Wednesday, November 22, 2017

John Rhode’s Death on the Board

John Rhode’s 1937 Dr Priestley mystery Death on the Board (published in the United States as Death Sits on the Board) opens with a bang. Literally. An enormous explosion tears apart the suburban home of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, chairman of the prosperous corporation Hardware Ltd, with fatal results for Sir Andrew.

An event such as this would of course normally be put down to the explosion of a gas main. The blast that destroyed Sir Andrew’s home was however much too powerful to be accounted for in this manner. According to an expert from the Home Office only high explosives could have caused such devastation. But he can offer no explanation as to how or why a fairly ordinary house should be destroyed by high explosives.

Superintendent Hanslet is always anxious to have Dr Priestley’s assistance but the problem is that the somewhat eccentric Priestley is unlikely actually to offer his help unless a case really attracts his interest. Everyday crimes, even everyday murders, are beneath Priestley’s notice. The demise of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall does interest him, although at this stage there is still no certainty that foul play was involved. The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.

The second murder is even more puzzling, and when once again the inquest ends with a verdict of death by misadventure Dr Priestley is moved to make some rather acerbic remarks on the usefulness on inquests. While there is no evidence of murder the circumstances of this death are very puzzling indeed, and as Priestley observes the lack of evidence pointing to murder may well be merely due to the fact that no proper investigation was made and any such evidence is now irretrievably lost. While Priestley is not yet prepared to become actively involved in the case something the crusty scientist is always reluctant to do) he is now most definitely very interested indeed. The fate of the pyjamas worries him a good deal. And this second sudden death involves a fire that behaved like no fire Dr Priestley had ever head of.

Apart from Priestley’s scepticism on the subject of coroner’s juries this novel also points out some other deficiencies in the system of criminal investigation in England in the 1930s. There is a very extraordinary coincidence that no experienced investigator would have overlooked (and Superintendent Hanslet is both very experienced and very competent) but the coincidence goes unnoticed for the simple reason that only one of these suspicious deaths comes to the attention of Scotland Yard.

There will be more deaths. The only connection between them is that the victims are, or rather were, all directors of Hardware Ltd. While in each individual case there are certainly people who would benefit there seems to be no-one who would stand to benefit from all these deaths. And there is still no certainly that all, or even any, of the deaths were murder.

Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) wrote an enormous number of Dr Priestley mysteries as well as a considerable number of other mysteries under other names. He was an author with a particular fondness for unusual, even bizarre, murder methods. This book offers several fine examples. While none of the murders could be described as impossible crimes they are all fiendishly ingenious.

There is certainly a solid whodunit plot here but it’s the howdunit aspect that is most impressive and that’s the aspect of mystery writing at which Street really excelled. It’s significant that Dr Priestley is not a detective. He’s not even an amateur detective really. He approaches crime purely from the dispassionate point of view of a scientist. In most of his cases (there are exceptions in some of the novels where he has a personal stake in the matter) he has little real interest in whether the criminal is brought to justice or not. That’s a problem for the police. As a scientist he finds certain aspects of certain crimes to be interesting as scientific problems or logical puzzles. He also has no interest in accumulating the evidence necessary to secure a conviction. That is most definitely a problem for the police. If he can solve a case to his own satisfaction then he is quite content.

In this case his scientific insights are essential in establishing the fact that these deaths really were murder. He is able to prove that neither suicide nor accident could account for them. As for the identity of the killer, that is something that he arrives at by a rigorous logical analysis. The police like to collect evidence but this is an enthusiasm that Dr Priestley most certainly does not share. Such a process seems to him to be tedious and time-consuming and of no interest, plus it is likely to be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Priestley prefers to do his crime-solving in the comfort of his own home.

Street has often been accused of dullness. His style is admittedly very sparse and rather dry but his plots are wonderfully inventive and his murder methods are so baroque that I fail to see how any detective fiction fan could find his books dull. And once Dr Priestley gets into his laboratory things get quite entertaining. In this case one of his experiments, the one that provides the first vital breakthrough, involves dolls in pyjamas.

Death on the Board is Rhode at his best with a whole series of delightfully inventive but entirely plausible murders. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alistair MacLean's The Golden Rendezvous

Alistair MacLean was well and truly on a roll when he wrote his eighth novel, The Golden Rendezvous, in 1962. It’s fairly typical of his output at this time, with first-person narration, some wry humour and plenty of atmosphere.

In normal circumstances the SS Campari is a fairly happy ship. It’s a kind of tramp steamer, but a very superior type of tramp steamer. It carries both cargo and passengers and the passengers (and the Campari’s passengers are all very rich) enjoy standards of luxury that put the ship in a class of its own. A happy ship normally, but not at this time. The Campari’s latest voyage has been nothing but frustrations and headaches. It all started with a curious event that had nothing whatever to do with the ship. An American scientist suddenly disappeared, taking with him the prototype for a new nuclear weapon. Circumstances suggested that he might have made his escape on board the Campari. A thorough search proved that this was not the case but the search disrupted the ship’s sailing schedule and left the officers and crew decidedly disgruntled.

In fact their troubles have only just begun. A crew member disappears; another is murdered. And worse is to come. Much worse.

The hero, the Campari’s First Officer John Carter, is a typical MacLean hero. He’s tough and determined with a streak of ruthlessness but he’s fallible. He thinks he’s figured out what is going on on board the Campari but while he’s partly correct he’s partly incorrect, and his incorrect inferences prove to be costly.

There’s never any sex in a MacLean thriller and there’s usually not a great deal of romance. MacLean knew his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He was superb at atmosphere and action but love stories were not his forte. The Golden Rendezvous though has a bit more romance than most of his novels, and (by MacLean standards) a reasonably interesting heroine. Susan Beresford is an unlikely heroine and an unlikely love interest for First Officer Carter. She is rich. Very very rich indeed. And very spoilt. Carter dislikes her on sight but in the course of the adventure they seem to be continually thrown together and she turns out to be a young woman with a bit more substance than initial impressions would have suggested. As Carter grows to like her more he finds her even more disturbing. She is not only rich but also exceptionally beautiful.

The plot is rather far-fetched, but that’s no great fault in a thriller. It’s ingenious, and that’s what matters.

Many of MacLean’s best books have nautical themes. He had a very deep feeling for the sea. This was matched by his ability to convey not so much the romance of the sea as the perils and hardships associated with ships and the sea. He loved the sea but knew what it could do to men.
You can practically smell the sea in his maritime thrillers. In a MacLean sea-borne thriller the sea it as much an enemy, and as much a character, as the villain.

Speaking of villains, this book has a full-blown conspiracy that is (unusually for MacLean) almost reminiscent of Ian Fleming. The chief villain is not the larger-than-life character Fleming would have made him. He’s cold and calculating and grimly efficient.

MacLean was not exactly renowned for his skill in characterisation. This time however he does manage to create a few interesting minor characters who could have been very stereotyped standard types but instead they have a a few interesting quirks to them.

And there is of course plenty of action. It starts with a mystery and a sense of foreboding but by the halfway point it’s full-scale mayhem. There’s an impressive body count - by the time the story is finished, very impressive indeed. There’s not just murder, but piracy and other intended crimes that make mere piracy seem almost trivial.

MacLean often included surprisingly elaborate mystery elements in his thrillers. At the very least he always liked to keep at least one surprise up his sleeve. The Golden Rendezvous is no exception although the mystery angle is considerably weaker than in some of his other books.

I wouldn’t put this novel in quite the same league as Night Without End, Ice Station Zebra or Fear is the Key but The Golden Rendezvous offers plenty of thrills, suspense and excitement. Recommended.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Case of the Three Strange Faces

Christopher Bush, an extremely popular writer from the 1920s right through to the late 1960s, has been in the past half century one of the most unjustly forgotten of the golden age masters of detective fiction. All of which is about to change, with Dean Street Press announcing their intention of re-releasing all sixty-three of his Ludovic Travers mysteries. They have already issued the first ten. And the best news of all is that they’re being published as actual books, not just ebooks. The Case of the Three Strange Faces, originally published in 1933, is one of the titles already released.

Even by the standards of the golden age this is an elaborately plotted mystery. The plot twists and turns, and then it twists and turns some more, and then it just keeps on twisting and turning. The plot is so complex that one can’t help wondering if the author is going to succeed in keeping all those balls in the air at the same time. But he manages to do so.

One of the conventions of the golden age detective tale is that the detective hero always somehow seems to be right on the scene when a murder is about to take place. This novel pushes that convention even further - murder is committed in a compartment on a train, and committed while Ludovic Travers is in that very compartment. Unfortunately even detectives need to sleep occasionally, and Travers sleeps through the murder.

And a puzzling murder it is. Or is it two murders? Is it one crime, or two? Whatever the case may be it is clear that someone in the compartment must be the killer, and yet that seems difficult to believe.

The murder occurs on board a train in France but the victim is English so both the Sûreté and Scotland Yard are involved in the investigation. As luck would have it the Yard assigns Travers’ old friend Superintendent George Wharton to the case.

The investigation takes place in both France and England, with the Sûreté and Scotland Yard co-operating closely but having very different ideas about the nature of the murder (or murders).

Mysteries and thrillers set on trains are (to me at least) always great fun and Bush uses the setting skilfully in building up the possible murder methods and not just for atmosphere.

To a purist this might not be quite an impossible crime story or a locked-room mystery but it does have some elements associated with those sub-genres. The crime might not be impossible but there’s no immediately apparent satisfactory explanation for how it was carried out.

There are also doubts about identity, and there are some complex alibis to deal with. It’s always fun when an author of this era throws in one of those wonderful clichés of the genre, things like hitherto unknown poisons and such delights. In this book Bush throws in a whole grab-bag of such goodies. There are times when truly nothing succeeds like excess and this is one of them.

Ludovic Travers and George Wharton (at least in Bush’s 1930s mysteries) comprise one of the few genuine teams in detective fiction. They’re both equally clever detectives and there’s a great deal of mutual respect between them. In this case it’s Wharton who makes the running for most of the story.

Criminals habitually get themselves into trouble by telling lies. Once you start telling lies you have the problem of keeping your lies straight and sooner or later you’ll make a mistake and those lies will convict you. In this tale the police tell just as many lies as the criminals, and they also discover that it can be a dangerous practice. You can find yourself trying to be too clever and you can discover that you’ve painted yourself into a corner. The police of course believe they have every justification for not being entirely truthful but the dangers are still real. In this instance George Wharton gets himself into a very tricky situation indeed.

The Case of the Three Strange Faces is extravagantly plotted but it holds together and it’s a wonderfully gripping story. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Saint vs Scotland Yard

The Saint vs Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror in 1932) is a collection of three novellas featuring Simon Templar, the Saint. The novella was probably the ideal format for stories about The Saint and Leslie Charteris made use of it frequently.

The Saint stories fall into several very distinct phases and this collection still very much belongs to the first phase. Although Simon Templar no longer has his gang he does still have Patricia as an invaluable partner in his adventures. The partnership with Patricia was a little daring for the early 30s since it is crystal clear that she is his live-in lover and that marriage does not figure in their plans for the future.

First up in this collection is The Inland Revenue and it deals with the battle of wits between Templar and the ruthless criminal mastermind known as the Scorpion. The Scorpion’s speciality is blackmail, on a rather spectacular scale. He is slightly unusual among literary diabolical criminal masterminds in that he is essentially a gifted amateur criminal, albeit a very ambitious one. He is also unusual in being something of a lone wolf.

Simon Templar is certainly not afraid of criminals like the Scorpion but in The Inland Revenue Service he has finally encountered an enemy he cannot defeat. He is going to have to pay the very large tax bill with which they have just presented him. Or rather someone is going to have to pay it and Simon is determined that the money is not actually going to come out of his own pocket.

The Scorpion might be an amateur but he proves to be a dangerous and cold-blooded adversary.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal has accepted Templar’s assistance many times in the past but generally with reluctance and a deep sense of foreboding. In this story however he is prepared to accept the Saint’s help willingly and with remarkably good grace.

The Million Pound Day begins with a scream and a terrified man being pursued by a figure who seems to have stepped straight out of the steamy jungles of Darkest Africa. It’s nothing to do with Simon but of course he intervenes and he discovers that he has stumbled upon a gigantic international currency racket. This racket is going to cause untold economic devastation so this is one adventure in which the Saint’s motives are almost entirely pure.

This time he’s up against a much more profession type of villain, one whose methods are so thorough and so devious, and so murderous, that one false step will mean instant death. To Simon Templar of course this makes the whole affair even more appealing.

These first two stories are fairly standard Saint tales, with Simon cheerfully hoodwinking other thieves. The third novella, The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal, is rather different.

In this story Simon Templar is after some diamonds. A rather considerable quantity of them. They don’t belong to Simon, but then technically they don’t belong to the man who is currently in possession of them either. Since they’re already stolen they might as well be benefiting Simon’s bank account rather than someone else’s. Fortunately Simon’s ethics are somewhat flexible on matters such as this.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal would like to find the diamonds as well, and the man who stole them. But mostly he would like, at long last, to find a way to lay the blame for a crime at Simon’s feet and make the charges stick. It has become an obsession.

In this story the long duel between the Saint and Chief Inspector Teal takes a turn that neither the Saint nor Teal could have anticipated and both men are going to be forced to deal with a dramatic change in their relations. The Saint’s life will also reach a crossroads. He will have to think seriously about the future and this is not something he finds easy to do.

Most successful thriller writers find a formula that works and more or less stick to it, and when they create a successful hero that hero tends not to change very much. Leslie Charteris was a bit different in this respect. Over the course of his lengthy literary career the Saint did change. The circumstances of his life changed, and his character evolved somewhat as well. The Saint did something that few thriller heroes do - he got older and wiser, and perhaps just a little sadder. The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal is the first indication that the Saint’s personality might not be set in stone. He always remained recognisably the same character but gradually he became a slightly more mature version of that character. In this story Simon Templar has the first intimations that his life may not continue forever in the exact same manner. It is fascinating to see hints of this in what is still a very early Saint story. Charteris was the master of the light-hearted thriller but there was a touch of subtlety in his writing that one doesn’t quite expect. It’s typical of Charteris that these hints of subtlety never interfere with the fun.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with Charteris’s ability to construct a plot the real attraction is, as always, the sheer joy and reckless bravado with which Simon Templar enters into the battle of wits and the superb lightness of touch of the author. In the early Saint books Charteris would push the jokiness about as far as it could be pushed and then some and while this is a risky approach (which in the hands of a lesser writer could easily become irritating) somehow he always gets away with it. Which is appropriate since the Saint’s own approach to life is one of cheerfully accepting insane risks.

The Saint vs Scotland Yard is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.