Tuesday, June 11, 2024

W. Somerset Maugham’s Miss Thompson (Rain)

Rain is one of the best known short stories by W. Somerset Maugham (one of the grandmasters of the art of short story writing). It was originally published as Miss Thompson in the American magazine The Smart Set in April 1921. Maugham claims to have written the story in 1920. It’s a longish short story, long enough to be regarded in some genres as a novelette.

The story was adapted into an astonishingly successful stage play, Rain, by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. The success of the play was presumably the reason the title of the story was changed to Rain.

The story was made into a silent film in 1928, with Gloria Swanson starring and with the title Sadie Thompson. 

A few years later it was made into a talkie, Rain (1932), with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. That movie was a commercial flop, for reasons I have never been able to fathom. It has since built a substantial cult following.

In 1953 it was filmed again as Miss Sadie Thompson with Rita Hayworth. This was a sanitised squeaky clean version and a waste of Miss Hayworth’s considerable talents.

This is the story of a battle of wills between a prostitute and a preacher.

The 1920s and early 30s were a period of rebellion against the moralising and social rigidity of the late Victorian era. It was also a period in which at least some sections of society were embracing sexual freedom. The flapper became a symbol of rebellion, and so too did the prostitute. Books and movies not only dealt with prostitutes sympathetically but even admiringly. They were seen as women determined to live their own lives even if it meant flaunting social conventions.

Of course the spirit of rebellion was fairly thoroughly crushed by the Depression, by a resurgence in religious moralism and by the Second World War which trained the population to accept a high degree of social control.

The story begins with the arrival of a steamer at Pago Pago. The passengers include a Dr Macphail and his wife. They also include fanatical puritan missionary Mr Davidson and his malevolent wife. The passengers also include Sadie Thompson. It is to be a very brief stopover. The passengers will soon be departing for other destinations, but an outbreak of measles strands them in Pago Pago for two weeks. The only accomodation on offer is provided by a half-European trader. The passengers are not pleased, and the relentless rain adds to their discomfort.

Davidson and his wife are scandalised by Sadie’s behaviour. She entertains men in her room. They listen to records and they dance. Davidson fears they do other things. He is convinced that Sadie had been working in Honolulu’s notorious red-light district. He is convinced she is a prostitute. Which she almost certainly has been. Whether she is plying her trade in Pago Pago is left obscure, but Davidson sees her very existence as a threat to morality. 

Davidson has proudly told Dr Macphail of his campaign to eradicate sin on the small island where his mission is located. To Macphail it sounds like Davidson and his wife are brutal merciless unscrupulous tyrants who have instituted a reign of misery on the island but Davidson has no doubt he is doing the Lord’s work. Both Dr Macphail and the reader will suspect that Davidson is motivated by an intense pleasure in exercising power over the lives of others. 

And Davidson has no intention of permitting the existence of sinners like Sadie. He is going to save her soul. If that fails she must of course be destroyed. And Davidson has found a way to destroy her - if he has her sent back to San Francisco she will go straight to prison.

The odds seem to be in Davidson’s favour. And it appears that Sadie, utterly defeated, will agree to whatever fate Davidson decrees for her.

But there are some major plot twists to come.

And some slight differences to the 1932 film version. The endings are very very similar with the ending of the story having a slightly harsher edge to it, but to my mind both endings work.

Maugham was a fine writer who was especially adept at the short story format. He seems to be out of fashion these days which is a great pity. This is a superb novelette with plenty of overheated tropical atmosphere and some nice touches of sleaze, hypocrisy, repression, sin and guilt. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jimmy Sangster's Touchfeather

Touchfeather is a 1968 spy thriller by Jimmy Sangster which slots neatly into the “glamorous sexy lady spy” sub-genre. And I do so love that sub-genre.

Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) had an incredibly successful and impressive career as a screenwriter. He wrote a huge number of movies from Hammer, including most of their best early films. He had some success also a novelist although that side of his writing career tends to get overlooked.

Sangster wrote a number of spy novels, including the two Touchfeather novels.

Katy Touchfeather is an air hostess (to call her a flight attendant would be silly and anachronistic). At least that’s her cover. She’s actually a spy (or perhaps counter-spy) working for a very hush-hush British intelligence agency run by a Mr Blaser.

There’s a security leak at a research establishment and a Professor Bill Partnam is under suspicion. Partnam is off to Bombay to read some scientific papers at a conference and Katy’s job is to watch him and find the necessary evidence if he’s passing secrets on to The Other Side. Katy will be the air hostess on his flight to India. She doesn’t think she’ll have much trouble getting close to the Professor. She’s right about that. They quickly end up in bed together.

That’s no problem. Mr Blaser won’t have any objections to that. She does however fall in love with Bill, and Mr Blaser would not approve of that at all. Katy is aware that her emotions are interfering with her judgment. She just can’t believe that Bill could be a traitor. And of course he might not be, but Katy isn’t thinking too clearly where Bill is concerned.

The whole mission starts to fall apart. Katy is going to have some explaining to do to Mr Blaser. To be fair it’s not all Katy’s fault. The whole mission was ill-conceived.

The case is not over yet. Katy is drawn back into it, and once again her personal life and her professional life get all mixed up together.

In the course of this adventure Katy discovers just how dangerous flying can be. And just how dangerous spying can be.

The plot is a nicely constructed web of tangled motives and deceits, and self-deceit. It all leads up to an an absolute corker of an ending. It’s a bit of shock but if you’ve been paying attention you’ll realise that it’s the only possible ending.

We get some backstory on Katy, which explains how she came to be a spy. It also explains why she’s willing to kill in the line of duty, and why she has absolutely no qualms about doing so.

Any English author creating a glamorous lady spy in 1968 was inevitably going to be influenced to some extent by Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, and especially by Modesty Blaise. Katy, like Modesty, has an active sex life. She likes sex, and she likes men. She genuinely likes men, and like Modesty Blaise she gets emotionally involved. Katy isn’t excessively promiscuous. Three regular boyfriends at a time is enough for her. Of course she sleeps with other men occasionally as well. Unlike Modesty Blaise, she does allow her emotional life to interfere with the job.

Katy doesn’t have the psychological, emotional and moral complexity of Modesty Blaise but she does have some complexity.

There is a slight Len Deighton influence at work. There are touches of cynicism and you don’t want to put too much faith in authority figures, or in the rich and powerful. Sangster isn’t trying to be terribly cerebral but he is trying to write a book that is more than just a potboiler. And he succeeds. It all turns out to be a very satisfying spy thriller indeed, with some real punch to it. Very highly recommended.

The good news is that Touchfeather is in print, from Brash Books, and apparently without the text having been tampered with.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Poul Anderson's The Golden Slave

The Golden Slave is a 1960 historical novel by Poul Anderson.

Anderson had a formidable reputation as a science fiction writer but my own preference is for his work in the fantasy, historical fiction and sword-and-sorcery genres. Anderson knew his history and his mythology and he had a genuine feel for those subjects. This comes through strongly in his Hrolf Kraki's Saga and his fantasy masterpiece The Broken Sword.

The story takes place around the year 100BC. A number of barbarian tribes are attempting to conquer Rome. Among these tribes are the Cimbrians, hailing originally from Denmark. Eodan is the son of the tribal war chief. The Cimbrians have won several battles against the Romans, and as a result Eodan has obtained a Roman slave named Flavius. Flavius was a rich and important man. The destinies of Eodan and Flavius will become inextricably entangled.The Cimbrians are about to face the Roman army of Marius in battle. The result is disaster for the Cimbrians. Now Eodan is Flavius’s slave.

Eodan knows that his little son is dead. He saw his wife Hwicca dash the child’s brains out rather than allow him to fall into the hands of the Romans. He does not blame her for this. He would have done the same. He believes Hwicca was killed in the slaughter after the battle.

Eodan is not quite a broken man but there is now an emptiness within him. When Flavius’s wife Cordelia chooses him as her latest bed partner he does not complain. With Hwicca dead nothing really matters. An uneasy friendship develops between Eodan and Cordelia’s Greek slave-girl Phryne. They do not sleep together but their destinies also become intertwined.

Eodan makes some startling discoveries which give him new hope. But first he must escape. With Phryne’s help he does so, and she accompanies him in his flight. He does not understand why. Women are a bit of a mystery to Eodan.

The escape is the beginning of a series of wild adventures on land and at sea. These include a brief interlude as a pirate. He will end up at the court of King Mithradates the Great of Pontus, a kingdom on the Black Sea that is about to challenge Rome for control of Asia. Flavius will play a somewhat sinister part in these adventures.

In his early 1950s sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet tales Anderson had already demonstrated his ability to tell exciting action-packed stories so it’s no surprise that The Golden Slave is a roller-coaster ride of battles, narrow escapes, betrayals and sudden changes in fortune.

There is however a bit more depth to this novel. Eodan, Hwicca and Phryne (and even to a lesser extent Flavius) have complex contradictory motivations and are driven by desires and emotions which they do not always understand and cannot always control. Despite the non-stop action this is a rather character-driven story.

These are also genuinely people from a different culture, very much inclined to see themselves as driven inexorably by a fate they cannot escape. Their attitudes towards honour, duty, pride, sexual propriety and loyalty reflect a totally different cultural mindset.

This is real historical fiction, rather than the fake kind that is so common these days that features 21st century characters with 21st century attitudes being involved in 21st century dramas whilst wearing historical costumes.

It’s only at the end that we find out what Anderson was really up to in this tale, and the revelation links this novel to some of his other historical/fantasy work. This is a fine adventure story but it’s more than just that. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed some of Poul Anderson’s excellent sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet stories from the collection Swordsmen from the Stars (which I also highly recommend).

Monday, June 3, 2024

Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man

Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man was published in 1966.

Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986) was an American writer of noir-inflected pulp crime fiction.

Jim Wilson has decided to murder his wife Mona. He also intends to get away with it. There are various ways to go about getting away wth murder. Jim intends simply to shoot her, with plenty of witnesses. If he plays it right no jury will convict him.

He has some personal resentment towards Mona but that’s not why he wants to kill her. It has more to do with her father, Judge Harrington. Judge Harrington runs the town of Moline in South Carolina and in fact most of the county. He hates Jim and has made things difficult for Jim’s construction company. Jim wants revenge, but he wants more than that. He wants to replace Harrington. He wants to be the guy who runs things in Moline. And he has a pretty good plan to bring this about.

The plan is elaborate and it involves Ludmilla Pierson, with whom he went to high school. It involves blackmail, but he’s interested in influence, not money.

Jim Wilson’s plot to oust Harrington slowly matures. Harrington is old and his health is failing but he’s still powerful. Jim has to cover every angle.

He also discovers that while he’d always considered Judge Harrington a big shot there are much bigger much more powerful players in this game. Jim is moving into the big leagues.

These people are not exactly gangsters and this is not exactly a gangster story. They’re businessmen and politicians, they’re thoroughly corrupt, but they don’t deal in rackets like narcotics and gambling. They deal in rackets like construction. It’s all about carving up a territory and then making sure the right people get the right contracts from city and county and state officials. It’s crooked but respectable. These people don’t have rivals gunned down by machine-guns, but they do play hardball and if someone needs to be taken out of the picture they get the cops to do it. They own the cops.

Jim Wilson is a hard ruthless man and he’s smart, but he’s playing in a league with other smart hard ruthless players with more experience. Jim’s rise to the top seems unstoppable but the elaborate nature of his plans does mean that things could go wrong. He just needs to make one mistake. Trust one person he shouldn’t trust. Make one wrong assumption. Jim is learning, but is he learning fast enough?

There’s also the woman problem. Jim’s relationships with women are difficult. When he married Mona it didn’t take him long to realise he’d made a mistake. He doesn’t intend to make mistakes with Ludmilla or Veronica, but when sexual desire and emotional jealousies enter the picture any man can make a mistake.

There are some major plot twists which are pretty obvious and you have to wonder how a smart guy like Jim didn’t see them coming. But then what makes Jim an interesting anti-hero is that he’s smart but maybe the people he thinks he’s manipulating are actually just a bit smarter than he is.

This is noir fiction, if you’re prepared to define noir very broadly and very loosely. It has a noir kind of plot. There’s more than one femme fatale. But Jim Wilson isn’t quite a textbook noir protagonist. He doesn’t get corrupted. He’s corrupt from the start.

The Vengeance Man isn’t particularly violent. There’s some sleaze, but not a great deal. It is hardboiled, there is an overwhelming atmosphere of corruption and there’s as much paranoia as you could want. It’s reasonably entertaining and it’s recommended.

This novel is one of three in the Stark House Noir Classics paperback A Trio of Gold Medals, along with Fletcher Flora’s Park Avenue Tramp and Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed. All were originally Fawcett Gold Medal paperback originals.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Adolphe Alhaiza's Cybele

Cybele is an 1891 science fiction novel by Adolphe Alhaiza, or perhaps it’s better described by the then-popular term scientific romance.

Jean-Adolphe Alhaiza (1839-1922) was a follower of the utopian socialist philosophy of Charles Fourier, but he was not exactly an orthodox follower. Alhaiza had some intriguing scientific beliefs, some of which had some very slight plausibility at the time. He believed in a 20,000 year cycle in which firstly one of the polar regions became progressively colder while the other became warmer and then the process reversed itself. The result would be regular climatic cataclysms. This idea plays an important role in the novel. This is a novel of ideas, and the ideas are wonderfully eccentric.

It’s a kind of time travel story. The hero, Marius, travels through space and time by means of a form of astral projection. He finds himself on Earth but it’s not the same Earth. It’s a planet named Cybele which is identical to Earth in every respect except that history has progressed by another 6,000 years. On both planets history follows an absolutely identical course. Everything that has happened on Cybele in the preceding 6,000 years will happen on Earth. Every event will be repeated, precisely. Cybele is Earth’s future.

Marius becomes a kind of celebrity lecturer, offering the people of the future a glimpse into the past. He finds that his own life seems to be repeating itself, an aspect of the story that didn’t make much sense to me.

As a novel Cybele fails spectacularly. Every single mistake that a science fiction writer could possibly make is found here. Most of the book is an interminable series of clumsy infodumps. We’re treated to a detailed political history of the next few centuries but that’s the problem - we just don’t need so much detail.

The plot is almost non-existent. There’s nothing to engage our interest or to make us care about this future world or about Marius.

The resolution of the plot is extraordinarily clumsy and makes us feel that we have wasted our time reading the story.

There are some very good ideas here. The 20,000 year polar cycle is interesting and does actually drive the plot, such as it is.

Other good ideas are just thrown in for no apparent reason. The sleepers are a cool idea but they play no part in the story. The problem of interplanetary communication is handled very cleverly, but again it plays no part in the story. Both of these ideas could have been developed in fascinating ways, but they’re not developed at all.

I honestly don’t think the author had the slightest interest in writing a novel. He wanted to write a religio-scientific-political-philosophical treatise. The book does offer an intriguing insight into the utopian mindset. Those who create fantasy utopias always seem to overlook the inconvenient fact that a utopian society will be made up of people, and people never behave the way utopian thinkers want them to. Alhaiza was a man with big ideas but I don’t think he understood people at all.

Alhaiza also lacks technological imagination. There’s no “sense of wonder” here. The most advanced technology in the book is represented by airships that might have seemed high-tech in the days leading up to the First World War but as examples of the ultra-advanced technologies that might be available 6,000 years from now they’re a bit sad.

Cybele does offer some insights into the kinds of things that late 19th century intellectuals were interested in. Things like hypnotism, which gets mentioned a number of times.

Cybele, translated by Brian Stableford, is available in paperback from Black Coat Press. I don’t honestly think I can recommend this book. Black Coat Press however published translations of a lot of late 19th century and early 20th century French science fiction that is worth reading.

The Navigators of Space by J.-H. Rosny Aîné and George le Faure’s The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System are entertaining and the two anthologies News from the Moon and The Germans on Venus are worth checking out. Gustave Le Rouge’s Vampires of Mars is wild crazy stuff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark

In the 1960s McFadden books published their After Dark series, a whole series of non-fiction sex and sin exposés focusing on the raunchy erotic night-life of various European cities. It included Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark, published in 1966.

There is of course no way of knowing how much of these books had some basis in fact and how much was wild journalistic exaggeration, wishful thinking or even pure fiction.

I’ve only read one other book in this series, Hamburg After Dark, but I think I’ve got the formula pretty well mapped out. The author purports to be a man of the world with an intimate knowledge of the erotic nightlife of the city in question. He gives the impression that he’s going to offer us a kind of documentary tour but what we mostly get are lots of personal anecdotes most of which are fairly obviously pure fantasy. Hamburg After Dark does give the impression that the author has at least done some background research whereas I suspect that Paris After Dark is about 95 percent pure fiction.

Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the erotic life of Paris. We get a chapter on what we are told is a new feature of Paris’s nightlife - Les Call Girls. We’re told that this is an imported American fashion. We also get the lowdown on the endless orgies taking place all over the city (or at least taking place in the author’s overheated imagination).

There are chapters dealing with the gay bars, and with the drug scene. The reader is assured that the drug scene in Paris is almost non-existent, being mostly confined to intellectuals and beatniks. Other chapters tackles subjects such as sex amongst university students, part-time prostitutes, mistresses, artists’ models, strip clubs, naughty books and blue movies. Every chapter quickly becomes a series of personal reminiscences (or perhaps personal fantasies).

This was 1966, a time when teasing and titillation were still the order of the day, and there’s plenty of titillation here. There is a certain amusing and charming innocent naughtiness to this, just as there is with the erotic movies of that era.

There’s also plenty of emphasis on vicarious enjoyment of Swinging 60s jet-set glamour. Sex and sin in exotic locales seem a lot more alluring than sex and sin in your own backyard.

At times one gets the impression that this is not the Paris of 1966 but the Paris of a few years earlier. In fact at times the author offers us lengthy digressions on the Paris of Hemingway or on the careers of famous artists, writers and models of the interwar years. He has an obsession with Kiki of Montparnasse and while she was indeed a fascinating woman her heyday was the 20s and 30s and she died in 1953.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an historical overview of Parisian erotic life but a reader expecting a handy field guide to the sensual delights of Paris in 1966 might have been a little perplexed. And one does wonder just how accurate the author’s historical asides might be.

While this book probably does not present anything approaching an accurate account of the Parisian sexual scene in 1966 it is interesting in giving us a glimpse of the popular conception of what that scene was like, and of the sexy sinful delights on offer. The Swinging 60s were never quite as swinging as the media would have led one to believe. For most people the erotic indulgences of the period were mostly experienced vicariously. Experienced vicariously by reading books such as this. So in its own way it’s still a fascinating time capsule even if it’s a time capsule from a world that was partly imaginary.

The supposedly non-fiction exposé was a sub-category of sleaze literature which reached its peak of popularity in the 60s and 70s. The After Dark series fit neatly into this category. Paris After Dark isn’t great but it has some amusement and entertainment value.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Cornish Pixie Affair - The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Peter Leslie’s The Cornish Pixie Affair, published in 1967, was the fifth of the original novels based on the TV spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

It's a competent enough spy thriller which should satisfy fans of the television series. It has a somewhat more serious tone than the series. 

The travelling circus setting adds some interest. I always love circus settings.

You can find my full review here at Cult TV Lounge.