Saturday, December 29, 2018

best reads of 2018

These were my favourite reads of 2018. They’re listed by publication date, not in order of merit.

Here’s the list, with links to my reviews.

H. C. Bailey, Mr Fortune Speaking, 1930

J. J.  Connington, The Sweepstake Murders, 1931

Henry Wade, Constable Guard Thyself! 1934

John Dickson Carr, The Burning Court, 1937

C. S. Forester, The Happy Return, 1937

Donald E. Keyhoe, Complete Adventures of Richard Knight vol 1, 1937

John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr Moto, 1937

Rex Stout, Black Orchids, 1942

Christianna Brand, Tour de Force, 1955

Leigh Brackett, The Secret of Sinharat, 1964

Gavin Lyall, Midnight Plus One, 1965

Peter O’Donnell, Modesty Blaise, 1965

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sax Rohmer’s President Fu Manchu

President Fu Manchu was the eighth of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. It appeared in 1936 and it marks an interesting departure for the series. Dr Fu Manchu has now turned his attention to American politics.

The date of publication is significant. The United States was still in the grip of the Great Depression and political instability seemed like a possibility. There had certainly been waves of political instability throughout the world since the Bolshevik Revolution and the Depression had made things even more dangerously unsettled. There were Hollywood movies like Gabriel Over the White House predicting a fascist takeover. Communism was gaining ground in most western countries. So Rohmer’s idea that Fu Manchu might see an opportunity for power was perhaps not quite so far-fetched as it seems today.

A priest who is a popular broadcaster is suddenly cut off in the middle of a broadcast. He was about to tell the American people something terribly important, warn them of some great danger. And now he cannot for the life of him remember what it was. The manuscript for the broadcast has been stolen as well. Federal agents now have the priest under guard in an old tower. Worse is to come - presidential candidate Dr Orwin Prescott has disappeared. That leaves only one viable candidate, Harvey Bragg. Federal Officer 56 knows that  Harvey Bragg is a mere puppet. If he is elected the real power will be in the hands of a sinister man in the shadows and Federal Officer 56 knows the identity of that man in the shadows.

Federal Officer 56 has been given sweeping powers, slightly surprising given that he is not an American. In the current crisis however he has been recognised as the only man who can save the situation. He is cagey about his identity although he claims that his name is Smith. The alert reader who is a keen fan of the Fu Manchu books will have a pretty shrewd idea of the identity of this Englishman named Smith.

Fu Manchu’s plan is even more devious than initial appearances would suggest. It looks like Fu Manchu intends Harvey Bragg to be his puppet but the real plan is more subtle. Its also not just about the presidential election. It has been suggested that just as the Roman Republic would appoint a dictator in times of crisis then the present crisis should be dealt with by electing an American dictator.

Dr Fu Manchu has managed to gain control of a large part of the American underworld and indirectly he has control of significant business interests and a grassroots political movement. Combined with his undeniable genius he should now be unstoppable but there’s a complicating factor. Fu Manchu’s American operation is on a vast scale and lavishly funded but it’s been put together in a hurry and it doesn’t work as smoothly as his previous operations in more familiar territory. Also he is dealing with people who are not the kinds of people he is used to dealing with. Many of them are not Asian and do not share his dream of Asian dominance over the West. They serve him for money or because they have been blackmailed or hypnotised but their loyalty cannot be entirely relied upon. This is an uncomfortable situation for Fu Manchu.

Of course Sir Denis Nayland Smith is in unfamiliar territory as well but he has adapted and he has been fortunate to find a thoroughly reliable lieutenant in the person of Marine Captain Mark Hepburn.

There is of course a mysterious dangerous glamorous woman with a slightly exotic air. In fact there are two such women, and Captain Hepburn has fallen for one of them.

There are some of the features you always expect in a Fu Manchu story. There’s the elaborate secret headquarters with the concealed river entrance. In this case it has lots of other surprises as well. And there are some more unusual features, such as a secondary secret headquarters concealed in a skyscraper.

Rohmer was obviously determined to make this a fresh entry in the series and tries very hard to make the American atmosphere effective. It’s the kind of American atmosphere you get from an imaginative writer who knows America from movies and pulp fiction but that just makes it more fun. The stuff about American politics is mostly fanciful although the 1930s was a time when it seemed like almost anything could happen in politics. Rohmer (probably sensibly) doesn’t really take an overt political position. Fu Manchu’s objective is the same as it has always been - to achieve the dominance of eastern over western civilisation. Gaining control of the U.S. is simply a means to this end.

As always in these books it is obvious that Rohmer admires his villain, Fu Manchu, just as much as he admires his hero, Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Fu Manchu is the ultimate expression of the genius of the East (as Rohmer saw things) while Nayland Smith represents the finest virtues of the West. Their struggle is not a struggle between civilisations and barbarism but a struggle between civilisations. Fu Manchu is ruthless but he believes that ruthlessness in such a worthy cause is not only justified but necessary. He is ruthless, but never dishonourable. And in this story as in quite a few other Fu Manchu shows himself to be capable of noble gestures that would be worthy of any hero.

President Fu Manchu is an intriguing attempt to do something slightly different within the formula Rohmer had already perfected and it succeeds pretty well. Like everything Rohmer wrote it’s vastly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Rolling Bones

Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1939 Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Rolling Bones adheres closely to the formula Gardner had well and truly established. And it works beautifully.

Mason is hired by a young woman named Phyllis Leeds to protect the interests of her Uncle Alden. 72-year-old Alden Leeds made a fortune in the Alaskan goldfields at the beginning of the century and now he seems to be planning to marry. Alden’s relatives are not pleased as the marriage could spell the end of their expectations for hefty inheritances. They are trying to get the old boy committed to an asylum.

As is fairly usual in the Perry Mason novels there’s no question of murder, or any serious crime, until we’re a very long way into the book. There is however a definite puzzle. Or rather there are a number of puzzles. There are several intriguing questions of identity. There’s more than one marriage that is being obstructed. There’s also more than one missing person. And finally there’s the question of the loaded dice.

Of course all this does eventually lead to murder. Which raises those questions of identity again.

The timing of the murder should be straightforward. The apartment house in which the murder took place was under surveillance by the Paul Drake Detective Agency so the times at which various people arrived and left are known with complete certainty. But the timing still turns out to be problematic.

There are two major courtroom scenes. The first, in which Mason is attempting to block the family’s attempts to have Alden locked up in an asylum, is an absolute joy. Mason sets an exceptionally clever and devious trap for the opposing counsel who proceeds to walk right into it in the most eminently satisfying way. The second courtroom scene is perhaps not as amusing but it’s more dramatic.

In a Perry Mason story you expect Perry Mason to cut a few corners as far as legal ethics are concerned. Which is exactly what he does. You also expect the District Attorney’s office to be even less ethical, which is exactly what happens. The only real differences are that when Mason plays fast and loose with either ethics or the law he does so in order to protect the interests of his clients, and he does so with more skill than the D.A.’s office. As usual in Gardner’s novels the message is that if you’re accused of a crime you can’t trust the police or the D.A. to play fair so you’d better hope your lawyer knows all the legal tricks in the book.

This concern over the way that the legal system is stacked against the little guy is present in all the early Perry Mason novels but it’s especially marked in this case. In this story Mason pushes his ethical flexibility to the limit, but he does so because the D.A.’s office utilises outrageously illegal methods in attempting to entrap both his client and Mason himself. And Mason is prepared this time for a showdown on the matter - he’s prepared to put his career on the line to make his point.

Alibis play a major part in this mystery and if you’re a connoisseur of the art of busting unbreakable alibis you’ll be in bliss. Never use lamb chops as part of an alibi in a murder case - they can be treacherous witnesses.

Doubts about identity are a staple of detective fiction but this novel just keeps on adding more twists to the saga. Even Perry Mason has to admit he’s hopelessly confused about the identity of one key player. And every time the matter seems to be about to be resolved Gardner finds that he can extract one more twist from his plot.

Of course any Perry Mason story is going to be neatly plotted but this one is exceptionally strong in that area. There are colourful characters and some fascinating glimpses into the brutal life on the Klondike goldfields. It all adds up to a very entertaining novel indeed. Highly recommended.

The long-running Perry Mason TV series included some remarkably successful adaptations of Perry Mason novels sadly the adaptation of The Case of the Rolling Bones manages to eliminate all the really interesting elements of the book.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Finding of Lot's Wife by Alfred Clark

The Finding of Lot's Wife is a lost world adventure tale. The author was a certain Alfred Clark, of whom I know nothing whatsoever. I am more than a little addicted to lost world stories and this is a rather obscure example of the genre.

While the book was apparently published in 1896 there is some evidence that the events it purports to describe happened somewhat earlier. There is what appears to be a reference to the Crimean War as a contemporary event.

Hal Aylward is wealthy young Englishman who takes it into his head to go off travelling in the Middle East. He persuades his friend Noel Yorke, an artist, to accompany him. They eventually end up in Palestine where they hear a story that intrigues them. There is supposedly a Greek Orthodox monastery built on an inaccessible site in a hidden valley, a monastery that has not been visited by, or even seen by, any outsiders for centuries. The monks are reputed to live to an incredibly advanced age and to have lost the power of speech. They are fed, so the story goes, by ravens. There’s a suggestion that there is some connection between the monastery and the Biblical tale of Lot and his wife fleeing from God’s destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

It’s obviously a tall story but Noel is captivated by it and insists that they set out at once to find the lost monastery of St Lot.

They are deserted by their Arab guides but, suffering considerably from thirst and hunger,  are taken in by a wandering Bedouin tribe, the Beni Azaleh. The tribe has suffered misfortunes of its own. Some rather strange circumstances lead Aylward and Yorke to a remote valley and there, sure enough, is a monastery perched atop a pillar of rock.

This is indeed the monastery of St Lot but the monks are not unusually old nor have they lost the power of speech, nor are they dependent upon ravens for their food. It seems like a fairly ordinary monastery, except for its extreme isolation. The big surprise is that there are two guests already staying at the monastery, an American professor and his daughter (the daughter being disguised as a young boy).

There are however odd things happening at the monastery.Some odd things had also happened among the Beni Azaleh. The sheikh’s son had disappeared, and the sheikh had gone off to search for him, down a narrow defile in the rocks from which no traveler had ever been known to return. The sheikh did return, but at the cost of the loss of his reason. These various strange happenings are connected to the legend mentioned earlier. The two young English travellers will make the same descent that the sheikh had made, with frightening and horrible results.

I’m not sure if I’d call this an explicitly Christian adventure tale but obviously Christianity does play an important rôle. Of course in 1896 a writer would presume that most of his readers would be at least nominal Christians and would be reasonably familiar with Biblical tales, such as the fate of Lot’s wife. I don’t think a reader would actually need to be a Christian to appreciate this story.

There is some action, there’s a minor battle and there’s plenty of danger. The country itself is a bigger danger than any human foes, especially in the Valley of Madness.

The Arabs are treated in an even-handed manner. El Jezzar is certainly a true villain but the young Englishmen will owe their lives to the mullah of the Beni Azaleh who refuses to countenance cold-blooded murder. The story has two heroines, one an American girl and the other a Bedouin girl.

There’s some effective atmosphere in this story. The horrors of thirst, hunger, isolation and madness are palpable.

The Finding of Lot's Wife is perhaps a lost world story for lost world completists like myself but it’s a fairly entertaining book. If you are a lost world fanatic you’ll certainly want to add it to your reading list. Recommended.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch (The Spiral Staircase)

Ethel Lina White’s suspense novel Some Must Watch was published in 1933. In the 40s it was filmed as The Spiral Staircase and subsequent editions of the novel bore that title.

I was quite unimpressed with White’s The Wheel Spins (filmed as The Lady Vanishes) but since I own the Wordsworth edition which includes both novels in a single volume it seemed sensible to give this author another chance.

The heroine, Helen Capel, is employed by an odd family in a very remote house called The Summit. The house, located near the border between England and Wales, has an unfortunate reputation having apparently been the scene of several murders. And now there’s a homicidal maniac roaming the district, strangling young women.

There are things that are even more frightening than stranglers, such as old Lady Warren (who may or may not have shot her first husband). Her middle-aged son Professor Warren seems harmless enough. His unmarried sister seems decidedly strange. And then there’s the Professor’s son and his wife. This is not a marriage made in heaven and the young Mrs Warren has consoled herself with a series of young men. Now she has her eyes on the Professor’s pupil Stephen Rice, currently staying at The Summit. When the young Mrs Warren decides to pursue a young man she does not expect to be rejected but Stephen has made his lack of interest all too obvious.

The other inhabitants of the house are Lady Warren’s new nurse, the formidable and rather unpleasant Nurse Barker, and the two servants, Mr and Mrs Oates. The only regular visitor is the young Welsh doctor, Dr Parry.

The events of the novel take place on a dark and stormy night. As if that’s not enough to isolate the inhabitants of The Summit, on Dr Parry’s advice strict orders have been issued that no-one is to enter or leave the house until morning. This applies especially to the men, who have a duty to protect the women from the strangler. The strangler seems to be moving closer and closer to The Summit with each murder and everyone assumes that his next victim is likely to be one of the women in the house.

This book is very much in the Had I But Known mould. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of foreshadowing, in fact in a suspense story it can be quite a desirable thing, but it’s a technique that  needs to be handled with care and subtlety. White uses it in a particularly clumsy and obvious way and all it really does it to draw attention to her inability to build suspense effectively.

The basic structure is similar to the classic English country house murder mystery, with a small circle of suspects cut off from the outside world, but played for suspense rather than as a fair-play puzzle-plot mystery. While there are clues, and there are red herrings, nobody does any actual detecting and the solution is stumbled upon by accident.

Being a Had I But Known novel there is of course a romance sub-plot.

I’m not surprised that White’s novels were filmed, and filmed very successfully. She was quite good at assembling the ingredients for a fine mystery suspense story. It was her execution that was lacking. Her prose style is clunky, she has no ear for dialogue, she tells us directly what the characters are thinking rather than letting their words and actions tell us, and there’s that heavy-handed foreshadowing. These are all flaws that a good screenwriter could easily correct and the basic stories had plenty of potential in the hands of a really good director. And Alfred Hitchcock (who directed The Lady Vanishes) and Robert Siodmak (who directed The Spiral Staircase) were very very good directors indeed. In fact it’s a peculiarity of the thriller that some of the best movies in that genre have been based on mediocre source novels.

And Some Must Watch definitely qualifies as a mediocre source novel. Hard to recommend this one.