Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth was the third of Helen McCloy’s mystery novels. It was first published in 1941. Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American writer who appears to be very highly thought of. I’ve had some very bad experiences with highly thought of crime writers so I approached McCloy with a considerable amount of trepidation.

There are some very worrying signs early on. First off the plot hinges around an imaginary truth serum (derived from scopalamine which is an actual drug sometimes used as a kind of truth serum). McCloy’s idea is that the new derivative is a perfect truth serum - if you take the drug you cannot avoid telling the whole truth. In fact of course no drug is ever going to perform in such a perfect completely predictable way. It’s just a plot device, and a rather silly one in my view.

Secondly, the detective hero is a psychiatrist (a Dr Basil Willing). Mercifully we don’t get a whole lot of silly Freudian psychobabble. We do get some silly psychobabble however.

The chemist who supposedly invents the miracle truth serum is Dr Roger Slater. He knew he was in for trouble when Claudia Bethune paid him a call in his laboratory. And sure enough Claudia steals his new truth serum. Now he’s going to have to go to the party she’s invited him to, and he dreads Claudia’s parties. Claudia’s idea of fun is to pick a person and then psychologically torture that person.

Claudia of course drops truth serum into her guests’ cocktails. She hears some truths she would have been better off not hearing, from her husband and his ex-wife. Also at the party is Peggy Titus (which is odd since she’s not the sort of moral degenerate usually to be found at Claudia’s parties) and Charles Rodney, general manager of the Renfrew Mills, the source of Claudia’s wealth. And of course Roger Slater. The party ends in extreme nastiness, like all of Claudia’s parties.

In the early hours of the following morning Dr Willing, who is staying at a beach house nearby, sees a light in the window of Claudia’s house and goes to investigate. He has almost walked in on a murder. The victim is not quite dead but expires within minutes.

Now we get to some of the odd things about this book. The police initially regard all of Claudia’s house guests as suspects as well as Dr Willing. In fact it is perfectly reasonable for them to suspect Dr Wiling. And then they suddenly lose interest in him as a suspect, for no reason whatsoever.

In fact the police seem to lose interest in the murder altogether. There doesn’t seem to be any actual investigation at all. Dr Willing is conducting his own personal investigation but the indifference of the police is never explained.

The reason for these odd things would appear to be that the author is not interested in the process of investigation. This is a detective story for people who like detective stories that have no detecting in them. The author is only really interested in the motives. Now there’s another odd thing. The suspects agree among themselves to pretend that none of them have motives. Later on they agree among themselves to pretend that all of them have motives. This makes no sense at all. There is no reason why suspects would want to do anything so strange. But the author thought it would be a cool idea. So what we get are characters who behave like characters in a bad detective story because that’s what the author wants them to do.

Finally at the very end McCloy decides some actual evidence is going to be needed. The crucial evidence could be said to be fairly clued except for the fact that the evidence is so outlandish that it really feels like it was pulled out of a hat.

By this stage you might be getting the idea that I didn’t like The Deadly Truth. You’d be right, but it’s only fair to point out that it does have some redeeming qualities. McCloy’s prose does sparkle occasionally and she can be witty and amusing. Unfortunately while such things can be a bonus in a well-plotted detective novel they are not enough on their own. And this is not a well-plotted detective novel. I’d give this one a miss.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Spider Strikes!

The Shadow having proved to be a successful hero for pulp magazine publishers Street and Smith it didn’t take long for their rivals Popular Publications to come up with a similar hero, The Spider. The Spider made his debut in The Spider Strikes! in 1933. At this time pulp magazines devoted to a single character were becoming all the rage. The Spider Strikes! was written by Canadian R.T.M. Scott (1882-1966) and was destined to be the first of the 118 Spider novel-length adventures. Scott also wrote the second Spider novel after which other writers took over (and the adventures would apparently get more outlandish).

The Spider is Richard Wentworth, a seemingly very wealthy young man with all the right social connections. His hobby, or rather his obsession, is fighting crime. In this first instalment he is on an ocean liner looking for a mysterious super-criminal. He takes time off from this hunt to deal with a card sharp who has ruined an otherwise decent man named Parsons who has a weakness for gambling. Wentworth has limited sympathy for Parsons but the man has a wife and family and is apparently kind to dogs. That’s reason enough for Wentworth to step in to retrieve Parsons’ losses. He does this by the simplest of methods - he murders the card sharp and retrieves the thousand dollars he won from Parsons. On the victim’s forehead he leaves a small red ink spider. This is the signature of the notorious Spider, for Richard Wentworth is none other than The Spider himself.

This is the latest of a series of murders carried out by The Spider, mostly in New York. Wentworth’s pal, New York Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick, has his suspicions that Wentworth might be The Spider. He has noted that The Spider only kills racketeers, thieves, ruffians and other types who need killing.

On arrival in New York Wentworth continues his search for the mysterious criminal mastermind. At the same time he has to watch out for the New York cops since The Spider is a wanted murderer.

Of course he encounters damsels in distress and femmes fatales and there is no way of telling which is which. Apart from his beloved Nita he has to assume that all women are dangerous. As for the master criminal he is hunting, Wentworth he has no idea what plans that individual has for the future. That he is planning a crime on the grand scale is certain, and it seems equally certain that the crime is likely to cause the deaths of a great many innocent people. The few clues that Wentworth has make that clear.

There are gunfights, fistfights, explosions, diabolical instruments of mass slaughter, kidnappings and fiendish cruelties. Naturally The Spider has to spend quite a bit of his time rescuing females from various decidedly unpleasant fates and naturally the chief villain of the piece attempts to strike at Wentworth through Nita. The body count is prodigious.

That chief villain is the one real weakness in the story. For much of the book he’s too shadowy and mysterious to be felt to be a real threat and the fact that we don’t know anything about his evil plot until very late in the story lessens his menace. The Spider really needs a more colourful and more flamboyant villain with whom to match wits.

The Spider Strikes! does an efficient job of introducing the regular characters and the basic setup. The Spider’s trademarks are the seal with which he leaves his spider mark on his victim’s corpses and his sartorial elegance - he invariably wears evening dress and an opera hat and carries a light cane which is actually a sword stick. The Spider’s garb would apparently become much more flamboyant in the later books. He also makes use of a super-powerful air pistol which is a deadly and silent killing machine.

Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider is assisted by his faithful and extremely useful Hindu manservant Ram Singh, and also by his girlfriend, the beautiful Nita Van Sloan (her faithful Great Dane Apollo also comes in handy).

The Spider is of course a vigilante killer but this first novel is careful to make his killings appear to be, technically at least, killings in self-defence. A vigilante killer hero was no problem but to present his slayings as cold-blooded premeditated murder might have been going a bit too far.

In the interwar years what might be termed righteous rogue heroes were immensely popular among both American and British readers. There were several such heroes featured in American pulps while in Britain reformed criminals like Blackshirt, The Baron and The Saint fulfilled a similar function. You might think the British versions would be less brutal but in fact The Saint could be every bit as ruthless as the most hardboiled American pulp hero, although his ruthlessness was perhaps rather less crude. The British righteous rogues were rather more polished and writers like Leslie Charteris were rather more sophisticated than R.T.M. Scott. The Spider does have some affinities with his British cousins though. Richard Wentworth is not merely a crime-fighting rogue, he is a gentleman rogue. He is not just rich but also decidedly upper-class. In fact much more upper class than The Saint. He is perhaps a much more violent version of John Creasey’s The Toff.

The Spider Strikes! is very very pulpy, extremely violent, fast-paced and generally enjoyable. The Spider himself has not yet established himself as a truly distinctive and colourful pulp hero but the fact that this novel was followed by 117 others suggests that that problem was probably later rectified. The Spider Strikes! is still fun and it’s recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

J.J. Marric's Gideon’s Day

In 1955 John Creasey (1908-73), possibly the most prolific writer in history (with around 600 novels to his credit), wrote Gideon’s Day which was to be the first of his twenty-one Commander George Gideon crime novels. This series, published under the pseudonym J.J. Marric, is widely regarded as being his greatest achievement.

In the first book in the series George Gideon is still a superintendent with the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard (he later rises to the much more exalted rank of Commander). He’s a big man, generally very well liked despite occasional outbursts of temper. Being such a senior officer he doesn’t have much chance to get out on the street and do hands-on investigating. He’s more like a general, marshalling his troops, making sure the right jobs get assigned to the right officers, and making the decisions as to what share of the resources at his disposal should be plotted to each of the many cases currently under investigation.

This is not a traditional puzzle-plot mystery and it is also most definitely not a psychological crime novel. It’s more like a police procedural but with the difference that rather than focus on a single investigation we get to see the C.I.D. dealing with a multitude of cases simultaneously. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day.

There’s a real focus on the seamy and violent side of London life in the 1950s - there are brutal murders, sex maniacs, dope fiends, crooked coppers, vicious assaults and a truly extraordinary mount of misery, squalor and despair. There is a popular theory that British crime fiction in the 50s was deeply affected by postwar pessimism and disillusionment and Gideon’s Day certainly lends support to that theory. At the same time it needs to be stressed that compared to many of the psychological crime novels of the era it does not wallow in the gutter to anywhere near the same extent and we don’t get treated to gruesome descriptions of graphic violence.

There’s also some focus on Gideon’s personal life. He is married with six children but while his marriage is by no means on the rocks it’s clearly not going as well as he’d like it to. He works very long hours and his wife Kate does make a few comments about jut how little time he spends with his family.

This particular day begins with one of Superintendent Gideon’s legendary rages. He has discovered that one of his sergeants has been taking bribes. He also has a series of mail van robberies to deal with and the Yard has so far made no progress at all on that case. Murder was certainly not a daily occurrence in 1950s London but this is a very bad day - an old woman is beaten to death, a child is murdered and there’s another death which Gideon fears may also be a murder. To cap it all off he has a problem with Birdy Merrick who is one of his most valuable informants - the problem being that someone is trying to kill Birdy. That cannot be allowed to happen - if the C.I.D. were to permit an informant to be killed they would soon find that no-one would be willing to provide them with information.

I personally prefer the puzzle-plot detective novels of the interwar years. Gideon’s Day tries very hard to be gritty and realistic and these are not qualities that appeal very much to me. Having said that I have to admit that if you do like this sort of thing then this is a very good book of its type. It’s also worth a look for its glimpses at the mean streets of 1950s Britain. There’s not much in the way of traditional detecting but there’s plenty of police procedural stuff. The most interesting thing about it is that all of Gideon’s successes are due to mistakes on the part of the criminals, which I suspect is pretty much how things are in real life.

While it’s perhaps not quite my cup of tea Gideon's Day offers a fascinating glimpse of day-to-day policing. The structure, with multiple simultaneous plot lines, works well and it’s entertaining. So it’s recommended, especially if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

There was a 1958 John Ford movie based (very very loosely) on the novel. In the mid-60s ITC did a 26-episode television series, Gideon’s Way, based on the novels. The TV series is reasonably faithful to the feel of the novels but with a few small changes - Gideon’s family life is a lot happier in the TV series and he doesn’t succumb to his celebrated rages.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Best of Murray Leinster (Del Rey paperback)

Of all the early masters of science fiction Murray Leinster (1896-1975) is perhaps the most underrated. He published his first science fiction story in 1919 and was still writing well into the 1960s. Del Rey’s paperback The Best of Murray Leinster includes the majority of his most admired and influential stories.

Sidewise in Time is almost certainly the earliest science fiction to deal with alternate universes/multiple universes. And it deals with these subjects in a remarkably ambitious manner, considering that the story dates from 1934.

Something very odd is happening. Viking longboats are sighted off the coast of modern Virginia. A Roman legion is marching through the streets of Joplin, Missouri. A man is killed by a dinosaur in Ohio. Professor Minott is an insignificant professor of mathematics at an insignificant college but he has figured out what is happening. More than that, he predicted it. And he has taken steps to survive. In fact he intends to do much more than survive.

Various parts of the Earth begin to oscillate between various timelines. The oscillations happen several times a day. Will they continue forever? Will things return to normal? Will our universe even survive? Professor Minott isn’t sure but he has a fair idea of the odds and he likes them. A remarkably clever and inventive story.

Proxima Centauri is from 1935. The Adastra is the first starship and after a voyage of seven years it is approaching Proxima Centauri. Hopes are high that an inhabitable planet may be found.  The Adastra is not so much a starship as an entire world. It is a sphere a mile in diameter and it is for all practical purposes entirely self-sufficient. It produces its own food. All water is endlessly recycled. It produces almost limitless energy. It could in theory undertake a voyage lasting hundreds of years, with its crew going through many generations before reaching their destination. This is one of several possible solutions to the difficulties of interstellar travel without exceeding the speed of light and this may well be the first science fiction story to explore this idea.

Leinster also explores the possible downsides. And they’re quite similar to the problems encountered on many of the early oceanic voyages of exploration. After a year or more at sea the crews tended to lose enthusiasm for the whole idea. They started to demand to return home. Disciplinary problems multiplied. Even mutiny was not unknown. And that’s what happens to the Adastra. Not actual mutiny, but an uneasy situation that could easily lead to mutiny.

And the Adastra is about to run into even bigger problems. Those who planned the expedition thought of almost everything, but there was one thing they failed to consider - what if there were inhabited planets orbiting Proxima Centauri but the inhabitants turned out to be unfriendly? What if they turned out to be unfriendly to an extreme degree? It might then turn out to be unfortunate that the Adastra is entirely unarmed.

Proxima Centauri deals with ideas that would later become commonplace in SF but it’s not only surprising to encounter them in 1935, it’s even more surprising to find them explored so cleverly.

The Fourth-dimensional Demonstrator combines humour, whimsy and an offbeat view of a possible time paradox. Pete Davidson had been hoping for a large inheritance from his uncle. All he ended up with was a fourth-dimensional demonstrator. At first it seems to be little more than an amusing toy, until Pete discovers that it can do something extraordinary  after all. It can bring an object forward out of the past. But what if the object already exists in the present?

First Contact deals with a dilemma facing the crew of a starship that has just made the first ever contact with an alien civilisation. And it’s a very tricky dilemma indeed. How can you possibly trust an alien species? And if you can’t trust them, certain very serious consequences logically follow. It’s a provocative and original story.

In The Ethical Equations a very junior officer finds himself having to shoulder an immense and unexpected responsibility. A derelict alien starship is drifting in our solar system, somewhere beyond Jupiter. Although derelict may not be the right word. This very junior officer slowly comes to realise the full significance of the situation. There’s a potential deadly menace but a tricky moral dilemma.

It’s rapidly becoming obvious that the immense and potentially catastrophic problems that contact with aliens would cause was a subject to which Leinster had given considerable thought. He is fascinated by the ethical perplexities which would confront us, the near impossibility of judging the possible intentions of aliens and by various dangers that might not be immediately obvious. Leinster doesn’t seem overly obsessed with scientific or technical details. He is more interested in the psychological and moral ramifications of first contact. And he deals with this subject with originality and intelligence.

Pipeline to Pluto deals with a stowaway, or at least a would-be stowaway, on an unmanned cargo flight to Pluto. It’s cheaper than paying for the fare for a regular spaceliner and they pay good money at the mines on Pluto so it sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong? Not as impressive as the other stories in this collection but it’s OK.

The Power is another first contact story, but a very unconventional one. Some very old letters have been found and they are the means by which the story is told. In the late fifteenth century a student of ritual magick named Carolus believes he has performed an impressive magical operation and has summoned a kind of demon. It is obvious to us that the demon is in fact an alien space traveller. He desires to pass on his knowledge to men and Carolus desires this knowledge but there is a problem. Their cultural backgrounds are simply too different to allow any meaningful communication. Carolus cannot conceive of knowledge in other than occult terms while the alien is patiently trying to teach him to construct high-tech machinery.

No matter how much goodwill there might be on both sides it might prove to be absolutely impossible to communicate with an alien species. There would simply be no intellectual common ground. It’s a great story, the best in the collection so far.

A Logic Named Joe is a remarkably prescient story dating from 1946. A logic is a kind of computer. Every home has one. They provide entertainment and information. All the logics are networked together so that each logic has access to just about every piece of information in existence. One of these logics, which the maintenance man who narrates the story calls Joe, has developed a curious fault. It has developed a kind of self-awareness, and it wants to be even more useful. It wants to offer advice to people. If you want to know how to do something you just have to ask your logic. Unfortunately the logics are now telling people how to do all sorts of things. If you want to know how to commit the perfect murder your logic will tell you. And Joe has managed to defeat the censoring mechanisms that were built in to the system. If Joe cannot be stopped civilisation will collapse. Another very clever and provocative story.

Symbiosis is a war story. The province of Kantolia has been invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Kantolia is defended by about fifteen customs guards and a handful of policemen while the invaders have an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands plus tanks and jet fighters. The situation is hopeless. The invaders don’t have a chance. You see Kantolia does have one defence. It’s a type of what would much later become known as asymmetric warfare. Another solid and original story, written in 1947.

The Strange Case of John Kingman is a very strange case indeed. John Kingman is a patient in a mental hospital. Nobody has taken much notice of him. He is assumed to be incurable. Then a young psychiatrist decides it would be worthwhile to have a close look at the records and he discovers something rather disturbing. John Kingman was admitted to the hospital 162 years ago. Things get more disturbing when the significance of the sketches drawn by the patient finally become apparent. John Kingman knows more about atomic energy than any living scientist. Much more. Not a bad story, and yes this 1948 story is in its own way yet another first contact story.

The Lonely Planet, dating from 1949, is the story of Alyx. Alyx is a creature that lives on the planet of the same name. In fact it is the only living creature on the planet. It covers most of the planet’s surface. Alyx is not quite animal and not quite plant. It has purpose but it lacks intelligence. Or at least it lacked intelligence until it encountered men. Alyx did not realise it was lonely until it encountered other creatures. Alyx wants only companionship. It has no desire to hurt anyone. It cannot even conceive of wanting to hurt anyone. But Alyx has developed intelligence very quickly, intelligence far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. Alyx is therefore a threat.

This story has some resemblances to Stanislaw Lem’s much later masterpiece Solaris. Alyx is not quite a sentient planet, but that’s what it becomes. The Lonely Planet is a remarkably ambitious tale of an encounter with an unimaginably alien intelligence. A superb story.

Keyhole from 1951, explores slightly similar themes to Lonely Planet. Against all the odds living creatures are discovered on the Moon. They seem quite primitive. At first. But not for long. This is another of Leinster’s obsessions - how alien civilisations impact on each other. Once two alien civilisations encounter each other the results are unpredictable and cannot be undone. Another intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

Critical Difference, written in 1956, is a struggle for survival on what seems to be a doomed planet. It’s a frozen planet to begin with but now it’s getting much much colder. Too cold to allow the colonists to survive. Colonial Survey Officer Massy has lots of ideas but every one of them seems to have a fatal flaw. If he can’t come up with an idea that will actually work it’s all over for the inhabitants of Lani III. Not one of the collections’s stronger stories but still quite good.

All in all this is a superb collection. Leinster was a science fiction writer who has clearly been criminally underrated. Very highly recommended.