Saturday, January 28, 2012

At the Earth's Core, Edgar Rice Burroughs

At the Earth's Core, published in 1922, was the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels. I’ve always found his books to be highly entertaining and ingenious in their imagining of strange worlds and that’s certainly the case with this one.

The book opens with a framing story, as the narrator encounters a solitary and rather disheveled European somewhere in the wastes of the Sahara Desert. The man is named David Innes and he has a strange story to tell.

Professor Perry has invented a machine called the Prospector, although he sometimes refers to it as the Iron Mole. It’s an enormous manned digging machine a hundred feet long designed to burrow deep below the surface of the Earth. David had been an ex-student of his and was a wealthy young man and he’d agreed to finance the professor’s project.

When they take the Prospector for a test run things go horribly wrong. The machine gets out of control and takes them much much deeper into the Earth’s crust than they anticipated. As the temperatures rises alarmingly and their air supply nears exhaustion they prepare themselves for death but then the temperature plummets, rises again, and then plummets again. The machine then breaks through the Earth’s crust. They assume that they emerged somewhere on the surface, but in fact they are now in the strange inside-out world of Pellucidar.

The Earth is hollow, and the world of Pellucidar occupies the inside surface of the planetary crust. Obviously there are major problems making such a world sound even vaguely plausible. Where would they get their sunlight from? Or indeed any light at all? How would gravity work in such a world? Burroughs comes up with some pretty nifty ideas for solving these problems. They’re all ridiculous of course, but they’re clever and once you accept the idea of an inside-out world they do have a certain crazy logic, and even certain elegance.

There are people in Pellucidar, but they’re not the dominant race. The rulers of Pellucidar are the Mahars. They’re winged dinosaurs, rhamphorynchus in fact, although much bigger than the actual rhamphorynchus that once inhabited our outer world. They have no ears but are able to communicate with each other by some means that never becomes entirely clear to our intrepid inner-world explorers. They are intelligent and literate. They are served by the subject race of the Sagoths, a kind of apemen, less intelligent but useful as the Mahars’ foot-soldiers. Menial work is done by human slaves.

Professor Perry and David are soon captured by the Sagoths, to be pressed into service as slave labourers. Among the other captives of the Sagoths David meets Dian the Beautiful. She is a princess of one of the human tribes, proud and beautiful. David’s attempts to befriend her come to grief when he accidentally offends her, princesses being fairly easy to offend.

David eventually escapes but he will have to return to the Mahar city to rescue Professor Perry. He is also determined to find Dian again, and he is starting to form plans to liberate Pellucidar from the Mahars. There will be many hazards, Pellucidar being full of gigantic and extremely fierce animals, many of them long extinct on the upper world, and many much larger in size than the animals of our world. Combined it the menace of the Mahars and the Sagoths he is setting himself quite a task.
It’s all outrageously entertaining and Pellucidar is a strange and fascinating world brought vividly to life (as is the case with Burroughs’ other imaginary worlds). It has beautiful princesses, savage monsters and a brave and noble hero. These are features that might be sneered at today but there’s a lot to be said for them. They work for me anyway.

Burroughs died in 1950. His work remained popular for many years and experienced a revival in the 70s when the sword & sorcery genre was at the peak of its popularity. Sadly he’s been rather forgotten since then but the good news is that so many of his books are now once again available, mostly in print-on-demand form.

He’s an under-appreciated writer whose influence on the science fiction and fantasy genres is seriously underrated.

Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spiderweb by Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch is best-known as the author of Psycho. He stated his career as a disciple of H. P. Lovecraft but quickly established his own style. He wrote science fiction, horror and crime fiction but his trademark was always his interest in what makes people tick - especially people with a weakness of some kind.

His novel Spiderweb, published in 1954, is hardboiled crime fiction although perhaps really closer to being a psychological thriller.

Eddie Haines is a failure. He was a minor radio personality on a minor radio station in a small town in Iowa. On the strength of this he headed for the big city, to LA, with an idea for a TV show - the Television Psychologist. Now all his money is gone, gone to pay an agent who now informs him that he’s a nobody and should head back to Iowa. Drunk and despondent he sees only one way out, courtesy of a razor. It will be a fitting end to a career of failure. Just as he is about to cut his throat someone slips a hundred dollar bill under his door.

That someone is Professor Otto Hermann. Hermann is a crooked psychologist, involved in various psychological and psychic scams. He offers Eddie Haines new hope, of a sort. Sadly Eddie doesn’t realise just how high the price will be. Eddie doesn’t know it yet but the professor’s activities extend to murder and blackmail.

The professor needs someone who can front for him - someone who is young and good-looking and can appear respectable. The sort of man that people will trust. Someone who either has real class, or can at least fake it. He re-invents Eddie as renowned psychological counsellor Dr Judson Roberts. Dr Roberts is soon the author of a best-selling pop psychology book (ghosted for him of course). The professor trains him in all the skills a successful scam artist needs - some basic psychology, hypnosis, the kinds of occult and psychic stuff that appeals to rich but troubled people.

Professor Hermann has his eye on Hollywood. Lots of rich neurotic people there, lots of pigeons ripe for the plucking. Their first victim is a minor starlet, Lorna Lewis. This proves to be Eddie’s undoing, involving him in murder. Now the professor has an ironclad hold over him.

Eddie is soon doing quite well for himself. “Dr Roberts” has a full appointment book, a rich roster of wealthy victims. People like Edgar Caldwell. Caldwell has a very successful business, a luxury home, a wife and a mistress. He also has a full suite of anxieties and neuroses, a fetish for saving string and some colourful sexual kinks. Caldwell has plenty of money and Eddie has no qualms about taking some of it off his hands. When he learns the full extent of Otto Hermann’s plans for Caldwell Eddie suddenly develops a conscience. He’s happy to fleece his clients but destroying them is another matter. And Eddie has started to believe that his psychological counselling can actually help people (which shows just how out of touch with reality he is).

But Eddie has a murder rap hanging over his head. Escape seems impossible. To add to the complication of his life he has fallen in love with Ellen Post. Ellen is basically a nice girl but her idea of a good time is to have a few drinks. And then have a few more drinks. And then to have even more, just for good measure. Eddie now has to find a way to save Ellen from herself whilst saving himself from Otto Hermann.

This is not one of Bloch’s better known books but it’s fine entertainment. It has a nicely glamorous but sleazy atmosphere. It has a memorable villain. It has the world of carnival hucksters, phony pyschics and evil scheming psychiatrists as background. It has suspense and romance. It has a solid hardboiled style.

Most of all it has a tortured hero, a man who is a mixture of ambition, avarice, resentment, idealism and innocence. A true noir hero, desperately struggling to escape from the spiderweb that his own weaknesses have led him into.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Blind Corner, Dornford Yates

Dornford Yates (1885-1960) was one of the most popular British authors of thrillers in the years between the two world wars. In fact Yates, Sapper and John Buchan he could be said to be the big three of the thriller genre at that period. All three authors are unjustly neglected today, Yates even more so than Sapper and Buchan.

Blind Corner, published in 1927, was the first of his thrillers featuring Richard Chandos.

A young Englishman named Richard Chando, by an accident of fate (the kind that happens so frequently in thrillers) witnesses a murder while travelling in France. The murderer and his victim had been discussing a treasure that one of them apparently had information about. Chandos promises the dying man that he will look after his dog and when he examines the dog’s collar he finds that he now possesses the key to finding the treasure.

He fails to report the matter to the police, presumably because he scents adventure in the offing. On his return to England he has another chance encounter, but this one turns out not to be accidental at all. He meets Jonathan Mansel and through him discovers that the dead man was a British intelligence officer.

This is not however going to be a spy thriller. The treasure had belonged to a nobleman in Austria who was literally a robber baron. He had hidden his loot in a well on his estate and now several centuries later Mansel intends to find it.

They are not the only ones hunting the treasure. The murderer has joined forces with a notorious criminal named Rose Noble, a particularly dangerous but extremely cunning man. The two gangs become involved in what is in effect a private war. Mansel and his friends are holed up in the dead nobleman’s castle while Rose Noble and his gang lay siege to it. In some ways there’s not much difference between the two gangs. Neither has any legal right to the treasure. But there is a crucial difference - Mansel and his friends are gentlemen who are loyal to each other while Rose Noble and his crew are lower-class thugs who would cheerfully slit each other’s throats.

Both gangs are now caught up in a race as they pursue the treasure from different directions, from within and from outside the castle.

Blind Corner is slightly different in tone from most British thrillers of that age since the heroes are in fact engaging in activities that are in fact quite illegal, even if they are decent chaps and thoroughly brave and noble. In that respect they’re closer to gentlemen thieves like Raffles than to conventional heroes such as Bulldog Drummond.

Yates wrote about three dozen novels in various genres including eight Richard Chandos thrillers.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure yarn and well worth tracking down.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury

In 1947 Mickey Spillane’s first Mike Hammer novel I, The Jury hit the bookstores. Depending on your point of view this event marked the degeneration of crime fiction or it represented a breath of fresh air.

I belong to the second school of thought. Spillane wasn’t interested in making us feel sorry for criminals. He thought victims of crime deserved more sympathy than hoodlums. Mike Hammer isn’t very subtle but he does have a well-developed sense of justice. And if the courts and the police can’t deliver justice then he’ll do the job himself.

I, The Jury opens with the murder of an old buddy of Mike Hammer’s, a ex-cop turned insurance investigator. He’d been digging into something besides insurance claims and Hammer has to find our what it was.

Along the way he encounters a retired racketeer, a smooth ladies’ man, a hooker, two beautiful twins at least one of whom is a nymphomaniac but he’s never quite sure which one it is, and a glamorous female psychiatrist with whom he falls in love. Mike’s a tough guy but he’s a bit of a closet romantic. Any or all of these people could be involved in the murder, or hold the key to solving it.

Hammer approaches the case in his usual direct style. If in doubt, slug someone. It seems to work.

Spillane added more sex and violence than had been customary in earlier crime fiction, rather as Ian Fleming was doing to the spy genre at roughly the same time. Both authors have been criticised for doing so but I doubt that either was too worried by the criticism. Success tends to speak for itself.

Spillane’s books are trashy and pulpy but they have plenty of energy and they’re terrific entertainment.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sax Rohmer’s The Fire Goddess

The Fire Goddess (published in Britain as Virgin in Flames) was the third of Sax Rohmer’s five Sumuru novels published between 1950 and 1956. Rohmer is best known for his Fu Manchu novels but his output was quite varied and included some excellent gothic horror tales.

Sumuru is in some ways a female version of Dr Fu Manchu. She’s also a diabolical criminal mastermind and an evil genius but her aims are rather different. Her objective is a world run by women, a world in which ugliness and violence will be abolished. Like all idealists she is prepared to use force to achieve her objectives.

Sumuru is more subtle than most however. She prefers to use brainwashing and sexual manipulation rather than overt violence. She has an army of women at her disposal, all of them beautiful.

She has married several times, always to extremely rich men. Each marriage has increased her wealth, and each husband has been ruthlessly discarded. Her enormous wealth has allowed her to build a vast criminal empire, the Order of our Lady. She has attracted the attention of various police forces as well as the FBI but no-one has ever succeeded in bringing any charges against her.

Her latest base of operations is in Jamaica, in a remote valley. Others have plans for this valley - the government hopes to construct a dam while a large mining company is anxious to explore the region’s rich bauxite deposits. Sumuru is determined to put a stop to any such interference in her domain.

Sumuru has problems within her organisation. One of her chief lieutenants, Sister Melisande, has ambitions of her own and there may be another traitor as well. And there is a Scotland Yard inspector making a nuisance of himself. Sumuru’s Jamaican operations involve voodoo and her followers on the island must undergo a trial by fire before being admitted to full membership of the Order of our Lady. Such a ceremony was unfortunately witnessed by an outsider who had to be eliminated and this was the event that attracted the notice of Scotland Yard. There’s also a young mining engineer, Lance Harkness, sent by his company to make a preliminary investigation of the bauxite deposits, and this may prove to be tiresome. One of Sumuru’s women is given the task of neutralising this threat. This does not necessarily entail murder - Sumuru prefers to recruit possibly useful people into her organisation rather than killing them and sex is usually an effective way to lure them in.

The style of the Sumuru books is very similar that of his Fu Manchu books - delightfully overheated and pulpy - and they’re just as much fun. The main difference is that Sumuru uses sex a lot more to further her plans for world domination.

A very enjoyable slice of vintage pulp fiction, highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four

Apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels are not as highly regarded as his short stories. In the case of The Sign of Four that’s something of a pity as it really is splendid entertainment.

A young woman has been receiving puzzling annual gifts for several years - extremely valuable pearls. Her father had been an army officer who had served in India and later in the garrison of the penal colony in the Andaman Islands. His disappearance had been a source of great sorrow to her.

She then receives a letter informing her that the pearls are an attempt to recompense her for a wrong that has been done to her. She suspects the pearls may have some connection with the mystery of her father.

She is of course correct. What follows is a story of both honour and dishonour among thieves, of fabulous treasure, of family shame and murder.

Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in print in the novel A Study in Scarlet in 1887. This was followed by The Sign of Four in 1890 and by the first of the short stories in 1891.

While there’s no real necessity to read any of the subsequent tales in any particular order I think it is highly desirable to read The Sign of Four first. When he wrote A Study in Scarlet Conan Doyle had no way of knowing just how durable the detective was going to be and it’s not until The Sign of Four that the character appears in a fully developed form. It establishes the various quirks of his personality and the peculiarities of his method in considerable detail. While Conan Doyle certainly could construct ingenious plots the main interest of the Sherlock Holmes stories is in those oddities of personality and in his approach to the problems of crime-solving. Once you’ve read The Sign of Four you have the necessary background to appreciate the later stories.

The great detective’s addiction to cocaine, his struggles with depression and boredom, his disdain for the plodding methods of Scotland Yard, his minute powers of observation and his ability to extract extraordinary amounts of information from the most trivial clues, his quixotic approach to problems of justice and the law - it’s all here.

The Sign of Four is a fine story in its own right and it’s the perfect introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Conan Doyle’s The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed

The best known of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novels is of course The Lost World, chronicling the adventures of the extraordinary Professor Challenger. Professor Challenger featured in several of Conan Doyle’s other stories. Most are collected in the Wordsworth paperback volume The Lost World and Other Stories. I’ve reviewed The Lost World and The Poison Belt elsewhere, but the final two stories in this volume, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed, are also not without interest.

The Disintegration Machine dates from 1929. Professor Challenger has heard of what might be an amazing if terrifying scientific achievement or merely an imaginative fraud. But the potential dangers of Theodore Nemor’s disintegration machine are such that he cannot afford to ignore it.

Along with the newspaperman Malone (the only journalist he will tolerate) Professor Challenger sets out to discover if Nemor’s invention really can do what has been claimed for it. What Challenger sees in Nemor’s laboratory will shock him, but Professor Challenger knows how to handle the situation in his characteristically direct way. It’s an amusing story with a sting in the tail.

When the World Screamed, originally published in 1928, is much more interesting. Professor Challenger has become a convert to a startling theory about the nature of the Earth. He believes it’s alive. Literally. That it has a consciousness. The problem is that the Earth is apparently unaware of us. Professor Challenger intends to change that.

This is not a hippie-dippie Gaia-type story but it does illustrate the way in which Conan Doyle’s interests in both science and mysticism occasionally coalesce in an interesting way in his fiction.

The tales of Professor Challenger are varied in both quality and tone but all are very much worth reading.