Friday, March 22, 2019

The Global Globules Affair (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel)

The Global Globules Affair, written by Simon Latter and published in 1967, was one of five tie-in novels associated with the short-lived television series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which aired on NBC in 1966-67.

Like the television series on which it’s based it’s a light-hearted and enjoyable mix of science fiction and spy thriller.

It’s basically harmless fun and if you’re a fan of the original television series it's worth a look. Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Frank King's The Case of the Painted Girl

Finding a book by a very obscure crime writer is always satisfying and I think Frank King certainly qualifies as obscure. Frank King (1892-1958) was an Englishman who wrote about forty crime novels and had several series characters, the best-known being a London private investigator knows as The Dormouse. Nobody seems to know anything more about him than this. The Case of the Painted Girl was one of his earlier books, appearing in 1931.

The Case of the Painted Girl features another of King’s series characters, Chief Inspector Gloom of Scotland Yard. An aptly named fellow he turns out to be, with a corpse-like face and an unfailing sense of pessimism. Oddly enough he seems to derive a great deal of enjoyment from his pessimism.

It’s obvious fairly early on that this book is going to be a mixture of thriller and mystery elements. It all starts when young stockbroker Jimmy Harrison has car trouble on his way to Scotland. He’s out in the middle of nowhere but luckily he finds a house. It’s an isolated house and appears to be empty but he soon has good cause to think that it isn’t empty at all. He desperately needs water for his car’s radiator but no-one answers his knock. Then he hears a piercing scream, and making his way inside he finds - murder!

It’s worse than that though, the murderer is still there and Jimmy has to find a way to keep both himself and the girl alive. Who is this girl? Jimmy has no idea except that she appears to be a damsel in distress. Staying alive proves to be a challenge, and things get worse, much worse, when the policeman knocks on the door.

This is going to be the most adventurous holiday of Jimmy’s life. And if he isn’t careful, it may be the last.

From this point on the plot becomes more and more outrageous.

This is not an impossible crime story but there is an impossible element to the murder.

For Chief Inspector Gloom this is an exasperating case, with endless complications and clues that seem to lead nowhere except to further complications. This is much more than a simple murder. And the murderer is clearly much more than your average killer.

There’s certainly a mystery here, a puzzle that will need to be solved, but this is not a classical golden age detective tale. There are significant suspense elements and it’s really a complete potboiler, with plenty of nods to Edgar Wallace and perhaps just a dash of Sapper as well.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s done with style and energy and in this case the style and the energy are present in abundance. The plot is ludicrously far-fetched and manages to include every single fun cliché that you could hope for in a thriller of this vintage. It might not be especially polished, it might not have any redeeming literary qualities but it has to be admitted that the author does everything he can think of to make it entertaining.

Chief Inspector Gloom is a delightful character. His pessimism, his apparent lethargy and his taste for the macabre are largely a pose. In fact he’s a bundle of energy and the more difficult a case proves to be the more pleased he is. He’s really a cheerful and kindly man but he finds it makes life much more amusing to hide those qualities. He doesn’t really get to do much detecting in terms of looking for clues or breaking down alibis. It’s not that kind of story. What matters is that despite his apparent pessimism he has plenty of bulldog tenacity.

Jimmy Harrison and Myra Livingstone play the hero and heroine rôles. Jimmy is the sort of young man who finds being mixed up in a murder investigation and a gigantic criminal conspiracy to be an absolutely topping way to spend one’s holiday. He relishes the opportunity to play the hero to a pretty girl. He’s chivalrous and he’s easy going. Myra Livingstone plays the heroine rôle and she’s equally likeable. She’s high-spirited and impetuous but thoroughly respectable.

And this being a thriller there’s a proper villain. Not only that, he is a full-blown Diabolical Criminal Mastermind with a Fiendish Plot that must be stopped.

The Case of the Painted Girl is fast-paced and enjoyable nonsense. Recommended if your tastes run that way.

Now for the bad news - availability. King’s books are long out of print. It’s not completely catastrophic news though - used copies of at least some of his novels are around and are not necessarily all that expensive.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Otis Adelbert Kline's Jan of the Jungle

Otis Adelbert Kline (1891–1946) was an American pulp writer in the mould of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact he is sometimes dismissed as a mere imitator of Burroughs. Whatever sub-genres Burroughs worked in (or often invented) you could be pretty sure that Kline would soon be working in as well. Like Burroughs he wrote sword-and-planet adventures set on Mars and Venus, he wrote lost world stories and he wrote jungle adventure stories. An imitator he may have been, but at the time he was considered to be possibly Burroughs’ most serious rival in those genres.

Jan of the Jungle, published in 1931, is a jungle adventure tale about a boy raised by chimpanzees, which certainly does sound remarkably close to Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan.

Jan is the son of a millionaire. For complicated reasons he is kidnapped as a baby by the evil mad scientist Dr Bracken and raised by a female chimpanzee. He can understand the primitive language of chimpanzees but he has no knowledge of any human languages. Since the book takes place in South America you may be about to object that there are no chimpanzees in South America but Kline has that objection neatly covered.

He escapes and has various adventures in the jungles of South America, with Dr Bracken pursuing him remorselessly. He also meet Ramona and falls in love with her. We will later discover that her personal history is as strange as Jan’s.

So far it sounds like an exact Tarzan clone but things are about to change. Jan chances upon the entrance to an underground river which takes him to a hidden valley. Jan of the Jungle is about to become a lost world tale.

At this point Kline decides to abandon any pretence at plausibility. The hidden valley contains not only a Mesoamerican lost civilisation but a huge variety of extinct animals, ranging from species extinct for thousands of years (such as sabre-toothed cats) to those that have been extinct for tens of millions of years (such as the stegasaurus). No explanation is offered for the survival of either the lost civilisation or the extinct animals. Not that it matters - if one demanded strict plausibility of lost world takes one would end with no more than a tiny handful to choose from.

There are two main sub-plots, the Jan sub-plot which concerns his parentage and Dr Bracken’s many attempts to recapture him, and the Ramona sub-plot which concerns her parentage and an attempt to kidnap her. Kline also at least pays lip service to the “boy caught between two worlds” theme but with an added twist since Jan is caught between three worlds - the modern world, the world of the jungle and the world of the hidden valley. To Jan it seems like the latter two are more likely to bring him contentment but then there’s the question of Ramona.

Dr Bracken is obviously a serious villain but in the hidden valley Jan will find another equally dangerous and treacherous enemy.

The important thing is that there’s enough here to satisfy the tastes of both jungle adventure and lost world fans and if you’re a straightforward fan of action and adventure you’ll find both those commodities in generous quantities.

Now if this had been an Edgar Rice Burroughs story there would have been a lot more attention paid to making the lost world more complex and more interesting and to explaining how it actually works. It would have been a much more fully developed lost world. Kline however has no such ambitions. He’s content to write an exciting pulp adventure yarn.

In other words there’s a reason Edgar Rice Burroughs is still a household name and Otis Adalbert Kline isn’t.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Jan of the Jungle. As long as you accept its pulp limitations it’s enjoyable. If you’re a Tarzan fan and you’ve read all the Tarzan stories or if you’re a lost world buff like me you’ll want to check this one out. Not great but still fun.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Empty Tin

The Case of the Empty Tin is a 1941 Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner.

The tin referred to in the title is a tin of preserves, only there aren’t any preserves in the tin in question. The tin is empty but has been carefully sealed up. And nobody knows how it came to be on the shelf in the basement of the Gentrie home. It’s just a minor domestic mystery and couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the murder that took place next door. But Perry Mason is interested in any and all mysteries.

The house next door to the Gentrie house comprises two flats. There seems to have been a shooting in the downstairs flat. Certainly a gunshot was heard. Perhaps two gunshots. Bloodstains were found. The occupant of the apartment and his housekeeper are both missing.

Perry Mason’s client is the man who lives in the upstairs apartment, a Mr Karr, a man who has reasons for not wanting to attract any publicity. In fact he’s so horrified by the prospect of publicity that he hires Mason to help Lieutenant Tragg solve the case as quickly as possible. Mason is happy enough to do so and he puts the Paul Drake Detective Agency to work digging up leads.

Mr Karr is crippled by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair so he can’t possibly be a suspect. On the other hand he does think it possible that he might have been the intended victim. He has been involved in some very legally ambiguous business dealings in China, the sorts of business dealings that can potentially lead to murder. Actually gunrunning is perhaps more than just legally ambiguous.

This is another case that sees Perry Mason sailing close to the wind as far as the law is concerned. Perry is never one to tell the police things that he doesn’t think they need to know but not reporting dead bodies is definitely taking a risk. He’s also risking his friendship with Paul Drake. Drake is used to Mason’s risk-taking but he does at least like to be told when Mason is leading him into a legal minefield. Mason in fact is much more reckless than usual in this story. There's a particularly memorable scene in which Perry and Della bluff their way out of a situation which seems certain to lead to their arrest for breaking and entering.

The tin itself is obviously going to turn out to be an important clue, and it’s a very clever (if slightly far-fetched) one.

There are other vital clues that are cunningly contrived to contain various layers of ambiguity, and even Perry Mason is led astray by one such clue.

In this story Perry Mason mostly acts as a de facto private detective with surprisingly few opportunities for pulling legal rabbits out of hats. It’s one of the rare Perry Mason novels that does not include a single courtroom scene.

Lieutenant Tragg and Perry Mason are not always on the most cordial terms but this time they more or less on the same team, even if Tragg still has his suspicions that Mason is trying to put one over on him.

Mason is definitely trying to set traps for the chief suspects. Tragg is trying to do the same thing. And the murderer is setting traps as well. Setting traps for various persons, including Perry Mason.

The plot is fiendishly complicated. Gardner does his best to play fair with his readers.
He was a master craftsman but at times in this book the plot does seem to be in danger of collapsing under its own weight. It does hold together, but only just.

The Case of the Empty Tin is not quite a typical Perry Mason mystery and it’s also not quite in the front rank of the Perry Mason stories. It’s still good entertainment and can still be recommended to fans.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mr Midshipman Hornblower

Mr Midshipman Hornblower was the sixth of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels to be published. It appeared in 1950. When The Happy Return was published in 1937 Forester had no idea that it was destined to be one of a series of eleven novels. In that first book Hornblower was a captain with several years’ seniority. The next few books in the cycle chronicled his subsequent adventures but in 1950 Forester conceived the idea of going right back to the beginning of his hero’s naval career.

Mr Midshipman Hornblower can be regarded as an episodic novel, or even a collection of linked short stories.

In 1793 the seventeen-year-old Horatio Hornblower goes to sea for the first time in the ship of the line HMS Justinian. Actually he doesn’t quite go to sea as such. The Justinian is at Spithead and it’s not going anywhere at the moment. An idle ship means idle hands which is never a good situation. Having an elderly and ailing captain and an incompetent first lieutenant makes things worse. The Justinian is neither an efficient nor a happy ship. Life is particularly unhappy for Hornblower. The Justinian’s midshipmen are at the mercy of the senior midshipman, Simpson. Simpson is long past the first flush of eager youth. He is still a midshipman because he has repeatedly failed the lieutenant’s examination and he has failed the lieutenant’s examination because of his own intellectual deficiencies, in particular his incompetence at mathematics which of course makes him incompetent at navigation. He was always an unpleasant personality with a sadistic streak and now he is embittered and filled with self-pity. He takes an especial dislike to Hornblower (which has something to do with Hornblower’s flair for mathematics).

The situation becomes so bad that Hornblower decides on a desperate gamble (the sort of gamble that might appeal to someone who takes a mathematical view of the universe). A duel will either end his troubles or end his life. But this is not to be an ordinary duel.

This opening story immediately tells us some very important things about Hornblower. He is able to analyse a situation coldly and rationally and he is able to accept the consequences of his analysis no matter how unpleasant they might be. It also establishes that Hornblower has physical courage, but it’s a particular type of courage. It’s not a reckless courage. It’s a calculated intellectual kind of courage.

This opening chapter was the basis for the first of the late 90s Hornblower TV movies and it’s interesting that the TV movie pretty much missed the point of the tale.

The other adventures in this volume shed light on other aspects of the character of this unconventional hero. Forester could write exciting tales of adventure but there was always more to his writing than mere action. The Hornblower cycle is an extended examination of the character of an unusual man, a hero who is almost but not quite paralysed by an extraordinarily self-critical personality. Hornblower is always looking for faults and failures in his own conduct and he is always finding them. The second adventure in this volume provides a fine example. He is now serving on the frigate Indefatigable which has successfully attacked a convoy and captured a number of French merchant ships. One of these prizes is the brig Marie Galante. Hornblower and a four-man prize crew have the task of sailing her to the nearest English port.

This is Hornblower’s first taste of command. As you might expect he makes mistakes. He is an inexperienced seventeen-year-old midshipman. In fact some of the mistakes might well have been made even by a more experienced officer, since these mistakes have a lot to do with the unusual qualities of the brig’s cargo. Hornblower makes mistakes but he more than compensates for these errors by displaying outstanding initiative and determination. Characteristically however Hornblower chooses to focus on his failures rather than his successes. The TV adaptation also managed to miss the point of this adventure.

There will be more failures. Hornblower is a very competent young officer but he is not the kind of hero who never makes mistakes. What makes Hornblower notable is that he learns from his mistakes. His obsessive self-criticism isn’t entirely a character flaw - it goes along with ruthless self-analysis. Forester has said of Hornblower that he is the sort of man who will still be learning things on his deathbed. Hornblower makes mistakes but he does not make the same mistake twice. And it’s not necessarily a disadvantage for a hero to be perpetually dissatisfied with his own achievements. It makes him try harder. Hornblower also has a definite knack for looking at a disaster and seeing an opportunity, prime examples being the extremely good use to which he puts an enforced quarantine after he and the party under his command are exposed to plague. If he is captured by the Spanish then he will spend his time learning to speak Spanish. And the wreck of a privateer provides an opportunity of escape.

It’s interesting to read Forester’s account of his own creative processes (in the Hornblower Companion which is very very highly recommended). Forester seems to have been as self-critical of his books as Hornblower is of his talents as an officer. For Forester no novel was ever quite satisfactory but the next one  was always going to be better, which is pretty much Hornblower’s attitude.

The very episodic nature of this book may perhaps have been the result of a serious illness from which its author had been suffering (an illness that inspired him with the idea of duel in which the chances of life or death should be perfectly even). I think the structure works quite well. It certainly packs plenty of plot into the package and Hornblower’s youthful adventures are remarkably varied and unfailingly entertaining.

In fact there’s so much plot here that when adapted for television this relatively slim volume provided material for no less than four TV movies! The TV version by the way is not anywhere near as bad as I’d expected it to be. In fact it’s reasonably good, but it doesn’t quite capture the essentials of Hornblower’s personality. It’s worth mentioning that the 1951 Hollywood Hornblower movie Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. similarly fails to capture the subtleties of a man who is one of the more psychologically complex of all adventure heroes.

Mr Midshipman Hornblower is highly recommended.

Friday, February 15, 2019

John Dickson Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery

The Mad Hatter Mystery, written in 1933, was the second of John Dickson Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell mysteries. It gives Carr the opportunity to indulge two of his particular enthusiasms - for gothic horror and for farce.

These enthusiasms are obvious right from the start. A young man is found dead, clearly murdered, near Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London. To make things even more medieval the murder weapon is a crossbow bolt. The farcical touch - the corpse is dressed in a golf suit but is wearing an opera hat that is absurdly over-large.

The victim was a reporter who had been amazing London with his accounts of the recent exploits of the most daring hat thief in history. That the reporter who had been covering the story was found dead wearing a ludicrous item of stolen headgear is both disturbingly absurd and ironic.

Carr was famous as the master of the locked room mystery but The Mad Hatter Mystery is not a locked room puzzle. It is not even an impossible crime. A most strange and extraordinary crime certainly, but definitely far from impossible.

Chief Inspector Hadley finds himself with a multiplicity of crimes to solve - there is not merely a series of hat thefts and a murder, there is also a stolen manuscript. It’s the manuscript of a hitherto unknown Edgar Allan Poe detective story. This makes it immensely valuable and of course it’s a lovely playful touch to have a detective story about the theft of a detective story.

Even with Dr Fell’s help Hadley finds this to be a tough case. Finally we are approaching the end of the book and the mist begins to clear and the truth is revealed. The solution is strange and complex but it’s undoubtedly true. Except that it isn’t. So it’s back to the drawing board. Thankfully the real solution is now obvious. Except that it isn’t. It seems that it will never be possible to get to the bottom of these strange crimes.

This is a dazzling display of plotting pyrotechnics by Carr.

Physical evidence plays very little part in this mystery. Alibis on the other hand are important. Motives are crucial but in this case not always easy to pin down. A major  problem is the fact that the murder is not the only crime to be considered. A satisfactory solution will have to tie together all those crimes, and the motives for all those crimes.

This is a very funny book. Carr loved to add touches of humour to his book and on occasion he would lay on the comic elements with a shovel. Sometimes he overdid it but The Mad Hatter Mystery is a fine example of how to write a very amusing mystery that is still a superbly crafted example of the art of the detective story and to emphasise Carr’s complete mastery he also manages to make it an emotionally affecting novel. However bizarre the circumstances murder is still tragedy.

If you’re a hardcore Dr Fell fan then the good news is that he’s at the centre of things right from the start.

I don’t intend to give even the slightest hint about the ending. All I will say is that some readers will disapprove.

I haven’t read enough of Carr’s work to be able to say whether this qualifies as one of his best books but I certainly found The Mad Hatter Mystery to be insanely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 8, 2019

James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars

James P. Hogan (1941-2010) was an English science fiction writer. Inherit the Stars, published in 1977, was his first novel. He later wrote four sequels. It has been described as a mystery-science fiction hybrid. Which it is, in a sort of a way. It’s not a whodunit type of mystery but the main thrust of the plot is the search for a solution to a puzzle. The methods used in weighing up evidence, interpreting the evidence and then fitting the clues together to find a solution do bear many resemblances to the methods used by detectives in the golden age of detective fiction.

The book is set in 2027. We get a brief background on the world of 2027 and this is by far the weakest part of the book. Hogan’s ideas on the directions that history might take are silly childish wishful thinking. Technology has solved all problems of scarcity and energy supply and the nations of the Earth have spontaneously decided to abandon nationalism and wars and to embrace a warm and fuzzy universal brotherhood under the benevolent leadership of the United Nations. All races and ethnicities have been erased. All religions have been abandoned. We are all one. It’s John Lennon’s Imagine come true.

With war abolished humanity has decided to embrace the Space Age with enthusiasm. Our future is in the stars! So it can be said to be an attempt to make such an enthusiasm seem plausible, since in 1977 Hogan must have been painfully aware that public interest in the space program had in fact evaporated almost entirely.

None of this nonsense matters once the story gets going. The mystery at the centre of the tale is Charlie (Charlie not being his name but the name that the scientists end up giving him). Charlie is dead. His body was found on the Moon. What makes it a mystery is that Charlie did not belong to any of the lunar colonies or expeditions. And he has been dead for 50,000 years. The real puzzle though is that Charlie is human. This is of course impossible. But nonetheless Charlie remains stubbornly human.

British scientist/inventor/ideas man/all-round genius Victor Hunt is one of the many scientists called in to solve the puzzle. Hunt’s most successful invention is the Trimagniscope which is a device that creates a holographic image of any object that it scans. The clever bit is that it can see inside objects as well. In 1977 this sounded very high-tech indeed. The device is going to be used not only to look inside Charlie’s body, but also to allow the two books which were fund with Charlie’s body to be read without having to open them (since they’re very fragile and would disintegrate if opened).

This is very much hard science fiction. There is zero characterisation. To me that’s no problem. I don’t read science fiction for character studies.

The entire plot is the gradual unraveling of the puzzle. Here we get another intriguing resemblance to detective fiction - as more and more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are found the picture gets clearer and clearer and then the next piece of evidence turns up and it doesn’t fit at all. Just as fictional detectives find themselves having to scrap elegant theories so the scientists have to do the same. Theory after theory gets discarded. The problem is not a lack of clues - there are plenty of clues but they all seem to point to radically different solutions.

Like any good writer of detective fiction Hogan delights in keeping his investigators on their toes. If they jump to conclusions they end up chasing down blind alleys. There are no red herrings as such. All the clues are real. They are all pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle but it’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle when you have no idea whatsoever what the final picture is going to be. It’s also, like a golden age detective story, a fair-play mystery. The clues necessary to solve the puzzle are available to the scientists, and to some extent to the reader (assuming he knows a certain amount about evolution, cosmology, vulcanology and planetary formation). The scientists certainly have the clues, but it takes a leap of intuition by Victor Hunt to see that the clues can only be assembled in one way that makes sense.

It’s also amusing that like so many detective novels it ends with the scientist-detective gathering everyone together to explain the solution to the mystery!

Not only does this book have much of the structure of a golden age detective story, it even has definite affinities with that fascinating sub-genre, the impossible crime story. There’s obviously no crime, but there are impossibilities that must be resolved.

It’s one of those hard SF novels that deals with Big Themes. Structurally it might be a mystery novel but thematically it’s unequivocally science fiction. The scope of the book is decidedly epic. Hogan stated in interviews that he was inspired to write Inherit the Stars after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. He loved the movie but hated the ending. He decided to try his hand at writing a novel with the same basic theme. There are definite plot similarities, and the feel is very similar. Arthur C. Clarke was known for his profound lack of interest in characterisation. Which by the way I agree with - I think characterisation is an unnecessary distraction in both science fiction and detective fiction. You could say that Inherit the Stars takes the initial premise of 2001 and then takes it in completely different directions. In fact it’s the kinship to detective fiction that differentiates it most sharply from 2001 - Hogan wants an ending that ties up all the loose ends.

Inherit the Stars is ideas-based science fiction and the ideas are genuinely interesting but it’s the slow, devious, tortuous and extremely clever unravelling of a complex puzzle that makes it enthralling. Highly recommended.