Wednesday, February 28, 2018

John Rhode's Death at Breakfast

Death at Breakfast is 1936 Dr Priestley mystery written by Cecil John Street under his John Rhode pseudonym.

Victor Harleston is a clerk working for an accounting firm. He lives with his half-sister Janet who keeps house for him. On one particular fateful day she brings him his morning up of tea as usual. Half an hour later he sits down to breakfast but seems somewhat unwell. He gets up from the table, stumbles, then collapses. Janet hurries to the nearby surgery of Dr Oldland. By the time the doctor arrives it is clear with Victor is beyond human aid. He dies shortly afterwards. It is also clear to Dr Oldland that Victor has died due to the effects of poison.

Victor was not the most pleasant of men. In fact he was exceedingly unpleasant and remarkably mean about money. Janet is obviously not overly distressed by his death. Janet was the only other person in the house and it soon transpires that she had a very strong motive for murder. To Superintendent Hanslet it seems like a very clear-cut case indeed.

The postmortem however creates difficulties. It’s not consistent with the evidence found at the crime scene.

It’s also odd that Hanslet’s old friend Dr Priestley seems to be interested in the case - usually Hanslet has a great deal of trouble persuading Priestley to become involved.

In the course of their investigation Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn of the Yard uncover evidence of a second murder. There is obviously absolutely no connection between the two crimes. Well, there is one odd link but Hanslet and Waghorn aren’t too concerned. It’s clearly just a coincidence. Dr Priestley however takes a very dim view of coincidences.

As usual Dr Priestley does not find it necessary to leave his comfortable home in Westbourne Terrace in order to visit crime scenes and crawl about on hands and knees looking for cigar ash. He sits in his armchair and gives the case his full intellectual attention. He offers suggestions, which are invariably unexpected but invariably useful. His main contributions however are his penetrating criticisms of the theories that Hanslet and Waghorn construct in order to explain the link between the two crimes. The problem is that these theories do not explain the link at alland and rely on motives which are entirely fanciful, although Hanslet is not always pleased to have these things pointed out to him.

Superintendent Hanslet does not exactly cover himself with glory in this case. His theorising is enthusiastic and imaginative but based on little more than guesswork and wishful thinking. Priestley is as always dispassionate and coolly logical and prefers to wait for actual evidence to accumulate before committing himself to an attempted solution.

On the other hand it has to be admitted that both Hanslet and Waghorn are dogged and thorough and once pointed in the right direction they can be relied upon to find any evidence that is capable of being found.

Rhode is sometimes regarded as a writer more concerned about the how than the who when it comes to mysteries. For those who enjoy that approach this book features an extremely clever and original murder method. But those more interested in whodunits should not be disappointed.

Those with a passion for the history of forensic science will be interested in the material about blood and bloodstains, subjects that were only just beginning to be understood in 1936.

This is golden age detective fiction at its purest. No romance sub-plots, no time wasted on characterisation, just an intricate plot that works like clockwork and a remorselessly logical detective (although despite his devotion to logic I personally find Priestley to be quite entertaining as a character). Death at Breakfast achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs created a number of extraordinarily well thought out imaginary worlds, of which Pellucidar was one of the most interesting. The Pellucidar cycle began with At the Earth’s Core in 1914. The first of the sequels, Pellucidar, followed in 1915. It was published as a four-part serial in All-Story Weekly. It appeared in book form in 1923.

The adventures of David Innes beneath the surface of the Earth seemed to have come to an end at the conclusion of At the Earth’s Core but Innes still has a lot of unfinished business in Pellucidar. Most of all he has to find Dian the Beautiful again.

Pellucidar is not just a world beneath the Earth. It’s an inside out world. The surface of Pellucidar is the inner surface of the hollow Earth. It has its own sun, right at the centre of the Earth. There is of course no horizon since this world’s surface curves upwards.

And, curiously enough, there is no time in Pellucidar. Which is to say that while time obviously passes there as it does elsewhere there is no means of measuring the passage of time. There is no night, just endless eternal day.

Pellucidar is a Stone Age world. There are several intelligent species. The most advanced are the Mahar, winged reptiles who communicate entirely by telepathy, and even they are fairly primitive technologically. The humans of Pellucidar are firmly mired in the Stone Age. There are also several species of both ape-like men and man-like apes.

In At the Earth’s Core David Innes had managed to unite a number of human tribes to establish the Empire of Pellucidar, with himself as emperor. On his return he finds that his empire has collapsed. And his empress, Dian the Beautiful, has disappeared. He does manage to find his old friend Abner Perry and with his help he intends to regain his empress and rebuild his empire.

This book is certainly not lacking in action. There are the narrow escapes from certain death that you expect in any adventure tale but there are also full-scale sea battles. Innes encounters some old enemies and acquires some surprising new allies.

Innes is a pretty standard adventure hero. He’s brave and resourceful and determined and extremely noble. Abner Perry is more interesting. He’s basically a coward but he’s still an extremely useful sidekick and in his own way he’s stubborn and determined.

The various intelligent species of Pellucidar are all quite distinctive with the Mahar being particularly interesting. They’re an odd mixture of cruelty and honour.

This is pure pulp fiction in style but it’s definitely exciting.

Burroughs had a particular gift for world-building. And over the course of his career he created a whole series of fascinatingly different imaginary worlds.

Pellucidar is in some ways very much like prehistoric version of Earth, complete with species extinct on the surface of the Earth for millions of years. In other ways it’s a seriously strange and alien world and Burroughs makes good use of some of its subtly strange qualities. In a world in which there are no stars and the sun is always directly overhead finding your way about can be challenging. If you sail out of sight of land you have no means of navigation whatsoever. You are simply lost, as happens to our hero at one point. The impossibility of measuring time also plays its part in the plot.

Burroughs was one of the masters of pulp adventure fiction and Pellucidar is fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Francis Duncan's Behold a Fair Woman

William Underhill (1918-1988) was an Englishman who wrote quite a bit of detective fiction, including the five Mordecai Tremaine mysteries published between 1947 and 1954 under the pseudonym Francis Duncan. These five books have been reissued in handsome paperback editions by Vintage Books. The last of them was Behold a Fair Woman.

Behold a Fair Woman takes place in the Channel Islands. Amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine is staying with some friends on one of the islands and he’s hoping that his restful holiday is not going to be interrupted by any murders (like most amateur detectives he finds that murder has a way of following him around). Initially it all seems rather idyllic. He meets some interesting acquaintances. For quite a while nothing much happens, except that there are a few small things that make Mordecai Tremaine slightly uneasy. Odd quirks of behaviour on the part of a number of people, and the relationships between various people also seem slightly wrong.

Finally murder is committed. The murderer could have been one of the half a dozen people staying at the Rohane Hotel, or one of several others associated with those people.

The Chief Officer of the island (more or less equivalent to a Chief Constable) is happy to have the assistance of the famous Mordecai Tremaine. There’s an obvious suspect, but maybe just a bit too obvious. There are plenty of other suspects and it’s fairly clear that none of them are being particularly truthful. All of them seem frightened, or anxious. It builds to a violent climax with unexpected results.

There’s plenty here to like. The setting is good although I couldn’t help thinking that the author didn’t really take full advantage of it. Mordecai Tremaine is a likeable detective. He’s a man of somewhat advanced years and apart from criminology he has another unusual hobby - he is passionately fond of romance stories. He’s a nice old fellow who likes nothing better than to see young people find true love.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Tremaine’s interest in human relationships, it’s the relationships between the characters that are the key to the mystery and those relationships are complex and are handled reasonably well.

There are however some weaknesses to this novel. Some of the clues are too obvious. They don’t necessarily reveal too much about the identity of the murderer but they do reveal too much too soon about the background to the murder. More serious is the fact that the detective overlooks some blindingly obvious clues. Apart from being unconvincing this also shook my faith in Mordecai Tremaine a little. I also got the feeling that this wasn’t a matter of deliberately making the detective prone to human weakness but simply a structural fault in the plot. A more skilled writer might have avoided such plotting weaknesses.

There’s also the fact that the crucial discovery in the case is made by accident but it feels contrived. It relies on a character just happening to do something unexpected because the plot requires him to do so.

Mordecai Tremaine doesn’t really do all that much in the way of detecting. Mostly he just stumbles upon things. There’s way too much reliance on overheard conversations, with Tremaine just happening to be in the right spot at the right time so he can overhear things without being seen.

If you’re drawn to golden age detective fiction because you love impossible crimes, locked-room mysteries or unbreakable alibis you might be a bit disappointed by this one. The plot is quite good but what it lacks is the remorseless unravelling of the puzzle by an astute detective with a genius for spotting the significance of vital clues. Tremaine is a rather passive detective who goes for lots of walks whilst waiting for the murderer to make a mistake - he’s not a detective who makes things happen.

By the standards of 1954 this is a fairly old-fashioned book (which to me is a good thing). It adheres to the conventions of the golden age murder mystery. It just doesn’t quite demonstrate the sheer joy in the solving of intricate puzzles that you get in the works of the great masters of the golden age. The puzzle is intricate enough but it’s largely allowed to just work itself out. Mordecai Tremaine’s contribution is mostly limited to explaining the puzzle at the end rather than actively solving it.

On the whole I’m afraid I was somewhat underwhelmed by this book.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gavin Lyall's Midnight Plus One

Midnight Plus One was the third of the successful thrillers written by Englishman Gavin Lyall (1932-2003). It was published in 1965.

Lyall’s first two thrillers had aviation backgrounds. Midnight Plus One stays firmly on the ground but there’s no shortage of action and excitement.

Lewis Cane (the narrator) had been a renowned secret agent for the British in the Second World War, working behind enemy lines in Occupied France. After that he was a spy with the British Secret Intelligence Service. Now he describes himself as a business agent. He solves ticklish business problems. His solutions are never illegal but they do require a certain ethical flexibility. He likes to think of himself as having moral standards. He doesn’t work for criminals and he’s not a hired killer but if someone shoots at him he’ll certainly shoot back.

An old acquaintance, a French lawyer named Merlin, has offered him a lucrative job. All he has to do is to drive a businessman named Maganhard from Brittany to Liechtenstein. It sounds simple but there are complications. It’s quite possible that business rivals may try to stop Maganhard from reaching Liechtenstein. They may try to stop him by killing him. And the police are after Maganhard as well (although Merlin assures him that Maganhard is entirely innocent). Cane can handle himself pretty well but for this job it seems advisable to have a professional gunman/bodyguard along as well. Cane would like to have Bernard or Alain, regarded as the two best gunmen in Europe.  They’re not available but Harvey Lovell is. Lovell is an American and he’s considered to be Europe’s third best gunman. He’s a former member of the US Secret Service so he certainly has had the right training to be a bodyguard and he seems like the ideal man.

Another complication is that Maganhard insists on bringing his secretary along. Helen Jarman is a young, pretty, very upper-class Englishwoman and she regards Cane and Harvey as being little more than glorified gangsters. This happy little party sets off in Maganhard’s Citroën DS. The first signs of trouble had already appeared when they picked up the car. The man from whom they picked it up died rather suddenly, possibly as a result of the three bullet-holes in his body.

It soon becomes apparent that somebody knows about their little excursion to Liechtenstein and that the somebody in question has employed quite a few very nasty and very well-armed thugs to stop them from reaching their destination.

It’s a thrilling chase across western Europe, a chase that leaves an impressive trail of mayhem and dead bodies behind it.

It doesn’t take long for Cane to discover that he has another problem. Harvey Lovell is very good at his job but he drinks a bit. In fact he’s a full-blown alcoholic. Harvey’s problem is that his job as a bodyguard requires him to be prepared to kill people if necessary, and to be prepared to get himself killed to protect his client. He’s OK with the risking his own life part of the deal. He definitely is not lacking in guts. But he’s not quite so OK with the killing people bit. If he drinks enough he can deal with it. When he’s sober he’s very very good at his job. The question is whether he can stay sober.

While this is very much an action thriller it’s also an interesting psychological study of men who live by violence. Harvey has his troubles but Lewis Cane has his own demons to wrestle with as well. The war never did really end for Cane. In the course of this adventure he will be brought face-to-face with unfinished business from the war and he will encounter old Resistance comrades for whom the war also never ended. Lyall combines the action and the psychology with consummate skill. There’s a psychological dimension but also a moral dimension as well. Cane and Harvey are not mere thugs or strong-arm men. Maybe life would be simpler for them if they were but they are what they are and they have to learn to deal with it.

There are some splendid and original action set-pieces, including trench warfare (in 1965) with a vintage Rolls-Royce. There are the expected double-crosses but Lyall throws in some pleasing surprises.

This is an intelligent complex thriller. Lyall was one of the best thriller writers of his generation and Midnight Plus One sees him at the top of his game. Highly recommended.

And definitely check out Lyall's aviation-themed thrillers, The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Constable Guard Thyself!

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet (1887-1969) wrote twenty-two novels under the pseudonym Henry Wade. He was one of the more interesting golden age detective writers and was at times quite innovative. Constable Guard Thyself! appeared in 1934. It was his ninth book and featured his series detective Inspector John Poole.

The book starts with the murder of a policeman. Even more shockingly, a senior policeman is the victim. There is no mystery about the murder at all. Albert Hinde, recently released from prison and a man with a very strong grudge against the victim, had sent a threatening. He was seen in the area and he followed up the letter with a personal confrontation with the victim. There can be absolutely no doubt of Hinde’s guilt.

There can also be absolutely no doubt that Hinde will soon be in custody. His distinctive personal appearance combined with the fact that he has every policeman in the Brodshire Constabulary, and every policeman in all the neighbouring counties, searching for him guarantees that. A shocking crime but hardly a challenging case. The superintendent in charge of the investigation sees no need whatsoever to ask Scotland Yard for help.

But of course it doesn’t turn out to be quite so simple. Albert Hinde cannot possibly elude such a massive manhunt for very long, but somehow he manages to do so. It’s as if he has vanished from the face of the earth. And the superintendent has some tiny niggling doubts. He is also unable to resist the mounting pressure to call in Scotland Yard. Inspector John Poole is despatched by the Yard to lend assistance.

Poole soon discovers that there are quite a few puzzling things about this case. Not just puzzling, but very disturbing. If his suspicions are correct the case is even more shocking than initial appearances suggested. Poole is patient and methodical. His belief is that when you reach a dead end you simply have to start again from the beginning, discarding all preconceptions.

Apart from the delightfully complex and ingenious plot the most interesting thing about this book is that it deals with matters that most English detective writers of the 30s would not have dared to go anywhere near. Poole finds evidence that suggests police misconduct. Not just misconduct by one “bad apple” but possibly involving a number of officers. And not just minor indiscretions but possibly misconduct of a sort that could discredit the entire criminal justice system. In fact Poole finds himself in a very awkward situation - he cannot share some of his suspicions with anybody, not even fellow police officers.

There are also questions of loyalty, and the conflict between loyalty and duty. Wade does not try to pretend that these are easy questions and he teases out the nuances with considerable skill.

Poole is a fairly believable character. He’s a fine detective but he’s not infallible. He’s honest and conscientious but there are times when he feels that he has to pursue a particular course of action even though he’s not entirely confident that it’s the right to do. His strength, in the moral sense, is that he is aware of the potential problems. He always tries to do the morally right thing and he’s also the sort of policeman who instinctively dislikes cutting corners. He’s also very much a believer in respecting the rights of suspects even if it makes his job more difficult.

The relationship between Poole and the local superintendent is quite complex. They both appear to be trying to do the right thing but they don’t always agree as to what the right thing is.

The plot itself is not quite an impossible crime but it does tend in that direction. It’s easy to see how the crime could have been committed, except that the physical evidence does not seem to square with any of the possible explanations.

There’s also a neat unbreakable alibi aspect to the story.

Constable Guard Thyself! is Wade in top form and golden age detective fiction doesn’t get much better than that. Highly recommended.

Wade’s The Hanging Captain, The Duke of York’s Steps, No Friendly Drop and Heir Presumptive are all very much worth reading as well.