Saturday, September 28, 2019
The British Government has been negotiating a loan with an American financier, a Mr Oissel. Oissel is having dinner with the Home Secretary in one of the parliamentary dining rooms. The Home Secretary has to leave his guest for a few minutes to vote in a division and while he’s out of the room a shot is heard. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Robert West, bursts in to find the financier dead. It seems to be suicide - there was no-one else in the room and no-one could have left without being seen. But of course it was not suicide. It was murder.
West finds himself having to play amateur detective. It’s not that Inspector Blackitt of Scotland Yard isn’t competent but the case has political implications and there are things that the Government might prefer the police not to know. In fact the case could provoke a full-scale political crisis, especially given that the Home Secretary’s involvement in the loan may have been at best unwise and indiscreet.
West being a very young MP (just twenty-nine). He would probably be wise not to confide in anybody but he’s in over his head and he’s not at all sure what he should do and he ends up confiding in just about everybody. Including journalists, City financiers, old school chums, left-wing lady Labour MPs and the granddaughter of the dead financier.
Of course it’s important to find the murderer but for West, the Home Secretary and just about everyone else the main focus is on saving the government. In fact nobody really cares about the murder very much at all.
Given Wilkinson’s politics you might be concerned that they would intrude on the story. And you’d be right to be concerned. She treats us to endless lectures on feminism.
It’s interesting that Wilkinson, a firebrand left-wing Labour MP, chose to make her hero a Tory junior MP. And not just a Tory, but a thoroughly decent fellow as well. But in fact he turns out not to be the hero of the story at all - that rôle is filled by a rather embarrassing Mary Sue in the person of a female Labour MP.
The author seems much more interested in the political intrigues than in the murder mystery. As a detective story it’s an abject failure. There’s no actual detecting. The solution is pulled out of a hat. The vital clues are not revealed until the end. The solution is too obvious. Wilkinson fails to provide the other suspects with any viable motives and she fails to provide any convincing red herrings.
As a political thriller it had some potential but that potential is never developed. It gradually loses whatever slight interest it might have had.
The only bright spot is that we get some fascinating details about parliamentary procedure and the architectural oddities of the Houses of Parliament.
Once again the real mystery here is why the British Library chose to include this book in its Classic Crime reprints series. They’ve reprinted a few real gems but they’ve also reissued far too many mediocre titles. The Division Bell Mystery is a mess. Definitely not recommended.
Friday, September 20, 2019
The hero of the series was a young man named Jimmy Christopher, who poses as a fashionable photographer named Carleton Victor but who is in fact Operator #5 of the United States Intelligence Service. He gets some invaluable assistance from a young Irish lad named Tim Donovan (Having the hero assisted by a brave teenaged boy was obviously a good way to appeal to the likely readership of pulps). Jimmy also gets occasional help from his identical twin sister Nan (yes I know that if they’re brother and sister they can’t be identical twins but hey it’s only a story). Jimmy’s dad, an ex-Secret Service man, also pitches in at times.
The Masked Invasion begins with a blackout in New York City but it’s more than a blackout. Everything stops working, including cars and even devices powered by batteries. There have been a series of these blackouts, each longer and covering a larger area than the previous one. There’s some dastardly plan behind all this, probably connected with the sinister Loo Kong (the Yellow Peril theme would be explored more fully in later issues) although Loo Kong is not the mastermind behind it.
The blackouts are caused by a Negative Ray machine invented by a brilliant but eccentric scientist. Obviously the Negative Ray machine will have to be tucked down but in the meantime other precautions must be taken. Fortunately only petrol engines are affected by the ray so the U.S. Government takes immediate steps to have powerful diesel-engined cars built. And diesel-engined aircraft, and even a couple of diesel-engined blimps. There’s only a cursory attempt to explain the Negative Ray machine - something to do with capturing and magnifying cosmic rays - but there’s no need for detailed explanations in a pulp story.
As soon as Nan is introduced into the story you just know that she’s going to get herself captured and held as a hostage in order to put pressure on Jimmy. This is pulp fiction and this story follows the pulp conventions to the letter.
Jimmy Christopher is your standard square-jawed action hero, heroic and noble and patriotic. The villains are totally evil and villainous.
As far as the chief villain is concerned there are two choices in this type of tale. His identity can be kept secret until the end, which has advantages from a dramatic point of view. Or his identity can be revealed immediately in which case there’s more opportunity to develop the full flavour of his particular evilness and the motivations which drove him to evil. The second option is probably the wiser choice. In this story, when the villain is unmasked, we can’t help feeling that we have no idea why he chose villainy as a career.
The mastermind has assistants that represent every source of paranoia that could be conceived in 1934 - there’s the wily Asiatic Loo Kong, there are communists, anarchists and even Czarists!
The plot is fast-moving and filled to the brim with action. The central idea is a good one and of course out means the stakes are high. The survival of the nation is in peril. It’s not just the Negative Ray and the Darkness. The conspirators have also employed pirates to seize dozens of ships which are now on their way to the United States filled with a vast army of armed cut-throats, and they’re foreigners to boot.
The style is pure pulp. There are no shades of grey. The armed blimp attack is fun and the body count is off the scale. The violence is plentiful but never graphic. There is of course zero sex. It’s all good clean fun. And it works. There were better science fiction/action pulps (such as Dusty Ayres And His Battle Birds or Dr Yen Sin or Doc Savage) but The Masked Invasion gets the job done with efficiency and energy. Recommended.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Mr Thornton Lyne is a very rich young man. He owns a very lucrative business which he inherited from his father, his own contribution to the business being negligible. He has enjoyed every advantage in life. He fancies himself as a poet although those who have have read his one small published volume of verse are inclined to disagree. He is a poseur. He is also a very unpleasant young man and he has been making himself particularly offensive to one of his female employees, a Miss Odette Rider. She has rejected his advances and since spitefulness is another of his unattractive qualities he is determined to revenge himself upon her. His idea is to engage the well-known private detective Jack Tarling to help him frame Odette for an imaginary crime. Tarling indignantly refuses.
And then Thornton Lyne gets himself murdered. His body is found, minus coat and waistcoat and wearing slippers. Most curiously a bunch of daffodils has been placed on his chest.
Scotland Yard calls on Tarling help in this case because of a curious note, written in Chinese, found on the body. Tarling had been a very successful police detective in Shanghai and he has a Chinese assistant, Ling Chu. Ling Chu is most emphatically not a servant but a colleague and is a formidable detective in his own right.
The evidence all points towards Odette’s guilt but Tarling finds her to be a charming young woman and while nothing will deflect him from the path of duty he finds himself hoping that Odette will prove to be innocent.
The plot has some of the outrageousness you expect from Wallace but in spite of its convolutions the solution is simple and makes sense. As you might expect from Ling Chu’s presence the events of the present day have links to events in the past in China.
In 1920 the idea of the fair-play mystery has not yet been formalised. Insofar as writers played fair with their readers they did so by avoiding impossibilities in the plotting and by providing a puzzle that the detective could plausibly solve based on the clues available to him, clues that were not necessarily revealed to the reader until the ending. In spite of this there is one definite clue that does point very clearly to the identity of the criminal. Unless of course (like me) you manage to miss its significance! There are multiple suspects and they’re all quite plausible. And there is an unbreakable alibi as well.
Of course being a Wallace novel it has more action than the average detective novel.
The golden age of detective fiction had scarcely even begun when The Daffodil Mystery appeared but the idea of a murderer adding some bizarre touch to the victim’s body (in this case the daffodils) was one that would be used quite often by golden age writers, notably John Dickson Carr in the wonderful The Mad Hatter Mystery and Ellery Queen in The Chinese Orange Mystery (and the latter of course has a China connection as well).
Ling Chu is quite an interesting character. He is honest, but sometimes he is honest in a misleading way. He takes care of the investigation of most of the vital physical clues including some very puzzling footprints. He’s not quite an early anticipation of Charlie Chan. He’s a lot more ruthless for one thing - he has his own ideas about the way to interrogate suspects and they’re not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes bad men try to lie to detectives but they don’t lie to Ling Chu.
Tarling also has a certain nostalgia for his earlier career in Shanghai when the rules under which policemen operated were much more flexible. Working for Scotland Yard can be a bit restrictive.
It's perhaps worth pointing out that despite the China connection and the slightly lurid cover this is not by any stretch of the imagination a Yellow Peril novel.
The Daffodil Mystery represents the slightly less outlandish side to Edgar Wallace but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Neutron Star introduces us to the Puppeteers, the alien race that plays such an important part in the Known Space stories. A small spaceship recently came to grief in the vicinity of a neutron star. Something managed to get through the General Products hull to kill the crew. Which is of course impossible. Nothing can penetrate a General Products hull. The Puppeteers (who own General Products) hire Beowulf Shaeffer to make the same trip to the neutron star to find out what happened. In the unlikely event he survives he will be paid a great deal of money.
It’s a story that serves as a good introduction to the Known Space tales. There’s a strong hard science fiction element, there are touches of humour and there’s danger and adventure.
A Relic of the Empire concerns Dr Richard Schultz-Mann who is on a rather inhospitable planet looking for plant from the era of the Slaver Empire which ended billions of years ago. He’s found some and rather odd plants they are. At the moment he has other concerns - space pirates have just arrived on the planet. This is a bad thing, but Dr Mann thinks he may be able to turn it into a good thing. There is one thing that really frightens Dr Mann, but it’s not space pirates. There are some interesting twists in this story.
In At the Core the puppeteers hire Beowulf Shaeffer to plot an experimental spacecraft on an unprecedented voyage to the centre of the galaxy. It’s a publicity stunt. It’s also a voyage almost unimaginably longer than any previous voyage of space exploration by any species. At the core he finds something he would have preferred not to find. It certainly has a dramatic effect on the puppeteeers. It’s an OK story.
In The Soft Weapon a spacefaring couple make an exciting discovery - a stasis box from the time of the Slaver Empire, a billion and a half years ago. Unfortunately a Kzin warcraft is on the scene. The Kzin are hoping the stasis box will contain some kind of super-weapon. What it does contain is pretty startling. A good story.
Flatlander is another extraordinary voyage for Beowulf Shaeffer, in company with a rich man named Elephant. Elephant wants to visit the most peculiar planet in Known Space it seems like a good idea to ask the Outsiders (one of the more bizarre alien races in the Known Space stories). The Outsiders sell information and although their prices are high they have a reputation for scrupulous honesty. The Outsiders provide the necessary information although Beowulf Shaeffer can’t help feeling that it would have been worth paying the extra money the Outsiders asked for one more piece of information - the exact nature of the peculiarity of this particular planet. They set off for the planet anyway and Elephant learns something that Beowulf Shaeffer has alway known. A fairly clever story.
The Ethics of Madness is about a paranoiac. He’s not an actual paranoiac, but a potential one. As long as he gets his meds he’ll be OK but while regular checks by automated doctors might seem a foolproof way of ensuring that his brain chemistry remains stable no invention is ever entirely foolproof. When he does go mad it sets off a vendetta on a truly galactic scale. The twist is not unexpected but it’s still effective and it’s a fine story. And it’s an example of Niven’s interesting perspective on ethics.
The Handicapped is the story of some very peculiar aliens. The Grog are blind and deaf and entirely sedentary and they have no means of communication whatsoever but they have very large brains. Large enough to suggest that they are intelligent, and possibly very intelligent. But it’s impossible to imagine a creature with less use for intelligence. It just doesn’t make sense. Garvey is in the business of providing artificial aids for sentient beings with no hands but the Grog are a real challenge - there seems to be no way of finding out whether they really are sentient or not. Garvey has a strange feeling about these creatures but the truth is even stranger than he could have imagined. Another story involving ethical dilemmas, and a very good one.
Grendel gives Beowulf Shaeffer a chance to play the hero and he’s very unhappy about it. He’s on a spacecraft which is attacked by pirates. An alien is kidnapped. This could have serious repercussions for relations between humans and the aliens in question. In company with another human, a rather adventurous one from Jinx, Shaeffer reluctantly sets out to effect a rescue. He has a theory about how the kidnapping was done. There’s perhaps more emphasis on action rather than hard SF elements in this story but it’s entertaining.
On the whole Neutron Star is old-fashioned high-concept hard SF but with plenty of characteristic Larry Niven touches. Enjoyable stuff. Highly recommended.