Monday, December 28, 2020

Moon Zero Two

John Burke’s Moon Zero Two is a novelisation of the obscure but extremely interesting 1969 Hammer science fiction movie of the same name. The movie was an expensive project for Hammer and it bombed at the box office. Which is a pity because it’s not a bad movie at all. One of the credited writers on the movie was Gavin Lyall and regular readers of this blog will know that I regard Lyall as one of the best thriller writers of the 60s and 70s (he wrote some superb aviation thrillers including The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script). And Moon Zero Two does have much of the same feel as Lyall’s aviation thrillers.

The novelisation came out in 1969.

Moon Zero Two takes place on the Moon half a century after the beginning of lunar exploration. The great age of space exploration is over. Now the big corporations control everything. There are tourist hotels on the Moon. It’s no place for bold space explorers any more. Which is a problem for the narrator, Bill Kemp. It’s a problem because Bill Kemp is by nature a bold space explorer. In fact he was the first man on Mars. Now he pilots a beat-up barely spaceworthy lunar ferry, the Moon Zero Two. He could easily get a job as a spaceliner pilot for the Corporation but that would mean giving up and accepting the new corporate world and Bill Kemp is just not the sort of guy who can do that. Piloting the Moon Zero Two is dangerous and pays badly but he’s his own boss.

Or at least he’s his own boss until the space agencies start making noises about declaring the Moon Zero Two unspaceworthy.

Then along comes a fabulously wealthy businessman named Hubbard with a proposition. Hubbard needs a space pilot (preferably one who doesn’t worry too much about regulations) to crash-land a small asteroid on the Moon. Why? That’s simple. The asteroid in question happens to be six thousand tons’ worth of pure gem-grade sapphire. It’s all highly illegal but potentially very profitable and that’s the sort of deal that appeals to Hubbard. It doesn’t appeal to Bill Kemp until Hubbard makes him an offer he can’t refuse - a brand new space ferry.

Adding complications to Kemp’s life is a girl who is looking for her missing brother Wally (a lunar miner on the Farside). One of the lunar communications satellites is down so at present there is no contact with Farside. The girl Clem, wants Kemp to help her to find Wally.

Kemp is already in trouble with the Bureau of Investigations in the person of Agent Liz Murphy. He’s having an affair with Liz and you might think that would be to his advantage but it isn’t. It makes things worse. Love affairs can be complicated.

There’s adventure and danger in space and on the lunar surface. There’s a plot that is a bit more complex than it initially appears to be. There are romantic entanglements. And there’s murder.

Hubbard is the kind of villain the reader will love to hate, motivated by power and greed but even more so by ego. Kemp is an effective enough hero. He’s not especially complex but he’s likeable. He’s just a guy who doesn’t like being pushed around and he quickly discovers that working for Hubbard involves lots of being pushed round. 

Clem is a good heroine - she’s plucky but she’s also rather cynical. She’s worried about her brother but she’s also worried about getting back the money that he borrowed for his hare-brained mining venture on the Moon. She’s a practical kind of girl.

There are some hard science fiction elements as well as the space adventure stuff. This isn’t a dazzling piece of science fiction but it’s very entertaining (as is the Moon Zero Two movie). Recommended.

Friday, December 25, 2020

my best reads of 2020

It’s that time of year again - the time for making lists. These were the books I most enjoyed during 2020. I’ve divided them into genres.

My favourite science fiction reads:

Leigh Brackett’s moody 1951 sword-and-planet adventure Black Amazon of Mars. No-one did sword-and-planet tales better than Brackett.

Nictzin Dyalhis’s truly odd and rather uneven but intriguing collection of short stories (published in Weird Tales between 1925 and 1940) The Sapphire Goddess.

Paul W. Fairman’s 1952 hardboiled detective/science fiction crossover novel The Girl Who Loved Death which works quite well in both genres.

My favourite spy fiction reads:

Derek Marlowe’s superb 1966 tale of a Russian spy in Britain, A Dandy in Aspic. Lots of moral ambiguity and divided loyalties.

F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1931 The Fort Terror Murders, although it’s arguably more a crime story than a spy story.

My favourite detective fiction reads:

Erle Stanley Gardner’s wonderfully plotted 1936 Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Charles Forsyte’s 1968 tale of murder in the British Embassy in Ankara Murder with Minarets. It captures the distinctive feel of diplomatic life extremely well. I'm delighted that TomCat shared my enthusiasm for this one - here's his review.

Bert and Dolores Hitchens’ splendid railway mystery End of the Line (and you know how much I love railway mysteries).

My favourite crime fiction reads:

James O. Causey’s dark paranoid 1957 noir tale Killer Take All!

John McPartland’s 1953 noir pulper Big Red's Daughter.

And two from Wade Miller (rapidly becoming my favourite noir writer) - Kitten with a Whip and Kiss Her Goodbye, both emotional roller coaster rides into nightmare.

The most popular posts with my readers have been:

Elspeth Huxley’s The African Poison Murders (AKA Death of an Aryan).

Henry Slesar’s delightfully enjoyable science fiction horror tale of monsters from the sea, The Secret of Marracott Deep.

Orrie Hitt's Wayward Girl, a classic of juvenile delinquency and sleaze with a touch of noir

And John Rhode’s cleverly constructed Death in the Hop Fields (AKA The Harvest Murder).

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Wade Miller’s Kiss Her Goodbye

Wade Miller’s Kiss Her Goodbye was published in 1956. Wade Miller was actually the two-man writing team of Robert Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961), friends since childhood who wrote thirty-three novels together between 1946 and 1961. They wrote under the name Wade Miller and several other pseudonyms. They’re perhaps best-known for Badge of Evil (the basis for the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil) and Kitten With a Whip (also memorably filmed).

Brother and sister Ed and Emily Darnell are driving through the desert and Ed is jumpy. He thinks they may be pursued. But maybe the guy isn’t going to press charges. If only he could get hold of a Bakersfield paper he’d have some idea if they really need to worry or not. Ed wants to push on to Barstow but Emily is tired so they stay at a motel in a little town called Jimmock. Ed wishes the manager wasn’t so nosy. And he wishes men would stop looking at Emily. There’s not much chance of that. Emily, just turned eighteen, is the kind of girl men do look at.

So we have a pretty fair idea of what’s probably going on. This is going to be another criminal couple on the run story. Maybe they pulled a heist in Bakersfield or maybe Ed beat up some guy (or maybe even killed some guy) for taking too much interest in Emily.

If these are our assumptions we are in fact totally wrong. This is not that kind of story. Ed and Emily are not criminals. They’re also not on the run from criminals. They are running, but what they’re running away from is something quite different. I’m not going to reveal what they’re running from or why, even though we find out quite early on, because the book works better if we start off having no idea what’s going on.

Ed and Emily decide that Jimmock is as good a place as any to start a new life. Maybe things will work out this time. It’s a nice enough town. The motel room isn’t that great but the manager, Tubbs, makes them an offer. They can stay there permanently. Tubbs is just managing the place for the bank. The bank is stuck with the place, it doesn’t make any money for them, but Tubbs likes Ed and Emily. Ed gets a job. Emily wants to get a job as well but Ed knows that would be a bad idea. The job is a good one but Ed is a bit worried by his boss.

Tubbs comes up with an ever better ideal. The bank is so desperate to unload the motel that they could buy it - Tubbs, Ed and Emily. The bank would take just about any offer. It all seems like it’s going to work out this time. Then the thing that happened in Grand Rapids and Bakersfield happens again, as Ed always knew it would.

As I’ve said in other reviews the weakness of a lot of noir fiction is the lack of any even vaguely sympathetic characters and an excess of nihilism. None of that applies to Kiss Her Goodbye. This book has characters we can really care about. They’re very flawed and they make dumb mistakes but they try really hard not to mess up their lives and they’re actually very likeable. This book is unusual in being noir fiction without any villains. There’s not a single character who could be described as evil. Bad things just happen because that’s the way things go sometimes.

Of course this is noir and there’s a palpable sense of doom. Sometimes you just can’t beat the odds. But you have to try. There’s always hope. If you don’t have hope you’re already dead. And there is love. Maybe it’s unconventional love, maybe it’s not healthy, but any kind of love is better than nothing. And there’s a certain nobility in love against the odds. Noir fiction can be sleazy and can have a tendency to wallow in the gutter. But this is not ordinary noir fiction. Wade Miller didn’t write ordinary noir fiction. Too often in noir fiction you’re just watching losers lose because that’s what losers do. The characters here are people who don’t deserve to be losers. They’re vulnerable people but they’re vulnerable through no fault of their own. Maybe they don’t play the cards that fate has dealt them all that well, maybe they deserved better cards, but the reader desperately wants them to end up OK. Whether they do survive is something you’l have to find out for yourself.

It’s a book that packs a real emotional punch.

I’ve been deliberately extremely vague about the plot which is perhaps unnecessary. If you read the blurb at the beginning you’ll discover a lot more about the plot than I’ve revealed. I went into the book having no idea what to expect and personally I think it works better that way.

Kiss Her Goodbye is a brilliant offbeat little book. It’s a minor noir masterpiece. Maybe even. In its own way, a major noir masterpiece. Very highly recommended.

The Stark House Noir edition also includes the slightly later Wade Miller novel Kitten With a Whip, another great piece of offbeat noir fiction.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

thoughts on John le Carré

Given that I posted my review of his first novel, Call for the Dead, just a few days ago and he has now passed away I should say something about John le Carré. And maybe something about modern spy fiction.

He’s not my favourite spy writer and I don’t think he was quite as ground-breaking as he was sometimes made out to be. Moral ambiguity, pessimism, the psychology of the spy and the madness of the spy game had already been explored by writers like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. I did think however that when it came to depicting the utter deadening futility of the whole enterprise le Carré had few if any peers.

While his most admired works were The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (and they were rightly admired) I personally think his masterpiece was The Looking Glass War, published in 1965. It concerns a bunch of British spies whose glory days were World War 2 and they have never really moved on. Unfortunately they’re still running a department of the British Secret Service and when they try to pull off an ambitious operation it goes horribly, tragi-comically wrong. A great book.

His name always seemed to be linked with that of Len Deighton although I think they were really very different writers. There’s something rather tragic about le Carré’s most enduring character, George Smiley, a brilliant spy with a very subtle mind whose personal life is one long exercise in futility. And to some extent you could say the same about his professional career as a spy master. Deighton’s unnamed spy, created at almost precisely the same time, is sometimes left wondering why he bothers but there’s nothing tragic about him. He’s the sort of guy who will do OK. He’s a survivor. Deighton is ironic and cynical. Le Carré can be pretty cynical as well but le Carré still believed that the British, however incompetent they might be, were the good guys and the Russians were the bad guys. Deighton on the other hand always seems to be having fun and seems to regard life with amused but tolerant cynicism.

Le Carré and Deighton can both be seen as belonging to the gritty realist cynical school of British spy fiction and in the 60s and 70s they were certainly the two giants in that field.

I’ve reviewed all the volumes of le Carré’s Karla trilogy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People as well as The Looking Glass War.

And, as points of comparison, I’ve reviewed Deighton’s Horse Under Water, Billion Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place To Die and and Spy Story as well as Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Stamboul Train and Ambler’s Uncommon Danger and Judgment on Deltchev.

I should add that I've also reviewed the excellent BBC TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and their TV version of Smiley's People.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

John le Carré’s Call for the Dead

Call for the Dead was John le Carré’s debut novel (appearing in 1961) and it also introduced his most famous character, British spymaster George Smiley.

I’ve read most of the Smiley books and I now realise I probably should have read this one first. It provides a fairly detailed backstory for Smiley, telling us a great deal about how he was recruited as a spy, his wartime career as a field agent and his unfortunate marriage (a marriage that probably did more to form his personality than anything else).

Call for the Dead opens with a very routine assignment for Smiley. Samuel Fennan has recently been promoted to a senior position in the Foreign Office with access to top secret material and he has been accused of having been a Communist Party member in the 1930s. It doesn’t take Smiley long to realise that Fennan is no security risk at all. As he remarks to his superior, half the members of the British Cabinet had been Communist Party members in the 30s. He has no hesitation in clearing Fennan. Case closed. But then Fennan commits suicide and his suicide note claims that he took his life because of harassment by the Secret Service. This puzzles Smiley a good deal. His interview with Fennan had been relaxed and informal and had ended with Smiley reassuring Fennan that he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Smiley’s boss Maston is in a panic, he will have to smooth things over with the Minister, the Foreign Office is going to be livid and if the press gets hold of it it will all be very unpleasant. He suggests that Smiley have a word with Fennan’s window Elsa. And Smiley becomes more puzzled, especially by the 8.30 wake-up call which makes no sense. Things that don’t make sense worry Smiley and the more he thinks about this case the more things there are that don’t quite make sense.

Smiley puts the pieces together into a coherent whole but he finds that he has several pieces left over which don’t fit anywhere. That just won’t do. George Smiley is a very organised man. He will have to start again.

Smiley is already a fully formed character. His private life is a shambles and he seems like a defeated grey little man but he is a very methodical intelligence agent and he has a very subtle mind. His greatest strength is his interviewing technique. He can break just about anyone and do so politely and without any fuss. People end up wanting to confess to George Smiley.

There are the usual le Carré themes of betrayal. And as usual George Smiley, once a good spy but now a very very good spy-hunter, is quietly remorseless once he’s on the trail of a traitor.

There are no exotic settings here, and no glamour. There are no glamorous women. There’s no sex. There’s some violence, but it’s squalid and messy. Smiley has a gun and at one stage he contemplates taking it with him. Then he thinks of the awful fuss there would be if he actually used it. Smiley doesn’t like fuss so he leaves the gun at home.

This was le Carré very deliberately trying to remove all the glamour from spy fiction. His spies are civil servants. The action takes space in semi-detached cottages in suburbia and other very prosaic settings.

Naturally there’s a fair amount of emphasis on tradecraft - the nuts and bolts of how spies actually operate.

The villain is also a typical le Carré villain - there are reasons he does the things he does. He isn’t a villain simply because he is inherently evil. He has believable psychological motivations.

You don’t read le Carré for action and excitement, you read him for the stifling and sordid atmosphere of betrayal, for the insight into the psychology of the spy, for the hyper-realistic feel and as much as anything for George Smiley. This one ticks all the right boxes for le Carré fans and it provides that all-important background on Smiley. Call for the Dead is highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Peter Cheyney's Dames Don’t Care

Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) was an English criminal investigator turned crime writer who enjoyed immense success in the late 30s and the 1940s. His Slim Callaghan books were very popular but he achieved his greatest success with his Lemmy Caution novels, beginning in 1936 with This Man Is Dangerous. Dames Don’t Care, published in 1937, was the third of the Lemmy Caution books.

Cheyney’s hero became even more popular on the Continent when the French made a series of successful (and incredibly entertaining) Lemmy Caution movies, including a 1954 film version of Dames Don’t Care.

Cheyney’s aim with the Lemmy Caution tales was to write fast-paced American-style pulp thrillers. Cheyney was English but he figured he could get away with making his hero an FBI agents and setting the stories in America. And he was right. Of course I’m sure that American readers would have spotted all sorts of mistakes about American police procedures and in the use of American slang. It doesn’t matter. This is not the real America. This is the America of gangster movies, dime novels and detective magazines. It’s a fictional world and like most good fictional worlds it’s more fun and more outrageous than the real world.

Dames Don’t Care starts in Palm Springs, with Lemmy investigating a counterfeiting case. It soon becomes a murder case as well, and there’s another sudden death that now looks might suspicious as well so even at this early stage it could be a double murder case.

Naturally there’s a dame in the case. In fact there are two. This worries Lemmy. He likes women but you never know what they’ll do next. Both these women are beautiful and glamorous. One of them may be no good. Both of them may be no good. At least Lemmy knows how to handle guys who are no good - he slugs them or shoots them. With dames that’s not always an option. He does consider giving one of them a spanking but decides against it, even if she did try to shoot him.

The action takes place partly in the U.S. and partly in Mexico. Lemmy has no jurisdiction in Mexico but that’s not going to stop him. Lemmy is not exactly a stickler for correct procedure, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses.

The plot is complicated, with several plausible suspects and alibis that might be phoney, or they might be supposed to look phoney. The first clue is two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of counterfeit bearer bonds that one of the dames (named Henrietta) tried to pass. Maybe she knew they were counterfeit and maybe she didn’t. Henrietta is mixed up in a romantic triangle only it’s not a triangle it’s a quadrangle and it’s not clear who is doing the betraying and who is being betrayed. Maybe they’re all betraying each other. This might be a world of no-good dames but it’s also a world of no-good punks. The men and the women in this story are equally dangerous and equally treacherous.

Lemmy Caution is as fast with his wisecracks as he is with his fists. It’s a fairly violent tale but it’s a book that aims to deliver entertainment and Cheyney mixes plenty of humour in with the tough guy stuff.

Cheyney does a decent job of keeping us in doubt as to the identity of the murderer. Most of the characters are up to no good but they’re not all capable of murder. It’s just that Lemmy can’t decide which ones actually are capable of murder. And those two janes have more than murder on their minds as well - they both try to seduce our hero. Lemmy has to admit that they’re both swell-looking gals.

Lemmy gradually puts the pieces together but if he’s goings to make the charges stick he’s going to have to be devious. That’s OK, because Lemmy Caution has brains as well as brawn. Lots of criminals have made the mistake of thinking he’s all brawn.

The Lemmy Caution books are tremendous ultra-pulpy fun. Dames Don’t Care is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Citadel of Fear

Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884-1948) had a very brief career writing for the pulps from around 1917 to around 1919. At the time her work was widely praised by luminaries such as A. Merritt. Most of her fantasy/science fiction/weird fiction was published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. She seems for some reason to have stopped writing in 1919. After that she disappears into complete obscurity. Until recently even the date of her death was unknown.

Her best-known novel, The Citadel of Fear, was reprinted in 1952 and her reputation slowly revived. She is now considered to be one of the most important female writers of fantasy of her era. The Citadel of Fear is a lost world story and that happens to be one of my favourite genres. The Citadel of Fear was originally serialised in the pulp magazine The Argosy in late 1918.

Two prospectors, a tall Irishman named Colin O’Hara (usually known as Boots) and a man named Kennedy, are lost in the desert somewhere in Mexico. Just when it looks hopeless for them they stumble upon a hidden valley. There’s not supposed to be any trace of civilisation anywhere in the vicinity but here is a fertile valley full of cultivated crops and a large hacienda.

There is something slightly odd about all this. The owner of the hacienda is not Mexican but a Norwegian-American and he gives the impression of being just a trifle secretive.

In fact the two prospectors haven’t just stumbled into a hidden valley, they have discovered a whole lost civilisation. A Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture, with vast temples and cities. And (of most interest to Kennedy) gold. This is the legendary land of Tlapallan. And they’ve also blundered into a power struggle between the priests of Quetzalcoatl and the priests of Nacoc-Yaotl.

While Kennedy is interested in the gold O’Hara is more interested in the moth girl. What gets Kennedy into trouble is not the gold but witnessing a religious ritual, something forbidden to outsiders. What gets O’Hara into trouble is a combination of his fascination for the moth girl, his natural chivalry and his impetuosity. These two outsiders could unwittingly start a civil war. A civil war that could involve gods taking sides.

There are some nice touches to this lost world, such as the lake. I won’t spoil things by telling you what’s strange about the lake. And the light is strange too. As in the best examples of this genre the author creates a lost world that really does feel odd and alien.

It’s only the first half of the story that takes place in Mexico. Then the scene switches to the United States, many years later, but the story is far from finished. There are monsters loose. Are they human or animal or maybe even supernatural? And there’s another strange other-worldly girl. Not the moth girl, but with the same ethereal beauty and the same oddness. She’s quite mad. At least that’s what O’Hara is told. He doesn’t seem to care, although he doesn’t really know why he’s drawn to her. Is there some memory at the back of his mind?

The latter part of the story, even without the exotic setting of the first half, has plenty of strangeness and it gets stranger. O’Hara has no idea why he has suddenly become caught up in such inexplicable and disturbing events. Again there’s an ambiguity - is this story science fiction or fantasy? Is O’Hara dealing with gods or men, with monsters or ghosts or science gone very very wrong?

He’s certainly dealing with evil, and possibly madness. A house of secrets which should have stirred some memories but perhaps not his memories.

There’s plenty of danger and action (this is after all pulp fiction), there’s some romance with a touch of weirdness and there’s some fairly visceral horror. There is at times just a slight Lovecraftian tinge although at this stage Lovecraft had only just started his weird fiction writing career so it’s more a case of Bennett and Lovecraft responding to similar literary influences.

The Citadel of Fear is a fine example of the lost world genre and it’s not surprising that it attracted the admiration of A. Merritt who would in the ’20s and ’30s explore similar territory. Highly recommended.