Friday, May 27, 2022

Nick Carter, The Cypher Letter

The Cypher Letter is a Nick Carter mystery.

Nick Carter is a fictional character with an intriguing history. He began life as a Sherlock Holmes-style detective in dime novels between 1886 and 1915. The character was revived in pulp magazines in the 1920s and again in the 1930s (this time as a hardboiled detective). In the 1960s he was revived yet again as a James Bond-style secret agent in the long-running Killmaster series of novels which were still being published as late as 1990. There have been various Nick Carter movies and radio serials.

The Nick Carter stories have always been credited to Nick Carter as author but in fact many different writers wrote Nick Carter adventures over the years.

I have no idea when The Cypher Letter was written but the fact that it takes place in New York but there’s not a single mention of cars or telephones leads me to suspect that it’s a pretty early story, possibly from the 1890s.

Nick Carter’s wife has come across a cypher letter the significance of which is unknown. At the same time Nick’s pal, Inspector Byrnes, has received an anonymous letter which claims that a serious crime has been committed in the Kempton mansion. These two letters do not appear to be connected but of course they are.

Old Archibald Kempton is blind but he’s extremely rich. He lives with this two daughters (who bear no resemblance to one another in looks or personality).

A child has been kidnapped but it’s not obvious how that ties in. Nick spots a smooth-talking gent leaving the Kempton mansion and suspects he could be worth following. The gent is Mortimer Guernsey and Nick’s suspicion that he is mixed up in this case proves to be well-founded.

Nick does some shadowing of suspects and he gets shadowed in turn, and that nearly costs him his life.

This early version of Nick Carter is very much an American Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was a master of disguise, so Nick Carter is a master of disguise. There’s a Sherlock Holmes stories about cyphers so here we get a Nick Carter story about cyphers. The disguise stuff is really overdone, to the point where at times it seems that disguise is the only detective technique of which Nick is aware.

The plot is outrageously melodramatic with some very far-fetched elements and lots of unlikely coincidences. And of course hair’s-breadth escapes from certain death.

This incarnation of Nick Carter is definitely not hardboiled nor is he a tough guy but he is just a bit more of an action hero than Holmes. He definitely has an American flavour.

This very short novel is interesting mostly for historical reasons. It’s a glimpse into the world of the American dime novel. And of course it gives us a sampling of the first version of a character who just kept bouncing back in different forms, and a character who was one of the first popular American fictional detectives. If you’re a serious student of the history of crime fiction you need to sample at least one Nick Carter story. Apart from that historical interest it doesn’t have all that much to recommend it although you might get some amusement from the outlandishly melodramatic plot. So maybe worth a look but with quite a few reservations.

This book seems to be obtainable only in a print-on-demand form which is riddled with distracting typographical errors.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Gentle Giants of Ganymede

The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, published in 1978, is the second instalment of British science fiction writer James P. Hogan’s Giants trilogy which began in 1977 with the brilliant Inherit the Stars. You really need to read Inherit the Stars first but The Gentle Giants of Ganymede does include a detailed recap of the events of the first novel.

Since this book is part of a trilogy I’m going to be as careful as possible not to reveal any spoilers for Inherit the Stars. In very general terms the trilogy concerns the discovery of a 50,000 year-old human skeleton on the Moon in circumstances that are simply impossible and the even more startling discovery of a much much older spaceship on one of the moons of Jupiter. Both discoveries suggest that everything we thought we knew about the history of the solar system might be wrong. The discoveries also point to the existence of another planet, named Minerva, but the big question is why does Minerva no longer exist?

Inherit the Stars was a kind of scientific mystery story with a host of baffling and contradictory clues and a surprising but very satisfactory solution to the mystery. There are also hints of a mystery to be unravelled in The Gentle Giants of Ganymede. In fact it appears that the whole trilogy is the story of the gradual unravelling of the true history of the solar system.

It’s these mystery elements that are Hogan’s greatest strengths. They’re as enthralling as a classic detective story. There are various clues thrown at us that seem to point to a particular suspect (or in this case a particular explanatory theory) and then just as both the reader and the characters in the book are confident that the puzzle has been solved another clue pops up that totally demolishes that theory. So it’s back to square one, with the focus shifting to a different suspect (or theory).

It’s also interesting that there are two simultaneous investigations going on. The humans are not the only ones trying to solve the puzzle.

Inherit the Stars was Hogan’s first novel but the overarching plot of the trilogy is so complex and so intricately interconnected that it’s difficult to believe he could have improvised it. Surely he must have had the basic plan worked out when he wrote the first novel.

Unfortunately Hogan has his weaknesses as well. Like so many science fiction writers he has ludicrously optimistic ideas about the future of human society. The main plot strands unfold in a future of world government and universal peace. Apparently one day humanity realised that war was wicked so they just stopped fighting and abolished the military and established a utopia of peace, love and understanding.

Hogan also has some libertarian ideas that are slightly eccentric even by libertarian standards.

He does however manage to create aliens that are genuinely alien. Aliens whose evolution has been so radically different as to give the aliens and humans outlooks on life that are close to being mutually incomprehensible.

This is very much the science fiction of big ideas. In this case the big ideas involve both biology and physics with the understanding of both fields being dramatically challenged by those discoveries on the Moon and on Ganymede. The science is purely speculative but it’s fascinating speculation.

If you want space battles this book is not for you. On the other hand if you want wild provocative ideas developed with great skill and cleverness then you might well enjoy this book as much as I did. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Lady from L.U.S.T. #1 Lust, Be a Lady Tonight

Lust, Be a Lady Tonight is the first of The Lady from L.U.S.T. sleazy spy thrillers, published in 1968.

Spies were one of the major obsessions of the 60s. Spy fiction sold in huge quantities. Spy movies were box-office bonanzas. In both the U.S. and Britain there was a proliferation of TV series about spies.

Ian Fleming’s Bond novels raised the stakes as far as sex in spy fiction was concerned, but by the late 1960s the Bond novels seemed very tame. Adding very large helpings of sex and sleaze to the spy story was obviously an idea that was going to work commercially. There were quite a few spy sleaze book series. One of the most successful was The Lady from L.U.S.T. series which ran to 23 novels.

This series was created by Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986) who wrote most, if not all, the books in this series using the pseudonym Rod Gray. Fox was a prolific author of comic books who also wrote science fiction and enormous numbers of trashy pulpy paperback originals. As well as The Lady from L.U.S.T. he created another sexy secret gent heroine, Cherry Delight, who is even more fun.

Eve Drum has a couple of unusual talents for a girl. She’s not only a martial arts expert she is also an amateur safe-cracker. Her father was a locksmith and taught her everything there was to know about cracking safes. She’s never actually carried out any robberies but she does have that talent.

So it’s not surprising that Eve gets recruited by L.U.S.T. (the League of Underground Spies and Terrorists). Despite their name L.U.S.T. are the good guys. They’re a top-secret U.S. government agency that handles espionage and counter-espionage cases that are too dirty for the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. - L.U.S.T. commits murders and robberies but they only kill bad guys so it’s OK.

Eve is perfectly qualified to be a L.U.S.T. - female L.U.S.T. agents have to be skilled in the use of firearms and explosives and unarmed combat but they also need advanced bedroom skills. Their main weapon is sex. Luckily Eve Drum happens to be very good at sex and she’s ready to have sex any time of the day or night and with anyone she’s ordered to seduce.

The bad guys work for H.A.T.E. and they’re blackmailing top American scientists. Eve’s first assignment is to retrieve some compromising pictures from the safe of a charming Italian count who is a senior H.A.T.E. agent. Cracking the Count’s safe won’t be a huge challenge for Eve but she will need to be able to work undisturbed. The Count is so focused on getting into Eve’s pants that it’s not likely he’s going to let her get on with her safe-cracking. Even decides there’s only one thing to do. She will have to exhaust the Count completely. She challenges him to make love to her in all ten of the sexual positions described in one of the great erotic classics. After having sex with her ten times in succession she figures the Count will then want a long long sleep.

Eve’s next assignment is to track down the woman in those compromising photos. This will require Eve to enter the decadent world of very rich people with exotic sexual tastes, who have the power and the money to indulge those tastes. It will be a dangerous assignment. Eve is supplied with a number of gadgets cooked up by L.U.S.T.’s technical specialists. There’s the usual deadly cigarette lighter but there’s also a pair of explosive panties. As you can imagine they’re something you’d only resort to in a dire emergency. And her bra is a sophisticated communications device.

Eve gets into the usual scrapes that spies get into, falling into the hands of the bad guys and getting tortured. She also uses her sexual allure on various men, sometimes in the line of duty, sometimes for purely recreational purposes. She’s never slept with a woman before, but if it’s something that her duty to her country demands of her then she’s prepared to try it. No sexual sacrifice is too great for Eve. It’s not for nothing that she’s known as Agent Double Oh Sex.

There’s lots and lots of sex in this book. There is a spy thriller plot as well. It’s sleaze fiction and it’s pulpy spy fiction and the sleaze stuff and the spy stuff are surprisingly well integrated. You just have to accept that Eve is a spy whose main weapon is her sexuality, and there’s nothing implausible about that. From the dawn of history female spies have relied on their sexual allure. And somehow whenever Eve jumps into bed with a guy there does seem to be some professional justification for it. And Eve really is a professional - she’s not emotionless but she does stay in control when she’s on a case.

Of course it’s all very very trashy. If you’re not attracted by the idea of a sexy trashy ultra-pulpy spy thriller then you’d be advised to stay well clear of this one. But if you do enjoy that sort of thing then it’s good-natured lighthearted fun.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Henry Kuttner 's Crypt-City of the Deathless One

Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a successful American pulp writer who was married to an even more celebrated pulp writer, Catherine L. Moore, with whom he often collaborated. Kuttner’s novella Crypt-City of the Deathless One was published in 1943 in Planet Stories (an extraordinarily good pulp magazine). The novella is a science fiction tale, with just a hint of zombies.

Ed Garth is drinking himself to death in a seedy bar on Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter. He gets an offer from a man named Brown, an offer he can’t refuse. In fact Garth will accept any offer that will provide him with money to buy liquor. He will be acting as a guide to an expedition to the Black Forest on Ganymede.

No sane person would accept this offer. This will be an illegal expedition. And no Earthman has ever entered the Black Forest and come out alive. No Earthman, apart from Ed Garth.

Ganymede was once home to an incredibly advanced civilisation, a civilisation long gone. All that remains is a vast collection of machines and robots and no-one has ever been able to figure out how to make them work. There is rumoured to be a lost city of this ancient civilisation deep in the Black Forest. Garth figures that Brown’s expedition is tying to find the secret of the power source used by the ancient civilisation. They are rumoured to have discovered the secret of atomic power (this was written in 1943 when atomic power was still science fiction).

The secret of the power source would be a fabulous prize since Earth is rapidly running out of power sources. Unless the secret of atomic power can be unlocked civilisation on Earth will collapse.

There may be another secret in that lost city. One just as important, and much more important personally to Ed Garth. That city may hold the key to a cure for the Silver Plague that is ravaging the Earth’s population. That’s the secret Ed Garth, Doc Willard and Moira were looking for five years earlier. Garth was the only survivor of that expedition and he brought back with home a horrible memory. The memory is horrible because it is so vague. One of the many reasons nobody goes into the Black Forest is the poison released by the noctoli plant, a poison which strips a man of his memories and his will. He becomes little more than a zombie.

Garth has built up an immunity to the noctoli poison and he thinks he has a method of protecting others from it but the method is far from fool-proof. If it doesn’t work then this illegal expedition will be in a lot of trouble.

That’s without taking into account the other horrors of the Black Forest, horrors so well camouflaged that you don’t know they’re there until it’s too late. Ed Garth knows the nature of these horrors. Entering the Black Forest with Ed Garth as a guide would be an insane risk, but entering that forest without him would be simple suicide. The secrets hidden in the lost city of the ancients justify an insane risk.

The journey proves to be just the nightmare that Ed Garth expected but turning back would be more dangerous than going on.

Garth isn’t sure if he’s happy that archaeologist Paula Trent is part of the expedition. She reminds him of Moira, and Moira is the subject of another of his personal nightmares.

What’s cool about this book is that there’s plenty of excitement but hardly any violence - the threats come mostly not from bad guys but from the deadly flora and fauna of Ganymede. Ganymede is not a nice world. Kuttner displays plenty of imagination in throwing fresh horrors at Ed Garth. There’s a nice atmosphere of doom as more and more things go wrong.

This is a kind of lost world story and it obeys most of the conventions of that genre.

The ending is not the ending you expect but it’s highly effective.

A very entertaining tale. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella

I have very little interest in comics. In fact almost no interest at all. I do however make an exception for European comics for grown-ups of the 1960s and 70s such as the Italian fumetti. They have a tone and a style that differentiates them radically from American comics of the 50s and 60s. They’re a lot more sophisticated. And it’s certainly worth making an exception for Barbarella.

Barbarella was created by Jean-Claude Forest and the first Barbarella comic saw the light of day in the French V Magazine in 1962. Her first appearance in book form was in 1964. She become even more famous when Roger Vadim’s movie came out in 1968, with Jane Fonda in the title rôle. Brigitte Bardot was originally wanted for the part which would have been appropriate given that the physical appearance of the comic strip character was based on Bardot. Bardot could have played the rôle but it’s hard to imagine that she could have done a better job than Jane Fonda.

Censorship in France had been quite strict in the 50s and comics were regarded with official disapproval. Barbarella was a sensation at the time and remains a pop culture landmark. Jean-Claude Forest added sexiness to comics, and that was revolutionary in 1962. I say sexiness rather than sex. The Barbarella comic strip certainly has plenty of eroticism but it’s a cheerful good-natured healthy eroticism. This is eroticism as fun.

And there’s plenty of adventure and humour as well.

There have been several attempts to translate the comic into English, most recently with an “adaptation” (always a worrying word) by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Humanoids Press have published the first two Barbarella books, Barbarella and Wrath of the Minute-Eater (Les Colères du mange-minutes) in a single inexpensive volume.

The 1968 movie follows the plot of the first book surprisingly closely. The bird-man character is there, as is a character named Durand (who would give the band Duran Duran their name).

This is definitely science fiction, as Barbarella travels the galaxy getting into various scrapes. The science fiction elements are wildly unrealistic but they’re quite imaginative and clever. Forest was quite good at creating strange alien worlds, and putting his heroine into interestingly and amusingly bizarre situations.

The visual style of the comic is as stylish and lighthearted as the content. A lot of the situations Barbarella gets into seem to involve the loss of her clothing, not that this bothers her in the least. In 1962 Barbarella seemed quite remarkably sexually liberated (and in today’s repressive climate she again seems refreshingly liberated). Barbarella rather likes sex. That’s not to say that she isn’t interested in love, but if she can’t have love she’s happy to make do with sex.

In the second book, Wrath of the Minute-Eater, Barbarella is running the galaxy’s most outrageous circus, the Circus Delirium. She needs a new act and an aquaman sounds promising. The aquamen have gills and cannot breathe air. They can however have normal sexual relations. Barbarella has found that out for herself. Narval the aquaman however has another agenda, and it takes our heroine to the fringe worlds of the galaxy where time itself is different. Everything about this story is connected in some way with time. Her companions this time are a clown and a malfunctioning female sexbot.

Barbarella is a delightful heroine. For an adventure heroine she’s rather non-violent. Well, mostly. She prefers to use her innocence, her adorableness and her hotness to resolve problems. It’s amazing how many conflicts can be resolved by seducing people rather than trying to shoot them. And even if the conflict isn’t resolved as least you get to have some sex, and that’s never a bad thing.

The Barbarella comic is witty, clever, stylish and good-natured. And sexy.

Even if you’re a person who doesn’t like comics Barbarella is very highly recommended. Barbarella is one of the great pop culture icons, and her comics are deliriously entertaining.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase is a 1954 noir novel and it’s a wild roller-coaster ride.

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) wrote pulp crime novels under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms including Frederick Lorenz.

Lee Mayo owns a gambling club. He wakes up with a shocking hangover and no memory of the previous night but there’s a girl in his apartment. The girl is Della, a drop-dead gorgeous photographer’s model. She had poured him into his car and driven him home and put him to bed. Nothing happened between them. Lee would have been too drunk to do anything anyway. Taking him home had been a nice thing to do but Della gets no gratitude for her actions. Lee behaves like a pig and says some very cruel things to her and makes her cry.

As she’s leaving she overhears a conversation and realises she now has an opportunity to get her revenge on Lee Mayo. Lee has a devious plan to make some money and Della can throw a spanner in the works.

Lee has bought Ralph Stallings from a cab driver for five hundred bucks. Stallings had passed out dead drunk in the guy’s cab and the driver, Artie, recognises him as the Ralph Stallings who is notorious for being a fabulously rich guy who gets drunk and gambles and always loses, and always loses on an epic scale (his last gambling escapade cost him two hundred grand, an almost unimaginably vast amount of money in 1954). A professional gambler who could get his hands on Stallings when Stallings was hopelessly drunk could easily inveigle the guy into a game and fleece him for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It wouldn’t present any difficulty at all - when Stallings is drunk his desire to gamble is overwhelming, and he always loses. A drunk Ralph Stallings is like a gold mine. And that’s why Lee Mayo bought him from the cab driver.

He also bought him because he has a personal grudge against him. Stallings stole his girl, and married her.

This is where the book’s many plot twists start to kick in (and we’re only a few pages into the book), and it’s where the book’s character complexity starts to kick in as well. Lee Mayo isn’t really a bad guy. Once he’s had time to think about it he’s horrified that he could even have considered his plan to milk Ralph Stallings of all his money. Lee is no Boy Scout, he’s done bad things, but he is definitely not that low. He’ll go and pick Stallings up from the hotel where the cab driver stashed him and take the poor guy home.

But it’s too late. He gets to the hotel and somebody has already taken Stallings. We know that it was Della, who had seen the opportunity to revenge herself on Lee and make some money by selling Stallings to some other big-time gambler. But Lee doesn’t know that it was Della. He doesn’t even know Della’s name. He doesn’t know that she now has Stallings.

Or does she? The trouble is that people keep thinking they’ve got Stallings only to find that someone else has slipped away with him. Some people want him for their own nefarious purposes. Some people are trying to rescue him. But nobody can keep hold of him. Or even keep track of who might have him at any particular time.

Della turns out to be a bit like Lee. She has some serious characters flaws. She has a fiery temper which causes her to do bad or unwise things at times and she drinks too much. But in spite of these flaws she’s basically quite a nice person. She had plans for Stallings but like Lee she couldn’t go through with them.

Then there’s Enid Stallings, Ralph’s wife. She’s done bad things as well but like Lee and Della she’s really not such a bad person. One nice thing about this novel is that there’s no Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy. Both the main female characters are basically good but flawed.

Lee is like that. At the beginning he behaved like a complete jerk towards Della but that was because he had a rotten hangover and was in a bad mood. As soon as the girl fled he started to feel bad and decided he would have to apologise to her. And he really would have done so. In Lee’s mind making a grovelling apology to a woman you’ve treated badly is a whole lot better than feeling like a heel.

Graham Greene once said that human nature isn’t black and white, it’s black and grey. That’s certainly true of this novel. There are plenty of genuinely vicious low-lifes in this story. There are other characters who do bad things because they’re incredibly stupid. Then there are three characters who definitely represent shades of grey. They’ve done bad things but they’re not morally completely lost.

Another thing I like is that the book does not rely on sudden changes of heart (which always seem unconvincing). The morally grey characters are perfectly consistent in their behaviour. They make mistakes that are consistent with their known character flaws and they try to make amends in a manner which is consistent with their known character strengths.

And the plot twists just keep coming. No matter how much the plot twists and turns and no matter how delightfully crazy it gets it remains coherent and believable, because the motivations of the characters are believable.

The Savage Chase is enormous fun, it’s occasionally quite funny, it has plenty of suspense and action, it has some genuinely interesting characters who are likeable because they’re so flawed and so human. This really is a terrific little novel, one of the best I’ve read this year. Very highly recommended.

Stark House Noir have reprinted The Savage Chase in a paperback edition with two other crime thrillers, Kermit Jaediker’s Tall, Dark and Dead (which I reviewed here recently) and D.L. Champion’s Run the Wild River (the latter of which I haven’t read yet).