Thursday, June 23, 2022

James O. Causey’s The Baby Doll Murders

The Baby Doll Murders was James O. Causey’s second novel. It was published in 1957. 

Cliff Tierney works as a dealer in Vegas, or at least that was until he got fired for losing his temper. Now Markham wants him to do a job. Tierney has reasons for not wanting to work for Markham. But Markham offers him more than money. Markham offers him a girl as well. The girl is Holly. Tierney used to be crazy about her.

Markham had been Tierney’s mentor when the latter was a youthful carny. When Markham moved into big-time gambling he again acted as Tierney’s mentor.

The job involves a girl named Ann. Ann is blackmailing somebody, somebody who doesn’t like being blackmailed.

It has something to do with a doctor named Thaddeus Ross. Ross is also a politician. He was a moral crusader, until Markham got to him. Now he’s Markham’s man. They make plenty of dough out of the gambling but they have a very lucrative sideline as well, as slowly becomes apparent.

Tierney doesn’t know which way to jump. He hates Markham. But Holly is a complication, and Ann is a complication as well. The dead body is yet one more complication. Tierney didn’t kill the guy but suspects he may be framed for it.

What Tierney needs to do is to figure out what all these people are really up to, and whether he can trust anybody. He has to figure out that sideline that Ross and Markham have going. He has an idea what it is, it seems to be connected with a private sanatorium and with a baby born to a woman named Zoe, but he has no evidence. And Tierney is a carny. He won’t have anything to do with the police. If you’re a carny and you have a beef with someone you settle it yourself.

Of course he also has the problem of trying to stay alive.

For Tierney, and for the reader, there are two mysteries to unravel. There’s the mystery involving the sanatorium. He knows a couple of the people mixed up in that racket but any one of half a dozen other key characters could be involved directly or indirectly. Then there’s that corpse. How the guy came to be a corpse is a total mystery. There are at least half a dozen suspects. The motive is unknown - he might have been killed to keep him quiet but revenge or sex or money are also possible motives. All Tierney knows is that he didn’t do it but he’ll take the rap if he doesn’t find the killer.

Tierney also has a problem with two women, Holly and Ann. Both to some extent fit the femme fatale profile. Either one could turn out to be a good girl or a bad girl. And Tierney is emotionally entangled with both.

There are hints that the sex lives of some of the characters are not exactly healthy.

Tierney is a classic noir protagonist. He has never been a moral paragon and he has a violent temper but he’s not really evil and he clearly could find redemption. Redemption could cost him his life. Maybe he doesn’t care. He’s not overtly likeable and he’s stubborn and he makes mistakes but he’s making some effort to overcome the chaos of his life up to this point and we can’t help feeling sympathy for him.

There’s the noir atmosphere of corruption. Paloma Beach is outwardly respectable but it’s a town that lives off gambling and the city council is cowardly and corrupt. Maybe Tierney is sensible not to trust the cops.

There’s a fair amount of violence although the body count is quite low. Causey has an effortless mastery of the hardboiled noir style.

The Baby Doll Murders has mystery and suspense, it has atmosphere and style and it has a bit of sleaze. It’s definitely very entertaining. Highly recommended.

Causey's first novel Killer Take All! was published early in 1957. It's also very much worth reading. Stark House have an omnibus edition with three Causey novels including both Killer Take All! and The Baby Doll Murders. It's pretty much a must-buy for noir fans.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

John Gardner's The Liquidator

The Liquidator, published in 1964, was the first of the Boysie Oakes spy thrillers. It was in fact the first work of fiction by Englishman John Gardner (1926-2007) who is perhaps now better remembered for having written more James Bond novels than Ian Fleming.

Ian Fleming earned some notoriety among disapproving critics with his habit of dropping brand names of luxury goods into the Bond novels. Within the first couple of pages of The Liquidator Gardner has dropped more brand name than Fleming would in an entire novel. Gardner does it so often that we immediately suspect that he’s having fun with us. That impression is confirmed when we discover that his spy hero, Boysie Oakes, is also a British secret agent with a licence to kill. Bond had one minor weakness - a fear of flying. Sure enough Boysie is afraid of flying as well.

And as the novel opens Boysie (his actual name is Brian Oakes but nobody calls him anything but Boysie) is off to the Riviera for a weekend of fun and sex with his boss’s secretary Iris, so he’s a womaniser as well. In fact a more shameless womaniser than Bond.

While Bond is routinely described as being good-looking but with a rather cruel mouth Boysie is good-looking but with rather cruel eyes.

Gardner is indeed having fun with us, and will have a great deal of fun turning the Bond formula on its head.

Bond does indeed have a licence to kill and he is prepared to do so if it’s necessary. He does not enjoy killing. There are times in the Bond stories when he dislikes it very much. Bond is a killer, but not a conscienceless killer. Boysie on the other hand thoroughly enjoys killing. He has no conscience at all. Mostyn realised this the first time he encountered Boysie, during the war. He saw Boysie kill two men. It was in the line of duty but Mostyn knew there could be no mistaking the positive joy in Boysie’s eyes.

Some years later, in 1956 in fact, Mostyn was a senior member of one of Britain’s intelligence agencies. A major espionage scandal had just erupted. The two spies involved had been suspected but there had been no evidence against them until it was too late. Mostyn’s superior decided that the best way to avoid such unpleasant situations in the future was to forget all this sentimental nonsense about rules of evidence and presumption of innocence and the rule of law. The best thing to do would be simply to liquidate suspected spies. Of course the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and the public might not approve, so it would all have to be done secretly. Mostyn is given the job of setting up a kind of government version of Murder Inc. Of course finding suitable personnel could be tricky. You’d need someone with no conscience whatsoever, someone who genuinely enjoyed killing people. And then Mostyn remembers Boysie. He does some digging around and is convinced that Boysie has committed several murders. The important thing is that he’s never been caught. He’s obviously clever as well as ruthless. Boysie becomes the British Government’s unofficial hitman.

Mostyn is not happy at all to discover that Boysie and Iris have gone away for a dirty weekend together. It has major security implications.

Boysie is looking forward to a weekend of bedroom bliss but it doesn’t turn out that way. Things start to go wrong when he leaves the hotel to buy cigarettes and meets a gorgeous blonde named Coral. The next thing he knows he’s getting hit over the head and knocked unconscious. He wakes up to find that he’s a prisoner (along with his blonde lady friend). He has no idea who was kidnapped him or why but he soon figures out that this is going to be a very unpleasant experience. That proves to be the case, although he does at least get to have sex with the blonde.

Things get worse. Having escaped from imminent death he finds that he’s been activated. He has an assignment. And he’s really not in the mood for it. He’s been beaten up and terrorised and he’s badly shaken and rather frightened and very confused. There are very nasty people trying to kill him. He’s so upset that he’s not even sure if he will be able to perform in the bedroom with Iris.

The fact is that Boysie is not a super secret agent. He’s a good shot and he’s had some training but he’s not a superb fighting machine. His one qualification for the job is his willingness to kill anyone he’s been told to kill. His job is to kill people whom Mostyn considers to be security risks (some of whom might well be innocent of any actual wrongdoing). Boysie’s victims are invariably unarmed and they have no idea that they’ve been targeted for liquidation. Boysie kills efficiently and he’s good at making his kills appear to be accidents or suicides but he’s effective because his victims don’t know what’s coming and are totally unprepared to fight back.

While Bond is an old-fashioned patriot Boysie took the job because it paid well and had attractive fringe benefits. He doesn’t kill for Queen and Country. He’s in it for the money. And the women.

Boysie isn’t particular brave. He doesn’t like the idea of being shot at himself. He doesn’t like that idea one little bit.

So he’s very much an anti-hero. He’s an absolutely deplorable human being. But we can’t help liking him. He’s a bit like Flashman. We know he’s a rotter, we know he’s a wrong ’un, but he provides us with a great deal of amusement. And, as is the case with Flashman, his total shamelessness and his unapologetic acceptance of his outrageous character flaws is oddly appealing. We like Boysie because he know he’s no hero.

And then we get halfway through the book and there’s a major revelation and we find that we’ve been cleverly and wittily deceived. Things are not at all as they appeared to be and we have to revise our assumptions. Boysie is indeed a scoundrel, but he’s not the type of scoundrel we thought he was.

The Liquidator could I suppose he described as a spy spoof but it doesn’t have the tone normally associated with spy spoof. It’s a very amusing book but it tends more towards black comedy rather than high camp. Gardner doesn’t try too hard to go for laughs. He lets the humour develop naturally out of the desperate situations in which Boysie lands himself. It’s more a wickedly sly satire that has fun twisting the conventions of spy fiction, rather than an outrageous campfest. Don’t be misled by that cover that describes it as zany. Zany is not the word I’d use. This is not Carry On Spying. The humour is rather more sophisticated than that.

It really does remind me a great deal of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. It does for the James Bond-style of spy fiction what the Flashman books did for Victorian tales of adventure and military glory. And It’s worth pointing out that The Liquidator was published five years before the first of the Flashman books. Both The Liquidator and Flashman tapped into the sceptical cynical zeitgeist of the 60s.

The Liquidator is really rather clever in the way it cheerfully and wittily mocks the spy genre, while demonstrating a sound understanding of the conventions of that genre. Highly recommended.

Gardner eventually wrote eight Boysie Oakes books and I’m now rather keen to find out what else Boysie gets up to.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight

Earthlight was Arthur C. Clarke’s sixth science fiction novel. It was published in 1955 but had begun life as a novella four years earlier.

The story takes place a couple of centuries into the future. Mars, Venus, Mercury and several of the larger satellites of Jupiter and Saturn are now politically independent of Earth and have formed the Federation. They face a problem however - they are entirely dependent on Earth for a great many absolutely critical resources. This has caused political tensions. The tensions have grown to the point where war seems very likely.

Sadler has just arrived at the Observatory on the Moon. He’s a mild-mannered accounting conducting an audit. At least that’s what he appears to be. In truth he is an agent of Earth’s Central Intelligence. Information has been leaking to the Federation and that information could exacerbate the political tensions and, in the event of war, be very disadvantageous to Earth. The leak seems to originate in the Observatory. Sadler has to find the leak and plug it. Sadler has lots of suspects to choose from but somehow he can’t believe any of them could be spies.

At this very moment there is great excitement at the Lunar Observatory. They have spotted a supernova. This will be the first ever opportunity to study a supernova with the aids of modern science.

There’s also something going on on the lunar surface not far from the Observatory. It’s clearly some hush-hush government project and it seems increasingly likely that it’s a military project.

Political tensions keep mounting and the drift to war, the first war for two hundred years, seems inevitable.

Clarke liked to make his science fiction as scientifically plausible as possible but of course, given that he wrote this book in the early 1950s, Earthlight is based on some mistaken ideas about our solar system. The chances of colonising Venus are close to zero. Even the colonisation of Mars or the Moon would present more formidable challenges. In the early 50s there was less awareness of the dangers that space colonists would face from radiation.

Clarke wasn’t just indifferent to characterisation. He was actively hostile to characterisation. For Clarke science fiction was about ideas. Any focus on the inner lives of the characters would be a fatal distraction. And any hint of a romance plot would be a distraction. Clarke wrote uncompromising pure science fiction. That was his approach and he stuck to it.

This is a book that reflects the boundless optimism of so much science fiction of that era. Our Destiny Lies In The Stars, that sort of thing. And it reflects the even more optimistic view that science and space exploration will solve all human problems. The weakness of this book is Clarke’s political naïvete. The idea that politicians (of all stripes) are motivated by greed, ambition, stupidity, cynicism and ignorance never occurred to him. The idea that the general public might be easily manipulated by greed, fear and ignorance also never occurred to him. He assumes that commonsense and reason will always ultimately prevail. He assumes that scientific progress must go hand-in-hand with an increasingly enlightened and reasonable outlook. It’s his excessive optimism that makes this novel seem hopelessly unworldly and unrealistic.

It’s always amusing to note the things that science fiction authors fail to predict about the future (because the future cannot be predicted). In this world of the mid-22nd century computer technology is still 1950s computer technology. Records are still kept by hand, on paper. Photography is an essential tool of astronomers and photographic technology remains at 1950s levels. This is an analog future.

Stylistically this is typical Clarke. Content-wise it’s radically different from his other books. This is a spy novel, but Clarke doesn’t really understand how to build the mystery and suspense required in a spy story. It’s also a story of war, and it’s odd to find Clarke writing about space battles. The climactic battle scenes are actually handled quite well, with some ingenious super-weapons. There’s also a reasonably well done space rescue.

Clarke’s ideas about what life would be like on the Moon and on planets like Mars, even if based on 1950s knowledge about the solar system, are interesting.

Overall this is not one of Clarke’s finest moments. The problem is not scientific implausibility but an implausible understanding of human nature. Clarke was a very great science fiction writer and Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars are rightly considered classics. Earthlight however is a bit of a misfire.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Jack Oleck’s Messalina

Jack Oleck’s 1959 novel Messalina belongs to a rather interesting sub-genre, a sub-genre we could perhaps call historical sleaze fiction. It’s historical fiction with the emphasis on sex, sin and scandal. Depending on how much trouble the author goes to to achieve a degree of historical accuracy it can be historical fiction with a large helping of sleaze or it can be sleaze fiction with a vague historical background. The most important thing is that the result should be trash of the very best sort, entertaining trash.

The obvious starting point for such a novel is to pick a notorious woman of history. If the author’s particular field of interest is Roman history that’s pretty easy. There were plenty of notorious Roman women. And the ancient historians who provide our main source of information about the period very often had a tase for sex and scandal. You can accuse the Romans of many things but you can’t accuse them of sugar-coating their own history. Roman historians tended to give us warts-and-all accounts of the great figures in their history.

The most notorious of all Roman women was possibly Messalina, the third wife of the Emperor Claudius. She married him in 38AD, three years before he became emperor. Accrdig to the accounts that have survived Messalina was was a ruthless schemer and was promiscuous to a degree that staggers the imagination. According to Pliny the Elder Messalina challenged Rome’s most famous prostitute of the time to a competition to see which of them could take on the most men in a single night. The Empress won easily, which led the exhausted Scylla to speculate that perhaps a certain intimate portion of the Empress’s anatomy was made of old army boots.

There is of course no such thing as an unbiased historian but in the modern era the idea took root that historians should at least make an attempt to be objective. The trouble with the Roman historians is that they made no attempt whatsoever to write unbiased history. And it’s a particular problem when it comes to the first of the imperial dynasties, the Julio-Claudian dynasty (from the time Augustus achieved supreme power after the battle of Actium in 30BC to the death of Nero in 68AD). The accounts of the reigns of these emperors are extraordinarily biased and Messalina’s evil reputation may have been mostly based on propaganda put about by her political enemies. So it’s quite possible that Messalina’s reputation as the “imperial harlot” is mostly, or even entirely, undeserved.

But the scandalous accounts of her life make a great story and one that is perfectly suited to the historical sleaze sub-genre.

At the beginning of Oleck’s book Messalina is fifteen. Her scheming mother Domitia Lepida has big plans for her but is worried about the awakening of Messalina’s sexuality. She worries that sooner or later Messalina will find a man with whom to explore her growing interest in sex which could lead her to become involved in an unsuitable relationship. Domitia Lepida comes up with a brilliant idea. She’ll get one of the household slaves, a seventeen-year-old Jewish lad named Isaac, to pleasure her daughter. After the slave has satisfied Messalina’s lusts he can be quietly disposed of. When Messalina requires further satisfaction for her sexual urges that will be no problem. The family owns plenty of slaves. Isaac duly carries out his part of the plan, and Messalina thoroughly enjoys herself. The second part of the plan, the disposal of Isaac, goes badly wrong.

Messalina’s family is related to the imperial family. One of the cronies of Messalina’s father Messala is Claudius. Claudius is widely regarded as a bit of a fool but he is the uncle of the emperor (Caligula). And when Claudius gets a glimpse of Messalina’s nude body he is clearly impressed.

Her night of passion with Isaac has momentous consequences. It puts her in a dangerous position and to extricate herself from that danger she has to marry Claudius. The marriage turns out reasonably well. Claudius is devoted to her and he is indulgent. He causes no real difficulties about her numerous lovers as long as she is discreet, and in her own way she is oddly fond of Claudius. And a couple of years later, against all the odds and in unexpected circumstances, Claudius becomes emperor. Being empress suits Messalina very well.

She is not always quite a discreet as she should be but she becomes adept at the game of imperial intrigue. Even before Claudius becomes emperor, during the reign of Caligula, she is able to dispose of a number of people who were possible threats, or possible obstacles, to her.

Oleck makes a genuine attempt to provide Messalina with fairly convincing motivations for her actions. Sometimes it’s lust, sometimes it’s revenge, sometimes it’s just a taste for the exercise of power. Sometimes it’s something else - a kind of emptiness inside her. No matter how many men share her bed she still feels vaguely dissatisfied emotionally. At times he doesn’t quite understand herself, or understand what it is that she craves. She may be monstrous at times but Oleck tries to make her a comprehensible monster. It’s also clear that she lives in a dangerous world. If you don’t learn to scheme you won’t survive.

Unfortunately there’s just a bit of a moralistic tone. Like most accounts of Messalina’s life this is a hatchet job and in the novel she sometimes comes across as too wicked to be convincing. Oleck tries to explain the reasons for her outlook on life but sometimes it just doesn’t provide a believable motivation for her actions. At times she’s just being wicked because she’s a wicked woman and wicked women do wicked things. Especially towards the end we’re expected to believer that she’s a self-centred crafty schemer and yet she’s doing things that are clearly against her own best interests.

The book takes a generally positive view of Claudius. For all his good nature he can be pretty sharp. Sometimes he seems unaware of things, but that’s usually because he has decided that it would be wisest to remain unaware of them. There are things about his wife that he needs to know, and there are other things about her that he needs not to know.

Historical fiction is always largely speculation and given how little we truly know about the ancient world an historical novel about Rome is bound to almost entirely speculation. The entire sub-plot involving Isaac, crucial to the novel, is pure invention. The author’s characterisations of Messalina and Claudius are largely speculative.

Of course the main objective is to provide us with a sex and sin extravaganza but while there’s plenty of sex it’s described in an extremely coy manner. It was 1959 after all. Given that the Roman historians weren’t the least bit coy about sex that’s a slight problem. The book needed a bit more spice.

Overall however it’s a reasonable amount of fun, an enjoyable enough Bad Girl story with a leavening of Roman decadence. Recommended because who doesn’t love Roman salaciousness and decadence?

Monday, June 6, 2022

Hammond Innes's Maddon’s Rock

Maddon’s Rock is a 1947 Hammond Innes thriller and it’s a textbook example of his approach to the writing of thrillers.

Hammond Innes (1913-1988) had a writing career that lasted almost sixty years (his first novel came out in 1937, his final novel appeared in 1996). In the postwar era and right up until the end of the 1970s Innes was one of the most popular of all thriller writes. After his death he pretty much vanished into obscurity. He was a very fine writer but his type of writing was no longer fashionable.

Innes wrote books with heroes. Heroes became progressively less fashionable. Writers and publishers preferred anti-heroes, or heroes who were so deeply flawed as to almost anti-heroes.

Innes was one of the writers who established a template for thrillers that was used with enormous success by celebrated thriller writers like Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Gavin Lyall - thrillers that were not pure spy thrillers but incorporated elements of crime, adventure and espionage.

Innes also followed in the Eric Ambler tradition of having heroes who were not necessarily professional spies or policemen. They were more likely to be ordinary guys who found themselves caught up in situations of danger, intrigue, espionage and crime. The reluctant hero tradition.

In 1947 when Maddon’s Rock was published Innes was really hitting his stride, having had major successes with novels such as Killer Mine, The Lonely Skier and The Blue Ice. He was already established as a reliable writer of bestsellers.

Alistair MacLean took the basic Hammond Innes formula but increased the pacing and added more action. MacLean was also a bit more daring when it came to narrative structure, experimenting with both fist-person and third-person narration and with unreliable narrators. MacLean was the greater writer but Innes provided the foundation on which he built.

Hammond Innes pioneered the thriller in which the landscape itself becomes a character. The landscape is as deadly an enemy as the bad guys. This was something that Alistair MacLean would bring to a point of perfection (especially in his masterpieces Night Without End and Ice Station Zebra). Both authors had a particular fondness for two types of setting - freezing wastes of snow and ice, and the sea. MacLean was clearly influenced by Innes but I think the truth is that both men had a genuine natural affinity for such landscapes, which is why they were able to use such settings so very effectively.

Maddon’s Rock is the story of the SS Trikkala which sank in March 1945 when it hit a mine. A year later a distress message is picked up - from the SS Trikkala.

In March 1945, with the war clearly almost over, a British Army corporal named Vardy and two other British soldiers are in Murmansk (where they had been assisting the Red Army in the war against Hitler) waiting to be repatriated to England. They board a nondescript freighter called the Trikkala. They are assigned to guard a special cargo. The crates are labelled as containing obsolete inoperative aero engines. Why would clapped-out obsolete aero engines need such security? The answer of course is that those crates do not contain aero engines. They contain bullion.

Vardy is a very ordinary guy. His fiancée has been pressuring him to get a commission but really Vardy has had enough of the Army. He just wants to go home, marry Betty and resume an ordinary life. He was an enthusiastic sailor with a deep and abiding love for the sea but was unable to get into the Navy. He’s not the stuff of which heroes are made. He’s no fool and he’s no coward, he’s just an average man doing his best.

There are things happening on the Trikkala which arouse Vardy’s suspicions. He overhears some odd conversations. He hears some extraordinary stories about the Trikkala’s captain, stories involving murder and piracy in the South China Sea before the war. Maybe they’re just tall tales that sailors tell each other in waterfront bars. There’s the fact that those crates do not contain aero engines.

Vardy is worried, but he doesn’t realise just how much he should be worried. He is headed for a nightmare.

There are three parts to the story, with the first and third parts taking place at sea.

How he responds, and how his relationship with Jenny Sorrell (the Trikkala’s only civilian passenger) develops are things that you’ll have to read the book to find out. What Innes does is to to take a relatively straightforward crime plot and add some very devious and very original twists. It becomes a story of suspicion, betrayal, love, revenge and survival with an extraordinary and unexpected action finale at Maddon’s Rock. It’s one of the great maritime adventure tales.

Innes also gives us an exceptionally memorable villain, a failed actor turned sea captain who quotes Shakespeare incessantly. When he’s quoting Hamlet you don’t have to worry but if he starts quoting Macbeth it’s time to be very afraid. Vardy is a fine hero, an unremarkable man who is forced to do remarkable things. There’s also a fine feisty heroine and some wonderfully colourful and eccentric minor characters. And there’s the rock itself, and the sea.

A great adventure story. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Peter Cheyney's The Urgent Hangman

Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) was an Englishman who had a very successful career writing American-style pulp thrillers, beginning in 1936. Cheyney hadn’t been to America but that didn’t matter. He was familiar with the America of the movies and the pulps and he assumed (correctly) that that was the flavour that readers wanted. He is best remembered for his crime/spy thrillers (such as Dames Don’t Care and Never a Dull Moment) involving FBI agent Lemmy Caution. He also wrote a series of novels dealing with a home-grown pulp creation, private eye Slim Callaghan, set in the seedier sleazier underside of London. The Urgent Hangman, published in 1938, was the first of the Slim Callaghan thrillers.

Slim Callaghan is a private detective and his business is not going well. He has seven-and-sixpence in his pocket and that represents his entire worldly wealth. He owns one pair of shoes and they’re falling apart. He hasn’t eaten all day. And, much more seriously, he has run out of cigarettes.

So his new client arrives just in time (and she arrives very late at night). As a bonus she’s young and gorgeous. Her name is Cynthis Meraulton. She spins him a very unlikely tale. Her very rich stepfather cannot live much longer. His fortune will be divided between Cynthis and the old boy’s five nephews. One of the nephews, Willie, is her husband-to-be. Willie is honest and reliable. His four brothers are penniless losers and probably crooks. Cynthis has been warned that she is in danger and has been advised to consult Slim Callaghan.

On that very night Cynthis’s stepfather is murdered. Cynthis is likely to be a suspect. She did not get on with her stepfather. In fact Slim is sure that she is the murderess. Nonetheless he sets out to prove her with a fake alibi. He later comes to feel that this was a mistake. Not that Slim has any qualms about providing fake alibis - his ethical standards are very very flexible. His reasons for doing so in this case are quite simple. Cynthis is a gorgeous woman.

Of course Cynthis might not be guilty. The four ne’er-do-well Meraulton brothers all had motives for killing the old man as well.

Slim concocts an incredibly elaborate plan to mislead the police. He also blackmails all of the Meraulton brothers and amasses a very tidy sum of money. But what exactly are his intentions? Detective Inspector Gringall isn’t sure. He disapproves of Slim but has a grudging respect for him. Whatever Slim is up to it’s bound to be clever. Not necessarily honest, but clever.

Old man Meraulton had made a new will, leaving everything to Cynthis. That will appears to be the key to the puzzle, and it is, but not in the obvious way.

Slim weaves an intricate web in which not only the various members of the Meraulton family are entangled but also their various mistresses and associates. Detective Inspector Gringall also seems to be caught in the web. Slim has an objective in mind but he is the only one with any idea what that objective might be.

Cheyney’s style is a kind of English hardboiled. It’s very very pulpy but it’s lively and energetic and fun.

Slim is a great character. He’s incredibly devious, he’s ruthless, he has no respect for the law and he may well be no better than a criminal but we can’t help liking him. His total disrespect for all the things that we are supposed to respect is endearing. And he’s a pretty tough guy. He can take a beating and come up smiling.

There’s no shortage of red herrings. Is it fairly clued? Since it’s not a traditional puzzle-plot mystery there’s no reason why the author should play fair but in a way he does. There’s a vital clue that we should spot but Cheyney makes sure that there’s so much going on and that we’re so involved with Slim’s scheming that we probably won’t stop long enough to notice its significance. I don’t think the author can be accused of pulling a solution out of a hat like a conjuror with a rabbit.

The Urgent Hangman has an air of seediness, sleaze, trashiness and cheapness. These are features, not bugs. It’s fine pulpy fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Nick Carter, The Cypher Letter

The Cypher Letter is a Nick Carter mystery.

Nick Carter is a fictional character with an intriguing history. He began life as a Sherlock Holmes-style detective in dime novels between 1886 and 1915. The character was revived in pulp magazines in the 1920s and again in the 1930s (this time as a hardboiled detective). In the 1960s he was revived yet again as a James Bond-style secret agent in the long-running Killmaster series of novels which were still being published as late as 1990. There have been various Nick Carter movies and radio serials.

The Nick Carter stories have always been credited to Nick Carter as author but in fact many different writers wrote Nick Carter adventures over the years.

I have no idea when The Cypher Letter was written but the fact that it takes place in New York but there’s not a single mention of cars or telephones leads me to suspect that it’s a pretty early story, possibly from the 1890s.

Nick Carter’s wife has come across a cypher letter the significance of which is unknown. At the same time Nick’s pal, Inspector Byrnes, has received an anonymous letter which claims that a serious crime has been committed in the Kempton mansion. These two letters do not appear to be connected but of course they are.

Old Archibald Kempton is blind but he’s extremely rich. He lives with this two daughters (who bear no resemblance to one another in looks or personality).

A child has been kidnapped but it’s not obvious how that ties in. Nick spots a smooth-talking gent leaving the Kempton mansion and suspects he could be worth following. The gent is Mortimer Guernsey and Nick’s suspicion that he is mixed up in this case proves to be well-founded.

Nick does some shadowing of suspects and he gets shadowed in turn, and that nearly costs him his life.

This early version of Nick Carter is very much an American Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was a master of disguise, so Nick Carter is a master of disguise. There’s a Sherlock Holmes stories about cyphers so here we get a Nick Carter story about cyphers. The disguise stuff is really overdone, to the point where at times it seems that disguise is the only detective technique of which Nick is aware.

The plot is outrageously melodramatic with some very far-fetched elements and lots of unlikely coincidences. And of course hair’s-breadth escapes from certain death.

This incarnation of Nick Carter is definitely not hardboiled nor is he a tough guy but he is just a bit more of an action hero than Holmes. He definitely has an American flavour.

This very short novel is interesting mostly for historical reasons. It’s a glimpse into the world of the American dime novel. And of course it gives us a sampling of the first version of a character who just kept bouncing back in different forms, and a character who was one of the first popular American fictional detectives. If you’re a serious student of the history of crime fiction you need to sample at least one Nick Carter story. Apart from that historical interest it doesn’t have all that much to recommend it although you might get some amusement from the outlandishly melodramatic plot. So maybe worth a look but with quite a few reservations.

This book seems to be obtainable only in a print-on-demand form which is riddled with distracting typographical errors.