Saturday, March 26, 2011

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Published in 1953, Casino Royale was the first of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. It immediately establishes the formula that was to make the Bond novels so successful, a formula that is quite different from that to be found in any of the movie adaptations.

A top Soviet agent in France, known as Le Chiffre, has landed himself in major financial difficulties. He is now trying to gamble his way out of trouble. Le Chiffre is paymaster to some very powerful communist-controlled trade unions in France. He’s a cool skillful gambler but the pressure on him is immense - if he fails to recoup the money he stole from union funds his Soviet masters will have no hesitation in executing him.

It so happens that one of the agents of the British intelligence services is also a skilled gambler - an ex-naval officer named Jams Bond. The British come up with a scheme not merely to destroy Le Chiffre but also to discredit the communist unions and the communist cause in general in France. The plan requires Bond to out-gamble Le Chiffre and to ensure that the Russian agent cannot make good his losses.

Much to Bond’s consternation he is assigned a female agent to assist him. Bond doesn’t approve of women spies. This particular spy, Vesper Lynd, also happens to be young and beautiful. Bond certainly approves of beautiful women but he likes to maintain a strict separation between business and pleasure.

There’s very little action in this book, but what it lacks in action it more than makes up for in suspense. The gambling scenes afford Fleming the opportunity to ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Even Agent 007 finds the stress is starting to get to him. To make things worse he discovers that he rather likes Vesper Lynd. He likes her to an extent that makes him very uncomfortable.

The big difference compared to the various films is the character of Bond himself. He’s perhaps not exactly likeable but he’s undeniably fascinating and rather complex. His brutal side and his rather strong streak of cruelty are hinted at in some of the movies but what the movies miss is his unexpected emotional vulnerability. Bond thinks of himself as a man who simply uses women for his pleasure and then discards them. It’s an elaborate firm of self-deception. In fact Bond is alarmingly prone to falling in love (I’ve only read half-a-dozen of the novels and he falls in love in at least three of them).

He’s also prone to periodic errors of judgment, another fact of his character that he covers up with self-deception. Both Casino Royale and From Russia With Love see Bond making catastrophic mistakes.

Bond’s weaknesses (not that falling in love is generally considered a weakness but it certainly can be when you’re a spy) may well reflect facets of Fleming’s own personality. I suspect Fleming was aware of these weaknesses and used them with considerable success to make his hero much more interesting than he might otherwise have been. Fleming may have been working in a genre that was mostly despised as pulp fiction but he was a rather good writer and the Bond novels have a lot more to them than you might expect if you’re only familiar with the character from the movies.

Fleming was also, along with W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, one of those British spy writers who had an actual background in intelligence and/or espionage. Fleming had been responsible for planning several major intelligence operations during World War II so coming up with ingenious plots for his spy thrillers was something he was well prepared for.

Apart from all that Casino Royale is hugely entertaining. Perhaps one day there’ll be a decent movie adaptation of it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore

Guy Endore’s 1934 novel The Werewolf of Paris is perhaps best known as the basis for the rather delicious 1961 Hammer movie The Curse of the Werewolf. Yes, the one with Oliver Reed as the werewolf!

The novel is actually mainly concerned with lycanthropy as a metaphor for human viciousness, and especially for the horrors of war and revolution (much of the action takes place during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent violence and civil war surrounding the establishment of the Paris Commune).

The book does come up with some intriguing ways of explaining the nature and origin of werewolves – theories involving multiple souls in a single body, and single souls in multiple bodies. There’s also quite a bit that had to be cut from the movie version. There’s incest, and there’s some serious priestly wickedness.

The werewolf of the title is Bertrand, and he’s the unfortunate victim of a kind of family curse going back to a particularly nasty medieval feud and the horrific punishment inflicted on a murderer. Bertrand is basically a nice young man, but he’s subject to overwhelming appetites whenever the change comes upon him. Born in an obscure village, he makes his way to Paris but his destiny is unescapable. He finds love of a kind, with a woman who has almost as many problems as he has. When war comes he discovers ample opportunities for the indulging of his tastes. He’s a monster, but he’s one of those tragic monsters.

Endore wisely avoids excessive sentimentality in the telling of his tale. It’s one of the more interesting werewolf novels that I’ve come across. Definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Footprints on the Ceiling, by Clayton Rawson

Someone recently recommended Clayton Rawson’s mysteries featuring the magician detective The Great Merlini. It turned out to be a great recommendation.

The Footprints on the Ceiling, published in 1939, was the second of only four Great Merlini novels written by Rawson. The combination of stage magic and murder is always a winner in my opinion and this one is interesting in that the magic is not just there for background colour. Rawson’s idea was that the art of the illusionist is based largely on misdirection, and so is the fine art of murder (at least in the hands of a true artist of crime).

And the art of the detective consists in doing precisely the reverse - stripping away the layers of misdirection and focusing on the things the murderer is hoping the detective will be too distracted to notice. The Footprints on the Ceiling certainly makes extensive use of Rawson’s theory with ingenious evil-doers coming up with fiendish mechanisms to sow confusion in the minds of an investigator. But The Great Merlini is a master of this very art of misdirection and no-one is better qualifies to clear away the fog of bogus clues.

Merlini and his pal Ross Harte are recruited by a leading psychic investigator, Colonel Watrous. The colonel is starting to have doubts about his pet medium, Madame Rappourt. A séance is to conducted at the home of the rather odd Skelton family. Their home is located on an island in New York’s East River. At the same time they can take the opportunity to investigate the family’s original house at the other end of the island, reputed to be haunted. An odd assortment of misfits has been assembled for the séance, but that’s not the only thing attracting them to the island. A British frigate sank in the East River during the Revolutionary War and the wreck is reputed to contain an immense hoard of English gold guineas with a current value of around $8 million. That wreck is believed to lie not far from the Skelton family’s island.

Apart from the $8 million lying on the bottom of the East River there’s also the matter of the Skelton fortune, currently controlled by the wildly eccentric Linda Skelton, and the question of the fate of that fortune were something untoward to happen to Linda. So with that sort of money at stake it’s not entirely surprising when the first murder occurs. But the first murder is a murder that appears to have been impossible, and then the telephone lines are cut and all the boats are sunk. This conveniently sets up the ideal situation for a murder mystery with a limited cast of possible suspects all marooned on the island until next morning.

This mystery will tax the powers even of The Great Merlini.

Aside from the intricate and ingenious plotting Rawson was having a good deal of fun with this story. There’s a good-natured tongue-in-cheek quality to this book with plenty of crime fiction in-jokes.

Rawson manages to weave pirates, sunken treasure, deap-sea diving, haunted houses, spiritualism, magic and murder into his plot. If that hasn’t sold you on the book then nothing will! Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Touch of Death, by Charles Williams

Mention hardboiled crime fiction and most people with think of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and their classic noir novels of the 1920s to 1940s. But the hardboiled style was still going strong in the 50s and even into the 60s in the hands of some very gifted practitioners. One of whom was Charles Williams (1909-1975).

One of his best-known books started life as a novella known as And Share Alike which in 1954 was expanded into a novel as A Touch of Death (also published as Mix Yourself a Redhead).

It all starts innocently enough. Lee Scarborough had been a college football star until a knee injury ended his career. It was the beginning of a downhill slide. After a stint as an unsuccessful real estate agent he is now an unsuccessful car salesman. Chasing up a lead for a possible sale leads him to the back garden of an apartment block and an attractive half-naked brunette. The brunette isn’t interested in buying a car but she does a proposal for him. It’s easy money. Nothing could go wrong.

All he has to do is to search an empty house for some stolen money. The money was stolen from a bank by a banker. The banker has disappeared. The half-naked brunette tells Lee that the banker’s wife killed him and she has the money hidden in her house. She’s out of town, the house is empty, all Lee has to do is search until he finds it. The banker’s wife can’t go to the police so it’s a foolproof plan.

Lee isn’t completely dumb and he has his suspicions but he wants that money badly.

This simple plan soon becomes very complicated indeed. Lee gets mixed up with the banker’s wife and with a couple of deadly blondes. He finds himself on the run, and he learns how to mix himself a redhead.

It’s a classic criminal couple on the run story except they’re not exactly a couple and there are some very nasty twists in store.

A Touch of Death boasts one of the most memorable femmes fatales in crime fiction. There’s plenty of terrific hardboiled dialogue, there’s an ample supply of the cynicism the genre requires, there’s action and there’s as much suppressed sexuality threatening to blow the lid off things as you could possibly want.

It scores equally strongly on plotting and atmosphere and it has fascinatingly perverse characters. In fact it has everything you could wish for in a crime novel and Williams combines the ingredients with a master’s touch. Highly recommended. And it’s in print, from Hard Case Crime.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Vampire Countess by Paul Féval

Paul Féval was a frighteningly prolific French author of roman-feuilletons, novels published in serial form which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 19th century. Most of Féval’s work could perhaps best be classified as crime melodrama but he dabbled in the gothic as well, with books like the amazingly strange The Vampire Countess, published around 1855.

Féval’s plots defy any attempts at providing brief synopses, partly because they’re so but mostly because he made them up as he went along so they tend towards incoherence. In a big way. But that’s part of their charm. Also part of their offbeat charm is the way the author mixes melodrama and comedy. I’m not sure the mix really works but the effect is odd enough to be fascinating.

There is a vampire countess in this tale. But whether she’s really a vampire or not is a moot point. As translator Brian Stableford points out in his afterword even when it appears that Féval has resolved the ambiguity about her true nature he hasn’t really resolved it at all. Stableford’s theory is that 19th century French writers felt uncomfortable writing about supernatural subjects if they didn’t actual believe in such things themselves.

This was true to a lesser extent of late 18th and early 19th century British gothic writers who also had a habit of writing apparently supernatural tales that turn out to have completely non-supernatural although still amazingly unlikely explanations. Féval preferred not to commit himself entirely either way. Although it may be an old-fashioned attitude it does give the book an oddly modern feel with its unresolved ambiguities.

The plot involving the vampire intersects with another plot involving royalist conspiracies to assassinate the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte (the book is set in the period before Bonaparte crowned himself emperor). There’s also a twisted kind of love story.

It was originally intended to be part of a series of novels dealing with bodies that end up in the Paris Morgue. Each story would relate the events that led to the person’s untimely demise. As a result one of the key characters is the superintendent of the Morgue who also moonlights as an amateur crime-fighter.

Stableford also makes the point that while most vampire stories use vampirism as a metaphor, this particular one is unusual in using it as a metaphor for a whole series of things - sexual, political and social.

It’s a ramshackle novel that still manages to remain entertaining. Féval’s concept of vampirism is quite different, and fascinatingly so, from that with which most modern readers have been familiar since Bram Stoker’s day.

Recommended for anyone who likes 19th century weird fiction with extra added weirdness.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, was one of the big guns of Victorian literature. His books were bestsellers and he garnered considerable critical acclaim as well. And yet today he is not merely mostly unread, he has become a byword by bad writing, with a literary competition for bad writing named after him.

This is partly because he was unwise enough to start one of his stories with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” It is also because he was a master of what the painter James McNeill Whistler described as the gentle art of making enemies. He also dabbled in politics, with considerable success, but the fact that he gained election to Parliament on more than one occasion as the representative of more than one party doubtless added to his already impressive list of enemies.

All of this is quite unfair. Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most interesting of all Victorian popular novelists. He attempted a multiplicity of genres, all with considerable success. His horror story The Haunters and the Haunted is rightly regarded by connoisseurs of 19th century horror as a classic. He wrote adventure stories, romances, historical fiction and novels of the occult. And in 1871 he penned one of the classics of 19th century science fiction, The Coming Race.

An American mining engineer exploring a particularly deep shaft discovers an entire world the existence of which had never been suspected. This is the world of the ana.

The ana are human. More or less. They are at the same time both very much like us, and very different.

Bulwer-Lytton has little interest in telling a tale of adventure. His agenda is satire. What makes it interesting is that he satirises both his own world and that of the Ana. It is neither a simple utopia nor a simple dystopia, but a bit of both. The hero grows to both like and fear the Ana.

The Ana have discovered the secret of Vril. Or at least the more highly developed societies of the Ana the Vril-ya, have. Think of Vril as the Holy Grail of both medieval alchemists and 21st century physicists and you’ve got the general drift. The powers of Vril are almost unlimited. Both its useful life-giving properties and its immense destructive potential.

The Vril-ya have progressed far beyond any human society inhabiting the surface of the globe. They have long since abandoned such barbaric practices as democracy. War and social strife are unknown. Class hatred is equally unknown. On the other hand one of the reasons that war is unknown is that the Vril-ya mercilessly destroy anything they perceive as a potential threat to peace and happiness. Including other races that don’t share their enthusiasm for peace and happiness.

The society of the Vril-ya has another special feature. The sex roles are more or less reversed. Women are the dominant gender, and women take the active role in courtship.

Bulwer-Lytton avoids simplistic conclusions. He approves of the much higher status that women enjoy in this subterranean world, but he is aware that a simple reversal of roles will not solve all problems. He paints the Vril-ya as being admirable in many ways, but dangerous in the way that those who are convinced they are right are always dangerous.

This is a fine example of 19th century science fiction used as a vehicle for speculation about the future of social organisation rather than technology. Bulwer-Lytton is too interesting an author to be allowed to be forgotten.