pulp novels, trash fiction, detective stories, adventure tales, spy fiction, etc from the 19th century up to the 1970s
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Guido Crepax - Evil Spells
Guido Crepax (1933-2003) was an Italian comics artist. I have never been a fan of comics in general but I do make an exception for European comics, especially European comics of the 1960s and 70s. They’re aimed very much at adults and they’re often very erotic. They’re also stylish and sophisticated in a way that distinguishes them from American comics. And they often contain hefty does of weirdness and surrealism. So basically they tick all my boxes.
They’re also unfortunately very very difficult to get hold of in English translations, which means that sadly my exposure to them has been severely limited. The Italian crime and horror fumetti of the 60s are almost impossible to find in English-friendly versions.
The good news is that Fantagraphics have published most of Crepax’s work, in English translations, in a series of beautifully presented hardcover editions. The bad news is that they’re going out of print at a frightening pace.
Crepax started writing comics as a child and by the beginning of the 60s he was already starting to establish his reputation. That reputation had really taken off by the end of the 60s.
European comics tended towards eroticism, sometimes mixed with horror. Crepax’s comics were very erotic and occasionally included elements of horror but his work bore no resemblance to the popular sex and horror comics of the Italian fumetti genre. With Crepax you get a very positive vied of eroticism, including a very positive view of female sexuality, combined with elements of artiness, surrealism and just general weirdness.
Sadly the positive view he took of female sexuality did not protect him from the ire of feminist puritans.
Evil Spells includes his best-known work, the Baba Yaga cycle. This details the epic struggle between Crepax’s most famous heroine, Valentina, and the witch Baba Yaga. Valentina is a sexy glamorous photographer who manages to get herself involved in all kinds of adventures. Making her a photographer was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s, the decade of the photographer as superstar. The Baba Yaga cycle gets seriously weird but it’s delirious and intoxicating.
This volume also contains several of Crepax’s literary adaptations. His choice of works to adapt was sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising and eccentric. Spread over a period of twenty years he adapted the three famous detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Adapting Poe was no great surprise, but choosing his detective stories was odd. They’re obviously quite plot-driven, which doesn’t really suit Crepax’s free-wheeling style. His attempts to inject some eroticism into the stories don’t quite work.
Much much more successful is his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s mix of gothic horror and science fiction is perfect for Crepax’s purposes. And in this case the injection of very strong erotic elements works superbly. The erotic elements are implied in Stevenson’s novella. Dr Jekyll’s attempt to separate the two halves of his personality is clearly his way of dealing with his sexual urges with which he is uncomfortable. They don’t fit well with his very respectable image as a doctor and a scientist. This is, as I say, mostly implied in the novella. Crepax makes it explicit. In fact he makes it the core of the story. It works. And it gives Crepax the chance to indulge fully in his talent for depicting outré forms of eroticism.
Crepax’s adaptation of the 1898 Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw is even better. It was clearly a story dealing with sexual repression, but dealing with the subject in a very repressed late Victorian way. Crepax moves the action to the 1920s, offering the opportunity for some exquisite Art Deco images. And Crepax confronts the element of sexual repression head on.
Guido Crepax revolutionised comics, not just thematically but stylistically. If you like the idea of comic books for grown-ups and you’re OK with lots of eroticism then he’s definitely your guy. Very highly recommended.
One other European comic that is available in English is Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella and if you haven’t read it, buy a copy right now. It’s simply wonderful.
Sunday, November 27, 2022
James Eastwood’s Come Die With Me
I know pretty much zero about James Eastwood. I believe he was born in 1918 and I’m moderately sure he was English. There was a film and TV scriptwriter named James Eastwood who produced scripts for some very interesting movies (Devil Girl from Mars, Urge To Kill, The Counterfeit Plan) but I’m not even sure it’s the same James Eastwood. The dates seem to line up. It’s also interesting that the scriptwriter seems to have stopped writing scripts in 1966 and the novelist wrote the last Anna Zordan book in 1969. He may have died or given up writing at the end of the 60s. The fact that one of the key characters in this novel is a TV scriptwriter would seem to be the final piece of evidence suggesting that the two writers were one and the same man.
I approached Come Die With Me not knowing what to expect. I just knew it was about a glamorous lady spy so of course I had to buy it. She might have turned out to be a slightly sexy spy in the Modesty Blaise mould, or the book might have turned out to be a sex-drenched spy fiction/sleaze fiction hybrid like the Lady From L.U.S.T. series.
Come Die With Me is set in Britain and the nation is facing a crisis. Civil unrest, riots, industrial sabotage, that sort of thing. Then the Prime Minister is assassinated and it becomes fairly obvious that there’s some sort of conspiracy at work.
The odd thing is that not long before these events a TV production company was planning a thirteen-episode serial dealing with similar events. The government refused to allow the serial to be produced. The parallels between the events in the TV scripts and the real-life events seem a bit too striking to be coincidental. The British counter-espionage service is keen to have a quiet word with the scriptwriter (a chap named Sandy McTaggart). But he’s vanished. He’s left the country.
Sarratt is the British counter-intelligence chief who is going to have to find that missing scriptwriter. Somehow McTaggart will have to be persuaded to return to Britain. It’s obviously a job for a woman - if you want to persuade a man to do something he doesn’t want to do then the lure of sex is usually the nest bait. Sarratt has just the right woman in mind for the job. Anna Zordan. If the lure of sex with Anna doesn’t work then McTaggart is just not human.
And then he wants to marry her.
She figures that this guy has a few problems. Problems with women, problems with sex. It occurs to her that he might be kinky. That doesn’t bother her. Anna is a broadminded girl. Very broadminded.
Before being assigned to this latest case Anna had been tracking a man named Hartley, a young British sales whizz kid of doubtful loyalty. And in the course of the McTaggart case Hartley turns up. It could be a coincidence but it probably isn’t.
Anna ends up getting involved emotionally with McTaggart. They end up on a tiny Mediterranean island. There’s another woman involved. Her name is Gloria and she’s one dangerous female. There’s a diabolical criminal mastermind as well. There’s action on land, at sea and under the sea. The violence is low-key but there’s a fair amount of it.
There’s quite a bit of sex. It’s not even moderately explicit but it is perverse. There’s psychological and emotional perversity as well. The story does in fact have a number of interesting emotional twists and emotional conflicts. Sexual conflicts are also important drivers of the plot. This is a sexy spy story in which the sex is not just something thrown in to spice things up.
Anna is a glamorous and efficient spy, apart from a tendency on occasions to let her emotions get the upper hand. She’s a trained killer and she’s more than willing to kill but she’s not especially ruthless. Killing is just a necessary part of the job. She doesn’t derive any pleasure from it.
Sex is also a necessary part of the job but that’s something Anna really does enjoy. She enjoys sex whether she’s doing it for professional reasons or for purely recreational purposes. And she’s very very good at it.
The plot, with fiction being turned into reality, is quite clever. The characters are quirky and perverse. Eastwood’s prose is very serviceable. The book certainly belongs in the lighthearted action/adventure spy story sub-genre rather than the gritty realistic sub-genre.
All in all this is a very decent spy thriller and it’s highly recommended.
Posted by dfordoom at 5:30 PM 1 comment:
Labels: 1960s, spy, spy fiction
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard
Solomon Kane considers himself to be a Puritan but he’s not quite what you might think of when you hear the word. He is a man with a very high sense of duty and he can be ruthless. He’s a man driven by conscience. He is however prepared to entertain the possibility that sometimes duty is complicated and sometimes it ends up feeling like the wrong thing to do. He is a man who understands moral complexity. And it’s something he worries about a lot.
Kane is a hard man but he’s as hard on himself as he is on others and he detests cruelty. He particularly detests people who try to find spurious moral justifications for cruelty and injustice.
This is Robert E. Howard, a man some would dismiss as a mere pulp writer, creating a fascinatingly complex character capable of a degree of self-doubt and self-analysis.
Solomon Kane sees himself as an agent of God, as God’s avenger. His mission in life is to destroy evil men. He is a fanatic, but unlike most fanatics he possesses a capacity for kindness.
One of the things I like about Solomon Kane is that he’s not Conan in 17th century garb. He’s a very different kind of character. He’s more serious-minded, a bit more introspective, and he has a strong sense of moral purpose.
These stories sometimes involve the supernatural, and sometimes not.
In Skulls in the Stars Kane is on his way to Torkertown. He is warned to take the swamp road rather than the much shorter much easier road across the moor. Danger and death lurk on the moor road. Naturally Kane takes the moor road.
And he encounters something uncanny and terrifying. Can an emotion be made flesh? Perhaps some emotions can. Emotions like hate. Kane finds an answer to the danger but it makes him uneasy. Good story.
The Right Hand of Doom is a neat little tale of a necromancer who promises to exact revenge on the man who betrayed him. A story in which Kane wants to see justice done but in which he recognises that justice can be used as an excuse for mere revenge, or hate, or cruelty. A solid story.
Red Shadows (originally titled Solomon Kane) is a novelette. Kane encounters a dying girl. She had been raped and brutalised. Kane has never set eyes on this girl before but now he has appointed himself her avenger. Avenging her will take Kane across the seas and all the way to Africa where he will encounter some formidable magic. Interesting that the African voodoo witch-doctor/black magician N’Longa turns out to be one of the good guys. Howard gives this novelette a certain epic quality - Kane doesn’t care if it takes him years and he has to visit every corner of the globe. He has promised vengeance and he keeps his promises. N’Longa also gives Kane a wooden stuff. It is fabulously old, made of an unknown wood, with magical powers. That staff will crop up in later Solomon Kane stories. Great story.
Rattle of Bones begins with Kane and a Frenchman he has met on the road through the forest taking a room at an inn. It is the Cleft Skull Inn and it looks as inviting as its name suggests. I can’t tell you much more without revealing spoilers except that Solomon Kane will not get much sleep this night. And it’s a revenge story with a twist. Good story.
The novella The Moon of Skulls takes Kane back to Africa. It is the last stage in an epic quest that has taken years. Kane is searching for an English girl kidnapped by slavers. He has reached the fabled kingdom of Negari, ruled by the dreaded black queen Nakari.
Kane will be offered immense power and will be tempted, although only for a moment.
Kane will be captured, he will witness scenes of torture and depravity and he will inflame the lusts of Queen Nakari.
There’s action aplenty, there are chases through secret passageways, there are horrific secrets to be revealed. A splendid tale of adventure.
The Blue Flame of Vengeance begins with a duel. A young man named Jack Hollinster has challenged Sir George Banway, a nobleman with an evil reputation. The duel ends inconclusively but indirectly it leads to a meeting between Jack and Solomon Kane. Kane is out for revenge as well but Sir George is not his target. Kane has been pursuing the notorious pirate Jonas Hardraker.
Jack’s lady love is kidnapped so Kane will have to rescue her as well as settling his account with Hardraker.
Plenty of action in this tale and a second duel, this time with knives. A fine story.
The Hills of the Dead takes Kane back to Africa, but he can’t explain why. He has no mission to fulfil. He is simply drawn to the place. An encounter with a frightened young African girl named Junna will however present him with a mission. Her tribe is being menaced by the dead. They are the dead of a vanished tribe and they are vampires of a sort. Junna’s tribe lives in terror. Ridding the land of these vampire-like creatures is task worthy of Solomon Kane.
It is however a task that is beyond him. Kane fears no living man but these walking dead are impervious to both sword and pistol. Kane reluctantly comes to the conclusion that magic must be fought with magic. He knows nothing of magic, but N’Longa knows a great deal. N’Longa is a mighty ju-ju man. He is also, as a result of the events recounted in Red Shadows, Kane’s blood brother. N’Longa might have the magic necessary. And while Kane abhors magic he knows that N’Longa is a good magician.
This is unequivocally a tale of the supernatural and a full-blown horror story. And a very very good one.
Wings in the Night is a very dark story, even for Robert E.Howard. Kane is in Africa, being pursued by cannibals. He comes across a village that has been ravaged and devastated and he finds unspeakable horrors. Flying creatures like men with wings, vicious and bloodthirsty.
He takes refuge in a village where the priest tells him of the full horrors of the bird-men.
The tribe sees Kane as a god who will deliver them from the evil of the bird-men. That’s what Kane fully intends to do but his fine resolutions lead to further horrors and to madness. A great story.
The Footfalls Within is a very simple tale. Kane is tramping through the jungle in Africa. He sees a party of Arab slavers driving a group of African slaves. The slavers are just about to commit an unspeakable act of cruelty towards a young girl. There are fifteen Arabs accompanied by seventy armed African guards. The odds against Kane are impossible. Kane attacks anyway and is captured.
The slavers, dragging Kane along with them bound and tied, find an ancient mausoleum. Kane knows that opening the mausoleum would be a mistake - he can hear footfalls within the tomb although nobody else hears them. It turns out that opening that mausoleum is a very big mistake indeed. Probably the weakest Solomon Kane story but still at least moderately creepy.
The weaker stories in this collection are still very good. The better stories are superb, Robert E. Howard at his best. And the better stories outnumber the weaker ones by a comfortable margin.
These tales are definitely sword-and-sorcery but being set in the 17th century and more often than not in Africa give them a unique feel. Very highly recommended.
Saturday, November 19, 2022
Bill S. Ballinger's Portrait in Smoke
This novel uses a technique that Ballinger would use again and again - split narration. There are two parallel narratives, one written in the first person and one in the third person. Both narratives concern a young woman named Krassy Almauniski.
Danny April tells his own story, the story of an obsession with a woman. Danny owns a small downmarket collection agency. He bought it from a broken-down alcoholic named Clarence Moon. Moon has left the files in a state of chaos. While trying to get those files into some semblance of order Danny comes cross a photograph of a seventeen-year-old beauty contest winner, Krassy Almauniski. He decides that Krassy is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He quickly becomes obsessed. He knows nothing about her except that she won a beauty contest run by a third-rate newspaper and she once owed a lot of money which was suddenly, inexplicably, paid in full.
Since Danny is in the debt collection business he knows how to find people, even people who don’t want to be found. He will find Krassy. Then he will marry her. She would be around twenty-seven by now but he has no doubt she is as beautiful as ever. Danny, as you might have guessed, doesn’t have much experience with women. He also has a tenuous grasp on reality.
Intercut with Danny’s story is a third-person narrative that tells us the actual story of Krassy’s life. Raised in poverty and misery in the Stockyards district of Chicago Krassy is a girl on the make. She figured out very early on that if she was going to have the life she wanted, a life of luxury and ease, she would have to get it through men. She also figured out that her beauty would make this easy. All she needed was a start. The beauty contest gave her that start, and that was the first time she ruthlessly used a man and then discarded him. It wouldn’t be the last time. Krassy hates sex but she knows it’s the one essential weapon in her arsenal. Krassy will learn to like sex but she never forgets how useful it can be.
Danny proves to be quite a competent detective. He has very few leads to go on but he has determination and he knows the tricks people use when they don’t want to be found. Slowly he pieces together the details of Krassy’s life over the past ten years. He finds the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but he puts them together to make a picture of Krassy that is ludicrously wildly inaccurate. He views the clues through the learns of his hopeless romantic obsession. He knows that Krassy isn’t just beautiful, she’s a really nice girl. He finds out things about her that make him admire her even more.
Krassy is one of the most horrifyingly ruthless ambitious women in fiction. She focuses on her ambitions with laser sharpness. She allows nothing to get in her way. She leaves a trail of heartbreak and desolation behind her. She destroys lives with no compunction whatsoever. But Danny doesn’t know any of this.
Danny isn’t totally stupid. He knows that he’s creating a portrait of Krassy made of smoke.
Danny isn’t really a bad guy. He is obsessed with Krassy to the point of madness and he lives on delusions but there’s no malice in him. He’s basically a decent honest guy. The way he makes his living, as a debt collector, is a bit unsavoury but Danny never did have any good options in life. He still does his best to treat people as decently as he can. He is quite generous. He’s not the least bit violent.
Krassy is unscrupulous and amoral but while we can’t possibly condone her actions we can to some extent understand them. Her childhood was appalling and she had nothing to look forward to other than a life of desperation, struggle and misery. Her only way out was to use her body. Maybe if she’d been born into a prosperous family in a nice neighbourhood with real prospects for the future she might have turned out to be the nice girl of Danny’s fantasies.
The split narration technique works superbly. It’s like viewing a picture from one angle and then looking at it from another angle and finding that it becomes a totally different picture.
There are other very clever things about the way Ballinger structures this novel but to even hint at what they are would be to risk spoilers, which I have no intention of doing.
This is a crime novel, although mostly it doesn’t seem to be. It also definitely qualifies as noir fiction, with a few real gut punches
A superb novel. Very highly recommended.
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Charles F. Meyers' No Time for Toffee
The hero of the novel is advertising guru Marc Pillsworth. He’s been shot and is possibly dying. That’s bad news for the High Council. It means that George Pillsworth will be returning to Earth. George Pillsworth is a kind of ghost. He’s the spiritual emanation of Marc Pillsworth. George of course looks exactly like Marc. George can’t stay on Earth permanently until Marc is dead. This annoys him because there are so many things he likes about Earth. There are so many opportunities for dishonesty. There’s good booze. And of course there are women. For a spiritual entity George’s nature may seem to be not very spiritual.
As for Toffee, she’s a smokin’ hot redhead. She’d be the ideal woman if only she actually existed. But she doesn’t. Or maybe she does.
Marc’s immediate problem is that he’s going to have emergency surgery performed on him. The doctors don’t know it but the surgery will certainly kill him. Marc knows this because Toffee told him.
We then get a zany frenetic parade of craziness as Marc tries to avoid the surgeon’s knife, Toffee tries out her new dematerialisation gadget on him, Marc and Toffee try to keep George under control and a crooked congressman tries to have Marc murdered.
This is not science fiction but I guess it qualifies as a comic fantasy novel. The problem with comic novels is that the authors sometimes try too hard for zaniness and this is at times a problem here. It does however have some amusing moments and some moments of inspired lunacy.
It also has some fairly clever ideas. George Pillsworth is a ghost but he’s a totally different and original kind of ghost. He also has the ability to assume genuinely corporeal form. At least he’s corporeal enough to drink whiskey and apparently have physical relations with women. He’s definitely not your everyday ghost.
Toffee is a figment of Marc’s imagination but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist. Marc can see her and when she takes on corporeal form other people can see her. When she slugs a bad guy with a whiskey bottle he reacts the way a guy would react if he had been slugged with a whiskey bottle. She can drive a car. She also drinks whiskey (with some enthusiasm). She’s a flesh-and-blood woman but she isn’t real. It’s a cute idea.
By 1952 standards this would also qualify as a slightly risqué tale. There’s some definite sexual humour. Toffee might or might not be real but she’s certainly sexy. She wears very little clothing. In fact her idea of getting dressed for the day is to slip on nothing but an almost transparent négligée and then she’s ready to face the world.
As a character Toffee has a certain charm. She’s cute and feisty and she’s fun when she’s got a few drinks in her.
Whether you’ll enjoy this book or not depends on how you feel about zany screwball humour. If that’s your thing you’ll probably like the book, if it’s not your thing you may find it irritating.
No Time for Toffee is definitely an oddball novel. If you enjoy humorous science fiction/fantasy romps and you’re in the mood for something very light indeed you might enjoy this one.
Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Kris Neville’s Special Delivery in one of their two-novel paperback editions.
Posted by dfordoom at 9:35 AM 2 comments:
Labels: 1950s, fantasy, humour, M, science fiction
Sunday, November 13, 2022
John Cleve's Master of Misfit (Spaceways #5)
These books were credited to John Cleve, a pseudonym used by American science fiction writer Andrew J. Offutt (1934-2013). He wrote under a dozen or so different pseudonyms. To confuse things somewhat the name John Cleve was used by other writers. It’s possible that some of the Spaceways books may have been collaborations.
Like most sleaze fiction these books have either been ignored or regarded with a sneer. And science fiction fans are often quite disapproving of the idea of injecting sex into their favourite genre. But like so much American sleaze fiction of the period from the 50s to the 80s they were written by a guy who wrote “legitimate” science fiction as well as sleaze. And the other book in this series that I’ve read, Purrfect Plunder, was a rather pleasant surprise.
Master of Misfit opens with a bit of a cyberpunk vibe. Cyberpunk was just starting to make waves in the science fiction genre in 1982. The movie Blade Runner came out that year, William Gibson had had his first cyberpunk story published, Bruce Sterling’s first stories set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe had appeared. The cyberpunk ethos was already in the air.
Dorjan is a thief. Dorjan is one of his names. He has many others. He’s a very successful thief and pirate. He’s not quite human. He spent some time as the slave/pet/personal stud of the very wealthy and very powerful Murrah an Rahmyne. It amused her to have certain modifications made to her slave’s body. Some were intended to enhance his performance as her personal stud but others were intended simply to amuse her. Dorjan has retractable razor-sharp claws, he has 360 degree vision and he has lightweight but extremely powerful wings which can be neatly and unobtrusively folded when not in use. Dorjan is the captain of the pirate spacecraft Misfit and other members of his crew have also been enhanced by genetic and biomechanical means.
All of which, when combined with a universe in which high-tech crime and space piracy both thrive, certainly qualify this novel as proto-cyberpunk if not an early example of full-fledged cyberpunk.
Dorjan is out to steal the Heart of the Universe. This is a fabulously valuable necklace of gold inlaid with firegems, firegems being (literally) living gems. Stealing this jewel is impossible, or would be impossible for an ordinary Galactic (as the descendants of the humans from Earth who colonised this corner of the galaxy are known). But Dorjan is much more than human.
It’s not just a matter of stealing the necklace. Dorjan and his crew have to make a safe getaway from the planet Panish.
We’re also introduced very early on to Coppertop. She has had many names also, and an adventurous life. She has been a slave and a whore but now she’s the very rich widow of a very rich man. She is now known as Lizina Harish. She loved her husband very much and she mourned his passing sincerely but now two months have elapsed and for those two months Lizina has not had a man. She’s practically crawling the walls as a result. Tonight she is most definitely going to have a man. She has one picked out. He seems to be rich and very good-looking. She’s more than willing to accept his invitation to spend the night at his penthouse. Instead of getting a night of passion she gets kidnapped by slavers, and subjected to exquisite tortures (after she’s been raped).
The two plot strands intersect when Dorjan realises that the gorgeous woman he couldn’t help noticing is a slave. He knows she’s a slave because his First Mate has an unusual talent. He has a kind of limited psychic ability. He just knows when someone is a slave, even when they don’t appear to be.
Dorjan and his crew are thieves and pirates but they draw the line at slavery. Most of them, including Dorjan, have been slaves themselves. They have an intense dislike of slavers, and they are always willing to take a break from thieving to rescue a slave.
Dorjan and his crew have another agenda. At one point in their wanderings through the galaxy they discovered an asteroid that had been turned into a spacious habitat capable of housing several thousand people. Since the asteroid had been abandoned they claimed it. They intend to establish their own tiny independent community there, a haven for escaped slaves.
There are going to be complications. Coppertop belongs to Ganessa. Ganessa operates the finest mobile whorehouse in the galaxy. Coppertop was to be a star attraction. Ganessa is not a woman who takes kindly to having her possessions stolen from her, and she paid good money for Coppertop.
There are plenty of adventures to come, plenty of action, more thieving and lots of sex. Including sex with aliens. Dorjan has discovered a new species of intelligent alien. She’s incredibly cute, incredibly female and there’s nothing in the universe she likes more than having sex. And she’s totally sexually compatible with humans. There’s also some much weirder alien sex but there’s lots of god old-fashioned regular sex as well.
The secret of combining sleaze fiction with other genres such as science fiction is to integrate the sex fully into the plot. In this case the author does that very successfully, since the plot mostly revolves around prostitution and sex slavery, but with a definite science fictional flavour.
The sex is reasonably graphic.
Master of Misfit is fast-paced, action-packed and very sleazy. The cyberpunk feel is very marked (and handled in a fairly effective way). I suppose you could call this book sleazepunk. Whatever you decide to call it it’s entertaining and it’s highly recommended.
I also recommend the next book in the series, Purrfect Plunder (which features a particularly interesting alien species).
Thursday, November 10, 2022
Alistair MacLean’s The Last Frontier
There are also a couple of interesting aspects to this novel which I’ll get to later.
You know you’re in MacLean country from the first page - the hero is surrounded by a vast expanse of snow and ice and MacLean makes sure the reader feels the cold as well. It’s not the last time in the book that you’ll feel the cold seeping into your bones.
Michael Reynolds is a British spy and he’s behind the Iron Curtain and he’s cold and he’s being hunted. He’s spent months training for a very important mission and this is the first day and it’s all gone badly wrong. He expected the road-block just outside Budapest but he hadn’t expected the second road-block. Pretty soon he’s in the hands of the Hungarian secret police, the dreaded AVO. There’s no escape.
Then the first plot twist kicks in.
Reynolds’ job is to bring a British scientist back from Budapest. The scientist has no desire to return to the West but the British secret service will use whatever means necessary to persuade him to come. They’re hoping that lies, deception and emotional manipulation will work but it’s clear they’re prepared to resort to more drastic measures.
This is one of the interesting aspects I alluded to earlier. In this novel the British are the good guys but they’re as ruthless, dishonest and cynical as the communists. The novel even floats the suggestion that it was the West that was responsible for the Cold War in the first place. These thoughts are expressed by the courageous Hungarian freedom fighter Jansci who is in fact the most noble and sympathetic character in the book. Jansci takes an instant dislike to Michael Reynolds. Reynolds is everything he despises - a man without honour, without scruples, without emotions. A man of blood. And Reynolds is the novel’s hero. We’re getting close to John le Carre-Len Deighton levels of cynicism and darkness here.
There’s also some political messaging but it’s not at all what you expect in a Cold War spy thriller. It’s all about the futility of war and violence and the desirability of peace, non-violence and peaceful co-existence between the West and the communist world. Very unexpected for 1959, and any kind of messaging comes as a surprise in an Alistair MacLean novel. Usually I detest this kind of messaging but I can’t say it bothered me in this book.
What we do expect in a MacLean are devious plot twists, relentless action and suspense and this novel delivers on all these counts. The plot is excellent. Reynolds makes mistake, all the heroic characters in the book make mistakes and all the villains make mistakes as well. Every time Reynolds thinks that this time he’s got it figured out and he’s not going to make another error everything goes horribly wrong again. He seems to keep running into brick walls but he’s been trained never to give up so he just picks himself up and has another try.
There’s a fair amount of violence and there are extended torture scenes but again MacLean surprises us. These are non-violent tortures by means of drugs intended not just to break down the victim’s resistance but to leave him nothing more than an empty shell. There’s no need to kill him afterwards because his personality will have been entirely destroyed. It’s much more horrifying than the conventional torture scenes that the average thriller writer would rely on.
Yet another surprise is the real emotional depth of the hero. We’re talking major character development here. By the end of the book the Michael Reynolds to whom we are introduced at the beginning has ceased to exist, not because his personality has been destroyed by torture but because all his prejudices and illusions and cherished beliefs have been exposed as wrong-headed and devoid of meaning. When a man has to abandon all the codes and values by which he has lived he really has to re-assemble his personality from scratch and that’s the challenge that Michael Reynolds faces.
MacLean did at times offer us damaged or flawed heroes (Fear Is the Key being an example) so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the complexity of the hero of The Last Frontier.
There are still the usual spy fiction themes of loyalty and betrayal, but they’re handled in a complex way.
MacLean’s plots were so good and he was such a master of action and suspense that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he could write some pretty gritty hard-edged prose when he had a mind to.
The Last Frontier is a slightly unconventional but very effective and very entertaining spy thriller. It has a slightly different feel compared to the novels he would write in the 1960s but it’s still highly recommended. In fact it’s thematically interesting enough to qualify for a very highly recommended rating.
I've reviewed the movie version, The Secret Ways (1961), on Classic Movie Ramblings.
Monday, November 7, 2022
W. Wirt’s When Tigers Are Hunting
W. Wirt was American and born in 1876 but apart from that not much is known about him. He claimed to have been a Federal agent and to have had various adventures in far-flung places but that was in a bio he provided for a pulp magazine so there’s no way of knowing how much of it was true.
These stories are at the very very pulpy end of the pulp fiction spectrum.
These are pure action stories with very little plot. Each story begins with the heroes in the midst of an epic fight and the fighting rages on until the story ends. The heroes always run short of ammunition and have to resort to hand-to-hand combat. They always kill hundreds if not thousands of bad guys.
Whether you’ll enjoy these stories or not depends on what you want from your pulp fiction. If you just want non-stop action without any real rhyme or reason you’ll be content. If you want interesting stories, genuine thrills and suspense, real atmosphere and the occasional surprise you’ll be disappointed. These stories are about as basic as pulp fiction gets.
You definitely don’t want to read several of thee stories in one sitting because they’ll start to blend into one another. It’s essentially the same story every time.
He’s a Good Little Guy at That appeared in Frontier Stories in May 1928. Jimmie Cordie is one of four soldiers of fortune seeking treasure in Malaya. Actually to call them soldiers of fortune or adventurers would be rather generous. They’re murderous thieves. They’re after the treasure of a local snake god and if they have to machine gun a few hundred Malays to get it that doesn’t bother them one bit. They seem to enjoy killing.
Although these are described as the Jimmie Cordie stories he doesn’t seem to be the the leader of this band of thieves. Red Dolan seems to be the leader, although at times Grigsby seems to give orders. Putney just obeys orders.
They’ve come well equipped for treasure hunting - they have a machine gun, lots of rifles and automatics and a large supply of hand grenades.
Amidst all the carnage they create they come across a twelve-year-old English girl held captive by the tribesmen. And suddenly these cut-throats (Red Dolan in particular) turn into a bunch of sentimental softies. Now nothing matters except to save the little girl. It’s a weird little story, mixing extraordinary amounts of violence and brutality with amazingly soppy sentimentality.
The Major Wanted Him Alive appeared in Frontier Stories in June 1928. Cordie and pals are now, temporarily, Federal agents. Their job is to clean up a smuggling ring. Cordie goes undercover a stir-crazy cook. There’s lots of mayhem.
According to My Size and Disposition appeared in the October 1928 issue of Frontier Stories. This time Cordie and his friends are in China, caught in a struggle between rival warlords. And there’s something about a mining concession. There’s a lot of shooting but no actual plot.
Private Property was published in Short Stories in October 1928. Again there’s action aplenty and there’s a girl who needs rescuing although perhaps rescuing her isn’t such a good idea.
In The Jewel in the Lotus (from Short Stories, November 1928) Cordie and his pals are after a fabulous ruby when they get caught in a vicious struggle between rival Chinese factions. The priests always seem to be the bad guys in these stories and Cordie and his friends are once again fighting to save a brave young girl. They find that the jewel isn’t what they thought it was. A better story.
In When Tigers Are Hunting (from Frontier Stories, November 1928) the boys meet up again with the little English girl they rescued in He’s a Good Little Guy at That. She’s now eighteen and her father has been kidnapped. Jimmie has by now established a connection with a tong - he saved the life of the tong leader’s son. This provides him with very useful sources of intelligence.
As usual the bad guys fire thousands of rounds at our heroes and miss evert time, while the good guys never miss. They kill a few thousand Chinese and rescue the girl’s father.
That Fish Thing was published in Frontier Stories in January 1929. The fish thing is an amulet, Red Dolan has it and a tong will stop at nothing to get it back. Lots of mayhem again.
Right Smack at You! Is from Frontier Stories, April 1929. It’s a longer more ambitious story (more of a novelette) about the search for the treasure in the tomb of Genghis Khan’s son. It’s still basically non-stop action scenes but with a bit more of a plot.
These stories are not quite what I look for in pulp adventure fiction set in exotic locales. I prefer a bit more weirdness, a bit more intrigue, more romance, more of the mystery and strangeness of the exotic. If you share my tastes you probably won’t go for this collection.
But if you like relentless action with millions of rounds of small arms ammunition being expended and a few explosions as well you might find these tales to be just what you’re looking for. We all have our own tastes in pulp fiction and I’m not going to try to persuade you that my tastes in pulp are the only valid tastes.
With these thoughts in mind you’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to try When Tigers Are Hunting.
Friday, November 4, 2022
Robert Martin's Little Sister
It opens in classic private eye novel style. A PI named Brice (who narrates the tale) arrives at Vivian Prosper’s house. She wants to hire him. Two things are immediately obvious. Firstly, these people are seriously rich. Secondly, Vivian Prosper is the most gorgeous hunk of woman Brice has ever laid eyes on. Vivian is worried about her seventeen-year-old sister Linda. Vivian wants to stop Linda from marrying. Or rather, she wants to hire Brice to find a way to prevent the marriage. It’s a dirty job but Brice is happy to do it.
There are however complications. Such as the dead guy in the trunk of Linda’s car. He’s not just dead, he’s been murdered. Linda arrived home very drunk, which was not unusual, but Brice could see that she wasn’t just drunk. She had been drugged.
Vivian had hoped to get rid of the body to avoid any unpleasantness with the police but the police become involved when a doctor has to be called. The doctor has to be called because Linda’s drug overdose almost proves fatal. Vivian still wants to hire Brice, but now she wants to hire him to prove that Linda had no connection with the murder.
And then somebody drugs Brice.
Brice has a few leads, but one of them leads to another corpse.
There are a number of possible motives. The Prospers’ financial situation is complex and there’s a lot of money involved and murder would be a convenient way for some family members to get their hands on that money. Non-family members might also benefit financially from a well-timed murder.
Then there’s jealousy. Vivian is jealous of Linda, and Linda is jealous of Vivian but for different reasons. And men are a major problem for both Prosper women.
There’s a moderately hardboiled ambience to the story. There’s also some humour. There is a very funny scene in which a woman from whom Brice is trying to get information gets very very excited by the fact that she’s talking to a real private eye, just like in the movies. She practically begs him to seduce her.
There’s also some startling and unexpected cynicism. Brice is a fictional PI who is basically a decent regular guy and basically law-abiding, he’s no thug, but he’s also rather lacking in a sensitive side. He’s not quite your stereotypical tough guy with a warm sensitive caring side.
As for sex, he’s not an outrageous womaniser but if sex is on offer he’ll take it.
The plot is pretty sound, with lots of suspects all of whom seem quite capable of being the killer. The climax, with the killer giving a long confession which fills in all the blank spots in the plot, is maybe a bit contrived but this was a technique that was quite common in traditional puzzle-plot mysteries and this book is structurally closer to the puzzle-plot mystery genre than to the typical American private eye thriller.
There’s certainly plenty of tension in the closing pages. It really does seem like the killer holds all the cards and must triumph. And of course in the noir private eye genre you can never be sure if you’re going to get a downbeat ending or a happy ending. This is a story which could end either way.
It might be a bit of a stretch to describe this book as noir fiction but it does have two femmes fatales. They’re both very sexy and very dangerous and either might well be capable of killing. And they’re both ambiguous enough that they could equally plausibly turn out to be guilty or innocent.
There’s nothing especially to mark this out as a great private eye thriller but it’s very competently executed and it’s a very entertaining read. Recommended.
Little Sister has been reprinted by Stark House under their Black Gat Books imprint.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Robert Tralins The Cosmozoids
Sandor Robert Tralins (1926-2010) was an American writer of over 250 pulp fiction and science fiction books, published under a number of pseudonyms.
Major James W. Keith is an American astronaut and a national hero but he’s now been forced take an extended leave. The Space Agency is worried about him. He’s been a bit strange since his last trip into space. He’s been having strange dreams and he claims to be able to predict the future. What worries them is that it appears that he can really can predict the future. If they knew he could read minds as well they’d be even more worried.
The Agency wants noted parapsychologist Dr Burr to figure out exactly what is going on with Major Keith, and if possible to find out why.
Remember that this was 1966. Extrasensory perception and similar paranormal topics were all the rage. And the study of paranormal phenomena was still considered to be marginally scientifically respectable. The C.I.A. believed in this sort of stuff. In 1966 The Cosmozoids was very topical and would not have seemed anywhere near as far-fetched as it seems today.
Major Keith and his fiancée Dottie have been settled into a rooming house not far from Dr Burr’s clinic. His fiancée has already figured out that Keith’s claims are not crazy. She has reason to know that he can predict the future.
Keith notices a few odd things going on and people around him behave strangely, as if in a trance. Even Dottie starts to seem a bit odd.
He really has no choice at all. Dottie’s life depends on his coöperation. If only he could find a weakness in the cosmozoids. He does find such a weakness, quite by accident, but the odds are still stacks against him.
There’s some silliness here, some delightfully goofy technobabble, plenty of action and some paranoia. This is not exactly serious science fiction.
It’s one of those alien invasion stories in which the aliens are amongst us and nobody knows they’re here. An idea that’s been done many times but it works if it’s done right. It’s done reasonably well here.
The early part of the book has a nicely spooky vibe to it, as Keith tries to work out exactly what is happening to his mind.
Tralins has a very pulpy style, but this is hardly a book with aspirations towards literature. What matters is keeping the story fast and exciting and Tralins does that.
Major Keith is a standard square-jawed hero which is fine in what is after all pulp fiction.
Tralins also wrote the Miss From S.I.S. sexy spy thrillers. I’ve reviewed the second book in that series, The Chic Chick Spy (which is a lot of fun).
The Cosmozoids is long out of print but used copies are not outrageously expensive.
The Cosmozoids isn’t great but it’s harmless fun. Worth a look if you can find a copy.
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