Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Vernon Loder's The Mystery at Stowe

John George Hazlette Vahey (1881-1938) was a prolific Belfast-born writer who penned twenty-two mystery novels under his own name between 1928 and his untimely death in 1938. He also wrote many titles under a variety of pseudonyms. He has languished in obscurity since his death although in the past few years he has started to attract some favourable critical attention.

The Mystery at Stowe was the first of the detective novels published under the Vernon Loder pseudonym. It was re-issued by Collins Crime Club a couple of years ago and is, sadly, the only Vernon Loder novel that is readily obtainable (although I believe at least one other title is forthcoming from Collins Crime Club).

The Mystery at Stowe is on the surface very much a stock-standard country house murder mystery. Mr Barley is a reasonably wealthy and quite respectable sort of fellow who owns the old manor house at Stowe. He has a full complement of house guests. There is some tension. Elaine Gurdon is a beautiful and rather glamorous explorer who is currently planning yet another expedition to the depths of the Amazon rainforest or something similar. Her expedition is being partly financed by Ned Tollard. Ned and his wife Margery are also among the house guests. Ned Tollard’s lavish financial backing of Elaine’s explorations has raised some eyebrows and Margery Tollard has taken on the air of a tragic wronged wife. The real problem seems to be that Margery likes artistic things and artistic people while her husband is more from the huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ school. It’s not hard to imagine that he might prefer the adventurous Elaine Gurdon to his languid and overly arty wife.

Of course there is a murder. And the murder weapon is a blow-gun from Patagonia or some outlandish place like that. In fact the murder weapon would appear to be a blow-gun that was sold by Elaine Gurdon to Mr Barley. And of course, in the finest murder mystery  tradition the poison is suspected to be curare, as used by Amazonian tribesmen and occasionally be English murderers. Except that, as Elaine points out, it can’t be curare. There’s a problem with the freshness of the poison.

While there were a dozen or so people at Stowe House at the time of the murder it soon becomes clear that suspicions are going to be focused on just two people, these being the only ones with any kind of motive.

It takes a while for the hero detective to arrive on the scene but when Jim Carton does put in an appearance he proves to be reasonably interesting. He’a a young man who has spent several years in Africa as an Assistant District Commissioner, a job which involves quite a bit of detective work, albeit in very different surroundings compared to the quiet English countryside. He’s an amateur detective but with semi-professional qualifications. Superintendent Fisher is not inclined to take him seriously until the young man spots a very vital clue that the superintendent had missed entirely. After that the superintendent is much more tolerant of Jim’s detective activities.

Jim is not your cool dispassionate detective who is able to treat crime as an amusing parlour game. He happens to be head-over-heels in love with one of the chief suspects. He’s not even remotely unbiased. In an official police detective his approach would be disgracefully unprofessional but of course he’s doing his sleuthing purely on a private basis. And while his emotional involvement may well be leading him badly astray he’s also in his own way a very astute detective so he may well solve the case anyway. I believe this was Jim Carton’s only appearance in Loder’s books. It’s a pity but then the emotionally very involved detective is probably not a trick you’re going to be able to pull off twice with the same character.

This is also a story with a suspect who is remarkably difficult to help. A suspect who seems quite incapable of realising the extreme danger of their position. The rather fraught and complicated relationship between detective and suspect (complicated by the fact that she may or my not be romantically involved with another man) is as much the focus of the story as the actual puzzle, but the puzzle is still there and it’s fairly effective.

On the whole this is a thoroughly entertaining novel which takes itself just seriously enough to keep it interesting. Loder treats the whole poison dart thing exhaustively as Jim Carton comes up with an extraordinary array of theories as to how it could have been done. There are three things that might turn some readers off. Firstly there’s the emphasis on Jim Carton’s desperate love for Elaine Gurdon. Secondly there’s the fact that his entire investigation is based on his central theory that Elaine must be innocent because he loves her. Thirdly there’s the solution which involves one of those plot elements that tends to enrage certain vintage detective story fans. Personally I thought there was enough energy and enthusiasm to compensate for any minor defects. And as for that controversial plot element, if you’re going to use such a device at least use it skilfully, and Loder uses it very skilfully indeed.

This is a book that seems to produce sharply divided opinions among the golden age detective fiction cognoscenti. John Norris’s glowing review persuaded me to buy this book, but Tomcat’s review of it was considerably less favourable. 

With some minor caveats I’m prepared to highly recommended The Mystery at Stowe.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Mysterious Wu Fang #1 The Case of the Six Coffins

The Case of the Six Coffins was the first of the seven pulp novels written by Robert J. Hogan in 1935 and 1936 and published in the pulp magazine Mysterious Wu Fang.

Robert J. Hogan (1897-1963) was an American pulp writer who specialised in aviation adventure tales (such as the Smoke Wade stories). Mysterious Wu Fang seems to have been his only foray into the Yellow Peril genre.

The story opens with mass murder on a modest scale, and with hints that this is just the beginning. Wu Fang is responsible but it is obviously just a part of a much larger plan. It has something to do with a small bottle of colourless liquid and a torn note.

Ace reporter Jerry Hazard is aboard the SS Bergenland en route for New York when he strikes up a friendship with Val Kildare. Kildare is a Federal agent and for several years now he has been devoting himself to the pursuit of the world’s most dangerous man, Wu Fang.

Also aboard the ship is a stunningly beautiful girl. Jerry Hazard has lost his head over her already.

It soon becomes apparent that while Val Kildare thought he was hunting Wu Fang at the moment it’s very much the situation that Wu Fang is hunting Kildare. And he’s hunting Jerry Hazard as well. There’s also a Scotland Yard man on board but he’s just another hunted animal in this game.

Wu Fang is aboard the ship and he has a plentiful supply of his killers on hand. Some of his killers are human. Most are not. Most are animals but they’re not animals that exist in the natural world. They are fiendish freakish creatures that have been bred not just to kill, but to kill in as terrifying a manner as possible. This is partly to gratify Wu Fang’s taste for cruelty but it’s also a matter of policy. Terror is a very useful weapon to Wu Fang.

I’m exceptionally fond of mysteries and thriller with shipboard settings. And The Case of the Six Coffins makes extremely good use of this setting.

Wu Fang certainly does have a plan and he has a deadly super-weapon. The lives of millions are at stake. Wu Fang has no scruples about killing a few million innocent bystanders. The events on board the ocean liner seem to be moving towards a thrilling action climax and that’s what we get but the story is far from over. And there is plenty of action still to come.

Val Kildare is a straightforward square-jawed hero. As a hero he certainly gets the job done. Jerry Hazard is a shrewd and gutsy reporter and he makes a useful sidekick.

Wu Fang is of course yet another Dr Fu Manchu clone. He lacks the complexity of Fu Manchu, and the surprising touches of honour and even sportsmanship. Wu Fang is just a straightforward monster. He’s your standard diabolical criminal mastermind. It has to be said though that he is an effectively frightening villain and for much of the story it’s Wu Fang who seems to hold all the high cards.

Compared to Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu stories this is just a lurid pulp thriller. Rohmer’s stories involve a fascinating clash between civilisations with the West having the edge in some areas and the East being ahead in other ways. This gives the stories something of an epic quality. Wu Fang just wants power. He’s a lot less interesting. On the other hand, as lurid pulp thrillers go, this one has plenty of high-octane excitement and it has pleasingly breakneck pacing and it has some genuine scares. Being aimed at the pulp market it’s a lot more gruesome than Sax Rohmer’s tales and it has much more pronounced horror elements.

Hogan’s prose is basic but it works.

You might be wondering - is it politically correct? The answer to that is simple. No, it ain’t.

Some pulp writers transcended their pulp backgrounds and created woks of surprising power and subtlety. Robert J. Hogan was not one of those writers, and he probably didn’t care (and there’s no reason why he should have cared). The Case of the Six Coffins is just pure unsophisticated pulp fiction fun. Highly recommended.

All seven Mysterious Wu Fang novels have been issued in paperback by Altus Press and they’re readily available.

Friday, September 7, 2018

three television Ellery Queens

The 1975-76 Ellery Queen series, which starred Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father Inspector Richard Queen, was for my money one of the best ever television series based on the works of the masters of the golden age of detective fiction.

I’ve recently rewatched a few episodes and my thoughts on these can be found on my Cult TV Lounge blog. Here’s the link to my reviews of three classic episodes.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Rex Stout’s Black Orchids

Black Orchids is one of Rex Stout’s early Nero Wolfe novellas. The novellas came about when Stout discovered a lucrative slick magazine market for short format mysteries. He could churn them out quickly and they could later be collected two, three or four to a volume in book form. The book publication versions were usually slightly longer than the magazine versions. Between 1940 and 1963 Stout wrote forty-one Wolfe novellas. Black Orchids was the longest of them. It appeared in The American Magazine in 1941 and in book form (paired with Cordially Invited to Meet Death) in 1942.

Archie Goodwin is not an overly happy man at the beginning of the story. He knew that Wolfe would expect him to go to the flower show but he hadn’t anticipated having to spend four consecutive days there. There is some consolation though - one of the exhibits features a rustic tableau that includes a rather pretty female. An actual human female. Archie has nothing against flowers but his interest in human females is considerably more keen. The reason he has to be there for four days is a simple one. A rival orchid fancier has three black orchids on display. Nero Wolfe is consumed by curiosity and by envy. In fact it gets so bad that Wolfe breaks his number one rule. He leaves the house. He has to see those black orchids.

He and Archie see more than orchids. They see murder. In fact everyone at the flower show sees the murder but seeing a murder and actually seeing a murder are two different things (which becomes obvious when you read the story).

Finding out who killed Harry is easy but that doesn’t solve the murder (which also becomes obvious when you read the story).

Obviously a novella is going to have plotting on the same complex scale as a novel. And there are those (including some of his biggest fans) who maintain that you don’t read Rex Stout for his plotting anyway. There may be something in that although personally I’ve generally found Stout’s plots to be quite satisfactory. Black Orchids in fact has a pretty nifty little plot.

What no-one will deny is that the biggest attraction of the Nero Wolfe stories is that they feature two of the most engaging and fascinating characters in all of detective fiction. Nero Wolfe is not just an eccentric. He is a bizarre exotic. Everything about him is on the grand scale - his waistline, his passion for orchids, his deductive genius, his greed and his childishness. In spite of all this the reader never feels tempted to despise him or to dislike him. Nero Wolfe is Nero Wolfe and if you accept him as such you grow to love him. Archie Goodwin is his chief assistant and his Dr Watson. Wolfe is aristocratic in temperament and tastes, highly educated and fastidious. Archie’s education was gained on the streets but he’s shrewd and perceptive. The interplay between these two is always a delight.

They’re both in good form in Black Orchids. We get to see the best and the worst of Wolfe’s character, with a breathtaking example of Wolfe’s avarice, and his petulant childish envy.

One thing that really struck me was the interesting similarities to the Perry Mason stories of Erle Stanley Gardner. Both Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe are suspicious of authority, and for very similar reasons. It’s not that the police or the D.A. are necessarily crooks. On the whole in the Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe stories the police are essentially honest. But the balance of power lies too strongly in favour of the police and the D.A. and they rely to a large extent on intimidating or misleading witnesses and suspects into saying things that legally they don’t have to. The danger is not corrupt cops - it’s over-zealous cops and District Attorneys.

Both Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe know that it’s very often wise to keep witnesses away from the police. For Perry Mason this is not all that difficult. Being a lawyer has its advantages. For Nero Wolfe it’s more risky, private investigators have some legal privileges but not many, but Wolfe knows the law pretty well and he has money and contacts and the police know that he is prepared to get lawyered up if he needs to.

It’s not that Mason or Wolfe are lacking in respect for law and order, they’re both quite happy to see the guilty punished, it’s just that they have a lot more respect for the rights of witnesses and suspects. And of course in both cases the motivation is partly idealistic and partly self-serving. They put their own clients’ interests first, although they would argue that it is an essential part of a healthy criminal justice system that lawyers and private investigators should do this. Wolfe gives the impression of being motivated entirely by money but it’s fairly clear that he genuinely dislikes official bullying. It’s interesting that both Mason and Wolfe are quite openly avaricious. In both cases it acts as a useful safeguard against self-righteousness.

Black Orchids serves as a pretty good illustration of Wolfe’s approach to the duties of a private investigator. The key is to tell the police as little as possible. He ends up with several key witnesses stashed away in his own house so that the cops can’t find them. A private investigator acts in his client’s interests which does not necessarily involve solving crimes and delivering the guilty to punishment. That’s the job of the police. If acting in the client’s interests means identifying the guilty than that’s fine (and almost invariably Wolfe’s cases do require him to do this because otherwise there wouldn’t really be a mystery story). Wolfe doesn’t lie to the police (that would be foolish) but he tells them only what suits him for them to know, and he doesn’t actively obstruct police investigations (although he may do so passively).

Black Orchids is also a good example of Wolfe’s methods of dealing with witnesses. Information has to be extracted from witnesses. He can’t use all the methods available to the police but he can use all kinds of psychological manipulation, he can threaten to turn them over to the cops if they don’t tell him what he wants to know, he can mislead them and tempt them and cajole them. Maybe its not much more honourable that the methods used but the cops but we get the impression that Stout sees these methods as being more dangerous when used by the police with the powers of the state behind them.

It’s mostly the complete absence of self-righteousness on the part of Nero Wolfe (and Archie Goodwin too) that makes the Wolfe stories so appealing. He’s not an anti-hero but he is an unheroic hero. It’s his unheroic nature that, oddly enough, makes him a hero.

Black Orchids is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Robert J. Hogan's Smoke Wade stories

Robert J. Hogan (1897-1963) was a pulp writer best known for his many stories of G-8 and His Battle Aces, stories which combined espionage and air combat. Hogan wrote many other air combat stories including the Smoke Wade stories which appeared in pulps like Battle Birds and Dare-Devil Aces in the early 30s. Smoke Wade is a cowboy who is now commander of a squadron of SPADs on the Western Front.

Smoke has not only named his SPAD after his favourite horse, he’s had the aircraft painted to resemble the horse as well. Smoke is also an inveterate gambler. He has an uneasy relationship with his commanding officer, Colonel McGill, which is pretty much a pulp fiction cliché. More interestingly he has a slightly tense relationship with his subordinates.

Age of Aces Books have published a couple of collections of the Smoke Wade stories (along with collections of lots of other great aviation pulp stories). They also have some stories to download, including three Smoke Wade tales.

Wager Flight is an early Smoke Wade story, when Wade is still a lieutenant and has just been posted to the squadron. He immediately clashes with the squadron’s top pilot, Brant. Brant is a fine pilot but he’s arrogant and boastful and generally disliked.

Smoke sees an extremely hazardous mission to destroy an ammunition dump as a good opportunity to knock some of the arrogance out of Brant, and win Smoke some money. It’s also a way of attracting the attention of Colonel McGill.

In Framed Wings Smoke has a problem. A vital mission to knock out an enemy howitzer battery hidden in a gorge and heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns is a challenge in itself but Smoke has a problem with his command. He’s been sent an anonymous note accusing him of cowardice.

To make sure of knocking out those howitzers Smoke has had the guns removed from his aircraft so as to allow him to carry more bombs. That doesn’t mean he’s defenceless though - he still has his trusty six-shooter. And that’s all a man needs.

In Aces in Dutch Smoke’s passion for gambling threatens to get him into trouble again, and  then he really lands himself in the soup trying to go after a German observation balloon without any incendiary ammunition. There’s just no way it can be done. Even Smoke’s six-shooter can’t do something like that. But somehow that balloon has to be shot down. It’s important for the war effort, plus he has a bet riding on it!

There’s already a pattern emerging here, with Stetson, a flight commander in Smoke’s squadron, persistently undermining his squadron commander’s authority. Stetson is a good pilot and he’s brave enough but he’s too ambitious and he’s perhaps not quite honourable. Stetson also shares Smoke’s obsession with gambling which causes more tensions. In Wager Flight we saw Wade clashing with the braggart Brant. Hogan clearly understands that while non-stop aerial action is crucial he also needs to add some dramatic tension on the ground to keep his stories interesting.

On the strength of these stories I’m not sure if I’d rush out and buy the Smoke Wade collections. I do like aviation adventure stories but I guess my personal preference is for stories that combine aviation thrills with other things, such as espionage or the supernatural, so I’m drawn more to stuff like Donald Keyhoe’s stories (which are available in several collections from Age of Aces including Strange War and Vanished Legion). But if you’re a fan of straightforward aviation pulps then you might find it worth making the acquaintance of the slow-talking westerner with the pinto SPAD and the six-shooter.

Monday, August 20, 2018

J.J. Connington's The Sweepstake Murders

The Sweepstake Murders is a 1931 Sir Clinton Driffield mystery by J.J. Connington. Connington was a pseudonym of Scottish scientist Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947).

This is a tontine mystery, but it’s a tontine mystery with a twist because it doesn’t start out as a formal tontine. A tontine of course is an arrangement in which a group of people combine to invest in something and the entire proceeds go to the last surviving member, or to those still surviving by a certain date. It’s obviously a perfect setup for a murder mystery.

In this case Squire Wendover, in the course of an evening’s play at bridge, gets roped into joining a syndicate which is to buy nine sweepstakes tickets. In the unlikely event that they win a prize the winnings will be equally shared between the nine members of the syndicate. Two very unlikely events now transpire. Firstly the syndicate wins a great deal of money. And secondly, one of the nine dies before the prize can be collected. There was no specific clause in the agreement to cover such an eventuality. Now there are likely to be legal difficulties with the heirs of the deceased syndicate member. At this point it seems wise to convert the informal agreement into a more or less official tontine. You can file that decision under ideas that seemed like a good idea at the time.

To paraphrase slightly a memorable remark made by M to James Bond, to lose one member of a syndicate might be an accident, to lose two might be a coincidence, but to lose three has to be enemy action. And after the third death Inspector Severn knows he’s dealing with murder. Every single shred of evidence points unequivocally to all three deaths having been accidental but the inspector still knows it’s murder.

The tontine setup naturally suggests that the murderer must be a member of the syndicate, which limits the number of suspects, but there’s another interesting twist here. Several members of the syndicate sold off parts of their share so that there are now a number of possible “shadow” members of the syndicate who of course would also have motives but then there’s a possibility these shadow members aren’t shadowy at all.

The tontine setup also has the advantage of limiting the circle of suspects without limiting them to a single location as in the classic country house murder. And Connington comes up with a fine murder setting in Hell’s Gape, a rather frightening geological curiosity.

Dead men tell no tales, but a dead man’s camera can tell some very interesting tales indeed. And it can tell a tale in intricate detail, if only you know how to extract the information. The photographic evidence is one of the highlights of The Sweepstake Murders. This is not a spoiler - it’s blindingly obvious that the photographic evidence is going to absolutely crucial but while Connington makes no attempt to hide this (in fact he draws attention to it in the most extravagant way) he still manages to keep us guessing as to exactly what it is that is lying there in those photographs waiting to be noticed.

While Sir Clinton Driffield plays an important role in this story for most of the book it’s really Inspector Severn’s case. And Severn approaches the matter in a way that would warm the heart of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French. Severn has very few clues to work with but he has an extraordinarily ability to squeeze every single drop of information out of those clues. In fact he’ll keep returning to the same clue and find that he can give it one more squeeze. If Connington belongs to what critic Julian Symons scornfully described as the Humdrum School of Detective Fiction then The Sweepstakes Murders is hardcore humdrum. If a case can be solved by dogged perseverance in routine police work then Severn can feel confident of success. A successful detective is one who will persevere to the bitter end, knowing that the truth is there somewhere among all the inconsequential details, buried like a needle in a haystack. Going through the entire haystack may be a daunting task but if it has to be done then it has to be done.

Sadly for Inspector Severn all his painstaking work isn’t enough. Sir Clinton Driffield certainly understands the vital importance of the routine legwork but he also has the ability to look at the jigsaw puzzle that has been so painstakingly pieced together and see the pieces that just don’t quite fit, the pieces that seem to be superfluous and the ones that seem to be missing. Often very very small pieces but they all matter.

The solution is dazzlingly complex. There were other writers who possessed the same degree of mastery when it comes to plotting but I don’t think there were any who could actually surpass Connington when he was at the top of his form. The Sweepstake Murders is a bravura performance. Very highly recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight vol 1

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was one of the most interesting of American pulp writers. He had a succession of careers, all of them fascinating.

Initially he joined the Marine Corps and became a pilot but that was cut short a few years later by a plane crash. Then he acted as manager for a couple of pioneer aviators undertaking national publicity tours. One of these aviators was a guy called Lindbergh. That inspired Keyhoe to write a book about Lindbergh, which became a bestseller. Then he became a prolific and very successful writers for the pulps, in a variety of genres. Finally, after the Second World War, he made his most successful career of all out of UFOs. He wrote a bestselling book on the subject, Flying Saucers Are Real, followed by further books and articles and lectures and he became a recognised authority on the subject.

As a pulp writer his most notable achievements were his aviation action adventure stories. What made Keyhoe’s stories particularly interesting is that he combined aerial combat, espionage, science fiction and the supernatural. He not only combined these elements, he did it with consummate skill. Keyhoe wrote a vast number of stories featuring Philip Strange, a First World War fighter pilot and intelligence agent who uses his paranormal skills against enemies both human and inhuman. These stories can be found in several collections, beginning with Strange War. His Vanished Legion stories are just as good.

His other major series character was Richard Knight, a post-war sporting aviator and barnstormer who is actually a U.S. secret agent. Several collections of these stories are now available from Age of Aces Books, beginning with The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight Volume 1. The four novellas in this collection originally appeared in the pulp magazine Flying Aces in 1936 and 1937.

Vultures of the Lost Valley is not only a spy thriller with lots of air combat, it’s also a lost world tale (and lost world stories happen to be one of my favourite genres). It all starts when Richard Knight rescues a pretty girl from a stolen aircraft. She speaks Spanish only but what’s really weird is that she gives the impression that she has never seen an aircraft, or an automobile, before. She seems to have no knowledge of the modern world. She’s also in possession of a famous and fabulously valuable emerald though to have been lost for a century. Benita (that’s the girl’s name) has another problem - there are quite a few people trying to kill her.

Richard Knight can’t help wondering if there’s any significance in the fact that he spotted notorious Japanese master spy Hiroki. He knows there’s definitely something strange going on when the Northrop aircraft in which he and his buddy Doyle are flying is attacked by American fighter planes. The really strange thing is that these American planes don’t exist - only twenty of these new Drake PV-11 fighters have been built and all twenty were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the Drake factory. They may no longer exist but they looked pretty well when they jumped him.

There is of course a dastardly conspiracy behind all this and it’s an immediate national security threat.

This is typical Keyhoe, packed with action and intrigue and with just enough of the weird and inexplicable to add some spice. A very fine story.

It’s very important to read Vultures of the Lost Valley before any of Richard Knight’s other adventures, otherwise you’ll be rather confused about where the beautiful but slightly odd Spanish girl who wants to be a secret agent fits into the picture.

Hell Flies High has a wonderfully macabre opening. Knight and Doyle are flying towards Washington when they encounter a Douglas airliner. This aircraft is an aircraft of death. They then get jumped by a French Morane-Saulnier fighter with Soviet markings, and an Italian Breda. The French fighter and the Italian fighter seem to be trying to shoot down the Douglas airliner, and Knight’s Northrop, and each other! And this is happening within a few miles of Washington.

And things get stranger. The green blood is worrying. Naturally there’s a gigantic conspiracy behind these events but there’s no telling exactly what the nature of the conspiracy might be except that it involves some kind of secret weapon. In fact multiple secret weapons, of horrifying destructiveness. It all leads up to aerial battles in the stratosphere where aircraft attain unimaginable speeds and the air in the pressurised cabins can cook a man and sounds do strange things. Really high altitude flight was still science fiction in 1937 and Keyhoe’s wild speculations about the stratosphere add to the wonderfully bizarre feel of this story.

Hell Flies High is Keyhoe piling on the weird stuff and this is where he’s at his very best. A terrific story.

Death Flies the Equator pits Knight and Doyle against the Four Faces, a vast international criminal organisation that for some reason is taking an extraordinary interest in the development of a new trans-Pacific airline route. It’s not clear why these crime lords would want to stop the air route from being used. And why would they want to steal one of the Clippers, the gigantic flying boats that dominated international air travel in the 1930s.

Knight finds himself working with the Royal Navy on this case. British commercial interests are threatened by the Four Faces. The British are also upset about the disappearance of half a dozen of the seaplanes and they’re even more upset abut the aircrews being turned into zombies.

Knight soon figures out that there’s really no-one (other than Doyle) that he can trust. The Four Faces have agents everywhere. There’s a very high paranoia quotient in this story.

There’s also, as usual, non-stop action and thrills and countless aerial combats. Great stuff.

Falcons from Nowhere has a pretty sensational opening. Richard Knight suddenly blacks out for no good reason and then regains consciousness half an hour later. That would be disturbing at any time but it’s positively alarming when it happens when you’re in flight. Lucky the auto-pilot was engaged!

There's worse to come. There’s a horrible disease that can turn a person to stone but it seems like someone has found a way to inflict this disease instantly and at will. There are also aircraft that can be heard but not seen. And aircraft that just vanish. It’s part of a diabolical criminal conspiracy and Knight suspects that he’s dealing with an old enemy that he thought had been destroyed. It’s vintage Keyhoe. An excellent story, which makes four excellent stories out of four

Keyhoe had a knack for working firmly within the conventions and limitations of pulp fiction but at the same time managing to make his work slightly more interesting than most pulp stories. His heroes were just a little bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes, he put some imagination into his villains and his plots are pleasingly outrageous without becoming merely silly. This is pulp fiction, but it’s A-grade pulp fiction. He was also very good at combining the fast-paced aviation action adventure stuff with the weird fiction stuff.

For my money Keyhoe was one of the most consistently entertaining of pulp writers. His output was vast but the good news is that a goodly proportion of that output has been published in book form in the past few years.

This collection is very highly recommended.

Monday, August 6, 2018

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court was published in 1937 and it starts off in a very gothic fashion. A man named Edward Stevens works in the editorial department of a fairly prestigious publishing house. He takes the train to his cottage at Crispen, not far from Philadelphia. He intends to occupy his time on the train reading a manuscript. The manuscript is by an author who specialises in accounts of forgotten but fascinating murder trials. Stevens has a shock in store for him. The manuscript includes a photograph of murderess Marie d’Aubray who was guillotined in 1861. But Marie d’Aubray is his wife’s name, and the woman in the photograph doesn’t just resemble his wife. She is his wife. There can be no doubt of it. Except that this woman was executed in 1861 and his wife is alive and well in 1929 (when the novel takes place).

Carr had a real affinity for the gothic and he lays it on good and thick in this tale. He gives us ghostly apparitions, a woman who walks through walls, body-snatching, ancient hereditary evils and gruesome scenes in crypts. We never really believe there’s anything supernatural going on (Carr at this stage of his career was not going to transgress such a crucial convention of the genre) but it does succeed in giving us the feeling that something sinister is definitely going on. There might not be any ghosts but there’s certainly been dirty work at the cross-roads.

Stevens’ cottage is not far from the estate of the Despard family. Old Miles Despard (who was actually only middle-aged has recently died) and his considerable fortune will go to his younger brother’s three children Mark, Edith and Ogden. Stevens and Mark Despard are on very friendly terms so Stevens agrees to a very curious request from Mark - to join him in a spot of grave-robbing. All in a good cause.

There is some question mark over the death of Miles. The cup that is known to have contained arsenic is a definite worry. The lady who was seen to visit Miles and then left his room through a non-existent door is also a slight cause for concern.

The fortune left by Miles provides obvious motives. There are however some very strong links to celebrated cases of poisoning that occurred in the past, one in the nineteenth century and one in the seventeenth (incidentally the burning court of the title is a seventeenth-century tribunal that meted out justice to poisoners). Those poisonings seemed to have been motivated by something much more evil than mere hope of monetary gain.

This is John Dickson Carr so of course you’re expecting a locked-room puzzle. Actually you get two impossible crimes, or at least two criminal situations containing impossibilities, including a locked-crypt puzzle!

This is not just a detective story with gothic trappings. While it is a detective story it is also a true gothic novel, with the gothic elements fully integrated into the story and handled with skill and also surprising subtlety. It’s unusual for 1930s Carr in having an American setting. This was an interesting and obviously deliberate choice on his part - he’s giving us a story of murder and evil with roots going back several centuries and with references to seventeenth century books on witchcraft so it would have been an obvious move to set in a decaying castle in England or central Europe but Carr sets it in a decaying seventeenth century mansion in Philadelphia, which gives us a wonderful collision of the gothic and the modern.

Carr delivers some bravura plotting in this novel. So many clues, and so many of them so ambiguous, so much misdirection. This is a novel that does not rely on the impossible crime problem. That’s just another element in a fantastically intricate plot with alibis being set up and then exploded with abandon.

We also get a very unusual detective although you won’t know that until quite late.

And then there’s the ending, and I am most definitely not going to offer even the slightest hints as to its nature. This is an ending that you most emphatically do not want to have spoiled. All I will say is that it’s not only the most controversial ending Carr ever wrote it’s possibly the most controversial ending in golden age crime fiction.

I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about the ending but there’s no question that The Burning Court is an unusual and fascinating novel filled to bursting point with staggering amounts of brilliance. Even if you decide you hate it you won’t forget it.

Once you’ve read the book you might want to check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event. There’s  a lively discussion of that ending in the comments section. But read the book first!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Peter O’Donnell's Modesty Blaise

The 1965 novel Modesty Blaise has a rather interesting history. English writer Peter O’Donnell (1920-2010) created the Modesty Blaise comic strip in 1963. It was wildly successful and appeared regularly for nearly forty years. A Modesty Blaise movie seemed like an obviously good idea. But the choice of director was going to be tricky. The movie would have to be light-hearted, sexy, funny and exciting. Joseph Losey had never made a light-hearted, sexy, funny or exciting movie in his life so naturally he was selected for the job. Not surprisingly the movie was generally regarded as a train wreck and did not set the  box office on fire (although it has its weird charms). But that’s not the end of the story.

Peter O’Donnell had been employed to write the screenplay and was also offered the opportunity to write a novelisation of the film. Very little if anything of O’Donnell’s screenplay made it into the film but he based his novelisation on his original screenplay. The novel appeared in 1965, the year before the film, and was a huge success. O’Donnell would go on to write another ten Modesty Blaise novels as well as a couple of short story collections.

The novel gives us some of Modesty’s backstory. She is of indeterminate ethnicity and indeterminate age. In 1945, aged around twelve, she had been in a Displaced Person’s Camp in the Middle East. A few years later she was running a large and very successful criminal empire with an Englishman named Willie Garvin. Their criminal activities were highly varied but they steered clear of drugs or vice. Jewel and art thefts were a particular speciality. They did however dabble in freelance espionage. At the age of twenty-six, having become extremely rich, she decided to retire. For some odd reason she had always intended to retire to England, which is why she was very careful in her espionage activities not to do anything that might be construed as being unfriendly to the interests of Her Majesty’s Government. She lives in extreme luxury in a London penthouse.

And now Tarrant at the British secret service needs her help. It’s all to do with a sheikh who needs to be buttered up, to the tune of ten million pounds, and he wants the money in precious stones. And Tarrant has very good reason to think than an attempt is going to be made to steal the stones, and by a group that knows its business. Stealing jewels was something that Modesty Blaise used to be very good at so it stands to reason that she’s uniquely qualified to protect jewels from other people with similar skills and similar larcenous intentions.

Tarrant has been a spymaster for a long time and his judgment of people is pretty good. He considers and rejects the idea of blackmailing or coercing Modesty into coöperating. She’ll be more useful if she’s willing and most importantly Tarrant has figured out that she is actually bored in retirement. She has no desire to return to a life of crime but she misses the excitement of that life. Doing jobs for the Secret Service will be the perfect cure for her boredom. And his assessment turns out to be absolutely correct. Modesty Blaise is addicted to danger and excitement.

The first step will be to rescue Willie Garvin, her former partner-in-crime, devoted friend and invaluable lieutenant. He’s currently awaiting execution in a South American gaol. Modesty will definitely have to do something about that. Having done that their assignment is to use their extensive underworld connections to find out how the diamonds are going to be stolen, and then take steps to foil the robbery. In practice this will require them to get deeply involved with the gang behind the heist, and a very dangerous gang it is too.

While the novel adheres fairly closely to the James Bond formula (exotic locations, glamour, wealth, gadgets, an outrageous plot involving an intricate criminal conspiracy, violence, sex and a hint of sadism) Modesty herself is a kind of anti-James Bond. Bond is essentially an Establishment type. He’s an officer and a gentleman. And while he’s prepared to all sorts of things in the line of duty in his private life he’s very much a law-abiding citizen. He also has rather old-fashioned views on most subjects. Modesty is a street urchin made good, she’s an unrepentant criminal and her views on subjects such as sex and marriage would not meet with Bond’s approval. Bond is a professional spy. Modesty is a professional criminal and amateur secret agent. Bond generally obeys orders. Modesty doesn’t actually take orders from Tarrant at all. He did her a favour and she’s repaying the debt but she’s going to do the job her way or not at all. In fact the only thing Modesty has in common with Bond is that they inhabit, broadly speaking, the same genre.

There’s quite a bit of sex in this book but at least it’s not graphic. The violence is rather more confronting, certainly by mid-60s standards. Modesty and Willie kill when they deem it necessary and without any hesitation whatsoever and they certainly don’t believe in giving the bad guys a sporting chance. They are quite exceptionally ruthless. OK, they only ever kill bad guys but they kill a lot of bad guys.

This kind of pulpy spy thriller needs a larger-than-life super-evil villain and Gabriel fulfils that rôle admirably. He’s a criminal genius, a sadist and a fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons.

While there are the obvious affinities with Bond-style spy thrillers this is really a caper story. Gabriel is a villain on a very large scale, in fact on the kind of scale on which Bond villains work, but he is only interested in grand larceny, not world domination. It has to be said that the heist which is the centrepiece of the whole tale is a pretty good one.

One amusing feature is O’Donnell’s obsession with giving us lovingly detailed descriptions of various weapons and associated paraphernalia such as shoulder holsters, and the special harness for Willie’s knives (Willie prefers knives to guns). There are also the gadgets Willie makes for Modesty. He might not have the vast resources of the British Secret Service but he has a real gift for devising deadly little toys for his friend. And on the subject of gadgetry, while Batman has his utility belt Modesty has her utility bra.

Given Modesty Blaise’s you might expect the novel to have a bit of a comic strip feel. It does, up to a point. It’s fast-paced and the emphasis is on action. It’s fairly light-hearted in tone, but with a few darker moments and with copious quantities of violence. Modesty and Willie are likeable enough and despite their comic strip origins they are a little bit more than just cardboard cutout characters.

The only other Modesty Blaise novel I’ve read is Last Day In Limbo which was the eighth book in the series. It appeared in 1976 and while it’s interesting and quite enjoyable it does have a slightly different feel to the first novel. It’s still worth a look.

Modesty Blaise offers high-octane entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Christianna Brand's Tour de Force

Tour de Force, published in 1955, is one of the later books of Christianna Brand who was herself one of the later writers of the golden age of the detective story. It features her usual series detective, Inspector Cockrill.

Cockrill is on the wrong side of middle age and a bit on the scruffy side. He’s what you might call a quiet eccentric.

For reasons which even Inspector Cockrill himself could not explain he has signed up for a Conducted Tour with an outfit called Odyssey Tours. It is to be a Mediterranean tour. In fact most of the novel takes place on a mythical island, San Juan el Pirata. It is a gloriously odd and colourful setting that Brand has created. The island is just off the Italian coast but it was occupied in the late 18th century by a notorious Spanish pirate. As a result the inhabitants speak a Spanish-Italian patois that seems to be incomprehensible to both Italian and Spanish speakers. As a further result of its odd history the island is an independent principality. This gives it a certain extra touch of the exotic which is partly what attracts the tourists. The fact that the main industry, indeed the only industry apart from tourism, is smuggling is another reason for its popularity as a tourist destination.

San Juan el Pirata’s status as a sovereign nation will have consequences when murder occurs. The local police have jurisdiction and they have their own distinctive methods, and San Juan el Pirata has its own distinctive criminal justice system.

There are only seven suspects, six of them being members of the Odyssey Tours party and the seventh being the tour guide Fernando. To add a bit of zest, one of the suspects is Inspector Cockrill! This gives Cockrill a very strong incentive to solve the crime. And it is clear that he will have to be the one to solve it. The local police chief is an accomplished smuggler but not a very efficient detective. The San Juan el Pirata police also do not believe in fancy policing techniques, such as fingerprinting or conducting post-mortems. This means that Cockrill will have to solve the puzzle without any assistance at all from forensic science.

At first Cockrill is very puzzled indeed since the other six suspects have alibis provided by Cockrill himself. Every one of them was under his personal observation at the time of the murder. Upon further reflection however he realises that actually all of the alibis are worthless. Any of them could have committed the murder. And there have been some little romantic dalliances on the tour, not to mention a spot of blackmail, so everyone has a motive.

Adding to Cockrill’s difficulties is the fact that the hereditary prince will not let any of the seven leave the island unless he has someone he can hang for the murder. While it’s desirable that the person hanged should be the guilty party this is not essential.

While Tour de Force certainly has a formidable puzzle plot it has a lot of other things going on as well. Mostly the other goings on are comic in nature. Brand has an enormous amount of fun at the expense of tourists and she is quite merciless - she mocks the seasoned travellers just as much as the first-timers. In fact she has fun at the expense of just about everybody -  the inhabitants of San Juan el Pirata, the local police, the island’s hereditary prince, and anybody else who happens to come along. It is mostly fairly good-natured humour.

The seven suspects certainly provide plenty of comic opportunities. There’s the scatter-brained lady novelist, the outrageously homosexual couturier Mr Cecil, the one-armed concert pianist, his elegant wife, the rich but mysterious Miss Trapp and the shy blackmailer Miss Lane. And of course the scruffy slightly eccentric English police inspector.

My theory is that if you’re going to attempt a comic detective novel you’d better make sure you do it very well. Fortunately Miss Brand does do it very well.

As for the plot, this book belongs to a certain sub-genre of the detective novel but to say any more on that point might give a clue to the ending. As to that ending, it makes use of a particular plot device that quite a few golden age writers were attracted by. In my view it’s a device that never actually quite works, the problem being that it stretches credibility beyond breaking point. In this case Miss Brand almost gets away with it by turning its weakness into a strength by using it as a clue as to how the puzzle is finally solved. I still have reservations about this device but this is one of the more successful attempts to pull it off. As you may have noticed I’m being extremely vague about the plot of this one - it’s so clever and twists back on itself in such an ingenious manner that I’m not going to take the slightest risk of spoiling it.

There is one further thing that should be noted about this book. By 1955 the puzzle-plot detective story was falling out of favour with critics and publishers. The golden age detective story was being attacked as being unrealistic and artificial. So how does Christianna Brand respond to this? She gleefully sits down and writes one of the most outrageously unrealistic and artificial of all detective novels! This book does not make one single solitary concession to realism. And to make sure we get the point, she gives it a setting that does not exist and never could exist. San Juan el Pirate is a fantasy setting. Perhaps such places existed once but there was (alas) no place in the world of the mid-20th century for such a fantastic concoction of a setting. This has to be one of the more spectacular examples of an author hurling defiance at small-minded critics. I liked this book anyway, but this aspect of it makes me like it a whole lot more.

Tour de Force is in its own way a totally uncompromising exercise in golden age detective fiction. And it’s immense fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Drowned Queen - The Avengers #6

I’m still on my TV tie-in novel kick. I’ve now moved on to The Avengers (although that doesn’t mean I’m finished with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and my latest such read has been The Drowned Queen, the first of the Avengers novels to feature Tara King. It was published in 1968.

Written by American science fiction author Keith Laumer The Drowned Queen isn’t a complete success but it is nonetheless very enjoyable lightweight fun.

Here’s the link to my review at Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem

Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) is one of the great writers of swashbuckling adventure fiction. He also wrote westerns and science fiction. In his native Italy and throughout Europe and Latin America he was, and indeed still is, immensely popular. He is much less known in the anglophone world and only a small proportion of his vast output has been translated into English. He is best known for his tales of the Black Corsair and the Sandokan cycle. The Tigers of Mompracem is the first of the Sandokan novels (although some would count The Mystery of the Black Jungle as the first). The Tigers of Mompracem was published in serial form in 1883-84 and in book form in 1900.

The Tigers of Mompracem is a pirate tale but this book differs quite radically from most other pirate stories. First of all the action takes place not on the Spanish Main but in the South China Sea. Secondly, while the Sandokan stories tell of an epic struggle between the British and a notorious pirate the British are very much the bad guys. Thirdly, the events recounted in the novel begin in 1849, when the age of sail was giving way to the age of steam. Sandokan’s pirate fleet is hunted by British steam frigates.

Sandokan is a prince of Borneo. He blames the British for the loss of his throne and for the deaths of most of his family. As a result he was forced into a life of piracy. He is a very successful pirate and immensely rich. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure but he can be extremely generous. He inspires fanatical devotion in his followers. He has a sense of honour. It is not quite a European sense of honour but he is a man whose word is his bond.

Sandokan’s greatest enemy is James Brooke, the legendary White Rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was an English adventurer who carved out a kingdom for himself in northern Borneo which he ruled from 1841 to 1868.

Although 19th century adventure writers often had complex and nuanced view on colonialism Salgari was unusual in being absolutely and implacably opposed to colonialism. Sandokan is a sworn enemy of the British but he doesn’t like the Dutch or other Europeans any better, although his closest friend and colleague in piracy is Portuguese adventurer Yanez De Gomera.

Mompracem is Sadokan’s lair, a small island northwest of Borneo.

The Tigers of Mompracem begins with a sea battle that does not go well for Sandokan. His small fleet is sunk by a British steam cruiser. Sandokan is badly wounded and almost drowned and loses consciousness. When he awakes he is in a warm dry bed. He has been found on the beach and is now in the care of British nobleman Lord James Guillonk on the island of Labuan. Guillonk has no idea of the identity of the handsome young Malay although his manners and obvious education make it easy to believe that he is indeed a native prince. When he discovers that this is the bloodthirsty pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, there is clearly going to be trouble. To make that trouble even more certain Sandokan has fallen in love with Guillonk’s beautiful daughter Marianna and Marianna has fallen in love with him.

Somehow Sandokan will have to escape from the island of Labuan and make his way back to Mompracem, he will have to rebuild his pirate fleet and continue his war against the hated British while also finding a way to carry Marianna off from Labuan and marry her. He will find himself hunted on land and at sea and at times all will appear to be lost but Sandokan is not a man who gives up easily.

Sandokan has many virtues. He’s certainly brave. He’s an inspiring leader. I have to say though that he strikes me as a man of exceptionally poor judgment. He is reckless to the point of foolishness. Of course it has to be admitted that in this book Sandokan is a man consumed by love and so perhaps his judgment is usually quite sound. It is also possible that Salgari was trying to create a non-European hero who behaves in a non-European way, being rather fatalistic and inclined to place his faith in his own luck.

In fact Sandokan’s recklessness and fatalism do make him an interesting hero. He veers between insane over-confidence and the depths of despair and these wild swings can occur several times in the course of a single day. He comes to believe that his luck has run out and that this is something he just has to accept but at the same time it never occurs to him to surrender or to stop fighting and a man who won’t surrender is very difficult to destroy.

The British bad guys are stock melodrama villains. Marianna is pretty much a stock melodrama heroine as well, although with a certain feisty streak.

The Tigers of Mompracem is an unusual pirate adventure with an unusual hero. There’s action in abundance, there are exotic settings, there’s jungle adventure as well as adventure on the high seas, there’s an epic love story and I personally find the outrageously melodramatic touches to be a bonus. There’s plenty of fun to be had here. Recommended.

Salgari’s Black Corsair tales (beginning with The Black Corsair) are also worth checking out.

Monday, July 9, 2018

John Vandercook's Murder in Trinidad

John Vandercook (1902-63) was an American author and journalist who, between 1933 and 1959, wrote four murder mysteries featuring his series detective Bertram Lynch. Murder in Trinidad was the first of his detective novels. Rather extraordinarily it seems to have been the subject of no less than three movie adaptations!

The narrator is a young American mediaeval historian named Robert Deane. It is on the steamer from New York to Trinidad that he first notices Englishman Bertram Lynch. He notices him because he is so very ordinary. He is simply too ordinary to be true, and there are one or two very minor indications that Lynch is actually a man who is very far from being ordinary. Lynch is in fact a special investigator for the League of Nations and his area of responsibility is drug trafficking. This is what has brought him to Trinidad. There are, he tells Deane, 120,000 Hindu labourers in Trinidad and opium is a very major problem.

Trinidad was of course at this time still very much part of the British Empire.

Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad was supposed to be very hush-hush but when an attempt is made to kill him just a few hours after his arrival it is obvious that someone at least is aware of his presence on the island. Someone who is not on the side of law and order. Lynch usually works alone but on this occasion, forced to change his plans quickly, he is happy to recruit an amateur assistant and Robert Deane is delighted by be given the opportunity to play at being a detective.

The first half of the book is very much in the thriller mould, in fact somewhat in the outrageous mould of Edgar Wallace. Lynch and Deane have all sorts of adventures in the wilds of the Caroni Swamp. This is an impenetrable mangrove swamp, but it’s not just impenetrable, it’s deadly. One false step and you’re engulfed by the quickmud (like quicksand except worse). The Caroni Swamp is also home to several varieties of extremely deadly snakes. No-one has ever explored this swamp. It cannot even be investigated from the air - the peculiar geography of the area sets up air currents so frightening that no pilot will risk overflying the swamp.

There is a local legend that somewhere in the heart of the Caroni Swamp there is an island and that on the island is an outlaw town that is home to smugglers and was at one time a haunt of pirates. Of course it’s just a story that is told to gullible tourists. Or is it? Bertram Lynch suspects that the legend is true. In fact Lynch and Deane will soon discover that the truth is evert bit as extraordinary as the legend and they will have numerous narrow escapes from death.

This is all jolly good fun if you enjoy dicing with death but there is a crime to be investigated. There is the matter of the opium smuggling but there is also a murder. A murder that took place many years earlier. At least that’s when the first murder occurred. The second murder took place almost at the moment of Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad. And there is a genuine golden age of detection puzzle plot here. Including floor plans!

Deane is an obvious Dr Watson character. Lynch certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes he is a master of disguise. And like Holmes he is intellectually arrogant, except that Lynch makes Holmes seem modest and self-effacing. Deane actually derives a certain amount of amusement from Lynch’s rampant egomania. Lynch is also a very unconventional detective. He operates more like a secret agent than a policeman, and his disregard for the law and for ordinary morality is breath-taking. Lynch considers his job to be so important that he is not obliged to worry about such irritating details. He’s one of the good guys so he’s allowed to break the rules. That’s not to say that he’s an anti-hero but his methods are at times hardly ethical.

Despite being apparently a dull little middle-aged man Lynch is more of an action hero than the average golden age fictional detective. He leaves a trail of mayhem behind him.

Having started out as a thriller and then become a puzzle-plot mystery it reverts to its thriller roots towards the end before the puzzle finally gets solved. Unfortunately the identity of the criminal is terribly obvious. The crucial clue is amusing though.

Trinidad is an interesting enough setting but it’s the Caroni Swamp and the hidden world at the heart of that swamp that are the highlights of the book. The ending offers us yet another bizarre and unusual setting but I won’t spoilt it by saying any more.

Murder in Trinidad is all over the place and I’m not sure I could describe it as being a good book or an entirely successful one but it’s offbeat and it’s fun and it’s worth a look if you don’t mind the fact that it works better as a thriller than as a detective story.

Tomcat's review of the second Bertram Lynch book, Murder in Fiji, at Beneath the Stains of Time makes it sound like it might be a bit more of a puzzle-plot mystery than Murder in Trinidad.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Theodore Roscoe's Blood Ritual

Blood Ritual is a collection of adventure tales by celebrated pulp writer Theodore Roscoe. These stories were originally published in various pulp magazines such as Action Stories and The Danger Trail between 1927 and 1929.

These tales feature either American curio hunter Peter Scarlet or the naturalist Bradshaw. These are stories of adventure in the Mysterious East, in jungles and exotic seaports and the deserts of Arabia and anywhere that fortunes can be made without too much concern for business ethics, or any other kind of ethics.

The stories are quite short and mostly they’re quite simple. They’re like campfire yarns but they always have one twist at the end and it’s usually a good one.

Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992) was an American naval historian and a prolific pulp writer.

In Jungle Joker Peter Scarlet finds his jungle bungalow taken over by a madman. He is subjected to a reign of terror. There seems to be no escape. Not only is this madman armed, he is accompanied by his pet Joker. Joker is a savage orang-utan. Any attempt to free himself of his tormentor would expose Scarlet to certain death at the hands of the enraged ape.

Framed is a bit more interesting. A murder takes place in a bar. Whether there were any actual eye-witnesses is uncertain, although there is certainly a witness who claims to have seen everything. His evidence is enough to send a young man to prison. Peter Scarlet was there, but doesn’t seem to have seen anything. There’s a twist of course, and it’s a moral twist.

Wolves of the Yellow Sea is great fun. It’s a tale of piracy and pigs. A junk with a crew of Malay cut-throats encounters even more bloodthirsty Arab pirates. The pirates are prepared for a desperate fight but they are not prepared for what is in store for them on this junk. A clever, amusing, exciting and witty little tale.

The Phantom Castle of Genghiz Khan concerns a legend of a castle that sank below the waters of a lake, but periodically (so the legend goes) the castle rises for a short while from the lake. To add some spice the legend also tells of a fortune in jewels concealed in the castle. Of course it’s only a legend. Or is it? This is one of those tales that seems like it must involve the supernatural but Roscoe comes up with a remarkably cunning non-supernatural explanation. It’s a tale that offers danger and riches to a man with both courage and greed and it has a nice twist to it. And it’s a wonderfully atmospheric story.

Blood Ritual is a tale of madness, of a man who has spent too much time alone and away from civilisation. And then there is the endless heat, and fever that can be avoided only by large doses of quinine and sometimes the doses are a little too large. If there happens to be a vicious two-handed battle-axe lying about the whole situation can get quite dangerous. Peter Scarlet had been in tight spots before but this time he fears his end has come. A nifty little story.

In Claws of the Night Peter Scarlet has made an extraordinary find in a cave on the shores of the Dead Sea. He has to make certain arrangements with the authorities and will be gone for a couple of days but that’s no problem as the trove will be guarded by a young English engineer named Cameron. He is a man who can be trusted absolutely since he has no vices, except music and that’s hardly a vice that can be exploited. The treasure will be safe. Nothing can go wrong. But of course it does. A pretty decent story.

Sun-Touched concerns two young American engineers with a great fondness for music. They have an unfortunate encounter with three very disreputable fakirs and one of the young Americans suffers an unusual curse. A good and original little story.

In The Idol Breaker both Peter Scarlet and a brutal French sea captain are after a fabulous golden Buddha. The statue resides in a cave and it has a legend attached to it. The meaning of the legend is clear but the details are obscure. Those details are about to become all too clear. It is unwise to offend a Buddha. Another fine story.

In The Brass Goddess Peter Scarlet runs afoul of murderous cut-throats determined to steal a fabulous gem from him. Scarlet is equally determined not to give up the gem. The cut-throats have devised what they consider to be a fool-proof method of torture in order to persuade him. Unfortunately for them they don’t know as much about the local goddesses as Scarlet does. This one has a nice little additional twist at the end. A very good story.

Scarlet wants very much to find a gem known as the Floating Opal and he would also like to know what became of the young English trader John Bourncamp who had this jewel in his possession a few years earlier. In Doom Dungeons the Rajah Ranjit Ji lures Scarlet to his remote mountain castle by suggesting that he can give the American curio-hunter the information he seeks. It is the beginning of an ordeal of terror. Peter Scarlet will also learn that it pays to be nice to snow leopards. This is a sinister tale, and a good one.

The Thirteenth Knife is a story of a quiet Argentinian artist in the Orient, of a bar fight, and of revenge. It is revenge achieved with exquisite style and in an entirely appropriate manner. A very fine story.

Scum of the East is superb. A young American woman is searching for her boyfriend, an engineer who had been employed to open up a tin mine deep in the jungle. He hasn’t been heard from since. She fears that he’s gone native. To find him she’ll need a guide and the only guide with sufficient knowledge of the area is a white man known only as Scum, who has well and truly given in to dissipation. Drink, drugs, women, he’s done it all and now he’s a shambling wreck of what was once a man. Bradshaw and his pal, the Dutch trader Schneider, can’t possibly let the girl go off into the jungle with only Scum as a companion so they decide to tag along.

The jungle is infested with venomous reptiles and tigers but these turn out to be the least  of the hazards the little expedition has to deal with. This is a story that makes you think it’s going to be predictable but Roscoe has some nifty tricks up his sleeve.

This collection is superior grade pulp fiction. Blood Ritual is very highly recommended indeed.

I reviewed another collection of Theodore Roscoe’s pulp stories, The Emperor of Doom, a few years back.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Alien Seed (Space 1999 novel)

Gerry Anderson's much maligned and somewhat underrated 1970s British science fiction television series Space: 1999 spawned a very extensive series of spin-off novels including quite a few original novels, which included E.C. Tubb’s Alien Seed which appeared in 1976.

Alien Seed is one of the more successful TV tie-in novels that I’ve read so far. It’s slightly more serious in tone than the television series but it still manages to feel like a genuine Space: 1999 story. It’s quite ambitious, it's reasonably intelligent and on the whole I think it can be said that it's a succees. It’s definitely worth checking out. Here’s the link to my review at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Still Dead by Ronald Knox

Still Dead was the fourth of the Miles Bredon mysteries written by Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957). It was published in 1934.

Donald Reiver is the laird of Dorn in the Scottish Lowlands. His heir is his son Colin, and a less worthy heir would be difficult to imagine. His only real usefulness to the family is that his life has been insured, with the Indescribable Insurance Company, for a very large sum. Donald has been for many years estranged from his brother, Major Henry Reiver.

The family’s troubles seem to be multiplying. Young Colin’s growing dissipation has had fatal consequences - driving his car while the worse for drink he has run over and killed the son of the estate’s head gardener. And Donald has taken a chill and is dangerously ill. Ill enough to make it advisable to make his will. The will may well be a bone of contention - Donald has decided to leave everything to a religious sect that he has recently joined. This won’t effect the estate, which is entailed, but if Colin were to predecease Donald then the money from that insurance policy would go to the sect.

And now the gamekeeper has found a dead body by the roadside.

The puzzle here is not the cause of death. The Procurator Fiscal (this being Scotland there is no coroner’s inquest) is perfectly satisfied that the death was due to natural causes. The puzzle concerns the date of the victim’s death. Was the body discovered on the Monday, or on the Wednesday? Because, amazing as it may seem, there is genuine doubt on this point. And that explains the Indescribable Insurance Company’s keen interest in the matter. If the victim died on the Wednesday there is no problem and the claim will be paid. If however he died on the Monday then it’s a different matter, since on the Monday the premium had not been paid and the policy was technically not in force. Not surprisingly the Indescribable has asked their ace investigator Miles Bredon to look into the matter.

Miles sets off for Scotland, accompanied as usual by his wife Angela (Miles and Angela Bredon being one of the more likeable husband-and-wife teams in detective fiction). The date of death turns out to be a very real puzzle. The victim was certainly dead on the Wednesday. As to the Monday, the evidence is very contradictory and incomplete. While there’s no evidence to suggest murder there is the definite possibility that someone may have had a motive for moving or concealing the body and for generally muddying the waters about the date. And while there’s no reason to suspect murder Miles has to admit that there are a couple of things that worry him about this case. That torch battery worries him a good deal.

Of course some of the locals have their own explanation - it’s obvious that the gamekeeper has second sight. The initial discovery of the body was a preternatural event, and perfectly in keeping with the known fact of the Reiver family curse.

Knox was an extremely witty writer and his detective novels always have a delightfully amusing quality but he was also a firm believer in sound and disciplined plotting (he was after all the author of the famous Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction). He does some very clever stuff with clues in this book but I can’t say any more for fear of spoilers.

The book also includes footnote links to all the clues so when you get to the solution you can check back to make sure the author hasn’t been cheating!

That solution may not please all readers, being just a little unconventional.

Despite being a priest Knox was not the kind of writer to bludgeon the reader with his moral views. For Knox the writing of detective stories was a pleasant diversion and a stimulating intellectual exercise rather than an opportunity for preaching. Of course you cannot entirely eliminate morality from the detective story which is a type of fiction that is entirely dependent on a belief that there are such things as right and wrong. This novel does raise some moral issues but to the extent that they’re resolved they’re resolved in a surprisingly open-ended way.

Still Dead makes use of a number of tropes that are going to be pretty familiar to fans of golden age mysteries but Knox throws in enough twists to keep things interesting. Knox is always a joy to read. His style is light-hearted but he avoids the peril of indulging in whimsy.

I thoroughly enjoyed Still Dead. Perhaps not as ingenious as The Three Taps or The Footsteps at the Lock but still highly recommended.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Anthony Wynne's Murder of a Lady

Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963) was a Scottish doctor who wrote numerous detective novels under the pseudonym Anthony Wynne. Murder of a Lady (AKA The Silver Scale Mystery) was published in 1931.

This is a locked-room mystery. In fact it’s a multiple locked-room mystery.

We start with the murder of Mary Gregor, an elderly lady and the sister of the laird of Duchlan. We are told that Mary Gregor was a saint and did not have an enemy in the world, which naturally leads us to suspect that she was far from being a saint and probably had more than her fair share of enemies. And this proves to be the case.

Her murder took place in a room locked from the inside. The windows were also locked from the inside. Not only that - the grandfather of the current laird had been a keen amateur locksmith and had installed locks of his own fiendishly ingenious design throughout Castle Duchlan. None of the usual methods of defeating the locksmith’s art will have any effect on these locks.

The most puzzling clue is a fish scale. A fish scale is found at the scene of the second murder as well.

Inspector Dundas approaches the case with a good deal of confidence. Even though Dr Hailey, renowned physician and even more renowned amateur criminologist, is on the scene Dundas makes it clear that he does not want any assistance.

Dr Hailey is drawn into the case by his personal interest in two of the chief suspects. Oonagh Gregor is the laird’s daughter-in-law and her name has been linked in local gossip with that of Dr McDonald, who is the local doctor (and in fact the only doctor for miles about). Dr Hailey rescues Oonagh from drowning and he is convinced that she and Dr McDonald are innocent. He also believes that the laird’s son, Captain Eoghan Gregor, is innocent. The only two other possible suspects are the laird himself and Angus, an old and much-loved family retainer, and Dr Hailey thinks they’re innocent as well! The death-blow had such force behind it that the murderer had to be a man.

Neither Dr Hailey nor the police are able to make much headway on solving the locked-room problem and soon they will have another impossible crime puzzle to unravel as well.

The setting, the remote Loch Fyne, is used effectively and there’s extra atmosphere added by the prevalent Highland superstitions. The laird himself seems to think the swimmers may be responsible for the murders, the swimmers being ghostly fish-men who inhabit the loch and are assumed by the locals to be behind all manner of misfortunes and tragedies.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. The mechanisms behind the locked-room mysteries are genuinely clever and even more importantly the explanations are plausible.

On the other hand there are some quite ludicrous elements to the plot. And there’s a great deal of tedious and overheated romantic and emotional melodrama.

Generally speaking I think it’s a mistake for a writer of detective fiction to bother too much about characterisation but if you are going to make that mistake then you should at least try to make the characters vaguely believable. The characters in this novel are so exaggerated and the villainies so outrageous and over-the-top that the whole thing becomes silly and unconvincing.

Another problem is that Wynne seems to have such a thorough loathing for Scotland and its inhabitants that it gets a bit embarrassing.

There’s also some truly awful dialogue.

Murder of a Lady gives us a very very good locked-room problem but overall it’s a pretty mediocre book. This one is strictly for really hardcore locked-room fans.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Birds of a Feather Affair - The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. #2

Recently I’ve been exploring the world of TV tie-in novels from the 1960s. Surprisingly even series that had quite short runs spawned tie-in novels and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which only lasted a single season (1966-67) gave birth to no less than five original novels, although for some reason three of them were only ever published in Britain.

The Birds of a Feather Affair by Michael Avallone appeared in 1966. It’s notable mostly for differing quite sharply from the television series when it comes to tone. Here's the link to my review on Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Dagger Affair, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #4

TV tie-in novels might not be one of the more respectable literary genres but then pulp fiction has never been respectable either and that’s never put me off. In fact TV tie-in novels are in some ways a modern version of the Victorian penny dreadfuls and dime novels and early 20th century pulp fiction - pure entertainment with no literary pretensions whatsoever.

I’ve recently found myself developing a mild interest in this ever so slightly disreputable field which ties in neatly with my enthusiasm for cult television of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m going to be posting occasional reviews of such books on my Cult TV Lounge blog, the first cab off the rank being one of the many Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels. Here’s the link to the fourth of this series of novels, David McDaniel's The Dagger Affair.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Budapest Parade Murders

The very considerable literary output (amounting to 78 novels) of American writer Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) included detective fiction, adventure stories, historical fiction and spy thrillers. This included twenty-six spy novels featuring Captain (later Colonel) Hugh North, a U.S. Army officer assigned to G-2 (Military Intelligence).

The Budapest Parade Murders appeared in 1935 and was the eighth of the Hugh North books.

The action starts on board a train, which is always promising. A daring assassination attempt has taken place on board the Budapest Express. The intended victim is Sir William Woodman, a prominent pacifist on his way to a disarmament conference. Sir William has collected damning evidence in the form of letters that arms manufacturers are actively involved in trying to start another world war. Unfortunately the would-be assassin succeeded in stealing the letters.

By a stroke of good fortune Captain Hugh North just happens to be aboard the Budapest Express. Also aboard is Major Kilgour of British Intelligence. Perhaps less fortunate is the presence of a pushy American newspaperman.

The disarmament conference is now very much endangered but actually it’s worse than that. The assassination has triggered a wave of mutual recriminations and suspicions and has created an atmosphere with sinister echoes of 1914. If those responsible for the outrage on the Budapest Express cannot be exposed it is not impossible that war will be the result. The Hungarian police are happy to have the assistance of both Captain North and Major Kilgour. Undertaking an investigation in a foreign country is obviously tricky, but it’s North’s job to carry out such delicate missions.

Of course it’s not entirely a straightforward criminal investigation. Hugh North certainly has the skills of a detective but he is an American intelligence agent and he must put American interests first. Major Kilgour, being a British intelligence agent, will also doubtless be putting British interests first. And the Hungarian Chief of Police obviously will be concerned about Hungary’s interests. These three men all sincerely want to avoid war but there is considerable potential for conflicts of interest.

The Hugh North spy tales contain their fair share of action but they’re also reasonably gritty and realistic (certainly much more so than many of the other popular spy thrillers of the 20s and 30s). They’re also surprisingly quite cynical. There’s a good deal of corruption in high places and there are plenty of powerful people who would cheerfully start a war if they stood to gain by it. While North is definitely a patriotic American he is realistic enough to accept the reality that America does not always have entirely clean hands, and that Americans can be as corrupt as anyone else. Diplomacy and espionage are tough games that are played without any concern for morality.

North is more a counter-espionage agent than a spy and he uses some of the techniques of the detective. There is a puzzle to be solved here. The identity of the assassin, and of the assassin’s accomplices, must be established and North has several clues that may help. He found a monocle and some tiny fragments of paper in the compartment in which Sir William was attacked.

In fact it’s structurally rather in the mode of the classic golden age detective story, and it even includes a floor plan! Mostly it’s the unravelling of a murder mystery but with thriller moments to add excitement and with the murder having implications for the fate of the whole world. Hugh North’s plan to unmask the villain involves bringing all the suspects together at a supper party in a palace - exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen to come up with.

There are obviously none of the high-tech electronic gadgets that would become a feature of post-WW2 spy fiction but North does make use of science and technology, and there are what a few years earlier would have been described as infernal machines.

There are also deadly women. Quite a few deadly women. Some might be spies, some might be adventuresses, some might be femmes fatales. Pretty much all the female characters can be assumed to be potentially dangerous. Of course the same assumption can be made about pretty much all the male characters as well.

The political background is quite intriguing. This novel was written in 1935. There were international tensions, there are always international tensions, but the new regime in Germany was not yet regarded as a major threat. Nor was Japan seen as an especially significant threat. The possibility of war is therefore somewhat nebulous. Mutual mistrust between Britain and the United States over naval and imperial rivalry seems to be a bigger issue than Germany (and in reality both the British and U.S. navies were making plans in the 1920s for a possible Anglo-American naval war). The fact that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on a single major threat to peace makes it rather interesting.

In fact the biggest international evil in this story is not represented by governments but by arms manufacturers (and the politicians they have corrupted). This might make it sound like a socialist or pacifist tract but it isn’t. North is just a straightforward patriot who has fought in one war and is hoping not to have to fight in another.

The spy fiction of the interwar years was quite varied, ranging from pure boys’ own adventure fantasy stuff (like the Bulldog Drummond stories) to the darkness and cynicism of Eric Ambler. The Budapest Parade Murders is somewhere in the middle. It’s more realistic than Bulldog Drummond stories but not as grim or nihilistic as Ambler or Greene, and it’s not quite a pure thriller and not quite a pure mystery. It is entertaining though. It’s recommended, as is his earlier The Branded Spy Murders.