Saturday, August 17, 2019

Thea von Harbou's The Indian Tomb

Thea von Harbou (1888-1954) was a German novelist and screenwriter. She was married for a time to Fritz Lang. She wrote the screenplays for all his films from 1920 to 1933, which include some of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time so she has some claims to being Germany’s most important screenwriter. She was also a popular novelist and she wrote novelisations of some of the screenplays she wrote for Lang, including Metropolis. She was very much influenced by Karl May, a German writer of adventure stories (including an immense number of westerns). She was a popular commercial writer but judging by this book and by the only other book of hers that I’ve read, Metropolis, she’s a very underrated and under-appreciated writer.

The Indian Tomb was written in 1918 and was a major success. It has been filmed three times, including a late 1950s version by Fritz Lang. It’s only comparatively recently that it’s been made available in an English translation.

The Indian Tomb is the story of a German architect recently recovered from a near-fatal illness who receives an unusual commission. He is told that he must leave immediately for India, he must in fact leave that very night. He knows nothing of the man who has offered him the commission other than the fact that he is immensely wealthy and he wants a tomb for his recent deceased wife. The tomb must be not merely beautiful, it must surpass even the Taj Mahal. The architect is offered a fabulous sum of money but it is the challenge and the opportunity that causes him to accept the commission. This is a chance to build something greater than he has ever built before, something grate than he could ever have imagined building.

He arrives at the prince’s palace, and meets the prince. At first it all seems a bit bewildering but he expected that. And then he finds that the situation is not all what he expected and the job is not what he expected. He cannot do, but he may have no choice. He’s entered a strange nightmare world. The palace is a wonderful creation, a combination of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary horror, filled with wonders and terrors. It’s more like city than a palace, or perhaps a vast prison. If only his beloved wife were there with him. He has heard her voice but of course the was a dream. She is back home in Germany.

The palace is built on an island in a lake. In fact it is the island. The lake has some peculiar properties. Many men have tried to swim the lake. None survived.

There is a very entertaining interlude in the home of the jeweller Mohammed ben Hassan. His home is more like an amazing fortress, filled with unimaginable riches.

If you’re familiar with Metropolis then you’ll know that von Harbou was fascinated by imaginary cities and by strange and sometimes sinister architecture. It’s no accident that the hero of the novel is an architect - perhaps only an architect could survive the prince’s palace, although of course an architect might be particularly susceptible to the madness of the place.

The prince’s motives are mysterious. He offers explanations but Fürbringer has no way of being sure what these explanations mean. They almost certainly don’t mean what they appear to mean.

One of the best things about the book is that von Harbou was fascinated by India but never set foot there. This is an India of the imagination. It’s an amalgam of traveler’s tales, the Arabian Nights, fairy tales and pure fancy. It’s a bit like the Arabian Nights retold by Kafka.

Fürbringer has entered a world in which he knows none of the rules. That’s the main obstacle to escape - where would he escape to? He is in an alien world and he doesn’t even know what to be afraid of.

And once he thinks he’s figured things out he still doesn’t really understand why is going on.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. Unfortunately it has one flaw and it’s a near-fatal flaw. I can’t tell you what it is because it would be a huge spoiler. Interestingly, the ending has similarities to the ending of one of Fritz Lang’s American films, not written by Thea von Harbou.

Despite the flaw it’s an interesting book with lots of exoticism and some great weird sinister atmosphere (the horses are a nice touch but I’m not going to tell you what’s so delightfully and creepily strange about them). So I’d still recommend this book. Metropolis on the other hand is a great book.

Fritz Lang's 1959 movie version of The Indian Tomb, the two-part film known as the Indian Epic, is excellent.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Christopher St John Sprigg's Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman was the fourth of seven detective novels written by Englishman Christopher St John Sprigg (1907-37). It was published in 1934 and it was well received by critics including Dorothy L. Sayers.

At around the time this novel was published Sprigg was developing what would soon become an all-consuming interest in Marxism. He wrote voluminously on Marxism and in 1936 went off to fight for the cause of communism in the Spanish Civil War. Within a very short space of time at the front he was killed in action.

There isn’t much indication of Sprigg’s growing political convictions in Death of an Airman. He was a man who evidently took his political beliefs very very seriously but the tone of the novel is light and breezy. The central character of the novel is a bishop which is interesting. Sprigg was raised as a Catholic. It was not unusual in those day for devout Catholics to transform themselves into devout Marxists. You might suspect that Spring chose a clergyman as protagonist in order to mock a belief system that he was in the process of abandoning but I can’t find much in the book to support such a notion. The bishop gives the impression of being a decent sort of chap, quite sincere in his religious beliefs, fairly easy-going, quite intelligent and very perceptive. It was not uncommon for doctrinaire Marxists to be doctrinaire atheists as well but I can’t see any evidence here of such sentiments.

The only thing that makes Dr Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra (he’s an Australian bishop and he’s an Anglican), even slightly unusual is his passion for flying. He has joined the Boston Aero Club to learn to fly. His instructor was to be George Furnace, the club’s chief instructor. Furnace is a very experienced pilot and generally well liked. On the day on which he is to have his first lesson the bishop arrives early. Furnace has taken his aircraft up for a spin, apparently something he often does to clear the mental cobwebs. Much to the horror of those watching from the ground, including the bishop, Furnace’s plane goes into a spin from which it does not recover. Furnace’s body is cut out of the wreck. He was apparently killed instantly. The cause of death is perfectly obvious and there is no need for a post-mortem.

It’s all a bit odd. The aeroplane was regularly serviced and had recently been overhauled and inspected and all the control cables had been renewed. It seems very unlikely that the controls could have jammed. Furnace was such an experienced and cautious pilot that it seems hardly credible that he would have been unable to regain control. And he had recently had a medical examination and was in perfect health so it also seems unlikely that he could have blacked out. Of course there is one possible explanation but Furnace was well liked and no-one wants to consider the possibility of suicide. The inquest naturally brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.

Dr Marriott is however puzzled and a little disturbed. If you’re a clergyman in a remote part of Australia it is useful to have some medical knowledge as well and as part of his preparation for missionary work Dr Marriott undertook a three-year medical course at university. He may not be a qualified physician but he has a pretty fair acquaintance with cases of sudden death and there’s something he noticed when he saw the body not long after the crash. Something that didn’t seem quite right.

This is in fact an impossible crime story, but you won’t know that until you’re well into the book. At first it’s a puzzling death. As more and more evidence comes to light it becomes apparent that George Furnace’s death was quite impossible. The police can come up with no explanation that is consistent with the evidence. The worry with impossible crimes is always that the eventual solution will be a let-down but in this case the solution is both satisfactory and clever.

There are three detectives in this story. Inspector Creighton is the local man in charge but when it becomes apparent that the case has wider ramifications Inspector Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard (one of Sprigg’s regular characters) is called in to assist. And then there’s the bishop, without whose amateur sleuthing none of the facts would have come to light.

There are a lot of lady pilots in this story. Of course if you’re going to do a murder mystery centred on a flying club you’re going to have to find a way to work some female characters into the story so making them aviatrices is logical enough. And in the 1930s lady flyers were quite a big thing. They provided good copy for the newspapers and had definite celebrity status. And aviation provides a glamorous and exciting setting for the story (it helps that Sprigg had an aviation background so he knew his stuff). Sprigg may have been on the road to becoming an ardent communist but in 1934 he certainly had the right commercial instincts when it came to writing his detective novels.

Sprigg’s style is sly and witty and very appealing. There is a great deal of amusement to be had here but he does not allow it to get out of hand. This is primarily a mystery and he certainly does not neglect plotting. The howdunit angle is perhaps more important than the whodunit aspect and it’s fairly clued and nicely devious.

In his introduction to the British Library edition Martin Edwards describes Death of an Airman as an unorthodox whodunit. I must confess that this puzzles me. It struck me as being absolutely orthodox. In fact that’s what makes it so thoroughly enjoyable - it’s an orthodox mystery but it’s executed with immense skill and style. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2019

John Sherwood's Ambush for Anatol

Ambush for Anatol was the third of John Sherwood’s five spy thrillers featuring Charles Blessington. It was published in 1952 (and in the United States the title was changed to Murder of a Mistress).

John Sherwood (1913-2002) was an amazingly obscure if moderately prolific writer. He wrote a series of cozy mysteries with a horticultural theme and he also wrote the five Mr Blessington espionage thrillers between 1949 and 1954. I assume he was English but I know so little about him that I cannot even be absolutely certain that the author of the Celia Grant cozy mysteries and the author of the Mr Blessington spy thrillers are one and the same man.

Ambush for Anatol begins with a fairly sizeable cast of characters spending Bank Holiday Monday on Hampstead Heath. Philip and Diana Abinger are slowly subsiding into genteel poverty. Philip was an RAF fighter pilot during the war but since then he has been unable to make a go of anything. Now he thinks his luck may have changed. He ran into a Polish count with whom he had served in the RAF. Count Jan Piatovsky has some mysterious financial scheme going and although Philip has his doubts as to whether it’s likely to be strictly legal he’s desperate enough to try anything. Piatovsky and his common law wife are also on the Heath on the fatal day. As is the formidable but unpleasant Lady Bernberg. Everyone seems to be there to meet Anatol. The result is a double murder.

As it happens Mr Blessington has already become aware of other aspects of this case. Mr Blessington is a treasury official and one of his jobs is to prevent evasions of the British Government’s extraordinarily strict foreign currency regulations. He suspects that someone has cooked up an entirely new and ingenious means of circumventing the regulations and he’s pretty sure that it’s connected with this double murder. He decides that it would be advisable to have a word with Inspector Lunt at Scotland Yard.

In fact there’s rather more to this case than evasion of currency regulations. In fact there’s something much more sinister going on. This is a spy thriller of sorts, although it takes quite a while for the espionage angle to kick in. The espionage angle here is actually fairly original.

What one really hopes for in a thriller of this vintage is a “murder and mayhem on a train” angle and if the train senes happen on the Continent that’s even better. Ambush for Anatol not only delivers this it also has a “danger in the skies” angle as well. The action moves from London to Paris and then the French Riviera.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is its depiction of the dreary and depressing world of Britain in the period of postwar austerity. Years after having supposedly won the war Britain feels more like a defeated nation, with rationing still in force and with an economy in ruins. It was a miserable world for the working class but it was also a demoralising world for the middle and upper middle classes. Philip and Diana Abinger were typical of countless middle class people who were just barely managing to keep their heads above water. It was obviously a world in which people could easily convince themselves that things like smuggling and financial crimes were not really crimes. While this novel does not descend into tedious social commentary there are some genuinely intriguing social elements. The people who have become involved in this conspiracy are people who would certainly never have involved themselves in such desperate adventures in pre-war days.

While it was published in the same year that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels appeared Ambush for Anatol belongs to a more genteel era of spy fiction. It’s not wildly dissimilar in tone to Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon. In this era of British spy fiction novels featuring professional spies were still slightly unusual. Ambush for Anatol is a bit of a hybrid. It has the innocents caught up in espionage angle but there’s a professional spy hero as well. Mr Blessington is not quite a professional spy in the James Bond mould and he’s certainly not a conventional action, he is a professional spy of sorts. It’s clear that his work for the Treasury is not confined to shuffling papers in an office.

Mr Blessington looks like a typical civil servant. He is middle aged, bespectacled and rather overweight. He is however more than a mere civil servant. His razor-sharp mind makes him extremely dangerous and he can be breathtakingly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He carries a gun and he’s quite prepared to use it. He may remind some readers a little of Edgar Wallace’s Mr J.G. Reeder, a man who also seemed extraordinarily inoffensive and even slightly ridiculous on the surface but was the terror of Britain’s underworld. All in all Mr Blessington is a rather engaging character.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Ambush for Anatol is an adrenaline-chaged roller-coaster ride of action and excitement but it does have a few reasonably thrilling moments and it’s rather enjoyable. I suppose you could describe it as a cozy spy thriller. Recommended.

Friday, July 26, 2019

E. and M.A. Radford's Murder Jigsaw

E. and M.A. Radford were an English husband-and-wife writing team. They wrote thirty-eight mysteries, beginning in 1944 and continuing until the early 70s. Most of their books featured Dr Manson who is both a policeman (a Chief-Inspector at Scotland Yard) and a scientist. He presides over the Yard’s scientific laboratory. He is in his early fifties and was apparently recruited by the Yard a few years earlier when they needed to lift their game in the forensic science area. One assumes that he was in effect parachuted into the Chief-Inspector’s position without having ever walked a beat. The intention of the authors was to create a scientific detective on the model of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke but have him be a working policeman rather than just a consultant. Murder Jigsaw was the second of the Dr Manson mysteries, appearing in 1944.

The opening of the book provides yet another example of the folly of fictional detectives in thinking they can enjoy a peaceful holiday. You would think that by now they would realise that within a day or two of arriving at their chosen holiday destination they would be faced with murder. And you can guarantee it will be a murder that the local police will be entirely able to cope with so that the unfortunate vacationing detective will be forced to take over the case.

In this case Dr Manson has chosen Cornwall for his holiday. His choice in this matter never varies. He has a passion for fishing and there’s a particular spot in Cornwall where the fishing is very much to his liking. He always stays at the same hotel and is not only a frequent but also a very well-liked guest.

Not all of the guests are so well-liked. Colonel Donoughmore is very much disliked by all and sundry. And now he is dead, found floating in a rather treacherous part of the river. It is fortunate for the cause of justice that the police officer who just happens to be on the scene, Dr Manson, also happens to be a very experienced fly fisherman. A non-fisherman might well have dismissed the colonel’s death as an accident. But to a keen angler there are several things that seem quite wrong and quite inconsistent with the accident theory. There are certain things that a fisherman simply doesn’t do. It’s all fortunate that Dr Manson invites himself to the post-mortem examination. The local police surgeon has no specialised knowledge of pathology and manages to miss all the vital medical evidence. But Dr Manson does spot those medical clues. The accident theory just won’t do.

There’s an extremely strong focus on the scientific side of things. Dr Manson has with him his Box of Tricks, his suitcase which functions as a portable laboratory (very much like Dr Thorndyke’s portable laboratory). Everything that can possibly be viewed under a microscope gets viewed under Dr Manson’s microscope. There’s an enormous amount of scientific evidence and it’s remarkably clever stuff.

The Radfords do not however rely purely on scientific evidence. Dr Manson is a policeman as well as a scientist. There’s plenty of attention given to alibis. Not are motives neglected.

Dr Manson continually stresses that his method is based on elimination. And in fact that’s perfectly true. There are quite a few suspects and there are quite a few possible scenarios that would explain how the Colonel’s body came to be floating in the River Tamar. The process by which Manson eliminates those scenarios that do not quite fit the facts is nothing short of brilliant. The process by which he eliminates those suspects who could not have killed the Colonel is equally impressive.

And then we get to the ending. To say that the ending is a disappointment is putting it mildly. It is a bitter disappointment. The Radfords prided themselves on playing scrupulously fair. And they do play fair, in a narrow technical sense. There’s no actual cheating. It’s just that the reader is left feeling that somehow he has been cheated.

There is a great deal to admire in this novel. Dr Manson pulls off some dazzling pieces of logical reasoning. The scientific evidence is both clever and enthralling. There are also fascinating items of fishing lore. The setting is excellent. I also love the fact that there is absolutely no mention of the war - I detest wartime mysteries. Everything is done so well. Except for that ending.

Up until the final revelation I was expecting to be recommending Murder Jigsaw very highly indeed. As it is, it’s still recommended but with some serious reservations.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Conan Doyle's Adventures of Gerard

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was during his own lifetime as celebrated for his historical fiction as for his detective stories. Among his most popular works in this genre are the two volumes of short stories concerning the life and the adventures of Etienne Gerard. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard was published in 1896 while Adventures of Gerard followed in 1903 (these tales had started appearing in the Strand magazine in 1894 and the final Gerard story dates from 1911).

Etienne Gerard is a hussar officer in Napoleon’s army who has been described by no less a judge than the Emperor himself as having both the stoutest heart and the thickest head in La Grande Armée.

Conan Doyle took his historical fiction seriously. He considered his works in this genre to be his greatest achievements. On the other hand he was always a commercial writer and entertainment was the first priority. The best of his historical novels, the two Brigadier Gerard collections and the two novels about Sir Nigel Loring, The White Company and Sir Nigel, manage to be both serious historical fiction and amusing and outrageous yarns.

This ability to be amusing while taking his subject matter seriously is a rare accomplishment and one is tempted to make comparisons to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels (such as Flashman and the Mountain of Light). There are differences of course. Gerard is genuinely brave, even if he is at times a fool. Flashman is a coward. But there are definite affinities. Conan Doyle adopts a mock-heroic style, with Gerard (who narrates the tales) treating his own idiocies as acts of extraordinary martial skill and glory. They are both men whose fame as soldiers is not entirely deserved. Gerard is a brave and well-meaning but not very intelligent bungler who has occasionally managed to do heroic things mostly by luck, although he considers himself to be a brilliant officer. Flashman is a coward and a scoundrel who has occasionally managed to appear to have done heroic things mostly by luck. So in both cases the author is taking a rather sceptical view of military glory.

The Crime of Brigadier Gerard presents Colonel Gerard with a fine opportunity to win honour. His mission is to singlehandedly scout out the Lines of Torres Vedras, the formidable line of fortifications that Viscount Wellington had constructed to defend Lisbon. Marshal Masséna has personally selected Gerard for the mission. It does not work out quite as planned. Gerard finds himself in the midst of something far more important than mere military manoeuvres - he blunders into a fox hunt. The English of course cannot possibly do without their fox hunting even in Portugal so they have imported both foxes and hounds. Gerard however does not quite appreciate just what a solemn occasion this is.

It’s a typical Gerard story, with Gerard doing his best to be heroic whilst being blissfully (and amusingly) unaware of what is actually happening.

How Brigadier Gerard Lost His Ear takes place in Venice, which Napoleon’s army is energetically and efficiently looting. The Venetians are outraged and some are exacting private vengeance on the French invaders. Gerard almost finds himself a victim of such private vengeance, although in his case there is more involved. There is a lady involved. Gerard of course will do anything for a lady. In this instance what he has to do is rather surprising. Another fine story.

In How the Brigadier Saved the Army Gerard is given a very important mission. The French are on the retreat but are being harried by Spanish guerillas. A large detachment of French troops will be left behind, and will be doomed, unless Gerard can light a beacon fire to tell them to fall back on the main army. To light the beacon Gerard will have to travel miles through guerilla-infested countryside. In this story Gerard demonstrates the extraordinary and very genuine courage of which he is capable, and it demonstrate his unbelievable capacity for making a thorough mess of things but somehow muddling his way through. A very enjoyable tale.

Gerard is often heroic and often absurd and in Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo he manages to be both at the same time. It’s also a story in which Gerard’s delusions about his own importance reach ridiculous but rather touching extremes. He is entrusted by the Emperor with a vital mission which cold determine the outcome of the battle. Of course it doesn’t but it does give Gerard the opportunity to save the Emperor. The fact that this ends up being a futile lost cause adds a further touch of melancholy amusement (and if you think melancholy amusement isn’t possible you need to read this story).

The Brigadier in England covers the period Gerard spent in England after being captured. Much of this time was spent in congenial surroundings at the home of Lord Rufton. Gerard spends his time leaning to play cricket (a most bloodthirsty game, or at least it is the way Gerard plays it) and getting mixed up in a complicated romantic intrigue in which Gerard as always doesn’t quite understand what is going on although he thinks he does. An amusing little story.

How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans tells us of Gerard’s first day with the regiment that was to be so important to him. Gerard immediately makes himself ridiculous with his outrageous boasting, and then proceeds to demonstrate that he really is as brave as he says he is, almost singlehandedly capturing the city of Saragossa. Some fine swashbuckling here.

How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty. How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty.

The Marriage of the Brigadier was the last of the Gerard tales to be written (in 1910, several years after the publication of The Adventures of Gerard) but chronologically it’s the first of the stories, taking place in 1802. In peacetime Gerard finds time for love, and he discovers true fear. He fears no man, but an enraged bull is another matter. And the bull acts as an unexpected match-maker. A slight but amusing story.

The Gerard stories are an absolute delight. Gerard is a buffoon but he is a brave buffoon. His belief in his heroic stature never wavers and is sublimely unaffected by reality. The Adventures of Gerard is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

About the Murder of a Startled Lady

Between 1930 and 1932 Anthony Abbot wrote four detective novels, very much in the Van Dine mould, featuring New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. He then took a break for a few years before writing four more Thatcher Colt novels heavily influenced by his growing interest in psychic phenomena. The first of these new-look Thatcher Colt mysteries was About the Murder of a Startled Lady, published in 1935.

Abbot’s new interests are immediately apparent in this novel. It begins with a young woman reporting her own murder six months earlier. She makes the report through a medium at a séance, and she also reports that her dismembered body was dumped in the sea at a certain place. Thatcher Colt doesn’t believe in any of this spiritualist nonsense. On the other hand a murder has been reported and Colt decides it would be just as well to send a diver down to have a look and sure enough the body of young woman is found right where the dead girl said it was.

It’s not so much a body as a collection of human bones. Of course there’s no hope of identifying the remains now, except that there’s a man whose services Colt has used in the past, a man who is referred to as a crime sculptor who has the uncanny ability to reconstruct facial features from nothing but a skill. So the dead girl can be identified after all.

Once she’s been identified the story doesn’t become any less odd. The girl and everyone connected with her seem to have been decidedly strange and not entirely what you would call normal. And there’s reason to suspect the girl herself may have been a bit on the strange side.

The psychic elements are just one of the odd features of this tale. Anthony Abbot was always fascinated by the use of science in criminal investigation (there’s some wonderfully esoteric forensic science stuff in About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress.

In About the Murder of a Startled Lady some of the scientific methods used verge on the science fictional. The facial reconstruction also stretches credibility a bit, given the technology of the time. In fact the crime sculptor seems to rely a bit too much on inspiration rather than technique.

Despite the supernatural trappings this is essentially a traditional puzzle-plot mystery with some police procedural overtones. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair play - there is one important clue which in my opinion remains unexplained and the essence of the puzzle-plot mystery is that the solution should not leave any loose ends. Apart from that one false step it’s a decent enough plot.

And Abbot comes up with a very neat and very clever variation on the traditional ending in which the detective gathers together all the suspects to reveal the solution. The solution itself is reasonably satisfactory.

The psychic elements are interesting for several reasons. We never really believe there’s going to be a supernatural solution and Thatcher Colt clearly doesn’t believe so either, but at the same time Colt has to admit that the apparent revelation by the dead girl is difficult to explain. The tricks used by phoney spiritualists were well-known and he expects the trickery to be easily explained but it isn’t. And they’re not just supernatural trappings to add a bit of atmosphere - they are in fact vital plot elements.

Anthony Abbot himself is a character in the Thatcher Colt mysteries. He’s Colt’s secretary and confidant and he’s the narrator of the stories. In other words he’s Colt’s Dr Watson. This fictional version of Anthony Abbot contributes a short foreword in which he makes some rather disparaging remarks about genius amateur detectives with an inexhaustible store of arcane knowledge. It almost sounds like a disavowal of the Van Dine school. This book is somewhat less Van Dine-like than Abbot’s earlier books. At the same time Thatcher Colt is clearly an educated and cultivated man, able to recognise instantly quotations from Dante.

I suspect that fans of puzzle-plot mysteries might find the first batch of four Thatcher Colt mysteries, such as the excellent About the Murder of the Circus Queen, to be more satisfactory than the second batch. It’s worth noting however that About the Murder of the Circus Queen also has a few occultist touches.

About the Murder of a Startled Lady is an intriguing variation on the impossible crime sub-genre. There’s nothing remotely impossible about the murder itself. It’s the process by which the murder is revealed that seems impossible.

This book might not be a masterpiece but it’s worth a look and Abbot is definitely an unfairly neglected mystery writer. Recommended.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1, 1927-29

Frederick Nebel (1903-67) was an extremely prolific American writer for the pulps in the 20s and 30s and for the slick magazines in his later career. He was a notable contributor of hard-boiled stories to Black Mask. By the late 1920s Nebel was writing in a number of different genres - hardboiled crime, adventure stories set in the Canadian Northwest, adventure tales set in the Orient - and in 1927 he began a series of aviation adventure stories featuring two likeable rogues, Bill Gales and Mike McGill. Altus Press’s The Complete Air Adventures of Gales and McGill Volume 1 1927-29 collects the first twenty stories.

G Gales and McGill are aviators, adventurers and soldiers of fortune and they pop up just about everywhere in the coastal regions of East and South-East Asia - in Hongkong, in Singapore, in Saigon, in various parts of China. There is one story (Eagles of Ind) that takes them to British India and there is another story that takes them to Marseilles, Algeria and finally Morocco. Nebel had never actually been to any of these places and as a result they do come across in the stories as rather generic locations. There’s no real exotic atmosphere.

Aviation adventure stories enjoyed great popularity in the pulps in the interwar years. Some of the best writers of such tales (such as Donald Keyhoe) had been flyers themselves. Nebel was not. Nebel might not have been an expert in aviation matters but he did know how to tell an exciting story.

Gales and McGill will do a lot of things for money and are generally not troubled by concerns about the strict legality of the jobs they take on. They do however have definite moral standards. They are not cold-blooded killers. They have no compunction about fighting back if they are attacked, and they aren’t going to lose any sleep over killing in self-defence, but they won’t drop bombs on civilians or machine-gun civilians from the air. Since China was being torn by civil wars at this time and since Gales and McGill find themselves doing jobs for various Chinese warlord armies their moral qualms cause them some difficulties. The fact that they have taken on jobs for various factions is also perhaps one of the reasons that they are now not quite outlaws but are regarded with definite suspicion by the authorities throughout most of the Orient.

They seem to have particular problems with the French colonial authorities in Indo-China. While Gales and McGill do not always see humanity at its best and they have few illusions about human nature the only people for whom they seem to have a real dislike are the French.

Gales is the younger man and he’s the brains of the outfit. He can be daring and reckless but his risks are calculated risks. McGill is more impetuous. They’re a solid and loyal team. They are frequently broke and even more frequently drunk. They never met a brawl they didn’t like.

Pulp stories do tend to be formulaic. In fact they’re supposed to be formulaic. In my view the best way to enjoy collections such as this is to read one or two stories at a time and read the collection over a period of several weeks. Read too many in too short a time and their formulaic nature starts to become a bit too obvious.

These are straightforward adventure stories without any supernatural or science fiction elements, and without any traces of weird fiction. Gales and McGill take on a variety of jobs, from transporting packages or carrying messages to carrying passengers, they rescue people who need rescuing, they carry out aerial reconnaissance missions for warlord armies. In some cases they are forced to take on jobs against their will - warlords can be rather insistent. They always seem to run into danger of some kind, even when they try really hard not to.

They’re good-natured rogues. They’re not exactly in the Robin Hood mould. They like to get paid for what they do. Sometimes they actually do get paid, sometimes not. They do tend to be suckers for ladies in distress, especially if the ladies are young are pretty.

Naturally there’s plenty of action and hair’s breadth escapes from certain death and doing rescues. More interestingly in many of the adventures our heroes also find themselves faced with perplexing technical challenges. In one story they have to find a caravan in the vicinity of the Khyber Pass, land and pick up a vital letter and then take off again and get the letter back to Peshawar and they only have hours in which to do it. The problem in this case is that there is absolutely no way of landing anywhere near the Khyber Pass. It’s not dangerous - it’s entirely impossible. But they still have to get that letter and get it back to Peshawar. Fortunately there’s virtually no limit to their ingenuity. This is the sort of stuff that endears these stories to me.

It’s all good pulpy fun. Recommended.