Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Graham Greene’s The Comedians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Milton Lesser’s Somewhere I’ll Find You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesser’s prose is pulpy but lively.

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

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Conan of Aquilonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Carter Brown's Booty for a Babe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Harry Hossent’s Spies Die At Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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