Monday, January 26, 2015

John Wyndham's Stowaway to Mars (Planet Plane)

In 1951 The Day of the Triffids made John Wyndham (1903-1969) the most popular science fiction writer in Britain. In fact Wydnham’s overnight success had taken him more than 25 years to accomplish. He had started writing in 1925, was selling stories to the American pulps by the early 1930s and published his first novel in 1935. It was a detective story but later the same year his first science fiction novel, The Secret People, saw the light of day. It was quickly followed by Planet Plane (later republished as Stowaway to Mars). These first two science fiction novels were published under the pseudonym John Beynon. 

Stowaway to Mars is set in 1981. Leading British aircraft manufacturer Dale Curtance has decided to take a crack at the Keuntz Prize. This rich prize has been offered to the first man to make a successful voyage to another planet. In the novel’s fictional world men have already reached the Moon but every attempt to reach the planets has ended in disaster.

Curtance has been constructing a rocket under conditions of the utmost secrecy. A break-in at the works, a break-in that leaves two men dead, has blown all that secrecy out of the water. Henceforth the spotlight of the world’s media will be on Dale Curtance and his planned mission to Mars.

Curtance’s rocket, the Gloria Mundi, blasts off with its five-man crew - Curtance, his young co-pilot Geoffrey Dugan, engineer James Burns, middle-aged Doctor Grayson and journalist Froud. Not long after blast-off they discover they have a sixth person on board, a stowaway. The stowaway, a young woman named Joan, turns out to know a lot more about Mars than any of the other crew members - in fact she knows the Martian language!

While Mars is about to be visited by the inhabitants of Earth it seems that Earth has already been visited by the Martians. At least in a manner of speaking. The Martian visitor was a machine. Not an ordinary machine, but a machine capable of thinking for itself.

As to who built this machine, or whether Mars is still inhabited by intelligent life forms, these are questions to which Joan does not have the answers. It was her determination to find these answers that led to her decision to go to Mars.

Wyndham changed his style radically at the beginning of the 1950s but already in this very early novel we see some of the major preoccupations of his later science fiction already in evidence. The increasing mechanisation of the world was already causing concern to many people in the 1930s. It was widely feared (correctly as it turned out) that this would change society drastically. The clash between traditional ways of life and the modern world would be a major theme in Wyndham’s later work and it’s intriguing to see this earlier treatment of the same theme. Dale Curtance is very much in love with modernity and the machine age. His wife Mary hates and fears machines and sees them as a threat to everything she holds dear. Joan has mixed feelings on the subject. 

When they reach Mars our space explorers will find that the Martians have had their own dramatic experiences with machines. This might sound like the novel is a typical example of the fear-the-future sub-genre but Wyndham is much more subtle than that. The Martian experience with machines has changed their world and their civilisation profoundly but these Martian machines are not demonic machines that enslave their creators. The relationship between the Martians and their machines is complex and ambiguous.

Wyndham’s other great preoccupation was with civilisation under threat. The Martian civilisation is certainly under threat, but not from its machines.

This is not an alien invasion story, nor is it a story of an encounter with alien monsters. There are no real monsters nor are there any real villains. There is no actual clash of civilisations, merely encounters with civilisations so different as to be mutually incompatible and incomprehensible. There are in fact two Martian civilisations, that of the Martians themselves and that of their machines. These civilisations co-exist, although with some tensions. One civilisation has a future; one does not.

Don’t expect any space battles with laser cannons in this novel. There is some action but it is handled in a somewhat unconventional manner. This is by no means typical 1930s space opera. Despite some major differences in style and approach it has far more in common with Wyndham’s later work than you might expect. 

This is also a story with some surprisingly dark aspects to it. It’s not a dystopian novel but nor does it have the optimism of much early space opera. That’s not to say that it suffers from the nihilism and self-indulgent pessimism of so much later science fiction. Even in 1935 Wyndham was a thoughtful and provocative writer. He had not yet found a formula that suited his purposes but you can see that he was working towards finding one.

Stowaway to Mars is perhaps not entirely successful (certainly in comparison to his later masterpieces like The Midwich Cuckoos) but it should not be dismissed as mere juvenilia. It’s actually quite an interesting tale. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Circus Queen

Charles Fulton Oursler (1893-1952) wrote eight detective novels and a handful of short stories under the name Anthony Abbot. All featured New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. About the Murder of the Circus Queen was the fourth Thatcher Colt mystery, appearing in 1932.

Abbot is generally regarded (in his early books at least) as belonging to the S.S. Van Dine school of detective fiction although Abbot is slightly less obsessed with the doings of high society types. Thatcher Colt is clearly, like Philo Vance, a well-educated upper-class man but he lacks Vance’s affectations and endless displays of erudition. He’s also a bit more of a tough guy.

Police Commissioners do not usually involve themselves in the details of criminal investigations but that doesn’t stop Colt. If a case engages his interest he not only becomes involved but leads the investigation himself. 

The author plays the Dr Watson role, acting as first-person narrator in the guise of Colt’s private secretary. 

As the title implies About the Murder of the Circus Queen is a circus mystery. The circus in question is performing in New York’s Madison Square Garden. This provides Abbot with the necessary circus background but in a slightly unusual setting and allows Abbot to set the action entirely in Manhattan (like Van Dine Abbot seems to have had little interest in the world beyond the confines of that island).

The circus has been having more than its share of bad luck with a string of worrying accidents, accidents that have already claimed the lives of several circus employees. Of course the circus is an inherently dangerous place and accidents are common but these accidents seem a little suspicious. And now several of the circus’s star performers have received death threats. Thatcher Colt is inclined to take the matter seriously and is not only present on opening night, he also has a large number of New York’s finest scattered through the crowds just in case something serious really does happen. This does not prevent murder from occurring, right in the middle of the performance, but at least the police are on hand immediately and the investigation can get underway before the trail goes cold.

The murder itself is both spectacular and ingenious, and apparently quite inexplicable. Adding to the difficulties is the nature of circus life - circus performers (and indeed everyone working in a circus) form what would later come to be described as a sub-culture. They have their own traditions and their own values and they’re deeply suspicious of outsiders. And being an enclosed little hot-house world naturally means that there are plenty of jealousies and intrigues. The difficulty here is not in finding someone with a motive but in sorting through an embarrassment of riches in the motive department.

Abbot demonstrates an ability to construct an intricate plot with an abundance of red herrings. I would not claim that his plotting is quite up to the standard of the early Ellery Queens but it’s not far behind. Fans of ingenious plotting will have nothing whatever to complain about in this novel.

Thatcher Colt is a fine series detective, an investigator combining the mental dexterity of a Ellery Queen with hints of the tough guy persona of the pulp detectives. That’s not to say that Colt is a two-fisted action hero (although he can handle himself in a brawl when he needs to). It’s more a psychological toughness that he has. He has a square-jawed no-nonsense approach that makes him a very different kettle of fish to a Philo Vance. Colt also has the kinds of intellectual accomplishments that Vance has but he doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

The circus background is fun (and I’m a sucker for circus stories) but this book has more than that, It has ju-ju and witch doctors! So it has just about every ingredient that I love in a mystery thriller type of story.

If you love the S.S. Van Dine/early Ellery Queen type of mysteries but you find Philo Vance and Ellery Queen too affected for your tastes then Anthony Abbot may well be just the writer you’re looking for. About the Murder of the Circus Queen is tremendous fun. Highly recommended. You should also check out his slightly earlier About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Jungle Girl

Jungle Girl is a 1933 lost world tale by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Given that Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan of the Apes you might expect this to be a female Tarzan-type story but it isn’t. It does however have a jungle setting and a jungle girl, of sorts.

Gordon King is a young American exploring the jungles of Cambodia. King was trained as a doctor (which will later prove crucial to the story) but being a wealthy young man he has decided that archaeology might be more fun than practising medicine. He is hoping to discover traces of the vanished Khmer civilisation, perhaps even something as exciting and significant as the ruins of Angkor Wat. Being a city boy with no experience of trekking through forests he is soon hopelessly lost. And then he stumbles over a rock with some curious and unquestionably ancient inscriptions. He is still lost however and is on the point of giving up and just patiently waiting for death. When he sees an old man dressed in a yellow tunic and carrying a red parasol he assumes he has become delirious. Even in his (supposed) delirium he manages to shoot a tiger that is about to make supper out of the old man. He also sees a party of soldiers dressed in bronze armour and an elephant with a howdah and a beautiful girl in the howdah. Obviously more delirium dreams.

Having passed out from hunger, exhaustion and despair he wakes up to find himself in a small stone building. The stone hut is home to a hunter and his wife and child, and the wife nurses Gordon back to health. Gordon may be a city boy but he is a natural athlete, having been a champion track-and-field competitor. His specialty was throwing the javelin, a sport at which he set a world record. This skill makes him a fine hunter and he is soon accompanying the husband on hunting trips.

There is a major surprise in store for Gordon King. He will discover that the old man with the red parasol, the bronze-clad warriors and the girl on the elephant were not symptoms of delirium. The old man was the high priest of Lodidhapura. The girl, Fou-tan, was on her way to join the harem of King Lodivarnam. He has stumbled upon something far stranger than the ruins of the ancient Khmer civilisation. He has discovered that this ancient civilisation still exists, hidden deep within the jungle, entirely cut off from the outside world. The people of Lodidhapura believe that their jungle comprises the entire world, and that there are only two cities in the world, their own and the neighbouring city of Pnom Dhek.

This lost civilisation knows nothing of anything that has happened in the outside world for many centuries, possible even for a millennium. It is however a thriving civilisation in its own way. King Lodivarnam can put into the field many thousands of warriors and hundreds of war elephants. The city itself is vast and splendid, the king’s palace is large and magnificent.

And what of the girl Fou-tan? She is a girl of Pnom Dhek who had run away to escape a forced marriage, was captured by the soldiers of King Lodivarnam and is now destined to be his latest concubine. This prospect fills her with despair, for King Lodivarnam is not only known for his cruelty he is also a leper!

This is not the only reason that Fou-tan does not wish to share the king’s bed. She and Gordon King have fallen in love. 

Gordon King’s determination to somehow save Fou-tan will involve him in a series of thrilling adventures, and thrilling adventures were the sort of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs was very good at. He was also remarkably good at what science fiction and fantasy fans call world-building - the ability to create complex and fascinating imaginary worlds. The world of Lodidhapura is certainly complex and fascinating. There is more to King Lodivarnam than is at first apparent - he is a man who has been dealt a tragically poor hand by fate but he will turn out to be more than a simplistic villain. There are villains in this story but most of the characters are more complicated than this and they have reasons for doing the things they do.

Lodidhapura is neither a utopian paradise nor a city of evil. It is a society bound by tradition, for both good and ill. Its citizens have the usual array of human frailties, and human strengths. The major characters are on the whole neither wholly good nor wholly evil. 

Gordon King belongs to the square-jawed action hero tradition but he is not infallible nor is he a super-man. He is brave, reasonably intelligent and determined. His love for Fou-tan inspires him to perform heroic deeds, and while a hero motivated by old-fashioned decency and by love for a beautiful and spirited girl might be an old-fashioned sort of hero that is in my opinion no bad thing.

The 1941 Republic movie serial Jungle Girl was advertised as being based on the Burroughs novel but it actually has no connection whatsoever with the novel apart from the title. Republic bought the rights to the novel purely in order to get the title (which was obviously a great title for a 1940s movie serial).

Edgar Rice Burroughs is a writer who is somewhat unfairly neglected these days. He had a talent for writing stories that combined high adventure with some very intriguing ideas. His ability to create highly original imaginary worlds can be seen to full advantage in his Carnak stories (beginning with The Land That Time Forgot), his Pellucidar novels (beginning with At the Earth's Core) and his Martian novels (such as A Princess of Mars). Jungle Girl is perhaps less ambitious and certainly less fantastic but it is nonetheless a very fine novel of adventure and a very satisfying lost world tale. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

James M. Cain's Double Indemnity

James M. Cain’s novels have not always been well treated by Hollywood. They were just too sleazy, but his 1943 classic Double Indemnity is one of the rare exceptions where the 1944 movie version is every bit as good as the book.

Which is not to day it isn’t a great book. It is. It’s typical Cain. Sleazy people committing sleazy crimes for sleazy reasons. An insurance salesman has the opportunity to sell some accident insurance on a man to the man’s wife, a certain Mrs Phyllis Nirllinger (Phyllis Dietrichson in the movie) . Only she doesn’t want the husband to know about the insurance. The salesman, Walter Huff (Walter Neff in the movie), thinks it all sounds very suspicious, but he doesn’t care. He wants Phyllis, he wants her so badly he doesn’t care what he has to do to get her. Even murder. 

Only, as he explains later, he committed murder to get money and a woman and he didn’t get the money and he didn’t get the woman.

It’s typical Cain cynicism, and it’s told in typical Cain style style - deceptively simple, but with all sorts on nuances and emotional complications.

What has always surprised me about the movie, and surprises me also about the book, is the number of people who see it as the tale of a basically decent guy led astray by the feminine wiles of an evil spider woman. This is absolute nonsense. Walter is as corrupt as Phyllis right from the start. He might not have had the opportunities she’s had, but once the opportunity is offered he’s more keen than she is.

Like the equally good The Postman Always Rings Twice  it’s a novel about shared depravity, about two people who meet and the combination is disastrous, awakening dark sexual passions that can only lead to destruction.  

The core of the story is identical to that of the movie, although the ending differs somewhat. But unusually the movie’s ending is every bit as bleak and cynical as the ending of the novel.  

It’s a great book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell

Francis Lathom’s 1798 novel The Midnight Bell is another of the “horrid books” referenced in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (along with The Necromancer and The Castle of Wolfenbach). And this one is really quite interesting.

While it has plenty of the features that made these novels so easy for Austen to mock - the generally overheated style, the outrageous coincidences, the unlikely plotting and the inevitable triumph of virtue - it has other compensations. It’s entertaining, which of course was all it was ever intended to be. And it’s structurally very interesting.

Gothic novels often used devices like multiple narrators and having large chunks of the plot told in the form of letters. The Midnight Bell takes this technique to an extreme. The story consists of stories within stories within stories all fitted together like Chinese boxes. The main plot occupies a few pages at the beginning and a few pages at the end. Everything else consists of digressions, but the digressions do eventually serve to  tell the main story. As each new character appears he or she relates her tale and they all have a bearing on the original plotline. And Lathom executes this technique with considerable skill.

We have a haunted castle of course, a castle left deserted after the mysterious murder of the Count Cohenburg. The castle is left empty of all inhabitants but every night at midnight a bell is tolled within the castle tower, leading to local legends of ghostly visitations. After the count’s slaying his distraught widow throws out a few hints as to the identity of the murderer and then summarily orders her son to flee. Before he goes she extracts a solemn promise that he will never return to the Castle of Cohenburg or attempt to see her again.

Being a young man he naturally finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of trying to unravel this mystery. He meets a succession of people whose stories will in time be proven to intersect with his own. He also of course falls in love and as in any good gothic novel his future happiness  that of his wife are dependent on finding a solution to the mystery.

I’m not going to make inflated claims for this book. It’s no literary masterpiece but if you’re a fan of the gothic it’s definitely worth a read.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wylder’s Hand by J. Sheridan le Fanu

I’m a big fan of Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s gothic fictions, especially Carmilla and Green Tea, but until now I hadn’t sampled any of his sensation novels. After reading his 1864 novel Wylder’s Hand I can see myself tracking down  lot more of his work in this genre!

The sensation novel was a kind of Victorian ancestor to the detective novel, with a crime as the lynchpin of the plot but generally without an actual detective as hero, and with a pinch of melodrama.

The plot of Wylder’s Hand is convoluted and contrived to an extraordinary degree, but I’d see that as a plus rather than a minus. It was really a convention of the genre (and I suppose it’s a convention of crime fiction in general) to have a fiendishly complicated plot.

The Wylder and Brandon families are in fact branches of the same family, and the vast Brandon estates have for generations passed back and forth between the two families. It’s become a tradition for the current holder of the estate to leave a devious will that renders the future ownership of the estates open to all kinds of legal wranglings and bitter family disputes. As the novel opens the provisions of the latest will have made it highly desirable for a marriage to take place between the young and beautiful Dorcas Brandon and Mark Wylder, a marriage that would unite two fortunes and clarify the complex ownership situation. Which would be all well and good, apart from the inconvenient fact that Mark isn’t especially attracted to Dorcas while Dorcas dislikes Mark quite intensely, and Mark has an unexpected rival.

There’s an important sub-plot involving Mark’s impoverished brother, the Reverend William Wylder, and the machinations of the unscrupulous lawyer Josiah Larkin. Other important players are Rachel and Stanley Lake, brother and sister and belonging to yet another branch of the same family tree.

The main plot unfolds slowly, with a mysterious disappearance and dark hints of past crimes and shameful secrets. The fairly leisurely pacing works well, building the tension very effectively.

While the plot is highly melodramatic the characters are complex and sometimes surprising. The chief villain is not a stock villain out of melodrama at all. He’s certainly selfish and ruthless, but as the narrator points out there’s no actual malice in him. He won’t hesitate to hurt anyone who gets in his way, but he won’t inflict injury for the mere pleasure of doing so. The secondary villain is much more sinister. He is a chilling portrait of hypocrisy in action, a man who has even managed to convince himself that he is virtuous whilst he commits the most outrageous frauds.

Wylder’s Hand is a must for any fans of the Victorian sensation novel.