Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie

Ngaio Marsh is celebrated as one of the famous crime queens and I’ve always been rather sceptical of the crime queens. Christie certainly deserves her reputation but to my way of thinking Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham are wildly overrated. I must admit I don’t have enough familiarity with Ngaio Marsh’s work to have any strong opinion. I thought Death in Ecstasy was OK and so perhaps the generally well regarded 1938 novel Death in a White Tie will turn me into a fan?

Death in a White Tie is very much a society murder mystery. Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s mother has decided that it is time for Roderick’s niece to be launched into society. Lady Alleyn has the whole debutante thing planned out. Sir Herbert and Lady Carrados are similarly occupied with the coming out of Lady Carrados’s daughter Bridget. Meanwhile General and Mrs Halcut-Hackett are launching yet another fortunate young lady into society. The Carrados’s are planning a ball which will be the social event of the season and that ball will have (literally) fatal consequences.

Chief Inspector Alleyn is at the same time busy on a blackmail case. He employs Lord Robert Gospell as an unofficial undercover operative. He has apparently made use of Lord Robert’s society connections on other cases. That ball will play a significant part in Alleyn’s blackmail case - it’s where he’s hoping the blackmailer will be trapped. It does not work out the way Alleyn had hoped. It ends in disaster. In fact it ends in murder.

The first thing to note is that this is a rather long detective novel. The pacing is leisurely, to say the least. That’s not necessarily a problem. Seeing a complex plot gradually take shape and build towards a successful conclusion can be very satisfying. In this instance the plot is certainly complex, but I’m not so sure about the successful conclusion. To my way of thinking a good murder mystery is one in which the solution, once the detective has explained it, seems self-evident. The reader is left thinking that of course it had to have happened that way. No other solution would fit all the known facts. In this book, when the murderer’s identity is revealed, I was left thinking that yes that person could have been the killer but so could half a dozen other people.

I also think that in a good mystery we can see the detective slowly putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. In this book I never really got that feeling.

The detective in all of Marsh’s novels is Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Like so many detectives of this era Alleyn is upper-class, well educated and extremely erudite. But unlike most such fictional detectives Alleyn has no real personality. We know that he’s very upper-class and very clever and he’s an awfully decent fellow and everyone admires him. Perhaps that’s the problem. He has no quirks. He’s perfect but he’s terribly dull about it. And we get no insights into what makes him tick. Detectives don’t need to be larger-than-life to be interesting. Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French is a very ordinary fellow who relies entirely on routine police procedures to solve his cases but French is a living breathing human being. Alleyn is simply a void.

The other characters are mere stereotypes but that’s no problem. The whole point of golden age detective fiction is the plotting, not the characterisation. Trying to make the subsidiary characters three-dimensional merely slows down the action for no worthwhile purpose.

Unfortunately Marsh cannot resist the temptation to introduce a romantic sub-plot. This is always a very bad idea. Even when the detective is an interesting character I have no desire to hear all about their romantic yearnings and when the detective is a bit of a bore (as Alleyn is) I’m even less interested. To make matters worse the target of his affections is  a lady artist who also has no discernible personality. The whole romance thing is poorly and unconvincingly handled (Marsh clearly knows nothing at all about men) and becomes tedious and embarrassing.

Marsh seems to have been one of those detective story writers with literary aspirations (she was entirely besotted with the arty/literary/theatre world). Like Dorothy L. Sayers she seems to have liked the idea of combining detective fiction with the comedy of manners. Unfortunately Marsh’s writing is rather pedestrian and so the first part of the book, before the murder, lacks any real sparkle. Once Alleyn’s investigation gets into full swing one might have hoped that things would get a bit more interesting but alas it doesn’t happen.

I wouldn’t say that Death in a White Tie is a terrible book. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. There’s no really strong reason that I can think of to read this novel.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

C.S. Forester’s The Happy Return

The Happy Return marked the first appearance in print (in 1937) of the last great old-fashioned English hero of fiction, Horatio Hornblower. It also established naval fiction as a very popular and lucrative sub-genre.

C.S. Forester’s dozen Hornblower novels cover the hero’s entire naval career but the publication order does not coincide with the chronological sequence of the stories. In The Happy Return Hornblower has already achieved the exalted rank of post captain and is commander of the 36-gun frigate Lydia. Later books in the series recount his earlier adventures as a midshipman and as a lieutenant.

The book opens with the Lydia making landfall in Central America after a seven months’ voyage, her stores dangerously exhausted. Captain Hornblower’s sealed orders have caused him some anxiety. He is to arm and support a rebellion against the Spanish and at the same time he is to capture or destroy the Natividad, a Spanish 50-gun warship which on paper at least totally outclasses the Lydia. It’s the sort of task that no captain would welcome. Fomenting rebellion and meddling in politics can so easily backfire and involve countless opportunities for disaster and if he fails it won’t be the men at the Admiralty who came up with the hare-brained scheme in the first place who will have to shoulder the blame, but Captain Hornblower. The chances of failure are very high and failure will spell the effective end of his career - he does not have the money or influence to weather such a storm.

Hornblower’s fears are soon realised when the situation changes radically and everything he has achieved so far turns out to have been all wrong. He has to start from scratch, and he has to fight the same battles over again.

To add to his woes he has acquired a passenger, a lady. That’s bad enough in Hornblower’s eyes but to make things much much worse she is a member of a family with the potential power to break the career of an impecunious frigate captain should that captain somehow offend her. His relations with Lady Barbara Wellesley (the sister of the future Duke of Wellington) are uneasy and they get more uneasy.

There’s as much action as you could want including an epic two-day sea battle in the middle of a gale.

Forester however was more than just a writer of stirring adventure tales. Although his books all fall within the boundaries of genre fiction he brought a definite literary sensibility to these works. There’s excitement and adventure in the Hornblower novels but there’s some real psychological insight as well.

Hornblower is a genuinely fascinating character. On the surface he is the ideal commander, a man of supreme self-confidence who always knows exactly what to do. He is a man of few words, which reinforces the impression of decisiveness and complete control. He is a strict but just disciplinarian. He has a knack for gaining the confidence and affection of those under his command.

That’s the appearance. In fact it’s all elaborately contrived. Hornblower is in reality a seething mass of self-doubts and self-recriminations. He is painfully uncomfortable in social situations. He is all too aware of his relatively humble birth and of his very modest financial circumstances. Being a member of the lower middle class he is not comfortable with the aristocracy or with the common people, which means he is at ease neither with his officers nor with the men. He is not a natural leader of men. He has had to school himself to become a leader.

In this endeavour he has succeeded. He knows how the ideal captain, the natural leader of men, should behave and he can mimic this behaviour with extraordinary success. And he has one great advantage - he really does know his job. He is a skilled navigator, he is a master tactician and however contrived his methods might be he is a superb leader of men. When the chips are down he is decisive and bold and his boldness is backed up by intelligence.

Hornblower sees himself as a fraud, almost as an actor playing the part of the great frigate captain but the irony is that he really is a great frigate captain. He is sure that the officers and men under his command despise him but in fact they admire him a great deal. Hornblower is in some ways a transitional figure, halfway between the old-fashioned heroes of swashbuckling romances and the new breed of introspective psychological complex heroes.

The Happy Return manages to be both intelligent and extremely entertaining. You can’t ask for more than that. Very highly recommended.

Friday, April 13, 2018

H.C. Bailey’s Mr Fortune Speaking

If you’re the sort of reader who has an allergic reaction to detectives such as Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance then you might well feel some trepidation at the thought of sampling H.C. Bailey’s Mr Fortune stories. Even by the standards of languid, affected upper-class amateur detectives Reggie Fortune is particularly languid and particularly affected. And yes, he does quote poetry. In some ways he’s an even more extreme version of Lord Peter Wimsey.

By now I’ve probably convinced most of you to take active steps to avoid the Mr Fortune stories. Which would be a great pity as they do have their own distinctive flavour and they’re actually very enjoyable.

Despite the superficial resemblances to Wimsey and Vance the Mr Fortune tales are considerably more cynical and they do tend at times to be quite dark.

Reggie Fortune is a qualified medical practitioner who has gained a considerable reputation as a detective. He is sometimes called in by other physicians, at other times by Scotland Yard, and his services are often retained by the prosecution in particularly difficult cases. Curiously enough although he does not appear to hold any official police rank he often refers to himself as a policeman.

Bailey enjoyed enormous popularity during the 20s and 30s but become unfashionable in the postwar years and these days languishes in obscurity. Bailey wrote several Mr Fortune novels but has always been admired more for his short stories. Mr Fortune Speaking, published in 1930, is one of the many Reggie Fortune story collections.

You have to remember that these are short stories so the plots don’t have the complexity you’d find in a detective novel but the stories are still well thought-out and clever.

Zodiacs is a crime story but the crime is not at all what it appears to be. It all starts with Zodiacs, Zodiacs being the last share craze that all the best people are investing in. You just can’t lose by buying Zodiac shares, at least that is until the shares unexpectedly slump. And then murder follows.

The murder itself is quite straightforward, except that the victim was soaking wet which worries Mr Fortune a little. Mr Fortune would also be a deal happier if he could see the dead man’s hat.

This is a very neat little story which has a good twist and then there’s another twist which is the one that really counts.

In The Cat’s Milk Mr Fortune’s assistance is requested by a doctor who is not entirely happy about an accident that has befallen an elderly lady. It doesn’t take long for Mr Fortune to be very unhappy about the case as well. He would not have been particularly concerned had the cat not refused his milk. In its essentials it’s a fairly straightforward story in which one or more family members may or may not be planning to do away with an elderly person in order to gain an inheritance. Mostly straightforward as I said, but done with a great deal of style.

The Pink Macaw begins with a businessman who has received a threatening letter. The threat is a puzzling one and the businessman claims to have no idea of the identity of the person making the threats or even the exact nature of the threats. Scotland Yard is concerned but it’s all so value there’s really nothing they can do. Nonetheless it appears that the threats had some substance after all as they lead to a man’s death. It seems a straightforward case of self-defence, until the case takes a very surprising twist.

The Hazel Ice involves a tragic mountaineering accident, the circumstances of which seem just a little odd. Bailey makes good use of the alpine setting. A very good story.

The Painted Pebbles is an amusing tale about an archaeologist of advancing years who believes he has made an extraordinary discovery. It’s clearly a fake but Mr Fortune is not sure why the old professor believes it. Someone may be influencing him and there are several possible candidates. And what could the motive be? A fun story.

The Woman in Wood is one of my favourites from this collection. Reggie Fortune is rather entranced by a wooden statuette he finds in an antique store. The proprietor claims it’s medieval but Reggie can see that it’s clearly a modern work. And yet it has the feel of a medieval work. Reggie unfortunately misses out on buying the statuette but it’s not the last he will hear of it. A letter from his sister (married to a bishop) alerts him to an ecclesiastical drama in the country. A stolen kiss and a burglary in which nothing is taken add further mystification.

The various threads come together very nicely, there’s some danger and suspense and Mr Fortune is in fine form.

The German Song is a fairly strong story. To unlock the mystery behind a spectacular robbery Reggie must first break a cipher and it’s a cipher that is almost unbreakable, unless of course you happen to know your Goethe. Luckily Reggie knows his Goethe very well.

The Lion Fish confronts Mr Fortune with two violent murders, murders which appear to have little in common except that both are seemingly motiveless. One clue points to a family named the Landomeres, but they’ve all been dead for five hundred years. There are some decent twists in this tale and we get to see a rather determined and rather ruthless Fortune in action. A fine story.

Despite his affectations and his occasional indulgences in ennui and a kind of resigned pessimism I like Reggie Fortune very much. He’s more complicated than he seems to be. He does take crime quite seriously and when confronted by wanton cruelty he responds with surprising ruthlessness.

The Mr Fortune short stories are much more highly regarded than the novels (although Shadow on the Wall is actually very good). Bailey is a much neglected master of golden age detective fiction. Mr Fortune Speaking is immensely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Horror on the Links, Seabury Quinn

The Horror on the Links is the first volume issued by Night Shade Books in their complete collection of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories. The stories in this first volume were all published in Weird Tales between 1925 and 1928. Seabury Quinn was an incredibly prolific contributor to Weird Tales. While his Weird Tales contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard continue to have strong followings Quinn’s reputation has not lasted anywhere near as well. In his day he was however the most popular of all the Weird Tales writers.

Some of de Grandin’s cases have supernatural explanations. Those that have rational explanations are possibly even more bizarre.

The Horror on the Links introduces the two main characters who appear in all the stories. Dr Samuel Trowbridge is the portly and rather staid American doctor who acts as narrator and generally plays the Dr Watson role. He meets colourful French doctor/scientist/occult detective Jules de Grandin when mysterious murders take place in Trowbridge’s home town of Harrisonville. A young man has survived a savage attack with serious injuries which provide a vital clue. Several young women were not so lucky. Trowbridge is the sceptic who cannot believe de Grandin’s crazy theories about the crime.

The Tenants of Broussac moves the action to an ancient chateau in France. The tenants of this crumbling pile all seem to come to extraordinarily grisly ends. It’s a haunted house story but with some fairly effective and atmospheric moments.

In The Isle of Missing Ships de Grandin has been employed by Lloyds of London to investigate the loss of a disturbing number of ships. This story features a memorable villain  and an extremely clever setting beneath the sea (with perhaps just a hint of Captain Nemo). The political incorrectness level of this story is absolutely off the scale.

I can’t say very much at all about The Vengeance of India without risking spoilers. It’s a tale of sudden, very sudden, death and vengeance long delayed.

The Dead Hand employs the fairly well-worn device of a disembodied hand. It’s made more interesting by the fact that in Quinn’s de Grandin stories you never know if the solution is going to involve the supernatural or not and the explanation is quite clever.

Quinn could be quite grisly at times and The House of Horror is very grisly indeed. Lost at night in driving rain de Grandin and Trowbridge take refuge in an old mansion and what they find there shocks even de Grandin. This one is perhaps just a bit too reliant on sheer gruesomeness and really that’s about all this story has going for it.

In Ancient Fires we discover that love can survive even the greatest sacrifice. It’s a kind of ghostly romance story.

The Great God Pan deals with what today would be called a cult.

The Grinning Mummy deals, obviously, with a mummy and naturally enough there’s a curse.

The Man Who Cast No Shadow is a very old central European nobleman. Very old indeed. But perhaps not always quite so old.

The Blood-Flower is pretty obviously a werewolf story but it demonstrates Quinn’s ability to come up with intriguing twists on old ideas. In this case a knowledge of botany is required to combat the lycanthropic menace. We also discover that modern technology can be just as effective as older methods of disposing of werewolves.

A woman who fears she is losing her husband to another woman might not seem like the sort of case that would interest Jules de Grandin but this other female is no ordinary woman, if she is a woman at all. The tale of The Veiled Prophetess all started with a visit to a fortune-teller, and with an Egyptian statue.

The Curse of Everard Maundy is a story of a voodoo curse, but a curse with an unusual twist. It’s almost as if those afflicted curse themselves.

Creeping Shadows begins with a man who has been dead for several days, except that he can’t have been since he was seen alive by three reliable witnesses just a few hours earlier. And it’s a story of death stalking men whose greed tempted them into a very unwise theft indeed.

The White Lady of the Orphanage is a rather grisly story of children who mysteriously vanish from an orphanage. It relies a bit too much on shock value for my tastes.

The Poltergeist tells of a young woman afflicted by strange and frightening manifestations which threaten her sanity and her very life. A poltergeist certainly, but what is more interesting is the origin and nature of this ghostly menace. Jules de Grandin comes to suspect that the answer lies in the past, but whose past?

The Gods of East and West is a duel for the possession of a woman’s soul, fought out between the monstrous Indian goddess Kali and the spirits of the Dakota people of North America.

Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd offers a particular challenge, de Grandin’s adversary being the Devil himself. Or at least a representative of that gentleman. A young Austrian woman is the victim of demonic possession although de Grandin suspects it’s not quite so simple as that.

It was inevitable that sooner or later de Grandin would come up against a case involving ancient Egypt and mummies. The Jewel of Seven Stones is almost a stock-standard mummy story but with a few crucial differences. For one thing the mummy is a Christian mummy. The stones themselves are a nice touch. This is one of Quinn’s more ambitious and complex stories and it’s one of his best, combining horror, suspense and romance.

In The Serpent Woman de Grandin takes on the case of a woman suspected of murdering her child. Is it murder, kidnapping or could it really be a giant snake?

Body and Soul is a tale of Egyptology and an attempt to provide evidence of life after death which unleashes  killer from beyond the grave. Quite a creepy story.

Restless Souls is a story of love and vampires, and love after death. One of the best of the de Grandin stories, and one of the few that adds just a little depth to the hero.

The Chapel of Mystic Horror is an ancient villa that had been dismantled, transported from Cypus to America and reassembled. The evil that was in the villa was brought to America along with the stones.

These stories are fairly consistent in quality. None are truly great stories but they’re all clever and entertaining. There are only a couple that are a little weak and there's a handful (such as The Jewel of Seven Stones and Restless Souls) that are particularly good.

They are also pure pulp. In fact they’re remarkably trashy, although they’re trashy in a good way. Jules de Grandin is a character entirely lacking in subtlety or depth. He’s like a hyperactive Hercule Poirot with none of the qualities that make Poirot interesting. None of this really matters. It’s the plots that matter and they’re gloriously ingenious. Quinn takes just about every horror cliché you can possibly think of - vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, voodoo, witchcraft, ancient curses, mad scientists - but he always seems to manage to give these old ideas fresh new twists. And for all their trashiness these tales are fast-moving and entertaining and they have the vitality and manic energy of pulp fiction at its best. Quinn is certain not the equal of a Lovecraft or a Robert E. Howard but his stories are inventive and they’re great fun. Recommended.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (AKA The Hollow Man)

John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (also published as The Hollow Man) is a 1935 Dr Gideon Fell mystery and it is of course a locked-room mystery. And a very celebrated one.

Carr was rather unusual among golden age crime writers in combining a love for the rigorous plotting and implacable logic of the detective story with an equally intense love for the more outré elements of gothic fiction. The remarkable thing about Carr is that he consistently managed to combine these two somewhat contradictory elements so successfully.

The Three Coffins begins in classic gothic style. Professor Grimaud has devoted his life to the study of the occult but he is a very convinced skeptic on the subject. A rather strange individual accosts him at his favourite tavern. This man, Fley, makes some extraordinary claims, claims which appear to be most definitely of an occult or at least a paranormal nature. The claims also sound decidedly like threats.

Then we switch to the classic locked-room genre, Grimaud is murdered. The murderer could only have left the room in which the slaying took place by one of two exits. A quick glance at the window makes it clear that he could not possibly have left by this means. Therefore he must have left by the door but the door was found locked from the inside and was for the whole time during which the murder took place under direct observation by two independent witnesses. Therefore he did not leave by the door either. All this is bad enough but there’s also the matter of the footprints which must be there but they aren’t.

The second murder is even more impossible. A man is shot at close range in the middle of a public street in front of three witnesses but no-one sees the murderer.

Meanwhile the gothic atmosphere keeps creeping back in, with hints of dark deeds in Transylvania (!) and freshly dug graves.

There are magicians, acrobats, amateur criminologists, dusty scholars and mathematical whizz-kids and there are mysterious females with shady backgrounds and any one of them could be the murderer.

This book contain’s Dr Fell’s famous locked-room lecture. Dr Fell justifies this lecture by reminding the other characters that they are after all characters in a detective story so why shouldn’t they discuss the mechanics of detective fiction?

In fact the whole book can be thought of as a detective story about detective stories. There’s a good deal about stage magic in it and a locked-room or impossible crime mystery is after all essentially an exercise in stage magic. The writer is an illusionist, practising the various facets of the craft of illusionism (such as misdirection). Carr is in a sense letting us in on some of the secrets of the trade. It’s a measure of just how confident he’d become by this time - he felt sure he could tell us how his tricks were done and that he could still deceive us.

Magic really is a major theme here, with Grimaud being the expert in real magic (which doesn’t exist) and Fley being the expert in fake magic (which does exist). Illusionism crops up in countless golden age mysteries but I can’t recall any other examples of the theme being explored with the same mixture of intelligence, perceptiveness and playfulness that Carr brings to the subject.

One of the points made in Fell’s lecture is that readers are often disappointed when a really intriguing locked-room mystery turns out to have a simple explanation. There’s no need to worry about that in the case of The Three Coffins - the solution is fiendishly complex. But does it actually work? It was certainly a gamble on Carr’s part - one false step and the whole edifice of the plot would have come crashing down around his ears. I think he gets away with it, although it’s a close-run thing. Which in some ways makes the book even more impressive, since Carr was challenging himself as well as the reader. You get the feeling that Carr loved writing puzzle-plot detective fiction not because it was easy (as so many foolish critics then and now seem to think) but because it was something that was exceptionally difficult to do well.

The Three Coffins is breathtakingly ambitious and it’s also hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Dennis Wheatley’s The Eunuch of Stamboul

Published in 1935, The Eunuch of Stamboul is one of Dennis Wheatley’s straight spy thrillers, as distinct from his more famous occult thrillers.

Swithin Destime is a 35-year-old captain in a distinguished British regiment. He has virtually no money of his own and is thus entirely dependent on his army pay but he is content enough. Content that is, until fate steps in in the person of Prince Ali. Prince Ali is a nephew of the last Ottoman Sultan but he also holds a senior position in the new Turkish secular government established by Kemal Atatürk. He is therefore a representative of both the old and the new in Turkey and he is not a man that anyone would want to offend.

Unfortunately Swithin Destime has managed to offend him, in a quarrel over a woman. Prince Ali was trying to take liberties with a young woman, Diana Duncannon, in whom Swithin had a very strong prior interest. In the ensuing fracas Captain Destime knocks Prince Ali down. The fact that Prince Ali was at fault doesn’t help. The prince was at the time a guest of Destime’s regiment, and the British government is very very keen not to cause an incident with Turkey. Swithin Destime has no choice but to resign his commission.

Things look a little grim until Diana’s father Sir George Duncannon, a wealthy banker with extensive interests in the Near East, offers him a job, in Constantinople. Swithin is fluent in Turkish, Greek and Arabic, useful accomplishments since he will be acting as a kind of unofficial spy. Sir George is anxious to invest in Turkey but he has convinced himself that a  major upheaval is coming in that country. He has no idea of the nature of the upheaval - it’s Destime’s job to find that out.

He discovers what appears to be a plot to overthrow the government of Kemal Atatürk. It is not entirely clear what the ultimate aims of the plotters are but they seem to be hoping to restore conservative religious practices and possibly to dispense with the secular government altogether. What really worries Destime is that the conspirators also seem inclined to restore the empire of the Ottomans and to launch a jihad. This could create complete chaos in the Balkans and that chaos could result in the Great Powers being drawn in, leading perhaps to a general European war. While Destime has no particular feelings about Atatürk’s regime one way or the other the prospect of another European war appal;s him. He feels he must do something, although he has no idea what that something might be.

Destime’s efforts tend to demonstrate why espionage is a game best left to professionals. He’s brave and resourceful and reasonably intelligent but he does not know the rules of the spy game and he makes some bad mistakes. Making mistakes is something he can ill afford to do. He is up against formidable adversaries, the most formidable of all being Kazdim Hari Bekar. Kazdim is a eunuch but he has successfully made the transition from palace servant under the Ottomans to policeman under Atatürk and is now Chief of the Secret Police. He is ruthless, cruel, vindictive and very very cunning.

Destime has cause to reproach himself for not handling the situation the way Bulldog Drummond or the Saint would have done. In fact even by the standards of amateur spies Destime commits some spectacular blunders. He is however nothing if not persistent. He just doesn’t know when he’s beaten. He falls into the hands of the bad guys on more than one occasion, he is beaten and humiliated and sentenced to execution. Somehow he manages to come through, partly through luck and partly through sheer pigheadedness.

As well as secret policemen he also has to deal with beautiful female Russian spies and with fellow Britons even more incompetent than himself, plus of course the Turkish conspirators. He can’t go to the Turkish government - they would never believe his story without evidence (which he doesn’t have) - and he has to be careful about involving the British Embassy (he is after all a spy and a potential embarrassment to His Majesty’s Government).

Wheatley is at times prone to giving us extended info-dumps but in this case it’s pretty much unavoidable (unless the reader is already an authority on Turkish history) and they’re actually quite interesting.

This is a typical Wheatley thriller, which means more sexual content than is usual in 30s thrillers, an outrageous but very entertaining plot, a fair bit of violence with just the faintest hint of sadism and a good deal of glamour in an exotic setting. It all sounds a bit like a 30s version of a Bond thriller, which is not surprising since Wheatley was an important but often overlooked influence on Ian Fleming.

The Eunuch of Stamboul is a bit on the trashy side and Wheatley did not quite have the effortless panache of a Leslie Charteris (or an Ian Fleming for that matter) but there’s still plenty of good old-fashioned fun to be had here. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog’s Back Mystery

Freeman Wills Crofts is a detective fiction writer people either love or hate. Crofts, at least in the early part of his career, was uncompromising in his devotion to the puzzle plot. His fans find his books enthralling and deeply satisfying while his critics find them dull and uninteresting. If you’re looking for complex characterisation or sparkling wit you’d best look elsewhere. If you’re looking for superb exercises in intricate plotting then you’ve struck gold with Crofts. The Hog’s Back Mystery appeared in 1933 and it’s typical of the Crofts approach to mystery writing.

Julia Earle lives in a isolated house in Surrey with her husband, a doctor now mostly retired from practice. Julia, her sister Marjorie and Ursula Stone had been great friends at school (quite some time ago as the three women are now in early middle age) and Marjorie and Ursula have arrived for what should be a very pleasant visit. It immediately becomes apparent to Marjorie and Ursula that Julia’s marriage is on somewhat shaky ground.

Then Dr Earle suddenly disappears. Very suddenly indeed, and in slightly puzzling circumstances. Puzzling enough to persuade the Surrey police to ask Scotland Yard for help. The help arrives in the form of Inspector Joseph French.

When a man vanishes and there’s no actual evidence of foul play it generally means he wanted to vanish. It also means, more often than not, that a woman is involved (a woman who is not his wife). To Inspector French it seems clear that this is just such a case. This seems to be confirmed when it is revealed that a woman vanished at almost precisely the same time as the doctor, a woman who appears very likely to have been the other Woman in the case. Nonetheless the circumstances were still rather puzzling and both the local superintendent and French agree that the matter needs to be looked into.

French conducts his investigation with his usual thoroughness and he is perfectly satisfied that Dr Earle and Nurse Nankivel ran off together. At least he is perfectly satisfied until there is another disappearance at which point it becomes obvious that French is going to have to start all over again from square one.

What makes the case exasperating is that it is still not clear that murder has been committed.There may have been a murder. It may have been a double murder. It may even have been a triple murder. On the other hand there might have been no murder at all.

There are plenty of clues but there is as yet absolutely no hard evidence whatsoever.

This is the sort of case that illustrates French’s methods particularly well. When you spend an inordinate amount of time following up an extremely promising lead only to find that it leads nowhere and you were on entirely the wrong track there is a temptation to give in to despair. French simply starts all over again from the beginning. It is frustrating but that’s what being a detective is all about. You don’t solve crimes with brilliant leaps of intuition. You solve crimes through doggedness and thoroughness. When you run out of promising leads you start following up the unpromising leads.

French believes very strongly that there is no such thing as a murder that cannot be solved. If there’s a murder there must be a murderer and therefore there must be a solution. You just keep searching for the evidence and you just keep looking for a way to bring the various pieces of evidence together in such a way that all loose ends are dealt with and you must eventually find the solution.

It’s not that French lacks imagination. He has a powerful imagination but it is rigidly disciplined. No matter how attractive a theory of the crime might be if it doesn’t hold together it has to be discarded.

In a Crofts detective novel you expect to find a nice juicy unbreakable alibi. The Hog’s Back Mystery has a whole series of unbreakable alibis. Every suspect (and there are quite a few of them) seems to have an alibi for each of the murders (assuming that they are murders and not voluntary disappearances) and all the alibis seem to be distressingly watertight. To solve the case Inspector French will have to break multiple unbreakable alibis.

This is not a perfect Crofts novel. The solution is fiendishly complex but there’s one absolutely crucial point that relies on a plot device that is always unsatisfactory and unconvincing and there’s another crucial element that makes part of the solution a little too obvious. It also makes use of a favourite Crofts device that he used much too often.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is a good, but not a great, Inspector French mystery. This one has been included in the British Library’s recent paperback reissue series but it’s an odd choice. If you want books that show Crofts at the top of his form check out The Sea Mystery, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, The Loss of the Jane Vosper or Sir John Magill’s Last Journey instead.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Think Fast, Mr Moto

Think Fast, Mr Moto was the third of the Mr Moto spy thrillers written by American John P. Marquand (1893-1960). It appeared in 1937.

The resemblances between the Mr Moto novels and the Mr Moto movies are rather tenuous (although it must be said that both the novels and the moves are terrific in the own ways). In the movies Mr Moto is a policeman, working for Interpol (which existed in the 1930s although it was not yet known by its familiar modern name). He chases criminals and spies.

In the novels Moto is an agent (and a senior one) of the Japanese intelligence service. He is unequivocally a spy. But that doesn’t mean he’s the bad guy. Not at all. At the time Marquand wrote the early Moto books the United States and Japan were at peace. Moto’s attempts to advance the interests of the Japanese Empire are not portrayed as being morally any different from the attempts of other characters to advance their own national interests (whether they be American, Chinese, British, or what have you). Moto can be ruthless but he’s a secret agent, not a Boy Scout. Like any good spy he practises deception when it is professionally necessary to do so but on a personal level he is honest, honourable and even kindly. There is no trace of cruelty in Mr Moto. Necessary ruthlessness yes, but never cruelty.

Mr Moto is not the actual protagonist in most of the novels. He does however still manage to be the dominant character. He’s the one who sets things in motion, and he’s the one who continues to pull the strings. And of course he’s  by far the most interesting character in the books.

In this case the protagonist is Wilson Hitchings, a pleasant young American. He is in Shanghai where he is being groomed to take his place in the family business. The family business is Hitchings Brothers, a venerable, highly respected, very wealthy trading and banking firm with interests throughout the Far East. Wilson’s Uncle Will currently holds the reins of power. Uncle Will has received some disturbing news from the company’s Honolulu office. A distant relative, a young woman, is running a very successful gambling club there. That would be no problem except that the club is named the Hitchings Plantation. Hitching Brothers most certainly does not want its name to be associated with a gambling club but the difficulty is that the young woman concerned is most definitely a Hitchings (her name in fact is Eva Hitchings) and sees no reason to change the name. Wilson is despatched to Honolulu to buy her off, in as subtle a manner as possible.

In Honolulu Wilson Hitchings is surprised to run into Mr Moto, a Japanese gentleman he had met briefly in Shanghai (his uncle had told him a rather unlikely story that this inoffensive little man was actually a Japanese government agent). Wilson also discovers that things are not quite right in Honolulu. The story he had been told about Eva Hitchings and her gambling club doesn’t quite ring true. Something odd is going on. His feeling of disquiet is confirmed when a gunman opens fire at him. Or was the gunman aiming at Eva Hitchings? Or possibly Mr Moto? And why on earth would anyone want to kill any of them? For that matter, why is Eva’s club apparently run by gangsters and why is the roulette wheel crooked? It’s also puzzling that a Japanese government agent should just happen to be on the scene, and apparently taking a keen interest in the Hitchings Plantation.

Wilson Hitchings is an interesting protagonist. He has something in common with Eric Ambler’s heroes - ordinary men who are reluctantly drawn into the world of espionage. The main difference is that Wilson, once he decides that the reputation of Hitchings Brothers is at stake, isn’t entirely reluctant. He’s also rather competent. He is an intelligent and resourceful young man. His main disadvantage is that he has brought up in a world sheltered from sordid realities like crime and espionage and faced with such things he is an innocent. He is also inclined, as Mr Moto points out, to assume that a beautiful woman must also be a good woman. Mr Moto has no such illusions about the female of the species.

Marquand mercifully does not succumb to the temptation to deliver political lectures. Mr Moto is doing his job and serving his country and given that Japan and the United States were at peace at the time there is no reason why a young American should not co-operate with him. Moto wants to serve Japan’s interests. Hitchings wants to protect the good name of his family and of the family business.

This is a very unconventional spy thriller. It has character development! In the course of this adventure Wilson Hitchings learns a good deal about life and about himself, and about the moral complexities of duty and honour and loyalty in an imperfect world. He grows up.

There is some action although the emphasis is on suspense and atmosphere as both Wilson Hitchings and Mr Moto, in pursuance of quite different agendas, slowly unravel a complex conspiracy. Marquand certainly has to be considered to be at the more literary end of the spy fiction genre.

Think Fast, Mr Moto is unusual but fascinating. Highly recommended. The two earlier books in the series, Your Turn, Mr Moto and Thank You, Mr Moto are also excellent.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery

The American Gun Mystery appeared in 1933 and was the sixth of the Ellery Queen mysteries. And it’s a rather controversial one among fans of golden age detective fiction.

This is a story about cowboys and cowgirls and six-shooters and horses and roping steers and all that sort of stuff, but it’s set in New York City. Wild Bill Grant’s rodeo and wild west show has come to town. The venue is the Colosseum, a gigantic sports arena operated by promotor Tony Mars. As a special extra added attraction the show will feature former cowboy movie star Buck Horne doing an exhibition of trick riding and sharpshooting.

On the opening night Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD and his son Ellery just happen to be in the audience. The show takes an unexpected turn. Murder was not part of the program but murder does take place, in full view of 20,000 witnesses. And in spite of all those witnesses, and in spite of Inspector Queen’s decision to seal off the Colosseum so that not a single soul is able to leave until the mystery is cleared up, the mystery is not cleared up. The identity of the killer remains unknown, the details of the murder remain obscure and most exasperatingly the murder weapon cannot be found.

The victim was shot. Lots and lots of guns are found. But not one of these guns is the murder weapon. The various participants in the show were all carrying guns and during the course of the show they all fired their guns but since this is a Wild West Show their guns are all large-calibre revolvers. The fatal shot came from a .25 automatic.

This is not quite an impossible crime story but it does have tendencies in that direction.

The controversial element I alluded to earlier is the puzzle of the missing gun. When Ellery finally reveals the solution to that part of the puzzle many readers find themselves disappointed or even enraged. The objections to the solution are that it’s silly, it’s implausible or that it’s a cheat. It is certainly silly. It does stretch plausibility to the limit. As to its being a cheat, that’s a matter of opinion. There is a very definite clue that points to the solution but the solution itself is so outrageous that very few readers are going to grasp the significance of the clue. I’m personally inclined to feel that the solution to the missing gun puzzle is not very satisfying and is even just a tad irritating.

It must however be pointed out that the missing gun puzzle is only one minor part of the story. In fact it’s not important at all as far as the solution of the murder mystery is concerned. The finding of the gun only matters insofar as it will be difficult to get a conviction in a murder case without a murder weapon.

Another possible weakness is the motive which is not revealed until the final page, although admittedly there are clues that make the motive (mostly) plausible.

Then there’s Ellery himself. Many readers seem to dislike him intensely. He does have certain affectations, he does love showing off his erudition, he can be high-handed and he does have the habit of not letting people know how much of the puzzle he has already figured out. He’s like a younger and more callow version of Philo Vance. On the other hand he is a young man and it’s hard to dislike a young man for having the faults of youth. I like him but your mileage may vary.

So this book does have its flaws. It also has considerable strengths. Circuses and theatres provide wonderful settings for murder mysteries and a Wild West show works every bit as well. These are strange self-contained worlds filled with colourful eccentrics who have their own distinctive codes of behaviour and even honour. In this case the authors have enormous fun with the whole Wild West thing and they throw in elements of other equally bizarre sub-cultures. Among the assorted possible suspects are gambling joint owner Julian Hunter, prize-fighter Tommy Black and movie star Mara Gay while both Buck Horne and his daughter Kit are or were stars of Hollywood cowboy movies. There’s also a glimpse into the fascinating world of newsreels (which provides a valuable clue). And the fact that the Wild West world has been transported to the middle of New York City adds to the fun.

The plotting is typical early Queen, extremely complex but with plentiful clues and apart from the disappearing gun it holds together well enough. This is a flawed Ellery Queen but while the flaws in The Spanish Cape Mystery proved fatal The American Gun Mystery is mostly successful if you overlook that pesky and annoying little .25 automatic. Generally enjoyable, although not as good as The French Powder MysteryThe Siamese Twin Mystery or The Greek Coffin Mystery. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

John Rhode's Death at Breakfast

Death at Breakfast is 1936 Dr Priestley mystery written by Cecil John Street under his John Rhode pseudonym.

Victor Harleston is a clerk working for an accounting firm. He lives with his half-sister Janet who keeps house for him. On one particular fateful day she brings him his morning up of tea as usual. Half an hour later he sits down to breakfast but seems somewhat unwell. He gets up from the table, stumbles, then collapses. Janet hurries to the nearby surgery of Dr Oldland. By the time the doctor arrives it is clear with Victor is beyond human aid. He dies shortly afterwards. It is also clear to Dr Oldland that Victor has died due to the effects of poison.

Victor was not the most pleasant of men. In fact he was exceedingly unpleasant and remarkably mean about money. Janet is obviously not overly distressed by his death. Janet was the only other person in the house and it soon transpires that she had a very strong motive for murder. To Superintendent Hanslet it seems like a very clear-cut case indeed.

The postmortem however creates difficulties. It’s not consistent with the evidence found at the crime scene.

It’s also odd that Hanslet’s old friend Dr Priestley seems to be interested in the case - usually Hanslet has a great deal of trouble persuading Priestley to become involved.

In the course of their investigation Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn of the Yard uncover evidence of a second murder. There is obviously absolutely no connection between the two crimes. Well, there is one odd link but Hanslet and Waghorn aren’t too concerned. It’s clearly just a coincidence. Dr Priestley however takes a very dim view of coincidences.

As usual Dr Priestley does not find it necessary to leave his comfortable home in Westbourne Terrace in order to visit crime scenes and crawl about on hands and knees looking for cigar ash. He sits in his armchair and gives the case his full intellectual attention. He offers suggestions, which are invariably unexpected but invariably useful. His main contributions however are his penetrating criticisms of the theories that Hanslet and Waghorn construct in order to explain the link between the two crimes. The problem is that these theories do not explain the link at alland and rely on motives which are entirely fanciful, although Hanslet is not always pleased to have these things pointed out to him.

Superintendent Hanslet does not exactly cover himself with glory in this case. His theorising is enthusiastic and imaginative but based on little more than guesswork and wishful thinking. Priestley is as always dispassionate and coolly logical and prefers to wait for actual evidence to accumulate before committing himself to an attempted solution.

On the other hand it has to be admitted that both Hanslet and Waghorn are dogged and thorough and once pointed in the right direction they can be relied upon to find any evidence that is capable of being found.

Rhode is sometimes regarded as a writer more concerned about the how than the who when it comes to mysteries. For those who enjoy that approach this book features an extremely clever and original murder method. But those more interested in whodunits should not be disappointed.

Those with a passion for the history of forensic science will be interested in the material about blood and bloodstains, subjects that were only just beginning to be understood in 1936.

This is golden age detective fiction at its purest. No romance sub-plots, no time wasted on characterisation, just an intricate plot that works like clockwork and a remorselessly logical detective (although despite his devotion to logic I personally find Priestley to be quite entertaining as a character). Death at Breakfast achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs created a number of extraordinarily well thought out imaginary worlds, of which Pellucidar was one of the most interesting. The Pellucidar cycle began with At the Earth’s Core in 1914. The first of the sequels, Pellucidar, followed in 1915. It was published as a four-part serial in All-Story Weekly. It appeared in book form in 1923.

The adventures of David Innes beneath the surface of the Earth seemed to have come to an end at the conclusion of At the Earth’s Core but Innes still has a lot of unfinished business in Pellucidar. Most of all he has to find Dian the Beautiful again.

Pellucidar is not just a world beneath the Earth. It’s an inside out world. The surface of Pellucidar is the inner surface of the hollow Earth. It has its own sun, right at the centre of the Earth. There is of course no horizon since this world’s surface curves upwards.

And, curiously enough, there is no time in Pellucidar. Which is to say that while time obviously passes there as it does elsewhere there is no means of measuring the passage of time. There is no night, just endless eternal day.

Pellucidar is a Stone Age world. There are several intelligent species. The most advanced are the Mahar, winged reptiles who communicate entirely by telepathy, and even they are fairly primitive technologically. The humans of Pellucidar are firmly mired in the Stone Age. There are also several species of both ape-like men and man-like apes.

In At the Earth’s Core David Innes had managed to unite a number of human tribes to establish the Empire of Pellucidar, with himself as emperor. On his return he finds that his empire has collapsed. And his empress, Dian the Beautiful, has disappeared. He does manage to find his old friend Abner Perry and with his help he intends to regain his empress and rebuild his empire.

This book is certainly not lacking in action. There are the narrow escapes from certain death that you expect in any adventure tale but there are also full-scale sea battles. Innes encounters some old enemies and acquires some surprising new allies.

Innes is a pretty standard adventure hero. He’s brave and resourceful and determined and extremely noble. Abner Perry is more interesting. He’s basically a coward but he’s still an extremely useful sidekick and in his own way he’s stubborn and determined.

The various intelligent species of Pellucidar are all quite distinctive with the Mahar being particularly interesting. They’re an odd mixture of cruelty and honour.

This is pure pulp fiction in style but it’s definitely exciting.

Burroughs had a particular gift for world-building. And over the course of his career he created a whole series of fascinatingly different imaginary worlds.

Pellucidar is in some ways very much like prehistoric version of Earth, complete with species extinct on the surface of the Earth for millions of years. In other ways it’s a seriously strange and alien world and Burroughs makes good use of some of its subtly strange qualities. In a world in which there are no stars and the sun is always directly overhead finding your way about can be challenging. If you sail out of sight of land you have no means of navigation whatsoever. You are simply lost, as happens to our hero at one point. The impossibility of measuring time also plays its part in the plot.

Burroughs was one of the masters of pulp adventure fiction and Pellucidar is fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Francis Duncan's Behold a Fair Woman

William Underhill (1918-1988) was an Englishman who wrote quite a bit of detective fiction, including the five Mordecai Tremaine mysteries published between 1947 and 1954 under the pseudonym Francis Duncan. These five books have been reissued in handsome paperback editions by Vintage Books. The last of them was Behold a Fair Woman.

Behold a Fair Woman takes place in the Channel Islands. Amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine is staying with some friends on one of the islands and he’s hoping that his restful holiday is not going to be interrupted by any murders (like most amateur detectives he finds that murder has a way of following him around). Initially it all seems rather idyllic. He meets some interesting acquaintances. For quite a while nothing much happens, except that there are a few small things that make Mordecai Tremaine slightly uneasy. Odd quirks of behaviour on the part of a number of people, and the relationships between various people also seem slightly wrong.

Finally murder is committed. The murderer could have been one of the half a dozen people staying at the Rohane Hotel, or one of several others associated with those people.

The Chief Officer of the island (more or less equivalent to a Chief Constable) is happy to have the assistance of the famous Mordecai Tremaine. There’s an obvious suspect, but maybe just a bit too obvious. There are plenty of other suspects and it’s fairly clear that none of them are being particularly truthful. All of them seem frightened, or anxious. It builds to a violent climax with unexpected results.

There’s plenty here to like. The setting is good although I couldn’t help thinking that the author didn’t really take full advantage of it. Mordecai Tremaine is a likeable detective. He’s a man of somewhat advanced years and apart from criminology he has another unusual hobby - he is passionately fond of romance stories. He’s a nice old fellow who likes nothing better than to see young people find true love.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Tremaine’s interest in human relationships, it’s the relationships between the characters that are the key to the mystery and those relationships are complex and are handled reasonably well.

There are however some weaknesses to this novel. Some of the clues are too obvious. They don’t necessarily reveal too much about the identity of the murderer but they do reveal too much too soon about the background to the murder. More serious is the fact that the detective overlooks some blindingly obvious clues. Apart from being unconvincing this also shook my faith in Mordecai Tremaine a little. I also got the feeling that this wasn’t a matter of deliberately making the detective prone to human weakness but simply a structural fault in the plot. A more skilled writer might have avoided such plotting weaknesses.

There’s also the fact that the crucial discovery in the case is made by accident but it feels contrived. It relies on a character just happening to do something unexpected because the plot requires him to do so.

Mordecai Tremaine doesn’t really do all that much in the way of detecting. Mostly he just stumbles upon things. There’s way too much reliance on overheard conversations, with Tremaine just happening to be in the right spot at the right time so he can overhear things without being seen.

If you’re drawn to golden age detective fiction because you love impossible crimes, locked-room mysteries or unbreakable alibis you might be a bit disappointed by this one. The plot is quite good but what it lacks is the remorseless unravelling of the puzzle by an astute detective with a genius for spotting the significance of vital clues. Tremaine is a rather passive detective who goes for lots of walks whilst waiting for the murderer to make a mistake - he’s not a detective who makes things happen.

By the standards of 1954 this is a fairly old-fashioned book (which to me is a good thing). It adheres to the conventions of the golden age murder mystery. It just doesn’t quite demonstrate the sheer joy in the solving of intricate puzzles that you get in the works of the great masters of the golden age. The puzzle is intricate enough but it’s largely allowed to just work itself out. Mordecai Tremaine’s contribution is mostly limited to explaining the puzzle at the end rather than actively solving it.

On the whole I’m afraid I was somewhat underwhelmed by this book.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gavin Lyall's Midnight Plus One

Midnight Plus One was the third of the successful thrillers written by Englishman Gavin Lyall (1932-2003). It was published in 1965.

Lyall’s first two thrillers had aviation backgrounds. Midnight Plus One stays firmly on the ground but there’s no shortage of action and excitement.

Lewis Cane (the narrator) had been a renowned secret agent for the British in the Second World War, working behind enemy lines in Occupied France. After that he was a spy with the British Secret Intelligence Service. Now he describes himself as a business agent. He solves ticklish business problems. His solutions are never illegal but they do require a certain ethical flexibility. He likes to think of himself as having moral standards. He doesn’t work for criminals and he’s not a hired killer but if someone shoots at him he’ll certainly shoot back.

An old acquaintance, a French lawyer named Merlin, has offered him a lucrative job. All he has to do is to drive a businessman named Maganhard from Brittany to Liechtenstein. It sounds simple but there are complications. It’s quite possible that business rivals may try to stop Maganhard from reaching Liechtenstein. They may try to stop him by killing him. And the police are after Maganhard as well (although Merlin assures him that Maganhard is entirely innocent). Cane can handle himself pretty well but for this job it seems advisable to have a professional gunman/bodyguard along as well. Cane would like to have Bernard or Alain, regarded as the two best gunmen in Europe.  They’re not available but Harvey Lovell is. Lovell is an American and he’s considered to be Europe’s third best gunman. He’s a former member of the US Secret Service so he certainly has had the right training to be a bodyguard and he seems like the ideal man.

Another complication is that Maganhard insists on bringing his secretary along. Helen Jarman is a young, pretty, very upper-class Englishwoman and she regards Cane and Harvey as being little more than glorified gangsters. This happy little party sets off in Maganhard’s Citroën DS. The first signs of trouble had already appeared when they picked up the car. The man from whom they picked it up died rather suddenly, possibly as a result of the three bullet-holes in his body.

It soon becomes apparent that somebody knows about their little excursion to Liechtenstein and that the somebody in question has employed quite a few very nasty and very well-armed thugs to stop them from reaching their destination.

It’s a thrilling chase across western Europe, a chase that leaves an impressive trail of mayhem and dead bodies behind it.

It doesn’t take long for Cane to discover that he has another problem. Harvey Lovell is very good at his job but he drinks a bit. In fact he’s a full-blown alcoholic. Harvey’s problem is that his job as a bodyguard requires him to be prepared to kill people if necessary, and to be prepared to get himself killed to protect his client. He’s OK with the risking his own life part of the deal. He definitely is not lacking in guts. But he’s not quite so OK with the killing people bit. If he drinks enough he can deal with it. When he’s sober he’s very very good at his job. The question is whether he can stay sober.

While this is very much an action thriller it’s also an interesting psychological study of men who live by violence. Harvey has his troubles but Lewis Cane has his own demons to wrestle with as well. The war never did really end for Cane. In the course of this adventure he will be brought face-to-face with unfinished business from the war and he will encounter old Resistance comrades for whom the war also never ended. Lyall combines the action and the psychology with consummate skill. There’s a psychological dimension but also a moral dimension as well. Cane and Harvey are not mere thugs or strong-arm men. Maybe life would be simpler for them if they were but they are what they are and they have to learn to deal with it.

There are some splendid and original action set-pieces, including trench warfare (in 1965) with a vintage Rolls-Royce. There are the expected double-crosses but Lyall throws in some pleasing surprises.

This is an intelligent complex thriller. Lyall was one of the best thriller writers of his generation and Midnight Plus One sees him at the top of his game. Highly recommended.

And definitely check out Lyall's aviation-themed thrillers, The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Constable Guard Thyself!

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet (1887-1969) wrote twenty-two novels under the pseudonym Henry Wade. He was one of the more interesting golden age detective writers and was at times quite innovative. Constable Guard Thyself! appeared in 1934. It was his ninth book and featured his series detective Inspector John Poole.

The book starts with the murder of a policeman. Even more shockingly, a senior policeman is the victim. There is no mystery about the murder at all. Albert Hinde, recently released from prison and a man with a very strong grudge against the victim, had sent a threatening. He was seen in the area and he followed up the letter with a personal confrontation with the victim. There can be absolutely no doubt of Hinde’s guilt.

There can also be absolutely no doubt that Hinde will soon be in custody. His distinctive personal appearance combined with the fact that he has every policeman in the Brodshire Constabulary, and every policeman in all the neighbouring counties, searching for him guarantees that. A shocking crime but hardly a challenging case. The superintendent in charge of the investigation sees no need whatsoever to ask Scotland Yard for help.

But of course it doesn’t turn out to be quite so simple. Albert Hinde cannot possibly elude such a massive manhunt for very long, but somehow he manages to do so. It’s as if he has vanished from the face of the earth. And the superintendent has some tiny niggling doubts. He is also unable to resist the mounting pressure to call in Scotland Yard. Inspector John Poole is despatched by the Yard to lend assistance.

Poole soon discovers that there are quite a few puzzling things about this case. Not just puzzling, but very disturbing. If his suspicions are correct the case is even more shocking than initial appearances suggested. Poole is patient and methodical. His belief is that when you reach a dead end you simply have to start again from the beginning, discarding all preconceptions.

Apart from the delightfully complex and ingenious plot the most interesting thing about this book is that it deals with matters that most English detective writers of the 30s would not have dared to go anywhere near. Poole finds evidence that suggests police misconduct. Not just misconduct by one “bad apple” but possibly involving a number of officers. And not just minor indiscretions but possibly misconduct of a sort that could discredit the entire criminal justice system. In fact Poole finds himself in a very awkward situation - he cannot share some of his suspicions with anybody, not even fellow police officers.

There are also questions of loyalty, and the conflict between loyalty and duty. Wade does not try to pretend that these are easy questions and he teases out the nuances with considerable skill.

Poole is a fairly believable character. He’s a fine detective but he’s not infallible. He’s honest and conscientious but there are times when he feels that he has to pursue a particular course of action even though he’s not entirely confident that it’s the right to do. His strength, in the moral sense, is that he is aware of the potential problems. He always tries to do the morally right thing and he’s also the sort of policeman who instinctively dislikes cutting corners. He’s also very much a believer in respecting the rights of suspects even if it makes his job more difficult.

The relationship between Poole and the local superintendent is quite complex. They both appear to be trying to do the right thing but they don’t always agree as to what the right thing is.

The plot itself is not quite an impossible crime but it does tend in that direction. It’s easy to see how the crime could have been committed, except that the physical evidence does not seem to square with any of the possible explanations.

There’s also a neat unbreakable alibi aspect to the story.

Constable Guard Thyself! is Wade in top form and golden age detective fiction doesn’t get much better than that. Highly recommended.

Wade’s The Hanging Captain, The Duke of York’s Steps, No Friendly Drop and Heir Presumptive are all very much worth reading as well.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Clark Ashton Smith, the Poseidonis and interplanetary stories

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was part of the Lovecraft literary circle, corresponding frequently and at great length with Lovecraft and other masters of weird fiction such as Robert E. Howard. They frequently exchanged ideas and often borrowed characters and settings from each other. It was an incredibly fruitful arrangement.

Lovecraft and Howard achieved major cult followings by the 1960s and their popularity remains extremely high. Smith has never quite achieved the same level of popularity with the book-buying public although among true aficionados of weird fiction he is generally regarded as being their equal.

Smith was a writer who relied on atmosphere and style to an extreme degree. Many of the great pulp weird fiction writers were fascinated by the idea of civilisation in decline. Lovecraft wrote about civilisation decay and degeneration. Smith was obsessed by civilisational decadence. His great strength was that his style was in itself decadent and therefore perfectly matched his material. His prose is more self-consciously literary than Lovecraft’s but his prose is even more purple. Prose just doesn’t get any more purple than this. But it works.

The bulk of Smith’s short stories belong to several cycles, the best-known being the Zothique cycle. Somewhat lesser known are the handful of Poseidonis stories. Poseidonis is a mythical island, the last remnant of the lost continent of Atlantis. It is a world of sorcery, and of power struggles between great (although frequently evil) sorcerers. Smith’s Poseidonis cycle comprises eight stories and poems. I will be considering three of the stories here (and they happen to be three very fine stories).

In The Last Incantation the ageing but powerful sorcerer Malygris discovers that even his formidable magic cannot recapture the memories of youth. There’s no real horror in this tale. It’s more a story of melancholy and perhaps of the limits of power.

In The Death of Malygris the King, Gadeiron, suspects that the much-feared sorcerer Malygris may have finally died. But so powerful is this sorcerer’s magic that no-one wants to take the risk of entering his tower to find out if he is really dead. A sorcerer with Malygris’s powers can be dangerous even when dead. The King has the services of the master necromancer Maranapion but he knows that will not be enough. He recruits twelve more sorcerers but perhaps even that may not be sufficient to deal with Malygris.

The Double Shadow is the tale of a master necromancer and his acolyte who conjure forth a demon whose existence was previously unknown, a demon from the impossibly remote past, from the age of the serpent-men. It might have been infinitely wiser not to have conjured this particular demon.

While Smith could at a stretch be considered a writer of sword-and-sorcery tales the emphasis was very much on the sorcery (certainly compared to Howard who put the emphasis on the swords). These three stories are entirely tales of sorcery. There’s no action at all, but there’s plenty of horror  and there’s as much weirdness as any reasonable person could desire.

Among Smith’s lesser known works are his interplanetary stories, set on Mars or on several imaginary planets. They’re perhaps as close as he got to science fiction and that’s not very close.

The Flower-Women has a science fictional setting but it’s still basically a story of sorcery, concerning a sorcerer who becomes bored because his magic is too powerful and he no longer faces any real challenges. He gives up (temporarily) most of his magic to pursue adventure on one of the several planets of which he is ruler. The flower-women really are flower-women - half carnivorous plant and half woman. The flower-women are being menaced by reptilian sorcerers who seem like they might provide an invigorating challenge.

The Monster of the Prophecy is much closer to actual science fiction. A poet, unable to face poverty and the indifference of the world, is about to find a watery death by throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. A strange old man offers him an alternative. The old man is an alien wizard and he transports the poet to a distant planet inhabited by very strange creatures. The alien wizard is more scientist than wizard and he intends to use the poet to further his ambitions. The plan doesn’t work out as neatly as he’d hoped. There’s no actual magic in this story, which is pretty unusual for a Smith story.

The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis is one of Smith’s Mars stories. This is Mars as imagined in the early 1930s, an inhabited world with life being mostly clustered about the canals. An archaeological expedition is exploring the ruins of the impossibly ancient city of Yoh-Vombis, a city built by a long-extinct Martian race rather different from present-day Martians. Yoh-Vombis is far from the life-giving canals and there is no possibility that anything could be alive in those desolate ruins. What the expedition finds there is an unimaginable horror, the secret to the disappearance of the people of Yoh-Vombis. This is a very Lovecraftian story, in both content and style.

I still regard the Zothique stories as being Clark Ashton Smith’s greatest achievements but his other story cycles are well worth investigating. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

S.S. Van Dine’s The Casino Murder Case

The Casino Murder Case was the eighth of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries. While the theory has been advanced that the quality of the Philo Vance books declined precipitately towards the end of the series I found this 1934 entry to be more than satisfactory.

It begins with Vance receiving a typewritten letter warning him that some unspecified doom is about to descend of the wealthy Llewellyn family. It’s the sort of letter that might well have been sent by a crank but there’s something about it that worries Vance. The note particularly warns Vance to keep an eye on young Lynn Llewellyn on the following night when he will be visiting his uncle Richard Kincaid’s casino.

The young man does indeed suffer a serious misfortune after winning big at the casino. The really odd thing is that his wife suffers the same misfortune at the same moment, on the opposite side of the city. In both cases poison is involved but how could someone poison two people simultaneously miles apart?

And the poisoner has not yet completed his (or her) work for the evening.

Right from the start Vance has the feeling that both he and the police are being toyed with, but in a very subtle and ingenious way. There are clues that seem too obvious, but are they deliberately intended to seem too obvious? Is the killer trying to point Vance in a particular direction, or simply trying to make Vance think that he is doing so?

There have been three poisonings, but only one was successful. There are possible motives but none that seem sufficient to lead to murder. On the other hand there are so many complex personal dislikes and resentments within the family and their circle of hangers-on that nobody can really be eliminated from suspicion.

The murder methods seem more conventional than in Van Dine’s other novels but he makes up for this by making the circumstances surrounding the murders and attempted murders so puzzling. And once Vance starts to come up with possible solutions we find that they’re not so conventional after all.

As always with Van Dine the crimes take place among the rich and famous. Glamorous settings were an essential part of the Van Dine formula. That’s something I don’t have a problem with. One of the privileges of being rich is that if you want to commit murder you can do so in an imaginative and stylish manner. Murder might be unpleasant but there’s no reason for it to be commonplace or sordid.

Vance is in fine form, fretting about cultural influences on ancient Sumerian civilisation and missing out on dog trials (we already know from The Kennel Murder Case that Vance has a passion for dogs), and on the vanity of human passions. He also indulges himself in frequent biblical allusions.

As usual his friend, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, is mystified by the workings of Vance’s mind. Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Squad is equally mystified but he’s accustomed to Vance’s peculiar methods.

Psychology certainly plays a role in this story. Vance is sure that if he can understand why the murderer has carried out the crimes in a particular way he can crack the case. The difficulty is that he’s dealing with a group of people all of whom are perhaps slightly psychologically abnormal.

This one doesn’t have the over-the-top baroque flourishes of The Scarab Murder Case or The Dragon Murder Case but it does have a pleasingly fiendish plot. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Desmond Bagley 's The Golden Keel

The Golden Keel appeared in 1963 and launched Desmond Bagley on a successful career as a writer of thrillers. To me Bagley is the guy whose books you read when you’ve run out of Alistair MacLean books to read. Bagley’s style is similar, he’s not as good as MacLean, but he’s OK.

The Golden Keel had a contemporary setting but the early part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks. The technique works since the past is always a presence in this story. What happened back in 1948 is important, and what happened back in 1943 is absolutely crucial. But exactly what did happen in 1943? It’s a story told by a drunk and might be nothing more than a tall story. Or it might be true. Or partly true.

The narrator is English yacht designer Peter Halloran who had headed for South Africa after the war ended. He prospered there and eventually came to be the owner of a very successful boat-building business. He had everything he wanted out of life, and then suddenly something happened and it no longer meant anything to him. And then he encountered the drunk, a man named Walker, once again. He is now convinced that Walker’s story is true and he intends to do something about. It will be an adventure and he may rediscover a reason to go on living.

Walker had been an Allied prisoner-of-war in Italy who, along with a tough Afrikaaner sergeant named Coertze, escaped and joined a partisan band. These were not communist partisans but monarchists, a fact which later assumes some importance. At some point very late in 1943 half a dozen of these partisans, including Walker and Coertze, ambushed a convoy of German trucks. The trucks were carrying Italian Government documents, large sums of currency and an assortment of extremely valuable jewellery. And they were carrying one other thing - four tons of gold. This was apparently the treasure of Mussolini but Mussolini was destined never to see his gold again.

There were several things that the six partisans could have done at this point but human nature being what it is it’s not surprising that they decided to keep the treasure for themselves. Their problem, and a very big problem it was, was how to get the gold out. They decided to hide the treasure in an abandoned lead mine and they dynamited the entrance to keep their hoard secure.

This gold brought ill luck to most of the partisans. No less than four of the six men involved met violent deaths (some in slightly mysterious circumstances) before the end of the war.

Fifteen years later neither Walker nor Coertze has been able to come up with any workable scheme for getting the gold out of Italy. But Peter Halloran has such a scheme. It will require money and careful planning and it will require a yacht. Halloran has the right yacht for the job. The tricky part is that he’s going to need Walker and Coertze to behave themselves and co-operate and since Walker is an alcoholic and Coertze is short-tempered and they hate each other this will be quite a challenge.

As you would expect the top-secret plan to extract Mussolini’s gold from Italy doesn’t remain a secret for very long. There are soon other interested parties, and they play rough. And of course there’s a woman. She’s beautiful and somewhat mysterious and as to whether she is untrustworthy, that’s a question that only time will answer.

There are some ambitious action set-pieces although they are a bit confused and chaotic. Bagley doesn’t quite have MacLean’s gift for building tension. He also doesn’t have MacLean’s gift for taut plotting. His plots lack the neat little twists that MacLean was so good at. There’s a clever story here but it drags just a little in places.

There is one other striking similarity to MacLean in this novel. The romance sub-plot doesn’t quite work. Halloran and Francesca fall in love because the plot requires them to but we don’t really get much of an inkling into the reason for their mutual attraction. It just suddenly happens.

While I’ve always had slight reservations about Bagley’s plotting I have to admit that he handles the character interactions (the non-romantic character interactions) extremely well. He brings together a small group of people who don’t know each other very well, don’t necessarily like each other and definitely don’t trust each other. They also have to deal with several outsiders and those outsiders might be friendly, or neutral, or downright hostile. Somehow they have to pull off a complicated plan without double-crossing or being double-crossed.

The best moments take place on the yacht and Bagley does go close to pulling off a MacLean in these scenes, with the sea itself as much of an enemy as the bad guys. The fact that we’re not entirely sure who are the bad guys also helps. The climax (at sea) is well executed and quite exciting.

The Golden Keel is a pretty solid action thriller. Not quite in the top rank but still recommended.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

R.A.J. Walling's The Mystery of Mr Mock

The Mystery of Mr Mock (the US title was The Corpse with the Floating Foot) was written in 1937 by R.A.J. Walling and of course features private detective Philip Tolefree.

Tolefree and his friend Farrar (who narrates the story) have joined another old friend of Tolefree’s, Professor Pye, for a period of relaxation in the country. They have chosen the village of Combe in Wiltshire. Combe’s main claim to fame (indeed its only claim to fame) is the Wheel Inn. This hotel was converted from an old water mill and the water wheel is still in existence. It has to be admitted that the Wheel Inn really is most picturesque as well as being rather comfortable while Combe itself is a thoroughly pleasant little spot.

Pye is a Professor of Moral Philosophy but he is also somewhat obsessed with a much less respectable subject. Pye just loves crime. Had he not been a Professor of Moral Philosophy he would dearly have loved to have been a detective.

The time passes most agreeably with considerable entertainment being provided by two of the other guests at the Wheel Inn, Mr Mock and Mr Annison. These two gentlemen argue constantly and their arguments include an extraordinary leavening of profanity. This attracts the ire of the godly Mr Cornwood who does his best to save the souls of these two reprobates. Mr Mock and Mr Annison might dislike one another but there is one thing that unites them - their mutual detestation of Mr Cornwood.

And then, on Guy Fawkes Night, Mr Mock vanishes. His ancient car vanishes as well. Actually he’s not the only one who vanishes after that night.

There are a couple of odd little details that worry Tolefree. He’s particularly worried by Mr Mock’s hat. These little details will lead to a grisly discovery (which we already know about since the book opens with the finding of a corpse and we then get a flashback that fills in the story of the previous four days).

The discovery of the corpse raises more questions than it answers. Tolefree would love to have a glimpse of a motive but at this stage there’s absolutely no sign of one. He is convinced that no real progress towards solving the case can be made without knowing why the man was murdered.

This is a fine example of making the most of the unusual features of the splendid setting. The water wheel itself plays a part in the story and the old mill building turns out to be a most curious structure with all sorts of secrets hidden within its depths.

Combe itself is quite an entertaining little place with more than its fair share of slightly odd and colourful characters. The landlord of the inn is a retired naval captain who has been known to forget that on land his authority is no longer unlimited. Professor Pye is a genuine eccentric and his philosophical debates with Tolefree are quite amusing. Mr Mock and Mr Annison are likeable old sinners. Mr Cornwood is a bit of a stereotype, the priggish devout sort always seeking to save souls, but he has some unexpected hidden depths. There’s also the village Don Juan, young Calderstone, who may be less empty headed than he appears to be.

While this is a book that is very much in the puzzle-plot mould it’s not just a matter of looking for clues. The personalities of the characters do count as a factor that Tolefree cannot ignore.

Alibis play a vital role and, rather unusually, the alibis have to be remarkably specific since Tolefree is eventually able to fix the time of the murder almost precisely.

Fishing will be important as well, although in this case the fishermen are not necessarily after fish.

This is not one of those detective novels in which the detective settles himself in his favourite armchair, fills his pipe and proceeds to solve the entire mystery without leaving his study. Tolefree will have to do a great deal of tramping about, he will have to display considerable energy and agility and will even have to put himself in harm’s way on occasion. He even has cause to be grateful that he brought his revolver along with them.

In fact in fairness to Walling it should be pointed out that most of Tolefree’s cases do involve quite a bit of leg work and at times some danger.

If you’ve always assumed that Walling was merely one of the more obscure writers of the Humdrum School and therefore of little interest The Mystery of Mr Mock might just change your mind. It’s really a thoroughly enjoyable tale of detection. Highly recommended.