Sunday, June 26, 2016

Robin Forsythe's The Pleasure Cruise Mystery

Robin Forsythe (1879-1937) was released from prison in 1929 after serving his sentence for his part in the notorious Somerset House stamp fraud scheme. Having discovered that real life crime has unpleasant consequences he decided to turn his attentions to fictional crime instead. His first detective novel appeared in 1929 and was followed by seven more before his untimely death. These included five novels featuring amateur detective Algernon Vereker, the third being The Pleasure Cruise Mystery which appeared in 1933.

Algernon Vereker has been persuaded by his friend Manuel Ricardo to join him on a pleasure cruise on board the liner Mars. Vereker is not wildly enthusiastic but he does need a rest and Ricardo is a very persuasive fellow.

Ricardo sees the cruise as an opportunity for some enjoyable flirtations with the opposite sex. 

Vereker is almost beginning to regret being talked into the cruise when he overhears a conversation in an adjoining stateroom. Of course the conversation may have been quite innocent but it could also be open to somewhat sinister interpretations. Those sinister interpretations seem much more plausible after the discovery of a dead body on the promenade deck.

The woman has died of heart failure. That’s good enough for the ship’s doctor and for the captain. A death on board ship during a pleasure cruise is not the sort of thing the company wants but as long as it’s death due to natural causes it’s not so bad. Vereker knows there was nothing natural about the death, and to be fair the ship’s doctor has his doubts.

Vereker might be pretty sure the woman was murdered but he is at a loss to explain the circumstances or the many trifling contradictory details that surround the tragedy. I imagine that most readers would have their suspicions about certain of these details and have put some of the pieces of the puzzle together some time before Vereker stumbles upon an explanation. It’s not that Vereker is a fool, but he is painfully reluctant to accept outrageous theories without very solid evidence and in this case only an outrageous theory will explain the mystery.

Algernon Vereker is an amiable enough detective. He is perhaps just a touch more indolent and laid-back than most fictional detectives. His friend Manuel Ricardo is happy to assist as long as it doesn’t distract him too much from his principal interest, the pursuit of beautiful women. In the amateur detective sub-genre the reader expects the representative of the official police to be at best moderately competent - certainly less brilliant than the amateur detective himself. Inspector Heather from Scotland Yard is slightly unusual in this respect - he appears to be a better detective than Vereker!

One of the challenges for any golden age detective fiction writer was that the conventions of the genre required murderers to commit their murders in fiendishly cunning or outlandishly complicated ways whereas the average real-life murderer was more inclined simply to pick up the nearest convenient blunt object and do the deed in a very straightforward manner. Somehow the writer has to convince us that that their killer has both the intelligence and the imagination (and of course the willingness) to commit such complex crimes. It’s to their credit that so many of the writers of that era managed to persuade their readers to suspend their disbelief. In this instance I fear that Forsythe has not quite succeeded in doing this - there seems to be no real reason for the criminal to indulge in such needlessly complicated methods. It’s a pity because the plot is certainly ingenious and well-constructed.

Forsythe tries to pull off an Anthony Berkeley at the end, offering us several alternative solutions. Since all but one of these solutions is quickly abandoned and the ultimate solution is the only one that really makes sense it might have been better to have dispense with the alternatives altogether.

For me The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is a near miss. It has some breathtakingly clever plotting but at times it was perhaps in danger of being too clever. Still fun though and worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Harold Lamb's Swords from the Desert

Swords from the Desert is a collection of short stories by one of the grand masters of adventure fiction, Harold Lamb.

Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was an American historian and writer who contributed countless stories to the pulp magazines. He also wrote screenplays, a number of novels and several  admired non-fiction historical works. While he wrote for the pulps it’s worth noting that most of his stories were published in Adventure, a magazine that was somewhat more up-market than the general run of pulp magazines.

While Lamb’s stories are certainly adventure stories they are also historical fiction and rather more rigorously history-based than most such tales. Lamb tried to avoid contradicting known historical facts. While his stories are thus at the more realistic end of the adventure/historical fiction spectrum he was able to maintain this realism without sacrificing excitement. His stories were immensely popular.

Lamb had a particular interest in the history of the region then known as the Near East. He was remarkably even-handed in his treatment of the various cultures this region encompassed. His heroes could be Christian Crusaders, or Arabs, or Mongols, or Cossacks. They could be Christian, or Muslim or pagan. To Lamb a hero was a man who possessed the qualities of courage, daring, loyalty and honour. Such a man could be found in any culture. Lamb’s villains could also be men from any of these cultures. What made Lamb’s fiction so striking and original (and it remains so today) was his ability to admire other cultures without turning against his own culture.

Lamb was considered to be sufficiently expert on the region to be recruited by the US intelligence services in World War 2. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Lamb was frequently dismayed by the ineptitude and short-sightedness of US foreign policy.

The Rogue’s Girl is a rather odd choice as the first story in this collection. It’s an OK story but it takes place in Paris, the only connection to the desert being that an Arab physician plays a fairly important role.

The Shield is much much better. Khalil el Khadr is an Arab, the son of a chieftain. He has been sent to Constantinople on a kind of diplomatic mission. His timing is rather unfortunate. A large Crusader host is on its way. This time the Franks (as the Muslims referred to the western Europeans) are not heading to the Holy Land. They are heading for Constantinople, their aim being the conquest of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The tragic and shameful Fourth Crusade of 1204 forms the background to Khalil el Khadr’s story. 

Khalil is, much against his will caught, caught up in these events. And all because of a girl and a horse. The girl is a beautiful Frankish girl. The horse is a magnificent grey. Khalil encounters both by chance. They will lead him into a web of intrigue and betrayal as the city’s doom inexorably approaches. Khalil is a brave man with a deep sense of honour but he is no plaster saint. His ethics are flexible in some areas and rigid in others. To be fair to him they are rigid in the areas that matter most.

The plot is typical of Lamb - it’s complex and it avoids the obvious clichés and it provides plenty of action as well.

The novella The Guest of Karadak introduces Daril, a character who will turn up in other stories. Daril was a chieftain of the desert Arabs and a redoubtable warrior but having reached middle age he yearns for peace and has now given up his riches and his adventurous life and has become a wandering physician. He finds out that wandering physicians can have even more dangerous adventures than desert warriors.

A chance encounter with an ailing Rajput and his beautiful daughter provides the starting point for this story. A proud but violent Iranian princeling sees no reason why he should not carry off the daughter. He is accustomed to taking what he wants. This rash action will have momentous consequences. This might sound like a setup for a rather routine story but Lamb has some very clever twists in store for the reader. A man cannot escape his fate but sometimes that fate can take very unexpected forms. Lots of action in this superb story.

Daril features again in another excellent novella, The Road to Kandahar. It has a complex plot (typical of Lamb) involving bandit gangs, a prophet of thieves and a city under siege and (again typical of Lamb) complex characters who don’t always behave as we expect. There are of course questions of loyalty and honour. Daril is not actually the hero of the tales in which he appears. He’s more of an intelligent and interested spectator who certainly becomes involved in the action, usually against his will, but he is not the prime mover.

The Way of the Girl and The Eighth Wife are both short stories that combine adventure with love, but these are eastern love stories and rather different from conventional tales of that type. The Way of the Girl also deals with the uneasy but not always hostile relations between Frankish knights and Arabs during the Crusades.

The novella The Light of the Palace also features a fascinating central female character. Lamb’s women characters are both complex and varied. In this case the woman is Nur-Mahal, the favourite wife of the mogul Emperor Jahangir of India. Nur-Mahal is brave, intelligent, daring, treacherous and ruthless. She has to be since she more or less runs the empire, the emperor being debauched, drug-addled, lazy, incompetent and in failing health. 

Daril the Arab physician is again the narrator. He is drawn into the adventure after befriending a young Hindu boy and saving the life of Man Singh who happens to be one of the chief lieutenants of Mahabat Khan (who appears in several other tales). Mahabat Khan is one of the Mogul’s principal commanders but he is now very much out of favour. So much out of favour that he may have difficulty remaining alive much less getting back into the emperor’s good books. Daril may perhaps be able to assist him in at least discovering why Jahangir has turned against him. It’s a tale of delicate political machinations combined with daring feats of arms. Nur-Mahal is playing a dangerous game but she has the courage to play it through to the end. Another superb novella.

Lamb provides his readers with plenty of excitement but his stories are not just action sequences strung together haphazardly - his plots are clever and complex with unexpected and ironic twists.

Swords from the Desert is a great collection. This is adventure fiction at its finest. Very highly recommended. 

Equally worth checking out is another Harold Lamb collection, Swords from the West.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados Stories

Ernest Bramah (1868-1942) wrote science fiction and humorous stories but is best remembered today for his detective stories. He published three collections of short stories recounting the exploits of the blind detective Max Carrados, the first collection appearing in 1914. 

Bramah himself is a rather shadowy figure about whom very little is known. He was reclusive to an extreme degree although he was also apparently a rather kindly and amiable man.

Although he was still writing Max Carrados stories in the 1920s these tales belong very much to the tradition of late Victorian and Edwardian crime fiction. They are not true fair-play mysteries since fair-play puzzle-plot mysteries had not yet emerged as the dominant  strand in crime fiction. That’s not to say that Victorian and Edwardian detective stories do not adhere to certain rules; they simply adhere to different rules. The first rule was that the solution to the mystery should be reasonably plausible. More importantly, when the solution is explained the reader should be satisfied that the detective really could have solved the mystery with the information at his disposal. 

In Victorian and Edwardian times murder had not yet been established as an essential ingredient in crime fiction so the cases investigated by Carrados include robberies, frauds and other non-lethal crimes. That’s not to say that these stories are lacking in bloodshed or necessarily cozy - The Knight's Cross Signal Problem deals with a railway accident but if it wasn’t an accident it could well be a case of mass murder.

Bramah’s Max Carrados tales are in fact rather neatly plotted. Carrados is a detective who relies on logic rather than intuition. He does rely to some extent on physical clues but his usual method when faced with a perplexing case is firstly to consider whether there might in fact be any possible explanations. He then looks for the physical clues, with the advantage that he already knows roughly what it is that he is searching for.

A blind detective might sound like a cheap gimmick that is unlikely to be convincing. In practice the conceit is pulled off fairly well. While Max’s ability to read large print by means of the feel of the printer’s ink on his fingers might stretch credibility a little this particular ability plays no real role in the stories - it’s mostly a means of establishing the idea that a blind man can develop his other senses to a particularly acute degree.

And Max does have eyes, although they’re not his own. He has trained his manservant Parkinson to be his eyes. Parkinson has been trained to be quite exceptionally observant. More importantly, he has been taught to observe without drawing any conclusions of his own. It’s his eyes that Max Carrados needs, not his brain. Parkinson is in fact an intelligent and sensible fellow but it is crucial that he should not attempt to interpret his observations. Max needs to be free to draw his own inferences without having anyone else’s interpretations clouding the issue. This well thought-out use of Parkinson as the detective’s surrogate eyes is typical of the care Bramah puts into his stories.

There’s also a judicious leavening of wit. Bramah had a reputation as a polished crafter of witty, ironic and humorous stories but he wisely refrains from overdoing it. The Max Carrados stories are serious detective stories, although Bramah is equally careful not to overdo the seriousness.

The Max Carrados collection I own is the 1970s Dover paperback The Best Max Carrados Detective Stories which includes ten out of the more than two dozen stories Bramah wrote featuring his blind detective. I also have a couple of the other Max Carrados stories in various anthologies and I’ll discuss these as well.

The Coin of Dionysius introduces us to Max Carrados, and also to his regular collaborator, a private enquiry agent named Carlyle. Carlyle is faced with an urgent case involving a valuable Greek coin of possibly dubious authenticity. He is referred to the well-known and highly respected coin collector Max Carrados for an opinion on that matter. Carlyle is understandably more than sceptical when he finds that he has been referred to a blind man. His scepticism takes rather a knock when Carrados proceeds to solve the case for him.

The Knight's Cross Signal Problem involves a horrific railway disaster caused by a train failing to stop on a danger signal. The signal itself was checked and was in perfect operating order. The signal had to be either red (in which case the engine driver is at fault) or green in which case the signalman had to be at fault. There are no other explanations. Somehow Max Carrados has to find an impossible explanation. This is typical of these stories, with the physical clues merely confirming Carrados’s deductions. A fine story.

Ernest Bramah himself was a keen coin collector so it’s not surprising that his detective hero is a coin enthusiast nor is it surprising that coins figure in a number of stories. The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown deals with the theft of a very rare and valuable coin but the theft was clearly impossible. Fortunately whenever Max Carrados has a sleepless night he amuses himself by devising perfect crimes which of course he will never put into practice. He does however assume that if he can think of a way to carry out an undetectable theft than a real criminal might well have had the very same idea.

While murder cases are comparatively rare for Max Carrados The Holloway Flat Tragedy certainly involves murder, although it’s an unusual murder case - Carlyle and Carrados are employed by the victim prior to the event. This is an ingenious and densely plotted story and it almost qualifies as a fair-play mystery since the reader is likely to share Carrados’s suspicions and has at least a chance of coming close to solving the puzzle. The Mystery of the Poisoned Dish of Mushrooms again involves murder, or at least it might. You never know with mushrooms.

The Disappearance of Marie Severe is a kidnapping case. The solution is perhaps a little contrived but it’s clever enough.

The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor opens with Max and Carlyle visiting the Lucas Street Depository. Carlyle has some items to place in his safety deposit box there. The depository has the reputation of being the most secure in London, in fact it is considered to be absolutely impregnable. After taking note of the impressively elaborate security precautions in place Max advises his friend to remove his valuables from there as quickly as possible. Despite the unquestionably tight security he is certain that something is very wrong. He is particularly concerned about the man with the false moustache. How does a blind man know that another man wears a false moustache? As Max explains it,l it is perfectly obvious. A clever story with a nicely amusing twist at the end.

The Ghost at Massingham Mansions is, obviously, a ghost story. Max Carrados does not believe in ghosts. Nor does Louis Carlyle for that matter, but the events at Massingham Mansions are certainly difficult to explain. This is a delightfully amusing tale told with superb lightness of touch.

The Ingenious Mr Spinola concerns a card-playing automaton and takes a very unexpected turn at the end making it more than just another story about gambling sharks. We also find out just how dangerous it can be to play cards against a blind man. An excellent story.

Those ten stories come from the Dover collection The Best Max Carrados Detective Stories. All are very good and a few are superb.

The following two I found in a couple of anthologies. The Secret of Headlam Height is an odd man out among the Max Carrados stories being a competent if not startling spy story set right at the outbreak of the First World War. The Game Played in the Dark offers the opportunity for Max Carrados to demonstrate just how highly developed his other senses are. This is a thriller rather than a mystery story, in which the odds seem to be stacked against Carrados but he knows that in fact the odds are very much in his favour. On the whole I prefer the stories of pure detection but this one is rather deftly handled.

The Max Carrados stories are certainly more than just gimmickry. While Max’s blindness plays a part in many of them there’s plenty of solid detection. There’s some gentle humour as well. It all adds up to great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The City of the Living Dead

The City of the Living Dead, a short story by Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt originally published in Science Wonder Stories in 1930, has sometimes been claimed as an influence on The Matrix. In fact the story incorporates a number of concepts that would later be hailed as revolutionary when the cyberpunk writers rediscovered them half a century later.

The world of Alvrosdale is a very small world. It is a close-knit agricultural community, presumably somewhere in northern Europe. Alvrosdale is entirely cut off from the rest of the world and has been for a couple of thousand years. It was cut off suddenly and completely by a geological cataclysm that raised an impassable mountain barrier.

The people live what might seem to be a primitive life, without machines of any kind. In fact they hate and fear the very idea of the Machine. They are aware, in a vague way, of the existence of Machines and have an even vague awareness that elsewhere in the world the Machine has reached an extraordinary degree of sophistication, fueled by a demon the people of the dale fear above all else - the Demon Power.

Each year a number of young people set off in their gliders (gliders are allowed since they have no connection with the Demon Power) to cross the mountain barrier. Before they leave the wise old Hal Hallstrom tells them his story. It is an incredibly story of what he found in the lands beyond the mountain.

He found a world dominated by the Machine, but a dead world. Not quite dead though. Something worse than dead. A living death. And he discovers that the people of Alvrosdale have good reason to fear the Machines. The Machines are not evil in themselves but they lead to evil results.

One of the many ideas that Manning and Pratt anticipated in this tale is virtual reality. It is not just a vague approximation to the idea - it is the idea fully developed, in some ways perhaps even more fully developed that anything to be found in the cyberpunk writers. This is not virtual reality that mimics life - it replaces life. Cyborgs are also anticipated in this story and again the idea is impressively well thought through.

Science fiction authors are sometimes good at predicting technologies but not so good at predicting the social consequences of those technologies. Very few science fiction authors have been successfully able to imagine just how trivial and futile would be the uses to which human beings would put advanced technologies. In this instance the authors cannot be accused of this failing - the self-destructiveness of technology used purely for pleasure and amusement is vividly described. Manning and Pratt would not have been the slightest bit surprised by the tragic misuse of the internet.

This is very much ideas-based science fiction with absolutely zero interest in characterisation. I was going to say that it displays zero interest in emotion but that’s not quite true - it displays no interest in individual emotions but it does deal in at least general terms with the emotional and psychological consequences of unlimited access to unlimited power and technology.

The City of the Living Dead would have been an impressive enough achievement had it been published thirty years later, but appearing as it did in 1930 it’s breathtakingly prescient and a truly remarkable work of speculative science fiction. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Christopher Bush’s The Body in the Bonfire

The Body in the Bonfire (also published as The Case of the Bonfire Body), one of Christopher Bush’s sixty-three Ludovic Travers mysteries, appeared in 1936. By this time Bush had already written more than a dozen mysteries and was obviously well into his stride.

Given that the writing career of Christopher Bush (1888-1973) spanned more than four decades and that he had in total more than seventy books published he was evidently fairly successful at the time. He has since fallen into almost total obscurity.

Bush was in many ways the archetype of the writers dismissed by Julian Symons as the Humdrum School. He was seemingly content to be a writer of detective stories with no high literary ambitions and his detective fiction is resolutely plot-driven. 

At his best however his plotting can be quite dazzling in its intricacy and The Body in the Bonfire is a prime example. It features several plot devices that were by no means entirely original but Bush pushes them to the limits and incorporates multiple uses of the same plot device in the one story to produce the maximum of fiendish complexity. Surprisingly enough it does all make sense in the end and the solution is quite satisfying.

Bush also plays some clever variations on the unbreakable alibi theme.

Unusual murder methods were popular among golden age mystery writers. In this case there is an unusual element to at least one murder but it’s the circumstances of the discovery of the first body that are most outlandish. The author plunges us straight into the action. By page three Travers has already discovered the first body, a corpse hidden inside a bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Night. The corpse has had the head and both hands hacked off. Evidently the murderer was very very determined that the body should be as difficult to identify as possible. In fact identification proves to be a very great challenge indeed.

While there is no impossible crime as such in this tale there are impossible aspects to the murders. There are clues that cannot possibly be true and yet there they are. There are alibis that are as rock-solid as alibis could possibly be, and yet if the alibis are sound the whole case is impossible.

Ludovic Travers himself is on the surface a fairly typical amateur detective (although in later books such as The Case of the Second Chance he has converted his hobby into a profession). In all the books his collaborator is Superintendent George Wharton. Travers is wealthy, educated and distinctly upper-class and his intelligence is brilliant if erratic. Wharton is a working-class boy who made it to the top of his profession through hard work and determination. He is intelligent but his intelligence is very much of the methodical commonsense type. They are opposites in every conceivable way but firm friends.

What makes Travers and Wharton interesting is that they do not always conform to our expectations. We assume Wharton will be the good-natured blustering dunderhead whose deductions are always wrong but on crucial occasions in this story he is proved to be right while Travers is wrong. Travers is a genius detective but his genius is not entirely reliable. Both Travers and Wharton are colourful and sometimes amusing characters.

The Body in the Bonfire moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace and has a plot containing enough twists and turns to satisfy any reasonable fan of golden age detective fiction. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Tudor Queen, which appeared two years later, is every bit as good so the late 30s were obviously a fertile period for this author.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories are classic sword-and-planet tales (with a fairly generous helping at times of out-and-out horror) from the pulp magazines. They were originally published in Weird Tales between 1933 and 1936.

Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987) was one of the more notable female pulp writers and is best remembered for the Northwest Smith stories and for her Jirel of Joiry sword-and-sorcery tales.

Northwest Smith is a kind of early prototype of Han Solo - a space adventurer whose activities are generally not exactly legal. In fact they’re mostly totally illegal. He’s brave and sometimes noble but he’s not overly burdened by moral scruples. 

Her first and most famous Northwest Smith story is Shambleau, a tale of an alien mind vampire. The story, set on Mars, is a futuristic take on the legend of Medusa. It’s a fine and very atmospheric story and it’s most intriguing aspect is that it features Smith displaying certain definite character flaws, or at least very human weaknesses. This makes him a decidedly unusual adventure hero. It’s also noteworthy for its unflinching look at the perils of sensual addiction and the price that must be paid for the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Hedonism proves to be a snare and a delusion.

Also interesting is Moore’s idea that the human conquest of space at some time in the future is merely an echo of a more ancient conquest. She is an author fascinated by the idea of mingling the distant future with the very ancient past and she does it with remarkable confidence.

If pleasure can be dangerous so can beauty, as we see in Black Thirst. The Minga is a shadowy ancient organisation based on Venus. The Minga castle is where they breed women. Very beautiful women. Impossibly beautiful women. Dangerously beautiful women. The purpose behind this is obscure, lost in the mists of time, although it is fair to assume that power has a good deal to do with it.

The Tree of Life is a rather ambitious story. Northwest Smith is lured into a strange world by a sobbing girl - a girl who seems oddly insubstantial. It’s a kind of artificial world, or even an artificial mini-universe, created aeons ago by a Martian wizard named Illar. Although it’s obvious Illar was more a master of science so advanced it defies comprehension than a master of magic. What Northwest Smith finds in this artificial world is a horror that sends him to the brink of madness. In this tale Moore demonstrates her ability to deal with big concepts and cosmic timescales and she also demonstrates her rather extraordinary gifts of imagination. This is a lot more than just a pulp adventure tale.

Scarlet Dream is another hidden world story. A pattern on a shawl transports Smith to a dream world, but is it a dream or another reality? Either way it’s a strangely seductive world of terror. 

Smith and his Venusian partner have undertaken some strange jobs during their careers but never before have they taken in anything quite so strange as searching for the dust that is all that remains of a long-dead god in Dust of Gods. Although whether the god is really dead or not is another matter, gods by their very nature being deathless. Why would would anyone employ them to perform such a task, a task that has sent other men mad? While Moore cannot be described as a Lovecraftian writer she does at times touch on subject with some affinities to Lovecraft’s work and elder gods, gods that existed before the Earth’s oceans had even cooled, is a slightly Lovecraftian concept. Moore’s ancient gods also bear some vague resemblance to Lovecraft’s in that they are not evil as such but so alien and so indifferent to humanity that they are effectively indistinguishable from actual evil. And there are those who still worship these elder gods. Moore handles the material quite differently from the way Lovecraft would have handled it - she was in no sense merely a Lovecraft imitator.

Lost Paradise explores similar themes. A chance encounter with a strange little white-haired man has momentous consequences. The man belongs to a mysterious and very ancient race living in the mountains of Tibet but they came originally from somewhere else, and possibly not from anywhere on Earth. This race has a Secret. Smith learns the secret, and perhaps it was a secret it would have been better not to know. The secret lies in the dim past and that’s where Smith finds himself. This is an unconventional time-travel time and once again  it touches on the theme of strange alien gods, gods that may not be entirely benign. Another ambitious story, superbly executed and with a zinger of a twist.

In Julhi a door has been opened between two different realities. The doorway is a ruined city built by a sorcerer-king with (so the rumour goes) assistance from strange entities. Northwest Smith encounters a girl who is they key to this door. The other reality is peopled by beings who have their own distinctive and very hedonistic outlook on life and they take a great interest in the humans they now encounter - an interest that might not be entirely healthy. This a typical Moore story - more focused on ideas than action, wildly imaginative and more than a little disturbing. A very fine story.

In The Cold Gray God Smith has to struggle for his survival against a goddess, and one with rather unpleasant designs on him.

Yvara finds Smith on one of the moons of Jupiter, a moon inhabited by a large number of very beautiful women. Trouble is they’re just too beautiful and they all look exactly alike. It doesn’t seem natural, and it isn’t. 

There are certain theme that run through Moore’s work. Vampirism is one but Moore’s vampires have little in common with conventional vampires - they are both more subtle and more dangerous. They are mind vampires, or emotional vampires, or sensual vampires. Beauty and sensual pleasure are like drugs and can be every bit as addictive and every bit as destructive.

The pulp magazines printed their share of stories that were nothing more than lightweight entertainment but they also printed stories by far more ambitious writers and Moore qualifies as one of the most ambitious of all. She is entertaining whilst also being rather cerebral and her imagination is startling and original. Despite some occasional superficial similarities to Lovecraft she is very much a writer with her own voice and her own style. She has always had a following but sadly she remains relatively little known even among science fiction fans. She deserves to be recognised as a major writer in the genre. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady

Stage magician and amateur detective The Great Merlini made his debut in Clayton Rawson’s 1938 novel Death from a Top Hat. Rawson wrote a total of four Great Merlini mysteries, the third (and the subject of this review) being his 1940 The Headless Lady.

Clayton Rawson (1906-1971) was himself a magician as well as a mystery writer so it’s no surprise that not only is his fictional detective a magician but that illusions play an enormous role in his stories.

Stage magic is entertaining enough but in The Headless Lady we get an extra added bonus - a circus setting.

A woman is very very anxious to buy a particular illusion from The Great Merlini’s magic shop. So anxious is she that she is prepared to pay more than twice the asking price and even to steal the apparatus. This naturally intrigues Merlini. The fact that someone is now tailing him intrigues him even more. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the woman is connected with the Mighty Hannum Combined Show circus. Merlini absolutely loves circuses of course so that’s where he and his faithful Dr Watson, Ross Harte, are now headed.

Their arrival coincides with a great misfortune for the circus - the owner, Major Hannum, has been killed in a car crash. This comes as quite a surprise - the Major was a notoriously slow and careful driver and yet his car apparently lost control at high speed. By pure chance the first person at the scene of the tragedy was a reporter and naturally he took some photographs. These photographs disturb Merlini greatly. Was the crash really an accident?

And what could have been the reason for another curious accident a short time before the Major’s demise? Why is the circus playing towns that are much too small to be paying propositions? And how to explain some curious financial transactions?

Merlini’s suspicions are further inflamed by another unlucky accident that occurs on the following day. A murderer is loose in the circus but this is a very cautious murderer indeed - it is going to be extremely difficult to prove that these incidents are not in fact accidents. Proving the identity of the killer will be even more challenging. 

This book itself is a fine example of the method of the professional illusionist - misdirection. Rawson throws so many outrageous incidents and so many colourful details of circus life at the reader and keeps the pacing so frenetic that we are unlikely to notice any deficiencies that might afflict the plotting, and we’re very likely to be distracted from noticing the vital clues. It’s also likely to make us overlook the fact that this story is not quite as fair-play as purists would demand - there’s some vital information that is to some extent pulled out of the hat at a rather late stage without any adequate foreshadowing. Apart from this the plotting is very sound.

Merlini is a fine and very entertaining detective hero with a blithe disregard for irritating legal niceties. If the best way to find an important piece of evidence is to indulge in a spot of breaking and entering then that’s what Merlini will do. He is an old carnival hand and like most carnival folk he has an exceptionally flexible attitude towards such matters and is not overly inclined to trust the police to the extent of actually telling them anything. Merlini’s ability to pick any lock he encounters and to see through any kind of trickery combined with the subtle psychological tricks that one picks up as a carnival person could have made him too perfect and infallible but Rawson is aware of the danger and makes sure that his hero does make the occasional error of judgment.

The sheer amount of background that Rawson gives us on circus life, the digressions on carnival slang and the footnotes could threaten to slow the action but it’s all such interesting stuff that I for one have no complaints. I have to admit that I like novels with footnotes! And despite the digressions the story really does hurry along quite satisfactorily.

It’s interesting to compare this one with Anthony Abbot’s slightly superior 1932 About the Murder of the Circus Queen which is probably the best circus mystery I’ve come across so far.

The one possible downside is provided by by minor reservations about the fair-play nature of the plot but that is more than compensated for wonderful atmosphere and plenty of clever tricks. Highly recommended, although his earlier The Footprints on the Ceiling is perhaps slightly better.