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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Will N. Harben's The Land of the Changing Sun

The Land of the Changing Sun is a lost world science fiction novel originally published in 1894.

The author, William N. Harben (1858-1919), was an American whose literary output was rather varied. It included science fiction, religious tales, detective stories, rural comedic sketches and what might be termed early social problem novels.

The Land of the Changing Sun is the tale of two adventurers, an American named Johnston and an Englishman named Thorndyke, whose balloon is lost somewhere over the Atlantic. They are fortunate to reach an island, but this island is so small and so remote that their long-term prospects seem grim. Then they are rescued, but in a very surprising way. They are taken aboard a highly advanced submarine of mysterious origins. It takes them to the land of Alpha, which they will soon discover is located deep beneath the Earth. Alpha has its own sun, which changes colours throughout the day (hence the book’s title) and has a wholly unique climate which never changes at all.

The kingdom of Alpha is very advanced technologically. Socially it’s a little disturbing. It’s too perfect. The Alphans practise eugenics in a rather ruthless manner. Everyone is physically perfect. The men are tall and athletic, the women are stunningly beautiful.

Of course now that our heroes are in Alpha the question is whether they will ever be allowed to leave. The king seems welcoming but the Alphans do insist on physical perfection. Will our heroes be able to measure up to such exacting standards and if not will they still be welcome?

There’s no doubting the physical perfection of the king’s daughter and so it’s hardly surprising that Thorndyke seems inclined to fall for her.

Like Jules Verne Harben takes technologies which existed at the time and extrapolates from them. Submarines existed in 1894 but they were still crude experimental types. Electricity was is use so Harben assumes that it will be used for just about everything in the future. Evolution was still big news and social Darwinism was gaining a following, and eugenics was becoming a matter of debate. The telegraph and telephone were making long-distance communication practicable so Harben in his novel assumes that it will be possible to transmit images over long distances. Motion pictures were not yet a practical proposition but in 1894 experiments were already being made, and motion pictures of a sort exist in Alpha. Airships already existed and the idea of heavier-than-air flight was attracting interest so the sophisticated flying machines in the novel would have seemed vaguely plausible.

The land of Alpha itself is inhabited by and was created by humans who left the world on the surface several centuries earlier. It is an artificial world. It is in fact a new Creation, the work of men who saw themselves as perhaps the equal of God. It is significant that Alpha is a world without religion. It is a materialistic technological society run along utilitarian lines. The greatest good of the greatest number, that sort of thing. There is nothing deliberately cruel about the Alphans (cruelty would be irrational and unscientific), it’s just that sometimes in order to ensure the greatest good of the greatest number sacrifices have to be made.

Harben’s intention is clearly to take a somewhat acerbic look at the logical consequences of materialism and utilitarianism, and he does so from what is clearly a Christian perspective.

The strength of the book is the ingenuousness of the author’s technological extrapolations. The changing sun itself is a fine example. I won’t explain the details - it’s better to discover them as Thorndyke and Johnston discover them. Harben is also quite good on the social implications of technology - the king is essentially a decent and dedicated man but the technology at his disposal does give him a degree of social control over his subjects and there are hints that maybe this is not entirely a good thing.

This is not exactly a dystopian novel. The Alphans are pleasant and generally happy and their king genuinely desires their welfare. It’s more of a flawed utopia. Science can create a potentially perfect society but do we really want to live in a perfect society? And this perfection comes at a price.

Don’t expect much in the way of characterisation. Thorndyke and Johnston as personalities are utterly conventional heroes, the most interesting thing about them being that they’re a bit more ineffectual than most late Victorian or Edwardian heroes. The princess is your stock standard princess, beautiful and noble. The king is perhaps marginally more interesting as he grows to doubt his ability to keep everything under control.

There is adventure here. There are no battles or fistfights or gun duels. The battles are against nature, and to some extent against nature modified by human actions. But there is excitement at the climax.

The Land of the Changing Sun is by no means in the top rank of lost world stories but it is an interesting one with a genuinely interesting artificial world. Worth a look for lost world fans.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ian Kennedy Martin’s Regan and the Deal of the Century

The Sweeney, like so many of the classic television series of its era, spawned a series of TV tie-in novels. Regan and the Deal of the Century was the third of nine The Sweeney novels and was written by Ian Kennedy Martin, the creator of the TV series. It was published in 1976.

The novels were all original stories rather than novelisations of TV episodes.

And Regan and the Deal of the Century is intriguingly different to the series. It's a political thriller and it focuses entirely on Detective Inspector Jack Regan, with the other regular characters from the series playing no part whatever in the story.

My full review of the book can be found at Cult TV Lounge.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

John Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor

John Norman’s Gor novels, that notorious cycle of sword-and-planet tales, began in 1966 with Tarnsman of Gor. Norman is an American professor of philosophy and he uses the novels to explore philosophical, political, cultural and psychological ideas. Norman is a big fan of Nietzsche and Freud, so you have been warned. The good news is that he is also quite heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a much more wholesome influence.

In the mid-1960s Tarl Cabot, a young Englishman teaching at a small American college, receives a strange message from his father, who had mysteriously disappeared years earlier. The message is dated February 3rd 1640. It tells him that he can cannot evade his destiny. Which proves to be the case. While camping in the woods he is taken aboard a spacecraft to the planet Gor.

Gor is a kind of Counter-Earth, apparently part of our solar system but in an eccentric orbit around the Sun, an orbit that ensures that the Sun is always between Earth and Gor. Which is why the planet’s existence has never been suspected. Gor is a very Earth-like planet, although slightly smaller than Earth and with three small moons. The people of Gor are human.

If you want to write a science fiction novel set on another planet but you want the characters to be fully human there are several possible ways of making this plausible. Norman’s solution is a simple but effective one. The people of Gor all came originally from Earth, brought to Gor by the Priest-Kings (who are most likely non-human).

Gor society is rather strange and some ways technologically very primitive. Their most advanced weapons systems are crossbows and spears. They have no modern transportation technology. On the other hand they have primitive computers (the Translators). They seem to have electric lighting.

Gor society is stratified, with a fairly rigid caste system. The higher castes not only have power and status, they have access to knowledge that is forbidden to the peasants. The Priest-Kings are assumed to have access to further knowledge that is denied even to the higher castes.

While the comparisons to Edgar Rice Burroughs are fairly obvious the novel is also reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s sword & sorcery tales. Norman is trying to capture the spirit of a genuinely alien genuinely barbarian society. It’s not just that the social rules are different. The worldview that shapes those social rules is profoundly different.

As a sword-and-planet adventure yarn this is fairly routine (although perfectly competent) but it’s obvious that Norman is more interested in the world of Gor itself, particular its politics and its culture. Gor is divided into fiercely independent city-states but one man, Marlenus of Ar, wants to change all that. He wants to seep the city-states away and establish an empire. There are both upsides and downsides to this and Norman is prepared to let us see both sides of the question. Marlenus is ruthless and power-hungry but he’s also a man of vision.

Norman is all interested in the clash of cultures angle. Slavery is an established part of the social structure on Gor and this includes female sex slavery, this being the reason the novels are so controversial and the reason that attempts have been made to suppress them. It should perhaps be noted however that young Tarl Cabot, the narrator of the novel, is not at all sure that he approves of many aspects of the Gorean social system, including the caste system and slavery. On the other hand he is increasingly not sure whether he disapproves. He can see some virtues in the barbaric society of Gor, and he can see the vices as well.

The slavery theme is pretty central to the book and really can’t be evaded. The master-slave relationship between Tarl and Talema is the core of the story. And it’s not a simple master-slave relationship. There are lots of contradictions in it and it’s complicated by the fact that Tarl has fallen hopelessly in love with her. Norman is interested in doing more tham merely giving us an S&M fantasy (it’s worth noting that there is zero explicit sex and in fact there’s very close to being no actual sex at all in the book). Norman is interested to trying to tease out the nature of freedom in the broadest sense and the nature of slavery in the broadest sense. And while Talema is Tarl’s slave, he is in many ways her slave. Love and desire can bind us more completely than chains.

The sex slavery theme is actually treated with a fair amount of subtlety. What Tarl Cabot only gradually comes to understand is that it is an institution that is part and parcel of Gorean culture and its taken for granted there, by women as well as men. It’s certainly taken for granted by Talema, even when she’s the sex slave. When she offers her submission to Tarl she naturally expects that he will then take her sexually, by force if necessary. When he is unwilling to do so she despises him and she is offended. Tarl keeps thinking that Talema is annoyed at being his slave when in fact she’s annoyed that he is not treating her as a slave. Talema is a product of her culture. She cannot comprehend the idea that society could be organised in any other way. A man should treat a slave in a certain way. It’s the way things are done. Her cultural values are more important to her than her freedom and Tarl’s alien cultural concepts upset her. He has proven himself to be a great warrior. He has won her fair and square. She belongs to him. This is something that seems to her to be entirely natural and proper. He has won the right to her body.

In this first book at least Norman gives no indication of agreeing with either Talema’s point of view or Tarl’s. He is merely describing the clash of totally incompatible and alien cultural viewpoints. Of course the very fact that he gives us both points of view will upset many readers. It was a provocative thing to do but I guess if you’re a philosopher then presenting provocative points of view is what you do. It is important to keep in mind though that Norman is describing an alien social system, not advocating for it. When writers create imaginary societies they’re generally using them to criticise (or praise) their own societies and the US in 1966 was certainly in a state of cultural and social flux.

The fact that the psychological and political underpinnings of Gorean society are examined in some depth sets this novel a little bit apart from a routine sword-and-planet yarn. And the fact that Gorean society is supposed to make us as uneasy and uncomfortable as it makes Tarl Cabot adds considerable interest. And there is enough action to please the average sword-and-planet fan as well.

You might like or dislike Tarnsman of Gor but it’s worth finding out for yourself what all the fuss was about. I’m going to recommend it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

John Rhode's Death in the Hop Fields (AKA The Harvest Murder)

Death in the Hop Fields is a 1937 Dr Priestley mystery by John Rhode, one of the pseudonyms used by English crime fiction writer Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964). It was published in the United States as The Harvest Murder.

It is the hop-picking season and that means major disruptions to the normal course of life in the small rural village of Culverden. Hop-picking requires a vast temporary labour force and in this community the hop-pickers are almost all Londoners, and interestingly enough almost entirely female.

It’s also a busier time than usual for Sergeant Wragge. Keeping the peace in Culverden is usually a very easy task for the sergeant and his two constables but in hop-picking season anything can happen. Even a spectacular burglary. Any kind of burglary would be big news in such a law-abiding place but in this case the thief or thieves made off with some very valuable jewels.

The good news is that it takes no time at all to establish the identity of the burglar. Sergeant Wragge is no fool. He sends the empty jewellery box off to Scotland Yard and they find a very nice set of fingerprints belonging to a known villain named Christopher Elver. Elver had served seven years for dope-smuggling. It’s an open-and-shut case, or it would be if Elver could be found. Detective Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of the Yard is sent to Culverden to lend a hand.

Culverden seems to be experiencing something of a crime wave. There’s a case of arson and since the cottage that was burnt out contained some very valuable antiques and objets d’art it’s also regarded as a fairly serious crime. And since Inspector Waghorn is on the scene he naturally takes an interest in this case as well. And the circumstances are quite puzzling. There’s a very obvious suspect but he has a cast-iron alibi. Waghorn thinks that this is just the sort of thing that would intrigue his friend Dr Priestley. Dr Priestley is sufficiently interested to leave London and travel down to Culverden (and anything that persuades Dr Priestley to leave his home in Westbourne Terrace has to be very interesting indeed.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with murder. Well I’m not going to tell you since even a hint might reveal a spoiler.

Street was known for coming up with ingenious methods of murder. There is definitely some ingenuity here although not necessarily relating directly to murder methods.

Dr Priestley is of the opinion that the solution to the case is perfectly logical and he’s right. The clues are all there. There are however enough false trails to lead poor Inspector Waghorn well and truly astray. Whether the reader will be similarly misled is another matter. I figured out the solution before Inspector Waghorn, but Dr Priestley was well ahead of me. To be brutally honest Jimmy Waghorn should have been transferred to traffic duty after this case. Even the broadest of hints from Dr Priestley don’t help him.

Structurally this book is quite interesting but again I can’t say any more since the structure is part of the puzzle.

I know there are those who find Street’s writing dull but I’m not one of them. I was actually quite interested by the detailed descriptions of the process of hop-picking and those details are relevant to the plot. For me the John Rhode novels are a kind of detective fiction comfort food. I find them to be reliably entertaining and I’m fond of the cantankerous Dr Priestley. As long as you don’t expect non-stop excitement Death in the Hop Fields is highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Graham Greene's The Basement Room (AKA The Fallen Idol)

The Basement Room is a 1935 short story by Graham Greene and it’s best known for being the story on which Greene based his screenplay for Carol Reed’s superb 1948 film The Fallen Idol. The Basement Room is available in an edition along with Greene’s The Third Man.

A young boy named Philip lives in a large house in Belgravia. He has limited contact with his parents but that doesn’t worry him, because he has Baines. Baines is the butler. Baines is very fond of the boy. For his part Philip hero-worships Baines who regales him with stories of his adventurous youth in Africa (some of the stories may even be true). It would all be wonderful, except for the presence of Mrs Baines. Mrs Baines rules the household and has little time for boyish nonsense.

What Philip doesn’t realise is that Mrs Baines is as much a nightmare to Baines as she is to him. You see Baines has a lady friend. Which is a big secret that Philip must not tell Mrs Baines.

Philip is seven years old and he’s just beginning to discover life. And he doesn’t like it at all. The rules seem to be very complicated and there’s a lot of unpleasantness. Grown-ups don’t really seem to be all that happy. Grown-ups also have a lot of secrets and it’s very confusing for a young boy when he becomes privy to some of those secrets. Secrets can be very dangerous things. Keeping secrets can be dangerous and not keeping them can be dangerous also.

It’s a neat little story with a nice little sting in the tail. And it's recommended.

The film version most follows the short story until it gets to the end which has some subtle but actually very significant changes. It’s a fine short story but the film version is much richer.

You can find my review of the film version, The Fallen Idol, at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The African Poison Murders (Death of an Aryan)

The African Poison Murders (originally published in 1939 as Death of an Aryan) was Elspeth Huxley’s third mystery novel.

This time Superintendent Vachell’s initial problem is Nazis. Or at least a German farmer in Kenya who is assumed to be a Nazi agent. There seems to be a bit of a power struggle within the local Nazi hierarchy.

But when murder occurs it seems more likely that it was something to do with a woman. If it was murder. The autopsy offered no clues whatever as to the cause of death. The one obvious cause of death is ruled out immediately. Superintendent Vachell suspects poisoning but there’s not a shred of evidence pointing in that direction. The second murder affords even fewer clues and again there’s no possible way to determine the cause of death.

Superintendent Vachell has other problems. His biggest problem is Janice West, the wife of a local farmer. The Wests seem like they might be involved in some way, but Vachell doesn’t want to think too much about that since he’s fallen hopelessly in love with Mrs West. All very unprofessional, but this is Africa and even Canadian colonial policemen are prone to forbidden passions in the tropics.

What I particularly liked about Elspeth Huxley’s Murder On Safari was that so many of the events, including the murders, could only have taken place in Africa. This is also the case in The African Poison Murders. Vital clues are provided by a bushbuck and by a leopard. Birds provide several crucial clues, directly and indirectly. The terrifying climax in which Vachell stares death in the face could only happen in Africa.

And of course social and sexual mores were different in the tropics. Kenya in the 30s was in fact renowned for the rather friend easy approach to sexual morality taken by the European colonists. Sexual passions always seem to be seething beneath the surface in The African Poison Murders.

This novel includes a fair number of popular golden age detective story clichés, particularly in regard to poisonings.

Having the detective hero fall in love with one of the suspects had certainly been done before but it is somewhat risky. While it makes the detective more human (which can endear him to the reader) it also makes him decidedly unprofessional (which can alienate the reader). Putting a love story into a detective novel is itself risky. It can slow things down and it can be a distraction. There’s a good reason that it was something that was rather frowned upon. Huxley pulls it off reasonably well here and she makes sure that the mystery plot doesn’t get derailed by it.

Vachell knows he’s skating on thin ice, especially given that at the time he falls in clove with Mrs West he’s still not sure of the murderer’s identity and therefore can’t be certain that she isn’t the killer.

The ending is a little unconventional. While there are plenty of clues to guide Vachell and he does do some serious detecting the solution is very much motive-based, and very much psychology-based. Which means the motive has to be psychologically convincing. If you don’t buy the motive the whole thing collapses. I found it to be plausible so I had no great problems with the solution.

The African Poison Murders has other things going for it. Huxley is an entertaining writer. The book doesn’t have to rely entirely on plotting. The colourful setting and the colourful characters provide plenty of enjoyment. That’s all well and good as long as the plot works and I think its does.

The African Poison Murders is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars

Leigh Brackett’s short story (actually more of a novella) Black Amazon of Mars was published in Planet Stories in March 1951. In 1964 it was expanded and revised as a novel, People of the Talisman. It has been suggested that the expansion may have been largely the work of Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton.

The core of the story is the same but it is treated slightly differently. The novel appears, until very late in the story, to be essentially an adventure tale with only the barest hint of science fiction. In Black Amazon of Mars the science fiction elements are there from the beginning, and we have much more of an inkling of what is to come. Eric John Stark does not know exactly what lies behind the Gates of Death but he has a pretty fair idea that it something that should not be awakened. We are given more information early on and there is a much stronger sense of foreboding.

Stark has gained possession of the famous talisman of Kushat, stolen some time before. The talisman is the guarantee of the safety of the city of Kushat. It is the key to a great power that lies beyond the forbidding pass known as the Gates of Death. Only the talisman can save Kushat from the barbarian hordes of the Lord Ciaran.

Stark has no reason to link his destiny to that of Kushat, except for a promise made to a dying man. And there is also the woman, a woman with red-gold hair. She is a dangerous enemy. She might be more dangerous as a lover. But their destinies are entwined. Stark is half-barbarian himself and he knows that whether she brings love or death destiny cannot be denied. There’s a subtle hint of eroticism here that is lacking in the novel. Stark fears the woman but he wants her.

The differences between the two versions become more and more apparent, and more and more dramatic, as the story unfolds. It’s not just plot differences but subtle differences in tone as well. Even the nature of the threat beyond the Gates of Death is slightly different.

It does seem quite likely that Hamilton had a hand in the revision. The original version seems a bit more Leigh Brackett-like, a bit moodier and with a lot lot more emphasis on the strange attraction between Stark and the woman with the red-gold hair.

The novel People of the Talisman (which I reviewed here recently) has much to recommend it but on balance Brackett’s original story is I think superior. Black Amazon of Mars is very highly recommended.

Leigh Brackett’s People of the Talisman

Leigh Brackett’s novel People of the Talisman was published in 1964. It is an expanded and revised version of her earlier story Black Amazon of Mars (which had appeared in Planet Stories in March 1951). It has been suggested that Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton may have been partly or even largely responsible for the expanded version.

It is one of many of Brackett’s stories recounting the adventures of Eric John Stark, an orphan boy raised on Mercury and now a planetary adventurer.

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the finest exponents of the sword-and-planet genre, combining high adventure with a moody atmosphere of lost and dying civilisations.

Stark is in the northern wastes of Mars, the Norlands, and his friend Camar is dying. Camar wished to return to the city of his birth, Kushat, to die but he is never going to see the city. Before dying he gives Stark the famous talisman of Kushat, which he had stolen. The legend is that Kushat will never fall as long as it has the talisman. The talisman unlocks a great power from behind the pass known as the Gates of Death but no-one seems to remember any longer exactly what that power is.

But whatever it is Kushat will need it. The barbarian hordes of Ciaran are on their way to destroy Kushat.

It’s not that Eric John Stark owes anything to the people of Kushat. But Camar was his friend, he made a promise and being a half-barbarian he keeps his promises. Whether Kushat can be saved is other matter. The city is rich but has grown soft and self-satisfied. The talisman seems to be the only hope but that means passing through the Gates of Death and no-one has done that and lived to tell the tale.

What he finds on the other side of the Gates of Death is not at all what he expected to find. For civilisations, as for people, there are truly fates worse than death. And he has to reckon with a beautiful woman who is as much a barbarian as he is himself. And she is every bit as dangerous.

For most of the story there is no trace whatever of advanced technology. The technology of both Kushat and its enemies is essentially medieval. Technology will however play a significant part as the story moves to its conclusion. This is science fiction even if at first it  doesn’t seem to be.

The story is filled with typical Leigh Brackett themes. Civilisations rise and they decay. The story of civilisation is always a tragedy. Sometimes a magnificent tragedy, but still a tragedy. Civilisation holds within it the seeds of its own destruction. While decay and destruction are bad enough decadence is worse. And perhaps decadence is as inescapable as decay.

Brackett’s Mars is a planet with a glorious history but the glory is long gone. The dreams remain. And dreams can be far more seductive than reality. The civilisations described in People of the Talisman live on their dreams.

There’s plenty of action and excitement in this short novel but Brackett always had more to offer than action. She offers both atmosphere and ideas, and there’s a certain literary polish that you don’t always get in sword-and-planet tales. While nobody writing in this genre could escape the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs Brackett’s stories have more in common with the work of the other great female writer in this genre, Catherine L. Moore (especially her Northwest Smith stories).

People of the Talisman is highly recommended.

I’m told that Brackett’s original story Black Amazon of Mars differs significantly from the novel. Here's my review of the short story.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Garner’s The Case of the Curious Bride

The Case of the Curious Bride was the fifth of Erle Stanley Garner’s Perry Mason mysteries, appearing in 1934.

Perry Mason is of course famous for the flexibility of his legal ethics and in the early novels he pushes that flexility to extremes. He’s always careful not to cross the line into illegality but he sure does go very very close to that line. In this story he pulls some delightfully fancy tricks, persuading the Prosecution to torpedo its own case.

As usual Perry Mason gets involved before the murder takes place. A woman comes to his office to ask for legal advice of behalf of a friend. Obviously she is asking for the advice for herself and Mason makes it clear that he’s well aware of this and he’s not prepared to play such gamers. This hurts the woman’s pride and she storms out of the office. And then Mason, who despite being a lawyer does have a conscience, feels guilty. The woman needed help and he didn’t give it. So he decides he’s going to have to track her down before she gets herself into trouble.

Mason was certainly right to be worried that she’d get herself into trouble. Soon she’s facing a murder rap.

Rhoda Montaine’s problem is her marriage to Carl Montaine, a marriage that may or may not be invalid. This is because she presumed that her first husband Gregory Moxley was dead, but he’s far from dead and he’s going to be very troublesome. She has other problems as well. Carl’s father is a multi-millionaire, he dominates Carl completely and he does not approve of Rhoda. Carl himself is a big problem. Rhoda, a trained nurse, nursed him through a drug problem. He’s over the drug problem but it seems to have left his character even weaker than it already was. There’s also Dr Millsap, who is in love with Rhoda.

It’s no great surprise that Gregory Moxley winds up dead, permanently dead this time. Rhoda is the obvious suspect. The evidence seems overwhelming and Deputy D.A. Lucas can’t believe his luck - this time he can’t possibly lose, not even against Perry Mason.

Most lawyers faced with such clear-cut evidence against a client would despair but Perry Mason has some amazingly devious tricks up his sleeve this time. Seeing an unbreakable alibi destroyed is always fun but this novels offers a very clever variation on the theme. Of course it will only work if he can persuade the Deputy D.A. to walk into a trap, and there may be some minor ethical quibbles. In fact there may be some gigantic ethical quibbles.

And that marriage question will play a huge part in the trial as well.

District Attorney Hamilton Burger does not feature in this story. His first appearance will be in the sixth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye. In The Case of the Curious Bride Perry’s adversary is Deputy D.A. John Lucas, a similar although perhaps slightly more abrasive character. While we’re used to seeing Perry play fast and lose with legal ethics it has to be said that Lucas comes up with some dirty tricks of his own. The question is whether he can play such games as well as Perry Mason plays them.

Neither Lieutenant Tragg nor Sergeant Holcomb appear in this story, in fact there is no significant part payed by any particular police officer. Della Street and Paul Drake on the other hand were regular characters in the novels right from the start.

Gardner really is in fine form in The Case of the Curious Bride. Courtroom scenes can be dull in the hands of lesser writers but they’re never a problem for Gardner - he knows how to build up to the inevitable display of legal pyrotechnics from Mason. We can see that Mason is about to pull a rabbit out of the hat but we have no more idea than the luckless Deputy D.A. as to how he’s going to do it. This is a lovely piece of plotting and a very very enjoyable tale. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Curious Bride was adapted for the second season of the Perry Mason TV series so I thought that having just read the book it would be fun to watch the episode immediately afterwards. You can read my thoughts on the TV adaptation at Cult TV Lounge.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Valentine Williams' The Return of Clubfoot

Valentine Williams (1883–1946) was an English thriller writer who enjoyed some success in the interwar period. He is best known for his spy thrillers concerning Dr Adolph Grundt (of which The Return of Clubfoot, published in 1922, is the second). Williams was yet another spy fiction writer who could make some claim to having been a real-life spy. During the Second World War he was briefly employed by MI6 where he made the acquaintance of such notables as Kim Philby.

The opening of The Return of Clubfoot certainly promises high adventure. Major Desmond Okewood, formerly employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service, has retired to a small Central American country where he encounters a broken-down English alcoholic and drug addict who tells a strange story of buried treasure. The treasure is on a small uninhabited island in the Pacific and it’s German wartime treasure.

Okewood wants the treasure but someone else wants it too and they’re prepared to kill to get it. Okewood gets himself invited aboard a luxury yacht belonging to a tycoon who made a fortune during the war. As luck would have it the tycoon has a beautiful and charming daughter, Marjorie. Having reached the island Okewood realises he has no idea where the treasure is hidden although he has some tantalising clues. He also realises that the island isn’t deserted after all - it’s not only full of cut-throats but the cut-throats are led by his old enemy, the German master-spy Dr Adolph Grundt (known as Clubfoot).

While he’s hunting for the treasure Grundt is hunting him, and the treasure. Okewood isn’t afraid of Clubfoot (Okewood is an Englishman so he isn’t afraid of foreigners) but he is afraid of what Clubfoot might do to Marjorie. The thought of a pure English girl falling into the hands of a dastardly German fills him with horror.

Okewood and Marjorie (with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love in a wholesome English way) gets themselves repeatedly captured and have plenty of narrow escapes from both Grundt and from the natural hazards of the island. The island is riddled with caves, which can be places of safety the the hero and heroine but they can also be deadly traps.

Williams’ Germanophobia is deliriously hysterical and is exceeded only by his jingoism. And his political incorrectness is off the scale. All of which makes the book a great deal of fun. Everything about this tale is feverish and breathless. It’s all pretty ridiculous but it is undeniably filled with action and excitement and of course romance as well.

The clues that lead Okewood to the treasure, or at least to the spot where he believes the treasure to be concealed, are ingenious if clichéd.

Clubfoot is a full-blown melodrama villain. He is clever and ruthless and not being an Englishman he is naturally an out-and-out rotter and a sadist. He enjoys torturing Okewood by telling him that he intends to give Marjorie to the most repulsive and cruel of his henchmen (in fact he intends to give her to several of his henchmen) which of course means she will suffer a fate worse than death. Foreigners are lustful enough at the best of times but the sight of Marjorie’s English purity will drive them to a frenzy.

Okewood is a noble hero, not exactly dashing but determined and he’s motivated not just by devotion to God, King and Country but also by the love of a sweet innocent girl. Marjorie, being an Englishwoman, is plucky and spirited (in a pure-hearted way) and perhaps not quite as entirely helpless as Okewood imagines her to be.

It’s completely ludicrous stuff but very amusing (although unintentionally so since Williams appears to have no sense of humour whatsoever) and in its own overheated way The Return of Clubfoot is quite enjoyable stuff. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed one of the later Clubfoot books, The Crouching Beast.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christopher St. John Sprigg's Fatality in Fleet Street

Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) was an English writer who produced seven detective novels. In the mid-1930s he became an ardent Marxist (and a noted Marxist theoretician) and died fighting for his cause in the Spanish Civil War. Fatality in Fleet Street was his second detective novel and also the second to feature journalist Charles Venables as its amateur crime-solver. It’s a novel that is depressingly relevant today.

Venables works for Lord Carpenter, a media magnate who is unpleasant, dictatorial and megalomaniacal even by the standards of media magnates. For a year Carpenter’s newspapers have been conducting an hysterical propaganda campaign in favour of war with Russia. That campaign is about to reach its apotheosis with a scoop about an alleged Bolshevik atrocity that is guaranteed to drive the Great British Public into a war frenzy. Carpenter boasts that at this moment the only way that war could be stopped would be if someone were to take the Florentine dagger hanging on his office wall and stab him to death with it. Which is exactly what someone does. He is found dead in his office in the Mercury newspaper building.

It’s pretty standard in golden age detective fiction for the victim to be so unpleasant that there are hordes of potential suspects. In this case it’s made more interesting by the fact that the motive could be personal or political. It could be personal because Lord Carpenter was a notorious womaniser. It could be political because most of his staff violently opposed his pro-war policy. The Prime Minister opposed it as well, and he’s a definite suspect.

A lot of the more promising suspects have both personal and political motives for wanting to get rid of Lord Carpenter. It’s even possible that foreign agents may have been involved  so there’s a hint of a spy thriller plot as well.

The political side isn’t handled in a heavy-handed manner. If you didn’t know Sprigg’s history you’d probably guess him to have had anti-war leanings and mild pro-Russian leanings but you probably wouldn’t pick him as someone about to become an ardent Marxist. The actual Bolsheviks who appear in the story are an unsavoury and incompetent lot.

The tone definitely leans towards the farcical. I’m not as big a fan of this sort of thing as some other golden age aficionados but it does have its amusing moments. Sprigg has a certain appealing lightness of touch.

Venables is a fairly typical upper-class amateur detective (he even sports a monocle) and while he’s supremely self-confident (he thinks it’s a fine joke when he gets arrested) he’s not irritating.

Courtroom scenes are not easy to pull off successfully (unless your name is Erle Stanley Gardiner) but Sprigg’s extended courtroom scenes work pretty well. There’s a colourful and devious defence barrister and an amusingly inept judge and there’s the dramatic last-minute surprise evidence.

Of course there’s a romantic sub-plot and it actually ties in (slightly at least) with the main plot. Venables is very keen on the Mercury’s Women’s Page Editor and his romantic future depends on his successful solving of the case.

The solution is one that has been used by other writers but Sprigg adds an additional twist to it to make it more interesting. Even though the solution is somewhat outlandish it is reasonably well supported by some earlier clues so it doesn’t come entirely out of left field. In fact it feels plausible, to the extent that golden age detection solutions are ever really plausible.

A well-plotted very entertaining novel, similar in tone to his slightly later (and equally good) Death of an Airman. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek

My interest in Daphne du Maurier’s books was initially aroused by the fact that they provide the source material for three of my favourite films - Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). I was reasonably impressed by du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, but not so impressed by the short stories that inspired the other two films.

Daphne du Maurier has been described as a writer of gothic romances (and Rebecca most certainly fits into that category) and after reading Xavier’s spirited defence of this genre at his At the Villa Rose blog I felt I should give du Maurier another try. The book I selected is one of her most famous, Frenchman’s Creek, published in 1941.

It turns out that Frenchman’s Creek is not really a gothic romance after all. It’s certainly a romance but it’s probably best described as a swashbuckling romance novel. The story of an English noblewoman’s passionate affair with a dashing French pirate is one that is clearly likely to tick all the romance novel boxes.

The heroine is Dona, Lady St Colomb, and she has grown weary of the high life in London. She retreats, alone, to her husband’s neglected estate in Cornwall. She soon discovers that there is a creek running through the property and that creek is being used as an anchorage by a notorious French pirate who has been raiding the properties of the rich landowners of the region. Dona is a woman who suffers a great deal from boredom and the presence of a pirate ship almost in her own back yard at least promises to make life slightly less tedious. Then she hears that there are rumours that the pirates have not only been committing robberies, they have been ravishing the local women as well. Now Dona is really interested. In fact she’s more than a little excited.

This French buccaneer is not your typical pirate. He is well-bred and well-educated, a man of culture, and even a bit of a philosopher. He is a gentleman, well apart from the ravishing women thing (and Dona is inclined to see that as a feature rather than a bug). In fact he’s the kind of pirate pretty much guaranteed to set feminine hearts aflutter. He certainly gets Dona’s blood racing. I’m not sure if it gets her bosoms heaving but it certainly seems possible.

Of course Dona persuades her handsome pirate to take her to sea with him on his next voyage. And she will get drawn into a world of adventure and forbidden love.

The plot may sound absurd and overheated. It is overheated, but perhaps not entirely absurd when you consider the background to the novel. This is the England of Charles II, an age in which sexual licentiousness was more or less taken for granted among the hangers-on at Court. It is established that Dona and her husband are very much a part of a very dissipated social set. It is also established right from the start that Dona already has a scandalous reputation and, not to put too fine a point on it, she is generally regarded as being little better than a whore. She doesn’t have to worry about endangering her reputation. Her reputation is well and truly in tatters already. Taking a notorious pirate to her bed is just the sort of escapade that might appeal to such a woman, and would certainly amuse her friends.

The focus of the story is very much on the romance angle. Of course criticising a romance novel for being romantic is a bit like criticising a thriller for being thrilling. There’s an extraordinary amount of sexual innuendo, much of it clever and amusing.

Daphne du Maurier was immensely popular in her day although not highly regarded by critics. Her critical reputation has grown since and is, perhaps, a little overblown. Frenchman’s Creek is a bodice-ripper. It’s well-written and with some literary pretensions but even if it’s a slightly literary bodice-ripper it’s still a bodice-ripper. I honestly don’t have a problem with that. Being a good writer of genre fiction well is just as challenging as being a good writer of so-called literary fiction, the main difference being that genre writes write books the people want to read while writers of literary fiction write books that people feel they should want to read.

This is the sort of book that critics would have been inclined to dismiss not just because it’s clearly genre fiction but because it’s aimed squarely at a female readership. Which is unjust. There are genres that men like and there are genres that women like. Critics tended to despise them all, but they especially despised the books women like. These days critics are more likely to take the opposite tack. It’s all equally unreasonable. Genre fiction requires its practitioners to understand their target audience and give them what they want. I don’t have a problem with that. Daphne du Maurier understood her audience and gave them what they wanted, with style and skill.

Assuming that the purpose of this book is to generate an atmosphere of romantic and sexual excitement in its female readers I’d say it succeeds admirably. The author builds up the sexual tension with considerable skill. We have to wait a long time for Dona and her pirate to have sex so that when they do (there are of course no graphic descriptions of sex but du Maurier makes it absolutely crystal clear that Dona isn’t naked with her pirate because it’s getting stuffy in her cabin) it has the desired impact.

The pirate is a totally unbelievable hero. He’s perfect in every way, the ideal combination of masculinity and sensitivity, the ultimate female wish fulfilment fantasy. But hey, it’s a romance novel. We have to believe that Dona is so hot for this guy that she’ll risk everything.

Dona on the other hand is an interesting heroine. She’s not quite as immoral as her reputation suggests but she’s still pretty damn immoral. She finds some rationalisations for her behaviour but clearly she’s quite happy to abandon every responsibility in order to gain romantic fulfilment and it’s also clear that for Dona romantic fulfilment means sexual fulfilment. Her pirate fills her with the kind of lust she could never feel for her husband.

So is this a book that male readers will enjoy? Probably not. There’s not quite enough action, although there is some. And while du Maurier isn’t at her best in the action scenes they’re OK and she is very very good at suspense. On the whole though, even with the adventure element, this is still basically a bodice ripper. As a heterosexual male I’m probably not the best person to judge it on those terms but even I’d have to admit that it is wildly romantic. And it is clever and witty. You’ll have to decide for yourself on this one.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Buried Clock

The Case of the Buried Clock is a 1943 Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Harley Raymand, recovering from a war wound, is staying at the mountain cabin owned by banker Vincent Blane. Raymond has made a curious discovery. A buried clock. Why would anyone want to bury a clock? And the clock is still running. He also makes another discovery - a dead man in the cabin. The dead man is the husband of Blane’s daughter Millicent. He’s been helping himself to funds from Blane’s bank.

Since Millicent seems likely to strike the local sheriff as an obvious suspect Blane retains Perry Mason’s services. There’s actually a wide choice of suspects. There’s Millicent’s sister Adele, who hated the dead man. There’s a brother and sister, Burt and Lola Strague, and there’s wildlife photographer Rod Beaton. They were all on the scene. As was glamorous widow Myrna Payson.

Perry agreed to take the case because the clock angle intrigued him and he’s even more intrigued when he realises the clock is keeping sidereal time, not solar time. Setting a clock to do that is the kind of thing you’d do if you wanted to track the position of a star. Perry has no idea how that might tie in to the murder but he has a feeling that if he can find the connection he’ll crack the case. Also puzzling is the bullet. There isn’t one. There’s no exit wound so the bullet has to be in the body, but it isn’t. And then there are the tyre prints. And the family doctor who tells an amazing number of lies.

Deputy District Attorney McNair is young, ambitious and arrogant and he has a watertight case. He just can’t lose. If only Mason would stop carrying on about that damned clock.

There’s plenty of misdirection in this tale and Perry Mason (and Paul Drake) fall for quite a lot of it. The solution is more complicated, and more simple, than it appears to be.

Perry gets to express his feelings about police ethics, his view being that the police don’t have any. For their part Paul Drake and Della Street are a bit worried that Perry’s legal ethics seem to encompass everything from concealing witnesses to breaking and entering but when you work for Perry Mason you just have to get used to such things.

Perry likes to set traps for prosecutors to walk into but this time it seems like he may have met his match as he blunders into some very subtle traps laid by Deputy D.A. McNair. A lesser man might have been daunted but this sort of thing just gets Mason more motivated. He’s going to have to be very motivated indeed to win this case. Gardner always handles courtroom scenes with great skill and this book contains enough devious legal manoeuvrings to please fans.

Gardner’s method in the Perry Mason novels was to stick to the very successful formula he’d established but add enough twists to keep things fresh and interesting and in the 40s he was at the top of his game. It seems impossible that he can connect so many bizarre clues into a coherent plot but he does so.

The Case of the Buried Clock is not perhaps in the absolute top tier of Perry Mason stories but it’s still fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

My latest project is to pick the episodes of the 1957-66 TV series based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and read the novel, then watch the TV episode and do parallel reviews of both. My review of The Case of the Buried Clock TV episode can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.