Friday, July 24, 2020

John McPartland’s Big Red's Daughter

John McPartland’s Big Red's Daughter is a 1953 pulp crime novel. Chicago-born John McPartland (1911-1958) had a reasonable successful career as a novelist and screenwriter before his untimely death at the age of 47.

Big Red's Daughter tells the tale of 25-year-old Jim Work, fresh out of the army after a stint in Korea and now a college student on the GI Bill, living in Carmel in California. Jim’s problems begin when he has a minor car accident. The other driver, Buddy Brown, is a mean tough rich boy thug and it’s immediately obvious that Jim and Buddy are not going to get along. Of course there’s no reason their paths should ever cross again, or at least there would be no reason except for Wild Kearny. It’s not just that Wild is beautiful. She is, as far as Jim is concerned, the one. The one girl he wants and must have. Unfortunately Wild is Buddy’s girlfriend.

Jim is way out of his depth. The crowd Wild hangs around with are rich privileged kids and that’s a world Jim Work is never going to fit into. Jim knows that the sensible thing is to walk away from the situation and keep walking, but the moment he set eyes on Wild Kearny he knew he wasn’t going to be able to do that.

Of course Jim knows that either he’s going to have to kill Buddy Brown, or Buddy Brown will have to kill him.

There are lots of added complications, a big one being Wild’s friend Penelope (Pen)  Brooks. Pen has exactly the same deeply unhealthy sexual obsession with Buddy that Wild has. The two women are rivals for the love of the same bad boy and women in that situation can be pretty dangerous.

There are enough overheated sexual passions and jealousies here to lead to big trouble so it’s no surprise that they lead to murder. The circumstances of the murder are ambiguous. To the police there’s an easy solution and cops like easy solutions. If you have an obvious suspect you make an arrest.

There’s another slight complication - Wild’s father. Red Kearny is not a gangster but he’s a union boss with enough muscle and money behind him to make even gangsters nervous. Red Kearny loves his little girl and if he thinks someone is going to hurt her then that someone is liable to end up dead.

For Jim it’s all a nightmare and there doesn’t seem to be a way out but there are two things that will keep him fighting - his overwhelming love for Wold Kearny and his overwhelming hatred for Buddy Brown.

There are countless fist fights but they aren’t conducted according to the Marquess of Queensbury rules. The aim is survival and to survive you use whatever means are necessary. This is a tough mean book about tough mean people. People don’t die neatly or easily in this book.

And there are lots more plot twists. There’s more to Wild’s friends than meets the eye. There’s more to Buddy Brown than meets the eye as well.

Jim is the narrator and he thinks he has things figured out. Maybe he does, or maybe he’s dead wrong.

There’s plenty of excitement here. Every time Jim looks like just maybe he might drag himself out of the hole he’s in some new nightmare confronts him and the nightmares just keep coming. It all moves along at a frenetic pace.

There’s no graphic sex but sex is what drives the story along. These are people driven by sexual lust and that applies to all of the men and all of the women. There’s not a single healthy emotional relationship between the whole lot of them. Just to make things nastier some are driven by greed as well. And hate. And fear. There’s lots of desperation and lots of sleaze.

This is classic noir stuff and classic pulp stuff. If that’s what you like then you should find Big Red's Daughter to be a very satisfying read. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Copenhagen Affair (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel)

The Copenhagen Affair is an original novel by John Oram published in 1965 and based on the hit television spy series of the 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

John Oram Thomas (1906-1992) was a Welsh writer who wrote two Man From U.N.C.L.E. novels as John Oram. He also wrote a non-fiction history of the World War 2 Danish Resistance movement and in fact there are constant references to the war and to the Resistance in The Copenhagen Affair.

On a business trip to Copenhagen Mike Stanning meets a girl named Norah. They get quite friendly. In fact they get very friendly indeed.  And then Norah has an unfortunate accident, But before the accident she gives Mike a package, to be delivered to Alexander Waverley at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in New York. Mike also encounters Major Garbridge, and a rather unpleasant encounter it is.

The package contains film of flying saucers. But these are not flying saucers piloted by little green men. They are flying saucers piloted by T.H.R.U.S.H. agents. No-one knows why T.H.R.U.S.H. has suddenly become interested in flying saucers but what is certain is that it means trouble.

What Napoleon Solo and Illya Kurykin now have to do is to find out where these flying saucers are being manufactured (it’s pretty obviously in Denmark somewhere), what their purpose is and most importantly they have to destroy the secret factory. So it’s obviously a story of sabotage closely modelled on the exploits of the WW2 Resistance and Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin get help from a number of ageing Resistance fighters.

The plot is serviceable enough although there are no great surprises. There’s enough action to keep things interesting.

Like the other Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels that I’ve read recently The Copenhagen Affair is a pleasant surprise. It’s a perfectly competent and quite enjoyable lightweight spy thriller and it captures the tone of the series pretty well. At least it captures the tone of the first season pretty well, when the TV series was still a semi-serious spy series.

The edition I have was published in the U.K. in 1993 by Boxtree Limited. It’s interesting that there was still enough of a market for Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels to justify republishing them in the 90s.

The Copenhagen Affair is quite enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series it’s definitely worth reading and it’s an enjoyable enough spy potboiler in its own right. Recommended.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Len Deighton’s Spy Story

Spy Story is a 1974 spy thriller by Len Deighton. The first-person narrator is Patrick Armstrong, a man who works at the Studies Centre in London. Patrick and Ferdy Foxwell have just returned from one of their cruises, on a British nuclear submarine collecting intelligence on the activities of the Soviet Navy. The Studies Centre then uses this data to play war-games. The sort of ultra-sophisticated war-games using computer assistance that both the western and Eastern bloc militaries would play to figure out how to destroy each other in the event of all-out war. The Studies Centre is a kind of quasi-official offshoot of the intelligence community. Which makes Patrick Armstrong not quite an intelligence officer but kind of vaguely in that sort of field.

The first question that is going to occur to any Len Deighton fan reading this book is - is Patrick Armstrong actually the unnamed spy of Deighton’s first five spy novels (the unnamed spy who became Harry Palmer in the film adaptations)? Deighton has stated that he isn’t but he has done so in terms that actually suggest very strongly that he might very well be the same man. In fact the internal evidence of the novel pretty strongly suggests that he is the unnamed spy, a few years older and now retired from the Secret Service. One thing we know for certain about him is that his name is definitely not Patrick Armstrong, and that he definitely was a spy, working for the very same branch of the Secret Service that the unnamed spy worked for. And his former boss was Dawlish, the unnamed spy’s boss. We also know that he has no intention of going back to being a spy, and given that the unnamed spy was not exactly enthusiastic about being a spy that also seems consistent with his being the same man.

Patrick Armstrong has stumbled upon something rather interesting. His old flat is full of the same photos that were always there, photos of himself with various other people. The photos are exactly the same, but his face has been replaced by someone else’s.

Other disquieting things happen. Like having his home raided by Russian security personnel (not what you expect to happen in London) led by none other than his old adversary Colonel Stok. There’s also an accident that might or might not be an attempt on the life of a British MP. And a witness to the accident whose story doesn’t add up at all.

The very last thing that Patrick Armstrong wants is to be drawn back into the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage but he has the uncomfortable feeling that that is exactly what might happen to him if he’s not careful.

What’s happening is that someone has come up with a very clever plan. And there’s nothing Pat Armstrong likes less than people who come up with very clever plans. It always ends in tears before bedtime.

And there’s no way of knowing whose very clever plan this is. It might have been Dawlish who came up with it. Or Colonel Schlegel, the ex-US Marine flyer now in charge of Studies Centre. Or some fool at the Foreign Office. Or some fool at the CIA. It might have been Colonel Stok. It might have been some other hare-brained genius. There’s also no way for Pat to know what this clever plan actually consists of. He just knows that he doesn’t like it. And when he starts to get an inkling of what might be involved he likes it even less.

It ends up with Pat and Ferdy and Colonel Schlegel on a US nuclear submarine making its way under the Arctic ice, a dangerous undertaking at the best of times but much more dangerous this time because the submarine is just a counter in someone’s strategic war game and it’s an expendable counter. It’s on an insanely dangerous course which would not in normal circumstances even be contemplated. The sea is too shallow, the ice above is too thick, the margin for error is non-existent. And to make things even more delightfully suicidal, there are those East German submarines. Plus the entire Russian Northern Fleet. All of which is guaranteed to produce some suitably nail-biting excitement.

This is typical Deighton in its extreme cynicism. It’s not just that both sides are equally cold-blooded and ruthless. There are multiple players in this game and some of them are crazy. Maybe all of them are crazy. There’s also Deighton’s trademark sardonic wit.

Spy Story is perhaps not quite top-tier Deighton but it’s still fairly entertaining. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

End of the Line by Dolores and Bert Hitchens

End of the Line by Dolores and Bert Hitchens is a railway mystery, a genre I’m rather fond of.

Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973) was a successful American mystery novelist. Her second husband, Bert, was a railway detective. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what happened next. Yes, they started writing railway mysteries. They ended up writing five of them, the third of which was End of the Line (published in 1957).

End of the Line involves the reopening of a very old case. Six years earlier the Western Shores Limited was wrecked in the Lobo Tunnel and sixteen people were killed. A case like that is never really closed, not until it’s solved. The railroad cops never give up on a case involving a trainwreck. Now the conductor of the train on that fatal day, a man named Parmenter, has resurfaced after spending five years in a Mexican prison on another charge. There was never any evidence against Parmenter but he vanished six months after the wreck, which just happens to be when the compensation claims were settled. And he arrived in Mexico with plenty of cash. That’s the kind of thing that gets railroad cops thinking.

There are two railroad detectives on this case. Farrel is an old hand, a man who seems kind of grey and defeated. Saunders is young and keen. They’d really like to have another talk with Parmenter, especially given that at the moment he re-entered U.S. territory his daughter, who’d been living with her aunt, disappeared.

There are two lines of investigation for Farrel and Saunders to follow. The first is the Parmenter angle. The second concerns a rail gang employee who may have had a grudge against the railroad. It’s possible that the two angles are unconnected and it’s possible that neither will lead anywhere but those are the only leads they have. It’s also possible that some of those compensation claims may have been fraudulent.

All of these leads are apparent to the two investigators right from the start and there are some obvious theories that might fit the known facts. The problem is that there’s no actual hard evidence whatsoever so it’s going to require a lot of painstaking routine investigation.

This book has been reissued as a Black Gat Book by Stark House, known for their reprints of noir fiction. This might lead you initially to think this will be a noir novel. In fact it’s very much a police procedural. Every lead and every clue, however slight, has to be sifted. It needs a certain amount of skill to make this kind of story gripping and entertaining but the authors are up to the task.

And while it’s not noir fiction as such there are a lot of broken people in this story. Some are broken because they’re bad, some because they are weak and some because they are foolish. So there are some noir touches.

The two detectives, and the relationship between them, make things more interesting. Farrel is a drunk. His personal life crashed and burned a few years earlier and he crawled inside a bottle and that’s where he has stayed. The Lobo Tunnel case is his last chance to hang onto his job. Saunders is a straight arrow. He follows the rules. He never drinks on duty. And he’s a complete innocent when it comes to women. Saunders disapproves of Farrel and suspects that he is finished and that he’s going to make an unholy mess of things. Farrel suspects that Saunders was planted on him by his boss to get rid of him. Things are tense between them, to say the least. Their relationship develops as they learn more about each other but whether that’s going to make them learn to like and trust each other or learn to hate each other is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

There’s also Betsy, who lives next door to Saunders. She’s young and pretty and she seems keen to teach him all about women. She seems to already know all about men.

There are some exciting moments as well, with a young girl being stalked by a killer and then with Farrel and Saunders going undercover and finding themselves unarmed, in the middle of a dangerous drug-smuggling racket (which may be connected to the trainwreck).

Everything in End of the Line works extremely well. This being a police procedural it’s the investigation rather than the mystery that is the primary focus. Farrel and Saunders have a fair idea as to what actually happened (as will the reader) but it’s the patient gathering of evidence that provides the entertainment. Farrel and Saunders both have some depth to them and the various witnesses and suspects have real and fairly complex motivations.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Robert Silverberg's Gang Girl

In 1958 there was a major convulsion in the science fiction world and most of the magazines on which writers relied to publish their stories ceased publication. This was a particular problem for younger writers. Writers like Robert Silverberg, who although only in his early twenties was already making a name for himself. Fortunately his pal Harlan Ellison came to the rescue, offering him a contract to write cheap paperback erotic novels for Nightstand Books. He’d have to write a couple of such novels a month which sounds daunting but Silverberg was sure he’d have no problems. And he was correct - in the next five years he churned out 150 sleaze paperbacks under the name Don Elliott.

Gang Girl was one of the earliest, appearing in 1959. It’s a juvenile delinquent potboiler and it’s violent and it’s sleazy. Of course by later standards it is in some ways incredibly tame. There’s a lot sex and it’s graphic enough to ensure the reader knows exactly what is going on, but the language is toned down enough to avoid any inconveniences, like being prosecuted for obscenity. In that respect it’s tame but in other ways it’s still quite startling in its depiction of the mindless brutality, the crazed obsession with sex and the sheer stupidity, boredom, viciousness and futility of New York juvenile gangs in the late ’50s. It’s a lot more open about the sex and violence than any mainstream novels or movies dealing with the subject.

Lora Menotti is sixteen and she’s the deb of the leader of the Scarlet Sinners but now her parents have moved to a new housing estate (all tower blocks) in an effort to get their daughter away from gang life. It doesn’t work. Lora immediately joins the gang in her new neighbourhood, the Cougars. But Lora has no intention of just joining the gang. She intends to run it. That means she’ll have to persuade the gang President, Whitey, to dump his current deb and make her his deb. As Whitey’s deb she’ll be number one girl in the gang, and he has no doubts that she’ll be the one calling the shots.

With her 39-inch bust and her body like a sex goddess she has no trouble getting men to do what she wants them to do. Getting Whitey to dump his current deb, Donna, isn’t going to be a challenge. There is however a minor problem. Whitey always likes to mark his debs to establish his ownership of them, which he does by carving his initials (with a lighted cigarette or a knife) into one of their breasts. Lora has no intention of letting any man carve his initials into one of her spectacular breasts. They’re going to be her meal ticket in the future (she has ambitions to be a call girl). So now her challenge is to maintain her position in the gang without submitting to such treatment.

Lora isn’t too worried. She is utterly ruthless and her mastery of the art of manipulation is something to behold.

Lora’s machinations aren’t just for the purposes of gaining advantages for herself. She is very turned on by violence - nothing gets her more excited than seeing someone being beaten up, except perhaps seeing someone killed. If the victim is subjected to humiliation that’s even better. And it’s best of all if the victim is another woman who might be a rival. Her response to what happens to Mae (one of the debs who happens to be in Lora’s way) is incredibly chilling. Not surprisingly Lora’s arrival among the Cougars triggers a great many outbreaks of violence.

While I said earlier that this book is tame by later standards that’s not really entirely true. You won’t encounter any crude terms for male or female body parts but some of the sexual violence is hair-raising to say the least (such as a truly chilling gang rape). Some of it you just wouldn’t get away with today.

Gang Girl is obviously unashamedly trash fiction. Much of its appeal comes from that. There is however a bit more to it than that. Robert Silverberg was after all a fine writer and even when consciously churning out pulp sleaze he was unable to avoid offering some insights into some of the dark corners of the human psyche, particularly relating to sex and violence. He does try to get inside Lora’s head and what he finds there is deeply unsettling. Lora is not a good girl gone bad, she’s not a victim of circumstances, she’s not a product of a broken home or of childhood trauma. Her evil comes from within. For her the gang life simply has the effect of removing the normal social inhibitions that prevent people from acting on their most primal selfish instincts. It allowed her to shed all her sexual inhibitions very early on and she’s gradually shed all her moral inhibitions.

Perhaps if she had never joined a gang she might have been a nice girl but it seems unlikely. Being selfish and manipulative seems to be an inherent part of her personality. Her prodigious sexual appetites always seem to be inherent. Even without the gangs she would probably have been trouble.

Gang Girl delivers plenty of cheap violent sleazy pulp entertainment but there’s just enough substance there that you don’t have to feel too guilty about enjoying it. OK, you might feel a little bit guilty. There’s also enough dark subject matter to almost qualify it for noir fiction status.

Highly recommended.