Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Mind Poisoners (Nick Carter Killmaster)

The Mind Poisoners, published in 1966, was the 18th of the 261 Nick Carter Killmaster spy thrillers. These spy novels represented yet another incarnation of a character originally created in 1886.

The Mind Poisoners was written by Lionel White (1905-1985) although it appears it was subjected to a drastic rewrite by Valerie Moolman.

This was 1966, the protest era was just getting to hit high gear, the drug culture was starting to become big news and many older people were convinced that These Crazy Kids Today were getting right out of control. The subject matter was therefore very topical. The story starts with a number of apparently unrelated incidents - a car accident, a university administrator machine-gunned to death, protests that turn violent, a college football match that ends in murder and mayhem, even a panty raid at an exclusive college that ends in mass rape. There is one common thread - all involved young people suddenly becoming violently destructive or violently self-destructive.

Nick Carter, codenamed Killmaster, is the top agent at AXE, a US intelligence/espionage agency that handles jobs to messy and too dirty for even the CIA to touch. He’s given the task of going undercover at a university campus to find out what’s behind these violent outrages. What AXE does know is that drugs were involved.

Nick becomes mild-mannered college professor Jonathan Haig, an unlikely cover for the hard-drinking hard-living womanising super-macho Nick Carter.

As AXE suspected it’s drugs (known to turn young people into homicidal maniacs) behind it, and they strongly suspect that it’s the commies pushing the drugs.

Nick has a close encounter with one of his students, a Chinese girl named Blossom Twin. A very close encounter. For 1966 it’s a pretty explicit sex scene.

Nick of course manages to fall into the clutches of the bad guys. He’s too busy concentrating on Blossom’s delightful feminine charms to notice he’s about to be slugged from behind. And he suspects that Blossom didn’t just drug his wine, she added an aphrodisiac as well (you don’t hear much about aphrodisiacs these days but belief in them seemed to be widespread in the 60s). Nick isn’t too worried. He’s confident the bad guys won’t be able to make him talk. He changes his mind when he gets a look at a gadget called the Persuader. When he considers what it will do to a certain vital part of his anatomy he realises that he will tell them anything they want to know.

Nick’s investigation takes him into the heart of youth culture - jazz, beatniks, poetry readings, etc. Yes, I thought that beatniks were a bit passé by 1966 but I guess I could be wrong, and of course if the book was published in 1966 he might have been written in 1965. It’s also possible that it was a case of an ageing writer (Lionel White was in his 60s when he wrote the book) simply having no idea what 60s youth culture was all about. In some ways that makes the book more fun.

Nick Carter as Killmaster was of course a cliché from the moment he first appeared in print in 1964. He’s like James Bond, but more so. He’s a bit too perfect. The books however are often surprisingly good. Many different authors wrote Killmaster books and that leads to an inevitable unevenness and to changes in tone and approach but a lot of the writers were actually fine writers and the better books in the series are not bad at all. They’re not top-tier but they’re often very respectable second-tier spy fiction.

The main fault of The Mind Poisoners is that the premise is not overly convincing and there’s not quite enough of the outrageous that you find in the best works of the action-oriented spy sub-genre. It’s all just a bit too straightforward, a bit too much like an undercover cop thriller.

Nick does at least prove himself to be human, making the occasional mistake (concentrating too much on sex and forgetting that he has a job to do) and admitting to some human weakness (he is genuinely terrified of the Persuader).

There’s a fair amount of moderately graphic violence. Both Nick and his girlfriend get brutalised Nick gets beaten up frequently although he dishes out his fair share of extreme violence as well. In the sex and violence stakes it’s fairly strong for its time period. There’s enough action to keep the reader interested.

The Mind Poisoners isn’t as good as other Killmaster titles such as the surprisingly excellent Spy Castle and it doesn’t quite have the right feel. Lionel White wrote quite a bit of hardboiled fiction and perhaps that was a genre that suited him more. The Mind Poisoners reads like a hardboiled PI yarn but it’s reasonably entertaining. If you’re sampling this series for the first time I’d start with something like Spy Castle instead.

There’s a detailed write-up on The Mind Poisoners at Glorious Trash.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Orrie Hitt’s The Widow

Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) was one of the many authors who made a living in the 50s and 60s writing paperpack sleaze novels. Hitt wrote of lot of those novels. The sleaze fiction of that era is actually somewhat varied. Some sleaze novels are sex melodramas, some are risqué romances, some are juvenile delinquent potboilers and many cross the line into noir fiction territory. Some of them can be regarded as the literary descendants of James M. Cain’s 1930s novels such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In fact the dividing line between the noir fiction and the sleaze fiction of that era is largely artificial. If it got published by Gold Medal people will consider it noir and if it got published by Midwood people will consider it sleaze.

Orrie Hitt’s The Widow dates from 1959, and it has a definite James M. Cain atmosphere. Jerry Rebner was once an ordinary happily married young man with a future. That all ended when his wife was killed in an auto accident. Since then he’s been a drifter. As long as he can earn enough money to keep himself supplied with liquor and women (and the more liquor and women the better) he can stop himself from remembering. Jerry is not quite an anti-hero but he’s no hero either. He’s become a loser and his self-pity has made him selfish. He doesn’t want love from women, just sex.

Now he’s been fired from his job working Mr Sparks as a construction worker and he’s working for a lousy forty bucks a week in a hotel in a place called The Dell, working for a Mrs Sprague. He washes dishes and scrubs floors. He could earn a lot more money as a construction worker. He took this job for one reason. Her name is Linda.

Linda is married to Frank Sprague, Mrs Sprague’s son. Frank is only interested in two things - drinking beer and working on his hot rod. Linda has long since ceased to love him. She does however have her reasons for staying with him. Linda is young and beautiful and Jerry is pretty interested in her. Mostly he’s interested in her for the reason he’s interested in women in general. He wants to go to bed with her. This time however it might be just a little bit more than just sex.

Persuading Linda to go to bed with him doesn’t prove to be too difficult. The fact that she’s a married woman doesn’t bother him. In his experience the sex is always particularly good with married women, if they’re unhappily married. Maybe there was a time when Jerry might have been bothered by the morality of bedding married women but those days are long gone. Since his wife was killed he just lives for immediate sensual gratification.

There is a complication. Norma Sparks, the daughter of his former employer. Norma is even more gorgeous than Linda. Norma is a model. A nude model. Jerry has seen the pictures of her in a men’s magazine. He likes what he saw. He wants some of it. Trying to get involved with Norma when he’s already involved with Linda isn’t a very smart thing to do but after seeing those nude pictures he doesn’t care.

There’s a much bigger complication. Sex can be a huge motivating factor but the lure of money can be even stronger. And there’s a lot of money which seems to be there for the taking.

Sleaze novels can be very noirish but since they’re not quite pure noir you can never be sure just how dark they’re going to get. You might get a happy ending or a tragic ending. At times these novels seem like they’re heading towards crime fiction territory but they don’t always go all the way in that direction. But sometimes they do. I’m certainly not going to give you any hints as to where this one ends up.

As is the case with most 1950s/early 1960s sleaze fiction there’s no graphic sex whatsoever. We know the characters are having sex but there are no descriptions of the sexual acts at all. The sleaze factor comes from the idea that people might actually have recreational sex, and that married women might have sex with men other than their husbands.

The noir atmosphere is stronger. Jerry is a guy entirely driven by his desire for sex and booze. He cannot think ahead at all. Since his wife’s death his horizons are limited to the next thirty seconds. His judgment is atrocious and he assumes that everyone else approaches life the way he approaches it. He assumes that all women are as driven by lust as he is. Now, for the first time in years, he has to consider that a woman might have needs that cannot be satisfied in the bedroom but this glimmer of awakening just makes his judgment even more questionable.

The Widow has been re-issued by Stark House in their series of noir reprints, in an edition that also includes another Orrie Hitt sleaze classic, Wayward Girl (which is a much sleazier juvenile delinquent melodrama that also has a definite noir vibe).

There’s certainly a very sleazy desperate atmosphere to The Widow. It’s likely to appeal more to noir fans than to sleaze fans. Recommended.

Monday, January 10, 2022

David Wright O’Brien's Once is Enough

Once is Enough is a 1943 crime novella (which could at a stretch almost qualify as a short novel) by David Wright O’Brien, an American pulp author whose obscurity has a lot to do with his very early death - he was killed in action in World War 2 at the age of twenty-six. He seems to have written mostly science fiction.

The protagonist of Once is Enough, Richard Thane, wakes up feeling very sorry for himself. He feels terrible and he has a very nasty wound on his head. He is clutching a gun. A few feet away is a dead body. The corpse is holding a bloodied fire poker. Thane hasn’t got a clue where he is. He’s in an apartment he’s never seen before. He doesn’t know how he got there. He has no idea of the identity of the dead guy.

Thane is a lawyer and there’s one thing he is sure of. There’s enough evidence here for the police to charge him with murder, and they would almost certainly get a conviction.

Thane needs to get out of this apartment and he needs to figure out what has happened. First he needs to telephone his wife. He doesn’t get any answer. Where on earth could Lynn be? It’s the middle of the night.

He finally remembers going into a bar the night before. The barkeep remembers him. What the barkeep tells him makes the whole situation even more incomprehensible. What’s even more puzzling is that he knows he left home the previous day with twenty bucks in his wallet. Now there’s $2,500 in his wallet.

It’s a reasonable supposition that someone in the bar drugged him and then tried to frame him for the murder. Then he gets a telephone call which increases his mystification even further. It doesn’t seem to be a simple frame-up after all. The caller tells him to take a train and head for a small town in Wisconsin.

Thane picks up some clues on the train. He forms some theories but every time he finds a new clue he has to discard one of his theories.

There’s some decent suspense and some reasonably OK plot twists. We’re fairly effectively kept in the dark about what’s really going on until the end. There’s plenty of paranoia. The scene-setting early on is handled very skilfully.

It’s not much more than a novella so there’s not a huge amount of scope for in-depth characterisation. Thane is at least a moderately interesting protagonist. He starts off being scared and defeated but gradually he starts to get angry and that provides him with the motivation to try to turn the tables on the people who have turned his orderly life into a nightmare. The blond heavy Harvard is a nicely creepy character.

The atmosphere definitely has a hardboiled edge to it, with serious noir overtones.

The one weakness is the lack of a femme fatale. A femme fatale always adds some spice to a hardboiled mystery thriller.

Although O’Brien apparently wrote a lot of humorous stories there’s not a lot of humour here.

There’s a change of pace at the end when we finally discover what the bad guys are really up to. It comes as quite a surprise although there are a couple of subtle clues that perhaps should have made it less of a surprise to me.

Once is Enough is entertaining stuff, not quite top-drawer noir but still pretty good. Highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired Once is Enough with John N. Makris’s Nightshade (which is also quite good) in one of their excellent double-novel editions.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Fox B. Holden's The Time Armada

The Time Armada was the only novel by American pulp science fiction writer Fox B. Holden.

Fox B. Holden was born in 1923. He contributed quite a few stories to various SF pulps and then after 1956 he is never heard from again. And apart from the fact that he saw military service in World War 2 I can tell you nothing about him.

The Time Armada was published in 1953 and takes place in 1958. Sort of.

Doug Blair is a Congressman who used to be a scientist. He’s been tinkering with a device which he calls the Contraption although he’s convinced it will never work. It’s not quite a time machine. The idea behind it is to capture “tired light” - light reflected from Earth in the past. You can’t capture tired light unless you can travel faster than the speed of light but the Contraption is designed to circumvent that problem by going through the fabric of space-time instead of along it. The Contraption won’t allow time travel but it will allow us to see into the past. As an idea for a science fiction story this is quite good.

However when Doug switches the Contraption on something very unexpected occurs. Doug and his wife find themselves in a strange world. It seems like Earth but it’s obviously a very very different kind of society. The really disturbing thing is that they see a newspaper headline and realise that it’s still 1958. Also unsettling is the fact that Doug and his wife now look like different people.

In this strange society Doug is a very important man in the government. And the government is important. People worship the government. Literally worship it.

And then Doug discovers the most disturbing thing about this society. They have ended war, but at the cost of sacrificing children in vast numbers in ritualised war.

What Doug doesn’t know is that his two ten-year-old sons were also sent into this new society. They’re on Venus, about to be embroiled in horrific carnage.

Meanwhile back on the old Earth two people from the alternate Earth are now inhabiting the bodies of Doug and his wife. And they have plans for Earth. Horrifying plans.

What’s interesting about this novel is that it’s a political novel of sorts and it’s definitely a dystopian novel but despite being written at the height of hysteria over communism it isn’t about communism. This is a different sort of dystopia. It’s a mix of communism and fascism and technocracy and theocracy.

There’s plenty of action as well as Doug has to find a way to escape and to save his sons. He’ll also have to build a new Contraption.

This is truly a bizarre tale. It’s possibly a bit too bizarre for its own good but it has to be said that it’s highly original. It’s a totally different take on dystopian fiction. It grapples with concepts like alternate universes and body transfers and the nature of space-time as well as the nature of politics and economic theories. Like so many science fiction writers of his time Holden has an obsession with over-population. There’s also the fear of nuclear war. Plus it deals with issues of freedom versus social responsibility. It’s pretty ambitious for pulp fiction.

Some of the speculations about alternative ways of organising society don’t entirely make sense but Holden finds ways to circumvent these flaws. Society doesn’t have to be organised on lines that make sense, it’s merely necessary for people to believe that they make sense.

I’ve never read a story quite like this one and while it’s far-fetched it is fascinating. It’s recommended for its sheer quirkiness.

This novel is included in another of Armchair Fiction’s terrific series of two-novel paperback reprints, paired with Milton Lesser’s very entertaining Somewhere I’ll Find You.

There were an amazing number of time travel stories written in the pulp era, particularly in the 1950s. These include Rog Phillips' World of If.

A much earlier novel about seeing into the future (rather than the past) is John Buchan’s 1932 The Gap in the Curtain.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

reading highlights 2021

I read 91 books this year, compared to 68 last year.

Crime

I read 34 crime novels and these were the particular highlights:

Bruce Graeme, Seven Clues in Search of a Crime, 1941

Paul Connolly, Tears Are for Angels, 1952

Robert van Gulik, The Red Pavilion, 1961

Keikichi Ôsaka, The Ginza Ghost, 1961

Charles Forsyte, Diving Death (Dive Into Danger), 1962

Science fiction

I read 26 science fiction/fantasy novels, the most memorable being:

Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows Bennett), Citadel of Fear, 1918

Ray Cummings, Into the Fourth Dimension, 1926

Charles Eric Maine, Spaceways, 1953

H. Beam Piper, Time Crime, 1955

Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud, 1957

Other pop fiction

I read another 26 books that could be regarded as vintage pop fiction, the most impressive being:

Gavin Lyall, Judas Country, 1975

Harry Hossent, Spies Die At Dawn, 1958

Ian Fleming, Dr No, 1958

Desmond Skirrow, I’m Trying To Give It Up, 1968

Ian MacAlister, Driscoll’s Diamonds, 1973

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Paul Connolly’s Tears Are for Angels

Paul Connolly’s Tears Are for Angels is a noir fiction title published in 1952 by Gold Medal.

Paul Connolly was actually Thomas Wicker (1926-2011), who had a fairly distinguished career as a journalist. Tears Are for Angels is one of three pulp novels he wrote in the early 50s.

Harry London (who narrates the story) is doing what he always does, sitting outside his one-room shack, as drunk as a skunk, shooting at cans. He hasn’t washed or shaved for weeks. He seems like a typical derelict. But two years ago Harry London was the biggest land owner in Coshacken County, a scion of the county’s most distinguished family. That was before, when Lucy was still alive.

That’s when the girl shows up. Her name is Jean. She asks a lot of questions. She seems to know something about Lucy. But how much does she know? Maybe Stewart sent her. Maybe Stewart is getting tired of waiting. It’s hard for a man to wait two years for something, not knowing exactly what it is he’s waiting for. Stewart could be getting edgy by now. But Harry decides that Jean is telling the truth when she says she doesn’t know Stewart. The fact remains that this girl knows something about what happened two years ago. Maybe Harry will just have to tell her, to explain how it was. The girl knows that it wasn’t the way the papers said it was, that night two years ago that left Harry with one arm and left Lucy dead. So Harry decides to tell her.

Two years ago Harry was happily married, to Lucy. Until that night he came home early. After what he saw in the bedroom that night Harry’s life more or less came to an end. Harry can still see their naked bodies clutched together in passion. Lucy died that night, but not the way the papers said she died. Harry knows how she died, and so does Stewart. It’s not finished, but one day Harry intends to finish it.

Jean isn’t sure at first whether to believe Harry. She has her own tale to tell about Lucy. Maybe the two stories together make sense of the events of that night, but maybe there are things that neither Harry nor Jean know. Jean starts to believe Harry’s story, but she hates him. He slaps her around a little and tries to rape her, but that’s not why she hates him. He hates her as well, but slowly he figures something out. She’s broken inside, just like he is. Maybe there’s a way they can put their broken lives together. A plan starts to form in their minds. It’s not a very nice plan but it is clever and maybe they don’t have a choice.

The plan goes like clockwork, at first. It doesn’t exactly bring them together. They still hate each other. But that doesn’t stop the frantic need they have for each other’s bodies. Hate can inflame lust just as love can. For these two there may not be much difference between love and hate.

Then the plot twists start to kick in, and they’re not the plot twists that you expect. This is not just a routine noir tale. It’s definitely a noir tale - there’s love and hate and betrayal and sexual obsession and other kinds of obsession and it’s all leading towards murder. But it’s not a straightforward story of obsession leading to murder. Harry starts to analyse things. He starts to question his obsession and the reasons for it and he starts to question his feelings for Jean.

The plot is very clever and very satisfying but this a story that is both plot and character driven. The bizarre sexual and emotional entanglement between Harry and Jean is a major focus. Perhaps they’re not, on the surface, very attractive people but there are reasons for their behaviour and the reader will slowly develop a considerable sympathy for both of them. They’re lost and they’re trapped. That’s pretty normal for characters in noir fiction. But in this case the author is suggesting that even the most damaged men and women may have some hope, insofar as anyone in a noir fiction story has hope. Harry and Jean do at least start to understand themselves and each other but whether the understanding will come in time to save them is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

This is definitely above-average noir fiction, both in terms of emotional complexity and stylistically. It’s also very honest about sex, and the author really does make an attempt to understand female sexuality and female emotions.

Excellent stuff. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Leslie Charteris's The Brighter Buccaneer

The Brighter Buccaneer by Leslie Charteris is a 1933 short story collection. It features what William Vivian Butler in his excellent 1973 book The Durable Desperadoes (which deals with all the major literary rogues of the interwar years) calls the Mark II Saint. The late Saint, the Saint of the postwar years which Butler describes as the Mark V Saint, is in many ways the most interesting and sophisticated but the Mark II Saint is perhaps more fun. This is Simon Templar at his most carefree, most irresponsible and most sublimely self-confident.

This is also a Simon Templar who is unambiguously and unapologetically a thief and a crook. At this stage he’s a slightly more ethical version of Raffles. Raffles only steals from those who can afford the loss. Simon Templar steals from other crooks and from people who (in his opinion) deserve to be robbed.

This is also a Saint who still works with accomplices including the great love of his life, Patricia Holm. He has not yet become a loner.

All the stories in this collection deal with confidence tricks of some kind, or more specifically they deal with the Saint meting out justice to con-men while enriching himself in a most satisfying way. The confidence tricks are many and varied.

In The Brain Workers Simon rescues a young lady named Ruth Eden who had been attracting unwelcome attentions from her sleazy employer. Ruth has been forced to take on secretarial work after her mother was swindled into buying worthless shares. The Saint has a notion that he may be able to retrieve some of those losses for her. And dealing out justice to swindlers gives him an inordinate amount of pleasure. He may not even have to resort to violence. A very typical but effective Saintly adventure.

In The Export Trade Simon is hired by a solicitor to take a very valuable package to Paris. Simon has every intention of carrying out this commission honestly and faithfully. He is not supposed to open the package but his curiosity tempts him, and he believes one should always succumb to temptation. In this case it turns out to be a profitable decision. A very good story.

The Unblemished Bootlegger is another opportunity for Simon to mete out justice to a swindler (who in this case happens to be a bootlegger as well). Simon disapproves very strongly of swindlers and finds that the best way to deal with is by - swindling them. In this case he takes a different but equally effective approach. It’s unfortunate for this swindler that he doesn’t like the sea. Another good story.

The Owner’s Handicap takes Simon to the races where he becomes extremely interested in a racing scam. Simon knows a few scams of his own, all in a good cause of course. A pretty decent story.

The Tough Egg pits Simon against American gangster Max Kemmler who is making a lot of money from a gambling club in London. The Saint feels that it really would be highly desirable to relieve Max of some of his ill-gotten gains. Max is reputed to be a tough egg, which makes the prospect even more delightful. The Saint could of course simply stage a stick-up but that would be boring and lacking in style and that would deprive the exercise of most of its pleasure. It would be much more fun if Max could be persuaded to take an active part in his own fleecing. Another fine little tale.

The Bad Baron presents Simon with a rival. The Fox has quickly become an even more celebrated thief than the Saint. As for the baron, he owns a fabulously valuable jewel which is going to tempt both the Fox and the Saint. This one has a clever and unexpected, and untypical, ending. It’s a very good story.

The Brass Buddha is a story about a simple con game but with complications. It’s amazing that Charteris was able to write so many stories on this theme while giving each one a slightly different twist. A solid story.

In The Perfect Crime Simon pulls off a remarkably audacious con (with a sleazy money lender as the victim) that even Chief Inspector Teal seems impressed by. Teal knows exactly how Simon did it but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it. A delightful story.

In The Appalling Politician the Saint gets to act as detective, working hand-in-glove with none other than Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal. A very sensitive trade treaty has been stolen and it was a most puzzling crime. Simon discovers that solving mysteries can be almost as much fun as committing crimes, especially when he’s allowed to use his own distinctive methods. Quite a good story.

The Unpopular Landlord, Major Bellingford Smart, isn’t just unpopular. He’s a ruthless crook who mercilessly exploits his tenants. And he’s a crook for whom the Saint has plans. Those plans also involve the Countess of Albury’s diamonds. It’s always worth killing two birds with one stone. A good story.

The New Swindle concerns two con-men, one of whom is a renowned card sharp. They believe they really have found the Holy Grail - a brand-new swindle. The beauty of it is, if it works properly there’s nothing anybody can do about it. The only thing that could possible go wrong would be if Simon Templar decided to take a hand in things. A decent story.

In The Five-thousand-pound Kiss Simon renews an acquaintanceship with a competitor. She happens to be interested in a certain diamond which has also attracted the Saint’s attention. The end result is not what the Saint expected, but then the unexpected rather appeals to him.

The Green Goods Man deals with another very clever con involving the selling of real banknotes. How do you make a profit from selling real rather than counterfeit banknotes? That’s the beauty of the green goods con. And how do you turn such a con back on the con-man? That requires the peculiar talents of the Saint. A clever story.

The Blind Spot is not exactly about a confidence trick as such. It’s about a shady patents lawyer. Simon saves the life of a penniless inventor who has tried to throw himself under a train. The inventor, a man named Inwood, had finally come up with an invention that might actually make money but the shady patents lawyer stole his invention. Simon might not have taken the matter any further had he not remembered another invention he came across recently. This invention didn’t work, and that’s the beauty of it. Another fine story.

The Unusual Ending pits the Saint against an old foe from one of the earlier stories, man about to head off to South America with his ill-gotten gains. The ending of this story is not what the Saint expected but it’s rather neat.

Personally I love stories about confidence tricks so it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to enjoy this collection. What’s interesting is that it includes stories in which the Saint’s motivations are entirely selfless, others in which he is motivated to a large extent by his lust for loot. There are even stories in which the Saint ends up losing, but he doesn’t really lose since it’s the adventure that matters. A fine collection. Highly recommended.