Friday, April 11, 2014

The Saint on the Spanish Main

In his excellent critical study of the thriller genres, The Durable Desperadoes, William Vivian Butler points out there are five quite distinct phases in the career of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint. The first three phases occurred during the 1930s, the fourth was the wartime Saint, and the final phase began in the late 40s. The Mark V Saint was a very different character to any of the earlier versions.

So far I’ve been confining my attentions to the early incarnations of Simon Templar. The 1955  short story collection The Saint on the Spanish Main represents my first exposure to this Mark V Saint, and it’s rather startling. For one thing, The Saint is now very much a loner. In his earlier versions Templar was always the leader of a gang. Not a gang of criminals, although Simon’s activities were often borderline illegal, and in some cases quite blatantly illegal. The Saint’s followers in the first books, from the early 1930s, are more like Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, and he even had his very own Maid Marian in the form of Patricia Holm. This early Saint was very much a team player, and given the scale of his operations he needed to be.

The Mark V Saint not only works alone, he lives alone. He lives mostly in hotel rooms. His lifestyle is glamorous and lavish and he is never short of feminine company for very long but at the same time there is a subtly air of melancholy about him. This is no longer the outrageously exuberant larger-than-life Simon Templar who seemed possessed of inexhaustible energy and an equally inexhaustible capacity for irrepressible schoolboy humour. There is no question that this is a slightly older Simon Templar and that he is a sadder but wiser man.

As Butler also pointed out in his book Leslie Charteris made a conscious decision to 
scale down The Saint. He is no longer battling diabolical criminal masterminds and the fate of civilisation itself no longer hangs in the balance. Simon Templar’s life is as adventurous as ever but the adventures are on a smaller scale. To have even as redoubtable a hero as The Saint battling evil on an epic scale entirely alone would hardly have been convincing. His adventures are now of the sort that a solitary world-traveller can easily cope with.

The whimsicality is still there, but it’s a gentle whimsicality. Simon Templar still finds that the world provides a great deal of amusement but it’s no longer the amusement that an overgrown schoolboy would find. It is the amusement of a sophisticated, intelligent and rather thoughtful man. He is still a youthful figure but he is clearly now much closer to middle age, although we can be sure it will be a vigorous and lively middle age.

Simon Templar has certainly not turned over a new leaf. He still dabbles in crime, although as always his victims are villains who thoroughly deserve to be fleeced. 

Charteris has not lost any of his old skill. He has merely adapted his skills to changing times. He has created a Saint who is as much at home in the world of the 1950s as his earlier incarnation was in the world of the early 1930s. Thriller writers are not renowned for character development but that is what Charteris has attempted, and rather successfully. The Simon Templar of the 1950s is the sort of man that the Simon Templar of the 1930s might well have grown into, more reflective and slightly less reckless, but with the benefit of age and experience.

Having The Saint island-hopping through the Caribbean provides perfect settings for adventures, and the adventures come thick and fast. Simon Templar finds himself searching for sunken treasure (The Old Treasure Story), foiling a revolution in Jamaica (The Black Commissar), solving an ingenious murder (The Arrow of God) and getting the better of some rather nasty villains (The Unkind Philanthropist and The Effete Angler). In The Questing Tycoon he discovers that there’s rather more to voodoo than he’d thought.

Charteris uses the settings with skill and as more than just colourful backgrounds.

On the whole I think I prefer the Mark II Saint of the early 1930s but The Saint on the Spanish Main is an intriguing collection. Charteris was a master of the short story form, a form which he always preferred. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

So Evil My Love

Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long (1885-1952) was a prolific English author who wrote under half a dozen pseudonyms. She is best remembered for the books she wrote as Marjorie Bowen. Her work was admired by Graham Greene and continues to enjoy a high reputation among fans of romance and gothic fiction. She also wrote mysteries under the name Joseph Shearing, including For Her To See which was published in 1947. In the US it was published as So Evil My Love.

While So Evil My Love is undoubtedly crime fiction it is not a detective story. The identity of  the murderer is never in doubt. It relies mainly on suspense, and even more on the author’s ability to create complex characters with contradictory motivations. The characters themselves often do not fully understand their own motivations and live lives based on self-deception. 

Mrs Olivia Sacret is the widow of a Dissenting clergymen who had gone to Jamaica as a missionary, where he had died after a lingering illness. On her return to England Mrs Sacret finds that her husband left her very poorly provided for. Even worse, she discovers that she possesses neither the social connections nor the skills to obtain any kind of decent paid employment.

In desperation she decides to look up the only real school friend she ever had. Susan has recently married for the second time, to a young banker named Martin Rue. The marriage is not a happy one. Martin Rue is a hypochondriac whose only interest in life, apart from his health, is growing exotic flowers. He is not really a bad man but he is ill-tempered, insensitive and miserly. He is constantly finding fault with his wife. His mother is a particularly unpleasant woman who makes her daughter-in-law’s life a misery and is intent on wrecking his marriage.

Susan herself is frivolous, weak-willed and unintelligent. Mrs Sacret discovers, quite by accident, that she has a hold over Susan. Susan had been the subject of malicious gossip over her relations with a married man and had written a series of letters to Mrs Sacret on the subject, letters that could at best be described as indiscreet, at worst as compromising. Susan immediately assumes that Mrs Sacret is intent on blackmailing her. Such a thought had never occurred to the pious widow of a missionary. Mrs Sacret would never dream of stooping to blackmail, but when Susan offers her a position as companion she accepts.

Mrs Sacret soon coms to dominate Susan completely. She still does not think of herself as a blackmailer although in practice that is precisely what she has become. Mrs Sacret has no difficulty in finding ways to justify her actions to herself and when she becomes enamoured of a handsome painter he encourages her to take whatever advantage she can of the situation.

The situation becomes increasingly fraught and eventually ends in murder.

The murder appears at first to be a case of suicide but the coroner’s jury returns an open verdict and there are those who are very dissatisfied by the assumption of suicide. The matter will not be allowed to rest.

While there is plenty of suspense the novel’s strong suit is the merciless dissection of the personalities and motives of the leading characters. Mrs Sacret had been an inoffensive and rather insignificant woman who succumbed to temptation. Having done so she becomes increasingly corrupted by her own actions. Susan is also a weak character although she is weak in very different ways compared to Olivia Sacret. Martin Rue is yet another weak character, excessively dominated by his mother and unable to bring himself to take the steps he needs to take in order to save his marriage. 

These are not evil people as such, but weakness of character can lead to evil results. Weakness can have a corrosive effect on the personality and it can set in motion a self-reinforcing cycle that leads ever further downwards.

The author’s style is at times playfully ironic but the irony can at times take on a much harder edge. She is extremely adept in her depiction of the dangers of self-deception.

So Evil My Love is a gripping and skillful psychological crime novel and is highly recommended.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Introducing the Toff

Englishman John Creasey (1908-1973) may well be the most prolific author who has ever lived. He had at least 562 novels published during his lifetime and most authorities believe the actual total was over the six hundred mark. Creasey wrote under his own name and under no less than twenty-eight pseudonyms. The Toff was one of his most enduring series characters, featuring in fifty-nine books.

The Toff made his first appearance in print in a story called The Black Circle written for Thriller magazine. The story was later enlarged to novel length as Introducing the Toff, published in 1938.

The Toff is a variation on the gentleman desperado amateur crime-fighter thriller hero made popular by characters like the Saint, Blackshirt and Bulldog Drummond. Like these other heroes the Toff often operates outside the law whilst always remaining on the side of justice. The Toff is slightly unusual however in being an actual aristocrat, something that sharply differentiates him from the Saint. The Toff is actually the Honourable Richard Rollison.

Like Bulldog Drummond and the early version of the Saint the Toff has a number of associates who assist him in the course of his crime-fighting activities, although the only one who makes an appearance in this first novel is his manservant Jolly. Jolly will later become a fully fledged sidekick, and a very competent one, but at this stage he still remains very much in the background.

In Introducing the Toff Creasey tells us that at the time Richard Rollison left Cambridge University he had a fortune of half a million pounds and a very decided taste for adventure, a taste he indulged in the disreputable quarters of various cities in various continents. Having returned to England he has become the scourge of the London underworld and something of a legend in the East End. He is feared for his ruthlessness and efficiency but he has also started to acquire a different sort of legend, as a man who always plays fair and is prepared to stand by any man who offers him help in his implacable war on crime.

The Toff lacks the larger-than-life quality of a Bulldog Drummond and the mischievous wit of a Simon Templar.  At first sight he does not appear to be a very formidable opponent, being slight in build and somewhat unassuming by nature (at least in comparison with Bulldog Drummond and the Saint). This is perhaps one of the reasons he has become so feared - criminals who get on the wrong side of him quickly discover that he is far more dangerous than he looks. There is something uncanny about a slightly built rather quietly spoken gentleman-about-town who is a crack shot and is equally deadly with a knife or in unarmed combat.

Like the Saint the Toff has a distinctive calling card with a drawing of a top hat, a monocle and a cane in place of the Saint’s famous stick figure.

This first Toff novel opens with an encounter with a mysterious gunman on a lonely road, an encounter which almost brings the Toff’s career to an abrupt end. He has decidedly the worst of the encounter but he is not overly bothered by this. He sets about tracking down the gunman with his usual quiet determination.

Rollison has in fact stumbled upon an international drug-smuggling ring, and a number of very dangerous enemies including a sinister Egyptian and a trigger-happy Chicago hoodlum. There is of course a heroine in distress as well, although the Toff has to admit to himself, somewhat reluctantly, that she may not be as innocent as she appears.

The Toff is more inclined than most thriller heroes of his era to work with the police, or at least to co-operate with them. 

While we have no doubt that the Toff will eventually triumph he gives us some anxious moments along the way, especially when he manages to get himself blown up. The Toff is quite happy to admit that he is capable of making mistakes, a quality that makes him a rather endearing hero. He lacks the sublime self-confidence of the Saint but he also lacks the Saint’s arrogance. The Toff’s great strength is his quiet doggedness. 

The most extraordinary thing about Creasey is that despite the truly incredible pace at which he wrote (he once claimed to have written two novels in a week) there’s nothing slapdash about his writing. He was an unbelievably fast but also highly disciplined writer. He was also able to create complex and interesting heroes. 

There’s as much action as you could wish for in a thriller. The Toff of this first novel is not yet a fully developed character but he’s already pretty interesting. It seems that most of the great British thriller series of that era really need to be read in sequence. Like the Saint the Toff evolves somewhat in subsequent books.

On the whole a highly enjoyable read. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hand in the Dark

Arthur J. Rees’ The Hand in the Dark was published in 1920. It’s a little-known but interesting example of the golden age detective novel.

Arthur J. Rees (1872-1942) was born in Australia but relocated to England when in his early twenties. He worked as a newspaperman and according to some sources also for a time for the Metropolitan Police. he was the author of many mystery novels.

It is in most ways a typical English country house murder mystery. The Heredith family has lived for generations in a moated house dating to the 17th century. They came into possession of their estate during the English Civil War, in rather violent circumstances. One of their ancestors allegedly burnt the original house to the ground, with its Royalist owner inside. As a result there is believed to be a curse on the Heredith family.

In 1918 the house is occupied by Sir Philip Heredith, his unmarried sister and his son and heir, known generally as Phil. Phil’s new wife also lives there, although not very happily. Mrs Heredith is used to the excitement of London and finds country life to be unbearably done. A house party has been arranged to cheer her up. The house party ends in murder.

There are a number of possible suspects but since all the guests were having dinner at the time of the murder they all appear to have perfect alibis. As luck would have it a Scotland Yard man, Detective Caldew, happens to be staying with his own family in the village. The ambitious young detective sees this as his great opportunity to make a name for himself but it soon becomes apparent that the case is beyond him. At first it also seems to be beyond Detective Superintendent Merrington who has been called in from the Yard to take charge.

Merrington eventually solves the case and an arrest is made. But has the case really been  solved? Phil Heredith does not believe it has and employs the famed private detective Grant Colwyn to investigate further.

Colwyn finds that several vital clues have been overlooked, the most important being that the famous Heredith pearls are missing. Superintendent Merrington’s case is based on the assumption that the motive for the murder was jealousy but this new information suggests that robbery may have been the real motive, a circumstance that casts serious doubt on the Crown’s case against the accused.

In a golden age detective novel you expect a fiendishly complex plot and the book certainly delivers on that score. The eventual solution to the murder is delightfully ingenious.

In fact the identity of the murderer could have been deduced by psychological means, which is undoubtedly how a Hercule Poirot would have approached it. The problem with such a psychological approach is that it would not have explained how the murder was committed and it would have had the further disadvantage of running up against a cast-iron alibi. Grant Colwyn has no interest in psychology. His method is based on a painstaking and methodical accumulation of evidence and a dogged determination to chase up every possible lead. This approach might take longer but it does provide Colwyn with the vital evidence needed to build an unshakeable case. 

Having three detectives all trying to solve the case more or less individually is an interesting touch. Even more interesting is that Rees shows us how the personality of the detective can impact on his investigation and how this can often lead him astray.

Rees has a straightforward but rather pleasing prose style, another factor in the book’s favour.

If you enjoy detective novels that rely on unbreakable alibis that somehow have to 
be broken by the unravelling of a fantastically complicated murder then you should have a great deal of fun with this novel. In fact if you’re a fan of golden age detective stories in general you will find that this one ticks all the right boxes. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Such Power Is Dangerous

Such fame as Dennis Wheatley still possesses is based almost entirely on his “Black Magic” occult thrillers but these books represent only a fraction of his vast output. He wrote  a large number of straight thrillers as well, of which his 1933 novel Such Power Is Dangerous is an early example.

While this book has no occult elements it does have many of the features that Wheatley fans enjoy so much - an over-the-top conspiracy theory, a bizarre and convoluted plot, a healthy dose of paranoia and a set of ludicrously but delightfully excessive villains. And it has another feature familiar to Wheatley aficionados - an intense dislike of much of the modern world.

In this novel Wheatley turns his attention to Hollywood. You would expect that the villains would be Hollywood studio moguls but, surprisingly, Hollywood’s moguls are for the most part the victims of a conspiracy rather than the instigators of one. A wealthy English nobleman with an insatiable lust for power, Lord Gavin Fortescue, is the chief villain. He has come up with a plan to control the entire world film industry. While he is a wealthy man he does not possess the enormous resources that would be needed to take over Hollywood directly. Instead he has come up with a plan based on using other people’s money and his own very considerable skill in manipulation and financial chicanery.

The idea is to form a gigantic combine. If he can persuade six or seven of the major studios to join forces they will be able either to squeeze out the other studios or force them to join. His intention is that the combine will include not just the American studios but also the major British and German studios (the novel was written at a time just before the Nazis came to power when the German film industry was still a very major player). The idea that the combine would need to include British studios was probably largely a matter of patriotic wishful thinking on Wheatley’s part. 

It should be noted that all the studios, moguls and movie stars mentioned in the book are fictitious although a few at least are clearly based on real people. Percy Piplin is obviously Charlie Chaplin while it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out the identity of the real-life counterpart of the British director Titchcock.

Of course a gigantic conspiracy aimed merely at making money would have held little interesting for Wheatley. The actual aim of Lord Gavin’s plot is to gain almost unlimited power. We are told that whoever controls the world film industry will be in a position to brainwash whole populations, which of course in the 1930s would have been quite accurate. That’s the wonderful thing about Wheatley’s fantastically elaborate conspiracy theories - once you get past their sheer outrageousness they do possess a certain plausibility. 

A British starlet named Avril Bamborough gets caught up in these machiavellian machinations. She also gets mixed up with Nelson Druce, the handsome son of a Hollywood studio chief. Druce becomes the implacable enemy of the Combine although at this stage he has no idea of the identity of the prime mover behind it. Avril will find herself caught up in further disturbing complications, including murder. The forces behind the Combine are not in the least unsettled by the regrettable necessity of murdering those who oppose them.

Lord Gavin Fortescue is a rather splendid villain, a man of immense intelligence, but it is a warped and distinctly unhealthy intelligence.

It goes without saying that there’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this novel, although Wheatley has the ability quite often to be politically incorrect in unexpected ways.  Wheatley was an arch-conservative but not always exactly a typical conservative. Wheatley’s deliciously outrageous political incorrectness is of course one of the chief attractions of his work for a certain class of reader, a class in which I certainly include myself.

Such Power Is Dangerous is not top-drawer Wheatley but it is an unusual and undeniably highly entertaining concoction. Warmly recommended.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Blackshirt

Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1962) was a prolific author in various genres. Under the name Bruce Graeme he wrote a series of books chronicling the adventures of the gentleman-thief Blackshirt. The series was later continued by his son Roderic.

Blackshirt isn’t quite a gentleman a such. Like the most famous of all gentleman-thieves, Raffles, his class status is ambiguous. Blackshirt is actually Richard Verrell, a burglar who becomes a successful crime novelist. Verrell was an orphan who was raised by criminals. There is a suggestion that perhaps he really was born a gentleman although that might be wishful thinking on Verrell’s part.

The first book in the series, Blackshirt, was published in 1925. It is a series of linked short stories that had been previously published in the New Magazine. The stories are so closely linked that the book is perhaps better considered as an episodic novel rather than a short story collection.

Blackshirt got his name from the fact that when engaged in his burglarious activities he dresses entirely in black, his outfit completed by a black mask.

In the first story, The Lady of the ’Phone, Verrell is already well established in his respectable career as a crime writer but he is still continuing his parallel career as a burglar. He does not actually need the money any longer but he is unable to give up the thrill of burglary. He is however already plagued by a vague guilt about his double life.

This guilt will become more marked when he receives the first of a series of telephone calls from a mysterious lady. She knows a remarkable amount about him and she threatens to expose him if he does not carry out her instructions. These instructions are rather puzzling. At one moment she is ordering him to carry out a daring theft; at the next she is ordering him to return the jewels he has just stolen.

Verrell is initially annoyed but as the telephone calls continue he becomes fascinated, to the point that he suspects he is falling in love with this mysterious lady. Her motivations remain obscure. Is she trying to tempt him into plunging ever deeper into the world of crime, or does she intend to reform him?

Verrell is certainly an ambiguous hero. At times he becomes almost a genuine hero, even going so far as to risk his life to save a young woman trapped in a burning house. He feels a certain degree of guilt about his criminal activities but he does not intend to make atonement for his crimes by going to prison. He may however find a different way to atone for them.

Verrell finds that while stealing jewels can be dangerous enough returning to the scene of the crime to return his ill-gotten booty involves even greater perils.

The strange relationship between Blackshirt and The Lady of the ’Phone develops over the course of the eight stories in the first book. In the final story he will at last discover her identity, and discover her real motives for the puzzling and contradictory tasks she has set him. He will also discover his real destiny. 

Graeme was a great fan of the Raffles stories which were an obvious influence, and one acknowledged by the author. Blackshirt was a Raffles for the 1920s. Blackshirt differs from Raffles in several important ways. Raffles has some moral scruples, but not many. Blackshirt on the other hand is, right from the start, torn between his need for adventure which tempts him to continue his criminal life and his desire to escape from crime and become in reality the respectable figure that he has been pretending to be.

As the Blackshirt series developed in the subsequent books Richard Verrell becomes a thief-turned-hero of the type that would become very popular a few years later with Leslie Charteris’s Saint stories and John Creasey’s books featuring The Baron. The first Blackshirt book sets up the character and it really is essential to read this one first before attempting any of the later books.

Blackshirt was an instant success and eventually racked up sales of around a million copies. By 1940 Bruce Graeme had written ten further very successful Blackshirt books. At this point he felt he’d taken the character as far as he could but rather than abandoning the series altogether he wrote a series of novels featuring Blackshirt’s son. In 1952 the author’s son Roderic took over the series, writing another twenty books with the final entry in the series being published as recently as 1969. Roderic Graeme’s books amounted to what today would be called a reboot of the series, making significant changes to the hero’s chronology and character.

Blackshirt, in his original form, is an intriguing variation of the gentleman-thief theme and the complex and ambiguous relationship (at times becoming almost a power struggle as well as an unconventional love story) between Richard Verrell and the Lady of the ’Phone adds considerable additional interest. Blackshirt is highly recommended to fans of British thrillers of the interwar period.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Duel of Shadows

The Duel of Shadows, published by Crippen & Landru Publishers in 2011, includes eleven of Vincent Cornier’s Barnabas Hildreth stories, written mostly in the 1930s. 

Vincent Cornier was the pseudonym of William Vincent Corner (1898-1976), an English author whose stories often blurred the boundaries between weird fiction and detective fiction. Early in his career Cornier tried his hand at both science fiction and supernatural tales. He eventually came to specialise in detective stories, but detective stories of a rather unusual type.

Cornier’s stories appeared in various British magazines in the 1920s and 1930s and thereafter very sporadically until the 1960s. Several of his 1930s stories were republished in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the late 1940s, Frederic Dannay (one half of the Ellery Queen writing team) being a great admirer of Cornier’s work.

Barnabas Hildreth himself is a somewhat unconventional detective. He is an agent of the British Secret Service but in between his official duties he amuses himself by solving crimes that appeal to him because of their bizarre nature.

The emphasis in these stories is not on detection as such. In some stories there is not even an actual crime in the technical sense. There is however always a mystery of some sort.

The mysteries are often very esoteric indeed. What connection could there possibly be between the murder of an English judge in 1932 and a Venetian glassmaker of the 16th century whose clients included the Borgias? It is unlikely that anyone but Barnabas Hildreth could find such a connection but that is exactly what he does in The Stone Ear, a strange but brilliant story that features one of strangest and most complex methods of murder to be found in crime fiction.

In The Brother of Heaven it is the background to the crime that provides the strange and exotic flavour, and a very exotic flavour it is.

The Silver Quarrel involves no actual crime but it does require Barnabas Hildreth to solve a mystery three centuries old, a mystery that involves hidden treasure and the unusual properties of 12th century Benedictine glass. It is a mystery the solution of which may well bring death. Glass with highly unusual properties seemed to be something of an obsession with Cornier.

In The Catastrophe in Clay a man is apparently turned into stone. This seems like a case that is likely to involve some supernatural agency but Barnabas Hildreth is certain there is a rational explanation. A rational explanation is however much more difficult to find in the The Throat of Green Jasper, in which the members of an archaeological expedition seem to be falling victim to an ancient Egyptian curse. Stories with ancient Egyptian themes were immensely popular in the 20s and 30s but Cornier manages to give his tale an original twist. This story is perhaps the closest approach to true weird fiction rather than detective fiction in this collection.

Some of the stories are about crimes committed by more or less conventional criminals, in others the criminal is very unconventional indeed while in at least one story we have a full-blown mad scientist with diabolical criminal mastermind tendencies. In other stories a crime appears to have been committed, but appearances can be deceptive. The Mantle that Laughed has some hints of the mad scientist to it as well.

Cornier delights in presenting rational explanations for the apparently inexplicable, but rational explanations that are themselves far more fantastic and bizarre than the supernatural. How can you rationally explain a man being shot by a pistol fired more than two centuries earlier? In the story The Duel of Shadows that is exactly what Barnabas Hildreth manages to do. Cornier displays a degree of enthusiasm for science than is matched by few other authors, in any genre.

Barnabas Hildreth himself is a bit like Philo Vance (though entirely lacking in Vance’s mannerisms that annoy so many readers) in that he proves to be an expert in just about every field of scholarship that can be imagined. For a man of unquestioned genius he is surprisingly lacking in arrogance. That’s not say he is entirely lacking in ego, but compared to a Sherlock Holmes, a Philo Vance or a Hercule Poirot he is modesty personified. He’s by no means dull and the stories do have a leavening of humour.

These stories are so ingenious, so varied, so intricately constructed and so hugely entertaining that their obscurity becomes a mystery in itself. For the tastes of the 1930s they probably crossed too many genre boundaries but for that very reason one would expect them to have built up a massive cult following in more recent years.

The Duel of Shadows is a collection that presents the reader with an intriguing blend of weird fiction and detective story, and with some of the most deliciously clever and bizarre ideas ever to be found in either genre. Very highly recommended.