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.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Richard B. Sale’s The Isle of Troubled Night

Richard B. Sale’s The Isle of Troubled Night was published in the May 1938 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Mystery (and this issue has been reprinted by Adventure House).

Richard B. Sale (1911-1993) was an American pulp writer who graduated to the slick magazines in the 40s and then turned to the writing of screenplays and film directing.

Nick Bradford is wealthy and carefree and he’s sailing his 30-foot schooner in the Caribbean when he runs into trouble. In fact he runs the schooner onto the rocks. Luckily he ends up on a small uncharted island. Or maybe it’s not so lucky.

The first thing he sees is an aircraft (a flying boat) on the beach and it’s on fire. Then he finds a dead man. After which someone starts shooting at him. Then the girl appears. The girl, Loretta Kerr, lives in a rather palatial house on the island. There’s a motley assortment of people in the house. There’s an Englishman, Lord Peter Muir. There’s Loretta’s father, Martin Kerr, who made a fortune selling munitions during the war. He owns the island. There’s a German baron named Poland. And a Frenchwoman named Toussaint. Plus a Mexican servant, Pedro Garcia.

Martin Kerr, the German baron, Madame Toussaint and Lord Peter Muir are all involved in the armaments trade ad they’ve met on the island to cook up a big deal.

So why did one of them try to shoot Nick? The answer is that the people in the house are very frightened. They had a visitor the night before - Death! Or at least they are convinced, or half-convinced, that it was Death. Death came into the house and spoke to them.

Nick is puzzled by that corpse on the beach. It was the pilot of the aeroplane and he’d been strangled but there were no marks on his throat as you’d expect with strangulation. And Nick has a strange experience which half-convinces him as well that Death is stalking the island. He heard a voice telling him things that nobody else could possibly know.

Of course everyone is in a state of semi-hysteria. Maybe their imaginations are getting the better of them. Or their consciences (apart from Nick they’re all arms dealers so they’re in the business of death). There might be a rational explanation. Nick is a level-headed sort of fellow but he’s not entirely sure there really is a rational explanation.

Death strikes again on the following day.

The island setting adds to the terror. The burning of the aeroplane means that all these people are stranded on the island until the next supply boat arrives and that’s three weeks away. And the dead pilot was the only one who knew how to work the radio.

Sale creates a genuinely mysterious atmosphere and since this story was published in Thrilling Mystery and some of the stories published in that pulp are closer to the weird fiction genre than to the conventional mystery genre the reader doesn’t really know whether or not the explanation is going to involve things outside the normal realm of human experience or purely human evil.

The story has a definite anti-war tinge. It’s possible that these arms dealers are going to be punished for their sins, but is their punishment to be supernatural?

It’s all very pulpy (which of course is a good thing) and it’s also totally outrageous but there are some real chills with totally inexplicable deaths. The resolution works for me. I’m not going to give you any hints as to whether that resolution includes a rational explanation or not.

The Isle of Troubled Night is not to be taken too seriously but it is fun and it’s recommended.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Into the Fourth Dimension by Ray Cummings

Into the Fourth Dimension is a 1926 short science fiction novel by Ray Cummings.

New York-born Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was one of the pioneering writers of American pulp science fiction. From 1914 to 1919 he had worked for Thomas Edison before turning to the writing of fiction. He is best known for his 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom (expanded from a 1919 novella that had appeared in All-Story Weekly).

Into the Fourth Dimension begins with the appearance of the first of the ghosts in 1946, in Vermont. This is not just your usual report of a ghostly apparition. Hundreds of people see this strange ghostly figure. One of the eyewitnesses approaches closely enough to try to hit the ghost with a plank of wood (which has no effect at all on the ghost).

Soon ghosts start appearing all over the world.

The narrator is 26-year-old Rob Manse, one of the eyewitnesses to the first ghostly sighting.

Rob’s closest friends had been chemist Wilton Grant and Wilton’s sister Beatrice. After the sighting Wilton and his sister, for no apparent reason, refuse to see Rob until one day Wilton contacts him out of the blue. He tells Rob that Beatrice has been ill.

He has more to tell Rob. He and Beatrice have been working on some scientific theories involving time and space. They had come to the conclusion that there is another world, a different dimension of existence. They were not surprised by the appearance of the ghosts. It was what they expected. The ghosts are visors from another plane of existence.

And the ghosts are a threat. A terrifying threat.

Wilton has devised a method of travelling to that other plane of existence. Having successfully done so once he now must return and Beatrice and Rob must go with him. They must prevent the Earth from being invaded by another realm.

That other world is a very strange world. It is a world of pure thought. It is a world inhabited by beings that seem rather human but it turns out that this is misleading. They appear human because humans like Rob and Wilton can only interpret reality in human terms. It is human perceptions that make these beings seem like men and women. In reality they are very different.

Cummings indulges in some speculation about time and space and about the very meaning of existence. Writing in 1926, he has obviously been influenced by the revolutionary new theories in physics, Einstein’s theories and quantum mechanics. But he has also clearly been influenced by Freud’s ideas about the unconscious. And he has attempted to combine all these new theories of both physics and mind. Cummings is also obviously interested in the idea that the world as we understand it is a product of our own perceptions. Perhaps what we call reality is simply a product of our own perceptions.

It’s really quite an ambitious and brain-bending little novel.

It’s also a kind of alien invasion story, with the aliens being thought creatures whose nature challenges human sanity.

There is plenty of action in the story, and at the same time there is no action at all. The action takes the form entirely of battles of the mind. They are epic battles in their own way, battles fought for the highest stake, but they do not take place in what we think of as the material realm.

Into the Fourth Dimension is highly imaginative thought-provoking stuff.

Cummings’ prose style is slightly odd. Even taking into account that it was written in 1926 it seems slightly archaic but this gives the book a certain flavour. And this book does have a distinctive flavour. This is after all science fiction from almost a century ago, when the conventions of the genre had not yet solidified. It was writers like Cummings who were creating the conventions of the genre.

While there is no space travel and no high technology Cummings has certainly created a very alien world indeed, much more alien that most of the worlds of outer space created by later science fiction writers.

This is also very definitely science fiction. While the inter-dimensional world Cummings imagines might be far-fetched and outlandish in 1926 it would have seemed no more outlandish than the latest theories being propounded by physicists (in fact it still seems no more outlandish than those theories) and Cummings has been quite bold in his use of outré scientific thinking in the service of fiction.

Into the Fourth Dimension is a strange book but you have to admire the author for pushing boldly into unknown realms. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Jack Williamson’s lost world sci-fi novel The Alien Intelligence in one of their excellent double-header paperback editions. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Jonathan Craig's Alley Girl

Jonathan Craig is best remembered for his 6th Precinct police procedural novels set in New York. Alley Girl, published in 1954 (and later re-issued as Renegade Cop) is a standalone cop thriller that slightly precedes the 6th Precinct series.

Alley Girl establishes its hardboiled credentials right from the start. Lieutenant Steve Lambert is a homicide cop and he’s a nasty piece of work. Steve has a very pretty 18-year-old girlfriend named Jean. You’d think that a guy with a hot 18-year-old girlfriend would go to sleep with the girl in his arms, but not Steve Lambert. Steve goes to sleep with a whiskey bottle cradled in his arms. Jean wouldn’t bother with Steve but the sex is really good, unless Steve is too drunk to manage it.

On this particular morning Steve has to get up early because he’s working on a big case. He has breakfast (a slug of whiskey followed by a beer) and then Sergeant Dave Kimberley picks him up. Steve despises Dave Kimberley as a Boy Scout while Dave is horrified by Steve’s brutal methods.

They’re working a murder case. A guy named Tommy Nolan is accused of killing a florist in a bungled robbery. Steve doesn’t understand why he isn’t allowed to just beat a confession out of Nolan. He doesn’t know if Nolan is guilty or not and he doesn’t care, he knows ways to get guys to confess to things even if they aren’t guilty.

Steve’s first call on this fine morning is at the apartment of Mrs Nolan, who turns out to be about twenty years old and drop-dead gorgeous. Steve explains to Mrs Nolan how things stand. Her husband is going to go to the electric chair for the murder, but there is a way she can save him. All she has to do is have sex with Steve and Steve will tell the D.A. that Nolan isn’t guilty. Since she doesn’t have much choice in the matter Mrs Nolan agrees.

As far as Steve is concerned the case is progressing nicely. He can keep forcing the beautiful young Mrs Nolan to have sex with him by holding out the promise of getting her husband off. At the same time a man name Edmonds has offered him a huge bribe to make sure Tommy Nolan goes to the chair. And there’s no way either Mrs Nolan or Edmonds can force him to keep his side of either agreement.

Of course there’s always that Boy Scout Dave Kimberley but Steve has no doubt he can handle that problem.

Just when you think the sleaze factor can’t get even more extreme the author throws a whole new sleaze angle in. There are so many characters who are sexually depraved or unhealthy, all of them in different ways. In this story sex is always dirty and dangerous.

In fact pretty much everything in the story is dirty and corrupt. Steve Lambert is a spectacularly vicious corrupt thug of a cop but nobody worries very much about his methods. It’s taken for granted that cops can do whatever they like. Steve is certainly one of the least sympathetic protagonists in noir fiction - there are more vicious and more violent protagonists but they have the excuse of being crazy. Steve is quite sane. He’s just a louse. He is however a memorable louse.

The characters who initially seem to be reasonably decent human beings turn out to be either morally corrupt or totally deranged. You can’t accuse the book of misogyny. The male characters and the female characters are equally twisted.

This was 1954 so you don’t get any graphic descriptions of sex or violence. It’s the squalid atmosphere and the terrifying amorality of the characters that provides the shock value. You feel vaguely unclean after reading this book.

It has to be said that it does have an impact. Jonathan Craig writes fine hardboiled prose. There’s a mystery which in 1954 most readers would not have seen coming although a modern reader might have an inkling of the solution.

Alley Girl is strong stuff but if you like tough sordid nihilistic crime stories then it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Sheldon Lord's Kept

Kept is a 1960 sleaze novel by Sheldon Lord (a pseudonym used by Lawrence Block before he achieved fame and fortune as a crime writer).

One of the intriguing things about the sleaze fiction of the late 50s and early 60s was that quite a bit of it was written by people who actually write. People like Robert Silverberg, who went on to be one of America’s leading science fiction writers (and who is regarded as being somewhat towards the more literary end of the science fiction genre). People like Donald Westlake, who became a highly respected and very successful crime writer. And of course people like Lawrence Block. At a time when they were still aspiring young writers they had to find a way to keep body and soul together and writing sleaze fiction paperbacks was a more congenial way to do this than waiting tables. It was also a good way to learn discipline and economy as a writer.

They churned these sleaze paperbacks out very very quickly but it’s still evident that they’re the products of guys with genuine talent as writers.

Lawrence Block wrote many such books and has never been embarrassed by that fact.

Kept begins with Mark Taggert trying to thumb a lift. He’s a 28-year-old drifter. He doesn’t know why he’s heading to New York. When he gets there he’ll get a job for a while and then move on. That’s been the pattern of his life.

He’s done plenty of hitch-hiking and he knows it can take a while to get a lift. From long experience he knows the kinds of guys who give lifts to hitch-hiker. They’re always much the same. He is therefore rather surprised when a very pretty obviously very rich young woman in a Cadillac convertible gives him a ride. Very rich and very beautiful young women never give lifts to hitch-hikers, and no-one who drives a red Caddy convertible ever gives hitch-hikers lifts.

Her name is Elaine Rice. To pass the time while she drives (and he notices that she drives extremely well) they play a harmless game. He has to guess her life story. She’s slightly disturbed by the accuracy of his guesses.

They get to New York, to her very swank apartment, and she invites him in for a nightcap. They end in bed together and it’s fabulous for both of them. Mark figures it’s just a one night stand but Elaine has other ideas. She wants him to move in. She’s incredibly rich so she can pay all the bills. Mark is shock and appalled at the idea of becoming a kept man. There’s no way he’s going to become a gigolo for a rich woman. But he agrees to her scheme anyway.

Pretty soon Elaine is running his life for him. His life is actually going well because she knows what she’s doing. She turns him from a bum into a successful man about town. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to work. She understands that if he doesn’t get a job he’ll feel like a gigolo, so she gets a really good job for him. In fact he really is still a kept man. His financial contribution to their little household is minuscule and irrelevant. In practice she owns him.

What makes the story more interesting is that she’s not a calculating rich woman who makes a habit of keeping men. She’s crazy in love with Mark and she just can’t bear the thought of not having him with her all time, and she can’t bear the thought of not having him in her bed every night. But while she’s motivated partly by lust she really does care about him. It’s just that for Mark it’s like being kept as a pampered lap dog.

Mark’s job is so ridiculously easy that he he and his secretary Sarah have lots of free time. Sarah is twenty-one and gorgeous and the first thing he noticed about her was her spectacular breasts. And he just keeps noticing those luscious breasts. Mark’s love life is obviously about to get really complicated as he is torn between two women.

There’s plenty of sexual activity in this novel but it’s handled in a remarkably coy manner, even for 1960. When Mark and Elaine make love we’re told that they’ve made love and it was wonderful, and that’s as far as the descriptions of sex go. The sleaze quotient in this book is very very low.

Which is interesting because as I read more of these 1950s/1960s sleaze paperbacks I’m

getting more and more of a feeling that many of them are in fact romance fiction. They’re romance fiction in which people sleep together without being married and we’re told that sleeping together rather than having it hinted at. Which may have made them mildly risqué at the time. But many are pretty much romantic melodramas. I can’t help wondering if these books attracted a larger female readership than I’d previously assumed.

Kept is a novel I would definitely put in the steamy romance sub-genre of the romance fiction genre. It’s not even mildly pornographic. Not even close to it. It’s not even actually sleazy. The characters have plenty of sex but there’s nothing sleazy about. It’s wholesome healthy love-making

There are however a couple of elements that explain why a book such as this would have ben consigned to the sleaze category in 1960. It’s very honest about sex, and very honest about female sexuality. Elaine and Sarah are not femmes fatales or Bad Girls or scheming conniving spider women. They’re both genuinely very nice young women. And they’d both like to get married and have children one day. But in the meantime they do have sexual desires and they satisfy those sexual desires. At the time Elaine picked up Mark on the road she was divorced and had been sexless for quite a while and she really wanted a man to share her bed that night. Any man who was reasonably presentable and pleasant would have been fine. She just really needed sex, for all the complicated reasons women like to have sex including in this case pure physical need.

Sarah’s attitude to sex is similar. She wants to find the right man to marry, but until he comes along she’s quite happy to make do with uncomplicated sex as long as the man concerned is a nice guy. Elaine and sex both want True Love, but if they can’t have True Love then hot sex is better than nothing. They’re honest and straightforward about it but in 1960 a novel that was honest and straightforward about sex was going to be considered sleaze fiction, even though the sex in this book isn’t the slightest bit sleazy.

Kept is mostly just a story of the complications of love between a group of people who are actually pretty nice people who just happen to enjoy sex. It's a love story for grown-ups. And it’s a pretty well-written love story.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Honey West - Girl on the Loose

Girl on the Loose was the second of G.G. Fickling’s Honey West private eye thrillers. It was published in 1958.

G.G. Fickling was actually husband-and-wife writing team Gloria Fickling (1926-?) and Forrest “Skip” Fickling (1925-1998).

The 1965-66 television series starring Anne Francis is now better remembered than the books. The TV series toned down the violence slightly and toned down the sleaze quite a lot. The Honey West character of both the books and the TV series is pretty similar. She’s a lady private detective who took over her father’s private detective agency when he was murdered. In both the books and the series she’s sublimely self-confident to the point of recklessness, she has formidable martial arts skills and she’s quite prepared to use her considerable sex appeal when she deems it necessary. She carries her revolver in a garter holster.

Girl on the Loose hits the ground running. Within the first few pages a guy has been cut in half by machine-gun fire and Honey has been stripped naked. It won’t be the last time in the book that she’s stripped naked.

There’s a Honey West look-alike running around and she’s involved in the kidnapping of a millionaire’s baby son. There’s also a female Marine Corps officer whom Honey is forced to impersonate, there’s a murder of an old friend of Honey’s in San Francisco and there’s a husband out for revenge. There’s even an encounter with UFO cultists. The Ficklings throw in just about everything you could want in a pulpy private eye thriller including a considerable helping of sleaze.

The revenge-seeking husband has a theory that the kidnappers are heading for Mexico and he persuades her to help him set an ambush. Honey thinks his theory is a bit wild but it’s the only decent lead she’s got.

The plot is rather wild and woolly with lots of convolutions but there’s a decent twist at the end. It turns out to be a crime that only a woman could solve. Which is a nice touch - if you’re going to have a female PI you might as well let her make use of her knowledge of female psychology.

There’s quite a lot of violence and some of it gets fairly graphic. There’s no graphic sex but Honey is always aware of her sexuality and all the male characters are aware of it as well (and of her very impressive body measurements). And she does take her clothes off frequently.

The Ficklings belonged to the “if in doubt throw in another murder” school of hardboiled fiction. The pacing is fast and the action is constant.

The Honey West novels are a bit on the trashy side but they’re trashy in a good fun way.

The Ficklings wrote nine Honey West novels between 1957 and 1964 and then two more in the early 70s. There were also three early 60s Honey West novels written by Erik Marsh (about which I know nothing) and there have been several attempts to revive the character.

I’ve previously reviewed the first book in the series, This Girl For Hire, and the third, A Gun For Honey. And the TV series (which is wonderful in its own way).

Honey West is very much the model for most of the female PIs, cops and secret agents (in print and in television and movies) that would appear in subsequent decades - sexy, smart and dangerous. She was in fact the prototype of the kickass action heroine.

Girl on the Loose is moderately hardboiled, pulpy and throughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lester Del Rey’s Pursuit

Lester Del Rey’s novella Pursuit appeared in the magazine Space Science Fiction in May 1952.

Del Rey (1915-1993) was a prolific American science fiction writer, particularly of juvenile titles.

Pursuit is all about fear. Wilbur Hawkes is a mathematician. Wilbur wakes up one morning and automatically reaches for a cigarette. Which is strange, since he doesn’t smoke. Or at least he didn’t smoke. Maybe he does now. Because Wilbur cannot remember anything of the past seven months of his life.

The one thing he is aware of is the fear. They are determined to get him. They have been pursuing him relentlessly. And now he’s sure that they’ve found him again. He flees from his apartment, and just in time. He has no sooner reached the street when his apartment explodes in a ball of fire. He runs for the subway, and the subway entrance is demolished in another fire ball.

Wilbur thinks they have a heat ray. He’s not sure why he thinks that, but that’s what he thinks. He’s actually not at all sure that such a thing as a heat ray is possible.

He has no idea of the identity of the people pursuing him. He’s fairly confident it’s not the police. The young man in the old grey saloon car that he keeps seeing is probably one of them. He’s not sure about the fat man. Or about Ellen. Ellen turned up at a sleazy cold-water apartment Wilbur had apparently rented although he has no memory of having rented it. Ellen claims to be the same Ellen he knew as a kid. Maybe she is. Or maybe she’s one of them. He has to trust somebody and he thinks he can trust Ellen, but then again maybe he can’t.

He has considered the possibility that this is an alien invasion. It makes sense. He’s dealing with monsters that can levitate cars and have other terrifying powers.

The fear helps. It always seem to warn him when he’s in danger. But eventually they will get him. He can’t run forever. But he has to keep running.

The paranoia is very nicely done in this little tale. Wilbur isn’t just facing terrifying enemies - he’s facing enemies he doesn’t understand. If he could just remember a few things, but he can’t remember anything.

Del Rey makes us wait until very near the end of the story before giving us the big reveal, and the reveal is pretty satisfying. And even when we know what is going on, even when Wilbur Hawkes knows what’s going on, it doesn’t solve the problem. Wilbur still doesn’t know what to do. But maybe he can find an answer in time. Maybe.

This is a rather nifty little tale, very tightly constructed and very fast-moving and with some genuine overtones of existential terror. Pursuit is highly recommended.

Pursuit is paired with Paul Ernst’s Rulers of the Future in a two-novel paperback from Armchair Fiction.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Desmond Skirrow’s I’m Trying To Give It Up

I’m Trying To Give It Up, published in 1968, is the third of Desmond Skirrow’s John Brock thrillers. This particular novel is not quite a spy thriller but since it deals with industrial espionage it’s obviously very closely related to the spy fiction genre.

Desmond Skirrow (1923-1976) was a British advertising executive who turned to writing. He wrote three John Brock novels between 1966 and 1968. He also worked as an illustrator.

John Brock works for an advertising agency. Their biggest client is Tommy Tranter, a tycoon with a finger in every pie. In this novel Brock’s troubles begin with a woman. It’s always the way, isn’t it? The woman is young, petite, cute and blonde. She’s driving a very large white luxury motorcar which she’s just parked and she’s about to get a parking ticket. John Brock firmly believes that a cute blonde should never be subjected to the indignity of a parking ticket. He takes it upon himself to move her car. This causes a misunderstanding and Brock is summoned to Tommy Tranter’s office (which is entirely staffed by gorgeous blondes). He fully expects to be fired.

But he isn’t fired. He’s offered an assignment. It’s a kind of industrial espionage (or in this case counter-espionage) case. Tranter knows that Brock has in the past done cloak-and-dagger work for the Fat Man.

The case involves a man named Weiss who is costing Tranter a lot of money. It has to do with the Product Development department. Which is a bit like MI6, but more efficient.

Brock starts nosing around and gets coshed for his terrible. In fact each time he follows a lead he seems to end up getting hit over the head. He also gets arrested. There’s a London gangster mixed up in the affair. Brock is not sure what part Browning in Product Development plays in the tale. He’s also not sure where Miss Pringle fits in. Miss Pringle is Tranter’s secretary and mistress and she’s a lot of woman, six feet tall and built like an amazon. She has everything a woman should have, only she has more of it than most women.

There’s also a dead body. The man was murdered, more than once.

This is very much an outrageous romp. The plot is impossibly complicated. The characters are all bizarre. The pace is frenetic. It’s not quite an out-and-out spoof but it is very amusing and very tongue-in-cheek. Despite its complexity the plot is quite clever. There are a few far-fetched elements but they remain just within the limits of plausibility.

Brock is the narrator and he’s both cynical and amused. Brock is a tough guy, and ruthless at times. He never wanted to be involved in this case and he keeps telling himself that it’s nothing to do with him. On the other hands he hates his job in advertising so even if the undercover stuff gets him beaten up regularly at least it’s more rewarding than finding ways to persuade people to buy dog food.

Another reason that Brock prefers the cloak-and-dagger stuff is that you meet more dangerous blondes that way. Brock is a bit of a skirt-chaser.

Apart from the spy elements this is a book which mercilessly mocks the world of advertising, and in fact it mocks a great many features of the society of 1968 which thoroughly deserved to be mocked. He gives psychologists a particularly hard time, and does so in a most delightful manner.

There are plenty of wisecracks and there’s some nice mock hardboiled dialogue. “She fell into my arms like a ball into a socket.” Skirrow’s prose has a nicely off-kilter zing to it. Some of the gags are obvious but many are not. He certainly had his own distinctive voice as a spy writer.

Tongue-in-cheek spy novels proliferated during the 60s but this one has a distinctive tone which makes it seem fresh and original. It’s both whimsical and slightly kinky (in a good-natured sort of way). It captures the zeitgeist of the 60s in a particularly vivid manner.

I’m Trying To Give It Up really is fast-moving stylish, slightly sexy, very amusing, very clever fun. If you like your spy thrillers lighthearted and funny then it’s very highly recommended.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Bruce Graeme’s House With Crooked Walls

House With Crooked Walls, published in 1942, was the second of Bruce Graeme’s book-themed Theodore Terhune mysteries. The first, the delightful Seven Clues in Search of a Crime, played around with the conventions of the genre in a very clever manner. House With Crooked Walls is a whole different ball game. It starts off appearing to be a gothic chiller about a haunted house. In fact it is a genuine mystery but that takes a while to become apparent.

Mild-mannered bookseller and occasional amateur detective Theodore “Tommy” Terhune is approached by a very exotic South American, Dr Salvaterra. He has an equally exotic twin sister. Dr Salvaterra is considering the purchase of House-on-the-Hill, sometimes referred to by the locals as the House With Crooked Walls. This very old house has a very evil reputation. It has been untenanted for decades and no-one will go near the place.

Dr Salvaterra wants to buy the house not in spite of its sinister reputation but because of it. He is a scholar, a student of the psychic and the occult. He wants to find out just what it is about the house that fills people with dread. He needs Terhune’s help since Terhune is reputed to possess a very impressive collection of books, new and old, on local Kentish history and on notable houses of the district. And of course Terhune has his reputation as an amateur detective. Terhune’s job, for which he will be handsomely paid, is to discover everything that can be discovered about the history of the house and its occupants over the years.

Terhune is intrigued because he has to admit to himself that he doesn’t know why the locals shun the house. The locals don’t know either. There are no colourful legends attached to House-on-the-Hill. People just hate and fear the house.

The first two-thirds of the book is occupied by Terhune’s efforts as a literary and historical detective. With some help from the acid-tongued but beautiful and oddly fascinating Julia MacMunn he finds out that the house has been associated with two very mysterious disappearances, a couple of sudden unexplained deaths and a certain amount of scandal. The most notable scandal dates back to 1074 and involves a wicked monk named Robert the Hermit (and you can’t get much more authentically gothic than wicked monks).

At this stage there has been no crime committed. It is possible that crimes were committed at House-on-the-Hill in the past although that is by no means certain either. Robert the Hermit disappeared nine centuries earlier but he may simply have left the district. The odd deaths may not have had any sinister aspects to them at all.

What is happening is that Theodore Terhune and Julia are becoming more and more drawn under the spell of that old house. Perhaps there were crimes committed there, perhaps not, but the history of house is full of bizarre incidents and extraordinary characters. There are historical puzzles to solve. Theodore loves this sort of stuff. Julia thought she wasn’t the least bit interested in such matters but her curiosity has been kicked into overdrive.

The house had been in a very dilapidated state. Salvaterra has had it magnificently restored. Now that the house is full of light and life is it still sinister. Terhune thinks it is, in a way, but he also thinks that he’s being irrational.

Of course eventually we do get a modern puzzle to add to the historical puzzles, and there is the possibility of some ink between those long ago events and events in the present day. But again the matter is ambiguous. Everything in this book is ambiguous.

There’s also the question of romance. Theodore and Julia have been thrown together and when you add a shared obsession the possibility of romance is obvious. But Bruce Graeme does not like being obvious.

And of course there are books. Terhune is a man who looks to books for answers but in this case the books just seem to raise further questions.

Terhune is a likeable although very bookish young man. Julia is a wonderful character - she has all the ingredients to make her a nasty piece of work and yet she isn’t. She has her own demons to wrestle with. She’s a wildly contradictory but totally believable character.

Is it fair play? The answer to that has to be ambiguous as well. Graeme was trying to write a mystery but he was consciously trying to make it unconventional. If you expect this novel to conform rigidly to the conventions of golden age detective fiction then you’re misunderstanding the author’s intentions. But, as in his first Theodore Terhune novel, Graeme might play with the conventions, he might play with them quite a bit, but he isn’t trying to overthrow them.

House With Crooked Walls is a gothic novel and a detective story and (very much) a book for bibliophiles. I thought it was odd but rather wonderful. Highly recommended.

The Theodore Terhune mysteries have been reprinted by Moonstone Press, with introductions by J.F. Norris.