Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space

Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space was serialised in Astounding in 1934 and later published in book form. Williamson’s idea was to take the classic adventure tale The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père, combine it with a larger-than-life character based on Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff and then turn it into a space opera.The results were highly successful and several sequels followed (the last of them being published as late as 1983).

The Legion of Space is a fine example of the space opera of the pulp era. Williamson did not quite have Doc Smith’s gift for space opera on a truly epic scale. Williamson was probably aware of this. While Doc Smith would portray space warfare on the grand scale Williamson opts instead for a tighter focus, giving us space warfare on a more human scale.

The book starts with an old soldier in 1945 setting down his recollections of the future. He has, or claims to have, the ability to remember events that will happen in the future. His descendants, the Ulnar family, will play crucial rôles in the history of humanity for the next thousand years. Over the course of this coming millennium humanity will colonise the rest of the Solar System and will eventually reach a nearby star where they will encounter an advanced and very dangerous alien civilisation. Our own civilisation will see democracy decline and fall to be replaced by an empire, only to have the empire collapse and democracy resurgent. An Ulnar will become emperor. After the fall of the empire the family will survive and continue to cherish imperial ambitions. In the thirtieth century an Ulnar will make a fresh bid for empire, while another Ulnar will be the champion of democracy.

This vast story forms the prologue to the novel. The novel itself focuses on a period of a few months during which a handful of will decide humanity’s destiny.

John Ulnar has just graduated from the Academy and is now a member of the famed Legion of Space, sworn to defend democracy and civilisation. The young officer owes his chance to serve in the Legion to a powerful and influential kinsman, the commander of the Legion itself, Adam Ulnar. Adam Ulnar is now the leader of the purple faction whose aim is to put an Ulnar once more on the imperial throne. Young John Ulnar however knows nothing of his kinsman’s treachery or of the even more dangerous treachery of his uncle Eric Ulnar.

Eric Ulnar led the ill-fated expedition to Barnard’s Star. They discovered the civilisation of the Medusae, an ancient and malevolent race. One of the five ships comprising the expedition returned safely, bringing with it tales of madness and death.

Our species is not defenceless. We have a super-weapon but the weapon is so terrifying that its secret is known only to one living person at a time. That person in the thirtieth century is a young woman. John Ulnar has been assigned to protect the life of that young woman. It will prove to be a difficult task but he will find three faithful allies in the form of three ill-assorted but courageous legionnaires. 

John Ulnar is of course a science fictional version of d’Artagnan while the three legionnaires are the Three Musketeers. One of the three, Giles Habibula, is the Falstaff character. Giles is a broken-down old soldier much given to grumbling but he has some surprising talents, having been a master thief in his youth. Giles Habibula can not only open any lock devised by man, but any lock devised by any intelligent race.

The story is, like The Three Musketeers, an outrageous tale of adventure with countless narrow escapes and fights against seemingly impossible odds. The four heroes, along with  the girl who holds the secret to human survival, will journey across the stars to take on the Medusae in their stronghold.

Williamson might not have Doc Smith’s genius for describing space battles on a galactic scale but he can certainly tell an exciting story. He can also create characters who are more vivid and colourful than Smith’s. His villains are complex and their motivations are believable. Williamson also makes use of what were then the exciting new-fangled ideas about time and space developed by physicists like Einstein. Williamson is bold enough to predict faster-than-light travel and to offer an explanation for it that at least sounds vaguely plausible. He can also create a very effective atmosphere of strangeness and menace.

If The Legion of Space cannot quite equal Smith’s Galactic Patrol it is nonetheless supremely entertaining and thrilling space opera of the highest quality. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Henry Wade's Heir Presumptive

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO (1887-1969) wrote detective novels using the pseudonym Henry Wade. And very very good detective novels they were too. Wade is arguably one of the most underrated of all writers of the golden age of detective fiction.

Wade’s first detective novel was published in 1926 and his last in 1957. Heir Presumptive appeared in 1935 and it’s not only superb in quality but also daring in conception.

At first it gives the impression that it’s yet another inverted detective novel, a sub-genre that I’m not overly fond of. If you happen to share my lack of enthusiasm for this type of story don’t despair - Wade has some very clever and original tricks up his sleeve and he uses this format in a very individualistic way.

Eustace Hendel is rather distantly related to the very wealthy Baron Barradys. So distantly related that he has rarely given the matter much thought and he is only very vaguely acquainted with the senior line of the Hendel family. When he hears of the sudden deaths of two members of the family he is at first only mildly interested. This lack of familiarity notwithstanding he is persuaded to attend the funerals. After giving the matter some thought it has occurred to him that these two unexpected deaths have removed the two immediate heirs to both the title and the family fortune. He had previously regarded his chances of succeeding to the title and the fortune to be so remote as to be not worth serious consideration. That has now changed somewhat. In fact there are now only two members of the family between him and the succession. And one of those two, Desmond Hendel, is an invalid who is not expected to live very long. Desmond’s father David is a widower so perhaps Eustace has a chance after all.

This comes at a very opportune time. Eustace had trained as a doctor but gave up his practice when he inherited a fortune from a wealthy woman. He has managed to dissipate that fortune by following his favourite hobbies - gambling, fast cars, actresses and drink. Eustace is very close to being penniless. Worse, he is seriously in debt to a money lender. If David were to meet with an accident all Eustace’s problems would be solved.

Eustace is not really such a bad fellow, not the sort who would normally contemplate murder, but he really is in desperate financial straits. In such circumstances murder starts to look like a rather attractive proposition. The more he thinks about it the more it seems like rotten luck that a fortune should pass to David when he is much more seriously in need of the money.

This all sounds rather like the kinds of novels that Francis Iles had made a big splash with in the early 30s - inverted detective stories with a strong psychological bent. Wade is however attempting something rather different with Heir Presumptive - a blending of the inverted detective story with the classic golden age detective story. In fact the inverted detective story angle can almost be said to be a red herring. Wade also combines the psychological angle, with a strong focus on Eustace’s thought processes and with a story told entirely from his point of view (although told in the third person), with the more conventional motivations of golden age detective fiction.

Wade’s plotting is remarkably skillful. He pulls off a spectacular feat of misdirection with the sure touch of an expert conjuror. Even more impressively the misdirection is not only practised on the reader but on his protagonist as well.

The potential disadvantage of a story told entirely from the point of view of a murderer is that a murderer makes a less than sympathetic protagonist. Wade handles this difficulty skillfully. There’s not a great deal to admire in Eustace Hendel but we can’t help feeling vaguely sorry for him as his schemes never quite work out as he’d hoped. We’re appalled by his selfishness but he’s a hapless victim of his own delusions rather than a monster, although of course a person driven entirely by self-interest and self-delusion does become monstrous in practice.

Heir Presumptive is much more interesting and much more satisfying than the Francis Iles inverted mysteries although it has to be emphasised that Wade’s novel differs from the Iles books in significant ways.

A fascinating novel by a writer who deserves a lot more recognition than he gets. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dennis Wheatley's They Used Dark Forces

Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) is best remembered today for what he termed his Black Magic novels. In fact these made up only a small part of his total literary output. Most of his books are non-supernatural thrillers including quite a few historical thrillers. To describe the majority of his books as straightforward thrillers would however be misleading since there is nothing straightforward about them. Wheatley’s defining characteristic is the outrageousness of his plots.

Wheatley wrote no less than eleven thrillers featuring super-spy Gregory Sallust, a character who was to have a considerable influence on Ian Fleming when he created James Bond (Fleming and Wheatley had met during the war when both were doing intelligence work). They Used Dark Forces is one of several Gregory Sallust thrillers that are also Black Magic thrillers.

Wheatley’s Black Magic novels included some stories that can be considered to be out-and-out horror (The Haunting of Toby Jugg and The Ka of Gifford Hillary being in my view the best of these) but most of them are best described as occult thrillers - books which are structurally thrillers but include elements of the occult. 

They Used Dark Forces was published in 1964 and it concludes the story of Sallust’s wartime adventures. Sallust has been sent to Germany in the guise of a German officer (he speaks fluent German) to find out exactly what the Germans are up to at their top-secret research station at Peenemünde on the Baltic. What they were up to was in fact the testing of two of the secret weapons project that Hitler hoped would turn the tide of war in his favour. The V-1 was a pilotless aircraft carrying a warhead of just under a ton of high explosive. The V-2  rocket was a more formidable weapon, carrying a slightly larger warhead but quite impossible to intercept.

Sallust is accompanied on this mission by an old friend, Kuporovitch. Kuporovitch is a former Bolshevik general who is actually a convinced anti-communist. While undertaking this mission Sallust will encounter a man who is destined to play a very large role in hi future adventures. Ibrahim Malacou claims to be Turkish but is in fact a Jew, and he is also a Satanist. At this point, if you’re unfamiliar with Wheatley’s work, you might be thinking that this is going to be an anti-semitic novel. Wheatley’s attitudes towards Jews were like his attitudes towards most things, much too complicated to be dismissed so glibly. Wheatley had no particular antipathy towards Jews. Gregory Sallust is suspicious of Malacou because he is a Satanist, not because he is a Jew. And he is prepared to overlook Malacou’s Satanism because Malacou is also fanatically anti-Nazi. Sir Winston Churchill famously remarked that, "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Gregory Sallust decides to adopt a similarly Churchillian policy towards Malacou, reasoning that anyone who hated Hitler as much as Malacou did couldn’t be all bad even if he was a devil-worshipper.

The Peenemünde episode occupies the first half of the book. The second and much more interesting half sees Sallust stranded in German-occupied Poland. His attempts to escape back to Britain lead him instead to a German prison where he once again encounters Malacou, and will eventually lead him to Hitler’s bunker. A very dangerous place to be in 1945, so it’s just as well Gregory can rely on getting some help from his old buddy Hermann Goering. If you’re wondering why Goering would be helping out a British secret agent and a Jewish black magician you’ll have to read the book. Suffice to say that it’s exactly the kind of plot you expect from Wheatley, and that he makes it work much more effectively than it has any right to do.

Wheatley had a mind that was much attracted to conspiracy theories and in general his best books are the ones with the most bizarre conspiracy theory plots. Given the enthusiasm of Hitler and other senior Nationalist Socialists for the occult the plot of They Used Dark Forces is perhaps only slightly stranger than fiction.

Fans of Wheatley will not be surprised to learn that Gregory Sallust’s sex life plays an important part in the novel. The use of copious quantities of sex and violence is one of the many elements that Ian Fleming borrowed from Dennis Wheatley.

They Used Dark Forces includes most of Wheatley’s weaknesses as a writer, in particular his propensity for lengthy digressions on military history and politics and his fondness for rather clumsy info-dumps. Personally I see this as more of a feature than a bug, given that Wheatley’s views on military history and politics are so entertainingly provocative and so delightfully politically incorrect. Wheatley may have been a political reactionary but he was a complex, intelligent and often surprising political reactionary.

And the novel also features Wheatley’s strengths, most notably his ability to tell very strange stories very entertainingly.

They Used Dark Forces will delight confirmed Dennis Wheatley fans. If you haven’t yet explored the delights of Wheatley’s fictions it’s probably a reasonable enough place to start that exploration. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly

Kiss Me, Deadly appeared in 1952 and was the sixth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, and it was the first private eye novel to make the New York Times bestseller list. According to wikipedia as of 1980 seven out of the top fifteen all-time US fiction best-sellers were by Mickey Spillane.

This time Mike Hammer finds himself facing a truly formidable challenge as he takes on organised crime. No sane man would try to wage a one-man war against the Mob. That might just be Hammer’s one big advantage - organised crime has become so entrenched and wields so much political influence that they have started to see themselves as being untouchable. They just aren’t prepared for the idea that somebody would actually take them on, especially someone like Hammer who isn’t overly worried about legal niceties.

It all starts when a blonde jumps out in front of Mike’s car. He’s a bit annoyed at first but she’s obviously so scared and out-of-control that he doesn’t have much choice but to give her a ride. Then they encounter a police roadblock. Mike isn’t exactly surprised to discover she’s on the run but the attitude of the cops irritates him so he tells them the woman is his wife. They get through the roadblock without any grief but their troubles have just begun. It soon becomes obvious that other people besides the police are after the blonde, and these other people play rough. Real rough.

The woman has escaped from a sanitarium but naturally it’s a bit more complicated than that. In fact it’s a lot more complicated than that. She was going to be the star prosecution witness against very very big-time mobsters. 

Now Mike has a wrecked car and no blonde and can consider himself very lucky indeed to be still alive. And there are some guys from the FBI who want to talk to him real bad. Mike has blundered into something unimaginably big and the Feds don’t want him involved. They are so determined to keep him out of this thing that they have his private investigator’s licence temporarily suspended and they even take his gun away from him.

You might think this would cramp Hammer’s style, and you might think that at the very least it would reduce the body count in this particular adventure. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. They’ve taken Mike’s gun away from him but they haven’t taken his fists! And when Mike is really mad (as he most definitely is now) he’s even more dangerous without a gun.

The more Mike realises the extent of the odds against him the more he likes it. This is a chance to strike a blow against evil on the grand scale. The mysterious blonde was part of something big. She had information that the Mob wanted very badly indeed. But what was this information she had? Mike figures out that there is something that has gone missing and the people who want to recover this item will go to any lengths to do so. It’s something that represents a great deal of money, but also a great deal of power.

If you’re only familiar with Robert Aldrich’s 1955 movie version then it needs to be said up front that the movie doesn’t have a huge amount in common with the book. Some plot elements were retained as was the idea of an immensely valuable something that everybody wants to get their hands on. The whole flavour of the movie is however radically different compared to the book. The movie really was more of an anti-Spillane movie than an actual Spillane movie. The movie is cynical and ironic and presents Mike Hammer as little more than a thug. Anyone who has actually read Spillane knows that Spillane’s Mike Hammer is no thug. He’s a tough guy and he’s prepared to use a great deal of violence but he’s also a spiritual descendent of Philip Marlowe. In his own way and in his very different style he is as much of a knight-errant as Marlowe. Hammer has a very definite moral code and he lives by it. He might not worry about bending the law but he will never ever break his own moral code. 

Spillane had no great reputation as a literary stylist but his writing is energetic and direct and at times quite effectively atmospheric. Spillane did for mystery writing what Ian Fleming would do a few years later for spy fiction - he upped the level of sex and violence and added a sense of rawness and urgency. The one thing for which critics could never forgive Spillane was that he sold 225 million books. Spillane started his writing career in comic books and Mike Hammer was initially intended as a comic book hero.

While Spillane emphasised action he was unwilling to jettison the basic structure of the mystery novel. Kiss Me, Deadly is not a whodunit but there is certainly a mystery that has to be unravelled.

Kiss Me, Deadly is vintage Spillane. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed earlier Mike Hammer novels such as One Lonely Night (which has spy thriller elements) and My Gun Is Quick.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Galactic Patrol

E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Galactic Patrol was serialised in Astounding in 1937 and published in book form in 1950. It was the first of his famous Lensman books to be written. Smith later rewrote his 1934 novel Triplanetary to make it a prequel to the Lensman series and then wrote First Lensman as a bridge between Triplanetary and the Lensman series proper. Galactic Patrol then became the third book of the Lensman series although it works perfectly fine as a standalone novel.

Galactic Patrol demonstrates very neatly why Smith’s name became synonymous with space opera. This is space opera in its purest form with the emphasis on fast-moving action and adventure entertainment.

Kim Kinnison is one of the handful of cadets to complete his training as a Lensman. Only a tiny fraction of the candidates ever completes the course. He is now an officer of the Galactic Patrol, but he is far more than this. He is now a Lensman. The Lens is now placed on his wrist and only death can remove it. Lensmen are so carefully selected that they are absolutely trustworthy. They belong to many different races but any Lensman can contact another Lensman at any time by pure thought and the Lens allows him to understand any language no matter how alien it might be. It is impossible to steal a Lens - if anyone but its rightful wearer tries to wear it the result is instant death.

The Lens is a badge of office, a symbol of trust and a sophisticated communications device. It is actually far more than that, but as yet no-one has penetrated its secrets or understands its full potentialities.

The Galactic Patrol is a kind of interstellar police force, with practically unlimited powers. It is now even more absolutely essential than usual, with the galaxy being ravaged by pirates. These pirates are, as Kim Kinnison gradually comes to realise, more than mere pirates. They are an empire, and an evil one, and of a power and with technologies that can scarcely be imagined. Their ultimate aims of the pirates of Boskone go far beyond crime, although the exact nature of those aims is uncertain. 

The Lens is the product of the Arisian civilisation, a civilisation so ancient and so advanced that the Arisians seem to operate in the realms of pure thought and to take no active interest in other races or civilisations. The fact that they have devised the Lens and supplied it to the Galactic Patrol does however indicate that the Arisians are not as indifferent to galactic events as they appear to be.

As Kim Kinnison discovers the full powers of the Lens modern readers will discern the very obvious influence of the Lensman series on the concept of the Force from the Star Wars movies. In fact a modern reader will spot many parallels between Doc Smith’s books and the Star Wars saga.

Kim Kinnison has been assigned to command a new immensely powerful but experimental  space battleship, the Britannia. The Galactic Patrol and the Boskone pirates are engaged in an arms race, both sides trying desperately to gain a decisive technological edge. This is an element that gives the book a distinctive flavour compared to most space operas of its era. The outcome of individual battles is of little importance - what matters is to gain access to the enemy’s latest technological breakthroughs while preventing him from getting his hands on one’s own technology.

The great fear of the Galactic Patrol is that will find themselves drawn into a meat-grinder war of attrition with the pirates. Smith was born in 1890 so the war of attrition that the First World War became would have been something that he was all too aware of.

That’s not to say that battles play no part in the story. There are enough battles and enough action to satisfy any space opera fan. Kim Kinnison will go through a series of thrilling adventures. He is not however merely an action hero. He is the man who will finally learn to unleash the full powers of the lens. This is a rousing tale of adventure but it’s also a kind of quest story, with the hero slowly discovering his full potential and moving towards his destiny. This is space opera, but space opera with a bit more to it.

The pirates of Boskone can be seen as having something in common with the totalitarian dictatorships whose shadow loomed so large and so menacingly over the world at the time the story was written, but they can also be seen as a warning of the havoc that results when organised crime gets its hands on the levers of political power.

As a writer Smith had no great literary skills and no gift at all for characterisation but he had other qualities that make him a crucially important writer in the genre. He could tell a story with energy and a great deal of élan, and he could tell stories on a truly epic scale. His imagination was more than sufficient for his task. He could create strange and vivid alien worlds and people them with strange and fascinating alien creatures. He could combine straight-out full-bore excitement with just enough of a philosophical underpinning to add extra zest, and he could seamlessly blend the quasi-mystical element of the Lens into his story.

However rough and ready his style may have been (and his ear for dialogue was very poor) this is space opera of the highest order, immensely influential and still today wonderfully entertaining. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

John Dickson Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints

John Dickson Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints was published in 1940, under the name Carter Dickson (a pseudonym he often employed). It contains seven short stories featuring his intriguing detective Colonel March. Carr in fact wrote nine Colonel March stories, two of which unfortunately were not included in the 1940 edition of the book (which is the one I have and which is reviewed here).

Colonel March heads D3, a little-known department of Scotland Yard. It is popularly known at the Yard as The Department of Queer Complaints. Any case which seems outlandish and impossible or which sounds like the purest fantasy finds its way to Colonel March. Most such cases turn out to be the products of over-active imaginations but some turn out to be very serious indeed. An ordinary policeman, even an experienced detective, would be able to make no sense of them. Colonel March however has the kind of mind that can take the inexplicable and the bizarre and find a rational explanation. Colonel March’s cases have nothing to do with the occult although some are so puzzling that at first most people would assume that only magic or the supernatural could account for them. Colonel March knows better. It’s just a matter of looking at them in the right way.

Naturally, given the author’s well-known partiality for such tales, the stories can all be described as either locked-room or impossible crime stories. The premise of the book allowed Carr to indulge himself in some particularly odd and baroque variations on his favoured techniques, stories which might otherwise have been considered just a little too quirky.

It is of course impossible to say very much about these kinds of stories without risking spoilers so I will confine myself to giving merely a hint of the flavour of these tales.

In The New Invisible Man a man who takes rather too great an interest in his neighbours witnesses a murder committed by a pair of white gloves. This is a rather light-hearted story and it’s a great deal of fun.

The Footprint in the Sky stretches credibility just a little too far. The footprint in question, at a crime scene, is found where no footprint could possible be found. It is a story which, to my tastes, crosses the line into mere gimmickry and even silliness.

The Crime in Nobody’s Room concerns a murder in a flat. It is not all that unusual for bodies to disappear but in this case the flat itself disappears. It’s rather enjoyable even if the solution depends on a plot device that is rather convenient. But then as Leslie Charteris once observed, coincidences do have a habit of coinciding.

Hot Money has Colonel March trying to recover money stolen in a bank robbery, money which then disappears. This is by far the weakest story and left me feeling just a little cheated.

Things improve markedly with Death in the Dressing-Room, a story involving a Javanese dance in a night-club and a murder. It has a clever and intricate plot that comes together very neatly indeed. A great story and probably the best one in this collection.

The Silver Curtain takes Colonel March to France, to a fashionable casino and a neat impossible crime. A young Englishman who has had very bad luck at the tables almost falls victim to even greater misfortune. 

Error at Daybreak has another impossible crime. A financier suddenly drops dead on a beach. A brief medical examination indicates murder but there was nobody within a hundred yards of him and nobody heard any gunshots. The cause of death points to an unusual murder method. The police have a suspect but little evidence, but luckily Colonel March is on hand. This is another fine story. It uses devices that have been used often since but they’re handled with skill.

This short story collection was the basis for an entertaining 1955 British television series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, with Boris Karloff as Colonel March. The 26 episodes included adaptations (some more faithful than others) of the seven original stories.

One oddity is that in the TV series Boris Karloff sports an eye-patch. The stories frequently mention Colonel March’s “eye” rather than “eyes” but make no mention of an eye-patch and no explicit mention of a missing eye.  

Any short story collection is likely to be somewhat uneven but five successes out of seven is not a bad result. Colonel March is a genial and rather appealing detective which gives even the weaker stories some entertainment value. On the whole I think I can safely recommend this one.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938. It was followed by two sequels, the three novels comprising his Cosmic Trilogy or Space Trilogy.

Lewis is better known for his fantasy than his science fiction and is of course best known for his ability to present elements of Christian theology and morals in a relatively palatable form. Having said that I should note that Out of the Silent Planet is still very good science fiction and can be enjoyed as such even by people like myself whose knowledge of theology is vanishingly small.

The novel starts the way so many early science fiction stories starts, with a hero who has no idea he is about to be propelled into an adventure in outer space. In fact Ransom has no idea he is about to be involved in any kind of adventure. He is not really the kind of man  to whom adventures happen. He is an inoffensive Cambridge don on a walking tour. He is in fact, through no fault of his own, a philologist (just as Lewis’s close friend J. R. R. Tolkien was). This will turn out to be surprisingly important.

Entirely by accident Ransom finds himself kidnapped by a genuine mad scientist. Weston is a mad physicist, a particularly dangerous breed. They’re the sorts of chaps who are likely to kidnap unsuspecting philologists and carry them away into outer space. This is precisely the fate in store for poor Ransom. After a journey through space Ransom finds himself on the planet Malacandra, better known to inhabitants of Earth as Mars. Weston’s partner in crime is an old school chum of Ransom’s named Devine. They’re the sorts of old school chums who cordially hated one another at school, and are able to keep that hatred going for the rest of their lives.

Ransom manages to escape from Weston and Devine, having formed the suspicion that they intended to present him to the natives of Malacandra as a human sacrifice. Soon after his escape Ransom meets the first of the planet’s three sentient races, the Hrossa. The hrossa are a bit like very tall very thin bipedal otters. They are unquestionably intelligent although their intelligence is rather different from human intelligence. Later on he will encounter the second of Malacandra’s sentient races, the sorns. The third sentient race, the pfifltriggi, make only a fleeting appearance in the book. The sorns are also unquestionably intelligent, but again in a very unfamiliar way.

The creation of alien races that are genuinely alien in an interesting way is quite an art and Lewis succeeds admirably in the case of the hrossa and the sorns. The fact that Ransom is a philologist allows him to learn their languages fairly quickly without stretching the reader’s credibility.

Lewis also proves adept at interesting world-building. Since gravity on Mars is considerably less than on Earth everything on Mars tends to be very tall and very thin. This applies to the animals, the plants and even the mountains.

The spaceship is unusual and rather clever as well, as is Lewis’s idea of space as being something rather more than mere emptiness.

Ransom is in some ways a typical reluctant hero. He’s a man who has always considered himself to be entirely lacking in heroic qualities but in the course of his adventures he will discover that unusual circumstances can bring out wholly unsuspected reserves of courage even in inoffensive Cambridge dons. The hunt he finds himself undertaking allows Lewis to present an alien mindset in a particularly effective manner.

While it works as a straightforward science fiction adventure (although rather more literary and ideas-driven than was common in 1938) Lewis does use the novel to make some important moral points. He manages to do this without coming across as preachy or irritating, something that sadly cannot be said about most of today’s science fiction. He also makes some equally important theological points although readers better versed in this subject can judge his success in that area more competently than can your humble reviewer. 

Out of the Silent Planet is entertaining and intelligent science fiction. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rufus King’s Murder on the Yacht

Murder on the Yacht, published in 1932, was one of Rufus King’s three 1930s maritime murder mysteries (the others being The Lesser Antilles Case and Murder by Latitude).

Rufus King (1893-1966) was an American mystery writer, and a very successful one in his day. He created several fictional detectives, the best-known being Lieutenant Valcour of the New York police. 

The yacht Crusader is about to sail from New York when Lieutenant Valcour arrives. A man who was supposed to be a guest on the yacht, a lawyer named Hedglin, has caused the police some concern by mysteriously disappearing from a taxi. The taxi driver picked him up but by the time the cab reached its destination Hedglin had vanished.

The owner of the yacht is Anthony Bettle, a very rich man. In Valcour’s experience very rich men tend to have curious hobbies which they pursue to the point of obsession. It soon becomes clear that Anthony Bettle is no exception to this rule but the exact nature of his hobby is not immediately apparent. Under ordinary circumstances Valcour would have exercised his authority to prevent the yacht from sailing until the mystery of Mr Hedglin had been cleared up. Ordinary circumstances do not however apply to men as rich as Anthony Bettle. Even the Police Commissioner is reluctant to give instructions to such a man. Bettle is absolutely insistent that the Crusader must sail at exactly one minute past midnight. The only way out of the impasse is for Valcour to sail with her. Valcour is in any case inclined to believe the answer to the puzzle will be found on board the yacht.

The Crusader is a very large and luxurious yacht, almost an ocean liner in miniature. It also happens to be equipped with the very latest technology, a ship-to-shore radio-telephone link. This will allow Valcour to keep in touch with the Commissioner and with the latest news on the investigations into the case being carried out ashore. Or at least it should allow him to keep in touch with New York.

The guests on the Crusader include a psychic by the name of Carlotta Balfé. Carlotta seems to be connected with Bettle’s pet obsession but finding out the nature of this obsession will require all of Valcour’s skills as a detective. Apart from having curious hobbies very rich men also tend to have a taste for secrecy.

The fate of Mr Hedglin becomes more and more curious. Is he on board somewhere or is he still in New York. There is evidence to suggest the former but there is equally strong evidence to support the latter conjecture. The evidence as to whether he is alive or dead is just as ambiguous. A murder investigation without a body is quite a challenge and it’s even more difficult when there’s not even any certainty that there has in fact been a murder. Valcour has even more to worry when Carlotta Balfé makes a very disturbing prediction. The increasingly erratic behaviour of Anthony Bettle is yet another concern.

Lieutenant Valcour is a puzzled man. The Crusader’s skipper, Captain Jorgensen, is on the other hand a very worried man. The sea is calm and the sky is clear. That’s why Captain Jorgensen is worried. The glass is dropping at an alarming rate and calm seas, clear skies and a rapidly falling glass do not reassure a sailor.

Shipboard mysteries are of course merely a variation on the time-honoured mystery novel technique of taking a group of people and isolating them in a remote house and then adding one or more murders. Shipboard mysteries do offer a writer a couple of other attractive options. Bodies can be made to disappear in a very complete fashion and if that doesn’t add enough tension one can always throw in a hurricane. King avails himself of all of these options.

Lieutenant Valcour belongs to the fairly colourless and self-effacing variety of fictional detectives but there is nothing colourless about King’s prose. In fact his prose is rich, witty and positively sparkling. King is sometimes spoken of as belonging to the Van Dine school of detective fiction. He has the same fondness for setting his murders among the rich and famous and for adding generous quantities of glamour and exoticism. It’s a formula that King exploits very adroitly. 

Murder on the Yacht has a varied and somewhat eccentric cast of characters and a plot that is satisfyingly ingenious whilst still remaining reasonably plausible. Couple these elements with King’s lively prose style, the exotic setting of a rich man’s yacht and just a hint of the occult and the results cannot fail to delight. Very highly recommended.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Hentzau

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda appeared in 1894 and was an immediate and immense success, establishing itself as a classic tale of adventure and creating its own sub-genre, the Ruritanian romance. It was therefore no surprise that the author should have succumbed to the temptation to produce a sequel and Rupert of Hentzau was published in 1898.

While Rupert of Hentzau was unable to match the enormous popularity and reputation of its predecessor it was nonetheless an extremely successful novel in its own right and it remains in print.

While the sensational success of The Prisoner of Zenda could not have been foretold and its author when writing it could have had no thoughts of a possible future sequel it is nevertheless true that the ending does in some ways invite a sequel. 

Since I have no desire to ruin the first of Hope’s Ruritanian adventures for anyone who has not yet read it I will be as scrupulous as I can in this review in avoiding any significant spoilers for The Prisoner of Zenda. It is certainly no spoiler to state that this book deals with the adventures of an English gentleman named Rudolf Rassendyll who bears an uncanny resemblance to the King of Ruritania, and that as a result he is persuaded to impersonate the king. He does this in the king’s own best interests, and in order to attempt to foil a plot against the king. All this is revealed very early on in The Prisoner of Zenda.

While the ending of The Prisoner of Zenda is perfectly satisfying it does leave several matters in a slightly ambiguous condition, most notably the relationship between Rudolf Rassendyll and the Queen of Ruritania and the fate of the arch-villain Rupert of Hentzau. These ambiguities are sufficient to justify a sequel and to provide the ingredients for its plot. 

Rupert of Hentzau was not really one of the central players in the drama of The Prisoner of Zenda, although he was certainly an important supporting character. Rupert was however the most colourful character in the book, an unscrupulous villain whose courage and daring gave him an appeal that few readers could resist. Putting him at the centre of a sequel was a very obvious step.

The ending of The Prisoner of Zenda also makes it relatively easy for Hope to bring many of the main characters together again in a satisfyingly plausible way.  

As sequels go this feels less contrived than most. Hope is able to convince us that the story really did need to continue. The difficulty was to make the second installment just as exciting as the first had been. Perhaps the author does not quite succeed (it’s very hard to equal the nail-biting tension of the climactic scenes in the palace in the first book) but he gives it his best shot and the results are satisfying enough.

It’s Rupert of Hentzau himself who makes this sequel worth reading. He is an unusual character to find in 19th century fiction. He is in many ways an anticipation of the anti-heroes who would play such a large role in 20th century fiction. Both his vices and his virtues are on the grand scale. He is also undeniably sexy, making him in some ways a very modern character. The one thing that distinguishes him from modern anti-heroes is that he is entirely lacking in self-pity and does not waste precious time in brooding. He was obviously one of the major inspirations for George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. Flashman is a kind of cowardly Rupert of Hentzau.

The danger of such characters is that they can be so attractive that they overshadow the hero, and to some extent this does happen in both of Hope’s Ruritanian adventures. Rudolf Rassendyll is however a fairly interesting hero in his own way, and he is also surprisingly modern. He is brave and noble but he is also genuinely tempted to take advantage of his peculiar situation. Again we find a moral ambiguity we don’t expect in a Victorian adventure tale. Rupert of Hentzau has if anything more of this moral ambiguity than The Prisoner of Zenda. While Rudolf Rassendyll and his fellow-conspirators believe in the nobility of their cause but they are aware that their actions could be interpreted as self-serving and opportunistic, and they do experience some misgivings about the moral rightness of some of their actions.

Rupert of Hentzau is a very enjoyable adventure yarn, made more interesting by the complexity of the characters. Highly recommended.