Monday, September 30, 2013

The Mystery of 31 New Inn

The Mystery of 31 New Inn, published in 1912, was one of R. Austin Freeman’s early Dr Thorndyke mysteries. It serves as a rather excellent illustration of Freeman’s methods and aims.

Dr Jervis is an underpaid and overworked general practitioner currently serving as a locum  when he is called out to a rather odd case. A man is ill but he is very reluctant to consult a doctor and will do so only on condition that the doctor should know neither his identity nor his address. This peculiar condition is enforced by the curious method of conveying Dr Jervis to the patient’s home in a closed four-wheeler cab that has had the windows replaced by wooden shutters so that the doctor has no idea of the address to which he has been driven.

When he arrives he finds a still more puzzling situation. The patient is introduced as a Mr Graves but given the conditions imposed by the messenger who brought Dr Jervis the medical practitioner assumes that this is not his real name. The patient shows all the classic signs of morphine poisoning but the German gentleman, Mr Weiss, who appears to be caring for him assures Dr Jervis that this is absolutely impossible. Dr Jervis’s suspicions are thoroughly aroused but not knowing the patient’s real name or his address there seems to be nothing he can do.

Dr Jervis asks his friend Dr Thorndyke for his advice. He and Thorndyke had been medical students together but Thorndyke is now practising as a barrister, having more or less pioneered the field of combined medico-legal practice. Dr Thorndyke’s combination of medical and legal training has already allowed him to solve a number of very difficult cases and his practice is flourishing to the extent that he persuades Dr Jervis to read for the Bar himself so that he can join Thorndyke’s practice as his junior counsel.

Thorndyke is currently engaged on an apparently impossible task. A Mr Jeffrey Blackmore has died leaving a very troublesome will. There is no doubt as to the genuineness and the validity of the will, but there is equally no doubt that the wording of the will is such as will frustrate the testator’s obvious intentions. It seems utterly hopeless but as a last resort Mr Blackmore’s solicitor has asked Dr Thorndyke for his opinion, and much to the solicitor’s surprise Dr Thorndyke is keen to take on the case despite its evident utter hopelessness.

R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) claimed to have invented the “inverted detective story” in which the identity of the criminal is known from the beginning of the story, the interest of the story deriving from the methods used by Dr Thorndyke to prove the criminal’s guilt. The Mystery of 31 New Inn is not a story of this type but it nonetheless resembles the inverted detective story in that the principal interest of the tale is the extraordinarily intricate means by which Dr Thorndyke unravels the two mysteries with which he is faced and ultimately reveals the identities of the perpetrators.

The solutions to the mysteries will not come as any great surprise to the reader, but at the same time the reader will be struck by the fact that proving these cases in a court of law would be next to impossible. Needless to say Dr Thorndyke is not the least bit dismayed by the apparently formidable difficulties he faces.

The emphasis on the methods of the detective rather than on the mystery itself differentiates Freeman’s crime fiction from those of the so-called golden age of detective fiction. In some ways Freeman’s stories are more like very early examples of the police procedural sub-genre although focusing on the methods of a detective who is not an official police detective. Dr Thorndyke can scarcely be described as an amateur detective however. His medical and legal training make him in some respects at least as much of a professional as any official police detective of the time.

Freeman’s methods might suggest a rather dry style but that would be an unfair assumption. Freeman has a fluent and generally pleasing prose style. Dr Thorndyke is very much in the Sherlock Holmes mould - he is both brilliant and supremely egotistical. His investigative powers are so far superior to those of Dr Jervis that the reader cannot help wondering what possible use Dr Jervis could be to him in his practice, other than perhaps to make the coffee. In fact Dr Jervis’s sole reason for existence is to serve as Dr Thorndyke’s Dr Watson, narrating his cases and giving Dr Thorndyke someone to whom to explain the plot.

Dr Thorndyke’s solutions are undeniably brilliant but despite Freeman’s claims that they are entirely plausible and possible they may strike the reader as stretching credibility just a little. Nonetheless The Mystery of 31 New Inn is a thoroughly entertaining detective story with (for me at least) the bonus of the kind of Edwardian background that I find so engaging. I’m a sucker for any stories involving hansom cabs.

Highly recommended.

why I prefer the fiction of the past

During the 1920s and 1930s the idea started to take hold that serious art should have one of two objectives. It should either make us feel bad about ourselves and bad about our society, or it should deliver a political message. Preferably it should do both. By the end of the 30s this dogma was fairly well established. In the 60s this attitude started to infect popular culture. Serious films should be exercises in misery and/or political indoctrination. In the world of letters the idea spread into genres such as horror and crime, and even started to gain a foothold in science fiction, a genre once characterised by a generally positive attitude towards our civilisation and its future.

This approach to art and literature is bogus and adolescent even when applied to areas like “literary” fiction. There is no valid reason why paintings should not exalt beauty and truth rather than ugliness and horror. There is no valid reason why books should not celebrate our culture and focus on the positive sides of human nature rather than on the negative. Wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing are activities that teenagers find very attractive. Part of the process of growing up is growing out of such adolescent self-indulgence. Teenagers tend to assume that they know what is wrong with society and they could fix it if only they were given the power to do so. Grown-ups realise that life is more complicated and that happiness and contentment come from adapting to reality rather than complaining about it. Grown-ups realise that cynicism is a fancy word for arrested psychological development.

The misery and politics approach started to gain a significant following among crime writers in the 1960s although it had already exerted its baleful influence on the American hardboiled school of the interwar years. This was also an era in which crime writers started to dislike being described as writers of detective stories. That just didn’t sound serious-minded enough. They started to prefer to call themselves crime writers.

From its beginnings with Poe’s stories in the 1840s through to the golden age of the 20s and 30s detective fiction had been generally optimistic. There was nothing naïve or simple-minded about this. Detective stories acknowledged the existence of evil and the existence of vicious dangerous people. On the other hand detective stories operated on the assumption that crime was an evil that could be combated. Criminals posed a threat to society and to the individual. The task of the detective was to identify the criminal so that he could be brought to justice.

Very few of the detective fiction writers of the century between Poe and the Second World War were gullible enough to think that fighting crime was easy. It was an activity that demanded constant vigilance but through a combination of courage, determination and intelligence crime was a problem that could be contained to a sufficient extent to allow people to get on with their lives without having to live in constant fear.

From the 1960s onwards a change occurred. The new very serious-minded crime writers treated crime as a problem that not only could not be effectively fought, crime was also a symptom of the wickedness of society, the worthlessness of western civilisation and the depravity of human nature. Everything was hopeless and justice was an illusion. And it was all our fault for allowing injustice to flourish. The criminal was not a deviant who needed to be dealt with; he was a victim and deserved pity.

These changes were symptomatic of the rise of the culture of self-loathing and self-pity, what Australian art critic memorably described as the Culture of Complaint.

Having understood this it’s easy to see why so many modern crime writers and commentators disparage the detective stories of the past. How can writers like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie be taken seriously. Their stories are not overtly political and they are not miserable and sordid. Therefore they are not serious literature. Even worse, their stories are entertaining, a fault that automatically disqualifies them from serious consideration.

In the past few decades another factor was entered the equation. Art and literature must now conform to a very narrow, very restrictive and very oppressive range of politically correct doctrine. How can the detective writers of the past be taken seriously when they fail to address issues of gender, race, class and sexuality? Or even worse, when they include characters who on occasions utter sentiments that are outside the narrow confines of political correctness?

These faults can of course be corrected in television adaptations. The necessary quota of lesbians, persons of colour and other approved victim groups can be added and the stories and the characters can be twisted in order to make them acceptably PC.

Personally I do not care for the modern approach at all. I do not care for crime stories that wallow in the gutter and seek to demoralise the reader with graphic violence and an unrelentingly negative view of our culture. I happen to be rather fond of western civilisation. The only solution I have found, from a strictly personal viewpoint, is to avoid modern popular culture altogether. Luckily this is rather easy to do. The popular culture of the past still exists. The literature of the past is in fact very easily accessible.

These days I confine myself entirely to reading books that were published prior to 1960, and I confine myself almost entirely to movies made no later than the early 60s although I am happy to indulge myself with some of the very enjoyable genre movies made as late as the 70s. As far as television is concerned my cut-off point is, with few exceptions, the late 70s. Since I made the decision to reject the modern world of popular culture and all its works I have been a considerably happier and more contented person. We do have a choice. We can say no to the literature of self-pity and self-hatred and squalidness. I do not feel that I am missing anything at all since I made my decision. I do not find the literature of the past to be simplistic or naïve. In fact I find it to be sophisticated, well-crafted, intelligent and complex. It works for me.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Satan’s Daughter and Other Tales from the Pulps

Satan’s Daughter and Other Tales from the Pulps from Wildside Press collects thirteen stories by E. Hoffmann Price (1898-1988) that were published in various pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.

Price is one of the more forgotten pulp writers. He was one of the circle of writers with whom H. P. Lovecraft corresponded and he collaborated with Lovecraft on some stories. Price started his career at the absolute bottom of the pulp fiction food chain, writing for magazines like Spicy Detective Stories and Spicy Adventure Stories, magazines that made Weird Tales seem positively high-brow. These magazines required a certain amount of risque content which Price was willing to provide. It was a way of learning his craft and he probably took his contributions to these magazines more seriously than most of their writers.

The stories in this collection are mostly from these very down-market magazines. It includes plenty of two-fisted action in westerns, detective yarns and a few examples of genuine weird fiction. It was the weird fiction that Price did best although his detective stories are sleazy fun. These stories in these magazines and the ones in this collection are all quite sleazy, much much more so than the stories you’d find in Weird Tales or Adventure or Black Mask.

The title story is by far the best, a very fine piece of weird fiction. The detective stories are fast-paced and fairly entertaining, especially Murder Salvage and Triangle with Variations. The three western stories veer more towards black comedy, although perhaps not entirely successfully.

My impression is that this collection doesn’t really do the author justice. Other stories of his that I’ve come across that were published in magazines such as Weird Tales are much stronger than most of the stories here. The need to add a good deal of sleaze for the bottom-feeder type of publications that these stories are taken from doesn’t really help the stories and if anything tends to slow the real action down. One also can’t help suspecting that Hoffmann Price submitted his weaker stories to these publications while saving his better efforts for the slightly more prestigious magazines.

The collection does however give an interesting overview of the very wide variety of pulp fiction that was being published at the time, and it gives the reader a chance to sample the kinds of stories that were found in magazines like Spicy Detective Stories, stories that you will very rarely come across in anthologies.

If you like your pulp fiction good and sleazy and good and violent then this collection should be very satisfying. Personally I was just a little disappointed, knowing that this author certainly wrote better material than most of that collected here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Rex Stout’s The Rubber Band

The Rubber Band, published in 1936) was the third of of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery novels.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) had already had nine novels published when he began the Nero Wolfe series with Fer-de-Lance in 1934.

The Rubber Band sees our gargantuan detective taking on a case with roots that go back to 1895. In that year in the rather wild Silver City a group of young men involved in gambling and other similar pursuits had earned the name the Rubber Band. Their leader was a man known as Rubber Coleman, hence the name of his followers. One member of this band had gone a little too far and had found himself facing the hangman’s noose. His escape from this unpleasant fate was a close-run thing and in the process of escaping he had incurred a debt. This debt must now be paid.

The connection between the events of 1895 and an accusation of robbery against an attractive young woman employed by the Seaboard Products Corporation is far from obvious but if this had been a straightforward case it would hardly have fallen within the ambit of Nero Wolfe.

The range of possible suspects is considerable and things are complicated by the apparent absence of any motive and by a murder that seems to confuse things even further. Wolfe is not investigating the murder as such; he has been retained in relation to the recovery of a debt. While the difficulties involved suggest that success is unlikely the fee is more than generous. In fact Nero Wolfe’s cupidity is at this point in time less pressing than usual owing to the fact that his bank balance is in a very healthy condition indeed. But a hundred thousand dollars is a hundred thousand dollars. You can buy a lot of orchids with that amount of money.

The police are taking a keen interest in the case due to the involvement of a senior British diplomat, an involvement that could cause considerable inconvenience to the US government.

As usual the story is related by Wolfe’s trusted lieutenant Archie Goodwin. Wolfe’s usual assistants, Saul Panzer and so on, are all at hand.

Wolfe’s eccentricities were well-established by this time. The pursuit of justice (or the earning of a very fat fee if you prefer) is not going to be allowed to interfere with Wolfe’s attention to his plant rooms. His domestic arrangement are however somewhat dislocated, even to the rather shocking extent of having a woman under the roof of the brownstone on West 35th Street. Even more alarming is the appalling prospect of possible interruptions to Wolfe’s dining habits.

The character of Nero Wolfe is of course one of the chief attractions of this series. Rather unusually Wolfe’s Dr Watson, Archie Goodwin, is almost as entertaining as Wolfe himself. This novel is populated with a colourful cast of supporting characters.

With Stout’s lively and amusing style and skillful plotting it all adds up to sparkling fun. A great entertainment from an era when murder could be both civilised and enjoyable.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sax Rohmer's Return of Sumuru

Sax Rohmer made his reputation, and his fortune, with his Fu Manchu books. Fu Manchu is one of fiction’s great villains but Rohmer’s other memorable villain, Sumuru, is every bit as fascinating. Rohmer wrote five Sumuru novels during the 1950s with Return of Sumuru (published in Britain as Sand and Satin) being the fourth.

If Fu Manchu represented the Yellow Peril, the terrifying latent power of the East, then Sumuru represented the equally immense power of woman.

You can always rely on Rohmer to plunge the reader straight into the action, and this novel is no exception. A man inching his way home through a London blanketed in impenetrable fog suddenly notices there is a woman in his car, a woman who was not there before. A very attractive young woman. And then she is gone. But her pursuers are not far behind her.

The man is Dick Carteret and although he saw the woman for only a moment that was enough to plunge him into a terrifying adventure. The woman he saw was Coral Denvers, the daughter of an American millionaire and Sumuru’s latest victim.

Sumuru has many names. The name Sumuru is a legacy of one of her husbands, a Japanese baron now deceased. All of Sumuru’s husbands have been immensely wealthy, and all are deceased. Whether any of them died a natural death is uncertain but unlikely. All have contributed to Sumuru’s vast wealth although her own innate genius and natural aptitude for high finance have multiplied her wealth still further.

Sumuru is young and beautiful, and she has been young and beautiful for a very long time.  Exactly how long no-one can say, and how she has remained young and beautiful is one of her mysteries. She is more than merely beautiful though. The fatal fascination she exerts over men is a combination of beauty, intelligence and inaccessibility. Every man wants Sumuru but no man can have her. Her fascination may well be enhanced by other means. She has some great scientists in her organisation and the researches they pursue are in tune with her interests, and her interests centre on power and control. Hypnotism, drugs and other mind control techniques are at her finger tips.

Sumuru controls an international organisation which aims at nothing less than world domination. Sumuru wants a world of perfect beauty, a world from which ugliness has been eliminated. What that means for anyone who fails to conform to Sumuru’s ideal of beauty can well be imagined. Sumuru also wants a world from which violence has been banished and she doesn’t care how many people she has to kill to achieve that objective.

The achievement of Sumuru’s objectives will require her to gain control over men, and in order to achieve that she must first control women. She achieves this through a combination of kidnappings, drugs and brain-washing but she also achieves it through the appeal of her philosophy to misguided idealistic people who are looking for something to believe in.

Dick Carteret is not going to take on Sumuru alone. His most reliable ally will be an American private detective named Drake Roscoe. Drake Roscoe has a personal interest in this struggle, he himself having been at one time one of Sumuru’s victims. These two men are trying to rescue two women (one of them being Coral Denvers) from Sumuru’s clutches. Their task is made more difficult by the fact that none of Sumuru’s victims could be described as being entirely willing but but that the same time none could be described as entirely unwilling either. Dick Carteret and Drake Roscoe will also be drawn into another of Sumuru’s current projects, her attempt to gain the enormous wealth of a prominent and powerful member of Egyptian’s ruling regime.

Dr Fu Manchu may have been an arch-villain, utterly ruthless and a relentless enemy of our civilisation, but he was no mere hoodlum. His belief in the rightness of his cause and its inevitable success was absolutely sincere. And he was a man of honour. There was nothing cheap about Dr Fu Manchu. You can say much the same of Sumuru. Her methods are as ruthless as Fu Manchu’s and she possesses something of the same terror of the fanatic but her beliefs are equally sincere. Someone once said that no great villain was a villain in his own eyes. A really successful fictional villain has to believe that he is in the right, just as the most frightening real-life villains believe in their own hearts and in their own minds that they are on the side of the angels. Sumuru has this quality. She wants power but she believes that once she gains power she will make the world a better place. The most terrifying people on Earth are people who believe they are going to make the world a better place.

Sumuru is a villain on an epic scale and she is a very seductive villain. She may even start to seduce the reader until some action of hers serves as a reminder of the fanaticism, the callousness and the madness of her plans.

It is tempting to see Sumuru as a response on the author’s part to feminism but I very much doubt that this was the case. I think it is much more likely that Sumuru was a metaphor for communism. Her objectives sound wonderful in theory but in practice they can lead to nothing but oppression and misery. Everything she is doing she is doing for our own good, whether we like it or not. And her appeal is particularly strong to the young and idealistic. Her followers believe they are working for a perfect world and they cannot see that a perfect world built on murder and coercion cannot be a perfect world; it can only be a perfect hell.

Rohmer had no literary pretensions but his style was as energetic and as electrifying as his stories. It’s all breathless excitement. It’s a style that works exceptionally well for the types of stories that he wrote. He might not have been the kind of writer who will ever find favour with literary critics but within his own sphere he demonstrated considerable skill. It may well be that the writing of effective thrillers requires at least as much skill as the writing of the tedious angst-laden tomes so dear to the hearts of the readers of The Times Literary Supplement.

What really set Rohmer apart from other writers of this type of fiction was the scale of his villains. Even their virtues were on the grand scale, and their vices were correspondingly even more grandiose. Rohmer’s villains set their sights so high that you cannot help feeling a grudging admiration for them. They may be evil but they are extraordinary; they are giants and their enemies seem pygmies in comparison. There is something tragic about their failures but balanced against this is the knowledge of the immense consequences for evil should they ever succeed.

Most of all Rohmer’s work is always entertaining. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Luther Trant, Psychological Detective

The first Luther Trant detective stories of Edwin Balmer and William B. MacHarg were published in 1909, followed by several more in 1910 in a collection called The Achievements of Luther Trant. They are of exceptional interest in being the first detective stories in which psychology is used in an objective and rigidly scientific way to solve crimes. Coachwhip Press have collected all the Luther Trant stories under the title of Luther Trant, Psychological Detective.

Luther Trant is a young psychologist at an American university. Under the direction of the celebrated Dr Reiland he has been conducting experiments to measure imperceptible physical changes that occur in the body under the stress of great emotion. These techniques are intended for use in diagnosing mental disorders but Trant has come to the conclusion that these same techniques could be used in criminal investigations. These tests can provide conclusive proof as to whether a subject is telling the truth, and can also provide incontrovertible evidence that a subject has a strong emotional response to other pieces of evidence for a crime. These tests can measure physical changes over which a subject has no control and they are accurate even in the case of subjects who have trained themselves to give away no visible evidence of such emotions.

Trant believes these techniques could revolutionise police work. So far however police forces had shown no interest in these developments, even in Germany where the scientific study of psychology is particularly advanced. American psychologists had been making great strides in the first few years of the 20th century but the police have reacted with indifference.

In the first of these stories, The Man in the Room, Luther Trant gets an unexpected opportunity to put his theories to a practical test when the university treasurer is found dead, having apparently committed suicide to avoid exposure over irregularities in the university accounts. Trant is able to establish that the treasurer’s death was not suicide but murder, and he is able to identify the murderer.

Trant’s spectacular success in this case gains him considerable publicity and encourages him to strike out on his own as a consulting detective. His reputation grows by leaps and bounds as he solves a series of cases that have baffled the policemen and he soon gains a crucial ally in the person of Inspector Walker.

Trant’s cases are extremely varied and encompass other crimes besides murder. While Trant’s arsenal of scientific devices are his chief advantage over conventional detectives he is also (being scientifically trained to a high degree) a man with a keen and incisive and very logical mind. He is in fact a natural detective, but one with an important technological edge over all other detectives in the United States in 1909. Trant does not use psychology intuitively - he relies on his instruments and his observations to furnish him with absolutely objective scientific evidence.

While R. Austin Freeman while also at about this time taking a more scientific approach to detective fiction Luther Trant’s methods, while being every bit a scientific as Dr Thorndyke’s, make use of quite different areas of science.

This might sound a little dull but that would be a very unfair supposition. The authors have a lively style which strikes a perfect balance between literary polish and a free and easy and quite exciting style.

The stories are not only an original variation on the detective story as it existed at the time, they were also perfectly timed, psychology being a field that was attracting more and more public interest at that time. The authors are careful not to repeat themselves by having their psychological detective use the same methods in every case. Luther Trant seems to have a bottomless bag of scientific gadgets and manages to make use of a slightly different method in each case. The overall psychological approach remains constant but the authors ring the changes with considerable dexterity.

Luther Trant is no dry and dusty academic. He is an athletic and lively young man possessed of abundant energy and immense enthusiasm. He also has a very zeal for his work. He believes that the unscientific methods of the past have led to countless convictions of innocent men and women while allowing numerous guilty parties to escape scot-free. He is a crusader but he is neither humourless nor fanatical. He is also rather likeable.

The stories are of a consistently high quality with The Empty Cartridges and The Chalchihuitl Stone being especially impressive. The latter story is the only one that takes us into the realm of what today would be called the paranormal but in 1909 many paranormal phenomena were still considered to be scientifically quite plausible. The Red Dress deals cleverly with the effects of emotion on the testimony of eye-witnesses. The Man Higher Up has some of the element of the thriller genre. The Fast Watch sees Luther Trant uses psychology to break an unbreakable alibi. And in The Chalchihuitl Stone he tackles an impossible crime.

These are highly entertaining and well thought-out detective stories and Coachwhip Press deserves our gratitude for making these forgotten gems of the detective story art available to us. They are paired with The Chronicles of Addington Peace (which is also quite a good collection) in one of Coachwhip’s excellent 2 Detectives volumes.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Yellow Men Sleep (AKA The Fragrant Web)

Jeremy Lane’s lost world fantasy story was first published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly as The Fragrant Web in 1919. The following year it was published in book form as Yellow Men Sleep.

In form it’s a fairly typical lost world story although this one has no elements of the supernatural nor of the fantastic apart from its basic premise of a lost civilisation.

Con Levington is a petty criminal whose life is changed forever when he counters Andrew March and his father Stephen. Stephen March had journeyed deep into Asia many years earlier, into the heart of the Gobi Desert. His son had attempted a similar expedition years later. It cost him his wife and his daughter. Now, twenty years later, Andrew March will return to the trackless wastes of the Gobi, this time in company with Con Levington.

Con does not realise at first that Andrew will be accompanying him. He sets out on the journey alone, armed only with a parchment map he stole from a mysterious Chinese known as Chee Ming. On board ship to the Orient Con encounters a beautiful female thief. She has stolen baggage belonging to Chee Ming. Chee Ming has meanwhile stolen back his parchment map. Getting the map back will be Con’s first difficult task and gaining the cooperation of his female thief acquaintance will be as much a hindrance as a help.

On reaching China Con sets out across the Gobi. He has now opened his sealed instructions from Andrew March. It transpires that both March and Con Levington have been employed by the US government, their mission being to discover the source of a new and potent and frighteningly addictive drug known as koresh. Once they know where the drug comes from the US government intends to undertake a punitive expedition to cut off the drug at its source. But Andrew March’s reasons for undertaking this trek into the Gobi have nothing to do with the US Government. He is on a private mission of his own.

March and Levington reach their destination, a lost civilisation known as Tau Kuan. It is a strange civilisation based on bizarre ideas of racial melding, and based also on slavery, cruelty and the seductive horrors of koresh. Andrew March finds what he was seeking but having found it discovers that he has no idea how to deal with it. Levington also finds something that he was seeking, although he did not know he was seeking it. Both March and Levington will discover their destinies in Tau Kuan, and their destinies will be deeply entwined with the fate of a beautiful princess, a princess who means a great deal to both men, although what she means for each of the men is very different.

Despite its initial publication in a pulp magazine this is a story with surprising literary aspirations. These aspirations are not always successful, but they are there nonetheless. The style is not what you would normally expect from the pulps. Lane has endeavoured to give his tale a rather dreamlike quality, a quality that is in keeping with a story in which the drug koresh plays a central role, koresh being a drug that brings seductive but deadly dreams.

This is not quite a typical story of the clash between eastern and western civilisations, the lost world of Tau Kuan being not at all typical of eastern civilisation. Tau Kuan is a strange flowering of its own, an exotic plant that may well be as much a threat to the east as it is to the west.

This is less an action adventure story than it is a kind of dream quest, although there is certainly adventure along the way.

Yellow Men Sleep is not entirely successful although it is certainly interesting with a flavour very different from that of most stories of this type. If you’re prepared to accept it on its own terms you might find it worthwhile, although I did not really find it to be to my personal taste.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas

The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas is one of R. A. J. Walling’s Mr Tolefree detective novels. Published in 1935, it was in fact the fifth of the twenty-two Philip Tolefree mysteries. It was originally published in Britain as The Cat and the Corpse.

R. A. J. Walling (1869-1949) was born in Exeter and spent his life as a newspaperman, eventually becoming managing director of the Western Newspaper Company. He took up crime fiction quite late in life, being nearly sixty when his first detective novel was published. Walling wrote a number of other books including a biography of Sir John Hawkins, the great if rather notorious admiral of Elizabethan times.

Philip Tolefree is a private enquiry agent (what Americans would describe as a private detective). He is engaged by a man named Stratton but at this stage no actual crime has been committed. While Stratton is staying at Wolborough Castle, the imposing residence of Lord Meriden a rather unsavoury individual by the name of Eric Yves disappears. His exact fate will be a matter of considerable dispute.

Mr Tolefree arrives at the castle on the following day. That night he discovers a secret passageway (not altogether a surprising thing to find in a medieval castle) and in that passageway he finds Eric Yves’ body. Or does he? Both Lord Meriden and his brother, the Honourable John Meriden, are emphatic that Tolefree was mistaken. A day later Yves’ body turns up half a mile from the castle. While Tolefree remains convinced that he saw the man’s body in the castle he finds that, rather to his surprise, no-one is inclined to believe his version of events.

The Meridens have not exactly adapted to the modern world. They see no reason whatsoever why they should. They remain firmly feudal in their view of the world. This feudal outlook will pose considerable problems for Mr Tolefree.

Philip Tolefree is not one of the more colourful of fictional detectives but he isn’t irritating either. He is a man of quiet determination. The fact that nobody believes his story seems to amuse him, and he also seems amused by the feudal pretensions of the Meridens. It’s the somewhat absurd but rather ingenious scheming of the Honourable John Meriden that provides much of the entertainment. He doesn’t really care who killed Eric Yves as long as it doesn’t disturb the grand isolation of Wolborough Castle.

Walling’s style is pleasant with a certain amount of humour. His plotting is precisely what you expect from a successful writer from the golden age of detective fiction.

The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas is thoroughly entertaining and should be highly satisfying to fans of classic English murder mysteries. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Paul Ernst’s The Complete Tales of Dr Satan

The eight Dr Satan stories of Paul Ernst appeared in Weird Tales during the course of 1935 and 1936. Dr Satan is a diabolical criminal mastermind and that’s something that always appeals to me. All eight stories are included in The Complete Tales of Dr Satan published by Altus Press.

Paul Ernst was a prolific pulp writer and was best known as the creator of superhero The Avenger in the 1930s, the Avenger being a kind of Doc Savage clone.

Dr Satan is in reality the scion of a very wealthy family although no-one knows his true identity. He has sampled all the thrills and all the ordinary vices that life has to offer, and they are not enough for him. Seeking the ultimate thrill he has turned to crime.

Dr Satan’s plans always involve extortion in one form or another. He has no need of money but making large amounts of money by illegal means is part of the thrill.

Dr Satan employs both scientific and occult knowledge in pursuit of his aims. He has a vast store of both.

Of course any diabolical criminal mastermind has to have henchmen, and Dr Satan’s are particularly creepy. Girse is a tiny man who bears more than a passing resemblance to a monkey. Bostiff is a giant, or rather he would be a giant except that he has no legs. He propels himself by his arms which are possessed of colossal, almost superhuman, strength.

And of course any diabolical criminal mastermind has to have a nemesis, and Dr Satan’s is Ascott Keane. Keane is also wealthy and bored but he has tuned to criminology rather than to crime. Keane’s knowledge of science and the occult equals that of Dr Satan.

Dr Satan comes up with a wide variety of extremely ingenious means of killing or maiming his enemies. The bizarre and hideous means he employs are calculated to exert the maximum amount of terror. He also has hypnotic mind-control powers (as does Ascott Keane).

The biggest weakness of these stories is that they all follow more or less the same formula. Dr Satan demands money from wealthy and powerful men and then two or three such men are found murdered in strange and horrible ways. They will serve as a warming to the others that they would be well advised to pay up. Ascott Keane is either called in or he hears about these weird killings and shows up on his own account. There is then a struggle between Dr Satan’s powers and those of Keane. Keane invariably wins, but Dr Satan always escapes. Hollywood Horror is the best of the tales, largely because Dr Satan’s method of terrorising his victims is both original and strangely fitting.

While it’s true that the stories do stick pretty much to a formula the interesting thing is that they gradually improve with some of the later stories having some quite intriguing twists. Both Horror Insured and Beyond Death’s Gateway introduce more overt occult themes and these two stories could both fairly be described as horror stories, and quite good ones.

John Pelan in his introduction to the Altus Press edition warns the reader not to dissipate the effect of these stories by reading them one after the other, and this is very sound advice.

Despite their formulaic nature these stories are fun and very very pulpy. The means adopted by Dr Satan to carry out his murders are always ingenious and imaginative. The stories were only moderately successful at the time, possibly because Weird Tales was not quite the right venue for them and also because the craze for weird detective stories had not yet arrived.