Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chinese Brady: The Complete Adventures

Chinese Brady: The Complete Adventures is a collection of all the Chinese Brady stories by C. M. Miller that were published during the 1930s in the pulp magazines Battle Birds and Dare-Devil Aces.

Chinese Brady’s adventurous life had begun in China during the Boxer Rebellion and included stints as a general in the Mexican army, a buck private in Guatamela, a prime minister of Abyssinia and a general in China. Now he’s a captain and fighter pilot in the US Army in the First World War, flying SPADs. 

He’s technically too old to qualify as a pilot, but that’s a minor detail that is certainly not going to stop Chinese Brady. He has dyed his greying hair black and enlisted originally under a phony name but pretty soon his real identity has become well-known. His commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Wharton and Major Roger Abel, are old comrades-in-arms from his China days.

Brady takes command of a squadron of young, eager but very inexperienced pilots. He spends as much time trying to keep them out of trouble as he does fighting the enemy.

The first few stories are fairly conventional air combat stories but during the course of the 30s they would become stranger and stranger. The Germans come up with a succession of secret weapons, any one of which might win the war for them. But not if Chinese Brady has anything to do with it. He will battle flying dragons, tanks that appear from nowhere, warriors in medieval armour, New Guinea tribesmen, invisible pilots and the dreaded Musical Death.

Brady is a typical pulp two-fisted action hero. He’s one of the most dangerous American air aces but many of these tales see him operating behind enemy lines. He uses his brains as much as brawn, and his fists as much as the twin Vickers machine-guns of his SPAD.

As the stories took on more and more of a science fictional tinge they also became more and more interesting. This is pure pulp fiction, and it’s none the worse for that. Miller’s writing might not be polished but it’s energetic and it’s entertaining. And it gets straight into the action.

There was a whole genre of these air combat tales with science fictional and fantastical overtones. Donald Keyhoe's stories of Captain Philip Strange, the Brain-Devil, collected in Strange War, are some of the best but Miller's stories are just as good in their own way.

The Chinese Brady stories certainly stretch credibility but once you accept that they’re a crossover between aviation adventure and science fiction there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had.

Highly recommended for pulp fiction fans.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

John Dickson Carr’s The Waxworks Murder

John Dickson Carr’s 1932 mystery The Waxworks Murder was the fourth of his five novels featuring French detective Henri Bencolin.

Carr was the acknowledged master of the “locked room” mystery and its near cousin the “impossible murder” mystery. The Waxworks Murder fits more into the latter category although it certainly deals with doors, keys and passage-ways.

Carr (1906-1977) was an American who lived in England for many years, a fact which gives many of his crime novels a feel that is more English than American.

A woman’s body is found in the Musée Augustin, a wax museum in Paris. She is found in the arms of a waxwork monster. The wax museum is not however the main focus of the story. The primary focus is on the Club of the Silver Key next door, although there is an entrance to the club through the wax museum, a point which will become of major importance.

The Club of the Silver Key is a place of assignation. It is, if you like, a high-class sex club for the bored and the wealthy. Several young women have been enticed to this club, some more willingly than others.

There’s the usual assortment of suspects, and there are the plot twists and red herrings you associate with golden age detective novels. There are doors that can only be opened from one side, and the keys associated with the club are important not just as keys but as badges of membership. To add some spice, and to further complicate Bencolin’s task, the members of the Club of the Silver Key are always masked when they attend meetings.

It’s a skillful mixture of clever plotting with high-class sleaze and debauchery. And a very entertaining mixture it is. Recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Necromancer

In her satire of the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, one of Jane Austen’s characters recommends seven “horrid novels” to her friend. For many years it was assumed that Austen had made up the titles but in fact Austen knew her gothic literature (one suspects she was rather a fan) and all seven are real books. First published in 1794, Peter Teuthold’s The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest was one of these seven books.

Teuthold claimed the book to be a translation from the German of Lawrence Flammenberg (real name Carl Friedrich Kahlert). It had been assumed that Teuthold made this claim to give the book a more German flavour but apparently it really was a translation.

There has been a certain amount of interest in these “horrid novels” and all are currently in print although information on the authors is hard to come by.

The Necromancer has a bewilderingly complex structure. It is a series of tales within tales within tales. This can be seen as a flaw but 19th century gothic novelists liked to use similar structures to give the impression of a series of eyewitness accounts.

To attempt to describe the plot in any detail would only cause more confusion. You just have to go with it.

The central figure in all the tales is Volkert the Necromancer although this is not immediately apparent since he appears in various disguises and under several false names. After a while you learn to assume that any elderly man with a mysterious or sinister air to him is probably Volkert, and you’re usually correct.

Volkert is a sergeant in the Austrian Army who has dabbled in the occult for many years. He has found it to be a profitable sideline but a dangerous one as he has found himself more and more deeply enmeshed in crime as a result. Volkert is both a necromancer and a con-man. While several of the narrators believe that Volkert really possesses supernatural powers it is clear that most if not all of the supernatural events in which he is involved are elaborate frauds.

Of course there has to be a moral message, and that message is that a life devoted to such swindles will be a life of increasing moral degradation.

Jane Austen’s heroines would have been well pleased with this novel. There are ruined castles, dungeons, hidden passages, haunted inns, executions, duels and numerous ghostly manifestations. There are thrills and chills. There’s gothic atmosphere laid on as thickly as anyone could possibly desire. Necromancers were seemingly much in demand in 18th century Germany, for purposes both honest and dishonest. Usually the latter.

This is certainly not one of the classics of the genre but it has its own bizarre charm. Worth a read. It's also worth seeking out another of Austen's horrid novels, The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Prisoner in the Opal

A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best remembered today as the author of the classic adventure novel The Four Feathers. He also wrote five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanuad of the Sûreté. The Prisoner in the Opal was the third in this series, appearing in 1928, and is probably the best-known.

It’s an interesting combination of the golden age detective story and the occult. The occult elements take quite a while to become apparent but the fact that the most widely available paperback edition is part of Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult is a giveaway that the occult will indeed figure in the story.

Mr Julius Ricardo is a middle-aged retired tea-merchant whose great passion in life is wine. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to the Médoc region around Bordeaux at vintage time. Mr Ricardo does have one other unexpected interest - crime. This is a result of his unlikely friendship with the great Inspector Hanuad of the Sûreté. He is in effect Hanau’s Watson.

When Mr Ricardo meets Joyce Whipple, a beautiful and fascinating young American woman, he is both enchanted and intrigued. Joyce has received a latter from her friend Diana Tasborough and has become convinced that Diana is threatened by a great evil. She cannot explain why, since there is nothing in the letter to suggest such an assumption,  but she has received an impression that Diana is surrounded by evil forces. Joyce persuades Mr Ricardo to change his plans slightly and to stay at the Château Suvlac during the vintage time. Diana and her friends will also be there.

Mr Ricardo is not a man given to a belief in superstition or the supernatural but Joyce Whipple’s distress is so palpable that he cannot avoid feeling that her instinct may be right.  Of course it’s also possible that Mr Ricardo is not inclined to disbelieve any story coming from such a charming young lady.

On his arrival in the Médoc Mr Ricardo runs into his old friend Inspector Hanaud and Hanaud’s presence convinces him that something sinister is indeed afoot. The atmosphere at the Château Suvlac is certainly somewhat odd and strained. The young Mrs Evelyn Devenish seems to feel an extraordinary hatred for Joyce Whipple. Diana Tasborough is behaving in an uncharacteristically distracted manner, and her aunt Mrs Tasborough seems more commanding than usual. The estate manager, Robin Webster, seems to be behaving in a slightly odd manner. The Château’s near neighbour, the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol, is most certainly sinister. And the Abbé Fauriel’s behaviour gives rise to suspicious speculations. There is also, in the background, Diana’s young man Bryce Carter, whom she has apparently recently jilted.

So far no crime has occurred but that will soon change. A murder and a disappearance will  soon provide a major challenge for Inspector Hanuad. And the dead body has had its right hand hacked off!

The relationship between Mr Ricardo and Inspector Hanuad provides plenty of opportunity for amusement. Hanaud is a brilliant man but he does things to the English language that cause Mr Ricardo a great deal of pain. Mr Ricardo is convinced that although Inspector Hanuad is a good chap and quite capable in his own way he could not possibly solve even the most routine of crimes with his, Mr Ricardo’s, help. This affords Inspector Hanuad with a good deal of good-natured amusement.

The solution to the crime is of course complex and convoluted with lots of sinister but initially very subtle hints of the strange and the occult. A vast occult conspiracy is of course involved, but who are the prime movers and who are the innocent dupes?

French detectives were quite the fashion at the time, with John Dickson Carr’s Inspector Henri Bencolin being a notable example. They afforded crime writers with an opportunity to make use of exotic and fashionable locations. Hanaud belongs to the class of genius detectives who rely on both inspiration and thorough detective work.

Mason’s style is witty and entertaining. There are plenty of colourful touches (mustard gas as a tool in crime-solving for example) and the plot works rather nicely. There are suspects  in abundance - just about everybody associated with the Château Suvlac has something to hide. There is no shortage of odd and interesting characters.

It’s all highly enjoyable and is most definitely recommended.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Richard Marsh's The Goddess: A Demon

Richard Marsh (1857-1915) is best remembered today for his bizarre gothic novel The Beetle, which was published in the same year as Dracula and at the time outsold Stoker’s classic novel.

Marsh’s real name was Richard Heldmann. His father was a German lace merchant who became a naturalised British subject. He was declared bankrupt in circumstances that suggested that in his business affairs he sailed rather close to the wind and may have been involved in practices that were on the edge of illegality. His son seems to have inherited his father’s recklessness. Richard Heldmann’s literary career was interrupted by a prison sentence for forgery in the 1880s.

By the early 1890s he had resumed his writing career and was starting to make a name for himself as a popular writer of sensationalistic but entertaining novels. He went through an amazingly prolific period in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In one year no less than eight books of his were published, although this total included re-issues of earlier works. He was regarded with disdain by serious critics but this had no effect on his popularity.

Apart from The Beetle his most notable foray into the world of gothic fiction was The Goddess: A Demon, published in 1900. This novel combines elements of Wilkie Collins-style sensation fiction, crime fiction and the gothic. And like The Beetle it has a rather bizarre flavour all its own. No-one else wrote fiction quite like Marsh’s. He avoided the obvious themes and had a strange but fertile imagination.

The Goddess: A Demon opens with a bizarre murder. The victim, Edwin Lawrence,  appears to have been slashed to death in a frenzied attack by several different knives. A short while earlier he had been playing cards with the book’s narrator, John Ferguson. Ferguson was fairly sure that Lawrence had been cheating, and Ferguson ended the night owing Lawrence no less than £1,880.

Shortly afterwards a woman enters Ferguson’s apartments through an open window. She is covered in blood and seems confused. In fact more than confused - she doesn’t even know her own name. She witnessed the murder but has no idea who the murderer was. It may have been her. She simply doesn’t know.

Ferguson is a tough adventurer who has been around but when it comes to women he is something of an innocent. He us convinced the woman is innocent. Persuading the police of her innocence is however no easy task, complicated by the fact that he himself is also a suspect.

Marsh has quite a few plots twists still up his sleeve at this stage, and they are genuinely unexpected.

The atmosphere is one of paranoia and madness. Ferguson isn’t even entirely sure of his own innocence, and the sanity of most of the characters is in some doubt.

In its own way this book is just as interesting and just as strange as The Beetle. It’s a difficult novel to classify - weird fiction is perhaps the closest one could come to assigning it to a particular genre. It’s very weird indeed, in a way that only Richard Marsh could successfully pull off. Definitely highly recommended.

The Valancourt edition includes an introduction and about eighty pages’ worth of assorted appendices on everything from Victorian concepts of madness to London fogs to knife crime. The introduction alone makes this edition the one to look for.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Death in Ecstasy

Death in Ecstasy was the fourth of Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn mysteries, appearing in 1936. The story is set against a background of a rather dubious religious cult.

Journalist Nigel Bathgate is bored, bored and curious. That’s what drives him to the House of the Sacred Flame. This religious cult combines a bit of everything, from Christianity to Norse paganism to eastern mysticism. It attracts the bored and the wealthy, the cynical opportunists and the gullible.

It attracted Cara Quayne, who mysteriously drops dead during one of their ceremonies. Nigel Bathgate knows enough about crime to immediately suspect poison, and he makes a quick phone call to his old friend Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Even with the overwhelming odour of incense pervading the temple the characteristic bitter almonds smell of cyanide is hard to miss. And no other poison could have killed its victim so quickly.

Alleyn is not exactly thrilled to find himself saddled with such a case. His distaste for cults is strong and instinctive. Nonetheless he is on the spot within minutes - at least he has the advantage of being called in when the trail is well and truly warm.

The House of the Sacred Flame cult is run by the Reverend Jasper Garnette, and it’s a nice little earner. Several wealthy people have put large sums of money into the cult, including both the deceased and American businessman Samuel J. Ogden. A Frenchman named Raoul de Ravigne, who was once wealthy but suffered considerably from the stock market, also invested a lesser but still not inconsiderable sum.

There are seven Initiates in the cult. Apart from the deceased, de Ravigne and Ogden there are also a Mrs Candour, a Miss Wade, a nervous young woman named Maurice Pringle and his fiancée, Janey Jenkins. They all took part in the fatal ceremony, and are therefore all suspects. As is the officiating priest, the aforementioned Reverend Jasper Garnette, and his Acolytes, two rather fey young men named Claude and Lionel, and a medical practitioner, Doctor Kasbek, who was on the scene within seconds of Cara Quayne’s death. Miss Quayne’s old nurse, who was bitterly opposed to Cara’s membership of this cult, is yet another suspect as she was present as well although her presence was unknown to any of the participants.

So there is an embarrassment of suspects. There is also an embarrassment of motives. This is because the cult was in fact a seething cauldron of repressed sexuality, jealousy and greed. And Alleyn doesn’t take long to notice that Maurice Pringle displays all the symptoms of narcotics abuse. He is a heroin addict, and he is not the only member of the cult who indulges in this vice. No wonder Roderick Alleyn finds this case distasteful.

Ngaio Marsh’s plotting is as skillful as you’d expect from a woman who was one of the big guns in golden age detective fiction. Her style is often tongue-in-cheek and includes the sort of self-referential touches that annoy some readers - halfway through the book one character makes the observation that if this was a detective novel it would be roughly at the halfway point. If you can ignore this sort of thing then her witty style has much to recommend it.

Roderick Alleyn would be in the well-established tradition of gentlemen detectives but for one thing - he is a working policeman rather than an amateur of crime.

Death in Ecstasy is highly entertaining and the cult background adds a good deal of fun. Recommended.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Johnston McCulley's Mark of Zorro

Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano, serialised in the pulp magazine All Story Weekly in 1919, marked the first appearance in print of Zorro. The character was destined to become one of the iconic adventure heroes of course, but while the novel was quite successful what really got the ball rolling was the 1920 movie adaptation.

The movie changed the title to The Mark of Zorro and was a huge hit, propelling Douglas Fairbanks to superstardom. It was so successful that the original novel was published in book form under this new title in 1924.

The setting is California in the early 19th century when it was still a possession of the Spanish crown (it became part of Mexico in 1822 and then part of the United States in 1848). The setting of the novel is not strictly accurate historically but it does succeed rather well in conveying at least part of the particular flavour of Spanish California. The ruling class, the caballeros, are obsessed by lineage and honour. To have the right blood is everything. And their concept of honour hearkens back to the chivalry of the early Middle Ages. These are very proud people and they are very sensitive to even the smallest points of honour.

This is something of a problem for Don Diego Vega. He certainly has the blood. No-one in the pueblo of Los Angeles can boast a more exalted bloodline than Don Diego. But while most caballeros are excessively eager to resort to their swords to defend their honour Don Diego is a languid and rather effete young man who prefers to read poetry. Respect for blood is so ingrained that no-one would dare accuse him to his face of being lacking in manliness, and the Vega family is also immensely powerful and politically influential. No-one dislikes Don Diego but privately there is some concern about his lack of physical prowess and his abhorrence of violence.

The famous outlaw Zorro has become a legend not just because of his skill with the sword but also for his concern for justice. The governor is corrupt, taxes are crippling, and many honourable families have seen their wealth ruthlessly stripped from then by the governor and his voracious minions. The one man who is prepared to take a stand against this injustice is Zorro. Zorro is not just a friend to oppressed and financially ruined caballeros however. He also steps in to defend the Franciscan friars who are being victimised and fleeced by the corrupt government. He is equally ready to defend the Indians whenever and wherever they are mistreated. Zorro is in essence Robin Hood in a different setting.

Don Diego’s father is rather displeased by his son’s apparent lack of spirit, and even more displeased that Don Diego has yet to marry and produce an heir. This is of course a vital necessity for any aristocratic family and Don Diego is his father’s only child. Under pressure from his father he is rather listlessly wooing the beautiful young Lolita Pulido. Her family has blood almost equal to that of the Vega family but her father Don Carlos has fallen out of favour with the political leadership and has lost most of his land and most of his wealth. Don Carlos is desperately anxious for a marriage alliance with the Vegas. Unfortunately Lolita is not impressed by Don Diego. She wants a real man. She also wants a lover who is romantic and passionate, and Don Diego seems uninterested in either romance or passion.

When Lolita encounters Zorro it is a different story. This is a man whom she could love. And Zorro is obviously interested.

While Don Diego is listlessly wooing Lolita a rival has appeared on the scene in the form of Captain Ramon. Ramon’s courtship is more than insistent - he goes so far as to threaten her honour. This is something that Zorro will not tolerate. And while all this happening the Pulido family is facing not just complete ruin but the accusation of treason. Zorro has to find a way to save both Lolita’s honour and her family. He will also have to protect his old friend, the friar Felipe. Felipe may be a man of God but he’s a pretty tough hombre who is afraid of no-one and who stands up for the rights of the oppressed.

Don Diego has formed an unlikely friendship with the boastful and violent Sergeant Gonzales. Gonzales is flattered to have a friend of such high rank, and the friendship is useful to Don Diego. Being a man of peace and something of a wimp it’s handy to have a friend who is both a tough guy and an important member of the local troop of soldiers.

The true identity of Zorro is not revealed until the end of the book but anyone who has ever seen any Zorro movie, comic book or TV episode already knows who he is and it really is blindingly obvious. In fact I suspect that McCulley expected his readers to figure it out pretty quickly - what’s important is that none of the other characters know his identity. Knowing who Zorro really is doesn’t affect the reader’s enjoyment of the book in the slightest and possibly even enhances it. By the time The Mark of Zorro appeared in book form in 1924 the secret would have been known to everyone who had seen the enormously popular 1920 movie. But on the off-chance that you’re not aware of Zorro’s identity and you don’t want to know until you read the novel, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.

Beginning of spoilers.

What the people of the pueblo of Los Angeles don’t know of course is that Don Diego is anything but a wimp. He is in fact the notorious outlaw hero Zorro.

Don Diego’s effeteness provides him with the perfect cover for his alter ego. No-one knows Zorro’s real identity but the last person anyone would suspect of being the renowned outlaw is Don Diego Vega. This cover has yet another advantage - it allows Zorro to keep tabs on the local troops. Don Diego has strengthened this advantage by befriending. Don Diego/Zorro always knows exactly what the troops are up to.

End of spoilers.

This is pure pulp fiction, with action aplenty. The plot races along in fine melodramatic style. McCulley’s style is pulpy but his characters are colourful and he knows how to spin an exciting tale of adventure and romance.

This version of Zorro is as heroic and honourable as his various movie and television incarnations but rather more ruthless. The violence is also somewhat more graphic.

The unusual and exotic setting is a major plus and is utilised quite effectively. McCulley has been criticised for not adhering more closely to the historical background but this is pulp fiction and it’s the flavour that is important, not strict historical accuracy.

Thoroughly enjoyable story-telling, and definitely worth a read.