Thursday, December 29, 2016

John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy, which appeared in 1977, was the second installment of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, recounting the epic struggle between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla. 

The Circus (as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 is known in le Carré’s books) is in turmoil. In fact turmoil doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. The activities (as described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) of the highly placed mole run by Karla have completely gutted the service. Their networks have all been blown. Even their legals (agents operating with the protection of diplomatic cover) have been hopelessly compromised. They have had to shut down most of their foreign residencies. Their credibility with the British government is in tatters. Even worse, the CIA (on whom they depend to a humiliating degree) no longer trusts them. George Smiley, who had been brought out of retirement to track down the mole (which he did successfully) is now in charge of the Circus but it’s not a job anyone would envy. 

Smiley is an old hand and he’s not dismayed. He knows that what the Circus needs to do is to pull off a spectacular coup and that’s what he intends to bring about. How to do this with a handful of field agents and no resources? Smiley is not dismayed by this either. What the Circus will do is to comb through their archives, looking for patterns. What Smiley hopes to find is a record of any apparently promising investigation that was inexplicably stifled by London Station. After all if someone like Karla had a very highly placed mole in the Circus it stands to reason that one of the mole’s jobs would have been to block investigations that Karla particularly wanted to have blocked. If Smiley can find such a record then he will have found a weakness - something that Karla cannot afford to have the Circus suddenly taking an interest in. 

And Smiley finds just such a case. It involves some very curious banking transactions in Laos. From there the trail seems to lead to Hong Kong. It looks very promising. Now Smiley’s real problems begin. Karla is a formidable adversary but at least one knows where one stands with an openly declared enemy. It’s the undeclared enemies within one’s own side that cause the trouble. For starters there’s MI5, with whom relations are always at daggers drawn. There’s the Foreign Office. There’s the British Treasury. There are Smiley’s political masters. And then there’s the CIA (known not so affectionately as the Cousins).

Smiley will have to make use of one of his Occasionals (or part time agents). Jerry Westerby may or may not be the son of a lord and may or may not be entitled to be addressed as the Honourable Gerald Westerby. To his neighbours in Tuscany he is known as the Schoolboy. Hence the Honourable Schoolboy of the title. Westerby picks up the trail  and it leads to something bigger than even Smiley could have hoped for. It will take Westerby to Hong Kong, to Laos, to Cambodia, to Saigon and to Thailand and it will cost a number of lives, some innocent and some not-so-innocent.

The first part of the novel is the strongest since it plays very much to le Carré’s strengths - his extraordinary ability to make the minutiae of routine methodical intelligence work fascinating. This is the kind of thing George Smiley loves, it’s the kind of thing le Carré loves and it’s spellbinding. The latter part of the novel involves rather more action than one usually expects from this author and there’s a lengthy interlude as Westerby get himself caught up in the middle of a very hot war indeed. 

There are three themes that run through le Carré’s spy fiction. The first is the usual spy fiction theme, that of deception and betrayal, but made more personal by the fact that le Carré himself during his career as a real-life spy encountered betrayal first-hand in the person of the notorious MI6 traitor Harold ‘Kim’ Philby. The second is the theme of Britain’s disastrous postwar decline into a second-rate power and the third is the related theme of the Special Relationship between the British intelligence services and the CIA, a humiliatingly unequal relationship. It’s obvious that le Carré feels these things personally. The events of the book coincide with the fall of Saigon and le Carré clearly gets a certain amount of pleasure from the humiliation of the US. I wouldn’t say this was an anti-American book as such but le Carré’s dislike of the US government and of the CIA is palpable.

The Circus has so few resources that they cannot undertake even routine surveillance operations without CIA help. The Circus does all the important work in uncovering Karla’s grand plan but the CIA has no intention of allowing the British to get the credit or any of the  benefits. George Smiley is a wily old bird but he is clever enough to keep control of the operation?

In fact the operation threatens to get out of hand entirely and the problem is not caused by the CIA or the KGB. 

The Honourable Schoolboy is a classic Cold War spy thriller but with a difference since the Cold War gets tangled up with several hot wars. Smiley is accustomed to dealing with the espionage side of the Cold War in Europe where he knows all the rules but the chaos of South-East Asia in the mid-70s introduces some disturbing imponderables. The book is also a slight change of pace for le Carré with the horrors of actual war at times taking centre stage. It’s a reminder that espionage isn’t just a gentlemanly game. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

R.A.J. Walling’s The Corpse with the Dirty Face

The Corpse with the Dirty Face was the eighth of Englishman R.A.J. Walling’s Philip Tolefree mysteries. This 1936 novel was also published under the title The Crime in Cumberland Court.

I’ve become quite a fan of the Philip Tolefree detective tales. I wouldn’t claim that Walling belongs in the front rank of golden age writers but he was a solid and generally entertaining second-tier practitioner of the art of detective fiction and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Walling’s books also benefit from the author’s deep love of the West Country where he spent his entire life.

Private detective Philip Tolefree is employed to investigate the disappearance of merchant banker Benjamin Broadall. It transpires that this is not just a missing persons case but murder, and a rather ghastly murder at that. Tolefree’s old friend Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard is in charge of the official investigation but Tolefree’s involvement is far from over.

There is nothing impossible about the crime itself. It’s the motive that is impossible. Plenty of people could have killed Broadall, but why would anyone want to do so? Several people have motives but these motives are, in Tolefree’s view, quite unconvincing. Obviously someone did have a sufficient motive and it’s equally obvious that there is something very important that has not been revealed to either Tolefree or the police. There is a secret behind this murder. It’s also clear that no-one is telling the whole truth. Broadall’s daughter Mary, his nephew Dick Silverbridge, his devoted secretary Pollerby, the seedy doorman Wiverton, the lovely widow Mrs Landrake and the two suitors for Mary’s hand, the bluff young son of the local squire Jack Budshead and Broadall’s musical young friend Lionel Causeland - every one of these people had an opportunity to commit the murder and every one of them is hiding something.

The convoluted and ingenious plot provides the basis for a classic fair play mystery. In my view a successful fair play mystery requires more than just a plot that holds together satisfactorily. The solution should also be psychologically plausible. The murderer should be someone capable of committing the deed and the motive, when revealed, must be believable. The Corpse with the Dirty Face satisfies all of these requirements.

This is not one of those books in which the official police are portrayed as well-meaning but bumbling buffoons. Inspector Pierce is an intelligent policeman with a subtle but very effective approach to his job. Tolefree and Pierce co-operate amicably and efficiently. In some of Walling’s books Tolefree does conceal important evidence from the police but in this tale he is scrupulously fair in his dealings with Inspector Pierce. Tolefree’s biggest problem in fact lies in persuading the various witnesses to tell the truth to the police, something they are extremely reluctant to do.

Walling took to writing detective fiction quite late in life after a long and successful career as a newspaperman (working as a reporter, an editor and a publisher). His style is rather breezy with a nice leavening of sly wit.

Walling was a pretty consistent writer. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas, The Five Suspects, The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers, The Corpse in the Coppice and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are all highly entertaining and I’d find it difficult to pick a favourite.

The Corpse with the Dirty Face is a thoroughly enjoyable example of the English golden age detective story. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only was Ian Fleming’s first volume of James Bond short stories. This 1959 collection includes five stories.

The first story is From a View to a Kill. It’s not a bad idea. British motorcycle despatch riders carrying top-secret documents are being killed. There seems to be no explanation - no trace of the killers or their crimes. The secret to how these slayings are carried out is clever enough. The main problem is that there’s no memorable villain.

I have to say that after reading this first story I was not convinced that the short story format really suited Fleming. One of the strengths of the novels is the subtle and patient battle of wills (and wits) between Bond Bond the villain and this takes time to develop. The relationships between Bond and the various women who figure so largely in the novels also need to be woven together gradually. 

For Your Eyes Only opens in Jamaica. With Castro poised to take power rich Cubans are trying to get their money out of Cuba and are buying up properties in Jamaica. One of these rich Cubans wants a property belonging to a Colonel Havelock and the Colonel is made an offer that he literally cannot refuse. A month later a slightly embarrassed and  hesitant M asks Bond to take on a case that is a purely personal matter of no official interest to the Secret Service. This is more than unusual, it is unprecedented. 

One thing that has always struck me about Bond is that he’s a man out of sync with his age. He really doesn’t approve of the modern world at all. This aspect of his character (which might surprise those who are more familiar with the Bond movies than the books) comes through quite strongly in this story. Bond is irritated by the sound of lawn mowers because they’re motor mowers - he doesn’t approve of such horrors. He has to fly to Canada by jet and he dislikes it because it’s too fast - he liked flying the Atlantic in the old piston-engined aircraft because the journey was leisurely and civilised. 

It’s not just modern technology that bothers Bond. He is uncomfortable with the changes in British society since the war. He is in some surprising ways a very old-fashioned man. He likes craftsmanship. He likes good manners. He admires stability and he believes in hierachies. He even, oddly enough, believes in marriage (in theory at least). He is a traditionalist and the Britain that he loved, the Britain in which he grew up, is passing away. His tragedy is that he knows he does not fit in in the modern world. This old-fashioned outlook is implicit in the novels but, unusually, in this short story it is made quite explicit. 

For Your Eyes Only works rather well. It has an effective build-up and an excellent action climax. It also has (within the limitations of the short story format) a reasonably sinister villain and an interesting heroine. 

Risico is a nicely plotted tale. M, much against his wishes, has been forced to send Bond on an operation targeting a drug smuggling operation in Italy. M strongly disapproves of having the Service used for straightforward criminal investigations. This mission turns out to be not quite so straightforward after all. There’s a good little plot twist and another well executed action climax. And there’s a hint of piracy!

The Hildebrand Rarity is something of an odd man out here, not really a typical James Bond story. Bond, having completed a very routine case in the Seychelles, is invited to spend several days on the luxury yacht of American tycoon Milton Krest. The yacht ostensibly belongs to the Krest Foundation, to be used for scientific purposes. In this case the scientific purpose is to find a specimen of a very rare fish, known as the Hildebrand Rarity. Milton Krest turns out to be a decidedly unpleasant individual and his beautiful young English wife has discovered that marrying a man for his money is not always such a great idea. Of course the last thing Bond needs is to get mixed up in someone else’s marital dramas but it seems increasingly likely that this is just what is going to happen.

So where does the action adventure part of the story come in? Where indeed? An odd little story that may have been intended as something of an experiment. It has the typical Fleming atmosphere and the typical Fleming touches of sadism and cruelty but this time mixed with perhaps just a dash of black comedy. Milton Krest is certainly going to get his rare fish but he may get more than he intended. It’s a throwaway story that gives the impression of having been included in the collection as a filler.

Quantum of Solace is even more unusual. In 1928 W. Somerset Maugham had broken new ground with his classic spy thriller Ashenden, or the British Agent. Based on Maugham’s own experiences as a British spy in the First World War this was the world of espionage without the glamour, and with a certain ruthlessness and cynicism and a degree of blundering. Fleming’s approach to spy thrillers may seem to have been the polar opposite of Maugham’s but no-one of Fleming’s age setting out to write spy fiction could have avoided being influenced to some extent by Ashenden. Quantum of Solace has been described as Fleming doing an homage to Maugham.

It certainly has a very Somerset Maugham flavour although it’s the flavour of Maugham’s short stories rather than his spy fiction. Maugham was a master of melodrama in the tropics. Not just melodrama, but a very superior variety of literary melodrama. And tropical melodrama is exactly what Quantum of Solace is. While Bond makes an appearance the story is not about Bond at all, and it’s not a spy story. It’s a tale of domestic unhappiness set against the background of the diplomatic service. Maugham was so good at what he did that trying to equal him at his own game was a risky undertaking but Fleming carries it off pretty well. Perhaps Fleming was trying to prove that his literary range was greater than  critics supposed or perhaps he just thought it would be amusing to try something different. I liked Quantum of Solace but as I said, it’s not a spy story.

This is overall a slightly curious collection. Of the five stories only three are true spy stories and two of them (For Your Eyes Only and Risico) are extremely good. The two non-spy stories are Fleming experimenting a little and they’re certainly interesting. While it’s not as good as the novels For Your Eyes Only is still worth a look.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wings Above the Diamantina

Arthur W. Upfield (1890-1964) was an English-born Australian writer of detective fiction who enjoyed great international success with his Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. The first of these appeared in the late 1920s and the last was published posthumously in 1966. Wings Above the Diamantina, published in 1936, is one of the better known titles.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is a half-Aboriginal half-white university-educated Queensland policeman. To solve his cases he uses standard police methods combined with his knowledge of tracking and Aboriginal lore and his intimate knowledge of the Outback.

Bony is an unorthodox policeman. As a member of the Queensland Police Force he must, in theory, accept whatever cases happen to be assigned to him. In practice things are rather different - if a case doesn’t interest him he declines it. Fortunately the Commissioner, the delightfully named Colonel Splendor, has long since give up trying to impose normal standards of discipline upon Bony. Bony gets results and that’s all that matters. 

Inspector Bonaparte also intensely dislikes being addressed as Sir or Inspector. He insists that everyone just call him Bony. As he explains it isn’t the rank of Inspector that he cares about, it’s the salary attached to it.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a crackerjack opening. Mr Nettlefold, The manager of the Coolibah Station in western Queensland, finds a red monoplane sitting in the middle of the dry Emu Lake. In the front cockpit is a young woman. She is alive but appears to be suffering from some form of total paralysis, unable even to speak. No-one in the district has ever set eyes on her before. The pilot’s cockpit is empty. The logical assumption is that the aircraft was forced down and the pilot went to get help. But there are no tracks at all leading away from the aircraft. The front cockpit is the passenger’s cockpit, with no controls. The girl therefore could not have landed the plane herself.

The monoplane had been stolen the night before from Captain Loveacre’s flying circus (a sort of barnstorming aerial operation).

The identity of the young woman is a complete mystery. Her condition does not improve. With help from the local doctor, a man named Knowles, Mr Nettlefold’s daughter Elizabeth volunteers to nurse the girl. An attempt is made to poison the unknown woman.

The subsequent mysterious destruction of the aeroplane adds to the puzzle. The devastation was much too violent to have been caused by the plane’s fuel tanks exploding.

Sergeant Cox, the police officer at the nearest town, Golden Dawn, is a sensible and methodical man but he knows this case is too big for him. He greets the arrival of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte with relief. 

This is a puzzling case but usually these are exactly the cases that Bony enjoys. This time though there is a much bigger problem - if Bony cannot find the solution to the mystery then the mysterious woman from the plane will die and time is running out. This aspect of the case sets up a thrilling race against time in the last hundred pages and this is the most impressive part of the book. Upfield handles this with consummate skill. Bony believes he is very very close to solving the mystery but it seems like everything is conspiring against him to make him lose the race for the girl’s life.

The book certainly has other very considerable strengths. Upfield spent twenty years in the Outback and his descriptions of this harsh, unforgiving but strangely fascinating land are absolutely first-class. Upfield didn’t just live in the Bush - he took a scientific interest in it and led several scientific expeditions. He knew the geography and the geology of the country and he had the ability to use this knowledge to bring his stories vividly to life. His extensive knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture adds further intriguing touches.

There are also moments of light relief, especially those provide by Embley and Arriet,  the two pets of one of the Coolibah stockmen. Bony is informed that they’re quite tame but he’s not entirely reassured, given that Embley and Arriet are goannas and they’re both seven-and-a-half feet long.

The only minor flaws I can find in this novel are occasional moment of clunkiness in the dialogue and one or two incident that stretch credibility just a little, but then if the stretching of credibility bothers you you probably shouldn’t be reading golden age detective fiction in the first place.

I read a lot of Upfield’s novels when I was young and to a city-dwelling Australian (who had never been within hundreds of miles of the Outback) they were extraordinarily exotic. I can only imagine that they were even more exotic to non-Australians which undoubtedly explains much of their international success.

Wings Above the Diamantina contains some definite elements of the Impossible Crime sub-genre and the setting ensures that the explanation of these elements will be exotic as well.

Upfield doesn’t ignore the question of race but he doesn’t agonise over it either or succumb to the temptation to lecture the reader. At times Bony encounters some mild initial hostility due to his mixed-race background but he never makes an issue of it - he assumes that his competence and his charm and his natural good humour will quickly win people over and he’s invariably correct.

Upfield doesn’t worry too much about detailed characterisation. This is a mystery novel and in this genre such things are an unnecessary distraction. Dr Knowles though is a genuinely interesting character. He has his own aircraft and operates a kind of private flying doctor service. When he’s drunk he’s an excellent pilot. When he’s sober he’s a menace to aerial navigation. Luckily he’s nearly always drunk. Curiously enough he’s also a better doctor when he’s drunk.

Bony himself is an interesting variation on the maverick cop trope. He doesn’t rebel against authority. He’s much too easy-going to do that (and he does like his salary). He simply ignores any rules that irritate him, and he ignores them in such a good-humoured way that nobody ever seems to mind.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a wonderfully offbeat and exotic setting, an unusual detective, an intriguing setup and a classic golden age plot with ample quantities of twists and turns and red herrings. It all adds up to great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gavin Lyall’s Shooting Script

Shooting Script was the fourth of Gavin Lyall’s very successful thrillers. It appeared in 1966. 

Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) had been an RAF fighter pilot before turning to journalism. He was for a time an aviation correspondent. Not surprisingly aviation plays a very major role in several of his early thrillers including the superb The Most Dangerous Game.

Shooting Script is another aviation thriller. Keith Carr is an ex-RAF fighter pilot who makes a precarious living as a charter pilot in the Caribbean, flying his own twin-engined De Havilland Dove. He is both surprised and annoyed when he is jumped by two Vampire jet fighters from the air force of Republica Libra, a mythical tinpot dictatorship. He is even more surprised when he discovers that he has attracted the attention of the FBI. They apparently believe he is involved in flying arms to rebels in Republica Libra. This is rather odd. He is a British subject and in any case why is the FBI interested in goings-on in Republica Libra - surely that would be a matter for the CIA?

An encounter with an old flying buddy, an Australian, from the Korean War deepens his mystification. Ned Rafter now runs the air force of Republica Libra (a grand total of twelve ancient De Havilland Vampire jet fighters). It appears that the joint dictators of Republica Libra also believe Keith is aiding the rebels but Ned offers him a job (an extraordinarily well-paid job) as his second-in-command. The most puzzling thing of all is that Keith is determinedly non-political and has no involvement whatsoever with rebels in Republica Libra or anywhere else. He declines the job.

He does get another fairly lucrative job, with a film company operating in Jamaica. The company is run by Walt Whitmore, an ageing but very successful cowboy/action movie star universally referred to as the Boss Man (and bearing more than a passing resemblance to John Wayne). They want Keith to fly a camera plane, an old B-25 medium bomber, for Whitmore’s latest  action epic. In the meantime Keith is to fly them to Republica Libra to scout locations. He has another encounter with a Vampire jet fighter, this time with much more serious consequences. 

Keith might not be interested in Caribbean politics but it soon becomes clear that Caribbean politics is interested in him. In fact he finds himself right slap bang in the middle of it, and there are some very unlikely players in this particular political game. And an extraordinary scheme that is more like something from a Walt Whitmore action movie.

Lyall was exceptionally good at incorporating aerial action into his thrillers. The dogfight between Keith’s lumbering unarmed Dove and a Vampire jet fighter is imaginative and exciting, made all the more tense by the fact that it’s a deadly game of chicken with no-one quite sure just how serious the dogfight is.

Gambling scenes in thrillers were the specialty of Ian Fleming but in this novel Lyall proves himself to be equally adept at using gambling as a metaphor for much more dangerous games.

The single greatest strength of this novel is the way Lyall uses both gambling and movie-making not just as colourful background but as the central engines of the plot (along with aviation of course). Keith Carr is caught up in an adventure that really does play out like a shooting script for a movie.

There are some fine and very imaginative action set-pieces. There’s plenty of sardonic humour and wise-cracking dialogue with more than a hint of the hardboiled school. There’s  romance, there are unexpected betrayals and equally unexpected loyalties.

Keith Carr is a fine and somewhat complex hero, a man who has found that killing is the one thing he’s really good at which is why he doesn’t want to do it any more. He was too good at it and started liking it too much. There are plenty of colourful larger-than-life characters but no real villains - all the major players in this story are a bit cynical but they all have some honour in them somewhere.

This really is a superb tautly-plotted thriller, possibly even better than his earlier The Most Dangerous Game (which was superb). Very highly recommended.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

I’m not by any means obsessed with locked room or impossible crime stories but it’s a sub-genre I do enjoy when it’s done well, and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit has the reputation of being one of the very best examples.

Rim of the Pit belongs to another crime sub-genre, and one I really am obsessed with - detective stories involving stage magic and illusionism. It also has hints of the gothic and involves ghosts (or possible ghosts) and a séance and that just makes the whole thing sound even more attractive to me.

Using the Hake Talbot pseudonym Henning Nelms (1900-1986), an American amateur magician, wrote just two detective novels, The Hangman’s Handyman in 1942 and Rim of the Pit in 1944.

Rim of the Pit takes place in a hunting lodge deep in the woods on the shore of a lake somewhere near the Canadian border. The events actually occur in a house called Cabrioun and in The Lodge, the two buildings being within walking distance of each other. The novel uses the time-honoured technique of taking a group of between half a dozen and a dozen people and isolating them somewhere so that when the murder occurs there is no possibility that it could have been committed by an outsider. One member of the group has to be the murderer. In this case the isolation is assured by virtue of the story taking place in midwinter with heavy snow.

Rim of the Pit does add a variation to this formula - one of the chief suspects is a man who has been dead for twelve years. Grimaud Désanat and a companion died when they became lost in the woods. Désanat’s wife had died some years earlier giving birth to his daughter Sherry. Désanat had remarried, to a woman named Irene. After Désanat’s death Irene then remarried, to Frank Ogden. Frank and Irene then adopted Sherry. Frank and Irene Ogden as well as Sherry are among the group gathered at Cabrioun for the purposes of a séance, the séance being necessary to clear up a tangled business relationship between Frank Ogden and Luke Latham. Luke and his nephew Jeff are also guests at Cabrioun. The others present are a professor of anthropology named Ambler, an ageing once-famous Czech magician named Vok and professional gambler Rogan Kincaid. When murder is committed one of these people has to be the killer, unless Grimaud Désanat has found a way to comeback from the dead. Initially Désanat actually seems to be the most promising suspect!

Before the murder though comes the séance and that’s another puzzle. Strange things certainly happen, but is it all phony or not? The murder follows the same pattern - certain clues suggest a supernatural explanation while others point to fakery. If it’s murder then the murderer could have been just about any member of the party. Virtually all of the suspects have at least some indirect connection with each other and with the victim and virtually all of them have plausible motives. And not one really has a rock-solid alibi.

Worse than all this is the fact that the circumstances surrounding the murder all seem to have been impossible. There were locked doors, there are tracks in the snow that begin and end nowhere, there’s a gun that could not have been removed from its mounting on the wall and yet it was removed, and it appears that no living human being could have escaped in the way the killer escaped. 

The reader is naturally led to suspect that the murder has some connection to the death of Grimaud Désanat twelve years earlier but that doesn’t help since all of the suspects are in some way connected to that event.

Vok’s attempts to prove that the séance was phony and his attempts to debunk the various supernatural explanations for the murder provide much of the interest (for me at least) as he explains some of the many ways in which a conjuror could have employed trickery - his only problem being that in this case none of the tricks he’s familiar with can explain these particular puzzles.

The challenge with an impossible crime story is to provide a solution that is inventive and a little outlandish whilst still being at least vaguely plausible. In this case the solution is very outlandish but it’s still just about believable and it’s certainly ingenious. The ending really is excellent.

The novel tries to keep us guessing as to whether the solution really is going to involve the supernatural or not and it succeeds pretty well in this respect as well.

The snowbound setting is used to excellent effect - quite apart from the chance of being murdered the characters also have to face the danger of becoming lost in the snow every time they set foot outside.

Rim of the Pit is ambitious, with its playful mixing of genres and its elaborate set-pieces, and it succeeds remarkably well. Great fun and highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Desmond Bagley’s The Vivero Letter

The Vivero Letter was the fifth of Desmond Bagley’s thrillers. It was published in 1968. This is only the second Bagley thriller I’ve read but I’m already noticing certain characteristic touches, some negative but mostly positive ones.

This is one of those thrillers in which a very ordinary man finds himself caught up very unwillingly in very extraordinary events.

Jemmy Wheale has heard himself labeled as a grey little man and he’s inclined to agree  with the description. He’s an accountant in his early thirties but in many ways he’s already setting into comfortable middle age. Jemmy Wheale is not a man who has adventures.

Everything changes when his brother is murdered. His brother had been running Hay Tree Farm in Devon, a property that has been in the Wheale family for centuries. It appears that he was murdered for the sake of an old brass serving tray. The tray is a family heirloom but apart from its sentimental value it is worth very little. Or so it had always been assumed. It now appears that the tray may be worth a great deal of money but more importantly it is the key to a mystery that could be worth millions.

The 16th century Spanish tray has connections to the Spanish Armada and to a lost Mayan city. It will lead Wheale to Mexico but others will be led there as well. Among those led to Mexico are three Americans - a millionaire archaeologist, an embittered younger colleague and a big-time gangster. A battered parchment that speaks of a golden sign provides a clue, but a very cryptic one.

Jemmy Wheale now has an adventure on his hands and he discovers that adventures can be very dangerous undertakings, especially for grey little men. But grey little men can be surprisingly tenacious when they need to be.

Bagley manages to make his hero convincingly ordinary but without being dull, and as a hero he performs better than one might have expected. Bagley also provides a suitably menacing main villain.

Bagley is a thriller writer very much in the Alistair MacLean mould although he is not quite as good as MacLean at his best. MacLean’s plotting is more devious and provides more unexpected twists. Bagley’s plotting is fairly straightforward and the surprise plot twists are not always quite as surprising as they should be. Bagley does however have a fine appreciation of the importance of pacing and he has a gift for impressive action set-pieces. 

Another major resemblance between the work of MacLean and Bagley is in the settings. In Running Blind Bagley made superb use of Iceland as a setting. In The Vivero Letter he chooses a setting that is just as harsh and unforgiving - the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico - and he shows just as much skill in getting the most out of the setting. As with MacLean’s best novels you get a sense that the hero’s biggest struggle is with the hostile landscape itself.

Bagley believed in thoroughly researching his novels and as you might expect he gives the reader a lot of infodumps. This can be a dangerous practice - it can slow down the storytelling and it can become tedious. One of the most impressive things about Bagley’s writing is his ability to deliver the necessary infodumps quickly and economically without interrupting the flow of the story. And the infodumps are genuinely interesting - in The Vivero Letter we learn about medieval Chinese progress in the science of optics, scuba diving, fencing, scientific farming, the history of the Mayan civilisation and about cenotes (sinkholes formed in limestone caps common in the Yucatan Peninsula). 

If there is one thing that distinguishes the action sequences in a Desmond Bagley novel from the work of most other thriller writers it is his brutally realistic treatment of gunfights. In a Bagley novel you don’t take shelter in a wooden building during a firefight because a wooden structure offers zero protection from gunfire. You either find hard cover or you die.

The Vivero Letter offers high-octane excitement, plenty of atmosphere and a memorable setting. Recommended.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

R. Austin Freeman's A Silent Witness

A Silent Witness is an early detective novel by R. Austin Freeman (it was published in 1914) and it contains most of the features that characterise his work.

The story is narrated by Dr Humphrey Jardine, a newly qualified medico, and it concerns events that occurred some years earlier. Dr Jardine has a rather strange experience Hampstead Heath. He discovers a dead body in a lane. He goes off to fetch a constable and on his return the body has vanished. Jardine might be young and newly qualified but he is a doctor and he is quite confident of his ability to tell if a man is dead or not. Well, reasonably confident - he did only have time to make a cursory examination. In any case the man, dead or not, has vanished and the police clearly believe that Dr Jardine was mistaken and that the man was merely insensible and has now decamped. There’s not much the young doctor can do about and a few weeks later he has more or less put the matter out of mind.

Jardine had been one of Dr John Thorndyke’s students and Thornydke has found the young man a position as locum tenens for another of his former students, a Dr Batson. Dr Batson has been called away from London for a brief period but before he departs he asks Jardine to accompany him on a routine call to provide a death certificate for a patient who had been suffering from heart problems. Jardine is a little shocked by Dr Batson’s casual approach to the matter but there’s no reason for any suspicions about the death.

These two events were mildly disquieting but things are about to take a very dramatic turn. There is a very serious and rather spectacular attempt on Jardine’s life, and there is no doubt whatsoever that this was indeed attempted murder.

At this point, quite by accident, Dr Thorndyke becomes involved. Thorndyke is not the sort of man who tolerates people trying to murder his former students and he is also convinced that there is a great deal more going on here. Unfortunately, while it is clear that someone thinks Jardine is in possession of evidence of some serious crime and is trying to silence him it is not at all clear what this crime might have been - Jardine himself has not the slightest idea. Dr Thorndyke will not only have to unravel the mystery, he will have to take steps to keep young Jardine alive.

While Conan Doyle invented the scientific detective it was Freeman who perfected the concept. Dr Thorndyke is not merely a detective who possesses some amateur scientific knowledge (like Sherlock Holmes), he is a thoroughgoing scientific specialist. He is an expert in the field of medical jurisprudence. Dr Thorndyke is not a policeman, nor is he a private detective, nor is he an amateur sleuth. He only becomes involved in cases in which his very specialised expertise is called for. 

As a result Freeman’s detective stories do not focus all that heavily on the question of the identity of the criminal. In fact Freeman invented the inverted detective story in which the criminal’s identity is revealed at the very beginning, the interest of the story being provided by Thorndyke’s investigative methods. This book is not an inverted detective story but it is certainly much more concerned with the investigation than with the killer’s identity. In fact it’s not hard to guess who the criminal is. The challenge for Dr Thorndyke (and for the reader) is to figure out exactly what the crime was and how it was carried out, and to find the proof. 

In this case the method by which Thorndyke does this is extraordinarily clever and original. Whether it is scientific plausible or not I have no idea but it’s a truly wonderful idea.

One interesting feature of this novel is that problems with eyesight provide not one but two crucial plot points. Freeman himself was a doctor who worked for a time at an ophthalmic hospital so this is perhaps not so surprising!

Thorndyke is a formidable but rather amiable character. He is a man who is used to having his instructions carried out to the letter but his authority comes from his complete self-assurance and his ability to inspire confidence in his subordinates. Those subordinates, Jervis and Polton, are disciples rather than mere subordinates. Thorndyke is also a fundamentally decent and kindly man. His manners are impeccable and it’s noteworthy that his courtesy extends to everyone he encounters regardless of social class. 

Thorndyke is brilliant of course. He undoubtedly derives a great deal of intellectual enjoyment from his work but he also has a very strong sense of duty. He has great gifts and they bring with them a responsibility to serve society.

This book does have its flaws. The plot, while ingenious, relies way too much on coincidence. There are serious pacing problems and the romantic subplot is an unnecessary distraction. On the other hand there’s a surprising amount of action and suspense, and both are handled with energy and flair. We get a real sense that Jardine is in very real and very immediate danger.

With his Edwardian novels Freeman pretty much established the template for the golden age of detective fiction - an elaborate plot with the reader being given a fair chance to match wits with the detective hero. And his major clues are certainly hidden in plain sight (even if some of the minor clues do rely on Thorndyke’s specialised knowledge).

A Silent Witness is not in the same league as Freeman’s masterpieces from the same era, The Eye of Osiris and The Mystery of 31 New Inn, but its flaws are balanced by some considerable strengths and it’s still worth seeking out. Recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Len Deighton’s An Expensive Place To Die

An Expensive Place To Die was the fifth and final installment of Len Deighton’s unnamed spy series (sometimes referred to as the Harry Palmer novels since that was the name he was given in the film adaptations). There are a few subtle differences between this 1967 novel and the other unnamed spy books.

The protagonist/narrator is a British spy living in Paris. His latest mission is to deliver U.S. atomic secrets to a certain M. Datt. It might be an odd assignment but he has discovered that it’s best not to try to understand the minds of his superiors.

M. Datt runs a psychiatric clinic in Paris. It’s also a brothel and possibly a gambling club. It might also be a front for espionage. Or it might be an operation by the French security services. It might even be a private project run by M. Datt for his own inscrutable purposes (possibly including blackmail). What is certain is that M. Datt has compiled dossiers on some very powerful and important men. With film footage to accompany the dossiers. 

Another man is very interested in this case - Chief Inspector Loiseau of the Sûreté Nationale. Our unnamed protagonist is not exactly working with Loiseau and not exactly working against him.

Also involved is Loiseau’s ex-wife Maria. She takes a shine to our unnamed protagonist but she also has some mysterious link with Datt. There’s an American nuclear scientist mixed up in this as well, and a Red Chinese nuclear scientist to boot. 

As one expects from Deighton the plotting is complex and devious, and the characters are ambiguous and very devious indeed. There’s a good deal of double-crossing and even triple-crossing going on. 

The four earlier unnamed spy novels used first person narration but this time for some reason Deighton occasionally switches to third person narration.

There has been some mild controversy as to whether An Expensive Place To Die really is part of the unnamed spy cycle. There’s nothing in the book to answer the question one way or another. The character is certainly very similar but with perhaps a few minor differences - he seems slightly less fussy although he’s still somewhat insubordinate. Len Deighton has stated that this is the fifth unnamed spy novel so that’s good enough for me, although it appears that at the time of publication he wanted to leave the matter just a little ambiguous.

I would not rate this book quite as highly as its predecessors. It doesn’t seem to have quite the same wit and sparkle. Perhaps Deighton was simply moving towards a different style. It does still have the cynicism we expect, and the delightfully intricate plotting.

An Expensive Place To Die is still a fine example of the Cold War spy novel. Highly recommended, although I’d read the earlier the earlier books in the cycle first.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

John Bude's The Sussex Downs Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder was the third of John Bude’s mystery novels and appeared in 1936. John Bude was a pseudonym used by Ernest Elmore (1901-1957). He was evidently popular enough in his day to publish around thirty detective novels over a period of just over twenty years. His work was subsequently almost completely forgotten until the recent British Library re-issue of several of his early mysteries.

The Sussex Downs Murder was the second Bude mystery to feature Superintendent Meredith.

John Rother is a fairly prosperous farmer. His brother William and William’s wife Janet also live in the farmhouse known as Chalklands. Their wealth comes not just from farming but also from lime-burning, a fairly lucrative sideline in that kind of chalk country. John and William do not see eye-to-eye on quite a number of subjects.

John Rother’s mysterious disappearance is the initial subject of Superintendent Meredith’s investigation. There is no logical reason why Rother’s car should have been found where it was found and the presence of copious bloodstains in the car interior is more than a little worrying. Of John Rother there is no trace. And there continues to be no trace of him for many days until a quite accidental and very grim discovery transforms the case into a murder investigation.

There are not very many suspects and one suspect stands out as being the obvious one. Superintendent Meredith has a pretty clear idea of what happened. His theory is straightforward and elegant. The only problem is that it’s wrong. There are too many clues that are obviously vital and relevant that his theory fails to explain. 

The Sussex Downs Murder is very much in the Freeman Wills Crofts police procedural mould. In fact Superintendent Meredith could be described as the poor man’s Inspector French. His methods are very similar indeed. Meredith follows up leads energetically and when they don’t pan out he moves on to the next lead. Thoroughness and perseverance are his watchwords. 

Bude might not be in the same league as Crofts but The Sussex Downs Murder is still a worthy example of its type. He is perhaps just a little more theatrical in his effects, a little closer in feel to melodrama.

What Bude does have going him is a rich feel for the Sussex landscape and for the people who inhabit that landscape. Reading the book today is a rather poignant experience - it’s a glimpse into an idyllic vanished world.

The plot is certainly fair play. The solution is obvious once it’s explained but then that’s the whole point of a detective story - the solution should be obvious in hindsight. I must confess that I missed it because like Superintendent Meredith I fell for a tempting red herring.

Bude’s prose is workmanlike but it’s pleasing and effective with a few touches of humour. There are a few moments that could have been rather gruesome (and a modern crime writer would undoubtedly have made those moments very gruesome indeed) but Bude fortunately does not choose to wallow in grisly and completely unnecessary details.

There are no country houses or landed gentry in this novel but Bude demonstrates that the affairs (and the crimes) of ordinary country folk can be just as colourful and just as entertaining.

Like his earlier The Lake District Murder this is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Desmond Cory's Undertow

Englishman Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (1928-2001) was the author of many books including the sixteen Johnny Fedora spy novels written between 1951 and 1971 under the pseudonym Desmond Cory. Undertow was the twelfth of the Johnny Fedora series, appearing in 1962, and was the first of five novels to feature KGB master-spy Feramontov. 

Undertow is set in Spain where McCarthy had lived for a time.

The hero, Johnny Fedora, is in fact half-Spanish and carries something of a personal  grudge as an indirect result of the Spanish Civil War. Fedora works for the British Secret Intelligence Service and his duties include assassination. This “licence to kill” might make him sound like a James Bond rip-off but the first of the Johnny Fedora novels actually pre-dates the first of the Bond novels.

The Johnny Fedora novels had the reputation of being somewhat in the James Bond mould but perhaps slightly more cerebral.

For a rather short novel Cory takes quite a while to set things up. Once the action gets going though it’s pretty relentless and pretty exciting.

Johnny Fedora and his friend Sebastian Trout are retired British Secret Intelligence Service officers on holiday in southern Spain. In fact they’re staying at the palatial house of Johnny’s new (and very rich) Latin American girlfriend. They spend their time relaxing in the sunshine. The very last thing they’re anticipating is to find that their neighbours, an eccentric elderly marine biologist and his beautiful young German assistant, are Soviet spies. They’re also not expecting to find a young woman floating dead in their swimming pool. Or to be caught up in an elaborate operation by the Spanish secret police.

Johnny is certainly not expecting to find himself in a life-or-death contest with the most feared of all KGB killers, the sadistic Moreno. Moreno has spent eight years in a Spanish prison before escaping. What Johnny Fedora doesn’t know is that the Spanish secret police engineered his prison break.

It’s an interesting setup for a spy novel because it’s a three-cornered contest. There’s something important that the Russians are looking for, something from the past and only Moreno knows where it is. The Russians want it, but the Spanish want it too and so do the British - or at least Johnny Fedora wants it, although at this point he’s acting as a lone wolf.

The plot has the necessary twists and turns and it’s quite skillfully constructed.

It’s all very much in the James Bond mould. There’s the exotic setting, there’s some glamour, there’s a touch of sadism, there’s sex and there’s some fairly graphic violence. Feramontov isn’t as colourful as Fleming’s villains. On the other hand the cold-blooded sadist Moreno would be quite at home in a Bond novel, and the German-Russian spy Elsa would make an ideal Bond girl. It’s perhaps not quite as stylish or as glamorous as Bond but Cory is a fine writer and he certainly knows how to handle action scenes.

Johnny Fedora himself is an ice-cold professional killer but as the Spanish secret police chief points out he’s not like Moreno. Johnny kills without hesitation if he feels it’s necessary but he doesn’t have any strong emotions about it. It’s just part of the job. Moreno on the other hand enjoys it. Johnny makes an effective hero, cooly calculating and quietly determined. He’s capable of anger but it’s a cold anger that is more a strength than a weakness.

Although Johnny Fedora has been described as the thinking man’s James Bond I’m a bit dubious about that. I don’t see this novel as being any more intellectual than Fleming’s Bond novels. Undertow is however a very entertaining Cold War spy thriller and is highly recommended.

Friday, October 21, 2016

E.W. Hornung's The Crime Doctor

The Crime Doctor is a 1914 collection of linked short stories by E.W. Hornung, a writer best known for his very successful stories of the gentleman-thief Raffles. The crime doctor is a Doctor John Dollar and he has come up with a theory that all crime is a form of madness and can therefore be treated the way madness would be treated.

Doctor Dollar claims that his theory is based on his own first-hand experiences. A mild brain injury some years earlier had caused him to develop certain very specific criminal tendencies. He claims to have cured himself and now he hopes to cure others.

As we reach the later stories it becomes increasingly obvious that this is more an episodic novel than a collection of linked short stories although one or two of the stories (such as A Schoolmaster Abroad) can stand on their own. 

The first story, The Physician Who Healed Himself, give us Doctor Dollar’s backstory while also revealing the unconventional methods he uses to promote his revolutionary new theory on the treatment of crime.

The Life-Preserver deals with a murder committed during a suffragette riot. An habitual criminal has been condemned to death for killing a policeman during the disturbances but the notorious Lady Vera Moyle claims to have evidence that the man is innocent.

In A Hopeless Case Doctor Dollar is persuaded, against his better judgment, to try to cure the thief who figured in the previous story and he discovers that curing some criminals can be a very great challenged indeed. 

A Schoolmaster Abroad takes Doctor Dollar to Switzerland. Serious accusations have been made against a Swiss doctor who happens to be the man who cured Doctor Dollar of his criminal tendencies. The accusations involve a young man of good family who has rather suddenly become wild and unpredictable and is proving to be quite a handful for his tutor. Doctor Dollar claims to dislike having to act as a detective but that is what he must do in this tale.

One Possessed is probably the highlight of the book. A highly decorated army officer retired after long service in India is desperately anxious about his Anglo-Indian wife’s erratic behaviour. There is certainly a tragic secret here but perhaps not the obvious one. If the solution is a little outlandish it’s also highly entertaining.

In the later stories (or chapters if you prefer to treat the book as a novel) we return to the events and characters introduced in The Life-Preserver. The manner in which the various floating plot strands are brought together is reasonably effective if a little contrived, and the ending is perhaps really too contrived.

The premise of the book is quite clever and taps into the zeitgeist of the times. At the beginning of the 20th century psychological theories were all the rage and seemed to hold the promise of opening up a brave new enlightened world in which human happiness would attain unheard of heights and most human misery would be eliminated by scientific progress.

Doctor Dollar has all the zeal of a prophet. Interestingly enough although he might sound like a starry-eyed idealist and even a bleeding heart his compassion for those who break the laws has its limits. While he believes in trying to cure some offenders he thinks that habitual criminals should be ruthlessly exterminated!

Mercifully Doctor Dollar is not a Freudian so we’re spared that misfortune.

The Crime Doctor has some historical interest as an early example of the psychologist-as-detective sub-genre (although it was preceded by the rather more interesting Luther Trant, Psychological Detective stories which appeared in 1909-10). The Crime Doctor is a mixed bag but it has its moments. It has to be said that Doctor Dollar does not do a great deal of actual detective work. Worth a look if the subject matter appeals to you.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Branded Spy Murders by F. Van Wyck Mason

The Branded Spy Murders was the fifth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six Hugh North spy thrillers. The first of the Hugh North books appeared in 1930 and the last in 1968.

Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) was a prolific and extremely successful American writer of detective fiction, spy thrillers and historical fiction. He published some 78 novels altogether.

The Branded Spy Murders appeared in 1932. Captain Hugh North is a U.S. Army officer assigned to G-2, Military Intelligence. He has been sent to Honolulu to try to retrieve a desperate situation caused by the failures of two other American intelligence officers. These were brave and reliable men but they proved to be no match for one of the deadliest and most seductive of all female spies. Even Captain Hugh North himself will find it difficult to resist her lethal charms.

Somehow Captain North will have to avert a war between the United States and Japan. A complex conspiracy is afoot to push the two nations into war. A series of incidents has been engineered in China and these have raised tensions very dangerously indeed and now a Japanese cruiser squadron in on its way to Hawaii. It is intended as a goodwill visit but in the present overheated atmosphere the fear is that the visit could be misunderstood.

The first problem facing Hugh North is to discover the identity of those behind the plot. This will not be easy since Hawaii is swarming with intelligence operatives - there are  American, British, German, French, Japanese and Soviet spies all active in the islands and there are private interests represented as well. 

There is also a dead girl, found floating in the water near the Honolulu mansion of an American steel magnate. The dead girl was a spy, but which of the intelligence services was she working for? Who killed her, and why? 

There will be more murders before this case is solved. Anxious as he is to solve the murders Hugh North is considerably more anxious to avert a war that neither Japan nor the U.S. really wants.

Van Wyck Mason liked to set his spy thrillers in exotic locations and in this book he uses the Hawaiian setting very effectively indeed. We get to see a glamorous side to the islands but we see the seedy sleazy side as well. Hugh North’s investigation will lead him to luxurious mansions and expensive restaurants but it will also lead him to some very low dives in parts of Honolulu that respectable tourists avoid - a sordid world of brothels and cheap bars. 

Also impressive is the way Mason makes use of the very real tensions that existed in this part of the world at the time. The Japanese had overrun Manchuria in 1931 (the so-called Manchuria Incident) and by 1937 they would be embroiled in full-scale war in China (the so-called China Incident). The idea of a war between the U.S. and Japan was by no means totally fanciful. And in 1941 it was in fact Hawaii where the spark was struck that plunged Asia into all-out war.

You might expect the Japanese to be cast as the bad guys but things are not that straightforward. It’s possible that both the Japanese and the Americans are being manipulated.

Compared to other spy thrillers of the interwar years there’s a surprising touch of cynicism (the conspirators would be quite happy to start a full-scale war as long as there’s a profit to be made) and there’s a good deal of emphasis on the use of sex as a tool in espionage. There’s no actual sex but there’s an enormous amount of sexual tension, sexual jealousy, and sexual betrayal. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s plenty of suspense and plenty of danger.

Hugh North is a dedicated professional spy in an era when most literary spies were enthusiastic amateurs. In some ways he has more in common with postwar spies like James Bond than with his contemporaries such as Bulldog Drummond. In fact the tone of the book really does to a certain extent anticipate the Bond novels.

And the glamorous and deadly female super-spy Nadia Stefan could quite easily be a Bond girl.

The Branded Spy Murders is a taut and exciting spy tale with some fine plot twists. Hugh North is an interesting slightly flawed hero - he’s a brave and brilliant officer but he does have his weaknesses and he does make mistakes. The novel has a memorable femme fatale. When you add the exotic setting you have all the ingredients for a very superior piece of spy fiction. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

some vintage crime film reviews

Some recent reviews of vintage crime films from my movie blog.

Johnny Angel (1945) is an interesting RKO film noir with a nautical theme starring George Raft (and I'm quite a fan of George Raft).

Wide Boy (1952) is an excellent low-budget film noir-tinged British crime melodrama with a superb performance by the very underrated Sydney Tafler.

The Terror (1938) is a thoroughly enjoyable potboiler based on an Edgar Wallace story. It has an excellent cast and with just a hint of horror as an added bonus.

Assassin for Hire (1951) is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and another superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but B-movie fans will find plenty here to enjoy.

The Teckman Mystery (1954) is a decent British crime thriller, co-written by Francis Durbridge, and with a hint of espionage as well.

Born To Kill (1947) a strange, overheated and disturbing RKO film noir based on James Gunn’s strange, overheated and disturbing 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male.

Green for Danger (1946), an extremely entertaining British film adaptation of Christianna Brand’s much-praised 1944 novel of the same name. A wonderful performance by Alistair Sim is the highlight.

Raffles (1939), a not entirely successful movie based on E.W. Hornung's Raffles short stories although David Niven had the potential to be a great Raffles.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Baited Hook

Erle Stanley Gardner’s sixteenth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Baited Hook, was published in 1940. It’s a fine example of the qualities that made Gardner one of the bestselling authors of all time.

One of the curious things about the Perry Mason mysteries is that Gardner liked to bring Mason into his cases before the main crime was committed. In fact this was almost an essential ingredient since a large part of Mason’s success as a lawyer hinges on his ability to prevent his clients from doing anything foolish, like talking to the police. Mason understands very clearly that the prosecution’s best chance of winning any case comes from the ability of the police to persuade the accused to make damaging and quite unnecessary admissions. In order to avoid this it is obviously an enormous advantage if somehow or other Gardner can contrive things so that Mason is retained by a client before the client actually needs an attorney.

It has to be said that Gardner consistently managed to pull off this trick with remarkable success. The Case of the Baited Hook provides a particularly imaginative example. Perry Mason is approached (at midnight) by a man who is reluctant to revel his real name. The man is accompanied by a masked woman ho does not speak. The man offers Perry two thousand dollars as a retainer with the promise of an additional ten thousand dollars should his masked lady friend suddenly require the services of a top criminal lawyer. He refuses to tell Perry the name of the woman concerned.

It’s an impossibly awkward situation for a lawyer but on the other hand ten thousand dollars (remember this is 1940) is a colossal sum of money. It’s the proverbial offer that one can’t refuse although there will be times when Mason wishes he had refused it.

Mason has another case to deal with, a case involving an orphanage functioning as a baby farm, an illegal adoption, Russian refugees fleeing from the Bolsheviks, the possible misappropriation of trust funds and a very suspicious share deal. 

Perry Mason is used to having to play detective to discover the identity of the real killer in order to clear his clients but in this case he faces a more unusual challenge - he must first discover the identity of his client. 

It’s a typically ingenious Gardner plot with a plethora of suspects and possible motives. This is a detective story in which the solution depends on establishing the actual time that the victim was killed - as Mason remarks at one point the alibis (and everyone in this story has one) remain fixed but the time of the murder keeps jumping around.

As usual Mason gets plenty of help from Della Street and from the Paul Blake Detective Agency. And as usual he finds himself at odds with the police (in the person of Detective-Sergeant Holcomb) and the DA’s office (in the person of his perennial adversary DA Hamilton Berger). 

Also typical of Gardner is the fact that Mason’s issues with the police have nothing to do with dishonesty (whatever his faults Sergeant Holcomb is a scrupulously honest cop). The problem is the very nature of the police culture. Police officers are trained to use persuasion, trickery and coercion in order to get an accused person to say a lot more than he should say, and a lot more than he is legally required to say. It’s the way the police get results. It means that even when the police are honest the system is stacked in their favour. 

Most (but not all) of the Perry Mason novels end with a climactic courtroom scene. The Case of the Baited Hook has no courtroom scenes at all. It does have a quasi-legal disciplinary hearing at one stage and several vital plot points rely on very nice points of law. One of Gardner’s strengths is his ability to have Perry Mason make use of arcane legal points to baffle his adversaries while at the same time making those legal points clear and straightforward to the reader.

I’ve now read half a dozen of the Perry Mason books from the 1930s and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. The Case of the Baited Hook has just about everything you could ask for in a Perry Mason mystery. It has a complex tightly constructed plot and it has Mason, as always, displaying his highly individualistic and flexible (if risky) approach to legal ethics. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil

Ira Levin (1929-2007) wrote only a handful of novels but that handful included some major bestsellers, the best-known being probably Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The Boys from Brazil, published in 1976, was another notable commercial success for him.

In the 1960s pop culture became obsessed with Nazis. Not just war stories but stories of Nazis as a contemporary threat. It was the era of stories about Nazi plots to regain power and rebuild the Third Reich and make another bid for world nomination. This theme popped in numerous movies and just about every TV spy/action series included at least one episode dealing with neo-Nazis or old Nazis coming up with some nefarious conspiracy. This obsession continued into the 1970s with The Boys from Brazil being one of the last notable manifestations.

Many of these stories are highly entertaining although none are quite able to overcome the inherent silliness of the idea. The chances of a Nazi return to power during the 1960s and 1970s were absolutely zero. It’s perhaps not entirely a coincidence that the more outlandish such stories were the better they worked. The Boys from Brazil is certainly far-fetched although the central premise is undeniably ingenious and cleverly worked out.

I’m not going to spoil this one by revealing any of the major plot twists (although some will become fairly obvious fairly quickly when you read the book).

While Levin’s novels were usually thrillers there’s often a science fictional element as well. This is definitely the case with this novel.

Levin’s novel begins with a meeting of a top-secret cabal of ageing Nazis in Brazil. The meeting has been called to discuss an ambitious plan hatched by the infamous Dr Josef Mengele. The meeting is not quite as secret as they’d hoped. A young American working as an amateur Nazi-hunter has obtained a tape-recording of the meeting. He has passed on some of the information he has acquired to famous Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann. 

This information is very puzzling indeed. Ninety-four civil servants, all aged around sixty-five, are to be murdered over a period of three years. Liebermann’s first problem is to identify the victims. The murders may well be, indeed probably will be, disguised as accidents. Having identified several of the victims he faces an even bigger problem. There seems to be no logic to the murders and no connection between the victims. It’s not as if these were important men - they were at best middle-level civil servants. Most were retired, or about to retire. None have any Nazi connections and in fact none have any significant political affiliations. It just makes no sense. There must be a common thread but  what it might be remains a mystery.

Mengele and the Nazis have a problem as well. They know that Liebermann has this information. They know that the information that Liebermann has is not enough to be dangerous at this stage but it might be just enough to lead him to the answer. The Nazi organisation is in panic mode but Mengele is determined to press on.

Of course Liebermann does eventually start to develop strong suspicions as the nature of the conspiracy but can he stop his old enemy Mengele?

The climax, in an obscure American town, is handled with great skill and the tension is maintained exceptionally well. The ending, replete with moral dilemmas and moral ambiguity, is even more interesting.

Mengele is obviously the chief villain but Levin is smart enough not to make him just a storybook villain. He’s ruthless and utterly lacking in conscience but he does have a cause in which he believes with singleminded intensity. What makes Mengele scary is not the inherent evil of his cause - it’s the single-mindedness, the tunnel vision.

Liebermann has a cause as well which he pursues with just as much single-mindedness. As the story unfolds he begins to realise just how perilous this kind of single-mindedness can be. Whether your cause is good or evil if it’s pursued with fanatical zeal the results can be evil. Liebermann is certainly zealous and some of his allies have definitely crossed the line into fanaticism and it’s a line he may be tempted to cross as well.

Considering the subject matter it’s surprising to find it dealt with in such a complex manner.  At times it’s difficult to know how much of the moral ambiguity was intentional on the author’s part and how much may have been unconscious (and may have been merely a side-effect of the author’s willingness to deal with complex and potentially controversial subjects). His other novels, such as The Stepford Wives, demonstrate that Levin was not afraid of allowing the reader to form his own judgments.

Mengele was of course a real Nazi, notorious for his medical experiments in concentration camps. Yakov Liebermann is an idealised version of famed but controversial Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

The Boys from Brazil is a complex thriller but it’s also highly entertaining. The story itself is ludicrously far-fetched and implausible but that adds to the fun. Recommended.

The 1978 film adaptation is also well worth seeing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A.E.W. Mason's The House of the Arrow

The varied and prolific literary output of London-born A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) included five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud. The House of the Arrow was the second Hanaud novel, appearing in 1924 (14 years after the character made his debut in At the Villa Rose).

A London firm of solicitors receives some disturbing news about one of their clients who resides in France (in Dijon in fact). A rather wild accusation of murder has been levelled at Betty Harlowe after the death of her aunt (and adoptive mother). It seems quite likely that the accusation may have been inspired by blackmail. The famed Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté has been assigned to investigate the case, a circumstance that suggests that the French authorities may be taking the charges seriously. Junior partner Jim Frobisher is despatched to Dijon to ensure that the interests of the firm’s client are adequately represented.

Betty’s aunt had died more than a week previously, apparently of natural causes. The charges against Betty were made by old Mrs Harlowe’s disreputable brother-in-law Boris Waberski who had been more than a little incensed when his hopes of a large legacy were dashed.

Jim Frobisher is no fool but he is young and inexperienced and he proves to be very susceptible to the charms of Betty’s paid companion, Ann Upcott. Ann’s account of the events of the night of Mrs Harlowe’s death is puzzling to say the least.

Hanaud has no evidence whatsoever that foul play was involved but he has his suspicions. In fact his suspicions amount almost to certainty. And if it is murder this is precisely the kind of murderer that he intensely dislikes.

Inspector Hanaud’s English friend Mr Julius Ricardo, who usually plays the Watson role,  does not appear in this novel. Jim Frobisher fulfills the role instead. He finds the celebrated inspector  from the Sûreté to be an impressive figure and he is awed by Hanaud’s skill and cunning in interrogating witnesses. Young Jim is however a very proper young Englishman  and he does not altogether approve of Hanaud’s odd mix of theatricality and ruthlessness.

This novel includes just about every ingredient that critics of golden age detective fiction love to mock. In fact if you were planning to write a parody of the classic English detective novel you could use The House of the Arrow as a template. On the other hand the ingredients that cause critics to gnash their teeth are exactly the ingredients that fans of golden age detective fiction (like myself) adore. To a true fan the more outlandish these elements are the better and in this instance they’re delightfully outlandish.

Mason combines these ingredients with a considerable degree of panache.

When Mason originally created Hanaud in 1910 he was attempting, like so many Victorian and Edwardian crime writers, to create a detective with as few similarities to Sherlock Holmes as possible. He succeeded pretty well. Hanaud is a massive bear of a man and while he has his quirks he has none of the neuroticism of Holmes. He is as arrogant as Holmes but in a blustering and ebullient sort of way. Hanaud has his serious side too. He takes murder very seriously. Unlike Holmes he is a professional policeman. He likes his job but the detection of crime is not a game to him. He also has an immense belief in the majesty of the law. It is not pleasant to send someone to the guillotine but the law is the law.

Is The House of the Arrow fair play? I think that on the whole it is. Hanaud certainly makes use of psychological insights but mostly as a means of getting the truth out of reluctant witnesses. Hanaud’s skills as an interrogator of witnesses are a major reason for his success as a policeman. Alibis, the timing of events and physical clues are not ignored either.

The House of the Arrow is splendid entertainment. It’s not as ground-breaking as his earlier At the Villa Rose and it lacks the hints of the supernatural of his later The Prisoner in the Opal but it’s a fine example of the classic detective story. Highly recommended.