Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain was the fourth of Len Deighton’s spy novels featuring an unnamed agent of a British intelligence service. When the novels were filmed in the 1960s the character was given the name Harry Palmer.

Deighton’s novels are in many ways the antithesis of the James Bond novels. Deighton’s spy is working class, wears glasses and lives in a slightly seedy flat. Unlike Bond he is less than enthusiastic about being a spy, and even less enthusiastic about obeying orders. He is on the other hand an excellent cook and quite the gourmet and despite his slightly down-at-heel appearances he is by no means a mere thug, nor is he a bungler or a fool. He is something of a closet intellectual and can quote Virgil if the occasion demands it (as it does in his novel). It’s probably fair to say that he is quite a bit like Deighton himself.

Deighton’s hero may not be enthusiastic about his work but he is a thorough professional and has no patience whatsoever with amateurs. When things go wrong, as they frequently do, it is usually because he has not been given all the information he needs or because he has been set up by his superiors by mysterious purposes of their own.

Deighton and John le Carré were seen in the 1960s as ushering in a new era in spy fiction, cynical and realistic and in stark contrast to the glamour of James Bond. Which makes Billion Dollar Brain rather surprising. The plot for this novel is at times outlandish and completely over-the-top - in fact it could quite easily have formed the basis for a Bond film. Convoluted and deceptive plotting was one of the hallmarks of Deighton’s spy fiction right from the start but in this novel the plotting becomes quite spectacularly baroque. As is often the the case with Deighton though, just as you think you know where the plot is going it goes somewhere else entirely.

It all starts out as a very routine case involving a troublesome left-wing Finnish journalist. In Helsinki Deighton’s anonymous spy stumbles upon what proves to be a vast private anti-communist intelligence operation run by a fabulously wealthy American billionaire, General Midwinter. Midwinter’s ambitions go well beyond mere intelligence-gathering and propaganda. He seems to be intending to overthrow the Soviet Union single-handedly. To carry out his ambitious plans he has had a computer built from him. Not just a computer, but a super-computer, a computer capable of running intelligence operations on its own.

The central character in the novel is not really the unnamed narrator but his old friend Harvey Newbegin. Newbegin is an American and to say that his loyalties are uncertain would be putting it mildly. Harvey used to be a professional American spy but now he works for General Midwinter’s organisation. Harvey is however a man to whom duplicity and betrayal are second nature. He thinks he is clever enough to play off his new employer against the Russians while betraying both parties. It’s a dangerous game and while he is a skillful manipulator it’s obvious that sooner or later he’s going to land himself in very deep trouble, and then he expects that his old friend in British intelligence will come to his rescue.

His old friend in British intelligence has his own problems and while he has a certain affection for Newbegin there are limits to his patience. 

Complicating matters further is Newbegin’s girlfriend Signe, who is playing her own game and who proves to be just as skillful at manipulation.

Deighton’s approach might be deliberately unheroic but he certainly has style and his prose is sardonic and drily humorous, and a good deal more entertaining than le Carré’s. Deighton also has the ability to construct plots of byzantine complexity without becoming tedious, and without becoming impossibly obscure. His plots twist and turn in spectacular fashion but while his protagonists are often hopelessly unaware of what is really going on he is careful to ensure that the reader is not left in similar confusion. Deighton’s plots might be convoluted but they do make sense.

Billion Dollar Brain is a complex, intelligent, stylish and thoroughly entertaining spy novel. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rex Stout’s The Red Box

The Red Box was the fourth of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. It was published in 1937. While they are fine examples of golden age detective fiction the biggest attraction of the Nero Wolfe books is quite definitely Nero Wolfe himself - he is one of the most deliriously outrageous of all fictional detectives. He is so outrageous that he is in danger of self-parody but this is a danger that Stout manages to avoid.

The Red Box includes one element of which I’m extremely fond and that is found in quite a few golden age detective tales - a bizarre and outlandish murder method. There are actually three murders in the book and all three are somewhat outlandish but it’s the third that really delighted me. I’m certainly not going to spoil it but I will mention that it involves adhesive tape and as Wolfe points out it’s a remarkably economical murder method, involving an outlay of around fifteen cents.

The first of the three murders involves a box of candy. Boxes of chocolate were quite a popular way of murdering people in golden age detective stories. In this case it is fortunate  that the candy selection involved did not include caramels. Had it included caramels Nero Wolfe’s task might have been made even more difficult.

Stout throws in plenty of standard crime fiction ingredients. There’s an eccentric will. There’s a mystery with its roots in the past. There’s more than one suspect with a secret to hide. The ingredients are expertly blended and the results are delicious.

Nero Wolfe is at his idiosyncratic best. This case begins with an event that is not quite unprecedented but certainly very unusual - Wolfe actually leaves his West 35th Street brownstone to visit the scene of the crime. In a nice piece of symmetry a later scene of the crime will come to visit West 35th Street. 

As usual Wolfe and his indefatigable assistant Archie Goodwin will spend a good deal of time trying to avoid offering too much cooperation to the police. 

Archie will also have to deal with a relapse by Wolfe, although in this case he manages to head it off before too much harm is done and too much time is lost. A great deal of beer will be consumed by Nero Wolfe. Of course we never doubt that Wolfe will solve the mystery but in order to get the necessary proof he will have to take a considerable chance, relying on an elaborate and risky bluff.

I’ve been reading the Nero Wolfe novels in sequence (in other words in publication order). I’m not sure that there’s any real necessity to read them that way. It’s more of a personal whim.

The Red Box is a treat for golden age detective fans. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin

The American pulp writer Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) is best known for his stories chronicling the adventures of occult detective Jules de Grandin, described on the back cover of The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin as “the occult Hercule Poirot” - a reasonably apt description. The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin comprises six of the Jules de Grandin stories, all originally published by Weird Tales in 1929 and 1930.

Quinn was very much a pulp writer and while his stories may not have much literary polish they do possess a great deal of energy and flair and Quinn was nothing if not inventive.

The Drums of Damballah opens with a series of inexplicable crimes - the murder of a kindly clergyman, the kidnapping of a baby, the theft of a crucifix from a church. To Jules de Grandin it all adds up to a voodoo cult in 1930s New York, planning human sacrifice. Plus there’s an ape-man. I’m something of a connoisseur of politically incorrect fiction and this may well be the most politically incorrect story I’ve ever encountered. It’s also tremendous fun.

The Doom of the House of Phipps is a good example of Quinn’s favoured method, taking a very clichéd idea and trying to give it a twist. In this case the clichéd idea is a curse that dooms any male member of a particular family who is unwise enough to marry. They will die with their mouths full of blood before they set eyes on their first-born child. This attempt is perhaps a little too contrived but it’s enjoyable enough.

Ancient Egypt and mummy’s curses were incredibly popular in the pulp era but The Dust of Egypt adds some genuinely original and very clever twists involving thought-patterns and belief. A superb little story.

The Brain-Thief is almost as politically incorrect as The Drums of Damballah. An evil Hindu uses hypnotism to control people and steal time from them. He steals not only time but their memories. This is a fine example of Quinn’s ability to come up with remarkably clever ideas and to exploit those ideas to the full.

The Bride of Dewer deals with the legendary practice of droit de seigneur, which supposedly gave a feudal lord the right to sleep with the newly married brides of his vassals on their wedding night. It’s a legend that remains popular despite almost certainly being entirely imaginary. Quinn turns it into a nice little gothic tale as a demon exercises that right over the course of many generations.

Daughter of the Moonlight deals with witchcraft and can also be considered as an unconventional vampire tale, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it deals with early conceptions of vampirism that were current before Bram Stoker created the vampire legend in its modern form. Early ideas on vampirism placed great stress on the power of moonlight. A rather grim tale that demonstrates de Grandin’s ruthlessness in dealing with evil.

Jules de Grandin might resemble Hercule Poirot in his humorous mangling of the English language but in reality he’s considerably more ruthless.

While some occult detective stories offer rationalistic explanations for various mysteries these stories are all avowedly supernatural, or at least they deal with events that defy rationalistic beliefs. One very interesting and fruitful idea that Quinn utilises in several of his tales concerns the power of words and the power of beliefs. Such powers may be supernatural or paranormal or they may be powers of the human mind that science has not yet unravelled.

As well as the many short stories Jules de Grandin also features as the hero of one novel, the deliciously lurid The Devil’s Bride.

Seabury Quinn’s overtly pulpy style has prevented him from gaining the recognition for his occult detective stories that more literary writers such as William Hope Hodgson have gained but his ability to tell clever and original stories in a very entertaining manner should not be underestimated. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Three Gun Terry and the birth of the hard-boiled style

Carroll John Daly is now not much more than a footnote in the history of crime fiction. A footnote, but a very significant one. Carroll John Daly, it is generally admitted, invented the hard-boiled detective story.

His story Three Gun Terry was published in Black Mask on 15 May 1923 and it was the first story to bring together all the elements of the hard-boiled detective story. Some of the other elements had appeared in earlier stories but Three Gun Terry is the genuine article. It is the template on which every hard-boiled detective story is based. And in 1927 Daly produced the first hard-boiled detective novel, The Snarl of the Beast.

You would think that Daly would have gone on to be a very major figure in the genre but it didn’t quite work out that way. Daly contributed dozens of stories to Black Mask over the course of two decades and was popular with readers but he was overshadowed by other writers who took his template and did more interesting things with it. Critics have never found much to admire in Daly’s fiction and even the various editors of Black Mask were not overly impressed by his work. Dashiell Hammett would soon become the darling of hard-boiled fiction fans, critics and the editors at Black Mask. Daly’s most popular creation, private eye Race Williams, would serve as the model for Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. By the early 1950s Spillane was selling books by the tens of millions while Daly was finding it next to impossible to get published. The simple truth is that while Daly was the pioneer the real rewards were reaped by writers who were simply better writers. In their very different ways and despite their very different styles Hammett and Spillane had the genuine talent that Daly lacked. 

Notwithstanding all that, Three Gun Terry was the story that started it all. In 1923 Black Mask was not even a specialist detective fiction pulp magazine. The stories in Black Mask in the early days covered a wide variety of genres including, amazing as it may seem, romance. It was the immediate popularity of Carroll John Daly’s tough guy private eye stories that caused Black Mask to concentrate more and more on hard-boiled fiction.

So why was Three Gun Terry such a sensation at the time, and why was Daly unable to capitalise fully on his innovations?

Three Gun Terry is certainly fast-moving and exciting. There’s a great deal of violence and an impressive body count. Private eye Terry Mack has the tough guy attitude in spades. He’s a loner, as a good hard-boiled hero should be. He has an uneasy relationship with the police. He has plenty of underworld connections. He’s perfectly at home on New York’s mean streets. He’s unpolished and he’s cynical. He doesn’t believe in doing anyone a good turn unless he’s getting paid for it. He’s very quick with a gun. In fact he always carries three guns - two big automatics plus a little .25 automatic up his sleeve. He’s just as quick with his fists, and with wise-cracks. He doesn’t trust dames. He’s not the sort of guy who gets invited to the best social functions - he’s more at home in a speakeasy. For all that, he is in his own way a hero. If Terry Mack takes on a case for a client he’ll do his best to deliver the goods even if it means taking big risks.

All the right ingredients are there. The problem is that Daly was very much a pulp writer and nothing more. He could tell a good exciting story and do it quite efficiently. He had neither the ambition nor the ability to do any more. There is no attempt at characterisation, no subtlety, no polish. Daly’s writing style is rough and ready and his ear for dialogue is often less than sure. His hard-boiled patter comes off sometimes; sometimes it’s embarrassingly clunky.

The plotting is serviceable enough - there’s a conspiracy to cheat a young woman of her fortune, there’s a hunt for a vital document, there are kidnappings and it serves its purpose in providing opportunities for plenty of action.

Daly’s first Race Williams story, Knights of the Open Palm, followed hard on the heels of Three Gun Terry. The plot is slightly more unusual - Williams comes up the Ku Klux Klan while trying to find a young farmer’s son who has been kidnapped. Again the plot provides the hero with the chance to indulge in copious amounts of gunplay. Daly had no great skill in creating suspense but he makes up for it with plenty of action. Race Williams is hardly distinguishable from Terry Mack. You certainly get the sense that both Terry Mack and Race Williams see violence as more than just a necessary part of the job. They enjoy it. They make Mike Hammer seem like the quiet sensitive type.

It’s probably harsh but fair to describe Daly as little more than a hack, but he could be an entertaining hack and his writing unquestionably has a great deal of energy. Three Gun Terry is worth reading for its historical interest but while it’s crude it’s quite enjoyable.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Leslie Charteris’s Featuring the Saint

Featuring the Saint, published in 1931, was one of Leslie Charteris’s early books about his famous hero Simon Templar, the Saint. It is a collection of three novellas. Charteris could write short stories and novels quite successfully but he was particularly fond of the novella, a form that suited his talents to perfection.

The first of the novellas is The Logical Adventure, in which the Saint takes on impresario and crook Mr Francis Lemuel. His first step is to secure employment as Lemuel’s private pilot, an occupation which will afford the Saint ample opportunities to display his daredevil qualities. He has discovered that Lemuel is involved in large-scale cocaine smuggling. The Saint has no particular problems with bending the law a little himself but drugs and destroying people’s lives are another matter. Even in the days when he was on the wrong side of the law he had always been a very moral sort of outlaw. This adventure promises the opportunity to bring an evil man to justice and quite likely enrich himself somewhat as well, and that’s the kind of adventure he’s most fond of.

This affair ends up being rather more serious than he’d anticipated and it appears that murder may be the only way to resolve it. Well, there are times when murder can be a public service. The trick of course is not to end up getting murdered oneself. There may also be some difficulties with his old friend Chief Inspector Teal, but those difficulties are unlikely to be insurmountable.

The Wonderful War sees Simon Templar in a different role, as a revolutionary in Central America. These were, as he explains, the happy pre-Castro days when revolution was more of a sport than anything else. The Republic of Pasala has, oddly enough, never had a revolution. And Simon has never actually organised a revolution. But really, how difficult can such things be? He only has a few weeks to spare but that should be ample time. The army of Pasala, comprising 500 enlisted men commanded by no fewer than seventeen generals, is unlikely to be a major problem. Simon will discover that organising a revolution is every bit as much fun as he’d expected it to be, and only slightly more difficult. And it’s not as if he has to do it all himself. He has his old friend Archibald Sheridan to help him and they can also rely on invaluable assistance from a drunken Irishman named Kelly.

Simon is not fomenting revolution for his own entertainment (although he will derive a great deal of amusement from the undertaking) - there is a lady whose fortune has been stolen from her and Simon Templar is not the man to ignore a lady in distress.

The Man Who Could Not Die pits the Saint against Miles Hallin, a sportsman, adventurer and entrepreneur (of the shady variety of course). Hallin is famous as The Man Who Can Not Die and indeed he does seem to have cheated death with remarkable success and with equally remarkable frequency. Simon has a theory about this, that a man who cannot die is likely to be a man who is in reality inordinately afraid of death. He tries to explain the details of his theory to Patricia Holm (his lady love at this stage of his career). It’s somewhat obscure to her but she has no doubt that somehow or other it does make sense to Simon.

Simon has also come to suspect that a man who cheats death so often may in fact have done so at the expense of others. Perhaps Miles Hallin cannot die but people around him seem to do so with unusual frequency.

This is the very early Saint, when Charteris’s hero was simultaneously both more carefree and rather darker than his later incarnations. Certainly rather more ruthless. The early Saint’s methods for dealing with the ungodly were frequently quite extreme and often very final.

As you would expect the Saint still finds time to improvise verses and sing or song or two. It’s all part of the fun of getting mixed up in adventures.

All three novellas are tremendous fun and The Man Who Could Not Die in particular is vintage early Charteris. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

S. S. Van Dine’s The Dragon Murder Case

The Dragon Murder Case, published in 1933, was the seventh of S. S. Van Dine’s twelve Philo Vance mysteries. I think it’s one of his best but that’s not a view that has been shared by some important critics of the detective story.

In his very influential study of the detective story, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons takes a surprisingly positive view of the first six Philo Vance books but is contemptuously dismissive of the last six. That dismissal has been widely echoed but in the case of The Dragon Murder Case it seems a little unfair.

The Dragon Murder Case has most of the features you expect in a Philo Vance novel. The plot is intricate, the murder method is bizarre and spectacular and Philo Vance is in very Philo Vance form. The latter is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how you feel about Vance, and that is very much a matter of personal preference. I can understand those who find Vance irritating and who dislike Van Dine’s style although personally I find both to be highly entertaining. I like footnotes. I can’t help it.

In an earlier Vance book Van Dine had already dealt with criticisms of Vance’s English accent by pointing out that he had been educated in England. Anyone who spent their formative years in England (and given Vance’s social position this would have meant one of the great public schools followed by either Oxford or Cambridge) would naturally have picked up some upper-class English mannerisms and some trace of an accent. Philo Vance was the sort of hero that Van Dine wanted and the success he enjoyed suggests that most readers were happy with such a hero.

The setting for The Dragon Murder Case is the vast Stamm estate in New York City. Rudolph Stamm and his sister are the last of their line and Rudolph is a character right out of gothic fiction. He could be the protagonist of one of Poe’s stories. In fact there’s quite a marked Poe influence in this tale. 

Homicide cop Sergeant Heath has been called to the Stamm estate after a guest had decided on a swim, dived into the Dragon Pool and never emerged. It seems like a straightforward accident but there is something about the atmosphere in the Stamm mansion that Sergeant Heath is very unhappy about. He feels that this is a case that District Attorney Markham should take a look at. In fact he’s probably even more anxious for Markham’s friend Philo Vance to take a look. Having worked with him on previous baffling cases Sergeant Heath has developed a great respect for Vance’s crime-solving abilities. Markham is rather annoyed at being called out to investigate what seems to him to be clearly an accident but Vance is inclined to think that Heath’s instincts may be right. When the Dragon Pool is drained it becomes obvious that this is no accident.

It should be explained that the Dragon Pool is not a swimming pool but an artificial pond of considerable extent, and considerable depth.

This is in some ways a classic example of an impossible crime story. Adding extra spice (and even more gothic atmosphere) are the old Indian legends attached to the Dragon Pool, legends of an actual dragon.

The Dragon Murder Case is a fine example of the fair-play mystery. Van Dine is scrupulous about giving us the necessary clues to both the murder method and the identity of the murderer. R. Austin Freeman said that clues should never be hidden. They should be left in plain sight, and the writer should rely on the reader’s endless capacity to miss their significance. This is what Van Dine does. The really important clues are all right out in the open. Freeman also felt that the writer should never cheat by laying false clues. Van Done does make one use of a false clue in this book, but it’s done in such a way that the alert reader should be suspicious of it from the start.

My own view is that the writer also needs to play fair psychologically - the reader needs to believe that the killer is not only the only one who could have physically committed the crime, but also the only one with the right psychology to have committed it. That means more than just a convincing motive; the killer needs to be the sort of person who would commit murder, and do so in the manner in which the murder was actually carried out. Van Dine is careful to do that in The Dragon Murder Case. The solution might be wildly outlandish but it still rings true psychologically.

One of the conventions of the golden age detective story is that there should be a limited number of suspects. A popular way of doing his was to put the suspects in a location that is physically isolated from the outside world, thus eliminating the possibility of an outside killer. In this book Van Dine handles the situation more cleverly and more subtly. The estate is not cut off from the outside world but the crime happens in such a way that only the small group of people staying at the house could have had the one essential piece of information that made the crime possible. The killing is also done in such a manner that the killer must have been very familiar with the geography of the estate. An outsider could certainly have entered the estate, but an outsider could not have done this murder.

What this means is that the extraordinary setting Van Dine has chosen is not just there to provide a colourful backdrop. It plays a crucial plot rôle. It would not be going too far to say that this is a murder that could have taken place nowhere else in New York. 

The Dragon Murder Case is outlandish but wonderfully entertaining. Van Dine’s style might strike some critics as overblown but it’s perfectly in keeping with the nature of the story and its setting. Tremendous fun, and highly recommended.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space

Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space was serialised in Astounding in 1934 and later published in book form. Williamson’s idea was to take the classic adventure tale The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père, combine it with a larger-than-life character based on Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff and then turn it into a space opera.The results were highly successful and several sequels followed (the last of them being published as late as 1983).

The Legion of Space is a fine example of the space opera of the pulp era. Williamson did not quite have Doc Smith’s gift for space opera on a truly epic scale. Williamson was probably aware of this. While Doc Smith would portray space warfare on the grand scale Williamson opts instead for a tighter focus, giving us space warfare on a more human scale.

The book starts with an old soldier in 1945 setting down his recollections of the future. He has, or claims to have, the ability to remember events that will happen in the future. His descendants, the Ulnar family, will play crucial rôles in the history of humanity for the next thousand years. Over the course of this coming millennium humanity will colonise the rest of the Solar System and will eventually reach a nearby star where they will encounter an advanced and very dangerous alien civilisation. Our own civilisation will see democracy decline and fall to be replaced by an empire, only to have the empire collapse and democracy resurgent. An Ulnar will become emperor. After the fall of the empire the family will survive and continue to cherish imperial ambitions. In the thirtieth century an Ulnar will make a fresh bid for empire, while another Ulnar will be the champion of democracy.

This vast story forms the prologue to the novel. The novel itself focuses on a period of a few months during which a handful of will decide humanity’s destiny.

John Ulnar has just graduated from the Academy and is now a member of the famed Legion of Space, sworn to defend democracy and civilisation. The young officer owes his chance to serve in the Legion to a powerful and influential kinsman, the commander of the Legion itself, Adam Ulnar. Adam Ulnar is now the leader of the purple faction whose aim is to put an Ulnar once more on the imperial throne. Young John Ulnar however knows nothing of his kinsman’s treachery or of the even more dangerous treachery of his uncle Eric Ulnar.

Eric Ulnar led the ill-fated expedition to Barnard’s Star. They discovered the civilisation of the Medusae, an ancient and malevolent race. One of the five ships comprising the expedition returned safely, bringing with it tales of madness and death.

Our species is not defenceless. We have a super-weapon but the weapon is so terrifying that its secret is known only to one living person at a time. That person in the thirtieth century is a young woman. John Ulnar has been assigned to protect the life of that young woman. It will prove to be a difficult task but he will find three faithful allies in the form of three ill-assorted but courageous legionnaires. 

John Ulnar is of course a science fictional version of d’Artagnan while the three legionnaires are the Three Musketeers. One of the three, Giles Habibula, is the Falstaff character. Giles is a broken-down old soldier much given to grumbling but he has some surprising talents, having been a master thief in his youth. Giles Habibula can not only open any lock devised by man, but any lock devised by any intelligent race.

The story is, like The Three Musketeers, an outrageous tale of adventure with countless narrow escapes and fights against seemingly impossible odds. The four heroes, along with  the girl who holds the secret to human survival, will journey across the stars to take on the Medusae in their stronghold.

Williamson might not have Doc Smith’s genius for describing space battles on a galactic scale but he can certainly tell an exciting story. He can also create characters who are more vivid and colourful than Smith’s. His villains are complex and their motivations are believable. Williamson also makes use of what were then the exciting new-fangled ideas about time and space developed by physicists like Einstein. Williamson is bold enough to predict faster-than-light travel and to offer an explanation for it that at least sounds vaguely plausible. He can also create a very effective atmosphere of strangeness and menace.

If The Legion of Space cannot quite equal Smith’s Galactic Patrol it is nonetheless supremely entertaining and thrilling space opera of the highest quality. Highly recommended.