Wednesday, December 28, 2022

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance was published in 1942.

It is 1942. Barney Page is a successful Broadway actor. At least he was a successful actor. Now he’s a bum. He blames himself for his wife Sheila’s death. And he knows he was responsible for his mistress Fern’s death. He remembers strangling her. He knows the cops will soon be closing in on him. His producer John Friday tells him that maybe he can help him. Barney trusts John Friday. John tells him that what Barney’s life needs is a rewrite job.

Surprisingly Barney gets the chance to do that rewrite job. Because now it’s 1941. None of the things that wrecked his life have happened yet. Barney knows they’re going to happen, but that knowledge might give the chance he needs. Now he’s more like the director of the play that is his life, rather than just an actor in it.

And Barney knows all the mistakes he’s going to make. Every one of them. It should be possible to avoid them. He knows he should not take the movie job he’s been offered because if he goes to Hollywood he’ll meet Fern and he’ll have an affair with her. So he decides that he is definitely not going to Hollywood.

He also knows that it’s important not to sleep with Pete McCord’s wife. That’s a big mistake he made, or rather it’s a big mistake he’s going to make unless he’s careful.

He has to make sure Sheila doesn’t meet Jake. Jake is the writer of the play in which Barney is about to star. If he can prevent them from meeting they won’t sleep together, and Sheila might not die.

Barney knows about other mistakes he’s going to make as well. He has to keep away from the booze.

Of course knowing the dumb things you’re going to do and the disastrous consequences that will follow doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to do those dumb things anyway. Barney however is determined to try, and he does try. He tries really hard.

There is a crime but this isn’t really a crime novel in a conventional sense. It is however very definitely noir fiction. It’s a different kind of noir novel, in which the protagonist knows how his own story is going to end. He knows the ending, but he thinks he can change it. He thinks he can write the script for his life as he lives it.

Barney is a nice enough guy. He has never intended to hurt anyone. He likes people. He has no dislike of women. He just doesn’t quite have the strength of character to avoid temptations, especially temptations of the feminine variety. He ends up in bed with women without really knowing how it happened. Barney isn’t particularly driven by lust. It’s more loneliness. He doesn’t have the emotional closeness with Sheila than a man should have with his wife, and it seems to that need for emotional connection that drives him.

Barney qualifies as a noir protagonist. The three women however don’t really fit into the femme fatale category. Sheila isn’t a bad girl, although she drinks too much. It’s not really anyone’s fault that the marriage didn’t work out.

Fern is not the kind of woman who sets out to steal other women’s men, but with Barney it just kind of happened.

Sis isn’t a classic bad girl. She’s promiscuous and Pete should never have married her but she’s not an evil spider woman.

The whole rewriting his life thing raises obvious questions. Is this a science fiction/crime crossover story? Is something supernatural or paranormal happening? Is it a dream or just a distorted memory? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Repeat Performance was filmed in 1947, which is intriguing. I could think of so many ways that Hollywood could have made a mess of an adaptation, and in my opinion that's exactly what they did. Here's my review of the movie.

Repeat Performance is a bit of an oddity and it’s worth reading for that reason. It’s also a decent noir-tinged romantic melodrama. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Lin Carter's The Wizard of Lemuria

Lin Carter (1930-1988) was an American science fiction/fantasy writer and editor. As editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the early 70s he did much to rekindle interest in some of the great fantasy writers whose works had been all but forgotten.

The Wizard of Lemuria, published in 1965, was his first published novel and the first instalment of his Thongor the Barbarian series. It’s very obviously heavily influenced by Robert E. Howard.

This series takes place in a world very reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. The premise is that the first human civilisations arose half a million years ago on the vanished continent of Lemuria. The world had been dominated by the Dragon Kings, a race of lizard-men, until they were defeated and destroyed by humans. Human civilisations then rose and fell.

Thongor, a barbarian swordsman from the Northland, is employed as a mercenary until he quarrels with his captain and is forced to kill him. Thongor is thrown into a dungeon and escapes by stealing a new invention cooked up by a master alchemist. It is an air boat constructed of a metal that is lighter than air and it is propelled by rotors powered by springs.

Thongor’s escape seems destined to end in disaster. His air boat is attacked by gigantic flying lizards and after it crashes he is pursued by even more gigantic and more terrifying ground-dwelling lizards. It would have been the end of the line for Thongor had he not been rescued by an elderly sorcerer, Sharajsha. Sharajsa has need of Thongor’s fighting skills. The Dragon Kings were vanquished thousand of years earlier but the Dragon Wizards still survive, patiently awaiting their chance to wreak vengeance and destruction on the human race. Only a magic sword can defeat them. Only Sharajsa can forge that sword. And only a mighty warrior like Thongor can wield that sword. The sword can only be forged in one place and it will be a perilous journey to reach the sacred mountain.

Thongor and Sharajsa get into various scrapes before they can complete their mission, Thongor finds a valiant comrade-in-arms and of course along the way he has time to rescue a beautiful slave girl who is in reality a beautiful princess.

Carnivorous flying lizards are just one of the hazards Thongor encounters. The vampire flowers are even nastier.

The chief villains are the mysterious Dragon Wizards but there are plenty of subsidiary villains to worry about as well - over-ambitious princes and unscrupulous druids all of whom take an intense dislike to Thongor.

This is clearly a Robert E. Howard imitation, with Thongor being a less interesting version of Conan. It’s pretty much stock-standard sword-and-sorcery. Lin Carter was just not quite in the same league as Howard. His prose lacks the astonishing vitality and dynamism of Howard’s work. The story is fairly conventional.

That sounds like I’m dismissing this book as sub-standard but that would be unfair. Carter understood the sword-and-sorcery genre extremely well. He has assembled all the right ingredients - a world of magic and monsters, a brave noble barbarian hero, sorcerers both good and evil, a beautiful princess and lots and lots of action. And he’s blended these ingredients with a reasonable amount of skill. He also understood the vital importance of pacing - the action doesn’t let up for a moment. The action scenes are vivid and exciting.

The Wizard of Lemuria might be second-tier sword-and-sorcery compared to the works of Robert E. Howard, Catherine L. Moore and Fritz Leiber but it’s good solid entertaining second-tier sword-and-sorcery. If you’ve read everything written by the giants of sword-and-sorcery and you still want more then this novel will provide reasonable entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Clyde Allison's Gamefinger (Man From Sadisto 6)

William Knoles (1926-1970) wrote sleaze fiction under his own name and also using the pseudonym Clyde Allison. He enjoyed his greatest success, as Clyde Allison, with his Agent 0008 sexy spy spoof novels. Gamefinger, published in 1966, was the sixth book in the series.

What made Knowles so special among sleaze writers is that his books are not just sleazy, they’re also extremely funny. He was a very gifted comic writer. He also had a knack for coming up with truly outrageous plots.

His Man From SADISTO spy novels featuring Agent 0008 may be his best-known works but sadly they are now exceptionally difficult to find and used copies are astronomically expensive. I would love to collect all twenty books and as soon as I have a spare five thousand dollars that’s exactly what I’ll do.

One single title in the series has been brought back into print and that novel is Gamefinger. It appears to have fallen into the public domain which is the reason it’s the only one to be currently in print.

It certainly starts with a bang. Of sorts. Actually it’s a long steamy reasonably graphic sex scene. Ace SADISTO agent Trevor Anderson (who acts as narrator) is holidaying in Maine, using the cover name Rex Kingston. He’s staying in a log cabin so remote that it can only be reached by floatplane. He hasn’t heard a floatplane land so he is rather surprised when he sees a naked girl floating in the lake. She isn’t dead. He soon discovers that she’s very much alive. She is six feet tall and blonde and looks like every man’s fantasy of a naked amazon. She’s also very friendly. After they’ve had a long hot lovemaking session they decide that introductions might be in order. Her name is Karni. Then suddenly Agent 0008 receives a staggering karate blow and he doesn’t know anything until consciousness returns some considerable time later.

He regains consciousness in SADISTO headquarters. SADISTO is a top-secret US Government intelligence agency. Its mission is to protect the Free World. Protecting the Free World involves killing people and SADISTO’s elite triple-zero agents are licensed to kill. They’re not just licensed to kill, they’re expecting to keep in practise. Preferably by killing people who deserve to be killed (a category that includes anyone of whom SADISTO disapproves). Their ethical standards would shock the average Mob hitman. But it’s OK, they’re killing for freedom.

Agent 0008’s latest mission is his most important yet. The Free World is in deadly peril. A dangerous madman code-named Gamefinger has hatched a plot of such terrifying and sinister evil that it almost takes one’s breath away. Gamefinger intends to end war. This of course would be disastrous. Apart from anything else it would be bad for business and there’s no more profitable business than war. Gamefinger must be stopped.

Gamefinger’s scheme is ingenious. He wants to revive the Roman gladiatorial games in order to provide an outlet for human violence. His new gladiatorial games will be much more brutal than the Roman version, they will involve lots of nude girls and they will be televised live to the entire world. The games will cost hundreds of lives but could save millions of lives if Gamefinger is right. Agent 0008 has to grudgingly admit that it’s a genuine ethical dilemma and that maybe Gamefinger has logic on his side. But 0008 still has a job to do, and his job is to stop Gamefinger.

SADISTO’s plan is to infiltrate 0008 into Gamefinger’s organisation.

There’s plenty of pointed political satire in this book. SADISTO are the good guys but they’re more immoral than the bad guys. SADISTO’s agents are on the side of freedom but they’re sadistic bloodthirsty killers. It’s clever political satire because the author really does raise some pertinent questions about whether the good guys really are the good guys.

There’s also a great deal of black comedy, and the book is at times outrageously funny.

And there’s a lot sex. The sex is described in fairly explicit terms but manages not to come across as crude schoolboy stuff. This is well-crafted erotica.

Agent 0008 is an intriguing hero. He’s very much an anti-hero. He has no morals whatsoever. He doesn’t claim to have any morals. Killing is not just an integral part of his job, it is for 0008 a very pleasant part of the job. He can’t think of anything more enjoyable than killing and torturing people because he’s doing it for the Free World. He can feel virtuous about it. He’s the most chillingly nasty of all fictional spies but he’s brutally honest about himself. He’s a complete rogue but vaguely likeable in his cheerful amorality. He doesn't have any morals but he does understand morality.

The idea of televised deadly gladiatorial-style games being used for purposes of mind control became a very common trope in the 70s and 80s, especially in post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. But William Knoles/Clyde Allison came up with the idea way back in 1966. It’s an idea that may have been used in science fiction stories prior to that time but offhand I can’t think of any examples. Either way it was certainly an idea that would have seemed fresh and startling in 1966.

Gamefinger is basically a sleaze novel (although it is at least very skilfully written sleaze) with a spy plot tacked on but it’s an intriguing spy plot

It’s intended to be sexy and funny and satirical and it succeeds on all counts. Gamefinger is good dirty fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Peter O’Donnell’s Sabre-Tooth (Modesty Blaise 2)

Sabre-Tooth, published in 1966, is the second of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels. Modesty Blaise started out as a comic strip created by O’Donnell in 1963. Its immense popularity led to the making of the Modesty Blaise movie which was released in 1966. O’Donnell was hired to write the screenplay. The producers didn’t like his screenplay and made so many drastic changes that the movie bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s script and the character in the film bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s creation. Before the script was totally rewritten O’Donnell had been commissioned to write a novelisation. His novelisation was based on his original script and has little to do with the film.

The film was only moderately successful and was poorly received by critics. O’Donnell’s novelisation on the other hand was a bestseller and everybody loved it. It was so successful that O’Donnell went on to write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels plus two short story collections.

Sabre-Tooth gives us a brief recap of Modesty’s backstory. She was a wartime refugee who was looking for an escape from poverty and misery. She chose a life of crime and ended up as head a vast criminal syndicate. Having made her fortune she retired from crime. She is now semi-respectable and is more likely to be fighting crime than committing it, and she helps out the Secret Service from time to time.

Modesty is sometimes described as a female James Bond but that is inaccurate and misleading. Bond is a professional with a background in military intelligence. He is part of the Establishment and his loyalty is to the Establishment. Modesty is a freelancer and an amateur and her background is entirely criminal. She is definitely not part of the Establishment.

In fact it would be more accurate to describe her as a female Simon Templar, the Saint. The Saint has a veneer of sophistication and charm and can just about pass as a gentleman but he is not one. Being a gentleman is a matter of Breeding and the Right Schools. The Saint did not enjoy those advantages. Modesty Blaise has the same surface poise and sophistication and can just about pass as a lady, but she will never truly be a lady. And like Simon Templar she will never truly be accepted as respectable.

Modesty Blaise was not quite the first sexy kickass action heroine (Cathy Gale beat her to the punch) but she remains one of the most memorable. She’s a bit more complicated than Cathy Gale but there are obvious similarities. The 60s was a decade in which sooner or later such female characters were going to emerge. Modesty Blaise, like The Avengers, was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s.

Modesty has a partner, Willie Garvin. He has a similar criminal background. Willie is the most important man in Modesty’s life and she is the most important woman in his life but they are not lovers. That was quite a good idea on O’Donnell’s part. It leaves him free to allow both Modesty and Willie to have romantic adventures. And indeed they each have plenty of romantic and sexual adventures in this tale.

Sabre-Tooth concerns a mercenary army led by the ruthless Karz. Karz needs leaders for his army. He thinks Willie Garvin and Modesty Blaise might be suitable. Modesty did after all run a vast criminal organisation. She knows how to persuade men to obey her.

Tarrant, who runs a top-secret intelligence department at the Foreign Office, knows something is going on because an enormous number of mercenaries have suddenly dropped out of sight. His instincts tell him they’re being recruited for something big and unpleasant. Modesty and Willie have done jobs for him before and it occurs to him that it would be useful if they could get themselves recruited.

Most of the novel is concerned with the devious manoeuvrings of Karz on the one side and Modesty and Willie on the other, with plenty of action along the way. They do finally get recruited and that’s when the tension starts to build. They have to find a way to foil Karz’s scheme but they’re totally on their own. And Karz has an emotional lever with which to control them.

O’Donnell certainly knew what he was doing when it came to providing thrills, action and suspense and he made sure these ingredients were available in quantity. There are some memorable fights. When it comes to a fight Modesty has a secret weapon which she calls The Nailer. I won’t spoil things by telling you how it works.

There’s also plenty of sex. There’s nothing remotely graphic about the sex but it isn’t there purely for titillation. Modesty’s attitude towards sex tells us quite a bit about a woman with a troubled past. Sex is also used at times in an emotionally shocking way. Modesty ends up working in a brothel, very much against her will. That was a common enough trope in crime/spy thrillers but authors often pulled their punches. O’Donnell doesn’t. Modesty really is forced to have sex with a lot of unsavoury characters and she doesn’t escape entirely unscathed emotionally.

There is in fact a surprising amount of emotional depth. Both Modesty and Willie Garvin have emotional vulnerabilities with they have to deal with. Being an amateur secret agent isn’t a harmless game. You can get hurt and you can get psychologically damaged. Modesty Blaise might be a super-woman when it comes to unarmed combat and gunplay but she is a woman and she has a woman’s emotional responses. She has chosen a life of adventure and danger but it’s a life that comes at an emotional price.

Sabre-Tooth is definitely a superior spy thriller with a bit of depth and plenty of high excitement. I think this novel is even better than the first first Modesty Blaise novel. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed both the first novel, Modesty Blaise, and one of the later books in the series, Last Day In Limbo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Theodore Roscoe's The Ruby of Suratan Singh

The Ruby of Suratan Singh is a collection of adventure tales by the great pulp writer Theodore Roscoe. These stories were originally published in various pulp magazines such as Argosy, Far East Adventure Stories and Action Stories in 1929 and 1930. This is the second collection of stories featuring either the American curio hunter Peter Scarlet or the naturalist Bradshaw.

These are tales of adventure in the Mysterious East, in jungles and exotic seaports and anywhere that fortunes can be made without too much concern for ethics of any kind.

These stories are fairly outrageous. They’re really the kinds of tales you’d hear told in a bar and they might be true or they might be just tall tales. That’s what makes them so enjoyable. You just can’t be sure whether to believe them or not.

While these stories are described as the Scarlet and Bradshaw stories it should be pointed out that some feature Scarlet, some feature Bradshaw and some feature both men. In this particular collection Scarlet only appears once (although it’s a memorable appearance). It’s still quite reasonable to describe them as the Scarlet-Bradshaw stories. They all take place in the East at the same time period and they all have a similar feel, a feel of mysteries that may or may not have rational explanations.

Some of the stories are amusing, some are quite dark and macabre. They’re an enticing blending of adventure fiction and weird fiction with occasional dashes of science fiction and horror. Roscoe’s plotting was always pretty solid. He had a knack for giving his stories a nice little sting in the tail, and for giving his stories just the right touches of ambiguity.

Scarlet and Bradshaw are not mere pulp fiction tough guys. That’s not to say that they aren’t tough, you don’t survive in the jungle very long without a certain amount of grit, but there’s more to them. They’re genuinely interesting offbeat characters.

Roscoe was also very adept at creating an atmosphere of dread and subtle uneasiness.

Roscoe was one of the grand masters of pulp fiction and these stories are among his greatest achievements.

The Stories

Moon Up is a very strange story indeed, a jungle adventure set in India but with a hefty dash of science fiction. Reven Staffard is staying in the jungle bungalow belonging to the naturalist Bradshaw. Staffard is supposedly hunting tigers but he hasn’t seen any tigers and he’s getting fed up. Then a bizarre old man wanders out of the jungle. His name, he declares, is Dr Gulick Habighorst. He has come to India for the moonlight. Apparently the moonlight in India is particularly suited to his experiments. Dr Habighorst has been conducting research on lunar rays and claims to have made an amazing discovery. He has discovered a means of using rays of moonlight as a kind of death ray. With a special lens he can use moonlight to reduce any object to its component atoms. Dr Habighorst’s lunar rays are the most potent destructive force ever discovered.

Staffard assumes the man is insane. Until Dr Habighorst demonstrates his invention.

Dr Habighorst wants Staffard to finance his further researches.

The crazy old scientist’s demonstration is impressive but there are eyes in the night watching. The eyes belong to men who want that death ray.

A very fine story with a nice twist to it.

The Blue Cat of Buddha is a treasure hunt story. Bradshaw is shipwrecked. An American singer who failed to find success in Tin Pan Alley rescues him. The singer, Johnny Ash, has gone to the East to make his fortune in order to win the love of his girl back home. The singer also saves a frail old Buddhist monk. The monk has a strange tale to tell.

The legend of the blue cat of Buddha, a giant carved cat that guards the entrance to a cavern which is a fabulous treasure trove, had attracted many a fortune-hunter. Maybe some of those fortune-hunters found that cavern. None survived to tell of it. But the old monk claims to know the secret that can unlock that treasure.

Bradshaw thinks that seeking the treasure is a terrible idea. He knows the East. He knows the quest can lead only to madness and death. But Johnny Ash is determined and Bradshaw owes him his life so he has to tag along. There are others seeking the treasure, six dangerous desperate men. A thoroughly enjoyable tale.

The Little Gold Dove of Gojjam finds Bradshaw in Abyssinia, lost in a forbidden valley with a young Englishman named Tupper. Bradshaw saves an Abyssinian from a lion. The Abyssinian, curiously enough, speaks English. He learnt the language in New York. He returned to Africa in search of a legend - the legend of Noah’s Ark. And he tells Bradshaw and his companion a part of the legend they had never heard before - the legend of Noah’s gold. The dying Abyssinian even tells them where to find the Ark. It’s in a hidden lake.

It’s all nonsense of course but something persuades Bradshaw and Tupper to search for the hidden lake. What they find is impossibly strange. Perhaps there is a rational explanation. Perhaps it was all just a legend after all. Perhaps. Another delightfully offbeat tale of adventure.

Claws features American curio hunter Peter Scarlet. He’s in one of the roughest sleaziest bars in the East which is the last place his friends Bradshaw and Schneider expect to find him. And why does he have his gun with him? Why does he want to listen to the crummy piano player? It’s the past that has drawn Scarlet to this bar in Penang. A terrible event in the past has drawn three men to this bar. A good story.

In The Ruby of Suratan Singh Bradshaw tells how he found the ruby in question. During the Indian Mutiny a nabob named Suratan Singh had fled from the vengeance of the British, taking with him the most valuable jewel in his possession. Bradshaw encounters an old woman who claims not only to know where the ruby is, she claims to have been there when Suratan Singh fled.

The quest for the ruby almost costs Bradshaw his life. And at the end we get the kind of nice little twist that Roscoe tends to throw in, the kind of twist that makes Roscoe not just a fun pulp writer but a superior pulp writer.

The Phantom Buddha is a kind of Oriental ghost story. The Malays engaged in building a railroad are being whipped into a frenzy by rumours that the phantom of the Buddha is about to appear to them in a small valley deep in the jungle. The young engineer Carter is well and truly spooked but his older colleague McInerny insists that it’s all hokum. Bradshaw isn’t certain. It may be a hoax but he is inclined to think that rather strange things do happen in the East. It’s an enjoyable little tale on the theme that seeing is believing, sometimes. A neat little story.

Final Thoughts

Pulp fiction doesn’t come much better than this. Roscoe gives us fine prose style, subtle weirdness, exoticism and adventure. Incredibly entertaining and very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier collection of Roscoe's Scarlet and Bradshaw stories, the excellent Blood Ritual, and another fine Roscoe short story collection, The Emperor of Doom.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Carter Brown's Eve it's Extortion

Eve it's Extortion is a 1956 Al Wheeler crime thriller by Carter Brown.

Alan Geoffrey Yates (1923-1985) was an English-born Australian writer who wrote well over 200 novels (some source claim more than 300) under a variety of pseudonyms. He is best remembered for the crime novels he wrote as Carter Brown. He is believed to have sold around 120 million books.

The Carter Brown novels are set in the United States but since the author lived in Australia the novels are set in the America of pulp fiction and Hollywood movies rather than the real America. In some ways that makes them more fun.

Al Wheeler (who narrates the tale) is a Homicide cop but he’s on special duty, working directly under the Police Commissioner. It’s not that the Commissioner has a high opinion of him. In fact he has a very low opinion of Al. He just wants to keep him close so he can keep an eye on him. Al has a reputation of being an unorthodox cop who takes very little notice of orders. He keeps his job as a Detective Lieutenant because he keeps solving difficult cases.

This time the case is very routine. It’s a special favour for a friend of the Commissioner’s, an insurance investigator named Moss. Moss is worried about a life insurance claim. It seems straightforward on the surface. The guy who was insured, Farnham, was killed by a hit-run driver. But it just doesn’t smell quite right to Moss.

Al talks to Farnham’s widow Eve. She’s very glamorous, maybe too glamorous to have been married to a loser and a lush like Farnham. Farnham was such a loser that Eve had to walk as a waitress in a crummy joint and she didn’t like that at all. Al figures she’s the kind of woman who might well murder a loser husband whose life was insured for a vast amount of money but she has a rock-solid alibi.

Eve happens to mention that a couple of days before her husband died a locater from a debt collection agency called on her and told her that her husband owed a lot of money.

The locater was a woman named Edna Bright and she looks like just as much of a potential femme fatale as Eve Farnham.

In the course of his investigation Al meets the head of the debt collection agency, a guy named Cole. He also meets Cole’s wife Natalie. Natalie is femme fatale number three. Natalie tells Al how much she despises her husband. She proves it by sleeping with Al. Al has a pretty relaxed attitude towards such things. If a cute dame like Natalie is willing then Al is willing as well. Besides, he might get more information out of her this way.

Just about every character in this book is a plausible suspect. These are not particularly honest people and that life insurance policy was worth a huge amount of money. Al just has to figure out how many of them might have stood to gain, legally or illegally, by Farnham’s demise. There’s also been a good deal of bed-hopping going on, which offers even further motives.

It’s a pretty decent plot and Al does at least some real detecting.

The Carter Brown novels are not to be taken too seriously. They’re fun, lightweight and fast-paced with plenty of mayhem (none of it graphic) and plenty of sex (also not graphic). There’s a good deal of humour and the humour works pretty well.

There are lots of dames and they’re not the types of dames who defend their virtue all that strenuously. Apart from the three femmes fatales there’s Annabelle, Al’s boss’s secretary, a glamorous southern belle with a yearning for a rich husband. Al has made various attempts to seduce her and he certainly hasn’t given up hope.

Al Wheeler doesn’t take life too seriously. He likes being a cop but he always makes time for recreation, especially with glamorous dames. He also always finds time to have a drink or six. He’s a bit of a rogue but a likeable one and despite being undisciplined and irresponsible he’s a pretty good cop. He’s not especially hardboiled although he’s no pushover when the going gets tough. He’s somewhat cynical but he isn’t bitter and he’s no thug.

The Carter Brown novels are pure entertainment but they’re well-crafted and clever and Eve it's Extortion is a fine entry in the Al Wheeler series. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed three other Carter Brown novels featuring Al Wheeler - Booty for a BabeNo Harp for My Angel and The Stripper.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Planetary Adventures

Planetary Adventures is another fine DMR Press sword and sorcery/sword-and-planet anthology. This one is devoted to sword-and-planet tales and that just happens to be a favourite genre of mine. It includes five longish short stories (I suppose they could be considered novelettes and one is closer to being a novella) from various pulp magazines. And they’re by a fairly distinguished selection of writers.

First up is Poul Anderson’s Temple of Earth which originally appeared in Rocket Stories in 1953.

Rikard has joined a band of rebels on the Moon. They are the sworn enemies of the burgeoning Coper Empire. The rebels do not want to be slaves, although curiously enough Rikard’s lady love Leda is more or less his slave-girl. The rebels have just made their last stand and Rikard and Leda have been captured.

Anderson displays his gift for clever economical world-building (which is evident in most of his stories in this genre). Like so many of the best sword-and-planet tales this is a story of civilisational decay. It is many many years into the future, human civilisation has survived only on the Moon but has sadly degenerated. Most of humanity’s hard-won scientific knowledge has been lost. Only a few pitiful remnants of technology survive.

Rikard and Leda are caught in the middle of a power struggle between those who wish to reclaim this lost knowledge and those who see it as being in their best interests to prevent this.

There’s also plenty of action. A very very fine story.

I highly recommend DMR Press’s Swordsmen from the Stars which includes three more excellent stories by Anderson.

Edmond Hamilton’s World of the Dark Dwellers was published in Weird Tales in 1937.

This is a story of an ordinary man on Earth who discovers that he isn’t ordinary and he isn’t from Earth. And he has a destiny, to rescue his planet from tyranny.

There’s some effective creepiness, a fine villain and a clever plot resolution at the end. The hero’s planet has been in the hands of usurpers for generation. The usurpers rely on powers given to them by mysterious creatures they have never seen. No-one has seen the dark dwellers and lived to tell the tale.

A highly enjoyable tale.

Henry Kuttner’s The Eyes of Thar first saw the light of day in Planet Stories in 1944.

Mars, once home to a great civilisation, is now home only to barbarism. A warrior returns to seek vengeance for the death of his beloved, but finds himself the hunted rather than the hunter. He escapes when he finds a strange door, a door that leads him to a laboratory abandoned for a thousand years. He is greeted by a strangely familiar female voice.

It is a voice from another universe. A very very different universe. The woman whose voice he hears needs help. But no-one can travel between these two universes, not even to seek the owner of that uncannily familiar voice. In this tale Kuttner has created two fantastic worlds, one of them strange and the other very very strange indeed. An excellent bitter-sweet story with some genuine and effective weirdness. By a writer who deserves to be better remembered.

I also highly recommend Henry Kuttner’s Crypt-City of the Deathless One.

Ross Rocklynne’s The Empress of Mars appeared in Fantastic Adventures in 1939.

This is the only weak story in the collection. The hero has to rescue a princess and a magical necklace. The major plot twist is too obvious. This one doesn’t feel like a real sword-and-planet story. Lots of action though.

Bryce Walton’s Man of Two Worlds was published in Space Stories in 1952.

Earth’s Martian colony is all that is left of humanity and things are going very badly on Mars as well. Lee Thorsten and his lady love are among the Outcasts and they’re being hunted down. If captured they will be used in barbaric medical experiments. Thorsten has however found the secret chamber under the pyramid, the one his girlfriend remembered although she’d never seen it. She remembers a lot of things that she’s never seen.

And he’s found the doors, doors that lead to other places and other times. They find themselves in the distant past where Thorsten takes the body of the great warrior Theseus. He is in the world of the ancient Minoan Civilisation but there’s something strange. The Minoan Civilisation existed on Earth, but this is definitely the Minoan Civilisation but it’s just as definitely not on Earth.

This story mixes characters from mythology (like Theseus) with characters from pulp fiction (such as Conan). This would be par for the course today but was more unusual in 1952.

It’s a fine action-packed story with some clever science fictional ideas as well. Good stuff.

So five stories in this collection, and four of them are truly excellent. If you’re a sword-and-planet fan it’s pretty much a must-buy. Very highly recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Don Holliday's Sin School

Sin School is a 1959 sleaze novel by Don Holliday. Don Holliday was actually a house name used by various writers for Midwood Books. This book was apparently by Hal Dresner.

Dale Lorring has just arrived in the city of Sutton to take up a position as a teacher at Sutton High School. It’s the most expensive school in the country and the job pays extremely well. For the 24-year-old Lorring it seemed like a great opportunity. It soon turns into a nightmare.

Sutton is a very rich city. And that’s the problem. Lots of very rich people. They live in fancy houses, drive big cars and wear expensive clothes. And they have the morals of pigs. Their children are even worse - not just spoilt arrogant brats but vicious. Sutton High School is a very exclusive school but it’s the school from Hell.

The teachers are downtrodden and cynical. They stay on as long as they can stand it because the money is good.

Worst of all are the Esquires. They’re an unofficial fraternity. They’re rich young hoodlums.

Lorring realises this is no ordinary high school when he happens to glance into a storeroom where two of the students are having sex.

The one bright spot for Lorring is Karen. She’s the school librarian. She’s young and sweet and pretty. She loves Dale Lorring and he loves her. But it’s not all smooth sailing. They can’t have sex because she’s frigid. She dislikes sex so much that she won’t even let Dale touch her.

Dale is not the only teacher with troubles. Bickell is the middle-aged shop teacher. He has a cute French wife but she’s a lesbian. Bickell isn’t coping very well with that.

Lorring isn’t happy at the school. He wants something down about the Esquires but he’s not going to get any help from Nash, the principal. Nash is too scared of upsetting those rich parents. The fact that Dale is not getting any sex from Karen doesn’t help his outlook on life.

Not that there’s any need to go without sex in Sutton. There’s Roxanne, one of the teachers. She’s a nymphomaniac and she’s already picked Dale as a future bed partner. And then there are the mothers of the students. Like Barbara Ann’s mother. She’s rich and powerful and makes it clear to Dale if he doesn’t sleep with her she’ll make sure he loses his job. So Dale sleeps with her.

Lorring’s dislike for the Esquires grows stronger and stronger (and he particularly detests their leader, Burke) but he knows that it would be futile to take them on openly. His idea is to win their confidence in the hope of being on the spot when they do something really bad, something do illegal that even their rich daddies won’t be able to cover up for them. Unfortunately Lorring’s plan is pretty vague. It doesn’t amount to much more than hoping the Esquires will make a mistake.

There’s a lot of sex in this book but when it comes to describing the sex it’s very very tame. On the other hand the book does succeed in creating a palpable atmosphere of corruption, sleaze and sin. There’s also a fair amount of violence. The Esquires play rough. There’s a convincing atmosphere of menace as well, and we have a sense that this situation is not going to end well.

A lot of sleaze novels included strong noir fiction elements and although it might be a bit of a stretch you could just about describe this book as noir, or at least slightly noirish.

While it’s typical of sleaze fiction in relying on the shock value of sex what really makes this book dirty and grimy and oppressive is not the sex but the violence and sadism of the Esquires, and the corruption of the city.

Sin School is in the Peyton Place tradition of exposés of the hypocrisy and phoney respectability of small town life. It works pretty well and it’s entertaining. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Guido Crepax - Evil Spells

Evil Spells is a massive volume containing some of Guido Crepax’s most famous comics, in English translation.

Guido Crepax (1933-2003) was an Italian comics artist. I have never been a fan of comics in general but I do make an exception for European comics, especially European comics of the 1960s and 70s. They’re aimed very much at adults and they’re often very erotic. They’re also stylish and sophisticated in a way that distinguishes them from American comics. And they often contain hefty does of weirdness and surrealism. So basically they tick all my boxes.

They’re also unfortunately very very difficult to get hold of in English translations, which means that sadly my exposure to them has been severely limited. The Italian crime and horror fumetti of the 60s are almost impossible to find in English-friendly versions.

The good news is that Fantagraphics have published most of Crepax’s work, in English translations, in a series of beautifully presented hardcover editions. The bad news is that they’re going out of print at a frightening pace.

Crepax started writing comics as a child and by the beginning of the 60s he was already starting to establish his reputation. That reputation had really taken off by the end of the 60s.

European comics tended towards eroticism, sometimes mixed with horror. Crepax’s comics were very erotic and occasionally included elements of horror but his work bore no resemblance to the popular sex and horror comics of the Italian fumetti genre. With Crepax you get a very positive vied of eroticism, including a very positive view of female sexuality, combined with elements of artiness, surrealism and just general weirdness.

Sadly the positive view he took of female sexuality did not protect him from the ire of feminist puritans.

Evil Spells includes his best-known work, the Baba Yaga cycle. This details the epic struggle between Crepax’s most famous heroine, Valentina, and the witch Baba Yaga. Valentina is a sexy glamorous photographer who manages to get herself involved in all kinds of adventures. Making her a photographer was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s, the decade of the photographer as superstar. The Baba Yaga cycle gets seriously weird but it’s delirious and intoxicating.

This volume also contains several of Crepax’s literary adaptations. His choice of works to adapt was sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising and eccentric. Spread over a period of twenty years he adapted the three famous detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Adapting Poe was no great surprise, but choosing his detective stories was odd. They’re obviously quite plot-driven, which doesn’t really suit Crepax’s free-wheeling style. His attempts to inject some eroticism into the stories don’t quite work.

Much much more successful is his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s mix of gothic horror and science fiction is perfect for Crepax’s purposes. And in this case the injection of very strong erotic elements works superbly. The erotic elements are implied in Stevenson’s novella. Dr Jekyll’s attempt to separate the two halves of his personality is clearly his way of dealing with his sexual urges with which he is uncomfortable. They don’t fit well with his very respectable image as a doctor and a scientist. This is, as I say, mostly implied in the novella. Crepax makes it explicit. In fact he makes it the core of the story. It works. And it gives Crepax the chance to indulge fully in his talent for depicting outré forms of eroticism.

Crepax’s adaptation of the 1898 Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw is even better. It was clearly a story dealing with sexual repression, but dealing with the subject in a very repressed late Victorian way. Crepax moves the action to the 1920s, offering the opportunity for some exquisite Art Deco images. And Crepax confronts the element of sexual repression head on.

Guido Crepax revolutionised comics, not just thematically but stylistically. If you like the idea of comic books for grown-ups and you’re OK with lots of eroticism then he’s definitely your guy. Very highly recommended.

One other European comic that is available in English is Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella and if you haven’t read it, buy a copy right now. It’s simply wonderful.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

James Eastwood’s Come Die With Me

Come Die With Me, published in 1969, was the last of James Eastwood’s three Anna Zordan spy thrillers. It appears to have also appeared under the title Diamonds Are Deadly.

I know pretty much zero about James Eastwood. I believe he was born in 1918 and I’m moderately sure he was English. There was a film and TV scriptwriter named James Eastwood who produced scripts for some very interesting movies (Devil Girl from Mars, Urge To Kill, The Counterfeit Plan) but I’m not even sure it’s the same James Eastwood. The dates seem to line up. It’s also interesting that the scriptwriter seems to have stopped writing scripts in 1966 and the novelist wrote the last Anna Zordan book in 1969. He may have died or given up writing at the end of the 60s. The fact that one of the key characters in this novel is a TV scriptwriter would seem to be the final piece of evidence suggesting that the two writers were one and the same man.

I approached Come Die With Me not knowing what to expect. I just knew it was about a glamorous lady spy so of course I had to buy it. She might have turned out to be a slightly sexy spy in the Modesty Blaise mould, or the book might have turned out to be a sex-drenched spy fiction/sleaze fiction hybrid like the Lady From L.U.S.T. series.

Come Die With Me is set in Britain and the nation is facing a crisis. Civil unrest, riots, industrial sabotage, that sort of thing. Then the Prime Minister is assassinated and it becomes fairly obvious that there’s some sort of conspiracy at work.

The odd thing is that not long before these events a TV production company was planning a thirteen-episode serial dealing with similar events. The government refused to allow the serial to be produced. The parallels between the events in the TV scripts and the real-life events seem a bit too striking to be coincidental. The British counter-espionage service is keen to have a quiet word with the scriptwriter (a chap named Sandy McTaggart). But he’s vanished. He’s left the country.

Sarratt is the British counter-intelligence chief who is going to have to find that missing scriptwriter. Somehow McTaggart will have to be persuaded to return to Britain. It’s obviously a job for a woman - if you want to persuade a man to do something he doesn’t want to do then the lure of sex is usually the nest bait. Sarratt has just the right woman in mind for the job. Anna Zordan. If the lure of sex with Anna doesn’t work then McTaggart is just not human.

Anna finds McTaggart easily enough. He’s in Switzerland on his way to Italy. Getting his attention isn’t difficult. Anna knows how to get a man’s attention. But then things start to become a bit puzzling for her. McTaggart seems reluctant to sleep with her. Anna has dealt with all sorts of situations in her career as a spy but this is something totally new to her. No man has ever turned down the chance to sleep with her.

And then he wants to marry her.

She figures that this guy has a few problems. Problems with women, problems with sex. It occurs to her that he might be kinky. That doesn’t bother her. Anna is a broadminded girl. Very broadminded.

Before being assigned to this latest case Anna had been tracking a man named Hartley, a young British sales whizz kid of doubtful loyalty. And in the course of the McTaggart case Hartley turns up. It could be a coincidence but it probably isn’t.

Anna ends up getting involved emotionally with McTaggart. They end up on a tiny Mediterranean island. There’s another woman involved. Her name is Gloria and she’s one dangerous female. There’s a diabolical criminal mastermind as well. There’s action on land, at sea and under the sea. The violence is low-key but there’s a fair amount of it.

There’s quite a bit of sex. It’s not even moderately explicit but it is perverse. There’s psychological and emotional perversity as well. The story does in fact have a number of interesting emotional twists and emotional conflicts. Sexual conflicts are also important drivers of the plot. This is a sexy spy story in which the sex is not just something thrown in to spice things up.

Anna is a glamorous and efficient spy, apart from a tendency on occasions to let her emotions get the upper hand. She’s a trained killer and she’s more than willing to kill but she’s not especially ruthless. Killing is just a necessary part of the job. She doesn’t derive any pleasure from it.

Sex is also a necessary part of the job but that’s something Anna really does enjoy. She enjoys sex whether she’s doing it for professional reasons or for purely recreational purposes. And she’s very very good at it.

The plot, with fiction being turned into reality, is quite clever. The characters are quirky and perverse. Eastwood’s prose is very serviceable. The book certainly belongs in the lighthearted action/adventure spy story sub-genre rather than the gritty realistic sub-genre.

All in all this is a very decent spy thriller and it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of all of Robert E. Howard’s stories featuring 17th century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane.

Solomon Kane considers himself to be a Puritan but he’s not quite what you might think of when you hear the word. He is a man with a very high sense of duty and he can be ruthless. He’s a man driven by conscience. He is however prepared to entertain the possibility that sometimes duty is complicated and sometimes it ends up feeling like the wrong thing to do. He is a man who understands moral complexity. And it’s something he worries about a lot.

Kane is a hard man but he’s as hard on himself as he is on others and he detests cruelty. He particularly detests people who try to find spurious moral justifications for cruelty and injustice.

This is Robert E. Howard, a man some would dismiss as a mere pulp writer, creating a fascinatingly complex character capable of a degree of self-doubt and self-analysis.

Solomon Kane sees himself as an agent of God, as God’s avenger. His mission in life is to destroy evil men. He is a fanatic, but unlike most fanatics he possesses a capacity for kindness.

One of the things I like about Solomon Kane is that he’s not Conan in 17th century garb. He’s a very different kind of character. He’s more serious-minded, a bit more introspective, and he has a strong sense of moral purpose.

These stories sometimes involve the supernatural, and sometimes not.

In Skulls in the Stars Kane is on his way to Torkertown. He is warned to take the swamp road rather than the much shorter much easier road across the moor. Danger and death lurk on the moor road. Naturally Kane takes the moor road.

And he encounters something uncanny and terrifying. Can an emotion be made flesh? Perhaps some emotions can. Emotions like hate. Kane finds an answer to the danger but it makes him uneasy. Good story.

The Right Hand of Doom is a neat little tale of a necromancer who promises to exact revenge on the man who betrayed him. A story in which Kane wants to see justice done but in which he recognises that justice can be used as an excuse for mere revenge, or hate, or cruelty. A solid story.

Red Shadows (originally titled Solomon Kane) is a novelette. Kane encounters a dying girl. She had been raped and brutalised. Kane has never set eyes on this girl before but now he has appointed himself her avenger. Avenging her will take Kane across the seas and all the way to Africa where he will encounter some formidable magic. Interesting that the African voodoo witch-doctor/black magician N’Longa turns out to be one of the good guys. Howard gives this novelette a certain epic quality - Kane doesn’t care if it takes him years and he has to visit every corner of the globe. He has promised vengeance and he keeps his promises. N’Longa also gives Kane a wooden stuff. It is fabulously old, made of an unknown wood, with magical powers. That staff will crop up in later Solomon Kane stories. Great story.

Rattle of Bones begins with Kane and a Frenchman he has met on the road through the forest taking a room at an inn. It is the Cleft Skull Inn and it looks as inviting as its name suggests. I can’t tell you much more without revealing spoilers except that Solomon Kane will not get much sleep this night. And it’s a revenge story with a twist. Good story.

The novella The Moon of Skulls takes Kane back to Africa. It is the last stage in an epic quest that has taken years. Kane is searching for an English girl kidnapped by slavers. He has reached the fabled kingdom of Negari, ruled by the dreaded black queen Nakari.

He discovers that Negari has a bizarre history, a history that goes back to another land, a time of legend, a vanished civilisation. He finds a city in the heart of Africa but dark deeds are done there. And the Moon of Skulls, the full moon, is approaching. After that there will be no way to save that English maiden.

Kane will be offered immense power and will be tempted, although only for a moment.

Kane will be captured, he will witness scenes of torture and depravity and he will inflame the lusts of Queen Nakari.

There’s action aplenty, there are chases through secret passageways, there are horrific secrets to be revealed. A splendid tale of adventure.

The Blue Flame of Vengeance begins with a duel. A young man named Jack Hollinster has challenged Sir George Banway, a nobleman with an evil reputation. The duel ends inconclusively but indirectly it leads to a meeting between Jack and Solomon Kane. Kane is out for revenge as well but Sir George is not his target. Kane has been pursuing the notorious pirate Jonas Hardraker.

Jack’s lady love is kidnapped so Kane will have to rescue her as well as settling his account with Hardraker.

Plenty of action in this tale and a second duel, this time with knives. A fine story.

The Hills of the Dead takes Kane back to Africa, but he can’t explain why. He has no mission to fulfil. He is simply drawn to the place. An encounter with a frightened young African girl named Junna will however present him with a mission. Her tribe is being menaced by the dead. They are the dead of a vanished tribe and they are vampires of a sort. Junna’s tribe lives in terror. Ridding the land of these vampire-like creatures is task worthy of Solomon Kane.

It is however a task that is beyond him. Kane fears no living man but these walking dead are impervious to both sword and pistol. Kane reluctantly comes to the conclusion that magic must be fought with magic. He knows nothing of magic, but N’Longa knows a great deal. N’Longa is a mighty ju-ju man. He is also, as a result of the events recounted in Red Shadows, Kane’s blood brother. N’Longa might have the magic necessary. And while Kane abhors magic he knows that N’Longa is a good magician.

This is unequivocally a tale of the supernatural and a full-blown horror story. And a very very good one.

Wings in the Night is a very dark story, even for Robert E.Howard. Kane is in Africa, being pursued by cannibals. He comes across a village that has been ravaged and devastated and he finds unspeakable horrors. Flying creatures like men with wings, vicious and bloodthirsty.

He takes refuge in a village where the priest tells him of the full horrors of the bird-men.

The tribe sees Kane as a god who will deliver them from the evil of the bird-men. That’s what Kane fully intends to do but his fine resolutions lead to further horrors and to madness. A great story.

The Footfalls Within is a very simple tale. Kane is tramping through the jungle in Africa. He sees a party of Arab slavers driving a group of African slaves. The slavers are just about to commit an unspeakable act of cruelty towards a young girl. There are fifteen Arabs accompanied by seventy armed African guards. The odds against Kane are impossible. Kane attacks anyway and is captured.

The slavers, dragging Kane along with them bound and tied, find an ancient mausoleum. Kane knows that opening the mausoleum would be a mistake - he can hear footfalls within the tomb although nobody else hears them. It turns out that opening that mausoleum is a very big mistake indeed. Probably the weakest Solomon Kane story but still at least moderately creepy.

Final Thoughts

The weaker stories in this collection are still very good. The better stories are superb, Robert E. Howard at his best. And the better stories outnumber the weaker ones by a comfortable margin.

These tales are definitely sword-and-sorcery but being set in the 17th century and more often than not in Africa give them a unique feel. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Bill S. Ballinger's Portrait in Smoke

Iowa-born Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) isn’t as well known today as some of his contemporaries in the crime fiction field but in the 1950s he had quite a reputation. It was Portrait in Smoke, published in 1950, that first established that reputation.

This novel uses a technique that Ballinger would use again and again - split narration. There are two parallel narratives, one written in the first person and one in the third person. Both narratives concern a young woman named Krassy Almauniski.

Danny April tells his own story, the story of an obsession with a woman. Danny owns a small downmarket collection agency. He bought it from a broken-down alcoholic named Clarence Moon. Moon has left the files in a state of chaos. While trying to get those files into some semblance of order Danny comes cross a photograph of a seventeen-year-old beauty contest winner, Krassy Almauniski. He decides that Krassy is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He quickly becomes obsessed. He knows nothing about her except that she won a beauty contest run by a third-rate newspaper and she once owed a lot of money which was suddenly, inexplicably, paid in full.

Since Danny is in the debt collection business he knows how to find people, even people who don’t want to be found. He will find Krassy. Then he will marry her. She would be around twenty-seven by now but he has no doubt she is as beautiful as ever. Danny, as you might have guessed, doesn’t have much experience with women. He also has a tenuous grasp on reality.

Intercut with Danny’s story is a third-person narrative that tells us the actual story of Krassy’s life. Raised in poverty and misery in the Stockyards district of Chicago Krassy is a girl on the make. She figured out very early on that if she was going to have the life she wanted, a life of luxury and ease, she would have to get it through men. She also figured out that her beauty would make this easy. All she needed was a start. The beauty contest gave her that start, and that was the first time she ruthlessly used a man and then discarded him. It wouldn’t be the last time. Krassy hates sex but she knows it’s the one essential weapon in her arsenal. Krassy will learn to like sex but she never forgets how useful it can be.

Danny proves to be quite a competent detective. He has very few leads to go on but he has determination and he knows the tricks people use when they don’t want to be found. Slowly he pieces together the details of Krassy’s life over the past ten years. He finds the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but he puts them together to make a picture of Krassy that is ludicrously wildly inaccurate. He views the clues through the learns of his hopeless romantic obsession. He knows that Krassy isn’t just beautiful, she’s a really nice girl. He finds out things about her that make him admire her even more.

Of course we’re also getting the real story of Krassy’s life and the things that she’s done that make her seem so admirable to Danny are in fact part of her ruthless schemes to gain the riches that she covets. Danny knows the broad outline of Krassy’s life but he doesn’t know any of the details, and knowing the details changes the picture completely.

Krassy is one of the most horrifyingly ruthless ambitious women in fiction. She focuses on her ambitions with laser sharpness. She allows nothing to get in her way. She leaves a trail of heartbreak and desolation behind her. She destroys lives with no compunction whatsoever. But Danny doesn’t know any of this.

Danny isn’t totally stupid. He knows that he’s creating a portrait of Krassy made of smoke.

Danny isn’t really a bad guy. He is obsessed with Krassy to the point of madness and he lives on delusions but there’s no malice in him. He’s basically a decent honest guy. The way he makes his living, as a debt collector, is a bit unsavoury but Danny never did have any good options in life. He still does his best to treat people as decently as he can. He is quite generous. He’s not the least bit violent.

Krassy is unscrupulous and amoral but while we can’t possibly condone her actions we can to some extent understand them. Her childhood was appalling and she had nothing to look forward to other than a life of desperation, struggle and misery. Her only way out was to use her body. Maybe if she’d been born into a prosperous family in a nice neighbourhood with real prospects for the future she might have turned out to be the nice girl of Danny’s fantasies.

The split narration technique works superbly. It’s like viewing a picture from one angle and then looking at it from another angle and finding that it becomes a totally different picture.

There are other very clever things about the way Ballinger structures this novel but to even hint at what they are would be to risk spoilers, which I have no intention of doing.

This is a crime novel, although mostly it doesn’t seem to be. It also definitely qualifies as noir fiction, with a few real gut punches

A superb novel. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Charles F. Meyers' No Time for Toffee

I know nothing at all about Charles F. Meyers apart from the fact that he wrote a series of humorous science fiction novels about a girl named Toffee. One of these was No Time for Toffee, published in 1952. The fact that he wrote several Toffee books would seem to indicate that they enjoyed some popularity.

The hero of the novel is advertising guru Marc Pillsworth. He’s been shot and is possibly dying. That’s bad news for the High Council. It means that George Pillsworth will be returning to Earth. George Pillsworth is a kind of ghost. He’s the spiritual emanation of Marc Pillsworth. George of course looks exactly like Marc. George can’t stay on Earth permanently until Marc is dead. This annoys him because there are so many things he likes about Earth. There are so many opportunities for dishonesty. There’s good booze. And of course there are women. For a spiritual entity George’s nature may seem to be not very spiritual.

As for Toffee, she’s a smokin’ hot redhead. She’d be the ideal woman if only she actually existed. But she doesn’t. Or maybe she does.

Marc’s immediate problem is that he’s going to have emergency surgery performed on him. The doctors don’t know it but the surgery will certainly kill him. Marc knows this because Toffee told him.

We then get a zany frenetic parade of craziness as Marc tries to avoid the surgeon’s knife, Toffee tries out her new dematerialisation gadget on him, Marc and Toffee try to keep George under control and a crooked congressman tries to have Marc murdered.

This is not science fiction but I guess it qualifies as a comic fantasy novel. The problem with comic novels is that the authors sometimes try too hard for zaniness and this is at times a problem here. It does however have some amusing moments and some moments of inspired lunacy.

It also has some fairly clever ideas. George Pillsworth is a ghost but he’s a totally different and original kind of ghost. He also has the ability to assume genuinely corporeal form. At least he’s corporeal enough to drink whiskey and apparently have physical relations with women. He’s definitely not your everyday ghost.

Toffee is a figment of Marc’s imagination but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist. Marc can see her and when she takes on corporeal form other people can see her. When she slugs a bad guy with a whiskey bottle he reacts the way a guy would react if he had been slugged with a whiskey bottle. She can drive a car. She also drinks whiskey (with some enthusiasm). She’s a flesh-and-blood woman but she isn’t real. It’s a cute idea.

By 1952 standards this would also qualify as a slightly risqué tale. There’s some definite sexual humour. Toffee might or might not be real but she’s certainly sexy. She wears very little clothing. In fact her idea of getting dressed for the day is to slip on nothing but an almost transparent négligée and then she’s ready to face the world.

As a character Toffee has a certain charm. She’s cute and feisty and she’s fun when she’s got a few drinks in her.

Whether you’ll enjoy this book or not depends on how you feel about zany screwball humour. If that’s your thing you’ll probably like the book, if it’s not your thing you may find it irritating.

No Time for Toffee is definitely an oddball novel. If you enjoy humorous science fiction/fantasy romps and you’re in the mood for something very light indeed you might enjoy this one.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Kris Neville’s Special Delivery in one of their two-novel paperback editions.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

John Cleve's Master of Misfit (Spaceways #5)

Between 1982 and 1985 Playboy Press published the nineteen books in the Spaceways series of science fiction sleaze paperbacks. Master of Misfit was the fifth book in the series. It was published in 1982.

These books were credited to John Cleve, a pseudonym used by American science fiction writer Andrew J. Offutt (1934-2013). He wrote under a dozen or so different pseudonyms. To confuse things somewhat the name John Cleve was used by other writers. It’s possible that some of the Spaceways books may have been collaborations.

Like most sleaze fiction these books have either been ignored or regarded with a sneer. And science fiction fans are often quite disapproving of the idea of injecting sex into their favourite genre. But like so much American sleaze fiction of the period from the 50s to the 80s they were written by a guy who wrote “legitimate” science fiction as well as sleaze. And the other book in this series that I’ve read, Purrfect Plunder, was a rather pleasant surprise.

Master of Misfit opens with a bit of a cyberpunk vibe. Cyberpunk was just starting to make waves in the science fiction genre in 1982. The movie Blade Runner came out that year, William Gibson had had his first cyberpunk story published, Bruce Sterling’s first stories set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe had appeared. The cyberpunk ethos was already in the air.

Dorjan is a thief. Dorjan is one of his names. He has many others. He’s a very successful thief and pirate. He’s not quite human. He spent some time as the slave/pet/personal stud of the very wealthy and very powerful Murrah an Rahmyne. It amused her to have certain modifications made to her slave’s body. Some were intended to enhance his performance as her personal stud but others were intended simply to amuse her. Dorjan has retractable razor-sharp claws, he has 360 degree vision and he has lightweight but extremely powerful wings which can be neatly and unobtrusively folded when not in use. Dorjan is the captain of the pirate spacecraft Misfit and other members of his crew have also been enhanced by genetic and biomechanical means.

All of which, when combined with a universe in which high-tech crime and space piracy both thrive, certainly qualify this novel as proto-cyberpunk if not an early example of full-fledged cyberpunk.

Dorjan is out to steal the Heart of the Universe. This is a fabulously valuable necklace of gold inlaid with firegems, firegems being (literally) living gems. Stealing this jewel is impossible, or would be impossible for an ordinary Galactic (as the descendants of the humans from Earth who colonised this corner of the galaxy are known). But Dorjan is much more than human.

It’s not just a matter of stealing the necklace. Dorjan and his crew have to make a safe getaway from the planet Panish.

We’re also introduced very early on to Coppertop. She has had many names also, and an adventurous life. She has been a slave and a whore but now she’s the very rich widow of a very rich man. She is now known as Lizina Harish. She loved her husband very much and she mourned his passing sincerely but now two months have elapsed and for those two months Lizina has not had a man. She’s practically crawling the walls as a result. Tonight she is most definitely going to have a man. She has one picked out. He seems to be rich and very good-looking. She’s more than willing to accept his invitation to spend the night at his penthouse. Instead of getting a night of passion she gets kidnapped by slavers, and subjected to exquisite tortures (after she’s been raped).

The two plot strands intersect when Dorjan realises that the gorgeous woman he couldn’t help noticing is a slave. He knows she’s a slave because his First Mate has an unusual talent. He has a kind of limited psychic ability. He just knows when someone is a slave, even when they don’t appear to be.

Dorjan and his crew are thieves and pirates but they draw the line at slavery. Most of them, including Dorjan, have been slaves themselves. They have an intense dislike of slavers, and they are always willing to take a break from thieving to rescue a slave.

Dorjan and his crew have another agenda. At one point in their wanderings through the galaxy they discovered an asteroid that had been turned into a spacious habitat capable of housing several thousand people. Since the asteroid had been abandoned they claimed it. They intend to establish their own tiny independent community there, a haven for escaped slaves.

There are going to be complications. Coppertop belongs to Ganessa. Ganessa operates the finest mobile whorehouse in the galaxy. Coppertop was to be a star attraction. Ganessa is not a woman who takes kindly to having her possessions stolen from her, and she paid good money for Coppertop.

There are plenty of adventures to come, plenty of action, more thieving and lots of sex. Including sex with aliens. Dorjan has discovered a new species of intelligent alien. She’s incredibly cute, incredibly female and there’s nothing in the universe she likes more than having sex. And she’s totally sexually compatible with humans. There’s also some much weirder alien sex but there’s lots of god old-fashioned regular sex as well.

The secret of combining sleaze fiction with other genres such as science fiction is to integrate the sex fully into the plot. In this case the author does that very successfully, since the plot mostly revolves around prostitution and sex slavery, but with a definite science fictional flavour.

The sex is reasonably graphic.

Master of Misfit is fast-paced, action-packed and very sleazy. The cyberpunk feel is very marked (and handled in a fairly effective way). I suppose you could call this book sleazepunk. Whatever you decide to call it it’s entertaining and it’s highly recommended.

I also recommend the next book in the series, Purrfect Plunder (which features a particularly interesting alien species).

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Alistair MacLean’s The Last Frontier

The Last Frontier is an early Alistair MacLean thriller, dating from 1959. It was filmed in 1961 as The Secret Ways and has also been published under that title. In my view MacLean was at his peak in the 60s and early 70s and his best books were those written in the first person. First-person narration suited MacLean’s purposes perfectly and allowed him to indulge in some of his favourite narrative tricks. The Last Frontier is written in the third person and it’s MacLean starting to really find his feet as a thriller writer. He hasn’t yet perfected his technique but he’s getting there.

There are also a couple of interesting aspects to this novel which I’ll get to later.

You know you’re in MacLean country from the first page - the hero is surrounded by a vast expanse of snow and ice and MacLean makes sure the reader feels the cold as well. It’s not the last time in the book that you’ll feel the cold seeping into your bones.

Michael Reynolds is a British spy and he’s behind the Iron Curtain and he’s cold and he’s being hunted. He’s spent months training for a very important mission and this is the first day and it’s all gone badly wrong. He expected the road-block just outside Budapest but he hadn’t expected the second road-block. Pretty soon he’s in the hands of the Hungarian secret police, the dreaded AVO. There’s no escape.

Then the first plot twist kicks in.

Reynolds’ job is to bring a British scientist back from Budapest. The scientist has no desire to return to the West but the British secret service will use whatever means necessary to persuade him to come. They’re hoping that lies, deception and emotional manipulation will work but it’s clear they’re prepared to resort to more drastic measures.

This is one of the interesting aspects I alluded to earlier. In this novel the British are the good guys but they’re as ruthless, dishonest and cynical as the communists. The novel even floats the suggestion that it was the West that was responsible for the Cold War in the first place. These thoughts are expressed by the courageous Hungarian freedom fighter Jansci who is in fact the most noble and sympathetic character in the book. Jansci takes an instant dislike to Michael Reynolds. Reynolds is everything he despises - a man without honour, without scruples, without emotions. A man of blood. And Reynolds is the novel’s hero. We’re getting close to John le Carre-Len Deighton levels of cynicism and darkness here.

There’s also some political messaging but it’s not at all what you expect in a Cold War spy thriller. It’s all about the futility of war and violence and the desirability of peace, non-violence and peaceful co-existence between the West and the communist world. Very unexpected for 1959, and any kind of messaging comes as a surprise in an Alistair MacLean novel. Usually I detest this kind of messaging but I can’t say it bothered me in this book.

Jansci and the Count, both key characters, offer a perspective on the Cold War that is radically at odds with the view that is offered in just about every other spy novel of the late 50s. It’s a perspective with which the novel’s hero, Reynolds, is increasingly in sympathy. And my impression is that MacLean had some sympathy for this radical re-appraisal of Cold War politics as well since it does constitute the major theme of the novel. In many ways The Last Frontier has a much stronger affinity with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American than with mainstream late 50s spy fiction and it can be seen as an anticipation of the moral murkiness of le Carre and Deighton. But the cynicism abut the Cold War in The Last Frontier goes way beyond anything in le Carre.

What we do expect in a MacLean are devious plot twists, relentless action and suspense and this novel delivers on all these counts. The plot is excellent. Reynolds makes mistake, all the heroic characters in the book make mistakes and all the villains make mistakes as well. Every time Reynolds thinks that this time he’s got it figured out and he’s not going to make another error everything goes horribly wrong again. He seems to keep running into brick walls but he’s been trained never to give up so he just picks himself up and has another try.

There’s a fair amount of violence and there are extended torture scenes but again MacLean surprises us. These are non-violent tortures by means of drugs intended not just to break down the victim’s resistance but to leave him nothing more than an empty shell. There’s no need to kill him afterwards because his personality will have been entirely destroyed. It’s much more horrifying than the conventional torture scenes that the average thriller writer would rely on.

Yet another surprise is the real emotional depth of the hero. We’re talking major character development here. By the end of the book the Michael Reynolds to whom we are introduced at the beginning has ceased to exist, not because his personality has been destroyed by torture but because all his prejudices and illusions and cherished beliefs have been exposed as wrong-headed and devoid of meaning. When a man has to abandon all the codes and values by which he has lived he really has to re-assemble his personality from scratch and that’s the challenge that Michael Reynolds faces.

MacLean did at times offer us damaged or flawed heroes (Fear Is the Key being an example) so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the complexity of the hero of The Last Frontier.

There are still the usual spy fiction themes of loyalty and betrayal, but they’re handled in a complex way.

MacLean’s plots were so good and he was such a master of action and suspense that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he could write some pretty gritty hard-edged prose when he had a mind to.

The Last Frontier is a slightly unconventional but very effective and very entertaining spy thriller. It has a slightly different feel compared to the novels he would write in the 1960s but it’s still highly recommended. In fact it’s thematically interesting enough to qualify for a very highly recommended rating.

I've reviewed the movie version, The Secret Ways (1961), on Classic Movie Ramblings.