Monday, October 3, 2022

John Flagg's The Persian Cat

The Persian Cat is a 1950 spy novel by John Flagg. This was a pseudonym used by American writer John Gearon (1911-1993).

This was an interesting transitionary period for spy fiction which at this time was dominated by writers like Victor Canning. Within few years Ian Fleming would change the rules of the game, upping the ante when it came to sex, violence and glamour. 1950 was also a time when the Cold War had not yet come to dominate the world of the spy novel. In 1950 the bad guys were still the Nazis. The war was over but that made no difference. Nazis were still the favoured bad guys in both spy novels and spy movies.

The Persian Cat falls into that category - a story in which the Second World War looms over everything.

The novel is set in the late 1940s. Gil Denby is an American, presumably in his thirties. He did cloak-and-dagger work during the war but his experiences have left him cynical and bitter. Much of the bitterness is over Dorothy. He has daydreams about killing her.

Denby is now for sale to the highest bidder. In this case that’s the French. They want him to bait a trap for a woman named Claire Fayne. They believe she was responsible for the deaths of several members of the Resistance (the French Resistance was an absolute obsession with thriller writers at this time). His job is to persuade her to enter French territory where she can be arrested. It may be necessary for him to seduce her. They are in fact setting him up as the male equivalent of a honey trap.

Claire Fayne is living in Teheran. She is the mistress of a man Edmund Marlan. Marlan has extensive business interests, none of them particularly honest. He was a wartime profiteer. He is ageing, clever and very dangerous.

A female French agent named Gaby will be assisting Denby in Teheran. She has already been sharing his bed.

Right from the start Denby finds himself out of his depth. He is followed everywhere but he has no idea by whom. It’s likely that a number of persons and organisations have taken a keen interest in his presence in Iran. The British Secret Service, in the person of a man named Berkeley, is definitely interested. Denby thought he would be the one doing the manipulating but he finds that he is dancing to the tune of a number of dangerous puppet masters. And he starts to think that his cover (he’s supposed to be buying rugs for a Chicago department store) might be very threadbare indeed.

In fact it’s possible that everybody in Teheran knows more about what’s going on than Gil Denby.

Denby is doing the job for money but he has his own reasons for hating women like Claire Fayne. Those reasons have to do with Dorothy.

This novel offers as much paranoia as any spy fiction fan could hope for. Denby doesn’t know whom to trust. Maybe everybody is out to get him.

There’s plenty of action as well. Not as much action as you’ll find in spy novels after Ian Fleming came along, but plenty of action by 1950 spy novel standards.

Gil Denby is no James Bond. He’s a characters straight out of American hardboiled/noir fiction. He’s a cynical loser with a chip on his shoulder. He hasn’t lost all his idealism but what little remains is sadly frayed around the edges. He doesn’t trust women. When he does trust a woman, or when he does regain some of his idealism, life comes along and kicks him in the guts.

I have no idea how authentic or inauthentic the Teheran setting is but it doesn’t matter. This is not the real world, it’s spy fiction world. However inaccurate it might be the setting provides a perfect background for a story about a drifter like Denby and it gives the book the touch of exoticism that readers at that time craved.

This is a story of betrayals in the past and betrayals in the present and Denby starts to think he may become guilty of betrayal as well, or at least complicit in betrayal. Betrayals in the world of espionage can of course be personal or professional and the book tends to suggest that personal betrayals are worse. Gil Denby certainly feels that way. He’s been betrayed in love before and he really feels that there’s nothing worse. And when he thinks he might betray love he has to do some serious re-evaluating.

The plot twists are quite satisfactory. There’s some effective atmosphere and it’s all pretty entertaining. I enjoyed it enough to go looking for more of Flagg’s spy novels. Stark House have re-issued quite a few of his books so availability is not an issue. The Persian Cat has been re-issued in their excellent Black Gat Books range. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Gardner Francis Fox's The Druid Stone

The Druid Stone is a 1967 novel of black magic by Gardner Francis Fox, using the pseudonym Simon Majors. It was published in 1967.

Brian Creoghan is in his mid-thirties but he’s packed a lot of action into his life. That life has been spent roaming the globe in search of adventure, and perhaps (we will come to suspect) in search of something more. His globe-trotting has not taken him to places like Paris and Rome. He’s always been interested in more remote and exotic places. His journeyings have brought him into contact with strange religions, esoteric sects, secret rites and other aspects of what could be described as the weird and the occult.

Now he’s settled down in a farmhouse in New Hampshire. The first sign that his adventuring days might not be over is the patch of blackness in the woods. It just didn’t look natural. That female voice he heard was a bit mysterious as well.

He gets an invitation to dinner with his new neighbours. Moira and Ugony MacArt are brother and sister. Moira is disturbingly alluring. Ugony has spent his life investigating the occult and he has amassed a collection of ritual objects. His interest in the subject is intense but whether it’s healthy remains to be seen. Now he wants Brian to join him in a little experiment. All Brian has to do is to place his hands on a druid stone.

At which point everything changes.

At first it’s reasonable to assume that we’re going to get an occult thriller. This was a hugely popular genre at the time with Dennis Wheatley’s Black Magic books being massive sellers. But before The Druid Stone actually gets underway we’re offered a tantalising hint that this story might be more science fictional than we expect.

And when Brian Creoghan touches that druid stone we find that the book has become a sword-and-sorcery tale. Brian Creoghan is no longer Brian Creoghan. He’s a great warrior named Kalgorrn, he’s in another land which doesn’t seem to be Earth at all, and he’s a different person. Or rather he’s now two people in the same body. And the action starts to really kick in.

He’s now a warrior, a lord whose lands were stolen from him by an evil sorcerer. As a result of a spell he’s been sleeping. Possibly for centuries. But now he’s found his lover, the beautiful witch-woman Red Fann, and they have a quest for revenge to undertake. And lots of terrifying monsters to battle.

To now assume that this is going to be a straightforward sword-and-sorcery adventure would however be a mistake. The author has more tricks up his sleeve.

The story continually switches back and forth between the ordinary world of the present day and the fantastic magical world. Soon Brian Geoghan is no longer sure if he really is Brian Geoghan or if he’s the hero Kalgorrn. He has other complications to worry about. Kalgorrn is in love with Red Fann but Brian is falling in love with Moira. These two women are liable to be a bit unhappy about sharing him.

He also realises that the two worlds he inhabits are liked in some way. What happens in one world could have consequences in the other. In fact the fate of both worlds could hang in the balance. And there’s still that science fiction element lurking in the background.

There’s also the problem that he’s starting to wonder exactly what Ugony MacArt is up to. There was a murder a while back and while Brian is sure that Ugony is not capable of being involved in murder the locals have strong suspicions that Ugony is the murder. So we get a mystery sub-plot as well.

Fox had a real knack for producing thoroughly enjoyable fast-paced pulp tales in multiple genres. He wrote both the Cherry Delight series of sexy sleazy spy/crime thrillers (beginning with The Italian Connection) and the equally entertaining The Lady from L.U.S.T. sexy spy thrillers (beginning with Lust, Be a Lady Tonight). There is however no sleaze at all in The Druid Stone.

The Druid Stone is a very entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 26, 2022

William Fuller's Back Country

William Fuller (1913-1982) had been a successful writer for the slicks when in 1954 he suddenly switched to churning out paperback original hardboiled crime thrillers. Back Country was his first novel. I guess you could call it backwoods noir.

The narrator, Brad Dolan, is in his early thirties and he’s had an adventurous life, and now he feels let down by life. He’s embittered by his experiences on both the Second World War and the Korean War and even more embittered about his wife’s unfaithfulness (she’s now his ex-wife).

He decides to head for Florida. He needs some sunshine. His car breaks down in a small town in Carter County, he decides he needs a drink but it’s a dry county so he has to go out of town. He gets into a fight in a gambling joint. The fight is over a woman. Getting into fights over women is the story of Dolan’s life. He wakes up in a cell and he figures he’s in real trouble this time. Surprisingly though he is released, and offered a job by Rand Ringo. Rand Ringo runs Carter County. He’s a shady businessman, a racketeer and a crooked political operator. Dolan accepts the job.

That’s the novel’s first misstep. Dolan is at heart a self-righteous Boy Scout. It doesn’t make sense that he’d take such a job. He tries to tell himself that he’s just out for what he can get but his self-righteousness is much too obvious and of course right from the word go he’s riddled with guilt.

He’s also plenty dumb. Rand Ringo isn’t just all-powerful, he’s mean and vindictive. So of course the first thing Dolan does is to sleep with Ringo’s wife Billy, an alcoholic failed actress. The second thing he does is to sleep with Ringo’s daughter Gloria. Gloria is the apple of Ringo’s eye.

Dolan gets wind of some plotting against Ringo on the part of the madam of one of Ringo’s brothel and the crooked redneck sheriff. Dolan figures he can use this information.

So far so good. We have a setup which promises some noir melodrama, with a self-pitying loser hero who is determined to get himself into the deepest trouble he can find.

And then Fuller starts on the politics. And he doesn’t let up. I’m prepared to believe that the guy was well-meaning and sincere in his beliefs and maybe he thought he was saying things that needed to be said in 1954. In 1954 he was probably right. Maybe in 1954 readers would have been interested. But reading the novel today it gets really tiresome to be bludgeoned about the head with the hot-button political issues of 1954. That’s the problem with political novels - they age very very badly.

Dolan is presumably meant to be a guy that we’re going to admire but I found him to be mightily irritating. He’s just too much of a Boy Scout looking for a crusade. His self-pity also gets old real fast. Given the background that is sketched in for the character he should be an interesting colourful guy but he isn’t.

The other characters in the novel fall into two categories - those who are brave and noble and honourable and those who are cardboard cut-out evil villains.

The plot is just a bit too predictable and much too contrived. Everything is secondary to the political message. And it’s all much too heavy-handed and obvious.

There’s a fair amount of violence and a bit of sleaze.

I suspect that the problem with this book is that Fuller’s background was in the slick magazines. I don’t think he really understood pulp fiction. The book reads as if he’s slumming. He’d prefer to be writing “proper” fiction. He just doesn’t get the tone right.

This is overall a pretty terrible book. It just doesn’t work. I really can’t recommend it at all.

Stark House have reprinted this book in their Black Gat Books line.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique

Poet-short story writer Clark Ashton Smith was a prolific contributor to pulps such as Weird Tales in the 1930s. He was part of Lovecraft’s circle of writer friends who kept in constant contact by letter, shared ideas and sometimes settings and influenced one another. The big three of the Lovecraft circle were Lovecraft himself, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. They were three very different writers but with a good deal of respect for each other’s work. Smith wrote most of his hundred-plus short stories in the early 1930s.

Apart from being one of the finest of all writers of weird fiction Smith was perhaps the greatest of all American decadent writers. He was certainly the most extravagant prose stylist that America has produced. His stories are lush in a most unhealthy unwholesome way. It is the lushness of decay and degeneracy. Very few writers could match Smith as far as creating an atmosphere of dread was concerned, and none could match him when it came to the seductiveness of evil and the unnatural and perverse.

Occasionally, just to keep us on our toes, Smith would give us a happy ending. Yes, there is a Zothique story with a genuine happy ending. Mostly however things end badly for all concerned. And sometimes he would give us a slightly ambiguous ending. Smith understood that no matter how much a story might be heading towards an apparently inevitable conclusion it is a mistake to allow the reader to know with certainty how the tale will end.

The Zothique stories take place in the very distant future. The sun is now very old and sheds but a feeble light. The last inhabited continent is Zothique. It is a world in which the secrets of technology and science have long since been lost. The level of technology is that of the ancient world. It is also a world of magic. Human civilisation has reached the point of extreme decadence. Cultural exhaustion, pessimism, hedonism and self-indulgence are the hallmarks of human society. This is a society haunted by the glories of the past, and often haunted by the evils of the past as well.

The Last Hieroglyph tells of Nushain the astrologer who is disturbed one day when he notices three new stars in the sky. They are very near to the constellation of the Great Dog, the constellation which presided over his birth. He recasts his horoscope and after poring over his books he decides that it means that he will undertake an unexpected journey, a long journey, and three guides will show him the way. Whether he will find the journey profitable or unprofitable, whether it portends good or evil for him, is beyond his powers to discern.

The journey turns out to be arduous and at the end of it - well you’ll have to read the story to find that out. Suffice to say that Smith comes up with a perfect ending. It’s typical of Smith’s work - clever and imaginative with a sense of foreboding, or at least of unease.

The Empire of the Necromancers tells of two sorcerers who are banished to a wasteland for practising the forbidden art of necromancy. In this wasteland nothing lives, but that’s not a problem for men who can restore the dead to life. They create an empire for themselves, an empire of the dead. They have gained immense power but they are corrupted by it.

This is the kind of story that has gained Smith his reputation as a decadent. It’s a tale not just of a decaying or dying empire but a truly dead one. Smith’s style is rich but it’s the richness of decay.

In The Isle of the Torturers a kingdom is afflicted by a plague. Only the king is immune. With his kingdom destroyed and in despair he sets off on a sea voyage only to find himself on the fabled Isle of the Torturers. On this island torture is the fate awaiting all visitors and the methods of torture are ingenious and fiendish, relying as much on psychological terror as pain. The king’s only chance is a girl who offers to save him.

The Weaver of the Vault is one of Smith’s most anthologised stories. Three men have been sent to a dead city to retrieve a relic, but the dead are guarded well and in a terrifying manner.

The Charnel God is a superb story. In Zul-Bha-Sair the dead belong to the priests of Mordiggian. What happens to the dead is unknown but it’s assumed that they’re devoured by the god. It’s all very unfortunate for a young traveller named Phariom. hIs wife suffers from catalepsy and she’s had another attack. And now the priests have claimed her body. There is of course nothing wrong with her, in the normal course of events she would soon recover, but now she’s going to be devoured by the god. Phariom is determined to save her but it seems impossible.

The Tomb-Spawn is closer to out-and-out horror but as usual with echoes of the past. Two merchants listen to a story about a king from the distant past. He was a king and a sorcerer and he had as his familiar and creature from the stars. The merchants forget about the story and ride on but perhaps they should have remembered the story.

Xeethra is about a young goatherd who discovers a hidden valley. But what has he really discovered? Has he entered the past or a world of dream and illusion, and is he really a humble goatherd. This is a particularly evocative and subtly disturbing tale.

In The Dark Eidolon a young beggar-boy is trampled under the hooves of the horse of Zotulla. The beggar-boy survives and later, in a distant land, becomes the notorious sorcerer Namirrha. Zotulla becomes the king. Namirrha still wants his revenge and returns to the city of his birth for that purpose. He calls upon dark powers to aid him, but that can be a dangerous thing to do. Especially if you have the arrogant belief that you compel those powers of darkness to do your bidding.

In The Black Abbot of Puthuum two warrior have to escort a eunuch to a distant town. There’s a rumour of a particularly beautiful girl living here ad the eunuch is to buy her for his king. They buy the girl but on the return journey they encounter a strange wall of darkness then an isolated monastery. The abbot, a huge black man, has a sinister air about him. That monastery turns out to be a very bad place to visit. Another tale of evil from the distant past, with an ending which is not what you expect from Clark Ashton Smith.

In Necromancy in Naat Prince Yadar searches for his beloved Dalili, stolen by slavers. His quest takes him to the dread island of the necromancers of Naat. Does he find what he is seeing? Well, yes and no.

The Death of Ilalotha is a story of love, of sorts. Ilalotha, lady-in-waiting to Queen Xantlicha, is dead and is laid out on her bier whilst the traditional mourning orgy takes place. Lord Thulos had been her lover but he had abandoned her in favour of the queen. Ilalotha, who was rumoured to dabble in sorcery, took her defeat in love rather badly. Now Lord Thulos has returned from a journey, and he has the odd impression that perhaps Ilalotha is not truly dead. Love and passion usually do not end well in Clark Ashton Smith’s stories.

The Garden of Adompha is a nicely macabre tale. The garden belongs to the king. Only the king and his chief sorcerer have access to the garden. And very strange things happen in that garden. Things grow there that should not grow anywhere.

Morthylla is about a young man who has sampled all of life’s pleasures and he is now suffering from ennui. He needs stronger pleasures. It is suggested to him that if he visits a nearby necropolis he will encounter a lamia, and that she may introduce him to pleasures sufficiently perverse to meet his needs. Of course since she’s a lamia those pleasures might be fatal. He goes to the necropolis and meets a beautiful woman there. But is she the lamia?

Every single one of the Zothique stories is very very good. The Zothique cycle was an astonishing and unique achievement. There’s nothing else, in any fictional genre, that has quite the same flavour. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Elaine Dorian's The Sex Cure

The Sex Cure is a 1962 sleaze novel by Elaine Dorian, a pseudonym adopted by Isabel Moore. Moore lived in Cooperstown in upstate New York and her sleaze novels were based very closely on that town and its residents. So closely that she was threatened with libel suits and very nearly run out of town. The subsequent court case brought some notoriety to both the book and its author.

I’ve been reading a lot of the sleaze fiction of this era recently and it’s not quite what I expected. These books for the most part are not erotica. They’re either noir fiction that’s slightly sleazier than average, or they’re romantic melodramas with a bit of added sex. Although I always assumed that these books were aimed mostly at men they’re often much closer in feel and spirit to what would later become known as Chick Lit.

The Sex Cure is a case in point. It’s pure melodrama. It’s very similar in both tone and content to Grace Metalious’s 1957 massive bestseller Peyton Place. Both books deal with sex and sin behind the respectable façade of an American small town. Both books take aim at the narrow-mindedness, viciousness and hypocrisy of small town life. Both novels used sex as a major selling point. The Sex Cure is slightly more explicit in its treatment of sex, but only slightly.

The setting is a town named Ridgefield Corners. The town is run by two elderly men, Cy Stevens and Senator John Adams Turner. Both are elderly very nasty men and both are corrupt sleazeball political operators.

Dr Justin Riley comes from a rough deprived background but now he’s a rising thoracic surgeon at the town’s only hospital, with a glittering future in front of him. Or at least he did have a glittering future in front of him. If only Justin could keep his hands off the pretty nurses at the hospital, and off pretty girls in general. Now one of those pretty nurses, Betty Hogan, has been admitted to the hospital. She was bleeding to death after an illegal abortion but before lapsing into a coma she named Justin as the father of the child. And Justin is now implicated in a case of criminal abortion.

Betty may yet survive but the same can’t be said of Dr Justin Riley’s career. He’s in big trouble with his wife Olivia and with his father-in-law, Senator Turner. And the respectable citizens of Ridgefield Corners have turned against him and have decided that there’s no place in their town for such a wicked immoral person. Justin sees considerable irony in this. Whenever the townspeople get sick they run to him to save their lives. He has arranged abortions for lots of the respectable husbands of the town when they’ve gotten their mistresses pregnant, and most of the town’s respectable wives have welcomed Justin into their beds.

Justin’s sin is not adultery. His sin is that he got caught and now there’s a scandal and the respectable citizens of Ridgefield Corners don’t like scandals.

What’s worse is that all of Justin’s woman troubles have come to crisis point at the same time. His marriage was heading for the rocks anyway. He’s been trying to entice his pretty (and married) lab assistant Marge Myles into bed. He’s been sleeping with his old girlfriend Misty Powers again. Misty is sinking further into alcoholism.

Justin knows that his life is falling apart but he has no idea what to do about it. He’s never really thought about the consequences of his actions. He married Olivia for her money. Maybe he loved her at first. Their sex life has become a washout. Justin can’t live without sex. He assumes that the women he beds understand that it’s just harmless fun. But they don’t understand that at all. Misty is in love with him. Betty Hogan didn’t understand it. She was convinced that Justin would divorce his wife and marry her. Justin thought that he could keep his affairs discreet. Everybody knew he was a womaniser but as long as he wasn’t involved in open scandal nobody cared. Now he’s mixed up in what promises to be a very public scandal.

Justin has to figure out what to do about all these women in his life. And the women need to figure out what to do about Justin.

This is pure unalloyed romantic melodrama. There’s plenty of sex but it’s not at all graphic. The book is aiming for sin and sensation rather than mere erotic thrills. It’s also obvious that the author intended this as a poison-pen letter to her hometown. In Ridgefield Corners she’s created an extraordinary world of corruption and hypocrisy.

The characters are on the whole not especially admirable, but apart from the two crooked politicians and the equally corrupt local police chief they’re mostly people who have made a mess of their lives though weakness, short-sightedness, poor judgment and wishful thinking. Although they’re all messed up they could extricate themselves from their predicaments. But they probably won’t.

In these sleaze novels you’re never quite sure whether you’re hoping to get a happy ending or a downbeat ending and in this case the author keeps us guessing. Even Justin is perhaps not beyond saving, if only he could convince himself that Justin Riley was worth saving.

It’s all reasonably entertaining and it certainly offers lurid sensationalism. Recommended.

If you enjoy this sort of thing that I can highly recommend Dallas Mayo’s One Night Stand (1962), another small town sex melodrama. Other sleaze novels that are basically romantic melodramas are Florence Stonebreaker’s excellent Reno Tramp (1950) and Lawrence Block’s Kept (1960).

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Executioners Nick Carter Killmaster #55

The Executioners was number 55 in the prolific Nick Carter Killmaster pulp spy thriller series. It appeared in 1970. All the books in the series were credited to Nick Carter. This one was written by Jon Messmann.

Nick Carter is a secret agent for the top-secret U.S. spy agency AXE.

Of course you know that there’s going to be a nefarious plot to destroy or undermine western civilisation, a plot hatched by one of America’s enemies. But it does come as a surprise that in this book the threat comes from - the Australians! The book opens with an Australian aircraft carrier sinking an American guided missile cruiser, with the loss of most of the crew of the cruiser.

Undoubtedly the inspiration for this book was a real-life incident in 1969 when the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne did indeed sink an American destroyer in an accidental collision.

But in this novel it is no accident. Then those damned Australians drop live bombs on American troops doing an exercise. And, oh yeah, the Australians also blow up a whole bunch of British soldiers in another training exercise.

These incidents are officially written off as accidents but Hawk, the chief of AXE, doesn’t believe it for a second. Those American and British servicemen were killed deliberately. So what’s going on? Have the Australians become the latest of America’s enemies or is there some mysterious sinister scheme behind all this? Could it be the commies? AXE’s ace agent Nick Carter is sent Australia to find out.

Nick follows up a number of leads. Most of the leads involve women. He discovers that Australian women have very impressive breasts. Nick doesn’t notice too much about women’s personalities or emotions or motivations but he always notices their breasts. In order to get more information from these women Nick naturally has to sleep with them.

There are three women who play key roles in this story. There’s the assistant to the chief of Australian Intelligence, Mona Star. Mona has jutting breasts. There’s Judy, who works in a bar that seems to be linked to the case. Judy has round full breasts. Then there’s the Lynn, the girlfriend of one of the Australian soldiers involved in those accident. She has thin breasts. Yes, this book really is largely taken up by loving descriptions of women’s breasts. And steamy sex scenes.

Nick manages to find time (in between bedding Aussie women) to get beaten up, almost incinerated in a blast furnace and to get thrown out of an aircraft and stranded in the Outback. Where he encounters kangaroos. There’s no point in setting your novel in Australia unless kangaroos are going to play a part in the story.

You’ll have no difficulty whatever in guessing what is behind all this mayhem. It’s pretty much spelled out for you in the first few pages of the book. There is an amusing implication however that if those Australians start thinking about leaving their alliance with America they’ll need to be slapped down hard.

Even more amusing is that the author manages to get every single thing about Australia totally and ludicrously wrong.

There’s quite a bit of sex but (surprisingly for a book published in 1970) it’s not at all graphic.

It sounds like I’m mocking this book. It’s certainly very trashy, but I like trashy books. I like trashy overheated spy thrillers and I enjoy good old-fashioned paranoia (and there’s plenty of Cold War paranoia here). I also have no objections whatsoever to having generous amounts of sleaze added to spy thrillers. I don’t even have a major problem with thrillers in which all the female characters spend most of their time naked. I know it’s not politically correct but if you’re worried about political correctness you’re not likely to be considering reading a Nick Carter KiIlmaster book (or reading a review of such a book).

What this series did provide was lots of mindless action and sex, and those are good things. On the whole The Executioners delivers what readers of this series were looking for. The revelation of the nefarious scheme is just a bit too obvious.

The front cover promises babes in black bikinis and scuba gear. And yes, there are indeed black bikini-clad babes in scuba gear. And a brief but pretty effective underwater action climax.

The Executioners is not a great Killmaster book but it’s reasonable enough entertainment.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Dolores Hitchens' Strip for Murder

Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Birk Olsen Hitchens (1907-1973) wrote mysteries initially under the name D.B. Olsen. With her second husband Bert Hitchens, who was a railway detective, she wrote five railway mystery thrillers including the excellent End of the Line (1957). She also wrote mysteries under the name Dolores Hitchens, including her 1958 novella (really more a short novel than a novella) Strip for Murder.

Stark House have reprinted Strip for Murder and since it’s only a novella they’ve thrown in a couple of short stories as a bonus.

Strip for Murder begins with a guy named Bellew getting poison-pen letters. He runs a theatrical agency but in fact the entertainers he represents are strippers. Sometimes they get sent on jobs to private parties. Bellew is a quiet little guy who has no carnal interest in the girls he represents. Such things no longer interest him.

He thinks the threatening letters may be linked to an incident that occurred twenty years earlier. He’d sent a girl named Janie Gordon to a lodge party and she’d been raped. Afterwards she committed suicide. Bellew has always felt vaguely guilty although it was an incident that could not have been predicted.

Bellew asks Warne for help. Warne is an insurance investigator with an office across the hall from Bellew’s. Warne does a bit of private detective work. Warne does some checking up on Janie Gordon’s parents. Her father is still alive, he’s very very old and he’s extremely rich. Which is strange because he used to be extremely poor. Warne is convinced that it would be worth finding out where the old boy got all his money.

The old man has a bodyguard, which is also odd. The bodyguard is young, fit, tough and mean. He’s itching for a chance to beat up people like Warne who start nosing around. Warne isn’t too worried. He’s handled punks before. Old dogs tend to know some rather nasty tricks.

What worries Bellew about the letters is that they contain a prediction that what happened to Janie Gordon is about to happen again.

Warne becomes steadily more interested in the case. He also becomes steadily more interested in Bellew’s secretary. He’d never taken much notice of her previously. He hadn’t noticed how attractive she was.

Bellew is worried because he’s about to send another girl to a private party. The party is organised by a club that claims to be a group of patriots but Bellew thinks they’re more interested in naked girls than in saving the country. Bellew isn’t bothered by their hypocrisy. He takes such things for granted in his business. And Candy Carroll knows how to look after herself. Candy has just flown in from Vegas and she’s staying with another stripper, Chickie Anderson.

What happened twenty years earlier doesn’t happen again, not exactly, but something does happen. Now the police are interested. Hard-nosed reporter Fred Robinson is interested as well. He smells a story.

This is not really a hardboiled or a noir story. It’s a straightforward mystery. Warne isn’t your typical tough guy private detective but he’s tough enough. Private detective work is not really his field but he’s a good insurance investigator with an instinct that tells Im when someone is telling him lies. And he figures he’s definitely being lied to.

The plot struck me as being just a little contrived. Hitchens uses a certain method to throw us off the scent and it’s a method about which I have mixed feelings. Is the plot fair-play? I guess it is. The solution works, even with the plot contrivances.

The first of the short stories is If You See This Woman. Junie was brought up in a home for intellectually disabled girls. The girl were taught how to care for babies and were then placed with married couples as cheap live-in nannies. Junie looks after Mr and Mrs Arnold’s year-old baby Petey. One day Junie overhears something which she takes literally, and she then decides that Petey is in danger and that she must save him. If you can accept the slightly far-fetched premise (it’s hard to believe that anyone could take things as literally as Junie does) then it’s an interesting emotionally affecting story which pays off quite nicely.

The second story is Blueprint for Murder. Old Mr Harvod tells his nephew about a murder he committed and the nephew realises he now has a plan for the perfect murder. Quite a clever story.

Strip for Murder isn’t quite a neglected classic of the mystery genre but it’s enjoyable enough, Hitchens writes pretty well and the sleazy background adds interest (although the sleaze quotient is at best moderate). The two short stories are a little offbeat. So this book is worth a look.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pirates of Venus

Pirates of Venus is the first book in the Venus series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in serial form in 1932 and in book form in 1934. This was the last of his book series. Compared to the Tarzan, Mars (Barsoom), Carnak and Pellucidar cycles it’s just a tiny bit disappointing. Burroughs was very good at creating imaginary worlds that radically differ from our own world. His world of Venus (the inhabitants call it Amtor) is not quite as imaginative.

Carson Napier is bored with his life. He needs an adventure. So he decides to go to Mars. He’s a keen rocket hobbyist and he is convinced that he can build a rocket that could reach Mars. He builds the rocket and it is launched successfully, with Carson Napier as the sole passenger. Unfortunately he made a mistake in his calculations and he ends up heading towards the Moon instead. The Moon’s gravitational field alters his course and he assumes that he is going to be headed off into the limitless void of space. 

But at this point he gets a lucky break. He ends up on Venus.

He discovers that scientists were both right and wrong about Venus. The planet is indeed covered in thick layers of cloud but it is no uninhabitable. He encounters one group of inhabitants immediately, the Vepajans. They live in the trees. Literally in the trees - they live inside the trunks of the trees. These are not like trees on Earth. These trees grow to a height of 6,000 feet and the trunks of some of them have a diameter of 500 feet or more.

The Vepajans are friendly but they warn him not to try to approach the girl in the garden. Naturally he does approach her and he falls instantly in love with her but she gives him the brush-off in no uncertain terms.

Carson gets captured by the birdmen of Venus and after a number of unpleasant experiences he turns pirate. The book then becomes a pretty decent pirate adventure yarn, but in ships that use what sounds like a 1932 idea of what nuclear power might be like.

There’s plenty of action and Carson doesn’t forget about the girl. Despite her coldness he is sure that she secretly loves him.

Apart from the fact that Amtor is not quite as interesting as Carnak or Pellucidar there’s another problem with this book. Burroughs decides to indulge in some political satire. His target is communism. Sadly the satire is incredibly heavy-handed.

Carson Napier is your basic Edgar Rice Burroughs hero, largely interchangeable with all the others. Burroughs had a formula and he stuck to it. He know how to make that formula work and how to produce exciting stories. His world-building could be extraordinarily impressive. Pellucidar remains one of the great fantasy worlds.

Pirates of Venus is entertaining, the city in the trees is a nice idea and like all Burroughs books it’s well-paced.

It’s also worth mentioning that you only get a partial plot resolution at the end. There’s a kind of cliffhanger which sets things up for the next book in the series.

If you’re new to Burroughs then start with the first of Pellucidar stories, At the Earth’s Core, or the first of the Carnak novels, The Land That Time Forgot, or the first of the Mars books, A Princess of Mars. Pirates of Venus is a lesser work. Recommended, if you’re already a hardcore Burroughs fan.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder, published in 1982, was the sixth of the nineteen science fiction sleaze paperbacks published by Playboy Press between 1982 and 1985.

Andrew J. Offutt (1934-2013) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. He wrote sleaze fiction under a dozen or so different pseudonyms, including John Cleve. To make things a little bit more confusing the name John Cleve was used by other writers and to make things really murky some of the Spaceways books may have been collaborations.

Purrfect Plunder starts with an epic space battle.

Kenowa is one of the officers of the Dauntless. It’s not quite clear what her position is but we know that she’s sleeping with the ship’s commander, Captain Sword. After the battle the spaceship Dauntless is left a drifting wreck. Kenowa finds herself stripped naked and carried off by some kind of tentacled robot. She is placed in a tiny cubicle, in a hold that contains countless other naked females.

It’s a grim situation but things are not as they seem to be.

Then an interstellar cargo ship, the India Spring, sends a distress message. It’s been attacked by pirates. Captain Jonuta picks up the signal in his ship the Coronet and decides to answer the distress call and rescue the merchantman. Which is a little surprising. Captain Jonuta is after all a slaver. That possibly makes him marginally less lawless and disreputable than a pirate, but not much. Jonuta has never been known to do anything unless there’s a healthy profit in it for him.

The India Spring is carrying a couple of passengers. One of them is a female HRal. Her name is HReenee. This is a newly discovered species. They’re felinoprimates. They’re humanoid, but part cat. They’re an intelligent advanced species but they have some very definite feline tendencies. The capture of the India Spring by the pirates was actually fortunate for HReenee since at the time one of the India Spring’s crew members was raping her. Or rather trying to rape her, and in the process discovering that HRal have razor-sharp slashing claws.

What follows are the usual adventures you’d expect in a story about space pirates. Prisoners escape, there are lots of fights and there’s a tense climactic space battle as Jonuta faces off against a hated rival, Captain Corundum. There’s also a complicated four-way romantic/sexual tangle involving HReenee, her stepbrother HRadem, Captain Jonuta and his first officer Kenowa.

There are three lengthy explicit sexual scenes but I figure that if you’re going to be reading a science fiction sleaze novel (or if you’re going to read a review of a sci-fi sleaze novel) you’re probably going to be able to deal with that. And given the setup outlined earlier you’re probably going to be prepared for some inter-species sexual encounters.

Mostly though this is space opera. And it’s pretty good space opera. The author was an actual science fiction writer and he knows how to write space opera. He’s also familiar with at least some of the realities of space travel, things like zero gravity and creating an artificial gravity effect by having a spacecraft rotating. Most of the science and technology stuff is not outlandishly implausible by space opera standards.

And he knows how to handle action. There are some fine zero-gravity fights and the space battles are quite exciting.

There are several things that make this book a bit more interesting than you might expect. The human characters are just a little bit more than cardboard cut-outs. Jonuta is a slaver so he’s a criminal and his ethical standards are very flexible. But he does have ethical standards. He doesn’t like killing. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate necessity and he’s not going to wallow in guilt about it but it’s something he prefers to avoid. He’s had countless lovers but he’s not entirely predatory towards women (just slightly predatory). Jonuta is no Boy Scout. He is not a conventional hero nor is he a conventional villain. He’s a kind of anti-hero, albeit a reasonably likeable anti-hero.

Kenowa is sex-obsessed but not entirely without at least some romantic feelings. Jonuta and Kenowa are not madly in love but they suit each other and their relationship is not entirely based on sex.

The best thing about this novel however is that it features some of the best aliens in science fiction. Catwomen (or catpeople) were by no means an original idea in 1982. They’d been featured in various movies and the best known fictional examples were the kzinti in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. But the HRal are a lot more interesting and a lot more convincing than the kzinti. The HRal really are both humanoid and feline. They have an advanced technological society and they’re as intelligent as humans but culturally, socially, emotionally and sexually they’re totally cat-like. And the author gives us both a female HRal (HReenee) and a make HRal (HReenee’s step-brother HRadem). HReenee is cat-like in a very female way and HRadem is cat-like in a very male way. HReenee really is a wonderful character - she is totally alien and yet believable. The behaviour of the HRal throughout the book is completely consistent with nature as feline humanoids.

Unlike many science fiction writers Cleve doesn’t seem to have any ideological axe to grind. There is a galactic empire of sorts but in practice it exercises limited control over the various member planets. There’s a galactic police force but it’s overworked ad undermanned and doesn’t achieve very much. Cleve is one of the few science fiction authors to realise that no central government could possibly exercise any real control over an interstellar empire - the distances are too great and it takes too long to cross those distances. It makes no difference what kind of central government you have, they will still be very very limited in what they can do.

The author has obviously given Playboy Press what they wanted - a science fiction adventure spiced up with lots of sex. But he’s also managed to produce a very entertaining space opera with very cool aliens. This book is much much better than you might expect. It's still trashy, but it's quality trash. And sexy space opera turns out to be a rather attractive concept. Purrfect Plunder is highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

TV tie-in novel - Mediterranean Caper (It Takes a Thief #2)

Published in 1969, Mediterranean Caper was the second TV tie-in novel based on the very successful 1968-1970 American TV spy series It Takes a Thief.

It was written by Gil Brewer, much better remembered as one of the great hardboiled/noir writers of the 1950s.

Mediterranean Caper is a lightweight but fun and breezy spy thriller. Entertaining, especially if you’re a fan of the TV show.

My full review can be found at Cult TV Lounge.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Chic Chick Spy

The Chic Chick Spy dates from 1966. It’s the second of the three spy thrillers featuring the Miss From S.I.S. which were written by Robert Tralins. It’s a mixture of spy action and sleaze, which is a mixture I’m starting to find rather seductive.

Lee Crosley is a beautiful young woman who appears on the surface to be a successful travel writer. In reality she’s a counter-espionage field agent for S.I.S., a top-secret intelligence and counter-intelligence agency. All of S.I.S.’s agents are beautiful young women.

This time Lee is investigating a beauty salon. Beauty salons don’t sound very sinister but the Queen of Sheba beauty salon in downtown Washington is rather unusual. It’s run by a woman who claims to be the Queen of Sheba reincarnated. The staff consists almost entirely of lesbians. And if a woman goes to this salon to get her hair done she will be ordered to strip naked. There are Queen of Sheba salons all over the world and now they’re intending to open branches throughout the United States. The salons seem to be a cover for some sort of scheme for world domination.

Lee decides to make an appointment to get a dry and set. She soon finds herself totally nude and surrounded by lesbians in strange turbans. There is an attempt to hypnotise her and an attempt to drug her. The few men working for this beauty salon organisation seem a bit odd as well.

Lee gets into the usual scrapes you expect in a pulp spy caper. She gets captured and of course she escapes. Her sidekick David Dudley gets captured. Both Lee and David end up in various foreign cities chasing up leads, which involves attending conferences. What makes it a bit different from a standard spy thriller is that just about all of the scrapes Lee gets into involve her having to take all her clothes off.

Lee finally starts to suspect what is behind all this beauty salon stuff, and she’s horrified. This is much more diabolically twisted than your standard evil genius aiming for world domination stuff.

Lee Crosley is an engaging enough heroine. She’s basically your standard sexy lady spy. She isn’t defenceless when she enters the beauty salon. She has all kinds of gadgets concealed on and about her person. There are gadgets in her lipstick, her mascara pencil, her ballpoint pen and of course in her bra. The latter came as no surprise to me. Having read the first of Gardner Francis Fox’s delightful The Lady from L.U.S.T. spy thriller series I knew that lady spies always have secret devices hidden in their bras (and usually in their panties). Of course to use the gadget Lee has to take her bra off but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for her since she spends a lot of her time nude or semi-nude. In fact pretty much all of Lee’s underwear is deadly.

David Dudley is very much a sidekick. He’s quite resourceful and useful but he’s strictly a subordinate. In S.I.S. only women can become fully-fledged field agents. Men are purely employed in subordinate capacities. I suppose you could try to interpret this as an indication of some kind of feminist message but I think it might be a mistake to push this too far. This was 1966 and the book reflects the world of 1966. S.I.S. employs women because women make very useful agents. And the book is about lady spies because, let’s face it, lady spies are sexy and glamorous. That’s not to say it’s anti-feminist. If you’re the sort of person who sees political incorrectness everywhere I imagine you’ll find lots of it here.

There’s a reasonable amount of action. The violence is very low-key but people do get killed. The sleaze is also very low-key. There’s no sex. The sleaze mostly amounts to Lee getting naked a lot. A real lot. The book is sexy but in a lighthearted almost innocent way.

The front cover assures us that this is the most absurd book you will read this year. They’re not kidding. The plot is definitely crazy and goofy. It all kind of makes sense, if you accept some really outlandish assumptions.

If, like me, you enjoy books that mix espionage and sleaze then you really need to check out Gardner Francis Fox’s The Lady from L.U.S.T. and Cherry Delight thrillers. I’ve reviewed the first Lady from L.U.S.T. novel, Lust, Be a Lady Tonight, and the first Cherry Delight book, The Italian Connection (which is a total blast). They’re more frenetic and more overtly sleazy than The Chic Chick Spy but they belong broadly to the same sub-genre.

The Chic Chick Spy is silly fun. I liked it. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Lionel White's Clean Break (The Killing)

Clean Break is a 1955 noir novel by Lionel White. It was made into the superb 1956 Stanley Kubrick movie The Killing. Later editions of the novel were published with the title The Killing.

Lionel White was apparently something of a specialist in caper stories and this novel is a classic of that sub-genre.

Johnny Clay is a fairly small-time crook but after serving four years in prison he thinks he’s figured out what he keeps doing wrong. The answer is that you have to think big. If you get caught you go to prison anyway so if you’re going to risk a prison stretch you might as well make it something worth the risk.

This time Johnny is thinking very big indeed. A racetrack robbery on Long Island. He expects to get away with two million dollars. Now back in 1955 two million dollars was an almost unimaginably vast sum of money. Enough to set up every member of the gang in luxury for the rest of their lives.

The only problem is that everyone knows that robbing a major racetrack is impossible. There are too many people, there’s way too much security. It can’t be done. But Johnny thinks he’s come up with a fool-poof plan.

The mistake most guys make in pulling off a big heist is that they use a team of professional criminals, which just makes things easy for the cops. Johnny is going to use amateurs. Guys with no criminal records.

His plan really is quite ingenious. It will involve a shooting but if things go right there won’t be any chance of a murder rap because no-one will have been murdered.

His choice of partners in the robbery says a lot about Johnny. He’s very clever, up to a point. The cops will be looking for professionals. And each of the guys involved is ideal for Johnny’s purposes. He has a couple of guys on the inside. There’s bartender Big Mike and there’s George Peatty, a cashier at the track. There’s a guy named Unger who will finance the heist. And there’s a cop, Randy Kellan. Randy is dishonest but he’s never been caught doing anything illegal. All these guys are suitable because they all need money desperately. Johnny will have to use a few professionals but they’ll be paid flat fees upfront and will never get to meet any of the members of the gang. They won’t know anything important so even if they get caught they won’t be able to tell the police anything of importance.

So these guys are good choices for the robbery, except for one thing. They’re losers. And guys become losers because they make a mess of everything they touch.

Johnny knows that the weakest link is George Peatty, but Johnny thinks he’ll be OK. What Johnny doesn’t realise is just how much of a weak link George is. George needs the money to stop his gorgeous young wife Sherry from leaving him. George doesn’t intend to tell Sherry anything but Sherry has a surefire way of getting George to do what she wants. If she lets George have sex with her he will do anything and tell her anything. The other problem that Johnny hasn’t anticipated is that Sherry Peatty is a tramp. That’s likely to cause real trouble. She’s the femme fatale in the mix.

White has come up with a very solid plot. And he tells the story in an interesting way. He constantly switches from one character’s point of view to another. And he keeps doubling back on the plot to give us vital parts of the story from the points of view of several different characters. When it comes to the heist itself he gives us the lead-up from the pint of view of every major characters. So we get a series of narratives running in parallel and overlapping (and Kubrick adopted a similar approach in his movie version which has been widely praised for its narrative innovations).

There’s plenty of noirness here. We feel from the start that all of these people are doomed. They’re attempting a very clever heist but they’re losers and we know that they’re going to make mistakes. Johnny is a loser as well. He’s a loser because he thinks he’s cleverer than he is. He’s fallen prey to wishful thinking. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind but his plan is way too complicated to work.

White brings the story to a very satisfying conclusion.

Clean Break is definitely noir fiction but it’s also a terrific and exciting example of a heist story. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Sixth Glacier by Marius

The Sixth Glacier is a 1929 end-of-the-world science fiction novel written by an author who called himself Marius. Marius was a pseudonym used by Steve Benedict, about whom I know nothing. The novel was originally published, in two instalments, in Amazing Stories.

A young reporter from Science News is sent to interview a transportation tycoon named Dunraven. It seems that Dunraven has zero interest in transportation. He’s a rich old man and he can devote himself to his hobby. His hobby is palaeontology. He believes he has discovered the ruins of an ancient city in Mexico. A city 100,000 years old, dating from before the last Ice Age. And in this city he has found evidence to believe that another Ice Age is imminent.

The old man is right. The new Ice Age is on its way. Dunraven dismisses the various theories that were current at the time regarding the causes of the succession of ice ages. He has a theory of his own, and within a short time there is evidence which appears to confirm his theory. The solar system is about to drift through a vast frigid nebula, something that happens every hundred thousand years or so. Soon much of the world will be covered by vast ice sheets.

Most of the book is taken up by descriptions of the devastation that ensues. Marius is not one of those starry-eyed types who thinks that disasters bring out the best in people. In this novel the collapse of civilisation leads to wars, to lawlessness, mass murder and cannibalism.

Civilisation doesn’t quite end. The tropics are still habitable. The tropical zones are now filled with refugees from more northern latitudes.

It all seems hopeless until Dunraven hits on an idea. In the finest tradition of pulp fiction his idea sounds crazy but it just might work.

The reporter has some personal dramas to worry about as well. He’s in love with Dunraven’s daughter Clara. He knows he has a rival for her affections. He will discover that in fact he has two rivals.

Mostly the book is a kind of fairly dry documentary-style account of the disaster but Marius does throw in a few dramatic scenes as the reporter finds himself first at the mercy of the savage new tribes of igloo-dwellers and then a huge pack of wolves.

More interesting are Dunraven’s theories about the history of life on Earth. They are of course scientific nonsense but in 1929 they might have seemed more convincing. And they are entertaining. Dunraven believes that intelligent life has arisen on Earth many times, often in peculiar forms. Such as the spider-people.

The science might all be very dubious, basically silly pseudoscience, but it’s fun silly pseudoscience.

Apocalyptic novels had started to become a thing in the 1920s, presumably partly because of scientific and technological advances which made people more aware of the possibility of a civilisation-ending disaster. Mostly however it was undoubtedly due to the trauma of the First World War which made optimism seem like an increasingly unrealistic outlook. The most notable of 1920s post-apocalyptic science fiction novels was Nordenholt’s Million by Alfred Walter Stewart (who wrote under the name J.J. Connington and became a very successful detective fiction writer). Nordenholt’s Million was published in 1923 and deals in a remarkably detached and scientific way with the consequences of ecological catastrophe.

This was of course before nuclear weapons were even thought of but as both Connington and Marius demonstrated there were still plenty of plausible end-of-the-world scenarios. And the scenario described in The Sixth Glacier is certainly plausible even if the detailed scientific explanations he gives are mere pseudoscience.

Armchair Fiction have released this novel paired with Harl Vincent’s Before the Asteroids in a double-header paperback edition.

The Sixth Glacier is no masterpiece. Structurally it’s a bit clunky, the prose is less than exciting and there are no memorable characters with whom to empathise. Having said that, if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction it does have historical interest.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

William Knoles' Sexperiment

William Knoles (1926-1970) wrote a lot of sleaze novels during the 60s, mostly using the pseudonym Clyde Allison. Sexperiment was published in 1966.

Dr John Whitman is a medical researcher. As the book opens he has some explaining to do to the authorities. He has to explain all those dead people. He tells the story in an extended flashback.

As his story begins he has a cosy post which gives him the freedom to explore new frontiers in medical research, along with his three young graduate students. Dr Whitman and his students have found a field of research which offers exciting possibilities - sex. They’re not interested in studying rats or monkeys. They want to study people. The problem with a research project of this kind is finding volunteers to participate but they realise that really isn’t a problem at all. Their four-person team consists of two men and two women. They will be the research subjects.

Of course this means that they’ll have to have lots of sex with each other but that’s a sacrifice they’re prepared to make for the sake of science.

Sadly the projects ends prematurely. The University thinks the project is just an excuse for a series of orgies so they fire Dr Whitman. His career is in ruins.

Or so it seems. Then he gets an offer he can’t refuse. An offer from the Mandrake Foundation, a very secretive foundation dedicated entirely to sex research and funded by an ageing eccentric sex-crazed billionaire.

Dr Whitman enjoys the challenges of his new position. It involves having lots of sex with eager female volunteers and he enjoys that as well.

The Mandrake Foundation employs a large number of medical scientists. They have several things in common. They’ve all lost their licence to practise medicine, all have disreputable backgrounds and all are basically mad scientists. One of these scientists, Dr Krieghund, has made a major breakthrough. He’s discovered a chemical that inflames female sexual desire. It’s an aphrodisiac that actually works. The trouble is that it works a bit too well. It doesn’t just make women amorous, it makes them terrifying.

And that’s the effect the stuff has when it’s incredibly diluted. If people ever got exposed to the undiluted chemical the results would be catastrophic. But these are serious scientists. They would never allow an accident like that to happen.

There’s an enormous amount of sex but none of it is described graphically.

The author is clearly aiming for comedy. At times almost slapstick comedy. There’s an incredible amount of mayhem as well but again you have to remember that you’re not meant to take this seriously at all. And it’s all so clearly absurd that I don’t think anyone would take it seriously. This is cartoon violence.

There’s also an element of satire, making fun of the pretensions of science and scientists and taking a few swipes at authority. This was the 60s after all.

No-one is going to mistake this for great literature but it’s lively and often genuinely amusing. In the 1960s sex was still something you could make jokes about.

Ferox Publications have re-issued this book in paperback paired with another William Knoles sleaze novel, Shame Market. Shame Market is very amusing very sleazy fun.

And that’s a pretty good way to describe Sexperiment. Shame Market is the better, funnier novel but both are enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

F. Van Wyck Mason’s The Shanghai Bund Murders

The Shanghai Bund Murders, published in 1933, is the sixth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s Hugh North spy thrillers.

When Mason wrote the first of his twenty-five Hugh North novels in 1930 spy fiction had been around for quite a while but it was mostly a British affair. The big names of the genre - William Le Queux, E. Phillips OIppenheim, H.C. McNeile (“Sapper”) and John Buchan - were all British. Spies in American fiction were confined to pulp fiction and usually featured in outlandish tales incorporating elements of science fiction or the fantastic, or they were essentially wartime adventure stories. There wasn’t really an American school of true serious spy fiction. Mason was a pioneer.

The next important step in the history of American spy fiction would be the appearance of the first of John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels, Your Turn, Mr Moto, in 1936.

Having said all this, Mason’s early Hugh North books are hybrids of a sort - they’re murder mysteries with added espionage elements and espionage backgrounds. As the series progressed the books become more and more true spy stories. And Hugh North is a real spy. A professional spy. He’s a U.S. intelligence officer.

Mason loved exotic settings. In fact it’s hard to think of an exotic locale that North doesn’t visit at some stage during the course of his career.

When reading The Shanghai Bund Murders you have to bear in mind that this was still the Warlord Era in China. Powerful and ruthless warlords had divided the country. Some warlords were ideologically motivated but most were mere opportunists out for power and money. The country was in a constant chaos and wars were continually breaking out.

You also have to remember that this was 1933. The world was not yet divided into rival ideological blocs. In these early Hugh North stories you can’t assume that the Germans or the Japanese will be the bad guys. The bad guys might turn out to be the French. Or the Italians. Or in fact just about any great power.

The Shanghai Bund Murders opens on a British steamer in the Yangtze River. Two warlord armies are fighting it out. Hugh North is in China but at this stage he is not anticipating being involved in any kind of espionage drama or foreign intrigue of any kind.

Two of his fellow passengers attract his attention. One is Sam Steel, an unscrupulous American mercenary in the service of one of the warlords. Steel and North have crossed swords before. The other passenger of interest is Mrs Ruby Braunfeld, a very glamorous Austrian lady. Ruby Braunfeld is a “coaster” - a prostitute plying her trade on the Chinese seaboard. But Ruby Braunfeld is no common prostitute - she is a very high-class very expensive courtesan and she is as charming as she is beautiful. At least four of the men aboard the steamer have already fallen in love with her. She’s obviously going to be worth watching.

And then one of her admirers commits suicide. Only it’s no suicide. The man was murdered. The motive was not robbery. It could be a crime passionnel. Hugh North however knows something about the man that suggests the possibility that espionage or international intrigue could be involved. The murdered man was British and it’s a British steamer but Hugh North also has reason to believe that the interests of the United States could be involved.

North knows that there’s some plot afoot and that it has something to do with the power struggle between three warlords. Various great powers believe that is in their interests for one of the three to come out on top. North has to make sure that whichever warlord wins is going to be one friendly to American interests, and British interests. Britain and the U.S. are colonial rivals but in this case they have decided that they have sufficient interests in common to persuade them to coöperate.

If North is going to foil this nefarious plot he has to find out who is behind it and why. In order to do that he will have to discover who murdered the man on the steamer, so there’s both a murder mystery and a spy thriller plot strand and both plot strands are inextricably linked.

Sam Steel is a suspect, but so is Ruby Braunfeld and so is an enigmatic English tea merchant, and a Chinese gentleman named Chang, and a mysterious Frenchman. And they’re all equally plausible suspects, and there’s no way of knowing what kinds of powerful interest groups could be pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Hugh North is a combination of action hero and clever detective. He uses the standard investigative methods you’d expect from a great detective but he gets involved in lots of rough-and-tumble action as well.

I’ve previously reviewed several other Hugh North spy novels - The Fort Terror Murders, The Singapore Exile Murders, The Budapest Parade Murders and the truly excellent The Branded Spy Murders. I can’t recommend the early Hugh North thrillers too highly - they have a distinctive flavour of their own, Mason uses his exotic settings not just to provide colour but as integral parts of his plots, they’re fast-paced and exciting and they have just a bit more emotional depth than you might expect. He really was a very fine writer.

The Shanghai Bund Murders is intelligent and provocative and it works as both murder mystery and spy novel. It’s also great fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Men's Adventure Quarterly #4 Jungle Girl Issue

Men's Adventure Quarterly
(edited by Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham) has been an interesting publishing experiment, giving us glossy profusely illustrated collections of stories from men’s adventure magazines of the late 50s to the early 70s combined with “true story” articles from those magazines and lots of photographs and magazine covers. And published as real books, not ebooks. Rather inexpensive as well considering the luxurious format.

The spy issue, #2, was pretty enjoyable but #4 is the one I was looking forward to. This is the Jungle Girls issue. And who doesn’t love jungle girls?

A large part of this issue is devoted to Jane Dolinger and that’s fair enough. She was an exceptionally interesting lady. At the age of 19 she got bored with conventional society and took a job as Girl Friday to adventure writer Ken Krippene. It was the beginning of a life of constant travel to exotic and often dangerous locations. She eventually married Krippene and she quickly set about building a successful career for herself as a travel and adventure writer. She wrote quite a few books and countless articles for periodicals including men’s adventure magazines. She had her share of real adventures. She wrote about these adventures and in keeping with the spirit of men’s adventure magazines her articles were a mixture of fact and fiction. She understood what these magazines wanted and if adding fiction to the fact helped sell the articles she was happy to do so. She also had a parallel career as a nude model. She and Krippene discovered that they got more for their articles if they were accompanied by photographs so Krippene took photos of Jane having dangerous and exciting jungle adventures. They further discovered that if Jane was nude or semi-nude in the photos they’d get paid even more. Jane was happy to oblige.

Most of the first half is taken up by articles by, or about, Jane Dolinger. Her piece The Jungle Killers Who Fight for Women is the most fun. She’s in a village in the amazon when it gets raided by neighbouring headhunters out to steal women. If the villagers don’t repel the raiders Jane is sure to find herself carried off into the jungle as booty, and she will be raped and enslaved. This piece has a delightfully overheated quality to it.

You might at first be disappointed that there are only four stories in this collection. In fact Jane Dolinger’s several articles are at least semi-fictionalised and they’re in the same breathless overheated style as the actual stories so you’re not really missing out.

And those four stories are mostly enormous fun. There’s plenty of action, loads of semi-naked women (with wonderfully lurid illustrations to make sure you know what half-naked jungle girls look like) and there’s always some sex. One thing that jungle girls all have in common is that they’re driven mad with lust at the sight of handsome American adventurers.

The fiction part of the collection begins with Leonard Kelcey’s The She-Wolf of Halmahera. An American butterfly collector finds himself added to the collection of a beautiful but evil vampire jungle girl. She not only drinks her blood, she also forces him to satisfy her womanly lusts. A crazy story but great fun.

Don Honig’s Yank Explorer Who Ruled Guatemala’s Taboo Maiden Love Tribe is about tough cynical Nick O’Hanlon who is looking for missing British archaeologists. O’Hanlon really is breathtakingly cynical. It’s the wife of one of the missing men who offers him the job and he accepts on condition that she sleep with him.

Deep in the jungles of Guatemala O’Hanlon discovers a lost tribe of Mayan Indians and he ends up as the sex slave of their queen and her handmaidens. And the queen’s male sex slaves tend not to live all that long. Another great story.

J. Archibald Collinson’s Borneo’s Topless Army starts with A Vietnam vet taking on a job in the jungles of Borneo. The partner of a Chinese trader has died and his dead body has to be retuned to his home village. The Vietnam vet will have to battle a tribe of half-naked female warriors intent on stealing the body. And he encounters another half-naked female whose intentions he isn’t sure about. Even after he sleeps with her he’s still not certain if he can trust her.

This tale has all the lurid thrills you could ask for.

A.V. Loring’s Forbidden Amazon Female Compound is the weakest story in the collection. The premise is fun. An American engineer finds himself in a genuine amazon village. A tribe entirely made up of women. Men who approach the village are killed except for one month a year when the women invite men in to mate with them. The problem is that the plot doesn’t go anywhere, there’s very little action and there’s very little of the steamy sexiness we expect.

These stories were of course written at a time when authors didn’t have to worry about political correctness. This is part of the appeal. The political incorrectness is off the scale in most of these tales (and Jane Dolinger is pretty politically incorrect as well in her articles). Of course the many illustrations and photographs in this volume are also outrageously politically incorrect. I’m assuming that if you’re bothering to read a review of a collection of stories from men’s adventure magazines you’re no more bothered by this than I am.

The volume concludes with a selection of gorgeous cover illustrations and a detailed look at the Marion Michael phenomenon. Marion Michael caused a sensation with her sexy 1956 German jungle girl movie Liane, Jungle Goddess. She was billed as the new Brigitte Bardot. Her career went nowhere after that but for a brief moment she was everybody’s favourite sexy jungle girl.

This book is definitely a must-buy for jungle girl fans and for anyone interested in lesser-known aspects of 50s/60s pop culture. It’s gorgeously presented and the three best stories really are top-notch and outrageous. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Henry Kane’s Frenzy of Evil

Henry Kane’s Frenzy of Evil was published in 1963. Since it’s been reissued by Black Gat Books, an imprint of Stark House Noir, I assumed this was going to be noir fiction. It is, in a very broad sense, but it’s not in the usual run of noir fiction of its era and it definitely isn’t hardboiled. It has some affinities to the inverted detective story. In this case we know from the start that murder is being planned. The complications are that we don’t know the identity of the intended victim, and there’s more than one person planning murder. And we’re not sure how many intended victims there are.

Henry Kane (16908-1988) was an American lawyer and prolific pulp writer.

The book starts with a party for Jonathan Joseph Carson’s first wedding anniversary. Carson is sixty-two. His wife Dolores is twenty-two. Also present is his business partner George Ross, Ross’s wife and their two children, Jeffrey and Debbie. Playwright Frank Haines and his wife Vera and the director of a local theatre group, Gary Mason, are the other guests. These nine people represent hate, love, guilt, rape, adultery, madness and murder with each guest being particularly representative of one of these sins. So far no-one at the party has actually committed murder but that will change soon.

There are multiple romantic triangles established between these various characters. There’s suspicion and jealousy. Some of the jealousy is sexual, but not all of it.

At least two of the guests intend to commit murder. And they intend to get away with it.

The romantic entanglements go on getting messier and there are misunderstandings. Suspicions grow. Some of the suspicions are totally wrong and that will have consequences.

When the murder occurs it doesn’t go the way the murderer planned. Or at least it doesn’t go the way one of the murderers had planned. It’s made to look like a suicide but that fools cunning old Sam Kelly, the local sheriff, for about five minutes. Then he decides it’s a murder.

Then the plot twists start to kick in. And they’re nice and nasty with suitable ironic touches. The problem for the protagonists is that they’re operating on the basis of wrong or incomplete information, which leads them to make incorrect assumptions, which in turn leads them to do things that are the opposite of what they should do. They’ll think they’re digging themselves out of a hole when in fact they’re just digging themselves in deeper and deeper.

We can see fairly early on how events are likely to play out, but that makes it more enjoyable watching the author gradually bringing all the pieces together until the likely ending becomes a certainty. It’s a clever, devious and intricate plot in which the characters manipulate themselves without knowing it. What’s fun is that the reader can see the mistakes they’re making and we know how much trouble they’re getting into.

There’s a slight noir feel but whether you will think it’s enough to qualify this as noir fiction depends upon how strictly you define the term. It definitely has some dark cynical moments. And it has some dark characters.

If it is noir then it’s noir involving the rich and privileged rather than the usual noir losers. Of course the rich and privileged can be just as morally depraved as anyone on skid row.

And there’s some scientifically dubious but fun psychiatric stuff which is always a welcome touch.

The book is good enough to make me want to read more of Henry Kane’s work. Incidentally Henry Kane should not be confused with another fine noir writer, Frank Kane.

Frenzy of Evil is well-crafted mystery suspense and it’s highly recommended.