Monday, December 9, 2013
Poirot and his friend and colleague Captain Hastings find themselves involved in a case that soon proves to be much bigger than it seemed. They have stumbled upon a gigantic criminal conspiracy by a cabal of diabolical criminal masterminds known as the Big Four.
The Big Four are not only the powers behind many criminal undertakings, they are also involved in international intrigue and even in revolution. Their aims are nothing short of world domination. The fact that the leader of this vast criminal empire is Chinese indicates that Christie was also influenced by Sax Rohmer’s very successful Fu Manchu novels.
The plot is radically different from a conventional Poirot story. It’s rather episodic and some of the episodes allow Poirot to function in his usual crime-solving manner but the main story involves no actual mystery. The structure is that of a pure thriller rather than of a detective story.
And Christie is not afraid to throw in the kinds of touches that you would find in the most outrageous thrillers of that era. One member of the Big Four is a brilliant mad scientist who has developed a kind of death ray based on concentrated radio waves, and is on the verge of discovering the atom bomb.
All this is a very long way indeed from the cases that we are accustomed to see Poirot involved in. The plot is outlandish, and the methods Poirot employs in his battle against the Big Four are just as outlandish. The overall feel is very similar to the kind of breathless excitement that one expects in a very pulpy thriller of that era. Poirot and Hastings have narrow escapes from certain death, and the villains resort to the kind of outrageously melodramatic evil that is bizarrely different from the kinds of crime that Poirot generally deals with.
Fortunately Christie understands that you can’t take this kind of thing too seriously, and the whole thing has something of a tongue-in-cheek tone, especially when Christie has some fun with a certain aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Christie also understands that the one thing you cannot do in this type of thriller is to give the reader enough time to start thinking seriously about the plausibility of the plot. You have to keep throwing new thrills and new horrors at the reader and you have to keep the pacing relentless.
The Big Four is not typical Christie but it is a good deal of fun. Recommended.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
E. Charles Vivian was the pseudonym used by Charles Henry Cannell (1882-1947). He wrote science fiction and detective stories but it is his fantasy novels, and more particularly his lost world novels, for which he is best remembered.
Faulkner (who narrates the tale), Bent and Watkins are three adventurers in search of the lost city of Kir-Asa. They are all old Asia hands, tough and a little cynical but brave and fundamentally decent men. Watkins is the leader and he has promised the other two not just generous pay but the prospect, or at least the potential prospect, of vast riches. Watkins knows rather more about Kir-Asa than he is willing to reveal.
We are never told where this lost city is although we are led to assume it is on an island, possibly Borneo. The journey is fraught with the usual jungle hazards but the legends surrounding the city, and information Watkins has obtained from a journal kept by one of his ancestors (who had reached the city 150 years earlier) tell of additional dangers as well - giant apes controlled by a woman, natives who favour poison-tipped darts, and most mysterious of all the “ghosts who chase women.”
The discovery of an ancient road, a road built on a scale that makes the roads of the Romans look like goat tracks, assures them that the lost civilisation they are seeking was certainly a reality at one time although whether that civilisation survives is uncertain. Unfortunately an earthquake in the distant past has opened up a gigantic chasm that appears to be an insuperable barrier. Watkins however is not the kind of of man to be daunted by anything. A way is found to traverse this obstacle although it involves the terrifying crossing of the “trembling bridge” - a hazard that would make the bravest man think twice.
They find Kir-Asa, but although they also find a civilisation it is not the civilisation they expected. The men who built the city are long gone. The present inhabitants represent a rather lower order of civilisation, but one that is not without its merits and its attractions. The arrival of the three outsiders will precipitate momentous upheavals, upheavals that may be disastrous but that may also be extremely beneficial. Whether events turn out well or ill will depend on the ability of Watkins and his party to guide those events.
One notable feature this book shares with the lost world stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs is a fascinating variation on the theory of evolution. The variation Vivian comes up with is not only as outlandish but also as brilliantly inventive as that of Burroughs.
Vivian was influenced by writers like Rider Haggard and has more literary aspirations the pulp writers who dealt with similar ideas. His writing is not as stylish as Haggard’s but his prose is pleasing enough.
Watkins is the most interesting character, a man who is something of an idealist under a crusty exterior.
The lost world of Kir-Asa is the kind of unspoilt bucolic paradise that appealed so much to so many late 19th century and early 20th century writers. The possibility that the people who lived in such places might actually be keen to enjoy the fruits of civilisation is an idea that never seems to have occurred to such writers. Kir-Asa has its weaknesses though - it is a very stable society, perhaps too stable. Stable to the point of stagnation.
The monsters are the most impressive elements in this book. These monsters are not quite human but share an ancestry with humans, and they are not quite alive but also not quite ghosts.
City of Wonder might not be the greatest of lost world adventures but if you’re a fan of the enjoy you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Wade’s main series detective was Inspector John Poole but The Hanging Captain, published in 1932, features two other detectives, both of whom are intriguing characters in their own right.
There had been a time when Captain Herbert Sterron had seemed to be a very lucky man. The dashing dragoon officer had a promising military career and a lovely wife, and an income that was ample for the maintenance of Ferris Court, a handsome Tudor mansion that had been in the Sterron family for four hundred years. Just prior to the outbreak of the Great War a change came over the captain, a change that was very much for the worse. So much so that when two decades later he hanged himself it came as no great shock.
There certainly seems no doubt that his death was suicide. And yet Superintendent Dawle is not quite satisfied. The Chief Constable is anxious to have the whole matter dealt with as expeditiously as possible, having no desire to start digging into the private lives of prominent county families. The Chief Constable’s hopes are dashed when Sir James Hamsted throws a spanner in the works, raising string suspicions of foul play. Hamsted had been staying at Ferris Court at the time of Sterron’s death. Hamsted is a harmless old gentleman occupying an important if rather dull government post, or at least that’s the impression he gives. In fact Hamsted is a medical practitioner with an extensive knowledge of medical jurisprudence, having occupied the post of coroner for many years. Sudden death is something he knows a great deal about, and he is far from satisfied.
With sinking heart the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and Scotland Yard is called in. Detective-Inspector Lott is assigned to the case. Like most Scotland Yard men Lott regards county constabularies with a considerable amount of disdain and he expects that working with a well-meaning but rather incompetent bumpkin like Superintendent Dawle will be something of an ordeal. He will soon discover that Superintendent Dawle is no bumpkin and is far from incompetent. He’s a shrewd old bird who can teach the Yard a thing or two about criminal investigations.
Much of the interest in this book comes from the interplay between Dawle and Lott. Wade was rather stronger in the area of characterisation than most golden age detective writers and the two detectives are both well fleshed out and fairly complex characters. The rivalry between local police and Scotland Yard officers is a theme that runs through many English detective novels of this era. Wade handles it with particular skill as the two rival detectives match wits and a mutual respect slowly develops between them.
The other key characters are equally interesting. Wade is strong on plotting and he’s especially strong on motive. The various suspects all have possible motives but these motives are by no means clear cut. In several case the motives have a definite sexual angle that is dealt with more openly than one generally expects in detective fiction of this era.
One of the suspects happens to be High Sheriff of the county, with aspirations to be Lord Lieutenant. The author himself served as High Sheriff and subsequently Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. Not surprisingly Wade displays in his crime fiction a keen understanding of the ins and outs of county politics and the subtle pressures they can exert on police officers in the course of an investigation into murder involving notable county families. THis is one of the elements that makes this book more than just another country house murder mystery.
Wade’s crime novels can be difficult to find but they are certainly worth the effort. The Hanging Captain is a splendid example of the golden age detective novel. Highly recommended.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Ashenden, or the British Agent, first published in 1928, is a series of linked stories relating the adventures of a writer of comic plays who is recruited into British Intelligence. Maugham himself actually did serve in British Intelligence during the Great War and based these stories to a considerable extent on his own experiences.
The stories in some ways form a kind of episodic novel because we do see some evolution in the character of the hero. In the earlier tales he’s still something of an innocent and still treating the whole affair as a bit of a lark, and is rather shocked when he finds that he intelligence service’s activities include assassinations. In the later stories he has become considerably more hardened.
The tone of the stories varies considerably. Some are gently humorous, some verge on farce, while others have the feel of black comedy. And some are surprisingly dark and cynical, to a degree that you don’t really find again in the spy story until the emergence of writers like John le Carré in the early 60s.
Ashenden is based in neutral Switzerland and is more a spymaster than a spy. He receives his instructions from a senior officer in British Intelligence known only as R. Much of his work is fairly routine, collating reports from his agents in the field. Initially it seems like an amusing sport which can be pursued without getting one’s hands dirty but Ashenden soon discovers that it has a dark side. He finds himself being assigned to work with a mysterious and eccentric Mexican general on a mission to prevent a certain Greek diplomat from handing over some confidential an extremely vital papers to German agents. Ashenden is horrified to learn that his Mexican colleague’s orders are to prevent this from happening by the most simple and direct method - killing the Greek diplomat in cold blood. Ashenden well and truly loses his innocence on this mission.
Other assignments involves some rather nasty double-crosses and Ashenden has to resort to some very unpleasant methods.
While Maugham certainly shows us the darker side of the world of espionage he avoids making glib or naïve value judgments. Espionage might be an unpleasant occupation at times but sometimes unpleasant things have to be done.
This book was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s very underrated 1936 film Secret Agent and it’s remarkable just how closely Hitchcock reproduces the tone of the book, with the same mix of black humour and cynicism, of innocence and cold-bloodedness.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of the espionage story Maugham’s book is essential reading. It’s witty and highly entertaining with a very dark edge to it, and it's one of the finest works of spy fiction ever written. Very highly recommended.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Published in 1932, Stamboul Train has the perfect setting for a thriller - the Orient Express. Its claims to being a thriller are perhaps a bit tenuous, but it does include a murder and a failed revolution, and there are some tense thriller-like moments towards the end.
Greene’s real focus is on the characters, in particular on five of the passengers on the train. Dr Richard Czinner is a failed revolutionary. Carleton Myatt is a rich Jewish businessman. Coral Musker is a chorus girl on her way to Constantinople to appear in a show. Josef Grünlich is a thief and a murderer. Mabel Warren is an alcoholic lesbian newspaper reporter.
Since this is a Graham Greene novel, they are all failures in one way or another. All of them fear betrayal. They either fear being betrayed, or they fear betraying others.
Dr Czinner has replaced the religious faith of his youth with socialism, the ultimate substitute religion. Of course, as it always does, it proves to be an unsatisfactory substitute. Dr Czinner is quite capable of loving abstractions like “the poor” but one feels that he has never actually loved a human being as an individual. He believes he is on his way to lead a revolution, but the revolution has already failed. Now all that is left to him is the possibility of a last grand gesture. Like most grand gestures, it ends up being futile and pathetic.
Carleton Myatt is painfully aware of his Jewishness and is always expecting to be snubbed. He has the opportunity of finding something approaching love, but will he have the courage to accept it?
Coral Musker receives an offer that will offer her financial security, but she also is so afraid of betrayal that she is reluctant to accept.
Josef Grünlich is the only one who doesn’t fear betrayal. He betrays everyone.
Mabel Warren goes through a series of infatuations with heterosexual women. In this way betrayal is guaranteed. She does not comprehend love, but she is very familiar with, and very comfortable with, hatred. It is the force that drives her.
Betrayal drives the plot as well as the characters, and it gives the story the right sort of paranoid feel for an espionage thriller. Given Greene’s rather dark view of the human condition espionage always provided him with ideal subject matter.
I’ve always been a sucker for mysteries or thrillers that take place aboard trains and Greene uses this setting very effectively.
Stamboul Train is a neat little spy thriller that can be thoroughly recommended.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Miles Bredon is a private detective employed by the Indescribable Insurance Company. He is brought in to investigate the death of a wealthy industrialist named Mottram. Mottram had taken out one of the Indescribable Insurance Company’s more interesting policies, a policy that promises either vast riches to his heirs if he dies before the age of sixty-five or a handsome annuity for life for the insured party if he lives beyond sixty-five. Mottram had made enquiries about modifying his policy in a manner that will considerably influence the investigation of his death.
Every detective needs a Watson. Bredon’s Watson is his wife Angela, although (unlike most Watsons) she does not narrate the story. And while most Watsons are well-meaning but decidedly in the intellectual shadow of the detective Angela is actually smarter than Miles.
Not that Miles is stupid. Far from it. His problem is that he is lazy and has little enthusiasm for his work. He likes his job with the Indescribable Insurance Company because it involves very little work. Bredon is content to investigate most of his cases in a rather desultory manner, but on rare occasions he encounters a case that engages his interest. When that happens the usually lazy Bredon suddenly comes to life and becomes not only a determined and tenacious detective but also a surprisingly brilliant one. The Mottram case is one of those cases.
Arriving in the rather dreary village in which Mottram met his end Miles Bredon finds that his old friend Inspector Leyland from Scotland Yard is already on the case. Leyland is no fool; in fact he’s a fine detective. Leyland and Bredon draw very different conclusions almost at once. There are certain pieces of evidence that convince Bredon that Mottram’s death was suicide, while there are certain other clues that convince Leyland just a strongly that it was murder. The problem for Bredon is that while he is absolutely convinced this was a suicide he has to admit that Leyland’s evidence for murder is perfectly valid and it does make it difficult to prove suicide. Leyland on the other hand, while being quite sure it was murder, has to confess that the clues on which Bredon has based his suicide theory are also quite valid and quite compelling.
The dead man was found in his room in the village’s inn. The room was filled with gas when the corpse was discovered and the doctor who examined the body had no doubt that the gas was the cause of death. That becomes the one fact on which everybody agrees. There were two gas outlets in the room, controlled by three taps. The position of the three taps becomes the crucial point on which the case will rest, since it causes major difficulties not only for both the suicide and murder theories but also for the only other possible explanation, accidental death.
Ronald Knox was a noted wit it’s not surprising that this novel is as strong on humour as it is on detection. For Knox the detective story was both a stimulating intellectual exercise and a great deal of fun. This novel combines the ingenious and intricate plotting of the golden age detective story with humour, and does so very successfully.
Insurance policies and ambiguous wills were favourite plot devices at the time and Knox gives us both. To add a further layer of complexity Knox (a Catholic priest and an enthusiastic Catholic apologist) adds a possible religious motive, a motive that turns on a nice point of theology. Surprisingly Knox carries this element off with a good deal of skill and subtlety. It adds an interesting dimension and it’s done in such a way that a reader who does not share Knox’s faith will still find it to be a challenging and intriguing clue.
Miles and Angela Bredon make a very engaging detective couple and their verbal sparring is always a delight. The supporting characters are colourful and amusing. Knox’s dialogue sparkles and his style is civilised, urbane and unfailingly entertaining.
The Three Taps is golden age detective fiction at its finest. Immensely enjoyable and highly recommended.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Lawrence’s occult detective is Miles Pennoyer, although he prefers to be known as a psychic doctor. This is in fact the one factor that distinguishes this collection from others in this genre - Pennoyer’s cases do tend to be more like medical investigations than the cases an occult detective would normally take on. In many of the stories nothing really bizarre or inexplicable has happened, there are no signs of hauntings and similar phenomena. Pennoyer has been called in because someone is concerned that a family member just isn’t quite right although they can’t offer any real explanation. It’s a sense of vague unease that there is something wrong with the person, something that appears to have no physical cause and doesn’t seem to fall within the realm if mental disturbance as such.
Miles Pennoyer is of course a man with a very deep knowledge of the occult, to the extent that he is quite comfortable to describe himself as a magician. It is very definitely white magic that he practises of course.
Any Holmes, no matter how unconventional, has to have his Watson and Pennoyer’s Watson (who in conformity with the established detective story convention serves as narrator) is a successful novelist who has some limited psychic abilities. Slightly unusually, in most of the stories he merely acts as narrator of adventures in which he played no active rôle (although he does played a very active part in The Case of the Moonchild).
Margery Lawrence was either quite well versed in the occult herself or she was very good at making this sort of thing up. Pennoyer operates according to a very definite philosophy of the occult, a philosophy that is developed in some detail during the course of these seven adventures.
The Case of the Bronze Door deals with reincarnation, a theme that will recur (although less prominently) in other stories. It’s a nicely ambiguous story. Pennoyer is faced by an entity that certainly has the ability to do great harm, but it is not an entity that is evil as such. The Case of the Haunted Cathedral certainly involves an evil act, an act that threatens to destroy an architect’s crowning glory, but Pennoyer’s concern is to bring redemption rather than punishment to the author of this evil.
The Case of Ella McLeod is more an occult tragedy than a battle with evil. There’s no real evil at all here, although there is very human pettiness that has tragic consequences. This is another story that deals with reincarnation of a sort but this time Lawrence is aiming to engage the reader’s sympathies rather than to scare or horrify.
The Case of the White Snake is again a tragedy, and again the tragedy is aided if not actively caused by actions that were not intended as evil. It’s one of several stories involving children. In some stories a child is the agency of evil but more often the child is the potential victim. Like The Case of Ella McLeod in some ways it evokes the tragedy of the loss of the past. Both stories are poignant rather than scary but they work fairly successfully and Lawrence avoids indulging in the excessive sentimentality that could so easily shipwreck this type of story.
Lawrence hits top gear with The Case of the Moonchild. This time Pennoyer is confronted by very real evil and this time the threat is not merely to an individual’s or a family’s happiness; this time he faces evil on the grand scale. This is the most colourful and by far the most lurid of the Pennoyer stories and it’s the story that is closest in feel to real full-blown horror. While most of the stories in this volume are successful in evoking a sense of the uncanny this one is the one that works most successfully as pure entertainment.
The Case of the Young Man with the Scar is the longest story in the collection, and it’s the least successful. In this tale Lawrence succumbs to one of the most irritating of writerly vices, the absurd almost-deification of nature contrasted with an even more absurd demonisation of civilisation. It didn’t quite move me to hurl the book across the room but the thought did cross my mind. It’s also the most poorly structured and rambling of the stories and in general I would have to say that I found this particular story to be a complete and abject failure.
The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe deals with an eleven-year-old boy who seems to have the ability to frighten everyone he comes into contact with. The explanation involves both fairies (the darker and nastier Celtic kind rather than the cute domesticated kind) and golf. And it’s an excellent little tale.
Number Seven Queer Street is an uneven volume but it remains an interesting addition to the occult detective canon. Lawrence generally (with the exception of the one major blemish mentioned earlier) writes very well. Miles Pennoyer is a hero who manages to be brilliant without being annoying. There’s enough occult detail to be satisfying without becoming tedious. This volume earns a definite recommendation although it has to be admitted that getting hold of a copy may present something of a challenge.