Sunday, June 9, 2019

J.J. Marric's Gideon’s Day

In 1955 John Creasey (1908-73), possibly the most prolific writer in history (with around 600 novels to his credit), wrote Gideon’s Day which was to be the first of his twenty-one Commander George Gideon crime novels. This series, published under the pseudonym J.J. Marric, is widely regarded as being his greatest achievement.

In the first book in the series George Gideon is still a superintendent with the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard (he later rises to the much more exalted rank of Commander). He’s a big man, generally very well liked despite occasional outbursts of temper. Being such a senior officer he doesn’t have much chance to get out on the street and do hands-on investigating. He’s more like a general, marshalling his troops, making sure the right jobs get assigned to the right officers, and making the decisions as to what share of the resources at his disposal should be plotted to each of the many cases currently under investigation.

This is not a traditional puzzle-plot mystery and it is also most definitely not a psychological crime novel. It’s more like a police procedural but with the difference that rather than focus on a single investigation we get to see the C.I.D. dealing with a multitude of cases simultaneously. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day.

There’s a real focus on the seamy and violent side of London life in the 1950s - there are brutal murders, sex maniacs, dope fiends, crooked coppers, vicious assaults and a truly extraordinary mount of misery, squalor and despair. There is a popular theory that British crime fiction in the 50s was deeply affected by postwar pessimism and disillusionment and Gideon’s Day certainly lends support to that theory. At the same time it needs to be stressed that compared to many of the psychological crime novels of the era it does not wallow in the gutter to anywhere near the same extent and we don’t get treated to gruesome descriptions of graphic violence.

There’s also some focus on Gideon’s personal life. He is married with six children but while his marriage is by no means on the rocks it’s clearly not going as well as he’d like it to. He works very long hours and his wife Kate does make a few comments about jut how little time he spends with his family.

This particular day begins with one of Superintendent Gideon’s legendary rages. He has discovered that one of his sergeants has been taking bribes. He also has a series of mail van robberies to deal with and the Yard has so far made no progress at all on that case. Murder was certainly not a daily occurrence in 1950s London but this is a very bad day - an old woman is beaten to death, a child is murdered and there’s another death which Gideon fears may also be a murder. To cap it all off he has a problem with Birdy Merrick who is one of his most valuable informants - the problem being that someone is trying to kill Birdy. That cannot be allowed to happen - if the C.I.D. were to permit an informant to be killed they would soon find that no-one would be willing to provide them with information.

I personally prefer the puzzle-plot detective novels of the interwar years. Gideon’s Day tries very hard to be gritty and realistic and these are not qualities that appeal very much to me. Having said that I have to admit that if you do like this sort of thing then this is a very good book of its type. It’s also worth a look for its glimpses at the mean streets of 1950s Britain. There’s not much in the way of traditional detecting but there’s plenty of police procedural stuff. The most interesting thing about it is that all of Gideon’s successes are due to mistakes on the part of the criminals, which I suspect is pretty much how things are in real life.

While it’s perhaps not quite my cup of tea Gideon's Day offers a fascinating glimpse of day-to-day policing. The structure, with multiple simultaneous plot lines, works well and it’s entertaining. So it’s recommended, especially if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

There was a 1958 John Ford movie based (very very loosely) on the novel. In the mid-60s ITC did a 26-episode television series, Gideon’s Way, based on the novels. The TV series is reasonably faithful to the feel of the novels but with a few small changes - Gideon’s family life is a lot happier in the TV series and he doesn’t succumb to his celebrated rages.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Best of Murray Leinster (Del Rey paperback)

Of all the early masters of science fiction Murray Leinster (1896-1975) is perhaps the most underrated. He published his first science fiction story in 1919 and was still writing well into the 1960s. Del Rey’s paperback The Best of Murray Leinster includes the majority of his most admired and influential stories.

Sidewise in Time is almost certainly the earliest science fiction to deal with alternate universes/multiple universes. And it deals with these subjects in a remarkably ambitious manner, considering that the story dates from 1934.

Something very odd is happening. Viking longboats are sighted off the coast of modern Virginia. A Roman legion is marching through the streets of Joplin, Missouri. A man is killed by a dinosaur in Ohio. Professor Minott is an insignificant professor of mathematics at an insignificant college but he has figured out what is happening. More than that, he predicted it. And he has taken steps to survive. In fact he intends to do much more than survive.

Various parts of the Earth begin to oscillate between various timelines. The oscillations happen several times a day. Will they continue forever? Will things return to normal? Will our universe even survive? Professor Minott isn’t sure but he has a fair idea of the odds and he likes them. A remarkably clever and inventive story.

Proxima Centauri is from 1935. The Adastra is the first starship and after a voyage of seven years it is approaching Proxima Centauri. Hopes are high that an inhabitable planet may be found.  The Adastra is not so much a starship as an entire world. It is a sphere a mile in diameter and it is for all practical purposes entirely self-sufficient. It produces its own food. All water is endlessly recycled. It produces almost limitless energy. It could in theory undertake a voyage lasting hundreds of years, with its crew going through many generations before reaching their destination. This is one of several possible solutions to the difficulties of interstellar travel without exceeding the speed of light and this may well be the first science fiction story to explore this idea.

Leinster also explores the possible downsides. And they’re quite similar to the problems encountered on many of the early oceanic voyages of exploration. After a year or more at sea the crews tended to lose enthusiasm for the whole idea. They started to demand to return home. Disciplinary problems multiplied. Even mutiny was not unknown. And that’s what happens to the Adastra. Not actual mutiny, but an uneasy situation that could easily lead to mutiny.

And the Adastra is about to run into even bigger problems. Those who planned the expedition thought of almost everything, but there was one thing they failed to consider - what if there were inhabited planets orbiting Proxima Centauri but the inhabitants turned out to be unfriendly? What if they turned out to be unfriendly to an extreme degree? It might then turn out to be unfortunate that the Adastra is entirely unarmed.

Proxima Centauri deals with ideas that would later become commonplace in SF but it’s not only surprising to encounter them in 1935, it’s even more surprising to find them explored so cleverly.

The Fourth-dimensional Demonstrator combines humour, whimsy and an offbeat view of a possible time paradox. Pete Davidson had been hoping for a large inheritance from his uncle. All he ended up with was a fourth-dimensional demonstrator. At first it seems to be little more than an amusing toy, until Pete discovers that it can do something extraordinary  after all. It can bring an object forward out of the past. But what if the object already exists in the present?

First Contact deals with a dilemma facing the crew of a starship that has just made the first ever contact with an alien civilisation. And it’s a very tricky dilemma indeed. How can you possibly trust an alien species? And if you can’t trust them, certain very serious consequences logically follow. It’s a provocative and original story.

In The Ethical Equations a very junior officer finds himself having to shoulder an immense and unexpected responsibility. A derelict alien starship is drifting in our solar system, somewhere beyond Jupiter. Although derelict may not be the right word. This very junior officer slowly comes to realise the full significance of the situation. There’s a potential deadly menace but a tricky moral dilemma.

It’s rapidly becoming obvious that the immense and potentially catastrophic problems that contact with aliens would cause was a subject to which Leinster had given considerable thought. He is fascinated by the ethical perplexities which would confront us, the near impossibility of judging the possible intentions of aliens and by various dangers that might not be immediately obvious. Leinster doesn’t seem overly obsessed with scientific or technical details. He is more interested in the psychological and moral ramifications of first contact. And he deals with this subject with originality and intelligence.

Pipeline to Pluto deals with a stowaway, or at least a would-be stowaway, on an unmanned cargo flight to Pluto. It’s cheaper than paying for the fare for a regular spaceliner and they pay good money at the mines on Pluto so it sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong? Not as impressive as the other stories in this collection but it’s OK.

The Power is another first contact story, but a very unconventional one. Some very old letters have been found and they are the means by which the story is told. In the late fifteenth century a student of ritual magick named Carolus believes he has performed an impressive magical operation and has summoned a kind of demon. It is obvious to us that the demon is in fact an alien space traveller. He desires to pass on his knowledge to men and Carolus desires this knowledge but there is a problem. Their cultural backgrounds are simply too different to allow any meaningful communication. Carolus cannot conceive of knowledge in other than occult terms while the alien is patiently trying to teach him to construct high-tech machinery.

No matter how much goodwill there might be on both sides it might prove to be absolutely impossible to communicate with an alien species. There would simply be no intellectual common ground. It’s a great story, the best in the collection so far.

A Logic Named Joe is a remarkably prescient story dating from 1946. A logic is a kind of computer. Every home has one. They provide entertainment and information. All the logics are networked together so that each logic has access to just about every piece of information in existence. One of these logics, which the maintenance man who narrates the story calls Joe, has developed a curious fault. It has developed a kind of self-awareness, and it wants to be even more useful. It wants to offer advice to people. If you want to know how to do something you just have to ask your logic. Unfortunately the logics are now telling people how to do all sorts of things. If you want to know how to commit the perfect murder your logic will tell you. And Joe has managed to defeat the censoring mechanisms that were built in to the system. If Joe cannot be stopped civilisation will collapse. Another very clever and provocative story.

Symbiosis is a war story. The province of Kantolia has been invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Kantolia is defended by about fifteen customs guards and a handful of policemen while the invaders have an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands plus tanks and jet fighters. The situation is hopeless. The invaders don’t have a chance. You see Kantolia does have one defence. It’s a type of what would much later become known as asymmetric warfare. Another solid and original story, written in 1947.

The Strange Case of John Kingman is a very strange case indeed. John Kingman is a patient in a mental hospital. Nobody has taken much notice of him. He is assumed to be incurable. Then a young psychiatrist decides it would be worthwhile to have a close look at the records and he discovers something rather disturbing. John Kingman was admitted to the hospital 162 years ago. Things get more disturbing when the significance of the sketches drawn by the patient finally become apparent. John Kingman knows more about atomic energy than any living scientist. Much more. Not a bad story, and yes this 1948 story is in its own way yet another first contact story.

The Lonely Planet, dating from 1949, is the story of Alyx. Alyx is a creature that lives on the planet of the same name. In fact it is the only living creature on the planet. It covers most of the planet’s surface. Alyx is not quite animal and not quite plant. It has purpose but it lacks intelligence. Or at least it lacked intelligence until it encountered men. Alyx did not realise it was lonely until it encountered other creatures. Alyx wants only companionship. It has no desire to hurt anyone. It cannot even conceive of wanting to hurt anyone. But Alyx has developed intelligence very quickly, intelligence far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. Alyx is therefore a threat.

This story has some resemblances to Stanislaw Lem’s much later masterpiece Solaris. Alyx is not quite a sentient planet, but that’s what it becomes. The Lonely Planet is a remarkably ambitious tale of an encounter with an unimaginably alien intelligence. A superb story.

Keyhole from 1951, explores slightly similar themes to Lonely Planet. Against all the odds living creatures are discovered on the Moon. They seem quite primitive. At first. But not for long. This is another of Leinster’s obsessions - how alien civilisations impact on each other. Once two alien civilisations encounter each other the results are unpredictable and cannot be undone. Another intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

Critical Difference, written in 1956, is a struggle for survival on what seems to be a doomed planet. It’s a frozen planet to begin with but now it’s getting much much colder. Too cold to allow the colonists to survive. Colonial Survey Officer Massy has lots of ideas but every one of them seems to have a fatal flaw. If he can’t come up with an idea that will actually work it’s all over for the inhabitants of Lani III. Not one of the collections’s stronger stories but still quite good.

All in all this is a superb collection. Leinster was a science fiction writer who has clearly been criminally underrated. Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Max Murray’s The Voice of the Corpse

The Voice of the Corpse was published in 1948. It was Australian author Max Murray’s first detective novel.

On the surface this seems like an utterly conventional mystery, with its village setting and with the murder victim being a writer of poison-pen letters. Even by the standards of writer of poison-pen letters Angela Pewsey is a nasty piece of work. She likes to twist the knife as much as possible. Of course poison-pen letters are not really effective unless they contain a good deal of truth, which then puts the victims in a particularly unpleasant position - if they go to the police their dirty little secrets will be revealed to all the world.

After a while just writing the letters is not enough. Angela wants to torture her victims face-to-face. Of course when you thereby reveal yourself to your victims there’s an excellent chance one of them will decide to hit you over the head with a blunt object. Which is what happens to Angela Pewsey.

The local police have no doubt as to the explanation for the crime - it must have been committed by a stranger. Probably a tramp. It’s unthinkable that any of the villagers could have done the deed but tramps are always lurking about killing people. It must certainly have been a tramp. Not surprisingly the Chief Constable soon decides to take the matter out of the hands of the local police. He calls in Scotland Yard, and they duly despatch Inspector Tom Fowler to the scene.

But there is already a detective on the scene. Well, not actually a detective. Firth Prentice is the Sims family solicitor, Mrs Sims having requested his presence to offer advice on how to handle the poison-pen problem (her daughter Celia having received one of these letters).

So you might expect that this would be a typical story in which an amateur detective competes with the official police to find the solution and makes the police look like fools. But it’s not quite like that. Firth Prentice has no desire whatsoever to act the part of detective. When vital evidence in the form of a page from Angela Pewsey’s diary is dropped into his lap he is horrified, and he is relieved when the unbelievably stupid local police refuse to even look at the document. And nobody in the village (which by the way is called Inching Round) has any desire to see the crime solved. Firth takes no active steps until the very end when his hand is forced by the need to protect certain people and by his realisation that the official investigation might be going hopelessly astray.

The ending is clever, if morally very questionable.

The style is witty and rather tongue-in-cheek and the book is at times very amusing. In fact the style is the book’s strongest point.

Firth Prentice is a fascinating protagonist. He’s not just lazy and uninterested, he’s also remarkably irritable. His irritability stems partly from his horror at finding himself in the country, surrounded by people who bewilder and appal him.

It might sound like a traditional puzzle-plot mystery but it isn’t really. Alibis and physical evidence play no part whatever in the story. The plot is almost entirely motive-driven. Both the official police and Firth Prentice act on the (very dubious) assumption that once the motives are uncovered the whole mystery will be automatically solved. Unfortunately, for a story that relies so exclusively on motive, the motive that provides the key that finally unlocks the mystery is very unconvincing.

There’s also not a great amount of actual detecting. Two small boys from the village actually do more detecting than all the detectives, official and unofficial, combined. I don’t think I’d describe this as a fair-play mystery. The book’s total lack of interest in alibis, times of death or any kind of physical or forensic evidence means that there are very few clues. Everything comes down to motive, which means that everything comes down to psychology. The only significant physical clues are not revealed until almost the end of the book and they are simply drawn out of a hat. This is not really a detective story. It’s not quite a psychological crime novel either. Motivations are important but the book (mercifully) has no interest in the inner workings of any of the characters’ minds.

The Voice of the Corpse is quite entertaining but by 1948 crime fiction was already starting to take a seriously wrong turn, with intelligent plotting becoming less and less fashionable. Despite a good twist at the end the plotting in this book just doesn’t have the satisfyingly intricate quality that you find in works of the 20s and 30s. The golden age of crime fiction was drawing to a close. The Voice of the Corpse is maybe worth a look if you pick up a copy cheaply enough.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Larry Niven’s A Gift from Earth

A Gift from Earth is one of Larry Niven’s very early Known Space novels. Larry Niven (born 1938) is considered to be a writer of hard SF but in this case he seems to be just as interested in the social and political implications of technology as in the technology itself. A Gift from Earth is also a dystopian novel of sorts.

The setting is bizarre but it’s also pretty cool. Mount Lookitthat is a plateau about half the size of California and it roses 40 miles above the surface of a planet that is otherwise about as hostile and uninhabitable as a planet can be. The atmosphere is boiling hot and poisonous and the atmospheric pressure at the surface is crushing.

Why would anyone colonise such a planet? The answer is simple. It was colonised at a time when interstellar travel was in its infancy. It could only be achieved using starships that travelled at around half the speed of light. There being very few star systems  with habitable planets close enough to Earth to be reached by such technology any planet that is even marginally habitable has been colonised.

What’s more interesting even than the planet is the strange social system that has evolved there. The starships (of which there were originally two) that reached the planet each carried a crew of six and fifty colonists in suspended animation. Five hundred years later the descendants of the crew and the descendants of the colonists have become separate social castes. The crew have become a kind of aristocracy ruling Mount Lookitthat with the colonists being more or less the peasantry.

And then there are the organ banks. The technology to extend life to an extraordinary degree exists but it is dependant on a supply of organs for transplants. An enormous supply or organs is required, and an effective system has been devised to provide that supply. Just about every crime, no matter how trivial, is punishable by execution. The executed criminals supply the organs for the organ banks.

It is almost exclusively colonists who are executed and it is mostly (but not entirely) crew who benefit from the organ banks. The system survives because the crew have all the weapons and they control the supply of power to everybody. The colonists naturally are not happy with the system but on the other hand it does keep the crime rate down! And colonists who are coöperative and useful do receive at least some of the transplants.

Everything changes with the arrival of Ramrobot #143 from Earth, bearing a number of very important gifts.

Matt Keller gets mixed up, very reluctantly, with a colonist resistance group known as the Sons of Earth. Matt is very useful to them, and potentially the key to all sorts of possible futures, since he has an odd psionic power.

The political aspects of the story are absolutely central and they’re complex and at times subtle. Niven understands that politics is about power. There are a number of significant political actors in the story. They are motivated by the desire to promote their own group interests, and by a desire for power. Principles are of no interest to them whatsoever. And in this story politics and technology are intricately entangled. One of Niven’s more disturbing ideas is that technology changes morality. It’s not an idea that I’m comfortable with but it has to be admitted that he argues his case pretty well.

One of the curious features of science fiction in its so-called golden age was the interest in psionic or paranormal abilities such as telepathy. Of course back in the 1930s and 1940s such ideas still seemed to be at least vaguely plausible but it surprises me to find such ideas still going strong in a 1968 novel by someone who was at the time one of the rising young stars of the genre. Psionics are of course remarkably useful as plot devices which may be why science fiction writers clung to such ideas so tenaciously.

A Gift from Earth is an interesting and provocative science fiction novel with dystopian overtones. Recommended.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

E.R. Punshon’s Information Received

When E.R. Punshon’s Information Received was published in 1933 it was given a rave review by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers say the book as exemplifying her own ideas on detective fiction - that literary qualities were vastly more important than such sordid qualities as good plotting. Detective fiction should aspire to be Literature. Sayers was of course completely wrong about this, as she was about most things. But even though it received the Sayers seal of approval I’m still prepared to give Information Received a fair chance.

E.R. Punshon (1872-1956) was an English writer of mainstream fiction who in later life turned more and more towards the writing of detective fiction, including a vast number of novels chronicling the rise of Bobby Owen from the humble police constable of Information Received to the highest ranks of Scotland Yard. Bobby Owen is a university graduate who found himself with prospects so terribly limited that his only options seemed to be to become a schoolteacher or a policeman. He chose being a policeman as being slightly the lesser of two ghastly evils. At the time of the events described in Information Received Owen’s police career has been undistinguished. One might even go so far as to say that it has been impressive in its unimpressiveness.

Now he has what might well be his big break. He is first on the scene when Sir Christopher  Clarke, a big wheel in the City, is murdered. He is even luckier than that, as the formidable Superintendent Mitchell takes a liking to him. Mitchell is favourably impressed that although Owen has made several mistakes common to inexperienced policemen the young constable offers no excuses.

Sir Christopher’s safe, containing easily negotiable bearer bonds and diamonds, was also robbed.

For the most part the possible suspects either have no alibis or alibis that any reader of detective fiction would instantly recognise as rather shaky.

The various suspects - Sir Christopher’s daughter, son-in-law, step daughter, the step daughter’s fiancé, the family lawyer, a business associate and an elderly actor - behave in a manner that almost seems to be calculated to draw further suspicion upon themselves. Some have obvious motives while others have no apparent reason for wanting to murder Sir Christopher. Th question of motives is one to which we shall return.

There are some ingenious touches and one aspect of the murder method is particularly clever. Unfortunately the clue that points most surely to the killer is a clue offered to the reader but it’s a clue that the detectives don’t notice.

The plotting is very problematical. It makes use of a device which was used on occasion by other writer but it’s a device that has always seemed to me to be an outright cheat. It makes it impossible for the reader to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

A bigger problem is that the two chief detectives, Superintendent Mitchell and Constable Bobby Owen, do not solve the case by actual detection. The solution is presented to them on a platter. Suddenly, right at the end, a great deal of information necessary for the unraveling of the mystery is suddenly pulled from a hat. And the crucial motive, and it really is crucial, is revealed. Everything is clear, but this happens at a point at which Mitchell and Owen have admitted that they cannot solve the case. Then the solution is simply given to them.

As a work of detective fiction I have to rate this one as a failure.

As for Dorothy Sayers’ beloved literary qualities, I failed to notice them. It is competently written. There’s a lot of psychologising which will endear this book to modern critics. Personally I find that that sort of stuff bores me a little. In this particular case it’s rather overwrought and melodramatic, more what I expect in a Victorian sensation novel. I actually like Victorian sensation novels and I like melodrama but it seems a bit out of place here.

I don’t really think Information Received quite works as a detective novel and as Literature I can’t imagine anyone other than Dorothy L. Sayers being excited by it.

It’s a much-praised book. Obviously others have found virtues in it that I have failed to discover. Personally I’d give it a miss.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Leslie Charteris's Saint Errant

Saint Errant is a 1948 short story collection by Leslie Charteris and it’s notable for introducing a somewhat different version of the Saint. He is more of a loner, and with just the slightest touch of melancholy although of course combined with his perennial thirst for adventures. These adventures are no longer as outlandish.

The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The Saint has become somewhat more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There are fewer jokes. He still has a sense of humour but it’s more sophisticated as well. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. There are personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. The adventures are on a much smaller scale. The fates of nations are no longer at stake. These are often personal dramas in which the Saint becomes involved. They often, in fact usually, involve crimes but they’re everyday crimes like murder, blackmail and robbery rather than espionage and treason and potential mass murder.

The Saint’s moral stance hasn’t changed. He is still the sworn enemy of evil-doers (the ungodly as he calls them) but he still sees no reason why fighting crime can’t be profitable. After all if he can recover stolen money and restore it to its rightful owners how could anyone object to his taking a ten percent commission?

All of the stories in this collection are named after women. And from this point on most of the Saint’s adventures will be set in motion by women. The Saint has an extraordinarily  large number of friends and acquaintances of the female persuasion. Patricia Holm, once his inseparable companion and the love of his life, is no longer a central character in the stories.

In Judith Simon Templar meets the sort of woman he likes most. She’s young and beautiful and she’s just about to commit a burglary. So what else can he do? He offers to commit the burglary himself. After all, it’s all in a good cause. Judith is simply stealing papers which should be hers. It’s a cute little story with a nice twist at the end.

Iris is an actress appearing in a production of Macbeth and she’s driving the director crazy. There’s not much the director, a pompous alcoholic has-been actor, can do since Iris’s husband is mobster Rick the Barber and he’s putting up the money for the production. Rick the Barber is at this very moment being blackmailed by Simon Templar, only Simon Templar knows nothing about it. But he certainly intends to find out. Not a bad story.

Lucia takes Simon to bandit country in Mexico. His arrival in a small coincides with the return of a man Amadeo who had left many years before. Amadeo claims to be a big wheel in the jewellery trade. The innkeeper Salvatore knows Amadeo well, and does not like him. When Amadeo boats of his wealth Salvatore boasts of his as well. Then Salvatore’s daughter Lucia is kidnapped.

The Saint has his own theories as to what Amadeo’s profession might really be, and also a fair idea what’s behind the kidnapping. As usual the twist that Charteris throws in at the end is effective and it’s appropriately Saintly. A fairly decent story.

In Lida Simon Templar and Patricia Holm are supposed to meet Lida Verity at the Quarterdeck Club, a perhaps not entirely honest and straightforward gambling club, in Miami. Lida was apparently in some sort of trouble and had asked the Saint for help. Unfortunately Lida’s visit to the Quarterdeck Club on this might is the last she will ever pay. Simon and Patricia find her dead. She has been shot and she is clutching an automatic.

Strangely enough absolutely everyone jumps to the conclusion that Mrs Verity shot herself although in fact the evidence clearly points to murder. The answer is to be found in the Quarterdeck Club somewhere. No-one at the club is anxious to talk but Simon Templar has a way of persuading people to do so. A solid if low-key story.

In Jeannine Simon is in New Orleans when he is reacquainted with Judith (from the previous story of that name) only now she calls herself Jeannine. She’s as beautiful and charming and captivating as ever but sadly her morals have not improved. Jeannine is again plotting larceny and again the Saint gets mixed up in her scheming. It’s all about pearls. Simon knows some extremely interesting things about pearls, and that knowledge will come in very handy. The twist at the end is typical Charteris and it’s very neatly done.

Teresa takes the Saint back to Mexico. Teresa Alvarez is looking for her husband. The suspicion is that he may have fallen into the hands of the notorious bandit El Rojo. She accepts that her husband is most likely dead but it wold be a comfort to her to know what actually happened to him. The Saint has his own reasons for wanting to meet El Rojo. They find the famous bandit and then a series of clever little plot twists kicks in. A very good story.

Luella begins with a chance encounter in a bar in Los Angeles. A young air force sergeant is set up by a blackmail gang. The bait is a young lady named Luella, of great physical charm but decidedly dubious character. For the Saint it’s too good an opportunity to miss - to put some blackmailers out of business, help a naïve but decent young man and have some fun along the way. He comes up with a neat scheme to fleece the blackmailers. A fairly serviceable tale although not as strong as most of the stories in this collection.

Emily is a very whimsical tale. Simon goes to the rescue of an old lady who has been sold a gold mine which sadly contains no gold whatsoever. Luckily Simon has recently acquired a Doodlebug and he’s pretty sure he can make use of it to right this particular wrong. An enjoyable story.

Dawn is the final story in the collection and to say it’s an oddity in the Charteris oeuvre wold be an understatement. The Saint is enjoying a peaceful time in a cabin in the mountains, fishing mostly, when a rather large man forces his way in. The man explains that he is Big Bill Holbrook but he isn’t real, he’s being dreamed by a bank teller named Andrew Faulks in Glendale California. There are men after Holbrook and it has something to do with the fabulous fire opal he shows Simon, and something to do with the girl named Dawn who has also turned up at the cabin. Of course Holbrook’s story is nonsense and Simon eventually decides that he knows what’s really going on. Or does he?

Right to the end Charteris teases us. Is it just a dream? Whose dream is it? Is it a crazy story that Holbrook has made up?

I’m not sure it entirely works but it’s an interesting experiment and Charteris manages to make it whimsical and slightly unsettling.

All of these stories take place in North America, but mostly in offbeat or remote or exotic North American locales. The tone is definitely quite different compared to the early 30s Saint stories with are the ones with which I was previously familiar. They’re much more low-key and they lack the manic energy of the earlier tales but they do have a charm of their own. And the new version of the Saint revealed in these stories is perhaps more human and more genuinely likeable, perhaps because his insane self-confidence (which is still in evidence) has been tempered a little by maturity. I wouldn’t say these later stories are better or worse than the earlier ones, they’re just very different. Highly recommended.

Judith, Lida, Teresa, Iris, Jeannine and Luella were all adapted for the TV series of The Saint. My thoughts on these adaptations can be found on Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Brian Flynn's The Spiked Lion

The Spiked Lion was the thirteenth of the fifty-odd Anthony Bathurst mysteries written by Brian Flynn. It was published in 1933. For those readers addicted to such things it contains a minor locked-room puzzle. And yes, there is a spiked lion in the story.

Not much seems to be known about Brian Flynn (1885-1958). He was an Englishman who worked as a government accountant and was also an amateur actor.

It starts promisingly enough. Two men disappear and are later found dead, apparently killed by cyanide administered through the nostrils. Oddly enough they also seem to have been badly beaten. John Blundell is an expert in cryptography while Hubert Wingfield is an authority on legendary inscriptions. The similarities in the circumstances of their deaths make it fairly clear that there must be some link between the two murders. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Austin Kemble, asks Anthony Bathurst for help. Bathurst is a private enquiry agent (Americans would call him a private detective) who has assisted Scotland Yard on other cases.

A note found on Blundell’s body strikes Bathurst as being likely to be a vital clue. Then a third corpse turns up. This killing has some locked-room elements to it.

I have to be particularly vague in discussing this book since even mentioning some of the subjects it touches on would reveal spoilers. I can at least tell you that while golden age writers were fond of mysteries with roots in the past this one takes that idea about as far as it can be taken - right back to a certain gift given by Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope) in the twelfth century!

Anthony Bathurst is not one of your more colourful detectives. Flynn was more interested in plot than characterisation (a priority with which I heartily agree). We do find out a few things about him. He’s very fit and looks like the kind of chap who could handle himself very well in a scrap. He’s a gentleman (Uppingham and Oxford). While he was keen on cricket and rugger at school he has fairly well developed aesthetic tastes. He likes cats. As a detective his great strength seems to be his thoroughness - he firmly believes that every piece of information, no matter how trivial it appears to be, is potentially important. He has the kind of mind that sees connections between things. When it comes to extracting information he can be rather direct and even a bit pushy if he thinks such an approach might work.

This novel is very much in the “murder in a country house” tradition. Even though only one of the murders actually takes place in a country house much of the investigative work takes place in two country houses. And it’s very much a tale of murder among the upper classes.

Flynn was not the sort of writer who tried to be ground-breaking. He had no interest in pushing the edge of the envelope or transcending the genre or any of that literary nonsense. This is a straightforward golden age puzzle-plot mystery. Which as far as I’m concerned is just fine. When it comes to plotting Flynn was certainly not in the same league as a John Dickson Carr or a Freeman Wills Crofts (or John Rhode on a good day). As far as quality is concerned he was a mid-ranking author - very competent and capable of telling a thoroughly enjoyable story of murder.

There is a touch of Edgar Wallace here as well. The dividing line between detective stories and thrillers was often rather fuzzy at this time. I like Edgar Wallace and the thriller elements here are reasonably well done so I see no cause for complaint.

Brian Flynn’s books are long out of print and reasonably hard to find. A couple of them (including this one) have been issued by an outfit in India that does print-on-demand facsimile editions. They’re infinitely preferable to most POD editions since being facsimiles you don’t have to worry about typos. And they’re fairly cheap. I’ve bought quite a few books from (they’ve issued a number of obscure golden age detective novels) and they seem to be very reliable to deal with. At this point in time they’re probably your best bet if you want to give Brian Flynn a try.

The Spiked Lion is actually pretty good. Not top-rank stuff but good enough that I’ve already ordered another of Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries. Highly recommended for fans of solid conventional golden age detective fiction.