Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel, published in 1920. And for a first novel it was pretty impressive.

This is a tale of poisoning, a form of murder that was always popular with writers of detective stories, and with good reason. Poisoning has always been difficult to detect - most poisoners never even go to trial, in fact never even attract the notice of the police. Unless someone already has their suspicions it’s most likely that no autopsy will be performed and poisoning will not be detected.

And it’s an even more difficult crime to prove in court. It’s easy to poison someone without being observed so any evidence is generally circumstantial and unless the poisoner confesses the prosecution faces an uphill battle.

In this case the victim is an elderly woman with a great deal of money. Mrs Inglethorp is surrounded by relatives and hangers-on who have no money of their own. They all live in hopes of a large inheritance. And this particular elderly woman has a habit of changing her will constantly.

She has recently contracted what appears to be a rather unwise marriage with a man twenty years her junior. Her family assumes that he is an unscrupulous fortune-hunter. That he may be, but that does not make him a murderer. And there are at least five other very plausible suspects.

Captain Hastings just happens to be a friend of the family staying at Styles while recuperating from his wounds. It is 1916 and the Great War is in full swing. By a happy coincidence Hastings has recently discovered that Mrs Inglethorp has offered the use of a house she owns to a number of Belgian refugees who have fled from the German invasion. One of these refugees is a brilliant detective who had been one of the leading lights of the Belgian police force. And thus was Hercule Poirot introduced to the world.

I read a great deal of Christie’s work when I was young, in fact so much that for many years I avoided her books because I’d overdosed on them. In the intervening years I still remembered her gift for plotting but I’d entirely forgotten just what an entertaining writer she was. Captain Hastings is the narrator of this story, and he gives Christie the opportunity to have some fun. Hastings is of course convinced that he is an even greater detective than Poirot, and of course his deductions always turn out to be totally wrong. Hastings remains cheerfully oblivious to his own failings as a detective, even as he is reluctantly forced to acknowledge Poirot’s brilliance.

This story also introduces Chief Inspector Japp, although at this time he’s merely a Detective-Inspector. Japp and Poirot are old friends having worked together on several cases before the war. Japp’s admiration for Poirot knows no bounds.

Poirot in this novel is already Poirot. The character is already more or less fully formed, which leads me to suspect that Christie must have spent a good deal of time creating this character in her head before putting pen to paper.

The ingenious plotting is already in evidence, and the red herrings are skillfully deployed to lead us astray. Christie’s style is straightforward but quite witty, and really rather amusing at times. This is the detective story as entertainment, and it delivers the goods.

This might not be in the same class as the very best of her work but as first novels go it’s a confident and accomplished offering.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Theodore Roscoe's The Emperor of Doom

The Emperor of Doom is a collection of short stories by Theodore Roscoe, published in various pulp magazines between 1927 and 1933. They are mostly tales of adventure in the Foreign Legion or in the Mysterious Orient. And they’re a great example of pulp fiction at its most characteristic.

The Foreign Legion stories are interesting, presenting a very unheroic and non-romanticised view of that famous military organisation. Roscoe’s stories focus on the savage discipline and the brutalising effects of that discipline combined with poor pay and miserable conditions, constant danger, and the effects of gathering together such a collection of violent and desperate men.

In Foley of the Foreign Legion one of the officers betrays his men, and two soldiers choose desertion as the only option for survival. Blood and Ice shows us the sorts of men who were attracted to the Foreign Legion - vicious cut-throats who would murder their own mothers.

This is a long way from the rather romanticised world of Beau Geste.

There are three Foreign Legion stories. The remaining nine stories take place in the East, and again they are a world away from the usual romantic tales of adventure. Scum of the East tells us what the East can do to a man, how it can destroy him completely and leave behind nothing but a ruined shell.

Whispering Rubies and The Phantom Castle of Genghiz Khan are more traditional adventure tales, but they’re also very clever and original stories. Roscoe has a particular liking for stories involving sudden geological changes - lakes that appear and disappear, or islands that appear and then sink again.

Roscoe’s villains are extremely devilish. Borgan in Devil Dance and Captain Rachmaninoff in Yankee Beware are not merely vicious and corrupt - they are almost inhumanly so. They are devils in human form. There are no supernatural elements in any of these stories. Roscoe’s interest is in purely human evil and malevolent supernatural entities would simply be redundant.

Quite a few of the stories take place party of wholly at sea, and while the sea can be a cruel mistress it’s always other people that you really to fear. Greed is a major motivating force although for many of his villains the sheer joy of having power over their fellow humans is more important than mere greed.

Even Roscoe’s heroes are not conventionally heroic. They are often broken men who are offered one last of redemption, as in Scum of the East and Devil Dance. Or they’re criminal themselves, as in Penang Pearls. If they play the hero they do so reluctantly.

Roscoe’s view of the world is a dark and cynical one. Good often prevails, but it does so in unexpected and ironic ways, and it’s always a near-run thing.

The style is pulpy in the extreme. These are two-fisted tales of action and adventure and that’s what they deliver. Highly recommended.


Sir Walter Scott’s influence on the development of both historical fiction and adventure fiction is second to none. He more or less invented both genres as we know them today.

His popularity remained enormous for at least a century after his death in 1832. He fell out of favour in the latter part of the 20th century and although he’s still reasonably well-known he is little read today.

Along with gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe he also played a major role in creating a mass market for popular novels. He actually has quite a bit in common with the first wave of gothic writers - there’s the same reliance on coincidence, the same relentless succession of perils that the hero or heroine has to face, the same reliance on sensation.

His early novels dealt exclusively with Scottish history but Ivanhoe, published in 1819, marked a change in direction. With this novel Scott turned his attentions to both English history and to the Middle Ages. The 19th century obsession with all things medieval was largely due to Sir Walter Scott.

Ivanhoe has not one hero but three - the Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and King Richard I. Despite the book’s title Wilfred of Ivanhoe actually plays a subsidiary role for most of the novel. It has a selection of colourful villains and some memorable minor characters. And it has two heroines, one of whom is a Jewess (a rather bold innovation for 1819).

Wilfred has been disinherited by his father Cedric. Cedric is the unofficial leader of Saxon resistance to England’s Norman overlords. He has never resigned himself to the idea of serving a Norman king although he has a considerable personal esteem for Richard Couer-de-Lion. Richard is at this stage believed to be in captivity somewhere on the Continent and Prince John effectively rules in his stead. John has ambitions to claim the throne for himself.

A tournament held by Prince John first brings Wilfred to public attention as he overthrows the greatest knights in the land. He is however grievously wounded. He finds himself in the care of Rebecca, the daughter of the wealthy Jewish moneylender Isaac of York. Both Rebecca and Isaac will play significant roles in the novel. While taking Wilfred to a place of safety where he can recuperate they are ambushed by brigands in the woods. This incident will introduce us to another major character, Robin Hood. It will also bring Brian de Bois-Guilbert to centre stage. Bois-Guilbert belongs to the order of Knights Templar. This order has become not just wealthy and powerful as the result of the wars in the Holy Land (in which Richard Couer-de-Lion played a major role). The Templars have also become corrupt, debauched and power-hungry.

The tournament also introduced the mysterious Black Knight, also destined to be a major character.

Bois-Guilbert’s obsession with Rebecca (the Templars are inclined to take their vows of chastity very lightly) will set in train a series of events that will involve all the major characters.

Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself is not merely a minor character for most of the book, he is also a dull and colourless hero. Fortunately the book’s other heroes - the Black Knight, Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood - are far more interesting.

Even more interesting are the villains. Brian de Bois-Guilbert is a fascinating character, a complex villain for whom we will eventually feel a grudging respect. He might be a bad man but he is not a little man. His faults are on the grand scale. His courage is unquestionable and he will discover, much to his own surprise, that he has a conscience.

Prince John is equally fascinating - a mixture of boldness and timidity, and of courage and cowardice, a weak indecisive man with one particularly telling flaw - he does not know how to make himself popular.

Richard the Lionheart is also a complex hero - bold and courageous to the point of folly, irresponsible but generous. He is a good man but a poor king, but unlike John he knows how to make himself loved.

Scott’s treatment of his two important Jewish characters is surprisingly (for the early 19th century) quite sympathetic. Isaac is greedy but the circumstances of the Jews makes his greed not just understandable but in fact a necessity for survival. Rebecca is brave and intelligent.

The novel’s other heroine, Cedric’s ward Rowena, is strong-willed to the point of obstinancy.

Mention must be made also of a colourful gallery of minor characters - the jester Wamba (son of Witless), the serf Gurth who becomes Wilfred’s squire, Friar Tuck, the villainous knight Front-Boeuf.

Ivanhoe stands up rather well today. It has complex characters, it’s well-paced and there’s enough suspense and excitement to satisfy any fan of adventure fiction. Scott is where the genre started and he’s still very much worth reading. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Amateur Cracksman

When we think of classic crime novels we normally think of books in which the hero is a detective, but there’s an equally interesting sub-genre with daring but likeable criminals as heroes. Among the best of these are E. W. (“Willie”) Hornung’s tales of the gentleman burglar A. J. Raffles. The earliest of these stories are to be found in the 1899 collection The Amateur Cracksman.

Hornung was Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. Hornung had already written a story that was a sort of dry run for the Raffles stories and it was Conan Doyle’s suggestion that such a character would be a great subject for a series of stories. This has led to the erroneous assumption that he was Hornung’s literary mentor but in fact Hornung was already an established and quite successful writer before he met Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle later regretted the encouragement he had given to the Raffles stories, feeling that his brother-in-law had committed the sin of glamourising a criminal. Despite this the two men remained on very good terms and continued to play cricket together, cricket being  a great passion for both of them.

Conan Doyle’s charge that Hornung glamourised Raffles too much is partly true and partly untrue. Raffles was such a successful creation because (like Sherlock Holmes) he was not just a fascinating character but a complex one. Raffles is charming and has his own perverse moral code. He would never rob anyone who could not well afford the loss. He can be a generous friend and is capable of great sensitivity. But he can also be manipulative, egotistical, and at times thoughtless and even callous. And Raffles is aware of the contradictions in his own character. His view of himself is rather equivocal.

His social position is also equivocal. He attended one of the great public schools and is to all appearances a gentleman. But as he admits in one story, he is tolerated by polite society mainly for his cricketing skills. He is widely regarded as the greatest spin bowler of his era, an accomplishment that has made him a public figure. His family background is undistinguished and middle-class. He lacks both the birth and the family connections that would assure his place in society. He is not quite an outsider, but he is not quite an insider either. He exists on the fringe of that world of polite society. To continue to be accepted he needs sufficient money to keep up the style of a gentleman, and money is something he does not have. Or at least it was something he did not have until he discovered that his skills at burglary were as impressive as his skills on the cricketing field.

The stories are narrated by his old school friend Bunny Manders. Bunny had fagged for Raffles at school ad Raffles had always treated him with kindness and respect. In the first story Bunny has lost a great deal of money at cards. He has written a number of cheques to cover his losses but there is not the slightest chance that his bank will honour these cheques since he is in fact penniless. He turns to his old school companion for help. If Raffles cannot help him he intends to shoot himself. Raffles explains that sadly he himself is at that time in equally perilous financial straits, but there is a way he can help. That’s when Bunny finds out that Raffles is a burglar. Bunny will become his partner in crime.

But Raffles is careful to point out that he has nothing in common with the sordid world of professional criminals. He is an amateur, in the true sense of the word - someone who does something for the love of it.

Raffles’ problem is that he cannot earn any money from his cricket. In those days there were two classes of cricketers, Players and Gentlemen. Gentlemen played for the love of the game and were not paid for it. The Players were professionals. If Raffles accepted money for playing cricketer he would lose his social caste. Not only would he no longer be a gentleman as far as the cricket world was concerned - he would no longer qualify as a gentleman in any sphere of life. Luckily being a burglar does not affect one’s social caste, provided one does not get caught of course.

There’s no overt social criticism in these stories but these factors do provide an interesting social subtext, and it was one that Hornung was clearly aware of.

The Amateur Cracksman contains eight stories. Raffles does always succeed - in one story he and Bunny are grateful to escape with their lives, without the loot. In some stories Raffles is committing crimes because he and Bunny have run out of money but in other cases he is motivated purely by the challenge, stealing items that he could not possibly sell. He is after all an amateur. The game is the thing, and Raffles delights in his skill.

The Raffles-Bunny Manders friendship is as complex as the Holmes-Watson friendship. Two men of very different temperaments, and there is certainly an exploitative tinge to the relationship. Bunny hero-worships Raffles, although he is not such a fool as to be unaware of Raffles’ character flaws. It’s the sort of relationship in which modern critics would love to find a homoerotic subtext, but there is none. It is however a fascinating relationship. Bunny is the weaker man in many ways, but not always. He is capable of great courage. Raffles enjoys the hero-worship but is genuinely fond of Bunny.

There is of course the pleasure to be gained from these stories from the rich social settings, and from the contrast between different social worlds. Raffles moves in high society but as a burglar he must also move in a more sordid world, the world of thieves and fences. And like any good Victorian crime fiction hero Raffles is also a master of disguise.

While the character of Raffles is the highlight of the stories Hornung’s plots are entertaining. They’re not as intricate as the plots of actual detective stories but they do have excitement and adventure. Hornung’s style is pleasing and he does on occasion create some memorable minor characters, the outstanding example being the gun-toting diamond merchant Reuben Rosenthall in A Costume Piece, based on a larger-than-life real-life figure, Barney Barnato.

When he created Raffles Hornung was no newcomer to crime fiction, having written some fairly successful stories about the bushranger Stingaree (Hornung had spent several years in Australia and in fact Raffles starts his criminal career while touring Australia with the English cricket team).

For sheer reading pleasure the Raffles stories rate very highly indeed. Highly recommended.

The 1977 British TV adaptation starring Anthony Valentine should also be mentioned - Valentine nails the character perfectly, capturing both the charm and the slight undercurrent of sinister exploitativeness and danger.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The People of the Pit

The stories collected in The People of the Pit (edited by Gene Christie) were all published in the Munsey pulp magazines between 1903 and 1922. They are all, in their various ways, tales of horror.

The collection kicks off with Abraham Merritt’s The People of the Pit. Merritt wrote many lost world tales, all of them supremely imaginative and decidedly weird. The People of the Pit was an early effort but it’s typical of his work. Two explorers in Alaska encounter a wreck of man who tells a bizarre story of a strange lost valley containing the remnants of an ancient and very evil civilisation.

Francis Stevens’ Behind the Curtain is a disappointing story involving Egyptian mummies.

John Blunt’s The Orchid Horror is a story of obsessive orchid collecting and of an orchid whose scent is more addictive and more dangerous than opium. Even to seek this plant is to court death. So why would a man journey to Venezuela in search of such a deadly plant? The answer of course is a woman. To win this woman he must find the deadly orchid. A strange but very impressive tale and one of the highlights of this anthology.

In George Allan England’s The Tenth Question a madman is kidnapping doctors. Years earlier a doctor had bungled his case and now he has decided to rid the world of incompetent medical practitioners. So he may be a lunatic but at least he’s doing something socially useful. Each doctor is subjected to a test of his mental acuity. If he passes the test he may go free; if he fails he is painlessly destroyed. So far no doctor has passed the test. It’s like a game of Twenty Questions but you only get ten questions in this case. If the medical man fails to determine the correct answer his doom is sealed. In fact the answer is not difficult to guess but it’s still a very fine story.

Achmed Abdullah’s Disappointment is about a Russian nobleman with a morbid fear of dying. Not of death, but of dying. Atmospheric but not terribly interesting.

Owen Oliver’s The Pretty Woman is a reasonably intriguing tale of flirtation, madness and murder.

Tod Robbins is best-known as the author of the story on which Tod Browning’s notorious movie Freaks was based. His contribution, The Living Portrait, deals with a scientist who has his portrait painted and the portrait then takes on a life of is own and proves to have a stronger will than the luckless scientist.  Not a great story, but not without interest.

Talbot Mundy’s An Offer of Two to One proves that auto-suggestion really can kill. Damon Runyon’s Fear is similar in theme, dealing with the idea of fear as something deadly to the mind as well as the body. Both stories are effective offerings.

J. U. Giesy’s Beyond the Violet is another very strong story. A man is wounded in the war and his sight is affected. He cannot see most of the visible light spectrum but he can see beyond the range that the rest of us can see, with the result that he can now see ghosts. It’s actually an offbeat love story.

In C. Langton Clarke’s The Elixir of Life a mad scientist has discovered a means of draining away other men’s vital energy, giving him an enormously extended lifespan. If only it hadn’t been for that tin of gunpowder.

In Perley Poore Sheehan’s Monsieur de Guise the past lives on in a ghostly house deep in the Cedar Swamps. The mood is more one of gentle melancholy that stark terror but it works well enough.

Philip M. Fisher Jr’s The Ship of Silent Men is very creepy indeed, a tale of a ghost ship but it’s not a supernatural tale. It almost qualifies as a zombie story, and a rather horrifying and ingenious one.

All in all a strong anthology with only a couple of dud stories and some very strong ones. There’s no particular unifying theme except that all these tales deal with terror in some form. Some are more pulpy in style than others but are none the worse for that. A fine example of the quality of fiction to be found in the old pulp magazines and there are some writers here whose work I am keen to sample more of.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In the Grip of the Minotaur

In the Grip of the Minotaur, a novel by Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, was serialised in Adventure magazine in 1916. It might play a bit fast and loose with history but it’s undeniably entertaining.

The Minoan civilisation, centred on the island of Crete, dominated the Mediterranean for 1500 years until it collapsed somewhere around 1500 BC (give or take a few centuries). This civilisation was virtually forgotten until Sir Arthur Evans excavated the palaces at Knossos and Phaestos at the beginning of the 20th century. Since the earlier forms of Minoan writing have never been deciphered it remains a shadowy civilisation and the reasons for its collapse remain obscure. It may have been all but destroyed by an immense volcanic eruption on the island of Thera.

The obscurity of this civilisation and the mystery over its end have given rise to various speculations, one of the more popular being that it was actually the inspiration for the legends of the lost land of Atlantis.

In 1916 it was very big news indeed in the world of archaeology.

Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur came up with their own ingenious explanation for the destruction of the Minoan civilisation - it was destroyed by ancestors of the Vikings! Historically this is a very dubious theory but it certainly makes for a gripping tale.

In the novel the Bronze Age ancestors of the Northmen were already hardy seafarers. Prince Ragnarr is a particularly bold adventurer and has taken his ship, the Grey Wolf, into  Mediterranean waters in search of trade. He has reached as far as Troy. Troy is a rising power but without a navy it is helpless against Minoan seapower and Troy’s king must pay tribute to the Minoan king, King Minos. At Troy Ragnarr is caught up in the power politics of the age and he finds love. He falls for the beautiful Trojan princess Ilia. Unfortunately he finds he has one woman too many in love with him. Rala, a street acrobat whom he rescued from robbers, is totally besotted by him as well. Rala is brave and resourceful and Ragnarr, although a fearsome warrior, is a rather kind-hearted soul and he and his men more or less adopt Rala.

Princess Ilia has another suitor - the Minoan prince Ambrogeos. The Trojans cannot afford to offend the Minoans so the weak-willed Trojan king offers his daughter’s hand to Ambrogeos. This naturally leads to trouble, Ambrogeos is badly wounded, and Ragnarr sets off for Crete vowing revenge against the Minoans. He also vows to kill the Minotaur, the fabulous half-man half-bull monster to whom the Minoans make human sacrifices.

In Crete Ragnarr will have more adventures and will find a very dangerous enemy indeed when Prince Ambrogeos returns. But before that, Ragnarr will find love. Yes, again. In those days no woman could resist a handsome brave barbarian. If he thought having two brave, intelligent and determined women loving him was difficult enough, now he has three. Any one of the three, even the lowly acrobat girl Rala, would make a worthy subject for the love of a handsome prince. But whichever he chooses he’s going to have two very unhappy women on his hands.

His third love is potentially the most dangerous - the beautiful Minoan Princess Ariadne. Ariadne is weary of the cruelties of Minoan Crete and anxious to go off adventuring with Ragnarr, but she’s inclined to be the jealous type.

Ragnarr’s romantic adventures will result in his having to flee Crete, but when he returns it will be with a great fleet of Northmen. The stage is set for a war to the death between two very different cultures. Ragnarr will penetrate the famous Labyrinth and find the Minotaur but the monster is not the kind of monster he has ever encountered before.

Bishop and Brodeur portray the Minoans as ultra-civilised in many ways, but decadent and cruel. The clash between such a culture and a virile freedom-loving barbarian culture was sure to find a ready audience in 1916.

The bull-leaping that plays such a prominent role in Minoan art plays an equally important part in the novel. No-one is absolutely sure what the significance of bull-leaping was although it was undoubtedly connected in some way with their religion. In reality it is by no means certain that bull-leaping was intended to have fatal consequences for either the human or animal participants. Bishop and Brodeur decided for the purposes of the novel that it was a kind of human sacrifice in which the sacrificial victims had a sporting chance - if they could leap over the bull’s horns successfully three times they could go free.

Ragnarr is fierce, ruthless and hot-tempered, but he is also brave and with a highly developed sense of honour. He is capable of great loyalty and even kindness. He fears no man, but where women are concerned he’s as helpless as a kitten. They keep throwing themselves at him and he’s too soft-hearted to hurt their feelings. He also manages to become involved with the sorts of women to whom it is very difficult to say no. Princesses do not take kindly to that.

There are epic battles on land and sea and the action is non-stop. This is pure pulp fiction and the pace is frenetic. That doesn’t leave much time for in-depth characterisation but Ragnarr and Ariadne in particular are colourful and memorable characters.

An exciting adventure tale, historically absurd but none the worse for that. Great pulpy fun and highly recommended.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Complete Adventures of Romney Pringle

R. Austin Freeman became one of the undisputed masters of the detective story in the first few decades of the 20th century. He began his literary career with two short story collections written in collaboration with John J. Pitcairn, The Adventures of Romney Pringle and The Further Adventures of Romney Pringle. These early stories have fallen into undeserved obscurity but happily all the Romney Pringle stories are  now available in Coachwhip Publications’ The Complete Adventures of Romney Pringle.

These stories were published in 1902 and 1903 under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown. Freeman seems to have later disowned these tales, perhaps because they are very different in style from his later work.

Romney Pringle is a thoroughgoing scoundrel. He claims to run a literary agency although it is a literary agency without any clients. Pringle is a kind of amateur detective but his real objective is to gather interesting items of information that he can turn to his own profit. He has no interest in solving crimes - his sole objective is to find ways of enriching himself.
He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and for spotting opportunities.

He is a confidence trickster and a thief. But he is no common burglar. Mostly he steals from people who are in no position to go to the police, either because they are thieves themselves or because the involvement of the police would put them in an embarrassing situation. That’s Pringle’s real genius - there is usually very little real risk in his underhanded schemes.

The fact that Pringle so often finds himself in a position to uncover opportunities for illicit gain does sometimes stretch credibility a little but these stories are pure fun and such plot contrivances are easily forgiven. And really it’s no more far-fetched than the various fictional amateur detectives who always seem to find themselves on the spot whenever a murder is about to be committed.

In the various adventures recounted in this volume Pringle will uncover buried treasure, he will unmask a patent medicine racket and then turn it to his own advantage, he will discover daring thefts and manage to ensure that the proceeds end up in his own hands, he will indulge in some clever stock market manipulation and in short engage in many and varied acts of ingenious villainy.

It goes without saying that Mr Pringle is also a master of the art of disguise.

Freeman later became famous for his plotting and while these tales are less complex than his later works there are already signs of his skills in that area.

The late Victorian and Edwardian period was the first golden age of detective fiction but it was equally a golden age for gentleman thieves. Arthur Morrison’s stories of a crooked private detective collected in The Dorrington Deed Box and Hornung’s tales of the gentleman burglar Raffles were roughly contemporaneous with the Romney Pringle stories, and Maurice Leblanc’s tales of that other great gentleman thief Arsène Lupin would soon follow. Charming villains were almost as popular as brilliant detectives.

The Romney Pringle stories are a fine example of this curious crime fiction sub-genre and Romney Pringle is a fascinating gentleman rogue. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Big Book of Adventure Stories

The Big Book of Adventure Stories from Vintage Press, edited by Otto Penzler,   gathers together almost fifty adventure tales most of which originally appeared in pulp magazines at some stage during the first half of the 20th century.

Penzler’s definition of adventure is pretty loose, encompassing everything from spy fiction to tales of the South Seas to westerns to science fiction.

There are plenty of well-known masters of adventure fiction here - Edgar Rice Burroughs. Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, H. C. McNeile (“Sapper”), P. C. Wren, Robert E. Howard, Jack London, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, Rudyard Kipling and Rafael Sabatini. And there are many lesser-known names as well (who contribute some of the best stories). And some surprising names as well - you don’t normally think of Cornell Woolrich as an adventure writer but he’s here and his contribution is a genuine tale of adventure.

Most of the famous heroes of adventure fiction will be found here as well - Tarzan, Zorro, Allan Quaterman, Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, even Hopalong Cassidy. It’s intriguing to read early stories of some of these heroes - who knew that the Cisco Kid started out as a bad guy?

In a collection as large as this there are bound to be a few misfires. Jack London’s contribution is very dull. But on the whole the quality is fairy consistently high.

Some of these stories are very well-known - Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. But mostly Penzler has chosen lesser-known works, or stories that were once widely read but are now more or less forgotten (such as Armageddon 2419 A.D. which introduced the character of Buck Rogers). Or Leiningen versus the Ants, which was the literary source for one of my favourite cinematic guilty pleasures, The Naked Jungle. You couldn’t leave John Buchan out of an anthology like this but Penzler has unearthed a very uncharacteristic Richard Hannay story set in Africa.

With so many stories to choose from it’s nearly impossible to pick favourites. Stories which came as a pleasant surprise were Theodore Roscoe’s Snake-Head (an interesting take of the legend of Medusa), The Girl in the Golden Atom (a strange but ingenious science fiction story) and Georges Surdez’s Suicide Patrol, a crime thriller set within the French Foreign Legion. Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of the Mandarin Quong is also particularly good, but that’s no surprise since Rohmer was always good.

There’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had here and the wideness of the scope proves to be an advantage, tempting the reader to delve into hitherto unexplored areas of pulp fiction.

For lovers of pulp fiction and stirring tales of adventure this has to be a must-buy.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley is one of Margery Allingham’s very early works and it’s the book that introduced Albert Campion, a character destined to become one of the most popular of fictional detectives. But this book is not at all what you would expect from an Albert Campion mystery.

George Abbershaw is a doctor who does a lot of work for Scotland Yard; he is an expert on determining the cause of death in criminal cases. He is invited to a house party at Black Dudley, a rather gloomy and extremely old country house that had once been a monastery.   One of the guests is a mysterious young man named Albert Campion whom nobody can recall inviting. And of course a murder occurs. So far it sounds like the set-up for a very typical golden age detective novel but it will soon become very strange indeed.

The guests at Black Dudley will find themselves prisoners of a very well-organised gang run by a diabolical criminal mastermind. He wants something that one of the guests has stolen from him. Before this happens though a murder is committed during a performance of the Black Dudley Dagger Ritual, a tradition dating back several centuries.

It’s difficult to say just how seriously Allingham intended this novel to be taken. At times it seems to be spoofing the detective genre while at other times it seems more like a spoof of the thrillers that were so popular in the 20s, such as the Bulldog Drummond books and Edgar Wallace’s thrillers.

The plot is outlandish and is never quite convincing. Allingham’s inexperience as a writer at this stage of her career is very evident.

Campion is a fairly minor player in this novel. Allingham intended George Abbershaw to be the hero not just of this novel but of her future forays into the crime genre but readers seemed to be much more interested in Campion. Her American publisher suggested that Campion would be a better choice as the hero of her future novels. She accepted his advice, and very sound advice it turned out to be.

Campion at this stage is not yet a fully developed character but he’s already an interesting one, an apparently foolish young man who turns out to be very cool in a crisis. He’s a very ambiguous character and we’re never quite concern if he’s destined to be a hero or a villain. In this novel he is in fact destined for neither role.

As a novel it’s a bit of a train wreck. Allingham was clearly unsure whether she wanted to write a thriller or a detective story. Structurally though it’s quite interesting with the murder being essentially a sub-plot. Despite its weaknesses it’s an interesting failure and not without entertainment value.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Conan Doyle's The White Company

Of all the genres in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (and he wrote in just about all of them from science fiction to gothic horror) it was historical fiction in which he considered he had done his finest work. It was Sherlock Holmes who made him a household name but it was books like The White Company for which he hoped to be remembered.

The White Company was published in 1891 and was an immediate success. It remained extremely popular for many years. True devotees of historical fiction are inclined to think that perhaps Conan Doyle wasn’t so far from the mark in his fondness for his works in this genre.

In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny brought about a temporary cessation of hostilities in the Hundred Years’ War. It left large numbers of soldiers of various nationalities more or less unemployed and many of them banded together in free companies. These free companies fought as mercenaries but many were no better than well-organised gangs of bandits. The most famous by far was The White Company. Under Sir John Hawkwood they hired themselves out, very successfully, as condottieri in the wars in Italy.

Conan Doyle’s novel was inspired rather loosely by the adventures of the real-life White Company but shifts the scene of action to Spain. The idea is that part of the White Company was left behind in the English-occupied parts of France and spent their time merrily pillaging and plundering whilst awaiting the arrival of a new commander, Sir Nigel Loring.

The White Company and Sir Nigel Loring are not however the book’s initial focus. Conan Doyle’s story begins in the Cistercian Abbey at Beaulieu where two novices leave the order, for very different reasons. Hordle John is thrown out of the order while the departure of Alleyne, regarded as a very promising novice, is a source of great regret to the Abbot. 

Alleyne, through whose eyes the events of the books are seen (although it is actually narrated in the third person) is the brother of the Socman of Minstead. His is a very old and distinguished family now fallen on somewhat hard times. Alleyne’s father had made a rather curious will. Alleyne was to be brought up by the monks but upon reaching his twentieth year he was to spend a year in the outside world before making his choice between the monastic life and the secular world.

That time has now come and Alleyne, a good-natured and rather pious young man, sets off to find his brother. He is rather shocked by life outside the cloisters but soon finds himself with two travelling companions who are destined to play a very large part in his life. One is the aforementioned Hordle John, a hot-tempered but fundamentally decent giant of a man. The other is Samkin Aylward, a tough old English archer and a member of the White Company, who has been despatched to England with a message to Sir Nigel Loring inviting him to take command of the remnant of the company.

Aylward has little trouble in persuading Hordle John to return to France with him to take up the life of a member of the famous free company. He makes the same offer to Alleyne who initially refuses, but after the meeting with his brother goes very badly indeed Alleyne decides to accept the offer as well.

Sir Nigel Loring turns out to be a very remarkable character indeed, a small middle-aged balding man who is nonetheless one of the fiercest fighters in Christendom. He is also a man of very high chivalric ideals, and a man of considerable if rather eccentric charm. He is happy to take the command but he has no intention of leading a rabble of freebooters. He intends to offer his sword once again to Edward, the Black Prince. Loring had served the prince at the great battle of Poitiers and his devotion to the prince knows no bounds. The Black Prince is about to embark on another bold adventure, to restore Don Pedro to the throne of Castile.

On their way to join the Black Prince Sir Nigel and his followers (a small troop of men-at-arms and archers that now includes Sam Aylward and Hordle John with Alleyne acting as squire to the famous knight) will encounter many adventures and it is this journey that comprises the bulk of the book. They will, amongst other things, battle pirates and find themselves in the middle of a peasant uprising. When they finally reach Spain the White Company will find itself fighting for its very survival against overwhelming odds.

In real life the Black Prince’s Spanish venture would have unhappy consequences. Pedro, known as Pedro the Cruel, was a bad king and the entire campaign turned out to be an exercise in futility since Pedro was no sooner restored to his throne than he was murdered. One of the interesting features of the novel is that it avoids taking an overly patriotic or excessively pro-English point of view. The devastation that English armies wrought on the French countryside and the viciousness of the free companies are not glossed over. The Black Prince was, sad to say, one of the pioneers of the concept of total war and his methods left a trail of misery behind them, a point Conan Doyle also does not attempt to evade. Conan Doyle does not try to disguise the basic cynicism of the Black Prince’s Castilian adventure and Pedro is portrayed as a particularly nasty piece of work.

Conan Doyle had an unsurpassed gift for creating extraordinary larger-than-life characters whose faults are as fascinating as their virtues and Sir Nigel Loring is one of his greatest creations. Loring is certainly a valiant and virtuous hero but at times it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Conan Doyle is rather gently mocking him and his obsession with chivalry. As the novel makes clear, idealistic views of chivalry all too often come up against brutal realities. That’s not to say that the tone of the book is cynical. Sir Nigel is an admirable character and if at times he is being gently mocked it is done with affection. Sir Nigel is at times almost like Don Quixote - he thinks he sees a brave knight on a great warhorse approaching with whom he can contend for honour but it usually just turns out to be a peaceable merchant on a mule. Sir Nigel’s eyesight is not what it was!

Conan Doyle also does his best to capture the more naïve aspects of the medieval mindset - even tough grizzled old warriors are only too willing to believe fake holy men with  bogus relics to sell. It never seems to occur to them that if every nail from the True Cross that is offered for sale were real than the cross must have had many many thousands of nails! The medieval world encompassed both extreme violence and extreme piety and a kind of child-like innocence that went hand-in-glove with greed and cynicism. Maybe the novel doesn’t show us the Middle Ages as they really were but it does show us another world, a world where people’s motivations are very different from our own. Even if it’s the Middle Ages as legend it’s a vivid and fascinating picture, and perhaps the Middle Ages of the imagination is preferable to the Middle Ages of reality.

There is action aplenty, there is some sly humour and there is friendship and camaraderie, and there is love, both of the courtly variety and of the more profane variety. There is heroism and there is villainy and there are characters who combine both attributes in an uneasy mixture.

This is one of the great classics of historical fiction and it’s a must-read for any lover of the genre.