Saturday, December 27, 2014

best non-crime reads of 2014

My best non-crime reads in 2014:

Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

Herbert Asbury, The Devil of Pei Ling (1927)

Edgar Wallace, Terror Keep (1927)

E. E. "Doc" Smith, Galactic Patrol (serialised in 1937, published in book form 1950)

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938)

Berkeley Gray, Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters (1938)

Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever (1956)

Alistair MacLean, Night Without End (1959)

Len Deighton, Horse Under Water (1963)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Vintage crime discoveries of 2014

I’ve discovered quite a few new vintage crime authors this year. Well obviously not new, but new to me. And some of them have tuned out to be very good indeed. Here are the most exciting of my 2014 discoveries:

Anthony Abbot, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (1931). Abbot is usually regarded as a follower of S. S. Van Dine which is reasonable enough. Intricately plotted and makes fine use of its New York locations.

Christopher Bush, The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938). I like murder mysteries with a theatrical background and this one uses that background quite skillfully. Great fun.

Arthur J. Rees, The Hand in the Dark (1920). Rees is a forgotten Australian writer. He gives us not one but three detectives and the personality of the detectives is the key to solving the case. Very impressive.

John Bude, The Lake District Murder (1935). Very much in the Freeman Wills Crofts mould.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

John Bude’s The Lake District Murder

John Bude’s first mystery, The Cornish Coast Murder, appeared in 1935 with The Lake District Murder following later the same year. The Lake District Murder is a solid example of the golden age style and owes a very considerable debt to Freeman Wills Crofts.

Jack Clayton is a cheerful young man who seems to have everything to live for. He runs a reasonably profitable garage and he is about to be married. It therefore comes as something of a surprise when a local farmer discovers Jack Clayton’s body and appearances point towards suicide. He was sitting at the wheel of a car with the engine running and with a hosepipe running from the vehicle’s exhaust. The car is in a shed with the door shut. It’s about as obvious a suicide as you’re likely to find.

To Inspector Meredith matters don’t seem quite so obvious. If Clayton wanted to commit suicide why did he have his lunch ready on the table and the kettle boiling? People do not generally decide to make themselves a nice pot of tea and then halfway through change their mind and kill themselves instead.

While Meredith suspects murder he cannot as yet prove it, much less set about finding the murderer. There is one obvious suspect, Clayton’s partner in the garage business, but the man has a rock solid alibi.

Other curious facts soon come to light. Clayton has a good deal of money deposited in a bank account, too much money to be accounted for by his modestly successful business. His partner Higgins has been spending money very freely indeed. It occurs to Inspector Meredith that these two men must have had another source of income and that this additional income might well be the proceeds of some kind of illegal activity.

Meredith will eventually uncover a rather extraordinary criminal operation. His investigations will be directed as much towards this criminal operation as towards the murder.

The Lake District Murder is very much in the style of the mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, the pioneer of the police procedural. The focus is on the painstaking routine police work of Inspector Meredith as he follows a whole series of leads, many of which turn out to be dead ends. Inspector Meredith is, like Crofts’ Inspector French, a somewhat colourless character but a determined and dedicated police officer who never gives up. 

It doesn’t take Meredith long to establish the likely identity of the killer. The novel is concerned mostly with the process of finding the evidence to justify an arrest and in order to do this Meredith must first find out how and why Clayton was killed. So the book is more of a howdunit and a whydunit than a whodunit. While this book follows the basic template established by Crofts there is one crucial difference. Crofts was not only able to describe the course of Inspector French’s investigations in intricate detail he was also able to throw in a series of plot twists that left the identity of the murderer in doubt until the end of the book. In other words Crofts wrote detective novels that focused on the who as well as the how and the why. Bude is interested only in the how and the why. This makes Bude’s novel not quite as entertaining as the best of Crofts’ work such as Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, Inspector French's Greatest Case or The Sea Mystery.

Having made this point it needs to be said in his defence that Bude handles the how and the why with considerable skill and ingenuity. He also uses the unbreakable alibi motif quite adroitly.

The setting is also used cleverly. While critics often accuse golden age detective fiction of an obsession with country houses and the doings of the upper classes that accusation cannot be made of this novel. Inspector Meredith’s inquiries take him to seedy lodging houses, isolated country garages and pubs rather than country houses.

While The Lake District Murder cannot be considered as being in the front rank of golden age detective stories it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted mystery and fans of the genre have cause to thank the British Library for bringing the works of this obscure mystery writer back into print in their excellent Crime Classics series. Warmly recommended.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alistair MacLean's Bear Island

Bear Island was the sixteenth novel by Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) and generally seems to be regarded as the last of his really top-notch thrillers. Published in 1971, it also includes most of the characteristic MacLean signatures.

In Bear Island MacLean returns to two subjects that obsessed him, the sea and the Arctic. That these subjects interested him is not surprising - his wartime naval experiences  included service on two of the horrifically grueling Arctic convoys to Russia.

Most of the novel takes place on board the converted trawler Morning Rose which has been chartered by a film production company, Olympus Productions. The company intends to use Bear Island to shoot location footage for its next feature film. The bleak island, located well to the north of the Arctic Circle, might seem to be an odd choice for a film company but that’s one of the mysteries that will be explained in the course of the novel. And the setting certainly suits MacLean’s purposes.

The first-person narrator of the novel is Dr Christopher Marlowe (his parents had rather literary tastes), employed by Olympus Productions as their unit doctor. You might think that  his duties would not be particularly onerous but in fact he will be kept very busy indeed as members of the film company and the ship’s crew start dropping like flies. Dr Marlowe puts this down to an outbreak of food poisoning but after three deaths the mood on board the Morning Rose is anything but cheerful. And these will not be the last deaths. By the time they reach Bear Island it’s fairly obvious that something distinctly sinister is going on. It’s also starting to become apparent that Bear Island was not chosen as their destination because of its suitability for film-making purposes.

MacLean had two great strengths as a thriller writer - his ability to tell a suspenseful story and his ability to enhance the suspense by the effective building of atmosphere. He was a powerful descriptive writer and the sea and the Arctic inspired his descriptive abilities to a very high degree. As in his earlier (and absolutely superb) thriller Night Without End the Arctic itself becomes in effect a major character, in fact in some ways it becomes more menacing than the actual villains. 

While MacLean is usually thought of as a slightly old-fashioned and fairly straightforward spinner of stories he was prepared to experiment a little. Bear Island features a first-person narrator who is perhaps not an unreliable narrator, but certainly a narrator who is less than candid with the reader. We might not suspect Dr Marlowe of actively misleading us but we certainly get the feeling that he is concealing some fairly important facts from us. It’s a rather bold narrative strategy for a thriller writer but MacLean carries it off quite successfully. Structurally the novel can be considered to be as much a mystery as a thriller, with much in common with golden age detective fiction which delighted in isolating a group of people with a murderer running amok amongst them.

MacLean was somewhat notorious for being weak at creating female characters, and for almost invariably calling his main female character Mary. Bear Island features not just one Mary, but two! The accusation is accurate enough but it’s rather irrelevant. MacLean knew his strengths and his weaknesses as a writer and quite sensibly he played to his strengths while avoiding his weaknesses. 

While the plot of Bear Island has nothing in common with Night Without End the formula is quite similar - take a group of people, isolate them in a hostile environment, throw in one or more murderous villains and then ratchet up the tension as the situation becomes a battle for survival against both Nature and human villainy. Bear Island doesn’t work quite as well as Night Without End but it’s still a gripping and well-crafted thriller and it still delivers plenty of entertainment.

The plot of the 1979 movie adaptation has almost nothing in common with the plot of the novel. Not that it’s such a bad movie; it simply has little connection with MacLean’s book.

MacLean was one of those writers who enjoyed immense success in his lifetime, followed by rapid eclipse. During the 1960s he was arguably the most successful living writer of thrillers, outselling Ian Fleming by a comfortable margin (no mean achievement given that Fleming is one of the bestselling novelists of all time). 

It’s rather interesting to compare MacLean’s career, and his style, with Fleming’s. They had a lot in common, while there were also very important differences between them. Both were Scottish and they were more or less contemporaries (Fleming was born in 1908 and MacLean was born in 1922). Both served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War (Fleming was an officer in naval intelligence while MacLean was an enlisted man and saw considerable active service). Both achieved success quickly and at about the same time. Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale, came out in 1953. MacLean’s first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, appeared in 1955. Both men had a reputation for hard living and both died prematurely as a result. Both were subjected to a considerable amount of critical derision. Both gained a reputation for writing the sorts of novels that men enjoy very much but that women don’t. Both confined their attentions mostly to the thriller genre and both tried their hands at writing screenplays. Virtually everything Fleming wrote has been adapted for film while no less than eighteen of MacLean’s novels and stories have been made into movies.

The difference between them were however quite important. The Fleming formula was to take the pre-war British thriller and add more glamour, a lot more sex, a lot more graphic violence and just a dash of sadism. MacLean generally avoided not only sex but also romantic subplots. There’s plenty of violent mayhem in MacLean’s novels but it’s not overly graphic and the hint of sadism is noticeable lacking.

 MacLean’s reputation has not lasted anywhere near as well as Fleming’s and there are several reasons for this. MacLean did not create an iconic hero in the mould of James Bond. MacLean did not create any series characters at all. He also did not create the kinds of memorable villains that Fleming created. The popular writers who achieve lasting popularity and who develop cult followings are generally those who do succeed in creating truly iconic heroes and/or villains. And those writers have a chance of eventually attracting the notice of academics who are interested in them as pop culture phenomena. As a result MacLean, despite his immense success during his lifetime, has been largely ignored even by those who take an interest in popular literature. Also counting against him is the fact that even his most ardent supporters admit that the quality of his writing declined dramatically during the 1970s.

This is somewhat unfair. MacLean had some very real virtues as a writer and at his best he could produce some of the most effective works in the genre. He is overdue for rediscovery. Bear Island is thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

John Dickson Carr's The Witch of the Low-Tide

In addition to being the acknowledged master of the “locked-room” mystery story John Dickson Carr also wrote a number of historical detective novels. The most interesting is The Devil in Velvet, a wonderfully entertaining concoction that combines crime fiction, horror and science fiction.  He also wrote three more conventional detective novels with period settings, as a kind of tribute to the evolution of the Metropolitan Police. Fire, Burn! was set in 1829 and The Scandal at High Chimneys takes place in 1865. It’s the third and last of these books, set in 1907, with which we are concerned however - The Witch of the Low-Tide.

Dr David Garth is a prominent London doctor, a pioneer in the fields of neurosurgery and psychiatry. He’s also a man with a secret. He is in love with a young widow, Betty, and she’s a woman with a secret. In fact everybody in this novel has something they’re trying to hide. Garth’s friends Marion and Vince and Marion’s former guardian Colonel Selby are no exception.

These interlocking webs of deception lead to murder, and to a battle of wits that pits amatuer sleuth against professional police detective (in this case the hard-bitten Scotland Yard man Inspector Twigg). Carr manages to insert two locked-room puzzles into the novel, as well as plenty of satisfyingly obscure plot twists. 

Not everybody enjoys John Dickson Carr’s style, but I find him to be consistently entertaining and I particularly like his historical mysteries, although I’ve yet to track down a copy of Fire, Burn! despite my best efforts. Carr wrote The Witch of the Low-Tide  in 1961, and it’s a nice combination of Edwardian period detail with juicy sex scandals, which makes it even more fun. I liked this one quite a bit.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Trail of Fu Manchu

The Trail of Fu Manchu was the seventh of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, appearing in 1934. This is a rather different Fu Manchu - this is Fu Manchu at bay. His nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith has gained the upper hand. Fu Manchu’s organisation has been seriously weakened and he is in failing health. As Nayland Smith will find out, he is still a formidable adversary.

Dr Fu Manchu has struck back, using the daughter of of Nayland’s Smith’s friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Petrie as the means for his revenge. And Fu Manchu has ambitious plans that may yet restore his powers and his fortunes. He has discovered a secret that eluded the medieval alchemists. In fact, as we will discover, he has discovered several secrets sought by the alchemists.

As so often Nayland Smith is hampered by the necessity to thwart Fu Manchu’s plans without risking innocent lives. He does have a useful ally in the person of the indefatigable Detective Chief Inspector Gallaho, a man of considerable resource.

The story opens with a typical Sax Rohmer flourish - an amazingly life-like statue that turns out to be more life-like than it should be!

This adventure takes place entirely in London although this does not quite mean that Nayland Smith has the home ground advantage. The slums of Limehouse are not exactly congenial territory in which to wage a battle against a Chinese master criminal. The battle will be waged beneath the streets of London in a hidden world of mystery and danger. There are explosions, secret laboratories and there’s much general mayhem.

There is a reason Fu Manchu is the greatest of all fictional diabolical criminal masterminds.  As Fu Manchu himself would doubtless point out he is a criminal merely by necessity, not by inclination. Lacking political power he must make use of whatever methods serve his purpose. And he is not actually evil as such. He has a vision of the future, a world of harmony and order and even beauty. To a westerner like Nayland Smith this ideal world might seem inhuman and even nightmarish but there is no doubting Fu Manchu’s sincerity. He is not a man who delights in destruction for its own sake. Indeed, he is more interested in creating than in destroying. It just happens that in order for Fu Manchu’s world to come into being western civilisation will have to be subjugated.

Sax Rohmer’s theme is the clash of civilisations. Nayland Smith represents the virtues of western civilisation - individualism, initiative, flexibility and respect for freedom. Fu Manchu is the exemplar of a very different civilisation but one with its own virtues - discipline, order and obedience to authority. Both civilisations have their weaknesses. The western world is somewhat chaotic. Fu Manchu’s civilisation is inflexible and tolerates no dissent. It is fundamentally totalitarian.

While Fu Manchu has the greater intellect his followers he has the disadvantage that his followers are little more than automatons. Fu Manchu himself must provide the imagination. Nayland Smith on the other hand has allies rather than followers, men who will risk their lives willingly and who display a certain amount of initiative.

To see Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books as racist is to misunderstand them in a very fundamental manner. Fu Manchu is never portrayed as a representative of an inferior civilisation, merely one which has very different values and priorities. In some ways Fu Manchu represents intellectual attainments that are superior to those of the West. Rohmer certainly believed the two systems were inevitably going to clash, but his views on race were clearly more complex than the usual Yellow Peril idea. 

Fu Manchu’s worldview is not wildly dissimilar to that of Rohmer’s other great diabolical criminal mastermind, Sumuru. Sumuru also dreams of a world of peace, harmony and beauty and her methods of bringing this about are equally totalitarian. The Sumuru novels, beginning with The Sins of Sumuru, are also worth reading. Rohmer’s supernatural fiction (in collections such as The Leopard Couch) and his occult detective stories (The Dream Detective) are also excellent.

Sax Rohmer’s work was immensely varied and always fascinating. The Fu Manchu books do need to be read in sequence, starting with The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913, also published as The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu). The Trail of Fu Manchu is not the best of the series but it’s still enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sea Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts

The Sea Mystery confronts Inspector French with a particularly perplexing case. A body has been found in a wooden chest in an estuary in Wales. The body is clad only in underclothing and there seems to be nothing whatsoever to provide even the slightest clue to his identity.

Published in 1928, this was the fourth Inspector French mystery written by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Joseph French is not a man to be easily dismayed. There may be virtually no clues but he does notice that one of the man’s socks has been darned with the wrong colour wool. In his usual methodical way he makes a note of this. It will turn out to be quite important and it’s typical of French’s painstaking approach.

First of all French has to discover where the body came from in the first place, which he does in a tour-de-force of patient and meticulous reasoning backed up by experiment.

In this case Inspector French displays his strengths as an investigator but he also makes, as he freely admits, some serious errors. His careful methodology however ensures that even when he finds himself running down blind alleys he will eventually discover his errors and will in the fullness of time find the correct answers. He is a patient man and he does not give up.

One rather amusing aspect of his novel is the guilt Inspector French feels about having given a suspect the “third degree” - it’s amusing because his methods of interrogation would be considered extraordinary mild by the average detective in a hardboiled novel of this era. He does however demonstrate an enthusiasm for conducting illegal searches that would give a modern lawyer apoplexy.

Crofts has gained an entirely undeserved reputation for being a dull writer. He isn’t. His writing merely reflects his hero’s methods - it is unhurried and lacking in rhetorical flourishes but Crofts knows how to draw his reader into the mind of his detective. We feel French’s frustrations when he seems to be hitting a blank wall and we feel his excitement whenever he sees a glimmer of light that may lead to an important breakthrough. There’s also a considerable leavening of sly and understated humour.

This being a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel it goes without saying that the plotting is intricate and constructed with care and precision. And naturally alibis and timing play a key part. French is continually constructing time-tables to test his theories and to establish whether his reconstructions of events are plausible or not. 

The Sea Mystery is vintage Crofts, absorbing and delightful. Highly recommended. I also urge golden age detection fans to check out Inspector French's Greatest Case and Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian

The Italian is the first of Ann Radcliffe’s novels that I’ve read.  I can certainly see why Jane Austen just couldn’t help herself and had to parody this style of book in Northanger Abbey.  The absurdly complicated and melodramatic plot that relies on so many ridiculous coincidences was too easy a target to be ignored.  The other great fault of the book is that the characterisations are just too black and white.

The book does have considerable strengths though.  Radcliffe is exceptionally good at creating suspense and in ratchetting up the tension.  Her prose is pleasing, and although she’s been criticised for going overboard with the descriptive passages I didn’t find that a problem at all in The Italian.  It’s also worth considering that a reader in the 1790s would probably have found it easier to empathise with characters like the Marchese and his wife and their obsession with family honour.

Despite its faults The Italian is reasonably entertaining.  Radcliffe’s feeling for landscape and the way she relates the landscape to the story and to the emotional states of her characters and to their situations are also impressive.  

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the pioneers of gothic fiction and was possibly the most popular author of her day.

Of the early gothic novels I’ve read I still prefer Matthew Lewis’s The Monk but I do want to read more of Radcliffe’s novels.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

John Rhode’s The Claverton Mystery

John Rhode’s The Claverton Mystery (published in the US as The Claverton Affair) appeared in 1933. It was the fifteenth of the seventy-two Dr Priestley mysteries written by Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965) using the John Rhode pseudonym.

It had been preceded by the very entertaining The Motor Rally Mystery (US title Dr Priestley Lays a Trapand was followed by the excellent The Venner Crime. Several of the characters in The Claverton Mystery also appear in The Venner Crime.

The Claverton Mystery begins with a visit by Dr Priestley to an old friend, Sir John Claverton, who has fallen ill. They had once been close but since the war they had drifted apart somewhat. An urgent message from Claverton suggested that perhaps all was not well with him and Priestley, feeling slightly guilty for not having made more effort to keep up the friendship, arrives at Claverton’s rather gloomy dwelling. The truth is that Claverton has become just a little eccentric, insisting on remaining at 13 Beaumaris Place even though the neighbourhood has lost much of its former charm. Claverton had, rather unexpectedly, inherited the house and a large fortune some years earlier and he appears to have developed a rather superstitious attachment to the place.

As soon as Priestley arrives it is clear to him that something is not quite right. Claverton has always lived alone so who are these strange people who seem to have taken up residence there? Why is Claverton now reluctant to tell Priestley why he summoned him? And if Claverton’s illness is really not serious (and Dr Oldland assures him that this is the case) why is the doctor clearly much more concerned than a minor illness would warrant?

Claverton’s death deepens the mystery considerably, the post-mortem results coming as a  considerable shock to Priestley. Claverton died from natural causes although Priestley is convinced otherwise.

Of course there is a will, which deepens the mystery still further. And Claverton’s relatives give Priestley a very uneasy feeling.

Priestley dislikes forming theories until he feels he has all the facts at his command. If the accumulation of these facts happens to take several months that is no problem - he is a patient man and he is prepared to wait.

Dr Priestley is generally speaking the type of amateur detective who regards his hobby as a stimulating exercise in puzzle-solving, a very satisfying pastime but one that engages the intellect rather than the emotions. This case is quite different. Priestley was genuinely fond of Claverton and his old friend’s death upset him a good deal. The truth is that Priestley is by no means as emotionally cold as his crusty exterior would suggest.

Another respect in which this novel differs from most of the John Rhode mysteries is in the decidedly gothic atmosphere and the hints of the occult. The author does not overdo these elements but they are certainly present.

This novel contains all the features that modern critics tend to disparage in golden age detective fiction. The motive hinges on the provisions of a will and an unbreakable alibi forms an important plot point. The murder method is somewhat unlikely if undeniably ingenious. Events in the distant past play a major rôle. Rhode was an author with no interest in “subverting” the conventions of his chosen genre. While this will not endear him to the postmodernists I personally admire his approach. Telling a good story while remaining strictly within the confines of genre conventions and finding a way to make that story still seem fresh and interesting is something which in my view requires more talent than “subverting” or “transcending” those conventions. And Rhode was a very good story-teller indeed.

The solution to the puzzle involves one element that might seem to be pulled out of a hat but in fact Rhode has been scrupulously fair in providing clues to alert us to the existence of that particular metaphorical hat. 

The Claverton Mystery is golden age detective fiction at its best. Immensely enjoyable and highly recommended.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm

Although Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm appears as part of Pan’s Classic Crime series it’s really more spy thriller than crime thriller.  On the other hand, being published in 1938, it has the right period flavour for this community.  Although Ambler was English the mood is closer to the cynicism and corruption of Hammett and Chandler than to English crime writers of that time.  The British writer to whom Ambler is sometimes compared is Graham Greene, and the world Ambler scribes in this novel has more than a hint of Greeneland about it.  While Hammett and Chandler focused on cynicism and corruption at the level of city politics and local criminal activities, Ambler focuses on international politics and big business.  

Cause for Alarm concerns a British engineer working in the Milan office of a British engineering firm, who becomes involved in shady government contracts and espionage.  He would make a perfect hero for a 1930s Hitchcock movie, being basically honest and decent but also rather naïve.  In fact this book would have made a great 1930s Hitchcock movie!

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was, more than any other writer, responsible for popularising the gritty realist school of spy fiction. Epitaph for a Spy is the most famous of his early thrillers while Judgment on Deltchev is a good example of his later style.

Ambler’s style is crisp and pleasing, and he creates a very effective atmosphere of suspense and suspicion.  This leads up to an extended and very exciting chase.  Being the 1930s, the chase naturally involves trains, and you really can’t go wrong with a chase involving trains in the 1930s.  This is a very entertaining novel, with some very pertinent and still very relevant political aspects to it.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile is a 1937 Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, and it is in fact one of her best-known books.

There’s really very little one can say about Christie’s plotting that hasn’t been said before. Suffice to say that once again she delivers the goods.

Christie’s second husband was the archaeologist Max Mallowan and she often accompanied him on field trips. As a result she was very widely travelled in the Middle East and she made good use of this, setting many of her mysteries in this part of the world. And as you would expect, archaeology often plays a part in her stories. One of the suspects in Death on the Nile is an Italian archaeologist. Christie was always anxious not to become known for stereotyped country house settings and exotic locations were useful for adding a little spice. She was also keen on settings such as trains, aircraft and in this particular case a steamer on the River Nile. These proved to have all the advantages of traditional country house settings, with suspects confined to a small group of people, with some additional advantages of their own. 

It also helps that Poirot is the sort of character one can well imagine enjoying such trips. Of course it goes without saying that he does not approach foreign travel the way most people would. Poirot’s holidays are planned down to the smallest detail with nothing left to chance - he knows exactly where he is going to be at any given moment and is thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of varying his itinerary in even the smallest degree. Even his luggage is planned with with meticulous precision. Most people would expect to misplace one or two small items in all the confusion and excitement of travel, but not Poirot. Poirot’s obsessive-compulsive habits are always endearing but they are even more so when he is abroad. Travel involves a constant struggle to maintain order but Poirot is equal to the challenge.

Exotic locales also provide Christie with the opportunity to populate this novel with an array of exactly the kinds of colourful and eccentric characters you would expect to find on a steamer on the Nile in 1937, and to give the novel a nicely multi-national character. 

Poirot is a character who might have been obnoxiously arrogant in the hands of a lesser writer but Christie was well aware of the risks and balances her hero’s egotism with an essentially kindliness and a generally benevolent attitude towards humanity. Naturally Poirot’s tolerant disposition does not extend to murderers, of whom he disapproves most strongly, although even in the case of a murderer he can feel a degree of compassion. Poirot’s kindliness is put to the test in Death on the Nile. The first murder does not occur until well into the story but Poirot has been filled with forebodings right from the start. His great fear is that a particular character for whom he has a certain sympathy will be tempted to, in his words, open her heart to evil. In fact, while Christie never lost sight of entertainment as the primary objective of the detective story, it could be argued that this provides the theme of the novel - that murder is not inevitable, it is a choice.

As for the plot, it has more than enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery fan. One of the things that impresses me about Christie is that while alibis and other such technical details are handled with consummate skill she generally manages to present us with a solution that is psychologically satisfying as well.

Death on the Nile is a very highly regarded example of the genre and it has no difficulty in living up to its reputation. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Venetian Affair by Helen MacInnes

Helen MacInnes (1907-1985) was a very popular writer of spy fiction during her lifetime and unlike many thriller writers of her era her books remain in print. Her husband worked for MI6 for many years, which gives her books a feeling of authenticity. In fact it’s been suggested that she made use of classified material to which he had access. She was popular enough to see four of her spy thrillers adapted to film. The Venetian Affair, published in 1964, was made into a movie of the same name in 1967.

Her early books such as Above Suspicion deal with espionage in German-occupied Europe during World War 2. After the war she switched to Cold War themes, reflecting her strong dislike of totalitarianism. MacInnes was born in Scotland but became a US citizen in the early 1950s.

I’ve seen MacInnes’s books referred to as Ian Fleming for grownups, a comparison that is rather unfair. Fleming was in the grand tradition of early 20th century British thriller writers like John Buchan, H. C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond novels and Sax Rohmer (an influence which is often overlooked but which Fleming himself acknowledged). MacInnes belongs to a very different tradition, that of the dark-edged thrillers of betrayal which began with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene and led eventually to Len Deighton and John le Carré. Like Ambler MacInnes was fond of protagonists who are amateurs caught up reluctantly in the treacherous and dangerous world of espionage.

The protagonist of The Venetian Affair is very much of this type. Bill Fenner is an American theatre critic on his way to Paris for a sort of working holiday. On the plane he notices a large and very nervous man who looks distinctly unwell. On arrival at Orly this man collapses and there’s a certain amount of confusion. Fenner thinks little of this until he gets to his hotel and realises he has picked up the wrong coat by mistake. He has picked up the nervous man’s coat and when he examines it he finds a very disturbing surprise. Sewn into the lining is a package containing $100,000 in American currency. Reasoning that it is very unlikely that any man who goes around with that amount of money concealed in his coat would have come by the money honestly, and further reasoning that he is now in a slightly awkward position, he contacts the American consulate. 

As a result of that innocent mix-up with the coat Bill Fenner finds himself plunged into the murky world of espionage. The American security services already know about the money and they have their suspicions as to its purpose but they now need Bill Fenner’s help in unravelling a very dangerous conspiracy.

Fenner had been a foreign correspondent until his rather unpleasant divorce. He had discovered that his wife was a Soviet agent and that she had been using him for her own political purposes. So Fenner is not entirely a stranger to the world of international intrigue.

Fenner’s trip to Paris was also not quite as innocent as he had believed. His boss, the publisher of The Chronicle, had asked him to interview a French professor of Moral Philosophy. The professor had been involved with the Resistance during the war and now runs a kind of private intelligence-gathering network. And he has stumbled onto a vast communist plot involving the assassination of a major world leader and an attempt to use this assassination to discredit the US and to sow dissension between the US and its European allies.

These three plot strands - the interview with the French professor, Fenner’s divorce and the mix-up with the coat - will gradually be drawn together in Venice. 

MacInnes was known for her skillful use of exotic locations and that skill is very much to the fore in this novel.

If there’s a weakness to this story it’s a slightly excessive reliance on coincidence. Fortunately it’s not a serious flaw and MacInnes’s intricate plotting is generally effective. 

Betrayal is very much the theme in this novel. Espionage is not just an amusing pastime for bored theatre critics, it’s a vicious world of treason, personal treachery and deception. The world of espionage is a dangerous and unpleasant world but Bill Fenner is also very much aware that there are vital interests at stake and there is a very real moral dimension.  MacInnes was not one of those spy writers who saw espionage as a contest between two equally corrupt sides. There is good and evil, right and wrong, and evil does not go away if you try to ignore it.

MacInnes lacks the corrosive pessimism and cynicism of a le Carré or a Deighton, or even an Ambler. In spite of this (or possibly because of it) her popularity reached new heights in the 1960s. The Venetian Affair is a fine example of the realistic spy novel, and it’s thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Case of the Tudor Queen

Christopher Bush was an English writer of detective stories. I’ve seen at least three different birth dates given for him, ranging from 1881 to 1888. He died in 1973. He was successful enough in his day to earn his living as a full-time writer and to produce 63 mystery novels as well as a dozen thrillers. His work is long out of print and he has subsided into almost complete obscurity.

If Julian Symons had included Bush in his celebrated survey of the genre, Bloody Murder, it seems likely he would have consigned him to the Humdrum School.

The Case of the Tudor Queen appeared in 1938 and was the eighteenth of his mysteries featuring the team of Detective-Superintendent Wharton and private detective Ludovic Travers. Wharton is an old school copper and is perhaps just a little in the Colonel Blimp mode although he’s certainly no fool. Travers is a communist, and being a communist he is  of course upper-class. His solidarity with the working classes does not extend to working for a living himself, or to dispensing with his faithful servant Palmer. Travers is clearly wealthy and really seems more like an amateur detective than a working private detective. Wharton by contrast does not have a privileged background and had to work his way up through the ranks, which is why he does not share Travers’ political views. Thankfully these political views do not intrude on the story in any way.

Wharton and Travers stumble upon a couple of corpses. It seems to be a slightly bizarre double suicide but there are a few things that don’t quite add up.

One of the victims is Mary Legreye, a fairly well-known actress. She is around 35 years of age and has just had her first really significant success, starring as Mary Tudor in a hit play called Stoney Heart

While there does seem to be a possible motive for suicide neither Wharton nor Travers is quite convinced. If it’s murder then there are a number of possible suspects. The problem is that while the two detectives are unhappy with the suicide theory they can’t come up with a murder theory that works satisfactorily either.

Bush would appear to be something of a follower of Freeman Wills Crofts with alibis being the central focus of the (rather ingenious) plot. Everyone seems to have an alibi and the alibis seem to be unbreakable. This plot angle is handled in the kind of painstaking manner that characterises the work of Crofts, and it has to be said that it’s handled quite adroitly. Bush is more interested in how the crime might have been committed than in the issue of  who actually committed it, and while it might not be overly difficult to identity the probably criminal the means by which murder was done provides a satisfying and difficult puzzle. 

This book’s other great strength is the way the theatrical background is very cleverly and very intricately woven into the plot. Both Wharton and Travers suspect that the play itself contains the vital clue. They’re correct, but untangling the actual connection proves to be a formidable challenge.

Crofts fans are likely to enjoy this fairly short novel quite a bit. Golden age detective fans in general will find it worth checking out. Bush’s prose isn’t exactly dazzling but his two-detective team of crime-solvers works quite effectively and Bush offers the reader a crime with some bizarre touches and a suitably complex and well thought out solution. It’s not quite in the Crofts league but it’s a solid mystery. Recommended.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Greatest Adventure

Dr Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) was a distinguished Scottish-born mathematician who wrote science fiction novels under the name John Taine. His lost world science fiction tale The Greatest Adventure was published in 1929.

Lost world stories had been immensely popular ever since the publication of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines in 1885 and they remained popular until the 1930s.

The trick with lost world adventures was to keep coming up with new variations on the theme and The Greatest Adventure certainly achieves that. The cover illustration might lead the reader to expect just another “lost valley of the dinosaurs” story but Taine throws in some original twists.

By 1929 it was no longer really credible to set a lost world story in Africa or South America. The idea that a lost civilisation could still be undiscovered in a world with fewer and fewer unexplored places was starting to become a little far-fetched. The obvious solution was to locate your lost world in Antarctica, which is what Taine does. Antarctica had been used as a setting by Poe and the frozen wastes of the polar regions would be used by a couple of classic science fiction/horror stories in the 1930s - Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? In 1945 it would later be used in one of the last of the great lost world novels, Dennis Wheatley’s The Man Who Missed the War.

The Greatest Adventure is in some ways an anticipation of Lovecraft’s tale, being a story not just of adventure but also of unimaginable horror and cosmic evil.

It all starts with a sea captain trying to sell a strange specimen to Dr Eric Lane. Dr Lane is a biologist and medical researcher with a special interest in the more gruesome kinds of diseases. He is convinced that the answer to the conquest of disease can be found by studying diseases in the lower animals. As a result he has gained a reputation for being willing to pay high prices for anything strange that may be found in the sea. And what Captain Anderson has found is very strange indeed. It looks like the missing link between reptiles and birds. A well-preserved specimen of such a long-extinct creature is exciting enough but the really startling thing about this one is that Captain Anderson swears the creature was alive fifteen minuted before he hooked it. What’s even stranger is that upon examining the specimen Dr Lane is inclined to believe the grizzled old sea dog is telling the truth.

Dr Lane offers to do better than just buying the creature. He will finance an expedition to the place where Anderson found it (Dr Lane is extremely rich having been a successful businessman before taking up science full-time). Captain Anderson is delighted because for him the expedition will serve another purpose. He has reason to believe that the spot in question, on the shores of the Antarctic, contains not just strange animals but oil. Oil in very large quantities.

Dr Lane persuades his friend Drake to accompany the expedition. Drake is an expert in deciphering ancient inscriptions in the form of pictograms. Dr Lane wants him along because of some photographs that Captain Anderson’s first mate Old Hansen took, photographs of apparently very ancient inscriptions. Such inscriptions are not what you generally expect to find in Antarctica. Anderson and Hansen will be part of the expedition as will Dr Lane’s daughter Edith. Edith proves to be extremely useful, being an expert flyer. This is to be a high-tech expedition with its own aircraft.

What the expedition finds proves to be stranger than anyone could have expected although Dr Lane already has his suspicions, having noticed some very odd features about that creature Captain Anderson sold him. What they find is not merely strange but terrifying enough to threaten their collective sanity. They find dinosaurs, they find a lost civilisation, but they also discover a horrifying history of madness and evil.

The parallels between this novel and Lovecraft’s much better-known story really are quite striking. 

Taine’s prose style lacks the baroque excessiveness of Lovecraft but it’s quite serviceable. Taine adds quite a bit of humour to leaven the horror, much of the humour being provided by the first mate Ole Hansen, an indefatigable amateur scientist much given to bizarre and outlandish theories (some of which turn out to be surprisingly plausible). Hansen is a genuinely amusing character so the comic relief isn’t really irritating. 

Taine also shows himself well able to match better-known writers when it comes to flights of the imagination on an epic scale. The science is not always terribly convincing although it’s more plausible that that found in some other celebrated stories in this genre.

If you’re a fan of lost world adventures The Greatest Adventure is well worth seeking out. Very entertaining, and highly recommended.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) enjoyed considerable success as a writer of detective novels during the 1920s under the name Anthony Berkeley, one of the best-known of these books being The Poisoned Chocolates Case, published in 1929. In the 30s he would gain a reputation as a major innovator with his psychological crime novels such as Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact written under the name Francis Iles.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is one of the more interesting experiments in detective fiction and is a useful corrective for those who imagine that golden age detective fiction was characterised by rigid adherence to a formula. This book presents us with no less than six detectives who manage to come up with six different solutions to the same murder case.

Roger Sheringham, Berkeley’s main series detective, has finally achieved one of his great ambitions. He has brought into being the Crime Circle, a private club for criminologists. Membership of the circle is very select, being at this stage confined to just six members. Prospective members have to demonstrate their gifts as criminologists and must be accepted by a unanimous vote of the existing members.

Sheringham has now come up with what he conceives as a splendid exercise for the entertainment of the members. He has persuaded Chief Inspector Moresby to give the members a rather full rundown on the current progress of a case currently being investigated by Scotland Yard. The meeting of the Circle will then adjourn for a week to give each member the opportunity to put their criminological knowledge into practice by coming up with their own solution to the crime. Sheringham is confident that his Crime Circle will solve a case that has this far baffled the efforts of Scotland Yard. He also rather naturally hopes that his own solution will be the correct one since he seems to consider  the Crime Circle as existing to a large extent for the glorification of Roger Sheringham.

The crime in question is the murder of Mrs Bendix. Sir Eustace Pennefather, a rather notorious rake, received a box of chocolates through the mail addressed to him at his club. They were ostensibly a sample of a new line of liquer chocolates. Sir Eustace seemed annoyed rather than pleased by this unexpected largesse and gave the chocolates to a fellow member of his club, a wealthy young man named Bendix. Bendix took the chocolates home to his wife, who died after consuming half a dozen or so. Bendix himself, who had eaten only two of the chocolates, became seriously ill but recovered.

Perhaps surprisingly each member of the Crime Circle comes up with a very different solution to the case. Not only does each member point to a different killer, their methods of arriving at their conclusions differ quite sharply. As each member presents his or her solution they first set about systematically demolishing the solution presented by the preceding speaker.

Considered purely as a work of detective fiction this book might perhaps have been more effective had the reader been left in doubt as to the correctness of each member’s solution until the end of the book. My impression is however that Berkeley was not intending to produce a work of detective fiction so much as a satire upon the genre, and assuming this to be the case it is understandable that he would take great pleasure in having his amateur sleuths gleefully trash each other’s theories.

As a satire it is certainly effective, and undeniably very amusing. It also has to be admitted that some of its criticisms of the genre do have some validity, particularly the point that it is very easy for an armchair detective to make a strong case against almost anybody by being selective in the presentation of evidence and ignoring any evidence that would tend to weaken their pet theories.

Whether the book works as a detective novel is more difficult to say. By undermining the credibility of his various fictional detectives he can’t help to some extent also undermining his own credibility since he is presumably subject to the very same faults as they are. Of course when regarded as a satirical novel that factor can be considered as adding extra piquancy to the satire. As a detective novel it relies much too heavily on coincidence, but again if you assume that the book is meant primarily as satire then that was doubtless quite intentional.

My impression of this book is that it displays the same strengths as the Francis lles novels - it’s clever and witty and structurally unconventional. On the other hand it also displays the same flaws - it’s too much in love with its own cleverness and with technique for technique’s sake and the author seems to have considerable contempt for his own characters. 

While Roger Sheringham is exposed as a detective whose chief weakness is that he approaches crime purely as an intellectual game the same accusation could be leveled at Berkeley himself. That may well have been the author’s intention of course.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is certainly a very amusing read although overall it’s a book to be admired for its wit and its technique rather than one to be savoured as a work of detective fiction. Recommended, with reservations.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Alistair MacLean's Night Without End

In the late 1950s Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) established himself as one of the premier British thriller writers and by the 1960s he was one of the world’s bestselling novelists. MacLean’s popularity was starting to falter by the 80s and continued to decline thereafter although his books remain in print in the UK. Night Without End was his fifth book, appearing in 1959.

No less than fifteen of his books were made into movies, including major box-office hits such as The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

MacLean’s first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, was a war novel based on the author’s own experiences in the Royal Navy during World War 2, experiences that had included service on two of the Arctic convoys to Russia. H.M.S. Ulysses was notable for its graphic depictions of the harsh Arctic conditions and after he switched to writing thrillers he would return to such settings again and again. Such conditions were of course ideal for thrillers. They provided opportunities for MacLean to place his characters in extreme danger in isolated locations and they also meant that his heroes would be fighting as much against the harsh and potentially deadly weather as against the bad guys.

The hero of Night Without End is Dr Peter Mason. He’s both a medical doctor and a geologist and he’s part of a scientific team based in Greenland, right in the middle of the ice sheet and many hundreds of miles from any habitation. With him are Jackstraw, a half-Danish half-Eskimo scientist, and radio operator Joss London. The other members of the scientific team are currently engaged on a field trip hundreds of miles away. Conditions at the base camp are rather primitive but the three men are accustomed to the Arctic.

Being about as far away from civilisation as you can get while still remaining on planet Earth the three are naturally somewhat surprised to hear an aircraft approaching. The only aircraft likely to be anywhere in the vicinity would be US bombers from the Strategic Air Command on exercises or meteorological aircraft from the air base at Thule in the northwest corner of the island. But such aircraft would not be flying at low altitude and this aircraft is flying at very low altitude indeed. So low that it can only be in trouble. 

The aircraft is in very big trouble and makes a crash landing nearby. To the amazement of Mason and Jackstraw it is a British BOAC airliner, a very very long way from where it should be. There are only a few passengers on board of whom nine plus the stewardess survive the crash. The base camp is certainly not equipped to feed and house ten additional people including several who are injured. Obviously the best thing to do is to radio the field team or the expedition’s base camp at Uplavnik. That’s exactly what Mason intends to do but that idea goes out the window when the camp’s powerful radio transmitter gets smashed. That’s a worrying enough incident but Mason has a great deal more to worry about when he discovers that the airliner’s pilot and one of the passengers did not die in the crash - they were shot dead at close range. The terrifying conclusion cannot be escaped that one of the surviving passengers is a murderer. Actually it’s worse than that, since the pilot and the dead passenger were shot simultaneously in different sections of the aeroplane with guns of different calibre. That means there are two murderers.

Having now no way of making contact with the outside world Mason has no means of finding out what might be behind the murders. And there is not enough food for thirteen people. The only option is to set out for the coast but with the field team having taken the only modern Sno-Cat with them they will have to make the journey in the backup snow tractor, an ancient pre-war Citroën of extremely dubious reliability. They are faced with a very long journey in an antique snow tractor with two seriously ill people and virtually no food, and with the knowledge that two members of the party are ruthless murderers.

Of course it goes without saying that there is more than murder involved. MacLean liked elaborate conspiracies, especially if they involved espionage, and even more especially if the stakes were high. The stakes here are very high indeed. 

It’s a classic setup for an exciting thriller and MacLean exploits it skillfully. He’s sparing with the action scenes, preferring to rely on suspense and atmosphere. And he provides plenty of both.

It’s easy to point to flaws in MacLean’s writing. His ear for dialogue fails him at times. He makes excessive use of foreshadowing. His characterisation is basic at best. And the romantic sub-plot falls hopelessly flat (MacLean’s romantic sub-plots were always very weak). None of this really matters. The characters have enough distinctiveness for his purposes and the book demonstrates his very real skills which prove to be more than adequate compensations for his weaknesses.

The Arctic always inspired MacLean’s considerable descriptive abilities and those abilities are displayed here to their best possible advantage. You’ll find yourself checking your own fingers and toes for frostbite, and trying to take shelter from the blizzards. He certainly knew how to build and maintain suspense. And he knew how to construct intricate plots and how to make them work. He had in fact all the strengths that a thriller writer requires while the weaknesses of his writing were in areas that were more or less irrelevant for his purposes.

In 1959 MacLean was just starting to reach his peak as a thrillerr writer and Night Without End ticks all the right boxes. An author who does not deserve the relative oblivion into which he has fallen. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp fiction

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was one of the most successful crime fiction writers of all time, selling well over 300 million books in his lifetime. In the ten years before the publication of his first Perry Mason novel in 1933 he was an incredibly prolific (and incredibly popular) writer of pulp fiction. He aimed to write 1,200,000 words a year and usually achieved his target. That’s impressive enough but becomes awe-inspiring when you consider he was still holding down a day job as a lawyer. In one year Gardner sold no less than ninety-seven stories. This was a man who could write a full-length novel in three-and-a-half days.

Gardner’s pulp stories have been overshadowed by the success of the Perry Mason books, and have been somewhat unjustly neglected. The early Perry Mason novels are interesting in that they are stylistically fairly hard-boiled but structurally they’re pure plot-driven golden age detective stories. His early pulp stories are, not surprisingly, somewhat more hard-boiled but Gardner always gave due attention to plotting. He has been accused of being a formulaic writer. There’s some truth to that, but then all genre fiction is (and has to be) formulaic to some degree. Gardner has never really been given enough credit for his ability to create consistently satisfying plots within those formula boundaries.

I’ve been exploring some of Gardner’s pulp stories, featuring three of his series characters,  and they’re quite impressive.

Come and Get It was one of the many stories Gardner wrote featuring Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. It’s more correct to describe him as an ex-crook because he’s now an amateur crime-fighter. Former thieves turned crime-fighter were immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, with Blackshirt and Simon Templar (The Saint) being among the best-known. 

In this story Ed Jenkins has to foil a blackmail plot against society girl Helen Chadwick and in order to do so he has firstly to foil a very ingenious scheme for a jewel heist. The clever plot involves an armoured car. This is very definitely  hard-boiled story, and a good one. It appeared in Black Mask in 1927.

Honest Money, which appeared in Black Mask in late 1932, was the first of a number of stories featuring lawyer-detective Ken Corning. Gardner only spent one month at law school but taught himself enough about the law to pass the California Bar exam in 1911. Being a lawyer who wrote pulp crime stories it was a fairly obvious move to create a hero who would combine the functions of attorney and detective. Corning was a kind of dry run for Perry Mason, although there are some minor differences between the two characters. Corning is a struggling an idealistic young attorney while Mason is a famous and well-established trial lawyer. It has to be said that while both men pursue unconventional methods Ken Corning seems to have a rather higher regard for legal ethics - for Perry Mason legal ethics are whatever you can get away with without being disbarred. Mason is the more interesting character but the Ken Corning stories gave Gardner the opportunity to experiment with what was at the time the fairly novel idea of a lawyer-detective.

Honest Money sees Corning pitted against corrupt city officials. His first case seems like a fairly minor affair. A woman who runs a speakeasy has been arrested for offering a cop a bribe. There are a few puzzling details about the case that lead Corning to suspect that something much bigger is behind this. The Perry Mason novels usually involve a climactic court-room scene but there are no such scenes in this story. By this time Gardner knew what Black Mask readers wanted and he probably felt they’d be more interested in gunplay than in points of law. 

The Cat-Woman is another Ed Jenkins story. This time around Jenkins has had some financial disasters and he allows himself to be persuaded to resume his life of crime. Or at least he is persuaded to become involved in something that is at best legally dubious. He is to steal a necklace and kidnap a girl, but he’ll be provided with signed statements from the owner of the necklace, giving him permission to steal it, and from the girl, giving him permission to kidnap her. You might think this all sounds pretty suspicious, and that’s exactly what Ed Jenkins thinks. But $10,000 for not actually committing a crime is a tempting offer. Of course it all turns out to be very complicated indeed, and while Ed Jenkins is drawn into a criminal conspiracy he still manages to be a hero. The story was published in Black Mask in 1927 and for a short story it contains an amazing amount of plot complexity. A clever and very entertaining tale.

Ed Jenkins features again in a 1930 Black Mask story, Hell’s Kettle. This is a very hard-boiled story indeed, with a prodigious body count and a climax involving not just machine-guns but hand grenades as well. It’s as tough and violent a story as you’re ever likely to encounter. Again he makes effective use of Ed Jenkins as a character trapped between the police and the underworld. Jenkins is a fairly typical pulp hero but with a few intriguing features. There’s a hint of tragedy about him - no matter how hard he tries to escape the world of crime he knows he will never entirely succeed and will always remain an outsider. He deals with this philosophically. Gardner had no interest in self-pity and he wasn’t likely to create a hero who indulged in such emotions. There is however just a touch more complexity to Jenkins than you expect to find in a two-fisted pulp hero. Gardner was often criticised for his poor characterisation, a criticism that seems a little unfair. Both Jenkins and later Perry Mason have some interesting character ambiguities.

The Monkey Murder, published in Detective Story in 1939, features yet another Gardner series character, Lester Leith. Leith is another variation on the gentleman-thief and is in fact pretty much an American Simon Templar - he steals but he only steals from other criminals. Such characters usually have a police officer who is determined to hunt them down. The war of wits between the gentleman-thief and his would-be nemesis is an essential ingredient to such tales. Gardner adds a nice touch - Leith’s faithful butler is actually a police spy. And he adds yet another clever twist - Leith knows all about it but doesn’t care because it just adds spice to his adventures. 

It’s an intricately-plotted and very entertaining story. It’s not the least bit hard-boiled, the style is light-hearted and breezy, and it’s very very close in flavour to Leslie Charteris’s work (which had become enormously popular in the US in the late 30s).

Gardner developed a thorough understanding of the fiction market. He could produce exactly the sorts of tough blood-drenched stories that Black Mask readers liked, and when he started writing the Perry Mason books he took a much more sophisticated approach although the pulp influence was still very apparent in the early Mason novels. Gardner was ambitious for success and he had the persistence to achieve it, and the flexibility to vary his style to suit whichever market he aimed at. He seemed to be able to vary his approach at will. 

He was also hard-headed. When Perry Mason was adapted to television Gardner negotiated the kind of contract most writers can only dream about, a contract that gave him casting approval and final approval of all scripts, in fact virtually complete artistic control. He had the right to veto any suggestions from the network and he exercised that right with enthusiasm.

Despite the immense popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime Gardner’s Perry Mason novels are now somewhat under-appreciated. His pulp fiction is even more neglected and deserves to be rediscovered in a big way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain was the fourth of Len Deighton’s spy novels featuring an unnamed agent of a British intelligence service. When the novels were filmed in the 1960s the character was given the name Harry Palmer.

Deighton’s novels are in many ways the antithesis of the James Bond novels. Deighton’s spy is working class, wears glasses and lives in a slightly seedy flat. Unlike Bond he is less than enthusiastic about being a spy, and even less enthusiastic about obeying orders. He is on the other hand an excellent cook and quite the gourmet and despite his slightly down-at-heel appearances he is by no means a mere thug, nor is he a bungler or a fool. He is something of a closet intellectual and can quote Virgil if the occasion demands it (as it does in his novel). It’s probably fair to say that he is quite a bit like Deighton himself.

Deighton’s hero may not be enthusiastic about his work but he is a thorough professional and has no patience whatsoever with amateurs. When things go wrong, as they frequently do, it is usually because he has not been given all the information he needs or because he has been set up by his superiors by mysterious purposes of their own.

Deighton and John le Carré were seen in the 1960s as ushering in a new era in spy fiction, cynical and realistic and in stark contrast to the glamour of James Bond. Which makes Billion Dollar Brain rather surprising. The plot for this novel is at times outlandish and completely over-the-top - in fact it could quite easily have formed the basis for a Bond film. Convoluted and deceptive plotting was one of the hallmarks of Deighton’s spy fiction right from the start but in this novel the plotting becomes quite spectacularly baroque. As is often the the case with Deighton though, just as you think you know where the plot is going it goes somewhere else entirely.

It all starts out as a very routine case involving a troublesome left-wing Finnish journalist. In Helsinki Deighton’s anonymous spy stumbles upon what proves to be a vast private anti-communist intelligence operation run by a fabulously wealthy American billionaire, General Midwinter. Midwinter’s ambitions go well beyond mere intelligence-gathering and propaganda. He seems to be intending to overthrow the Soviet Union single-handedly. To carry out his ambitious plans he has had a computer built from him. Not just a computer, but a super-computer, a computer capable of running intelligence operations on its own.

The central character in the novel is not really the unnamed narrator but his old friend Harvey Newbegin. Newbegin is an American and to say that his loyalties are uncertain would be putting it mildly. Harvey used to be a professional American spy but now he works for General Midwinter’s organisation. Harvey is however a man to whom duplicity and betrayal are second nature. He thinks he is clever enough to play off his new employer against the Russians while betraying both parties. It’s a dangerous game and while he is a skillful manipulator it’s obvious that sooner or later he’s going to land himself in very deep trouble, and then he expects that his old friend in British intelligence will come to his rescue.

His old friend in British intelligence has his own problems and while he has a certain affection for Newbegin there are limits to his patience. 

Complicating matters further is Newbegin’s girlfriend Signe, who is playing her own game and who proves to be just as skillful at manipulation.

Deighton’s approach might be deliberately unheroic but he certainly has style and his prose is sardonic and drily humorous, and a good deal more entertaining than le Carré’s. Deighton also has the ability to construct plots of byzantine complexity without becoming tedious, and without becoming impossibly obscure. His plots twist and turn in spectacular fashion but while his protagonists are often hopelessly unaware of what is really going on he is careful to ensure that the reader is not left in similar confusion. Deighton’s plots might be convoluted but they do make sense.

Billion Dollar Brain is a complex, intelligent, stylish and thoroughly entertaining spy novel. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rex Stout’s The Red Box

The Red Box was the fourth of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. It was published in 1937. While they are fine examples of golden age detective fiction the biggest attraction of the Nero Wolfe books is quite definitely Nero Wolfe himself - he is one of the most deliriously outrageous of all fictional detectives. He is so outrageous that he is in danger of self-parody but this is a danger that Stout manages to avoid.

The Red Box includes one element of which I’m extremely fond and that is found in quite a few golden age detective tales - a bizarre and outlandish murder method. There are actually three murders in the book and all three are somewhat outlandish but it’s the third that really delighted me. I’m certainly not going to spoil it but I will mention that it involves adhesive tape and as Wolfe points out it’s a remarkably economical murder method, involving an outlay of around fifteen cents.

The first of the three murders involves a box of candy. Boxes of chocolate were quite a popular way of murdering people in golden age detective stories. In this case it is fortunate  that the candy selection involved did not include caramels. Had it included caramels Nero Wolfe’s task might have been made even more difficult.

Stout throws in plenty of standard crime fiction ingredients. There’s an eccentric will. There’s a mystery with its roots in the past. There’s more than one suspect with a secret to hide. The ingredients are expertly blended and the results are delicious.

Nero Wolfe is at his idiosyncratic best. This case begins with an event that is not quite unprecedented but certainly very unusual - Wolfe actually leaves his West 35th Street brownstone to visit the scene of the crime. In a nice piece of symmetry a later scene of the crime will come to visit West 35th Street. 

As usual Wolfe and his indefatigable assistant Archie Goodwin will spend a good deal of time trying to avoid offering too much cooperation to the police. 

Archie will also have to deal with a relapse by Wolfe, although in this case he manages to head it off before too much harm is done and too much time is lost. A great deal of beer will be consumed by Nero Wolfe. Of course we never doubt that Wolfe will solve the mystery but in order to get the necessary proof he will have to take a considerable chance, relying on an elaborate and risky bluff.

I’ve been reading the Nero Wolfe novels in sequence (in other words in publication order). I’m not sure that there’s any real necessity to read them that way. It’s more of a personal whim.

The Red Box is a treat for golden age detective fans. Highly recommended.