Friday, November 16, 2018

Murder by the Dozen

In the mid-1930s Hugh Wiley (1884-1968) wrote twelve short stories featuring Chinese-American detective James Lee Wong. The stories were later collected as Murder by the Dozen. From 1938 to 1940 Monogram Pictures made six very popular Mr Wong B-movies, the first five starring Boris Karloff as Mr Wong.

To be honest there’s not a huge amount in common between Wiley’s Mr Wong and the character featured in the movies. Both are western-educated but Wiley’s Mr Wong was educated at Yale while the movie version was English-educated. Wiley’s version works for the U.S. Treasury Department and has a slightly hardboiled air while the movie version is a rather genteel and cultured private detective.

In the movies the detective is always referred to as Mr Wong. In the short stories James Lee Wong is more often referred to simply as James Lee or Mr Lee.

Long Chance concerns an attempt to buy American bombing planes for the Chinese government, in a manner that is perhaps not entirely open and legal.

Ten Bells deals with murder in the movies. This particular movie includes a duelling scene but one of the pistols is loaded with live ammunition rather than blanks, with fatal consequences. The property man is a very obvious suspect, with a strong motive and ample opportunity. A fairly entertaining story.

A Ray of Light involves diamonds, which may or may not be real. There’s some interesting stuff about methods of telling real diamonds from fake. A reasonably good story.

The Bell from China is a bell from the Chou dynasty which has been donated to the Art League. Mr James Lee Wong is asked to translate the inscription on the bell, which proves to be a challenging task. The results are not those that were anticipated. And there’s more going on here than antiquarianism. A very good story.

In The Feast of Kali wealthy landowner Denman Hale decides it is time to deal with Sang Hop, who runs a floating brothel, gambling hell and opium den. Hale is tired of seeing his Indian and Chinese workers corrupted by Sang Hop. Sang Hop gets wind of Denman Hale’s plans and strikes first. Fortunately his loyal servant Chew Lim realises that there is only way to save his master - he must contact Mr James Lee.

Lee knows he has to move fast. He also knows he’s dealing with all manner of exotic evil - such as worshippers of Kali who practise various bloodthirsty rites. This is not by an means a fair-play detective story but Lee does do some actual detecting by means of some unusual clues. A very entertaining story.

Jaybird’s Chance takes Lee to the Payboy gold mine where there’s been a robbery. An elderly Chinese is the chief suspect. The sheriff has been giving him the third degree but so far has failed to get a confession. James Lee is not surprised by his failure. Lee manages to get in some good trout fishing and some good poker with the guys at the mine. Both poker and trout will prove to be helpful in solving the case. This is slightly more hardboiled than most of the James Lee stories but it’s still quite clever. It turns out that if you’re a detective it helps if you understand bluejays.  A very good story.

No Witnesses takes James Lee into the mountains for a well-earned vacation. But he discovers that crime will follow a detective wherever he goes. It all starts when a wealthy businessman decides he’d like to settle down in the picturesque little Sky Ridge community. What he’d really like to do is to buy a house there. A fine idea, but carrying round two thousand dollars in cash to make the purchase is perhaps less of a good idea.

James Lee gets the vital clue in this case from a Chinese cook at the local hotel. In fact Lee solves many of his cases with help from members of the Chinese community. Another fairly decent story.

Three Words is the story of the murder of a scholar. He may have been murdered for the sake of a treasure, but there are many different kinds of treasures. Things might have been simpler if only doctors took more care with their handwriting and their Latin. A fairly clever story, especially if you like solutions that hinge on literary scholarship.

Scorned Woman is one of several stories that explore the seedy but glamorous side of Chinatown including the various rackets - gambling, narcotics, white slavery etc. This sort of thing was extremely popular with American consumers of popular culture at this time. In this tale money is being raised for the Chinese government in Nanking by the sale of opium. James Lee Wong has to sort this out whilst also rescuing an American girl who has shown an excessive curiosity in the exotic Chinatown underworld and he also has a funeral to attend, a funeral in which the widow’s behaviour proves to be interesting and enlightening. One of the best stories in the collection.

Seven of Spades is pure pulp fun. A G-Man has been killed in Arizona. He had picked up the trail of notorious gunman Dutch Flint. The local sheriff has arrested the wrong man but James Lee is used to having to deal with less-than-efficient local lawmen. He really needs lots of backup on this case but there isn’t time so he’s going to have to rely on his luck, his nerve and his skill with a gun. Not exactly high art but very enjoyable.

The Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb is a case that could plunge the world into war. A U.S. senator has bought some documents and they’re dynamite and they’re going to be published nation-wide and then nothing will be able to stop the inevitable slide to war. Nothing can stop this from happening, except for Treasury Agent James Lee Wong. Lots of breathless excitement in this story and it works pretty well.

Medium Well Done is the highlight of the collection. It’s the old spook racket. Young Helen King is a very rich woman after her father’s death but she’s easy prey to a phoney medium. Luckily she has a devoted Chinese servant in Wong Sung and even more fortunately Wong Sung is acquainted with Mr James Lee of the Treasury Department. This is a classic pulp tale done with style and Wong Sung gives the story a truly delightful finish.

James Lee Wong is in the Charlie Chan mould, a dedicated professional and a man of high moral qualities. He’s Charlie Chan with more of a pulp edge, although he’s a less complex and less well-developed character. Since he’s a Treasury agent he gets to deal with crimes that often go beyond the straightforward cases that a policeman would deal with.

These are somewhat pulpy and semi-hardboiled tales rather than puzzle-plot mysteries but if you accept them for what they are they’re quite good fun.

There is some gentle humour, much of it in the form of the staggering number of cryptic  old Chinese proverbs which Lee and every other Chinese character in the stories are able to quote.

Murder by the Dozen is highly recommended.

My review of the Mr Wong movie Mr Wong in Chinatown might also be of interest.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Monkey Planet (Planet of the Apes)

Pierre Boulle was a successful French author whose novel The Bridge over the River Kwai was turned into a blockbuster movie during the 50s. His 1963 novel La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) became a major pop culture phenomenon when it was filmed in 1968 as Planet of the Apes.

Surprisingly perhaps the film was fairly faithful to the novel. While the details have been subject to numerous changes the general plot outline is still more or less the same and the themes and even the tone remain substantially very similar. All of the really clever ideas that are to be found in the film were in the novel. The film-makers deserve praise for recognising the essential elements in Boulle’s story and hanging on to them, and for not trying to dumb down the ideas. They also deserve praise for realising that the movie would work best if played fairly straight. The novel is not always played straight and is clearly intended as satire but any attempt to copy the novel’s slightly jokey tone would have been disastrous in the film.

The novel has a framing story (which is utilised for a purpose which will be obvious to an alert reader and very obvious indeed to anyone who has seen the movie). A couple of space tourists find a message in a bottle in space. It’s an account of a voyage of exploration from Earth to the star Betelgeuse three hundred light-years away. It is a scientific expedition and on one of the planets orbiting Betelgeuse they find a society run by highly intelligent apes in which humans are mere animals, incapable of intelligent thought.

The narrator, who believes he is the only survivor, is captured and taken to a scientific institute where ape scientists carry out experiments on the lower animals, such as men.

He is able to convince some chimpanzee scientists that he is not an animal but is as intelligent as an ape. This causes problems since this ape society is likely to react rather negatively to the idea of intelligent humans. He is likely to be perceived as a threat, and the chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius may be in danger as well.


Cornelius is at this very moment involves in an archaeological project which may also be very disturbing to the ape establishment.

Of course at some stage the book is going to have to explain exactly how the apes became intelligent while humans became dumb animals. There’s a great deal of dodgy pseudoscience and technobabble and it has to be said this aspect of the story is handled much more skilfully in the 1968 movie. The big shock revelations are also done much more effectively in the movie. As I said earlier, all the really good ideas in the movie are Boulle’s and are in the novel but they‘re all executed much more effectively in the movie. Overall the novel seems a bit clunky and a bit contrived compared to the film.

One of the more interesting ideas in the book is the difference between originality and imitation, and between civilisations that are original and those that are just imitative. This also touches on the nature of intelligence. There’s also interesting speculation on the rise and fall of civilisations and on the question of societal evolution versus societal degeneration. Boulle certainly tackles plenty of intriguing topics.

One element in the novel that is merely touched on in the movie is that there are three species of intelligent ape, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-outangs, and the three species are by no means equal. This is something that the film-makers obviously decided, no doubt wisely, to approach with extreme caution. In the novel it is quite a big deal.

Monkey Planet is interesting since it’s clearly intended as a satire but exactly what is it satirising? It would be tempting to see it as a satire on race but it is perhaps more a class satire than a race satire. Boulle also has a lot of fun at the expense of scientists. Monkey Planet is odd but interesting science fiction and is worth a read, but the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie improves on the novel quite a bit.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sydney Fowler's Rex v. Anne Bickerton

English poet and novelist Sydney Fowler Wright (1874-1965) worked as an accountant in Birmingham before devoting himself full-time to writing. He wrote in various genres including science fiction. As Sydney Fowler he wrote quite a number of crime novels.

Rex v. Anne Bickerton, published in 1930, is not so much a police procedural as a legal procedural. We start off knowing nothing whatsoever of the curious events in the Hackett household. We are then treated to an exhaustively detailed account of the coroner’s enquiry into Belle Hackett’s death and we start to see the beginnings of a plot.

Mrs Hackett’s husband James had been away from home on a business trip. She had gone to great lengths to persuade him that she far too ill to be left alone. This was apparently something she did quite often. She was also prone to making vague threats of suicide. James takes no notice of her suicide threats and he takes no notice of her protestations of illness. He’s seen it all before. It always amounts to nothing.

This time Mrs Hackett really does die. She does not, however, die as the result of the almost-certainly imaginary illness she had been complaining of. She dies of arsenic poisoning.

There are three main suspects. All have what appear to be strong motives. James Hackett’s life has beeb made miserable by his wife and she is the one who has the money. Belle Hackett’s sister Anne Bickerton stands to inherit Belle’s fortune. Rose Dorling, employed as a species of governess to the two children, is in love with James Hackett and might well want Belle out of the way. James has an alibi but no reader who is widely read in golden age detective fiction is going to be overly impressed by an alibi. Of the three suspects it is Anne Bickerton against whom it seems easiest to make a case and it is clear that the police see her as the most promising suspect. Given the book’s title it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that it is Anne who ends up  being charged with murder.

We see the case entirely through the lens of the legal proceedings. Everything we learn about the case we learn from the evidence given at the coroner’s inquest and at the trial.

This is effectively a detective story without a detective. Inspector Taverton plays a very minor rôle. Any actual investigating that he does happens off-stage so to speak. He makes brief appearances in the courtroom scenes and even briefer appearances when he discusses the the very broad outlines of the case with his chief. We know his view of the case but we don’t really know how he has come to take that view.

This is a crime novel that is entirely focused on lawyers and legal proceedings. The lawyers, solicitor Mr Duff-Preedy and barrister Mr Rickard Salmon, seem to be cast as the heroes although they are not the slightest bit heroic in any conventional sense. They are motivated purely by self-interest. If they are not the heroes then they are certainly the protagonists.

This is also a book that takes a rather jaundiced view of the much-vaunted system of British justice. The police are not sure which of the three suspects actually committed the murder and they don’t particularly care, as long as someone gets convicted and hanged. Their main concern is that they should not end up looking foolish. Mr Duff-Preedy thinks Anne Bickerton is probably guilty. He doesn’t care. It promises to be a very high-profile case and the publicity will do wonders for his legal practice. The young barrister whom he briefs, Rickard Salmon, sees the case as a wonderful opportunity to make his reputation.

At one point Mr Duff-Preedy is vastly amused when he is reminded of the sacredness of the principle of the assumption of innocence. He regards this as a pathetically naïve notion. In practice once you’ve been charged with a crime you have to prove your innocence.

The coroner’s jury is a prize collection of fools and knaves. Juries in general are portrayed as being capricious, emotional and generally foolish.

And then there’s the judge. If anyone in this story deserves to be hanged it’s Mr Justice Ackling. There are plenty of unscrupulous characters in this tale, but he is a self-satisfied vicious sadist.

The plot has some nice twists and some neat misdirection. It’s reasonably fairly clued. The solution is plausible and the author certainly cannot be accused of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There’s also an odd touch at the end which I can’t say anything about but it’s yet another slightly offbeat element to an already quite offbeat novel.

There’s some sardonic humour and there’s a generally very sceptical if not outright cynical tone. The characters are a collection of very imperfect human beings. They all have serious character flaws but apart from Mr Justice Ackling none could be described as evil. And they all have at least some strengths to balance their weaknesses.

Putting so much emphasis on legal proceedings can be risky. You end up with very dialogue-heavy writing and there is the danger that the reader will grow weary of very very long courtroom scenes. If you want to utilise this kind of technique successfully you have to throw in some surprises and you need great skill to maintain an atmosphere of suspense and expectancy. The reader has to feel that something startling is likely to happen at any moment. Erle Stanley Gardner could get away with it but even Gardner did not dare to set almost the whole action of a novel in a courtroom. Surprisingly Fowler pulls it off pretty well.

Rex v. Anne Bickerton is a fine example of the diversity of crime fiction during the interwar years. Structurally it’s slightly out of the ordinary and it’s definitely unusually cynical in tone. I think it works and I’m going to highly recommend it.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Francis Durbridge's The World of Tim Frazer

Francis Durbridge (1912-1998) was a prolific English writer of novel, plays, radio plays and television screenplays. He worked mostly in the crime genre although occasionally with a few spy thriller elements as well. The World of Tim Frazer was a very successful 1960-61 television serial which, sadly, has not survived. We do however have his 1962 novel based on that serial.

The World of Tim Frazer is a spy thriller. It belongs to the Reluctant Spy sub-genre, in which purely by accident a very ordinary man gets mixed up in the murky world of espionage. This is a sub-genre that was perfected by Eric Ambler back in the 1930s. By 1962 it was falling out of favour, with professional spies like James Bond and Matt Helm ruling the literary roost.

The Reluctant Spy format suits Durbridge’s style and in fact his straightforward detective stories more often than not feature heroes who have stumbled unwittingly into a world of crime.

Tim Frazer is a partner in an engineering film, or at least he was before the firm went belly up. The company’s failure can be attributed mostly to the recklessness and dishonest of Frazer’s partner Harry Denston. Frazer and Denston have however been friends for a long time and Frazer was well aware of Harry’s character flaws and he probably should have had enough sense not to go into business with him.

Now Harry has disappeared. That’s not unusual. Harry often has reason to make himself scarce for a while. What is unusual is that Tim Frazer has been asked to find Harry. He has been asked by a man named Ross who works for a government department. He cannot give any details about this department apart from the fact that it was access to large amounts of money about which the British taxpayer knows nothing and it has rather sweeping powers. In fact it seems to have more or less unlimited powers. It’s not MI5 but it’s obviously some shadowy counter-intelligence agency. And they’ve offered Tim Frazer a very generous salary. Tim Frazer is now a spy, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is now a spy-catcher. He has absolutely no training or expertise but he does know Harry Denston’s habits extremely well and this mysterious department has certain reasons for not wanting to use one of their own people on this case.

Frazer does have a few leads that might lead him to Harry. He knows that for some reason Harry’s car is terribly important. He knows that the seaside town of Henton, a drowned Russian sailor and a little girl named Anya are important. And the frigate North Star, which foundered in 1794, is extremely important.

Tim Frazer may be a rank amateur but he shows a certain flair for the game of espionage. He’s intelligent and he’s naturally suspicious of people and their motives. He’s good at spotting lies and he’s also quite good at bluffing people. There are a lot of lies to untangle but Frazer is patient and determined. He is just a little shocked when he has to confront the fact that this is a game in which people can get badly hurt or even killed but he recovers his equilibrium quickly enough. And he discovers that killing people isn’t all that difficult. He doesn’t like it but he can do it if he has to.

This is a low-key spy thriller. The world of Tim Frazer is a long way from the world of James Bond. There are no gadgets. There are no glamorous lady spies throwing themselves at him. There’s not a great deal of action. There is some violence. It’s not graphic violence but when it occurs it occurs suddenly and with a certain casual brutality.

Durbridge throws in enough plot twists to keep things interesting. Tim Frazer is, initially at least, working completely in the dark. He hasn’t been told why it is so vital that Harry should be found. He has been given no indication whatsoever as to exactly what Harry may have done. He doesn’t know who the bad guys are. He doesn’t know who he can trust. He doesn’t have any idea where Harry might have gone to. The reader knows as much as Frazer knows, which is virtually nothing. There’s a mystery to be unravelled but the mystery is not just the identity of the criminal but also the nature of the crime.

While The World of Tim Frazer has none of the glamour of Bond it also lacks the nihilism and pessimism that became increasingly prevalent in spy fiction during the 60s. Even in 1962 it must have had a slightly old-fashioned feel but on the whole it works and it’s enjoyable. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rex Stout's Cordially Invited to Meet Death

Cordially Invited to Meet Death is a 1942 Nero Wolfe novella by Rex Stout, published as a double-header with Black Orchids.

Bess Huddleston organises parties. She organises parties for very very rich people and she gets paid an enormous amount of money for offering this service. Now someone is sending letters that could ruin her business. Nero Wolfe isn’t particularly interested in the case but the fee being offered is very substantial, and Nero Wolfe is always very interested in substantial fees.

Nobody really expected that it would end in murder. The circumstances limit the possible suspects to five. There’s Miss Huddleston’s brother Daniel (whose bizarre chemical experiments she finances), her virtually unemployable nephew Larry, her secretary Maryella Timms, her party-organising chief assistant Janet Nicholls and a certain Dr Brady. The chimpanzee is almost certainly innocent and the bears have an alibi.

The centrepiece of this novella is the unusual murder method. Whether it would actually work in practice is perhaps open to debate but it certainly sounds chillingly plausible. And very difficult indeed to prove.

Cordially Invited to Meet Death is also notable as an example of Wolfe’s stubbornness. Inspector Cramer should know by know that trying to bully Wolfe just irritates him without achieving anything. It can irritate Wolfe so much that it inspires him to solve a case that he would otherwise not trouble himself over.

On balance it’s probably just as well Archie didn’t take his gun with him on his first visit to the Huddleston estate. There was no reason to shoot the chimpanzee. He was just playing. And the alligators were just being alligators.

Incidentally, those famous black orchids make an appearance in this story.

This story has a pretty decent plot. It’s very fairly clued but there’s enough misdirection to keep us guessing (well it managed to keep me guessing anyway). Wolfe’s solution is satisfying. Wolfe is in pretty good form. There’s a fairly colourful cast of suspects. There are some eccentric and even bizarre elements. And had he not taken the case Wolfe would never have discovered the secret of a really successful corned beef hash. A case that has a genuine gastronomic payoff is always a satisfactory case.

Cordially Invited to Meet Death is a most enjoyable tale. Highly recommended. And the edition that includes both this novella and the also excellent Black Orchids is a must-buy for Wolfe fans.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Space 1999: Android Planet

Gerry Anderson’s 1975-77 science fiction television series Space: 1999 spawned quite a lot of spin-off merchandising. This included a whole series of novelisations, but more interestingly it also included five original novels.

One of these original novels was John Rankine’s Android Planet, which was originally published  in 1976 and it's a pretty decent science fiction tale.

Here’s the link to my full review of Android Planet at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Harold Lamb's Swords from the East

Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was an historian and screenwriter as well as a prolific writer of adventure novels and short stories. He wrote for various magazines but his best known stories appeared in Adventure magazine which was a pulp magazine, but a rather up-market one. Being also a successful popular historian gave Lamb a slightly higher degree of literary respectability than most pulp writers.

Bison Books have issued virtually all of Lamb’s stories in a series of paperback editions. The paperbacks are rather generous - most include one or two short novels as well as a dozen or so short stories and novellas so they’re pretty solid value.

Swords from the East includes his tales of Mongols, Tatars and other Asiatic peoples. Lamb had a considerable amount of sympathy for both European and non-European cultures. This collection even includes a very favourable view of Genghis Khan.

The Gate in the Sky is a simple little tale of a gentle reindeer herder. He loves his reindeer so much that when he needs meat he hunts other game but will not harm his reindeer. Now someone has stolen his herd. He is outnumbered and has only a bow and is up against men with guns but he must get his herd back. Perhaps the gate in the sky will open for him.

The Wolf-Chaser is the tale of a Christian knight a long long way from home. In 1660 Hugo of Hainault finds himself in the wilds of Tartary, in search of his brother Paul. Paul is a priest. Hugo is really not much of a Christian and he didn’t get on all that well with his brother but a brother is still a brother and Hugo has a stubborn streak. Having set himself to find Paul that’s what he is going to do. He finds himself in the middle of a war. It is not his quarrel, he is not a man who would normally concern himself with conflicts not involving gentlemen, and he regards the Tatars as savages. But he does have that stubborn streak and he does get involved.

The Three Palladins is a short novel. A young Chinese prince discovers that he has an enemy at court. A very deadly enemy. It is only by the merest chance that Mingan escapes with his life. Beyond the Great Wall he encounters a young Mongol prince named Temujin (destined to become rather better known as Genghis Khan). This is a complex story of friendships and loyalties. It’s also a story about heroes but these are heroes who are more than just mighty warriors. It’s an epic tale but the focus is on the men who drive great events rather than on the events themselves. An excellent tale.

The House of the Strongest is an odd little tale of a Mongol whose immense strength wins him wealth and a beautiful wife, but not his wife’s respect. At least not at first.

Sleeping Lion is a story that unfortunately has not survived in a complete form. It’s a pity since it’s an interesting tale of Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan, and of a fabulous ruby and of a young concubine. Not to mention an unscrupulous drunken astrologer.

The Road of the Giants is another short novel. In 1771 Scottish cartographer Captain Minard Billings  is employed to make a map of the Tatar steppe. He is caught up in a revolt of the Tatars. Not an ordinary revolt though - rather than taking up arms against their Russian overlords the tribes have decided simply to leave, to return to their ancestral homelands far to the east. This will not please the Russian empress, now deprived of the taxes paid by the tribes and of their services in war against the Turks. It will also cause difficulties for the tribes since those ancestral homelands are now occupied by others. It could become a death march. Captain Billings is an unwilling participant in the march, there is a major complication in the form of the clever but dangerous girl Nadesha and there’s also the fact the son of the khan and the tribe’s Tibetan guide and advisor both very much want him dead.

This is another story of unlikely friendships and surprising and complicated loyalties. And it’s another story about the complex nature of heroism. These are the things that Lamb writes about exceptionally well.

Azadi’s Jest concerns a woman of the sultan’s harem and a cossack prisoner who is being put to the torture. The woman thinks the cossack has cast a spell on her. Perhaps they have in fact cast spells on each other, love being a kind of spell. But both will face extreme danger as a result. A good little story.

The Net is a bit like The Gate in the Sky, a story of vengeance coming from an unexpected quarter. A young girl, the niece of a blind fisherman, is carried off by traders. They think they are safe from retribution but they are wrong. A good simple little story.

The Book of the Tiger, in two parts (The Warrior and The Emperor) is the fascinating true story of Babur, the first of the Moghul emperors of India, and is based on Babur’s own autobiography. At times ruthless, at times extraordinarily reckless, Babur comes across as a rather attractive character, a leader with genuine substance. And a leader to whom loyalty was important (loyalty and friendship being key themes in Lamb’s fiction).

Swords from the East provides plenty of rousing adventure combined with a surprising degree of psychological insight and subtlety. Highly recommended.

Swords from the West and Swords from the Desert, also from Bison Books, are also highly recommended.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mr Fortune Explains

Mr Fortune Explains is a 1930 short story collection from the pen of H.C. Bailey and featuring Reginald Fortune, a kind of scientific and medical advisor to Scotland Yard.

The Reggie Fortune stories were immensely popular in their day and have since fallen into almost total obscurity.

These stories are very entertaining and Reggie Fortune is an amusing and rather likeable eccentric genius detective.

The weakness of these stories is that they’re not remotely fair play. Most of Mr Fortune’s cases seem trivial and routine at first and the authorities are usually all that interested. Reggie Fortune however knows that the cases are not straightforward at all. Terrible crimes are being committed (or at least planned) and no-one would care or even suspect were it not for the fact that Mr Fortune has seized on some vital piece of evidence that leads to the uncovering of a frightful conspiracy.

It’s not a bad formula but the problem is that it relies entirely on some extraordinary leap of intuition on the part of Mr Fortune. Even when the solution is explained the chain of reasoning that led Reggie Fortune to the explanation of the puzzle is just not there. We’re left to believe that he must have relied on divine inspiration or that he has some supernatural or paranormal powers of perception that are denied to mere mortals, such as the readers of these tales.

The first story in this collection, The Picnic, is a good example. The brother of a nobleman is the victim of a violent assault. From this Mr Fortune is not only able to deduce the existence of a conspiracy to kidnap a young heir but can fill in just about all the details of the elaborate plot.

The second story, The Little Milliner, involves a missing shop girl. She has most likely run off with a gentleman. What little evidence there is points in that direction. Mr Fortune however knows that the young shop girl has been the victim of a terrible conspiracy. The shop girl’s story is clever enough but again Mr Fortune appears to solve the puzzle by means of lucky guesswork or pure intuition.

The Wedding Ring is delightfully convoluted. There’s a doctor who needs to consult Mr Fortune urgently but the doctor disappears. Later his wife disappears. Someone tries to murder Reggie Fortune. It may have something to do with industrial espionage. There are all sorts of people who aren’t what they seem to be. It’s all thoroughly enjoyable.

In The Football Photograph Reggie is involved in investigating a smash-and-grab raid on a jewellery store. This is nicely complicated police procedural sort of stuff with some obscure but amusing clues. This is also Reggie Fortune at his most devious, laying an elaborate and clever trap for a murderer. An excellent story.

The Rock Garden takes Mr Fortune into the countryside. He’s been invited to see the rock garden belonging to a Mr Briggs and he’s fairly confident that Briggs does not possess a rock garden. This interests Mr Fortune enough to convince him to accept the invitation. It turns out there are other mysteries besides the rick garden, like the missing window in the library, and those rapping sounds that only Briggs seems to hear. This is a nice little mystery with its roots in the distant past.

The Silver Cross is a clue in what seems like a fairly trivial robbery. The chief suspect is a man of the cloth but the silver cross is not a Christian cross even though it implicates the clergyman. The problem with the cross as Reggie Fortune sees it is that it makes the police case both too easy and too difficult. He’s very unhappy about it. The clergyman meanwhile is causing all sorts of difficulties - he is obviously hiding something but he is a remarkably stubborn man. There’s also the question of the local squire’s extraordinary hostility to the Reverend Neath, and the squire’s daughter’s odd behaviour. Not to mention some worrying medical evidence. This tale is a fine example of Reggie Fortune’s ability to turn a very minor case into a very major case by continually worrying about a problem. Another good story.

In The Bicycle Lamp a village policeman is knocked down by a car and killed. A tragic accident but the police doctor is perfectly satisfied as is the Chief Constable. And that’s where the matter would have rested had it not been for the fact that Mr Fortune and his friend Mr Justice Platt not been the first on the scene. To Reggie the evidence is quite satisfactory except that it’s obvious that no such accident occurred at the spot where the body was found. Reggie is accused of theorising and he is most indignant, insisting that he is merely following where the evidence leads. The trouble is that sometimes the evidence leads to unpleasant conclusions. In this case Mr Fortune has to deal with the official mind and the official mind in this case seems to be either notably lacking in zeal or infected with disturbingly excessive zeal. It’s a case that just gets out of control.

Bailey often seems like an author with more interest in the moral side of crime than in the simple solving of puzzles. Mr Fortune is by and large a loyal servant of the inexorable forces of law and order but it’s something that on occasions causes him a good deal of distress. The law can be a distressingly blunt instrument.

The Face in the Picture takes Bailey’s method to an extreme. Reggie Fortune is in Paris and sees two paintings at the Salon, both by the same artist. There’s something very wrong with one of the paintings. Or perhaps it’s the other painting that’s wrong. Or perhaps they’re both wrong. One thing Mr Fortune is sure of - there’s definite wrongness here. It is fortunate that his friend M. Dubois of the Sûreté is used to Reggie’s instincts. And of course once it becomes obvious that there’s a lady involved, then M. Dubois is most anxious to help. A crime has been committed, although the nature of the crime is by no means obvious. The extraordinary thinness of the clue (if you could even go so far as to call it a clue) that puts Reggie on the trail of a desperate criminal should be a fatal weakness but Bailey, like Reggie Fortune, has such boundless confidence in his instincts that he just about makes this story work. Not quite, but one still has to admire the daring of the attempt.

Some readers will be entranced by both Mr Fortune himself and the stories in this collection. Others will be exasperated. Personally I find both the stories and Reggie both entrancing and exasperating in equal measure but at least they’re never dull. Mr Fortune is an acquired taste but be warned - he can be addictive. Mr Fortune Explains is recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Dusty Ayres And His Battle Birds #1 Black Lightning

American pulp writer Robert Sidney Bowen (1900-1977) had served with the British Royal Air Force in the First World War. He worked as an aviation journalist and in the 30s he turned to pulp fiction. His first successful creation was Dusty Ayres who featured in the short-lived Popular Publications pulp magazine Dusty Ayres And His Battle Birds.

Black Lightning is the first novel length instalment in the Dusty Ayres saga. Captain Dusty Ayres in a U.S. Air Force pilot in a crack High Speed squadron. He flies the Silver Flash, a highly advanced high speed pursuit fighter which is the only one of its kind.

And now war has finally arrived. The fearsome barbarian hordes, the so-called Black Invaders, have overrun Asia and are now completing their conquest of Europe. Only the United States now remains to defy their power! The Black Invaders are led by the self-styled Emperor of the World, the mysterious man known only as Fire-Eyes.

Dusty Ayres is given a vital mission by X34, the Intelligence chief in Washington. The only safe and secure way to get urgent mobilisation orders to the various area commanders of U.S. forces is by delivering the orders by hand. That’s Dusty’s job. It proves to be far more difficult than expected.

The invaders have been so successful in sweeping through Europe because they undermine their enemies before attacking them, with huge numbers of spies and saboteurs and secret agents preparing the way. These secret agents have already been infiltrated into the United States. In fact the subversive activities on American soil have been on a vast scale, with entire secret underground bases established. High-powered transmitters have been emplaced which will be used to jam all radio communications and paralyse the American defences.

And trying to prevent Ayres from carrying out his mission is the most deadly pilot in the Black Invaders aerial forces, the dreaded Black Hawk.

This first novel in the series is rather vague about the origins of the Black Invaders. Given that they have come out of Central Asia they are presumably a kind of modern version of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, but with very high-tech weaponry. So this is essentially a Yellow Peril tale. It also belongs to the Future War genre, a genre that first emerged at the end of the 19th century. And of course it also belongs to yet another pulp genre, the aviation adventure genre, and it qualifies as science fiction as well. It has pretty much every pulp base covered.

Dusty Ayres is your typical square-jawed Yankee action hero, insanely brave and with unquenchable determination. In this first adventure there are perhaps some slight doubts about his judgment although in his defence it has to be said that he’s put in situations where he has to make split-second decisions based on very incomplete information.

Fire-Eyes is obviously the chief villain, a cross between Genghis Khan and Dr Fu Manchu, but he’s a shadowy figure. Black Hawk is the villain we see most of and he’s more than just a crack pilot - he’s the commander of the air forces of the Black Invaders and clearly is very high up in the Black Invaders hierarchy. It’s interesting that despite the central Asian origins of his barbarian horde the author is not very interested in the race issue. In fact it’s hardly mentioned. The villainy of the Black Invaders seems to be mainly due to the fact that they’re not American and they don’t believe in democracy. In fact the author may have been more intent on telling a Red Peril tale (the evils of Bolshevism) rather than a Yellow Peril tale.

Having said all that you’ll be relieved to know that the book still manages to be fairly politically incorrect.

Dusty Ayres is initially a solitary hero but Black Lightning introduces a figure who will apparently be a crucial ally to him in subsequent instalments.

The style is exactly what you expect from the pulps, full of breathless excitement and generously laced with action and thrills.

If air combat adventure combined with weird fiction and/or science fiction elements is a cocktail that appeals to you then the pulp writer you need to seek out is Donald E. Keyhoe (Strange War, the Richard Knight stories, etc). He did that sort of thing better than anyone. But Black Lightning is still a good deal of fun and the Dusty Ayres series seems to have definite promise. Recommended.

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.