Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lady Audley’s Secret

One of the most important ancestors of the classical detective story was the Victorian sensation novel. Wilkie Collins is perhaps the best-known author of such books, with The Woman in White in 1860 and The Moonstone in 1868 cementing his reputation. J. Sheridan le Fanu was another master of the genre with Wylder's Hand being a particularly fine example. Equally popular at the time was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, published in 1862. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) was a prolific writer although none of her other books has achieved the same kind of lasting reputation as Lady Audley’s Secret. Her lover’s literary magazine being in desperate need of material she dashed the novel off in a matter of weeks between other writing tasks. 

Despite the haste with which it was written it’s a superbly constructed mystery, and like Collins’ sensation novels it gives considerable scope to characterisation and she manages to slip in some subtle social commentary, especially in regards to the position of women.

The somewhat mysterious but ravishingly beautiful Lucy Graham has charmed a wealthy and kindly baronet more than thirty years her senior, Sir Michael Audley, into marriage. When the baronet’s good-natured but incurably lazy nephew Robert Audley arrives at the family seat with an old acquaintance recently returned from the Australian goldfields a series of dramatic events is triggered off, events which in the fullness of time will reveal the secret of the young Lady Audley. Robert Audley’s indolent lifestyle is changed forever by madness, murder and the threat of shameful scandals that now hang over the house of Audley. 

Lady Audley’s Secret combines enormous fun with some wonderfully memorable characters, and for anyone with even the mildest interest in the development of the crime novel it’s essential reading, as well as being immensely entertaining.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dian of the Lost Land

Dian of the Lost Land is a 1935 novel by Edison Marshall (1894-1967), an American writer whose adventure tales achieved considerable popularity during his lifetime. Three of his novels were filmed, the best-known movie adaptation being The Vikings in 1958.

Dian of the Lost Land follows the usual template for lost world adventures. Adam Weissman is a young American doctor specialising in obscure tropical diseases. He has even had a disease named after him. His studies of rare diseases have brought him to Australia. Having gone on board the ship Penguin to treat a sailor suffering from Coral Fever he is shanghaied by Belgrade, an Eastern European anthropologist (anthropology was still taken seriously as a science in those far-off days). Belgrade is on a voyage of discovery to a lost world in the Antarctic and he needs Wiessman to keep the sick sailor alive long enough to guide him to his objective.

The ailing sailor, a man named Hull, had been the sole survivor of an earlier expedition. Some years after the expedition members vanished without trace Belgrade found Hull in South America and heard his extraordinary story. Belgrade is a dedicated scientist, dedicated to the point of obsession, and Hull’s stories of a hidden world in the Antarctic teeming with unknown species and at lest one and possibly two unknown unknown human societies have inflamed Belgrade’s scientific imagination and his ambitions. The scientist who brings back the knowledge of this lost world will win fame, honour and riches.

Belgrade is initially set up as the villain, a man blinded by ambition who sees people merely as tools or as subjects for scientific investigation. We will however later find out that there’s a good deal more to him.

The lost world is hidden behind mountains and armed by volcanic activity. It’s far from being an idyllic land of forests. It’s rather like the Arctic tundra but it can support a variety of animal life, including a smaller cousin of the musk-ox of the Arctic. And mammoths.

The people of this land turn out to be more or less identical to the people of the Cro-Magnon culture of the European paleolithic period. These Antarctic dwellers have remained unchanged for tens of thousands years, both anatomically and culturally, with one exception - they have learnt to smelt bronze.

Their ruler, Dian, is a priestess-queen although she is also seen as a kind of living goddess. She also happens to be the daughter of one of the members of the earlier expedition that was lost. She is beautiful, but also wise and intelligent, and of course she and Adam are destined to fall in love.

There is another human civilisation in this bleak tundra-like land, but they are humans of a very different sort.

Adam fears that when word gets out about this lost paradise it will be overrun by traders lured by the furs and ivory in which the land abounds. He wants to keep the discovery a secret from the world, which leads to a major clash with Belgrade. Adam will have other crises to deal with as well, including a full-scale war.

The Antarctic Cro-Magnons practise a kind of primitive eugenics and as a result they are a tall, handsome and exceptionally healthy race. Eugenics were all the rage when the book was written but the term had not yet acquired its later sinister connotations. Adam’s approval of the lost race’s policies should not therefore be misinterpreted. Almost everyone, on both the political left and right, was a eugenics enthusiast at the time. 

Marshall was clearly a scientific enthusiast and he has given quite a lot of thought not only to primitive cultures but also to the evolution of culture and more particularly the evolution of language. Both his heroes are scientists but they have very different agendas. They also have very different personalities. Belgrade is a man of the intellect. Adam is more a man of emotion and of action. Belgrade cares about the lost race insofar as they are of scientific interest, while Adam is emotionally drawn to them. The author explains this as being due to the fact that Belgrade is a Slav while Adam is or Nordic stock. Again it’s important to remember that such ideas were common currency of the times and had no sinister implications. Belgrade will find that his approach is limited and will modify his views as the story progresses - yes this book has character development!

While Marshall is obviously interested in exploring the theme of differing approaches to science and the possible conflict between science and morality, and while he is also interested in the anthropological and linguistic angles, adventure fans need not fear that he neglects action and adventure. Or romance. In fact he integrates all these ingredients fairly effectively.

Dian of the Lost Land is a fine example of the lost world adventure genre and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It lacks the stunning flights of the imagination that characterise the best world tales (such as those of A. Merritt) but it’s still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ronald Knox’s Double Cross Purposes

Double Cross Purposes (published in 1937) was, alas, the last of Ronald Knox’s detective novels. And it’s a treat for fans of this underrated author.

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) as a Catholic priest and theologian who wrote detective stories as a hobby. He was a founding member of the Detection Club and is well known for his Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction in which he laid down the rules he felt should be followed by writers of this genre of fiction. 

He wrote six detective novels, five of which feature Miles Bredon. Bredon is a private detective employed by the Indescribable Insurance Company. This company plays a significant role in the novels, with many of the plots being driven the company’s practice of issuing some very unusual policies. The Indescribable prides itself on being prepared to insure just about anything. In Double Cross Purposes the company has written a policy insuring a treasure hunter against fraud on the part of his partner, and given the nature of his partner fraud seems rather likely. That’s why the Indescribable has asked Bredon to travel to the Scottish Highlands to keep on the mismatched pair of treasure seekers.

The Honourable Vernon Lethaby is the son of a peer. He is a notorious young man-about-town. He has no money of his own and is reliant on his aunt in order to maintain his flamboyant lifestyle. He has teamed up with the even more disreputable Digger Henderson. Digger is a Canadian ex-bootlegger who has attracted the notice of the police forces of most of the countries in which he has resided. The idea of the treasure hunt is inspired by Lethaby’s dim childhood recollections of a map that used to hang in the family seat, Dreams Castle, in Scotland. He believes that the map shows the location of a treasure secreted away by Bonnie Prince Charlie after the ’45. Local legends speak of this treasure but no-one tales them very seriously. It seems hardly likely that any treasure actually exists but it’s always possible and in any case it’s the sort of adventure that appeals to Lethaby. And even if there is no treasure there might still be a way to make some admittedly rather dishonest money out of what promises to be an amusing lark.

The treasure is reputed to be buried on an island in the river Dounie. Lethaby and Digger have rented the house (the one and only house) on the island. The house and the island have passed out of the hands of Lethaby’s family but the present owner, Sir Charles Airdire (who also now owns Dreams Castle), is willing to offer them a lease on the understanding that since the treasure if it exists is on his land he will get a half share.

Miles Bredon and his wife Angela have meanwhile taken up residence in a cottage opposite the island where they can keep watch on the treasure hunters. They have been joined by Mr Pulteney, an elderly schoolmaster who also appears in one of the earlier Miles Bredon mysteries (The Three Taps). 

Miles is not quite certain what to expect but he is certainly taken considerably by surprise when a murder occurs on the island. It’s all rather puzzling since the identity of the victim is far from certain.

Knox’s plots tend to be very much on the convoluted side. They also tend towards the far-fetched, but this is very much in keeping with the author’s view of the detective story as an elaborate intellectual game. Knox would have made no apologies for making the puzzle plot the heart of his tales. He wrote the kinds of detective stories that modern critics despise, which of course explains why they’re so much fun. While his plotting stretches credibility it’s also genuinely and delightfully ingenious.

Knox had more going for him than just his skill at constructing puzzle plots. His writing style was fluent, literate and very witty. He had a knack for creating rather outrageous characters who nonetheless come across as living breathing human beings. Miles and Angela Bredon are one of the more likeable detective couples and their verbal sparring provides plenty of amusement. The shrewd but pompous Mr Pulteney provides even more humour.

Double Cross Purposes is certainly not meant to be taken too seriously. Knox wrote detective stories because he enjoyed doing so and the reader should derive just as much enjoyment from reading them as Knox derived from writing them. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Alexander Wilson’s The Devil’s Cocktail

The Devil’s Cocktail, which appeared in 1928, was Alexander Wilson’s second novel of espionage. Wilson’s own bizarre and mysterious life was in some ways even more interesting, and certainly much stranger, than his fiction.

Wilson served with the British Army in the First World War. During the 1920s he took up an appointment as a professor of English literature at a Moslem college in India (as does the hero of The Devil’s Cocktail). It is possible, but by no means certain, that by this time he had already been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6). By the end of the 1930s he was definitely an MI6 officer. In 1942 he was sacked, having been accused of exaggerating and otherwise falsifying reports. Wilson told his family (or at least one of his families) that his dismissal was merely a cover story and that henceforth he would be working undercover as a field agent. It is possible that he continued working for the Secret Intelligence Service until his death in 1963 and that his many personal misfortunes, which included bankruptcy and several prison terms, were all part of an elaborate cover story. It is also possible that this was all a fantasy or self-delusion on Wilson’s part.

Wilson was also a serial bigamist who had four wives and various children. The fact that he was dismissed from MI6 for exaggerating reports tends to support the theory that most of his intelligence work was pure fantasy on his part, but on the other hand given the devious nature of the world of espionage it is not impossible that he really was working undercover. 

The other factor that might support Wilson’s stories is that his espionage novels were considered to be in many ways uncannily accurate in their portrayal of the world of the professional spy and his fictional British spy master Sir Leonard Wallace was clearly based on the real-life head of MI 6 Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, to an extent that suggested first-hand knowledge of both Smith-Cumming and MI6.

Wilson was either one of the greatest liars of the 20th century, or one of the greatest spies of the 20th century, or (possibly the most likely scenario) he was a somewhat tragic Walter Mitty figure who was genuinely unable to distinguish fact from fantasy.

Wilson’s first spy novel The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was a great success. It was followed by The Devil’s Cocktail and a whole series of further novels featuring Sir Leonard Wallace. 

One of the many mysteries surrounding Wilson’s life and career is the fact that his spy novels were critically acclaimed and hugely popular in the 1930s only to disappear without a trace subsequently.

Alexander Wilson
The Devil’s Cocktail is, as you might expect from such an author, one of the more grandiose of the thrillers of its era. Nothing else than the survival of western civilisation is at stake. Captain Hugh Shannon is sent to India by Sir Leonard Wallace, the head of MI6. Shannon will take up an appointment as professor of English literature at a Moslem college but this will be merely a cover for his counter-espionage duties. The Russians are up to something in India and Shannon’s job is to find out what exactly it is. Shannon will be accompanied by his sister and by another MI6 officer, Cousins, who will be masquerading as Shannon’s faithful valet.

On the voyage out Shannon makes the acquaintance of Oscar Miles, a mild-mannered American who is in reality a top American spy. He will also encounter a civil servant named Hudson who tries to seduce his sister. The resulting bad feeling between Shannon and Hudson will have fateful consequences. On arrival in India it doesn’t take long for Shannon  to start unravelling the Russian plot but unfortunately it becomes obvious that the Russian have penetrated his cover story.

The details of the Russian plot are somewhat fanciful, lending weight to the theory that Wilson combined an insider’s knowledge of the espionage game with an excessively vivid imagination. While the Soviets would undoubtedly have been only too happy to stir up trouble in India it’s rather unlikely that in 1928 they would have been seriously contemplating a full-scale invasion. It’s also exceedingly unlikely that the United States would have lifted a finger to help the British to defend its colonial possessions, much less been willing to risk involvement in another European war for the sake of India. It’s also rather unlikely that the Germany of the Weimar Republic would have been interested in invading India. The outrageousness of the plot is not really a problem though, and it’s grandiosity is rather typical of British thrillers of the 20s and 30s.

Wilson’s approach to the thriller genre was not widely dissimilar to that of the enormously popular Bulldog Drummond novels. There’s the same delightfully outrageous lack of political correctness, the same breathless excitement, the same outlandish but entertaining  excessiveness. With of course one crucial difference - Bulldog Drummond was a gifted amateur while Hugh Shannon is a professional spy.

The villains are deliciously dastardly. They’re not just enemies - they’re out-and-out bounders with no respect for fair play or for British womanhood. They are prepared to use Shannon’s sister as a pawn in their game, thus placing themselves outside the pale of civilised behaviour.

A major bonus is that the evil plot involves zeppelins! As far as I’m concerned you can’t go wrong with any story that features zeppelins.

Even by the standards of its day the level of political incorrectness is breathtaking. Not that I have a problem with that. For me it’s a feature rather than a bug. One of the things I love about the books of the past is that they reflect values that are fascinatingly different from those of our own day, which to me makes them much more interesting and much more exotic.

The Devil’s Cocktail has its share of gunplay, it has kidnappings, poisonings, lots of use of disguises, narrow escapes, dashing heroes who are pure in heart, perfidious villains and a gigantic conspiracy that could destroy western civilisation. In short it has everything you could ask for in a thriller. It lacks the humour that enlivens the thrillers of Sapper and Leslie Charteris and Wilson is not quite as adept at pacing as those writers. It’s still an immensely enjoyable tale of derring-do. The knowledge of Wilson’s own strange life adds a dash of extra zest. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sweeney Todd, or the String of Pearls

Sweeney Todd, or the String of Pearls is one of the most famous of the notorious “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century, lurid crime and horror pot-boilers published in weekly instalments. The identity of the author or authors is still disputed, but the original version of Sweeney Todd, or the String of Pearls appeared in 1847. Many subsequent versions, including pirated editions, followed, as well as stage adaptations, and by the 1880s it had gained a new sub-title -  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Wordsworth paperback brings the 1850 edition back into print, and it’s a good deal of fun.

Since it was published in weekly parts the story is revealed quite gradually, with lots of cliff-hanger endings in between. Of course the modern reader has a pretty fair idea of the explanation behind the mysterious disappearance of so many of the customers at Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, and of the means by which Mrs Lovett is able to supply he own customers with so many delicious pies with such an unusual and exotic flavour, not at all like the regular run of pork and veal pies. You have to remind yourself that these explanations really would most probably have come as a shock to readers at the time.

It’s wonderfully sensationalistic and gruesome, and delightfully breathless and overheated.  Sweeney Todd is an epic villain, with no redeeming qualities whatever. The madhouse scenes are particularly chilling, being much more plausible than the other horrors in this tale. The director of the madhouse is even more wickedly villainous than the nefarious barber himself! And Johanna is a brave and noble heroine.

If you’ve been put off reading this by Tim Burton’s movie than you should reconsider. It’s infinitely better than the film. It’s trashy of course, but it’s extremely entertaining. I recommend it highly, especially if you’re a fan of 19th century gothic and horror stories.

If you enjoy your first excursion into the world of the “penny dreadfuls” then you might also want to check out Wagner the Werewolf.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Q. Patrick's S.S. Murder

S.S. Murder is a 1933 mystery novel by Q. Patrick, an author with a complex and confusing series of identities. Q. Patrick was in fact a writing team, usually comprising Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987) and Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966) but at times also including Mary Louise White Aswell (1902-1984) and Martha Mott Kelley (1906-2005). Some of the books were written by Wheeler alone, other by varying combinations of the other writers. And just to ensure the maximum of confusion the books were published under the names Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge and even Quentin Patrick.

S.S. Murder was one of their early efforts, written by Webb and Aswell.

The entire novel consists of a series of journal entries by newspaper reporter Mary Llewellyn, intended for her husband-to-be Davy (also a reporter). Mary has taken passage on the liner S. S. Moderna, bound for Rio de Janeiro. Mary is recovering after surgery and has been ordered to take things easy. Since she cannot participate in many of the shipboard activities due to her convalescence she eases the boredom by keeping a journal for the benefit of Davy, left behind in New York.

The epistolary novel was immensely popular in Victorian times but by 1933 was somewhat out of fashion. Its chief advantage was that it allowed the author to tell a story from several different points of view using multiple narrators. In the case of S.S. Murder there is only one point of view and one narrator. The technique was presumably chosen to give a sense of immediacy and to heighten the suspense (after all if the novel consists entirely of journal entries we cannot be absolutely certain that the narrator is not going to end up being the murderer’s final victim). There was most likely another reason for using the technique. It allows the authors to mimic, in a rather witty way, the celebrated “challenge to the reader” feature of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. In this case Mary Llewellyn informs Davy, in one of her later journal entries, that she has supplied him with all the information necessary to solve the crime and that she hopes he has been successful in doing so.

The epistolary nature of the novel is yet another example of the willingness of golden age detective fiction writers to experiment with structure and technique.

Shipboard settings could be, and were, used very successfully by a number of golden age writers, most notably Rufus King who set no less than three of his mysteries on board ships. A ship offers all the advantages of an isolated country house - the murderer has to be one of the passengers or crew and having committed the murder or murders he cannot physically escape but can only hope to avoid detection.

S.S. Murder doesn’t take long to get to the murderous action. One day out from port a man keels over dead during a game of bridge. The ship’s doctor immediately suspects poison, a suspicion confirmed by an autopsy. The circumstances make it clear that the killer had to be one of a fairly small number of people although the question of alibis will later become rather complicated.

Being a reporter Mary Llewellyn naturally senses the possibility of a scoop. She and Davy had covered murder cases in the past so she fancies her chances as an amateur detective. She does not however carry out the investigation single-handed. To complicate matters the two people with whom she collaborates in her investigation are both suspects, and as far as they are concerned she might well be a suspect also.

This will not be the last murder that enlivens the voyage of the S.S. Moderna, murder being more popular than deck tennis on this particular ship.

The plotting is reasonably solid and the unbreakable alibi angle is handled well. There is a certain weakness in the plot but  I won’t risk a spoiler by hinting at what it might be.

I would not place it in the top rank of golden age mysteries but S.S. Murder is a brisk and entertaining mystery of the second rank. Recommended.