Friday, August 26, 2016

G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a 1922 collection of a dozen short stories by G.K. Chesterton, eight of which feature Horne Fisher, a man who describes himself as The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Horne Fisher has a brilliant mind and knows a great many things, attributes that make him a formidable crime-solver. Sometimes however it is possible to know too much and to be able to do too little about it. As a result Horne Fisher’s cases do not always have neat endings. He almost invariably finds the correct solution but this does not necessarily mean that an arrest can be made and that justice can be done.

The Face in the Target introduces us to Horne Fisher and to his sidekick Harold Marsh. There’s a fairly ingenious murder method and the action takes place among some of the most important people in the kingdom. 

The Vanishing Prince is much better. Michael O’Neill is an Irish political agitator who claims descent from royalty, hence his nickname Prince Michael. He has been pursued by the authorities for years, without success. He has a remarkable talent for vanishing when he needs to do. In fact it almost seems as if he can vanish into thin air. Now the police are certain they have him. He has taken refuge in a tower and there is absolutely no possibility of escape. However when the police finally enter the tower, at the cost of two dead police officers, there is no-one there.

Horne Fisher finds the explanation for the mystery and it’s a very clever solution to a very clever crime that is not quite the crime it appears to be. One of the prince’s earlier disappearing acts is just as clever.

The Soul of the Schoolboy is too whimsical and lightweight for its own good. It concerns the theft of a certain rare and very ancient coin, or is it a theft?

The Bottomless Well is a huge improvement. This story takes place in an outpost of the British Empire, somewhere in the Middle East. There is a very ancient well, to which certain legends are attached. There is a hero, and a very imperial hero he is too. There is a handsome young officer, and a none-too-faithful wife. There is murder. What puzzles Horne Fisher is the part that the bottomless well plays in the crime, or rather the part that the bottomless well doesn’t play in the crime. 

This is a story which illustrates rather well the peculiar nature of Horne Fisher as a detective. It is obviously disastrous for a detective to know too little but sometimes a detective who knows too much is in an even more invidious position. There are some crimes that simply cannot be solved satisfactorily if the detective knows certain things.

The Hole in the Wall is better still. A masquerade party at a country house ends in a murder, but without a body. The solution has its roots in the Middle Ages and requires Horne Fisher’s sophisticated understanding of the nature of scepticism and his knowledge that names may mean something other than what they seem to mean, or they may mean precisely what they seem to mean.

The Fad of the Fisherman deals with a murder that hinges on politically inspired blackmail and a man’s devotion to fishing.

Horne Fisher describes his early attempt at a political career in The Fool of the Family. The attempt ended in complete failure even though he won the by-election by a landslide. In fact it ended in complete failure because he won the by-election by a landslide. Chesterton  is rather merciless about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of politics - clearly politics hasn’t changed much between Chesterton’s day and ours.

The Vengeance of the Statue does include a solution to a murder but it’s secondary to the main thrust of the story which is a kind of political fantasy with hints of science fiction and alternative history and even conspiracy theories.

The eight Horne Fisher stories are loosely connected and while they feature crimes the solutions to which display Fisher’s skills as a detective The Man Who Knew Too Much stories are perhaps better regarded as a political allegory combined with some philosophical speculation about action versus contemplation and the usefulness (or lack of usefulness) of knowledge. Horne Fisher knows an enormous amount about how the world really works but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can do anything about it. If it so happens that one day he is compelled to do something about it the consequences may be momentous and unpredictable.

The other four stories in this collection do not feature Horne Fisher. 

The Trees of Pride is a very strange story indeed. There is a detective story here but at times its closer to being a dark fairy tale. The most remarkable thing about Squire Vane’s Cornish estate is the presence of three trees. Popularly referred to as peacock trees they do not seem to belong in Cornwall. In fact the locals feel very strongly that those trees should not be there. There are legends, dark legends, about these trees. There are those who believe the trees can kill. There are even those who believe the trees can eat birds, and possibly people. Squire Vane has no patience with such superstitions. To prove his point he spends a night in the wood where the trees grow, near the sea. The squire enters the wood but he does not leave it on the following day.

Have the trees killed the squire, or has someone murdered him?

Chesterton characteristically uses this story to make pertinent observations about the nature of belief, the persistence of legend and the use (and possible misuse) of both reason and faith. Despite its extreme oddity it’s an intriguingly unusual tale.

The Garden of Smoke is fairly odd as well. There’s certainly a murder. There’s a murder weapon but its in plain sight all the time only no-one can see it. There’s a cast of colourful characters including a quite appalling lady poet and a salty old sea dog. In this tale Chesterton paints a rather damning picture of artists and intellectuals.

In The Five of Swords two amateur detectives, a Frenchman and an Englishman, stumble across the tragic aftermath of a duel. The question is - was it a regular duel conducted according to the rules of honour? Everything suggests that it was, apart from the curious circumstance of the broken pane of glass. Another slightly unconventional but clever tale of detection.

The Tower of Treason takes place in eastern Europe. A coat of diamonds belonging to a long-dead king is protected within a monastery that is more like a fortress. It is quite impossible that the stones could be stolen, and yet they are disappearing a few at a time. A young Englishman comes under suspicion. In desperation to clear his name (and win the love of a certain lady) he calls on his old friend Father Stephen, a once-famous diplomatist who is now a hermit. The hermit asks some very puzzling questions about pickaxes, slippers, bells and birds. The young Englishman fears that his old friend is mad but there is method in the apparent madness of the hermit. Father Stephen is an unconventional a detective as you could ever hope to encounter but he has great wisdom and the answer is to be found in his heart. A strange but oddly compelling tale.

As much as I love Father Brown I’d rate this non-Father Brown collection as being at least as good as the Father Brown stories, and when it comes to plotting probably better. Chesterton loved the detective story but his own approach was always rather unconventional. He uses the detective story to comment on all kinds of social, aesthetic and moral issues but he has a knack of doing this without being irritatingly preachy. Chesterton was not a mere ideologue trying to ram his views down his readers’ throats. His views were complex and often surprising. 

It has to be said though that none of the twelve stories in this collection could be described as a straightforward detective story. If you dislike political, philosophical and religious themes mixed in with your tales of detections you might want to approach this collection with caution.

The Horne Fisher stories are generally excellent but the four non-Horne Fisher stories in this collection are in some ways even more interesting (and sometimes quite bizarre).

If you’re a devotee of Chesterton’s crime fiction and you’ve exhausted all the Father Brown stories then The Man Who Knew Too Much may be right up your alley. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Matt Helm: The Removers

The Removers was the third of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy thrillers. The first thing you need to understand when approaching the Matt Helm books is that they bear little or no resemblance to the films. The films are great high camp fun but the Matt Helm novels are serious spy fiction and very hard-boiled.

Swedish-born American writer Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) published twenty-seven Matt Helm books between 1960 and 1993, as well as writing crime fiction and westerns.

One of the interesting features of the early Matt Helm novels is that they absolutely must be read in sequence. It is assumed that the reader is aware of crucial background information on both the hero’s professional career and personal life contained in the previous books in the series. The events of the earlier books have a significant impact on the hero’s life and on his attitude towards his job. If you haven’t read the first two books (Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew) then for one thing you’re not going to comprehend the relationship between Matt Helm and Beth in The Removers. You’re also not going to understand most of Helm’s motivations.

This makes The Removers tricky to review since I have to avoid spoilers not only for this novel but also for the previous ones. I’ll do my best to make this review totally spoiler-free but this does mean that I’ll have to be extra vague about elements of the plot.

Matt Helm is a US counter-espionage agent of a rather specialised kind. In fact he’s more or less a professional assassin. He had been involved in very secret, and very deadly, operations during the Second World War as part of a unit run by a man known as Mac. After the war he had returned to civilian life and made his living writing westerns. One day his past caught up with him and he found himself back in the world of espionage again. He thought this was going to be a strictly temporary thing but it’s not an easy world to walk away from.

The Removers begins with Matt being asked for help, quite out of the blue, by Beth. He’s due for a vacation anyway so he sets off for Nevada. He’s a bit curious as to why Mac wants him to make contact with another agent there. This is supposed to be a vacation after all.

As one might expect it proves to be a very eventful vacation. When he gets to the ranch he meets a girl. Her name seems familiar. This is not surprising since she’s the daughter of a notorious racketeer. The very specialised agency for which Matt works does not usually concern itself with mobsters but perhaps there’s something more going on here? The alert reader will already have noticed references to some curious accidents in the area.

What Matt has walked into is not just a situation involving spies and gangsters but also a complicated series of interconnecting family squabbles and one of the families involved is his own.

One of the many differences between the Matt Helm books and the Bond books is in the settings. Hamilton did not go in for exotic locales to the extent that most of his contemporary thriller writers did. The Removers takes place entirely in Nevada, in cheap motels and cabins and on remote horse trails. Hamilton wrote westerns as well as thrillers so perhaps it’s not surprising he’d pick a setting that would have worked fine in a western. And can you imagine James Bond being in Nevada and not gambling? Matt Helm simply has no interest in gambling. 

Matt also does not drive a typical secret agent car. He drives a battered Chevy pickup truck.

The tone is remarkably brutal. Matt Helm is not a glamorous spy and he’s also entirely lacking in chivalry or honour or any romantic notions whatsoever. He’s a professional. He gets the job done. If other people get hurt that’s very unfortunate. He tries not to get innocent bystanders involved but sometimes it happens and he doesn’t lose any sleep over it. The US government pays him and he leaves it to them to worry about any ethical concerns. He is also not into the noble self-sacrificing hero thing. He does his job but he sees no reason why he should take unnecessary risks.

While the Matt Helm books do not subscribe to the kind of moral relativism that became fashionable among some 60s spy writers they do not shrink from the fact that both sides in the Cold War espionage game played by the same rules. The KGB has its cold-blooded killers but they’re no more coild-blooded than Matt Helm. This gives the book a very modern feel. Matt Helm is not an anti-hero but he is an uncompromisingly tough and brutal hero. Overall the tone is much closer to Greene and Ambler than to Fleming, but with generous helpings of the sex and violence that Fleming had added to the genre.

The Removers is violent and cynical but it’s also exciting and well-crafted. This is a gritty realist noir spy novel and Hamilton does it well. If you’re a fan of spy fiction the early Matt Helms are essential reading. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

J. J. Connington’s The Boat-House Riddle

The Boat-House Riddle was the sixth of J. J. Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries. It was published in 1931, at a time when Connington was at the peak of his powers as a writer of detective fiction.

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished Scottish chemist who wrote detective fiction as a sideline. His background as a scientist in reflected in the clear-sightedly rational and unsentimental nature of his detective stories and it’s reflected even more clearly in the personality of his most famous series detective, Sir Clinton Driffield.

It is always a mistake for a fictional detective to decide to take a holiday. No matter where they elect to spend their vacation you can be sure that a murder will soon follow, even if it happens to be a sleepy village that has not seen a case a murder for half a century.

In this case the murdered man is a gamekeeper, employed by Mr and Mrs Keith-Westerton. The Keith-Westertons are neighbours of Sir Clinton’s old friend Squire Wendover, with whom he is staying. The man who reported the murder is Cley, a notorious poacher known to be on bad terms with the keeper. The body was bound at Friar Point’s, just across the like from Wendover’s new boat-house (which happens to be his pride an joy). There are several tracks leading to and from the murder scene but the evidence suggests that the murderer left the scene on foot but arrived by some other means, possibly by boat. To Wendover’s annoyance and embarrassment the evidence further suggests that the murderer may have set forth by boat from Wendover’s boat-house.

This is not an impossible crime story. Several people could quite plausibly have killed the gamekeeper Horncastle. The difficulty lies in the inconvenient fact that none of these people has any kind of motive. 

Attention soon becomes focused on Wendover’s boat-house. There are clues to be found there but their meaning is obscure. Why would anyone steal the motor from a gramophone? Other clues are equally confusing. A Salvation Army man was in the vicinity both before and after the murder and his explanation for his presence is most unsatisfactory. There seem to be pearls everywhere. There’s a mysterious French priest. There’s Squire Wendover’s missing screwdriver. And while Wendover has assured Sir Clinton that no-one could possibly have gained access to the boat-house it soon becomes apparent that practically everyone in the district could, and probably does, possess a copy of the key.

Connington has a reputation for complex but extremely sound plotting and that’s certainly the case here. It’s always a joy to see a master craftsman at work. This novel does break one of the unofficial rules of detective fiction of this period but that does not prevent tis from being a fine fair-play mystery.

Sir Clinton Driffield takes a unsentimental and brutally realistic (and sometimes almost ruthless) approach to crime. He is very much like the protagonist in Connington’s pioneering science fiction novel Nordenholt’s Million. When he sees what has to be done he does it, no matter how unpleasant it might be and no matter how unpopular his actions might be. And he is a natural leader. He is the sort of man who takes command in any situation, not because he enjoys power but because he assumes (usually correctly) that he is the man best qualified to do so. He understands very clearly that sentimentality can cause more suffering than hardheaded realism and clearsightedness. This might not make him an obviously sympathetic detective hero but once you realise where he’s coming from he grows on you, and in fact he’s one of the more interesting of golden age detectives. His approach is actually rather bracing. 

It’s reasonable to assume that Driffield’s unsentimental view of things probably reflects Connington’s own view and Murder in the Maze and The Castleford Conundrum are very definitely lacking in sentimentality.

Connington most certainly cannot be accused of being a mere writer of cozy mysteries.

The Boat-House Riddle is Connington at his best, which means it’s puzzle-plot mystery writing at its best. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Guy Boothby's The Lust of Hate

The Lust of Hate was the third of the five Dr Nikola novels written by Guy Boothby (1867-1905). Boothby was an Australian writer who enjoyed international success until his career was cut short by his untimely death.

Dr Nikola was one of the earliest fictional diabolical criminal masterminds although his interests extend well beyond mere crime. He has interests in the occult and what might be termed the paranormal. In fact his motivations make him resemble the less scrupulous medieval alchemists and his criminal activities serve the purpose of financing his researches.

Dr Nikola made his literary debut  in 1895 in Boothby’s novel A Bid for Fortune. Dr Nikola Returns followed in 1896. The Lust of Hate appeared in 1898.

Dr Nikola plays a subsidiary role in The Lust of Hate although it is his latest criminal scheme that drives the plot.

The hero of this novel is Gilbert Pennethorne, younger son of a Cornish baronet. Gilbert seems to have remarkably bad luck. His mother died giving birth to him and as a result his father has never had any affection for him. His school career is undistinguished and although he claims to have been entirely innocent of any disciplinary breach he is sent down from Oxford after his first year. His father settles his debts for him and throws him out. Gilbert has enough money to take him to Australia where he is determined to make his fortune.

Ill luck continues to dog him. His investments invariably turn out badly. He hopes to find riches on the goldfields but always without success. Then his luck suddenly turns, or so it appears, but this turns out to be another illusion. He is cheated of a vast fortune.

Gilbert receives a paltry inheritance when his father dies and returns to England. He can think of nothing but avenging himself on the man who cheated him. Then he meets Dr Nikola. Nikola assures him that he can have his revenge without the slightest risk of arrest by the police. Nikola has devised a method of murder that is entirely perfect and foolproof. And he requires only a small share of the riches that will accrue to Gilbert as a result.

Gilbert by this time is perhaps not quite in his right mind and he succumbs to temptation. The plan does not turn out as expected. Gilbert decides to flee and takes ship for South Africa. He hopes to start life afresh and eventually to make amends for the terrible sin he has committed. At this point Gilbert’s adventures have only just begun, and extraordinary adventures they are (even if they do strain credibility quite a bit). 

While the earlier Dr Nikola books were true diabolical criminal mastermind thrillers The Lust of Hate is pretty much pure melodrama. Personally I have no objection to melodrama and this one is entertaining enough.

The book’s greatest weakness is that Dr Nikola effectively plays a supporting role only and the story doesn’t add very much to our knowledge of Nikola. Which is a pity since he is a splendid character.

Gilbert Pennethorne veers between abject self-pity and sudden bursts of insane heroism. He really does seem to be have become, temporarily, just a little unhinged by his misfortunes. Modern readers will need to take into account that Gilbert’s self-sacrificing tendencies which might seem excessive today would have been considered to be quite praiseworthy in 1898.

The highlight of the book is Dr Nikola’s ingenious scheme for committing perfect murders for profit. Nikola’s slightly ambivalent attitude towards his victims (and there are sings of this in the earlier books as well) make him an interesting villain. For Nikola evil is merely a means to an end.

The Lust of Hate is odd but enjoyable in its own way and Dr Nikola fans will certainly not want to miss it. Worth a look.

Boothby also enjoyed success with his stories of the gentleman-thief Simon Carne, collected in A Prince of Swindlers.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War

The Looking Glass War was John le Carré’s fourth novel and also the fourth to feature his most famous character, British spy George Smiley. John le Carré had scored a major bestseller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This was certainly not the first spy novel to feature an unglamorous hero nor was it the first to introduce a tone of gritty realism combined with cynicism and defeat. Eric Ambler had been writing dark cynical spy novels (like Epitaph for a Spy) for years as had Graham Greene (in books like Stamboul Train). It was however The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that really put despair and moral nihilism at centre stage in the world of spy fiction.

For all its nihilism The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an entertaining and exciting spy novel. For his next novel le Carré decided to up the ante. This book would really show the world of espionage as it was - a dull dreary world of blunders, office politics, petty backstabbing and general incompetence, with very little excitement. Not surprisingly when The Looking Glass War was published in 1965 it failed to match the commercial success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold although it could be argued that in artistic terms it achieved le Carré’s aims.

The Department is a branch of the British intelligence services. Its glory days were the years of the Second World War when it was at the forefront of the secret war, conducting daring aerial reconnaissance missions and dropping agents behind enemy lines. Those glory years are now well and truly in the past. During the war there had been a fierce competitiveness between the Department and a rival British intelligence agency known as the Circus. In theory the Department handles operations against strictly military targets while the Circus handles the political side. In practice the Circus has gradually taken over all of the Department’s functions, and has also poached most of the Department’s more competent employees. In fact the Department now has almost nothing to do and probably only survives at all due to bureaucratic inertia.

The head of the Department, Leclerc, is also a relic of World War II. Unfortunately he still dreams of recapturing the Department’s former glory and now he thinks he’s found a way to do so. One of his few remaining agents (another ageing Second World War veteran) has come across an East German defector who has some photographs to sell. Only three of the photographs show anything at all and what they do show is open to debate. In the right light, and if you hold them at the right angle, there are blurred shapes that could be ballistic missiles. To be honest these shapes could be anything at all, or could even be absolutely nothing, but Leclerc chooses to believe he has discovered that the Soviets are deploying medium-range ballistic missiles not far from Rostock in East Germany. It could be the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again, with Leclerc and the Department taking centre stage.

Leclerc somehow gets authorisation for a clandestine overflight. He dispatches Taylor, yet another ageing relic of the war and a man with no experience as a field agent, to retrieve the photographs. The result is a shambles. Leclerc then sends his young aide Avery, a man with zero operational experience, to make another attempt to retrieve the film. The result is another shambles.

With no hard evidence whatsoever Leclerc manages to persuade the Ministry to authorise him to infiltrate an agent into the Rostock area. The problem is that the Department has no  field agents available. In fact they have no field agents at all, and no recent experience or expertise in running such operations. Finally they manage to unearth a possibility, a middle-aged Pole who had worked for them during the war. The man in question has done no intelligence work for twenty years and to be honest no-one is even sure that he’s still alive. Using such a man is a fantastically bad idea but the alternative would be to turn the matter over to the Circus, and Leclerc will not consider that since his main objective is to score a victory over the Circus and restore the reputation (and the budget) of the Department.

The operation will go ahead and the stage is set for what could turn out to be tragedy, comedy or tragi-comedy. The ineptitude of the Department is awe-inspiring. Their agent will be equipped with a World War II-vintage radio set since nobody will trust the Department with a modern set. Apart from Avery all the personnel involved in training the agent and planning the operation are old men who have no idea that techniques and technology may have advanced since the war.

Watching from the sidelines with a good deal of interest is George Smiley from the Circus. 

While le Carré was obviously suggesting that the British intelligence services were run by bungling cynical incompetents living on memories of past glories the Department can also be seen as a metaphor for Britain in the postwar world - run by bumbling cynical incompetents still clinging to the absurd belief that Britain was a great power. The constant dwelling by Leclerc and his underlings on the proud days of the Second World War adds another layer of irony given that this was the war that ruined Britain as a great power.

The plot almost qualifies as black comedy but le Carré tells his story straight. He was clearly aiming for tragedy rather than comedy.

Leclerc and his minions, especially Haldane, are great characters. They’re ridiculous and pompous and totally out of their depth but somehow you can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for them. The world of the 1940s that was familiar to them has vanished and they are totally lost in the world of the 1960s. George Smiley is just as old but he has adapted, but then Leclerc and his crew have never been given the chance to adapt. Of course any sympathy we feel for them is tempered by the knowledge that their blundering and their dreams of recapturing past glories could entail a high cost in human life, and that they will happily send men to their deaths to further their own careers.

The Looking Glass War is an unconventional and exceptionally bleak spy novel with virtually no action but it manages to be fascinating in its willingness to confront what is after all in reality a sordid and vicious business. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 1, 2016

G.K. Chesterton's The Donnington Affair

The Donnington Affair is an intriguing example of a detective story with multiple authors (a idea that would enjoy a considerable vogue during the golden age of detective fiction). The first half of The Donnington Affair was written by Sir Max Pemberton and published in October 1914. It gives us the set-up and the murder. Pemberton challenged G.K. Chesterton to provide the solution. The second half of the story, published in the same periodical a month later, was written by Chesterton and describes Father Brown’s solution to the mystery.

Pemberton’s mystery is ingenious enough. It involves bitter family quarrels, a son who has turned (although not with any great success) to crime and a country house riddled with secrets. There’s no shortage of suspects but the time and the place of the murder presents problems for any would-be detective.

Chesterton’s little priest-detective was certainly fascinated by criminal puzzles but he was always more interested in crimes as spiritual and moral puzzles rather then mere intellectual games. Chesterton in this case succeeds reasonably well in making this into an authentic Father Brown mystery.

The Donnington Affair is included (along with a couple of previously uncollected tales) in the Penguin Classics Complete Father Brown Stories.

The Donnington Affair might not be one of the best Father Brown stories but fans of the priestly sleuth will find that it’s worth checking out.