Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Chevalier d'Auriac by S. Levett-Yeats

The Chevalier d'Auriac, published in 1897, was one of the novels that made S. Levett-Yeats one of the most popular Victorian writers of swashbuckling adventure tales.

Sidney Kilner Levett-Yeats (c. 1858–1916) had been a soldier and later a civil servant in India before his growing success as a writer allowed him to return to England. 

The Chevalier d'Auriac is set in the late sixteenth century during the final stages of the French Wars of Religion. The eponymous hero is serving in the armies of the Catholic League against the Protestant King Henri IV although in fact his sympathies lie more with the king.

The chevalier has been in trouble over duelling before and now he is in hot water again after a drunken quarrel ends with an affair of honour. Our hero has been told that instead of being executed out of hand he will be permitted to take part in the battle on the following day but that win or lose he will not be permitted to live out the day. Events however will (naturally) take an unexpected turn.

The drunken quarrel arose over an insult to a female prisoner. Although d’Auriac has no idea who the woman is she is certainly a high-born lady and he has certainly fallen in love with her. Falling in love can however have even more dangerous consequences than a duel.

You won’t be surprised to learn that our hero stumbles upon a plot. A particularly dastardly plot that is a threat not only to France but to the king himself. And that high-born lady mentioned earlier has some connection to it. She’s also been promised in marriage to two different men, both of whom she despises, and one of the people trying to force her into an unwelcome marriage is her guardian - King Henri IV. This puts the Chevalier d'Auriac in a bit of a dilemma, torn between his loyalty to the king and his desire to marry his lady love. 

The young chevalier soon has other problems - he becomes a hunted man, ordered into exile. Needless to say he disregards the order to leaver France and gets embroiled in countless adventures and narrow escapes. 

The author does assume that the reader will have at least a very basic knowledge of the background - the French Wars of Religion, the conflict between Catholic and Huguenot and Henri IV’s own contradictory and changeable religious policy. Readers without this background knowledge might be advised to do a bit of research first although most of it becomes reasonably clear from the context.

There’s no shortage of action and the mix of adventure and romance is always a good recipe for success for any author. Levett-Yeats handles the combination adroitly and the result is fine entertainment. Levett-Yeats might not be in the very top rank of Victorian adventure writers (he’s not quite in the same league as H. Rider Haggard and Anthony Hope) but he still qualifies as a very skillful practitioner of the art. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High

C. Daly King (1895-1963) was one of the odder American writers of detective fiction during the Golden Age. He wrote six detective novels and a collection of short stories before abandoning the genre (and fiction writing) in 1940. Obelists Fly High, published in 1935,  was the third of his novels and apart from his short story collection The Curious Mr Tarrant it is the only one of his books that is reasonably easy to get hold. In fact most of his books are pretty much completely unobtainable.

King was a professional psychologist. This might lead you to expect his detective novels to be pioneering efforts in the “psychological crime novel” genre. While psychology plays a crucial role in his stories they in fact bear no resemblance whatsoever to what we usually think of as the psychological crime novel. They are intricately plotted and extremely bold examples of the puzzle-plot mystery and they are further proof of just how varied and daring the puzzle-plot detective story was in its heyday.

Whether Obelists Fly High is a successful detective story is another matter. In my view it’s not really a success but it’s so eccentric and so interesting that despite its egregious flaws it still has to be considered a must-read for anyone with a serious interesting in the detective fiction of the interwar years.

King’s main series detective was Captain Michael Lord of the New York Police Department. Lord is extremely young (twenty-eight) to hold such an exalted rank and he owes his position to family connections. It certainly helps when your dad is the Police Commissioner’s best buddy. We’re told that while his initial advancement was due to this fortunate circumstance his continuing rise has been due to his brilliance as an investigator.  By the time you get to the end of the book this claim will cause you considerable amusement since Michael Lord is perhaps the most spectacularly incompetent of all fictional detectives. Whether King was intending to be humorous is difficult to say - he’s such a bizarre writer it’s often almost impossible to know how seriously to take anything he writes.

Distinguished surgeon Dr Amos Cutter has received a death threat and it’s a threat that both the surgeon and the Police Commissioner are inclined to take very seriously. In fact they take the threat all the more seriously since Dr Cutter is about to fly to Reno to perform emergency surgery on his brother, who just happens to be the US Secretary of State. Dr Cutter is one of only two living surgeons capable of performing the operation and the other is currently in Europe. The possibility has to be considered that a foreign government might be behind the threat to Dr Cutter’s life. The most likely suspects are the most deadly enemies of the United States. No, not the Soviet Union or Germany of Japan - it’s those dastardly French!

Captain Michael Lord is assigned to act as bodyguard to Dr Cutter on the flight. The threat was quite explicit in stating that Dr Cutter would die at noon on April 13 and since he will be airborne at that time it seems reasonable to assume that any attempt on his life will take place on board the aircraft.

A Boeing 247, but with a different group of obelists onboard
During the 30s a number of crime writers were attracted by the idea of using an aircraft as a modern variant on the time-honoured device of confining a group of suspects (one of whom must be the murderer) in an isolated house. The difficulty is that scheduled airline flights in 1935 were very short. King solves this problem by forcing his group of suspects to remain on the aircraft for multiple flights.

The plot is a variation on the impossible crime idea but with some genuinely new twists. King plays some very elaborate narrative games with the reader (another example of just how innovative and even avant-garde detective fiction was in the 30s). Some of these narrative games were clearly influenced by the work of a number of other notable mystery writers but I’d be risking spoilers if I even hinted at the nature of these games or the identity of the other writers who presumably influenced the author.

Michael Lord has a collaborator in his crime-solving efforts, Professor L. Rees Pons. Given that Pons is a psychologist and King was a psychologist himself it’s probably reasonable to assume that Pons is being used as a mouthpiece for some of King’s own psychological theories. And what bizarre and off-the-wall theories they are, even by the standards of theories of psychology. There’s an immense amount of amazingly silly psychobabble in this novel. That should be a serious flaw but the ideas are so preposterous and unhinged that they add enormously to the book’s entertainment value.

It’s also probably fair to assume that Pons and his disciple Lords are being used to air some of King’s views on other social and political issues. The hostility to Christianity is as vicious as it is crude and clumsy. But then, having disposed of Christianity as a mass of blind prejudices and foolish superstitions King switches his attack to science - and it turns out that science is also nothing more than a mass of blind prejudices and foolish superstitions! Yet a third system of belief is next on the agenda - one of the suspects is a follower of the esoteric theories of Fortean science. You won’t be overly surprised to discover that Fortean theories are also dismissed with withering contempt. In fact it appears that the belief systems of absolutely everybody, apart from C. Daly King’s psychological theories of course, are a mass of blind prejudices and foolish superstitions.

While the psychological claptrap of Pons plays a crucial part in Lord’s investigation it’s combined with an obsessive emphasis on precise timings and minute-by-minute alibis that even Freeman Wills Crofts might consider to be slightly excessive. That’s what makes this book so weirdly fascinating - one moment Lord is painstakingly trying to break down an unbreakable alibi and the next he’s off on some strange flight of psychological fancy making wild intuitive leaps.

Lord is not merely the most staggeringly stupid fictional detective in history. He’s also breathtakingly reckless, irresponsible and completely unethical. 

You might be wondering at this point what an obelist is. I have no idea. The word is never even mentioned in the book. I assume that obelists are the suspects, or maybe they're the investigators.

As someone who loves floor plans in vintage crime novels I was pleased that the novel includes a plan of the interior of the Boeing 247 airliner (plus a couple of incredibly detailed alibi charts).

Obelists Fly High is a bit of a trainwreck but it’s such an odd and intriguing trainwreck that it’s worth a read if only for its curiosity value.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Eric Ambler's The Night-Comers

Eric Ambler (1909-1998), along with Graham Greene, had started to move the British thriller in a dramatically different direction during the 1930s - towards a much more unglamorous and more realistic style. Instead of wealthy playboy adventurers or professional spies Ambler’s heroes were very ordinary human beings unlucky enough to find themselves caught up in espionage or international intrigue of some sort.

Steven Fraser, the hero of Ambler’s 1956 novel The Night-Comers, falls into this category. He is an English engineer who has spent three years on a dam-building project in the Republic of Sunda. Now his contract has expired and he looks forward to retuning home to England. Unfortunately a few days before he is scheduled to leave a revolution breaks out and through pure bad luck he manages to be right in the middle of it.

A book set in a fictional country will need to provide the reader with some background information. Ambler wisely disposes of this necessity right at the beginning. The short version is that the mostly Moslem Republic of Sunda (which is clearly meant to be Indonesia) has won its independence from the Dutch after being occupied by the Japanese during the war. The new revolutionary government soon discovers that actually governing is a lot more difficult than leading a revolution. Among other things the new government has hundreds of surplus officers who were very useful for a guerilla movement but are an embarrassment and a danger to an actual government. Half the country is in the hands of a rebel army.

Steven Fraser’s big piece of bad luck was borrowing an apartment in the capital from an Australian pilot. The apartment just happens to be in the building that houses the capital’s main radio station (in fact its only radio station). Obviously if a coup were to take place the radio station would be one of the first places the reels would need to capture, and of course that’s what happens. Worse is to come. The rebels agree to spare Fraser’s life is he can repair the generator in the basement for them. He tries to explain that although he is an engineer he’s not that sort of engineer but his explanation falls on deaf ears. He’s just going to have to find a way to repair that generator.

The coup is messy and confused, as such affairs are apt to be. Whether it’s a revolution or a counter-revolution depends on which side you’re on and Steven Fraser would prefer not to be on either side. His situation is complicated by Rosalie, a Eurasian girl with whom he has been so to speak thrown together. She’s in an even more difficult situation, Eurasians being less than popular in Sunda. Steven Fraser doesn’t really owe her anything but he finds that he can’t simply abandon her. In fact it never occurs to him to do so. He’s not a particularly brave man but sometimes you have to do fairly brave things even if you don’t really want to.

Ambler was not especially interested in action. His novels certainly have suspense, often very effective suspense, but action is not the central focus. Ambler is more interested in the reactions of his characters to dangerous and stressful situations and in the relationships between the characters. 

In this novel the key relationship is that between Fraser and Major Suparto. The company building the dam had been forced to employ a number of the surplus ex-officers mentioned earlier. Most of these officers are both corrupt and entirely incompetent, as well as being violent and unpredictable. Major Suparto is a little different. He is efficient and genuinely useful. There is also a grudging respect and even perhaps affection between Fraser and Suparto, based largely on the fact that neither man reacts to the other in the way that the other initially expects him to. Major Suparto is however also ruthless and entirely unsentimental so there is no guarantee that this grudging respect will be enough to keep Steven Fraser alive if his continued survival becomes inconvenient to Major Suparto. And this may well be the case given that Suparto is very much involved in the coup.

There are typical Ambler themes in this story. There’s betrayal and there’s loyalty and it’s not always clear when one ends and the other begins. There are people who believe in things and they can be rather dangerous. There are people who don’t believe in things and sometimes they can be dangerous as well. There are people who know what they’re doing, others who think they know what they’re doing and others who just try to survive.

There are no real heroes or villains. Mostly there are people who do things because they seem like good ideas at the time or they just don’t see any real alternative. 

Ambler takes no particular political position. There are two sides engaged in a civil war and neither side is very admirable, but then neither side is completely contemptible either. Perhaps Major Suparto is right in believing his country was not ready for independence and is not capable of governing itself but that given time perhaps they will learn. In which case all one can really do is to try to ensure that it will be given time. Ambler’s view of the world is brutally realistic. All sorts of ideas are wonderful in theory but real life rarely conforms to our theories. Sometimes the best we can hope to do is to muddle through. If we try to create a perfect world we can end up making things much worse. It’s a realistic view but Ambler is neither cynical nor nihilistic. Sometimes we do manage to muddle through.

There are major racial, cultural and religious tensions in Sunda and Ambler deals with such issues in an even-handed, clear-sighted and unsentimental manner. There is a cultural gap between a European like Steven Fraser and a Sundanese like Major Suparto which makes genuine understanding difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. Steven Fraser accepts that Suparto does not see the world in quite the same way a European sees it. Major Suparto accepts that Steven Fraser does not see the world in quite the same way an Asian sees it. Since they both accept this reality they can at least reach a partial understanding. Rosalie, being half-European and half-Sundanese, might be expected to have the advantage of being able to see both points of view but in practice she’s caught uneasily between two worlds and is at home in neither. 

Ambler’s world is a world of endless shades of grey. It’s not that there’s no right or wrong or no good evil or evil, it’s just that the lines dividing such concepts tend to be rather fuzzy. The people you have to watch out for are the ones who see the world in clear-cut terms of black and white. Ambler’s outlook is by no means as bleak as this might suggest. The various characters in this novel are all very imperfect people but sometimes they surprise you by behaving more nobly or more humanely than you expect.

The Night-Comers is a fine example of the later Ambler style, a complex and absorbing and rather cerebral thriller but still very entertaining. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts

Mystery in the Channel was published in 1931, being the seventh Inspector French mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts.

A steamer discovers a yacht drifting in the English Channel. At first the yacht seems to have been abandoned. Further investigation discloses that there are two men aboard, but they are both dead. Very dead. Both shot through the head. The absence of a gun aboard the vessel makes suicide or even a murder-suicide very unlikely. This is clearly a double murder.

The two dead men were the principals of a large financial combine and the murders come fresh on the heels of rumours that the company is about to go bust. It’s clear to the Sussex Police that this is not a matter for them. Local police are sometimes resentful about having to call on the assistance of Scotland Yard but in this case they can’t wait to turn the whole case over to the Yard. Inspector French has the advantage, for once, of becoming involved when the trail is still fresh but there is a great deal of frustration in store for him. French has little regard for alibis - an innocent man rarely has an alibi and in his experience even the most unbreakable alibis can in fact more often than not be broken. He does have to admit, however, that some alibis just cannot be broken. You can’t break the laws of physics. A dead man can’t commit murder. A man cannot be in two places at once. Yet someone certainly committed murder.

The biggest surprise in this book is that Crofts delivers a pretty solid action set-piece at the end. Yes, an actual action set-piece.

This novel has everything that fans of this series could wish for. It has unbreakable alibis. It has railway timetables. The timing of event is absolutely critical and subject to painstaking experiments by Inspector French. It has numerous false leads that French has to pursue. It is totally plot-driven.

Mystery in the Channel also has some other characteristic touches. French’s investigation leads him far afield and involves multiple trips to France to consult with the French police. Crofts generally did not write country house mysteries in which the detective solves a murder without going further than the nearest village. As it happens French enjoys travel a good deal. He also enjoys working with foreign policemen. This brings us to one of French’s great strengths as a detective - his amiability. He is fundamentally kind and unfailingly courteous. He gets along well with his superiors and he gets along with his subordinates. He prefers to extract information from witnesses in a friendly and relaxed manner. It is (in his view) more effective but it’s also the approach that comes naturally to him. As a result people want to give him information, and he gets willing co-operation from other policemen.

Inspector French was deliberately created by Crofts as a contrast to the more usual brilliant amateur detectives of fiction. Any brilliance that French displays is a product of perseverance and a rigid adherence to correct procedures. He believes that most investigations will conclude successfully as long as they are conducted in a scrupulously thorough manner and as long as the detective is willing to press on despite setbacks. You won’t see Inspector Joseph French displaying any amazing flashes of insight. Intuition is unknown to him. And, happily, his interest in psychology is almost non-existent.

The Inspector French novels manage to be enormously entertaining because Crofts happened to be an absolute master of the art of plotting, he understood pacing and he created a very human detective with whom the reader could easily empathise. Inspector French does not pull rabbits out of hats and nor does Crofts. His books are about as pure an expression of the concept of the police procedural as you’re ever likely to encounter. 

Mystery in the Channel is prime Crofts. Perhaps not quite as good as The Sea Mystery or Sir John Magill’s Last Journey but still very very good indeed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Guy Boothby's A Prince of Swindlers

Guy Boothby (1867-1905) was an Australian writer who enjoyed international success during his brief career. He created one of the first fictional diabolical criminal masterminds in the person of Dr Nikola, he wrote one of the earliest horror novels featuring an Egyptian mummy. And he invented a new genre, the tale of the gentleman-thief. The first of his Simon Carne stories appeared in 1897, a year before the first Raffles story of E. W. Hornung saw the light of day. The six Simon Carne stories stories were published in book form in 1900 as A Prince of Swindlers.

A Prince of Swindlers includes a brief framing story. An English nobleman, the Earl of Amberley, encounters a charming and rather scholarly Englishman named Simon Carne living on an island in the middle of a lake in India. Amberley offers to introduce Carne to London society. It is an offer that Carne intends to accept and it is an offer that Amberley will have cause to regret. Simon Carne is a thief and a swindler, on the grand scale.

Simon Carne does bear some resemblance to Raffles. For all his villainy he does have a moral code of his own. He will not steal anything from Amberley. Like Raffles he steals only from those who are well able to afford the loss. And in the story A Case of Philanthropy what sets out to be Carne’s blackest crime has a surprising twist that reveals that Carne’s moral code is genuine enough if rather unconventional. 

While Raffles and Simon Carne are anti-heroes with at least some redeeming qualities they are still anti-heros. They are still thieves. In the case of Raffles we get a sense of the temptations that led him to adopt a life of crime. Raffles is the more interesting of the two characters because of his very ambiguous social position. Having said that, Simon Carne is still an intriguing character. 

Carne is charming, witty, learned and soon becomes the toast of fashionable society. He appears to be the most fortunate of men, apart from one distressing circumstance - he is a hunchback. Appearances can however be deceptive.

Carne also has an alter-ego. He has rented a large and luxurious London home. His next door neighbour is a man who is every bit as colourful as Carne himself and although less respectable soon becomes almost as celebrated - the famous private detective Klimo. Simon Carne and Klimo are in fact the same man. Simon Carne is actually a master of disguise. Klimo is merely his most spectacular creation. 

The obsession with disguise was a curious feature of the popular fiction of that era and indeed still figures in detective stories and thrillers as late as the 1930s. It was a curious obsession which modern readers would find rather unconvincing but it was one of the conventions of the genre at the time and it adds to the fun.

The Klimo alter-ego will prove useful in Carne’s first major criminal coup, the theft of the Duchess of Wiltshire’s diamonds. Carne’s plan to steal the jewels is intricate and daring and he will have to rely on his assistants to carry out the plan. His valet Belton is the most important of these assistants. Belton is 

Carne’s second adventure, in which he contrives to win the Derby by less than sporting means, is less interesting. 

A Service to the State is a considerable improvement. This time Carne is stealing, not from the cream of society, but from dangerous terrorists. Carne’s objective is to enrich himself at their expense but in the process he will be performing a service not only to the nation but also to an old man and his frightened daughter.

The Wedding Guest offers Simon the opportunity to pull off another daring robbery, and to make the adventure more appealing to do so in a houseful of wedding guests at the society wedding of the year. It is not enough for Simon merely to carry out successful robberies - the crimes must be as difficult as possible and must attract as much publicity as possible. He would be devastated were he to commit a crime that did not make front page news in all the newspapers. He is certainly driven by greed but there is obviously more to it than that. Perhaps it’s simply ego or perhaps there’s a deeper explanation. The stories offer a few hints but nothing definite. Perhaps it’s just as well - sometimes trying too hard to offer a definitive explanation for a character’s motivation ends up making the character less rather than more interesting.

A Case of Philanthropy presents Simon Carne with a temptation he cannot ignore. A sum of a hundred thousand pounds has been raised for the unlucky victims of an earthquake. Finding a way to divert that money to his own pocket would be both profitable and a spectacular swindle. Of course it would be bad luck for the unfortunate earthquake victims. Or would it?

The sixth and final adventure, An Imperial Finale, is intended to crown Carne’s career as the Prince of Swindlers. And surely no-one could deny that title to someone who could steal from royalty? 

With Simon Carne Guy Boothby created perhaps the first anti-hero in popular fiction and A Prince of Swindlers remains a fine example of the gentleman-thief sub-genre. Highly recommended.

The first of Simon Carne's adventures, The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds, was adapted (extremely well) in the wonderful 1971 TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Giant Book of Short Crime Stories

I’ve been in the mood for short stories recently, so herewith a miscellany of short crime fiction taken from the Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg edited anthology The Giant Book of Short Crime Stories. The twelve stories included are really novellas rather short stories. Some I’ve read before so I’ll mainly concentrate here on those that were new to me.

The twelve novellas are an odd assortment. There’s a definite bias towards the hard-boiled  style but there are a few stories that are rather surprising inclusions. I’ve written at length elsewhere about my enthusiasm for Leslie Charteris’s early Saint stories so I won’t say much about The Lawless Lady other than noting that it’s a great story although perhaps more a thriller than what would normally be considered a crime story (it's included in the collection Enter the Saint). Erle Stanley Gardner’s Death Rides a Boxcar is a spy story although it’s moderately hard-boiled. And the Mignon Eberhart story is a very surprising inclusion indeed - Eberhart was about as far removed from the hard-boiled ethos as could possibly be imagined. Nightmare is a typically twisted Cornell Woolrich tale.

Rex Stout’s 1953 novella The Zero Clue includes a fine and clever use of the dying clue trope. A mathematical wizard named Leo Heller has realised that he can use probability theory to go into business predicting things for clients. Not the usual things that probability theory would be used for, but predicting things of relevance to individuals in either their personal or business lives. Nero Wolfe has had some dealings with this mathematical wizard and he does not entirely approve him although his disapproval may be based on the fact that Heller managed to beat Wolfe to the solution of a previous case. Now Heller is convinced that one of his clients is about to commit a serious crime. He is not certain of this but considers it to be mathematically very probable.

There is indeed a crime. And a dying clue that even Nero Wolfe has trouble unravelling. 

Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are in fine form, Wolfe drinks lots of beer, there’s a scene in the orchid room and Wolfe as usual gets the better of the NYPD Homicide cops. So there are all the regular ingredients of a fine Nero Wolfe story with the added bonus of a mathematical puzzle and that clever dying clue. I happen to be inordinately fond of the Nero Wolfe stories and I found this one to be pretty satisfying.

Ross Macdonald’s The Bearded Lady is a 1955 story featuring his private eye Lew Archer. It’s a fairly routine private eye tale obviously owing a great deal to Chandler although Lew Archer seems to be more prosperous and a good deal less seedy than Philip Marlowe. 

Archer stumbles into a case involving an old army buddy who has become an impecunious  painter in a sort of artists’ colony in California. There’s a murder and a valuable Old Master  painting gets stolen plus there’s a complicated romantic entanglement. Chandler was often accused (not always entirely justly) of being less than sure-footed in his plotting. Chandler however was never as incoherent as this. There are several strands to Macdonald’s plot and for the life of me I can’t figure out how they are supposed to be connected. It also lacks Chandler’s gift for sparkling dialogue. I have to admit up front that I have some reservations about the hard-boiled style although to be honest The Bearded Lady is at best medium-boiled. This is my first encounter with Macdonald’s writing so I don’t want to be too dismissive - I have no idea if this story is considered to be one of his better efforts or not.

Death’s Eye View is a 1953 story by John D. MacDonald. An explosion at sea, a rich old man who values power over all else, a dynastic struggle and a man caught up in a drama that is really none of his business - these are the ingredients for an intriguing tale although there’s no mystery here and not really a great deal of suspense. Not a bad story and certainly well-written but it doesn’t quite convince us the protagonist is in mortal danger.

Mignon Eberhart (1899-1996) was a representative of the Had I But Known school of detective fiction. Thankfully the short story format gives her less scope than usual for indulging in this sort of thing. Eberhart was also very much a believer in adding lots of love and romance to the detective story genre. One of her series detectives was Susan Dare, yet another fictional detective who writes detective stories. Her 1934 story Introducing Susan Dare has her heroine plunged into a world of romantic intrigues and murder in an isolated house in the Carolinas. While Susan dare manages to solve the case she does so mostly by accident although at least she has to be given credit for being observant. The vital clue is clever enough but this cannot reasonably be called a fair-play mystery since that clue depends on specialised knowledge that the reader is unlikely to have. 

Eberhart was immensely popular in her day and her literary career spanned nearly sixty years. She wrote a type of detective fiction that is definitely not to my taste. Those who enjoy the Had I But Known school with added romance may get more enjoyment from her work. Her heroines also had a habit of getting themselves into dangerous situations, usually for no good reason.

Ed McBain’s Storm represents my introduction to the world of the homicide cops of the 87th Precinct. McBain wrote countless novels and stories featuring various detectives from   the 87th Precinct of the police force in a fictional city clearly based closely on New York City. 

In this story one of these cops, Cotton Hawes, is spending his vacation in a skiing resort, accompanied by an actress friend with whom he is hoping to become better acquainted. What he doesn’t expect is to find himself in the middle of a double murder. Hawes decides to help out the local police in their investigation even though the Sheriff has made it plain that he doesn’t want any help from a big city cop. This is a pretty decent police procedural and the fact that Hawes is acting unofficially makes it a bit more interesting. The murders are brutal and difficult to explain but the key to the case is Hawes’ use of his powers of observation.

Hugh Pentecost’s The Murder Machine appeared in 1950. It’s one of several stories he wrote featuring New York detective Lieutenant Pascal. Pascal is also on vacation, visiting his Uncle Ben who is the sheriff of a mining town. Pascal has been expounding his views on crime including his belief that the police should do more to prevent crime rather than reacting after the event. Pascal however may not be able to prevent the crime that is about  to rock the town. This is an impossible crime story. Accidents can happen in a mining operation but some accidents are simply not possible and that’s the case here. The apparent cause of the accident could not have caused it. There’s a good scientific puzzle plot here with an unexpected hard-boiled twist. A good story by a writer I’d never even heard of.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1944 story Death Rides a Boxcar is an espionage story involving freight cars, a disappearing body, a purse containing a very large sum of money, a series of railroad switching instructions, two girls who may or may not be innocent bystanders and a nefarious plot by enemy agents to sabotage the war effort. The railroading stuff is quite fascinating. For Gardner this is something of a return to the pulpy hard-boiled style of his early work for Black Mask and there’s plenty of action. It’s understandable that in 1944 Gardner wanted to try his hand at a patriotic story about evil enemy spies and it at least has some originality. And it’s entertaining (but then Gardner alway is entertaining).

An odd but interesting assortment of stories in this anthology. Recommended.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Desmond Bagley’s Running Blind

The period from the 1950s to the 1970s was a golden age of British thriller writing. There was of course Ian Fleming but most of the British thriller writers of this era followed a rather different formula from that of the Bond novels, with heroes who were rather unglamorous and rather ordinary although usually tough professionals. The best-known and most successful of these writers was Alistair MacLean. Other notable writers of this school were Gavin Lyall and Desmond Bagley. It is Bagley with whom we are concerned here, and more specifically his seventh novel, Running Blind, published in 1970.

Running Blind opens with the hero Alan Stewart on a lonely road in Iceland with a rather embarrassing corpse. The corpse is embarrassing because Stewart was the one responsible for killing him. It started as a routine job. Stewart was acting as a courier. All he had to do was to deliver a parcel to a man in Iceland. A routine job for an agent of MI6, except that Stewart is no longer an MI6 agent. He has been persuaded to come out of retirement so to speak to do this one job. Persuaded is perhaps the wrong word. Coerced would be more accurate. And Stewart is not precisely retired - he left MI6 under something of a cloud after a difference of opinion with his superior, Slade. It is Slade who has forced him into doing the courier job. Stewart already hated Slade and now he hates him even more. 

Stewart is not happy at all. His instincts tell him that everything about this job is wrong. It doesn’t add up. It started to go awry right from the start. It seems like it’s not getting any better. He has three major concerns. He fears that his Icelandic girlfriend Elin might get caught up in whatever it is that is going on. He fears that Slade has set him up. And he fears that Kennikin may be in Iceland. Kennikin is a Soviet spy with whom he has crossed swords in the past and Kennikin has a number of very good reasons for wanting to kill Alan Stewart. Kennikin would of course kill him if he were ordered to do so, but he might well kill him even without such orders.

Stewart has some vague suspicions as to what might be going on and these suspicions do not make him feel better. Not one little bit better.

It soon becomes apparent that quite a number of people are after Alan Stewart and none of them wish him well. He has no idea what is in the package he was supposed to deliver or whether there is anything in it at all. The package is a classic example of what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin - it doesn’t really matter what it is, all that matters is that everyone wants it and they’re prepared to kill to get it. Although Stewart starts to suspect that there’s much more to this than the package and meanwhile he’s being chased all over Iceland and he has to stay alive long enough to discover the answers to a whole series of questions.

As I said in the beginning this is a novel very much in the Alistair MacLean mould although personally I don’t think Bagley can quite match MacLean’s skills in devious plotting and misdirection. He reveals just a little too much information too early on and the plot twists are not always quite clever enough. 

On the other hand there’s certainly plenty of action and the pacing can’t be faulted.

Bagley makes extremely skillful use of the Icelandic setting - not just Iceland’s peculiar and even bizarre geographical features but also the oddities of Iceland’s culture and somewhat uneasy political situation during the Cold War. He can’t equal MacLean’s superb gift for atmosphere - MacLean would have made us feel the cold in our very bones - but he does a decent enough job of making us feel that we are a strange and potentially hostile landscape.

Alan Stewart is an interesting hero, an obsessive man who does not realise just how obsessive he is and never seriously considers the possibility that he may be entirely wrong. He’s not an unsympathetic hero but he is at times disturbingly ruthless while at the same time he is always convinced that he is justified in his actions. Given that espionage is a very dangerous game his attitude is perhaps not entirely unreasonable.

Bagley also takes some delight in exploding some of the myths propagated by action movies. In this novel there is no point in taking cover inside a house or behind a car when faced with a man armed with a high-powered rifle since the bullets from such a gun go straight through walls and car doors.

On the whole this is a very competent spy thriller. I’d rate it as being not quite in the same class as Gavin Lyall’s The Most Dangerous Game or the best of Alistair Maclean but it still offers fine entertainment.