Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories

English novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was one of the most successful writers of the so-called “sensation novels” which were so popular in the 1860s and 1870s. Collins enjoyed a close friendship with Charles Dickens.

While Collins was best-known for his sensation novels he also, like most writers of his era, wrote ghost stories. The Wordsworth paperback The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories contains the short novel The Haunted Hotel and an assortment of short stories that displays both the originality and the quality of Collins’ ghost stories.

In fact only a few of these stories are conventional ghost stories. The others could be described as tales of terror, tales of the uncanny or (perhaps most appropriately) as weird fiction. Some of the stories very definitely involve the supernatural. One or two contain no such elements whatsoever. In the majority the reader is left to decide if anything truly supernatural has occurred. The only thing that all these stories have in common is that they are all either very good or at the very least uncommonly interesting - this really is a very strong collection.

The title story is a fascinating mix of mystery fiction and the gothic, although of course such genres were quite unknown at the time. What makes it intriguing is that it takes Collins a very large portion of the book’s fairly short length to let us know exactly what type of story it is. And even at the end there remains some doubt. Until quite late in the tale we’re not even sure that anything criminal or mysterious has actually happened. We have a series of   mildly questionable occurrences that appear to have plausibly innocent explanations, but while one such event might not arouse our suspicions, it’s the combination of events that causes us to have doubts. This technique actually works extremely well.

By the standards of many later crime novelists Collins was more interested in character and in social relations than in merely creating a puzzle to be solved. The combination of mystery and gothic elements and the introduction of what seem to be ghostly influences are handled quite skillfully. The way in which Collins unfolds his plot is more interesting than the plot itself, but it’s still an effective and highly entertaining story.

In The Dream Woman a man who has made a very unfortunate marriage believes his wife intends to kill him. He sees her attempting to kill him in a dream. Is the dream a true foretelling of the future or merely the product of his own fears?

Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman deals with events in the past. A man was acquitted of murder but an elderly clergyman on his deathbed believes he knows far more than was revealed at the trial. There is no element of the supernatural but the mood is gothic enough.

In The Dead Hand a man finds himself spending the night in an inn with a dead man. Or at least with what appears to be a dead man. Nine O’Clock is another tale dealing with the relationship between the past, the present and the future. A condemned man, an early victim of The Terror in France, knows the exact time at which he will meet his death although no time has yet been set for his execution.

In Mrs Zant and the Ghost a woman believes she has been contacted by her dead husband, although she has neither seen nor heard him. And she believes he will protect her although she does not know what it is she will need protection from. The Devil’s Spectacles are exactly that - a pair of spectacles presented to a man by the Devil. The spectacles allow the wearer to know what is in other people’s hearts, but does anyone really want to know such things?

Collins achieves his gothic effects with great subtlety. There are no ruined castles or decaying mansions, no clattering chains in the night, no spectral visions. The mystery of human life, ordinary human desires and fears - these are sufficient material for Collins, material with which he manages to create an atmosphere of the uncanny and at times a considerable sense of dread. For those whose tastes run to subtle horror this collection can be very highly recommended.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

No Good from a Corpse

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was already enjoying reasonable success as a science fiction writer when in 1944 she decided to try her hand at a hardboiled mystery. No Good from a Corpse was sufficiently successful to attract the attention of Hollywood and Brackett soon found herself working on the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ 1945 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Brackett went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter, which included several more scripts for Howard Hawks. She is possibly best known today for her last screenplay, for The Empire Strikes Back.

No Good from a Corpse is a book that ticks all the hardboiled boxes.

Edmond Clive is an LA private eye. He is offered a case that he really does not want, the reason being that the client is Mick Hammond. Clive and Hammond grew up together as kids but they’ve hated each other for years. The trouble started over a woman but Ed Clive has other reasons for disliking Hammond. Hammond is, to put it mildly, a louse. He uses women to get what he wants, and he always gets what he wants.

Now Hammond is scared. His wife Jane is also scared, so scared that she’s prepared to beg Clive to take the case. Clive starts to weaken and agrees to talk to Hammond, at which point Clive gets shot. The bullet was obviously meant for Hammond.

Clive is also worried about Laurel Dane. He’s been in love with her for years but Laurel is not exactly a one-man woman. She also happens to be involved in some way with Mick Hammond.

That night a murder occurs and Ed Clive finds he no longer has a choice. He is involved in the case with Mick Hammond whether he likes it or not. Both he and Mick are regarded by the police as suspects and in order to clear himself Clive is going to have to solve this case. And a very complicated case it proves to be, involving blackmail and poison pen letters as well as multiple homicides.

Clive also finds himself involved with a rich assortment of unsavoury characters - crooked private eyes, deranged alcoholics, insane ex-cons and as many no-good dames as you could wish for.

At times it seems like the plot might be in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own complexity but Brackett manages to tie it all together in the end fairly effectively.

Brackett certainly has no difficulty with the hardboiled style. She has a fine ear for dialogue and the characters trade wise-cracks in the finest style of the 1940s Hollywood crime movie. The book has the right atmosphere and the right tone. There’s also a considerable leavening of cynicism, an attribute that made her an obvious choice for writing film noir screenplays like The Big Sleep.

Edmond Clive is a hardbitten tough guy with a sensitive side, again very much in the mould of the popular Hollywood idea of the private eye.

Brackett was one of only a handful of women to write in the hardboiled style. She wrote in several other genres as well and seemed to have the knack for writing well in whichever genres she attempted.

No Good from a Corpse is thoroughly enjoyable hardboiled fun. Recommended.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tiger Standish

Sydney Horler’s Tiger Standish, published in 1932, is a thriller very much in the mould of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond novels. Tiger Standish is in fact the poor man’s Bulldog Drummond. The novel is however still worth seeking out.

Sydney Horler belonged to the breed of thriller writers that Alan Bennett described as the “snobbery with violence” school. When crime writer Colin Watson wrote his 1971 book on British crime fiction (for the title of which he borrowed Bennett’s quote) he was especially vituperative about Horler’s thrillers. Watson’s intense dislike of this writer convinced me that Horler was someone whose work I was going to enjoy. Anyone disliked by Colin Watson can’t be all bad.

Tiger Standish follows the Bulldog Drummond template very closely. The hero is clearly modelled on Captain Hugh Drummond. The Hon. Timothy “Tiger” Standish is the son of Lord Quorn. He works on a freelance basis for a British counter-espionage agency named Q1. A hero of this type is bound to be a very athletic sort of chap and as it happens Standish is an outstanding football player. Somewhat oddly though he plays soccer rather than rugby, which seems very surprising for a member of the aristocracy in 1932. Horler is at pains to reassure us that Standish is strictly an amateur player - to have been a professional soccer player would have involved a total loss of caste. So why did the author choose this particular sport for his hero? The answer is quite simple. Horler had written a number of popular football stories so making his new hero a football player was a good way of keeping in good with his established readership base.

Standish is of course a very heroic figure. Like Drummond he tends to rely on his fists rather than his brains but also like Drummond he is more quick-witted than he appears to be. He has the obligatory loveable manservant, in this case a former football player. Standish has all the other attributes we associate with heroes of his type - he is chivalrous, patriotic, impetuous and dislikes taking orders.

The plot is, again, very much in the Bulldog Drummond vein. While there’s no espionage involved we know that Standish has been involved in counter-espionage work in the past, which is a useful way to add a bit more glamour to the character. In this book Tiger comes up against a diabolical criminal mastermind of the usual type. This arch-criminal’s gang has been carrying out some clever jewel robberies. Tiger gets involved when a young woman named Sonia Devenish comes to him for help. Her step-father had committed suicide but Sonia has reason to believe he was in fact murdered. The step-father had been involved in some way with the activities of the aforementioned diabolical criminal mastermind.

Naturally Sonia manages to get herself kidnapped by the gang, which of course only makes Standish more determined to bring these arch-fiends to justice. Standish would have felt the same way had any young woman been in such a position but the fact that he’s fallen for the lady concerned adds to his determination.

There are the usual narrow escapes, there’s plenty of action and Tiger Standish gets to mete out his own personal brand of justice to various dastardly miscreants. Heroes of this school prefer to right their own wrongs rather than rely on the police.

Horler’s style is not quite as polished as the works of some of his rivals (such as Buchan). It’s a bit more pulpy but it has plenty of energy. The character obviously met with the approval of the reading public since Tiger Standish went on to figure in several more of Horler’s thrillers.

While it’s not quite up to the standard of Sapper’s marvellous Bulldog Drummond books this novel is still very enjoyable nonsense. If, like me, you have a great fondness for the Snobbery with Violence school you’ll want to check this one out. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nordenholt’s Million

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distiguished British chemist who wrote very successful golden age detective stories under the pseudonym J. J. Connington. He also wrote one science fiction novel which became a classic of its type.

Nordenholt’s Million, published in 1923, belongs to the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of science fiction. An accident produces a particularly virulent strain of denitrifying bacteria. These bacteria have the effect of removing nitrogen from the soil. In normal circumstance they do no harm but this virulent strain proves to be catastrophic in its effects. It transforms rich farmlands into wastelands.

The novel was clearly set in the near future, an age in which large-scale air transportation has made communication and travel over long distances safe, convenient and rapid. This proves to be humanity’s undoing as it allows the devastating bacteria to colonise one part of the Earth after another. Britain’s grainlands are the first to be affected but soon the food-producing areas of the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia are similarly ravaged. Humanity faces famine on a scale never before imagined. In fact the famine will be on such a gigantic scale that the survival of civilisation, and even of the human race, seems to be in the gravest peril.

The British government does what all democratic governments do in a crisis. It calls meetings. It arranges conferences. It begins talks. It discuses option. It sets up committees. But in fact none of the options considered has the slightest chance of success, or of preventing the deaths of countless millions.

In this crisis one man emerges who sees clearly what has to be done. His plan seems brutal but it is the only way in which something can be salvaged from the wreckage. Nordenholt is a fabulously wealthy financier who has little interest in finance. His interest is in people, and in what makes them tick, and in the ways that people can be persuaded to do things. He is not interested in power as such, but he is keenly interested in the workings of power. And he is the one man who not only sees what has to be done; he has the energy to carry out his mission.

Some readers have seen Nordenholt as a monster or even a fascist. This is rather unfair. Connington is at pains to explain Nordenholt’s character to us, and Nordenholt is a man of exceptional humanity. He is simply clear-sighted enough to realise that the choice is between saving part of humanity or in letting all of humanity perish. Nordenholt is a man who likes humanity too much to stand by and see it destroyed completely. The steps which need to be taken involve serious ethical dilemmas but Nordenholt’s plans at least offer some hope.

Nordenholt’s plans encounter countless obstacles. The denitrifying bacteria leaves the soil useless. The nitrogen can be replaced but the process requires enormous amounts of power. It is doubtful if enough power can be produced over a long enough period to produce enough of the precious nitrogenous mixture that offers the only hope that there will be a harvest the following year. There is a faint ray of hope though - the brilliant physicist Henley-Davenport has been working on a project to unleash the practically unlimited power of the atom. If he can succeed then atomic power might produce the power that is needed.

While it’s a gripping story of survival the core of the book lies in the moral dilemmas faced by the leaders of the survivors. Survival can only be achieved by making decisions that seem impossibly brutal. And is survival worth the cost if the cost is the end of civilisation as we know it? This is a story of hope but also a story of tragedy. The tragedy is not limited to the deaths of millions; it also embraces the death of a whole way of life.

If he is to save the remnant of humanity Nordenholt will need to assume a degree of power that will make him a dictator. A democratic government simply will not and could not make the decisions that are necessary. This assumption of dictatorial, powers is necessary but there is a price to pay, and Nordenholt will have to pay the price as well. Can a man achieve unlimited power without being corrupted, and without losing his own humanity? In 1923, with the horrors of the First World War still a vivid memory and with the age of the dictators already beginning in Italy and Russia these questions assumed immense importance. Many intellectuals persuaded themselves that totalitarianism was both necessary and desirable (and many intellectual today still seem to share those beliefs). Connington was at least able to see the inevitable consequences and to understand the price that would have to be paid. Connington understood the realities of power and he understood that leaders sometimes have to accept a necessary evil if it is the lesser of two evils. Connington could see the advantages of totalitarianism but he could also see the costs.

Nordenholt’s Million
is one of the more interesting early post-apocalyptic science fiction stories, offering a more thorough examination of the social, cultural and political consequences of disaster. Recommended.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Nick Carter, Detective

The argument over the title of best-ever series detective could keep us gainfully employed until Doomsday. But when it comes to the detective who has made the most appearances before the reading public there can be little doubt that Nick Carter carries off the prize.

In his heyday he appeared in around a thousand stories. His first appearance was in a Street & Smith dime novel in 1886. He continued to make regular appearances until 1915. The character was revived in the 1930s. Nick Carter novels were still being published in the 1950s. In the 1960s Nick Carter was revived yet again to serve as the lead character in several hundred spy novels.

Nick Carter is what would later be called a private detective (or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe him as a consulting detective in the Sherlock Holmes style) although his cases always seem to be far more interesting and exciting than any real-life private detective could hope to see. He is based in New York but his cases take him all over the country and even on occasions onto foreign soil.

The original Nick Carter stories carried no author’s credit. It is known that the first story (and quite a few more) was written by John Coryell. It is also known that Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (1861-1922) wrote a very large number. Frederic William Davis and Eugene T. Sawyer were among the many other authors contributing to the series. The demand for Nick Carter stories was always too great to be satisfied by a single writer.

In 1963 Robert Clurman collected six of the original stories, written between 1891 and 1902, in Nick Carter, Detective.

You don’t expect a great deal of polish in detective stories that originally saw the light of day in dime novels and pulp magazines, but what can be said for these six stories is that they are hugely entertaining. The plots are extraordinarily (and delightfully) outlandish. Almost every house seems to contain at least one secret passageway. Nick never misses an opportunity to don a disguise, something he is able to do almost instantaneously and without any preparation. One assumes he carries the necessary props and makeup with him at all times, as well as carrying pistols, tools for breaking and entering and a myriad other useful items. His clothing must have contained an extraordinary number of pockets!

The villains also adopt disguises. Disguises were a positive obsession with Victorian and Edwardian writers of crime fiction.

The bad guys are straightforward villains, with no redeeming qualities. They may be vicious and ruthless but they are certainly imaginative if we are to judge by the bizarre criminal schemes they come up with. Some are almost clever enough to qualify as diabolical criminal masterminds although we have few doubts that Nick Carter will get the better of them. A handful do escape, only to pop in other stories where eventually our hero brings them to inevitable and inexorable justice.

Most of the stories ran to around 25,000 words and they are packed with a good deal of plot and a great deal of action, necessitating a very brisk pace. Subtlety was not a requirement and it’s a quality that is consequently in short supply. That’s not a problem. It’s the sheer outrageousness of the plots that makes them so enjoyable.

Nick Carter is a very Victorian type of hero. You certainly won’t find this detective resorting to cocaine to stave off boredom. He has in fact no apparent vices at all. This could have made him irritating but the frenetic pacing of the stories leaves the reader with no time to become irritated. Carter does make occasional mistakes and he does not always get his man (not the first time anyway) so that makes him a bit more human. He also has a habit of getting himself captured and/or roughed up by the bad guys, but of course we know they will be able to hold Nick Carter for long.

There are murders aplenty but in common with most of the crime fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries this detective’s cases cover a wide range of crimes, from kidnapping to jewel robberies to fraud to counterfeiting. Whatever the crime you can rest assured it won’t be something like mere burglary - Nick Carter’s adversaries are too dastardly to trouble themselves with such mundane and relatively innocuous crimes.

There is little in the way of love interests in these six stories although there must have been some romance in some of the stories since Nick Carter managed during the course of her career to get himself (albeit briefly) married off. Women do play an important role in some stories, either as virtuous heroines or wicked villainesses.

These tales are very much of their time, and as such are mercifully free of any vestiges of political correctness. For me one of the great attractions of the crime fiction of the past is that they present us with a vivid and unvarnished snapshot of the past.

These stories are very very pulpy with a minimum of literary polish and with plots that require a great (one might even say herculean) effort to sustain the necessary suspension of disbelief. In spite of, or possibly even because of, these flaws these stories are deliciously exuberant fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ghost Stories of Henry James

Ghost Stories of Henry James is a Wordsworth collection that includes James’ best-known ghostly tale, The Turn of the Screw, plus nine short stories.

So much has been written about The Turn of the Screw that to say any more would be superfluous. Suffice to say it’s one of the great examples of subtle and ambiguous horror, a story of a governess who believes she must save two children from a ghost.

The other stories also mainly fall into the category of subtle and ambiguous horror, but are on the whole much less successful. James was either unable (or unwilling) to provide his readers with the kind of payoff they are entitled to expect in a ghost story. Being subtle and ambiguous is fine but a ghost story must at the very least make us uneasy. It doesn’t have to scare us out of our wits. Some of the best horror stories are not especially terrifying but they do give us a sense of unease, a sense of the uncanny, a feeling that things are not quite right. Most of these stories fail to do this.

Of course it can be legitimately argued that James was not consciously writing horror or even ghost stories, that he had other purposes, other agendas. That’s quite true but when a collection is put before the public as being a collection of ghost stories then I think the reader is entitled to judge those stories on that basis - on their success or failure as ghost stories.

Judged by other criteria some of these stories might well be considered to be good short stories. But a good short story is not necessarily a good ghost story.

The Private Life is a good example. It’s a clever examination of the idea that the face we show to the world is often very different from the face we show in private. It’s an amusing tale but as a tale of supernatural horror it’s a complete non-starter. The Friends of the Friends is interesting, a story of two people who seem fated never to meet, but again it’s not a story that will produce even the mildest unease. The Real Right Thing, about a man engaged to write a biography of a famous writer, is similar - an interesting idea but once again no actual sense of unease.

Sir Edmund Orme is closer to being an actual ghost story and although it’s somewhat unconventional it works rather well and is one of the more successful stories in this collection.

Owen Wingrave is a story in which James has tried to give us the payoff we expect but sadly it falls rather flat.

The Ghostly Rental is a surprising success. Surprising because it suffers from James’ worst flaws as a writer of ghost stories and yet it does give the reader a genuine frisson of horror. It’s a story of a man who caused his daughter’s death who must now collect rent from her ghost.

The Third Person is a humorous ghost story about a haunting that is brought to an end in a rather witty way. While it’s not the least bit scary it is a charming little story.

On the whole I’d say that this is a collection that may appeal strongly to fans of Henry James. They will find an assortment of stories that demonstrate the author’s skill as an observer of social mores and human behaviour. Fans of the ghost story are likely to be much less satisfied. It’s a volume that unfortunately I really cannot recommend to anyone looking for classic ghost stories.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Middle Temple Murder

J. S. Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder is an early example of the golden age detective story (it was published in 1919).

Joseph Smith Fletcher (1863-1935) was an incredibly prolific British author in a variety of genres. In 1914 he started writing detective novels and went on to write more than a hundred.

The Middle Temple Murder begins with the discovery of a body in a lane. One of the first people on the scene is Frank Spargo, a sub-editor on The Watchman. Spargo sees the case as an opportunity to make a name for himself as a journalist but he is also fascinated by the case itself. He’s even more fascinated by the process of solving the case.

No papers or money were found on the body and the dead man’s identity remains unknown for quite some time. Spargo strikes up a friendship with Detective-Sergeant Rathbury of Scotland Yard and they agree to exchange information while they continue their investigations independently.

These investigations will eventually uncover a strange story involving embezzlement, Australian diamonds, valuable stamps, orphans with mysterious antecedents and a coffin that may or may not be empty. It seems that nobody involved in the case is who he claims to be.

There are several interesting features to this book. Spargo and Rathbury conduct their investigation independently but the book focuses entirely on Spargo. The reader only knows what Spargo knows.

Spargo’s method of crime-solving is also unusual. He has a very strong belief that the best way to solve a murder is to let the public solve it. Give a case enough publicity and eventually people will come forward with the information you require.

There’s also a romantic sub-plot involving Spargo and the daughter of one of the chief suspects. Those who disapprove of romance in detective stories need not fear - Fletcher’s main focus is always on the criminal investigation.

Spargo is young and rather cocky but he’s also a rather decent young man with strong moral principles. He’s a hero the reader should have no trouble liking.

The plot has plenty of twists and red herrings. There is only one murder but there are several crimes including some going back twenty years before the murder.

Fletcher has a pleasing style. He’s literate without being pretentious. He also has a knack for creating colourful and interesting minor characters, and for creating atmosphere. The scenes in Market Milcaster, in a decaying town living on dreams of its former greatness, are especially well done.

The Middle Temple Murder
can be unhesitatingly recommended to all fans of golden age crime fiction.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by August Derleth, is a collection of stories set more or less within the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. The 1975 Panther paperback I bought a while back comprises the first half of the collection, with three stories by Lovecraft himself and nine stories by other writers. Most of the authors represented here were known to Lovecraft, at least by correspondence.

I don’t propose to say anything about the three Lovecraft stories. Quite enough has been said about him already. Suffice to day that I’m very much a fan of his writing.

The two stories by Clark Ashton Smith, The Return of the Sorcerer and Ubbo-Sathla, are of course excellent. Smith’s stories always had such a strong flavour of their own that it is hardly fair to describe him as a Lovecraft imitator. Smith was that great rarity, a true American decadent (far more so than even Lovecraft himself).

August Derleth is best remembered as the man largely responsible for bringing the name of Lovecraft to the reading public. His two stories, The Dweller in Darkness and Beyond the Threshold, are perfectly competent mythos tales although they do lack the authentic weirdness and extravagance of Lovecraft’s own writing.

Henry Kuttner’s The Salem Horror is less impressive although it’s an entertaining enough riff on the Salem witchcraft legacy.

J. Vernon Shea’s The Haunter of the Graveyard is an oddity, a very mediocre story about a TV presenter of horror movies who becomes obsessed by an old graveyard.

Robert E. Howard, in The Black Stone, has no problem at all in conjuring up a Lovecraftian  atmosphere and his story includes the kind of linkages to the past that characterise some of the best Mythos stories. Howard naturally adds much of his own flavour, with a lot more sex and action than Lovecraft’s work, and he is a sufficiently dynamic writer to ensure that he puts his own stamp on the story.

Both Smith and Howard had their own approaches to fiction which come through very strongly in their stories but at the same time they both understood very clearly what Lovecraft was striving for. This raises their stories well above the level of mere Lovecraft pastiche. By comparison Derleth’s stories seem to be little more than imitation Lovecraft, albeit very competent imitation Lovecraft.

Frank Belknap Long’s two stories, The Hounds of Tindalos and The Space Eaters, are another matter entirely. Both are highly imaginative and both certainly qualify as weird, but with a weirdness all their own. While Lovecraft’s own tales can be regarded as a blending of gothic horror and science fiction Long’s stories are more overtly science fictional, dealing with esoteric concepts like non-Euclidean geometry. They make an interesting variation on the more standard Mythos stories.

Overall a reasonably good collection and probably not a bad place to start if you want to explore Cthulhu Mythos stories by writers other than Lovecraft.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Astro, the Master of Mysteries

Astro, the Master of Mysteries is another entry in the occult detective genre and it’s another example of the surprising flexibility of that genre. It offers its own distinctive variation on the basic theme.

Gelett Burgess wrote the stories that comprise this collection some time before 1912 when they were first published in book form. They’re free-standing stories but there is a longer story arc as well, which is a fairly unusual feature for a collection of detective stories.

Astro is an astrologer, palm-reader, fortune-teller and psychic. He’s also a complete charlatan. You might think this would make him either a villain or at best a loveable rogue but in fact he’s very much the hero. You see, despite being a charlatan as a psychic Astro is a detective of genius. He uses the psychic angle to attract customers but when someone hires him to solve a mystery he always gives them their money’s worth.  Very few crimes are capable of baffling Astro.

Any good fictional detective needs a sidekick. Astro’s is the beautiful Valeska. She is a slightly unusual sidekick, being already a skilled detective who is being trained by Astro in the mysteries of the art of crime-solving. There is considerable mutual respect between Astro and Valeska, and there’s a hint that there may be more than respect involved. That’s where the longer story arc (which occupies the entire collection of twenty-four stories) comes in but I won’t spoil it by saying any more. The relationship between Astro and Valeska is as interesting as the actual cases they take on, although the cases are pretty interesting in their own right.

Astro is something of a scientific enthusiast, but he tends to use science more as an illustration of his pet theories than as a crime-solving tool. His interest in science is however an indication of his very logical mind. This, along with a profound understanding of human psychology, is the secret of his success as a detective.

Occult detectives were very much in fashion in 1912, but Burgess also makes use of another element that was in vogue at that time - the fascination with the Mysterious East. Astro himself is Egyptian, although he also claims to be a Buddhist. Astro’s exotic origins are certainly useful to his pose as a psychic but his mind seems to be very much a rational western mind.

The stories themselves cover a wide range of crimes. In some cases there is no actual crime, merely a puzzle that is causing distress to one of Astro’s clients. In other cases there are very real crimes, even involving murder.

Astro, the Master of Mysteries is a very entertaining collection. The stories work well as detective stories in the manner of the time. They don’t have the intricate plotting of the later golden age of detective fiction nor do they adhere rigidly to the so-called rules of “fair play” that characterised the golden age. Nonetheless they’re clever and Astro’s business as a professional psychic gives the tales a unique flavour.

Fans of both straightforward crime fiction and occult detective stories should find a great deal to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

This collection is included in one of Coachwhip Press’s 2 Detectives volumes, paired with Max Rittenberg’s Dr Wycherley collection The Mind Reader.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Case with Nine Solutions

J. J. Connington’s The Case with Nine Solutions, published in 1928, is fairly typical of the crime fiction of the 20s although it does go very close to breaking one of the cardinal rules of golden age detective fiction.

Connington (real name Alfred Walter Stewart), was born in Glasgow in 1880 and had a distinguished academic career as a chemist. He is best known as the author of the early science fiction classic Nordenholt's Million, published in 1923. He wrote seventeen crime novels. He died in 1947.

The Case with Nine Solutions has a very intricate plot and a surprisingly high body count - it involves no less than four murders! The first murder is discovered by accident. A Dr Ringwood is called out to a case on a very foggy night and goes to the wrong house by mistake, where he finds a dying man. The man has two gunshot wounds, including a lung would that proves fatal. The Chief Constable, Sir Clinton Driffield (who figures in several other mysteries by Connington), arrives on the scene. The house does not have a telephone so in order to ring for the coroner he has to go to the house next door, where he finds a second body. Ironically this is the house the doctor had been called to.

Sir Clinton and Inspector Flamborough receive a series of mysterious letters that appear to come from an eyewitness to the crimes. The first of these missives leads to the discovery of the third body.

There is a fairly obvious suspect for at least two of the murders but unfortunately for Sir Clinton this suspect could not possibly have committed the third murder, and since the three murders are obviously connected this seems like a fatal objection. And as the investigations proceed it becomes clear that there are several other equally promising suspects. And then comes the discovery of a fourth body. Even more distressing is the possibility that not all the killings are actually murders.

The title is inspired by Sir Clinton Driffield’s method of crime-solving which involves tabulating a series of possible solutions, solutions which involve various permutations of murders, suicides and accidents. Sir Clinton finds that are nine possible permutations.

While Inspector Flamborough is technically in charge of the case it is Sir Clinton who takes the leading role. In fact Flamborough functions as a kind of Dr Watson, allowing Sir Clinton to explain key details of the plot. Poor Flamborough turns out to be something less than a detective of genius. Driffield is very much in the mould of the brilliant detective who sees through the fog of multiple suspects and red herrings and knows who the killer is from a very early stage. But of course both Flamborough and the reader are kept in the dark. Excessively brilliant detectives can sometimes be irritating and Driffield’s habit of pointing out Flamborough’s analytical deficiencies might have that effect on some readers.

As you’d expect from the author’s background chemistry plays a crucial role in the plot. Most of the characters involved in the case work in a chemical research institute and their knowledge of chemistry has an important bearing on their possible guilt.

Connington’s style is fairly straightforward without ever being dull.

The novel ends in a rather more apocalyptic way than is usual in golden age detective fiction.

The plot is tied together cleverly enough but the bending, if not the outright breaking, of the cardinal rule mentioned earlier might be disapproved of by golden age purists. On the whole though it’s fairly entertaining and certainly worth a look.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Germans on Venus

The Germans on Venus is Black Coat Press’s second volume of early French science fiction. As was the case with their earlier anthology, News From the Moon, the stories were translated by Brian Stableford who also provides one of his usual illuminating introductions.

The stories range in date from 1796 to 1921. Stableford describes these stories as scientific romances rather than science fiction although the distinction between the two genres is not always clear.

As in any anthology the quality of the stories varies widely. Stableford’s own tastes are somewhat outré so it is not surprising that some of these tales are idiosyncratic to say the least.

The title story, written by André Mas in 1913, was intended in part at least as propaganda. It is in fact a novella rather than a short story. With France apparently the dominant military power (at least that was the view of most people prior to the Great War) and with Britain undisputed mistress of the seas Germany has only one direction in which her own desire for glory can be satisfied - she must turn her haze heavenwards. Thanks to some extraordinary technological ingenuity the means of doing so are available. A kind of giant flywheel generates enough centrifugal force to launch a spacecraft on a mission to Venus. The intention was not to land but due to unforeseen circumstances they do in fact land, and claim Venus for the German Empire.

The story reflects the tense international situation in 1913 and the fairly widespread anxieties about Germany’s growing power and (to an even greater extent) her growing ambitions.

Of the other tales collected here the best is probably Rémy de Gourmont’s The Automaton. Like most of the other stories it is very different in nature from what we today think of as science fiction, but it’s a clever tale.

Louis Mullem’s 1909 story A Rival of Edison anticipates the invention of television. Charles Nodier’s Perfectibility is an outrageous satire on intellectuals and their belief in the perfectibility of human institutions. Jules Lermina’s Quiet House is a slightly creepy tale of two scientists who have discovered that food is no longer necessary, although the results of their experiments are unfortunate for the family of one of them.

Adrien Robert’s War in 1894 deals with chemical warfare. Théo Varlet’s Telepathy (published in 1921 making it the most recent of the stories collected here) deals with both drugs and telepathy.

This is in my opinion a slightly weaker collection than News From the Moon, but it’s still worth a look if you enjoy both early science fiction and unconventional science fiction.