Friday, May 24, 2019
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
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 (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
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.
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.