Tuesday, December 31, 2013

best reads of the year

These are the books I've enjoyed most in 2013:

Henry S. Whitehead, Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead

Dennis Wheatley, The Man Who Missed the War (1945)

Henry Wade, The Duke of York’s Steps (1929)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel (1906)

Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die (1954)

Richard Sale, Benefit Performance (1946)

Edgar Wallace, The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder (1925)

Edwin Balmer & William B. MacHarg, Luther Trant, Psychological Detective (1910)

Donald E. Keyhoe, The Vanished Legion (1934)

Abraham Merritt, The Moon Pool (1919)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s earlier Perry Mason mysteries, published in 1935. And it’s a treat for Perry Mason fans.

Perry Mason is approached by a client named Brunold who has an unusual problem. One of his glass eyes has been stolen and replaced by an inferior quality eye. His fear is that the missing eye could be used to frame him for a crime.

There are two kinds of glass eye. There’s the kind you buy off the shelf, and then there’s the custom-made variety. Only a handful of people in the United States make the custom-made variety. It’s a very specialised art and an expert can easily identify the maker of a particular eye. Brunold’s fear is therefore quite plausible.

Perry also has another client, a young man who has been embezzling money from his employer, a notorious loan shark.

These two sub-plots will come together in an intricate manner which involves murder, divorce, inheritances and glass eyes.

Gardner’s plots were always clever but the real interest of the Perry Mason novels, at least the early ones, lies in the methods of the famous trial lawyer. Perry Mason is not exactly unethical but he certainly pushes legal ethics about as far as they can possibly be pushed, and there are times when he comes perilously close to unethical or even downright illegal practices. Mason is not a rogue lawyer but he believes in doing everything he can to protect the interests of his clients.

Mason’s methods naturally enough tend to outrage the police and in the past they have aroused the ire of the District Attorney. Now there’s a new DA, Hamilton Burger, who will of course feature in further Perry Mason stories. Burger isn’t exactly delighted by Perry’s methods but he is inclined to think that those methods, while they might involve sailing rather close to the legal wind, are essentially legitimate. The new DA’s tolerance will however be stretched to the limit in the course of this case.

Mason’s flexible approach to legal ethics makes him an interesting character. There is certainly a degree of moral ambiguity about him. The DA considers Mason to be a very good trial lawyer but an even better detective. The really interesting aspect of Mason’s character, and the chief appeal of Gardner’s novels, is the extraordinary way in which he manipulates the legal system to serve his clients’ ends. Mason knows every lawyer’s trick in the books plus a few he’s invented himself. Gardner had been a California trial lawyer himself and his specialised legal knowledge is put to exceptionally good use in his novels.

The Perry Mason stories, naturally enough, always involve at least one court-room scene. Court-room scenes can become rather tedious and Gardner was very much aware of that danger. He never allows the court-room scenes to dominate the action too much. He also has a knack for basing important plot elements on complex points of law without running the risk of confusing the reader or boring him with too much legal detail. He explains the legal points lucidly and succinctly.

Perry Mason is a man who enjoys his work. He likes to win his cases but the real pleasure for him lies in pitting his wits against criminals, against the police, and against the DA. The joy he takes in this is communicated to the reader and helps to make these novels so much fun. And The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is great fun indeed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

M. P. Shiel's Prince Zaleski stories

One doesn’t normally think of decadent literature and the detective story as having very much in common with each other. Be that as it may, somehow or other M. P. Shiel managed to combine the two in his Prince Zaleski stories.

Shiel wrote only four Prince Zaleski tales. Three were published in a slim collection in 1895; the fourth did not see publication until 1955, several years after the author’s death, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

The combination of the detective story with the gothic tale or the weird tale was a very common one at the time. William Hope Hodgson’s stories of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories being notable examples. The Prince Zaleski stories have something in common with these, but really they form a strange little sub-genre of their very own. There are hints of the world of the irrational, there’s an interest in the psychology not only of the actors in the drama but of the detective himself. But while the mysteries are certainly out of the ordinary, they contain hints not so much of the world of the supernatural as of the world of the fantastic. Perhaps it would be fair to consider them as being related to the branch of literature referred to by the French as the fantastique.

What really distinguishes them though is the atmosphere of decadence. It’s as if Huysmans’ celebrated decadent des Esseintes had decided to try his hand at crime-solving.

Prince Zaleski never leaves his vast, remote and crumbling old house. Consumed by elegant despair and cultured ennui, he smokes hashish and contemplates the beautiful objects with which he has surrounded himself. He shudders at the thought of reading a newspaper. The idea of taking an interest in the world horrifies. From time to time he is visited by his friend Shiel (who narrates the stories). Shiel is interested in crime and knows that from time to time a case arises that is so bizarre that it has the power to rouse Zaleski from his strange dream-world. Zaleski then applies his immense his intellectual gifts to the solving of the puzzle. He is invariably able to solve the crime without having to suffer the ordeal of having to leave his house, or even to stir himself from his divan.

The three original Prince Zaleski stories are all quite different. The Race of Orven is a gothic murder tale combined with a locked-room mystery.

The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks is much stranger. The ingredients are an ancient amulet, a stone with possibly mystic powers, a family curse, a mysterious Persian, an indecipherable inscription, and an elderly scholar who may be insane or may in fact be all too sane.

The third tale, The S. S., is stranger still. An epidemic of suicide is sweeping Europe. But is it suicide, or murder? Or even both? Can it be possible that thousands of deaths all over the continent could all be linked in a sinister conspiracy? The only clues are  the slips of papyrus coated in honey found under the tongues of the victims. While the other stories start out strange but eventually the mystery is to some extent dispelled, this take just keeps getting stranger.

These stories are truly not quite like anything else in the crime gene, or any other genre for that matter. They are however weirdly and seductively fascinating and I highly recommend them.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Murder by Experts

Anthony Gilbert was one of the pseudonyms used by English crime writer Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973). Murder by Experts, originally published in 1936, features her main series detective, a shabby pot-bellied lawyer-detective named Crook.

This is a country house murder mystery but at first no-one realises that there has been a murder. In fact no-one suspects that a murder has taken place until several weeks later.

A wealthy English Jewish art collector, Sampson Rubenstein, has invited a number of people to his country house to see his latest acquisition, a very rare and very valuable Chinese cloak. Chinese art is Rubenstein’s ruling passion and his collection includes a large number of cloaks, robes and other items of ancient and fabulously valuable clothing. In a slightly macabre manner the cloaks are all displayed on wax dummies.

Rubenstein’s wife Lal is Spanish. She’s a hot-blooded fiery Latin type to the nth degree, and she is insanely jealous. The current target of her jealousy is Fanny Price. Fanny Price is an intelligent beautiful ambitious woman who fascinates every man who meets her the way a cobra fascinates its prey. Fanny is the mistress of a middle-aged art dealer name Graham. She acts as his agent in the buying and selling of antiquities, especially Chinese antiquities. Her knowledge of Chinese art is encyclopaedic. Fanny is the sort of woman who would have been described at the time as an adventuress. In fact she has been described frequently in far less charitable ways.

No less than three of the people at the house party are under Fanny’s spell - Rubenstein, a young artist-photographer named Norman Bridie and Curteis, the middle-aged narrator of the novel, a man of artistic tastes who knows that Fanny is dangerous but doesn’t care. Also present are Bridie’s girlfriend Rose and Rubenstein’s capable but rather harassed secretary  Parkinson.

Trouble erupts on the first evening when Rubenstein offers to drive Fanny Price to the railway station. The weather is atrocious, with heavy ran and fog, and Rubenstein is a notoriously bad and reckless driver. Lal causes a rather spectacular scene. Rubenstein and Fanny set off for the railway station.

And that is the last that is heard of Sammy Rubenstein. And of Fanny Price. At least that is the last that is heard of either of them for several weeks, until evidence is found that suggests murder.

The police believe they have a strong case and they make an arrest. At this point Curteis decides to avail himself of the services of the lawyer-detective Crook.

Crook actually plays a subsidiary rôle with Curteis playing amateur detective doing most of the investigating. Curteis’ methods are rather rambling and undisciplined. Some of the leads he follows up seem to have only the sketchiest connection with the case. The plot meanders a good deal in the middle stages with the amateur sleuth appearing to work mostly by instinct, driven by his certainty that Fanny Price cannot possibly be guilty. The only reason he has for believing in her innocence is that he’s in love with her.

A single red hair is his most important clue and the deductions he makes from this hair stretch credibility quite a bit. A mysterious but sinister red-haired man may strike some readers as a bit of a cliché, as even being the kind of thing that made detective fiction a subject for mockery in some quarters.

The plot does eventually come together, after a fashion.

It’s a pity that Crook, a far more interesting character than the earnest obsessed Curteis, doesn’t take centre stage. Crook is a clever lawyer, but not a very honest one. He likes to win cases and he’s prepared to adopt methods that might raise eyebrows if they ever came to the attention of the Law Society.

It’s also a pity that the book’s femme fatale, Fanny Price, plays a disappointingly small part in the story. She’s also potentially a fascinating character but she’s left in the background.

The first third of the book, dealing with the build-up to the discovery of the murder, is the highlight. It’s a genuinely clever set-up. The book loses focus after that. The book also loses interest in some of the prime suspects quite early on, for no obvious reason, and this has the unfortunate effect of narrowing down the range of possible murderers.

Murder by Experts can scarcely be described as a classic of the genre. It’s main strengths is that it’s unusual among English detective stories of its era in featuring a full-blooded femme fatale who wouldn’t be out of place in an American hardboiled crime story, and in featuring a very disreputable detective. It’s worth a look if you can get hold of a copy in an inter-library loan but I wouldn’t go spending big bucks on this one.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Francis Beeding's The Four Armourers

Hilary Aidan Saint George Saunders (1898-1951) and John Palmer (1885-1944) wrote both thrillers and detective novels under the name Francis Beeding, their best-known book being undoubtedly The House of Dr. Edwardes (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Spellbound). The Four Armourers, published in 1930, is one of their thrillers.

I was not overly impressed by the one Francis Beeding detective novel I read, Death Walks in Eastrepps, but The Four Armourers turned out to be much more to my taste. The novel features their main thriller series hero, Colonel Alistair Granby.

Granby and John Baxter, a friend who works for the League of Nations (and who serves as narrator), are in Spain when they run across an old acquaintance of Granby’s, Jules Lemaistre. This pint-sized Frenchman who seems to be perpetually afraid is in fact a daring freelance spy and he is convinced that he is on to something very big indeed. Lemaistre dies before he can reveal all the details, leaving Granby and Baxter with a rather inconvenient body on their hands. Granby is used to such situations and deals with it in a characteristically ingenious manner.

Granby finds himself up against some old foes, a sinister cartel of arms dealers known as the Four Armourers. This cartel is after something very important, and so is a a very wealthy American arms dealer named Hazelrig. It is something worth killing for, and something that could have momentous consequences for the peace of Europe, and indeed the world.

What is this mysterious something they are all seeking? The authors, wisely, don’t tell us, at least not until the very end. It is after all what Alfred Hitchcock termed a McGuffin - something the audience (or in this case the reader) doesn’t need to know anything about other than that is very important to the characters in the story. It is the plot device that drives the story. The more mysterious the nature of the McGuffin the more effectively it serves its plot purpose. Explaining its nature would distract the reader from the chase. The authors have no intention of slowing down their story by doing this.

This puts the emphasis on the excitement of the chase, the danger, and the suspense and the authors prove to be very adept at maintaining this focus. There is no shortage of excitement as first one side and then the other seems to be on the verge of attaining the object only to have it snatched away again at the last moment. There are double-crosses aplenty. There are knife fights, shootouts, car chases and kidnappings. There are chases on foot, by aeroplane, by train and in fast cars. There’s a rather clever scene in the vast palace of the Escorial near Madrid, a race against time to locate a key character. The race against time element is always useful to a thriller writer and it’s used skillfully and in a number of different ways in this novel.

Of course you can’t have a thriller without a beautiful dangerous woman who may be an ally of the heroes, or may just as well turn out to be a deadly enemy, and in The Four Armourers Donna Concepcion plays that femme fatale rôle nicely. And of course a thriller has to pit its hero against worthy villains and this novel offers some very worthy and very smooth villains.

Granby is the classic type of hero you expect in a British thriller of this era - brave and noble but in an understated and very British way.

The only real weakness comes when the nature of the McGuffin is revealed. The McGuffin itself is ingenious enough but to modern readers familiar with the futility of such organisations the heroes’ faith in the League of Nations now seems sadly naïve. That’s a very minor quibble however.

The Four Armourers is a tightly-plotted spy adventure tale that works very neatly. It’s very much in the John Buchan style and that’s certainly no bad thing.

Highly entertaining. This one is a definite recommendation.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A. E. W. Mason’s At the Villa Rose

Published in 1910, At the Villa Rose (sometimes known as Murder at the Villa Rose) was the first of A. E. W. Mason’s detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud.

A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best known for his classic adventure novel The Four Feathers. He wrote only five detective novels but they are both important and unusual (The Prisoner in the Opal being both a detective story and an occult thriller).

Inspector Hanaud is a French detective with an English Watson, Mr Ricardo. Mr Ricardo is a wealthy financier and a man of culture and refinement but it has to be admitted that he is of little help to Hanaud when it come to crime-solving. Fortunately Hanaud does not require assistance and Mr Ricardo’s main function is to give Hanaud somebody to whom he can explain important plot points, and somebody to whom Hanaud can display his own superior talents. Hanaud is not a man to hide his light under a bushel.

Hanaud was loosely based on two real-life officers of the Sûreté, Macé and Goron.

Hanaud is on vacation when he is drawn into the investigation of the murder at the Villa Rose by a young Englishman, Harry Wethermill. The wealthy Mme Dauvray has been murdered, apparently during the course of a robbery (her famous jewels being a very obvious temptation to thieves). Mme Dauvray’s English companion, a young woman named Celia, appears to be the prime suspect. Harry Wethermill is in love with Celia and is convinced of her evidence. He begs Hanaud to take over the case. As the case promises to be an interesting one Hanaud agrees.

Mme Dauvray had been intensely (although rather naïvely) fascinated by spiritualism and appearances suggest that Mademoiselle Celia’s talents as a medium had been the means by which the penniless young Englishwoman had ingratiated herself with the wealthy lady. It further appears that Mlle Celia was to have conducted a séance on the night of the murder.

Hanaud does make some use of psychological insights in order to solve crimes but he most certainly does not neglect physical clues, and those physical clues in this case seem to be so contradictory than even the great Hanaud has to confess himself baffled, at least temporarily. Hanaud is not however a man to be put off by difficulties. The more challenging the case the better he likes it.

At the Villa Rose has the complex plotting that would later come to characterise the golden age of detective fiction. While the plot is ingenious Mason generally avoids the more bizarre and unusual elements that often appear in detective stories of its era.

Rather usually, and rather boldly, the identity of the murderer is revealed two-thirds of the way through. The ensuing very long explanatory segment of the book could have been a serious weakness (such lengthy explanations generally are) but although we know who the murderer is we do not know Hanaud arrived at his conclusions nor do we know how the murder was committed. As a result the last third of the book maintains our interest without too much trouble.

The spiritualism aspect is an intriguing foreshadowing of the much more involved occult elements in The Prisoner in the Opal.

At the Villa Rose is an Edwardian crime novel that looks forward to the tightly plotted detective stories of the 1920s. Hanaud is a great detective in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, with all the egotism we expect from such figures, but he is amusing and Mason’s considerable literary gifts are a major plus. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mad Monkton and Other Stories

The Moonstone Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was one of the most popular writers of the “sensation novels” of the 1860s and 1870s. These were in some respects forerunners of the true detective story although they were also heavily influenced by the gothic novel. Collins’ two masterpieces in this genre were The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). Mad Monkton and Other Stories is a collection of his short stories, mostly dating from before his major commercial breakthrough with The Woman in White.

Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were very close friends and occasional literary collaborators. Dickens published many of Collins’ stories in the weekly magazine Household Words.

Mad Monkton, dating from 1855, is the longest story here and it’s one of his best. As its title suggests it’s a tale of madness although as the story unfolds the reader will feel increasing doubts as to whether Monkton is actually mad or whether he really is the victim of a family curse. It’s also a tale of obsession. This is one of Collins’ more gothic tales and its ambiguity makes it exceptionally disturbing and fascinating.

The Ostler (which also saw publication under the title The Dream Woman) is a horrifying tale of a man who has made a very unfortunate marriage indeed. He has driven himself at least half mad with fear, but are his fears warranted or merely a delusion. This is the kind of ambiguity at which Collins excelled.

In The Clergyman’s Confession (also published as Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman) a man was acquitted of murder but an elderly dying clergyman knows far more about the murder than was revealed at the trial.

In The Dead Hand a man finds himself spending the night in an inn with a dead man. But is the man truly dead? A Terribly Strange Bed is one of Collins’ best known stories in the gothic vein, and a very effective little chiller it is. The Lady of Glenwith Grange is a less successful story involving one of the favoured themes of gothic fiction, the double.

The Biter Bit, Who Killed Zebedee? and The Diary of Anne Rodway, both dating from the 1850s, mark important steps in the evolution of the detective story. The Biter Bit also demonstrates the author’s flair for comedy while The Diary of Anne Rodway may perhaps mark the first appearance of the amateur detective, in this a girl who believes her friend’s death was due to foul play. She is determined to see justice done.

A Stolen Letter is clearly influenced by the best of Poe’s detective stories, The Purloined Letter, although Collins gives it his own twist.

John Jago’s Ghost concerns what would today be labelled a very dysfunctional family indeed. The disappearance of John Jago brings matters to a crisis, but is he dead? Is he a ghost? Has there been a murder? It’s another skillful blending of the mystery and gothic genres.

The Captain’s Last Love is the odd man out here, being more of a quirky romantic adventure fantasy which works more successfully than it has any right to do.

This is a collection that neatly demonstrates the author’s considerable importance to both the crime story and the gothic tale, while also displaying the breadth and inventiveness of his writing. The immense success of The Woman in White and (and they are undeniably superb) have unjustly overshadowed his other works. This collection is a fine starting point for anyone wanting to explore his very underrated short fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four is a 1927 Hercule Poirot mystery, only it’s not a mystery at all. What it is is Agatha Christie’s attempt at an Edgar Wallace-style thriller. Given that Wallace was just about the most popular author of the 1920s it’s perhaps not so surprising that Christie tried to emulate him. The results are more successful than you might expect.

Poirot and his friend and colleague Captain Hastings find themselves involved in a case that soon proves to be much bigger than it seemed. They have stumbled upon a gigantic criminal conspiracy by a cabal of diabolical criminal masterminds known as the Big Four.

The Big Four are not only the powers behind many criminal undertakings, they are also involved in international intrigue and even in revolution. Their aims are nothing short of world domination. The fact that the leader of this vast criminal empire is Chinese indicates that Christie was also influenced by Sax Rohmer’s very successful Fu Manchu novels.

The plot is radically different from a conventional Poirot story. It’s rather episodic and some of the episodes allow Poirot to function in his usual crime-solving manner but the main story involves no actual mystery. The structure is that of a pure thriller rather than of a detective story.

And Christie is not afraid to throw in the kinds of touches that you would find in the most outrageous thrillers of that era. One member of the Big Four is a brilliant mad scientist who has developed a kind of death ray based on concentrated radio waves, and is on the verge of discovering the atom bomb.

All this is a very long way indeed from the cases that we are accustomed to see Poirot involved in. The plot is outlandish, and the methods Poirot employs in his battle against the Big Four are just as outlandish. The overall feel is very similar to the kind of breathless excitement that one expects in a very pulpy thriller of that era. Poirot and Hastings have narrow escapes from certain death, and the villains resort to the kind of outrageously melodramatic evil that is bizarrely different from the kinds of crime that Poirot generally deals with.

Fortunately Christie understands that you can’t take this kind of thing too seriously, and the whole thing has something of a tongue-in-cheek tone, especially when Christie has some fun with a certain aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Christie also understands that the one thing you cannot do in this type of thriller is to give the reader enough time to start thinking seriously about the plausibility of the plot. You have to keep throwing new thrills and new horrors at the reader and you have to keep the pacing relentless.

The Big Four is not typical Christie but it is a good deal of fun. Recommended.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

E. Charles Vivian’s City of Wonder

City of Wonder, published in 1922, is the best known of E. Charles Vivian’s lost world adventure novels and regular readers of this blog will know how fond I am of that genre.

E. Charles Vivian was the pseudonym used by Charles Henry Cannell (1882-1947). He wrote science fiction and detective stories but it is his fantasy novels, and more particularly  his lost world novels, for which he is best remembered.

Faulkner (who narrates the tale), Bent and Watkins are three adventurers in search of the lost city of Kir-Asa. They are all old Asia hands, tough and a little cynical but brave and fundamentally decent men. Watkins is the leader and he has promised the other two not just generous pay but the prospect, or at least the potential prospect, of vast riches. Watkins knows rather more about Kir-Asa than he is willing to reveal.

We are never told where this lost city is although we are led to assume it is on an island, possibly Borneo. The journey is fraught with the usual jungle hazards but the legends surrounding the city, and information Watkins has obtained from a journal kept by one of his ancestors (who had reached the city 150 years earlier) tell of additional dangers as well - giant apes controlled by a woman, natives who favour poison-tipped darts, and most mysterious of all the “ghosts who chase women.”

The discovery of an ancient road, a road built on a scale that makes the roads of the Romans look like goat tracks, assures them that the lost civilisation they are seeking was certainly a reality at one time although whether that civilisation survives is uncertain. Unfortunately an earthquake in the distant past has opened up a gigantic chasm that appears to be an insuperable barrier. Watkins however is not the kind of of man to be daunted by anything. A way is found to traverse this obstacle although it involves the terrifying crossing of the “trembling bridge” - a hazard that would make the bravest man think twice.

They find Kir-Asa, but although they also find a civilisation it is not the civilisation they expected. The men who built the city are long gone. The present inhabitants represent a rather lower order of civilisation, but one that is not without its merits and its attractions. The arrival of the three outsiders will precipitate momentous upheavals, upheavals that may be disastrous but that may also be extremely beneficial. Whether events turn out well or ill will depend on the ability of Watkins and his party to guide those events.

One notable feature this book shares with the lost world stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs is a fascinating variation on the theory of evolution. The variation Vivian comes up with is not only as outlandish but also as brilliantly inventive as that of Burroughs.

Vivian was influenced by writers like Rider Haggard and has more literary aspirations the pulp writers who dealt with similar ideas. His writing is not as stylish as Haggard’s but his prose is pleasing enough.

Watkins is the most interesting character, a man who is something of an idealist under a crusty exterior.

The lost world of Kir-Asa is the kind of unspoilt bucolic paradise that appealed so much to so many late 19th century and early 20th century writers. The possibility that the people who lived in such places might actually be keen to enjoy the fruits of civilisation is an idea that never seems to have occurred to such writers. Kir-Asa has its weaknesses though - it is a very stable society, perhaps too stable. Stable to the point of stagnation.

The monsters are the most impressive elements in this book. These monsters are not quite human but share an ancestry with humans, and they are not quite alive but also not quite ghosts.

City of Wonder might not be the greatest of lost world adventures but if you’re a fan of the enjoy you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hanging Captain

Henry Wade was the pseudonym used by Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO (1887-1969) for his detective novels. He’s one of the more unjustly neglected writers of the golden age of detective fiction.

Wade’s main series detective was Inspector John Poole but The Hanging Captain, published in 1932, features two other detectives, both of whom are intriguing characters in their own right.

There had been a time when Captain Herbert Sterron had seemed to be a very lucky man. The dashing dragoon officer had a promising military career and a lovely wife, and an income that was ample for the maintenance of Ferris Court, a handsome Tudor mansion that had been in the Sterron family for four hundred years. Just prior to the outbreak of the Great War a change came over the captain, a change that was very much for the worse. So much so that when two decades later he hanged himself it came as no great shock.

There certainly seems no doubt that his death was suicide. And yet Superintendent Dawle is not quite satisfied. The Chief Constable is anxious to have the whole matter dealt with as expeditiously as possible, having no desire to start digging into the private lives of prominent county families. The Chief Constable’s hopes are dashed when Sir James Hamsted throws a spanner in the works, raising string suspicions of foul play. Hamsted had been staying at Ferris Court at the time of Sterron’s death. Hamsted is a harmless old gentleman occupying an important if rather dull government post, or at least that’s the impression he gives. In fact Hamsted is a medical practitioner with an extensive knowledge of medical jurisprudence, having occupied the post of coroner for many years. Sudden death is something he knows a great deal about, and he is far from satisfied.

With sinking heart the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and Scotland Yard is called in. Detective-Inspector Lott is assigned to the case. Like most Scotland Yard men Lott regards county constabularies with a considerable amount of disdain and he expects that working with a well-meaning but rather incompetent bumpkin like Superintendent Dawle will be something of an ordeal. He will soon discover that Superintendent Dawle is no bumpkin and is far from incompetent. He’s a shrewd old bird who can teach the Yard a thing or two about criminal investigations.

Much of the interest in this book comes from the interplay between Dawle and Lott. Wade was rather stronger in the area of characterisation than most golden age detective writers and the two detectives are both well fleshed out and fairly complex characters. The rivalry between local police and Scotland Yard officers is a theme that runs through many English detective novels of this era. Wade handles it with particular skill as the two rival detectives match wits and a mutual respect slowly develops between them.

The other key characters are equally interesting. Wade is strong on plotting and he’s especially strong on motive. The various suspects all have possible motives but these motives are by no means clear cut. In several case the motives have a definite sexual angle that is dealt with more openly than one generally expects in detective fiction of this era.

One of the suspects happens to be High Sheriff of the county, with aspirations to be Lord Lieutenant. The author himself served as High Sheriff and subsequently Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. Not surprisingly Wade displays in his crime fiction a keen understanding of the ins and outs of county politics and the subtle pressures they can exert on police officers in the course of an investigation into murder involving notable county families. THis is one of the elements that makes this book more than just another country house murder mystery.

Wade’s crime novels can be difficult to find but they are certainly worth the effort. The Hanging Captain is a splendid example of the golden age detective novel. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ashenden, or the British Agent

W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, or the British Agent is an example of one of my favourite genres, the early 20th century espionage tale. While spy stories set during World War 2 and during the Cold War have their charms I find the earlier tales set during the First Word War or in the years leading up to that war much more appealing.

Ashenden, or the British Agent, first published in 1928, is a series of linked stories relating the adventures of a writer of comic plays who is recruited into British Intelligence. Maugham himself actually did serve in British Intelligence during the Great War and based these stories to a considerable extent on his own experiences.

The stories in some ways form a kind of episodic novel because we do see some evolution in the character of the hero. In the earlier tales he’s still something of an innocent and still treating the whole affair as a bit of a lark, and is rather shocked when he finds that he intelligence service’s activities include assassinations. In the later stories he has become considerably more hardened.

The tone of the stories varies considerably. Some are gently humorous, some verge on farce, while others have the feel of black comedy. And some are surprisingly dark and cynical, to a degree that you don’t really find again in the spy story until the emergence of writers like John le Carré in the early 60s.

Ashenden is based in neutral Switzerland and is more a spymaster than a spy. He receives his instructions from a senior officer in British Intelligence known only as R. Much of his work is fairly routine, collating reports from his agents in the field. Initially it seems like an amusing sport which can be pursued without getting one’s hands dirty but Ashenden soon discovers that it has a dark side. He finds himself being assigned to work with a mysterious and eccentric Mexican general on a mission to prevent a certain Greek diplomat from handing over some confidential an extremely vital papers to German agents. Ashenden is horrified to learn that his Mexican colleague’s orders are to prevent this from happening by the most simple and direct method - killing the Greek diplomat in cold blood. Ashenden well and truly loses his innocence on this mission.

Other assignments involves some rather nasty double-crosses and Ashenden has to resort  to some very unpleasant methods.

While Maugham certainly shows us the darker side of the world of espionage he avoids making glib or naïve value judgments. Espionage might be an unpleasant occupation at times but sometimes unpleasant things have to be done.

This book was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s very underrated 1936 film Secret Agent and it’s remarkable just how closely Hitchcock reproduces the tone of the book, with the same mix of black humour and cynicism, of innocence and cold-bloodedness.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of the espionage story Maugham’s book is essential reading. It’s witty and highly entertaining with a very dark edge to it, and it's one of the finest works of spy fiction ever written. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Graham Greene's Stamboul Train

I’m not sure what Graham Greene would have thought about being included in the category of vintage pop fiction, but given that Stamboul Train was one of the books he himself classed as “entertainments” as distinct from his serious novels he might not have minded that much. The intention of the 28-year-old Greene with this novel was to write something successful enough to put his literary career on a firm footing, and it did just that.

Published in 1932, Stamboul Train has the perfect setting for a thriller - the Orient Express.  Its claims to being a thriller are perhaps a bit tenuous, but it does include a murder and a failed revolution, and there are some tense thriller-like moments towards the end.

Greene’s real focus is on the characters, in particular on five of the passengers on the train. Dr Richard Czinner is a failed revolutionary. Carleton Myatt is a rich Jewish businessman. Coral Musker is a chorus girl on her way to Constantinople to appear in a show. Josef Grünlich is a thief and a murderer. Mabel Warren is an alcoholic lesbian newspaper reporter.

Since this is a Graham Greene novel, they are all failures in one way or another. All of them fear betrayal. They either fear being betrayed, or they fear betraying others.

Dr Czinner has replaced the religious faith of his youth with socialism, the ultimate substitute religion. Of course, as it always does, it proves to be an unsatisfactory substitute. Dr Czinner is quite capable of loving abstractions like “the poor” but one feels that he has never actually loved a human being as an individual. He believes he is on his way to lead a revolution, but the revolution has already failed. Now all that is left to him is the possibility of a last grand gesture. Like most grand gestures, it ends up being futile and pathetic.

Carleton Myatt is painfully aware of his Jewishness and is always expecting to be snubbed. He has the opportunity of finding something approaching love, but will he have the courage to accept it?

Coral Musker receives an offer that will offer her financial security, but she also is so afraid of betrayal that she is reluctant to accept.

Josef Grünlich is the only one who doesn’t fear betrayal. He betrays everyone.

Mabel Warren goes through a series of infatuations with heterosexual women. In this way betrayal is guaranteed. She does not comprehend love, but she is very familiar with, and very comfortable with, hatred. It is the force that drives her.

Betrayal drives the plot as well as the characters, and it gives the story the right sort of paranoid feel for an espionage thriller. Given Greene’s rather dark view of the human condition espionage always provided him with ideal subject matter.

I’ve always been a sucker for mysteries or thrillers that take place aboard trains and Greene uses this setting very effectively.

Stamboul Train is a neat little spy thriller that can be thoroughly recommended.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Three Taps

Published in 1927, The Three Taps was the second detective novel by English priest, theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox (1888-1957). It introduced his detective Miles Bredon who would figure in all of Knox’s subsequent detective novels.

Miles Bredon is a private detective employed by the Indescribable Insurance Company. He is brought in to investigate the death of a wealthy industrialist named Mottram. Mottram had taken out one of the Indescribable Insurance Company’s more interesting policies, a policy that promises either vast riches to his heirs if he dies before the age of sixty-five or a handsome annuity for life for the insured party if he lives beyond sixty-five. Mottram had made enquiries about modifying his policy in a manner that will considerably influence the investigation of his death.

Every detective needs a Watson. Bredon’s Watson is his wife Angela, although (unlike most Watsons) she does not narrate the story. And while most Watsons are well-meaning but decidedly in the intellectual shadow of the detective Angela is actually smarter than Miles.

Not that Miles is stupid. Far from it. His problem is that he is lazy and has little enthusiasm for his work. He likes his job with the Indescribable Insurance Company because it involves very little work. Bredon is content to investigate most of his cases in a rather desultory manner, but on rare occasions he encounters a case that engages his interest. When that happens the usually lazy Bredon suddenly comes to life and becomes not only a determined and tenacious detective but also a surprisingly brilliant one. The Mottram case is one of those cases.

Arriving in the rather dreary village in which Mottram met his end Miles Bredon finds that his old friend Inspector Leyland from Scotland Yard is already on the case. Leyland is no fool; in fact he’s a fine detective. Leyland and Bredon draw very different conclusions almost at once. There are certain pieces of evidence that convince Bredon that Mottram’s death was suicide, while there are certain other clues that convince Leyland just a strongly that it was murder. The problem for Bredon is that while he is absolutely convinced this was a suicide he has to admit that Leyland’s evidence for murder is perfectly valid and it does make it difficult to prove suicide. Leyland on the other hand, while being quite sure it was murder, has to confess that the clues on which Bredon has based his suicide theory are also quite valid and quite compelling.

The dead man was found in his room in the village’s inn. The room was filled with gas when the corpse was discovered and the doctor who examined the body had no doubt that the gas was the cause of death. That becomes the one fact on which everybody agrees. There were two gas outlets in the room, controlled by three taps. The position of the three taps becomes the crucial point on which the case will rest, since it causes major difficulties  not only for both the suicide and murder theories but also for the only other possible explanation, accidental death.

Ronald Knox was a noted wit it’s not surprising that this novel is as strong on humour as it is on detection. For Knox the detective story was both a stimulating intellectual exercise and a great deal of fun. This novel combines the ingenious and intricate plotting of the golden age detective story with humour, and does so very successfully.

Insurance policies and ambiguous wills were favourite plot devices at the time and Knox gives us both. To add a further layer of complexity Knox (a Catholic priest and an enthusiastic Catholic apologist) adds a possible religious motive, a motive that turns on a nice point of theology. Surprisingly Knox carries this element off with a good deal of skill and subtlety. It adds an interesting dimension and it’s done in such a way that a reader who does not share Knox’s faith will still find it to be a challenging and intriguing clue.

Miles and Angela Bredon make a very engaging detective couple and their verbal sparring is always a delight. The supporting characters are colourful and amusing. Knox’s dialogue sparkles and his style is civilised, urbane and unfailingly entertaining.

The Three Taps is golden age detective fiction at its finest. Immensely enjoyable and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Number Seven Queer Street

Margery Lawrence’s Number Seven Queer Street was a rather late entry in the occult detective genre, appearing in 1945. The author was clearly influenced by earlier writers in the genre like Algernon Blackwood and this collection of seven short stories is fairly typical of this fascinating genre.

Lawrence’s occult detective is Miles Pennoyer, although he prefers to be known as a psychic doctor. This is in fact the one factor that distinguishes this collection from others in this genre - Pennoyer’s cases do tend to be more like medical investigations than the cases an occult detective would normally take on. In many of the stories nothing really bizarre or inexplicable has happened, there are no signs of hauntings and similar phenomena. Pennoyer has been called in because someone is concerned that a family member just isn’t quite right although they can’t offer any real explanation. It’s a sense of vague unease that there is something wrong with the person, something that appears to have no physical cause and doesn’t seem to fall within the realm if mental disturbance as such.

Miles Pennoyer is of course a man with a very deep knowledge of the occult, to the extent that he is quite comfortable to describe himself as a magician. It is very definitely white magic that he practises of course.

Any Holmes, no matter how unconventional, has to have his Watson and Pennoyer’s Watson (who in conformity with the established detective story convention serves as narrator) is a successful novelist who has some limited psychic abilities. Slightly unusually, in most of the stories he merely acts as narrator of adventures in which he played no active rôle (although he does played a very active part in The Case of the Moonchild).

Margery Lawrence was either quite well versed in the occult herself or she was very good at making this sort of thing up. Pennoyer operates according to a very definite philosophy of the occult, a philosophy that is developed in some detail during the course of these seven adventures.

The Case of the Bronze Door deals with reincarnation, a theme that will recur (although less prominently) in other stories. It’s a nicely ambiguous story. Pennoyer is faced by an entity that certainly has the ability to do great harm, but it is not an entity that is evil as such. The Case of the Haunted Cathedral certainly involves an evil act, an act that threatens to destroy an architect’s crowning glory, but Pennoyer’s concern is to bring redemption rather than punishment to the author of this evil.

The Case of Ella McLeod is more an occult tragedy than a battle with evil. There’s no real evil at all here, although there is very human pettiness that has tragic consequences. This is another story that deals with reincarnation of a sort but this time Lawrence is aiming to engage the reader’s sympathies rather than to scare or horrify.

The Case of the White Snake is again a tragedy, and again the tragedy is aided if not actively caused by actions that were not intended as evil. It’s one of several stories involving children. In some stories a child is the agency of evil but more often the child is the potential victim. Like The Case of Ella McLeod in some ways it evokes the tragedy of the loss of the past. Both stories are poignant rather than scary but they work fairly successfully and Lawrence avoids indulging in the excessive sentimentality that could so easily shipwreck this type of story.

Lawrence hits top gear with The Case of the Moonchild. This time Pennoyer is confronted by very real evil and this time the threat is not merely to an individual’s or a family’s happiness; this time he faces evil on the grand scale. This is the most colourful and by far the most lurid of the Pennoyer stories and it’s the story that is closest in feel to real full-blown horror. While most of the stories in this volume are successful in evoking a sense of the uncanny this one is the one that works most successfully as pure entertainment.

The Case of the Young Man with the Scar is the longest story in the collection, and it’s the least successful. In this tale Lawrence succumbs to one of the most irritating of writerly vices, the absurd almost-deification of nature contrasted with an even more absurd demonisation of civilisation.  It didn’t quite move me to hurl the book across the room but the thought did cross my mind. It’s also the most poorly structured and rambling of the stories and in general I would have to say that I found this particular story to be a complete and abject failure.

The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe deals with an eleven-year-old boy who seems to have the ability to frighten everyone he comes into contact with. The explanation involves both fairies (the darker and nastier Celtic kind rather than the cute domesticated kind) and golf. And it’s an excellent little tale.

Number Seven Queer Street is an uneven volume but it remains an interesting addition to the occult detective canon. Lawrence generally (with the exception of the one major blemish mentioned earlier) writes very well. Miles Pennoyer is a hero who manages to be brilliant without being annoying. There’s enough occult detail to be satisfying without becoming tedious. This volume earns a definite recommendation although it has to be admitted that getting hold of a copy may present something of a challenge.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Red Redmaynes

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) had a long and very prolific career as a writer. Crime fiction formed a very minor part of his work. Mainstream writers often stumble when they attempt genre novels but occasionally the results can be rather intriguing, and Phillpotts’ 1922 novel The Red Redmaynes is both fascinating and highly unusual.

Phillpotts’ greatest contribution to crime fiction was an indirect one. A young female acquaintance had expressed an interest in trying her hand at crime fiction and it was to a considerable degree as a result of Phillpotts’ advice and encouragement that her first attempt in the genre was published in 1920. That first attempt was The Mysterious Affair at Styles and the aspiring young writer’s name was Agatha Christie.

Phillpotts’ own approach to the genre in The Red Redmaynes is quite unlike anything you would normally expect from the golden age of crime fiction. While it’s not entirely successful it is unconventional enough, and structurally daring enough, to make it of considerable interest to devotees of crime fiction.

Unfortunately most of the elements that make the book so structurally interesting cannot be discussed in anything other than the vaguest terms since they’re absolutely critical to the plot and any attempt to discuss them would entail the risk of revealing spoilers, something I have no intention of doing.

What I can say safely enough is that this book is a rare example of an unusual and unconventional structure being used not as a stylistic experiment but as the very driving force of the plot.

The key events that drive the plot occur in Dartmoor, a part of England that Phillpotts passionately loved and used as a setting for most of his books and stories.

A young detective-sergeant from Scotland Yard, Mark Bredon, happens to be on the scene when a rather shocking murder takes place. A young man has been brutally done to death and the circumstances point to his wife’s uncle as the slayer. The Redmaynes are a prominent and wealthy local family. Their fortune was founded on sheep farming in Australia. The Redmayne who made the family fortune is now dead, leaving three surviving sons. One son lives in Italy while the others live in Devon. They are the only living members of the Redmayne family apart from Jenny Pendean, the extraordinarily beautiful young daughter of the deceased elder brother. Her husband was the murder victim and her uncle Robert Redmayne is not only the prime suspect; he is the only suspect.

The case seem straightforward enough to Mark Bredon but oddly enough the perpetrator proves to be remarkably difficult to catch. This puzzles him since it seems quite clear that this was a murder committed by a madman, and a madman whose identity is known should not be difficult to find. In normal circumstances the difficulty in tracking down the murderer would make this a frustrating case but Mark Bredon’s fascination with the beautiful young widow Jenny Pendean offers some compensation to the detective.

The first half of the book covers a period of about a year during which the search for the killer continues in a desultory fashion until events take an unexpected and violent turn.

Without risking any spoilers I can note at this point that while Mark Bredon is the detective assigned to the case, and he is also the novel’s central character, he is not in fact the book’s detective hero. The actual detective hero is a semi-retired American policeman named Peter Ganns who makes his first appearance in the story at an astonishingly late stage, this being one of the novel’s many unusual features. Another feature that is rather unusual is the use of an American detective hero by an English writer, and a very English writer indeed.

Serious fans of the crime fiction of the so-called golden age, the 1920s and 1930s, may have some issues with the author at times, especially in regards to the question as to whether he has played entirely fairly with the reader. They may also find the mystery rather too easy to solve. These are valid criticisms but on the other hand it has to be remembered that Phillpotts was not a writer of detective stories as such. In this novel he is more interested in the psychology of the detective protagonist than in presenting the reader with a complex puzzle to solve. And there’s no question that the author’s handling of this aspect of the book is skillful and compelling. The book is also notable for the skill with which Phillpotts entwines his unravelling of the protagonist’s psychology with the plot.

Crime fiction fans might also feel the book is somewhat too long but that may perhaps be an unfair criticism given that it is essential for the author’s intention that the reader should be drawn into the protagonist’s interior world.

The Red Redmaynes is something of an oddity but at the same time it proves to be a surprisingly rewarding oddity. Recommended for those with a taste for crime fiction that is a little out of the ordinary.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sax Rohmer’s The Leopard Couch

While Sax Rohmer’s fame may have been based on his Fu Manchu books he was also a prolific, and extremely good, writer of tales of horror. The Leopard Couch and Other Stories of the Fantastic and Supernatural includes thirteen examples of his weird fiction, mostly from fairly early in his career.

The title story was one of his first published stories, appearing in 1904. Rohmer’s approach was already established. Very little of a concrete nature happens. The supernatural elements are not overt, the author relying instead on atmosphere and suggestion. Does the ancient Egyptian couch, dating from a legendary period before the emergence of the first dynasties, actually have strange and dangerous powers? The experiences of the narrator may be merely the products of an over-active imagination, but then again they may not.

A House Possessed is the story of a house haunted not by ghosts but by fire. On no fewer than seven separate occasions people have lost their lives in the house in mysterious fires, fires that for some unexplained reason are always contained to a single room. In the 16th century an occult practitioner, a follower of Nostradamus, had lived in the house. Strange rumours had circulated about his powers. Could these powers still be active three centuries later? Or could the events of the story be merely bizarre coincidences?

The Haunted Temple concerns an English archaeologist searching for the magical implements of an Egyptian princess notorious for her sorcery and her membership of a forbidden cult. The archaeologist finds himself becoming more and more fascinated by the beautiful Madame de Medici (a character who will reappear in some of Rohmer’s later stories), a woman who seems to know a very great deal about a princess who died several thousand years ago. Rohmer’s gift for elaborately ornate prose and his ability to create an atmosphere both alluring and overwhelming, almost stifling, are shown to good effect in this tale.

Madame de Medici returns in The Red Eye of Vishnu although this time she displays rather different aspects of her character. She is as exotic and alluring as ever but her motives are rather different. The Hand of the White Shiekh is a very effective horror chiller and it is one of several tales in this collection that Rohmer later reworked, in this case under the title The Hand of the Mandarin Quong, with a different setting and slightly different characters. Rohmer altered a number of his earlier stories to give them the touch of the Mysterious Orient which had made the Fu Manchu books so enormously successful.

Late in his career Rohmer would have considerable success with his series of novels about the spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly dangerous female diabolical criminal mastermind Sumuru. It’s clear from many of the stories in this volume that femmes fatales had always fascinated Rohmer and he certainly had the ability to create memorable characters of this type. Rohmer never made the mistake of creating villainesses who were merely villains in skirts - Rohmer’s villainesses are dangerous and exotic and they are also very much women. Their femaleness is the source of their power and their danger and is also the driving force of their ambitions. He could create equally intriguing female characters whose power came from virtue rather than evil or who were at the very least morally ambiguous. In fact Rohmer was always more interested in characters who were driven by motivations that seemed to them to be thoroughly reasonable and even virtuous even if they appeared evil to the world at large.

That Black Cat, In the Valley of the Sorceress and The Curse of a Thousand Kisses all display Rohmer’s fascination with the power of women, a power that can be frightening but not necessarily purely malevolent.

Several of Rohmer’s series characters appear in this volume, including occult detective Moris Klaw (in a very fine tale called The Tragedies in the Greek Room) and private eye Paul Harley.

The ancient world figures prominently in this collection, perhaps not surprisingly in view of the immense popularity of Egyptology in the early 20th century. Archaeologist heroes were very much in tune with the spirit of the times. The power of the past projected into the present was one of his major obsessions and it’s a theme he mines relentlessly and very successfully.

Purple prose was an accepted feature of popular stories of the weird in Rohmer’s heyday and his prose can get very purple indeed. Personally I love overwrought and highly ornamented prose so that’s no problem at all for me. His ability to pile on the atmosphere of the exotic and the mysterious is another major asset as far as I’m concerned. Florid prose is by no means the only asset of these stories. Rohmer’s plotting is skillful and imaginative and he manages to vary the moods of his stories rather wonderfully. The overheated atmosphere can be menacing or it can be seductive and given Rohmer’s fondness for ambiguous villainesses the reader can never be certain if the heroes are being led to bliss or to their doom.

A nicely varied collection of stories by an underrated master of tales of the weird. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rufus King's The Lesser Antilles Case

During the 1930s Rufus King wrote several mysteries featuring Lieutenant Valcour of the New York City police. Three of these novels had a maritime theme, The Lesser Antilles Case being the third.

The story opens with the survivors of a disaster at sea arriving in New York. Ten people (out of 43 passengers and crew) survived when the yacht Helsinor hit a reef near a tiny unnamed island. The problem is that by the time their lifeboat was picked up only eight people were aboard. And none of the eight could explain what had happened to the other two.

This is enough to attract a certain degree of police attention and Lieutenant Valcour is assigned to the case. He soon discovers other puzzling aspects to the survivors’ stories. They were all asleep at the time the two missing men disappeared. So soundly asleep that the most obvious explanation would seem to be that they were drugged. And a few hours before the Helsinor went down the chart (the chart covering the area of ocean they were cruising) was mislaid. Valcour might be no sailor but he knows that the one thing that does not get mislaid on a ship is a chart.

The two men who are missing presumed dead are the very wealthy owner of the yacht, Lawrence Thacker, and the yacht’s third mate. The survivors include several of Thacker’s relatives and friends, all of whom stand to inherit a great deal of money on his death. There’s also a slightly mysterious numerologist who had gained a considerable influence over Thacker.

The reader of course has no more actual knowledge of any of these events than does Lieutenant Valcour. Like the detective we have to piece the story together from the sometimes conflicting and often hazy recollections of the survivors. And the story is far from over. The unfortunate voyage of the Helsinor will have unexpected and fateful consequences, and there is another voyage yet to come. The voyage of the Helsinor II will be an attempt to unravel one mystery but may well provide mysteries of its own, and possibly more murders.

It has to be said that there is one key plot point that may stretch credibility a little. King’s attempt to make it plausible is certainly ingenious and interesting and he just about gets away with it. That’s really the only major reservation I had about this book. Other than that it’s a well-executed example of the golden age detective tale. There are clues in abundance but King knows how to keep the reader guessing.

Lieutenant Valcour belongs to what might be called the bland detective sub-type, the kind of detective favoured by authors who prefer to keep the detective in the background in order to keep the focus on the plot and on the suspects. It’s a perfectly valid approach and King does have the ability to make his suspects a fairly interesting lot. Even very minor characters are given their own flavour with Mr Stumpf the deep sea diver being particularly memorable.

This is my second Rufus King detective novel. I read Murder By Latitude (another maritime mystery for Lieutenant Valcour) a while back. So far I have to say I’m rather impressed by Rufus King.

My paperback copy gives the title as Murder Challenges Valcour in the Lesser Antilles Case but the original title seems to have been simply The Lesser Antilles Case. Either way this novel is warmly recommended.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Vanished Legion

Donald E. Keyhoe became quite well-known in the 1950s and 1960s as a UFO researcher. In the 1930s he’d been a prolific contributor to pulp magazines and it’s clear that the former Marine Corps pilot’s interest in the weird was already very well established. The seven stories in The Vanished Legion were published in Dare-Devil Aces magazine from 1932 to 1934.

The Vanished Legion is a top-secret squadron of American airmen on the Western Front in the First World War. The first story, The Squadron of Forgotten Men, establishes the backstory.

These men are all officially dead. They had been fighter pilots engaged in espionage work and had been captured and tortured and horribly disfigured by an insane German master-spy. They had later escaped. A brilliant French surgeon repaired the damage to their faces, but he could not reproduce their original features exactly. Their faces are now unmarred, but they’re not the same faces. The fact that they were all listed as officially dead and the further fact that they are now unrecognisable combine to make them uniquely valuable as spies and counter-spies. All speak German fluently.

They are based in a top-secret hidden base located in a cavern in the Vosges Mountains. They are equipped with captured German aircraft and supplied with German uniforms for missions behind enemy lines. Their leader is Captain Dick Traine, a typical square-jawed pulp hero.

These are not just stories of aviation and espionage. There’s plenty of aerial action and plenty of standard pulp two-fisted hijinks but there are also very generous helpings of the weird, the horrific and the science fictional.

The “Vanished Legion” come up against a variety of brilliant but sinister enemies. Their enemies are always German master-spies or intelligence officers but they bear a much closer resemblance to the diabolical criminal masterminds and mad scientists who always featured prominently in the pulps.

These enemies come up with an extraordinary array of fiendish plots to destroy the air forces and armies of the Allies and win the war quickly for Germany. Their schemes include gigantic bombers, death rays, invisible aircraft, submarine aircraft carriers, super-fast fighter aircraft capable of speeds far beyond anything envisaged during the First World War, robot aircraft, even midget pilots flying midget fighter planes!

As you might expect from an author who later interested himself in UFOs Keyhoe always tries to give some vaguely plausible scientific (or at least pseudoscientific) basis to these plots. You won’t come across any real ghosts or monsters in these stories. You will come across things that might appear supernatural (such as sinister disembodied voices prophesying death and disaster) but they always turn out to be some kind of ingenious technological contrivance. The invisible aircraft for example are coated with special paint to make them virtually impossible to see in normal light - they’re basically 1918-vintage Stealth Fighters.

Keyhoe isn’t overly concerned to make these ideas plausible. As long as the ideas are bizarre and fantastic and can be given a pseudoscientific gloss with technobabble he’s quite content. Given that he had considerable success in the pulps it’s obvious that his readers were quite content as well. And his technobabble is certainly entertaining technobabble.

The stories themselves rely on disguises, narrow escapes, lots of gunplay and fisticuffs and plenty of suitable pulp hero-type dialogue. Dick Traine and his comrades are totally two-dimensional brave, noble and super-tough heroes but this is pulp fiction and no-one wants complex tortured heroes in stories like these. The villains are ruthless, brilliant, utterly evil and completely unhinged. They are fiendishly clever but prone to making the sorts of dumb mistakes that will allow the heroes always to get the better of them in the end.

If you have any tendencies towards aviation geekdom and you enjoy science fiction and pulp fiction then Keyhoe’s stories should satisfy all your cravings. Even if you’re not an aviation geek you should still enjoy them - he doesn’t get too involved in complex technical  details of aerial fighting (although if such things do excite you he does appear to know his stuff).

There are several other collections of Keyhoe’s available, all covering the same type of subject matter. Strange War recounts some of the adventures of stage magician and hypnotist-turned fighter pilot and spy Captain Philip Strange, and they’re great fun as well.

The Vanished Legion is fine pulp entertainment. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cult of the Corpses

Detective stories were one of the staples of the pulps, as they had been one of the staples of the earlier dime novels. In the early 1930s an odd sub-genre of the detective story briefly flourished: the weird detective story. Off-Trail Publications’ volume Cult of the Corpses includes two novellas of this type by Maxwell Hawkins.

The weird detective story needs to be distinguished from the occult detective story. The occult detective story became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century and survived for nearly half a century. It was to some extent inspired by the enormous success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories but the occult detective story was in reality more of a sub-genre of the gothic horror tale. It was an attempt to add new interest to the classic ghost story. It was primarily, although not entirely, a British phenomenon. These stories were very popular but most of them had at least a veneer of literary polish.

The weird detective story on the other hand was an off-shoot of the American hardboiled crime story. Supernatural, science fictional or other bizarre elements are tacked on to the basic hardboiled crime story in order to increase the sensational content. The weird detective story was emphatically American. Literary polish was not very much in evidence.

Pulp magazines had from time to time published crime stories with weird elements in the 20s but for a short time in the 30s it became a moderately thriving genre.

The two stories in this collection, Cult of the Corpses and Dealers in Death, were both published in Detective Dragnet magazine in 1931.

Cult of the Corpses sees Assistant District Attorney Benton McCray plunged into a bizarre world of voodoo in New York, and his girlfriend Nan Collette is in line to be the next victim of the murderous voodoo cult. McCray is not easily intimidated by the usual dangers that are part of the job when you’re fighting crime in a big city but this cult poses very different kinds of dangers. While gangsters might not think twice about mowing down their enemies with sub-machine guns the voodoo cult threatens its enemies with a fate worse than death - being transformed into zombies! And this story offers both zombies and machine gun-toting mobsters.

With these ingredients it would be difficult not to come up with a fairly exciting story and Cult of the Corpses is fine pulpy fun. There are all the usual fun elements you expect from a pulp story - narrow escapes, plenty of action, hardboiled dialogue - and it all holds together quite well. Hawkins appears to have done some research on the subject of voodoo in Haiti. Transplanting the voodoo cult to New York City was an obvious move and it works.

Dealers in Death is slightly different. It lacks any supernatural elements but compensates for this by giving us a sinister villain with bizarre methods. Letherius claims to have invented literally hundreds of methods of committing murder that are absolutely guaranteed to be undetectable and he’s turned his obsession into a thriving murder-for-money business. Villains in pulp stories have a tendency to overshadow the heroes and that’s certainly the case here. Fortunately Letherius is sufficiently interesting and sufficiently menacing to keep the reader’s attention riveted.

Maxwell Hawkins (1895-1962) was a newspaperman who had a fairly brief career as a pulp writer in the 1930s. After marrying in 1937 he seems to have largely abandoned his efforts in this arena to concentrate on the more certain rewards of his newspaper career.

Cult of the Corpses and Dealers in Death are both highly entertaining slightly off-beat stories that should delight pulp fans. This volume can certainly be recommended.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Mickey Spillane’s Vengeance Is Mine!

Vengeance Is Mine! was the third of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and appeared in 1950. It follows the usual Spillane formula - lots of action, lots of quite graphic violence and lots of fairly sleazy sex. And it has to be said that it’s an entertaining formula very well executed.

As customary Spillane throws the reader straight into the action, with a murder on the first page. A salesman from out of town has been killed by a gunshot wound to the head and the only possible witness was too dead drunk to remember anything. That drunken witness was in fact Mike Hammer! Hammer initially finds himself a suspect but the DA soon decides the case was a clear-cut suicide. Hammer is off the hook, or he would be except that his gun was the one used by the suicide and that’s enough for Mike to lose his private investigator’s ticket.

The dead man was Chester Wheeler. He and Mike had been acquaintances in the army and they’d got together to have a few drinks. Well actually rather more than a few drinks. Hammer is willing to go along with the DA’s ruling until he spots something very odd. Only one shot was apparently fired but there are only four rounds left in his automatic. And he always has six rounds in his gun. That discrepancy is enough to tell Mike that something is very wrong with this case and his investigations will soon start to point towards murder.

Of course Mike can’t investigate the case without his private investigator’s ticket but fortunately his faithful secretary Velda has a PI’s ticket in her own right. For the time being Velda will be technically in charge of the agency and Mike will be working for her and in fact Velda does take a very active role in this investigation.

Their investigations lead them into a sleazy world of high-priced models, fashion photographers, gambling joints and gay bars. As usual Mike gets some valuable help from his buddy in the police force, Captain of Detectives Pat Chambers.

Naturally there are quite a few dangerous glamorous women involved in the case and naturally Mike gets pretty close to the. In fact very close indeed.

The Mike Hammer-Velda relationship was always an interesting one. It’s one of those relationships where you figure the two of them really should end up together if only they could both admit the fact to themselves and if only other things didn’t keep getting in the way. Velda was always more than just a secretary, being a competent detective herself. This novel gives Velda a chance to really show what she can do and she proves to be tough and resourceful and more than willing to shoot any bad guys who get in her way.

Spillane was seen at the time as an author who changed the nature of the murder mystery genre by adding a lot more action and by upping the content of sex and violence to a very considerable degree. That’s certainly true but Spillane was in fact in other ways rather a traditionalist. Despite all the action the centrepiece of the book is a classic detective story puzzle plot and Mike Hammer, like any good detective hero, has to rely on his brains rather than just brawn to solve the case. Spillane might not have been one of the great masters of detective story plotting but he was quite competent in that area.

Mike Hammer was also a more traditional detective than first impressions might suggest. His methods might not have been approved by some of the great fictional detectives who preceded him but his attitude towards crime was fundamentally the same as theirs. He did not believe that murderers should be allowed to get away with their crimes. In this particular case the victim was not an especially close friend, nor was he a hero or a saint. Chester Wheeler was just a fairly ordinary guy, and that’s enough to make Mike Hammer determined to track down his killer whatever it takes. Hammer’s morality may seem old-fashioned today (which personally doesn’t bother me) but he has to be respected for living by his moral code even when it involves paying a high price.

Whether you like Spillane’s very forthright style and his aggressive and forceful hero is a matter of taste. Spillane doesn’t get a great deal of praise for his literary skills which is perhaps an injustice. His prose is direct and effective and captures the mean streets atmosphere of New York’s hidden criminal world with remarkable vividness.

Vengeance Is Mine! might not be to everyone’s tastes but Spillane fans will find that it delivers the goods. If you’ve been put off Spillane by his reputation it really is worth giving him a try. He may surprise you. You may even like him. Recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One

The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One, edited by Richard Peyton, attempts to combine fact and fiction in offering us a survey of supernatural happenings on the railways. Peyton gives us twenty-one ghost stories by a variety of authors, each story being prefaced by a brief account of a “real-life” railway haunting.

It’s a basically sound idea and it works quite well in practice. The stories include a couple of the usual suspects that you’d expect to find in such an anthology (such as Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man) but generally speaking Peyton has done a fine job of ignoring the obvious and seeking out lesser known or even quite obscure tales. As in any anthology  there’s a variation in quality but on the whole this is a collection of very high quality and considerable interest.

All of the fictional pieces have at least some connection with railways and Peyton has wisely steered clear of stories with only a tenuous link to his chosen subject matter. Unfortunately no dates are given for most of the stories but Peyton has shown a very astute preference for earlier stories. We are mercifully spared the misery of slogging through a large number of tedious and pretentious modern stories.

There are of course a few complete misses - the less said about Richard Hughes’ totally pointless Locomotive and John Newton Chance’s dismal The Mourning Train the better.

These occasional lapses are more than compensated for by some real treasures by almost forgotten authors. Sir Andrew Caldicott’s Branch Line to Benceston is a clever blending of science fiction and horror. Its connection with railways is perhaps not as strong as is the case with most of the other stories but it’s an intriguing tale nonetheless.

Arnold Ridley is remembered with fondness for his portrayal of Private Godfrey in the long-running Dad’s Army TV series. Ridley was a successful writer as well as an actor and his Journey Into Fear is a conventional but wonderfully atmospheric tale. Robert Aickman had a reputation for being one of the most subtle of all horror writers. In my view his only weakness is that on occasion his stories are too subtle and fail to provide a satisfying payoff but that is an accusation that certainly cannot be leveled at his superb The Waiting Room.

Peter Fleming was the brother of Ian Fleming. His story The Kill is more of a full-blooded horror story than a ghost story and it has little to do with railways. It’s not particularly subtle but fans of werewolf stories will enjoy it.

John Wyndham was one of the finest British science fiction writers of the 20th century. His Confidence Trick is an unconventional exercise in what might be called existentialist black comedy. This is a literal journey to Hell, and Hell will never be the same again after the arrival of this particular trainload of new arrivals.

L .T. C. Rolt’s The Garside Fell Disaster is a very traditional railway ghost story that works well enough.

August Derleth was renowned as an editor as well as a horror writer and he also had a passion for regional tales based on local folklore. He provides two stories, one written under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon. The Night Train to Lost Valley is nicely atmospheric if a trifle obvious. Pacific 421, published under his real name, is one of the highlights of this anthology. A truly great ghost story should take the traditional ingredients of the ghost story and do something unexpected with them, and I think it’s fair to say that this one qualifies as a great ghost story. It has a very nasty little ironic sting in the tail.

Ray Bradbury needs no introduction to horror fans and The Town Where No One Got Off is typical of Bradbury at his best, and avoids the pitfalls of Bradbury at his worst.

This anthology includes several tales about railway lines that do not go where they should and stations that do not exist. The best of them is A. M. Burrage’s The Wrong Station, a lovely tale of melancholic horror. Burrage’s reputation has grown steadily over the years but unfortunately his work is exceptionally difficult to get hold of so the inclusion of this story is very welcome indeed.

J. D. Beresford’s Lost in the Fog is, alas, a rather complete failure, clumsy and obvious.

Algernon Blackwood was a master of the ghost story. Miss Slumbubble - and Claustrophobia manages to build terror, and do so very successfully, out of nothing at all.

The last thing you’d expect to come across is a ghost story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Short Trip Home is however most definitely a ghost story, and a very good one. It’s a Jazz Age ghost story and it’s both subtle and chilling.

William F. Nolan’s Lonely Train A' Comin' is the final story in the book and Peyton gives it an enthusiastic build-up. It’s by far the most modern-feeling of the stories featured here an unfortunately it’s close to being the worst. It’s the only story that relies on gore and it’s a remarkably clumsy effort. In content it has something in common with the Fitzgerald story that precedes it but Nolan’s clumsy bludgeoning effort makes a sad contrast with Fitzgerald’s subtle chills.

The “real-life” ghostly railway tales with stretch the reader’s credibility more than the fictional contributions but they do certainly add some additional flavour and they demonstrate that people who love trains seem to have a very notable interest in the supernatural.

Overall this is really a very strong anthology, with far more hits than misses and the stories that hit the target frequently do so with remarkable efffect. If you are a fan of ghost stories then it’s a very worthwhile purchase. If you love trains as well then it becomes pretty much a must-buy volume. It’s out of print but used copies are plentiful and cheap. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

H. C. Bailey's Mr Fortune, Please

H. C. Bailey (1878-1961) was an extremely successful English crime writer during the golden age of the detective story. He created two memorable fictional series detectives. Josiah Clunk was a slightly shady lawyer who figured in eleven novels. More well-known was Reggie Fortune. Reggie is a medical doctor who spends as much time on his detective activities as on the practice of medicine. He frequently assists Scotland Yard in a variety of criminal investigations.

Reggie Fortune appeared in several novels but most fans seem to regard the many short stories in which he featured as being the best of the Mr Fortune tales (although he is a qualified medical practitioner he is invariably referred to as Mr Fortune).

Mr Fortune, Please was published in 1927 and contain six Reggie Fortune stories. By this time it was fairly well established that the only crime worth engaging the attention of a great fictional sleuth was murder but Mr Fortune investigates a variety of crimes. Some seem trivial at first but turn out to be not merely serious but quite horrifying (as in the Little House which is a very dark story story indeed).

The Cat Burglar deals, as the title suggests, with a series of cat burglaries that are not quite what they seem. The Lion Party is a classic jewel robbery story. The Quiet Lady has the kind of ingenious plot that fans of golden age detective fiction enjoy so much although it could be seen to be bending one of the rules of the fair-play detective story.

The settings are quite varied as well, with Mr Fortune finding himself in the depths of the countryside in The Violet Farm while other stories take place in London. The Violet Farm is one of my favourites, involving a crime whose roots go back to the seventeenth century.

Reggie Fortune is one of those fictional detectives you’re either going to love or loathe. He’s somewhat in the Lord Peter Wimsey style - languid, upper-class, rather affected and lightly eccentric.

Mr Fortune is the sort of amateur detective who is happy to cooperate with the official police although he is at times rather exasperated by their inability to see connexions between clues that seem blindingly obvious to him.

I personally like Mr Fortune a great deal although it’s probably not a good idea to read too many of the stories back-to-back. Mr Fortune, Please being  short collection of only six tales provides an ideal introduction to one of the golden age’s most entertaining detectives. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Devil’s Mistress by J. W. Brodie-Innes

The Devil’s Mistress, a novel of witchcraft set against the background of Scotland in the 1650s, was published in 1915. Its author, John William Brodie-Innes (1848-1923), was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn so this is not quite the sort of potboiler you might expect from the lurid title.

The author claims to have based his story on actual events and actual persons, a claim also backed up be Dennis Wheatley in his introduction to the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult edition. There’s certainly no doubt that Sir Robert Gordon, the Wizard Laird, was an actual historical personage and that he really was at the very least a dabbler in occult practices.

The story centres on Isabel Goudie, a young woman raised as a Catholic but forced to accept the Protestant faith and forced (or at least pressured) also into marriage with a man below her station, a dour and rather uncouth farmer named John Gilbert. Her boredom and her resentment, and her desire for romance and adventure, will lead her to become involved in some very strange events.

The Reformed Kirk appears to be in very firm control but there are still numerous Catholics in the district, practising their religion in secret. Father Blackhall ministers to the spiritual needs of the oppressed Catholics, adopting a series of ingenious disguises to avoid detection.

Witchcraft is also a strong presence in this district. Sir Robert Gordon preserves the outward appearances of conformity with the Reformed Kirk but he is in fact in sympathy with the Catholics, while at the same time pursuing his passion for alchemy and his insatiable thirst for occult knowledge. Sir Robert’s knowledge of these subjects is extensive, as a result of a pact he made with Satan years earlier. Sir Robert is aware of the dangers inherent in such a pact but he has go the better of the Devil in the past and believes he can do so again.

Isabel becomes involve with Satan as well. She knows him as the Dark Master and she becomes his lover, hunting with his coven on a regular basis. The coven hunts the most challenging game of all, man. Their victims are many and Isabel herself has been responsible for the deaths of many of their victims. Despite this Isabel is in an equivocal position. She has renounced her baptism into the Reformed Kirk but even Satan does not have the power to allow her to renounce her Catholic baptism.

Isabel’s story is one of romance, excitement and violence. Isabel is not however purely evil. Paradoxically she often uses the powers given to her by Satan to do good, and in particular to help her friend Jean Gordon. Jean is in love with the handsome Cosmo Hamilton, a scion of one of the great old families of the region and a bitter enemy of both the Reformed Kirk and of Cromwell’s government.

Isabel also venture into the fairy kingdom, the realm of Middle Earth. The fairies are by no means in league with Satan but they have a kind of agreement with him, whilst obeying their own laws.

You expect an occult thriller to be a straightforward conflict between the powers of good and the powers of evil but this story is much more complex. There are many powers, some good, some evil, some neither good nor evil. Satan is the master of the material world but his powers do not extend into the various other spiritual and otherwise non-material worlds. This is a story of the conflict between the powers of Satan and the powers of God, but it is also a struggle between the Reformed Kirk and the old Catholic faith. Neither Father Blackhall nor Sir Robert Gordon are of Satan’s party but that does not inhibit them from mixing with him on a social basis. The Devil is a gentleman and he is an entertaining and charming social companion. Father Blackhall is on friendly terms with him because he knows that Satan has no power over him, and socialising with your enemy is a good way of learning more abut him.

Isabel’s desire to help Jean and Cosmo, and later to help Sir Robert in his attempt to evade paying his debt to Satan, will drive a wedge between her and her and the Dark Master.

Both isabel and Sir Robert are gamblers and they are playing for the highest stakes of all. The Devil is a formidable opponent but he is a gentleman and he does play by the rules.

This is a novel teeming with ambiguity. Apart from the Dark Master the human characters are neither purely good nor purely evil. Both Isabel and Sir Robert have imperilled their souls but they are by no means irredeemably lost. Isabel in particular has sinned grievously but she has also committed acts of charity and even piety.

The author’s sympathies clearly do not lie with the Reformed Kirk but his attitudes towards the Devil are ambiguous. The Devil is certainly a terrifying threat to a person’s immortal soul but he is, by his own lights, an honest adversary and free from hypocrisy. People who make pacts with Satan should be aware of the dangers. In general the author’s sympathies, despite his involvement with ritual magick and the occult, seem to lie mostly with the Catholic faith. Or perhaps he merely recognises that the Catholic Church’s claims to spiritual power and its ability to offer redemption are real, in contrast with the claims of the Protestant faiths. If you are in need of salvation then the Catholic Church really can deliver the goods.

Whilst dealing with fascinating questions of faith, salvation, nature of evil and the clash between the spiritual and material spheres this is also a very exciting tale of adventure. The epic pursuit of Sir Robert by the Dark Master, each mounted on supernatural steeds, is a thrilling adventure tour-de-force. The storm conjured up by Isabel to cause the shipwreck of the brigantine carrying the captured Cosmo Hamilton to slavery is another exciting high point.

More interest is added by the story’s claims to being based on actual events, although of course the historical records furnish only a bare outline which Brodie-Innes has fleshed out with considerable skill. Even more interest is added by the hints the author drops that at least some of the events described may be dreams, although these dreams may perhaps at times have more reality than what we normally think of as the real world.

The Devil’s Mistress is a fascinating and complex and highly entertaining, as well as very unusual, occult thriller. It’s easy to understand why Dennis Wheatley was so enthusiastic about this book. Brodie-Innes is a sadly neglected writer and fans of the horror, gothic and occult thriller genres will find much here to enjoy as well as considerable food for thought. Very highly recommended.