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.