Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Citadel of Fear

Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884-1948) had a very brief career writing for the pulps from around 1917 to around 1919. At the time her work was widely praised by luminaries such as A. Merritt. Most of her fantasy/science fiction/weird fiction was published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. She seems for some reason to have stopped writing in 1919. After that she disappears into complete obscurity. Until recently even the date of her death was unknown.

Her best-known novel, The Citadel of Fear, was reprinted in 1952 and her reputation slowly revived. She is now considered to be one of the most important female writers of fantasy of her era. The Citadel of Fear is a lost world story and that happens to be one of my favourite genres. The Citadel of Fear was originally serialised in the pulp magazine The Argosy in late 1918.

Two prospectors, a tall Irishman named Colin O’Hara (usually known as Boots) and a man named Kennedy, are lost in the desert somewhere in Mexico. Just when it looks hopeless for them they stumble upon a hidden valley. There’s not supposed to be any trace of civilisation anywhere in the vicinity but here is a fertile valley full of cultivated crops and a large hacienda.

There is something slightly odd about all this. The owner of the hacienda is not Mexican but a Norwegian-American and he gives the impression of being just a trifle secretive.

In fact the two prospectors haven’t just stumbled into a hidden valley, they have discovered a whole lost civilisation. A Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture, with vast temples and cities. And (of most interest to Kennedy) gold. This is the legendary land of Tlapallan. And they’ve also blundered into a power struggle between the priests of Quetzalcoatl and the priests of Nacoc-Yaotl.

While Kennedy is interested in the gold O’Hara is more interested in the moth girl. What gets Kennedy into trouble is not the gold but witnessing a religious ritual, something forbidden to outsiders. What gets O’Hara into trouble is a combination of his fascination for the moth girl, his natural chivalry and his impetuosity. These two outsiders could unwittingly start a civil war. A civil war that could involve gods taking sides.

There are some nice touches to this lost world, such as the lake. I won’t spoil things by telling you what’s strange about the lake. And the light is strange too. As in the best examples of this genre the author creates a lost world that really does feel odd and alien.


It’s only the first half of the story that takes place in Mexico. Then the scene switches to the United States, many years later, but the story is far from finished. There are monsters loose. Are they human or animal or maybe even supernatural? And there’s another strange other-worldly girl. Not the moth girl, but with the same ethereal beauty and the same oddness. She’s quite mad. At least that’s what O’Hara is told. He doesn’t seem to care, although he doesn’t really know why he’s drawn to her. Is there some memory at the back of his mind?

The latter part of the story, even without the exotic setting of the first half, has plenty of strangeness and it gets stranger. O’Hara has no idea why he has suddenly become caught up in such inexplicable and disturbing events. Again there’s an ambiguity - is this story science fiction or fantasy? Is O’Hara dealing with gods or men, with monsters or ghosts or science gone very very wrong?

He’s certainly dealing with evil, and possibly madness. A house of secrets which should have stirred some memories but perhaps not his memories.

There’s plenty of danger and action (this is after all pulp fiction), there’s some romance with a touch of weirdness and there’s some fairly visceral horror. There is at times just a slight Lovecraftian tinge although at this stage Lovecraft had only just started his weird fiction writing career so it’s more a case of Bennett and Lovecraft responding to similar literary influences.

The Citadel of Fear is a fine example of the lost world genre and it’s not surprising that it attracted the admiration of A. Merritt who would in the ’20s and ’30s explore similar territory. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Norbert Jacques' Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

Dr. Mabuse is one of the greatest diabolical criminal masterminds in fiction. In Germany he became a pop culture icon on the scale of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Mabuse was created by Norbert Jacques (who was born in Luxembourg but later became a German citizen) in his 1921 novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler). Dr. Mabuse’s place in German pop culture was cemented the following year when he became the subject of one of Fritz Lang’s most celebrated movies, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler.

Norbert Jacques wrote a sequel in 1932, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. A year later Lang directed a sequel to his film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In 1960 Lang made another sequel, the excellent The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which was so successful that it spawned four more Mabuse movies.

An English translation of Norbert Jacques’ original Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler by Lilian A. Clare was published in 1923.

Dr. Mabuse was by no means the first literary diabolical criminal mastermind. That honour probably belongs to Dr. Nikola, created by Australian writer Guy Boothby, who made his first appearance in the novel A Bid for Fortune in 1895. There are some definite resemblances between the two characters - both are masters of the art of hypnosis.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler begins when a young man named Hull loses a very large amount of money gambling. The man to whom he loses the money is a man probably in his sixties who goes by the name of Balling. Hull has extraordinary bad luck but, although he is usually a cautious gambler, he also makes some very reckless decisions. The curious thing is that all his friends insist that Hull brought Balling to the gambling club but Hull has no recollection of this at all. In fact he remembers very little of the evening. It seems more like a dream. Things get even stranger the next day when Hull tries to pay his gambling debt. He goes to the address that Balling gave him and finds a Herr Balling there but he’s not the same Herr Balling and this one knows nothing of any gambling debt.

Hull is both puzzled and disturbed by he has recently acquired a new mistress so he spends the 20,000 marks on her instead.

Gambling swindles have recently attracted the attention of State Attorney Wenk. This official is a bit like a combination of a District Attorney and a Chief of Detectives and he takes a very active part in investigations. He is convinced that gambling has become a threat to German society. The further he digs into the matter the more convinced he is that all these swindles are perpetrated by a single man.

The man concerned is of course Dr. Mabuse and he’s involved in more than gambling, as Even slowly comes to realise. Mabuse is a kind of Professor Moriarty, with a hand in crimes of all kinds including smuggling and currency speculation. Mabuse is more than just a master criminal. He has extraordinary hypnotic powers which he uses to turn his victims into not just willing accomplices but slaves.

Mabuse is an obsessive. He has grandiose plans. His crimes are to finance his kingdom of Citopomar in Brazil. He had vast holdings there which he lost as a result of the war. Now he intends to reclaim his kingdom. Whether Citopomar actually exists is an open question as it is possible that Mabuse is quite mad.

What makes the story more interesting is that his nemesis, State Attorney Wenk, is every bit as obsessed as Mabuse. He may even be as mad as Mabuse.

Mabuse and Wenk have one common obsession - the beautiful (and very married) Countess Told. There’s a great deal of twisted sexual obsession in this novel.

This is a novel that is very much a reflection of Germany at the beginning of the 1920s, devastated by the shock and humiliation of defeat in war. Wenk believes that German society is diseased and needs to be purified. To Wenk the disease is manifested by an obsession with money, a lack of purpose among the upper classes and the enthusiasm for modernist art and literature. Wenk is a man looking for a moral crusade.

Needless to say this book (and Lang’s film version) is often seen as some kind of anticipation of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. In fact in 1921 the Nazi Party was just a handful of individuals and utterly obscure. The Freikorps, which opposed communism and were in some ways a precursor of the Nazis, did exist. And the German economy, soon to suffer the ravages of hyperinflation, was already shaky. The Nazi angle should not be exaggerated, but this book does reflect a growing feeling in some sections of German society that Germany had lost its way.

To Wenk Mabuse is the personification of all the evil forces threatening his country.

This novel has historical importance as the launching pad for one of the great fictional diabolical criminal masterminds and a key figure in the history of 20th century pop culture. The whole thing is outrageously complicated and melodramatic and the ending goes right over the top, but it’s weirdly fascinating and compelling. It’s a strange book that won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s still recommended.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is a Perry Mason mystery published in 1936.

It opens with a Church of England bishop from Australia asking Perry Mason for some legal advice regarding manslaughter and the statute of limitations. Which is a slightly odd thing for a bishop to do. If he is a bishop. You see this bishop stutters, and as everyone knows bishops don’t stutter.

The case, as it develops, involves a rich man named Brownley whose son contracts a marriage the old boy doesn’t approve of. There is indeed a case of manslaughter involved, and there’s a grand-daughter. Or rather there are too many grand-daughters. And there’s an enormous inheritance, and of course there’s murder. Paul Drake of the Drake Detective Agency is as usual involved but there are other private detectives poking around as well and they may be up to no good.

There are alibis aplenty, there are all sorts of questions of identity, there are witnesses but there’s the matter of what they actually saw and more importantly what it meant. There are lots of ruthless people and lots of tangled motives.

It’s pretty unusual for Perry Mason to get mixed up in a fist-fight. It’s even more unusual for Della Street to be involved in a fist-fight or involved with guns. But both those things happen in this story (and Della gives a pretty good account of herself). There’s quite a bit of action in this story and it’s worth remembering that Gardner started his writing career as a member of the hardboiled Black Mask school. And this is quite a hardboiled story at times.

It is usual for Perry and Paul Drake to indulge in a few minor activities that are perhaps not strictly legal, such as breaking and entering and burglary, and of course they do so in this tale. And Della does a few mildly naughty things as well, just little things like grand larceny. This is a 1930s Perry Mason story after all.

This time Mason gets himself in really deep trouble by, as always, not worrying too much about legal ethics. He’s in so deep even he thinks he could end up being disbarred or prosecuted or both and although he has some nice theories they have holes in them and he has no idea how to plug those holes. The only way out involves doing something he really dislikes doing.

The courtroom scenes are, as is quite often the case in the Perry Mason novels, involve preliminary hearings rather than actual trials (perhaps because this gives Gardner the chance to allow Mason to play a bit more fast and loose with procedures than would vie the case in a trial). He doesn’t face District Attorney Hamilton Burger in court but he does face him behind the scenes.

The solution is complex, with a lot of plot strands that somehow have to be woven together. Fortunately Gardner does this pretty well.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is typical 1930s Erle Stanley Gardner with Perry Mason flying by the seat of his pants and it’s hugely enjoyable.

I’m continuing with my project of comparing Perry Mason novels with the television adaptations from the 1957-66 TV series. My review of the relevant episode can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Girl Who Loved Death

The Girl Who Loved Death is a science fiction novella by Paul W. Fairman, originally published in Amazing Stories in 1952.

Paul W. Fairman (1909-1977) was an American science fiction writer who also wrote under the pseudonym Ivar Jorgensen. He was the founding editor of the science fiction pulp If. He started his career in the late 1940s writing detective stories. Several of his novels and stories were adapted for film and television. He may be largely forgotten today but in his lifetime he achieved some modest success.

The Girl Who Loved Death starts out like a private eye story. Nick Saturday is a private eye and he’s broke so when his landlord Mike Conlin offers to forego the rent if he takes on a case for him Nick is happy to oblige. Mike is a Korean War vet who’d been engaged to a nice girl but things didn’t work out. Now the girl has disappeared and Mike wants her found.

Nick goes to the girl’s house and walks in on a very strange scene. A woman is sitting on the edge of a bed staring down into a box. The box contains a very life-like doll, two feet tall. Then somebody slugs Nick. When he regains consciousness the woman is still staring into the box but Nick notices something odd. He’s pretty sure that before he was slugged that doll had been naked, and very very life-like indeed down to the smallest anatomical details. Now the doll is wearing a frilly blue dress.

Nick calls a doctor because the woman on the bed seems like she’s catatonic. The doctor has the woman taken to a clinic. Now things start to get strange. The woman disappears and the doctor can’t be found but Nick does find something interesting in a refrigerator. It’s a doll, naked and very life-like. So life-like you’d swear it was no doll.

You will have figured out some of what is going on by now but there are plenty of twists to come. And the science fiction elements become more and more apparent.

Nick Saturday has blundered into something that he doesn’t understand at all and he doesn’t like it. People keep hitting him on the head, which he doesn’t like either. There are lots of things in this case that Nick doesn’t like. Such as the Regal Toy Company. And half-naked blondes who give him the runaround (he has nothing against half-naked blondes but he likes to know what’s going on). He’s also going to feel pretty nervous about opening refrigerators in future.

Nick is your basic down-at-heel private eye, not terribly good at his job but he is stubborn. This is an interesting hardboiled detective-science fiction hybrid story and it has enough cynical one-liners to satisfy fans of the former and enough clever ideas to satisfy science fiction fans. Although this is a genuine science fiction story the hardbouled private eye elements work well.

As for what really is going on, like Nick Saturday you’ll have to find out the secrets hidden behind the walls of the Regal Toy Company for yourself.

Whether you’ll like the ending or not is a matter of taste. I liked it because it wasn’t what I was expecting. 

It’s worth mentioning that the cover illustration, unlike so many covers, depicts an actual moment from the story.

Armchair Fiction have issued this novella in their series of double-novel paperback editions, paired with Laurence M. Janifer’s Slave Planet. The series is a veritable treasure trove of obscure (often very obscure or totally forgotten) science fiction of the 1950s.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

William Knoles' Shame Market

Shame Market is a 1964 sleaze novel written by William Knoles (1926-1970) under the name Clyde Allison. And this is sleaze with the emphasis on fun.

Private eye Brannigan has just set off to meet a new client, Magnus V. Dumbarton. Dumbarton is very old (he’s ninety-seven) and fabulously, almost unimaginably, rich. And almost unimaginably eccentric. He suffers from a medical condition which requires him to spend his while life in a room heated to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Dumbarton figures if he has to live in a virtual hothouse he might as well do it in style, so he’s had a gigantic airship hangar converted into a hothouse. That’s wJuliet here he lives. And if you’re gong to live in a hothouse you might as well do it properly, so the hangar is filled with exotic plants and animals. You know the sort of thing you’d fill a hothouse with - colourful parrots and naked Polynesian girls.

Dumbarton’s daughter has gone missing and he wants Brannigan to find her. Given that Dumbarton is ninety-seven Brannigan naturally assumes that he’s going to be looking for an old lady in her seventies who has wandered away from the old folks’ home. In fact Dumbarton’s daughter Juliet is a gorgeous twenty-year-old.

Juliet is actually Juliet V. Dumbarton, the V standing for Verne, and she prefers to call herself Juliet Verne. Juliet already has a colourful past, such as the time she captured an entire Boy Scout troop and forced the poor lads to pleasure her. All of them. Juliet has perpetrated lots of similar harmless girlish pranks.

The only clue to Juliet’s whereabouts is that she is being held captive somewhere in a town on the 15th Parallel. It could be 15 North or 15 South. So Brannigan decides to check out every town of significant size along those lines of latitude. His chances of success might seem small but he’s getting two hundred bucks a day plus expenses so he’s not complaining.

Brannigan’s search for Juliet leads him from one woman’s bed to another. The novel is a series of sexual encounters but at least the author manages to bring these encounters about in interesting and amusing ways. When you find a woman, naked except for black stockings and black gloves, rifling your suitcase in your hotel room you’re naturally surprised. You’re even more surprised to discover she’s a CIA agent. And you’re more surprised still when she explains why she carries out her intelligence duties almost stark naked. Celia, the nude CIA agent, is a graduate of the CIA’s Seduction and Slaughter course and she knows all sorts of ways in which naked girls can kill people. British spies with a Double 0 number are licensed to kill. Celia has a XX number - she’s licensed to do other things as well. Which she does with enthusiasm.

Brannigan’s meeting with the murder-inclined Scarlett Butler (yes Knoles likes jokey names) also comes about in an unexpected way.

The sex is frequent and steamy but non-graphic. This is titillation rather than porn.

While some pulp sleaze novels could be quite dark this one is light-hearted and engagingly silly. It’s played mainly for laughs. Knoles also wrote a series of spy spoof novels and Shame Market, with its exotic settings, has something of that kind of feel. It’s a private eye spoof novel, with some spy spoof motifs and with lots of sex.

Brannigan is very hardboiled and very cynical, and very unscrupulous. He’s not a bad guy but he looks out for number one and he’s not going to risk his neck to do heroic things, like rescuing damsels in distress. That’s not to say he won’t rescue a damsel in distress - he will do so if there’s no risk and if there’s something in it for him. If the damsel is likely to show her gratitude, either in the form of cash or in bed, then he’ll consider it. This could be a recipe for noir fiction but in this case it’s played for amusement, with perhaps an attempt to add an edge of black comedy.

Brannigan is like a cross between Mike Hammer and Matt Helm (the Matt Helm of the movies not the novels), but without a trace of chivalry.

Brannigan is cynical and the book itself is pretty cynical as well, albeit in an obviously  tongue-in-cheek manner. The women are there to take their clothes off and jump into bed, which they do with alacrity.

In its own way it’s amusing sleazy (very sleazy) fun and it’s recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Vin Packer's The Girl on the Best Seller List

Marijane Meaker (born 1927) has had a successful writing career in several different genres. Between 1952 and 1969 she wrote pulp crime novels under the name Vin Packer. The Girl on the Best Seller List, published in 1960, is one of her better known titles from this period.

Gloria Whealdon lives in small town called Cayuta in New York State. She has just published a bestselling novel, called Population 12,360. It’s a Peyton Place-style sin and sensation novel set in a town that is obviously Cayuta and all the characters are thinly disguised versions of the townsfolk of Cayuta. Very thinly disguised. And her portraits of the townspeople are very unflattering indeed.

Not surprisingly the book has made her enemies in Cayuta. In fact quite a few of the Cayutians are now spending most of their waking hours thinking of ways to kill Gloria Whealdon. Her husband Milo is one of them.

Gloria wasn’t overly popular in Cayuta even before she wrote her book. She is awkward, a bit of a slob and socially inept. She might not be a very good writer but she has an unerring instinct for spotting people’s weaknesses and she is merciless in exposing those weaknesses in print. This particular talent is something that sells a lot of books.

This is a crime book but although there’s plenty of talk of murder it takes a long long time before any crime of any kind occurs. This is necessary because this is not a crime book that relies on alibis or fingerprints. All that matters is motive. As the story unfolds we discover more and more characters who have reasons to fear, reasons to hate and things to hide. All potential motives for a crime.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Gloria Whealdon’s book, so there’s a kind of “book within a book” thing going on. Of course The Girl on the Best Seller List is in its own way as much of an exposé of small town life as Gloria Whealdon’s fictional Population 12,360, although The Girl on the Best Seller List has the psychological insights  that Gloria Whealdon’s book lacks. Gloria Whealdon is a very mean-spirited person who has written a very mean-spirited book. Vin Packer’s book is not as deliberately cruel but it’s not exactly flattering to most of its characters either. They have some serious personality flaws and they’ve managed to mess up their lives rather comprehensively.

As to the mystery, there are at least four obvious suspects and several less obvious ones who can’t be entirely dismissed. The possible motives are quite varied. There’s not much in the way of actual detection but there is an important clue that one of the characters picks up on that leads to the solution. It certainly doesn’t qualify as a traditional puzzle-plot detective story but it’s not quite a typical psychological crime novel either. And although there’s plenty of foreshadowing it’s not an inverted mystery. Vin Packer takes her own idiosyncratic approach to writing a crime novel.

There’s a fair amount of rather black humour.

The “book within a book” aspect gets a twist as well - it turns out to be a book about two books. Which sounds a bit postmodern.

To add one more layer one of the characters is a psychologist and he’s treating several of the other characters.

Whether you’ll be satisfied by the solution to the mystery is a matter of taste but the motive is interestingly odd.

There’s no graphic sex but a great deal of the plot revolves around sexual and emotional entanglements.

The Girl on the Best Seller List is unusual and even at times just a little bizarre. The characters are complex although they’re also somewhat outrageous and exaggerated. It’s an oddity of a book, not really typical of crime fiction of its era, but its oddness makes it intriguing. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. TV tie-in novel)

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair by Simon Latter (published in 1967) is one of the five TV tie-in novels spawned by the 1966-67 television series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Like the other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair has a much more serious tone than the TV series. And it involves pirates. Real pirates indirectly, and their piratical descendants directly. And on the whole it's fairly lightweight but it's not a bad little spy tale.

Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.