Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rog Phillips' World of If

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The style is pulpy and rather on the unpolished side.

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

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

R. Austin Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2021

Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lawrence Block's Borderline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 5, 2021

Bart Frame’s The Black Satin Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Leigh Brackett’s Last Call from Sector 9G

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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