Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Case of the Careless Kitten

The Case of the Careless Kitten appeared in 1942 and was the twenty-first of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. The famous lawyer finds that solving this particular crime will depend on his understanding of feline psychology.

Helen Kendal receives an unexpected message from her Uncle Franklin. The message is unexpected because Franklin Shore disappeared ten years earlier and is presumed dead. Even more surprising is that Uncle Franklin wants her to contact Perry Mason. Soon afterwards a man is found dead. It’s clear that his murder has something to do with Franklin’s disappearance but what the connection might actually be is obscure, even to Perry Mason.

Helen’s kitten has just survived a poisoning attempt. It’s just as well he survives since that kitten will later provide Perry Mason with a very crucial piece of evidence. Someone has also tried to poison Helen’s Aunt Matilda. The elderly and imperious Matilda has been insisting for ten years that her husband Franklin is not really dead and she has obstructed every attempt to probate his will.

This novel follows the standard Gardner formula pretty closely. Which is no bad thing - Gardner’s formula was a very effective one and he demonstrated great skill in varying it enough to keep things interesting. As usual Mason takes on a client who soon falls under police suspicion. As usual Mason is not content merely to defend his client but undertakes his own investigation with assistance from his faithful secretary Della Street and private eye Paul Drake (and in this case from a careless but very helpful kitten).

Gardner had been a very successful trial lawyer whose own methods were as unconventional (and as effective) as Perry Mason’s. A courtroom scene is an essential element in the Gardner formula. He was smart enough to realise that while such courtroom scenes could be dramatic it was important not to let them run on too long and, even more importantly, it was essential that they should actually advance the plot.

This novel further develops the tense adversarial relationship between Mason and District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Burger strongly disapproves of Mason’s unconventional and exceptionally flexible approach to the criminal law and in this book the conflict between the two men comes to a head. In fact Perry Mason actually goes close to losing his temper, and is moved to offer a vigorous moral defence of his methods. Mason’s argument is that constitutional protections have been slowly but inexorably undermined and that this raises a very serious danger that the law could be used as a tool of political oppression. Mason is so passionate about this that the reader can reasonably conclude that Gardner shared his fictional hero’s concerns about the vulnerability of political freedom. Mason’s conclusion is that the danger is so great that lawyers are justified in taking a very bold and courageous approach to defending their client’s rights.

It goes without saying that Burger’s hostility inspires Perry to push his unconventional methods to the limit. It also seems to inspire a real edge of bitterness. Making Perry Mason angry is not a very wise thing to do.

One intriguing feature of the Perry Mason novels is the number of times that animals provide vital clues - a kitten in this book, a parrot in The Case of The Perjured Parrot, a canary in The Case of the Lame Canary and there’s at least one Perry Mason novel involving a dog. It’s an interesting technique - after all an animal is a witness that cannot deliberately lie.

Gardner began his career as a hardboiled writer for the pulps. The influence of the hardboiled school is apparent in the very early Perry Mason mysteries but his overall approach in the Mason books places Gardner firmly in the puzzle-plot tradition of the golden age of detective fiction. And Gardner was very good indeed at puzzle plots. Towards the end Della expresses her frustration that Perry’s solution of the mystery seems so obvious once it’s explained, and it has to be said that the vital clues are all laid out in plain sight. Although it does help if you have a basic understanding of cat behaviour!

The Case of the Careless Kitten represents Gardner at the top of his form. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Wilhelm Meinhold's The Amber Witch

The Amber Witch is a German novel of witchcraft which became far better known in England than in Germany. The story behind the book is in some ways more intriguing than the book itself.

Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1797-1851) was a Pomeranian Lutheran pastor who achieved a certain degree of notoriety with his 1838 novel Maria Schweidler, die Bernsteinhexe. When published it was claimed to be an historical document, the record of a witchcraft trial during the Thirty Years War. It was in fact one of the great 19th century literary hoaxes, being an original novel by Meinhold cast in the form of a 17th century chronicle. Meinhold’s intention, in part at least, was to satirise the pretentions of the critic-historians of his own day. His particular targets were biblical critics such as David Strauss who cast doubt on the authenticity of Scripture. He hoped to discredit them by showing just how easily and completely they could be deceived. The fact that these scholars were in fact taken in by the hoax served to prove Meinhold’s point but not surprisingly it caused them a great deal of annoyance when Meinhold rather gleefully revealed the hoax.

This would have been no more than an interesting literary footnote had the novel not been translated into English by Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon’s translation, given the title The Amber Witch, proved to be immensely popular in Britain.

The story takes place on the Baltic island of Usedom during the 1630s. Maria Schweidler, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, is accused of witchcraft. She is the victim of a conspiracy by the local sheriff, who has designs on her honour. She is also the victim of the malice of a real witch. The story is narrated by Mary’s father. Mary is arrested and imprisoned, threatened with torture, and her fate is sealed by the treachery of the villagers who are too afraid to give evidence on her behalf.

The devastation caused by the Thirty Years War provides the historical backdrop and it also creates the kind of desperate situation in which people are tempted to do rather unwise things, and both Mary and her father certainly show rather dubious judgment in their efforts to escape from starvation and grinding poverty.

The Gallows Ghost, illustration by Philip Burne-Jones
While the book was indeed a hoax Meinhold had done his research rather thoroughly, making use of transcripts of actual 17th century trials for witchcraft and basing his tale to a certain extent on real people (and making use of actual historical incidents such as the arrival of the great Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus on Usedom). Meinhold also displayed considerable skill in capturing the flavour of 17th century writing.

It’s a little surprising that the hoax succeeded, given that the author is clearly poking fun at the rather foolish and superstitious narrator.

The setting (utilised quite effectively by Meinhold) and the historical background add considerable interest. 

The story itself is rather melodramatic, although in quite an enjoyable way. This melodramatic aspect should surely have provided another clue that this was a novel rather than an historical chronicle.

The Amber Witch gets off to a slow start but the story picks up steam once the accusations of witchcraft are made. Mary’s kind-hearted nature is one of the reasons she gets into trouble, especially when she unwisely tries to cure animals that have been bewitched (or thought to have been bewitched). Her father’s slightly eccentric behaviour and his odd blend of avarice and charity do not help.

This short novel is included in E. F. Bleiler’s excellent anthology (published by Dover in 1970), Five Victorian Ghost Novels (along with Mrs Riddell’s The Uninhabited House and Charles Willing Beale’s The Ghost of Guir House). The Dover edition includes illustrations by Philip Burne-Jones which originally appeared in the 1895 edition.

The Amber Witch is of considerable historical interest, being an early example of the novel disguised as historical document (a form Meinhold claimed to have invented), and it is quite entertaining in its own eccentric and melodramatic way. Worth a look.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Flashman and the Mountain of Light

Flashman and the Mountain of Light appeared in 1990 and was the ninth of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, chronicling the adventures of the notorious cad and unlikely Victorian hero.

Apart from being among the most entertaining examples of historical fiction one is ever likely to come across the Flashman novels have the added bonus that Fraser knew his Victorian history and the historical backgrounds are generally pretty accurate. Another plus is that they include copious endnotes, a feature some people dislike in novels but that I’m personally very partial to. In the Flashman books the endnotes are as much fun as the novels themselves.

Harry Flashman was a minor character in the immensely popular popular Victorian novel Tom Brown’s School Days, in which he appears as a drunkard and a bully. In his 1969 novel Flashman Fraser decided to turn him into a hero, or rather an anti-hero. After being expelled from Rugby for drunkenness Flashman joins the army and participates in the catastrophic First Afghan War. He quickly shows his true colours. He is a bully, a womaniser, a drunkard, a coward and an all-round cad. By pure good luck and quite undeservingly he ends the book acclaimed as a hero (helped by the fact that he is one of the very few survivors and therefore everyone who knows the truth about his lies and cravenness is dead).

Flashman proved to be such a huge success that it was followed by no less than eleven sequels recounting Flashman’s exploits in most of the great colonial wars of the 19th century.

Flashman and the Mountain of Light describes Flashman’s experiences in the Punjab during the First Sikh War of 1845-46, which happens to be one of the most fascinating and bizarre of all Britain’s colonial wars. As usual Flashman does his level best to avoid becoming involved in anything even mildly perilous, and as usual he ends up being in the thick of the action. Both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. As so often Flashman finds that the action in the bedroom is the more dangerous, especially when the bedroom belongs to the Rani Jindan. In the course of his career Flashman gets mixed up with some of the most extraordinary women of the 19th century and few were as extraordinary, or as dangerous, as the Rani Jindan.

Flashman deals with the situation in his customary manner and as always it seems that no matter how hard he tries to play the coward he still ends up being the hero.

Harry Flashman could easily have been one of the most unpleasant of all literary anti-heroes. That he ends up being a perversely likeable rogue is due partly to his honesty about his own many failings but also due to the fact that he does have some actual virtues.  He might be dishonest and cowardly but he’s also an intelligent and perceptive observer of the historical events in which he becomes embroiled. In fact more often than not his understanding of the situation is more clear-sighted and realistic than that of the men who are supposedly running the British Empire. It has been said that Britain acquired its empire in a “fit of absent-mindedness” and that can perhaps be seen as one of the major themes of the Flashman novels.

As always Fraser’s prose is delightful, the book is packed with outlandish incidents and the more outlandish the incident the more likely it is to be based on actual history, and Flashman is as gloriously debauched and as cowardly as ever. It’s all great fun.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks

Too Many Cooks was the fifth of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, appearing in 1938. The most unusual feature of this novel is that none of it occurs in New York City. Considering that Nero Wolfe hates the idea of even leaving his house, much less the city, that is certainly rather startling.

What could have tempted the gargantuan detective away from his familiar West 35th Street brownstone? Only one thing - a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, a club comprising the world’s fifteen greatest chefs. They meet every five years and this year Wolfe, whose fame as a gourmet approaches his fame as a detective, is their guest of honour. Their 1937 meeting is to take place as Kanawha Spa in West Virginia, and it turns out that murder is likely to be on the menu! Philip Laszio is the most famous of the chefs, and the most hated. His fame has been based on the theft of recipes, the poaching of talented assistants and various other forms of chicanery. Virtually every member of Les Quinze Maîtres has a motive for murdering Philip Laszio.

Murder does indeed take place. Wolfe is not especially interested. He is offered very generous fees by several interested parties but to undertake the investigation might entail his having to stay in West Virginia for a few days, something Wolfe regards as a fate worse than death.

Fate will however (naturally) conspire to involve him in the case despite his best attempts to avoid it.

Archie Goodwin has of course accompanied Wolfe to Kanawha Spa. Which is just as well since the best thing about the Nero Wolfe books is the verbal sparring between Archie and Woolfe.

The presence of fifteen of the greatest living chefs, drawn from all parts of the civilised gastronomic world, adds a good deal of colour and also gives Wolfe the opportunity to instruct Archie in the proper appreciation of the culinary arts (which Wolfe regards as being far more important than such trivialities as literature, architecture of painting).

Rex Stout was a man of very decided political opinions. Thankfully these opinions did not intrude to any significant degree in the first four Nero Wolfe books but alas in this story he does become quite preachy at times. It’s not enough to wreck the novel but it is a little heavy-handed at times.

A theme that recurs constantly in 20th century American popular culture is the conflict between urban America and rural America. This generally takes the form of a contempt mixed with fear, almost to the point of paranoia, on the part of urban protagonists towards their country cousins. This theme plays a major role in Too Many Cooks. The inhabitants of West Virginia are almost without exception portrayed as stupid knuckle-dragging rednecks.  Stout was not himself city-bred but he certainly seemed to pick up an extraordinary animosity towards rural America. Or perhaps he simply loathed West Virginians!

Despite these authorial quirks this is an entertaining enough mystery and like all the Nero Wolfe tales it has plenty of amusing moments. 

While it seems to be very highly thought of I confess to preferring the earlier Nero Wolfe books such as The Red Box, The Rubber Band and The League of Frightened Men. While it’s fun seeing Wolfe taken out of his natural habitat the fact remains that New York, Wolfe’s brownstone and his orchid rooms are part of the package (in fact they are almost characters in themselves) that makes these books so delightful and their absence from this book is a slight weakness.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Larry Niven’s Ringworld

It’s pretty embarrassing for a science fiction fan to have to admit to not having read Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld. I have now rectified this shameful oversight.

Niven is generally regarded as one of the leading exponents of Hard SF. His work could also I guess be seen as a reaction to the excesses of the New Wave.

There’s not much point in saying too much about the plot, given that if you’re a science fiction reader you’ve almost certainly read this book. Louis Wu, a 200-year-old human, is recruited by an alien (a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus) to form part of a four-member exploration team. The team comprises Louis, Nessus, a human woman named Teela Brown and a Kzin (a cat-like alien) known as Speaker-to-Animals. The Puppeteers are fleeing Known Space to escape the consequences of a galactic core explosion. And in the course of their emigration they have discovered something very odd, something that worries them (and almost everything worries the Puppeteers). They have discovered the Ringworld.

The Ringworld is an artificial ring-shaped structure encircling a star. The inner surface of the ring is habitable and it encompasses an area several million times the surface area of the Earth. The builders of the Ringworld must be very advanced indeed. The Puppeteers themselves are technologically extraordinarily advanced (far more so than humans) and they can’t even begin to imagine how such a vast structure could have been built. Any technology that might be considerably more advanced than their own frightens the Puppeteers. 

The four explorers set out for the Ringworld in a spaceship christened the Lying Bastard on account of the fact that it appears to be unarmed but is in fact armed to the teeth. The curious thing is that as they approach the Ringworld all their attempts to establish contact with its inhabitants fail. They crash on the inner surface and make some very surprising further discoveries.

Ringworld is certainly a novel packed with ideas. Some of the ideas are brilliant, some are wildly speculative and some are quite far-fetched. All the ideas are however thought-provoking and cleverly developed. The most startling idea is the suggestion of selective breeding to produce lucky humans. If you can breed for other characteristics, why not luck? What makes the idea interesting is the way Niven develops - luck turns out to be a two-edged sword and lucky humans are not necessarily lucky for other people.

Niven is equally clever in dealing with the cowardice of the Puppeteers. While the Kzin are warlike and aggressive the Puppeteers are timid to a pathological degree. It turns out that the aliens that one should be worried about are not the aggressive ones but the cowardly ones.

The Ringworld itself is a remarkable feat of imagination. It’s not just the concept - it’s the sheer mind-numbing vastness of this world.

Also fascinating are the suggestions that a civilisation might be incredibly advanced and yet have blind spots (despite their awesome achievements the Ringworld builders do not seem to have discovered the secret of faster-than-light travel) and that no matter how advanced a civilisation might be things can still go wrong. Badly wrong.

The secret to creating genuinely interesting aliens is not to make them physically bizarre (although the Puppeteers are pretty bizarre) but to make them radically alien in their culture and their outlook on life. It’s even better if you can make them both psychologically consistent and sympathetic. Niven does this rather successfully. The behaviour of both Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus would be strange and unsettling in a human but they behave in ways that make perfect sense for a Puppeteer or a Kzin. We might disapprove of Nessus but we can see his point of view. And Speaker-to-Animals is rather likeable.

Niven’s speculations on the future of human society are also provocative. Louis Wu lives in a world in which any part of Earth can be visited instantly. But there’s no point in going anywhere because everywhere is exactly the same as everywhere else. And wherever you go the people are exactly the same as they are everywhere else. The human race has become a giant melting pot that has been melted a little too much. 

Ringworld has everything you could ask for in a hard SF novel and it’s entertaining and it has that “sense of wonder” that science fiction fans used to value so highly. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Red Road to Shamballah

The Red Road to Shamballah was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures in 1932 and 1933. The author, Perley Poore Sheehan (1875-1943), was an American who wrote screenplays as wells as novels and short stories.

The Red Road to Shamballah is a fine and fairly typical example of the pulp adventure story. It is not quite a lost civilisation tale although it has very strong affinities with that genre. 

The book was serialised in eight parts. It’s an episodic novel rather than a collection of linked short stories.

Pelham Rutledge Shattuck is a young adventurer. Although he is an American he was born in China, has lived most of his life in the East and speaks a variety of Asiatic languages fluently. His thirst for adventure has taken him to Tibet, and to a strange encounter with some Tibetan monks. As a result of this encounter he has become known as Shadaq Khan, which means (very roughly) Captain Trouble. He has also acquired the sword of Kublai Khan, and more importantly he has acquired a destiny - to restore the empire of the Mongols (an empire that at its peak was so vast it was simultaneously fighting European knights and Japanese samurai).

His subsequent adventures take him to the Gobi Desert and to various other parts of western China. This was the latter part of the warlord period in China, with not just rival warlords but the chinese communists and the Japanese all contending for mastery of that country. Tibet and Afghanistan are enduring similarly unsettled conditions.

Shadaq Khan acquires a number of allies, including a half-American Tibetan monk and a fierce but brave and loyal Afghan hill chieftain. Shadaq Khan finds himself battling gun-runners, corrupt warlords, the Tongs and an evil sect of Tibetan monks. 

Shadaq Khan is a typical square-jawed American pulp fiction hero but with a much greater sense of destiny, and much grander ambitions, than most such adventurers. This story clearly owes a certain debt to Kipling’s superb tale The Man Who Would Be King.

There’s plenty of action and a great deal of betrayal and perfidiousness. There are poisonings, there are plots, kidnappings, torture and murder. There are hidden fortresses, mysterious caves and isolated lamaseries. Our hero also encounters two lost subterranean races and a fabled lost city which he intends to rebuild as his capital. He will also encounter the Dalai Lama, under very unexpected circumstances.

There are also definite hints of magic. The supernatural elements are mostly downplayed but they’re all the more effective for that - Sheehan relies on the suggestion of subtle magical powers rather than making the mistake of allowing such elements to overwhelm his story.

One interesting feature is that Tibetan monks in this story can be wise and gentle sages or they can be murderous ruffians. In fact that’s true of all the races the hero comes into contact with - some are good, some are evil.

And there’s an abundance of villains, some of them very nasty indeed. Pulp fiction of this era often has hints of sadism and such hints are certainly present here.

This is one of many splendid pulp titles rescued from obscurity and made available to us by Black Dog Books.

The Red Road to Shamballah is a fairly short book but it’s fast-paced and packed with adventure and thrills and Shadaq Khan’s plan to revive the empire of Kublai Khan certainly gives it an epic scope. Sheehan’s style is pure pulp fiction but it’s effective. Shadaq Khan is a fine hero with a hint of ambiguity - he’s brave and noble but he’s ambitious and he can be ruthless. It all adds up to great pulp entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Golden Age of Murder

Martin Edwards’ study of the golden age of detective fiction, The Golden Age of Murder, has now been published in the UK. 

Martin has been an enthusiastic proponent of golden age detective fiction for quite a while now and has contributed introductions to the British Library’s very successful series of classic mystery reprints (the Crime Classics series) which have apparently already sold more than a quarter of a million paperbacks. The Golden Age of Murder should be well worth reading. 

Martin’s blog is also very much worth checking out.