Sunday, December 26, 2021

Leslie Charteris's The Brighter Buccaneer

The Brighter Buccaneer by Leslie Charteris is a 1933 short story collection. It features what William Vivian Butler in his excellent 1973 book The Durable Desperadoes (which deals with all the major literary rogues of the interwar years) calls the Mark II Saint. The late Saint, the Saint of the postwar years which Butler describes as the Mark V Saint, is in many ways the most interesting and sophisticated but the Mark II Saint is perhaps more fun. This is Simon Templar at his most carefree, most irresponsible and most sublimely self-confident.

This is also a Simon Templar who is unambiguously and unapologetically a thief and a crook. At this stage he’s a slightly more ethical version of Raffles. Raffles only steals from those who can afford the loss. Simon Templar steals from other crooks and from people who (in his opinion) deserve to be robbed.

This is also a Saint who still works with accomplices including the great love of his life, Patricia Holm. He has not yet become a loner.

All the stories in this collection deal with confidence tricks of some kind, or more specifically they deal with the Saint meting out justice to con-men while enriching himself in a most satisfying way. The confidence tricks are many and varied.

In The Brain Workers Simon rescues a young lady named Ruth Eden who had been attracting unwelcome attentions from her sleazy employer. Ruth has been forced to take on secretarial work after her mother was swindled into buying worthless shares. The Saint has a notion that he may be able to retrieve some of those losses for her. And dealing out justice to swindlers gives him an inordinate amount of pleasure. He may not even have to resort to violence. A very typical but effective Saintly adventure.

In The Export Trade Simon is hired by a solicitor to take a very valuable package to Paris. Simon has every intention of carrying out this commission honestly and faithfully. He is not supposed to open the package but his curiosity tempts him, and he believes one should always succumb to temptation. In this case it turns out to be a profitable decision. A very good story.

The Unblemished Bootlegger is another opportunity for Simon to mete out justice to a swindler (who in this case happens to be a bootlegger as well). Simon disapproves very strongly of swindlers and finds that the best way to deal with is by - swindling them. In this case he takes a different but equally effective approach. It’s unfortunate for this swindler that he doesn’t like the sea. Another good story.

The Owner’s Handicap takes Simon to the races where he becomes extremely interested in a racing scam. Simon knows a few scams of his own, all in a good cause of course. A pretty decent story.

The Tough Egg pits Simon against American gangster Max Kemmler who is making a lot of money from a gambling club in London. The Saint feels that it really would be highly desirable to relieve Max of some of his ill-gotten gains. Max is reputed to be a tough egg, which makes the prospect even more delightful. The Saint could of course simply stage a stick-up but that would be boring and lacking in style and that would deprive the exercise of most of its pleasure. It would be much more fun if Max could be persuaded to take an active part in his own fleecing. Another fine little tale.

The Bad Baron presents Simon with a rival. The Fox has quickly become an even more celebrated thief than the Saint. As for the baron, he owns a fabulously valuable jewel which is going to tempt both the Fox and the Saint. This one has a clever and unexpected, and untypical, ending. It’s a very good story.

The Brass Buddha is a story about a simple con game but with complications. It’s amazing that Charteris was able to write so many stories on this theme while giving each one a slightly different twist. A solid story.

In The Perfect Crime Simon pulls off a remarkably audacious con (with a sleazy money lender as the victim) that even Chief Inspector Teal seems impressed by. Teal knows exactly how Simon did it but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it. A delightful story.

In The Appalling Politician the Saint gets to act as detective, working hand-in-glove with none other than Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal. A very sensitive trade treaty has been stolen and it was a most puzzling crime. Simon discovers that solving mysteries can be almost as much fun as committing crimes, especially when he’s allowed to use his own distinctive methods. Quite a good story.

The Unpopular Landlord, Major Bellingford Smart, isn’t just unpopular. He’s a ruthless crook who mercilessly exploits his tenants. And he’s a crook for whom the Saint has plans. Those plans also involve the Countess of Albury’s diamonds. It’s always worth killing two birds with one stone. A good story.

The New Swindle concerns two con-men, one of whom is a renowned card sharp. They believe they really have found the Holy Grail - a brand-new swindle. The beauty of it is, if it works properly there’s nothing anybody can do about it. The only thing that could possible go wrong would be if Simon Templar decided to take a hand in things. A decent story.

In The Five-thousand-pound Kiss Simon renews an acquaintanceship with a competitor. She happens to be interested in a certain diamond which has also attracted the Saint’s attention. The end result is not what the Saint expected, but then the unexpected rather appeals to him.

The Green Goods Man deals with another very clever con involving the selling of real banknotes. How do you make a profit from selling real rather than counterfeit banknotes? That’s the beauty of the green goods con. And how do you turn such a con back on the con-man? That requires the peculiar talents of the Saint. A clever story.

The Blind Spot is not exactly about a confidence trick as such. It’s about a shady patents lawyer. Simon saves the life of a penniless inventor who has tried to throw himself under a train. The inventor, a man named Inwood, had finally come up with an invention that might actually make money but the shady patents lawyer stole his invention. Simon might not have taken the matter any further had he not remembered another invention he came across recently. This invention didn’t work, and that’s the beauty of it. Another fine story.

The Unusual Ending pits the Saint against an old foe from one of the earlier stories, man about to head off to South America with his ill-gotten gains. The ending of this story is not what the Saint expected but it’s rather neat.

Personally I love stories about confidence tricks so it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to enjoy this collection. What’s interesting is that it includes stories in which the Saint’s motivations are entirely selfless, others in which he is motivated to a large extent by his lust for loot. There are even stories in which the Saint ends up losing, but he doesn’t really lose since it’s the adventure that matters. A fine collection. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Joan Ellis’s Don’t Tell Anyone

Joan Ellis’s Don’t Tell Anyone was published by Midwood Books in 1966.

Later in life Julie Ellis (1919-2006) had a successful career as a writer of suspense, historical and romance fiction but she had an earlier literary career as a writer of pulp sleaze fiction. She was one of the more notable writers in the lesbian sleaze fiction sub-genre although she wrote non-lesbian erotica as well. She wrote in total about 150 novels under her own name and various pseudonyms, including Joan Ellis. Unlike many of the popular writers of lesbian pulp fiction in real life she was apparently entirely heterosexual.

Sleaze fiction took off in a big way in the United States in the wake of the paperback revolution. It is impossible to calculate just how many sleaze fiction titles were published but it was by no means unknown for a single writer to produce more than a hundred such novels. The golden age of American sleaze fiction lasted from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s. Lesbian sleaze fiction was one of the more prolific sub-genres for the obvious reason that it was extremely popular among both lesbian and heterosexual male readers.

There are however no lesbians to be found in the pages of Don’t Tell Anyone. Just man-hungry women.

Adele Conroy is eighteen, or at least she’s nearly eighteen. Her parents have just divorced and she’s a bit conflicted about that. She blames her mother Rita for not being able to hold her man but she also blames her father for chasing anything young in a skirt. Adele has a boyfriend, Skip. He’s one of the hunkiest boys at school. That’s a good thing in itself but it also brings her status, and that’s a very good thing from the point of view of a teenaged girl. Adele and Skip have fooled around in pretty steamy ways but she hasn’t actually slept with yet. That’s about to change. Adele is pretty happy with her decision to go all the way with Skip. Now she will really be a woman.

Of course she is aware that while Skip is good-looking he’s just a boy. Unlike Tom Whitby. He’s a man. He’s a mature man. He must be at least twenty-three. Making it with a boy like Skip is fun, but maybe making it with a man would be even better. There’s also the new neighbour, Roger Hennessey. And he doesn’t treat her like a child.

What worries her about Tom Whitby is that her mother seems to go for him as well, and Tom seems pretty interested in Rita. Rita Conroy is only thirty-six and she’s still beautiful so it’s understandable that she still has a hunger for men. Adele understands that. Adele has a burning hunger for men. And after sleeping with Skip that hunger intensifies. So why can’t Tom Whitby see that Adele is a woman as well? Adele thinks that maybe she can attract Tom’s attention, and she knows that in a tight sweater her bust measurement of 38-D can usually be relied on to attract masculine attention.

Adele would also like Roger Hennessey to treat her like a woman. And when Adele sets her sights on a man she’s an unstoppable force of nature. Adele craves love but for Adele that means physical love. She doesn’t really understand that there’s any other kind of love.

What follows is a great deal of romantic and sexual melodrama, with a definite “sex, sin and scandal in small-town America” thing going on as well. This is very obviously a novel written by a woman. It’s basically steamy romance, but with the romance being overshadowed by pure lust. Adele has only the vaguest of plans for a long-term future with the men she pursues. She concentrates on the vital short-term objective, getting them into bed.

The sleaze fiction of this era varied considerable in terms of just how graphic the sexual encounters are. Some, such as Robert Silverberg’s 1959 Gang Girl, are quite graphic. Some are very coy. Some, like Sin Hellcat, fall halfway between these extremes. Don’t Tell Anyone belongs at the coy end of the spectrum. They’re often the most entertaining because the writers really have to pull out all the stops to create an atmosphere of sexual intoxication but without describing the sex in any detail. Ellis does this pretty well. The sex scenes manage to be hot and sweaty while stopping short of any description of sex whatsoever, apart from caressing of Adele’s swelling breasts (and there’s a lot of that). It’s what’s going on in Adele’s man-crazy brain that is hot and sweaty. Very hot and sweaty.

It’s interesting to speculate on exactly how much of a female readership these sleaze novels had (apart from the popularity of lesbian sleaze with lesbians). A lot of these sleaze fiction titles read more like women’s erotica than porn for men. Most are very female-centric.

Some, but not all, of these sleaze novels have overtones of noir fiction. This one does not.

It’s also interesting that the various sleaze fiction publishers tended to have distinct style when it came to the cover art. Midwood’s titles had the best cover art - sexy but with a bit of style and class.

I’d be inclined to classify Don’t Tell Anyone as a combination of romance fiction and women’s erotica. If you’re a male fan of vintage sleaze you might still enjoy its deliciously overheated quality. If you’re a female fan of vintage sleaze you’ll possibly enjoy it a great deal. Which returns us to my earlier speculations about the readership of such novels. How many readers of this type of fiction were female? And how many modern fans of vintage sleaze are women? I have no idea of the answer to the first question but I'm guessing that the answer to the second is, quite a few. Literary erotica does seem to be largely a female taste.

Don’t Tell Anyone is a good example of its type. If you like sleazy romance, or romantic sleaze, it's highly recommended.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Donald E. Westlake's The Cutie

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was a big name in crime fiction in the late 20th century but since the crime fiction of that era doesn’t interest me much I hadn’t read any of his crime novels. But The Cutie (also published as The Mercenaries and The Smashers) was his first crime novel (prior to that he’d written sleaze fiction under various pseudonyms) and was published in 1960 I figured it might be worth a look.

Clay (the narrator) works for gangster Ed Ganolese. Clay beats people up and sometimes he kills them. It’s a living. He’s just about to get down to some enjoyable bedroom action with his girlfriend Ella when a punk named Billy-Billy turns up on his doorstep. At 2am.

Billy-Billy has been set up for a murder rap. Billy-Billy works for Ed Ganolese as well, as a dope pusher. If the cops pick up Billy-Billy he’ll start talking about a lot of things that could be embarrassing for Ganolese. Clay knows what Ed will do. He’ll tell Clay to arrange a little accident for Billy-Billy. That way he won’t be able to tell the cops anything. Surprisingly Ganolese tells Clay that Billy-Billy has important friends so instead of bumping him Clay has to protect him and keep him out of the hands of the cops. It’s pretty irritating.

The cops want Billy-Billy for the knifing murder of a broad named Mavis St Paul. Clay knows Billy-Billy could not possibly have killed her. Billy-Billy couldn’t kill anyone. The problem is that Mavis St Paul was Ernest Tesselman’s girl. Tesselman is a a big-time political fixer. If Tesselman wants the cops to jump they’ll jump. And Tesselman wants the guy who killed Mavis. If the cops start jumping that will cause a lot of aggravation and inconvenience to Ed Ganolese’s organisation.

One option would be to set up someone else as a fall guy. The cops don’t care about getting the right guy. They just want to nail someone for the murder, to get Ernest Tesselman off their backs. But Ganolese decides there’s a better way to play this. He wants Clay to find the real murderer. Clay isn’t thrilled about doing the cops’ job for them but he’s Ganolese’s boy. If that’s how Ganolese wants it played that’s how Clay will play it.

Clay is now hunting the killer, and the killer is hunting him.

Clay is an interesting anti-hero. He’s not a mere thug. Killing is only a small part of his job. He’s actually Ganolese’s right-hand man. Clay is loyal and efficient and intelligent. He’s educated and he’s civilised.

He does have a problem with his girlfriend Ella. Two problems actually. The first is that he loves her. He’s had lots of women and this has never happened before. The second problem is that Ella is not sure she approves of his line of work. It’s not the killing people thing that she has a problem with. She can rationalise that away, and she has. It’s the fact that Clay kills and doesn’t feel bad about it. He doesn’t feel anything abut it. It’s not that Clay is cold and emotionless. He’s very loving with Ella. He just happens to be able to switch off his emotions entirely when he has to kill people.

While he hunts the killer, and tries to stay alive, he has to make a decision about Ella. He has to choose between her and his job. He loves both. That’s what makes him an interesting protagonist. He really does love being a gangster. He’s the narrator and the protagonist and he’s a killer and we disapprove of him but we kinda like the guy. And his rationalisation are fascinating. He regards the organisation as simply a business. There are products and services that the moral guardians of society will not allow people to buy legally but people still want those products and services. The organisation provides them. We might disagree with Clay but his rationalisations do have a kind of internal logic to them. What matters is that up to a point at least Clay believes that he is just working for a business.

Clay also believes that he has never killed anyone who was any real loss to society. He only kills criminals. So killing people is OK if you only kill bad people, isn’t it?

Clay is neither a straightforward hero nor a straightforward villain.

Both Clay and Ella are in fact engaged in trying to find rationalisations to justify Clay’s criminal career. And both will find this to be more and more of a challenge.

There are some clever twists at the end. This is not a fair-play mystery but the solution is at least plausible and coherent.

The Cutie is really a pretty good read. I’m giving it a highly recommended rating.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Harl Vincent's Before the Asteroids

Harl Vincent was a pseudonym used by American engineer and pulp science fiction writer Harold Vincent Schoepflin (1893-1968). His short novel Before the Asteroids was published in Science Wonder Stories in March 1930.

Before the Asteroids takes place in our own solar system, half a million years ago. There were at that time two planets which were home to advanced technological civilisations, Arin (now known as Mars) and Voris (a now-vanished planet orbiting the Sun where the Asteroid Belt now lies). The people of Arin are peace-loving but Voris is ruled by the ambitious and ruthless Olar.

Young Prince Ronal of Arin has been sent to Voris, carrying a false passport. hIs old tutor Antes suspects that Voris is plotting war. Ronal’s job is to find out whether or not this is true. Ronal immediately falls in love with the beautiful Vorisian Princess Ila. Ila wants peace between Arin and Voris and she has reason to hate her cruel father.

The Vorisians are indeed planning war. Ronal escapes just in time, taking Ila with him.

The war involves lots of aerial battles, lots of poison gases and ray projectors and lots of stuff getting blown up. Both sides seem evenly matched until the wise old Antides comes up with a super-weapon. If it works, Arin might be saved.

But there’s another problem. Both planets are about to pass through a gaseous nebula which will freeze every living thing.

Ronal is your typical noble young prince. His father is your typical wise and benevolent king. Olar is a typical villain. Ila is beautiful but also brave and noble.

This is fairly routine 190s pulp science fiction stuff. On the plus side the story moves along quickly.

The prose style is pure pulp.

This is one of those science fiction novels in which it is assumed advanced technological civilisations will be monarchies. Because if you don’t have a monarchy you can’t have beautiful princesses, and where would your story be without a beautiful princess? There’s not much in the way of world-building in this novel. Apart from the fact that they’re the bad guys the Vorisians seem pretty much like the Arinians. Both civilisations have death rays and advanced spacecraft propelled by mysterious rays and protective force fields.

The assumption that Mars half a million years ago was fertile and had an Earth-like atmosphere was still scientifically at least vaguely plausible in 1930. The assumption that the “canals” of Mars were real canals was also fairly plausible. The author was an engineer and he comes up with or two ideas for future technologies (such as the means of interplanetary transportation used by both planets) that are moderately interesting if far-fetched. He doesn’t try to blind us with too much technobabble - he just assumes that ideas like death rays work and gets on with the story.

The story can be seen as an attempt to explain some things about our solar system which seemed puzzling nearly a century ago. The attempted explanations are reasonably ingenious and they’re the most interesting aspects of the novel.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Marius’s The Sixth Glacier in a double-header paperback.

Before the Asteroids isn’t great science fiction but it has plenty of action and it’s maybe worth a look if you’re in the mood for something seriously pulpy with a few good ideas.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Donald Hamilton’s Murderers’ Row

I’ve written at length in previous reviews about the huge differences in tone between Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy novels and the Matt Helm movies, especially in my review of Death of a Citizen. Suffice to say that the Matt Helm novels are very very hardboiled stories about the most ruthless brutal fictional spy of his era. Murderers’ Row, published in 1962, was the fifth of the twenty-seven Matt Helm novels.

Matt works for a very secret US Government intelligence agency. They’re the US Government’s equivalent of Murder Incorporated. If the US Government feels that it would be more convenient to have somebody dead then this agency arranges the matter. Matt is their top operative. He is in effect a hitman. A hitman working for freedom and democracy. Those who work for this government agency refer to its headquarters as Murderers’ Row.

The Matt Helm novels have more in common with the 1960s British TV spy series Callan (about a British Government assassin) than with James Bond. Sure James Bond has a licence to kill but it’s understood that he only kills when it’s absolutely necessary. Matt Helm kills as a matter of routine. He may be the most cold-blooded of all fictional spies.

This time he has to take over a case from another of the agency’s operatives. They’re used to dirty jobs but this job is just too dirty. That’s OK by Matt. He doesn’t care how dirty the job gets. The agency is trying to make it appear that one of their top female operatives is willing to defect. They have to give her a plausible motive for wanting to defect. Matt’s job is to provide her with that motive, by giving her a savage beating. Matt doesn’t mind. If the agency tells him to beat a helpless woman to a pulp he does it. But it goes wrong. He wasn’t supposed to kill her. Now he has a corpse on his hands and there was a witness and the county police have him under lock and key. And he’s not allowed to reveal that he works for the government. It’s not an auspicious beginning for a case.

The witness, a cute young woman named Teddy, lies to the cops to get him off. He’s puzzled by this, and then disturbed by what she has in mind for him. His cover is that he’s a Mob hoodlum. Teddy wants to hire him to kill someone. Cute young women don’t usually want to hire hitmen. It’s something to do with her daddy. Which is interesting to Matt since the case that he’s so far made such a mess of has a lot to do with Teddy’s daddy.

Teddy’s daddy is a top American scientist. The bad guys have kidnapped him and they’re going to sell him to the Soviets. Matt’s orders are to make sure that doesn’t happen. He has to rescue the scientist if possible. If that’s not possible then he has to kill him. Sure, he’s an American scientist and he’s probably totally innocent and doesn’t want to defect but in the brutal world of the Matt Helm novels that doesn’t matter. The quickest easiest way to solve such problems is by killing. If innocent people get killed that’s too bad.

Maybe his cover is a bit too good since it seems that Teddy isn’t the only one who wants to hire his services as a hitman.

When Matt tries to kill somebody else and he doesn’t even know who the guy is Matt’s boss Mac starts to get worried that Matt is over-strained and is now just killing people at random. The same thought crosses Matt’s mind when he tries to kill another complete stranger. Mac thinks it would be a good idea to get Matt off this case but Matt is determined to see it through even though he doesn’t have a clear idea what he’s doing. He figures he’ll just stir things up and see who reacts, and how they react. He certainly manages to stir things up.

The latter part of the story including a decent action finale takes place on board an 80-foot ocean-going schooner. Matt assumes the schooner will lead him to the kidnapped scientist.

The violence in this novel isn’t graphic. It’s the casual acceptance of killing that is shocking. Matt kills one of his own people, an unarmed woman, a brave woman doing her duty, and he feels no regret and no remorse. These things just happen. He gave her a brutal beating and she died. All he feels is irritation. Her death is a nuisance. Matt never questions his own actions. I suspect this was a deliberate technique on the author’s part. He wanted to show that spies aren’t glamorous. They lie and cheat and steal and kill. The only real difference between Matt Helm and a Mob hitman is that a Mob hitman would probably take more care to avoid killing innocent bystanders.

As you may have gathered this novel is a million miles away from the world of the lighthearted campy Matt Helm movies.

Donald Hamilton may well be the greatest of all American writers of spy fiction. Murderers’ Row is highly recommended.

One thing I would mention is that if you’re going to venture into the world of the Matt Helm novels then the first novel, Death of a Citizen, provides essential backstory material which makes Matt’s motivations more comprehensible.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Ian MacAlister's Driscoll’s Diamonds

Driscoll’s Diamonds, published in 1973, was the second of the Ian MacAlister adventure thrillers.

Marvin Albert (1924-1996) was an American who wrote crime fiction, adventure fiction and westerns under a bewildering number of pseudonyms, including the four Ian MacAlister thrillers.

The choice of the Ian MacAlister pseudonym suggests that Albert was trying to present himself as the poor man’s Alistair MacLean (or perhaps the pseudonym was the publisher’s idea).

Driscoll’s Diamonds begins in Sharm el Sheikh in the southern Sinai. An Israeli patrol finds a man almost dead from heatstroke and dehydration. The man is John Driscoll and he’s identified by the Israeli authorities as an American mercenary. They don’t have a problem with him. He recovers and he finds himself an Israeli girlfriend named Shana in Jerusalem.

But Driscoll has something on his mind. Diamonds. He has a large cache of them. Or at least he knows where he hid that cache. The problem will be getting to the diamonds. He knows that that is going to be a problem because he knows that some of the people who have been looking for him have now found him. There are two groups of people looking for him. If one of those groups has found him it means trouble. If it’s the other group that has found him it means big big trouble.

A group of mercenaries led by a man named Royan had stolen the diamonds from smugglers on Lake Tanganyika. Royan had double-crossed the other members of the team. The only survivor was Driscoll and he got the diamonds, for a while. Until that plane crash in the Red Sea. Driscoll got out of the wrecked plane before it sank, but without the diamonds.

Now Royan has found Driscoll and he has found a way to force Driscoll to lead him to the diamonds. He is holding Shana as a hostage. Royan and four mercenaries, with Driscoll and Shana as very unwilling companions, set off for the Sudan to retrieve the diamonds. Royan has persuaded an Arab gem trader who knows the country to act as a guide.

They end up in the most inhospitable stretch of country on the planet, heavily infested with bandits and with Sudanese troops in hot pursuit. Driscoll will have to find a way to get the better of Royan and that won’t be easy. Driscoll is just about the most skilled mercenary around but there is one man who is better and than man is Royan. And Royan has his four henchman so the odds are five to one against Driscoll. If Driscoll can’t come up with some sort of plan he has no doubt that once the diamonds are found Royan will kill him and kill Shana.

What follows is lots of action, adventure, mayhem and nail-biting suspense. There’s no question that MacAlister is very very good when it comes to writing adventure thrillers. The action scenes are excellent, particularly in the ruined Crusader fortress and the climax near the beach at the end. Driscoll will have to act eventually but he’s going to have to be very very patient and the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Driscoll is a fine hero. He’s no Boy Scout. He’s been a mercenary, a gun-runner and a thief. There’s really only one honourable thing about him. He has genuinely fallen for Shana. He really does care for her, but does he care more about her or the diamonds? That’s something he’s not sure of himself. He’s also a realist. He knows that Royan is crazy but he also knows that as a fighting man Royan really does have the edge on him.

Royan is an effective villain. He’s ruthless and possibly insane and he’s haunted by his own personal demons. Both Driscoll and Royan are at least a little bit more than cardboard cut-out characters.

The violence isn’t particularly graphic. We’re dealing here with an author who doesn’t need to resort to graphic violence in order to make his story exciting.

MacAlister is also a writer (like Alistair MacLean) who knows how to use an incredibly hostile setting to the fullest advantage. As in MacLean’s best novels, if the bad guys don’t kill you the hostile environment probably will.

Driscoll’s Diamonds really is a top-notch thriller. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place was one of the later and more highly praised of Dorothy B. Hughes’ crime novels. The 1950 film adaptation directed by Nicholas Ray has also been highly praised although it bears little resemblance to the novel.

Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was an American writer of crime fiction with a hardboiled and at times noir edge. She started writing crime novels in 1940 and her career petered out by the end of the 40s.

The novel is so different from the film that you needn’t think that anything I have to say about it will be a spoiler for the movie. They are entirely different stories. The only similarity is that some of the character names are the same. But they’re different characters and the events of the novel have no connection whatsoever with the events of the movie.

Now I should say upfront that this is the kind of crime novel that I usually avoid. It’s a serial killer story and I intensely dislike serial killer stories. It’s also one of those psychological crime novels that tries to put the reader into the mind of a killer, and that’s another kind of novel I generally avoid. They always strike me as being phoney and contrived as well as being somewhat distasteful. But having recently rewatched the movie and having heard that the book is so different my curiosity was piqued.

Dix Steele (who is a much younger man than the Dix Steele of the movie) was a flyer during the war. Now he’s living in LA on an allowance from his uncle while pretending to be a writer. He’s just run into an old wartime buddy, a guy named Brub. Brub is now a detective with the LAPD. Brub is working on the strangler case - a series of sex murders that has been terrorising the city.

We know right from the start that Dix is the strangler. He’s confident that he’s not going to be caught because he’s convinced that he’s an incredibly smart guy and that he knows no fear. Hanging around with a friend who’s a cop is a risk but it adds spice.

Things change for Dix when he meets Laurel Gray (who despite having the same name is not the same character depicted in the movie). He sees a chance for an actual relationship with a woman. The problem is that he doesn’t really understand Laurel and he gets entirely the wrong idea about what she wants from him. She’s attracted to him and she’s willing to share his bed but Dix starts thinking about stuff like marriage. It’s obvious that Dix is just not very good at reading women. He makes assumptions about them and then when they don’t measure up to his fantasies he gets resentful. Then he decides that they’re just whores.

Dix himself has spent his whole life using people. In the movie he’s a once successful screenwriter whose career is on the skids but in the book he’s a loser right from the start. He thinks he’s a winner, or at least he thinks he’s entitled to be a winner, but making any real effort is too much trouble for him.

His real problems started during the war when he fell in love with a girl named Brucie. That ended badly. Really badly, as we’ll later discover.

The murders keep happening and Dix keeps thinking he’s two steps ahead of the cops.

The problem in this book is Dix’s motivation. This could be partly because Hughes didn’t think she could dare be open about the motivations of a sex killer. The word rape is used only once. It’s certainly implied the strangler rapes his victims before killing them. But the book is vague about the extent to which he is a sex killer. He seems to have other motivations as well.

It’s always a problem for a woman writer to try to get inside the head of a male character (just as it’s difficult for a male writer to get inside the head of a female character). The problem becomes more acute when the character’s motivations are emotional and sexual. It’s difficult enough to understand the sexuality of a normal member of the opposite sex but when it’s someone who is clearly not normal the problem becomes critical. I’m not convinced that Hughes carries it off successfully, but it is a fiendishly difficult thing to do.

We see everything through Dix’s eyes. He’s playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police but he doesn’t seem to understand that the odds are always stacked against the mouse. He doesn’t understand that he’s the hunted, not the hunter. The cat-and-mouse game aspect is handled quite well.

On the whole it’s a moderately involving story but as I said at the outset this book belongs to a sub-genre that is not my cup of tea at all. Those who like psychological crime novels might enjoy this one a lot more than I did. I was a bit underwhelmed.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (TV tie-novel)

John Theydon’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, published in 1967, was the first of three TV tie-novels based on  Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s legendary cult television series of the same name.

This novel is obviously going to appeal mostly to dedicated fans of the television series. But if you do fall into that category then you’ll find it to be a surprisingly competent and entertaining little adventure.

Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

E. Howard Hunt's The Violent Ones

The Violent Ones is a 1950 thriller by E. Howard Hunt.

E. Howard Hunt (1918-2007) had what might be called an interesting life. He spent many years as a CIA agent, and quite a senior one. Hunt was one of the infamous Watergate “plumbers” and spent nearly three years in prison as a result. There are countless conspiracy theories (all entirely unproven) linking Hunt to all manner of alleged CIA operations such as the assassination of President Kennedy. The covert operations that he was definitely known to be involved in are colourful enough, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Hunt combined his career as a spy with a very successful career as a writer, a career that spanned nearly six decades. He published 73 books including hardboiled crime novels and spy thrillers.

And he was an extremely good writer. His hardboiled crime thriller House Dick is highly recommended and his spy thrillers are more than competent. I reviewed One of Our Agents Is Missing a while back and it’s pretty darned good. So Hunt is a writer you’re likely to pick up on account of his notoriety but you’ll go back to him because the guy really could write. He’s not quite in the top tier but in both the crime and spy genres he qualifies as a very good and very entertaining second-tier writer.

The Violent Ones can be described as a hardboiled thriller with definite spy fiction overtones.

Paul Cameron is an American who has just returned to France. He’d spent many years there, he speaks faultless French and he’d been mixed up in covert operations involving the Resistance. He’s gone back to France because he received a letter from from an old friend, Phil Thorne, an American diplomat who’s become involved in something he just can’t handle. He’s also gone back to France because he figures there’s nothing for him in America, not after serving a prison term for beating his wife’s lover to a pulp and leaving the guy in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

In Paris he runs into Marcelle again. He’d known, and loved, her during the war but that was a long time ago and you can’t go back to the past. Or maybe you can. It might not be a good idea, but in his lifetime Cameron has done plenty of things that were probably not good ideas and he’ll undoubtedly do plenty more such things.

There’s also Mari, a Hungarian chanteuse. Getting mixed up with her would be a really bad idea so you know that that is exactly what he’s going to do.

He also has a corpse on his hands. Cameron had nothing to do with the murder but with his record that corpse could lead to misunderstandings with the French police.

And he finds that the past has a tendency to intrude on the present. A certain event took place during the war, involving a very large amount of gold. A variety of dangerous people now want that gold. Those people include communists, right-wing former Resistance fighters, the French Government and out-and-out crooks. Phil Thorne is also looking for that gold.

Hunt belongs to the school of thriller writes that holds that if you’re going to write a thriller you’re going to need lots of actions and lots of glamorous dangerous women. I have to say that I thoroughly approve of this formula. When Cameron isn’t getting beaten up he’s jumping into bed with an assortment of femmes fatales.

Hunt does have one odd stylistic tic. He often slips into second-person narration which is unsettling at first but you get used to it and in its own way it works.

The book has a classic spy/adventure thriller plot but it has a noir fiction atmosphere. And Cameron is more of a noir fiction protagonist than a conventional 1950-vintage thriller or spy fiction hero. He’s a man who’s made some bad decisions. Sometimes he made bad decisions because he just couldn’t see what else he could do. He is not however a mere loser. He has not given up on life although there are times when he’s come close to doing so. He’s no starry-eyed idealist but he’s not a complete cynic either. Fate has dealt him a bad hand but he’s going to try to play his cards as well as he can. He has no idea whether he has a chance of winning and the reader doesn’t know either.

There are three women in the story.Mari and Marcelle I’ve already mentioned but there’s also Renee du Casse, who owns the casino at Menton. All three seem to fit the femme fatale mould. There are also a number of men who, during the war, had some connection to that gold. There are three in particular, each of whom could be a villain, a hero or an innocent bystander.

As for the gold, the problem is to to find out where it is. Cameron has a few clues to work on, as does the reader.

The Violent Ones is relentlessly fast-paced and exciting. It’s a hardboiled noir-flavoured mystery thriller. It offers both sleaze and glamour. It has a pleasing hint of pulp trashiness. And it’s very politically incorrect. Oddly, given Hunt’s CIA background, it makes no attempt to bludgeon the reader with political messaging.

Hunt had no great literary aspirations but he understood both pulp fiction and noir fiction. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Frederick C. Davis’s High Heel Homicide (which is also pretty good) is one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Donald E. Keyhoe's Strange Staffels

Strange Staffels is a collection of short stories by Donald E. Keyhoe, all featuring American fighter ace and intelligence agent Captain Philip Strange, the famous Brain-Devil. It’s one of several Philip Strange collections that have been published by Ace of aces books.

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was an American pulp writer in several genres but was most notable as a writer of science fiction-tinged aviation adventure stories. He later became a UFO enthusiast. Keyhoe had been a Marine Corps pilot and then a kind of aviation impresario. He started writing while recovering from an aircraft crash.

The Philip Strange Stories mix First World War aerial combat, horror, science fiction, weird fiction and espionage.

Before the war Captain Philip Strange had had a mentalist/hypnotism act in a carnival and had studied various eastern esoteric practices. He doesn’t have supernatural or occult powers but he does have certain powers that would today be described as paranormal although mostly he relies on his training as an intelligence officer and his profound knowledge of hypnotism and psychology. At the start of the First World War he was assigned to G-2, the US Army Air Corps’ intelligence section. He was both a fighter ace, a spy and a spy-hunter.

The stories range from moderately outlandish to very outlandish and they’re all packed with action. The stores all involve Strange’s efforts to foil devilishly clever German plots. The stories are always imaginative and Keyhoe always manages to throw in at least one genuinely bizarre (an often creepy) element.

Satan’s Staffel was published in the March 1934 issue of Flying Aces. Captain Philip Strange of G-2 has his first inkling of trouble when he encounters a black German aircraft and gets a glimpse of the pilot - it is a woman, with a face like a Medusa. The German aircraft seems impossible to shoot down - his machine-gun bullets simply have no effect. Then the female pilot stands up in her cockpit and her aircraft explodes in a gigantic fireball.

Strange survives this aerial duel but when he lands he finds out that this is just the latest in a series of encounters American airmen have had with these crazed female pilots.

When one of the black aircraft is forced down Philip Strange begins to understand the true horror of this latest fiendish and inhuman plan of the Germans. There is nothing supernatural about it but the reality is worse than any supernatural horror.

Strange is sent on a desperate mission to infiltrate this terrifying Amazon squadron, and he will need all his skills as a spy if he is to survive.

The Vanishing Staffel was published in Flying Aces in December 1932. Allied planes are taking off and vanish into thin air. Machine-gun fire is coming from out of nowhere. Dazed survivors mumble about the world disappearing. It’s another devilish German plot, and it means a vast German aerial armada can strike anywhere it chooses without being seen.

The Germans have devised a kind of stealth technology, that’s clear enough to Captain Strange. What he needs to find out is how the trick is worked. To add to the problems there’s a German spy in the French Air Force.

Once again Keyhoe mixes science fiction with aerial adventure and the science stuff is very clever.

Hoodoo Drome (published in Flying Aces in November 1933) is more of a straightforward stories of espionage and sabotage without any overt science fictional elements.

It starts with an American general murdering a French general. Strange gets involved in an American plan to cover up the murder. At the same time American aircraft have been mysteriously exploding in mid-air and then American aviators start shooting down American planes. Philip Strange believes all these odd occurrences are linked. Of course he’s right but the real German plot is much more ambitious. It involves mining (mining to plant explosives under enemy trench systems was a popular idea in the First World War) and in this story both the Germans and the Allies are using the idea.

There’s action on the ground, under the ground and in the air. And there are German spies everywhere.

Skull Staffel appeared in Flying Aces in December 1934. The Germans are creating havoc with fighter aircraft that are virtually silent and virtually invisible (Keyhoe was a big fan of the idea of various types of what today we would call stealth technologies). But there’s a bigger problem - a vital map showing details of Allied defensive positions and the Germans have gained possession of it.

Once again Strange comes up against clever and ruthless German spies.

The Skeleton Barrage was published in Flying Aces in April 1936. It starts in typical Keyhoe fashion - American airfields are being wiped out. Totally wiped out - all that is left is a gigantic crater. G-2 have come into possession of a strange drawing made by an Allied spy - Strange is sure there’s a vital message contained in the picture but it’s in some sort of obscure visual code that nobody can make any sense out of.

A German spy, about to be captured, throws a camera into a river. The camera is another clue but in typical Keyhoe style it’s another clue that is mystifying rather rather than enlightening even to Philip Strange.

Then Strange, flying in his Spad, sees fiery skeletons plunging to earth (accompanied by a hideous wailing sound) as another airfield is wiped off the map. When he lands Strange encounters a high-ranking German naval officer - German spies are commonplace but a German naval officer up to no good on an Allied airfield is quite a surprise.

This is part of another grandiose German high-tech scheme which is so clever I’m not going to give you any hints as to its nature.

The Staffel of the Starved was published in Flying Aces in May 1936. The Germans have been doing odd things with their artillery barrages and mysterious coded messages have been picked up. Then something really odd happens - a German aviator who landed his aircraft and killed three French radio operators (who were monitoring those coded messages) is found dead - but he died of starvation! Even more odd, he was one of Germany’s top fighter aces.

Then an American pilot is murdered by a French pilot and American fighters start shooting down French fighters.

The Staffel Invisible appeared in the May 1939 issue of Flying Aces. Philip Strange sees two American aircraft shot down but there is not a sign of a German aircraft anywhere. It’s as if the American flyers have been shot down by invisible enemies.

Strange lands and sees more bizarre things - a head and shoulders appear from nowhere and his own Spad disappears and then reappears. Strange disguises himself as a German officer and takes off in his Spad and ends up landing on an airfield that isn’t there.

All seven stories are weird, exciting and enjoyable.  Strange Staffels is highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier volume of Philip Strange stories, Strange War, as well as a couple of collections, of other aviation adventures by Keyhoe - Vanished Legion (WW1 aerial stories) and the Richard Knight stories (aviation-espionage adventures set in the 1930s). And to demonstrate that Keyhoe didn’t just write aviation stories there’s his fun diabolical criminal mastermind novel Dr Yen Sin #1 The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Little Orphan Vampires

Little Orphan Vampires is perhaps not the sort of book I'd usually talk about here, being a novel from 1993.

It's a short novel by Jean Rollin (1938-2010). Rollin is better known in the English-speaking world as the director of strange surreal erotic horror movies with the emphasis on the surrealism and with a twisted fairy tale feel to them. In his native France he enjoyed more success as a novelist, working in the fantasy and horror genres. 

Little Orphan Vampires is the tale of two young blind orphan girls who may or may not be vampires but they are certainly killers. Whether or not they are evil is also open to debate.

My full review can be found at my Cult Movie Reviews blog. Here's the link.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Frederick C. Davis's High Heel Homicide

High Heel Homicide is a 1961 hardboiled crime novella by Frederick C. Davis (1902–1977) who had been a prolific pulp writer back in the 30s.

Johnny Trexler, the narrator, has a fairly senior position at a TV studio. Driving past his boss Victor Gaylord’s house in the early hours of the morning he sees a woman run out in front of his car. The woman then jumps into a parked car and speeds off. Trexler, a little uneasy, decides to check that everything is OK in the house, and in the guest house he finds Gaylord’s dead body. He has been murdered, with a Boy Scout hatchet.

There are bloody footprints, and they are the footprints of a woman. Trexler puts two and two together and figures that the woman who ran in front of his car must have been the murderess. But there are signs that Gaylord had been entertaining not one but two women. And, as it later turns out that his wife was in Chicago that night, neither women could have been his wife. Trexler also finds a note that is an obvious clue and for some reason he feels compelled to pocket that note rather than leaving it for the police to find. He has an uneasy feeling that he should have recognised the woman in the street and that he should have recognised the handwriting on the note.

Trexler isn’t particularly sorry that Victor Gaylord is dead. While Gaylord was alive Trexler’s job at the TV studio was under a cloud so from a purely selfish point of view Gaylord’s death is not such a bad thing for Johnny Trexler. And he heartily disliked Gaylord (most people heartily disliked Gaylord).

Trexler’s main concern is to avoid getting involved in any investigation. He doesn’t need the aggravation and when the police start snooping the fact that he doesn’t have a rock-solid alibi might become a problem. Because he doesn’t know what else to do he rings his friend Bryce, also a senior guy at the studio, and they decide it’s best to keep quiet and just wait for the police to discover the body.

Trexler has another problem. He has a bullet wound in his arm, acquired while he was poking around Victor Gaylord’s guest house. He has no idea who shot him. He also doesn’t know why. He was lying ion the ground and he was shot at close range. He should be a corpse. But all he has is a slight wound in the left arm.

He’s pretty sure the killer is a woman associated with the TV studio. Gaylord played around with the ladies and didn’t treat them any too well so lots of the women at the studio might have had a motive.

His girlfriend Val, one of the top actresses at the studio, might even have done it but she has an alibi. He and Bryce can more or less alibi each other but the murderer was definitely a woman. Bryce’s wife Mona, a rather unstable actress, might have been involved in the murder. She’s acting rather strangely. There’s evidence for and against that theory. Allene, a staff writer, is also behaving oddly. Maybe she could be a suspect. Trexler is pretty confused about the whole thing. Val doesn’t seem quite so confused. She has a theory.

The second murder seems to confuse things more.

The method by which the killer distracts the attention of the police onto others is quite clever. The whole murder plan turns out to be quite clever. There’s some good misdirection. The TV studio setting is interesting. There are plenty of plausible motives. There are plenty of plausible suspects but the most likely suspects from the point of view of motive seems to be the least likely suspects when it comes to opportunity.

Trexler’s idea of keeping clear if the investigation turns out to be a bad idea since he finds himself caught in the middle anyway. But even if he’d called the cops straight away it probably wouldn’t have helped.

It’s a pretty decently plotted story. It’s really only mildly hardboiled. Trexler is maybe not the smartest guy in the world but eventually he starts to figure out at least some of what’s going on. His judgment is sometimes suspect and he jumps to conclusions at times but he’s not such a bad guy. He’s quite sympathetic in is own way.

Davis’s style is a bit pulpy but that’s mostly a plus. There’s a solid mystery and it’s at least moderately fairly clued. There’s an important clue early on which hinges on what is not seen rather than on what is seen.

Overall this is an enjoyable little tale of murder and mayhem. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this title with E. Howard Hunt’s The Violent Ones in one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones

This Island Earth is by far the best-known work of American science fiction author Raymond F. Jones (1915-1994). It was serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949 and published in novel form in 1952.

Cal Meacham is an engineer with Ryberg Electronics. He’s ordered some condensers from one of their regular suppliers, a firm called Continental. Instead of the condensers he gets an odd letter from Electronic Service-Unit 16 and some tiny glass beads. He contacts Continental but they deny having sent either the letter or the beads. Nobody has ever heard of Electronic Service-Unit 16. Cal is annoyed but on a whim he decides to test the beads. It turns out they are condensers, they’re just much much smaller and much much more efficient than anything he’s ever seen before. And they have some odd properties.

Then Electronic Service-Unit 16 sends him a catalogue. One odd thing abut the catalogue is that it’s not printed on paper but on a substance he has never seen before. Among the many unfamiliar items in the catalogue are components for an interociter. Cal has never heard of an interociter but he decides that he’d like to see one. In fact he’d like to build one. So he orders all the components.

His idea is of course quite silly. To build an unknown device out of hundreds of components (the purpose of all of which are quite unknown to him) without having any knowledge of what the device is or is supposed to do is obviously quite impossible. The strange thing is, he succeeds. And the interociter works.

The successful completion of the interociter results in a job offer from a completely unknown outfit who call themselves Peace Engineers. They have a huge industrial complex near Phoenix. Cal finds himself in an engineer’s dream - he has unlimited resources at his disposal for the kinds of research projects that had only ever been impossible dreams for him.

At the Peace Engineers he meets an old friend named Ole, also an engineer. It seems that Peace Engineers has been head-hunting talent from all over the country. He also meets Dr Ruth Adams. Ruth is the staff psychiatrist at the Peace Engineers complex. She is beautiful and charming but there is one thing about her that is disturbing - the fear he sees in her eyes.

Ruth and Ole are suspicious of the setup at Peace Engineers. They’re convinced that there’s something they haven’t been told.

And then Cal makes two discoveries. The first is the spaceship. The second is that the interociter is more that it appears to be. He confronts the head of the project (a man known as the Engineer) and is told a fantastic story that he believes. Later he’ll be told a quite different story.

Cal and Ruth find out that they are caught up in a vast universe-spanning conflict but the nature of the conflict, their part (and humanity’s part) in that conflict and the potential consequences are perhaps beyond ordinary comprehension.

This novel starts exceptionally well. The first third, the rather low-key buildup to Cal’s initial discoveries is handled very cleverly. Both Cal and the reader are given tantalising hints of very strange things that could have all sorts of explanations. The second third, on a much more cosmic scale (although still with a very real human dimension) is excellent as well. Then it gets a bit side-tracked by politics for a while. But the ending redeems it, with some interesting ethical and intellectual dilemmas involving the nature and psychology of war, the fate of those caught up in wars they did not choose and the advantages and disadvantages of relying on technology.

Cal is an intriguing hero. He’s a mixture of intellectual boldness and naïvete, caught between cold logic and emotion.

This Island Earth is a pretty decent example of 1950s American science fiction that manages to maintain both an epic and a human scale. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the 1955 film adaptation.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Web of Spies (Nick Carter-Killmaster #11)

Web of Spies, published in 1966, is the eleventh of the Nick Carter-Killmaster spy novels. The series eventually ran to 261 novels.

Nick Carter is one of the most during characters in the history of fiction. He made his first appearance as a Sherlock Holmes-style detective in dime novels in 1886. He had a long but intermittent run in pulp magazines. In the 1930s he became a pulp hardboiled detective. In the 1960s the character was revived as a James Bond-style secret agent in the long-running Killmaster series of novels which were still being published as late as 1990. He has been featured in various movies and radio serials.

Nick Carter stories have always been credited to Nick Carter as author but in fact countess writers wrote Nick Carter adventures over the years. Web of Spies was written by prolific pulp author Manning Lee Stokes (1911-1976), who seems to have written around twenty books in the series.

Nick Carter, Agent N-3, is a top operator for the American intelligence/espionage agency AXE.

In Web of Spies his assignment is Mission Sappho which involves the kidnapping of a distinguished English lesbian. Not just any old lesbian, but a distinguished English lesbian. Alicia Todd is not only a lesbian, sh’s also a brilliant scientist and a dope-fiend. She’s going to defect to the Russians. Maybe. Nick Carter’s job is to stop her from defecting, or to kill her.

Alicia Todd has been caught in a KGB honey trap. The Russians have sent a glamorous female spy to seduce her.

Nick Carter’s first stop is Tangiers where he re-acquaints himself with Gay Lord. Gay is one of Nick’s exes. She’s a beautiful lady spy and she works for everybody. She works for the Americans and for the Russians and she also works for The Spiders. They’re a shadowy freelance group. They rescue ex-Nazis. But they hate Nazis. Or at least some of them do. There’s a pro-Nazi and an anti-Nazi faction within the Spiders. Gay has landed herself in a mess and she wants Nick to get her out of it. Nick figures he might try to do that. But you have to get your priorities right and the first priority is to sleep with her again, for old times’ sake.

Nick departs from Tangiers leaving a trail of mayhem behind him although to be fair he wasn’t responsible for the mayhem. Next stop is the Costa Brava in Spain where Alicia Todd and the Russian lady spy Tasia Loften are getting to know each other. They’re getting to know each other very well indeed as Nick can testify since he’s been watching them through binoculars.

Nick will have to find a way to kidnap Alicia Todd and the chances are she’s not going to be happy about it. And there are likely to be plenty of complications given that he’s discovered that Judas is still alive and still active. Judas is a kind of master-spy/criminal mastermind who appears in a number of the Nick Carter books and Nick has unfinished business with him.

It all gets rather complicated since it’s not just the Americans the Russians after Alicia Todd. Both factions of the Spiders are involved as well. And there are the Spanish police and Guardia Civil to deal with also. Lots of bloodbaths ensue. We’re talking full-scale battles here. Everyone double-crosses everyone else, with Nick doing more than his fair share of breathtakingly cynical double-dealing.

To add to the gruesomeness there’s a decayed monastery where the monks used to sleep in coffins, and there’s Mr Skull who’s Judas’s chief henchman. He’s not quite a zombie, but close to it and he’s seven feet tall. Judas is a deliciously evil diabolical criminal mastermind.

There’s one thing you’ll notice immediately about this book! The author loves exclamation points! He loves them a lot!

The Nick Carter-Killmaster books are pure pulp fiction with plenty of violence and plenty of sleaze. Manning Lee Stokes wouldn’t win any awards for his literary style but he knows how to keep the action moving along and that’s what matters.

The James Bond influence is obvious. Nick Carter has Bond’s interest in the female of the species but his ruthlessness makes him closer in attitude to Matt Helm. Bond may have had a licence to kill but he was only expected to do so when it was absolutely necessary. Nick Carter, like Matt Helm, is a specialist assassin and his orders to kill are quite explicit. In fact he is given written orders to assassinate people, something which would horrify Bond or even Matt Helm (or any real-life assassin).

Nick Carter is also more obviously hardboiled than Bond. Bond bedded plenty of women in his adventures but he tended to fall in love with them. Nick is more cold-blooded when it comes to women. He also has more than a bit of Mike Hammer in his makeup. He’s quite happy to employ torture if he feels it to be necessary and he’s pretty casual about the number of people he kills. Sometimes he kills because it’s necessary, sometimes merely because it’s more convenient. Oddly enough he’s into yoga.

I read a couple of the Nick Carter-Killmaster books a few years ago (and I enjoyed Spy Castle quite a bit). I picked up Web of Spies on the basis of a favourable review at the Glorious Trash blog.

Web of Spies is outlandish pulpy fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (Dive Into Danger)

British diplomat and intelligence agent (and magician) Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky wrote a small number of very underrated mystery thrillers under the pseudonym Charles Forsyte, beginning with Diplomatic Death in 1961. It’s no surprise that several of their books have a diplomatic background, including the excellent Murder with Minarets (published in 1968).

Diving Death (also published as Dive Into Danger) was their second effort, appearing in 1962.

Inspector Richard Left of Special Branch is lazing in the sun in the picturesque little village of Port-St-Pierre in the south of France. Left is having a long-overdue and well-deserved holiday. He runs into Sir Paul Pallett, a very distinguished archaeologist with whom he has a very slight acquaintanceship. Sir Paul casually asks Left if his presence in Port-St-Pierre has anything to do with the Knossos, a luxury yacht currently anchored offshore. The Knossos is owned by a nouveau riche type named Dermot Wilson, a type for whom Sir Paul has nothing but contempt. Wilson is there to conduct underwater archaeology (something else for which Sir Paul has nothing but contempt). He considers Wilson to be a dilettante and a charlatan. Wilson has however attracted some archaeological talent to his expedition - a very able chap named Syce and a youngster named Lockhead.

Sir Paul then springs two surprises on Left. He reveals that he has accepted an invitation to go aboard the Knossos on the following day, and he asks of Left would like to accompany him. Left is, truth be told, growing a little bored with his holiday so he accepts.

On board the Knossos are Wilson, Syce, Lockhead, Wilson’s fiancée Julia Ferrers, his secretary Mary Lawton and a diving master named Marshall. As Left and Sir Paul head towards the yacht in a motor launch Wilson swims out to meet them. Marshall, Lockhead, Julia and Mary are all on a dive, seventy feet down investigating the 2,000-year-old wreck of a Greek trading ship (Syce remains topside as safety man). Wilson then dives down to assist them. Shortly afterwards a body floats to the surface, very dead and with a harpoon through the chest.

Left is well out of his jurisdiction but it will take the French police hours to arrive. Left is very much aware that any delay in beginning a murder investigation could mean that vital evidence will be lost. He assumes (correctly) that the French police will not object if he starts that investigation immediately.

Left will also have to consider two other incidents which could be attempted murders.

Working with a French police detective named Lapointe proves to to be not too unpleasant.

Lapointe comes up with an ingenious solution but Left isn’t happy with it. Left is not the sort of detective who starts theorising as soon as he’s gathered a few facts. He likes to be sure he has all the facts first. The problem he faces here is that when he believes he has all the facts he still can’t come up with a theory that he’s happy with. He starts to think that his facts have to be wrong somewhere, but those facts all seem so clear-cut. He feels that he must have missed something, and that is in fact what has happened.

This is very much a puzzle-plot mystery in the golden age style. The circumstances mean that the murderer must be one of a very very small group of people - it must be someone who was aboard the Knossos. Left has one immediate priority - to establish the time of death. In this case he is able to do almost to the minute. His second priority is the question of alibis. Every one of the suspects appears to have a rock-solid alibi but one of those alibis must be false. The emphasis on timing and alibis, and the skill with which those elements are handled, will bring a warm glow to the heart of any golden age detection fan.

There are plenty of clues including one of the most delightfully outrageous examples I’ve ever encountered.

The underwater setting for the murder is not just interesting and unusual, it’s an essential plot element. Archaeology is also a bit more than just a colourful background to the tale.

There’s also no shortage of possible motives, and this element is also handled extremely well.

I discovered Charles Forsyte through TomCat’s glowing reviews at Beneath the Stains of Time. And Pretty Sinister Books also features a very favourable write-up on this author (or rather authors).

Used copies of the second and fourth Charles Forsyte books, Diving Death and Murder With Minarets, are not too difficult to find. The first and third books, Diplomatic Death and Double Death, are very very rare.

Diving Death compares extremely well to the very best works of the golden age of detective fiction. It really is that good. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

John N. Makris's Nightshade

John N. Makris (1917-1975) was a former crime reporter and crime investigator who turned to writing for the pulps. Nightshade, published in 1953, was his only novel.

Nightshade opens in Tijuana. Ken Martin (the first person narrator) is looking for Sheila, the woman who ruined his life. He’s not sure what he’s going to do when he finds her. He thinks that maybe he might kill her. He also thinks that maybe he won’t be able to.

He’s looking for her on his own. He can’t ask the police for help because he and Sheila had a misunderstanding with the cops over the death of her husband Charley. Charley was shot to death and both Ken and Sheila were in the house at the time. Ken had been pretending to be Sheila’s brother, which was almost true (they’d been raised together). When the cops figure out that Ken is not Sheila’s brother and that Ken and Sheila were having an affair they draw the obvious conclusion - that they murdered Charley. But they didn’t. They were innocent.

At least Ken knows that he was innocent. He’s now starting to have his doubts about whether Sheila really was innocent.

In Tijuana Ken runs into an old pal named Jimmy (who has also had some misunderstandings with the police over forged cheques). Jimmy knows where Sheila is, and he tells Ken some other disturbing things about her.

There’s another murder and Ken once again finds himself facing a bum murder rap. He has to get out of Mexico fast.

Ken does find Sheila and finds that she’s been having an adventurous time. She’s acquired, and lost, another husband. She stands to inherit a huge fortune as a result but there may be a slight problem with the will. But Sheila had nothing to do with her second husband’s death. Nothing at all. She’s totally innocent. She swears it. And according to the death certificate the guy died of a heart attack.

So we have some typical noir fiction elements assembled here. Ken is your basic noir protagonist. He’s not a bad guy but his judgment isn’t too good and where Sheila is concerned it’s very bad indeed. His bad judgments have landed him in a whole world of pain. Sheila is your basic femme fatale. She wants money and she thinks only saps work for money. She might be a murderess or she might not be. She’s definitely trouble.

Sheila is not the only dangerous female Ken has to worry about. There’s also Irma. He’s not sure what Irma wants and he doesn’t think he can trust her but he sleeps with her anyway. Like I said, his judgment is not too good.

And then there’s Ann. He thinks he can trust Ann, but can she trust him? Ann hates Sheila because Sheila cost her half a million bucks. Irma hates Sheila as well.

Ken doesn’t know if he loves Sheila or if it’s just lust or if he hates her. It doesn’t really matter because they’re all emotions that cloud his judgment.

To make Ken’s life even more miserable the cops are slowly but surely closing in on him.

Whether a noir novel is true noir depends to a large extent on the ending and I’m not going to give you any hints about that. Nightshade certainly has plenty of noir mood.

And lots and lots of sexual tension.

There’s not a huge amount of overt violence although there is a slowly climbing body count.

Armchair Fiction have paired Nightshade with David Wright O’Brien’s Once Is Enough in one of their excellent double-novel editions.

Nightshade is a competent and enjoyable noir thriller. Recommended.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud

The Black Cloud was the first novel by the eminent British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle. The Black Cloud sold well when it appeared in 1957 and was the beginning of his successful second career as a science fiction writer.

A young Norwegian scientist at Mount Palomar Observatory notices something odd on a series of photographic plates. It’s a cloud, presumably a gaseous cloud. That in itself is not surprising. Such cloud are common. What is surprising is how quickly it’s grown over the course of two weeks. This suggests that the cloud is moving towards our solar system, possibly quite rapidly.

At about the same time a British amateur astronomer also notices something odd - perturbations in the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Dr Christopher Kingsley makes some calculations based on the amateur astronomer’s findings and the results are startling. He immediately gets in touch with the Americans at Mount Palomar.

The cloud, for it is a gaseous cloud, turns out to be moving very rapidly indeed and directly for our solar system. Further calculations produce results that are not just startling but positively alarming. When it reaches us this cloud will completely block the sun’s rays, possibly for some weeks. The question is what effect this will have on life on Earth. Can such a disaster be survived?

A secret research establishment is established at Nortonstowe in England staffed by top American and British scientists, joined by a Russian astrophysicist and an Australian radio astronomer. Their job is to figure out exactly what is likely to happen and what can be done about it.

This is very hard SF, with quite a bit of maths for those who like that sort of thing. If (like me) you don’t like that sort of thing it doesn’t matter since Hoyle explains things fairly clearly.

Much of the interest in the second third of the book involves political and moral dilemmas, with Kingsley taking what is at times a frightening dispassionate view of the realities of the situation. This is a science fiction impending apocalypse story that reminds me a lot, in its tone, of J.J. Connington’s 1923 classic Nordenholt’s Million which also deals with the possibility of very tough decisions having to be made for the sake of survival.

Things get even more interesting in the final third when Kingsley reaches some astounding conclusions as to the nature of the cloud. It may be intelligent. It may be alive.

If it has intelligence it’s clearly going to be a very different kind of intelligence. This is one of those First Contact stories in which the question arises as to whether any kind of communication can be possible with something so alien. Will it even be possible to know if the cloud is hostile or benign? Does the cloud even recognise that it is dealing with intelligent life? Is the cloud’s survival compatible with human survival? Hoyle handles this aspect of his story extremely well.

The Black Cloud also raises all sorts of questions about the rôle of scientists, scientific ethics and the relationship between science and politics. It could be dangerous if the scientists at Nortonstowe gain too much power but it could also be dangerous if they have too little power. Hoyle handles this aspect of his story in an even more interesting and provocative manner. Hoyle is very cynical about politicians but he’s also somewhat sceptical of scientists who think they understand political and moral issues.

This is high-concept science fiction in the Arthur C. Clarke mould. Hoyle, like Clarke, has limited interest in characterisation although he is slightly more interested in the subject than Clarke. Dr Kingsley is a remarkably intelligent man with some astounding blind spots of which he is entirely unaware. The other characters are really little more than cardboard cut-outs. Which, in this type of science fiction, doesn’t matter at all.

The Black Cloud has some high drama and some genuine tension, it contains some intriguing scientific speculations (as a scientist Hoyle was a bit of a maverick) and some thematic complexity. This is excellent hard SF that doesn’t ignore the human factor. Highly recommended.

A few years after The Black Cloud Hoyle co-wrote the superb BBC science fiction series A for Andromeda, the novelisation of which I’ve reviewed here.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Robert van Gulik’s The Red Pavilion

The Red Pavilion, published in 1961, is one of Robert van Gulik’s wonderful Judge Dee mysteries. It follows the usual pattern, with Judge Dee investigating three cases at the same time. And this novel includes a locked-room mystery!

Judge Dee had figured in a classic 18th-century Chinese detective novel, Dee Goong An, which van Gulik translated into English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The character of Judge Dee was based on a real 7th century magistrate of the Tang Dynasty. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was a major success and van Gulik subsequently wrote a series of modern Judge Dee novels, written partly at least in conformity with the conventions of the 18th-century Chinese detective story.

The Red Pavilion opens with Judge Dee and his faithful reformed-criminal assistant Ma Joong passing through Paradise Island. Paradise Island is an entertainment resort. The entertainment comprises high-stakes gambling and high-class prostitutes. It’s all perfectly legal and while Judge Dee doesn’t personally approve he takes the sensible attitude that prostitution conducted in an orderly manner is overall a benefit to society.

There’s a festival going on and the only accommodation available is the Red Pavilion. It turns out to be most comfortable although the judge is puzzled by the fact that the interior doors haver locks on him. It is explained to him that those who rent the Red Pavilion value their privacy.

The judge encounters a young woman on his verandah. She’s hard to miss. She’s very beautiful and she’s wearing a robe so thin as to be almost transparent. At the moment the robe is wet so it’s entirely transparent and the judge notes that she is wearing nothing whatever underneath the robe. Dee is mildly annoyed until the young woman informs him that she is the current Queen Flower. The Queen Flower is selected from amongst the island’s most celebrated courtesans. It’s not jut an empty honour. It carries great social weight on an island devoted to pleasure. The reigning Queen Flower is not a person one should offend and Dee has great respect for the social conventions. After making sure that Dee has had a really good look at her near-naked body she departs but the judge notices that she seems nervous.

Dee intended to stay just one night on Paradise Island but his old friend Lo, the local magistrate, asks him to take over the investigation of a case of suicide. A young man named Lee, a newly appointed Academician, cut his throat over love for the courtesan Autumn Flower. Autumn Flower turns out to be none other than the Queen Flower Dee has already met. It’s a straightforward case. Young men kill themselves over women all the time. And Autumn Flower is an exceptionally beautiful woman well versed in the art of love so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that she could drive a man to madness and suicide. It all seems very straightforward until Dee makes a horrible discovery in the Red Pavilion. The discovery of this corpse raises serious doubts in Dee’s mind about the supposed suicide of Academician Lee.

Dee is even more concerned to learn that there have in fact been three mysterious deaths in the Red Pavilion. All appeared to be suicides, but Dee now suspects that all three were cases of murder. Dee starts to wonder about a few other things as well, such as the rapid departure of an important local official.

Dee painstakingly constructs fairy satisfactory theories to account for all three deaths, but there’s always at least one clue for which the theories do not account. Those clues simply cannot be accounted for at all. That means that Dee’s theories must be partially, or even completely, wrong.

The three murders are all related in some way but are they directly related? Is there one killer or several? Dee is not sure. And this is a Robert van Gulik Judge Dee mystery, which means it is an attempt to conform party to the conventions of the classic western puzzle-plot mystery and partly to the conventions of Chinese detective stories. The reader cannot be entirely certain that assumptions about the solution based on the conventions of western mysteries will prove to be correct.

There are both physical clues and psychological clues in abundance. Autopsies conducted on two of the victims provide Dee with headaches because they reveal things he expected and things he didn’t expect. The Red Pavilion itself provides some important but deceptive clues.

With van Gulik you also get more than just a mystery. You get some fascinating glimpses into Chinese history, culture and jurisprudence (subjects on which van Gulik was extremely knowledgeable), an occasional aside on the subject of Chinese art (on which van Gulik was an acknowledged authority) and some reflections on love, sex and marriage (and van Gulik wrote an important scholarly work on that subject as well).

In this case you certainly get an intricate plot. There are three locked-room puzzles. Two are childishly simple. The third is much trickier. This book is not really a locked-room mystery in the sense of having a locked-room puzzle as the central element. It does however serve a vital plot purpose. The plotting is quite effective with an ending that probably won’t be at all the sort of ending you’re expecting.

As always Ma Joong provides some entertainment. He falls in love with a courtesan named Silver Fairy but that gets complicated as well. In this novel love and sex make life very complicated. More fun is provided by Crab and Shrimp, two oddly likeable strong-arm men employed by the island’s warden.

This is van Gulik at the top of his game - a good mystery but a novel that offers a bit more than a straightforward mystery. Very highly recommended.

You might also want to check out TomCat’s glowing review at Beneath the Stains of Time.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Ian Fleming’s Dr No

Dr No, published in 1958, is the sixth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Dr No takes Bond back to Jamaica which had been the setting for the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die. Bond would return to Jamaica once again in The Man with the Golden Gun. Fleming had owned a house in Jamaica since 1945. His first-hand knowledge of the island was obviously an advantage but to Fleming it offered other attractions as a setting, being one of the last outposts of the British Empire (Jamaica did not achieve independence until four years after the publication of Dr No). One of the recurring themes of the Bond novels is Fleming’s bitterness at the loss of the Empire and the declining power and influence of Britain in the post-war world. The Bond novels were in some ways Fleming’s attempt to deal with this unpleasant reality by denying it, and by creating a fantasy world in which it’s always the British Secret Service that saves the day.

Dr No begins with the murder of a man named Strangways, the Secret Service’s Head of Station in Jamaica. His secretary, Mary Trueblood, also a Secret Service agent, is also murdered. The reader certainly knows they were murdered but the reasons for the murder are entirely unknown.

The Secret Service doesn’t even know they were murdered. M assumes that they simply ran off together. Their disappearance will have to be investigated but to M it seems to be an absurdly trivial matter. In fact it would be an ideal matter for James Bond to investigate. Bond is still recuperating after receiving shocking injuries in his previous case so a bit of sunshine and a very routine case will be a good way of getting him slowly back into the swing of things.

As soon as he arrives in Jamaica someone tries to kill him. To Bond that’s a pretty clear indication that this is no routine case. He also has a feeling that there might be something to the bird angle after all. There’s a sanctuary for rare birds on Crab Key, an island thirty miles north of Jamaica, and various ornithologists sent to check up on the birds have met violent deaths. And Crab Key’s only significance is that it contains immense amounts of guano, and there’s big money to be made from bird poo.

Bond hooks up with his old friend Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who was very useful to him on an earlier case, and decides to take a closer look at Crab Key. He’d also like to find out more about the man who owns the island, a half-German half-Chinese chap by the name of Dr No.

When Bond reaches the island we get the scene that became such an iconic part of the Dr No movie - Bond’s encounter on the beach with a beautiful naked blonde girl (in the movie she naturally isn’t naked but wears a bikini). The girl is Honeychile Rider. Bond will also encounter Dr No’s dragon. And eventually Bond and Honey will get to meet Dr No.

By the time this book was published Fleming was already starting to become something of a pop culture phenomenon. He was also starting to make enemies among the critics. Fleming was starting to be accused not just of relying on sex and violence but also on sadism and snobbery. There’s also no doubt that many critics hated the fact that the Bond books were so popular - it just didn’t seem right that an author could achieve so much success by writing books that people wanted to read, rather than by writing the kinds of books that critics thought that people should read.

There’s plenty in this novel for the anti-Bond crowd to hate. There’s torture, and in particular there’s the torture awaiting Honeychile Rider. Once you get to that scene, which doesn’t play out at all the way you might expect, you can’t help feeling that Fleming was having some fun with his critics.

The interesting thing about Honeychile Rider in the novel (compared to the film) is that her beauty is not quite perfect. She has a badly deformed nose, the result of a broken nose that was never set properly. Oddly enough Bond finds that this imperfection in her beauty makes her more appealing. Honey is a rather interesting Bond Girl - she’s both intelligent and naïve, and both gentle and wild.

By the time Fleming wrote Dr No he was really on a roll. The books from Live and Let Die (1954) to Goldfinger (1959) saw him at the peak of his powers. Dr No has all the essential ingredients to make a great Bond novel, and it is a great Bond novel. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed the 1962 Dr No movie at Cult Movie Reviews.