Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders

I’m continuing to explore my new-found interest in honkaku, which is more or less the Japanese equivalent of the puzzle-plot murder mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction.

Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, published in 1946, is one of the more celebrated examples and it’s even more celebrated as an example of a locked room puzzle. Louise Heal Kawai’s English translation has been published by Pushkin Vertigo.

The Ichiyanagi family were, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, the proprietors of a honjin or inn. But a honjin was not just an inn, it was an inn for members of the nobility travelling to and from Edo (the capital, now of course known as Tokyo). Owning a honjin conferred status and even to some extent membership of the nobility. So the Ichiyanagi family are a big deal in the district and are still fiercely proud of being descended from owners of a honjin. The latest heir, Kenzo, is about to marry Katsuko. Katsuko belongs to the Kubo family, wealthy farmers but of decidedly lower social status. The wedding has aroused much opposition within the Ichiyanagi family.

The bride and groom will spend their wedding night not in the rather grand main house but in the much smaller annexe house. They will not live to see the morning. Their lives will be cut short by brutal murder. When the bodies are discovered all of the doors and windows to the annexe house are locked from the inside.

There seems to be no mystery as to how the murderer got in. He got in the night before and hid. The footprints and other clues make that fairly obvious. How he got out again is however a baffling mystery.

The obvious suspect is a very disreputable man with only three fingers on one hand. He had been hanging around for several days and there is plenty of evidence suggesting that he was the murderer. There are also sound reasons to suspect that several other people have not been at all truthful in their accounts of their own movements.

Katsuko’s uncle and guardian, Ginzo, sends for a private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. Kosuke Kindaichi is a rather colourful detective. He is very young and very scruffy and he stammers. He is also an ex-drug addict. He became addicted to drugs in San Francisco. He would have come to a very bad end had fate not stepped in in the form of a celebrated murder case. Kosuke Kindaichi solved the case and he made a discovery - being a detective is much more fun than using drugs.

Kindaichi is content to let the police gather the evidence. He then solves cases by making sense of evidence that the police are unable to make sense of. For all his eccentric appearance and habits this young man has a brilliant mind. He has another useful asset. He is a very pleasant and likeable young man. His charm even works on policemen who are only too happy to have his assistance on a case.

This is not just a locked room mystery, it’s a novel which is very ostentatiously and consciously a locked room mystery. It’s a bit like Penn Jillette explaining how Penn and Teller do their magic tricks, drawing attention to the fact that we are being tricked.

The actual solution to the locked room puzzle is extraordinarily ingenious and there’s lots of elaborate misdirection as well. Seishi Yokomizo goes to great pains at the end to explain how he accomplished some of this misdirection whilst still technically playing fair with us.

There is a theory that golden age detective stories are fundamentally conservative. The social order is undermined by murder but at the end of the story the social order is re-established, justice is done and we feel that everything is back to normal. The social order is secure. I certainly don’t get that feeling from this book. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing but I think it has more to do with the fact that the novel was written in the immediate aftermath of the war, with a society left in ruins. Nobody in 1946 could have predicted that Japan would not only survive but recover and thrive. The mood of this book is bleak and pessimistic. There’s a kind of epilogue to the novel that is unremittingly despairing.

I almost get the feeling that maybe his love for detective fiction was the only thing that kept Yokomizo going. Life is hopeless but if you immerse yourself in detective fiction it’s survivable. It was a grim period in his own life. As it happens things were about to get a whole lot better for him and he was about to achieve great success as a writer but at the time he sat down to write this book he seems to have been deeply pessimistic.

The Honjin Murders is a masterpiece of stage magic by a man who had absorbed the lessons taught by writers like John Dickson Carr and was confident enough to believe he could take them on at their own game. To a large degree he succeeds. Highly recommended.

Tomcat gave this one a rave review and I can't disagree with his assessment of it as a classic. And I can't find anything to disagree with in JJ's equally enthusiastic review.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Donald Hamilton’s The Silencers

The Silencers was published in 1962. It was the fourth of Donald Hamilton’s twenty-seven Matt Helm spy novels.

If you’re only familiar with Matt Helm from the 1960s spy spoof movies starring Dean Martin (which are absolutely delightful in their own way) you’re going to be in for quite a shock when you read Hamilton’s novels. These are very serious and very dark (and very cynical) spy novels. Matt Helm does not always enjoy being a secret agent but he does his job with ruthless efficiency. If a particular job includes killing someone he does that with ruthless efficiency as well. And if a fellow American agent has to be sacrificed in order to get the job done that’s unfortunate but Helm is not going to lose any sleep over it. Sometimes innocent bystanders get hurt as well. That’s unfortunate but there’s no point getting all upset about it.

Matt Helm was married, until his wife got mixed up in a case and decided that being married to a professional spy and assassin just wasn’t her thing. The breakup of his marriage is something that Matt does regret but he also sees it as one of those things that goes along with being a spy. Spies don’t get to have friends, or wives.

Helm’s latest assignment is to extract a female American agent from Mexico. He doesn’t know why and Mac, his boss, doesn’t think he needs to know. All Helm needs to know is that the agent has to be brought back to the States. Alive if possible. If that’s not possible, she has to be brought back anyway.

The agent is going under the name Mary Jane and she’s working as a stripper in Juarez.

It soon becomes obvious that the bringing her back alive part is going to be tricky. Her sister is going to make things even trickier.

All Matt really knows is that there’s an underground nuclear test scheduled and maybe his mission has something to do with that. There are lots of other top-secret government projects in this part of the country as well. There’s some microfilm as well, which Mary Jane passed on to her sister along with a cryptic message about a wigwam.

And there are lots of people tangled up in this business, whatever the business might be. Scientists, reporters, cowboys, strippers and businessmen. With all sorts of motivations and agendas. And lots of spies. There are people planning double-crosses and maybe Matt is planing one as well. Then there’s Gail. Mac has pointed out that she can’t be trusted, which is why she is likely to be so useful.

Matt figures out that there’s a lot at stake, but he’s not sure exactly how high the stakes are.

Matt Helm doesn’t have much use for gadgets but there is some high-tech stuff involving the bad guys.

Matt Helm is basically he’s a nice guy but he has a dirty nasty unpleasant job to do and he does it in a dirty nasty unpleasant way because there’s no other way to do it. Lying, cheating and killing are what he gets paid to do. He doesn’t like doing those things but he doesn’t have a choice. He has ways of dealing with the demands of his job.

Matt Helm is more cold-blooded than James Bond and at the same time he’s more aware of the moral dubiousness of his profession. He can of course handle himself in a fight. When it does come to a fight he doesn’t believe in sportsmanship. If you have a bad guy down on the ground and it could be inconvenient if he gets up again the easiest solution to the dilemma is to put the boot into him. That way you can concentrate on other things that require your attention. If you happen to kill him that’s even more convenient.

As for going to bed with the women he encounters on a case, well sometimes that’s part of the job, a duty that has to be accepted. He doesn’t however jump into bed with every female he encounters. It depends on whether it will be useful or not. Matt is not much given to wisecracks. The humour in the book (and there is a small amount) tends to be rather sardonic.

One interesting thing about the Matt Helm novels is that the early ones at least have to be read in sequence. At the very least you must read Death of a Citizen, the first book, before reading any of the others. It doesn’t just give Helm’s backstory. It is essential to an understanding of his tangled motivations and his complex personality. The novels are much more fascinating when you know why Matt Helm is the way he is. The second book, The Wrecking Crew, adds even more complexity to his character.

The Matt Helm series is one of the great modern spy fiction series and The Silencers combines intelligence, moral complexity and a great deal of entertainment. Highly recommended.

While it's totally different in tone you might be interested in my review of the (very very loose) movie adaptation, The Silencers (1966).

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Keikichi Ōsaka's The Ginza Ghost

The Ginza Ghost is a collection of short stories by Keikichi Ōsaka (1912-1945), translated by Ho-Ling Wong and published by Locked Room International in 2017. The stories were originally published between 1932 and 1939.

Now I’m totally new to the world of honkaku (Japanese orthodox mystery stories) so you’ll have to forgive me if I display my ignorance of the genre.

Keikichi Ōsaka was one of the honkaku pioneers, working at a time when the writing of such fiction was regarded either with indifference or hostility. His stories attracted limited attention at the time and tragically he died on active service during the war, long before his rediscovery by a new generation of Japanese mystery writers.

The first story in the collection, The Hangman of the Department Store, was published when Ōsaka was just twenty. My impression of his story is that it is more in the Poe-Conan Doyle tradition rather than in the style of the golden age of western detective fiction. It is the first story to feature brilliant amateur detective Kyōsuke Aoyama. An employee of a department store has been murdered and thrown from the roof of the building. Since all the doors were locked the murderer must have been one of the men on night duty in the store.

All the clues that Kyōsuke Aoyama uses to solve the case are presented to the reader at the same time as he discovers them. And the solution is quite ingenious.

The Phantasm of the Stone Wall concerns a murder that occurs in broad daylight in front of eye-witnesses. The evidence against the Akimori twins is overwhelming. The evidence simply cannot be doubted. The problem is that a rookie police constable has spotted something that proves that the eye-witness evidence must be wrong, even though it can’t be. The worst of it is that Constable Hachisuka is convinced that the key witness is not lying. But his evidence must still be wrong. Kyōsuke Aoyama’s scientific knowledge provides the answer to a clever puzzle. A brilliant story.

The Mourning Locomotive is a railway mystery but a very unconventional one. A particular locomotive keeps getting involved in accidents. People keep getting run over by it. Even though nobody holds them in any way responsible the accidents cause great distress to the driver and his assistant. They cope with this by hanging a wreath in the cab, for the prescribed mourning period, each time such an accident occurs. Then a new series of accidents occur, and this time the victims are pigs. He railway investigator, Mr Katayama, notes that the circumstances of the pigs’ deaths are very unusual. He is determined to unravel the mystery. He seems to suspect that a tragedy might be in the offing.

Tragedy does ensue, with an ending that packs an emotional punch. A bizarre story but very effective in its own way (and with some very gruesome touches).

The Monster of the Lighthouse concerns the inexplicable death of a lighthouse keeper, killed by a huge rock thrown through one of the windows of the lantern room. No human being could have hurled such a huge rock. From this and other evidence the only conclusion seems to that a ghost or a monster was responsible. There is no other explanation. Nonetheless the director of the nearby marine laboratory sets out to find a rational explanation.

That explanation is in some ways even more shocking than the supernatural one. Another wonderfully inventive story.

The Phantom Wife appears at first to be a ghost story. This is a technique Ōsaka seems quite fond of. This one is not as elaborately plotted as most of the stories in this collection. It’s OK, but not a great story.

The Mesmerising Light is a relatively straightforward story complicated by some very clever twists. A speeding coupé knocks down an old man. The incident is witnessed by a distinguished criminal lawyer travelling in another car. The coupé disappears. Which is impossible. It was travelling on a toll road from which the only exits are at the toll stations and the coupé did not leave by either exit. So you could call this one a “locked-road puzzle” if you like! There’s a murder as well. To the police lieutenant who is called to the scene the identity of the murderer is obvious, except that the obvious answer is not the correct one.

This one might not seem to fair-play but to a Japanese reader in 1936 it would have been since such a reader would have been aware of a couple of Japanese customs that play a crucial part in the solution. Fortunately Ho-Ling Wong has provided footnotes that make things clear. It’s the kind of story I love - the twists are simple but they’re fiendishly simple. It’s a great story.

The Cold Night’s Clearing is a Christmas story, but a grim one. A schoolteacher has been sent away to act as a relief teacher in another town, leaving his wife and child in the care of the wife’s cousin. Tragedy strikes. Another teacher, Mr Tabei, who lives nearby unravels the mystery. The solution to the whodunit question is obvious from the start. The interest of the story derives from the way Mr Tabei pieces together the story of the tragic events. There’s some clever stuff about tracks in the snow. A reasonably good story in many ways but it just doesn’t quite work for me because of the weakness of the whodunit aspect.

The Three Madmen is both weird and grisly. A small private mental hospital has only three patients. There is a murder and all three patients are missing. The explanation is obvious if rather bizarre but there are some strange plot twists yet to come. Once the first major plot twist is revealed the other twists are more or less inevitable. It’s both a detective story and a horror story although it’s not really wholly satisfactory as a detective story.

The Guardian of the Lighthouse is another lighthouse mystery. A young man named Maayoshi is left alone in charge of a lighthouse. His father and the other lighthouse personnel are supposed to be away for just a few hours but due to bad weather the young man is left alone for more than a day and a night. The light is still flashing regularly so obviously everything is under control although the father is worried. On returning to the lighthouse they find no trace of Masayoshi. No trace at all. Once again the solution to the mystery is both bizarre and original. It’s one of the stories that packs the biggest emotional punch. A very good story.

The Demon in the Mine takes place in the Takiguchi coal mine located near the sea. Both men and women work in the mine. The one thing that all miners fear occurs - a fire breaks out. The fire door is closed and the fire is contained within one part of the mine but one miner, Minekichi, does not make it out in time. The door is sealed before he can escape. Then the murders start. The motive appears to be revenge. But none of the people with motives for revenge could possibly have committed the murders. And there’s a fascinating variation on the perennially popular locked-room problem - a dead body that escapes from a sealed tunnel.

Engineer Kikuchi has to race against time to find the solution. The solution is clever, the locked-room puzzle is quite good, there are unbreakable alibis, there’s an ingenious motive, there’s a superbly claustrophobic atmosphere, there’s fear and there’s suspense. This story has everything. Ōsaka combines these ingredients with complete mastery. It’s brilliant stuff.

The Hungry Letter-Box is the odd man out in this collection, being a rather whimsical tale of a young barber in love. There is however a mystery to be solved - a love letter that disappears. It’s an amusing lighthearted tale.

The Ginza Ghost employs an idea that Ōsaka seems to be quite fond of - eyewitnesses who are truthful but whose testimony is misleading. A young woman is murdered. The most likely suspect by far was already dead herself at the time of the murder. But she’s still the most likely suspect. Another great story.

TomCat’s very favourable review at Beneath the Stains of Time was enough to convince me to buy this one. And I’m inclined to agree with him that the stories do have something in common with Jacques Futrelle’s wonderful Thinking Machine stories. And JJ at The Invisible Event liked this collection as well.

If you’re expecting this collection to be just golden age detective fiction with Japanese settings you’re in for a surprise. These stories have a unique flavour of their own. They’re closer in feel to weird fiction but they have plenty of actual detecting. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Laurence M. Janifer’s Slave Planet

Laurence M. Janifer’s Slave Planet was published in 1963.

Laurence M. Janifer (1933-2002) was an American writer of science fiction, under his name and a number of pseudonyms.

The slave planet of the title is Fruyling’s World. At some unspecified date in the future humans have colonised Mars and the Moon, and at a later date a planet known as Fruyling’s World. These four planets comprise the Confederation. Fruyling’s World was already inhabited by intelligent life - smallish vaguely reptilian bipedal creatures the humans have christened the Alberts. No-one seems to be sure how intelligent the Alberts are. They can speak and understand human language and can be trained to perform fairly simple tasks. They may be less intelligent than humans, or they may simply not yet have evolved higher culture.

Fruyling’s World is of interest to humans for one reason - its incredibly valuable deposits of certain rare and essential metals. The planet has been colonised by humans purely as a mining operation and it’s a company planet. Associated Metals runs the planet, at a very tidy profit. One of the reasons it’s so profitable is that it was not necessary to instal expensive machinery to run the mines because there was a much cheaper alternative. That alternative was to use the Alberts as slave labour. The company has managed to keep the nature of its operation secret for a century because the ruling ideology of the Confederation is based on liberal concepts such as freedom. Slavery is not exactly compatible with that ideology and if the people of the Confederation ever found out what was going on on Fruyling’s World there would be outrage, demands for government action and possibly war.

Now the secret has leaked out.

Johnny Dodd is one of the masters (all the humans on Fruyling’s World are masters) and he hates it. But there’s no escape for the slaves or the masters. The company does not allow any of its employees to leave the planet for any reason (for fear they might reveal its secrets).

The most noteworthy thing about the novel is its treatment of slavery as something that dehumanises both slave and master, and its treatment of the effects of guilt. No matter how much they may deny it all the humans on Fruyling’s World feel guilt. They are all of them also in denial - denial about every aspect of their situation. It is an entire society built on a foundation of denial.

Johnny would like to rebel but after a century the humans on Fruyling’s World have been pretty thoroughly indoctrinated into the idea that slavery is inevitable and even desirable and really it’s the best thing for the Alberts as well. Both the humans and the Alberts have been indoctrinated into believing that any change in the situation is unthinkable.

Johnny has met a girl to whom he is attracted. Her name is Norma and she works in the Psych section. Poor Johnny doesn’t know much about girls. He has also come to the conclusion that things can’t go on the way they are although he has no clear idea about how things could possibly changed, for the planet or for his own life.

There are also vague stirrings among the Alberts. Obviously things are going to change on Fruyling’s World.

This is also a novel that obviously asks questions about how we would behave if we ever did encounter alien life forms who were culturally and/or technologically much less advanced than ourselves. There’s plenty of science fiction dealing with encounters with more advanced (or equally advanced) alien civilisations but the subject of our behaviour if we clearly had the upper hand in the encounter has been less often explored.

This is actually a surprisingly cynical little book. It’s cynical about human motivations and very cynical about the lies we tell ourselves. In this story there are various points of view but all are based on a denial of reality. Some of the characters know themselves to be cynics. Some think of themselves as idealists. What they have in common is a reluctance to face truths.

Armchair Fiction have issued this novel as part of their series of double-novel paperback editions, paired with Paul W. Fairman’s The Girl Who Loved Death (which is rather good). This series is a cornucopia of very obscure and forgotten but extremely interesting pulp science fiction of the ’50s. I enjoyed The Girl Who Loved Death more but Slave Planet is not without interest.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Stephen Marlowe’s Model for Murder

Stephen Marlowe’s Model for Murder was published in 1955. It’s more of a ”reluctant amateur detective” novel than a private eye novel although it certainly has plenty of the hardboiled style.

Milton Lesser (1928-2008) was an American writer known for science fiction as well as mystery novels. He published under numerous pseudonyms, including a successful series of private eye novels as Stephen Marlowe.

Jason Chase has just been released from prison. It should have been his brother Kenneth serving the time but Jason got conned. And while Jason was doing his stretch in the penitentiary Kenneth married Jason’s girl Julia. So Jason is just a teensy bit bitter.

But Jason has Jo-Anne and she’s a sweet girl. Jo-Anne and her roommate Phyllis work for Dr Kincaid at the university. Kincaid is about to publish his monumental study on modern morality in America. It’s going to be more sensational than the Kinsey Report. Kinsey just dealt with sex - Kincaid’s study deals with every imaginable vice from sex to gambling to cheating on income taxes. Kincaid’s study is based on a questionnaire which was filled out by hundreds of people, some of them quite important people. If anyone were to lay their hands on those completed questionnaires they’d have some absolutely dynamite material for blackmail.

And somebody has stolen those questionnaires, murdering poor Phyllis in the process. Jo-Anne blames herself - the questionnaires should never have been in her apartment. It’s pretty awkward for Jason as well. He and Jo-Anne found the body, and he does have a criminal record. It gets worse. The detective assigned to the case is Lieutenant Grujdzak, Kenneth Chase’s father-in-law. Grujdzak hates Jason. Grujdzak is also a moralising prig. Things are bound to get unpleasant for Jason Chase. He figures it might be wise to do a bit of investigating himself. He sure as hell doesn’t trust Grujdzak to conduct a fair or honest investigation.

Jason’s first tentative steps in the investigating business lead him to cheesecake and scandal magazine publisher Wilson Wompler. Jason is rather surprised by the identity of one of Wompler’s models. Getting information out of the publisher isn’t easy because Wompler has a bodyguard, a lady wrestler named Audrey.

Jason has other problems. His sister-in-law Julia is a lush and a nymphomaniac and she’s determined to get Jason into bed. Her sister has the same idea. Jason has a lot of troublesome dames to deal with. Jo-Anne is causing him problems of a different sort. Maybe he can get some help from a private eye named Barrett. Barrett works for Kenneth Chase. What’s surprising about Barrett is not what he knows, but what he should know but doesn’t. There’s also a matter of blackmail, but it’s blackmail that just makes no sense.

The corpses mount up but that just makes Jason more determined. By now he has a real personal stake in this affair and in any case he’s in so deep he just has to keep going.

Jason Chase has very little going for him as a detective, other than the fact that he’s a guy who just doesn’t give up. And he has guts. He’s no choirboy but he’s basically an OK guy.

There’s lots of gunplay (with machine guns) and lots of killings (and pretty brutal killings) and there lots of sex-crazed women. It sounds like a story that could have been given a tongue-in-cheek treatment but Marlowe plays it pretty straight and very hardboiled.

While Marlowe avoids any kind of graphic sex but the entire story is pretty thoroughly permeated with sex and sleaze. And corruption and violence. And cruelty.

There’s also a decent mystery plot. And plenty of action.

If you like your crime fiction extra pulpy this could well be right up your alley. It’s fair to say that it’s representative of the Mickey Spillane school of crime writing. Highly recommended.

The good news is that Wildside Press’s paperback reissue is readily available. I liked it enough that I’ll probably check out some of his Chester Drum novels - the idea of a globe-trotting private eye who gets involved in espionage as well as crime sounds pretty appealing.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

E. Howard Hunt's One of Our Agents Is Missing

E. Howard Hunt (1918-2007) is of course best known for his rôle in the Watergate scandal for which he served nearly three years in prison. He was a career CIA agent who was involved in many of the agency’s most infamous operations (such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco). Hunt was also a prolific author of both hardboiled detective and spy novels. One of Our Agents Is Missing, published in 1967 under the pseudonym David St. John, is one of his espionage thrillers.

Schuyler Brooks (known to his friends as Sky) has disappeared from his home in Tokyo. Given that he’s an important CIA operative and given that $6,000 of the agency’s money disappeared at the same time the CIA is not very happy. However they take the view that if he’s defected there’s nothing they can do about it and if he hasn’t defected he’ll eventually show up. He separated from his wife six months earlier and moved in with a Japanese girl named Miyoki. Maybe he cracked up. It’s not worth losing any sleep over.

CIA agent Peter Ward doesn’t see it that way. Brooks was a friend and Brooks’ wife is an old friend as well. Peter takes some leave and heads for Tokyo to find out what exactly happened to his buddy.

Peter doesn’t find any trace of Brooks but he does stumble upon something else, something very big indeed. It’s something the CIA wants so badly that Brooks is soon forgotten. Tis something is not just a defector but one who has something else to sell besides his loyalty. The problem is that too many people know about it. The even bigger problem is that there’s no way of knowing just how many people know. Japanese Intelligence, the Russians, the Chinese and maybe some independent operators - all could be involved. The operation might be blown before it starts, but it might not.

While Peter doesn’t find Brooks he does find Miyoki, who seems anxious for him to share her bed. Peter however is no James Bond and politely declines.

Peter is more worried about all the people trying to kill him, and kill him in rather imaginative ways (such as using a sumo wrestler as an assassin). There’s also the possibly he may be dealing with a ninja. There’s also a fortune teller involved.

This might make the book sound like an outrageous Bond-Style spy thriller. It’s actually pretty serious in tone but if you’re going to use Japan as a setting you might as well throw in some local colour. And Hunt does this with a certain amount of style. Japan was one of the many places Hunt was stationed during his CIA career and he was obviously a guy who took a lot of interest in the local customs. I’d venture to say that he was also a guy who liked good living - he’s more obsessed by food and liquor than even Bond.

Hunt was a very successful writer but as a result of his involvement with Watergate his novels were shunned by critics. That’s rather unfair. He wrote well in the hardboiled genre (his 1961 crime novel House Dick is excellent) and judging by One of Our Agents Is Missing he was a more than competent writer of espionage thrillers.

One of Our Agents Is Missing has plenty of action and the action scenes are well thought out, the atmosphere of treachery and deceit is maintained with admirable skill and there’s some decent suspense. Peter Ward is an effective hero. He’s a bit of a Boy Scout in some ways but he makes mistakes which makes him more human. And surprisingly (given that Hunt was rabidly anti-communist) he even gives us a vaguely sympathetic portrait of a communist master spy. His villains are just a little bit more than cardboard cut-outs.

Hunt also, of course, knew the espionage game from the inside. He wasn’t the kind of intelligence officer who spent his whole career behind a desk - he was actively involved in covert operations so he knew his tradecraft.

One of Our Agents Is Missing is actually a pretty solid spy thriller. I recommend it, and the historical interest of the author’s own espionage career might even be enough to bump it up into the highly recommended category.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Moon Zero Two

John Burke’s Moon Zero Two is a novelisation of the obscure but extremely interesting 1969 Hammer science fiction movie of the same name. The movie was an expensive project for Hammer and it bombed at the box office. Which is a pity because it’s not a bad movie at all. One of the credited writers on the movie was Gavin Lyall and regular readers of this blog will know that I regard Lyall as one of the best thriller writers of the 60s and 70s (he wrote some superb aviation thrillers including The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script). And Moon Zero Two does have much of the same feel as Lyall’s aviation thrillers.

The novelisation came out in 1969.

Moon Zero Two takes place on the Moon half a century after the beginning of lunar exploration. The great age of space exploration is over. Now the big corporations control everything. There are tourist hotels on the Moon. It’s no place for bold space explorers any more. Which is a problem for the narrator, Bill Kemp. It’s a problem because Bill Kemp is by nature a bold space explorer. In fact he was the first man on Mars. Now he pilots a beat-up barely spaceworthy lunar ferry, the Moon Zero Two. He could easily get a job as a spaceliner pilot for the Corporation but that would mean giving up and accepting the new corporate world and Bill Kemp is just not the sort of guy who can do that. Piloting the Moon Zero Two is dangerous and pays badly but he’s his own boss.

Or at least he’s his own boss until the space agencies start making noises about declaring the Moon Zero Two unspaceworthy.

Then along comes a fabulously wealthy businessman named Hubbard with a proposition. Hubbard needs a space pilot (preferably one who doesn’t worry too much about regulations) to crash-land a small asteroid on the Moon. Why? That’s simple. The asteroid in question happens to be six thousand tons’ worth of pure gem-grade sapphire. It’s all highly illegal but potentially very profitable and that’s the sort of deal that appeals to Hubbard. It doesn’t appeal to Bill Kemp until Hubbard makes him an offer he can’t refuse - a brand new space ferry.

Adding complications to Kemp’s life is a girl who is looking for her missing brother Wally (a lunar miner on the Farside). One of the lunar communications satellites is down so at present there is no contact with Farside. The girl Clem, wants Kemp to help her to find Wally.

Kemp is already in trouble with the Bureau of Investigations in the person of Agent Liz Murphy. He’s having an affair with Liz and you might think that would be to his advantage but it isn’t. It makes things worse. Love affairs can be complicated.

There’s adventure and danger in space and on the lunar surface. There’s a plot that is a bit more complex than it initially appears to be. There are romantic entanglements. And there’s murder.

Hubbard is the kind of villain the reader will love to hate, motivated by power and greed but even more so by ego. Kemp is an effective enough hero. He’s not especially complex but he’s likeable. He’s just a guy who doesn’t like being pushed around and he quickly discovers that working for Hubbard involves lots of being pushed round. 

Clem is a good heroine - she’s plucky but she’s also rather cynical. She’s worried about her brother but she’s also worried about getting back the money that he borrowed for his hare-brained mining venture on the Moon. She’s a practical kind of girl.

There are some hard science fiction elements as well as the space adventure stuff. This isn’t a dazzling piece of science fiction but it’s very entertaining (as is the Moon Zero Two movie). Recommended.