Sunday, August 25, 2019
It all starts, fittingly, on opening night In this case the London opening night of a musical comedy spectacular from producer-impresario Douglas B. Douglas. In Act Two a brigand is supposed to threaten the hero with a revolver and then fire a single shot. The hero will suffer a slight flesh wound. It’s a dramatic moment but on this opening night it’s even more dramas that it was intended to be. Brandon Baker, playing the hero, suffers more than a flesh wound. The actor is shot dead on stage in front of two thousand people. Shortly thereafter the actor who fired the fatal shot, Hilary Foster, is found in his dressing room. He has hanged himself.
Luckily the opening audience includes Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard. Also in the audience is Wilson’s son, a newspaper reporter, who will function as Wilson’s sidekick.
Inspector Wilson has a theory about the gun. He also has a theory about the bullet fired from the gun. Unfortunately his theory is not quite compatible with the medical evidence presented at the inquest.
One odd thing about the inquest is that Brandon Baker’s widow was there. Brandon Baker’s widow was also at his funeral. But they were two different women.
There’s also the matter of the word written on the wallpaper in the leading lady’s flat.
Some of the action takes place in the theatre but much of it takes place in a small village in Buckinghamshire.
This is a comic detective novel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. The problem is that it tries too hard to be funny, and it tries to be funny all the time. Sometimes it is funny but sometimes the humour is a bit forced. And sometimes it’s a bit wearying.
The main problem here is that the author is not interested in writing a detective novel. He’s interested in writing a witty satire, mostly a satire on the commercial theatre but also a satire on detective novels. His main interest in detective fiction is in making fun of it. That’s a generous explanation for the sketchiness and dullness of the plot. A less generous explanation would have been the common one of a writer from outside the genre thinking that writing detective novels is incredibly easy and then failing when it they try to write one.
It’s always irritating when you get to the end and the author pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case the author pulls a whole troop of rabbits out of a hat. And does so in a way that suggests a kind of sneering contempt for fans of detective fiction.
As a detective novel it’s a washout. As a theatrical satire it might have been amusing at the time but the people it’s satirising are now long dead and the kind of theatre it’s satirising is also long dead.
The fact that the British Library Crime Classics collection now includes no less than three Alan Melville novels can only be described as bizarre.
Quick Curtain is quite simply a waste of time. Avoid this one.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
The Indian Tomb was written in 1918 and was a major success. It has been filmed three times, including a late 1950s version by Fritz Lang. It’s only comparatively recently that it’s been made available in an English translation.
The Indian Tomb is the story of a German architect recently recovered from a near-fatal illness who receives an unusual commission. He is told that he must leave immediately for India, he must in fact leave that very night. He knows nothing of the man who has offered him the commission other than the fact that he is immensely wealthy and he wants a tomb for his recent deceased wife. The tomb must be not merely beautiful, it must surpass even the Taj Mahal. The architect is offered a fabulous sum of money but it is the challenge and the opportunity that causes him to accept the commission. This is a chance to build something greater than he has ever built before, something grate than he could ever have imagined building.
He arrives at the prince’s palace, and meets the prince. At first it all seems a bit bewildering but he expected that. And then he finds that the situation is not all what he expected and the job is not what he expected. He cannot do, but he may have no choice. He’s entered a strange nightmare world. The palace is a wonderful creation, a combination of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary horror, filled with wonders and terrors. It’s more like city than a palace, or perhaps a vast prison. If only his beloved wife were there with him. He has heard her voice but of course the was a dream. She is back home in Germany.
The palace is built on an island in a lake. In fact it is the island. The lake has some peculiar properties. Many men have tried to swim the lake. None survived.
There is a very entertaining interlude in the home of the jeweller Mohammed ben Hassan. His home is more like an amazing fortress, filled with unimaginable riches.
If you’re familiar with Metropolis then you’ll know that von Harbou was fascinated by imaginary cities and by strange and sometimes sinister architecture. It’s no accident that the hero of the novel is an architect - perhaps only an architect could survive the prince’s palace, although of course an architect might be particularly susceptible to the madness of the place.
The prince’s motives are mysterious. He offers explanations but Fürbringer has no way of being sure what these explanations mean. They almost certainly don’t mean what they appear to mean.
One of the best things about the book is that von Harbou was fascinated by India but never set foot there. This is an India of the imagination. It’s an amalgam of traveler’s tales, the Arabian Nights, fairy tales and pure fancy. It’s a bit like the Arabian Nights retold by Kafka.
Fürbringer has entered a world in which he knows none of the rules. That’s the main obstacle to escape - where would he escape to? He is in an alien world and he doesn’t even know what to be afraid of.
And once he thinks he’s figured things out he still doesn’t really understand why is going on.
There’s a lot to admire in this book. Unfortunately it has one flaw and it’s a near-fatal flaw. I can’t tell you what it is because it would be a huge spoiler. Interestingly, the ending has similarities to the ending of one of Fritz Lang’s American films, not written by Thea von Harbou.
Despite the flaw it’s an interesting book with lots of exoticism and some great weird sinister atmosphere (the horses are a nice touch but I’m not going to tell you what’s so delightfully and creepily strange about them). So I’d still recommend this book. Metropolis on the other hand is a great book.
Fritz Lang's 1959 movie version of The Indian Tomb, the two-part film known as the Indian Epic, is excellent.
Saturday, August 10, 2019
At around the time this novel was published Sprigg was developing what would soon become an all-consuming interest in Marxism. He wrote voluminously on Marxism and in 1936 went off to fight for the cause of communism in the Spanish Civil War. Within a very short space of time at the front he was killed in action.
There isn’t much indication of Sprigg’s growing political convictions in Death of an Airman. He was a man who evidently took his political beliefs very very seriously but the tone of the novel is light and breezy. The central character of the novel is a bishop which is interesting. Sprigg was raised as a Catholic. It was not unusual in those day for devout Catholics to transform themselves into devout Marxists. You might suspect that Spring chose a clergyman as protagonist in order to mock a belief system that he was in the process of abandoning but I can’t find much in the book to support such a notion. The bishop gives the impression of being a decent sort of chap, quite sincere in his religious beliefs, fairly easy-going, quite intelligent and very perceptive. It was not uncommon for doctrinaire Marxists to be doctrinaire atheists as well but I can’t see any evidence here of such sentiments.
The only thing that makes Dr Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra (he’s an Australian bishop and he’s an Anglican), even slightly unusual is his passion for flying. He has joined the Boston Aero Club to learn to fly. His instructor was to be George Furnace, the club’s chief instructor. Furnace is a very experienced pilot and generally well liked. On the day on which he is to have his first lesson the bishop arrives early. Furnace has taken his aircraft up for a spin, apparently something he often does to clear the mental cobwebs. Much to the horror of those watching from the ground, including the bishop, Furnace’s plane goes into a spin from which it does not recover. Furnace’s body is cut out of the wreck. He was apparently killed instantly. The cause of death is perfectly obvious and there is no need for a post-mortem.
It’s all a bit odd. The aeroplane was regularly serviced and had recently been overhauled and inspected and all the control cables had been renewed. It seems very unlikely that the controls could have jammed. Furnace was such an experienced and cautious pilot that it seems hardly credible that he would have been unable to regain control. And he had recently had a medical examination and was in perfect health so it also seems unlikely that he could have blacked out. Of course there is one possible explanation but Furnace was well liked and no-one wants to consider the possibility of suicide. The inquest naturally brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.
Dr Marriott is however puzzled and a little disturbed. If you’re a clergyman in a remote part of Australia it is useful to have some medical knowledge as well and as part of his preparation for missionary work Dr Marriott undertook a three-year medical course at university. He may not be a qualified physician but he has a pretty fair acquaintance with cases of sudden death and there’s something he noticed when he saw the body not long after the crash. Something that didn’t seem quite right.
This is in fact an impossible crime story, but you won’t know that until you’re well into the book. At first it’s a puzzling death. As more and more evidence comes to light it becomes apparent that George Furnace’s death was quite impossible. The police can come up with no explanation that is consistent with the evidence. The worry with impossible crimes is always that the eventual solution will be a let-down but in this case the solution is both satisfactory and clever.
There are three detectives in this story. Inspector Creighton is the local man in charge but when it becomes apparent that the case has wider ramifications Inspector Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard (one of Sprigg’s regular characters) is called in to assist. And then there’s the bishop, without whose amateur sleuthing none of the facts would have come to light.
There are a lot of lady pilots in this story. Of course if you’re going to do a murder mystery centred on a flying club you’re going to have to find a way to work some female characters into the story so making them aviatrices is logical enough. And in the 1930s lady flyers were quite a big thing. They provided good copy for the newspapers and had definite celebrity status. And aviation provides a glamorous and exciting setting for the story (it helps that Sprigg had an aviation background so he knew his stuff). Sprigg may have been on the road to becoming an ardent communist but in 1934 he certainly had the right commercial instincts when it came to writing his detective novels.
Sprigg’s style is sly and witty and very appealing. There is a great deal of amusement to be had here but he does not allow it to get out of hand. This is primarily a mystery and he certainly does not neglect plotting. The howdunit angle is perhaps more important than the whodunit aspect and it’s fairly clued and nicely devious.
In his introduction to the British Library edition Martin Edwards describes Death of an Airman as an unorthodox whodunit. I must confess that this puzzles me. It struck me as being absolutely orthodox. In fact that’s what makes it so thoroughly enjoyable - it’s an orthodox mystery but it’s executed with immense skill and style. Highly recommended.
Friday, August 2, 2019
John Sherwood (1913-2002) was an amazingly obscure if moderately prolific writer. He wrote a series of cozy mysteries with a horticultural theme and he also wrote the five Mr Blessington espionage thrillers between 1949 and 1954. I assume he was English but I know so little about him that I cannot even be absolutely certain that the author of the Celia Grant cozy mysteries and the author of the Mr Blessington spy thrillers are one and the same man.
Ambush for Anatol begins with a fairly sizeable cast of characters spending Bank Holiday Monday on Hampstead Heath. Philip and Diana Abinger are slowly subsiding into genteel poverty. Philip was an RAF fighter pilot during the war but since then he has been unable to make a go of anything. Now he thinks his luck may have changed. He ran into a Polish count with whom he had served in the RAF. Count Jan Piatovsky has some mysterious financial scheme going and although Philip has his doubts as to whether it’s likely to be strictly legal he’s desperate enough to try anything. Piatovsky and his common law wife are also on the Heath on the fatal day. As is the formidable but unpleasant Lady Bernberg. Everyone seems to be there to meet Anatol. The result is a double murder.
As it happens Mr Blessington has already become aware of other aspects of this case. Mr Blessington is a treasury official and one of his jobs is to prevent evasions of the British Government’s extraordinarily strict foreign currency regulations. He suspects that someone has cooked up an entirely new and ingenious means of circumventing the regulations and he’s pretty sure that it’s connected with this double murder. He decides that it would be advisable to have a word with Inspector Lunt at Scotland Yard.
In fact there’s rather more to this case than evasion of currency regulations. In fact there’s something much more sinister going on. This is a spy thriller of sorts, although it takes quite a while for the espionage angle to kick in. The espionage angle here is actually fairly original.
What one really hopes for in a thriller of this vintage is a “murder and mayhem on a train” angle and if the train senes happen on the Continent that’s even better. Ambush for Anatol not only delivers this it also has a “danger in the skies” angle as well. The action moves from London to Paris and then the French Riviera.
One of the most interesting things about this novel is its depiction of the dreary and depressing world of Britain in the period of postwar austerity. Years after having supposedly won the war Britain feels more like a defeated nation, with rationing still in force and with an economy in ruins. It was a miserable world for the working class but it was also a demoralising world for the middle and upper middle classes. Philip and Diana Abinger were typical of countless middle class people who were just barely managing to keep their heads above water. It was obviously a world in which people could easily convince themselves that things like smuggling and financial crimes were not really crimes. While this novel does not descend into tedious social commentary there are some genuinely intriguing social elements. The people who have become involved in this conspiracy are people who would certainly never have involved themselves in such desperate adventures in pre-war days.
While it was published in the same year that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels appeared Ambush for Anatol belongs to a more genteel era of spy fiction. It’s not wildly dissimilar in tone to Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon. In this era of British spy fiction novels featuring professional spies were still slightly unusual. Ambush for Anatol is a bit of a hybrid. It has the innocents caught up in espionage angle but there’s a professional spy hero as well. Mr Blessington is not quite a professional spy in the James Bond mould and he’s certainly not a conventional action, he is a professional spy of sorts. It’s clear that his work for the Treasury is not confined to shuffling papers in an office.
Mr Blessington looks like a typical civil servant. He is middle aged, bespectacled and rather overweight. He is however more than a mere civil servant. His razor-sharp mind makes him extremely dangerous and he can be breathtakingly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He carries a gun and he’s quite prepared to use it. He may remind some readers a little of Edgar Wallace’s Mr J.G. Reeder, a man who also seemed extraordinarily inoffensive and even slightly ridiculous on the surface but was the terror of Britain’s underworld. All in all Mr Blessington is a rather engaging character.
I’m not going to try to convince you that Ambush for Anatol is an adrenaline-chaged roller-coaster ride of action and excitement but it does have a few reasonably thrilling moments and it’s rather enjoyable. I suppose you could describe it as a cozy spy thriller. Recommended.