Sunday, December 26, 2021

Leslie Charteris's The Brighter Buccaneer

The Brighter Buccaneer by Leslie Charteris is a 1933 short story collection. It features what William Vivian Butler in his excellent 1973 book The Durable Desperadoes (which deals with all the major literary rogues of the interwar years) calls the Mark II Saint. The late Saint, the Saint of the postwar years which Butler describes as the Mark V Saint, is in many ways the most interesting and sophisticated but the Mark II Saint is perhaps more fun. This is Simon Templar at his most carefree, most irresponsible and most sublimely self-confident.

This is also a Simon Templar who is unambiguously and unapologetically a thief and a crook. At this stage he’s a slightly more ethical version of Raffles. Raffles only steals from those who can afford the loss. Simon Templar steals from other crooks and from people who (in his opinion) deserve to be robbed.

This is also a Saint who still works with accomplices including the great love of his life, Patricia Holm. He has not yet become a loner.

All the stories in this collection deal with confidence tricks of some kind, or more specifically they deal with the Saint meting out justice to con-men while enriching himself in a most satisfying way. The confidence tricks are many and varied.

In The Brain Workers Simon rescues a young lady named Ruth Eden who had been attracting unwelcome attentions from her sleazy employer. Ruth has been forced to take on secretarial work after her mother was swindled into buying worthless shares. The Saint has a notion that he may be able to retrieve some of those losses for her. And dealing out justice to swindlers gives him an inordinate amount of pleasure. He may not even have to resort to violence. A very typical but effective Saintly adventure.

In The Export Trade Simon is hired by a solicitor to take a very valuable package to Paris. Simon has every intention of carrying out this commission honestly and faithfully. He is not supposed to open the package but his curiosity tempts him, and he believes one should always succumb to temptation. In this case it turns out to be a profitable decision. A very good story.

The Unblemished Bootlegger is another opportunity for Simon to mete out justice to a swindler (who in this case happens to be a bootlegger as well). Simon disapproves very strongly of swindlers and finds that the best way to deal with is by - swindling them. In this case he takes a different but equally effective approach. It’s unfortunate for this swindler that he doesn’t like the sea. Another good story.

The Owner’s Handicap takes Simon to the races where he becomes extremely interested in a racing scam. Simon knows a few scams of his own, all in a good cause of course. A pretty decent story.

The Tough Egg pits Simon against American gangster Max Kemmler who is making a lot of money from a gambling club in London. The Saint feels that it really would be highly desirable to relieve Max of some of his ill-gotten gains. Max is reputed to be a tough egg, which makes the prospect even more delightful. The Saint could of course simply stage a stick-up but that would be boring and lacking in style and that would deprive the exercise of most of its pleasure. It would be much more fun if Max could be persuaded to take an active part in his own fleecing. Another fine little tale.

The Bad Baron presents Simon with a rival. The Fox has quickly become an even more celebrated thief than the Saint. As for the baron, he owns a fabulously valuable jewel which is going to tempt both the Fox and the Saint. This one has a clever and unexpected, and untypical, ending. It’s a very good story.

The Brass Buddha is a story about a simple con game but with complications. It’s amazing that Charteris was able to write so many stories on this theme while giving each one a slightly different twist. A solid story.

In The Perfect Crime Simon pulls off a remarkably audacious con (with a sleazy money lender as the victim) that even Chief Inspector Teal seems impressed by. Teal knows exactly how Simon did it but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it. A delightful story.

In The Appalling Politician the Saint gets to act as detective, working hand-in-glove with none other than Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal. A very sensitive trade treaty has been stolen and it was a most puzzling crime. Simon discovers that solving mysteries can be almost as much fun as committing crimes, especially when he’s allowed to use his own distinctive methods. Quite a good story.

The Unpopular Landlord, Major Bellingford Smart, isn’t just unpopular. He’s a ruthless crook who mercilessly exploits his tenants. And he’s a crook for whom the Saint has plans. Those plans also involve the Countess of Albury’s diamonds. It’s always worth killing two birds with one stone. A good story.

The New Swindle concerns two con-men, one of whom is a renowned card sharp. They believe they really have found the Holy Grail - a brand-new swindle. The beauty of it is, if it works properly there’s nothing anybody can do about it. The only thing that could possible go wrong would be if Simon Templar decided to take a hand in things. A decent story.

In The Five-thousand-pound Kiss Simon renews an acquaintanceship with a competitor. She happens to be interested in a certain diamond which has also attracted the Saint’s attention. The end result is not what the Saint expected, but then the unexpected rather appeals to him.

The Green Goods Man deals with another very clever con involving the selling of real banknotes. How do you make a profit from selling real rather than counterfeit banknotes? That’s the beauty of the green goods con. And how do you turn such a con back on the con-man? That requires the peculiar talents of the Saint. A clever story.

The Blind Spot is not exactly about a confidence trick as such. It’s about a shady patents lawyer. Simon saves the life of a penniless inventor who has tried to throw himself under a train. The inventor, a man named Inwood, had finally come up with an invention that might actually make money but the shady patents lawyer stole his invention. Simon might not have taken the matter any further had he not remembered another invention he came across recently. This invention didn’t work, and that’s the beauty of it. Another fine story.

The Unusual Ending pits the Saint against an old foe from one of the earlier stories, man about to head off to South America with his ill-gotten gains. The ending of this story is not what the Saint expected but it’s rather neat.

Personally I love stories about confidence tricks so it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to enjoy this collection. What’s interesting is that it includes stories in which the Saint’s motivations are entirely selfless, others in which he is motivated to a large extent by his lust for loot. There are even stories in which the Saint ends up losing, but he doesn’t really lose since it’s the adventure that matters. A fine collection. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Joan Ellis’s Don’t Tell Anyone

Joan Ellis’s Don’t Tell Anyone was published by Midwood Books in 1966.

Later in life Julie Ellis (1919-2006) had a successful career as a writer of suspense, historical and romance fiction but she had an earlier literary career as a writer of pulp sleaze fiction. She was one of the more notable writers in the lesbian sleaze fiction sub-genre although she wrote non-lesbian erotica as well. She wrote in total about 150 novels under her own name and various pseudonyms, including Joan Ellis. Unlike many of the popular writers of lesbian pulp fiction in real life she was apparently entirely heterosexual.

Sleaze fiction took off in a big way in the United States in the wake of the paperback revolution. It is impossible to calculate just how many sleaze fiction titles were published but it was by no means unknown for a single writer to produce more than a hundred such novels. The golden age of American sleaze fiction lasted from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s. Lesbian sleaze fiction was one of the more prolific sub-genres for the obvious reason that it was extremely popular among both lesbian and heterosexual male readers.

There are however no lesbians to be found in the pages of Don’t Tell Anyone. Just man-hungry women.

Adele Conroy is eighteen, or at least she’s nearly eighteen. Her parents have just divorced and she’s a bit conflicted about that. She blames her mother Rita for not being able to hold her man but she also blames her father for chasing anything young in a skirt. Adele has a boyfriend, Skip. He’s one of the hunkiest boys at school. That’s a good thing in itself but it also brings her status, and that’s a very good thing from the point of view of a teenaged girl. Adele and Skip have fooled around in pretty steamy ways but she hasn’t actually slept with yet. That’s about to change. Adele is pretty happy with her decision to go all the way with Skip. Now she will really be a woman.

Of course she is aware that while Skip is good-looking he’s just a boy. Unlike Tom Whitby. He’s a man. He’s a mature man. He must be at least twenty-three. Making it with a boy like Skip is fun, but maybe making it with a man would be even better. There’s also the new neighbour, Roger Hennessey. And he doesn’t treat her like a child.

What worries her about Tom Whitby is that her mother seems to go for him as well, and Tom seems pretty interested in Rita. Rita Conroy is only thirty-six and she’s still beautiful so it’s understandable that she still has a hunger for men. Adele understands that. Adele has a burning hunger for men. And after sleeping with Skip that hunger intensifies. So why can’t Tom Whitby see that Adele is a woman as well? Adele thinks that maybe she can attract Tom’s attention, and she knows that in a tight sweater her bust measurement of 38-D can usually be relied on to attract masculine attention.

Adele would also like Roger Hennessey to treat her like a woman. And when Adele sets her sights on a man she’s an unstoppable force of nature. Adele craves love but for Adele that means physical love. She doesn’t really understand that there’s any other kind of love.

What follows is a great deal of romantic and sexual melodrama, with a definite “sex, sin and scandal in small-town America” thing going on as well. This is very obviously a novel written by a woman. It’s basically steamy romance, but with the romance being overshadowed by pure lust. Adele has only the vaguest of plans for a long-term future with the men she pursues. She concentrates on the vital short-term objective, getting them into bed.

The sleaze fiction of this era varied considerable in terms of just how graphic the sexual encounters are. Some, such as Robert Silverberg’s 1959 Gang Girl, are quite graphic. Some are very coy. Some, like Sin Hellcat, fall halfway between these extremes. Don’t Tell Anyone belongs at the coy end of the spectrum. They’re often the most entertaining because the writers really have to pull out all the stops to create an atmosphere of sexual intoxication but without describing the sex in any detail. Ellis does this pretty well. The sex scenes manage to be hot and sweaty while stopping short of any description of sex whatsoever, apart from caressing of Adele’s swelling breasts (and there’s a lot of that). It’s what’s going on in Adele’s man-crazy brain that is hot and sweaty. Very hot and sweaty.

It’s interesting to speculate on exactly how much of a female readership these sleaze novels had (apart from the popularity of lesbian sleaze with lesbians). A lot of these sleaze fiction titles read more like women’s erotica than porn for men. Most are very female-centric.

Some, but not all, of these sleaze novels have overtones of noir fiction. This one does not.

It’s also interesting that the various sleaze fiction publishers tended to have distinct style when it came to the cover art. Midwood’s titles had the best cover art - sexy but with a bit of style and class.

I’d be inclined to classify Don’t Tell Anyone as a combination of romance fiction and women’s erotica. If you’re a male fan of vintage sleaze you might still enjoy its deliciously overheated quality. If you’re a female fan of vintage sleaze you’ll possibly enjoy it a great deal. Which returns us to my earlier speculations about the readership of such novels. How many readers of this type of fiction were female? And how many modern fans of vintage sleaze are women? I have no idea of the answer to the first question but I'm guessing that the answer to the second is, quite a few. Literary erotica does seem to be largely a female taste.

Don’t Tell Anyone is a good example of its type. If you like sleazy romance, or romantic sleaze, it's highly recommended.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Donald E. Westlake's The Cutie

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was a big name in crime fiction in the late 20th century but since the crime fiction of that era doesn’t interest me much I hadn’t read any of his crime novels. But The Cutie (also published as The Mercenaries and The Smashers) was his first crime novel (prior to that he’d written sleaze fiction under various pseudonyms) and was published in 1960 I figured it might be worth a look.

Clay (the narrator) works for gangster Ed Ganolese. Clay beats people up and sometimes he kills them. It’s a living. He’s just about to get down to some enjoyable bedroom action with his girlfriend Ella when a punk named Billy-Billy turns up on his doorstep. At 2am.

Billy-Billy has been set up for a murder rap. Billy-Billy works for Ed Ganolese as well, as a dope pusher. If the cops pick up Billy-Billy he’ll start talking about a lot of things that could be embarrassing for Ganolese. Clay knows what Ed will do. He’ll tell Clay to arrange a little accident for Billy-Billy. That way he won’t be able to tell the cops anything. Surprisingly Ganolese tells Clay that Billy-Billy has important friends so instead of bumping him Clay has to protect him and keep him out of the hands of the cops. It’s pretty irritating.

The cops want Billy-Billy for the knifing murder of a broad named Mavis St Paul. Clay knows Billy-Billy could not possibly have killed her. Billy-Billy couldn’t kill anyone. The problem is that Mavis St Paul was Ernest Tesselman’s girl. Tesselman is a a big-time political fixer. If Tesselman wants the cops to jump they’ll jump. And Tesselman wants the guy who killed Mavis. If the cops start jumping that will cause a lot of aggravation and inconvenience to Ed Ganolese’s organisation.

One option would be to set up someone else as a fall guy. The cops don’t care about getting the right guy. They just want to nail someone for the murder, to get Ernest Tesselman off their backs. But Ganolese decides there’s a better way to play this. He wants Clay to find the real murderer. Clay isn’t thrilled about doing the cops’ job for them but he’s Ganolese’s boy. If that’s how Ganolese wants it played that’s how Clay will play it.

Clay is now hunting the killer, and the killer is hunting him.

Clay is an interesting anti-hero. He’s not a mere thug. Killing is only a small part of his job. He’s actually Ganolese’s right-hand man. Clay is loyal and efficient and intelligent. He’s educated and he’s civilised.

He does have a problem with his girlfriend Ella. Two problems actually. The first is that he loves her. He’s had lots of women and this has never happened before. The second problem is that Ella is not sure she approves of his line of work. It’s not the killing people thing that she has a problem with. She can rationalise that away, and she has. It’s the fact that Clay kills and doesn’t feel bad about it. He doesn’t feel anything abut it. It’s not that Clay is cold and emotionless. He’s very loving with Ella. He just happens to be able to switch off his emotions entirely when he has to kill people.

While he hunts the killer, and tries to stay alive, he has to make a decision about Ella. He has to choose between her and his job. He loves both. That’s what makes him an interesting protagonist. He really does love being a gangster. He’s the narrator and the protagonist and he’s a killer and we disapprove of him but we kinda like the guy. And his rationalisation are fascinating. He regards the organisation as simply a business. There are products and services that the moral guardians of society will not allow people to buy legally but people still want those products and services. The organisation provides them. We might disagree with Clay but his rationalisations do have a kind of internal logic to them. What matters is that up to a point at least Clay believes that he is just working for a business.

Clay also believes that he has never killed anyone who was any real loss to society. He only kills criminals. So killing people is OK if you only kill bad people, isn’t it?

Clay is neither a straightforward hero nor a straightforward villain.

Both Clay and Ella are in fact engaged in trying to find rationalisations to justify Clay’s criminal career. And both will find this to be more and more of a challenge.

There are some clever twists at the end. This is not a fair-play mystery but the solution is at least plausible and coherent.

The Cutie is really a pretty good read. I’m giving it a highly recommended rating.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Harl Vincent's Before the Asteroids

Harl Vincent was a pseudonym used by American engineer and pulp science fiction writer Harold Vincent Schoepflin (1893-1968). His short novel Before the Asteroids was published in Science Wonder Stories in March 1930.

Before the Asteroids takes place in our own solar system, half a million years ago. There were at that time two planets which were home to advanced technological civilisations, Arin (now known as Mars) and Voris (a now-vanished planet orbiting the Sun where the Asteroid Belt now lies). The people of Arin are peace-loving but Voris is ruled by the ambitious and ruthless Olar.

Young Prince Ronal of Arin has been sent to Voris, carrying a false passport. hIs old tutor Antes suspects that Voris is plotting war. Ronal’s job is to find out whether or not this is true. Ronal immediately falls in love with the beautiful Vorisian Princess Ila. Ila wants peace between Arin and Voris and she has reason to hate her cruel father.

The Vorisians are indeed planning war. Ronal escapes just in time, taking Ila with him.

The war involves lots of aerial battles, lots of poison gases and ray projectors and lots of stuff getting blown up. Both sides seem evenly matched until the wise old Antides comes up with a super-weapon. If it works, Arin might be saved.

But there’s another problem. Both planets are about to pass through a gaseous nebula which will freeze every living thing.

Ronal is your typical noble young prince. His father is your typical wise and benevolent king. Olar is a typical villain. Ila is beautiful but also brave and noble.

This is fairly routine 190s pulp science fiction stuff. On the plus side the story moves along quickly.

The prose style is pure pulp.

This is one of those science fiction novels in which it is assumed advanced technological civilisations will be monarchies. Because if you don’t have a monarchy you can’t have beautiful princesses, and where would your story be without a beautiful princess? There’s not much in the way of world-building in this novel. Apart from the fact that they’re the bad guys the Vorisians seem pretty much like the Arinians. Both civilisations have death rays and advanced spacecraft propelled by mysterious rays and protective force fields.

The assumption that Mars half a million years ago was fertile and had an Earth-like atmosphere was still scientifically at least vaguely plausible in 1930. The assumption that the “canals” of Mars were real canals was also fairly plausible. The author was an engineer and he comes up with or two ideas for future technologies (such as the means of interplanetary transportation used by both planets) that are moderately interesting if far-fetched. He doesn’t try to blind us with too much technobabble - he just assumes that ideas like death rays work and gets on with the story.

The story can be seen as an attempt to explain some things about our solar system which seemed puzzling nearly a century ago. The attempted explanations are reasonably ingenious and they’re the most interesting aspects of the novel.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Marius’s The Sixth Glacier in a double-header paperback.

Before the Asteroids isn’t great science fiction but it has plenty of action and it’s maybe worth a look if you’re in the mood for something seriously pulpy with a few good ideas.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Donald Hamilton’s Murderers’ Row

I’ve written at length in previous reviews about the huge differences in tone between Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy novels and the Matt Helm movies, especially in my review of Death of a Citizen. Suffice to say that the Matt Helm novels are very very hardboiled stories about the most ruthless brutal fictional spy of his era. Murderers’ Row, published in 1962, was the fifth of the twenty-seven Matt Helm novels.

Matt works for a very secret US Government intelligence agency. They’re the US Government’s equivalent of Murder Incorporated. If the US Government feels that it would be more convenient to have somebody dead then this agency arranges the matter. Matt is their top operative. He is in effect a hitman. A hitman working for freedom and democracy. Those who work for this government agency refer to its headquarters as Murderers’ Row.

The Matt Helm novels have more in common with the 1960s British TV spy series Callan (about a British Government assassin) than with James Bond. Sure James Bond has a licence to kill but it’s understood that he only kills when it’s absolutely necessary. Matt Helm kills as a matter of routine. He may be the most cold-blooded of all fictional spies.

This time he has to take over a case from another of the agency’s operatives. They’re used to dirty jobs but this job is just too dirty. That’s OK by Matt. He doesn’t care how dirty the job gets. The agency is trying to make it appear that one of their top female operatives is willing to defect. They have to give her a plausible motive for wanting to defect. Matt’s job is to provide her with that motive, by giving her a savage beating. Matt doesn’t mind. If the agency tells him to beat a helpless woman to a pulp he does it. But it goes wrong. He wasn’t supposed to kill her. Now he has a corpse on his hands and there was a witness and the county police have him under lock and key. And he’s not allowed to reveal that he works for the government. It’s not an auspicious beginning for a case.

The witness, a cute young woman named Teddy, lies to the cops to get him off. He’s puzzled by this, and then disturbed by what she has in mind for him. His cover is that he’s a Mob hoodlum. Teddy wants to hire him to kill someone. Cute young women don’t usually want to hire hitmen. It’s something to do with her daddy. Which is interesting to Matt since the case that he’s so far made such a mess of has a lot to do with Teddy’s daddy.

Teddy’s daddy is a top American scientist. The bad guys have kidnapped him and they’re going to sell him to the Soviets. Matt’s orders are to make sure that doesn’t happen. He has to rescue the scientist if possible. If that’s not possible then he has to kill him. Sure, he’s an American scientist and he’s probably totally innocent and doesn’t want to defect but in the brutal world of the Matt Helm novels that doesn’t matter. The quickest easiest way to solve such problems is by killing. If innocent people get killed that’s too bad.

Maybe his cover is a bit too good since it seems that Teddy isn’t the only one who wants to hire his services as a hitman.

When Matt tries to kill somebody else and he doesn’t even know who the guy is Matt’s boss Mac starts to get worried that Matt is over-strained and is now just killing people at random. The same thought crosses Matt’s mind when he tries to kill another complete stranger. Mac thinks it would be a good idea to get Matt off this case but Matt is determined to see it through even though he doesn’t have a clear idea what he’s doing. He figures he’ll just stir things up and see who reacts, and how they react. He certainly manages to stir things up.

The latter part of the story including a decent action finale takes place on board an 80-foot ocean-going schooner. Matt assumes the schooner will lead him to the kidnapped scientist.

The violence in this novel isn’t graphic. It’s the casual acceptance of killing that is shocking. Matt kills one of his own people, an unarmed woman, a brave woman doing her duty, and he feels no regret and no remorse. These things just happen. He gave her a brutal beating and she died. All he feels is irritation. Her death is a nuisance. Matt never questions his own actions. I suspect this was a deliberate technique on the author’s part. He wanted to show that spies aren’t glamorous. They lie and cheat and steal and kill. The only real difference between Matt Helm and a Mob hitman is that a Mob hitman would probably take more care to avoid killing innocent bystanders.

As you may have gathered this novel is a million miles away from the world of the lighthearted campy Matt Helm movies.

Donald Hamilton may well be the greatest of all American writers of spy fiction. Murderers’ Row is highly recommended.

One thing I would mention is that if you’re going to venture into the world of the Matt Helm novels then the first novel, Death of a Citizen, provides essential backstory material which makes Matt’s motivations more comprehensible.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Ian MacAlister's Driscoll’s Diamonds

Driscoll’s Diamonds, published in 1973, was the second of the Ian MacAlister adventure thrillers.

Marvin Albert (1924-1996) was an American who wrote crime fiction, adventure fiction and westerns under a bewildering number of pseudonyms, including the four Ian MacAlister thrillers.

The choice of the Ian MacAlister pseudonym suggests that Albert was trying to present himself as the poor man’s Alistair MacLean (or perhaps the pseudonym was the publisher’s idea).

Driscoll’s Diamonds begins in Sharm el Sheikh in the southern Sinai. An Israeli patrol finds a man almost dead from heatstroke and dehydration. The man is John Driscoll and he’s identified by the Israeli authorities as an American mercenary. They don’t have a problem with him. He recovers and he finds himself an Israeli girlfriend named Shana in Jerusalem.

But Driscoll has something on his mind. Diamonds. He has a large cache of them. Or at least he knows where he hid that cache. The problem will be getting to the diamonds. He knows that that is going to be a problem because he knows that some of the people who have been looking for him have now found him. There are two groups of people looking for him. If one of those groups has found him it means trouble. If it’s the other group that has found him it means big big trouble.

A group of mercenaries led by a man named Royan had stolen the diamonds from smugglers on Lake Tanganyika. Royan had double-crossed the other members of the team. The only survivor was Driscoll and he got the diamonds, for a while. Until that plane crash in the Red Sea. Driscoll got out of the wrecked plane before it sank, but without the diamonds.

Now Royan has found Driscoll and he has found a way to force Driscoll to lead him to the diamonds. He is holding Shana as a hostage. Royan and four mercenaries, with Driscoll and Shana as very unwilling companions, set off for the Sudan to retrieve the diamonds. Royan has persuaded an Arab gem trader who knows the country to act as a guide.

They end up in the most inhospitable stretch of country on the planet, heavily infested with bandits and with Sudanese troops in hot pursuit. Driscoll will have to find a way to get the better of Royan and that won’t be easy. Driscoll is just about the most skilled mercenary around but there is one man who is better and than man is Royan. And Royan has his four henchman so the odds are five to one against Driscoll. If Driscoll can’t come up with some sort of plan he has no doubt that once the diamonds are found Royan will kill him and kill Shana.

What follows is lots of action, adventure, mayhem and nail-biting suspense. There’s no question that MacAlister is very very good when it comes to writing adventure thrillers. The action scenes are excellent, particularly in the ruined Crusader fortress and the climax near the beach at the end. Driscoll will have to act eventually but he’s going to have to be very very patient and the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Driscoll is a fine hero. He’s no Boy Scout. He’s been a mercenary, a gun-runner and a thief. There’s really only one honourable thing about him. He has genuinely fallen for Shana. He really does care for her, but does he care more about her or the diamonds? That’s something he’s not sure of himself. He’s also a realist. He knows that Royan is crazy but he also knows that as a fighting man Royan really does have the edge on him.

Royan is an effective villain. He’s ruthless and possibly insane and he’s haunted by his own personal demons. Both Driscoll and Royan are at least a little bit more than cardboard cut-out characters.

The violence isn’t particularly graphic. We’re dealing here with an author who doesn’t need to resort to graphic violence in order to make his story exciting.

MacAlister is also a writer (like Alistair MacLean) who knows how to use an incredibly hostile setting to the fullest advantage. As in MacLean’s best novels, if the bad guys don’t kill you the hostile environment probably will.

Driscoll’s Diamonds really is a top-notch thriller. Highly recommended.