Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Once is not Enough, by Jacqueline Susann

I’ve always loved trash cinema but in the past year I’ve discovered that trash fiction holds just as many delights. And fiction doesn’t get much trashier than Jacqueline Susann. Once is not Enough, published in 1973, was the third of her blockbuster bestsellers.

While it didn’t quite equal the success of Valley of the Dolls (which has sold around 30 million copies and has been claimed to be the biggest selling novel of all time) it did reach Number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Susann didn’t quite invent the literary blockbuster, but she did take the blockbuster formula to new heights. Her critics would have said she took it to new depths, but when you can sell 30 million copies of one novel you can afford not to worry too much about the critics.

Once is not Enough includes the basic ingredients that had made Valley of the Dolls so successful - a show business background, glamour, celebrities, sex, drugs, tragedy and self-destructiveness. And it adds a very large helping of kinkiness.

The heroine this time is January Wayne, the daughter of a big-time Broadway producer who had tried to repeat his success in Hollywood and come badly unstuck. January is fond of her father. Very fond of him. Very very fond of him. And not in the way 20-year-old women are supposed to be fond of their dads. He’s the only man she really wants, but she tries desperately to find someone else as similar to him as possible. And ends up with a 58-year-old alcoholic author who has grown tired of writing books that are admired by the critics but don’t sell and has decided to try his hand at writing bestsellers.

January’s stepmother (the incredibly wealthy Dee Milford) has been trying to line her up with a suitable young man, but unfortunately the suitable young man is having an affair with a middle-aged movie star. And this same middle-aged movie star is having a lesbian affair with Dee Milford! January also develops a rather worrying drug habit.

Every element that could possibly have outraged mainstream literary critics and self-appointed moral guardians of society makes an appearance at some stage in the outlandish soap-opera plot. Susann’s great strength as a writer is that she had absolutely no shame and was completely untroubled by irrelevant concerns such as good taste. She believed in excess, and that excess works best if you have a very large amount of it. Truckloads of it.

Part of the success of Valley of the Dolls was due to the fact that Susann knew the world depicted in the novel extremely well, having been an actress on Broadway in the 50s. With Once is not Enough she moves into a 1970s setting, and she was not quite as familiar with the world of early 70s youth culture. But it doesn’t really matter since her occasional misunderstandings of this world just add to the book’s already enormous camp appeal.

The novel is of course complete trash, but it celebrates its own trashiness. Susann’s great insight into the literary world was that if you’re going to write trash, do it with style and energy and don’t apologise for it. Revel in it. She pushes trashiness so far that it becomes an art form. And like so much trash art, it ends up reflecting more of the truth about the society that produced it than the tedious tomes churned out by Serious Writers who write Literature.

Susann’s novels are also, as Camille Paglia has so rightly pointed out, absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American popular culture today. Susann was one of the people who created modern popular culture. And her books are fun.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

Émile Gaboriau was one of the pioneers of detective fiction. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, before his untimely death, he wrote a string of immensely popular mysteries. Monsieur Lecoq, published in 1868, is one of the best known.

Lecoq is one of several detectives created by Gaboriau. Lecoq is an ambitious young police detective who sees a triple murder in a notorious bar in a Paris slum as an opportunity to achieve the fame that he craves. He feels sure that the man accused of the murder is not what he seems – although he’s apparently an itinerant circus employee Lecoq suspects he may a man of position and breeding.

One of the interesting features of this novel is that Lecoq, although he displays signs of the genius we expect in fictional detectives, is young and inexperienced and makes many mistakes. Gaboriau describes the French system of criminal investigation, so different from the English and American systems we’re accustomed to in crime fiction, in considerable and fascinating detail.

The novel itself is just a little clunky in places but overall it’s rather entertaining and with a flavour all its own. Lecoq himself is an interesting and vividly drawn character.

Gaboriau’s books are mentioned in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories and Doyle was certainly familiar with them. They achieved great popularity in the United States in the 19th century and influenced the evolution of the crime novel in the US, Britain and France.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Raffles, A Thief in the Night, by E. W. Hornung

Raffles, A Thief in the Night, published in 1905, was E. W. Hornung’s third and final collection of stories about A. J. Raffles, celebrated cricketer and gentleman-burglar.

These stories are unusual among English crime stories in having a criminal as the hero. And Raffles is no Robin Hood. He is most definitely a criminal. He’s also an attractive and likeable character, and he does have his own moral standards. He does his best to avoid causing physical harm to the victims of his crimes, and at least some of his escapades are motivated more by the challenge involved in a difficult burglary, or by whimsical motives of his own, than by an actual desire to steal the items in question. On occasion he will steal something, and then promptly return it to its owner. In most cases, though, he is a thief pure and simple.

Aided by his erstwhile school pal Bunny Manders he becomes the most notorious jewel thief in England.

The stories are as much about the friendship between Bunny Manders (who narrates the tales) and Raffles as they are about their life of crime. There’s perhaps just the slightest hint of a homoerotic element to this friendship, although it’s possible that the author wasn’t even consciously aware of it. It certainly seems to be the only significant relationship in both their lives.

Raffles is a rich and complex personality, a man whose motivations for choosing crime as a career are most likely more to do with his own personality than with actual, necessity.

The obvious comparison is with Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin stories, but Raffles is the more interesting character. Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who disapproved of the Raffles stories because they glorified crime! Conan Doyle may not have approved of them, but I highly recommend them.

Incidentally, there was a TV series based on these tales back in the late 70s, with Anthony Valentine (always a wonderful actor) as Raffles.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Devil Rides Out, by Dennis Wheatley

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who has gone from topping bestseller lists to complete oblivion in the space of less than 30 years. As recently as the 1970s he was one of the most widely read authors in the world, with total sales exceeding 50 million copies. Perhaps surprisingly The Devil Rides Out, originally published in 1934, is the first of his novels that I’ve read.

I was of course aware of his reputation for jingoism, racism, sexism and insanely reactionary political views, and for his unswerving belief that Satanism is a major force in the modern world and that we should have nothing to do with it because it’s really wicked and terribly naughty. He even includes an amusing little warning at the beginning of each of his books, which essentially amounts to “don’t try this at home boys and girls.”

In fact his approach to magic and religion is rather more complex than you might expect from his Colonel Blimp-ish image. He dismisses any idea of the literal existence of Satan or of Hell as simplistic nonsense, and his heroes use Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and even pagan rituals in their battles with the forces of darkness. He certainly does believe in the forces of darkness though.

When the Duke de Richlieu’s young Jewish friend Simon Aron becomes involved with evil devil-worshippers the duke and his two-fisted Texan friend Rex van Ryn find themselves caught up in a desperate struggle not only to save young Simon but to save the world from an appalling cataclysm. The Satanist Mocata is trying to locate the Talisman of Set, which will not only give him vast powers but also unloose the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (which is how Rasputin started the First Word War of course). Rex meanwhile has fallen in love with Tanith; she’s a devil-worshipper, but she’s not really a bad person and eventually she comes to realise the great peril in which she is putting her soul.

There’s lots of drawing of pentacles, and loads of protective rituals, and there are Black Masses, and a Satanic orgy. The Duke is terribly clever (being an aristocrat that goes without saying in Wheatley’s world), Rex is awfully brave, and Simon (despite his dalliances with the dark side) is really a noble self-sacrificing chap, but will they be able to stop Mocata in time?

It’s all great fun, Wheatley keeps the action moving along, and there’s lots of fascinating stuff about the Left Hand Path and alchemy and Egyptian mythology. It’s actually highly entertaining, and I’m starting to suspect that Wheatley is an undeservedly forgotten author. And his books are readily available at absurdly cheap prices in second-hand bookstores. I also picked up a copy of another of his books, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, which I’m now quite looking forward to.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux is of course best known as the author of Phantom of the Opera but he was actually quite prolific. He write quite a few mysteries, the most famous being The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

This is the book that introduces his detective Rouletabille, and an interesting sleuth he is too. He is in fact a newspaper reporter rather than a detective as such but as a crime-solver he is second to none. The most interesting thing about him though is that he is just 18 years old. He’s a boy genius detective. Being so young his biggest problem is natural persuading people to take him seriously. He’s also very much a teenager, with the arrogance and impetuosity of youth, and inclined on occasion to the kinds of errors of judgment you’d expect from someone with limited experience of life.

In spite of these minor weaknesses he is the foremost detective of his era, and already has some extraordinary successes behind him.

The plot involves the attempted murder of a scientist’s daughter. Mademoiselle Stangerson has spent her entire adult life acting as her father’s assistant and at 35 remains unmarried. For years a fellow scientist has been paying court to her, but although she is fond of M Darzac she steadfastly refuses to marry him.

Professor Stangerson and his daughter have been working in a fairly esoteric field of science, researching the dissolution of matter. There seems no obvious motive for the vicious assault upon her, an assault that leaves her close to death. Even more puzzling is the fact that her room, next door to their laboratory, is locked from the inside when her father and the servants finally break down the door after hearing sounds of a struggle and gunshots.

This is an early example of the locked-room sub-genre, in which a crime is committed that appears to be impossible but nevertheless it has occurred. Edgar Allan Poe a the inventor of this sub-genre with his story The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Conan Doyle had also tried his hand at it with The Speckled Band. The potential problem with this type of mystery is that the solution to the crime often tends to be even more contrived than the usual run of detective stories.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room goes perilously close to being just a little bit too clever for its own good. On the other hand it’s certainly ingenious and it’s lively and entertaining and on the whole it succeeds pretty well. Making allowances for the fact that fictional crimes are always much more convoluted than real-life crimes it has to be admitted that Leroux has come up with a plot of genuine originality and interest.

The book was very highly regarded in its day and it’s easy to see why Leroux was so popular. It’s definitely worth picking up, and the Wordsworth paperback edition is appealingly inexpensive as well. It’s also a reminder of the very significant contribution that French authors made to the development of the crime novel.