Sunday, August 29, 2021

Desmond Skirrow’s I’m Trying To Give It Up

I’m Trying To Give It Up, published in 1968, is the third of Desmond Skirrow’s John Brock thrillers. This particular novel is not quite a spy thriller but since it deals with industrial espionage it’s obviously very closely related to the spy fiction genre.

Desmond Skirrow (1923-1976) was a British advertising executive who turned to writing. He wrote three John Brock novels between 1966 and 1968. He also worked as an illustrator.

John Brock works for an advertising agency. Their biggest client is Tommy Tranter, a tycoon with a finger in every pie. In this novel Brock’s troubles begin with a woman. It’s always the way, isn’t it? The woman is young, petite, cute and blonde. She’s driving a very large white luxury motorcar which she’s just parked and she’s about to get a parking ticket. John Brock firmly believes that a cute blonde should never be subjected to the indignity of a parking ticket. He takes it upon himself to move her car. This causes a misunderstanding and Brock is summoned to Tommy Tranter’s office (which is entirely staffed by gorgeous blondes). He fully expects to be fired.

But he isn’t fired. He’s offered an assignment. It’s a kind of industrial espionage (or in this case counter-espionage) case. Tranter knows that Brock has in the past done cloak-and-dagger work for the Fat Man.

The case involves a man named Weiss who is costing Tranter a lot of money. It has to do with the Product Development department. Which is a bit like MI6, but more efficient.

Brock starts nosing around and gets coshed for his terrible. In fact each time he follows a lead he seems to end up getting hit over the head. He also gets arrested. There’s a London gangster mixed up in the affair. Brock is not sure what part Browning in Product Development plays in the tale. He’s also not sure where Miss Pringle fits in. Miss Pringle is Tranter’s secretary and mistress and she’s a lot of woman, six feet tall and built like an amazon. She has everything a woman should have, only she has more of it than most women.

There’s also a dead body. The man was murdered, more than once.

This is very much an outrageous romp. The plot is impossibly complicated. The characters are all bizarre. The pace is frenetic. It’s not quite an out-and-out spoof but it is very amusing and very tongue-in-cheek. Despite its complexity the plot is quite clever. There are a few far-fetched elements but they remain just within the limits of plausibility.

Brock is the narrator and he’s both cynical and amused. Brock is a tough guy, and ruthless at times. He never wanted to be involved in this case and he keeps telling himself that it’s nothing to do with him. On the other hands he hates his job in advertising so even if the undercover stuff gets him beaten up regularly at least it’s more rewarding than finding ways to persuade people to buy dog food.

Another reason that Brock prefers the cloak-and-dagger stuff is that you meet more dangerous blondes that way. Brock is a bit of a skirt-chaser.

Apart from the spy elements this is a book which mercilessly mocks the world of advertising, and in fact it mocks a great many features of the society of 1968 which thoroughly deserved to be mocked. He gives psychologists a particularly hard time, and does so in a most delightful manner.

There are plenty of wisecracks and there’s some nice mock hardboiled dialogue. “She fell into my arms like a ball into a socket.” Skirrow’s prose has a nicely off-kilter zing to it. Some of the gags are obvious but many are not. He certainly had his own distinctive voice as a spy writer.

Tongue-in-cheek spy novels proliferated during the 60s but this one has a distinctive tone which makes it seem fresh and original. It’s both whimsical and slightly kinky (in a good-natured sort of way). It captures the zeitgeist of the 60s in a particularly vivid manner.

I’m Trying To Give It Up really is fast-moving stylish, slightly sexy, very amusing, very clever fun. If you like your spy thrillers lighthearted and funny then it’s very highly recommended.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Bruce Graeme’s House With Crooked Walls

House With Crooked Walls, published in 1942, was the second of Bruce Graeme’s book-themed Theodore Terhune mysteries. The first, the delightful Seven Clues in Search of a Crime, played around with the conventions of the genre in a very clever manner. House With Crooked Walls is a whole different ball game. It starts off appearing to be a gothic chiller about a haunted house. In fact it is a genuine mystery but that takes a while to become apparent.

Mild-mannered bookseller and occasional amateur detective Theodore “Tommy” Terhune is approached by a very exotic South American, Dr Salvaterra. He has an equally exotic twin sister. Dr Salvaterra is considering the purchase of House-on-the-Hill, sometimes referred to by the locals as the House With Crooked Walls. This very old house has a very evil reputation. It has been untenanted for decades and no-one will go near the place.

Dr Salvaterra wants to buy the house not in spite of its sinister reputation but because of it. He is a scholar, a student of the psychic and the occult. He wants to find out just what it is about the house that fills people with dread. He needs Terhune’s help since Terhune is reputed to possess a very impressive collection of books, new and old, on local Kentish history and on notable houses of the district. And of course Terhune has his reputation as an amateur detective. Terhune’s job, for which he will be handsomely paid, is to discover everything that can be discovered about the history of the house and its occupants over the years.

Terhune is intrigued because he has to admit to himself that he doesn’t know why the locals shun the house. The locals don’t know either. There are no colourful legends attached to House-on-the-Hill. People just hate and fear the house.

The first two-thirds of the book is occupied by Terhune’s efforts as a literary and historical detective. With some help from the acid-tongued but beautiful and oddly fascinating Julia MacMunn he finds out that the house has been associated with two very mysterious disappearances, a couple of sudden unexplained deaths and a certain amount of scandal. The most notable scandal dates back to 1074 and involves a wicked monk named Robert the Hermit (and you can’t get much more authentically gothic than wicked monks).

At this stage there has been no crime committed. It is possible that crimes were committed at House-on-the-Hill in the past although that is by no means certain either. Robert the Hermit disappeared nine centuries earlier but he may simply have left the district. The odd deaths may not have had any sinister aspects to them at all.

What is happening is that Theodore Terhune and Julia are becoming more and more drawn under the spell of that old house. Perhaps there were crimes committed there, perhaps not, but the history of house is full of bizarre incidents and extraordinary characters. There are historical puzzles to solve. Theodore loves this sort of stuff. Julia thought she wasn’t the least bit interested in such matters but her curiosity has been kicked into overdrive.

The house had been in a very dilapidated state. Salvaterra has had it magnificently restored. Now that the house is full of light and life is it still sinister. Terhune thinks it is, in a way, but he also thinks that he’s being irrational.

Of course eventually we do get a modern puzzle to add to the historical puzzles, and there is the possibility of some ink between those long ago events and events in the present day. But again the matter is ambiguous. Everything in this book is ambiguous.

There’s also the question of romance. Theodore and Julia have been thrown together and when you add a shared obsession the possibility of romance is obvious. But Bruce Graeme does not like being obvious.

And of course there are books. Terhune is a man who looks to books for answers but in this case the books just seem to raise further questions.

Terhune is a likeable although very bookish young man. Julia is a wonderful character - she has all the ingredients to make her a nasty piece of work and yet she isn’t. She has her own demons to wrestle with. She’s a wildly contradictory but totally believable character.

Is it fair play? The answer to that has to be ambiguous as well. Graeme was trying to write a mystery but he was consciously trying to make it unconventional. If you expect this novel to conform rigidly to the conventions of golden age detective fiction then you’re misunderstanding the author’s intentions. But, as in his first Theodore Terhune novel, Graeme might play with the conventions, he might play with them quite a bit, but he isn’t trying to overthrow them.

House With Crooked Walls is a gothic novel and a detective story and (very much) a book for bibliophiles. I thought it was odd but rather wonderful. Highly recommended.

The Theodore Terhune mysteries have been reprinted by Moonstone Press, with introductions by J.F. Norris.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Philip Loraine's Day of the Arrow

Day of the Arrow by Philip Loraine was the 1964 source novel for the superb and unfairly neglected low-key British horror movie Eye of the Devil (1966).

Robin Estridge (1920-2002) was a British author of suspense novels who wrote under a couple of pseudonyms, including Philip Loraine. He’s one of those many writers who enjoyed some success only to then disappear into almost complete obscurity.

There are some differences between novel and film but the core of the story remains the same.

The novel is told mostly through the eyes of young Scottish painter James Lindsay. It begins when he sees Françoise, the Marquise de Montfaulcon, leaving a Paris hotel with her lover. This surprises him a good deal. Françoise had been so much in love with her husband Philippe and she’s just not the sort of woman to take a lover. Lindsay and Françoise have a bit of a history. Lindsay had hoped to marry her before she chose Philippe. Lindsay is even more surprised when Françoise telephones him. She needs his help. Her husband has told her he is going to die.

Philippe had suffered a slight injury a short while before and Françoise had persuaded the doctor to give him a very thorough checkup. There is absolutely nothing wrong with him physically. But Françoise believes him when he tells her he is about to die.

Lindsay joins Françoise at Bellac, the Montfaulcon estate. He discovers something, mostly just tantalising hints, of the family’s history. They have been lords of Bellac for thirteen centuries. And a truly astonishing number of male heads of the family have met violent deaths in mysterious circumstances. The atmosphere at Bellac is unnaturally silent and a little grim. The vines have failed again.

There’s an odd collection of people there. There’s a young man named Christian. On his first day at Bellac Lindsay sees Christian shoot a dove with a bow and arrow. There’s Philippe’s young cousin Odile, a strange girl reputed to be a witch. But this is the 1960s. There are no witches in the 1960s. That magic trick she performed was clearly just an illusion. What else could it be?

The atmosphere at the chateau is subtly disturbing. Even Philippe prays a lot, which he never did before. Lindsay always assumed that Philippe was a non-believer.

Nobody seems to want to notice that something is strange here. Lindsay’s attempts to find answers almost cost him his life. Lindsay has the evidence he needs to explain the mystery but he can’t put the pieces together, or rather he just cannot except the true explanation.

Philippe and Françoise are much younger in the novel, compared to the movie, and there’s more emphasis on the unhealthiness of their sexual relationship.

In the movie Christian and Odile are brother and sister, which I think adds an interesting extra layer. And they’re much more disturbing in the movie. What’s interesting is that the movie downplays the sexual problem in the marriage between Philippe and Françoise but adds an interesting sexual subtext involving Christian and Odile.

The movie is definitely better than the book - its visual style conveys the atmosphere of subtle menace and strangeness far more effectively than Loraine’s prose. In both book and movie the hints of the supernatural are very subtle and very ambiguous (and I’m certainly not going to tell you if there really is anything supernatural) but they’re also handled more effectively in the movie.

The basic story is the same and it’s a pretty good story. There’s a bit more mystery in the book than the movie, but a bit less suspense. It’s a bit hard for me to judge the novel because having seen the movie I knew the nature of the secret of Bellac so the shock revelation was blunted a little for me.

This is a slow-burning story with the sense of menace being rather subtle.

Overall, not as good as the movie but still an interesting occult thriller. Recommended.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Richard S. Prather’s Bodies in Bedlam

Bodies in Bedlam, published by Gold Medal in 1951, was the second of the Shell Scott private eye mystery thrillers written by Richard S. Prather (1921-2007). He would go on to write many many more.

Private eye Sheldon “Shell” Scott is attending a swanky Hollywood party. Not his usual scene but a while back he did a big favour for the head of Magna Studios which is how he got the invite to the party. It turns out to be quite a night. Some lunkhead annoys him and Shell (who has a bit of a temper) takes a swing at him. Shell meets a doll in a hoop skirt and a silver mask (it’s a costume party). And the lunkhead (a guy named Roger Brane) winds up very very dead, with his throat cut quite spectacularly.

To the police everybody at the party is a possible suspect but obviously a private eye who took a swing at the murder victim shortly before the murder is going to be one of their favoured suspects. Shell is not very happy about that. Captain Samson at the Homicide Squad is an old buddy and he doesn’t believe for a second that Shell is guilty but the officer assigned to the case, Lieutenant Kerrigan, hates Shell’s guts and would love to pin a murder rap on him.

And then Shell finds himself with a new client - the silver-masked doll from the party. The doll, whose name is Hallie, is pretty worried and with good reason - her hoop skirt and silver mask were found next to Brane’s body. Shell is sure that Hallie is innocent because she’s really cute and really friendly and he likes her.

Roger Brane is (or was) a painter, and a pretty good one. He had plenty of money but the money din’t come from his painting. Shell figures it might have come from blackmail, and that his speciality may have been blackmailing Hollywood actresses. There are at least four actresses who were at that party who may have been victims of Brane’s blackmailing.

What Shell can’t quite figure out is where Garvey Mace fits into all this. Mace is a businessman, the sort of businessman whose business interests are not exactly strictly legal. In fact he’s a racketeer. He’s not the sort of man who would have anything to do with artists but Mace seems to be really interested in this case.

This is not quite hardboiled fiction. You could call it medium-boiled. There’s plenty of wry humour. It’s moderately violent and quite sexy.

Prather has quite a prose style and a gift for sparkling dialogue. The tone is cheeky and irreverent and generally fairly light. The emphasis is on entertainment. There’s none of the grim pessimism or misanthropy that you find in some hardboiled fiction.

Shell Scott had been a Marine during the war and he didn’t like it. He likes being a private detective. For one thing you get to meet lots of interesting women. Shell likes women a lot. And some of the women he meets are real friendly. Shell likes that.

Shell can handle himself pretty well and he can be a tough guy when it’s necessary but he doesn’t enjoy brutalising people. He’s no sadist. He has occasional outbursts of anger but he’s not a guy who likes to go looking for trouble. If trouble finds him then he deals with it. Mostly he has a cheerful outlook. He’s definitely not a psychologically tortured hero. And he likes fish. Tropical fish. He has tropical fish in his home and in his office. He’s not a Mike Hammer-style private eye. He’s also not a Philip Marlowe-style private eye. He’s not introspective. He just wants to make a living and enjoy life. He’s a very likeable hero. He also drives a canary-yellow ’41 Cadillac convertible, which he seems a bit embarrassed by. He’s not the world’s greatest detective and he doesn’t have unrealistic ideas about his own abilities.

There are some good action moments, especially the fight in the car.

It’s all wildly politically incorrect of course, which adds to the fun.

The details of the blackmail racket are very clever and original. Hollywood doesn’t just provide a glamorous background - the movie industry plays a key role in the plot.

Bodies in Bedlam is fast-paced fun with a nice mix of action and humour. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

H. Beam Piper’s Time Crime

H. Beam Piper’s short novel Time Crime was originally published in two parts in the February and March 1955 issues of Astounding Science Fiction.

H. Beam Piper (1904-1964) was an American writer of science fiction (and wrote in other genres as well).

The premise is definitely interesting. At some point in the distant future human society has entirely exhausted all the resources of Earth. Human civilisation would have been doomed but for a lucky discovery - the discovery of billions of parallel universes and, even more importantly, the development of technology to allow humans to move from one timeline to another. With all those worlds to exploit the future of humanity is guaranteed.

This human civilisation is essentially a parasite civilisation, exploiting the resources of other civilisations. It is however a mostly benign parasite civilisation - humans have learnt to keep their exploitation of other worlds within strict limits, and to limit their interference in those other worlds. Making sure that those limits are respected, and keeping the timeline-jumping capability a secret from those other civilisations, is the job of the Paratime Police.

Now there’s a problem. An officer from the Paratime Police has discovered a shipment of slaves in the Esaron Sector and those slaves are from a different timeline. Slavery is a local custom in that timeline so the Paratime Police aren’t worried about that issue but transposing people from one timeline to another is forbidden and is a major security problem. In fact it’s a crisis.

Verkan Vall is the timecop who has to get to the bottom of the situation. He gets valuable assistance from his wife Hadron Dalla (recruited as a temporary timecop). He soon finds that he’s uncovered a vast conspiracy and it has major political repercussions.

The crime investigation aspect of the story is handled reasonably well but it’s the central idea (and the detail with which it’s developed) that makes this novel worthwhile. Each timeline represents a different history of human civilisation on Earth, ranging from Stone Age cultures to fairly advanced civilisations.

Piper makes the exploration of alternate timelines as adventurous as other writers made the exploration of other planets. In the Paratime world human civilisation is limited to Earth, Mars and Venus with interstellar travel having apparently never been developed. But with billions of timelines to choose from humans have access to much wider frontiers than even interstellar travel could have offered and of course the advantage is that in every timeline Earth is an inhabitable planet.

Piper went on to write a number of other Paratime stories and novels.

Don’t expect any attempts at characterisation or any emotional sub-plots - this is classic ideas-driven golden age science fiction. What matters is whether the ideas are good enough, and in this case they are.

There is some action, including a full-scale planetary assault.

Apart from having several divisions of highly armed troops at their disposal the Paratime Police also have access to high-tech mind control technology - they can erase memories and create false memories. This adds an additional layer to the novel.

There’s an interesting amorality to this story - this is an unapologetically exploitative society in which cynicism, corruption, deception, manipulation and political repression are taken for granted. And these are the heroes of the story. They’re the good guys. The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys are better at lying and cheating. If you like idealism in your science fiction you won’t find any here.

Armchair Fiction have re-issued this book as part of their wonderful series of double-header paperbacks (this one has been paired with Leigh Brackett’s Last Call from Sector 9G).

Time Crime is a bit convoluted at times and it’s hard to keep track of the many characters since none of them has even a shred of personality and they all have similar sorts of names. It’s still recommended as an interesting early exploration of the infinite parallel universes idea.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Ian Fleming's Octopussy and The Living Daylights

When Ian Fleming died in 1964 he left behind one unfinished Bond novel (The Man with the Golden Gun of which he had only completed the first draft) and a few short stories that had not been collected in book form. The Man with the Golden Gun was published in 1965 and the following year Fleming’s publishers, Jonathan Cape, released Octopussy which contains two of the short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights. For the paperback edition another story, Property of a Lady (a story Fleming absolutely hated and was embarrassed by) was added. Much later editions included a fourth story, 007 in New York.

The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights was originally published in The Sunday Times colour supplement in early 1962. It’s an interesting story because it focuses almost entirely on Bond’s motivations and his feelings about his work. That’s not to say that it’s by any means plotless (and there is a very neat twist at the end) but the events of the plot are used to tell us something about Bond the man.

Bond has been given a new assignment and he’s very unhappy about it. A British spy, code-named 272, is making his escape from East Berlin. Unfortunately the East Germans know all about the escape attempt from a double agent (a double agent that the British discovered too late). 272 will have to cross an area of open ground to reach the border and it is certain that a KGB sniper will be there to kill him as he crosses that open ground. Bond’s job is to kill the KGB sniper first.

Bond can see that his job is necessary but it still seems to him to be too much like cold-blooded murder. And after all, that KGB sniper will simply be doing his duty by killing a dangerous enemy of the state, just as Bond will simply be doing his duty by killing the sniper.

Bond has three days to wait in Berlin. He spends those days desperately trying to keep occupied. He visits museums and art galleries. He visits the zoo. He amuses himself by watching (from his assassin’s perch) the young ladies in a women’s orchestra trooping in and out of the Ministry of Culture building just across the border. There’s a very pretty young lady ’cellist who catches his eye. She reminds Bond of the joys of life at a time when he is waiting to kill a man.

Bond decides that if he’s going to do this killing he’s going to have a very large Scotch first. His spotter, Captain Sender, gets all prissy about this and tells Bond he’s going to put him on report for drinking on the job. Bond expresses the hope that he will lose his Double-0 number as a result so he won’t have to do any more killing.

Sender represents a totally different approach to the job compared to Bond. Sender is the kind of man who loves following orders to the letter. Bond dislikes him intensely.

Much has been made of Bond’s sadism but this story shows a different side to his character. He can be ruthless but killing in cold blood really does affect him.

The Living Daylights could easily have been made into an episode of Callan. It has the same atmosphere of disillusionment.

The Property of a Lady

The Property of a Lady was written for Sotheby’s for their house journal and obviously they wanted an auction room story. The story concerns a double agent and a fabulously valuable Fabergé terrestrial globe about to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. In typical Fleming style the jewels being auctioned are described in loving detail.

But this is just a nothing story. It’s easy to see why Fleming considered it to be an abject failure. It’s just a way to pad out the collection. It would have been better to just forget this story which was what Fleming wanted to do.

007 in New York

007 in New York is a very short throwaway story (which was later incorporated into Fleming’s non-fiction book Thrilling Cities). It’s mostly just Bond’s impressions of New York - what he likes and dislikes about the city. There is a very very thin spy plot. Almost non-existent. You get one thing you don’t expect - a whimsical humorous ending. And you get James Bond’s recipe for scrambled eggs. It’s hardly a story at all, just a literary trifle, but it’s moderately diverting.


Fleming wasn’t entirely comfortable with the short story format and it didn’t really suit his talents as a writer. What he did do with some of his short stories was to take a less conventional approach compared to his novels. And that’s the case with Octopussy, written in early 1962. Bond is merely a peripheral character and the story would have worked perfectly well without him. Octopussy is the story of Major Dexter Smythe, described as the wreck of a Secret Service man.

Smythe’s utterly futile existence in Jamaica is divided between drinking too much and communing with his only real friends, the fish that live in the waters near his little estate. His favourite of all the marine creatures is an octopus he is trying to tame. He has christened her Octopussy. He hopes to find out what will happen if he can catch a scorpion fish for her. The scorpion fish is deadly to humans, but possibly not to an octopus.

Then a chap from the Ministry of Defence turns up. His name is Bond. James Bond. Smythe realises immediately that Bond is an MI6 man, and that means the game is up. His secret has been discovered. That’s very bad news but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Smythe has a bad heart and is living on borrowed time anyway (which of course was true of Ian Fleming in 1962).

Most of the story is a flashback to the end of the war, relating to certain events in the mountains of Austria. Those events have now caught up with Major Smythe.

It’s an odd story but an interesting one. Like Captain Sender in The Living Daylights Major Smythe is an example of a spy gone wrong. Sender is officious, petty and spiteful in a cowardly sort of way. Smythe was a decent enough chap who succumbed to temptation, which corrupted his soul. Octopussy is a study of the psychology of a spy gone to the bad.

Final Thoughts

Of the four stories here one is worthless and one is a mere piece of fluff. That leaves us with just two stories worthy of consideration, The Living Daylights and Octopussy. Are they good enough to make the book worth buying? I’d say yes, if you’re a hardcore Fleming fan and you’ve read all (or at least most) of the novels. Recommended, but read the novels first.