Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Female of the Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Murder Must Advertise (1973 TV adaptation)

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Harriet Vane returns to her old college at Oxford for a kind of class reunion (known as a gaudy night, hence the title). She witnesses the start of a strange series of events, which at first seem relatively trivial if a little disturbing. Some threatening letters, and an obscene drawing. When these minor irritations begin to escalate into a full-scale war of nerves against the college Harriet is called back to Oxford to undertake an informal and very discreet investigation (her previous dealings with the celebrated amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey being regarded as qualifying her for this role).

Harriet finds herself increasingly drawn into the drama, and also into the academic life, a life she had abandoned some years earlier. Making little progress, she somewhat reluctantly decides to call on Lord Peter for assistance.

Oxford has provided the background to many detective stories, and it’s a great setting for a crime novel. What interesting about Gaudy Night is that Sayers doesn’t just use it as background - the human and professional dramas afflicting the women of Shrewsbury College are the real meat of the book. You could argue that the detective story in this case is merely the background detail! Sayers is attempting something quite ambitious for 1936 - this is a detective story, a love story, and a serious analysis of the problems facing women who choose to pursue careers. It’s very definitely a feminist novel.

And that is the problem. The non-detective story elements overwhelm the detective story elements and they also slow the narrative. As a result Gaudy Night, judged as a work of detective fiction, is not terribly successful.

Sayers is being very ambitious in trying to create characters with a genuine inner life, rather than mere cogs in the machine of the plot. In fact she’s trying to write what would today be described as literary fiction. Unfortunately in doing so she has neglected the ingredients that make for good detective fiction. Gaudy Night has been described as a detective story for people who hate detective stories. It can also be described as a detective story that is likely to annoy and alienate people who love detective stories.

Although Lord Peter Wimsey certainly figures in the book the central character is very much Harriet Vane. Like Sayers, Harriet is a Oxford graduate and a writer of detective fiction who has led a somewhat scandalous personal life (although Sayers managed to avoid public scandal). She was undoubtedly using this character to work through some personal issues. She also uses both Harriet (a fictional writer of detective stories) and Lord Peter (a fictional detective) to playfully send up the crime fiction genre. 

This raises another problem. Harriet Vane is both an unnecessary character and an irritating one. Her presence in the later Sayers mysteries makes them reminiscent of fan fiction, with Vane as a particularly unfortunate example of a Mary Sue character.

While Sayers may have believed she was striking out in a bold new direction with this novel the truth is that it was a dead end. Gaudy Night was published in 1935. Sayers would write one more Wimsey novel before abandoning crime fiction. 

Gaudy Night is interesting as an experiment. It’s the sort of book that academics get very excited by, but lovers of the detective story can be excused for giving it a miss.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

The Three Hostages, published in 1924, was the fourth of John Buchan’s five Richard Hannay spy thrillers. The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast had chronicled Hannay’s wartime adventures. The Three Hostages on the other hand is a spy thriller set in the postwar world. 

It is now 1924 and Major-General Sir Richard Hannay is living in contented retirement with his wife and their young son. Hannay is now middle-aged and has lost his taste for adventure. He wants peace and quiet. Nothing would tempt him back into the cloak-and-dagger world of spies and conspiracies. Well, almost nothing. When he is informed of a gigantic international criminal conspiracy he is still determined to have nothing to do with it,  to let younger men carry the burden and remain on his beloved farm. All that changes when he learns that this criminal organisation, as a precaution against any action that may be taken against them, has taken three hostages. And one of the hostages is a young boy. Hannay immediately thinks of his own young son, and how he would feel if he had been kidnapped. He agrees to contribute his services to the fight against these criminals.

The British government of course has professionals to undertake these sorts of investigations, but Hannay has a reputation for achieving success by unorthodox methods and it is believed that he might succeed where the professionals would not.

Hannay begins his investigations with a very unlikely clue - four lines of poetry left behind at the scenes of each of the kidnappings. It seems unlikely to be of any real significance but Hannay has a gut feeling that somehow these four lines of verse contain the clues needed to smash a vast criminal organisation and save the lives of the three hostages. Hannay decides to follow his instincts.

The clue of the poetry is a characteristic Buchan device, rather like the famous thirty-nine steps of his novel of that name.

Hannay quickly comes to the conclusion that Dominick Medina is involved in the criminal plot in a very major way. Hannay had crossed swords with some formidable opponents in the past but Medina is a new type of villain. His wartime enemies, no matter how ruthless they may have been, were acting in the belief that they were serving their country. Medina serves nobody but himself. He is a politician, and a rising star in the world of politics. Medina is not only a new type of enemy for Richard Hannay, he is a new type of villain for Buchan. Medina is the kind of charismatic political leader that would cause the world so much misery during the course of the 20th century. Buchan believed that the First World War had changed everything, and not for the better. The future would belong to men like Medina who could manipulate the masses. Medina is a prototype not only for the charismatic dictators of the 20s and 20s but for the cynical democratic politicians who would begin the slow process of dismantling western civilisation. 

Buchan in 1924 viewed the future with extreme pessimism. He felt that the future would not be a pleasant one and he was remarkably prescient about the natures of the unpleasantnesses to come. The future would belong to whoever could control the mass media. He had no illusions about democracy. Politics was now purely about power. 

Dominick Medina is not just a skilled politician. He has mastered the techniques of hypnosis and mind control. To overcome this most dangerous enemy Richard Hannay will have to pretend to submit to Medina’s mind control. He will have to pretend to be a puppet with no will of his own. Medina’s powers are considerable but Hannay holds one ace in his hand. He happens to be just about the world’s worst hypnotic subject. He is one of those people who is almost entirely impervious to hypnosis. The fact that Medina is unaware of this is Hannay’s best hope for success.

The core of the novel is a subtle battle of wills between Medina and Hannay, with Hannay making use of the fact that Medina is convinced that he has subjugated Hannay entirely.

There is also plenty of suspense as Hannay stalks Medina’s underlings as far as Norway. The novel ends with a particularly suspenseful extended hunt through the Scottish highlands with Hannay and Medina stalking each other. It’s the kind of action sequence that Buchan always handled extremely well.

There are some obvious parallels with the immensely popular Bulldog Drummond novels of H. C. McNeile which also deal with a First World War veteran turned amateur crime-fighter, and The Three Hostages shares with the Bulldog Drummond books a hostility towards the postwar world.  These books could be, and often have been, labelled as reactionary, although their pessimism about the future of western civilisation has turned out to be chillingly accurate. The Three Hostages is also spectacularly and delightfully politically incorrect.

The Three Hostages has suspense and excitement, it has a complex and wonderfully sinister super-villain, it has hypnosis and eastern mind-control techniques and it has an international criminal conspiracy on the grandest scale. You really can’t ask for much more in a thriller. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Big Book of Adventure Stories

The Big Book of Adventure Stories from Vintage Press, edited by Otto Penzler, gathers together almost fifty adventure tales most of which originally appeared in pulp magazines at some stage during the first half of the 20th century.

Penzler’s definition of adventure is pretty loose, encompassing everything from spy fiction to tales of the South Seas to westerns to science fiction.

There are plenty of well-known masters of adventure fiction here - Edgar Rice Burroughs. Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, H. C. McNeile (“Sapper”), P. C. Wren, Robert E. Howard, Jack London, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, Rudyard Kipling and Rafael Sabatini. And there are many lesser-known names as well (who contribute some of the best stories). And some surprising names as well - you don’t normally think of Cornell Woolrich as an adventure writer but he’s here and his contribution is a genuine tale of adventure.

Most of the famous heroes of adventure fiction will be found here as well - Tarzan, Zorro, Allan Quaterman, Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, even Hopalong Cassidy. It’s intriguing to read early stories of some of these heroes - who knew that the Cisco Kid started out as a bad guy?

In a collection as large as this there are bound to be a few misfires. Jack London’s contribution is very dull. But on the whole the quality is fairy consistently high. 

Some of these stories are very well-known - Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. But mostly Penzler has chosen lesser-known works, or stories that were once widely read but are now more or less forgotten (such as Armageddon 2419 A.D. which introduced the character of Buck Rogers). Or Leiningen versus the Ants, which was the literary source for one of my favourite cinematic guilty pleasures, The Naked Jungle. You couldn’t leave John Buchan out of an anthology like this but Penzler has unearthed a very uncharacteristic Richard Hannay story set in Africa.

With so many stories to choose from it’s nearly impossible to pick favourites. Stories which came as a pleasant surprise were Theodore Roscoe’s Snake-Head (an interesting take of the legend of Medusa), The Girl in the Golden Atom (a strange but ingenious science fiction story) and Georges Surdez’s Suicide Patrol, a crime thriller set within the French Foreign Legion. Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of the Mandarin Quong is also particularly good, but that’s no surprise since Rohmer was always good.

There’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had here and the wideness of the scope proves to be an advantage, tempting the reader to delve into hitherto unexplored areas of pulp fiction.

For lovers of pulp fiction and stirring tales of adventure this has to be a must-buy.