Wednesday, December 28, 2022

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance was published in 1942.

It is 1942. Barney Page is a successful Broadway actor. At least he was a successful actor. Now he’s a bum. He blames himself for his wife Sheila’s death. And he knows he was responsible for his mistress Fern’s death. He remembers strangling her. He knows the cops will soon be closing in on him. His producer John Friday tells him that maybe he can help him. Barney trusts John Friday. John tells him that what Barney’s life needs is a rewrite job.

Surprisingly Barney gets the chance to do that rewrite job. Because now it’s 1941. None of the things that wrecked his life have happened yet. Barney knows they’re going to happen, but that knowledge might give the chance he needs. Now he’s more like the director of the play that is his life, rather than just an actor in it.

And Barney knows all the mistakes he’s going to make. Every one of them. It should be possible to avoid them. He knows he should not take the movie job he’s been offered because if he goes to Hollywood he’ll meet Fern and he’ll have an affair with her. So he decides that he is definitely not going to Hollywood.

He also knows that it’s important not to sleep with Pete McCord’s wife. That’s a big mistake he made, or rather it’s a big mistake he’s going to make unless he’s careful.

He has to make sure Sheila doesn’t meet Jake. Jake is the writer of the play in which Barney is about to star. If he can prevent them from meeting they won’t sleep together, and Sheila might not die.

Barney knows about other mistakes he’s going to make as well. He has to keep away from the booze.

Of course knowing the dumb things you’re going to do and the disastrous consequences that will follow doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to do those dumb things anyway. Barney however is determined to try, and he does try. He tries really hard.

There is a crime but this isn’t really a crime novel in a conventional sense. It is however very definitely noir fiction. It’s a different kind of noir novel, in which the protagonist knows how his own story is going to end. He knows the ending, but he thinks he can change it. He thinks he can write the script for his life as he lives it.

Barney is a nice enough guy. He has never intended to hurt anyone. He likes people. He has no dislike of women. He just doesn’t quite have the strength of character to avoid temptations, especially temptations of the feminine variety. He ends up in bed with women without really knowing how it happened. Barney isn’t particularly driven by lust. It’s more loneliness. He doesn’t have the emotional closeness with Sheila than a man should have with his wife, and it seems to that need for emotional connection that drives him.

Barney qualifies as a noir protagonist. The three women however don’t really fit into the femme fatale category. Sheila isn’t a bad girl, although she drinks too much. It’s not really anyone’s fault that the marriage didn’t work out.

Fern is not the kind of woman who sets out to steal other women’s men, but with Barney it just kind of happened.

Sis isn’t a classic bad girl. She’s promiscuous and Pete should never have married her but she’s not an evil spider woman.

The whole rewriting his life thing raises obvious questions. Is this a science fiction/crime crossover story? Is something supernatural or paranormal happening? Is it a dream or just a distorted memory? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Repeat Performance was filmed in 1947, which is intriguing. I could think of so many ways that Hollywood could have made a mess of an adaptation, and in my opinion that's exactly what they did. Here's my review of the movie.

Repeat Performance is a bit of an oddity and it’s worth reading for that reason. It’s also a decent noir-tinged romantic melodrama. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Lin Carter's The Wizard of Lemuria

Lin Carter (1930-1988) was an American science fiction/fantasy writer and editor. As editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the early 70s he did much to rekindle interest in some of the great fantasy writers whose works had been all but forgotten.

The Wizard of Lemuria, published in 1965, was his first published novel and the first instalment of his Thongor the Barbarian series. It’s very obviously heavily influenced by Robert E. Howard.

This series takes place in a world very reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. The premise is that the first human civilisations arose half a million years ago on the vanished continent of Lemuria. The world had been dominated by the Dragon Kings, a race of lizard-men, until they were defeated and destroyed by humans. Human civilisations then rose and fell.

Thongor, a barbarian swordsman from the Northland, is employed as a mercenary until he quarrels with his captain and is forced to kill him. Thongor is thrown into a dungeon and escapes by stealing a new invention cooked up by a master alchemist. It is an air boat constructed of a metal that is lighter than air and it is propelled by rotors powered by springs.

Thongor’s escape seems destined to end in disaster. His air boat is attacked by gigantic flying lizards and after it crashes he is pursued by even more gigantic and more terrifying ground-dwelling lizards. It would have been the end of the line for Thongor had he not been rescued by an elderly sorcerer, Sharajsha. Sharajsa has need of Thongor’s fighting skills. The Dragon Kings were vanquished thousand of years earlier but the Dragon Wizards still survive, patiently awaiting their chance to wreak vengeance and destruction on the human race. Only a magic sword can defeat them. Only Sharajsa can forge that sword. And only a mighty warrior like Thongor can wield that sword. The sword can only be forged in one place and it will be a perilous journey to reach the sacred mountain.

Thongor and Sharajsa get into various scrapes before they can complete their mission, Thongor finds a valiant comrade-in-arms and of course along the way he has time to rescue a beautiful slave girl who is in reality a beautiful princess.

Carnivorous flying lizards are just one of the hazards Thongor encounters. The vampire flowers are even nastier.

The chief villains are the mysterious Dragon Wizards but there are plenty of subsidiary villains to worry about as well - over-ambitious princes and unscrupulous druids all of whom take an intense dislike to Thongor.

This is clearly a Robert E. Howard imitation, with Thongor being a less interesting version of Conan. It’s pretty much stock-standard sword-and-sorcery. Lin Carter was just not quite in the same league as Howard. His prose lacks the astonishing vitality and dynamism of Howard’s work. The story is fairly conventional.

That sounds like I’m dismissing this book as sub-standard but that would be unfair. Carter understood the sword-and-sorcery genre extremely well. He has assembled all the right ingredients - a world of magic and monsters, a brave noble barbarian hero, sorcerers both good and evil, a beautiful princess and lots and lots of action. And he’s blended these ingredients with a reasonable amount of skill. He also understood the vital importance of pacing - the action doesn’t let up for a moment. The action scenes are vivid and exciting.

The Wizard of Lemuria might be second-tier sword-and-sorcery compared to the works of Robert E. Howard, Catherine L. Moore and Fritz Leiber but it’s good solid entertaining second-tier sword-and-sorcery. If you’ve read everything written by the giants of sword-and-sorcery and you still want more then this novel will provide reasonable entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Clyde Allison's Gamefinger (Man From Sadisto 6)

William Knoles (1926-1970) wrote sleaze fiction under his own name and also using the pseudonym Clyde Allison. He enjoyed his greatest success, as Clyde Allison, with his Agent 0008 sexy spy spoof novels. Gamefinger, published in 1966, was the sixth book in the series.

What made Knowles so special among sleaze writers is that his books are not just sleazy, they’re also extremely funny. He was a very gifted comic writer. He also had a knack for coming up with truly outrageous plots.

His Man From SADISTO spy novels featuring Agent 0008 may be his best-known works but sadly they are now exceptionally difficult to find and used copies are astronomically expensive. I would love to collect all twenty books and as soon as I have a spare five thousand dollars that’s exactly what I’ll do.

One single title in the series has been brought back into print and that novel is Gamefinger. It appears to have fallen into the public domain which is the reason it’s the only one to be currently in print.

It certainly starts with a bang. Of sorts. Actually it’s a long steamy reasonably graphic sex scene. Ace SADISTO agent Trevor Anderson (who acts as narrator) is holidaying in Maine, using the cover name Rex Kingston. He’s staying in a log cabin so remote that it can only be reached by floatplane. He hasn’t heard a floatplane land so he is rather surprised when he sees a naked girl floating in the lake. She isn’t dead. He soon discovers that she’s very much alive. She is six feet tall and blonde and looks like every man’s fantasy of a naked amazon. She’s also very friendly. After they’ve had a long hot lovemaking session they decide that introductions might be in order. Her name is Karni. Then suddenly Agent 0008 receives a staggering karate blow and he doesn’t know anything until consciousness returns some considerable time later.

He regains consciousness in SADISTO headquarters. SADISTO is a top-secret US Government intelligence agency. Its mission is to protect the Free World. Protecting the Free World involves killing people and SADISTO’s elite triple-zero agents are licensed to kill. They’re not just licensed to kill, they’re expecting to keep in practise. Preferably by killing people who deserve to be killed (a category that includes anyone of whom SADISTO disapproves). Their ethical standards would shock the average Mob hitman. But it’s OK, they’re killing for freedom.

Agent 0008’s latest mission is his most important yet. The Free World is in deadly peril. A dangerous madman code-named Gamefinger has hatched a plot of such terrifying and sinister evil that it almost takes one’s breath away. Gamefinger intends to end war. This of course would be disastrous. Apart from anything else it would be bad for business and there’s no more profitable business than war. Gamefinger must be stopped.

Gamefinger’s scheme is ingenious. He wants to revive the Roman gladiatorial games in order to provide an outlet for human violence. His new gladiatorial games will be much more brutal than the Roman version, they will involve lots of nude girls and they will be televised live to the entire world. The games will cost hundreds of lives but could save millions of lives if Gamefinger is right. Agent 0008 has to grudgingly admit that it’s a genuine ethical dilemma and that maybe Gamefinger has logic on his side. But 0008 still has a job to do, and his job is to stop Gamefinger.

SADISTO’s plan is to infiltrate 0008 into Gamefinger’s organisation.

There’s plenty of pointed political satire in this book. SADISTO are the good guys but they’re more immoral than the bad guys. SADISTO’s agents are on the side of freedom but they’re sadistic bloodthirsty killers. It’s clever political satire because the author really does raise some pertinent questions about whether the good guys really are the good guys.

There’s also a great deal of black comedy, and the book is at times outrageously funny.

And there’s a lot sex. The sex is described in fairly explicit terms but manages not to come across as crude schoolboy stuff. This is well-crafted erotica.

Agent 0008 is an intriguing hero. He’s very much an anti-hero. He has no morals whatsoever. He doesn’t claim to have any morals. Killing is not just an integral part of his job, it is for 0008 a very pleasant part of the job. He can’t think of anything more enjoyable than killing and torturing people because he’s doing it for the Free World. He can feel virtuous about it. He’s the most chillingly nasty of all fictional spies but he’s brutally honest about himself. He’s a complete rogue but vaguely likeable in his cheerful amorality. He doesn't have any morals but he does understand morality.

The idea of televised deadly gladiatorial-style games being used for purposes of mind control became a very common trope in the 70s and 80s, especially in post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. But William Knoles/Clyde Allison came up with the idea way back in 1966. It’s an idea that may have been used in science fiction stories prior to that time but offhand I can’t think of any examples. Either way it was certainly an idea that would have seemed fresh and startling in 1966.

Gamefinger is basically a sleaze novel (although it is at least very skilfully written sleaze) with a spy plot tacked on but it’s an intriguing spy plot

It’s intended to be sexy and funny and satirical and it succeeds on all counts. Gamefinger is good dirty fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Peter O’Donnell’s Sabre-Tooth (Modesty Blaise 2)

Sabre-Tooth, published in 1966, is the second of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels. Modesty Blaise started out as a comic strip created by O’Donnell in 1963. Its immense popularity led to the making of the Modesty Blaise movie which was released in 1966. O’Donnell was hired to write the screenplay. The producers didn’t like his screenplay and made so many drastic changes that the movie bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s script and the character in the film bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s creation. Before the script was totally rewritten O’Donnell had been commissioned to write a novelisation. His novelisation was based on his original script and has little to do with the film.

The film was only moderately successful and was poorly received by critics. O’Donnell’s novelisation on the other hand was a bestseller and everybody loved it. It was so successful that O’Donnell went on to write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels plus two short story collections.

Sabre-Tooth gives us a brief recap of Modesty’s backstory. She was a wartime refugee who was looking for an escape from poverty and misery. She chose a life of crime and ended up as head a vast criminal syndicate. Having made her fortune she retired from crime. She is now semi-respectable and is more likely to be fighting crime than committing it, and she helps out the Secret Service from time to time.

Modesty is sometimes described as a female James Bond but that is inaccurate and misleading. Bond is a professional with a background in military intelligence. He is part of the Establishment and his loyalty is to the Establishment. Modesty is a freelancer and an amateur and her background is entirely criminal. She is definitely not part of the Establishment.

In fact it would be more accurate to describe her as a female Simon Templar, the Saint. The Saint has a veneer of sophistication and charm and can just about pass as a gentleman but he is not one. Being a gentleman is a matter of Breeding and the Right Schools. The Saint did not enjoy those advantages. Modesty Blaise has the same surface poise and sophistication and can just about pass as a lady, but she will never truly be a lady. And like Simon Templar she will never truly be accepted as respectable.

Modesty Blaise was not quite the first sexy kickass action heroine (Cathy Gale beat her to the punch) but she remains one of the most memorable. She’s a bit more complicated than Cathy Gale but there are obvious similarities. The 60s was a decade in which sooner or later such female characters were going to emerge. Modesty Blaise, like The Avengers, was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s.

Modesty has a partner, Willie Garvin. He has a similar criminal background. Willie is the most important man in Modesty’s life and she is the most important woman in his life but they are not lovers. That was quite a good idea on O’Donnell’s part. It leaves him free to allow both Modesty and Willie to have romantic adventures. And indeed they each have plenty of romantic and sexual adventures in this tale.

Sabre-Tooth concerns a mercenary army led by the ruthless Karz. Karz needs leaders for his army. He thinks Willie Garvin and Modesty Blaise might be suitable. Modesty did after all run a vast criminal organisation. She knows how to persuade men to obey her.

Tarrant, who runs a top-secret intelligence department at the Foreign Office, knows something is going on because an enormous number of mercenaries have suddenly dropped out of sight. His instincts tell him they’re being recruited for something big and unpleasant. Modesty and Willie have done jobs for him before and it occurs to him that it would be useful if they could get themselves recruited.

Most of the novel is concerned with the devious manoeuvrings of Karz on the one side and Modesty and Willie on the other, with plenty of action along the way. They do finally get recruited and that’s when the tension starts to build. They have to find a way to foil Karz’s scheme but they’re totally on their own. And Karz has an emotional lever with which to control them.

O’Donnell certainly knew what he was doing when it came to providing thrills, action and suspense and he made sure these ingredients were available in quantity. There are some memorable fights. When it comes to a fight Modesty has a secret weapon which she calls The Nailer. I won’t spoil things by telling you how it works.

There’s also plenty of sex. There’s nothing remotely graphic about the sex but it isn’t there purely for titillation. Modesty’s attitude towards sex tells us quite a bit about a woman with a troubled past. Sex is also used at times in an emotionally shocking way. Modesty ends up working in a brothel, very much against her will. That was a common enough trope in crime/spy thrillers but authors often pulled their punches. O’Donnell doesn’t. Modesty really is forced to have sex with a lot of unsavoury characters and she doesn’t escape entirely unscathed emotionally.

There is in fact a surprising amount of emotional depth. Both Modesty and Willie Garvin have emotional vulnerabilities with they have to deal with. Being an amateur secret agent isn’t a harmless game. You can get hurt and you can get psychologically damaged. Modesty Blaise might be a super-woman when it comes to unarmed combat and gunplay but she is a woman and she has a woman’s emotional responses. She has chosen a life of adventure and danger but it’s a life that comes at an emotional price.

Sabre-Tooth is definitely a superior spy thriller with a bit of depth and plenty of high excitement. I think this novel is even better than the first first Modesty Blaise novel. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed both the first novel, Modesty Blaise, and one of the later books in the series, Last Day In Limbo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Theodore Roscoe's The Ruby of Suratan Singh

The Ruby of Suratan Singh is a collection of adventure tales by the great pulp writer Theodore Roscoe. These stories were originally published in various pulp magazines such as Argosy, Far East Adventure Stories and Action Stories in 1929 and 1930. This is the second collection of stories featuring either the American curio hunter Peter Scarlet or the naturalist Bradshaw.

These are tales of adventure in the Mysterious East, in jungles and exotic seaports and anywhere that fortunes can be made without too much concern for ethics of any kind.

These stories are fairly outrageous. They’re really the kinds of tales you’d hear told in a bar and they might be true or they might be just tall tales. That’s what makes them so enjoyable. You just can’t be sure whether to believe them or not.

While these stories are described as the Scarlet and Bradshaw stories it should be pointed out that some feature Scarlet, some feature Bradshaw and some feature both men. In this particular collection Scarlet only appears once (although it’s a memorable appearance). It’s still quite reasonable to describe them as the Scarlet-Bradshaw stories. They all take place in the East at the same time period and they all have a similar feel, a feel of mysteries that may or may not have rational explanations.

Some of the stories are amusing, some are quite dark and macabre. They’re an enticing blending of adventure fiction and weird fiction with occasional dashes of science fiction and horror. Roscoe’s plotting was always pretty solid. He had a knack for giving his stories a nice little sting in the tail, and for giving his stories just the right touches of ambiguity.

Scarlet and Bradshaw are not mere pulp fiction tough guys. That’s not to say that they aren’t tough, you don’t survive in the jungle very long without a certain amount of grit, but there’s more to them. They’re genuinely interesting offbeat characters.

Roscoe was also very adept at creating an atmosphere of dread and subtle uneasiness.

Roscoe was one of the grand masters of pulp fiction and these stories are among his greatest achievements.

The Stories

Moon Up is a very strange story indeed, a jungle adventure set in India but with a hefty dash of science fiction. Reven Staffard is staying in the jungle bungalow belonging to the naturalist Bradshaw. Staffard is supposedly hunting tigers but he hasn’t seen any tigers and he’s getting fed up. Then a bizarre old man wanders out of the jungle. His name, he declares, is Dr Gulick Habighorst. He has come to India for the moonlight. Apparently the moonlight in India is particularly suited to his experiments. Dr Habighorst has been conducting research on lunar rays and claims to have made an amazing discovery. He has discovered a means of using rays of moonlight as a kind of death ray. With a special lens he can use moonlight to reduce any object to its component atoms. Dr Habighorst’s lunar rays are the most potent destructive force ever discovered.

Staffard assumes the man is insane. Until Dr Habighorst demonstrates his invention.

Dr Habighorst wants Staffard to finance his further researches.

The crazy old scientist’s demonstration is impressive but there are eyes in the night watching. The eyes belong to men who want that death ray.

A very fine story with a nice twist to it.

The Blue Cat of Buddha is a treasure hunt story. Bradshaw is shipwrecked. An American singer who failed to find success in Tin Pan Alley rescues him. The singer, Johnny Ash, has gone to the East to make his fortune in order to win the love of his girl back home. The singer also saves a frail old Buddhist monk. The monk has a strange tale to tell.

The legend of the blue cat of Buddha, a giant carved cat that guards the entrance to a cavern which is a fabulous treasure trove, had attracted many a fortune-hunter. Maybe some of those fortune-hunters found that cavern. None survived to tell of it. But the old monk claims to know the secret that can unlock that treasure.

Bradshaw thinks that seeking the treasure is a terrible idea. He knows the East. He knows the quest can lead only to madness and death. But Johnny Ash is determined and Bradshaw owes him his life so he has to tag along. There are others seeking the treasure, six dangerous desperate men. A thoroughly enjoyable tale.

The Little Gold Dove of Gojjam finds Bradshaw in Abyssinia, lost in a forbidden valley with a young Englishman named Tupper. Bradshaw saves an Abyssinian from a lion. The Abyssinian, curiously enough, speaks English. He learnt the language in New York. He returned to Africa in search of a legend - the legend of Noah’s Ark. And he tells Bradshaw and his companion a part of the legend they had never heard before - the legend of Noah’s gold. The dying Abyssinian even tells them where to find the Ark. It’s in a hidden lake.

It’s all nonsense of course but something persuades Bradshaw and Tupper to search for the hidden lake. What they find is impossibly strange. Perhaps there is a rational explanation. Perhaps it was all just a legend after all. Perhaps. Another delightfully offbeat tale of adventure.

Claws features American curio hunter Peter Scarlet. He’s in one of the roughest sleaziest bars in the East which is the last place his friends Bradshaw and Schneider expect to find him. And why does he have his gun with him? Why does he want to listen to the crummy piano player? It’s the past that has drawn Scarlet to this bar in Penang. A terrible event in the past has drawn three men to this bar. A good story.

In The Ruby of Suratan Singh Bradshaw tells how he found the ruby in question. During the Indian Mutiny a nabob named Suratan Singh had fled from the vengeance of the British, taking with him the most valuable jewel in his possession. Bradshaw encounters an old woman who claims not only to know where the ruby is, she claims to have been there when Suratan Singh fled.

The quest for the ruby almost costs Bradshaw his life. And at the end we get the kind of nice little twist that Roscoe tends to throw in, the kind of twist that makes Roscoe not just a fun pulp writer but a superior pulp writer.

The Phantom Buddha is a kind of Oriental ghost story. The Malays engaged in building a railroad are being whipped into a frenzy by rumours that the phantom of the Buddha is about to appear to them in a small valley deep in the jungle. The young engineer Carter is well and truly spooked but his older colleague McInerny insists that it’s all hokum. Bradshaw isn’t certain. It may be a hoax but he is inclined to think that rather strange things do happen in the East. It’s an enjoyable little tale on the theme that seeing is believing, sometimes. A neat little story.

Final Thoughts

Pulp fiction doesn’t come much better than this. Roscoe gives us fine prose style, subtle weirdness, exoticism and adventure. Incredibly entertaining and very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier collection of Roscoe's Scarlet and Bradshaw stories, the excellent Blood Ritual, and another fine Roscoe short story collection, The Emperor of Doom.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Carter Brown's Eve it's Extortion

Eve it's Extortion is a 1956 Al Wheeler crime thriller by Carter Brown.

Alan Geoffrey Yates (1923-1985) was an English-born Australian writer who wrote well over 200 novels (some source claim more than 300) under a variety of pseudonyms. He is best remembered for the crime novels he wrote as Carter Brown. He is believed to have sold around 120 million books.

The Carter Brown novels are set in the United States but since the author lived in Australia the novels are set in the America of pulp fiction and Hollywood movies rather than the real America. In some ways that makes them more fun.

Al Wheeler (who narrates the tale) is a Homicide cop but he’s on special duty, working directly under the Police Commissioner. It’s not that the Commissioner has a high opinion of him. In fact he has a very low opinion of Al. He just wants to keep him close so he can keep an eye on him. Al has a reputation of being an unorthodox cop who takes very little notice of orders. He keeps his job as a Detective Lieutenant because he keeps solving difficult cases.

This time the case is very routine. It’s a special favour for a friend of the Commissioner’s, an insurance investigator named Moss. Moss is worried about a life insurance claim. It seems straightforward on the surface. The guy who was insured, Farnham, was killed by a hit-run driver. But it just doesn’t smell quite right to Moss.

Al talks to Farnham’s widow Eve. She’s very glamorous, maybe too glamorous to have been married to a loser and a lush like Farnham. Farnham was such a loser that Eve had to walk as a waitress in a crummy joint and she didn’t like that at all. Al figures she’s the kind of woman who might well murder a loser husband whose life was insured for a vast amount of money but she has a rock-solid alibi.

Eve happens to mention that a couple of days before her husband died a locater from a debt collection agency called on her and told her that her husband owed a lot of money.

The locater was a woman named Edna Bright and she looks like just as much of a potential femme fatale as Eve Farnham.

In the course of his investigation Al meets the head of the debt collection agency, a guy named Cole. He also meets Cole’s wife Natalie. Natalie is femme fatale number three. Natalie tells Al how much she despises her husband. She proves it by sleeping with Al. Al has a pretty relaxed attitude towards such things. If a cute dame like Natalie is willing then Al is willing as well. Besides, he might get more information out of her this way.

Just about every character in this book is a plausible suspect. These are not particularly honest people and that life insurance policy was worth a huge amount of money. Al just has to figure out how many of them might have stood to gain, legally or illegally, by Farnham’s demise. There’s also been a good deal of bed-hopping going on, which offers even further motives.

It’s a pretty decent plot and Al does at least some real detecting.

The Carter Brown novels are not to be taken too seriously. They’re fun, lightweight and fast-paced with plenty of mayhem (none of it graphic) and plenty of sex (also not graphic). There’s a good deal of humour and the humour works pretty well.

There are lots of dames and they’re not the types of dames who defend their virtue all that strenuously. Apart from the three femmes fatales there’s Annabelle, Al’s boss’s secretary, a glamorous southern belle with a yearning for a rich husband. Al has made various attempts to seduce her and he certainly hasn’t given up hope.

Al Wheeler doesn’t take life too seriously. He likes being a cop but he always makes time for recreation, especially with glamorous dames. He also always finds time to have a drink or six. He’s a bit of a rogue but a likeable one and despite being undisciplined and irresponsible he’s a pretty good cop. He’s not especially hardboiled although he’s no pushover when the going gets tough. He’s somewhat cynical but he isn’t bitter and he’s no thug.

The Carter Brown novels are pure entertainment but they’re well-crafted and clever and Eve it's Extortion is a fine entry in the Al Wheeler series. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed three other Carter Brown novels featuring Al Wheeler - Booty for a BabeNo Harp for My Angel and The Stripper.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Planetary Adventures

Planetary Adventures is another fine DMR Press sword and sorcery/sword-and-planet anthology. This one is devoted to sword-and-planet tales and that just happens to be a favourite genre of mine. It includes five longish short stories (I suppose they could be considered novelettes and one is closer to being a novella) from various pulp magazines. And they’re by a fairly distinguished selection of writers.

First up is Poul Anderson’s Temple of Earth which originally appeared in Rocket Stories in 1953.

Rikard has joined a band of rebels on the Moon. They are the sworn enemies of the burgeoning Coper Empire. The rebels do not want to be slaves, although curiously enough Rikard’s lady love Leda is more or less his slave-girl. The rebels have just made their last stand and Rikard and Leda have been captured.

Anderson displays his gift for clever economical world-building (which is evident in most of his stories in this genre). Like so many of the best sword-and-planet tales this is a story of civilisational decay. It is many many years into the future, human civilisation has survived only on the Moon but has sadly degenerated. Most of humanity’s hard-won scientific knowledge has been lost. Only a few pitiful remnants of technology survive.

Rikard and Leda are caught in the middle of a power struggle between those who wish to reclaim this lost knowledge and those who see it as being in their best interests to prevent this.

There’s also plenty of action. A very very fine story.

I highly recommend DMR Press’s Swordsmen from the Stars which includes three more excellent stories by Anderson.

Edmond Hamilton’s World of the Dark Dwellers was published in Weird Tales in 1937.

This is a story of an ordinary man on Earth who discovers that he isn’t ordinary and he isn’t from Earth. And he has a destiny, to rescue his planet from tyranny.

There’s some effective creepiness, a fine villain and a clever plot resolution at the end. The hero’s planet has been in the hands of usurpers for generation. The usurpers rely on powers given to them by mysterious creatures they have never seen. No-one has seen the dark dwellers and lived to tell the tale.

A highly enjoyable tale.

Henry Kuttner’s The Eyes of Thar first saw the light of day in Planet Stories in 1944.

Mars, once home to a great civilisation, is now home only to barbarism. A warrior returns to seek vengeance for the death of his beloved, but finds himself the hunted rather than the hunter. He escapes when he finds a strange door, a door that leads him to a laboratory abandoned for a thousand years. He is greeted by a strangely familiar female voice.

It is a voice from another universe. A very very different universe. The woman whose voice he hears needs help. But no-one can travel between these two universes, not even to seek the owner of that uncannily familiar voice. In this tale Kuttner has created two fantastic worlds, one of them strange and the other very very strange indeed. An excellent bitter-sweet story with some genuine and effective weirdness. By a writer who deserves to be better remembered.

I also highly recommend Henry Kuttner’s Crypt-City of the Deathless One.

Ross Rocklynne’s The Empress of Mars appeared in Fantastic Adventures in 1939.

This is the only weak story in the collection. The hero has to rescue a princess and a magical necklace. The major plot twist is too obvious. This one doesn’t feel like a real sword-and-planet story. Lots of action though.

Bryce Walton’s Man of Two Worlds was published in Space Stories in 1952.

Earth’s Martian colony is all that is left of humanity and things are going very badly on Mars as well. Lee Thorsten and his lady love are among the Outcasts and they’re being hunted down. If captured they will be used in barbaric medical experiments. Thorsten has however found the secret chamber under the pyramid, the one his girlfriend remembered although she’d never seen it. She remembers a lot of things that she’s never seen.

And he’s found the doors, doors that lead to other places and other times. They find themselves in the distant past where Thorsten takes the body of the great warrior Theseus. He is in the world of the ancient Minoan Civilisation but there’s something strange. The Minoan Civilisation existed on Earth, but this is definitely the Minoan Civilisation but it’s just as definitely not on Earth.

This story mixes characters from mythology (like Theseus) with characters from pulp fiction (such as Conan). This would be par for the course today but was more unusual in 1952.

It’s a fine action-packed story with some clever science fictional ideas as well. Good stuff.

So five stories in this collection, and four of them are truly excellent. If you’re a sword-and-planet fan it’s pretty much a must-buy. Very highly recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Don Holliday's Sin School

Sin School is a 1959 sleaze novel by Don Holliday. Don Holliday was actually a house name used by various writers for Midwood Books. This book was apparently by Hal Dresner.

Dale Lorring has just arrived in the city of Sutton to take up a position as a teacher at Sutton High School. It’s the most expensive school in the country and the job pays extremely well. For the 24-year-old Lorring it seemed like a great opportunity. It soon turns into a nightmare.

Sutton is a very rich city. And that’s the problem. Lots of very rich people. They live in fancy houses, drive big cars and wear expensive clothes. And they have the morals of pigs. Their children are even worse - not just spoilt arrogant brats but vicious. Sutton High School is a very exclusive school but it’s the school from Hell.

The teachers are downtrodden and cynical. They stay on as long as they can stand it because the money is good.

Worst of all are the Esquires. They’re an unofficial fraternity. They’re rich young hoodlums.

Lorring realises this is no ordinary high school when he happens to glance into a storeroom where two of the students are having sex.

The one bright spot for Lorring is Karen. She’s the school librarian. She’s young and sweet and pretty. She loves Dale Lorring and he loves her. But it’s not all smooth sailing. They can’t have sex because she’s frigid. She dislikes sex so much that she won’t even let Dale touch her.

Dale is not the only teacher with troubles. Bickell is the middle-aged shop teacher. He has a cute French wife but she’s a lesbian. Bickell isn’t coping very well with that.

Lorring isn’t happy at the school. He wants something down about the Esquires but he’s not going to get any help from Nash, the principal. Nash is too scared of upsetting those rich parents. The fact that Dale is not getting any sex from Karen doesn’t help his outlook on life.

Not that there’s any need to go without sex in Sutton. There’s Roxanne, one of the teachers. She’s a nymphomaniac and she’s already picked Dale as a future bed partner. And then there are the mothers of the students. Like Barbara Ann’s mother. She’s rich and powerful and makes it clear to Dale if he doesn’t sleep with her she’ll make sure he loses his job. So Dale sleeps with her.

Lorring’s dislike for the Esquires grows stronger and stronger (and he particularly detests their leader, Burke) but he knows that it would be futile to take them on openly. His idea is to win their confidence in the hope of being on the spot when they do something really bad, something do illegal that even their rich daddies won’t be able to cover up for them. Unfortunately Lorring’s plan is pretty vague. It doesn’t amount to much more than hoping the Esquires will make a mistake.

There’s a lot of sex in this book but when it comes to describing the sex it’s very very tame. On the other hand the book does succeed in creating a palpable atmosphere of corruption, sleaze and sin. There’s also a fair amount of violence. The Esquires play rough. There’s a convincing atmosphere of menace as well, and we have a sense that this situation is not going to end well.

A lot of sleaze novels included strong noir fiction elements and although it might be a bit of a stretch you could just about describe this book as noir, or at least slightly noirish.

While it’s typical of sleaze fiction in relying on the shock value of sex what really makes this book dirty and grimy and oppressive is not the sex but the violence and sadism of the Esquires, and the corruption of the city.

Sin School is in the Peyton Place tradition of exposés of the hypocrisy and phoney respectability of small town life. It works pretty well and it’s entertaining. Highly recommended.