Thursday, April 23, 2020

Wade Miller's Kitten with a Whip

Kitten with a Whip is a 1959 crime thriller by Wade Miller. The excellent 1964 film adaptation (with Ann-Margret) is probably better remembered these days than the novel. Wade Miller was actually Robert Wade and Bill Miller, childhood friends who formed a successful and prolific writing team.

Kitten with a Whip starts on an ordinary hot day in southern California suburbia. A very hot day. David Patton is a regular guy with a good job (he’s a stress engineer and he likes his job) and he’s married with a five-year-old daughter. His wife Virginia and daughter are out of town at the moment (Virginia is visiting her sick mother). For some guys this would be an opportunity to get up to all sorts of no good - gambling, booze, women, etc. But not David Patton. He’s genuinely happily married.

So he wakes up in the morning and hears a sound from his daughter’s bedroom. He’s really pleased. Virginia and Katie (the daughter) must be back early. He bursts into the bedroom to welcome Katie home and instead of his five-year-old he finds a very attractive seventeen-year-old girl dressed in a nightgown. This is a surprise, to say the least.

The girl is named Jody and she explains that she’s not a burglar or anything, she just needed somewhere to sleep and since she found the front door open she let herself in. Well, the front door wasn’t exactly open but the window was. Or at least it was open after she’d prised it open. She’s escaped from a reformatory but really none of it was her fault, she only stole a bottle of booze for her father and he’d have whipped her if she hadn’t.

Now you or I might view this girl’s story with just a tiny bit of suspicion but David Patton is used to the safety and security of 1950s suburbia. He has never seen the seamy side of life. To him this is just a poor innocent young girl in trouble. Somebody should do something to help her. He should do something to help her. That would be the right thing to do. The fact that she happens to be a remarkable pretty seventeen-year-old girl has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. And at her age she probably doesn’t know anything about sex anyway. Even if she does make a point of letting him know that she’s not wearing any underwear beneath her nightgown.

Thus begins David Patton’s nightmare. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. After all if she causes any trouble all he has to do is pick up the ’phone and the cops will pick her up and take her back to the reformatory. The thought comforts David, until Jody explains that if he does that she’ll tell the cops that he tried to rape her. Would the cops believe David’s explanation that he’s just an innocent victim? Would the neighbours? Would his boss? Would his wife? The answer to all of these questions is no, none of them would believe him. Even though of course he really is quite innocent, he was just trying to help a girl in trouble. Although perhaps having sex with Jody wasn’t such a smart move. But she really does have a rather luscious body and he had had a few drinks and he didn’t really know what he was doing.

Now Jody is the one with the whip.

David is obviously shockingly naïve. These sorts of things don’t happen to respectable married men in suburbia. However there’s more to it than that. David was happy before Jody came along, but there was something missing. He half-wanted some adventure and some excitement even if he’s totally unprepared for the consequences. He convinces himself he’s horribly unlucky to be in such a mess but he ignores all the warning signs. Right at the start he is aware that he is noticing Jody’s shapely legs and the way her nightgown clings to her breasts. He is aware that he is wondering what she looks like naked. He convinces himself that of course nothing will happen. He could turn her in right away but he doesn’t. He has everything under control. And it is rather exciting, especially when Jody slips off her nightgown in the car to try on the new underwear and dress he’s bought for her. Of course he doesn’t peek while she’s undressing, well just a little peek but there’s no harm in that.

Jody is a pretty terrifying character. She’s frightening because she’s manipulative and ruthless but in some ways she really is innocent. She doesn’t understand consequences. Most she is terrifying because she truly belongs to another world. It is the world of the young and rootless, petty criminals, drugs and prostitution, of instant gratification, a world that knows nothing of the rules that govern David Patton’s safe suburban world. It is a world beyond David’s comprehension. And his world is beyond her comprehension.

David finds it hard to hate Jody. He fears her and he fears that she will destroy his secure existence but hating her would be like hating a wild animal for being a wild animal. Jody simply has no idea how much damage she can do to him.

And Jody doesn’t really hate David. She just doesn’t understand him. Why can’t he live for the moment the way she does? And he obviously wants her sexually and she’s happy to give herself to him so why can’t he just enjoy it instead of getting all weird just because they had sex?

It is a clash of worlds, a clash of cultures.

This is in some ways classic noir fiction. David Patton is really a pretty good guy but he has weaknesses he isn’t aware of and he makes one error of judgment and now his life has become a nightmare. He makes mistakes but he’s hardly the only man who would have been tempted if a gorgeous young female suddenly threw herself at him.

Jody is a classic femme fatale, maybe not actively evil but a femme fatale doesn’t have to be actively evil to be very very dangerous. The tone of the book is light and amusing and rather satirical. David’s misadventures with Jody are somewhat comical but with tragic potential. It’s almost like a literary cross between two film genres, film noir and screwball comedy. David gets himself in deeper and deeper and the reader is left to decide whether to pity him, to despise him for his naïvete or to be amused by his predicament.

Of course the mood grows darker as David is drawn into Jody’s world. And the plot starts to twist and turn.

Kitten with a Whip is a fine thriller with a humorous side and a serious side as well. Jody’s world and David’s world should never have come into contact with each other. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons

The Four False Weapons, punished in 1937, was the last of John Dickson Carr’s mysteries to features French detective Henri Bencolin.

The legendary violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was such an extraordinary virtuoso that there were even rumours that he must have had supernatural aid. He would deliberately break strings during a performance just to make things more difficult for himself and then triumphantly finish the performance anyway. To me The Four False Weapons seems like Carr in Paganini mode. He has created a plot with so many bizarre complications the it can’t possibly work but he’s determined to make it work anyway. And he succeeds.

Richard Curtis, the junior partner in a film of London solicitors, is despatched to Paris to sort out some unspecified problems that one of their clients, a Mr Ralph Douglas, is having. It turns out that the problem is his relationship with a notorious courtesan, Rose Klonec. Or rather his problem is that he is about to marry a charming girl, a Miss Magda Toller, and his now-ended relationship with Rose Klonec is causing difficulties.

Soon after arriving in France Curtis accompanies Ralph to the love nasty he had set up for Rose, where they discover Rose’s body. There’s not the slightest doubt that she was murdered. There’s a great deal of doubt as to how she was murdered. Sometimes the discovery of the murder weapon helps to clarify things but in this case it doesn’t help at all. There are way too many murder weapons. And all of them seem somehow wrong. Other things about the murder scene are decidedly odd. It’s just as well that the legendary detective Henri Bencolin arrives on the scene at this point. Bencolin has retired but he is eager enough to take on this case and does so in a semi-official capacity. Even the Sûreté is willing to admit that Bencolin’s assistance would be invaluable.

There are not only too many clues, there is one vital clue that must be there but it cannot be found. Then there are the alibis. Everybody not only has an alibi, the alibis are absolutely cast-iron.

Bencolin gets some unwanted help from a journalist-criminologist, Auguste Dupin (one of several detective fiction-jokes in this book), whose theories are fantastic but perhaps contain some genuine insights. With the introduction of Dupin it is obvious that Carr is playing with us in a good-natured way. Carr took detective fiction seriously but he also saw no reason why it couldn’t be fun.

The highlight of the story is the game of Basset organised by Bencolin. Basset was a card game (a real one) that enjoyed a vogue during the 17th century. It was a game in which immense fortunes could be won or lost. Many noblemen were ruined by it until it was banned by Louis XIV. In 1937 it was a game that had never been played by any living person, in fact had not been played in France for two-and-a-half centuries but Bencolin has his reasons for reviving this ancient game. The result is one of the great gambling scenes in detective fiction. Will anyone dare to go soissante-et-le-va, with a massive fortune to be won or lost on the turn of a single card? I personally detest gambling but I love gambling scenes in fiction.

The ending is another virtuoso performance by Carr, with twist after twist succeeding each other in dazzling fashion.

Is this a fair-play mystery? On the whole yes, although there are a couple of important clues that rely on specialised knowledge that the leader is unlikely to possess. And is the eventual solution satisfactory? Perhaps, although psychologically it does stretch credibility a little.

So we get a fiendishly complex plot but we also get a great deal of amusement along the way. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Derek Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic

Derek Marlowe (1938-1996) was an English novelist who made quite a splash with his debut novel, the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic, in 1966.

Eberlin is a spy. He works for the British. At least on the surface, but actually he’s a double agent. He really works for the KGB. While he occasionally passes information to them his main duties involves assassinations. He is thirty-six years old and has been a spy for the whole of is adult life. That’s a long career for a double agent. He is successful because although he is a Russian he is more English than most Englishmen. He is an educated and cultured man, always exquisitely dressed and a connoisseur of beautiful things. He is something of a dandy (in fact he idolises Beau Brummell). His real name is Krasnevin. At times he is not sure if he is really Eberlin or Krasnevin. A fuzzy sense of identity is an asset for a spy although it’s perhaps not quite so healthy for a human being.

Now he has two problems. The first is that he wants to go home. He wants to go home to Russia. He has grown weary of life as a spy. But to the KGB he is a very valuable asset and they are not likely to give him permission to return home.

His second problem is that the British have given him a new assignment. His mission is to track down a KGB assassin, a man by the name of Krasnevin. So he must hunt for himself, but of course without finding himself. Krasnevin is believed to be in Berlin so that’s where Eberlin is sent. To his horror he finds that Gatiss is there too. Gatiss is another British agent of whom he is somewhat afraid. Gatiss is the kind of man who might succeed in unmasking him, and he detests the man personally as well.

As an added complication there is Caroline. She’s a sweet girl. Eberlin avoids serious entanglements with women but it looks increasingly like he is going to be entangled with Caroline, although he’s not sure exactly what kind of entanglement it’s going to be.

Spy fiction deals a great deal with themes of betrayal. An interesting feature of this novel is that Eberlin is not a traitor. He is not merely Russian-born. He is a Russian citizen. A patriotic Russian doing his duty. He is also a good communist so in fact he is betraying neither his country nor his ideals. Of course espionage is still a grubby business of lies and deceit but it’s well to bear in mind that Eberlin is not a traitor.

Spies do not have many friends but even by spy standards Eberlin is a loner. He is entirely self-contained. He is also somewhat inclined to introspection. Perhaps he thinks too much. He has given his current situation a great deal of thought and he does not like the conclusions he has been led to. Drinking helps a little. Maybe not much but he intends to stick with it. If he drinks enough things might look better.

The idea that both sides in the Cold War were pretty much equally cynical, ruthless and even dishonourable was becoming commonplace in British spy fiction, spy movies and spy television series by the 60s (the Callan TV series being a very obvious example). But a British spy novel with a protagonist who is a KGB assassin who has infiltrated the British intelligence service was still rather bold in 1966. And while Eberlin might not be a conventional hero he is certainly not a mere villain or even a conventional anti-hero. He has his faults but he is not an unsympathetic character. He is certainly no more of an anti-hero than David Callan, and as a man he is (despite some self-pity) no more contemptible and pathetic than George Smiley. And he’s no more cynical than Len Deighton’s unnamed spy.

Marlowe seems to have spent his writing career flitting back and forth between mainstream and genre fiction. A Dandy in Aspic certainly has some literary aspirations. It also works as a tense spy thriller with some neat twists. Highly recommended.

My review of the 1968 film adaptation can be found here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Mickey Spillane's The Body Lovers

The Body Lovers was the tenth of the Mike Hammer private eye novels, published in 1967. Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) wrote six Mike Hammer novels between 1947 and 1952. Then followed a decade in which he wrote very little of anything. He took up the Mike Hammer series again in 1962.

The Body Lovers begins with Hammer discovering the body of a young woman. Nothing unusual in that. Corpses turn up all the time in New York, and given the rather seedy parts of the city that Hammer is forced to frequent in his line of business it’s not the first one he’s stumbled across. The one notable thing about this one is that the girl appears to have been whipped to death. Still, it’s not Mike’s case so he just calls the cops and doesn’t think about it much.

Then he gets a new client, a guy named Harry Service. Harry’s sister Greta has gone missing and he’s worried about her. Harry is serving a stretch in the penitentiary and Mike was the guy who put him there but Harry is the kind of professional criminal who regards prison as an occupational hazard and he doesn’t hold grudges. In fact he thinks Hammer is a pretty good guy. Harry would never ask the cops for help, but he asks Hammer to find his sister as a favour. Hammer doesn’t owe Harry a thing but in an odd way he’s touched that Harry trusts him.

There will be other bodies in this case. And there will be other girls. Mike is mainly interested in finding Greta but certain events transpire that lead him back to that first dead girl. And there are the négligées. They’re not the sorts of négligées that respectable lady schoolteachers wear, in fact they’re at the kinky end of the nightwear fashion scale,  but a schoolteacher was wearing one rather like the dead girl’s and the schoolteacher is dead as well.

Mike’s buddy, Homicide Captain Pat Chambers, thinks these may be sex murders but Mike has a suspicion there’s more to it than that.

This is an older Mike Hammer compared to the hero of the first six novels. He admits he’s not as quick as he used to be. He’s still just as determined and he still knows how to use his fists (and he’s still not above literally kicking heads).

Velda, his secretary, is still around. Mike still hasn’t married her but she hasn’t given up hope.

Has Mike Hammer mellowed at all? Perhaps a tiny bit, although he always had a certain sensitivity under the brutal exterior. He still has no problem attracting women. He still has no illusions about women but he still has his own odd sense of chivalry. If he senses a certain basic decency in a woman, even if she happens to be a whore, that chivalry kicks in. By 1967 Hammer’s outlook on life was very much out of step with the zeitgeist but he doesn’t care. This may have been the year of the Summer of Love but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book.

In the late 50s and early 50s Spillane’s books were considered to be pretty extreme as far as violence and sleaze were concerned. In the 60s his style hadn’t changed much but by 1967 violence and sleaze were becoming ubiquitous in crime fiction. Spillane still does it with a certain style. Has Spillane mellowed at all? Again, perhaps just a little. He was now middle-aged, very rich and very successful and pretty confident in himself. If critics hated his books he simply didn’t care.

While fifteen to twenty years earlier Spillane was pushing the edge of the envelope when it came to sexual content in crime fiction in 1967 he seems rather coy. Refreshingly so. He’s not interested in describing graphic sex. If characters go to bed together there’s no need to give us a blow-by-blow account.

Spillane also more or less ignores the 1960s. This novel could easily have been written ten years earlier. It seems like a wise decision. When writers try too hard to keep up-to-date the results are usually embarrassing.

The Body Lovers has its share of action and sleaze, it has Mike Hammer still being recognisably Mike Hammer, and it’s great pulpy fun. Recommended.