Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Seabury Quinn’s The Dark Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing Up

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

Gil Brewer's The Three-Way Split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 21, 2021

Lionel Davidson’s The Night of Wenceslaus

The Night of Wenceslaus was the first of Lionel Davidson’s spy thrillers. It was published, to considerable acclaim, in 1960.

Lionel Davidson (1922-2009) was an English writer who wrote nine spy thrillers and a few children’s books. Before turning to writing he had been a journalist and had served in the Royal Navy.

The hero and narrator is Nicolas Whistler. Whistler is (as he freely admits) lazy, aimless and indecisive. And by nature he’s a coward. He is also, as we soon discover, a rather amiable and essentially good-natured young man. He is also broke. His late father left him a share in a glass-manufacturing business but due to the carelessness with which his father’s will was drawn up Nicolas finds himself little more than a very lowly clerk, subsisting on a very meagre income. Nicolas has a girlfriend, Maura, with whom he might be in love. He owns a little MG sports car which he cannot afford but it’s his pride and joy. There is probably no young man in the whole of England less suited to being a spy but that is the destiny in store for him.

Nicolas’s mother is Czech and Nicolas spent his early childhood in Prague. As a result he speaks Czech fluently, and that’s how he becomes a spy.

It all starts when a lawyer named Cunliffe informs him that his Uncle Bela has died and left him a fortune. Nicolas quits his job and goes on a spending spree. And then he learns the truth. He has been cleverly manoeuvred into accepting what he is assured is a very simple and entirely risk-free task in Prague. It’s really at most a rather innocuous piece of industrial espionage so there’s no risk of any real trouble with the Czech authorities and the task is so simple that nothing can go wrong.

So Nicolas finds himself behind the Iron Curtain, in Prague. He has to endure some extraordinarily boring tours of glass factories but there is one compensation.That compensation is Vlasta Simenova. She’s the driver assigned to him, an impossibly tall and statuesque slavic beauty. And she’s very friendly. Very friendly indeed.

To his astonishment it all goes remarkably smoothly. No problems at all. This industrial espionage lark turns out to be ridiculously simple. Nicolas is feeling very pleased with himself. In fact he’s bursting with confidence. And then he has the first nasty surprise sprung on him. Even that isn’t too bad. By now he’s thinking of himself as a seasoned professional. But the nasty surprises just keep coming and he slowly realises just what it is that’s been manoeuvred into. Panic sets in. Nicolas is now a hunted animal.

The last third of the book is taken up by the pursuit of Nicolas by the Secret Police. This pursuit is handled by the author with imagination, verve and wit. Nicolas has no idea what he’s doing or how he’s going to get out of this mess but desperation unlocks qualities of resourcefulness that he had no idea he possessed. He makes one seemingly impossible escape after another but surely he must eventually be caught.

This is a lighthearted romp of a spy thriller. It’s whimsical and consistently amusing. Nicolas is a bungling amateur but somehow his bungling usually turns out successfully, possibly because he does things that are so foolish that the professionals who are chasing him get caught by surprise. There are no shoot-outs, in fact the level of violence is extraordinarily low, but there is plenty of excitement and suspense combined with the fun.

Nicolas Whistler is breathtakingly naïve but he’s a likeable hero and we can’t help admiring his ability to keep going in the face of seemingly impossible odds and his ability to bounce back from his own blunders.

The Night of Wenceslaus was filmed in 1964 as Hot Enough for June. There are a few changes to the plot in the movie but the whimsical tone is very much the same and the movie is well worth seeing.

The Night of Wenceslaus is a thoroughly enjoyable semi-comic spy romp and it’s highly recommended.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Walter Wager’s Telefon

Walter Wager’s 1975 spy thriller Telefon is interesting for several reasons, the most notable being that the hero is a KGB agent. And he is definitely one of the good guys.

Walter Wager (1924-2004) was an American writer in both the crime and spy genres. Wager also wrote some TV tie-in novels, including (under the name John Tiger) the first of the Mission: Impossible novels (which I reviewed here).

Telefon opens with the KGB conducting a raid in Moscow. Colonel Aleksei Malchenko has stumbled onto a very big conspiracy indeed - a Stalinist coup attempt. The coup attempt is dealt with efficiently, except for one tiny loose end. One of the plotters, a documents expert named Nicolai Dalchimski, eludes the KGB net. And Dalchimski has taken the Telefon book with him.

That’s bad. That’s very very bad. Much worse than even a Stalinist coup attempt.

Telefon was a KGB operation set up years earlier, at the height of Cold War tensions. It was an operation that was only be activated if the USSR was under nuclear attack. It was a very very clever operation involving Soviet deep-cover operatives in the United States. They were not just deep-cover operatives, they were the perfect deep-cover operatives.

The Telefon project has been long since abandoned and almost forgotten but it was impossible to extract those deep-cover sleeper agents. They are still in place. This doesn’t matter. Nobody is ever going to try to re-activate the Telefon project. It’s a relic of the past. In any case no-one could try to re-activate it even if they wanted to. They would need the Telefon book. And there are only three copies in existence and they’re protected by the most rigid security imaginable.

Except that now one of those copies of the Telefon book has disappeared.

Malchenko and his superior officer, General Streltsi, are appalled. Malchenko and Streltsi represent the new breed of KGB officers. They are committed to peaceful co-existence with the United States. They are not ideologues. They dislike ideologues. The last thing they want is for some maniac to try to put the Telefon operation into action.

At about the same time that all this is happening in the Soviet Union, thousands of miles away in Denver, Colorado, Harry Bascomb goes mad. He goes mad in a particularly destructive way. A couple of days later Ruth Alice Mintzer goes crazy, in an equally spectacular and destructive way, in Augusta, Maine. And then Carl Hassler goes nuts in northern Wisconsin and tries to crash his seaplane into a top-secret US Navy communications installation.

The American intelligence agencies don’t see any pattern in these events, but in KGB headquarters in Moscow Colonel Aleksei Malchenko and General Pyotr Streltsi most definitely do see a pattern. Some maniac really is activating the Telefon sleeper agents. That maniac can only be Nicolai Dalchimski. Dalchimski is about to start World War 3.

The KGB sends Grigori Tabbat to the US to solve the problem. Tabbat has to recover the Telefon book and liquidate Nicolai Dalchimski. Tabbat has no idea where to start looking. His talk is almost impossible but that’s why the KGB have selected him for this task. Carrying out impossible missions is the sort of thing that Grigori Tabbat does.

So this is a different kind of Cold War paranoia story. The bad guys are not the Americans or the Soviets. The bad guy is a dinosaur, a relic of the bad old days of the Cold War, an ideologically driven lunatic who not only wants to re-ignite the Cold War, he wants to turn it into a hot war.

Dalchimski may succeed because both the KGB and the American intelligence agencies like the FBI and the CIA operate the same way. They were established at a time of paranoia and paranoia is still their standard operating principle. The point of the novel is that all intelligence agencies on both sides are much the same. They all operate on a foundation of deception and suspicion. They all assume that the opposing agencies are carrying out the same schemes of deception and duplicity that they themselves are carrying out.

In this case the KGB has a problem and they have to solve the problem themselves. They can’t ask the Americans for help because the Americans would never trust them.

And it’s the nature of spy agencies that spies can’t even trust anyone in their own spy agency. Anyone in your own organisation might be a double agent. Grigori Tabbat has been assigned a female KGB agent, an agent based in New York, to help him but he cannot take the risk of trusting her and of course she’s not crazy enough to trust him.

There’s the classic race-against-time element here and there’s the equally classic theme of the hunter who may also be the hunted. It’s all handled fairly successfully. There’s plenty of action and there’s effective suspense. And there’s moral ambivalence, for those who like a bit more depth to their spy stories. It raises some questions about what, if anything, winning actual means in the world of espionage. This is most definitely not a spy spoof but there are at least some occasional moments of humour as the author pokes fun at the paranoiac mindset of spy agencies. And there’s a touch of romance.

Telefon is a pretty decent spy thiller and it’s recommended.

It was made into a very good movie by Don Siegel - Telefon (1977).

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Charles Eric Maine's Spaceways

Spaceways is a 1953 British science fiction novel by Charles Eric Maine and it has an interesting history. It began life as a very successful radio play in 1952. In 1953 it was turned into a movie by Hammer Films (it was their first foray into science fiction and had the distinctive character-driven flavour of the company’s early science fiction films). The movie, directed by Terence Fisher, was successful enough to persuade Maine to turn it into a novel.

Charles Eric Maine (1921-1981) was an English writer of both science fiction and detective fiction. He co-edited the science fiction magazine The Satellite and wrote quite a bit of science fiction in the 50s and early 60s.

Oddly, for a British science fiction story, it is set in the United States. Conway (the narrator) is thirty-seven, ex-army, a bachelor (but hoping to change that since he met a charming young woman named Verna) and works in Washington on security matters relating to rocketry. He’s quite content in Washington and not at all pleased when he’s suddenly posted to the top-secret Site B in Nevada. He is to take over security at the site. Site B is where the Americans hope to launch their first satellite.

Site B is an odd enclosed little community. It’s near a tiny township ironically named Silver Falls (ironically because it’s in the middle of the desert and there are certainly no waterfalls anywhere nearby). The director is Dr Klein, who had worked on rocketry (at the infamous Peenemünde site) for Germany.

There are a lot of men and very few women. There’s not much to do outside of work. It’s an environment in which tensions are likely to arise. Conway soon realises that he has a ticklish security problem on his hands. Electronics whizz George Hills has a much younger wife, Marion. Marion is bored and restless and hates the place and the gossip is that she’s having an affair with one of the other scientists, a youngish man named Colby. George Hills is either unaware of the situation or he’s deliberately closing his eyes to it. Conway can see that trouble is brewing but he doesn’t know what to do about it. That trouble will come to a head when the rocket is launched.

The time for the launch of the first satellite rocket, SR ONE, finally arrives. The launch is not a failure but it’s not exactly a complete success either. It achieves orbit, but not the orbit that was expected. A vital piece of equipment also fails to work. Nobody can understand why. Until an FBI agent puts forward an extraordinary explanation.

This is a story of pioneering space exploration and it’s also a story of human dramas among the space exploration pioneers. There’s also a mystery to be solved. Maine ties together the space exploration angle, the human relationships angle and the mystery plot with considerable skill and ingenuity. All three strands are intricately linked. I can’t give any hints as to the clever ways in which they’re linked without risking spoilers.

This is a genuine science fiction story and astronautics plays a crucial rôle but it’s an unusually character-driven science fiction novel. Jealousy (both sexual and professional), suspicion, betrayal and love are as important to the story as courage and scientific boldness.

Conway makes some serious mistakes but then just about everybody in the story makes at least one major mistake. All the characters have very human weaknesses.

The ending is just a tiny bit contrived but the contrivance is dramatically necessary. And the ending is tense and exciting and it’s effective.

There are a few scientific implausibilities but remember that the story was written before the Russians put the first satellite into orbit. Maine is trying to write reasonably hard science fiction (there’s nothing scientifically fanciful) as well as human drama.

Spaceways is an unusual science fiction novel but an extremely interesting one and for me it works. Highly recommended.

I reviewed Hammer’s underrated Spaceways movie quite some time back.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Bruce Graeme's Seven Clues in Search of a Crime

Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is a 1941 mystery by Bruce Graeme and it’s a bookish mystery - the amateur detective hero is a bookseller. It’s the first of his eight Theodore Terhune mysteries.

Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982) was a fairly prolific English writer, mostly in the crime genre. He wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, including Bruce Graeme. He achieved a great deal of early success with his Blackshirt novels (written under the Bruce Graeme pseudonym). Blackshirt was part of that rather appealing literary genre, the gentleman rogue. It’s a genre that began with Raffles and would reach a peak of popularity with the Saint and the Baron. Blackshirt was more than just a reformed thief, he was a reformed thief turned crime writer.

The idea of writing books about people who are involved with books was one that seemed to obsess Jeffries and it was a fruitful obsession.

The hero of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is not just a bookseller but also an aspiring writer (and naturally he is an aspiring writer of detective stories). Theodore I. Terhune (known to his friends as Tommy) has a bookshop in Bray-in-the-Marsh in Kent. Bray-in-the-Marsh is the kind of sleepy idyllic small English town (not much more than a large village really) which you just know is going to be the setting for murder and mayhem.

We learn early on that there is more to Tommy Terhune than meets the eye. He looks like a very harmless, very meek, bespectacled youngish man. In fact he looks exactly like a mild-mannered bookseller. Looks can however be a bit deceptive. When he encounters a young woman who is being attacked by no less than five ruffians he has no hesitation in leaping from his bicycle and wading into the attack. He manages to hold off the attackers until a policeman arrives. As you might expect, the young woman (whose name is Helena Armstrong) now thinks that Tommy is pretty darned wonderful.

The puzzle that remains is why Helena was attacked. The ruffians seemed to be looking for something in her car, but she had nothing whatsoever that was worth stealing. Helena is the paid companion of Lady Kylstone. Now it might be plausible that the attackers mistook Helena for Lady Kylstone except for the even more puzzling detail that they made it obvious that Helena really was their target.

Tommy Terhune might have thought no more about this odd incident. After all Helena is quite unharmed. Then he discovers a clue. It’s a clue that interests Lady Kylstone almost as much as it interests Terhune. It concerns the Kylstone family burial vault but why anyone would be interested in that vault is more than anyone can say.

And then, quite by accident, Tommy uncovers another clue. This clue interests Detective-Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard a good deal. Sampson cannot actually do anything about the perplexing events in Bray-in-the-Marsh. The Chief Constable of the district has not asked Scotland Yard for assistance and it would be most improper for Sampson to start working on a case in such circumstances. On the other hand Sampson points out that there’s nothing to stop Tommy Terhune from doing a bit of investigating on a purely amateur basis, and if he should report any findings to Sampson on a purely informal basis - well that be hardly be improper, would it?

Before long Tommy finds a third clue.

What makes this such an interesting (and slightly unconventional) example of golden age detective fiction is that Terhune soon has quite a collection of clues but there is no crime to which to link those clues. There’s no real evidence that any crime has been committed. On the other hand the clues definitely point to a crime of some kind. Possibly a crime in the past, or possibly a crime yet to be committed. What the nature of that crime might be is yet another mystery.

The author manages pretty successfully to keep both Terhune and the reader mystified. Are there any suspects? How can you have suspects when you don’t know what the crime is and you aren’t even certain that there is a crime? How can you tell if someone has a motive for an unknown crime?

This is not a comic detective story but it does have a great deal of wit and a certain playfulness. Bruce Graeme is having quite a bit of fun playing around a little with the conventions of the genre. The reader, like Tommy Terhune, has no clear idea what’s going on but like Terhune we’re having a fine time playing the game. And Graeme plays fair with us to the extent that we have at our disposal the same clues that Terhune has. The difficulty is in finding the common thread that ties together such disparate clues as the key to the Kylstone family vault, an obscure genealogical manuscript (once again the author’s interest in books comes to the fore), a company that manufactures automobile tyres, an American gangster and a woman known as Blondie. The common thread is there and all seven clues do finally fit together.

In the course of his adventure Terhune will meet two women. There’s Helena Armstrong, a thoroughly charming woman. And then here’s Julia MacMunn. She’s definitely a vamp (and a very entertaining vamp). Terhune is attracted to both of them. Which of them he prefers is another puzzle that he will have to unravel.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt novels, Blackshirt And Alias Blackshirt, but I had no idea that he’d written conventional detective stories (although it could of course be argued that there’s nothing very conventional about Seven Clues in Search of a Crime). The good news is that Moonstone Press have reprinted several of the Theodore Terhune mysteries. It was J.F. Norris’s glowing review of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime that inspired me to grab a copy, which proved to be a very good decision. He also contributed the introductions to these reprints. There's also a very positive review at the Cross Examining Crime blog.

Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is a delight from start to finish. It plays around with the conventions of the genre whilst still respecting them. It’s clever without being too much in love with its own cleverness. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Ed McBain's Cut Me In (AKA The Proposition)

American writer Ed McBain (1926-2005) was born Salvatore Lombino but legally changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He wrote under various names but was best known for his incredibly long-running 87th Precinct series of police procedurals written under the name Ed McBain. Cut Me In (which was later republished as The Proposition) was written in 1954 under the name Hunt Collins. The more recent Hard Case Crime reprint was issued under the Ed McBain name (and with a great Robert McGinnis cover painting).

Cut Me In begins when literary agent Josh Blake (who narrates the novel) wakes up next to a blonde. He has no idea who she is. It’s the start of an interesting day. He arrives at his office to find his partner Del Gilbert lying on the floor of his office very dead, with three bullet holes in him. And the office safe door is wide open.

No-one is the slightest bit sorry that Del Gilbert is dead. Not his wife, nor his mistress nor his partner nor anyone who ever had business dealings with him.

Josh thinks the murder may have something to do with a very important contract which was apparently stolen from the safe. Detective Sergeant Di Luca however is not buying that theory. He believes that murder is a very simple business. People commit murders for simple straightforward motives.

For Josh Blake life is about to become anything but simple and straightforward. Del Gilbert is not even cold when Gilbert’s wife Gail and mistress Lydia try to seduce Josh.

There will be more murders, and more women will try to seduce Josh Blake (some more successfully than others).

This is not a police procedural but it’s really a noir novel either. And it’s only very slightly hard-boiled. Although there is a cop and although Josh Blake finds himself having to give some thought to solving the case it’s not quite a novel in which a detective (amateur or otherwise) spends the whole book trying to solve a crime. Di Luca remains in the background and Josh isn’t all that interested in finding Del Gilbert’s killer. Not until he’s put in a position where for reasons of his own he has to do so. This is more a story in which a mystery gets solved when a particular character stumbles across the solution.

This is however a genuine mystery novel. And it’s fairly clued. It’s one of those mysteries which is complex but in which the solution seems obvious and right once the final piece of the jigsaw is slotted into place.

The key to the mystery hinges on whether Di Luca is right about murder being a simple business or whether Josh Blake is right in thinking that sometimes murder is more complicated.

Di Luca is not a genius cop but he’s a professional who knows his job. Josh Blake is not a genius amateur detective but he is an intelligent man who can see a pattern when it starts to form. Josh is no plaster saint. He’s not as ruthless a businessman as his deceased partner but he’s still pretty ruthless. He can be a bit ruthless in personal as well as business matters. The difference between Del Gilbert and Josh is that Gilbert would do anything to make a buck whereas Josh will do almost anything but does draw the line at certain things. Josh does have some moral compass even if his morality is a bit flexible.

McBain’s style is straightforward but it does have a certain rugged style and there are some humorous touches.

There’s not much sleaze but there is a fair bit of tasteful sexiness.

This is a good solid mystery novel and it’s highly recommended.

The Hard Case Crime reprint also includes a McBain novelette, Now Die In It, featuring one of his early series characters, Matt Cordell. Matt Cordell has a few problems but nothing that cheap whiskey can’t fix. He used to be a private eye. Now he just drinks. Until an old pal convinces him to take on a case. The case soon becomes a murder case. It’s an OK story, a bit more hardboiled than Cut Me In.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks

Sexton Blake is a fictional British detective who featured in more than four thousand stories between 1893 and 1978. The stories were written by many different authors - about two hundred authors altogether. Sexton Blake also appeared in quite a few movies (such as Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror) and radio dramas and there was a Sexton Blake TV series in the late 1960s.

Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks contains three Sexton Blake novellas (actually they’re more short novels) published in Union Jack in the period immediately following the First World War, from three different writers. Sexton Blake comes up against three of the most fiendishly clever diabolical criminal masterminds he has ever had to face.

Blake will of course have his faithful young assistant Tinker beside him, and of course his equally faithful bloodhound Pedro.

Sexton Blake made his first appearance in print in 1893. Sexton Blake stories appeared regularly in the storypaper Union Jack until 1940 (from 1933 Union Jack was renamed Detective Weekly). Stories continued to be published in The Sexton Blake Library until 1968.

Sexton Blake was a rather obvious Sherlock Holmes clone. He even has rooms in Baker Street! In fact he is perhaps a bit too much of a Sherlock Holmes clone. The stories were a lot more down-market than Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, were clearly aimed at a younger readership and were much more action-oriented. They’re thrillers rather than mysteries.

The Case of the Man in Motley

The Case of the Man in Motley was written by Anthony Skene and published in 1919.

Someone is trying to steal a goblet and they will stop at nothing to get it. The odd thing is that the goblet is worth at most a few shillings. There’s also the matter of a dead clown. There’s no apparent explanation for either the attempted theft of the goblet or the deceased clown.

In this adventure Blake’s foe is the albino super-criminal (and master swordsman) Zenith. For Blake and Zenith it promises to be a fight to the death but they’re both sportsmen so it will have to be a fair fight with swords.

The secret to the mystery may well lie in an old house which is a maze of hidden rooms and secret passageways.

There’s an exciting action finale in a gigantic garbage compactor!

Prince Pretence

Prince Pretence was written by Lewis Jackson and published in 1921.

This time Sexton Blake’s foe is Leon Kestrel, an American actor turned super-villain. Kestrel is (like Blake) a master of disguise.

The adventure begins with the kidnapping of a firebrand trade-union leader and Labour MP. The reason for the kidnapping appears to be to prevent a strike but it doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that this is not the real reason. It's merely a theatrical gesture on the part of Kestrel. It’s actually all about money and the trail will lead Blake to Paris. If he makes it to Paris - Kestrel controls a vast global criminal gang and his agents take extreme steps to stop Blake.

Once again there’s a cool action finale, this time in the catacombs of Paris.

The Wonder Man’s Challenge

The Wonder Man’s Challenge was written by Edwy Searles Brooks and published in 1921.

One of Blake’s more famous criminal foes was Rupert Waldo, known as Waldo the Wonder-Man. This adventure begins with Waldo, unarmed, robbing a bank single-handed in broad daylight. He makes his escape thanks to his extraordinary athletic and acrobatic skills and also thanks to sheer bravado.

Waldo is a master criminal but he’s scrupulously non-violent, he’s a gentleman, he has a sense of fair play and he’s really a decent chap at heart. Crime is a hobby, a way to deal with boredom. Even Sexton Blake has a grudging affection for him.

Waldo has set Blake a challenge. Waldo will steal something very valuable (a ruby necklace) and it’s up to Blake to recover the goods. It’s all a game to Waldo.

To steal the necklace Waldo first steals an aeroplane and then crashes it. When Waldo commits a crime he likes to do it with a certain amount of style, and with a sense of fun.

There’s another fine action finale with some death-defying stunts as Waldo seeks to elude capture.

Edwy Searles Brooks was a very prolific writer who went on to write the deliriously entertaining Norman Conquest thrillers, beginning in the late 30s. I’ve reviewed three of the Norman Conquest books, Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters, Miss Dynamite and Conquest Marches On.

Final Thoughts

These stories are very much Boys’ Own Adventure stuff but they’re a lot of fun. Recommended.