Thursday, August 28, 2014

John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet

To say that John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet, which was first published in 1951, is an unconventional detective novel would be a monumental understatement. I mean, how many fictional detectives enlist the help of Satan to solve the crime? And it involves time travel. This is definitely not your average crime novel.

In 1925 a historian becomes obsessed with a murder committed in 1675.  There seem to have been three possible suspects, but although several manuscripts exist that give an account of the events, none name the actual murderer. The historian makes a pact with the Devil, allowing him to travel back in time to 1675, and he finds himself inhabiting the body of the murder victim’s husband. He discovers that the accounts he has read of the crime do not tell the full story.  

He also soon finds himself caught up in the political intrigues of the day, of which there are many – intrigues involving Popish plots, conspiracies against the king, and the vexed problem of the succession (with King Charles II’s Catholic brother being the heir). He finds himself with enemies inside his household, and outside. 

The book is a combination of a clever murder mystery, a strange love story, a political thriller and an enjoyable adventure romp, with some fascinating insights into daily life in the 17th century to add extra interest and spice.  Considering that it was written in the early 1950s it’s also surprisingly frank in dealing with matters of sex. In some ways it has a very modern feel, somewhat akin to the wonderful genre-bending alternative history fantasy novels of writers like Tim Powers and Mary Gentle. In fact it’s a book I can recommend to fantasy and horror fans as well as crime fiction fans. An unusual but very entertaining novel.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Occult Files Of Francis Chard

Yet more occult detective tales! I do seem to be a bit obsessed by this odd genre. The slim volume The Occult Files Of Francis Chard includes ten such stories by A. M. Burrage (1889-1956).

Burrage is a writer whose entire literary output, produced over the course of a 50-year writing career, consists with one exception entirely of short stories. That exception was his memoir of his experiences in the First World War. That memoir achieved a modest success but much to Burrage’s disappointment it did not bring him the kind of recognition he had hoped for.

Burrage started publishing stories at the age of seventeen and he quickly discovered that he could produce the type of fiction that magazine editors wanted, and could produce it in immense quantities. He wrote enormous numbers of light romance stories but such reputation as he has today is based on his highly regarded horror stories. 

Burrage found that writing short stories for the magazine market was an easier way to make a living than attempting to break into the hardcover market. While it paid the rent it also seems to have frustrated him since it meant abandoning the idea of achieving literary respectability. This may have exacerbated another problem, his fondness for alcohol.

Francis Chard is one of the less colourful fictional occult detectives. We learn very little about him until the final story in the collection, The Girl in Blue, which reveals him to be a somewhat lonely character.

Like any good literary detective he has his Dr Watson, an equally colourless character by the name of Torrance.

These stories rely on mood and suggestion rather than terror. Indeed some are not the least bit frightening, nor were they intended to be. This is low-key suggestive supernatural fiction. The first story in this volume, The Hiding Hole, is very much in the mould of the traditional English ghost story, with its setting in an ancient country house and with the horror being rooted in events of the distant past. It’s a reasonably good story of its type.

Other stories are more interesting. The Soldier is, as Chard points out, a case of a haunted couple rather than a haunted house. They are haunted by a ghost who has pursued them from house to house, from place to place. It’s also a rather grim tale. The Protector on the other hand is the story of a ghost who is not merely benign but benevolent.

The Woman with Three Eyes may be the first example of the suburban ghost story, and the first ghost story to feature a ghost who employs modern technology, in this case the telephone. It’s one of several stories in this volume that show Burrage moving towards stories featuring modern ghosts in modern settings. 

Burrage was not a wealthy man nor did he come from an old and distinguished family. In stories such as this he writes about the sorts of ghosts that might be expected to haunt the houses of the lower middle classes, or even the working classes. These are not the ghosts of wicked noblemen, they are the ghosts of everyday people. If these ghosts committed crimes during their earthly lives they are likely to have been commonplace crimes. If they suffered great wrongs they were probably rather prosaic and even sordid wrongs. Some of his ghosts want revenge but most are simply lost souls.

Francis Chard does not hunt ghosts with gadgetry and he does not appear to base his ghost-hunting on any coherent theories of the occult. His main weapon is his understanding of people and his compassion. While his compassion is undeniable that is not to imply that he is, in the parlance of today, non-judgmental. Crimes have to be punished and sins have to be paid for. Burrage was raised as a Catholic and whether he remained a practising Catholic or not his Catholicism is clearly a major influence on his writing. Redemption is possible, forgiveness is possible, but these things do not come without a price.

These stories reveal Burrage as an important figure in the development of the modern ghost story. That is not to say that they are modern ghost stories - they are a fascinating blend of the traditional and the modern. Highly recommended. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe was the thirteenth of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries, appearing in 1938, and it’s a particularly baroque example of the golden age detective story.

This is one of several Perry Mason books in which the famous lawyer becomes involved in a case before an actual murder has occurred. In this instance Mason initially becomes involved in what seems like a very minor if puzzling case of shoplifting. Perry and his secretary Della Street have taken shelter from a rainstorm in a department store restaurant. An elderly woman has been accused of shoplifting. Perry is exasperated by the store detective’s obvious ignorance of the law and intervenes successfully on her behalf, and then treats the woman and her niece to lunch. The woman’s name is Sarah Breel, but why was she shoplifting? She is a fairly prosperous  widow and has never done anything like this before. Her niece Virginia Trent is a firm believer in Freudian psychological theories and explains her aunt’s odd behaviour in term of these theories. This affords Perry considerable amusement - he regards such theories with extreme scepticism.

Shortly afterwards Virginia Trent asks Perry Mason for help in somewhat stranger circumstances, involving her uncle’s indulgence in periodical alcoholic benders and some missing diamonds. Mason is intrigued by this family’s propensity for becoming mixed up in odd dramas and asks private detective Paul Drake to do a little digging on the subject. At this stage there’s no reason to suppose that any crime has been committed but Mason has a hunch that his services are likely to be required, and he’s right. Sarah Breel finds herself facing a charge of first degree murder.

When he was on top of his form Gardner could construct some delightfully outrageous plots, and he’s in very good form in this novel. The plots twists and turns in the most delightfully byzantine manner. There are two murders, two guns and two fatal bullets but the relationships between the murders, the guns and the bullets soon take on breath-takingly complex dimensions. 

The climax comes in an extended courtroom sequence in which Perry Mason throws a series of curve balls that leave Detective-Sergeant Holcomb and Assistant DA Sampson reeling. It’s a bravura performance by Mason, and a bravura performance by Gardner as the plot twists get twistier and twistier. 

While it’s perhaps not quite fair play, with Mason (and Gardner) having cards hidden up their sleeves, it’s still immense fun and the reader cannot help admiring the sheer inventiveness of the plotting.

Perry Mason is an interesting and slightly unusual golden age detective hero. He’s brilliant, but he differs from other equally brilliant fictional detectives in being somewhat morally ambiguous. His methods stretch legal ethics to breaking point and beyond, and in the early novels at least he is often guilty of conduct that is not merely unethical but positively illegal. In this respect  he bears some resemblance to rogue heroes like Simon Templar who are happy to bend or even break the law in the interests of justice. Perry Mason is in some ways even more morally ambiguous - he puts the interests of his clients before the interests of justice. In fact his only real morality is that he won’t betray a client. 

The early Perry Mason novels (I haven’t read any of the later novels) are dazzling and hugely enjoyable pyrotechnic displays. The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe is highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Female of the Species

The Female of the Species was the fifth of the Bulldog Drummond novels produced by H. C. McNeile (under the pseudonym Sapper). It first appeared in print in 1928. It’s one of the best of the series and is a must-read for fans of the British thriller stories of the 1920s.

Captain Hugh Drummond is perhaps the most politically incorrect of all the politically incorrect heroes of the British thrillers of the interwar years. Quite apart from this he is perhaps a hero who will not be to everyone’s taste, and McNeile is a writer who is not to everyone’s tastes. There’s a great deal of humour in the Bulldog Drummond books but it’s a blustering schoolboy style of humour. McNeile’s literary style is not exactly subtle. Personally I have no problems with his writing but it’s a case of your mileage vary vary.

A major asset to any thriller is a colourful villain of the diabolical criminal mastermind type. McNeile created such a villain in the early Drummond books and in this fifth book he gives us an equally colourful villainess.

At this point it would be as well to point out that the Bulldog Drummond novels really need  to be read in sequence, beginning with Bulldog Drummond. It is absolutely imperative that you read the four Carl Petersen books (Bulldog Drummond, The Black Gang, The Third Round and The Final Count). The first novel provides vital background information on Drummond and on the circle of friends who assist him in his clandestine activities. It also explains his initial motivations and the way in which his crime-fighting career began.

The Female of the Species takes up where The Final Count left off. For the benefit of those who have not read the four Carl Petersen novels I will be as vague as possible in talking about this book’s links to the four earlier volumes, and I will be as careful as possible to avoid giving away any spoilers to those volumes. Suffice to say that if The Final Count seemed to have closed a chapter The Female of the Species re-opens that chapter in a logical and highly satisfying manner.

One of the most hackneyed of thriller clichés is to have the villain capture the hero’s wife or girlfriend, with the hero then required to rescue her. This cliché forms the core of the plot of The Female of the Species and it is greatly to McNeile’s credit that he manages to make it not seem hackneyed. In fact he utilises it quite cleverly. The art of writing a great thriller is not to make it dazzlingly original but to employ the standard plot elements of the genre as skillfully as possible. This is what McNeile does here.

The novel’s villainess is holding Drummond’s wife captive, but she has little interest in Phyllis Drummond. Her objective is revenge, with not just Hugh Drummond as her target but Drummond and all his loyal followers. But this is not to be a simple revenge. It is to be a revenge worthy of a true diabolical criminal mastermind. The abduction of Phyllis Drummond is the first move in an elaborate psychological game.

The novel is narrated by a newcomer to Drummond’s circle. It has to be admitted that Joe Dixon has few qualifications for engaging in the perilous anti-espionage and anti-crime activities of Drummond and his crew. Dixon does however display a certain defiant pluckiness and that is enough to endear him to Drummond.

The novel builds to a climax that provides McNeile with the opportunity to indulge himself in a spectacular suspense set-piece. He throws in plenty of delightfully entertaining trappings including what can only be described as a gloriously elaborate infernal machine,

As for the politically incorrectness I promise earlier, this novel ticks just about every politically incorrect box one can think of.

Drummond is his usual larger-than-life self. He deals out summary justice to a variety of miscreants, he consumes huge quantities of ale, he cracks the sorts of jokes dear to the hearts of public schoolboys, he sings very loudly. He is never disheartened by setbacks, nor is he dismayed by the fact that much of the time he has no coherent plan to guide him. Drummond is the sort of hero who never considers the possibility that the ungodly might triumph.

The Female of the Species is immense fun. Highly recommended, but do read the four earlier Bulldog Drummond novels first.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was the fourth of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers has a huge reputation among people with a cursory knowledge of crime fiction. Such people are inclined to believe that detective fiction between the wars was overwhelmingly dominated by women, and they are inclined to overrate the importance of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The early Lord Peter Wimsey stories are quite effective pieces of detective fiction. Sayers however was ambitious to be seen as a writer of what would today be described as literary fiction (the sort of fiction that is admired by academics and shunned by readers). These ambitions would bear fruit in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night, a novel that excites academics very much indeed. 

Sayers would also introduce the character of Harriet Vane, Oxford graduate and aspiring writer of crime fiction. Harriet Vane was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy on the part of her creator and she would come to dominate the later Lord Peter Wimsey novels. It could be argued that Sayers’ literary aspirations were a major reason for her abandonment of detective fiction in the late 1930s.

In 1928 when The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was published the ghastly Harriet Vane had not yet made her appearance. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a relatively straightforward detective story, and a good one. There is some emphasis on psychological motivations, and even more particularly on the psychological wounds left by the war. One of the main suspects is a man who has never recovered from shell-shock, and Wimsey himself had been a victim of shell-shock. The major emphasis though is on the sort of puzzle plot that so delights fans of the detective fiction of the golden age.

The setup is quite wonderful, with the discovery that the aged General Fentiman who has been dozing in his favourite armchair at his club is not in fact dozing at all. He is stone dead. And has been for some considerable time. There is no way of knowing just how long  the general has been dead, a point which does not seem very important at first but will later became absolutely crucial.

On the very day that General Fentiman passes way his sister Felicity also goes to her eternal reward. The general and his sister have been estranged for many years, since she made a marriage that attracted the very strong disapproval of her family. Felicity had married a button manufacturer who became a very rich man. Her husband and her child are long deceased and Felicity has disposed of her very large fortune in a rather curious will. As a result of this ill-considered testamentary document it becomes vital to know whether the brother or the sister died first. Somehow the time of the general’s death will have to be established, and that is the task facing Lord Peter Wimsey.

Lord Peter’s investigations will turn up some unexpected and unwelcome evidence, evidence that points to murder.

The puzzle plot is cleverly worked out. The case at times becomes somewhat bizarre and even a little surreal, but it’s all highly entertaining.

Lord Peter Wimsey is a delightful character. Or at least he was at this stage before the ghastly Harriet Vane appeared on the scene. He’s a bit like Bertie Wooster if you can imagine Bertie Wooster hiding a brilliant mind behind his ridiculous mannerisms. Wimsey has mannerisms in great quantity, perhaps too great for the liking of some readers. I find him charming but I can understand those who find him to be rather excessive.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger

Goldfinger was the seventh of Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy thrillers. The popularity of the Bond books had grown steadily since the publication of the first, Casino Royale, in 1953. By 1959, when Goldfinger was published, they were well on their way to being an international rather than a purely British publishing phenomenon. 

The Bond novels started out as reasonably realistic espionage thrillers but by the time Goldfinger appeared they were starting to become rather more fantastic and to feature villains who were more in the diabolical criminal mastermind mould rather than the evil super-spy mould. It could be argued that this tendency first became apparent in the third book, Moonraker.

Goldfinger begins with Bond conducting a very minor investigation of his own. Waiting for a flight out of Miami he encounters a wealthy American businessman named Du Pont with whom he had become acquainted a few years earlier. Du Pont has been playing cards with a mysterious British millionaire named Auric Goldfinger. He is convinced that Goldfinger has been cheating him and he wants Bond to find out how it is being done. The curious thing is that Goldfinger is fabulously wealthy and has no reason to be cheating at cards for relatively insignificant amounts of money. Bond is intrigued by the psychological implications of this.

Bond and Goldfinger are destined to cross swords again. Soon after the events in Miami Bond finds himself assigned to investigate gold smuggling. The Bank of England is concerned that this is going on on a very large scale and they suspect that Goldfinger is involved.

Bond’s next meeting with Goldfinger sets up a characteristic Ian Fleming literary set-piece. Games play a key role in many of the Bond stories. Most often the games involve gambling on the grand scale. In some cases (as in Casino Royale) the games are crucial to the plot. More often these games have a psychological importance. They are the means by which Bond takes the measure of his opponents. They are tests of will power and nerve as well as skill. They are in fact bloodless duels, and they are usually the prelude to actual duels. In this case the bloodless duel takes place on the gold course, for very high stakes. It was a literary device that Fleming utilised with immense skill and it produced much of his best, and most gripping, writing. 

Goldfinger has another game in mind, for stakes that stagger the imagination. He is planning a robbery on a scale that no criminal in history had ever contemplated. It will require the co-operation of half a dozen of the world’s most notorious organised crime organisations, including the infamous New York lesbian gang leader Pussy Galore.

Auric Goldfinger himself is one of Fleming’s great creations, an outrageously larger-than-life criminal genius whose obsession with gold is both a strength and a potential weakness. His chief henchman Oddjob is equally memorable.

The Bond novels are remarkably politically incorrect and Goldfinger may well be the most politically incorrect of them all. It’s not just a matter of a few details - the  political incorrectness is woven into the very fabric of the novel. It is Fleming’s entire worldview that will upset the PC crowd. There is absolutely no way such a novel could ever be edited to make it PC. You can either take it or leave it. 

I would not consider this book to be top-flight Bond. It has breath-taking imaginative scope but I felt that the climax was just a little contrived. I think Live and Let Die and Moonraker are better and more completely satisfactory novels. Nonetheless Goldfinger is a great deal of fun. Even second-tier Fleming is very very good. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Murder Must Advertise (1973 TV adaptation)

Fans of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers might be interested in my review of the extremely good 1973 BBC television adaptation of Murder Must Advertise at my retro cult television blog.