild by the average detective in a hardboiled novel of this era. He does however demonstrate an enthusiasm for conducting illegal searches that would give a modern lawyer apoplexy.

Crofts has gained an entirely undeserved reputation for being a dull writer. He isn’t. His writing merely reflects his hero’s methods - it is unhurried and lacking in rhetorical flourishes but Crofts knows how to draw his reader into the mind of his detective. We feel French’s frustrations when he seems to be hitting a blank wall and we feel his excitement whenever he sees a glimmer of light that may lead to an important breakthrough. There’s also a considerable leavening of sly and understated humour.

This being a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel it goes without saying that the plotting is intricate and constructed with care and precision. And naturally alibis and timing play a key part. French is continually constructing time-tables to test his theories and to establish whether his reconstructions of events are plausible or not. 

The Sea Mystery is vintage Crofts, absorbing and delightful. Highly recommended. I also urge golden age detection fans to check out Inspector French's Greatest Case and Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian

The Italian is the first of Ann Radcliffe’s novels that I’ve read.  I can certainly see why Jane Austen just couldn’t help herself and had to parody this style of book in Northanger Abbey.  The absurdly complicated and melodramatic plot that relies on so many ridiculous coincidences was too easy a target to be ignored.  The other great fault of the book is that the characterisations are just too black and white.

The book does have considerable strengths though.  Radcliffe is exceptionally good at creating suspense and in ratchetting up the tension.  Her prose is pleasing, and although she’s been criticised for going overboard with the descriptive passages I didn’t find that a problem at all in The Italian.  It’s also worth considering that a reader in the 1790s would probably have found it easier to empathise with characters like the Marchese and his wife and their obsession with family honour.

Despite its faults The Italian is reasonably entertaining.  Radcliffe’s feeling for landscape and the way she relates the landscape to the story and to the emotional states of her characters and to their situations are also impressive.  

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the pioneers of gothic fiction and was possibly the most popular author of her day.

Of the early gothic novels I’ve read I still prefer Matthew Lewis’s The Monk but I do want to read more of Radcliffe’s novels.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

John Rhode’s The Claverton Mystery

John Rhode’s The Claverton Mystery (published in the US as The Claverton Affair) appeared in 1933. It was the fifteenth of the seventy-two Dr Priestley mysteries written by Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965) using the John Rhode pseudonym.

It had been preceded by the very entertaining The Motor Rally Mystery (US title Dr Priestley Lays a Trapand was followed by the excellent The Venner Crime. Several of the characters in The Claverton Mystery also appear in The Venner Crime.

The Claverton Mystery begins with a visit by Dr Priestley to an old friend, Sir John Claverton, who has fallen ill. They had once been close but since the war they had drifted apart somewhat. An urgent message from Claverton suggested that perhaps all was not well with him and Priestley, feeling slightly guilty for not having made more effort to keep up the friendship, arrives at Claverton’s rather gloomy dwelling. The truth is that Claverton has become just a little eccentric, insisting on remaining at 13 Beaumaris Place even though the neighbourhood has lost much of its former charm. Claverton had, rather unexpectedly, inherited the house and a large fortune some years earlier and he appears to have developed a rather superstitious attachment to the place.

As soon as Priestley arrives it is clear to him that something is not quite right. Claverton has always lived alone so who are these strange people who seem to have taken up residence there? Why is Claverton now reluctant to tell Priestley why he summoned him? And if Claverton’s illness is really not serious (and Dr Oldland assures him that this is the case) why is the doctor clearly much more concerned than a minor illness would warrant?

Claverton’s death deepens the mystery considerably, the post-mortem results coming as a  considerable shock to Priestley. Claverton died from natural causes although Priestley is convinced otherwise.

Of course there is a will, which deepens the mystery still further. And Claverton’s relatives give Priestley a very uneasy feeling.

Priestley dislikes forming theories until he feels he has all the facts at his command. If the accumulation of these facts happens to take several months that is no problem - he is a patient man and he is prepared to wait.

Dr Priestley is generally speaking the type of amateur detective who regards his hobby as a stimulating exercise in puzzle-solving, a very satisfying pastime but one that engages the intellect rather than the emotions. This case is quite different. Priestley was genuinely fond of Claverton and his old friend’s death upset him a good deal. The truth is that Priestley is by no means as emotionally cold as his crusty exterior would suggest.

Another respect in which this novel differs from most of the John Rhode mysteries is in the decidedly gothic atmosphere and the hints of the occult. The author does not overdo these elements but they are certainly present.

This novel contains all the features that modern critics tend to disparage in golden age detective fiction. The motive hinges on the provisions of a will and an unbreakable alibi forms an important plot point. The murder method is somewhat unlikely if undeniably ingenious. Events in the distant past play a major rôle. Rhode was an author with no interest in “subverting” the conventions of his chosen genre. While this will not endear him to the postmodernists I personally admire his approach. Telling a good story while remaining strictly within the confines of genre conventions and finding a way to make that story still seem fresh and interesting is something which in my view requires more talent than “subverting” or “transcending” those conventions. And Rhode was a very good story-teller indeed.

The solution to the puzzle involves one element that might seem to be pulled out of a hat but in fact Rhode has been scrupulously fair in providing clues to alert us to the existence of that particular metaphorical hat. 

The Claverton Mystery is golden age detective fiction at its best. Immensely enjoyable and highly recommended.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm

Although Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm appears as part of Pan’s Classic Crime series it’s really more spy thriller than crime thriller.  On the other hand, being published in 1938, it has the right period flavour for this community.  Although Ambler was English the mood is closer to the cynicism and corruption of Hammett and Chandler than to English crime writers of that time.  The British writer to whom Ambler is sometimes compared is Graham Greene, and the world Ambler scribes in this novel has more than a hint of Greeneland about it.  While Hammett and Chandler focused on cynicism and corruption at the level of city politics and local criminal activities, Ambler focuses on international politics and big business.  

Cause for Alarm concerns a British engineer working in the Milan office of a British engineering firm, who becomes involved in shady government contracts and espionage.  He would make a perfect hero for a 1930s Hitchcock movie, being basically honest and decent but also rather naïve.  In fact this book would have made a great 1930s Hitchcock movie!

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was, more than any other writer, responsible for popularising the gritty realist school of spy fiction. Epitaph for a Spy is the most famous of his early thrillers while Judgment on Deltchev is a good example of his later style.

Ambler’s style is crisp and pleasing, and he creates a very effective atmosphere of suspense and suspicion.  This leads up to an extended and very exciting chase.  Being the 1930s, the chase naturally involves trains, and you really can’t go wrong with a chase involving trains in the 1930s.  This is a very entertaining novel, with some very pertinent and still very relevant political aspects to it.  Highly recommended.