Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Flying Death

The Flying Death is one strange little book. Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) was a famous American muckraking journalist in his day although be’s better known to fans of Edwardian crime fiction for his excellent Average Jones stories.

The Flying Death begins with Dr Dick Colton being ordered to Montauk for a rest cure. However he’s not going to get much rest. Apart from the murder and mayhem he will also find love, and that is rarely restful.

He is staying at Third House, the inhabitants of which are a varied lot. There’s Professor Ravenden, a slightly dotty but very eminent entomologist. His daughter Dolly is rather more disturbing to Dr Colton, being very beautiful and altogether the most wondrous specimen of young womanhood he’s ever set eyes on. Dr Colton falls instantly in love. More disturbing in some ways is Helga, equally young and beautiful but gifted (if that’s the right word) with the second sight. Helga had been involved romantically with Dick’s brother Everard until the Colton family vetoed the match. Now Dick decides it would be a fine idea to invite Evarard to Third House. Making things more complicated is Helga’s relationship to newspaper reporter Harris Haynes, since nobody seems to know what exactly that relationship is. Nobody, including Haynes and Helga. The stage is set for some romantic melodrama, all done in a very Edwardian (but rather charming) style.

The action itself kicks off with a shipwreck. Most of the crew of the stricken schooner are saved but one man is brought ashore dead. The only problem is that he can’t be dead, or at least he can’t be dead in the way he appears to have died. It’s simply impossible.

Other murders follow, and they’re all in their own ways equally impossible.

Haynes decides to take charge of the investigation, being convinced that the police would be no use at all. Haynes has been a crime reporter for years so he does know a thing or two about investigating crime and there will be some actual detecting done in this story.

There are some clues but they seem to lead to further impossibilities. There are for instance the tracks on the beach, leading to one of the dead bodies. There’s no doubt about what the tracks are. They are the tracks of a pteranadon, and a rather large one. The fact that pteranadons have been extinct for a hundred million years or so is however a minor problem.

There’s also the matter of the unfortunate pioneer aeronaut, yet another impossible crime.

The most promising suspect appears to be a Portuguese juggler/magician whose act includes some rather impressive knife-throwing feats. Alas even more impossibilities will arise in connection with this suspect.

As you might have gathered Adams throws everything but the kitchen sink into this tale. And it works. He was a newspaperman and he knew how to give the public what it wanted.

In a story from this era that involves both crime and the suggestion of possible supernatural or science fictional explanations you can never be quite sure how the author will play things. Will he produce a perfectly rational solution at the last moment, or will he throw caution to the wind and go for a solution of a truly fantastic kind? Needless to say I have no intention of spoiling the story by telling you which option Adams chooses.

Stylistically the book is very much of its era, which (when combined with the outrageous plot) adds to the charm.

Adams keeps things moving along at a decent clip, both on the mayhem and the romance fronts. Romance in a detective story can have the effect of slowing things down too much but Adams doesn’t allow that to happen.

Is this actually a detective story? You’ll have to wait until the end to find out. Whatever it is it’s a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day

Eric Ambler’s 1962 thriller The Light of Day (also published under the title Topkapi) is both typical and untypical of his work. It’s typical in that it uses a classic Ambler plot device - a very reluctant amateur spy hopelessly out of his depth. It’s untypical in being essentially a light-hearted romp.

Arthur Simpson narrates his tale of misadventure and mishap. Arthur is an Englishman living in Athens. He’s British to his bootstraps. Except that he’s not actually a British citizen, and the British government is determined to keep it that way. He holds an Egyptian passport but the Egyptian government doesn’t want him either. Arthur Simpson’s father was a British officer stationed in Cairo. His mother was Egyptian. He was educated at a minor (very minor) public school in England. Arthur feels entirely British and it is a constant sorrow to him that no-one else seems to share his view of himself.

Arthur is a journalist. At least in his own mind he is, although his career in journalism mostly amounts to his involvement in the production of pornographic magazines.

Arthur earns his living driving a hire car. Even that is not quite true. His main source of income is petty theft. The hire car allows him to pick out likely looking targets at Athens Airport. Rich tourists are usually fairly easy to rob.

The American named Harper seemed like a very promising target. But it all went wrong for poor Arthur. He ended up getting a beating and being forced to sign a very incriminating confession and now Harper is using that confession to blackmail Arthur into doing a little job for him. A very simple job. All he has to do is to drive a car, a Lincoln Continental, from Athens to Istanbul. And he’ll get paid for it.

Now Arthur may be many things but no-one has ever accused him of being stupid. He smells a rat. A very big rat. He is sure the car is being used to smuggle drugs or gold or some other contraband but a thorough search of the Lincoln reveals nothing. Everything goes smoothly until he reaches the Turkish frontier. There it is discovered that his passport is out of date. Other discoveries are made as well. His interview with Major Tufan of the Ikinci Büro (the Turkish counter-espionage service) is not a happy experience. Arthur could be facing a very long prison sentence. But Major Tufan does have some good news for him. He may not have to face the death penalty. In fact he may not even have to go to prison. All Arthur has to do is to work for the Ikinci Büro for a while.

Major Tufan has no idea what Harper and his friends are up to but he has a bad feeling about it. He fears it may be political. The guns and the grenades suggest something rather nasty. He needs Arthur’s help. Arthur agrees, because after all he has no choice at all.

Harper and his pals are certainly up to something but finding out what that something is proves to be remarkably difficult. Arthur talks his way into a job as chauffeur for Harper’s mistress, the glamorous Frau Lipp, but Harper and his friends are extremely secretive and by the time Arthur works out what is going on he may have gotten himself in so deep that he will be unable to escape.

This is Eric Ambler so don’t expect a great deal of action (although there is some definite excitement towards the end). Ambler was concerned with suspense and character, especially character. In Arthur Simpson he has created a wonderfully memorable if rather appalling character. He is a coward, a congenital liar, a sneak, a thief and in fact the description of him by one of his former schoolmasters as an unspeakable little cad is pretty accurate. Arthur’s story is an extraordinary concoction of self-delusion and self-justification. His ability to rationalise away his own failings and weaknesses is breathtaking. In spite of all this it is difficult to dislike Arthur. He’s a rotter but he’s a delightfully entertaining rotter.

Arthur’s outlook on most things is idiosyncratic. If someone is careless enough to leave travellers’ cheques lying about then taking them isn’t really stealing. If telling the truth is likely to have unpleasant consequences then lying isn’t reprehensible, it’s sound common sense. Arthur approves of sex, but not when it’s somebody else who is getting it.

Major Tufan is, oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in the book. For a secret policeman he’s a pretty decent fellow and he’s remarkably patient with his bumbling new agent.

Ambler shows great skill in keeping us guessing almost until the end as to the exact nature of Harper’s plot. This is crucial because the success of the story depends upon Arthur’s remaining in ignorance on this subject until he has well and truly painted himself into a corner.

The Light of Day was filmed in 1964 as Topkapi.

The Light of Day is pure enjoyment, it's extremely amusing and it's suspenseful. You can't ask for more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

The Second World War is never explicitly mentioned in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but it casts a long shadow over the book making it a rather interesting Hercule Poirot mystery.

It was published in 1940 but internal evidence suggests it may have been written just before the outbreak of war.

Regarded purely as a detective story it is superb, a classic example of Christie’s ability to lay false scents. She leads the reader by the nose but if it’s any consolation Poirot very nearly falls into the same trap that Christie has laid for the reader.

It starts with the murder of a dentist. As it happens, it’s Poirot’s own dentist who is murdered. It looks like suicide but Chief Inspector Japp is not at all satisfied. The question of motive worries Japp a lot. This is a detective story in which motive is of absolutely critical importance. The case cannot be solved unless the motive can be uncovered. There’s plenty of other evidence but it’s either tantalising ambiguous or downright misleading without a motive. That’s not giving anything away since both Poirot and Japp are keenly aware of this problem right from the start.

Two more murders follow, and the final murder seems every bit as inexplicable as the first. The identity of the murderer seems clear, but once again there’s the vexed question of motive.

Christie has a few other tricks up her sleeve as well. What’s particularly impressive is that even when we know she’s misleading us it doesn’t help us. In several cases we know that what really happened is not what appeared to happen but that just increases our difficulties since it opens up new possibilities that lead us down more blind alleys. She lays more false scents and we follow them, thinking that now we’re on the right track. Christie’s plotting in this novel presents us with cunningly interlocked puzzles.

Poirot firmly believes that a theory is worthless unless it fits all the facts. In this case he finds himself faced with facts that are simply impossible. And yet they are unquestionably facts.

Shoes and buckles do indeed play a part, as do stockings, and ladies’ clothing in general. Poirot is a man who takes a certain aesthetic interest in ladies’ clothing. In this adventure those shoes pose some problems for him.

The time at which the book was written, with Europe on the brink of war and Britain likely to be facing a struggle for existence, clearly had an impact on Christie. The tone is fairly dark. High finance, politics and espionage form the background to the novel. These factors also present Poirot with some ethical dilemmas. If Britain’s survival is at stake how important is the life of an obscure dentist? To Poirot the storm clouds gathering over Europe only make it more important to take a stand for the principle that the lives of obscure dentists do matter. If Britain is worth saving it is because in Britain the lives of unimportant people are in fact very important. And yet he has to admit that there is in this instance a powerful counter-argument.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is Agatha Christie at the top of her game, demonstrating not just her mastery of plotting but also her ability to write a novel that succeeds admirably as a detective story whilst also offering just a little bit more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Enchantress of Venus

Leigh Brackett’s 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus introduced her most famous series character, Eric John Stark. It’s a fairly typical sword-and-planet adventure but it’s a well-crafted example of the breed. It appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in 1949.

Eric John Stark is both a barbarian and a civilised man. He comes from the savage world of Mercury but he has picked up most of the arts of civilisation living on Earth. The barbarian spirit is however still very strong within him. He’s a fairly typical hero of the sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet type. He is possessed of enormous physical strength, he is brave, virile and resourceful. He is quick-tempered and can be impulsive but he is gentle towards women. Unless of course they turn out to be beautiful but evil and dangerous women and of course this story just happens to feature such a woman.

The setting is Venus. Leigh Brackett’s Venus is a world that never sees the sun, a semi-barbaric world of clouds and mists. In this novella the specific setting is even stranger. The Red Sea is not an ordinary sea. It is not a liquid but a gaseous sea, composed of a gas so heavy and so dense that ships can sail upon it. It also differs from ordinary seas in that although moving through it is not unlike swimming you can speak and breathe even at the bottom of the sea.

The Venusians who live in the region of the Red Sea are pale and blonde and at best semi-civilised. Like all of Brackett’s Martians and Venusians they are very close to being human, but with a few subtle differences. The women are attractive but have the disconcerting habit of always being naked from the waist up (this is a story written for the pulps so there has to be some sexual titillation factor).

After ship’s captain Malthor tries to kill him for no apparent reason Stark ends up in a city on a gulf in the Red Sea, a city renowned for piracy and slavery and assorted debaucheries but it is now a city under the shadow of a much more serious malevolent influence. The evil of the Lhari. They are a different race and there are only a handful left but they dominate city and their potential for evil is vast. They are breathtakingly cruel and obsessed with their own imminent demise which they intend to avoid by any means no matter how ruthless. And there is a secret that may allow them not merely to survive but to dominate the whole planet. Stark will have to stop them and in any case he has his own personal grievance against them.

Two women will play important parts in this story. Zareth is Malthor’s daughter, a gentle girl who has stoically endured repeated whippings from her father but who now sees in Stark a chance to escape. And perhaps a chance for love. She is timid and frightened but she has an unexpected inner strength and courage. Varra is a whole different ball game. Even by the standards of the Lhari she is dangerous. She tells Stark that he is the first real man she has encountered in a very long time and she is obviously the sort of woman who is very interested indeed in real men.

The secret mentioned earlier lies at the bottom of the Red Sea, in a ruined city built by yet another race.

This is a novella so there’s not much scope for complex plotting but it’s a decent enough story, although perhaps not quite as dazzlingly imaginative as some of Brackett’s other tales from this period of her career. This is more a fairly routine sword-and-planet adventure, but executed very competently.

There’s a genuine sense of evil, and of decadence. There’s also a decidedly bleak and tragic edge to the tale.

The settings are the most impressive part of this story. Brackett was very good at creating worlds that were clearly alien whilst still seeming reasonably plausible.

There isn’t a great deal of depth to Stark but he’s an effective action hero. The two women, Varra and Zareth, are more interesting.

Enchantress of Venus is enjoyable and fairly stylish pulp fiction. Recommended.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Death by Request

Death by Request was the only detective novel to be written by husband-and-wife team Romilly and Katherine John. Romilly John was the son of the painter Augustus John. The novel appeared in 1933.

The setting is an English country house owned by a certain Matthew Barry, a wealthy man in late middle age with a passion for Greek literature. Matthew’s son Edward is a harmless rather sickly and rather ineffectual young man who spends much of his time in pursuit of the local lepidoptera (which will play an important part in the plot). Matthew’s old friend, the Reverend John Colchester (who narrates the tale), is one of the assortment of guests that you’d expect to find in a country house murder mystery. There’s a blustering and foolish old colonel, a beautiful young widow of slightly doubtful moral reputation, there’s the handsome rake Lord Malvern, there’s Edward’s fiancée Judith Grant and there’s Phyllis Winter, a somewhat hysterical 17-year-old girl.

Of course one of these people is about to be murdered and the others will all be suspects. There is another important suspect, the butler Frampton. Did the butler do it? The police certainly think it’s possible. Frampton is after all a socialist.

The murder victim is found dead in his gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an accident but this possibility is soon dismissed. Suicide is considered next, but also rejected. This is murder.

And this is a locked-room murder mystery, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Inspector Lockitt has an abundance of suspects and an abundance of motives to work through. He makes little headway and seems relieved by the arrival of Nicholas Hatton. Whether Hatton is an actual private detective or merely an amateur is uncertain (the latter seems far more likely) but he seems to make more progress than the Inspector. Even he is unable to unravel this mystery and the lovely young widow Mrs Fairfax then tries her hand at detecting, with much greater success.

There are inheritances, there are romantic triangles, there’s blackmail and there’s jealousy. In fact the authors toss in everything but the kitchen sink.

There’s also a twist ending although even in 1933 it was by no means original.

The authors try very hard to maintain a light-hearted and at times almost farcical tone, with mixed success. There are a few amusing moments but the wit is rather laboured.

The locked-room puzzle itself is moderately clever but if you’re expecting the ingenuity and outlandishness of a John Dickson Carr you’re going to be disappointed. The twist ending is reasonably successful.

There are some problems. The pacing is a little slow, with a tendency to over-explain and over-complicate things. It’s the sort of fault you might expect in a first novel. There are plenty of possible motives but none of them seem truly convincing. The more successful writers of golden age detective fiction tried to make the motivations of their killers at least vaguely psychologically convincing. We should feel that the killer is someone who, once the motive is explained, might really have been tempted to commit murder. In this case the authors don’t quite succeed in selling us on the motives. It’s a pity because the plot does show some genuine cleverness.

For a first novel Death by Request shows some promise but presumably it failed to excite the reading public and it marked both the beginning and the end of their endeavours in the genre.

Death by Request is a moderately enjoyable tale if you’re not in an excessively demanding mood. It’s certainly not a must-read. If you can find a copy in the bargain bin or in the library it’s worth picking up but it’s not a book that I’d suggest you go hunting for. I can only give this one a lukewarm recommendation I’m afraid.