Monday, December 31, 2012

Star, or Psi Cassiopea

Star, or Psi Cassiopea may not be the first science fiction novel (Cyrano de Bergerac’s Journey to the Moon, published in 1657, has the best claim to that honour) but it is surely a strong candidate for the title of the first space opera. C. I. Defontenay wrote this extraordinary book in 1854.

It certainly has an epic sweep to it. It opens with a Himalayan explorer witnessing an asteroid crashing into the mountains, killing his companion. But this is no asteroid. It is part of a spaceship, propelled by a catastrophic explosion to the far side of the galaxy. The explorer finds an amazing manuscript in the wreckage. After much effort he deciphers the document. It is nothing less than the history of an alien civilisation, a civilisation from the star Psi Cassiopea.

These aliens referred to their planet, rather confusingly, as Star. There were actually two intelligent races on this planet, one species very like ours and another inferior species more like an ape but with close to human intelligence.

The civilisation of Star had more than its share of ups and downs. At one point a plague followed by a suicidal mania almost entirely destroyed the superior species. The few survivors took refuge in gigantic spaceship called abares. These were more like artificial asteroids than anything we think of as a spacecraft. The lesser species, the repleu, then dominated the planet for centuries, spending most of their time slaughtering each other and indulging in drunkenness and debauchery. The superior species, the Starians, meanwhile colonised the satellites of Star.

The descriptions of the strange cultures of these strange satellite worlds comprises the most interesting part of the novel. And Defontenay certainly did not lack imagination. One of these satellites is a transparent world, inhabited by transparent creatures.

Science fiction often has more to say about the era in which it was written than about the future and this novel certainly reflects the author’s thoughts on subjects like the rising tide of socialism, colonialism and fears of the decay of civilised values.

While it has to be admitted that Defontenay had remarkable powers of invention and a fund of interesting ideas the sad truth is that this is a rather dull novel. And I say this as someone who is a huge fan of 19th century French science fiction.

There are two main problems with this book. The first is the author’s habit of including large samples on Starian literature. Apart from a wealth of poetry there are several complete short plays! While this is an impressive example of world-building it does not make for easy reading.

The second problem is even more serious. This is more of an imaginary history than a novel. There is no central character with whom we can identify and no narrative drive. While an imaginary history spanning thousands of years is an awesome achievement, the result is more than somewhat turgid.

Of course those readers who value world-building more highly than I do may find all this more entertaining than I did.

Star, or Psi Cassiopea remains an important early step in the development of the science fiction genre but it cannot be recommended as an entertaining read.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mr Denning Drives North

Mr Denning Drives North is an unjustly forgotten classic of British crime fiction. Written by Alec Coppel in 1951, it can be seen as a variation on the inverted detective story.  We know right from the start who the murderer is. What we don’t know is what his fate will be.

None of what I am about to tell you constitutes a spoiler. This is all just the set-up and it all happens very early in the book. The suspense will come later, and there will be plenty of it, and many many ingenious plot twists.

Tom Denning is a very successful businessman. He is an aircraft designer who owns his own aircraft factory. He is happily married and has a daughter with whom he gets on well. Tom has everything a man could want. So why does he deliberately try to crash his plane into the ground?

The answer to that is that he is haunted by a murder he committed. Not that he feels any regret for the murder itself. He believes the man he killed deserved to die. And it was not even murder, not really. He didn’t mean to actually kill the man, although he’s glad that he did. What haunts Tom Denning is the wait for the knock on the door from the police. What haunts him even more is that the body has not been found, even though he went to elaborate lengths to ensure that it would be found. He put great care into staging a mock accident, believing he had been careful enough to make it look convincing. But what Tom Denning was relying on was that the body would quickly be found, the coroner would bring in a verdict of accidental death, and he could then get on with his life.

It all seemed so easy. But every day he scans the newspapers, and there is no mention of any body being found. Finally he can’t stand it any longer. He returns to the scene of the “accident” but the body has gone. But if the body has gone, how to explain the fact that nobody has discovered it?

Weeks go by, and nothing happens, while Tom goes slowly mad. Of course eventually something does happen but the subsequent course of events is unexpected as Coppel spins a series of clever plot twists that keeps the tension building right up to the very last page. Tom will try to unravel the mystery, so we have an amateur detective who is in fact trying to find the solution to a murder he himself committed. As he tries to solve the puzzle his nightmare just keeps finding new ways to torture him.

There is plenty of irony in this tale. Tom is in fact guilty of nothing more than manslaughter and given his previously unblemished character and various extenuating circumstances the worst he could have expected was a short prison term. But Tom had to act to protect his daughter, and in trying to make the killing look like an accident he has only succeeded in making it look like cold-blooded premeditated murder. Now if he is caught he will hang. Tom is caught in a trap of his own devising. And not knowing if he will eventually be caught  or not adds an exquisite touch of torture to the whole situation.

The plotting is masterful but this novel has more than clever plotting going for it. We have a murderer who is the hero of the book and he’s a sympathetic character. We can’t help hoping he gets away with it, but we won’t know until the final page whether he does or not. It’s a fascinating character study of a man under extreme stress. Coppel’s style is pleasing and this really is a delightfully wicked and clever crime story.

Coppel adapted his own novel for a 1952 film version starring Sir John Mills, and the movie is well worth tracking down as well. The novel and the movie are sufficiently different to make both well worth the effort of finding them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lafcadio Hearn’s Some Chinese Ghosts

Some Chinese Ghosts, published in 1887, comprises Lafcadio Hearn’s retellings of a number of Chinese ghost stories. If you’re expecting conventional ghost stories some of these tales will come as a surprise. They’re not really horror stories. Some of these ghosts are not merely benign but actively good and helpful to the living, and some are perhaps not really ghosts at all.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was born in Greece and brought up in Ireland. He relocated to the United States at the age of 19 and earned his living as a journalist. In 1890 he visited Japan and he fell in love with the country, remaining there until his death and becoming a naturalised Japanese citizen. He is best known for his writings about Japan, especially his classic volume of Japanese ghost stories, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (which was made into a superb movie by Masaki Kobayashi in 1965).

Some Chinese Ghosts shows that Hearn was already fascinated by the Orient even before his move to Japan.

This is a very slim volume and contains six very short tales. They are not translations but stories based in some cases on ancient Chinese tales or in other cases on various snippets of folklore. Hearn’s style is elegant and the stories are like tiny jewels, intricately wrought and beautiful. Hearn was not concerned with linking the stories together but with capturing a particular mood of weird beauty, and he succeeds admirably.

The Chinese concept of a ghost is clearly very different from what we are accustomed to in the west. The existence of ghosts is taken for granted and while ghosts may be malignant they are much more likely to be benign or even benevolent. Mortals can fall in love with ghosts and live to tell the tale. These are not horror stories although they are certainly tales of the supernatural.

The Story of Ming-Y is the closest these stories come to what we in the west would consider a conventional ghost story, and it’s a small treasure of a story, the tale of a young man who thinks he has fallen in love with a woman when he has actually fallen in love with a ghost. Even here the mood is more one of gentle melancholy than of terror.

The Legend of Tchi-Niu is another tale of a mortal in love with a ghost but this ghostly encounter is no punishment for meddling in forbidden things; it is a reward for virtue.

This volume also contains a fanciful tale of the discovery of the tea plant and another tale of the gods who taught men to make porcelain, and of the price one man pays in order to create porcelain of the most exquisite beauty. It is a high price but he will be rewarded for his sacrifice.

An odd but enchanting little collection.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Edmund Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure

Buried for Pleasure, published in 1948, was the sixth of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries and it’s an absolute delight.

Edmund Crispin was the pen name under which noted composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978) wrote crime fiction. His creation, Oxford don Gervase Fen, is one of the most charming of all fictional detectives. Fen is mildly eccentric, erudite without being obnoxious, not exactly scatter-brained but gives the appearance of moving in his own private world, and a gifted amateur detective.

This time around Professor Fen has made the curious decision to enter politics. Having no real interest in politics he stands as an independent candidate in a by-election. His campaign takes him to the village of Sanford Angelorum. The village, indeed the whole district, is in an uproar over the escape of a lunatic from the local asylum. The asylum is located in Sanford Hall. The present Lord Sanford is an enthusiastic socialist so he’s turned the hall over to the state and lives in the dower house on the property.

Fen is lodging in the Fish Inn, and the denizens of this public house are so eccentric that you can’t help wondering how the local police are supposed to identify an escaped lunatic among so many strange and rather crazy people.

One of the other guests at the Fish Inn is an old acquaintance of Fen’s, Detective-Inspector Bussy. Bussy is unofficially investigating a case of blackmail and murder. He persuades Fen to lend him a hand and Fen is soon drawn much more deeply into the case than he expected when a  second murder and then another attempted murder follow hard on the heels of the first slaying.

Crispin takes the opportunity of Fen’s election campaign not only to have a great deal of fun but also to make an impassioned attack on political enthusiasm. Fen becomes more and more convinced that politics is really all about hate and that the great strength of the British political system in the past had been the apathy of the voters. When he makes a bizarre speech putting forth his true views on politics he makes a disturbing discovery. Instead of having the effect he’d hoped for, of ending any chances of his being elected, he has now become the front-runner in the by-election.

The plot is typical of golden age detective fiction - it’s convoluted and somewhat implausible although it has to be admitted that the clue that leads Fen to the solution is a very clever one. What distinguishes Crispin from the true golden age detective writers is his wickedly funny sense of humour. The Gervase Fen books are effective mysteries but they are also among the treasures of English literary humour.

Buried for Pleasure is an immensely entertaining romp and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an exquisite pleasure from beginning to end.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Belphégor: The Phantom of the Louvre,

Arthur Bernède (1871-1937) was a French author who wrote both prose and poetry as well as libretti for operas. HIs most famous creation was Judex, a popular pulp hero who was immortalised in Louis Feuillade’s 1916 movie serial (Feuillade and Bernède collaborated in the creation of the character). In 1927 he wrote Belphégor: The Phantom of the Louvre, which combines elements of both the mystery and the horror story.

Bernède founded a company in 1919 to produce novels and films simultaneously. Belphégor was also published as part of a movie-book tie-in (something that Bernède seems to have invented half a century or more before Hollywood cottoned on to the idea). The 1927 movie was directed by Henri Desfontaines. 

Belphégor is very much in what was by then the well-established tradition of French pulp fiction, a tradition that was established by Allain and Souvestre’s immensely successful 1911 novel Fantômas. The style of Belphégor is very cinematic, with very short chapters corresponding to scenes in a movie. The pacing is relentless and the style is breathless.

A daring thief has been at work at the Louvre. He disguises himself with a hood and a mask, leading to the popular supposition that this is no man but a ghost. In fact the reader never doubts that the Phantom is merely a particularly bold and clever criminal. The thief has taken the sobriquet Belphégor, from a malevolent demon of the same name (one of several hints of the gothic in this novel).

Inspector Menardier is in charge of the case but he’s not the only one hunting the Phantom. Also on the thief’s trail are a private detective named Chantecoq (popularly known as the King of the Detectives) and a popular journalist named Jacques Bellegarde.

Bellegarde has other problems to deal with. Mlle Simone Desroches, a female poet who is the darling of the aesthetes, is madly in love with him. Bellegarde has tired of her attentions and will soon fall in love with Chantecoq’s daughter Colette. These problems are soon overshadowed by a much bigger one - Bellegarde is regarded by the police as the prime suspect in the Louvre robberies. And a guard was killed, so the unfortunate Bellegarde could find himself facing the guillotine.

What is the criminal Belphégor seeking in the Louvre? Nothing less than the fabled Valois treasure, rumoured to be concealed somewhere in the Louvre. The exact whereabouts of the treasure are revealed in an old manuscript.

Chantecoq is convinced that Bellegarde is innocent but he will need all his skill to prove it and to find the real thief. Luckily Chantecoq, like all good detectives of his era, is a master of disguise.

The novel contains everything you could want in a pulp novel and then some. There’s a mystery to be solved, there’s adventure, there’s a diabolical criminal mastermind with a hunchbacked henchman, there’s a master detective, there’s romance and there are secret passages under the Louvre. Bernède combines all these elements with considerable skill and the novel is undeniably exciting and entertaining.

There was a new French movie version of this novel made in 2001 but I know nothing more about it.

Belphégor: The Phantom of the Louvre is pure pulp fiction fun.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Behind That Curtain

Behind That Curtain, published in 1928, was the third of Earl Derr Biggers’ excellent Charlie Chan mysteries.

The great Chinese detective is in San Francisco, on holiday. He is to return to Hawaii in a few days. At the very same time a distinguished retired policeman from Scotland Yard, Sir Frederic Bruce, is also in San Francisco. A bright newspaperman decides it would make a great story if he could bring these two great detectives together. 

He does so, with momentous consequences. Sir Frederic is still trying to solve two cases that have obsessed him for years, the murder of a solicitor and the disappearance of a young woman from a picnic in Peshawar in India in 1913. He believes he may finally be close to a solution to both mysteries. Both Sir Fredric and Charlie Chan are invited to a dinner in honour of the eminent British explorer Colonel John Beetham. Colonel Beetham is screening moving pictures taken on his expeditions, and while the lights are out Sir Frederic Bruce is murdered.

Charlie Chan is anxious to return to Honolulu but he gets drawn into the case. It is clear that Captain of Detectives Flannery has no chance of solving this puzzle on his own.

Chan suspects (as Sir Frederic had suspected) that there is a link between the two cases that Sir Frederic had still been working on. But what can the link be?

As in all the Charlie Chan novels the highlight of the book is the character of Detective-Sergeant Chan himself. He is one of the most engaging of all fictional detectives. Biggers was clearly very fond of his most famous creation. There is much amusing byplay between Chan and Captain Flannery. There is considerable humour in the book, but it should be emphasised that it is never at the expense of Charlie Chan (indeed much of the humour comes from Charlie’s gentle mocking of the determined but not very bright Captain Flannery).

The mystery itself is an ingenious one, typical of the golden age of detective fiction.

Biggers was a stylish writer and this is an exceptionally entertaining crime novel and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Final Count, by Sapper

The Final Count, published in 1926, was the fourth of the ten Bulldog Drummond novels written by H. C. McNeile under the name Sapper during the 1920s and 1930s (although McNeile’s friend Gerard Fairlie would write seven more Bulldog Drummond books after McNeile’s death).

The Final Count also marks the fourth occasion on which Drummond would match wits with the sinister criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.

The novel is narrated by a man named Stockton, whose friend Robin Gaunt is working on some hush-hush project for the British War Office. Gaunt had been working on a secret super-weapon during the Great War and now he believes he has perfected it. He believes it to be a weapon so terrible that it will make any future war impossible - any nation that possesses the secret of this weapon could impose peace on the entire world and no nation would dare to oppose them.

This is of course a slightly eccentric plan, but Gaunt is no madman. Not yet, anyway. Then Stockton receives a strange telephone call from Gaunt. When he hurries round to Gaunt’s flat he  is greeted by a strange scene - there is much blood on the floor, there are the dead bodies of a dog and a guinea pig, and no sign of Robin Gaunt. And in the flat next door a man lies dead.

When strange and sinister events are afoot, events that leave the police baffled, it is never very long before Captain Hugh Drummond manages to get involved. He has an infallible nose for a mystery and for an adventure, and sure enough he is soon in the thick of things. And this is a very great mystery indeed, and even stranger events will soon unfold.

Clearly someone had discovered the existence of Gaunt’s super-weapon and that someone must now be assumed to be in possession of the secret, but what possible connection can this have with the disappearance of a private luxury yacht, the building of a new commercial dirigible and Cornish tin mines? Drummond doesn’t know yet, but he intends to find out. His determination is strengthened when he begins to suspect that his old foe Carl Peterson may be involved. Carl Peterson is Drummond’s Professor Moriarty, an arch-criminal so clever and so vicious that if the public knew of his existence no-one would ever sleep soundly in their beds.

This follows Sapper’s standard formula which by this time he had down to a fine art. There will be high adventure and Drummond will have to make use of both his uncanny instincts when it comes to unusual and spectacular crimes, his wartime experiences that made him such a great leader of men, and his pugnacious and indomitable spirit. And of course his fists.

The Bulldog Drummond novels might not be great literature but they are great fun. Like Sax Rohmer, McNeile had a gift for story-telling and for coming up with outrageous master plans by which his chief villain could not only pull off audacious crimes, but crimes on such a scale that the very existence of European civilisation would be threatened.

Whether you actually like Drummond as a character depends on your tastes. Some modern readers may consider him too patriotic and too faultlessly courageous, qualities that are now out of fashion. But Drummond is a fascinating character as well. He gives the impression of being almost a buffoon but beneath the brash exterior there is a razor sharp mind.

This is an old-fashioned ripping yarn, and thoroughly enjoyable it is too. The Bulldog Drummond novels do need to be read in sequence though, so read the first three before reading this one. Drummond’s four encounters with Carl Peterson have been collected in a splendid and ridiculously cheap omnibus edition by Wordsworth, a volume I highly recommend to all lovers of spy/adventure stories featuring diabolical criminal masterminds.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rufus King’s Murder by Latitude

Rufus King (1893-1966) is a now forgotten American mystery writer. Murder by Latitude, published in 1930, was one of the novels featuring his best-known detective, Lieutenant Valcour.

The SS Eastern Bay is a freighter recently converted to carry a small number of passengers. For most of the passengers this is strictly a pleasure cruise, but for two of them it means deadly serious business. One is a murderer, the other is Lieutenant Valcour of the New York Police whose job it is to find that killer.

It should be a fairly easy job for Lieutenant Valcour - all he has to do is to wait until the New York Police send him a radio message containing an eyewitness description of the murderer. When the ship’s radio operator is found dead in circumstances suggesting foul play his task becomes somewhat more difficult. The Eastern Bay is a small ship and carries only one radio operator. No-one else on board the ship can operate the radio. So now Lieutenant Valcour is on his own and he must find the killer before he strikes again.

Without a description his task seems hopeless, but there is a reason the killer has taken the cruise. If he can uncover that reason he should be able to unmask the slayer. To add a further complication, he realises he’s not even certain the killer is male.

All he does know is that it’s a passenger, not a member of the crew. That still leaves plenty of suspects. There’s the wealthy Mrs Poole, accompanied by husband number five. There’s Mr Wright, who looks harmless but then murderers can look harmless. There’s young Mr Force. There’s the gleefully cynical M. Dumarque, who glories in his own (largely imaginary) wickedness. But that could be a clever blind. And there’s Mr and Mrs Sanford. It could be any one of them. And of course it could be a stowaway.

Valcour can rely on some help from the captain of the ship, an old sea dog named Sohme who proves to be surprisingly sentimental.

This is a classic set-up for a murder mystery - isolate a group of suspects so that the reader knows the murderer must be one of a limited number of suspects, and none of the suspects can escape. Nor can their potential victims.

King handles this setup with considerable skill and also makes good use of the shipboard setting. At times the sea itself seems as sinister as murder. Not that the ship encounters any storms. Just fog, drizzle and overcast weather. Especially fog. The captain is reduced to navigating by dead reckoning. The fog, added to the loss of their only radio operator, also makes it impossible for anyone to contact the ship or for them to contact anyone else (rather like the classic mystery device of isolating a group of people in a country house in a storm and having the telephone wires go down). The fog is a more subtly sinister way to achieve the same end, and the fact that the captain cannot even say with absolute certainty where the ship is adds to the tension.

Being a golden age detective story you expect a plot that is ingenious even if it stretches the limits of credibility. The secret is to stretch the limits of credibility without becoming totally implausible and King succeeds here as well.

Valcour is not a colourful detective but he has his human touches - he is genuinely spooked by the fact that they don’t know where they are and he is totally cut off from the normal resources that would be available to a cop. Not only is the ship beset by fog - he feels himself surrounded by a kind of mental fog. Captain Sohme proves to be an engaging and interesting supporting character.

Murder by Latitude
is a fine example of the crime fiction of the 1930s and it’s also one of the best examples of the shipboard mystery novel. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Bride of Fu Manchu

The Bride of Fu Manchu was the sixth of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, and was published in 1933. It’s also in my opinion one of the best.

A mysterious epidemic is sweeping through southern France. Dr Petrie, who has something of a reputation for his knowledge of tropical medicine and exotic diseases, has been asked by the French government to lend assistance. What he finds is very disturbing indeed. The disease seems to be a form of plague, but with some unusual features. Equally disturbing is the presence of insects that appear to be hybrids never seen before, and he suspects they may be the carriers.

The young botanist Alan Sterling, an old friend of Petrie’s, is in southern France recuperating from a bout of blackwater fever picked up in the Amazon Basin. Sterling (who is the narrator of the book) earns his living as an orchid hunter, an occupation that takes him to many strange places and exposes him to many deadly risks. Danger has been his constant companion and his courage will serve him well in the adventure to come. Sterling has noticed things as well - plants that just don’t look right.

Sterling has already had an unusual encounter of a different kind, with a beautiful and exotic young woman named Fleurette on the beach at Ste Claire de la Roche. She appears to be the mistress of the mysterious and wealthy Mahdi Bey, but Sterling finds it difficult to believe that such a vision of loveliness, and such a charming young woman, could live her life in such a sordid manner. Fleurette will later have a major and very unexpected role to play in this story.

The thought that Dr Fu Manchu may be the guiding hand behind the strange epidemic has certainly crossed Dr Petrie’s mind. Dr Petrie believes he is on the verge of finding a cure when he is suddenly struck down by this plague-like illness.

Sterling will soon have confirmation of Fu Manchu’s involvement when Dr Petrie’s old friend (and Fu Manchu’s great nemesis) Sir Denis Nayland Smith arrives on the scene, but has Sir Denis arrived too late to save Petrie? And why does Nayland Smith seem to know something about Fleurette, something that disturbs him?

Sterling will be drawn into the battle to defeat yet another vast conspiracy of the Si-Fan, and will find himself facing not only Dr Fu Manchu, but also Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee (a woman who is as formidable and terrifying in her own way as Fu Manchu himself). But what exactly is Fah Lo Suee’s agenda?

If you enjoy tales of sinister diabolical criminal masterminds (and surely every right-thinking person does enjoy such stories) then The Bride of Fu Manchu delivers the goods. Dr Fu Manchu is one of the great fictional villains, as evil and dangerous as Sherlock Holmes’ great nemesis Professor Moriarty but much more colourful. Fu Manchu is a complex character, an implacable enemy but a man with a strong sense of honour. If Fu Manchu gives you his word about something then he will keep it, and will honour not just the letter of his promise but its spirit as well. He is a villain, but he is also a gentleman.

Fu Manchu is no mere cut-throat. He is a man who believes in things. The things in which he believes might make him a dangerous menace to western civilisation but it can never be doubted that his beliefs are sincere. He is, in his fashion, a great man.

This is a thrilling adventure yarn. I have no hesitation in warmly recommending it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Eye of Osiris

The Eye of Osiris, published in 1911, was the second of R. Austin Freeman’s many Dr Thorndyke mystery novels. And a very good mystery it is too.

R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) is unfortunately little know today except to devotees of vintage crime but this English writer was one of the masters of the detective story and Dr Thorndyke was his greatest creation. Freeman was a qualified doctor and he made considerable and effective use of his medical knowledge in his fiction.

Thorndyke is the scientific detective par excellence, a lecturer in medical jurisprudence. He is interested in facts which he organises with an almost brutal meticulousness. He has little time for speculation and no time at all for leaps of intuition. He is not even concerned overmuch with motives. Give him the acts and he will find the one person who could have committed the crime, whose guilt would be consistent with those facts.

The Eye of Osiris is concerned with the mysterious disappearance of Mr John Bellingham. A man of regular habits does not call at his cousin’s house, find him not at home, tell the maid that he will await his return, and then simply vanish. But that is what Mr John Bellingham appears to have done.

Dr Thorndyke initially has no involvement in this case.  He reads about it in the newspaper and notes it as being an excellent example of a point he has just been making to his students - the crucial importance in such a case of establishing the last time (and the last place) at which the presumed victim can be said with absolute certainty to have been still alive. He discusses it with his young assistant Dr Jervis and with a former student, Dr Paul Berkeley (who happens to be the novel’s narrator).

Two years later the mystery is still involved and Dr Berkeley finds himself having a chance (but momentous for all concerned) encounter with the Bellingham family. He is called in to treat the vanished man’s brother, Godfrey Bellingham, who is now living in poverty. And he discovers there is much more to this case that was apparent two years earlier. John Bellingham made a fiendishly difficult will, a will that could restore Godfrey’s fortunes, or leave him condemned to perpetual penury. An acrimonious legal case is now imminent. Dr Berkeley also happens to fall in love with Godfrey’s daughter Ruth.

Godfrey is a proud man, unwilling to accept help that he cannot pay for, but Dr Berkeley eventually persuades him that if his old mentor Dr Thorndyke were to accept the case it would not be charity since the case is so complex and so likely to produce interesting legal precedents that he would actually be doing Dr Thorndyke a favour by allowing him to become involved. Which is at least partly true - Thorndyke really is eager to get to grips with what should prove a most challenging case.

The challenge is firstly to establish if John Bellingham really has been murdered, secondly to find out who murdered him, and thirdly to find a way of fulfilling an apparently impossible clause in the will.

Oddly enough almost everybody involved in this affair shares a passion for Egyptology, a factor that will assume considerable importance.

Dr Thorndyke himself is by no means a colourful personage- the fascination of the character lies in his methods rather than his personality.

Freeman manages to combine a classic puzzle mystery novel (the Thorndyke novels can in some ways be seen as launching the golden age of detective fiction) with a love story. His style is not flashy but nor is it dull.

The great strength of the novel lies in the plotting which is ingenious enough and complicated enough to satisfy any fan of the puzzle-style of mystery story.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ed Wood's Devil Girls

Ed Wood Jr was a film-maker of legendary status, notorious for being often voted (quite unfairly) as the worst film-maker of all time, the man responsible for such schlock classics as Plan 9 from Outer Space. What is less well-known is that he was also a prolific novelist.

His novels were lurid pulpy shockers and were regarded at the time as being pornographic (although such a description seems absurd today).

Devil Girls was published in 1967, and lurid it most certainly is. The front cover assures us that it is a tale of “Hot Rod Harlots on the Highway to Hell” and the description is entirely accurate.

A small town in Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, has a major problem with juvenile delinquents (always a favourite subject for Wood who wrote the screenplay for the delightfully outrageous juvenile delinquent movie The Violent Years). In particular, the town is menaced by a girl gang known as the Chicks. This gang is involved in an uneasy partnership with an equally unpleasant gang of young males.

A teacher at the local school has been brutally murdered, and these teenage tearaways are the prime suspects. Both the male and female juvenile delinquents are dopers. Not just marijuana, which would be bad enough, but many are also hooked on heroin or on the even more dangerous combination of heroin and cocaine. The Chicks have been recruited by a local drug dealer to act as drug couriers. This dealer, an objectionable individual known as Lark, brings the drugs in by boat but he needs the girls to carry the drugs from the boat to the dockside. His plan is that the girls will conceal the drugs about their persons, mostly in their bras.

And here we find one of the many touches that mark this book as unmistakably the work of Ed Wood - an interest in female undergarments that is both keen and slightly odd. There will be plenty of other such touches.

Battling these youthful miscreants is the overworked but indefatigable Sheriff Buck Rhodes, ably assisted in his crusade against youth crime by the handsome and dedicated young Reverend Steele. The sheriff will have to find a way to stop a major drug shipment from coming ashore and he has few leads to work with.

The leader of the Chicks is Dee, but as her heroin habit grows her control over the gang is starting to slip. She has even bigger problems when the former leader of the Chicks, Lila, breaks out of prison and returns to town, seeking vengeance on those she considers to be responsible for her misfortunes (which means pretty much the whole population of the town but especially her mother). Lila is doing a life sentence for a murder rap. Lila’s kid sister Rhoda is one of the Chicks.

The book is rather like Ed Wood’s movies - it’s both incompetent and entertaining. Although it has to be said that by the standards of pulp fiction it’s by no means as badly written as you might expect. It has a coherent plot and some memorable characters. It builds to a reasonably exciting climax. And it has a deliciously sleazy atmosphere.

Wood’s unconventional sexual tastes are certainly on full display. There is of course a concern for women’s clothing - none of the girls is ever described as simply taking off her sweater. The sweater is lovingly described, especially if it is a pink angora sweater (one of Ed’s favourite garments). There is also a rather disturbing interest in bodily functions.

If you’re a fan of Ed Wood’s movies (and I can’t imagine any right-thinking person not being a fan of his movies) then it’s certainly worth checking out his literary output as well, even if it’s only for their curiosity value and the light they shed on this distinctive icon of American pop culture.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Francis Iles’ Before the Fact

Francis Iles’ 1932 novel Before the Fact is best known today as the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie 1941 Suspicion was based. As most fans of the movie are aware, the endings of the novel and the movie differ very significantly, and which you prefer is largely a matter of taste.

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) was born in England and wrote detective stories under several names, including Anthony Berkeley, A. Monmouth Platts and Francis Iles.

Before the Fact, like another of his Francis Iles novels, Malice Aforethought, can be considered to be one of those crime novels that try to be more than just a straight detective novel. As literary critics would rather pompously put the matter, they are an attempt to transcend the limitations of the genre. In both cases there is no doubt whatever of the murderer’s identity (in both cases his identity is revealed on the very first page) - both are psychological studies of murderers (and in the case of Before the Fact of potential murder victims).

Before the Fact is told from the point of view of Lina Aysgarth (née McLaidlaw). Lina has always considered herself to be strong-willed and as a woman who will have to rely on brains rather than beauty if she is to find a husband. And at the age of twenty-eight Lina has decided that she very much wants to find a husband.

The man she chooses is Johnnie Aysgarth. This does not please her father, General McLaidlaw. He is convinced that Johnnie is simply after her money (she already has five hundred a year and will come into £50,000 on her father’s death, a very large sum of money at the time). The general believes that Johnnie, like all the Aysgarths, is no good. But Lina has made her choice.

She soon realises that Johnnie is not a terribly good catch. He spent a great deal of money on her on her honeymoon but then she discovers that it was all borrowed money. Johnnie does not have a penny to his name. Lina tells him that he will have to get a job, a suggestion that shocks him deeply. Work is something he has never contemplated. Lina insists, and Johnnie relents to the extent of taking a position as an estate manager. But there are more unpleasant discoveries to follow. Johnnie is a hopeless (and notably unsuccessful) gambler. He has huge debts. And he is as irresponsible as a child. Oddly enough, this is what makes Lina love him so much. She is convinced that he could not live without her.

Johnnie’s gambling continues to be a problem, and then a fortunate accident happens (fortunate indeed for Johnnie) - the general dies and Lina is now a wealthy woman.

As their marriage progresses Johnnie’s irresponsibility becomes if anything even worse. He takes to forgery. And then Lina makes an unnerving discovery. Her father’s death may not have been due to natural causes, Or rather, the natural causes (a heart condition) may have been given a helping hand by Johnnie. Whether Johnnie is actually, in strictly legal terms, a murderer is open to doubt.

Worse is to follow. There will be other deaths, and other revelations about Johnnie. Lina’s suspicions will continue to grow and drive her almost to breaking point.

The second half of the book differs substantially from the film and the ending differs even more dramatically. Interestingly enough Hitchcock originally intended to go with the ending of the book. I don’t propose even to hint at either ending, but they do represent a considerable change in the tone of the story. I personally prefer the ending of the film but the ending of the book certainly has its virtues.

Both book and film are concerned mostly with the effect of Lina’s suspicions on her own peace of mind, and indeed her sanity. Both are also fascinating case studies of a charming, even loveable, man who really is, as Lina’s father warned her, no good.

The book, even more than the film, is also concerned in an almost gothic manner with the heritability of evil. All the Aysgarths are charming, and none of them is any good. Are Johnnie’s weaknesses of his own making, or are they simply the inevitable results of heredity?

Compared to the movie the book is perhaps a trifle over-long, with a lengthy sub-plot which Hitchcock quite wisely dropped from the movie. Nonetheless the novel is an intriguing early example of the psychological crime novel, and in 1932 (at the height of the so-called golden age of the detective story as intellectual puzzle) was certainly ahead of its time. It can also be seen as a very bizarre love story. The psychological crime novel is not a favourite sub-genre of mine but this is a very good example of the breed and can certainly be recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

King of the Khyber Rifles

King of the Khyber Rifles, published in 1916, is a rousing tale of adventure on the Northwest Frontier of India. The author, Talbot Mundy (1879-1940), was born in England. After an adventurous life in various parts of the world he settled in the United States in 1911 where he began his writing career. He would go on to become one of the masters of the adventure genre.

King of the Khyber Rifles opens in 1914. The outbreak of the European war poses major problems for the British authorities in India. Garrisons have been stripped of men to fight in Europe and India is now held by a perilously small contingent of British soldiers backed by native troops. And of course there is trouble on the Northwest Frontier. There is always trouble on the Northwest Frontier, but now that the fierce hill tribesmen know that the British army in India has been seriously weakened there is likely to be more trouble than usual. There is talk of a jihad.

Athelstan King of the Indian Secret Service is given the difficult task of preventing a rising of the tribes. He is to make contact with a mysterious woman named Yasmini. Yasmini is a kind of princess who has a devoted following among the hillmen. She is believed to be loyal to the British but with a woman like Yasmini certainty is impossible. Yasmini enjoys power and may be tempted to try to carve out an empire for herself. No-one who has known her doubts that she is capable of doing just that. She is both beautiful and dangerous, but also potentially the saviour of British India if she can be persuaded to remain loyal.

King is seconded to the Khyber Rifles but he will be travelling to the frontier in disguise. He has chosen the disguise of a hakim, a native doctor and healer.

After crossing the Khyber Pass King finds himself in Khinjan, a vast fortress carved out of a mountain. No-one is allowed entrance to Khinjan unless he can prove that he is a murderer. This is not exactly a civilised part of the world.

King finds himself drawn into a bewildering web of plots and counter-plots. Yasmini is not the only one who is capable of raising an army amongst the hill tribesmen. There is also a murderous mullah who dreams of a jihad.

Athelstan King finds that Yasmini takes more than a political interest in him. He may well find himself cast in the role of a lover, not the safest occupation in the world where such a woman is concerned.

Khinjan conceals a strange secret. The past is very much alive there. A Roman general had penetrated as far as Khinjan with an army, but he never did return to Rome. He remains in Khinjan, or at least his body does. Or is it just his body? Can the past live again? This adds an interesting hint of the occult to the story.

Mundy’s stories are not mere adventure tales. They also contain a great deal of political intrigue, a subject that fascinated him and with which he was very much at home.

There is plenty of adventure as well though. The world beyond the Khyber Pass is a world of blood-feuds and murder. The tribesmen would consider themselves shamed if they earned an honest living. They can be loyal friends, but they can just as easily slit your throat, and do it cheerfully.

Athelstan King is a hero who relies more on brainpower, and on his own considerable skills at political intrigue, more than on brawn although he is certainly capable of being a man of action when required. He is an interesting character, but it is Yasmini, a constant presence in the background, who dominates the book.

An excellent novel of adventure, and highly recommended.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Red Right Hand

Joel Townsley Rogers was a prolific writer of short stories in various genres, but he wrote only four novels, the best-known being his 1945 mystery The Red Right Hand.

This novel is notable not so much for its plot as for the innovative (and for 1945 quite daring) method of narration. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness.

Dr Henry Riddle is the first-person narrator. He was not exactly a witness to a murder, but he was a witness to some of the events surrounding an unusual murder. 

Elinor Darrie and her fiance Inis St Erme were heading for Vermont to get married. They picked up a hitchhiker, a man the investigators of the crime will come to know as Corkscrew for his unusual gait when walking. The hitchhiker apparently killed St Erme and tries to kill Elinor. He then sped off in St Erme’s car (or rather the car St Erme had borrowed from a man named Dexter in New York). The car then ran over another man, a half-Indian named John Flail. After that it ran down Mrs Wiggins’ dog. 

These separate events can be pieced together to show the killer’s movements after the murder of St Erme. The odd thing is that Dr Riddle, whose car had broken down at the turn-off to the Swamp Road, should have seen the murder car, but he didn’t.

The entire book follows the thought processes of Dr Riddle as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is an endeavour that will take him to the verge of madness.

There are several pieces of the puzzle that just won’t fit. Most worrying is his failure to see the murder car. There is simply no way he could have not seen it. But he didn’t see it. And why is St Erme’s right hand missing when the body is found? How could Dr Riddle have seen John Flail in a place where he could not have been at the time? Why was the psychiatrist and criminologist MacComerou murdered? MacComerou had come too close to the truth, but what truth? And the other murders? Riddle just can’t find any rational way to fit those pieces together.

There are obvious explanations for some of these events, but obvious explanations are not always reliable.

This is a stylistic tour-de-force. It’s a very bold and almost experimental crime novel. It’s very much in the real of psychological crime novels, of the type that writers like Jim Thompson would later pursue with much success. For 1945 it’s definitely ahead of its time, a pointer to the directions in which crime fiction would go in the 1950s.

Rogers does an excellent job in dissecting the thought processes of the narrator. The narrative jumps back and forward in time, just as anyone’s thoughts would do if they were trying to puzzle out such a mystery. The narrator keeps going back to earlier events, trying to find the weaknesses in the various theories he comes up with, trying to discover what it is that he has missed, what it is that perhaps he has misinterpreted. He knows that he has all the facts necessary to solve the crime, but the facts seem to be contradictory and ambiguous. Can he solve the crime without driving himself over the edge of insanity?

An unusual mystery, and one that deserves to be much better known. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Rafael Sabatini’s The Trampling of the Lilies

Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) was one of the grand masters of the swashbuckling adventure tale. He was born in Italy but lived in England from the age of seventeen onwards and wrote all of his many books in English. The Trampling of the Lilies, published in 1906, is one of his early efforts.

Shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution a man named La Boulaye is the secretary to the Marquis de Bellecour. La Boulaye has imbibed deeply of the poisonous philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau and is a revolutionary in the making.

La Boulaye is unfortunate enough to be in love with the marquis’ daughter Suzanne. Unfortunate, because such a love was impossible. Although he is an educated man La Boulaye’s birth was humble and the social gulf between such a man and the nobility was very wide indeed.

La Boulaye is unwise enough to declare his love. His reward is to be spurned by Suzanne and horsewhipped by her father. Later that day La Boulaye comes across a peasant wedding, and witnesses a scene that will have a momentous effect on both his own destiny and that of the family of de Bellecour. The marquis asserts his ancient right, the droit de seigneur, to take the virginity of the young bride. La Boulaye’s blood boils and he shoots one of the marquis’ servants and attempts to shoot the marquis himself. As a result the marquis orders that he be flogged to death.

He is flogged until he appears to be dead, and them Suzanne de Bellecour intervenes and stops the punishment. La Boulaye proves to be still alive and thanks to Suzanne he is able to flee. Suzanne’s feelings towards him are confused to say the least. She cannot possibly admit to herself that she might be in love with him. He is little better than a peasant and as such scarcely human. It is an unthinkable idea. She has all the prejudices of her class.

The action them jumps forward four years. It is 1793 and La Boulaye is a powerful man indeed. He is not only a Deputy, but also an intimate friend of Robespierre. His path will again cross with that of Suzanne de Bellecour, with momentous consequences. Despite their own best efforts their destinies are inextricably linked. Suzanne saved La Boulaye’s life once and he will have an opportunity to repay the debt, but at a frightful cost to himself.

Compared to his later books many of the characterisations in The Trampling of the Lilies are somewhat lacking in subtlety. With one notable exception the aristocrats are cruel and arrogant, little more than cardboard villains. To be fair to Sabatini, the revolutionaries are not much better. Surprisingly enough he seems rather sympathetic to Robespierre. How one can paint a sympathetic portrait of such a monster passes all human understanding, but there you have it. Sabatini seems uncertain as to his feelings about the Revolution. He is torn between his natural sympathy for the underdog and his horror at the way events turned out as France was turned into a butcher’s yard.

La Boulaye’s transformation from bloodthirsty revolutionary to romantic hero is not entirely convincing, unless you can accept the idea that love really does conquer all.

The evidence for the actual existence of the droit de seigneur is slight, but it became part of the popular imagination both in the 18th century and today. It was first publicised by Voltaire, who may well have invented the idea. It was a useful stick with which to beat the aristocracy. Sabatini’s sympathies are clearly not with the aristocracy so it’s perhaps not surprising that he makes use of this myth.

There’s not quite as much action as you’d expect in a Sabatini novel, but there is plenty of tension as La Boulaye struggles to find a way to save Suzanne from the guillotine.

Sabatini, even in this early novel, demonstrates his skills as a story-teller. Any adventure novel by this author is worth reading, and this is no exception.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The House on Tollard Ridge

Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965) wrote detective novels under a variety of pseudonyms, including John Rhode. The House on Tollard Ridge was published under this name in 1929.

It was one of many books to feature Dr Priestley, although he does not appear in this book until quite late. Dr Priestley, like R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, was a scientific detective. Dr Priestley is a slightly eccentric maverick scientist who has discovered that solving crimes can be a pleasant intellectual diversion. He is not motivated by money, nor by any passionate belief in justice. A crime is merely a puzzle to be solved.

In this case the crime is murder. A Mr Barton is found dead, his skull crushed by a blunt instrument. Mr Barton had been living in seclusion in a house on Tollard Ridge, a house a few miles from the village of Charlton Abbas and accessible only on foot. The town of Lenhaven is about fourteen miles distant. Since the death of his beloved wife he had been living there alone until a Mr and Mrs Hapgood had prevailed upon him to move in with them at Tilford Farm.

Mr Barton had been a wealthy man but quite a generous one and was generally so well liked that no-one can conceive that anyone could have a motive for murdering him. Mrs Hapgood has always referred to Mr Barton as Uncle Sam and regarded him almost as a father although in fact they were not related by blood.

Superintendent King is soon on the scene. Slowly a solution to the crime suggests itself to him. A son who has been disowned by Mr Barton, a young man given to drink and violence, seems to be a more and more obvious suspect. At least until Dr Priestley takes an interest in the case. What seemed like an open-and-shut case now proves to be far more complex than anyone could have imagined. The solution to the murder, and to another related murder, is as ingenious as anything you’re likely to come across in golden age detective fiction.

The solution is in fact so intricate as to appear slightly far-fetched but there’s no denying the skill with which the novel is plotted.

D Priestley is in the great tradition of amateur detectives but he has little time for leaps of intuition. He relies on solid facts, on mathematically precise reasoning, and on science. The solution to the murder is, fittingly, very much a product of science.

The style of the book is fairly austere. The novelist and critic Julian Symons classifies Street as belonging to the “humdrum” school of crime fiction, which is perhaps a little unfair. Street certainly treats crime in the same way that Dr Priestley does, as an intellectual puzzle, but it would be unjust to conclude that he was a dull writer. His style gets the job done and is not displeasing. The emphasis is very much on plot (and his plotting is certainly excellent) but Dr Priestley is an interesting character. Street is careful to take the obvious route by making him a grandiose larger-than-life character but he is clearly an exceptional man and his faith in the scientific approach is taken so far as to make him anything but a colourless character.

A very entertaining crime novel, and warmly recommended.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chinese Brady: The Complete Adventures

Chinese Brady: The Complete Adventures is a collection of all the Chinese Brady stories by C. M. Miller that were published during the 1930s in the pulp magazines Battle Birds and Dare-Devil Aces.

Chinese Brady’s adventurous life had begun in China during the Boxer Rebellion and included stints as a general in the Mexican army, a buck private in Guatamela, a prime minister of Abyssinia and a general in China. Now he’s a captain and fighter pilot in the US Army in the First World War, flying SPADs. 

He’s technically too old to qualify as a pilot, but that’s a minor detail that is certainly not going to stop Chinese Brady. He has dyed his greying hair black and enlisted originally under a phony name but pretty soon his real identity has become well-known. His commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Wharton and Major Roger Abel, are old comrades-in-arms from his China days.

Brady takes command of a squadron of young, eager but very inexperienced pilots. He spends as much time trying to keep them out of trouble as he does fighting the enemy.

The first few stories are fairly conventional air combat stories but during the course of the 30s they would become stranger and stranger. The Germans come up with a succession of secret weapons, any one of which might win the war for them. But not if Chinese Brady has anything to do with it. He will battle flying dragons, tanks that appear from nowhere, warriors in medieval armour, New Guinea tribesmen, invisible pilots and the dreaded Musical Death.

Brady is a typical pulp two-fisted action hero. He’s one of the most dangerous American air aces but many of these tales see him operating behind enemy lines. He uses his brains as much as brawn, and his fists as much as the twin Vickers machine-guns of his SPAD.

As the stories took on more and more of a science fictional tinge they also became more and more interesting. This is pure pulp fiction, and it’s none the worse for that. Miller’s writing might not be polished but it’s energetic and it’s entertaining. And it gets straight into the action.

There was a whole genre of these air combat tales with science fictional and fantastical overtones. Donald Keyhoe's stories of Captain Philip Strange, the Brain-Devil, collected in Strange War, are some of the best but Miller's stories are just as good in their own way.

The Chinese Brady stories certainly stretch credibility but once you accept that they’re a crossover between aviation adventure and science fiction there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had.

Highly recommended for pulp fiction fans.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

John Dickson Carr’s The Waxworks Murder

John Dickson Carr’s 1932 mystery The Waxworks Murder was the fourth of his five novels featuring French detective Henri Bencolin.

Carr was the acknowledged master of the “locked room” mystery and its near cousin the “impossible murder” mystery. The Waxworks Murder fits more into the latter category although it certainly deals with doors, keys and passage-ways.

Carr (1906-1977) was an American who lived in England for many years, a fact which gives many of his crime novels a feel that is more English than American.

A woman’s body is found in the Musée Augustin, a wax museum in Paris. She is found in the arms of a waxwork monster. The wax museum is not however the main focus of the story. The primary focus is on the Club of the Silver Key next door, although there is an entrance to the club through the wax museum, a point which will become of major importance.

The Club of the Silver Key is a place of assignation. It is, if you like, a high-class sex club for the bored and the wealthy. Several young women have been enticed to this club, some more willingly than others.

There’s the usual assortment of suspects, and there are the plot twists and red herrings you associate with golden age detective novels. There are doors that can only be opened from one side, and the keys associated with the club are important not just as keys but as badges of membership. To add some spice, and to further complicate Bencolin’s task, the members of the Club of the Silver Key are always masked when they attend meetings.

It’s a skillful mixture of clever plotting with high-class sleaze and debauchery. And a very entertaining mixture it is. Recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Necromancer

In her satire of the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, one of Jane Austen’s characters recommends seven “horrid novels” to her friend. For many years it was assumed that Austen had made up the titles but in fact Austen knew her gothic literature (one suspects she was rather a fan) and all seven are real books. First published in 1794, Peter Teuthold’s The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest was one of these seven books.

Teuthold claimed the book to be a translation from the German of Lawrence Flammenberg (real name Carl Friedrich Kahlert). It had been assumed that Teuthold made this claim to give the book a more German flavour but apparently it really was a translation.

There has been a certain amount of interest in these “horrid novels” and all are currently in print although information on the authors is hard to come by.

The Necromancer has a bewilderingly complex structure. It is a series of tales within tales within tales. This can be seen as a flaw but 19th century gothic novelists liked to use similar structures to give the impression of a series of eyewitness accounts.

To attempt to describe the plot in any detail would only cause more confusion. You just have to go with it.

The central figure in all the tales is Volkert the Necromancer although this is not immediately apparent since he appears in various disguises and under several false names. After a while you learn to assume that any elderly man with a mysterious or sinister air to him is probably Volkert, and you’re usually correct.

Volkert is a sergeant in the Austrian Army who has dabbled in the occult for many years. He has found it to be a profitable sideline but a dangerous one as he has found himself more and more deeply enmeshed in crime as a result. Volkert is both a necromancer and a con-man. While several of the narrators believe that Volkert really possesses supernatural powers it is clear that most if not all of the supernatural events in which he is involved are elaborate frauds.

Of course there has to be a moral message, and that message is that a life devoted to such swindles will be a life of increasing moral degradation.

Jane Austen’s heroines would have been well pleased with this novel. There are ruined castles, dungeons, hidden passages, haunted inns, executions, duels and numerous ghostly manifestations. There are thrills and chills. There’s gothic atmosphere laid on as thickly as anyone could possibly desire. Necromancers were seemingly much in demand in 18th century Germany, for purposes both honest and dishonest. Usually the latter.

This is certainly not one of the classics of the genre but it has its own bizarre charm. Worth a read. It's also worth seeking out another of Austen's horrid novels, The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Prisoner in the Opal

A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best remembered today as the author of the classic adventure novel The Four Feathers. He also wrote five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanuad of the Sûreté. The Prisoner in the Opal was the third in this series, appearing in 1928, and is probably the best-known.

It’s an interesting combination of the golden age detective story and the occult. The occult elements take quite a while to become apparent but the fact that the most widely available paperback edition is part of Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult is a giveaway that the occult will indeed figure in the story.

Mr Julius Ricardo is a middle-aged retired tea-merchant whose great passion in life is wine. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to the Médoc region around Bordeaux at vintage time. Mr Ricardo does have one other unexpected interest - crime. This is a result of his unlikely friendship with the great Inspector Hanuad of the Sûreté. He is in effect Hanau’s Watson.

When Mr Ricardo meets Joyce Whipple, a beautiful and fascinating young American woman, he is both enchanted and intrigued. Joyce has received a latter from her friend Diana Tasborough and has become convinced that Diana is threatened by a great evil. She cannot explain why, since there is nothing in the letter to suggest such an assumption,  but she has received an impression that Diana is surrounded by evil forces. Joyce persuades Mr Ricardo to change his plans slightly and to stay at the Château Suvlac during the vintage time. Diana and her friends will also be there.

Mr Ricardo is not a man given to a belief in superstition or the supernatural but Joyce Whipple’s distress is so palpable that he cannot avoid feeling that her instinct may be right.  Of course it’s also possible that Mr Ricardo is not inclined to disbelieve any story coming from such a charming young lady.

On his arrival in the Médoc Mr Ricardo runs into his old friend Inspector Hanaud and Hanaud’s presence convinces him that something sinister is indeed afoot. The atmosphere at the Château Suvlac is certainly somewhat odd and strained. The young Mrs Evelyn Devenish seems to feel an extraordinary hatred for Joyce Whipple. Diana Tasborough is behaving in an uncharacteristically distracted manner, and her aunt Mrs Tasborough seems more commanding than usual. The estate manager, Robin Webster, seems to be behaving in a slightly odd manner. The Château’s near neighbour, the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol, is most certainly sinister. And the Abbé Fauriel’s behaviour gives rise to suspicious speculations. There is also, in the background, Diana’s young man Bryce Carter, whom she has apparently recently jilted.

So far no crime has occurred but that will soon change. A murder and a disappearance will  soon provide a major challenge for Inspector Hanuad. And the dead body has had its right hand hacked off!

The relationship between Mr Ricardo and Inspector Hanuad provides plenty of opportunity for amusement. Hanaud is a brilliant man but he does things to the English language that cause Mr Ricardo a great deal of pain. Mr Ricardo is convinced that although Inspector Hanuad is a good chap and quite capable in his own way he could not possibly solve even the most routine of crimes with his, Mr Ricardo’s, help. This affords Inspector Hanuad with a good deal of good-natured amusement.

The solution to the crime is of course complex and convoluted with lots of sinister but initially very subtle hints of the strange and the occult. A vast occult conspiracy is of course involved, but who are the prime movers and who are the innocent dupes?

French detectives were quite the fashion at the time, with John Dickson Carr’s Inspector Henri Bencolin being a notable example. They afforded crime writers with an opportunity to make use of exotic and fashionable locations. Hanaud belongs to the class of genius detectives who rely on both inspiration and thorough detective work.

Mason’s style is witty and entertaining. There are plenty of colourful touches (mustard gas as a tool in crime-solving for example) and the plot works rather nicely. There are suspects  in abundance - just about everybody associated with the Château Suvlac has something to hide. There is no shortage of odd and interesting characters.

It’s all highly enjoyable and is most definitely recommended.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Richard Marsh's The Goddess: A Demon

Richard Marsh (1857-1915) is best remembered today for his bizarre gothic novel The Beetle, which was published in the same year as Dracula and at the time outsold Stoker’s classic novel.

Marsh’s real name was Richard Heldmann. His father was a German lace merchant who became a naturalised British subject. He was declared bankrupt in circumstances that suggested that in his business affairs he sailed rather close to the wind and may have been involved in practices that were on the edge of illegality. His son seems to have inherited his father’s recklessness. Richard Heldmann’s literary career was interrupted by a prison sentence for forgery in the 1880s.

By the early 1890s he had resumed his writing career and was starting to make a name for himself as a popular writer of sensationalistic but entertaining novels. He went through an amazingly prolific period in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In one year no less than eight books of his were published, although this total included re-issues of earlier works. He was regarded with disdain by serious critics but this had no effect on his popularity.

Apart from The Beetle his most notable foray into the world of gothic fiction was The Goddess: A Demon, published in 1900. This novel combines elements of Wilkie Collins-style sensation fiction, crime fiction and the gothic. And like The Beetle it has a rather bizarre flavour all its own. No-one else wrote fiction quite like Marsh’s. He avoided the obvious themes and had a strange but fertile imagination.

The Goddess: A Demon opens with a bizarre murder. The victim, Edwin Lawrence,  appears to have been slashed to death in a frenzied attack by several different knives. A short while earlier he had been playing cards with the book’s narrator, John Ferguson. Ferguson was fairly sure that Lawrence had been cheating, and Ferguson ended the night owing Lawrence no less than £1,880.

Shortly afterwards a woman enters Ferguson’s apartments through an open window. She is covered in blood and seems confused. In fact more than confused - she doesn’t even know her own name. She witnessed the murder but has no idea who the murderer was. It may have been her. She simply doesn’t know.

Ferguson is a tough adventurer who has been around but when it comes to women he is something of an innocent. He us convinced the woman is innocent. Persuading the police of her innocence is however no easy task, complicated by the fact that he himself is also a suspect.

Marsh has quite a few plots twists still up his sleeve at this stage, and they are genuinely unexpected.

The atmosphere is one of paranoia and madness. Ferguson isn’t even entirely sure of his own innocence, and the sanity of most of the characters is in some doubt.

In its own way this book is just as interesting and just as strange as The Beetle. It’s a difficult novel to classify - weird fiction is perhaps the closest one could come to assigning it to a particular genre. It’s very weird indeed, in a way that only Richard Marsh could successfully pull off. Definitely highly recommended.

The Valancourt edition includes an introduction and about eighty pages’ worth of assorted appendices on everything from Victorian concepts of madness to London fogs to knife crime. The introduction alone makes this edition the one to look for.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Death in Ecstasy

Death in Ecstasy was the fourth of Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn mysteries, appearing in 1936. The story is set against a background of a rather dubious religious cult.

Journalist Nigel Bathgate is bored, bored and curious. That’s what drives him to the House of the Sacred Flame. This religious cult combines a bit of everything, from Christianity to Norse paganism to eastern mysticism. It attracts the bored and the wealthy, the cynical opportunists and the gullible.

It attracted Cara Quayne, who mysteriously drops dead during one of their ceremonies. Nigel Bathgate knows enough about crime to immediately suspect poison, and he makes a quick phone call to his old friend Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Even with the overwhelming odour of incense pervading the temple the characteristic bitter almonds smell of cyanide is hard to miss. And no other poison could have killed its victim so quickly.

Alleyn is not exactly thrilled to find himself saddled with such a case. His distaste for cults is strong and instinctive. Nonetheless he is on the spot within minutes - at least he has the advantage of being called in when the trail is well and truly warm.

The House of the Sacred Flame cult is run by the Reverend Jasper Garnette, and it’s a nice little earner. Several wealthy people have put large sums of money into the cult, including both the deceased and American businessman Samuel J. Ogden. A Frenchman named Raoul de Ravigne, who was once wealthy but suffered considerably from the stock market, also invested a lesser but still not inconsiderable sum.

There are seven Initiates in the cult. Apart from the deceased, de Ravigne and Ogden there are also a Mrs Candour, a Miss Wade, a nervous young woman named Maurice Pringle and his fiancée, Janey Jenkins. They all took part in the fatal ceremony, and are therefore all suspects. As is the officiating priest, the aforementioned Reverend Jasper Garnette, and his Acolytes, two rather fey young men named Claude and Lionel, and a medical practitioner, Doctor Kasbek, who was on the scene within seconds of Cara Quayne’s death. Miss Quayne’s old nurse, who was bitterly opposed to Cara’s membership of this cult, is yet another suspect as she was present as well although her presence was unknown to any of the participants.

So there is an embarrassment of suspects. There is also an embarrassment of motives. This is because the cult was in fact a seething cauldron of repressed sexuality, jealousy and greed. And Alleyn doesn’t take long to notice that Maurice Pringle displays all the symptoms of narcotics abuse. He is a heroin addict, and he is not the only member of the cult who indulges in this vice. No wonder Roderick Alleyn finds this case distasteful.

Ngaio Marsh’s plotting is as skillful as you’d expect from a woman who was one of the big guns in golden age detective fiction. Her style is often tongue-in-cheek and includes the sort of self-referential touches that annoy some readers - halfway through the book one character makes the observation that if this was a detective novel it would be roughly at the halfway point. If you can ignore this sort of thing then her witty style has much to recommend it.

Roderick Alleyn would be in the well-established tradition of gentlemen detectives but for one thing - he is a working policeman rather than an amateur of crime.

Death in Ecstasy is highly entertaining and the cult background adds a good deal of fun. Recommended.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Johnston McCulley's Mark of Zorro

Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano, serialised in the pulp magazine All Story Weekly in 1919, marked the first appearance in print of Zorro. The character was destined to become one of the iconic adventure heroes of course, but while the novel was quite successful what really got the ball rolling was the 1920 movie adaptation.

The movie changed the title to The Mark of Zorro and was a huge hit, propelling Douglas Fairbanks to superstardom. It was so successful that the original novel was published in book form under this new title in 1924.

The setting is California in the early 19th century when it was still a possession of the Spanish crown (it became part of Mexico in 1822 and then part of the United States in 1848). The setting of the novel is not strictly accurate historically but it does succeed rather well in conveying at least part of the particular flavour of Spanish California. The ruling class, the caballeros, are obsessed by lineage and honour. To have the right blood is everything. And their concept of honour hearkens back to the chivalry of the early Middle Ages. These are very proud people and they are very sensitive to even the smallest points of honour.

This is something of a problem for Don Diego Vega. He certainly has the blood. No-one in the pueblo of Los Angeles can boast a more exalted bloodline than Don Diego. But while most caballeros are excessively eager to resort to their swords to defend their honour Don Diego is a languid and rather effete young man who prefers to read poetry. Respect for blood is so ingrained that no-one would dare accuse him to his face of being lacking in manliness, and the Vega family is also immensely powerful and politically influential. No-one dislikes Don Diego but privately there is some concern about his lack of physical prowess and his abhorrence of violence.

The famous outlaw Zorro has become a legend not just because of his skill with the sword but also for his concern for justice. The governor is corrupt, taxes are crippling, and many honourable families have seen their wealth ruthlessly stripped from then by the governor and his voracious minions. The one man who is prepared to take a stand against this injustice is Zorro. Zorro is not just a friend to oppressed and financially ruined caballeros however. He also steps in to defend the Franciscan friars who are being victimised and fleeced by the corrupt government. He is equally ready to defend the Indians whenever and wherever they are mistreated. Zorro is in essence Robin Hood in a different setting.

Don Diego’s father is rather displeased by his son’s apparent lack of spirit, and even more displeased that Don Diego has yet to marry and produce an heir. This is of course a vital necessity for any aristocratic family and Don Diego is his father’s only child. Under pressure from his father he is rather listlessly wooing the beautiful young Lolita Pulido. Her family has blood almost equal to that of the Vega family but her father Don Carlos has fallen out of favour with the political leadership and has lost most of his land and most of his wealth. Don Carlos is desperately anxious for a marriage alliance with the Vegas. Unfortunately Lolita is not impressed by Don Diego. She wants a real man. She also wants a lover who is romantic and passionate, and Don Diego seems uninterested in either romance or passion.

When Lolita encounters Zorro it is a different story. This is a man whom she could love. And Zorro is obviously interested.

While Don Diego is listlessly wooing Lolita a rival has appeared on the scene in the form of Captain Ramon. Ramon’s courtship is more than insistent - he goes so far as to threaten her honour. This is something that Zorro will not tolerate. And while all this happening the Pulido family is facing not just complete ruin but the accusation of treason. Zorro has to find a way to save both Lolita’s honour and her family. He will also have to protect his old friend, the friar Felipe. Felipe may be a man of God but he’s a pretty tough hombre who is afraid of no-one and who stands up for the rights of the oppressed.

Don Diego has formed an unlikely friendship with the boastful and violent Sergeant Gonzales. Gonzales is flattered to have a friend of such high rank, and the friendship is useful to Don Diego. Being a man of peace and something of a wimp it’s handy to have a friend who is both a tough guy and an important member of the local troop of soldiers.

The true identity of Zorro is not revealed until the end of the book but anyone who has ever seen any Zorro movie, comic book or TV episode already knows who he is and it really is blindingly obvious. In fact I suspect that McCulley expected his readers to figure it out pretty quickly - what’s important is that none of the other characters know his identity. Knowing who Zorro really is doesn’t affect the reader’s enjoyment of the book in the slightest and possibly even enhances it. By the time The Mark of Zorro appeared in book form in 1924 the secret would have been known to everyone who had seen the enormously popular 1920 movie. But on the off-chance that you’re not aware of Zorro’s identity and you don’t want to know until you read the novel, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.

Beginning of spoilers.

What the people of the pueblo of Los Angeles don’t know of course is that Don Diego is anything but a wimp. He is in fact the notorious outlaw hero Zorro.

Don Diego’s effeteness provides him with the perfect cover for his alter ego. No-one knows Zorro’s real identity but the last person anyone would suspect of being the renowned outlaw is Don Diego Vega. This cover has yet another advantage - it allows Zorro to keep tabs on the local troops. Don Diego has strengthened this advantage by befriending. Don Diego/Zorro always knows exactly what the troops are up to.

End of spoilers.

This is pure pulp fiction, with action aplenty. The plot races along in fine melodramatic style. McCulley’s style is pulpy but his characters are colourful and he knows how to spin an exciting tale of adventure and romance.

This version of Zorro is as heroic and honourable as his various movie and television incarnations but rather more ruthless. The violence is also somewhat more graphic.

The unusual and exotic setting is a major plus and is utilised quite effectively. McCulley has been criticised for not adhering more closely to the historical background but this is pulp fiction and it’s the flavour that is important, not strict historical accuracy.

Thoroughly enjoyable story-telling, and definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel, published in 1920. And for a first novel it was pretty impressive.

This is a tale of poisoning, a form of murder that was always popular with writers of detective stories, and with good reason. Poisoning has always been difficult to detect - most poisoners never even go to trial, in fact never even attract the notice of the police. Unless someone already has their suspicions it’s most likely that no autopsy will be performed and poisoning will not be detected.

And it’s an even more difficult crime to prove in court. It’s easy to poison someone without being observed so any evidence is generally circumstantial and unless the poisoner confesses the prosecution faces an uphill battle.

In this case the victim is an elderly woman with a great deal of money. Mrs Inglethorp is surrounded by relatives and hangers-on who have no money of their own. They all live in hopes of a large inheritance. And this particular elderly woman has a habit of changing her will constantly.

She has recently contracted what appears to be a rather unwise marriage with a man twenty years her junior. Her family assumes that he is an unscrupulous fortune-hunter. That he may be, but that does not make him a murderer. And there are at least five other very plausible suspects.

Captain Hastings just happens to be a friend of the family staying at Styles while recuperating from his wounds. It is 1916 and the Great War is in full swing. By a happy coincidence Hastings has recently discovered that Mrs Inglethorp has offered the use of a house she owns to a number of Belgian refugees who have fled from the German invasion. One of these refugees is a brilliant detective who had been one of the leading lights of the Belgian police force. And thus was Hercule Poirot introduced to the world.

I read a great deal of Christie’s work when I was young, in fact so much that for many years I avoided her books because I’d overdosed on them. In the intervening years I still remembered her gift for plotting but I’d entirely forgotten just what an entertaining writer she was. Captain Hastings is the narrator of this story, and he gives Christie the opportunity to have some fun. Hastings is of course convinced that he is an even greater detective than Poirot, and of course his deductions always turn out to be totally wrong. Hastings remains cheerfully oblivious to his own failings as a detective, even as he is reluctantly forced to acknowledge Poirot’s brilliance.

This story also introduces Chief Inspector Japp, although at this time he’s merely a Detective-Inspector. Japp and Poirot are old friends having worked together on several cases before the war. Japp’s admiration for Poirot knows no bounds.

Poirot in this novel is already Poirot. The character is already more or less fully formed, which leads me to suspect that Christie must have spent a good deal of time creating this character in her head before putting pen to paper.

The ingenious plotting is already in evidence, and the red herrings are skillfully deployed to lead us astray. Christie’s style is straightforward but quite witty, and really rather amusing at times. This is the detective story as entertainment, and it delivers the goods.

This might not be in the same class as the very best of her work but as first novels go it’s a confident and accomplished offering.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Theodore Roscoe's The Emperor of Doom

The Emperor of Doom is a collection of short stories by Theodore Roscoe, published in various pulp magazines between 1927 and 1933. They are mostly tales of adventure in the Foreign Legion or in the Mysterious Orient. And they’re a great example of pulp fiction at its most characteristic.

The Foreign Legion stories are interesting, presenting a very unheroic and non-romanticised view of that famous military organisation. Roscoe’s stories focus on the savage discipline and the brutalising effects of that discipline combined with poor pay and miserable conditions, constant danger, and the effects of gathering together such a collection of violent and desperate men.

In Foley of the Foreign Legion one of the officers betrays his men, and two soldiers choose desertion as the only option for survival. Blood and Ice shows us the sorts of men who were attracted to the Foreign Legion - vicious cut-throats who would murder their own mothers.

This is a long way from the rather romanticised world of Beau Geste.

There are three Foreign Legion stories. The remaining nine stories take place in the East, and again they are a world away from the usual romantic tales of adventure. Scum of the East tells us what the East can do to a man, how it can destroy him completely and leave behind nothing but a ruined shell.

Whispering Rubies and The Phantom Castle of Genghiz Khan are more traditional adventure tales, but they’re also very clever and original stories. Roscoe has a particular liking for stories involving sudden geological changes - lakes that appear and disappear, or islands that appear and then sink again.

Roscoe’s villains are extremely devilish. Borgan in Devil Dance and Captain Rachmaninoff in Yankee Beware are not merely vicious and corrupt - they are almost inhumanly so. They are devils in human form. There are no supernatural elements in any of these stories. Roscoe’s interest is in purely human evil and malevolent supernatural entities would simply be redundant.

Quite a few of the stories take place party of wholly at sea, and while the sea can be a cruel mistress it’s always other people that you really to fear. Greed is a major motivating force although for many of his villains the sheer joy of having power over their fellow humans is more important than mere greed.

Even Roscoe’s heroes are not conventionally heroic. They are often broken men who are offered one last of redemption, as in Scum of the East and Devil Dance. Or they’re criminal themselves, as in Penang Pearls. If they play the hero they do so reluctantly.

Roscoe’s view of the world is a dark and cynical one. Good often prevails, but it does so in unexpected and ironic ways, and it’s always a near-run thing.

The style is pulpy in the extreme. These are two-fisted tales of action and adventure and that’s what they deliver. Highly recommended.