Sunday, August 26, 2018

Robert J. Hogan's Smoke Wade stories

Robert J. Hogan (1897-1963) was a pulp writer best known for his many stories of G-8 and His Battle Aces, stories which combined espionage and air combat. Hogan wrote many other air combat stories including the Smoke Wade stories which appeared in pulps like Battle Birds and Dare-Devil Aces in the early 30s. Smoke Wade is a cowboy who is now commander of a squadron of SPADs on the Western Front.

Smoke has not only named his SPAD after his favourite horse, he’s had the aircraft painted to resemble the horse as well. Smoke is also an inveterate gambler. He has an uneasy relationship with his commanding officer, Colonel McGill, which is pretty much a pulp fiction cliché. More interestingly he has a slightly tense relationship with his subordinates.

Age of Aces Books have published a couple of collections of the Smoke Wade stories (along with collections of lots of other great aviation pulp stories). They also have some stories to download, including three Smoke Wade tales.

Wager Flight is an early Smoke Wade story, when Wade is still a lieutenant and has just been posted to the squadron. He immediately clashes with the squadron’s top pilot, Brant. Brant is a fine pilot but he’s arrogant and boastful and generally disliked.

Smoke sees an extremely hazardous mission to destroy an ammunition dump as a good opportunity to knock some of the arrogance out of Brant, and win Smoke some money. It’s also a way of attracting the attention of Colonel McGill.

In Framed Wings Smoke has a problem. A vital mission to knock out an enemy howitzer battery hidden in a gorge and heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns is a challenge in itself but Smoke has a problem with his command. He’s been sent an anonymous note accusing him of cowardice.

To make sure of knocking out those howitzers Smoke has had the guns removed from his aircraft so as to allow him to carry more bombs. That doesn’t mean he’s defenceless though - he still has his trusty six-shooter. And that’s all a man needs.

In Aces in Dutch Smoke’s passion for gambling threatens to get him into trouble again, and  then he really lands himself in the soup trying to go after a German observation balloon without any incendiary ammunition. There’s just no way it can be done. Even Smoke’s six-shooter can’t do something like that. But somehow that balloon has to be shot down. It’s important for the war effort, plus he has a bet riding on it!

There’s already a pattern emerging here, with Stetson, a flight commander in Smoke’s squadron, persistently undermining his squadron commander’s authority. Stetson is a good pilot and he’s brave enough but he’s too ambitious and he’s perhaps not quite honourable. Stetson also shares Smoke’s obsession with gambling which causes more tensions. In Wager Flight we saw Wade clashing with the braggart Brant. Hogan clearly understands that while non-stop aerial action is crucial he also needs to add some dramatic tension on the ground to keep his stories interesting.

On the strength of these stories I’m not sure if I’d rush out and buy the Smoke Wade collections. I do like aviation adventure stories but I guess my personal preference is for stories that combine aviation thrills with other things, such as espionage or the supernatural, so I’m drawn more to stuff like Donald Keyhoe’s stories (which are available in several collections from Age of Aces including Strange War and Vanished Legion). But if you’re a fan of straightforward aviation pulps then you might find it worth making the acquaintance of the slow-talking westerner with the pinto SPAD and the six-shooter.

Monday, August 20, 2018

J.J. Connington's The Sweepstake Murders

The Sweepstake Murders is a 1931 Sir Clinton Driffield mystery by J.J. Connington. Connington was a pseudonym of Scottish scientist Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947).

This is a tontine mystery, but it’s a tontine mystery with a twist because it doesn’t start out as a formal tontine. A tontine of course is an arrangement in which a group of people combine to invest in something and the entire proceeds go to the last surviving member, or to those still surviving by a certain date. It’s obviously a perfect setup for a murder mystery.

In this case Squire Wendover, in the course of an evening’s play at bridge, gets roped into joining a syndicate which is to buy nine sweepstakes tickets. In the unlikely event that they win a prize the winnings will be equally shared between the nine members of the syndicate. Two very unlikely events now transpire. Firstly the syndicate wins a great deal of money. And secondly, one of the nine dies before the prize can be collected. There was no specific clause in the agreement to cover such an eventuality. Now there are likely to be legal difficulties with the heirs of the deceased syndicate member. At this point it seems wise to convert the informal agreement into a more or less official tontine. You can file that decision under ideas that seemed like a good idea at the time.

To paraphrase slightly a memorable remark made by M to James Bond, to lose one member of a syndicate might be an accident, to lose two might be a coincidence, but to lose three has to be enemy action. And after the third death Inspector Severn knows he’s dealing with murder. Every single shred of evidence points unequivocally to all three deaths having been accidental but the inspector still knows it’s murder.

The tontine setup naturally suggests that the murderer must be a member of the syndicate, which limits the number of suspects, but there’s another interesting twist here. Several members of the syndicate sold off parts of their share so that there are now a number of possible “shadow” members of the syndicate who of course would also have motives but then there’s a possibility these shadow members aren’t shadowy at all.

The tontine setup also has the advantage of limiting the circle of suspects without limiting them to a single location as in the classic country house murder. And Connington comes up with a fine murder setting in Hell’s Gape, a rather frightening geological curiosity.

Dead men tell no tales, but a dead man’s camera can tell some very interesting tales indeed. And it can tell a tale in intricate detail, if only you know how to extract the information. The photographic evidence is one of the highlights of The Sweepstake Murders. This is not a spoiler - it’s blindingly obvious that the photographic evidence is going to absolutely crucial but while Connington makes no attempt to hide this (in fact he draws attention to it in the most extravagant way) he still manages to keep us guessing as to exactly what it is that is lying there in those photographs waiting to be noticed.

While Sir Clinton Driffield plays an important role in this story for most of the book it’s really Inspector Severn’s case. And Severn approaches the matter in a way that would warm the heart of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French. Severn has very few clues to work with but he has an extraordinarily ability to squeeze every single drop of information out of those clues. In fact he’ll keep returning to the same clue and find that he can give it one more squeeze. If Connington belongs to what critic Julian Symons scornfully described as the Humdrum School of Detective Fiction then The Sweepstakes Murders is hardcore humdrum. If a case can be solved by dogged perseverance in routine police work then Severn can feel confident of success. A successful detective is one who will persevere to the bitter end, knowing that the truth is there somewhere among all the inconsequential details, buried like a needle in a haystack. Going through the entire haystack may be a daunting task but if it has to be done then it has to be done.

Sadly for Inspector Severn all his painstaking work isn’t enough. Sir Clinton Driffield certainly understands the vital importance of the routine legwork but he also has the ability to look at the jigsaw puzzle that has been so painstakingly pieced together and see the pieces that just don’t quite fit, the pieces that seem to be superfluous and the ones that seem to be missing. Often very very small pieces but they all matter.

The solution is dazzlingly complex. There were other writers who possessed the same degree of mastery when it comes to plotting but I don’t think there were any who could actually surpass Connington when he was at the top of his form. The Sweepstake Murders is a bravura performance. Very highly recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight vol 1

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was one of the most interesting of American pulp writers. He had a succession of careers, all of them fascinating.

Initially he joined the Marine Corps and became a pilot but that was cut short a few years later by a plane crash. Then he acted as manager for a couple of pioneer aviators undertaking national publicity tours. One of these aviators was a guy called Lindbergh. That inspired Keyhoe to write a book about Lindbergh, which became a bestseller. Then he became a prolific and very successful writers for the pulps, in a variety of genres. Finally, after the Second World War, he made his most successful career of all out of UFOs. He wrote a bestselling book on the subject, Flying Saucers Are Real, followed by further books and articles and lectures and he became a recognised authority on the subject.

As a pulp writer his most notable achievements were his aviation action adventure stories. What made Keyhoe’s stories particularly interesting is that he combined aerial combat, espionage, science fiction and the supernatural. He not only combined these elements, he did it with consummate skill. Keyhoe wrote a vast number of stories featuring Philip Strange, a First World War fighter pilot and intelligence agent who uses his paranormal skills against enemies both human and inhuman. These stories can be found in several collections, beginning with Strange War. His Vanished Legion stories are just as good.

His other major series character was Richard Knight, a post-war sporting aviator and barnstormer who is actually a U.S. secret agent. Several collections of these stories are now available from Age of Aces Books, beginning with The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight Volume 1. The four novellas in this collection originally appeared in the pulp magazine Flying Aces in 1936 and 1937.

Vultures of the Lost Valley is not only a spy thriller with lots of air combat, it’s also a lost world tale (and lost world stories happen to be one of my favourite genres). It all starts when Richard Knight rescues a pretty girl from a stolen aircraft. She speaks Spanish only but what’s really weird is that she gives the impression that she has never seen an aircraft, or an automobile, before. She seems to have no knowledge of the modern world. She’s also in possession of a famous and fabulously valuable emerald though to have been lost for a century. Benita (that’s the girl’s name) has another problem - there are quite a few people trying to kill her.

Richard Knight can’t help wondering if there’s any significance in the fact that he spotted notorious Japanese master spy Hiroki. He knows there’s definitely something strange going on when the Northrop aircraft in which he and his buddy Doyle are flying is attacked by American fighter planes. The really strange thing is that these American planes don’t exist - only twenty of these new Drake PV-11 fighters have been built and all twenty were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the Drake factory. They may no longer exist but they looked pretty well when they jumped him.

There is of course a dastardly conspiracy behind all this and it’s an immediate national security threat.

This is typical Keyhoe, packed with action and intrigue and with just enough of the weird and inexplicable to add some spice. A very fine story.

It’s very important to read Vultures of the Lost Valley before any of Richard Knight’s other adventures, otherwise you’ll be rather confused about where the beautiful but slightly odd Spanish girl who wants to be a secret agent fits into the picture.

Hell Flies High has a wonderfully macabre opening. Knight and Doyle are flying towards Washington when they encounter a Douglas airliner. This aircraft is an aircraft of death. They then get jumped by a French Morane-Saulnier fighter with Soviet markings, and an Italian Breda. The French fighter and the Italian fighter seem to be trying to shoot down the Douglas airliner, and Knight’s Northrop, and each other! And this is happening within a few miles of Washington.

And things get stranger. The green blood is worrying. Naturally there’s a gigantic conspiracy behind these events but there’s no telling exactly what the nature of the conspiracy might be except that it involves some kind of secret weapon. In fact multiple secret weapons, of horrifying destructiveness. It all leads up to aerial battles in the stratosphere where aircraft attain unimaginable speeds and the air in the pressurised cabins can cook a man and sounds do strange things. Really high altitude flight was still science fiction in 1937 and Keyhoe’s wild speculations about the stratosphere add to the wonderfully bizarre feel of this story.

Hell Flies High is Keyhoe piling on the weird stuff and this is where he’s at his very best. A terrific story.

Death Flies the Equator pits Knight and Doyle against the Four Faces, a vast international criminal organisation that for some reason is taking an extraordinary interest in the development of a new trans-Pacific airline route. It’s not clear why these crime lords would want to stop the air route from being used. And why would they want to steal one of the Clippers, the gigantic flying boats that dominated international air travel in the 1930s.

Knight finds himself working with the Royal Navy on this case. British commercial interests are threatened by the Four Faces. The British are also upset about the disappearance of half a dozen of the seaplanes and they’re even more upset abut the aircrews being turned into zombies.

Knight soon figures out that there’s really no-one (other than Doyle) that he can trust. The Four Faces have agents everywhere. There’s a very high paranoia quotient in this story.

There’s also, as usual, non-stop action and thrills and countless aerial combats. Great stuff.

Falcons from Nowhere has a pretty sensational opening. Richard Knight suddenly blacks out for no good reason and then regains consciousness half an hour later. That would be disturbing at any time but it’s positively alarming when it happens when you’re in flight. Lucky the auto-pilot was engaged!

There's worse to come. There’s a horrible disease that can turn a person to stone but it seems like someone has found a way to inflict this disease instantly and at will. There are also aircraft that can be heard but not seen. And aircraft that just vanish. It’s part of a diabolical criminal conspiracy and Knight suspects that he’s dealing with an old enemy that he thought had been destroyed. It’s vintage Keyhoe. An excellent story, which makes four excellent stories out of four

Keyhoe had a knack for working firmly within the conventions and limitations of pulp fiction but at the same time managing to make his work slightly more interesting than most pulp stories. His heroes were just a little bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes, he put some imagination into his villains and his plots are pleasingly outrageous without becoming merely silly. This is pulp fiction, but it’s A-grade pulp fiction. He was also very good at combining the fast-paced aviation action adventure stuff with the weird fiction stuff.

For my money Keyhoe was one of the most consistently entertaining of pulp writers. His output was vast but the good news is that a goodly proportion of that output has been published in book form in the past few years.

This collection is very highly recommended.

Monday, August 6, 2018

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court was published in 1937 and it starts off in a very gothic fashion. A man named Edward Stevens works in the editorial department of a fairly prestigious publishing house. He takes the train to his cottage at Crispen, not far from Philadelphia. He intends to occupy his time on the train reading a manuscript. The manuscript is by an author who specialises in accounts of forgotten but fascinating murder trials. Stevens has a shock in store for him. The manuscript includes a photograph of murderess Marie d’Aubray who was guillotined in 1861. But Marie d’Aubray is his wife’s name, and the woman in the photograph doesn’t just resemble his wife. She is his wife. There can be no doubt of it. Except that this woman was executed in 1861 and his wife is alive and well in 1929 (when the novel takes place).

Carr had a real affinity for the gothic and he lays it on good and thick in this tale. He gives us ghostly apparitions, a woman who walks through walls, body-snatching, ancient hereditary evils and gruesome scenes in crypts. We never really believe there’s anything supernatural going on (Carr at this stage of his career was not going to transgress such a crucial convention of the genre) but it does succeed in giving us the feeling that something sinister is definitely going on. There might not be any ghosts but there’s certainly been dirty work at the cross-roads.

Stevens’ cottage is not far from the estate of the Despard family. Old Miles Despard (who was actually only middle-aged has recently died) and his considerable fortune will go to his younger brother’s three children Mark, Edith and Ogden. Stevens and Mark Despard are on very friendly terms so Stevens agrees to a very curious request from Mark - to join him in a spot of grave-robbing. All in a good cause.

There is some question mark over the death of Miles. The cup that is known to have contained arsenic is a definite worry. The lady who was seen to visit Miles and then left his room through a non-existent door is also a slight cause for concern.

The fortune left by Miles provides obvious motives. There are however some very strong links to celebrated cases of poisoning that occurred in the past, one in the nineteenth century and one in the seventeenth (incidentally the burning court of the title is a seventeenth-century tribunal that meted out justice to poisoners). Those poisonings seemed to have been motivated by something much more evil than mere hope of monetary gain.

This is John Dickson Carr so of course you’re expecting a locked-room puzzle. Actually you get two impossible crimes, or at least two criminal situations containing impossibilities, including a locked-crypt puzzle!

This is not just a detective story with gothic trappings. While it is a detective story it is also a true gothic novel, with the gothic elements fully integrated into the story and handled with skill and also surprising subtlety. It’s unusual for 1930s Carr in having an American setting. This was an interesting and obviously deliberate choice on his part - he’s giving us a story of murder and evil with roots going back several centuries and with references to seventeenth century books on witchcraft so it would have been an obvious move to set in a decaying castle in England or central Europe but Carr sets it in a decaying seventeenth century mansion in Philadelphia, which gives us a wonderful collision of the gothic and the modern.

Carr delivers some bravura plotting in this novel. So many clues, and so many of them so ambiguous, so much misdirection. This is a novel that does not rely on the impossible crime problem. That’s just another element in a fantastically intricate plot with alibis being set up and then exploded with abandon.

We also get a very unusual detective although you won’t know that until quite late.

And then there’s the ending, and I am most definitely not going to offer even the slightest hints as to its nature. This is an ending that you most emphatically do not want to have spoiled. All I will say is that it’s not only the most controversial ending Carr ever wrote it’s possibly the most controversial ending in golden age crime fiction.

I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about the ending but there’s no question that The Burning Court is an unusual and fascinating novel filled to bursting point with staggering amounts of brilliance. Even if you decide you hate it you won’t forget it.

Once you’ve read the book you might want to check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event. There’s  a lively discussion of that ending in the comments section. But read the book first!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Peter O’Donnell's Modesty Blaise

The 1965 novel Modesty Blaise has a rather interesting history. English writer Peter O’Donnell (1920-2010) created the Modesty Blaise comic strip in 1963. It was wildly successful and appeared regularly for nearly forty years. A Modesty Blaise movie seemed like an obviously good idea. But the choice of director was going to be tricky. The movie would have to be light-hearted, sexy, funny and exciting. Joseph Losey had never made a light-hearted, sexy, funny or exciting movie in his life so naturally he was selected for the job. Not surprisingly the movie was generally regarded as a train wreck and did not set the  box office on fire (although it has its weird charms). But that’s not the end of the story.

Peter O’Donnell had been employed to write the screenplay and was also offered the opportunity to write a novelisation of the film. Very little if anything of O’Donnell’s screenplay made it into the film but he based his novelisation on his original screenplay. The novel appeared in 1965, the year before the film, and was a huge success. O’Donnell would go on to write another ten Modesty Blaise novels as well as a couple of short story collections.

The novel gives us some of Modesty’s backstory. She is of indeterminate ethnicity and indeterminate age. In 1945, aged around twelve, she had been in a Displaced Person’s Camp in the Middle East. A few years later she was running a large and very successful criminal empire with an Englishman named Willie Garvin. Their criminal activities were highly varied but they steered clear of drugs or vice. Jewel and art thefts were a particular speciality. They did however dabble in freelance espionage. At the age of twenty-six, having become extremely rich, she decided to retire. For some odd reason she had always intended to retire to England, which is why she was very careful in her espionage activities not to do anything that might be construed as being unfriendly to the interests of Her Majesty’s Government. She lives in extreme luxury in a London penthouse.

And now Tarrant at the British secret service needs her help. It’s all to do with a sheikh who needs to be buttered up, to the tune of ten million pounds, and he wants the money in precious stones. And Tarrant has very good reason to think than an attempt is going to be made to steal the stones, and by a group that knows its business. Stealing jewels was something that Modesty Blaise used to be very good at so it stands to reason that she’s uniquely qualified to protect jewels from other people with similar skills and similar larcenous intentions.

Tarrant has been a spymaster for a long time and his judgment of people is pretty good. He considers and rejects the idea of blackmailing or coercing Modesty into coöperating. She’ll be more useful if she’s willing and most importantly Tarrant has figured out that she is actually bored in retirement. She has no desire to return to a life of crime but she misses the excitement of that life. Doing jobs for the Secret Service will be the perfect cure for her boredom. And his assessment turns out to be absolutely correct. Modesty Blaise is addicted to danger and excitement.

The first step will be to rescue Willie Garvin, her former partner-in-crime, devoted friend and invaluable lieutenant. He’s currently awaiting execution in a South American gaol. Modesty will definitely have to do something about that. Having done that their assignment is to use their extensive underworld connections to find out how the diamonds are going to be stolen, and then take steps to foil the robbery. In practice this will require them to get deeply involved with the gang behind the heist, and a very dangerous gang it is too.

While the novel adheres fairly closely to the James Bond formula (exotic locations, glamour, wealth, gadgets, an outrageous plot involving an intricate criminal conspiracy, violence, sex and a hint of sadism) Modesty herself is a kind of anti-James Bond. Bond is essentially an Establishment type. He’s an officer and a gentleman. And while he’s prepared to all sorts of things in the line of duty in his private life he’s very much a law-abiding citizen. He also has rather old-fashioned views on most subjects. Modesty is a street urchin made good, she’s an unrepentant criminal and her views on subjects such as sex and marriage would not meet with Bond’s approval. Bond is a professional spy. Modesty is a professional criminal and amateur secret agent. Bond generally obeys orders. Modesty doesn’t actually take orders from Tarrant at all. He did her a favour and she’s repaying the debt but she’s going to do the job her way or not at all. In fact the only thing Modesty has in common with Bond is that they inhabit, broadly speaking, the same genre.

There’s quite a bit of sex in this book but at least it’s not graphic. The violence is rather more confronting, certainly by mid-60s standards. Modesty and Willie kill when they deem it necessary and without any hesitation whatsoever and they certainly don’t believe in giving the bad guys a sporting chance. They are quite exceptionally ruthless. OK, they only ever kill bad guys but they kill a lot of bad guys.

This kind of pulpy spy thriller needs a larger-than-life super-evil villain and Gabriel fulfils that rôle admirably. He’s a criminal genius, a sadist and a fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons.

While there are the obvious affinities with Bond-style spy thrillers this is really a caper story. Gabriel is a villain on a very large scale, in fact on the kind of scale on which Bond villains work, but he is only interested in grand larceny, not world domination. It has to be said that the heist which is the centrepiece of the whole tale is a pretty good one.

One amusing feature is O’Donnell’s obsession with giving us lovingly detailed descriptions of various weapons and associated paraphernalia such as shoulder holsters, and the special harness for Willie’s knives (Willie prefers knives to guns). There are also the gadgets Willie makes for Modesty. He might not have the vast resources of the British Secret Service but he has a real gift for devising deadly little toys for his friend. And on the subject of gadgetry, while Batman has his utility belt Modesty has her utility bra.

Given Modesty Blaise’s you might expect the novel to have a bit of a comic strip feel. It does, up to a point. It’s fast-paced and the emphasis is on action. It’s fairly light-hearted in tone, but with a few darker moments and with copious quantities of violence. Modesty and Willie are likeable enough and despite their comic strip origins they are a little bit more than just cardboard cutout characters.

The only other Modesty Blaise novel I’ve read is Last Day In Limbo which was the eighth book in the series. It appeared in 1976 and while it’s interesting and quite enjoyable it does have a slightly different feel to the first novel. It’s still worth a look.

Modesty Blaise offers high-octane entertainment. Highly recommended.