Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Like the other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair has a much more serious tone than the TV series. And it involves pirates. Real pirates indirectly, and their piratical descendants directly. And on the whole it's fairly lightweight but it's not a bad little spy tale.
Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.
Saturday, October 24, 2020
Lester Leith is a gentleman thief. He’s also a hero rogue rather in the style of the Saint. Such heroes were immensely popular in the 1920s (Blackshirt being a prime example). He is a thief who preys on other thieves. He is a rich man and most of the money he steals goes to charity although, like the Saint, he keeps enough of his ill-gotten gains to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle for himself.
And as is the case with the Saint the police go to great lengths to bring Leith to justice but he’s always one step ahed of them. They have even planted a police spy on him, posing as his valet. This amuses Leith. He nicknames the spy Scuttle. While his charitable donations are sincere he seems to be motivated primarily by the sheer joy of irritating the police. Of course Leith has a nemesis, or at least a would-be nemesis, in the person of Sergeant Ackley. Ackley regards himself as a pretty clever fellow and he is convinced that sooner or later he is going to catch Leith. The trouble is that while Ackley is sneaky and devious the truth is that he’s not all that smart, and perhaps not all that honest.
Ackley’s invariable method is to get his spy to tempt Leith into attempting to solve a carefully selected case
False Alarm was published in the 5th November 1932 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.
Leith has become interested in a crime involving a phoney fireman. While a fire raged in one house the foeman slipped next door and cracked the safe belonging to George Crampp, a retired businessman who claims to be penniless but who is suspected of having had a considerable amount of dishonestly acquired money in that safe. For this case Leith will need to buy up every single fireman’s costume in every single costumers’ in the city. He will also need a hundred dollar bill soaked in gasoline, crumpled up and then ironed flat. And last but by no means least, he will need to find an attractive red-headed woman with an evil temper and some training in boxing.
Sergeant Ackley thinks that this time he is finally going to nail Leith. Leith has spotted a clue that no-one in the police department has spotted and he has a fair idea of the solution to the mystery, and how to profit from it. It’s a typically clever little Gardner story.
The Seven Sinister Sombreros is another Lester Leith case, published in Detective Story in February 1939. This time Sergeant Ackley hopes to use the case of the drugged guard to trap Lester Leith.
A man named Bonneguard has formed a new political party, or perhaps it would be truer to say a new political cult. Whether Bonneguard has any actual interest in politics is uncertain but his new party is proving to be very profitable for him. Profitable enough that he has over $100,000 in the safe in his home. Or rather he had $100,000. The money has now been stolen. It was not just a guard who was drugged - two guards and a guard dog were immobilised but the source of the drug is a mystery.
Leith issues his instructions to Scuttle - to allow Leith to save the case Scuttle must procure for him a monkey wrench, half a dozen 1936 Fords, a ukulele, some cowpunchers, seven cowboy hats and a miniature replica surfboard. And of course, a hula dancer. In fact, several hula dancers.
There are really two plots here. There’s the search for the solution to the crime and then there’s Leith incredibly devious scheme to relieve the thief of the money without getting caught himself. Both plots are intricately constructed, especially the latter. A very entertaining novelette.
Gardner’s genius lay in coming up with a successful formula and sticking to it while at the same time making his plots ingenious enough to prevent the formula from going stale. He had a formula for the Perry Mason books. And based on these two books it appears that he had devised a perfect formula for Lester Leith stories. Sergeant Ackley tries to tempt Leith into investigating a particular crime, Ackley sets a trap, Leith orders Scuttle to obtain a collection of outrageous props, Leith stays one step ahead of everybody and there is always a colourful dame in the case.
These are light-hearted stories combining humour with skilled plotting. They’re great fun. There is a paperback collection of some of the Lester Leith stories. It’s long out of print but copies can be found if you hunt around for them. I know nothing about and I have no idea which stories are included but based on the two Lester Leith stories I’ve now read it might be worth looking into.
Monday, October 19, 2020
I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the author but it turns out he was a Hugo Award winner and had enjoyed at least a modicum of success.
This is a first contact story, set at some time in to not-too-distant future, but it starts with a bureaucratic bungle. Ralph Kennedy is an ordinary guy, a kind of lower management type, working for a large company. He’s more than a little surprised to get a letter informing him that he, Dr Ralph Kennedy, has been accepted into the Space Navy and that he will be filling the important post of staff psychologist specialising in extraterrestrial intelligence. This puzzles him for several reasons. Firstly, he’s just plain Mr Ralph Kennedy, not Dr Ralph Kennedy. Secondly, since no extraterrestrial life has yet been discovered how can anyone be an expert in the subject? And he’s rather disturbed to find that he has no choice in the matter. He has to take the job.
It turns out that his main duties are to help the Director of Extraterrestrial Life Research, Dr Kibbie, spend the two billion dollars that Congress has (for no sensible reason) allocated to the department.
In fact Ralph Kennedy will soon get to study actual extraterrestrial intelligence. This unexpected opportunity arises when the Black Fleet arrives. The Black Fleet is a swarm of sinister spacecraft and they are clearly hostile. But another space fleet arrives, and they’re clearly friendly. And a deputation from the friendly alien fleet wants permission to land in Washington DC. Curiously enough they seem very anxious to meet Ralph Kennedy. This does not please scheming billionaire media mogul Harvey Strickland who sees the alien visitation as a splendid opportunity to increase his own wealth and power.
This book starts out by giving the impression of being an amusing light-hearted satire, taking potshots at some sitting targets - bureaucrats, politicians and the military. As the story progresses it becomes evident that it’s actually something much cleverer. It’s a much more thorough-going and much more complex satire. At the same time it’s an intelligent and original first contact story.
As you might expect there is much speculation about the nature of these alien beings, and about their motivations and intentions. Ralph Kennedy has his own theories and finds that he’s out of step with the rest of humanity.
This is an amusing and very cynical little novel. This is definitely not hard science fiction. Clifton has little interest in science or technology. He spent much of his life working as a personnel manager and it’s obvious that he’s very interested in what makes people tick both as individuals and in groups. This is humorous science fiction but with some more serious overtones.
Apart from this novel Clifton apparently wrote a number of other Ralph Kennedy stories.
Pawn of the Black Fleet has recently been reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperbacks, paired with Henry Slesar’s lightweight but enjoyable The Secret of Marracott Deep. This double-novel paperback really is worth grabbing. I was impressed enough to want to check out more of their double-header editions.
Does Pawn of the Black Fleet qualify as a neglected gem of science fiction? I think it does, or at least it’s a neglected gem of a certain type of satirical psychological/sociological science fiction. I’m now on the lookout for more of Clifton’s work.
Pawn of the Black Fleet is highly recommended.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Les Farron is a man with a plan and no morals to get in the way of the execution of said plan. There are no spoilers whatever in what I’m about to tell you. Farron’s plan is laid out in detail for the reader in the first few pages of the book. Farron is a grifter and a part-time male model and part-time strong-arm man for loan shark Whit Bennett. Bennett’s activities are so outrageously illegal that Les figures it’s only a matter of time before the cops shut him down and there’s also the matter of the guy Farron beat up a bit too enthusiastically and the guy then, very inconveniently, died. So Farron reasons that the smart thing for him to do is to act before the cops do, kill Bennett and rifle his safe and then disappear.
The clever thing about Farron’s plan is that he has it all worked out how he’s going to disappear. He has discovered a little town called New Hope, about a hundred miles from New York, and he has a new identity for himself already established there. The folks of New Hope are ultra-conservative godly farmers. They’re not quite the Amish but they’re halfway there. No-one would ever think of looking for Farron there. In New Hope Farron is Paul Parrish, a devout Bible salesman.
New Hope has another attraction for Farron. That attraction is Amy. Amy is young and pretty and her father is very rich (these people are simple farmers but very successful ones and since they don’t drink or smoke or gamble they tend to accumulate wealth a pretty impressive manner). It should be possible for Farron, after lying low in New Hope for a while, to get his hands on her dad’s money. In the meantime he can marry Amy. That idea appeals to him. He’s never had a virgin before and he figures it could be exciting.
Farron is a smart guy. His plan is well thought out and he takes great pains with his preparations. He leaves nothing to chance. Nothing can go wrong. All he does to do it to wait things out in New Hope. That means going without the things that are as essential to him as breathing - cigarettes, booze and sex (or in the latter case going without sex until he and Amy are married). But he can do that for a few months. Well actually he gets really jumpy if he goes without those things for a few hours but as long as he keeps thinking about the money he’ll have at the end of it he convinces himself that he can do it.
And nothing does go wrong. In fact it all goes more smoothly than he could have imagined. It all goes smoothly, until it doesn’t.
This is a grimy sordid book, which of course is what the noir fiction genre is all about. It achieves its sordidness and griminess in fine style. Keene’s prose is stripped down and energetic.
There’s not a huge amount of actual violence. It’s the psychological brutality of Farron, his casual acceptance of violence as the normal way to deal with things, that has the impact. While Farron is sex-obsessed you won’t find any even moderately graphic descriptions of sex although there’s plenty of overheated eroticism.
Having half the action take place in New York and the other half in the radical different world of New Hope adds interest but it serves the author’s purposes in other ways. There’s also the contrast between the entirely corrupted Farron and the entirely uncorrupted Amy. And then there’s Lydia - is she one of the corrupted or one of the uncorrupted?
The ending might be thought to stretch credibility just a little but it works and there’s the ironic twist that you expect in noir fiction. Several ironic twists in fact.
Sleep With the Devil is a fine example of 50s noir fiction by a writer who has fallen into undeserved neglect. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
The narrator, Alex Cloud, is a newspaperman who likes drinking more than he likes working and he’s arrived in Shanghai to look for Flame. Flame is actually Paula Forrest, also an American reporter, and she’s the reason he drinks.
This is just after the Communist victory in the Civil War and the rumour is that Flame has gone over to the Reds.
Alex thinks that that the only reason he’s in Shanghai is to find Flame but he’s stumbled into something. He’s not sure what it is but it must be important because people are getting killed for it. He thinks it might have something to do with a deck of cards. He runs into some old friends, although really they’re not exactly friends. They’re the types of people who’d be mixed up in anything that might involve a profit. They’re not political types but the Chinese Government seems to be taking an interest so maybe it is political.
And he has the opportunity to make lots of interesting new enemies. And he meets a a woman. Not Flame, but a Eurasian beauty named Ariadne. Alex is still in love with Flame, but that doesn’t stop him from ending up in Ariadne’s bed. That could cause difficulties with her husband, who is one of Alex’s old very disreputable (and very dangerous) acquaintances.
Of course he finds Flame but winning her back is another matter. Keeping her alive is a bigger priority. If he wants to keep her alive. Sometimes he’s not sure. He’s not sure if she’s forgiven him for sleeping with all those other women. He’s also not at all sure what she’s mixed up in but the Chinese Government has put a price on her head.
The bodies keep piling up. The action is pretty relentless in this story. Whether Alex ends up in a bar or a restaurant or a brothel or on a sampan, those bodies seems to keep accumulating. And Alex makes his own contributions to the body count. He spends more time with a gun in his hand that sitting at a typewriter like a good newspaperman.
Alex might be the hero but he’s definitely no Boy Scout. He’s quick with his fists and he has no great qualms about shooting people, or slapping women around. You have to be tough to be a newspaperman. This book belongs to the “ordinary guy gets entangled in espionage against his will” sub-genre but in this case the ordinary guy is no innocent.
While this does qualify as a Cold War spy thriller it doesn’t come across as being particularly political. Fleischman’s objective is to give us a two-fisted action thriller and he does a pretty good job. It’s a story just begging to be made into a movie. Spies, hardboiled reporters, an exotic setting, dangerous women, a McGuffin that lots of people are prepared to kill to get hold of, a stormy romance, lots of ambiguous but vaguely sinister characters, lots of violence and lots of implied sex - it has all the right ingredients. And if all that isn’t enough, there are also pirates.
Fleischman has no literary pretensions but he understands pacing and he knows how to write action scenes and he provides action in abundance.
Stark House have published this novel in a double-header paperback along with another Fleischman spy thriller, Counterspy Express (which was filmed in the late 50s).
Shanghai Flame is great pulpy spy adventure fun. It’s pure entertainment but it works just fine on that level. Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 1, 2020
Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished scientist who wrote a notable science fiction novel and quite a few mysteries featuring either Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield or Superintendent Ross.
Jim Brandon arrives at the Edgehill estate to have a serious talk with his brother Johnnie. Their father inherited the vast Burling Thorn estate and an enormous income and ended up with even more enormous debts. He then borrowed more money to pay the debts. The only way out is to sell Burling Thorn but they can’t because it’s entailed. There is a way around the problem but it will need Johnnie’s co-operation. Unfortunately Johnnie is both foolish and stubborn and he’s now fallen under the influence of a scoundrel by the name of Laxford. What really matters is that Johnnie is about to come of age and when that happens the tangled affairs of the Brandon estate are likely to reach crisis point.
To add to the difficulties there seems to be something going on between that young fool Johnnie and Mrs Laxford, a young pretty woman with hot eyes.
Jim was met at the station by Una Menteith, another pretty young woman living at Edgehill whose position there is not at all clear. Also staying at Edgehill is a somewhat disreputable chap named Hay.
A decision is made to go out and shoot some rabbits and a terrible accident occurs. Inspector Hinton is by no means happy with the circumstances, particularly the bloodstain situation. The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of accidental death but Hinton feels that the matter is worth further investigation.
Inspector Hinton is a competent policeman whose main fault is that he’s clever, but not quite so clever as he thinks he is. He is also ambitious. He is very keen indeed to become Superintendent Hinton. A big case is what he needs and he has a feeling he may have found one.
The financial tangle is much more complex than it seemed to be and the more the inspector finds out the more complex it becomes.
There’s also the matter of the escaped lunatic, a man who may at times be quite sane and even sharp-witted and at other times have no idea what is going on and no memory of anything that has happened.
There’s no impossible crime angle to this affair. The crime, if there was a crime, has a number of very straightforward very plausible solutions. The difficulty is the number of entirely plausible explanations and the number of entirely plausible explanations.
Inspector Hinton, whatever his faults, is thorough and he is also more than willing to make use of Beauty’s formidable private intelligence-gathering service. Beauty is in fact a Miss Tugby, a servant with an extraordinary capacity for finding out about other people’s private affairs. Beauty provides the inspector with some extremely interesting pieces of information.
Sir Clinton Driffield does not make his appearance until very late in the story. This is also the case in some of the other J.J. Connington mysteries. Driffield is the Chief Constable and of course Chief Constables do not usually intervene in any direct manner in their subordinates’ investigations, unless the subordinate manages to make a complete hash of things or runs into a brick wall. Fortunately for Connington’s readers that is not an uncommon occurrence.
There’s some fascinating stuff in this tale about the extraordinary complexities that could arise when an estate was entailed, especially when a curious custom known as borough-English is involved. This is a legal custom that in some circumstances gives the youngest son the rights that would normally devolve upon the eldest son.
It’s not overly difficult to figure out the identity of the murderer. The real interest lies in how it was done (it was much more complicated than initial appearances suggested), and in the much more difficult problem of proving it. Motives turn out to be more complex than they seemed to be as well. Inspector Hinton does plenty of detecting, sometimes to good effect. He does most of the very necessary routine investigating. Of course Sir Clinton Driffield is the one who finally solves the problem. He provides the equally necessary brilliant insights into what the clues really mean.
All in all a very satisfying detective novel. Highly recommended.