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.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Philip Loraine's Day of the Arrow

Day of the Arrow by Philip Loraine was the 1964 source novel for the superb and unfairly neglected low-key British horror movie Eye of the Devil (1966).

Robin Estridge (1920-2002) was a British author of suspense novels who wrote under a couple of pseudonyms, including Philip Loraine. He’s one of those many writers who enjoyed some success only to then disappear into almost complete obscurity.

There are some differences between novel and film but the core of the story remains the same.

The novel is told mostly through the eyes of young Scottish painter James Lindsay. It begins when he sees Françoise, the Marquise de Montfaulcon, leaving a Paris hotel with her lover. This surprises him a good deal. Françoise had been so much in love with her husband Philippe and she’s just not the sort of woman to take a lover. Lindsay and Françoise have a bit of a history. Lindsay had hoped to marry her before she chose Philippe. Lindsay is even more surprised when Françoise telephones him. She needs his help. Her husband has told her he is going to die.

Philippe had suffered a slight injury a short while before and Françoise had persuaded the doctor to give him a very thorough checkup. There is absolutely nothing wrong with him physically. But Françoise believes him when he tells her he is about to die.

Lindsay joins Françoise at Bellac, the Montfaulcon estate. He discovers something, mostly just tantalising hints, of the family’s history. They have been lords of Bellac for thirteen centuries. And a truly astonishing number of male heads of the family have met violent deaths in mysterious circumstances. The atmosphere at Bellac is unnaturally silent and a little grim. The vines have failed again.

There’s an odd collection of people there. There’s a young man named Christian. On his first day at Bellac Lindsay sees Christian shoot a dove with a bow and arrow. There’s Philippe’s young cousin Odile, a strange girl reputed to be a witch. But this is the 1960s. There are no witches in the 1960s. That magic trick she performed was clearly just an illusion. What else could it be?

The atmosphere at the chateau is subtly disturbing. Even Philippe prays a lot, which he never did before. Lindsay always assumed that Philippe was a non-believer.

Nobody seems to want to notice that something is strange here. Lindsay’s attempts to find answers almost cost him his life. Lindsay has the evidence he needs to explain the mystery but he can’t put the pieces together, or rather he just cannot except the true explanation.

Philippe and Françoise are much younger in the novel, compared to the movie, and there’s more emphasis on the unhealthiness of their sexual relationship.

In the movie Christian and Odile are brother and sister, which I think adds an interesting extra layer. And they’re much more disturbing in the movie. What’s interesting is that the movie downplays the sexual problem in the marriage between Philippe and Françoise but adds an interesting sexual subtext involving Christian and Odile.

The movie is definitely better than the book - its visual style conveys the atmosphere of subtle menace and strangeness far more effectively than Loraine’s prose. In both book and movie the hints of the supernatural are very subtle and very ambiguous (and I’m certainly not going to tell you if there really is anything supernatural) but they’re also handled more effectively in the movie.

The basic story is the same and it’s a pretty good story. There’s a bit more mystery in the book than the movie, but a bit less suspense. It’s a bit hard for me to judge the novel because having seen the movie I knew the nature of the secret of Bellac so the shock revelation was blunted a little for me.

This is a slow-burning story with the sense of menace being rather subtle.

Overall, not as good as the movie but still an interesting occult thriller. Recommended.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Richard S. Prather’s Bodies in Bedlam

Bodies in Bedlam, published by Gold Medal in 1951, was the second of the Shell Scott private eye mystery thrillers written by Richard S. Prather (1921-2007). He would go on to write many many more.

Private eye Sheldon “Shell” Scott is attending a swanky Hollywood party. Not his usual scene but a while back he did a big favour for the head of Magna Studios which is how he got the invite to the party. It turns out to be quite a night. Some lunkhead annoys him and Shell (who has a bit of a temper) takes a swing at him. Shell meets a doll in a hoop skirt and a silver mask (it’s a costume party). And the lunkhead (a guy named Roger Brane) winds up very very dead, with his throat cut quite spectacularly.

To the police everybody at the party is a possible suspect but obviously a private eye who took a swing at the murder victim shortly before the murder is going to be one of their favoured suspects. Shell is not very happy about that. Captain Samson at the Homicide Squad is an old buddy and he doesn’t believe for a second that Shell is guilty but the officer assigned to the case, Lieutenant Kerrigan, hates Shell’s guts and would love to pin a murder rap on him.

And then Shell finds himself with a new client - the silver-masked doll from the party. The doll, whose name is Hallie, is pretty worried and with good reason - her hoop skirt and silver mask were found next to Brane’s body. Shell is sure that Hallie is innocent because she’s really cute and really friendly and he likes her.

Roger Brane is (or was) a painter, and a pretty good one. He had plenty of money but the money din’t come from his painting. Shell figures it might have come from blackmail, and that his speciality may have been blackmailing Hollywood actresses. There are at least four actresses who were at that party who may have been victims of Brane’s blackmailing.

What Shell can’t quite figure out is where Garvey Mace fits into all this. Mace is a businessman, the sort of businessman whose business interests are not exactly strictly legal. In fact he’s a racketeer. He’s not the sort of man who would have anything to do with artists but Mace seems to be really interested in this case.

This is not quite hardboiled fiction. You could call it medium-boiled. There’s plenty of wry humour. It’s moderately violent and quite sexy.

Prather has quite a prose style and a gift for sparkling dialogue. The tone is cheeky and irreverent and generally fairly light. The emphasis is on entertainment. There’s none of the grim pessimism or misanthropy that you find in some hardboiled fiction.

Shell Scott had been a Marine during the war and he didn’t like it. He likes being a private detective. For one thing you get to meet lots of interesting women. Shell likes women a lot. And some of the women he meets are real friendly. Shell likes that.

Shell can handle himself pretty well and he can be a tough guy when it’s necessary but he doesn’t enjoy brutalising people. He’s no sadist. He has occasional outbursts of anger but he’s not a guy who likes to go looking for trouble. If trouble finds him then he deals with it. Mostly he has a cheerful outlook. He’s definitely not a psychologically tortured hero. And he likes fish. Tropical fish. He has tropical fish in his home and in his office. He’s not a Mike Hammer-style private eye. He’s also not a Philip Marlowe-style private eye. He’s not introspective. He just wants to make a living and enjoy life. He’s a very likeable hero. He also drives a canary-yellow ’41 Cadillac convertible, which he seems a bit embarrassed by. He’s not the world’s greatest detective and he doesn’t have unrealistic ideas about his own abilities.

There are some good action moments, especially the fight in the car.

It’s all wildly politically incorrect of course, which adds to the fun.

The details of the blackmail racket are very clever and original. Hollywood doesn’t just provide a glamorous background - the movie industry plays a key role in the plot.

Bodies in Bedlam is fast-paced fun with a nice mix of action and humour. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

H. Beam Piper’s Time Crime

H. Beam Piper’s short novel Time Crime was originally published in two parts in the February and March 1955 issues of Astounding Science Fiction.

H. Beam Piper (1904-1964) was an American writer of science fiction (and wrote in other genres as well).

The premise is definitely interesting. At some point in the distant future human society has entirely exhausted all the resources of Earth. Human civilisation would have been doomed but for a lucky discovery - the discovery of billions of parallel universes and, even more importantly, the development of technology to allow humans to move from one timeline to another. With all those worlds to exploit the future of humanity is guaranteed.

This human civilisation is essentially a parasite civilisation, exploiting the resources of other civilisations. It is however a mostly benign parasite civilisation - humans have learnt to keep their exploitation of other worlds within strict limits, and to limit their interference in those other worlds. Making sure that those limits are respected, and keeping the timeline-jumping capability a secret from those other civilisations, is the job of the Paratime Police.

Now there’s a problem. An officer from the Paratime Police has discovered a shipment of slaves in the Esaron Sector and those slaves are from a different timeline. Slavery is a local custom in that timeline so the Paratime Police aren’t worried about that issue but transposing people from one timeline to another is forbidden and is a major security problem. In fact it’s a crisis.

Verkan Vall is the timecop who has to get to the bottom of the situation. He gets valuable assistance from his wife Hadron Dalla (recruited as a temporary timecop). He soon finds that he’s uncovered a vast conspiracy and it has major political repercussions.

The crime investigation aspect of the story is handled reasonably well but it’s the central idea (and the detail with which it’s developed) that makes this novel worthwhile. Each timeline represents a different history of human civilisation on Earth, ranging from Stone Age cultures to fairly advanced civilisations.

Piper makes the exploration of alternate timelines as adventurous as other writers made the exploration of other planets. In the Paratime world human civilisation is limited to Earth, Mars and Venus with interstellar travel having apparently never been developed. But with billions of timelines to choose from humans have access to much wider frontiers than even interstellar travel could have offered and of course the advantage is that in every timeline Earth is an inhabitable planet.

Piper went on to write a number of other Paratime stories and novels.

Don’t expect any attempts at characterisation or any emotional sub-plots - this is classic ideas-driven golden age science fiction. What matters is whether the ideas are good enough, and in this case they are.

There is some action, including a full-scale planetary assault.

Apart from having several divisions of highly armed troops at their disposal the Paratime Police also have access to high-tech mind control technology - they can erase memories and create false memories. This adds an additional layer to the novel.

There’s an interesting amorality to this story - this is an unapologetically exploitative society in which cynicism, corruption, deception, manipulation and political repression are taken for granted. And these are the heroes of the story. They’re the good guys. The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys are better at lying and cheating. If you like idealism in your science fiction you won’t find any here.

Armchair Fiction have re-issued this book as part of their wonderful series of double-header paperbacks (this one has been paired with Leigh Brackett’s Last Call from Sector 9G).

Time Crime is a bit convoluted at times and it’s hard to keep track of the many characters since none of them has even a shred of personality and they all have similar sorts of names. It’s still recommended as an interesting early exploration of the infinite parallel universes idea.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Ian Fleming's Octopussy and The Living Daylights

When Ian Fleming died in 1964 he left behind one unfinished Bond novel (The Man with the Golden Gun of which he had only completed the first draft) and a few short stories that had not been collected in book form. The Man with the Golden Gun was published in 1965 and the following year Fleming’s publishers, Jonathan Cape, released Octopussy which contains two of the short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights. For the paperback edition another story, Property of a Lady (a story Fleming absolutely hated and was embarrassed by) was added. Much later editions included a fourth story, 007 in New York.

The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights was originally published in The Sunday Times colour supplement in early 1962. It’s an interesting story because it focuses almost entirely on Bond’s motivations and his feelings about his work. That’s not to say that it’s by any means plotless (and there is a very neat twist at the end) but the events of the plot are used to tell us something about Bond the man.

Bond has been given a new assignment and he’s very unhappy about it. A British spy, code-named 272, is making his escape from East Berlin. Unfortunately the East Germans know all about the escape attempt from a double agent (a double agent that the British discovered too late). 272 will have to cross an area of open ground to reach the border and it is certain that a KGB sniper will be there to kill him as he crosses that open ground. Bond’s job is to kill the KGB sniper first.

Bond can see that his job is necessary but it still seems to him to be too much like cold-blooded murder. And after all, that KGB sniper will simply be doing his duty by killing a dangerous enemy of the state, just as Bond will simply be doing his duty by killing the sniper.

Bond has three days to wait in Berlin. He spends those days desperately trying to keep occupied. He visits museums and art galleries. He visits the zoo. He amuses himself by watching (from his assassin’s perch) the young ladies in a women’s orchestra trooping in and out of the Ministry of Culture building just across the border. There’s a very pretty young lady ’cellist who catches his eye. She reminds Bond of the joys of life at a time when he is waiting to kill a man.

Bond decides that if he’s going to do this killing he’s going to have a very large Scotch first. His spotter, Captain Sender, gets all prissy about this and tells Bond he’s going to put him on report for drinking on the job. Bond expresses the hope that he will lose his Double-0 number as a result so he won’t have to do any more killing.

Sender represents a totally different approach to the job compared to Bond. Sender is the kind of man who loves following orders to the letter. Bond dislikes him intensely.

Much has been made of Bond’s sadism but this story shows a different side to his character. He can be ruthless but killing in cold blood really does affect him.

The Living Daylights could easily have been made into an episode of Callan. It has the same atmosphere of disillusionment.

The Property of a Lady

The Property of a Lady was written for Sotheby’s for their house journal and obviously they wanted an auction room story. The story concerns a double agent and a fabulously valuable Fabergé terrestrial globe about to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. In typical Fleming style the jewels being auctioned are described in loving detail.

But this is just a nothing story. It’s easy to see why Fleming considered it to be an abject failure. It’s just a way to pad out the collection. It would have been better to just forget this story which was what Fleming wanted to do.

007 in New York

007 in New York is a very short throwaway story (which was later incorporated into Fleming’s non-fiction book Thrilling Cities). It’s mostly just Bond’s impressions of New York - what he likes and dislikes about the city. There is a very very thin spy plot. Almost non-existent. You get one thing you don’t expect - a whimsical humorous ending. And you get James Bond’s recipe for scrambled eggs. It’s hardly a story at all, just a literary trifle, but it’s moderately diverting.

Octopussy

Fleming wasn’t entirely comfortable with the short story format and it didn’t really suit his talents as a writer. What he did do with some of his short stories was to take a less conventional approach compared to his novels. And that’s the case with Octopussy, written in early 1962. Bond is merely a peripheral character and the story would have worked perfectly well without him. Octopussy is the story of Major Dexter Smythe, described as the wreck of a Secret Service man.

Smythe’s utterly futile existence in Jamaica is divided between drinking too much and communing with his only real friends, the fish that live in the waters near his little estate. His favourite of all the marine creatures is an octopus he is trying to tame. He has christened her Octopussy. He hopes to find out what will happen if he can catch a scorpion fish for her. The scorpion fish is deadly to humans, but possibly not to an octopus.

Then a chap from the Ministry of Defence turns up. His name is Bond. James Bond. Smythe realises immediately that Bond is an MI6 man, and that means the game is up. His secret has been discovered. That’s very bad news but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Smythe has a bad heart and is living on borrowed time anyway (which of course was true of Ian Fleming in 1962).

Most of the story is a flashback to the end of the war, relating to certain events in the mountains of Austria. Those events have now caught up with Major Smythe.

It’s an odd story but an interesting one. Like Captain Sender in The Living Daylights Major Smythe is an example of a spy gone wrong. Sender is officious, petty and spiteful in a cowardly sort of way. Smythe was a decent enough chap who succumbed to temptation, which corrupted his soul. Octopussy is a study of the psychology of a spy gone to the bad.

Final Thoughts

Of the four stories here one is worthless and one is a mere piece of fluff. That leaves us with just two stories worthy of consideration, The Living Daylights and Octopussy. Are they good enough to make the book worth buying? I’d say yes, if you’re a hardcore Fleming fan and you’ve read all (or at least most) of the novels. Recommended, but read the novels first.

Monday, July 26, 2021

F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1937 mystery The Castle Island Case

F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1937 mystery The Castle Island Case belongs to a particularly fascinating sub-genre - the mystery novel with visual clues. It therefore has some affinity with some of the “murder dossier” mysteries of the time which included various visual or physical clues.

The Castle Island Case is a mystery that is profusely illustrated with photographs. Some or all of the photographs contain important clues.

Major Roger Allenby flies to Bermuda to conduct an investigation for an insurance company. A young woman named Judy Fortier (whose life was insured with the company) has apparently drowned and the circumstances suggest suicide. She seems to have jumped off a cliff into the sea. The sea was rough on that day, there was a dangerous rip tide and Judy was a poor swimmer. Her body was not found but she could hardly have survived.

The insurance company has no reason to suspect fraud but they are understandably not entirely happy about paying out on the policy in the absence of a body. Two other things concern them - there was no apparent motive for suicide and the young lady’s life was insured for a very large amount of money considering that she was only a secretary.

Judy had been Barney Grafton’s secretary and it had been assumed that he’d marry her, but then he married a wealthy New England socialite instead. Barbara Grafton is still fairly young and definitely glamorous, although tending to be just a little strait-laced. Grafton is planning a huge South American mining deal so Allenby’s cover is that he’s a retired banker looking to get in on a good deal.

Much of the action centres on the palatial home of Barney Grafton (Freebooters’ Hall), located on Plunder Island, an apparently mythical island (Bermuda consists of no less than 181 islands). So we have a typical golden age detective fiction setup with a relatively small group of suspects more or less isolated. In this case they’re not entirely isolated but it’s still safe to assume that the murderer has to be a member of Grafton’s household or one of his house guests. Grafton’s family consists of his wife Barbara, his beautiful daughter Gail and his young stepson Peter. Also present are young scientist Stanley Gibbons (who hopes to marry Gail), Judy Fortier’s sister Patricia, Barbara’s slightly dissolute brother Terry, financier C. Townley Ward and a pretty and bubble southern belle named Cora Sue. 

Later arrivals are English businessman Sir George Pakenham and the young and beautiful Kathleen Manship.

There are plenty of romantic entanglements among these people, providing potential motives for murder. Both the mining deal and the large policy on Judy Fortier’s life provide possible monetary motives. And there are secrets that need to be kept secret so fear could be a motive as well.

Allenby has an impressive reputation as an investigator but he really struggles with this case. He cannot prevent the second murder, nor the third.

Finally he comes up with an ingenious plan to trap the murderer (or murderess). Fittingly, his plan involves photographic trickery. This is a book that doesn’t involve clever murder methods (there’s nothing remotely impossible about any of the crimes) but it does include clever methods of detection. The photographic trick is just one of the tricks up Allenby’s sleeve.

There are also very clever coded messages. And there’s voodoo. As you would expect the crucial clues are almost all visual. There are no unbreakable alibis but Mason (like Allenby) has a few twists to pull on us.

The many many photographs included in the book give it just a bit of a documentary feel, and even a “true crime” feel. Many of the photographs are supposedly snapshots taken by Allenby (who doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty Leica camera). So we get the feeling that we really are seeing what Allenby sees.

We even get a kind of Challenge to the Reader when our attention is drawn to a small number of photographs that contain the really major clues. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what to look for. We might know, if we’ve been paying very close attention.

The use of photographs allows Mason to dispense with descriptive passages, Instead of telling us what Freebooters’ Hall look like we got a photo of the house. We don’t need to be told what the characters look like. We can see them in photographs. This means that the text section of the novel is very economical and the story moves along very quickly.

The publishers must have had high hopes for his book since they flew photographer Henry Clay Gipson and a whole gaggle of models to Bermuda for the photo shoot. Interestingly the models included crime writer C. Daly King and F. Van Wyck Mason himself.

One of the surprising things about this book is that one of the photographic clues is a nude photograph of a young woman. And she is entirely nude. Very daring for 1937, but then I guess the publishers figured that the whole point of the book was to attract attention so why not add a bit of nudity? The book is in fact rather on the racy side, with plenty of photos of the female characters in bathing suits and even engaged in some mildly sexual hijinks.

F. Van Wyck Mason was a very popular writer (in many genres) at the time. He was the author of the extremely successful and long-running series of Hugh North spy thrillers. They’re wonderfully entertaining and some of them are in fact closer to being detective novels than spy novels, an example being the excellent The Fort Terror Murders. Equally good are The Branded Spy Murders, The Budapest Parade Murders (which combine both genres) and The Singapore Exile Murders. Mason was a very popular writer (in many other genres as well) at the time.

The Castle Island Case is an interesting experiment that, surprisingly, works pretty well. It doesn’t come across as mere gimmickry. There’s a pretty decent plot and the photos give it a very distinctive feel. It’s definitely worth getting for its historical value as an experiment but it’s a satisfying and very enjoyable mystery as well. Highly recommended.

The good news is that used copies are available but the bad news is that they’re not cheap.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Fletcher Flora's Killing Cousins

Killing Cousins
is a 1961 novel by Fletcher Flora which fits at least vaguely into the noir pulp style of the time.

Fletcher Flora (1914-1968) was an American crime writer. He wrote about nineteen novels. Apart from the fact that he was born in Kansas and served in the military during World War 2 I know nothing about him.

Willie Hogan lives with her husband Howard in Ouichita Road in the town of Quivera. It’s a neighbourhood that has a trace of gentility gone slightly to seed. It’s still a lot better than the neighbourhood she grew up in. The marriage is not startlingly happy or unhappy from Willie’s point of view. Her main complaint is that Howard can be a bit tiresome about her infidelities. Such as the time he came home early and caught her in bed with Evan Spooner. That was just typical of Howard’s thoughtlessness. And Howard has been getting tiresome again about her affair with his cousin Quincy.

These are however minor irritations. Willie can live with these things. But when Howard threatens to leave her, that’s a different matter. Willie likes living in Ouichita Road and being a member of the Country Club and having nice clothes and all the other things that make life pleasant. Especially the Country Club. There are plenty of nice men to sleep with at the Country Club. How is she supposed to maintain this lifestyle without Howard? It doesn’t bear thinking about it. So it isn’t really her fault that she become so upset that she shot Howard.

But now Howard is a big problem. Instead of coming up with a good story right away, such as a burglar shooting Howard, she went to sleep and forget about it until the next morning. But how Howard is still there and he’s dead. Which is typical of his lack of consideration for her. Fortunately Quincy agrees to help her out.

Quincy is a cheerfully amoral sort of guy. Covering up a murder sounds to him like an amusing thing to do. And it’s a challenge worthy of his cleverness. Quincy is a very clever guy.

Quincy is tempted by the idea of coming up with an elaborate plan to dispose of Howard but he has the strong impression that people who do such things in elaborate ways tend to get caught. A good simple plan would be better. The important thing is that it should be thought out carefully and executed just as carefully.

Of course there are little unexpected things that go wrong when you’re trying to cover up a murder but in this case they seem pretty minor. There’s no reason to panic.

Even when Lieutenant Elgin Necessary (yes that’s the cop’s name) starts asking questions it’s no real problem. Necessary is sure it’s just a case of a husband walking out on a wife. He’s not really suspicious at all.

This is not really a hardboiled story at all. Quincy is amoral but he’s not in any sense a tough guy. Willie is selfish and shallow but she’s no spider woman. She just wants an unpleasant situation to go away. Lieutenant Necessary is no hardbitten cop. He’s a nice guy.

There’s a definite touch of Hitchcockian black comedy to this novel, which is no coincidence. Flora wrote a lot of stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and a lot of his stories are to be found in the various Alfred Hitchcock mystery fiction anthologies. He was clearly a writer very much in tune with the style of whimsical black comedy that was so characteristically Hitchcockian (and especially the style of Hitchcock’s TV anthology series). This book has the same kinds of amusingly ironic twists that there such a feature of that series, and it has the same slightly tongue-in-cheek tone. And the final twist is amusing.

Killing Cousins is murder as lighthearted witty entertainment which pretty much excludes this book from consideration as noir fiction. The content is such that it could have been noir, but it’s too whimsical to be genuine noir. This is murder as one of those awkward social necessities, a tiresome business like having to pay your taxes.

It is however a thoroughly enjoyable read and is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Laurence Meynell's The Frightened Man

The Frightened Man is a 1952 Hooky Heffernan private eye novel by Laurence Meynell.

Laurence Meynell (1899-1989) was a British writer and he was one of those writers who had a long and successful career only to have his books disappear into oblivion after his death. He wrote at least 150 books in various genre. His detective fiction included the series of Hooky Heffernan private eye mystery thrillers.

Business hasn’t been too good for our narrator, Hooky Heffernan, and his betting on the ponies hasn’t been too successful recently either. He is therefore very happy when a client turns up. A thin rather owlish individual named Edward Ryder. Ryder’s problem is that he needs to stay alive until the following Friday. Obviously he’d like to stay alive after that as well, but surviving until Friday is the immediate priority.

Ryder is a high school science teacher and part-time inventor and he’s come up with an invention that he thinks is pretty exciting. It could revolutionise the textile industry. He’s a clever chap when it comes to science but a bit of an innocent when it comes to dealing with the world. It never occurred to him that there might be powerful interest groups that don’t want the textile industry revolutionised because they’re doing very nicely as it is. Now Ryder suspects that some such group is determined to stop him from developing his invention any further. They’re prepared to take drastic steps to stop him. They’ve already tried to kidnap him.

Hooky thinks of himself as a pretty hardboiled character but he really doesn’t like powerful people who want to push around innocents like Edward Ryder. Hooky takes the case.

Hooky’s first lead comes from the boarding house where Ryder lives. The landlady, Mrs Malden, denies that any such person has ever lived there. Now Hooky is really interested. He picks up some more pointers from two women who seem to be involved in the case but in ways that are not at all clear to our hero. There’s Joyce Malden, the step-daughter of the landlady, and there’s Ann Deighton. Ann is hopelessly in love with Ryder which is awkward since she’s married. Both of these women have connections to men who may also have some interest in Edward Ryder’s future. And a third woman will later make her appearance, to make things a bit more difficult for Hooky.

It doesn’t take Hooky too long to get a pretty fair idea of what’s going on, his main problem being that there are some nasty types conspiring against poor Ryder and there are lots of people mixed up in the scheme whom Hooky may or may not be able to trust. And time is not on his side.

This is a book that is somewhat franker about sexual matters than you might expect in 1952.

It also has some of the disillusioned postwar British austerity atmosphere that is rather interesting. There’s lots of financial deprivation even for the lower middle class and lots of everyday items that are simply unobtainable. Hooky fondly remembers the days when one could actually buy cheese. There’s also a rather stifling social atmosphere. Meynell indulges just a little in subtle but not too intrusive social commentary. Social commentary is something I generally dislike, mostly because it’s usually badly done. In this book however it really is unobtrusive and it’s integrated into the plot. If you must do social commentary this is the way to do it.

The characters have some complexity. They have plausible motivations and on the whole behave like real people. Even when they do irrational things they do irrational things that are in character. The two major female characters have surprising depth.

Hooky Heffernan is an engaging hero. He’s a slightly irresponsible chap who spends too much time in bars, betting on horses and chasing women. He’s nowhere near as hardboiled as he likes to imagine. He’s genuinely fascinated by people and he has a certain basic decency. He’s a bit of a rough diamond but he’s likeable and amusing.

I love the cover of the 1950s Fontana paperback edition. It suggests a steamy potboiler containing existential despair, torrid romance and maybe even a bit of sleazy sex. But it’s not that kind of book at all.

In the 1950s this is the sort of book you’d have picked up a railway bookstall. It would have provided not-too-demanding entertainment to enliven a dull train journey and by the next day you’d have largely forgotten it. But the next time you had to take a train journey you’d quite happily buy another of his books.

This is a thriller rather than a mystery and the plot is not exactly bursting with originality or inspiration. It’s best described as serviceable. Meynell’s style is bright and breezy, moderately hardboiled in an English sort of way and with some dashes of humour. The main interest in reading this book is that it’s the kind of competently executed harmless entertainment low-key thriller that was so typical of its time. I must admit that I rather enjoyed it. Recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Jack Williamson's The Alien Intelligence

The Alien Intelligence is a short novel by American science fiction writer Jack Williamson (1908-2006). The title suggests some kind of first contact or alien invasion story but this story in fact belongs to the lost world or lost civilisation genre, a genre to which I’m peculiarly addicted. The Alien Intelligence was published in the July and August 1929 issues of the Pulp Wonder Stories making this one of his very very early published works.

A young American doctor named Fowler has travelled to Perth, Australia to begin his medical practice. On the voyage to Australia he had befriended an older man, Dr Horace Austen, a radiologist, archaeologist and explorer.

Austen departs for the arid wastes on the Great Victoria Desert in search of the Mountains of the Moon about which he seems to have some theories. Nothing is heard from Austen for months until a radio message is picked up. The message is cryptic but it is clear to Fowler that his friend is in need of assistance. Being an adventurous young man Fowler sets off for the Mountains of the Moon to find the things referred to in that odd radio message - the ladder, the Silver Lake and Melvar of the Crystal City. He takes several guns and an enormous supply of ammunition with him, and he’ll need them.

Fowler finds the ladder which allows him to ascend an otherwise unclimbable pinnacle of rock. He discovers the nature of the Mountains of the Moon - a vast crater many miles in diameter, the bottom of the crater lying well below sea level.

He encounters the terrifying red streaks of light which seem to be searching the crater, and he finds that in the middle of the crater is a city atop a vast pinnacle of rock. It is the crystal city of Astran, built of diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Astran is inhabited by fair-skinned fair-haired people who seem strangely primitive. Despite living in a city that is clearly evidence of a very advanced civilisation they do not even seem to have mastered the art of kindling fire.

He meets the beautiful blonde Melvar, a young woman who seems to posses an intelligence and nobility of spirit far above that of most of her people. But Fowler and Melvar are in great danger in Astran, having aroused the wrath of the priests. They flee the city to go in search of Horace Austen and to solve the mysteries of the fluorescent Silver Lake, the Purple Ones and those terrifying bars of red light.

There are plenty of mysteries for Fowler to solve. Are the people of Astran the decadent descendants of a once-great civilisation or was Astran built by some other civilisation? How many other civilisations inhabit the great crater? Why does the Silver Lake bring death? How many of the wonders of this land (such as the pillar of silver in the sky) are natural phenomena? Is Fowler right in suspecting that he’s in the presence of both great intelligence and great evil? Is this intelligence human, is it a thing of this earth, is it something supernatural or unfathomably alien?

Of course there’s romance as well as adventure. Fowler falls hopelessly in love with Melvar.

This is the work of a very young man but it has the imaginative sweep and epic qualities that make Jack Williamson’s 1930s space operas so entertaining.

Fowler is a typical adventure story hero, brave and determined and with a strong streak of idealism. Melvar is a pretty typical heroine - she’s sweet and gentle but she’s resourceful and she learns to handle a gun rather skilfully.

This short novel obeys most of the conventions of the lost world genre (which were well and truly established by this time) but gives them a bit of a science fictional twist. Setting the story in Australia rather than South America or Africa or Asia was a nice touch.

The lost world genre was extraordinarily popular from 1882 (when H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon's Mines) until the 1930s. It gradually faded because, unfortunately, there were no longer any unexplored parts of the globe left to make such stories plausible. This has in my opinion left a tragic gap in the human imagination. Somehow science fiction tales of adventures on other planets have never quite managed to fill the gap. We lost something precious when the planet ceased to have unexplored corners.

The Alien Intelligence is an impressive effort by a 21-year-old writer and it’s a fine tale of adventure. Recommended, and if you’re a lost world fan I’d be inclined to bump it up into the highly recommended category.

Armchair Fiction have paired this title with Into the Fourth Dimension by Ray Cummings in a two-novel paperback edition.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Alexander Wilson’s Wallace of the Secret Service

Alexander Wilson’s Wallace of the Secret Service was published in 1933. It’s a collection of short stories and it even includes a locked-room mystery.

Writers of spy fiction are often colourful personalities and many have been actual spies or intelligence officers (Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming). The most colourful of them all was perhaps Alexander Wilson (1893-1963). Wilson wrote nine very successful spy novels during the 1920s and 1930s. Wilson was married four times but the problem was that he had four wives all at the same time. He served two terms of imprisonment for fraud. He was also a British spy, either for a brief period or a very long period depending on whether one believes Wilson’s own account or the account of others.

He certainly worked for MI6 from 1939 to 1942 at which time he was dismissed for concocting false reports. Wilson claimed that in fact he was still working for MI6 under deep cover and that he continued to be an agent for many years. MI5’s files on Wilson are still classified.

Wilson’s spy thrillers recount the adventures of Sir Leonard Wallace, a war hero (he has an artificial arm as a result of a daring attempt to destroy a U-boat base in Dorset) and now head of the Secret Service. He’s not the kind of man to just stay in his office and send agents out on missions. He undertakes most of the missions himself.

Wallace of the Secret Service is actually a short story collection. 1933 was an interesting time for a spy thriller to be written. Nazi Germany was not yet a threat. Relations with fascist Italy were still friendly. The Soviet Union was definitely seen as a threat and Bolshevism as an extreme threat. To Wilson it was obvious that the British Labour Party was basically Bolshevik and socialist revolution might come at any moment.

There were also plenty of reasons to fear for the future of the British Empire. As a result these stories have a rather different feel from later spy stories focused on Nazis and Reds. In some ways they have more of a pre-WW1 feel (similar to the spy stories of the era written by people like E. Phillips Oppenheim and William le Queux).

Given the later sorry history of Soviet infiltration of MI6 (for who Wilson certainly worked at some stage) it’s a fascinating detail that in one of the stories Sir Leonard Wallace covers up evidence that one of his men is a traitor, to avoid a scandal.

Wilson definitely belongs more to the Bulldog Drummond tradition of spy fiction than to the psychologically complex morally ambiguous school of spy fiction that started to emerge in the 30s with Writers like Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Somerset Maugham. Wilson is content to have his heroes be noble and heroic and generally perfect and his bad guys be dastardly melodrama villains. Which is OK, I can enjoy both schools of spy fiction. There’s lots of jingoism which can be amusing. You can generally assume that the villains will be beastly foreigners but to his credit Wilson does pull off the occasional surprise.

It has to be admitted that the plots are pretty basic. Of course these are short stories but even so they lack the ingenious plot twists that you hope for in spy fiction. Wilson’s novels are stronger - in his novels such as The Mystery of Tunnel 51 and The Devil’s Cocktail he manages to sustain the outrageousness and the fun more successfully.

In the first story, Out of the Land of Egypt, Wallace is up against extreme Egyptian nationalists who want the British out of their country. Wallace has to get hold of their plans for a rising.

In Bound in Morocco an Italian prince is kidnapped and held captive in Morocco. Not for ransom but for political reasons. Wallace will have to rescue him but first he has to find him.

Sentiment and Suicide is the locked-room mystery. A British scientist is found shot to death in his laboratory. The only access to the laboratory is through two doors, one of them a hefty steel door. There are no windows. The steel door is locked from the inside and the only key is in the professor’s pocket. The scientist has developed a poison gas so lethal it could wipe out all living things. Naturally that’s no problem as long as the British Government controls it but what if it fell into the hands of foreigners? And now it appears that foreign agents have managed to get their hands on the formula. OK, it’s not one of the great locked-room mysteries but is is interesting to see how popular such mysteries were in the early 30. It’s an improvement on the first two stories, with a more ambitious plot.

Russian Hospitality involves a dastardly Bolshevik plot against the British army. Wallace has one of his men go undercover as a communist rabble-rouser but will he able to fool the Soviet masterspy Lavinsky? This one involves a battle of wits between Lavinsky and Wallace with both men believing they have the upper hand. It’s not too bad.

Things start to get really far-fetched and outrageous with A Soviet Dinner Party. Wallace tries to infiltrate a secret meeting in Moscow and ends up holding Lenin hostage! It’s all very silly but it’s exciting in its own way.

A Greek Tragedy is a rather curious tale of intrigue. Wallace discovers that the British Ambassador to Turkey has been murdered. He also discovers the reason why but what should he do about it? It could all be very embarrassing and unpleasant, for the British, the Greeks and the Turks. This is the first story in the collection which is not a straightforward good vs evil story which makes it an interesting departure.

In Brien Averts a War Major Brien (Wallace’s second-in-command at the Secret Service) obtains some letters exchanged between two French politicians, letters which could easily start a war. And there are desperate men determined to get hold of those letters, if necessary by striking at Wallace’s family.

In East is East Wallace has to infiltrate Gandhi’s ashram in India to find out what mischief the Congress party is plotting. The very idea of Indian independence was of course quite unthinkable to Wilson. This is by far the weakest story in the collection, a story which manages to be completely unbelievable and completely uninteresting because nothing really happens.

The Poisoned Plane is a much better story. An envoy has been despatched to Britain from the King of Afghanistan, bearing proposals for an alliance. There are reasons to believe that attempts will be made to prevent the envoy from reaching his destination. Major Brien is given the job of escorting him. There are aerial chases, poison gas attacks, sinister dwarves, a battle at sea and all kinds of skullduggery. It’s all delirious fun and a rather exciting story. In fact it’s the best story in the collection.

In It Happened in Capri plans for a new naval gun have been stolen by a master criminal. Wallace has to get them back but he has to do it without fuss. It’s a fairly routine story.

Overall Wallace of the Secret Service is a bit disappointing. I wouldn’t write Wilson off but I also wouldn’t recommend this short story collection as a starting point. This one is for Sir Leonard Wallace completists. But the novels are worth a look.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Nail Murders

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat, orientalist scholar and writer whose first literary endeavour was his translation into English of the 18th century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An. Published as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee in 1949 it was a major success. The Chinese novel had been based on the career of the famous real life magistrate and statesman of the Tang Dynasty Dee Jen-djieh (630-700). The success of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee inspired van Gulik to try his hand at a series of detective novels featuring Judge Dee. His idea was to keep as much of the flavour of traditional Chinese detective fiction as possible (such as the device of having Judge Dee working on three more or less unrelated cases simultaneously) while making his books more palatable for modern readers by largely dropping the supernatural elements.

The fifth of van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels was The Chinese Nail Murders, published in 1961. Dee has just been appointed magistrate of Pei-chow in northern China. In Imperial China the magistrate acted as a combination of judge, jury, district attorney and police detective. As usual Dee is assisted by the faithful Sergeant Hoong and his three underlings Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan (all reformed criminals).

And as usual Judge Dee has three cases to deal with, the most troubling being the discovery of the headless body of a woman. The woman’s husband has been accused of her murder. Judge Dee always pays close attention to the scene of a crime and he finds a number of puzzling items.

There is also the disappearance of a young woman in broad daylight. While his investigations into the first two cases are still proceeding the third case comes along, the poisoning murder of a very respected citizen. He may have left a very cryptic (and clever) dying clue.

There are some tenuous links between at least two of the cases. There’s also a minor case involving blackmail and two girls sold into prostitution which sheds unexpected light on one of the main cases. Of course it’s possible that other links between the three cases may come to light.

Judge Dee and his assistants undertake their investigations in a rigorous and logical manner. Autopsies are performed. Care is taken that crime scenes are not prematurely disturbed and the crime scenes are thoroughly searched for clues. Witnesses are interviewed. All possible leads, no matter how irrelevant they might seem, are followed up. Most importantly Judge Dee does not jump to conclusions. He is very much aware that things are not always exactly how they seem to be. In other words the novel can be seen as a kind of police procedural.

While the Dee Goong An was set in the days of the Tang Dynasty, in the seventh century, it was written a thousand years later and the historical background was a mixture of various time periods. In his Judge Dee novels van Gulik was also not overly concerned to get the historical details of the Tang period absolutely correct although he was certainly knowledgeable enough about Chinese history to have done so. He wanted to preserve the same mixture of elements of different historical eras that he had found in the Dee Goong An.

Chinese detective tales often had very strong supernatural elements, with vital evidence being provided by the testimony of ghosts. Van Gulik realised that modern readers of detective stories would be alienated by such devices but at the same time he was writing about historical periods in which the supernatural was taken for granted. In The Chinese Nail Murders Judge Dee discovers that sorcery is still practised in Pei-chow. This plays no actual rôle in the story but does add a hint of an exotic flavour. There is a kind of prologue however which contains much stronger hints of the supernatural.

Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels were detective fiction but they were also historical fiction. There is absolutely no point in an author’s writing historical fiction unless he makes a genuine attempt to convey the differentness of the historical period he has chosen. If the characters are just 21st century characters wearing historical costumes the whole thing is a waste of time. Which is why it is no longer possible to write historical fiction. Today publishers insist that the characters must be 21st century characters with 21st century attitudes, values and social and sexual mores. In the 1950s and 1960s it was however still possible to attempt actual historical fiction and van Gulik does make a genuine attempt to convince us that we are reading about a different culture in which people really do have beliefs, values and social and sexual mores that are sharply differentiated from ours.

In The Chinese Nail Murders we encounter a system of criminal justice that is in its own way efficient and just but there are certain things that Judge Dee takes for granted that would hardly be accepted today - such as flogging uncooperative witnesses. And a key point in the novel hinges on a very dramatic difference between the Imperial Chinese legal system and modern systems (although I can’t offer you any hint as to what that difference is without revealing a vital spoiler). Judge Dee can be merciful but he can also be (to modern ways of thinking) extraordinarily severe. And even his ideas on being merciful will seem alien in many ways.

Judge Dee is a devoted family man and loves all three of his wives. He loves them in his own peculiar unsentimental way. For Dee everything comes down to duty - duty to family, to one’s ancestors and to the Imperial Government. Personal happiness is of little importance. Dee is not bothered by prostitution but he is shocked and enraged by the thought of a man having sex with his fiancée before the wedding.

Van Gulik took many of his plot elements from ancient case-books or from traditional Chinese detective stories and he very deliberately tried to emulate the style and structure of those stories although adapted to modern tastes (Chinese detective stories were usually inverted mysteries but van Gulik preferred the more conventional western method of concealing the murderer’s identity until the end and he tried to make his novels as fair-play as he could). The somewhat sparse and formal style of his novels is a conscious choice.

The Chinese Nail Murders offers much to enjoy - three clever murder plots, an exotic setting, a unique detective hero and a glimpse into a very different culture. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Seabury Quinn’s The Dark Angel

The Dark Angel is a collection of tales by Seabury Quinn that were published in Weird Tales in the early 1930s. It includes his short novel The Devil’s Bride.

Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) was an American pulp writer who enjoyed considerable success. In fact in the 1920s and 30s he was the most popular of all the Weird Tales writers. His reputation did not last. While his fellow Weird Tales writers like H.P. Lovecraft Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have gained at least a limited degree of literary respectability Quinn is still (for the most part) reviled as one of the kinds of hack writer who gave the pulps a bad name.

That’s a bit unfair. Quinn had no literary pretensions whatsoever. He wrote to earn money. To achieve the success that he did achieve he needed to have a very sound instinct for what would work in commercial terms and he most certainly did have that instinct. He wrote commercially oriented pulp fiction and he wrote it very well.

His tales of occult detective Jules de Grandin (with an American doctor named Trowbridge acting as his Watson) are immense fun but they’re also very clever.

Jules de Grandin is a bit like Hercule Poirot if you can imagine Poirot on crystal meth. He’s a wildly over-the-top character, insanely self-confident and utterly unstoppable and remorseless in his pursuit of those who use occult powers for evil.

The Lost Lady is a tale of the East. More specifically it has its origins in French Indo-China. It involves a woman from the East, but not of the East. In involves evil and it involves power but it is the belief in evil and in power that matters. Actually it involves several women, one of whom is (or was) a Khmer temple-slave but she is European, not Khmer.

White slavery was an immensely popular subject at the time (with plenty of salacious potential) but this is not an ordinary story of white slavery. It does however have lots of salacious content.

The Ghost Helper is obviously a ghost story and it’s quite a good one. We start with a married couple and there is obviously some tension between them. Jules de Grandin and his friend Dr Trowbridge are then called in to treat the wife who seems to have been terrified by something. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to reveal that there really is a ghost but it’s the motives of the ghost that are important. A good story.

In Satan’s Stepson an old foe of de Grandin’s returns and he faces a new and even more terrifying foe. It is a tale of a man and a woman who both cheat death, but in very different ways. And it is a tale of a monster, partly human and partly diabolical, not a vampire but just as monstrous. It is a tale of an evil that can only be destroyed in a very specific way. And it is a tale of espionage as well. This is Quinn at his best, superbly inventive and energetic. A very good story.

The Dark Angel involves a series of murders, apparently carried out by an angel of Satan. Jules de Grandin finds that are all kinds of evil in the world and evil is not always where you expect it to be. This one is a bit too obvious but it’s OK.

There’s murder at the ballet in The Heart of Siva. Someone is trying to prevent the Issatakko Ballet Russe from presenting their latest somewhat outrageous production and the motivations could be religious. There’s some decent suspense in this one, some gruesomeness and some sleaze and of course hints of sinister eastern conspiracies and secret societies. And some real creepiness. These are the kinds of things Quinn did well and it’s a very good story.

In The Bleeding Mummy de Grandin and Trowbridge are called to the home of archaeologist Professor Larson, to find that Larson has suffered a grisly and terrifying death. He had been in the process of unwrapping a mummy he had brought back from Egypt. His is just the latest in a series of deaths associated wth his most recent expedition. The first mystery that Jules de Grandin must solve is the manner of the professor’s death but there is another much more ancient mystery to be solved as well. This is a rather scary story and a clever one as well.

The Door to Yesterday deals with a series of mysterious deaths, horrors from the past, a giant snake, voodoo and an interesting take on haunted houses. You can’t go wrong with those ingredients and I’m especially find of voodoo tales so for me this story was definitely a winner.

A Gamble in Souls is one of the cleverer stories in the collection. For some reason de Grandin and Trowbridge pay a visit to the penitentiary, or more specifically to Death Row, and witness a heart-breaking scene. A woman named Beth is saying farewell to the man she loves, a man named Lonny who is to be executed next day. A few hours later de Grandin and Trowbridge encounter the woman again. She is about to commit suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. While they try to dissuade her from suicide she pours out her tragic story. Lonny is innocent. The murder of which he was convicted was carried out by his brother Larry. But Beth is married to Larry and cannot testify against him, and therefore there is no way to save Lonny from the executioner.

The case is so hopeless that even Jules de Grandin is powerless - unless perhaps his old friend Hussein Obeyid can do something to save Lonny. De Grandin has seen Obeyid do many seemingly impossible things. Obeyid thinks that he may be able to help although he can make no guarantees that such a fantastic scheme will work. And it is a fantastic scheme. A very good story.

In The Thing in the Fog two young men are attacked in the city by a huge dog. One is killed, the other seriously hurt and would have been slain had Jules de Grandin not happened to be on the scene. The attack happened at night, in thick fog. The injured young man’s fiancée Sallie is of course dreadfully upset and tells de Grandin a strange story that confirms the Frenchman’s suspicion that they are not dealing with a dog but a werewolf. And this young lady may well be tainted by lycanthropy as well.

Quinn gives his own rather interesting spins to werewolf lore - you don’t need silver bullets to kill a werewolf and the curse of lycanthropy can be transmitted in many ways. These variations on standard werewolf lore are the highlight of the story.

De Grandin has an added incentive in this adventure - Sallie and her young man wish to worry and being a Frenchman de Grandin is determined to see young love triumph. But can the taint of lycanthropy be removed from Sallie? This is a fairly entertaining werewolf tale.

The Hand of Glory is the final story in the collection. The hand of glory itself (the hand of a condemned murderer which was supposed to have magical powers) plays only a minor part in the story. It’s a tale of the old gods (or in this case the old goddesses) exercising their evil powers. Not a bad story but nothing special.

This collection also includes the short novel The Devil’s Bride which I’d already read and which I reviewed here a few years back.

Summing Up

There’s no sense in trying to claim that Seabury Quinn was the equal of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith or Robert E. Howard. He clearly wasn’t. But he knew how to assemble the right ingredients for a pulp story and he knew how to cook up those ingredients into a good entertaining tale. This collection is on the whole pretty enjoyable. Recommended.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Gil Brewer's The Three-Way Split

The Three-Way Split is a 1960 pulp noir title by Gil Brewer.

Gil Brewer (1922-1983) was an American pulp writer who started out with literary aspirations which he could never quite let go of. He enjoyed considerable success in the 50s churning out paperback originals for Gold Medal. By the end of the decade things had started to fall apart for him. He was drinking heavily and in 1964 he had a major breakdown. His established markets were drying up. He survived, just barely, writing for men’s magazines and doing novelisations of TV series but alcohol and money problems haunted him for the rest of his life and his writing career was one long downhill slide.

The Three-Way Split comes right at the end of his golden decade.

Jack Holland ekes out a living in Florida taking drunken tourists on fishing trips in his boat. He has a girl, Sally, and they’re madly in love and want to get married but Jack thinks they need to wait until he has enough money. Sally suspects that he never will make money and should look for a regular job but that would mean giving up on his dreams although Jack doesn’t really have a clear idea what those dreams are.

Then two things happen. One of them might finally give him hope. He knows that the other will mean nothing but trouble. The hopeful thing is that he finds a wreck. A really old one that nobody has ever found before because it’s only now become visible after a hurricane swept away the sand in which it was buried. A wreck could mean treasure.

The bad thing is that his father turns up. Sam Holland must be in trouble yet again otherwise he wouldn’t be turning up in Florida. This time it seems that Sam has landed himself in really big trouble, since someone has sent a guy to kill him.

The problem with treasure-hunting is that it costs money. Jack’s pal Mike is an ex-Navy diver and he has an old diving suit but Mike’s too old to dive now. Jack’s never done more than skin-diving. The wreck is at least a hundred feet down and Jack has never done that kind of diving. It’s a job that requires more than two men but but if they tell anyone then there’ll be hordes of treasure-hunters but with more money and better equipment. For Mike and Jack to do the job alone would be crazy but what choice do they have? Of course they don’t know that there’s actually any treasure. The wreck could be a Spanish galleon and there might be gold, or there might not be. Jack desperately needs to believe that there is gold there.

And if Jack’s father finds out he’ll want to be in on the action. Mike’s a straight arrow, and So is Jack in his way. But Jack’s father Sam Holland is a grifter and a crook and a gambler and Mike isn’t going to want anything to do with a man like that. Jack’s big chance has come at last (or so he believes) and his father is going to ruin it the way he’s ruined everything else in his life.

There’s also the matter of the guy sent to kill Sam Holland. And Jack’s relationship with Sally is problematic. Sally’s sister Vivian is likely to be a problem as well.

The climax of course comes out in the Gulf, diving for that treasure but there’s more than money at stake. There’s survival.

There’s a good tight noir plot here but it’s the characters that make it interesting. Jack despises his father and while they’re very different men (Jack is honest and decent while Sam is twisted and worthless) there are some similarities. They’re both looking for one big score. Jack wants it to be honest, that’s the only difference. Jack is no more capable of holding down a steady job and being a steady solid citizen than his father. They’re both unrealistic dreamers. They both want easy money.

There’s also a similar contrast between the two sisters, Sally and Vivian. Sally is the good girl although she’s no plaster saint - she’s driven almost crazy with her physical lust for Jack. Vivian is the bad sister. Vivian doesn’t have a problem with lust because she always gives in to it. As with Jack and Sam they’re the good side and the bad side of the same personality.

Jack is a genuine noir hero. He’s a good man but with weaknesses. He’s a decent guy but he’s desperate. He needs that treasure. What will a man do for that sort of money? And what would Sam do for that sort of money? Sam is a bad man but is there any good still left in him?

The Three-Way Split is fast-moving action, perhaps more adventure noir than straightforward crime noir although there are certainly crimes committed. It’s not one of the great noir titles but it’s solid entertainment. Recommended.

I reviewed another Gil Brewer novel, The Vengeful Virgin, a long while back.