Saturday, September 23, 2017

Robert E. Howard's Almuric

Robert E. Howard wrote a vast number of short stories but only a handful of novels, including Almuric which was serialised in Weird Tales in 1939 (three years after the author’s death).

Esau Cairn is a young American of immense physical strength although unfortunately afflicted with a rather short temper. He becomes enmeshed in a web of deceit spun by crooked politicians and he has resigned himself to facing execution on trumped charges. He is given a surprising opportunity to save himself, although at a terrifyingly high price. A scientist acquaintance has discovered a means of transporting living beings, including people, across the vast reaches of outer space. The only problem is that such trips are strictly one-way. Esau Cairn however is willing to accept the price.

He finds himself on the fantastically distant planet Almuric. It’s a planet on which everything seems to resemble some earthly equivalent, but not quite. There is always a slight difference.

For a solitary man, unarmed and unequipped with any tools (it is only possible to transport living things across space), existence on this primitive planet is a challenge. Esau Cairn is however a man of remarkable determination and endurance as well as strength.

There are several human-like sentient species on Almuric. The Guras are somewhat bestial in appearance but they are brave warriors. They’re the sorts of barbarians who appealed to Howard’s imagination, with a certain degree of honour. Their women are very different. The Guras have evolved a rather extreme sexual dimorphism. The men are powerful, hairy and apelike while the women are smooth-skinned, gentle and very feminine. And for all their apparent barbarism the Gura men treat their women with extravagant kindness (apart of course from occasional physical chastisement which they seem to accept).

The Yaga are more worrisome, winged cannibal men of exceptional cruelty. Their queen, Yasmeena, is beautiful but terrifying and frighteningly capricious.

There are other man-like creatures, varying in intelligence and savagery. Many of these have been enslaved by the Yaga. The Yaga are particularly fond of carrying off the women of the other sentient creatures. You might expect that these maidens would be facing the proverbial Fate Worse Than Death. In fact they’re facing horrors that are almost unimaginable. The depraved Yaga certainly use their captive women as sex slaves but they have other uses for them as well.

Esau Cairn will face many dangers and countless horrors but he will also find love in the person of the gentle but high-spirited Altha.

Almuric is very much in the mould of the sword and planet adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard could not match the extraordinary inventiveness of Burroughs but his writing has its own strengths. Few writers have ever been able to match Howard when it came to savage action scenes. He also had a gift for atmosphere, especially for creating an atmosphere of skin-crawling horror. And of course Howard had the ability to create great barbarian heroes, mighty warriors but with a degree of gentleness towards women and with the intelligence and instinctive wisdom to complement their physical prowess. Esau Cairn might be a 20th century American but he is in fact a natural barbarian (which is part of the reason he finds himself exiled from an Earth on which he was never able to fit in).

There’s always a touch of horror to Howard’s fantasy tales, and almost always there are hints of sadism and cruelty, often with sexual overtones. It’s all combined with odd dashes of chivalry. Almuric has more than its share of such qualities. Naturally there’s non-stop violence, some of it pretty hair-raising.

This is a sword and planet rather than a sword sorcery tale so there’s no magic but there are monsters. Howard, who had no great interest in science fiction, solves the problem of finding a plausible way to transport his hero to a distant planet in the simplest possible manner. He doesn’t explain it at all.

This is a short novel but aside from having lots of action it also has copious amounts of plot. The pacing is breakneck and there are no dull spots.

It’s hardly great literature but it’s fun and it’s blood-drenched excitement. It’s pretty much typical Robert E. Howard in other words, and that’s certainly no bad thing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Howling Dog is a fairly early Perry Mason mystery, dating from 1934. By this time Erle Stanley Gardner already had the Perry Mason formula humming along like a well-oiled machine.

As usual Perry Mason becomes involved in the case before any serious crime has been committed. It appears that his latest case is absurdly commonplace - a matter of a man being annoyed by the howling of a neighbour’s dog, and the drawing up of a will. These are matters so trivial that Mason would normally not take such a case. But Perry Mason has the instincts of a detective as well as those of a lawyer and his detective’s nose has detected the scent of something  bigger. Mason likes cases that will bring him lots of publicity, that being the road to fame and success as a trial lawyer. However he also can’t resist anything that promises to be a bit odd or (even better) exciting.

As it happens his client, one Arthur Cartright, has paid him an enormous retainer so money is no problem in this case. Mason decides to spend some money. He asks his old friend Paul Drake to do a bit of digging and pretty soon every man in the Paul Drake Detective Bureau is busily gathering a mountain of information. Perry Mason means to find out exactly why Clinton Foley’s  howling dog should cause so much drama, why a man would go to so much trouble to spy on a neighbour, why a man would draw up a will with such curious provisions, and perhaps most of all he intends to find out why Cartright has such a strange interest in Foley’s wife. There’s also the matter of the beautiful young housekeeper who goes to a good deal of trouble to make herself look old and plain, and the deportation of a Chinese cook.

Mason soon has plenty of data but no real answers but he’s not entirely surprised when the murder occurs.

The plotting adheres to a rigid formula but Gardner always manages to introduce enough twists to make the formula seem fresh each time.

As a successful trial lawyer himself Gardner obviously loved courtroom scenes but he understood the dangers. They can quickly become boring so it’s essential to keep throwing in spectacular surprises. Since Perry Mason is an attorney whose entire approach to his job rests on springing surprises this works well.

This book gives Mason the opportunity to expound his legal philosophy. It’s not a defence attorney’s job to decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent, that’s the jury’s job. The defence attorney’s only task is to give his client the best possible chance, even to the extent of using what might appear to be dirty tricks.  The prosecution will certainly use dirty tricks so a defence lawyer actually has a responsibility to do the same in order to give his client a chance.

Compared to the later novels the Perry Mason of the early books was even more inclined to sail very close to the wind in order to protect a client. He won’t cross the line into actual illegality but he’ll go within a hair’s breadth of doing so, an approach that exasperates policemen and district attorneys who dream of the day that Mason will actually cross that line and they can nail him.

Mason gives a spirited and eloquent defence justification of the the adversarial nature of the trial system. Mason’s philosophical approach to the law was of course Gardner’s and it adds a bit of substance to the Perry Mason novels.

The difficult part is for the lawyer to do all these things whilst still remaining himself within the law. He can stretch the law as much as he likes but he can’t break it. The extraordinary balancing acts in which Perry Mason engages in order to do this provide much of the suspense and interest of the stories. The Case of the Howling Dog has plenty of examples. Even Paul Drake and Mason’s faithful secretary Della Street are horrified by the risks he runs and they’re familiar with his methods.

Gardner adds a nice little sting in the tail this time around.

This is one of several early Perry Mason stories in which an animal provides, directly or indirectly, absolutely crucial evidence. It’s a trick that Gardner used remarkably effectively and without resorting to mere gimmickry.

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian Fleming's Thunderball

Thunderball was the ninth of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and was published in 1961.

It started life as a treatment for a proposed Bond film in the late 50s which was turned into a screenplay by Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. When the film deal fell through Fleming believed there was no reason not to turn the story into a Bond novel, especially given that it was part of the original deal that Fleming should produce a tie-in novel based on the film. McClory and Whittingham disagreed and took Fleming to court. A complicated settlement was eventually negotiated. Thunderball was published as a novel by Fleming, based on a screenplay by McClory and Whittingham, and McClory gained the rights to do a remake of the Thunderball film (which would eventually result in the ill-fated Never Say Never Again). In the midst of the extreme stress caused by the court case Fleming had a massive heart attack.

Unhappy though the experience may have been for Fleming Thunderball is still a fine story. It’s the book that introduces SPECTRE and the most iconic of all Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

A British bomber disappears over the Atlantic, along with two nuclear bombs. A letter is delivered to the British prime minister and the US president, demanding 100 million pounds in bullion. If the bullion is not handed over a major city will be destroyed.

Acting on one of M’s hunches Bond is despatched to the Bahamas where he will be working with his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA. Bond finds what could be a lead, but it’s a very slender one. If the British bomber went down in the sea near the Bahamas then SPECTRE would have to have a sea-going vessel of some sort. It just so happens that a yacht has recently arrived in port. It’s ostensibly engaged in hunting for sunken treasure, which of course requires just the sorts of diving equipment that could be used to retrieve the two missing nuclear bombs. the yacht is owned by the rather colourful and rather mysterious Emilio Largo.

Largo’s mistress, a beautiful Italian girl named Domino, seems likely to offer the best opportunities for finding out what Largo is up to. The more Bond finds out the more convinced he is that he’s on the right track. It builds to an exciting climax beneath the sea.

Thunderball ticks the right boxes for a Bond novel. Bond makes use of a beautiful woman to uncover the villain’s nefarious scheme, there’s a torture scene, there’s the exotic setting, there’s a threat to Destroy Civilisation As We Know it, the villain is a villain on the grand scale, there’s some cool technology (although there’s not as much emphasis on this as there is in the films), there’s plenty of action, there’s sex, and Bond makes a few mistakes. It’s also typical of the novels (and this is another key difference in comparison with the films) that there’s a slightly dark and very ruthless edge to the story. Bond knowingly and deliberately risks Domino’s life because the job has to be done and she’s expendable. There’s also a hint that there things about the job that Bond doesn’t like at all, such as putting a charming girl’s life in danger.

This was the book in which Fleming started to move away from the Cold War themes of the earlier books. The chief enemy is now SPECTRE, a gigantic criminal organisation, rather than the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH. Fleming, quite correctly, realised that an obsession with the Cold War would date the books if the Cold War started to fade in significance.

Blofeld appears in the story but he hasn’t yet taken centre stage. Largo is the primary bad guy but it’s clear that both SPECTRE and Blofeld had great possibilities for future books.

As is customary in the Bond books the first encounter between Bond and the chief villain takes place over the gambling table.

As is also customary, there are subtle hints of all kinds of politically incorrect aspects to the sexual relationships.

As you might expect with a story that started life as a film treatment it’s all very cinematic, with action scenes that are ideally suited to become movie action set-pieces.

Largo’s hydrofoil yacht, The Disco Volante (Flying Saucer), is a very cool piece of technology. The hijacking of the nuclear bomber is a superb touch. It’s an idea that McClory claimed was his but Fleming handles it with great skill.

Thunderball is the kind of thing that Fleming did so well, a story that is far-fetched but not too far-fetched. It’s just plausible enough. This is all great fun. Not the best of the Bond books by any means but still highly recommended.