Friday, May 17, 2019

Larry Niven’s A Gift from Earth

A Gift from Earth is one of Larry Niven’s very early Known Space novels. Larry Niven (born 1938) is considered to be a writer of hard SF but in this case he seems to be just as interested in the social and political implications of technology as in the technology itself. A Gift from Earth is also a dystopian novel of sorts.

The setting is bizarre but it’s also pretty cool. Mount Lookitthat is a plateau about half the size of California and it roses 40 miles above the surface of a planet that is otherwise about as hostile and uninhabitable as a planet can be. The atmosphere is boiling hot and poisonous and the atmospheric pressure at the surface is crushing.

Why would anyone colonise such a planet? The answer is simple. It was colonised at a time when interstellar travel was in its infancy. It could only be achieved using starships that travelled at around half the speed of light. There being very few star systems  with habitable planets close enough to Earth to be reached by such technology any planet that is even marginally habitable has been colonised.

What’s more interesting even than the planet is the strange social system that has evolved there. The starships (of which there were originally two) that reached the planet each carried a crew of six and fifty colonists in suspended animation. Five hundred years later the descendants of the crew and the descendants of the colonists have become separate social castes. The crew have become a kind of aristocracy ruling Mount Lookitthat with the colonists being more or less the peasantry.

And then there are the organ banks. The technology to extend life to an extraordinary degree exists but it is dependant on a supply of organs for transplants. An enormous supply or organs is required, and an effective system has been devised to provide that supply. Just about every crime, no matter how trivial, is punishable by execution. The executed criminals supply the organs for the organ banks.

It is almost exclusively colonists who are executed and it is mostly (but not entirely) crew who benefit from the organ banks. The system survives because the crew have all the weapons and they control the supply of power to everybody. The colonists naturally are not happy with the system but on the other hand it does keep the crime rate down! And colonists who are coöperative and useful do receive at least some of the transplants.

Everything changes with the arrival of Ramrobot #143 from Earth, bearing a number of very important gifts.

Matt Keller gets mixed up, very reluctantly, with a colonist resistance group known as the Sons of Earth. Matt is very useful to them, and potentially the key to all sorts of possible futures, since he has an odd psionic power.

The political aspects of the story are absolutely central and they’re complex and at times subtle. Niven understands that politics is about power. There are a number of significant political actors in the story. They are motivated by the desire to promote their own group interests, and by a desire for power. Principles are of no interest to them whatsoever. And in this story politics and technology are intricately entangled. One of Niven’s more disturbing ideas is that technology changes morality. It’s not an idea that I’m comfortable with but it has to be admitted that he argues his case pretty well.

One of the curious features of science fiction in its so-called golden age was the interest in psionic or paranormal abilities such as telepathy. Of course back in the 1930s and 1940s such ideas still seemed to be at least vaguely plausible but it surprises me to find such ideas still going strong in a 1968 novel by someone who was at the time one of the rising young stars of the genre. Psionics are of course remarkably useful as plot devices which may be why science fiction writers clung to such ideas so tenaciously.

A Gift from Earth is an interesting and provocative science fiction novel with dystopian overtones. Recommended.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

E.R. Punshon’s Information Received

When E.R. Punshon’s Information Received was published in 1933 it was given a rave review by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers say the book as exemplifying her own ideas on detective fiction - that literary qualities were vastly more important than such sordid qualities as good plotting. Detective fiction should aspire to be Literature. Sayers was of course completely wrong about this, as she was about most things. But even though it received the Sayers seal of approval I’m still prepared to give Information Received a fair chance.

E.R. Punshon (1872-1956) was an English writer of mainstream fiction who in later life turned more and more towards the writing of detective fiction, including a vast number of novels chronicling the rise of Bobby Owen from the humble police constable of Information Received to the highest ranks of Scotland Yard. Bobby Owen is a university graduate who found himself with prospects so terribly limited that his only options seemed to be to become a schoolteacher or a policeman. He chose being a policeman as being slightly the lesser of two ghastly evils. At the time of the events described in Information Received Owen’s police career has been undistinguished. One might even go so far as to say that it has been impressive in its unimpressiveness.

Now he has what might well be his big break. He is first on the scene when Sir Christopher  Clarke, a big wheel in the City, is murdered. He is even luckier than that, as the formidable Superintendent Mitchell takes a liking to him. Mitchell is favourably impressed that although Owen has made several mistakes common to inexperienced policemen the young constable offers no excuses.

Sir Christopher’s safe, containing easily negotiable bearer bonds and diamonds, was also robbed.

For the most part the possible suspects either have no alibis or alibis that any reader of detective fiction would instantly recognise as rather shaky.

The various suspects - Sir Christopher’s daughter, son-in-law, step daughter, the step daughter’s fiancé, the family lawyer, a business associate and an elderly actor - behave in a manner that almost seems to be calculated to draw further suspicion upon themselves. Some have obvious motives while others have no apparent reason for wanting to murder Sir Christopher. Th question of motives is one to which we shall return.

There are some ingenious touches and one aspect of the murder method is particularly clever. Unfortunately the clue that points most surely to the killer is a clue offered to the reader but it’s a clue that the detectives don’t notice.

The plotting is very problematical. It makes use of a device which was used on occasion by other writer but it’s a device that has always seemed to me to be an outright cheat. It makes it impossible for the reader to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

A bigger problem is that the two chief detectives, Superintendent Mitchell and Constable Bobby Owen, do not solve the case by actual detection. The solution is presented to them on a platter. Suddenly, right at the end, a great deal of information necessary for the unraveling of the mystery is suddenly pulled from a hat. And the crucial motive, and it really is crucial, is revealed. Everything is clear, but this happens at a point at which Mitchell and Owen have admitted that they cannot solve the case. Then the solution is simply given to them.

As a work of detective fiction I have to rate this one as a failure.

As for Dorothy Sayers’ beloved literary qualities, I failed to notice them. It is competently written. There’s a lot of psychologising which will endear this book to modern critics. Personally I find that that sort of stuff bores me a little. In this particular case it’s rather overwrought and melodramatic, more what I expect in a Victorian sensation novel. I actually like Victorian sensation novels and I like melodrama but it seems a bit out of place here.

I don’t really think Information Received quite works as a detective novel and as Literature I can’t imagine anyone other than Dorothy L. Sayers being excited by it.

It’s a much-praised book. Obviously others have found virtues in it that I have failed to discover. Personally I’d give it a miss.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Leslie Charteris's Saint Errant

Saint Errant is a 1948 short story collection by Leslie Charteris and it’s notable for introducing a somewhat different version of the Saint. He is more of a loner, and with just the slightest touch of melancholy although of course combined with his perennial thirst for adventures. These adventures are no longer as outlandish.

The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. There are personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. These are often personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. They often, in fact usually, involve crimes but they’re everyday crimes like murder, blackmail and robbery rather than espionage and treason and potential mass murder.

The Saint’s moral stance hasn’t changed. He is still the sworn enemy of evil-doers (the ungodly as he calls them) but he still sees no reason why fighting crime can’t be profitable. After all if he can recover stolen money and restore it to its rightful owners how could anyone object to his taking a ten percent commission?

All of the stories in this collection are named after women. And from this point on most of the Saint’s adventures will be set in motion by women. The Saint has an extraordinarily  large number of friends and acquaintances of the female persuasion. Patricia Holm, once his inseparable companion and the love of his life, is no longer a central character in the stories.

In Judith Simon Templar meets the sort of woman he likes most. She’s young and beautiful and she’s just about to commit a burglary. So what else can he do? He offers to commit the burglary himself. After all, it’s all in a good cause. Judith is simply stealing papers which should be hers. It’s a cute little story with a nice twist at the end.

Iris is an actress appearing in a production of Macbeth and she’s driving the director crazy. There’s not much the director, a pompous alcoholic has-been actor, can do since Iris’s husband is mobster Rick the Barber and he’s putting up the money for the production. Rick the Barber is at this very moment being blackmailed by Simon Templar, only Simon Templar knows nothing about it. But he certainly intends to find out. Not a bad story.

Lucia takes Simon to bandit country in Mexico. His arrival in a small coincides with the return of a man Amadeo who had left many years before. Amadeo claims to be a big wheel in the jewellery trade. The innkeeper Salvatore knows Amadeo well, and does not like him. When Amadeo boats of his wealth Salvatore boasts of his as well. Then Salvatore’s daughter Lucia is kidnapped.

The Saint has his own theories as to what Amadeo’s profession might really be, and also a fair idea what’s behind the kidnapping. As usual the twist that Charteris throws in at the end is effective and it’s appropriately Saintly. A fairly decent story.

In Lida Simon Templar and Patricia Holm are supposed to meet Lida Verity at the Quarterdeck Club, a perhaps not entirely honest and straightforward gambling club, in Miami. Lida was apparently in some sort of trouble and had asked the Saint for help. Unfortunately Lida’s visit to the Quarterdeck Club on this might is the last she will ever pay. Simon and Patricia find her dead. She has been shot and she is clutching an automatic.

Strangely enough absolutely everyone jumps to the conclusion that Mrs Verity shot herself although in fact the evidence clearly points to murder. The answer is to be found in the Quarterdeck Club somewhere. No-one at the club is anxious to talk but Simon Templar has a way of persuading people to do so. A solid if low-key story.

In Jeannine Simon is in New Orleans when he is reacquainted with Judith (from the previous story of that name) only now she calls herself Jeannine. She’s as beautiful and charming and captivating as ever but sadly her morals have not improved. Jeannine is again plotting larceny and again the Saint gets mixed up in her scheming. It’s all about pearls. Simon knows some extremely interesting things about pearls, and that knowledge will come in very handy. The twist at the end is typical Charteris and it’s very neatly done.

Teresa takes the Saint back to Mexico. Teresa Alvarez is looking for her husband. The suspicion is that he may have fallen into the hands of the notorious bandit El Rojo. She accepts that her husband is most likely dead but it wold be a comfort to her to know what actually happened to him. The Saint has his own reasons for wanting to meet El Rojo. They find the famous bandit and then a series of clever little plot twists kicks in. A very good story.

Luella begins with a chance encounter in a bar in Los Angeles. A young air force sergeant is set up by a blackmail gang. The bait is a young lady named Luella, of great physical charm but decidedly dubious character. For the Saint it’s too good an opportunity to miss - to put some blackmailers out of business, help a naïve but decent young man and have some fun along the way. He comes up with a neat scheme to fleece the blackmailers. A fairly serviceable tale although not as strong as most of the stories in this collection.

Emily is a very whimsical tale. Simon goes to the rescue of an old lady who has been sold a gold mine which sadly contains no gold whatsoever. Luckily Simon has recently acquired a Doodlebug and he’s pretty sure he can make use of it to right this particular wrong. An enjoyable story.

Dawn is the final story in the collection and to say it’s an oddity in the Charteris oeuvre wold be an understatement. The Saint is enjoying a peaceful time in a cabin in the mountains, fishing mostly, when a rather large man forces his way in. The man explains that he is Big Bill Holbrook but he isn’t real, he’s being dreamed by a bank teller named Andrew Faulks in Glendale California. There are men after Holbrook and it has something to do with the fabulous fire opal he shows Simon, and something to do with the girl named Dawn who has also turned up at the cabin. Of course Holbrook’s story is nonsense and Simon eventually decides that he knows what’s really going on. Or does he?

Right to the end Charteris teases us. Is it just a dream? Whose dream is it? Is it a crazy story that Holbrook has made up?

I’m not sure it entirely works but it’s an interesting experiment and Charteris manages to make it whimsical and slightly unsettling.

All of these stories take place in North America, but mostly in offbeat or remote or exotic North American locales. The tone is definitely quite different compared to the early 30s Saint stories with are the ones with which I was previously familiar. They’re much more low-key and they lack the manic energy of the earlier tales but they do have a charm of their own. And the new version of the Saint revealed in these stories is perhaps more human and more genuinely likeable, perhaps because his insane self-confidence (which is still in evidence) has been tempered a little by maturity. I wouldn’t say these later stories are better or worse than the earlier ones, they’re just very different. Highly recommended.

Judith, Lida, Teresa, Iris, Jeannine and Luella were all adapted for the TV series of The Saint. My thoughts on these adaptations can be found on Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Brian Flynn's The Spiked Lion

The Spiked Lion was the thirteenth of the fifty-odd Anthony Bathurst mysteries written by Brian Flynn. It was published in 1933. For those readers addicted to such things it contains a minor locked-room puzzle. And yes, there is a spiked lion in the story.

Not much seems to be known about Brian Flynn (1885-1958). He was an Englishman who worked as a government accountant and was also an amateur actor.

It starts promisingly enough. Two men disappear and are later found dead, apparently killed by cyanide administered through the nostrils. Oddly enough they also seem to have been badly beaten. John Blundell is an expert in cryptography while Hubert Wingfield is an authority on legendary inscriptions. The similarities in the circumstances of their deaths make it fairly clear that there must be some link between the two murders. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Austin Kemble, asks Anthony Bathurst for help. Bathurst is a private enquiry agent (Americans would call him a private detective) who has assisted Scotland Yard on other cases.

A note found on Blundell’s body strikes Bathurst as being likely to be a vital clue. Then a third corpse turns up. This killing has some locked-room elements to it.

I have to be particularly vague in discussing this book since even mentioning some of the subjects it touches on would reveal spoilers. I can at least tell you that while golden age writers were fond of mysteries with roots in the past this one takes that idea about as far as it can be taken - right back to a certain gift given by Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope) in the twelfth century!

Anthony Bathurst is not one of your more colourful detectives. Flynn was more interested in plot than characterisation (a priority with which I heartily agree). We do find out a few things about him. He’s very fit and looks like the kind of chap who could handle himself very well in a scrap. He’s a gentleman (Uppingham and Oxford). While he was keen on cricket and rugger at school he has fairly well developed aesthetic tastes. He likes cats. As a detective his great strength seems to be his thoroughness - he firmly believes that every piece of information, no matter how trivial it appears to be, is potentially important. He has the kind of mind that sees connections between things. When it comes to extracting information he can be rather direct and even a bit pushy if he thinks such an approach might work.

This novel is very much in the “murder in a country house” tradition. Even though only one of the murders actually takes place in a country house much of the investigative work takes place in two country houses. And it’s very much a tale of murder among the upper classes.

Flynn was not the sort of writer who tried to be ground-breaking. He had no interest in pushing the edge of the envelope or transcending the genre or any of that literary nonsense. This is a straightforward golden age puzzle-plot mystery. Which as far as I’m concerned is just fine. When it comes to plotting Flynn was certainly not in the same league as a John Dickson Carr or a Freeman Wills Crofts (or John Rhode on a good day). As far as quality is concerned he was a mid-ranking author - very competent and capable of telling a thoroughly enjoyable story of murder.

There is a touch of Edgar Wallace here as well. The dividing line between detective stories and thrillers was often rather fuzzy at this time. I like Edgar Wallace and the thriller elements here are reasonably well done so I see no cause for complaint.

Brian Flynn’s books are long out of print and reasonably hard to find. A couple of them (including this one) have been issued by an outfit in India that does print-on-demand facsimile editions. They’re infinitely preferable to most POD editions since being facsimiles you don’t have to worry about typos. And they’re fairly cheap. I’ve bought quite a few books from (they’ve issued a number of obscure golden age detective novels) and they seem to be very reliable to deal with. At this point in time they’re probably your best bet if you want to give Brian Flynn a try.

The Spiked Lion is actually pretty good. Not top-rank stuff but good enough that I’ve already ordered another of Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries. Highly recommended for fans of solid conventional golden age detective fiction.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Saint's Getaway

The Saint's Getaway was originally published in 1932 as Getaway, although two earlier versions of the story appeared in Thriller magazine earlier that year.

Simon Templar, his beloved Patricia Holm and his pal Monty Hayward are enjoying a well-earned holiday in Innsbruck. They are lying low, or at least are supposed to be lying low, after their previous adventure (recounted in The Saint vs Scotland Yard AKA The Holy Terror). Simon has promised Patricia that he won’t get himself into any trouble. Sadly that promise doesn’t last long. But what can a chap do when he sees a scrawny little runt of a fellow being beaten up by three thugs? Simon naturally intervenes. It turns out that the situation is not at all as it appeared to be and Simon has stumbled into a major and very dangerous conspiracy. Which of course absolutely delights him.

He’s up against a fine villain too - the smooth but sinister Prince Rudolf.

There are jewels involved. Extremely valuable jewels. Their value might well be more than merely monetary. The jewels have been stolen of course, but not necessarily for the usual reasons that jewels get stolen.

The police are anxious to recover the jewels. Prince Rudolf is very keen to have the jewels in his possession but he does not wish to become involved with the police. The question of the ownership of the gems might prove slightly troublesome. Since he was known to have the jewels on his person both the police and Prince Rudolf’s crew are now hot on the Saint’s trail and it is by no means certain that there are not other interested parties as well.

The pursuit is so relentless that Simon could be forgiven for focusing on escape for himself and his companions but in fact he is making grandiose plans involving those very valuable pieces of rock.

This is still the early Saint, the devil-may-care adventurer possessed of insane levels of self-confidence and optimism. The more the odds seem stacked against him the more he enjoys himself. His childish but exuberant sense of humour is very much in evidence. Whether the reader appreciates this sense of humour is a matter of taste. I like it and given Charteris’s immense commercial success it’s safe to say that most readers at the time did as well. Charteris’s style is, as it was in all his early work, outrageously over-the-top.

Like just about every fictional crime-fighter Simon Templar is of course a master of disguise. This is a feature that almost entirely disappears from popular fiction in the postwar period but back in 1932 it was more or less obligatory. The Saint’s ability to speak fluent German also comes in handy. Mostly though Templar relies on sheer bravado and bluff and a tendency to do things that are completely crazy but totally unexpected. These are qualities that other fictional heroes also possessed but none took them to quite such extremes as the Saint.

It also needs to be pointed out that the early Saint still had a very flexible approach to the law. He did after all start his career as a criminal. He is now very much on the side of the angels but a man is still entitled to make a living. The Saint would never even consider stealing from decent law-abiding folk but he tends to regard stealing from criminals (the ungodly as he calls them) in a much more favourable light. He considers himself to be basically an honest man but there are irritating individuals in the police forces of several countries who take a different view and some of them are so unreasonable as to to wish to put the Saint behind bars. Which of course as far as the Saint is concerned just adds a bit more fun to life.

Leslie Charteris was especially enamoured of the short story and novella formats but he demonstrates here that he was equally adept at writing novels. He keeps events moving at a blistering pace and he spins a pleasingly intricate plot. There’s as much action as any reasonable person could want.

The Saint's Getaway is a rollicking roller-coaster ride to adventure. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia, one of Agatha Christie’s more celebrated mysteries, was published in 1936. As I did with Evil Under the Sun last year I’m going to review the novel and then add a brief review of the 2002 television adaptation.

Christie, being married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, had a rough working knowledge of the subject and had accompanied him on a number of digs. Using an archaeological dig as a setting for a murder was very obviously a splendid idea. Christie was particularly good with exotic locales - she never allows them to overshadow the plot or to slow things down but she uses them very effectively for atmosphere.

In this case the action takes place in the expedition house, a large building with a central courtyard. Very conveniently (for Christie’s purposes) there is only one way of getting in, through a gateway which is always guarded. And there are no windows at all that will allow access from outside. If a killer is going to get in he must come through the gateway and when murder does occur in this novel the gateway is under observation by three servants, all reliable and trustworthy. So we have the classic setup - the killer must have been inside already and therefore must be a member of the expedition. There are therefore only about half a dozen possible suspects.

The dig is in Iraq, not too far from Baghdad. Dr Leidner leads the expedition. He is accompanied by his wife. There is his long-time colleague Carey, there is Mr Mercado and his wife, a French monk whose job it is to translate inscriptions, and three younger men.

Also on the scene but not living in the expedition house are Dr Reilly and his daughter.

There is also the narrator, Nurse Leatheran, is a woman with plenty of sound common sense but very little imagination. She’s also inclined to be a remarkably poor judge of people. If they have good manners and are superficially refined she thinks the best of them. if they seem not quite respectable she thinks the worst of them. That’s undoubtedly why Christie found her to be ideal narrator. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator but she is (like Captain Hastings) inclined to miss crucially important points. In fact she’s a bit of a fool. Having a narrator who understands little or nothing of what is going on is of course a favoured device of mystery writers, being incredibly useful in encouraging the reader to miss key plot points. Christie always enjoyed using it to add humour as well.

Nurse Leatheran has been employed because Mrs Leidner has vague and unspecified nervous troubles. There is an odd atmosphere of tension among the expedition members.

Of course there is a murder. Luckily it just so happens that a certain Belgian detective is in Iraq at that very moment. Poirot is on the scene very quickly. He makes it clear that he believes the mystery can only be solved by understanding the victim’s personality. There seems to be an extraordinary amount of disagreement among the expedition members on this point. The victim may have been universally loved or universally disliked. It all depends on whom you ask.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. There are some very clever, very devious clues. Devious, but fair. There’s some good stuff involving alibis. There’s some wonderful misdirection. My problem with Christie is that most of her books are extremely clever but for me there’s nearly always something that doesn’t quite satisfy me. To be totally successful a detective story has to have a solution that is ingenious but at least vaguely plausible. Not so much technically plausible but psychologically plausible. I have to feel that the characters really might have behaved in the way that the book has them behaving. In Murder in Mesopotamia there is one crucial psychological element that in my view fails the believability test. So for me it’s another Christie that ends up leaving me with a few doubts. She has built an extraordinarily impressive house of cards and then added one final card that risked causing the whole thing to collapse. Overall this is a dazzling piece of work and that final card probably wasn’t even necessary.

Apart from the plotting it’s typical Christie. I’ve never understood how anyone could find Christie dull. Her writing has a delightful sly wit and in this case her use of the incredibly obtuse nurse as narrator is masterful and very amusing.

Murder in Mesopotamia is a brilliant work with perhaps a minor flaw. It’s still recommended.

The 2002 TV adaptation

The TV version omits a few characters but they’re mostly peripheral characters like Dr Reilly (whose daughter now becomes the daughter of Police Superintendent Maitland. A more important change is that Nurse Leatheran is demoted from narrator to being just another member of the party. A pity since her psychological obtuseness was amusing.

Captain Hastings is introduced into the story, quite unnecessarily but he was popular with viewers and he takes over from Nurse Leatheran as Poirot’s sounding board.

The plot remains basically the same except that writer Clive Exton increases the body count dramatically. There’s no need for this but presumably he felt that a murder was needed right at the start to keep viewers interested.

The biggest weakness is the casting of Barbara Barnes as Louise Leidner. She’s just not glamorous enough to be convincing as a woman who exercises an overwhelming power over men.

Of course it looks fabulous. Even when this series got everything else wrong it looked great.

In this case it gets things mostly right. The minor reservation I have about the novel applies also to the TV version. It’s still pretty decent entertainment.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Global Globules Affair (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel)

The Global Globules Affair, written by Simon Latter and published in 1967, was one of five tie-in novels associated with the short-lived television series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which aired on NBC in 1966-67.

Like the television series on which it’s based it’s a light-hearted and enjoyable mix of science fiction and spy thriller.

It’s basically harmless fun and if you’re a fan of the original television series it's worth a look. Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.