Thursday, June 17, 2021

Walter Wager’s Telefon

Walter Wager’s 1975 spy thriller Telefon is interesting for several reasons, the most notable being that the hero is a KGB agent. And he is definitely one of the good guys.

Walter Wager (1924-2004) was an American writer in both the crime and spy genres. Wager also wrote some TV tie-in novels, including (under the name John Tiger) the first of the Mission: Impossible novels (which I reviewed here).

Telefon opens with the KGB conducting a raid in Moscow. Colonel Aleksei Malchenko has stumbled onto a very big conspiracy indeed - a Stalinist coup attempt. The coup attempt is dealt with efficiently, except for one tiny loose end. One of the plotters, a documents expert named Nicolai Dalchimski, eludes the KGB net. And Dalchimski has taken the Telefon book with him.

That’s bad. That’s very very bad. Much worse than even a Stalinist coup attempt.

Telefon was a KGB operation set up years earlier, at the height of Cold War tensions. It was an operation that was only be activated if the USSR was under nuclear attack. It was a very very clever operation involving Soviet deep-cover operatives in the United States. They were not just deep-cover operatives, they were the perfect deep-cover operatives.

The Telefon project has been long since abandoned and almost forgotten but it was impossible to extract those deep-cover sleeper agents. They are still in place. This doesn’t matter. Nobody is ever going to try to re-activate the Telefon project. It’s a relic of the past. In any case no-one could try to re-activate it even if they wanted to. They would need the Telefon book. And there are only three copies in existence and they’re protected by the most rigid security imaginable.

Except that now one of those copies of the Telefon book has disappeared.

Malchenko and his superior officer, General Streltsi, are appalled. Malchenko and Streltsi represent the new breed of KGB officers. They are committed to peaceful co-existence with the United States. They are not ideologues. They dislike ideologues. The last thing they want is for some maniac to try to put the Telefon operation into action.

At about the same time that all this is happening in the Soviet Union, thousands of miles away in Denver, Colorado, Harry Bascomb goes mad. He goes mad in a particularly destructive way. A couple of days later Ruth Alice Mintzer goes crazy, in an equally spectacular and destructive way, in Augusta, Maine. And then Carl Hassler goes nuts in northern Wisconsin and tries to crash his seaplane into a top-secret US Navy communications installation.

The American intelligence agencies don’t see any pattern in these events, but in KGB headquarters in Moscow Colonel Aleksei Malchenko and General Pyotr Streltsi most definitely do see a pattern. Some maniac really is activating the Telefon sleeper agents. That maniac can only be Nicolai Dalchimski. Dalchimski is about to start World War 3.

The KGB sends Grigori Tabbat to the US to solve the problem. Tabbat has to recover the Telefon book and liquidate Nicolai Dalchimski. Tabbat has no idea where to start looking. His talk is almost impossible but that’s why the KGB have selected him for this task. Carrying out impossible missions is the sort of thing that Grigori Tabbat does.

So this is a different kind of Cold War paranoia story. The bad guys are not the Americans or the Soviets. The bad guy is a dinosaur, a relic of the bad old days of the Cold War, an ideologically driven lunatic who not only wants to re-ignite the Cold War, he wants to turn it into a hot war.

Dalchimski may succeed because both the KGB and the American intelligence agencies like the FBI and the CIA operate the same way. They were established at a time of paranoia and paranoia is still their standard operating principle. The point of the novel is that all intelligence agencies on both sides are much the same. They all operate on a foundation of deception and suspicion. They all assume that the opposing agencies are carrying out the same schemes of deception and duplicity that they themselves are carrying out.

In this case the KGB has a problem and they have to solve the problem themselves. They can’t ask the Americans for help because the Americans would never trust them.

And it’s the nature of spy agencies that spies can’t even trust anyone in their own spy agency. Anyone in your own organisation might be a double agent. Grigori Tabbat has been assigned a female KGB agent, an agent based in New York, to help him but he cannot take the risk of trusting her and of course she’s not crazy enough to trust him.

There’s the classic race-against-time element here and there’s the equally classic theme of the hunter who may also be the hunted. It’s all handled fairly successfully. There’s plenty of action and there’s effective suspense. And there’s moral ambivalence, for those who like a bit more depth to their spy stories. It raises some questions about what, if anything, winning actual means in the world of espionage. This is most definitely not a spy spoof but there are at least some occasional moments of humour as the author pokes fun at the paranoiac mindset of spy agencies. And there’s a touch of romance.

Telefon is a pretty decent spy thiller and it’s recommended.

It was made into a very good movie by Don Siegel - Telefon (1977).

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Charles Eric Maine's Spaceways

Spaceways is a 1953 British science fiction novel by Charles Eric Maine and it has an interesting history. It began life as a very successful radio play in 1952. In 1953 it was turned into a movie by Hammer Films (it was their first foray into science fiction and had the distinctive character-driven flavour of the company’s early science fiction films). The movie, directed by Terence Fisher, was successful enough to persuade Maine to turn it into a novel.

Charles Eric Maine (1921-1981) was an English writer of both science fiction and detective fiction. He co-edited the science fiction magazine The Satellite and wrote quite a bit of science fiction in the 50s and early 60s.

Oddly, for a British science fiction story, it is set in the United States. Conway (the narrator) is thirty-seven, ex-army, a bachelor (but hoping to change that since he met a charming young woman named Verna) and works in Washington on security matters relating to rocketry. He’s quite content in Washington and not at all pleased when he’s suddenly posted to the top-secret Site B in Nevada. He is to take over security at the site. Site B is where the Americans hope to launch their first satellite.

Site B is an odd enclosed little community. It’s near a tiny township ironically named Silver Falls (ironically because it’s in the middle of the desert and there are certainly no waterfalls anywhere nearby). The director is Dr Klein, who had worked on rocketry (at the infamous Peenemünde site) for Germany.

There are a lot of men and very few women. There’s not much to do outside of work. It’s an environment in which tensions are likely to arise. Conway soon realises that he has a ticklish security problem on his hands. Electronics whizz George Hills has a much younger wife, Marion. Marion is bored and restless and hates the place and the gossip is that she’s having an affair with one of the other scientists, a youngish man named Colby. George Hills is either unaware of the situation or he’s deliberately closing his eyes to it. Conway can see that trouble is brewing but he doesn’t know what to do about it. That trouble will come to a head when the rocket is launched.

The time for the launch of the first satellite rocket, SR ONE, finally arrives. The launch is not a failure but it’s not exactly a complete success either. It achieves orbit, but not the orbit that was expected. A vital piece of equipment also fails to work. Nobody can understand why. Until an FBI agent puts forward an extraordinary explanation.

This is a story of pioneering space exploration and it’s also a story of human dramas among the space exploration pioneers. There’s also a mystery to be solved. Maine ties together the space exploration angle, the human relationships angle and the mystery plot with considerable skill and ingenuity. All three strands are intricately linked. I can’t give any hints as to the clever ways in which they’re linked without risking spoilers.

This is a genuine science fiction story and astronautics plays a crucial rôle but it’s an unusually character-driven science fiction novel. Jealousy (both sexual and professional), suspicion, betrayal and love are as important to the story as courage and scientific boldness.

Conway makes some serious mistakes but then just about everybody in the story makes at least one major mistake. All the characters have very human weaknesses.

The ending is just a tiny bit contrived but the contrivance is dramatically necessary. And the ending is tense and exciting and it’s effective.

There are a few scientific implausibilities but remember that the story was written before the Russians put the first satellite into orbit. Maine is trying to write reasonably hard science fiction (there’s nothing scientifically fanciful) as well as human drama.

Spaceways is an unusual science fiction novel but an extremely interesting one and for me it works. Highly recommended.

I reviewed Hammer’s underrated Spaceways movie quite some time back.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Bruce Graeme's Seven Clues in Search of a Crime

Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is a 1941 mystery by Bruce Graeme and it’s a bookish mystery - the amateur detective hero is a bookseller. It’s the first of his eight Theodore Terhune mysteries.

Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982) was a fairly prolific English writer, mostly in the crime genre. He wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, including Bruce Graeme. He achieved a great deal of early success with his Blackshirt novels (written under the Bruce Graeme pseudonym). Blackshirt was part of that rather appealing literary genre, the gentleman rogue. It’s a genre that began with Raffles and would reach a peak of popularity with the Saint and the Baron. Blackshirt was more than just a reformed thief, he was a reformed thief turned crime writer.

The idea of writing books about people who are involved with books was one that seemed to obsess Jeffries and it was a fruitful obsession.

The hero of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is not just a bookseller but also an aspiring writer (and naturally he is an aspiring writer of detective stories). Theodore I. Terhune (known to his friends as Tommy) has a bookshop in Bray-in-the-Marsh in Kent. Bray-in-the-Marsh is the kind of sleepy idyllic small English town (not much more than a large village really) which you just know is going to be the setting for murder and mayhem.

We learn early on that there is more to Tommy Terhune than meets the eye. He looks like a very harmless, very meek, bespectacled youngish man. In fact he looks exactly like a mild-mannered bookseller. Looks can however be a bit deceptive. When he encounters a young woman who is being attacked by no less than five ruffians he has no hesitation in leaping from his bicycle and wading into the attack. He manages to hold off the attackers until a policeman arrives. As you might expect, the young woman (whose name is Helena Armstrong) now thinks that Tommy is pretty darned wonderful.

The puzzle that remains is why Helena was attacked. The ruffians seemed to be looking for something in her car, but she had nothing whatsoever that was worth stealing. Helena is the paid companion of Lady Kylstone. Now it might be plausible that the attackers mistook Helena for Lady Kylstone except for the even more puzzling detail that they made it obvious that Helena really was their target.

Tommy Terhune might have thought no more about this odd incident. After all Helena is quite unharmed. Then he discovers a clue. It’s a clue that interests Lady Kylstone almost as much as it interests Terhune. It concerns the Kylstone family burial vault but why anyone would be interested in that vault is more than anyone can say.

And then, quite by accident, Tommy uncovers another clue. This clue interests Detective-Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard a good deal. Sampson cannot actually do anything about the perplexing events in Bray-in-the-Marsh. The Chief Constable of the district has not asked Scotland Yard for assistance and it would be most improper for Sampson to start working on a case in such circumstances. On the other hand Sampson points out that there’s nothing to stop Tommy Terhune from doing a bit of investigating on a purely amateur basis, and if he should report any findings to Sampson on a purely informal basis - well that be hardly be improper, would it?

Before long Tommy finds a third clue.

What makes this such an interesting (and slightly unconventional) example of golden age detective fiction is that Terhune soon has quite a collection of clues but there is no crime to which to link those clues. There’s no real evidence that any crime has been committed. On the other hand the clues definitely point to a crime of some kind. Possibly a crime in the past, or possibly a crime yet to be committed. What the nature of that crime might be is yet another mystery.

The author manages pretty successfully to keep both Terhune and the reader mystified. Are there any suspects? How can you have suspects when you don’t know what the crime is and you aren’t even certain that there is a crime? How can you tell if someone has a motive for an unknown crime?

This is not a comic detective story but it does have a great deal of wit and a certain playfulness. Bruce Graeme is having quite a bit of fun playing around a little with the conventions of the genre. The reader, like Tommy Terhune, has no clear idea what’s going on but like Terhune we’re having a fine time playing the game. And Graeme plays fair with us to the extent that we have at our disposal the same clues that Terhune has. The difficulty is in finding the common thread that ties together such disparate clues as the key to the Kylstone family vault, an obscure genealogical manuscript (once again the author’s interest in books comes to the fore), a company that manufactures automobile tyres, an American gangster and a woman known as Blondie. The common thread is there and all seven clues do finally fit together.

In the course of his adventure Terhune will meet two women. There’s Helena Armstrong, a thoroughly charming woman. And then here’s Julia MacMunn. She’s definitely a vamp (and a very entertaining vamp). Terhune is attracted to both of them. Which of them he prefers is another puzzle that he will have to unravel.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt novels, Blackshirt And Alias Blackshirt, but I had no idea that he’d written conventional detective stories (although it could of course be argued that there’s nothing very conventional about Seven Clues in Search of a Crime). The good news is that Moonstone Press have reprinted several of the Theodore Terhune mysteries. It was J.F. Norris’s glowing review of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime that inspired me to grab a copy, which proved to be a very good decision. He also contributed the introductions to these reprints. There's also a very positive review at the Cross Examining Crime blog.

Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is a delight from start to finish. It plays around with the conventions of the genre whilst still respecting them. It’s clever without being too much in love with its own cleverness. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Ed McBain's Cut Me In (AKA The Proposition)

American writer Ed McBain (1926-2005) was born Salvatore Lombino but legally changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He wrote under various names but was best known for his incredibly long-running 87th Precinct series of police procedurals written under the name Ed McBain. Cut Me In (which was later republished as The Proposition) was written in 1954 under the name Hunt Collins. The more recent Hard Case Crime reprint was issued under the Ed McBain name (and with a great Robert McGinnis cover painting).

Cut Me In begins when literary agent Josh Blake (who narrates the novel) wakes up next to a blonde. He has no idea who she is. It’s the start of an interesting day. He arrives at his office to find his partner Del Gilbert lying on the floor of his office very dead, with three bullet holes in him. And the office safe door is wide open.

No-one is the slightest bit sorry that Del Gilbert is dead. Not his wife, nor his mistress nor his partner nor anyone who ever had business dealings with him.

Josh thinks the murder may have something to do with a very important contract which was apparently stolen from the safe. Detective Sergeant Di Luca however is not buying that theory. He believes that murder is a very simple business. People commit murders for simple straightforward motives.

For Josh Blake life is about to become anything but simple and straightforward. Del Gilbert is not even cold when Gilbert’s wife Gail and mistress Lydia try to seduce Josh.

There will be more murders, and more women will try to seduce Josh Blake (some more successfully than others).

This is not a police procedural but it’s really a noir novel either. And it’s only very slightly hard-boiled. Although there is a cop and although Josh Blake finds himself having to give some thought to solving the case it’s not quite a novel in which a detective (amateur or otherwise) spends the whole book trying to solve a crime. Di Luca remains in the background and Josh isn’t all that interested in finding Del Gilbert’s killer. Not until he’s put in a position where for reasons of his own he has to do so. This is more a story in which a mystery gets solved when a particular character stumbles across the solution.

This is however a genuine mystery novel. And it’s fairly clued. It’s one of those mysteries which is complex but in which the solution seems obvious and right once the final piece of the jigsaw is slotted into place.

The key to the mystery hinges on whether Di Luca is right about murder being a simple business or whether Josh Blake is right in thinking that sometimes murder is more complicated.

Di Luca is not a genius cop but he’s a professional who knows his job. Josh Blake is not a genius amateur detective but he is an intelligent man who can see a pattern when it starts to form. Josh is no plaster saint. He’s not as ruthless a businessman as his deceased partner but he’s still pretty ruthless. He can be a bit ruthless in personal as well as business matters. The difference between Del Gilbert and Josh is that Gilbert would do anything to make a buck whereas Josh will do almost anything but does draw the line at certain things. Josh does have some moral compass even if his morality is a bit flexible.

McBain’s style is straightforward but it does have a certain rugged style and there are some humorous touches.

There’s not much sleaze but there is a fair bit of tasteful sexiness.

This is a good solid mystery novel and it’s highly recommended.

The Hard Case Crime reprint also includes a McBain novelette, Now Die In It, featuring one of his early series characters, Matt Cordell. Matt Cordell has a few problems but nothing that cheap whiskey can’t fix. He used to be a private eye. Now he just drinks. Until an old pal convinces him to take on a case. The case soon becomes a murder case. It’s an OK story, a bit more hardboiled than Cut Me In.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks

Sexton Blake is a fictional British detective who featured in more than four thousand stories between 1893 and 1978. The stories were written by many different authors - about two hundred authors altogether. Sexton Blake also appeared in quite a few movies (such as Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror) and radio dramas and there was a Sexton Blake TV series in the late 1960s.

Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks contains three Sexton Blake novellas (actually they’re more short novels) published in Union Jack in the period immediately following the First World War, from three different writers. Sexton Blake comes up against three of the most fiendishly clever diabolical criminal masterminds he has ever had to face.

Blake will of course have his faithful young assistant Tinker beside him, and of course his equally faithful bloodhound Pedro.

Sexton Blake made his first appearance in print in 1893. Sexton Blake stories appeared regularly in the storypaper Union Jack until 1940 (from 1933 Union Jack was renamed Detective Weekly). Stories continued to be published in The Sexton Blake Library until 1968.

Sexton Blake was a rather obvious Sherlock Holmes clone. He even has rooms in Baker Street! In fact he is perhaps a bit too much of a Sherlock Holmes clone. The stories were a lot more down-market than Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, were clearly aimed at a younger readership and were much more action-oriented. They’re thrillers rather than mysteries.

The Case of the Man in Motley

The Case of the Man in Motley was written by Anthony Skene and published in 1919.

Someone is trying to steal a goblet and they will stop at nothing to get it. The odd thing is that the goblet is worth at most a few shillings. There’s also the matter of a dead clown. There’s no apparent explanation for either the attempted theft of the goblet or the deceased clown.

In this adventure Blake’s foe is the albino super-criminal (and master swordsman) Zenith. For Blake and Zenith it promises to be a fight to the death but they’re both sportsmen so it will have to be a fair fight with swords.

The secret to the mystery may well lie in an old house which is a maze of hidden rooms and secret passageways.

There’s an exciting action finale in a gigantic garbage compactor!

Prince Pretence

Prince Pretence was written by Lewis Jackson and published in 1921.

This time Sexton Blake’s foe is Leon Kestrel, an American actor turned super-villain. Kestrel is (like Blake) a master of disguise.

The adventure begins with the kidnapping of a firebrand trade-union leader and Labour MP. The reason for the kidnapping appears to be to prevent a strike but it doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that this is not the real reason. It's merely a theatrical gesture on the part of Kestrel. It’s actually all about money and the trail will lead Blake to Paris. If he makes it to Paris - Kestrel controls a vast global criminal gang and his agents take extreme steps to stop Blake.

Once again there’s a cool action finale, this time in the catacombs of Paris.

The Wonder Man’s Challenge

The Wonder Man’s Challenge was written by Edwy Searles Brooks and published in 1921.

One of Blake’s more famous criminal foes was Rupert Waldo, known as Waldo the Wonder-Man. This adventure begins with Waldo, unarmed, robbing a bank single-handed in broad daylight. He makes his escape thanks to his extraordinary athletic and acrobatic skills and also thanks to sheer bravado.

Waldo is a master criminal but he’s scrupulously non-violent, he’s a gentleman, he has a sense of fair play and he’s really a decent chap at heart. Crime is a hobby, a way to deal with boredom. Even Sexton Blake has a grudging affection for him.

Waldo has set Blake a challenge. Waldo will steal something very valuable (a ruby necklace) and it’s up to Blake to recover the goods. It’s all a game to Waldo.

To steal the necklace Waldo first steals an aeroplane and then crashes it. When Waldo commits a crime he likes to do it with a certain amount of style, and with a sense of fun.

There’s another fine action finale with some death-defying stunts as Waldo seeks to elude capture.

Edwy Searles Brooks was a very prolific writer who went on to write the deliriously entertaining Norman Conquest thrillers, beginning in the late 30s. I’ve reviewed three of the Norman Conquest books, Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters, Miss Dynamite and Conquest Marches On.

Final Thoughts

These stories are very much Boys’ Own Adventure stuff but they’re a lot of fun. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Graham Greene’s The Comedians

Graham Greene’s The Comedians was published in 1966. Greene was important for many reasons, one of them being that he was one of the last novelists to bridge the gap between serious literature and popular entertainment. In the early part of his career he divided his books into “novels” (dealing with serious themes) and “entertainments” (which were not only entertainments but also genre fiction). He eventually realised that, as far as his own work was concerned, the distinction was an artificial one and he abandoned it.

The Comedians is set in Haiti during the rule of the infamous dictator François Duvalier, known popularly as Papa Doc. Greene had spent some time in Haiti.

But in fact The Comedians, like most of Greene’s books, takes place in Greeneland. Greeneland is a land of defeat and pessimism.

The narrator, Mr Brown, is returning to Haiti on the S.S. Medea. Mr Brown, a man in his late fifties, does not think Haiti is a very good place to be but he has his reasons for returning. He owns a hotel in Haiti. It is the only thing he has ever owned. And there is a woman in Haiti, Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American Ambassador. Brown has been having an adulterous affair with Martha for several years. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with her but he has realised he cannot live without her.

Brown is amused that the very small group of passengers on the Medea includes a Mr Smith and a Mr Jones. They all sound like aliases and since his own claim to the name Brown is doubtful he can’t help suspecting that Mr Smith and Mr Jones might have equally dubious claims to their names. Mr Jones in fact claims to be Major Jones, with a distinguished war record in Burma. Brown is very sceptical.

Major Jones, like Brown, is a typical inhabitant of Greeneland. They both have murky pasts which include unfortunate misunderstandings with the police. They are both expatriates. Neither believes in anything very much. Both men have about them an air of defeat. Both have a certain disreputable charm. They are not bad men, but they’re not especially good either. Greene famously said that human nature is not black and white, but black and grey. Brown and Jones both fall into the grey category.

When the Medea arrives in the capital, Port-au-Prince, it soon becomes obvious to Brown that things are just as bad as they were when he had left a few months earlier. Duvalier is crazy and paranoid and never leaves the Presidential Palace. The economy is in ruins. The people are close to starvation. The tourists have long gone. The secret police, the Tontons Macoute, are continuing their reign of terror.

Graham Greene had been a real-life spy, working for MI6 where his supervisor was a chap named Kim Philby (Greene later wrote a foreword to Philby’s excellent autobiography My Silent War, a book I thoroughly recommend). The world of espionage and counter-espionage fascinated Greene and it plays a part in many of his novels. Spies live in a world of deception and, often, self-deception. Just like many of the inhabitants of Greeneland. The Comedians is not a spy novel as such (although the Tontons Macoute are a counter-espionage outfit) but it is concerned (among other things) with the shadowy worlds of international intrigue, diplomacy, gun-running and revolution.

Mr Smith is another very Greene character. He is an American and he is introduced as the Presidential Candidate. It turns out that he really had been a presidential candidate in 1948 but since he only gained 10,000 votes nation-wide he did not provide much competition for Harry Truman. Mr Smith and his wife are idealists. They believe that most of the world’s problems are caused by excessive acidity and that once people are converted to vegetarianism most of those problems will disappear. Like Alden Pyle in The Quiet American Mr and Mrs Smith are sincere idealists of the type that actually causes most of the world’s problems. And like Alden Pyle they do have the courage of their convictions.

Mr and Mrs Smith intend to establish a vegetarian centre in Haiti. Brown tries to persuade them that their plan is going to land them in trouble. Major Jones has his own plans which Brown suspects (correctly) are not strictly legal and which he also suspects (correctly) are going to get him in a lot of trouble. Brown does not want trouble. He just wants his hotel and he wants Martha. He’s going to find trouble anyway. He knows that when he finds the body of the Secretary of Social Welfare in his hotel’s swimming pool.

Brown envies Mr Smith because Smith believes in something, even if it’s crazy and futile. He also envies Jones because Jones has a dream, even if the dream is a delusion and even if Jones himself knows it’s a delusion. Believing in something is good but in Greeneland things are not so simple. Believing in things can also destroy a person, and destroy other people as well.

Faith can be destructive, especially when it’s combined with innocence (and innocence terrified Greene). Brown’s friend Dr Magiot and Henri Phillipot, son of the deceased Secretary of Social Welfare, are inclined to put their faith in revolution. Which can be just as dangerous and futile as Mr Smith’s faith in vegetarianism.

The Comedians is not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books. Perhaps it’s not quite top-tier Greene but even second-tier Greene is very very good. Highly recommended.

Greene wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, The Comedians (1967).

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing was published in 1957. It’s a suspense novel with some domestic and psychological melodrama thrown in.

Evelyn Piper was a pseudonym used by American writer Merriam Modell (1908-1994).

Blanche Lake has only been in New York for three weeks. She previously lived in Providence but she had certain personal reasons for relocating to the Big Apple.

Blanche goes to pick up her three-year-old daughter Bunny from the nursery school in New York in which she has just enrolled her. But Bunny isn’t there. A search is made. The police are called. Maybe Blanche’s mother picked the child up? But no, that can’t be the case, her mother is out of town.

Naturally Blanche is pretty upset and she’s eventually persuaded to see a doctor. She obviously needs a sedative to calm her down. Dr Newsome is very concerned. Dr Newsome is a psychiatrist.

Blanche becomes even more upset when she becomes convinced that the police are not actually looking for her daughter.

While Blanche is looking for Bunny Mrs Negrito is looking for her son Eddie. Eddie is a bit troublesome and Mrs Negrito thinks he’s a bit too interested in Blanche Lake.

The problem for Blanche is that both the police and Dr Newsome believe that there are a lot of things in her story which just don’t add up. And she can’t present any real evidence to support her version of events. They don’t know whether to believe some of her story, or all of it. Or none of it. The reader doesn’t know either. Mostly we’re seeing things from Blanche’s point of view, but we don’t know if we can trust her point of view. We don’t even know if Blanche can trust her own point of view. Maybe she’s not entirely stable. She might not even be entirely sane. On the other hand she might be telling the truth about everything.

There’s a lot of pop psychology and social commentary to wade through. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal preferences. For me it’s a bad thing. I have a limited tolerance for that sort of thing, and an especially limited tolerance for pop Freudianism. Fortunately though there is definitely a suspense story here, and a mystery, and the author is fairly successful in keeping us unsure about what exactly is going on. So this is a psychological/emotional suspense thriller.

It’s also very much a woman’s story in the sense that it’s Blanche’s emotional responses as a woman that drive most of the plot, and social attitudes towards woman also play a part given that Bunny is illegitimate. Blanche’s relationship with her own mother is also important.

The ending is reasonably suspenseful as Blanche decides to bring things to a head one way or another, possibly in a rather desperate way. There’s also one nice touch right at the end - it’s not exactly a plot twist but I can’t say any more without revealing a spoiler.

Blanche is a sympathetic protagonist with more than a touch of ambiguity. There’s quite a lot of ambiguity to most of the other key characters as well - Louise Benton (the director of the nursery school), Dr Newsome and Wilson, a writer to whom Blanche turns for help. In true noir style we come to question the motivations of all the characters.

The plot has some very important parallels to a certain very famous mystery story (a story that is directly referenced in the later stages of the book) but to say any more would be to risk spoilers.

Otto Preminger’s film version, released in 1965, is in my opinion more successful than the novel but the novel certainly has its strengths. The novel mostly falls into the suspense thriller genre but there are some noir fiction elements as well in addition to the domestic melodrama elements I’ve already alluded to.

Bunny Lake Is Missing is perhaps not quite my cup of tea but if you don’t mind some social commentary and some psychological angst you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. Which is not to say that I disliked the book. I just didn’t love it. Recommended, with a few caveats.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Milton Lesser’s Somewhere I’ll Find You

Milton Lesser’s Somewhere I’ll Find You is a science fiction novel (actually more of a longish novella) dating from 1947. If you check his birth date it appears that he was nineteen when he wrote it.

Milton Lesser (1928-2008) was an American author who wrote both science fiction and crime fiction under his own name and under the name Stephen Marlowe. His books as Stephen Marlowe include Model for Murder (1955) which is a sleazy but very entertaining and action-packed hardboiled nor crime thriller.

Judging by the pulp magazine illustration included in the paperback Somewhere I’ll Find You seems to have been originally published under Lesser’s Stephen Marlowe nom-de-plume.

Ed Langdon, his bride-to-be Freya and their friends Bob and Judy Hendrix are sitting quietly watching television when something very odd happens. Something comes flying out of the TV screen, shattering the screen. It’s a tiny spaceship. With a tiny crew. Only once they step outside the spacecraft the crew grow to normal size. They announce that they have come for Freya. They take her aboard the spaceship which then disappears back into the TV screen. Ed, Judy and Bob were temporarily paralysed by the miniature spacefarers and were powerless to do anything.

Ed does have an idea what to do next. He’ll contact Freya’s brother Torstein Haugland. Torstein is a gigantic Norwegian sailor who always seem to know a lot about strange subjects. Torstein informs Ed that this is not the first time Freya has vanished. It happened years earlier, back in Norway, when she was a child. Freya and an old old woman both vanished. Two weeks later Freya was found again, sleeping peacefully in her bed.

Torstein and Ed both have a feeling that the answer to this puzzle may be found in Norway so they take the next flight to Oslo.

They find an answer of sorts but it leads to more questions. They discover that there is not just one Earth, but many. Each Earth represents some slightly different historical possibility, or probability. Some Earths are very strange indeed. Some are dead worlds. Some are ruled by insects. Some are home to advanced civilisations, some are primitive. One civilisation alone, a First Level world, has discovered the secret of the multiple Earths and it’s a secret they guard well.

Freya is one of those many Earths and it seems they may have to search all of them to find her. They do have a clue. They are looking for an Earth ruled by women. It’s something to do with a great battle won by the Amazons in the distant part. Even if they can find that world it may not be a welcoming place to two men who are strangers who do not know the rules. Ed and Torstein may face a fight for survival.

Considering that this is really just a lengthy novel the author packs plenty of plot into his story with descriptions of at least a dozen different Earths visited by our two heroes, with some narrow escapes from certain death on some of those Earths.

The premise, that one of the many Earths has discovered the secret of travelling from one Earth to another and the reasons why they have done this and why it’s such a big secret, is developed economically but effectively.

There are some good action scenes on the planet of the Amazons in which Ed’s chivalry seems likely to be a stumbling block - he just doesn’t like the idea of fighting back when a strapping Amazon maiden takes a swing at him and then gets him down on the ground and starts pummelling him.

Ed is a fairly typical 1940s pulp sci-fi hero, an ordinary American guy who has to become a reluctant hero. Torstein is a bit more interesting, being slightly inclined to mysticism. You get the feeling that the world of Norse paganism is still kind of real to Torstein Haugland.

There’s a villain as well, a Colonel Utgard, and there’s a mystery about him. Other major characters, such as the Magitrix (the old old woman who runs one of the alternative Earths) and the Regent (who is in charge of the First Level world) are intriguingly ambiguous and capricious.

There’s some romance as well although it’s not allowed to slow the story down.

Lesser’s prose is pulpy but lively.

This story is included in another of Armchair Fiction’s wonderful series of two-novel paperback reprints. It’s paired with Fox B. Holden’s The Time Armada.

Somewhere I’ll Find You is fast-moving fun with some cool ideas. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 14, 2021

John Tiger's Mission: Impossible (TV tie-in novel)

Despite being immensely successful Mission: Impossible spawned only four TV tie-in novels (all of which were original stories rather than novelisations). The first was Mission: Impossible by John Tiger (a pseudonym used by Walter Wager). It was published in 1967.

This novel is based on the first season so the Impossible Missions Force is led by Dan Briggs (played on TV by Steven Hill).

It captures the atmosphere of the TV series more successfully than most TV tie-in novels. It’s fast-moving and the plot really does feel like a Mission: Impossible plot. It’s all very enjoyable and highly recommended.

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

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Conan of Aquilonia

I’m a huge fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories but I haven’t read any of the many Conan pastiches by other authors. Since I happen to own a copy of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s 1978 Conan of Aquilonia (which cost me the princely sum of twenty-five cents) I figured it was time to remedy that situation.

Conan of Aquilonia is a collection of four longish short stories. It’s either a collection of linked stories or it’s an episodic novel, depending on how you look at it.

This is an older Conan, nearing sixty but still a formidable warrior. He is now a king and he has a twelve-year-old son and heir, Conn. Conn has gone missing. He’s fallen into the hands of a circle of evil sorcerers led by the most evil of them all, Thoth-Amon. The sorcerers have reason to hate Conan and they want revenge.

In the first story, The Witch of the Mists, Conan (now secure on the throne of Aquilonia) faces a formidable challenge. Not just a circle of evil sorcerers but a coalition of several circles of thoroughly nasty black magicians. The leader is an old enemy of Conn’s, the sorcerer Thoth-Amon.

Black Sphinx of Nebthu is Conan’s second encounter with Thoth-Amon, an encounter which involves an epic fight between black magic and white magic and ends with the unleashing of an appalling monster which nobody, not even Thoth-Amon, can control.

Conan’s struggle against Thoth-Amon continues in Red Moon of Zembabwei. Leading the Aquilonian army through trackless wastes he encounters the horror of the wyverns, prehistoric flying reptiles trained by the Zembabweians. Conan and Conn are carried off by the these flying horrors to an ancient city, built before the beginnings of history by a pre-human race. They are held captive in the infamous black towers, with no doors and no windows. There seems to no escape for them. 

The pursuit of Thoth-Amon continues in Shadows in the Skull and takes Conan to a palace-city carved into a cliff, a fortress carved in the likeness of a gigantic human skull. It’s surrounded by some kind of invisible barrier. Having penetrated the barrier Conan and his companions find something quite unexpected. In fact there are quite a few surprises in store for Conan and Conn.

These two stories ares a marked improvement on the first two.

Conn gets to do a few heroic things but he’s a thoroughly lifeless character.

Thoth-Amon is an effective enough chief villain and there are a few good subsidiary villains as well.

All the correct ingredients are there and the stories are reasonably entertaining sword & sorcery tales but they just don’t have that Robert E. Howard touch. It’s a touch that no other writer has ever been able to emulate successfully. The vitality and the masculine energy that Howard imparted to his stories is just not there, Howard’s matchless ability to evoke an atmosphere of doom or menace is not there either.

It’s not that the ideas behind the stories are bad and it’s not that they’re badly plotted. They’re perfectly competent. They just don’t leap off the page into the reader’s imagination the way Howard’s stories do.

Making Conan old was both a good idea and a bad idea. It was a good idea in the sense that if Conan doesn’t seem quite right the reader can rationalise that away by telling himself that people do change as they get older. It was a bad idea in the sense that it makes Conan too much a man with normal family responsibilities. He’s just not enough of a barbarian.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Conan of Aquilonia. It’s perfectly decent second-tier sword & sorcery with plenty of action and quite a bit of creepiness. The wyverns, the serpent-folk and the serpent-god are all nice touches. It’s just not Robert E. Howard and this Conan is not quite the authentic Conan. Maybe worth a look if you’re a very keen sword & sorcery fan and you’ve read everything by the major writers in the genre.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Carter Brown's Booty for a Babe

English-born Australian crime fiction writer Alan Yates (1923-1985) wrote round 300 novels under the name Carter Brown. He not only wrote a lot of books, he sold a lot of books - around 120 million of them. And like so many bestselling authors of his era he then faded into obscurity. His most popular series character was LA homicide cop Lieutenant Al Wheeler.

Booty for a Babe is a fairy early Al Wheeler book, appearing in 1956.

His boss has decided that Wheeler is too unconventional and too irresponsible to be a Homicide lieutenant. But he does manage to crack some very difficult cases so he’s been put on special assignment. When a case comes up that is as unconventional as he is then it’s Al’s baby. And such a case has now come up.

Professor Todt has been murdered at a science fiction fan convention at a fancy hotel. He was shot, but he wasn’t shot in a normal way. He was found with a tungsten dart in his heart. There were eighty witnesses and none of them saw a thing.

Al finds the world of science fiction fandom rather bewildering. Professor Todt had a theory about time. He thought time could be stopped, if only the alien Delfs could be persuaded to stop it. This wasn’t the plot for a science fiction story. The professor really believed this theory. Al is even more disturbed when it becomes likely that the motive for the murder had something to do with the professor’s crazy theory.

Al also has to deal with a ditzy redhead named Flavia, who runs the convention. And an even ditzier blonde named Annabelle Starr, one of the fans. He thinks they’re both crazy but he also thinks it’s worth trying to get them into bed. They might provide some valuable clues, but even if they don’t it would still be worth trying to get them into bed.

There’s also Nicky Spain, who’s a shady businessman, but he had some involvement with the professor. Which doesn’t make sense - shady businessman and crazy professors don’t usually have much in common. Spain is staying in the hotel with his girlfriend Carlotta, and she could be worth bedding as well.

The further the case goes the crazier it gets. It seems that alchemy could be involved as well.

Wheeler is a cop who always has a drink on one hand a blonde in the other. It’s not that he’s a heavy drinker. He doesn’t take a drink first thing in the morning. He has a shower and breakfast first. Sometimes it’s nearly lunch time before he starts drinking.

Apart from drinking and chasing skirt Al’s investigative methods mostly involve picking someone who might respond to pressure and putting that person under as much pressure as possible. His methods are exactly ethical but they do produce results. He’s also pretty good at setting traps for suspects, even when he has no idea if they’re guilty or not.

This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek hardboiled PI thriller with quite a bit of humour and some plot elements that sound like they’d be more at home in a pulp sci-fi novel. It works because the author has style and energy and he makes it work. Al Wheeler is cheerfully immoral but he has a kind of vulgar charm. There’s nothing remotely subtle about him.

The plot is serviceable but it’s the fun to be had along the way that is the attraction.

I have no idea why the title was chosen, except that I guess the publisher thought it sounded cool.

The Carter Brown books are not to be taken too seriously but they are enormous fun. Booty for a Babe is highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed two other Carter Brown novels - The Stripper and No Harp For My Angel.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Harry Hossent’s Spies Die At Dawn

Spies Die At Dawn, published in 1958, was the first of Harry Hossent’s six Max Heald spy thrillers.

Harry Hossent (1916-1989) was an English author who wrote both crime novels and thrillers during the 1950s and 1960s.

Max Heald is a British intelligence agent who is just about go go up to his flat when he notices something odd. The lights are on. Most people wouldn’t think much of such a thing but Max is a spy and he wants to keep living so he has to notice things like that. He therefore lets Mr Mortimer (his boss) know, then proceeds up to his flat where a surprise is waiting for him. The surprise is his wife Christina. It’s a surprise because three years earlier she had defected to the Russians. In fact at the time he married her she was a double agent.

There’s another surprise in store for Max - two men from the Special Division. The Special Division (otherwise known as Section 9) is a much-feared branch of the Soviet MVD. They specialise in liquidating people, so it’s not a very pleasant surprise. They’ve never operated in Britain before but now they are indeed in Britain and they seem to be very interested in Christina. But why?

Christina’s story is that she’s defected back to the West because Bennett has done so and now she’s under suspicion so she has no choice. Her story is interesting and Max thinks that some of it may even be true. Bennett is an English journalist who defected to the Soviet bloc at about the same time as Christina.

Mr Mortimer is very interested in all of this. What he doesn’t want is Max on the case. Max is too emotionally involved. He also knows that whatever orders he gives Max is going to pursue the case anyway. Which he does.

There are multiple players in this game. Some are motivated by money, some by ideology, some by loyalty and some by love. There’s a man named Reisening. Christina claims that this man contacted her. There’s an actor named Roland Bestwick. And a professional wrestler known as the Whirler. There’s Claude Meygeth, who is in the business of selling information. There’s Meygeth’s girlfriend Nickie Montreux. There’s Aintree, who runs a protection racket but has been known to do jobs for Max. There’s the Pole Ebanstey, who is supposed to be helping Max but whose loyalty is to Mr Mortimer. There’s Bennett, whose motives for defecting to the Soviet bloc are unclear and whose motives for defecting back to the West are even murkier. Christina’s motives are even more mysterious - is she a double agent who has returned to her original loyalty or is she now a triple agent?

There’s also the question of whether Max can trust Mr Mortimer. Ordinarily Max would have complete confidence in his chief but Mortimer is ruthless and might decide that it would be advantageous to sacrifice Christina. There’s the question of whether Mortimer can trust Max - if Max had to choose between the department and Christina which choice would he make?

Any of these players could change sides at any time, or could try to play for both sides at once. The opportunities for double-crosses are practically limitless and there will indeed be double-crosses.

It all ends with a splendid extended action finale in a funhouse.

Spies Die At Dawn belongs more to the gritty realist school of spy fiction than to the Bondian school. There’s lots of violence (some it fairly graphic by late 50s standards), there’s a willingness to resort to torture, there are lots of betrayals and nobody can trust anybody else. Max Heald is a tough professional but he has an emotional life which sometimes clouds his judgment. He’s certainly no infallible super-spy. There’s no sex although there is one abortive seduction when one of the women characters tries to influence Max by shedding her clothes.

Hossent’s prose is workmanlike but effective. Max Heald is not the sort of spy who trades wisecracks. The tone remains dark and serious.

Spies Die At Dawn is a very competent tightly plotted spy thriller which can be highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rog Phillips' World of If

Roger Phillip Graham (1909-1966) had a moderately successful career as a writer, using various pseudonyms. He is regarded as one of the people most instrumental in creating science fiction fandom. World of If was published under his Rog Phillips pseudonym in 1951.

World of If presents an interesting take on the problem of time. It is set in 1984. John Dow is a successful publisher who is asked by a young man, Dr Simon French, to take part in a research project run by the Rexler Research Company. They had been using hypnosis to regress people to earlier periods of their lives when someone had the bright idea of regressing them to a point in their lives in the future. They discovered that the futures remembered by different people often agreed in significant ways. It’s not time travel, it’s more a case of people being able to tap into potential futures. The future is not fixed but there are certain probabilities. Rexler Research have found that with this technique they can to some degree predict the future.

Then they decided to do something different - hypnotising people to live out potential futures as they had existed in the past.

Using their technique a person can live out several years of a potential future, or a potential future from the past, in a single day.

So this is both an exploration of the nature of time and an exploration of a kind of alternate history. And it explores these subjects in a rather fascinating way.

John Dow is actually not quite what he appears to be. He is not just a businessman. He controls a network of influential people (including politicians who are bought and paid for) who are engaged in a vast project to defeat world communism. Dr French regresses him to a past that differs slightly from the actual past. In this alternate past America is taken over by the communists in 1953.

So this can also be seen as a Red Scare story (and a rather hysterical one).

A very large part of the book is taken up by Dow’s life in that potential alternate past of life under communism. At times it drags just a little. There is however some interesting stuff about the nature of power and corruption and about the way people adapt themselves to power, and the compromises people will make. And the ways in which they will rationalise their behaviour.

Once we get back to 1984 it suddenly becomes really interesting as the author throws even more ideas about time at us. We find out what Dr French’s research is really all about and we get some neat plot twists.

You do have to concentrate when reading this book since apart from John Dow’s lengthy sojourn in the Worlds of If there are also flashbacks from other characters.

The style is pulpy and rather on the unpolished side.

Phillips is strongest when he’s dealing with ideas although he does attempt some character complexity and the idea of people in alternate pasts behaving in ways that are both different from their actual lives but also very much consistently in character is developed quite well.

Mostly it’s a clever and original take on the ideas of the future being both changeable and unchangeable and it’s in some ways an anticipation of much later works by other novelists exploring multiple parallel timelines (even in some ways an anticipation of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse idea). The author cleverly suggests an ambiguity about those alternate Worlds of If. Are they imaginary and do they have some reality? There’s enough cleverness here to make World of If worth a look. Recommended, if you can deal with some political heavy-handedness.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

R. Austin Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery

R. Austin Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery was published in 1926 and it’s another Dr Thorndyke mystery. Although written in 1926 it tells of events that occurred twenty years in the past.

A young doctor named Stephen Gray is happily tramping through the woods, hoping to spend a pleasant few hours collecting specimens from a shallow pond (being a young man whose interests are both scientific and medical). He sees a very attractive young woman in the woods. She seems to be searching for something but it is hardly any of his business. Shortly thereafter, to his horror, he discovers the body of a middle-aged man in the pond. He sets off towards the police station but encounters the young woman again. She informs him that she is searching for her father who failed to return home on the previous night. It transpires that the body in the pond is that of her father, Julius D’Arblay.

The circumstances point to suicide but they do not rule out foul play.

Gray is a good-natured kindly young man and when he discovers that the young woman (Marion D’Arblay) has now lost her only surviving relative he feels that he should, as a gentleman, do something for her. As it happens he is peculiarly well-placed to help her as he was in the not-too-recent past a student of the renowned specialist in medical jurisprudence, Dr John Thorndyke. He resolves to retain Dr Thorndyke’s services to investigate the case.

Which turns out to be a good idea. The post-mortem (at which Dr Thorndyke assists) proves that Julius D’Arblay was murdered. Murdered by an injection of aconitine. There is no possibility whatsoever of suicide.

The police investigation makes little progress. The police really don’t have much to go on. Dr Thorndyke admits that it’s going to be a difficult case but he believes there are some useful clues. Several items were found at the bottom of the pond, including a gold guinea of the reign of Charles II. D’Arblay had been a sculptor. The murder method suggested a number of things about the murderer.

Two more things soon become obvious. One is that Dr Gray has fallen under Marion D’Arblay’s spell. The second is that whatever business the murderer had with Julius D’Arblay that business is not yet finished.

Not everyone enjoys Freeman’s prose. One thing you have to remember is that although this novel was published in 1926 Freeman is in fact a writer of the Edwardian era. His first forays into the field of detective fiction were made in 1901 when the earliest of the excellent Romney Pringle stories were written (and I highly recommend the adventures of that delightful rogue). Freeman was still writing in the early 1940s but not surprisingly his prose style remained somewhat Edwardian. Which, personally, I rather like. Freeman is nowhere near as dull as some of his detractors would have you believe. In fact I don’t find him dull at all. His prose isn’t flamboyant but there’s plenty of keen observation of human nature and there’s some fine descriptive writing. And Raymond Chandler was a fan.

There’s always a problem for a writer who creates a memorable series character when a series becomes a long-running one. At the time of Dr Thorndyke’s earliest cases he is clearly not a very young man. His professional eminence suggest a man in his forties. By 1926 Thorndyke would logically have been twenty years older, and Freeman clearly did not want Thorndyke to be an elderly man. Most writers have solved this problem by fudging their heroes’ ages. Freeman solves the problem by a simpler and more direct method. He sets his story in the Edwardian era. That was a bit of a risk. It was clearly going to give the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. I think it works. Dr Thorndyke is man of the Edwardian era and that’s where he seems comfortable and Freeman’s slightly old-fashioned prose and penchant for rather formal dialogue perfectly suits the setting.

I haven’t read any of Freeman’s other Dr Thorndyke mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s (although I’ve read most of his pre-WW1 stories) so I have no idea whether those books have Edwardian or contemporary settings.

Freeman famously invented the inverted detective story. The D’Arblay Mystery is not an inverted mystery but as with all of Freeman’s books the interest lies mostly in the manner in which Thorndyke solves the case rather than in the solution itself.

The D’Arblay Mystery is a story of deception and the book’s main strength is the extreme cleverness of the deceptions. These deceptions could have a bit far-fetched but Freeman makes them seem entirely plausible.

Dr Thorndyke has the genius, and perhaps some of the arrogance, of Sherlock Holmes but without the idiosyncrasies. He can be a little distant and even taciturn but he’s fundamentally even-natured. Dr Thorndyke is not a man who loses his temper.

The D’Arblay Mystery has a wonderfully clever plot. Even when we feel we’re starting to figure out who committed the crimes there’s still the mystery of how on earth the deceptions could have been worked. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of Freeman’s earlier books including A Silent Witness (1914), The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912), The Eye of Osiris (1911) and some of the early Dr Thorndyke short stories.

If you’re a fan of Dr Thorndyke I strongly recommend seeking out the 1970s Rivals of Sherlock Holmes TV series which includes adaptations of two Thorndyke stories (and it’s a great series overall).

I’m pleased to report that JJ at The Invisible Event gave the The D’Arblay Mystery a glowing review as well.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

Pu Songling (1640-1715) was a Chinese Confucian scholar who amassed a huge collection of tales generally known as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. The tales were gathered together from various sources, some were based on personal experience, some were traditional folk tales. The collection is an assortment of ghost stories, weird tales and stories that are just plain odd. The collection circulated widely during the author’s lifetime but was not published until the mid-18th century. These stores have formed the basis for quite a few movies (including The Enchanted Ghost).

There have been a number of English translations. The Penguin Classics edition include about a hundred out of the five hundred stories in the original collection.

Pu Songling had the true collector’s mindset. He was obviously a man who just loved collecting any kind of weird stories that he could find. He was not specifically setting out to collect horror stories. He just loved anything with a hint of the strange or the eccentric or the outré. Some are not much more than a couple of paragraphs describing some inexplicable event or someone’s odd habit (such as the man who eats rocks). Some are fully developed and fairly complex short stories. Some of the stories are tragic, some are ironic, some are comic. Some of these tales are macabre or even gruesome and some are erotic (and even extremely kinky). The sheer variety of subject matter is quite extraordinary.

Some of the stories were already very ancient when Pu Songling collected them, some were contemporary, some were based on first-hand accounts by acquaintances.

Some of the stories (such as Living Dead) can be regarded as genuine tales of horror. Some, such as Talking Pupils (the pupils in question being the pupils of a man’s eyes) are extremely bizarre. Others, such as An Otherworldly Examination and Friendship Beyond the Grave, are ghostly stories of a sort but not in any way horror stories. The Painted Wall is a particularly good story. A man is entranced by a maiden in a painting and then finds himself entering the world of the painting.

Some of the stories are quite dark, some are whimsical (such as the very clever Stealing a Peach which concerns an ingenious illusionist). Growing Pears is similar but this time it’s a mischievous monk getting up to various tricks. Monks figure in quite a few stories and it can be a mistake to be too trusting where monks are concerned, as the protagonist in The Taoist Priest of Mount Lao finds out when he goes seeking wisdom. Taoist priests seem to be particularly versed in the black arts. There are also wicked fortune-tellers (as in the story Magical Arts).

The ghost stories are often quite different in tone compared to European ghost stories. In China ghosts and spirits are not necessarily sinister or frightening. The supernatural stories can also seem rather unconventional (such as The Monk of Changqing which concerns souls migrating from one body to another).

There are numerous stories about fox-spirits, apparently a very big thing in Chinese folklore. They’re a bit like werewolves in that they can appear as humans or foxes. They’re a little bit like fairies in that they seem to sometimes inhabit our world and sometimes their own world. A fox-spirit can also be like a succubus (a female demon who has sex with men and slowly destroys those men) or an incubus (a male demon who has sex with women and slowly destroys those women). Where they differ from western folklore is that while they can be deadly they are not always malevolent. The Merchant’s Son, Grace and Pine, The Laughing Girl and Fox Enchantment are notable examples of very fine fox-spirit stories in which the foxes can be evil or benign or sympathetic or ambiguous.

Both fox-spirits and ghosts can be ambiguous. Both can be dangerous, both can kill, but both can be virtuous and moral. They can even be all those things at the same time, as in Lotus Fragrance (another excellent story).

The line between life and death is not at all clearcut. And the ghosts are very different from the ghosts in western folklore. They’re much more corporeal. The eat and they sleep, you can touch them and they have sex. They have sex a lot! The foxes are shape-changers and while they’re not ghosts they move between our world and a spirit world. They’re definitely corporeal and like the ghosts they also have sex a lot. The spirit world is a rather erotic world (and the erotic element in these stories is very strong). Both ghosts and fox-spirits also fall in love. They often fall in love with mortals. They feel emotional pain.

There’s one story (Coral) about one of the Heavenly Asparas or flower fairies banished to Earth for being too worldly. She falls in love with a mortal man, but it’s hardly a conventional love.

A lot of the stories are quite erotic but although they often involve the supernatural they bear no resemblance to western erotic horror stories.

The longer stories are the most interesting (and are likely to be more accessible for western reader). There’s plenty of enjoyment to be had here but there’s more to these stories than just entertainment. There are fascinating insights into the three great Chinese religious traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism). There are even more fascinating glimpses into Chinese folklore and the social and sexual mores of Imperial China. If you have a taste for the truly strange and the truly exotic this may be the book for you.

I’ve reviewed the 1970 Shaw Brothers movie The Enchanting Ghost, based on the Pu Songling story The Bookworm.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lawrence Block's Borderline

Lawrence Block is a much-admired contemporary mystery writer but since I have virtually no interest in contemporary fiction I must confess that I’m not at all familiar with his work. Borderline (re-issued by Hard Case Crime a few years ago) is from very very early in his career. It was originally published in 1962 under the pseudonym Don Holliday and with the much more lurid title Border Lust.

Borderline is either a sleaze novel with significant noir fiction overtones or a noir novel with signifiant sleaze overtones. At this stage of his career Block was supporting himself by writing sleaze fiction in huge quantities while trying to make a name for himself as a crime writer. Borderline seems to be a transitional work - Block is still writing for the sleaze market but he’s trying to find his voice as a serious crime writer as well.

The action of the novel takes place partly in El Paso and partly just across the Mexican border in Juarez. The characters cross back and forth between the two countries and they cross lots of other borders as well - the border between sanity and madness, between self-control and debauchery, between order and chaos.

Although there’s a serial killer in the novel it’s not really a serial killer story as such. He’s just one of a bunch of people whose lives intersect. There’s Marty, a professional gambler. There’s Meg, newly divorced and looking to celebrate her freedom. There’s Lily, a drifter on the make. There’s Cassie, a lesbian hooker. And then there’s Weaver, a loser who has finally discovered his purpose in life. That purpose is to kill.

Marty and Meg hook up and have a lot of fun together, especially in bed. Lily and Cassie hook up as well, which is fun for Cassie but a real drag for Lily. Lily just wants money. She doesn’t mind being a whore but she doesn’t want to be a cheap whore in Juarez. Her dream is to be an expensive whore in New York City but she’ll need a stake to realise her ambitions.

Marty gambles, with mixed success. Meg gambles, with a lot of success. They all have lots of sex. Nobody falls in love. These are not people who are capable of love. They live for pleasure, or at least they think they do. You’ll go a long way to find a more empty group of people.

This is of course the problem with a lot of noir fiction - a lack of characters with whom the reader can empathise. This doesn’t seem to bother some readers who are quite happy to follow the misadventures and tragedies of totally repellant characters. Personally I prefer characters who have at least some redeeming qualities or some depth. I seem to have trouble caring about the fates of characters who are entirely vacuous or entirely lacking in positive qualities. But that’s a matter of personal taste.

There’s also the problem with some noir fiction of an excessively nihilistic tone. Of course noir fiction is meant to be bleak and pessimistic (otherwise they wouldn’t call it noir fiction) but total nihilism is something else again. And this is a pretty nihilistic book.

It is a well-written book and pretty well structured (considering the author’s youth) without too much reliance on coincidence. There’s a certain inevitability about the events.

There’s no mystery here. There is perhaps some suspense although it’s undercut by the air of inevitability.

The sexual content is very tame by later standards but pretty racy by the standards of 1962. The violence is also fairly extreme at times, again by the standards of 1962.

With this book it all comes down to personal taste. Sleaze fans at the time would have been satisfied. Hardcore noir fans today will find much to admire. It left me a bit cold, for reasons I’ve already explained. All I can really say is that Borderline is recommended for those whose tastes run that way.

The Hard Case Crime edition also includes two short stories and a novella written by Block at around the same time. A Fire at Night (from 1958) is an OK story about an arsonist. The Burning Fury (from 1959) is about a man who knows he shouldn’t pick up this girl, he’ll do anything not to, but he does anyway. It’s also OK. 

More interesting is the 1963 novella Stag Party Girl. Despite the title is a relatively straightforward private eye whodunit story. A prospective bride-groom has been getting death threats from an old girlfriend so he hires PI Ed London as a bodyguard. There’s a stag party, a girl who jumps out of a wedding cake, and then a gunshot. ED’s client is the obvious suspect but Ed’s not buying that. He does some actual detecting, there are multiple plausible suspects, some decent red herrings and a fairy satisfying conclusion. It’s moderately hardboiled but not sleazy. I actually liked it a lot more than Borderline, maybe because it lacks Borderline’s nihilism.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Bart Frame’s The Black Satin Jungle

Bart Frame’s The Black Satin Jungle (also published as Indiscretions of a French Model) was published in 1953. It’s a sin and sensation potboiler set in the world of modelling.

Louise Bonnard was a can-can dancer in Paris and her life had not been a happy one. Her father, an unsuccessful painter, died when she was thirteen. Her mother turned to drink and supported herself and her daughter by selling herself on the streets before finally killing herself. Then along came Danny Birnham to the rescue. Danny was a handsome American soldier and he swept Louise off her feet. He married her and the plan was that he would return to America and she would join him a few months later.

Now she’s in New York and reality is starting to sink in. Danny is not a rich American. He’s a loser and he drinks, and he’s a violent drunk. He lives in a crummy apartment with his lecherous alcoholic father, his father’s broken-down defeated common law wife Jessie and his deadbeat kid brother Earl. Louise is naïve but not stupid. She’s not even all that naïve. She just allowed herself to believe that Danny was the knight in shining armour she so desperately wanted and needed. She quickly figures out that Danny is going to bring her nothing but misery.

She has made one fried in New York, a girl named Sylvia. Sylvia offers her a way out. She can get Louise a job as a lingerie model. Louise is twenty-two and has a fabulous figure. She could make big money. Louise isn’t too sure about the modelling thing but it has to be better than being tied for life to a bum like Danny.

She soon finds out that there’s only a fine line between being a lingerie model and being a call girl. Her boss expects her to be nice to his clients. The other girls explain to her that this means sleeping with them. This triggers some very conflicting emotions for Louise. She has this idea that her mother was a whore so therefore she must be a whore and that her mother killed herself so she must be destined to do likewise. At the same time she really likes having sex with the clients. She had been ashamed of being a can-can dancer but enjoyed it at the same time. When she started the lingerie modelling she was both disturbed and excited by the way the men looked at her. She wants to be a whore and at the same time she hates herself for it.

Sylvia suggests that maybe she should talk to a friend of hers who’s a psychologist. The psychologist can’t wait to get her to do a Rorschach test. This was the 1950s and psychiatry and psychology were new and exciting and were going to unlock all the secrets of human behaviour. Writers (and film-makers) were really excited by the possibilities of stories based on these daring new theories. For someone writing sleaze fiction such possibilities were obviously very enticing.

This book is very 1950s is its attitudes towards sex. It’s taken for granted that prostitution is really wicked and a great social evil that needs to be stamped out. At the same time America in the 50s was absolutely obsessed with sex and for authors dealing with sexual subject matter was a great way to show how modern and enlightened they were. Louise’s conflicted feelings about sex are mirrored by the book’s conflicting objectives. The author wants to be moralistic (because if you were going to get away with such subject matter you had to be) and at the same time he’s obviously determined to exploit the sleaze factor as much as he possibly can.

Of course that raises a problem. Louise is a bad girl so she must be punished but she’s also the heroine so she must be saved. The advantage of this from a dramatic point of view is that you’re never quite sure in these books whether the impulse to save the heroine will win out over the necessity of seeing her pay for her sins.

Of course she and the psychologist fall in love but that’s a problem because Louise knows she doesn’t deserve the love of a decent man. He’ll only try to save her and she knows that she’s damned.

One way to deal with conflicts like this is to pour yourself a little drink. Or maybe several little drinks. Pretty soon Louise is pouring herself lots of drinks. That’s appropriate as well. Her mother was a drunkard so she has to become a drunkard. You can’t escape destiny. Destiny has plenty more hard knocks in store for Louise Bonnard. She’s soon rolling in money but that’s no good - any good fortune that comes from sin has to be paid for.

And the past is hard to escape as well. It catches up to you at the worst possible moments.

The Black Satin Jungle is reasonably entertaining. It’s not a great example of the sleaze fiction genre. It’s not as good as Orrie Hitt’s Wayward Girl or Florence Stonebreaker’s wonderful Reno Tramp but if you enjoy this genre it’s worth a look.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Leigh Brackett’s Last Call from Sector 9G

Leigh Brackett’s Last Call from Sector 9G is a science fiction novella first published in Planet Stories in 1955 (Planet Stories really was an astoundingly good pulp magazine).

I guess you could call Last Call from Sector 9G a science fiction spy story. Lloyd Durham is all washed up. He lost his job, nobody will employ him and things didn’t work out with his girl. All he has left is the booze. Maybe it was the booze that got him into trouble in the first place. Durham doesn’t think so but then he doesn’t like to admit that the mess he’s in may have been all his fault. Now a senior diplomat from the Federation, Hawtree, is giving him a second chance. Or at least that’s what Durham thinks. Hawtree has offered him a diplomatic mission to Nanta Dik, one of the two inhabited planets in Sector 9G.

The Federation covers half the galaxy and embraces both human and non-human worlds. Sector 9G is not yet part of the Federation. Both planets in Sector 9G are most definitely non-human. There are those who want Sector 9G to become part of the Federation and there are those who are bitterly opposed. There are major advantages for corporations in operating outside the jurisdiction of the Federation, if those corporations happen to be unscrupulous.

What Durham doesn’t realise is that he was picked for the mission because he was a drunken loser who could be relied on to make a mess of it. But what happens when you pick someone for a mission based on such an assumption and that someone decides, for once in his life, to try really hard not to mess up?

Durham manages, quite accidentally, to get his ex-girlfriend mixed up in this whole situation. And Susan just happens to be Hawtree’s daughter.

Brackett packs plenty of action into her story. There are space hijackings, Durham falls into the hands of various warring factions, there’s a real war brewing in Sector 9G, and maybe civil war as well. There are quite a few players representing quite a few factions involved and it’s not easy for Durham to tell the god guys from the bad guys. He really had no desire to get mixed up in wars and inter-planetary intrigues. He just wanted to prove he could stay sober long enough to carry out one simple assignment so he could get his life back together again. Now he’s in such a mess that staying sober seems like a really bad idea. And staying alive looks like being a real challenge.

He’d also like to keep Susan alive although there are times he’s so infuriated he’d like to strangle her. Maybe he hates her. Maybe he still loves her.

He will discover the terrifying secret of the Bitter Star and he will encounter the darkbirds. The darkbirds are alive and they’re intelligent, although they’re not alive in a sense that is comprehensible to a human. They’re not composed of matter. He has no idea whose side the darkbirds are on. All he knows is that they scare him.

He’s also not sure whether the alien Jubb is a good guy or a bad guy he he does know that Jubb is pretty important.

This is a future universe that is very much like ours - there’s good and there’s bad in it, there’s corruption and there’s idealism, there’s shady politics and there are crooked businessmen and there are honest people (both human and non-human) trying to do the right thing. All of Brackett’s imaginary future societies have a fair degree of moral complexity, with plenty of shades of grey. In this case there are shades of grey to both the human and non-human characters.

Durham is a man who has no desire to be a hero. He has no desire to be a villain either. He’d just like to survive. He’d also like to get a drink.

Although I’m a major fan of Leigh Brackett’s work I hadn’t heard of this novella until I came across this review of it on the Ontos blog.

It’s been reissued in paperback in one of Armchair Fiction’s two-novel editions, paired with H. Beam Piper’s Time Crime (which I’ll be reviewing in the near future).

I’d previously only read Brackett’s sword-and-planet stories so this is my first encounter with her space opera. I do prefer her sword-and-planet stuff (very few people could match her in that genre) but Last Call from Sector 9G is not a bad little tale. Since this is Leigh Brackett it goes without saying that it’s well-written. Recommended.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Gavin Lyall’s Judas Country

Judas Country, published in 1975, was the last of Gavin Lyall’s aviation thrillers.

Englishman Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) had established himself in the 60s as one of the best thriller writers in the Alistair MacLean mould. His books up until Judas Country were all first-person narratives. His heroes were men who were moderately honest (although sometimes skirting the lines of what was strictly legal) who get caught up in intrigue and/or espionage. After Judas Country he changed direction and wrote the four Harry Maxim contemporary spy thrillers with third-person narration and then changed direction again, turning out four historical spy novels.

Judas Country follows the story of Roy Case, a pilot somewhat down on his luck. His partner Ken Cavitt ran into some legal unpleasantness in Israel, spending two years in prison there. As a result they lost their aircraft and their business. Roy took a one-off job for a man named Kingsley, flying a twin-engined Beechcraft Queen Air into Cyprus for Kingsley’s Castle hotel chain. Roy has to fly a dozen cases of champagne to the Castle Hotel in Nicosia. Perhaps Roy should have wondered about this - champagne is not something you normally send by air. But he needed the job and in Nicosia he can meet up with Ken again (Ken having been just released from prison).

Unfortunately the Caste hotel chain has run into financial difficulties and receivers have been appointed. This means Roy isn’t going to get paid and he’s stranded in Nicosia and he finds himself helping out the receiver in the management of the now bankrupt but still operational Castle Hotel. This is all rather inconvenient and irritating but Roy isn’t too worried by it until he opens one of the cases of champagne. What the case contains is definitely not champagne.

He’s a bit concerned about the middle-aged Austrian mediæval archaeologist Ken befriended in gaol. Professor Spohr had had some misunderstanding with the Israeli authorities over the matter of an excavation he was making and the professor had, perhaps unwisely, tried to matter to settle the matter by drawing a gun on the Israeli cops.

Roy is not entirely happy about the Mossad agent who has been tailing him.

He is however mostly worried about the dead body in one of the rooms of the hotel, a matter that is also of interest to Inspector Lazaros. Roy is not particularly fond of getting involved with policemen. He certainly doesn’t want to have to explain the contents of that champagne case because he doesn’t have an explanation.

Roy Case is a fairly typical Lyall hero, a fairly good-natured guy who doesn’t really want trouble but keeps finding it. Like most Lyall heroes he’s intelligent but gets into spots that perhaps he should have avoided. More often he gets into situations for the simple reason that he needs the money. Roy and Ken obviously have pasts that are colourful and maybe a just a little bit dubious. Their aviation business had been quite legal, in theory. Well, mostly legal. The paperwork was always in order. Whether the goods described in the paperwork matched the cargoes they were actually transporting was another matter, a problem they solved by never checking the contents of any crates they loaded aboard their aeroplane.

When they do find trouble they’re philosophical about it. It’s something to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Now they’re mixed up in a situation involving weapons both ancient (or at least mediæval) and modern, weapons the ownership of which is doubtful. There’s the possibility of big money which might be obtainable without breaking the law. Or at least without technically doing anything illegal, or at least without doing anything that could be proved to be illegal. Also mixed up in this is the professor’s daughter Mitzi and Eleanor Travis from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Eleanor has the chance of getting hold of something the museum wants, in a way that is almost ethical if you look at it from the right angle and you don’t look too closely and you squint a bit.

Having possession of something that is worth a great deal of money is a fine thing, if you can figure out a way of selling the item without tiresome interference from the authorities. When you don’t actually have the item but you might know where it might be found the difficulties tend to increase. Roy and Ken could be rich men, but it’s a big could be.

And items that are worth a lot of money attract the interest of other parties with flexible attitudes towards the law. In this case there are quite a few parties interested.

There’s plenty of action, there’s some airborne excitement and there are plot twists in abundance. 

Maybe not quite as good as Lyall's earlier and truly excellent Shooting Script but still very highly recommended. I've also reviewed Lyall's The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One and I recommend them as well.