Saturday, July 23, 2016

Buck Rogers - The Airlords of Han

Philip Francis Nowlan (1888-1940) wrote a number of science fiction stories but is best remembered as the creator of Buck Rogers. Buck Rogers made his debut in the 1928 novella Armageddon - 2419 A.D. and later featured in a long-running comic strip (also written in its early days by Nowlan). 

The Airlords of Han, the second Buck Rogers novella, appeared in 1929. The two novellas were later republished in a single volume edition.

In 1927 Anthony “Buck” Rogers is overcome by radioactive gas in an abandoned coal mine and left in a state of suspended animation. When he is finally revived in the year 2419 he finds that the United States has changed rather dramatically. After a long and disastrous war against Bolshevik-dominated Europe the US has been conquered by an Asiatic race known as the Han (although in fact they are not of entirely earthly origin). Most of the US population has been killed. The survivors carry on a guerilla war against the Han. Initially the Han have all the technological advantages - they have repeller beams to power their spacecraft and deadly disintegrator beams. The Americans, organised into scattered tribes, have however made some technological breakthroughs of their own, such as the manufacture of the weightless and totally inert element inertron.

The Han dominate the country through their fifteen major cities such as Nu-Yok and Bos-Tan. The Americans have come to dominate the countryside.

This is the background to Armageddon - 2419 A.D. which deals with the early stages of the great war against the Han in which Buck Rogers will play an important role.

In The Airlords of Han the war intensifies as both sides develop new weapons and tactics and the conflict becomes ever more savage. Rogers is captured during one battle and subjected to months of hypnotic and moral torture. During his captivity he learns much that would be of value to the American forces but escape seems impossible.

Nowlan isn’t content just to tell us that these armies of the future have weapons like disintegrator guns. He tells us how these technologies work. We therefore get some of the most intricately detailed technobabble in all of science fiction. The downside is that he gives us this information in slightly clumsy and excessively lengthy infodumps but the upside is that it’s all so gloriously silly that it’s difficult to complain.

While the explanations of the workings of the technology are pure pseudoscience the book does anticipate many later technological developments - such as drone strikes. Most of the Han industry is essentially robotic with humans controlling the process through telescreens without having to leave their comfortable apartments. Interestingly enough while enormous claims were being made in 1929 about the potential of airpower to win wars on its own Nowlan seems very sceptical. He clearly believed that a future war would ultimately be won by boots on the ground with artillery being more important than airpower.

In between the infodumps the action is pretty much non-stop and surprisingly violent it is too. The First World War had obviously made an impression on Nowlan and the future war that he describes is very much total war with civilians being considered to be perfectly legitimate targets. This is more than just a war - it is a clash between civilisations that regard each other with hatred and contempt. Although Nowlan died in 1940 one gets the feeling that the emergence of total war in the 1939-45 conflict would not have surprised him.

These Buck Rogers novellas can be considered to more or less belong to the space opera  sub-genre although the action takes place entirely on Earth. The epic scale of the battles is certainly what you expect in space opera. 

The Han are described as Mongolians but it is hinted that their origins may lie beyond the Earth and that they are not entirely human. Their partly Asiatic origins might lead you to suspect that these stories form part of the then-popular Yellow Peril genre but I’m not sure this is quite true. The Han civilisation is avowedly materialistic and atheist and may be more reflective of the Bolshevik Peril than the Yellow Peril. The Han civilisation seems like a mix of feudalism and communism and the author makes it clear that it is also very much a decadent civilisation. Oddly enough, given that the book was written in 1929, the Han bear a closer resemblance to the soviet communism of the 50s and 60s than to the Soviet Union of the late 20s.

It should be noted that in these two early novellas the hero Anthony Rogers has not yet acquired the nickname Buck. He’s a typical square-jawed action hero. Generally there’s no attempt whatsoever at characterisation, although the chief villain San-Lan is quite interesting.

This is military sci-fi rather than adventure sci-fi - there’s plenty of action but it’s large-scale action with the hero’s own exploits playing a comparatively minor role.

Buck Rogers would go on to feature in an excellent 1939 movie serial and the fun 1970s TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The Airlords of Han is pretty enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Wisdom of Father Brown

The Wisdom of Father Brown was the second of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown short story collections, appearing in 1914.

The Father Brown stories have remained enduringly popular and highly respected examples of the art of the detective story but they have also provoked rather sharply polarised responses from readers and critics.

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the detective story as a form is that it is contrived and unrealistic. Real life murderers rarely commit the incredibly elaborate murders that one finds in detective fiction. Real life amateur detectives are very rarely conveniently on hand when a crime is committed. Real private detectives spend most of their time on routine cases and rarely encounter the more spectacular kinds of crime. Real crimes are usually solved because real criminals are either too stupid, too arrogant or too reckless to have any hope of evading capture. There is no need for the brilliant leaps of intuition or the amazing deductive powers that are possessed by fictional detectives. Real crimes also tend to lack the pleasing symmetry or the delightful irony of fictional crime.

Why any of this should be a problem is in itself a mystery. After all surely the purpose of art and literature is not merely to reflect reality but to improve upon it. Reality is distressingly unstructured. Reality tends to lack clear-cut beginnings, middles or endings. In narrative terms it’s a shapeless formless mass. That’s why skilled storytellers make sure their stories do have clear-cut beginnings, middles and ends. A totally realistic detective story would be as crushingly dull and unsatisfying as any other attempts at literary realism.

It has to be said that Chesterton took disdain for realism to something of an extreme. The Father Brown stories make no compromises whatsoever with realism.

The other thing that can put people off Chesterton is that he always has an agenda. This is something that I don’t generally approve of in crime fiction - or at least I think it is something that has to be done sparingly and unobtrusively. Chesterton though is quite blatant about his agendas. Sometimes the agenda is a Catholic one, but not always. Somehow Chesterton seems to have the ability to get way with this practice, perhaps because his agendas are so very different from those we are accustomed to in modern crime fiction.

Father Brown himself is presented to us as a man who is remarkable only for his ordinariness and his apparent foolishness. He is a gentle, hopelessly innocent, bumbling and entirely helpless little man who seems to be so inept that one wonders how he has possibly survived. Of course we find out that he has a razor-sharp mind and is far from helpless. 

We also discover that he has an extraordinary knowledge of crime and of evil in general. In fact Chesterton was inspired to create the character when he heard a couple of undergraduates expressing the view that a priest could not possibly understand anything about evil. Chesterton was vastly amused by this - after all a priest spends a good deal of his life listening to other people’s sins, sins that would doubtless shock even the most worldly and cynical undergraduate. A priest would of course also get to know rather a lot about not just the psychology but also the mechanics of crime - to Chesterton the idea of a priest as a detective therefore suddenly seemed like a rather wonderful idea.

The Head of Caesar is a tale of blackmail with some original twists. A wealthy young woman has done something foolish and impulsive - she has stolen a coin to give to her lover. The coin happens to be an extremely valuable Roman coin and it happens to belong to her brother. The head of Caesar on the coin bears a striking resemblance to her lover, which is what prompted her impulsive romantic notion. Now she is being blackmailed - but how could anyone have known of her theft?

The Paradise of Thieves is delightfully whimsical. An English financier and his family on holiday in Italy are captured by brigands, along with Father Brown and an excitable Futurist poet. It all seems impossibly romantic for the 20th century. Had the story been slightly more light-hearted, or slightly less light-hearted it would have foundered. Chesterton however strikes the perfect balance.

The Duel of Dr Hirsch is an intriguingly odd story. A French pacifist intellectual named Hirsch has invented a powerful new weapon. There is reason to suspect he is a traitor and he is to fight a duel with an army officer named Dubosc. Father Brown knows the duel will never take place. It all hinges on the fact that not only was the information in the supposedly treasonous letter wrong, it was too wrong.

The Man in the Passage is a story about murder in the theatre, always a good subject for a detective story. There are a handful of suspects, all delightfully colourful and larger-than-life, and then there’s the mysterious man in the passage whose appearance no two witnesses can agree upon. It’s a one-trick story but still enjoyable. It’s also very unusual among Edwardian detective stories in featuring a court-room scene with the sudden bombshell revelation by a vital witness that would figure in so many subsequent court-room dramas.

The Mistake of the Machine takes on the issue of the rise of scientific methods of detection, in this case the then relatively new-fangled technology of lie detector machines. You won’t be surprised to learn that Father Brown does not approve of such machines. What’s interesting is that some of his principal objections to this technology really are quite devastating.

The Purple Wig deals with a family legend concerning the ears of the Dukes of Exmoor. The current duke wears a long purple wig to cover his ears. If you want to hide a deformity why choose something like a purple wig which will draw attention to that which is hidden?

The Perishing of the Pendragons also deals with a family curse, as well as a retired admiral, a series of shipwrecks, a strange wooden tower and a map of islands in the South Seas. Father Brown and Flambeau are in Cornwall, being regaled with tales of daring Cornish sea captains who could teach Sir Francis Drake a thing or two. The Pendragons, heirs of this great nautical tradition, live on an island in a river mouth. The most notable feature of the island is a bizarre wooden tower. The tower worries Father Brown and it’s not the only thing that worries him. He is so worried he decides to do some gardening, in the middle of the night. Flambeau thinks it’s madness but there is method in the little priest’s madness.

The God of the Gongs brings Flambeau and Father Brown to a dreary seaside town where the priest makes a grim discovery underneath a bandstand. This is murder and Father Brown realises that a man does not always chose to be lone to commit murder. This is a particularly sinister murder. This is a breathtakingly politically incorrect story.

The Salad of Colonel Cray is the tale of two retired soldiers one of whom imagines himself to be pursued by an Indian secret society. The two old soldiers have been burgled. Their silver has been stolen, even their silver cruet set. This is annoying, the colonel being especially fond of salads and being very particular about them. Father Brown realises that the theft of the cruet set is the key to the mystery.

The Strange Crime of John Boulnois involves jealousy, of several kinds. There is also a murder, the murder weapon being a sword. The solution seems obvious but Father Brown can see a less obvious solution.

The Fairy Tale of Father Brown is whimsy taken as far as it can be taken. Flambeau tells his friend a story of an old crime, a German prince slain by a bullet in impossible circumstances. Father Brown imagines how this impossible crime may have been committed - how a man who could not possibly have been could in fact have been killed by a bullet.

There have been several attempts to bring Chesterton's priestly sleuth to the screen (both the big screen and the small screen). The 1954 Father Brown movie with Alec Guinness was modestly successful. The 1974 TV series starring Kenneth More was infinitely superior.

The Father Brown stories are not quite like anything else in detective fiction. Chesterton’s lightness of touch allows him to carry off these odd little tales with effortless charm. The Wisdom of Father Brown is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sax Rohmer’s Sinister Madonna

Sinister Madonna was the fifth and last of Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru novels. It appeared in 1956. Sumuru was the second of Rohmer’s great diabolical criminal masterminds.

Sumuru has quite a lot in common with Rohmer’s other great creation, Dr Fu Manchu. Both are geniuses. Both are ruthless. Both are a mortal threat to western civilisation. They are both quite prepared to resort to direct methods but where possible they prefer a more subtle approach. And both have a strong interest in Asiatic history, philosophy and religion.

The most striking resemblance between Rohmer’s two great villains is that both are sincerely convinced that they are on the side of civilisation. To use an unfortunate modern idiom, both would say that they are on the right side of history. Neither can be described as merely evil. Evil yes, but certainly not merely evil.

Sumuru, being a beautiful and highly intelligent women, believes that a world run by beautiful and highly intelligent women would be a perfect world. Violence, misery and ugliness would be banished from the world. Especially ugliness. Sumuru abhors ugliness. She particularly detests ugly women. This will obviously be quite a task and Sumuru accepts that her plan will meet fierce resistance. She is prepared for this. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and she is quite willing to break as many eggs as is necessary. Sumuru is an idealist, and if her ideals require her to commit mass murder she will do so. In fact she has already done so.

Sumuru, known to her follows as Madonna, has her own secret society - the Order of Our Lady. The name suggests a religious underpinning to her ideals. In fact Sumuru draws on various religious and philosophical traditions. She has a number of male henchmen but her principal foot soldiers are the lovely young women of her order who use their beauty and the full array of what were known in 1956 as feminine wiles in order to bend men to Sumuru’s will. 

Sinister Madonna has a plot that is reminiscent of some of his more memorable Fu Manchu tales. Sumuru has for several years been attempting to lay her hands on a fabulous talisman that will bring her immense power and influence throughout the Near East among the devotees of several great religions. This talisman is the Seal of King Solomon, carved almost three thousand years ago from the largest diamond then in existence. 

The Seal has been cunningly hidden and while Sumuru has on several occasions been close to getting her hands on it somehow it seems to keep eluding her. Now she is very close indeed to achieving her goal but she has attracted some unwelcome attention. Most annoyingly she has attracted the attention of an old and dangerous foe, Chief Inspector Gilligan of Scotland Yard.

Sumuru has another enemy, a man who had been an ally, albeit an unwilling one. And Sumuru has perhaps one weakness - a tendency to underrate her enemies.

Sinister Madonna is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended. 

Like the Fu Manchu books the Sumuru books really need to be read in chronological sequence, starting with The Sins of Sumuru (published in the US as Nude in Mink).

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective

The Dick Donovan stories have some historical interest in being fairly early entries in the detective fiction genre, and also in being remarkably popular in their day. The stories were written by J. E. Preston Muddock (1842-1934) under the pseudonym Dick Donovan, Dick Donovan being also the name of the detective protagonist. Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective is a collection of eighteen of these stories (Muddock wrote around 200 of these stories in total in addition to work in many other genres).

The first of these Dick Donovan stories appeared in 1888, about a year after Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. Conan Doyle did not enjoy real success until the publication of the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories in the Strand Magazine in 1891. Dick Donovan short stories started to appear in the same magazine in late 1892.

Many, although apparently by no means all, of the stories are set in Glasgow.

The Dick Donovan stories are generally, and on the whole reasonably, regarded as being a little down-market compared to Conan Doyle’s work. Muddock was a competent hack writer but he lacks Conan Doyle’s humanity and dry humour and his prose is at best workmanlike. 

The first story in this collection is The Saltmarket Murder Case. It’s really an early police procedural and it has to be said that it’s rather dull. Donovan comes across as an efficient and methodical if somewhat plodding police officer. Unfortunately the plot is also rather plodding. There are no twists at all in this story. 

The Lady in the Sealskin Coat is a definite improvement with a more interesting plot revolving around high stakes swindling. 

The Tuft of Red Hair is quite grisly but it’s a very routine story about the murder of a middle-aged woman. The Pearl Necklace is a reasonably good story with at least some worthwhile detection. It concerns a daring jewel robbery and the pawning of a very valuable necklace for a very small amount of money, in fact a sum of money so small as to arouse suspicion.

A River Mystery is a moderately interesting murder tale with the hero having to do some real detecting after a corpse is discovered in the bottom of a boat drifting downriver. The Skeleton in the Cupboard is a very dull story of a bank clerk guilty of embezzlement. There is no detection at all in this story.

The Gentleman Smasher: A Strange Story and How I Snared the Coiners form a two-part story of an investigation into a coining racket. These are two of the best stories in the collection simply because they deal with a crime that today seems strange and exotic - it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was actually worthwhile to counterfeit sixpences! There are some truly fascinating details about the art of producing counterfeit coins and even more especially the art of passing bad money.

The Robbery of the London Mail is also not too bad. Dick Donovan has to investigate a mail train robbery that has occurred between Glasgow and Carlisle. This is one of the few stories with a reasonable degree of actual mystery, not just regarding the identity of the criminal but also the precise way in which the robbery was carried out. As in all the other stories the solution is revealed much too early but there is still the hunt for the criminal to provide some entertainment.

All for Love’s Sake is one of several stories that presents crime in a tragic and rather pathetic light. Donovan investigates a series of thefts from a draper’s shop. The Haunted House is a feeble tale of a supposed haunting but given that we know from the start the identity of the culprit and the motive there’s not much interest here, especially since the methods the culprits uses are not very ingenious and there’s no attempt to create a menacing atmosphere. It’s just a nothing story really. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is much better with Donovan’s powers of observation, good memory and quick thinking helping him  catch a surprising thief.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Helen Atkinson is another rather dull story. A young woman vanishes mysteriously from her home. Donovan uses newspaper agony columns to trap the chief suspect. A Terrible Deed is also disappointingly straightforward. A woman’s body is discovered in a field and Donovan must discover who she is before he sets about finding her killer. The Pearl Button, the story of the murder of an itinerant pedlar, at least has a moderately interesting clue. 

The Story of a Diamond Ring is one of the better stories since for once there is some actual doubt about the guilt of the criminal (a chambermaid accused of stealing a valuable ring) and we don’t discover the solution until the end of the story.

Stolen money that has never been recovered is the basis for The Mystery of a Tin Box. Now the stolen money has been stolen again but this time Donovan is confident he will recover it. As is customary in these tales there is only ever one suspect so there’s not a lot of mystery here. And Donovan does no detecting whatever - he is simply told the answer.

What strikes me about most of these stories is that the plots are very very straightforward. It’s very noticeable that the author lacks the plotting dexterity of the great masters of the vIctorian detective story like Conan Doyle and Arthur Morrison. There are no real twists. Donovan begins his investigation, finds some evidence, follows up the obvious leads and makes an arrest. End of story. There are no surprises. There is almost always an obvious suspect who almost always turns out to be the guilty party. These are police procedurals rather than detective stories but a good police procedural requires either some genuine mystery regarding the criminal’s identity or some really fascinating details about the investigation. These stories don’t really provide either of these things.

There’s also a tendency to rely on gore to compensate for the deficiencies in plotting. The level of gore is in fact at times quite startling. 

At the time they were published in 1888 many reviewers assumed these were true stories of crime. In fact this was obviously the author’s intention. In some ways they are not so much early police procedurals as early examples of crime fiction masquerading as true crime stories.

What these tales lack as detective stories is compensated for to some extent by their interest as social history. The author likes to give us very detailed descriptions of the way things worked in 1888 - not just the way certain criminal activities (such as coining) worked but day-to-day things such as the retail trade and the mails. There are also some vivid depictions of the squalor and viciousness of the criminal underworld.

The detective story has often been accused of being contrived and unrealistic. This accusation cannot be leveled at the Dick Donovan stories. They are very realistic and plausible. These are exactly the sorts of cases one would expect a real-life detective to deal with and the investigations proceed in a thoroughly realistic manner. In fact these tales illustrate in a particularly stark way why realism is something that a crime writer should avoid at all costs. Realism tends to be dull. You might think that the police procedural is the one crime sub-genre in which realism would be an asset but this is not necessarily true. A good police procedural will certainly benefit from a realistic treatment of police methods but if it works as an entertaining story that’s most likely because the actual plot is a web of artifice and contrivance.

These stories do have some historical interest but apart from that they don’t have much going for them. I you love the Sherlock Holmes stories and you’re looking for more Victorian detective fiction there are much much better examples to choose from (such as Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewett stories). I can’t really recommend this collection. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

H. C. McNeile's Temple Tower

Temple Tower, published in 1929, was the sixth Bulldog Drummond adventure penned by H. C. McNeile under the name Sapper.

Captain Hugh Drummond is sampling the joys of country life in his house on Romney Marsh. If you’re familiar with the character you’ll know that these joys aren’t going to keep Hugh Drummond amused for very long. He’s a man who welcomes adventure and if adventure doesn’t come to him he’ll go looking for it. In this case the adventure comes to him. From his window he notices inexplicable red and blue lights on Romney Marsh, coming approximately from the direction of a lonely farmhouse know as Spragge’s Farm. The average person would dismiss such an occurrence as being mildly puzzling but of little consequence. Captain Drummond however suspects that there may be a mystery here. If there is he intends to be in the middle of it.

He recruits his friend Peter Darrell and they set out to investigate. Drummond’s curiosity has also been aroused by his neighbour Granger. Granger, a man who speaks excellent English but with just the slightest trace of an unidentifiable accent, seems like a man with an inordinate fear of something. He has turned his house into a veritable fortress. Of course if a man wishes to fortify his house he has a perfect right to do so but al the same it is interesting. Granger’s reaction when Drummond casually mentions the red and blue lights is even more interesting.

Of course there’s a dastardly plot behind all this, and a rather complicated one at that. Granger is afraid of something in his past. Having someone from your past, someone who hates you enough to want to kill you, suddenly reappearing is bad enough - but Granger has not one, not two, but three separate groups of people all on his trail. In fact you could argue there are four separate enemies hunting him!

To add to the fun there’s an old house riddled with secret passageways, a map, a motor-bandit gang and a masked strangler. There are also ample opportunities for Drummond to wage his own private war against crime. He does briefly consider the idea of reporting the matter to the police (and he certainly has connections at Scotland Yard) but he quickly dismisses the notion. After all the police are hindered by all kinds of irritating rules, and rules are things that Hugh Drummond is accustomed to ignore.

While Drummond does have a tendency to lead with his fists (as he does with breathtaking effrontery early on as a means on inviting himself into someone’s house) he also gets to exercise his brains in this adventure. And for all his bluster it is an unwise criminal who makes the mistake of thinking that Hugh Drummond lacks brains.

McNeile’s problem was that his first attempt to create a diabolical criminal mastermind as an opponent for his hero was so successful that Carl Petersen was always going to be a hard act to follow. In The Female of the Species he gave us a villain who was a worthy successor to Carl Petersen. In Temple Tower he succeeds reasonably well. The chief villain is more shadowy and we know less about his motivations (or it might be more accurate to say that his motivations are less complex) but he certainly qualifies as suitably sinister. There are some pretty fair subsidiary villains as well.

A thriller requires action and McNeile supplies it. McNeile’s biggest contribution to the thriller genre (and his contribution to that genre was immense) was that he gave it an injection of high-octane energy. Bulldog Drummond was certainly not the first crime/espionage hero but he was a good deal less genteel than his predecessors. In fact he seems in some ways closer in spirit to the heroes of the hard-boiled school although it’s worth noting that the first Bulldog Drummond novel pre-dates the emergence of the hard-boiled style by several years. I don’t want to push the comparison too far. There’s none of the moral ambiguity of the hard-boiled school here. The hero might on occasions express grudging admiration for the courage and intelligence of his adversaries but the villains are still entirely villainous and the heroes entirely heroic.

The hero’s (and the author’s) sense of humour might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s an essential part of his character. Personally I enjoy it.

The Bulldog Drummond stories really do need to be read in sequence, starting with Bulldog Drummond. There are constant references to previous adventures and the author assumes that the reader is familiar with Captain Drummond’s background, his unconventional methods and his ambiguous status as an amateur who has on occasions been known to work on a semi-official basis with the legal authorities. 

Temple Tower is a fine rambunctious adventure thriller. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Robin Forsythe's The Pleasure Cruise Mystery

Robin Forsythe (1879-1937) was released from prison in 1929 after serving his sentence for his part in the notorious Somerset House stamp fraud scheme. Having discovered that real life crime has unpleasant consequences he decided to turn his attentions to fictional crime instead. His first detective novel appeared in 1929 and was followed by seven more before his untimely death. These included five novels featuring amateur detective Algernon Vereker, the third being The Pleasure Cruise Mystery which appeared in 1933.

Algernon Vereker has been persuaded by his friend Manuel Ricardo to join him on a pleasure cruise on board the liner Mars. Vereker is not wildly enthusiastic but he does need a rest and Ricardo is a very persuasive fellow.

Ricardo sees the cruise as an opportunity for some enjoyable flirtations with the opposite sex. 

Vereker is almost beginning to regret being talked into the cruise when he overhears a conversation in an adjoining stateroom. Of course the conversation may have been quite innocent but it could also be open to somewhat sinister interpretations. Those sinister interpretations seem much more plausible after the discovery of a dead body on the promenade deck.

The woman has died of heart failure. That’s good enough for the ship’s doctor and for the captain. A death on board ship during a pleasure cruise is not the sort of thing the company wants but as long as it’s death due to natural causes it’s not so bad. Vereker knows there was nothing natural about the death, and to be fair the ship’s doctor has his doubts.

Vereker might be pretty sure the woman was murdered but he is at a loss to explain the circumstances or the many trifling contradictory details that surround the tragedy. I imagine that most readers would have their suspicions about certain of these details and have put some of the pieces of the puzzle together some time before Vereker stumbles upon an explanation. It’s not that Vereker is a fool, but he is painfully reluctant to accept outrageous theories without very solid evidence and in this case only an outrageous theory will explain the mystery.

Algernon Vereker is an amiable enough detective. He is perhaps just a touch more indolent and laid-back than most fictional detectives. His friend Manuel Ricardo is happy to assist as long as it doesn’t distract him too much from his principal interest, the pursuit of beautiful women. In the amateur detective sub-genre the reader expects the representative of the official police to be at best moderately competent - certainly less brilliant than the amateur detective himself. Inspector Heather from Scotland Yard is slightly unusual in this respect - he appears to be a better detective than Vereker!

One of the challenges for any golden age detective fiction writer was that the conventions of the genre required murderers to commit their murders in fiendishly cunning or outlandishly complicated ways whereas the average real-life murderer was more inclined simply to pick up the nearest convenient blunt object and do the deed in a very straightforward manner. Somehow the writer has to convince us that that their killer has both the intelligence and the imagination (and of course the willingness) to commit such complex crimes. It’s to their credit that so many of the writers of that era managed to persuade their readers to suspend their disbelief. In this instance I fear that Forsythe has not quite succeeded in doing this - there seems to be no real reason for the criminal to indulge in such needlessly complicated methods. It’s a pity because the plot is certainly ingenious and well-constructed.

Forsythe tries to pull off an Anthony Berkeley at the end, offering us several alternative solutions. Since all but one of these solutions is quickly abandoned and the ultimate solution is the only one that really makes sense it might have been better to have dispense with the alternatives altogether.

For me The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is a near miss. It has some breathtakingly clever plotting but at times it was perhaps in danger of being too clever. Still fun though and worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Harold Lamb's Swords from the Desert

Swords from the Desert is a collection of short stories by one of the grand masters of adventure fiction, Harold Lamb.

Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was an American historian and writer who contributed countless stories to the pulp magazines. He also wrote screenplays, a number of novels and several  admired non-fiction historical works. While he wrote for the pulps it’s worth noting that most of his stories were published in Adventure, a magazine that was somewhat more up-market than the general run of pulp magazines.

While Lamb’s stories are certainly adventure stories they are also historical fiction and rather more rigorously history-based than most such tales. Lamb tried to avoid contradicting known historical facts. While his stories are thus at the more realistic end of the adventure/historical fiction spectrum he was able to maintain this realism without sacrificing excitement. His stories were immensely popular.

Lamb had a particular interest in the history of the region then known as the Near East. He was remarkably even-handed in his treatment of the various cultures this region encompassed. His heroes could be Christian Crusaders, or Arabs, or Mongols, or Cossacks. They could be Christian, or Muslim or pagan. To Lamb a hero was a man who possessed the qualities of courage, daring, loyalty and honour. Such a man could be found in any culture. Lamb’s villains could also be men from any of these cultures. What made Lamb’s fiction so striking and original (and it remains so today) was his ability to admire other cultures without turning against his own culture.

Lamb was considered to be sufficiently expert on the region to be recruited by the US intelligence services in World War 2. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Lamb was frequently dismayed by the ineptitude and short-sightedness of US foreign policy.

The Rogue’s Girl is a rather odd choice as the first story in this collection. It’s an OK story but it takes place in Paris, the only connection to the desert being that an Arab physician plays a fairly important role.

The Shield is much much better. Khalil el Khadr is an Arab, the son of a chieftain. He has been sent to Constantinople on a kind of diplomatic mission. His timing is rather unfortunate. A large Crusader host is on its way. This time the Franks (as the Muslims referred to the western Europeans) are not heading to the Holy Land. They are heading for Constantinople, their aim being the conquest of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The tragic and shameful Fourth Crusade of 1204 forms the background to Khalil el Khadr’s story. 

Khalil is, much against his will caught, caught up in these events. And all because of a girl and a horse. The girl is a beautiful Frankish girl. The horse is a magnificent grey. Khalil encounters both by chance. They will lead him into a web of intrigue and betrayal as the city’s doom inexorably approaches. Khalil is a brave man with a deep sense of honour but he is no plaster saint. His ethics are flexible in some areas and rigid in others. To be fair to him they are rigid in the areas that matter most.

The plot is typical of Lamb - it’s complex and it avoids the obvious clichés and it provides plenty of action as well.

The novella The Guest of Karadak introduces Daril, a character who will turn up in other stories. Daril was a chieftain of the desert Arabs and a redoubtable warrior but having reached middle age he yearns for peace and has now given up his riches and his adventurous life and has become a wandering physician. He finds out that wandering physicians can have even more dangerous adventures than desert warriors.

A chance encounter with an ailing Rajput and his beautiful daughter provides the starting point for this story. A proud but violent Iranian princeling sees no reason why he should not carry off the daughter. He is accustomed to taking what he wants. This rash action will have momentous consequences. This might sound like a setup for a rather routine story but Lamb has some very clever twists in store for the reader. A man cannot escape his fate but sometimes that fate can take very unexpected forms. Lots of action in this superb story.

Daril features again in another excellent novella, The Road to Kandahar. It has a complex plot (typical of Lamb) involving bandit gangs, a prophet of thieves and a city under siege and (again typical of Lamb) complex characters who don’t always behave as we expect. There are of course questions of loyalty and honour. Daril is not actually the hero of the tales in which he appears. He’s more of an intelligent and interested spectator who certainly becomes involved in the action, usually against his will, but he is not the prime mover.

The Way of the Girl and The Eighth Wife are both short stories that combine adventure with love, but these are eastern love stories and rather different from conventional tales of that type. The Way of the Girl also deals with the uneasy but not always hostile relations between Frankish knights and Arabs during the Crusades.

The novella The Light of the Palace also features a fascinating central female character. Lamb’s women characters are both complex and varied. In this case the woman is Nur-Mahal, the favourite wife of the mogul Emperor Jahangir of India. Nur-Mahal is brave, intelligent, daring, treacherous and ruthless. She has to be since she more or less runs the empire, the emperor being debauched, drug-addled, lazy, incompetent and in failing health. 

Daril the Arab physician is again the narrator. He is drawn into the adventure after befriending a young Hindu boy and saving the life of Man Singh who happens to be one of the chief lieutenants of Mahabat Khan (who appears in several other tales). Mahabat Khan is one of the Mogul’s principal commanders but he is now very much out of favour. So much out of favour that he may have difficulty remaining alive much less getting back into the emperor’s good books. Daril may perhaps be able to assist him in at least discovering why Jahangir has turned against him. It’s a tale of delicate political machinations combined with daring feats of arms. Nur-Mahal is playing a dangerous game but she has the courage to play it through to the end. Another superb novella.

Lamb provides his readers with plenty of excitement but his stories are not just action sequences strung together haphazardly - his plots are clever and complex with unexpected and ironic twists.

Swords from the Desert is a great collection. This is adventure fiction at its finest. Very highly recommended. 

Equally worth checking out is another Harold Lamb collection, Swords from the West.