Friday, October 29, 2021
Nick Carter is one of the most during characters in the history of fiction. He made his first appearance as a Sherlock Holmes-style detective in dime novels in 1886. He had a long but intermittent run in pulp magazines. In the 1930s he became a pulp hardboiled detective. In the 1960s the character was revived as a James Bond-style secret agent in the long-running Killmaster series of novels which were still being published as late as 1990. He has been featured in various movies and radio serials.
Nick Carter stories have always been credited to Nick Carter as author but in fact countess writers wrote Nick Carter adventures over the years. Web of Spies was written by prolific pulp author Manning Lee Stokes (1911-1976), who seems to have written around twenty books in the series.
Nick Carter, Agent N-3, is a top operator for the American intelligence/espionage agency AXE.
In Web of Spies his assignment is Mission Sappho which involves the kidnapping of a distinguished English lesbian. Not just any old lesbian, but a distinguished English lesbian. Alicia Todd is not only a lesbian, sh’s also a brilliant scientist and a dope-fiend. She’s going to defect to the Russians. Maybe. Nick Carter’s job is to stop her from defecting, or to kill her.
Alicia Todd has been caught in a KGB honey trap. The Russians have sent a glamorous female spy to seduce her.
Nick Carter’s first stop is Tangiers where he re-acquaints himself with Gay Lord. Gay is one of Nick’s exes. She’s a beautiful lady spy and she works for everybody. She works for the Americans and for the Russians and she also works for The Spiders. They’re a shadowy freelance group. They rescue ex-Nazis. But they hate Nazis. Or at least some of them do. There’s a pro-Nazi and an anti-Nazi faction within the Spiders. Gay has landed herself in a mess and she wants Nick to get her out of it. Nick figures he might try to do that. But you have to get your priorities right and the first priority is to sleep with her again, for old times’ sake.
Nick departs from Tangiers leaving a trail of mayhem behind him although to be fair he wasn’t responsible for the mayhem. Next stop is the Costa Brava in Spain where Alicia Todd and the Russian lady spy Tasia Loften are getting to know each other. They’re getting to know each other very well indeed as Nick can testify since he’s been watching them through binoculars.
It all gets rather complicated since it’s not just the Americans the Russians after Alicia Todd. Both factions of the Spiders are involved as well. And there are the Spanish police and Guardia Civil to deal with also. Lots of bloodbaths ensue. We’re talking full-scale battles here. Everyone double-crosses everyone else, with Nick doing more than his fair share of breathtakingly cynical double-dealing.
To add to the gruesomeness there’s a decayed monastery where the monks used to sleep in coffins, and there’s Mr Skull who’s Judas’s chief henchman. He’s not quite a zombie, but close to it and he’s seven feet tall. Judas is a deliciously evil diabolical criminal mastermind.
There’s one thing you’ll notice immediately about this book! The author loves exclamation points! He loves them a lot!
The Nick Carter-Killmaster books are pure pulp fiction with plenty of violence and plenty of sleaze. Manning Lee Stokes wouldn’t win any awards for his literary style but he knows how to keep the action moving along and that’s what matters.
The James Bond influence is obvious. Nick Carter has Bond’s interest in the female of the species but his ruthlessness makes him closer in attitude to Matt Helm. Bond may have had a licence to kill but he was only expected to do so when it was absolutely necessary. Nick Carter, like Matt Helm, is a specialist assassin and his orders to kill are quite explicit. In fact he is given written orders to assassinate people, something which would horrify Bond or even Matt Helm (or any real-life assassin).
Nick Carter is also more obviously hardboiled than Bond. Bond bedded plenty of women in his adventures but he tended to fall in love with them. Nick is more cold-blooded when it comes to women. He also has more than a bit of Mike Hammer in his makeup. He’s quite happy to employ torture if he feels it to be necessary and he’s pretty casual about the number of people he kills. Sometimes he kills because it’s necessary, sometimes merely because it’s more convenient. Oddly enough he’s into yoga.
I read a couple of the Nick Carter-Killmaster books a few years ago (and I enjoyed Spy Castle quite a bit). I picked up Web of Spies on the basis of a favourable review at the Glorious Trash blog.
Web of Spies is outlandish pulpy fun. Highly recommended.
Sunday, October 24, 2021
Diving Death (also published as Dive Into Danger) was their second effort, appearing in 1962.
Inspector Richard Left of Special Branch is lazing in the sun in the picturesque little village of Port-St-Pierre in the south of France. Left is having a long-overdue and well-deserved holiday. He runs into Sir Paul Pallett, a very distinguished archaeologist with whom he has a very slight acquaintanceship. Sir Paul casually asks Left if his presence in Port-St-Pierre has anything to do with the Knossos, a luxury yacht currently anchored offshore. The Knossos is owned by a nouveau riche type named Dermot Wilson, a type for whom Sir Paul has nothing but contempt. Wilson is there to conduct underwater archaeology (something else for which Sir Paul has nothing but contempt). He considers Wilson to be a dilettante and a charlatan. Wilson has however attracted some archaeological talent to his expedition - a very able chap named Syce and a youngster named Lockhead.
Sir Paul then springs two surprises on Left. He reveals that he has accepted an invitation to go aboard the Knossos on the following day, and he asks of Left would like to accompany him. Left is, truth be told, growing a little bored with his holiday so he accepts.
On board the Knossos are Wilson, Syce, Lockhead, Wilson’s fiancée Julia Ferrers, his secretary Mary Lawton and a diving master named Marshall. As Left and Sir Paul head towards the yacht in a motor launch Wilson swims out to meet them. Marshall, Lockhead, Julia and Mary are all on a dive, seventy feet down investigating the 2,000-year-old wreck of a Greek trading ship (Syce remains topside as safety man). Wilson then dives down to assist them. Shortly afterwards a body floats to the surface, very dead and with a harpoon through the chest.
Left is well out of his jurisdiction but it will take the French police hours to arrive. Left is very much aware that any delay in beginning a murder investigation could mean that vital evidence will be lost. He assumes (correctly) that the French police will not object if he starts that investigation immediately.
Left will also have to consider two other incidents which could be attempted murders.
Lapointe comes up with an ingenious solution but Left isn’t happy with it. Left is not the sort of detective who starts theorising as soon as he’s gathered a few facts. He likes to be sure he has all the facts first. The problem he faces here is that when he believes he has all the facts he still can’t come up with a theory that he’s happy with. He starts to think that his facts have to be wrong somewhere, but those facts all seem so clear-cut. He feels that he must have missed something, and that is in fact what has happened.
This is very much a puzzle-plot mystery in the golden age style. The circumstances mean that the murderer must be one of a very very small group of people - it must be someone who was aboard the Knossos. Left has one immediate priority - to establish the time of death. In this case he is able to do almost to the minute. His second priority is the question of alibis. Every one of the suspects appears to have a rock-solid alibi but one of those alibis must be false. The emphasis on timing and alibis, and the skill with which those elements are handled, will bring a warm glow to the heart of any golden age detection fan.
There are plenty of clues including one of the most delightfully outrageous examples I’ve ever encountered.
The underwater setting for the murder is not just interesting and unusual, it’s an essential plot element. Archaeology is also a bit more than just a colourful background to the tale.
There’s also no shortage of possible motives, and this element is also handled extremely well.
I discovered Charles Forsyte through TomCat’s glowing reviews at Beneath the Stains of Time. And Pretty Sinister Books also features a very favourable write-up on this author (or rather authors).
Used copies of the second and fourth Charles Forsyte books, Diving Death and Murder With Minarets, are not too difficult to find. The first and third books, Diplomatic Death and Double Death, are very very rare.
Diving Death compares extremely well to the very best works of the golden age of detective fiction. It really is that good. Very highly recommended.
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Nightshade opens in Tijuana. Ken Martin (the first person narrator) is looking for Sheila, the woman who ruined his life. He’s not sure what he’s going to do when he finds her. He thinks that maybe he might kill her. He also thinks that maybe he won’t be able to.
He’s looking for her on his own. He can’t ask the police for help because he and Sheila had a misunderstanding with the cops over the death of her husband Charley. Charley was shot to death and both Ken and Sheila were in the house at the time. Ken had been pretending to be Sheila’s brother, which was almost true (they’d been raised together). When the cops figure out that Ken is not Sheila’s brother and that Ken and Sheila were having an affair they draw the obvious conclusion - that they murdered Charley. But they didn’t. They were innocent.
At least Ken knows that he was innocent. He’s now starting to have his doubts about whether Sheila really was innocent.
In Tijuana Ken runs into an old pal named Jimmy (who has also had some misunderstandings with the police over forged cheques). Jimmy knows where Sheila is, and he tells Ken some other disturbing things about her.
There’s another murder and Ken once again finds himself facing a bum murder rap. He has to get out of Mexico fast.
Ken does find Sheila and finds that she’s been having an adventurous time. She’s acquired, and lost, another husband. She stands to inherit a huge fortune as a result but there may be a slight problem with the will. But Sheila had nothing to do with her second husband’s death. Nothing at all. She’s totally innocent. She swears it. And according to the death certificate the guy died of a heart attack.
So we have some typical noir fiction elements assembled here. Ken is your basic noir protagonist. He’s not a bad guy but his judgment isn’t too good and where Sheila is concerned it’s very bad indeed. His bad judgments have landed him in a whole world of pain. Sheila is your basic femme fatale. She wants money and she thinks only saps work for money. She might be a murderess or she might not be. She’s definitely trouble.
Sheila is not the only dangerous female Ken has to worry about. There’s also Irma. He’s not sure what Irma wants and he doesn’t think he can trust her but he sleeps with her anyway. Like I said, his judgment is not too good.
And then there’s Ann. He thinks he can trust Ann, but can she trust him? Ann hates Sheila because Sheila cost her half a million bucks. Irma hates Sheila as well.
Ken doesn’t know if he loves Sheila or if it’s just lust or if he hates her. It doesn’t really matter because they’re all emotions that cloud his judgment.
To make Ken’s life even more miserable the cops are slowly but surely closing in on him.
Whether a noir novel is true noir depends to a large extent on the ending and I’m not going to give you any hints about that. Nightshade certainly has plenty of noir mood.
And lots and lots of sexual tension.
There’s not a huge amount of overt violence although there is a slowly climbing body count.
Armchair Fiction have paired Nightshade with David Wright O’Brien’s Once Is Enough in one of their excellent double-novel editions.
Nightshade is a competent and enjoyable noir thriller. Recommended.
Saturday, October 16, 2021
A young Norwegian scientist at Mount Palomar Observatory notices something odd on a series of photographic plates. It’s a cloud, presumably a gaseous cloud. That in itself is not surprising. Such cloud are common. What is surprising is how quickly it’s grown over the course of two weeks. This suggests that the cloud is moving towards our solar system, possibly quite rapidly.
At about the same time a British amateur astronomer also notices something odd - perturbations in the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Dr Christopher Kingsley makes some calculations based on the amateur astronomer’s findings and the results are startling. He immediately gets in touch with the Americans at Mount Palomar.
The cloud, for it is a gaseous cloud, turns out to be moving very rapidly indeed and directly for our solar system. Further calculations produce results that are not just startling but positively alarming. When it reaches us this cloud will completely block the sun’s rays, possibly for some weeks. The question is what effect this will have on life on Earth. Can such a disaster be survived?
A secret research establishment is established at Nortonstowe in England staffed by top American and British scientists, joined by a Russian astrophysicist and an Australian radio astronomer. Their job is to figure out exactly what is likely to happen and what can be done about it.
This is very hard SF, with quite a bit of maths for those who like that sort of thing. If (like me) you don’t like that sort of thing it doesn’t matter since Hoyle explains things fairly clearly.
Much of the interest in the second third of the book involves political and moral dilemmas, with Kingsley taking what is at times a frightening dispassionate view of the realities of the situation. This is a science fiction impending apocalypse story that reminds me a lot, in its tone, of J.J. Connington’s 1923 classic Nordenholt’s Million which also deals with the possibility of very tough decisions having to be made for the sake of survival.
Things get even more interesting in the final third when Kingsley reaches some astounding conclusions as to the nature of the cloud. It may be intelligent. It may be alive.
The Black Cloud also raises all sorts of questions about the rôle of scientists, scientific ethics and the relationship between science and politics. It could be dangerous if the scientists at Nortonstowe gain too much power but it could also be dangerous if they have too little power. Hoyle handles this aspect of his story in an even more interesting and provocative manner. Hoyle is very cynical about politicians but he’s also somewhat sceptical of scientists who think they understand political and moral issues.
This is high-concept science fiction in the Arthur C. Clarke mould. Hoyle, like Clarke, has limited interest in characterisation although he is slightly more interested in the subject than Clarke. Dr Kingsley is a remarkably intelligent man with some astounding blind spots of which he is entirely unaware. The other characters are really little more than cardboard cut-outs. Which, in this type of science fiction, doesn’t matter at all.
The Black Cloud has some high drama and some genuine tension, it contains some intriguing scientific speculations (as a scientist Hoyle was a bit of a maverick) and some thematic complexity. This is excellent hard SF that doesn’t ignore the human factor. Highly recommended.
A few years after The Black Cloud Hoyle co-wrote the superb BBC science fiction series A for Andromeda, the novelisation of which I’ve reviewed here.
Saturday, October 9, 2021
Judge Dee had figured in a classic 18th-century Chinese detective novel, Dee Goong An, which van Gulik translated into English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The character of Judge Dee was based on a real 7th century magistrate of the Tang Dynasty. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was a major success and van Gulik subsequently wrote a series of modern Judge Dee novels, written partly at least in conformity with the conventions of the 18th-century Chinese detective story.
The Red Pavilion opens with Judge Dee and his faithful reformed-criminal assistant Ma Joong passing through Paradise Island. Paradise Island is an entertainment resort. The entertainment comprises high-stakes gambling and high-class prostitutes. It’s all perfectly legal and while Judge Dee doesn’t personally approve he takes the sensible attitude that prostitution conducted in an orderly manner is overall a benefit to society.
There’s a festival going on and the only accommodation available is the Red Pavilion. It turns out to be most comfortable although the judge is puzzled by the fact that the interior doors haver locks on him. It is explained to him that those who rent the Red Pavilion value their privacy.
The judge encounters a young woman on his verandah. She’s hard to miss. She’s very beautiful and she’s wearing a robe so thin as to be almost transparent. At the moment the robe is wet so it’s entirely transparent and the judge notes that she is wearing nothing whatever underneath the robe. Dee is mildly annoyed until the young woman informs him that she is the current Queen Flower. The Queen Flower is selected from amongst the island’s most celebrated courtesans. It’s not jut an empty honour. It carries great social weight on an island devoted to pleasure. The reigning Queen Flower is not a person one should offend and Dee has great respect for the social conventions. After making sure that Dee has had a really good look at her near-naked body she departs but the judge notices that she seems nervous.
Dee intended to stay just one night on Paradise Island but his old friend Lo, the local magistrate, asks him to take over the investigation of a case of suicide. A young man named Lee, a newly appointed Academician, cut his throat over love for the courtesan Autumn Flower. Autumn Flower turns out to be none other than the Queen Flower Dee has already met. It’s a straightforward case. Young men kill themselves over women all the time. And Autumn Flower is an exceptionally beautiful woman well versed in the art of love so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that she could drive a man to madness and suicide. It all seems very straightforward until Dee makes a horrible discovery in the Red Pavilion. The discovery of this corpse raises serious doubts in Dee’s mind about the supposed suicide of Academician Lee.
Dee painstakingly constructs fairy satisfactory theories to account for all three deaths, but there’s always at least one clue for which the theories do not account. Those clues simply cannot be accounted for at all. That means that Dee’s theories must be partially, or even completely, wrong.
The three murders are all related in some way but are they directly related? Is there one killer or several? Dee is not sure. And this is a Robert van Gulik Judge Dee mystery, which means it is an attempt to conform party to the conventions of the classic western puzzle-plot mystery and partly to the conventions of Chinese detective stories. The reader cannot be entirely certain that assumptions about the solution based on the conventions of western mysteries will prove to be correct.
There are both physical clues and psychological clues in abundance. Autopsies conducted on two of the victims provide Dee with headaches because they reveal things he expected and things he didn’t expect. The Red Pavilion itself provides some important but deceptive clues.
With van Gulik you also get more than just a mystery. You get some fascinating glimpses into Chinese history, culture and jurisprudence (subjects on which van Gulik was extremely knowledgeable), an occasional aside on the subject of Chinese art (on which van Gulik was an acknowledged authority) and some reflections on love, sex and marriage (and van Gulik wrote an important scholarly work on that subject as well).
In this case you certainly get an intricate plot. There are three locked-room puzzles. Two are childishly simple. The third is much trickier. This book is not really a locked-room mystery in the sense of having a locked-room puzzle as the central element. It does however serve a vital plot purpose. The plotting is quite effective with an ending that probably won’t be at all the sort of ending you’re expecting.
As always Ma Joong provides some entertainment. He falls in love with a courtesan named Silver Fairy but that gets complicated as well. In this novel love and sex make life very complicated. More fun is provided by Crab and Shrimp, two oddly likeable strong-arm men employed by the island’s warden.
This is van Gulik at the top of his game - a good mystery but a novel that offers a bit more than a straightforward mystery. Very highly recommended.
You might also want to check out TomCat’s glowing review at Beneath the Stains of Time.
Monday, October 4, 2021
Dr No takes Bond back to Jamaica which had been the setting for the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die. Bond would return to Jamaica once again in The Man with the Golden Gun. Fleming had owned a house in Jamaica since 1945. His first-hand knowledge of the island was obviously an advantage but to Fleming it offered other attractions as a setting, being one of the last outposts of the British Empire (Jamaica did not achieve independence until four years after the publication of Dr No). One of the recurring themes of the Bond novels is Fleming’s bitterness at the loss of the Empire and the declining power and influence of Britain in the post-war world. The Bond novels were in some ways Fleming’s attempt to deal with this unpleasant reality by denying it, and by creating a fantasy world in which it’s always the British Secret Service that saves the day.
Dr No begins with the murder of a man named Strangways, the Secret Service’s Head of Station in Jamaica. His secretary, Mary Trueblood, also a Secret Service agent, is also murdered. The reader certainly knows they were murdered but the reasons for the murder are entirely unknown.
The Secret Service doesn’t even know they were murdered. M assumes that they simply ran off together. Their disappearance will have to be investigated but to M it seems to be an absurdly trivial matter. In fact it would be an ideal matter for James Bond to investigate. Bond is still recuperating after receiving shocking injuries in his previous case so a bit of sunshine and a very routine case will be a good way of getting him slowly back into the swing of things.
As soon as he arrives in Jamaica someone tries to kill him. To Bond that’s a pretty clear indication that this is no routine case. He also has a feeling that there might be something to the bird angle after all. There’s a sanctuary for rare birds on Crab Key, an island thirty miles north of Jamaica, and various ornithologists sent to check up on the birds have met violent deaths. And Crab Key’s only significance is that it contains immense amounts of guano, and there’s big money to be made from bird poo.
Bond hooks up with his old friend Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who was very useful to him on an earlier case, and decides to take a closer look at Crab Key. He’d also like to find out more about the man who owns the island, a half-German half-Chinese chap by the name of Dr No.
When Bond reaches the island we get the scene that became such an iconic part of the Dr No movie - Bond’s encounter on the beach with a beautiful naked blonde girl (in the movie she naturally isn’t naked but wears a bikini). The girl is Honeychile Rider. Bond will also encounter Dr No’s dragon. And eventually Bond and Honey will get to meet Dr No.
By the time this book was published Fleming was already starting to become something of a pop culture phenomenon. He was also starting to make enemies among the critics. Fleming was starting to be accused not just of relying on sex and violence but also on sadism and snobbery. There’s also no doubt that many critics hated the fact that the Bond books were so popular - it just didn’t seem right that an author could achieve so much success by writing books that people wanted to read, rather than by writing the kinds of books that critics thought that people should read.
There’s plenty in this novel for the anti-Bond crowd to hate. There’s torture, and in particular there’s the torture awaiting Honeychile Rider. Once you get to that scene, which doesn’t play out at all the way you might expect, you can’t help feeling that Fleming was having some fun with his critics.
The interesting thing about Honeychile Rider in the novel (compared to the film) is that her beauty is not quite perfect. She has a badly deformed nose, the result of a broken nose that was never set properly. Oddly enough Bond finds that this imperfection in her beauty makes her more appealing. Honey is a rather interesting Bond Girl - she’s both intelligent and naïve, and both gentle and wild.
By the time Fleming wrote Dr No he was really on a roll. The books from Live and Let Die (1954) to Goldfinger (1959) saw him at the peak of his powers. Dr No has all the essential ingredients to make a great Bond novel, and it is a great Bond novel. Highly recommended.
I’ve reviewed the 1962 Dr No movie at Cult Movie Reviews.
Friday, October 1, 2021
Richard B. Sale (1911-1993) was an American pulp writer who graduated to the slick magazines in the 40s and then turned to the writing of screenplays and film directing.
Nick Bradford is wealthy and carefree and he’s sailing his 30-foot schooner in the Caribbean when he runs into trouble. In fact he runs the schooner onto the rocks. Luckily he ends up on a small uncharted island. Or maybe it’s not so lucky.
The first thing he sees is an aircraft (a flying boat) on the beach and it’s on fire. Then he finds a dead man. After which someone starts shooting at him. Then the girl appears. The girl, Loretta Kerr, lives in a rather palatial house on the island. There’s a motley assortment of people in the house. There’s an Englishman, Lord Peter Muir. There’s Loretta’s father, Martin Kerr, who made a fortune selling munitions during the war. He owns the island. There’s a German baron named Poland. And a Frenchwoman named Toussaint. Plus a Mexican servant, Pedro Garcia.
Martin Kerr, the German baron, Madame Toussaint and Lord Peter Muir are all involved in the armaments trade ad they’ve met on the island to cook up a big deal.
So why did one of them try to shoot Nick? The answer is that the people in the house are very frightened. They had a visitor the night before - Death! Or at least they are convinced, or half-convinced, that it was Death. Death came into the house and spoke to them.
Nick is puzzled by that corpse on the beach. It was the pilot of the aeroplane and he’d been strangled but there were no marks on his throat as you’d expect with strangulation. And Nick has a strange experience which half-convinces him as well that Death is stalking the island. He heard a voice telling him things that nobody else could possibly know.
Of course everyone is in a state of semi-hysteria. Maybe their imaginations are getting the better of them. Or their consciences (apart from Nick they’re all arms dealers so they’re in the business of death). There might be a rational explanation. Nick is a level-headed sort of fellow but he’s not entirely sure there really is a rational explanation.
Death strikes again on the following day.
The island setting adds to the terror. The burning of the aeroplane means that all these people are stranded on the island until the next supply boat arrives and that’s three weeks away. And the dead pilot was the only one who knew how to work the radio.
Sale creates a genuinely mysterious atmosphere and since this story was published in Thrilling Mystery and some of the stories published in that pulp are closer to the weird fiction genre than to the conventional mystery genre the reader doesn’t really know whether or not the explanation is going to involve things outside the normal realm of human experience or purely human evil.
The story has a definite anti-war tinge. It’s possible that these arms dealers are going to be punished for their sins, but is their punishment to be supernatural?
It’s all very pulpy (which of course is a good thing) and it’s also totally outrageous but there are some real chills with totally inexplicable deaths. The resolution works for me. I’m not going to give you any hints as to whether that resolution includes a rational explanation or not.
The Isle of Troubled Night is not to be taken too seriously but it is fun and it’s recommended.