Sunday, May 21, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, review part one

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the more notable practitioners in the popular pulp genre of sword and planet stories. The sword and planet genre began with Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s interesting that two of the best writers in this genre were women, Catherine L. Moore (author of the Northwest Smith stories and Leigh Brackett. Brackett enjoyed even greater success as a screenwriter, in which connection she is best known for her contributions to some of the best movies of Howard Hawks including The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. She was also the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back (or at least she wrote the first draft).

Gollancz have collected Brackett’s early sword-and-planet adventures in their Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories. Since the twelve stories included in this volume are mostly novella-length and a couple just about qualify as short novels a review is inevitably going to be rather lengthy. As a result I’m going to split this review into two (or it might possibly end up being three) parts.

First up, her very early sword-and-planet stories from the period 1942-48. 

The Sorcerer of Rhiannon is a very early story, dating to 1942. The hero, Max Brandon, is a kind of Indiana Jones-style archaeologist/adventurer and he’s searching for lost treasures on the now dry bed of one of the seas of Mars. He finds the wreck of a ship that sank aeons ago. At the time he finds the wreck he is in deep trouble, hopelessly lost and without food or water. Finding the wreck can’t help him now. There’s not going to be anyone alive to help him there. And there isn’t anyone alive. Not exactly alive. But there are two people there. They’re not alive but they’re not dead either, and they have things they wish to do and they need Max Brandon’s help and saying no isn’t going to do him any good.

The ideas of mind control and possession seemed to have a good deal for attraction for Brackett, popping up in many of her early stories. The idea is handled competently enough in The Sorcerer of Rhiannon. It is obviously an early effort but it has a reasonably good blend of action and atmosphere.

The Jewel of Bas dates from 1944 and mind control is again a central concern. It’s handled more ambitiously and more interestingly this time. The hero is a kind of gypsy, a wandering minstrel who, along with his wife, is captured by rather creepy grey beast-men. They live on a very strange planet on which even stranger things are starting to happen. The planet is experiencing moments of darkness, a frightening thing on a world that has never ever experienced a single moment of darkness. There are megalomaniacal androids, a hidden world inside a mountain and an immortal wizard who may or may not be able (or willing) to save them. 

Again there’s some nice otherworldly atmosphere and some genuinely weird and disturbing moments, and overall it’s an exiting and enjoyable story.

Terror Out of Space takes us to Venus where a cop has been given an assignment that has turned into a nightmare. He has to take into custody an alien being about which little is known except that it is very female and she has the power to enslave men in a very complete way. She is also telepathic. Her voice can drive a man mad but if he looks into her eyes he is truly lost, even though she does not actually have eyes. This is a tale that veers into horror territory and can be considered as an early and very fine example of the mind vampire genre.

The novella Lorelei of the Red Mist was half completed when Brackett was offered a job she couldn’t refuse, as screenwriter on Howard Hawks’ production of The Big Sleep. Ray Bradbury completed the story, apparently without having any idea how Brackett had intended to end it.

A race of man-like creatures lives beneath the Red Sea on Venus. Some of these aquatic men have left the sea to live on land, and have enslaved the humans living near the sea. Those who have left the sea and those who reman hate each other. Another race has appeared on the scene, basically human sea rovers, and they’re engaged in a ferocious war with the formerly sea-dwelling man-creatures.

This sea is not an ordinary sea. It’s a very very strange sea indeed.

All this takes place in a more or less unknown land beyond the a mighty range on Venus. Hugh Starke, a daring thief, is on the run and his only hope of escape is to take his rocket aircraft over that mountain range where no-one will dare to pursue him.

Now he’s in the strange and primitive world beyond the mountains, a world of heroism and war. And he has a new body to get used to. That’s tricky enough but he doesn’t have complete control of this body. There is another mind contesting his control. Also there are people trying to kill him for things that the previous owner of the body did.

So this is another variation on Brackett’s favourite theme of mind control, and a very interesting variation it is. It’s a violent, dark and quite macabre tale. And it’s an extremely good story.

The Moon That Vanished, from 1948, concerns the moon of Venus. Venus of course does not have a moon, but we learn that in the remote past it did have a moon. That moon may have been destroyed or it may have crashed into the surface of Venus, or perhaps it was the moon god that crashed into the planet. The legend is not clear on this point but it is clear about one thing - if a man can reach the Moonfire he can become a god. No-one knows what the Moonfire is and no-one knows where it is. In any case it is forbidden by the priests to seek the Moonfire.

There is one man who knows where the Moonfire is to be found. David Heath is from Earth and he found the Moonfire. Actually many men have found the Moonfire but what makes David Heath unique is that he returned from his quest alive. Alive he certainly is but he is a wreck of a human being, haunted by the shadows in his mind and find temporary oblivion in drugs. And now someone wants him to take them to the Moonfire.

This is a tale of adventure, with a plentiful supply of perilous obstacles to be overcome in order to reach the Moonfire. It becomes something much more interesting when David Heath and his two companions reach their destination to find that what they were seeking was not what they expected even if perhaps it was the fate for which they were destined.

This story does not involve mind control as such but it does deal with the powers of the mind as well as the nature of dreams and reality. It’s another ambitious story (a novella really) that succeeds extremely well.

It’s obvious that at this stage of her career Brackett was still finding her feet but she was doing so very quickly and very impressively. The Moon That Vanished is a very accomplished novella indeed. Brackett has a strong feel for atmosphere. She has her hobby horse, the powers of the mind and the ways in which those powers can be controlled and manipulated, but if it’s a fixation it’s one she makes very effective use of and in each story she manages to find a slightly different angle from which to attack the problem. Being a pulp writer she understands the necessity for keeping the plot moving along at all times. She is (at this stage of her career at least) a pulp writer but she’s a skillful and thoughtful pulp writer. On the basis of these early tales I’m pretty impressed. More to follow in a later post.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Missing Money-Lender by W. Stanley Sykes

W. Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels in the early 30s. The Missing Money-Lender (also published under the title The Man Who Was Dead) was the first of these, published in 1931.

As you’d expect from an author with a medical background many of the key plot elements involve science and medicine. There’s an obvious debt to R. Austin Freeman but there’s also an affinity to the police procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts.

A money-lender, Mr Israel Levinsky, has gone missing. Inspector Ridley of the Southbourne Constabulary is a conscientious and competent officer and his investigation is thorough and efficient but it produces no results. In fact there are scarcely any clues. The one lead that seemed promising ended up going nowhere. It involved a Dr Osborne who had been called in to treat a fellow medical practitioner, a Dr Laidlaw, who subsequently died. There seemed to be no direct connection between the deceased medico and the vanished money-lender but there were several indirect connections and it was with considerable regret that Inspector Ridley had to abandon that particular lead. 

With Mr Levinsky still missing the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and asks Scotland Yard for help. As luck would have it Detective Inspector Drury and Inspector Ridley are old friends so they have no difficulty working together. And finally persistence starts to pay off. 

This first half of the novel is almost pure police procedural, with patient methodical routine police work producing slow but definite progress. 

Of course to launch a successful prosecution for murder it is very desirable to have a body and that’s where Inspectors Ridley and Drury strike real problems. There is a body, possibly more than one, but how many bodies there actually are is uncertain. The identity of the various bodies is even more uncertain. And as for finding a cause of death - there seems to be no hope of that at all. 

The story now starts to move into impossible crime territory. Perhaps not actually impossible crimes, but exasperatingly inexplicable crimes. While police procedurals often deal with crimes that are straightforward once the detective has sifted through all the clues the impossible crime story by its very nature usually involves bizarre and ingenious murder methods. 

This novel is thus a bit of a hybrid but it works quite well.

Inspector Drury is the right kind of detective for a police procedural. He believes in teamwork and he believes in delegating important aspects of the investigation to his subordinates, trusting them to be quite capable of doing their jobs efficiently (and his subordinates are extremely competent). He doesn’t bother with leaps of intuition. If he can’t find a solution then he goes back to square one and combs through the evidence once again. If you’re sufficiently painstaking in your methods you should get results, even if it takes a while. 

In the second half when the impossible crime element starts to predominate we see Inspector Drury unexpectedly receiving help from an amateur sleuth (although admittedly an amateur whose own area of expertise is highly relevant to the case in hand). And suddenly we have some theorising rather than just methodical sifting of evidence.

Whether the impossible crime really would have been plausible in 1931 is a question I can’t answer and I don’t really care. It’s a very cool and ingenious murder method and it works for me. The details are perhaps just a little fantastic but for a keen golden age detection enthusiast that just adds to the enjoyment.

Mr Israel Levinsky is of course Jewish but that fact plays virtually no role at all in the story. I doubt if even the most politically correct modern reader could find anything here to worry them.

The Missing Money-Lender is a marvel of intricate and ingenious plotting and while it falls into the scientific detection category it never becomes excessively dry or dull. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as an overlooked gem but I found it to be a very satisfying and entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust was published in 1961 at a time when its author, Arthur C. Clarke, was at the peak of his powers as a science fiction writer. A Fall of Moondust is not quite typical of Clarke’s oeuvre, this being the closest he came to writing a science fiction thriller.

Back in 1961 there was a popular theory that much of the Moon’s surface comprised vast seas of dust and it’s this idea that provides the inspiration for the story. The idea turned out to be incorrect but it’s still a great setting and a great story.

It is somewhere around the late 21st century, on the Moon (which is now well and truly inhabited). The Selene is a dust cruiser, a kind of pleasure boat that takes tourists on jaunts across the the largest of the lunar dust seas, the Sea of Thirst.

The Sea of Thirst is more than just a dust bowl. This is incredibly fine dust that covers the lunar surface to a depth of anything up to a hundred metres. The combination of the fineness of the dust, the hard vacuum of space and the Moon’s weak gravity causes the dust to behave like a fluid, but not quite like any normal fluid. You can sail the sea of dust, if you have a lightweight dust ski, or even better a dust cruiser like the Selene

The Moon is not always as predictable as its reputation as a dead world would suggest. It is capable of springing surprises and one of these surprises brings disaster to the Selene. The dust cruiser and her twenty-two passengers and crew sinks. 

The Selene is perfectly intact and her passengers are unharmed but they are stuck fifteen metres beneath the surface of the Sea of Thirst, beneath thousands of tons of dust.

A very popular genre in movies at the time was the submarine disaster movie. The best of all these movies was the 1950 British film Morning Departure, in which a rescue operation is mounted to try to save the lives of sailors stuck in a submarine which sank during a training exercise. A Fall of Moondust is very very similar in general outline to Morning Departure and I would bet money that Clarke had seen the movie and had been inspired by it.

However a dust sea is not quite the same as an ordinary sea. In some ways the lunar dust behaves very much like water and in other ways it behaves very differently. The difficulties faced by the rescue operation are similar in some ways and very different in others to those faced by a submarine rescue operation. It’s the similarities to the submarine disaster genre that make this novel such a tense and gripping tale and it’s the intriguing differences that make A Fall of Moondust a genuine hard science fiction novel.

Finding the vanished dust cruiser is difficult enough. Rescuing her passengers and crew is  quite simply something that has never been attempted before. There is no established procedure. The entire operation will have to be improvised. Even if nothing before goes wrong the odds are not that good, and of course something further does go wrong.

Clarke always had a reputation for being a writer with zero interest in characterisation. In this book he makes a few token efforts to bring some of the characters to life. These efforts are notably unsuccessful. Fortunately Clarke does not allow these feeble attempts at characterisation to slow down his story. As it happens he has a terrific story to tell and it’s the scientific and technological challenges that drive the story. 

What is surprising is that Clarke seems to have an instinctive understanding of the demands of the thriller genre. He builds the tension rather nicely and every time it looks like everything is going to be OK he throws a new disaster at the hapless passengers. It’s a genuinely exciting tale and given the unusual and indeed unprecedented conditions in which it takes place we really don’t know just how the rescuers are going to go about the task, mainly because they don’t really know themselves. They’re going to have to invent an entirely novel method of rescue and nobody has any way of knowing if it will work.

A Fall of Moondust has the hard SF elements that Clarke’s fans always enjoy but with enough action and excitement to give it a potential appeal even to those who aren’t hardcore Arthur C. Clarke fans. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Arthur W. Upfield’s Mr Jelly's Business

Mr Jelly's Business (also published as Murder Down Under) was a fairly early entry in Arthur W. Upfield’s cycle of mysteries featuring the half-Aboriginal Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (universally known as Bony). This book came out in 1937.

This time Bony is in Western Australia, in the wheat town of Burracoppin. Bony is on leave from the Queensland Police Force when he finds himself drawn into solving the mysterious disappearance of farmer George Loftus. As he often does Bony goes undercover, posing as a worker on the famous Rabbit Proof Fence (the world’s longest fence).

George Loftus had left the pub in Burracoppin, somewhat the worse for drink. He had apparently crashed his car into the Rabbit Proof Fence and then reversed and ended up in a ditch. After which he simply vanished. Was he murdered or did he decide for some reason of his own to disappear? Bony suspects murder but he has to admit there is absolutely no solid evidence of foul play.

There is another mystery to be solved in Burracoppin. The Jelly farm is not far from the Loftus farm. Mr Jelly is an amiable widower in late middle age, devoted to his two daughters. At regular intervals Mr Jelly vanishes as well, only to reappear a few days later.  Whenever he reappears he is uncharacteristically withdrawn and morose for a couple of days and drinks heavily (which again is very uncharacteristic of him). The obvious suspicion is that his disappearances are linked to an indulgence in some secret vice - women, drink or perhaps gambling. The really puzzling thing though is that when he reappears he always has more money than he had when he disappeared! It’s an odd sort of vice that pays well and pays regularly.

Compared to Wings Above the Diamantina, published a year earlier, Mr Jelly's Business is perhaps a slight disappointment in the plotting department. There are actually two plots, two mysteries to be solved, and Upfield weaves them together quite skillfully at the end. The problem is that once you’ve figured out one of the mysteries the solution to the other becomes fairly obvious and it isn’t particularly difficult to work out either mystery. A few more red herrings would have helped. The shock ending wasn’t a great shock to me.

On the other hand this novel does display Upfield’s strengths. The atmosphere of the wheat country is captured superbly. As always Upfield is very solid in his portrayal of life in rural Australia. Upfield not only knew rural Australia, he liked it and he liked the people. He doesn’t glamourise either the life or the people, he can see the downsides as well as the upsides, but on the whole there’s a real respect for both.

In this novel we learn a little bit more about Bony’s career. He has been fired more than once by the Queensland Police Force. In fact it’s apparently a regular occurrence. Bony treats direct orders from superior officers with disdain. If it suits him he obeys; if it doesn’t he simply ignores the order. And gets fired. It doesn’t worry him. He knows they’ll always reinstate him once the fuss dies down. He gets results and his superiors know it. They don’t care how unconventional his methods might be or how exasperatingly oblivious he is to discipline. Once a tough case comes up Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte will be back on the force.

There is a good reason for Bony’s preference for working undercover. He has no great problem with racial prejudice - he encounters it and is hurt by it but he is always confident that he can overcome it by means of his obvious competence, his first-class education and his very considerable charm. There is however one form of prejudice that is not so easily overcome - the almost universal prejudice against policemen. That’s the prejudice that really worries Bony. It makes his job much harder so whenever he can he works undercover.

Bony also displays his characteristic generosity towards other police officers. His own reputation is already well and truly made and he has no interest in further promotion so he’s more than happy to solve a case and give the credit to a promising junior officer. 

We also discover one minor flaw in his character - he is subject to occasional bursts of temper.

If you’re new to Upfield then Wings Above the Diamantina is a better place to start, with its clever impossible crime plot. Mr Jelly's Business is still a good read. Recommended.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Dennis Wheatley's They Found Atlantis

Dennis Wheatley was most famous for his “Black Magic” occult thrillers but these were only a small part of his very large output. Wheatley wrote thrillers, adventure tales and even science fiction. He wrote three lost world novels, including (in 1936) They Found Atlantis.

I happen to be a great fan of lost world stories and Wheatley’s forays into the genre were both interesting and rather idiosyncratic.

An eccentric German scholar, Dr Herman Tisch, is convinced that he has discovered the location of the fabulous lost civilisation of Atlantis. It was located in mid-Atlantic, just south of the Azores. He also believes he has discovered the precise location of the capital city, with its vast treasures. 

The problem is that the city is now a thousand fathoms below the surface of the Atlantic. That problem he has solved by obtaining a bathysphere. Not just a bathysphere, but a very large and very sophisticated example capable of safely transporting up to eight people to the deepest depths of the ocean. 

He does still have one problem though - his expedition will be very expensive and he has no money. He did secure a wealthy backer but alas his patron managed to lose his fortune on Wall Street. Now he has another patron in view - the fabulously rich Duchess Camilla da Solento-Ragina. The duchess, an American beauty, proves to be amenable to persuasion.

Joining the Duchess and Dr Tisch on the German scholar’s yacht are Camilla’s cousin Sally, a middle-aged ex-Royal Navy officer always referred to for some reason as The McKay, Camilla’s business manager Rene P. Slinger and three men locked in desperate competition to becomes Camilla’s second husband - Hollywood star Nicky Costello, a Romanian prince and a Swedish count.

There is however dirty work afoot. A gang of international criminals has a plan to get its hands on Camilla’s millions. What seemed likely to be an amusing cruise with the possibility of making a genuinely important archaeological discovery becomes a nightmare. The gang has no plans for murder. What their ringleader has in mind is much more cunning and much more terrifying.

The first half of the book is therefore mainly a crime thriller, interspersed with visits to the sea bed in the bathysphere. Then it changes gears dramatically as the lost world story takes over. Our protagonists face dangers and horrors of a very different sort, and find Atlantis. Leaving Atlantis will however be much more difficult.

Herr Doktor Tisch was right after all. His theory as to the location of Atlantis was correct, but Atlantis is not quite a dead civilisation after all.

Atlantis is a kind of Garden of Eden. I assume Wheatley intends us to think of it as a Paradise. It’s all free love and everyone is always blissfully happy and there’s no jealousy and no conflict. Or perhaps his depiction of Atlantis is intended to be just a little ironic (although Wheatley was not known for his irony). To me it seems more like Hell than Paradise and the wise happy Atlanteans seem vacuous complacent and horrifyingly shallow. 

There are moments that may strike the reader as rather Lovecraftian. It’s possible, although unlikely, that Wheatley was aware of Lovecraft at that time so the atmosphere is more likely to derive from William Hope Hodgson (who was himself an influence on Lovecraft). Hodgson specialised in weird maritime tales and They Found Atlantis can be thought of as a weird maritime tale.

As you expect from this author there are long passages of expository dialogue but given the nature of the story it’s hard to see how they could have been avoided and they’re not overly clunky. There’s also some black magic!

Wheatley had his weaknesses but he knew how to tell a decent adventure story and this one has some real excitement and quite a bit of action. Recommended. 

His later lost world tale, The Man Who Missed the War, is also recommended.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Victor L. Whitechurch’s Murder at the Pageant

A village pageant, a stolen pearl necklace and a body in an antique sedan chair are the main ingredients in Victor L. Whitechurch’s enjoyable 1930 murder mystery Murder at the Pageant.

Victor L. Whitechurch (1868-1933) was an Anglican clergyman and a popular writer of both spy fiction and detective stories. He is best known for his Thorpe Hazell short stories dealing with railway crimes (these stories and Whitechurch’s other railway mysteries and thrillers were included in Coachwhip’s excellent volume of a few years back The Thorpe Hazell Mysteries: And More Thrilling Tales On and Off the Rails.

This is a country house murder mystery but not quite a typical example because there is the real possibility that the crime was an outside job (although it is by no means a certainty that this is the case). The list of suspects is not necessarily limited to the inhabitants of the house and their invited guests.

The mystery begins in the aftermath of the pageant held in the grounds of Frimley Manor, the seat of Sir Harry Lynwood. The pageant, devised by Captain Roger Bristow, has been a great success. One of the highlights had been the re-enactment of the arrival of Queen Anne at Frimley Manor in 1705, utilising the exact same sedan chair in which the monarch had made her entrance. 

The night after the pageant brings tragedy. Captain Bristow discovers the body of one of Sir Harry’s tenants in the sedan chair. The unfortunate man has clearly been murdered. The following morning reveals that this was not the only crime committed that night - Mrs Cresswell’s fabulously valuable pearl necklace was also stolen. There was a third minor crime as well - the vicar’s car was stolen, and it was that car that was observed leaving the murder scene.

Finding a connection between these crimes will be a challenge to Superintendent Kinch. 

There are two crime investigations in this story, one official and one unofficial. Superintendent Kinch, a very competent officer, heads up the official police enquiry. Roger Bristow conducts his own investigation, although we’re not quite certain how far his aims and Superintendent Kinch’s coincide. Kinch and Bristow are keenly aware that they are engaging in parallel enquiries and they’re content to do so - it’s a fierce but friendly rivalry.

Of course it’s very common in golden age detective fiction to have parallel investigations like this with a private detective or an amateur sleuth competing with the police. Murder at the Pageant is a bit different. Bristow is a former Secret Service man and there’s really no such thing as an ex-spook. It’s possible that Bristow may have some official or semi-official reason for taking an interest in the case, and we certainly can’t ignore the possibility that he knows a lot more than he appears to.

Although Whitechurch’s mystery novels were written in the 1920s and early 1930s his career as an author began as early as the very start of the 20th century and his successful  crime short stories appeared before the First World War. This means that while he was writing during the “golden age” detective fiction he was not actually of that age. He does not necessarily conform to the conventions we associate with that age. In fact he breaks several of the cherished rules of the golden age detective story. To some readers the breaking of these rules might well seem to constitute an infringement of the principle of fair play.

Whitechurch loved trains so it’s no surprise that railways (and railway timetables) play a part in the story. There are some elaborate alibis and there are most of the features one expects in a golden age mystery, and the fact that it breaks some of the rules does make it more of a challenge to the reader. 

The pageant itself adds colour to the tale. There are vital clues provided by details of sixteenth century costume.

Murder at the Pageant is on the whole lightweight but rather delightful. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Assignment...Suicide by Edward S. Aarons

Sam Durell is parachuted into Russia to help one Soviet faction against another and avert nuclear war in Assignment...Suicide, written by Edward S. Aarons in 1956. This was the second of the forty-two Sam Durell spy thrillers penned by Aarons between 1955 and 1976. 

The prolific output of American-born Edward S. Aarons (1916-1975) covered both the espionage and crime genres. There’s an understandable tendency to assume that a spy fiction writer who emerged in the 1950s was probably to some extent at least an Ian Fleming imitator. In the case of Aarons it isn’t really true. The James Bond books did not start to achieve spectacular sales in the US until the end of the decade by which time the Sam Durell series was well and truly established. It’s also important to point out that the US had its own spy fiction tradition. American writers like F. Van Wyck Mason and John P. Marquand had been writing fine spy adventures since the 30s. 

There’s very little real resemblance between the Bond novels and the Sam Durell books. What made the Bond novels so seductive was not so much the sex and violence as the wealth and glamour of the backgrounds, and the eroticisation of power. The Durell tales have much more of a pulp feel and Durell himself, although he is naturally brave and resourceful, is just a professional doing his job.

This assignment is tricky even by the standards of the assignments that a spy can expect to face. There are two rogue factions within the Kremlin. One faction, the extreme faction,  wants a nuclear war with the US immediately and believes it has a way of winning such a war. That faction also wants a return to unquestioned one-man rule. The other faction, the moderate faction, wants to stop them. The CIA is backing the second faction but it’s at best a short-term marriage of convenience - the moderate faction is still composed of loyal communists who do not trust the United States and especially do not trust the CIA.

Sam Durell has to link up with the moderate faction and he also has to make contact with another CIA agent in Leningrad, an agent who is apparently either dying or in extreme danger or perhaps both.

For the CIA this was a rush job and it’s kind of improvised. As often happens with rush jobs it starts to go wrong right at the beginning and it keeps on going wrong. Sam makes contact with members of the moderate faction but they are even more suspicious of him than he’d expected and it’s obvious that any kind of co-operation is going to be very difficult. They expect him to betray them and in fact if he follows his instructions that’s exactly what he’ll he be doing. He suspects they’re going to betray him and they’ve made it clear that they intend to do so.

His main contact is an attractive young woman named Valya. Appearances can be deceptive. Valya has killed at least nine men so her ruthlessness is not in doubt. She’ll work with him, up to a point. Her friend Mikhail is a bigger problem - he is cowardly and unstable and he conceives an instant hatred for Sam Durell. To make things worse Sam and Valya are already being pursued by implacable MVD man Kronev. 

The plot is basically an extended chase, or to be more accurate it’s a series of interlocking hunts with the hunters being hunted themselves. There’s also a web of intersecting loyalties and potential betrayals with uneasy alliances that could turn in an instant to deadly enmity.

There’s as much action as any spy fan could reasonably wish for and the action is handled skillfully. And there’s a dash of romance. 

I suspect the author had no real knowledge of the Russian geography that he describes but he fakes it well and confidently. The paranoiac atmosphere that is an essential ingredient in the spy genre is present in abundance.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, but this is a pulpy action-fueled spy thriller so who cares? 

The one real weakness, and it’s a minor quibble, is that Durell isn’t quite cold-blooded enough to be an entirely convincing spy. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout but he does have slight Boy Scout tendencies. He lacks the ruthlessness of Fleming’s Bond or Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm.

The plot has a couple of twists that are somewhat surprising for a Cold War spy thriller, especially from the 1950s.

What matters is that the book is fast-moving and exciting and very entertaining. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur B. Reeve's The Silent Bullet

American mystery fiction author Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) is sometimes regarded as the creator of the first scientific detective, Craig Kennedy. He wasn’t really the first but he was a pioneer of that sub-genre. The Silent Bullet was his first short story collection, published in 1911.

Craig Kennedy is a professor of chemistry who takes a keen interest in crime. He is exasperated not only by the non-scientific approach still adopted by the police but also by the non-scientific approach of the average criminal! Science and technology have the potential to revolutionise both crime and crime-fighting. Eventually he succumbs to temptation and starts helping the police on cases in which his knowledge is likely to be useful. It isn’t long before Kennedy finds himself becoming a rather busy amateur detective.

Inevitable Reeve’s work gets compared to R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. The similarities are obvious but there are some major differences as well. Dr Thorndyke is both a physician and a lawyer. His methods as a detective are what you would expect given his training - he relies on absolutely meticulous investigations of crime scenes and to a great extent on careful post-mortem examinations and pathology tests. The tools of his trade are microscopes and scalpels. Craig Kennedy is more inclined to see the big picture and to form elaborate theories which he then proceeds to test. And Kennedy loves gadgets. He has a vast collection of wondrous and ingenious devices which he employs in his investigations. Most of them are powered by electricity. It’s no fun having a gadget unless it works by electricity!

Reeve’s stories are often more outlandish than Freeman’s but Craig Kennedy’s gadgets are usually scientific plausible. Many of them actually existed at the time, or were theoretical possibilities about to become actualities. For example Kennedy uses an early version of a lie detector test in several cases. Reeve was not interested in totally imaginary technologies. That’s not to say that the science is always absolutely sound in his stories but his intention was certainly to remain within the realm of the possible. Reeve was very enthusiastic about science and that enthusiasm comes through very strongly in his stories. At times there’s a Gee Whizz tone that you certainly don’t find in Freeman.

In the title story Professor Kennedy has to solve the murder of a financier. The man was shot in a crowded office but no-one heard the shot and no-one saw a gun discharged. The murdered man was at the centre of some rather tortuous financial dealings and some complicated romantic entanglements. Kennedy solves the mystery by revealing no less than four startling advances in scientific detection, all in the space of a single short story! It’s a tour-de-force and they’re all pretty plausible scientifically. This is great stuff.

The Scientific Cracksman is amusing for the motive of the criminal and for Kennedy’s attitude towards it. A wealthy industrialist is found dead. His safe has been opened but nothing has been stolen? Or at least that’s how things appear. Again Kennedy relies on the latest scientific gizmos and the very latest methods.

Kennedy speculates about the kinds of murder methods that could be used by criminals if they made an effort to keep up with the times and in The Bacteriological Detective he finds himself up against just such a criminal. Death by natural causes can in fact be murder. This is a clever little story.

The Deadly Tube is great fun. A famous society beauty is suing a doctor who has been treating with with X-rays. She claims that the treatment has ruined her looks. Dr Gregory is puzzled by this because he is well aware of the dangers of X-rays and he is obsessively cautious in his methods. Craig Kennedy is convinced that Dr Gregory could not have been at fault but he still has to deal with the fact that the damage to the woman’s skin tissues was caused by X-rays.

How do you go about exposing a phony medium? There are many way of proceeding but Craig Kennedy’s is the most original - in The Seismograph Adventure he uses a seismograph. There’s also some very entertaining stuff about poisons and inks. An excellent story.

The Diamond Maker is a rather bland story. A jeweller dies, apparently of pneumonia, but the insurance company that insured his life is not entirely happy about the circumstances especially in the light of the spectacular robbery of the man’s safe. Before he died the jeweller was talking in his delirium of an immense fortune, far in excess of the value of the diamonds in his safe. The solution to this one is just a bit too obvious.

The Azure Ring is another of the weaker stories, about the mysterious deaths of two young people who were about to be married. It’s one of those “poisoning by an unknown poison” stories but not a terribly inspired example of the breed.

“Spontaneous Combustion” deals, obviously, with a case of suspected spontaneous human combustion. It also deals with a family dispute and a missing will. Kennedy makes use of a newly discovered scientific technique to solve this mystery. It’s a pretty decent story.

The Terror in the Air is one of my favourite stories in this collection. An inventor/aviator named Norton is trying to win the Brooks Prize, the prize being for anyone who can bring an aircraft to a complete standstill in the air for five minutes. Norton thinks he can do it by means of a gyroscope but so far his attempts have led to the deaths of two pilots. 

Craig Kennedy suspects that the fatal flying mishaps may not have been quite so accidental. In fact, as you’d expect, there’s a nefarious plot behind it all and it’s a splendid excuse for all manner of 1911-era technological wizardry to be displayed. This was a time  when things like radio and aviation were in their infancy and were terribly terribly exciting. Reeve manages to make this story as thrilling today as it was in 1911.

The Black Hand pits Kennedy against Italian gangs in New York. They have kidnapped the daughter of a famous tenor. The Black Hand gangs are ruthless and efficient and few people have the courage to stand up to them but Craig Kennedy has technology on his side. This story is most notable for the light it sheds on the lives of Italian immigrants in New York at the beginning of the 20th century and on the Italian criminal underworld.

The Artificial Paradise deals with South American revolutionaries, psychedelic drugs (specifically mescal which was only just becoming known to science at the time) and a startling medical technique that allows Kennedy to solve the case in a very unexpected way. This is a rather disappointing and far-fetched tale with no real mystery in it.

The Steel Door involves a gambling hell in London. There’s no mystery in this one at all. The one problem facing Craig Kennedy is how to help the police by finding a way to get through the massive steel door that protects the gambling club. There’s a bit of a sub-plot about a young man headed for ruin through his passion for roulette. Not a very interesting story.

This is an uneven collection but the good stories certainly outnumber the not-so-good ones. Compared to the other scientific detective stories of the same era Reeve’s Craig Kennedy stories have a distinctive flavour of their own. Some of them stretch scientific  credibility while others are completely plausible but they all share a sense of excitement about the possibilities opened up by science and technology. The mysteries themselves are generally unremarkable and fairly obvious and they’re definitely not fair-play (fair play being a concept that would not be generally embraced for at least another decade). On the other hand the weird and wonderful and incredibly varied gadgets  that Kennedy uses provide a great deal of entertainment and the outlandishness of the best of the stories is great fun. 

This collection that might well be enjoyed as much by science fiction fans as mystery fans and devotees of steampunk might enjoy them as well. I found them to be on the whole very entertaining. Recommended.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and published in 1953. It’s also one of the great dystopian novels of the modern era.

The future world of The Space Merchants is controlled entirely by huge corporations. Government functions merely as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the corporations. Congress is owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations and the President is a figurehead with no power at all. By far the most powerful companies are the advertising agencies, and the most powerful agencies are Taunton Associates and Fowler Schocken.

This is a horrifically overpopulated world but population growth is still enthusiastically encouraged. More population means more cheap labour and more consumers and therefore more sales, and that means more profit. No-one questions the assumption that this is a good thing.

This is also a totalitarian society but it’s what we would today call a soft totalitarianism, enforced mostly by propaganda and social pressure. The iron fist beneath the velvet glove is only revealed when a consumer commits a really serious crime, such as questioning the value of advertising.

Competition between corporations is fierce but out-and-out murder is frowned upon unless proper notification has been given that a state of commercial feud exists. Corporations have gone beyond the stage of running the state - they now function as states themselves. There are no police forces - law enforcement has been entirely privatised.

Art and popular entertainment no longer exist apart from their role in providing opportunities for advertising.

The story is narrated by Mitch Courtenay, a star class copysmith with Fowler Schocken. Mitch has just been given a new assignment. He has been put in charge of the Venus account. An immense rocket has been constructed which will transport the first Earth colonists to Venus. The colony will of course be run by Fowler Schocken entirely for the benefit of Fowler Schocken and its associated companies. 

One minor problem is that nobody in their right mind would want to be a colonist on Venus. But this isn’t really a problem at all. By the time Fowler Schocken’s Venus advertising campaign is in full swing everyone will want to be a Venus colonist.

Mitch Courtenay’s life is going pretty well, apart from his marriage. He’d like to make the marriage permanent but Kathy won’t agree. In fact she wants to end the agreement before the end of the trial period. And there is one other minor irritant in Mitch’s life - someone is trying to kill him. This is puzzling since as far as he knows no other corporation has declared a commercial feud against Fowler Schocken.

Mitch soon finds himself on a roller coaster ride of terror and misery. Having people trying to kill you is bad enough but he finds that his identity has been stolen and he now faces the most appalling fate imaginable - having to live as a consumer.

He also gets mixed up with the consies. The consies are the Conservationists. These are dangerous fanatics who believe that overpopulation is out of control, that life has become sterile and meaningless and that deurbanisation and a return to a more traditional lifestyle are essential. They are so extreme that they even question whether increasing consumption is a good thing.

The plot has some rather wild twists and turnings as Mitch discovers that all his assumptions about the world and about the people he knows may be quite wrong.

While this novel doesn’t have the literary polish of the great dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell it does feature a dystopian which is every bit as fully worked out and every bit as convincing. If 1984 was the great communist dystopian novel then The Space Merchants is the great capitalist dystopian novel. There is however one feature that both dystopias have in common - they are societies in which the elites have absolute power while the mass of the people have no power at all. And, interestingly enough, the capitalist elites of The Space Merchants maintain their control by much the same methods as the communist elites in 1984 - through the control of language, by rewriting the past, by encouraging people to denounce dissidents and through endless and all-pervasive propaganda. And the consies serve much the same purpose as Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984 - it seems that every totalitarianism has to have an enemy as a focus of fear and hatred.

Pohl and Kornbluth are careful not to introduce any radical new technologies into their tale.  Every technology is this novel is merely an extrapolation of technologies that existed in the early 1950s such as rocketry, radio and television. The intention was obviously to make this dystopia as plausible as possible. What makes the book truly terrifying today is not this plausibility but the fact that so much of what the authors predict has already come true.

The Space Merchants is also very amusing (in a sometimes very dark way) and highly entertaining. It’s very pulpy but in a way that’s a strength - the crassness of a wold run by advertising agencies lends itself to a pulpy treatment. 

Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nigel Fitzgerald’s Midsummer Malice

Midsummer Malice was Nigel Fitzgerald’s first foray into the field of detective fiction. First published in 1953 it’s actually a bit of a hybrid albeit an interesting one.

Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-1981) was an Irishman who was destined for a career in the law until he caught the acting bug. His passion for the theatre comes through very strongly in his debut novel and is in fact one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Midsummer Malice opens with a brutal murder. Superintendent Duffy of the Garda Síochána (Ireland’s police force) hurries to the scene from Dublin. The murder took place in a wood near the town of Cahirmore. The victim was Mary Woodburn-Miller, daughter of an English baronet who had settled in the town fifteen years earlier. Mary was raped and then strangled.

It seems quite obvious that the Garda are dealing with a psychotic killer, and one who is likely to kill again. For reasons that are never fully explained Superintendent Duffy has his doubts about the motive for the murder.

There will indeed be more murders, and Duffy’s doubts keep growing stronger. 

The murder coincides with the arrival of Alan Russell’s theatrical company. The outrageous larger-than-life actor-manager and his troupe will play a very significant role in the mystery (in fact I believe that Alan Russell appears in several of Fitzgerald’s later books). Also drawn into these tragic events is painter Owen Sheehy. Sheehy is internationally famous as an artist but in Ireland he is even more famous as an IRA hero.

Just about every character in this book is an eccentric of some sort. There’s the Fox, another ex-IRA man turned arsonist. There’s O’Connor from Castle Talbot, descendant of a High King of Ireland, a pleasant fellow but quite mad. There’s the jovial and rotund and rather loquacious Billy Bailey. And there’s Lady Ballybroghill, whiskey-soaked and reputed to possess second sight.

The one real clue Duffy has to go on is that a black Ford was seen near the murder scene. The murderer must have had a car and every other car seen in the vicinity has been accounted for. There are three possible suspects who own black Fords but all have alibis.

By 1953 the classic puzzle-plot mystery was out of fashion with publishers. They believed the public wanted suspense stories or the new style psychological crime novels. Midsummer Malice combines elements of both the puzzle-plot mystery and the psychological crime novel. Alibis play a crucial role and Superintendent Duffy does not neglect the importance of physical clues. And there is certainly a puzzle plot at the heart of the book. There is also a good deal of pop psychoanalytical theorising and the killer’s motive turns out to stem from truly bizarre and outlandish psychological factors, which it has to be said are not very convincing at all.

As a mystery novel it has its weaknesses but these are balanced by some very real strengths. The Irish setting is fascinating, and made more so because it’s not Ireland as seen by an outsider but as seen by an Irish author who lived his whole life there. 

The oddball characters provide a great deal of fun. The theatrical background is wonderfully entertaining.

Midsummer Malice is an excellent example of the decline of the crime novel in the 1950s. What could have been a truly excellent puzzle-plot detective novel is weakened by half-baked psychological silliness. It’s still worth a read if you’re a fan of theatrical mysteries or you’re attracted by the Irish setting.

Nigel Fitzgerald’s books are out of print but used copies can be picked up quite cheaply online.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade

Poul Anderson’s delirious science fiction romp The High Crusade was published in 1960. The basic premise struck me as one that could have made an amusing short story but I was rather dubious as to whether it could be sustained over the course of a novel. In fact Anderson manages to do so without any difficulty whatsoever.

The basic idea is that a spacecraft lands in England, near the village of Ansby, in the year 1345. The spacecraft is a scout ship for the Wersgor Empire. The Wersgorix are an aggressive imperialist spacefaring race who have already enslaved the inhabitants of hundreds of planets. To oppose the alien invaders Sir Roger de Tourneville has a small force of mounted knights, some men-at-arms and some longbowmen.

The Wersgorix, who have mastered the technology of faster-than-light travel, are so far in advance of fourteenth century Earth that the outcome of the encounter is beyond any doubt. It’s going to be not so much a battle as a massacre. And that’s exactly how it turns out. The Wersgorix are slaughtered. They discover that their incredibly advanced military technology is no match for our puny Earth weapons.

This is just the start of the tale. Sir Roger and his followers now find themselves in possessions of a spaceship, and they have a captured prisoner who can be persuaded to tell them how to work it. They intend to fly the spaceship to France to join the King in his campaign there although Sir Roger has the notion it might be possible to use the ship to recapture the Holy Land. They do not however end up in France or in the Holy Land but on the planet Tharixan, hundreds of light years from Earth. Tharixan is a Wersgorix slave planet. It is well defended, by all manner of high technology hardware like fighter aircraft, spaceships, force fields, armoured vehicles and even nuclear weapons. None of which is going to deter a couple of hundred stout Englishmen led by a brave knight like Sir Roger.

What follows is an exuberant space opera plot with pitched battles and daring stratagems, all combined with a romantic intrigue and some amusing observations on competing political systems.

There’s nothing terribly outlandish about a low-tech army winning a single battle against a much more technologically sophisticated enemy (Isandlwana and the Little Big Horn are obvious examples) but there are very few examples of a low-tech army winning a protracted war on a vast scale against a technologically vastly superior enemy. The great thing about this novel is that Anderson consistently comes up with scenarios in which the technological sophistication of the Wersgorix is either no help to them, or becomes a positive hindrance.

One particularly nice thing is that Anderson stresses that although the medieval English are scientifically backward compared to their foes they are every bit as intelligent and every bit as resourceful. In fact, as Roger remarks at one point, the conditions of Europe in the fourteenth century provide him with a much better grounding in the art of political intrigue.

This story involves more than a clash between different military systems - it is also a contest between two sharply differing political systems. The Wersgor Empire is a centralised bureaucracy. The feudal system as practised in medieval England proves to be vastly superior. Again Anderson doesn’t just indulge in wish fulfillment - he demonstrates that feudalism is more flexible and much more suited to conditions of crisis. Sir Roger and his followers are bound together by a complex web of loyalties, rights and duties and this web of mutual obligation can withstand a great deal of stress. A centralised bureaucracy on the other hand can collapse very quickly indeed, given that no-one really has any personal stake in the system.

So we have clever ideas, lots of action, battles on land and in space, some cool aliens and a bit of speculation about competing social methods of social organisation. What about characterisation, usually regarded as the main failing of golden age science fiction? There’s fairly good news here as well. Both Sir Roger and his wife Lady Catherine are fairly complex well-rounded personalities. They have their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes they behave nobly and sometimes not so nobly. Even when they do things we do not approve of we can understand the reasons for their actions. Sir Owain Montbelle is the third party in a fatal romantic triangle but even he’s a little bit more than just a cardboard cutout villain. Branithar, the Wersgorix  captive, is also a bit more than a stock alien character.

The High Crusade is also an amazing amount of fun. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees

Arthur J. Rees (1872-1942) was an Australian crime author who enjoyed considerable success in the years between the wars, winning the approval of such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers. The Shrieking Pit is one of his early mystery novels, appearing in 1919.

The story takes place in Norfolk in 1916. The famous private detective David Colwyn is enjoying a holiday. Colwyn is American-born but explains that he is half-English and has lived in England long enough to have become somewhat acclimatised. The actual story begins with an odd occurrence in the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Durrington. A young man is behaving in a slightly disturbing manner. Colwyn is mildly concerned but one of the other guests, obviously a medical man, is seriously alarmed and persuades Colwyn that immediate action needs to be taken if disaster is to be averted. They escort the young man, who has now fainted, to his room.

Since the medical man turns out to be distiguished Harley Street nerve specialist Sir Henry Durwood his opinion carries considerable weight and in his view the young man is not merely an epileptic but subject to a particular form of epilepsy that can lead to sudden episodes of extreme violence.

The young man is James Ronald who has been invalided out of the army with shell-shock (we later find out that his name is actually James Ronald Penreath). He seems to have made a complete recovery after the incident in the dining room and assures Colwyn and Durwood that he requires no further assistance. The matter seems to be closed.

The following day there is much excitement in the Grand Hotel - a murder has been committed in the nearby village of Flegne-next-sea and the police are hunting a suspect who bears a remarkable resemblance to young James Ronald. Colwyn and Sir Henry immediately set off to see the Chief Constable. Colwyn happens to be personally acquainted with the Chief Constable and finds himself unofficially invited to assist Superintendent Galloway in his investigation.

The murdered man was a well-known archaeologist, Roger Glenthorpe, who had based himself at the Golden Anchor Inn at Flegne while engaged in important fieldwork nearby.

The evidence is entirely circumstantial, but very convincing. The body was found at the bottom of a thirty foot deep pit known locally as the Shrieking Pit. It was a kind of Stone Age mining shaft but now it’s associated with the local legend of the ghostly White Lady - if you see the White Lady you will be dead within the month. The very clear boot prints leading to the pit are the icing on the cake - surely James Ronald must have been the killer. There are lots of other pieces of evidence that all point in the same direction.

What’s most interesting about this book is the ambiguity of the evidence. In fact it forms what might be considered to be the theme of the book. There are many items of evidence that point to Penreath’s guilt, but every single one of them is ambiguous. Superintendent Galloway is satisfied and the evidence might well satisfy a jury as well but Colwyn isn’t happy. He sets out to look out for new evidence. He finds plenty of it - but it’s all ambiguous as well! His new evidence could totally demolish the Crown’s case but if viewed from a different angle it could just as easily place Penreath’s guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt. This is the reason for the constant tension between Colwyn and Superintendent Galloway - they’re both interpreting the evidence in the light of their own theories about the crime.

The book also has quite a bit to say about madness, responsibility and the law. Penreath’s legal advisers in despair over the apparently overwhelming evidence against him, put their hopes in a plea of temporary insanity, with Sir Henry Durwood’s evidence being crucial. The medical evidence is however just as ambiguous as all the other evidence.

There are countless clues. Many of them are quite clever and all are important. The plot is more complex than initial appearances suggest and the themes of ambiguity and the danger of judging evidence based on preconceived notions recur again and again.

The setting is also a major plus. Flegne-near-sea is a decaying and dying village, doomed to be swallowed up by the ever-encroaching marshlands. There is nothing picturesque about this village - it is more like a rotting corpse. The Golden Anchor is a dying inn in a dying village. When you add the ominous legend of the White Lady and the presence of somewhat creepy Stone Age ruins you get a certain stifling and slightly gothic atmosphere that works extremely well. This is not like the theatrical gothic atmosphere you strike in some of John Dickson Carr’s books - this is more sombre and low-key but just as effective.

The war plays an indirect but interesting role. The village of Flegne is dying anyway but the war has hastened its demise. The author seems to have a somewhat sceptical view of a great many sacred cows (such as the jury system), which he expresses in an amusingly sardonic way. He is particularly savage on the subject of the Home Front, taking great pleasure in mocking those who, knowing they will not have to do any actual fighting or take any actual risks, nevertheless welcome the war as a means of advancing their social standing, their petty exercise of power or their political views.

Rees can be just a tad long-winded in places. I’m not sure that the trial really needed to be recounted in quite so much detail. 

All in all though there’s a fine plot, a nicely atmospheric setting, a few hints of the gothic and some food for thought on the subject of circumstantial evidence! I found this one to be thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended. 

His 1920 mystery The Hand in the Dark is worth seeking out as well.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama, which appeared in 1973, is one of Arthur C. Clarke’s more celebrated novels. I read it many years ago and although I liked it I felt that it didn’t quite compare to masterpieces like The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End. Reading it again my opinion is pretty much unchanged. It’s second-tier Arthur C. Clarke, but second-tier Arthur C. Clarke is still better than 99 percent of published science fiction.

In the 22nd century a large asteroid is spotted. There’s nothing unusual about that but this seems to be a slightly odd asteroid. For one thing it’s remarkably symmetrical, and for another it’s spinning a lot faster than any known asteroid. It’s odd enough for astronomers to take some interest in it and when they do so they’re in for a shock. The asteroid, which has been given the name Rama, is a perfect cylinder and it’s hollow. This is no asteroid, this is a spaceship. And it's a very big spaceship - it's about fifty kilometres in length.

This is much excitement among scientists, and much consternation among bureaucrats and politicians. This is the moment that both have been awaiting, with both hope and dread - First Contact.

Given the fact that this spaceship’s course has taken it nowhere near any stars for half a million years or so it seems very unlikely that there could be anything alive on board Rama. Even the most advanced technologies for recycling air, water and wastes could not have maintained life for so long. Rama must be a dead empty shell, of immense interest to archaeologists of course, but still completely dead.

The United Planets, who rarely agree on anything, manage to agree to send the spacecraft Endeavour to rendezvous with this strange intruder in our solar system. Time is short - within a few months Rama will have left our solar system forever.

Rama proves to be a gigantic hollow habitat, with artificial gravity provided by its spin. The interior is a very strange landscape indeed. Not surprisingly, Rama is indeed dead. Or so it appears at first.

Clarke was always at his best when working on a truly colossal cosmic scale, with time spans of millions of years. In Rendezvous with Rama he is very much playing to his strengths. Clarke was an atheist who was fascinated by religion and his books often pose questions that are not merely philosophical but quasi-religious. Questions about the purpose of existence, the destiny of the human race, the nature of life itself. Earth’s encounter with Rama poses several such questions. Most pertinent in this case is the question of the nature of life. Does Rama contain life or not? Clarke wasn’t interested in easy glib answers to these sorts of questions. His objective was to get the reader thinking about the concepts rather than claiming to have absolute answers. Rendezvous with Rama tantalises us with possibilities but offers no certainties.

The biggest criticism leveled at Clarke throughout his career was the almost non-existent degree of characterisation. It should be noted that this criticism was most often voiced by people who failed to understand that science fiction does not play by the rules that apply to literary fiction. For Clarke cardboard characterisations were a feature, not a bug. He had no desire to distract the reader with the tedious emotional lives of his characters. His books were about big ideas. If you want characterisation then Arthur C. Clarke is not the author for you.

Clarke liked to keep the science in his books reasonably plausible. Rendezvous with Rama deals with interstellar travel on the grand scale but without invoking faster-than-light travel. Rama itself is impressive but despite its vast scale it’s also a theoretically possible technology. At the same time he manages to make his alien world genuinely alien, and he does so without making it sinister in any obvious way. The world of Rama is neither comforting nor threatening - it’s disturbing merely because it’s so wildly unfamiliar and inexplicable. It’s a puzzle without a solution.

Clarke may have written better books than this but Rendezvous with Rama is still absolutely essential reading for any science fiction fan. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Christopher Bush’s Dead Man Twice

Dead Man Twice, published in 1930, was one of the very earliest of Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers mysteries. Intriguingly in these early books Travers plays second fiddle to a detective named John Franklin.

This book appears to be a sporting mystery but don’t panic. You don’t have to like (or understand) boxing to enjoy this one.

Michael France is a young man generating a lot of excitement. He’s an Englishman who appears to have a real chance of winning the world heavyweight crown. France is a gentleman boxer - a real gentleman, Eton followed by Cambridge, an actual blue-blood. His two inseparable companions are his manager, Kenneth Hayles, and racing driver Peter Claire. The three were childhood friends. Actually the position of Hayles is a little ambiguous - France seems to pretty much manage his own career. Peter Claire has provided the money to finance France’s boxing career. Hayles and France were also co-authors of a book describing France’s career to date whole Hayles is also the writer of a couple of detective stories. These literary endeavours will play a major role in the ensuing mystery (the fact that Claire drives racing cars will also be important). There is also a fourth member of the circle, Claire’s beautiful but flirtatious wife Dorothy.

Everyone is thrilled not only by France’s exploits in the boxing ring but also by his charm and good looks and easy-going confidence. He is something of a national hero. 

John Franklin is employed as a detective by Durangos Limited. We never do find out exactly what the principal business of Durangos is, it just seems to be a large and terribly important company. Durangos also employs a certain Ludovic Travers as a financial advisor.

Franklin is exceptionally pleased when he is given the opportunity to meet Michael France, in fact is invited to dinner where he is mightily impressed by the atmosphere of wealth and good fellowship that seems to surround France. Franklin is therefore shocked when he calls at France’s house a few days later and discovers not one but two corpses!

The formidable Detective Superintendent Wharton of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case. As Franklin is an acquaintance, a detective, a former policeman and a vital witness Wharton is happy to have his help on this case. Wharton is not quite so sure about accepting assistance from Ludovic Travers. He knows and likes Travers but Travers has no experience as a detective.

The case itself is a double murder in two senses although to explain why might risk a spoiler. It is not an impossible crime. Anyone could have committed the murders. Anyone, this is, apart from the only people with any reason for wanting to commit them. Leaving aside the remote possibility of murder by a complete stranger there are a handful of suspects but they have alibis that are absolutely unbreakable.

There’s also a question about the murder method. So what we have are unbreakable alibis, ingenious murder methods, literary clues and also a neat trick with a suicide note - all the things that fans of golden age mysteries love. The plot is quite ambitious but it comes together neatly. I like the fact that there’s an ingenious murder method that actually sounds like it might have worked.

It’s John Franklin and Superintendent Wharton who take centre stage. Travers lurks in the background. At this stage he’s not even an amateur detective. He’s simply an intelligent man who has developed an interest in the subject of crime through is friendships with Franklin and Wharton. He is however a fast learner. A nice touch is that although Wharton doesn’t know it he and Travers are engaged in a race to find the solution - Travers is keen to demonstrate that he really does have the instincts of a detective and if he beats Wharton to the answer then Wharton will have to start thinking of him as a real detective.

Bush would eventually realise that three detectives was one too many and that Wharton and Travers were the characters with the most appeal. Franklin would drop out of the picture. Wharton and Travers were also the ideal team - totally mismatched but for that very reason they’re a formidable combination and their friendship is convincing.

All true golden age detection fans are delighted by mysteries with maps and floor plans. This one has two floor plans and two diagrams!

Even though one would have liked to see more of Ludovic Travers Dead Man Twice is a fine example of the art of the detective story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Alexander Wilson’s The Mystery of Tunnel 51

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was published in 1928. It was the first of Alexander Wilson’s spy thrillers featuring his hero Sir Leonard Wallace.

Wilson was a fascinating and enigmatic character in his own right. He was certainly a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer during the early part of the Second World War. He may have had connections to the British intelligence community before that. Sir Leonard Wallace bears a certain resemblance to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head (or ‘C’) of MI6. Wilson was dismissed from MI6 in 1942 but claimed that he was actually still working for them under deep cover. He may have been a genuine super-agent or most of his intelligence career may have been a fictionalised attempt to explain away his increasingly chaotic personal life.

Whether the truth about his later career there is no question that Wilson enjoyed a great deal of success as a writer of thrillers during the period from 1928 to 1940. His books then languished in obscurity until quite recently until several were reprinted, including The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

Wilson spent a good deal of time in India and it is India that provides the setting for The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

A British officer, a Major Elliott, has been carrying out a survey of the defences of British India. The plans he has made must be delivered, in absolute secrecy, to the Viceroy. Several attempts have already been made on Major Elliott’s life. Now he is on the final leg of his journey to Simla to see the Viceroy. He has a police escort and surely there is no way that anything can go wrong now. But Britain’s enemies are cunning and determine and will stop at nothing to get those plans!

Britain’s enemies are of course the Russians. Russophobia had been one of the defining characteristics of British foreign policy for well over a century (in fact it still is). The coming to power of the Bolsheviks adds an extra touch of paranoia to the plot but in fact the story is very much in the tradition of Great Game stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The Great Game was a sort of Cold War between Britain and Russia, driven on both sides by paranoia about threats to their respective colonial empires, which lasted from the 1790s to the early 20th century. Even in the 1920s the British were haunted by the fear that someone would try to steal India from them.

When it becomes clear that the secret plans might yet fall into the hands of Bolshevik agents the local authorities in India decide to call in Sir Leonard Wallace, the legendary head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Wallace’s investigations uncover a vast conspiracy with hundreds of Bolshevik spies throughout the length and breath of India.

While this is very much a spy adventure tale the book also includes an impossible murder which requires Sir Leonard Wallace to do some real detective work.

Eventually the plot becomes a series of chases and a race against time to stop the Russian super-spy before he can get the secret plans over the frontier.

One of the things that delights me about the thrillers of the interwar years is the sublime self-confidence and optimism of the heroes. No matter how vast or diabolical the conspiracies that they encounter might be men like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay and Simon Templar are never disheartened. They simply do not admit the possibility of defeat. The post-WW2 spy thriller would be increasingly populated by anti-heroes and flawed heroes, and by cynics like Len Deighton’s unnamed spy and pessimists like George Smiley. Even James Bond is, to a degree, a flawed hero - he makes mistakes, sometimes very bad ones, and he finds that being a secret agent has a price. There’s nothing wrong with the cynical pessimist school of spy fiction but it can be a bit much after a while and sometimes it’s refreshing to turn to the interwar thrillers with their cheerful, extroverted, dauntless and large-than-life heroes. 

Sir Leonard Wallace is such a hero. Of course he has a sidekick, Major Brien, an old pal who lacks Wallace’s brilliance but makes up for it in grit and pluck.

Wilson’s spy fiction is very much in the old-fashioned heroic mould, though with a definite tinge of paranoia. There’s plenty of action with quite a bit of gunplay. There are car chases and aeroplane chases. Both the heroes and the villains are masters of disguise. There are secret passages and the spies know every cunning trick in the book. There are hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and there’s an abundance of breathless excitement.

The chief bad guys are evil super-villains and their henchmen are either mindless killing machines or cringing cowards. There’s no need to worry about shades of grey - the British are the good guys and the Russkies are the bad guys. That’s all you need to know. If an Englishman turns out to be a bad guy it will also turn out that he’s not a real Englishman.

While it has some of the atmosphere of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim it naturally does not have the psychological subtlety and the philosophical depth of Kipling’s masterwork. Kipling’s view of imperialism was complex and nuanced. Wilson takes it for granted that the Raj is a good thing for Britain and a good thing for India and that any Indians who oppose British rule can only be doing so because they are in the pay of the Bolsheviks. It’s only fair to point out that Kipling was one of the greats of English literature. Wilson’s aims are of course much less ambitious. He is merely trying to write a fine old-fashioned potboiler. In this lesser aim he succeeds extremely well.

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 is an action-packed yarn that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

The second of the Sir Leonard Wallace spy novels, The Devil’s Cocktail, is just as much fun.