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.