Friday, November 8, 2019

A for Andromeda

A for Andromeda is a novelisation of one of the most famous science fiction television series of all time, a series that gave Julie Christie her first big break. The seven-part serial was screened on the BBC in 1961. Tragically the BBC, in its infinite wisdom, later destroyed the entire series apart from one of the seven episodes. The follow-up series, The Andromeda Breakthrough (in which Susan Hampshire replaced Julie Christie), survives and was also novelised  (I’ll be reviewing it soon).

The A for Andromeda TV series was co-written by astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. The novelisation was credited to Hoyle and Elliot. It was written by Elliot but the idea and the story were Hoyle’s.

The audio of the entire TV series does survive and the missing episodes have been reconstructed using the audio and production stills (of which there were hundreds) so it’s possible to get a reasonable idea of what it was like and how it compares to the novelisation.

A new British radio-telescope has just been commissioned. And they’ve discovered something rather interesting. And rather startling. It’s a signal, from the region of the Andromeda constellation. A signal that appears to have meaning. It may even be a message. A message that has taken two hundred years reach us.

Dr Fleming, who was the first to realise that the signal was an intelligible message, has figured what the message is. It’s a set of instructions. In fact it’s a design, for a super-computer. And the message also contains the data to run through this computer.

Oddly enough the super-computer, once built, seems extraordinarily interested in how the human body works, about our biochemistry, our DNA, all that sort of stuff. It seems to be interested in producing a design for something else. Something biological. This is all starting to worry Dr Fleming. The more he thinks about it the more sinister implications he sees.

This is a first contact story but an intriguingly unconventional one. There’s no actual contact with aliens. The alien planet is 200 light years away and this book assumes that faster-than-light travel, or communication, really is impossible. There’s no possibility of actual communication. The only contact is the message containing the design for a computer, for a biological something, and lots of data. The aliens are not going to be arriving in spaceships. The only aliens in the story are the ones created by humans, following the alien design. Those aliens have no means of contacting their home planet. And are they truly alien? Are they human-like alien creations or alien-like human creations or some kind of alien-human hybrid? Are they alive or are they machines, or are they biological machines?

The book addresses the political, social and existential consequences of this and of hybridisation but it also explores the personal and psychological consequences. There’s a certain “trapped between two cultures” element as far as the heroine (or villainess depending on your point of view) is concerned.

This was 1961, a time when computers still used punch cards, but the primitiveness of the computers doesn’t matter. The ideas of human-machine interfaces and human-machine hybrids, are as provocative and as relevant as ever. This is a tale that deals with concepts like artificial intelligence, post-humanism, the fuzzy boundaries between biological and machine life, what it means to be human, what our ultimate destiny might be and the problem of the extent to which there can be genuine communication, and more importantly genuine trust, between human and alien and human and machine. This is a story that is really not even slightly dated.

While Elliot may have written the book it’s probably fair to assume that most of the interesting hard science fictional ideas were Hoyle’s. This is classic high-concept big-ideas science fiction.

While this is hard science fiction it’s also to some extent a spy thriller. It’s set in the late 60s, in a world in which the West is threatened and anxious and Britain is little more than an American satellite state. It’s also a world in which gigantic corporate cartels wield immense power and one of these cartels is extremely interested in that message from Andromeda. The government and the military are also very interested in the products of that alien design and they’re possibly less trustworthy even than the aliens. They’re certainly far more stupid and short-sighted.

A for Andromeda is smart provocative science fiction. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 1, 2019

L. Ron Hubbard's Typewriter in the Sky

Typewriter in the Sky is an intriguing and unconventional 1940 science fiction/fantasy/adventure novel by L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986).

Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard. The inventor of Dianetics, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Everyone knows that Hubbard was a science fiction writer but it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that he was probably a bad science fiction writer and that nobody apart from Scientologists bothers to read his novels, or should bother to read them. And the fact that people tend to have very strong views on the subject of Scientology makes it very hard for them to approach anything he did without either idolatry or extreme hostility. In fact feelings on the subject can run so high that it might be advisable at this point for me to state that I am not a Scientologist, I know very little about Scientology and I have no particular axe to grind one way or the other.

The truth is that, leaving Scientology aside, on the evidence of Typewriter in the Sky Hubbard was a very good and very interesting science fiction writer. And he was also a highly successful one.

Typewriter in the Sky is a clever and very unconventional novel. The ideas that Hubbard is playing around with have become quite familiar having been used many times since. It has to be kept in mind that when Hubbard wrote this novel in 1940 those ideas were fresh and wildly original.

Horace Hackett is a pulp writer. Like most pulp writers he works in various genres but he is best known for his adventure stories. He has received a generous advance from his publisher Jules Montcalm for his latest potboiler. Being a writer he naturally spent the money immediately.

Hackett’s problem is that he has not actually written the novel. He has not even started writing it. He has not even given the matter any real thought. And now his publisher wants the manuscript and he wants it yesterday. If not yesterday, then he certainly wants it now. Montcalm confronts him in his apartment, where he’s idly chatting with his buddy Mike de Wolf, and demands to be given at the very least an outline of the plot. Hackett has to think fast and he bluffs his way through by making up an outlandish plot on the spot. Montcalm is particularly anxious to know about the villain. Since Hackett does not yet have a villain he bluffs again by constructing a villain, a Spanish admiral named Miguel de Lobo, based on his buddy Mike.

And then Mike suddenly finds himself wading ashore on a Caribbean island with dim memories of standing on the poop deck of his flagship which has just fought an unsuccessful action against English pirates. When confronted by a couple of pirates on the beach he dispatches them with his rapier. Which is odd because a moment ago he was unarmed. Mike is taken in by a beautiful young woman, the daughter of the English governor of the island, but the locals want to hang him as a damned Spanish Papist. In 1640 the English were not fond of Spanish Papists. For it seems that Mike is no longer in the year 1940 but the year 1640.

The other odd thing is a strange sound that he hears in the sky. It almost sounds like a typewriter.

A horrible realisation hits Mike. He is a character in a Horace Hackett pirate story. Being a fictional character is bad enough but being a character in a Horace Hackett novel is much worse - it means he is a fictional character in a very bad novel. Which explains why some of the historical details seem to be totally wrong - Hackett is a hack writer notorious for his lack of interest in historical accuracy. It also explains why Mike finds himself speaking in pulp fiction clichés - he’s talking like a character in a Horace Hackett novel. And then the worst point of all strikes Mike - he’s not just a fictional charter, he’s the villain, and he knows what happens to Horace Hackett’s villains.

It’s a good premise but what’s really impressive is how cleverly and how wittily Hubbard exploits it. The reader is in on the joke right from the start. Hubbard is not trying to bamboozle the reader - it’s poor Mike who is bewildered. He knows from the start that he’s become a fictional character but he doesn’t know the rules. Is he a mere puppet, dancing to Hackett’s tune? Does he have any actual control over the outcome of events? Can he determine his own destiny? Is he even speaking his own lines or just the lines that Hackett feeds him? Of course the question of how much control we have over our destinies applies to all of us to some extent, not just fictional characters. Maybe we’re all just playing parts written for us by a typewriter in the sky. The problem is that we’re never sure if we’re playing a rôle in a farce or a tragedy, or just a meaningless pulp tale cranked out by a hack writer.

Hubbard explores these existential questions but he never gets pompous or tedious about it. It’s clever and occasionally quite thought-provoking but the tone remains playful. Life is just a pulp fiction story so why get worked up about it?

The basic idea had been tentatively explored in experimental fiction but I think it’s true to say that Hubbard was the first to see its potential for a science fiction story. And although these ideas have been tackled many times since I don’t think they’ve ever been done with quite such lightness of touch.

Typewriter in the Sky is both an adventure story and a parody of adventure stories, both an existential tale and a science fiction tale, and it works equally well on all these levels. It’s amusing and intelligent and immense fun. Very highly recommended.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Charlie Chan Carries On

Charlie Chan Carries On was the fifth Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933). It was published in 1930.

An elderly American man named Drake is found murdered in an up-market London hotel. Mr Drake had been part of an American around-the-world tour group organised by a Dr Lofton. Circumstances suggest that one of the members of the party must have been the murderer.

It’s a tough case for Chief Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. No-one has a decent alibi and there are several shady characters in the party. A key attached to a watch chain seems likely to be an important clue but discovering just what it is that the key unlocks proves to be a baffling mystery.

With no real evidence there is no way to prevent the tour from continuing but Chief Inspector Duff isn’t giving up. His hunt for the killer will take him to France and Italy and it will take Detective-Sergeant Welby to Calcutta and thence to Yokohoma. And the tour part will leave a trail of corpses behind it.

But what has all this to do with Charlie Chan? Nothing at all. At least, nothing at all until a fateful day in Honolulu (well over halfway through the book) makes this a case for Detective Inspector Chan of the Honolulu Police Department. And a case with an unexpected very personal significance for Charlie. And it now becomes a classic shipboard mystery story. All the possible suspects are on board the ship steaming from Honolulu to San Francisco and Charlie has six days to discover which one is the killer.

Charlie is not sure whether to be pleased or appalled that he will have the assistance of Kashimo on the trip. Kashimo is a young Japanese Honolulu P.D. detective renowned for his ability to bungle the simplest tasks. Charlie tolerates him for two reasons. Firstly, his bungling is largely due to inexperience and excessive zeal. And secondly, for all his faults there is one aspect of police work at which Kashimo excels. When it comes to conducting a search he is very close to being a genius. He can find a clue that no other living policeman could find. And Kashimo will find just such a clue on this voyage.

I’m a huge fan of both shipboard mysteries and murder stories set in exotic locales and this one scores highly on both counts.

Charlie Chan Carries On was famed by Fox in 1931 with Warner Oland as Chan. Unfortunately this is now a lost film. One of the later Sidney Toler Chan films, the excellent Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, was also loosely based on the novel.

Despite their immense popularity in their day the Charlie Chan novels don’t (in my opinion) get as much respect as they deserve. Perhaps Biggers’ premature death in 1933 has something to do with this. Charlie Chan Carries On is not quite as good as The Black Camel but it’s still highly recommended.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, providing another example of Greene’s ability to set his stories in places that were just about to hit the headlines (in 1959 Castro came to power).

Our Man in Havana is a spy story. It is the cynical, humorous and absurd tale of Jim Wormold, not exactly one of the shining lights of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mr Wormold lives in Havana. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is moderately successful but unfortunately he has a daughter. That’s not unfortunate in itself but the daughter, Milly, is at the age at which daughters become very very expensive. Even worse, Milly has now conceived a passion for horses. She must have one. There is simply no way Mr Wormold can afford the upkeep on a horse as well as a daughter.

So it seems like a stroke of good luck when Mr Wormold is approached by Hawthorne. Hawthorne works for MI6 and he’s in the process of setting up an espionage network in Cuba. Hawthorne believe that a vacuum cleaner salesman is the perfect cover for a spy. Mr Wormold knows nothing of the world of espionage and has no interest in politics but the $150 a month plus expenses that Hawthorne offers him interests him quite a bit. So Mr Wormold becomes MI6’s man in Havana.

Initially Wormold is a bit worried by the fact that he nothing about the world of spies and knows nothing about recruiting agents but then he realises that it doesn’t matter. The network of agents he’s supposed to recruit don’t have to actually exist. The information he sends back to London doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to sound convincing. Pretty soon he has a whole network of imaginary agents and he’s sending off detailed reports to London with lots of disturbing information, none of it rel. He’s even sent them drawings of high-tech weaponry at a new top-secret military installation. The fact that these sophisticated weapons look a bit like parts of a vacuum cleaner somehow gets overlooked in all the excitement.

The head of MI6, C, is convinced that Wormold is  the most valuable agent they’ve ever had. The more fanciful his intelligence reports become the more certain C is that they must be true.

Things are going very nicely for Mr Wormold. Until somebody starts trying to kill his agents. Which is very disturbing since those agents don’t actually exist. Fiction is becoming reality.

Graham Greene of course had been a real-life spy for the British. He knew the incompetence and stupidity of MI6 at first hand. He knew that much of the intelligence provided by spies was simply fantasies concocted by the spies. The more intelligence you provide the more likely it is that the intelligence agency for which you work will continue to pay you. The intelligence doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be the sort of thing that the intelligence agency wants to hear.

Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926. After the Second World War, and probably not coincidentally after his stint with MI6, Greene’s politics became steadily more leftist although it’s important to keep in mind that he was an old school leftist with nothing in common with the leftism of today. And while his Catholicisjm seems to recede into the background a little it’s also important to remember that he saw no conflict whatsoever between left-wing politics and Catholicism.

When he wrote this novel Greene seems to have been going through one of his upbeat phases (he was prone to frequent bouts of extreme depression). Wormold is more sympathetic than most Greene protagonists (you can’t really call any of Greene’s protagonists heroes). He’s a timid little man but he’s not a hopeless alcoholic and he hasn’t given in to despair or nihilism. He knows little about raising children but he’s managed to be a reasonably good father. He’s a nice guy. He isn’t very honest but he has no wish to do any harm to anybody. He thinks the espionage stuff is all very silly but if MI6 are foolish enough to pay him money he’ll take it. Even when he gets himself into deep trouble he doesn’t give in to despair. Whether he can extricate himself from the mess might be extremely doubtful but at least he’s going to try.

Despite the fact that Wormold never does any actual spying Our Man in Havana manages to be an enjoyable and exciting spy thriller. It’s also superb satire, and very funny. Greene’s contempt for spies is palpable and as in The Quiet American there’s an awareness of how much harm can be done by bungling intelligence agencies but it’s combined with genuine amusement.

A wonderful book. Very highly recommended.

Monday, October 7, 2019

F. Van Wyck Mason’s The Singapore Exile Murders

The Singapore Exile Murders was the fourteenth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s long-running and very successful series of spy thrillers featuring Hugh North of G-2, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. It appeared in 1939. Van Wyck Mason was a very strong believer in the virtues of exotic settings.

Captain North is already in a tight spot when the book opens. The British flying boat on which he was travelling from Hongkong to Singapore has run into a severe storm, so severe that it is forced down and takes shelter in the lagoon of a tiny uninhabited island. The aircraft is damaged and once the storm has blown itself out the flight to Singapore will be resumed. The danger is past. Or is it? In fact one of the passengers is destined not to reach Singapore alive.

The unexpected stopover gives North a chance to study his fellow passengers and they’re a more than unusually interesting lot. There are hints that some of them may not be quite what they seem. The wealthy Dutch businessman Barentse seems rather anxious about a big deal he is planning and about which he is very close-mouthed. His part-Javanese dancer girlfriend strikes North as am exceptionally jealous and perhaps even dangerous woman. Joan Buckley appears to be a respectable American girl but there are things abut her that just don’t fit. The White Russian Urbaniev might well be, like most White Russians, involved in plots. The haughty middle-aged Lady Helen Twining-Twyffort has her secrets. And muck-raking columnist Irene Walsh seems to be even better at discovering people’s secrets than the professional intelligence officer North, and discovering people’s secrets can be a risky business.

North is on a case, trying to track down a cashiered U.S. Army officer named Melville who has access to very highly classified material. North is intrigued to note that several of his fellow passengers are linked in some way to Melville.

Murder on an aircraft is an idea that was not used as often as you might expect in the interwar years although of course there were a few celebrated detective novels on that theme.

The first half of the book focuses to a large extent on North’s efforts to find the murderer, since it seems a reasonable assumption that the murder of someone linked to Melville is likely to be the key to finding him. North does discover the identity of the killer and finds that his difficulties have only just begun. The book now becomes more of a spy thriller but with plenty of plot twists still left up its sleeves.

North is a thorough professional but he’s also a man who enjoys the good life. By the good life he means high quality liquor and high quality women, both of which he consumes in large quantities. He is therefore by no means disappointed that there are two beautiful women who seem to be very intimately involved in the case. There is the glamorous part-Javanese dancer Madé Sayu, whose talents run to more than dancing. And there is all-American girl Joan Buckley. One of them might be a foreign agent. In fact both might be spies. Or both might be innocent. Fortunately both make charming companions so North doesn’t mind that he has to get to know them better, strictly in the line of duty of course. He also has to bear in mind that beautiful lady spies can potentially be quite deadly.

Naturally, this being 1939, there’s no graphic violence or sex. There is at times though a slightly grimmer atmosphere than you might expect. There’s some action and plenty of suspense.

The political aspects are interesting. The story takes place during the Munich Crisis in 1938. A major war seems imminent and no-one knows how many countries might eventually be drawn in. For an intelligence agent it’s a time of extreme paranoia. There are spies from several different countries mixed up in the Melville business, including Britain and Japan. The United States is of course at peace with all these countries but when it comes to the world of espionage every nation has to be considered a potential enemy. It’s actually the British rather than the Japanese that North is particularly worried by.

Van Wyck Mason’s spy thrillers are rather more serious in tone than most of the spy fiction of the inter-war years. They’re certainly too serious and too realistic to be regarded as pulp fiction. On the other hand they don’t have the literary pretensions of a Graham Greene or an Eric Ambler story. They are actually quite close in feel to John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels (such as Thank You, Mr Moto) although Marquand is a bit more literary and a bit more stylish.

The Singapore Exile Murders is a fine spy thriller. Highly recommended.

You should also check out Mason’s earlier The Budapest Parade Murders and the truly excellent The Branded Spy Murders.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

three more Ellery Queen TV episodes

Over on my Cult TV Lounge blog I’ve posted some remarks on a further three episodes of the truly excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series.

The episodes in question are The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument, The Adventure of the Lover's Leap and The Adventure of Veronica's Veils.

Here’s the link to the post.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Ellen Wilkinson's The Division Bell Mystery

The Division Bell Mystery, published in 1932, was the only detective novel written by British Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. It’s a locked-room mystery of sorts and it’s hardly surprising that she chose to set her story in the House of Commons.

The British Government has been negotiating a loan with an American financier, a Mr Oissel. Oissel is having dinner with the Home Secretary in one of the parliamentary dining rooms. The Home Secretary has to leave his guest for a few minutes to vote in a division and while he’s out of the room a shot is heard. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Robert West, bursts in to find the financier dead. It seems to be suicide - there was no-one else in the room and no-one could have left without being seen. But of course it was not suicide. It was murder.

West finds himself having to play amateur detective. It’s not that Inspector Blackitt of Scotland Yard isn’t competent but the case has political implications and there are things that the Government might prefer the police not to know. In fact the case could provoke a full-scale political crisis, especially given that the Home Secretary’s involvement in the loan may have been at best unwise and indiscreet.

West being a very young MP (just twenty-nine). He would probably be wise not to confide in anybody but he’s in over his head and he’s not at all sure what he should do and he ends up confiding in just about everybody. Including journalists, City financiers, old school chums, left-wing lady Labour MPs and the granddaughter of the dead financier.

Of course it’s important to find the murderer but for West, the Home Secretary and just about everyone else the main focus is on saving the government. In fact nobody really cares about the murder very much at all.

Given Wilkinson’s politics you might be concerned that they would intrude on the story. And you’d be right to be concerned. She treats us to endless lectures on feminism.

It’s interesting that Wilkinson, a firebrand left-wing Labour MP, chose to make her hero a Tory junior MP. And not just a Tory, but a thoroughly decent fellow as well. But in fact he turns out not to be the hero of the story at all - that rôle is filled by a rather embarrassing Mary Sue in the person of a female Labour MP.

The author seems much more interested in the political intrigues than in the murder mystery. As a detective story it’s an abject failure. There’s no actual detecting. The solution is pulled out of a hat. The vital clues are not revealed until the end. The solution is too obvious. Wilkinson fails to provide the other suspects with any viable motives and she fails to provide any convincing red herrings.

As a political thriller it had some potential but that potential is never developed. It gradually loses whatever slight interest it might have had.

The only bright spot is that we get some fascinating details about parliamentary procedure and the architectural oddities of the Houses of Parliament.

Once again the real mystery here is why the British Library chose to include this book in its Classic Crime reprints series. They’ve reprinted a few real gems but they’ve also reissued far too many mediocre titles. The Division Bell Mystery is a mess. Definitely not recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Secret Service Operator #5 - The Masked Invasion

Operator #5 (later renamed Secret Service Operator #5) was a pulp magazine of which 48 issues were published from 1934 to 1939. Initially each issue contained a standalone novel although later in the run The Purple Invasion was a connected cycle of thirteen novels. Frederick C. Davis wrote the first twenty issues. Later issues were written by Emile C. Tepperman and Wayne Rogers but all the novels were credited to Curtis Steele. The first novel was The Masked Invasion.

The hero of the series was a young man named Jimmy Christopher, who poses as a fashionable photographer named Carleton Victor but who is in fact Operator #5 of the United States Intelligence Service. He gets some invaluable assistance from a young Irish lad named Tim Donovan (Having the hero assisted by a brave teenaged boy was obviously a good way to appeal to the likely readership of pulps). Jimmy also gets occasional help from his identical twin sister Nan (yes I know that if they’re brother and sister they can’t be identical twins but hey it’s only a story). Jimmy’s dad, an ex-Secret Service man, also pitches in at times.

The Masked Invasion begins with a blackout in New York City but it’s more than a blackout. Everything stops working, including cars and even devices powered by batteries. There have been a series of these blackouts, each longer and covering a larger area than the previous one. There’s some dastardly plan behind all this, probably connected with the sinister Loo Kong (the Yellow Peril theme would be explored more fully in later issues) although Loo Kong is not the mastermind behind it.

The blackouts are caused by a Negative Ray machine invented by a brilliant but eccentric scientist. Obviously the Negative Ray machine will have to be tucked down but in the meantime other precautions must be taken. Fortunately only petrol engines are affected by the ray so the U.S. Government takes immediate steps to have powerful diesel-engined cars built. And diesel-engined aircraft, and even a couple of diesel-engined blimps. There’s only a cursory attempt to explain the Negative Ray machine - something to do with capturing and magnifying cosmic rays - but there’s no need for detailed explanations in a pulp story.

As soon as Nan is introduced into the story you just know that she’s going to get herself captured and held as a hostage in order to put pressure on Jimmy. This is pulp fiction and this story follows the pulp conventions to the letter.

Jimmy Christopher is your standard square-jawed action hero, heroic and noble and patriotic. The villains are totally evil and villainous.

As far as the chief villain is concerned there are two choices in this type of tale. His identity can be kept secret until the end, which has advantages from a dramatic point of view. Or his identity can be revealed immediately in which case there’s more opportunity to develop the full flavour of his particular evilness and the motivations which drove him to evil. The second option is probably the wiser choice. In this story, when the villain is unmasked, we can’t help feeling that we have no idea why he chose villainy as a career.

The mastermind has assistants that represent every source of paranoia that could be conceived in 1934 - there’s the wily Asiatic Loo Kong, there are communists, anarchists and even Czarists!

The plot is fast-moving and filled to the brim with action. The central idea is a good one and of course out means the stakes are high. The survival of the nation is in peril. It’s not just the Negative Ray and the Darkness. The conspirators have also employed pirates to seize dozens of ships which are now on their way to the United States filled with a vast army of armed cut-throats, and they’re foreigners to boot.

The style is pure pulp. There are no shades of grey. The armed blimp attack is fun and the body count is off the scale. The violence is plentiful but never graphic. There is of course zero sex. It’s all good clean fun. And it works. There were better science fiction/action pulps (such as Dusty Ayres And His Battle Birds or Dr Yen Sin or Doc Savage) but The Masked Invasion gets the job done with efficiency and energy. Recommended.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery was published in 1920. While Wallace was best known for his thrillers he wrote straight murder mysteries as well and The Daffodil Mystery falls into the latter category. It also appeared under the alternative title The Daffodil Murder.

Mr Thornton Lyne is a very rich young man. He owns a very lucrative business which he inherited from his father, his own contribution to the business being negligible. He has enjoyed every advantage in life. He fancies himself as a poet although those who have have read his one small published volume of verse are inclined to disagree. He is a poseur. He is also a very unpleasant young man and he has been making himself particularly offensive to one of his female employees, a Miss Odette Rider. She has rejected his advances and since spitefulness is another of his unattractive qualities he is determined to revenge himself upon her. His idea is to engage the well-known private detective Jack Tarling to help him frame Odette for an imaginary crime. Tarling indignantly refuses.

And then Thornton Lyne gets himself murdered. His body is found, minus coat and waistcoat and wearing slippers. Most curiously a bunch of daffodils has been placed on his chest.

Scotland Yard calls on Tarling help in this case because of a curious note, written in Chinese, found on the body. Tarling had been a very successful police detective in Shanghai and he has a Chinese assistant, Ling Chu. Ling Chu is most emphatically not a servant but a colleague and is a formidable detective in his own right.

The evidence all points towards Odette’s guilt but Tarling finds her to be a charming young woman and while nothing will deflect him from the path of duty he finds himself hoping that Odette will prove to be innocent.

The plot has some of the outrageousness you expect from Wallace but in spite of its convolutions the solution is simple and makes sense. As you might expect from Ling Chu’s presence the events of the present day have links to events in the past in China.

In 1920 the idea of the fair-play mystery has not yet been formalised. Insofar as writers played fair with their readers they did so by avoiding impossibilities in the plotting and by providing a puzzle that the detective could plausibly solve based on the clues available to him, clues that were not necessarily revealed to the reader until the ending. In spite of this there is one definite clue that does point very clearly to the identity of the criminal. Unless of course (like me) you manage to miss its significance! There are multiple suspects and they’re all quite plausible. And there is an unbreakable alibi as well.

Of course being a Wallace novel it has more action than the average detective novel.

The golden age of detective fiction had scarcely even begun when The Daffodil Mystery appeared but the idea of a murderer adding some bizarre touch to the victim’s body (in this case the daffodils) was one that would be used quite often by golden age writers, notably John Dickson Carr in the wonderful The Mad Hatter Mystery and Ellery Queen in The Chinese Orange Mystery (and the latter of course has a China connection as well).

Ling Chu is quite an interesting character. He is honest, but sometimes he is honest in a misleading way. He takes care of the investigation of most of the vital physical clues including some very puzzling footprints. He’s not quite an early anticipation of Charlie Chan. He’s a lot more ruthless for one thing - he has his own ideas about the way to interrogate suspects and they’re not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes bad men try to lie to detectives but they don’t lie to Ling Chu.

Tarling also has a certain nostalgia for his earlier career in Shanghai when the rules under which policemen operated were much more flexible. Working for Scotland Yard can be a bit restrictive.

It's perhaps worth pointing out that despite the China connection and the slightly lurid cover this is not by any stretch of the imagination a Yellow Peril novel.

The Daffodil Mystery represents the slightly less outlandish side to Edgar Wallace but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Larry Niven's Neutron Star

Neutron Star is a 1968 short story collection which contains some of Larry Niven’s earliest Known Space Stories.

Neutron Star introduces us to the Puppeteers, the alien race that plays such an important part in the Known Space stories. A small spaceship recently came to grief in the vicinity of a neutron star. Something managed to get through the General Products hull to kill the crew. Which is of course impossible. Nothing can penetrate a General Products hull. The Puppeteers (who own General Products) hire Beowulf Shaeffer to make the same trip to the neutron star to find out what happened. In the unlikely event he survives he will be paid a great deal of money.

It’s a story that serves as a good introduction to the Known Space tales. There’s a strong hard science fiction element, there are touches of humour and there’s danger and adventure.

A Relic of the Empire concerns Dr Richard Schultz-Mann who is on a rather inhospitable planet looking for plant from the era of the Slaver Empire which ended billions of years ago. He’s found some and rather odd plants they are. At the moment he has other concerns - space pirates have just arrived on the planet. This is a bad thing, but Dr Mann thinks he may be able to turn it into a good thing. There is one thing that really frightens Dr Mann, but it’s not space pirates. There are some interesting twists in this story.

In At the Core the puppeteers hire Beowulf Shaeffer to plot an experimental spacecraft on an unprecedented voyage to the centre of the galaxy. It’s a publicity stunt. It’s also a voyage almost unimaginably longer than any previous voyage of space exploration by any species. At the core he finds something he would have preferred not to find. It certainly has a dramatic effect on the puppeteeers. It’s an OK story.

In The Soft Weapon a spacefaring couple make an exciting discovery - a stasis box from the time of the Slaver Empire, a billion and a half years ago. Unfortunately a Kzin warcraft is on the scene. The Kzin are hoping the stasis box will contain some kind of super-weapon. What it does contain is pretty startling. A good story.

Flatlander is another extraordinary voyage for Beowulf Shaeffer, in company with a rich man named Elephant. Elephant wants to visit the most peculiar planet in Known Space it seems like a good idea to ask the Outsiders (one of the more bizarre alien races in the Known Space stories). The Outsiders sell information and although their prices are high they have a reputation for scrupulous honesty. The Outsiders provide the necessary information although Beowulf Shaeffer can’t help feeling that it would have been worth paying the extra money the Outsiders asked for one more piece of information - the exact nature of the peculiarity of this particular planet. They set off for the planet anyway and Elephant learns something that Beowulf Shaeffer has alway known. A fairly clever story.

The Ethics of Madness is about a paranoiac. He’s not an actual paranoiac, but a potential one. As long as he gets his meds he’ll be OK but while regular checks by automated doctors might seem a foolproof way of ensuring that his brain chemistry remains stable no invention is ever entirely foolproof. When he does go mad it sets off a vendetta on a truly galactic scale. The twist is not unexpected but it’s still effective and it’s a fine story. And it’s an example of Niven’s interesting perspective on ethics.

The Handicapped is the story of some very peculiar aliens. The Grog are blind and deaf and entirely sedentary and they have no means of communication whatsoever but they have very large brains. Large enough to suggest that they are intelligent, and possibly very intelligent. But it’s impossible to imagine a creature with less use for intelligence. It just doesn’t make sense. Garvey is in the business of providing artificial aids for sentient beings with no hands but the Grog are a real challenge - there seems to be no way of finding out whether they really are sentient or not. Garvey has a strange feeling about these creatures but the truth is even stranger than he could have imagined. Another story involving ethical dilemmas, and a very good one.

Grendel gives Beowulf Shaeffer a chance to play the hero and he’s very unhappy about it. He’s on a spacecraft which is attacked by pirates. An alien is kidnapped. This could have serious repercussions for relations between humans and the aliens in question. In company with another human, a rather adventurous one from Jinx, Shaeffer reluctantly sets out to effect a rescue. He has a theory about how the kidnapping was done. There’s perhaps more emphasis on action rather than hard SF elements in this story but it’s entertaining.

On the whole Neutron Star is old-fashioned high-concept hard SF but with plenty of characteristic Larry Niven touches. Enjoyable stuff. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain was published in 1934. William Melville Caverhill (1910-1983) had along and colourful career in the theatre, radio and television as an actor, producer, playwright and presenter. In the 30s he wrote a handful of successful detective novels under the name Alan Melville.

It all starts, fittingly, on opening night In this case the London opening night of a musical comedy spectacular from producer-impresario Douglas B. Douglas. In Act Two a brigand is supposed to threaten the hero with a revolver and then fire a single shot. The hero will suffer a slight flesh wound. It’s a dramatic moment but on this opening night it’s even more dramas that it was intended to be. Brandon Baker, playing the hero, suffers more than a flesh wound. The actor is shot dead on stage in front of two thousand people. Shortly thereafter the actor who fired the fatal shot, Hilary Foster, is found in his dressing room. He has hanged himself.

Luckily the opening audience includes Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard. Also in the audience is Wilson’s son, a newspaper reporter, who will function as Wilson’s sidekick.

Inspector Wilson has a theory about the gun. He also has a theory about the bullet fired from the gun. Unfortunately his theory is not quite compatible with the medical evidence presented at the inquest.

One odd thing about the inquest is that Brandon Baker’s widow was there. Brandon Baker’s widow was also at his funeral. But they were two different women.

There’s also the matter of the word written on the wallpaper in the leading lady’s flat.

Some of the action takes place in the theatre but much of it takes place in a small village in Buckinghamshire.

This is a comic detective novel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. The problem is that it tries too hard to be funny, and it tries to be funny all the time. Sometimes it is funny but sometimes the humour is a bit forced. And sometimes it’s a bit wearying.

Still, there are plenty of things to like about theatrical murder mysteries. The idea of theatre people slaughtering each other is very appealing. And there’s the potential for interesting and offbeat murder methods. The first murder in this book has some potentially interesting angles although they’re not developed very much.

The main problem here is that the author is not interested in writing a detective novel. He’s interested in writing a witty satire, mostly a satire on the commercial theatre but also a satire on detective novels. His main interest in detective fiction is in making fun of it. That’s a generous explanation for the sketchiness and dullness of the plot. A less generous explanation would have been the common one of a writer from outside the genre thinking that writing detective novels is incredibly easy and then failing when it they try to write one.

It’s always irritating when you get to the end and the author pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case the author pulls a whole troop of rabbits out of a hat. And does so in a way that suggests a kind of sneering contempt for fans of detective fiction.

As a detective novel it’s a washout. As a theatrical satire it might have been amusing at the time but the people it’s satirising are now long dead and the kind of theatre it’s satirising is also long dead.

The fact that the British Library Crime Classics collection now includes no less than three Alan Melville novels can only be described as bizarre.

Quick Curtain is quite simply a waste of time. Avoid this one.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Thea von Harbou's The Indian Tomb

Thea von Harbou (1888-1954) was a German novelist and screenwriter. She was married for a time to Fritz Lang. She wrote the screenplays for all his films from 1920 to 1933, which include some of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time so she has some claims to being Germany’s most important screenwriter. She was also a popular novelist and she wrote novelisations of some of the screenplays she wrote for Lang, including Metropolis. She was very much influenced by Karl May, a German writer of adventure stories (including an immense number of westerns). She was a popular commercial writer but judging by this book and by the only other book of hers that I’ve read, Metropolis, she’s a very underrated and under-appreciated writer.

The Indian Tomb was written in 1918 and was a major success. It has been filmed three times, including a late 1950s version by Fritz Lang. It’s only comparatively recently that it’s been made available in an English translation.

The Indian Tomb is the story of a German architect recently recovered from a near-fatal illness who receives an unusual commission. He is told that he must leave immediately for India, he must in fact leave that very night. He knows nothing of the man who has offered him the commission other than the fact that he is immensely wealthy and he wants a tomb for his recent deceased wife. The tomb must be not merely beautiful, it must surpass even the Taj Mahal. The architect is offered a fabulous sum of money but it is the challenge and the opportunity that causes him to accept the commission. This is a chance to build something greater than he has ever built before, something grate than he could ever have imagined building.

He arrives at the prince’s palace, and meets the prince. At first it all seems a bit bewildering but he expected that. And then he finds that the situation is not all what he expected and the job is not what he expected. He cannot do, but he may have no choice. He’s entered a strange nightmare world. The palace is a wonderful creation, a combination of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary horror, filled with wonders and terrors. It’s more like city than a palace, or perhaps a vast prison. If only his beloved wife were there with him. He has heard her voice but of course the was a dream. She is back home in Germany.

The palace is built on an island in a lake. In fact it is the island. The lake has some peculiar properties. Many men have tried to swim the lake. None survived.

There is a very entertaining interlude in the home of the jeweller Mohammed ben Hassan. His home is more like an amazing fortress, filled with unimaginable riches.

If you’re familiar with Metropolis then you’ll know that von Harbou was fascinated by imaginary cities and by strange and sometimes sinister architecture. It’s no accident that the hero of the novel is an architect - perhaps only an architect could survive the prince’s palace, although of course an architect might be particularly susceptible to the madness of the place.

The prince’s motives are mysterious. He offers explanations but Fürbringer has no way of being sure what these explanations mean. They almost certainly don’t mean what they appear to mean.

One of the best things about the book is that von Harbou was fascinated by India but never set foot there. This is an India of the imagination. It’s an amalgam of traveler’s tales, the Arabian Nights, fairy tales and pure fancy. It’s a bit like the Arabian Nights retold by Kafka.

Fürbringer has entered a world in which he knows none of the rules. That’s the main obstacle to escape - where would he escape to? He is in an alien world and he doesn’t even know what to be afraid of.

And once he thinks he’s figured things out he still doesn’t really understand why is going on.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. Unfortunately it has one flaw and it’s a near-fatal flaw. I can’t tell you what it is because it would be a huge spoiler. Interestingly, the ending has similarities to the ending of one of Fritz Lang’s American films, not written by Thea von Harbou.

Despite the flaw it’s an interesting book with lots of exoticism and some great weird sinister atmosphere (the horses are a nice touch but I’m not going to tell you what’s so delightfully and creepily strange about them). So I’d still recommend this book. Metropolis on the other hand is a great book.

Fritz Lang's 1959 movie version of The Indian Tomb, the two-part film known as the Indian Epic, is excellent.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Christopher St John Sprigg's Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman was the fourth of seven detective novels written by Englishman Christopher St John Sprigg (1907-37). It was published in 1934 and it was well received by critics including Dorothy L. Sayers.

At around the time this novel was published Sprigg was developing what would soon become an all-consuming interest in Marxism. He wrote voluminously on Marxism and in 1936 went off to fight for the cause of communism in the Spanish Civil War. Within a very short space of time at the front he was killed in action.

There isn’t much indication of Sprigg’s growing political convictions in Death of an Airman. He was a man who evidently took his political beliefs very very seriously but the tone of the novel is light and breezy. The central character of the novel is a bishop which is interesting. Sprigg was raised as a Catholic. It was not unusual in those day for devout Catholics to transform themselves into devout Marxists. You might suspect that Spring chose a clergyman as protagonist in order to mock a belief system that he was in the process of abandoning but I can’t find much in the book to support such a notion. The bishop gives the impression of being a decent sort of chap, quite sincere in his religious beliefs, fairly easy-going, quite intelligent and very perceptive. It was not uncommon for doctrinaire Marxists to be doctrinaire atheists as well but I can’t see any evidence here of such sentiments.

The only thing that makes Dr Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra (he’s an Australian bishop and he’s an Anglican), even slightly unusual is his passion for flying. He has joined the Boston Aero Club to learn to fly. His instructor was to be George Furnace, the club’s chief instructor. Furnace is a very experienced pilot and generally well liked. On the day on which he is to have his first lesson the bishop arrives early. Furnace has taken his aircraft up for a spin, apparently something he often does to clear the mental cobwebs. Much to the horror of those watching from the ground, including the bishop, Furnace’s plane goes into a spin from which it does not recover. Furnace’s body is cut out of the wreck. He was apparently killed instantly. The cause of death is perfectly obvious and there is no need for a post-mortem.

It’s all a bit odd. The aeroplane was regularly serviced and had recently been overhauled and inspected and all the control cables had been renewed. It seems very unlikely that the controls could have jammed. Furnace was such an experienced and cautious pilot that it seems hardly credible that he would have been unable to regain control. And he had recently had a medical examination and was in perfect health so it also seems unlikely that he could have blacked out. Of course there is one possible explanation but Furnace was well liked and no-one wants to consider the possibility of suicide. The inquest naturally brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.

Dr Marriott is however puzzled and a little disturbed. If you’re a clergyman in a remote part of Australia it is useful to have some medical knowledge as well and as part of his preparation for missionary work Dr Marriott undertook a three-year medical course at university. He may not be a qualified physician but he has a pretty fair acquaintance with cases of sudden death and there’s something he noticed when he saw the body not long after the crash. Something that didn’t seem quite right.

This is in fact an impossible crime story, but you won’t know that until you’re well into the book. At first it’s a puzzling death. As more and more evidence comes to light it becomes apparent that George Furnace’s death was quite impossible. The police can come up with no explanation that is consistent with the evidence. The worry with impossible crimes is always that the eventual solution will be a let-down but in this case the solution is both satisfactory and clever.

There are three detectives in this story. Inspector Creighton is the local man in charge but when it becomes apparent that the case has wider ramifications Inspector Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard (one of Sprigg’s regular characters) is called in to assist. And then there’s the bishop, without whose amateur sleuthing none of the facts would have come to light.

There are a lot of lady pilots in this story. Of course if you’re going to do a murder mystery centred on a flying club you’re going to have to find a way to work some female characters into the story so making them aviatrices is logical enough. And in the 1930s lady flyers were quite a big thing. They provided good copy for the newspapers and had definite celebrity status. And aviation provides a glamorous and exciting setting for the story (it helps that Sprigg had an aviation background so he knew his stuff). Sprigg may have been on the road to becoming an ardent communist but in 1934 he certainly had the right commercial instincts when it came to writing his detective novels.

Sprigg’s style is sly and witty and very appealing. There is a great deal of amusement to be had here but he does not allow it to get out of hand. This is primarily a mystery and he certainly does not neglect plotting. The howdunit angle is perhaps more important than the whodunit aspect and it’s fairly clued and nicely devious.

In his introduction to the British Library edition Martin Edwards describes Death of an Airman as an unorthodox whodunit. I must confess that this puzzles me. It struck me as being absolutely orthodox. In fact that’s what makes it so thoroughly enjoyable - it’s an orthodox mystery but it’s executed with immense skill and style. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2019

John Sherwood's Ambush for Anatol

Ambush for Anatol was the third of John Sherwood’s five spy thrillers featuring Charles Blessington. It was published in 1952 (and in the United States the title was changed to Murder of a Mistress).

John Sherwood (1913-2002) was an amazingly obscure if moderately prolific writer. He wrote a series of cozy mysteries with a horticultural theme and he also wrote the five Mr Blessington espionage thrillers between 1949 and 1954. I assume he was English but I know so little about him that I cannot even be absolutely certain that the author of the Celia Grant cozy mysteries and the author of the Mr Blessington spy thrillers are one and the same man.

Ambush for Anatol begins with a fairly sizeable cast of characters spending Bank Holiday Monday on Hampstead Heath. Philip and Diana Abinger are slowly subsiding into genteel poverty. Philip was an RAF fighter pilot during the war but since then he has been unable to make a go of anything. Now he thinks his luck may have changed. He ran into a Polish count with whom he had served in the RAF. Count Jan Piatovsky has some mysterious financial scheme going and although Philip has his doubts as to whether it’s likely to be strictly legal he’s desperate enough to try anything. Piatovsky and his common law wife are also on the Heath on the fatal day. As is the formidable but unpleasant Lady Bernberg. Everyone seems to be there to meet Anatol. The result is a double murder.

As it happens Mr Blessington has already become aware of other aspects of this case. Mr Blessington is a treasury official and one of his jobs is to prevent evasions of the British Government’s extraordinarily strict foreign currency regulations. He suspects that someone has cooked up an entirely new and ingenious means of circumventing the regulations and he’s pretty sure that it’s connected with this double murder. He decides that it would be advisable to have a word with Inspector Lunt at Scotland Yard.

In fact there’s rather more to this case than evasion of currency regulations. In fact there’s something much more sinister going on. This is a spy thriller of sorts, although it takes quite a while for the espionage angle to kick in. The espionage angle here is actually fairly original.

What one really hopes for in a thriller of this vintage is a “murder and mayhem on a train” angle and if the train senes happen on the Continent that’s even better. Ambush for Anatol not only delivers this it also has a “danger in the skies” angle as well. The action moves from London to Paris and then the French Riviera.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is its depiction of the dreary and depressing world of Britain in the period of postwar austerity. Years after having supposedly won the war Britain feels more like a defeated nation, with rationing still in force and with an economy in ruins. It was a miserable world for the working class but it was also a demoralising world for the middle and upper middle classes. Philip and Diana Abinger were typical of countless middle class people who were just barely managing to keep their heads above water. It was obviously a world in which people could easily convince themselves that things like smuggling and financial crimes were not really crimes. While this novel does not descend into tedious social commentary there are some genuinely intriguing social elements. The people who have become involved in this conspiracy are people who would certainly never have involved themselves in such desperate adventures in pre-war days.

While it was published in the same year that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels appeared Ambush for Anatol belongs to a more genteel era of spy fiction. It’s not wildly dissimilar in tone to Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon. In this era of British spy fiction novels featuring professional spies were still slightly unusual. Ambush for Anatol is a bit of a hybrid. It has the innocents caught up in espionage angle but there’s a professional spy hero as well. Mr Blessington is not quite a professional spy in the James Bond mould and he’s certainly not a conventional action, he is a professional spy of sorts. It’s clear that his work for the Treasury is not confined to shuffling papers in an office.

Mr Blessington looks like a typical civil servant. He is middle aged, bespectacled and rather overweight. He is however more than a mere civil servant. His razor-sharp mind makes him extremely dangerous and he can be breathtakingly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He carries a gun and he’s quite prepared to use it. He may remind some readers a little of Edgar Wallace’s Mr J.G. Reeder, a man who also seemed extraordinarily inoffensive and even slightly ridiculous on the surface but was the terror of Britain’s underworld. All in all Mr Blessington is a rather engaging character.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Ambush for Anatol is an adrenaline-chaged roller-coaster ride of action and excitement but it does have a few reasonably thrilling moments and it’s rather enjoyable. I suppose you could describe it as a cozy spy thriller. Recommended.

Friday, July 26, 2019

E. and M.A. Radford's Murder Jigsaw

E. and M.A. Radford were an English husband-and-wife writing team. They wrote thirty-eight mysteries, beginning in 1944 and continuing until the early 70s. Most of their books featured Dr Manson who is both a policeman (a Chief-Inspector at Scotland Yard) and a scientist. He presides over the Yard’s scientific laboratory. He is in his early fifties and was apparently recruited by the Yard a few years earlier when they needed to lift their game in the forensic science area. One assumes that he was in effect parachuted into the Chief-Inspector’s position without having ever walked a beat. The intention of the authors was to create a scientific detective on the model of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke but have him be a working policeman rather than just a consultant. Murder Jigsaw was the second of the Dr Manson mysteries, appearing in 1944.

The opening of the book provides yet another example of the folly of fictional detectives in thinking they can enjoy a peaceful holiday. You would think that by now they would realise that within a day or two of arriving at their chosen holiday destination they would be faced with murder. And you can guarantee it will be a murder that the local police will be entirely able to cope with so that the unfortunate vacationing detective will be forced to take over the case.

In this case Dr Manson has chosen Cornwall for his holiday. His choice in this matter never varies. He has a passion for fishing and there’s a particular spot in Cornwall where the fishing is very much to his liking. He always stays at the same hotel and is not only a frequent but also a very well-liked guest.

Not all of the guests are so well-liked. Colonel Donoughmore is very much disliked by all and sundry. And now he is dead, found floating in a rather treacherous part of the river. It is fortunate for the cause of justice that the police officer who just happens to be on the scene, Dr Manson, also happens to be a very experienced fly fisherman. A non-fisherman might well have dismissed the colonel’s death as an accident. But to a keen angler there are several things that seem quite wrong and quite inconsistent with the accident theory. There are certain things that a fisherman simply doesn’t do. It’s all fortunate that Dr Manson invites himself to the post-mortem examination. The local police surgeon has no specialised knowledge of pathology and manages to miss all the vital medical evidence. But Dr Manson does spot those medical clues. The accident theory just won’t do.

There’s an extremely strong focus on the scientific side of things. Dr Manson has with him his Box of Tricks, his suitcase which functions as a portable laboratory (very much like Dr Thorndyke’s portable laboratory). Everything that can possibly be viewed under a microscope gets viewed under Dr Manson’s microscope. There’s an enormous amount of scientific evidence and it’s remarkably clever stuff.

The Radfords do not however rely purely on scientific evidence. Dr Manson is a policeman as well as a scientist. There’s plenty of attention given to alibis. Not are motives neglected.

Dr Manson continually stresses that his method is based on elimination. And in fact that’s perfectly true. There are quite a few suspects and there are quite a few possible scenarios that would explain how the Colonel’s body came to be floating in the River Tamar. The process by which Manson eliminates those scenarios that do not quite fit the facts is nothing short of brilliant. The process by which he eliminates those suspects who could not have killed the Colonel is equally impressive.

And then we get to the ending. To say that the ending is a disappointment is putting it mildly. It is a bitter disappointment. The Radfords prided themselves on playing scrupulously fair. And they do play fair, in a narrow technical sense. There’s no actual cheating. It’s just that the reader is left feeling that somehow he has been cheated.

There is a great deal to admire in this novel. Dr Manson pulls off some dazzling pieces of logical reasoning. The scientific evidence is both clever and enthralling. There are also fascinating items of fishing lore. The setting is excellent. I also love the fact that there is absolutely no mention of the war - I detest wartime mysteries. Everything is done so well. Except for that ending.

Up until the final revelation I was expecting to be recommending Murder Jigsaw very highly indeed. As it is, it’s still recommended but with some serious reservations.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Conan Doyle's Adventures of Gerard

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was during his own lifetime as celebrated for his historical fiction as for his detective stories. Among his most popular works in this genre are the two volumes of short stories concerning the life and the adventures of Etienne Gerard. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard was published in 1896 while Adventures of Gerard followed in 1903 (these tales had started appearing in the Strand magazine in 1894 and the final Gerard story dates from 1911).

Etienne Gerard is a hussar officer in Napoleon’s army who has been described by no less a judge than the Emperor himself as having both the stoutest heart and the thickest head in La Grande Armée.

Conan Doyle took his historical fiction seriously. He considered his works in this genre to be his greatest achievements. On the other hand he was always a commercial writer and entertainment was the first priority. The best of his historical novels, the two Brigadier Gerard collections and the two novels about Sir Nigel Loring, The White Company and Sir Nigel, manage to be both serious historical fiction and amusing and outrageous yarns.

This ability to be amusing while taking his subject matter seriously is a rare accomplishment and one is tempted to make comparisons to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels (such as Flashman and the Mountain of Light). There are differences of course. Gerard is genuinely brave, even if he is at times a fool. Flashman is a coward. But there are definite affinities. Conan Doyle adopts a mock-heroic style, with Gerard (who narrates the tales) treating his own idiocies as acts of extraordinary martial skill and glory. They are both men whose fame as soldiers is not entirely deserved. Gerard is a brave and well-meaning but not very intelligent bungler who has occasionally managed to do heroic things mostly by luck, although he considers himself to be a brilliant officer. Flashman is a coward and a scoundrel who has occasionally managed to appear to have done heroic things mostly by luck. So in both cases the author is taking a rather sceptical view of military glory.

The Crime of Brigadier Gerard presents Colonel Gerard with a fine opportunity to win honour. His mission is to singlehandedly scout out the Lines of Torres Vedras, the formidable line of fortifications that Viscount Wellington had constructed to defend Lisbon. Marshal Masséna has personally selected Gerard for the mission. It does not work out quite as planned. Gerard finds himself in the midst of something far more important than mere military manoeuvres - he blunders into a fox hunt. The English of course cannot possibly do without their fox hunting even in Portugal so they have imported both foxes and hounds. Gerard however does not quite appreciate just what a solemn occasion this is.

It’s a typical Gerard story, with Gerard doing his best to be heroic whilst being blissfully (and amusingly) unaware of what is actually happening.

How Brigadier Gerard Lost His Ear takes place in Venice, which Napoleon’s army is energetically and efficiently looting. The Venetians are outraged and some are exacting private vengeance on the French invaders. Gerard almost finds himself a victim of such private vengeance, although in his case there is more involved. There is a lady involved. Gerard of course will do anything for a lady. In this instance what he has to do is rather surprising. Another fine story.

In How the Brigadier Saved the Army Gerard is given a very important mission. The French are on the retreat but are being harried by Spanish guerillas. A large detachment of French troops will be left behind, and will be doomed, unless Gerard can light a beacon fire to tell them to fall back on the main army. To light the beacon Gerard will have to travel miles through guerilla-infested countryside. In this story Gerard demonstrates the extraordinary and very genuine courage of which he is capable, and it demonstrate his unbelievable capacity for making a thorough mess of things but somehow muddling his way through. A very enjoyable tale.

Gerard is often heroic and often absurd and in Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo he manages to be both at the same time. It’s also a story in which Gerard’s delusions about his own importance reach ridiculous but rather touching extremes. He is entrusted by the Emperor with a vital mission which cold determine the outcome of the battle. Of course it doesn’t but it does give Gerard the opportunity to save the Emperor. The fact that this ends up being a futile lost cause adds a further touch of melancholy amusement (and if you think melancholy amusement isn’t possible you need to read this story).

The Brigadier in England covers the period Gerard spent in England after being captured. Much of this time was spent in congenial surroundings at the home of Lord Rufton. Gerard spends his time leaning to play cricket (a most bloodthirsty game, or at least it is the way Gerard plays it) and getting mixed up in a complicated romantic intrigue in which Gerard as always doesn’t quite understand what is going on although he thinks he does. An amusing little story.

How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans tells us of Gerard’s first day with the regiment that was to be so important to him. Gerard immediately makes himself ridiculous with his outrageous boasting, and then proceeds to demonstrate that he really is as brave as he says he is, almost singlehandedly capturing the city of Saragossa. Some fine swashbuckling here.

How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty. How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty.

The Marriage of the Brigadier was the last of the Gerard tales to be written (in 1910, several years after the publication of The Adventures of Gerard) but chronologically it’s the first of the stories, taking place in 1802. In peacetime Gerard finds time for love, and he discovers true fear. He fears no man, but an enraged bull is another matter. And the bull acts as an unexpected match-maker. A slight but amusing story.

The Gerard stories are an absolute delight. Gerard is a buffoon but he is a brave buffoon. His belief in his heroic stature never wavers and is sublimely unaffected by reality. The Adventures of Gerard is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

About the Murder of a Startled Lady

Between 1930 and 1932 Anthony Abbot wrote four detective novels, very much in the Van Dine mould, featuring New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. He then took a break for a few years before writing four more Thatcher Colt novels heavily influenced by his growing interest in psychic phenomena. The first of these new-look Thatcher Colt mysteries was About the Murder of a Startled Lady, published in 1935.

Abbot’s new interests are immediately apparent in this novel. It begins with a young woman reporting her own murder six months earlier. She makes the report through a medium at a séance, and she also reports that her dismembered body was dumped in the sea at a certain place. Thatcher Colt doesn’t believe in any of this spiritualist nonsense. On the other hand a murder has been reported and Colt decides it would be just as well to send a diver down to have a look and sure enough the body of young woman is found right where the dead girl said it was.

It’s not so much a body as a collection of human bones. Of course there’s no hope of identifying the remains now, except that there’s a man whose services Colt has used in the past, a man who is referred to as a crime sculptor who has the uncanny ability to reconstruct facial features from nothing but a skill. So the dead girl can be identified after all.

Once she’s been identified the story doesn’t become any less odd. The girl and everyone connected with her seem to have been decidedly strange and not entirely what you would call normal. And there’s reason to suspect the girl herself may have been a bit on the strange side.

The psychic elements are just one of the odd features of this tale. Anthony Abbot was always fascinated by the use of science in criminal investigation (there’s some wonderfully esoteric forensic science stuff in About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress.

In About the Murder of a Startled Lady some of the scientific methods used verge on the science fictional. The facial reconstruction also stretches credibility a bit, given the technology of the time. In fact the crime sculptor seems to rely a bit too much on inspiration rather than technique.

Despite the supernatural trappings this is essentially a traditional puzzle-plot mystery with some police procedural overtones. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair play - there is one important clue which in my opinion remains unexplained and the essence of the puzzle-plot mystery is that the solution should not leave any loose ends. Apart from that one false step it’s a decent enough plot.

And Abbot comes up with a very neat and very clever variation on the traditional ending in which the detective gathers together all the suspects to reveal the solution. The solution itself is reasonably satisfactory.

The psychic elements are interesting for several reasons. We never really believe there’s going to be a supernatural solution and Thatcher Colt clearly doesn’t believe so either, but at the same time Colt has to admit that the apparent revelation by the dead girl is difficult to explain. The tricks used by phoney spiritualists were well-known and he expects the trickery to be easily explained but it isn’t. And they’re not just supernatural trappings to add a bit of atmosphere - they are in fact vital plot elements.

Anthony Abbot himself is a character in the Thatcher Colt mysteries. He’s Colt’s secretary and confidant and he’s the narrator of the stories. In other words he’s Colt’s Dr Watson. This fictional version of Anthony Abbot contributes a short foreword in which he makes some rather disparaging remarks about genius amateur detectives with an inexhaustible store of arcane knowledge. It almost sounds like a disavowal of the Van Dine school. This book is somewhat less Van Dine-like than Abbot’s earlier books. At the same time Thatcher Colt is clearly an educated and cultivated man, able to recognise instantly quotations from Dante.

I suspect that fans of puzzle-plot mysteries might find the first batch of four Thatcher Colt mysteries, such as the excellent About the Murder of the Circus Queen, to be more satisfactory than the second batch. It’s worth noting however that About the Murder of the Circus Queen also has a few occultist touches.

About the Murder of a Startled Lady is an intriguing variation on the impossible crime sub-genre. There’s nothing remotely impossible about the murder itself. It’s the process by which the murder is revealed that seems impossible.

This book might not be a masterpiece but it’s worth a look and Abbot is definitely an unfairly neglected mystery writer. Recommended.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1, 1927-29

Frederick Nebel (1903-67) was an extremely prolific American writer for the pulps in the 20s and 30s and for the slick magazines in his later career. He was a notable contributor of hard-boiled stories to Black Mask. By the late 1920s Nebel was writing in a number of different genres - hardboiled crime, adventure stories set in the Canadian Northwest, adventure tales set in the Orient - and in 1927 he began a series of aviation adventure stories featuring two likeable rogues, Bill Gales and Mike McGill. Altus Press’s The Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1 1927-29 collects the first twenty stories.

G Gales and McGill are aviators, adventurers and soldiers of fortune and they pop up just about everywhere in the coastal regions of East and South-East Asia - in Hongkong, in Singapore, in Saigon, in various parts of China. There is one story (Eagles of Ind) that takes them to British India and there is another story that takes them to Marseilles, Algeria and finally Morocco. Nebel had never actually been to any of these places and as a result they do come across in the stories as rather generic locations. There’s no real exotic atmosphere.

Aviation adventure stories enjoyed great popularity in the pulps in the interwar years. Some of the best writers of such tales (such as Donald Keyhoe) had been flyers themselves. Nebel was not. Nebel might not have been an expert in aviation matters but he did know how to tell an exciting story.

Gales and McGill will do a lot of things for money and are generally not troubled by concerns about the strict legality of the jobs they take on. They do however have definite moral standards. They are not cold-blooded killers. They have no compunction about fighting back if they are attacked, and they aren’t going to lose any sleep over killing in self-defence, but they won’t drop bombs on civilians or machine-gun civilians from the air. Since China was being torn by civil wars at this time and since Gales and McGill find themselves doing jobs for various Chinese warlord armies their moral qualms cause them some difficulties. The fact that they have taken on jobs for various factions is also perhaps one of the reasons that they are now not quite outlaws but are regarded with definite suspicion by the authorities throughout most of the Orient.

They seem to have particular problems with the French colonial authorities in Indo-China. While Gales and McGill do not always see humanity at its best and they have few illusions about human nature the only people for whom they seem to have a real dislike are the French.

Gales is the younger man and he’s the brains of the outfit. He can be daring and reckless but his risks are calculated risks. McGill is more impetuous. They’re a solid and loyal team. They are frequently broke and even more frequently drunk. They never met a brawl they didn’t like.

Pulp stories do tend to be formulaic. In fact they’re supposed to be formulaic. In my view the best way to enjoy collections such as this is to read one or two stories at a time and read the collection over a period of several weeks. Read too many in too short a time and their formulaic nature starts to become a bit too obvious.

These are straightforward adventure stories without any supernatural or science fiction elements, and without any traces of weird fiction. Gales and McGill take on a variety of jobs, from transporting packages or carrying messages to carrying passengers, they rescue people who need rescuing, they carry out aerial reconnaissance missions for warlord armies. In some cases they are forced to take on jobs against their will - warlords can be rather insistent. They always seem to run into danger of some kind, even when they try really hard not to.

They’re good-natured rogues. They’re not exactly in the Robin Hood mould. They like to get paid for what they do. Sometimes they actually do get paid, sometimes not. They do tend to be suckers for ladies in distress, especially if the ladies are young are pretty.

Naturally there’s plenty of action and hair’s breadth escapes from certain death and doing rescues. More interestingly in many of the adventures our heroes also find themselves faced with perplexing technical challenges. In one story they have to find a caravan in the vicinity of the Khyber Pass, land and pick up a vital letter and then take off again and get the letter back to Peshawar and they only have hours in which to do it. The problem in this case is that there is absolutely no way of landing anywhere near the Khyber Pass. It’s not dangerous - it’s entirely impossible. But they still have to get that letter and get it back to Peshawar. Fortunately there’s virtually no limit to their ingenuity. This is the sort of stuff that endears these stories to me.

It’s all good pulpy fun. Recommended.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth was the third of Helen McCloy’s mystery novels. It was first published in 1941. Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American writer who appears to be very highly thought of. I’ve had some very bad experiences with highly thought of crime writers so I approached McCloy with a considerable amount of trepidation.

There are some very worrying signs early on. First off the plot hinges around an imaginary truth serum (derived from scopalamine which is an actual drug sometimes used as a kind of truth serum). McCloy’s idea is that the new derivative is a perfect truth serum - if you take the drug you cannot avoid telling the whole truth. In fact of course no drug is ever going to perform in such a perfect completely predictable way. It’s just a plot device, and a rather silly one in my view.

Secondly, the detective hero is a psychiatrist (a Dr Basil Willing). Mercifully we don’t get a whole lot of silly Freudian psychobabble. We do get some silly psychobabble however.

The chemist who supposedly invents the miracle truth serum is Dr Roger Slater. He knew he was in for trouble when Claudia Bethune paid him a call in his laboratory. And sure enough Claudia steals his new truth serum. Now he’s going to have to go to the party she’s invited him to, and he dreads Claudia’s parties. Claudia’s idea of fun is to pick a person and then psychologically torture that person.

Claudia of course drops truth serum into her guests’ cocktails. She hears some truths she would have been better off not hearing, from her husband and his ex-wife. Also at the party is Peggy Titus (which is odd since she’s not the sort of moral degenerate usually to be found at Claudia’s parties) and Charles Rodney, general manager of the Renfrew Mills, the source of Claudia’s wealth. And of course Roger Slater. The party ends in extreme nastiness, like all of Claudia’s parties.

In the early hours of the following morning Dr Willing, who is staying at a beach house nearby, sees a light in the window of Claudia’s house and goes to investigate. He has almost walked in on a murder. The victim is not quite dead but expires within minutes.

Now we get to some of the odd things about this book. The police initially regard all of Claudia’s house guests as suspects as well as Dr Willing. In fact it is perfectly reasonable for them to suspect Dr Wiling. And then they suddenly lose interest in him as a suspect, for no reason whatsoever.

In fact the police seem to lose interest in the murder altogether. There doesn’t seem to be any actual investigation at all. Dr Willing is conducting his own personal investigation but the indifference of the police is never explained.

The reason for these odd things would appear to be that the author is not interested in the process of investigation. This is a detective story for people who like detective stories that have no detecting in them. The author is only really interested in the motives. Now there’s another odd thing. The suspects agree among themselves to pretend that none of them have motives. Later on they agree among themselves to pretend that all of them have motives. This makes no sense at all. There is no reason why suspects would want to do anything so strange. But the author thought it would be a cool idea. So what we get are characters who behave like characters in a bad detective story because that’s what the author wants them to do.

Finally at the very end McCloy decides some actual evidence is going to be needed. The crucial evidence could be said to be fairly clued except for the fact that the evidence is so outlandish that it really feels like it was pulled out of a hat.

By this stage you might be getting the idea that I didn’t like The Deadly Truth. You’d be right, but it’s only fair to point out that it does have some redeeming qualities. McCloy’s prose does sparkle occasionally and she can be witty and amusing. Unfortunately while such things can be a bonus in a well-plotted detective novel they are not enough on their own. And this is not a well-plotted detective novel. I’d give this one a miss.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Spider Strikes!

The Shadow having proved to be a successful hero for pulp magazine publishers Street and Smith it didn’t take long for their rivals Popular Publications to come up with a similar hero, The Spider. The Spider made his debut in The Spider Strikes! in 1933. At this time pulp magazines devoted to a single character were becoming all the rage. The Spider Strikes! was written by Canadian R.T.M. Scott (1882-1966) and was destined to be the first of the 118 Spider novel-length adventures. Scott also wrote the second Spider novel after which other writers took over (and the adventures would apparently get more outlandish).

The Spider is Richard Wentworth, a seemingly very wealthy young man with all the right social connections. His hobby, or rather his obsession, is fighting crime. In this first instalment he is on an ocean liner looking for a mysterious super-criminal. He takes time off from this hunt to deal with a card sharp who has ruined an otherwise decent man named Parsons who has a weakness for gambling. Wentworth has limited sympathy for Parsons but the man has a wife and family and is apparently kind to dogs. That’s reason enough for Wentworth to step in to retrieve Parsons’ losses. He does this by the simplest of methods - he murders the card sharp and retrieves the thousand dollars he won from Parsons. On the victim’s forehead he leaves a small red ink spider. This is the signature of the notorious Spider, for Richard Wentworth is none other than The Spider himself.

This is the latest of a series of murders carried out by The Spider, mostly in New York. Wentworth’s pal, New York Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick, has his suspicions that Wentworth might be The Spider. He has noted that The Spider only kills racketeers, thieves, ruffians and other types who need killing.

On arrival in New York Wentworth continues his search for the mysterious criminal mastermind. At the same time he has to watch out for the New York cops since The Spider is a wanted murderer.

Of course he encounters damsels in distress and femmes fatales and there is no way of telling which is which. Apart from his beloved Nita he has to assume that all women are dangerous. As for the master criminal he is hunting, Wentworth he has no idea what plans that individual has for the future. That he is planning a crime on the grand scale is certain, and it seems equally certain that the crime is likely to cause the deaths of a great many innocent people. The few clues that Wentworth has make that clear.

There are gunfights, fistfights, explosions, diabolical instruments of mass slaughter, kidnappings and fiendish cruelties. Naturally The Spider has to spend quite a bit of his time rescuing females from various decidedly unpleasant fates and naturally the chief villain of the piece attempts to strike at Wentworth through Nita. The body count is prodigious.

That chief villain is the one real weakness in the story. For much of the book he’s too shadowy and mysterious to be felt to be a real threat and the fact that we don’t know anything about his evil plot until very late in the story lessens his menace. The Spider really needs a more colourful and more flamboyant villain with whom to match wits.

The Spider Strikes! does an efficient job of introducing the regular characters and the basic setup. The Spider’s trademarks are the seal with which he leaves his spider mark on his victim’s corpses and his sartorial elegance - he invariably wears evening dress and an opera hat and carries a light cane which is actually a sword stick. The Spider’s garb would apparently become much more flamboyant in the later books. He also makes use of a super-powerful air pistol which is a deadly and silent killing machine.

Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider is assisted by his faithful and extremely useful Hindu manservant Ram Singh, and also by his girlfriend, the beautiful Nita Van Sloan (her faithful Great Dane Apollo also comes in handy).

The Spider is of course a vigilante killer but this first novel is careful to make his killings appear to be, technically at least, killings in self-defence. A vigilante killer hero was no problem but to present his slayings as cold-blooded premeditated murder might have been going a bit too far.

In the interwar years what might be termed righteous rogue heroes were immensely popular among both American and British readers. There were several such heroes featured in American pulps while in Britain reformed criminals like Blackshirt, The Baron and The Saint fulfilled a similar function. You might think the British versions would be less brutal but in fact The Saint could be every bit as ruthless as the most hardboiled American pulp hero, although his ruthlessness was perhaps rather less crude. The British righteous rogues were rather more polished and writers like Leslie Charteris were rather more sophisticated than R.T.M. Scott. The Spider does have some affinities with his British cousins though. Richard Wentworth is not merely a crime-fighting rogue, he is a gentleman rogue. He is not just rich but also decidedly upper-class. In fact much more upper class than The Saint. He is perhaps a much more violent version of John Creasey’s The Toff.

The Spider Strikes! is very very pulpy, extremely violent, fast-paced and generally enjoyable. The Spider himself has not yet established himself as a truly distinctive and colourful pulp hero but the fact that this novel was followed by 117 others suggests that that problem was probably later rectified. The Spider Strikes! is still fun and it’s recommended.