Monday, October 19, 2020

Mark Clifton's Pawn of the Black Fleet (When They Come from Space)

Pawn of the Black Fleet (better known under its alternative title When They Come from Space) is a 1962 science fiction novel by American writer Mark Clifton (1906-63).

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the author but it turns out he was a Hugo Award winner and had enjoyed at least a modicum of success.

This is a first contact story, set at some time in to not-too-distant future, but it starts with a bureaucratic bungle. Ralph Kennedy is an ordinary guy, a kind of lower management type, working for a large company. He’s more than a little surprised to get a letter informing him that he, Dr Ralph Kennedy, has been accepted into the Space Navy and that he will be filling the important post of staff psychologist specialising in extraterrestrial intelligence. This puzzles him for several reasons. Firstly, he’s just plain Mr Ralph Kennedy, not Dr Ralph Kennedy. Secondly, since no extraterrestrial life has yet been discovered how can anyone be an expert in the subject? And he’s rather disturbed to find that he has no choice in the matter. He has to take the job.

It turns out that his main duties are to help the Director of Extraterrestrial Life Research, Dr Kibbie, spend the two billion dollars that Congress has (for no sensible reason) allocated to the department. 

In fact Ralph Kennedy will soon get to study actual extraterrestrial intelligence. This unexpected opportunity arises when the Black Fleet arrives. The Black Fleet is a swarm of sinister spacecraft and they are clearly hostile. But another space fleet arrives, and they’re clearly friendly. And a deputation from the friendly alien fleet wants permission to land in Washington DC. Curiously enough they seem very anxious to meet Ralph Kennedy. This does not please scheming billionaire media mogul Harvey Strickland who sees the alien visitation as a splendid opportunity to increase his own wealth and power.

This book starts out by giving the impression of being an amusing light-hearted satire, taking potshots at some sitting targets - bureaucrats, politicians and the military. As the story progresses it becomes evident that it’s actually something much cleverer. It’s a much more thorough-going and much more complex satire. At the same time it’s an intelligent and original first contact story.

As you might expect there is much speculation about the nature of these alien beings, and about their motivations and intentions. Ralph Kennedy has his own theories and finds that he’s out of step with the rest of humanity.

This is an amusing and very cynical little novel. This is definitely not hard science fiction. Clifton has little interest in science or technology. He spent much of his life working as a personnel manager and it’s obvious that he’s very interested in what makes people tick both as individuals and in groups. This is humorous science fiction but with some more serious overtones.

Apart from this novel Clifton apparently wrote a number of other Ralph Kennedy stories.

Pawn of the Black Fleet has recently been reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperbacks, paired with Henry Slesar’s  lightweight but enjoyable The Secret of Marracott Deep. This double-novel paperback really is worth grabbing. I was impressed enough to want to check out more of their double-header editions.

Does Pawn of the Black Fleet qualify as a neglected gem of science fiction? I think it does, or at least it’s a neglected gem of a certain type of satirical psychological/sociological science fiction. I’m now on the lookout for more of Clifton’s work.

Pawn of the Black Fleet is highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Day Keene's Sleep With the Devil

Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969) was an American writer of Irish and Swedish extraction who wrote about fifty novels, mostly pulp crime titles and mostly under the pseudonym Day Keene. He was also a successful writer for both radio (in the 30s and 40s) and television (in the 60s). The very noirish Sleep With the Devil was published in 1954.

Les Farron is a man with a plan and no morals to get in the way of the execution of said  plan. There are no spoilers whatever in what I’m about to tell you. Farron’s plan is laid out in detail for the reader in the first few pages of the book. Farron is a grifter and a part-time male model and part-time strong-arm man for loan shark Whit Bennett. Bennett’s activities are so outrageously illegal that Les figures it’s only a matter of time before the cops shut him down and there’s also the matter of the guy Farron beat up a bit too enthusiastically and the guy then, very inconveniently, died. So Farron reasons that the smart thing for him to do is to act before the cops do, kill Bennett and rifle his safe and then disappear.

The clever thing about Farron’s plan is that he has it all worked out how he’s going to disappear. He has discovered a little town called New Hope, about a hundred miles from New York, and he has a new identity for himself already established there. The folks of New Hope are ultra-conservative godly farmers. They’re not quite the Amish but they’re halfway there. No-one would ever think of looking for Farron there. In New Hope Farron is Paul Parrish, a devout Bible salesman.

New Hope has another attraction for Farron. That attraction is Amy. Amy is young and pretty and her father is very rich (these people are simple farmers but very successful ones and since they don’t drink or smoke or gamble they tend to accumulate wealth a pretty impressive manner). It should be possible for Farron, after lying low in New Hope for a while, to get his hands on her dad’s money. In the meantime he can marry Amy. That idea appeals to him. He’s never had a virgin before and he figures it could be exciting.

Farron is a smart guy. His plan is well thought out and he takes great pains with his preparations. He leaves nothing to chance. Nothing can go wrong. All he does to do it to wait things out in New Hope. That means going without the things that are as essential to him as breathing - cigarettes, booze and sex (or in the latter case going without sex until he and Amy are married). But he can do that for a few months. Well actually he gets really jumpy if he goes without those things for a few hours but as long as he keeps thinking about the money he’ll have at the end of it he convinces himself that he can do it.

And nothing does go wrong. In fact it all goes more smoothly than he could have imagined. It all goes smoothly, until it doesn’t.

Farron is a protagonist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He possesses not the slightest trace of empathy for any other human being. Other people are potential sources of money, or in the case of women potential sources of sex. Amy is a potential source of both. Lydia, his girlfriend in New York, has a great body and she’s enthusiastic in bed. That’s all he wants from her. Of course all this means that he can’t always predict what other people will do. The idea that a person might be motivated by some other mention aside from greed or lust, or that a woman might be motivated by love - these are things that he cannot even comprehend. That could be a weakness.

This is a grimy sordid book, which of course is what the noir fiction genre is all about. It achieves its sordidness and griminess in fine style. Keene’s prose is stripped down and energetic.

There’s not a huge amount of actual violence. It’s the psychological brutality of Farron, his casual acceptance of violence as the normal way to deal with things, that has the impact. While Farron is sex-obsessed you won’t find any even moderately graphic descriptions of sex although there’s plenty of overheated eroticism.

Having half the action take place in New York and the other half in the radical different world of New Hope adds interest but it serves the author’s purposes in other ways. There’s also the contrast between the entirely corrupted Farron and the entirely uncorrupted Amy. And then there’s Lydia - is she one of the corrupted or one of the uncorrupted?

The ending might be thought to stretch credibility just a little but it works and there’s the ironic twist that you expect in noir fiction. Several ironic twists in fact.

Sleep With the Devil is a fine example of 50s noir fiction by a writer who has fallen into undeserved neglect. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A.S. Fleischman's Shanghai Flame

A.S. “Sid” Fleischman (1920-2010) was a New York-born professional magician who took up professional writing after the Second World War. He’s best remembered as a very successful writer of children’s books but he wrote a number of mysteries and thrillers. Shanghai Flame, published by Gold Medal in 1951, was his first spy thriller. Having spent the war in the Navy he had some familiarity with the Far East and that’s where this and most of his subsequent spy novels are set.

The narrator, Alex Cloud, is a newspaperman who likes drinking more than he likes working and he’s arrived in Shanghai to look for Flame. Flame is actually Paula Forrest, also an American reporter, and she’s the reason he drinks.

This is just after the Communist victory in the Civil War and the rumour is that Flame has gone over to the Reds.

Alex thinks that that the only reason he’s in Shanghai is to find Flame but he’s stumbled into something. He’s not sure what it is but it must be important because people are getting killed for it. He thinks it might have  something to do with a deck of cards. He runs into some old friends, although really they’re not exactly friends. They’re the types of people who’d be mixed up in anything that might involve a profit. They’re not political types but the Chinese Government seems to be taking an interest so maybe it is political.

And he has the opportunity to make lots of interesting new enemies. And he meets a a woman. Not Flame, but a Eurasian beauty named Ariadne. Alex is still in love with Flame, but that doesn’t stop him from ending up in Ariadne’s bed. That could cause difficulties with her husband, who is one of Alex’s old very disreputable (and very dangerous) acquaintances.

Of course he finds Flame but winning her back is another matter. Keeping her alive is a bigger priority. If he wants to keep her alive. Sometimes he’s not sure. He’s not sure if she’s forgiven him for sleeping with all those other women. He’s also not at all sure what she’s mixed up in but the Chinese Government has put a price on her head.

The bodies keep piling up. The action is pretty relentless in this story. Whether Alex ends up in a bar or a restaurant or a brothel or on a sampan, those bodies seems to keep accumulating. And Alex makes his own contributions to the body count. He spends more time with a gun in his hand that sitting at a typewriter like a good newspaperman.

Alex might be the hero but he’s definitely no Boy Scout. He’s quick with his fists and he has no great qualms about shooting people, or slapping women around. You have to be tough to be a newspaperman. This book belongs to the “ordinary guy gets entangled in espionage against his will” sub-genre but in this case the ordinary guy is no innocent.

While this does qualify as a Cold War spy thriller it doesn’t come across as being particularly political. Fleischman’s objective is to give us a two-fisted action thriller and he does a pretty good job. It’s a story just begging to be made into a movie. Spies, hardboiled reporters, an exotic setting, dangerous women, a McGuffin that lots of people are prepared to kill to get hold of, a stormy romance, lots of ambiguous but vaguely sinister characters, lots of violence and lots of implied sex - it has all the right ingredients. And if all that isn’t enough, there are also pirates.

Fleischman has no literary pretensions but he understands pacing and he knows how to write action scenes and he provides action in abundance.

Stark House have published this novel in a double-header paperback along with another Fleischman spy thriller, Counterspy Express (which was filmed in the late 50s).

Shanghai Flame is great pulpy spy adventure fun. It’s pure entertainment but it works just fine on that level. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

J.J. Connington’s The Brandon Case (The Ha-Ha Case)

J.J. Connington’s The Brandon Case (AKA The Ha-Ha Case), one of his Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries, was published in 1934.

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished scientist who wrote a notable science fiction novel and quite a few mysteries featuring either Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield or Superintendent Ross.

Jim Brandon arrives at the Edgehill estate to have a serious talk with his brother Johnnie. Their father inherited the vast Burling Thorn estate and an enormous income and ended up with even more enormous debts. He then borrowed more money to pay the debts. The only way out is to sell Burling Thorn but they can’t because it’s entailed. There is a way around the problem but it will need Johnnie’s co-operation. Unfortunately Johnnie is both foolish and stubborn and he’s now fallen under the influence of a scoundrel by the name of Laxford. What really matters is that Johnnie is about to come of age and when that happens the tangled affairs of the Brandon estate are likely to reach crisis point.

To add to the difficulties there seems to be something going on between that young fool Johnnie and Mrs Laxford, a young pretty woman with hot eyes.

Jim was met at the station by Una Menteith, another pretty young woman living at Edgehill whose position there is not at all clear. Also staying at Edgehill is a somewhat disreputable chap named Hay.

A decision is made to go out and shoot some rabbits and a terrible accident occurs. Inspector Hinton is by no means happy with the circumstances, particularly the bloodstain situation. The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of accidental death but Hinton feels that the matter is worth further investigation.

Inspector Hinton is a competent policeman whose main fault is that he’s clever, but not quite so clever as he thinks he is. He is also ambitious. He is very keen indeed to become Superintendent Hinton. A big case is what he needs and he has a feeling he may have found one.

The financial tangle is much more complex than it seemed to be and the more the inspector finds out the more complex it becomes.

There’s also the matter of the escaped lunatic, a man who may at times be quite sane and even sharp-witted and at other times have no idea what is going on and no memory of anything that has happened.

There’s no impossible crime angle to this affair. The crime, if there was a crime, has a number of very straightforward very plausible solutions. The difficulty is the number of entirely plausible explanations and the number of entirely plausible explanations.

Inspector Hinton, whatever his faults, is thorough and he is also more than willing to make use of Beauty’s formidable private intelligence-gathering service. Beauty is in fact a Miss Tugby, a servant with an extraordinary capacity for finding out about other people’s private affairs. Beauty provides the inspector with some extremely interesting pieces of information.

Sir Clinton Driffield does not make his appearance until very late in the story. This is also the case in some of the other J.J. Connington mysteries. Driffield is the Chief Constable and of course Chief Constables do not usually intervene in any direct manner in their subordinates’ investigations, unless the subordinate manages to make a complete hash of things or runs into a brick wall. Fortunately for Connington’s readers that is not an uncommon occurrence.

There’s some fascinating stuff in this tale about the extraordinary complexities that could arise when an estate was entailed, especially when a curious custom known as borough-English is involved. This is a legal custom that in some circumstances gives the youngest son the rights that would normally devolve upon the eldest son.

It’s not overly difficult to figure out the identity of the murderer. The real interest lies in how it was done (it was much more complicated than initial appearances suggested), and in the much more difficult problem of proving it. Motives turn out to be more complex than they seemed to be as well. Inspector Hinton does plenty of detecting, sometimes to good effect. He does most of the very necessary routine investigating. Of course Sir Clinton Driffield is the one who finally solves the problem. He provides the equally necessary brilliant insights into what the clues really mean.

All in all a very satisfying detective novel. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Jessie Dumont's I Prefer Girls


I Prefer Girls is a 1963 sleaze fiction novel which belongs to the sub-category of lesbian sleaze fiction. This was an extremely popular sub-genre which can’t really be ignored. You probably won’t be surprised to be told that lesbian sleaze fiction was popular with both male readers and actual lesbians.

Sleaze fiction in general was often written by male writers using female pseudonyms or by women writers using male pseudonyms. Quite a few of these women writers were lesbians. In the case I Prefer Girls I honestly have no idea if the author, Jessie Dumont, was male or female. Some modern lesbians insist that no lesbian could have written this book but they may be overlooking the fact that the lesbian subculture of the 1950s and early 1960s was very very different from even the lesbian sub-culture of the ’70s and bore no resemblance to that of today.

I Prefer Girls is the story of Penny Stewart, who narrates the tale. Penny was a bit of a tomboy and did not get on with her parents. When they were killed in a car accident she moved post-haste to Greenwich Village and got a job in Marcella’s dress shop. She still had no idea that she was a lesbian. Marcella however easily convinced her, with the aid of some practical demonstrations in the bedroom, that she was in fact a lesbian. It was those practical demonstrations that really convinced Penny. 

However it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing. Penny not only likes having sex with women. She likes having sex with lots of women. Marcella is older and she’s possessive and she’s not happy about this. Also Marcella is madly in love with Penny. Penny is not in love with Marcella. She’s happy for Marcella to keep her in comfort and she likes the sex but she wants her freedom, and that means the freedom to have as many other women as she chooses. So as the story proper opens the situation is a bit unstable and a bit uneasy.

Then Bernice comes along. Bernice is a waitress. She’s young and blonde and as a cute as a button. She’s also straight, and a virgin, and she has a boyfriend. To Penny these are merely minor details. She wants Bernice. She wants her real bad. The difficulties just make the pursuit more exciting and more challenging.

Penny likes challenges and when it comes to scheming and manipulating she has few equals.

When judging a book such as this you need to remember that that the authors of sleaze fiction had to consider the demands of the commercial marketplace and the demands of the publishers (in this case Monarch Books). With lesbian sleaze there was also the need to satisfy both male readers and lesbian readers. The lesbian readership on its own would not have been sufficient to make such books financially viable in 1963. The men readers obviously wanted lots of steamy lesbian couplings while the lesbian readers would have wanted romance and emotional melodrama as well. In 1963 there was also the problem that the book would have to be somewhat sympathetic, but not too sympathetic.

And there had to an atmosphere of actual sleaze because that’s the whole point of this genre of fiction - forbidden lusts, out-of-control passions, sin and sensation. Sex as something exciting, dangerous and naughty.

Penny herself is a bit of a monster. She’s not just completely self-centred. She also likes to dominate people. She likes to dominate them emotionally and she’s good at it. She realises quickly with Marcella that if she allows Marcella to dominate her in the bedroom that will give her the leverage to dominate Marcella in every other way. Penny’s understanding of power in sexual and emotional relationships is sophisticated and subtle. She doesn’t even mind submitting to a beating in order to increase her long-term power.

Penny is of course in many ways the stereotypical predatory lesbian (while Marcella is the archetypal older butch and Bernice is the archetypal femme) but the author is skilful enough to give the characters at least some semblance of nuance. Penny also has a dark secret (aside from her sapphic longings).

There’s an interesting symmetry to this story but I won’t spoil things by hinting at the nature of that symmetry.

The trick with sleaze fiction was to make the sex overheated without being explicit and Dumont does that pretty well. There are lots of lingering descriptions of the delights of the female body. 

I Prefer Girls works as early ’60s sleaze fiction and there are even some hints of noir fiction as Penny’s lusts and manipulations threaten to lead to disaster. Penny is a memorable femme fatale. I have no intention of telling you whether she really is led to disaster or not - one of the joys of the sleaze fiction of this era is that you can never be sure if the Bad Girl will be punished or redeemed.

I Prefer Girls is the sort of book that has to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure but if you like indulging in guilty pleasures it’s fun.

And the cover of the Blackbird Books reprint features the same great Robert Maguire painting as the original.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Frank Kane's The Living End

Frank Kane (1912-68) was a successful American hardboiled crime writer who has now fallen somewhat into obscurity. He was successful writer for radio and wrote a lot of scripts for the excellent 1958-59 Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series. He also wrote about forty crime novels most of which featured PI Johnny Liddell. The Living End (in which Johnny Liddell does not appear) was published in 1957.

Eddie Marlon is a skinny Polish-American kid who desperately wants to be a song writer. He’s written a song which he figures will be a surefire hit if only someone will get behind it. He has no talent. The song is just a pastiche of half a dozen current hits. But a lack of talent never stopped anybody from being a success in the music business. He tries to get a music publisher named Devine interested, to no avail. Devine does however offer to get a job as an assistant to popular radio DJ Marty Allen. Eddie’s job will be to pick the records that get paid. Devine warns him that Marty Allen is a straight up and down guy - he’s one of the few DJs who doesn’t accept payola.

Eddie honesty is roughly on par with his talent but he’s prepared to go along with Allen’s rules. Then he gets introduced to sultry up-and-coming singer Jo Leary. Jo and her record company’s contact man Mike Shannon are desperate to get her platter on the radio. Jo tells Eddie that there’s no question of paying money to get her record played but that if somebody could get it some air time she could find other ways to express her gratitude. Mike assures Eddie that Jo can be a remarkably grateful girl. And Jo is a sexy platinum blonde with curves in all the right places.

Getting a few air plays for Jo’s song is just minor league stuff. There is real money to be made if you're a guy with flexible ethical standards, or even better no ethics at all. It’s a certainty that Eddie is going to be tempted again.

Temptation comes in an unexpected form. It has to do with a girl (the platinum blonde mentioned above) and a whip. The whip has been used on the girl. Used a bit too enthusiastically. It was a sex game that got out of hand. It wasn’t Eddie who used the whip but it gives him the opportunity to begin his rise to being a big shot in the music industry.

This book is not at all what you might be expecting from a ’50s hardboiled crime novel. There is crime, there is racketeering, but this is strictly white-collar crime. No-one gets taken for a ride by the boys. There are no guns. It’s essentially an exposé of the notorious payola racket, with DJs paid to promote songs. This novel was published in 1957 and the payola scandal broke in a big way two years later. Of course the music business promised to clean up its act, and of course they never did.

The Living End provides a fascinating insight into the almost unbelievably corrupt world of the American music business in the 1950s, and into the extraordinarily ingenious methods by which so many people in a sleazy business were making easy money by manipulating hits.

As a hardboiled crime novel, well this simply isn’t a hardboiled crime novel as such. It’s still quite intriguing, it has a memorable and extremely nasty villain and an overwhelming  atmosphere of corruption and nastiness. It has the tone of a hardboiled crime story but don’t expect any action or any violence. There’s not much sex either although sordid sexual shenanigans are hinted at obliquely (such as payola in the form of sexual favours). Apart from the matter of the girl and the whip the book doesn’t really get into overt sleaze.

This is a bit of an oddball novel but it’s not without interest. It’s an interesting journey into the moral squalor of white-collar crime. Worth a look.

The Living End has been recently reprinted by Black Gat Books.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Van Wyck Mason’s The Fort Terror Murders

The Fort Terror Murders was published in 1931. It was the third of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six spy thrillers featuring American G-2 intelligence agent Hugh North. At this stage of his career Hugh North holds the rank of Captain.

Hugh North is in the Philippines and at a dinner party at Colonel Andrews’ house there is much excitement among the officers and their ladies. The excitement concerns the deserted and half-ruined Spanish fortress, Fort Espanto (“Fort Terror”). According to local legends there is treasure hidden somewhere in the fort, treasure that once belonged to the Jesuits before they we unceremoniously expelled from the fort. A fabulous treasure. That was centuries ago. Since that time many have sought that treasure, and they have all died. For the fort is haunted by ghosts - jealous, vengeful ghosts. Now two people claim to have discovered the secret of the treasure’s location.

Hugh North isn’t concerned by ghosts but by much more prosaic evils. The treasure will belong to Senorita Inez Sarolla and her family, and to her fiancé Lieutenant Bowen. Most of the young officers are by no means rich. A junior officer’s pay is not generous. Impoverished young officers and their ladies are not immune to jealousy or to greed. Such a treasure is likely to excite similar emotions even among the senior officers and their wives. It is clearly a potentially dangerous situation and those legends of mysterious deaths and disappearances do not reassure him - they could suggest temptations to weak-minded men (and women).

A party of a dozen or so officers and their women set off for the fort at dead of night to join in the fun of the uncovering of the treasure. The treasure hunt ends disastrously, with one man dead and another who simply vanished. Since Hugh North is an officer with the Intelligence and Criminal Investigation Department of the Army he takes charge of the case.

The tragic events occurred in total darkness within the vast bulk of Fort Espanto. It had originally been a monastery which was converted into a modern fortress by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Much of the original monastery remains. It could of course be riddled with secret passageways but while plans of the fort exist no plans of the original monastery survive, and any secret passageways would have been built into the monastery. There is no way of knowing if they exist or where they might be.

And since the events occurred in darkness no-one is sure where anybody else was at the time.

The clues are particularly puzzling. Two rosaries, both very unusual, and a cryptic message scrawled on a note. Hugh North believes that these clues contain a cypher, but it’s a fiendishly complex one.

But greed is not the only unhealthy passion at work here. There is also lust. Several illicit and intersecting love affairs seem to be approaching crisis point.

While the Hugh North novels are spy thrillers they also include definite murder mystery elements and this particular book is more or less a pure murder mystery. It’s made more interesting by being set in the tropics, which in the 1930s was synonymous with mystery, intrigue, madness and forbidden passions. The vast decaying fortress and the fact that the keys to the location of the treasure lie in the distant past add some gothic touches.

Of course mysteries set in ruined monasteries that include hidden passageways, and passions unleashed by life in the tropics, are deeply unfashionable today. And when you add notions of military honour it becomes even more unfashionable. To me that makes the book all the more appealing. Nobody writes books like this any longer, and that’s very sad. Van Wyck Mason was very very good at writing such books.

Hugh North is also a very old-fashioned hero. Although occasionally his methods can be ruthless (he deliberately and rather callously misleads a key witness) he is essentially a man of honour who does his duty. That’s not to say that he’s a dull square-jawed storybook hero. He’s capable of action but mostly he relies on his brains rather than on brawn. His approach is patient and intellectual.

If you love both golden age detective fiction and spy thrillers then Van Wyck Mason is the author you’ve been looking for all these years. In the pre-war Hugh North books he provides plenty for fans of both genres. The Fort Terror Murders is a bit unusual in including no actual spy thriller elements but it does have the sort of exotic setting that spy fans love. And it does have cyphers. Even cooler, it turns out that solving the cypher is not quite enough to solve the mystery - there’s an extra fiendish twist.

This one throws in assorted gothic and pulp elements as well - not just secret passageways but legends of ghosts and fiendish murder methods (such as murder by cobra). You have to remember that in 1931 Edgar Wallace was at the peak of his popularity so it made sense for Van Wyck Mason to throw in the kinds of things that Wallace fans enjoyed.

The Fort Terror Murders is gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.

All the early Hugh North books are good. If you want more of a mixture of detective and spy elements then I’d recommend The Budapest Parade Murders or The Singapore Exile Murders. If you want a great spy story (and yes it does have murder as well) then check out the excellent The Branded Spy Murders.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

John Norman’s Outlaw of Gor

Outlaw of Gor is the second of John Norman’s Gor sword-and-planet adventure novels. It was published in 1967, a year after Tarnsman of Gor.

After seven years back on Earth, following the avenues recounted in Tarnsman of Gor, Tarl Cabot returns to Earth’s strange sister planet, Gor. To find that everything has changed, and changed in ways that seem to him bewildering and demoralising. He had looked forward to being reunited with Talena, the woman he loves, but now he despairs of ever seeing her again. And the priest-kings, the mysterious hidden possibly alien rulers of Gor,  seem to have plans for him. He has danced to their tune before and did not like it but no-one can defy the will of the priest-kings.

Gorean society is a barbarian society, with odd traces of high technology. Gor should by now have developed a lot more high technology but it is the will of the priest-kings that it should remain an agrarian society, dependent on animal power and with no weaponry more sophisticated than crossbows.

Tarl Cabot is now a man without a city and on Gor that automatically makes a man an outlaw. Tarl decides that maybe it is about time that someone confronted the priest-kings but that means journeying to the Sardar Mountains and to do that he will need a tarn, one of the gigantic birds that serve as a type of winged war-horse. He reasons that the best place to head for is Tharna, the one city on Gor that welcomes strangers (and the one city ruled by women). Heading for Tharna proves to be a costly mistake but at least he finds out why the city welcomes strangers. It’s something he would have been happier not knowing.

Tarl has the usual adventures you expect in a sword-and-planet adventure. There’s no shortage of action.

As was the case with Tarnsman of Gor it is Gorean society that proves to be the most interesting feature of the book. Or more specifically, it is the hero’s ambivalent attitude towards Gor. Tarl Cabot violently disapproves of many aspects of Gorean society and contrasts it unfavourably to the Anglo-American culture in which he was bought up. He considers Gor to be a barbarian society, which of course it is. Despite this Tarl only seems to feel truly alive when he is on Gor, and he loves Gor passionately.

Tarl particularly disapproves of the Gorean treatment of women and most strongly of all he disapproves of the almost universal Gorean institution of female sex slavery. Of all the cities of Gor the one in which he should feel most comfortable is Tharna. Women are largely free in Tharna. And yet he finds Tharna not only to be dull and depressing, but in a strange way to be more barbaric than the other more overtly barbaric cities. He will soon discover just how barbaric Tharna is.

Tarl is an intelligent educated man. He is capable of understanding nuance, and he is capable of understanding just how complicated human beings are. Even an intelligent educated man can find it difficult to comprehend another culture. Tarl’s problem is that there are things he does understand about Gor, but he recoils from that understanding. For example he disapproves of the keeping of women as slaves and yet the women of Gor approve of this institution. Even the women slaves approve of it. To a Gorean woman the one thing worse than being captured and forced into slavery is not being captured and forced into slavery.

Of course many readers find it impossible to get past the slave thing. I suspect that most of those who find Norman’s treatment of the subject offensive either haven’t read the books or have had a knee-jerk reaction of disapproval the moment they encounter it. Norman, a professional philosopher, uses the barbarian society of Gor (including the slavery aspect) to comment on American society in the 1960s and human nature in general. And as in the first novel there’s nothing even remotely graphic of a sexual nature.

Outlaw of Gor is more than just a sequel to Tarnsman of Gor. Gorean society has changed profoundly in the years that Tarl has been away. So Norman has not just created a fascinatingly different alien society, he has created a dynamic changing society. It will be intriguing to see if there are further changes in the third novel in the series (a copy of which I have already ordered).

And like the first book Outlaw of Gor is a pretty decent sword-and-planet adventure tale as well. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

William Ard's You’ll Get Yours

William Ard was an ex-Marine and ex-Hollywood publicist who was a successful writer of hardboiled mysteries in the ’50s. After his death in 1960 at the age of 37 he was rapidly forgotten. Most of the many books he wrote are now hard to find and only a couple have been reprinted. You’ll Get Yours, which he wrote in 1952 under the name Thomas Wills, has been re-issued by Black Gat Books.

It opens with a murder. We know who the murderer is and we know who the victim is but we don’t know why the person was murdered. We will find out. We do know there’s a dame involved. It all started when New York private eye Barney Glines was hired by artists’ representative Archie St George to recover some very valuable jewellery, stolen from Kyle Shannon.

Kyle is an actress and she’s about to become the hottest thing in Hollywood. The studio has built her up as a poor kid lucky enough to be discovered quite by accident so they don’t want the public to know that she’s actually a rich girl whose daddy left her a fortune. Those jewels have to be recovered discreetly. The thieves have in fact offered to return the jewels for twenty grand, but what Barney doesn’t understand is why the thieves want him to be the go-between.

The first complication is that Kyle is Archie St George’s woman but as soon as Barney lays eyes on her he wants her. He wants her real bad. The fact that Kyle dislikes him on sight could present something of a challenge. And why does she dislike him?

The second complication is that it wasn’t just jewels that were stolen. There were some photos as well. And the negatives. Nudie pictures. Not quite the thing that an aspiring Hollywood star would want to have made public.

Getting the jewels back is easy but the pictures are not with them. Maybe the thieves din’t steal the photos. Maybe they did. Maybe someone else did. But did anyone else even know about those naughty pictures?

Stripper Gaye Dawn may have the answers. She’s a junkie, which can make persuading her to co-operate easier, or more difficult.

And people start to turn up dead.

Barney Glines is an honest private eye. His approach to the job is to work with the police. He’s kept his nose clean. Now he doesn’t care about anything except Kyle. Solving the case is now just a means of getting her. So now he’s prepared to cut a few corners, not always a good idea for a private eye. He still has friends on the force which comes in handy when he’s arrested for murder.

Kyle is a nice girl but she’s the worst thing that ever happened to Barney Glines. She’s not a femme fatale but she has the same effect on Barney, plunging him into a disastrously messy situation that he would have been wise to keep out of. Nice girls can lead men to destruction, if they’re the wrong nice girls. Especially nice girls who belong to other men,

This is classic hardboiled stuff with a generous helping of noir on the side.

William Ard clearly had the potential to be a major hardboiled writer. His prose is energetic and he certainly knows how to pace a story. If you’re a noir/hardboiled fan You’ll Get Yours is worth checking out. Recommended.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Orrie Hitt's Wayward Girl

Orrie Hitt (1916-75) was one of the many prolific writers of American sleaze fiction of the ’50 and ’60s. He wrote around 150 such books. Wayward Girl dates from 1960 when the genre was at the height of its popularity.

Wayward Girl tells the story of Sandy Greening, a sixteen-year-old prostitute and gang member. Sandy was raped when she was fourteen and she liked it (this is of course a very politically incorrect book). After that she couldn’t get enough of men. Especially when she discovered she could take money out of having sex, thus combining business with pleasure.

She runs with the Blue Devils and they’re about to have a rumble with their hated rivals, the Black Cats. The Black Cats gang-raped one of the Blue Devil debs. That’s bad enough, but the rape occurred on Blue Devil turf. That’s much more serious. It’s a rumble which ends with one of the Black Cats dead.

Sandy doesn’t like killings but that doesn’t stop her from sleeping with the gang member who did the killing. And sex with Tommy Forbes is real nice. He’s a violent thug but that’s why the sex is real nice.

Sandy’s luck is about to change. She usually gets five dollars a trick (just enough to sustain her heroin habit) but this time the guy is willing to give her twenty-five bucks. Life is good. Or it would be, except that he’s an undercover cop. So instead of twenty-five bucks she gets six months in reform school. But this is one of the new enlightened reform schools where they really want to help the girls. She’s assured that everybody there wants to help her. They’ll teach her a skill (apart from the one that landed her in the reform school) and how to live a decent life and she’ll be able to get married and have kids and make a better America (that’s what they actually tell her).

Up to this point the book reads disturbingly like a social work treatise but don’t worry, the cynical twists are just around the corner and the sleaze factor is about to be ramped up.

Miss Hunt is the house-mother in charge of the cottage to which Sandy is assigned. Miss Hunt really wants to help her girls. She’s pretty young herself, in her early twenties, and she’s kind and idealistic. Only she looks at Sandy sorta funny. You know, the way men look at women. She tells Sandy that Sandy has really nice breasts. They’re so nice that Miss Hunt wants to touch them. And she likes to see Sandy naked. And to kiss her. And to do other things to her. Sandy is horrified but Miss Hunt is the one who will decide if she gets parole or not.

In fact the school is a hot-bed of lesbianism. Miss Hunt assures Sandy that this is OK, girls need loving and if they don’t get the kind of loving they prefer any kind of loving is better than nothing. And lots of the girls like this strange sort of loving.

One of the school’s enlightened ideas is to send the girls to nice families for weekends. Lots of families are willing to take the girls. Middle-aged couples like the Ridgeways. Mr Ridgeway is a middle-aged man but he’s really keen to help wayward girls. I mean, having sex-crazed sixteen-year-old girls spend a weekend with nice middle-aged men whose wives don’t understand them - what could possibly go wrong?

So while at the reform school Sandy actually has sex more often than she did when was a prostitute on the outside. The only difference is that now she doesn’t get paid for it.

Sandy is in the biggest trouble she’s ever been in. She’s trapped. She can’t escape the sexual attentions of either Miss Hunt or Mr Ridgeway and then when she gets there’s going to be problem of Tommy Forbes and the Blue Devils. She can’t escape either her past or her present nightmares.

Compared to Gang Girl by Robert Silverberg (written under the pseudonym Don Elliott) the sex in Wayward Girl is less graphic, the rapes take place offstage so to speak and the violence is toned down a little. The whole tone is rather different as well. The heroine is more of a conventional victim of circumstances rather than being the depraved monster of Gang Girl. The two novels do however have a number of things in common - the casual senseless brutality of gang life, the atmosphere of sleaze and a honest acceptance of the reality of female sexual pleasure in casual sex. Which was not the sort of thing that was considered respectable at the tie, but then these novels are not concerned with respectability.

Both books also belong to the same milieu as the exploitation movies of the same era - glorying in trashiness and depravity while covering themselves by appearing to deplore such things and occasionally treating their subject matter with an honesty and directness not found in the mainstream of either cinema or literature. And like exploitation movies, they’re great fun. Not clean wholesome fun, but fun nonetheless.

Wayward Girl has been re-issued by Stark House in their series of noir reprints, in an edition that also includes other Orrie Hitt sleaze classic, The Widow.

Wayward Girl is obviously recommended to sleaze fans but noir fans may find themselves enjoying it as well.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Edgar Wallace's On the Spot

On the Spot is a 1931 Edgar Wallace crime thriller set in Chicago during the heady days of Prohibition.

Tony Perelli is a Big Shot, one of the biggest racketeers in Chicago. He’s ruthless but he’s smart. Tony don’t want no trouble. If someone is causing trouble, Tony gets a couple of his boys to take the guy for a ride. There’s nothing personal in it. It’s just business. He’s not a mere hoodlum. Tony would never have some body bumped off just for the hell of it. But sometimes it’s necessary.

Tony’s main rival is Irish gangster Mick Feeney. Feeney is tough but he’s not as smart as Tony. Feeney’s chief lieutenant, Shaun O’Donnell, is another matter. O’Donnell is clever and patient. And Feeney’s gang have been muscling in on Tony’s territory. Something will have to be done about that.

Tony had had plenty of women, but he’s never had a woman like Minn Lee. Mine Lee is half-Chinese and all beautiful. And she’s not your typical gangster’s moll. Tony doesn’t really understand her, but insofar as he is capable of loving a woman he loves her. He loves her the way he loves all his other possessions. He likes to be surrounded by beautiful things. All the beautiful things money can buy including women. He thinks maybe she loves him, but he’s not quite sure.

Everything on the home front is going just swell for Tony until he meets Maria. Maria is Con O’Hara's woman. O’Hara is an out-of-town torpedo who does a lot of jobs for Tony. He’s a killer and he’s good at his job. There’s no subtlety to the man but if some guy is causing trouble O’Hara is the boy to take care of it. He’s been killing professionally since he was a teenager. Unfortunately O’Hara is pretty attached to Maria.

Then there’s Jimmy McGrath, a nice college boy from the east. Tony thinks he can find a place for Jimmy in his organisation but he’s not sure what that place might be. Maybe Jimmy could be a fixer. A fixer has to be smart and be able to present himself as respectable. Tony already has a fixer, a really good one, Victor Vinsetti, but he’ll find something for Jimmy. Of course first Jimmy will have to kill for him. You can’t trust a guy until he’s killed for you.

Jimmy is in love with Minn Lee. Vinsetti is in love with her as well. She has that effect on men. They don’t just want her, they fall in love with her.

Of course anyone with a thorough knowledge of the Chicago underworld of the Roaring Twenties would undoubtedly spot lots of inaccuracies in this account (and some of the characters sound disturbingly cockney in their speech patterns) Wallace being an Englishman with no firsthand knowledge of the subject. It doesn’t matter. Wallace knows how to tell an engrossing tale.

And Tony Perelli and Minn Lee are intriguing characters. Tony’s great love is Italian opera. He considers himself to be a civilised man. He says he’d happily run his rackets without ever killing anybody but there are always guys who want to make trouble and they have to be dealt with. He has a genuine fondness for both Jimmy and Minn Lee, the kind of fondness a man feels for beautiful things that he owns.

Minn Lee has had many men. When one man goes out of her life she finds another, without any fuss. But while she’s with a man she is a one-man woman. She has a code of honour. A woman should be devoted to her man. Whether she loves him or not is immaterial. She has never loved a man. Although that might be about to change. Tony’s life might be about to change as well, but he doesn’t know it yet.

There’s as much murder and mayhem as you could desire in this gangster potboiler. There’s also a kind of love story and there’s the story of a fascinating woman. Being an Edgar Wallace novel it is also naturally highly entertaining. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Henry Slesar’s The Secret of Marracott Deep

Henry Slesar’s novella The Secret of Marracott Deep was originally published in the July 1957 issue of the science fiction pulp magazine Fantastic. It’s been recently reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperback, paired with  Mark Clifton’s Pawn of the Black Fleet.

Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was an American writer who wrote science fiction, detective stories and thrillers as well as having a very successful career as a television writer.

As The Secret of Marracott Deep opens Burt Holrood and his new bride Jessie have just arrived in Hawaii where they are to spend their honeymoon. But Jessie is behaving oddly. Why would a new bride tell her husband that she’d like to spend some time alone? Burt takes refuge in the bar where he meets British oceanographer Dr Percival Nichols. They are having a quiet drink when they hear screams. It is Jessie! Burt rushes down to the beach to find his wife being menaced by - a gigantic lobster! Not just a particularly big lobster but one bigger than a man.

The lobster is after Jessie again on the following day. Burt figures it must be a mutation caused by atomic testing but don’t worry, the real answer is not so obvious or so boring. Dr Nichols is not convinced but he knows there are all kinds of strange things at the bottom of the ocean in places like the Marracott Deep.

A clue is provided by a Hawaiian reporter. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the lobster seems to be targeting young Mrs Holrood. But what possible connection can a nice young woman from Los Angeles have with oversized crustaceans?

Dr Nichols, being an oceanographer, is a scuba diver. He suggests Burt might like to learn scuba diving. Since he’s spending his honeymoon with a wife who wants to be alone Burt has more free time on his hands than he would have wished for so he agrees. He gets a little over-confident and dives deeper than he’d intended to and he finds something even more startling than giant lobsters. Something that may threaten Civilisation As We Know It.

Burt wants to save civilisation but he’s even more determined to save his wife and she’s certainly in great danger although I’m not going to reveal why that is.

This is a pulp story so there’s no point in getting too worried about details like scientific plausibility. If you accept the story for what it is then it’s quite a bit of fun and there’s  plenty of action. There are other sea monsters besides giant lobsters and there’s something much more threatening than mere sea monsters at the bottom of it.

Slesar’s prose is serviceable enough and he knows how to maintain the right kind of pulpy breathless excitement.

I’m not going to claim that The Secret of Marracott Deep is a great story but it does belong to an interesting sub-genre that I find rather appealing - the unknown terror from the deep science fiction story. It’s a sub-genre that includes John Wyndham’s excellent The Kraken Wakes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s often overlooked 1923 classic The Maracot Deep (which presumably inspired the title of Slesar’s story). Both these books clearly influenced Slesar’s novella but it’s not by any means a mere recycling of exactly the same ideas.

The ending is a bit rushed but I think it works and it has the right impact.

The Secret of Marracott Deep has mysteries in the deepest depths of the ocean, some intrigue involving infiltration of key scientific organisations and it has a beautiful Woman in Peril. It’s fun in its own way. Worth a look.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Gordon Semple's Bad Company

Bad Company is the story of a young woman named Eileen Cooper. Whether Eileen is bad company or good company depends on what you want from a girl. If you want love, devotion and home-baked cookies then she’s bad company. If you want a good time in bed and you have plenty of money she can be very good company. Eileen is a tart. She’s quite happy to describe herself as such. Do not however make the mistake of thinking she’s a cheap tart. She’s very expensive.

Bad Company was written in 1945 and the author’s name on the cover is Gordon Semple. Even by the standards of pulp writers he’s pretty obscure. All I know about him is that he and William Neubauer and Norman Bligh were all the same man but I can’t even tell you which is the guy’s actual given name. Whatever his name was he was a prolific writer of sleaze fiction. Which is a bit tautological - if you were a writer of sleaze fiction you had to be prolific if you expected to make a living out of it.

Before the war the teenaged Eileen had been Bert Jackson’s girlfriend. Bert was a real prize. On one occasion he hired her out to a buddy for an hour for five bucks because he needed the five bucks and he figured Eileen wouldn’t mind. She did mind. In retrospect though she figures he did her a good turn. He helped her to understand how life works. Love is for suckers. It’s money that matters.

Bert went off to the war and got wounded and now he’ll never play the violin again. Yes, really. Bert was an aspiring violinist, although he sounds more like an aspiring racketeer or pimp. Now Bert expects Eileen to forgive him and marry him. But Eileen has been busy while Bert was off at the front. She’s now Arthur Worden’s mistress. Arthur is fat and middle-aged but he’s rich. And he’s given her a job singing in his night-club (whatever her characters flaws Eileen is apparently a pretty good canary). Maybe she doesn’t really go for Arthur all that much in a physical way but she has Peter Ostler (a penniless hunk) to satisfy her physical needs.

Of course there are complications. There’s Eileen’s girlhood friend Rita, who has always been in love with Bert but Bert wasn’t interested. If Eileen is a gal who measures a man’s worth by the size of his wallet then Bert is a guy who judges a woman by the size of her bust. Rita just didn’t measure up. But Rita is not giving up.

There’s also Arthur’s scheming wife Agnes.

This is all overwrought melodrama but melodrama can be fun. This kind of sleaze fiction was aimed primarily at men. Perhaps not exclusively - there’s probably no way of knowing how many women read such books. Although aimed at men they actually have quite a bit in common with the steamy romance novels that would a few decades later become so popular with women. Even when the female characters are wicked the stories do tend to be told largely from the woman’s point of view. There’s usually at least an attempt to understand the heroine’s (or villainess’s) emotional motivations. It’s also worth remarking that quite  few of the popular writers of sleaze fiction were women.

Eileen is ruthless and she is certainly a tart. She does however have some justification (most teenaged girls would react pretty negatively if their boyfriends tried to pimp them out) and she is not an emotionless sexual predator. She is driven partly by lust, partly by money and partly by love. She’s not the kind of girl you’d take home to meet Mother but she’s not quite a monster. In fact none of the characters is all bad, although Bert is pretty contemptible. Arthur is weak, selfish and self-indulgent but he does love Eileen. Rita is a fool but she’s a nice girl. Agnes is a monster, but she was turned into a monster.

There’s even a hint of tragedy in the lives of these people. They’re making a shambles of life but they’re not doing so deliberately.

This was 1945 so of course there’s nothing approaching graphic sex. The secret to writing sleaze fiction at the time was to create an atmosphere of overheated desire and forbidden pleasures without having to describe those pleasures in detail. In that respect Bad Company scores pretty highly on the Sleaz-O-Meter. There’s no description of sexual acts but there’s an immense amount of implied offstage sex. There’s also some spanking, for those who like that sort of thing.

I don’t think you’ll find much in the way of a social message here, except perhaps that people who fear sex (like Rita and Agnes and Eileen’s boss Mr Lauren) are probably going to end up lonely and unhappy.

It’s not a good book but it does its job. In 1945 it would have been pretty titillating. There’s plenty of emotional and sexual melodrama and there’s some amusing dialogue. It’s tamer than the sleaze fiction of the mid ’50s to mid ’60s (in fact it’s tamer than Florence Stonebreaker’s Reno Tramp which was published just five years later in 1950) but there’s still some fun to be had here. Bad Company is recommended to anyone interested in the rather fascinating history of sleaze fiction.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Earl Derr Biggers' The Agony Column

The Agony Column, published in 1916, is an early novel by Earl Derr Biggers. A decade later Biggers would create Charlie Chan (who would make his debut in The House Without a Key) and would thereby achieve fame and fortune but even before Charlie Chan Biggers was a reasonably successful and well-known writer.

The Agony Column is a very short novel, not much more than a novella.

The story takes place in the fateful year of 1914. Geoffrey West is an American in London on business. West is one of those men who hides the soul of a romantic under the surface appearance of sober respectability. He is homesick and one of his few amusements is reading the Personal Notices - the “agony column” - of the Daily Mail. One morning at breakfast at the Carlton he notices a beautiful and very charming young American woman. She is from Texas and is in London with her father. West notices something else about her - she is reading the agony column as well. And reading it with sufficient delight  to suggest that she is in fact a keen devotee of that column.

At this point the suppressed romantic in West leads him to do something rather daring. He places an ad in the agony column, very obviously addressed to the young American woman. He later berates himself for his foolishness. Of course she will not reply. But she does. And she makes him an offer. She invites him to write her a letter a day for seven days. If she decides that he is an interesting young man she may be inclined to permit him to be formally introduced to her. After which, who knows?

In the letters West’s story is unfolded, and it’s a melodramatic story replete with romance and mystery, murder and intrigue, spies and femmes fatales, and of course the young woman is captivated. What girl could resist a man whose life is so packed with danger and excitement?

During the course of this seven-day correspondence war clouds are gathering over Europe.

Several questions will occur to the reader at this point, and I have no doubt that Biggers expects us to ask ourselves these questions.

This is an odd little book. Readers will either be extremely irritated by it, or be charmed and amused. You do have to remember that this was 1916, the heyday of the melodramatic tale of espionage. It was the heyday of melodrama in general. You also have to remember that in 1916 sacrificing oneself for honour, or for love, was not considered eccentric. Spies were a big deal. The looming war merely increased the obsession with spies and betrayal.

Armchair Fiction has reprinted this title as part of its series of double-header paperbacks, each containing two novels. They have paired this title with Fury on Sunday by Richard Matheson (another writer whose work I admire).

The Agony Column bears no real resemblance to the Charlie Chan novels and it certainly does not qualify as an example of golden age detective fiction. In fact it’s not easy to slot it into any particular genre.

It’s a very lightweight book but if you have a taste for melodrama and romance it is quite entertaining in its own strange little way. Recommended perhaps, but only if melodrama and romance are your thing.

Friday, July 24, 2020

John McPartland’s Big Red's Daughter

John McPartland’s Big Red's Daughter is a 1953 pulp crime novel. Chicago-born John McPartland (1911-1958) had a reasonable successful career as a novelist and screenwriter before his untimely death at the age of 47.

Big Red's Daughter tells the tale of 25-year-old Jim Work, fresh out of the army after a stint in Korea and now a college student on the GI Bill, living in Carmel in California. Jim’s problems begin when he has a minor car accident. The other driver, Buddy Brown, is a mean tough rich boy thug and it’s immediately obvious that Jim and Buddy are not going to get along. Of course there’s no reason their paths should ever cross again, or at least there would be no reason except for Wild Kearny. It’s not just that Wild is beautiful. She is, as far as Jim is concerned, the one. The one girl he wants and must have. Unfortunately Wild is Buddy’s girlfriend.

Jim is way out of his depth. The crowd Wild hangs around with are rich privileged kids and that’s a world Jim Work is never going to fit into. Jim knows that the sensible thing is to walk away from the situation and keep walking, but the moment he set eyes on Wild Kearny he knew he wasn’t going to be able to do that.

Of course Jim knows that either he’s going to have to kill Buddy Brown, or Buddy Brown will have to kill him.

There are lots of added complications, a big one being Wild’s friend Penelope (Pen)  Brooks. Pen has exactly the same deeply unhealthy sexual obsession with Buddy that Wild has. The two women are rivals for the love of the same bad boy and women in that situation can be pretty dangerous.

There are enough overheated sexual passions and jealousies here to lead to big trouble so it’s no surprise that they lead to murder. The circumstances of the murder are ambiguous. To the police there’s an easy solution and cops like easy solutions. If you have an obvious suspect you make an arrest.

There’s another slight complication - Wild’s father. Red Kearny is not a gangster but he’s a union boss with enough muscle and money behind him to make even gangsters nervous. Red Kearny loves his little girl and if he thinks someone is going to hurt her then that someone is liable to end up dead.

For Jim it’s all a nightmare and there doesn’t seem to be a way out but there are two things that will keep him fighting - his overwhelming love for Wold Kearny and his overwhelming hatred for Buddy Brown.

There are countless fist fights but they aren’t conducted according to the Marquess of Queensbury rules. The aim is survival and to survive you use whatever means are necessary. This is a tough mean book about tough mean people. People don’t die neatly or easily in this book.

And there are lots more plot twists. There’s more to Wild’s friends than meets the eye. There’s more to Buddy Brown than meets the eye as well.

Jim is the narrator and he thinks he has things figured out. Maybe he does, or maybe he’s dead wrong.

There’s plenty of excitement here. Every time Jim looks like just maybe he might drag himself out of the hole he’s in some new nightmare confronts him and the nightmares just keep coming. It all moves along at a frenetic pace.

There’s no graphic sex but sex is what drives the story along. These are people driven by sexual lust and that applies to all of the men and all of the women. There’s not a single healthy emotional relationship between the whole lot of them. Just to make things nastier some are driven by greed as well. And hate. And fear. There’s lots of desperation and lots of sleaze.

This is classic noir stuff and classic pulp stuff. If that’s what you like then you should find Big Red's Daughter to be a very satisfying read. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Copenhagen Affair (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel)

The Copenhagen Affair is an original novel by John Oram published in 1965 and based on the hit television spy series of the 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

John Oram Thomas (1906-1992) was a Welsh writer who wrote two Man From U.N.C.L.E. novels as John Oram. He also wrote a non-fiction history of the World War 2 Danish Resistance movement and in fact there are constant references to the war and to the Resistance in The Copenhagen Affair.

On a business trip to Copenhagen Mike Stanning meets a girl named Norah. They get quite friendly. In fact they get very friendly indeed.  And then Norah has an unfortunate accident, But before the accident she gives Mike a package, to be delivered to Alexander Waverley at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in New York. Mike also encounters Major Garbridge, and a rather unpleasant encounter it is.

The package contains film of flying saucers. But these are not flying saucers piloted by little green men. They are flying saucers piloted by T.H.R.U.S.H. agents. No-one knows why T.H.R.U.S.H. has suddenly become interested in flying saucers but what is certain is that it means trouble.

What Napoleon Solo and Illya Kurykin now have to do is to find out where these flying saucers are being manufactured (it’s pretty obviously in Denmark somewhere), what their purpose is and most importantly they have to destroy the secret factory. So it’s obviously a story of sabotage closely modelled on the exploits of the WW2 Resistance and Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin get help from a number of ageing Resistance fighters.

The plot is serviceable enough although there are no great surprises. There’s enough action to keep things interesting.

Like the other Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels that I’ve read recently The Copenhagen Affair is a pleasant surprise. It’s a perfectly competent and quite enjoyable lightweight spy thriller and it captures the tone of the series pretty well. At least it captures the tone of the first season pretty well, when the TV series was still a semi-serious spy series.

The edition I have was published in the U.K. in 1993 by Boxtree Limited. It’s interesting that there was still enough of a market for Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels to justify republishing them in the 90s.

The Copenhagen Affair is quite enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series it’s definitely worth reading and it’s an enjoyable enough spy potboiler in its own right. Recommended.

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.