Monday, August 13, 2018

The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight vol 1

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was one of the most interesting of American pulp writers. He had a succession of careers, all of them fascinating.

Initially he joined the Marine Corps and became a pilot but that was cut short a few years later by a plane crash. Then he acted as manager for a couple of pioneer aviators undertaking national publicity tours. One of these aviators was a guy called Lindbergh. That inspired Keyhoe to write a book about Lindbergh, which became a bestseller. Then he became a prolific and very successful writers for the pulps, in a variety of genres. Finally, after the Second World War, he made his most successful career of all out of UFOs. He wrote a bestselling book on the subject, Flying Saucers Are Real, followed by further books and articles and lectures and he became a recognised authority on the subject.

As a pulp writer his most notable achievements were his aviation action adventure stories. What made Keyhoe’s stories particularly interesting is that he combined aerial combat, espionage, science fiction and the supernatural. He not only combined these elements, he did it with consummate skill. Keyhoe wrote a vast number of stories featuring Philip Strange, a First World War fighter pilot and intelligence agent who uses his paranormal skills against enemies both human and inhuman. These stories can be found in several collections, beginning with Strange War. His Vanished Legion stories are just as good.

His other major series character was Richard Knight, a post-war sporting aviator and barnstormer who is actually a U.S. secret agent. Several collections of these stories are now available from Age of Aces Books, beginning with The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight Volume 1. The four novellas in this collection originally appeared in the pulp magazine Flying Aces in 1936 and 1937.

Vultures of the Lost Valley is not only a spy thriller with lots of air combat, it’s also a lost world tale (and lost world stories happen to be one of my favourite genres). It all starts when Richard Knight rescues a pretty girl from a stolen aircraft. She speaks Spanish only but what’s really weird is that she gives the impression that she has never seen an aircraft, or an automobile, before. She seems to have no knowledge of the modern world. She’s also in possession of a famous and fabulously valuable emerald though to have been lost for a century. Benita (that’s the girl’s name) has another problem - there are quite a few people trying to kill her.

Richard Knight can’t help wondering if there’s any significance in the fact that he spotted notorious Japanese master spy Hiroki. He knows there’s definitely something strange going on when the Northrop aircraft in which he and his buddy Doyle are flying is attacked by American fighter planes. The really strange thing is that these American planes don’t exist - only twenty of these new Drake PV-11 fighters have been built and all twenty were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the Drake factory. They may no longer exist but they looked pretty well when they jumped him.

There is of course a dastardly conspiracy behind all this and it’s an immediate national security threat.

This is typical Keyhoe, packed with action and intrigue and with just enough of the weird and inexplicable to add some spice. A very fine story.

It’s very important to read Vultures of the Lost Valley before any of Richard Knight’s other adventures, otherwise you’ll be rather confused about where the beautiful but slightly odd Spanish girl who wants to be a secret agent fits into the picture.

Hell Flies High has a wonderfully macabre opening. Knight and Doyle are flying towards Washington when they encounter a Douglas airliner. This aircraft is an aircraft of death. They then get jumped by a French Morane-Saulnier fighter with Soviet markings, and an Italian Breda. The French fighter and the Italian fighter seem to be trying to shoot down the Douglas airliner, and Knight’s Northrop, and each other! And this is happening within a few miles of Washington.

And things get stranger. The green blood is worrying. Naturally there’s a gigantic conspiracy behind these events but there’s no telling exactly what the nature of the conspiracy might be except that it involves some kind of secret weapon. In fact multiple secret weapons, of horrifying destructiveness. It all leads up to aerial battles in the stratosphere where aircraft attain unimaginable speeds and the air in the pressurised cabins can cook a man and sounds do strange things. Really high altitude flight was still science fiction in 1937 and Keyhoe’s wild speculations about the stratosphere add to the wonderfully bizarre feel of this story.

Hell Flies High is Keyhoe piling on the weird stuff and this is where he’s at his very best. A terrific story.

Death Flies the Equator pits Knight and Doyle against the Four Faces, a vast international criminal organisation that for some reason is taking an extraordinary interest in the development of a new trans-Pacific airline route. It’s not clear why these crime lords would want to stop the air route from being used. And why would they want to steal one of the Clippers, the gigantic flying boats that dominated international air travel in the 1930s.

Knight finds himself working with the Royal Navy on this case. British commercial interests are threatened by the Four Faces. The British are also upset about the disappearance of half a dozen of the seaplanes and they’re even more upset abut the aircrews being turned into zombies.

Knight soon figures out that there’s really no-one (other than Doyle) that he can trust. The Four Faces have agents everywhere. There’s a very high paranoia quotient in this story.

There’s also, as usual, non-stop action and thrills and countless aerial combats. Great stuff.

Falcons from Nowhere has a pretty sensational opening. Richard Knight suddenly blacks out for no good reason and then regains consciousness half an hour later. That would be disturbing at any time but it’s positively alarming when it happens when you’re in flight. Lucky the auto-pilot was engaged!

There's worse to come. There’s a horrible disease that can turn a person to stone but it seems like someone has found a way to inflict this disease instantly and at will. There are also aircraft that can be heard but not seen. And aircraft that just vanish. It’s part of a diabolical criminal conspiracy and Knight suspects that he’s dealing with an old enemy that he thought had been destroyed. It’s vintage Keyhoe. An excellent story, which makes four excellent stories out of four

Keyhoe had a knack for working firmly within the conventions and limitations of pulp fiction but at the same time managing to make his work slightly more interesting than most pulp stories. His heroes were just a little bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes, he put some imagination into his villains and his plots are pleasingly outrageous without becoming merely silly. This is pulp fiction, but it’s A-grade pulp fiction. He was also very good at combining the fast-paced aviation action adventure stuff with the weird fiction stuff.

For my money Keyhoe was one of the most consistently entertaining of pulp writers. His output was vast but the good news is that a goodly proportion of that output has been published in book form in the past few years.

This collection is very highly recommended.

Monday, August 6, 2018

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court was published in 1937 and it starts off in a very gothic fashion. A man named Edward Stevens works in the editorial department of a fairly prestigious publishing house. He takes the train to his cottage at Crispen, not far from Philadelphia. He intends to occupy his time on the train reading a manuscript. The manuscript is by an author who specialises in accounts of forgotten but fascinating murder trials. Stevens has a shock in store for him. The manuscript includes a photograph of murderess Marie d’Aubray who was guillotined in 1861. But Marie d’Aubray is his wife’s name, and the woman in the photograph doesn’t just resemble his wife. She is his wife. There can be no doubt of it. Except that this woman was executed in 1861 and his wife is alive and well in 1929 (when the novel takes place).

Carr had a real affinity for the gothic and he lays it on good and thick in this tale. He gives us ghostly apparitions, a woman who walks through walls, body-snatching, ancient hereditary evils and gruesome scenes in crypts. We never really believe there’s anything supernatural going on (Carr at this stage of his career was not going to transgress such a crucial convention of the genre) but it does succeed in giving us the feeling that something sinister is definitely going on. There might not be any ghosts but there’s certainly been dirty work at the cross-roads.

Stevens’ cottage is not far from the estate of the Despard family. Old Miles Despard (who was actually only middle-aged has recently died) and his considerable fortune will go to his younger brother’s three children Mark, Edith and Ogden. Stevens and Mark Despard are on very friendly terms so Stevens agrees to a very curious request from Mark - to join him in a spot of grave-robbing. All in a good cause.

There is some question mark over the death of Miles. The cup that is known to have contained arsenic is a definite worry. The lady who was seen to visit Miles and then left his room through a non-existent door is also a slight cause for concern.

The fortune left by Miles provides obvious motives. There are however some very strong links to celebrated cases of poisoning that occurred in the past, one in the nineteenth century and one in the seventeenth (incidentally the burning court of the title is a seventeenth-century tribunal that meted out justice to poisoners). Those poisonings seemed to have been motivated by something much more evil than mere hope of monetary gain.

This is John Dickson Carr so of course you’re expecting a locked-room puzzle. Actually you get two impossible crimes, or at least two criminal situations containing impossibilities, including a locked-crypt puzzle!

This is not just a detective story with gothic trappings. While it is a detective story it is also a true gothic novel, with the gothic elements fully integrated into the story and handled with skill and also surprising subtlety. It’s unusual for 1930s Carr in having an American setting. This was an interesting and obviously deliberate choice on his part - he’s giving us a story of murder and evil with roots going back several centuries and with references to seventeenth century books on witchcraft so it would have been an obvious move to set in a decaying castle in England or central Europe but Carr sets it in a decaying seventeenth century mansion in Philadelphia, which gives us a wonderful collision of the gothic and the modern.

Carr delivers some bravura plotting in this novel. So many clues, and so many of them so ambiguous, so much misdirection. This is a novel that does not rely on the impossible crime problem. That’s just another element in a fantastically intricate plot with alibis being set up and then exploded with abandon.

We also get a very unusual detective although you won’t know that until quite late.

And then there’s the ending, and I am most definitely not going to offer even the slightest hints as to its nature. This is an ending that you most emphatically do not want to have spoiled. All I will say is that it’s not only the most controversial ending Carr ever wrote it’s possibly the most controversial ending in golden age crime fiction.

I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about the ending but there’s no question that The Burning Court is an unusual and fascinating novel filled to bursting point with staggering amounts of brilliance. Even if you decide you hate it you won’t forget it.

Once you’ve read the book you might want to check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event. There’s  a lively discussion of that ending in the comments section. But read the book first!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Peter O’Donnell's Modesty Blaise

The 1965 novel Modesty Blaise has a rather interesting history. English writer Peter O’Donnell (1920-2010) created the Modesty Blaise comic strip in 1963. It was wildly successful and appeared regularly for nearly forty years. A Modesty Blaise movie seemed like an obviously good idea. But the choice of director was going to be tricky. The movie would have to be light-hearted, sexy, funny and exciting. Joseph Losey had never made a light-hearted, sexy, funny or exciting movie in his life so naturally he was selected for the job. Not surprisingly the movie was generally regarded as a train wreck and did not set the  box office on fire (although it has its weird charms). But that’s not the end of the story.

Peter O’Donnell had been employed to write the screenplay and was also offered the opportunity to write a novelisation of the film. Very little if anything of O’Donnell’s screenplay made it into the film but he based his novelisation on his original screenplay. The novel appeared in 1965, the year before the film, and was a huge success. O’Donnell would go on to write another ten Modesty Blaise novels as well as a couple of short story collections.

The novel gives us some of Modesty’s backstory. She is of indeterminate ethnicity and indeterminate age. In 1945, aged around twelve, she had been in a Displaced Person’s Camp in the Middle East. A few years later she was running a large and very successful criminal empire with an Englishman named Willie Garvin. Their criminal activities were highly varied but they steered clear of drugs or vice. Jewel and art thefts were a particular speciality. They did however dabble in freelance espionage. At the age of twenty-six, having become extremely rich, she decided to retire. For some odd reason she had always intended to retire to England, which is why she was very careful in her espionage activities not to do anything that might be construed as being unfriendly to the interests of Her Majesty’s Government. She lives in extreme luxury in a London penthouse.

And now Tarrant at the British secret service needs her help. It’s all to do with a sheikh who needs to be buttered up, to the tune of ten million pounds, and he wants the money in precious stones. And Tarrant has very good reason to think than an attempt is going to be made to steal the stones, and by a group that knows its business. Stealing jewels was something that Modesty Blaise used to be very good at so it stands to reason that she’s uniquely qualified to protect jewels from other people with similar skills and similar larcenous intentions.

Tarrant has been a spymaster for a long time and his judgment of people is pretty good. He considers and rejects the idea of blackmailing or coercing Modesty into coöperating. She’ll be more useful if she’s willing and most importantly Tarrant has figured out that she is actually bored in retirement. She has no desire to return to a life of crime but she misses the excitement of that life. Doing jobs for the Secret Service will be the perfect cure for her boredom. And his assessment turns out to be absolutely correct. Modesty Blaise is addicted to danger and excitement.

The first step will be to rescue Willie Garvin, her former partner-in-crime, devoted friend and invaluable lieutenant. He’s currently awaiting execution in a South American gaol. Modesty will definitely have to do something about that. Having done that their assignment is to use their extensive underworld connections to find out how the diamonds are going to be stolen, and then take steps to foil the robbery. In practice this will require them to get deeply involved with the gang behind the heist, and a very dangerous gang it is too.

While the novel adheres fairly closely to the James Bond formula (exotic locations, glamour, wealth, gadgets, an outrageous plot involving an intricate criminal conspiracy, violence, sex and a hint of sadism) Modesty herself is a kind of anti-James Bond. Bond is essentially an Establishment type. He’s an officer and a gentleman. And while he’s prepared to all sorts of things in the line of duty in his private life he’s very much a law-abiding citizen. He also has rather old-fashioned views on most subjects. Modesty is a street urchin made good, she’s an unrepentant criminal and her views on subjects such as sex and marriage would not meet with Bond’s approval. Bond is a professional spy. Modesty is a professional criminal and amateur secret agent. Bond generally obeys orders. Modesty doesn’t actually take orders from Tarrant at all. He did her a favour and she’s repaying the debt but she’s going to do the job her way or not at all. In fact the only thing Modesty has in common with Bond is that they inhabit, broadly speaking, the same genre.

There’s quite a bit of sex in this book but at least it’s not graphic. The violence is rather more confronting, certainly by mid-60s standards. Modesty and Willie kill when they deem it necessary and without any hesitation whatsoever and they certainly don’t believe in giving the bad guys a sporting chance. They are quite exceptionally ruthless. OK, they only ever kill bad guys but they kill a lot of bad guys.

This kind of pulpy spy thriller needs a larger-than-life super-evil villain and Gabriel fulfils that rôle admirably. He’s a criminal genius, a sadist and a fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons.

While there are the obvious affinities with Bond-style spy thrillers this is really a caper story. Gabriel is a villain on a very large scale, in fact on the kind of scale on which Bond villains work, but he is only interested in grand larceny, not world domination. It has to be said that the heist which is the centrepiece of the whole tale is a pretty good one.

One amusing feature is O’Donnell’s obsession with giving us lovingly detailed descriptions of various weapons and associated paraphernalia such as shoulder holsters, and the special harness for Willie’s knives (Willie prefers knives to guns). There are also the gadgets Willie makes for Modesty. He might not have the vast resources of the British Secret Service but he has a real gift for devising deadly little toys for his friend. And on the subject of gadgetry, while Batman has his utility belt Modesty has her utility bra.

Given Modesty Blaise’s you might expect the novel to have a bit of a comic strip feel. It does, up to a point. It’s fast-paced and the emphasis is on action. It’s fairly light-hearted in tone, but with a few darker moments and with copious quantities of violence. Modesty and Willie are likeable enough and despite their comic strip origins they are a little bit more than just cardboard cutout characters.

The only other Modesty Blaise novel I’ve read is Last Day In Limbo which was the eighth book in the series. It appeared in 1976 and while it’s interesting and quite enjoyable it does have a slightly different feel to the first novel. It’s still worth a look.

Modesty Blaise offers high-octane entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Christianna Brand's Tour de Force

Tour de Force, published in 1955, is one of the later books of Christianna Brand who was herself one of the later writers of the golden age of the detective story. It features her usual series detective, Inspector Cockrill.

Cockrill is on the wrong side of middle age and a bit on the scruffy side. He’s what you might call a quiet eccentric.

For reasons which even Inspector Cockrill himself could not explain he has signed up for a Conducted Tour with an outfit called Odyssey Tours. It is to be a Mediterranean tour. In fact most of the novel takes place on a mythical island, San Juan el Pirata. It is a gloriously odd and colourful setting that Brand has created. The island is just off the Italian coast but it was occupied in the late 18th century by a notorious Spanish pirate. As a result the inhabitants speak a Spanish-Italian patois that seems to be incomprehensible to both Italian and Spanish speakers. As a further result of its odd history the island is an independent principality. This gives it a certain extra touch of the exotic which is partly what attracts the tourists. The fact that the main industry, indeed the only industry apart from tourism, is smuggling is another reason for its popularity as a tourist destination.

San Juan el Pirata’s status as a sovereign nation will have consequences when murder occurs. The local police have jurisdiction and they have their own distinctive methods, and San Juan el Pirata has its own distinctive criminal justice system.

There are only seven suspects, six of them being members of the Odyssey Tours party and the seventh being the tour guide Fernando. To add a bit of zest, one of the suspects is Inspector Cockrill! This gives Cockrill a very strong incentive to solve the crime. And it is clear that he will have to be the one to solve it. The local police chief is an accomplished smuggler but not a very efficient detective. The San Juan el Pirata police also do not believe in fancy policing techniques, such as fingerprinting or conducting post-mortems. This means that Cockrill will have to solve the puzzle without any assistance at all from forensic science.

At first Cockrill is very puzzled indeed since the other six suspects have alibis provided by Cockrill himself. Every one of them was under his personal observation at the time of the murder. Upon further reflection however he realises that actually all of the alibis are worthless. Any of them could have committed the murder. And there have been some little romantic dalliances on the tour, not to mention a spot of blackmail, so everyone has a motive.

Adding to Cockrill’s difficulties is the fact that the hereditary prince will not let any of the seven leave the island unless he has someone he can hang for the murder. While it’s desirable that the person hanged should be the guilty party this is not essential.

While Tour de Force certainly has a formidable puzzle plot it has a lot of other things going on as well. Mostly the other goings on are comic in nature. Brand has an enormous amount of fun at the expense of tourists and she is quite merciless - she mocks the seasoned travellers just as much as the first-timers. In fact she has fun at the expense of just about everybody -  the inhabitants of San Juan el Pirata, the local police, the island’s hereditary prince, and anybody else who happens to come along. It is mostly fairly good-natured humour.

The seven suspects certainly provide plenty of comic opportunities. There’s the scatter-brained lady novelist, the outrageously homosexual couturier Mr Cecil, the one-armed concert pianist, his elegant wife, the rich but mysterious Miss Trapp and the shy blackmailer Miss Lane. And of course the scruffy slightly eccentric English police inspector.

My theory is that if you’re going to attempt a comic detective novel you’d better make sure you do it very well. Fortunately Miss Brand does do it very well.

As for the plot, this book belongs to a certain sub-genre of the detective novel but to say any more on that point might give a clue to the ending. As to that ending, it makes use of a particular plot device that quite a few golden age writers were attracted by. In my view it’s a device that never actually quite works, the problem being that it stretches credibility beyond breaking point. In this case Miss Brand almost gets away with it by turning its weakness into a strength by using it as a clue as to how the puzzle is finally solved. I still have reservations about this device but this is one of the more successful attempts to pull it off. As you may have noticed I’m being extremely vague about the plot of this one - it’s so clever and twists back on itself in such an ingenious manner that I’m not going to take the slightest risk of spoiling it.

There is one further thing that should be noted about this book. By 1955 the puzzle-plot detective story was falling out of favour with critics and publishers. The golden age detective story was being attacked as being unrealistic and artificial. So how does Christianna Brand respond to this? She gleefully sits down and writes one of the most outrageously unrealistic and artificial of all detective novels! This book does not make one single solitary concession to realism. And to make sure we get the point, she gives it a setting that does not exist and never could exist. San Juan el Pirate is a fantasy setting. Perhaps such places existed once but there was (alas) no place in the world of the mid-20th century for such a fantastic concoction of a setting. This has to be one of the more spectacular examples of an author hurling defiance at small-minded critics. I liked this book anyway, but this aspect of it makes me like it a whole lot more.

Tour de Force is in its own way a totally uncompromising exercise in golden age detective fiction. And it’s immense fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Drowned Queen - The Avengers #6

I’m still on my TV tie-in novel kick. I’ve now moved on to The Avengers (although that doesn’t mean I’m finished with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and my latest such read has been The Drowned Queen, the first of the Avengers novels to feature Tara King. It was published in 1968.

Written by American science fiction author Keith Laumer The Drowned Queen isn’t a complete success but it is nonetheless very enjoyable lightweight fun.

Here’s the link to my review at Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem

Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) is one of the great writers of swashbuckling adventure fiction. He also wrote westerns and science fiction. In his native Italy and throughout Europe and Latin America he was, and indeed still is, immensely popular. He is much less known in the anglophone world and only a small proportion of his vast output has been translated into English. He is best known for his tales of the Black Corsair and the Sandokan cycle. The Tigers of Mompracem is the first of the Sandokan novels (although some would count The Mystery of the Black Jungle as the first). The Tigers of Mompracem was published in serial form in 1883-84 and in book form in 1900.

The Tigers of Mompracem is a pirate tale but this book differs quite radically from most other pirate stories. First of all the action takes place not on the Spanish Main but in the South China Sea. Secondly, while the Sandokan stories tell of an epic struggle between the British and a notorious pirate the British are very much the bad guys. Thirdly, the events recounted in the novel begin in 1849, when the age of sail was giving way to the age of steam. Sandokan’s pirate fleet is hunted by British steam frigates.

Sandokan is a prince of Borneo. He blames the British for the loss of his throne and for the deaths of most of his family. As a result he was forced into a life of piracy. He is a very successful pirate and immensely rich. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure but he can be extremely generous. He inspires fanatical devotion in his followers. He has a sense of honour. It is not quite a European sense of honour but he is a man whose word is his bond.

Sandokan’s greatest enemy is James Brooke, the legendary White Rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was an English adventurer who carved out a kingdom for himself in northern Borneo which he ruled from 1841 to 1868.

Although 19th century adventure writers often had complex and nuanced view on colonialism Salgari was unusual in being absolutely and implacably opposed to colonialism. Sandokan is a sworn enemy of the British but he doesn’t like the Dutch or other Europeans any better, although his closest friend and colleague in piracy is Portuguese adventurer Yanez De Gomera.

Mompracem is Sadokan’s lair, a small island northwest of Borneo.

The Tigers of Mompracem begins with a sea battle that does not go well for Sandokan. His small fleet is sunk by a British steam cruiser. Sandokan is badly wounded and almost drowned and loses consciousness. When he awakes he is in a warm dry bed. He has been found on the beach and is now in the care of British nobleman Lord James Guillonk on the island of Labuan. Guillonk has no idea of the identity of the handsome young Malay although his manners and obvious education make it easy to believe that he is indeed a native prince. When he discovers that this is the bloodthirsty pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, there is clearly going to be trouble. To make that trouble even more certain Sandokan has fallen in love with Guillonk’s beautiful daughter Marianna and Marianna has fallen in love with him.

Somehow Sandokan will have to escape from the island of Labuan and make his way back to Mompracem, he will have to rebuild his pirate fleet and continue his war against the hated British while also finding a way to carry Marianna off from Labuan and marry her. He will find himself hunted on land and at sea and at times all will appear to be lost but Sandokan is not a man who gives up easily.

Sandokan has many virtues. He’s certainly brave. He’s an inspiring leader. I have to say though that he strikes me as a man of exceptionally poor judgment. He is reckless to the point of foolishness. Of course it has to be admitted that in this book Sandokan is a man consumed by love and so perhaps his judgment is usually quite sound. It is also possible that Salgari was trying to create a non-European hero who behaves in a non-European way, being rather fatalistic and inclined to place his faith in his own luck.

In fact Sandokan’s recklessness and fatalism do make him an interesting hero. He veers between insane over-confidence and the depths of despair and these wild swings can occur several times in the course of a single day. He comes to believe that his luck has run out and that this is something he just has to accept but at the same time it never occurs to him to surrender or to stop fighting and a man who won’t surrender is very difficult to destroy.

The British bad guys are stock melodrama villains. Marianna is pretty much a stock melodrama heroine as well, although with a certain feisty streak.

The Tigers of Mompracem is an unusual pirate adventure with an unusual hero. There’s action in abundance, there are exotic settings, there’s jungle adventure as well as adventure on the high seas, there’s an epic love story and I personally find the outrageously melodramatic touches to be a bonus. There’s plenty of fun to be had here. Recommended.

Salgari’s Black Corsair tales (beginning with The Black Corsair) are also worth checking out.

Monday, July 9, 2018

John Vandercook's Murder in Trinidad

John Vandercook (1902-63) was an American author and journalist who, between 1933 and 1959, wrote four murder mysteries featuring his series detective Bertram Lynch. Murder in Trinidad was the first of his detective novels. Rather extraordinarily it seems to have been the subject of no less than three movie adaptations!

The narrator is a young American mediaeval historian named Robert Deane. It is on the steamer from New York to Trinidad that he first notices Englishman Bertram Lynch. He notices him because he is so very ordinary. He is simply too ordinary to be true, and there are one or two very minor indications that Lynch is actually a man who is very far from being ordinary. Lynch is in fact a special investigator for the League of Nations and his area of responsibility is drug trafficking. This is what has brought him to Trinidad. There are, he tells Deane, 120,000 Hindu labourers in Trinidad and opium is a very major problem.

Trinidad was of course at this time still very much part of the British Empire.

Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad was supposed to be very hush-hush but when an attempt is made to kill him just a few hours after his arrival it is obvious that someone at least is aware of his presence on the island. Someone who is not on the side of law and order. Lynch usually works alone but on this occasion, forced to change his plans quickly, he is happy to recruit an amateur assistant and Robert Deane is delighted by be given the opportunity to play at being a detective.

The first half of the book is very much in the thriller mould, in fact somewhat in the outrageous mould of Edgar Wallace. Lynch and Deane have all sorts of adventures in the wilds of the Caroni Swamp. This is an impenetrable mangrove swamp, but it’s not just impenetrable, it’s deadly. One false step and you’re engulfed by the quickmud (like quicksand except worse). The Caroni Swamp is also home to several varieties of extremely deadly snakes. No-one has ever explored this swamp. It cannot even be investigated from the air - the peculiar geography of the area sets up air currents so frightening that no pilot will risk overflying the swamp.

There is a local legend that somewhere in the heart of the Caroni Swamp there is an island and that on the island is an outlaw town that is home to smugglers and was at one time a haunt of pirates. Of course it’s just a story that is told to gullible tourists. Or is it? Bertram Lynch suspects that the legend is true. In fact Lynch and Deane will soon discover that the truth is evert bit as extraordinary as the legend and they will have numerous narrow escapes from death.

This is all jolly good fun if you enjoy dicing with death but there is a crime to be investigated. There is the matter of the opium smuggling but there is also a murder. A murder that took place many years earlier. At least that’s when the first murder occurred. The second murder took place almost at the moment of Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad. And there is a genuine golden age of detection puzzle plot here. Including floor plans!

Deane is an obvious Dr Watson character. Lynch certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes he is a master of disguise. And like Holmes he is intellectually arrogant, except that Lynch makes Holmes seem modest and self-effacing. Deane actually derives a certain amount of amusement from Lynch’s rampant egomania. Lynch is also a very unconventional detective. He operates more like a secret agent than a policeman, and his disregard for the law and for ordinary morality is breath-taking. Lynch considers his job to be so important that he is not obliged to worry about such irritating details. He’s one of the good guys so he’s allowed to break the rules. That’s not to say that he’s an anti-hero but his methods are at times hardly ethical.

Despite being apparently a dull little middle-aged man Lynch is more of an action hero than the average golden age fictional detective. He leaves a trail of mayhem behind him.

Having started out as a thriller and then become a puzzle-plot mystery it reverts to its thriller roots towards the end before the puzzle finally gets solved. Unfortunately the identity of the criminal is terribly obvious. The crucial clue is amusing though.

Trinidad is an interesting enough setting but it’s the Caroni Swamp and the hidden world at the heart of that swamp that are the highlights of the book. The ending offers us yet another bizarre and unusual setting but I won’t spoilt it by saying any more.

Murder in Trinidad is all over the place and I’m not sure I could describe it as being a good book or an entirely successful one but it’s offbeat and it’s fun and it’s worth a look if you don’t mind the fact that it works better as a thriller than as a detective story.

Tomcat's review of the second Bertram Lynch book, Murder in Fiji, at Beneath the Stains of Time makes it sound like it might be a bit more of a puzzle-plot mystery than Murder in Trinidad.