Friday, December 29, 2017

reading highlights of 2017

This year I’m going to do something slightly different. I’m not going to do a “best reads of 2017” list because if I did that it would be a list dominated by the writers who dominate my lists every year. So this time I’m just going to focus on the writers who were my most exciting discoveries of the year and the books that provided my most pleasant surprises.

I’ll start with the crime stuff.

Arthur J. Rees’ The Shrieking Pit, published in 1919, combines some definite gothic touches and a nicely creepy setting and there’s a pretty good plot as well.

Arthur B. Reeve’s The Silent Bullet is a 1911 short story collection and an early example of the scientific detective sub-genre. Maybe the plots aren’t masterpieces of fair-play detection but Reeve’s detective uses some gadgets that are both very cool and scientifically plausible and the scientific ideas are fascinating.

W. Stanley Sykes was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels. HIs 1931 novel The Missing Moneylender by is a real obscurity with a delightfully intricate plot.

Average Jones is a 1911 short story collection by Samuel Hopkins Adams, and what a weird and wonderful (and incredibly entertaining) collection it is.

Now on to thrillers.

Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon is a good solid very enjoyable 1948 spy thriller, a bit light on action but with decent suspense. It’s perhaps at the more literary end of the thriller market.

OK, Edgar Wallace is hardly a new discovery for me but his 1926 thriller The Black Abbot is one of his very best efforts.

And now for science fiction.

Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants is one of the classics of dystopian fiction.

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (from 1960) is witty, clever and immensely entertaining. What happens when an advanced and aggressive alien civilisation encounters medieval English longbowmen? The answer of course is a crushing defeat for the aliens, but the fun doesn’t stop there.

Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns is a collection of his very early space opera stories from the 1920s, and thoroughly enjoyable it is too.

As for adventure stories the highlight of the year was unquestionably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story collection The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. Gerard might not be the smartest officer in Napoleon’s Grand Army but he makes up for it with insane bravery and  absurd over-confidence.

And then there’s The Flying Death by Samuel Hopkins Adams, a totally unclassifiable but extremely entertaining and deeply weird 1908 novel that has a little bit of everything in it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Substitute Face

The Case of the Substitute Face was the twelfth of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. It was written in 1938 and it’s a fine entry in the series. It’s a murder at sea story, something I’m personally extremely fond of.

This one starts in Honolulu. Perry and Della Street have been on holiday. A large part of the action takes place on the ship on their return voyage to San Francisco.

A female passenger, a Mrs Newberry, wants Perry’s help. She tells him a complicated story involving her suspicion that her husband had been guilty of embezzling from his employer, the Products Refining Company. Perry explains that it’s not the sort of case he deals with but then he decides that it could provide some interest after all. It will also provide an opportunity to do a good deed for a charming young lady. Mrs Newberry explains that her main concern is the effect that a scandal would have on her daughter Belle, Belle being the charming young lady. Even Della thinks Belle is delightful, and she’s a bit less inclined than Perry to be dazzled by a pretty smile.

Mason cooks up a rather clever plan. He will try to cut a deal with the Products Refining Company whereby Mr Newberry can stay out of prison by agreeing to return most of the money (the portion he hasn’t spent). It’s all going splendidly until the murder takes place.

As in practically every Perry Mason story the lawyer is already on the scene and well and truly involved before the actual crime takes place. The accused is almost always already Mason’s client.  This is an essential part of the Perry Mason formula. The Perry Mason mysteries can be seen as illustrating Gardner’s view of how a defence would always be conducted in an ideal world, with the defence attorney on the spot to prevent the police and the District Attorney from coercing or tricking the accused into making damaging admissions. Gardner felt very strongly that the system was stacked against the little guy and a large part of this came down to the fact that ordinary people simply do not know their rights under the law. In this case Mason is able to make quite sure that his client says nothing whatever to the police.

This case hinges to a large degree on identity. There are eyewitnesses, they saw the murderer and the victim, but the murder took place on an open deck and at the time the ship was in the middle of a severe storm. The eyewitnesses cannot actual identify either the murderer or the victim. The Deputy District Attorney’s satisfaction with what seems like an open-and-shut case turns to disillusionment as Perry reveals that the case rests on certain major assumptions and those assumptions rest on nothing whatsoever.

The witnesses are interesting. They all saw important things, but not the most important things, and what they didn’t see ends up counting for more than what they did see. And eyewitnesses have to be treated with suspicion. The more certain an eyewitness is, the more likely he is to be wrong. The Perry Mason books are full of nice little observations on the quirks of the legal system, which Gardner slips in without ever giving the impression of lecturing the reader.

As usual Mason doesn’t trouble himself too much with legal ethics, and even indulges in a spot of breaking and entering (much to the dismay of Paul Drake).

At the end of the story Perry Mason is annoyed with himself because he didn’t unravel the mystery earlier even though the clues were obvious and the conclusions to which they pointed were obvious. The reader may end up feeling the same way. It’s the mark of a true master of the puzzle-plot mystery to be able to leave the vital clues right out there in the open in plain sight whilst still being confident of being able to lead the reader up the garden path. And Gardner was certainly one of the masters.

Mason is far from infallible in this story. He is taken by surprise once or twice and he even develops doubts about the outcome of the trial.
The courtroom scenes are fairly brief. Gardner understood that lengthy courtroom scenes can become very tedious so he made sure that when he put Perry Mason in court something startling would happen, something absolutely crucial to the plot, and it would happen without wasting too much time.

The Case of the Substitute Face is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Berkeley Gray’s Conquest Marches On

Conquest Marches On, published in 1939, was the fourth of Berkeley Gray’s Norman Conquest thrillers. Gray was actually the incredibly prolific Edwy Searles Brooks (1889-1965) who had already been churning out potboilers for a couple of decades before creating Norman Conquest. His earlier output comprised mostly short stories including quite a few entries in popular series such as the Sexton Blake series.

Norman Conquest is very much a Simon Templar clone. In fact he’s almost a direct copy. He’s a handsome young adventurer who doesn’t mind relieving villains of their ill-gotten gains but he’s always prepared to fight for the rights of ordinary people victimised by criminals. He’s a virtuous hero, but one prepared to bend the law a little, or even quite a lot. He’s Robin Hood with a dash of the buccaneer about him. He loves adventure for the sake of adventure. He loves cracking whimsical jokes. It’s the formula used with such success by Leslie Charteris in his Saint stories. It’s not just a variation on the formula. It’s the identical formula.

It has to be said that the Norman Conquest books are not in the same league as Charteris’s Saint stories. Charteris had the lightness of touch and the sense of style to make the formula work with every appearance of effortless ease. The Norman Conquest books by contrast seem a little contrived and the author sometimes seems to be trying too hard. He just is quite simply not as good a writer as Charteris.

On the other hand the early Norman Conquest tales do possess a great deal of energy and exuberance, and a fair amount of inventiveness. The best of them, such as Miss Dynamite, are extremely entertaining.

Conquest Marches On opens with the hero finding himself in trouble with the police. He has been accused of interfering with a young woman on a tube train. Of course he did nothing of the sort. In fact the young lady launched a bizarre and entirely unprovoked attack on him. It’s all very odd and Conquest is convinced that there’s something strange and sinister going on, and that means there is likely to be some sort of adventure in the offing.

Conquest has stumbled across a blackmail racket. A blackmail racket on a very large scale indeed. The racket is run by a mysterious figure known only as the Voice.

Every time either the police or Conquest think they’ve tracked down the Voice it turns out to be just another minor hireling. The Voice is always one step ahead of them.

The Voice certainly recognises Conquest as a serious danger and makes several attempts to eliminate him but Norman Conquest is not so easy to kill. And the Voice has made the mistake of threatening Conquest’s lady love and that’s a very foolish thing to do.

There are plenty of narrow escapes, plenty of dastardly schemes to remove our hero from the land of the living, and there’s an abundance of the kinds of things that make the pulp fiction of this era so much fun - secret passageways, hidden rooms, concealed microphones and cameras, ingenious communication devices.

And lots of gadgets. Norman Conquest was one of the first thriller heroes to rely heavily on gadgetry. It does give these thrillers a bit of a comic book feel, a bit of a Dick Tray flavour. Which is no great problem, since the Norman Conquest books are very pulpy, much more pulpy even than Charteris’s Saint stories or the Bulldog Drummond books. This is very much pulp fiction and it would even be fair to describe it as trash fiction, but it’s entertaining trash. Brooks throws in every pulp ingredient he can think of (and he can think of many). Brooks had absolutely zero literary aspirations. He came from the school of writing in which authors were paid by the word and in which success as an author depended on the ability to maintain an enormous output. There’s nothing polished about his work, there’s none of the dazzling style of a Charteris, but in its own very down market way it works well enough.

Conquest Marches On doesn’t quite have the manic energy of Miss Dynamite or Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters but if you accept it for what it is it’s pretty enjoyable. Recommended.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

J. J. Connington’s Mystery at Lynden Sands

Mystery at Lynden Sands, published in 1928, is one of J. J. Connington’s earlier mysteries featuring Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield. Driffield is having a pleasant holiday at the seaside and of course as any fan of mystery fiction knows when a detective decides to take a holiday murder is sure to follow him.

The murder victim is Peter Hay, an amiable and much-loved old man who acts as caretaker at Foxhills, the estate of the Fordingbridge family. Foxhills is not very far from the hotel at Lynden Sands when the Chief Constable has been hoping to enjoy his little vacation. Peter Hay didn’t have an enemy in the world and he apparently died of natural causes but Dr Rafford refuses to sign the death certificate. Those odd marks on the victim’s wrists worry him just a little.

Inspector Armadale is a little uneasy as well, in fact uneasy enough to request the Chief Constable’s personal assistance on the case.

The Fordingbridges are having a drama of their own. Paul Fordingbridge’s nephew Derek hasn’t been heard from in years and it is assumed that he was killed during the war. Now Derek has suddenly turned up. Derek claims to have been wounded during the war, which explains why his face is so disfigured as to be unrecognisable. The wound affected his mouth as well, which explains why his voice is also unrecognisable. His handwriting has changed as well, due to the loss of two fingers. There are no fingerprints on file for Derek so there’s no possibility of identifying him positively in that way. Paul’s sister Jay is however perfectly certain that it is Derek. She is in touch with the spirit world and the spirits assure her that Derek is still among the living.

Then a body is found on Neptune’s Seat, a rock in the sea that is uncovered only at low tide. There are quite a few sets of rather interesting footprints on the beach and they seem likely to turn out to be vital clues.

There are all kinds of dramas going on and they all seem to be connected with the Fordingbridge family. The connections between these dramas are however very unclear. Solving any of the mysteries is going to require the tying together of all these threads. Both Connington as author and Driffield as detective succeed in doing so and doing so with great skill.

This is fairly typical of Connington at his best. The plotting is intricate and very tight. Sir Clinton’s approach to the investigation is uncompromisingly logical and rational. His old friend Squire Wendover is naturally involved, and just as naturally the good-hearted Wendover can’t help seeing the case in purely emotional terms.

Inspector Armadale is an efficient and thorough investigator and entirely professional. Not surprisingly he and Wendover clash since the inspector is not a man to allow emotion to distract from his duty.

Towards the end there’s a definite thriller flavour that starts to creep in. One could almost go so far as to say that there’s a hint of Edgar Wallace. This is a classic puzzle-plot mystery with the emphasis on fair play and on the methodical sifting of clues but the touch of excitement and drama at the climax is welcome nonetheless.

There are a few far-fetched moments, as there always are in golden age mysteries, but Connington has a knack for making them seem perfectly plausible.

Sir Clinton Driffield is perhaps the most ruthless, and is certainly the most unsentimental, of all golden age detectives. He is at his most ruthless in this novel. He has also has a breathtakingly acid tongue. It makes him of the more interesting fictional detectives. Maybe it’s easier to respect him than to love him but he’s unfailingly entertaining.

Mystery at Lynden Sands is immensely enjoyable stuff. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon

Leigh Brackett’s sword-and-planet adventure The Sword of Rhiannon was published in book form in 1953. It had originally been serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949, under the title Sea-Kings of Mars.

Planetary archaeologist Matt Carse is from Earth but has spent most of his life on Mars. Mars is now largely a desert planet but it had a glorious past and was once green and lush.

Carse encounters a thief (he has many friends among the thieves of Mars) who offers him an artifact of stupendous value. It is nothing less than the sword of Rhiannon. Rhiannon is a dim figure from the planet’s distant past, a member of a race known as Quiru. Rhiannon committed some grievous sin and was consigned to a lonely tomb, a tomb that has never been discovered. Although now it appears that a Martian thief has found the tomb.

Carse is excited by the archaeological significance of the find but he is equally excited by the prospect of making a very great deal of money out of the find. The tomb however conceals a terrifying secret and Carse finds himself transported back a million years in time, to a green and verdant Mars. It’s also a very dangerous Mars, for Matt Carse. He is mistaken for a Khond spy which is irritating since he doesn’t even know what a Khond is.  He is condemned to the galleys.

Even worse, he is in the power of the beautiful but deadly Queen of Sark, Ywain.

Something else happened when Carse entered Rhiannon’s tomb. Rhiannon had been imprisoned there for a million years, but Rhiannon is not dead. At least his mind is not dead.

Carse is caught up in the struggle between Sark and the sea kings. The outcome of the struggle hinges on certain terrifying weapons possessed by Sark but Rhiannon had even more formidable weapons and Carse believes he knows how to unlock the power of those weapons. His difficulty will lie in persuading the sea kings to trust him.

There’s action and there’s treachery and betrayal, there are dark secrets that perhaps should have remained secret, and there’s a strange love-hate relationship between Carse and Ywain. She is evil but he cannot bring himself to desire her death. Perhaps it is something else that he desires. She is cruel and ruthless but to some men that can make a woman strangely attractive.

The world of Mars in the distant past is a barbarian world, a world of oared galleys and swords and spears and battles, but mixed with some ultra-high technology that serves the role that magic serves in sword-and-sorcery tales. It’s not quite as interesting and exotic as the worlds Brackett created in some of her other tales of the 1940s. The Mars of her other stories is more interesting as a desert world littered with ruins of ancient civilisations. The Mars of The Sword of Rhiannon is a bit more of a generic heroic fantasy world.

Matt Carse is a slightly ambiguous hero, a man who has in the past been motivated by greed. Now he has found a cause but does he really believe in it or is it simply a matter of survival for him to throw in his lot with the sea kings? Ywain is pretty much your standard beautiful but evil queen (with perhaps just a shade more depth), a type of character that is to be found in countless adventure stories. The cynical and treacherous but clever and resourceful Boghaz, Carse’s reluctant ally, is a much more entertaining personality.

Brackett was a fine prose stylist and her plotting was always skilful. She builds the suspense slowly. We cannot be sure of Carse’s motives and we certain cannot be sure of the motives of Rhiannon.

The climax is fairly exciting as we discover the nature of Rhiannon’s super-weapons and his true motivations.

I reviewed some of Brackett’s excellent earlier sword-and-planet novellas (collected in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories) in an earlier post and Ive also reviewed her 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus.

The Sword of Rhiannon can certainly be unhesitatingly recommended to fans of the genre.