Sunday, December 26, 2010

Richard Marsh’s The Beetle


Richard Marsh’s The Beetle is certainly one very bizarre and outrageous book.  It’s included in Victorian Villainies, which includes four Victorian mysteries, elected by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. It’s actually a short novel.
  
Although it’s a mystery it contains very definite elements of the gothic, it involves supernatural or apparently supernatural events, and there’s some horror.

It was written in 1897, and it highlights some of the obsessions of that time period.  Hypnotism plays a major role, and (of course) a sinister one.  There’s also the Mysterious East.  And devilish foreign cults involving human sacrifice – the favoured sacrifices being (naturally) white Christian women!  That part is probably influenced by the British experience with the Thugs in India, and their sacrifices to Kali.  Ancient Egypt also plays a key role – the devilish cultists are the Children of Isis.  They bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything that ever happened in Ancient Egypt, but they do give some idea of how the Victorians imagined Ancient Egypt.

The plot is too complicated to explain, except that it involves a member of parliament haunted by an event in his past, a derelict house with a strange inhabitant, and a romantic triangle.  There are mysterious disappearances, there are people who can transform into scarab beetles (hence the title), and there are nameless horrors.  

It’s extremely complicated in structure (like so many 19th century novels) with no less than four first person narrators.  It’s all very breathless, but it’s also highly entertaining.  I liked it.
At the time it apparently outsold Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in the same year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Baby Moll, by John Farris

John Farris has written an enormous quantity of fiction of various types during his lifetime. He started his writing career at a very young age with a number of hardboiled crime novels, including Baby Moll (published in 1958 when he was 24).

Baby Moll is a fairly stock-standard hardboiled tale, owing a considerable debt to Hammett.

Pete Mallory was a gangster, but eventually decided the life of crime was just not worth the rice. So he retired and bought himself a sporting goods store in a remote town. And he met Elaine, and they became engaged. He’d just about got to the stage where he was no longer reaching for a gun at every sudden noise, and was actually able to to just enjoy himself sitting and fishing.

And then his past came back to reclaim him. His old gang boss, Macy Barr, is also being haunted by his past. Years earlier when he was getting started in the protection racket he’d had to teach a recalcitrant store-owner a lesson. The store-owner and his entire family perished in the subsequent fire. Well, not quite. There was one survivor. And now all of the hoodlums involved in that incident are being hunted down and killed, one by one. Macy Barr is getting old, he’s losing control of his crime empire, and he’s scared. Not just for himself, but for a young orphan girl he’s adopted. Macy has finally found the ability to care for another human being and he’s not ready to die yet.

His one chance is to persuade his old right-hand man Pete Mallory, to help him out. If anyone can find and stop the killer it’s Pete Mallory. Pete wants no part of that old life, but he owes Macy a big favour. At a time when he was just about ready to give in to despair and give up on life Macy had forced him to pull himself together. He owes Macy his life, and it’s a debt he has to repay.

Macy is holed up on a island fortress with an odd collection of goons, family members and assorted hangers-on. All kinds of sexual and emotional dramas are being played out on the island, but Pete has to try to keep himself as free of these entanglements as possible. Which isn’t easy, especially with beautiful naked women wanting to get friendly with him.

Pete is good at his job but the situations continues to spiral out of control, and corpses keep accumulating. The story builds to a very dark finale.

Baby Moll isn’t one of the great hardboiled classics but it’s stylish pulpy entertainment. There’s as much seediness as you could wish for, quite a bit of sleaze and lots of desperation. Macy Barr is an interesting creation, a vicious crime boss with some surprising human weaknesses, a character you can both hate and yet for whom you can feel a strange compassion.

Farris doesn’t add very much to the genre (unlike other writers of the time like Jim Thompson) but at the age of 24 he’d mastered the basics of the style pretty effectively. It’s a fine well-crafted example of its type and its re-issue in the Hard Case Crime series was extremely welcome.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The People of the Pole, by Charles Derennes

I’m continuing my exploration of French pulp fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This time it’s The People of the Pole (Le peuple du Pôle), a science fiction adventure tale by Charles Derennes.

Published in 1907, this is a lost world tale, a genre I’m quite fond of. This one adds quite a few original twists though.

A bored and wealthy young man, Jean-Louis de Venasque, has been seeking an outlet for his yearnings to journey to hitherto unexplored places. By great good luck, or possibly ill luck, he meets a brilliant but penniless engineer named Jacques Ceintras. The engineer has designed a new kind of airship, an airship capable of undertaking immensely long aerial voyages. And de Venasque has a destination worthy of this formidable ancestor of the zeppelin - the North Pole!

They reach the polar regions, but there is a surprise in store for them. They find not a world of ice, but a strange world filled with animal and plant life. Life forms cut off from contact with the rest of the world since the days when giant reptiles roamed the earth. So far the story sounds like a conventional enough lost world tale, but now Derennes introduces his first twist. These reptiles from an earlier geological age have not merely survived, they have continued to evolve. They have evolved to the point where they have developed not merely intelligence, but technology and civilisation.

This is a civilisation with very different values from human civilisation, a civilisation with a very different approach to the question of the sanctity of life and the importance of the individual, and Derennes uses this to offer some social commentary on our own beliefs about these subjects. Their technology is also rather different, and their polar world is illuminated by a an eerie kind of artificial sunlight.

Relations between the two explorers have become increasingly tense, and this situation worsens when they make contact with the reptilian civilisation of the polar region. The inherent difficulty of communication with intelligent creatures radically different from ourselves makes it impossible to make real and meaningful contact with the reptile people, while Ceintras’s increasingly erratic behaviour causes outright conflict. This first contact with a very foreign culture is not destined to end happily.

And now Derennes throws us another twist. The main narrative is ostensibly a diary kept by de Venasque, and Derennes now suggests that de Venasque may be a very unreliable narrator indeed. He hasn’t finished playing games with the reader though. After casting doubts on de Venasque’s account of the voyage he then suggests that maybe we should discount those doubts. He leaves us with a doubtful narrative but with the certainty that the voyage of the two aeronauts really did take place, and they really did reach the Pole. The remaining doubts concern what they actually found there, and what their own actions actually were.

For what seems on the surface to be a somewhat pulpy scientific romance The People of the Pole has a surprising degree of literary subtlety, and literary polish as well. It’s also an entertaining and fascinating adventure tale. And it has zeppelins. What more could you ask for?

It’s published by Black Coat Press, and easy enough to get hold of if a trifle expensive.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Caspak Trilogy, starting with The Land That Time Forgot, in 1918. It became an instant classic of the Lost World genre of adventure fiction. It also happens to be one of the strangest of all Lost World tales.

These days the word trilogy has taken on an ominous quality. We imagine immense volumes the size and weight of house bricks. The whole of the Caspak Trilogy however amounts to no more than a relatively short novel. It comprises three very short novels, The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss. Each of these three novels recounts a different series of adventures, with different protagonists, on the mysterious island of Caspak. The three separate narratives are drawn together at the end of the final volume.

The Land That Time Forgot takes place in 1916. A steamship is torpedoed by a German U-boat. The only survivors are a young woman named Lys and a man named Bowen Tyler who, in one of life’s little ironies, is an American engineer who designs submarines for various navies including the Imperial German Navy. These two survivors are picked up by an ocean-going tug that later encounters the very same U-boat, and through a mixture of luck and daring the crew of the tug ends up capturing the U-boat and its crew. Their attempts to sail the submarine to England are thwarted by the efforts of a communist agitator and they end up hopelessly lost.

It seems their troubles might be over when they make a landfall, but the large island they have found is a very bizarre island indeed. It was originally discovered by an obscure 18th century Italian explorer. There is only one means of reaching the interior of the island, by navigating the U-boat through an underground river. The island is in the polar regions but the interior is warm and covered in lush vegetation. It’s also inhabited by long-extinct animals including dinosaurs, and a variety of creatures that are either human-like apes or ape-like humans.

So far it’s your standard lost world scenario, but as our heroes progress northwards through the island they find the animals, while still long extinct elsewhere, are increasingly modern. And the man-like creatures are closer and closer to modern humans both anatomically and culturally.

The explanation for this odd evolutionary continuum, and for the the absence of any children, is a tour de force of imaginative weirdness which I don’t intend to spoil for you.

The first book gives us Tyler’s story. The other two books follow the adventures of a rescue party sent to find Tyler, and of another party separated from the original band who arrived on the submarine.

The whole trilogy is a fun pulpy tale of encounters with terrifying creatures, of improbable escapes and dashing heroism, and of three unexpected love stories. It’s the truly strange nature of Caspak itself though that is most disturbing and most memorable. If you like your weird fiction with extra weirdness then this certainly qualifies.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guy Boothby's A Bid for Fortune

Everyone loves a diabolical criminal mastermind. And the first of the great literary examples of this breed may well have been Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola who made his first appearance in print in 1895 in the novel A Bid for Fortune.

Boothby was an Australian writer whose output of novels and short stories was prodigious considering that his writing career lasted only about a dozen years before his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1905.

Dr Nikola has all the attributes of a diabolical criminal mastermind. His origins are mysterious. His constant companion is an enormous black cat to which he is devoted. He is as charming as he is ruthless. His ambitions know no bounds. His powers are based partly on the arts of mesmerism but there are very strong suggestions that he may also be involved in some kind of eastern black magic.

The hero of the tale is Richard Hatteras, whose origins are also somewhat mysterious, Hatteras has made a fortune as a pearler and trader in the waters around New Guinea. Having made his pile he sets off to the big city to enjoy his wealth. On arrival in Sydney he encounters Dr Nikola quite by accident and find himself drawn into a series of strange events. Hatteras has also made the acquaintance of a charming young lady and has fallen head over heels in love. Phyllis Wetherell is the daughter of the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. They plan to marry but her father is strongly opposed to any such match. Phyllis will also find herself drawn into Dr Nikola’s machinations.

Dr Nikola’s current plans involve money of course, bur far more important to the sinister doctor is an ancient Chinese talisman possessing almost unimaginable occult powers.

It’s an outrageous and highly entertaining potboiler with no pretensions to any great literary merit. It could be described as a late entry in the cycle of Victorian sensation novels that made writers like Wilkie Collins the literary superstars of their day, but with hints of the gothic thrown in. Boothby was an immensely successful author in his day.

A Bid for Fortune is one of the two Dr Nikola novels included in the Wordsworth paperback edition Dr Nikola Master Criminal. The second novel, Dr Nikola (sometimes called Dr Nikola Returns), is a kind of loose sequel and they need to be read in sequence. It takes an interestingly different perspective on the master criminal.

If you’re a fan of Victorian crime, gothic or adventure novels it’s worth picking up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sax Rohmer’s The Sins of Sumuru

Sax Rohmer is best-known as the creator of Fu Manchu, but he also wrote a series of pot-boilers about another diabolical criminal mastermind, Sumuru. Sumuru is an even more outlandish villain than Fu Manchu, which makes The Sins of Sumuru even more fun! Sumuru is a glamorous, beautiful but sinister female diabolical criminal mastermind.

Rohmer’s work is interesting for what it tells us about the fears of its time (and perhaps about the prejudices of our own age). The Fu Manchu stories explore the anxiety that empire brings with it, the ever-present fear that empires on which the sun never sets may not be eternal after all, and that the culture that is dominant today may not be dominant tomorrow. Rohmer was not a mere racist. Fu Manchu was a frightening antagonist because he was educated, brilliant, imaginative and possessed a code of honour. These stories expressed not so much a fear of an inferior culture as the fear of a culture that might turn out to be superior.

The Sumuru tales deal with anxiety about women. The so-called New Woman of the 1890s caused a great deal of worry. The role of women was clearly changing, but it was not clear where that change was going to lead. And again Rohmer does not paint women as inferior and irrational, but like Fu Manchu he portrays them as representing a differing world-view that might well win out in the end. And Sumuru, like Fu Manchu, is both ruthless and brilliant. There is certainly admiration mixed in with the paranoia. Sumuru is threatening because she is more intelligent than her enemies, and because she has a vision.She knows exactly what it is that she wants to achieve.

Sumuru’s machinations go beyond mere crime. She intends to create a New World Order, based on the elimination of war, greed and ugliness. This will be a world order dominated by women. Beautiful women. There will be a place for men, but their role will be strictly subordinate.

A conspiracy to abolish war and greed is obviously an appalling threat to civilisation, so clearly she must be stopped. It’s up to American journalist Mark Donovan and Dr Steel Maitland, one-time naval surgeon and now a senior operative of the British government’s most secret intelligence service, to prevent this woman from destroying the very foundations of our civilisation. Donovan must also save the woman he loves from the clutches of Sumuru. She has been recruited as part of Sumuru’s secret army.

Sumuru, part from being a criminal genius, is also a master (well, mistress) of disguise. In fact no-one knows what she really looks like, so she could be anyone! It’s all terribly and breathlessly exciting! With lots of exclamation points! It was originally published under the even more gloriously pulpy title of Nude in Mink. Silly fun, but definitely great fun.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Malpertuis by Jean Ray

Jean Ray’s 1943 novel Malpertuis is a strange little book indeed. It’s not immediately obvious wherein lies the strangeness, but don’t despair. If you like weirdness, there’s plenty of that to come.

The works of the Belgian-born Ray are generally regarded as belonging to what Europeans call the literature of the fantastique. It’s a rather broad but useful category. Malpertuis certainly has elements of the gothic, of the surreal, of the decadent, and of what Americans were starting to call weird fiction.

I won’t give away very much at all of the plot, because Ray reveals it very slowly and it’s important not to know too early what is really going on.

The novel purports to be a series of manuscripts written at different times by various hands, but all relating in some way to a man named Cassave and a house called Malpertuis. The prologue involves a sea voyage, but what is it that these mariners ate seeking? It’s certainly something from the past. Perhaps it is the past itself. They encounter a fellow mariner who does not seem to belong to their own time. Does he exist in the past, or on another timeline?

We then move on to the main narrative, written by the unfortunate Jean-Jacques Grandsire. The patriarch of the house of Malpertuis, Uncle Cassave is dying. His will is both generous and restrictive. The assorted relatives, hangers-on, servants and old acquaintances are all liberally provided for, but they can never leave Malpertuis.

They seem an odd lot, but young Jean-Jacques soon realises they are much than just odd. And the house is more than just a mysterious old house. Events occur that are so bizarre that Jean-Jacques doubts his own sanity. Even worse, he is uncertain if he can trust any of the other inmates of the house. Not even the beautiful enigmatic Euryale. Perhaps Euryale least of all, but he cannot help but feel the extraordinary fascination she exerts.

Jean-Jacques’ narrative breaks off, and additional information is furnished by the Abbe Doucedame, whose ancestor was partly responsible for setting the original events in motion, and by an elderly monk whose monastery may hold some of the secrets needed to reveal the truth. Are the inhabitants of Malpertuis demons? Madmen? Phantoms of the mind? In fact they are none of these things but neither are they quite human.

Jean Ray was a prolific author who moved easily between the worlds of pulp fiction and more serious literature. He was also responsible for many of the Harry Dickson tales.

Malpertuis was filmed by Harry Kümel in 1971 and the movie is well worth seeing, if only for the extraordinary powerhouse performance by Susan Hampshire in multiple roles (anyone who can act Orson Welles off the screen deserves respect).

Ray’s novel is strange, hypnotic and rather wonderful. I recommend it highly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place

If you’re one of those people (like myself) with a deep and abiding love for trash culture than Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is certainly a book you must read.

Metalious was born in New Hampshire, and that’s where her first and most famous novel is set. But this is not exactly a love letter to the place of her birth. It’s a merciless expose of hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, viciousness, sexual repression, corruption and general all-round nastiness. Peyton Place is a picturesque little town, but behind the neatly curtained windows you’ll find murder, incest, abortion, rape, bizarre sexual deviance, alcoholism and all the other joys of small-town life.

If there are two things the residents of Peyton Place fear more than anything else those things are scandal and facing the truth. Constance Mackenzie is more afraid than most. She isn’t really a widow raising a daughter on her own. She was never married, and her daughter Allison was the result of a liaison with a married man. Evelyn Page’s fear is sex, especially in regard to her teenage son Norman. She deals with this by giving him constant enemas, this being the only pleasure the two of them get out of life. Yes, this is fairly outrageous stuff for a novel published in 1957.

Leslie Harrington’s fear is that his dictatorial power over the town may one day be loosened. His son Rodney’s fear is that one day people will realise he’s not merely a bully but a coward as well. Selena Cross’s fear is her stepfather, who gets her pregnant at the age of 14. The town’s loveable doctor Matt Swain is afraid of the shack-dwellers. The novel begins in the late 1930s, and the shack-dwellers living in filth and squalor on the outskirts of town are a legacy of the Depression, but they’re also a result of inbreeding, alcoholism and ignorance. Doc Swain regards them with with horror and loathing, apart from Selena Cross. Selena has brains and ambition, she has a chance to escape, but being a teenage mother will destroy that chance forever. Doc Swain performs an illegal abortion on her, which gives him one more thing to torture himself about.

The town is also trying to adapt to the presence of the high school’s new headmaster. He’s an object of suspicion for three reasons - he’s from New York, he has a Greek name, and he’s an intellectual. He’s particularly disturbing to Constance Mackenzie, awakening sexual desires that she’d successfully repressed for almost two decades. She won’t marry him, because that might cause talk, but she’s willing to share her bed with him.On the other hand she’s determined that if she’s going to sleep with him at least she’ll make sure she doesn’t enjoy it.

In 1957 this book had something to offend just about everybody. And it wasn’t just the content. It was the gloriously trashy style of the writing. There was no way of excusing this book as Serious Literature, but there was also no way of keeping it from becoming a massive bestseller. The combination of sex, sin and trash was much too seductive. For better or worse, this book changed the face of American publishing. It sold eight million copies, and it taught American publishers that sex and scandal sells.

It was made into a delightfully campy film in the late 50s, but the movie is a very very sanitised version of the novel. The novel is not just more sleazy, it’s also much more cynical. It’s even cynical about war heroes, which was pretty daring in 1957. Peyton Place’s only actual war hero is a fake, but that’s conveniently covered up. It also tackles the issues of wartime profiteering and and the town elite using their control of the draft board to make sure that their sons don’t have to go off to war.

While it might not have a great deal of literary merit it did have something that American readers at the time were craving. It was honest about sex. Not sex as part of a romantic ideal of married love, but down-and-dirty lust. And it was honest in dealing with female lust, and with the reality that teenagers are interested in sex and no amount of denial is going to change that.

This novel is trash culture at its finest. I Ioved it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edgar Wallace’s The Twister

Edgar Wallace’s The Twister, published in 1928, is a tale of murder, high finance, and intrigue.

A plot to manipulate the international diamond market forms the background, with a sinister mad scientist and a crooked stock broker battling it out with a man known as The Twister. The Twister, Tony Braid, has a reputation for ruthlessness in both the diamond business and on the racetrack (he’s the owner of a rather successful racing stable). Despite his reputation, he’s actually scrupulously honest. That’s how he manages to get the better of people – nobody in the worlds of racing or finance expects honesty, so they always make the mistake of assuming he’s as shady as they are!

Also involved in the story is the lovely Lady Ursula Frensham, whose father has been a spectacular failure on the Stock Exchange and has brought himself to financial ruin.

It’s not really a murder mystery, since there’s really no mystery at all as to the identity of the murderer, in fact Wallace makes no attempt to conceal the killer’s identity. It is, however, a highly entertaining little thriller. The characters are broadly drawn but vivid, the plot movers along at a breakneck pace, and it’s rather luridly sensationalistic for its era.

It’s also very pulpy in style, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and that pulpiness actually adds to its charm. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Enter the Nyctalope

In the early decades of the 20th Jean de la Hire wrote a series of popular French pulps about the Nyctalope. The Nyctalope was a kind of superhero, with the ability to see in the dark. In 1933 de la Hire provided us with an origin story for him in the form of Enter the Nyctalope (L'Assassinat du Nyctalope or The Assassination of the Nyctalope).

It is 1912, and Leo Saint-Clair’s father Pierre us a brilliant engineer who has devised a brilliant invention called Radiant-Z that can control all the world’s radio waves. Unfortunately the invention has attracted the attention of anarchist and nihilist gangs from eastern Europe who will stop at nothing to steal this invention. They break into Saint-Cair’s laboratory, shoot the inventor and steak the plans for the device.

The 20-year-old Leo is not going to take this lying down however. With the assistance of his brave and resourceful chums from his local rugby club (and some aid from the French authorities) he sets out to smash the nihilist ring responsible for this outrage.

He goes undercover as a bomb-throwing nihilist, but in the course of his crusade he sustains the serious injuries that will eventually transform him into the Nyctalope. He will become a superhero with a powerful artificial heart giving him abnormal endureance, and the ability to see as well in pitch darkness in broad daylight.

This is great pulpy fun, with enormous plot holes but enough energy and outrageusness to allow the reader to ignore such minor trifles.

In writing this origin story de la Hire completely rewrote the chronology of his hero, so although this story claims to be set in 1912 the events seem more like to have occurred as early as 1897.

The story was adapted by Brian Stableford, a prolific author who interests extend from science fiction and horror to the literary decadence of the 1890s to the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. Black Coat Press have done a pretty fair job with the presentation of this volume. In fact one can’t really fault them at all.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the wold of the French pulp fiction and the even more obscure world of French literary superheroes. If you like your fiction overheated, breathless and pulpy with an emphasis on silly fun you can’t go wrong with this one.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

The House Without a Key, published in 1925, was the first of the Charlie Chan mysteries by Earl Derr Biggers. The six Charlie Chan novels were immensely successful but the movies based (loosely) on them were even more so - in fact there were no less than 40 Charlie Chan movies!

The movies have been attacked for supposedly promoting racial stereotypes. I haven’t seen the movies but the intention behind the books was to overturn racial stereotypes by having a Chinese hero at a time when Chinese villains were far more common in popular fiction. The character was based on a real police officer, Chang Apana, who had a distinguished career as a detective with the Honolulu Police Department.

Apart from Charlie Chan himself the book gains added exoticism from its Hawaiian setting. This is the Hawaii of the 1920s, at a time when most Americans didn’t even know Hawaii was part of the US.

But how does it stack up as a mystery novel? In fact, pretty well. It follows the rules of the golden age of detective fiction with a host of suspects and with clues liberally scattered about.

John Quincy Winterslip, a rather strait-laced young Bostonian stockbroker from a very old New England family has been dispatched to Hawaii to bring his Aunt Minerva home. The Winterslips as a family are a strange mix of ultra-respectable Puritans and feckless adventurers. The fear is that Aunt Minerva may be about to desert the respectable side of the family.

Minerva is staying in Honolulu with her cousin Dan Winterslip, the least respectable Winterslip of them all. When Dan is murdered John Quincy finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. That’s disturbing enough for this sheltered young man, but even more disconcertingly he finds himself rather liking the island lifestyle. Bond issues no longer seen quite so exciting. Going swimming on Waikiki Beach with Carlota Egan seems much more alluring. Carlota is not the sort of girl he could take home to meet Mother, but he’s starting to think that maybe she’s his kind of girl anyway.

There are plentiful sub-plots involving opium smuggling, blackmail, and dark family secrets. There’s romance and there’s some gentle humour.

There’s a great to deal to enjoy in The House Without a Key. It’s published in paperback by Wordsworth in the Charlie Chan Omnibus along with two other Charlie Chan mysteries. As with all Wordsworth’s titles in their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series it’s superb value for money. Warmly recommended.

Monday, October 25, 2010

John Buchan's The Watcher by the Threshold

The Watcher by the Threshold is a collection of five novellas by John Buchan, originally published in 1902.

Buchan is best known today for his spy fiction but his weird fiction is both interesting and original. Although it’s similar in some ways to the work of his contemporaries such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood it has its own unique flavour. These are very subtle stories, stories in which superficially not much happens. They’re entirely concerned with the internal psychology of the characters. The supernatural hardly exists, except insofar as it exists within the minds of his characters.

In Fountainblue a man who has achieved great success in business and politics returns to Scotland. He has never had any need of other people, until he meets Clara Etheridge. He has a rival in love though. A boating misadventure brings matters to a head, and he decides to change the course of his life.

The title story is a kind of possession story. A man suddenly becomes obsessed with late Roman history, and with the emperor Justinian, but is this sudden interest a sign of some strange occult influence?

No-Man’s-Land is a lost world story, a genre that I have a bit of a weakness for. A scholar finds evidence of the ancient Pictish culture of Scotland, but the evidence takes unexpectedly concrete form.

The best of the stories, I think, is The Far Islands. A young boy growing up in Scotland has a vision of a sea route to a mysterious land beyond the western sea, a vision that continues to haunt him throughout his life. It’s a wonderfully moody and evocative story.

Buchan is an almost forgotten author who is well worth the effort of rediscovery.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Exploits of Arsène Lupin

If you’re the sort of person who enjoys crime stories but finds it a little difficult to sympathise with the forces of law and order, then Maurice Leblanc’s stories of Arsène Lupin, gentleman burglar, may be right up your alley.

Lupin is a thief, but he also has a highly developed if somewhat eccentric sense of justice. He’s a bit like the Saint, or Raffles – he only steals from people who can afford it, and he takes a special delight in stealing from less reputable criminals, or in foiling the plans of real evil-doers.

The Exploits of Arsène Lupin collects nine Lupin stories. These include The Queen’s Necklace, very important for the light it sheds on Lupin’s early life, and Holmlock Shears Arrives Too Late, in which the French master-thief crosses swords with a certain English master-detective. The name change was apparently necessitated by legal action by Conan Doyle, although in fact it was really a tribute by one master storyteller to another.

Arsène Lupin himself is charming and well-bred, the sort of person who can burgle your house without lowering the tone of the neighbourhood. In fact it’s almost an honour to be robbed by such a discerning thief. Lupin of course is hotly pursued buy the police, with little success.

The Lupin stories enjoyed immense popularity in France and have a devoted following to this day. There have been quite a few film adaptations, including several Japanese anime versions (Lupin apparently has a strong following in Japan as well).

These are delightful crime stories, inventive and highly entertaining.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Saint Meets his Match

The Saint Meets his Match (originally published in 1931 as She Was a Lady) is fairly typical of Leslie Charteris’s early Saint novels. In other words it’s a great deal of fun.

Simon Templar gets mixed up with the Angels of Doom, a criminal gang whose activities are mostly concentrated on making the police look foolish. The gang is led by a beautiful, glamorous, ruthless and deadly young woman named Jill Trelawny. She has a major grudge against the police - her father as an Assistant Commissioner who was dismissed for corruption but she has always believed in his innocence.

This time Simon Templar, one-time notorious criminal, is not just working with the police, He’s actually joined the police force. At least on a temporary basis. His old nemesis Chief Inspector Teal is not entirely convinced that The Saint is not still playing some underhand game of his own. And in fact Templar is soon involved far more closely with the leader of the Angels of Doom than is perhaps quite proper for a member of the Metropolitan Police. Chief Inspector Teal is both right and wrong about his old enemy’s motives, but he is right in his assumption that The Saint is not going to fit comfortably into his new job.

Of course many things turn out not to have been what they seemed, and there are plenty of entertaining plot twists.

The Saint of Charteris’s books is more morally ambiguous and more interesting than the various TV and movie versions of the character. The charm and the endless succession of witticisms are still there though. Templar is so heroic and so clever that he’s in danger of becoming annoying but that never happen. There’s enough self-mockery in the character to avoid that anger, and Charteris’s touch is light enough that we don’t really mind. And there’s an edge of ruthlessness and opportunism to the character that is missing from the TV and movie incarnations that nicely counter-balances his virtues.

The tone of this novel is extremely playful, with Templar constantly drawing attention to his role as a story-book hero, and pointing out the ways in which his behaviour differs from what you’d expect from a hero of fiction.

A polished and sophisticated crime thriller with a nicely tongue-in-cheek approach, not to be taken seriously but perfect escapist entertainment.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers

The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903, is one of the great classic spy stories and at the time it was written there was considerable overlap between crime fiction and spy fiction (with Sherlock Holmes himself crossing swords with agents of foreign powers on several occasions). You could call it a spy mystery.

It’s also a great adventure story and a very fine novel of the sea. It concerns two young English yachtsmen who become obsessed by the idea that Germany is up to something nefarious in the waters just off their North Sea coast, a region of constantly shifting sandbanks and treacherous and changeable channels. To say any more about their suspicions would spoil the story.

This is low-key spy fiction. There’s not a great deal of action. The emphasis is on a gradually building tension as the full significance of what at first appears to be fairly tenuous evidence is slowly revealed.

At the time it was written Britain and Germany were engaged in a frantic naval arms race. This was the first real threat to Britain’s naval supremacy for a century, resulting in rampant paranoia about the possibility of German plans for invasion in the event of war. And paranoia is the main ingredient here as our amateur spies realise they’ve uncovered something incredibly important but that it’s going to be very difficult to convince anyone in authority. They’re going to have to do the investigating themselves.

The author, Erskine Childers, was an interesting character in his own right. Although The Riddle of the Sands was very much a stirring story of English patriotism Childers himself was executed by the British during the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond was one of the most popular fictional characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Bulldog Drummond, published in 1920, was the book that launched the career of this gentleman crime-fighter and adventurer.

Herman Cyril McNeile wrote the Bulldog Drummond novels under the pseudonym Sapper. Or at least he wrote the first ten or so novels - after McNeile’s death in 1937 the series was continued up to the mid-1950s by Gerard Fairlie.

Drummond became an equally popular character on radio and in movies, being played by such notable actors as Ronald Colman, Sir Ralph Richardson and Ray Milland. In the 60s the character was revived for two highly entertaining James Bond-influenced spy spoof movies, Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do. Which was only fitting since the Bulldog Drummond stories had been an early influence of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

In Bulldog Drummond we meet Captain Hugh Drummond, and he’s bored. Peacetime does not agree with him. He misses the excitement of the war. So he places an ad in the newspaper, offering his services in any kind of adventure regardless of its legality or of the danger involved. Most of the replies are unpromising but then he hits pay dirt - a genuine damsel in distress.

The damsel in question is Phyllis Benton and her story at first seems incredible - a tale of master criminals, sinister plots and daring robberies in which her father has become an unwilling accomplice. Drummond soon discovers that her story is not merely true, it’s actually much stranger than even she realises. In fact they have stumbled upon a conspiracy of almost unimaginably vast proportions in which the very fate of British civilisation is at stake. A gigantic communist conspiracy, funded by fabulously wealthy capitalists.

This was the first of the four novels featuring arch-villain Carl Petersen. Petersen is a master of disguise, and he’s a very cool customer. His chief henchman Henry Lakington is a very nasty pice of work indeed - his main amusements being devising sadistic means of murder and torture and pulling off spectacular jewel robberies. There’s also Petersen’s beautiful, amusing but evil daughter Irma. At least she claims to be his daughter, but may well be his mistress.

There’s plenty of action, and plenty of humour. Drummond is at this stage of his career very much an amateur. His main assets are his daring and his courage, his tendency to do the unexpected because he doesn’t know any better, and the fact that his opponents consistently under-estimate him, regarding him as a harmless buffoon. By the end of the adventure he has acquired a great deal of experience and a very definite taste for this type of exploit.

It’s all very politically incorrect but if that doesn’t bother you (and it certainly doesn’t bother me) then there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had within the pages of Bulldog Drummond.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spy Castle, Nick Carter

Nick Carter is one of the more long-lived characters in detective and espionage fiction. He first appeared in a story in 1886, was later the subject of a series of pulp novels in the 30s and then metamorphosed into a James Bond-style secret agent in the 60s.

The Killmaster series of spy novels eventually ran to some 260 novels with new titles still appearing as late as the 1990s. No author is ever credited for any of these books which were written by a variety of hands, and apparently quite a considerable number were written by women. Which is interesting since the Nick Carter spy character is very a macho action hero and a tireless womanizer.

I recently read one of these novels, a comparatively early entry in the series, published in 1966. Spy Castle is a classic mad scientist threatening to blow up the world tale, a plot that was used over and over again during the 60s in both books and movies. But Spy Castle does add an interesting twist. The mad scientist/diabolical criminal mastermind is also the head of a fascist paramilitary movement, called The Druids. At this point the book taps into the whole Scottish/Welsh nationalist thing which was attracting quite a lot of attention in Britain at this time. The Druids not only stand for Celtic nationalism, they also promise a return to the good old days of King Arthur!

It’s an outlandish plot, especially given that The Druids are also in league with the Red Chinese.

The violence and the sex are considerably more graphic than in the Bond novels. It goes without saying that Nick Carter’s bedroom skills prove just as useful as his spy skills in foiling the fiendish plot of The Druids and their unbalanced leader. The evil mastermind’s wife, Lady Hardesty, has slept with so many men that she’s lost count, but it takes Nick Carter to finally bring her sexual satisfaction. It’s all so outrageous and so over-the-top and so silly that it’s impossible to find it actually offensive although it would be fascinating to know if this was one of the novels with a female author.

Probably the most surprising thing about Spy Castle is that it’s a good deal of fun, in a very very pulpy sort of way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard

King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1885, made H. Rider Haggard one of the most popular of late Victorian and Edwardian novelists. It’s a classic tale of adventure set in southern Africa, involving the search for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon, and also the fate of the African kingdom of the Kukuanes. Haggard is often accused of being a typical apologist for imperialism, and also of being a misogynist. The reality, as is so often the case with the Victorians, is more complicated. There are Africans in the book who are portrayed as cruel and vicious, but most of the Africans are portrayed as being brave, intelligent and honourable. There is not a single African character who is stupid or cowardly.

The narrator of the adventure is Allan Quatermain, an elephant hunter and adventurer. Quatermain’s attitudes towards the Africans are contradictory. He displays some definite racist attitudes, but it is clear that personal experiences in Africa have contradicted his racist assumptions, and he has never really resolved his own conflicting views. Haggard himself spent some considerable time in Africa, and it’s likely that his own attitudes were as inconsistent as Quatermain’s.

In both this novel and in his other huge bestseller She Haggard’s attitudes towards women show the same contradictions. Quatermain’s feelings about the attraction between the English naval officer and the African girl Foulata display these contradictions very clearly – on the one hand Quatermain regards Foulata as one of the noblest women he’s known, on the other hand he’s says it’s just as well that a relationship between her and the Englishman will be impossible, because no good can come of it Of course he’s right; late 19th century society would be unlikely to accept such a union. Whether this is a bad thing or not is something Quatermain seems unsure of.

The story itself includes many elements that became clichés of the adventure genre, and you have to remind yourself that Haggard actually invented many of these clichés. There are plenty of narrow escapes for our band of adventurers, there are some genuinely very creepy moments, and plenty of entertainment. One thing I found very interesting was the character of Quatermain himself - he isn’t really a typical Victorian Boys’ Own adventure hero. He often describes himself as cowardly, and he only does brave things when he finds that running away isn’t an option. And his motivation for taking part in the adventure is financial gain, and whenever forgets that that is his main purpose. He has a lot more human weaknesses, and even moral failings, than you expect in this type of book. In some ways he’s more like George Macdonald Fraser’s notorious Harry Flashman than a classic Victorian hero.

While King Solomon’s Mines is great fun, it’s not quite as good as She.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood

Rafael Sabatini was arguably the last of the writers of old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure romances in the tradition of The Three Musketeers.

Captain Blood tells the story of Peter Blood. Blood is a doctor who is caught up in the events surrounding Monmouth’s rebellion against King James II in 1685 when he tends the wounds of one of the rebels. He soon finds himself clapped in irons and shortly thereafter shipped to the West Indies and sold into slavery. But of course the story doesn’t end there and Blood ends up a reluctant pirate.

This is a classic story of a man condemned for a crime he did not commit. What makes the story interesting is that although Blood embraces piracy, at the same time he is still trying to live up to his own high moral standards. In fact, the same high moral standards that got him into trouble in the first place.

Sabatini was an immensely popular author but is now all but forgotten. Captain Blood is wonderful entertainment. If you have a taste for adventure than it’s an absolute must-read.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wagner the Werewolf

Wagner the Werewolf is my second foray into the weird and wonderful world of the Victorian penny dreadfuls, the mid-19th century equivalent of 20th century pulp fiction.

These lurid tales were published in weekly installments, and aimed at the least prestigious sector of the fiction market, working-class audiences who were literate but not possessing the benefits of higher education. At least that was the view of the literary establishment, by whom they were thoroughly despised. Of course it’s likely that the readership wasn’t entirely confined to the working class, and these thrilling stories may well have been secretly enjoyed by lower middle-class readers who would never have admitted to buying them. The taste for sensational stories of crime, murder, horror and sin was more or less universal among the Victorians.

George W. M. Reynolds was an immensely popular author of that period. He had a taste for radical politics, a genius for controversy, a sublime disdain for copyright laws and he knew what his readers wanted. They wanted sex and violence, plus a happy ending. An that’s what he gave them. He also inserted his political views and his advanced ideas on subjects such as religious tolerance into his books - it’s no coincidence that the most admirable characters in this tale are a renagede Christian turned Moslem and an elderly Jew.

Wagner the Werewolf, which appeared in 1847, is more a gothic melodrama than the sort of thing that modern readers would recognise as horror. The werewolf of the title is just one of a dozen or so main characters who figure in the incredibly convoluted and contrived plot.

And the focus isn’t on his lycanthropy as such. The lycanthropy is merely the curse that makes Wagner a doomed gothic hero who must struggle to save his immortal soul after an ill-advised pact with a demon. The pact restores youth and vitality to a 90-year-old shepherd, and also gives him great learning and vast wealth. He becomes a figure in society in 16th century Florence, but at a terrible price. And he’s not the most interesting character - that distinction goes to the Lady Nisida, a very morally ambiguous and utterly ruthless character who manages to be both heroine and villainess. Her family also suffers under a curse. There are assorted murders, heroes and heroines are consigned to the tortures of the Inquisition. A young Florentine takes service with the Sultan and rises to the peak of power in the Ottoman Empire. There are family secrets that are not to be revealed until the end of the story. There are intrigues, and there’s lots of illicit sex. There are also some moderately gruesome scenes.

The supernatural elements are important, although they’re mostly important in providing Reynolds with the opportunity to present his book as moral entertainment and to ensure that both virtue and vice are suitably rewarded.

The style is pulpy and trashy and insanely breathless. It is in fact pure melodrama. The plot is outrageous in its use of unlikely coincidences and transparent plot devices. Reynolds manipulates our emotions shamelessly. And he doesn’t neglect the all-important titillation. He never misses an opportunity to get his heroines naked, or to wax lyrical over the magnificence of their figures and the voluptuousness of their bosoms. It’s all very crudely done, but that just adds to the charm. Reynolds knew his market, and he wasn’t interested in literary respectability.

It’s lots of fun in a delightfully trashy way, and if you accept it on its own terms its thoroughly entertaining.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

John Buchan's Greenmantle

Since it’s been rather quiet I’m going to repost some brief pieces that I posted elsewhere quite a while ago.

John Buchan's Greenmantle is a combination spy thriller/swashbuckling adventure tale. It was written in 1916, and concerns a diabolical plot by those dastardly Germans to wreck the British Empire.

Richard Hannay is the man selected to foil this nefarious scheme. To do this he must enter Germany, in the guise of an Afrikaner mining engineer. The tone is very Boys' Own Adventure. The only significant female character is the diabolical Hilda von Einem. Richard Hannay would much rather be back with the chaps in his regiment in France in a mud-filled trench being shelled night and day than have to spend an evening in feminine company. You know where you are with chaps. Hannay is awfully brave, though, and you just know the wicked Boche aren't going to get away with their wicked plots.

While it's easy enough to mock this sort of book, on the plus side it's fast-moving and action-packed and quite entertaining if you're in the right mood. And I am very partial to diabolical plots, and I do have a weakness for spy fiction. Buchan in fact is a kind of link between the old-fashioned swashbuckling tale of intrigue and adventure, the Three Musketeers kind of thing, and the modern spy novel. He wrote a number of books featuring Richard Hannay, the best-known being of course The 39 Steps. And giving credit where it's due, even though the book was written at the height of the war Buchan doesn't portray the Germans or their allies the Turks as universally monstrous and brutal. Buchan's characters are certainly colourful, and they have more complexity than you'd expect.

If you have a taste for adventure stories or for spy thrillers then Greenmantle is excellent entertainment.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming


Recently I’ve found myself involved in an extraordinary number of discussions on the topic of James Bond, and more specifically on the subject of Ian Fleming’s original novels. Since it as years since I’d read any of the novels I got hold of a copy of From Russia with Love (one of the bond novels that I’d never read) and sat down and read it.

Fleming’s spy novels are not quite as I’d remembered them. While they certainly emphasise a fairly glamorous and action-packed side to espionage I found this one to be darker than I’d remembered.

And while the 1960s espionage thrillers of people like John le Carré and Len Deighton were in many ways a reaction against the glamorous depiction of spies it’s worth pointing out that Fleming was just as obsessed as they were with making the background as authentic as possible. While an organisation like the Soviet SMERSH (an acronym for Death To Spies) which served as Bond’s nemesis sounds lie something goofy the author made up it wasn’t. SMERSH really did exist.

One thing that was more or less as I’d remembered it was Fleming’s somewhat bizarre attitude towards women. It’s long been rumoured that Fleming’s sexual tastes were a trifle outré. The scene where the two gypsy girls must fight to the death to decide who gets to marry the man they both love tends to support this.

But once again it’s not quite that simple. The mistakes Bond makes in this adventure come about because he is unable to treat the Russian spy Tatiana as a mere sex object. He goes and falls in love with her.

And while there’s a pulpiness to the content at times the style isn’t really pulpy. Fleming was more than just a hack.

Overall From Russia with Love was a rather better book than I’d been expecting. Yes there is sexism there that will make modern readers a bit uncomfortable, but compared to the sexism in some of the other crime and espionage writers of the 50s (Mickey Spillane comes to mind) I think it’s possible to overlook it and still enjoy the ride. The 1963 movie version is one of the best of the Bond films.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars

The Jewel of Seven Stars is one of several novels written by Bram Stoker in addition to Dracula. His novels are wildly uneven. The Lady of the Shroud is dull, uninteresting and almost unreadable. The Lair of the White Worm is bizarre and highly entertaining. The Jewel of Seven Stars, published in 1904, is different again. And this one is actually very good!

A barrister named Malcolm Ross receives an urgent call to the home of an eminent although perhaps slightly eccentric Egyptologist, Mr Trelawney. He has been found, apparently in a deep coma, in a room of his house filled with Egyptian antiquities including the mummy of an Egyptian queen. The room is filled with an overpowering and pungent aroma but Trelawney has seemingly anticipated this situation and left strict instructions that his body, whether alive or dead, is not to be moved from the room.

Ross, along with a Scotland Yard detective, Trelawney’s doctor, a nurse and Trelawney’s daughter Margaret keep a vigil by his bedside but are overcome by a strange sleep. When they awake they discover a deep gash on the arm of Mr Trelawney and evidence of an attempt to open his safe. There is no logical explanation for any of these odd events until the arrival of a mysterious colleague of Trelawney’s who has a strange tale to tell. Some centuries earlier a Dutch explorer has discovered the tomb of an Egyptian queen who had so offended the priests that her name had been erased from all records. Trelawney had been inspired by this book to find the tomb, and had succeeded. He brought the queen’s mummy and the various grave goods back to England, including a very unusual ruby carved with hieroglyphs and with a representation of seven stars.

Trelawney’s further researches reveal that the mummy is that of Queen Tera, and that the queen had set in motion an extraordinary plan for her future bodily resurrection. Trelawney becomes obsessed, his obsession increased by the fact that his own daughter Margaret was born at the exact moment he uncovered the queen’s tomb, and Margaret bears an uncanny resemblance to the long-dead monarch. He has discovered the means by which Queen Tera intended to effect her resurrection, and he has resolved to put her plan into operation. Ross isn’t sure this is entirely a good idea, especially given that he has now fallen in love with Margaret.

Stoker builds the suspense and the sense of mystery and of the uncanny with considerable expertise in this short novel. There isn’t a great deal of overt horror but it’s an entertaining and effective weird tale. While it doesn’t have the complexity of Dracula it’s arguably a better written and more tightly constructed book. A highly enjoyable read.

The Wordsworth Classic edition (included in their mummy anthology Return From the Dead) includes both the original 1904 ending and Stoker’s revised 1912 ending.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sax Rohmer's The Daughter of Fu Manchu

The Daughter of Fu Manchu, published in 1931, was the fifth of Sax Romer’s novels featuring the fiendish but brilliant Dr Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu was one of the first diabolical criminal masterminds in fiction, and remains one of the most interesting of the breed. While the books have often been accused of racism Fu Manchu is in fact a rather complex character. It’s made clear that he is a man of honour, a man of his word. And on some occasions he even finds himself on the same side as his arch-nemesis Nayland Smith. It’s also made clear that he is a man of vast intellectual gifts.

At the beginning of The Daughter of Fu Manchu it is assumed that Dr Fu Manchu himself is dead, although there are those who have their doubts as to whether such a man could really have ben killed. Strange events are unfolding in the Egyptian desert at an archaeological site. The leader of the expedition, Sir Lionel Barton, has died mysteriously but his assistant Greville (who is the narrator of the story) receives a message indication that perhaps Sir Lionel is not really dead.

Greville has confided in Dr Petrie, who sees uncanny similarities to earlier cases in which Dr Fu Manchu was involved. But surely he can’t still be alive? Dr Petrie can’t help wishing he could talk to his old friend Sir Denis Nayland Smith, a man who knows more about Fu Manchu than any man alive and who has been responsible for foiling several of his fiendish schemes. But no-one seems to know where Nayland Smith is.

Of course, as the title indicates, our heroes soon find themselves engaged in a battle of wits with the Lady Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu. She is almost as brilliant as her father, and every bit as dangerous and ruthless.

There are corpses that are not really dead, ransacked tombs, exotic poisons, vast conspiracies and ancient secret societies as well as a variety of fanatical religious assassins. Rohmer’s style is pulpy and breathless! With lots of exclamation points! But he knows how to tell an exciting story.

And the stories have both a fascinating villain and a colourful hero who is just as much of a larer-than-life figure as the villain.

SaxRohmer (1883-1959) wrote many books aside from the Fu Manchu books, including some rather good horror, and also the Sumuru series (a kind of female version of Fu Manchu). But it’s the Fu Manchu novels for which he is remembered. They’re great fun if you can accept their lack of political correctness (and that’s something you have to do for most of the pulp and popular genre fiction of the first half of the 20th century).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Face in the Abyss by Abraham Merritt

Abraham Merritt is one of the forgotten masters of weird fiction. His work ranges from horror (Burn Witch Burn) to epic fantasy (the delightful The Ship of Ishtar). The Face in the Abyss, published in 1931, could perhaps be described as a blend of dark fantasy and the 19th century tale of adventure in the style of H. Rider Haggard, with a dash of the Conan Doyle of the Professor Challenger stories.

A mining engineer on a prospecting expedition in South America stumbles across a lost civilisation. A culture both more civilised than our own and more barbarous; more advanced and yet in some ways curiously primitive. This lost world also contains forgotten animals, including several varieties of dinosaurs, as well as creatures of almost unimaginable strangeness. Is it magic, or a strange and highly advanced technology, that is responsible for the wonders of this land? Naturally the engineer meets a beautiful young woman, and they fall in love. But his arrival triggers an epic battle between the Snake Mother and her arch-rival, Nimir.
It’s all great fun, packed with action and romance, it moves along at breakneck speed (it takes 224 pages to tell a story for which most modern writers would require at least 800 pages), and the lost world is described vividly but without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Merritt’s style is always fairly uncomplicated but entertaining. Anything by Merritt is worth reading.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Peter Cheyney’s Never a Dull Moment

Peter Cheyney’s 1942 potboiler Never a Dull Moment was one of the novels featuring his most popular hero, FBI Chief Agent Lemmy Caution.

They enjoyed huge popularity in Cheyney’s lifetime, and maintained this popularity in Europe at least until the 1960s thanks to the very successful French Lemmy Caution movies starring Eddie Constantine. They’re now all but forgotten. It’s a bit puzzling that they haven’t developed more of a cult following. They’re so deliciously trashy and pulpy and the hard-boiled dialogue is so overdone. Everything is so overblown it almost becomes high camp but it remains great fun.

As usual Lemmy is investigating crimes taking place outside the US. For an American FBI agent he seemed to spend remarkably little time in the US. Given that Cheyney was an Englishman it’s understandable that he preferred to have his hero operating in familiar surroundings. This gives the novels a kind of early transatlantic flavour.

A woman named Julia Wayles has been kidnapped in the US and taken to England. Although no-one is sure if she’s really been kidnapped. She’s being held by a couple of American mobsters named Rudy Zimman and Tamara Phelps. But no-one is sure if this is the real Tamara Phelps or not. And the Rudy who first turns up is not the real Rudy. There’s also an American woman named Mrs Lorella Owen but she’s probably not really Mrs Lorella Owen. It’s that kind of incredibly convoluted plot but it suits Cheyney’s rather tongue-in-cheek approach to the hard-boiled genre.

There are lots of dames in this book, and they’re all dangerous. In Lemmy Caution’s world dames are always dangerous. Well the fascinating and beautiful ones are dangerous and they’re the only ones Lemmy is interested in. There are few things in life that Lemmy likes as much as dangerous women. Men on the other hand are either lousy two-bit punks or they’re swell guys. Lemmy handles lousy two-bit punks just as adeptly as he handles dangerous no-good dames.

And as usual the crime that Caution is investigating turns out to be more than just everyday crime. There’s an element of espionage and intrigue. Entertaining lightweight fun pulp fiction.