Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christopher St. John Sprigg's Fatality in Fleet Street

Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) was an English writer who produced seven detective novels. In the mid-1930s he became an ardent Marxist (and a noted Marxist theoretician) and died fighting for his cause in the Spanish Civil War. Fatality in Fleet Street was his second detective novel and also the second to feature journalist Charles Venables as its amateur crime-solver. It’s a novel that is depressingly relevant today.

Venables works for Lord Carpenter, a media magnate who is unpleasant, dictatorial and megalomaniacal even by the standards of media magnates. For a year Carpenter’s newspapers have been conducting an hysterical propaganda campaign in favour of war with Russia. That campaign is about to reach its apotheosis with a scoop about an alleged Bolshevik atrocity that is guaranteed to drive the Great British Public into a war frenzy. Carpenter boasts that at this moment the only way that war could be stopped would be if someone were to take the Florentine dagger hanging on his office wall and stab him to death with it. Which is exactly what someone does. He is found dead in his office in the Mercury newspaper building.

It’s pretty standard in golden age detective fiction for the victim to be so unpleasant that there are hordes of potential suspects. In this case it’s made more interesting by the fact that the motive could be personal or political. It could be personal because Lord Carpenter was a notorious womaniser. It could be political because most of his staff violently opposed his pro-war policy. The Prime Minister opposed it as well, and he’s a definite suspect.

A lot of the more promising suspects have both personal and political motives for wanting to get rid of Lord Carpenter. It’s even possible that foreign agents may have been involved  so there’s a hint of a spy thriller plot as well.

The political side isn’t handled in a heavy-handed manner. If you didn’t know Sprigg’s history you’d probably guess him to have had anti-war leanings and mild pro-Russian leanings but you probably wouldn’t pick him as someone about to become an ardent Marxist. The actual Bolsheviks who appear in the story are an unsavoury and incompetent lot.

The tone definitely leans towards the farcical. I’m not as big a fan of this sort of thing as some other golden age aficionados but it does have its amusing moments. Sprigg has a certain appealing lightness of touch.

Venables is a fairly typical upper-class amateur detective (he even sports a monocle) and while he’s supremely self-confident (he thinks it’s a fine joke when he gets arrested) he’s not irritating.

Courtroom scenes are not easy to pull off successfully (unless your name is Erle Stanley Gardiner) but Sprigg’s extended courtroom scenes work pretty well. There’s a colourful and devious defence barrister and an amusingly inept judge and there’s the dramatic last-minute surprise evidence.

Of course there’s a romantic sub-plot and it actually ties in (slightly at least) with the main plot. Venables is very keen on the Mercury’s Women’s Page Editor and his romantic future depends on his successful solving of the case.

The solution is one that has been used by other writers but Sprigg adds an additional twist to it to make it more interesting. Even though the solution is somewhat outlandish it is reasonably well supported by some earlier clues so it doesn’t come entirely out of left field. In fact it feels plausible, to the extent that golden age detection solutions are ever really plausible.

A well-plotted very entertaining novel, similar in tone to his slightly later (and equally good) Death of an Airman. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek

My interest in Daphne du Maurier’s books was initially aroused by the fact that they provide the source material for three of my favourite films - Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). I was reasonably impressed by du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, but not so impressed by the short stories that inspired the other two films.

Daphne du Maurier has been described as a writer of gothic romances (and Rebecca most certainly fits into that category) and after reading Xavier’s spirited defence of this genre at his At the Villa Rose blog I felt I should give du Maurier another try. The book I selected is one of her most famous, Frenchman’s Creek, published in 1941.

It turns out that Frenchman’s Creek is not really a gothic romance after all. It’s certainly a romance but it’s probably best described as a swashbuckling romance novel. The story of an English noblewoman’s passionate affair with a dashing French pirate is one that is clearly likely to tick all the romance novel boxes.

The heroine is Dona, Lady St Colomb, and she has grown weary of the high life in London. She retreats, alone, to her husband’s neglected estate in Cornwall. She soon discovers that there is a creek running through the property and that creek is being used as an anchorage by a notorious French pirate who has been raiding the properties of the rich landowners of the region. Dona is a woman who suffers a great deal from boredom and the presence of a pirate ship almost in her own back yard at least promises to make life slightly less tedious. Then she hears that there are rumours that the pirates have not only been committing robberies, they have been ravishing the local women as well. Now Dona is really interested. In fact she’s more than a little excited.

This French buccaneer is not your typical pirate. He is well-bred and well-educated, a man of culture, and even a bit of a philosopher. He is a gentleman, well apart from the ravishing women thing (and Dona is inclined to see that as a feature rather than a bug). In fact he’s the kind of pirate pretty much guaranteed to set feminine hearts aflutter. He certainly gets Dona’s blood racing. I’m not sure if it gets her bosoms heaving but it certainly seems possible.

Of course Dona persuades her handsome pirate to take her to sea with him on his next voyage. And she will get drawn into a world of adventure and forbidden love.

The plot may sound absurd and overheated. It is overheated, but perhaps not entirely absurd when you consider the background to the novel. This is the England of Charles II, an age in which sexual licentiousness was more or less taken for granted among the hangers-on at Court. It is established that Dona and her husband are very much a part of a very dissipated social set. It is also established right from the start that Dona already has a scandalous reputation and, not to put too fine a point on it, she is generally regarded as being little better than a whore. She doesn’t have to worry about endangering her reputation. Her reputation is well and truly in tatters already. Taking a notorious pirate to her bed is just the sort of escapade that might appeal to such a woman, and would certainly amuse her friends.

The focus of the story is very much on the romance angle. Of course criticising a romance novel for being romantic is a bit like criticising a thriller for being thrilling. There’s an extraordinary amount of sexual innuendo, much of it clever and amusing.

Daphne du Maurier was immensely popular in her day although not highly regarded by critics. Her critical reputation has grown since and is, perhaps, a little overblown. Frenchman’s Creek is a bodice-ripper. It’s well-written and with some literary pretensions but even if it’s a slightly literary bodice-ripper it’s still a bodice-ripper. I honestly don’t have a problem with that. Being a good writer of genre fiction well is just as challenging as being a good writer of so-called literary fiction, the main difference being that genre writes write books the people want to read while writers of literary fiction write books that people feel they should want to read.

This is the sort of book that critics would have been inclined to dismiss not just because it’s clearly genre fiction but because it’s aimed squarely at a female readership. Which is unjust. There are genres that men like and there are genres that women like. Critics tended to despise them all, but they especially despised the books women like. These days critics are more likely to take the opposite tack. It’s all equally unreasonable. Genre fiction requires its practitioners to understand their target audience and give them what they want. I don’t have a problem with that. Daphne du Maurier understood her audience and gave them what they wanted, with style and skill.

Assuming that the purpose of this book is to generate an atmosphere of romantic and sexual excitement in its female readers I’d say it succeeds admirably. The author builds up the sexual tension with considerable skill. We have to wait a long time for Dona and her pirate to have sex so that when they do (there are of course no graphic descriptions of sex but du Maurier makes it absolutely crystal clear that Dona isn’t naked with her pirate because it’s getting stuffy in her cabin) it has the desired impact.

The pirate is a totally unbelievable hero. He’s perfect in every way, the ideal combination of masculinity and sensitivity, the ultimate female wish fulfilment fantasy. But hey, it’s a romance novel. We have to believe that Dona is so hot for this guy that she’ll risk everything.

Dona on the other hand is an interesting heroine. She’s not quite as immoral as her reputation suggests but she’s still pretty damn immoral. She finds some rationalisations for her behaviour but clearly she’s quite happy to abandon every responsibility in order to gain romantic fulfilment and it’s also clear that for Dona romantic fulfilment means sexual fulfilment. Her pirate fills her with the kind of lust she could never feel for her husband.

So is this a book that male readers will enjoy? Probably not. There’s not quite enough action, although there is some. And while du Maurier isn’t at her best in the action scenes they’re OK and she is very very good at suspense. On the whole though, even with the adventure element, this is still basically a bodice ripper. As a heterosexual male I’m probably not the best person to judge it on those terms but even I’d have to admit that it is wildly romantic. And it is clever and witty. You’ll have to decide for yourself on this one.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Buried Clock

The Case of the Buried Clock is a 1943 Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Harley Raymand, recovering from a war wound, is staying at the mountain cabin owned by banker Vincent Blane. Raymond has made a curious discovery. A buried clock. Why would anyone want to bury a clock? And the clock is still running. He also makes another discovery - a dead man in the cabin. The dead man is the husband of Blane’s daughter Millicent. He’s been helping himself to funds from Blane’s bank.

Since Millicent seems likely to strike the local sheriff as an obvious suspect Blane retains Perry Mason’s services. There’s actually a wide choice of suspects. There’s Millicent’s sister Adele, who hated the dead man. There’s a brother and sister, Burt and Lola Strague, and there’s wildlife photographer Rod Beaton. They were all on the scene. As was glamorous widow Myrna Payson.

Perry agreed to take the case because the clock angle intrigued him and he’s even more intrigued when he realises the clock is keeping sidereal time, not solar time. Setting a clock to do that is the kind of thing you’d do if you wanted to track the position of a star. Perry has no idea how that might tie in to the murder but he has a feeling that if he can find the connection he’ll crack the case. Also puzzling is the bullet. There isn’t one. There’s no exit wound so the bullet has to be in the body, but it isn’t. And then there are the tyre prints. And the family doctor who tells an amazing number of lies.

Deputy District Attorney McNair is young, ambitious and arrogant and he has a watertight case. He just can’t lose. If only Mason would stop carrying on about that damned clock.

There’s plenty of misdirection in this tale and Perry Mason (and Paul Drake) fall for quite a lot of it. The solution is more complicated, and more simple, than it appears to be.

Perry gets to express his feelings about police ethics, his view being that the police don’t have any. For their part Paul Drake and Della Street are a bit worried that Perry’s legal ethics seem to encompass everything from concealing witnesses to breaking and entering but when you work for Perry Mason you just have to get used to such things.

Perry likes to set traps for prosecutors to walk into but this time it seems like he may have met his match as he blunders into some very subtle traps laid by Deputy D.A. McNair. A lesser man might have been daunted but this sort of thing just gets Mason more motivated. He’s going to have to be very motivated indeed to win this case. Gardner always handles courtroom scenes with great skill and this book contains enough devious legal manoeuvrings to please fans.

Gardner’s method in the Perry Mason novels was to stick to the very successful formula he’d established but add enough twists to keep things fresh and interesting and in the 40s he was at the top of his game. It seems impossible that he can connect so many bizarre clues into a coherent plot but he does so.

The Case of the Buried Clock is not perhaps in the absolute top tier of Perry Mason stories but it’s still fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

My latest project is to pick the episodes of the 1957-66 TV series based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and read the novel, then watch the TV episode and do parallel reviews of both. My review of The Case of the Buried Clock TV episode can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Andromeda Breakthrough

A for Andromeda was one of the most famous science fiction television series of all time, now tragically lost. The follow-up series The Andromeda Breakthrough, broadcast in 1962, does however survive. Both series were co-written by astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. Novelisations of both series were produced. They were credited to Hoyle and Elliot but seem to have been written mostly by Elliot. It is the novelisation of The Andromeda Breakthrough, published in 1964, with which we are concerned at the moment.

This sequel picks up at exactly the point at which A for Andromeda leaves off. Unfortunately it’s difficult to say much about the plot of The Andromeda Breakthrough without revealing spoilers for A for Andromeda. Since I have no intention of giving away any spoilers I’m going to be very very vague about the plot.

The premise of A for Andromeda is that a message has been received from deep space. The message comprises instructions for building a computer far in advance of anything known on Earth. Once the computer is built it begins to construct something else - a young woman. Is she human or alien? Is she woman or machine? Can she, or the computer, be trusted? What are their intentions? The British Government is terribly excited since this project seems to offer the opportunity to restore Britain’s place in the world.

To the astonishment of the British Government the whole thing goes horribly wrong. As The Andromeda Breakthrough opens scientist Dr John Fleming is on the run with a strange young woman without any memories.

It’s not just the government that is after them. There’s also a sinister international business cartel and the agents of a small Middle Eastern nation.

While there are definite spy thriller elements to A for Andromeda those elements are much more prominent in the sequel, or at least they are in the early stages of the book. The spy thriller stuff is fairly exciting and there’s plenty of cynicism for spy fiction fans who enjoy that sort of thing.

By the halfway stage the hard science fiction elements have kicked in again. And they do represent a further development of the ideas in the first book - the problems of complete mutual incomprehension involved in contact with an alien civilisation, the near impossibility of knowing whether aliens can be trusted, the danger of actions being misinterpreted due to extreme cultural differences, the sheer alienness of the motivations of alien intelligences. The unusual indirect nature of the contact with the aliens is so very indirect exacerbates the difficulties. These are issues that fascinated many science fiction writers but The Andromeda Breakthrough deals with them in a reasonably thoughtful way. The fact that the aliens never actually appear in the story but act at second hand through human agents and an artificial intelligence adds an original twist.

There’s plenty of ambiguity in this tale. It’s not just the uncertainly about the motivations of the aliens and of their partly human creation. The fully human characters are pretty ambiguous as well. Dr Fleming is paranoid and he’s right to be paranoid but maybe he pushes it too far. He thinks he’s being rational but can’t accept that he’s become emotionally entangled. Professor Dawney, the biochemist given the opportunity to create life, is perhaps naïve and is perhaps inclined to allow her scientific excitement to cloud her judgment. The politicians and businessmen who get mixed up in the affair combine unscrupulousness with breathtaking incompetence, greed and foolishness. There’s enough complexity, both moral and philosophical, to keep things interesting and there’s enough action to keep things entertaining.

While The Andromeda Breakthrough, both as a TV series and as a novelisation, is not as highly regarded as A for Andromeda a case can be made that it’s been somewhat underrated. The TV series was released on DVD but it’s very hard to find these days. The novelisation is quite intriguing. Recommended.

My review of A for Andromeda can be found here.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Arthur W. Upfield's Bushranger of the Skies

Bushranger of the Skies, later reprinted as No Footprints in the Bush, is a 1940 Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery by Arthur W. Upfield. This time Bony, the half-Aboriginal half-European detective, gets uncomfortably closely involved in a case.

Somewhere in Central Australia Bony is on his way to the McPherson Homestead to deliver a letter to the local police sergeant, a man named Errey. It concerns some odd happenings in the area. While camped about twenty miles from the homestead he sees a dust cloud in the distance. It is obviously a car and since cars and few and far between on this unmade road Bony makes a reasonable guess that it is Sergeant Errey’s car. There’s nothing surprising in any of this. Bony is only mildly surprised when an aircraft appears from the west. He is however very surprised when the aircraft drops a bomb on his camp. He is even more surprised when the aircraft drops two more bombs on Sergeant Errey’s car, reducing it to a blazing wreck. This qualifies as very much more than an odd happening. And Bony is not overly keen on people trying to kill him.

The atmosphere at the McPherson Station is pretty strange. Old McPherson is a crusty character of Scottish extraction. Bony is sure that McPherson has a fair idea of the identity of the pilot of that monoplane but the old man obviously has some secrets he intends to keep to himself.

The usual Upfield formula was to adhere fairly closely to the classic golden age detection template but with an exotic setting somewhere in the Australian Outback and with an exotic detective. Upfield did however vary this formula on occasions, having Bony investigate a case in the big city or as in this book making the story more of a thriller than a tale of detection.

Both Bony and the reader know the identity of the pilot of the murder aeroplane very early on and we know roughly what his motivation is. What we (and Bony) don’t know is what he’s going to do next and how Bony is going to stop him. Bony doesn't quite know how he’s going to stop him either.

The culprit is a skilled bushman with a hundred and fifty thousands square miles of desolate country in which to hide, and he has allies in a local Aboriginal tribe and they’re even better at simply disappearing into the bush. Even with a team of police and aircraft and trackers it could take months to find the man. Bony, for reasons of his own, decides to do the job alone. He faces a further problem - he’s not the only one hunting this man. And Bony will have to find him first.

The difficulty facing a man like Bony, caught between two cultures and with strong loyalties to both, is a major underlying theme of all the Bony stories but in this novel it takes centre stage. All the central characters in this story are in their own ways in the same position as Bony, caught halfway between cultures. Bony has come to terms with his own situation but the other characters have not.

Upfield’s treatment of these problems might seem old-fashioned but that’s a superficial view. Once you put aside the fact that he uses terms that are now forbidden (such as half-caste) you’ll find that his views on these matters are perceptive and deeply sympathetic. He refuses to idealise either the whites or the Aboriginals or those of mixed race but he is fundamentally sympathetic to all three points of view and he is also fundamentally optimistic. Of course the book was written in a much more optimistic age. Perhaps the tragedy of our own times is the we’ve lost that optimism.

Upfield does perhaps spend too much time telling us what a remarkable chap Bony is and how clever he is, when in fact Bony makes a series of terrible errors and consistently underrates his opponent.

This is a manhunt battle of wills and wits tale. There is no detecting done at all. The suspense also doesn’t quite come off. The far-fetched and rather outrageous plot is the sort of thing that a Leslie Charteris could have pulled off effortlessly. Upfield doesn’t quite manage to bring it off. He doesn’t quite convince us to believe in the story, or in the villain. And Bony is not the Saint. He’s the wrong hero for this kind of tale.

One interesting aspect to the story is the assumption that the magic of Aboriginal magic men really does work. Bony believes it works and it’s pretty clear that Upfield expects the reader to believe it too. This is therefore a crime story with actual supernatural elements or at least paranormal elements. That’s a problem given that the the plot already stretches credibility to breaking point. There’s nothing wrong with supernatural thrillers but in this case the supernatural elements weaken the story.

Bushranger of the Skies is really not a success. There are much better Bony novels out there, such as the excellent Wings Above the Diamantina. This one is for Upfield completists only.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Graham Greene’s The Third Man

The genesis of Graham Greene’s The Third Man is rather interesting. In 1948 The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, had been very successful at the box office. Since it also proved to be a happy collaboration it’s no surprise that Reed and Greene were anxious to do another movie together. That movie would eventually become The Third Man, one of the greatest movies ever made. But at the time he agreed to do the film Greene had only a single sentence scrawled on the back of an envelope - the mere germ of an idea about a man who is surprised to see an old friend named Harry Lime pass him in the street - surprised because he’d attended Harry’s funeral a few days earlier.

Greene was an excellent screenwriter but felt that he could not write a totally original screenplay. He preferred to adapt one of his stories or novels. Since in this case he had no story to adapt he would have to write one. So he sat down and wrote a story. Now he had something on which to base a screenplay. The story (a bit more than novella length) was never intended to be published. It was merely a quarry from which he would mine the materials for his screenplay. When the film was released in 1949, to international acclaim, his publishers persuaded him to allow the novella to be published.

It is of course essentially a first draft of a story. The completed screenplay differed from the novella in a number of ways. In his preface Greene is at pains to point out that the changes were not forced upon him. Once he sat down to write the screenplay he realised that some changes would be needed and he made them. He did not however revise the novella, which is what makes it so interesting. You can see the way that Greene’s ideas about the story evolved. The changes are actually not all that great. Greene was naturally a very cinematic writer and most of the scenes in his books lend themselves to film.

But the subtle changes are interesting. In the book the central character is Rollo Martins, an English writer of pulp westerns (the fact that he is an Englishman who has never set foot in America is part of the joke). In the movie he becomes Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp westerns. The Rollo Martins of the book is in some ways even more of a failure in life than the film’s Holly Martins, although perhaps marginally less naïve and marginally less self-righteous.

The only condition producer Alexander Korda imposed on Greene and Reed was that he wanted the background to the film to be the four-power occupation of Vienna (the city being divided into British, French, American and Russian zones). This was no problem - the war-ruined city dominated by corruption, with almost everyone involved in some kind of black market, was ideal Greene territory. This is very much Greeneland.

Many of the most memorable scenes in the movie are here in the novella - the encounter on the Ferris Wheel, the chase through the sewers - and while they’re better in the film they work extremely well on the printed page.

Greene felt that the film was better than the book and he was right but the book is still in its own way classic Greene and it’s still pretty good. When comparing the novella and the movie you always have to keep in mind that the story was right from the start intended to be filmed. The novella is essentially an extended rather literary film treatment. So the set-pieces naturally work better in the movie - Greene was creating scenes that would have more impact on the screen than on the page.

Greene was fascinated by themes of betrayal but it’s interesting that both The Third Man and The Fallen Idol deal specifically with the betrayal of illusions, and our reluctance to believe that our illusions are being betrayed. Even more specifically, they deal with the betrayal of childhood illusions. Harry Lime was the boyhood idol of Rollo/Holly Martins. Letting go of the illusions of childhood is part of growing up so logically Martins should finally grow up when he realises that his hero is a fraud and a monster. But this is a Graham Greene story so things are not necessarily going to work out so neatly. Nothing works out neatly in Greeneland.

The Third Man was published in an edition that also included the short story The Basement Room on which the film The Fallen Idol was based. My review of the film version of The Third Man can be found at Classic Movie Ramblings.

The Third Man is essential reading for fans of the film and for Graham Greene fans. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Rex Stout’s Over My Dead Body

Over My Dead Body was the seventh of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. It was published in 1940.

A young woman, apparently from Montenegro, wants Wolfe to represent another young Montenegrin woman accused of stealing some diamonds. For some reason (which we will soon discover) Wolfe has a horror of anything remotely connected to the Balkans. He wants nothing to do with the case. Until he is informed of a certain fact which makes it impossible for him not to become involved.

The woman accused of the theft, Neya Tormic, is provided with an alibi in circumstances which occasion a good deal of surprise and even scepticism on the part of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

The first murder occurs soon thereafter. It won’t be the last.

The big question is why a British spy should be mixed up in all this. And a German spy as well. And why are the Feds so interested? Wolfe and Archie are not accustomed to G-men taking an interest in their case and they’re not very happy about it. Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Bureau is even less fond of the FBI and even less happy. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the G-men appear not to have a clue what they’re doing and as the tale unfolds they become steadily more ineffectual and bewildered.

And it’s not just spies. There’s a princess involved as well, and princesses are even more worrying than spies.

So this is a political thriller of sorts as well as a murder mystery. Fortunately Wolfe resists the temptation to focus too much on the political aspects. The Balkan angle adds colour and a touch of exoticism rather than being an excuse to belabour us with political lectures. Although Wolfe does display a vast contempt for bankers and international financiers.

In this book we find out some very surprising things about Wolfe’s past. It’s more than a little disconcerting to think of Wolfe as a father. Which he is. Possibly. In a way.

There’s nothing startling about the murder methods employed in this novel (even if one takes place in a fencing academy). There’s certainly nothing remotely impossible about any of the crimes. Alibis play a comparatively minor rôle. The motives are more important than the method. Indeed, the motives behind the alibis are more important than the alibis. Stout is often disparaged for his plotting abilities. He was certainly no Freeman Wills Crofts but he was actually quite competent in that area and the plot in this case is perfectly serviceable. In fact it’s quite good.

I’m more and more struck by the similarities between Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason. Both are willing to play fast and loose with legal niceties to protect the interests of their clients, even to the extent of concealing witnesses and concealing vital information from the police. They’re both fundamentally honest and they’re carful not to do anything actually illegal but both are aware that the odds are stacked against the individual so that it’s necessary for both an attorney and a private detective to take steps to protect a client from the overwhelming power of the police and the legal system.

Archie Goodwin is in fine form, relishing the various opportunities the case offers to hoodwink the police. And he gets to slug a witness which he enjoys very much indeed.

Over My Dead Body offers a decent plot, intriguing revelations about Nero Wolfe, international intrigue, sparkling dialogue and plenty of fun. Not the best of the Nero Wolfe mysteries but still extremely good. Highly recommended.