Sunday, February 5, 2023

Johnston McCulley’s King of Chaos

Steeger Press have reprinted five Johnston McCulley novels in a mammoth omnibus edition, King of Chaos. It’s a great chance to discover just how interesting a writer McCulley was.

American writer Johnston McCulley (1883-1958) is an important figure in the history of adventure fiction and pulp fiction who is now sadly neglected. He is remembered mainly as the creator of Zorro but while the various Zorro movies and the 1960s TV series have kept Zorro alive as a pop culture icon McCulley’s original Zorro novels and stories are all but forgotten.

McCulley wrote several Zorro novels and numerous short stories but they were only a part of his vast output. He created a number of memorable pulp heroes, most notably The Black Star, The Spider and The Crimson Clown.

The title story, King of Chaos, was originally published in Argosy in 1912. This novel belongs more to the tradition of late Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction than to what we would normally think of as the pulp tradition. It has a definite Ruritanian flavour. In fact the theme of a man playing a royal role to which he may or may not be entitled is fairly obviously going to remind readers of Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure classic The Prisoner of Zenda. And the tone is also not dissimilar.

Carl Henderson is twenty-one years old and he’s an obscure clerk in a brokerage office in Seattle. He’s rather surprised to find himself kidnapped. He awakes on board a steam yacht heading out to sea. He does not awaken in a filthy hold or a cell. He awakens in a luxuriously appointed stateroom. And everyone keeps referring to him as Your Majesty.

A certain Lord Bellan claims to be Carl’s prime minister. He assures Carl that the young man is in fact a king, but he cannot tell him where his realm is. The yacht’s secret destination is Carl’s kingdom.

Being a king turns out to be a rather difficult and wearisome task. There are two factions on board the yacht. One faction follows Lord Bellan. The other follows the yacht’s master, Captain Barrington. There is bad blood between Bellan and Barrington. The reason for this is Lady Elizabeth Bellan, Lord Bellan’s sister. There’s a romantic triangle in which Carl has become unwittingly involved but Lord Bellan’s ambitions play a part as well. An experienced king would have trouble keeping the peace between these two factions. Carl does his best, with some assistance from the ship’s doctor (who is also the court physician), an Irishman named Michael Murphy. Carl also gets some unexpected aid from Lady Elizabeth Bellan’s charming younger sister Grace.

While the two factions are constantly at each other’s throats Lord Bellan still refuses to tell anyone what is actually going on, where the yacht is headed and how a humble clerk like Carl Henderson could possibly be a king.

Bellan eventually does have to reveal the truth, and it’s the kind of outrageous story you expect in a late Victorian/Edwardian adventure tale. Carl had a suspicion there might be pirates involved (there was a rumour in his family that his great grandfather had been a pirate), and that turns out to be correct.

When the royal yacht arrives at Carl’s kingdom there is more trouble for the young king to sort out.

His kingdom is perhaps not quite the kingdom he might have hoped for.

And being a king is not all fun and games. In fact Carl finds it to be a nightmare. He makes mistakes but the subsequent disasters are by no means all his fault. He learns about betrayal, and he learns to be a bit more wary about trusting people. He does learn about kingship along the way.

Anyone who has read McCulley’s original novel of Zorro is aware that McCulley disliked injustice and he particularly disliked abuse of power. These themes surface in King of Chaos as well.

The obvious influences on this tale would be Anthony Hope’s great Ruritanian adventure romances The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898), both of which I’ve reviewed here. There’s also a certain kinship with Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent 1888 short story The Man Who Would Be King.

I’ve also reviewed McCulley’s most famous book, The Mark of Zorro (1924, originally serialised as The Curse of Capistrano in 1919).

It’s a rather outlandish tale and it’s best not to think about the plausibility of the plot. King of Chaos is however quite entertaining and it’s recommended.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Charles Williams' Nothing in Her Way

Charles K. Williams (1909-1975) was an American pulp crime writer. He wrote twenty-two novels. The 1960 novel Fires of Youth was published under his name but he did not write it. He sometimes gets confused with the other Charles Williams, an English writer who was part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Inklings circle.

Nothing in Her Way, published by Gold Medal in 1953, is a book about a confidence trick. I just love crime novels dealing with conmen and con tricks. And this novel deals with a whole series of fascinating confidence tricks.

It all starts when the protagonist/narrator, Mike Belen, runs into his ex-wife Cathy. This happens while a conman is trying to persuade Mike to fall for the oldest con in the book. Mike and Cathy have quite a history. They knew each other when they were little kids. And there’s a weird bond between them. While they were still kids Mike’s father was swindled by a man named Lachlan and ended up in gaol. Mike and Cathy swore they’d get revenge one day. Kids make such promises but these two have never forgotten that childhood pledge. It’s been an obsession with them. Especially for Cathy. Now Cathy tells Mike that the time has come. She knows where Lachlan is and she has a fool-proof plan.

But this con can only work if they have a lot of money to play with. Cathy has that figured out as well. They will first pull another confidence trick, on a man who was one of Lachlan’s accomplices.

They’re going to have a couple of accomplices themselves. One will be Wolford Charles, one of the sharpest bunco artists around. The other is a mysterious guy named Bolton.

Then Donnelly steps into the picture. He’s a gangster type and he claims that Cathy owes him money but won’t pay. This worries Mike but doesn’t seem to bother Cathy.

The plot comprises two incredibly complex cons plus minor cons plus countless double-crosses. No-one knows how much anyone else knows. No-one knows if anyone else can be trusted. No-one knows what their partners’ motivations are.

There aren’t just double-crosses. There are triple-crosses and quadruple-crosses. There are devious schemes hidden inside other devious schemes. Williams provides us not just with plot twists, but with genuinely unexpected plot twists. There’s plenty of misdirection.

There’s not much action. There’s some, but these are non-violent criminals. Conmen don’t wander about with guns. They rely on their wits rather than on muscle or firepower. And the conmen in this story know how to think on their feet. No matter what kind of jam they get into they figure they can talk their way out of it.

The plotting is so tight and the plot twists are so good, and the suspense is so effective, that Williams is able to resist the temptation to throw in superfluous gunplay and fistfights. This story doesn’t need them.

The story builds to a very satisfying conclusion.

Cathy has plenty of femme fatale qualities. She can twist men around her little finger. She’s been doing that to Mike for years. Even when he knows what she’s up to she can still manipulate him. And she always has her own agenda. She is not however merely an evil spider woman. She’s the best kind of femme fatale - you can never be sure if she’ll turn out to be a good girl or a bad girl, or maybe both. Mike has known her for twenty-three years and he still can’t figure her out.

Mike is an interesting character as well. He’s not quite a crook and he’s not quite an innocent dupe. He doesn’t mind doing things that are illegal but he has to be able to justify his actions to himself, under his own particular moral code. Now he’s in a situation where he’s walking a tightrope, doing criminal things whilst trying not to succumb entirely to the lure of easy money through crime.

Even the minor characters have some complexity. Mike isn’t sure what to make of Bolton or of Donnelly and the reader also isn’t sure about them. They might be what they seem to be, or they might not. They might be genuine bad guys, or they might not.

Intricate and skilful plotting, ingenious confidence tricks, characters with some depth, taut suspense - what more could you want? Highly recommended.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Perry Rhodan 39: The Silence of Gom

There’s something awe-inspiring about the German Perry Rhodan science fiction series. It was created by German writers K. H. Scheer and Walter Ernsting in 1961. The series is still being published. Each issue is novella-length and to date there have been over 3,000 issues. Yes, 3,000. They have sold in total over two billion copies. Yes, two billion. Not two million.

Ace Books in the US published English translations of the first 126 novellas between 1969 and 1978. The first 39 were also published in Britain, by Futura.

The Perry Rhodan series comprises very long story arcs, some extending to as many as 100 issues.

I recently picked up Perry Rhodan 39: The Silence of Gom by Kurt Mahr. The English translation dates from 1974 but I assume the original German edition dates from the early 60s.

Since this one comes in the middle of a story arc I wasn’t sure how much sense it would make reading it on its own. But it does work, to some extent, as a standalone novella. It helps if you do a bit of reading on the background to the series. That background is a bit bewildering but it’s certainly interesting. Apparently it starts with the first moon mission, commanded by Major Perry Rhodan. They discover an extra-terrestrial spaceship and advanced alien technology. It’s the beginning of a human galactic empire. And apparently the series covers a timespan of thousands of years and several different universes!

The Silence of Gom begins with Bell and his crew of mutants landing on the surface of the planet Gom. Their commander Perry Rhodan is in orbit around the planet, in the mother ship.

Gom is not a very inviting place. It’s an immense planet with twice the gravity of Earth. It’s home to plant life which may or may not be sentient.

Our spacefarers soon discover that Gom is home to much stranger things than semi-sentient plants. There are living things there which really stretch the definition of living things. Really weird things that also may be sentient, but which really really stretch the definition of sentient. They may be hostile, or friendly, or totally neutral. It’s very hard to tell. They eat spaceships, but they may not mean any harm. Or they may mean a great deal of harm.

Bell and his crew have other things to worry about. Other creatures that are definitely hostile, although again whether they possess intelligence is an open question.

Taking refuge in a tunnel seems like a good idea at the time. It turns out to be a vast network of tunnels. Bell and his crew are inside something but they have no idea what it is that they’re inside. They also have no idea how to escape.

The mutants possess paranormal powers. Some are telepaths. Some have telekinetic powers. Others have much stranger abilities. These abilities make them extremely useful and their powers are going to be put to good use.

It is obvious when reading this novella that you’re jumping into the middle of an ongoing story arc but it’s not as much a problem as I feared. Enough background information is provided to make sense of what is going on. Earth is threatened with war and the mission to Gom is part of Earth’s defensive strategy.

I get the impression that even though this series comprised lengthy story arcs each novella can function as an independent episode in a longer story. I had no problems figuring out what was going on.

The author certainly manages to create some interesting aliens. I like my aliens to be truly alien-like and these creatures certainly qualify on that count. There’s obviously a fascination with concepts like hive minds.

There’s no shortage of action, with some epic battles and some narrow escapes.

The tone is pulpy, but not as pulpy as I had expected. Kurt Mahr (one of the countless writers who contributed to the series over the years) appears to have been a perfectly competent science science fiction writer. The characters don’t have a huge amount of depth but the interactions between them have at least some degree of complexity. There’s a bit of tension between Bell the commander and Marshall, one of the telepaths. There’s no conflict between them, such enough of a hint of mild tension to keep things interesting.

There’s one female member of the crew, Betty Doufry. She’s a telepath and while she’s not quite a clichéd kickass action heroine she can handle herself in a crisis.

The Silence of Gom is pretty decent science fiction. If I can manage to get hold of a few consecutive novellas in the series so I can at least read a few in sequence then I’d be willing to read more Perry Rhodan. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Tong in Cheek (Cherry Delight #2)

Tong in Cheek, published in 1973, is the second of Gardner Francis Fox’s Cherry Delight sexy spy thrillers which he wrote under the name Glen Chase. This series is sometimes known as the Sexecutioner series. Fox had plenty of experience in this genre having written the very entertaining The Lady From L.U.S.T. spy thrillers in the late 60s.

Whether the Cherry Delight books qualify as spy thrillers can be debated. Cherry isn’t quite a spy. She is however a secret agent working for N.Y.M.P.H.O., a shadowy top-secret US government agency. N.Y.M.P.H.O. is mostly engaged in the fight against organised crime but some of their cases (including this one) do involve international intrigue. N.Y.M.P.H.O.’s methods are so unconventional that even the F.B.I. would consider them to be unethical.

Cherry is actually a gorgeous redhead by the name of Cherise Dellissio but inevitably everybody calls her Cherry Delight. She’s not just a secret agent, she’s also a high-class call girl. That’s actually part of her job. She belongs to an elite squad known as the Femmes Fatales. They work as prostitutes because it’s a useful cover and one that offers plenty of opportunities for them to get close to organised crime figures. Cherry doesn’t mind. If there’s one thing Cherry enjoys more than being a secret agent it’s having sex. Her job allows her to combine business with pleasure.

Cherry’s latest case has very definite international ramifications. The Mafia is forging links with tongs operating in Red China. It’s a disturbing development which has to be nipped in the bud.

A N.Y.M.P.H.O. agent has been killed by three Mafia hitmen. The three Mafiosi are now believed to be in Hong Kong en route to Red China. Cherry’s assignment is to prevent them from making contact with the Chinese tongs but mostly her assignment is to kill those three men. Cherry’s duties with N.Y.M.P.H.O. include assassinations. She’s quite relaxed about that.

Once she gets to Hong Kong Cherry will be working with an Englishman named Derek Guyfford. He knows the territory and he happens to be a part-time N.Y.M.P.H.O. agent. Cherry is pleased that he seems to know his job. She’s even more pleased when he turns out to be very good in bed. Derek is keen to help Cherry make the hit on the three Mafia goons but he has another agenda as well. He has a more personal more selfish reason for wanting to go to China. A reason that could make him a vast amount of money. Money that he might be prepared to share with Cherry.

It has to be admitted that the Cherry Delight books are very very trashy. Fox’s prose is more than a little rough around the edges. There is however one thing that Fox understood. If you’re going to combine the thriller and erotica genres you have to make sure that your books deliver on both counts. There has to be plenty of sex and the sex has to be pretty explicit but there has to be lots of action and mayhem as well. And if possible you have to integrate the sex stuff with the thriller stuff. Fox made sure to do this.

You have to consider the historical context. In the late 60s and the 70s there was a widespread feeling that the idea that there was a dividing line between erotica and other genres was rather artificial and outdated. In both the literary and film worlds there was increasing interest in breaking down the barriers between softcore porn and other genres. The 70s was the golden age of cinematic art porn and film-makers with respectable arty credentials were enthusiastically embracing the concept of art porn. The idea of combining erotica with other pure entertainment genres was also becoming quite popular.

The spy sleaze novels which blossomed in the 60s and 70s were very much a part of the zeitgeist. Sexiness was cool. Sexiness was fun. And in the 60s and 70s (unlike today) fun was more or less legal.

Personally I think that the first of the Cherry Delight novels, The Italian Connection, is much superior to Tong in Cheek. It’s faster-paced and it puts more emphasis on action and excitement and non-top mayhem. The Italian Connection is enormous fun.

Tong in Cheek is still reasonably good fun and if spy sleaze is your thing you’ll enjoy it.

You might want to check out my reviews of the first of Fox’s The Lady from L.U.S.T. novels, Lust, Be a Lady Tonight and the first Cherry Delight novel, The Italian Connection.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Helene

Assignment Helene, published in 1959, is the tenth of the Sam Durell spy thrillers written by Edward S. Aarons (six more were published after Aarons’ death credited to his brother Will but in fact ghost-written by Lawrence Hall).

CIA agent Sam Durell has been sent to the (mythical) newly created island republic of Sarangap in South-East Asia to investigate the murder of the US consul in the old city of Sarangap. The new nation is highly unstable. There’s a rebel army in the hills trying to overthrow the government. The US doesn’t want that to happen but they don’t want to get officially involved. The rebels might be bank-rolled by the Chinese or by Taiwan but either way it is known that an American is involved in running guns to those rebels and that has the potential to cause embarrassment. The deceased consul, Hansen, had presumably been close to finding out the identity of that American.

Durell arrives in Sarangap accompanied by Hansen’s widow, a glamorous movie star. She had been estranged from her husband and it’s odd that she now seems to so keen to go to Sarangap to collect his body.

The first thing Durell discovers is that his cover has been blown. He also discovers that there was a romantic triangle involving Hansen, Hansen’s wife and the Vice-Consul, an arrogant Ivy League pup named Twill.

Sam is eager to interview the three Americans whom Hansen suspected of gun-running but one (a peace activist) has disappeared and one is probably going to be too drunk to provide much useful information. And of course it soon becomes evident that somebody is prepared to disrupt Durell’s investigation by having him killed.

Durell finds himself in the jungle with two beautiful women, neither of whom he can trust, a possibly equally untrustworthy American diplomat and a broken-down American ex-intelligence agent. They fall into the hands of the dangerous rebel leader Trang. What all of these people have in common is that it seems that would all like to see Sam Durell dead.

Sam Durell isn’t quite a stereotypical square-jawed all-American hero. He has just a bit of psychological complexity. He’s not very ideologically driven. In a vague way he believes in freedom and democracy and all that stuff and he’s loyal to his country but he’s capable of understanding that people in the Third World often have very valid reasons for disliking and resenting America and he’s capable of admitting that US foreign policy is sometimes disturbingly wrong-headed and selfish. 

The Sam Durell spy thrillers do not belong to the cynical pessimistic school of spy fiction typified by Greene, le Carre and Deighton but they’re also not quite simplistic exercises in flag-waving.

In this book Durell faces some genuine moral dilemmas and while he’s keen to do the right thing he has to admit that he has no idea what the morally correct decision might be. He knows where his duty as a CIA agent lies but it might not be consistent with his duty as a human being. And Durell isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of merely following orders like an automaton. He’s aware that people sometimes do bad things for good reasons.

The two women are Hansen’s wife and Hélène, part Sarangapese and part European and all dangerous. Either woman could turn out to be the femme fatale of the story and just about any of the main characters could be the murderer. Durell wants the murderer.

This is therefore part spy fiction and part murder mystery and the mystery angle is handled pretty well with some decent misdirection.

There’s no shortage of action either.

Maybe Aarons wasn’t quite in the premier league as far as spy fiction writers are concerned but he wasn’t far out of that league. Among American spy writers of the same era Donald Hamilton was better but Aarons is very much worth reading. He’s definitely a cut above the average pulp spy writer.  Assignment Helene is highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of other Sam Durell spy novels, Assignment…Suicide and Assignment - Karachi.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Frank Kane’s Time To Prey

Time To Prey is a 1960 entry in Frank Kane’s long-running series of Johnny Liddell private eye thrillers. Frank Kane (1912-1968) has never been considered as one of the greats of American hardboiled fiction but he gained respect as a consistently solid and entertaining pulpster.

Time To Prey starts with a girl named Blossom Lee passing an envelope to private eye Johnny Liddell. Then Liddell gets into a fist fight. He’s always getting into fist fights. He’s that kind of guy.

He has no idea why the girl passed him the envelope and he has no idea what was in it since a couple of hoods took it away from him. But when the girl turns up dead Johnny decides to interest himself in the case. She was a client. Well, not actually a client, but almost a client. And Johnny doesn’t like it when pretty girls get murdered.

He’s even more keen to get involved when he discovers that the Treasury Department is interested in the case. Apparently it’s connected with a nefarious commie plot to infiltrate Red Chinese agents intro America. Johnny doesn’t like commies.

The case seems to be running into a brick wall until Johnny comes up with a clever plan to get things moving. What this case needs is another corpse and he thinks he knows a way to arrange it.

He certainly manages to get things moving, in a big way.

Johnny Liddell comes across as very much a Mike Hammer clone, but more cold-blooded and less ethical. Yes, he’s a guy who makes Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout and a liberal bleeding heart. Being responsible for cold-blooded murder doesn’t bother Johnny, as long as it’s cold-blooded murder of commies. And Johnny is in a way working for the US Government. Cold-blooded murder is definitely A-OK if it’s a commie and you’re working for the US Government.

Johnny is a guy who knows he’s one of the good guys and if bad guys need killing then the best thing to do is to kill them, or arrange things so they get killed.

Trying to emulate Mickey Spillane certainly made solid commercial sense in 1960 but Kane is just not quite in the Spillane league. His writing doesn’t have Spillane’s manic energy. And while not everybody approves of Spillane or Mike Hammer the fact is that Hammer was more than just a thug. He had slightly more complex motivations and he had an actual emotional life. You might not like Hammer but the character had a certain reality. Spillane was a first-rate writer. Kane was a second-tier writer. Emulating a successful formula is not as easy as it looks.

That’s not to suggest that Kane was a poor writer. He was very competent and entertaining but he lacked that extra something that writers such as Spillane had.

Apart from his total lack of ethics there’s not much in Johnny Liddell’s personality to make him stand out. He’s basically a stock-standard tough guy hero.

And you could say the same about the novel itself - there’s very little to distinguish it from any other hardboiled PI novel. It is however competently plotted, it’s well-written, fast-paced and action-packed. I wouldn’t call it sleazy but Kane does add a few sexy moments.

As long as your expectations haven’t been set too high Time To Prey is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Frank Kane’s 1957 interesting hardboiled novel about corruption in the music business, The Living End.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Kris Neville's Special Delivery

Special Delivery is a 1967 science fiction novel by Kris Neville. Kris Neville (1925-1980) was an American science fiction writer who achieved some early acclaim but then semi-retired, producing a handful of novels in the 1960s.

Special Delivery is an alien invasion story with a few twists. The Knoug Empire is a vast galactic empire which is about to add Earth to its possessions, not because they want our planet but because they see it a vital step in their endless struggle with their galactic rivals, the Oholo. We will gradually come to realise that these are two very different empires based on very different philosophies.

The Knoug plan is to demoralise the people of Earth first, after which their invasion should be a simple matter. Their demoralisation plan will make use of the U.S. Postal Service. The Knoug intend to send out millions of packages. We find out very late in the story what those packages contain.

Parr is an advanceman for the invasion. He’s in charge of the mailing out of those packages. He quickly realises that he has a problem. The Oholo are mot supposed to know about the invasion but he becomes aware that there is an Oholo agent on Earth, and that agent is uncomfortably close by. Most of the book is taken up by an extended duel between parr and the Oholo agent.

What makes it interesting is that the duel takes place entirely in the minds of the two rival agents. Both the Knoug and the Oholo are telepaths and they practise advanced forms of mind control. What worries Parr is that the Oholo agent (whose name we later discover is Lauri) seems to have astonishingly powerful mental powers.

There’s another battle being waged, this one entirely inside Parr’s mind. He doesn’t know at first that this internal mental struggle is happening but gradually he becomes paranoid that he is guilty of something. He has no idea what it is but he senses that it is important. And he’s right. It’s very important indeed.

You could probably try to see a political subtext in this novel but that might be a mistake. I think it would definitely be a mistake to assume that this is another science fiction book with alien invaders used as a metaphor for communism. I don’t think it’s that simple. The story definitely is concerned with themes of power and ambition, and with paranoia and mistrust, and manufactured hatred. Parr hates the Oholo, but he isn’t sure exactly why. Of course they’re the enemy, so you have to hate them, but that’s about as far as his mental processes go on the subject. Until now. Now he’s not only troubled by guilt but by an obscure feeling that he’s been wrong about something.

There’s not much action in this story, at least not much of the kind of action you expect in an alien invasion story. No space battles. Some bloodshed, but very little.

The action all takes place within the minds of the rival agents but it’s an epic struggle. A struggle that must end with the destruction of one or both rivals. But they’re fairly evenly matched. It’s not just a matter of brute mental force. It’s a matter of devising a strategy that will end with the destruction of either Parr or Lauri.

The result of the telepathic/mind control duel between these two will determine whether the Knoug invasion succeeds or not.

It has to be said that these are aliens who are very human. But then that’s the point of the story. The author isn’t trying to create alien-like aliens. It’s an encounter between two different cultures that are both essentially different human cultures with fundamentally differing values. Neville has no real interest in anything scientific or technological. There’s no attempt to make anything in the story seem scientifically plausible. This is science fiction about cultural values rather than about spaceships or laser blasters.

It’s at least a moderately ambitious novel and it’s original enough to be interesting. I’m going to recommend it.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Charles F. Meyers’ whimsical No Time for Toffee in one of their two-novel paperback editions.