Sunday, December 31, 2023

Rogue Planet by E.C. Tubb (Space: 1999 TV tie-in novel)

E.C. Tubb’s Rogue Planet, the ninth of the Space: 1999 TV tie-in novels, published in 1977. It is an original novel, not a novelisation of episodes from the TV series. It’s based on Year One of the TV series.

It captures the feel of the TV series extremely well.

Fans of the TV series will enjoy this one and it's a pretty decent science fiction novel in its own right.

My full review can be here at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Richard E. Geis's Like Crazy, Man

Like Crazy, Man is a 1960 sleaze novel by Richard E. Geis. It was his debut novel. It belongs to the small but fascinating beatsploitation genre.

Jeff (who narrates the tale) is the advertising manager for a department store in Portland, Oregon. At the novel opens he’s in California, in Venice Beach, looking for his wife Dawn. She ran off with a lesbian and now she’s living among the beatniks. It wasn’t a happy marriage but Jeff needs to get her back. His boss only employs married men. If he has no wife he has no job.

This is a fish out of water story. Jeff is a square and he finds the beatniks bewildering.

His efforts to get Dawn back get off to a bad start. Her butch girlfriend beats him up. He gets drunk, which is his standard response to setbacks.

He spends the night with a soft-hearted hooker named Shirley who offers him a freebie and a place to stay. He’s grateful for both. He’s such a square he had no idea she was a hooker. He also had no idea that she had a lesbian girlfriend, Lena. Lena does not like men and she does not like Jeff.

Jeff movies into an apartment house full of beatniks. They get him high. He gets drunk again. He gets seduced by a crazy sexually insatiable beatnik chick named Rill.

All of this is not helping him to regain his wife. A wild beatnik party doesn’t help either.

Jeff’s life spirals out of control. Squares like Jeff can’t dig the beat scene at all.

Dealing with beatniks and lesbians is enough of a nightmare for Jeff but he also has to face up to his very conflicted feelings about his wife. He isn’t sure he really wants her back. And in the space of a couple of days he sleeps with Shirley, Rill, Lena and Rosemary. They’re all complicated women with their own issues to deal with getting sexually involved with any of them is not exactly conducive to Jeff’s psychological or emotional stability.

The crazy world of the beat scene has also unleashed Jeff’s wild side. He’s not sure he can deal with some of the things he’s done. He feels there’s no way out for him.

Jeff is not exactly a likeable protagonist. His biggest problem is the booze but when he starts thinking about that he needs a drink. He is not a happy drunk.

Neither the squares nor the beatniks come out of this story looking good.

It was a common practice for sleaze writers (and exploitation film-makers) in that era to include a square-up that seemed to come down strongly on the side of traditional morality. Like Crazy, Man certainly appears to condemn deviant behaviour but it didn’t do the author any good. Like a lot of writers, publishers, editors, artists and photographers at that time he found himself prosecuted for obscenity, almost went to prison and was persecuted by the US Government for several years.

Richard E. Geis also wrote lesbian sleaze novels under the name Peggy Swenson and then went on to write some really outrageous stuff which suggests that the apparent championing of traditional morality in Like Crazy, Man was simply an attempted square-up. I believe that Geis wrote other beatsploitation novels as well.

There are elements in this novel which will have some modern readers foaming at the mouth in rage, but I can’t reveal what those other elements are without revealing crucial spoilers.

Like Crazy, Man is a reasonably entertaining entry in an oddball genre. Recommended.

Stark House have included this novel in their three-novel paperback volume A Beatnik Trio.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Marvin H. Albert's The Gargoyle Conspiracy

The Gargoyle Conspiracy is a 1975 thriller by Marvin H. Albert.

Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) was a prolific American genre writer who wrote westerns, private eye thrillers and adventure thrillers under various pseudonyms from the early 50s to the mid-90s. The Gargoyle Conspiracy was one of the few books published under his own name. It’s a thriller about a terrorist plot, a very topical choice of subject matter in the mid-70s. Most of Albert’s books are pulp fiction, but very superior pulp fiction.

The Gargoyle Conspiracy is much more ambitious. This is Albert trying to do a Frederick Forsyth. There’s the same emphasis on meticulous research and on creating a very detailed and realistic background for the story.

The novel begins with a bungled terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner. The bomb explodes prematurely in the airport terminal, killing five people. A renegade Moroccan named Ahmed Bel Jahra planned the operation and its failure could mean the loss of Libyan support for his future plans. Those future plans involve the takeover of the Moroccan government. Bel Jahra knows his only chance is to come up with another operation so tempting that the Libyans will be unable to refuse to support him. Quite by accident he discovers a perfect opportunity. King Hussein of Jordan (hated by Arab guerrilla groups) and the American Secretary of State will be attending a party given by an ageing but famous artist on the Riviera. And Bel Jahra is confident that both these men can be assassinated. A lot of other people will have to be killed as well, but that doesn’t bother Bel Jahra.

Simon Hunter is a former cop now working for the State Department and he becomes obsessed with finding the man behind that attempt to blow up an airliner. Slowly Hunter becomes convinced that he has stumbled onto something really big.

The novel constantly intercuts between the two plot strands, Bel Jahra’s elaborate planning for that double assassination and Hunter’s patient painstaking efforts to prevent the terrorist coup.

Both plot strands are incredibly complex and detailed. Hunter has a few allies. There’s an ex-CIA man by the name of Shamsky, now fallen on hard times. And there are various unofficial contacts that Hunter has in various European police forces. As the evidence mounts that something big really really is in the wind he gets some assistance from other sources, such as the Israeli security service Mossad. But Hunter cannot rely on help from official channels in Europe. European governments totally reliant on Arab oil do not want to be seen as being openly opposed to Arab guerrilla groups.

Simon Hunter is a cop. He isn’t worried by the frustrations of routine police work. He knows that most of the leads he gets will turn out to dead ends but that’s something that a detective just has to accept. As each lead goes nowhere he turns to the next lead. He knows that if he follows up enough leads he must eventually get a break. His main problem is that he knows he doesn’t have much time but he has no way of knowing just how little time he might have. The evidence he has is tenuous but he is sure that a very major terrorist attack is on the way and he is fairly sure that the target is somewhere on the Riviera.

It all build to a satisfyingly nail-biting ending. Hunter still has nothing definite to go on and the clock is ticking.

Bel Jahra is breathtakingly ruthless. He is driven more by ambition than fanaticism. He wants power and terrorism is just a means to an end. He’s a character without any real depth but he does at least have plausible motivations.

Hunter is a man who has been without purpose since his wife’s tragic death a couple of years earlier. He’s a good cop doing his job but the reason for his obsession with this case (a reason he himself doesn’t fully understand) is that he needs to regain a sense of purpose in his life. He is acting most of the time without official sanction but he’s willing to risk his career. He has to crack this case. There’s nothing else in his life that matters. So there’s at least some complexity to his character.

The first few chapters drag a bit but that’s unavoidable. It’s not the kind of story that is going to draw the reader in unless a fair amount of background information is provided. As the novel progresses it picks up steam and the latter part of the story is fast-paced and effectively suspenseful. There are only a few action scenes but they’re expertly handled.

The book’s main strength is the slow accumulation by Hunter of an incredible number of tantalisingly vague clues which are like countless pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that he somehow needs to assemble into a picture that makes sense, with the added complication that a lot of those pieces end up meaning nothing. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that requires a hundred pieces but you find yourself with five hundred pieces and you have to figure which ones you actually need. If Hunter can’t put the right pieces together his career will be ruined and a lot of people will die. Albert handles this aspect of the story with consummate skill.

It really is very Frederick Forsyth-like and for once the cover blurb (comparing it to The Day of The Jackal) is accurate. Albert never did gain the immense success that Forsyth achieved but he had a long and very solid writing career.

The Gargoyle Conspiracy works extremely well. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed two of the very good Jake Barrow private eye novels written by Albert under the name Nick Quarry, The Girl With No Place To Hide and No Chance in Hell as well as two of the excellent adventure thrillers he wrote under the name Ian MacAlister, Driscoll’s Diamonds and Valley of the Assassins.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Theodore Roscoe's The Tower of Death

The Tower of Death is a collection of stories by Theodore Roscoe published in the pulp magazine Argosy in 1932. These are tales of the American curio hunter Peter Scarlet and the naturalist Bradshaw. They are tales of adventure in wild and exotic places, adventures laced with considerable dashes of horror.

Theodore Roscoe was one of the great pulp writers, best known perhaps for his Foreign Legion stories but everything he wrote is worth reading.

Bradshaw narrates the first story, The Last Battle. It concerns the final battle of the First World War, a very strange battle indeed fought on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The story begins in 1920, when an expedition sets out to collect specimens for museums. They encounter a small British outpost, entirely abandoned. This is strange and disturbing. They decide to strike out for a nearby Belgian outpost and it’s abandoned as well. Now things are getting really disturbing but the strangeness has only just begun. A fine story.

In Yankee Beware! Peter Scarlet is on a mouldering steamer on the Caspian Sea, skippered by a giant crazy scoundrel of a Russian named Rachmaninoff. The steamer is carrying a Moslem holy man and a group of Moslem pilgrims. The holy man tells a story Scarlet has heard many times before, the tale of Genghis Khan’s ghost and his fabulous lost emerald crown. Many have set out to find that emerald crown. None have returned. But thanks to some strange twists of fate the holy man promises Peter Scarlet that he will see Genghis Khan’s emerald crown.

As a result of the holy man’s promise Peter Scarlet will certainly see strange sights and be plunged into a wild and murderous adventure. A superb rousing tale of adventure, madness and horror.

It’s hard to imagine a greater horror than the one that faces Peter Scarlet in Tower of Death. The tower in question is a Parsee burial tower. The dead are exposed at the top of the tower where they are feasted upon by vultures.

It all starts in Turkestan when Scarlet wants to buy some pearls from a trader named Maqboul, a trader with an evil reputation. Maqboul and his henchman, the hunchback Hamid, have many deaths on their consciences, or they would if they had consciences. There is a suspicion that Maqboul was responsible for the disappearance of a British policeman named Smith. Scarlet and Smith had been very old friends and Scarlet would very much like to bring Smith’s killer to justice.

What Scarlet doesn’t know is that Maqboul has already marked him down for death. Maqboul intends to make no mistake. A reasonable enough plot but it’s the atmosphere of terror that makes it a very good story.

In The Killer of Kelantan Bradshaw the naturalist is in Malaya trying to capture a white elephant. A huge bad-tempered bull white elephant. After capturing him he will have to get the beast on board the ship. Dealing with the elephant is bad enough but Bradshaw soon has other more urgent things to worry about. This story has some terror but a slightly whimsical feel as well. It has the feel of a tall tale told to newcomers by old jungle hands. To some limited extent all of the Scarlet and Bradshaw stories have that feel but it’s much more overt in this tale. It’s a lot of fun.

The Emperor of Doom has shipboard setting. In Sumatra Peter Scarlet had received a threatening letter and had a shot fired at him, apparently an attempt to frighten him into giving up a jewel he had purchased. But Peter Scarlet doesn’t frighten easily, the jewel has been safely deposited in a bank and now he’s on a ship at sea and he feels he is quite safe. And he has his old friend Schneider, a fat Dutch planter, with him.

The voyage becomes a whirlwind of action, intrigue and murder. The murder was carried out by a black-bearded Moslem priest who promptly vanishes. The action just doesn’t let up in this story and Peter Scarlet finds himself in a very awkward situation. He has a puzzle to solve and if he doesn’t solve it his life won’t be worth two cents.

Roscoe uses the shipboard setting with great skill. A fast-paced clever and very exciting story.

The Scarlet and Bradshaw stories are absolute must-reads for all adventure fiction and pulp fiction fans. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Roscoe’s wonderful zombie mystery novel Z is For Zombie, his short story collection The Emperor of Doom as well as two earlier Scarlet and Bradshaw collections, Blood Ritual and The Ruby of Suratan Singh. I warmly recommend all these books.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry

Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry was published in 1951.

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was an American writer of science fiction and crime fiction.

There’s a brief prologue, in a tiny town in New Mexico. A young woman named Jenny Ames is pursued by a man with a knife. He catches her and kills her.

Eight years later George Weaver arrives in the same town. Weaver has no connection whatsoever with the murder, at least not yet. Weaver is still recovering from a breakdown brought up by overwork, alcohol and an unsatisfactory marriage. He wants peace and quiet, and a really cheap place to live for the summer. He finds a place that is incredibly cheap. It’s the house from which Jenny Ames was pursued to her death eight years earlier. No-one wants to live there, partly because of the murder.

Weaver’s pal Luke is a true crime writer. He’d tried to do a story on the Jenny Ames murder but there just wasn’t enough evidence to make for a good story. Luke suggests that if George gets really bored he might try digging up some details on the Jenny Ames case. If he comes up with enough for a story Luke will write it up and split the fee with him.

Weaver isn’t interested at first but then he really does get bored. And the Jenny Ames case is fascinating precisely because there was so little evidence. The sheriff was never able to find out if Jenny Ames really was the victim’s name. She was a mystery woman. No-one in town or in the nearby larger town of Taos knew anything about her. There was a suspect, a man named Nelson, but Nelson wasn’t his real name and he disappeared and was never traced. Nobody has any idea what the motive for the crime might have been.

One of the few things that is known is that it was a Lonely Hearts murder - the victim met her killer through a Lonely Hearts column in a magazine. That’s why Luke is hoping Weaver can can find out enough to justify a story. True crime magazines are eager for stories with a Lonely Hearts angle.

Weaver eventually decides he’d prefer to write the story himself.

Weaver’s wife Vi arrives on the scene, which doesn’t please him. They’re only staying together for the sake of their children. They have nothing in common.

Weaver becomes more and more obsessed by the Jenny Ames case. He thinks there’s a major piece of the puzzle missing, and the missing piece is Jenny herself. No-one knows what her real name was. No-one even knows what she looked like (her body wasn’t found until months after the murder). No-one knows where she came from. Or why she was murdered. Weaver feels that he has to find out who Jenny Ames really was and what she was like.

He does uncover a couple of angles that were overlooked at the time. They’re not exactly red-hot pieces of evidence, but they could lead somewhere. They’re tantalising hints.

Everyone assumes that the guy who called himself Nelson was the killer but Nelson is as much of a mystery as Jenny Ames. All that is known about him is that he wasn’t interested in women. His interests lay in another direction.

The entire focus of the novel is on George Weaver. He is not a particularly happy man. His marriage is a failure and he has no idea what he really wants to do with his life. He doesn’t want to go back to real estate. He drinks too much. He can’t concentrate enough to read a book. He tries painting but it fails to ignite his enthusiasm. He is a man looking for something without knowing what it is that he’s looking for. Maybe his interest in an eight-year-old murder is an attempt to find some meaning in his own life.

In that sense it can be seen as psychological crime novel, but with the focus on the psychology of the amateur detective rather than the killer.

There is certainly a puzzle to be solved, but it’s primarily a psychological puzzle.

And then we get the ending. It’s clever but rather contrived. It’s satisfying in some ways and unsatisfying in others. I wasn’t totally sold on the ending but I suspect that others will be more satisfied by it.

Psychological crime novels are not really my thing but there is a lot to be admired in this book. Recommended.

The Far Cry has been reprinted by Bruin in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with his excellent 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Henry Carew’s Vampires of the Andes

Henry Carew’s Vampires of the Andes is a lost world novel published in 1925.

Henry Carew is a very obscure author indeed. He wrote another novel called The Secret of the Sphinx, published in 1923. He was probably English. Beyond that I can tell you nothing about him.

The plot is rather convoluted and there are a lot of characters to keep track of but the ideas are undeniably interesting, if exceedingly weird and mystical.

An English archaeologist-explorer named Wootton discovers a strange apparently sacred block covered with inscriptions on an expedition to the Andes. He ships it back to England where he hopes his former teacher Professor Stevenson will be able to decipher the inscriptions. That proves to be quite difficult. They’re in a variety of ancient languages some of which defy translation. Making sense of what can be read is an even bigger challenge.

There are those in Peru who feel that the block belongs to them and that the inscriptions must not be deciphered. They are the key to an ancient mystery. It’s a mystery concerning people who trace their descent back to unimaginably old civilisations, perhaps more than ten thousand years old. The mystery involves an event that occurs once every thousand years. It has some connection to a legend concerning the sacrifice of seven maidens, a sacrifice that may also occur once every thousand years. The maidens end up drained of blood.

There seem to be several groups seeking possession of that sacred block, and those groups may possibly have quite different agendas.

Wootton is engaged to be married to a charming Peruvian girl named Quitu. There is some doubt about the girl’s parentage. She was found abandoned in odd circumstances. She was adopted by a respected and prosperous family, friends of both Professor Stevenson and Wootton. At that time the girl’s adoptive mother received an enigmatic warning concerning a great danger the girl would face at some time in the future.

There’s also a wicked priest who is involved in one of the conspiracies centred around that sacred block.

Those who want to gain possession of the sacred block also seem to be interested in gaining possession of Quitu.

There are also rumours that the vampires have returned. The nature of these vampires is mysterious unknown. There was a fabulous bird known as the Ara that was worshipped by those long-vanished civilisations mentioned earlier. The Ara might be connected with the vampires, or might even be the vampires.

There are a lot of puzzles that Wootton and Professor Stevenson will need to solve and while they know that the stakes are high they don’t know exactly what those stakes are. They really don’t know what they are dealing with. They’re not even sure that they’re dealing with something real. It might be mere legends. Wootton is driven on by his concern for Quitu’s safety. That’s a concern for the Professor as well but he is also driven by an insatiable desire to discover long-hidden secrets.

There’s likely to be plenty of danger and adventure in store for the protagonists. They’re up against formidable enemies. Those enemies might be evil, but that is by no means certain.

It seems that this is to be a story of thrilling adventure, but appearances can be deceptive. As the book progresses it becomes more and more concerned with metaphysical, quasi-religious, mystical and esoteric themes. The author throws just about every ancient legend and elements of just about every mythology into the mix. It’s all about secret knowledge and cosmic wisdom. It’s surprising that this book was not rediscovered back in the 70s. At a time when ancient astronauts, the Bermuda Triangle and psychic phenomena were all the rage it should have been a sensation.

If you enjoy that sort of thing then you’ll be in Seventh Heaven. If you don’t enjoy that sort of thing you’ll be bored out of your mind. You’ll just have to decide for yourselves if Vampires of the Andes is likely to be your cup of tea. It certainly wasn’t mine.

Armchair Fiction have reprinted this book, in paperback, in their excellent Lost World-Lost Race Classics series.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Orrie Hitt's Dial ‘M’ for Man

Dial ‘M’ for Man is a 1962 novel by Orrie Hitt. Hitt is usually described as a writer of sleaze fiction but most of his books would be more accurately described as noir fiction with some added sleaze. Dial ‘M’ for Man is almost pure noir fiction.

Hob Sampson runs a TV repair business in a small town. The business is doing pretty well. He has a nice girlfriend named Kathy.

Hob is a very ordinary sort of guy. He’s honest - he would never cheat a customer. He’s no intellectual but he’s far from dumb. He Iikes a few beers when he gets the chance but he definitely does not have a drinking problem. He hasn’t slept with Kathy because she’s a nice girl and nice girls don’t do that sort of thing. That doesn’t bother Hob too much. He’d like to sleep with her but he’s prepared to wait. In the meantime he occasionally picks up women in bars but he’s not really a lecher. You couldn’t call Hob a loser but he’s not really a winner either. Hob is the kind of guy destined for a very ordinary life.

Then two people change his life forever. The two people are Doris Condon and her husband Ferris. Ferris Condon is a very rich very crooked builder. Years earlier Hob’s father had been a building inspector who had caused Condon a lot of trouble. He even refused to accept bribes from Condon. Condon has nursed a seething resentment about this for years. He can’t strike back against Hob’s father but he can strike at Hob. He has decided to ruin Hob. And he can do it. Ferris Condon is the most important man in the town. If he decides to ruin your business there’s nothing you can do.

Doris Condon is another matter. Doris is a blonde and she’s about twenty-two. Her husband is around forty years older. He bought Doris. That’s what it amounted to. She hates him but she’s not going to walk away from all that money. She’s a girl who likes money and the things that money buys. She and her husband have a kind of arrangement. If she wants something expensive he buys it for her. If he doesn’t then he doesn’t get to share her bed.

The trouble with Doris starts when Hob calls at the luxurious Condon home to fix their TV set. Condon isn’t home but Doris is. She’s wearing a dress that reveals more than it conceals. What it reveals is pretty enticing. Doris has a body that takes Hob’s breath away. The second time he calls she’s taking a swim and she’s wearing nothing at all. Once Hob has seen Doris’s naked body he is helpless. He will do anything to have her.

There are other complications that suddenly arise in Hob’s life. Things have become very strained with Kathy, and then there’s his former business partner Ben. Ben really is a loser.

Hob is not stupid. He knows that getting involved in any way with Doris would be crazy. But then he starts thinking about that body of hers, and his judgment goes out the window. When she asks him to do something for her he agrees, even though he knows it’s insane.

The plot setup is classic noir fiction stuff although noir purists might not be entirely satisfied with some aspects. It’s worth pointing out that nobody in 1962 was consciously writing noir fiction because nobody in 1962 had even heard of noir fiction. Which means that no writer at that time had any idea that critics several decades later would come up with conventions with which they thought noir fiction should conform.

Hob is certainly a typical noir protagonist, a reasonably decent guy with one big weakness that leads him astray. In this case that weakness is blondes. There are several female characters and at least one qualifies pretty definitely as a femme fatale. The novel also takes it for granted that rich powerful men like Ferris Condon will weave a web of corruption around them.

Hitt’s characters have some complexity. Hob’s friend and former business partner Ben is dishonest and a loser but he has enough awareness of his own flaws to make him not entirely unsympathetic. Hob is tempted into doing things that he knows are wrong but he worries about it. He doesn’t want to do these things but somehow he finds himself doing them anyway and then he feels bad. The women characters mostly have motivations that seem to them to be entirely reasonable.

I’d be a bit dubious about describing this book as sleaze fiction. Characters in the book do have illicit sex but the sex takes place off-stage so to speak. There is however a somewhat sleazy atmosphere.

Dial ‘M’ for Man is typical Orrie Hitt and that’s no bad thing. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Sydney Horler's The Man Who Walked with Death

The Man Who Walked with Death is a 1941 spy thriller by Sydney Horler (1888-1954).

Englishman Horler (1888-1954) wrote 158 books. He was very popular in his day although critics hated his books. Since his death he has fallen into obscurity. In his 1971 book Snobbery With Violence Colin Watson was particularly scathing about him. As far as I’m concerned if Watson hated his books so much they can’t be all bad.

The Man Who Walked with Death is a wartime spy yarn and like so many such tales it is characterised by a tone of hysterical patriotism and paranoia.

This is one of a series of books featuring British spymaster Harker Bellamy, some of which also feature Bellamy’s ace agent Tiger Standish. Bellamy himself remains in the background for much of The Man Who Walked with Death but he is after all a spymaster rather than a field agent.

The book begins with an odd proposition being made to a man named Lorimer. An American intelligence agent named Tarleton wants Lorimer to impersonate him. This should be easy since the two men look remarkably alike (an excessive reliance on coincidence is something for which Horler has often been criticised). For some reason the proposal makes Lorimer uneasy and he refuses.

Shorty afterwards Lorimer is set on by a gang of thugs and while attempting to escape. He wakes up in hospital to find himself accused by British Military Intelligence of being a German spy named Schwarz. He then finds himself recruited as a British spy. He’s having a confusing if adventurous time.

Fortunately adventure is no stranger to Lorimer. Before the war he was a noted explorer well known for his expeditions in the jungles of Africa.

Lorimer has to pose as a German spy who is posing as an American. He thinks his deception is working but he can’t be sure. He thinks that his cook has her suspicions, and he has his own suspicions about her.

British Military Intelligence is trying to break a German spy ring which includes some very prominent people. There really was at this time (1940) an obsession that Britain was riddled with German spies.

This spy ring is planning a coup that will win the war for Germany overnight. It’s certainly an audacious plan. The spy ring is headed by a wealthy industrialist. He is not actually an Englishman. The idea of an Englishman turning traitor would have been too upsetting in 1941 so Horler goes to great lengths to make it clear that all of the German spies are really foreigners. This particular individual happens to be a close friend of the British Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not called Winston Churchill in this novel but obviously that’s who he is and Horler’s hero-worship of Churchill gets a tad embarrassing at times.

Lorimer is an amateur spy. He’s brave and resourceful but he isn’t always aware of what’s really going on.

There’s an intriguing subplot about a German resistance movement trying to overthrow Hitler. The movement is led by followers of Ernst Röhm, the Nazi SA leader liquidated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This adds a rather bizarre touch.

Horler was not a great writer but he was nowhere near as bad as his reputation would suggest. I’m not much of a fan of wartime spy thrillers but if that sub-genre does appeal to you then you might enjoy The Man Who Walked with Death. I think it’s worth a look.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of Horler’s Tiger Standish thrillers, Tiger Standish and Tiger Standish Comes Back. They’re trashy but quite entertaining.

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella by Henry James, is one of the most famous of all ghost stories. And a very complex ghost story it is.

A young woman, whose name we never learn, is offered a position as governess to two orphan children. Their uncle and guardian imposes an unusual condition. He does not want the governess to trouble him at any time on the subject of the children. She is to take complete charge of his house at Bly, and to take complete responsibility for the children.

Miles is ten and his sister Flora is two years younger. Miles has just arrived home from his boarding school for the holidays. Bly House is much more cheerful and comfortable than the governess had feared it would be and the children are adorable. Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, is kind and competent and the governess is sure that they will all get on splendidly.

The only fly in the ointment is a letter that has just arrived from the headmaster of the school. Miles has been expelled, and the headmaster has declined to give any reason. The governess is concerned but as soon as she meets Miles she realises that he is sweet innocent boy. She cannot believe he could have done anything very wrong.

All is well until the governess sees a man, a man on whom she has never before set eyes, standing on one of the two towers that form an odd part of the design of the house. Not long afterwards she is frightened by a man’s face peering in at a window. From her description Mrs Grose thinks that the man must resemble Peter Quint, but Peter Quint is dead. Peter Quint had been the children’s uncle’s valet and had for some time been placed in charge of the household at Bly.

There had been rumours of a scandal involving Peter Quint and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel is also dead. Nobody seems to want to talk about Peter Quint or Miss Jessel although Mrs Grose felt that Quint had been a bad influence on Miles. From what little Mrs Grose has to say on the subject it seems that there was a sexual relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel.

The new governess is deeply shocked by such goings-on. A short time later she sees Miss Jessel by the lake. She is certain that Flora has seen her as well although the child denies it.

The whole picture starts to become horrifyingly clear to the governess. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were evil and depraved and now they are reaching out from the grave to corrupt and destroy two innocent children. The children may already be partially corrupted. The governess must somehow save the children.

As the struggle of the governess against the forces of darkness for the souls of the children draws towards its climax several disturbing things will be obvious to the reader. No-one but the governess has seen the two ghosts. The governess has convinced herself that the children have seen the ghosts even though they deny it. She has become obsessed. And it will occur to the reader that perhaps the whole thing is the product of the governess’s overheated imagination. It might also occur to the reader that this woman’s certainty that she is dealing with evil forces may be the result of her horror at the thought that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were having sex. It might also be due to her own sexually repressed nature.

The governess could be a kind of unreliable narrator. She is certainly inclined to interpret every facet of the children’s behaviour as evidence of evil forces at work.

Of course there is also the possibility that it isn’t a delusion and that demonic forces are indeed targeting the children. James keeps us guessing right to the end.

I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens at the end but in fact you can’t really spoil the ending of this story. If you ask half a dozen scholars to explain the events of the last few pages they’ll be quite capable of giving you half a dozen explanations. It’s not just that there are two possibly ways of interpreting the story. There really are quite a few interpretations that can be put forward.

To add to the mystification no-one knows exactly how the author intended it to be interpreted. No-one is even sure if Henry James believed in ghosts. He had an interest in the subject but that does not imply belief. What does seem certain is that James was being deliberately ambiguous. That’s why the novella remains so fascinating.

It’s also undeniably disturbing, often in very subtle ways. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Clifton Adams, Death’s Sweet Song

Clifton Adams (1919-71) had a very successful and prolific career as a writer of westerns but he also wrote a handful of noir novels, including Death’s Sweet Song in 1955.

Joe Hooper runs a fleabag motel in Creston, Oklahoma and he’s a loser who clings to the idea that one day he’ll be a winner. He knows that you don’t need talent or hard work to succeed. You just have to wait for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come along and have the guts to grab it. When that happens for Joe he’s going to have real money and he’s going to get the hell out of Creston, Oklahoma.

That opportunity seems to have arrived when the Sheldons rent Cabin Number 2. Joe knows there’s something odd about them because Karl Sheldon is driving a new Buick. No-one who can afford a new car would stay in a dump like Joe’s motel. Sheldon also has an obviously phoney story about car trouble.

What really catches Joe’s attention is Sheldon’s wife Paula. She’s a gorgeous blonde. Joe wants a woman like that almost as much as he wants money. Maybe more.

Joe’s lucky break comes when he overhears a conversation in the Sheldons’ cabin. They are planning a payroll robbery. They’re going to rob the Provo Box company, Creston’s biggest employer. The payroll has to amount to at least thirty grand.

Joe doesn’t have any real criminal intentions until he has sex with Paula Sheldon. Then a plan starts to take shape in his mind. He’s going to force Karl Sheldon to cut him in on the robbery. After that Joe figures that somehow or other he and Paula will find a way to leave Karl out in the cold and they’ll go off together. Paula has already told him that she doesn’t love her husband. Joe will have everything he has ever wanted.

Joe is cunning but his grasp on reality is a bit tenuous. He should have realised right at the start that this blonde was going to be trouble. There were plenty of warning signs. It was obvious that there were things she wasn’t telling him about herself and about Karl. But Joe is so obsessed by Paula that he misses every single one of those warning signs.

The robbery is an attractive proposition. It will be a pushover. Of course in the world of noir fiction robberies that seem too easy never quite turn out that way. This time there’s a slight hitch, which means there’s a body to dispose of. Another hitch happens later.

Joe still thinks that everything will be OK and soon he’ll have Paula Sheldon.

Joe Hooper is the kind of guy who relies a lot on wishful thinking and he doesn’t think things through. And with Paula’s willing body to think about it he really isn’t thinking about anything else. He’s one of those guys who isn’t really evil but he’s weak and he’s greedy and he’s a sucker for glamorous blondes.

Paula is a classic femme fatale and poor Joe just can’t see that she’s a woman who uses sex ruthlessly to get what she wants. There’s also a slightly more complicated side to her. She isn’t completely rotten and corrupt. Things might have been easier had that been that case. She has more complex motivations which Joe just can’t fathom.

This is rural noir, with typical noir passions running amok in a small town. Small towns in which everybody knows everybody else can turn into nightmare noir worlds just as easily as the mean streets of the meanest big city. The desperation of dead-end life in a dead-end town is palpable.

The violence is very low-key. There’s lots of sexual tension and there’s lots of paranoid atmosphere and desperation.

It’s a classic noir plot but it’s nicely constructed and the very effective very noir ending hinges on something that Joe could never have anticipated.

The relationship between Joe and Paula is full of deceptions and contradictions. Joe can’t figure out if he loves her or hates her. Joe is a mess. His feelings about almost everything are confused. All three main characters are a bit more than just noir fiction stereotypes. They’re complicated people who don’t always fully understand why they do the things they do.

This is a fine noir novel and it’s highly recommended.

The Stark House Noir paperback edition also includes Adams’ first noir novel, Whom Gods Destroy.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

John W. Campbell's Beyond the End of Space

Beyond the End of Space is a 1933 science fiction novel by John W. Campbell.

John W. Campbell (1910-1971) was a reasonably prolific science fiction author in the 1930s but his main contribution to the genre was as an editor. He was editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971. He did a great deal to encourage a more serious approach to the genre and was arguably the moist important science fiction editor of the 20th century. His early fiction however was more in the space opera mould.

Beyond the End of Space is clearly set at some point in the fairly near future. Ran Warren is working on a major research project at a university. He is working on the annihilation of matter and hopes to unlock limitless power. The result of his project is a minor earthquake but he is sure he is on the right track. He believes that he has not actually annihilated matter but sent it to another universe.

At this point intrigue within the corporate world and the scientific world takes a hand. A tycoon named Nestor wants to get his hands on Warren’s project. Nestor employs another brilliant but far less ethical physicist named Atkill to try to replicate Warren’s results. Nestor has double-crossed Warren and Atkill intends to double-cross Nestor.

At stake is world domination. The discovery has the potential to give Nestor control of the world but he is not the only one who seeks such power.

Warren allies himself with another tycoon, Putney. For various reasons Warren has decided that he needs to build a highly advanced spaceship (the Prometheus) to continue his research in space. His enemies bomb his laboratory but Warren, Putney and a few associates make their escape in the Prometheus but where have they escaped to? Wherever they are they are no longer in the known universe.

The book becomes a bit of a political thriller crossed with a crime thriller (with gangsters) and a space opera. There’s quite a bit of action throughout and we get a decent spaceship battle at the end.

In 1933 people were very excited by Einstein’s theories, by quantum mechanics and the promise of atomic power and Campbell taps into these obsessions. He takes the science stuff in fairly outlandish directions and there’s plenty of technobabble but I enjoy that sort of stuff. And the science stuff is amazingly convoluted and bizarre.

In 1933 it was believed that atomic power would be able to do truly extraordinary things. In the future everything would be atomic-powered. In the novel Warren’s discovery is expected to revolutionise the world. Nobody will ever have to work. It will be utopia, but if the discovery falls into the wrong hands it could just as easily be a dystopia, with a handful of ruthless men in control of government and of every industry.

Most of the characters are standard pulp science fiction types although Atkill is a bit more complex, and Warren is an interesting portrait of an obsessed scientist, albeit obsessed in a good way.

Campbell’s prose is serviceable rather than dazzling but he keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

Beyond the End of Space is very much of its time, but that’s why I love the science fiction of earlier eras. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Campbell’s famous 1938 novella Who Goes There? (adapted for film in 1951 as The Thing from Another World and by John Carpenter in 1982 as The Thing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Lawrence Block's A Diet of Treacle (Pads Are for Passion)

Lawrence Block wrote Pads Are for Passion in 1961 under the name Sheldon Lord. It was republished by Hard Case Crime in 2011 as A Diet of Treacle. For convenience I will henceforth refer to it as A Diet of Treacle.

Sheldon Lord was a pseudonym used by Block for the many sleaze novels he wrote before finding fame as a crime writer. The book was published by Beacon Books who published a lot of sleaze fiction, but it’s not really sleaze fiction. You could call it beatnik noir.

When the subject of beatniks was approached by writers of film-makers in the late 50s or early 60s it was usually done either in a mockingly humorous way or treated as a kind of social disease. Block’s approach was much darker and much more interesting.

Even in his late 1950s and early 1960s sleaze books, churned out very quickly, it was obvious that Block was a very fine writer. It takes a while for the noirness to become evident in A Diet of Treacle but when it does it has a real kick to it.

It’s obvious that Block was not exactly an unabashed admirer of the beatnik subculture.

Shank and Joe live in a squalid apartment in Greenwich Village. Shank supports them both by selling pot. Shank is a 27-year-old Korean War vet and his experiences in that conflict left him drifting hopelessly and aimlessly. He is filled with self-hatred. He knows his lifestyle is pointless and empty but he doesn’t think he can do anything about it. Shank is much younger (about 20) and quite a bit meaner. He ran with a teenage gang for a while. He carries a switchblade and enjoys terrorising women with it.

Joe meets Anita Carbone in a coffee shop. They don’t seem likely to be compatible. Joe is Hip while Anita is strictly squaresville. They sleep together and Anita decides to move in.

Anita is both fascinated and repelled, and a bit frightened, by the beat culture. It takes her a while to become Hip. At first she’s so square she won’t even smoke pot but that soon changes.

Shank knows he has a narcotics cop after him but he thinks he can handle the situation. He is wrong of course.

The noir flavour then really starts to bite. The trio end up on the run but they’re pathetically helpless and it doesn’t seem likely that they will succeed in running very far.

Shank is just a nasty little punk although in the book’s later stages he doesn’t behave in quite the way you might be expecting.

Anita tries hard to be Hip but it never quite works. She had been a nice Italian girl destined to marry a nice Italian boy and she can quite shake off her guilt about her new sex and drugs lifestyle. She would probably have soon drifted away from the whole beatnik scene had she not started to fall in love with Joe.

Joe is the most interesting character. He thinks he’s having an existential crisis but really it’s mostly self-pity and self-loathing. His problems also stem to a large extent from a basically weak personality. He’s quite a few years older than Shank but he allows himself to be dominated by the young punk. It’s not that he’s scared of Shank. He just doesn’t like the idea of making decisions for himself.

You expect a novel about beatniks to focus heavily on coffee shops, beat poetry readings and adolescent existentialist philosophising. You expect lots of characters who think they’re poets or artists. Block however focuses on the seamy squalid miserable side of the subculture. Weak aimless people drifting through life in a drug haze.

There is a decent enough crime plot here which eventually becomes the novel’s primary focus.

As always Block writes extremely well. He had spent some time in the late 50s on the fringes of the Greenwich Village Hip subculture so his portrayal of that subculture is probably a bit more brutally accurate than the portrayals offered by most writers. It’s also mercifully free of the pretentiousness of the work of actual Beat writers.

In his Sheldon Lord books Block treats emotional complications in quite a sensitive way, something that is evident in this novel.

There is something about the ending that throws a lot of readers but I’ll let you find out about it on your own.

A Diet of Treacle is an offbeat kind of book but it works and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed a couple of Block’s other Sheldon Lord books, Born To Be Bad and Kept both of which I liked a great deal), as well as another early book he wrote using the pseudonym Don Holliday, Borderline (AKA Border Lust).

Saturday, November 18, 2023

John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto Is So Sorry

Mr Moto Is So Sorry, published in 1938, was the fourth of John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto spy novels.

Between 1937 and 1939 eight Mr Moto movies were made, all starring Peter Lorre. The Mr Moto of the movies differs somewhat from the Mr Moto of the books. In the movies Moto is an international policeman, a Japanese Interpol agent. In the books he is a Japanese spymaster.

Which is not to suggest that Mr Moto is the villain of the books. Far from it. When the first four Moto novels were published the U.S. and Japan were at peace. There were tensions but there were all sorts of international tensions during the 1930s. In the Far East those tensions involved not just the U.S., China and Japan but other powers including the Russians and the French. Mr Moto is loyal to Japan but he is by no means hostile to America or Americans.

In the novels various Americans get themselves mixed up in international intrigue in various parts of Asia. Mr Moto is always on the scene somewhere. His first priority is always his duty to the Emperor but he usually ends up extricating those various Americans from awkward situations.

Calvin Gates is in an awkward situation. He is a young America anthropologist on his way to join the Dilbreth Expedition in Mongolia. At least he claims to be an anthropologist. He has reasons for preferring to be in Mongolia rather than home in the States. Those reasons involve a misunderstanding about a cheque, a misunderstanding about which the American police might be inclined to be tiresome.

On the ship from Japan to Korea Gates meets a young American woman, Miss Dillaway. She is heading for Dilbreth’s expedition as well. She is an artist and her job will be to make drawings of the finds made by the expedition. Miss Dillaway is young, beautiful, fiercely independent and bad-tempered. She tells Gates to call her just Dillaway (she hates her Christian name which is Sibyl).

Gates also meets a very polite mild-mannered Japanese gentleman named Moto. Mr Moto assures him that he is not connected with the police but it is obvious that Moto has a surprising amount of influence. Officials defer to Mr Moto in a remarkably obsequious way.

Dillaway has in her possession a silver cigarette case with a rather attractive design featuring birds. It was given to her in odd circumstances. Someone wants that cigarette case. A man gets shot because of it.

Gates and Dillaway have no idea what the significance of the cigarette case is. Mr Moto knows, but Mr Moto is playing a very complex and very dangerous diplomatic game for the highest of stakes and he believes it’s best for the two young Americans to know as little as possible. The more they know the more likely they are to be killed.

An Australian ex-soldier named Hambly wants the cigarette case but Gates is not inclined to trust him. Hambly could be working for some government or he could be working for himself or, more likely, he could be planning to double-cross everybody.

The problem is that Gates has figured out that he and Dillaway are in danger if they have the cigarette case but they’re probably in just as much danger if they don’t have it.

The plot gets more and more complicated. The cigarette case is more than just a McGuffin. The meaning of that cigarette case is crucial to the plot.

The story builds to a remarkably tense finale in Mongolia. The losers in this game are not going to escape with their lives. A lot depends on how Gates plays things. He’s decided he’s sick of doing what other people tell him to do. He’ll make his own decisions. He knows how dangerous the game is but for the first time in his life he feels truly alive.

Mr Moto is not actually the protagonist in any of the novels but he’s always the most important character. He’s the one pulling the strings. He’s the catalyst for everything that happens. The other characters slowly come to realise how much they have underestimated him. Mr Moto doesn’t mind if people think he’s a fool. That can be a huge advantage for a secret agent. Mr Moto is a very dangerous very powerful man but he doesn’t like people to realise that.

There were all sorts of political factions within Japan in the 1930s and the political infighting was vicious and bloody. Mr Moto belongs to a moderate faction. He would prefer to see Japan’s political objectives achieved peacefully. He thinks violence is clumsy and unpleasant. He prefers subtle means. But he can still be very very dangerous.

Mr Moto is generally a very sympathetic character. He’s likeable even when he’s dangerous.

Gates makes a fine hero who slowly grows in stature as the story unfolds.

Mr Moto Is So Sorry is a top-notch spy thriller. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed other Mr Moto novels - Your Turn, Mr Moto (1936), Thank You, Mr Moto (1936) and Think Fast, Mr Moto (1937).

Monday, November 13, 2023

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #7 Gang Girls

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #7 is the Gang Girls issue, devoted to female juvenile delinquents. Which certainly sounds promising.

As usual with Men’s Adventure Quarterly this volume is beautifully presented and copiously illustrated. As a bonus there’s a photo feature on Mamie van Doren.

The Stories

The first two stories are in fact non-fiction exposés. The Vicious Girl Gangs of Boston by Henry S. Galus appeared in Man to Man in August 1954 while Wenzell Brown’s Tomboy Jungle appeared in For Men Only in November 1957. The hysterical tone is mildly amusing but these pieces are not all that interesting.

Zip-Gun Girl by Albert L. Quands was published in Man’s Illustrated in September 1958. It’s a condensed version of a novel which might be why it seems a bit messy and complicated. An ex-con named Lou Jackson and his daughter Pebbles (yes her name is Pebbles) arrive in the city but they get a lot of aggravation from neighbours because of Lou’s prison record. Pretty soon Pebbles is unpopular as well, both her and her father being suspected of snitching to the cops.

Pebbles is desperate to join one of the two local warring gangs, the Tigers and the Buccaneers. It’s not easy for a girl to join a gang while keeping her virtue intact which is what Pebbles hopes to do (this was 1958 so the heroine has to remain virginal). Pebbles has a plan - to form an all-girl gang. Meanwhile an idealistic cop is trying to save her and transform her into a good girl. It’s an OK story.

Jack Smith’s Street Queens Are Taking Over is from the January 1962 issue of Wildcat Adventures. This one is fiction but presented as a true story written by a reporter who has gone undercover to join a teen gang. The leadership of teen gangs in the city is being taken over by girls, and they’re really mean really bad girls. Tougher than any of the boys. In this story the girl leading the gang seeks revenge on a girl who stole her boyfriend. Revenge, with a motorcycle chain used as a weapon.

A pleasingly trashy and quite hard-edged story.

Lust On Our Streets by Allan Hendrix appeared in Wildcat Adventures in September 1963. This one takes its inspiration from what was supposedly a trend at the time - instead of gangs engaging in large-scale rumbles a few gang members would pick a wealthy young couple as victims and lure them into an ambush which would end in robbery and brutal assault.

There’s hardly any actual story at all, with far too much time devoted to pompous pontificating by (almost certainly imaginary) experts. Rather boring.

The ‘Passion Angel’ Cycle Girls by Clinton Kayser appeared in Men for December 1967. This is another faux non-fiction exposé, purportedly made up of interviews with biker chicks and focusing entirely on their sex lives. The reader learns the difference between Old Ladies, Strange Chicks and Mamas. The article makes a vague attempt to analyse the girls’ motives. An amusing piece.

Cycle Queens of Violence by J.R. Wayne was published in Man’s Conquest in June 1970. Yet another non-fiction piece and also pleasingly hysterical.

Final Thoughts

The most fascinating thing about this volume is of course what it has to say about the juvenile delinquent hysteria of the period. This was an age, very much like our own, of rigid social control in which even the slightest deviation from accepted social norms was viewed with suspicion, hostility and paranoia. An age of endless moral panics.

These juvenile delinquent tales reinforce the paranoia whilst gleefully exploiting the shock value.

There’s plenty of amusement and entertainment here. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation is regarded as one of his best movies and is better remembered than Highsmith’s novel.

Both the novel and the movie start with the same setup. Two men, total strangers, meet on a train. Guy is an up-and-coming architect. Bruno is a self-pitying drunk. Guy has a huge problem with his wife Miriam. He wants a divorce so he can marry rich girl Anne Faulkner. Miriam isn’t just being difficult about the divorce, she is also deliberately sabotaging Guy’s career. After a few drinks Guy tells Bruno all his troubles and it’s obvious that as long as Miriam is alive Guy has no chance of either personal happiness or professional success.

Bruno hates his father. He believes his father is preventing him from getting his hands on money that Bruno believes is rightfully his. Bruno blames his father is responsible for all his problems. He would like to kill his father.

Bruno comes up with an ingenious plan. If he kills Guy’s wife and Guy kills Bruno’s father it would be a perfect murder setup. No-one would suspect either of them of killing someone with whom they had absolutely no connection. Guy dismisses the idea contemptuously. Unfortunately Bruno convinces himself that Guy really would like to have his wife murdered and since Bruno likes Guy he decides to do him a favour by killing Miriam.

In the Hitchcock movie this setup is used as the basis for one of the great suspense thriller movies. The novel however is not a suspense story. It falls into the category of the psychological crime novel, in which the author tries to take the reader inside the mind of a murderer. This is a type of crime fiction that I personally dislike. I’m not interested in incredibly detailed dissections of a murderer’s every single action and every single emotion and in this case Highsmith’s dissection is incredibly detailed and incredibly long-winded. I’m also always rather sceptical of the claims of this type of crime fiction to be psychologically realistic.

The key to Bruno’s character is that he has never grown up. He has never taken any adult responsibility and he has never had an adult emotional relationship. In fact he has never had a single adult inter-personal relationship with any person.

Bruno isn’t stuck in perpetual adolescence. He’s stuck permanently in early childhood. His fixation on his mother is what you would expect from an eight-year-old. His hatred of his father is a childish hatred. His feelings towards Guy are similarly childish. He develops a childish hero-worship of Guy. And Bruno has the extreme self-centredness of a small child.

Guy’s problem is his passivity. He drifts through his life without ever taking charge of it and he has a tendency to do what people want him to do.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the psychological motivations of Bruno or of Guy. I felt they were a bit muddled and stretched credibility a little. A bigger problem for me was that I really didn’t like either character and I found it difficult to feel any real investment in their fates.

The plot of the first half of the novel is almost identical to that of the movie but in the second half of the story the novel and the movie diverge radically.

This is also an inverted mystery in the sense that the mystery plot hinges not on the revelation of the identity of the murderer (which we already know) but on the means by which the crime is solved. In this case the solution comes about through a combination of a dogged private detective and a long series of mistakes on the part of the murderer. Even a perfect murder can go wrong if the murderer is careless and clumsy and reckless in the aftermath of the murder.

I’m hesitant to recommend this novel because I personally did not enjoy it very much at all, but I’m also hesitant about advising anyone to avoid it. If you enjoy psychological crime novels you might enjoy this one a lot more than I did.

I’ve reviewed Hitchcock’s film adaptation Strangers on a Train (1951).

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Cosmic Kill

Robert Silverberg wrote Cosmic Kill for the April 1957 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. He had been given two days to write the novella and with the aid of handfuls of benzedrine tablets he made the deadline.

Lon Archman has been given a top-secret (and entirely illegal) mission by Earth’s Universal Intelligence Agency. He has to kill Darrien. Darrien is a brilliant renegade Earth scientist who has created a vast and powerful criminal empire on Mars.

In a seedy space bar on Mars Lon sees an opportunity. A blue-shelled Mercurian has just bought a beautiful near-naked human slave girl from two drunken black-tailed Venusians. The Mercurian, named Hendrin, intends to offer the girl as a gift to Darrien. Hendrin has his own sinister reasons to wanting to get close to Darrien and the slave girl, Elissa, is the means by which he intends to achieve that objective. Lon Archman quickly forms a plan by which he will use the girl to achieve his objective. He also hopes he’ll eventually be able to free her. Lon doesn’t like seeing Earth girls sold as slaves.

Getting into Darrien’s palace is just the first step. Even if he finds himself in Darrien’s presence he can’t be sure it will really be Darrien. The renegade scientist has created three robots in his own image. There is no way to tell the real Darrien from the robots. The only person who can do that is Darrien’s mistress Meryola.

Meryola isn’t too happy about Darrien’s pretty new slave girl. Meryola is a very jealous woman. She has already decided to have Elissa executed, on the grounds that the girl is just too pretty. Meryola does not tolerate rivals. Both Lon Archman and Hendrin have devised plans in which both Meryola and Elissa will play parts, not necessarily willingly and not necessarily with any understanding of the ways in which they will be manipulated.

Lon Archman and Hendrin might be able to work together but they cannot trust each other. Hendrin has his own agenda. He is working for the ruler of Mercury who wants Darrien’s scientific secrets. Once those secrets have been obtained he wants Darrien dead.

Neither of then can trust Meryola.

Lon, Hendrin and Elissa all find themselves in Darrien’s dungeon. Plenty of narrow escapes and mayhem follow. And lots of temporary alliances are formed, all practically certain to lead to double-crosses.

Lon Archman is a ruthless hero. He is an assassin and he’s not overly worried about leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. He really does hope to save Elissa but saving himself will be difficult enough. Assassinating Darrien is the priority and the Universal Intelligence Agency doesn’t care what he has to do to achieve that and they don’t care if he comes back alive. You might think that the Universal Intelligence Agency sounds a little bit like the Central Intelligence Agency, and you’d probably be right.

Armchair Fiction have published Cosmic Kill in one of their two-novel paperback editions, paired with John W. Campbell’s Beyond the End of Space. Silverberg provides a brief introduction to Cosmic Kill. He has a very refreshing attitude towards his early work. In the late 50s and early 60s his output was enormous. He wrote sleaze fiction, crime and men’s adventure fiction as well as pulp science fiction, all churned out at breakneck pace. He thoroughly enjoyed that early part of his career, he’s quite unembarrassed by those early stories and in fact has a certain fondness for them. He considers Cosmic Kill to be pulpy fun and he’s right.

As he explains in his introduction by 1957 everybody knew that the idea that the other planets in the solar system were inhabited was scientific nonsense but Cosmic Kill was supposed to be a sequel of sorts to a 1951 novella by Paul W. Fairman and that novella included Martian, Mercurians, Venusians and Plutonians so Cosmic Kill had to have those things as well.

Cosmic Kill is an enjoyable little science fiction action potboiler. It’s very pulpy but it’s supposed to be. Silverberg knew what his editor wanted - fast-paced action with lots of exotic aliens and robots plus naked slave girls. That’s what Silverberg provides and he does it with plenty of energy and the results are satisfying. Recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Norman Lindsay's A Curate in Bohemia

Norman Lindsay is (in my opinion) the only truly great painter Australia has ever produced. Lindsay was also a very successful writer. A Curate in Bohemia, published in 1913, was his first novel.

The Rev. James Bowles is about to depart for Murumberee to take up his first curacy but before doing so he makes the fateful decision to look up his old school chum Cripps. The young curate finds himself in the world of pre-WW1 Melbourne arty Bohemia.

Cripps and his friends are art students. Their idea of the pursuit of art is centred around talking about painting rather than actually painting, but mostly it’s centred around beer, tobacco and girls. The curate does not drink nor does he smoke. He is however a young man who always takes the path of least resistance and he is easily persuaded that one drink would do no harm. One drink having produced no great ill-effects he decides to have another. And another.

He wakes up the next morning with his finances sadly depleted but with happy memories of conviviality and even happy memories of long conversations with Florrie, Florrie being an artist’s model who poses for Cripps.

The curate has more convivial evenings. His finances are even more sadly depleted. And somehow he has still not managed to get himself to the railway station to take that train to Murumberee.

Bowles soon discovers that he rather likes beer and he rather likes girls as well. And the reader discovers that the curate doesn’t exactly have a strong vocation as a clergyman. He just drifted into it as a result of his usual practice of taking the line of least resistance.

Matters will come to a head when Cripps decides that his old school chum simply must have a grand send-off party before entraining for Murumberee. Paying for the party will be the challenge. The art students are all broke. They are always broke. Cripps somehow manages to scrape up enough money for the alcohol for the party but he has to adopt desperate and unorthodox measures to provide the food. As a result of those desperate measures he has the law after him.

An ingenious expedient is adopted to keep Cripps out of gaol and that expedient will have consequences for the hapless would-be curate of Murumberee. And things become steadily more farcical and more delightfully absurd.

The book is to some extent autobiographical, with Lindsay admitting that one of the art students, Partridge, is a thinly veiled version of himself.

A Curate in Bohemia is totally outrageous and filled with the vitality and joie de vivre that also infused his paintings. It expresses Lindsay’s love of the sensual pleasures life has to offer. It’s an extremely funny novel. Lindsay might be poking fun at the clergy but he’s deriving just as much enjoyment poking fun at himself and at the world of artistic Bohemia. He also has some fun with the terribly serious debates among the art students about the latest artistic theories.

Lindsay spent his whole life battling those who would censor art and literature. He was always controversial and he relished controversy.

I’ve also reviewed Lindsay’s wonderful 1938 novel Age of Consent which, along with several of his other novels, was banned in Australia.

A Curate in Bohemia was one of five Lindsay novels adapted by ABC Television in the early 1970s but tragically not one of those TV adaptations survives.

A Curate in Bohemia is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Callan Uncovered

Callan Uncovered is a collection of all the Callan short stories written by James Mitchell. Mitchell was the creator and main scriptwriter for Callan, probably the most acclaimed TV spy series of all time. The book also includes a complete script for an episode that was never made plus a treatment for another unmade episode.

The stories are even more cynical than the television series (and the TV series is very cynical).

Callan worked better on the small screen but these stories are still well worth reading for spy fiction fans.

I've posted a full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Doc Savage: The Polar Treasure

The Polar Treasure was the fourth of the Doc Savage novels. It was published in 1933. It appeared under the house name Kenneth Robeson but was in fact written by Lester Dent.

The Doc Savage novels were originally published in the pulp Doc Savage Magazine.

Doc Savage has attended a concert by famed blind violinist Victor Vail. And someone tries to kidnap the violinist, by leading him to believe he is to meet Ben O’Gard, the man who saved his life a decade-and-a-half earlier. The violinist is set on by a gang of thugs led by a sailor.

Victor Vail had been one of only two survivors when the passenger liner Oceanic, forced hundreds of miles off course, met disaster in the Arctic pack ice. That was the occasion on which Ben O’Gard saved his life. Victor Vail’s wife and daughter must certainly perished in the disaster but Vail has always clung to the belief that by some miracle they might still be alive. The loss of the Oceanic interests Doc. Officially the ship was simply lost at sea. There is no supporting evidence for Vail’s story that the ship had ended up in the Arctic but Doc is inclined to believe him.

There is also an interesting rumour about the Oceanic’s fate. Was the ship really carrying a vast fortune in jewels and bullion? That would explain much. It might even explain why two gangs of thugs (and there appear to be two gangs at work) want to get their hinds on Victor Vail. The blind violinist might, quite unwittingly, be the key to the finding of that treasure.

Doc is willing to finance an expedition to find the answers. It will be the world’s first submarine voyage beneath the Arctic icecap. A bold venture in a diesel-electric submarine but Doc has come up with some ingenious inventions that might make it possible. The submarine, the Helldiver, will also be carrying a small floatplane and that tiny aircraft will play an important part in the adventure to come. Doc will of course be accompanied by his faithful followers Ham, Monk, Johnny, Long Tom and Renny.

The story is non-stop action from start to finish. There is trouble with the crew of the Helldiver. There are conspiracies and betrayals. There will be desperate struggles for survival in the frozen Arctic wastes. There will also be aerial battles over the ice.

Doc is a fascinating example of an early pulp superhero. Dent is at pains to explain that Doc does not in fact possess any superpowers. His physical prowess is the result of an extraordinary regime of physical training. His intellectual genius is the result of intensive study. His amazing and improbably abilities (such as his ability to render men unconscious merely by touching them) all have perfectly natural explanations. Doc’s physical and mental capacities are so immense as to stretch credibility to the breaking point but he is in fact simply a man who has trained himself to an extraordinary degree.

The one flaw of the Doc Savage books is perhaps that Doc is just too perfect, but then he is supposed to have trained himself to an extent that makes him a proto-superhero.

The plot of the story is outrageous and far-fetched but that adds to the 1930s pulp feel. There are no supernatural elements or monsters (although we think at one point that there might be a monster). Doc’s extraordinary inventions do push the book into slightly science fictional territory.

The style is pulpy to an extreme but that makes it more fun.

Dent makes fine use of the harsh setting in the snow and ice and I have a particular fondness for such settings for thrillers and adventure tales.

The Polar Treasure is a wonderfully enjoyable slice of pure pulp fun and it’s highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the first two Doc Savage novels, The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror as well as the 1975 movie Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (which I also highly recommend).