Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dennis Wheatley’s Contraband

Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) achieved his greatest lasting fame with his Black Magic occult thrillers but they were a comparatively small part of his total output. He wrote in a number of genres, including science fiction and historical thrillers, but a very large part of his work consisted of pure thrillers, including Contraband (the second of the eleven Sallust books and published in 1936).

Wheatley forms an essential link between John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and H. C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond spy thrillers of the 20s and the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming which began to dominate the genre in the 50s. Most histories of spy fiction will tell you that Fleming revolutionised the genre by adding generous helpings of sex and graphic violence seasoned with a dash of sadism. This is quite true, but it was Wheatley who took the first steps in that direction. Even in the 30s Wheatley’s books incorporated as much sex and violence as he could get away with, and there is even that very slight hint of sadism. 

There are further significant similarities between the two writers. The opening scenes of Contraband could quite easily have formed the opening of a Bond novel. There is the meeting between the spy hero and a beautiful mysterious and potentially dangerous woman in a casino, there is the emphasis on the world of glamour and money, there are the painstaking descriptions of the trappings of the world of the powerful and wealthy, and the strong suggestion that the hero is a connoisseur of fine food, fine wines and expensive women.

Ian Fleming was a fan of Wheatley’s work and freely acknowledged Wheatley’s influence on the Bond novels.

In Contraband a chance encounter with the beautiful Sabine Szenty in the casino in Deauville puts Gregory Sallust on the trail of smugglers. At least they appear to be smugglers but since this is Wheatley we’re fairly safe in assuming there’s something far more sinister than mere smuggling going on. Scotland Yard is also taking an interest in this case and although Sallust is a patriotic enough Englishman he has his own agenda which does not necessarily coincide with that of the police.

Sabine is up to her ears in this criminal activity but Sallust has fallen for her. This tends to have a slightly unfortunate effect on his judgment. 

Making a reappearance in this tale is Lord Gavin Fortescue, the sinister deformed aristocratic villain of Wheatley’s earlier novel Such Power is Dangerous. And a delightfully malevolent villain he is too.

You might be wondering how Wheatley is going to work the communist menace into material like this but don’t despair - he manages to do so. It’s this angle that makes the book more of a political/spy thriller than a straight crime thriller. Wheatley was somewhat obsessed by this menace and he was astute enough to realise that the most deadly threat is the threat from within, and that this threat was quite likely to come from members of the ruling class. Given that this was the era in which Cambridge University was the KGB’s main recruiting ground Wheatley was (as so often) right on the money.

While this novel does, as indicated earlier, anticipate some of the stylistic signatures of Fleming’s Bond novels in structure it is fairly typical of British thrillers of the interwar period, and while Sallust prefigures Bond in some ways he still has a good deal in common with other thriller heroes of the 20s and 30s like Simon Templar and Norman Conquest. He’s fiercely individualistic and unlike Bond he would never dream of taking orders from anybody.

The book does (like many Wheatley novels) have its clunky moments. There are some lengthy and slightly clumsy expository speeches. On the other hand it also has Wheatley’s virtues - some very well-executed action and suspense scenes, plenty of energy and a hint of outrageousness. 

One of the oddest and most interesting things about Wheatley’s writing was his willingness to utilise the same heroes in books belonging to quite different genres. Gregory Sallust appears in straightforward thrillers such as this one, and in science fiction novels like Black August and occult thrillers such as the excellent and very imaginative They Used Dark Forces. Wheatley in fact seemed to have no regard for genre boundaries - his heroes could just as easily find themselves battling criminal masterminds, international spies or the legions of Satan. In fact you could say that Wheatley created a single fictional universe in which all these threats co-existed.

On the whole Contraband is thoroughly enjoyable hokum. Recommended.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Earl Derr Biggers' The Dollar Chasers

Earl Derr Biggers
Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) is of course best-known for the rather wonderful Charlie Chan detective stories. Before the Charlie Chan books he’d already had considerable success as a mystery writer, his 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate having done particularly well.

The novella The Dollar Chasers was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1924, a year before the first of the Charlie Chan novels.

The Dollar Chasers is an affectionate parody of the detective story genre. The mystery here does not involve murder but robbery. The crime is the theft of a dollar. It’s not an ordinary dollar but an 1885 silver dollar worth the princely sum of - one dollar. Millionaire industrialist Jim Batchelor really does still have the first dollar he ever earned and it has become a lucky token for him. So important is this coin to him and so great are his superstitions in regard to it that if it were ever to disappear he would be more than devastated - he would be psychologically paralysed. If anyone had a reason to want to sabotage any plans Jim Batchelor was making then stealing that coin would be a good way to do it. As it happens Jim Batchelor does have some big plans in mind and there are people who would very much like to derail those plans. And so the lucky silver dollar is stolen.

The theft takes place on the millionaire’s yacht. This provides the classic golden age detective story setup - the thief has to be someone on board the yacht so there are only a handful of possible suspects.

The detective in this case is an amateur - an ambitious young reporter named Bill Hammond. Bill has a number of very powerful incentives to solve this dastardly crime. If he fails he will be looking for another job. If he succeeds he will be well on his way to a bright future.

As the subject matter would lead one to expect the tone is determinedly light-hearted. Biggers carries this off with a good deal of style. At times the story veers towards farce but Biggers is careful not to push this too far. This story might be whimsical but there’s still a decent mystery plot here even if the crime seems very trivial. Actually it’s by no means certain that there has been a crime - the thief substituted a dollar bill for the silver dollar so in a legal sense there was no actual theft.

The author’s fascination with what used to be known as the Mysterious Orient is already in evidence. A Chinese laundryman and a Japanese steward will play important parts in the story. These characters provide a considerable amount of humour but Biggers has just as much fun at the expense of snobbish Englishmen and American millionaires. The story pokes gentle fun at just about everybody. China plays other equally vital roles in the plot, with Batchelor planning a major but risky business deal there and relying on the advice of an Englishman who is, in the parlance of the times, an old China hand.

All the characters are stereotypes - the inscrutable Japanese steward, the pompous Englishman, the brash American millionaire, the ambitious young reporter, the hardboiled newspaper owner. This is clearly deliberate - this story is parodying all the clichés of detective fiction.

The Dollar Chasers is an amusing and thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment by a writer who clearly loved the detective story while still being able to appreciate its essential artificiality (which is of course as Biggers well understood one of its chief appeals). Recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Edgar Wallace’s Big Foot

Edgar Wallace’s 1927 thriller Big Foot is one of his more obscure novels but it’s actually rather a treat.

Wallace had a knack for creating wonderfully colourful and eccentric detectives (such as Mr J. G. Reeder). Big Foot features another Wallace detective who is just as much fun. Detective Superintendent Patrick Minter (universally known as Sooper) is scruffy, elderly, cantankerous, possibly a bit senile and his best days are long behind him. At least that’s what he hopes wrongdoers will assume. In reality Sooper is as sharp as a tack. He belongs to the popular category of detectives who rely on appearing to be no threat at all to a clever criminal.

Sooper rides an ancient and horrifically noisy motorcycle, keeps chickens and regards modern scientific methods of detection with contempt. He has no time for the’rising and he abhors anthr’pology and psych’logy. He believes a detective should keep his eyes open and rely on dogged perseverance. 

Sooper’s bête noire is retired lawyer and keen amateur detective Cardew. Cardew is an enthusiast for scientific criminology, much to Sooper’s disgust.

Both Sooper and Cardew are anxious to solve the mystery of Big Foot, an ingenious murderer who always seems to stay one step ahead of them. The murder of Cardew’s housekeeper is especially baffling - the cottage in which she was slain was under close police observation at the time and the murder seems to be quite impossible.

Sooper’s young friend from the Public Prosecutor’s office, Jim Ferraby. is drawn into this mystery and in the process falls in love with Cardew’s beautiful young American secretary.

This being an Edgar Wallace thriller there are naturally plenty of bizarre elements - giant footprints and a singing tramp being the most noteworthy.

Wallace wrote some fine tales of pure detection but most of his books are thrillers rather than detective stories. Big Foot has a mystery plot at its heart but the tone places it squarely in the thriller camp. Wallace does however display considerable skill in misdirection and he does provide enough clues to point the reader in the right direction (although he still managed to fool me quite successfully).

It’s the personality of Sooper that carries this book. He really is a delight. He’s irascible, slovenly and in his own offbeat way outrageously egotistical but it’s impossible not to love him. He’s both the hero and the main comic relief character and he succeeds splendidly in both roles. 

Wallace’s frenetically energetic and amusing style adds to the fun.

Big Foot is Edgar Wallace at the top of his game. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

R. Austin Freeman's Best Dr Thorndyke Detective Stories

The 1973 Dover paperback collection The Best Dr Thorndyke Detective Stories includes eight stories by one of the most important of all writers of detective fiction, R. Austin Freeman. Freeman’s career began in the early Edwardian period and lasted until the early 1940s. Freeman represents a kind of bridge between the Victorian detective story and the golden age style of the 20s and 30s.

Freeman was also the inventor of the “inverted” detective story in which the identity of the killer is revealed right at the beginning of the story. It was Freeman’s belief that the unravelling of the crime by his sleuth would provide enough interest to sustain such stories even when the reader already knows who did the murder. And by and large Freeman’s judgment proved to be correct.

This collection includes three inverted detective stories, four conventional tales of detection plus an early and much shorter version of one of his most celebrated novels, 31 New Inn.

The Case of Oscar Brodski was one of his first attempts at the inverted detective story. A  burglar who has always been careful to avoid crimes against the person succumbs to temptation when he sees what seems to be a golden opportunity. In A Case of Premeditation a blackmailer is murdered. The killer comes up with an extraordinarily ingenious scheme, but it may not be clever enough to fool Dr Thorndyke. Echo of a Mutiny involves a spur-of-the-moment murder, an attempt to cover up a crime in the past - a mutiny at sea.

One notable feature of these three stories is that interviews with the suspects play no part whatsoever in Dr Thorndyke’s investigations. In fact in two of the stories Dr Thorndyke never meets the suspects at all. These are tales of pure scientific detection. Dr Thorndyke has little interest in alibis or motives and zero interest in psychology. His method relies on an extremely thorough search for physical clues, absolute scientific rigour in the analysis of the physical evidence and his ability to use his considerable powers of reasoning to connect these clues in such a way as to reveal the story they have to tell. It should be stressed that Thorndyke is not a detective as such - he is an expert in medical jurisprudence. His job is to examine the physical evidence and make his report which is then passed on to the police. While he would undoubtedly admit that other methods of investigation are perfectly valid they are not his department - they can be left to the police. His job is a strictly limited one but his methods are so effective that more often than not they are more than sufficient to uncover the identity of the killer.

In these stories Freeman also eschews the use of the kinds of clichés so beloved of the detective story writers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and indeed of the golden age of the 20s and 30s - Dr Thorndyke is not a master of disguise and while wills may be involved their function is merely to confirm a killer’s motive after Thorndyke has already established his guilt.

Another of Freeman’s innovations was to place murder at the centre of crime fiction. Given Dr Thorndyke’s methods this was inevitable - murder is the one crime that can be guaranteed to provide an abundance of physical evidence.

R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943)
Investigations of this sort might sound like they have the potential to be rather dry. What makes these stories gripping reading is that Thorndyke’s methods are genuinely and authentically scientific and thoroughly plausible. There is no pseudoscience here. Freeman himself not only had medical training he had also studied under Dr Alfred Swayne Taylor, one of the leading lights in the field of medical jurisprudence. Freeman knew his stuff and he has no difficulty in convincing the reader that Thorndyke’s approach is thoroughly sound scientifically.

Conan Doyle was certainly well aware of the growing importance of science in the detection of crime and Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not enthusiastic about such methods. He is also at times quite brilliant in his use of the fledgling arts of forensic science.   Holmes is however essentially a gifted (and self-taught) amateur. Dr Thorndyke on the other hand is a professional and his approach is far more systematic and disciplined. He carries with him his own “portable laboratory” equipped with the tools of his trade. He represents a major step forward in the sub-genre of the scientific detective story.

The remaining stories in this collection are conventional in structure but they are finely crafted tales of detection. The Mandarin's Pearl has a rather typical Victorian atmosphere - dirty deeds committed on sailing ships, intrigue in exotic locales, mysterious Chinese gentlemen and a valuable pearl with the obligatory curse attached to it. Dr Thorndyke however solves the case in his usual scientific manner. It might be conventional but it’s ingenious and very entertaining.

The Blue Sequin has a solution that is as outrageous as any in the genre but no matter how outlandish it might be it makes perfect sense. It might be unlikely, but the pieces slot together to furnish what has to be admitted to be a not only a logical explanation but the only possible explanation.

The Aluminium Dagger is an early (and rather clever) example of the locked-room mystery. The solution is outlandish but Freeman is able to convince us of its plausibility.

Julian Symons in his justly celebrated survey of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, is dismissive of Freeman’s literary gifts while admitting his originality and the appeal of his realistic approach to scientific realism. Raymond Chandler on the other hand had a very high opinion of Freeman’s work, both for his mastery of plotting (something Chandler always admired) and for his straightforward but effective literary style. 

Freeman was a major figure in the development of the detective story and although he wrote some superb detective novels such as The Eye of Osiris and The Mystery of 31 New Inn his short stories are perhaps his best work. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Manning Coles’ Drink to Yesterday

Drink to Yesterday, published in 1940, was the first of Manning Coles’ spy novels featuring Tommy Hambledon. Manning Coles was a pseudonym used by a British writing team, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965). Coles had been a real-life British spy in the First World War (and would serve British Intelligence again in the Second World War) while Manning had worked in the War Office so they had the advantage of knowing the espionage game from the inside. The Tommy Hambledon series eventually ran to 26 novels.

Drink to Yesterday spends a fair amount of time giving us the backstory of young Michael Kingston. It perhaps spends a little too much time on his childhood. When the First World War breaks out Michael is too young to enlist but eventually does so by lying about his age (as Coles himself had done). After a short spell of service in the trenches he is recruited by British military intelligence where he encounters his former schoolmaster and mentor Tommy Hambledon. Hambledon, a man a good few years older, is an experienced spy and it is apparent that he has had his eye on Michael as a potential spy for quite a while. Even before the war Hambledon had encouraged the boy to concentrate on modern languages at school and Michael’s fluency in French and German makes him ideal espionage agent material.

Tommy and Michael, in the guise of disaffected Boers, travel to Germany where Michael strikes up a friendship with a senior German intelligence officer, von Bodenheim. The German agent is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather sympathetic character. He has considerable charm and warmth which he conceals beneath a veneer of cynicism. In fact right from the start Tommy is at pains to point out to Michael that German spies are just like them - brave resourceful men doing their duty as they see it.

Michael becomes a very successful spy who pulls off some spectacular coups but he finds himself becoming somewhat disillusioned. Success can be as bitter as failure. He also learns that when you live a life based on deception you can find yourself with no real identity at all. 

For a novel published in 1940 Drink to Yesterday demonstrates a remarkable even-handedness. Young Michael encounters something he didn’t expect - when you live among Germans as a spy you get to know them rather well. You discover that they are capable of heroism, that they are capable of suffering, that they know doubts and fears, they fall in love, they form friendships. They experience all the normal emotions. It becomes difficult to think of them merely as enemies. You get to genuinely like them. And then you have to betray them. You might tell yourself it’s necessary, and perhaps it is, but betraying people is not a pleasant thing to do.

Michael comes to realise that while the Germans have done some barbarous things his own side has committed its share of atrocities as well - the sight of German civilians slowing starving to death as a result of the British blockade horrifies him.

He also discovers that the world of espionage and counter-espionage is a world of suspicion and deception in which decisions have to be made on incomplete information and sometimes those decisions turn out to be wrong. Tragically wrong. The tone of this book reminds me a little of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant 1928 Ashenden, or the British Agent. It’s undoubtedly significant that Maugham was also a real-life spy who knew very well how easily such tragic mistakes can be made.

I’m told that the later Tommy Hambledon books become steadily more light-hearted and even whimsical but Drink to Yesterday has a definite edge of grittiness to it, albeit combined with an appreciation of the heroic and glamorous side of espionage. Or at least that’s how it appears at first - as the story progresses we discover that the heroic side to spying isn’t quite so heroic after all and the glamour is largely phony. The tone of the novel grows steadily darker.

In some ways the book reflects the mood of post-war disillusionment rather than wartime patriotism. It has the kind of feel that the new breed of spy thriller writers of the 30s were starting to bring to the genre in novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy. Like Greene and Ambler the authors of Drink to Yesterday are as much interested in the psychology of espionage as they are in spy tradecraft.

The structure of the novel is quite interesting - Michael’s story is told in an extended flashback. We know how the story will end, and yet really we don’t know.

While the authors are not in the strictly literary sense in the same class as a Somerset Maugham the somewhat laconic story-telling style grown on you and in its own way it proves to be quite effective.

Drink to Yesterday is an intelligent and surprisingly dark spy thriller with a real sting in its tail. Highly recommended.