Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Kermit Jaediker's Tall, Dark and Dead

Tall, Dark and Dead is a private eye thriller by Kermit Jaediker, published in 1947 by Lion Books. I’d love to be able to tell you something about the author but my knowledge on this subject is an absolute zero.

Lou Lait (who narrates the tale) is a new York private detective. He’s an ex-cop. He’s not a crook but he’s not a Boy Scout either. When Tina Van Lube (married to the very wealthy Jan Van Lube) walks into his office it doesn’t sound like it’s a terribly complicated case she’s offering him. All he has to do is to steal some letters for him. Or rather, all he has to do is find someone who can steal the letters for her. That will be easy - Lait has a friend named Willie who is an ex-safe cracker turned escape artist. Willie should be able to handle the job very easily. 

Tina is of course being blackmailed. During the war her husband had been reported killed in action. To console herself Tina had begun an affair with columnist Erskine Spalding. Her husband then turned up alive, she ended the affair, and Spalding turned nasty. Hence the blackmail. 

It isn’t really all that risky. Even if they get caught they’re not likely to be in much trouble. Both the police and the courts would be very sympathetic to guys acting on behalf of a lady who is a victim of blackmail, especially given that the affair she had with Spalding was technically quite innocent.

The job goes smoothly, except for the murder. That’s a complication Lait hadn’t expected.  Willie gets arrested but even the cops don’t really think he did it. Apart from getting Willie out of a jam (and Lait is genuinely concerned for his friend) Lait has a very big motivation to solve the murder. Spalding’s paper has offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the killer, and ten Gs was an enormous amount of money in 1947.

There are plenty of suspects and Lait has to admit he doesn’t know what the motive for the murder was. It could have involved fiery dancer Lolita, or Tina’s chronically broke and useless brother, or Tina herself, or Spalding’s secretary Miss Prescott (the main beneficiary of his estate). Or it could have have involved South American politics, which Spalding and Lolita and the Durkins (friends of the Van Lubes) were mixed up in. Lait has no idea, but he wants that ten grand reward.

This is not noir fiction but a stock standard hardboiled private eye yarn. Lou Lait is very much your typical fictional hardboiled private eye, maybe a bit smarter than most (he spots a couple of non-obvious clues). He doesn’t have a whole lot of personality. 

Jaediker’s style is basic pulp, without any embellishments but without anything distinctive to it.

A major weakness is that the two main female characters, both of whom have definite femme fatale potential, aren’t allowed to play any significant role in the story. There’s no romance and no sexual tension. 

The author has several plot strands going but he isn’t able to bring them all together at the end. It’s more like three separate stories that aren’t related and at least one of them ends in a disappointingly straightforward manner. Structurally this is a mystery novel (we even get all the suspects gathered together at the end for the detective’s big revelation of the identity of the murderer) but the plotting is too sloppy to make it a satisfactory one. There is however one very clever clue. It can’t be called fair play since too much vital information is withheld until the end. 

Tall, Dark and Dead is a fairly disappointing crime story. I can’t recommend this one.

Stark House Noir have reprinted Tall, Dark and Dead in a paperback edition with two other crime thrillers, Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase and D.L. Champion’s Run the Wild River (neither of which I’ve read yet).

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Paul Ernst’s Rulers of the Future

Paul Ernst’s novel Rulers of the Future was serialised in Weird Tales in January, February and March 1935.

Paul Ernst (1899-1985) was an American pulp writer about whom I know nothing.

Rulers of the Future takes place in 1990. Professor Ticknor and a wealthy adventurer named Brock are being interviewed by a newspaper reporter named Woodward (who narrates the tale). Ticknor and Brock are about to make the first voyage to Alpha Centauri. Ticknow has constructed a huge gun that will shoot a spacecraft at the speed of light. The spacecraft will essentially ride the beam of light. The gun is therefore a kind of incredibly powerful searchlight, powered by radium.

Ticknor’s scientific enemies are trying to stop his mission and they’re using the Humanitarian League as their weapon. The Humanitarian League does not believe that people should be allowed to risk their own lives.

The mission has to be launched in a hurry, Woodward decides to tag along, and because the Professor did not have time to complete his calculations properly something goes horribly wrong. The three space voyagers find themselves back on Earth, but two hundred million years in the future. It’s lucky that Professor Ticknor remembered to pack a time machine on his suitcase. He was intending to use it to photograph the birth of a star a billion years in the past. Now it’s their only chance to get back to Earth in 1990 but the Professor will need a fully equipped laboratory and such things might not exist in the world of the future.

In fact life seems to be pretty primitive. They discover a friendly tribe but they’re more or less existing at the hunter-gatherer level, although actually it’s more fishing and gathering. The tribe does however contain some cute women, one of whom (named Gayta) takes a shine to Woodward. You have to have a romance sub-plot in a story like this.

At first it seems like a bucolic paradise but the villagers are terrified of something. There are other beings on this Earth of the future. Our adventurers from 1990 don’t yet know what those other beings are, whether they’re monsters or aliens or hostile tribesmen. The local villagers are very vague on the subject. Whoever or whatever these beings are they have enslaved Gayta’s people. They also apparently practise human sacrifice. The key to their power is their god but nobody knows anything about this god.

Ticknor and his companions are horrified when they learn the truth. The slavers are giant lizard-men. Somehow these savage slavers will have to be defeated but there are a few other problems - our adventurers only have one gun between them and it only has one bullet. Also their spacecraft has been wrecked by the lizard-men. Their problems get worse when the lizard-men pick their next victim for a human sacrifice.

And there are even more problems, in the form of a variety of monsters all of which have a taste for human flesh.

This tale is very pulpy indeed. It’s essentially a kind of jungle adventure tale with science fiction trappings. There’s lots of action, lots of narrow escapes and plenty of monstrousness. It’s not exactly subtle stuff.

This novel is interesting for the way it’s influenced by Einstein’s theories, but in a totally garbled way. Scientifically it’s mostly arrant nonsense but Ernst at least has a few big ideas, even if they’re silly ideas.

Rulers of the Future is kind of fun in a very undemanding way.

Rulers of the Future is paired with Lester Del Rey’s Pursuit in a two-novel paperback from Armchair Fiction. Pursuit is good enough to justify the purchase price and since you’re going to be getting Ernst’s novel as well it’s worth giving Rulers of the Future a read as long as you set your expectations fairly low.

I’ve also reviewed Paul Ernst’s The Complete Tales of Dr Satan (also very very pulpy).

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Dallas Mayo’s One Night Stand

Dallas Mayo’s One Night Stand is a show biz sleaze novel published by Midwood Books in 1962. Dallas Mayo was one of the pseudonyms used by American writer Gilbert Fox (1917-2004). He also wrote lesbian sleaze novels under the name Kimberly Kemp.

While it starts out giving the impression it’s going to be show business sleaze it turns out to be also a sex and sin in small town America tale.

Melissa Carver is one of the countless young women who headed for the bright lights of the big city to break into show business. She acts, she sings, she dances, but so far no producer thinks she does any of these things well enough to hire her. One thing she does know is that she has to stay in show business. Getting a job as a waitress would be an admission of defeat and Melissa has no intention of accepting defeat.

The job offered her by Eddie Desmond is at least a show business job. Well, it’s show business of a sort. She’ll be one of the strippers providing the entertainment at stag-smoker parties (sleazy entertainments for out-of-town businessmen). She assures Eddie that she really is a good dancer but Eddie explains that he doesn’t need to see her dance, he just needs to see her naked. If she looks good nude she’s got the job. Fortunately Melissa looks very good indeed nude.

Eddie has a job lined up at the moment, a smoker party for the Chamber of Commerce (the Sedgemoor Boosters) types in some small town out east. A town called Sedgemoor. They want a couple of girls to put on a girlie show, which will involve the two girls cavorting together naked. It’s not an appealing prospect for Melissa but show business is show business and a girl has to be flexible. The girl she’ll be doing the act with is Roxy Renault and that’s causing her a bit of concern. Melissa doesn’t mind the idea of doing things with another girl on stage for money but Roxy has admitted that she likes doing it with girls for real.

Meanwhile things are happening in the town of Sedgemoor. The town’s richest citizen, George Brewster (who practically owns the town) has cut a deal to have a Hollywood movie shot there. This will bring in lots of money for George and his cronies. George has decided that the town will have to be turned into a showpiece for the movie shoot and that’s just what the movie’s producer and director don’t want. So director Harvey Frank is has been sent to Sedgemoor to check things out before the locals have time to turn it into a model town.

Harvey has other problems to worry about. He wants to cast his young mistress Ivy Howard in the lead role. Ivy can’t act but she has a luscious body and she’s being very accommodating to Harvey in the bedroom but that’s on condition that she gets that lead role.

Under the surface Sedgemoor is a seething cauldron of lust and sexual frustration. George Brewster is not as young as he used to be and he’s not satisfying his wife in the bedroom. She has plans to do something about that. She has her eye on a high school athlete half her age. Alvin Wallace is being cuckolded by his wife Carlotta and she’s taunting him with it. Mousy thirtysomething bookstore proprietress Hester Perkins has been waiting patiently for Mr Right to come along but now she’s starting to think that maybe it’s Miss Right she’s waiting for. She occupies her time with lurid lesbian sexual fantasies.

Both Harvey Frank and Melissa have no desire to get mixed up in the sleazy affairs of this sordid little burg but they get mixed up in them anyway.

With these sleaze novels you’re never quite sure what expect at the end. Will it all end in violence and mayhem, or will true love triumph, will virtue or vice be rewarded. I won’t tell you how this one ends.

It’s also fairly typical of the genre in that it promises all sorts of lurid thrills but when it comes to delivering on those promises it suddenly becomes very tame. It’s like an X-rated movie that turns out to be barely deserving of a PG rating. Mostly these sleaze potboilers relied on an atmosphere of suppressed sexual tension or simply on the fact of having a sleazy story without very much at all in the way of actual sexual content. There’s plenty of sex going on but it’s pretty much all implied.

The small town as a hotbed of sexual frustration and depravity angle is handled well enough. These people have a lot of problems in the bedroom.

In its own way it’s kind of fun and it has a certain breathless melodramatic tone which is rather amusing. Worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Paul Connolly’s Tears Are for Angels

Paul Connolly’s Tears Are for Angels is a noir fiction title published in 1952 by Gold Medal.

Paul Connolly was actually Thomas Wicker (1926-2011), who had a fairly distinguished career as a journalist. Tears Are for Angels is one of three pulp novels he wrote in the early 50s.

Harry London (who narrates the story) is doing what he always does, sitting outside his one-room shack, as drunk as a skunk, shooting at cans. He hasn’t washed or shaved for weeks. He seems like a typical derelict. But two years ago Harry London was the biggest land owner in Coshacken County, a scion of the county’s most distinguished family. That was before, when Lucy was still alive.

That’s when the girl shows up. Her name is Jean. She asks a lot of questions. She seems to know something about Lucy. But how much does she know? Maybe Stewart sent her. Maybe Stewart is getting tired of waiting. It’s hard for a man to wait two years for something, not knowing exactly what it is he’s waiting for. Stewart could be getting edgy by now. But Harry decides that Jean is telling the truth when she says she doesn’t know Stewart. The fact remains that this girl knows something about what happened two years ago. Maybe Harry will just have to tell her, to explain how it was. The girl knows that it wasn’t the way the papers said it was, that night two years ago that left Harry with one arm and left Lucy dead. So Harry decides to tell her.

Two years ago Harry was happily married, to Lucy. Until that night he came home early. After what he saw in the bedroom that night Harry’s life more or less came to an end. Harry can still see their naked bodies clutched together in passion. Lucy died that night, but not the way the papers said she died. Harry knows how she died, and so does Stewart. It’s not finished, but one day Harry intends to finish it.

Jean isn’t sure at first whether to believe Harry. She has her own tale to tell about Lucy. Maybe the two stories together make sense of the events of that night, but maybe there are things that neither Harry nor Jean know. Jean starts to believe Harry’s story, but she hates him. He slaps her around a little and tries to rape her, but that’s not why she hates him. He hates her as well, but slowly he figures something out. She’s broken inside, just like he is. Maybe there’s a way they can put their broken lives together. A plan starts to form in their minds. It’s not a very nice plan but it is clever and maybe they don’t have a choice.

The plan goes like clockwork, at first. It doesn’t exactly bring them together. They still hate each other. But that doesn’t stop the frantic need they have for each other’s bodies. Hate can inflame lust just as love can. For these two there may not be much difference between love and hate.

Then the plot twists start to kick in, and they’re not the plot twists that you expect. This is not just a routine noir tale. It’s definitely a noir tale - there’s love and hate and betrayal and sexual obsession and other kinds of obsession and it’s all leading towards murder. But it’s not a straightforward story of obsession leading to murder. Harry starts to analyse things. He starts to question his obsession and the reasons for it and he starts to question his feelings for Jean.

The plot is very clever and very satisfying but this a story that is both plot and character driven. The bizarre sexual and emotional entanglement between Harry and Jean is a major focus. Perhaps they’re not, on the surface, very attractive people but there are reasons for their behaviour and the reader will slowly develop a considerable sympathy for both of them. They’re lost and they’re trapped. That’s pretty normal for characters in noir fiction. But in this case the author is suggesting that even the most damaged men and women may have some hope, insofar as anyone in a noir fiction story has hope. Harry and Jean do at least start to understand themselves and each other but whether the understanding will come in time to save them is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

This is definitely above-average noir fiction, both in terms of emotional complexity and stylistically. It’s also very honest about sex, and the author really does make an attempt to understand female sexuality and female emotions.

Excellent stuff. Very highly recommended.

Monday, February 7, 2022

A.S. Fleischman’s Counterspy Express

A.S. Fleischman’s Counterspy Express was published by Ace in 1954.

A.S. “Sid” Fleischman (1920-2010) is best remembered as a very successful children’s book author but he wrote quite a few mysteries and thrillers as well. Born in New York, he was a professional magician who took up professional writing after the Second World War.

His first spy thriller was Shanghai Flame, published by Gold Medal in 1951. He had spent the war in the Navy and therefore had some familiarity with exotic places such as the Far East and he put this knowledge to good use in his spy fiction. Counterspy Express takes place in Italy.

American agent Victor Welles (using the same Jim Cabot) arrives in Genoa. To keep things simply I’ll call him Cabot in this review since that’s the name by which the other characters address him. Cabot has to find out why another American agent, a guy called Max, was killed. But mostly he has to find a Russian defector, Borsilov.

Things start going wrong quickly. On arrival in Genoa he realises he’s picked up a tail, a French girl by the name of Duvivier. There’s been a leak somewhere. She knows too much about him already and she’s laid a trap for him. He gives the slip and goes to meet Jackson, his contact, but the subsequent hail of gunfire suggests that Jackson is blown and Cabot is blown and probably the while damned mission is blown.

His only lead is a girl night-club singer named Pia. He has to get to her before the Red do, and before Major Ricasoli does. Of course Major Ricasoli could be a communist. It also occurs to Cabot that he might be a fascist. Who the hell knows what the major is. Victor Cabot sure doesn’t know. But he figures that Ricasoli is a problem, one of the many problems he now has on his hands.

He’s not quite sure which side Pia is on. He’s not quite sure which side Major Ricasoli is on. He’s not entirely certain which side Max was on. And then a new player, Jardine, enter the game. Which side is he on? And then there’s Kurt. Kurt was in love with Pia. Kurt was a player in the game but again there’s doubt about which side he was on. Some of these people are almost certain freelancers, on nobody’s side but their own.

He also has to decide what to do with Pia. She’s in big trouble. He needs information from her it’s not really his responsibility to look after her. But she is a nice girl and she is beautiful. Cabot doesn’t want to get her into bed, or at least he thinks he doesn’t want to get her into bed but she’s the kind of girl who could easily change a man’s mind on that subject.

There have already been several double-crosses and there’s obviously the potential here for just about everybody to double-cross everybody else.

There’s plenty of action as Cabot blunders about following up leads, with someone else invariably one step ahead.

Cabot is pretty much a stock-standard spy hero. He’s a decent guy and fairly tough but he’s not really a super-spy. He’s a professional but he makes the occasional mistake. He has a touch of ruthlessness to his character but he’s no sadist.

Borsilov is a kind of McGuffin. He has some secret knowledge but we don’t need to know what it is and Fleischman is not the kind of writer who gets bogged down with unnecessary details. He tells us that Pia’s apartment is too expensive for a small-time night-club singer to afford on her own and that her dresses are too expensive for her to be able to buy for herself because we need to know that. We don’t need to know what colour the kitchen bench-top is or who designed her dresses. This is a short novel but it has plenty of plot, mostly because the author just gets on with the story. There is just enough time for romance to bloom between Cabot and Pia but that’s central to the plot as well. Fleischman is a very efficient story-teller.

He wants to tell us a cracking good adventure yarn. That’s all he wants to do and he does a good job of it. We get plenty of plot twists and counter-twists at the end, there’s some nice hardboiled dialogue, a hint of sex and quite a bit of not-very-graphic violence.

Counterspy Express adds nothing new to the genre but it powers along very entertainingly indeed and it’s highly recommended.

Stark House Noir have paired this one with the equally good Shanghai Flame in a two-novel paperback edition.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Donald A. Wollheim’s The Secret of the Ninth Planet

Donald A. Wollheim’s 1959 science fiction novel The Secret of the Ninth Planet was written at a very interesting time. The Russians had launched several satellites but as yet there had been no manned spaceflights. The assumption behind the novel is, intriguingly, that manned spaceflight using the technology existing at the time (chemical rockets) would not a practical or safe proposition for travelling any further than the Moon. The further assumption is that much better technologies would be needed.

Wollheim’s belief was that anti-gravity technology would be the answer. These reflections on spaceflight are contained in Wollheim’s foreword rather than in the novel itself.

The novel was also written at a very interesting time in the sense that the nature of the other planets in the solar system was still largely a matter of conjecture. It was still possible to believe that some of the planets might be inhabited by life forms and maybe even intelligent life. It was still scientifically respectable to believe in the canals on Mars. Nobody had any idea what was beneath the clouds of Venus. It was known that Saturn and Jupiter had satellites the size of small planets but what these satellites were like nobody knew. Pluto was still regarded as a proper planet, and Pluto will play an important part in this story.

Within a few short years we would know just how depressingly uninhabitable the solar system is but in 1959 science fiction authors could still hope that the other planets would be suitable settings for rousing adventures.

The novel begins with unusually cool weather. And people get the impression that the sun looks slightly dimmer than usual. It is getting dimmer.

High school senior Burl Denning now enters the story. He and his father are on an archaeological dig in the Andes when they get a message by Guided Missile Post. Whatever is affecting the sun seems to be coming from a nearby spot in the Andes. Burl and his father are the only scientists close enough to get to the spot in time. They discover a huge building that cannot be of human origin. There’s a mass of machinery inside, and there are huge discs on the roof. The sun’s rays are being stolen!

Burl accidentally acquires some strange sort of charge which allows him to operate the alien machinery.

Both Burl’s adventure and the Earth’s problems have just begun. It will be necessary to circumnavigate the solar system in an experimental anti-gravity spaceship, the Magellan. It goes without saying that the power for the anti-gravity engines comes from atomic power - this was the 1950s. The sun-stealers have bases on every planet in the solar system and they all have to be destroyed, and Burl may be the only one who can do it.

The teenage hero tends to mark this as an example of 1950s juvenile science fiction but at least we get semi-plausible explanation for the presence of a high school senior on the Magellan.

Wolheim wastes no time getting his hero into space and into thrilling adventures. Burl’s trip around the solar system is a roller-coaster ride with plenty of danger and some action (including a battle with Martians).

Wolheim also doesn’t worry himself too much with scientific plausibility. Anti-gravity works because science is awesome.

There are some moderately cool aliens but this is really just a not terribly distinguished juvenile science fiction adventure yarn. Perhaps worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with S.N. Tenneshaw’s Beyond the Walls of Space in a double-novel paperback. I’ve bought a stack of these Armchair Fiction editions and they are almost all excellent and well worth buying. This is the first one I’ve come across that I’d suggest that you might want to pass on.