pulp novels, trash fiction, detective stories, adventure tales, spy fiction, etc from the 19th century up to the 1970s
Friday, December 20, 2019
The Andromeda Breakthrough
This sequel picks up at exactly the point at which A for Andromeda leaves off. Unfortunately it’s difficult to say much about the plot of The Andromeda Breakthrough without revealing spoilers for A for Andromeda. Since I have no intention of giving away any spoilers I’m going to be very very vague about the plot.
The premise of A for Andromeda is that a message has been received from deep space. The message comprises instructions for building a computer far in advance of anything known on Earth. Once the computer is built it begins to construct something else - a young woman. Is she human or alien? Is she woman or machine? Can she, or the computer, be trusted? What are their intentions? The British Government is terribly excited since this project seems to offer the opportunity to restore Britain’s place in the world.
To the astonishment of the British Government the whole thing goes horribly wrong. As The Andromeda Breakthrough opens scientist Dr John Fleming is on the run with a strange young woman without any memories.
It’s not just the government that is after them. There’s also a sinister international business cartel and the agents of a small Middle Eastern nation.
While there are definite spy thriller elements to A for Andromeda those elements are much more prominent in the sequel, or at least they are in the early stages of the book. The spy thriller stuff is fairly exciting and there’s plenty of cynicism for spy fiction fans who enjoy that sort of thing.
By the halfway stage the hard science fiction elements have kicked in again. And they do represent a further development of the ideas in the first book - the problems of complete mutual incomprehension involved in contact with an alien civilisation, the near impossibility of knowing whether aliens can be trusted, the danger of actions being misinterpreted due to extreme cultural differences, the sheer alienness of the motivations of alien intelligences. The unusual indirect nature of the contact with the aliens is so very indirect exacerbates the difficulties. These are issues that fascinated many science fiction writers but The Andromeda Breakthrough deals with them in a reasonably thoughtful way. The fact that the aliens never actually appear in the story but act at second hand through human agents and an artificial intelligence adds an original twist.
There’s plenty of ambiguity in this tale. It’s not just the uncertainly about the motivations of the aliens and of their partly human creation. The fully human characters are pretty ambiguous as well. Dr Fleming is paranoid and he’s right to be paranoid but maybe he pushes it too far. He thinks he’s being rational but can’t accept that he’s become emotionally entangled. Professor Dawney, the biochemist given the opportunity to create life, is perhaps naïve and is perhaps inclined to allow her scientific excitement to cloud her judgment. The politicians and businessmen who get mixed up in the affair combine unscrupulousness with breathtaking incompetence, greed and foolishness. There’s enough complexity, both moral and philosophical, to keep things interesting and there’s enough action to keep things entertaining.
While The Andromeda Breakthrough, both as a TV series and as a novelisation, is not as highly regarded as A for Andromeda a case can be made that it’s been somewhat underrated. The TV series was released on DVD but it’s very hard to find these days. The novelisation is quite intriguing. Recommended.
My review of A for Andromeda can be found here.
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Arthur W. Upfield's Bushranger of the Skies
Somewhere in Central Australia Bony is on his way to the McPherson Homestead to deliver a letter to the local police sergeant, a man named Errey. It concerns some odd happenings in the area. While camped about twenty miles from the homestead he sees a dust cloud in the distance. It is obviously a car and since cars and few and far between on this unmade road Bony makes a reasonable guess that it is Sergeant Errey’s car. There’s nothing surprising in any of this. Bony is only mildly surprised when an aircraft appears from the west. He is however very surprised when the aircraft drops a bomb on his camp. He is even more surprised when the aircraft drops two more bombs on Sergeant Errey’s car, reducing it to a blazing wreck. This qualifies as very much more than an odd happening. And Bony is not overly keen on people trying to kill him.
The atmosphere at the McPherson Station is pretty strange. Old McPherson is a crusty character of Scottish extraction. Bony is sure that McPherson has a fair idea of the identity of the pilot of that monoplane but the old man obviously has some secrets he intends to keep to himself.
The usual Upfield formula was to adhere fairly closely to the classic golden age detection template but with an exotic setting somewhere in the Australian Outback and with an exotic detective. Upfield did however vary this formula on occasions, having Bony investigate a case in the big city or as in this book making the story more of a thriller than a tale of detection.
Both Bony and the reader know the identity of the pilot of the murder aeroplane very early on and we know roughly what his motivation is. What we (and Bony) don’t know is what he’s going to do next and how Bony is going to stop him. Bony doesn't quite know how he’s going to stop him either.
The culprit is a skilled bushman with a hundred and fifty thousands square miles of desolate country in which to hide, and he has allies in a local Aboriginal tribe and they’re even better at simply disappearing into the bush. Even with a team of police and aircraft and trackers it could take months to find the man. Bony, for reasons of his own, decides to do the job alone. He faces a further problem - he’s not the only one hunting this man. And Bony will have to find him first.
The difficulty facing a man like Bony, caught between two cultures and with strong loyalties to both, is a major underlying theme of all the Bony stories but in this novel it takes centre stage. All the central characters in this story are in their own ways in the same position as Bony, caught halfway between cultures. Bony has come to terms with his own situation but the other characters have not.
Upfield’s treatment of these problems might seem old-fashioned but that’s a superficial view. Once you put aside the fact that he uses terms that are now forbidden (such as half-caste) you’ll find that his views on these matters are perceptive and deeply sympathetic. He refuses to idealise either the whites or the Aboriginals or those of mixed race but he is fundamentally sympathetic to all three points of view and he is also fundamentally optimistic. Of course the book was written in a much more optimistic age. Perhaps the tragedy of our own times is the we’ve lost that optimism.
Upfield does perhaps spend too much time telling us what a remarkable chap Bony is and how clever he is, when in fact Bony makes a series of terrible errors and consistently underrates his opponent.
This is a manhunt battle of wills and wits tale. There is no detecting done at all. The suspense also doesn’t quite come off. The far-fetched and rather outrageous plot is the sort of thing that a Leslie Charteris could have pulled off effortlessly. Upfield doesn’t quite manage to bring it off. He doesn’t quite convince us to believe in the story, or in the villain. And Bony is not the Saint. He’s the wrong hero for this kind of tale.
One interesting aspect to the story is the assumption that the magic of Aboriginal magic men really does work. Bony believes it works and it’s pretty clear that Upfield expects the reader to believe it too. This is therefore a crime story with actual supernatural elements or at least paranormal elements. That’s a problem given that the the plot already stretches credibility to breaking point. There’s nothing wrong with supernatural thrillers but in this case the supernatural elements weaken the story.
Bushranger of the Skies is really not a success. There are much better Bony novels out there, such as the excellent Wings Above the Diamantina. This one is for Upfield completists only.
Saturday, December 7, 2019
Graham Greene’s The Third Man
Greene was an excellent screenwriter but felt that he could not write a totally original screenplay. He preferred to adapt one of his stories or novels. Since in this case he had no story to adapt he would have to write one. So he sat down and wrote a story. Now he had something on which to base a screenplay. The story (a bit more than novella length) was never intended to be published. It was merely a quarry from which he would mine the materials for his screenplay. When the film was released in 1949, to international acclaim, his publishers persuaded him to allow the novella to be published.
It is of course essentially a first draft of a story. The completed screenplay differed from the novella in a number of ways. In his preface Greene is at pains to point out that the changes were not forced upon him. Once he sat down to write the screenplay he realised that some changes would be needed and he made them. He did not however revise the novella, which is what makes it so interesting. You can see the way that Greene’s ideas about the story evolved. The changes are actually not all that great. Greene was naturally a very cinematic writer and most of the scenes in his books lend themselves to film.
But the subtle changes are interesting. In the book the central character is Rollo Martins, an English writer of pulp westerns (the fact that he is an Englishman who has never set foot in America is part of the joke). In the movie he becomes Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp westerns. The Rollo Martins of the book is in some ways even more of a failure in life than the film’s Holly Martins, although perhaps marginally less naïve and marginally less self-righteous.
The only condition producer Alexander Korda imposed on Greene and Reed was that he wanted the background to the film to be the four-power occupation of Vienna (the city being divided into British, French, American and Russian zones). This was no problem - the war-ruined city dominated by corruption, with almost everyone involved in some kind of black market, was ideal Greene territory. This is very much Greeneland.
Many of the most memorable scenes in the movie are here in the novella - the encounter on the Ferris Wheel, the chase through the sewers - and while they’re better in the film they work extremely well on the printed page.
Greene felt that the film was better than the book and he was right but the book is still in its own way classic Greene and it’s still pretty good. When comparing the novella and the movie you always have to keep in mind that the story was right from the start intended to be filmed. The novella is essentially an extended rather literary film treatment. So the set-pieces naturally work better in the movie - Greene was creating scenes that would have more impact on the screen than on the page.
Greene was fascinated by themes of betrayal but it’s interesting that both The Third Man and The Fallen Idol deal specifically with the betrayal of illusions, and our reluctance to believe that our illusions are being betrayed. Even more specifically, they deal with the betrayal of childhood illusions. Harry Lime was the boyhood idol of Rollo/Holly Martins. Letting go of the illusions of childhood is part of growing up so logically Martins should finally grow up when he realises that his hero is a fraud and a monster. But this is a Graham Greene story so things are not necessarily going to work out so neatly. Nothing works out neatly in Greeneland.
The Third Man was published in an edition that also included the short story The Basement Room on which the film The Fallen Idol was based. My review of the film version of The Third Man can be found at Classic Movie Ramblings.
The Third Man is essential reading for fans of the film and for Graham Greene fans. Highly recommended.
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Rex Stout’s Over My Dead Body
A young woman, apparently from Montenegro, wants Wolfe to represent another young Montenegrin woman accused of stealing some diamonds. For some reason (which we will soon discover) Wolfe has a horror of anything remotely connected to the Balkans. He wants nothing to do with the case. Until he is informed of a certain fact which makes it impossible for him not to become involved.
The woman accused of the theft, Neya Tormic, is provided with an alibi in circumstances which occasion a good deal of surprise and even scepticism on the part of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
The first murder occurs soon thereafter. It won’t be the last.
The big question is why a British spy should be mixed up in all this. And a German spy as well. And why are the Feds so interested? Wolfe and Archie are not accustomed to G-men taking an interest in their case and they’re not very happy about it. Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Bureau is even less fond of the FBI and even less happy. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the G-men appear not to have a clue what they’re doing and as the tale unfolds they become steadily more ineffectual and bewildered.
And it’s not just spies. There’s a princess involved as well, and princesses are even more worrying than spies.
So this is a political thriller of sorts as well as a murder mystery. Fortunately Wolfe resists the temptation to focus too much on the political aspects. The Balkan angle adds colour and a touch of exoticism rather than being an excuse to belabour us with political lectures. Although Wolfe does display a vast contempt for bankers and international financiers.
In this book we find out some very surprising things about Wolfe’s past. It’s more than a little disconcerting to think of Wolfe as a father. Which he is. Possibly. In a way.
There’s nothing startling about the murder methods employed in this novel (even if one takes place in a fencing academy). There’s certainly nothing remotely impossible about any of the crimes. Alibis play a comparatively minor rôle. The motives are more important than the method. Indeed, the motives behind the alibis are more important than the alibis. Stout is often disparaged for his plotting abilities. He was certainly no Freeman Wills Crofts but he was actually quite competent in that area and the plot in this case is perfectly serviceable. In fact it’s quite good.
I’m more and more struck by the similarities between Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason. Both are willing to play fast and loose with legal niceties to protect the interests of their clients, even to the extent of concealing witnesses and concealing vital information from the police. They’re both fundamentally honest and they’re carful not to do anything actually illegal but both are aware that the odds are stacked against the individual so that it’s necessary for both an attorney and a private detective to take steps to protect a client from the overwhelming power of the police and the legal system.
Archie Goodwin is in fine form, relishing the various opportunities the case offers to hoodwink the police. And he gets to slug a witness which he enjoys very much indeed.
Over My Dead Body offers a decent plot, intriguing revelations about Nero Wolfe, international intrigue, sparkling dialogue and plenty of fun. Not the best of the Nero Wolfe mysteries but still extremely good. Highly recommended.
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