Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ed Wood's Devil Girls

Ed Wood Jr was a film-maker of legendary status, notorious for being often voted (quite unfairly) as the worst film-maker of all time, the man responsible for such schlock classics as Plan 9 from Outer Space. What is less well-known is that he was also a prolific novelist.

His novels were lurid pulpy shockers and were regarded at the time as being pornographic (although such a description seems absurd today).

Devil Girls was published in 1967, and lurid it most certainly is. The front cover assures us that it is a tale of “Hot Rod Harlots on the Highway to Hell” and the description is entirely accurate.

A small town in Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, has a major problem with juvenile delinquents (always a favourite subject for Wood who wrote the screenplay for the delightfully outrageous juvenile delinquent movie The Violent Years). In particular, the town is menaced by a girl gang known as the Chicks. This gang is involved in an uneasy partnership with an equally unpleasant gang of young males.

A teacher at the local school has been brutally murdered, and these teenage tearaways are the prime suspects. Both the male and female juvenile delinquents are dopers. Not just marijuana, which would be bad enough, but many are also hooked on heroin or on the even more dangerous combination of heroin and cocaine. The Chicks have been recruited by a local drug dealer to act as drug couriers. This dealer, an objectionable individual known as Lark, brings the drugs in by boat but he needs the girls to carry the drugs from the boat to the dockside. His plan is that the girls will conceal the drugs about their persons, mostly in their bras.

And here we find one of the many touches that mark this book as unmistakably the work of Ed Wood - an interest in female undergarments that is both keen and slightly odd. There will be plenty of other such touches.

Battling these youthful miscreants is the overworked but indefatigable Sheriff Buck Rhodes, ably assisted in his crusade against youth crime by the handsome and dedicated young Reverend Steele. The sheriff will have to find a way to stop a major drug shipment from coming ashore and he has few leads to work with.

The leader of the Chicks is Dee, but as her heroin habit grows her control over the gang is starting to slip. She has even bigger problems when the former leader of the Chicks, Lila, breaks out of prison and returns to town, seeking vengeance on those she considers to be responsible for her misfortunes (which means pretty much the whole population of the town but especially her mother). Lila is doing a life sentence for a murder rap. Lila’s kid sister Rhoda is one of the Chicks.

The book is rather like Ed Wood’s movies - it’s both incompetent and entertaining. Although it has to be said that by the standards of pulp fiction it’s by no means as badly written as you might expect. It has a coherent plot and some memorable characters. It builds to a reasonably exciting climax. And it has a deliciously sleazy atmosphere.

Wood’s unconventional sexual tastes are certainly on full display. There is of course a concern for women’s clothing - none of the girls is ever described as simply taking off her sweater. The sweater is lovingly described, especially if it is a pink angora sweater (one of Ed’s favourite garments). There is also a rather disturbing interest in bodily functions.

If you’re a fan of Ed Wood’s movies (and I can’t imagine any right-thinking person not being a fan of his movies) then it’s certainly worth checking out his literary output as well, even if it’s only for their curiosity value and the light they shed on this distinctive icon of American pop culture.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Francis Iles’ Before the Fact

Francis Iles’ 1932 novel Before the Fact is best known today as the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie 1941 Suspicion was based. As most fans of the movie are aware, the endings of the novel and the movie differ very significantly, and which you prefer is largely a matter of taste.

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) was born in England and wrote detective stories under several names, including Anthony Berkeley, A. Monmouth Platts and Francis Iles.

Before the Fact, like another of his Francis Iles novels, Malice Aforethought, can be considered to be one of those crime novels that try to be more than just a straight detective novel. As literary critics would rather pompously put the matter, they are an attempt to transcend the limitations of the genre. In both cases there is no doubt whatever of the murderer’s identity (in both cases his identity is revealed on the very first page) - both are psychological studies of murderers (and in the case of Before the Fact of potential murder victims).

Before the Fact is told from the point of view of Lina Aysgarth (née McLaidlaw). Lina has always considered herself to be strong-willed and as a woman who will have to rely on brains rather than beauty if she is to find a husband. And at the age of twenty-eight Lina has decided that she very much wants to find a husband.

The man she chooses is Johnnie Aysgarth. This does not please her father, General McLaidlaw. He is convinced that Johnnie is simply after her money (she already has five hundred a year and will come into £50,000 on her father’s death, a very large sum of money at the time). The general believes that Johnnie, like all the Aysgarths, is no good. But Lina has made her choice.

She soon realises that Johnnie is not a terribly good catch. He spent a great deal of money on her on her honeymoon but then she discovers that it was all borrowed money. Johnnie does not have a penny to his name. Lina tells him that he will have to get a job, a suggestion that shocks him deeply. Work is something he has never contemplated. Lina insists, and Johnnie relents to the extent of taking a position as an estate manager. But there are more unpleasant discoveries to follow. Johnnie is a hopeless (and notably unsuccessful) gambler. He has huge debts. And he is as irresponsible as a child. Oddly enough, this is what makes Lina love him so much. She is convinced that he could not live without her.

Johnnie’s gambling continues to be a problem, and then a fortunate accident happens (fortunate indeed for Johnnie) - the general dies and Lina is now a wealthy woman.

As their marriage progresses Johnnie’s irresponsibility becomes if anything even worse. He takes to forgery. And then Lina makes an unnerving discovery. Her father’s death may not have been due to natural causes, Or rather, the natural causes (a heart condition) may have been given a helping hand by Johnnie. Whether Johnnie is actually, in strictly legal terms, a murderer is open to doubt.

Worse is to follow. There will be other deaths, and other revelations about Johnnie. Lina’s suspicions will continue to grow and drive her almost to breaking point.

The second half of the book differs substantially from the film and the ending differs even more dramatically. Interestingly enough Hitchcock originally intended to go with the ending of the book. I don’t propose even to hint at either ending, but they do represent a considerable change in the tone of the story. I personally prefer the ending of the film but the ending of the book certainly has its virtues.

Both book and film are concerned mostly with the effect of Lina’s suspicions on her own peace of mind, and indeed her sanity. Both are also fascinating case studies of a charming, even loveable, man who really is, as Lina’s father warned her, no good.

The book, even more than the film, is also concerned in an almost gothic manner with the heritability of evil. All the Aysgarths are charming, and none of them is any good. Are Johnnie’s weaknesses of his own making, or are they simply the inevitable results of heredity?

Compared to the movie the book is perhaps a trifle over-long, with a lengthy sub-plot which Hitchcock quite wisely dropped from the movie. Nonetheless the novel is an intriguing early example of the psychological crime novel, and in 1932 (at the height of the so-called golden age of the detective story as intellectual puzzle) was certainly ahead of its time. It can also be seen as a very bizarre love story. The psychological crime novel is not a favourite sub-genre of mine but this is a very good example of the breed and can certainly be recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

King of the Khyber Rifles

King of the Khyber Rifles, published in 1916, is a rousing tale of adventure on the Northwest Frontier of India. The author, Talbot Mundy (1879-1940), was born in England. After an adventurous life in various parts of the world he settled in the United States in 1911 where he began his writing career. He would go on to become one of the masters of the adventure genre.

King of the Khyber Rifles opens in 1914. The outbreak of the European war poses major problems for the British authorities in India. Garrisons have been stripped of men to fight in Europe and India is now held by a perilously small contingent of British soldiers backed by native troops. And of course there is trouble on the Northwest Frontier. There is always trouble on the Northwest Frontier, but now that the fierce hill tribesmen know that the British army in India has been seriously weakened there is likely to be more trouble than usual. There is talk of a jihad.

Athelstan King of the Indian Secret Service is given the difficult task of preventing a rising of the tribes. He is to make contact with a mysterious woman named Yasmini. Yasmini is a kind of princess who has a devoted following among the hillmen. She is believed to be loyal to the British but with a woman like Yasmini certainty is impossible. Yasmini enjoys power and may be tempted to try to carve out an empire for herself. No-one who has known her doubts that she is capable of doing just that. She is both beautiful and dangerous, but also potentially the saviour of British India if she can be persuaded to remain loyal.

King is seconded to the Khyber Rifles but he will be travelling to the frontier in disguise. He has chosen the disguise of a hakim, a native doctor and healer.

After crossing the Khyber Pass King finds himself in Khinjan, a vast fortress carved out of a mountain. No-one is allowed entrance to Khinjan unless he can prove that he is a murderer. This is not exactly a civilised part of the world.

King finds himself drawn into a bewildering web of plots and counter-plots. Yasmini is not the only one who is capable of raising an army amongst the hill tribesmen. There is also a murderous mullah who dreams of a jihad.

Athelstan King finds that Yasmini takes more than a political interest in him. He may well find himself cast in the role of a lover, not the safest occupation in the world where such a woman is concerned.

Khinjan conceals a strange secret. The past is very much alive there. A Roman general had penetrated as far as Khinjan with an army, but he never did return to Rome. He remains in Khinjan, or at least his body does. Or is it just his body? Can the past live again? This adds an interesting hint of the occult to the story.

Mundy’s stories are not mere adventure tales. They also contain a great deal of political intrigue, a subject that fascinated him and with which he was very much at home.

There is plenty of adventure as well though. The world beyond the Khyber Pass is a world of blood-feuds and murder. The tribesmen would consider themselves shamed if they earned an honest living. They can be loyal friends, but they can just as easily slit your throat, and do it cheerfully.

Athelstan King is a hero who relies more on brainpower, and on his own considerable skills at political intrigue, more than on brawn although he is certainly capable of being a man of action when required. He is an interesting character, but it is Yasmini, a constant presence in the background, who dominates the book.

An excellent novel of adventure, and highly recommended.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Red Right Hand

Joel Townsley Rogers was a prolific writer of short stories in various genres, but he wrote only four novels, the best-known being his 1945 mystery The Red Right Hand.

This novel is notable not so much for its plot as for the innovative (and for 1945 quite daring) method of narration. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness.

Dr Henry Riddle is the first-person narrator. He was not exactly a witness to a murder, but he was a witness to some of the events surrounding an unusual murder. 

Elinor Darrie and her fiance Inis St Erme were heading for Vermont to get married. They picked up a hitchhiker, a man the investigators of the crime will come to know as Corkscrew for his unusual gait when walking. The hitchhiker apparently killed St Erme and tries to kill Elinor. He then sped off in St Erme’s car (or rather the car St Erme had borrowed from a man named Dexter in New York). The car then ran over another man, a half-Indian named John Flail. After that it ran down Mrs Wiggins’ dog. 

These separate events can be pieced together to show the killer’s movements after the murder of St Erme. The odd thing is that Dr Riddle, whose car had broken down at the turn-off to the Swamp Road, should have seen the murder car, but he didn’t.

The entire book follows the thought processes of Dr Riddle as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is an endeavour that will take him to the verge of madness.

There are several pieces of the puzzle that just won’t fit. Most worrying is his failure to see the murder car. There is simply no way he could have not seen it. But he didn’t see it. And why is St Erme’s right hand missing when the body is found? How could Dr Riddle have seen John Flail in a place where he could not have been at the time? Why was the psychiatrist and criminologist MacComerou murdered? MacComerou had come too close to the truth, but what truth? And the other murders? Riddle just can’t find any rational way to fit those pieces together.

There are obvious explanations for some of these events, but obvious explanations are not always reliable.

This is a stylistic tour-de-force. It’s a very bold and almost experimental crime novel. It’s very much in the real of psychological crime novels, of the type that writers like Jim Thompson would later pursue with much success. For 1945 it’s definitely ahead of its time, a pointer to the directions in which crime fiction would go in the 1950s.

Rogers does an excellent job in dissecting the thought processes of the narrator. The narrative jumps back and forward in time, just as anyone’s thoughts would do if they were trying to puzzle out such a mystery. The narrator keeps going back to earlier events, trying to find the weaknesses in the various theories he comes up with, trying to discover what it is that he has missed, what it is that perhaps he has misinterpreted. He knows that he has all the facts necessary to solve the crime, but the facts seem to be contradictory and ambiguous. Can he solve the crime without driving himself over the edge of insanity?

An unusual mystery, and one that deserves to be much better known. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Rafael Sabatini’s The Trampling of the Lilies

Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) was one of the grand masters of the swashbuckling adventure tale. He was born in Italy but lived in England from the age of seventeen onwards and wrote all of his many books in English. The Trampling of the Lilies, published in 1906, is one of his early efforts.

Shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution a man named La Boulaye is the secretary to the Marquis de Bellecour. La Boulaye has imbibed deeply of the poisonous philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau and is a revolutionary in the making.

La Boulaye is unfortunate enough to be in love with the marquis’ daughter Suzanne. Unfortunate, because such a love was impossible. Although he is an educated man La Boulaye’s birth was humble and the social gulf between such a man and the nobility was very wide indeed.

La Boulaye is unwise enough to declare his love. His reward is to be spurned by Suzanne and horsewhipped by her father. Later that day La Boulaye comes across a peasant wedding, and witnesses a scene that will have a momentous effect on both his own destiny and that of the family of de Bellecour. The marquis asserts his ancient right, the droit de seigneur, to take the virginity of the young bride. La Boulaye’s blood boils and he shoots one of the marquis’ servants and attempts to shoot the marquis himself. As a result the marquis orders that he be flogged to death.

He is flogged until he appears to be dead, and them Suzanne de Bellecour intervenes and stops the punishment. La Boulaye proves to be still alive and thanks to Suzanne he is able to flee. Suzanne’s feelings towards him are confused to say the least. She cannot possibly admit to herself that she might be in love with him. He is little better than a peasant and as such scarcely human. It is an unthinkable idea. She has all the prejudices of her class.

The action them jumps forward four years. It is 1793 and La Boulaye is a powerful man indeed. He is not only a Deputy, but also an intimate friend of Robespierre. His path will again cross with that of Suzanne de Bellecour, with momentous consequences. Despite their own best efforts their destinies are inextricably linked. Suzanne saved La Boulaye’s life once and he will have an opportunity to repay the debt, but at a frightful cost to himself.

Compared to his later books many of the characterisations in The Trampling of the Lilies are somewhat lacking in subtlety. With one notable exception the aristocrats are cruel and arrogant, little more than cardboard villains. To be fair to Sabatini, the revolutionaries are not much better. Surprisingly enough he seems rather sympathetic to Robespierre. How one can paint a sympathetic portrait of such a monster passes all human understanding, but there you have it. Sabatini seems uncertain as to his feelings about the Revolution. He is torn between his natural sympathy for the underdog and his horror at the way events turned out as France was turned into a butcher’s yard.

La Boulaye’s transformation from bloodthirsty revolutionary to romantic hero is not entirely convincing, unless you can accept the idea that love really does conquer all.

The evidence for the actual existence of the droit de seigneur is slight, but it became part of the popular imagination both in the 18th century and today. It was first publicised by Voltaire, who may well have invented the idea. It was a useful stick with which to beat the aristocracy. Sabatini’s sympathies are clearly not with the aristocracy so it’s perhaps not surprising that he makes use of this myth.

There’s not quite as much action as you’d expect in a Sabatini novel, but there is plenty of tension as La Boulaye struggles to find a way to save Suzanne from the guillotine.

Sabatini, even in this early novel, demonstrates his skills as a story-teller. Any adventure novel by this author is worth reading, and this is no exception.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The House on Tollard Ridge

Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965) wrote detective novels under a variety of pseudonyms, including John Rhode. The House on Tollard Ridge was published under this name in 1929.

It was one of many books to feature Dr Priestley, although he does not appear in this book until quite late. Dr Priestley, like R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, was a scientific detective. Dr Priestley is a slightly eccentric maverick scientist who has discovered that solving crimes can be a pleasant intellectual diversion. He is not motivated by money, nor by any passionate belief in justice. A crime is merely a puzzle to be solved.

In this case the crime is murder. A Mr Barton is found dead, his skull crushed by a blunt instrument. Mr Barton had been living in seclusion in a house on Tollard Ridge, a house a few miles from the village of Charlton Abbas and accessible only on foot. The town of Lenhaven is about fourteen miles distant. Since the death of his beloved wife he had been living there alone until a Mr and Mrs Hapgood had prevailed upon him to move in with them at Tilford Farm.

Mr Barton had been a wealthy man but quite a generous one and was generally so well liked that no-one can conceive that anyone could have a motive for murdering him. Mrs Hapgood has always referred to Mr Barton as Uncle Sam and regarded him almost as a father although in fact they were not related by blood.

Superintendent King is soon on the scene. Slowly a solution to the crime suggests itself to him. A son who has been disowned by Mr Barton, a young man given to drink and violence, seems to be a more and more obvious suspect. At least until Dr Priestley takes an interest in the case. What seemed like an open-and-shut case now proves to be far more complex than anyone could have imagined. The solution to the murder, and to another related murder, is as ingenious as anything you’re likely to come across in golden age detective fiction.

The solution is in fact so intricate as to appear slightly far-fetched but there’s no denying the skill with which the novel is plotted.

D Priestley is in the great tradition of amateur detectives but he has little time for leaps of intuition. He relies on solid facts, on mathematically precise reasoning, and on science. The solution to the murder is, fittingly, very much a product of science.

The style of the book is fairly austere. The novelist and critic Julian Symons classifies Street as belonging to the “humdrum” school of crime fiction, which is perhaps a little unfair. Street certainly treats crime in the same way that Dr Priestley does, as an intellectual puzzle, but it would be unjust to conclude that he was a dull writer. His style gets the job done and is not displeasing. The emphasis is very much on plot (and his plotting is certainly excellent) but Dr Priestley is an interesting character. Street is careful to take the obvious route by making him a grandiose larger-than-life character but he is clearly an exceptional man and his faith in the scientific approach is taken so far as to make him anything but a colourless character.

A very entertaining crime novel, and warmly recommended.