Monday, October 21, 2019

Charlie Chan Carries On

Charlie Chan Carries On was the fifth Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933). It was published in 1930.

An elderly American man named Drake is found murdered in an up-market London hotel. Mr Drake had been part of an American around-the-world tour group organised by a Dr Lofton. Circumstances suggest that one of the members of the party must have been the murderer.

It’s a tough case for Chief Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. No-one has a decent alibi and there are several shady characters in the party. A key attached to a watch chain seems likely to be an important clue but discovering just what it is that the key unlocks proves to be a baffling mystery.

With no real evidence there is no way to prevent the tour from continuing but Chief Inspector Duff isn’t giving up. His hunt for the killer will take him to France and Italy and it will take Detective-Sergeant Welby to Calcutta and thence to Yokohoma. And the tour part will leave a trail of corpses behind it.

But what has all this to do with Charlie Chan? Nothing at all. At least, nothing at all until a fateful day in Honolulu (well over halfway through the book) makes this a case for Detective Inspector Chan of the Honolulu Police Department. And a case with an unexpected very personal significance for Charlie. And it now becomes a classic shipboard mystery story. All the possible suspects are on board the ship steaming from Honolulu to San Francisco and Charlie has six days to discover which one is the killer.

Charlie is not sure whether to be pleased or appalled that he will have the assistance of Kashimo on the trip. Kashimo is a young Japanese Honolulu P.D. detective renowned for his ability to bungle the simplest tasks. Charlie tolerates him for two reasons. Firstly, his bungling is largely due to inexperience and excessive zeal. And secondly, for all his faults there is one aspect of police work at which Kashimo excels. When it comes to conducting a search he is very close to being a genius. He can find a clue that no other living policeman could find. And Kashimo will find just such a clue on this voyage.

I’m a huge fan of both shipboard mysteries and murder stories set in exotic locales and this one scores highly on both counts.

Charlie Chan Carries On was famed by Fox in 1931 with Warner Oland as Chan. Unfortunately this is now a lost film. One of the later Sidney Toler Chan films, the excellent Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, was also loosely based on the novel.

Despite their immense popularity in their day the Charlie Chan novels don’t (in my opinion) get as much respect as they deserve. Perhaps Biggers’ premature death in 1933 has something to do with this. Charlie Chan Carries On is not quite as good as The Black Camel but it’s still highly recommended.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, providing another example of Greene’s ability to set his stories in places that were just about to hit the headlines (in 1959 Castro came to power).

Our Man in Havana is a spy story. It is the cynical, humorous and absurd tale of Jim Wormold, not exactly one of the shining lights of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mr Wormold lives in Havana. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is moderately successful but unfortunately he has a daughter. That’s not unfortunate in itself but the daughter, Milly, is at the age at which daughters become very very expensive. Even worse, Milly has now conceived a passion for horses. She must have one. There is simply no way Mr Wormold can afford the upkeep on a horse as well as a daughter.

So it seems like a stroke of good luck when Mr Wormold is approached by Hawthorne. Hawthorne works for MI6 and he’s in the process of setting up an espionage network in Cuba. Hawthorne believe that a vacuum cleaner salesman is the perfect cover for a spy. Mr Wormold knows nothing of the world of espionage and has no interest in politics but the $150 a month plus expenses that Hawthorne offers him interests him quite a bit. So Mr Wormold becomes MI6’s man in Havana.

Initially Wormold is a bit worried by the fact that he nothing about the world of spies and knows nothing about recruiting agents but then he realises that it doesn’t matter. The network of agents he’s supposed to recruit don’t have to actually exist. The information he sends back to London doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to sound convincing. Pretty soon he has a whole network of imaginary agents and he’s sending off detailed reports to London with lots of disturbing information, none of it rel. He’s even sent them drawings of high-tech weaponry at a new top-secret military installation. The fact that these sophisticated weapons look a bit like parts of a vacuum cleaner somehow gets overlooked in all the excitement.

The head of MI6, C, is convinced that Wormold is  the most valuable agent they’ve ever had. The more fanciful his intelligence reports become the more certain C is that they must be true.

Things are going very nicely for Mr Wormold. Until somebody starts trying to kill his agents. Which is very disturbing since those agents don’t actually exist. Fiction is becoming reality.

Graham Greene of course had been a real-life spy for the British. He knew the incompetence and stupidity of MI6 at first hand. He knew that much of the intelligence provided by spies was simply fantasies concocted by the spies. The more intelligence you provide the more likely it is that the intelligence agency for which you work will continue to pay you. The intelligence doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be the sort of thing that the intelligence agency wants to hear.

Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926. After the Second World War, and probably not coincidentally after his stint with MI6, Greene’s politics became steadily more leftist although it’s important to keep in mind that he was an old school leftist with nothing in common with the leftism of today. And while his Catholicisjm seems to recede into the background a little it’s also important to remember that he saw no conflict whatsoever between left-wing politics and Catholicism.

When he wrote this novel Greene seems to have been going through one of his upbeat phases (he was prone to frequent bouts of extreme depression). Wormold is more sympathetic than most Greene protagonists (you can’t really call any of Greene’s protagonists heroes). He’s a timid little man but he’s not a hopeless alcoholic and he hasn’t given in to despair or nihilism. He knows little about raising children but he’s managed to be a reasonably good father. He’s a nice guy. He isn’t very honest but he has no wish to do any harm to anybody. He thinks the espionage stuff is all very silly but if MI6 are foolish enough to pay him money he’ll take it. Even when he gets himself into deep trouble he doesn’t give in to despair. Whether he can extricate himself from the mess might be extremely doubtful but at least he’s going to try.

Despite the fact that Wormold never does any actual spying Our Man in Havana manages to be an enjoyable and exciting spy thriller. It’s also superb satire, and very funny. Greene’s contempt for spies is palpable and as in The Quiet American there’s an awareness of how much harm can be done by bungling intelligence agencies but it’s combined with genuine amusement.

A wonderful book. Very highly recommended.

Monday, October 7, 2019

F. Van Wyck Mason’s The Singapore Exile Murders

The Singapore Exile Murders was the fourteenth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s long-running and very successful series of spy thrillers featuring Hugh North of G-2, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. It appeared in 1939. Van Wyck Mason was a very strong believer in the virtues of exotic settings.

Captain North is already in a tight spot when the book opens. The British flying boat on which he was travelling from Hongkong to Singapore has run into a severe storm, so severe that it is forced down and takes shelter in the lagoon of a tiny uninhabited island. The aircraft is damaged and once the storm has blown itself out the flight to Singapore will be resumed. The danger is past. Or is it? In fact one of the passengers is destined not to reach Singapore alive.

The unexpected stopover gives North a chance to study his fellow passengers and they’re a more than unusually interesting lot. There are hints that some of them may not be quite what they seem. The wealthy Dutch businessman Barentse seems rather anxious about a big deal he is planning and about which he is very close-mouthed. His part-Javanese dancer girlfriend strikes North as am exceptionally jealous and perhaps even dangerous woman. Joan Buckley appears to be a respectable American girl but there are things abut her that just don’t fit. The White Russian Urbaniev might well be, like most White Russians, involved in plots. The haughty middle-aged Lady Helen Twining-Twyffort has her secrets. And muck-raking columnist Irene Walsh seems to be even better at discovering people’s secrets than the professional intelligence officer North, and discovering people’s secrets can be a risky business.

North is on a case, trying to track down a cashiered U.S. Army officer named Melville who has access to very highly classified material. North is intrigued to note that several of his fellow passengers are linked in some way to Melville.

Murder on an aircraft is an idea that was not used as often as you might expect in the interwar years although of course there were a few celebrated detective novels on that theme.

The first half of the book focuses to a large extent on North’s efforts to find the murderer, since it seems a reasonable assumption that the murder of someone linked to Melville is likely to be the key to finding him. North does discover the identity of the killer and finds that his difficulties have only just begun. The book now becomes more of a spy thriller but with plenty of plot twists still left up its sleeves.

North is a thorough professional but he’s also a man who enjoys the good life. By the good life he means high quality liquor and high quality women, both of which he consumes in large quantities. He is therefore by no means disappointed that there are two beautiful women who seem to be very intimately involved in the case. There is the glamorous part-Javanese dancer Madé Sayu, whose talents run to more than dancing. And there is all-American girl Joan Buckley. One of them might be a foreign agent. In fact both might be spies. Or both might be innocent. Fortunately both make charming companions so North doesn’t mind that he has to get to know them better, strictly in the line of duty of course. He also has to bear in mind that beautiful lady spies can potentially be quite deadly.

Naturally, this being 1939, there’s no graphic violence or sex. There is at times though a slightly grimmer atmosphere than you might expect. There’s some action and plenty of suspense.

The political aspects are interesting. The story takes place during the Munich Crisis in 1938. A major war seems imminent and no-one knows how many countries might eventually be drawn in. For an intelligence agent it’s a time of extreme paranoia. There are spies from several different countries mixed up in the Melville business, including Britain and Japan. The United States is of course at peace with all these countries but when it comes to the world of espionage every nation has to be considered a potential enemy. It’s actually the British rather than the Japanese that North is particularly worried by.

Van Wyck Mason’s spy thrillers are rather more serious in tone than most of the spy fiction of the inter-war years. They’re certainly too serious and too realistic to be regarded as pulp fiction. On the other hand they don’t have the literary pretensions of a Graham Greene or an Eric Ambler story. They are actually quite close in feel to John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels (such as Thank You, Mr Moto) although Marquand is a bit more literary and a bit more stylish.

The Singapore Exile Murders is a fine spy thriller. Highly recommended.

You should also check out Mason’s earlier The Budapest Parade Murders and the truly excellent The Branded Spy Murders.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

three more Ellery Queen TV episodes

Over on my Cult TV Lounge blog I’ve posted some remarks on a further three episodes of the truly excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series.

The episodes in question are The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument, The Adventure of the Lover's Leap and The Adventure of Veronica's Veils.

Here’s the link to the post.