Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Birds of a Feather Affair - The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. #2

Recently I’ve been exploring the world of TV tie-in novels from the 1960s. Surprisingly even series that had quite short runs spawned tie-in novels and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which only lasted a single season (1966-67) gave birth to no less than five original novels, although for some reason three of them were only ever published in Britain.

The Birds of a Feather Affair by Michael Avallone appeared in 1966. It’s notable mostly for differing quite sharply from the television series when it comes to tone. Here's the link to my review on Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Dagger Affair, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #4

TV tie-in novels might not be one of the more respectable literary genres but then pulp fiction has never been respectable either and that’s never put me off. In fact TV tie-in novels are in some ways a modern version of the Victorian penny dreadfuls and dime novels and early 20th century pulp fiction - pure entertainment with no literary pretensions whatsoever.

I’ve recently found myself developing a mild interest in this ever so slightly disreputable field which ties in neatly with my enthusiasm for cult television of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m going to be posting occasional reviews of such books on my Cult TV Lounge blog, the first cab off the rank being one of the many Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels. Here’s the link to the fourth of this series of novels, David McDaniel's The Dagger Affair.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Budapest Parade Murders

The very considerable literary output (amounting to 78 novels) of American writer Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) included detective fiction, adventure stories, historical fiction and spy thrillers. This included twenty-six spy novels featuring Captain (later Colonel) Hugh North, a U.S. Army officer assigned to G-2 (Military Intelligence).

The Budapest Parade Murders appeared in 1935 and was the eighth of the Hugh North books.

The action starts on board a train, which is always promising. A daring assassination attempt has taken place on board the Budapest Express. The intended victim is Sir William Woodman, a prominent pacifist on his way to a disarmament conference. Sir William has collected damning evidence in the form of letters that arms manufacturers are actively involved in trying to start another world war. Unfortunately the would-be assassin succeeded in stealing the letters.

By a stroke of good fortune Captain Hugh North just happens to be aboard the Budapest Express. Also aboard is Major Kilgour of British Intelligence. Perhaps less fortunate is the presence of a pushy American newspaperman.

The disarmament conference is now very much endangered but actually it’s worse than that. The assassination has triggered a wave of mutual recriminations and suspicions and has created an atmosphere with sinister echoes of 1914. If those responsible for the outrage on the Budapest Express cannot be exposed it is not impossible that war will be the result. The Hungarian police are happy to have the assistance of both Captain North and Major Kilgour. Undertaking an investigation in a foreign country is obviously tricky, but it’s North’s job to carry out such delicate missions.

Of course it’s not entirely a straightforward criminal investigation. Hugh North certainly has the skills of a detective but he is an American intelligence agent and he must put American interests first. Major Kilgour, being a British intelligence agent, will also doubtless be putting British interests first. And the Hungarian Chief of Police obviously will be concerned about Hungary’s interests. These three men all sincerely want to avoid war but there is considerable potential for conflicts of interest.

The Hugh North spy tales contain their fair share of action but they’re also reasonably gritty and realistic (certainly much more so than many of the other popular spy thrillers of the 20s and 30s). They’re also surprisingly quite cynical. There’s a good deal of corruption in high places and there are plenty of powerful people who would cheerfully start a war if they stood to gain by it. While North is definitely a patriotic American he is realistic enough to accept the reality that America does not always have entirely clean hands, and that Americans can be as corrupt as anyone else. Diplomacy and espionage are tough games that are played without any concern for morality.

North is more a counter-espionage agent than a spy and he uses some of the techniques of the detective. There is a puzzle to be solved here. The identity of the assassin, and of the assassin’s accomplices, must be established and North has several clues that may help. He found a monocle and some tiny fragments of paper in the compartment in which Sir William was attacked.

In fact it’s structurally rather in the mode of the classic golden age detective story, and it even includes a floor plan! Mostly it’s the unravelling of a murder mystery but with thriller moments to add excitement and with the murder having implications for the fate of the whole world. Hugh North’s plan to unmask the villain involves bringing all the suspects together at a supper party in a palace - exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen to come up with.

There are obviously none of the high-tech electronic gadgets that would become a feature of post-WW2 spy fiction but North does make use of science and technology, and there are what a few years earlier would have been described as infernal machines.

There are also deadly women. Quite a few deadly women. Some might be spies, some might be adventuresses, some might be femmes fatales. Pretty much all the female characters can be assumed to be potentially dangerous. Of course the same assumption can be made about pretty much all the male characters as well.

The political background is quite intriguing. This novel was written in 1935. There were international tensions, there are always international tensions, but the new regime in Germany was not yet regarded as a major threat. Nor was Japan seen as an especially significant threat. The possibility of war is therefore somewhat nebulous. Mutual mistrust between Britain and the United States over naval and imperial rivalry seems to be a bigger issue than Germany (and in reality both the British and U.S. navies were making plans in the 1920s for a possible Anglo-American naval war). The fact that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on a single major threat to peace makes it rather interesting.

In fact the biggest international evil in this story is not represented by governments but by arms manufacturers (and the politicians they have corrupted). This might make it sound like a socialist or pacifist tract but it isn’t. North is just a straightforward patriot who has fought in one war and is hoping not to have to fight in another.

The spy fiction of the interwar years was quite varied, ranging from pure boys’ own adventure fantasy stuff (like the Bulldog Drummond stories) to the darkness and cynicism of Eric Ambler. The Budapest Parade Murders is somewhere in the middle. It’s more realistic than Bulldog Drummond stories but not as grim or nihilistic as Ambler or Greene, and it’s not quite a pure thriller and not quite a pure mystery. It is entertaining though. It’s recommended, as is his earlier The Branded Spy Murders.

Friday, June 8, 2018

John Rhode's Mystery at Olympia

Mystery at Olympia (AKA Murder at the Motor Show) is a 1935 Dr Priestley mystery written by Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) under the name John Rhode.

At the Olympia Motor Show, in an immense crowd gathered around Stand 1001 to see the new and revolutionary touring car from the Comet Motor Company, an elderly man collapses and dies. This happens more or less right in front of Dr Priestley’s old friend Dr Oldland, whose efforts to save the man are unavailing. The elderly man is Nahum Pershore, a rather wealthy speculative builder.

At almost the same moment a pretty young parlourmaid in Mr Pershore’s household is taken violently ill. A Dr Formby is called in and he immediately suspects arsenic poisoning.

The post mortem on Mr Pershore raises more questions than it answers. Some very odd things have clearly been going on at the Pershore residence and it’s obvious that someone  didn’t like Nahum Pershore. What is not obvious is whether he was murdered or not, and if so how.

In a John Rhode mystery you expect some cleverness when it comes to the method of despatching the murder victim or victims. In this book the author plays a number of different games with murder methods.

You also expect that science will play some part in the crime and in the solution. And in this instance there are some esoteric matters of forensic medicine involved.

This is also arguably an impossible crime story. There’s a man who is dead but he has no right to be. And what was a man who had zero interest in cars doing at a motor show?

As to the solution, there is perhaps a slight plausibility problem.

As usual it’s Superintendent Hanslet who does most of the investigating. He’s the principal detective character with Dr Priestley remaining in the background. And as usual Hanslet is wrong on just about every point. He has a great enthusiasm for constructing elaborate theories and a lack of evidence to support those theories is something he really doesn’t worry about. Priestley’s interpretations of the evidence are of course very much sounder. And while Dr Priestley appears to be taking no active part in the investigation this is not quite the case. He is constantly feeding Hanslet hints that, with luck, will eventually put the superintendent on the right track.

Hanslet is dogged and he’s thorough but I have to say that I would be very very worried if I happened to be an innocent person who was a suspect in one of his investigations. Superintendent Hanslet’s powers of imagination are impressive but his powers of detection leave quite a lot to be desired.

It became increasingly rare for Priestley to go out into the field so to speak. He came to prefer sitting in comfort in his own home whilst pulling the strings of the police investigation. In his 1930s mysteries he was more inclined to take an active role when he considered it to be absolutely essential. In this case he does pay a visit to the Motor Show in order to confirm a very strong suspicion.

Mystery at Olympia contains most of the ingredients that John Rhode fans tend to enjoy - exotic murder methods, some fun with alibis, questions about wills, some esoteric forensic science and an enthusiasm for technology (the author was clearly a bit of a motoring buff). Dr Priestley is his usual mercilessly unsentimental self (with a characteristic touch of ruthlessness at the end). Whether the book stretches credibility a bit too far in one key element is up to the reader to decide.

On the whole I highly recommend this one. And it’s readily available in an affordable brand new paperback edition!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun

Given that I’ve just picked up a copy of Evil Under the Sun and I also have the relevant episode of the Poirot TV series I thought I’d try doing a back-to-back review of the novel and the TV version.

Evil Under the Sun was published in 1941 and it’s one of Agatha Christie’s most admired mysteries.

It has a classic setup. The Jolly Roger Hotel is located on an island (Smugglers’ Island)  just off the Devon coast. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The island is a private island, only accessible to hotel guests. It would certainly not be impossible for someone to gain unauthorised access to the island, in fact it would not even be particularly difficult, but it would be just difficult enough to make it exceedingly unlikely that the murderer could have been a random passing stranger. More importantly it would not be easy for an outsider to reach the island without being seen. It therefore fulfils the main purpose of a golden age mystery setting - it means that the killer must be a guest at the hotel.

For murder has indeed been committed on Smugglers’ Island. The almost unanimous view of the guests is that the victim is the sort of woman who was extremely likely to get herself murdered, and that despite possessing fame and wealth she is not exactly going to be a great loss to the world.

Whatever her personal failings may have been murder is still murder, and Hercule Poirot takes murder very seriously. Poor Poirot should have known better - if you’re a famous detective and you decide to take a holiday you can be almost certain that your chosen holiday spot will also be chosen as a venue for a murder.

In this instance at least the murder does not take Poirot by surprise. He had more than half expected it. The situation surrounding the woman in question seemed to be tending inevitably towards some kind of disaster.

There’s no shortage of suspects and there are several perfectly plausible motives. Most of the suspects have alibis but if you’ve read plenty of detective fiction you’ll notice that the alibis are extremely complex, which is always a bit suspicious.

As I said earlier this is a book with a glowing reputation and at this point I’m going to confess to heresy. I was not overly impressed by this book.

With a golden age detective story you’re prepared to accept far-fetched and incredibly complicated and contrived solutions. The fact that they’re far-fetched and incredibly complicated and contrived can even be seen as a bonus, as long as three conditions are fulfilled. Firstly, once the solution is revealed your response should be that it’s outrageous but of course that’s how it must have happened. Nothing else would really make sense. In this case my reaction was that the solution did not ring true at all. It was simply ludicrous. It relied too much on luck and on the reactions of other people fitting in neatly with the plan. Not even the craziest killer would adopt a plan which was so hopelessly over-complicated that it was clearly doomed to failure.

The second condition is psychological plausibility. You have to be convinced that the murderer might just possibly have been capable of murder. In this case I felt that Christie cheated just a little in the way she presented several key characters to the reader. I didn’t believe their motivations at all.

The third condition is that the reader has to believe that based on the evidence available to him the detective could really have solved the case. In this instance I felt that Poirot pulled a rabbit out of a hat. There are some huge intuitive leaps. OK, Poirot is always inclined to make intuitive leaps but in this book the leaps seem more outrageous than usual.

This is typical Christie in many ways. It’s a spectacular display of plotting pyrotechnics. There is some very clever stuff with alibis. It’s all very ingenious. It’s just that the pyrotechnics are over-complicated and inherently unstable. The danger is that when the pyrotechnics are detonated the whole plot is likely to explode in mid-air. Which, in my view, is what happens.

I know it’s supposed to be one of her masterpieces but I’m afraid I’m not entirely convinced. Evil Under the Sun just did not quite work for me.

The TV Adaptation
The television adaptation in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series went to air in July 2003.

It is reasonably faithful to the book. The changes are mostly fairly unimportant. Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon are added to the story, which is no problem. Hastings is always useful - he provides Poirot with someone with whom to discuss important plot points. The local Chief Constable featured in the book is replaced in the TV version by Chief Inspector Japp, which again is no problem. In a TV series it’s obviously very advantageous to keep the same recurring characters.

The only significant change is that one character who is female in the book becomes male in the TV episode. I can see why they thought this change strengthened the plot although in my opinion it actually weakens it slightly.

The problems I had with the TV version were pretty much the same ones I had with the novel. The plot elements that seemed unconvincing on the printed page still seemed unconvincing on the TV screen.

The hotel of the novel becomes a sort of health farm in the TV adaptation which adds a few comic touches as Poirot copes very badly with being put on a healthy dietary and exercise regimen.

As always in this series the visuals are magnificent. The Burgh Island Hotel in Devon stands in for the Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island and it’s a wonderful location. The tractor ferry is a lovely touch.

If you enjoyed the novel more than I did (and almost everybody seems to fall into that category) then it’s quite likely you’ll like the TV version more than I did as well. There's nothing wrong with it as an adaptation, unless you're eccentric enough to share my doubts about the plotting.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hornblower and the Atropos

Hornblower and the Atropos was the eighth of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower naval adventure novels to be published, appearing in 1953. The chronological sequence of the stories bears no relationship to the publication order. Chronologically Hornblower and the Atropos comes just before the first published Hornblower novel, The Happy Return.

The victory at Trafalgar has been followed by a series of promotions and thus at the end of 1805 Horatio Hornblower finds himself a very very junior post-captain. He is given command of HMS Atropos. The Atropos is a sloop of war, a class of vessel that would normally be considered too small to be commanded by a post-captain. With her 22 guns the Atropos is however just big enough to justify having a post-captain in command and Hornblower is very grateful to get a command at all.

His first mission is an odd one. He is placed in charge of the flotilla of boats that will bear Lord Nelson’s body to his funeral. It proves to be an exceptionally frustrating task but it does bring him to the attention of the formidable and rather terrifying Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent.

The Atropos is then despatched to the Mediterranean, on a most unusual mission - to recover sunken treasure. The treasure was aboard a British vessel but unfortunately the wreck is in Turkish waters and the salvage operation has to be undertaken in secret, and that’s the least of Hornblower’s problems. His salvage expert, on loan from the East India Company, is dying from a gunshot wound and there’s nobody else qualified to take charge of the operation.

There's not much action in this story, not until the end, but there’s plenty of adventure and suspense (and when the action does finally kick in it’s pretty exciting). There’s more to being a successful naval captain than fighting battles - the challenges are endless, exasperating and unpredictable. A captain has to be a good tactician but he also needs to be a sound psychologist and an effective manager, and when on detached duty rather than being part of a fleet he finds himself needing to be a diplomatist as well. Hornblower faces some surprising challenges in this story and although often tempted to give in to despair he somehow manages to rise to those challenges. It’s the way this complex man responds to so many varied challenges that interests Forester most of all. This story is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. Forester was one of those fortunate writers who was equally comfortable with both approaches.

I continue to be impressed by Hornblower’s complexity as a character. He is a most unconventional hero. It’s not just that he is plagued by self-doubts. There’s also the calculated nature of his leadership style as captain, and the fact that his methods are on occasion perhaps just a little morally questionable. He is able to convince himself that sometimes a certain amount of duplicity is justifiable or even necessary, but then he hates himself for it and wonders if he does such things purely for the good of the service or mostly out of self-interest. He is a very self-aware and introspective hero.

Hornblower cannot be described as a particularly happy man. He has an instinctively gloomy outlook which seems to be a kind of self-protection - if you expect the worse you’re pleasantly surprised when things turn out less badly than you’d expected.

Hornblower is also not a man possessed of a great deal of natural human warmth. His marriage seems to have been something that was almost accidental and he is inclined to think it was a mistake. It’s not that it’s actually an overtly unhappy marriage but he has come to realise that he is a man who will always put his career first and that that is hardly fair to a wife and children. He does not appear to have any close friends and his relations with his subordinate officers are somewhat tense.

All this makes Hornblower sound like a very unattractive hero but he isn’t really. For all his self-doubts he’s a thorough professional, a skilful and even brilliant tactician and a fine leader of men. He’s courageous and he’s decisive. His flaws make him more admirable. Being a hero doesn’t come naturally to Hornblower. He has to work at it but he works at it very hard and the hard work pays off. And his flaws make him a more sympathetic character.

Hornblower and the Atropos is highly recommended.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dead Man’s Music, Christopher Bush

Dead Man’s Music is one of the earlier Ludovic Travers mysteries penned by Christopher Bush. It was published in 1931.

The story begins with the discovery of a body. The man may have hanged himself but Superintendent Wharton suspects foul play. The most suspicious circumstance is that elaborate attempts have been made to change the man’s appearance after death.

As it happens Durangos Limited had received an odd request a few weeks earlier and Ludovic Travers had been despatched to deal with the matter. The request was for a man of unquestioned integrity with a knowledge of music and china. As a result of this earlier involvement Travers is quite certain he recognises the corpse.

That earlier episode had been quite curious. A rather eccentric old man named Claude Rook had played a haunting piece of music for him and had then entrusted Travers with the manuscript with instructions to give it to the person to whom it ought to be given. He assures Travers that he (Travers) will know the identity of this person.

In fact it’s hard to be sure of the identities of any of the people involved in the case. Or even of their nationalities. Also curious is the fact that the manuscript is worthless - the music is unplayable. And yet the one thing Travers is sure of is that the manuscript is very very important. Yet another curious thing - Rook had wanted a man knowledgeable on the subject of china although his collection of china was nothing more than cheap junk.

This is not quite a straightforward whodunit. There’s a bit of a thriller feel to this one. There’s certainly a puzzle here and it’s crucial and it’s a tricky one but it’s not really centred on the identity of the murderer.

I’m not entirely sure this one is absolutely fair play. Although it might be more just to say that Bush plays fair with his clues as long as you understand that the real puzzle isn’t necessarily the obvious puzzle.

All three of Bush’s series detectives appear in this book - economist and private detective Ludovic Travers, John Franklin of the Detective Section of Durangos Limited and Superintendent George Wharton (known affectionately as The General) of Scotland Yard.

There are some very clever ideas in this story and there’s some good misdirection. On the whole though I don’t think it’s one of Bush’s more successful mysteries. The plot contains so many outlandish improbabilities that it’s in serious danger of collapsing under its own weight, and most of the cleverness is connected with what are essentially peripheral matters. These elements mostly serve to disguise the fact that the main plot is not all that interesting.

There are no ingenious unbreakable alibis to be broken in this story (even though Bush was known for his fondness for such things). This novel is in some ways a throwback to the pre-golden age period of detective fiction in which disguises and secret codes played such prominent roles.

Dead Man’s Music is reasonably entertaining but it’s not in the same league as Bush’s best work (such as The Case of the Tudor Queen, Dead Man Twice or The Body in the Bonfire). Bush’s novels are now back in print and easily obtainable. I’d suggest that Dead Man’s Music is definitely not a good starting point.