Sunday, May 16, 2021
Milton Lesser (1928-2008) was an American author who wrote both science fiction and crime fiction under his own name and under the name Stephen Marlowe. His books as Stephen Marlowe include Model for Murder (1955) which is a sleazy but very entertaining and action-packed hardboiled nor crime thriller.
Judging by the pulp magazine illustration included in the paperback Somewhere I’ll Find You seems to have been originally published under Lesser’s Stephen Marlowe nom-de-plume.
Ed Langdon, his bride-to-be Freya and their friends Bob and Judy Hendrix are sitting quietly watching television when something very odd happens. Something comes flying out of the TV screen, shattering the screen. It’s a tiny spaceship. With a tiny crew. Only once they step outside the spacecraft the crew grow to normal size. They announce that they have come for Freya. They take her aboard the spaceship which then disappears back into the TV screen. Ed, Judy and Bob were temporarily paralysed by the miniature spacefarers and were powerless to do anything.
Ed does have an idea what to do next. He’ll contact Freya’s brother Torstein Haugland. Torstein is a gigantic Norwegian sailor who always seem to know a lot about strange subjects. Torstein informs Ed that this is not the first time Freya has vanished. It happened years earlier, back in Norway, when she was a child. Freya and an old old woman both vanished. Two weeks later Freya was found again, sleeping peacefully in her bed.
Torstein and Ed both have a feeling that the answer to this puzzle may be found in Norway so they take the next flight to Oslo.
They find an answer of sorts but it leads to more questions. They discover that there is not just one Earth, but many. Each Earth represents some slightly different historical possibility, or probability. Some Earths are very strange indeed. Some are dead worlds. Some are ruled by insects. Some are home to advanced civilisations, some are primitive. One civilisation alone, a First Level world, has discovered the secret of the multiple Earths and it’s a secret they guard well.
Freya is one of those many Earths and it seems they may have to search all of them to find her. They do have a clue. They are looking for an Earth ruled by women. It’s something to do with a great battle won by the Amazons in the distant part. Even if they can find that world it may not be a welcoming place to two men who are strangers who do not know the rules. Ed and Torstein may face a fight for survival.
Considering that this is really just a lengthy novel the author packs plenty of plot into his story with descriptions of at least a dozen different Earths visited by our two heroes, with some narrow escapes from certain death on some of those Earths.
The premise, that one of the many Earths has discovered the secret of travelling from one Earth to another and the reasons why they have done this and why it’s such a big secret, is developed economically but effectively.
There are some good action scenes on the planet of the Amazons in which Ed’s chivalry seems likely to be a stumbling block - he just doesn’t like the idea of fighting back when a strapping Amazon maiden takes a swing at him and then gets him down on the ground and starts pummelling him.
Ed is a fairly typical 1940s pulp sci-fi hero, an ordinary American guy who has to become a reluctant hero. Torstein is a bit more interesting, being slightly inclined to mysticism. You get the feeling that the world of Norse paganism is still kind of real to Torstein Haugland.
There’s a villain as well, a Colonel Utgard, and there’s a mystery about him. Other major characters, such as the Magitrix (the old old woman who runs one of the alternative Earths) and the Regent (who is in charge of the First Level world) are intriguingly ambiguous and capricious.
There’s some romance as well although it’s not allowed to slow the story down.
Lesser’s prose is pulpy but lively.
This story is included in another of Armchair Fiction’s wonderful series of two-novel paperback reprints. It’s paired with Fox B. Holden’s The Time Armada.
Somewhere I’ll Find You is fast-moving fun with some cool ideas. Highly recommended.
Friday, May 14, 2021
This novel is based on the first season so the Impossible Missions Force is led by Dan Briggs (played on TV by Steven Hill).
It captures the atmosphere of the TV series more successfully than most TV tie-in novels. It’s fast-moving and the plot really does feel like a Mission: Impossible plot. It’s all very enjoyable and highly recommended.
Here's the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.
Sunday, May 9, 2021
Conan of Aquilonia is a collection of four longish short stories. It’s either a collection of linked stories or it’s an episodic novel, depending on how you look at it.
This is an older Conan, nearing sixty but still a formidable warrior. He is now a king and he has a twelve-year-old son and heir, Conn. Conn has gone missing. He’s fallen into the hands of a circle of evil sorcerers led by the most evil of them all, Thoth-Amon. The sorcerers have reason to hate Conan and they want revenge.
In the first story, The Witch of the Mists, Conan (now secure on the throne of Aquilonia) faces a formidable challenge. Not just a circle of evil sorcerers but a coalition of several circles of thoroughly nasty black magicians. The leader is an old enemy of Conn’s, the sorcerer Thoth-Amon.
Black Sphinx of Nebthu is Conan’s second encounter with Thoth-Amon, an encounter which involves an epic fight between black magic and white magic and ends with the unleashing of an appalling monster which nobody, not even Thoth-Amon, can control.
Conan’s struggle against Thoth-Amon continues in Red Moon of Zembabwei. Leading the Aquilonian army through trackless wastes he encounters the horror of the wyverns, prehistoric flying reptiles trained by the Zembabweians. Conan and Conn are carried off by the these flying horrors to an ancient city, built before the beginnings of history by a pre-human race. They are held captive in the infamous black towers, with no doors and no windows. There seems to no escape for them.
The pursuit of Thoth-Amon continues in Shadows in the Skull and takes Conan to a palace-city carved into a cliff, a fortress carved in the likeness of a gigantic human skull. It’s surrounded by some kind of invisible barrier. Having penetrated the barrier Conan and his companions find something quite unexpected. In fact there are quite a few surprises in store for Conan and Conn.
Conn gets to do a few heroic things but he’s a thoroughly lifeless character.
All the correct ingredients are there and the stories are reasonably entertaining sword & sorcery tales but they just don’t have that Robert E. Howard touch. It’s a touch that no other writer has ever been able to emulate successfully. The vitality and the masculine energy that Howard imparted to his stories is just not there, Howard’s matchless ability to evoke an atmosphere of doom or menace is not there either.
It’s not that the ideas behind the stories are bad and it’s not that they’re badly plotted. They’re perfectly competent. They just don’t leap off the page into the reader’s imagination the way Howard’s stories do.
Making Conan old was both a good idea and a bad idea. It was a good idea in the sense that if Conan doesn’t seem quite right the reader can rationalise that away by telling himself that people do change as they get older. It was a bad idea in the sense that it makes Conan too much a man with normal family responsibilities. He’s just not enough of a barbarian.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Conan of Aquilonia. It’s perfectly decent second-tier sword & sorcery with plenty of action and quite a bit of creepiness. The wyverns, the serpent-folk and the serpent-god are all nice touches. It’s just not Robert E. Howard and this Conan is not quite the authentic Conan. Maybe worth a look if you’re a very keen sword & sorcery fan and you’ve read everything by the major writers in the genre.
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
Booty for a Babe is a fairy early Al Wheeler book, appearing in 1956.
His boss has decided that Wheeler is too unconventional and too irresponsible to be a Homicide lieutenant. But he does manage to crack some very difficult cases so he’s been put on special assignment. When a case comes up that is as unconventional as he is then it’s Al’s baby. And such a case has now come up.
Professor Todt has been murdered at a science fiction fan convention at a fancy hotel. He was shot, but he wasn’t shot in a normal way. He was found with a tungsten dart in his heart. There were eighty witnesses and none of them saw a thing.
Al finds the world of science fiction fandom rather bewildering. Professor Todt had a theory about time. He thought time could be stopped, if only the alien Delfs could be persuaded to stop it. This wasn’t the plot for a science fiction story. The professor really believed this theory. Al is even more disturbed when it becomes likely that the motive for the murder had something to do with the professor’s crazy theory.
Al also has to deal with a ditzy redhead named Flavia, who runs the convention. And an even ditzier blonde named Annabelle Starr, one of the fans. He thinks they’re both crazy but he also thinks it’s worth trying to get them into bed. They might provide some valuable clues, but even if they don’t it would still be worth trying to get them into bed.
There’s also Nicky Spain, who’s a shady businessman, but he had some involvement with the professor. Which doesn’t make sense - shady businessman and crazy professors don’t usually have much in common. Spain is staying in the hotel with his girlfriend Carlotta, and she could be worth bedding as well.
The further the case goes the crazier it gets. It seems that alchemy could be involved as well.
Wheeler is a cop who always has a drink on one hand a blonde in the other. It’s not that he’s a heavy drinker. He doesn’t take a drink first thing in the morning. He has a shower and breakfast first. Sometimes it’s nearly lunch time before he starts drinking.
Apart from drinking and chasing skirt Al’s investigative methods mostly involve picking someone who might respond to pressure and putting that person under as much pressure as possible. His methods are exactly ethical but they do produce results. He’s also pretty good at setting traps for suspects, even when he has no idea if they’re guilty or not.
This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek hardboiled PI thriller with quite a bit of humour and some plot elements that sound like they’d be more at home in a pulp sci-fi novel. It works because the author has style and energy and he makes it work. Al Wheeler is cheerfully immoral but he has a kind of vulgar charm. There’s nothing remotely subtle about him.
The plot is serviceable but it’s the fun to be had along the way that is the attraction.
I have no idea why the title was chosen, except that I guess the publisher thought it sounded cool.
The Carter Brown books are not to be taken too seriously but they are enormous fun. Booty for a Babe is highly recommended.
I’ve reviewed two other Carter Brown novels - The Stripper and No Harp For My Angel.
Saturday, May 1, 2021
Harry Hossent (1916-1989) was an English author who wrote both crime novels and thrillers during the 1950s and 1960s.
Max Heald is a British intelligence agent who is just about go go up to his flat when he notices something odd. The lights are on. Most people wouldn’t think much of such a thing but Max is a spy and he wants to keep living so he has to notice things like that. He therefore lets Mr Mortimer (his boss) know, then proceeds up to his flat where a surprise is waiting for him. The surprise is his wife Christina. It’s a surprise because three years earlier she had defected to the Russians. In fact at the time he married her she was a double agent.
There’s another surprise in store for Max - two men from the Special Division. The Special Division (otherwise known as Section 9) is a much-feared branch of the Soviet MVD. They specialise in liquidating people, so it’s not a very pleasant surprise. They’ve never operated in Britain before but now they are indeed in Britain and they seem to be very interested in Christina. But why?
Christina’s story is that she’s defected back to the West because Bennett has done so and now she’s under suspicion so she has no choice. Her story is interesting and Max thinks that some of it may even be true. Bennett is an English journalist who defected to the Soviet bloc at about the same time as Christina.
Mr Mortimer is very interested in all of this. What he doesn’t want is Max on the case. Max is too emotionally involved. He also knows that whatever orders he gives Max is going to pursue the case anyway. Which he does.
There are multiple players in this game. Some are motivated by money, some by ideology, some by loyalty and some by love. There’s a man named Reisening. Christina claims that this man contacted her. There’s an actor named Roland Bestwick. And a professional wrestler known as the Whirler. There’s Claude Meygeth, who is in the business of selling information. There’s Meygeth’s girlfriend Nickie Montreux. There’s Aintree, who runs a protection racket but has been known to do jobs for Max. There’s the Pole Ebanstey, who is supposed to be helping Max but whose loyalty is to Mr Mortimer. There’s Bennett, whose motives for defecting to the Soviet bloc are unclear and whose motives for defecting back to the West are even murkier. Christina’s motives are even more mysterious - is she a double agent who has returned to her original loyalty or is she now a triple agent?
There’s also the question of whether Max can trust Mr Mortimer. Ordinarily Max would have complete confidence in his chief but Mortimer is ruthless and might decide that it would be advantageous to sacrifice Christina. There’s the question of whether Mortimer can trust Max - if Max had to choose between the department and Christina which choice would he make?
Any of these players could change sides at any time, or could try to play for both sides at once. The opportunities for double-crosses are practically limitless and there will indeed be double-crosses.
It all ends with a splendid extended action finale in a funhouse.
Spies Die At Dawn belongs more to the gritty realist school of spy fiction than to the Bondian school. There’s lots of violence (some it fairly graphic by late 50s standards), there’s a willingness to resort to torture, there are lots of betrayals and nobody can trust anybody else. Max Heald is a tough professional but he has an emotional life which sometimes clouds his judgment. He’s certainly no infallible super-spy. There’s no sex although there is one abortive seduction when one of the women characters tries to influence Max by shedding her clothes.
Hossent’s prose is workmanlike but effective. Max Heald is not the sort of spy who trades wisecracks. The tone remains dark and serious.
Spies Die At Dawn is a very competent tightly plotted spy thriller which can be highly recommended.
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
World of If presents an interesting take on the problem of time. It is set in 1984. John Dow is a successful publisher who is asked by a young man, Dr Simon French, to take part in a research project run by the Rexler Research Company. They had been using hypnosis to regress people to earlier periods of their lives when someone had the bright idea of regressing them to a point in their lives in the future. They discovered that the futures remembered by different people often agreed in significant ways. It’s not time travel, it’s more a case of people being able to tap into potential futures. The future is not fixed but there are certain probabilities. Rexler Research have found that with this technique they can to some degree predict the future.
Then they decided to do something different - hypnotising people to live out potential futures as they had existed in the past.
Using their technique a person can live out several years of a potential future, or a potential future from the past, in a single day.
So this is both an exploration of the nature of time and an exploration of a kind of alternate history. And it explores these subjects in a rather fascinating way.
John Dow is actually not quite what he appears to be. He is not just a businessman. He controls a network of influential people (including politicians who are bought and paid for) who are engaged in a vast project to defeat world communism. Dr French regresses him to a past that differs slightly from the actual past. In this alternate past America is taken over by the communists in 1953.
So this can also be seen as a Red Scare story (and a rather hysterical one).
A very large part of the book is taken up by Dow’s life in that potential alternate past of life under communism. At times it drags just a little. There is however some interesting stuff about the nature of power and corruption and about the way people adapt themselves to power, and the compromises people will make. And the ways in which they will rationalise their behaviour.
Once we get back to 1984 it suddenly becomes really interesting as the author throws even more ideas about time at us. We find out what Dr French’s research is really all about and we get some neat plot twists.
You do have to concentrate when reading this book since apart from John Dow’s lengthy sojourn in the Worlds of If there are also flashbacks from other characters.
The style is pulpy and rather on the unpolished side.
Phillips is strongest when he’s dealing with ideas although he does attempt some character complexity and the idea of people in alternate pasts behaving in ways that are both different from their actual lives but also very much consistently in character is developed quite well.
Mostly it’s a clever and original take on the ideas of the future being both changeable and unchangeable and it’s in some ways an anticipation of much later works by other novelists exploring multiple parallel timelines (even in some ways an anticipation of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse idea). The author cleverly suggests an ambiguity about those alternate Worlds of If. Are they imaginary and do they have some reality? There’s enough cleverness here to make World of If worth a look. Recommended, if you can deal with some political heavy-handedness.
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
A young doctor named Stephen Gray is happily tramping through the woods, hoping to spend a pleasant few hours collecting specimens from a shallow pond (being a young man whose interests are both scientific and medical). He sees a very attractive young woman in the woods. She seems to be searching for something but it is hardly any of his business. Shortly thereafter, to his horror, he discovers the body of a middle-aged man in the pond. He sets off towards the police station but encounters the young woman again. She informs him that she is searching for her father who failed to return home on the previous night. It transpires that the body in the pond is that of her father, Julius D’Arblay.
The circumstances point to suicide but they do not rule out foul play.
Gray is a good-natured kindly young man and when he discovers that the young woman (Marion D’Arblay) has now lost her only surviving relative he feels that he should, as a gentleman, do something for her. As it happens he is peculiarly well-placed to help her as he was in the not-too-recent past a student of the renowned specialist in medical jurisprudence, Dr John Thorndyke. He resolves to retain Dr Thorndyke’s services to investigate the case.
Which turns out to be a good idea. The post-mortem (at which Dr Thorndyke assists) proves that Julius D’Arblay was murdered. Murdered by an injection of aconitine. There is no possibility whatsoever of suicide.
The police investigation makes little progress. The police really don’t have much to go on. Dr Thorndyke admits that it’s going to be a difficult case but he believes there are some useful clues. Several items were found at the bottom of the pond, including a gold guinea of the reign of Charles II. D’Arblay had been a sculptor. The murder method suggested a number of things about the murderer.
Two more things soon become obvious. One is that Dr Gray has fallen under Marion D’Arblay’s spell. The second is that whatever business the murderer had with Julius D’Arblay that business is not yet finished.
Romney Pringle stories were written (and I highly recommend the adventures of that delightful rogue). Freeman was still writing in the early 1940s but not surprisingly his prose style remained somewhat Edwardian. Which, personally, I rather like. Freeman is nowhere near as dull as some of his detractors would have you believe. In fact I don’t find him dull at all. His prose isn’t flamboyant but there’s plenty of keen observation of human nature and there’s some fine descriptive writing. And Raymond Chandler was a fan.
There’s always a problem for a writer who creates a memorable series character when a series becomes a long-running one. At the time of Dr Thorndyke’s earliest cases he is clearly not a very young man. His professional eminence suggest a man in his forties. By 1926 Thorndyke would logically have been twenty years older, and Freeman clearly did not want Thorndyke to be an elderly man. Most writers have solved this problem by fudging their heroes’ ages. Freeman solves the problem by a simpler and more direct method. He sets his story in the Edwardian era. That was a bit of a risk. It was clearly going to give the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. I think it works. Dr Thorndyke is man of the Edwardian era and that’s where he seems comfortable and Freeman’s slightly old-fashioned prose and penchant for rather formal dialogue perfectly suits the setting.
I haven’t read any of Freeman’s other Dr Thorndyke mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s (although I’ve read most of his pre-WW1 stories) so I have no idea whether those books have Edwardian or contemporary settings.
Freeman famously invented the inverted detective story. The D’Arblay Mystery is not an inverted mystery but as with all of Freeman’s books the interest lies mostly in the manner in which Thorndyke solves the case rather than in the solution itself.
The D’Arblay Mystery is a story of deception and the book’s main strength is the extreme cleverness of the deceptions. These deceptions could have a bit far-fetched but Freeman makes them seem entirely plausible.
Dr Thorndyke has the genius, and perhaps some of the arrogance, of Sherlock Holmes but without the idiosyncrasies. He can be a little distant and even taciturn but he’s fundamentally even-natured. Dr Thorndyke is not a man who loses his temper.
The D’Arblay Mystery has a wonderfully clever plot. Even when we feel we’re starting to figure out who committed the crimes there’s still the mystery of how on earth the deceptions could have been worked. Highly recommended.
I’ve reviewed several of Freeman’s earlier books including A Silent Witness (1914), The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912), The Eye of Osiris (1911) and some of the early Dr Thorndyke short stories.
If you’re a fan of Dr Thorndyke I strongly recommend seeking out the 1970s Rivals of Sherlock Holmes TV series which includes adaptations of two Thorndyke stories (and it’s a great series overall).