Thursday, December 31, 2015

best non-crime books read in 2015

These were my favourite non-crime reads of 2015 (I’ll do a separate post for my favourite crime books of the year).

Stanley J. Weyman, Under the Red Robe (1894) - intelligent swashbuckling.

Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint (1930) - three very entertaining novellas.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jungle Girl (1933), not a lady Tarzan but a fine lost civilisation tale.

Perley Poore Sheehan, The Red Road to Shamballah (1933), a great pulpy adventure story.

Edison Marshall, Dian of the Lost Land (1935), a fine lost world tale.

John P. Marquand, Thank You, Mr Moto (1936), an unusual spy thriller

Berkeley Gray, Miss Dynamite (1939), an outrageous and immensely enjoyable thriller.

Manning Coles, Drink to Yesterday (1940), a thoughtful and rather dark Great War spy tale.

John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), chiling alien invasion story.

Alistair MacLean, The Dark Crusader (1961), a superbly crafted adrenaline-rush thriller.

And of these ten which would be my pick as the best book I read in 2015? I think I'd have to go for Berkeley Gray's Miss Dynamite - so much fun in one book.

Monday, December 28, 2015

revisiting Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been rereading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been a fan of these tales for very many years and returning to them is like revisiting an old and dear friend.

While Conan Doyle certainly did not invent the detective story he put it on the map as a major popular genre. He also established a few of the vital ground rules which differentiated the detective story from the popular sensation novel of the Victorian era. Sensation novels dealt with crime but the crime-solving process was never the main focus and was often ignored altogether. Conan Doyle made it the core of his stories.

Conan Doyle also established the rule that the process of detection should be logical. Relying on inspired guesses or luck was not acceptable. The detective’s chain of reasoning had to be logical. They were not always strictly fair-play stories in the sense that the term is understood in relation to the detective fiction of the golden age. Holmes sometimes makes use of evidence that the reader is not aware of until the final revelation. They are however fair to the reader in the sense that the solution hangs together satisfactorily and we feel that based on the evidence he had available to him Holmes really could have solved the crime.

An absolute adherence to the later fair-play conventions is in any case more applicable to novels, which had stated to dominate the field by the 1920s. It’s not quite so important in the short story which is the format Conan Doyle mostly worked in. And some of the stories certainly are fair-play. In The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (which I have just read) Holmes has largely solved the case after his first interview with his client. When at the end of the story he explains his reasoning it has to be admitted that his initial theory, which turned out to be correct, really was the only plausible solution and that an alert reader did have all the clues needed to solve the mystery.

Another convention that Conan Doyle established is that it’s the solution of the puzzle that matters. Once Holmes has solved the crime to his own satisfaction the business of arresting the culprit and bringing him to trial is not his concern. In quite a few stories the police are not involved at all since no actual crime has been committed, or any crime that has been committed is not sufficiently serious to warrant an arrest. The story is simply concerned with the unravelling of a mystery.

Conan Doyle made the detective story intellectually respectable. He made the genre into something that an educated person did not not need to feel overly embarrassed about enjoying. The detective story acquired a degree of intellectual respectability that other popular genres such as thrillers or spy stories or adventure stories did not achieve. This was largely due to the emphasis that Conan Doyle put on crime as a problem that could be solved by scientific inquiry and by the exercise of reason. Perhaps equally important he demonstrated that stories of detection could be rational while still being highly entertaining.

It’s highly significant that Conan Doyle was a doctor, and therefore a man of science. In the late 19th century that in itself helped to confer respectability on the Sherlock Holmes stories.

My recent Sherlock Holmes reading has included quite a few of the later stories and also several of the small number of stories not narrated by Dr Watson. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier is narrated by Holmes himself. This is one of the very last batch of the Sherlock Holmes stories (it dates from 1926) and Watson does not appear at all. His Last Bow is the only story in the canon to feature third-person narration. It’s a very disappointing spy story. Conan Doyle was a master of a bewildering number of genres. He wrote extremely good horror stories, tales of sea-faring adventure, excellent science fiction and was the finest writer of historical fiction of his generation. His Last Bow suggests that that the one genre he did not master was spy fiction. Written in 1917, it’s a very patriotic story with Holmes coming out of retirement to battle German spies. I can understand the desire to write such a patriotic tale in 1917 but it just doesn’t work and it also shows that Conan Doyle had no understanding of spy tradecraft. It’s interesting mostly in being the Great Detective’s final case (although it was far from being the last Sherlock Holmes story to be written).

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (from 1927) is, sadly, another disappointment. There’s no detection whatever in this story. Which is a pity because it contains the germ of what could have been an entertaining mystery in a carnival setting involving a murder possibly committed by a lion.

The Adventure of the Three Garridebs is another late story (from 1924) and it’s a much more typical Holmes adventure. It’s also a very much better story. It utilises a device that Conan Doyle seemed to be quite fond of - a very simple crime that seems on the surface to be incredibly complex and totally mystifying and quite bizarre. It’s a technique that he used with considerable skill in more than one story. It’s an amusing tale centred on the coincidence of three unrelated men with the same very unusual name and it’s a satisfying mystery. In fact I’d rate it as one of the most underrated of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman is another solid story. An elderly man with a young attractive wife is always a recipe for trouble and Josiah Amberley certainly has troubles. His wife has run off with a handsome young doctor and the couple have taken all of Josiah Amberley’s very considerable life savings with them. The young doctor is an expert chess player which, as Holmes points out, is always the sign of a scheming mind. Holmes happens to be fully engaged on another case of international importance so he asks Dr Watson to conduct the preliminary investigation. Watson of course can make nothing of the case although he does unwittingly uncover the two most vital clues, clues which allow Holmes to solve the puzzle.

I’m inclined to agree with Julian Symons that while all of the stories in the first two collections (The Adventures and The Memoirs) are classics the stories in the final three collections (The Return, His Last Bow and The Case-Book) are somewhat uneven although each collection contains some gems.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Plague Court Murders

The Plague Court Murders, published in 1934, was the first of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries written by John Dickson Carr under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. It boasts a fiendishly complex plot and yes, it is a locked-room mystery (Carr being universally acknowledged as the most enthusiastic practitioner of the locked-room mystery among all golden age writers of detective fiction).

There was something else Carr was noted for - his fondness for combining detective stories with very strong elements of the gothic. There is no shortage of gothic tropes in this novel.

Sir Henry Merrivale does not make his appearance until halfway through the book but once he arrives he takes centre stage. 

The narrator, Ken Blake, worked for a top-secret branch of military intelligence during the Great War. Now he’s been drawn into some curious events in the life of Dean Halliday. Dean is now middle-aged but in his youth he was a bit of a hell-raiser. His now deceased brother James had an even more unfortunate history. These curious events concern James. Dean’s aunt and his fiancée have become involved with a psychic named Darworth. Dean doesn’t know what to think of all this. He is concerned and disturbed. Blake is willing to help but he feels this is a situation in which his friend Chief Inspector Masters may be very interested indeed. Masters has a special interest in phony mediums and other psychic scams. Masters is very anxious to become involved since the Darworth situation may be tied in to a strange theft from a London Museum - a dagger alleged to belong to a 17th century hangman’s assistant with a sinister reputation.

Blake, Masters and Dean Halliday set off for the grim house known as Plague Court, a house that has bee in the Halliday family for several hundred years and which they have never been able to sell or to rent. The ruined house is a suitably gothic setting for occult occurrences and Darworth is supposed to be exorcising it. In the grounds is a smaller single-room house which will be the setting for a murder, a house locked from both the inside and the outside with no possibility of entry by any other means.

There are a number of human suspects belonging to the circle of believers that had gathered around Darworth but there are inhuman suspects as well - some at least of those  involved believe that spirits of the dead were responsible for the crime. This horrific crime may well be the sequel to equally terrible events in the 1660s.

Chief Inspector Masters, his sergeant and Blake are all on hand at the time the murder occurs but they can make nothing of it. Finally Blake realises it’s time to take the obvious step - to call in his old chief at the counter-espionage unit, Sir Henry Merrivale. It’s a difficult case but Merrivale has unbounded confidence in his own ability.

Merrivale is a delightful character. He’s wildly eccentric, rambunctious, rude, vulgar, opinionated, abrasive and has no social skills whatsoever. He is a qualified barrister, physician and rabid socialist. He is large and he is loud. Fortunately his confidence in himself is justified.

Phony spiritualists use many of the same tricks that stage magicians use. Writers of detective fiction use those tricks as well. Misdirection is the key to a successful stage illusion and Carr pulls off some pretty impressive misdirection in this story.

Carr lays out all the clues for us, but is this really a fair-play mystery? The plot is so twisted and the solution is so off-the-wall that I can’t imagine many readers solving the puzzle. They may certainly solve parts of it, but not the whole thing. There are also one or two plot points which really stretch credibility to the limit. Having said that it’s undoubtedly a tour-de-force of grandiose and grotesque ingenuity.

It was quite common in golden age detective fiction for characters to remind us of the essential artificiality of the puzzle-plot mystery school by saying things like, “This isn’t a detective story you know.” I don’t think anyone pushed that tendency further than Carr - at one point Sir Henry Merrivale dismisses one proposed solution on the grounds that the suspect in question can’t be the murderer because he was introduced too late in the story and that’s against the rules of detective fiction.

Carr is regarded as one of the masters of plotting but while the plot of The Plague Court Murders is indubitably impressive it wasn’t the element that impressed me most of all. For me the highlights of this book are Carr’s superb gift for creating gothic atmosphere and his  magnificent creation of the outrageous, deplorable but immensely entertaining Sir Henry Merrivale. 

The Plague Court Murders is a treat. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Under the Red Robe by Stanley J. Weyman

Stanley J. Weyman (1855-1928) was an extremely popular writer of swashbuckling adventure novels. While other writers of such works from that era (like Anthony Hope and Rafael Sabatini) still retain a following for some odd reason Weyman is now entirely forgotten. His biggest success came in 1894 with Under the Red Robe, a tale of adventure set in France in 1630, during the Thirty Years War.

The book’s hero, M. de Berault, is a bit of a rogue. Which is putting it mildly. He’s a gambler and a notorious duellist. He has now killed yet another man in a duel. As it happens Cardinal Richelieu is determined to stamp out duelling. Anyone guilty of duelling is to be hanged. He is looking for someone to make an example of and de Berault would be ideal. M. de Berault can almost feel the hangman’s rope tightening about his neck. However de Berault did at one time dave Richelieu’s life so the cardinal decides to give him one last chance - on the condition that de Berault does as small favour for him.

This small favour turns out to be extremely dangerous and rather complicated. He has to bring M. de Cocheforêt back to Paris. M. de Cocheforêt has been involved in the plottings of Richelieu’s enemy, the duc d'Orléans (the brother of the king). M. de Cocheforêt will certainly not come willingly and the cardinal wants him alive. 

It is with some misgivings that de Berault sets off for Béarn to carry out the task. On arrival his misgivings are strengthened considerably. Somehow he will have to find a way to gain admittance to de Cocheforêt’s house and at a time when the man is actually there - de Cocheforêt is in hiding in Spain but he is known to be crossing the border secretly at regular intervals to visit his wife. It will be necessary to gain the trust of Madame de Cocheforêt and her sister but the women and their servants are understandably very much on their guard.

As de Berault feared things do not go smoothly and there is a further problem. Our hero might be a gambler and a ruffian and even a bit of a scoundrel but he is still a gentleman. In fact he is very conscious of his honour and taking advantage of a lady is something that in normal circumstances her would never consider doing. These are however not normal circumstances - if he fails in his task he knows that the hangman’s rope awaits him in Paris. Of course he could simply slip over the border to Spain, but running away is also something that a gentleman cannot do and moreover he has given his word to Richelieu and breaking his word is yet another thing that a gentleman cannot do. Being a gentleman is not always easy, and being a scoundrel and a gentleman can get very complicated indeed.

There’s not a huge amount of actual action but it’s a well-plotted tale of betrayal, divided loyalties and political intrigue with a dash of romance. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case

The Kennel Murder Case was the sixth of S. S. Van Dine’s twelve Philo Vance mystery novels. It appeared in 1933. Opinions have always been divided on the merits of the Philo Vance detective novels. Personally I am very much a Philo Vance fan.

Van Dine was very much a devotee of the complex puzzle plot and The Kennel Murder Case certainly has some extraordinarily baroque plot twists.

The book opens with a collector of Chinese ceramics found dead in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside. Superficially it appears to be suicide but Vance blows that theory out of the water very quickly (and very neatly). It is clearly murder. At this point the reader may well be expecting this to be a classic locked-room mystery. This is an entirely erroneous assumption. There is indeed a locked-room mystery here but it is merely one element in a much more complex plot. In fact the mystery of the locked room is the least puzzling aspect of the case and one which Vance disposes of almost as an afterthought.

The biggest puzzle is that the body was found in the bedroom when clearly it should have been found in the library. All the evidence points to the murder having been committed in the library and there is simply no way the body could have ended up in the bedroom. The snag is that the bedroom was where the body was in fact found.

This is in fact much more of an impossible crime story than a locked-room mystery and it’s a very clever variation on the impossible crime idea.

Almost as puzzling as the whereabouts of the body is the discovery of a badly injured Scotch Terrier in the house. The presence of a dog in a household comprised entirely of people who dislike dogs is certainly odd, and even odder is the fact that someone apparently attempted to murder the wee beastie. No-one can see how the presence of the dog could possibly be significant. No-one, that is, apart from Vance. He is convinced the dog is a vital clue, and fortunately he happens to know a very great deal about Scotch Terriers. He knows almost as much about this breed of dog as he knows about Chinese ceramics, and his knowledge on that subject is positively encyclopaedic.

I am always delighted by golden age detective stories that include floor plans so you can imagine my joy when I discovered that this novels includes two floor plans, a map and a diagram of an ingenious criminal device!

Whether you enjoy the Philo Vance books depends to an extremely large extent on how you respond to Vance himself. He is either, depending on your tastes, exasperatingly pompous and affected or delightfully erudite and witty. I think he’s a wonderful character but this is a case where your mileage may vary very considerably.

Van Dine’s books sold in immense quantity during the late 20s and early 30s but by the time of his death in 1939 his popularity was starting to decline and after his death he fell from critical favour in a spectacular fashion (although critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of the genre Bloody Murder had very high praise for the first six Vance mysteries). Van Dine’s eclipse has never been satisfactorily explained. It may have been a change in public tastes or it may simply have been due to his early death. Of course it might also have something to do with the fact that for some reason critics who disapproved of puzzle-plot mysteries seemed to take a particularly violent dislike to Van Dine’s books and to his detective hero (with Symons being an honourable exception to this rule).

The Kennel Murder Case does incorporate a certain plot device that might disturb readers who like detective stories to adhere very strictly to the rules (the rules as laid down by Van Dine himself). This element does not disqualify the novel as a fair-play mystery but it might be seen as sailing a little close to the wind. 

The Kennel Murder Case is typical of Van Dine in his prime - it features a truly byzantine plot with some characteristically outrageous twists and it gives Vance the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of everything from Chinese ceramics to small dogs. It’s all great fun. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

John Creasey’s Redhead

Redhead was the second of John Creasey’s Department Z thrillers, appearing in 1933. It’s a roller-coaster ride of mayhem and action. Subtle it isn’t, but in its own way it’s entertaining enough.

Department Z, run by Gordon Craigie, is a secret British intelligence and counter-espionage outfit although from time to time they also assist Scotland Yard in criminal investigations, if the crime is on a sufficiently spectacular scale. And in this case the crime certainly qualifies as spectacular. A series of daring large-scale robberies is bad enough, but it appears that American gangsters are now operating in England. American gangsters with machine-guns are not the sort of thing His Majesty’s Government wants to see on the streets of England.

Department Z itself is not much in evidence for most of the book. The action centres on the  adventures of two wealthy well-born young Englishmen, Martin Storm and his cousin Roger Grimm. Martin and Roger are keen, and rather skillful, pugilists. On a trip to the United States they run afoul of the mysterious but feared red-haired gangster known only as Redhead. Run afoul of Redhead means being attacked by hoods with machine-guns, an attack the two cousins survive. Martin and Roger are advised by the American authorities that for the sake of their health it might be a good idea for them to return to Britain. On the sea voyage home they encounter a young red-haired American tough and a rather pleasant youthful brother and sister, Letty and Frank Granville.

Martin and Roger are invited to the Granville’s country house, Ledsholm Grange. It should be a quiet weekend in the country but it leads to murder, kidnappings, gassings and copious amounts of gunplay. They are caught between two rival gangsters. Both gangsters   have big plans and Martin and Roger seem likely to be irritating obstacles standing in the path of those plans. 

Naturally Ledsholm Grange is honeycombed with secret passageways which will play a crucial part in the action, but the role of secret radio transmitting station is not quite so obvious.

For the most part this novel falls into the category of thrillers dealing with decent upper-class Englishmen who find themselves drawn into a web of intrigue, danger and deception, all of which provides just the sort of recreation that they enjoy. It’s the sort of formula Dornford Yates used very successfully, although Yates was a rather more polished writer than Creasey. What Creasey lacks in polish he makes up for in non-stop action. Redhead has no literary pretensions - this is pure entertainment but it delivers the goods effectively enough.

Martin and Roger are not exactly complex protagonists. They like a fight, they like adventure, and they can be relied on to do the right thing. Creasey could create far more complex heroes, as he did in his thrillers featuring the Baron and the Toff, but in this book he is content to concentrate mostly on thrills.

The fear that the violence and lawlessness of America during the gangster era would spread to Britain may not have been justified but it was certainly understandable in 1933 and anxiety about organised crime is a theme that appears in quite a few British thrillers of the time.

Redhead is not in my view as interesting as Creasey’s Baron and Toff novels but it’s a pretty enjoyable and rather outrageously over-the-top action-filled thriller. Worth a look.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Bigger They Come

The Bigger They Come was the first of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam mysteries (published under the pseudonym A. A. Fair). It was published in 1939 and was followed by a further twenty-eight Cool and Lam novels.

Donald Lam is a young man down on his luck. He has applied for a job. He doesn’t know what the job is or who he will be working for. He doesn’t care. All he knows is that he’s five weeks behind with his rent and he hasn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day and he wants this job.

He lands the job and discovers that he is now a private detective, working for Bertha Cool. Bertha is very overweight, very shrewd and very avaricious. Her ethics are flexible. Very flexible indeed. She will take on any job as long as the client has the money to pay for it. That’s not to say that she’s crooked. Getting on the wrong side of the law is bad business. She just doesn’t trouble herself with concerns about the morality of her business. She is also happy to take on any kind of case. Divorce work might be sordid but it pays the bills.

Donald Lam is actually a lawyer who ran afoul of the California Bar Association. With the legal profession now effectively barred to him he’s grateful to have any sort of job. And his first case for Bertha Cool promises to be almost ridiculously simple. All he has to do is to serve divorce papers on a guy named Morgan Birks. Birks has been involved in a scandal involving pay-offs to the police but that’s not Donald’s problem. His problem is to find Birks and serve the papers. And finding Birks promises to be easy. Birks’ mistress will lead Donald straight to him.

What Donald doesn’t know is that he’s about to get caught in the middle of a web of murder, corruption and deception. The corruption and the deception don’t bother him too much but murder certainly bothers him. The police tend to take a dim view of murder. They’re going to take a particularly dim view of this one when they find out where the gun came from. And that’s going to be quite awkward for Donald Lam.

There are actually two plots in this book. The main plot involves Morgan Birks, his wife, his mistress, his wife’s brother, his wife’s lover, his wife’s best friend, a rather unpleasant but very polite gangster and a great deal of dirty money. The second plot, or sub-plot, concerns the plan Donald Lam comes up with to extricate himself from the mess he finds himself in. That sub-plot hinges on an interesting loophole that Donald Lam had discovered in California and Arizona law. It’s a loophole that can allow a man to get away with murder, quite literally. It’s actually a legal loophole that Erle Stanley Gardner had himself discovered, a loophole that was hurriedly closed after this book was published. It’s a remarkably ingenious scheme which allows Gardner to introduce a courtroom scene. It’s a brief courtroom scene but it’s devastatingly effective. 

This novel has most of the trademarks that made Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries so popular - colourful characters, a complex tightly-constructed plot that turns on a fine point of law and Gardner’s characteristically sceptical attitude towards the criminal justice system. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are an apparently ill-matched pair who turn out to be a very effective private detective team. They’re as fascinating and charismatic in their own ways as Perry Mason. 

Donald Lam is only a little guy but he’s feisty and if he has to fight he’ll fight smart, and if necessary he’ll fight dirty. Bertha is unscrupulous and absurdly miserly but she’s intelligent and unflappable and indifferent to threats and she’s impossible to dislike.

In 1958 a pilot episode was made for a proposed television series based on the Cool and Lam books. It’s actually not at all bad and it’s rather a pity the series came to nothing. I’ve reviewed the Cool and Lam pilot on my TV blog.

The Bigger They Come is splendidly entertaining private eye fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank You, Mr Moto

Thank You, Mr Moto was the second of John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels, appearing in 1936. The Mr Moto films starring Peter Lorre are better remembered today than the novels but in fact the novels are extremely good.

In the movies Mr Moto is a policeman working for Interpol but in the books he works for the  Japanese intelligence service. The other major difference is that Moto is not the central character in the novels. The protagonist is generally an American in the Far East. Moto might not be the main character but in a sense he still dominates the books. He is the one pulling the strings, making things happen, or at the very least he is the one who knows what is really going on and what to do about it. 

The protagonist in this case is Tom Nelson. Nelson had been an up-and-coming trial lawyer in the US who became disillusioned and headed for the Far East. He has ended up in Peking. Nelson is a man on the verge of “going native” as the saying of the time went - he has started to become too comfortable in Peking and even worse he has started to believe that he understands China. In the chaos that was China in the mid-1930s that was a dangerous belief. Nelson is a man who believes that nothing really matters and that there is no point in doing anything other than just drifting aimlessly, letting life take him wherever it will.

Nelson has stumbled into a perilous situation that may well become an abyss that will swallow him. It starts out with a woman named Eleanor Joyce and a cashiered British army officer and murder soon follows. This is not a casual murder - it is part of a plot. There were lots of plots in China at that time and most of them were infinitely complex. This is no exception. It involves stolen paintings, an unscrupulous war lord and a plan to take over Peking. It may also involve the Japanese, who were deeply involved in Chinese affairs in the 30s.

Nelson does not understand what it is he has stumbled into but he suspects (rightly) that his friend Mr Moto does understand. Mr Moto certainly understands, but is Mr Moto actually involved? Are the Japanese mixed up in it? And if so, which faction of the Japanese military is it that is involved? As Mr Moto points out there is a faction that wants to move aggressively in China and there is another faction (to which Moto himself belongs) that does not wish to provoke a crisis. It is of course possible that both factions are taking a hand in events.

Mr Moto is anxious that Tom Nelson should not be embroiled in this affair, and Nelson has no wish to be involved, but Eleanor Joyce has managed to get herself right into the middle of it and Nelson has conceived the quixotic notion of saving her. This is contrary to his own philosophy of non-involvement with life but that philosophy is going to be very severely challenged. As events spiral out of control it seems questionable whether even Mr Moto can find a way out of an increasingly desperate situation.

Mr Moto is an intriguing character. He is a loyal servant of the Japanese emperor and his patriotism is unquestioned. He is serving Japan’s interests. Moto however belongs to the faction in Japanese political and military affairs that wants peaceful relations with the United States. He is pro-Japan but he is not anti-US. He is also not anti-China although he clearly believes that Japan can and should extend its influence in that country. Moto can be breathtakingly ruthless but he is also a man of very high moral principles. He also happens to have genuine ties of friendship with Tom Nelson. Moto’s challenge will be to avert a potential political crisis without harming Japan’s interests and at the same time to save Tom Nelson. The problem is that the situation is so difficult that Moto will have his work cut out for him and if he fails in his mission he will of course have no option other than to commit suicide. A challenge indeed.

Thank You, Mr Moto is a very entertaining and intelligent spy thriller and a worthy successor to Marquand’s first Moto novel, Your Turn, Mr Moto, but it’s a bit more than that. It’s also a perceptive exploration of the mindset of the European expatriate in the Far East and it even touches on the merits of differing philosophies of life - not just the differences between European and Asian attitudes towards life but also between those who believe it is possible to control one’s destiny and those who believe that such a thing is futile and impossible. This is certainly a book that is slightly more intelligent and ambitious than the average thriller. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2015

John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge

The Crooked Hinge was the ninth of John Dickson Carr’s mysteries to feature his series detective Dr Gideon Fell. It was published in 1938 and seems to be generally regarded as one of his best novels.

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American who lived in England for some years and  most of his detective novels are set in Britain. Carr is renowned as the most enthusiastic and most successful exponent of the “locked-room” mystery. What really set him apart from the other great practitioners of the golden age puzzle-plot mystery was his fondness for introducing elements of the macabre. In fact many of his books can fairly be described as detective stories with a gothic atmosphere.

The Crooked Hinge is not a locked-room mystery but it is an example of a very closely related sub-genre, the impossible crime mystery.

The young John Farnleigh had been a survivor of the Titanic disaster in 1912. He had been on his way to the United States having already established himself at the tender age of fifteen as the black sheep of the family. After twenty years in the US he returned to England on the death of his brother to succeed to the possession of a large and rich estate and a baronetcy.

Now a rival claimant for the title has arrived on the scene. In the normal course of events this would result in a long and messy legal battle but in this case it appears that the matter can be resolved almost instantly. Years earlier, before the fateful voyage of the Titanic, Farnleigh’s tutor (a keen amateur criminologist) had taken the young man’s fingerprints as part of a demonstration of the latest criminological techniques. It should now be possible to establish once and for all without any doubts whatsoever which claimant is the real Sir John Farnleigh.

Unfortunately murder interrupts the course of events and in the ensuing confusion the fingerprint evidence disappears.

The murder itself is most puzzling. The victim was quite alone at the time, a fact verified by reliable witnesses. Suicide would seem to be the obvious explanation but both Dr Gideon Fell and Inspector Elliot of Scotland Yard are convinced it is murder. An impossible murder perhaps, but murder all the same. Surprisingly enough the coroner’s jury is in agreement with them and a verdict of willful murder by persons unknown is brought down at the inquest.

Even proving that murder took place is tricky. Finding the identity of the murder will be still more difficult. To make things even more complicated Fell and Elliot are certain that this murder has a connection with an earlier murder but exactly what that connection might be remains a very obscure matter indeed.

The novel was partly inspired by a real-life case that had caused a sensation in the 1860s and 1870s, involving a claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy. Around this idea Carr weaves an extraordinarily complex and fascinating plot. He also indulges his enthusiasm for gothic trappings and elements of the fantastic. There is witchcraft, a 17th century automaton, a lawyer deeply involved in the occult, hidden rooms, a cursed garden, gypsy lore, intersecting romantic triangles and of course the events of the fatal night when the Titanic went down will also play a key role. The Thumbograph in which the vital fingerprint resides is a nice little touch.

It’s no accident that Carr prefaces his story with a quotation from a book on stage magic. Misdirection is as important to the aspiring murderer, and the writer of detective stories, as it is to the successful illusionist. There’s plenty of skillful misdirection here but Carr was a very firm adherent to the conventions of the fair-play detective story (he was after all a member of the Detection Club) and while the plot is at times outlandish the clues are there.

The solution is most certainly outlandish. Whether that’s a weakness or a bonus is a matter of taste. To those who dislike golden age detective stories it will provide more evidence of the artificiality of the form. To those (like myself) who love this type of crime fiction such outlandishness is all part of the fun. Like a good stage magician Carr was an entertainer and as entertainment The Crooked Hinge delivers the goods with breathtaking boldness and panache. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Conan Doyle's Micah Clarke

It was the Sherlock Holmes detective stories that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle world famous and it is these stories that have assured his lasting fame. This would have surprised and vexed him since he himself believed that his greatest literary achievements lay in the field of historical fiction. In fact Conan Doyle’s belief was not unreasonable. His mastery of the historical fiction genre may well have exceeded his mastery of the detective story. The first of his historical romances, Micah Clarke, was published in 1889.

Micah Clarke is set against the backdrop of the ill-fated rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. The accession to the English throne of the Catholic James II earlier that year had sparked fears that the new monarch intended to impose the Catholic faith upon the country. The rebellion went badly from the start and ended in abject failure.

The story is narrated by its eponymous hero to his grandchildren many years later. Micah Clarke is a brawny but intelligent and devout young man of twenty-one, the son of a junior officer in Cromwell’s famous cavalry in the Civil War. Micah’s own family is not immune from the religious divisions - his mother adheres to the Church of England while his father is a Dissenter. A chance encounter with a roguish soldier of fortune named Decimus Saxon leads Micah Clarke to set off to join Monmouth’s rebel army. The rebels being desperately short of competent officers Micah is soon appointed captain in a regiment of foot, although initially the regiment is little more than a ragtag band of enthusiastic rustics. The regiment is commanded by Decimus Saxon, now holding the rank of colonel.

The regiment is on its way to join Monmouth’s main army. Most of the action of the novel is concerned with the various adventures that befall Micah along the way, and those adventures include being kidnapped by smugglers, cast into a dungeon, pursued by the King’s dragoons, pursued by a pack of savage hounds and assorted other scrapes from which Micah barely escapes with his life. The culmination of the story is the bloody and disastrous (from the rebels’ point of view) Battle of Sedgemoor. Although the battle is not quite the end of Micah’s story - he has still to survive, if he can, the ferocious vengeance wreaked by James II on the rebels.

Micah is a devout Protestant but he is increasingly disturbed by the ferocity of the religious divisions among Monmouth’s supporters. Micah becomes more and more convinced that these quarrels are futile and destructive and that tolerance would be more Christian. He is also made somewhat uneasy by the fiery preaching of the more extreme Dissenters. Decimus Saxon on the other hand believes that this is a good thing - he believes that fanatics make the best soldiers. 

The characterisation is rather more subtle than you might expect in a novel of adventure. Decimus Saxon in particular is a fascinating and complex character. He is greedy, grasping, unprincipled, violent and ruthless. He is also a brave and intelligent soldier. He is also capable of surprising loyalty and generosity. He is a rogue but he is not a mere clichéd loveable rogue. Micah Clarke never can decide if his fondness for Saxon outweighs his disapproval of him. He respects him, grudgingly, and eventually learns simply to accept him with his grievous faults and his compensating virtues.

Monmouth, as seen through Micah’s eyes, is equally complex. He is feckless, indecisive, unstable and cowardly but also well-meaning and generous. He is basically a reasonably decent man who happens to be hopelessly unsuited for the role he tries to play and catastrophically out of his depth.

Micah himself has a certain complexity. He is brave and keen to do what he conceives to be his duty but he has much to learn about life and about human nature, and about himself. 

Like most historical novelists of his day Conan Doyle has his characters speak in a slightly archaic manner. If taken to excess this can be tiresome but Conan Doyle exercises a welcome restraint in this respect. The archaisms are just enough to give the flavour of bygone days without being distracting. They might not be terribly authentic but I personally  feel that they are necessary, in moderation. It’s important in historical novels to make some attempt to convey the idea to the reader that these are not people of our own time. Their values and beliefs are not quite the same as ours. Their values and beliefs are not necessarily superior or inferior to ours but they are different. Conan Doyle was always able to capture this essential quality of historical fiction, of making us aware that we are dealing with a world just a little different from our own, and he was always able to do it subtly and unobtrusively. 

On the whole his prose is lucid and lively with a good deal of wit. All of his historical novels contain a good deal of humour, and Micah Clarke is no exception. Conan Doyle took his historical fiction very seriously but he also intended it to be entertaining, and he succeeded admirably in that endeavour.

Don’t be put off reading this book if you know nothing about Monmouth’s rebellion. The author gives you all the historical background you need.

The White Company remains Conan Doyle’s greatest historical novel but Micah Clarke is an impressive example of the genre. It’s intelligent, complex and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 6, 2015

T. C. H. Jacobs' Sinister Quest

Sinister Quest was the third of the Chief Inspector Barnard mysteries of T. C. H. Jacobs. It was published in 1934. T. C. H. Jacobs was one of the many pseudonyms used by English writer Jacques Pendower (1899-1976) who produced a huge number of books in various genres.

Sinister Quest is a murder mystery but with very marked thriller elements as well. I think it’s reasonable to say there was a definite Edgar Wallace influence on this work.

The novel is set in Devon, which happens to be where the author was born and raised.

Captain Montague Prothero is a guest at the Castle Hotel in Sidmouth in Devon. Among the other guests is a delightful young lady, Barbara Delaine. Miss Delaine having decided on a walk to nearby Peak Hill Prothero had followed her, hoping to strike up a closer acquaintance by running into her accidentally on purpose. He doesn’t find the lady but what he does find is a dead body in a quarry. What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched and that there is more than one watcher. 

Finding a dead body is not a very pleasant thing but in this case it is rather more shocking than usual - the dead man’s ears have been hacked off!

The local police having had a complete hash of the investigation Scotland Yard have been called in. Chief Inspector Barnard is dispatched to Sidmouth, accompanied by Sergeant Trotter. A murder investigation is always a serious matter but this case promises to be particularly important - the murderer may well be the infamous Ear Hound who has slain half a dozen London criminals, in each case lopping off the victim’s ears.

It is immediately apparent that the case is going to be a puzzling one. Soon after reporting the discovery of the body Captain Prothero disappears. The behaviour of Miss Delaine’s father is decidedly suspicious. There is the matter of Miss Delaine’s jade necklace, found near the the slain man’s body. There is the unexpected presence in Sidmouth of several notorious London villains. There is a mysterious message on a piece of paper that Captain Prothero found near the murder scene. And what of the inscrutable Chinese gentleman in the otherwise empty Ivy Lodge - empty of everything but a corpse?

It gets much more complicated than that - Chief Inspector Barnard will find that the case involves buried treasure, Chinese pirates, Italian gangsters, stolen gems, secret passageways, a madman obsessed with ears and lots more murders. The mysterious powers of the East will also play their part.

The overall tone and the various outrageous elements make this novel more of a thriller than a mystery, although there is definitely a mystery to be solved. Whether it qualifies as a fair-play mystery is another matter - Chief Inspector Barnard does hold back a couple of pieces of vital information. This book also plays fast and loose with the rules of detective fiction as laid down by S. S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox, and in fact breaks several rules outright.

It reminded me just a little of J. Jefferson Farjeon's At the Green Dragon which is also a bit of a hybrid of the thriller and the detective story.

Chief Inspector Barnard is pugnacious and determined but his arrogance, single-mindedness, blunt manner and very low tolerance for fools make him a difficult man to get along with. These qualities also make him quite an interesting detective hero. Sergeant Trotter is one of the few men at Scotland Yard who likes working with him - Trotter remains cheerfully oblivious to Barnard’s abrasiveness.

While golden age detective fiction purists might have some quibbles with the book Sinister Quest is undeniably entertaining. Recommended, on the proviso that you don’t mind the mix of mystery and thriller elements.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos

Although John Wyndham had written several novels in the 1930s (such as Stowaway to Mars) it was the publication of The Day of the Triffids in 1951 that established him as a major figure in the world of science fiction. The Day of the Triffids was followed by The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and then in 1957 by what is arguably his masterpiece, The Midwich Cuckoos.

These four novels were all, in their rather different ways, disaster novels. While The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes plunge us into catastrophe very quickly The Midwich Cuckoos was a slight departure in the sense that it was what might be called a slow-burn disaster story. 

The novel begins in a very low-key with an odd and rather puzzling occurrence in the sleepy English village of Midwich. Everyone in the village is mysteriously put to sleep for a couple of days, after which they wake up with no apparent ill-effects. It’s all very puzzling but it’s soon more or less forgotten. Until it becomes obvious that every single woman of childbearing age in Midwich is pregnant. Even including women who could not possibly have become pregnant. And all had fallen pregnant at the same time - the day that the village had been put to sleep.

This is certainly rather disquieting and it leads to a certain amount of speculation. The more thoughtful inhabitants of the village can see that there are some potentially very troubling aspects to this. If women who could not possibly have conceived are pregnant, where exactly did these babies come from? 

At this stage though there does not seem to be any great cause for alarm. All the babies appear to be perfectly normal. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about after all. Slowly however it becomes clear that there is something to worry about. There is reason to be very worried indeed. These children are too perfect, too similar to each other, they seem to think with one mind and they clearly have an agenda. And they are very very powerful. What initially seemed puzzling becomes disturbing, and finally terrifying.

Wyndham tells his story is a deliberately low-key matter-of-fact kind of way. Midwich is a very ordinary village. Nothing bizarre or exciting or frightening has ever happened in Midwich. Surely nothing terrible ever could happen there? Even what it becomes clear that something strange really is going on it all seems unreal - such things just don’t happen in places like Midwich.

This low-key approach has not pleased all readers and there are those who have found the book dull. This approach is however a very deliberate choice on Wyndham’s part. It is essential in order to achieve his purpose. The terror has to build very gradually and the story simply will not work unless the people of Midwich steadfastly cling to their belief that the terror cannot be real, until it reaches the point where it can no longer be denied. By which time of course it may well be too late to avert catastrophe.

Wyndham has chosen his setting carefully. Midwich is not merely a typical sleepy English village. It is a village that has existed since the time of the Norman Conquest and yet there has never been any real reason why such a village should even exist. No-one has ever been able to discern any reason why Midwich should exist. There is something peculiarly English about this. There is nothing utilitarian or modern or efficient about Midwich. It simply exists because it inhabitants happen to like living there. A theme that runs strongly throughout Wyndham’s work is his suspicion of the modernising forces that were slowly but surely destroying the England in which he had grown up. The very existence of a place like Midwich is an act of defiance against a modern world that that seeks to make everything efficient and useful and mass-produced and uniform.

The Midwich Cuckoos can be interpreted as a Cold War anti-communist tale and while I’m sure that was part of Wyndham’s purpose I’m equally sure that his concerns were much broader than this. This is a warning of the dangers of conformity and the loss of individualism and communism is by no means the only source of such threats - consumerism, the mass media and even democracy can be just as dangerous in this sense.

The idea of alien invasion by stealth was not new. The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on a story by Jack Finney) had already dealt with this idea. The Midwich Cuckoos is however both more subtle and more terrifying. The aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers were clearly and unequivocally hostile. They may have been very difficult to fight but there was never any question that they should be fought. It is more difficult to persuade oneself that a group of children represents a deadly threat - there is an incredibly strong emotional resistance to the idea of seeing children as dangerous and implacable enemies. Cuckoos do not survive merely by laying their eggs in other birds’ nest - they survive by taking advantage of the maternal instincts of the unfortunate host birds. The cuckoos of Midwich operate in the same way - the natural human instinct to nurture and protect children is turned against us. The people of Midwich nourish the very invaders who intend to destroy them.

The idea of a hive mind was not entirely new either but Wyndham develops the idea in a rigorous and fascinating manner.

This book’s strength is that it not only explores the practical consequences of invasion by a superior species, but also the moral and ethical dilemmas that the invasion poses. It also explores in considerable detail the cultural obstacles that resistance to such an invasion would have to overcome. This is a gripping and frightening alien invasion story that also manages to be quite cerebral and psychologically and morally complex. Evil can be terrifying, but the children in this book are not evil. They merely pursue their own interests logically and with utter determination. Their interests just happen not to coincide with those of our species. This is much more terrifying than mere evil can ever be. 

In fact The Midwich Cuckoos is a perfect example of the kind of book that really does do all the things that the science fiction genre so often promises but so rarely delivers in quite such an effective manner. This is the thinking person’s alien invasion story. The themes with which Wyndham engages in this novel were certainly very relevant in 1957. They are even more relevant today.

The Midwich Cuckoos is one of the towering masterpieces of the science fiction genre. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Clyde B. Clason’s Dragon’s Cave

Dragon’s Cave, published in 1940, was the eighth of Clyde B. Clason’s mystery novels featuring his amateur sleuth Professor Lucius Theocritus Westborough. Clason wrote ten detective novels between 1936 and 1941 before abandoning the genre, apparently because he disapproved of the directions in which crime fiction was starting to head.

Professor Westborough is an historian specialising in the Roman Empire and Clason’s mystery novels often focused directly or indirectly on antiquarianism or historical interests. In this case we have the murder of a collector of edged weapons, with the murder weapon being a 16th century Swiss halberd. The fact that the victim, one Jonas Wright, was found clutching a 19th century duelling sword suggests that he had attempted to defend himself but why would anyone choose such a light sword with which to defend himself from such a formidable weapon as a halberd? Especially given that he was killed in the room that housed his collection and could easily have chosen something much more substantial?

There’s also the matter of the blooodstains, which do not seem consistent with the apparent course of events.

Jonas Wright had been the owner of a photoengraving firm. His two sons and his daughter will inherit the business, or at least they will inherit Jonas Wright’s share of the business. Wright had a partner, Julian Carr. Carr had been rather friendly with Wright’s daughter Madeleine, a circumstance that had not met with the old man’s approval. Jonas Wright was something of a puritan and was not well pleased at the thought of a liaison between his daughter and a married man (for Julian Carr is married although separated from his wife).

All three of Jonas’s children had potential motives for murder, but they are not the only suspects. Julian Carr is a possibility also, as is artist Tony Corveau. Tony had also taken a very keen interest in Madeleine Wright. 

Lieutenant John Mack of the Chicago Police is a competent officer but he’s only too happy to have Professor Westborough’s help, the elderly but shrewd academic having given him some vital assistance in several previous cases. Mack is not quite so thrilled at the assistance offered by reporter Allan Boyle but reporters are one of the crosses that a policeman has to bear.

Dragon’s Cave can be considered to belong to the S. S. Van Dine school of American detective fiction - it’s set among the moneyed upper classes, it has an exotic murder method, a complex plot and a colourful detective. Lucius Theocritus Westborough is much given to literary quotations and to displaying his familiarity with various esoteric fields of scholarship. He’s not as arrogant as Philo Vance and lacks Vance’s more extreme affectations and he’s much more amiable and even grandfatherly but he’s somewhat in the same mould. 

Fortunately I happen to be a very big fan of the Van Dine school so for me all of these elements represent major pluses.

This story also offers not one but two locked-room puzzles. Clason does not elaborate these puzzles to quite the same byzantine extent as a John Dickson Carr would have done but on the plus side Clason’s solutions do not stretch credibility too far.

Clason’s style is witty, polished and erudite. Professor Westborough’s virtuoso displays of arcane knowledge are amusing and enjoyable and most importantly they’re relevant to the plot. Clason’s plotting is inventive and generally sound, and conforms to the standards of the fair-play puzzle-plot mystery. Clason is not entirely indifferent to characterisation or to the intricacies of interpersonal relationships (such as Julian Carr’s very complicated love life).

Dragon’s Cave is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dennis Wheatley's Star of Ill-Omen

Dennis Wheatley was famous for his immensely popular occult thrillers but he write straightforward thrillers as well, and even some science fiction. His science fiction output includes the 1952 novel Star of Ill-Omen.

In 1952 flying saucers were a worldwide sensation and belief in them was at least moderately respectable. Wheatley evidently thought they would make a good subject. Being a thriller writer though he liked secret agent heroes so he made his hero, Kem Lincoln, a British secret agent. In the early 1950s you might expect a British intelligence agent to be assigned to a case involving the threat from the Soviet Union or Communist China but Kem’s latest assignment deals with a different menace altogether - the Argentine nuclear menace!

Argentina’s dictator, General Peron, has begun an ambitious nuclear weapons program which has apparently made significant breakthroughs - breakthroughs that would make nuclear weapons much simpler and much cheaper to produce. Or has he? British Intelligence is inclined to think Peron is bluffing, but on the other hand he might want them to think he is bluffing. In other words, it could be a double bluff. Either way Kem Lincoln has to find out what is actually going on and whether this threat is real or not.

Kem has to infiltrate the home of Colonel Escobar, the man in charge of the general’s atomic weapons facility. While he’s doing that he decides he might as well seduce the colonel’s beautiful young wife Carmen. Before Kem can discover Argentina’s atomic secrets he, Carmen and Colonel Escobar are kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken to Mars!

At this point you might be thinking to yourself if this is a Dennis Wheatley thriller why is there no communist conspiracy? Do not panic. There is indeed a communist conspiracy. The Martians have also kidnapped two Soviet atomic scientists plus an MVD man (the MVD being a predecessor of the KGB). The chief Soviet scientist is actually an ex-Nazi scientist with an implacable hatred of the British that has its roots in the Boer War.

There are certainly Martians, but whether there is a Martian civilisation is another matter. What passes for civilisation on the Red Planet is actually a bit like civilisation in the Soviet Union - highly regimented and not terribly inspiring. In fact it’s pretty grim.

In this book the hero has to thwart both a communist plot and a Martian plot, both equally deadly. 

Kem Lincoln is an interesting hero. Many modern readers will doubtless find him to be rather unattractive. Oddly enough the things that make him most unappealing are the very things that make him such a modern hero. Kem Lincoln is a million miles away from the hearty good sportsmanship of Bulldog Drummond, or the clean-limbed decency of Richard Hannay, or even the cheerful sense of mischief of Simon Templar. Kem Lincoln might be daring and resourceful but he is also sexually promiscuous, breathtakingly ruthless, callous, selfish and entirely lacking in pity. In fact he’s much closer in spirit to James Bond than to Bulldog Drummond but even James Bond seems like an old-fashioned romantic by comparison. With Kem Lincoln Wheatley was (perhaps consciously or perhaps unconsciously) edging towards the modern hero who is more anti-hero than hero.

Wheatley’s concept of Martian society might be grim but it’s quite well thought-out. Of course you have to remember than in 1952 a great deal less was known about Mars than was the case just twenty years later after the first space probes reached the planet. Wheatley based his book more or less on what was known at the time and it’s clear he did quite a bit of research. The famous canals of Mars play an important roe in the book - their existence was not finally disproved until the mid-1960s.

On the whole this is typical Wheatley - the infodumps are rather clumsy, the story-telling is vivid and wildly imaginative and totally outrageous, the tone is politically incorrect to a degree that takes one breath away. On the other hand, and typical of Wheatley, it’s often politically incorrect in unexpected ways while being remarkably modern in equally unexpected ways. 

Star of Ill-Omen is odd but entertaining. Recommended.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Agatha Christie's Three Act Tragedy

Three Act Tragedy (also published as Murder in Three Acts) is a 1934 Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. For most of the book however Poirot is very much in the background. This could be a weakness but luckily  Christie provides us with some memorable supporting characters who are just about  colourful enough to ensure that the reader’s interest does not flag.

It starts with a dinner party given by Sir Charles Cartwright at Crown Nest, his modernist house on a cliff-top overlooking the harbour at Loomouth. Cartwright is a distinguished actor, now retired. At least he’s retired from the stage - he still spends most of his life acting some part or other. Among the guests is a little Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The dinner ends in tragedy. An elderly clergyman, the Rev Stephen Babbington, has a sudden seizure and dies after drinking a cocktail. Babbington was such a kindly inoffensive man that no-one, not even Poirot, suspects foul play.

Actually there is one person who does have some slight suspicions - Sir Charles Cartwright. No-one takes too much notice - after all he is an actor and they do tend to dramatise things.

The matter has been all but forgotten until another dinner party ends in an eerily similar tragedy.

Sir Charles and his friend Mr Satterthwaite decide to play amateur detective, with a bit of help from a young lady named Egg. Egg is actually a Miss Lytton Gore but everyone knows her as Egg. The trio’s amateur sleuthing is more successful than one might expect. They do uncover some very important evidence that the police have overlooked. The time will of course come when they will need some assistance from a real detective.

Poirot makes a couple of brief appearances early on but until well past the halfway mark Christie keeps him almost entirely in the wings. This works quite well. The reader is eagerly awaiting Poirot’s entrance but in the meantime the amateur detective provide some entertainment. I personally would have preferred more Poirot though!

Christie had a reputation for not always playing fair with her readers but there’s really nothing to complain of on that score in this tale. On the other hand there is the question of psychological motivation, something that is generally quite important to Poirot. In this instance there is a plausible motive but the callousness of the murderer is a slight problem - it doesn’t quite ring true.

As Poirot realises very early on understanding the reason for the first murder is the key to uncovering the identity of the killer. Which is interesting since there is a tendency in golden age detective fiction to tack on motives as a bit of an afterthought. In this case the whydunit aspect comes before the whodunit aspect and the why is quite ingenious (even if I did manage to figure it out).

Three Act Tragedy is I think lesser Christie but it’s by no means to be despised. In my view  a lesser Christie can still be made enormous fun by the sheer joy of Poirot. This one definitely needed more Poirot. Worth a look.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Enter the Saint

Enter the Saint is a collection of three very early novellas (The Man Who Was Clever, The Policeman with Wings and The Lawless Lady) recounting the adventures of Simon Templar, alias The Saint. It appeared in book form in 1930.

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) was a writer who achieved success remarkably quickly. He was nineteen when his first novel was published. The Saint was one of his very early creations although it took him a while to realise that this character was so perfect for his purposes that there was little point in bothering with any others. By 1930 he certainly was aware of this. 

While Charteris wrote some fine Saint novels and short stories it was the novella that became his preferred format. It offered enough scope for reasonably complex plots while remaining fast-paced and exciting. As he himself put it it also has one great advantage for a writer - it can be finished before its author grows tired of it.

The three novellas in this collection are perhaps not quite as polished as some of his later efforts but they more than make up for this in sheer energy and vitality. 

Both the character of Simon Templar and the tone of the books evolved over time, going through several well-defined and very distinctive phases. In these three novellas we see the very earliest incarnation of The Saint. He is young, reckless and insanely self-confident. He is also exceptionally ruthless - far more ruthless than any of the TV or movie versions of the character. This Simon Templar is a killer. He only kills people who thoroughly deserve it, and only does so when he feels that he has to, but when he considers it to be necessary he does so without hesitation and without being troubled by any sense of guilt. 

This early Simon Templar is also a crook. He only steals from other criminals and he gives most of the proceeds to charity but he does take a healthy “commission” for himself and his gang. And he also feels no qualms of conscience about the illegality of his actions. His code of ethics might be unconventional in the extreme but it is also in its own way quite rigid and so long as he remains within his self-imposed moral code he is entirely untroubled by guilt.

While Simon Templar’s nickname The Saint and his habit of referring to wrongdoers as the ungodly are part of his carefully contrived image, intended to strike fear into his underworld enemies, there is perhaps just a hint of an actual quasi-religious element here. The Saint has no respect for the laws of the land but he has a very great respect for what could be described as a higher moral law. He is in some ways truly an avenging angel, punishing the wicked in a manner that would not be out of place in the Old Testament. Whether Templar has any actual religious belief is never stated but he does rather behave as if his campaign against crime is motivated by at least some kind of abstract belief in divine retribution.

The Saint’s relationship with his would-be nemesis Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard (who makes his first appearance in these tales) is established. They are sometimes adversaries and sometimes allies. Teal has high hopes of arresting The Saint although it’s clear that these hopes are unlikely ever to be fulfilled. There’s a certain respect between the two men and even a grudging degree of affection. Teal strongly disapproves of Templar’s methods but he has to admit that they are effective and that they do often serve the cause of justice, if not the cause of law. These stories also introduce some of the members of The Saint’s gang, such as Dicky Tremayne. Others would gradually make their appearance in subsequent stories. In fact Dicky Tremayne is the central character in The Lawless Lady with The Saint playing a somewhat subordinate role.

In The Man Who Was Clever Simon pits his wits against a drug smuggler while The Policeman with Wings involves kidnapping and jewel theft. They’re both fine stories but The Lawless Lady is perhaps even better, a tale of an ambitious seagoing jewel robbery complicated by the fact that Simon’s pal Dicky Tremayne is in love with the glamorous and very dangerous lady gangster masterminding the whole nefarious conspiracy.

Charteris’s style is both energetic and whimsical, just like his hero. It’s a style that was attempted by a number of the great thriller writers of the interwar years but no other writer ever pulled off with quite the same breath-taking bravado and sense of style.

Simon Templar first appeared in the 1928 novel Meet the Tiger. Enter the Saint was the second of the Saint books, followed in the same year by the splendid The Saint Closes the Case (also published as The Last Hero).

For anyone who has not yet sampled the delights of Leslie Charteris’s superb thrillers Enter the Saint is a good starting point. It is highly desirable to read the Saint books in chronological order and Enter the Saint offers the opportunity to see The Saint in action at the beginning of his illustrious career. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Francis Durbridge’s Send for Paul Temple

Francis Durbridge’s first Paul Temple radio serial for the BBC having been a great success in 1938 it was not only inevitable that more would follow, but also that the character would cross over into other media. Eventually there would be a series of films (including Calling Paul Temple), a comic strip and a television series. And in 1938 came the first of the Paul Temple novels, Send for Paul Temple.

Paul Temple is a journalist turned successful crime novelist. He has in the past assisted Scotland Yard, quite unofficially, in several investigations (and with considerable success). Now Scotland Yard is facing a new challenge. A series of daring jewel robberies in the Midlands have created a sensation in the popular press. There are those at the Yard who suspect that these are no ordinary crimes - that there is a criminal mastermind behind them. 

A couple of minor members of the gang have met with sudden and very fatal accidents. It seems that if there is a large criminal organisation behind the robberies they are quite prepared to resort to murder to keep their secrets.

A press campaign has been started, demanding that the Yard should ask for Paul Temple to help them once again. Sir Graham Forbes, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is less than enthusiastic but soon he may have no choice.

The press campaign has been largely orchestrated by a young female reporter, Steve Trent (a character who will become a very important figure in the Paul Temple stories). 

Eventually of course Paul Temple is sent for. There is one interesting clue - just before his death one of the murdered gang members mentioned The Green Finger. But who or what is the Green Finger? The answer to that clue will be provided by an elderly spinster with a special interest in old English country inns.

While there is a mystery plot here this book is more a thriller than a whodunnit, and it belongs to the more lighthearted school of British thrillers. The plot is impossibly (but enjoyably) complicated, the dialogue is fairly witty, there is a considerable leavening of humour and a definite hint of romance. And being a British thriller of the interwar years you can guarantee that at some stage the heroine will be kidnapped by the villains. There are secret passageways, there are links to crimes in the past, there are characters who are not what they appear to be - there are in fact all the usual thriller ingredients. What matters is that they’re combined quite skillfully and the pacing is pleasingly brisk.

Paul Temple is a fairly typical English thriller hero. He owns a small country estate, he has a faithful manservant, he is a well-educated member of the upper middle classes, he is moderately wealthy and a connoisseur of the finer things in life. He lacks the ruthlessness of a Bulldog Drummond or the debonair gaiety of a Simon Templar but in his own way he’s an engaging and colourful enough character.

Steve is the right sort of heroine for such a book - she’s brave and intelligent and generally sensible and she’s very determined.

The identity of the main villain is not disclosed until the end of the story but Durbridge is able to make him a suitably menacing offstage presence, and there are some fine subordinate villains to keep things bubbling along until he makes his appearance. There’s also a beautiful but deadly woman - another essential thriller ingredient. The improbabilities of the plotting are assets rather than liabilities - the emphasis here is very much on fun.

Durbridge doesn’t quite have the panache of a Leslie Charteris and there’s not quite the sense of breathless excitement of the best Bulldog Drummond tales but this is a fine thriller of the second rank and fans of British thrillers of this era should be well satisfied. Send for Paul Temple is very solid entertainment. Recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Alistair MacLean’s The Dark Crusader

Alistair MacLean’s seventh novel, The Dark Crusader (inexplicably and incongruously renamed The Black Shrike in the US) appeared in 1961. MacLean had enjoyed great success with his debut novel HMS Ulysses, a fine naval war story, in 1955 and had followed it up with the equally successful The Guns of Navarone, a wartime action adventure story, in 1957. By the time The Dark Crusader was published he had settled comfortably into the genre that best suited his talents - the contemporary thriller, usually but not always with an espionage slant.

The hero of The Dark Crusader is Johnny Bentall, a scientist who has been recruited by the British Secret Service. A number of top British scientists have recently gone missing. They had been lured to Australia by advertisements offering lucrative jobs but then simply disappeared, along with their wives. Bentall and a female Secret Service agent, Marie Hopeman, have the task of discovering the fate of the missing boffins. Bentall is posing as another scientist who has answered the same advertisement while Marie will pose as his wife. Bentall’s chief is confident that an attempt will be made to shanghai the couple, which will hopefully lead them to the persons responsible. Of course it could also get them killed, but that’s an occupational hazard for a counter-espionage agent.

Sure enough the agents are kidnapped. Their immediate fate, after they are spirited aboard a disreputable schooner captained by an even more disreputable Australian, may strike the reader as being a bit far-fetched. Do not despair. MacLean’s plotting was always sure-footed and as usual even his more outrageous plot elements do end up making perfect sense.

Bentall and Marie find themselves on a Pacific island where they encounter the eccentric English archaeologist Witherspoon. Witherspoon has made discoveries here that will revolutionise the field of archaeology but there are much stranger things on this island than ancient artifacts. Bentall will soon find out exactly why a scientist like himself with expertise in solid fuel rocket technology was chosen for this mission.

You expect a spy story to have plenty of plot twists but MacLean has really outdone himself here. The plot twists just keep on coming.

MacLean’s approach to thriller writing could almost be described as being diametrically opposed to that of his fellow Scotsman and near-contemporary Ian Fleming. In fact one cannot help suspecting that MacLean was deliberately distancing himself from the style of the Bond novels. There is no sex in MacLean’s books. Romance plays a very minor role in his stories, if it appears at all. There’s plenty of violence but MacLean avoids graphic violence. You might think this would make his books rather old-fashioned and even a bit on the cozy side but you’d be dead wrong. MacLean’s novels are actually remarkably gritty and even at times somewhat bleak. His villains are exceptionally ruthless and cold-blooded and his heroes can be pretty cold-blooded as well. 

MacLean’s heroes are not, however, cynical. They may be disillusioned but that’s quite a different thing. MacLean avoids the fashionable nihilism and cheap cynicism that infected so much popular fiction from the 1950s onwards. There is no real moral ambiguity. His stories have definite good guys and definite bad guys. The problem for his heroes is that the bad guys often look just like the good guys. MacLean’s villains are never obvious super-villains like Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger.

MacLean, like Fleming, sent his heroes to far-flung places. The key difference is that his heroes were more likely to find themselves in harsh, hostile, unforgiving settings. A MacLean hero is unlikely to be spending much time in casinos or lazing on a beach on the Côte d'Azur and is very unlikely to find opportunities to show off his knowledge of fine wines. He’ll be more likely to be battling frostbite. Much of The Dark Crusader takes place on a Pacific Island but this is not the kind of tropical paradise familiar to James Bond and his ilk. The island had been a giant phosphate mine. It is barren, bleak, ugly and cheerless. Just the kind of setting he loves to put his heroes in, and just the kind of setting that gives MacLean the chance to display his considerable gifts for creating menacing atmosphere. 

MacLean was unbelievably popular during his lifetime but he was always underrated. He was too often dismissed merely as a fine storyteller. In fact as a thriller writer he was quite bold. You can never be sure that you’re going to get a happy ending. The hero might triumph, but he might also pay a high price for his triumph. You can also never be sure that MacLean’s first-person narrators are being entirely candid with his readers - they often know rather more about what is really going on than than they appear to. There is an odd similarity to the detective fiction of the golden age, with the hero sometimes knowing more about the solution to the mystery than he is willing to reveal. And in The Dark Crusader MacLean gives the reader the same clues that his protagonist will use to unravel the puzzle. 

MacLean’s heroes are also very human. They make mistakes, often tragic mistakes, and the mistakes cannot always be put right.

The Dark Crusader, like MacLean’s other great novels, is an intelligent grownup thriller. It’s also action-packed and thoroughly entertaining. Very highly recommended.