Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harry Dickson: The American Sherlock Holmes

I’ve now read the the whole of Harry Dickson: The American Sherlock Holmes. This book contains three complete episodes from the French pulp series (each being approximately novella-length) plus one short story.

The Harry Dickson stories were immensely popular in France, rivalling the popularity of other fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin. The genesis of this character is a complex and fascinating story. It starts with a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches published in German pulp magazines from 1907 to 1911. Some of these early tales were translated into French. Then in 1927 a Dutch publisher started releasing translated versions of the original German stories but with the detective’s name changed to Harry Dickson (presumably out of fear that Conan Doyle might take legal action).

From 1929 to 1938 French translations of these Dutch translations were published with enormous success. The great Belgian fantasist Jean Ray was responsible for many of these new versions. Harry Dickson’s popularity was maintained for many decades after this and there were plans for a Harry Dickson film in 1966 which was to have stared Dirk Bogarde as the title character. Harry Dickson retains a strong following in France and there have been recent graphic novel versions.

Apart from the much pulpier tone the key difference between these stories and the Sherlock Holmes stories that originally inspired them is that the Harry Dickson stories incorporate major elements of the literature of the fantastique. There are vampires, aliens, monsters from mythology, talking parrots, people turned (literally) into statues, mad scientists and vast conspiracies.

In The Heir of Dracula a serial killer is behind bars and awaiting execution (thanks to Harry’s earlier efforts), but Harry has grave doubts as to whether these crimes have really been solved. And why is the condemned criminal so anxious that his execution should go ahead as scheduled? And what is the link to the activities of a certain notorious eastern European nobleman named Vlad Țepeș, with whom the legend of Count Dracula originates. Is it really just a legend?

The Iron Temple is much more pulpy and outlandish. Talking parrots, strange inhuman monsters concealed in ancient buildings, visitors from the stars and a vast underground city all add up to large amounts of silly fun with plenty of breathless excitement and delicious shudders.

The Return of the Gorgon suggests that Medusa and her sisters, the gorgons of mythology, may have a real-life counterpart. Mythology, art, marine biology and crime all play a part in this outrageously entertaining tale.

The Curse of the Crimson Heart is more science fictional in its basis but just as over-the-top.

These are stories that combine some dazzling flights of imagination with pulpy crime thrills. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Dorrington Deed-Box, by Arthur Morrison

Arthur Morrison is best-known to crime fans today for the Martin Hewitt stories which were among the most successful of the stories that followed in the wake of the enormous success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Morrison’s method with the Martin Hewitt stories was simple. He created a detective who was the complete opposite of Sherlock Holmes. Hewitt is self-effacing, polite, even-tempered, modest and gets on well with the police. It sounds dull but Morrison was a fine writer and a skillful exponent of the art of crime fiction plotting and these stories are highly entertaining.

Less well-known but even more interesting are the half-dozen stories involving the firm of Dorrington and Hicks, private enquiry agents, collected in 1897 in The Dorrington Deed-Box. Hicks is more or less a silent partner. The prime mover in the film is the sinister and mysterious Dorrington. Dorrington is a talented investigator but he’s no gentleman amateur. He intends to make money. A lot of money. To do this by strictly legal means would require years of hard work. Dorrington has no intention of waiting, and fortunately he is entirely untroubled by pangs of conscience.

When he takes on a case he looks for an angle that will allow him to enrich himself. If this happen to be at the expense of the client Dorrington is unlikely to lose any sleep over the matter. If it results in the total ruin of the client this i a matter of no concern at all to Dorrington. If he can’t find an opening for shady dealing then he will investigate the case to the best of his ability and endeavour to produce a favourable result for his client. After all, in order to keep the business going he needs at last some satisfied customers. It is necessary to build up a reputation as a legitimate detective if he is to get the opportunities he craves for his less legitimate activities.

Dorrington gets away with all this because he is a man of immense charm. He is also an extraordinarily good liar.

Dorrington was one of the first great anti-heroes in crime fiction (and was quite possibly the first). Morrison was ahead of his time and these stories found less favour with the reading public than the Martin Hewitt stories. The factors that made them less successful at the time are of course the very factors that make them so interesting today.

The first story, The Narrative of Mr James Rigby, sets things up. An unfortunate Australian on his way to England is taken in by the charm and good fellowship of a fellowship of a fellow passenger. This fellow passenger is Dorrington and Mr James Rigby finds himself in a position where he could very easily lose both his fortune and his life. At the end of this introductory story Dorrington’s private papers are discovered and these form the basis for the other five stories.

The following four stories follow the nefarious activities of Dorrington as he becomes involved in horse racing scams, diamonds and a crooked business speculation involving one of the boom industries of the 1890s, bicycles. The final story explains the beginning’s of Dorrington’s career as both detective and criminal.

Dorrington himself is a marvellous creation, thoroughly villainous but seductively charming and with no moral scruples whatsoever. He’s a larger-than-life character and he has the fascination of pure evil.

Morrison’s plotting is first-rate and the smooth villainy of Dorrington inspires him to produce some of his wittiest and most enjoyable prose.

These stories are simply enormous fun. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Stop This Man!

Peter Rabe’s Stop This Man! is a hardboiled crime thriller dealing with the theft of radioactive gold. Now that surely has to be a fun combination, and so it proves.

Tony Catell is a big-time criminal, or at least he was until he got sent down for an eight-year stretch in the penitentiary. Now he’s more or less forgotten, a has-been, and he’s pushing fifty. But Tony Catell is not finished yet. No sir. He’s not going to be a nobody. He’s going to be a big shot again. When one of his few remaining contacts, an old hand named Schumacher, sets up a job for him he jumps at it.

The job is simple. There’s an ingot of solid gold sitting in a government research facility and the security is laughably insufficient. For a pro like Tony it’s easy money. The robbery goes like clockwork and Catell sets off with his gold to meet Schumacher, but there’s one little snag. Schumacher forget to mention this gold is radioactive.

Catell thinks the whole radioactive story is a lot of hooey. As far as he’s concerned gold is gold and he’s unimpressed when Schumacher tries to convince him that this gold is going to be very difficult indeed to unload. Catell thinks Schumacher is just spinning him a line. He’ll set up a deal himself to sell the gold. And while he’s at it he steals Schumacher’s girlfriend Selma. Selma turns out to be a lot like the gold - not really such a good deal after all. She’s an alcoholic, and a self-pitying one at that. But after eight years in prison Tony just wants a woman.

Eventually Tony heads east, to LA, where he has a contact lined up. Once again things are more complicated than he hoped. His contact, Smith, is a big operator and drives a hard bargain. He’ll take the gold off Catell’s hands, but Catell has to do one heist for him first. There are further headaches, with one of Smith’s stooges taking an extreme dislike to him. But there’s one compensation. He meets Lily. She’s a singer. She’s twenty years old. Catell has never had any use for women apart from sex but now something strange is happening to him. He has a strong desire to settle down with Lily. In fact he’s contemplating marrying her.

Unfortunately Tony has more and more problems to deal with, big problems. The FBI is organising a mammoth manhunt for him. They’re not keen on the idea of hoodlums wandering about the countryside carrying ingots of radioactive gold, or radioactive anything for that matter. And Tony isn’t feeling so good. He’s been feeling pretty bad ever since he stole the gold. Nausea, headaches, weakness, all kinds of stuff. Naturally he discounts the idea it might have something to do with the radioactive ingot he’s been carrying about in his car. What do these scientists know anyway? The fact that quite a few people he’s been in contact with have been not feeling so good as well seems to Tony to be a mere coincidence. But things are starting to close in on Tony.

I have no idea if there really is such a thing as radioactive gold but it doesn’t really matter. The gold is merely what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin. It means nothing in itself but it serves as a useful engine to drive the plot. It’s something both seductive and deadly for Catell to become totally obsessed by, and it provides a reason for the relentless FBI pursuit of him.

Catell is hardly a sympathetic character. He’s violent, selfish, ruthless and uncaring. At the same time his single-mindedness and his steely determination make him a fascinating protagonist. The odds are increasingly stacked against him but he’s a tough nut and we end up believing that if anyone can prevail against these odds it’s Tony Catell.

There’s plenty of action and Rabe lays on the hardboiled atmosphere nice and thick.

Recommended for hardboiled crime enthusiasts.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Edgar Wallace's The Yellow Snake

The Yellow Snake is a delightfully trashy and outrageous 1926 thriller by Edgar Wallace.

As you might gather from the title this time Wallace is dealing with the Yellow Peril. To be more specific, a nefarious Chinese secret society known as the Joyful Hands.

Stephen Narth is a crooked British merchant banker. He has been speculating with client’s money, and needs to find £50,000 to keep out of prison. Suddenly salvation seems to be at hand. A distant relative, Joe Bray, has made a fortune from mining and trading in China and has unexpectedly left his fortune to Narth. Only there are complications. Bray’s will stipulates that in order for this fortune to come his way Narth must ensure that one of his daughters should marry Bray’s mine manager Clifford Lynne.

Stephen Narth’s daughters, Mabel and Letty, are very anxious to marry money but they take one look at Clifford Lynne and refuse to have anything to do with the scheme. He has a long bushy beard, is generally unkempt and dresses eccentrically. And he is, after all, a mere employee of their distant relative. They come up with a clever plan - the will actually stipulate that Clifford should marry a female member of Narth’s family, not necessarily a daughter. So they will force their penniless cousin Joan Bray to marry the uncouth mine manager.

Joan agrees and it’s soon clear she’s made a rather good bargain - once he’s cleaned up Lynne is actually quite good-looking. And he’s not a mere employee. In fact he owns considerably more of the Yun Nan Concessions than Joe Bray does. He is immensely wealthy. He’s certainly eccentric but Joan has already decided that he’s rather fascinating.

Salvation hasn’t come quite in time for Stephen Narth - he needs the £50,000 immediately. Now another benefactor appears on the scene - the fabulously wealthy Oxford-educated Chinese businessman Grahame St Clay (whose real name is Fing-Su). He lends Stephen the money he needs, but this loan very definitely comes with strings attached. The unlucky banker is now well and truly in Fing-Su’s clutches and is hopelessly involved in the conspiracies of the Joyful Hands.

Fing-Su’s immediate objective is to obtain one of the 49 founder shares in the Yun Nan Concession. These are the only shares with voting rights and he already has 24. Once he has control he intends to use the company’s immense wealth to finance a very ambitious plan. He is aiming at nothing less than control of China. He is of course quite mad.

To get this share from Clifford Lynne he needs to exert some pressure, and he decides the best way is by threatening Lynne’s intended bride.

There are countless further plot complications including several murders and kidnappings and a horrific initiation ritual that Stephen Narth must endure. Clifford and Joan find themselves menaced at every step by ruthless assassins.

it goes without saying that this is a very politically incorrect book, if that’s something that bothers you.

It’s all outlandish to the highest degree and it’s tremendous fun. Wallace is these days very unfashionable indeed, something that I find quite mysterious. His thrillers are always entertaining and colourful and he is surely ripe for rediscovery. The Yellow Snake is a total hoot.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Vertigo

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Vertigo (original French title D'entre les morts) is of course the source material for Hitchcock’s famous movie.

The novel was published in an English translation in 1956 under the title The Living and the Dead and Hitchcock’s film followed a couple of years later.

They also wrote the book on which Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques was based and I’ve wanted to read one of their novels for years. Sadly this one seems to be only one readily available in an English translation.

As is the case with the movie caution is needed when discussing the plot. There are major plot twists that I don’t wish to spoil so I’ll be a vague as possible about the plot.

The movie followed the storyline laid out in the novel surprisingly closely. The changes are fairly minor in themselves, but significant especially with regards to the motivations of the characters.

The story opens in 1940. Flavières had been a cop but had been forced to resign after an unfortunate incident on a rooftop. He had been chasing a suspect but suffered an attack of vertigo and lost his nerve. As a result a fellow policeman was killed. Flavières now works as a lawyer. An old acquaintance whom he hasn’t seen for years contacts him out of the blue asking for help in a delicate matter. He is worried about his wife’s odd behaviour. Could Flavières keep an eye on her?

The wife, Madeleine Gévigne, seems to be obsessed with a long-dead ancestress, the mysterious Pauline Lagerlac. Pauline had committed suicide and Madeleine’s husband fears she may do the same. Flavières soon discovers this apparently simple job isn’t so simple after all, owing to the fact that he fallen hopelessly in love with Madeleine. Something he is ill-equipped to deal with, being chronically ill-at-ease with women.

Of course if you’ve seen the movie you know that catastrophe will strike about halfway through the story.

Like the movie it’s a story of an ex-cop’s obsession with a woman, and with death and with control and identity. The major difference is in the personality of Flavières. The character he became in the movie, Scottie Ferguson, is dark and disturbing in his own way and has some serious emotional and sexual issues. But he is at least a person who believes he is a basically good and moral person. That’s responsible for much of the pathos and the irony of the film. Flavières has no such illusions about himself.

This difference in characterisation gives the endings of the novel and the movie rather different feels. In both cases the ending is bleak, but it’s not the same kind of bleakness.

The other major difference is that the war plays a major role in the novel with the first half of the story occurring in 1940 as France faces defeat and the second half taking place in 1945 against a war-ravaged and cynical background of France in the immediate aftermath of the end of the war.

There are sufficient differences in tone and characterisation that it’s possible to regard Boileau and Narcejac’s novel and Hitchcock’s movie as quite distinct works. The movie is an acknowledged masterpiece. The novel is a very fine piece of crime fiction and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

News from the Moon

News from the Moon, edited by Brian Stableford, is a collection of nine French “proto-science fiction tales” from the 19th century. Many of these stories won’t fit most people’s ideas of what constitutes science fiction but in some ways that’s Stableford’s point - that there was a distinctive school of French speculative fiction at that time that differed in many ways from the contemporary scientific romances of British authors such as H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In his lively introduction Stableford traces the history of science fiction in France back to the 17th century although the earliest story included in News from the Moon dates from 1768. This is Louis-Sébastien Mercier's News from the Moon, an odd mix of speculation about life after death and life on other planets.

Adrien Roberts’ The Embalmed Hand is gothic horror with a science fictional element, a tale of an embalmed hand and poisons and a dissolute doctor.

Jean Richepin's The Metaphysical Machine is a story of madness and the search for truth, a search that takes a disturbingly extreme physical form.

Albert Robida's The Monkey King is an outrageous satirical epic. A young boy is shipwrecked on an island and raised by monkeys. He will later become a seafarer and eventually lead an army of monkeys on the conquest of Australia. Robida makes many amusing points about civilisation and savagery and imperial conquest.

Eugène Mouton’s The Historioscope is perhaps the most impressive story in the collection. A historian researching ancient trade patterns meets a very eccentric old gentleman who has invented a means of actually seeing the past, literally. The idea is cleverly developed.

Georges Eckhoud’s story Tony Wandel's Heart tells of a surgeon who masters the technique of organ transplantation. It turns out that transplanting a heart not only can restore lost youth it can also have very unexpected effects on the personality. The heart in question is transplanted into a series of different bodies and leaves each individual who receives it dramatically changed.

Stéphane Mallarme’s The Future Phenomenon, Guy de Maupassant's Martian Mankind and Fernand Noat's The Red Triangle round out the collection in their very odd fashion.

While these tales are in the main rather unconventional examples of science fiction they’re all intriguing in their own ways and as usual Stableford does a fine job as translator as well as providing a thoughtful and informative introduction. Definitely worth getting.

This would make a splendid companion edition to the Isaac Asimov-edited anthology of 19th century British and American science fiction, The Birth of Science in Fiction (also highly recommended).

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Mystery Of The Green Ray

The Mystery Of The Green Ray is a 1915 espionage thriller that could also be considered as borderline science fiction.

William Le Queux (1864-1927) was an amazingly prolific author (with something like 150 novels to his credit) who specialised in thrillers and espionage novels. These often involved hypothetical accounts of German invasions of Britain or other deadly threats to the Empire.

He seems to have been a little on the eccentric side, but eccentric in an interesting way. He had a great enthusiasm for new technologies such as aircraft and radio, the latter playing an important role in The Mystery Of The Green Ray. Le Queux apparently had some slight problems distinguishing fact from fiction and ended up believing that the German intelligence services were out to get him. He convinced himself that he really had unearthed dastardly plots that threatened Germany’s war aims.

As the novel opens four young Englishmen are enjoying a peaceful days’ relaxation punting on the river but they are all too keenly aware of the storm clouds that are gathering. It is late July 1914 and the assassination of a certain Austrian archduke has Europe poised on the brink of war. Being patriotic manly Englishmen all four friends intend to do their bit by enlisting. Before doing so young Ronald Ewart must pay a visit to Scotland to see his fiancée Myra and her father, a retired general.

Ewart hopes to get in a bit of salmon fishing as well but this brief getaway proves to be anything but relaxing. Myra is also keen on fishing but disaster strikes unexpectedly - she is mysteriously struck blind! She sees a green flash and then nothing. Her father has an odd experience as well, reporting that a large rock overhanging the river seemed to be moving towards him. And then Myra’s faithful dog goes blind and as was the case with Myra it happens just as suddenly.

Ewart calls in a leading eye specialist who turns out to be a bit of an amateur detective and has connections with the military and naval authorities. He starts to suspect the possibility of some diabolical plot involving radio waves. There certainly is a conspiracy, but it’s much more bizarre than that. I won’t spoil it by revealing the exact nature of the plot but given that it takes place in 1914 and was written in 1915 you won’t get any prizes for guessing that the Germans are mixed up in it somewhere.

It’s all delightfully outlandish and a great deal of fun. The emphasis on gadgetry and diabolical inventions gives it a pleasingly pulpy feel. Le Queux was one of the major pioneers of spy fiction and fans of that genre should find plenty to enjoy.