Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Murray Leinster's The Invaders

The Invaders is a 1953 novella (at a stretch you could call it a short novel) by Murray Leinster (1896-1975). Leinster is a science fiction writer who deserves a lot more attention.

The Invaders is (obviously) an alien invasion story. This was 1953, with the UFO craze getting into top gear, and the saucer-shaped alien spacecraft are clearly an attempt to cash in on this. It’s also a story with obvious resemblances to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Heinlein’s novel was published in 1951 and Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers appeared in 1954. The aliens in The Invaders look just like us. They’re totally non-human but they can make themselves look thoroughly human.

The Invaders, like Heinlein’s and Finney’s novels, has something of a Cold War atmosphere.

The Invaders begins in Greece. Coburn is an American. He witnesses a Bulgarian raid into Greek territory. It’s not a full-scale invasion but it’s a large-scale raid intended to provoke the Greeks. Coburn runs into a British reporter named Dillon and a pretty American girl named Janice. What Coburn witnesses is extremely puzzling. In fact it just doesn’t seem possible.

Coburn finds that he can draw only one conclusion. There are alien invaders on Earth. Aliens from outer space. But is it likely that anyone will believe him?

This is of course a setup that has been used countless times. The hero knows the truth but can’t get anyone to listen to him. This book does however throw in a twist. It’s not Coburn’s veracity that comes under question, but his motivations.

The question of course is the intention of the aliens. Coburn has no doubts about this. They want to take over the Earth.

The aliens have other advantages aside from their ability to look human. They have highly advanced technology. The latest American fighter jets are helpless against therm. The latest guided missiles are of no use.

Coburn has one factor on his side. He has figured out a way to recognise the aliens.

It all sounds like a thoroughly conventional alien invasion story but Leinster wasn’t interested in just churning out completely predictable pulp science fiction. He has some plot twists up his sleeve. The motivations of the aliens remain nicely mysterious. The outcome of the confrontation between Earth and an alien civilisation remains in doubt until the very end.

There’s some action, and it doesn’t always play out predictably.

The Cold War angle adds further complications.

This might not be one of the great alien invasion stories but it holds a fair bit of interest and it captures some of the mood of the time, when people first started seriously considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life and were starting to speculate about the forms such life might take, and the potentially momentous consequences of contact with alien cultures. Plenty of alien invasion stories had been written before this time but the early 50s was the time that aliens started to seem like maybe they might be more than science fiction.

Not quite a neglected classic, but worth a look.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Laurence Manning’s World of the Mist (which is quite good) in one of their two-novel paperback editions.

The Del Rey paperback collection The Best of Murray Leinster includes most of his notable short stories and is very much worth getting hold of.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Ian MacAlister's Valley of the Assassins

Valley of the Assassins from 1975 was the last of the four thrillers written by Marvin Albert under the name Ian MacAlister and published by Fawcett Gold Medal.

Marvin Albert (1924-1996) was an American who wrote both adventure and crime thrillers.

Rick Larson is heading through the Persian Gulf in his cabin cruiser when he comes across three dead men on a reef. Except that one of them isn’t dead. Larson is no philanthropist but he is a sailor. He can’t leave the guy there so he rescues him. The guy is a Persian. And he has a map. The map ends up in Larson’s possession. It’s a strange map. It will need interpreting.

Larson has a friend who’s a scholar and his interpretation of the map is extraordinary. That map holds the key to the lost treasure of the Assassins. The assassins being a combination of religious cultists and murderous gangsters. The order was founded in 1072 and brutally suppressed a few centuries later. The order no longer exists. At least it’s believed that it no longer exists.

Much of the treasure accumulated by the Assassins in their mountain lair at Alamut was hidden somewhere in the Arabian desert. There’s no way of finding it unless you have a map. Larson has a map. But you have to know how to make sense of the map. Larson thinks he can do just that.

He has a number of people helping him in his search for the treasure, and most of them are people he doesn’t want as partners and doesn’t trust. Men like the renegade Iraqi secret policeman Hammid and an arms dealer named Ivo. He does trust Church. He’s an old friend. He thinks he can trust Darra, maybe, up to a point. She’s a Kurdish guerrilla. The Kurds want the treasure to buy arms. He doesn’t really trust Jamil, another Kurdish guerrilla. But Larson doesn’t trust most people. That’s why he’s survived so long in such a dangerous part of the world.

What worries Rick Larson is that he isn’t being followed. It doesn’t make sense. He should have bad guys shadowing him, but they aren’t there. It’s very strange, especially since early on someone did try to kill him. A young man with a strange tattoo and a poisoned dagger.

The search for the treasure will take Larson to Alamut, and it will take these six people to the most remote and forbidding desert in the world. The desert itself will be a formidable enemy. There’s also the cheering news that Bedouin bandits have been active in the area recently and they can be very dangerous indeed.

In the 60s Alistair MacLean had established himself as the world’s foremost thriller writer. Naturally he had imitators. The best of the imitators was Gavin Lyall but Desmond Bagley was pretty good as well. It’s obvious (and his choice of pseudonym makes it even more obvious) that with his Ian McAlister novels Albert was setting himself up as yet another MacLean imitator. While he never achieved the reputation that Lyall and Bagley achieved I have to say that the Ian McAlister thrillers compare more than favourably with those writers.

He’s not as good as MacLean of course but he’s still very very good. Like MacLean he’s good with exotic and inhospitable settings which become almost characters in the books, and his plotting is very sound. The action sequences in Valley of the Assassins are excellent. The tension is built up very effectively.

Valley of the Assassins is quite simply an absolutely top-notch thriller. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Driscoll’s Diamonds, the second of the Ian MacAlister adventure thrillers, and it’s excellent as well. And I’ve reviewed one of the Jake Barrow PI thrillers he wrote under the pseudonym Nick Quarry, No Chance in Hell, and it’s very good as well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Nick Quarry's The Girl With No Place To Hide

Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) was an American writer of pulp crime and adventure novels, some written under his own name and others under a host of pseudonyms. The Girl With No Place To Hide, published in 1959, was the second of his six Jake Barrow private eye thrillers written under the name Nick Quarry.

Hardbitten PI Jake Barrow sees a girl being beaten up and rescues her. She wants somewhere to hide out and thinks that Jake’s apartment would be a good place. The girl is Angela and she tells Jake that a couple of guys are trying to kill her and that they’ve already killed some guy named Ernie. Jake gets a call and he has to go out to attend to a case. He tells Angela to stay put.

Jake discovers he’s been decoyed out of the apartment. By the time he gets back Angela has gone. Maybe she just took a powder and maybe somebody snatched her.

Jake has no idea who this Ernie character is but the next day he finds out that a guy named Ernie really did turn up dead in an alleyway. Jake figures the matter is worth looking into. He did after all promise to protect Angela.

The trail leads Jake into the worlds of high fashion and photography and the murky world of high-stakes gambling. He also uncovers some juicy domestic dramas that might be motives for murder. And there might be a connection to another much earlier murder.

There are quite a few dames mixed up in this case. One of the dames, Lavinia, is a knife-thrower. That’s her profession. She worked a knife-throwing act in a carny. Another woman who seems to be mixed up in the case is Nel. She had been Ernie’s secretary and now someone is trying to kill her but she claims to know nothing that would cause someone to want to bump her off.

Of more immediate concern to Jake is the fact that someone is trying to bump him off.

There’s a decent well worked-out plot here with plenty of suspects and plenty of possible motives.

There’s also plenty of action with some moderately graphic (by 1959 standards) violence. And there’s as much sleazy paranoid noir atmosphere as anyone could reasonably demand. And you get quite a bit of hardboiled dialogue.

In this type of fiction the key was to get a good balance between plot and atmosphere and the author manages that very effectively in this instance.

Jake is definitely a tough guy PI. He most definitely does not like to be pushed around. He’s a pretty good guy overall and he doesn’t have much liking for people who go around terrorising, and murdering, women. In fact he doesn’t have much time for murderers. He’s not a Boy Scout. He’s not an outrageous womaniser but if a woman is willing then he won’t say no.

He likes money, he likes it a lot, but he likes to earn it honestly. He’s not self-righteous about it but he does have ethics. He does the right thing but he doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

Jake is a likeable enough and reasonably colourful hero.

Most of the women have the potential to turn out to be either innocent victims, innocent bystanders or scheming femmes fatales and Quarry keeps us guessing about every one of them.

It’s not exactly ground-breaking but overall this is a well-crafted noirish private eye thriller which provides very solid entertainment. Highly recommended. It's been reprinted by Black Gat Books.

I’ve reviewed another of the Jake Barrow PI novels, No Chance in Hell (which is also very good), and also one of the thrillers he wrote as Ian McAlister, Driscoll’s Diamonds (a terrific book).

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Norman Lindsay’s Age of Consent (1938 novel)

Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) was the one truly great painter that Australia produced (and he was arguably the finest painter of erotic art of the 20th century). While his fame rests mainly on his painting he was also a very successful writer. His novel Age of Consent was published in 1938.

Age of Consent was filmed in 1969. It was an Anglo-Australian co-production directed by Michael Powell and it’s a movie that deserves a lot more recognition.

Both novel and movie deal with a meeting between a painter and a young woman. She becomes his model, and his muse. In the novel Bradly Mudgett is forty years old and he’s broke. He’s always broke. He ekes out a precarious existence as a painter. In the movie he becomes Bradley Morahan, a much older man and an internationally acclaimed artist who decides to turn his back on the New York art world and return to his home country, Australia.

In the book Bradly rents a shack at a place called Margoola Beach. It’s primitive but it’s cheap and it’s isolated. Bradly does not like the company of people. He has his dog, Edmund. Edmund is more than enough company. The shack is surrounded on one side by the ocean and on the other by a lagoon. It’s not quite an island, but almost.

Bradly is slowly coming to realise that he’s reached a crisis in his career. He has never achieved anything approaching real success. He is afraid to take risks. He knows how to produce paintings that will sell for a few pounds. He has found a safe formula which is at least enough to keep starvation at bay.

Then he sees the girl. At first he’s horrified that there are other people in the vicinity of his hideaway. Then something about the girl strikes him. In the past he’s done nothing but landscapes. He hasn’t done figure work since he was a student. But now he thinks he wants to paint the girl. She seems to be the missing ingredient that will bring his paintings to life. She agrees to pose for him.

The girl is Cora. She’s almost feral. She lives with her foul-tempered gin-sodden grandmother. Cora is not exactly socialised. Like Bradly she doesn’t know how to deal with people. She is however a perfect model.

And he makes an amazing discovery. He is now painting pictures that are better than anything he’s ever done before. Much better. He is finally finding himself as a painter. And he’s starting to consider taking a few risks. He’s done a painting of Cora and he decides he’ll ask twenty pounds for this one. He’s not just doing good work. He’s doing work that he suspects will be saleable, at decent prices.

Then the first disaster strikes. Young Hodson shows up. Bradly had met him, briefly, in Jillabong. Now Hodson expects to be greeted like an old friend and he expects Bradly to put him up. Which is a problem. Bradly has just enough money to last him for a few months, precious months to spend painting. Now he has to feed Hodson as well. He can’t turn Hodson out. The police are after him. Bradly doesn’t have many principles but he dislikes the police and would never turn a man over to them. Not even an annoying pest like Hodson.

A bigger problem is Cora’s grandmother. She’s convinced that Cora is whoring herself out to Bradly. Cora is under-age. That gives the grandmother a lever with which to blackmail Bradly. In fact Bradly hasn’t laid a finger on the girl. She just poses for him. But Bradly is terrified of the grandmother’s threats.

This is of course (like the movie) a coming-of-age story. Cora is just becoming aware of herself as a woman. It’s all very confusing for her.

It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story for Bradly Mudgett. At the age of forty he knows nothing of women. His experiences with women have been confined to a few encounters with prostitutes. But Cora is getting under his skin. He thinks it’s just because she’s such a good model but unwittingly he’s getting used to having her around and he’s growing fond of her.

It’s also a story of an artist belatedly coming of age as an artist, slowly learning that maybe he is a real artist after all.

This is a very lighthearted semi-comic novel. It’s charming and throughly enjoyable and it’s highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed Michel Powell's very good movie adaptation here - Age of Consent (1969).

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet

Poul Anderson’s science fiction novel Virgin Planet was published in 1959.

Poul Anderson (1926- 2001) was an incredibly prolific writer. He is of course best remembered for his science fiction but he wrote some superb fantasy (such as The Broken Sword) and in the early 50s produced some rather wonderful sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet stories.

Virgin Planet is set on a planet inhabited entirely by women. They are obviously human women. It appears that the original colonists were supposed to arrive in two spaceships, one carrying the men and one carrying the women. Only the ship carrying the women arrived. This happened a long time ago and the colonisation has become encrusted with legend. The women still believe that one day the Men will arrive. They look forward to that day is a kind of religious way, but with some uneasiness. They have only the vaguest idea of what a man is.

When a spacecraft is seen to land the women think that it might be the Men at last, but it could be Monsters. They also have fairly vague ideas about the Monsters but they know that the Monsters come from the stars and have dealings, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with Men.

Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley is the one who finds the spaceship. There’s only one crew member. She figures he’s a Monster, but a friendly one. He can’t be a Man. Everyone knows that Men are wise and noble and dazzlingly beautiful. This creature just seems weird and misshapen.

The women of Freetoon are not quite sure what to do with this creature. His arrival turns out to be a disaster - it sets off a war with a neighbouring town. The creature from space and three of the surviving women from Freetoon make their escape. They’re not sure where to head for. Maybe they should head for the Ship of the Father. The Doctors may have an answer. The Doctors know everything, they even know how to work the parthenogenesis machine which allows the women of Atlantis to have children.

The creature is of course no monster. He’s very much a human and a man. He’s David Bertram and he’s on a kind of freelance survey mission.

Davis slowly pieces together what is going on. He’s on a planet named Atlantis. Technically it’s not a planet. It’s the size of Earth and it’s fairly Earth-like but it’s a satellite of a gas giant called Minos.

By this time humans have colonised countless planets but Atlantis was previously unknown, being inaccessible due to the presence of a vortex in space-time. Human civilisation is highly advanced, with faster-than-light travel and other advanced technologies. The inhabitants of Atlantis are all women, on the way to join their men when their spaceship was swept hundreds of light-years off course by the vortex. There were originally five hundred women. There are now possibly a quarter of a million, but all are clones of those original five hundred colonists. A caste system has developed, with each caste being made up of a single genotype.

Society on Atlantis has regressed quite a bit. That original spacecraft was not carrying the necessary equipment to support an advanced technological society. There’s no nuclear power, no automobiles, no electricity. It’s now a rather primitive agrarian society.

There are in fact a number of subtly different cultures on Atlantis and Anderson has fun speculating on the way in which such societies could evolve. Societies made up of clones, with no men.

Naturally once the women discover that Davis Bertram is a Man they’re fascinated. All the animals on Atlantis are birds. The women of Atlantis are not only unfamiliar with the idea of human sex, they’re unfamiliar with mammalian sex. But they’re eager to learn. The complication for Davis is that some of these women are also starting to discover the concept of love. Both Barbara and her clone sister/twin Valeria have fallen in love with him.

This sounds like a recipe for a sleaze novel but that’s not how Anderson plays it. This is a serious science fiction novel although there’s also some humour and quite a bit of adventure. And there’s no sex at all.

Davis Bertram is an engaging hero because he isn’t a square-jawed action hero. He’s by no means helpless but he’s no warrior. He’s not a coward but he’s only moderately brave. He’s not stupid but he’s not a genius. He’s a spoilt rich man’s son and his solo survey mission is just an adventure to him. He’s always been rather irresponsible. On the other hand he’s good-natured and kind-hearted.

Barbara and Valeria are of course mirror images of each other. They’re warriors who believe in shooting first (with their repeating crossbows) and asking questions afterwards. But they’re gorgeous and they’re smart and underneath a slightly intimidating exterior they’re likeable.

The paperback edition includes an afterword from the author in which he explains that the only respect in which he’s played fast and loose with science is the faster-than-light travel. Other than that everything is based on solid science. This is very much hard science fiction, but it’s hard SF combined with a rollicking adventure plot and some clever speculations about the ways in which societies evolve.

Most of all Virgin Planet is extremely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Milo Manara's Click! And Other Stories

Click! And Other Stories is a collection of erotic comics by Milo Manara.

Milo Manara (born Maurilio Manara in 1945) is perhaps the most famous living European comics artist and writer.

I’ve never had any interest in comics but recently I have developed an obsession with European comics, an obsession kicked off by Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and solidified by my discovery of Guido Crepax. It seemed logical enough to move on to Milo Manara. I have to say that I think that compared to Forest and Crepax Manara is a lesser talent.

The comics in this volume are all overtly erotic. I have no problems with eroticism in comics, if done well. The eroticism in Barbarella is playful and witty. The eroticism in Crepax’s comics is much more strange and complex and sometimes disturbing but it’s done very stylishly, Crepax is always classy, even when he gets dark and disturbing. In this volume of Manara’s work he is too often merely crudely sexual. It feels a bit grubby. And it’s too obvious.

Il Gioco (Click or Le Déclic) dates from 1985 and is one of Manara’s best-known erotic comics and was followed by several sequels. Or perhaps it’s more a series of four linked stories.

Click is a one-idea story, although it’s an amusing idea. A sex therapist has developed a micro-machine that can be implanted in the brain. It’s controlled by a small transmitter about the size of a cigarette pack. The device is claimed to be a surefire cure for impotence. Another unscrupulous therapist, Dr Fez, steals the device and decides to find out if it will work on women as well. He wants to try it out on Mrs Claudia Christiani, a woman notorious for her lack of interest in sex.

The device works spectacularly well on Claudia, leading her into all manner of embarrassing situations. That’s pretty much it for the plot. Then there’s lots of explicit sex.

Click! 2 rehashes the plot of the first comic. The only difference is that Manara introduces some environmentalist themes which seem to be tacked on for no particular reason. There’s lots of explicit sex.

Claudia is a crusading TV journalist and she’s a particularly annoying member of a particularly annoying breed.

She becomes even more annoying in Click! 3. There’s a plot strand about forcing a girl (by very unpleasant means) to use psychic power to find diamonds. There’s a crazy guru in the jungle. And lots of explicit sex.

Click! 4 is even more stridently political with Claudia lawyer husband defending an evil chemical corporation. As usual Dr Fez shows up with his transmitter to send Claudia into more sexual frenzies.

The other story in this volume is Rendezvous in B-flat. One again there’s a political subtext, and once again it doesn’t amount to much more than telling us that politics is crooked and corrupt which I think most of us kinda already knew. It’s the story of a would-be politician who gets into debt with a loan shark. His wife has to repay the debt, in a very unpleasant way. It’s a pretty nasty story.

I don’t find the eroticism in these stories to be genuinely erotic at all. To be interesting eroticism has to be more than a succession of explicit sex acts. Manara just goes straight to crude sex. And it’s pretty crude and pretty nasty. It’s also relentless and it gets a bit tedious.

I’m not usually sensitive to such things (I’m not the sort of person who reads books looking for things to be offended by) but the level of sexual violence directed at women is a bit hair-raising.

I found these comics to be lacking in style and wit and I didn’t really enjoy them at all. Your mileage may vary of course.

I’ve enjoyed some of Manara’s later comics quite a bit so I’m not writing him off by any means.

Jean-Claude Forest and Guido Crepax are more to my taste. I highly recommend Forest's Barbarella and Crepax's Evil Spells.

Monday, March 13, 2023

A.S. Fleischman's Danger in Paradise

Danger in Paradise is a 1953 spy thriller by A.S. Fleischman (1920-2010).

Fleischman had been an American professional magician in vaudeville, until vaudeville died. He then turned to writing fiction. Between 1951 and 1954 he turned out half a dozen paperback original spy thrillers, most of them published by Fawcett Gold Medal. He then tuned to writing screenplays and finally to writing children’s books. He was fairly successful in all these fields.

Danger in Paradise follows the standard Fleischman formula - crime and international intrigue in exotic locations, mostly in the Far East.

Fleischman was not a writer who planned his books in intricate fashion. He didn’t bother with outlines. He just started with a very vague idea and sat down to write, having no idea how the plot was going to develop. It was a method that worked for him.

With Danger in Paradise his original idea was to have beautiful young American woman in Bali. A beautiful bare-breasted young American woman.

This American woman is not the central character but much of the plot revolves around her and she’s certainly the most colourful character in the book.

The narrator of the story is an American oil geologist, Jeff Cape. He made a lot of money in places like Indonesia. He managed to spend almost all the money but he had fun and he has no regrets. Now his ship is about to sail. He’s heading back to the States.

Or at least that’s where he was intending to head, until he ran into Nicole Balashov in a waterfront bar. She wants him to take a package with him. She won’t tell him the contents but it’s terribly important. Jeff figures that Nicole is trouble and he wants no part of it, but she seems rather sincere and she’s very pretty so of course he agrees.

Pretty soon Jeff has guys trailing him and he’s pretty sure they mean to do him harm. He suspects they intend to do Nicole harm as well. All his instincts tell him to just get out of the situation and get on the ship and leave Bali far behind him. But Nicole might really be in danger, those men who are after her might even mean to kill her, and even though he thinks it’s her own fault for getting mixed up in dangerous games he just can’t leave her to her fate.

Then he discovers that Nicole is dead. It’s right there in the newspaper. Russian girl killed by terrorists. With a picture of the dead girl. And it’s Nicole. But that isn’t possible. He was talking to her the day after she was killed.

Those guys are still after Jeff. There’s Apollo Fry, the fat man who might be mixed up in gunrunning. Fry is definitely up to no good and he’s ruthless. There’s also Mr Chu, the polite Chinese gentleman with the bird (the bird will be important later). And the man with the Malacca cane. Jeff has no idea where these guys fit into the picture.

And he meets Regina Williams when he takes refuge in her house. She’s a stunning American blonde. He notices her. It’s hard not to notice her, given that she’s naked from the waist up. Regina always goes topless. She’s adopted a lot of local customs. Having her breasts bare at all time is the most noticeable of these customs. Regina also informs Jeff that she is always interested in sex. Another of Regina’s habits is to take her showers in the open. When she’s not half-naked she’s totally naked. Jeff is maybe not quite the archetypal clean-cut all-American boy (he’s spent several years in exotic and often exciting places) but Regina does make him just a tad uncomfortable. When she starts dancing for him he’s even more uncomfortable. Regina’s dance is the sort of dance that gets a man’s attention. He then commits what Regina considers to be a major social faux pas. He turns down her offer of sex.

Jeff can’t really decide which of the two women, Regina and Nicole, is the more dangerous to his peace of mind. They both seem likely to slot into the femme fatale category.

The package Nicole handed to Jeff early on is effectively a McGuffin. All that matters is that everybody seems to want that package.

There’s no graphic violence but there’s a great deal of action and the pacing is relentless. The plot twists and turns in a pleasing way. Jeff is a rather hapless hero. He’s not stupid and he can handle himself in a fight but he’s hapless because he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. His efforts to take control of the situation leave him more confused than ever. But he’s likeable, he doesn’t lack courage and he tries his best.

Fleishman’s prose style is lively. There’s plenty of the atmosphere of the Mysterious Orient that was so hugely popular in pop culture at that time.

There’s no actual sex but there’s plenty of sexiness, which is often more fun.

Danger in Paradise offers excitement, intrigue, dangerous sexy women (often with bare breasts), romance and a very solid plot. Very enjoyable, and highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Fleischman’s Counterspy Express and Shanghai Flame. They’re both excellent.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Day Keene's Joy House

American writer Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969) wrote more than fifty crime novels under the name Day Keene. Joy House was published in 1954.

Mark Harris wakes up in a mission. He has no idea what city he’s in or what the date is, or even what month it is. He doesn’t remember anything about the previous five weeks. He was too drunk. He does however remember what happened before that. For example he remembers shooting his wife. He also remembers that he was a very successful trial lawyer. Not however a very ethical one. Had he been ethical he would not have had to shoot his wife.

He assumes the California cops are searching for him so it’s a bit of a relief to discover he’s now in Chicago. It’s an even bigger relief when he discovers that the cops are not searching for him after all. But his problems are not over. Cass will still be searching for him. Cass is his late wife’s brother. Cass is a gangster. Mark knows that Cass will kill him when he finds him.

In the meantime he’s in this mission. He gets preached to, which doesn’t impress him very much but if you don’t let them preach to you they won’t feed you. There are compensations. Mrs Hill is the major compensation. She helps out at the mission. Mrs Hill is a widow, she’s about thirty, she’s petite and pretty and blonde. She’s remarkably nice to him. She says she’ll get him a job. Which she does. She offers him a job as her chauffeur.

Everybody at the mission tells him that Mrs Hill is crazy but they won’t say why. In fact they don’t seem to know what’s crazy about her. They just know that she’s crazy.

She’s also rich. Rich and crazy can be a dangerous combination. She lives in a strange house - a mansion in a sum neighbourhood, richly furnished but with all the windows boarded up. It’s a slightly depressing house, hence the ironic title of the novel.

Mark forms his own theory. She’s been a widow for ten years. He cannot imagine how a woman could live without sex for ten years. He figures that she picks up men at thew mission. Men who aren’t really bums, men who are simply going through a rough patch. She picks them out, employs them as her chauffeur and uses them as bed companions.

That’s his initial theory but it soon gets blown out of the water. He comes up with a new theory. She really has gone without sex for ten years and now she just can’t stand it any longer.

Mark is good at coming up with theories to explain women, but his theories don’t seem to work out where Mrs Hill is concerned.

He does seem to correct in his assumption that she wants to sleep with him but then she pulls a few unexpected twists on him.

Even when he finds out that, like him, she has dark secrets in her past he still can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together.

And there are pieces of that jigsaw that he can’t fit in anywhere and he isn’t even sure if they are part of the jigsaw.

The final resolution of the puzzle is handled pretty neatly. It all feels right. And the ending is very noir, but not necessarily in a totally conventional noir way.

This is however very definitely noir fiction. Mark isn’t a particularly admirable human being and Mrs Hill may or may not be a femme fatale.

It’s also very definitely an erotic noir thriller. The sex isn’t the least bit graphic but it’s eroticism that drives much of the plot. And in the case of at least one major character it’s a very unhealthy eroticism. In fact you could argue that all the eroticism in this novel is at least somewhat unhealthy.

Keene’s prose is in keeping with the very dark cynical tone of the book.

Joy House is a nasty little minor noir masterpiece. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Day Keene’s Sleep With the Devil, another noir classic (although a lot more violent than Joy House) and Wake Up to Murder (which is quite good). All three novels are included in a Stark House Crime Classics triple-header paperback edition.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Renegade Swords

Renegade Swords
is a sword-and-sorcery anthology from DMR Press and as usual they’ve come up with an interesting mix of stories.

The House of Arabu is a fairly early Robert E. Howard story. It was apparently written in 1929 but was unpublished during his lifetime, eventually seeing the light of day (under the title Witch from Hell's Kitchen) in the Avon Fantasy Reader in 1952. At this stage Howard was still experimenting with the new sword-and-sorcery genre (which he had more or less invented).

The House of Arabu takes place in a quasi-historical rather than a fantasy setting, Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age. This is the only story Howard wrote featuring Pyrrhas the Argive. This was almost certainly not because there was anything wrong with the character (he’s a colourful proto-Conan) but because Howard realised that sword-and-sorcery tales were going to work better in a more overtly fantasy setting rather than an historical setting.

And this is definitely a sword-and-sorcery tale. There’s the loner barbarian hero, there’s an atmosphere of supernatural menace.

Other sword-and-sorcery writers have equalled or even surpassed Robert E. Howard in some areas but nobody has ever matched the raw vitality of Howard’s writing, and no-one has ever created barbarian heroes as convincingly barbarian as Howard’s. Pyrrhas is not a civilised man. He has the mercurial nature, the superstitious outlook and the casual almost innocent cruelty that typifies a Howard barbarian hero.

Necromancy in Naat is one of Clark Ashton Smith’s best-known stories. Nobody could match Smith when it came to creating an atmosphere of decadence, decay, degeneracy and doom. A prince’s search for his beloved, kidnapped by slavers, takes him to Naat, the dread island of the necromancers from which no man has ever escaped alive. He finds his beloved but it’s not the joyous reunion for which he had hoped. And he faces an almost unimaginably horrible fate. Nobody’s sorcerers were as evil and depraved as Smith’s. A superb story. This is claimed to be the complete text of the story, unpublished until recently. The original published version appeared in Weird Tales in 1936.

The Woman of the Wood  by A. Merritt (published in Weird Tales in 1926) is about a scientist named McKay who talks to trees. And they talk back to him. He is drawn into their world, a world of strange tree-women. The trees are at war with three men. The men want to destroy the trees. The trees want to destroy the men. McKay wants to help the tree-women. He’ll do anything for them. Maybe even kill.

Merritt was one of the greatest and most imaginative of the pulp writers. This is a very strange story and maybe nobody else could have pulled it off.

Slaughter of the Gods, dating from the late 80s, was the final story written by Manly Wade Wellman featuring his hero Kardios, the last survivor of Atlantis. The other five Kardios tales are included in the excellent DMR Press volume Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria. The Kardios stories are fine examples of sword-and-sorcery and Slaughter of the Gods is excellent. Kardios arrives in a city that has no kings, only gods. The real ruler seems to be a goddess. Kardios has his suspicions about the nature of these gods and his suspicions are well-founded. The goddess worries him a little as well. He has sex with her and it’s very nice but then she gets the idea that she now owns him. A neat little story.

Lin Carter’s People of the Dragon (1976) is a prehistoric tale of a tribe migrating southwards to escape from a land that is increasingly a nightmare of snow and ice. A young hunter named Junga sets out to find his father and brothers who failed to return from a hunt. Junga encounters an unimaginable horror but it teaches him a number of things that are essential to the tribe’s survival. A fairly decent story.

Lin Carter’s The Pillars of Hell (1977) is a kind of sequel to People of the Dragon. Carter intended to write a series of stories about the prehistoric tribe who called themselves the People of the Dragon, with each story taking place one generation later. Characters who were young men in one story would appear as old men in the following story. It was an idea with potential and it’s perhaps a pity that he ended up writing just these two stories. The hero of The Pillars of Hell is the son of Junga, the protagonist of People of the Dragon.

The tribe’s southward trek has taken them into barren desert country where fresh horrors await them. Members of the tribe start wandering off into the desert and are never seen again. The hero discovers that they face an appalling unseen enemy. An excellent story.

The Rune-Sword of Jutenheim by Glenn Rahman and Richard L. Tierney dates from 1985 and includes everything you’d want in a sword-and-sorcery tale - a doom-laden atmosphere, a brave Viking warrior, a sexy giantess, an evil sorcerer, magic swords, an epic struggle between the gods. It’s all pretty conventional but it’s done with style and energy and it’s fun.

Princess of Chaos by Bryce Walton appeared in Planet Stories in 1947. It takes place on Venus. Moljar is half-Terran half-Martian gladiator. He belongs to the Princess Alhone. Alhone is not entirely human. She’s covered in fur. She’s a kind of catwoman. Moljar lives for one thing only. One day he intends to kill Princess Alhone, skin her and present her pelt to his tribe as a trophy.

In the arena Moljar meets Mahra. She’s a gladiator (should that be gladiatrix?) She’s a Terran but she’s also a mutant. Nobody likes half-breeds like Moljar and nobody likes mutants so they should get along, but they don’t. Then the Mistmen attack and Alhone offers Muljar a mission. Mahra accompanies him because she figures they have a better chance of survival together.

There’s a lot Muljar doesn’t know about Venus and there’s a great deal he doesn’t know about Princess Alhone. Almost everything he thought he did know turns out to be wrong.

There’s action in generous quantities and a few cool science fictional ideas. This is obviously a sword-and-planet rather than a sword-and-sorcery tale, and it’s a very good one.

Final Thoughts

This is a fairly strong collection embracing both conventional sword-and-sorcery stories and stories that either fit into related genres or don’t fit neatly into any genre. Either way it’s highly recommended.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Orrie Hitt’s She Got What She Wanted

Orrie Hitt’s 1954 novel She Got What She Wanted is fairly typical of a lot of his work. It’s a blend of noir fiction and sleaze fiction.

Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) wrote around 150 novels, most of them paperback originals. He started his career writing crime novels. Much of his sleaze fiction is in fact crime fiction with often a very strong noir fiction flavour. When he switched genres all he really did was to add strong dashes of sleaze to what he was already doing. It’s always a mistake to assume that the writers of sleaze fiction were untalented hacks. Many were very talented writers who went on to have illustrious careers in other genres. And even those who were never able to escape the sleaze fiction ghetto were often very fine writers. That certainly applies to Orrie Hitt. His books compare quite favourably to most of the noir fiction of the 50s and early 60s.

Della Banners is around twenty and she hasn’t had much of a life. She lives on a run-down farm just outside a small hick town. Her father Chuck is a likeable enough guy but he hates work and he’s always cooking up crooked schemes to get money without working for it. He’s not very successful at it. He has a whole bunch of finance companies pursing him. Della has had enough. She’s leaving and heading for the big city. Well, not exactly the big city. Port Benton isn’t big and it isn’t much of a city. She’ll need a job, and they’re hard to come by.

Then Jack turns up on her doorstep. Jack is a salesman for a shingling company. They have two types of salesmen. The canvassers make the initial approach and persuade people to talk to the other type of salesmen - the closers. The closers. The closers are the ones who get the customer to sign on the dotted line. Jack figures that Della would be an ideal canvasser. Della thinks it sounds like a promising way to earn a living. The Wyandot company isn’t exactly honest and it’s not exactly crooked.

Della doesn’t care. Money is money. She wants money. She knows that with her stunning looks and spectacular figure she won’t have much trouble attracting customers for the company. She turns out to be an amazingly good saleswoman.

Jack is a slight complication. They sleep together off and on (he’s married but that’s no obstacle) and she’s not sure if she really cares about him. She is sure that she cares about money.

Gaining promotion with the company proves easy. The combination of her sales skills and her bedroom skills makes sure of that. She isn’t troubled by the idea of using her body to get ahead.

She and Jack have figured out that they can make a lot of money honestly, and even more money dishonestly. Defrauding customers if profitable and defrauding the company is even more profitable. It’s just a matter of how long they can get away with it, and how long before her complicated relationship with Jack gets just too complicated.

Della is definitely a bad girl. She’s a crook and she’s no more honest in her personal relationships than she is in her business dealings. We don’t entirely lose sympathy for her however. It isn’t surprising that her upbringing has made her cynical, and has made it difficult for her to make an emotional commitment. She assumes that people will let her down, because her family always let her down, and she doesn’t see much reason to care about people. And, to be honest, her experiences with people since she left the farm would not encourage anyone to take a rosy view of human nature.

She has a nice apartment, a fancy car and expensive clothes but she’s never satisfied. Maybe more money will make her happy. She doesn’t really consider the possibility that she might be unhappy no matter how much money she has.

The book has a sleazy atmosphere and there’s plenty of sex going on but we don’t get even moderately graphic descriptions. Sleaze fiction in the 50s was like strip-tease in the 50s - it was all about the tease.

She Got What She Wanted is really pure noir fiction. It deals a good deal with sex, but then sex is one of the main drivers of the action in a very large proportion of noir fiction. As noir fiction She Got What She Wanted is excellent, with a memorable noir heroine (or at least noir protagonist since she’s hardly a heroine). Highly recommended.

Monday, February 27, 2023

John Flagg's The Lady and the Cheetah

John Gearon wrote eight spy/crime novels between 1950 and 1961 using the pseudonym John Flagg. All were Fawcett Gold Medal editions. The Lady and the Cheetah dates from 1951.

Rafferty Valois is an American newspaperman. Or rather, an ex-newspaperman. He’s somewhere on the Riviera. He doesn’t know how he got there. He’s also not sure where Loretta came from. Loretta is the girl he’s with.

Something strange is happening to Rafferty. People are treating him as if he’s famous. Even before he was fired he wasn’t the least bit famous.

He is informed that the Countess Becellini wants to see him immediately. He isn’t interested, until he finds himself given a thousand dollars as a retainer. He has never seen so much money before. He has no idea why the Countess wants to employ him but for a thousand dollars he doesn’t care. There are very few things he wouldn’t do for a thousand bucks.

The Countess wants his services in a rather delicate matter. There are some letters which have fallen into the wrong hands. She wants Rafferty to get them back for her. She chose him for the job because she knows he has so much experience in matters of international intrigue. That puzzles Rafferty because he has no experience at all in such matters.

Rafferty soon realises that he is mixed up in a very complicated intrigue. It involves the Countess, her headstrong daughter Bianca, a sleazy Italian prince, a callow but mysterious young American and a gangster. It all seems to be something to do with Bianca’s upcoming marriage to the King of Movania.

That’s not as big a deal as it stands. King Michel has never actually been king. His father was deposed years earlier. And Movania is a small insignificant country. King Michel has been raised in America. There are rumours of a conspiracy to restore the monarchy in Movania but rumours about coups in tiny tinpot countries are commonplace enough. The marriage is however very important to Countess Becellini. It is her chance to restore her social position. It seems that somebody doesn’t want this marriage to go ahead.

Countess Becellini is not the only person who wants to employ Rafferty. Lots of people want the services of the famous and daring adventurer. Rafferty still can’t figure out where this reputation of his comes from.

Rafferty is a nice enough guy. He’s willing to work for anybody if they’re willing to pay him large amounts of money but he certainly has no intention of getting involved in anything illegal or anything nasty like murder. So when one of the people mixed up in this complicated affair does get murdered he’s not very happy about it.

Rafferty’s weakness is that he’s always getting persuaded to help out damsels in distress and when such a damsel needs to be rescued he just can’t say no.

This is not a straightforward spy thriller but it certainly involves international intrigue so it can be considered to fall into the genre of spy thrillers. It’s definitely not in the style of the new breed of spy thrillers that emerged in the 1950s with the success of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. It has more of the feel the feel of a 1940s spy thriller like Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon. Although written in 1951 the basic story actually seems in some ways more like something out of the 1920s or 30s. The plot is reminiscent of thrillers of that period such as Dornford Yates’ Blood Royal.

I happen to like that older style of thriller so I don’t mind the slightly old-fashioned feel.

There’s not much action (although there's a decent action finale). It’s not an action spy thriller. There is however mystery and suspense.

There are also plenty of sexual dramas. Rafferty likes women. He likes them a lot. There are suggestions that some of the characters have dark sexual secrets to hide. It’s also pretty clear that Loretta is a whore. She is however a really nice girl. While the book is old-fashioned in some ways its honest and open approach to sex is more in tune with the newer style of spy thriller that would shortly start to emerge.

The plot has some satisfying twists. The ending is not quite what I expected. Or at least Rafferty’s actions at the end are slightly unexpected. But the ending works extremely well.

And there is a cheetah. Her name is Iris and she will play an important part in the story at one point.

The Lady and the Cheetah is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller. It’s highly recommended.

Stark House have reprinted The Lady and the Cheetah in a two-novel paperback edition paired with another John Flagg spy thriller, Death and the Naked Lady (which is also very good). I’ve also reviewed another of his spy novels, The Persian Cat.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Theodore Roscoe's Z Is For Zombie

Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992) was an American pulp writer and also a distinguished naval historian. Like most pulp writers he worked in a number of different genres. If you wanted to make a decent living as a pulp writer it was desirable to be able to sell stories to as many different pulp magazines as possible which meant you pretty much had to write in multiple genres. Roscoe wrote excellent adventure tales and dabbled in fantasy and horror and he also wrote murder mysteries. Z Is For Zombie, published in serial form in Argosy in 1937, spans at least three and possibly four different genres. It’s a blend of horror (with voodoo elements of course), adventure in the tropics, spy thriller and murder mystery. And the murder mystery involves an impossible crime.

The setting is Haiti (Roscoe had actually visited Haiti). Dr Jim Ranier is in a waterfront dive in a remote village in Haiti and he’s drunk. That’s not unusual. He spends a lot of time drunk. He had at one time been a very successful surgeon but he lost everything in the stock market crash and now he’s a ship doctor on a tramp steamer and when he’s not drunk he spends his time feeling sorry for himself. He had been married, until his wife broke the news to him that while she was delighted to be married to a rich successful surgeon she had no interest whatsoever in being married to a struggling small town doctor. So Ranier has some valid reasons to feel sorry for himself.

Ranier and a number of passengers from the steamer have gone ashore intending to drive along the coast (getting a look at the real Haiti) before picking up the ship again at Port-au-Prince.

Being drunk he gets into an argument with one of the passengers, a German named Haarman, and he gets slugged and thrown out into the street. He wanders back into the bar and finds himself a quiet corner in which to drink and brood. He notices that Haarman is awfully quiet now. Too quiet. In fact the guy seems dead. He’s not dead, but he’s dying. With a knife wound in the back. But that’s impossible. Nobody could have stabbed him. Someone would have seen it happen. And the knife is nowhere to be found.

Ranier is a drunk but he’s still a doctor and he has to try to save Haarman. There’s a small hospital nearby, run by a Dr Eberhardt. And now the weird fiction elements start to emerge. Dr Eberhardt is nowhere to be found. His laboratory has been wrecked. His nurse (and niece although we later discover she’s not really his niece), a German girl named Laïs Engles, is mystified. She reveals that Dr Eberhardt had been working on some very strange research, something to do with reanimating dead tissue. Maybe even reanimating dead people. And there are all those frogs. Hundreds of them. It’s all a bit strange. Things get even stranger when Haarman dies. It appears that after dying Haarman got up and left.

That’s not the end of the strangeness. Not by a long chalk. Laïs Engles recognises Haarman. The last time she saw him was fourteen years ago and he was dead at the time. Now he’s dead again. Maybe.

Laïs has a very strange story to tell. A story of wartime intrigue and top-secret missions and journeys through the Amazon jungles and shipwreck. The poor girl is clearly mad. But Ranier doesn’t think she is mad. He’s convinced she’s telling the truth. Or at least that she thinks she’s telling the truth. Some of it may actually be true. More worrying is the possibility that all of her story is true.

The book now becomes a crazy journey from graveyard to graveyard, with corpses that apparently not only get up and walk, they undertake cross-country travels.

To add to the fun the locals are convinced that they’re dealing with evil voodoo witch doctors and they know how to deal with people like that - you hunt them down and kill them or you burn them out if they’re hiding. There are also people running around with guns taking pot shots at each other and soon there are more corpses. These ones really are dead. Probably.

The really fun part is that because this is a story from an adventure pulp rather than a detective pulp the reader can’t be entirely sure there’s going to be a rational explanation, and indeed it’s hard to imagine a rational explanation that would make sense.

Roscoe knows what he’s doing. He brings all the crazy plot strands together and gives us a wholly satisfying resolution although naturally I’m not going to give you any hints about that resolution. Whether there’s any actual supernatural element involved is something else I’m not going to tell you. There is however a solid murder mystery plot here.

The impossible crime angle might disappoint those who love amazingly complex impossible crimes but this one at least has the virtue of being totally plausible.

The novel was originally serialised in six parts so at times Roscoe gives us brief recaps of previous events. The novel does not appear to have been edited in any way, which is a very good thing. Once you succumb to the temptation to do a bit of editing the danger is that you’ll start thinking your readers are over-sensitive children and you’ll start editing out all the politically incorrect stuff. Happily Steeger Books have reprinted Z Is For Zombie in all its politically incorrect glory.

You can enjoy this book as an outrageous but well-crafted murder mystery but it’s equally enjoyable as an adventure tale and a horror story. Whichever way you take it it’s superbly written (Roscoe’s prose is an absolute joy) and immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended.

I bought this book after reading the glowing review at Beneath the Stains of Time. There’s another fine review at The Invisible Event.

I’ve reviewed a couple of collections of Rocoe’s short stories - The Emperor of Doom and Blood Ritual. They’re both well worth a look.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Lorenz Heller's Dead Wrong

New Jersey-born Lorenz F. Heller (1910-1965) worked as a newspaperman and a seaman before turning to writing. He wrote crime fiction under a variety of pseudonyms including Frederick Lorenz and Larry Holden. Dead Wrong, published in 1957, was one of the three books he wrote as Larry Holden.

Joe Malone (the hero and narrator) owns a trucking company. The company owns a grand total of one truck. Joe is just getting by. It isn’t easy but he’s content enough. Joe’s a bit of a rough diamond, he grew up in a bad neighbourhood and he’s no Boy Scout. He is however on the whole an honest law-abiding citizen.

Then Harry Loomis gets in touch with him. Joe had been a boxer at one time which is when he met Harry. They’ve never been more than occasional drinking buddies. Harry says he has a present for Joe but Joe figures it’s just another of Harry’s usual lame jokes.

Then Harry’s daughter Claire shows up on his doorstep. She wants to wait at Joe’s apartment until Harry turns up. She’s not exactly close to dead old Dad. She hasn’t set eyes on him for twenty years, not since he walked out on her and her mother. Now Claire has received a letter from Harry. He tells her he’s ill but he’s about to come into a lot of money and the two of them can move to Florida. Claire can look after him and he’ll set Claire up financially. Harry doesn’t show, Joe and Claire get worried.

It’s a bit of a mystery but it isn’t really any of Joe’s business. On the other hand he takes a liking to Claire. She’s a nice decent normal girl. He’s never met one of those before.

Then the police show up and Joe discovers he’s the prime suspect in a murder case.

Joe also, quite unexpectedly, runs into two people from his past. One is Bunny Riordan, not just a thug but crazy as well. The other is Janice Noonan. She was Joe’s first love. Janice is now a high-class night-club singer, well out of Joe’s league.

The key to what’s going on seems to be that present Harry sent to Joe. Joe has no idea what is in the package but whatever it is it seems that people are prepared to kill for it. And Joe has absolutely no idea where it is or what it contains. He never received it.

There are a number of shady or potentially shady characters with whom Janice is involved, any one of whom might possibly have been mixed up in some serious criminal enterprise.

Joe is gradually drawn into a nightmare. He can’t persuade the police that he’s not involved in some major criminal conspiracy. People are getting killed. Joe gets beaten up more than once. There are very nasty very dangerous people involved. Joe is caught in the middle of something but he has no idea what it is. Somehow he’s going to have to figure it out.

Joe is a fairly likeable hero. He’s not the smartest guy in the world but he isn’t dumb. He’s a pretty tough guy but he’s no thug.

There’s a solid enough mystery plot here but this is very much noir fiction, with a flawed but basically decent protagonist. The mystery is not just the identity of the murderer but more importantly in this story the reason for the murder.

There are two females in the story who could quite easily turn out to be femmes fatales, Claire and Janice. One of them seems like a good girl type and one seems likely to be a bad girl but in noir fiction you never can tell.

The prose is suitably hardboiled. There’s no real sleaze but plenty of violence.

Dead Wrong is a fine example of noir fiction by a writer who is rather overlooked. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed another book by this author, The Savage Chase (written under the name Frederick Lorenz in 1954) and that one is absolutely superb.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Laurence Manning's World of the Mist

Laurence Manning (1899-1972) was a Canadian writer of science fiction. He wrote stories for pulp magazines from 1928 to 1935 after which he devoted himself to his nursery business although he produced one or two later stories. His short novel World of the Mist, published in two parts by Wonder Stories in 1935, was one of his last science fiction stories.

You have to bear in mind the historical background to this novel. In 1935 people were just starting to get excited by the latest advances in physics. People still didn’t know what to make of quantum mechanics but Einstein’s theories had captured the public imagination. People were starting to get the idea that the universe might be a very strange place indeed. And they’d started on all sorts of speculations on the implications of Einstein’s theories. Some of these speculations were totally and completely nuts but they were often highly entertaining as the basis for science fiction stories.

There was also a growing obsession with the idea of other dimensions - the fourth dimension, the fifth dimension, maybe lots of dimensions. Maybe whole alternative realities. World of the Mist taps into these growing obsessions in a really major way.

Three guys are discussing the possibilities of other dimensions. They reason that humans can only exist in three dimensions, but maybe we exist in the first, second and third dimensions and perhaps humans could exist in the fourth, fifth and sixth dimensions. They come up with the idea that the only way to access such dimensions would be by using gravity. But what you’d need would be something nice and compact in size but with the enormous mass necessary to generate an incredibly powerful gravitational field.

They figure that the right material would be debris from an exploded star. They further speculate that there are thousands of meteorites orbiting Earth and some of those meteorites might be composed of exploded star stuff. Of course you’d have to get into orbit to find those meteorites so you’d need a spaceship. By a stroke of good fortune two of the guys, Wadsley and Cogger, have the necessary know-how. And the third guy, Trench (the narrator of the story), has the money. He has pots of money.

They build their spaceship and they find a meteorite that looks really promising. They decide to investigate it up close.

And that’s where the story starts to get seriously weird. I’m not going to spoil things by telling you anything about the weirdness other than the fact that what they find is even stranger than their wild theories.

This is definitely an attempt to do what would later be called hard science fiction (even if the science it’s based on is wildly and outrageously speculative and crazy). But the emphasis is on the scientific stuff. This is not space opera. You won’t find any space battles or ray guns in this story.

There is however plenty of danger and excitement. And while our spacefarers have discovered a whole new universe they face one big problem - how are they ever going to get back to our reality?

Manning really does come up with some intriguingly mind-bending off-the-wall stuff. This is wildly imaginative writing.

There’s also just a trace of philosophical and maybe even religious or quasi-religious speculation. Wadsley is a bit obsessed by ghosts and the afterlife.

Structurally the book follows a pattern that was very popular at the time. It’s a story told by someone to someone else. The narrator of what might be called the framing story is a lighthouse keeper named Jellicoe who has picked up some strange radio messages which he has transcribed. The bulk of the book is the story as set down by Jellicoe, a story narrated by Trench.

Finding a workable ending for the story would have been a challenge but Manning manages it rather well.

World of the Mist is thoroughly enjoyable science fiction that attempts to probe the fringes of human knowledge of how the universe works, as that knowledge stood in 1935. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Lawrence Block's Born To Be Bad

Born To Be Bad, published in 1959, is one of the numerous sleaze novels Lawrence Block wrote using the pseudonym Sheldon Lord. This was long before Block established himself as a major crime writer.

This is the story of Rita Morales. Rita is Cuban. She lives in a dump in Miami with her mother and her five brothers and sisters. They all live in one room. Rita is fifteen. Her mother Carmen is a whore, but not a very successful one. Rita is fed up. She wants to make something of herself. She figures she’ll have to go to New York to make it. She’ll need money to do that. She thinks Pardo, a small-time grifter, might give her fifty dollars if she sleeps with him. She doesn’t consider that sleeping with Pardo for money would be prostitution. She’s not a whore like her mother. This is just a business transaction. Rita has a real talent for rationalising things.

In New York she’s going to need a job. She’s already found a friend, Lucia. Lucia tells her that show business is her best option. With Rita’s breathtaking body she could easily get a job in the chorus. A strip club would be a good place to start. Rita gets a job at the Cinderella Club. She seals the deal by sleeping with the manager of the club, a sleazebag named Finch. But Rita is not a prostitute. It’s just a business transaction.

Rita gets on well with Lucia but Lucia puzzles her. Lucia has pornographic pictures plastered all over the walls of her room at the rooming house. And Lucia sometimes looks at Rita in a funny way. She looks at Rita’s body in a funny way.

Rita is making a hundred dollars a week but she wants a lot more out of life than that. She’s started to figure that marrying a rich guy would be a good long-term plan. In the meantime she wants Annie Cross’s job. Annie is the specialty act at the club. She’s a contortionist. Rita comes up with a routine that makes every other act at the club look tame. Now Rita is making $150 a week.

Rita thinks she’s found the guy she wants to marry. She doesn’t love him but she will be a good wife to him and he looks like he’s going to be a big success in advertising. Her highest ambition now is to have a nice little place in Connecticut.

Rita has things planned out but a number of things happen that seem destined to bring her dreams crashing to the ground.

Sleaze fiction overlapped in a major way with noir fiction. Born To Be Bad isn’t noir but it has a few noir touches.

It is of course very very tame by later standards. It has a bit of an erotic kick at times but this most definitely is not a book that could by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as pornographic.

One of the great things about the sleaze fiction of the 50s and 60s is that it’s not an actual genre. It doesn’t have genre rules and conventions the way westerns or science fiction or the detective stories of the golden age have. To have a career as a sleaze writer all you needed to do was to write books with the necessary amount of sexual content - enough to titillate readers but not so much that you were going to get into trouble with society’s moral watchdogs. If you got that balance write you could pretty much write whatever you wanted. Some sleaze fiction is in fact pure noir fiction. Some is crime fiction, or includes some crime content. Some sleaze novels are melodramas or sexy romances. You never know what you’re going to get.

And you never know if you’re going to get a downbeat ending or an upbeat ending. The publishers didn’t seem to mind either way. Sometimes sleaze novels that seem to be heading for happy endings actually deliver tragic endings. In other cases a character who seems destined for destruction finds not just redemption but happiness. Again, you never know what to expect. Block throws in some very unexpected plot twists in this novel.

A lot of the writers of sleaze novels also happened to be extremely good writers. Some went on to glittering careers in more respectable genres. Even those who never broke out of the sleaze ghetto, writers like Orrie Hitt, were often quite capable writers.

Judging by other Sheldon Lord books I’ve read I’d say that Block used sleaze fiction as a way of exploring the complexities of human relationships (both emotional and sexual). I know that sounds like a pretentious claim to make about books that were considered at the time to be pornographic but remember that Block went on to be a very accomplished and admired writer. His sleaze novels were written quickly for money but when you’re a good writer you just can’t help yourself - you end up writing good books.

Born To Be Bad is a slightly noirish melodrama that deals with human relationships in an honest and grown-up way. Rita is an intriguing character. At times you’re horrified by her while at other times you find yourself being very sympathetic to her. She’s complicated.

Born To Be Bad is also a very entertaining story. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed another novel Block wrote as Sheldon Lord, Kept. It’s interesting because it’s basically a romance with a bit more sex than you’d have found in the average romance novel of that era. It’s worth reading as well.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

John Flagg's Death and the Naked Lady

Between 1950 and 1961 John Gearon wrote eight espionage/crime novels using the pseudonym John Flagg. All were Fawcett Gold Medal editions. Death and the Naked Lady came out in 1951.

Mac McLean (the narrator-hero) had been an American serviceman in Europe during the war. At the end of the war he started to make a name for himself as a night-club singer in Paris. In fact he made quite a big name for himself. Now he’s aboard the French ocean liner Dauphiné headed for New York and for what could be a really big career break.

On the Dauphiné he meets the Naked Lady.

And he discovers that he’s in an awkward situation. It’s those jade owls in his luggage. They’re very very valuable and they don’t belong to him. He has no idea how they got there but they could tie him to a murder. He thinks he’s being set up but he doesn’t know why.

And he’s mixed up with two women, possibly dangerous women.

One of the women is Irene. He’s having an affair with her. She’s married to the rich middle-aged Lord Harcourt, very much a member of the English Establishment. Albert Harcourt (Irene’s husband) doesn’t object to his wife’s sexual dalliances. Or at least that’s what Mac assumes.

The other woman is the Naked Lady. She’s a former nude dancer which is why he’s known as the Naked Lady. Her name is Elisabeth. She’s now married to a wealthy South American businessman who is rumoured to be involved in gun-running and fomenting revolutions. Mac hasn’t slept with the Naked Lady yet but it’s on the cards and Mac suspects that her husband Joseph Pasquela might not so tolerant of his wife’s sexual adventures.

There’s a third woman floating about as well, a rising Hollywood movie star with remarkable breasts. They’re Lila’s only real assets but they’re impressive enough to make her a movie star. So make that three dangerous women.

Mac is a cynical American, or at least he thinks he’s cynical. He’s definitely on the make. He’s experienced poverty and now he’s a successful singer and enjoying the good things of life and he has no desire to return to poverty. Mac is a womaniser and while nobody expects entertainers to live like monks he is vaguely aware that he should be a bit more discreet. Some husbands can be very tiresome if you sleep with their wives.

Mac soon finds himself hopelessly out of his depths. There’s at least one sinister conspiracy afoot and it has political ramifications but it’s by no means certain it’s the only conspiracy. There may be multiple players in this dangerous game. Any one of whom could be pulling Mac’s strings. He already faces the prospect of being framed for one murder and he might be framed for the second murder as well, the murder that takes place on the ship.

Mac needs help but where can he turn? One of the women might be his best chance, but which of them can he trust? And he’s just as likely to fall in love with one of these dames. For a man who thinks of himself as a cynic and a cold-blooded womaniser he’s remarkably susceptible to romantic entanglements.

It’s a nicely devious little plot which keeps both Mac and the reader mystified.

The brief period from 1945 to the very early 50s was an extremely interesting period in the history of spy fiction. The Cold War wasn’t yet a major factor. The Soviet Union had been the loyal ally of Britain and the US against Hitler. The Soviets were not yet seen as a major menace. Spy writers were still obsessed with the Nazis. Germany had been defeated but the idea that the Nazis might make a comeback did not seem entirely ludicrous. At the very least the threat of a Nazi revival could still be made to seem plausible (indeed even in the 1960s this idea was still dusted off regularly in spy fiction and especially in TV spy series).

Which means that in a spy novel written in 1951 you can’t assume the bad guys will turn out to be the communists. And while Nazis were still popular villains some spy writers would offer up villains who were neither Nazis nor communists. This novel still definitely belongs to the pre-Cold War era of spy fiction.

This book also belongs to the Reluctant Spy genre, a genre in which the great Eric Ambler specialised in the early part of his career. Death and the Naked Lady is much pulpier than Ambler but it still has a hero who is an innocent caught up in a conspiracy which he doesn’t understand.

Mac McLean is a sympathetic enough hero. He’s not overly bright but he’s not stupid either. He has a weakness for women but mostly he chases the sorts of women who want to get caught. He’s not a seducer of of sweet young innocents. He’s not entirely honest, but he’s fairly honest. He’s not an idealist and he doesn’t mind compromising his principles a little but he’s basically a decent guy. He makes mistakes but he perseveres. Not that he has much choice. He knows that his life on the line.

The author provides us with three femmes fatales, all of them quite different but all of them glamorous and sexy and mysterious.

It’s a fast-moving story with some action and some decent suspense and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve also read and reviewed the first John Flagg spy novel, The Persian Cat, and it’s a lot of fun as well.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Johnston McCulley’s King of Chaos

Steeger Press have reprinted five Johnston McCulley novels in a mammoth omnibus edition, King of Chaos. It’s a great chance to discover just how interesting a writer McCulley was.

American writer Johnston McCulley (1883-1958) is an important figure in the history of adventure fiction and pulp fiction who is now sadly neglected. He is remembered mainly as the creator of Zorro but while the various Zorro movies and the 1960s TV series have kept Zorro alive as a pop culture icon McCulley’s original Zorro novels and stories are all but forgotten.

McCulley wrote several Zorro novels and numerous short stories but they were only a part of his vast output. He created a number of memorable pulp heroes, most notably The Black Star, The Spider and The Crimson Clown.

The title story, King of Chaos, was originally published in Argosy in 1912. This novel belongs more to the tradition of late Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction than to what we would normally think of as the pulp tradition. It has a definite Ruritanian flavour. In fact the theme of a man playing a royal role to which he may or may not be entitled is fairly obviously going to remind readers of Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure classic The Prisoner of Zenda. And the tone is also not dissimilar.

Carl Henderson is twenty-one years old and he’s an obscure clerk in a brokerage office in Seattle. He’s rather surprised to find himself kidnapped. He awakes on board a steam yacht heading out to sea. He does not awaken in a filthy hold or a cell. He awakens in a luxuriously appointed stateroom. And everyone keeps referring to him as Your Majesty.

A certain Lord Bellan claims to be Carl’s prime minister. He assures Carl that the young man is in fact a king, but he cannot tell him where his realm is. The yacht’s secret destination is Carl’s kingdom.

Being a king turns out to be a rather difficult and wearisome task. There are two factions on board the yacht. One faction follows Lord Bellan. The other follows the yacht’s master, Captain Barrington. There is bad blood between Bellan and Barrington. The reason for this is Lady Elizabeth Bellan, Lord Bellan’s sister. There’s a romantic triangle in which Carl has become unwittingly involved but Lord Bellan’s ambitions play a part as well. An experienced king would have trouble keeping the peace between these two factions. Carl does his best, with some assistance from the ship’s doctor (who is also the court physician), an Irishman named Michael Murphy. Carl also gets some unexpected aid from Lady Elizabeth Bellan’s charming younger sister Grace.

While the two factions are constantly at each other’s throats Lord Bellan still refuses to tell anyone what is actually going on, where the yacht is headed and how a humble clerk like Carl Henderson could possibly be a king.

Bellan eventually does have to reveal the truth, and it’s the kind of outrageous story you expect in a late Victorian/Edwardian adventure tale. Carl had a suspicion there might be pirates involved (there was a rumour in his family that his great grandfather had been a pirate), and that turns out to be correct.

When the royal yacht arrives at Carl’s kingdom there is more trouble for the young king to sort out.

His kingdom is perhaps not quite the kingdom he might have hoped for.

And being a king is not all fun and games. In fact Carl finds it to be a nightmare. He makes mistakes but the subsequent disasters are by no means all his fault. He learns about betrayal, and he learns to be a bit more wary about trusting people. He does learn about kingship along the way.

Anyone who has read McCulley’s original novel of Zorro is aware that McCulley disliked injustice and he particularly disliked abuse of power. These themes surface in King of Chaos as well.

The obvious influences on this tale would be Anthony Hope’s great Ruritanian adventure romances The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898), both of which I’ve reviewed here. There’s also a certain kinship with Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent 1888 short story The Man Who Would Be King.

I’ve also reviewed McCulley’s most famous book, The Mark of Zorro (1924, originally serialised as The Curse of Capistrano in 1919).

It’s a rather outlandish tale and it’s best not to think about the plausibility of the plot. King of Chaos is however quite entertaining and it’s recommended.