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.

Friday, June 8, 2018

John Rhode's Mystery at Olympia

Mystery at Olympia (AKA Murder at the Motor Show) is a 1935 Dr Priestley mystery written by Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) under the name John Rhode.

At the Olympia Motor Show, in an immense crowd gathered around Stand 1001 to see the new and revolutionary touring car from the Comet Motor Company, an elderly man collapses and dies. This happens more or less right in front of Dr Priestley’s old friend Dr Oldland, whose efforts to save the man are unavailing. The elderly man is Nahum Pershore, a rather wealthy speculative builder.

At almost the same moment a pretty young parlourmaid in Mr Pershore’s household is taken violently ill. A Dr Formby is called in and he immediately suspects arsenic poisoning.

The post mortem on Mr Pershore raises more questions than it answers. Some very odd things have clearly been going on at the Pershore residence and it’s obvious that someone  didn’t like Nahum Pershore. What is not obvious is whether he was murdered or not, and if so how.

In a John Rhode mystery you expect some cleverness when it comes to the method of despatching the murder victim or victims. In this book the author plays a number of different games with murder methods.

You also expect that science will play some part in the crime and in the solution. And in this instance there are some esoteric matters of forensic medicine involved.

This is also arguably an impossible crime story. There’s a man who is dead but he has no right to be. And what was a man who had zero interest in cars doing at a motor show?

As to the solution, there is perhaps a slight plausibility problem.

As usual it’s Superintendent Hanslet who does most of the investigating. He’s the principal detective character with Dr Priestley remaining in the background. And as usual Hanslet is wrong on just about every point. He has a great enthusiasm for constructing elaborate theories and a lack of evidence to support those theories is something he really doesn’t worry about. Priestley’s interpretations of the evidence are of course very much sounder. And while Dr Priestley appears to be taking no active part in the investigation this is not quite the case. He is constantly feeding Hanslet hints that, with luck, will eventually put the superintendent on the right track.

Hanslet is dogged and he’s thorough but I have to say that I would be very very worried if I happened to be an innocent person who was a suspect in one of his investigations. Superintendent Hanslet’s powers of imagination are impressive but his powers of detection leave quite a lot to be desired.

It became increasingly rare for Priestley to go out into the field so to speak. He came to prefer sitting in comfort in his own home whilst pulling the strings of the police investigation. In his 1930s mysteries he was more inclined to take an active role when he considered it to be absolutely essential. In this case he does pay a visit to the Motor Show in order to confirm a very strong suspicion.

Mystery at Olympia contains most of the ingredients that John Rhode fans tend to enjoy - exotic murder methods, some fun with alibis, questions about wills, some esoteric forensic science and an enthusiasm for technology (the author was clearly a bit of a motoring buff). Dr Priestley is his usual mercilessly unsentimental self (with a characteristic touch of ruthlessness at the end). Whether the book stretches credibility a bit too far in one key element is up to the reader to decide.

On the whole I highly recommend this one. And it’s readily available in an affordable brand new paperback edition!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun

Given that I’ve just picked up a copy of Evil Under the Sun and I also have the relevant episode of the Poirot TV series I thought I’d try doing a back-to-back review of the novel and the TV version.

Evil Under the Sun was published in 1941 and it’s one of Agatha Christie’s most admired mysteries.

It has a classic setup. The Jolly Roger Hotel is located on an island (Smugglers’ Island)  just off the Devon coast. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The island is a private island, only accessible to hotel guests. It would certainly not be impossible for someone to gain unauthorised access to the island, in fact it would not even be particularly difficult, but it would be just difficult enough to make it exceedingly unlikely that the murderer could have been a random passing stranger. More importantly it would not be easy for an outsider to reach the island without being seen. It therefore fulfils the main purpose of a golden age mystery setting - it means that the killer must be a guest at the hotel.

For murder has indeed been committed on Smugglers’ Island. The almost unanimous view of the guests is that the victim is the sort of woman who was extremely likely to get herself murdered, and that despite possessing fame and wealth she is not exactly going to be a great loss to the world.

Whatever her personal failings may have been murder is still murder, and Hercule Poirot takes murder very seriously. Poor Poirot should have known better - if you’re a famous detective and you decide to take a holiday you can be almost certain that your chosen holiday spot will also be chosen as a venue for a murder.

In this instance at least the murder does not take Poirot by surprise. He had more than half expected it. The situation surrounding the woman in question seemed to be tending inevitably towards some kind of disaster.

There’s no shortage of suspects and there are several perfectly plausible motives. Most of the suspects have alibis but if you’ve read plenty of detective fiction you’ll notice that the alibis are extremely complex, which is always a bit suspicious.

As I said earlier this is a book with a glowing reputation and at this point I’m going to confess to heresy. I was not overly impressed by this book.

With a golden age detective story you’re prepared to accept far-fetched and incredibly complicated and contrived solutions. The fact that they’re far-fetched and incredibly complicated and contrived can even be seen as a bonus, as long as three conditions are fulfilled. Firstly, once the solution is revealed your response should be that it’s outrageous but of course that’s how it must have happened. Nothing else would really make sense. In this case my reaction was that the solution did not ring true at all. It was simply ludicrous. It relied too much on luck and on the reactions of other people fitting in neatly with the plan. Not even the craziest killer would adopt a plan which was so hopelessly over-complicated that it was clearly doomed to failure.

The second condition is psychological plausibility. You have to be convinced that the murderer might just possibly have been capable of murder. In this case I felt that Christie cheated just a little in the way she presented several key characters to the reader. I didn’t believe their motivations at all.

The third condition is that the reader has to believe that based on the evidence available to him the detective could really have solved the case. In this instance I felt that Poirot pulled a rabbit out of a hat. There are some huge intuitive leaps. OK, Poirot is always inclined to make intuitive leaps but in this book the leaps seem more outrageous than usual.

This is typical Christie in many ways. It’s a spectacular display of plotting pyrotechnics. There is some very clever stuff with alibis. It’s all very ingenious. It’s just that the pyrotechnics are over-complicated and inherently unstable. The danger is that when the pyrotechnics are detonated the whole plot is likely to explode in mid-air. Which, in my view, is what happens.

I know it’s supposed to be one of her masterpieces but I’m afraid I’m not entirely convinced. Evil Under the Sun just did not quite work for me.

The TV Adaptation
The television adaptation in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series went to air in July 2003.

It is reasonably faithful to the book. The changes are mostly fairly unimportant. Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon are added to the story, which is no problem. Hastings is always useful - he provides Poirot with someone with whom to discuss important plot points. The local Chief Constable featured in the book is replaced in the TV version by Chief Inspector Japp, which again is no problem. In a TV series it’s obviously very advantageous to keep the same recurring characters.

The only significant change is that one character who is female in the book becomes male in the TV episode. I can see why they thought this change strengthened the plot although in my opinion it actually weakens it slightly.

The problems I had with the TV version were pretty much the same ones I had with the novel. The plot elements that seemed unconvincing on the printed page still seemed unconvincing on the TV screen.

The hotel of the novel becomes a sort of health farm in the TV adaptation which adds a few comic touches as Poirot copes very badly with being put on a healthy dietary and exercise regimen.

As always in this series the visuals are magnificent. The Burgh Island Hotel in Devon stands in for the Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island and it’s a wonderful location. The tractor ferry is a lovely touch.

If you enjoyed the novel more than I did (and almost everybody seems to fall into that category) then it’s quite likely you’ll like the TV version more than I did as well. There's nothing wrong with it as an adaptation, unless you're eccentric enough to share my doubts about the plotting.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hornblower and the Atropos

Hornblower and the Atropos was the eighth of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower naval adventure novels to be published, appearing in 1953. The chronological sequence of the stories bears no relationship to the publication order. Chronologically Hornblower and the Atropos comes just before the first published Hornblower novel, The Happy Return.

The victory at Trafalgar has been followed by a series of promotions and thus at the end of 1805 Horatio Hornblower finds himself a very very junior post-captain. He is given command of HMS Atropos. The Atropos is a sloop of war, a class of vessel that would normally be considered too small to be commanded by a post-captain. With her 22 guns the Atropos is however just big enough to justify having a post-captain in command and Hornblower is very grateful to get a command at all.

His first mission is an odd one. He is placed in charge of the flotilla of boats that will bear Lord Nelson’s body to his funeral. It proves to be an exceptionally frustrating task but it does bring him to the attention of the formidable and rather terrifying Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent.

The Atropos is then despatched to the Mediterranean, on a most unusual mission - to recover sunken treasure. The treasure was aboard a British vessel but unfortunately the wreck is in Turkish waters and the salvage operation has to be undertaken in secret, and that’s the least of Hornblower’s problems. His salvage expert, on loan from the East India Company, is dying from a gunshot wound and there’s nobody else qualified to take charge of the operation.

There's not much action in this story, not until the end, but there’s plenty of adventure and suspense (and when the action does finally kick in it’s pretty exciting). There’s more to being a successful naval captain than fighting battles - the challenges are endless, exasperating and unpredictable. A captain has to be a good tactician but he also needs to be a sound psychologist and an effective manager, and when on detached duty rather than being part of a fleet he finds himself needing to be a diplomatist as well. Hornblower faces some surprising challenges in this story and although often tempted to give in to despair he somehow manages to rise to those challenges. It’s the way this complex man responds to so many varied challenges that interests Forester most of all. This story is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. Forester was one of those fortunate writers who was equally comfortable with both approaches.

I continue to be impressed by Hornblower’s complexity as a character. He is a most unconventional hero. It’s not just that he is plagued by self-doubts. There’s also the calculated nature of his leadership style as captain, and the fact that his methods are on occasion perhaps just a little morally questionable. He is able to convince himself that sometimes a certain amount of duplicity is justifiable or even necessary, but then he hates himself for it and wonders if he does such things purely for the good of the service or mostly out of self-interest. He is a very self-aware and introspective hero.

Hornblower cannot be described as a particularly happy man. He has an instinctively gloomy outlook which seems to be a kind of self-protection - if you expect the worse you’re pleasantly surprised when things turn out less badly than you’d expected.

Hornblower is also not a man possessed of a great deal of natural human warmth. His marriage seems to have been something that was almost accidental and he is inclined to think it was a mistake. It’s not that it’s actually an overtly unhappy marriage but he has come to realise that he is a man who will always put his career first and that that is hardly fair to a wife and children. He does not appear to have any close friends and his relations with his subordinate officers are somewhat tense.

All this makes Hornblower sound like a very unattractive hero but he isn’t really. For all his self-doubts he’s a thorough professional, a skilful and even brilliant tactician and a fine leader of men. He’s courageous and he’s decisive. His flaws make him more admirable. Being a hero doesn’t come naturally to Hornblower. He has to work at it but he works at it very hard and the hard work pays off. And his flaws make him a more sympathetic character.

Hornblower and the Atropos is highly recommended.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dead Man’s Music, Christopher Bush

Dead Man’s Music is one of the earlier Ludovic Travers mysteries penned by Christopher Bush. It was published in 1931.

The story begins with the discovery of a body. The man may have hanged himself but Superintendent Wharton suspects foul play. The most suspicious circumstance is that elaborate attempts have been made to change the man’s appearance after death.

As it happens Durangos Limited had received an odd request a few weeks earlier and Ludovic Travers had been despatched to deal with the matter. The request was for a man of unquestioned integrity with a knowledge of music and china. As a result of this earlier involvement Travers is quite certain he recognises the corpse.

That earlier episode had been quite curious. A rather eccentric old man named Claude Rook had played a haunting piece of music for him and had then entrusted Travers with the manuscript with instructions to give it to the person to whom it ought to be given. He assures Travers that he (Travers) will know the identity of this person.

In fact it’s hard to be sure of the identities of any of the people involved in the case. Or even of their nationalities. Also curious is the fact that the manuscript is worthless - the music is unplayable. And yet the one thing Travers is sure of is that the manuscript is very very important. Yet another curious thing - Rook had wanted a man knowledgeable on the subject of china although his collection of china was nothing more than cheap junk.

This is not quite a straightforward whodunit. There’s a bit of a thriller feel to this one. There’s certainly a puzzle here and it’s crucial and it’s a tricky one but it’s not really centred on the identity of the murderer.

I’m not entirely sure this one is absolutely fair play. Although it might be more just to say that Bush plays fair with his clues as long as you understand that the real puzzle isn’t necessarily the obvious puzzle.

All three of Bush’s series detectives appear in this book - economist and private detective Ludovic Travers, John Franklin of the Detective Section of Durangos Limited and Superintendent George Wharton (known affectionately as The General) of Scotland Yard.

There are some very clever ideas in this story and there’s some good misdirection. On the whole though I don’t think it’s one of Bush’s more successful mysteries. The plot contains so many outlandish improbabilities that it’s in serious danger of collapsing under its own weight, and most of the cleverness is connected with what are essentially peripheral matters. These elements mostly serve to disguise the fact that the main plot is not all that interesting.

There are no ingenious unbreakable alibis to be broken in this story (even though Bush was known for his fondness for such things). This novel is in some ways a throwback to the pre-golden age period of detective fiction in which disguises and secret codes played such prominent roles.

Dead Man’s Music is reasonably entertaining but it’s not in the same league as Bush’s best work (such as The Case of the Tudor Queen, Dead Man Twice or The Body in the Bonfire). Bush’s novels are now back in print and easily obtainable. I’d suggest that Dead Man’s Music is definitely not a good starting point.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stanley J. Weyman's A Gentleman of France

Stanley J. Weyman (1855-1928) was an immensely popular author of historical romances. He was best known for his tales of swashbuckling adventure written in the early part of his career prior to 1904. Weyman enjoyed the esteem of both critics and the reading public and his admirers included Graham Greene.

One word of caution should be offered at this point. Whilst all of Weyman’s books can be regarded as historical romances not all can be regarded as swashbucklers. Of the novels that do most certain qualify as swashbucklers one of the most successful was A Gentleman of France, published in 1893.

Weyman was particularly attracted by sixteenth and seventeenth century French history. A Gentleman of France opens in 1588. This was the period of the Wars of Religion in France, between the Catholics and the Huguenots. It was also the time of the succession crisis, with the Protestant King Henri IV of Navarre being the heir to the throne and with conspiracies afoot to prevent him from succeeding to the throne of France in the event of the death of the current king Henri III. In fact there were countless potential conspiracies complicated even further by foreign meddling.

Gaston, Sieur de Marsac, faces a grim future. He is a Huguenot, he is forty years old and he is penniless. He has the pride of a gentleman but he lacks the financial resources that such a station in life requires. The death of his patron, the Prince de Condé, has left him in desperate straights.

He is therefore overjoyed to receive a summons from the King of Navarre. He is entrusted with a mission, to convey a young woman who is presently being held against her will to a place of safety. Henri of Navarre cannot possibly be seen to be openly involved in this rescue mission which is why the poverty-stricken luckless de Marsac is such an ideal choice to carry it out. He is expendable, and if things go wrong Henri can plausibly claim to have known nothing whatever about the scheme.

The young woman is Mademoiselle de la Vire, a maid of honour at the court of Henri of Henri of Navarre. She proves to be quite a handful of de Marsac. In fact she proves to be a complete nightmare, being wilful, spoilt, impetuous, unpredictable, vindictive and entirely uncooperative. The band of ruffians de Marsac has hired to help carry out his task are another problem. They prove to be even more treacherous than he’d anticipated. In addition it seems that various political crises are all coming to a head and de Marsac is going to be caught in the middle.

Worst of all it turns out that Mademoiselle de la Vire is much more important than de Marsac had been led to believe. In fact it turns out that by a twist of fate she is now more important than anyone could have suspected.

This is a moderately long novel but there are so many plot twists and de Marsac’s path is strewn with so many obstacles and pitfalls and false turnings and there are so many betrayals and counter-betrayals that there’s never any danger of boredom. There’s plenty of action and the sense of danger never lets up for a moment.

While de Marsac is not totally lacking in allies they’re not necessarily allies on whom one wold want to rely absolutely. They have their own agendas. This is even more true of the powerful men who are willing to make use of de Marsac - it’s not that they bear him the slightest ill-will but they are playing for very high stakes and he is a very insignificant very poor very minor petty nobleman and his wellbeing is not exactly their highest priority.

There is, as you might expect in a 19th century English novel, a certain anti-Catholic bias. The Catholic characters are not all wicked but the villains do tend to be Catholics. The Protestant characters do tend to be virtuous and noble. This was such a pervasive feature of English popular culture at the time that Weyman may not even have been conscious of his bias.

Gaston de Marsac is a fine and reasonably complex hero. He is brave and determined but he makes a lot of mistakes and his judgment is erratic. It’s not that he is unintelligent. Far from it. He simply has a tendency, at times, to be a little careless and perhaps inclined to underestimate the difficulties that he faces.

This is very much a swashbuckling adventure. There is a love story here but it takes a definite back seat to the action adventure story.

This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff in the slightly literary tradition of Victorian writers of adventure such as Anthony Hope and Rider Haggard. Highly recommended.

This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff in the slightly literary tradition of Victorian writers of adventure such as Anthony Hope and Rider Haggard. Highly recommended. Pan Books issued this one along with several other Weyman titles in paperback in the early 70s so used copies can be found at very reasonable prices.

Weyman’s 1894 adventure Under the Red Robe is also very much worth reading.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant

Max Rittenberg (1880-1965) was an interesting figure in the development of the detective story. Born in Australia of German and Russian Jewish ancestry he moved to Britain and had a short but prolific carer as a writer of detective stories. After giving up fiction writing he concentrated on his very successful career in advertising and public relations.

His two series of detective short stories are interesting and were at the time somewhat pioneering. His tales of Dr Xavier Wycherley (collected in The Mind-Reader) are among the earliest examples of detective stories featuring a psychologist hero. There are hints of the paranormal but essentially these are psychological detective stories.

His other series detective was Magnum, an early exemplar of the scientific detective. Magnum is a bad-tempered conceited and arrogant middle-aged scientist who dabbles in crime solving if a case interests him or (more often) if he’s offered enough money to make it worth his while. He has a shy young Welsh assistant named Meredith who does all the detail work (for which Magnum has no patience) while Magnum concentrates on the big ideas.

The stories date from the period just before the First World War and many of the solutions involve technological wizardry rather than pure science. Coachwhip have published all the Magnum stories in The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant.

If you’re expecting really elaborate scientific puzzles you might be disappointed.The scientific elements are often fairly straightforward although the plots themselves do have some very clever ideas. In many cases the scientific elements simply add a touch of the exotic to otherwise unremarkable if competent crime tales. At times it seems that Rittenberg is actually more interested in the psychology of the people involved in his stories, and in the social implications, than in the actual science. Given that Rittenberg’s field was public relations rather than science this is perhaps not surprising.

The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel isn’t all that scientific but it has a nicely ingenious solution. A man has been killed falling from a railway carriage. It appears to be an accident but his life was heavily insured and the insurance company believes it was a case of suicide, which means they don’t have to pay up on the policy. Magnum believes the key to the puzzle is that the man was carrying a bottle of medicine and it’s medicine that has only one purpose - to treat sleeping sickness. An entertaining enough tale.

The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning is much better. A wealthy family is being slowly poisoned. That much is obvious. Unfortunately even though every item of food and drink with which they come into contact has been analysed no trace of poison can be fond. Even the air in their house has been analysed, with similarly negative results. And yet the stubborn fact remains that they are being poisoned. The solution in this tale is pretty clever.

The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau is a different kind of poisoning tale. A sinister character known as Kahmos is operating a kind of one-man Murder, Inc in London, making a very lucrative living poisoning inconvenient relatives for clients who need their inheritances sooner rather than later. Magnum makes use of some very high-tech gear (by 1913 standards) to crack this case but actually laying hands of Kahmos proves to be more tricky. There’s nothing overly clever here but there’s some decent sinister atmosphere and a rather enjoyable pulp fiction vibe as well (assuming you like that sort of thing).

The theft of gold bullion en route to the Bank of England would be a very serious matter,
but in The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold something worse is happening - the gold ingots are just shrinking! And the Bank of England is being threatened - either pay fifty thousands for the secret of the vanishing gold or it will continue to happen. It’s a promising setup for a story that doesn’t quite deliver the goods.

The Secret of the Radium Maker tells of a struggling young inventor who has discovered a way of extracting radium from pitchblende at a cost far below that of existing processes. This discovery is worth a fortune, assuming that the process actually works. Magnum is called in to verify the discovery. An OK story at best.

The Invisible Bullet is a true impossible crime story. A man is shot to death in a fourth-floor gymnasium. It can’t be suicide - he was shot twice through the back. The murder weapon cannot be found. The murderer could not possibly have escaped from the gymnasium. The solution is a matter of logical reasoning from the evidence with science playing no real role  but it’s still a very fine story and it’s a genuine impossible crime mystery that compares favourably to similar stories by much more celebrated golden age practitioners of the craft.

Stories of phoney spiritualists are a dime a dozen but The Rough Fist of Reason has some genuinely original features, and a definite sting in the tail. Magnum investigates a medium who produces some extraordinarily convincing spirit photographs, and the puzzling aspect is that Magnum is able to establish that there has been absolutely no photographic trickery. Magnum of course is still convinced the photos are phoney but proving it will be a real challenge. The one slight weakness of this story (and also of The Invisible Bullet) is that luck perhaps plays too big a part in the uncovering of the vital clue but The Rough Fist of Reason is still an extremely good story.

Science can revolutionise many areas of human endeavour, including fraud, as we discover in The Three Ends of the Thread. It all starts with a document outlining a secret new process for tanning leather, a document that disappears under impossible circumstances. A well-executed little tale with some lovely twists.

The Empty Flask is another ingenious case of a poisoning that leaves no physical evidence whatsoever and it’s another rather neat story.

The Secret Analysis is a routine spy tale of limited interest.

The Mystery of Box 218 concerns an apparent robbery. The director of the Holborn Safe Deposit are convinced that their security is foolproof and yet a pearl necklace worth fifteen thousand pounds has been reported stolen from a safety deposit box there. The directors want the mystery solved but mostly they want to avoid any publicity so they turn to Magnum rather than the police. Magnum does employ some scientific apparatus in this case but mostly he relies on good old-fashioned detecting, taking note of a strange discrepancy in the evidence of an apparently reliable witness. This is a fairly well constructed and entertaining story.

The Message of the Tide starts with a neat enough idea - a message in a bottle floating in the Thames, a message telling of a man being held captive. Magnum’s scientific approach allows him to discover roughly where the bottle was dropped into the river. Unfortunately the rest of the story is not terribly interesting and it’s rather undeveloped, a weakness that afflicts a number of the Magnum stories.

The Secret of the Tower House concerns the mysterious death of a couple of dogs. It’s the symptoms displayed by the dogs before their demise that causes the worry. Of even greater concern is the source of the infection and the explanation is certainly creepy and a bit grisly. An OK story.

Dead Leaves is a moderately interesting story involving a missing will.

The Three Henry Clarks is not a bad little tale. A man named Henry Clark sets off for Scotland Yard to request help but dies very suddenly in the street outside. Magnum finds that he has been poisoned. A terrible crime but nothing unusual, except that it follows hard on the heels of the sudden mysterious death of another Henry Clark. And while Magnum and Detective-Inspector Callaghan are pondering this mystery news comes of the sudden demise of a third Henry Clark. It’s a fine setup for a story although it turns out to be not quite as ingenious as one might have hoped.

Cleansing Fire is interesting not so much for its plot as for the very surprising identity of the culprit. Magnum is investigating a suspected case of arson on behalf of an insurance company. The insurance company is convinced that it is arson and that it was a deliberate act on the part of the factory owner. Magnum is by no means entirely convinced on either point.

The solution to the puzzle is the result of some fairly determined sleuthing by Magnum, even including a spot of breaking and entering. It’s the motivation of the act that is the big surprise here.

Red Herrings tells of an ingenious scheme to kidnap the Home Secretary. As is the case with quite a few of the stories it’s the setup for the crime that is most impressive.

One thing you have to bear in mind is that Rittenberg was writing these stories before the First World War. This is pre-golden age stuff and while the plots are often ingenious they don’t have the extreme complexity of full-blown golden age mysteries. They’re still mostly very enjoyable and sometimes quite clever and Magnum is a fun larger-than-life hero with some amusing quirks. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Leigh Brackett’s The Secret of Sinharat

Leigh Brackett’s 1964 novel The Secret of Sinharat is an expanded version of her 1949 novella Queen of the Martian Catacombs.

There is a rebellion brewing on Mars. The ruthless and clever Kynon has persuaded a number of warring tribes to set aside their differences to follow him. The army he is collecting is drawn from the Drylands (the Martian deserts) and from the low-canal country. Kynon has employed mercenaries to train his armies, dangerous men like Luhar the Venusian and Eric John Stark. To weld his army together he holds out a fabulous promise - eternal life (of a sort anyway).

Eric John Stark is Brackett’s best-known character, appearing in quite a number of stories from the 1940s right through to the 1970s. He is an Earthman but was raised by barbarians on Mercury. He is a Tarzan-like figure, belonging wholly neither to the world of civilisation nor to the world of the barbarian but able to move freely and confidently in both worlds.

In this story Stark is in fact a spy. Unknown to the rebels he is working for the Earth Police Control, his job being to find out just how dangerous the rebellion is likely to be and how it can be thwarted. Stark has a twenty-year prison sentence hanging over his head, which is why he was so willing to turn spy (Earth Police Control will wipe the slate clean in exchange for his help).

It is a dangerous task that Stark has taken on, much more dangerous than he’d expected. Among Kynon’s followers is at least one man with a longstanding grudge against Stark, a man who will be satisfied only by Stark’s death. And within days Stark finds that he has made other deadly enemies. Delgaun, the leader of the contingent from the low-canal city of Valkis, clearly wants Stark dead although Stark has no idea why this should be. Stark can handle himself well enough and would be quite capable of disposing of these enemies but that is exactly what he cannot do - to do so would jeopardise his mission.

Adding to his worries is the woman Berild. Is she Kynon’s woman or Delgaun’s? Does she have plans to be Stark’s woman? She is intelligent, ambitious and entirely lacking in scruples but there’s more to her than that. Stark has seen her in the moonlight, tracing the walls of a long-dead palace, walls that no longer exist even in ruins. Those walls crumbled into dust aeons ago but Berild knew every inch of that palace. It’s a particularly effective scene showing Brackett at her most effectively moody and disturbing.

The climax of the drama will come in the city of Sinharat. Sinharat is the sort of city that Brackett loved to create. It is a dead city, the capital of a dead civilisation, but is the past ever really dead? On Leigh Brackett’s Mars you can never be sure. Sometimes the past is more real than the present. Sinharat is not just a dead city. It is a city of evil. It is a vague formless nameless evil, and it is a very ancient evil. In Brackett’s universe ancient evils are the most deadly of all.

This is a story fuelled more by atmosphere and a sense of foreboding than by action. Brackett could and did write fine action stories but her sword-and-planet tales are more often exercises in style and mood. And some of the very best of her stories are entirely lacking in action.

There is however plenty of menace in this tale. The threat of violence is ever-present, although there are things that are more to be feared than mere violence.

Berild is a typical Brackett anti-heroine. She is beautiful, fascinating and clever but trusting her is likely to prove to be unwise, to say the least. Fianna, the servant of Berild, seems like she’s going to be a typical Brackett feisty good girl but she turns out to be much more complex than that.

The ending is especially good, being not quite what we expect and yet it feels right.

The original novella, Queen of the Martian Catacombs, is included in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (a volume well worth buying).

The Secret of Sinharat is a fine display of Leigh Brackett’s mastery of the sword-and-planet genre. Highly recommended.

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.

The first three Hornblower novels were the basis for the reasonably good 1951 Hollywood adventure film Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.

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.