Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Christianna Brand's Tour de Force

Tour de Force, published in 1955, is one of the later books of Christianna Brand who was herself one of the later writers of the golden age of the detective story. It features her usual series detective, Inspector Cockrill.

Cockrill is on the wrong side of middle age and a bit on the scruffy side. He’s what you might call a quiet eccentric.

For reasons which even Inspector Cockrill himself could not explain he has signed up for a Conducted Tour with an outfit called Odyssey Tours. It is to be a Mediterranean tour. In fact most of the novel takes place on a mythical island, San Juan el Pirata. It is a gloriously odd and colourful setting that Brand has created. The island is just off the Italian coast but it was occupied in the late 18th century by a notorious Spanish pirate. As a result the inhabitants speak a Spanish-Italian patois that seems to be incomprehensible to both Italian and Spanish speakers. As a further result of its odd history the island is an independent principality. This gives it a certain extra touch of the exotic which is partly what attracts the tourists. The fact that the main industry, indeed the only industry apart from tourism, is smuggling is another reason for its popularity as a tourist destination.

San Juan el Pirata’s status as a sovereign nation will have consequences when murder occurs. The local police have jurisdiction and they have their own distinctive methods, and San Juan el Pirata has its own distinctive criminal justice system.

There are only seven suspects, six of them being members of the Odyssey Tours party and the seventh being the tour guide Fernando. To add a bit of zest, one of the suspects is Inspector Cockrill! This gives Cockrill a very strong incentive to solve the crime. And it is clear that he will have to be the one to solve it. The local police chief is an accomplished smuggler but not a very efficient detective. The San Juan el Pirata police also do not believe in fancy policing techniques, such as fingerprinting or conducting post-mortems. This means that Cockrill will have to solve the puzzle without any assistance at all from forensic science.

At first Cockrill is very puzzled indeed since the other six suspects have alibis provided by Cockrill himself. Every one of them was under his personal observation at the time of the murder. Upon further reflection however he realises that actually all of the alibis are worthless. Any of them could have committed the murder. And there have been some little romantic dalliances on the tour, not to mention a spot of blackmail, so everyone has a motive.

Adding to Cockrill’s difficulties is the fact that the hereditary prince will not let any of the seven leave the island unless he has someone he can hang for the murder. While it’s desirable that the person hanged should be the guilty party this is not essential.

While Tour de Force certainly has a formidable puzzle plot it has a lot of other things going on as well. Mostly the other goings on are comic in nature. Brand has an enormous amount of fun at the expense of tourists and she is quite merciless - she mocks the seasoned travellers just as much as the first-timers. In fact she has fun at the expense of just about everybody -  the inhabitants of San Juan el Pirata, the local police, the island’s hereditary prince, and anybody else who happens to come along. It is mostly fairly good-natured humour.

The seven suspects certainly provide plenty of comic opportunities. There’s the scatter-brained lady novelist, the outrageously homosexual couturier Mr Cecil, the one-armed concert pianist, his elegant wife, the rich but mysterious Miss Trapp and the shy blackmailer Miss Lane. And of course the scruffy slightly eccentric English police inspector.

My theory is that if you’re going to attempt a comic detective novel you’d better make sure you do it very well. Fortunately Miss Brand does do it very well.

As for the plot, this book belongs to a certain sub-genre of the detective novel but to say any more on that point might give a clue to the ending. As to that ending, it makes use of a particular plot device that quite a few golden age writers were attracted by. In my view it’s a device that never actually quite works, the problem being that it stretches credibility beyond breaking point. In this case Miss Brand almost gets away with it by turning its weakness into a strength by using it as a clue as to how the puzzle is finally solved. I still have reservations about this device but this is one of the more successful attempts to pull it off. As you may have noticed I’m being extremely vague about the plot of this one - it’s so clever and twists back on itself in such an ingenious manner that I’m not going to take the slightest risk of spoiling it.

There is one further thing that should be noted about this book. By 1955 the puzzle-plot detective story was falling out of favour with critics and publishers. The golden age detective story was being attacked as being unrealistic and artificial. So how does Christianna Brand respond to this? She gleefully sits down and writes one of the most outrageously unrealistic and artificial of all detective novels! This book does not make one single solitary concession to realism. And to make sure we get the point, she gives it a setting that does not exist and never could exist. San Juan el Pirate is a fantasy setting. Perhaps such places existed once but there was (alas) no place in the world of the mid-20th century for such a fantastic concoction of a setting. This has to be one of the more spectacular examples of an author hurling defiance at small-minded critics. I liked this book anyway, but this aspect of it makes me like it a whole lot more.

Tour de Force is in its own way a totally uncompromising exercise in golden age detective fiction. And it’s immense fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Drowned Queen - The Avengers #6

I’m still on my TV tie-in novel kick. I’ve now moved on to The Avengers (although that doesn’t mean I’m finished with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and my latest such read has been The Drowned Queen, the first of the Avengers novels to feature Tara King. It was published in 1968.

Written by American science fiction author Keith Laumer The Drowned Queen isn’t a complete success but it is nonetheless very enjoyable lightweight fun.

Here’s the link to my review at Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem

Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) is one of the great writers of swashbuckling adventure fiction. He also wrote westerns and science fiction. In his native Italy and throughout Europe and Latin America he was, and indeed still is, immensely popular. He is much less known in the anglophone world and only a small proportion of his vast output has been translated into English. He is best known for his tales of the Black Corsair and the Sandokan cycle. The Tigers of Mompracem is the first of the Sandokan novels (although some would count The Mystery of the Black Jungle as the first). The Tigers of Mompracem was published in serial form in 1883-84 and in book form in 1900.

The Tigers of Mompracem is a pirate tale but this book differs quite radically from most other pirate stories. First of all the action takes place not on the Spanish Main but in the South China Sea. Secondly, while the Sandokan stories tell of an epic struggle between the British and a notorious pirate the British are very much the bad guys. Thirdly, the events recounted in the novel begin in 1849, when the age of sail was giving way to the age of steam. Sandokan’s pirate fleet is hunted by British steam frigates.

Sandokan is a prince of Borneo. He blames the British for the loss of his throne and for the deaths of most of his family. As a result he was forced into a life of piracy. He is a very successful pirate and immensely rich. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure but he can be extremely generous. He inspires fanatical devotion in his followers. He has a sense of honour. It is not quite a European sense of honour but he is a man whose word is his bond.

Sandokan’s greatest enemy is James Brooke, the legendary White Rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was an English adventurer who carved out a kingdom for himself in northern Borneo which he ruled from 1841 to 1868.

Although 19th century adventure writers often had complex and nuanced view on colonialism Salgari was unusual in being absolutely and implacably opposed to colonialism. Sandokan is a sworn enemy of the British but he doesn’t like the Dutch or other Europeans any better, although his closest friend and colleague in piracy is Portuguese adventurer Yanez De Gomera.

Mompracem is Sadokan’s lair, a small island northwest of Borneo.

The Tigers of Mompracem begins with a sea battle that does not go well for Sandokan. His small fleet is sunk by a British steam cruiser. Sandokan is badly wounded and almost drowned and loses consciousness. When he awakes he is in a warm dry bed. He has been found on the beach and is now in the care of British nobleman Lord James Guillonk on the island of Labuan. Guillonk has no idea of the identity of the handsome young Malay although his manners and obvious education make it easy to believe that he is indeed a native prince. When he discovers that this is the bloodthirsty pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, there is clearly going to be trouble. To make that trouble even more certain Sandokan has fallen in love with Guillonk’s beautiful daughter Marianna and Marianna has fallen in love with him.

Somehow Sandokan will have to escape from the island of Labuan and make his way back to Mompracem, he will have to rebuild his pirate fleet and continue his war against the hated British while also finding a way to carry Marianna off from Labuan and marry her. He will find himself hunted on land and at sea and at times all will appear to be lost but Sandokan is not a man who gives up easily.

Sandokan has many virtues. He’s certainly brave. He’s an inspiring leader. I have to say though that he strikes me as a man of exceptionally poor judgment. He is reckless to the point of foolishness. Of course it has to be admitted that in this book Sandokan is a man consumed by love and so perhaps his judgment is usually quite sound. It is also possible that Salgari was trying to create a non-European hero who behaves in a non-European way, being rather fatalistic and inclined to place his faith in his own luck.

In fact Sandokan’s recklessness and fatalism do make him an interesting hero. He veers between insane over-confidence and the depths of despair and these wild swings can occur several times in the course of a single day. He comes to believe that his luck has run out and that this is something he just has to accept but at the same time it never occurs to him to surrender or to stop fighting and a man who won’t surrender is very difficult to destroy.

The British bad guys are stock melodrama villains. Marianna is pretty much a stock melodrama heroine as well, although with a certain feisty streak.

The Tigers of Mompracem is an unusual pirate adventure with an unusual hero. There’s action in abundance, there are exotic settings, there’s jungle adventure as well as adventure on the high seas, there’s an epic love story and I personally find the outrageously melodramatic touches to be a bonus. There’s plenty of fun to be had here. Recommended.

Salgari’s Black Corsair tales (beginning with The Black Corsair) are also worth checking out.

Monday, July 9, 2018

John Vandercook's Murder in Trinidad

John Vandercook (1902-63) was an American author and journalist who, between 1933 and 1959, wrote four murder mysteries featuring his series detective Bertram Lynch. Murder in Trinidad was the first of his detective novels. Rather extraordinarily it seems to have been the subject of no less than three movie adaptations!

The narrator is a young American mediaeval historian named Robert Deane. It is on the steamer from New York to Trinidad that he first notices Englishman Bertram Lynch. He notices him because he is so very ordinary. He is simply too ordinary to be true, and there are one or two very minor indications that Lynch is actually a man who is very far from being ordinary. Lynch is in fact a special investigator for the League of Nations and his area of responsibility is drug trafficking. This is what has brought him to Trinidad. There are, he tells Deane, 120,000 Hindu labourers in Trinidad and opium is a very major problem.

Trinidad was of course at this time still very much part of the British Empire.

Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad was supposed to be very hush-hush but when an attempt is made to kill him just a few hours after his arrival it is obvious that someone at least is aware of his presence on the island. Someone who is not on the side of law and order. Lynch usually works alone but on this occasion, forced to change his plans quickly, he is happy to recruit an amateur assistant and Robert Deane is delighted by be given the opportunity to play at being a detective.

The first half of the book is very much in the thriller mould, in fact somewhat in the outrageous mould of Edgar Wallace. Lynch and Deane have all sorts of adventures in the wilds of the Caroni Swamp. This is an impenetrable mangrove swamp, but it’s not just impenetrable, it’s deadly. One false step and you’re engulfed by the quickmud (like quicksand except worse). The Caroni Swamp is also home to several varieties of extremely deadly snakes. No-one has ever explored this swamp. It cannot even be investigated from the air - the peculiar geography of the area sets up air currents so frightening that no pilot will risk overflying the swamp.

There is a local legend that somewhere in the heart of the Caroni Swamp there is an island and that on the island is an outlaw town that is home to smugglers and was at one time a haunt of pirates. Of course it’s just a story that is told to gullible tourists. Or is it? Bertram Lynch suspects that the legend is true. In fact Lynch and Deane will soon discover that the truth is evert bit as extraordinary as the legend and they will have numerous narrow escapes from death.

This is all jolly good fun if you enjoy dicing with death but there is a crime to be investigated. There is the matter of the opium smuggling but there is also a murder. A murder that took place many years earlier. At least that’s when the first murder occurred. The second murder took place almost at the moment of Lynch’s arrival in Trinidad. And there is a genuine golden age of detection puzzle plot here. Including floor plans!

Deane is an obvious Dr Watson character. Lynch certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes he is a master of disguise. And like Holmes he is intellectually arrogant, except that Lynch makes Holmes seem modest and self-effacing. Deane actually derives a certain amount of amusement from Lynch’s rampant egomania. Lynch is also a very unconventional detective. He operates more like a secret agent than a policeman, and his disregard for the law and for ordinary morality is breath-taking. Lynch considers his job to be so important that he is not obliged to worry about such irritating details. He’s one of the good guys so he’s allowed to break the rules. That’s not to say that he’s an anti-hero but his methods are at times hardly ethical.

Despite being apparently a dull little middle-aged man Lynch is more of an action hero than the average golden age fictional detective. He leaves a trail of mayhem behind him.

Having started out as a thriller and then become a puzzle-plot mystery it reverts to its thriller roots towards the end before the puzzle finally gets solved. Unfortunately the identity of the criminal is terribly obvious. The crucial clue is amusing though.

Trinidad is an interesting enough setting but it’s the Caroni Swamp and the hidden world at the heart of that swamp that are the highlights of the book. The ending offers us yet another bizarre and unusual setting but I won’t spoilt it by saying any more.

Murder in Trinidad is all over the place and I’m not sure I could describe it as being a good book or an entirely successful one but it’s offbeat and it’s fun and it’s worth a look if you don’t mind the fact that it works better as a thriller than as a detective story.

Tomcat's review of the second Bertram Lynch book, Murder in Fiji, at Beneath the Stains of Time makes it sound like it might be a bit more of a puzzle-plot mystery than Murder in Trinidad.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Theodore Roscoe's Blood Ritual

Blood Ritual is a collection of adventure tales by celebrated pulp writer Theodore Roscoe. These stories were originally published in various pulp magazines such as Action Stories and The Danger Trail between 1927 and 1929.

These tales feature either American curio hunter Peter Scarlet or the naturalist Bradshaw. These are stories of adventure in the Mysterious East, in jungles and exotic seaports and the deserts of Arabia and anywhere that fortunes can be made without too much concern for business ethics, or any other kind of ethics.

The stories are quite short and mostly they’re quite simple. They’re like campfire yarns but they always have one twist at the end and it’s usually a good one.

Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992) was an American naval historian and a prolific pulp writer.

In Jungle Joker Peter Scarlet finds his jungle bungalow taken over by a madman. He is subjected to a reign of terror. There seems to be no escape. Not only is this madman armed, he is accompanied by his pet Joker. Joker is a savage orang-utan. Any attempt to free himself of his tormentor would expose Scarlet to certain death at the hands of the enraged ape.

Framed is a bit more interesting. A murder takes place in a bar. Whether there were any actual eye-witnesses is uncertain, although there is certainly a witness who claims to have seen everything. His evidence is enough to send a young man to prison. Peter Scarlet was there, but doesn’t seem to have seen anything. There’s a twist of course, and it’s a moral twist.

Wolves of the Yellow Sea is great fun. It’s a tale of piracy and pigs. A junk with a crew of Malay cut-throats encounters even more bloodthirsty Arab pirates. The pirates are prepared for a desperate fight but they are not prepared for what is in store for them on this junk. A clever, amusing, exciting and witty little tale.

The Phantom Castle of Genghiz Khan concerns a legend of a castle that sank below the waters of a lake, but periodically (so the legend goes) the castle rises for a short while from the lake. To add some spice the legend also tells of a fortune in jewels concealed in the castle. Of course it’s only a legend. Or is it? This is one of those tales that seems like it must involve the supernatural but Roscoe comes up with a remarkably cunning non-supernatural explanation. It’s a tale that offers danger and riches to a man with both courage and greed and it has a nice twist to it. And it’s a wonderfully atmospheric story.

Blood Ritual is a tale of madness, of a man who has spent too much time alone and away from civilisation. And then there is the endless heat, and fever that can be avoided only by large doses of quinine and sometimes the doses are a little too large. If there happens to be a vicious two-handed battle-axe lying about the whole situation can get quite dangerous. Peter Scarlet had been in tight spots before but this time he fears his end has come. A nifty little story.

In Claws of the Night Peter Scarlet has made an extraordinary find in a cave on the shores of the Dead Sea. He has to make certain arrangements with the authorities and will be gone for a couple of days but that’s no problem as the trove will be guarded by a young English engineer named Cameron. He is a man who can be trusted absolutely since he has no vices, except music and that’s hardly a vice that can be exploited. The treasure will be safe. Nothing can go wrong. But of course it does. A pretty decent story.

Sun-Touched concerns two young American engineers with a great fondness for music. They have an unfortunate encounter with three very disreputable fakirs and one of the young Americans suffers an unusual curse. A good and original little story.

In The Idol Breaker both Peter Scarlet and a brutal French sea captain are after a fabulous golden Buddha. The statue resides in a cave and it has a legend attached to it. The meaning of the legend is clear but the details are obscure. Those details are about to become all too clear. It is unwise to offend a Buddha. Another fine story.

In The Brass Goddess Peter Scarlet runs afoul of murderous cut-throats determined to steal a fabulous gem from him. Scarlet is equally determined not to give up the gem. The cut-throats have devised what they consider to be a fool-proof method of torture in order to persuade him. Unfortunately for them they don’t know as much about the local goddesses as Scarlet does. This one has a nice little additional twist at the end. A very good story.

Scarlet wants very much to find a gem known as the Floating Opal and he would also like to know what became of the young English trader John Bourncamp who had this jewel in his possession a few years earlier. In Doom Dungeons the Rajah Ranjit Ji lures Scarlet to his remote mountain castle by suggesting that he can give the American curio-hunter the information he seeks. It is the beginning of an ordeal of terror. Peter Scarlet will also learn that it pays to be nice to snow leopards. This is a sinister tale, and a good one.

The Thirteenth Knife is a story of a quiet Argentinian artist in the Orient, of a bar fight, and of revenge. It is revenge achieved with exquisite style and in an entirely appropriate manner. A very fine story.

Scum of the East is superb. A young American woman is searching for her boyfriend, an engineer who had been employed to open up a tin mine deep in the jungle. He hasn’t been heard from since. She fears that he’s gone native. To find him she’ll need a guide and the only guide with sufficient knowledge of the area is a white man known only as Scum, who has well and truly given in to dissipation. Drink, drugs, women, he’s done it all and now he’s a shambling wreck of what was once a man. Bradshaw and his pal, the Dutch trader Schneider, can’t possibly let the girl go off into the jungle with only Scum as a companion so they decide to tag along.

The jungle is infested with venomous reptiles and tigers but these turn out to be the least  of the hazards the little expedition has to deal with. This is a story that makes you think it’s going to be predictable but Roscoe has some nifty tricks up his sleeve.

This collection is superior grade pulp fiction. Blood Ritual is very highly recommended indeed.

I reviewed another collection of Theodore Roscoe’s pulp stories, The Emperor of Doom, a few years back.