Friday, December 30, 2011

John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides

John Dickson Carr was considered to be a master of the locked-room mystery, and in The Case of the Constant Suicides (written in 1941) he gives us not one but two locked-room puzzles! One of which has a particularly ingenious solution.

An interesting feature of the book is that Carr’s detective, Dr Gideon Fell, keeps somewhat in the background. Mostly we see things through the eyes of two young scholars, Alan Campbell and his distant cousin Kathryn, who met unexpectedly when both are summoned to Scotland after the apparent suicide, or possible murder, of old Angus Campbell.

Carr goes to a great deal of trouble to show us the many differences between English Law and Scottish Law. Apart from being interesting in their own right, at least one of these differences turns out to be fairly important to the plot.

It’s all highly entertaining – Carr gives us a remote Scottish castle (really just an old house but with a suitably mysterious tower), a suggestion of ghosts, old family scandals, lots of colourful minor characters and a complex but rewarding plot. I loved it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Third Round, by Sapper

The Third Round was, as its name suggests, the third of the Bulldog Drummond novels written by Herman Cyril McNeile under the pseudonym Sapper. And it’s just as much fun as the first two.

Written in 1924 it is of course a product of its time. If you like your adventure fiction to be politically correct and culturally sensitive then you won’t like the Bulldog Drummond stories. Drummond believes in all sorts of discredited ideas, things like honour and decency and patriotism and loyalty.

The first Bulldog Drummond novel introduced us to Captain Hugh Drummond, an officer who was finding peacetime rather dull. He had served with distinction in the Great War but found adjustment to the postwar world somewhat difficult. He had placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering his services in any kind of adventure as long as it didn’t conflict with his personal code of honour. Drummond was a man not overburdened with either good looks or the higher intellectual gifts but possessed of commonsense, great physical strength, immense courage and a considerable quantity of low cunning, qualities that had allowed him to survive the dangers of war.

He soon found himself matching wits with ruthless diabolical criminal mastermind Carl Peterson. Their duel continues throughout the first four novels.

The Third Round finds Drummond draw into the affairs of an eccentric scientist who has discovered a means of producing perfect artificial diamond, in almost limitless quantities. Not surprisingly this had upset the syndicates that control the diamond trade. The trade is strictly regulated in order to keep prices as high as possible. No the established players in the trade face ruin. Their response is to employ someone to kill the scientist.

As it happens, an old pal of Drummond’s hope to marry the scientist’s daughter. Drummond is informed of the threats that have been made, and his problem now is to keep a very cantankerous, very stubborn and very uncooperative scientist alive.

He doesn’t yet know that Carl Peterson is involved but this will come as little surprise to the reader (the title of the book more or less tells us that this will be Drummond’s third encounter with the brilliant but evil Peterson. And we can be sure that the beautiful but vicious Irma (supposedly Peterson’s daughter but more likely his mistress) will put in an appearance at some stage

Peterson has plans of his own, plans that the diamond syndicates may well find to be even more disadvantageous than the eccentric professor’s original invention of the diamond-manufacturing process.

There’s action in abundance, plenty of narrow escapes, and countess opportunities for Drummond to display the qualities that earned him his nickname of Bulldog Drummond.

Great entertainment, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dennis Wheatley’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg

Toby Jugg, the hero of Dennis Wheatley’s 1948 novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg, is a young fighter pilot in 1942, now confined to a wheelchair after being shot down. He is also the heir to a considerable fortune, a fortune that is being administered by a board of trustees until he comes of age. He is convalescing at one of his family’s country properties in Wales. He is becoming increasingly disturbed by a strange presence, a mysterious shadow cast by the moonlight through a gap in the blackout curtains, a shadow that he is convinced is cast by a malevolent and unnatural entity trying to gain entrance to his room.

Toby is unable to convince anyone of the reality of this entity, and he slowly comes to believe that there is a plot against him, a plot to send him mad, or to make it appear that he is already mad. Is this some form of hallucination? Is this unearthly creature real or a product of his imagination? Do the people caring for him actually intend his destruction, or are they sincerely concerned for a young man whose grip on sanity is steadily weakening?

The story is told in the form of Toby’s secret journal. Wheatley was really a writer of thrillers, some of which involved occult forces and some of which involved purely human evil. It’s really an elaborate and bizarre conspiracy theory story rather than a conventional horror story. It’s impossible to take it seriously, and that’s the very quality that makes it vastly entertaining and extremely amusing even for readers who don’t share Wheatley’s political beliefs. You have to admire someone who can weave together such a complex and eccentric paranoid fantasy involving Communists, Satanists, Freemasons and modern theories of education.

As a horror thriller it’s exciting and gripping – Wheatley demonstrates considerable skill in building up an atmosphere of menace, suspicion and supernatural dread. I don’t think very many readers could approach this book the way its author presumably intended it to be approached, but if you read it with the right kind of camp sensibility it really is outrageous fun.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Graham Greene's A Gun for Sale

Graham Greene’s 1936 novel A Gun for Sale is probably better known for the 1942 movie adaptation, the classic film noir This Gun for Hire. In fact the movie, while excellent, bears little resemblance to Greene’s novel.

In the novel the professional hitman, Raven, is a profoundly ugly man and it’s suggested that his anti-social habits may have a great deal to do with his ugliness. He has been employed to carry out a political assassination, a deed that may well plunge the world into war. The consequences of his actions do not occur to Raven until much later.

The police don’t know that Raven was involved in the assassination. They’re after him for a robbery, which ironically he did not commit. He was paid for the assassination in stolen money, a double-cross intended to get him out of the way. Anne, the girlfriend of the policeman in charge of the pursuit encounters Raven on a train. She is kidnapped by him and he intends to kill her but a strange bond develops between them although it doesn’t follow the pattern you might expect,

The novel as written at a time when it was fashionable to see wars as something that were brought about by the machinations of corrupt financiers and industrialists and it’s surprising to see a writer as intelligent as Greene falling for such naïve explanations.

This is one of the books that Greene classed as “entertainments” rather than novels and it’s certainly a lesser work. The complex personal interactions between Raven and Anne and the psychological dissection of Raven’s severely warped personality are the book’s strengths and they’re the reasons to read this book. Recommended as a reasonably good example of the dark, corrupt and twisted world that Green was so good at creating.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eric Ambler’s The Schirmer Inheritance

Eric Ambler’s 1953 novel The Schirmer Inheritance isn’t quite a crime novel, or at any rate certainly not a conventional one. It’s perhaps best described as a mystery thriller with a dash of international intrigue. It’s somewhat in the style of Graham Greene’s cloak-and-dagger novels.

Ambler and Greene took the spy/adventure story as written by people like John Buchan and seasoned it with lots of cynicism, and a certain amount of black humour.

The Schirmer Inheritance is typical of Ambler’s work in having an amateur, in this case a young attorney, who becomes involved in a web of mystery, crime and international politics. Sent to Germany in 1949 to trace a possible heir to an American soft-drink fortune he finds itself drawn into a story that started during in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars when a Prussian dragoon deserted his regiment, and which now leads him to Greece in the midst of civil war as he follows the trail of a young German sergeant killed by partisans in World War II.

It’s a fascinating and unusual story, told with great skill and with Ambler’s gift for striking characterisation. A very entertaining read, and a book I recommend very highly. If you haven’t discovered Eric Ambler then you’re missing out on a very fine and underrated writer.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Lone Wolf, by Louis Joseph Vance

Simon Templar, known as The Saint, is the most famous fictional example of the criminal turned crime-fighter but before The Saint there was the Lone Wolf. This character featured in eight books written between 1917 and 1934 by Louis Joseph Vance.

Michael Lanyard was English-born but brought up in slightly disreputable circumstances in Paris. He has no clear idea who his real parents were. A chance meeting with an Irish thief named Bourke sets the young Lanyard on the road to crime. He becomes the famed jewel thief known as the Lone Wolf.

The first novel in the series, The Lone Wolf, gives us a brief account of his childhood and, more importantly, an account of the events that lead him to abandon his evil ways. He runs foul of a shadowy underworld organisation and finds himself hunted both by his fellow criminals and by the police. He is framed for the murder of a Scotland Yard inspector in a Paris hotel. And he meets Lucy Bannon. She is involved with the mysterious criminal gang that is out to get him but she is not a wiling accomplice to their crimes.

Michael Lanyard finds himself in love for the first time, and for the first time in his life he feels the desire to break free from his criminal past and to make amends for his misdeeds. Perhaps if he can prove himself worthy of Lucy’s love he can find both redemption and happiness.

His first difficulty is simply to stay alive.

Lanyard is an interesting variation on the gentleman thief as personified by such famous fictional characters as Raffles and Arsène Lupin. He may or may not be a gentleman by birth but he is certainly not one by upbringing. He is however gifted with a great deal of natural ability, and not just in the area of burglary. He has been able to pass himself off quite successfully as a gentleman.

There’s enough adventure, action and romance to keep most readers happy although the book doesn’t have the style and panache of Leslie Charteris’s early stories of The Saint.

The Lone Wolf went on to feature in two dozen movies and a TV series although the TV version being set in the US in the 50s lacks the flavour of the original.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Omega: The Last Days of the World, by Camille Flammarion

Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) was a French astronomer and a noted populariser of science. He also wrote a number of science fiction novels, including Omega: The Last Days of the World.

Published in 1893, it’s a rather unconventional work and it’s debatable whether it can really be considered a novel. It’s more of a fictionalised speculative essay.

It opens with the world about to end. It is the 25th century and a comet is on a collision course with the Earth. Most scientists initially agree that the results will be catastrophic and will almost certainly lead to the extinction of all life on the planet. Later dissenting voices are raised and at an international conference a panel of scientists explain their varying theories on how the Earth really will die, several million years in the future.

The predictions of doom turn out to be false. The book then changes gears abruptly and traces the future history of mankind, with civilisation and technology progressing and our species continuing to evolve towards greater and greater intelligence. Then, after a few million years, with the Earth’s water having disappeared and with the planet becoming more and more uniform as mountain ranges vanish and only an endless unbroken plain remains, civilisation starts to decay.

The book then changes gears again and takes on a mystical aspect as the end of everything turns out not to be the end of everything.

As always when scientists try to predict the future Flammarion gets almost everything wrong. On the other hand you have to admire the truly epic sweep of this book, something that had not really been attempted in science fiction prior to this time.

As well as being a future history it’s also a utopian vision although like most utopias it could be seen by sceptics as a dystopia if you don’t share Flammarion’s naïve faith in world government or his enthusiasm for a single global monoculture.

It’s a bold attempt to present scientific ideas in the form of fiction but I’m not sure it really succeeds. Having no characters to relate to added to the sheer scale of the time period it covers makes it difficult to engage with the story so it doesn’t really work as fiction.

Flammarion’s passion for science was matched by his enthusiasm for spiritism and related mystical beliefs and the combination is a little disconcerting.

An interesting historical curiosity, certainly worth reading if you’re fascinated by the history of the science fiction genre.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Greene Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine

The Greene Murder Case, published in 1928, was the third of S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. Of course whether you actually enjoy the Philo Vance books is very much a matter of taste.

Most of the criticisms that have been made of these books are entirely accurate. It’s just that if, like me, you’re a fan then you’ll see those things as virtues rather than faults. Vance’s aristocratic mannerisms, his affected mode of speech, his prodigious knowledge of any subject you care to mention, the scholarly footnotes, these are all these things you will either find irritating or endearing. Vance is pretty much an American version of Lord Peter Wimsey, but with even more esoteric learning than Wimsey.

There’s also the matter of Van Dine’s plotting, even by the standards of golden age detective fiction his plots are outrageously convoluted and incredibly unlikely. But then golden age detective fiction really is an artificial kind of creation. No real-life criminal would ever come up with plans as fiendishly complex as those we take for granted in the crime novels of the 20s and 30s. That’s part of the fun. It’s all an elaborate and highly civilised parlour game.

In this case we have a wealthy New York family, the Greenes, who find themselves being slowly and systematically wiped out. Well actually they’re being wiped out rather quickly. And as for suspects, almost everyone who has ever come into contact with this unpleasant family could qualify. And if it’s an inside job then just about any member of the family could easily be imagined as taking great joy in exterminating the others.

Naturally there’s a will involved, and naturally it’s an odd will. Wills containing eccentric provisions are one of the great conventions of golden age detective stories. In this instance the late Tobias Greene’s will provides generously for his descendants but makes them virtual prisoners in the family mansion. And even more disastrously it forces then all to live under the same roof where their hatreds and resentments soon blossom in spectacular fashion.

Fictional detectives often regard the police and other law enforcement officials with disdain but Philo Vance is something of an exception. He works closely with his friend Markham who happens to be the District Attorney, and he gets on well with the competent and determined Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Squad. This case requires the talents of all three as a web of dark family secrets is slowly revealed, and as the mysterious killer goes on claiming new victims. They need to solve the case before the Greene family becomes extinct in its entirety, although Vance is inclined to think this would be no great loss to humanity.

I like Vance as a character and I don’t mind plots of byzantine complexity and I thoroughly enjoyed The Greene Murder Case.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death

Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death appeared in paperback in 1970 but most of the stories included in this collection the stories had originally been published in various pulp magazines over the course of the preceding three decades.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are among the most memorable of all sword and sorcery heroes and Leiber was one of the masters of the genre.

There are a couple of stories in this collection that are a little weak, but overall it’s superb. I loved The Bleak Shore with its wonderful atmosphere of inescapable doom, of death calling to human victims who have no choice but to heed the call. The Howling Tower is even better. A very creepy atmosphere, and the idea behind it, of a man haunted by the ghosts of dogs who must find victims to assuage their hunger for souls or be driven mad by their other-worldly howling, is brilliant.

The Thieves’ House is a great fun romp. The Sunken Land is nicely creepy and has a feel of inescapable doom a bit similar to The Bleak Shore. And Bazaar of the Bizarre is a wonderfully enjoyable and strange story.

Leiber’s sword and sorcery tales could on occasions be light-hearted but they could also be very very dark indeed. I had forgotten just how good a writer he was!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Horace McCoy's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

Horace McCoy (1897-1955) was one of the best writers of the hardboiled school of American fiction. While he was definitely hardboiled he wasn’t really a crime writer as such. Crime is usually peripheral to his books, as is the case with his best-known work, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. The closest he came to writing a genuine crime novel was Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye which appeared in 1948.

The novel was one of the first crime novels to focus on the psychology of a vicious psychopathic murderer, predating Jim Thompson’s the Killer Inside Me by several years. McCoy’s book is in fact by far the better of the two.

The problem with crime stories dealing with psychopaths is that the protagonists are generally so detestable that it’s impossible to care what happens to them. Such stories are also usually so unpleasant that reading them is more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye avoids this problem to some extent by making its first person narrator protagonist more interesting than most.

The book starts with Ralph Cotter’s escape from a prison farm. The break was organised by the sister of one of the other prisoners. Her brother had almost finished his sentence but was about to be extradited to face murder charges. The brother is killed in the escape. He is in fact accidentally shot by Cotter during a shootout with the prison guards.

Cotter teams up with the sister and with another small-time criminal, Jinx. The sister is named Holiday and she and Cotter are soon lovers, embroiled in a relationship based on violence and lust but that suits both parties just fine.

Now that he’s out Ralph needs to get his hands on some money so he robs a produce market. He kills a man during the course of the robbery and this gives us our first insight into Ralph’s horrifyingly casual attitude towards violence. He is a man entirely lacking in conscience, and a man who is self-centred to a degree that almost defies belief.

Soon after the robbery a couple of cops arrive at the apartment shared by Ralph and Holiday. They’re not interested in making an arrest however. What they’re interested in is a payoff. If Ralph hands over the proceeds of the heist he is free to catch the next bus out of town and across the state line. Ralph now comes up with a stroke of genius. He lures the cops back to the apartment and offers them more money if they’ll let him stay in town, and he also offers to cut them in on the proceeds of further robberies. This interesting conversation is recorded by Jinx. With the recording of this conversation, and with the help of a shady lawyer called Mandon, Cotter now blackmails the police officers into a permanent criminal partnership. It’s a partnership that will be characterised by an extraordinary degree of cold-blooded violence.

So far it might sound like a straightforward crime story involving crooked cops but this is not what interests McCoy. He is more concerned with the tangled inner workings of Cotter’s mind and with the fateful results of his meeting with the young, strange and extremely rich Margaret Dobson. Cotter’s brief sexual liaison with Margaret triggers off a series of disturbing childhood memories, memories that hold the key to Cotter’s character and his fascination with violence and death.

The Freudian nature of these memories does tend to date the book rather badly and if (like me) you have little patience with Freudian silliness you may find all this to be more than a little annoying.

Other aspects of Cotter’s personality are more interesting. He was not forced into crime by poverty. He was born into wealth and privilege. He attended an Ivy League college and was a brilliant student. He is a connoisseur of the finer things in life. He is a gourmet, an art lover and a wine buff. He is an unashamed elitist, an intellectual snob who regards his criminal accomplices with contempt. He believes he is destined for greatness.

The book is a psychological study of a gifted and unusual but entirely depraved misfit and while the Freudian angle might stretch credibility somewhat it remains one of the more intriguing and original hardboiled novels. Recommended.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner contains twelve of the stories by Baroness Orczy featuring the mysterious man who sits in the corner of the ABC tea shop fiddling with a piece of string whilst working our the solutions to crimes that have baffled the police. Each case is unfolded during the course of a conversation between the man in the corner and a lady journalist, an ingenious method that avoids the necessity of a clumsy tacked-on explanation of the crime.

Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) is of course far better known as the authoress of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She was born in Hungary but her family relocated to London after losing most of their fortune. She turned to writing out of necessity and was immediately successful. Her literary output was quite considerable and varied and included no less than 38 stories featuring The Old Man in the Corner, written between 1901 and 1925. She also created one of the first great women detectives, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard.

Apparently Baroness Orczy’s husband advised her to create a detective who was as unlike Sherlock Holmes as it was possible for a detective to be. She certainly succeeded. This rather shabby, very eccentric detective is like no other. And he has no interest in helping the police or the courts to bring criminals to justice and in fact never lifts a finger to do so – for him it is purely an intellectual challenge. Which of course means that both the reader and the lady journalist in the tea shop have to accept on faith the old man’s solution to these criminal puzzles.

I think The Liverpool Mystery is my favourite but all twelve stories in this collection are excellent.

These highly original and entertaining stories are essential reading for any crime fiction fan.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Eugene Thébault’s 1929 science fiction novel Radio-Terror (Radio-Terreur, Grand Roman du Mystère) is pure pulp fiction fun.

This is a mad scientist story on the grand scale. I begins with Paris being terrorised by strange radio messages, messages that drive every other broadcast off the airwaves. The unknown voice threatens nothing less than the destruction of civilisation. The populace is at first inclined to treat the threats as a joke, until the voice presents with them incontrovertible evidence of his ability to translate his threats into reality.

Fortunately civilisation is by no means defenceless. The great Professor Mazelier and his talented and devoted assistant Monsieur Gribal are determined to foil the plans of the evil genius. But just who is this monster of evil? It doesn’t take long to establish the undoubted fact that the man behind these sinister menaces is the Marquis de Saint-Imier, and that the marquis is both insane and brilliant.

It is clear that the marquis is a master of the scientific arts, a man who can harness the power of radiation and project his powers over great distances. He can not only cause destruction at any point he chooses, he can also observe his enemies’ activities no matter where they might be.

Professor Mazelier is also no stranger to the powers of radiation and has technologies at his command that are the equal of anything possessed by the marquis, but he and the marquis are involved in a kind of arms race, both parties seeking to constantly improve their technologies in a deadly game of catch-up.

The marquis soon gives deadly proof of both his abilities and his willingness to use these abilities. The fate of western civilisation hangs in the balance.

This novel was translated by Fletcher Pratt, at the time a well-known author of fantasy literature, and was published in English by Wonder Stories in 1933.

It’ a fine example of the richness and diversity of early 20th century French science fiction. It’s all very breathless and exciting and it’s not meant to be taken too seriously. This is not exactly hard science fiction. As a mad scientist tale it’s great silly pulpy fun.

Unlike most of Black Coat Press’s publications this one includes only the briefest of introductions but this is is still a very enjoyable tale.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Skull-Face and others, by Robert E Howard

While Robert E. Howard is best known for his sword and sorcery stories of Conan, Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn he also wrote horror and dark fantasy with contemporary settings. Skull-Face and others collects a number of these stories.

The title story is a kind of Sax Rohmer pastiche with a considerable seasoning of Lovecraftian elements – survivals of mysterious and unimaginably ancient and inhuman elder civilisations. The Lovecraftian stuff is quite well done. The Black Stone deals with ancient cults, and is a bit like Lovecraft with a generous helping of S&M fantasies on the side, but still quite a good story. Wolfshead is a highly interesting and original werewolf story.

The Horror from the Mound is especially interesting, being a purely American vampire tale with none of the usual European elements. The Cairn on the Headland deals with dead pagan gods who are really not quite so dead after all, and mixes this with a modern scholar discovering his past life, a life that determines his destiny in our age.

Overall an odd but fascinating collection, not quite top-flight Robert E. Howard but still entertaining.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Etienne-Leon de Lamothe-Langon's The Virgin Vampire

The Virgin Vampire (La Vampire, ou la vierge de Hongrie) was one of several gothic novels written by Etienne-Leon de Lamothe-Langon, an author who went on to have enormous success with lurid faked memoirs of famous people.

The Virgin Vampire appeared in 1825. John Polidori’s The Vampyre had enjoyed a major success in 1819 and had triggered off the first vampire fiction boom.

What makes The Virgin Vampire slightly different from most vampire tales, both before and since, is that it depicts vampires as having a purpose. A religious purpose. Their function is to punish those who break a sacred vow. In this case the vow was made by a handsome young French officer named Delmont to an innocent young Hungarian woman. The officer returned to France, married and had two children, and thought no more about his brief liaison in Hungary with a girl named Alinska.

And then Alinska reappears in his life. She has not forgiven him, she has not forgotten, she still considers the promises he made to her to be binding. The officer, now Colonel Delmont, is worried by Alinska’s presence but assumes that she is merely obsessed. The thought that she might present any real danger does not occur to him. He certainly does not imagine that there could be any supernatural threat to his family or to to himself. He is a man of the Enlightenment and has no belief in such superstitions. It’s not that he dismisses the idea of such a threat - it’s something so remote from his intellectual makeup that it never even enters his head.

Delmont still refuses to consider the possibility that something uncanny, something unnatural, might be taking place. Reports of odd deaths, apparently caused by massive blood loss, do not concern him.

Alinska has taken a house near the Delmont estate. When Alinska’s house mysteriously burns to the ground Madame Delmont (who knows nothing of her husband’s previous involvement with this woman) insists that the now homeless girl should move into the Delmont household.

Colonel Delmont is not the only one who is unable to perceive the existence of a real and immediate supernatural threat. While rumours of a vampire are abroad in the neighbouring countryside these rumours are ignored by the more educated people. Unfortunately this includes the Delmont’s doctor, called in when an inexplicable illness strikes down a member of the colonel’s family.

Only the victims of the vampire are aware of what is happening and even they seem uncertain as to whether they are merely dreaming of nocturnal assaults by vampires.

This is an unconventional type of vampire, in some ways closer to the kinds of psychic vampires that would become popular in vampire fiction in the late 20th century. It’s not clear whether this vampire actually physically drains its victim’s blood but nonetheless this is a very real vampire and the scepticism of Colonel Delmont and his acquaintances will not protect them.

There’s also an intriguing moral ambiguity to de Lamothe-Langon’s concept of the vampire. Is this vampire a servant of Satan or of God? Is the vampire even aware of its own nature or of its own place in the universe?

All this probably makes the book sound rather more esoteric and serious-minded than it is. It is essentially a rather sensational and pulpy gothic tale (and it’s reasonably successful on this level) but with an admixture of curious and original ideas. While it’s perhaps not entirely successful it’s one of the more interesting examples of 19th century vampire fiction and is well worth seeking out. It’s available from Black Coat Press, translated by Brian Stableford and with the usual excellent and stimulating introduction and afterword that he customarily provides with his translations. Recommended.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

No House Limit, by Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher was an amazingly prolific author, his output totaling around a hundred novels, 900 short stories and 120 movie and television scripts. His best-known crime novel was probably I Wake Up Screaming. His 1958 novel No House Limit was subtitled A Novel of Las Vegas and is perhaps the ultimate gambling novel.

Joe Martin owns and runs the Rainbow’s End casino in Las Vegas, one of the biggest casinos in the city. It’s a completely independent operation, not associated with any crime or gambling syndicates. Since the days when mobsters like Bugsy Siegel established the city as a gambling centre the Las Vegas syndicate had been trying to clean up its act. They wanted to avoid anything that would scare off the customers. That meant no gangland-style killings. If Joe Martin refused to join the syndicate that was his business. There was more than enough money to go around and they were content to leave him alone.

Now someone is targeting Joe Martin. He has his sources and he knows the attack is coming but he has no idea who is behind it. He does know what the weapon will be though. It will be Bello, the world’s most famous professional gambler. Whoever is out to get Joe has provided Bello with a $400,000 stake. The objective is to wipe out Joe Martin at the crap tables, to take everything he has including the casino. And if anyone can do it, Bello can.

Joe Martin is not going to be a pushover though. You don’t survive for a decade as one of the major casino operators in Vegas without knowing a thing or two about survival. Joe is no criminal, his operations are strictly legitimate, but he’s still one very tough guy and he has the reputation of having the proverbial nerves of steel.

Joe has other things on his mind at this time. Well one thing in particular - a girl called Sunny Guido. No-one really knows much about her. She just turned up at the casino but she’s obviously pretty interested in Joe Martin. And he’s rather interested in her as well. He’s the kind of guy who has always prided himself on not needing anyone, especially women, but Sunny is different. To his own amazement he finds that he is falling for her. Maybe it’s just the pressure. And that pressure gets pretty intense after two days of non-stop action at the crap tables have seen Joe lose $2 million to Bello. At the moment he’s in need of emotional support. But maybe it’s more than that.

The Rainbow’s End is being targeted in other ways as well - counterfeit gambling chips, loaded dice, betrayals by employees. It’s all part of a concerted plan to break Joe Martin.

Bello is not without his weaknesses as well. His girlfriend Dee is getting restless and she’s making a play for Mal Davis, a lounge singer and piano player at the Rainbow’s End and an old friend of Joe’s. Bello has the reputation of being a man who doesn’t like to lose at anything and Mal knows that stealing his girl could get him killed.

Fisher builds the tension remorselessly as fortunes ebb and flow in the epic gambling battle that will decide the fate of Joe Martin. Fisher was a keen gambler himself and displays his encyclopedic knowledge of the world of the high rollers. The book has a heady atmosphere of dangerous glamour mixed with desperation.

The character of Bello was based on a real-life gambler, the legendary Nick the Greek - a man reputed to have won and lost $500 million at the gambling tables.

No House Limit has been reissued by Hard Case Crime and is highly recommended.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Black Corsair, by Emilio Salgari

Emilio Salgari was one of the great masters of swashbuckling adventure fiction. Among his most successful books were those dealing with the pirate known as the Black Corsair, starting with The Black Corsair in 1898.

The life of Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) was as packed with adventure as his novels. Or at least that’s what he liked to claim. In fact his biography was as much a fiction as his novels. He is however enjoy immense success and he remains one of the giants of Italian popular fiction. His admirers have included intellectuals such as Umberto Eco. Federico Fellini was a huge fan.

The hero of The Black Corsair is one of four brothers. They had been soldiers but had been betrayed by their commanding officer. The eldest brother met his death as a result. This officer is now the governor of the Spanish colony in Maracaibo, in Venezuela. The three survivors took to piracy and vowed vengeance, but the Red Corsair and the Green Corsair were captured and hanged by this same man. Now only the Black Corsair is left, but he is the most formidable of them all.

The Black Corsair is just one of many pirates based in Tortuga, in Hispaniola, in the late 17th century. The enormous wealth of Spanish America provides them with rich pickings. When the Black Corsair proposes a large-scale raid on Maracaibo a formidable fleet is soon assembled. The Black Corsair is not interested in loot - his is motivated purely by his thirst for revenge. He made a terribly vow after the death of his brothers, a vow that will come back to haunt him.

What follows is non-stop action on land and sea. Salgari doesn’t let the pace falter for an instant. The Black Corsair himself is a forbidding figure, a man consumed by hatred.

Salgari introduces into his tale several famous real-life pirates, including Henry Morgan and Francois L'Ollonais.

It’s pretty much a must-read if you’re a fan of swashbuckling adventure in general or pirates in particular. Although not all that well-known in the English-speaking world Salgari had an enormous influence on this genre and on pop culture in general (Sergio Leone for example claimed him as a major source for the heroes of his spaghetti westerns).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Groote Park Murder, by Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts had worked as a railway engineer and when he turned to writing detective fiction this background became very important. He was fascinated by the minutiae of railway timetables and in his plots timing is everything. The Groote Park Murder, published in 1923, illustrates this to perfection.

A man is found dead next to a railway line in South Africa. It is assumed that he has been the unfortunate victim of a tragic accident, or possibly suicide. Inspector Vandam is not entirely easy in his mind about this case and it’s not long before he uncovers evidence that points to murder.

There are several promising suspects but the problem is that the most likely suspects have watertight alibis. Suspicion naturally shifts towards those suspects whose alibis turn out to be less than rock-solid. Inspector Vandam accumulates sufficient evidence to make an arrest but the case will soon present the first of its major surprises.

Two years later a crime is committed in Scotland, a crime that appears to be linked to that earlier South African murder, and that also appears to involve many of the same players. Detective Inspector Ross is in charge of the Scottish investigation and once again the questions of timing and of alibis dominate the case.

Alibis can be vital evidence to a detective but they can mislead as well.

Crofts constructs his book in the same way that his detectives conduct their investigations - by a patient accumulation of evidence. That might sound a little dull but his plotting is skillful enough to make it work.

This is a rare example of a detective novel with two detectives working completely independently of each other, in different countries and at different times.

This is classic golden age detective fiction, entirely plot-driven but done extremely well.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mr Mukerji’s Ghosts

Mr Mukerji’s Ghosts was originally published in 1917 as Indian Ghost Stories. Mr Mukerji compiled a heterogenous collection of ghost stories from the period of the British Raj, purporting to be based on stories he’d heard as well as articles from various Indian newspapers.

Many of the stories have an unfinished feel. They’re almost fragments, but that’s the charm of the book. It’s very conversational. It’s like taking one’s seat on a train and finding that the passenger in the next seat happens to be a collector of ghostly tales and he starts recounting them. Some are merely snippets of gossip, some are what today would be called urban legends, some are clearly tall tales while others have a disturbing feeling of authenticity to them.

These Indian ghosts are often rather benign. Some are content to do little more than to be the cause of very minor odd happenings, happenings that could almost be dismissed as having no significance at all and yet the rational explanations that are offered don’t quite succeed in convincing.

Some of the ghosts simply want small favours, like having their tombs repaired. One wants nothing more than a meal of mutton and vegetables. There’s a touch of whimsicality to many of these tales, but there are a few that are genuinely chilling, or disturbingly tragic.

Not all the stories involve ghosts. There are a couple that deal with black magic, although perhaps it’s more grey magic since it’s not all that malevolent. One story could even be described as paranormal rather than supernatural.

I’m not even certain that Mr Mukerji actually existed. This indefatigable collector of ghost stories might for all I know have been the invention of some unknown Indian man of letters (or perhaps not even Indian). A quick google search failed to turn up anything.

Apart from the ghostly aspects the book offers some fascinating glimpses of a vanished age and some glimpses also into the varied folklore of the Subcontinent.

If you enjoy ghost stories that are odd and subtly unsettling rather than overtly terrifying then this unassuming little volume may be just what you’re looking for.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen

The Dutch Shoe Mystery is one of the very early Ellery Queen mysteries, dating from 1931.

Ellery Queen has gone to the Dutch Memorial Hospital in New York to consult the medical director, an old pal of his, about a murder investigation he’s working on and he soon find himself slap bang in the middle of one of the biggest cases of his career. The founder and patron of the hospital, Abigail Doorn, is wheeled into the operating theatre for urgent surgery and is discovered to be dead. But not of natural causes. She has been strangled.

She is one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful women and her murder sends shock waves through the financial markets as well as the highest strata of society. There are quite a few potential suspects but the only worthwhile clue is a pair of white oxford shoes. Elleey and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, confess themselves to be completely baffled unto, a second murder unexpectedly presents the key to solving the puzzle.

The plot has all the intricacies you expect in a golden age detective tale, and then some. These early books included the famous “challenge to the reader” towards the end, where the reader is informed that all the clues necessary to the solving of the case have now been presented, and there is only one possible solution. It has to be admitted that (once the murderer is revealed) there really could only be one possible culprit. In fact the solution turns out to be annoyingly simple but it’s a measure of the skill of the two authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee co-authored the books) that they are able to keep us guessing.

A highly enjoyable read for those who like the elaborate puzzle variety of mystery novel.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Queen of Atlantis (L’Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit

Pierre Benoit (1886-1962) enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime and a considerable degree of literary acclaim as well. He was elected to the Académie française in 1931. Queen of Atlantis (L’Atlantide) was the second and probably the most famous of his forty-two novels.

He is out of favour these days, his conservative political views being sufficient to make him an unperson in today’s literary world.

Queen of Atlantis was slightly controversial at the time of its publication in 1919, its similarities to H. Rider Haggard’s classic She leading to accusations of plagiarism (although Haggard himself made no such accusations). While both books draw their inspiration from the same mythological and historical sources and there are thematic resemblances the two books are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own merits.

The setting is the French colonial empire in North Africa at the close of the 19th century. A new officer has arrived to take command of the small fort of Hassi-Inifel in the Sahara. Captain Saint-Avit is a rather notorious personage. On a previous expedition it is widely believed that he was responsible for the death of his colleague Captain Morhange, and in fact may have murdered him. There was insufficient evidence for any charges to be laid and Saint-Avit’s own account of the events was regarded as being unreliable due to the circumstance that he was suffering so severely from fever and general exhaustion when he was found.

Saint-Avit relates his strange tale to a brother officer.

Morhange was a man of slightly mystical bent. He had taken several years leave of absence from the army with the intention of taking religious orders but then returned to military service. Morhange is slightly evasive as to his purpose in undertaking the expedition with Saint-Avit. He is very interested in certain inscriptions regarding a woman named Antinea, presumably a queen from the distant past. Whatever it was he was searching for, what they find is beyond all expectations. It is nothing less than a hidden kingdom.

It is more than that. It is Atlantis. And it is ruled by Queen Antinea. Among her subjects are three ill-assorted and slightly disreputable Europeans. They are not the only Europeans to have reached Antinea’s kingdom. The others are to be found in the Hall of Red Marble, embalmed and encased in an unknown metal. When Morhange and Saint-Avit enquire what these men (there are over fifty of them) died from they are informed that all died of love. And died willingly.

These are Antinea’s former lovers. When she tires of them they die. She does not put them to death. They simply cannot live after being discarded by her. Some seek death through drugs, or drink, or suicide, or they simply die.

Escape from Antinea’s kingdom is almost impossible. One man did escape but a few years later he found himself compelled to return. Dying of love for Antinea seemed preferable to living. Saint-Avit and Morhange are destined to end up in The Hall of Red Marble, but Morhange is not like the queen’s other suitors and perhaps the cycle can be broken.

Antinea herself may be timeless, she may be immortal, she may be unimaginably old (the book is deliberately vague about these details), or she may be as much a victim of her own cult as her lovers.

Modern critics will find it difficult to resist the temptation to see the novel as expressing a negative view of women but in fact that’s not at all what the book is about. It was written just after the First World War and reflects the mood of extreme pessimism and despair that afflicted intellectuals at that period (a mood that has arguably had a fatal influence on the subsequent course of western civilisation). It in fact represents a kind of fatalistic death cult. It’s not so much a metaphor for the war as a metaphor for a world that has lost all hope. Which makes it peculiarly relevant to our own age.

The afterword by Hugo Frey is worth reading simply as an illustration of the deadly effects of political correctness and postmodernism on literary criticism. The irony is that it is Frey rather than Benoit who is unable to escape the narrow-minded prison of his own times.

This novel has been seen as a precursor of magic realism, and that’s not unreasonable. either way it’s an immensely fascinating tale which I recommend very highly.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Saltmarsh Murders, by Gladys Mitchell

The Saltmarsh Murders, which appeared in 1932, was the fourth of Gladys Mitchell’s sixty-six Mrs Bradley mysteries. In some ways it’s a very typical example of golden age detective fiction while in others it’s more of a hybrid.

It has all the faults (or if you happen to be a fan of golden age mysteries as I am, all the virtues) of its type. The plot is convoluted and wildly implausible. The detective solves the mystery quickly but refuses to reveal the identity of the guilty party even to her loyal lieutenant on the grounds that she has insufficient proof.

On the other hand the detective in this instance happens to be a psychoanalyst so it points the way forward to the modern type of crime novel with its obsession with psychological factors which are usually far more implausible than even the wildest flights of fancy of golden age detective fiction. Depending on your point of view this novel could be seen to embody the best, or the worst, of both worlds.

The story is narrated by Noel Wells, the good-natured if not overly intellectual Anglican curate of the village of Saltmarsh, somewhere in England. He is not especially fond of the vicar, Mr Coutts, and he is even less fond of the vicar’s wife. But the position does have its compensations. Well one compensation in particular, the vicar’s niece, Daphne. Daphne and Noel are very much in love.

The vicarage is thrown into turmoil when the housemaid falls pregnant. The local innkeeper, Mr Lowry, agrees to take her in. The girl, Meg Tosstick, refuses to say who the father of her child is. And when the child is born no-one is allowed to see it. This encourages various rumours, mostly based on the assumption that the baby must bear a striking resemblance to its father. The vicar and the local squire are both widely regarded as being possible candidates. Then Meg is murdered. Bob Candy, who works at the inn and was known to be Meg’s young man until fairly recently, is arrested.

Most of the villagers find it difficult to believe he was capable of murder. Fortunately Mrs Bradley is a house guest of the squire at this time. Her reputation as an amateur detective is well established and she and Noel join forces to conduct their own investigation. A second murder will follow, a murder that at first appears to have no obvious connection to Meg Tosstick’s murder.

Mrs Bradley’s method of crime-solving relies more on psychoanalysis than traditional investigative techniques. She also has curious ideas about the law and morality. She regards murder as being not necessarily a crime. She is terribly modern in her notions, to an extent that often shocks the rather innocent young curate.

Mrs Bradley is herself a colourful character and Gladys Mitchell populates the novel with a whole gallery of equally colourful and bizarre personalities. Her style very definitely tends towards a tongue-in-cheek approach. Mrs Bradley is very much the star and whether you enjoy the book will depend entirely on whether you warm towards the eccentric, opinionated and rather over-the-top elderly detective.

Mrs Bradley’s psychoanalytical approach to crime does stretch credibility at times but on the while it’s an amusing read.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brood of the Witch-Queen

Sax Rohmer gained his greatest fame as the author of the Fu Manchu books but he wrote countless other pulp novels. All of which are great fun, although all are politically incorrect in one way or another. Brood of the Witch-Queen combines the breathless overheated excitement and adventure and the diabolical criminal masterminds of the Fu Manchu and Sumuru novels with all manner of fiendish occult wickedness.

Robert Cairn is a terribly brave and very noble young man, the kind of Englishman who built the Empire. Or at least he’s the kind of Englishman Sax Rohmer liked to imagine as an Empire-builder, Rohmer being very much in favour of the Empire. He finds himself involved in an epic life or death struggle with a sinister young man, a fellow medical student named Antony Ferrara. Ferrara is the adopted son of Sir Michael Ferrara, an eminent Egyptologist and a close friend and colleague of Robert Cairns’ father (a celebrated doctor who dabbles in Egyptology). Antony Ferrara doesn’t share Robert’s manly interests, and he’s very popular with women, so he’s already regarded with deep suspicion.

But he isn’t just unmanly, he’s an unnatural fiend who pursues forbidden knowledge. And he has designs on his father’s daughter, the pretty heiress Myra. Robert Cairns is also in love with Myra, although of course in his case it’s a healthy and manly sort of love. Slowly but surely Robert and his father realise they’re dealing with unimaginable evil, with vampires, black magic and occult powers that have lain dormant since the days of Ancient Egypt.

Originally published in 1918, it’s all very silly and outrageous, and yet it’s also wonderfully entertaining. It’s very very pulpy, it’s campy and it’s trashy, but it’s also fast-paced, clever, ingeniously contrived and thoroughly enjoyable (assuming of course that you like pulpy trashy fun yarns of adventure and supernatural horror). The idea of using photography for occult purposes is rather cute as well.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Saint Closes the Case

The Saint Closes the Case was one of the fairly early novels of Leslie Charteris featuring Simon Templar, The Saint. It originally appeared in 1930 under the title The Last Hero.

It provides a rather good illustration of the crucial difference between Charteris’s novels and the various movies and television series based on them. The tone is equally jokey but in the books the jokiness alternates with some fairly dark and even grim moments. In this case Simon Templar and his friends face a very major moral dilemma and solve it in a manner far more ruthless than would ever have been allowed in the movies or the TV series.

The Saint stumbles upon a plan by a brilliant but not especially sane scientist to build a secret weapon of immense destructive potential. It’s a weapon that will make the carnage of the First World War seem like a Sunday School picnic. And it’s more than a mere plan. The scientist has built a working prototype.

Simon Templar soon realises that there is a link between this invention and an incident in which he was involved a short time before, when he saved the life of a Central European prince. He also discovers that there are several parties that are anxious to obtain the secret weapon in question and Templar is not at all sure he’s happy with the idea of any of them getting their hands on it.

This adventure will bring him into conflict once more with his old nemesis, Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal. It will also force up Simon Templar the disturbing revelation that he has fallen in love in a rather serious way indeed.

The Saint has always had an ambiguous relationship with the forces of law and order. He might be on the side of the angels but he spends a good deal of time on the wrong side of the law. He has a very strong moral code but it doesn’t require him to be overly fastidious about breaking laws that happen to be inconvenient.

The Saint Closes the Case has enough plot twists and double-crosses to keep any thriller fan happy. Charteris’s books are masterful entertainment and this one is certainly highly recommended.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quest of the Dawn Man by J.-H. Rosny aîné

Joseph Henri Honoré Boex and his brother Séraphin Justin François Boex wrote science fiction using the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny. When their writing partnership broke up Joseph continued to write using the name J.-H. Rosny aîné (J.-H. Rosny the Elder). His contribution to the development of the science fiction genre was considerable and he also had a considerable success with his prehistoric adventure novels, including his 1908 novel Quest of the Dawn Man (Le Félin Géant or The Giant Cat).

Rosny’s achievement in this novel was to create a believable depiction of the days of Cro-Magnon Man combined with a gripping adventure narrative and characters who are both convincingly prehistoric and sympathetic characters with whom the reader can find some identification.

Of course nearly a century has passed since the publication of this book but it remains a bold and fairly successful attempt to bring an unknown world to life.

Aoun belongs to the Oulhamr tribe, and is in fact the son of their chief. He is a restless individual and sets off to explore to World Beyond the Mountain, accompanied by his friend Zouhr. Zouhr is the last survivor of his tribe, the last of the Men-without-Shoulders. Aoun is a might hunter and warrior; Zouhr is by comparison physically clumsy and feeble but he is possessed of an active and cunning mind. They make a formidable combination. Formidable enough to be able to take on sabre-toothed cats.

Predators such as sabre-toothed cats are not their greatest challenge however; this comes from the various other races and species of humans and human-like creatures. Some, such as the dhole-men, are implacably hostile. Others, such as the relatively timid Men-of-the-Forest and the Wolf-Women are willing to form alliances with Aoun and Zouhr. Aoun and Zouhr even attempt to form some variety of partnership with completely different species, such as the gigantic cave lion. This is one of the more interesting features of the book, since one of the major survival advantages of primitive humans was their ability to form symbiotic relationships with other species such as dogs and cats.

Aoun will also find love, or at least the prehistoric equivalent of love, with one of the Wolf-Women. Rosny suggests that relations between the sexes may have been more tender than is usually imagined. The close friendship between Aoun and Zouhr, a friendship based on difference rather than similarity, gives another clue as to the the kinds of increasingly complex social relationships that allowed humans to survive and thrive in a hostile environment.

While modern research has undoubtedly rendered much of the detail out-of-date this remains one of the most vivid attempts to bring the life of prehistoric humanity to life.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout

Fer-de-Lance was the first of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, and it also marks my first acquaintance with this famous fictional detective.

I’ve always had a soft spot for colourful, larger-than-life eccentric fictional detectives, and Nero Wolfe certainly qualifies on all three counts. And in his partner (or to be more precise his employee) Archie Goodwin he has the perfect foil. As Loren D. Estleman points out in the introduction to this novel the combination of these two characters rather neatly brings together the classic golden age detective story with its emphasis on puzzle-solving (represented by Wolfe) and the hardboiled school (represented by Goodwin).

With the Depression in full swing (the book was written in 1934) money is rather tight in Nero Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone. He has had to cut back on his staff although so far he is still able to indulge his passion for growing exotic orchids. He badly needs a lucrative case. The disappearance of Carlo Maffei seems unpromising at first but when it transpires that his vanishing act is connected with the mysterious death of Peter Oliver Barstow, the president of Holland College, Wolfe’s interest becomes considerably keener.

Barstow had suddenly collapsed on the golf course, apparently the result of a stroke. The coroner and the DA were certainly satisfied. Wolfe really puts the cat among the pigeons when he boldly announces that Barstow was murdered, poisoned in fact. Poisoned by means of a golf club.

Plotting isn’t really this novel’s great strength. The character of Nero Wolfe himself is the main interest of the book, and luckily he’s more than sufficiently interesting to carry the novel. The sparkling and witty style of Stout’s writing is also a considerable help.

This is a highly entertaining romp of a book. Definitely recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu

The Mask of Fu Manchu, published in 1932, was the sixth of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. This time the threat to civilisation comes from an heretical Islamic sect.

Sir Lionel Barton, the eminent but rather fiery archaeologist, has discovered the tomb of El Mokanna, the Veiled Prophet. Having retrieved the precious relics buried there, the Sword of God, the golden mask and the golden sheets inscribed with the New Koran, Barton blows up the tomb. This might seem like an odd thing for an archaeologist to do but it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Sir Lionel Barton to do.

El Mokanna had been the leader of a sect of Islamic heretics, a sect that still has its devotees - and they take the fireball in the desert caused by the explosion as a sign. It awakens ancient longings and resentments and the potential is there for an uprising on an even larger scale that than of the Mahdi in the Sudan in the 1880s (which led to the death of General Gordon in the defence of Khartoum in 1885).

Dr Fu Manchu sees an opportunity here, an opportunity to advance his own interests. Anything that is likely to cause problems for the European powers is welcome news to Fu Manchu. He intends to manipulate the rising, but first he will need to get hold of those precious relics. It’s up to Sir Denis Nayland Smith to prevent this from happening.

This is a typical Fu Manchu novel. In other words it’s enormous fun.

One of the things that makes Fu Manchu such a memorable character is that he is not a simplistic villain. Rohmer’s characters always describe him with a mixture of fear and admiration and it’s reasonable to assume that this reflects Rohmer’s own views of his famous creation. On one occasion the narrator Greville (one of Sir Lionel Barton’s assistants) describes him as being the most evil but also the most honourable man he has ever encountered. Fu Manchu’s word is his bond.

This particular novel is even more sympathetic to Fu Manchu than the earlier books. He demonstrates not just his habitual sense of fair play but also displays something close to affection to Greville, sending him rare and valuable presents on the occasion of his wedding.

There is a sense in which Fu Manchu is being depicted as a worthy adversary. He is ruthless certainly, and implacably hostile to European colonial power, but he is also a gentleman. He knows the rules of the game, and he knows that certain things are just not cricket. He will kill to achieve his aims, but he will never kill without a reason, and never for such a base motive as mere revenge. If his plans are foiled that’s part of the game.

Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee plays an important role in this novel, and she’s an ambiguous character as well. She is motivated more by lust than the pursuit of power but the Fah Lo Suee of the novel is rather less evil, and less depraved, than the Fah Lo Suee so memorably played by Myrna Loy in the 1932 movie. She is ruthless and devious, no question about that, but she’s not a monster.

To some extent this reflects the fact that the book is a product of a different world from our own, a better world, where even diabolical criminal masterminds are constrained by matters of basic decency and good sportsmanship.

While the Fu Manchu books are often cited (especially in these days of all-pervasive and draconian political correctness) as being representative of the worst kinds of jingoism and racism I have to say that I strongly disagree. While Rohmer certainly believed in the likelihood of a power struggle between East and West I’ve personally seen no evidence in his books that he regarded Asians as morally or intellectually inferior to Europeans. On the contrary The Mask of Fu Manchu contrasts the scrupulous honesty of Dr Fu Manchu with the dishonourable conduct of Sir Lionel Barton, and as always Fu Manchu turns out to be at least the intellectual equal of his opponents. We have dangerously widened our definition of racism so that any suggestion of the possibility of cultural conflicts is now seen, quite wrongly, as racist.

If you’ve never sampled the delights of the Fu Manchu novels I would urge you to read them in the correct sequence, starting with The Mystery of Fu Manchu (published in the US as The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu ). There is immense enjoyment to be found in the pages of these books.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Name of the Game Is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe

Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game Is Death (later renamed Operation Overkill) is a very dark 1962 crime novel with one of the more memorable anti-heroes in the genre.

The first person narrator (who has so many aliases he probably doesn’t know his real name himself) is a bank robber. He considers himself to be a pretty good bank robber but the book opens with a holdup which is not exactly a shining example of the art of bank robbery. He has recruited an expert wheelman and brought him all the way from St Louis but the driver bungles things badly and gets himself shot. He also gets our protagonist shot.

The two survivors, the narrator and a huge mute named Bunny, decide to split up and meet later in Florida. Despite the bungling they did manage to get away with a sizeable haul - no less than $178,000, an enormous sum in 1962.

Our hero goes to ground for a while, to allow his bullet wound to heal and to let the heat die down. There’s a lot of heat, since he killed two guards during the robbery. Bunny had taken the swag and was supposed to mail him some money on regular basis. The money suddenly stops arriving, and he gets a telegram from his partner-in-crime, only the telegram tell him Bunny will telephone him. Given that Bunny has no vocal cords that seems a bit unlikely so he realises the telegram is a fake, it’s a trap, and obviously something real bad has happened to Bunny.

So he sets off to the town where they were supposed to rendezvous. He goes undercover for a while so he can suss things out and perhaps pick up a lead on poor Bunny’s fate. Fortunately our expert bank robber has another useful skill that enables him to blend in to a small town - he’s a tree surgeon. Surprisingly, he’s apparently a very good tree surgeon, so good he could easily make a very decent living that way. But the criminal mind isn’t noted for logic so he prefers to stick to his main occupation of robbing banks.

Slowly he puts the pieces of the puzzle together and discovers the answer to the mystery of his missing accomplice. And he kills a few more people.

We get several extended flashbacks that fill in some of our narrator’s backstory. He’s very fond of animals. He hates cops. And he likes killing people. In fact guns and violence are not just a major turn-on for him, they’re the only way he can get sexually turned on. He’s a guy who has some serious issues.

During the 50s crime fiction had started to focus more and more on not just anti-heroes but violent crazy anti-heroes such as the protagonist in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It was the beginning of a trend that would gather momentum with each passing decade. It’s not a trend that I have a great deal of sympathy with. Vicious killers don’t necessarily make fascinating central characters. Dubious explanations of how they came to be brutal killers, especially explanations that rely on childhood traumas, are something I find even less fascinating. So The Name of the Game Is Death is a representative of a sub-genre I’m not overly enthusiastic about.

Nonetheless Marlowe tells his tale with a certain amount of flair and energy and as these sorts of crime novels go this is definitely well executed.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dracula’s Brood

Dracula’s Brood, edited by Richard Dalby, is an anthology of vampire tales, and is in fact one of the best of its kind. The stories range in date from 1867 to 1940, and thus include several pre-Stoker vampire stories.

Phil Robinson’s The Man-Eating Tree is one of the strangest. As the title suggests, it’s about a vampiric tree! Anne Crawford (sister of the better-known F. Marion Crawford) contributes A Mystery of the Campagna, a nicely atmospheric tale of artists and vampiric obsessions. Julian Hawthorne’s Ken’s Mystery is a moody tale of vampires in Ireland, and the fatal lure of the past.

Some of the more interesting stories deal with what are really psychic vampires rather than conventional bloodsuckers. Vincent O’Sullivan’s Will is probably the strongest story in the anthology, and Conan Doyle’s The Parasite is almost as good. Mary E. Braddon’s Good Lady Ducayne is also an unconventional vampire story, again dealing with vampirism as parasitism, but this time with the elderly preying on the young. Vernon Lee’s Marysas in Flanders isn’t really about vampires at all, but rather about pagan gods, but it’s very effective nonetheless.

The 20h century stories aren’t quite as strong, although Ulric Daubeny’s The Sumach is another creepy story of plant vampires. I particularly liked E. R. Punshon’s The Living Stone, combining as it did vampirism, human sacrifice and forgotten gods.

There are surprisingly few really poor stories in this anthology, Hume Nisbet’s The Vampire Maid being the only real failure.

The best thing about this volume is that most of these stories aren’t found in the other major vampire anthologies - Dalby has done a terrific job in unearthing some very obscure but very very fine stories. This book is a must for any serious vampire enthusiast.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Four Just Men, by Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace achieved overnight success with his first novel in 1905, The Four Just Men. It’s important historically because it effectively created a new genre, the modern thriller. In fact many of Wallace’s crime novels are either thrillers or combine the mystery and thriller genres. The Four Just Men can also be seen as the first of the “wealthy amateur crime-fighters taking the law into their own hands” stories that became such a feature of 20th century pulp fiction and comics. Their use of elaborate disguises even anticipates the vogue for masked avengers.

The Four Just Men of the title have all been victims of injustice and have grown disillusioned with the ability of the law adequately to mete out justice to wrong-doers. They have embarked on a campaign of vigilante justice, acting as both judges and executioners and when the novel starts they have already claimed more than a dozen victims, including crooked financiers, corrupt public servants, political tyrants and even poets (for corrupting the morals of youth).

Their latest target is the British Foreign Secretary, who has introduced a bill into Parliament that would result in the forcible return to Spain of large numbers of exiled dissidents and would-be revolutionaries. They are determined to stop this bill, if necessary by assassinating the Foreign Secretary. Their methods of murder are always ingenious and unconventional, presenting a formidable challenge to Superintendent Falmouth of Scotlard Yard, the man charged with protecting the life of the embattled Cabinet Minister.

Apart from its clever plotting and its effective use of suspense it’s also a surprising subtle and ambiguous novel. While most of the victims of these vigilantes are criminals some are merely political opponents, and the British Foreign Secretary is most definitely not a bad man. If anything he’s a man of great courage and integrity. So are the Four Just men heroes or villains?

Wallace’s popularity as an author was immense, to an extent that makes him the forerunner of the celebrity writers of our own age. No less than 160 movies have been made from his books, more than from the work of any author of modern times. Like all of Wallace’s books this one is hugely entertaining.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

I have a bit of a weakness for swashbuckling tales of adventure, and I think it’s fair to say that the greatest writer of such stories in the English language was Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). And The Sea Hawk, originally published in 1915, is generally regarded as one of his finest works.

Sabatini was born in Italy. His mother was English and from the age of seventeen he made his home in England. All his books were written in English.

Like his even more famous Captain Blood which came out in 1922) The Sea Hawk is the story of a reluctant pirate. The Tressilian family has a reputation for hot tempers and for morals that could charitably be described as relaxed. The young Sir Oliver Tressilian certainly shares the family reputation, although in his case it’s a little unfair. He is aware of his tendency to anger quickly and he is trying to curb that weakness.

He has an incentive to do so. He is in love with Rosamund Goldolphin. The Godolophins are both neighbours and traditional enemies of the Tressilians and Rosamund’s unstable brother Peter hates Sir Oliver with a passion. Sir Oliver is determined not to be provoked by the impetuous youth. He has sworn to Rosamund that Peter will never meet with harm from him.

His good intentions are to no avail. When Peter Godolphin is found dead of a sword thrust the general assumption is that Sir Oliver was his slayer. Even Rosamund believes this. He is in fact innocent, but is trapped between family loyalty and self-interest and is unable to convince her that he is guiltless. And his troubles have only just begun. He is treacherously kidnapped and finds himself at sea, and worse soon follows. The ship is taken by the Spaniards, and this being the late 16th century, the age of Queen Elizabeth, being taken by the Spaniards is very bad news indeed. Particularly in light of the fact that Tressilian has in the past been involved in maritime adventures that the Spanish are inclined to regard as being simple piracy.

Tressilian is sentenced to the galleys, but help comes from an unlikely quarter. His galley is captured by Moslem corsairs. Sir Oliver decides that being a Christian hasn’t done him much good and is easily persuaded to adopt the Moslem faith. This proves to be a very good move. Like many another Christian renegade he adapts quickly to life as a Barbary corsair and within a few years is the right-hand man to the Basha of Algiers. Sir Oliver Tressilian is now the famous Moslem corsair Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk. Piracy is a profession for which he has a true gift.

He believes he has shaken off his past, but it will come back to haunt him in unexpected ways and he will face some very difficult choices.

And of course he will have many adventures on the way.

Sir Oliver is a wonderful larger-than-life character. He is a flawed hero, or perhaps an heroic villain, but either way he’s entertaining and likeable. He is in fact a classic swashbuckling hero but with a dark side.

Sabatini tells his colourful tale with a great deal of flair. The plot is quite intricate and although it relies rather a lot on coincidence this is one of the conventions of this type of fiction. The lives of heroes are guided by fate, after all.

Immense fun, highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

I’m rather partial to Sword & Sorcery novels, and for me the greatest of all Sword & Sorcery writers was Robert E. Howard. His stories are immensely entertaining, and astonishingly dark and doom-laden.

One of his better known creations is the Puritan swordsman and adventurer Solomon Kane. He’s kind of like a 17th century gothic Batman, righting wrongs and pursuing obsessive vengeance. None of Howard’s characters are particularly happy, and Kane is no exception. He does, however, have a purpose in life which he pursues with single-minded zeal.

I’ve just finished a collection of Howard’s stories about Kane, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. I don’t think the overall standard is quite as high as that of the Conan tales, but there are still some absolute gems to be found here. My favourites are Hills of the Dead and the astoundingly gloomy Wings in the Night. If you have a taste for this sort of thing then you must read the Solomon Kane stories. If you’ve never read Robert E. Howard and want to give him a try then you’re better off starting with the Conan stories.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Grifters, by Jim Thompson

The Grifters, published in 1963, is one of Jim Thompson’s later works. To say anything about the plot would be to risk spoilers, so I’ll just say it’s about a young con-man, Roy, and his mother, who works for a big-time racketeer. While his plotting is extremely skilful the characters matter much more, and in this novel he creates three memorable and exceptionally complex characters. Even the nurse, a relatively minor character, has a depth and complexity you don’t expect in crime fiction.

The descriptions of the various cons are fascinating – Roy is strictly a short-con operator, practising small-scale deceptions that rely as much as anything on confusing the victim so he ends up not even being certain if he’s actually been swindled or not. They’re small-scale cons, but if you’re skilled enough and pull off enough of them you can over time amass a very large amount of money, and Roy is very good indeed at his work. Roy’s mother is also involved in swindling people, but on a larger scale through crooked racetrack gambling operations. Doing this kind of thing for a living puts you into a world where nothing is genuine, where nothing and nobody can be trusted, where duplicity invades every waking minute of your life.

Thompson is also a master of the hard-boiled prose style, and the combination of this and his adeptness at characterisation and his gift for irony would have been enough to make him a very fine crime writer. Thompson adds other elements, however, elements you don’t expect to find in a crime novel. In both The Grifters and The Getaway, the only two Thompson books I’ve read so far, there’s also more than a touch of strangeness. One moment you’re reading straightforward genre fiction, then suddenly it seems you’re into the realm of weird fiction, or (in the case of the ending to The Getaway) even of horror. It’s like a film noir that suddenly turns into an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the case of The Grifters that happens during the brief flashback to the life that Moira (Roy’s girlfriend) led with The Farmer.

In Thompson’s work I get the feeling that the criminal plots and the underworld settings are just a convenient too for a writer who is pursuing other agendas, a writer who wants to take us into some of the darkest recesses of the human psyche. He explores some very dark corners of the soul indeed in The Grifters.

I believe this is considered to be one of his lesser novels. If a book as good as this can be considered a lesser work then I can’t wait to read some of his better stuff! Perhaps even more than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett this is an author whose novels deserve, indeed demand, to be considered as major works of both literature and pulp fiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou

Thea von Harbou is best known today as the wife of the great film director Fritz Lang and his close collaborator on most of his early German masterpieces. She not only co-wrote the scripts, she also turned several of them into novels, including perhaps the most famous of all, Metropolis.

She had in fact written several novels prior to her marriage to Lang and had been an actress as well. While Lang left Germany in the early 30s von Harbou remained and her career in the wartime German film industry is rather controversial.

The city of Metropolis is dominated by the will of Joh Fredersen. This is a vision of a city of the future, a city of machines. The machines require people to operate them, and the machines consume their operators. Their appetite is limitless. There is an underground city beneath Metropolis which provides the machines with the human they require. The upper city is a kind of playground for the rich, with sex and drugs being the main item on the menu.

Joh Fredersen is not a particularly happy man. His wife died giving birth to his son Freder. He had stolen his wife from his friend Rotwang, the inventor of genius largely responsible for the construction of the city. Joh Fredersen becomes alienated from his son when Freder discovers what the machines are doing to people. Freder meets a woman named Maria, a charismatic leader who offers the oppressed of Metropolis hope for change. Those who run Metropolis are its head. Those who work the machines are Metropolis’s hands. To mediate between the brain and the hands a heart is needed, and she tells them a mediator will arise who will fulfill that function.

Maria wants peaceful change but once revolutions are set in motion violence and destruction inevitably follow.

There is also a false Maria, a robot created by Rotwang. Rotwang has his own agenda in regard to the future of Metropolis.

It’s many many years since I’ve seen the movie so it’s difficult for me to compare the book and the movie. What does strike me about the book is the extent of the religious imagery. While the story can be (and has been) seen as a critique of capitalism I’m inclined to see that as a very simplistic explanation. The novel at least seems to me to reflect a horror of revolution, doubtless a reaction to the brutality and viciousness of the Russian Revolution. While the machines are monsters devouring human beings, von Harbou depicts the mob violence inseparable from revolution as being even more monstrous.

Freder certainly seems to be a Christ figure, with Maria being perhaps both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Whatever von Harbou’s religious beliefs may have been Lang was certainly a Catholic, and identified himself as such throughout his life. The quite overt Catholic themes may therefore have originated with him. Lang and von Harbou had co-written the screenplay so that while the novel was von Harbou’s work alone it’s likely that these Catholic themes were carried over from the movie.

Much of the impact of the movies comes from the extraordinary visuals but von Harbou does an effective job in conveying the character of Metropolis by purely verbal means.

There’s perhaps just a touch more sentimenality in the novel than I recall from the film.

The movie’s status as one of the great dystopian science fiction tales is secure. Thea von Harbou’s novel deserves to be recognised as an important work of science fiction in its on right. It’s also a relatively rare and therefore interesting example of German science fiction. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt

The brilliant but cantakerous Professor Challenger, the hero of Conan Doyle’s classic science fiction tale The Lost World, is one again the central figure in an even stranger 1913 story, The Poison Belt.

It’s typical of Conan Doyle’s science fiction which at times could be very strange indeed.

In 1913 physicists still believed in the ether, a mysterious substance which was supposed to fill the universe. At the time the existence of such a medium seemed to be the only satisfactory way to explain such concepts as gravity and the propagation of light. Physicists could not adequately explain how such forces could operate in a vacuum so therefore they reasoned that the ether had to exist even if it appeared to be undetectable.

In The Poison Belt this mysterious substance suddenly becomes a deadly threat as the Earth passes through a belt in the ether, a belt of poisonous ether. To Professor Challenger it is clear that no animal or human life can possibly survive this encounter. The end can however be postponed by the use of oxygen - if the oxygen content of the air in a confined space (such as a room in the professor’s house) can be increased sufficiently it may be possible to survive for quite a while, and since the end of the world is a matter of considerable scientific interest the Professor intends to witness it. Such an event demands to be recorded by a particularly brilliant scientist and Professor Challenger is not aware of anyone more brilliant than himself.

And given the magnitude of this event it also seems only right that he should invite his companions from the earlier expedition to the Lost World to witness it with him. So Professor Summerlee, the soldier and adventurer Lord John Roxton and reporter Edward Malone are summoned to the professor’s country house.

The earth has already started to enter the poison belt, and reports are coming in from all parts of the globe of the consequences - dramatic behaviour changes followed inevitably by death. It appears that the end truly has come.

Of course there has to be some kind of twist ending and what you fear in a case like this is one of those incredibly annoying “and then I woke up and it had all been a dream” endings. Fortunately Conan Doyle does not inflict that upon us. Whether the ending he does come up with is entirely satisfactory is another matter but it’s still a bizarre and original little story.

All of Conan Doyle’s science fiction stories are worth reading. While the fame of Sherlock Holmes has overshadowed his writings in other genres his contribution to the development of science fiction was immense.