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.