Monday, February 8, 2016

Alistair MacLean's Caravan to Vaccarès

Alistair MacLean wrote Caravan to Vaccarès in 1970 when he was still pretty much at the peak of his powers. It’s a fine example of the work of a master of the thriller genre.

Each year gypsies from all over Europe gather in Provence at the shrine of their patron saint. They even come from behind the Iron Curtain - no-one, not even a devout communist, wants to risk trying to stop them and ending up with a gypsy curse on his head. As the novel opens a young gypsy is being hunted, by other gypsies. He takes refuge in a series of gigantic limestone caverns but he does not expect this to save him. He knows he is under the shadow of death. But why is he being hunted?

At the nearby Hotel Baumanière (which boasts some of the finest food in Europe) an Englishman named Neil Bowman is having lunch with a rather charming blonde young lady. At a table nearby the young lady’s equally charming brunette friend is lunching with the extraordinary Duc de Croyter, an eminent folklorist who always turns up at this time of the year to study the culture of the gypsies. The Duc de Croyter is a huge man with a booming voice and a prodigious appetite (for food and other sensory delights) and he has an aristocratic disdain for convention, a disdain that he takes to extreme lengths.

Neil Bowman is not a folklorist. He has no occupation. He has enough money (from his very wealthy family) to have no need to trouble himself with anything as sordid and tiresome as work. What he does have is an inexplicable degree of curiosity about these gypsies. This curiosity seems like it might cost him his life. It might also cost the life of Cecile Dubois, a young woman whose only crime is that she has been seen in Bowman’s company and is therefore assumed to be involved with him in his excessive curiosity.

Bowman soon finds himself being hunted, in an extended and extremely well executed action sequence, through the grim ruins of a medieval castle high on a cliff-top.

But why is someone so keen to kill this apparently innocuous Englishman? Why were the same people so keen to kill the young gypsy? And where does the Duc de Croyter fit into all this?

In this novel MacLean employs a technique that he also uses in a number of his other books - he plunges us into an exciting and dangerous tale but he is careful to conceal from the reader exactly what the situation really is. In a suspense story the usual method is to give the reader information that the protagonist does not possess, the suspense coming from the reader’s anticipation of dangers the protagonist does not suspect. MacLean’s method was quite different. He structured his thrillers more like classic mystery novels, where the detective generally knows the answer to the puzzle long before the reader does. Oddly enough this technique worked very well for MacLean, since the reader knows the protagonist is in danger but has no way of knowing what will happen next.

Once you’re familiar with his techniques you can certainly make some educated guesses as to what’s really going on but in Caravan to Vaccarès he throws in enough additional twists that it’s exceedingly unlikely the reader will unravel all the mysteries.

MacLean was also very good at action set-pieces and this novel has several that are very good indeed - the pursuits in the limestone caves and through the castle ruins mentioned earlier plus a very clever bull-ring execution scene and a canal chase involving a power boat, a fishing boat and a Rolls-Royce limousine. 

He also had a well-deserved reputation for making exceptionally effective use of harsh and forbidding landscapes. In this novel his use of the ruined castle and the endless plains of the Camargue are fine examples of this talent.

By comparison with many of his contemporaries MacLean avoided sex and graphic violence. There’s always plenty of violence but it’s fairly toned down. The truth is he had no need to resort to resort to graphic depictions of violence - he relies on maintaining a relentless pace and keeping the reader slightly off-guard and these qualities are more than sufficient to generate the necessary excitement.

While there’s no sex at all in this story there is, unusually for a MacLean novel, a very definite romantic sub-plot. Even more surprisingly, it works rather well.

Caravan to Vaccarès has everything an Alistair MacLean fan could ask for - it has the perfect combination of mystery, action, atmosphere and adventure. Superb entertainment, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear was the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was serialised in the Strand Magazine beginning in September 1914 and appeared in book form in 1915. It’s structurally a little odd but more interesting is the rather dark tone of the book.

Holmes receives a communication from an informer in Professor Moriarty’s organisation, warning that a Mr John Douglas of Birlstone is in imminent danger. The letter proves to be prophetic indeed as John Douglas has already been murdered before Holmes and Watson reach Birlstone. It’s a particularly brutal crime and the accounts given by the dead man’s wife and by his friend Barker seem to Holmes to be rather unsatisfactory. Of even greater concern to Holmes is the finding of Mr Douglas’s dumb-bell. Not a pair of dum-bells, a single dumb-bell. Why on earth would a man possess a single dumb-bell?

The murder takes place in a Jacobean house surrounded by a moat, complete with drawbridge. It’s a fine setting for a murder mystery and the house’s colourful history will give Holmes some vital clues. It’s quite a decent plot but Holmes is able to solve it by the halfway point of the book. At which the book changes gears completely. The second half of the novel is an extended flashback, with third person narration, which gives us the backstory to the crime. It’s more or less two separate stories but the second story is essential in order to explain the motive for the murder, and in this particular story Conan Doyle is more interested in the why than in the who or the how.

The backstory takes place in a coal-mining district of the United States in the 1870s, a district menaced by a lawless and murderous secret society (based loosely on the real life story of the Molly Maguires). It’s a dark and violent story although there is a mystery here as well, a mystery that holds the key to the explanation of the main mystery.

What’s most interesting about this short novel is its tone. The first inklings of the darkness at the heart of this novel come at the beginning of the first half with the savagery of the first murder but the darkness really starts to take over during the second half. There’s quite a high body count, there are vicious cowardly murders, brutal beatings, corruption, intimidation and a general atmosphere of paranoia. The emphasis on fear, violence and corruption almost make the book seem to be an anticipation of the American hardboiled school. 

While the novel’s first appearance in print was in September 1914 it would be interesting to know if Conan Doyle actually completed it before the outbreak of the First World War, or possibly during the tense period after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. The pessimism and violence of the book make it tempting to speculate that Conan Doyle was influenced by a sense of impending doom - a premonition that war was going to plunge Europe into darkness, into its own Valley of Fear. The bitter class hatreds (and the exploitation of such hatreds by unscrupulous demagogues) that figure in the book   are another pessimistic feature one doesn’t quite expect in a Sherlock Holmes story).

The problem of chronology raised by this book worries some readers. Although written in 1914 it is set in the 1880s and therefore takes place before The Final Problem. Which is curious because in The Final Problem Watson appears not to have heard of Professor Moriarty, although one would think that he could scarcely have forgotten him after the events of The Valley of Fear. Conan Doyle presumably wanted to feature Moriarty again (not so much because he was essential to the plot of The Valley of Fear but more because he was essential to the mood) and simply decided not to worry about the problem. 

The Valley of Fear is an odd book. It does contain a perfectly decent Sherlock Holmes detective story but it’s overshadowed by a dark-edged tale of violence and corruption that can almost be seen as a precursor of the nihilism of some of Dashiell Hammett’s novels such as Red Harvest. If nothing else it shows that Conan Doyle was prepared to experiment with the detective story genre. Whether it’s a complete success is debatable but it’s certainly interesting. Recommended.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ellery Queen's Calamity Town

Calamity Town marked a major change in direction for the Ellery Queen mysteries. Published in 1942 this was the first of the so-called Wrightsville mysteries which saw the authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee) moving away from the puzzle-plot mysteries that had brought them so much success and towards a more character-driven and self-consciously realist style. Unfortunately the result is a book that fails on every level.

New York detective story writer Ellery Queen decides to move to a small town in New England. Presumably he is looking for inspiration for his next novel. He rents a house that has such a bad reputation that it has become known as Calamity House. The house had been built by the town’s most prominent citizen, John F. Wright, for his daughter and her new husband to live in. Just before the wedding the prospective bridegroom disappears. The house is left empty - the one person who rents it dies mysteriously as soon as he moves in.

Calamity House happens to be the only house in the town available for rent and Ellery is happy to sign a six-month lease. 

John F. Wright runs the local bank and the Wright family more or less runs the town. Ellery is drawn into the family’s dramas when he takes a shine to Wright’s daughter Pat. Pat has two sisters. Nora, the one whose intended husband Jim ran out on her, has clearly had some kind of breakdown and rarely leaves her room. No-one wants to talk about the third sister, Lola. She is not Respectable.

Three years after running out on her Jim returns and now the wedding between Nola and Jim can finally take place.

Everything now seems to be hunky dory, until Pat and Ellery make a discovery that suggests that murder may be afoot. Ellery, rather recklessly, adopts a wait-and-see approach confident that he can prevent any such crime from being committed. This turns out to be the first of his many mistakes in this case.

When the murder does take place it appears to be an open-and-shut case but Ellery has his doubts. What follows is a long drawn-out saga to establish the truth and it has to be said that Ellery does not distinguish himself, missing painfully obvious clues.

It’s quite common for writers of detective fiction (and genre fiction in general) to decide quite suddenly that they really don’t want to be mere writers of detective fiction. They want to be Serious Writers. This almost invariably turns out to be an error of judgment. Such is the case with the Ellery Queen authors. Wanting to write more character-driven books is all well and good but they don’t display much flair for it. The characterisation is not very convincing. 

They also decided they wanted to add some social commentary (almost always a bad idea) and the results are heavy-handed in the extreme. The idea seems to have been to make the town itself a character in its own right. This is Calamity Town and it’s the real villain.  Dannay and Lee were New Yorkers and like so may urban intellectuals they clearly did not like or approve of small town America. Their hostility is unfortunately all too obvious. The people of Wrightsville are portrayed as narrow-minded gossip-ridden hypocritical bigots. In fact it’s the authors who come across as the real bigots. Their snarkiness is rather off-putting.

Then there’s the plot. A child of five could have solved this one but unfortunately Ellery can’t find a child of five to help him out so he spends months(!) bumbling about missing every vital clue. Being charitable I assume the idea was to make Ellery more human by making him fallible. That’s fair enough but sadly he comes across as a complete buffoon.

And then there’s the courtroom scenes. If your name isn’t Erle Stanley Gardner you’re well advised to avoid lengthy courtroom scenes. They can be dull, and in this case they are. The two Surprise Moves in the legal case are illogical, silly, gimmicky, pointless and embarrassing. 

The plot limps along until finally Ellery sees the light, and then for no logical reason decides not to reveal the truth until even more months have passed, thus adding more unnecessary padding to a book that already has major pacing problems.

I love the very early Ellery Queens (I love them very much indeed) but to be honest even as early as The Spanish Cape Mystery in 1935 there were signs that the authors’ powers of invention were flagging in regard to plotting. That book has a serious structural flaw that makes the identity of the killer just a little too obvious. 

Calamity Town should have been called Calamity Novel because that’s what it is - a misguided poorly conceived disaster. Very very disappointing.

If you’ve never read Ellery Queen then seek out their novels from the early 1930s. Books like The Greek Coffin Mystery and The French Powder Mystery are among the finest of all golden age mysteries. But give Calamity Town a miss.

Monday, January 25, 2016

E. E. “Doc” Smith's The Skylark of Space

The Skylark of Space is one of the earliest (and most influential) examples of space opera. It launched the writing career of one of the science fiction greats, E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-1965) and it set the tone for the space opera genre.

Smith (1890-1965) started writing the novel in 1915, in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garby (she handled the romantic subplots which Smith felt less than confident about tackling). After abandoning the book in 1916 Smith took it up again in 1919 and completed it the following year. He had major problems finding a publisher and it finally appeared as a three-part serialisation in Amazing Stories in 1928. It was revised for book publication in 1946.

The Skylark of Space opens with an accidental discovery by government chemist Dick Seaton - a hitherto unknown transuranic element with some startling properties. Combined with copper and with the use of a kind of cyclotron it can unleash almost limitless amounts of energy. It will obviously be immensely useful (and profitable) for generating power but Seaton can see a much more exciting use for it - it could power a spaceship. Not just a spaceship, but a starship. He goes into partnership with a wealthy friend, Martin Crane, but unfortunately another scientist, Marc DuQuesne, has figured out that Seaton has stumbled upon something big. DuQuesne has no ethics whatsoever and he has a partnership of his own with the unscrupulous head of the World Steel Corporation, Brookings. DuQuesne and Brookings instead to steal the secret. They build their own spaceship and kidnap Seaton’s girlfriend Dorothy.

Seaton and Crane have built their spaceship, the Skylark, and they set out to rescue Dorothy, who is now 238 light years away! This will be a chase through space but there’s more to the story than that. Seaton and his companions visit a number of distant planets, some stranger than others. Some very strange indeed, such as the planet inhabited by a rather perverse creature who is all mind and thinks that humans would provide him with some amusing if cruel entertainment.

Finally they find a planet that has what they want - plentiful supplies of copper. The planet is home to two civilised races who seem basically human. Civilised is perhaps an exaggeration - the people of Mardonale and those of Kondal are trying to exterminate each other and going about this process with great enthusiasm and determination. The Kondalians are friendly but their culture is profoundly alien. Seaton has no great wish to be caught up in a planetary war but he seems unlikely to have much choice. The planet is also home to fearsome and gigantic armour-plated flying creatures that are almost impossible to kill and destroy anything they can catch.

This being a Doc Smith novel there is plenty of action and action was something he handled very adroitly. Smith was never intimidated by scale - his stories are big stories with big battles and cover vast reaches of space.

In some of his later novels Smith tried to make his advanced technologies vaguely plausible but in The Skylark of Space he simply allows his imagination to run riot. It’s mostly pseudoscientific nonsense but that makes it all the more enjoyable. Faster than light travel is no problem - Einstein’s theories are after all just theories.

Characterisation was not one of Smith’s strengths. His heroes are straightforward square-jawed heroes who also happen to be extremely intelligent. They’re pretty much good at everything. In Marc DuQuesne however he has created a genuinely interesting character - a man entirely lacking in emotion but not quite a conventional villain.

The alien civilisations of Kondal and Mardonale really are convincingly alien, with customs and beliefs and values that are deeply shocking to our heroes but at the same time the Kondalians do have a highly developed, if odd, sense of honour. 

Smith deals in passing with a number of issues that were big deals in the 1920s, including eugenics and free love. He also has some fun with the Kondalians’ inability to comprehend how any civilisation could be crazy enough to adopt a system like democracy, rather topical in view of the fact that the 1920s witnessed the rise of a number of ideologies that posed a very real challenge to democracy. Fortunately Smith doesn’t get into such subjects too deeply - there are no political lectures here.

Doc Smith had few literary aspirations. In fact he had none at all. He was a pulp writer and he wrote in a pulp style. What he lacked in polish he made up for in energy. 

Mostly The Skylark of Space is high octane adventure displaying an impressive imaginative gift. More surprisingly there’s quite a bit of romance. On the whole it’s outrageous fun. Not quite in the same class as the best of his slightly later works such as Galactic Patrol but still very good indeed. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Ellery Queen's The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Spanish Cape Mystery, which was published in 1935,  was the ninth and last of the Ellery Queen “nationality” mysteries. It was also the last to feature the famous Challenge to the Reader. After this the two cousins (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee ) who comprised the Ellery Queen writing team would begin to change the style of the novels.

Like the other “nationality” mysteries The Spanish Cape Mystery can be considered to be a fairly pure example of the puzzle-plot murder mystery. 

The setting of the story is Spanish Cape, a rocky peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. Since the whole of Spanish Cape is private property, belonging to millionaire Walter Godfrey, the setting has the effect of confining the possible suspects to the Godfrey family and their motley collection of house guests.

The story opens with a bungled kidnapping (by a giant one-eyed hoodlum known as Captain Kidd!) and soon thereafter the body of John Marco is found.

Ellery Queen and his old friend Judge Macklin have taken a cottage for the summer. The cottage just happens to be right next door to the Godfrey estate. When they discover one of the kidnap victims in their cottage it’s inevitable that Ellery and the judge will become intimately involved in the case. In fact they are soon invited to take up residence in the Godfrey mansion on Spanish Cape.

There is one curious thing about the corpse. It is stark naked. There is no possible reason why John Marco would have been sitting on the terrace overlooking the small beach at the far end of the cape stark naked. Therefore the killer must have removed his clothes. But why would a murderer waste time doing something so eccentric. Inspector Moley of the local police insists it’s just a smokescreen but Ellery is convinced that the corpse’s nakedness is the key to the mystery.

John Marco was a man of very evil reputation. When Walter Godfrey opines that his murderer has done the world a great service no-one is inclined to disagree. Murder however is still murder and Ellery is determined to solve the mystery.

The identity of the killer is in fact fairly obvious. Unravelling the means by which the murder was accomplished is the real challenge. It’s not exactly an impossible crime but there are some very strange circumstances which are likely to baffle even the most astute reader. Ellery himself is baffled and remains so until almost the end of the book.

Ellery likes to think of himself as as detective who regards crime-solving as a fascinating intellectual exercise into which human feelings do not enter but in this case he finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the human dimension.

The novel takes its title from the setting but there is also another cape, a rather theatrical item of clothing belonging to John Marco, which plays a crucial role in the story.

This is almost a maritime mystery - the sea and the peculiar local tides will play important parts in the solving of the mystery.

The early Ellery Queen mysteries are usually regarded as being somewhat in the S.S. Van Dine style so it’s amusing to find Ellery making reference to Philo Vance at one point. There are those who find the Ellery Queen of these early books to be a slightly irritating character. I’m a bit mystified by his. I find him to be quite likeable. But then I find Philo Vance to be likeable as well, so what do I know? In this book Ellery does reveal a more compassionate side to his nature and admits that he is even tempted to let the murderer go free.

The Spanish Cape Mystery has an amazingly complex plot but it is resolved in an eminently satisfactory fashion. The process by which Ellery eliminates all possible suspects except the actual murderer, and eliminates all possible explanations for the murder method except the correct one, provide exactly the kind of enjoyment that fans of golden age detective fiction crave. 

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Conan Doyle's The Maracot Deep

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered today, of course, for the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact these represented only a fraction of his output as a writer. He wrote a lot of historical fiction, and it was for this that he expected to be remembered. He wrote horror, and he wrote sea stories. He also wrote non-fiction, mostly history. And of course he wrote science fiction, or it might be more accurate to call these books scientific romances. Among these scientific romances was the short novel The Maracot Deep, published in 1929.

The Professor Challenger stories, especially The Lost World, are the best known of his scientific romances. Doctor Maracot, the hero of The Maracot Deep, bears some slight resemblance to Professor Challenger (although without Challenger’s vile temper). 

The Maracot Deep deals not with a lost world of dinosaurs but with a lost civilisation.

The book concerns Maracot’s exploration of the world beneath the sea, using an apparatus long the same lines as a diving bell.  

As so often with Conan Doyle, the character of the story undergoes an abrupt change halfway through. This happens when Maracot and his companions encounter one of the larger and fiercer denizens of the deep ocean, a gigantic crustacean. The encounter has an unfortunate outcome and they find themselves stranded on the ocean floor, and discover a very unexpected world, in fact a civilisation, deep beneath the waves. They soon have reason to believe that this is nothing less than Atlantis.

The inhabitants of this undersea world have incredibly advanced technology. They have however stagnated somewhat, and do not seem to have added much to their store of scientific knowledge in the past two thousand years. On the other hand their technology works, they live comfortable lives and have no particular reason to wish to continue to pursue a never-ending quest for progress.

The tone of the book undergoes another dramatic change later on, a change that almost moves the story into fantasy or gothic horror territory. Conan Doyle did after all write gothic horror stories so perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a shock. He also developed, later in life, a keen interest in spiritualism and related esoteric subjects. The Maracot Deep is a very late Conan Doyle book so it’s not entirely surprising that the story should have some speculative philosophical and spiritual elements.  

The book’s structure is a little odd. It takes the form of four documents that shed light on the mysterious disappearance of a steamer hired by eccentric oceanographer Dr Maracot. The first is a letter from a young American named Cyrus Headley who was acting as an assistant to Maracot. The second is the very strange and very brief final radio message sent by the steamer. The third is an account by the skipper of a Norwegian barque of the discovery of a strange transparent ball floating in the ocean near where the steamer is presumed to have foundered. The fourth and final document was found inside this transparent ball - it is the account written by Cyrus Headley of the strange adventures that befell him along with Dr Maracot and an American engineer after their decent in the diving bell. As a result of this structural choice the narrative is not really what you would call entirely linear. The latter part of the novel becomes quite strange - not what you generally expect from the scientific romance genre. 

Conan Doyle also uses the Atlantis story as a means of introducing some moral speculations. Perhaps the civilisation of Atlantis deserved its fate, or perhaps not. 

Whether the author entirely succeeds in this blending of scientific, historical, moral and spiritual elements might be debatable but it certainly makes this one of his more interesting works.

The Maracot Deep won’t appeal to everyone, but if like me you have a taste for the science fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries and you aren’t bothered by books that don’t fit neatly into genre pigeonholes then you should get a good deal of enjoyment from it. Recommended.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Henry Wade's No Friendly Drop

Sir Henry Lancelot
Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet (1887-1969) wrote twenty detective novels under the name Henry Wade between 1926 and 1957. No Friendly Drop, published in 1931, was the third of his seven Inspector Poole mysteries,

Wade is one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, of the writers of golden age detective fiction. At times (as in Heir Presumptive) he could be quite ambitious. No Friendly Drop adheres very closely to the established conventions of the genre but it is an assured and extremely successful mystery.

Lord Grayle has died very suddenly at his country home. His health was poor but his condition was not life-threatening. The assumption is that he succumbed to an overdose of  a sedative. Superintendent Clewth is not happy about the circumstances and the Chief Constable, Major Faide, is reluctantly inclined to agree. Given that Lord Grayle belongs to one of the most prominent families in the county Major Faide knows that he will have to tread carefully. It seems to him that it really would be better to call in Scotland Yard right away. 

Detective Inspector Poole is assigned to the case. Technically he is too junior an officer for such an important case but the chief of the CID has the feeling that, of the officers available to him, Poole might just turn out to be the right man for the job.

It soon becomes clear that Lord Grayle was poisoned, but he was poisoned in a rather strange manner. So strange that it is difficult to imagine why any murderer would choose such a complicated and potentially unreliable method of murder. There is a very strong suspect but despite compelling, indeed overwhelming, circumstantial evidence the suspect in question appears to have no motive whatsoever. There is another possible suspect, but one with even less motive. The only suspects with any plausible motives at all are entirely ruled out for other reasons.

The plot includes most of the features one expects in a golden age mystery - murder in a country house, a complicated murder method, a surprising will, a limited pool of suspects, family secrets, a hint of scandal, exotic poisons, murder disguised as suicide or accident. The ingredients are familiar but Wade blends them into a most enticing dish.

While the plot is complex it avoids the outrageous elements that one finds in many detective tales of this era. Once the solution is revealed we are bound to admit that it is entirely plausible and credible.

Inspector Poole is an interesting detective. He’s much younger than most fictional detectives, and very young indeed to be an official police detective in charge of a murder case. He is also unusual among official police detective heroes in being university-educated. Poole is a very ambitious young man who intends to rise high in the Metropolitan Police. He has had his career carefully planned out. Rather than entering the Force straight away he spent several years studying and then practising law, feeling that this would be a more useful apprenticeship for a future head of the CID (for that is his ambition) than pounding a beat. Having then entered the Force he became the protégé of the Assistant Commissioner and began a rapid rise through the ranks.

Despite his lofty ambitions Poole is a likeable hero, notably lacking in arrogance (although not lacking in self-confidence). He is also very much a young man, with the enthusiasm and the sensitivity of youth. He has not yet become hardened and he very much dislikes thinking about the fact that his investigations could send someone to the gallows.

Wade demonstrates his ability to make his supporting characters something more than mere marionettes. Some behave badly but they are not mere stock villains. They do have comprehensible motivations. Their actions are, in general, believable.

No Friendly Drop is a thoroughly entertaining intelligent and completely plausible detective story. Highly recommended.