Thursday, January 23, 2020

Valentine Williams' The Return of Clubfoot

Valentine Williams (1883–1946) was an English thriller writer who enjoyed some success in the interwar period. He is best known for his spy thrillers concerning Dr Adolph Grundt (of which The Return of Clubfoot, published in 1922, is the second). Williams was yet another spy fiction writer who could make some claim to having been a real-life spy. During the Second World War he was briefly employed by MI6 where he made the acquaintance of such notables as Kim Philby.

The opening of The Return of Clubfoot certainly promises high adventure. Major Desmond Okewood, formerly employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service, has retired to a small Central American country where he encounters a broken-down English alcoholic and drug addict who tells a strange story of buried treasure. The treasure is on a small uninhabited island in the Pacific and it’s German wartime treasure.

Okewood wants the treasure but someone else wants it too and they’re prepared to kill to get it. Okewood gets himself invited aboard a luxury yacht belonging to a tycoon who made a fortune during the war. As luck would have it the tycoon has a beautiful and charming daughter, Marjorie. Having reached the island Okewood realises he has no idea where the treasure is hidden although he has some tantalising clues. He also realises that the island isn’t deserted after all - it’s not only full of cut-throats but the cut-throats are led by his old enemy, the German master-spy Dr Adolph Grundt (known as Clubfoot).

While he’s hunting for the treasure Grundt is hunting him, and the treasure. Okewood isn’t afraid of Clubfoot (Okewood is an Englishman so he isn’t afraid of foreigners) but he is afraid of what Clubfoot might do to Marjorie. The thought of a pure English girl falling into the hands of a dastardly German fills him with horror.

Okewood and Marjorie (with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love in a wholesome English way) gets themselves repeatedly captured and have plenty of narrow escapes from both Grundt and from the natural hazards of the island. The island is riddled with caves, which can be places of safety the the hero and heroine but they can also be deadly traps.

Williams’ Germanophobia is deliriously hysterical and is exceeded only by his jingoism. And his political incorrectness is off the scale. All of which makes the book a great deal of fun. Everything about this tale is feverish and breathless. It’s all pretty ridiculous but it is undeniably filled with action and excitement and of course romance as well.

The clues that lead Okewood to the treasure, or at least to the spot where he believes the treasure to be concealed, are ingenious if clichéd.

Clubfoot is a full-blown melodrama villain. He is clever and ruthless and not being an Englishman he is naturally an out-and-out rotter and a sadist. He enjoys torturing Okewood by telling him that he intends to give Marjorie to the most repulsive and cruel of his henchmen (in fact he intends to give her to several of his henchmen) which of course means she will suffer a fate worse than death. Foreigners are lustful enough at the best of times but the sight of Marjorie’s English purity will drive them to a frenzy.

Okewood is a noble hero, not exactly dashing but determined and he’s motivated not just by devotion to God, King and Country but also by the love of a sweet innocent girl. Marjorie, being an Englishwoman, is plucky and spirited (in a pure-hearted way) and perhaps not quite as entirely helpless as Okewood imagines her to be.

It’s completely ludicrous stuff but very amusing (although unintentionally so since Williams appears to have no sense of humour whatsoever) and in its own overheated way The Return of Clubfoot is quite enjoyable stuff. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed one of the later Clubfoot books, The Crouching Beast.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christopher St. John Sprigg's Fatality in Fleet Street

Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) was an English writer who produced seven detective novels. In the mid-1930s he became an ardent Marxist (and a noted Marxist theoretician) and died fighting for his cause in the Spanish Civil War. Fatality in Fleet Street was his second detective novel and also the second to feature journalist Charles Venables as its amateur crime-solver. It’s a novel that is depressingly relevant today.

Venables works for Lord Carpenter, a media magnate who is unpleasant, dictatorial and megalomaniacal even by the standards of media magnates. For a year Carpenter’s newspapers have been conducting an hysterical propaganda campaign in favour of war with Russia. That campaign is about to reach its apotheosis with a scoop about an alleged Bolshevik atrocity that is guaranteed to drive the Great British Public into a war frenzy. Carpenter boasts that at this moment the only way that war could be stopped would be if someone were to take the Florentine dagger hanging on his office wall and stab him to death with it. Which is exactly what someone does. He is found dead in his office in the Mercury newspaper building.

It’s pretty standard in golden age detective fiction for the victim to be so unpleasant that there are hordes of potential suspects. In this case it’s made more interesting by the fact that the motive could be personal or political. It could be personal because Lord Carpenter was a notorious womaniser. It could be political because most of his staff violently opposed his pro-war policy. The Prime Minister opposed it as well, and he’s a definite suspect.

A lot of the more promising suspects have both personal and political motives for wanting to get rid of Lord Carpenter. It’s even possible that foreign agents may have been involved  so there’s a hint of a spy thriller plot as well.

The political side isn’t handled in a heavy-handed manner. If you didn’t know Sprigg’s history you’d probably guess him to have had anti-war leanings and mild pro-Russian leanings but you probably wouldn’t pick him as someone about to become an ardent Marxist. The actual Bolsheviks who appear in the story are an unsavoury and incompetent lot.

The tone definitely leans towards the farcical. I’m not as big a fan of this sort of thing as some other golden age aficionados but it does have its amusing moments. Sprigg has a certain appealing lightness of touch.

Venables is a fairly typical upper-class amateur detective (he even sports a monocle) and while he’s supremely self-confident (he thinks it’s a fine joke when he gets arrested) he’s not irritating.

Courtroom scenes are not easy to pull off successfully (unless your name is Erle Stanley Gardiner) but Sprigg’s extended courtroom scenes work pretty well. There’s a colourful and devious defence barrister and an amusingly inept judge and there’s the dramatic last-minute surprise evidence.

Of course there’s a romantic sub-plot and it actually ties in (slightly at least) with the main plot. Venables is very keen on the Mercury’s Women’s Page Editor and his romantic future depends on his successful solving of the case.

The solution is one that has been used by other writers but Sprigg adds an additional twist to it to make it more interesting. Even though the solution is somewhat outlandish it is reasonably well supported by some earlier clues so it doesn’t come entirely out of left field. In fact it feels plausible, to the extent that golden age detection solutions are ever really plausible.

A well-plotted very entertaining novel, similar in tone to his slightly later (and equally good) Death of an Airman. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek

My interest in Daphne du Maurier’s books was initially aroused by the fact that they provide the source material for three of my favourite films - Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). I was reasonably impressed by du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, but not so impressed by the short stories that inspired the other two films.

Daphne du Maurier has been described as a writer of gothic romances (and Rebecca most certainly fits into that category) and after reading Xavier’s spirited defence of this genre at his At the Villa Rose blog I felt I should give du Maurier another try. The book I selected is one of her most famous, Frenchman’s Creek, published in 1941.

It turns out that Frenchman’s Creek is not really a gothic romance after all. It’s certainly a romance but it’s probably best described as a swashbuckling romance novel. The story of an English noblewoman’s passionate affair with a dashing French pirate is one that is clearly likely to tick all the romance novel boxes.

The heroine is Dona, Lady St Colomb, and she has grown weary of the high life in London. She retreats, alone, to her husband’s neglected estate in Cornwall. She soon discovers that there is a creek running through the property and that creek is being used as an anchorage by a notorious French pirate who has been raiding the properties of the rich landowners of the region. Dona is a woman who suffers a great deal from boredom and the presence of a pirate ship almost in her own back yard at least promises to make life slightly less tedious. Then she hears that there are rumours that the pirates have not only been committing robberies, they have been ravishing the local women as well. Now Dona is really interested. In fact she’s more than a little excited.

This French buccaneer is not your typical pirate. He is well-bred and well-educated, a man of culture, and even a bit of a philosopher. He is a gentleman, well apart from the ravishing women thing (and Dona is inclined to see that as a feature rather than a bug). In fact he’s the kind of pirate pretty much guaranteed to set feminine hearts aflutter. He certainly gets Dona’s blood racing. I’m not sure if it gets her bosoms heaving but it certainly seems possible.

Of course Dona persuades her handsome pirate to take her to sea with him on his next voyage. And she will get drawn into a world of adventure and forbidden love.

The plot may sound absurd and overheated. It is overheated, but perhaps not entirely absurd when you consider the background to the novel. This is the England of Charles II, an age in which sexual licentiousness was more or less taken for granted among the hangers-on at Court. It is established that Dona and her husband are very much a part of a very dissipated social set. It is also established right from the start that Dona already has a scandalous reputation and, not to put too fine a point on it, she is generally regarded as being little better than a whore. She doesn’t have to worry about endangering her reputation. Her reputation is well and truly in tatters already. Taking a notorious pirate to her bed is just the sort of escapade that might appeal to such a woman, and would certainly amuse her friends.

The focus of the story is very much on the romance angle. Of course criticising a romance novel for being romantic is a bit like criticising a thriller for being thrilling. There’s an extraordinary amount of sexual innuendo, much of it clever and amusing.

Daphne du Maurier was immensely popular in her day although not highly regarded by critics. Her critical reputation has grown since and is, perhaps, a little overblown. Frenchman’s Creek is a bodice-ripper. It’s well-written and with some literary pretensions but even if it’s a slightly literary bodice-ripper it’s still a bodice-ripper. I honestly don’t have a problem with that. Being a good writer of genre fiction well is just as challenging as being a good writer of so-called literary fiction, the main difference being that genre writes write books the people want to read while writers of literary fiction write books that people feel they should want to read.

This is the sort of book that critics would have been inclined to dismiss not just because it’s clearly genre fiction but because it’s aimed squarely at a female readership. Which is unjust. There are genres that men like and there are genres that women like. Critics tended to despise them all, but they especially despised the books women like. These days critics are more likely to take the opposite tack. It’s all equally unreasonable. Genre fiction requires its practitioners to understand their target audience and give them what they want. I don’t have a problem with that. Daphne du Maurier understood her audience and gave them what they wanted, with style and skill.

Assuming that the purpose of this book is to generate an atmosphere of romantic and sexual excitement in its female readers I’d say it succeeds admirably. The author builds up the sexual tension with considerable skill. We have to wait a long time for Dona and her pirate to have sex so that when they do (there are of course no graphic descriptions of sex but du Maurier makes it absolutely crystal clear that Dona isn’t naked with her pirate because it’s getting stuffy in her cabin) it has the desired impact.

The pirate is a totally unbelievable hero. He’s perfect in every way, the ideal combination of masculinity and sensitivity, the ultimate female wish fulfilment fantasy. But hey, it’s a romance novel. We have to believe that Dona is so hot for this guy that she’ll risk everything.

Dona on the other hand is an interesting heroine. She’s not quite as immoral as her reputation suggests but she’s still pretty damn immoral. She finds some rationalisations for her behaviour but clearly she’s quite happy to abandon every responsibility in order to gain romantic fulfilment and it’s also clear that for Dona romantic fulfilment means sexual fulfilment. Her pirate fills her with the kind of lust she could never feel for her husband.

So is this a book that male readers will enjoy? Probably not. There’s not quite enough action, although there is some. And while du Maurier isn’t at her best in the action scenes they’re OK and she is very very good at suspense. On the whole though, even with the adventure element, this is still basically a bodice ripper. As a heterosexual male I’m probably not the best person to judge it on those terms but even I’d have to admit that it is wildly romantic. And it is clever and witty. You’ll have to decide for yourself on this one.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Buried Clock

The Case of the Buried Clock is a 1943 Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Harley Raymand, recovering from a war wound, is staying at the mountain cabin owned by banker Vincent Blane. Raymond has made a curious discovery. A buried clock. Why would anyone want to bury a clock? And the clock is still running. He also makes another discovery - a dead man in the cabin. The dead man is the husband of Blane’s daughter Millicent. He’s been helping himself to funds from Blane’s bank.

Since Millicent seems likely to strike the local sheriff as an obvious suspect Blane retains Perry Mason’s services. There’s actually a wide choice of suspects. There’s Millicent’s sister Adele, who hated the dead man. There’s a brother and sister, Burt and Lola Strague, and there’s wildlife photographer Rod Beaton. They were all on the scene. As was glamorous widow Myrna Payson.

Perry agreed to take the case because the clock angle intrigued him and he’s even more intrigued when he realises the clock is keeping sidereal time, not solar time. Setting a clock to do that is the kind of thing you’d do if you wanted to track the position of a star. Perry has no idea how that might tie in to the murder but he has a feeling that if he can find the connection he’ll crack the case. Also puzzling is the bullet. There isn’t one. There’s no exit wound so the bullet has to be in the body, but it isn’t. And then there are the tyre prints. And the family doctor who tells an amazing number of lies.

Deputy District Attorney McNair is young, ambitious and arrogant and he has a watertight case. He just can’t lose. If only Mason would stop carrying on about that damned clock.

There’s plenty of misdirection in this tale and Perry Mason (and Paul Drake) fall for quite a lot of it. The solution is more complicated, and more simple, than it appears to be.

Perry gets to express his feelings about police ethics, his view being that the police don’t have any. For their part Paul Drake and Della Street are a bit worried that Perry’s legal ethics seem to encompass everything from concealing witnesses to breaking and entering but when you work for Perry Mason you just have to get used to such things.

Perry likes to set traps for prosecutors to walk into but this time it seems like he may have met his match as he blunders into some very subtle traps laid by Deputy D.A. McNair. A lesser man might have been daunted but this sort of thing just gets Mason more motivated. He’s going to have to be very motivated indeed to win this case. Gardner always handles courtroom scenes with great skill and this book contains enough devious legal manoeuvrings to please fans.

Gardner’s method in the Perry Mason novels was to stick to the very successful formula he’d established but add enough twists to keep things fresh and interesting and in the 40s he was at the top of his game. It seems impossible that he can connect so many bizarre clues into a coherent plot but he does so.

The Case of the Buried Clock is not perhaps in the absolute top tier of Perry Mason stories but it’s still fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

My latest project is to pick the episodes of the 1957-66 TV series based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and read the novel, then watch the TV episode and do parallel reviews of both. My review of The Case of the Buried Clock TV episode can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.