Tuesday, May 26, 2020

James O. Causey's Killer Take All!

California-born James O. Causey (1924-2003) had a brief but interesting literary career. He wrote for Weird Tales in the 40s, then wrote quite a bit of science fiction. Then in the late 50s he turned out three successful noir crime novels. And then he just pretty much stopped and wrote virtually nothing for the remaining 40-odd years of his life. The first of his noir novels was Killer Take All! which came out in 1957.

Tony Pearson thought he was going to be a champion golfer but after a few months on the tournament circuit he had to face the fact that he just wasn’t good enough. Now he’s assistant pro at a golf club. He has a short temper and plenty of self-pity. Then he runs into Fern Davis on the fairway. A year ago he and Ferm were hopelessly in love and planning to get married but then she married somebody else, a guy called Steve Locke.

Locke works for Max Baird, an ex-gangster trying desperately to be respectable. Max bought himself a country club and a beautiful wife, paying cash for both. The country club is real nice. The wife is a tramp. Now, through a series of accidents, Tony finds himself working for Max. And Tony plays a game of chess and loses, which should have given him the clue but it didn’t.

So what are the things you want in a noir pulp novel and does this one have them? First you want a clever vicious bad guy. This one has that ingredient. You want tough guys. They’re here too. You want beautiful no-good dames. Well it has more than one of those. And you want a nasty twisted plot. Killer Take All! has that too.

You also want a proper noir hero who has managed to get himself into really really deep trouble but he has no idea how it happened. This book scores on that count also. Tony Pearson is playing a deadly game and he’s losing but he doesn’t know he’s losing and he doesn’t know what kind of game he’s playing. He doesn’t know the rules and he doesn’t know who the other players are. But he’d better learn fast or it will be mate in three moves.

Tony Pearson isn’t dumb but he isn’t the smartest guy in the world either. He puts the pieces of the puzzle together but he puts them together wrongly. Then he has another go at making sense of what is happening. He’s wrong again but he has to keep trying. Which he does. And while he’s plucky he’s not much good at fist fights. Or gun fights. What he does have is desperation. If he can’t find the right answer there’s a gas chamber at San Quentin waiting for him. That’s a pretty big incentive to keep trying and not give up.

Then there’s the girl, Fern. He’s pretty sure he can’t trust her but then he thinks that maybe he can, but then again maybe he can’t. She might be in love with him, or with Steve, or with neither, or both. Val is definitely untrustworthy, or maybe she isn’t.

There’s also the matter of a certain painting by Rembrandt, plus there are multiple gangsters.

There’s a fair amount of sleaze. There are the no-good dames who could turn up in anyone’s bed. Then there are the goings-on at the Lee Shore Hotel. No matter what your sexual tastes might be you can indulge them there. The corruption of the police is taken for granted. Tony certainly isn’t dumb enough to trust the cops.

Killer Take All! ticks all the right noir boxes, the pacing is frenetic and the noir atmosphere is laid on with a trowel. It’s tightly constructed, it’s dark and paranoid and it’s very entertaining pulpy fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Smile of Cheng Su

E.P. Thorne’s thriller The Smile of Cheng Su dates from 1946.

E.P. Thorne (1896-1988) is one of those writers who enjoy fairly successful careers during their lifetimes and then disappear completely into oblivion. Thorne wrote at least seventeen mystery/spy thrillers in addition to a considerable number of other books and published them over a span of at least thirty years, which certainly suggests that he was successful enough to encourage him to keep writing. He is now so obscure that all I know about him is that he was English.

Fourteen of his spy thrillers (written between 1946 and 1966) feature Brains Cunningham, an agent for Special Department of the British intelligence services. He investigates a wide variety of crimes and plots. Brains is clearly upper-class and sports a monocle.

The Smile of Cheng Su is the second in the Brains Cunningham series. Although it was published in 1946 the events of the novel take place in September 1939, on the very eve of war.

In the very minor British colony of Saiwei, somewhere in the East, a fisherman is murdered. That’s not so startling but when a senior British police officer is murdered as well the case takes on a distinctly sinister aspect. Brains is despatched to Saiwei to find out what the devil is going on.

On the ship headed for Saiwei Brains gets some hints of at least some of the factors at work in the case. He finds out that there’s a rich businessman named Dimitrios whose activities may well be less than entirely legal. There’s an unsavoury character named Verrier who seems to have an extraordinary passion for oranges. And there’s a ravishing young lady named Daphne. Dimitrios and Verrier will be worth further investigation as they’re obviously up to no good. Daphne will be worth further investigation as well, simply because as far as Brains is concerned ravishing young ladies are always worth investigating.

When he gets to Saiwei he finds some interesting puzzles. Such as the swamp devil. This is of course just a native superstition. Or is it? Brains isn’t convinced. There are all kinds of romantic entanglements which would provide plenty of motives for murder, but those motives unfortunately don’t seem to apply to the actual victims chosen. There’s an English painter who has shocked the local Europeans by shacking up with a native girl and succumbing to the temptations of opium. There’s a luckless young army officer who’s made a fool of himself over both women and gambling. There’s Simone, the glamorous man-eating wife of Dimitrios, who has led a series of men to their ruin.

There’s also an opium-smuggling racket, and possibly other rackets. On the surface Saiwei is a proud little outpost of the British Empire but under the surface there’s a seething ocean of sin and crime. And then there’s Cheng Su, who runs the Mandarin Restaurant, the colony’s m

None of these things would really justify the sending of a secret agent of Brains Cunningham’s calibre to the island but that swamp devil is another matter.

This book seems at first to be merely a mystery novel in an exotic setting. The spy thriller part of the plot doesn’t kick in until late in the book but it is there.

While it was published in 1946 this book has very much the feel of the thrillers of the interwar years. This is an entirely different world from that of the James Bond spy thrillers, the first of which was published just seven years later. Not just different thematically but in style and tone. Cunningham is a gentleman. One could imagine Brains Cunningham lunching with Lord Peter Wimsey at his London club. One could not imagine James Bond doing that.

The background is light years away as well. The Bond novels represented a desperate clinging to the belief that Britain was still a Great Power although both Bond and Ian Fleming knew in their hearts that this was an illusion. The world of The Smile of Cheng Su is a world in which the greatness of the British Empire and the superiority of the British to all other nations is still taken for granted. It is a world of sublime confidence. The British at Saiwei know that Saiwei will remain part of the Empire forever and that the sun will never set on that Empire.

It is also a world in which the deference of the lower classes to their social betters is taken for granted, and the deference of the natives to the sahibs is similarly taken for granted.

This is a world that by 1946 had already passed away.

Personally I like the thrillers of the interwar years and I find their jingoism amusing. In fact I like them because they take place in a vanished world.

The Smile of Cheng Su is a great deal of fun. Recommended.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Charles Forsyte's Murder with Minarets

Charles Forsyte was the pseudonym used by British diplomat Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky for a handful of mystery thrillers beginning with Diplomatic Death in 1961. Not surprisingly several of their books have a diplomatic background, including Murder with Minarets (published in 1968).

Gordon Philo had at one time been posted to Istanbul so it’s no great surprise that they chose Turkey as a setting for Murder with Minarets. Istanbul has been used as a setting for countless spy thrillers and spy movies. It’s just one of those cities that seems ideally suited for the thriller genre. What is unusual is that the authors chose not to set this novel in Istanbul but in the capital, Ankara. Offhand I can’t think of any thrillers that have used Ankara as a setting. But they clearly wanted the events of the novel to take place against the background of the British Embassy in Turkey so Ankara had to be the choice. It doesn’t have the romance of Istanbul but it ended up suiting their purposes. It’s the Embassy staff that is the focus, not the city.

Given that Gordon Philo had an intelligence as well as a diplomatic background what is more surprising is that this is more of a mystery rather than a thriller. In fact it’s a mystery in the golden age mould. Very much so. This is a very old-fashioned book. It could have been written in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. That’s what gives it its charm. The only thing that really marks it as a post-war book is a certain atmosphere of austerity. The characters are low- and mid-level diplomats and they’re by no means rich. They have to live on a tight budget.

Many of the key characters live in the same block of flats in Ankara. The building is used to house Embassy staff but it’s not actually an Embassy building. This is an important point. Had the murders occurred in an Embassy building they would have technically taken place on British soil and while the Turkish police would have been notified as a matter of courtesy they would have had no jurisdiction. But the murders take place on Turkish soil so the Turkish police are very much involved which adds uncomfortable complications. Inspector Zühtü is a very decent fellow, well-disposed towards the British and an honest and competent officer but he is a cop and being a cop he intends to conduct a proper and thorough investigation. Jan Duquesne decides that it would be better if they solved the murders themselves. In fact she decides it would be better if she solved them. So this is a classic golden age tale featuring an amateur detective. Jan however is not just another elderly spinster amateur detective. She is young, attractive and happily married.

As for the plot, it starts with Magda Tranter dying of a heart attack in the bathtub. This brings to an end her stormy marriage with Paul Tranter, a First Secretary at the Embassy. The Tranters live on the same floor as Tom and Barbara Hadley and the Hadleys will be in the thick of things. As will Charles and Laura O’Halloran on the floor below and Peter Milner-Browne, a young acid-tongued Second Secretary living on the floor above. Also in the picture are Stephen and Jan Duquesne, who live elsewhere. These are all members of the Embassy staff and their wives. Rounding off the cast of characters are a number of non-diplomats - second-rate violinist (but first-rate womaniser) Francis Allardyce and his painter wife Doune, Peter Milner-Browne’s archaeologist elder brother Christopher and Jan Duquesne’s kid sister Gina (staying with Jan while recovering from a broken heart).

The second death seems like an obvious case of accidental death (electrocution due to faulty wiring). But two sudden deaths within two weeks among the small close-knit British diplomatic community is just a bit too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.

And there are indications that may point towards motives for murder. There’s the likelihood of blackmail and there’s adultery. Almost any of the cast of characters mentioned above could conceivably be mixed up in such things.

There are ingenious murder methods and some pretty neat plot twists, and plenty of red herrings. The setting is mostly useful in that it provides a perfect setup for a classic golden age murder mystery with a dozen or so characters one of whom must be the murderer (there are circumstances that make it quite clear than no outsider could have been involved). There is one nice exotic touch, a key scene that takes place in a ruined castle on the coast.

It’s all fairly genteel. There’s no bad language, not much violence and not much sex (although there are implied sexual shenanigans). As I said earlier the feel is very much of the golden age rather than the 1960s. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable with a good mystery plot, a few touches of suspense and just the tiniest hint of International intrigue. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

G-8 and his Battle Aces #1 The Bat Staffel

Robert J. Hogan (1897–1963) was an American pulp writer, best known for his aviation adventure stories. He wrote the Red Falcon and Smoke Wade stories for Popular Publications and from 1933 wrote 110 issues of the G-8 and his Battle Aces pulp magazine, each issue including a short novel. Hogan had trailed as a pilot during the First World War so wartime aviation stories were obvious subject matter for him. He also wrote seven Mysterious Wu Fang Yellow Peril pulp novels and later turned to westerns.

The Bat Staffel was the first of the G-8 and his Battle Aces novels. The hero is an American aviator and spy code-named G-8. There’s plenty of air combat (with G-8 almost single-handedly winning the air war) but there are some mild science fiction elements and hints of the occult and the supernatural although Hogan’s novel is not as outrageous (or as imaginative) as Donald Keyhoe’s roughly contemporary stories about Captain Philip Strange, the Brain-Devil.

There’s an evil German mad scientist, Herr Doctor Kreuger, who has come across mediæval legends of giant bats spreading death and destruction across the countryside with their poisonous bat breath. He decides that those giant bats will fly again, devastating France and allowing Germany to win the war. G-8’s job is to discover whether these giant bats are actual bats or ingenious machines, and to find a way to stop them.

G-8 gets some help from two heroic American flyers, Nippy Weston and Bull Martin. This gives G-8 the opportunity to explain crucial plot points to his side-kicks. In the process they shoot down most of the Imperial German Air Force. What chance do fifty Fokkers have against three Americans in their trusty Spads?

Hogan resorts to quite a few standard pulp plot devices. The chief villain, instead of doing the sensible thing and just shooting G-8 out of hand as a spy, carefully explains all the details of his master plan to him first and then of course G-8 escapes. Pulp villains just never learn not to do that. And the Germans just don’t seem to be able to tie up prisoners in such a way that they cannot escape. Of course it goes without saying that the Germans are all lousy shots, whether in the air or on the ground while G-8 and his buddies rarely miss. The Germans are all either evil or they’re fools. But of course this is what the pulp readership expected and wanted. Hogan understand his market.

The bats and their poison bat breath are a nicely sinister touch. The bats are almost impossible to destroy which makes them a suitably terrifying menace.

Hogan certainly knew how to pace a pulp story. This one hits the ground running and the action don’t let up. There are no romantic sub-plots to distract from the action (the readership of such tales was not going to want any soppy romance stuff). There’s no characterisation to speak of. G-8 is a square-jawed all-American action hero. The villain  is pure evil and degeneracy personified.

There are some plot holes but it’s pulp fiction and it’s fast-moving and the readers were unlikely to notice such details.

It might seem like I’m damning The Bat Staffel with faint praise but it’s actually pretty good fun. This is pulp fiction that is very very pulpy. As First World War aviation adventures go it’s not as good as Donald Keyhoe’s Strange War or The Vanished Legion but it’s still quite enjoyable and if you like air combat stories with a few hints of science fiction and weird fiction then I’d recommend it.

Adventure House have republished The Bat Staffel as well as quite a few of the other G-8 and his Battle Aces novels. Their edition also includes a short story by R. Sidney Bowen, The Floating Runt (which has been included in the original pulp magazine as well). It’s a rather contrived story about the rivalry between a pilot and a balloon observer. It's not great but since it's essentially a free added extra it would be churlish to complain too much.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Reno Tramp

Reno Tramp is one of those salacious sensational American sex and sin pulp novels that were so popular in the 1950s (this one was published in 1950). At the time they were considered to be very racy indeed although today they obviously seem very tame and it’s hard to imagine just how disreputable they were considered to be at the time. One of the leading writers of such fiction was Florence Stonebreaker (1896-1977). She wrote a lot of them (she wrote eleven novels in 1952 alone) and wrote slightly more respectable romance novels as well.

Brenda is in trouble. She’s in Reno and she’s been living with a guy called Charley. Which has been nice since he’s spent lots of money on her. Now Charley has lost all his dough on the roulette tables so naturally she’s told him that she’s through with him. And Charley is not being sensible about it. Surely he must understand that if he now has no money  then it’s all over. What use is he to her with no money? He’s even been unreasonable enough to have sex with her before telling her he’s lost all his money, which means she’s just had sex with him for no reason. And now he’s waving a gun about and talking about shooting himself, which is incredibly inconsiderate of him. When she packs her bag and closes the door behind her she hears the shot and now she’s in an awkward spot. What if the police think she shot him?

The only one she can think of to turn to for help is gambling racketeer Carter Kemp, owner of the Blue Jug Club. That means she’ll have to become one of Carter’s girls. That means being a whore and Brenda might be a tramp and a tart but she’s not actually a whore. Well maybe once or twice but that doesn’t count. Those were emergencies and when a girl needs money urgently what is she to do?

Carter claims his girls are not technically prostitutes. If one of the patrons at the club wants a girl for an evening, or even just for an hour or two, Carter introduces him to one of his girls. He’ll even arrange a private room for them, so they can get to know each other better. But once they enter the private room if money then changes hands how is Carter supposed to know that is going on? If he knew such things were going on that would mean that he was running a house of prostitution. Perish the thought. In fact Carter makes his money from the suckers at the gambling tables, not from his girls. The girls are just free entertainment for the suckers.

Carter can indeed help her out of her jam and offer her a job as one of his girls, but she will need to do a couple of favours for him. The first favour is obvious - Carter always likes to sample the merchandise he provides for his customers. The second favour is more complicated and is likely to lead Brenda into all sorts of even further complications.

Sex is a deadly weapon but for Brenda it’s as dangerous to herself as it is to the men whose paths she crosses. Love is a deadly weapon too but she doesn’t need to worry about that. Love is for suckers. It’s so tiresome when guys fall in love with her. She always knows when it’s happening.  Like with Johnny. When he slaps her real hard she knows he’s in love with her. She doesn’t actually want to hurt him but if he gets hurt that’s his problem. Still, the sex with Johnny is kinda nice. But guys with no money have no right to fall for her.

The story is told entirely from Brenda’s point of view and what makes her interesting as a character is her extraordinary lack of awareness of the situations she’s getting into and even of her own nature. She is ambitious. She knows what she wants. She wants money. Lots of it. Unfortunately she has no coherent plan for achieving this. She has a breathtaking body and she should be able to use it to make big money, either by marrying a rich sucker or as a high-class prostitute. Instead she’s wasted her efforts on snaring small-timers and she’s allowed lust to cloud her judgment - she’s gone for good-looking guys who have some money but not enough to give her the big buck she craves.

When Carter Kemp tells her to take her clothes off so he can inspect the merchandise she  is shocked and horrified. He’s not even good-looking. At the same time, as Carter runs his eyes approvingly across her naked body she finds herself really enjoying the experience. Especially when he gives her the sort of look that a master gives to his slave. That really excites her. She uses sex to get things out of men but she has no understanding of her own sexual feelings. She thinks she only has sex to get money and for the life of her she can’t figure out why sometimes she just wants to give herself to some men. She is 23 but she hasn’t grown up at all since she gave away her virginity (to a boy who didn’t even have money - she was so dumb in those days).

There’s an immense amount of sex in this novel, and not a single instance of it between people who are married to each other. This was 1950 so of course none of it is in any way graphic but it still manages to be plenty sleazy. It’s the feelings evoked rather than the actual acts that provides the sleaze content - things like naked girls being inspected like slabs of meat and beatings as foreplay (which Brenda finds very arousing). It’s very open about things like prostitution, and even about the male prostitutes who service rich women who get bored and lonely waiting for their divorces in Reno (and they’re out-and-out prostitutes rather than mere gigolos).

This is of course an incredibly trashy novel, a representative of an incredibly trashy genre. But it’s surprisingly well-crafted entertaining trash. And Brenda is in her own way more interesting than you might expect - she’s too scheming and selfish to be a heroine and too ruthless to be a victim but at the same time she’s too vulnerable to be a femme fatale. She doesn’t even know if she is really a whore, or if she really wants to be a whore. She hasn’t thought any of it through. It’s not just that she doesn’t understand love. She doesn’t even understand sex. She’s selfish in the way a child is selfish but she’s not evil - you have to know that what you’re doing is wrong to be evil.

Will this bad girl get what she deserves? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Reno Tramp is obviously most interesting as an example of the disreputable side of 50s pop culture. Like exploitation movies these books practised a balancing act, offering as many sleazy sexy thrills as they could without going far enough to get the publishers closed down. It’s often forgotten that there was more to 50s pop culture than Leave It To Beaver or Doris Day movies. Under the resectable surface of that decade there was plenty of interest in sex, including illicit sex (or maybe especially illicit sex).

It’s interesting to compare Reno Tramp to Ward Miller’s Kitten With a Whip, from a few years later and from a different but closely related genre. Both deal with young women whose sexual power is more dangerous than nitro-glycerine and just as unpredictable. And both dealing with young women who are deadly because they themselves don’t really understand what sex can do to them, or to men.

And Reno Tramp is definitely sleazy fun. Recommended.