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.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

J.J. Marric's Gideon’s Day

In 1955 John Creasey (1908-73), possibly the most prolific writer in history (with around 600 novels to his credit), wrote Gideon’s Day which was to be the first of his twenty-one Commander George Gideon crime novels. This series, published under the pseudonym J.J. Marric, is widely regarded as being his greatest achievement.

In the first book in the series George Gideon is still a superintendent with the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard (he later rises to the much more exalted rank of Commander). He’s a big man, generally very well liked despite occasional outbursts of temper. Being such a senior officer he doesn’t have much chance to get out on the street and do hands-on investigating. He’s more like a general, marshalling his troops, making sure the right jobs get assigned to the right officers, and making the decisions as to what share of the resources at his disposal should be plotted to each of the many cases currently under investigation.

This is not a traditional puzzle-plot mystery and it is also most definitely not a psychological crime novel. It’s more like a police procedural but with the difference that rather than focus on a single investigation we get to see the C.I.D. dealing with a multitude of cases simultaneously. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day.

There’s a real focus on the seamy and violent side of London life in the 1950s - there are brutal murders, sex maniacs, dope fiends, crooked coppers, vicious assaults and a truly extraordinary mount of misery, squalor and despair. There is a popular theory that British crime fiction in the 50s was deeply affected by postwar pessimism and disillusionment and Gideon’s Day certainly lends support to that theory. At the same time it needs to be stressed that compared to many of the psychological crime novels of the era it does not wallow in the gutter to anywhere near the same extent and we don’t get treated to gruesome descriptions of graphic violence.

There’s also some focus on Gideon’s personal life. He is married with six children but while his marriage is by no means on the rocks it’s clearly not going as well as he’d like it to. He works very long hours and his wife Kate does make a few comments about jut how little time he spends with his family.

This particular day begins with one of Superintendent Gideon’s legendary rages. He has discovered that one of his sergeants has been taking bribes. He also has a series of mail van robberies to deal with and the Yard has so far made no progress at all on that case. Murder was certainly not a daily occurrence in 1950s London but this is a very bad day - an old woman is beaten to death, a child is murdered and there’s another death which Gideon fears may also be a murder. To cap it all off he has a problem with Birdy Merrick who is one of his most valuable informants - the problem being that someone is trying to kill Birdy. That cannot be allowed to happen - if the C.I.D. were to permit an informant to be killed they would soon find that no-one would be willing to provide them with information.

I personally prefer the puzzle-plot detective novels of the interwar years. Gideon’s Day tries very hard to be gritty and realistic and these are not qualities that appeal very much to me. Having said that I have to admit that if you do like this sort of thing then this is a very good book of its type. It’s also worth a look for its glimpses at the mean streets of 1950s Britain. There’s not much in the way of traditional detecting but there’s plenty of police procedural stuff. The most interesting thing about it is that all of Gideon’s successes are due to mistakes on the part of the criminals, which I suspect is pretty much how things are in real life.

While it’s perhaps not quite my cup of tea Gideon's Day offers a fascinating glimpse of day-to-day policing. The structure, with multiple simultaneous plot lines, works well and it’s entertaining. So it’s recommended, especially if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

There was a 1958 John Ford movie based (very very loosely) on the novel. In the mid-60s ITC did a 26-episode television series, Gideon’s Way, based on the novels. The TV series is reasonably faithful to the feel of the novels but with a few small changes - Gideon’s family life is a lot happier in the TV series and he doesn’t succumb to his celebrated rages.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Best of Murray Leinster (Del Rey paperback)

Of all the early masters of science fiction Murray Leinster (1896-1975) is perhaps the most underrated. He published his first science fiction story in 1919 and was still writing well into the 1960s. Del Rey’s paperback The Best of Murray Leinster includes the majority of his most admired and influential stories.

Sidewise in Time is almost certainly the earliest science fiction to deal with alternate universes/multiple universes. And it deals with these subjects in a remarkably ambitious manner, considering that the story dates from 1934.

Something very odd is happening. Viking longboats are sighted off the coast of modern Virginia. A Roman legion is marching through the streets of Joplin, Missouri. A man is killed by a dinosaur in Ohio. Professor Minott is an insignificant professor of mathematics at an insignificant college but he has figured out what is happening. More than that, he predicted it. And he has taken steps to survive. In fact he intends to do much more than survive.

Various parts of the Earth begin to oscillate between various timelines. The oscillations happen several times a day. Will they continue forever? Will things return to normal? Will our universe even survive? Professor Minott isn’t sure but he has a fair idea of the odds and he likes them. A remarkably clever and inventive story.

Proxima Centauri is from 1935. The Adastra is the first starship and after a voyage of seven years it is approaching Proxima Centauri. Hopes are high that an inhabitable planet may be found.  The Adastra is not so much a starship as an entire world. It is a sphere a mile in diameter and it is for all practical purposes entirely self-sufficient. It produces its own food. All water is endlessly recycled. It produces almost limitless energy. It could in theory undertake a voyage lasting hundreds of years, with its crew going through many generations before reaching their destination. This is one of several possible solutions to the difficulties of interstellar travel without exceeding the speed of light and this may well be the first science fiction story to explore this idea.

Leinster also explores the possible downsides. And they’re quite similar to the problems encountered on many of the early oceanic voyages of exploration. After a year or more at sea the crews tended to lose enthusiasm for the whole idea. They started to demand to return home. Disciplinary problems multiplied. Even mutiny was not unknown. And that’s what happens to the Adastra. Not actual mutiny, but an uneasy situation that could easily lead to mutiny.

And the Adastra is about to run into even bigger problems. Those who planned the expedition thought of almost everything, but there was one thing they failed to consider - what if there were inhabited planets orbiting Proxima Centauri but the inhabitants turned out to be unfriendly? What if they turned out to be unfriendly to an extreme degree? It might then turn out to be unfortunate that the Adastra is entirely unarmed.

Proxima Centauri deals with ideas that would later become commonplace in SF but it’s not only surprising to encounter them in 1935, it’s even more surprising to find them explored so cleverly.

The Fourth-dimensional Demonstrator combines humour, whimsy and an offbeat view of a possible time paradox. Pete Davidson had been hoping for a large inheritance from his uncle. All he ended up with was a fourth-dimensional demonstrator. At first it seems to be little more than an amusing toy, until Pete discovers that it can do something extraordinary  after all. It can bring an object forward out of the past. But what if the object already exists in the present?

First Contact deals with a dilemma facing the crew of a starship that has just made the first ever contact with an alien civilisation. And it’s a very tricky dilemma indeed. How can you possibly trust an alien species? And if you can’t trust them, certain very serious consequences logically follow. It’s a provocative and original story.

In The Ethical Equations a very junior officer finds himself having to shoulder an immense and unexpected responsibility. A derelict alien starship is drifting in our solar system, somewhere beyond Jupiter. Although derelict may not be the right word. This very junior officer slowly comes to realise the full significance of the situation. There’s a potential deadly menace but a tricky moral dilemma.

It’s rapidly becoming obvious that the immense and potentially catastrophic problems that contact with aliens would cause was a subject to which Leinster had given considerable thought. He is fascinated by the ethical perplexities which would confront us, the near impossibility of judging the possible intentions of aliens and by various dangers that might not be immediately obvious. Leinster doesn’t seem overly obsessed with scientific or technical details. He is more interested in the psychological and moral ramifications of first contact. And he deals with this subject with originality and intelligence.

Pipeline to Pluto deals with a stowaway, or at least a would-be stowaway, on an unmanned cargo flight to Pluto. It’s cheaper than paying for the fare for a regular spaceliner and they pay good money at the mines on Pluto so it sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong? Not as impressive as the other stories in this collection but it’s OK.

The Power is another first contact story, but a very unconventional one. Some very old letters have been found and they are the means by which the story is told. In the late fifteenth century a student of ritual magick named Carolus believes he has performed an impressive magical operation and has summoned a kind of demon. It is obvious to us that the demon is in fact an alien space traveller. He desires to pass on his knowledge to men and Carolus desires this knowledge but there is a problem. Their cultural backgrounds are simply too different to allow any meaningful communication. Carolus cannot conceive of knowledge in other than occult terms while the alien is patiently trying to teach him to construct high-tech machinery.

No matter how much goodwill there might be on both sides it might prove to be absolutely impossible to communicate with an alien species. There would simply be no intellectual common ground. It’s a great story, the best in the collection so far.

A Logic Named Joe is a remarkably prescient story dating from 1946. A logic is a kind of computer. Every home has one. They provide entertainment and information. All the logics are networked together so that each logic has access to just about every piece of information in existence. One of these logics, which the maintenance man who narrates the story calls Joe, has developed a curious fault. It has developed a kind of self-awareness, and it wants to be even more useful. It wants to offer advice to people. If you want to know how to do something you just have to ask your logic. Unfortunately the logics are now telling people how to do all sorts of things. If you want to know how to commit the perfect murder your logic will tell you. And Joe has managed to defeat the censoring mechanisms that were built in to the system. If Joe cannot be stopped civilisation will collapse. Another very clever and provocative story.

Symbiosis is a war story. The province of Kantolia has been invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Kantolia is defended by about fifteen customs guards and a handful of policemen while the invaders have an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands plus tanks and jet fighters. The situation is hopeless. The invaders don’t have a chance. You see Kantolia does have one defence. It’s a type of what would much later become known as asymmetric warfare. Another solid and original story, written in 1947.

The Strange Case of John Kingman is a very strange case indeed. John Kingman is a patient in a mental hospital. Nobody has taken much notice of him. He is assumed to be incurable. Then a young psychiatrist decides it would be worthwhile to have a close look at the records and he discovers something rather disturbing. John Kingman was admitted to the hospital 162 years ago. Things get more disturbing when the significance of the sketches drawn by the patient finally become apparent. John Kingman knows more about atomic energy than any living scientist. Much more. Not a bad story, and yes this 1948 story is in its own way yet another first contact story.

The Lonely Planet, dating from 1949, is the story of Alyx. Alyx is a creature that lives on the planet of the same name. In fact it is the only living creature on the planet. It covers most of the planet’s surface. Alyx is not quite animal and not quite plant. It has purpose but it lacks intelligence. Or at least it lacked intelligence until it encountered men. Alyx did not realise it was lonely until it encountered other creatures. Alyx wants only companionship. It has no desire to hurt anyone. It cannot even conceive of wanting to hurt anyone. But Alyx has developed intelligence very quickly, intelligence far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. Alyx is therefore a threat.

This story has some resemblances to Stanislaw Lem’s much later masterpiece Solaris. Alyx is not quite a sentient planet, but that’s what it becomes. The Lonely Planet is a remarkably ambitious tale of an encounter with an unimaginably alien intelligence. A superb story.

Keyhole from 1951, explores slightly similar themes to Lonely Planet. Against all the odds living creatures are discovered on the Moon. They seem quite primitive. At first. But not for long. This is another of Leinster’s obsessions - how alien civilisations impact on each other. Once two alien civilisations encounter each other the results are unpredictable and cannot be undone. Another intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

Critical Difference, written in 1956, is a struggle for survival on what seems to be a doomed planet. It’s a frozen planet to begin with but now it’s getting much much colder. Too cold to allow the colonists to survive. Colonial Survey Officer Massy has lots of ideas but every one of them seems to have a fatal flaw. If he can’t come up with an idea that will actually work it’s all over for the inhabitants of Lani III. Not one of the collections’s stronger stories but still quite good.

All in all this is a superb collection. Leinster was a science fiction writer who has clearly been criminally underrated. Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Max Murray’s The Voice of the Corpse

The Voice of the Corpse was published in 1948. It was Australian author Max Murray’s first detective novel.

On the surface this seems like an utterly conventional mystery, with its village setting and with the murder victim being a writer of poison-pen letters. Even by the standards of writer of poison-pen letters Angela Pewsey is a nasty piece of work. She likes to twist the knife as much as possible. Of course poison-pen letters are not really effective unless they contain a good deal of truth, which then puts the victims in a particularly unpleasant position - if they go to the police their dirty little secrets will be revealed to all the world.

After a while just writing the letters is not enough. Angela wants to torture her victims face-to-face. Of course when you thereby reveal yourself to your victims there’s an excellent chance one of them will decide to hit you over the head with a blunt object. Which is what happens to Angela Pewsey.

The local police have no doubt as to the explanation for the crime - it must have been committed by a stranger. Probably a tramp. It’s unthinkable that any of the villagers could have done the deed but tramps are always lurking about killing people. It must certainly have been a tramp. Not surprisingly the Chief Constable soon decides to take the matter out of the hands of the local police. He calls in Scotland Yard, and they duly despatch Inspector Tom Fowler to the scene.

But there is already a detective on the scene. Well, not actually a detective. Firth Prentice is the Sims family solicitor, Mrs Sims having requested his presence to offer advice on how to handle the poison-pen problem (her daughter Celia having received one of these letters).

So you might expect that this would be a typical story in which an amateur detective competes with the official police to find the solution and makes the police look like fools. But it’s not quite like that. Firth Prentice has no desire whatsoever to act the part of detective. When vital evidence in the form of a page from Angela Pewsey’s diary is dropped into his lap he is horrified, and he is relieved when the unbelievably stupid local police refuse to even look at the document. And nobody in the village (which by the way is called Inching Round) has any desire to see the crime solved. Firth takes no active steps until the very end when his hand is forced by the need to protect certain people and by his realisation that the official investigation might be going hopelessly astray.

The ending is clever, if morally very questionable.

The style is witty and rather tongue-in-cheek and the book is at times very amusing. In fact the style is the book’s strongest point.

Firth Prentice is a fascinating protagonist. He’s not just lazy and uninterested, he’s also remarkably irritable. His irritability stems partly from his horror at finding himself in the country, surrounded by people who bewilder and appal him.

It might sound like a traditional puzzle-plot mystery but it isn’t really. Alibis and physical evidence play no part whatever in the story. The plot is almost entirely motive-driven. Both the official police and Firth Prentice act on the (very dubious) assumption that once the motives are uncovered the whole mystery will be automatically solved. Unfortunately, for a story that relies so exclusively on motive, the motive that provides the key that finally unlocks the mystery is very unconvincing.

There’s also not a great amount of actual detecting. Two small boys from the village actually do more detecting than all the detectives, official and unofficial, combined. I don’t think I’d describe this as a fair-play mystery. The book’s total lack of interest in alibis, times of death or any kind of physical or forensic evidence means that there are very few clues. Everything comes down to motive, which means that everything comes down to psychology. The only significant physical clues are not revealed until almost the end of the book and they are simply drawn out of a hat. This is not really a detective story. It’s not quite a psychological crime novel either. Motivations are important but the book (mercifully) has no interest in the inner workings of any of the characters’ minds.

The Voice of the Corpse is quite entertaining but by 1948 crime fiction was already starting to take a seriously wrong turn, with intelligent plotting becoming less and less fashionable. Despite a good twist at the end the plotting in this book just doesn’t have the satisfyingly intricate quality that you find in works of the 20s and 30s. The golden age of crime fiction was drawing to a close. The Voice of the Corpse is maybe worth a look if you pick up a copy cheaply enough.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Larry Niven’s A Gift from Earth

A Gift from Earth is one of Larry Niven’s very early Known Space novels. Larry Niven (born 1938) is considered to be a writer of hard SF but in this case he seems to be just as interested in the social and political implications of technology as in the technology itself. A Gift from Earth is also a dystopian novel of sorts.

The setting is bizarre but it’s also pretty cool. Mount Lookitthat is a plateau about half the size of California and it roses 40 miles above the surface of a planet that is otherwise about as hostile and uninhabitable as a planet can be. The atmosphere is boiling hot and poisonous and the atmospheric pressure at the surface is crushing.

Why would anyone colonise such a planet? The answer is simple. It was colonised at a time when interstellar travel was in its infancy. It could only be achieved using starships that travelled at around half the speed of light. There being very few star systems  with habitable planets close enough to Earth to be reached by such technology any planet that is even marginally habitable has been colonised.

What’s more interesting even than the planet is the strange social system that has evolved there. The starships (of which there were originally two) that reached the planet each carried a crew of six and fifty colonists in suspended animation. Five hundred years later the descendants of the crew and the descendants of the colonists have become separate social castes. The crew have become a kind of aristocracy ruling Mount Lookitthat with the colonists being more or less the peasantry.

And then there are the organ banks. The technology to extend life to an extraordinary degree exists but it is dependant on a supply of organs for transplants. An enormous supply or organs is required, and an effective system has been devised to provide that supply. Just about every crime, no matter how trivial, is punishable by execution. The executed criminals supply the organs for the organ banks.

It is almost exclusively colonists who are executed and it is mostly (but not entirely) crew who benefit from the organ banks. The system survives because the crew have all the weapons and they control the supply of power to everybody. The colonists naturally are not happy with the system but on the other hand it does keep the crime rate down! And colonists who are coöperative and useful do receive at least some of the transplants.

Everything changes with the arrival of Ramrobot #143 from Earth, bearing a number of very important gifts.

Matt Keller gets mixed up, very reluctantly, with a colonist resistance group known as the Sons of Earth. Matt is very useful to them, and potentially the key to all sorts of possible futures, since he has an odd psionic power.

The political aspects of the story are absolutely central and they’re complex and at times subtle. Niven understands that politics is about power. There are a number of significant political actors in the story. They are motivated by the desire to promote their own group interests, and by a desire for power. Principles are of no interest to them whatsoever. And in this story politics and technology are intricately entangled. One of Niven’s more disturbing ideas is that technology changes morality. It’s not an idea that I’m comfortable with but it has to be admitted that he argues his case pretty well.

One of the curious features of science fiction in its so-called golden age was the interest in psionic or paranormal abilities such as telepathy. Of course back in the 1930s and 1940s such ideas still seemed to be at least vaguely plausible but it surprises me to find such ideas still going strong in a 1968 novel by someone who was at the time one of the rising young stars of the genre. Psionics are of course remarkably useful as plot devices which may be why science fiction writers clung to such ideas so tenaciously.

A Gift from Earth is an interesting and provocative science fiction novel with dystopian overtones. Recommended.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

E.R. Punshon’s Information Received

When E.R. Punshon’s Information Received was published in 1933 it was given a rave review by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers say the book as exemplifying her own ideas on detective fiction - that literary qualities were vastly more important than such sordid qualities as good plotting. Detective fiction should aspire to be Literature. Sayers was of course completely wrong about this, as she was about most things. But even though it received the Sayers seal of approval I’m still prepared to give Information Received a fair chance.

E.R. Punshon (1872-1956) was an English writer of mainstream fiction who in later life turned more and more towards the writing of detective fiction, including a vast number of novels chronicling the rise of Bobby Owen from the humble police constable of Information Received to the highest ranks of Scotland Yard. Bobby Owen is a university graduate who found himself with prospects so terribly limited that his only options seemed to be to become a schoolteacher or a policeman. He chose being a policeman as being slightly the lesser of two ghastly evils. At the time of the events described in Information Received Owen’s police career has been undistinguished. One might even go so far as to say that it has been impressive in its unimpressiveness.

Now he has what might well be his big break. He is first on the scene when Sir Christopher  Clarke, a big wheel in the City, is murdered. He is even luckier than that, as the formidable Superintendent Mitchell takes a liking to him. Mitchell is favourably impressed that although Owen has made several mistakes common to inexperienced policemen the young constable offers no excuses.

Sir Christopher’s safe, containing easily negotiable bearer bonds and diamonds, was also robbed.

For the most part the possible suspects either have no alibis or alibis that any reader of detective fiction would instantly recognise as rather shaky.

The various suspects - Sir Christopher’s daughter, son-in-law, step daughter, the step daughter’s fiancé, the family lawyer, a business associate and an elderly actor - behave in a manner that almost seems to be calculated to draw further suspicion upon themselves. Some have obvious motives while others have no apparent reason for wanting to murder Sir Christopher. Th question of motives is one to which we shall return.

There are some ingenious touches and one aspect of the murder method is particularly clever. Unfortunately the clue that points most surely to the killer is a clue offered to the reader but it’s a clue that the detectives don’t notice.

The plotting is very problematical. It makes use of a device which was used on occasion by other writer but it’s a device that has always seemed to me to be an outright cheat. It makes it impossible for the reader to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

A bigger problem is that the two chief detectives, Superintendent Mitchell and Constable Bobby Owen, do not solve the case by actual detection. The solution is presented to them on a platter. Suddenly, right at the end, a great deal of information necessary for the unraveling of the mystery is suddenly pulled from a hat. And the crucial motive, and it really is crucial, is revealed. Everything is clear, but this happens at a point at which Mitchell and Owen have admitted that they cannot solve the case. Then the solution is simply given to them.

As a work of detective fiction I have to rate this one as a failure.

As for Dorothy Sayers’ beloved literary qualities, I failed to notice them. It is competently written. There’s a lot of psychologising which will endear this book to modern critics. Personally I find that that sort of stuff bores me a little. In this particular case it’s rather overwrought and melodramatic, more what I expect in a Victorian sensation novel. I actually like Victorian sensation novels and I like melodrama but it seems a bit out of place here.

I don’t really think Information Received quite works as a detective novel and as Literature I can’t imagine anyone other than Dorothy L. Sayers being excited by it.

It’s a much-praised book. Obviously others have found virtues in it that I have failed to discover. Personally I’d give it a miss.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Leslie Charteris's Saint Errant

Saint Errant is a 1948 short story collection by Leslie Charteris and it’s notable for introducing a somewhat different version of the Saint. He is more of a loner, and with just the slightest touch of melancholy although of course combined with his perennial thirst for adventures. These adventures are no longer as outlandish.

The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. There are personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. These are often personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. They often, in fact usually, involve crimes but they’re everyday crimes like murder, blackmail and robbery rather than espionage and treason and potential mass murder.

The Saint’s moral stance hasn’t changed. He is still the sworn enemy of evil-doers (the ungodly as he calls them) but he still sees no reason why fighting crime can’t be profitable. After all if he can recover stolen money and restore it to its rightful owners how could anyone object to his taking a ten percent commission?

All of the stories in this collection are named after women. And from this point on most of the Saint’s adventures will be set in motion by women. The Saint has an extraordinarily  large number of friends and acquaintances of the female persuasion. Patricia Holm, once his inseparable companion and the love of his life, is no longer a central character in the stories.

In Judith Simon Templar meets the sort of woman he likes most. She’s young and beautiful and she’s just about to commit a burglary. So what else can he do? He offers to commit the burglary himself. After all, it’s all in a good cause. Judith is simply stealing papers which should be hers. It’s a cute little story with a nice twist at the end.

Iris is an actress appearing in a production of Macbeth and she’s driving the director crazy. There’s not much the director, a pompous alcoholic has-been actor, can do since Iris’s husband is mobster Rick the Barber and he’s putting up the money for the production. Rick the Barber is at this very moment being blackmailed by Simon Templar, only Simon Templar knows nothing about it. But he certainly intends to find out. Not a bad story.

Lucia takes Simon to bandit country in Mexico. His arrival in a small coincides with the return of a man Amadeo who had left many years before. Amadeo claims to be a big wheel in the jewellery trade. The innkeeper Salvatore knows Amadeo well, and does not like him. When Amadeo boats of his wealth Salvatore boasts of his as well. Then Salvatore’s daughter Lucia is kidnapped.

The Saint has his own theories as to what Amadeo’s profession might really be, and also a fair idea what’s behind the kidnapping. As usual the twist that Charteris throws in at the end is effective and it’s appropriately Saintly. A fairly decent story.

In Lida Simon Templar and Patricia Holm are supposed to meet Lida Verity at the Quarterdeck Club, a perhaps not entirely honest and straightforward gambling club, in Miami. Lida was apparently in some sort of trouble and had asked the Saint for help. Unfortunately Lida’s visit to the Quarterdeck Club on this might is the last she will ever pay. Simon and Patricia find her dead. She has been shot and she is clutching an automatic.

Strangely enough absolutely everyone jumps to the conclusion that Mrs Verity shot herself although in fact the evidence clearly points to murder. The answer is to be found in the Quarterdeck Club somewhere. No-one at the club is anxious to talk but Simon Templar has a way of persuading people to do so. A solid if low-key story.

In Jeannine Simon is in New Orleans when he is reacquainted with Judith (from the previous story of that name) only now she calls herself Jeannine. She’s as beautiful and charming and captivating as ever but sadly her morals have not improved. Jeannine is again plotting larceny and again the Saint gets mixed up in her scheming. It’s all about pearls. Simon knows some extremely interesting things about pearls, and that knowledge will come in very handy. The twist at the end is typical Charteris and it’s very neatly done.

Teresa takes the Saint back to Mexico. Teresa Alvarez is looking for her husband. The suspicion is that he may have fallen into the hands of the notorious bandit El Rojo. She accepts that her husband is most likely dead but it wold be a comfort to her to know what actually happened to him. The Saint has his own reasons for wanting to meet El Rojo. They find the famous bandit and then a series of clever little plot twists kicks in. A very good story.

Luella begins with a chance encounter in a bar in Los Angeles. A young air force sergeant is set up by a blackmail gang. The bait is a young lady named Luella, of great physical charm but decidedly dubious character. For the Saint it’s too good an opportunity to miss - to put some blackmailers out of business, help a naïve but decent young man and have some fun along the way. He comes up with a neat scheme to fleece the blackmailers. A fairly serviceable tale although not as strong as most of the stories in this collection.

Emily is a very whimsical tale. Simon goes to the rescue of an old lady who has been sold a gold mine which sadly contains no gold whatsoever. Luckily Simon has recently acquired a Doodlebug and he’s pretty sure he can make use of it to right this particular wrong. An enjoyable story.

Dawn is the final story in the collection and to say it’s an oddity in the Charteris oeuvre wold be an understatement. The Saint is enjoying a peaceful time in a cabin in the mountains, fishing mostly, when a rather large man forces his way in. The man explains that he is Big Bill Holbrook but he isn’t real, he’s being dreamed by a bank teller named Andrew Faulks in Glendale California. There are men after Holbrook and it has something to do with the fabulous fire opal he shows Simon, and something to do with the girl named Dawn who has also turned up at the cabin. Of course Holbrook’s story is nonsense and Simon eventually decides that he knows what’s really going on. Or does he?

Right to the end Charteris teases us. Is it just a dream? Whose dream is it? Is it a crazy story that Holbrook has made up?

I’m not sure it entirely works but it’s an interesting experiment and Charteris manages to make it whimsical and slightly unsettling.

All of these stories take place in North America, but mostly in offbeat or remote or exotic North American locales. The tone is definitely quite different compared to the early 30s Saint stories with are the ones with which I was previously familiar. They’re much more low-key and they lack the manic energy of the earlier tales but they do have a charm of their own. And the new version of the Saint revealed in these stories is perhaps more human and more genuinely likeable, perhaps because his insane self-confidence (which is still in evidence) has been tempered a little by maturity. I wouldn’t say these later stories are better or worse than the earlier ones, they’re just very different. Highly recommended.

Judith, Lida, Teresa, Iris, Jeannine and Luella were all adapted for the TV series of The Saint. My thoughts on these adaptations can be found on Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Brian Flynn's The Spiked Lion

The Spiked Lion was the thirteenth of the fifty-odd Anthony Bathurst mysteries written by Brian Flynn. It was published in 1933. For those readers addicted to such things it contains a minor locked-room puzzle. And yes, there is a spiked lion in the story.

Not much seems to be known about Brian Flynn (1885-1958). He was an Englishman who worked as a government accountant and was also an amateur actor.

It starts promisingly enough. Two men disappear and are later found dead, apparently killed by cyanide administered through the nostrils. Oddly enough they also seem to have been badly beaten. John Blundell is an expert in cryptography while Hubert Wingfield is an authority on legendary inscriptions. The similarities in the circumstances of their deaths make it fairly clear that there must be some link between the two murders. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Austin Kemble, asks Anthony Bathurst for help. Bathurst is a private enquiry agent (Americans would call him a private detective) who has assisted Scotland Yard on other cases.

A note found on Blundell’s body strikes Bathurst as being likely to be a vital clue. Then a third corpse turns up. This killing has some locked-room elements to it.

I have to be particularly vague in discussing this book since even mentioning some of the subjects it touches on would reveal spoilers. I can at least tell you that while golden age writers were fond of mysteries with roots in the past this one takes that idea about as far as it can be taken - right back to a certain gift given by Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope) in the twelfth century!

Anthony Bathurst is not one of your more colourful detectives. Flynn was more interested in plot than characterisation (a priority with which I heartily agree). We do find out a few things about him. He’s very fit and looks like the kind of chap who could handle himself very well in a scrap. He’s a gentleman (Uppingham and Oxford). While he was keen on cricket and rugger at school he has fairly well developed aesthetic tastes. He likes cats. As a detective his great strength seems to be his thoroughness - he firmly believes that every piece of information, no matter how trivial it appears to be, is potentially important. He has the kind of mind that sees connections between things. When it comes to extracting information he can be rather direct and even a bit pushy if he thinks such an approach might work.

This novel is very much in the “murder in a country house” tradition. Even though only one of the murders actually takes place in a country house much of the investigative work takes place in two country houses. And it’s very much a tale of murder among the upper classes.

Flynn was not the sort of writer who tried to be ground-breaking. He had no interest in pushing the edge of the envelope or transcending the genre or any of that literary nonsense. This is a straightforward golden age puzzle-plot mystery. Which as far as I’m concerned is just fine. When it comes to plotting Flynn was certainly not in the same league as a John Dickson Carr or a Freeman Wills Crofts (or John Rhode on a good day). As far as quality is concerned he was a mid-ranking author - very competent and capable of telling a thoroughly enjoyable story of murder.

There is a touch of Edgar Wallace here as well. The dividing line between detective stories and thrillers was often rather fuzzy at this time. I like Edgar Wallace and the thriller elements here are reasonably well done so I see no cause for complaint.

Brian Flynn’s books are long out of print and reasonably hard to find. A couple of them (including this one) have been issued by an outfit in India that does print-on-demand facsimile editions. They’re infinitely preferable to most POD editions since being facsimiles you don’t have to worry about typos. And they’re fairly cheap. I’ve bought quite a few books from (they’ve issued a number of obscure golden age detective novels) and they seem to be very reliable to deal with. At this point in time they’re probably your best bet if you want to give Brian Flynn a try.

The Spiked Lion is actually pretty good. Not top-rank stuff but good enough that I’ve already ordered another of Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries. Highly recommended for fans of solid conventional golden age detective fiction.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Saint's Getaway

The Saint's Getaway was originally published in 1932 as Getaway, although two earlier versions of the story appeared in Thriller magazine earlier that year.

Simon Templar, his beloved Patricia Holm and his pal Monty Hayward are enjoying a well-earned holiday in Innsbruck. They are lying low, or at least are supposed to be lying low, after their previous adventure (recounted in The Saint vs Scotland Yard AKA The Holy Terror). Simon has promised Patricia that he won’t get himself into any trouble. Sadly that promise doesn’t last long. But what can a chap do when he sees a scrawny little runt of a fellow being beaten up by three thugs? Simon naturally intervenes. It turns out that the situation is not at all as it appeared to be and Simon has stumbled into a major and very dangerous conspiracy. Which of course absolutely delights him.

He’s up against a fine villain too - the smooth but sinister Prince Rudolf.

There are jewels involved. Extremely valuable jewels. Their value might well be more than merely monetary. The jewels have been stolen of course, but not necessarily for the usual reasons that jewels get stolen.

The police are anxious to recover the jewels. Prince Rudolf is very keen to have the jewels in his possession but he does not wish to become involved with the police. The question of the ownership of the gems might prove slightly troublesome. Since he was known to have the jewels on his person both the police and Prince Rudolf’s crew are now hot on the Saint’s trail and it is by no means certain that there are not other interested parties as well.

The pursuit is so relentless that Simon could be forgiven for focusing on escape for himself and his companions but in fact he is making grandiose plans involving those very valuable pieces of rock.

This is still the early Saint, the devil-may-care adventurer possessed of insane levels of self-confidence and optimism. The more the odds seem stacked against him the more he enjoys himself. His childish but exuberant sense of humour is very much in evidence. Whether the reader appreciates this sense of humour is a matter of taste. I like it and given Charteris’s immense commercial success it’s safe to say that most readers at the time did as well. Charteris’s style is, as it was in all his early work, outrageously over-the-top.

Like just about every fictional crime-fighter Simon Templar is of course a master of disguise. This is a feature that almost entirely disappears from popular fiction in the postwar period but back in 1932 it was more or less obligatory. The Saint’s ability to speak fluent German also comes in handy. Mostly though Templar relies on sheer bravado and bluff and a tendency to do things that are completely crazy but totally unexpected. These are qualities that other fictional heroes also possessed but none took them to quite such extremes as the Saint.

It also needs to be pointed out that the early Saint still had a very flexible approach to the law. He did after all start his career as a criminal. He is now very much on the side of the angels but a man is still entitled to make a living. The Saint would never even consider stealing from decent law-abiding folk but he tends to regard stealing from criminals (the ungodly as he calls them) in a much more favourable light. He considers himself to be basically an honest man but there are irritating individuals in the police forces of several countries who take a different view and some of them are so unreasonable as to to wish to put the Saint behind bars. Which of course as far as the Saint is concerned just adds a bit more fun to life.

Leslie Charteris was especially enamoured of the short story and novella formats but he demonstrates here that he was equally adept at writing novels. He keeps events moving at a blistering pace and he spins a pleasingly intricate plot. There’s as much action as any reasonable person could want.

The Saint's Getaway is a rollicking roller-coaster ride to adventure. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia, one of Agatha Christie’s more celebrated mysteries, was published in 1936. As I did with Evil Under the Sun last year I’m going to review the novel and then add a brief review of the 2002 television adaptation.

Christie, being married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, had a rough working knowledge of the subject and had accompanied him on a number of digs. Using an archaeological dig as a setting for a murder was very obviously a splendid idea. Christie was particularly good with exotic locales - she never allows them to overshadow the plot or to slow things down but she uses them very effectively for atmosphere.

In this case the action takes place in the expedition house, a large building with a central courtyard. Very conveniently (for Christie’s purposes) there is only one way of getting in, through a gateway which is always guarded. And there are no windows at all that will allow access from outside. If a killer is going to get in he must come through the gateway and when murder does occur in this novel the gateway is under observation by three servants, all reliable and trustworthy. So we have the classic setup - the killer must have been inside already and therefore must be a member of the expedition. There are therefore only about half a dozen possible suspects.

The dig is in Iraq, not too far from Baghdad. Dr Leidner leads the expedition. He is accompanied by his wife. There is his long-time colleague Carey, there is Mr Mercado and his wife, a French monk whose job it is to translate inscriptions, and three younger men.

Also on the scene but not living in the expedition house are Dr Reilly and his daughter.

There is also the narrator, Nurse Leatheran, is a woman with plenty of sound common sense but very little imagination. She’s also inclined to be a remarkably poor judge of people. If they have good manners and are superficially refined she thinks the best of them. if they seem not quite respectable she thinks the worst of them. That’s undoubtedly why Christie found her to be ideal narrator. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator but she is (like Captain Hastings) inclined to miss crucially important points. In fact she’s a bit of a fool. Having a narrator who understands little or nothing of what is going on is of course a favoured device of mystery writers, being incredibly useful in encouraging the reader to miss key plot points. Christie always enjoyed using it to add humour as well.

Nurse Leatheran has been employed because Mrs Leidner has vague and unspecified nervous troubles. There is an odd atmosphere of tension among the expedition members.

Of course there is a murder. Luckily it just so happens that a certain Belgian detective is in Iraq at that very moment. Poirot is on the scene very quickly. He makes it clear that he believes the mystery can only be solved by understanding the victim’s personality. There seems to be an extraordinary amount of disagreement among the expedition members on this point. The victim may have been universally loved or universally disliked. It all depends on whom you ask.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. There are some very clever, very devious clues. Devious, but fair. There’s some good stuff involving alibis. There’s some wonderful misdirection. My problem with Christie is that most of her books are extremely clever but for me there’s nearly always something that doesn’t quite satisfy me. To be totally successful a detective story has to have a solution that is ingenious but at least vaguely plausible. Not so much technically plausible but psychologically plausible. I have to feel that the characters really might have behaved in the way that the book has them behaving. In Murder in Mesopotamia there is one crucial psychological element that in my view fails the believability test. So for me it’s another Christie that ends up leaving me with a few doubts. She has built an extraordinarily impressive house of cards and then added one final card that risked causing the whole thing to collapse. Overall this is a dazzling piece of work and that final card probably wasn’t even necessary.

Apart from the plotting it’s typical Christie. I’ve never understood how anyone could find Christie dull. Her writing has a delightful sly wit and in this case her use of the incredibly obtuse nurse as narrator is masterful and very amusing.

Murder in Mesopotamia is a brilliant work with perhaps a minor flaw. It’s still recommended.

The 2002 TV adaptation

The TV version omits a few characters but they’re mostly peripheral characters like Dr Reilly (whose daughter now becomes the daughter of Police Superintendent Maitland. A more important change is that Nurse Leatheran is demoted from narrator to being just another member of the party. A pity since her psychological obtuseness was amusing.

Captain Hastings is introduced into the story, quite unnecessarily but he was popular with viewers and he takes over from Nurse Leatheran as Poirot’s sounding board.

The plot remains basically the same except that writer Clive Exton increases the body count dramatically. There’s no need for this but presumably he felt that a murder was needed right at the start to keep viewers interested.

The biggest weakness is the casting of Barbara Barnes as Louise Leidner. She’s just not glamorous enough to be convincing as a woman who exercises an overwhelming power over men.

Of course it looks fabulous. Even when this series got everything else wrong it looked great.

In this case it gets things mostly right. The minor reservation I have about the novel applies also to the TV version. It’s still pretty decent entertainment.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Global Globules Affair (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel)

The Global Globules Affair, written by Simon Latter and published in 1967, was one of five tie-in novels associated with the short-lived television series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which aired on NBC in 1966-67.

Like the television series on which it’s based it’s a light-hearted and enjoyable mix of science fiction and spy thriller.

It’s basically harmless fun and if you’re a fan of the original television series it's worth a look. Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Frank King's The Case of the Painted Girl

Finding a book by a very obscure crime writer is always satisfying and I think Frank King certainly qualifies as obscure. Frank King (1892-1958) was an Englishman who wrote about forty crime novels and had several series characters, the best-known being a London private investigator knows as The Dormouse. Nobody seems to know anything more about him than this. The Case of the Painted Girl was one of his earlier books, appearing in 1931.

The Case of the Painted Girl features another of King’s series characters, Chief Inspector Gloom of Scotland Yard. An aptly named fellow he turns out to be, with a corpse-like face and an unfailing sense of pessimism. Oddly enough he seems to derive a great deal of enjoyment from his pessimism.

It’s obvious fairly early on that this book is going to be a mixture of thriller and mystery elements. It all starts when young stockbroker Jimmy Harrison has car trouble on his way to Scotland. He’s out in the middle of nowhere but luckily he finds a house. It’s an isolated house and appears to be empty but he soon has good cause to think that it isn’t empty at all. He desperately needs water for his car’s radiator but no-one answers his knock. Then he hears a piercing scream, and making his way inside he finds - murder!

It’s worse than that though, the murderer is still there and Jimmy has to find a way to keep both himself and the girl alive. Who is this girl? Jimmy has no idea except that she appears to be a damsel in distress. Staying alive proves to be a challenge, and things get worse, much worse, when the policeman knocks on the door.

This is going to be the most adventurous holiday of Jimmy’s life. And if he isn’t careful, it may be the last.

From this point on the plot becomes more and more outrageous.

This is not an impossible crime story but there is an impossible element to the murder.

For Chief Inspector Gloom this is an exasperating case, with endless complications and clues that seem to lead nowhere except to further complications. This is much more than a simple murder. And the murderer is clearly much more than your average killer.

There’s certainly a mystery here, a puzzle that will need to be solved, but this is not a classical golden age detective tale. There are significant suspense elements and it’s really a complete potboiler, with plenty of nods to Edgar Wallace and perhaps just a dash of Sapper as well.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s done with style and energy and in this case the style and the energy are present in abundance. The plot is ludicrously far-fetched and manages to include every single fun cliché that you could hope for in a thriller of this vintage. It might not be especially polished, it might not have any redeeming literary qualities but it has to be admitted that the author does everything he can think of to make it entertaining.

Chief Inspector Gloom is a delightful character. His pessimism, his apparent lethargy and his taste for the macabre are largely a pose. In fact he’s a bundle of energy and the more difficult a case proves to be the more pleased he is. He’s really a cheerful and kindly man but he finds it makes life much more amusing to hide those qualities. He doesn’t really get to do much detecting in terms of looking for clues or breaking down alibis. It’s not that kind of story. What matters is that despite his apparent pessimism he has plenty of bulldog tenacity.

Jimmy Harrison and Myra Livingstone play the hero and heroine rôles. Jimmy is the sort of young man who finds being mixed up in a murder investigation and a gigantic criminal conspiracy to be an absolutely topping way to spend one’s holiday. He relishes the opportunity to play the hero to a pretty girl. He’s chivalrous and he’s easy going. Myra Livingstone plays the heroine rôle and she’s equally likeable. She’s high-spirited and impetuous but thoroughly respectable.

And this being a thriller there’s a proper villain. Not only that, he is a full-blown Diabolical Criminal Mastermind with a Fiendish Plot that must be stopped.

The Case of the Painted Girl is fast-paced and enjoyable nonsense. Recommended if your tastes run that way.

Now for the bad news - availability. King’s books are long out of print. It’s not completely catastrophic news though - used copies of at least some of his novels are around and are not necessarily all that expensive.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Otis Adelbert Kline's Jan of the Jungle

Otis Adelbert Kline (1891–1946) was an American pulp writer in the mould of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact he is sometimes dismissed as a mere imitator of Burroughs. Whatever sub-genres Burroughs worked in (or often invented) you could be pretty sure that Kline would soon be working in as well. Like Burroughs he wrote sword-and-planet adventures set on Mars and Venus, he wrote lost world stories and he wrote jungle adventure stories. An imitator he may have been, but at the time he was considered to be possibly Burroughs’ most serious rival in those genres.

Jan of the Jungle, published in 1931, is a jungle adventure tale about a boy raised by chimpanzees, which certainly does sound remarkably close to Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan.

Jan is the son of a millionaire. For complicated reasons he is kidnapped as a baby by the evil mad scientist Dr Bracken and raised by a female chimpanzee. He can understand the primitive language of chimpanzees but he has no knowledge of any human languages. Since the book takes place in South America you may be about to object that there are no chimpanzees in South America but Kline has that objection neatly covered.

He escapes and has various adventures in the jungles of South America, with Dr Bracken pursuing him remorselessly. He also meet Ramona and falls in love with her. We will later discover that her personal history is as strange as Jan’s.

So far it sounds like an exact Tarzan clone but things are about to change. Jan chances upon the entrance to an underground river which takes him to a hidden valley. Jan of the Jungle is about to become a lost world tale.

At this point Kline decides to abandon any pretence at plausibility. The hidden valley contains not only a Mesoamerican lost civilisation but a huge variety of extinct animals, ranging from species extinct for thousands of years (such as sabre-toothed cats) to those that have been extinct for tens of millions of years (such as the stegasaurus). No explanation is offered for the survival of either the lost civilisation or the extinct animals. Not that it matters - if one demanded strict plausibility of lost world takes one would end with no more than a tiny handful to choose from.

There are two main sub-plots, the Jan sub-plot which concerns his parentage and Dr Bracken’s many attempts to recapture him, and the Ramona sub-plot which concerns her parentage and an attempt to kidnap her. Kline also at least pays lip service to the “boy caught between two worlds” theme but with an added twist since Jan is caught between three worlds - the modern world, the world of the jungle and the world of the hidden valley. To Jan it seems like the latter two are more likely to bring him contentment but then there’s the question of Ramona.

Dr Bracken is obviously a serious villain but in the hidden valley Jan will find another equally dangerous and treacherous enemy.

The important thing is that there’s enough here to satisfy the tastes of both jungle adventure and lost world fans and if you’re a straightforward fan of action and adventure you’ll find both those commodities in generous quantities.

Now if this had been an Edgar Rice Burroughs story there would have been a lot more attention paid to making the lost world more complex and more interesting and to explaining how it actually works. It would have been a much more fully developed lost world. Kline however has no such ambitions. He’s content to write an exciting pulp adventure yarn.

In other words there’s a reason Edgar Rice Burroughs is still a household name and Otis Adalbert Kline isn’t.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Jan of the Jungle. As long as you accept its pulp limitations it’s enjoyable. If you’re a Tarzan fan and you’ve read all the Tarzan stories or if you’re a lost world buff like me you’ll want to check this one out. Not great but still fun.