Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Graham Greene's The Basement Room (AKA The Fallen Idol)

The Basement Room is a 1935 short story by Graham Greene and it’s best known for being the story on which Greene based his screenplay for Carol Reed’s superb 1948 film The Fallen Idol. The Basement Room is available in an edition along with Greene’s The Third Man.

A young boy named Philip lives in a large house in Belgravia. He has limited contact with his parents but that doesn’t worry him, because he has Baines. Baines is the butler. Baines is very fond of the boy. For his part Philip hero-worships Baines who regales him with stories of his adventurous youth in Africa (some of the stories may even be true). It would all be wonderful, except for the presence of Mrs Baines. Mrs Baines rules the household and has little time for boyish nonsense.

What Philip doesn’t realise is that Mrs Baines is as much a nightmare to Baines as she is to him. You see Baines has a lady friend. Which is a big secret that Philip must not tell Mrs Baines.

Philip is seven years old and he’s just beginning to discover life. And he doesn’t like it at all. The rules seem to be very complicated and there’s a lot of unpleasantness. Grown-ups don’t really seem to be all that happy. Grown-ups also have a lot of secrets and it’s very confusing for a young boy when he becomes privy to some of those secrets. Secrets can be very dangerous things. Keeping secrets can be dangerous and not keeping them can be dangerous also.

It’s a neat little story with a nice little sting in the tail. And it's recommended.

The film version most follows the short story until it gets to the end which has some subtle but actually very significant changes. It’s a fine short story but the film version is much richer.

You can find my review of the film version, The Fallen Idol, at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The African Poison Murders (Death of an Aryan)

The African Poison Murders (originally published in 1939 as Death of an Aryan) was Elspeth Huxley’s third mystery novel.

This time Superintendent Vachell’s initial problem is Nazis. Or at least a German farmer in Kenya who is assumed to be a Nazi agent. There seems to be a bit of a power struggle within the local Nazi hierarchy.

But when murder occurs it seems more likely that it was something to do with a woman. If it was murder. The autopsy offered no clues whatever as to the cause of death. The one obvious cause of death is ruled out immediately. Superintendent Vachell suspects poisoning but there’s not a shred of evidence pointing in that direction. The second murder affords even fewer clues and again there’s no possible way to determine the cause of death.

Superintendent Vachell has other problems. His biggest problem is Janice West, the wife of a local farmer. The Wests seem like they might be involved in some way, but Vachell doesn’t want to think too much about that since he’s fallen hopelessly in love with Mrs West. All very unprofessional, but this is Africa and even Canadian colonial policemen are prone to forbidden passions in the tropics.

What I particularly liked about Elspeth Huxley’s Murder On Safari was that so many of the events, including the murders, could only have taken place in Africa. This is also the case in The African Poison Murders. Vital clues are provided by a bushbuck and by a leopard. Birds provide several crucial clues, directly and indirectly. The terrifying climax in which Vachell stares death in the face could only happen in Africa.

And of course social and sexual mores were different in the tropics. Kenya in the 30s was in fact renowned for the rather friend easy approach to sexual morality taken by the European colonists. Sexual passions always seem to be seething beneath the surface in The African Poison Murders.

This novel includes a fair number of popular golden age detective story clichés, particularly in regard to poisonings.

Having the detective hero fall in love with one of the suspects had certainly been done before but it is somewhat risky. While it makes the detective more human (which can endear him to the reader) it also makes him decidedly unprofessional (which can alienate the reader). Putting a love story into a detective novel is itself risky. It can slow things down and it can be a distraction. There’s a good reason that it was something that was rather frowned upon. Huxley pulls it off reasonably well here and she makes sure that the mystery plot doesn’t get derailed by it.

Vachell knows he’s skating on thin ice, especially given that at the time he falls in clove with Mrs West he’s still not sure of the murderer’s identity and therefore can’t be certain that she isn’t the killer.

The ending is a little unconventional. While there are plenty of clues to guide Vachell and he does do some serious detecting the solution is very much motive-based, and very much psychology-based. Which means the motive has to be psychologically convincing. If you don’t buy the motive the whole thing collapses. I found it to be plausible so I had no great problems with the solution.

The African Poison Murders has other things going for it. Huxley is an entertaining writer. The book doesn’t have to rely entirely on plotting. The colourful setting and the colourful characters provide plenty of enjoyment. That’s all well and good as long as the plot works and I think it does.

The African Poison Murders is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars

Leigh Brackett’s short story (actually more of a novella) Black Amazon of Mars was published in Planet Stories in March 1951. In 1964 it was expanded and revised as a novel, People of the Talisman. It has been suggested that the expansion may have been largely the work of Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton.

The core of the story is the same but it is treated slightly differently. The novel appears, until very late in the story, to be essentially an adventure tale with only the barest hint of science fiction. In Black Amazon of Mars the science fiction elements are there from the beginning, and we have much more of an inkling of what is to come. Eric John Stark does not know exactly what lies behind the Gates of Death but he has a pretty fair idea that it something that should not be awakened. We are given more information early on and there is a much stronger sense of foreboding.

Stark has gained possession of the famous talisman of Kushat, stolen some time before. The talisman is the guarantee of the safety of the city of Kushat. It is the key to a great power that lies beyond the forbidding pass known as the Gates of Death. Only the talisman can save Kushat from the barbarian hordes of the Lord Ciaran.

Stark has no reason to link his destiny to that of Kushat, except for a promise made to a dying man. And there is also the woman, a woman with red-gold hair. She is a dangerous enemy. She might be more dangerous as a lover. But their destinies are entwined. Stark is half-barbarian himself and he knows that whether she brings love or death destiny cannot be denied. There’s a subtle hint of eroticism here that is lacking in the novel. Stark fears the woman but he wants her.

The differences between the two versions become more and more apparent, and more and more dramatic, as the story unfolds. It’s not just plot differences but subtle differences in tone as well. Even the nature of the threat beyond the Gates of Death is slightly different.

It does seem quite likely that Hamilton had a hand in the revision. The original version seems a bit more Leigh Brackett-like, a bit moodier and with a lot lot more emphasis on the strange attraction between Stark and the woman with the red-gold hair.

The novel People of the Talisman (which I reviewed here recently) has much to recommend it but on balance Brackett’s original story is I think superior. Black Amazon of Mars is very highly recommended.

Leigh Brackett’s People of the Talisman

Leigh Brackett’s novel People of the Talisman was published in 1964. It is an expanded and revised version of her earlier story Black Amazon of Mars (which had appeared in Planet Stories in March 1951). It has been suggested that Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton may have been partly or even largely responsible for the expanded version.

It is one of many of Brackett’s stories recounting the adventures of Eric John Stark, an orphan boy raised on Mercury and now a planetary adventurer.

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the finest exponents of the sword-and-planet genre, combining high adventure with a moody atmosphere of lost and dying civilisations.

Stark is in the northern wastes of Mars, the Norlands, and his friend Camar is dying. Camar wished to return to the city of his birth, Kushat, to die but he is never going to see the city. Before dying he gives Stark the famous talisman of Kushat, which he had stolen. The legend is that Kushat will never fall as long as it has the talisman. The talisman unlocks a great power from behind the pass known as the Gates of Death but no-one seems to remember any longer exactly what that power is.

But whatever it is Kushat will need it. The barbarian hordes of Ciaran are on their way to destroy Kushat.

It’s not that Eric John Stark owes anything to the people of Kushat. But Camar was his friend, he made a promise and being a half-barbarian he keeps his promises. Whether Kushat can be saved is other matter. The city is rich but has grown soft and self-satisfied. The talisman seems to be the only hope but that means passing through the Gates of Death and no-one has done that and lived to tell the tale.

What he finds on the other side of the Gates of Death is not at all what he expected to find. For civilisations, as for people, there are truly fates worse than death. And he has to reckon with a beautiful woman who is as much a barbarian as he is himself. And she is every bit as dangerous.

For most of the story there is no trace whatever of advanced technology. The technology of both Kushat and its enemies is essentially medieval. Technology will however play a significant part as the story moves to its conclusion. This is science fiction even if at first it  doesn’t seem to be.

The story is filled with typical Leigh Brackett themes. Civilisations rise and they decay. The story of civilisation is always a tragedy. Sometimes a magnificent tragedy, but still a tragedy. Civilisation holds within it the seeds of its own destruction. While decay and destruction are bad enough decadence is worse. And perhaps decadence is as inescapable as decay.

Brackett’s Mars is a planet with a glorious history but the glory is long gone. The dreams remain. And dreams can be far more seductive than reality. The civilisations described in People of the Talisman live on their dreams.

There’s plenty of action and excitement in this short novel but Brackett always had more to offer than action. She offers both atmosphere and ideas, and there’s a certain literary polish that you don’t always get in sword-and-planet tales. While nobody writing in this genre could escape the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs Brackett’s stories have more in common with the work of the other great female writer in this genre, Catherine L. Moore (especially her Northwest Smith stories).

People of the Talisman is highly recommended.

I’m told that Brackett’s original story Black Amazon of Mars differs significantly from the novel. Here's my review of the short story.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Curious Bride

The Case of the Curious Bride was the fifth of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries, appearing in 1934.

Perry Mason is of course famous for the flexibility of his legal ethics and in the early novels he pushes that flexility to extremes. He’s always careful not to cross the line into illegality but he sure does go very very close to that line. In this story he pulls some delightfully fancy tricks, persuading the Prosecution to torpedo its own case.

As usual Perry Mason gets involved before the murder takes place. A woman comes to his office to ask for legal advice of behalf of a friend. Obviously she is asking for the advice for herself and Mason makes it clear that he’s well aware of this and he’s not prepared to play such gamers. This hurts the woman’s pride and she storms out of the office. And then Mason, who despite being a lawyer does have a conscience, feels guilty. The woman needed help and he didn’t give it. So he decides he’s going to have to track her down before she gets herself into trouble.

Mason was certainly right to be worried that she’d get herself into trouble. Soon she’s facing a murder rap.

Rhoda Montaine’s problem is her marriage to Carl Montaine, a marriage that may or may not be invalid. This is because she presumed that her first husband Gregory Moxley was dead, but he’s far from dead and he’s going to be very troublesome. She has other problems as well. Carl’s father is a multi-millionaire, he dominates Carl completely and he does not approve of Rhoda. Carl himself is a big problem. Rhoda, a trained nurse, nursed him through a drug problem. He’s over the drug problem but it seems to have left his character even weaker than it already was. There’s also Dr Millsap, who is in love with Rhoda.

It’s no great surprise that Gregory Moxley winds up dead, permanently dead this time. Rhoda is the obvious suspect. The evidence seems overwhelming and Deputy D.A. Lucas can’t believe his luck - this time he can’t possibly lose, not even against Perry Mason.

Most lawyers faced with such clear-cut evidence against a client would despair but Perry Mason has some amazingly devious tricks up his sleeve this time. Seeing an unbreakable alibi destroyed is always fun but this novels offers a very clever variation on the theme. Of course it will only work if he can persuade the Deputy D.A. to walk into a trap, and there may be some minor ethical quibbles. In fact there may be some gigantic ethical quibbles.

And that marriage question will play a huge part in the trial as well.

District Attorney Hamilton Burger does not feature in this story. His first appearance will be in the sixth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye. In The Case of the Curious Bride Perry’s adversary is Deputy D.A. John Lucas, a similar although perhaps slightly more abrasive character. While we’re used to seeing Perry play fast and lose with legal ethics it has to be said that Lucas comes up with some dirty tricks of his own. The question is whether he can play such games as well as Perry Mason plays them.

Neither Lieutenant Tragg nor Sergeant Holcomb appear in this story, in fact there is no significant part payed by any particular police officer. Della Street and Paul Drake on the other hand were regular characters in the novels right from the start.

Gardner really is in fine form in The Case of the Curious Bride. Courtroom scenes can be dull in the hands of lesser writers but they’re never a problem for Gardner - he knows how to build up to the inevitable display of legal pyrotechnics from Mason. We can see that Mason is about to pull a rabbit out of the hat but we have no more idea than the luckless Deputy D.A. as to how he’s going to do it. This is a lovely piece of plotting and a very very enjoyable tale. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Curious Bride was adapted for the second season of the Perry Mason TV series so I thought that having just read the book it would be fun to watch the episode immediately afterwards. You can read my thoughts on the TV adaptation at Cult TV Lounge.