Friday, February 26, 2016

Clyde B. Clason’s Murder Gone Minoan

Murder Gone Minoan is the seventh of American writer Clyde B. Clason’s Theocritus L. Westborough mysteries. It was first published in 1939. In just five years, from 1936 to 1941, Clyde B. Clason (1903-1987) penned ten detective novels featuring his amateur detective Theocritus Lucius Westborough. Clason continued to write but after 1941 there would be no more detective stories.

Westborough is an elderly historian specialising in Roman history although he appears to be widely versed in other historical periods as well as having a wide knowledge of art and literature. As a sideline he has assisted the police in a number of murder investigations, with great success. A pal of his in the LA PD has recommended his services to millionaire department store owner and eccentric art collector Alexis Paphlagloss. 

Paphlagloss possesses a priceless Minoan statuette, three-and-a-half thousand years old, or at least he did possess it until it was stolen. Westborough’s task is to get that statuette back.

There are only a limited number of suspects. The statuette was stolen from a room in Paphlagloss’s palatial home on an island off the California coast. Palatial is no exaggeration - the house is as big as a miniature palace and its owner has named it after the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete. The statue could only have been stolen by a member of Paphlagloss’s family or one of a number of house guests.

Westborough immediately becomes aware of a good deal of tension on the island. Paphlagloss’s daughter Ione is the centre of a romantic web with no less than three suitors for her hand. As the sole heir to her father’s fortune she is quite a catch - it would be like marrying a princess. And her father really does behave like a king, hence his nickname of Minos (after the Minoan king). All is not well however in this modern-day royal family - Alexis does not get on with his wife Jennifer, his wife and daughter (Jennifer is Ione’s stepmother) do not get on and Jennifer’s son Marc (Alexis’s stepson) is a complicating factor.

The house guests include a rival department store magnate and his son (who is one of  Ione’s less welcome suitors), an impoverished painter who has been commissioned to do a fresco in the Minoan style and noted scholar and expert on Minoan culture Dr Arne Nielson.

The case puzzles Westborough and it becomes more perplexing when the butler is murdered. Why on earth would anyone want to murder the trusted, long-serving and popular butler?

This is a classic example of the setup so beloved of golden age detective story writers, with a small group of people, one of whom must be the murderer, cut off from the outside world (the island does not even have a telephone connection with the mainland). Since the setup is so familiar the trick to making it work is to make the setting original and interesting (and this book certainly achieves that) or to make the cast of characters colourful and interesting (and this story succeeds on that count as well).

Of course it’s also necessary to have the mechanics of the plot work effectively. On that count Murder Gone Minoan is reasonably successful. There’s one plot element that seemed to me to stretch credibility much too far and there’s a clue that perhaps reveals too much but otherwise it works well enough. 

The book’s greatest strength is Clason’s ability to use the background details as essential plot elements, the background details in question being not only Minoan culture and religion but also Marc’s profession as an archaeologist specialising in the culture and religion of the Native American tribe who once inhabited this island off the Californian coast. The strange things that are occurring on this island appear to suggest that someone is trying to revive either the Minoan religion or the Native American religion. Westborough’s own specialised knowledge plays a vital role in his solution of the puzzle, rather than just being a means of showing how clever the detective hero is.

The romantic sub-plot is also quite prominent. This is an element that is often regarded as being (and often is) a disastrous and tedious distraction but Clason handles it very skillfully indeed so that we end up actually caring how the complex emotional entanglements will work themselves out.

Clason can be considered to belong to the Van Dine School of detective fiction in the sense that he has a cultured highly educated amateur detective whose knowledge of art, literature and history assists him in the solving of crimes and the crimes take place among the wealthy elites of American society. Clason is certainly at the more literary and literate end of the detective fiction spectrum. His style is polished and erudite and filled with literary allusions, and there’s some gentle humour.

Westborough’s range of knowledge rivals Philo Vance’s but Westborough is certainly a more amiable and less astringent personality. Westborough belongs to the class of amateur sleuths who rely to a certain extent on being under-estimated by evil-doers. He’s nearly 70 and he’s a somewhat frail white-haired rather bookish old man. Of course he’s also as sharp as a tack and he has the understanding of human nature that comes with age so under-estimating him can prove to be a serious error.

You don’t need to be a professor of ancient history to read this book but Clason does assume that the reader has at least a vague acquaintanceship with the overall chronology of the ancient Mediterranean world and has a reasonable familiarity with literature. He assumes that the reader knows where the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations fit into the timeline, knows about the Ottoman occupation of Crete, has at least read The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, knows who Theseus and Ariadne were and won’t be bewildered by references to Sheridan or Pope. When Rue Morgue Press reissued this title it might have been worthwhile to include a few footnotes.

I personally think that Clason’s eighth Westborough mystery, Dragon’s Cave, is somewhat better but Murder Gone Minoan is a very polished effort and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. You can’t ask for much more than that. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Gavin Lyall’s The Most Dangerous Game

Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) was an English writer who made his reputation with a series of thrillers between 1961 and the mid-70s, all featuring first-person narration and often with an aviation theme. After this his work went through several dramatic changes of style and direction. At the moment we are concerned with his second novel, The Most Dangerous Game, which appeared in 1963.

Lyall had served in the Royal Air Force and had worked as an aviation correspondent for the Sunday Times so it’s hardly surprising that flying plays a crucial role in so many of his books. It plays an absolutely central role in The Most Dangerous Game.

Bill Cary makes a somewhat precarious living as a floatplane pilot in Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland. The reason he came to be living in Finland will prove to be rather important. In fact Cary’s past, about which he is extremely vague, will prove to be very important. He does all kinds of flying jobs but mostly he does mineral survey work - searching primarily for nickel which a certain company is convinced is to be found in commercial quantities although so far no-one has succeeded in actually finding any. The reason the company believes there is nickel to be found will also play an important part in the story.

Cary flies a battered De Havilland Canada Beaver. Battered is putting it mildly. A Finnish Air Force pilot had crashed the plane. It was put back together again which is why Cary was able to buy it cheap. Unfortunately it wasn’t put back together again very well and the fact that it actually flies is a matter of some surprise to everyone, not least to Bill Cary.

With his mineral survey work having come to an end for the season Cary is happy to get any work he can. So he is happy enough to fly Frederick Wells Homer off into the wilderness to hunt bear. Frederick Wells Homer is a wealthy American, a true southern gentleman from the state of Virginia. Homer apparently spends his entire life hunting big game. Bill Cary doesn’t really approve of hunting but a job is a job. He also doesn’t entirely like the idea of having to fly into the prohibited zone - an area of Lapland close to the border of the Soviet Union where the Finnish government prohibit flying in order to minimise the risk of border incidents.

Having flown Homer off into the forest to hunt his bears Cary gets another job. Homer’s sister has suddenly arrived from the US and she is anxious to find her brother although Cary has the impression that her brother would prefer not to be found. Cary’s life starts to get even more complicated when he responds to a distress signal - a British Auster floatplane has crashed. Cary is able to rescue the pilot and his passenger but there are a coupler of things that bother him. Firstly, the Auster was equipped with a radar receiver - a device which tells a pilot when he is being tracked by radar. Hardly standard equipment, and not the sort of thing you would need unless you were doing something that was perhaps not quite legal. The second thing that bothers Cary is that he is quite sure that the passenger of the Auster is an SIS man - a British spy. 

Other strange things start to happen. Lapland seems to have become rather a dangerous place for floatplane pilots, and the Finnish security police are taking a great deal of interest in Bill Cary’s activities. There’s also the matter of gold sovereigns minted in Bombay, and the famous Volkof Treasure (supposedly a fabulous hoard of jewels hidden by a White Russian exile shortly after the Russian Revolution). And there’s the little matter of the Messerschmitt 410 at the bottom of a remote lake. Suddenly people who normally never carry guns seem to feel the need to do so and people start getting killed. Bill Cary seems to be at the centre of it all which is rather annoying since he has no idea why any of this is happening.

Bill Cary is a character almost as battered as the plane he flies. He is only just holding himself together, mostly with the aid of whisky and black coffee. He is not the happiest of men but he is even more unhappy to find himself caught in the middle of a web of double-crosses, family dramas, murder, criminal conspiracies and espionage. His biggest cause of unhappiness is finding that the past that he hoped he had escaped from has come back to haunt him.

Lyall is sometimes considered to have been influenced also by the American hardboiled school and there is perhaps something in that although it seems to me that by far the biggest influence on his work is Alistair McLean. This is very much a thriller in the MacLean tradition and in fact in this book Lyall makes use of a particular technique that MacLean was very fond of (I won’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers). In general the structural similarities to MacLean’s work are quite striking.

The avoidance of graphic sex and violence is also very much in the MacLean mould. MacLean was (justifiably) confident enough in his story-telling abilities not to have to resort to such things. Fortunately Lyall is also a sufficiently competent spinner of adventure yarns to be able to dispense with these elements.

One of MacLean’s greatest strengths was his mastery of atmosphere, especially if the setting of a story happened to be the sea or some cold remote hostile place. Lyall has rather boldly chosen exactly the kind of location that MacLean favoured - a land of bleak snowswept forests and remote lakes. Lyall might not have quite the same gift for making the reader actually feel the cold in his bones but he does a fine job nonetheless. 

Lyall’s plotting is complex but assured and has a very pleasing symmetry to it. He ties together a mass of apparently unrelated mysteries and does it with commendable skill. His style is lucid and there’s some nicely hardboiled and cynical dialogue, with generous touches of sardonic humour. There’s also no shortage of action. 

If you’re an aviation geek you will love the way Lyall handles the flying elements - with a mixture of high excitement and technical detail which manages to be fascinating without being baffling to those of us who are not flyers. You’ll also appreciate the fact that there’s a great deal of flying in the book. Even if you’re not an aviation geek this is a superb suspense thriller. It might be in the Alistair MacLean mould but Lyall is no mere imitator - he has his own style and The Most Dangerous Game has its owen distinctive flavour. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

John Rhode's The Hanging Woman

The Hanging Woman, published in 1931, was the eleventh of the seventy-two Dr Priestley mysteries written by Major Cecil Street under the pseudonym John Rhode.

Although dismissed by critic Julian Symons as one of the less interesting products of what he dubbed the Humdrum School of detective fiction the John Rhode books are slowly gaining a degree of respectability amongst modern critics and have been enthusiastically championed by Curt Evans among others.

The Hanging Woman is certainly a pure puzzle-plot mystery. And a fairly successful one.

The novel opens with the inquest on the death of André Vilmaes, a young Belgian pilot employed by a wealthy scientist named Partington. Partington is involved in some rather esoteric scientific research. Vilmaes was returning by air from Brussels when his aircraft crashed on landing at Partington’s private landing field. There’s not the slightest question it was an accident and the inquest is a mere formality.

A week later a young woman hangs herself at Wargrave House, a few miles from Partington’s estate. Wargrave House has the reputation of being haunted after another young woman hanged herself some years earlier. For some reason this latest suicide seems to have chosen to kill herself in the same room and in exactly the same manner. Superintendent Everley has no reason to doubt that this latest death is a suicide but he does mention the matter to his friend Superintendent Hanslet at Scotland Yard. Purely as a matter of routine Hanslet makes a few enquiries in London.

This time the inquest is not quite so routine. A bombshell is dropped when the medical evidence reveals that this was no suicide - this was murder.

Superintendent Hanslet has no obvious leads to follow up so he does the obvious thing - he tries to interest Dr Priestley in the case. This is always something of a challenge. Priestley is an irascible sort of fellow and while he is a keen amateur criminologist he will not involve himself in an investigation unless it happens to strike him as being particularly interesting. And there is never any way of predicting whether Priestley’s interest will be aroused or not. In this case Superintendent Hanslet need not have worried - Dr Priestley is very interested indeed.

There’s the usual array of possible suspects and red herrings. There is a suggestion of a romantic triangle. There is a young woman with a surefire plan to get very rich and there is another woman who may well have similar ideas.

There are also lots of alibis, all of them complex and all of them apparently watertight. This is a book for detective fiction fans who love stories involving railway timetables and calculations of the time it might have taken a particular suspect to travel from Point A to Point B by various means and by various routes. This is a style of detective fiction that has been much disparaged over the years but in the hands of a skilled practitioner (such as Freeman Wills Crofts) it can be immensely entertaining. John Rhode was certainly such a skilled practitioner, perhaps not quite as expert as Crofts (no-one did this sort of thing better than Crofts) but still very skilled indeed.

Dr Priestley is a detective very much in the mould of Dr Thorndyke - a man of science who relies on hard evidence and rigorous logic. He is not much given to leaps of intuition. He belongs to another popular detective tradition as well - the detective who approaches crime-solving purely as a stimulating intellectual exercise. He does not concern himself with justice. As long as he can solve the puzzle to his own satisfaction he is content. Justice and the law are matters for policemen and he is no policeman. Priestley is an abrasive and eccentric character but having now read quite a few of the Dr Priestley mysteries I’ve grown rather fond of him.

The Hanging Woman does what it sets out to do - it provides a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle in which much of the emphasis is not so much on the identity of the murder as on how the murderer managed to commit the crime and cover his tracks.

Highly recommended.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Alistair MacLean's Caravan to Vaccarès

Alistair MacLean wrote Caravan to Vaccarès in 1970 when he was still pretty much at the peak of his powers. It’s a fine example of the work of a master of the thriller genre.

Each year gypsies from all over Europe gather in Provence at the shrine of their patron saint. They even come from behind the Iron Curtain - no-one, not even a devout communist, wants to risk trying to stop them and ending up with a gypsy curse on his head. As the novel opens a young gypsy is being hunted, by other gypsies. He takes refuge in a series of gigantic limestone caverns but he does not expect this to save him. He knows he is under the shadow of death. But why is he being hunted?

At the nearby Hotel Baumanière (which boasts some of the finest food in Europe) an Englishman named Neil Bowman is having lunch with a rather charming blonde young lady. At a table nearby the young lady’s equally charming brunette friend is lunching with the extraordinary Duc de Croyter, an eminent folklorist who always turns up at this time of the year to study the culture of the gypsies. The Duc de Croyter is a huge man with a booming voice and a prodigious appetite (for food and other sensory delights) and he has an aristocratic disdain for convention, a disdain that he takes to extreme lengths.

Neil Bowman is not a folklorist. He has no occupation. He has enough money (from his very wealthy family) to have no need to trouble himself with anything as sordid and tiresome as work. What he does have is an inexplicable degree of curiosity about these gypsies. This curiosity seems like it might cost him his life. It might also cost the life of Cecile Dubois, a young woman whose only crime is that she has been seen in Bowman’s company and is therefore assumed to be involved with him in his excessive curiosity.

Bowman soon finds himself being hunted, in an extended and extremely well executed action sequence, through the grim ruins of a medieval castle high on a cliff-top.

But why is someone so keen to kill this apparently innocuous Englishman? Why were the same people so keen to kill the young gypsy? And where does the Duc de Croyter fit into all this?

In this novel MacLean employs a technique that he also uses in a number of his other books - he plunges us into an exciting and dangerous tale but he is careful to conceal from the reader exactly what the situation really is. In a suspense story the usual method is to give the reader information that the protagonist does not possess, the suspense coming from the reader’s anticipation of dangers the protagonist does not suspect. MacLean’s method was quite different. He structured his thrillers more like classic mystery novels, where the detective generally knows the answer to the puzzle long before the reader does. Oddly enough this technique worked very well for MacLean, since the reader knows the protagonist is in danger but has no way of knowing what will happen next.

Once you’re familiar with his techniques you can certainly make some educated guesses as to what’s really going on but in Caravan to Vaccarès he throws in enough additional twists that it’s exceedingly unlikely the reader will unravel all the mysteries.

MacLean was also very good at action set-pieces and this novel has several that are very good indeed - the pursuits in the limestone caves and through the castle ruins mentioned earlier plus a very clever bull-ring execution scene and a canal chase involving a power boat, a fishing boat and a Rolls-Royce limousine. 

He also had a well-deserved reputation for making exceptionally effective use of harsh and forbidding landscapes. In this novel his use of the ruined castle and the endless plains of the Camargue are fine examples of this talent.

By comparison with many of his contemporaries MacLean avoided sex and graphic violence. There’s always plenty of violence but it’s fairly toned down. The truth is he had no need to resort to resort to graphic depictions of violence - he relies on maintaining a relentless pace and keeping the reader slightly off-guard and these qualities are more than sufficient to generate the necessary excitement.

While there’s no sex at all in this story there is, unusually for a MacLean novel, a very definite romantic sub-plot. Even more surprisingly, it works rather well.

Caravan to Vaccarès has everything an Alistair MacLean fan could ask for - it has the perfect combination of mystery, action, atmosphere and adventure. Superb entertainment, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear was the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was serialised in the Strand Magazine beginning in September 1914 and appeared in book form in 1915. It’s structurally a little odd but more interesting is the rather dark tone of the book.

Holmes receives a communication from an informer in Professor Moriarty’s organisation, warning that a Mr John Douglas of Birlstone is in imminent danger. The letter proves to be prophetic indeed as John Douglas has already been murdered before Holmes and Watson reach Birlstone. It’s a particularly brutal crime and the accounts given by the dead man’s wife and by his friend Barker seem to Holmes to be rather unsatisfactory. Of even greater concern to Holmes is the finding of Mr Douglas’s dumb-bell. Not a pair of dum-bells, a single dumb-bell. Why on earth would a man possess a single dumb-bell?

The murder takes place in a Jacobean house surrounded by a moat, complete with drawbridge. It’s a fine setting for a murder mystery and the house’s colourful history will give Holmes some vital clues. It’s quite a decent plot but Holmes is able to solve it by the halfway point of the book. At which the book changes gears completely. The second half of the novel is an extended flashback, with third person narration, which gives us the backstory to the crime. It’s more or less two separate stories but the second story is essential in order to explain the motive for the murder, and in this particular story Conan Doyle is more interested in the why than in the who or the how.

The backstory takes place in a coal-mining district of the United States in the 1870s, a district menaced by a lawless and murderous secret society (based loosely on the real life story of the Molly Maguires). It’s a dark and violent story although there is a mystery here as well, a mystery that holds the key to the explanation of the main mystery.

What’s most interesting about this short novel is its tone. The first inklings of the darkness at the heart of this novel come at the beginning of the first half with the savagery of the first murder but the darkness really starts to take over during the second half. There’s quite a high body count, there are vicious cowardly murders, brutal beatings, corruption, intimidation and a general atmosphere of paranoia. The emphasis on fear, violence and corruption almost make the book seem to be an anticipation of the American hardboiled school. 

While the novel’s first appearance in print was in September 1914 it would be interesting to know if Conan Doyle actually completed it before the outbreak of the First World War, or possibly during the tense period after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. The pessimism and violence of the book make it tempting to speculate that Conan Doyle was influenced by a sense of impending doom - a premonition that war was going to plunge Europe into darkness, into its own Valley of Fear. The bitter class hatreds (and the exploitation of such hatreds by unscrupulous demagogues) that figure in the book   are another pessimistic feature one doesn’t quite expect in a Sherlock Holmes story).

The problem of chronology raised by this book worries some readers. Although written in 1914 it is set in the 1880s and therefore takes place before The Final Problem. Which is curious because in The Final Problem Watson appears not to have heard of Professor Moriarty, although one would think that he could scarcely have forgotten him after the events of The Valley of Fear. Conan Doyle presumably wanted to feature Moriarty again (not so much because he was essential to the plot of The Valley of Fear but more because he was essential to the mood) and simply decided not to worry about the problem. 

The Valley of Fear is an odd book. It does contain a perfectly decent Sherlock Holmes detective story but it’s overshadowed by a dark-edged tale of violence and corruption that can almost be seen as a precursor of the nihilism of some of Dashiell Hammett’s novels such as Red Harvest. If nothing else it shows that Conan Doyle was prepared to experiment with the detective story genre. Whether it’s a complete success is debatable but it’s certainly interesting. Recommended.