Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guy Boothby's A Bid for Fortune

Everyone loves a diabolical criminal mastermind. And the first of the great literary examples of this breed may well have been Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola who made his first appearance in print in 1895 in the novel A Bid for Fortune.

Boothby was an Australian writer whose output of novels and short stories was prodigious considering that his writing career lasted only about a dozen years before his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1905.

Dr Nikola has all the attributes of a diabolical criminal mastermind. His origins are mysterious. His constant companion is an enormous black cat to which he is devoted. He is as charming as he is ruthless. His ambitions know no bounds. His powers are based partly on the arts of mesmerism but there are very strong suggestions that he may also be involved in some kind of eastern black magic.

The hero of the tale is Richard Hatteras, whose origins are also somewhat mysterious, Hatteras has made a fortune as a pearler and trader in the waters around New Guinea. Having made his pile he sets off to the big city to enjoy his wealth. On arrival in Sydney he encounters Dr Nikola quite by accident and find himself drawn into a series of strange events. Hatteras has also made the acquaintance of a charming young lady and has fallen head over heels in love. Phyllis Wetherell is the daughter of the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. They plan to marry but her father is strongly opposed to any such match. Phyllis will also find herself drawn into Dr Nikola’s machinations.

Dr Nikola’s current plans involve money of course, bur far more important to the sinister doctor is an ancient Chinese talisman possessing almost unimaginable occult powers.

It’s an outrageous and highly entertaining potboiler with no pretensions to any great literary merit. It could be described as a late entry in the cycle of Victorian sensation novels that made writers like Wilkie Collins the literary superstars of their day, but with hints of the gothic thrown in. Boothby was an immensely successful author in his day.

A Bid for Fortune is one of the two Dr Nikola novels included in the Wordsworth paperback edition Dr Nikola Master Criminal. The second novel, Dr Nikola (sometimes called Dr Nikola Returns), is a kind of loose sequel and they need to be read in sequence. It takes an interestingly different perspective on the master criminal.

If you’re a fan of Victorian crime, gothic or adventure novels it’s worth picking up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sax Rohmer’s The Sins of Sumuru

Sax Rohmer is best-known as the creator of Fu Manchu, but he also wrote a series of pot-boilers about another diabolical criminal mastermind, Sumuru. Sumuru is an even more outlandish villain than Fu Manchu, which makes The Sins of Sumuru even more fun! Sumuru is a glamorous, beautiful but sinister female diabolical criminal mastermind.

Rohmer’s work is interesting for what it tells us about the fears of its time (and perhaps about the prejudices of our own age). The Fu Manchu stories explore the anxiety that empire brings with it, the ever-present fear that empires on which the sun never sets may not be eternal after all, and that the culture that is dominant today may not be dominant tomorrow. Rohmer was not a mere racist. Fu Manchu was a frightening antagonist because he was educated, brilliant, imaginative and possessed a code of honour. These stories expressed not so much a fear of an inferior culture as the fear of a culture that might turn out to be superior.

The Sumuru tales deal with anxiety about women. The so-called New Woman of the 1890s caused a great deal of worry. The role of women was clearly changing, but it was not clear where that change was going to lead. And again Rohmer does not paint women as inferior and irrational, but like Fu Manchu he portrays them as representing a differing world-view that might well win out in the end. And Sumuru, like Fu Manchu, is both ruthless and brilliant. There is certainly admiration mixed in with the paranoia. Sumuru is threatening because she is more intelligent than her enemies, and because she has a vision.She knows exactly what it is that she wants to achieve.

Sumuru’s machinations go beyond mere crime. She intends to create a New World Order, based on the elimination of war, greed and ugliness. This will be a world order dominated by women. Beautiful women. There will be a place for men, but their role will be strictly subordinate.

A conspiracy to abolish war and greed is obviously an appalling threat to civilisation, so clearly she must be stopped. It’s up to American journalist Mark Donovan and Dr Steel Maitland, one-time naval surgeon and now a senior operative of the British government’s most secret intelligence service, to prevent this woman from destroying the very foundations of our civilisation. Donovan must also save the woman he loves from the clutches of Sumuru. She has been recruited as part of Sumuru’s secret army.

Sumuru, part from being a criminal genius, is also a master (well, mistress) of disguise. In fact no-one knows what she really looks like, so she could be anyone! It’s all terribly and breathlessly exciting! With lots of exclamation points! It was originally published under the even more gloriously pulpy title of Nude in Mink. Silly fun, but definitely great fun.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Malpertuis by Jean Ray

Jean Ray’s 1943 novel Malpertuis is a strange little book indeed. It’s not immediately obvious wherein lies the strangeness, but don’t despair. If you like weirdness, there’s plenty of that to come.

The works of the Belgian-born Ray are generally regarded as belonging to what Europeans call the literature of the fantastique. It’s a rather broad but useful category. Malpertuis certainly has elements of the gothic, of the surreal, of the decadent, and of what Americans were starting to call weird fiction.

I won’t give away very much at all of the plot, because Ray reveals it very slowly and it’s important not to know too early what is really going on.

The novel purports to be a series of manuscripts written at different times by various hands, but all relating in some way to a man named Cassave and a house called Malpertuis. The prologue involves a sea voyage, but what is it that these mariners ate seeking? It’s certainly something from the past. Perhaps it is the past itself. They encounter a fellow mariner who does not seem to belong to their own time. Does he exist in the past, or on another timeline?

We then move on to the main narrative, written by the unfortunate Jean-Jacques Grandsire. The patriarch of the house of Malpertuis, Uncle Cassave is dying. His will is both generous and restrictive. The assorted relatives, hangers-on, servants and old acquaintances are all liberally provided for, but they can never leave Malpertuis.

They seem an odd lot, but young Jean-Jacques soon realises they are much than just odd. And the house is more than just a mysterious old house. Events occur that are so bizarre that Jean-Jacques doubts his own sanity. Even worse, he is uncertain if he can trust any of the other inmates of the house. Not even the beautiful enigmatic Euryale. Perhaps Euryale least of all, but he cannot help but feel the extraordinary fascination she exerts.

Jean-Jacques’ narrative breaks off, and additional information is furnished by the Abbe Doucedame, whose ancestor was partly responsible for setting the original events in motion, and by an elderly monk whose monastery may hold some of the secrets needed to reveal the truth. Are the inhabitants of Malpertuis demons? Madmen? Phantoms of the mind? In fact they are none of these things but neither are they quite human.

Jean Ray was a prolific author who moved easily between the worlds of pulp fiction and more serious literature. He was also responsible for many of the Harry Dickson tales.

Malpertuis was filmed by Harry Kümel in 1971 and the movie is well worth seeing, if only for the extraordinary powerhouse performance by Susan Hampshire in multiple roles (anyone who can act Orson Welles off the screen deserves respect).

Ray’s novel is strange, hypnotic and rather wonderful. I recommend it highly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place

If you’re one of those people (like myself) with a deep and abiding love for trash culture than Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is certainly a book you must read.

Metalious was born in New Hampshire, and that’s where her first and most famous novel is set. But this is not exactly a love letter to the place of her birth. It’s a merciless expose of hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, viciousness, sexual repression, corruption and general all-round nastiness. Peyton Place is a picturesque little town, but behind the neatly curtained windows you’ll find murder, incest, abortion, rape, bizarre sexual deviance, alcoholism and all the other joys of small-town life.

If there are two things the residents of Peyton Place fear more than anything else those things are scandal and facing the truth. Constance Mackenzie is more afraid than most. She isn’t really a widow raising a daughter on her own. She was never married, and her daughter Allison was the result of a liaison with a married man. Evelyn Page’s fear is sex, especially in regard to her teenage son Norman. She deals with this by giving him constant enemas, this being the only pleasure the two of them get out of life. Yes, this is fairly outrageous stuff for a novel published in 1957.

Leslie Harrington’s fear is that his dictatorial power over the town may one day be loosened. His son Rodney’s fear is that one day people will realise he’s not merely a bully but a coward as well. Selena Cross’s fear is her stepfather, who gets her pregnant at the age of 14. The town’s loveable doctor Matt Swain is afraid of the shack-dwellers. The novel begins in the late 1930s, and the shack-dwellers living in filth and squalor on the outskirts of town are a legacy of the Depression, but they’re also a result of inbreeding, alcoholism and ignorance. Doc Swain regards them with with horror and loathing, apart from Selena Cross. Selena has brains and ambition, she has a chance to escape, but being a teenage mother will destroy that chance forever. Doc Swain performs an illegal abortion on her, which gives him one more thing to torture himself about.

The town is also trying to adapt to the presence of the high school’s new headmaster. He’s an object of suspicion for three reasons - he’s from New York, he has a Greek name, and he’s an intellectual. He’s particularly disturbing to Constance Mackenzie, awakening sexual desires that she’d successfully repressed for almost two decades. She won’t marry him, because that might cause talk, but she’s willing to share her bed with him.On the other hand she’s determined that if she’s going to sleep with him at least she’ll make sure she doesn’t enjoy it.

In 1957 this book had something to offend just about everybody. And it wasn’t just the content. It was the gloriously trashy style of the writing. There was no way of excusing this book as Serious Literature, but there was also no way of keeping it from becoming a massive bestseller. The combination of sex, sin and trash was much too seductive. For better or worse, this book changed the face of American publishing. It sold eight million copies, and it taught American publishers that sex and scandal sells.

It was made into a delightfully campy film in the late 50s, but the movie is a very very sanitised version of the novel. The novel is not just more sleazy, it’s also much more cynical. It’s even cynical about war heroes, which was pretty daring in 1957. Peyton Place’s only actual war hero is a fake, but that’s conveniently covered up. It also tackles the issues of wartime profiteering and and the town elite using their control of the draft board to make sure that their sons don’t have to go off to war.

While it might not have a great deal of literary merit it did have something that American readers at the time were craving. It was honest about sex. Not sex as part of a romantic ideal of married love, but down-and-dirty lust. And it was honest in dealing with female lust, and with the reality that teenagers are interested in sex and no amount of denial is going to change that.

This novel is trash culture at its finest. I Ioved it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edgar Wallace’s The Twister

Edgar Wallace’s The Twister, published in 1928, is a tale of murder, high finance, and intrigue.

A plot to manipulate the international diamond market forms the background, with a sinister mad scientist and a crooked stock broker battling it out with a man known as The Twister. The Twister, Tony Braid, has a reputation for ruthlessness in both the diamond business and on the racetrack (he’s the owner of a rather successful racing stable). Despite his reputation, he’s actually scrupulously honest. That’s how he manages to get the better of people – nobody in the worlds of racing or finance expects honesty, so they always make the mistake of assuming he’s as shady as they are!

Also involved in the story is the lovely Lady Ursula Frensham, whose father has been a spectacular failure on the Stock Exchange and has brought himself to financial ruin.

It’s not really a murder mystery, since there’s really no mystery at all as to the identity of the murderer, in fact Wallace makes no attempt to conceal the killer’s identity. It is, however, a highly entertaining little thriller. The characters are broadly drawn but vivid, the plot movers along at a breakneck pace, and it’s rather luridly sensationalistic for its era.

It’s also very pulpy in style, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and that pulpiness actually adds to its charm. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Enter the Nyctalope

In the early decades of the 20th Jean de la Hire wrote a series of popular French pulps about the Nyctalope. The Nyctalope was a kind of superhero, with the ability to see in the dark. In 1933 de la Hire provided us with an origin story for him in the form of Enter the Nyctalope (L'Assassinat du Nyctalope or The Assassination of the Nyctalope).

It is 1912, and Leo Saint-Clair’s father Pierre us a brilliant engineer who has devised a brilliant invention called Radiant-Z that can control all the world’s radio waves. Unfortunately the invention has attracted the attention of anarchist and nihilist gangs from eastern Europe who will stop at nothing to steal this invention. They break into Saint-Cair’s laboratory, shoot the inventor and steak the plans for the device.

The 20-year-old Leo is not going to take this lying down however. With the assistance of his brave and resourceful chums from his local rugby club (and some aid from the French authorities) he sets out to smash the nihilist ring responsible for this outrage. He goes undercover as a bomb-throwing nihilist, but in the course of his crusade he sustains the serious injuries that will eventually transform him into the Nyctalope. He will become a superhero with a powerful artificial heart giving him abnormal endureance, and the ability to see as well in pitch darkness in broad daylight.

This is great pulpy fun, with enormous plot holes but enough energy and outrageusness to allow the reader to ignore such minor trifles. In writing this origin story de la Hire completely rewrote the chronology of his hero, so although this story claims to be set in 1912 the events seem more like to have occurred as early as 1897. The story was adapted by Brian Stableford, a prolific author whose interests extend from science fiction and horror to the literary decadence of the 1890s to the pulp fiction of the early 20th century.

Black Coat Press have done a pretty fair job with the presentation of this volume. In fact one can’t really fault them at all. This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the wold of the French pulp fiction and the even more obscure world of French literary superheroes. If you like your fiction overheated, breathless and pulpy with an emphasis on silly fun you can’t go wrong with this one.