Monday, November 29, 2021

Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place was one of the later and more highly praised of Dorothy B. Hughes’ crime novels. The 1950 film adaptation directed by Nicholas Ray has also been highly praised although it bears little resemblance to the novel.

Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was an American writer of crime fiction with a hardboiled and at times noir edge. She started writing crime novels in 1940 and her career petered out by the end of the 40s.

The novel is so different from the film that you needn’t think that anything I have to say about it will be a spoiler for the movie. They are entirely different stories. The only similarity is that some of the character names are the same. But they’re different characters and the events of the novel have no connection whatsoever with the events of the movie.

Now I should say upfront that this is the kind of crime novel that I usually avoid. It’s a serial killer story and I intensely dislike serial killer stories. It’s also one of those psychological crime novels that tries to put the reader into the mind of a killer, and that’s another kind of novel I generally avoid. They always strike me as being phoney and contrived as well as being somewhat distasteful. But having recently rewatched the movie and having heard that the book is so different my curiosity was piqued.

Dix Steele (who is a much younger man than the Dix Steele of the movie) was a flyer during the war. Now he’s living in LA on an allowance from his uncle while pretending to be a writer. He’s just run into an old wartime buddy, a guy named Brub. Brub is now a detective with the LAPD. Brub is working on the strangler case - a series of sex murders that has been terrorising the city.

We know right from the start that Dix is the strangler. He’s confident that he’s not going to be caught because he’s convinced that he’s an incredibly smart guy and that he knows no fear. Hanging around with a friend who’s a cop is a risk but it adds spice.

Things change for Dix when he meets Laurel Gray (who despite having the same name is not the same character depicted in the movie). He sees a chance for an actual relationship with a woman. The problem is that he doesn’t really understand Laurel and he gets entirely the wrong idea about what she wants from him. She’s attracted to him and she’s willing to share his bed but Dix starts thinking about stuff like marriage. It’s obvious that Dix is just not very good at reading women. He makes assumptions about them and then when they don’t measure up to his fantasies he gets resentful. Then he decides that they’re just whores.

Dix himself has spent his whole life using people. In the movie he’s a once successful screenwriter whose career is on the skids but in the book he’s a loser right from the start. He thinks he’s a winner, or at least he thinks he’s entitled to be a winner, but making any real effort is too much trouble for him.

His real problems started during the war when he fell in love with a girl named Brucie. That ended badly. Really badly, as we’ll later discover.

The murders keep happening and Dix keeps thinking he’s two steps ahead of the cops.

The problem in this book is Dix’s motivation. This could be partly because Hughes didn’t think she could dare be open about the motivations of a sex killer. The word rape is used only once. It’s certainly implied the strangler rapes his victims before killing them. But the book is vague about the extent to which he is a sex killer. He seems to have other motivations as well.

It’s always a problem for a woman writer to try to get inside the head of a male character (just as it’s difficult for a male writer to get inside the head of a female character). The problem becomes more acute when the character’s motivations are emotional and sexual. It’s difficult enough to understand the sexuality of a normal member of the opposite sex but when it’s someone who is clearly not normal the problem becomes critical. I’m not convinced that Hughes carries it off successfully, but it is a fiendishly difficult thing to do.

We see everything through Dix’s eyes. He’s playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police but he doesn’t seem to understand that the odds are always stacked against the mouse. He doesn’t understand that he’s the hunted, not the hunter. The cat-and-mouse game aspect is handled quite well.

On the whole it’s a moderately involving story but as I said at the outset this book belongs to a sub-genre that is not my cup of tea at all. Those who like psychological crime novels might enjoy this one a lot more than I did. I was a bit underwhelmed.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (TV tie-novel)

John Theydon’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, published in 1967, was the first of three TV tie-novels based on  Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s legendary cult television series of the same name.

This novel is obviously going to appeal mostly to dedicated fans of the television series. But if you do fall into that category then you’ll find it to be a surprisingly competent and entertaining little adventure.

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

Sunday, November 21, 2021

E. Howard Hunt's The Violent Ones

The Violent Ones is a 1950 thriller by E. Howard Hunt.

E. Howard Hunt (1918-2007) had what might be called an interesting life. He spent many years as a CIA agent, and quite a senior one. Hunt was one of the infamous Watergate “plumbers” and spent nearly three years in prison as a result. There are countless conspiracy theories (all entirely unproven) linking Hunt to all manner of alleged CIA operations such as the assassination of President Kennedy. The covert operations that he was definitely known to be involved in are colourful enough, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Hunt combined his career as a spy with a very successful career as a writer, a career that spanned nearly six decades. He published 73 books including hardboiled crime novels and spy thrillers.

And he was an extremely good writer. His hardboiled crime thriller House Dick is highly recommended and his spy thrillers are more than competent. I reviewed One of Our Agents Is Missing a while back and it’s pretty darned good. So Hunt is a writer you’re likely to pick up on account of his notoriety but you’ll go back to him because the guy really could write. He’s not quite in the top tier but in both the crime and spy genres he qualifies as a very good and very entertaining second-tier writer.

The Violent Ones can be described as a hardboiled thriller with definite spy fiction overtones.

Paul Cameron is an American who has just returned to France. He’d spent many years there, he speaks faultless French and he’d been mixed up in covert operations involving the Resistance. He’s gone back to France because he received a letter from from an old friend, Phil Thorne, an American diplomat who’s become involved in something he just can’t handle. He’s also gone back to France because he figures there’s nothing for him in America, not after serving a prison term for beating his wife’s lover to a pulp and leaving the guy in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

In Paris he runs into Marcelle again. He’d known, and loved, her during the war but that was a long time ago and you can’t go back to the past. Or maybe you can. It might not be a good idea, but in his lifetime Cameron has done plenty of things that were probably not good ideas and he’ll undoubtedly do plenty more such things.

There’s also Mari, a Hungarian chanteuse. Getting mixed up with her would be a really bad idea so you know that that is exactly what he’s going to do.

He also has a corpse on his hands. Cameron had nothing to do with the murder but with his record that corpse could lead to misunderstandings with the French police.

And he finds that the past has a tendency to intrude on the present. A certain event took place during the war, involving a very large amount of gold. A variety of dangerous people now want that gold. Those people include communists, right-wing former Resistance fighters, the French Government and out-and-out crooks. Phil Thorne is also looking for that gold.

Hunt belongs to the school of thriller writes that holds that if you’re going to write a thriller you’re going to need lots of actions and lots of glamorous dangerous women. I have to say that I thoroughly approve of this formula. When Cameron isn’t getting beaten up he’s jumping into bed with an assortment of femmes fatales.

Hunt does have one odd stylistic tic. He often slips into second-person narration which is unsettling at first but you get used to it and in its own way it works.

The book has a classic spy/adventure thriller plot but it has a noir fiction atmosphere. And Cameron is more of a noir fiction protagonist than a conventional 1950-vintage thriller or spy fiction hero. He’s a man who’s made some bad decisions. Sometimes he made bad decisions because he just couldn’t see what else he could do. He is not however a mere loser. He has not given up on life although there are times when he’s come close to doing so. He’s no starry-eyed idealist but he’s not a complete cynic either. Fate has dealt him a bad hand but he’s going to try to play his cards as well as he can. He has no idea whether he has a chance of winning and the reader doesn’t know either.

There are three women in the story.Mari and Marcelle I’ve already mentioned but there’s also Renee du Casse, who owns the casino at Menton. All three seem to fit the femme fatale mould. There are also a number of men who, during the war, had some connection to that gold. There are three in particular, each of whom could be a villain, a hero or an innocent bystander.

As for the gold, the problem is to to find out where it is. Cameron has a few clues to work on, as does the reader.

The Violent Ones is relentlessly fast-paced and exciting. It’s a hardboiled noir-flavoured mystery thriller. It offers both sleaze and glamour. It has a pleasing hint of pulp trashiness. And it’s very politically incorrect. Oddly, given Hunt’s CIA background, it makes no attempt to bludgeon the reader with political messaging.

Hunt had no great literary aspirations but he understood both pulp fiction and noir fiction. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Frederick C. Davis’s High Heel Homicide (which is also pretty good) is one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Donald E. Keyhoe's Strange Staffels

Strange Staffels is a collection of short stories by Donald E. Keyhoe, all featuring American fighter ace and intelligence agent Captain Philip Strange, the famous Brain-Devil. It’s one of several Philip Strange collections that have been published by Ace of aces books.

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was an American pulp writer in several genres but was most notable as a writer of science fiction-tinged aviation adventure stories. He later became a UFO enthusiast. Keyhoe had been a Marine Corps pilot and then a kind of aviation impresario. He started writing while recovering from an aircraft crash.

The Philip Strange Stories mix First World War aerial combat, horror, science fiction, weird fiction and espionage.

Before the war Captain Philip Strange had had a mentalist/hypnotism act in a carnival and had studied various eastern esoteric practices. He doesn’t have supernatural or occult powers but he does have certain powers that would today be described as paranormal although mostly he relies on his training as an intelligence officer and his profound knowledge of hypnotism and psychology. At the start of the First World War he was assigned to G-2, the US Army Air Corps’ intelligence section. He was both a fighter ace, a spy and a spy-hunter.

The stories range from moderately outlandish to very outlandish and they’re all packed with action. The stores all involve Strange’s efforts to foil devilishly clever German plots. The stories are always imaginative and Keyhoe always manages to throw in at least one genuinely bizarre (an often creepy) element.

Satan’s Staffel was published in the March 1934 issue of Flying Aces. Captain Philip Strange of G-2 has his first inkling of trouble when he encounters a black German aircraft and gets a glimpse of the pilot - it is a woman, with a face like a Medusa. The German aircraft seems impossible to shoot down - his machine-gun bullets simply have no effect. Then the female pilot stands up in her cockpit and her aircraft explodes in a gigantic fireball.

Strange survives this aerial duel but when he lands he finds out that this is just the latest in a series of encounters American airmen have had with these crazed female pilots.

When one of the black aircraft is forced down Philip Strange begins to understand the true horror of this latest fiendish and inhuman plan of the Germans. There is nothing supernatural about it but the reality is worse than any supernatural horror.

Strange is sent on a desperate mission to infiltrate this terrifying Amazon squadron, and he will need all his skills as a spy if he is to survive.

The Vanishing Staffel was published in Flying Aces in December 1932. Allied planes are taking off and vanish into thin air. Machine-gun fire is coming from out of nowhere. Dazed survivors mumble about the world disappearing. It’s another devilish German plot, and it means a vast German aerial armada can strike anywhere it chooses without being seen.

The Germans have devised a kind of stealth technology, that’s clear enough to Captain Strange. What he needs to find out is how the trick is worked. To add to the problems there’s a German spy in the French Air Force.

Once again Keyhoe mixes science fiction with aerial adventure and the science stuff is very clever.

Hoodoo Drome (published in Flying Aces in November 1933) is more of a straightforward stories of espionage and sabotage without any overt science fictional elements.

It starts with an American general murdering a French general. Strange gets involved in an American plan to cover up the murder. At the same time American aircraft have been mysteriously exploding in mid-air and then American aviators start shooting down American planes. Philip Strange believes all these odd occurrences are linked. Of course he’s right but the real German plot is much more ambitious. It involves mining (mining to plant explosives under enemy trench systems was a popular idea in the First World War) and in this story both the Germans and the Allies are using the idea.

There’s action on the ground, under the ground and in the air. And there are German spies everywhere.

Skull Staffel appeared in Flying Aces in December 1934. The Germans are creating havoc with fighter aircraft that are virtually silent and virtually invisible (Keyhoe was a big fan of the idea of various types of what today we would call stealth technologies). But there’s a bigger problem - a vital map showing details of Allied defensive positions and the Germans have gained possession of it.

Once again Strange comes up against clever and ruthless German spies.

The Skeleton Barrage was published in Flying Aces in April 1936. It starts in typical Keyhoe fashion - American airfields are being wiped out. Totally wiped out - all that is left is a gigantic crater. G-2 have come into possession of a strange drawing made by an Allied spy - Strange is sure there’s a vital message contained in the picture but it’s in some sort of obscure visual code that nobody can make any sense out of.

A German spy, about to be captured, throws a camera into a river. The camera is another clue but in typical Keyhoe style it’s another clue that is mystifying rather rather than enlightening even to Philip Strange.

Then Strange, flying in his Spad, sees fiery skeletons plunging to earth (accompanied by a hideous wailing sound) as another airfield is wiped off the map. When he lands Strange encounters a high-ranking German naval officer - German spies are commonplace but a German naval officer up to no good on an Allied airfield is quite a surprise.

This is part of another grandiose German high-tech scheme which is so clever I’m not going to give you any hints as to its nature.

The Staffel of the Starved was published in Flying Aces in May 1936. The Germans have been doing odd things with their artillery barrages and mysterious coded messages have been picked up. Then something really odd happens - a German aviator who landed his aircraft and killed three French radio operators (who were monitoring those coded messages) is found dead - but he died of starvation! Even more odd, he was one of Germany’s top fighter aces.

Then an American pilot is murdered by a French pilot and American fighters start shooting down French fighters.

The Staffel Invisible appeared in the May 1939 issue of Flying Aces. Philip Strange sees two American aircraft shot down but there is not a sign of a German aircraft anywhere. It’s as if the American flyers have been shot down by invisible enemies.

Strange lands and sees more bizarre things - a head and shoulders appear from nowhere and his own Spad disappears and then reappears. Strange disguises himself as a German officer and takes off in his Spad and ends up landing on an airfield that isn’t there.

All seven stories are weird, exciting and enjoyable.  Strange Staffels is highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier volume of Philip Strange stories, Strange War, as well as a couple of collections, of other aviation adventures by Keyhoe - Vanished Legion (WW1 aerial stories) and the Richard Knight stories (aviation-espionage adventures set in the 1930s). And to demonstrate that Keyhoe didn’t just write aviation stories there’s his fun diabolical criminal mastermind novel Dr Yen Sin #1 The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Little Orphan Vampires

Little Orphan Vampires is perhaps not the sort of book I'd usually talk about here, being a novel from 1993.

It's a short novel by Jean Rollin (1938-2010). Rollin is better known in the English-speaking world as the director of strange surreal erotic horror movies with the emphasis on the surrealism and with a twisted fairy tale feel to them. In his native France he enjoyed more success as a novelist, working in the fantasy and horror genres. 

Little Orphan Vampires is the tale of two young blind orphan girls who may or may not be vampires but they are certainly killers. Whether or not they are evil is also open to debate.

My full review can be found at my Cult Movie Reviews blog. Here's the link.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Frederick C. Davis's High Heel Homicide

High Heel Homicide is a 1961 hardboiled crime novella by Frederick C. Davis (1902–1977) who had been a prolific pulp writer back in the 30s.

Johnny Trexler, the narrator, has a fairly senior position at a TV studio. Driving past his boss Victor Gaylord’s house in the early hours of the morning he sees a woman run out in front of his car. The woman then jumps into a parked car and speeds off. Trexler, a little uneasy, decides to check that everything is OK in the house, and in the guest house he finds Gaylord’s dead body. He has been murdered, with a Boy Scout hatchet.

There are bloody footprints, and they are the footprints of a woman. Trexler puts two and two together and figures that the woman who ran in front of his car must have been the murderess. But there are signs that Gaylord had been entertaining not one but two women. And, as it later turns out that his wife was in Chicago that night, neither women could have been his wife. Trexler also finds a note that is an obvious clue and for some reason he feels compelled to pocket that note rather than leaving it for the police to find. He has an uneasy feeling that he should have recognised the woman in the street and that he should have recognised the handwriting on the note.

Trexler isn’t particularly sorry that Victor Gaylord is dead. While Gaylord was alive Trexler’s job at the TV studio was under a cloud so from a purely selfish point of view Gaylord’s death is not such a bad thing for Johnny Trexler. And he heartily disliked Gaylord (most people heartily disliked Gaylord).

Trexler’s main concern is to avoid getting involved in any investigation. He doesn’t need the aggravation and when the police start snooping the fact that he doesn’t have a rock-solid alibi might become a problem. Because he doesn’t know what else to do he rings his friend Bryce, also a senior guy at the studio, and they decide it’s best to keep quiet and just wait for the police to discover the body.

Trexler has another problem. He has a bullet wound in his arm, acquired while he was poking around Victor Gaylord’s guest house. He has no idea who shot him. He also doesn’t know why. He was lying ion the ground and he was shot at close range. He should be a corpse. But all he has is a slight wound in the left arm.

He’s pretty sure the killer is a woman associated with the TV studio. Gaylord played around with the ladies and didn’t treat them any too well so lots of the women at the studio might have had a motive.

His girlfriend Val, one of the top actresses at the studio, might even have done it but she has an alibi. He and Bryce can more or less alibi each other but the murderer was definitely a woman. Bryce’s wife Mona, a rather unstable actress, might have been involved in the murder. She’s acting rather strangely. There’s evidence for and against that theory. Allene, a staff writer, is also behaving oddly. Maybe she could be a suspect. Trexler is pretty confused about the whole thing. Val doesn’t seem quite so confused. She has a theory.

The second murder seems to confuse things more.

The method by which the killer distracts the attention of the police onto others is quite clever. The whole murder plan turns out to be quite clever. There’s some good misdirection. The TV studio setting is interesting. There are plenty of plausible motives. There are plenty of plausible suspects but the most likely suspects from the point of view of motive seems to be the least likely suspects when it comes to opportunity.

Trexler’s idea of keeping clear if the investigation turns out to be a bad idea since he finds himself caught in the middle anyway. But even if he’d called the cops straight away it probably wouldn’t have helped.

It’s a pretty decently plotted story. It’s really only mildly hardboiled. Trexler is maybe not the smartest guy in the world but eventually he starts to figure out at least some of what’s going on. His judgment is sometimes suspect and he jumps to conclusions at times but he’s not such a bad guy. He’s quite sympathetic in is own way.

Davis’s style is a bit pulpy but that’s mostly a plus. There’s a solid mystery and it’s at least moderately fairly clued. There’s an important clue early on which hinges on what is not seen rather than on what is seen.

Overall this is an enjoyable little tale of murder and mayhem. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this title with E. Howard Hunt’s The Violent Ones in one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones

This Island Earth is by far the best-known work of American science fiction author Raymond F. Jones (1915-1994). It was serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949 and published in novel form in 1952.

Cal Meacham is an engineer with Ryberg Electronics. He’s ordered some condensers from one of their regular suppliers, a firm called Continental. Instead of the condensers he gets an odd letter from Electronic Service-Unit 16 and some tiny glass beads. He contacts Continental but they deny having sent either the letter or the beads. Nobody has ever heard of Electronic Service-Unit 16. Cal is annoyed but on a whim he decides to test the beads. It turns out they are condensers, they’re just much much smaller and much much more efficient than anything he’s ever seen before. And they have some odd properties.

Then Electronic Service-Unit 16 sends him a catalogue. One odd thing abut the catalogue is that it’s not printed on paper but on a substance he has never seen before. Among the many unfamiliar items in the catalogue are components for an interociter. Cal has never heard of an interociter but he decides that he’d like to see one. In fact he’d like to build one. So he orders all the components.

His idea is of course quite silly. To build an unknown device out of hundreds of components (the purpose of all of which are quite unknown to him) without having any knowledge of what the device is or is supposed to do is obviously quite impossible. The strange thing is, he succeeds. And the interociter works.

The successful completion of the interociter results in a job offer from a completely unknown outfit who call themselves Peace Engineers. They have a huge industrial complex near Phoenix. Cal finds himself in an engineer’s dream - he has unlimited resources at his disposal for the kinds of research projects that had only ever been impossible dreams for him.

At the Peace Engineers he meets an old friend named Ole, also an engineer. It seems that Peace Engineers has been head-hunting talent from all over the country. He also meets Dr Ruth Adams. Ruth is the staff psychiatrist at the Peace Engineers complex. She is beautiful and charming but there is one thing about her that is disturbing - the fear he sees in her eyes.

Ruth and Ole are suspicious of the setup at Peace Engineers. They’re convinced that there’s something they haven’t been told.

And then Cal makes two discoveries. The first is the spaceship. The second is that the interociter is more that it appears to be. He confronts the head of the project (a man known as the Engineer) and is told a fantastic story that he believes. Later he’ll be told a quite different story.

Cal and Ruth find out that they are caught up in a vast universe-spanning conflict but the nature of the conflict, their part (and humanity’s part) in that conflict and the potential consequences are perhaps beyond ordinary comprehension.

This novel starts exceptionally well. The first third, the rather low-key buildup to Cal’s initial discoveries is handled very cleverly. Both Cal and the reader are given tantalising hints of very strange things that could have all sorts of explanations. The second third, on a much more cosmic scale (although still with a very real human dimension) is excellent as well. Then it gets a bit side-tracked by politics for a while. But the ending redeems it, with some interesting ethical and intellectual dilemmas involving the nature and psychology of war, the fate of those caught up in wars they did not choose and the advantages and disadvantages of relying on technology.

Cal is an intriguing hero. He’s a mixture of intellectual boldness and naïvete, caught between cold logic and emotion.

This Island Earth is a pretty decent example of 1950s American science fiction that manages to maintain both an epic and a human scale. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the 1955 film adaptation.