Tuesday, March 27, 2012

William P. McGivern’s The Big Heat

William P. McGivern’s novel The Big Heat was the source for Fritz Lang’s classic 1953 film noir of the same title. McGivern enjoyed considerable success as a novelist and screenwriter in various genres.

The movie followed the plot of the novel fairly closely, even including the famous coffee pot scene (if you’ve see the movie you know which scene I’m talking about and if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil the shock effect). The most significant change was to the character of Max Stone who becomes Vince Stone in the movie. The Max Stone of the book is equally vicious but he’s a man driven to viciousness by fear, while the Vince Stone of the movie is a more confident, and more overtly sadistic, character.

Dave Bannion is an honest cop in a city in which honesty is a rare commodity. Corrupt city officials and politicians are in the pockets of gangsters like Mike Lagana. Lagana lives a life of genteel elegance in a luxurious mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens, but he started life as a brutal gangster and a gangster he remains.

Bannion has always been aware of the underlying corruption of the city but up until now it hasn’t had any direct effect on his life or on his work as a Homicide cop.

All that will change. At first it seems like a routine case. A police clerk has committed suicide. There are no suspicious circumstances. The dead cop, Tom Deery, was the sort of guy who goes through life without attracting much attention. He had always been assumed to be honest, he had no obvious vices. His wife claims he was very concerned about health problems and that seems like a satisfactory explanation for his suicide. Then Bannion gets a telephone call from a woman. She tells him that she’s sure the dead man had no health problems and she doesn’t believe he would have taken his own life.

A bit of digging around reveals that this woman. Lucy Carroway, had been Deery’s mistress some years earlier. Deery’s widow assures Bannion that Lucy was still bitter that the affair with her husband ended and Bannion is satisfied that that explains her story. Even the fact that Tom Deery used to own a holiday house is not especially suspicious. A police clerk might have been able to afford a little luxury like that if he was very careful with his money, and besides maybe his wife or his family had some money. Bannion is happy enough to close the case. Until Lucy Carroway is murdered.

This seems like a boy of a coincidence, and Dave Bannion doesn’t like coincidences. And the murder was particularly brutal but it wasn’t a sex crime. Bannion is now convinced the Deery case is worth looking into more deeply. He still doesn’t think he’s run into a major criminal conspiracy but when he’s ordered peremptorily to drop the case the pieces start to fall into place. If the big boys who run the city want him to stop investigating then there must be something to investigate. Something big. Bannion is not just honest, he’s also stubborn. His refusal to drop the case will have catastrophic personal consequences for him, consequences that will see him handing in his badge and conducting his own private war against organised crime, a war of revenge.

He will find himself up against Mike Lagana, and against hoodlums like Max Stone.

It’s a pretty good story. The main weakness is the ending which is much too pat and too neat and doesn’t quite ring true. The story shows us a world of moral squalor but also a world of moral ambiguity. People aren’t always crooked because they’re bad. Some are just weak. Or frightened. Even the tough guys are sometimes prone to fear. And even gangster’s molls like Debby (Max Stone’s girlfriend) can turn out to be capable of extraordinary courage and decency. The ending undercuts this a little as the author tries to tie things up too comprehensively.

There’s plenty of hardboiled dialogue and plenty of atmosphere. This is pulp fiction but it’s not too pulpy (not that I have a problem with pulp fiction that’s very pulpy indeed). McGivern’s style is straightforward but effective.

Bannion is a hero but he’s a hero with some flaws and he’s generally believable. McGivern gives us some memorable villains and, in the person of Debby, a complex female character whose motivations are entirely believable.

A fine crime thriller. Not quite as good as the movie, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of since the movie is very very good indeed. Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dennis Wheatley’s The Satanist

I know I should be embarrassed by my fondness for Dennis Wheatley’s fiction, but I’m not. We all need our guilty pleasures. It remains a mystery how Wheatley could be, as recently as the 1970s, one of the world’s top-selling authors. And then his audience simply vanished.

The book of his that I’m reading is The Satanist, one of his black magic potboilers. And great fun it is. Those dastardly Satanists are conspiring again, this time with the communists, and it’s not just human sacrifice and unspeakable perversions that are on the agenda. They’ve got their hands on a H-bomb.

It’s all done in Wheatley’s usual style, although with more sex than in his earlier books (this one dates from 1960). Much of the time you get the feeling that for Wheatley the evil satanic rituals were just an excuse to get the female characters naked. But interestingly enough, the lead female character is a very strong character, and very sympathetically portrayed although she’s an ex-prostitute. And he isn’t judgmental about her past. And he displays a surprisingly tolerant attitude towards sex in general, when you’d expect quite the opposite from someone with a reputation as an arch-reactionary. It’s these weird contradictions that make Wheatley so fascinating from my point of view.

He was very pulpy, and delightfully hysterical with his crazy conspiracy theories. Even Mulder would have considered this guy to be a bit wacky, but I enjoy his stuff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Man Who Would Be King, Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling might be deeply unfashionable these days but I have a weakness for unfashionable writers. He was something that is almost unimaginable these days - an enormously popular writer who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s also the sort of writer the PC Thought Police would like to stop us from reading.

Kipling was one of the grand masters of the art of the short story and The Man Who Would Be King and other stories gives us five splendid examples.

I’ve been meaning to get round to reading the title story for years, ever since the first time I saw John Huston’s magnificent 1975 film adaptation. It was a remarkably faithful adaptation, but then it’s such a great story and so perfectly suited to cinematic adaptation that there was really no reason to change anything.

A newspaperman in British India in the late 19th century encounters two somewhat disreputable British adventurers. They tell him their plan, which is a simple one. They intend to journey to a remote valley on the borders of Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings. They have pooled their financial resources in order to buy twenty Martini rifles. With their own military backgrounds (they might be rogues but they’re trained soldiers with an appreciation for the virtues of military discipline) and these guns they will teach the inhabitants of the valley the art of modern warfare, whereupon they will undoubtedly be acclaimed as kings.

The journalist takes a certain liking to these two adventurers but there’s not the slightest doubt in his mind they he will never see them alive again.

A couple of years later a broken wreck of a man shambles into his newspaper office and he learns the strange fates of Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.

Of the other stories in the collection The Phantom Rickshaw is an effective ghost story whilst The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes is a bizarre but excellent piece of weird fiction concerning the place where the dead who aren’t really dead end up.

Without Benefit of Clergy is a tale of a relationship between a British colonial official and an Indian Muslim woman that demonstrates Kipling’s complex and subtle understanding of the problems of colonialism for both sides.

Kipling was an intelligent, humane and perceptive writer who deserves to be more widely read. The Man Who Would Be King and other stories is a pretty good place to start.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery

The Greek Coffin Mystery marks my long overdue introduction to Ellery Queen. Published in 1932, this really is the apotheosis of the golden age detective story. The starting point for the story is the death of a New York art dealer of Greek ancestry. After the funeral it is discovered that his will has disappeared. This sets off a chain of events involving murder and art, a chain of events that almost manages to baffle the great detective himself.

Ingenious is an inadequate word to describe the immense complexity of the plot. And it has to be admitted that when the author issues his “Challenge to the Reader” (which was apparently a feature of all the early Ellery Queen novels) claiming that the reader now possesses all the clues needed to solve the mystery, and that there is only one possible solution that fits exactly, he really isn’t kidding. All the clues really are there, and it really is impossible for anyone else to have committed the crime. The skill with which the trail of clues is laid is breath-taking.

It’s not just the twists and turns of the plot that makes this such a marvellously pure embodiment of golden age crime fiction. It takes the lack of interest in psychology and characterisation that distinguishes this form to an extreme that I don’t think has ever been surpassed. The characters exist, and act, solely to serve the demands of the plot. This can be seen as a flaw, but in reality it’s part of the charm of this type of detective tale. It takes the reader into a world governed entirely by the rule of reason, a world in which any puzzle can be solved by the exercise of logic and the rules of deduction.

If you accept it on its own terms it works brilliantly. And it’s great fun

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Girl in the Golden Atom

The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings (1887-1957) is one of the early classics of American science fiction. It was originally published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. Book publication followed in 1922 (apparently in a slightly longer form). It was an immediate success and the basic idea was one that the author retuned to rather obsessively in his subsequent incredibly prolific career.

It’s undeniably a clever idea. A scientist (whose name we are never told) develops an ultra-high power microscope and makes a startling discovery. There really are worlds within worlds. Within the atoms he observes an entire world, with people in it. He speculates that our world may in fact be such a world contained within another infinitely vaster world, and that there may be an infinite numbers of worlds within worlds within worlds.

Within this microscopic world he sees a girl. And he becomes obsessed by her. Somehow he must find a way to enter this microscopic world. He finds a way to do just that. In the process he finds that he may be able to save not just this miniature world but also our own world.

This is definitely not hard science fiction. You just have to accept that these scientist chappies are terribly clever and if they need to reduce themselves to less than the size of atom they just whip up a special potion that does the trick. But this was 1919. This was still the age of the scientific romance, the age of Verne and Wells and Burroughs, when playing around with cool ideas (often with political overtones especially in the case of Wells) was more important than working out plausible theories to explain the events of the tales.

Cummings was less political than Wells but he was influenced by the Great War and uses his story to make some observations on war and the fate of human society. Or in this case human societies. In some cases his observations on these matters become a bit disturbing when he intervenes in a war in the microscopic universe and ponders the possibility of doing something similar in our world. There’s certainly an element of scientific hubris here although I’m not sure just how conscious he was of this or of the staggeringly naïve approach of his scientist hero.

He was also presumably influenced by the scientific ferment of that time, with quantum theory and relativity suggesting that universes could be more strange and complex than had ever previously been imagined. In some ways this tale can even be seen as an anticipation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory although obviously Cummings’ idea of a multiplicity of universes is very different from the quantum one.

It’s an interesting curiosity from the earlier days of science fiction. Not a masterpiece but definitely worth a look.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Honey West: This Girl For Hire

This Girl For Hire, published in 1956, was the first of eleven Honey West crime thrillers written by Gloria and Forrest E. Fickling under the name G. G. Fickling. The Honey West character is probably better known these days from the 1960s Honey West TV series starring Anne Francis in the title role.

The back cover blurb memorably describes Honey West as the nerviest curviest private eye in LA, with the sleuthmanship of Mike Hammer and the measurements of Marilyn Monroe. That gives a pretty accurate picture of the kind of book this is - it’s trashy, pulpy fun.

Honey’s father was a PI who was murdered and Honey then took over the business. She’s not quite a female Mike Hammer but she does her best. She’s not as violent but she has the attitude and she’s sufficiently adept at judo and street fighting to handle herself pretty well. She packs a .32 revolver but she uses her feminine wiles more often than she uses her gun.

When she needs to find out if a bunch of guys are heroin users she needs to get a look at their arms, so she does the obvious thing - she challenges them to a game of strip poker. OK, that’s not what Mike Hammer would do, but he’d probably approve. And since she’s a good card cheat she figures they’ll end up losing their clothes before she does. It almost works, if only she hadn’t drawn that lousy deuce in the last hand. And maybe it would have been a better idea if she’d started off wearing more than one item of clothing.

The case she’s working on involves the sleazy world of network TV. Former matinee idol turned loser Herb Nelson ekes out a living playing bit roles on TV, including the popular Bob Swanson Show. Now he’s convinced that Swanson is trying to kill him so he engages Honey West to keep him alive. She soon discovers that Herb Nelson is not the only one who thinks someone is trying to kill him, and that just about everyone working on the show would like to murder at least one other person involved with the show.

And apparently these TV people do more than just talk about murder. Corpses start to accumulate at an alarming rate. Honey has landed herself a job on the show, as an actress. She can’t act, but with a figure like hers nobody cares if she can act or not. The only trouble is that she might turn out to be the next victim.

The plot is outrageously convoluted and as the body count rises it gets more convoluted.

Honey is not your classic fictional detective. She doesn’t wait for the evidence to mount up. She plays hunches. At one stage or another she manages to suspect every single character in the book. And she’s not the type of detective to keep her hunches to herself - as soon as she suspects someone she comes right out and accuses them. While she breaks most of the rules for fictional detectives one can’t help suspecting that maybe real-life detectives actually operate more like Honey West than Sherlock Holmes. And she’s nothing if not dogged, and she does get there in the end, and gets there before her pal Mark, the homicide cop.

There’s a fair bit of implied, and even overt, sleaze. Honey is definitely attracted to the male of the species. The violence is fairly graphic for its time as well.

This is very much pulp detective fiction. Great literature it ain’t but it’s entertainingly trashy.

Honey West did represent a definite departure for detective fiction. There’d been plenty of female fictional detectives but she is certainly one of the earliest examples of the hardboiled female PI. Well, relatively hardboiled. Honey is a tough cookie but she’s a lady. Having been written in the 50s it doesn’t need to bludgeon us with political correctness but if you’re looking for crime novels featuring a tough capable woman detective and you don’t mind the very pulpy stye you could do worse than check out the Honey West books. This Girl For Hire is good trashy fun.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tros of Samothrace, Talbot Mundy

Talbot Mundy (1879-1940) is a little-known writer today, which is unfortunate. He was not only one of the masters of the adventure tale but a major force in the development of pulp fiction. He contributed to pulp magazines such as Adventure and Argosy and wrote 45 novels.

He was born in London but emigrated to the United States where he launched his literary career.

Tros of Samothrace, published in 1925, was the first of three novels chronicling the exploits of its hero Tros, the son of Perseus, Prince of Samothrace. Perseus is a high-ranking member of a mystical cult with international connections. The cult is not described in detail in the first novel but one of its key features is the renunciation of violence. That proves to be rather problematical when they encounter Julius Caesar, a man not renowned for renouncing violence. Perseus and Tros become captives of Caesar.

Tros agrees to go to Britain to ascertain the chances of success of an invasion, and if possible to persuade the Britons of the uselessness of opposing Caesar’s will. If his mission succeeds Caesar will release his father.

Tros does not quite share his fathers view’s on violence. He believes in avoiding bloodshed if possible, but if forced to do so he will most certainly fight and will prove himself to be a formidable warrior. Despite his differences with his father Tros is a minor functionary of the cult. The cult has links with druidism which will be useful to Tros in Britain.

Tros intends to obtain his father’s release but he has no intention of persuading the Britons to submit to Caesar. Far from it. He exhorts them to resist the Romans and to trust no promises they may make. He forges an alliance with Caswallon, a British king who has his capital at Cair Lunden, a bustling little town on the River Thames. Caswallon is an able leader although his attempts to unite the various British tribes meet with mixed success. One of Caswallon’s greatest assets is his wife Fflur. Apart from being an intelligent and resourceful woman she is gifted with the second sight.

Urged on by Tros Caswallon is determined to contest Caesar’s invasion, an invasion that is now imminent. The resistance to the Roman invasion as well as the daring scheme devised by Tros to not only rescue his father but to exact a measure of vengeance on the Romans occupy most of the book.

Mundy had ties with the Theosophy movement so the novel is an odd but interesting mixture, a stirring adventure tale with a subtle mystical tinge to it. There are no overt elements of the supernatural, save perhaps for Fflur’s gift of prophecy, but Tros’s vaguely spiritual and/or philosophical beliefs do play a role in the story and there is certainly a hint of destiny taking a hand.

Talbot Mundy’s work influenced such luminaries of pulp fiction as Robert E. Howard and Tros of Samothrace can be seen as one of the precursors of the sword & sorcery genre. The influence of an earlier generation of pulp writers, such as Mundy, on the the better-known pulp writers of the 20s and 30s is often overlooked.

Mostly though it’s a fine piece of adventure fiction as the Britons aided by Tros battle the Romans by land and sea. Thoroughly enjoyable, and recommended.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Alias the Saint

Leslie Charteris is now all but forgotten, but for much of the 20th century he was an immensely popular author, and the adventures of his fictional hero Simon Templar, known as The Saint, could be followed in radio serials, a succession of B-movies in the 1940s (initially starring the delightful George Sanders, and later Sanders’ brother Tom Conway), a 1960s TV series, another TV series in the 1970s, and several 1960s movies.

Charteris, who was born in Singapore, was in fact half-Chinese and half-English. He later an American citizen (although this involved a considerable struggle on his part because of the racist immigration laws of the time).

Alias the Saint is one of the earlier books featuring Simon Templar, and came out in 1931. It actually comprises three novellas. It differs from most English crime fiction of that time in that the hero is (despite his name) morally somewhat dubious. He was at one time an out-and-out criminal, and although he’s now on the side of the angels (mostly) his methods are often only marginally legal, and at times clearly illegal. In some ways the stories are a cross between detective fiction and adventure stories. They’re fun in their own way, and Templar is a charming and rather likeable rogue.