Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond was one of the most popular fictional characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Bulldog Drummond, published in 1920, was the book that launched the career of this gentleman crime-fighter and adventurer.

Herman Cyril McNeile wrote the Bulldog Drummond novels under the pseudonym Sapper. Or at least he wrote the first ten or so novels - after McNeile’s death in 1937 the series was continued up to the mid-1950s by Gerard Fairlie.

Drummond became an equally popular character on radio and in movies, being played by such notable actors as Ronald Colman, Sir Ralph Richardson and Ray Milland. In the 60s the character was revived for two highly entertaining James Bond-influenced spy spoof movies, Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do. Which was only fitting since the Bulldog Drummond stories had been an early influence of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

In Bulldog Drummond we meet Captain Hugh Drummond, and he’s bored. Peacetime does not agree with him. He misses the excitement of the war. So he places an ad in the newspaper, offering his services in any kind of adventure regardless of its legality or of the danger involved. Most of the replies are unpromising but then he hits pay dirt - a genuine damsel in distress.

The damsel in question is Phyllis Benton and her story at first seems incredible - a tale of master criminals, sinister plots and daring robberies in which her father has become an unwilling accomplice. Drummond soon discovers that her story is not merely true, it’s actually much stranger than even she realises. In fact they have stumbled upon a conspiracy of almost unimaginably vast proportions in which the very fate of British civilisation is at stake. A gigantic communist conspiracy, funded by fabulously wealthy capitalists.

This was the first of the four novels featuring arch-villain Carl Petersen. Petersen is a master of disguise, and he’s a very cool customer. His chief henchman Henry Lakington is a very nasty pice of work indeed - his main amusements being devising sadistic means of murder and torture and pulling off spectacular jewel robberies. There’s also Petersen’s beautiful, amusing but evil daughter Irma. At least she claims to be his daughter, but may well be his mistress.

There’s plenty of action, and plenty of humour. Drummond is at this stage of his career very much an amateur. His main assets are his daring and his courage, his tendency to do the unexpected because he doesn’t know any better, and the fact that his opponents consistently under-estimate him, regarding him as a harmless buffoon. By the end of the adventure he has acquired a great deal of experience and a very definite taste for this type of exploit.

It’s all very politically incorrect but if that doesn’t bother you (and it certainly doesn’t bother me) then there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had within the pages of Bulldog Drummond.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spy Castle, Nick Carter

Nick Carter is one of the more long-lived characters in detective and espionage fiction. He first appeared in a story in 1886, was later the subject of a series of pulp novels in the 30s and then metamorphosed into a James Bond-style secret agent in the 60s.

The Killmaster series of spy novels eventually ran to some 260 novels with new titles still appearing as late as the 1990s. No author is ever credited for any of these books which were written by a variety of hands, and apparently quite a considerable number were written by women. Which is interesting since the Nick Carter spy character is very a macho action hero and a tireless womanizer.

I recently read one of these novels, a comparatively early entry in the series, published in 1966. Spy Castle is a classic mad scientist threatening to blow up the world tale, a plot that was used over and over again during the 60s in both books and movies. But Spy Castle does add an interesting twist. The mad scientist/diabolical criminal mastermind is also the head of a fascist paramilitary movement, called The Druids. At this point the book taps into the whole Scottish/Welsh nationalist thing which was attracting quite a lot of attention in Britain at this time. The Druids not only stand for Celtic nationalism, they also promise a return to the good old days of King Arthur!

It’s an outlandish plot, especially given that The Druids are also in league with the Red Chinese.

The violence and the sex are considerably more graphic than in the Bond novels. It goes without saying that Nick Carter’s bedroom skills prove just as useful as his spy skills in foiling the fiendish plot of The Druids and their unbalanced leader. The evil mastermind’s wife, Lady Hardesty, has slept with so many men that she’s lost count, but it takes Nick Carter to finally bring her sexual satisfaction. It’s all so outrageous and so over-the-top and so silly that it’s impossible to find it actually offensive although it would be fascinating to know if this was one of the novels with a female author.

Probably the most surprising thing about Spy Castle is that it’s a good deal of fun, in a very very pulpy sort of way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard

King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1885, made H. Rider Haggard one of the most popular of late Victorian and Edwardian novelists. It’s a classic tale of adventure set in southern Africa, involving the search for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon, and also the fate of the African kingdom of the Kukuanes. Haggard is often accused of being a typical apologist for imperialism, and also of being a misogynist. The reality, as is so often the case with the Victorians, is more complicated. There are Africans in the book who are portrayed as cruel and vicious, but most of the Africans are portrayed as being brave, intelligent and honourable. There is not a single African character who is stupid or cowardly.

The narrator of the adventure is Allan Quatermain, an elephant hunter and adventurer. Quatermain’s attitudes towards the Africans are contradictory. He displays some definite racist attitudes, but it is clear that personal experiences in Africa have contradicted his racist assumptions, and he has never really resolved his own conflicting views. Haggard himself spent some considerable time in Africa, and it’s likely that his own attitudes were as inconsistent as Quatermain’s.

In both this novel and in his other huge bestseller She Haggard’s attitudes towards women show the same contradictions. Quatermain’s feelings about the attraction between the English naval officer and the African girl Foulata display these contradictions very clearly – on the one hand Quatermain regards Foulata as one of the noblest women he’s known, on the other hand he’s says it’s just as well that a relationship between her and the Englishman will be impossible, because no good can come of it Of course he’s right; late 19th century society would be unlikely to accept such a union. Whether this is a bad thing or not is something Quatermain seems unsure of.

The story itself includes many elements that became clichés of the adventure genre, and you have to remind yourself that Haggard actually invented many of these clichés. There are plenty of narrow escapes for our band of adventurers, there are some genuinely very creepy moments, and plenty of entertainment. One thing I found very interesting was the character of Quatermain himself - he isn’t really a typical Victorian Boys’ Own adventure hero. He often describes himself as cowardly, and he only does brave things when he finds that running away isn’t an option. And his motivation for taking part in the adventure is financial gain, and whenever forgets that that is his main purpose. He has a lot more human weaknesses, and even moral failings, than you expect in this type of book. In some ways he’s more like George Macdonald Fraser’s notorious Harry Flashman than a classic Victorian hero.

While King Solomon’s Mines is great fun, it’s not quite as good as She.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood

Rafael Sabatini was arguably the last of the writers of old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure romances in the tradition of The Three Musketeers.

Captain Blood tells the story of Peter Blood. Blood is a doctor who is caught up in the events surrounding Monmouth’s rebellion against King James II in 1685 when he tends the wounds of one of the rebels. He soon finds himself clapped in irons and shortly thereafter shipped to the West Indies and sold into slavery. But of course the story doesn’t end there and Blood ends up a reluctant pirate.

This is a classic story of a man condemned for a crime he did not commit. What makes the story interesting is that although Blood embraces piracy, at the same time he is still trying to live up to his own high moral standards. In fact, the same high moral standards that got him into trouble in the first place.

Sabatini was an immensely popular author but is now all but forgotten. Captain Blood is wonderful entertainment. If you have a taste for adventure than it’s an absolute must-read.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wagner the Werewolf

Wagner the Werewolf is my second foray into the weird and wonderful world of the Victorian penny dreadfuls, the mid-19th century equivalent of 20th century pulp fiction.

These lurid tales were published in weekly installments, and aimed at the least prestigious sector of the fiction market, working-class audiences who were literate but not possessing the benefits of higher education. At least that was the view of the literary establishment, by whom they were thoroughly despised. Of course it’s likely that the readership wasn’t entirely confined to the working class, and these thrilling stories may well have been secretly enjoyed by lower middle-class readers who would never have admitted to buying them. The taste for sensational stories of crime, murder, horror and sin was more or less universal among the Victorians.

George W. M. Reynolds was an immensely popular author of that period. He had a taste for radical politics, a genius for controversy, a sublime disdain for copyright laws and he knew what his readers wanted. They wanted sex and violence, plus a happy ending. An that’s what he gave them. He also inserted his political views and his advanced ideas on subjects such as religious tolerance into his books - it’s no coincidence that the most admirable characters in this tale are a renagede Christian turned Moslem and an elderly Jew.

Wagner the Werewolf, which appeared in 1847, is more a gothic melodrama than the sort of thing that modern readers would recognise as horror. The werewolf of the title is just one of a dozen or so main characters who figure in the incredibly convoluted and contrived plot.

And the focus isn’t on his lycanthropy as such. The lycanthropy is merely the curse that makes Wagner a doomed gothic hero who must struggle to save his immortal soul after an ill-advised pact with a demon. The pact restores youth and vitality to a 90-year-old shepherd, and also gives him great learning and vast wealth. He becomes a figure in society in 16th century Florence, but at a terrible price. And he’s not the most interesting character - that distinction goes to the Lady Nisida, a very morally ambiguous and utterly ruthless character who manages to be both heroine and villainess. Her family also suffers under a curse. There are assorted murders, heroes and heroines are consigned to the tortures of the Inquisition. A young Florentine takes service with the Sultan and rises to the peak of power in the Ottoman Empire. There are family secrets that are not to be revealed until the end of the story. There are intrigues, and there’s lots of illicit sex. There are also some moderately gruesome scenes.

The supernatural elements are important, although they’re mostly important in providing Reynolds with the opportunity to present his book as moral entertainment and to ensure that both virtue and vice are suitably rewarded.

The style is pulpy and trashy and insanely breathless. It is in fact pure melodrama. The plot is outrageous in its use of unlikely coincidences and transparent plot devices. Reynolds manipulates our emotions shamelessly. And he doesn’t neglect the all-important titillation. He never misses an opportunity to get his heroines naked, or to wax lyrical over the magnificence of their figures and the voluptuousness of their bosoms. It’s all very crudely done, but that just adds to the charm. Reynolds knew his market, and he wasn’t interested in literary respectability.

It’s lots of fun in a delightfully trashy way, and if you accept it on its own terms its thoroughly entertaining.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

John Buchan's Greenmantle

Since it’s been rather quiet I’m going to repost some brief pieces that I posted elsewhere quite a while ago.

John Buchan's Greenmantle is a combination spy thriller/swashbuckling adventure tale. It was written in 1916, and concerns a diabolical plot by those dastardly Germans to wreck the British Empire.

Richard Hannay is the man selected to foil this nefarious scheme. To do this he must enter Germany, in the guise of an Afrikaner mining engineer. The tone is very Boys' Own Adventure. The only significant female character is the diabolical Hilda von Einem. Richard Hannay would much rather be back with the chaps in his regiment in France in a mud-filled trench being shelled night and day than have to spend an evening in feminine company. You know where you are with chaps. Hannay is awfully brave, though, and you just know the wicked Boche aren't going to get away with their wicked plots.

While it's easy enough to mock this sort of book, on the plus side it's fast-moving and action-packed and quite entertaining if you're in the right mood. And I am very partial to diabolical plots, and I do have a weakness for spy fiction. Buchan in fact is a kind of link between the old-fashioned swashbuckling tale of intrigue and adventure, the Three Musketeers kind of thing, and the modern spy novel. He wrote a number of books featuring Richard Hannay, the best-known being of course The 39 Steps. And giving credit where it's due, even though the book was written at the height of the war Buchan doesn't portray the Germans or their allies the Turks as universally monstrous and brutal. Buchan's characters are certainly colourful, and they have more complexity than you'd expect.

If you have a taste for adventure stories or for spy thrillers then Greenmantle is excellent entertainment.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming

Recently I’ve found myself involved in an extraordinary number of discussions on the topic of James Bond, and more specifically on the subject of Ian Fleming’s original novels. Since it as years since I’d read any of the novels I got hold of a copy of From Russia with Love (one of the bond novels that I’d never read) and sat down and read it.

Fleming’s spy novels are not quite as I’d remembered them. While they certainly emphasise a fairly glamorous and action-packed side to espionage I found this one to be darker than I’d remembered.

And while the 1960s espionage thrillers of people like John le Carré and Len Deighton were in many ways a reaction against the glamorous depiction of spies it’s worth pointing out that Fleming was just as obsessed as they were with making the background as authentic as possible. While an organisation like the Soviet SMERSH (an acronym for Death To Spies) which served as Bond’s nemesis sounds lie something goofy the author made up it wasn’t. SMERSH really did exist.

One thing that was more or less as I’d remembered it was Fleming’s somewhat bizarre attitude towards women. It’s long been rumoured that Fleming’s sexual tastes were a trifle outré. The scene where the two gypsy girls must fight to the death to decide who gets to marry the man they both love tends to support this.

But once again it’s not quite that simple. The mistakes Bond makes in this adventure come about because he is unable to treat the Russian spy Tatiana as a mere sex object. He goes and falls in love with her.

And while there’s a pulpiness to the content at times the style isn’t really pulpy. Fleming was more than just a hack.

Overall From Russia with Love was a rather better book than I’d been expecting. Yes there is sexism there that will make modern readers a bit uncomfortable, but compared to the sexism in some of the other crime and espionage writers of the 50s (Mickey Spillane comes to mind) I think it’s possible to overlook it and still enjoy the ride. The 1963 movie version is one of the best of the Bond films.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars

The Jewel of Seven Stars is one of several novels written by Bram Stoker in addition to Dracula. His novels are wildly uneven. The Lady of the Shroud is dull, uninteresting and almost unreadable. The Lair of the White Worm is bizarre and highly entertaining. The Jewel of Seven Stars, published in 1904, is different again. And this one is actually very good!

A barrister named Malcolm Ross receives an urgent call to the home of an eminent although perhaps slightly eccentric Egyptologist, Mr Trelawney. He has been found, apparently in a deep coma, in a room of his house filled with Egyptian antiquities including the mummy of an Egyptian queen. The room is filled with an overpowering and pungent aroma but Trelawney has seemingly anticipated this situation and left strict instructions that his body, whether alive or dead, is not to be moved from the room.

Ross, along with a Scotland Yard detective, Trelawney’s doctor, a nurse and Trelawney’s daughter Margaret keep a vigil by his bedside but are overcome by a strange sleep. When they awake they discover a deep gash on the arm of Mr Trelawney and evidence of an attempt to open his safe. There is no logical explanation for any of these odd events until the arrival of a mysterious colleague of Trelawney’s who has a strange tale to tell. Some centuries earlier a Dutch explorer has discovered the tomb of an Egyptian queen who had so offended the priests that her name had been erased from all records. Trelawney had been inspired by this book to find the tomb, and had succeeded. He brought the queen’s mummy and the various grave goods back to England, including a very unusual ruby carved with hieroglyphs and with a representation of seven stars.

Trelawney’s further researches reveal that the mummy is that of Queen Tera, and that the queen had set in motion an extraordinary plan for her future bodily resurrection. Trelawney becomes obsessed, his obsession increased by the fact that his own daughter Margaret was born at the exact moment he uncovered the queen’s tomb, and Margaret bears an uncanny resemblance to the long-dead monarch. He has discovered the means by which Queen Tera intended to effect her resurrection, and he has resolved to put her plan into operation. Ross isn’t sure this is entirely a good idea, especially given that he has now fallen in love with Margaret.

Stoker builds the suspense and the sense of mystery and of the uncanny with considerable expertise in this short novel. There isn’t a great deal of overt horror but it’s an entertaining and effective weird tale. While it doesn’t have the complexity of Dracula it’s arguably a better written and more tightly constructed book. A highly enjoyable read.

The Wordsworth Classic edition (included in their mummy anthology Return From the Dead) includes both the original 1904 ending and Stoker’s revised 1912 ending.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sax Rohmer's The Daughter of Fu Manchu

The Daughter of Fu Manchu, published in 1931, was the fifth of Sax Rohmer’s novels featuring the fiendish but brilliant Dr Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu was one of the first diabolical criminal masterminds in fiction, and remains one of the most interesting of the breed. While the books have often been accused of racism Fu Manchu is in fact a rather complex character. It’s made clear that he is a man of honour, a man of his word. And on some occasions he even finds himself on the same side as his arch-nemesis Nayland Smith. It’s also made clear that he is a man of vast intellectual gifts.

At the beginning of The Daughter of Fu Manchu it is assumed that Dr Fu Manchu himself is dead, although there are those who have their doubts as to whether such a man could really have ben killed. Strange events are unfolding in the Egyptian desert at an archaeological site. The leader of the expedition, Sir Lionel Barton, has died mysteriously but his assistant Greville (who is the narrator of the story) receives a message indication that perhaps Sir Lionel is not really dead.

Greville has confided in Dr Petrie, who sees uncanny similarities to earlier cases in which Dr Fu Manchu was involved. But surely he can’t still be alive? Dr Petrie can’t help wishing he could talk to his old friend Sir Denis Nayland Smith, a man who knows more about Fu Manchu than any man alive and who has been responsible for foiling several of his fiendish schemes. But no-one seems to know where Nayland Smith is.

Of course, as the title indicates, our heroes soon find themselves engaged in a battle of wits with the Lady Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu. She is almost as brilliant as her father, and every bit as dangerous and ruthless.

There are corpses that are not really dead, ransacked tombs, exotic poisons, vast conspiracies and ancient secret societies as well as a variety of fanatical religious assassins. Rohmer’s style is pulpy and breathless! With lots of exclamation points! But he knows how to tell an exciting story.

And the stories have both a fascinating villain and a colourful hero who is just as much of a larer-than-life figure as the villain.

SaxRohmer (1883-1959) wrote many books aside from the Fu Manchu books, including some rather good horror, and also the Sumuru series (a kind of female version of Fu Manchu). But it’s the Fu Manchu novels for which he is remembered. They’re great fun if you can accept their lack of political correctness (and that’s something you have to do for most of the pulp and popular genre fiction of the first half of the 20th century).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Face in the Abyss by Abraham Merritt

Abraham Merritt is one of the forgotten masters of weird fiction. His work ranges from horror (Burn Witch Burn) to epic fantasy (the delightful The Ship of Ishtar). The Face in the Abyss, published in 1931, could perhaps be described as a blend of dark fantasy and the 19th century tale of adventure in the style of H. Rider Haggard, with a dash of the Conan Doyle of the Professor Challenger stories.

A mining engineer on a prospecting expedition in South America stumbles across a lost civilisation. A culture both more civilised than our own and more barbarous; more advanced and yet in some ways curiously primitive. This lost world also contains forgotten animals, including several varieties of dinosaurs, as well as creatures of almost unimaginable strangeness. Is it magic, or a strange and highly advanced technology, that is responsible for the wonders of this land? Naturally the engineer meets a beautiful young woman, and they fall in love. But his arrival triggers an epic battle between the Snake Mother and her arch-rival, Nimir.
It’s all great fun, packed with action and romance, it moves along at breakneck speed (it takes 224 pages to tell a story for which most modern writers would require at least 800 pages), and the lost world is described vividly but without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Merritt’s style is always fairly uncomplicated but entertaining. Anything by Merritt is worth reading.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Peter Cheyney’s Never a Dull Moment

Peter Cheyney’s 1942 potboiler Never a Dull Moment was one of the novels featuring his most popular hero, FBI Chief Agent Lemmy Caution.

They enjoyed huge popularity in Cheyney’s lifetime, and maintained this popularity in Europe at least until the 1960s thanks to the very successful French Lemmy Caution movies starring Eddie Constantine. They’re now all but forgotten. It’s a bit puzzling that they haven’t developed more of a cult following. They’re so deliciously trashy and pulpy and the hard-boiled dialogue is so overdone. Everything is so overblown it almost becomes high camp but it remains great fun.

As usual Lemmy is investigating crimes taking place outside the US. For an American FBI agent he seemed to spend remarkably little time in the US. Given that Cheyney was an Englishman it’s understandable that he preferred to have his hero operating in familiar surroundings. This gives the novels a kind of early transatlantic flavour.

A woman named Julia Wayles has been kidnapped in the US and taken to England. Although no-one is sure if she’s really been kidnapped. She’s being held by a couple of American mobsters named Rudy Zimman and Tamara Phelps. But no-one is sure if this is the real Tamara Phelps or not. And the Rudy who first turns up is not the real Rudy. There’s also an American woman named Mrs Lorella Owen but she’s probably not really Mrs Lorella Owen. It’s that kind of incredibly convoluted plot but it suits Cheyney’s rather tongue-in-cheek approach to the hard-boiled genre.

There are lots of dames in this book, and they’re all dangerous. In Lemmy Caution’s world dames are always dangerous. Well the fascinating and beautiful ones are dangerous and they’re the only ones Lemmy is interested in. There are few things in life that Lemmy likes as much as dangerous women. Men on the other hand are either lousy two-bit punks or they’re swell guys. Lemmy handles lousy two-bit punks just as adeptly as he handles dangerous no-good dames.

And as usual the crime that Caution is investigating turns out to be more than just everyday crime. There’s an element of espionage and intrigue. Entertaining lightweight fun pulp fiction.