Thursday, July 2, 2015

Manning Coles’ Drink to Yesterday


Drink to Yesterday, published in 1940, was the first of Manning Coles’ spy novels featuring Tommy Hambledon. Manning Coles was a pseudonym used by a British writing team, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965). Coles had been a real-life British spy in the First World War (and would serve British Intelligence again in the Second World War) while Manning had worked in the War Office so they had the advantage of knowing the espionage game from the inside. The Tommy Hambledon series eventually ran to 26 novels.

Drink to Yesterday spends a fair amount of time giving us the backstory of young Michael Kingston. It perhaps spends a little too much time on his childhood. When the First World War breaks out Michael is too young to enlist but eventually does so by lying about his age (as Coles himself had done). After a short spell of service in the trenches he is recruited by British military intelligence where he encounters his former schoolmaster and mentor Tommy Hambledon. Hambledon, a man a good few years older, is an experienced spy and it is apparent that he has had his eye on Michael as a potential spy for quite a while. Even before the war Hambledon had encouraged the boy to concentrate on modern languages at school and Michael’s fluency in French and German makes him ideal espionage agent material.

Tommy and Michael, in the guise of disaffected Boers, travel to Germany where Michael strikes up a friendship with a senior German intelligence officer, von Bodenheim. The German agent is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather sympathetic character. He has considerable charm and warmth which he conceals beneath a veneer of cynicism. In fact right from the start Tommy is at pains to point out to Michael that German spies are just like them - brave resourceful men doing their duty as they see it.

Michael becomes a very successful spy who pulls off some spectacular coups but he finds himself becoming somewhat disillusioned. Success can be as bitter as failure. He also learns that when you live a life based on deception you can find yourself with no real identity at all. 

For a novel published in 1940 Drink to Yesterday demonstrates a remarkable even-handedness. Young Michael encounters something he didn’t expect - when you live among Germans as a spy you get to know them rather well. You discover that they are capable of heroism, that they are capable of suffering, that they know doubts and fears, they fall in love, they form friendships. They experience all the normal emotions. It becomes difficult to think of them merely as enemies. You get to genuinely like them. And then you have to betray them. You might tell yourself it’s necessary, and perhaps it is, but betraying people is not a pleasant thing to do.

Michael comes to realise that while the Germans have done some barbarous things his own side has committed its share of atrocities as well - the sight of German civilians slowing starving to death as a result of the British blockade horrifies him.

He also discovers that the world of espionage and counter-espionage is a world of suspicion and deception in which decisions have to be made on incomplete information and sometimes those decisions turn out to be wrong. Tragically wrong. The tone of this book reminds me a little of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant 1928 Ashenden, or the British Agent. It’s undoubtedly significant that Maugham was also a real-life spy who knew very well how easily such tragic mistakes can be made.

I’m told that the later Tommy Hambledon books become steadily more light-hearted and even whimsical but Drink to Yesterday has a definite edge of grittiness to it, albeit combined with an appreciation of the heroic and glamorous side of espionage. Or at least that’s how it appears at first - as the story progresses we discover that the heroic side to spying isn’t quite so heroic after all and the glamour is largely phony. The tone of the novel grows steadily darker.

In some ways the book reflects the mood of post-war disillusionment rather than wartime patriotism. It has the kind of feel that the new breed of spy thriller writers of the 30s were starting to bring to the genre in novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy. Like Greene and Ambler the authors of Drink to Yesterday are as much interested in the psychology of espionage as they are in spy tradecraft.

The structure of the novel is quite interesting - Michael’s story is told in an extended flashback. We know how the story will end, and yet really we don’t know.

While the authors are not in the strictly literary sense in the same class as a Somerset Maugham the somewhat laconic story-telling style grown on you and in its own way it proves to be quite effective.

Drink to Yesterday is an intelligent and surprisingly dark spy thriller with a real sting in its tail. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers

One thing you have to say about the mystery novels of R. A. J. Walling (1869-1949) - there’s none of that transcending the genre nonsense to be found in them. They are pure golden age puzzle-plot detective stories.  They also happen to be rather good.

The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers was published in 1936 and was the seventh of Walling’s Mr Tolefree mysteries.

This book contains all the ingredients that irritate modern critics, and delight fans of the genre - a country house setting, an intricate plot, disguises and mysterious coded messages. Walling was smart enough to realise that in 1936 a country house murder would need to have something extra, and he provides enough variation to keep things interesting.

Philip Tolefree’s latest case is rather unusual. Author-adventurer Ronald Hudson employs him to crack a code in a letter he has received. He refuses to give Tolefree any information as to what the message might be about. Ordinarily Tolefree would not have accepted a case under such circumstances but he’s intrigued by Hudson’s glamorous and mysterious reputation. He’s even more intrigued by the fact that Hudson is wearing a false beard. The disguise would fool most people, but not a professional like Tolefree. So why would Hudson bother? And who exactly is Hudson anyway?

Even more curious is a barely legible pencil note on the business card given to Tolefree by Hudson. As a result of this note Tolefree finds himself at Old Hallerdon, the Devon country house of industrialist Sir Thomas Grymer. Where, as it so happens, a young man has just committed suicide. What possible connection there could be between Hudson’s coded message and the suicide of a young research chemist is a question Philip Tolefree cannot answer at present. It is however just the sort of question that appeals to Tolefree.

Much depends on the layout of Old Hallerdon and the relative positions of the rooms occupied by various people at the time of the suicide. Which means we need a floor plan. And Walling provides us with not just one but two floor plans. This something that warms my heart. I do love my mystery novels to include maps and/or floor plans.

This adventure is not entirely confined to the country house. There’s also a good deal of racing about in high-powered motor cars.

Tolefree is not your standard golden age amateur detective. He’s a professional private inquiry agent and he has a living to make. He’s clearly a well-educated man - Latin and French quotations do not disturb his equilibrium - but he is equally clearly not a member of the leisured upper classes. In fact he’s pretty solidly middle-class, which also seems to have been true of Walling (who was a successful newspaper editor and publisher).

Walling was a West Country man so it’s no surprise that this novel is set in Devon. That’s the part of England that he knew and it’s always a sound plan for an author to stick to setting with which he is personally familiar.

The plot is delightfully complex, with guns, shell casings, fingerprints (or the unexpected lack thereof), fly-fishing, enigmatic antiquarians, bogus scientists, Frenchmen with impressive moustaches, Tudor domestic architecture and crimson slippers all playing crucial parts. 

Walling was an archetypal example of the school of detective fiction labelled as the Humdrum School by critic Julian Symons. Over the past few years the once-despised  Humdrums have been gradually rehabilitated and are now once again finding an appreciative readership. Walling is one of the more underrated representatives of this school. It really is time his books were brought back into print. In the meantime the good news is that used copies of his Philip Tolefree mysteries are not too difficult to find, often at pleasingly reasonable prices. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are also great fun.

The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

J.-H. Rosny Aîné's The Young Vampire


Belgian-born Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856-1940) was a science fiction author who wrote in collaboration with his brother Séraphin Justin François Boex under the name J.-H. Rosny. When their writing partnership broke up Joseph continued to write under the name J.-H. Rosny Aîné (J.-H. Rosny the elder) while his brother wrote as J.-H. Rosny jeune (J.-H. Rosny the younger). J.-H. Rosny Aîné is regarded as a very important figure in the history of French science fiction, his best-known books being Quest for Fire (1909) and Quest of the Dawn Man (1918). The Young Vampire, published by Black Coat Press in 2010, includes three of J.-H. Rosny Aîné’s short stories and a short novel.

It’s certainly a varied and odd collection. The Witch is a very early story and it’s mind-numbingly dreadful. In fact it’s one of the worst stories I’ve ever read, in any genre. It’s an ugly ham-fisted embarrassingly obvious tale about the persecution of a woman accused by peasants of witchcraft. The story positively drips with the author’s loathing for his characters and for the peasantry in general, and with his narrow-minded anti-religious bigotry. All that would be bad enough but it’s also one of the most abysmally poorly written stories you’re ever likely to encounter. Whether that is entirely Rosny’s fault or whether Brian Stableford, who translated the stories in this collection, must also accept part of the blame is difficult to determine. Stableford’s translations are not usually this bad so he may well have been deliberately trying to capture the flavour of Rosny’s prose, a flavour that is an unholy blending of clumsiness and pomposity.

The Young Vampire is somewhat more interesting. It’s just as badly written but at least it has some clever ideas. It concerns a young woman named Evelyn noted for her oddness and extreme pallor. Her mother explains that the pallor is caused by the fact that Evelyn died some months earlier. She died, but three days later she revived. Since then she has been abnormally pale and strangely disconnected. And, although her family is not yet aware of the fact, she has become a vampire. This fact is discovered by her husband shortly after their marriage. As you might expect this puts a certain amount of strain on the marriage although the husband tries to accommodate himself to this distressing situation.

This story, published in 1920, is a very early fictional example of vampirism as a kind of medical condition. It’s a bit more than that though - it also involves transference of personality and the implication of some kind of alternative existence although whether we’re intended to see this as having supernatural or scientific causes is open to debate. It seems most likely that the author intends it to be seen as a scientific phenomenon although he declines to give us any kind of explanation.

These are good ideas but they’re weakened by the awkward writing and the overall tone. Rosny seems to be aiming at satire although I have to confess I’m not sure what it is he’s trying to satirise. Possibly the English, since he seems to convey a considerable dislike for them in the story.

The Supernatural Assassin, dating from 1923, is a considerable improvement on the first two stories. It’s a reworking of one of the favourite themes of gothic fiction but it attempts to give it a vaguely scientific, or perhaps psychological, basis. It does have the authentic gothic atmosphere of the uncanny.

Companions of the Universe, published in 1934, is a mess. I have no idea what the author was aiming for. Brian Stableford, who translated these stories, admits in his afterword that he has no idea what Rosny was trying to do in this story either. There is a minor science fictional sub-plot that goes nowhere and we never find out what it’s about apart from some vague references to a fourth universe. However almost the entire novella-length story is taken up by the romantic adventures of the hero with a startling number of women with tedious musings on the nature of love and sexual attraction, plus some odd nonsense about the hero’s three natures although what these three natures might be remains (perhaps mercifully) obscure. At times it becomes almost Proustian in its meanderings. The main story is uninteresting and the science fiction element is at best a very minor afterthought that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. This is the kind of stuff that gives French intellectuals a bad name.

The Navigators of Space is a very uneven but far better collection of Rosny's work, often dealing (in a much more interesting way) with similar themes

Overall The Young Vampire is a truly abysmal collection. Two stories that have some minor interest and two absolutely atrocious stories. Just remember I wasted precious hours of my life reading this rubbish so you won’t have to! Avoid at all costs.

Monday, June 15, 2015

C. Daly King’s The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant


Charles Daly King (1895-1963) was an American who devoted most of his career to psychology. During the 1930s he wrote half a dozen mystery novels and a collection of short stories, The Curious Mr Tarrant (published in 1935). These eight short stories, along with a handful of others written later, have been published in paperback by Crippen and Landru as The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant.

These tales are certainly not conventional murder mysteries. In some cases it is doubtful if a crime has even been committed. They are however stories of detection. In some ways they resemble the school of occult detective fiction that was enormously popular in the early part of the 20th century. Strange events occur, events which at first appear to be supernatural in origin (in today’s parlance they would more likely be referred to as manifestations of the paranormal). In most occult detective fiction the solution really is supernatural although quite frequently the events do turn out to have a perfectly rational explanation.

In the Mr Tarrant stories there is always a rational explanation. Well, almost always. Just to keep us on our toes King does on very rare occasions actually involve the supernatural. These stories are all in their various ways impossible crime stories and they include a number of true locked-room mysteries.

Mr Tarrant is a gentleman of leisure residing in New York City who happens to have a keen interest in odd unexplained mysteries. He pursues this interest on a strictly amateur basis. He is assisted by his Japanese butler-valet Katoh. Katoh is a most useful individual who was a doctor in his own country and is now a Japanese spy, a circumstance which affords Mr Tarrant a great deal of amusement. As he points out, the intelligence Katoh gathers on behalf of the Japanese government could in fact be found in any good public library.

In the earlier stories we learn very little about Mr Tarrant himself. Jerry Phelan admits to knowing almost nothing about Tarrant’s background. He knows Tarrant is wealthy but he has no idea where that wealth came from. It’s not until the sixth story, The Episode of the Vanishing Harp, that we gain a few insights into Tarrant’s character. He is clearly a man out of sympathy with the modern world, a man who values tradition and who regards democratic institutions with a good deal of scepticism. He is by nature an aristocrat. While he is obviously very well-educated with a broad range of interests he does not go in for the kinds of ostentatious displays of erudition that we expect from a Philo Vance or a Lord Peter Wimsey. Nor does he demonstrate any great degree of snobbery. He has his own views and we get only an occasional glimpse into his interior world. This naturally makes him rather interesting - we long to know more about him.

The Episode of the Codex’ Curse deals with a very valuable Aztec manuscript which, like any self-respecting ancient artifact, is protected by a curse. It’s actually a rather weak story but it does serve to introduce us to Jerry Phelan, the narrator of the stories. Phelan serves as Tarrant’s Dr Watson and like most Dr Watsons he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The only subject on which Phelan can claim to speak with any authority at all is golf. Golf in fact seems to be his sole interest in life. The story also establishes Mr Tarrant’s credentials as a man who relies on observation and logic.

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion is very much better, in fact quite superb. Young Jerry has fallen in love with a charming girl named Valerie. Valerie is beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, everything that a man might hope for in a woman, except that she appears to be somewhat crazy. Possibly completely crazy. Or is she? Or could her sleek modernist house really be haunted? By 1935 it wasn’t easy to come up with a totally original haunted house story but that’s exactly what King does.

The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem is a locked-room mystery, and a good one (if rather grim). It seems to me that that there are three problems racing an author trying to write a a locked-room mystery: the solution has to be plausible, it has to avoid being a let-down and it has to be fair. In this story King succeeds on all three counts. The solution is obvious but as Tarrant points out ingrained habits of mind prevent us from seeing it. The Episode of the The Man with Three Eyes uses a similar technique - the solution is simple if only you don’t let preconceptions mislead you.

C. Daly King
In The Episode of the ‘Torment IV’ the mystery of the Mary Celeste is repeated, almost precisely, but on a speedboat on a lake. One thing you have to say about King - even when his stories are far-fetched they’re certainly original and the solution to this mystery is both very far-fetched and very original.

The Episode of the Headless Horrors deals with the discovery of headless corpses on an isolated stretch of road. It involves a subject that always delights me, which I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers.

The Episode of the Vanishing Harp is a particularly fine story, involving an impossible crime, an ancient prophecy and an Irish harp dating from the 9th century. 

The final story in the original collection, The Episode of the Final Bargain, represents a distinct turn for the weird. There is a mystery of sorts but this one is more concerned with seriously occult stuff. It’s an interesting tale but it really is radically different from the earlier stories. It also gives us some further insights into Tarrant’s character and motivations.

Some years after the publication of The Curious Mr Tarrant King was persuaded to write a couple of additional Mr Tarrant stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In these stories Tarrant’s Japanese butler-valet Katoh has mysteriously been replaced by a butler-valet from the Philippines who is in fact in all essentials  the identical character - by the 1940s it was presumably no longer acceptable for the hero to have a Japanese spy as his manservant!

The Episode of the Little Girl Who Wasn't There is another ingenious locked-room mystery which Tarrant solves without ever visiting the crime scene, or indeed without ever leaving his own house. His intervention is purely by means of listening to accounts of the case on the radio, making a couple of telephone calls and doing quite a bit of thinking.

The Episode of the Sinister Invention started life as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Frederic Dannay accepted it for publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine but suggested it be changed to make it a Mr Tarrant story. What’s really interesting is that King has left in the story a number of references to London locations and it’s clear that her has done so deliberately, in fact in one case he has drawn particular attention to such a reference. His intention was obviously to make it clear that this really is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with Tarrant and Jerry Phelan standing in for Holmes and Dr Watson. This adds to the fun of the story - and it really is a delight, capturing just the right slightly whimsical feel.

The Episode of the Perilous Talisman was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1951. And indeed it can in some ways be considered to be either a fantasy or science fiction story, or a horror story. Or a detective story. It concerns an ancient Egyptian artifact that possesses certain very surprising powers. Not quite occult powers though. Perhaps scientific rather than magical, depending on how one defines science and magic. The story also involves a shady politician. Now why would a shady politician want to posses such an artifact? Tarrant has a fair idea of the answer to that question.

These are odd stories that cross genre boundaries but they are fascinating and unusual. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Man Who Sold Death

James Mitchell (1926-2002) is best remembered as the creator of the superb 1960s British spy television series Callan. Mitchell was also a novelist and in 1964 he had created another morally ambiguous spy hero, John Craig, who first appeared in his novel The Man Who Sold Death. The novel was published in 1964 (using the pseudonym James Munro) but is set a few years earlier.

There are interesting similarities, and equally interesting differences, between Mitchell’s two fictional spies. Both are ex-military men. Both are capable of ruthlessness. Both have consciences, an unfortunate failing that causes them some trouble. Neither could be described as a team player. 

John Craig though is an ex-officer with a distinguished record while David Callan is an ex-corporal who was cashiered. It is worth pointing out though that Craig started out as an enlisted man. Craig has been a success in business. He has a comfortable house, he has a wife and he drives flash motor. He dresses expensively and can now pass (with reasonable success) as middle-class. Whatever his other talents Callan is never going to pass as middle-class. 

Callan is an outsider. He works for a shadowy British intelligence agency as an assassin, not because he likes it but because he has no choice and in any case killing is the only thing he’s good at. John Craig started life as an outsider, worked his way up to respectability and social acceptance, and now finds himself an outsider once more. His past has caught up with him. 

In a rather spectacular way. His car is blown up. Someone wants to kill him. They want to kill him very badly. It’s obvious from the start that Craig has a fair idea who is after him, and that they are very dangerous indeed. They’d have to be dangerous to frighten John Craig. And he is certainly frightened.

Another parallel between Craig and Callan is that both have criminal pasts. Craig’s criminal career was distinctly less seedy and on a rather more spectacular scale, and was a good deal more successful. Callan ended up in prison; Craig ended up with a great deal of money. Craig’s criminality was however rather more sleazy and certainly more evil. After the war he became a smuggler and them moved into a much more lucrative trade - gun-running. Unfortunately he chose to run guns to the rebels (or freedom-fighters or terrorists depending on your point of view) in Algeria. This earned him the enmity of a French paramilitary group opposed to Algerian independence (this group being obviously based on the Organisation de l'armée secrète) and as a result he and his partners in the gun-running operation were marked for death by this organisation’s execution squad headed by Colonel St Briac. The leader of this group, They have been searching for him and now they have clearly found him.

John Craig decides to run but he has also attracted the attention of the British counter-intelligence services. Loomis, the head of Department K, is very interested indeed in John Craig. Department K is an ultra-secret branch of MI6, tasked with carrying out operations too dirty for anyone else to touch (it is in all essentials identical to The Section in Callan). Loomis believes John Craig may be just the man he wants for a very special job. The British government has become very concerned by Colonel St Briac’s activities. St Briac wants to get Britain embroiled in the Algerian crisis and that is the last thing Her Majesty’s government wants. The British government wants Colonel St Briac to go away. Officially of course they can do nothing but that’s where Loomis comes in - his job is to make problems like Colonel St Briac go away. Permanently. Loomis has a number of men who are quite skilled assassins but for this job he needs someone very very special. Someone like Craig, who gained a reputation in the elite Special Boat Service as a man who could kill quickly, quietly and very efficiently.

Loomis wants St Briac dead. Craig has realised that the only hope for his own survival is to kill St Briac. It is therefore not too difficult for Loomis to recruit Craig.

The difficulty is that St Briac is absolutely obsessive about security. His headquarters is like a fortress. Getting close enough to kill him will be a challenge; getting out alive afterwards will be a much greater challenge. 

This book belongs very much to the gritty realist school of espionage fiction. The problem with the gritty realist approach is that it can easily become simply too grim and too cynical. Mitchell solves this problem in The Man Who Sold Death the same way he would later solve it in Callan - by creating extremely complex characters and presenting them with very complicated moral dilemmas. Mitchell’s protagonists are neither conventional heroes nor conventional anti-heroes. They are a mixture of good and bad, of heroism and cynicism, of honour and moral squalor. They make mistakes and they often dislike their jobs, but they also realise that however unpleasant their jobs may be they are necessary. They are violent ruthless men but they are needed to protect society from men who are far more violent and far more ruthless. Good and evil are never clear-cut or simple concepts for Mitchell but they do still exist, even if sometimes it’s more a choice of lesser evils.

John Craig can be considered to be quite a successful creation - we might not approve of him or even like him very much but we do care what happens to him. It’s actually his flaws that make him oddly sympathetic - they make him human and vulnerable.

The novel’s only real weakness is that the supporting characters lack the richness that made Callan so fascinating. Mitchell was still learning his craft but he proved to be a quick learner.

The Man Who Sold Death is a fine espionage thriller. It has the atmosphere of betrayal and disillusionment that was so fashionable in 1960s spy fiction but without pushing these elements so far that the reader ceases to care about the characters. It also has a good deal of violence and some pretty effective action sequences. It’s well-crafted and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey was the sixth Inspector French mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. It appeared in 1930 and it’s a textbook example of the Crofts style of the 30s. And that, in my opinion, is no bad thing.

Wealthy Belfast mill owner Sir John Magill has vanished. The circumstances are puzzling to say the least. Or rather it’s Sir John’s behaviour just prior to his disappearance that is puzzling.

Sir John is a very rich man. He has a reputation for being an honest straightforward old gentleman but somewhat inclined to meanness about money. A lot of people would stand to benefit by his death so the number of people with potential motives is rather large.

Sir John lives in semi-retirement in London, his son Major Malcolm Magill have taken over the management of the mill. Sir John had journeyed from London to Northern Ireland by train and steamer to see his son, he had been seen in Belfast, and after that the trail went cold. Since his journey had taken him from London to Scotland and thence to Northern Ireland the Royal Ulster Constabulary formed the opinion that the solution might be just as likely to be found in England as in Ireland and therefore it would be advisable to ask Scotland Yard for assistance. Inspector Joseph French of the Yard is despatched to Belfast.

French is a man who has very strong views on the appropriate methods for a detective to adopt. He has little interest in motives or in psychology. He is positively scornful on the subject of alibis. If anything he is inclined to be more suspicious of a suspect with a cast-iron alibi - after all in the general run of things an innocent man is unlikely to have an elaborate alibi. French is sceptical even of facts. To him a fact is only a fact when it has been ruthlessly tested. A witness might claim to have seen something, in which case he probably did see something. But what exactly did he see? It would be foolish to take anything at face value. Insofar as French has a genius for detection (and his distinguished record suggests that he does have such genius of a kind), it is a genius for scepticism, and for taking pains.

Joseph French is also a man who, by and large, rather likes the human race. He can certainly be tough when he needs to be but generally he believes that a detective can discover a lot more by being friendly and polite. There’s a lot to be said for treating witnesses in such a manner that they end up actually wanting to help. There’s also a very great deal to be said for treating subordinates with tact and respect. At one point in this investigation French makes the mistake of offending a police sergeant who was doing his best to help. French is immediately aware of his error, that he has hurt the man’s feelings, and he then goes to great pains to conciliate the sergeant. Since French has a knack for getting along with people his error is soon corrected. A man’s station in life makes little difference to Inspector French - he finds that courtesy works with most people.

In this investigation Inspector French gets to spend a great deal of time poring over maps and making calculations of speeds and times and chronologies. It might sound like dull work but to Inspector French it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s the genius of Crofts that he is able to communicate French’s enthusiasm to the reader. 

The principal interest in this tale is not the identification of the murderer (although Crofts does keep us in some doubt about that right until the end) - the focus is on the way in which French patiently and methodically builds up his case. If he spends a week chasing up a lead that ends up going nowhere he is not dismayed. He simply moves on to the next lead. Eliminating possibilities is all part of the process of investigation.

On this case French also spends a lot of time catching trains and messing about in boats. In fact this case has everything needed to make Joseph French a very happy man. Trains and boats are always a plus in a detective story and Crofts knew how to make extremely good use of such things.

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is Crofts at his best, with his technique fully developed and firing on all cylinders. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Weapon Shops of Isher

A. E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher is one odd little science fiction novel. Part of its oddity undoubtedly stems from the fact that the author created the novel by combining three previously published short stories, a common practice in 1951 (when the novel was published in book form) and one to which van Vogt was particularly addicted. This has the result of making The Weapon Shops of Isher even more incoherent than it would have been anyway. In this case the incoherence doesn’t really matter. It’s no coincidence that Philip K. Dick was a huge fan of van Vogt’s work - it’s intentionally mind-bending and it throws a lot of ideas at the reader. Fortunately many of the ideas are rather good.

This novel is set on Earth, thousands of years into the future. This is the age of the Isher Empire. The current empress would like to rule with an iron hand but she cannot, because of the power of the weapon shops. The weapon shops are a kind of shadow government, but not quite. Whether they have any legal status is uncertain. Either way they exist and they are immensely powerful.

The empress has decided to break the power of the weapon shops, using a new energy weapon. The weapon shops however are far from defenceless. In this case their defence involves a manipulation of space and time that has the effect of hurling an unlucky mid-20th century newspaper reporter seven thousand years into the future - and that’s just the beginning of his misfortunes. The weapon shops also make use of Cayle Clark, a young man with some unusual abilities (including breath-taking luck at gambling).

The man behind the strategy of the weapon shops is Robert Hedrock, who happens to be immortal (among other useful attributes).

The plot will set your head spinning at times. This is an author who doesn’t worry too much  about plausible future technologies. He just seems to enjoy tossing cool ideas around.

The most interesting, and the most controversial, aspects of the book are its political content and what appears to be a very strong pro-gun message. My advice is that whatever your views on the subject of guns don’t be put off by this - guns are not really the point of the story, they’re more a mechanism for driving an important element of the plot. Also don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a stereotypical right-wing fantasy - the politics of the novel are much more complex than that and can’t really be placed neatly on a left-right axis.

The Isher Empire is a monarchy with pretensions toward absolutism but in practice it’s nowhere near absolutist and certainly not totalitarian. The government is meddlesome and bureaucratic and would undoubtedly have become totalitarian but for a number of limiting factors. The first of these is the existence of the weapon shops. The weapon shops will sell people guns but the guns can only be used for self-defence. If you try to use them for any other purpose they simply won’t function. They are in effect intelligent guns. It should be noted though that the weapon shops define self-defence rather broadly. Their guns can be used not just to defend a person against a physical threat but also against a severe infringement of his rights. Weapon shop guns are also vastly more effective than the government’s guns. This has the effect of making outright tyranny or totalitarianism impossible since individuals can not only protect themselves against such threats; they can do so with a near certainty of success.

The government’s powers are also limited by the uncertain loyalty of the army and by corruption. The Isher government is very corrupt but in some ways this is a feature rather than a bug. Without the corruption the government would be much more efficient, and hence much more dangerous. This is a world in which real power is divided. Not officially and not willingly, but in practice no one group can gain a monopoly of power.

The empress is capricious, overbearing, arrogant and impetuous. She is also realistic, conscientious, courageous and generally well-meaning. A monarch has to take a long-term view. If a monarch makes a mess of things there may be no kingdom for the heirs to inherit. The empress therefore has to regard the empire as in some ways held in trust by her. That tends to encourage moderation and wisdom. The empire represents stability and while the weapon shops are watchful they are not actually opposed to the government. They simply oppose any extension of its power.

Apart from the politics the book also has some pretty cool ideas on time travel and time travel paradoxes. It’s also intriguing in that (like Larry Niven’s much later Ringworld) it treats luck as something real, something than can even be quantified. Cayle Clark’s success at gambling is no accident - given his abilities it is inevitable.

This novel is a product of a period in the history of the genre when an author could write an incredibly ambitious novel packed with ideas that is also very very short. Having started  in the pulps van Vogt knew how to tell a story with admirable conciseness. There’s more emphasis on characterisation than you might expect. Both the empress and Cayle Clark are much more complex than the average protagonists of 1950s science fiction. The empress in particular is a rather fascinating personality and is far from being either a stereotypical heroine or villainess.

The Weapon Shops of Isher is a bit disjointed and it has its flaws. Robert Hedrock is a rather tedious infallible superman figure. Despite all this it’s an odd but exceptionally stimulating example of the science fiction of the golden age. Highly recommended.