Monday, February 22, 2021

Ray Gaulden’s Rita

Ray Gaulden’s Rita is a 1959 noir novel with perhaps just a very slight hint of sleaze.

Ray Gaulden (1914-1986) was a very obscure American writer of pulpy crime novels and westerns.

Rita begins with Joe Duncan, a man on the run. His real name is Harry Myers and he is a very bitter man. His partner not only cheated him but stole his wife as well. Harry got his revenge by cleaning out the safe at his partner’s casino in Reno. Harry has now changed his name to Joe Duncan and he’s headed somewhere he thinks will be safe. It’s a sleepy little Californian fishing town called Salmona which he remembers from childhood vacations. With the hundred grand in his suitcase Harry can make a new life there.

When he gets there he finds that Salmona has changed. It’s now a miserable brutal town dominated by the vicious Gale brothers - the corrupt police chief Ollie and his psychotically violent brother Brice.

Joe made the mistake of picking up a hitch-hiker on the road to Salmona. Rita Gale is a pretty 25-year-old but she turns out to be big trouble. On arrival Rita’s brother Brice Gale gives Joe a savage beating just for the hell of it. The worst part of it is that the Gales have a pretty shrewd idea that Joe is the guy who just skipped from Reno with $100,000 in stolen money. Joe knows that the Gales are not interested in arresting him - they just want that money.

Joe can’t trust either brother and he especially can’t trust Rita. But Rita is disturbingly seductive.

Maybe he can trust Dr Howard but the doctor and his wife have their own troubles. Doc Howard is the only man in the town not afraid of the Gales but the doctor is a sick old man.

Joe has managed to hide the money but he knows the Gales are not going to let him leave town and they’re not going to let up on him. They’d kill Joe to get that hundred grand. Joe has some stark choices. Maybe the least worst choice would be to trust Rita. That would be a dumb move, but whatever move he makes he’s probably going to lose.

Joe is your classic noir protagonist. He’s not really a bad guy but he’s made some stupid mistakes and he’s been naïve and now he’s trapped. Maybe Rita is trapped as well. Maybe there’s some decency in her, maybe she’s crazy and desperate to get out of the hellhole that Salmona has become or maybe she’s the femme fatal who will lure Joe to destruction. There are a lot of maybes and Joe is badly out of his depth.

Doc Howard is a good man but he’s twisted up inside having never recovered from he death of his first wife and he doesn’t think too clearly anymore. He wants to do the right thing but how much can a sick old man do? His second wife Fay is pretty twisted up as well, thinking she may have a mistake in marrying him.

Ollie and Brice on the other hand are pretty much simple villains. Ollie is fat and lazy but he’s greedy and corrupt. Brice is a time bomb about to go off, his violence spiralling more and more out of control. The Gales used to be rich but they’re not rich any longer and that’s made them a whole lot meaner.

Salmona is a nightmare town, a town of desperation and fear. The townspeople are being squeezed between a big combine that now controls the fishing industry and the viciousness of the Gales. Everybody knows that the town has become a hell on earth but nobody has the courage to do anything about it.

This is pure pulp stuff and it’s a little on the trashy side but it has plenty of pure noir atmosphere and plenty of noir desperation. It has characters who are trapped animals, wanting to escape but not knowing which way to run.

Rita is actually a fairly effective little noir potboiler. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Christopher St John Sprigg's The Corpse with the Sunburned Face

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face, published in 1935, is one of the handful of detective novels written by Christopher St John Sprigg before his death at the age of twenty-nine in the Spanish Civil War. He was also a noted Marxist theoretician (using the pseudonym Christopher Caudwell for his political writings) although there’s virtually no political content in his detective stories.

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face opens in the sleepy Berkshire village of Little Whippering with the arrival of a man named O’Leary. O’Leary rents a cottage just outside the village and lives a life of seclusion, driving off well-meaning callers with the aid of a shotgun and a savage dog. Since they know nothing about him the villagers engage is a great deal of thoroughly enjoyable speculation, the most popular theories being that he is a murderer on the run or a miser guarding his hoard.

Another stranger arrives, a black-bearded man, who is shortly afterwards found dead in the neighbouring village of Abingdon. O’Leary (very much alive) is found in the room with the dead man but it appears to be an obvious case of suicide. Inspector Gregson doesn’t buy the suicide idea at all. There are too many odd circumstances. Most local policemen (in detective stories anyway) are very reluctant to have the Yard called in but Inspector Gregson persuades his chief to do so immediately. Inspector Campbell, a Scot (as is Gregson), takes charge.

There are lots of colourful complications. O’Leary had recently returned from West Africa where he had served a prison term for attempting (with two confederates) to steal the treasure of the Kingdom of Balooma. The dead man (who rejoiced in the name of George Crumbles) had also been involved in that escapade. And there’s another dead man, back in West Africa.

There are also the two boarders recently taken in by the vicar of Little Whippering. The vicar had advertised for boarders but had neglected to enquire into any of their personal details before their arrival. Their arrivals cause quite a stir. The vicar had assumed that Mr Jones was a Welshman, but he is certainly not a Welshman. Dr Ridge, an American anthropologist, shocks him even more. He had not expected American anthropologists to be young, female and pretty. Dr Ridge is studying the customs of primitive tribes and has decided that the natives of Berkshire are about as primitive as you can get. She discovers all sorts of fascinating local customs, most of which (much to the consternation of the vicar) she associates with sex. The vicar does not think that these are things that his sixteen-year-old daughter Psyche should be hearing about.

Inspector Campbell forms a splendid theory, which rapidly collapses. He decides that he will have to go to West Africa to find the answers to this puzzle.

The first half of the book is a conventional detective story, with clues and alibis and the other things one expects from the genre. Then we get the solution to the first half of the puzzle. Far-fetched, but ingenious enough.

Once Campbell gets to Africa everything changes (which I guess is the point of the book). The solution to the second half of the puzzle is obvious to Inspector Campbell and will be fairly obvious to the reader. What matters is not the solution, but Campbell’s response to it. It becomes a tale of Africa, a tale of two different cultures and a moral dilemma.

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in this tale. The author has fun noting the similarities between village life in England and in Africa and the odd convergences and divergences in beliefs.

Modern readers might well be shocked by what they will perceive as the book’s political incorrectness but it’s clear that St John Sprigg is intending to be extremely sympathetic to the people of Balooma. He’s also rather sympathetic to he British colonial administration. For someone who was by this time a doctrinaire Marxist the author is remarkable even-handed and inclined to regard people, whatever their beliefs, with affectionate indulgence. The vicar of Little Whippering (who pops up again in West Africa) is a thoroughly pleasant and likeable chap. St John Sprigg does not come across as a writer determined to condemn people for their beliefs. He’s also sympathetic to belief in the supernatural, whether it’s a European or an African belief in such things. This is really quite a good-natured book.

There’s also a romantic sub-plot, with the young American lady anthropologist and the Scottish detective making an unlikely but effective romantic pairing.

I should warn you that although the cover of the Bruin paperback edition (shown here) depicts an aeroplane flying over a herd of elephants neither elephants not aeroplanes play any part whatsoever in the story.

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face may not satisfy readers who are looking for a traditional puzzle-plot mystery. If you haven’t figured out the solution very early on you’re just not trying and the solution does not particularly seem to interest the author. And the solutions to the lesser mysteries are all revealed by the halfway point. It is however, in its own way, thoroughly entertaining. So, with those caveats, it’s recommended.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

G.G. Fickling's A Gun for Honey

Lady private detective Honey West is best remembered today as the heroine of the cult 1965-66 TV series Honey West. Long before the TV series she featured in a series of popular crime novels written by husband-and-wife team Gloria and Forest Fickling under the name G.G. Fickling.

The series began with This Girl For Hire in 1957. The Ficklings would eventually write eleven Honey West novels, the final instalment appearing in 1972.

The third Honey West novel was A Gun for Honey, published in 1958.

Honey’s father had established a successful private detective agency. After he was murdered his daughter Honey, having no other way of earning a living, had decided to keep the agency running.

Honey (who is the narrator as well as the heroine) has now been hired to find the Kissing Killer. He kills his (female) victims by smothering them with kisses. He kisses them to death. He’s been terrorising Shark Beach.

Honey has been hired by former horror movie director Rote Collier who is worried because the police think the murders sound like something out of a horror movie so they suspect him. He’s also worried about his wife and daughter he wants Honey to protect them. Rote’s daughter Fawn is twenty-three. His wife Helena is slightly younger than Fawn.

Helena has had a colourful past. She’s been a nude model and a pornographic movie star, among other things. With maybe a bit of blackmail on the side. Helena is very fond of men. She’s also very fond of women. She plays for both teams. As do several of the suspects in this case. There seems to be a lot of that sort of thing in Shark Beach. It’s apparently one of the things Shark Bech is known for. It does boast a bar called the Gay Blade.

Then the Kissing Killer strikes again. A woman is found nude and dead inside a mummy case (being a former horror movie director Rote Collier has a lot of items like mummy cases in his house). Honey figures the killer has to be one of the people at Rote Collier’s New Year’s Eve party. Rote’s parties can get a little wild. He provides little bedrooms for the use of guests who want things to get really wild. They invariably get used.

There are quite a few plausible suspects. There’s Wolf Larson, who operates a bathysphere at the pier. It’s the world’s biggest bathysphere and he lives aboard. Apart from taking tourists on dives to see the wonders of the underwater world he also takes young ladies aboard for other purposes. There’s photographer Hel Gandy, who takes nudie pictures and makes pornographic films (although he’s not the only one who films such things). There’s handsome Marine Corps fighter pilot Reed Walker, rather popular with the ladies. And there’s Rote Collier, whose personal life is a little unconventional. And there’s Fawn. They all have very strong motives.

The sleaze factor is very high in this book and it’s established right from the start. There are lots of naked women. Including bound naked women. There’s spanking. There are those movies. There are lots of sexual shenanigans going on in Shark Beach, some of them not exactly conventional.

And somehow Honey’s breasts (which she has to admit are rather impressive) seem to keep playing a prominent rôle in the story, along with her habit of never wearing a bra. Most of the male characters will at some stage discover that she’s not kidding about not wearing a bra. It’s not that Honey is the kind of girl who jumps into bed with any man who comes along but somehow her sweaters seem to keep coming off.

There’s not much graphic violence in this tale. In fact hardly any. Honey has her .32 revolver but she’s not really the kickass action heroine type (in the TV series she is transformed into very much a kickass action heroine). She’s tough and she’s not lacking in guts but she prefers to be more subtle. You’d be surprised how useful it can be to a lady private detective to be young and gorgeous and very well endowed in the bust department (especially if she doesn’t wear a bra). It tends to distract the suspects while she’s gathering evidence.

This might sound like a remarkable trashy book, and in some ways it is, but underneath all the sleaze there’s a decent enough mystery plot. It was good enough to keep me guessing. Although the solution is perhaps just a trifle far-fetched.

Honey has a knack for getting herself into trouble but she a knack for getting herself out of tight spots as well. Being young and pretty also tends to mean that suspects are not as much on their guard as they might be with a Mike Hammer-style PI and Honey uses this to her advantage. Male suspects are too busy trying to figure out how to get her out of her clothes to realise that she has brains as well as looks and that she’s closing the net on them.

A Gun for Honey is sleazy, trashy, amusing, entertaining and generally enjoyable. And by today’s standards very politically incorrect. It’s good dirty fun. Highly recommended if you like the idea of sexy lady PIs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Robert Bloch's Atoms and Evil

Atoms and Evil is a collection of short stories by Robert Bloch. The stories were originally published in various pulps between 1948 and 1960.

Robert Bloch (1917-1994) started out as a protégé of H.P. Lovecraft. Bloch had an extraordinary ability to come up with cleverly twisted plots with nasty stings in the tail and to combine them with black comedy.

In these stories he turns his hand to science fiction and the paranormal.

There’s also quite a bit of satire, mostly directed at the 1950s obsession with consumerism.

Try This For Psis is a lighthearted tale of the paranormal. Dr Angus Welk is a crusty scientist who has no patience at all with nonsense like ESP and telekinesis and he has a daughter named Nora. He also has a bitter scientific rival, a Professor Seine, who works in the field of ESP and psionics. Professor Seine has a student named Frank Tallent who is a brilliant psychic sensitive with just about every paranormal power you can name. As luck would have it Nora and Frank fall in love and want to get married. Obviously Dr Welk is likely to oppose the match very bitterly indeed. To make things worse Professor Seine intends to use Frank to prove to Dr Welk that psychic powers are real. That’s certain to provoke a storm.

It’s actually a very amusing story.

Comfort Me, My Robot starts with a man named Henson who is suffering from stress. He goes to see the Adjustor. This is the 22nd century and adjustors are like psychiatrists but with much more effective treatment methods at their disposal. Henson tells the Adjustor that he wants to murder his wife. The Adjustor tells him it’s no problem and that he will make the necessary arrangements. After all murder is recognised as a valuable therapeutic tool.

This is the 22nd century of course and completely human-looking robots are everywhere. This is a delightfully twisted little tale, one of the best in this collection.

Talent is about a foundling. Andrew Benson grows up in an orphanage and develops an extraordinary talent for mimicry. He can copy a person’s every gesture and every characteristic of a person’s speech. He also learns to copy characters he sees at the movies. It’s almost as if he becomes the character. Which goes a long way to explaining certain subsequent events.

The Professor Plays It Square is about a couple of card sharps whose fondest dreams are about to come true when the biggest sucker of all time wanders into the dive where they hang out. Professor Glockenspiel has plenty of money. Bugsy and his pal intend to relieve him of all of it. The way they play poker it’s not a game of chance, it’s a sure thing. Or is it? Another amusing little tale.

Block That Metaphor is another example of Bloch’s dark sense of humour. It concerns a robot from another planet, visiting Earth on a diplomatic mission. Although he’s not quite a robot. He has an organic brain but a mechanical body. His way of thinking is however rather mechanical. He is thoughtful and polite but he takes everything literally. Very literally. With disastrous consequences.

Wheel and Deal is a throwaway humorous tale of a used female dealer - he sells late-model used sexbots.

You Got To Have Brains is about a funny little guy who rents a loft so he can build a spaceship. He has a theory that what you need to power a spaceship is to harness mental energy. You have to have brains to do something like that. It has the typical Bloch humorous/grotesque sting in the tail. Not a bad story.

In You Could Be Wrong Harry Jessup returns from the war, gets a job, marries his sweetheart and everything is fine until one day Harry starts to suspect that everything is fake. Not just the usual things that really are fake, like movies and television. Harry starts to doubt absolutely everything. Maybe nothing at all is real. But where does that leave him? How could he prove it? Another pretty solid story.

Egghead is an attempt at political satire, written in 1955 at the height of the Red Scare. Radical extremists are undermining the country and they’re promoting some wacky and dangerous ideas. These crazies are suggesting that maybe consumerism isn’t the very foundation of civilisation and some of them even want people to be able to study subversive subjects like English Literature. It’s an amusing enough story.

Dead-End Doctor is about Dr Howard Anson, the last psychiatrist on Earth. This is a world in which nobody is crazy any more so psychiatrists aren’t needed. He has never had a patient. It’s also a world in which robots have replaced humans in most jobs. Dr Howard Anson faces a grim future but fate is about to step in and give him hope. An amusing story.

Change of Heart is a very creepy little tale about a brilliant watchmaker who can fix any watch. One of the best stories in the collection with a punch-in-the-guts ending.

Edifice Complex has a rather nasty punchline as well. Wayne and Nora (a girl he picked up in a bar in a space-port) land their spaceship on the planet Vergis IV. Wayne wanted to go there because there are diamonds there, lots of them, and he knows how to get them. The sozzled old miner Luke told him all about it before dying. All they have to do is find the hut Luke described to him. Not a bad story.

Constant Reader is more overtly science fictional. A routine reconnaissance mission to the planet 68/5 finds no life, but they do find intelligence. Or rather it finds them. One member of the crew has a strange hobby. He reads books. Which could turn out to be disastrous. A clever and ambitious story.

It’s a very uneven collection with some stories being essentially just extended jokes while others are intelligent sophisticated (if rather dark) tales with very satisfying payoffs. Some of the stories are very much of the 1950s while others are uncomfortably relevant today. Bloch’s morbid sense of humour shines through. Atoms and Evil is recommended if you like your science fiction offbeat.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Harry Whittington's A Haven for the Damned

A Haven for the Damned was published by Fawcett in 1962. The author, Harry Whittington (1915-1989), was an American writer of pulp crime fiction and, in the latter stages of his career, of historical fiction.

Lust, New Mexico doesn’t get many visitors. In fact it doesn’t get any. Not any more. Lust used to be a boom town but that was a long long time ago. Now the entire population of Lust comprises prospector Josh Carrdell, his dog George (who hates Josh but then George hates everybody) and his two burros, Lincoln and Mary-Todd. But now Lust is about to get quite a few visitors. Four cars arrive in one day, bringing seven people to Lust.

It all started when two armed men (we later find out they are named Fletcher and Poole) came out the front door of the Yucca City National Bank, dragging Matt Bishop with them (Matt works in the bank). There’s an encounter with a bank guard and Matt gets shot and then the two robbers throw him in the back seat of their car and speed off. That’s how Fletcher, Poole and Matt end up in Lust.

Then someone thrusts an envelope under Susie Bishop’s door. Susie is Matt’s wife and the envelope contains a map with a certain spot circled. Susie figures this means Matt is alive and that if she drives to the spot indicated on the map maybe there’s a chance she can bring him back. It sounds like a risk but Susie is crazy in love with Matt so it’s a risk she has to take. That’s what will bring Susie to Lust.

Harvey J. Duncan is a rich 52-year-old who is running off with another man’s 22-year-old wife, a woman named Milly. Harvey takes a wrong turn and they find themselves in Lust. And what’s what brings Milly’s husband Reed to Lust.

Counting Josh Carrdell there are now eight people in Lust. Eight ill-assorted people. Some good, some bad. All with problems. Bad problems. Three of them with guns. It’s an obviously explosive situation.

Apart from Josh they all arrived by car but for various reasons none of them can leave, for the moment at least.

It’s a great setup for a suspense tale, and for some heavy psychological drama. Whittington is certainly interested in the suspense thriller angle but I think it’s fair to say that he’s more interested in the psychology, and in the psychological and emotional dynamics between them. It’s possible that not all of these people will come out of this situation alive. It’s also possible that some will be psychologically or emotionally destroyed. Some might emerge stronger. Some might find misery and some might even find happiness.

Fletcher and Poole are fairly straightforward villains and they’re the least interesting characters. In fact their real purpose as characters is to make the situation more explosive thereby forcing the other characters to make important choices, and forcing the other characters to see themselves more clearly (even if they don’t necessarily like what they they see). The other characters are the real focus and they have some depth. They have all, in their different ways, made something of a mess of their lives and they have either been unaware that they need to change, or unwilling to do so.

Some of the plot devices are perhaps a little predictable (this is after all pulp fiction) but as a psychological pressure cooker this novel works extremely well. We might not be terribly surprised by some of the twists but the reactions of the characters are believable and we do begin to care for them.

It’s also tense and even at times exciting. Highly recommended.

A Haven for the Damned is available and in print, in paperback from Stark House in their Black Gat series of reprints.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Storm Over Rockall (Danger Man TV tie-in novel)

I’ve developed (as you may have noticed) a bit of an enthusiasm for hunting down the various tie-in novels that were produced to accompany television series back in the 60s. 

My latest find has been the third of the Danger Man tie-in novels, W. Howard Baker’s Storm Over Rockall (published in 1966). Which is pretty exciting given that Danger Man (or Secret Agent as it was known in the US) is in my view one of the best TV spy series of all time.

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