Sunday, July 12, 2020

Len Deighton’s Spy Story

Spy Story is a 1974 spy thriller by Len Deighton. The first-person narrator is Patrick Armstrong, a man who works at the Studies Centre in London. Patrick and Ferdy Foxwell have just returned from one of their cruises, on a British nuclear submarine collecting intelligence on the activities of the Soviet Navy. The Studies Centre then uses this data to play war-games. The sort of ultra-sophisticated war-games using computer assistance that both the western and Eastern bloc militaries would play to figure out how to destroy each other in the event of all-out war. The Studies Centre is a kind of quasi-official offshoot of the intelligence community. Which makes Patrick Armstrong not quite an intelligence officer but kind of vaguely in that sort of field.

The first question that is going to occur to any Len Deighton fan reading this book is - is Patrick Armstrong actually the unnamed spy of Deighton’s first five spy novels (the unnamed spy who became Harry Palmer in the film adaptations)? Deighton has stated that he isn’t but he has done so in terms that actually suggest very strongly that he might very well be the same man. In fact the internal evidence of the novel pretty strongly suggests that he is the unnamed spy, a few years older and now retired from the Secret Service. One thing we know for certain about him is that his name is definitely not Patrick Armstrong, and that he definitely was a spy, working for the very same branch of the Secret Service that the unnamed spy worked for. And his former boss was Dawlish, the unnamed spy’s boss. We also know that he has no intention of going back to being a spy, and given that the unnamed spy was not exactly enthusiastic about being a spy that also seems consistent with his being the same man.

Patrick Armstrong has stumbled upon something rather interesting. His old flat is full of the same photos that were always there, photos of himself with various other people. The photos are exactly the same, but his face has been replaced by someone else’s.

Other disquieting things happen. Like having his home raided by Russian security personnel (not what you expect to happen in London) led by none other than his old adversary Colonel Stok. There’s also an accident that might or might not be an attempt on the life of a British MP. And a witness to the accident whose story doesn’t add up at all.

The very last thing that Patrick Armstrong wants is to be drawn back into the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage but he has the uncomfortable feeling that that is exactly what might happen to him if he’s not careful.

What’s happening is that someone has come up with a very clever plan. And there’s nothing Pat Armstrong likes less than people who come up with very clever plans. It always ends in tears before bedtime.

And there’s no way of knowing whose very clever plan this is. It might have been Dawlish who came up with it. Or Colonel Schlegel, the ex-US Marine flyer now in charge of Studies Centre. Or some fool at the Foreign Office. Or some fool at the CIA. It might have been Colonel Stok. It might have been some other hare-brained genius. There’s also no way for Pat to know what this clever plan actually consists of. He just knows that he doesn’t like it. And when he starts to get an inkling of what might be involved he likes it even less.

It ends up with Pat and Ferdy and Colonel Schlegel on a US nuclear submarine making its way under the Arctic ice, a dangerous undertaking at the best of times but much more dangerous this time because the submarine is just a counter in someone’s strategic war game and it’s an expendable counter. It’s on an insanely dangerous course which would not in normal circumstances even be contemplated. The sea is too shallow, the ice above is too thick, the margin for error is non-existent. And to make things even more delightfully suicidal, there are those East German submarines. Plus the entire Russian Northern Fleet. All of which is guaranteed to produce some suitably nail-biting excitement.

This is typical Deighton in its extreme cynicism. It’s not just that both sides are equally cold-blooded and ruthless. There are multiple players in this game and some of them are crazy. Maybe all of them are crazy. There’s also Deighton’s trademark sardonic wit.

Spy Story is perhaps not quite top-tier Deighton but it’s still fairly entertaining. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

End of the Line by Dolores and Bert Hitchens

End of the Line by Dolores and Bert Hitchens is a railway mystery, a genre I’m rather fond of.

Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973) was a successful American mystery novelist. Her second husband, Bert, was a railway detective. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what happened next. Yes, they started writing railway mysteries. They ended up writing five of them, the third of which was End of the Line (published in 1957).

End of the Line involves the reopening of a very old case. Six years earlier the Western Shores Limited was wrecked in the Lobo Tunnel and sixteen people were killed. A case like that is never really closed, not until it’s solved. The railroad cops never give up on a case involving a trainwreck. Now the conductor of the train on that fatal day, a man named Parmenter, has resurfaced after spending five years in a Mexican prison on another charge. There was never any evidence against Parmenter but he vanished six months after the wreck, which just happens to be when the compensation claims were settled. And he arrived in Mexico with plenty of cash. That’s the kind of thing that gets railroad cops thinking.

There are two railroad detectives on this case. Farrel is an old hand, a man who seems kind of grey and defeated. Saunders is young and keen. They’d really like to have another talk with Parmenter, especially given that at the moment he re-entered U.S. territory his daughter, who’d been living with her aunt, disappeared.

There are two lines of investigation for Farrel and Saunders to follow. The first is the Parmenter angle. The second concerns a rail gang employee who may have had a grudge against the railroad. It’s possible that the two angles are unconnected and it’s possible that neither will lead anywhere but those are the only leads they have. It’s also possible that some of those compensation claims may have been fraudulent.

All of these leads are apparent to the two investigators right from the start and there are some obvious theories that might fit the known facts. The problem is that there’s no actual hard evidence whatsoever so it’s going to require a lot of painstaking routine investigation.

This book has been reissued as a Black Gat Book by Stark House, known for their reprints of noir fiction. This might lead you initially to think this will be a noir novel. In fact it’s very much a police procedural. Every lead and every clue, however slight, has to be sifted. It needs a certain amount of skill to make this kind of story gripping and entertaining but the authors are up to the task.

And while it’s not noir fiction as such there are a lot of broken people in this story. Some are broken because they’re bad, some because they are weak and some because they are foolish. So there are some noir touches.

The two detectives, and the relationship between them, make things more interesting. Farrel is a drunk. His personal life crashed and burned a few years earlier and he crawled inside a bottle and that’s where he has stayed. The Lobo Tunnel case is his last chance to hang onto his job. Saunders is a straight arrow. He follows the rules. He never drinks on duty. And he’s a complete innocent when it comes to women. Saunders disapproves of Farrel and suspects that he is finished and that he’s going to make an unholy mess of things. Farrel suspects that Saunders was planted on him by his boss to get rid of him. Things are tense between them, to say the least. Their relationship develops as they learn more about each other but whether that’s going to make them learn to like and trust each other or learn to hate each other is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

There’s also Betsy, who lives next door to Saunders. She’s young and pretty and she seems keen to teach him all about women. She seems to already know all about men.

There are some exciting moments as well, with a young girl being stalked by a killer and then with Farrel and Saunders going undercover and finding themselves unarmed, in the middle of a dangerous drug-smuggling racket (which may be connected to the trainwreck).

Everything in End of the Line works extremely well. This being a police procedural it’s the investigation rather than the mystery that is the primary focus. Farrel and Saunders have a fair idea as to what actually happened (as will the reader) but it’s the patient gathering of evidence that provides the entertainment. Farrel and Saunders both have some depth to them and the various witnesses and suspects have real and fairly complex motivations.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Robert Silverberg's Gang Girl

In 1958 there was a major convulsion in the science fiction world and most of the magazines on which writers relied to publish their stories ceased publication. This was a particular problem for younger writers. Writers like Robert Silverberg, who although only in his early twenties was already making a name for himself. Fortunately his pal Harlan Ellison came to the rescue, offering him a contract to write cheap paperback erotic novels for Nightstand Books. He’d have to write a couple of such novels a month which sounds daunting but Silverberg was sure he’d have no problems. And he was correct - in the next five years he churned out 150 sleaze paperbacks under the name Don Elliott.

Gang Girl was one of the earliest, appearing in 1959. It’s a juvenile delinquent potboiler and it’s violent and it’s sleazy. Of course by later standards it is in some ways incredibly tame. There’s a lot sex and it’s graphic enough to ensure the reader knows exactly what is going on, but the language is toned down enough to avoid any inconveniences, like being prosecuted for obscenity. In that respect it’s tame but in other ways it’s still quite startling in its depiction of the mindless brutality, the crazed obsession with sex and the sheer stupidity, boredom, viciousness and futility of New York juvenile gangs in the late ’50s. It’s a lot more open about the sex and violence than any mainstream novels or movies dealing with the subject.

Lora Menotti is sixteen and she’s the deb of the leader of the Scarlet Sinners but now her parents have moved to a new housing estate (all tower blocks) in an effort to get their daughter away from gang life. It doesn’t work. Lora immediately joins the gang in her new neighbourhood, the Cougars. But Lora has no intention of just joining the gang. She intends to run it. That means she’ll have to persuade the gang President, Whitey, to dump his current deb and make her his deb. As Whitey’s deb she’ll be number one girl in the gang, and he has no doubts that she’ll be the one calling the shots.

With her 39-inch bust and her body like a sex goddess she has no trouble getting men to do what she wants them to do. Getting Whitey to dump his current deb, Donna, isn’t going to be a challenge. There is however a minor problem. Whitey always likes to mark his debs to establish his ownership of them, which he does by carving his initials (with a lighted cigarette or a knife) into one of their breasts. Lora has no intention of letting any man carve his initials into one of her spectacular breasts. They’re going to be her meal ticket in the future (she has ambitions to be a call girl). So now her challenge is to maintain her position in the gang without submitting to such treatment.

Lora isn’t too worried. She is utterly ruthless and her mastery of the art of manipulation is something to behold.

Lora’s machinations aren’t just for the purposes of gaining advantages for herself. She is very turned on by violence - nothing gets her more excited than seeing someone being beaten up, except perhaps seeing someone killed. If the victim is subjected to humiliation that’s even better. And it’s best of all if the victim is another woman who might be a rival. Her response to what happens to Mae (one of the debs who happens to be in Lora’s way) is incredibly chilling. Not surprisingly Lora’s arrival among the Cougars triggers a great many outbreaks of violence.

While I said earlier that this book is tame by later standards that’s not really entirely true. You won’t encounter any crude terms for male or female body parts but some of the sexual violence is hair-raising to say the least (such as a truly chilling gang rape). Some of it you just wouldn’t get away with today.

Gang Girl is obviously unashamedly trash fiction. Much of its appeal comes from that. There is however a bit more to it than that. Robert Silverberg was after all a fine writer and even when consciously churning out pulp sleaze he was unable to avoid offering some insights into some of the dark corners of the human psyche, particularly relating to sex and violence. He does try to get inside Lora’s head and what he finds there is deeply unsettling. Lora is not a good girl gone bad, she’s not a victim of circumstances, she’s not a product of a broken home or of childhood trauma. Her evil comes from within. For her the gang life simply has the effect of removing the normal social inhibitions that prevent people from acting on their most primal selfish instincts. It allowed her to shed all her sexual inhibitions very early on and she’s gradually shed all her moral inhibitions.

Perhaps if she had never joined a gang she might have been a nice girl but it seems unlikely. Being selfish and manipulative seems to be an inherent part of her personality. Her prodigious sexual appetites always seem to be inherent. Even without the gangs she would probably have been trouble.

Gang Girl delivers plenty of cheap violent sleazy pulp entertainment but there’s just enough substance there that you don’t have to feel too guilty about enjoying it. OK, you might feel a little bit guilty. There’s also enough dark subject matter to almost qualify it for noir fiction status.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Leslie Charteris's The Saint in Europe, and on TV

This is another instalment in my ongoing project to compare episodes of classic television series from the 1950s-1970s with their literary sources. In this case I’ve reviewed the 1953 Leslie Charteris collection The Saint in Europe and then I've looked at the adaptations of those stories in the 1960s The Saint TV series.

The Saint in Europe is from the final stage of the Saint's evolution as a character and it's that final incarnation on which the portrayal of the character in the TV series was based so it seems like the comparisons could be interesting.

Here's the link to my review and the comparisons at my Cult TV Lounge blog.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill

The Big Kill is the fifth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. It was published in 1951.

Things have become so bad in New York City that a guy like Mike Hammer can’t even walk into a sleazy bar to have a quiet drink without ending up being a witness to a murder. This is a murder that really gets to Hammer. This guy walks into the bar with a little kid, only about a year old. The guy starts crying (and Mike finds that pretty disturbing) and then walks out the door, leaving the kid behind, and gets bumped off. Mike has the feeling that the guy knew he was about to die.

Seeing a kid made into an orphan in front of his eyes does something to Mike. He even volunteers to look after the child until the proper agencies can be contacted. Then Mike sets out to find the killer.

At first it seems like it’s a case of the consequences of a burglary gone wrong. The problem with that is that the dead man had been a professional safe-cracker but he had gone straight and everybody who knew the guy assures Mike that he truly was a reformed character. Hammer is inclined to believe them, but the guy definitely did rob the apartment of one-time minor movie star Marsha Lee. But why?

Captain Pat Chambers of the Homicide Squad has a theory but Mike thinks there’s something much bigger behind it.

This is classic Spillane, rough and tough and as hard-boiled as you could wish. And, as is so often the case in the Mike Hammer stories, it’s Hammer’s sensitive side that drives him on. He just keeps thinking about that orphaned kid. It’s Hammer’s sensitive side that drives him even when he’s pulling the trigger of his .45 and blowing away hoodlums. Hammer is ruthless but he has a highly developed sense of right and wrong.

He also has a tendency to take cases personally. Mostly he’s happy for the criminal justice system to take its course but there are times when he’d much prefer to be judge, jury and executioner. And in this case he really wants to pull the trigger on the guy that killed that kid’s father.

Spillane wrote the Mike Hammer books in two batches. Six were written between 1947 and 1952. After a ten-year break Spillane returned to the series and wrote seven more books. Reading one of the later books recently (The Body Lovers, from 1967) I had the impression that Mike Hammer had mellowed somewhat. Reading The Big Kill confirms that impression. The later Hammer is still a tough guy but he doesn’t seem to take quite the same pleasure from inflicting physical violence as he did in earlier years. It actually makes sense. It’s made clear in The Body Lovers that this really is an older Mike Hammer. Maybe a bit wiser and a bit sadder.

Mike’s skirt-chasing also seems more frenetic in The Big Kill than in The Body Lovers.

There’s also the question of whether Spillane himself had mellowed. This would make sense. He was in his late 20s when he wrote the first Mike Hammer book and he was in his mid-40s when he took up the series again. The early Mike Hammer was a young character created by a young writer. The later version was a middle-aged character created by a middle-aged writer.

Spillane was definitely in the groove when he wrote The Big Kill. It has all the classic Spillane touches. Spillane is not an author for everyone but if you like his stuff then this one is highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Clifford Ball’s sword & sorcery tales

Clifford Ball (1896-1947) was an American writer who had half a dozen stories published in Weird Tales between 1937 and 1941 after which he vanished into obscurity. The reason he matters is that after the death of Robert E. Howard in 1936 Ball was one of the first writers to pick up the sword & sorcery torch that Howard had dropped. Ball’s first three stories fall firmly within the sword & sorcery genre.

The first story, Duar the Accursed, was published in Weird Tales in May 1937.

Duar, a barbarian warrior who has been in his time a king and a pirate, is brought in chains before Queen Nione of Ygoth. Later, in her dungeon, an apparition of light appears to him, reminding him of things he has forgotten. It seems that he has forgotten much. The apparition, in the shape of a beautiful woman, commands him to go to the Black Tower of Goth wherein he will find the Rose of Gaon. The Black Tower is where the worst of criminals are sent, to await an unknown but doubtless horrible fate.

Duar would seem to be a man with a destiny, if only he could remember what that destiny might be. What he does know is that he was once a king and he wants to be a king again.  He would also like a queen to possess and Nione is beautiful and she is definitely a queen. Whether Duar discovers his destiny, whether he gets to possess Nione and what the secret of the Rose of Gaon might be - you’ll have to read the story yourself.

This is a decent enough sword & sorcery tale. Obviously it lacks the driving energy of Robert E. Howard’s stories, it lacks the decadent strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith’s tales and the imagination of C. L. Moore’s. It’s something of a by-the-numbers attempt at the genre but it’s enjoyable. And Duar has the potential to be an interesting hero. For sword & sorcery fans it’s worth a look.

The Thief of Forthe appeared in the July 1937 issue of Weird Tales. The magician Karlk and the thief Rald have hatched a plan to steal something that will rock the kingdom of Forthe to its foundations - they intend to steal nothing less than the kingdom itself. Or at least to steal the means whereby to gain the kingdom. For Karlk it will mean being the power behind the throne. For Rald it will mean the throne itself. And he might, if he’s lucky, even get to possess the king’s sister as well. The Lady Thrine is both beautiful and spirited. To possess her would be every bit as pleasant as to possess the kingdom.

When you have both a beautiful woman and a wizard to deal with things are apt to become a mite unpredictable.

Rald will also have cause to wonder if some of the more terrible rumours about Karlk might be true.

This story confirms the impression made by Duar the Accursed. Ball does not attempt anything in the way of full-blooded action scenes, which may have been a wise decision. To do so would have meant trying to match Robert E. Howard’s mastery of such scenes and that’s something very few writers have been able to do. Compared to Howard the eroticism is not quite there either. Having said that I have to add that it’s another perfectly competent sword & sorcery adventure.

The Goddess Awakes, published in Weird Tales in February 1938, is the third instalment of the adventures of thief-adventurer Rald. Rald and his comrade Thwaine have been serving the king of Livia as mercenaries but now the king’s army has been destroyed and the survivors, including Rald and Thwaine, are being hunted by the victors. They find themselves captured by an army of women, in a land ruled by women.

Queen Cene rules here, or does she actually rule? Is there another power here? Perhaps a supernatural power and perhaps not, but certainly malevolent. Is it some hitherto unknown goddess? Rald and Thwaine do not yet know what fate they are about to confront in the arena in this strange queendom.

This is the strongest of the three stories, with genuine menace and weirdness. The nature of the goddess is a clever idea. There’s also real tension.

While Ball might not have been another Robert E. Howard he did have talent. The potential was certainly there, each story is better than the preceding one, and overall these three tales (especially The Goddess Awakes) are actually pretty good. It’s a great pity that this author’s career was so short-lived.

Clifford’s Ball half-dozen published stories, including these three sword & sorcery tale, have been reprinted by DMR Books as The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Carter Brown's No Harp for My Angel

Alan Yates (1923-1985) was an English-born Australian writer of crime fiction under the name Carter Brown and he was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He wrote round 300 novels. In his lifetime he was also one of the world’s most successful novelists, selling around 120 million books. He’s one of those writers who enjoys immense success followed by almost complete obscurity. His best-known series character was Lieutenant Al Wheeler, a homicide cop in LA. No Harp for My Angel, published in 1956, is one of the earlier Al Wheeler mysteries.

Al Wheeler is enjoying his vacation in Florida. Especially when he meets cute green-eyed redhead Julie Adams. Julie warns him that her boyfriend, a guy named Johnny Lynch, is really big, really mean and really jealous. To Al that just makes Julie seem even more desirable. He’s just that kind of guy.

Of course this is before Al meets Zero. Zero is Lynch’s henchman. Julie had described Zero to him as being about seven feet tall and built like a gorilla. She wasn’t exaggerating. Al wakes up in the local police headquarters to discover that he’s about to be booked for drunk driving and crashing a car into plate-glass window. The last thing Al can remember is Zero picking him up like he was a kitten. Lieutenant Ben Jordan (an old buddy) offers Al a proposal. He wants Al to pose as a big noise Chicago racketeer and he wants Al to annoy Lynch so that Lynch will do something stupid. Al thinks this is a terrible idea but Ben persuades him by threatening to book him on all those charges outstanding from the car incident. Never trust an old buddy, especially when the old buddy is a cop.

Lieutenant Jordan is worried about those missing dames. Four of them. All nice girls from nice families. Rich families. Girls disappear from time to time, but not these kinds of girls. And all four girls had been gambling in Johnny Lynch’s club, the Paradise. It’s a thin connection but it’s the only lead Jordan has, plus he’s pretty curious about Lynch and about all the hoodlums in town are scared of him. Nobody had even heard of Lynch until  few months earlier.

Al certainly gets Lynch’s attention. That’s good. He also attracts the attention of a Syndicate guy from Chicago. That’s maybe not so good. Al definitely has no trouble getting the attention of women. He has Julie throwing herself at him and he has Dawn doing the same thing. Dawn is the best friend of one of the missing girls and she’s been persuaded by Al and Lieutenant Jordan to act as a decoy.

Having Lynch and maybe the Mob wanting to kill him is troublesome enough but an even bigger problem is trying to make sure Julie and Dawn don’t kill each other. Specially after Dawn ties up Julie with her own girdle and a bedsheet. These two girls don’t like other girls messing with their man, and they both consider Al to be their man.

As you may have gathered Al Wheeler likes women. He likes them a lot. He also likes booze. He like women so much you might wonder how he finds time for anything else.

I’d describe this book as Hardboiled Lite. It has a hard-boiled flavour but without the grim overtly pessimistic edge. There’s a slight tongue-in-cheek flavour as well, enough to disqualify it as noir fiction. It’s fast-moving fun. There’s some violence but nothing graphic.

Apart from his early encounter with Zero most of the violence Al encounters is at the hands of Dawn (who slugs him after discovering Julie in his bedroom). Oh, and Julie tries to drown him. These women are hard to handle. Al doesn’t hit women. Well, OK, he does, but only when he has to. I mean if a dame is about to walk into your bedroom and you’v got another dame stashed in the what can you do? You knock her unconscious. But gently.

The tongue-in-cheek tinge is not enough to detract from an exciting tale of mystery and suspense but it does give the novel the feel of a hardboiled romp. I mentioned in an earlier Carter Brown review that he reminds me just a little of Peter Cheyney’s Lemmy Caution books (such as Never a Dull Moment and I’ll Say She Does!) and I stand by that. The emphasis is on fun, with plenty of guns, dames and wisecracks.

No Harp for My Angel might be pulpy trash but it’s incredibly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Nictzin Dyalhis’s The Sapphire Goddess

The Sapphire Goddess collects all of Nictzin Dyalhis’s stories that appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 to 1940.

Nictzin Dyalhis 1873-1942 was an American pulp writer who was extremely successful in obscuring the details of his own life. His birth date and place of birth are both uncertain and while Nictzin Dyalhis seems to have been his legal name it may or may not have been his birth name.

Dyalhis was a remarkably unproductive writer, producing just thirteen short stories in a period of eighteen years. Eight of the stories were published in Weird Tales. He should therefore be little more than a footnote in the history of pulp fiction except for one thing - he was exceptionally popular with the readers of Weird Tales.

When the Green Star Waned marked the author’s first appearance in Weird Tales (in April 1925). At first you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a space opera. In fact it does have some science fictional elements but it’s more a fantasy with a dash of horror. It’s probably best to think of it simply as weird fiction. There’s also a preoccupation with good and evil and even perhaps a hint of some religious themes.

The planet Venhez constantly monitors everything that happens on its neighbouring worlds and recently there appears to be nothing at all happening on the planet Aerth. It’s as if the entire population of that world has vanished. An expedition is despatched to Aerth, each of the seven members being the acknowledged leader in his field (fields such as war, diplomacy, science and medicine). What they find is unimaginably horrifying.

Of course once you find out that one of Venhez’s other neighbouring planets is named Marhz you’re going to really that the story takes place in our own solar system, but in the very distant future.

Aerth has been taken over but the nature of the invaders is bizarre indeed. It seems impossible to defeat them , or even to fight them at all, but such evil cannot be allowed to continue to exist.

I’m not sure that this could be described as a good story but it’s interesting in its own way and you do have to remember that it was written in 1925 at which time some of ideas in it were quite original.

The Eternal Conflict, also published in Weird Tales in 1925, is much stranger. It’s a cosmic battle between good and evil. On one side there’s with a kind of goddess of love but she’s really an archangel and on the other side there’s the power of hate represented by Lucifer. They hurl lightning bolts and similar things at each other. And the battles take place in outer space, or at least in the Aether. It’s a mishmash of Christianity and mystic occultism. The hero is a middle-aged businessman who is a student of the occult and serves the power of love.

It has affinities to When the Green Star Waned but without the science fictional elements. It’s fantasy, but with spiritual overtones. I’m afraid it’s not my cup of tea at all.

He Refused to Stay Dead was published in Ghost Stories in 1927. I suppose it could be called a ghost story, but an unconventional one. A soldier, prematurely aged by a great shock, recounts the events that left him a wreck of man. After serving in the First World War he had married a strange girl named Edwina, a girl with a fascination for folklore and the occult.

The soldier happens to own a castle. A very old castle, dating from the ninth century. His new wife discovers that there’s more to the ghost that supposedly haunts the castle than had been supposed. It’s all connected to terrible events that happened more than a thousand years in the past, events set in motion by a Viking raid.

This is a much much better story, involving a past that won’t stay dead and an old old quarrel that must be resolved. If the soldier cannot resolve it he will lose the love of his life. A very good story.

The Dark Lore appeared in Weird Tales in 1927. It’s the story of Lyra Veyle, recounted by herself. She had been a beautiful dark-haired young woman but filled with pride. She had a sister, blonde and virtuous. The sister loved a fine man and that drove Lura to commit a terrible sin. She made use of evil incantations and summoned a demon, a handsome demon who became her lover. But loving a demon is not a very good idea and Lura is cast into a nightmare of sin and debauchery, and then cast aside. She is already in Hell but she discovers that there are even worse Hells. And even greater debaucheries.

Dyalhis’s vision of Hell is outlandishly over-the-top. Lura encounters unimaginable horrors and the worst thing is that even death will provide no escape. In these Hells you can just keep on dying.

Again Dyalhis offers us a struggle between good and evil but the main focus is on Lura’s own inner torment - she knows that she deserves her suffering. Apart from the mystical quasi-science fictional cosmic visions that we’re starting to expect from this author there’s an obsession with sin and also sexual depravity. It’s actually quite a strong story.

The Oath of Hul Jok (published in Weird Tales in 1928) is a sequel to When the Green Star Waned. The seven leading Vehnezians are all having troubles with their women. The evil creature they captured in the earlier story seems to be behind this. If there’s one thing that Venhezians will not tolerate it is anyone messing with their Love-Girls. The war leader Hul Jok’s Love-Girl has been so troublesome than even a spanking failed to bring her into line.

The Love-Girls are kidnapped by the Lunarian who intends taking them back to Aerth and having all seven of them as his wives. Aerth meanwhile is now controlled by creatures that  are half-human and half-monster. One of whom, a female, wants to be the wife of all seven Venezhians.

This is more space opera than fantasy. It’s also rather disturbing. The Venezhians are supposedly the good guys, the most civilised culture in the solar system, but their vengeance is quite blood-curdling in its calculated cruelty and ferocity. One can only speculate as to the source of the author’s taste for refinements of bloodthirstiness. There’s also, as in some of his other tales, something of an obsession with sexual depravity. The Venezhians are rather terrifyingly possessive of their Love-Girls. One can also speculate on the source of this obsession and I can think of some plausible explanations which I have no intention of going into. There’s a lot of weirdness here but it’s morbidly fascinating.

The Red Witch (published in Weird Tales in 1932) bears some thematic similarities to He Refused to Stay Dead. Once again we have a hero and a heroine trapped in the grip of the distant past. Randall Crone and his beloved, Rhoda Day, were once a young warrior and his wife in the primitive world of the last Ice Age. She was Red Dawn, the Red Witch of one of the tribes. There was a mighty war-axe and an equally mighty warrior who sought to steal Red Dawn. There was love and betrayal and a thirst for vengeance and those things never die. And old quarrels are not forgotten even after thousands of years.

These were themes that clearly obsessed Dyalhis and he handles with skill and energy. A very good story.

The Sapphire Goddess (AKA The Sapphire Siren) appeared in Weird Tales in 1934. There are the usual Dyalhis obsessions with the past and with shifting identities. Reincarnation was a popular notion at that time but while Dyalhis flirts with the idea he avoids being too obvious or simplistic about it. Once again there’s a hero who finds himself in a sort of alternative reality and this time it’s a classic sword & sorcery world, and indeed this is to a large extent a sword & sorcery tale although it owes more to Catherine L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith than to Robert E. Howard.

There’s plenty of action, there’s magic, there are two evil sorcerers and there’s a giant sapphire shaped in the form of a beautiful nude woman but is it really just a jewel? There’s also a hero in search of both his past and his destiny. And it’s all great fun. A very good story indeed.

The Sea-Witch was published in Weird Tales in 1937. The narrator, obviously no longer a young man, lives in a cottage on a cliff-top on the New England coast. For some unaccountable reason he decides to take a walk along the shore-line in the middle of a raging tempest and he sees something extraordinary washed up on the beach. It is a young woman. She is extremely beautiful and extremely naked. More unsettling is the fact that she seems oblivious to both the cold and to her own nakedness. Naturally he takes her back to his cottage. He finds some clothes for her but she declares that, despite the bitter cold, it is much too warm to wear clothing. Even more disconcertingly she offers to be his slave.

It’s the sort of offer that a retired anthropologist, ethnologist and archaeologist (for that is what the narrator John Craig is) can hardly refuse. He is familiar with the Norse sagas and he knows he’s dealing with a witch, but not a witch in the Christian sense. She is a Norse witch, possessed of great powers, and she can be frightening but she is by no means evil. She is charming (if disturbing) and will be a fascinating object of study for a man well-versed in Norse lore.

She moves into his cottage, presenting herself to the world as his niece. Their relationship is platonic. Well, sort of platonic. She takes her clothes off a great deal and she’s rather an affectionate girl. John Craig is not entirely indifferent to her naked charms even if he is (mostly) able to convince himself that he loves her as a niece. But why did she come to him that day on the beach and was does she want? The answer is a terrible one and it lies in the distant past (which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read of a few of Dyalhis’s stories). There’s a lot of suppressed eroticism in this extremely fine tale.

Dyalhis’s final story, Heart of Atlantan, appeared in Weird Tales in 1940. Two men are obsessed with the idea of discovering the secrets of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. They are able to make contact with Tekala, priestess of Atlantan. A struggle for power between good and evil had taken place in that long-ago civilisation and Tekala believes she was responsible for its final fall. Can Tekala and the two men of the 20th century defy Destiny? Can anyone do such a thing? And what price would have to be paid? Another very fine story to round off this fascinating collection.

I think I can now see why Dyalhis wrote so few stories. He had certain obsessions to which he returned again and again. Had he been a prolific author such obsessions might have become repetitive. By limiting itself to a handful of tales he was able to take the same themes and play fascinating variations on them.

He Refused to Stay Dead, The Red Witch, The Sapphire Goddess and The Sea-Witch are all variations on one theme and they’re all interesting variations. They’re by far the strongest stories he wrote.

I can also see now why Dyalhis was so highly thought of by contemporary readers of Weird Tales. His best stories are stories of love and revenge, erotically charged and with just a dash of the decadence of Clark Ashton Smith. Dyalhis was also a writer who seemed to improve with each story that he wrote. The Sapphire Goddess is an uneven but intriguing collection. The better stories are very very good indeed. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sin Hellcat

Before making names for themselves as crime writers Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake kept body and soul together by churning out lurid paperback erotica for published like Midwood Books and Nightstand Books. They wrote countless such books including five in collaboration, the third of which was Sin Hellcat, published by Nightstand Books in 1962. For what it’s worth it was Block’s favourite of the five collaborations.

The sin hellcat of the title is Jodi but much of the book is taken up by the reminiscences of the narrator, Harvey. He’s a successful advertising executive, very unhappily married and not liking his job very much. Not that he had ever had any real ambitions, except to be a success. He didn’t care what he did, as long as he was a success. At the time he first met Jodi, twelve years earlier, he was majoring in English at college. Jodi wasn’t his first girlfriend but she was the who had the most impact on him. Maybe he should have married her but he didn’t love her and she didn’t love him and they thought that that mattered.

Jodi is now a success as well. She makes twelve thousand a year (a vast amount of money in 1962) as a high-class whore. Now their paths have crossed again and he remembers their long ago affair, and he remembers his other affairs. All of which now seem much more attractive to him than his marriage. It’s clear that his marriage is both loveless and sexless.

Now he’s run into Jodi again and (after a night of passion together) she has a proposition for him. It sounds easy, illegal, lucrative and fun and it certainly appeals to him more than going home to his wife. All he and Jodi have to do is take a package to Brazil. That’s all. The package turns out to be something they had not anticipated. No, it’s not drugs or diamonds or guns or military secrets or anything like that. It’s not even exactly immoral, but it is a very awkward package.

Harvey Christopher is an odd character. He’s been motivated by selfishness but somehow it hasn’t worked out. He’s got the things he thought he wanted but they didn’t make him happy and the things that might have made him happy he didn’t manage to hang on to. Like Jodi. He just can’t forget Jodi. It’s not like he’s still in love with her because he never was in love with her, but he was happy with her. Now she’s a whore but at least that’s an honest living compared to advertising.

Harvey isn’t really a bad guy. He just hasn’t quite figured life out. He’s found out what he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want the life he’s got. But he doesn’t know what to do about it. Jodi isn’t quite the Whore with a Heart of Gold but she’s not a bad person either. She’s in much the same position as Harvey. She makes a lot of money as a prostitute and she has a really nice apartment in Manhattan and she’s not unhappy but she isn’t really happy either. Life and love and sex have turned out to be pretty complicated for both of them.

These sorts of books were of course little more than a succession of sexual escapades. By today’s standards they’re incredibly tame. That’s what makes them interesting - the authors had to describe the sexual encounters in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt as to what was going on but without being able to be too graphic. It was a balancing act. They had to provide enough detail for the reader to know exactly what kinds of sexual acts were being described, but without going into too much detail. Which makes them naughty fun rather than anything even remotely approximating to pornography.

They’re even more fun when, as is the case with this novel, the authors could actually write. Westlake and Block have the knack of generating some sexual heat but without enough actual fire that might get the publishers shut down or arrested. It’s the art of titillation and these two writers do it well. It’s like old-school burlesque where you always think the girls are going to show you a great deal and they never show you quite as much as you expect, but you enjoy the show anyway. It’s just graphic enough to have been considered very racy indeed by the standards of 1962.

They also manage to provide a certain amount of wit and amusement.

It’s all done in a way that is a lot less crass than most of what you’ll encounter in modern mainstream Hollywood movies or mainstream literature. It’s both naughty and innocent and it’s cheerfully and playfully trashy. And trashy and sleazy it most certainly is, but the trash of 60 years ago is a lot more enticing than the trash of today. If you like vintage trash sleaze fiction you could do a lot worse. Sin Hellcat is recommended, if this is your sort of thing

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

James O. Causey's Killer Take All!

California-born James O. Causey (1924-2003) had a brief but interesting literary career. He wrote for Weird Tales in the 40s, then wrote quite a bit of science fiction. Then in the late 50s he turned out three successful noir crime novels. And then he just pretty much stopped and wrote virtually nothing for the remaining 40-odd years of his life. The first of his noir novels was Killer Take All! which came out in 1957.

Tony Pearson thought he was going to be a champion golfer but after a few months on the tournament circuit he had to face the fact that he just wasn’t good enough. Now he’s assistant pro at a golf club. He has a short temper and plenty of self-pity. Then he runs into Fern Davis on the fairway. A year ago he and Ferm were hopelessly in love and planning to get married but then she married somebody else, a guy called Steve Locke.

Locke works for Max Baird, an ex-gangster trying desperately to be respectable. Max bought himself a country club and a beautiful wife, paying cash for both. The country club is real nice. The wife is a tramp. Now, through a series of accidents, Tony finds himself working for Max. And Tony plays a game of chess and loses, which should have given him the clue but it didn’t.

So what are the things you want in a noir pulp novel and does this one have them? First you want a clever vicious bad guy. This one has that ingredient. You want tough guys. They’re here too. You want beautiful no-good dames. Well it has more than one of those. And you want a nasty twisted plot. Killer Take All! has that too.

You also want a proper noir hero who has managed to get himself into really really deep trouble but he has no idea how it happened. This book scores on that count also. Tony Pearson is playing a deadly game and he’s losing but he doesn’t know he’s losing and he doesn’t know what kind of game he’s playing. He doesn’t know the rules and he doesn’t know who the other players are. But he’d better learn fast or it will be mate in three moves.

Tony Pearson isn’t dumb but he isn’t the smartest guy in the world either. He puts the pieces of the puzzle together but he puts them together wrongly. Then he has another go at making sense of what is happening. He’s wrong again but he has to keep trying. Which he does. And while he’s plucky he’s not much good at fist fights. Or gun fights. What he does have is desperation. If he can’t find the right answer there’s a gas chamber at San Quentin waiting for him. That’s a pretty big incentive to keep trying and not give up.

Then there’s the girl, Fern. He’s pretty sure he can’t trust her but then he thinks that maybe he can, but then again maybe he can’t. She might be in love with him, or with Steve, or with neither, or both. Val is definitely untrustworthy, or maybe she isn’t.

There’s also the matter of a certain painting by Rembrandt, plus there are multiple gangsters.

There’s a fair amount of sleaze. There are the no-good dames who could turn up in anyone’s bed. Then there are the goings-on at the Lee Shore Hotel. No matter what your sexual tastes might be you can indulge them there. The corruption of the police is taken for granted. Tony certainly isn’t dumb enough to trust the cops.

Killer Take All! ticks all the right noir boxes, the pacing is frenetic and the noir atmosphere is laid on with a trowel. It’s tightly constructed, it’s dark and paranoid and it’s very entertaining pulpy fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Smile of Cheng Su

E.P. Thorne’s thriller The Smile of Cheng Su dates from 1946.

E.P. Thorne (1896-1988) is one of those writers who enjoy fairly successful careers during their lifetimes and then disappear completely into oblivion. Thorne wrote at least seventeen mystery/spy thrillers in addition to a considerable number of other books and published them over a span of at least thirty years, which certainly suggests that he was successful enough to encourage him to keep writing. He is now so obscure that all I know about him is that he was English.

Fourteen of his spy thrillers (written between 1946 and 1966) feature Brains Cunningham, an agent for Special Department of the British intelligence services. He investigates a wide variety of crimes and plots. Brains is clearly upper-class and sports a monocle.

The Smile of Cheng Su is the second in the Brains Cunningham series. Although it was published in 1946 the events of the novel take place in September 1939, on the very eve of war.

In the very minor British colony of Saiwei, somewhere in the East, a fisherman is murdered. That’s not so startling but when a senior British police officer is murdered as well the case takes on a distinctly sinister aspect. Brains is despatched to Saiwei to find out what the devil is going on.

On the ship headed for Saiwei Brains gets some hints of at least some of the factors at work in the case. He finds out that there’s a rich businessman named Dimitrios whose activities may well be less than entirely legal. There’s an unsavoury character named Verrier who seems to have an extraordinary passion for oranges. And there’s a ravishing young lady named Daphne. Dimitrios and Verrier will be worth further investigation as they’re obviously up to no good. Daphne will be worth further investigation as well, simply because as far as Brains is concerned ravishing young ladies are always worth investigating.

When he gets to Saiwei he finds some interesting puzzles. Such as the swamp devil. This is of course just a native superstition. Or is it? Brains isn’t convinced. There are all kinds of romantic entanglements which would provide plenty of motives for murder, but those motives unfortunately don’t seem to apply to the actual victims chosen. There’s an English painter who has shocked the local Europeans by shacking up with a native girl and succumbing to the temptations of opium. There’s a luckless young army officer who’s made a fool of himself over both women and gambling. There’s Simone, the glamorous man-eating wife of Dimitrios, who has led a series of men to their ruin.

There’s also an opium-smuggling racket, and possibly other rackets. On the surface Saiwei is a proud little outpost of the British Empire but under the surface there’s a seething ocean of sin and crime. And then there’s Cheng Su, who runs the Mandarin Restaurant, the colony’s m

None of these things would really justify the sending of a secret agent of Brains Cunningham’s calibre to the island but that swamp devil is another matter.

This book seems at first to be merely a mystery novel in an exotic setting. The spy thriller part of the plot doesn’t kick in until late in the book but it is there.

While it was published in 1946 this book has very much the feel of the thrillers of the interwar years. This is an entirely different world from that of the James Bond spy thrillers, the first of which was published just seven years later. Not just different thematically but in style and tone. Cunningham is a gentleman. One could imagine Brains Cunningham lunching with Lord Peter Wimsey at his London club. One could not imagine James Bond doing that.

The background is light years away as well. The Bond novels represented a desperate clinging to the belief that Britain was still a Great Power although both Bond and Ian Fleming knew in their hearts that this was an illusion. The world of The Smile of Cheng Su is a world in which the greatness of the British Empire and the superiority of the British to all other nations is still taken for granted. It is a world of sublime confidence. The British at Saiwei know that Saiwei will remain part of the Empire forever and that the sun will never set on that Empire.

It is also a world in which the deference of the lower classes to their social betters is taken for granted, and the deference of the natives to the sahibs is similarly taken for granted.

This is a world that by 1946 had already passed away.

Personally I like the thrillers of the interwar years and I find their jingoism amusing. In fact I like them because they take place in a vanished world.

The Smile of Cheng Su is a great deal of fun. Recommended.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Charles Forsyte's Murder with Minarets

Charles Forsyte was the pseudonym used by British diplomat Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky for a handful of mystery thrillers beginning with Diplomatic Death in 1961. Not surprisingly several of their books have a diplomatic background, including Murder with Minarets (published in 1968).

Gordon Philo had at one time been posted to Istanbul so it’s no great surprise that they chose Turkey as a setting for Murder with Minarets. Istanbul has been used as a setting for countless spy thrillers and spy movies. It’s just one of those cities that seems ideally suited for the thriller genre. What is unusual is that the authors chose not to set this novel in Istanbul but in the capital, Ankara. Offhand I can’t think of any thrillers that have used Ankara as a setting. But they clearly wanted the events of the novel to take place against the background of the British Embassy in Turkey so Ankara had to be the choice. It doesn’t have the romance of Istanbul but it ended up suiting their purposes. It’s the Embassy staff that is the focus, not the city.

Given that Gordon Philo had an intelligence as well as a diplomatic background what is more surprising is that this is more of a mystery rather than a thriller. In fact it’s a mystery in the golden age mould. Very much so. This is a very old-fashioned book. It could have been written in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. That’s what gives it its charm. The only thing that really marks it as a post-war book is a certain atmosphere of austerity. The characters are low- and mid-level diplomats and they’re by no means rich. They have to live on a tight budget.

Many of the key characters live in the same block of flats in Ankara. The building is used to house Embassy staff but it’s not actually an Embassy building. This is an important point. Had the murders occurred in an Embassy building they would have technically taken place on British soil and while the Turkish police would have been notified as a matter of courtesy they would have had no jurisdiction. But the murders take place on Turkish soil so the Turkish police are very much involved which adds uncomfortable complications. Inspector Zühtü is a very decent fellow, well-disposed towards the British and an honest and competent officer but he is a cop and being a cop he intends to conduct a proper and thorough investigation. Jan Duquesne decides that it would be better if they solved the murders themselves. In fact she decides it would be better if she solved them. So this is a classic golden age tale featuring an amateur detective. Jan however is not just another elderly spinster amateur detective. She is young, attractive and happily married.

As for the plot, it starts with Magda Tranter dying of a heart attack in the bathtub. This brings to an end her stormy marriage with Paul Tranter, a First Secretary at the Embassy. The Tranters live on the same floor as Tom and Barbara Hadley and the Hadleys will be in the thick of things. As will Charles and Laura O’Halloran on the floor below and Peter Milner-Browne, a young acid-tongued Second Secretary living on the floor above. Also in the picture are Stephen and Jan Duquesne, who live elsewhere. These are all members of the Embassy staff and their wives. Rounding off the cast of characters are a number of non-diplomats - second-rate violinist (but first-rate womaniser) Francis Allardyce and his painter wife Doune, Peter Milner-Browne’s archaeologist elder brother Christopher and Jan Duquesne’s kid sister Gina (staying with Jan while recovering from a broken heart).

The second death seems like an obvious case of accidental death (electrocution due to faulty wiring). But two sudden deaths within two weeks among the small close-knit British diplomatic community is just a bit too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.

And there are indications that may point towards motives for murder. There’s the likelihood of blackmail and there’s adultery. Almost any of the cast of characters mentioned above could conceivably be mixed up in such things.

There are ingenious murder methods and some pretty neat plot twists, and plenty of red herrings. The setting is mostly useful in that it provides a perfect setup for a classic golden age murder mystery with a dozen or so characters one of whom must be the murderer (there are circumstances that make it quite clear than no outsider could have been involved). There is one nice exotic touch, a key scene that takes place in a ruined castle on the coast.

It’s all fairly genteel. There’s no bad language, not much violence and not much sex (although there are implied sexual shenanigans). As I said earlier the feel is very much of the golden age rather than the 1960s. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable with a good mystery plot, a few touches of suspense and just the tiniest hint of International intrigue. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

G-8 and his Battle Aces #1 The Bat Staffel

Robert J. Hogan (1897–1963) was an American pulp writer, best known for his aviation adventure stories. He wrote the Red Falcon and Smoke Wade stories for Popular Publications and from 1933 wrote 110 issues of the G-8 and his Battle Aces pulp magazine, each issue including a short novel. Hogan had trailed as a pilot during the First World War so wartime aviation stories were obvious subject matter for him. He also wrote seven Mysterious Wu Fang Yellow Peril pulp novels and later turned to westerns.

The Bat Staffel was the first of the G-8 and his Battle Aces novels. The hero is an American aviator and spy code-named G-8. There’s plenty of air combat (with G-8 almost single-handedly winning the air war) but there are some mild science fiction elements and hints of the occult and the supernatural although Hogan’s novel is not as outrageous (or as imaginative) as Donald Keyhoe’s roughly contemporary stories about Captain Philip Strange, the Brain-Devil.

There’s an evil German mad scientist, Herr Doctor Kreuger, who has come across mediæval legends of giant bats spreading death and destruction across the countryside with their poisonous bat breath. He decides that those giant bats will fly again, devastating France and allowing Germany to win the war. G-8’s job is to discover whether these giant bats are actual bats or ingenious machines, and to find a way to stop them.

G-8 gets some help from two heroic American flyers, Nippy Weston and Bull Martin. This gives G-8 the opportunity to explain crucial plot points to his side-kicks. In the process they shoot down most of the Imperial German Air Force. What chance do fifty Fokkers have against three Americans in their trusty Spads?

Hogan resorts to quite a few standard pulp plot devices. The chief villain, instead of doing the sensible thing and just shooting G-8 out of hand as a spy, carefully explains all the details of his master plan to him first and then of course G-8 escapes. Pulp villains just never learn not to do that. And the Germans just don’t seem to be able to tie up prisoners in such a way that they cannot escape. Of course it goes without saying that the Germans are all lousy shots, whether in the air or on the ground while G-8 and his buddies rarely miss. The Germans are all either evil or they’re fools. But of course this is what the pulp readership expected and wanted. Hogan understand his market.

The bats and their poison bat breath are a nicely sinister touch. The bats are almost impossible to destroy which makes them a suitably terrifying menace.

Hogan certainly knew how to pace a pulp story. This one hits the ground running and the action don’t let up. There are no romantic sub-plots to distract from the action (the readership of such tales was not going to want any soppy romance stuff). There’s no characterisation to speak of. G-8 is a square-jawed all-American action hero. The villain  is pure evil and degeneracy personified.

There are some plot holes but it’s pulp fiction and it’s fast-moving and the readers were unlikely to notice such details.

It might seem like I’m damning The Bat Staffel with faint praise but it’s actually pretty good fun. This is pulp fiction that is very very pulpy. As First World War aviation adventures go it’s not as good as Donald Keyhoe’s Strange War or The Vanished Legion but it’s still quite enjoyable and if you like air combat stories with a few hints of science fiction and weird fiction then I’d recommend it.

Adventure House have republished The Bat Staffel as well as quite a few of the other G-8 and his Battle Aces novels. Their edition also includes a short story by R. Sidney Bowen, The Floating Runt (which has been included in the original pulp magazine as well). It’s a rather contrived story about the rivalry between a pilot and a balloon observer. It's not great but since it's essentially a free added extra it would be churlish to complain too much.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Reno Tramp

Reno Tramp is one of those salacious sensational American sex and sin pulp novels that were so popular in the 1950s (this one was published in 1950). At the time they were considered to be very racy indeed although today they obviously seem very tame and it’s hard to imagine just how disreputable they were considered to be at the time. One of the leading writers of such fiction was Florence Stonebreaker (1896-1977). She wrote a lot of them (she wrote eleven novels in 1952 alone) and wrote slightly more respectable romance novels as well.

Brenda is in trouble. She’s in Reno and she’s been living with a guy called Charley. Which has been nice since he’s spent lots of money on her. Now Charley has lost all his dough on the roulette tables so naturally she’s told him that she’s through with him. And Charley is not being sensible about it. Surely he must understand that if he now has no money  then it’s all over. What use is he to her with no money? He’s even been unreasonable enough to have sex with her before telling her he’s lost all his money, which means she’s just had sex with him for no reason. And now he’s waving a gun about and talking about shooting himself, which is incredibly inconsiderate of him. When she packs her bag and closes the door behind her she hears the shot and now she’s in an awkward spot. What if the police think she shot him?

The only one she can think of to turn to for help is gambling racketeer Carter Kemp, owner of the Blue Jug Club. That means she’ll have to become one of Carter’s girls. That means being a whore and Brenda might be a tramp and a tart but she’s not actually a whore. Well maybe once or twice but that doesn’t count. Those were emergencies and when a girl needs money urgently what is she to do?

Carter claims his girls are not technically prostitutes. If one of the patrons at the club wants a girl for an evening, or even just for an hour or two, Carter introduces him to one of his girls. He’ll even arrange a private room for them, so they can get to know each other better. But once they enter the private room if money then changes hands how is Carter supposed to know that is going on? If he knew such things were going on that would mean that he was running a house of prostitution. Perish the thought. In fact Carter makes his money from the suckers at the gambling tables, not from his girls. The girls are just free entertainment for the suckers.

Carter can indeed help her out of her jam and offer her a job as one of his girls, but she will need to do a couple of favours for him. The first favour is obvious - Carter always likes to sample the merchandise he provides for his customers. The second favour is more complicated and is likely to lead Brenda into all sorts of even further complications.

Sex is a deadly weapon but for Brenda it’s as dangerous to herself as it is to the men whose paths she crosses. Love is a deadly weapon too but she doesn’t need to worry about that. Love is for suckers. It’s so tiresome when guys fall in love with her. She always knows when it’s happening.  Like with Johnny. When he slaps her real hard she knows he’s in love with her. She doesn’t actually want to hurt him but if he gets hurt that’s his problem. Still, the sex with Johnny is kinda nice. But guys with no money have no right to fall for her.

The story is told entirely from Brenda’s point of view and what makes her interesting as a character is her extraordinary lack of awareness of the situations she’s getting into and even of her own nature. She is ambitious. She knows what she wants. She wants money. Lots of it. Unfortunately she has no coherent plan for achieving this. She has a breathtaking body and she should be able to use it to make big money, either by marrying a rich sucker or as a high-class prostitute. Instead she’s wasted her efforts on snaring small-timers and she’s allowed lust to cloud her judgment - she’s gone for good-looking guys who have some money but not enough to give her the big buck she craves.

When Carter Kemp tells her to take her clothes off so he can inspect the merchandise she  is shocked and horrified. He’s not even good-looking. At the same time, as Carter runs his eyes approvingly across her naked body she finds herself really enjoying the experience. Especially when he gives her the sort of look that a master gives to his slave. That really excites her. She uses sex to get things out of men but she has no understanding of her own sexual feelings. She thinks she only has sex to get money and for the life of her she can’t figure out why sometimes she just wants to give herself to some men. She is 23 but she hasn’t grown up at all since she gave away her virginity (to a boy who didn’t even have money - she was so dumb in those days).

There’s an immense amount of sex in this novel, and not a single instance of it between people who are married to each other. This was 1950 so of course none of it is in any way graphic but it still manages to be plenty sleazy. It’s the feelings evoked rather than the actual acts that provides the sleaze content - things like naked girls being inspected like slabs of meat and beatings as foreplay (which Brenda finds very arousing). It’s very open about things like prostitution, and even about the male prostitutes who service rich women who get bored and lonely waiting for their divorces in Reno (and they’re out-and-out prostitutes rather than mere gigolos).

This is of course an incredibly trashy novel, a representative of an incredibly trashy genre. But it’s surprisingly well-crafted entertaining trash. And Brenda is in her own way more interesting than you might expect - she’s too scheming and selfish to be a heroine and too ruthless to be a victim but at the same time she’s too vulnerable to be a femme fatale. She doesn’t even know if she is really a whore, or if she really wants to be a whore. She hasn’t thought any of it through. It’s not just that she doesn’t understand love. She doesn’t even understand sex. She’s selfish in the way a child is selfish but she’s not evil - you have to know that what you’re doing is wrong to be evil.

Will this bad girl get what she deserves? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Reno Tramp is obviously most interesting as an example of the disreputable side of 50s pop culture. Like exploitation movies these books practised a balancing act, offering as many sleazy sexy thrills as they could without going far enough to get the publishers closed down. It’s often forgotten that there was more to 50s pop culture than Leave It To Beaver or Doris Day movies. Under the resectable surface of that decade there was plenty of interest in sex, including illicit sex (or maybe especially illicit sex).

It’s interesting to compare Reno Tramp to Ward Miller’s Kitten With a Whip, from a few years later and from a different but closely related genre. Both deal with young women whose sexual power is more dangerous than nitro-glycerine and just as unpredictable. And both dealing with young women who are deadly because they themselves don’t really understand what sex can do to them, or to men.

And Reno Tramp is definitely sleazy fun. Recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Wade Miller's Kitten with a Whip

Kitten with a Whip is a 1959 crime thriller by Wade Miller. The excellent 1964 film adaptation (with Ann-Margret) is probably better remembered these days than the novel. Wade Miller was actually Robert Wade and Bill Miller, childhood friends who formed a successful and prolific writing team.

Kitten with a Whip starts on an ordinary hot day in southern California suburbia. A very hot day. David Patton is a regular guy with a good job (he’s a stress engineer and he likes his job) and he’s married with a five-year-old daughter. His wife Virginia and daughter are out of town at the moment (Virginia is visiting her sick mother). For some guys this would be an opportunity to get up to all sorts of no good - gambling, booze, women, etc. But not David Patton. He’s genuinely happily married.

So he wakes up in the morning and hears a sound from his daughter’s bedroom. He’s really pleased. Virginia and Katie (the daughter) must be back early. He bursts into the bedroom to welcome Katie home and instead of his five-year-old he finds a very attractive seventeen-year-old girl dressed in a nightgown. This is a surprise, to say the least.

The girl is named Jody and she explains that she’s not a burglar or anything, she just needed somewhere to sleep and since she found the front door open she let herself in. Well, the front door wasn’t exactly open but the window was. Or at least it was open after she’d prised it open. She’s escaped from a reformatory but really none of it was her fault, she only stole a bottle of booze for her father and he’d have whipped her if she hadn’t.

Now you or I might view this girl’s story with just a tiny bit of suspicion but David Patton is used to the safety and security of 1950s suburbia. He has never seen the seamy side of life. To him this is just a poor innocent young girl in trouble. Somebody should do something to help her. He should do something to help her. That would be the right thing to do. The fact that she happens to be a remarkable pretty seventeen-year-old girl has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. And at her age she probably doesn’t know anything about sex anyway. Even if she does make a point of letting him know that she’s not wearing any underwear beneath her nightgown.

Thus begins David Patton’s nightmare. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. After all if she causes any trouble all he has to do is pick up the ’phone and the cops will pick her up and take her back to the reformatory. The thought comforts David, until Jody explains that if he does that she’ll tell the cops that he tried to rape her. Would the cops believe David’s explanation that he’s just an innocent victim? Would the neighbours? Would his boss? Would his wife? The answer to all of these questions is no, none of them would believe him. Even though of course he really is quite innocent, he was just trying to help a girl in trouble. Although perhaps having sex with Jody wasn’t such a smart move. But she really does have a rather luscious body and he had had a few drinks and he didn’t really know what he was doing.

Now Jody is the one with the whip.

David is obviously shockingly naïve. These sorts of things don’t happen to respectable married men in suburbia. However there’s more to it than that. David was happy before Jody came along, but there was something missing. He half-wanted some adventure and some excitement even if he’s totally unprepared for the consequences. He convinces himself he’s horribly unlucky to be in such a mess but he ignores all the warning signs. Right at the start he is aware that he is noticing Jody’s shapely legs and the way her nightgown clings to her breasts. He is aware that he is wondering what she looks like naked. He convinces himself that of course nothing will happen. He could turn her in right away but he doesn’t. He has everything under control. And it is rather exciting, especially when Jody slips off her nightgown in the car to try on the new underwear and dress he’s bought for her. Of course he doesn’t peek while she’s undressing, well just a little peek but there’s no harm in that.

Jody is a pretty terrifying character. She’s frightening because she’s manipulative and ruthless but in some ways she really is innocent. She doesn’t understand consequences. Most she is terrifying because she truly belongs to another world. It is the world of the young and rootless, petty criminals, drugs and prostitution, of instant gratification, a world that knows nothing of the rules that govern David Patton’s safe suburban world. It is a world beyond David’s comprehension. And his world is beyond her comprehension.

David finds it hard to hate Jody. He fears her and he fears that she will destroy his secure existence but hating her would be like hating a wild animal for being a wild animal. Jody simply has no idea how much damage she can do to him.

And Jody doesn’t really hate David. She just doesn’t understand him. Why can’t he live for the moment the way she does? And he obviously wants her sexually and she’s happy to give herself to him so why can’t he just enjoy it instead of getting all weird just because they had sex?

It is a clash of worlds, a clash of cultures.

This is in some ways classic noir fiction. David Patton is really a pretty good guy but he has weaknesses he isn’t aware of and he makes one error of judgment and now his life has become a nightmare. He makes mistakes but he’s hardly the only man who would have been tempted if a gorgeous young female suddenly threw herself at him.

Jody is a classic femme fatale, maybe not actively evil but a femme fatale doesn’t have to be actively evil to be very very dangerous. The tone of the book is light and amusing and rather satirical. David’s misadventures with Jody are somewhat comical but with tragic potential. It’s almost like a literary cross between two film genres, film noir and screwball comedy. David gets himself in deeper and deeper and the reader is left to decide whether to pity him, to despise him for his naïvete or to be amused by his predicament.

Of course the mood grows darker as David is drawn into Jody’s world. And the plot starts to twist and turn.

Kitten with a Whip is a fine thriller with a humorous side and a serious side as well. Jody’s world and David’s world should never have come into contact with each other. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons

The Four False Weapons, punished in 1937, was the last of John Dickson Carr’s mysteries to features French detective Henri Bencolin.

The legendary violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was such an extraordinary virtuoso that there were even rumours that he must have had supernatural aid. He would deliberately break strings during a performance just to make things more difficult for himself and then triumphantly finish the performance anyway. To me The Four False Weapons seems like Carr in Paganini mode. He has created a plot with so many bizarre complications the it can’t possibly work but he’s determined to make it work anyway. And he succeeds.

Richard Curtis, the junior partner in a film of London solicitors, is despatched to Paris to sort out some unspecified problems that one of their clients, a Mr Ralph Douglas, is having. It turns out that the problem is his relationship with a notorious courtesan, Rose Klonec. Or rather his problem is that he is about to marry a charming girl, a Miss Magda Toller, and his now-ended relationship with Rose Klonec is causing difficulties.

Soon after arriving in France Curtis accompanies Ralph to the love nasty he had set up for Rose, where they discover Rose’s body. There’s not the slightest doubt that she was murdered. There’s a great deal of doubt as to how she was murdered. Sometimes the discovery of the murder weapon helps to clarify things but in this case it doesn’t help at all. There are way too many murder weapons. And all of them seem somehow wrong. Other things about the murder scene are decidedly odd. It’s just as well that the legendary detective Henri Bencolin arrives on the scene at this point. Bencolin has retired but he is eager enough to take on this case and does so in a semi-official capacity. Even the Sûreté is willing to admit that Bencolin’s assistance would be invaluable.

There are not only too many clues, there is one vital clue that must be there but it cannot be found. Then there are the alibis. Everybody not only has an alibi, the alibis are absolutely cast-iron.

Bencolin gets some unwanted help from a journalist-criminologist, Auguste Dupin (one of several detective fiction-jokes in this book), whose theories are fantastic but perhaps contain some genuine insights. With the introduction of Dupin it is obvious that Carr is playing with us in a good-natured way. Carr took detective fiction seriously but he also saw no reason why it couldn’t be fun.

The highlight of the story is the game of Basset organised by Bencolin. Basset was a card game (a real one) that enjoyed a vogue during the 17th century. It was a game in which immense fortunes could be won or lost. Many noblemen were ruined by it until it was banned by Louis XIV. In 1937 it was a game that had never been played by any living person, in fact had not been played in France for two-and-a-half centuries but Bencolin has his reasons for reviving this ancient game. The result is one of the great gambling scenes in detective fiction. Will anyone dare to go soissante-et-le-va, with a massive fortune to be won or lost on the turn of a single card? I personally detest gambling but I love gambling scenes in fiction.

The ending is another virtuoso performance by Carr, with twist after twist succeeding each other in dazzling fashion.

Is this a fair-play mystery? On the whole yes, although there are a couple of important clues that rely on specialised knowledge that the leader is unlikely to possess. And is the eventual solution satisfactory? Perhaps, although psychologically it does stretch credibility a little.

So we get a fiendishly complex plot but we also get a great deal of amusement along the way. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Derek Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic

Derek Marlowe (1938-1996) was an English novelist who made quite a splash with his debut novel, the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic, in 1966.

Eberlin is a spy. He works for the British. At least on the surface, but actually he’s a double agent. He really works for the KGB. While he occasionally passes information to them his main duties involves assassinations. He is thirty-six years old and has been a spy for the whole of is adult life. That’s a long career for a double agent. He is successful because although he is a Russian he is more English than most Englishmen. He is an educated and cultured man, always exquisitely dressed and a connoisseur of beautiful things. He is something of a dandy (in fact he idolises Beau Brummell). His real name is Krasnevin. At times he is not sure if he is really Eberlin or Krasnevin. A fuzzy sense of identity is an asset for a spy although it’s perhaps not quite so healthy for a human being.

Now he has two problems. The first is that he wants to go home. He wants to go home to Russia. He has grown weary of life as a spy. But to the KGB he is a very valuable asset and they are not likely to give him permission to return home.

His second problem is that the British have given him a new assignment. His mission is to track down a KGB assassin, a man by the name of Krasnevin. So he must hunt for himself, but of course without finding himself. Krasnevin is believed to be in Berlin so that’s where Eberlin is sent. To his horror he finds that Gatiss is there too. Gatiss is another British agent of whom he is somewhat afraid. Gatiss is the kind of man who might succeed in unmasking him, and he detests the man personally as well.

As an added complication there is Caroline. She’s a sweet girl. Eberlin avoids serious entanglements with women but it looks increasingly like he is going to be entangled with Caroline, although he’s not sure exactly what kind of entanglement it’s going to be.

Spy fiction deals a great deal with themes of betrayal. An interesting feature of this novel is that Eberlin is not a traitor. He is not merely Russian-born. He is a Russian citizen. A patriotic Russian doing his duty. He is also a good communist so in fact he is betraying neither his country nor his ideals. Of course espionage is still a grubby business of lies and deceit but it’s well to bear in mind that Eberlin is not a traitor.

Spies do not have many friends but even by spy standards Eberlin is a loner. He is entirely self-contained. He is also somewhat inclined to introspection. Perhaps he thinks too much. He has given his current situation a great deal of thought and he does not like the conclusions he has been led to. Drinking helps a little. Maybe not much but he intends to stick with it. If he drinks enough things might look better.

The idea that both sides in the Cold War were pretty much equally cynical, ruthless and even dishonourable was becoming commonplace in British spy fiction, spy movies and spy television series by the 60s (the Callan TV series being a very obvious example). But a British spy novel with a protagonist who is a KGB assassin who has infiltrated the British intelligence service was still rather bold in 1966. And while Eberlin might not be a conventional hero he is certainly not a mere villain or even a conventional anti-hero. He has his faults but he is not an unsympathetic character. He is certainly no more of an anti-hero than David Callan, and as a man he is (despite some self-pity) no more contemptible and pathetic than George Smiley. And he’s no more cynical than Len Deighton’s unnamed spy.

Marlowe seems to have spent his writing career flitting back and forth between mainstream and genre fiction. A Dandy in Aspic certainly has some literary aspirations. It also works as a tense spy thriller with some neat twists. Highly recommended.

My review of the 1968 film adaptation can be found here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Mickey Spillane's The Body Lovers

The Body Lovers was the tenth of the Mike Hammer private eye novels, published in 1967. Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) wrote six Mike Hammer novels between 1947 and 1952. Then followed a decade in which he wrote very little of anything. He took up the Mike Hammer series again in 1962.

The Body Lovers begins with Hammer discovering the body of a young woman. Nothing unusual in that. Corpses turn up all the time in New York, and given the rather seedy parts of the city that Hammer is forced to frequent in his line of business it’s not the first one he’s stumbled across. The one notable thing about this one is that the girl appears to have been whipped to death. Still, it’s not Mike’s case so he just calls the cops and doesn’t think about it much.

Then he gets a new client, a guy named Harry Service. Harry’s sister Greta has gone missing and he’s worried about her. Harry is serving a stretch in the penitentiary and Mike was the guy who put him there but Harry is the kind of professional criminal who regards prison as an occupational hazard and he doesn’t hold grudges. In fact he thinks Hammer is a pretty good guy. Harry would never ask the cops for help, but he asks Hammer to find his sister as a favour. Hammer doesn’t owe Harry a thing but in an odd way he’s touched that Harry trusts him.

There will be other bodies in this case. And there will be other girls. Mike is mainly interested in finding Greta but certain events transpire that lead him back to that first dead girl. And there are the négligées. They’re not the sorts of négligées that respectable lady schoolteachers wear, in fact they’re at the kinky end of the nightwear fashion scale,  but a schoolteacher was wearing one rather like the dead girl’s and the schoolteacher is dead as well.

Mike’s buddy, Homicide Captain Pat Chambers, thinks these may be sex murders but Mike has a suspicion there’s more to it than that.

This is an older Mike Hammer compared to the hero of the first six novels. He admits he’s not as quick as he used to be. He’s still just as determined and he still knows how to use his fists (and he’s still not above literally kicking heads).

Velda, his secretary, is still around. Mike still hasn’t married her but she hasn’t given up hope.

Has Mike Hammer mellowed at all? Perhaps a tiny bit, although he always had a certain sensitivity under the brutal exterior. He still has no problem attracting women. He still has no illusions about women but he still has his own odd sense of chivalry. If he senses a certain basic decency in a woman, even if she happens to be a whore, that chivalry kicks in. By 1967 Hammer’s outlook on life was very much out of step with the zeitgeist but he doesn’t care. This may have been the year of the Summer of Love but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book.

In the late 50s and early 50s Spillane’s books were considered to be pretty extreme as far as violence and sleaze were concerned. In the 60s his style hadn’t changed much but by 1967 violence and sleaze were becoming ubiquitous in crime fiction. Spillane still does it with a certain style. Has Spillane mellowed at all? Again, perhaps just a little. He was now middle-aged, very rich and very successful and pretty confident in himself. If critics hated his books he simply didn’t care.

While fifteen to twenty years earlier Spillane was pushing the edge of the envelope when it came to sexual content in crime fiction in 1967 he seems rather coy. Refreshingly so. He’s not interested in describing graphic sex. If characters go to bed together there’s no need to give us a blow-by-blow account.

Spillane also more or less ignores the 1960s. This novel could easily have been written ten years earlier. It seems like a wise decision. When writers try too hard to keep up-to-date the results are usually embarrassing.

The Body Lovers has its share of action and sleaze, it has Mike Hammer still being recognisably Mike Hammer, and it’s great pulpy fun. Recommended.