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.