Sunday, July 31, 2022

Len Deighton’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy

Len Deighton’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy was published in 1976. It has also been issued as Catch a Falling Spy.

Len Deighton (born 1929) made his reputation as a spy writer with his unnamed spy novels, starting with The Ipcress File in 1962. They’re often referred to as the Harry Palmer novels, Harry Palmer being the name given to the character in the movie adaptations starring Michael Caine.

How many of the unnamed spy novels there were is a controversial question. No-one disputes that The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Horse Under Water and Billion Dollar Brain belong to that series. It’s generally assumed that An Expensive Place To Die (1967) is another unnamed spy novel. There are those who believe that Spy Story (1974) is a sixth book in the series. It’s quite plausible that the protagonist of that novel is the unnamed spy, a few years older. It’s also possible, although slightly more controversial, that Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is a seventh novel featuring the same protagonist. Deighton has always been somewhat cagey on the subject. The uncertainty about how many unnamed spy novels there were adds an extra touch of mystery which is quite fitting. A spy’s whole career is after all a series of deceptions and false identities. The protagonist of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy generally behaves in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the theory that he’s the same man at a later stage of his career.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy starts in the Sahara Desert. The British spy who may or may not be the unnamed spy is working with CIA agent Major Mann. They have to meet a Soviet defector named Bekuv who is currently working as part of a Soviet scientific team in Mali.

The problems begin over the question of Bekuv’s wife. Bekuv has insisted that his wife be brought out of Russia to join him, but the CIA doesn’t have Mrs Bekuv. They tell Bekuv that she’s going to join him soon.

Bekuv has been working on masers but what he really cares about is extraterrestrials. He wants to contact them. He’s not a UFO nut. He seriously believes that contact with alien civilisations is possible. What Bekuv wants is money to work on his project for contacting these alien civilisations.

The CIA and the British Secret Service don’t care about masers or aliens. What they want is to plug a massive American security leak. Top secret scientific data is being obtained by the Soviets. The CIA and the British Secret Service believe that Bekuv can help to identify the source of the leak. From the beginning there is tension between Bekuv and the CIA. The CIA is undoubtedly lying to Bekuv, and he’s undoubtedly lying to them. He has an agenda, they have an agenda, and those agendas are hardly compatible. Getting the information they need from Bekuv is going to be a laborious process. Maybe he’ll be more co-operative when his wife joins him. But the arrival of his wife makes things much more complicated.

An added complication for the unnamed spy is Red Bancroft. She’s a beautiful American woman, a friend of Mann and Mann’s wife Bessie. What her involvement in the whole situation is not at all clear. What is clear is that the unnamed spy has fallen in love with her.

There are endless betrayals, and everyone involved seems to have a different agenda. The CIA is very interested in the 1924 Society, a group of scientists interested in extraterrestrials which may or may not be a KGB front. There’s also a high-powered Senate scientific committee, which could be the source of the leaks. Of course it’s also possible that the security leak comes from within the CIA.

Somebody is trying to kill Bekuv. It might be the KGB, or somebody else. There’s also the problem of Harry Dean, an old CIA buddy of Mann’s whose career ended under a cloud. He might be a double agent, or the KGB could be trying to frame him, or someone else could be trying to frame him. Then there’s Harry Dean’s ex-wife, who isn’t really his ex-wife, and her new husband who isn’t really her husband. They’re all mixed up in this operation.

Mann and the unnamed spy have a tense relationship made more tense by misunderstandings and personal feelings. They don’t hate each other. Maybe in some ways they like each other. They don’t trust each other. But nobody trusts anybody in this case.

The web of deceptions and tangled loyalties and betrayals and suspicions grows ever more complex.

The action takes place in the Algerian desert, in rural Virginia, in Washington, in Miami and in Ireland.

This is one of Deighton’s lesser known novels and you could make a good case that it’s unjustly neglected. It’s actually Deighton in top form. The betrayals are both professional and personal, with the personal factors being emphasised a bit more than in Deighton’s earlier books.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Beyond the Stratosphere

Beyond the Stratosphere is a 1936 pulp science fiction novel by William Lemke. At least that’s how he was credited on the cover of Amazing Stories for June 1936, which is where the novel was originally published. Inside however there’s an illustration of the author and his name is given William Lemkin, Ph.D. Either way he’s a very obscure author.

The narrator is stratosphere pilot Earl Norton. He and his buddy, rocket engineer Bob Hart, work for Stratosphere Transport Inc. That’s the company that operates the great stratosphere rockets that carry passengers to any destination on Earth at speeds up to a thousand miles an hour.

The company has been experimenting with really high altitude rockets, rockets that will fly well above the stratosphere. The trouble is that every time they launch an unmanned rocket to an altitude greater than 115 miles the rocket just disappears. This has now happened six times.

Bob thinks the answer is to send a manned rocket to find out just what the heck is going on. Earl thinks that’s a fairly dumb idea but he allows himself to be talked into piloting the rocket. And Stratosphere Transport Inc allows itself to be talked into giving the project the go-ahead.

You have to remember that in 1936 nobody actually knew, from personal experience, what happened when you reached outer space. Scientists may have thought they knew but knowing something theoretically is not the same as knowing it because you’ve actually done it. Was space travel actually possible? Could people live in outer space? Could people live in zero gravity and in zero atmospheric pressure in the long term? What would actually happen if we left the Earthy’s atmosphere? In 1936 nobody knew the answers with one hundred percent certainty.

The premise of this novel seems today to be totally nuts but in 1936 it was simply at the furthest edges of wild speculation about the unknown.

Earl and Bob reach an altitude of 133 miles before they hit the wall. They literally hit a wall. They burst through the wall and find themselves in a bizarre world. The Earth’s atmosphere is encased in a kind of gigantic eggshell, an eggshell made of material with very peculiar properties. We on Earth do not realise we are surrounded by this eggshell because it is invisible from Earth.

Earl and Bob are surprised, to say the least. To find that at an altitude of 133 miles they can open the hatch to their rocketship and go for a walk. They have to wear their spacesuits. There’s no atmosphere. But there’s gravity. There’s a solid surface on which to walk.

And there are living creatures. As you would expect these creatures are very alien and very strange. Are they hostile or friendly? That’s hard to say, because they’re so very alien. They certainly have their own agenda, but that does not make them hostile. But there are certain peculiar rules that these strange little cubical creatures expect everyone to obey.

The problem for Earl and Bob is how to get back to Earth, and it really is a problem. Their rocketship is badly damaged. They have limited fuel. They have food and oxygen but their supplies of these necessities are by no means unlimited. The damage to their ship is actually the least of their problems. They are now separated from the Earth by that eggshell. They cannot contact Earth. They have no idea how thick the eggshell is, or whether it would be possible to make an opening, or what would happen if they tried to make an opening in the shell.

It’s a very pulpy novel and yes, it’s all pretty silly. But it’s silly in an original and imaginative way. And the aliens are genuinely alien - they are most definitely not just humanoid creatures with funny shaped ears. Everything about them is weird and bizarre. Their entire physiology and psychology is totally non-human.

Beyond the Stratosphere is worth checking out just for its sheer oddness.

Armchair Fiction have issued it in one of their two-novel paperback editions, paired with Henry Kuttner’s excellent Crypt-City of the Deathless One.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Honey West: Honey in the Flesh

Honey in the Flesh was published in 1959. It was the fourth of the eleven Honey West PI thrillers written by husband and wife writing team Gloria and Forest Fickling under the name G.G. Fickling.

The Honey West novels were the basis for the 1965-66 Honey West TV series starring Anne Francis. Neither the novels nor the TV series have ever received the attention they deserved.

Honey West certainly wasn’t the first female fictional detective and she wasn’t even technically the first fictional female private eye. But when she made her first appearance in print in 1956 she was something different. She was the prototype for most of the female action/adventure heroines of the 60s and 70s, not just in books but in TV and movies. Modesty Blaise, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., all followed the trail that Honey West had blazed. Honey West was a new type of heroine. She was not just an action heroine. She was smart, witty, sexy, stylish and hyper-confident. She was very feminine and totally comfortable with her sexuality and her femininity but she was hardboiled and tough as well.

The Honey West novels, apart from the innovation of featuring a female protagonist, are fairly typical of the private eye fiction of the 1950s. And that’s no bad thing. American PI fiction of that period was bursting with energy and hard-edged style. The Honey West novels are hardboiled but heavily laced with humour. And sexiness. In fact at times outright sleaze, in the style of late 50s sleaze fiction. They were written at a time when authors could get away with very little in the shape of actual sexual content but there was certainly nothing to stop them creating an atmosphere of sex and sleaze.

Honey in the Flesh opens with the body of a beauty pageant contestant fished out of the bay. The girl is Josephine Keller, the contestant from California. That’s what the police think. The coroner is non-committal. Mawson Lawrence, the businessman who is promoting the Miss Twentieth Century Pageant, is adamant that Miss Keller is alive and well. He wants to hire Honey to prove that all the contestants are alive and well, although Honey isn’t at all sure that that is really what she’s been hired for.

Then the missing contestant turns up, safe and unharmed.

But Honey is not happy. Her friend Lieutenant Mark Storm isn’t happy either. Nor is hardbitten newspaperman Fred Sims.

Mark Storm suspects a connection between the pageant and a prostitution racket. He thinks Mawson Lawrence isn’t as squeaky clean as he appears to be.

Honey gets a phone call from one of the girls in the pageant, offering information that might tie in with the prostitution angle, but Honey’s meeting with the girl doesn’t turn out at all the way Honey had hoped.

People keep trying to kill Honey. And trying to set her up so that it looks like she is a murderess. Honey heads to Mexico, accompanied by beatnik photographer Hank Kirsten who is one of the prime suspects. Then Honey gets kidnapped and given an injection that turns her into a sex maniac. Hank manages to get Honey back to the States but it’s a wild drive, with Honey continually trying to rape him.

Anyone and everyone involved with the pageant could be a suspect, including all eighty-eight contestants. Would one of the contestants actually murder a fellow contestant, just for the sake of the $50,000 prize money and the glory of becoming Miss Twentieth Century? Honey has no doubts whatever on that score. Beauty contests are ruthless. It’s kill or be killed. Honey has no illusions about women.

Most of the contestants seem to spend most of their time wandering about naked. In fact all the female characters (including Honey) seem to have trouble keeping their clothes on.

The plot is fiendishly complicated. The contest itself, the call-girl racket, a brothel in Tijuana with which most of the characters seem to be connected, crooked cops, corrupt public officials, shady business deals, bizarre marital complications - all these things could provide motives for murder.

There’s plenty of action, Honey gets into lots of dangerous escapades and as you may have gathered there’s an atmosphere of sex, sin and sleaze. It’s all great fun. Honey in the Flesh is very pulpy, in the best possible way. Highly recommended.

You might want to check out my reviews of other Honey West novels - This Girl For HireA Gun for Honey and Girl on the Loose.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Marijuana Girl

Marijuana Girl by N.R. de Mexico (a pseudonym used by Robert Campbell Bragg) was published by Uni-Books in 1951 and re-issued by Beacon Books in 1960. The book was the centre of some controversy, being singled out for condemnation by a congressional committee on pornography as the kind of book that would encourage innocent American youngsters to rush out and become drug addicts.

What really angered the moral watchdogs was the totally calm and non-hysterical tone of the novel. If you were going to deal with drugs and sex you were supposed to make it clear that drugs and sex led inevitably to misery, ruin and early death. The only acceptable tone was rabid hysteria.

But there’s no hysteria in this novel. Some of the characters use marijuana but they don’t consider it to be a big deal and it doesn’t seem to cause them any real problems. Some of the characters use heroin and that does cause them problems. It is not necessarily the end of the world. The novel doesn’t push the official line that one taste of heroin and you’re a hopeless junkie. There’s even a vague suggestion that for people who have the money for their habit it isn’t a problem.

Even more shocking is that the heroine of the story has sex with more than one man to whom she is not married. She eventually becomes a prostitute but that’s where the book really outrages the moral watchdogs - she’s a prostitute but she’s still a nice girl and she’s still a worthwhile person and she isn’t doomed to a future of misery and degradation. Prostitution is just something you do to make money. It doesn’t have any effect on your moral worth as a person. And it’s like any other job. If you grow tired of it you look for an alternative.

So this is a novel which was certainly promoted as a sensationalist expose of vice and sin but it actually takes a very calm and reasoned and balanced and completely non-judgmental view of certain social problems and it even dares to suggest that some of these social problems aren’t really problems at all.

The fact that the heroine gets introduced to drugs by black jazz musicians in New York undoubtedly contributed even further to the hysterical attacks made on the novel.

While there was plenty of moral hysteria in 1951 the juvenile delinquent hysteria was only just beginning to emerge. Marijuana Girl does have some affinities to the juvenile delinquent scare genre. Joyce, the heroine, has always been rather rebellious and her teachers have always feared that her defiance would lead her into wickedness. Things come to a head when Joyce performs an impromptu strip-tease in the school gymnasium. The school cannot tolerate the presence of such a depraved wicked girl and Joyce is expelled.

Joyce, in typical juvenile delinquent style, doesn’t care about being expelled. She gets herself a job with a local newspaper. The editor, Frank, is almost old enough to be her father but he’s from New York and he has the kind of big-city sophistication and intellectualism that Joyce inevitably finds very attractive. Frank is married and Joyce has a boyfriend (Tony) with whom she is sleeping but they drift into an affair.

The problem for Joyce is that at seventeen she is scarcely capable of dealing with one emotional entanglement let alone two. She can’t choose between the two men in her life. Frank can’t make a decision either - his wife doesn’t mind if he has affairs as long as they don’t get out of hand but she thinks this affair is getting a bit too serious. Tony is almost as young as Joyce and he’s a nice enough guy but not mature enough to deal with the situation. The stresses build up for Joyce and she turns to heroin.

The title of the novel is pretty misleading since marijuana plays a very minor role in the story. It would have been more accurate to call it Heroin Girl.

The author has a few odd stylistic tics but it’s possible that these were part of an attempt to give the book a hip feel. The major subject matter of the book is the emerging jazz-beatnik subculture, which would in the fullness of time become the Counter Culture. It’s a subculture which doesn’t yet see itself as being at war with conventional conservative society but definitely is starting to see itself as standing apart from mainstream society. Jazz, drugs and sex were ways in which to express that sense of apartness.

Marijuana Girl doesn’t fit neatly into the crime, noir or sleaze genres that dominated the paperback originals market in the 50s. It’s more of a melodrama. While the book does take a sceptical look at the conventional social and sexual mores of its era it avoids heavy-handed political messaging. It’s a book worth reading for quite a few different reasons and it’s fairy entertaining. Recommended.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Fantômas: A Nest of Spies (L'Agent Secret)

Fantômas: A Nest of Spies (originally published in 1911 as L'Agent Secret) is the fourth of the original series of Fantômas novels.

Fantômas is a diabolical criminal mastermind created by French writers Marcel Allain (1885–1969) and Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914). They wrote thirty-two Fantômas novels between 1911 and 1913. Allain wrote several more Fantômas novels in the 1920s. There have been Fantômas movies and Fantômas comics.

Fantômas is to French popular culture what Dr Mabuse is to German pop culture, or what Professor Moriarty is to British pop culture.

Fantômas has two deadly enemies - Inspector Juve and crusading journalist Jérôme Fandor. Juve and Fandor have devoted years of their lives to the project of bringing Fantômas to justice. But Fantômas is like Dr Fu Manchu. Nayland Smith can foil Fu Manchu’s plans and destroy his criminal operations but we know that he will never succeed in destroying Fu Manchu or bringing him to justice. Fu Manchu will always slip away, and he will always rebuild his organisation. And, in the same way, Fantômas will always manage to escape Juve’s clutches.

When this fourth novel opens Fantômas has been quiet for a while. Perhaps he has left France. Perhaps he is dead. Perhaps, after suffering defeat at the hands of Juve and Fandor, he has decided to retire from crime.

This fourth novel begins with a French artillery captain who has fallen hard for a very pretty girl, known to her friends as Bobinette. Captain Brocq has in his keeping certain top secret documents, vital to national security and all that stuff, and he finds to his dismay that one of the documents seems to have vanished. It was there a moment ago, just before Bobinette gathered up some letters of hers that Brocq had been, indiscreetly, keeping. Could Bobinette have gathered up the secret document by mistake along with the letters? That must be the explanation. The other explanation, that Bobinette stole the document, is unthinkable. A sweet young girl like Bobinette could not possibly be a spy. Either way Captain Brocq has to get that document back so he sets off in pursuit of his pretty mistress. And the hapless captain then loses his life in bizarre circumstances.

Inspector Juve is called in to investigate.

Journalist Jérôme Fandor is also taking an interesting in the case. He and Juve are old friends, their friendship being strengthened by their past shared struggles against the arch-criminal Fantômas. Juve sees the hand of Fantômas in the murder of Captain Brocq and it’s true that the bizarre murder method is the sort of thing that would appeal to Fantômas. Fandor however believes it’s just a simple case of espionage, although of course espionage is rarely simple.

There certainly is a vast espionage plot at the back of Captain Brocq’s murder. A number of young French officers have been ensnared by pretty but unscrupulous women. They are drawn into the web of espionage gradually. At first the information they’re selling seems so trivial as to be completely harmless. But soon they are being called upon to sell vital secrets.

Juve and Fandor conduct parallel investigations and at times it has to be said that they find themselves at cross purposes. In addition to the police involvement the military intelligence services (the Second Bureau) are investigating the case. The police and the military intelligence people dislike and distrust one another and are constantly getting in each other’s way. Juve doesn’t like the Second Bureau anyway but in this case he suspects that they’ve been infiltrated by foreign spies or possibly even infiltrated by Fantômas’s organisation.

One of the conventions of pre-First World War crime and spy fiction is that you can’t be a proper great detective or a proper great villain unless you are a master of disguise. The detectives and the villains assume a bewildering range of disguises and nobody ever manages to penetrate those disguises. It’s a convention that some modern readers find off-putting, while others find that it adds a certain period charm. In this novel Allain and Souvestre have their characters assuming so many disguises that one can’t help suspecting that at times they’re being a bit tongue-in-cheek.

The disguises are however vital to the story. It is essential that the relevant authorities should be totally bewildered and it’s essential that even Juve and Fandor should become hopelessly confused. And even Fantômas occasionally gets taken in by disguises assumed by the good guys.

And Fantômas doesn’t just adopt disguises - at times he wears a sinister mask and cloak.

The tone of the novel is one of breathless excitement with an endless succession of unlikely and bizarre events, impossibly narrow escapes and hopeless misunderstandings. Juve and Fandor both manage to get themselves arrested.

There are romantic complications as well. There are several romance sub-plots and naturally the course of true love is beset by endless misunderstandings and deceptions.

The plots of the Fantômas novels are ludicrously contrived. They’re incredibly pulpy. They’re much less sophisticated in a literary sense than Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. The Fantômas novels probably had more influence on the world of comics than on the world of pulp fiction. They were a definite influence on the adult-oriented comics that became popular in Europe in the early 1960s (such as the Italian fumetti Neri comics) and a definite indirect influence on 60s movies such as Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik. You could possibly even argue that they had an indirect influence on the Bond movies, especially as the Bond films moved further and further away from realism.

The Fantômas stories are among the foundational texts of modern pop culture. For that reason it is essential to read at lest a couple of them. And once you get into the swing of them they’re great fun.

I also very highly recommend the 1964 Fantômas movie.

Monday, July 11, 2022

C.L. Moore’s Judgment Night

Judgment Night in the SF Masterworks series includes five longer works by C.L. Moore, including her first full-length SF novel, Judgment Night. It was serialised in the early 40s and published in book form in 1952.

Catherine L. Moore is best remembered for her Jirel of Joiry sword-and-sorcery stories and her Northwest Smith sword-and-planet tales. These stories gained her a considerable reputation in the 1930s.

Judgment Night is typical of her work in its lushness, its extraordinary imaginative inventiveness, its exotic weirdness, its subtle eroticism and its emotional ambiguity.

Juille is a sort of amazon warrior. She is also heiress to the vastest galactic empire in history, an empire that has endured for hundreds of generations. Now the empire faces its greatest threat, and Juille might be the best possible person, or the worst possible person, to meet that threat.

Juille believes that the rebels have to be crushed mercilessly and exterminated. There can be no compromise, no negotiation. Her father hopes for a negotiated peace. Juille hopes for war to the death.

While the war clouds are gathering Juille has a strange interlude on Cyrille. Cyrille is the empire’s pleasure planet. If there is any sensual or erotic pleasure that you can conceive of then it can be satisfied on Cyrille. Cyrille is a world of dreams made real, or reality made into dreams. All is illusion. It’s more or less a virtual reality world devoted to pleasure.

It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a grimly serious amazon princess who has devoted herself to war and duty. But Juille is a woman and she has become aware that there are certain womanly pleasures that she has not experienced. She feels compelled to explore this side of herself. She finds a very handsome young man who is willing to assist her in these explorations. She cannot decide if she admires the young man or despises him. He seems very decadent. She’s also fairly sure that he intends to kill her, but she manages to divert his murderous impulses into much more pleasurable channels. Juille’s feelings about the whole episode are hopelessly muddled, which will have consequences when she meets the young man again under very different circumstances.

Juille has more than confusing emotions to deal with. War has indeed come and has brought with it treachery of various assorted kinds. All loyalties now seem suspect. Alliances are made that seem inevitably destined to end in betrayal.

And Juille will find herself hopelessly caught between reality and illusion, the plaything of the empire’s strange gods, trapped in endless illusions, and torn between love and hate. The fate of the empire rests in her hands, but should she heed the advice of the gods?

The gods are the hundreds of previous emperors, known as the Ancients, who exist in a kind of perpetual half-life. Their powers are vast, they rarely intervene in human affairs, when they do so it’s often to punish rather than reward and their advice is notoriously ambiguous. They’re not gods but they have god-like powers, and they behave with the capriciousness of gods.

Even when still alive the galactic emperors are treated as if they are semi-divine. Juille, as the next in line to the imperial throne, has always taken it for granted that she will be obeyed at all times without question. The empire is based on absolute power. The empire is facing a time of crisis. It will need an empress with strength, determination and courage. No-one has never doubted that Juille possesses those qualities. But the next empress will also need wisdom, coolness, flexibility and subtlety. Juille has trained herself to be a fighting machine and unfortunately has never shown any signs of possessing wisdom, coolness, flexibility and subtlety.

Perhaps that partly explains her sudden urge to visit the pleasure planet. She has spent her whole life repressing her femininity and repressing her natural erotic and emotional desires. She seems to be dimly aware that her personality is dangerously unbalanced. There are things women know about that are a mystery to Juille and she thinks that maybe she needs to understand such mysteries.

Her little dalliance on Cyrille will certainly have consequences. She has learnt how women love, and also how women hate. And how they do both at the same time.

This may have an effect on the decisions she will have to make. That young man, Edige, will have to make decisions as well. A lot of crucial decisions will have to be made. The Ancients are sometimes known to offer advice. But like all oracles their advice is usually dangerously ambiguous. And no-one has ever been sure what the Ancients actually want, or how much they care about the fate of the empire.

This is a pure science fiction novel in the sense that there are no hints of magic or the supernatural. But like all of Moore’s fiction it’s better described as weird fiction or what the French call Le Fantastique. Judgment Night is science fiction but at times with the feel of high fantasy.

It’s an ambitious, complex, subtle novel. And a very very good one. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria

Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria is a collection of sword & sorcery tales from DMR Books. There are five stories by Manly Wade Wellman, all dating from the late 1970s. There are three stories from the late 1930s by Frederick Arnold Kummer Jr. And there’s a single 1941 story by Leigh Brackett. The unifying thread is that all these stories are in some way concerned with the lost worlds of Atlantis or Lemuria.

The Manly Wade Wellman stories features as their hero Kardios, the sole survivor of the disaster that engulfed Atlantis (a disaster he may have unwittingly brought about). He is now a solitary wandering adventurer who is very good at slaying monsters. When you slay a monster the people who were being victimised by the said monster are usually pretty grateful so Kardios manages to survive pretty well.

Straggler from Atlantis introduces the character, washed up on a beach in a strange land. He has been adrift since the destruction of Atlantis. When he wakes up he finds himself face-to-face with a giant. Not just a really big guy, but an actual giant, twice as tall as a man. And there are lots more giants where this one came from.

The giants turn out to be reasonably good-natured. And they need Kardios’s help. There is something that needs to be done and it cannot be done by a giant. It involves a monster. Or a god. Fith could be either. In the world of these 1970s Manly Wade Wellman stories gods and monsters seem to be interchangeable. In any case, whatever Fith is, the giants are really sick of him. That’s why they want Kardios’s help. This is a competent but fairly routine sword & sorcery tale.

The Dweller in the Temple is more interesting. Kardios is just wandering down the road minding his own business when he gets waylaid by a bunch of guys. They don’t want to rob him. They want to crown him as their king. Kardios figures that being a king might be a pretty good gig. Apart from being offered the usual selection of fine wines and good food and fancy clothes he is also to be permitted to choose a girl from among a very luscious assortment presented for his inspection. In fact he can choose two girls if he likes. Kardios is quite happy with the idea of being presented by a lovely female bed partner but his choice strikes his advisers as a trifle eccentric. He chooses a shy servant girl. It proves to be a good choice. Yola is a really sweet girl and once they return to the bedroom she turns out not to be shy after all.

Kardios finds that being a king isn’t hard work and is actually extremely pleasant. Especially with Yola to share his bed.

Of course all this really is too good to be true. There has to be a catch, and there is. Kardios’s monster-slaying skills will be needed after all, and Wellman gives us a fairly cleverly conceived monster in this tale. A pretty good story.

In The Guest from Dzinganji Kardios finds that the road he has been travelling leads nowhere. It ends in a mighty chasm. There is no way across. At least that’s how it seems at first. There is however a way to cross the chasm but Kardios is warned that across the chasm lies Flaal, a city from which no-one was ever returned. Many are lured by the promise of treasure. Kardios is not interested in treasure but he makes the perilous crossing anyway.

Flaal is ruled by Dzinganji. Kardios is informed that nobody ever has to work in Flaal. Every luxury imaginable is provided. All you have to do is to agree to perform one very small service, and you have to agree to submit. Kardios certainly has no intention of doing any such thing. Even the fabulously beautiful Tanda cannot persuade him.

The revelation of the secret behind Dzinganji, and of course there is a secret, is reasonably satisfying. This is a story that gleefully mixes science fiction, fantasy, horror and adventure. A good story.

The Seeker in the Fortress pits Kardios against a powerful wizard. The wizard Tromboll controls the surrounding countryside from his impregnable fortress. The local lord Feothro has grown tired of the wizard’s depredations and is besieging his fortress, but Tromboll is holding Feothro’s fiancée Yann hostage. It seems to be a standoff, until Kardios offers to rescue Yann. It won’t be easy. Tromboll is protected by human guards, monsters and magical powers. A reasonably entertaining story.

The Edge of the World takes Kardios to a city perched on a mountainside. Beyond the mountain there is nothing. It is the edge of the world. At least that’s what the priests tell the people. The queen makes Kardios welcome. Very welcome indeed. But there is a price to be paid for sharing the queen’s bed, and Kardios isn’t keen on paying it. He escapes with the help of a slave girl, but the only way to left to run is up the mountain and that means falling off the edge of the world.

It has to be said that these five Manly Wade Wellman stories have nothing to do with Atlantis. Kardios is just your stock-standard wandering adventurer. But they’re lively and fairly inventive, there’s action and a touch of romance, there are monsters and beautiful but evil queens, there are sinister sorcerers and murderous gods. They’re very decent sword & sorcery tales.

We now move on to the stories by Frederick Arnold Kummer Jr. Adventure in Lemuria appeared in Fantastic Adventures in 1939. Khor is a Cretan and he’s a long way from home when he helps out a young man who’s been set upon by toughs. The young man, Jador, has had his throne usurped by his malevolent half-sister, the witch-queen Lalath. Khor agrees to infiltrate himself into the citadel to open the gate for Jador’s rebel troops. Unfortunately Khor catches the eye of Queen Lalath. She invites Khor to share her bed. He refuses, on account of the fact that he’s getting seriously evil vibes from her, and Lalath takes his rejection rather badly.

So at a time when he should be opening the gate for Jador Khor finds himself about to be sacrificed to the evil god Molech. It’s an entertaining story.

A sequel of sorts, Intrigue in Lemuria, appeared in Fantastic Adventures in 1939. Khor the Wanderer is no longer an ancient Cretan. He is now a 20th century American named Kirk the Wanderer. But by some means which are never explained Kirk seems to be able to transport himself into the world of ancient Lemuria.

In a tavern he encounters a wizard who shows him a vision in a wineglass, a vision of an extraordinarily lovely girl. The next thing he knows he’s waking up in the bedroom of this very girl, but she’s the queen and she’s in a lot of trouble and so is he. He’s been set up to put the queen in a compromising situation.

Volcano Slaves of Mu is great fun with slaves toiling away inside a volcano which is a kind of ancient power generation plant.

The three Kummer stories are energetic and imaginative and generally highly enjoyable stuff. The action is inventive, the villains come up with some truly dastardly plots to dispose of the hero, there’s as much sexiness as you expect in the late 30s.

This brings us to the final tale in the collection, Leigh Brackett’s Lord of the Earthquake, from 1941. Two archaeologists are using a submarine to search for the fabled lost continent of Mu. They find an ancient pyramid and then they’re swept into a kind of cosmic hole. When they emerge the pyramid is no longer submerged beneath the sea.

You’d expect the Leigh Brackett story to be the strongest in the collection and you’d be right. She doesn’t just give us time travel, she gives us time as something that goes in cycles and yet it doesn’t go in cycles, it repeats itself but it doesn’t, you can’t change the past but then again maybe you can. There’s a hero who is flawed but maybe he can still change, there are sacrifices that cannot be avoided, but perhaps they can. Maybe it’s possible to learn to live, and learn to love.

And there’s a genuinely interesting villain with complex motivations. He’s a god. At least he’s pretty sure he’s a god. And since he’s a god he can save the land of Mu. He’s insane and he’s evil but his insanity and his evil are not unreasonable given the circumstances.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of sword-and-sorcery tales. They’re very good second-tier stuff, not in the Robert E. Howard league but still plenty of fun. The Leigh Brackett story on the other hand is absolutely superb and is more than sufficient justification for buying this book.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

D.L. Champion’s Run the Wild River

D.L. Champion’s noir novel Run the Wild River was published by Lion Books in 1952.

Australian-born D’Arcy Lyndon Champion (1902-1968) was raised in New York and served in the British Army in the First World War. He wrote stories for various pulp magazines. Run the Wild River was his only novel.

The hero Ackroyd (if you can call him a hero) has just been thrown out of both El Paso and Juarez on the same day. The throwing out was done by two cops, one Mexican and one Texan. They also relieve him of all his money. They dump him near Guadalupe. Things look a bit grim but or hero is used to that. He’s twenty-eight years old and a small-time crook and a born grifter. He didn’t need to end up this way. He had a good middle-class upbringing but he was disgusted by the prospect of a respectable middle-class life. He figured he’d find a racket that would provide the things that really matter in life, namely money and women. And pretty soon it seems that luck is on his side and he’s found that racket.

The racket is running illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande into Texas. Since his mother was Spanish he speaks the language fluently, which is how he’s lucked into this situation.

It’s a lucrative racket and soon Ackroyd is well established in it. It’s not just an illegal immigration racket. That’s just a part of the operation. There are lots of other things that can be smuggled across the Rio Grande.

Ackroyd does not like the idea of being a mere buck private in this criminal army. He wants to be officer. In fact he wants to be a general. The guy running the whole racket is the guy who’s going to have real money and real power and as many women as he wants. He intends to be that guy.

Ackroyd has the ambition and the ruthlessness and the drive and he’s a fairly smart guy. He is however essentially just a young punk who got lucky. He’s dealing with people who have a lot more experience in running criminal rackets and some of them are smart guys as well. Those guys are not necessarily going to be thrilled about an upstart young punk trying to take over. Ackroyd might not have the experience to deal with seasoned operators. And he’s very confident. Maybe too confident.

He finds himself a pretty Mexican whore named Maria but then Gale Graham comes along. Gale is a beautiful young American who thinks she’s a painter. Ackroyd now wants a woman with real class, not a cheap whore. But Maria is in love with him and she’s likely to cause difficulties.

Ackroyd’s rise has been swift but he intends to rise much higher. HIs problem is that he doesn’t know who the really big guys, the guys controlling the entire operation. If he wants to get to the top he first has to find out the identity of the people who are currently at the top. That proves to be quite a challenge.

There were a lot of excellent noir novels published in the 50s but there was a weakness that afflicted some of them. The authors would go overboard with the noirness. If you have a protagonist with no redeeming qualities at all, someone who is corrupt and vicious all the way through, the reader can find it difficult to care abut that protagonist’s fate. If the noir atmosphere is overdone a book might have no characters who are not corrupt and vicious all the way through, and therefore no characters about whom it is possible to care. That’s a definite problem with this novel. Ackroyd does not do a single decent thing in the course of the entire story.

A more minor weakness to this book is Champion’s over-fondness for foreshadowing. We can figure out for ourselves that Ackroyd’s over-confidence will land him in trouble and we don’t need to be told this, but we are told, and told too often.

However, having said these things, if you like your noir fiction good and sleazy and hardboiled and grimy, if you like a book in which you can smell the cheap liquor, the cheap perfume and the sweat, then you’ll be delighted by this one. Champion’s prose is solid and the plot is nicely put together.

Run the Wild River is recommended to fans of noir fiction who like their fiction very noir indeed.

Stark House Noir have reprinted Run the Wild River in a paperback edition with two other crime thrillers, Kermit Jaediker’s Tall, Dark and Dead (which I reviewed here recently) and Frederick Lorenz’s excellent The Savage Chase.