Friday, March 26, 2021

Gavin Lyall’s Judas Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment - Karachi

Edward S. Aarons (1916-1975) was an American writer whose output included the 42 Sam Durell “Assignment” spy thrillers. The first of these, Assignment to Disaster, was published in 1945. Sam Durell (codename Cajun) is a CIA agent whose cases take him to numerous exotic locales. Assignment - Karachi, published in 1962, was the sixteenth book in the series.

Sam Durell’s latest assignment is to act as bodyguard to wealthy socialite Sarah Standish. Sarah is financing a new expedition to S-5, a rugged peak in the Himalayas. The previous expedition ended in disaster. The ostensible purpose of the expedition is to find a legendary crown given to Alexander the Great. The CIA has no interest in that. What they are interested in is the huge deposits of nickel which are rumoured to lie beneath S-5.

The day he arrives in Karachi, in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, someone tries to kill Sam Durell. Maybe there’s been a security leak. Maybe he can trust K’Ayub, the colonel in Pakistan’s intelligence services with whom he is supposed to be working. And then there’s the problem of Sarah Standish, a strong-willed woman who doesn’t think she needs protection. To make things more complicated Sarah has fallen in love, for the first time, with an Austrian mountaineer named Rudi.

The expedition includes Rudi’s sister Alessa, an archaeologist. It also includes Hans Steicher, another Austrian mountaineer. Hans is in love with Alessa so when Sam and Alessa start getting romantically involved Hans is not pleased. And he could be a very dangerous man. There’s clearly plenty of potential here for conflicted loyalties and betrayals. That’s without taking into consideration the fact that at least one member of the expedition is a spy who intends to sell the secret of the location of the nickel deposits to the highest bidder. So that adds even more potential for betrayal, which is of course what you want in a good spy thriller.

One of the survivors of the original expedition, Dr Ernst Bergmann, has vanished. Bergmann is a geologist and he probably knew where the nickel deposits were to be found.

Durell has several contacts in Karachi who could provide useful information. Of course the contacts are entirely untrustworthy scoundrels but that’s the espionage game for you.

Sam Durell is a professional and what really worries him is that there are amateurs mixed up in this case. Amateurs in the espionage game are a danger to everyone and they’re a particular danger to themselves. Especially amateurs like Sarah’s secretary Jane King who is playing a particularly dangerous game.

There’s also the problem of Red Oboe. Red Oboe is a mysterious spy about whom nothing certain is known but the name has been mentioned in Karachi. Red Oboe may have been connected with the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), an anti-Nazi wartime spy network. If Red Oboe is in Karachi it’s a reasonable guess he is mixed up in the intrigues centred on the nickel deposits. Where Red Oboe’s loyalties might lie is anybody’s guess.

Durell is a pretty tough guy but he is human and he makes the occasional slip-up. He’s also not immune to the charms of the female of the species and he’s not as coldly calculating and ruthless as contemporary fictional spies such as Matt Helm.

There are murders and kidnappings and it all leads to a climax on the slopes of S-5, with the mountains providing as much danger as the spies.

Aarons has no great literary aspirations but he knows how to tell an action-packed story which moves along at a very satisfying pace. His prose is workmanlike but effective. There’s a lot less sex than you’d find in a Bond novel and while there’s violence it isn’t graphic.

Aarons was a second-tier spy writer and the Assignment books are not as good as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels but they’re still very enjoyable. Assignment - Karachi is good stuff and it’s highly recommended.

I reviewed one of the earlier Sam Durell books, Assignment…Suicide, a while back.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Matthew Head's The Congo Venus

John Canaday (1907-1985) was an American who wrote seven detective novels between 1943 and 1955, under the pseudonym Matthew Head. These included the four Dr Mary Finney mysteries. The Congo Venus, published in 1950, was the third book in this series.

The Congo Venus takes place in Léopoldville, in what was then the Belgian Congo, during the 1940s. It concerns the murder of the local blonde bombshell, Liliane Morelli. Liliane is (or was because she’s already dead when the book opens) Belgian, in her twenties and dangerous in the way that blonde bombshells tend to be. She is married to a much older man. It is generally assumed that Liliane is a bit of a sexual adventuress but the small enclosed world of the European community in Léopoldville (there are about 6,000 Europeans in the city) is rife with gossip. It’s possible that Liliane is (or was) in fact a faithful wife.

In any case she is dead, a victim of blackwater fever.

The narrator, Tolliver, is a young (or youngish) American who holds some kind of position connected with the Allied war effort. He’s not exactly a junior diplomat - we assume he’s employed by the War Department or maybe the State Department.

His friend Dr Mary Finney is an American as well, a middle-aged doctor who has apparently spent most of her adult life in Africa. For some reason, which she doesn’t disclose, she wants to hear anything that Tolliver can tell her that is connected directly or indirectly with Liliane Morelli. She also wants to hear everything he knows about everyone closely connected to Liliane.

Of course, given that this is a mystery novel, we immediately assume that Miss Finney has some suspicions about the circumstances of Liliane’s death. She is however unwilling to reveal this openly.

We learn that Liliane was hated by her step-daughter Jeanne’s aunt, Madame de St. Nicaise. Liliane seems to have had an uneasy relationship with Jeanne. At the time of her death Liliane was being treated by Dr Gollmer, an ageing medical practitioner with a very colourful local reputation. Dr Gollmer lives with his two girlfriends, Lala and Babu.

In the course of the conversations between Miss Finney and Tolliver a number of local scandals are given an airing. There was the celebrated musical falling out between Madame de St. Nicaise and Dr Gollmer. There was the scandal of the red-headed American lieutenant. And of course the scandal of the Congo Venus. Dr Gollmer dabbled in painting and his most famous (or infamous) painting was The Congo Venus, a kind of African riff on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The scandal was that the very nude Venus in the painting was clearly modelled on Liliane Morelli.

There are several things that give this book a very distinctive flavour. The first, obviously, is the setting. Léopoldville in the 40s was like an overheated social pressure cooker, a place in which sexual intrigues and scandal flourished because the only other thing to do was to drink too much.

The second distinctive feature is the meandering discursive structure. It’s like sitting in a bar and having a guy tell you a long rambling story. There’s no attempt at a linear narrative. He’ll start telling you about something that happened last week and then launch into a digression about about something that happened five years ago, then he’ll go off into another digression about events that occurred two years ago, then he’ll realise that that event was connected to something else that happened six months ago and he’ll start telling you about that.

It sounds chaotic and you do have to concentrate in order to piece the narrative together but surprisingly the discursive approach works rather well. Part of the reason it works is the author’s stylistic lightness of touch and his gift for complicated but amusing anecdote. Of course these anecdotes must be assumed to contain plenty of clues but since we don’t even know for a very long time that any kind of crime was actually committed, and if there was a crime we have no idea how it might have been carried out, we don’t know what kinds of clues to look out for. It doesn’t matter because the digressions are so entertaining.

Tolliver is a very pleasant and reasonably intelligent fellow but not very colourful. Miss Finney is rather more worldly than we initially assume her to be and she seems to derive considerable pleasure from pumping Tolliver for information without giving him any hints as to why she has suspicions about Liliane’s death and what those suspicions might be. Tolliver is a typical Dr Watson. He sees the same things the detective sees but entirely fails to grasp their significance.

Mary Finney is on the surface a typical golden age of detection spinster amateur detective, but one who has led a less sheltered life than most members of that breed. She certainly understands the sexual motivations in murder cases and there are plenty of potential sexual motivations in this story.

Of course the question is, is this really an example of the golden age puzzle-plot detective novel? I’d say no. Don’t approach this book expecting the kind of intricate plotting that you’d get in a Freeman Wills Crofts or John Dickson Carr novel, or an early Ellery Queen. This book was published in 1950 and it’s perhaps more a psychological (or even psycho-sexual) crime novel than a pure golden age puzzle-plot novel. The actual plot is nothing special and while Mary Finney does lots of detecting she relies mostly on psychological insights (and to a lesser extent on her medical knowledge). There are no clever alibis to be broken and there are no physical clues.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable read but it’s the setting and the discursive narrative that makes The Congo Venus interesting, and propels it into the highly recommended category.

I had never even heard of Matthew Head until I came across TomCat’s review of his earlier Mary Finney mystery The Cabinda Affair, which also sounds intriguing.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Richard Matheson’s Fury on Sunday

The psycho-sexual thriller Fury on Sunday was Richard Matheson’s second novel. Or rather, it was his third novel but his second published novel. It appeared in 1953.

New Jersey-born Richard Matheson (1926-2013) was better known as a science fiction writer and also had a very successful career writing for films and television (including some of the most acclaimed episodes of the original Twilight Zone series).

The events of Fury on Sunday occur over the course of a single night.

Vince is a concert pianist. Or he was, until they locked him up in the insane asylum. Vince’s problems started when his father Saul, also a concert pianist, had his career cut short by serious injuries to his hands. Saul then dedicated his life to turning his son into a great pianist, and to basking in the reflected glory. He taught Vince to play the piano, to hate women and to fear sex. Vince was seriously messed up long before he ended up in the asylum.

Ruth was the problem, or at least the catalyst for Vince’s mental collapse. He fell in love with Ruth. Not in a sexual way, because Vince knew that Ruth was clean and pure and Vince didn’t want any of that sort of thing. His love was pure. But Ruth married Bob. Of course Vince knows that she didn’t really want to marry Bob. Bob must have tricked her into it and she undoubtedly wants to escape Bob and be with Vince. 

And then there was Ruth’s friend Jane. Jane tried to seduce Vince. Jane in fact has seduced countless men. Vince knows what those sorts of women are like. And he still remembers, with horror, the feel of her naked breasts pressing against him. Jane is married to Vince’s former manager Stan but she despises Stan and won’t even let him touch her any longer. So there are plenty of sexual dramas in this tale.

Vince knows what he has to do. He has to kill Bob and rescue Ruth. He and Ruth will go away together, and live together like brother and sister. All Vince has to do is escape from the asylum. And he has a plan. He will take advantage of the fact that the male nurse Harry has been trying to seduce him. Once he’s killed Harry he’ll be free, he’ll kill Bob, and Ruth will be free.

And Vince does escape, he steals a gun, and thus begins a night of madness and terror as Vince holds Ruth, Bob, Stan and Jane hostage while he tries to figure out what he should and which of them he should kill.

This is early Matheson so it’s still a bit rough round the edges but there’s plenty of tension. He’s not just interested in getting inside Vince’s hopelessly disturbed and disordered mind but inside the minds of the other characters as well. It’s a fairly chilling portrait of mental illness. Vince’s plan makes sense and is even quite clever, except that it’s based on initial premises that are ludicrously mistaken. His madness has a certain logical consistency. And he is incapable of accepting that everything he does is based on a tragic misreading of his own motivations and the motivations of others.

The climax is reasonably exciting. Not everyone is going to get out of this situation alive, but which of them will be the ones that survive?

The book is saturated in sexual frustration and sexual perversity.

Fury on Sunday certainly doesn’t compare to Matheson’s science fiction masterpieces such as I Am Legend, Hell House and The Shrinking Man but it has lots of twisted psycho-sexual energy. Recommended.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Don Wilcox’s Slave Raiders from Mercury

Don Wilcox’s Slave Raiders from Mercury was published in Amazing Stories in 1940. Cleo Eldon Wilcox (1905-2000) was an American science fiction author who wrote under a number of pseudonyms, most notably Don Wilcox.

Slave Raiders from Mercury opens in America in contemporary times. A carnival huckster has found an abandoned spaceship and has turned it into a major carnival attraction. Lester Allison (the hero of several other Wilcox stories) is a young man who meets a pretty girl named June at the carnival. People are queueing up to pay their fifty cents to sit inside the spaceship. Lester and June and a guy named Tyndall (who clams to be June’s boyfriend although she denies it) end up in the spaceship and then, much to everybody’s surprise, the spacecraft blasts off into outer space! And starts heading towards Mercury. What nobody knew was that it was an automated spacecraft controlled by slave traders on Mercury.

Mercury is inhabited by the Dazzalox, a degenerated dying race. They’re humanoid and mostly pretty similar to humans, apart from being very long-lived. The main interest of the Dazzalox is funerals - their own funerals. When you’re a thousand years old your funeral is something you look forward to. You have a great time, it’s a great status display, and then you go into a tunnel and you can look forward to a painless death. The Dazzalox may have been a great civilisation once but now they don’t even understand the technology that keeps their civilisation going. Apart from displays of status and owning slaves there’s not much else other than funerals that they’re interested in.

They don’t even need slaves. Everything is automated. Slaves are just a means of demonstrating status. The slaves are collected for them from Earth by a renegade Earthman named Kilhide. The slaves are all healthy young American males. Any slaves who aren’t healthy and young are painlessly disposed of.

It’s not that bad a life in some ways. Being a slave involves very little actual work.

Everything changes with June’s arrival. You see the Dazzalox have never seen a human female. They didn’t even know that human females existed. Now they know and they’re very excited. Mostly they’re excited by the novelty. Novelty is something they rarely get to experience. A human female is a major novelty and possession of such a novelty brings enormous status. The Dazzalox men are so excited that many are even prepared to cancel their own funerals. They all want to own a human female. They want Kilhide to bring them lots more Earth women.

The Dazzalox women (there are Dazzalox women) are not so happy about all this.

Lester Allison and June have of course fallen hopelessly in love. And Lester Allison’s thoughts have now turned to rebellion. But that means facing the Floating Chop. It’s likely to lead to a blood-drenched finale.

The dying civilisation angle is intriguing and it’s handled fairly well. The Dazzalox are decadent but it’s an interesting kind of decadence, centred purely on status displays. It’s a kind of senile decadence. The Dazzalox can be cruel but it’s a child-like kind of cruelty. They’re scarcely even aware of it. They’re not stereotypically evil. They’re just massively self-centred and self-indulgent.

Kilhide is the real villain and he’s just selfish and greedy.

Lester Allison is your typical all-American hero but in a quiet unostentatious way. He has to become a hero by force of circumstances. Mostly he’s motivated by his love for June. Without her he would have accepted his slavery as the other slaves have accepted theirs.

This is pure pulp science fiction, totally lacking in any literary aspirations, but with a few interesting ideas. It’s moderately entertaining silly fun if you’re in the mood for extra pulpy 1940s science fiction.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Rafe Bernard’s The Halo Highway (The Invaders TV tie-in novel)

Rafe Bernard’s The Halo Highway (published in the US under the title Army of the Undead) is a 1967 TV tie-in novel based on the classic 1967-68 American science fiction television series The Invaders.

The Invaders was one of the best-ever alien invasion TV series. A young architect discovers that aliens are not planning to invade the Earth, they are already here among us. The paranoia level make the series a fascinating precursor to The X-Files.

The novel is not at all what you might expect, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. It is at least an intriguing example of an alternative take on a classic TV series.

My full review can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.