Thursday, January 30, 2014

Len Deighton’s Horse Under Water

Horse Under Water, published in 1963, was Len Deighton’s second novel and also the second of the four novels that are usually thought of as the Harry Palmer novels, that being the name given to Deighton’s hero (played by Michael Caine) in the film adaptations. In the books the hero remains nameless.

Deighton and John Le Carré are usually considered to have been the originators of a new breed of dark, realistic and cynical spy novels. While Le Carré is the better known of the two today Deighton was at least as good and his novels are essential reading for any self-respecting fan of espionage fiction.

The labyrinthine plot twists of Horse Under Water are typically Deighton. His unnamed spy is sent on a mission about which he has serious misgivings but the purpose of the mission is not what he thinks it is. It is also not what his boss Dawlish thinks it is. In fact nobody seems to be entirely clear about what the mission is really about. Spies are after all as much cogs in the machines of politics and bureaucracy as any other civil servants, and no civil servant expects the decisions of politicians and bureaucrats to make any real sense.

Initially the idea is to retrieve a cache of counterfeit money from a German U-boat that sank off the Portuguese coast in 1945. The Nazis had printed huge amounts of remarkably good counterfeit money, their intention being to use it to destabilise the currencies of the Allies. Now some genius in the Foreign Office has decided it would be a very clever idea to  use this counterfeit money to pay Portuguese revolutionaries. That way the British government could gain some influence over the revolutionaries if they succeed in toppling the Portuguese government while at the same time not ending up out of pocket if the revolutionaries fail.

Our hero is sent off to do a Royal Navy diving course and is then off to Portugal to take charge of the operation and of a motley collection of individuals who are supposed to assist him. None of whom he trusts. Finding the sunken U-boat is easy enough. But our hero makes some other discoveries as well, discoveries that lead him to suspect that nothing about this operation is what it seems to be. And just as he starts to work out what might be going on he finds that there are further wheels within wheels and further layers of duplicity to unravel.

Deighton’s hero does not have the luxury of having someone like Q to fit him out with all sorts of high-tech gadgetry. He works for the real British government of the 1960s, cash-strapped and penny-pinching. He isn’t even issued a gun although Dawlish does hint in a roundabout way that if he were to take his own gun a blind eye would be turned, on the assumption of course that he is careful not to use it. That’s par for the course although our hero does think it’s a bit much that he has to fork out his own money for the diving gear he will need. He’ll get his money back, on the assumption of course that he will be able to return it to the Royal Navy diving school in undamaged condition.

There are several potential villains, none of whom turn out to be what they seemed to be. The potential villains on the spot in Portugal are worrying enough but there are also political strings being pulled back in London. There seem to be an awful lot of people with an interest in that sunken U-boat. In fact the interest in the U-boat strikes the unnamed spy  as being very curious. Why would so many people be interested in a totally obsolete submarine that has been sitting on the sea bed since 1945? It’s a relic from a war that has been over for almost twenty years. What secrets could it possibly contain that would be relevant now?

This is spy fiction of a very different kind from James Bond. There’s relatively little action and when acts of violence do occur they come unexpectedly. That’s not to say that it’s dull. There’s plenty of tension and plenty of suspense as the plot twists and turns. There’s danger, but it’s a brooding menacing kind of danger, it’s danger that can take the characters (and the book’s readers) off their guard.

Deighton was slightly unusual in that he didn’t always stick to the Cold War themes that were usual in 1963. In a 1960s Deighton spy novel enemies were not always found in the expected places. Spies are not always set to watch enemies; sometimes friends need even closer watching.

Deighton’s style suits his subject matter. It’s unheroic, often matter-of-fact, and occasionally humorous (in a black sort of way). His world of espionage is entirely lacking in  glamour and also in passion. People sometimes get killed but no-one gets emotional about it. As his hero explains to his girlfriend (who works for the same intelligence agency) there is no room for vendettas or for emotional feelings about the job in this world. If an agent gets killed that’s just part of the job. Deighton’s genius is that he could make this very unglamorous world so fascinating.

Horse Under Water is superior spy fiction from one of the masters. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Corpse with the Grimy Glove (AKA More Than One Serpent)

The Corpse with the Grimy Glove (that was the US title the original British title being More Than One Serpent)  was the thirteenth of R. A. J. Walling’s twenty-two mysteries featuring private detective Philip Tolefree. It appeared in 1938.

R. A. J. Walling (1869-1949) was born in Exeter in England and spent his professional life as a successful newspaperman. He took to writing late in life. His first novel was published in 1927 and the first of the Philip Tolefree mysteries appeared in 1932.

Tolefree is clearly a man of birth and education but he lacks the spectacular aristocratic pretensions of a Lord Peter Wimsey. He does however view the world with a slightly ironic eye. His methods are, on occasions, slightly unconventional. He has no animus against the police but he does sometimes neglect to tell them things when perhaps he should have done so. Tolefree however is no rebel. He believes implicitly in the law and in justice. He simply prefers to pursue his investigations entirely independently.

His Watson is a shipbroker named Farrar who narrates the novels. Like most Watsons Farrar is not unintelligent but he is generally quite unable to follow the workings of Tolefree’s mind once the latter is on the scent of a criminal.

Given that Walling spent his entire life in the West Country it’s no surprise that this detective novel takes that part of England as its setting, and uses that setting very effectively.

Tolefree has been invited to the ancient and rather impressive dwelling place of Sir James Lanivet. The baronet is a local figure of great importance in the small seaside town of Bossena. Almost everybody in the town, and in the surrounding area, is either a tenant of Lanivet’s or is in some way dependent on the family. This will prove to be a factor of major significance.

Sir James has another guest, and a rather surprising one, in the person of a City financier of evil reputation named Tenterton. Tenterton has been implicated in several financial scandals and is widely regarded as a swindler. The real surprise, to Tolefree’s way of thinking, is that Tenterton does not seem to be very happy to be in Bosenna and is not there entirely of his own free will. The reason that Tenterton does not wish to be there will prove to be the key to the unravelling of a murder that is about to take place.

The plot is interesting and ambitious involving, even by the standards of detective fiction, an extraordinary number of people with dark secrets and ambiguous motives. Not necessarily motives for murder, but motives for actions that have the effect of making the solution of the mystery more troublesome for Philip Tolefree.

The only other of Walling’s Tolefree novels that I’ve read is The Corpse in Green Pyjamas (British title The Cat and the Corpse). It was published in 1935 and had a somewhat whimsical feel, as if Walling was enjoying himself having a bit of a romp with mystery novel clichés. By comparison The Corpse with the Grimy Glove has a slightly darker tone although it’s not without its occasional lighter moments.

Interesting, both novels have moments that suggest that the author may well have had a fondness for gothic fiction.

Walling has an easy-going writing style which suits the easy-going personality of his hero quite well.

While I’ve described Tolefree as easy-going it should not be assumed that he is lacking in tenacity or willpower. He can be stubborn and he can be forceful when the occasion demands. An affable exterior is a useful asset for a detective.

Perhaps one can say much the same thing about Walling as a writer. His free and easy style belies the fact that he clearly took detective fiction quite seriously. Walling is a writer I could easily become very fond of. The Corpse with the Grimy Glove is thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Friday, January 24, 2014

my new cult television blog

I’ve started a new cult TV blog

It will be devoted to cult TV series from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s (with very occasional forays into the early 80s) with most of the emphasis on the 60s and 70s.

Most of the series I’ll be blogging about will be from the science fiction, espionage and action/adventure genres although other genres will be included from time to time.

It will cover pretty much the same ground as my old LiveJournal cult TV community (which still survives).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Master of Mysteries

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith (1844–1914) wrote under the name L. T. Meade, producing countless stories for girls. She also wrote in a variety of other genres, including mysteries and occult detective stories. Most of these were co-authored with Eustace Robert Barton (1854–1943) who wrote under the name Robert Eustace.

A Master of Mysteries, published in 1898, is one of their collections of what could be described as occult detective stories although in fact the hero of these stories, John Bell, is man who specialises in finding rational explanations for apparently occult or inexplicable events such as hauntings. The explanations usually involve a crime, and it is generally a strange and outlandish crime.

This slim volume comprises six stories. The first two stories, The Mystery of the Circular Chamber and The Warder of the Door, are relatively conventional stories of this type dealing with a haunted room in an old house and a family curse involving a door that must always be guarded. The explanations are rational enough although they are also pleasingly bizarre.

In The Mystery of the Felwyn Tunnel Bell must solve a series of unexplained deaths that have occurred near a railway tunnel. Murder is suspected and the police have a suspect but Bell is not so sure that these events are as clear-cut as they seem.

With The Eight-Mile Lock things get a lot stranger. Bell is fairly sure he knows who was responsible for the theft of a very valuable diamond necklace but he needs to discover how the theft was carried out. The methods turns out to be spectacularly bizarre. Like many of the stories of these authors, in this and other collections, the method involves technology that was very high-tech indeed in the 1890s. The authors were clearly fascinated by technology and gadgetry and this fascination is one of the greatest strengths of their stories. At times, as in the story, we are almost approaching what today would be described as steampunk.

The solution to the mystery of How Siva Spoke involves a delightfully outrageous piece of gadgetry, not perhaps high-tech but certainly incredibly ingenious. An eccentric elderly man who has embraced the religion of Brahminism is convinced that he is receiving messages from an idol of the god Siva. As a result of this he is about to be committed to an asylum. Bell has serious doubts as to whether the man is really mad, but at the same time the old gentleman is adamant that the idol really speaks to him. Bell fears that the consequences may be more serious than a committal to an asylum.

To Prove an Alibi also relies on a clever piece of gadgetry, in fact several pieces of gadgetry, and Bell is faced with a thrilling race against time to save the life of an old friend.

The stories are similar in tone to another excellent collection by these two authors, The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings, which recounts the crimes of the evil Madame Koluchy, one of fiction’s finest female diabolical criminal masterminds.

It’s the pseudoscientific gadgetry that is the great appeal of these stories and the authors certainly possessed fertile imaginations in this area. These are not stories to be taken too seriously but they are enormous fun and they do provide some genuine chills and thrills. A Master of Mysteries is delightful offbeat entertainment and is recommended.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Canary Murder Case

The Canary Murder Case was the second of S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries. It appeared in 1927 and was a huge bestseller, putting its author at the top of the tree as far as American crime writers were concerned.

The Canary is Broadway musical comedy star Margaret Odell. As successful as she was on the stage she was even more successful as a blackmailer. I say was, because the book opens with Odell’s murder.

A celebrity murder is bad enough but this case brings with it even more headaches for District Attorney Markham. It all hinges on the unusual layout of Odell’s apartment building.  The murderer could only have entered by the front entrance, and in doing so would certainly have been seen by the telephone operator on duty in an alcove off the main hallway. There are several suspects who might well have had, and in fact almost did have, very strong motives for murdering the Canary. But the layout of the building and the evidence of the telephone operator both conspire to make it absolutely impossible for any of the suspects to have been in Odell’s apartment at the time of her murder.

The impossibility of the crime is dismaying to the DA but it does not bother his friend, the celebrated amateur detective Philo Vance. As he explains to Markham, lawyers rely far too much on facts.

While the initial emphasis of the plot is on the seemingly impossible nature of the crime the alibis of the suspects will become increasingly important. Philo Vance however is more interested in the psychology of the killer. The nature of the crime and the way in which it was carried out are enough to tell him precisely the sort of person who must have committed it, and they tell him the sorts of people who could not possibly have done so. Vance does not rely on intuition, or at least he would strenuously deny such an allegation. To Vance the psychology of murder is an exact science.

This is the type of detective technique that is fairly difficult to bring off with complete success but Van Dine manages it very successfully in this intricately-plotted book. Which is not to say that alibis and other such items so beloved of lawyers are ignored. This is a book with a kind of double solution - Vance’s psychological insights might be able to tell him who killed the Canary but there’s still the annoying difficulty of those apparently unbreakable alibis, and juries do tend to make rather a fuss about unbreakable alibis. As Vance would say, it’s most distressin’.

Philo Vance is perhaps the most divisive of all the great fictional detectives. Readers who dislike him tend to do so with an extraordinary and ferocious intensity, mocking his pretensions to aristocratic breeding, erudition and high culture. His fans are equally passionate in his defence, and love everything about him that the Vance-haters dislike. I personally find him to be highly amusing and thoroughly engaging but I can see how others would respond differently. Van Dine’s writing style is perfectly in tune with his hero so that if you’re a Philophile it increases your enjoyment even further while if you’re a Philophobe it will merely increase your irritation.

If you fall into the pro-Vance camp then this book is of course essential reading being generally regarded as Van Dine very close to the top of his form, an opinion with which I wholeheartedly concur. If you’re yet to sample Van Dine’s crime fiction then this is an ideal starting point. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Exorcist

The enormous success of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist triggered a boom in supernatural horror fiction. The film version that followed about a year later (scripted by Blatty) triggered off an equivalent boom in mainstream big-budget supernatural horror movies.

Whether The Exorcist is actually a horror novel or not is a point open to debate. The novel was intended more as a novel about faith than as a horror story, a point that was lost to a considerable extent in the movie.

On the surface The Exorcist is about a 12-year-old girl named Regan McNeill who may or may not be the victim of demonic possession. In fact Regan is not the focus of the book at all. The real central character is a Catholic priest, Father Damien Karras. Karras is also a psychiatrist. And he is also, by birth, a Jew. Karras has to a very large extent lost his faith. He has not entirely succumbed to despair but he can feel himself heading that way. He feels lost, and also useless. His job is to counsel priests but how can he do that if he himself no longer believes?

Regan’s mother is movie star Chris McNeill. Chris is divorced but managing fairly well (being rich certainly helps). In fact everything seems to be going well for the McNeill household which also includes Chris’s secretary Sharon Spencer and two Austrian servants, Karl and Willie.

Then odd things begin to happen. Regan complains of a strange burning smell in her bedroom, and claims to hear rapping sounds. This is not too disturbing but things will soon get much worse. Regan’s behaviour starts to change. The changes become progressively more unsettling and the odd unexplained events become more frequent and more worrying.

The doctors are perplexed by Regan’s case. They can think of any number of physical ailments that might explain her condition but every test they run to try to confirm a diagnosis comes out negative. Eventually one doctor, as a last resort, suggests that this might be a case of demonic possession and that an exorcism might be the answer. He makes it clear that he does not actually believe in either demonic possession or exorcism, but his view is that Regan may well believe she is possessed and that an exorcism might convince her that she is cured. He happens to know a Jesuit priest who is also a psychiatrist who might be just the man to deal with such a puzzling case.

The Jesuit priest is Father Damien Karras. We have already been following his story which has been running through the novel in parallel to Regan’s story.

Despite being a priest Karras also does not actually believe in either demonic possession or exorcism. He is a rationalist. That is why he has lost his faith. He demands rational scientific proof of God’s existence, and not having found this his faith has been gradually ebbing away. Although he has serious doubts about his ability to help anybody he is persuaded to take on Regan’s case.

There is a major complication. Chris’s friend, movie director Burke Dennings, has been found dead at the bottom of a steep flight of steps next to Chris McNeill’s house. Detective-Lieutenant William Kinderman is not happy about what initially appeared to be a case of accidental death. It is Karras’s fears as to what might really have happened to Dennings that convinces him to take on Regan’s case.

We have now come to the core of the book. Karras knows that the Church hierarchy will not sanction an exorcism unless there is clear evidence that demonic possession is the only possible explanation for Regan’s condition. Karras begins a painstaking process of reviewing the medical evidence and interviewing both Regan and the demon that has supposedly possessed her, looking for anything that would point in absolutely unequivocal fashion to possession. He finds plenty, but every time he finds one such indication he finds another indication that seems to point just as unequivocally in the other direction. Despite his exhausting labours the case still seems ambiguous and Karras remains hesitant about exorcism. Eventually his hand will be forced but it is only at the very end that Karras will find that he was seeking, although not in the way that he expected.

The real point of the book is that Karras slowly starts to accept the idea of demonic possession his faith slowly revives. If there really is such a thing as transcendent evil then, as he sees it, there must also be transcendent good. If the Devil exists, God must also exist. While to some people the existence of evil is an obstacle to faith, to Karras it is an aid to faith. It provides the certainty he has been so desperately seeking.

Karras’s reasoning might not appeal to every reader but there is a certain logic to it. It might even be, in some cases, a partial explanation for the popularity of the occult and even of horror fiction in a largely secular world. Evil can give a certain meaning to a world that otherwise seems meaningless, and (following Karras’s and presumably Blatty’s reasoning) absolute evil can be seen as to a certain extent implying the existence of absolute good. Not every reader is going to agree with Blatty’s logic but if you hope to appreciate his novel it is necessary to understand where he’s coming from.

Given that Blatty was actually more interested in Father Karras’s spiritual struggles than in telling a straightforward horror story the obvious question is - does The Exorcist actually work as a horror novel? I think it does, although it works in a way that does not particularly appeal to me. The descriptions of Regan’s sufferings are confronting, graphic and genuinely shocking. And at times deeply disgusting. This novel upped the ante in horror fiction to a spectacular degree. It ushered in the era of modern horror with its increasing reliance on grossing out the reader.

Whatever one’s personal feelings about this very visceral approach to horror it cannot be denied that The Exorcist packs a major punch. More than forty years after its publication it has not lost its power to shock. The fact that Blatty had a reason for using this approach, other than a mere desire to shock, gives the book a power that is lacking in many modern novels that are superficially more extreme.

It’s worth pointing out that there are a number of differences, mostly of emphasis, that make the novel considerably more effective than the movie.

It’s also worth remembering that the novel was intended by its author to be essentially optimistic.

Whether you take it as a horror novel or as a serious novel about belief The Exorcist is not easily forgotten.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Payment Deferred

C. S. Forester (1899-1966) gained fame as the author of the Hornblower naval adventure novels. He wrote two crime novels, the first being Payment Deferred in 1926.

R. Austin Freeman had invented the “inverted” detective story prior to the First World War. The idea was that the identity of the murderer was revealed at the beginning of the book, the rest of the book being devoted to showing how the murderer was unmasked and brought to justice. In the early 1930s Anthony Berkeley Cox, writing under the pen-name Francis Iles, attracted a great deal of praise by adding a strong psychological dimension to the inverted detective story. In Malice Aforethought in 1931 and Before the Fact the following year the emphasis is almost entirely on the psychology of the murderer and it is the murderer’s psychological flaws that are his undoing. There are no detectives and no actual process of detection at all.

In fact C. S. Forester had beaten Iles to the punch by five years with Payment Deferred. In this novel every element that critics praise in Iles’ work is already in place. And like Iles’ novels Payment Deferred is liberally laced with wry black comedy.

Will Marble is a middle-aged bank clerk. He is married with two children and lives in a very modest suburban house. Mr Marble has a problem. He is chronically unable to live within his income. He is inclined to blame his wife’s extravagance for his financial problems although he also, somewhat unwillingly, admits that his own irresponsibility is at least as much to blame. The situation has become so serious that Mr Marble can see no way out. Not only is there no possibility of clearing his debts; when his inability to pay those debts can be concealed no longer dismissal from his position at the bank is a certainty. He knows he has little chance of getting another job. And the crisis in his affairs is likely to occur very soon.

Then a way out unexpectedly presents itself. It will involve murder, but as luck would have it the circumstances are such that it is virtually impossible that the crime could ever be brought home to Mr Marble. The perfect murder has been more or less dropped into his lap.

The murder is easily accomplished but of course there will eventually be a price to be paid. The payment may be deferred for a considerable length of time but it cannot be deferred indefinitely.

In an indirect manner the murder is responsible for offering Mr Marble another unexpected opportunity, an opportunity so golden that it appears to solve all of Mr Marble’s problems. Taking advantage of this opportunity will in fact, through some rather subtle ironic twists, cause Mr Marble more problems that it solves.

Irony is certainly the dominant note in this novel, another example of the way Payment Deferred anticipates Francis Iles’ better known later works employing the same formula.

Forester was always capable of writing supremely entertaining prose and even in this early novel his writing already sparkles. The irony is there but Forester employs it like a rapier rather than a bludgeon. He also had a considerable gift for deft characterisation. Mr Marble, his wife Annie and his children John and Winnie are all fully fleshed-out characters.

Mr Marble is a weak and rather apathetic man capable at times of displaying startling strength of character and daring. At times he seems obtuse when it comes to understanding people, but at other times he has moments of penetrating insight. He is a lazy man who can, when the situation requires it, be forceful and decisive. The key to his character is that he is a man with considerable gifts but these gifts only come to the fore at moments of crisis. Had Mr Marble been able to stir his talents into action on a more regular  basis he could have avoided all his difficulties before they arose. He is a meek man but when cornered he fights desperately, and even skillfully, for survival.

Payment Deferred is a work considerable historical importance as far as crime fiction is concerned. It is also a brilliantly effective and very entertaining crime novel. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni

The English novelist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803-1873), is today best-known for inspiring The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a competition for the worst opening lines for the worst possible novels. This is a result of Bulwer-Lytton having opened one of his novels with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” This has gained him a reputation as a bad writer, a reputation that is most unjust. Bulwer-Lytton was in fact a fine and imaginative writer and one of the most interesting of all 19th century literary figures.

His short story The Haunted and the Haunters is one of the minor masterpieces of horror. Bulwer-Lytton wrote in many genres and was the author of the fascinating science fiction novel The Coming Race. He had a keen interest in the occult and it is one of his occult novels with which we are concerned - Zanoni, published in 1842. It is often described as his Rosicrucian novel, although in fact the two key figures in the book, Zanoni and Mejnour, are not Rosicrucians but members of a much more ancient and much more secret fraternity. They do however acknowledge the Rosicrucians as being on the right track. The alchemists they regard as sincere seekers after truth and wisdom, and often men of genius, but alchemy is not the path to the truths they seek.

This is a novel within a novel. The author claims to have come into possession of a manuscript, a manuscript written by an adept in the occult arts. He claims to have obtained the manuscript from its author, who claimed that it dealt with an idea derived from Plato, that there are four types of enthusiasm or mania. Mania is used here in a positive sense, as a kind of spiritual exaltation. The four manias are the musical, the mystical, the prophetic and that that pertains to love.

The manuscript describes events that supposedly took place at the end of the preceding century. The hero of the manuscript is Zanoni. Zanoni is one of two surviving members of a brotherhood that dates back almost as far as the beginnings of human civilisation. Zanoni appears to be a youngish man, but in fact his lifespan is measured not in mere centuries but in millennia. Majnour is even older. Zanoni and Majnour chose different kinds of immortality. Zanoni chose eternal youth while Mejnour chose eternal old age.

Mejnour is the more content of the two. The passions of youth are behind him. He is no longer prone to emotional entanglements or the snares of the passions. He regards humanity with the detachment of a scientist. He almost never seeks to intervene in human affairs. Zanoni on the other hand still knows the extremes of youth - the extremes of happiness and of despair.

Zanoni can even fall in love, but he knows that to do so would have momentous consequences. Nevertheless when he meets Viola, the daughter of a brilliant Italian composer, he finds that try as he might he cannot escape love.

Zanoni’s path will also cross that of Glyndon, a young English artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of following the path of Zanoni and achieving the powers and the wisdom of the brotherhood.

This is most emphatically not a novel that treats the occult as something evil. The occult in this novel is rather a seeking for wisdom. On the very rare occasions on which Mejnour does interfere in the affairs of humanity it is always on the side of good. Zanoni frequently intervenes in human affairs, and again always on the side of good. Which is not to say that evil does not exist. It is a hazard even for the greatest of adepts, and among the common run of humanity it is all too common. The evils in this book are all very human evils.

Zanoni can also be seen as a novel of the French Revolution but to see it that way is to miss the point. The French Revolution merely represents the absolute nadir of humanity, an event so cataclysmically evil that it is capable of having an effect even on Zanoni. It represents (according to the author’s afterword) the violent eruption of the actual into the ideal. Zanoni represents the ideal. All the major characters will find themselves drawn by destiny to Paris during the Reign of Terror.

It is somewhat pointless to try to analyse this book in terms of plot and characterisation. On the surface it might seem to be an historical novel but actually it is a philosophical novel that makes few concessions to realism, realism being an artistic ideal that Bulwer-Lytton regarded with contempt.

In this novel Bulwer-Lytton works out his rather eccentric but fascinating ideas on the occult. That might sound rather heavy but in fact it’s an entertaining novel that can be enjoyed as a kind of occult thriller. Bulwer-Lytton strongly believed that a novel must be entertaining first of all. If the author wishes to include multiple layers of meaning and hidden depths (and Zanoni includes those in abundance) then he is free to do so so long as it does not detract from the enjoyment of the story. It’s a surprisingly successful attempt to combine entertainment with esoteric occult speculation and it’s one of the most interesting of British 19th century novels.

There is a faint hint of decadence in the world-weariness of the novel’s immortals.

A strange but fascinating concoction and a must-read for anyone with an interest in the development of 19th century weird fiction, and a gripping occult thriller by an author with a considerable knowledge of the subject. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

James Gunn's Deadlier Than the Male

Deadlier Than the Male is truly one of the strangest of all American crime novels. In fact it’s one of the strangest of all American novels. James Gunn (1920-1966) wrote this, his only novel, in 1943. Gunn had a fairly successful career as a screenwriter in Hollywood but details of his life are hard to come by.

Deadlier Than the Male opens with a murder, or rather two murders. Helen Brent, a beautiful woman in her early thirties who is in Reno to get a divorce, discovers the bodies. She really has no connection whatsoever with the two victims or their slayer but she will come to have a very close connection with the latter.

Helen has no money of her own but expensive tastes. Her half-sister Georgina has lots of money. Georgina meets a man named Sam Wild. Sam is obviously no good but he is just as obviously attractive in an animal sort of way and she marries him.

The initial murders took place in Mrs Krantz’s boarding house. Both Mrs Krantz and her daughter Rachel will become involved in the lives of Helen, Georgina and Sam Wild in very unexpected ways. Sam’s sister Billie and his equally no good friend Mart will also become involved in this extraordinarily convoluted story. A shady psychiatrist will also figure in this tale.

The identity of the murderer will be crucial, but not in the way you would expect in an ordinary detective story. Two of the characters will attempt to unravel the mystery, but for very different motives.

The plot involves quite a few coincidences but while this is usually a plot weakness this is such an odd book that it isn’t a weakness. Characters are brought together in ways that might defy the laws of probability but in ways that satisfy other laws. Such as the laws of chemical affinity. Such combustible characters combine as readily and a inevitably as combustible chemicals.

Deadlier Than the Male could be described as an inverted murder mystery, one in which we know the identity of the murder right from the start and in which the plot is mainly concerned with the means by which the murderer is brought to justice. But it isn’t, not really. Whether the ending can be considered as having anything to do with justice is an open question which I won’t pursue for fear of revealing spoilers. It’s certainly not a detective novel in any widely understood sense of the term. There is certainly a murderer and there are two characters who attempt to establish the murderer’s identity but this was clearly not Gunn’s principal interest.

It could be described as a surrealist novel, or even an absurdist novel. Any writer who could write a scene such as the crucial scene that takes place on the sand dunes in this novel can certainly not be considered a realist writer.

This is a character-driven book, at least insofar as any of the characters can be regarded as real people. They are in some ways representative of types, or even of particular passions or drives. This incredibly bleak book delves into some very dark and very ugly corners of the human psyche. Some very unpleasant motivations are examined with stark precision.

There are no heroes in this book, only monsters and victims. There is a memorably horrifying if very unconventional femme fatale and an equally horrifying and unconventional villain but there are other subsidiary monsters as well.

The pseudoscience of psychoanalysis was becoming fashionable at the time and while there are no easily identifiable overtly Freudian it’s highly likely that Freudianism was at least one of the major influences on this book. Perhaps you could call the book absurdist surrealist Freudian hardboiled noir.

It is in no way a pleasant read but it is fascinating in a bizarre, morbid and very unsettling way. Gunn’s style is as extreme and as offbeat as his plotting.

This is psychological noir at its darkest. Recommended if your tastes run to fairly extreme noir fiction.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Eric Ambler's Judgment on Deltchev

Englishman Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was one of the most important 20th century writers of spy fiction. While writers like John le Carré have been praised for introducing a greater degree of realism and grittiness to espionage fiction Ambler was in fact the pioneer of the realistic spy novel.

His novels Epitaph for a Spy, The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear are quite rightly considered to be classics of the genre. Ambler’s postwar novels have received less attention, for reasons that have more to do with politics than with the quality of his later work. Like so many intellectuals in the between-wars period Ambler was attracted by socialism and was sympathetic to the Soviet Union. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 brought  him to his senses and he became increasingly anti-communist.

Judgment on Deltchev was published in 1951 and was the first of Ambler’s post-war spy thrillers. The plot was inspired by the notorious show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, used by Stalin to destroy any and all opposition.

Ambler’s thrillers almost always feature amateur spies, usually very reluctant ones. In this case an English playwright named Foster has been sent to a Balkan state now under communist rule (and Soviet domination) to cover the trial of a man named Deltchev. Deltchev had been the leader of the Agrarian Socialist Party. The country is now ruled by the communist People’s Party. Deltchev is the most credible opposition figure and so he must be destroyed.

Foster understands that the trial will be a mere sham and he also understands that foreign journalists like himself will be severely limited in what they can say about the trial, at least until they have left the country (by which time it will be too late). He has been assigned a kind of minder, a shabby and thoroughly unprepossessing individual named Pashik. Pashik’s own views on the trial are unknown. Pashik makes sure that his views on every important subject are unknown. He intends to be  survivor.

Foster finds himself drawn into a bewildering web of plots and counter-plots. He makes the mistake of allowing his personal feelings to influence his actions. He knows that Deltchev’s wife and daughter are manipulating him for their own ends, he knows the People’s Party government is manipulating all the foreign journalists for their own ends, and he knows that Pashik is playing his own game. Foster had been naïve enough to believe that the issues were simple, and that Deltchev is an innocent victim about to become a martyr. But the more Foster finds out the less he understands. It becomes disturbingly apparent that some of the charges against Deltchev may have some foundation in truth, and that Deltchev may in fact have had links with the notorious Officer Corps Brotherhood, a shadowy organisation accused of fascist leanings and believed to be responsible for countless assassinations.

Now Foster finds himself a pawn, but in whose game?

Ambler’s approach to spy fiction is slightly reminiscent of Graham Greene’s, with a similar flavour of betrayal, failure, corruption and cynicism. Pashik could quite easily be an inhabitant of Greeneland. Despite its darkness Judgment on Deltchev is also highly entertaining with considerable suspense and a plot with enough twists and turns to satisfy any aficionado of the spy novel. Ambler’s spy stories are to a large degree character-driven but he certainly did not neglect either plotting or atmosphere.

An important work by one of the grandmasters of the spy story. Highly recommended.