Thursday, July 11, 2019

About the Murder of a Startled Lady

Between 1930 and 1932 Anthony Abbot wrote four detective novels, very much in the Van Dine mould, featuring New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. He then took a break for a few years before writing four more Thatcher Colt novels heavily influenced by his growing interest in psychic phenomena. The first of these new-look Thatcher Colt mysteries was About the Murder of a Startled Lady, published in 1935.

Abbot’s new interests are immediately apparent in this novel. It begins with a young woman reporting her own murder six months earlier. She makes the report through a medium at a séance, and she also reports that her dismembered body was dumped in the sea at a certain place. Thatcher Colt doesn’t believe in any of this spiritualist nonsense. On the other hand a murder has been reported and Colt decides it would be just as well to send a diver down to have a look and sure enough the body of young woman is found right where the dead girl said it was.

It’s not so much a body as a collection of human bones. Of course there’s no hope of identifying the remains now, except that there’s a man whose services Colt has used in the past, a man who is referred to as a crime sculptor who has the uncanny ability to reconstruct facial features from nothing but a skill. So the dead girl can be identified after all.

Once she’s been identified the story doesn’t become any less odd. The girl and everyone connected with her seem to have been decidedly strange and not entirely what you would call normal. And there’s reason to suspect the girl herself may have been a bit on the strange side.

The psychic elements are just one of the odd features of this tale. Anthony Abbot was always fascinated by the use of science in criminal investigation (there’s some wonderfully esoteric forensic science stuff in About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress.

In About the Murder of a Startled Lady some of the scientific methods used verge on the science fictional. The facial reconstruction also stretches credibility a bit, given the technology of the time. In fact the crime sculptor seems to rely a bit too much on inspiration rather than technique.

Despite the supernatural trappings this is essentially a traditional puzzle-plot mystery with some police procedural overtones. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair play - there is one important clue which in my opinion remains unexplained and the essence of the puzzle-plot mystery is that the solution should not leave any loose ends. Apart from that one false step it’s a decent enough plot.

And Abbot comes up with a very neat and very clever variation on the traditional ending in which the detective gathers together all the suspects to reveal the solution. The solution itself is reasonably satisfactory.

The psychic elements are interesting for several reasons. We never really believe there’s going to be a supernatural solution and Thatcher Colt clearly doesn’t believe so either, but at the same time Colt has to admit that the apparent revelation by the dead girl is difficult to explain. The tricks used by phoney spiritualists were well-known and he expects the trickery to be easily explained but it isn’t. And they’re not just supernatural trappings to add a bit of atmosphere - they are in fact vital plot elements.

Anthony Abbot himself is a character in the Thatcher Colt mysteries. He’s Colt’s secretary and confidant and he’s the narrator of the stories. In other words he’s Colt’s Dr Watson. This fictional version of Anthony Abbot contributes a short foreword in which he makes some rather disparaging remarks about genius amateur detectives with an inexhaustible store of arcane knowledge. It almost sounds like a disavowal of the Van Dine school. This book is somewhat less Van Dine-like than Abbot’s earlier books. At the same time Thatcher Colt is clearly an educated and cultivated man, able to recognise instantly quotations from Dante.

I suspect that fans of puzzle-plot mysteries might find the first batch of four Thatcher Colt mysteries, such as the excellent About the Murder of the Circus Queen, to be more satisfactory than the second batch. It’s worth noting however that About the Murder of the Circus Queen also has a few occultist touches.

About the Murder of a Startled Lady is an intriguing variation on the impossible crime sub-genre. There’s nothing remotely impossible about the murder itself. It’s the process by which the murder is revealed that seems impossible.

This book might not be a masterpiece but it’s worth a look and Abbot is definitely an unfairly neglected mystery writer. Recommended.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1, 1927-29

Frederick Nebel (1903-67) was an extremely prolific American writer for the pulps in the 20s and 30s and for the slick magazines in his later career. He was a notable contributor of hard-boiled stories to Black Mask. By the late 1920s Nebel was writing in a number of different genres - hardboiled crime, adventure stories set in the Canadian Northwest, adventure tales set in the Orient - and in 1927 he began a series of aviation adventure stories featuring two likeable rogues, Bill Gales and Mike McGill. Altus Press’s The Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1 1927-29 collects the first twenty stories.

G Gales and McGill are aviators, adventurers and soldiers of fortune and they pop up just about everywhere in the coastal regions of East and South-East Asia - in Hongkong, in Singapore, in Saigon, in various parts of China. There is one story (Eagles of Ind) that takes them to British India and there is another story that takes them to Marseilles, Algeria and finally Morocco. Nebel had never actually been to any of these places and as a result they do come across in the stories as rather generic locations. There’s no real exotic atmosphere.

Aviation adventure stories enjoyed great popularity in the pulps in the interwar years. Some of the best writers of such tales (such as Donald Keyhoe) had been flyers themselves. Nebel was not. Nebel might not have been an expert in aviation matters but he did know how to tell an exciting story.

Gales and McGill will do a lot of things for money and are generally not troubled by concerns about the strict legality of the jobs they take on. They do however have definite moral standards. They are not cold-blooded killers. They have no compunction about fighting back if they are attacked, and they aren’t going to lose any sleep over killing in self-defence, but they won’t drop bombs on civilians or machine-gun civilians from the air. Since China was being torn by civil wars at this time and since Gales and McGill find themselves doing jobs for various Chinese warlord armies their moral qualms cause them some difficulties. The fact that they have taken on jobs for various factions is also perhaps one of the reasons that they are now not quite outlaws but are regarded with definite suspicion by the authorities throughout most of the Orient.

They seem to have particular problems with the French colonial authorities in Indo-China. While Gales and McGill do not always see humanity at its best and they have few illusions about human nature the only people for whom they seem to have a real dislike are the French.

Gales is the younger man and he’s the brains of the outfit. He can be daring and reckless but his risks are calculated risks. McGill is more impetuous. They’re a solid and loyal team. They are frequently broke and even more frequently drunk. They never met a brawl they didn’t like.

Pulp stories do tend to be formulaic. In fact they’re supposed to be formulaic. In my view the best way to enjoy collections such as this is to read one or two stories at a time and read the collection over a period of several weeks. Read too many in too short a time and their formulaic nature starts to become a bit too obvious.

These are straightforward adventure stories without any supernatural or science fiction elements, and without any traces of weird fiction. Gales and McGill take on a variety of jobs, from transporting packages or carrying messages to carrying passengers, they rescue people who need rescuing, they carry out aerial reconnaissance missions for warlord armies. In some cases they are forced to take on jobs against their will - warlords can be rather insistent. They always seem to run into danger of some kind, even when they try really hard not to.

They’re good-natured rogues. They’re not exactly in the Robin Hood mould. They like to get paid for what they do. Sometimes they actually do get paid, sometimes not. They do tend to be suckers for ladies in distress, especially if the ladies are young are pretty.

Naturally there’s plenty of action and hair’s breadth escapes from certain death and doing rescues. More interestingly in many of the adventures our heroes also find themselves faced with perplexing technical challenges. In one story they have to find a caravan in the vicinity of the Khyber Pass, land and pick up a vital letter and then take off again and get the letter back to Peshawar and they only have hours in which to do it. The problem in this case is that there is absolutely no way of landing anywhere near the Khyber Pass. It’s not dangerous - it’s entirely impossible. But they still have to get that letter and get it back to Peshawar. Fortunately there’s virtually no limit to their ingenuity. This is the sort of stuff that endears these stories to me.

It’s all good pulpy fun. Recommended.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth was the third of Helen McCloy’s mystery novels. It was first published in 1941. Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American writer who appears to be very highly thought of. I’ve had some very bad experiences with highly thought of crime writers so I approached McCloy with a considerable amount of trepidation.

There are some very worrying signs early on. First off the plot hinges around an imaginary truth serum (derived from scopalamine which is an actual drug sometimes used as a kind of truth serum). McCloy’s idea is that the new derivative is a perfect truth serum - if you take the drug you cannot avoid telling the whole truth. In fact of course no drug is ever going to perform in such a perfect completely predictable way. It’s just a plot device, and a rather silly one in my view.

Secondly, the detective hero is a psychiatrist (a Dr Basil Willing). Mercifully we don’t get a whole lot of silly Freudian psychobabble. We do get some silly psychobabble however.

The chemist who supposedly invents the miracle truth serum is Dr Roger Slater. He knew he was in for trouble when Claudia Bethune paid him a call in his laboratory. And sure enough Claudia steals his new truth serum. Now he’s going to have to go to the party she’s invited him to, and he dreads Claudia’s parties. Claudia’s idea of fun is to pick a person and then psychologically torture that person.

Claudia of course drops truth serum into her guests’ cocktails. She hears some truths she would have been better off not hearing, from her husband and his ex-wife. Also at the party is Peggy Titus (which is odd since she’s not the sort of moral degenerate usually to be found at Claudia’s parties) and Charles Rodney, general manager of the Renfrew Mills, the source of Claudia’s wealth. And of course Roger Slater. The party ends in extreme nastiness, like all of Claudia’s parties.

In the early hours of the following morning Dr Willing, who is staying at a beach house nearby, sees a light in the window of Claudia’s house and goes to investigate. He has almost walked in on a murder. The victim is not quite dead but expires within minutes.

Now we get to some of the odd things about this book. The police initially regard all of Claudia’s house guests as suspects as well as Dr Willing. In fact it is perfectly reasonable for them to suspect Dr Wiling. And then they suddenly lose interest in him as a suspect, for no reason whatsoever.

In fact the police seem to lose interest in the murder altogether. There doesn’t seem to be any actual investigation at all. Dr Willing is conducting his own personal investigation but the indifference of the police is never explained.

The reason for these odd things would appear to be that the author is not interested in the process of investigation. This is a detective story for people who like detective stories that have no detecting in them. The author is only really interested in the motives. Now there’s another odd thing. The suspects agree among themselves to pretend that none of them have motives. Later on they agree among themselves to pretend that all of them have motives. This makes no sense at all. There is no reason why suspects would want to do anything so strange. But the author thought it would be a cool idea. So what we get are characters who behave like characters in a bad detective story because that’s what the author wants them to do.

Finally at the very end McCloy decides some actual evidence is going to be needed. The crucial evidence could be said to be fairly clued except for the fact that the evidence is so outlandish that it really feels like it was pulled out of a hat.

By this stage you might be getting the idea that I didn’t like The Deadly Truth. You’d be right, but it’s only fair to point out that it does have some redeeming qualities. McCloy’s prose does sparkle occasionally and she can be witty and amusing. Unfortunately while such things can be a bonus in a well-plotted detective novel they are not enough on their own. And this is not a well-plotted detective novel. I’d give this one a miss.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Spider Strikes!

The Shadow having proved to be a successful hero for pulp magazine publishers Street and Smith it didn’t take long for their rivals Popular Publications to come up with a similar hero, The Spider. The Spider made his debut in The Spider Strikes! in 1933. At this time pulp magazines devoted to a single character were becoming all the rage. The Spider Strikes! was written by Canadian R.T.M. Scott (1882-1966) and was destined to be the first of the 118 Spider novel-length adventures. Scott also wrote the second Spider novel after which other writers took over (and the adventures would apparently get more outlandish).

The Spider is Richard Wentworth, a seemingly very wealthy young man with all the right social connections. His hobby, or rather his obsession, is fighting crime. In this first instalment he is on an ocean liner looking for a mysterious super-criminal. He takes time off from this hunt to deal with a card sharp who has ruined an otherwise decent man named Parsons who has a weakness for gambling. Wentworth has limited sympathy for Parsons but the man has a wife and family and is apparently kind to dogs. That’s reason enough for Wentworth to step in to retrieve Parsons’ losses. He does this by the simplest of methods - he murders the card sharp and retrieves the thousand dollars he won from Parsons. On the victim’s forehead he leaves a small red ink spider. This is the signature of the notorious Spider, for Richard Wentworth is none other than The Spider himself.

This is the latest of a series of murders carried out by The Spider, mostly in New York. Wentworth’s pal, New York Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick, has his suspicions that Wentworth might be The Spider. He has noted that The Spider only kills racketeers, thieves, ruffians and other types who need killing.

On arrival in New York Wentworth continues his search for the mysterious criminal mastermind. At the same time he has to watch out for the New York cops since The Spider is a wanted murderer.

Of course he encounters damsels in distress and femmes fatales and there is no way of telling which is which. Apart from his beloved Nita he has to assume that all women are dangerous. As for the master criminal he is hunting, Wentworth he has no idea what plans that individual has for the future. That he is planning a crime on the grand scale is certain, and it seems equally certain that the crime is likely to cause the deaths of a great many innocent people. The few clues that Wentworth has make that clear.

There are gunfights, fistfights, explosions, diabolical instruments of mass slaughter, kidnappings and fiendish cruelties. Naturally The Spider has to spend quite a bit of his time rescuing females from various decidedly unpleasant fates and naturally the chief villain of the piece attempts to strike at Wentworth through Nita. The body count is prodigious.

That chief villain is the one real weakness in the story. For much of the book he’s too shadowy and mysterious to be felt to be a real threat and the fact that we don’t know anything about his evil plot until very late in the story lessens his menace. The Spider really needs a more colourful and more flamboyant villain with whom to match wits.

The Spider Strikes! does an efficient job of introducing the regular characters and the basic setup. The Spider’s trademarks are the seal with which he leaves his spider mark on his victim’s corpses and his sartorial elegance - he invariably wears evening dress and an opera hat and carries a light cane which is actually a sword stick. The Spider’s garb would apparently become much more flamboyant in the later books. He also makes use of a super-powerful air pistol which is a deadly and silent killing machine.

Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider is assisted by his faithful and extremely useful Hindu manservant Ram Singh, and also by his girlfriend, the beautiful Nita Van Sloan (her faithful Great Dane Apollo also comes in handy).

The Spider is of course a vigilante killer but this first novel is careful to make his killings appear to be, technically at least, killings in self-defence. A vigilante killer hero was no problem but to present his slayings as cold-blooded premeditated murder might have been going a bit too far.

In the interwar years what might be termed righteous rogue heroes were immensely popular among both American and British readers. There were several such heroes featured in American pulps while in Britain reformed criminals like Blackshirt, The Baron and The Saint fulfilled a similar function. You might think the British versions would be less brutal but in fact The Saint could be every bit as ruthless as the most hardboiled American pulp hero, although his ruthlessness was perhaps rather less crude. The British righteous rogues were rather more polished and writers like Leslie Charteris were rather more sophisticated than R.T.M. Scott. The Spider does have some affinities with his British cousins though. Richard Wentworth is not merely a crime-fighting rogue, he is a gentleman rogue. He is not just rich but also decidedly upper-class. In fact much more upper class than The Saint. He is perhaps a much more violent version of John Creasey’s The Toff.

The Spider Strikes! is very very pulpy, extremely violent, fast-paced and generally enjoyable. The Spider himself has not yet established himself as a truly distinctive and colourful pulp hero but the fact that this novel was followed by 117 others suggests that that problem was probably later rectified. The Spider Strikes! is still fun and it’s recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

J.J. Marric's Gideon’s Day

In 1955 John Creasey (1908-73), possibly the most prolific writer in history (with around 600 novels to his credit), wrote Gideon’s Day which was to be the first of his twenty-one Commander George Gideon crime novels. This series, published under the pseudonym J.J. Marric, is widely regarded as being his greatest achievement.

In the first book in the series George Gideon is still a superintendent with the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard (he later rises to the much more exalted rank of Commander). He’s a big man, generally very well liked despite occasional outbursts of temper. Being such a senior officer he doesn’t have much chance to get out on the street and do hands-on investigating. He’s more like a general, marshalling his troops, making sure the right jobs get assigned to the right officers, and making the decisions as to what share of the resources at his disposal should be plotted to each of the many cases currently under investigation.

This is not a traditional puzzle-plot mystery and it is also most definitely not a psychological crime novel. It’s more like a police procedural but with the difference that rather than focus on a single investigation we get to see the C.I.D. dealing with a multitude of cases simultaneously. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day.

There’s a real focus on the seamy and violent side of London life in the 1950s - there are brutal murders, sex maniacs, dope fiends, crooked coppers, vicious assaults and a truly extraordinary mount of misery, squalor and despair. There is a popular theory that British crime fiction in the 50s was deeply affected by postwar pessimism and disillusionment and Gideon’s Day certainly lends support to that theory. At the same time it needs to be stressed that compared to many of the psychological crime novels of the era it does not wallow in the gutter to anywhere near the same extent and we don’t get treated to gruesome descriptions of graphic violence.

There’s also some focus on Gideon’s personal life. He is married with six children but while his marriage is by no means on the rocks it’s clearly not going as well as he’d like it to. He works very long hours and his wife Kate does make a few comments about jut how little time he spends with his family.

This particular day begins with one of Superintendent Gideon’s legendary rages. He has discovered that one of his sergeants has been taking bribes. He also has a series of mail van robberies to deal with and the Yard has so far made no progress at all on that case. Murder was certainly not a daily occurrence in 1950s London but this is a very bad day - an old woman is beaten to death, a child is murdered and there’s another death which Gideon fears may also be a murder. To cap it all off he has a problem with Birdy Merrick who is one of his most valuable informants - the problem being that someone is trying to kill Birdy. That cannot be allowed to happen - if the C.I.D. were to permit an informant to be killed they would soon find that no-one would be willing to provide them with information.

I personally prefer the puzzle-plot detective novels of the interwar years. Gideon’s Day tries very hard to be gritty and realistic and these are not qualities that appeal very much to me. Having said that I have to admit that if you do like this sort of thing then this is a very good book of its type. It’s also worth a look for its glimpses at the mean streets of 1950s Britain. There’s not much in the way of traditional detecting but there’s plenty of police procedural stuff. The most interesting thing about it is that all of Gideon’s successes are due to mistakes on the part of the criminals, which I suspect is pretty much how things are in real life.

While it’s perhaps not quite my cup of tea Gideon's Day offers a fascinating glimpse of day-to-day policing. The structure, with multiple simultaneous plot lines, works well and it’s entertaining. So it’s recommended, especially if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

There was a 1958 John Ford movie based (very very loosely) on the novel. In the mid-60s ITC did a 26-episode television series, Gideon’s Way, based on the novels. The TV series is reasonably faithful to the feel of the novels but with a few small changes - Gideon’s family life is a lot happier in the TV series and he doesn’t succumb to his celebrated rages.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Best of Murray Leinster (Del Rey paperback)

Of all the early masters of science fiction Murray Leinster (1896-1975) is perhaps the most underrated. He published his first science fiction story in 1919 and was still writing well into the 1960s. Del Rey’s paperback The Best of Murray Leinster includes the majority of his most admired and influential stories.

Sidewise in Time is almost certainly the earliest science fiction to deal with alternate universes/multiple universes. And it deals with these subjects in a remarkably ambitious manner, considering that the story dates from 1934.

Something very odd is happening. Viking longboats are sighted off the coast of modern Virginia. A Roman legion is marching through the streets of Joplin, Missouri. A man is killed by a dinosaur in Ohio. Professor Minott is an insignificant professor of mathematics at an insignificant college but he has figured out what is happening. More than that, he predicted it. And he has taken steps to survive. In fact he intends to do much more than survive.

Various parts of the Earth begin to oscillate between various timelines. The oscillations happen several times a day. Will they continue forever? Will things return to normal? Will our universe even survive? Professor Minott isn’t sure but he has a fair idea of the odds and he likes them. A remarkably clever and inventive story.

Proxima Centauri is from 1935. The Adastra is the first starship and after a voyage of seven years it is approaching Proxima Centauri. Hopes are high that an inhabitable planet may be found.  The Adastra is not so much a starship as an entire world. It is a sphere a mile in diameter and it is for all practical purposes entirely self-sufficient. It produces its own food. All water is endlessly recycled. It produces almost limitless energy. It could in theory undertake a voyage lasting hundreds of years, with its crew going through many generations before reaching their destination. This is one of several possible solutions to the difficulties of interstellar travel without exceeding the speed of light and this may well be the first science fiction story to explore this idea.

Leinster also explores the possible downsides. And they’re quite similar to the problems encountered on many of the early oceanic voyages of exploration. After a year or more at sea the crews tended to lose enthusiasm for the whole idea. They started to demand to return home. Disciplinary problems multiplied. Even mutiny was not unknown. And that’s what happens to the Adastra. Not actual mutiny, but an uneasy situation that could easily lead to mutiny.

And the Adastra is about to run into even bigger problems. Those who planned the expedition thought of almost everything, but there was one thing they failed to consider - what if there were inhabited planets orbiting Proxima Centauri but the inhabitants turned out to be unfriendly? What if they turned out to be unfriendly to an extreme degree? It might then turn out to be unfortunate that the Adastra is entirely unarmed.

Proxima Centauri deals with ideas that would later become commonplace in SF but it’s not only surprising to encounter them in 1935, it’s even more surprising to find them explored so cleverly.

The Fourth-dimensional Demonstrator combines humour, whimsy and an offbeat view of a possible time paradox. Pete Davidson had been hoping for a large inheritance from his uncle. All he ended up with was a fourth-dimensional demonstrator. At first it seems to be little more than an amusing toy, until Pete discovers that it can do something extraordinary  after all. It can bring an object forward out of the past. But what if the object already exists in the present?

First Contact deals with a dilemma facing the crew of a starship that has just made the first ever contact with an alien civilisation. And it’s a very tricky dilemma indeed. How can you possibly trust an alien species? And if you can’t trust them, certain very serious consequences logically follow. It’s a provocative and original story.

In The Ethical Equations a very junior officer finds himself having to shoulder an immense and unexpected responsibility. A derelict alien starship is drifting in our solar system, somewhere beyond Jupiter. Although derelict may not be the right word. This very junior officer slowly comes to realise the full significance of the situation. There’s a potential deadly menace but a tricky moral dilemma.

It’s rapidly becoming obvious that the immense and potentially catastrophic problems that contact with aliens would cause was a subject to which Leinster had given considerable thought. He is fascinated by the ethical perplexities which would confront us, the near impossibility of judging the possible intentions of aliens and by various dangers that might not be immediately obvious. Leinster doesn’t seem overly obsessed with scientific or technical details. He is more interested in the psychological and moral ramifications of first contact. And he deals with this subject with originality and intelligence.

Pipeline to Pluto deals with a stowaway, or at least a would-be stowaway, on an unmanned cargo flight to Pluto. It’s cheaper than paying for the fare for a regular spaceliner and they pay good money at the mines on Pluto so it sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong? Not as impressive as the other stories in this collection but it’s OK.

The Power is another first contact story, but a very unconventional one. Some very old letters have been found and they are the means by which the story is told. In the late fifteenth century a student of ritual magick named Carolus believes he has performed an impressive magical operation and has summoned a kind of demon. It is obvious to us that the demon is in fact an alien space traveller. He desires to pass on his knowledge to men and Carolus desires this knowledge but there is a problem. Their cultural backgrounds are simply too different to allow any meaningful communication. Carolus cannot conceive of knowledge in other than occult terms while the alien is patiently trying to teach him to construct high-tech machinery.

No matter how much goodwill there might be on both sides it might prove to be absolutely impossible to communicate with an alien species. There would simply be no intellectual common ground. It’s a great story, the best in the collection so far.

A Logic Named Joe is a remarkably prescient story dating from 1946. A logic is a kind of computer. Every home has one. They provide entertainment and information. All the logics are networked together so that each logic has access to just about every piece of information in existence. One of these logics, which the maintenance man who narrates the story calls Joe, has developed a curious fault. It has developed a kind of self-awareness, and it wants to be even more useful. It wants to offer advice to people. If you want to know how to do something you just have to ask your logic. Unfortunately the logics are now telling people how to do all sorts of things. If you want to know how to commit the perfect murder your logic will tell you. And Joe has managed to defeat the censoring mechanisms that were built in to the system. If Joe cannot be stopped civilisation will collapse. Another very clever and provocative story.

Symbiosis is a war story. The province of Kantolia has been invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Kantolia is defended by about fifteen customs guards and a handful of policemen while the invaders have an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands plus tanks and jet fighters. The situation is hopeless. The invaders don’t have a chance. You see Kantolia does have one defence. It’s a type of what would much later become known as asymmetric warfare. Another solid and original story, written in 1947.

The Strange Case of John Kingman is a very strange case indeed. John Kingman is a patient in a mental hospital. Nobody has taken much notice of him. He is assumed to be incurable. Then a young psychiatrist decides it would be worthwhile to have a close look at the records and he discovers something rather disturbing. John Kingman was admitted to the hospital 162 years ago. Things get more disturbing when the significance of the sketches drawn by the patient finally become apparent. John Kingman knows more about atomic energy than any living scientist. Much more. Not a bad story, and yes this 1948 story is in its own way yet another first contact story.

The Lonely Planet, dating from 1949, is the story of Alyx. Alyx is a creature that lives on the planet of the same name. In fact it is the only living creature on the planet. It covers most of the planet’s surface. Alyx is not quite animal and not quite plant. It has purpose but it lacks intelligence. Or at least it lacked intelligence until it encountered men. Alyx did not realise it was lonely until it encountered other creatures. Alyx wants only companionship. It has no desire to hurt anyone. It cannot even conceive of wanting to hurt anyone. But Alyx has developed intelligence very quickly, intelligence far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. Alyx is therefore a threat.

This story has some resemblances to Stanislaw Lem’s much later masterpiece Solaris. Alyx is not quite a sentient planet, but that’s what it becomes. The Lonely Planet is a remarkably ambitious tale of an encounter with an unimaginably alien intelligence. A superb story.

Keyhole from 1951, explores slightly similar themes to Lonely Planet. Against all the odds living creatures are discovered on the Moon. They seem quite primitive. At first. But not for long. This is another of Leinster’s obsessions - how alien civilisations impact on each other. Once two alien civilisations encounter each other the results are unpredictable and cannot be undone. Another intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

Critical Difference, written in 1956, is a struggle for survival on what seems to be a doomed planet. It’s a frozen planet to begin with but now it’s getting much much colder. Too cold to allow the colonists to survive. Colonial Survey Officer Massy has lots of ideas but every one of them seems to have a fatal flaw. If he can’t come up with an idea that will actually work it’s all over for the inhabitants of Lani III. Not one of the collections’s stronger stories but still quite good.

All in all this is a superb collection. Leinster was a science fiction writer who has clearly been criminally underrated. Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Max Murray’s The Voice of the Corpse

The Voice of the Corpse was published in 1948. It was Australian author Max Murray’s first detective novel.

On the surface this seems like an utterly conventional mystery, with its village setting and with the murder victim being a writer of poison-pen letters. Even by the standards of writer of poison-pen letters Angela Pewsey is a nasty piece of work. She likes to twist the knife as much as possible. Of course poison-pen letters are not really effective unless they contain a good deal of truth, which then puts the victims in a particularly unpleasant position - if they go to the police their dirty little secrets will be revealed to all the world.

After a while just writing the letters is not enough. Angela wants to torture her victims face-to-face. Of course when you thereby reveal yourself to your victims there’s an excellent chance one of them will decide to hit you over the head with a blunt object. Which is what happens to Angela Pewsey.

The local police have no doubt as to the explanation for the crime - it must have been committed by a stranger. Probably a tramp. It’s unthinkable that any of the villagers could have done the deed but tramps are always lurking about killing people. It must certainly have been a tramp. Not surprisingly the Chief Constable soon decides to take the matter out of the hands of the local police. He calls in Scotland Yard, and they duly despatch Inspector Tom Fowler to the scene.

But there is already a detective on the scene. Well, not actually a detective. Firth Prentice is the Sims family solicitor, Mrs Sims having requested his presence to offer advice on how to handle the poison-pen problem (her daughter Celia having received one of these letters).

So you might expect that this would be a typical story in which an amateur detective competes with the official police to find the solution and makes the police look like fools. But it’s not quite like that. Firth Prentice has no desire whatsoever to act the part of detective. When vital evidence in the form of a page from Angela Pewsey’s diary is dropped into his lap he is horrified, and he is relieved when the unbelievably stupid local police refuse to even look at the document. And nobody in the village (which by the way is called Inching Round) has any desire to see the crime solved. Firth takes no active steps until the very end when his hand is forced by the need to protect certain people and by his realisation that the official investigation might be going hopelessly astray.

The ending is clever, if morally very questionable.

The style is witty and rather tongue-in-cheek and the book is at times very amusing. In fact the style is the book’s strongest point.

Firth Prentice is a fascinating protagonist. He’s not just lazy and uninterested, he’s also remarkably irritable. His irritability stems partly from his horror at finding himself in the country, surrounded by people who bewilder and appal him.

It might sound like a traditional puzzle-plot mystery but it isn’t really. Alibis and physical evidence play no part whatever in the story. The plot is almost entirely motive-driven. Both the official police and Firth Prentice act on the (very dubious) assumption that once the motives are uncovered the whole mystery will be automatically solved. Unfortunately, for a story that relies so exclusively on motive, the motive that provides the key that finally unlocks the mystery is very unconvincing.

There’s also not a great amount of actual detecting. Two small boys from the village actually do more detecting than all the detectives, official and unofficial, combined. I don’t think I’d describe this as a fair-play mystery. The book’s total lack of interest in alibis, times of death or any kind of physical or forensic evidence means that there are very few clues. Everything comes down to motive, which means that everything comes down to psychology. The only significant physical clues are not revealed until almost the end of the book and they are simply drawn out of a hat. This is not really a detective story. It’s not quite a psychological crime novel either. Motivations are important but the book (mercifully) has no interest in the inner workings of any of the characters’ minds.

The Voice of the Corpse is quite entertaining but by 1948 crime fiction was already starting to take a seriously wrong turn, with intelligent plotting becoming less and less fashionable. Despite a good twist at the end the plotting in this book just doesn’t have the satisfyingly intricate quality that you find in works of the 20s and 30s. The golden age of crime fiction was drawing to a close. The Voice of the Corpse is maybe worth a look if you pick up a copy cheaply enough.