Friday, June 26, 2020

Leslie Charteris's The Saint in Europe, and on TV

This is another instalment in my ongoing project to compare episodes of classic television series from the 1950s-1970s with their literary sources. In this case I’ve reviewed the 1953 Leslie Charteris collection The Saint in Europe and then I've looked at the adaptations of those stories in the 1960s The Saint TV series.

The Saint in Europe is from the final stage of the Saint's evolution as a character and it's that final incarnation on which the portrayal of the character in the TV series was based so it seems like the comparisons could be interesting.

Here's the link to my review and the comparisons at my Cult TV Lounge blog.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill

The Big Kill is the fifth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. It was published in 1951.

Things have become so bad in New York City that a guy like Mike Hammer can’t even walk into a sleazy bar to have a quiet drink without ending up being a witness to a murder. This is a murder that really gets to Hammer. This guy walks into the bar with a little kid, only about a year old. The guy starts crying (and Mike finds that pretty disturbing) and then walks out the door, leaving the kid behind, and gets bumped off. Mike has the feeling that the guy knew he was about to die.

Seeing a kid made into an orphan in front of his eyes does something to Mike. He even volunteers to look after the child until the proper agencies can be contacted. Then Mike sets out to find the killer.

At first it seems like it’s a case of the consequences of a burglary gone wrong. The problem with that is that the dead man had been a professional safe-cracker but he had gone straight and everybody who knew the guy assures Mike that he truly was a reformed character. Hammer is inclined to believe them, but the guy definitely did rob the apartment of one-time minor movie star Marsha Lee. But why?

Captain Pat Chambers of the Homicide Squad has a theory but Mike thinks there’s something much bigger behind it.

This is classic Spillane, rough and tough and as hard-boiled as you could wish. And, as is so often the case in the Mike Hammer stories, it’s Hammer’s sensitive side that drives him on. He just keeps thinking about that orphaned kid. It’s Hammer’s sensitive side that drives him even when he’s pulling the trigger of his .45 and blowing away hoodlums. Hammer is ruthless but he has a highly developed sense of right and wrong.

He also has a tendency to take cases personally. Mostly he’s happy for the criminal justice system to take its course but there are times when he’d much prefer to be judge, jury and executioner. And in this case he really wants to pull the trigger on the guy that killed that kid’s father.

Spillane wrote the Mike Hammer books in two batches. Six were written between 1947 and 1952. After a ten-year break Spillane returned to the series and wrote seven more books. Reading one of the later books recently (The Body Lovers, from 1967) I had the impression that Mike Hammer had mellowed somewhat. Reading The Big Kill confirms that impression. The later Hammer is still a tough guy but he doesn’t seem to take quite the same pleasure from inflicting physical violence as he did in earlier years. It actually makes sense. It’s made clear in The Body Lovers that this really is an older Mike Hammer. Maybe a bit wiser and a bit sadder.

Mike’s skirt-chasing also seems more frenetic in The Big Kill than in The Body Lovers.

There’s also the question of whether Spillane himself had mellowed. This would make sense. He was in his late 20s when he wrote the first Mike Hammer book and he was in his mid-40s when he took up the series again. The early Mike Hammer was a young character created by a young writer. The later version was a middle-aged character created by a middle-aged writer.

Spillane was definitely in the groove when he wrote The Big Kill. It has all the classic Spillane touches. Spillane is not an author for everyone but if you like his stuff then this one is highly recommended.

I've also reviewed several earlier Mike Hammer novels, including I, The Jury.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Clifford Ball’s sword & sorcery tales

Clifford Ball (1896-1947) was an American writer who had half a dozen stories published in Weird Tales between 1937 and 1941 after which he vanished into obscurity. The reason he matters is that after the death of Robert E. Howard in 1936 Ball was one of the first writers to pick up the sword & sorcery torch that Howard had dropped. Ball’s first three stories fall firmly within the sword & sorcery genre.

The first story, Duar the Accursed, was published in Weird Tales in May 1937.

Duar, a barbarian warrior who has been in his time a king and a pirate, is brought in chains before Queen Nione of Ygoth. Later, in her dungeon, an apparition of light appears to him, reminding him of things he has forgotten. It seems that he has forgotten much. The apparition, in the shape of a beautiful woman, commands him to go to the Black Tower of Goth wherein he will find the Rose of Gaon. The Black Tower is where the worst of criminals are sent, to await an unknown but doubtless horrible fate.

Duar would seem to be a man with a destiny, if only he could remember what that destiny might be. What he does know is that he was once a king and he wants to be a king again.  He would also like a queen to possess and Nione is beautiful and she is definitely a queen. Whether Duar discovers his destiny, whether he gets to possess Nione and what the secret of the Rose of Gaon might be - you’ll have to read the story yourself.

This is a decent enough sword & sorcery tale. Obviously it lacks the driving energy of Robert E. Howard’s stories, it lacks the decadent strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith’s tales and the imagination of C. L. Moore’s. It’s something of a by-the-numbers attempt at the genre but it’s enjoyable. And Duar has the potential to be an interesting hero. For sword & sorcery fans it’s worth a look.

The Thief of Forthe appeared in the July 1937 issue of Weird Tales. The magician Karlk and the thief Rald have hatched a plan to steal something that will rock the kingdom of Forthe to its foundations - they intend to steal nothing less than the kingdom itself. Or at least to steal the means whereby to gain the kingdom. For Karlk it will mean being the power behind the throne. For Rald it will mean the throne itself. And he might, if he’s lucky, even get to possess the king’s sister as well. The Lady Thrine is both beautiful and spirited. To possess her would be every bit as pleasant as to possess the kingdom.

When you have both a beautiful woman and a wizard to deal with things are apt to become a mite unpredictable.

Rald will also have cause to wonder if some of the more terrible rumours about Karlk might be true.

This story confirms the impression made by Duar the Accursed. Ball does not attempt anything in the way of full-blooded action scenes, which may have been a wise decision. To do so would have meant trying to match Robert E. Howard’s mastery of such scenes and that’s something very few writers have been able to do. Compared to Howard the eroticism is not quite there either. Having said that I have to add that it’s another perfectly competent sword & sorcery adventure.

The Goddess Awakes, published in Weird Tales in February 1938, is the third instalment of the adventures of thief-adventurer Rald. Rald and his comrade Thwaine have been serving the king of Livia as mercenaries but now the king’s army has been destroyed and the survivors, including Rald and Thwaine, are being hunted by the victors. They find themselves captured by an army of women, in a land ruled by women.

Queen Cene rules here, or does she actually rule? Is there another power here? Perhaps a supernatural power and perhaps not, but certainly malevolent. Is it some hitherto unknown goddess? Rald and Thwaine do not yet know what fate they are about to confront in the arena in this strange queendom.

This is the strongest of the three stories, with genuine menace and weirdness. The nature of the goddess is a clever idea. There’s also real tension.

While Ball might not have been another Robert E. Howard he did have talent. The potential was certainly there, each story is better than the preceding one, and overall these three tales (especially The Goddess Awakes) are actually pretty good. It’s a great pity that this author’s career was so short-lived.

Clifford Ball's half-dozen published stories, including these three sword & sorcery tales, have been reprinted by DMR Books as The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Carter Brown's No Harp for My Angel

Alan Yates (1923-1985) was an English-born Australian writer of crime fiction under the name Carter Brown and he was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He wrote round 300 novels. In his lifetime he was also one of the world’s most successful novelists, selling around 120 million books. He’s one of those writers who enjoys immense success followed by almost complete obscurity. His best-known series character was Lieutenant Al Wheeler, a homicide cop in LA. No Harp for My Angel, published in 1956, is one of the earlier Al Wheeler mysteries.

Al Wheeler is enjoying his vacation in Florida. Especially when he meets cute green-eyed redhead Julie Adams. Julie warns him that her boyfriend, a guy named Johnny Lynch, is really big, really mean and really jealous. To Al that just makes Julie seem even more desirable. He’s just that kind of guy.

Of course this is before Al meets Zero. Zero is Lynch’s henchman. Julie had described Zero to him as being about seven feet tall and built like a gorilla. She wasn’t exaggerating. Al wakes up in the local police headquarters to discover that he’s about to be booked for drunk driving and crashing a car into plate-glass window. The last thing Al can remember is Zero picking him up like he was a kitten. Lieutenant Ben Jordan (an old buddy) offers Al a proposal. He wants Al to pose as a big noise Chicago racketeer and he wants Al to annoy Lynch so that Lynch will do something stupid. Al thinks this is a terrible idea but Ben persuades him by threatening to book him on all those charges outstanding from the car incident. Never trust an old buddy, especially when the old buddy is a cop.

Lieutenant Jordan is worried about those missing dames. Four of them. All nice girls from nice families. Rich families. Girls disappear from time to time, but not these kinds of girls. And all four girls had been gambling in Johnny Lynch’s club, the Paradise. It’s a thin connection but it’s the only lead Jordan has, plus he’s pretty curious about Lynch and about all the hoodlums in town are scared of him. Nobody had even heard of Lynch until  few months earlier.

Al certainly gets Lynch’s attention. That’s good. He also attracts the attention of a Syndicate guy from Chicago. That’s maybe not so good. Al definitely has no trouble getting the attention of women. He has Julie throwing herself at him and he has Dawn doing the same thing. Dawn is the best friend of one of the missing girls and she’s been persuaded by Al and Lieutenant Jordan to act as a decoy.

Having Lynch and maybe the Mob wanting to kill him is troublesome enough but an even bigger problem is trying to make sure Julie and Dawn don’t kill each other. Specially after Dawn ties up Julie with her own girdle and a bedsheet. These two girls don’t like other girls messing with their man, and they both consider Al to be their man.

As you may have gathered Al Wheeler likes women. He likes them a lot. He also likes booze. He like women so much you might wonder how he finds time for anything else.

I’d describe this book as Hardboiled Lite. It has a hard-boiled flavour but without the grim overtly pessimistic edge. There’s a slight tongue-in-cheek flavour as well, enough to disqualify it as noir fiction. It’s fast-moving fun. There’s some violence but nothing graphic.

Apart from his early encounter with Zero most of the violence Al encounters is at the hands of Dawn (who slugs him after discovering Julie in his bedroom). Oh, and Julie tries to drown him. These women are hard to handle. Al doesn’t hit women. Well, OK, he does, but only when he has to. I mean if a dame is about to walk into your bedroom and you’v got another dame stashed in the what can you do? You knock her unconscious. But gently.

The tongue-in-cheek tinge is not enough to detract from an exciting tale of mystery and suspense but it does give the novel the feel of a hardboiled romp. I mentioned in an earlier Carter Brown review that he reminds me just a little of Peter Cheyney’s Lemmy Caution books (such as Never a Dull Moment and I’ll Say She Does!) and I stand by that. The emphasis is on fun, with plenty of guns, dames and wisecracks.

No Harp for My Angel might be pulpy trash but it’s incredibly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Nictzin Dyalhis’s The Sapphire Goddess

The Sapphire Goddess collects all of Nictzin Dyalhis’s stories that appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 to 1940.

Nictzin Dyalhis 1873-1942 was an American pulp writer who was extremely successful in obscuring the details of his own life. His birth date and place of birth are both uncertain and while Nictzin Dyalhis seems to have been his legal name it may or may not have been his birth name.

Dyalhis was a remarkably unproductive writer, producing just thirteen short stories in a period of eighteen years. Eight of the stories were published in Weird Tales. He should therefore be little more than a footnote in the history of pulp fiction except for one thing - he was exceptionally popular with the readers of Weird Tales.

When the Green Star Waned marked the author’s first appearance in Weird Tales (in April 1925). At first you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a space opera. In fact it does have some science fictional elements but it’s more a fantasy with a dash of horror. It’s probably best to think of it simply as weird fiction. There’s also a preoccupation with good and evil and even perhaps a hint of some religious themes.

The planet Venhez constantly monitors everything that happens on its neighbouring worlds and recently there appears to be nothing at all happening on the planet Aerth. It’s as if the entire population of that world has vanished. An expedition is despatched to Aerth, each of the seven members being the acknowledged leader in his field (fields such as war, diplomacy, science and medicine). What they find is unimaginably horrifying.

Of course once you find out that one of Venhez’s other neighbouring planets is named Marhz you’re going to really that the story takes place in our own solar system, but in the very distant future.

Aerth has been taken over but the nature of the invaders is bizarre indeed. It seems impossible to defeat them , or even to fight them at all, but such evil cannot be allowed to continue to exist.

I’m not sure that this could be described as a good story but it’s interesting in its own way and you do have to remember that it was written in 1925 at which time some of ideas in it were quite original.

The Eternal Conflict, also published in Weird Tales in 1925, is much stranger. It’s a cosmic battle between good and evil. On one side there’s with a kind of goddess of love but she’s really an archangel and on the other side there’s the power of hate represented by Lucifer. They hurl lightning bolts and similar things at each other. And the battles take place in outer space, or at least in the Aether. It’s a mishmash of Christianity and mystic occultism. The hero is a middle-aged businessman who is a student of the occult and serves the power of love.

It has affinities to When the Green Star Waned but without the science fictional elements. It’s fantasy, but with spiritual overtones. I’m afraid it’s not my cup of tea at all.

He Refused to Stay Dead was published in Ghost Stories in 1927. I suppose it could be called a ghost story, but an unconventional one. A soldier, prematurely aged by a great shock, recounts the events that left him a wreck of man. After serving in the First World War he had married a strange girl named Edwina, a girl with a fascination for folklore and the occult.

The soldier happens to own a castle. A very old castle, dating from the ninth century. His new wife discovers that there’s more to the ghost that supposedly haunts the castle than had been supposed. It’s all connected to terrible events that happened more than a thousand years in the past, events set in motion by a Viking raid.

This is a much much better story, involving a past that won’t stay dead and an old old quarrel that must be resolved. If the soldier cannot resolve it he will lose the love of his life. A very good story.

The Dark Lore appeared in Weird Tales in 1927. It’s the story of Lyra Veyle, recounted by herself. She had been a beautiful dark-haired young woman but filled with pride. She had a sister, blonde and virtuous. The sister loved a fine man and that drove Lura to commit a terrible sin. She made use of evil incantations and summoned a demon, a handsome demon who became her lover. But loving a demon is not a very good idea and Lura is cast into a nightmare of sin and debauchery, and then cast aside. She is already in Hell but she discovers that there are even worse Hells. And even greater debaucheries.

Dyalhis’s vision of Hell is outlandishly over-the-top. Lura encounters unimaginable horrors and the worst thing is that even death will provide no escape. In these Hells you can just keep on dying.

Again Dyalhis offers us a struggle between good and evil but the main focus is on Lura’s own inner torment - she knows that she deserves her suffering. Apart from the mystical quasi-science fictional cosmic visions that we’re starting to expect from this author there’s an obsession with sin and also sexual depravity. It’s actually quite a strong story.

The Oath of Hul Jok (published in Weird Tales in 1928) is a sequel to When the Green Star Waned. The seven leading Vehnezians are all having troubles with their women. The evil creature they captured in the earlier story seems to be behind this. If there’s one thing that Venhezians will not tolerate it is anyone messing with their Love-Girls. The war leader Hul Jok’s Love-Girl has been so troublesome than even a spanking failed to bring her into line.

The Love-Girls are kidnapped by the Lunarian who intends taking them back to Aerth and having all seven of them as his wives. Aerth meanwhile is now controlled by creatures that  are half-human and half-monster. One of whom, a female, wants to be the wife of all seven Venezhians.

This is more space opera than fantasy. It’s also rather disturbing. The Venezhians are supposedly the good guys, the most civilised culture in the solar system, but their vengeance is quite blood-curdling in its calculated cruelty and ferocity. One can only speculate as to the source of the author’s taste for refinements of bloodthirstiness. There’s also, as in some of his other tales, something of an obsession with sexual depravity. The Venezhians are rather terrifyingly possessive of their Love-Girls. One can also speculate on the source of this obsession and I can think of some plausible explanations which I have no intention of going into. There’s a lot of weirdness here but it’s morbidly fascinating.

The Red Witch (published in Weird Tales in 1932) bears some thematic similarities to He Refused to Stay Dead. Once again we have a hero and a heroine trapped in the grip of the distant past. Randall Crone and his beloved, Rhoda Day, were once a young warrior and his wife in the primitive world of the last Ice Age. She was Red Dawn, the Red Witch of one of the tribes. There was a mighty war-axe and an equally mighty warrior who sought to steal Red Dawn. There was love and betrayal and a thirst for vengeance and those things never die. And old quarrels are not forgotten even after thousands of years.

These were themes that clearly obsessed Dyalhis and he handles with skill and energy. A very good story.

The Sapphire Goddess (AKA The Sapphire Siren) appeared in Weird Tales in 1934. There are the usual Dyalhis obsessions with the past and with shifting identities. Reincarnation was a popular notion at that time but while Dyalhis flirts with the idea he avoids being too obvious or simplistic about it. Once again there’s a hero who finds himself in a sort of alternative reality and this time it’s a classic sword & sorcery world, and indeed this is to a large extent a sword & sorcery tale although it owes more to Catherine L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith than to Robert E. Howard.

There’s plenty of action, there’s magic, there are two evil sorcerers and there’s a giant sapphire shaped in the form of a beautiful nude woman but is it really just a jewel? There’s also a hero in search of both his past and his destiny. And it’s all great fun. A very good story indeed.

The Sea-Witch was published in Weird Tales in 1937. The narrator, obviously no longer a young man, lives in a cottage on a cliff-top on the New England coast. For some unaccountable reason he decides to take a walk along the shore-line in the middle of a raging tempest and he sees something extraordinary washed up on the beach. It is a young woman. She is extremely beautiful and extremely naked. More unsettling is the fact that she seems oblivious to both the cold and to her own nakedness. Naturally he takes her back to his cottage. He finds some clothes for her but she declares that, despite the bitter cold, it is much too warm to wear clothing. Even more disconcertingly she offers to be his slave.

It’s the sort of offer that a retired anthropologist, ethnologist and archaeologist (for that is what the narrator John Craig is) can hardly refuse. He is familiar with the Norse sagas and he knows he’s dealing with a witch, but not a witch in the Christian sense. She is a Norse witch, possessed of great powers, and she can be frightening but she is by no means evil. She is charming (if disturbing) and will be a fascinating object of study for a man well-versed in Norse lore.

She moves into his cottage, presenting herself to the world as his niece. Their relationship is platonic. Well, sort of platonic. She takes her clothes off a great deal and she’s rather an affectionate girl. John Craig is not entirely indifferent to her naked charms even if he is (mostly) able to convince himself that he loves her as a niece. But why did she come to him that day on the beach and was does she want? The answer is a terrible one and it lies in the distant past (which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read of a few of Dyalhis’s stories). There’s a lot of suppressed eroticism in this extremely fine tale.

Dyalhis’s final story, Heart of Atlantan, appeared in Weird Tales in 1940. Two men are obsessed with the idea of discovering the secrets of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. They are able to make contact with Tekala, priestess of Atlantan. A struggle for power between good and evil had taken place in that long-ago civilisation and Tekala believes she was responsible for its final fall. Can Tekala and the two men of the 20th century defy Destiny? Can anyone do such a thing? And what price would have to be paid? Another very fine story to round off this fascinating collection.

I think I can now see why Dyalhis wrote so few stories. He had certain obsessions to which he returned again and again. Had he been a prolific author such obsessions might have become repetitive. By limiting itself to a handful of tales he was able to take the same themes and play fascinating variations on them.

He Refused to Stay Dead, The Red Witch, The Sapphire Goddess and The Sea-Witch are all variations on one theme and they’re all interesting variations. They’re by far the strongest stories he wrote.

I can also see now why Dyalhis was so highly thought of by contemporary readers of Weird Tales. His best stories are stories of love and revenge, erotically charged and with just a dash of the decadence of Clark Ashton Smith. Dyalhis was also a writer who seemed to improve with each story that he wrote. The Sapphire Goddess is an uneven but intriguing collection. The better stories are very very good indeed. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sin Hellcat

Before making names for themselves as crime writers Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake kept body and soul together by churning out lurid paperback erotica for published like Midwood Books and Nightstand Books. They wrote countless such books including five in collaboration, the third of which was Sin Hellcat, published by Nightstand Books in 1962. For what it’s worth it was Block’s favourite of the five collaborations.

The sin hellcat of the title is Jodi but much of the book is taken up by the reminiscences of the narrator, Harvey. He’s a successful advertising executive, very unhappily married and not liking his job very much. Not that he had ever had any real ambitions, except to be a success. He didn’t care what he did, as long as he was a success. At the time he first met Jodi, twelve years earlier, he was majoring in English at college. Jodi wasn’t his first girlfriend but she was the who had the most impact on him. Maybe he should have married her but he didn’t love her and she didn’t love him and they thought that that mattered.

Jodi is now a success as well. She makes twelve thousand a year (a vast amount of money in 1962) as a high-class whore. Now their paths have crossed again and he remembers their long ago affair, and he remembers his other affairs. All of which now seem much more attractive to him than his marriage. It’s clear that his marriage is both loveless and sexless.

Now he’s run into Jodi again and (after a night of passion together) she has a proposition for him. It sounds easy, illegal, lucrative and fun and it certainly appeals to him more than going home to his wife. All he and Jodi have to do is take a package to Brazil. That’s all. The package turns out to be something they had not anticipated. No, it’s not drugs or diamonds or guns or military secrets or anything like that. It’s not even exactly immoral, but it is a very awkward package.

Harvey Christopher is an odd character. He’s been motivated by selfishness but somehow it hasn’t worked out. He’s got the things he thought he wanted but they didn’t make him happy and the things that might have made him happy he didn’t manage to hang on to. Like Jodi. He just can’t forget Jodi. It’s not like he’s still in love with her because he never was in love with her, but he was happy with her. Now she’s a whore but at least that’s an honest living compared to advertising.

Harvey isn’t really a bad guy. He just hasn’t quite figured life out. He’s found out what he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want the life he’s got. But he doesn’t know what to do about it. Jodi isn’t quite the Whore with a Heart of Gold but she’s not a bad person either. She’s in much the same position as Harvey. She makes a lot of money as a prostitute and she has a really nice apartment in Manhattan and she’s not unhappy but she isn’t really happy either. Life and love and sex have turned out to be pretty complicated for both of them.

These sorts of books were of course little more than a succession of sexual escapades. By today’s standards they’re incredibly tame. That’s what makes them interesting - the authors had to describe the sexual encounters in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt as to what was going on but without being able to be too graphic. It was a balancing act. They had to provide enough detail for the reader to know exactly what kinds of sexual acts were being described, but without going into too much detail. Which makes them naughty fun rather than anything even remotely approximating to pornography.

They’re even more fun when, as is the case with this novel, the authors could actually write. Westlake and Block have the knack of generating some sexual heat but without enough actual fire that might get the publishers shut down or arrested. It’s the art of titillation and these two writers do it well. It’s like old-school burlesque where you always think the girls are going to show you a great deal and they never show you quite as much as you expect, but you enjoy the show anyway. It’s just graphic enough to have been considered very racy indeed by the standards of 1962.

They also manage to provide a certain amount of wit and amusement.

It’s all done in a way that is a lot less crass than most of what you’ll encounter in modern mainstream Hollywood movies or mainstream literature. It’s both naughty and innocent and it’s cheerfully and playfully trashy. And trashy and sleazy it most certainly is, but the trash of 60 years ago is a lot more enticing than the trash of today. If you like vintage trash sleaze fiction you could do a lot worse. Sin Hellcat is recommended, if this is your sort of thing