Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Fred MacIsaac’s Balata

Fred MacIsaac’s adventure novel Balata originally appeared in serial form in six issues of Argosy magazine in 1930 and 1931.

Fred MacIsaac (1886-1940) was an American who turned to writing fiction after a varied career in journalism and concert management.

Balata is the story of a small group of men searching for a balata forest deep in the Amazon rainforest. The Brazilian rubber industry, once thriving, is now languishing due to competition from British plantations in Malaya. But somewhere in the Amazon basin there is a much greater prize than rubber - balata. What is balata? According to the story it’s a kind of super-rubber, and much more valuable than rubber. It is harvested like rubber and the balata tree grows nowhere else in the world.

American explorer Felix Dexter has found the world’s biggest balata forest. He needs money to exploit his discovery and that’s where millionaire Les Gorman comes in. Gorman has an adventurous spirit and is prepared to back the project but first he wants to see that balata forest for himself. An expedition is organised. Gorman invites his old college buddy Peter Holcomb, now fallen on hard times, to join the expedition. Gorman’s sister Louise invites herself along, despite the protests of the men who feel that it is much too dangerous. Gorman recruits a dozen other ill-assorted Europeans and some native porters. The expedition will begin on a river steamboat.

Other people want that balata. And they will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get it. The most dangerous of these men is Brazilian rubber baron Carlos Aguedarno, a very ruthless man indeed.

To complicate things Peter Holcomb, Felix Dexter and Ageudarno all want to marry Louise Gorman. Louise wants nothing to do with Aguedarno but the rubber baron is prepared to use whatever methods may be necessary in order to persuade her. So there are going to be major romantic dramas.

The expedition seems to be ill-fated from the start. There are cut-throats lying in wait as well as hostile tribes, all stirred up by Aguedarno’s money.

You can anticipate a lot of the obstacles and dangers these adventurers are going to face but MacIsaac throws in a few neat plot twists and turns, and even the more clichéd action scenes are handled with energy and style. And there really is as much action and danger as any reasonable reader could hope for.

And it is a neat plot. On more than one occasion the adventurers seem to be in hopeless predicaments but MacIsaac finds interesting ways to extricate them. The ending is nicely suspenseful and satisfying.

Most of the characters are standard types but there are some colourful villains. Both Pete Holcomb and Felix Dexter are a bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes. Pete has been a failure at everything he has attempted and he’s really just drifting through life. The expedition is his chance to make something of himself. It might be his last chance. And he may find out something about himself. Felix Dexter is on the surface the perfect heroic man of action but as the adventure proceeds some of the expedition members develop nagging doubts about him, and the reader will share those doubts. Perhaps in some ways this is Dexter’s last chance as well.

We remain uncertain until the end just how the characters arcs of these two men will resolve themselves.

The style is pure pulp, which is perfectly fine by me. It’s lively and the story powers along at a pleasingly brisk pace.

Balata is a very fine tale of jungle adventure and it’s highly recommended.

Balata has been reprinted in paperback in Altus Press’s Argosy Library series. It’s also available in those ebook formats of which I disapprove so strongly.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Richard Stark's Point Blank (AKA The Hunter)

The Hunter, published in 1962, was the first of the twenty-four noir novels featuring his anti-hero Parker written by Donald E. Westlake under the name Richard Stark. It was filmed in 1967 as Point Blank and subsequent printings of the novel carried the title Point Blank. I believe it has also appeared under the title Payback. For convenience I’ll refer to the novel as Point Blank.

The Richard Stark books are harder-edged than the books he published under his own name. Point Blank is very hard-edged indeed.

Parker is a career criminal. About once a year he pulls a job, usually a payroll or something like that. After a year or so, when the money starts to run out, he pulls another job. He is very careful and he’s never been caught. Between jobs he lives in resort hotels. He has a pretty wife named Lynn and although Parker isn’t the falling in love type he’s as close to loving Lynn as he’s ever been to loving any woman. It’s a nice life. It suits Parker.

Then came a job that didn’t go smoothly. Parker was killed, or at least that’s what everyone thought. He wasn’t killed and now he’s back and he has some scores to settle. He was double-crossed and that’s not the sort of thing he’s prepared to forget.

He intends to find Mal Resnick. He believes Mal was the one who double-crossed him. Mal isn’t easy to find but Parker has plenty of time and he’s patient.

At first Parker just wants revenge, but later he decides he wants something more. Going after that something more would be crazy but Parker is running on momentum and he’s determined to see it through to the end.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the plot the most impressive thing about this novel is Parker. He’s an anti-hero on steroids. He doesn’t get any particular pleasure out of killing but it doesn’t bother him either. He is obsessed and relentless. He’s not so much brave as simply indifferent to risks. And he is a very hard man. In this story he runs into a lot of men who think of themselves as tough guys or hardened professional killers but they’ve never come up against anyone quite like Parker. Parker tends to wrong-foot them because he takes risks that they never expected any sane man to take.

There’s not much positive one can say about Parker. He doesn’t have a good side and he doesn’t have a lighter side. But he is fascinating.

We learn a little about the motivations of the other characters, especially Mal Resnick, but the focus is overwhelmingly on Parker. Westlake uses third-person narration but we see events entirely from Parker’s point of view. What we learn about Parker’s motivations is that he hardly understands them himself. He isn’t operating according to a coherent plan. He’s like an out-of-control locomotive. Once it’s started it could end up anywhere.

There are no agonising internal conflicts. Parker is aware that he has made some mistakes. The heist that went wrong and that caused all the problems is one he should have stayed well clear of. But he doesn’t spend time on regrets or remorse or self-reflection.

Westlake’s prose is as tough and relentless as Parker. This was not Westlake’s usual style. He used the Richard Stark books to experiment with a very different ultra-hardboiled style.

The book is not short on violence. It’s not described in particularly graphic detail. Its impact of the violence depends more on its sheer cold-bloodedness and casualness than on anything else.

There’s some sex but not much and it’s not even moderately graphic.

It’s certainly a dark story. Is it noir fiction? The answer is yes, to a certain extent. It sure is hardboiled.

Point Blank is a roller-coaster ride and a very entertaining one. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a slightly earlier Westlake crime novel, The Cutie. It was his first crime novel and has appeared under several alternative titles. It’s worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

J.F. Bone's Second Chance

Second Chance is a science fiction novella by J.F. Bone. It was published in Satellite Science Fiction in February 1959.

J.F. Bone (1916-1986) was an American veterinarian who moonlighted as a science fiction writer from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

Bennett is an early 24th century spaceship pilot. He doesn’t know where he is. All he knows is that he’s in the biggest building he has ever seen. It is unimaginably vast. It seems deserted, and it also seems like it has been deserted for a very very long time.

Eventually he discovers that he is not alone. He encounters a young woman, obviously human. She seems confused and ill. She claims to be Laura Latham but that’s impossible. Laura Latham, the fabulously wealthy space travel tycoon, is an old woman. This girl cannot be more than twenty-two.

The girl recovers and Bennett discovers that she thinks it’s the year 2289 while he thinks it’s 2316 but his recording device says it’s 2327. It’s all very puzzling.

The answer eventually becomes clear. She is Laura Latham, or rather she is and she isn’t. Either way Bennett and the girl are soon a couple. That has consequences.

The vast building is located on top of a mesa on a desert planet. And they discover that there is someone else there’s or something else there. Something intelligent, but it isn’t a human or a robot or an alien. Well, not exactly.

We later find out why the story is called Second Chance.

The science is typical pulp sci-fi pseudoscience but there are interesting speculations about non-human intelligences. And there’s more than one non-human intelligence in this story.

The author deals with faster-than-light travel in an interesting way. In this tale such things are possible but not so easy as in most science fiction stories. You can travel through hyperspace but interstellar voyages still take years, although to the travellers themselves they might seem to take only days. There is faster-than-light communication but it’s by no means instantaneous. Over interstellar distances it can take years as well. So the hero and the heroine, marooned in a remote part of the galaxy, are in practice completely isolated. They will have to face the problems they encounter on their own.

I think it’s a nice compromise. Allow faster-than-light travel but don’t make it so easy that it can be used like magic (and in a great deal of science fiction FTL travel really is effectively magic).

The plot is rather clever and the two main characters are faced with some tricky choices and have some strange truths to deal with. They have to face truths about themselves and about each other.

There is a love story here but it’s made very unusual by some age and time paradoxes.

This is not an action/adventure science fiction tale. The author was shooting for Big Ideas science fiction. He succeeds reasonably well. He was not one of the giants of the genre so don’t expect the complexity of ideas that you’d get in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, but there are interesting ideas here.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Frank Belknap Long’s Mission to a Distant Star in yet another of their wonderful two-novel paperback editions. They really have come up with some fascinating and often excellent obscurities for this series.

Second Chance is worth checking out. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Clyde Allison's Have Nude, Will Travel

The sleaze fiction of the 50s and 60s embraced everything from grim noirish tales to romance to comedy. Of those who wrote comic sleaze fiction the best by far was William Knoles (1926-1970).

Have Nude, Will Travel, published in 1962 under the pseudonym Clyde Allison, is typical of his crazy sexy comic romps.

Jake O’Day is a pilot with a knack for getting himself into absurd and embarrassing predicaments. The most embarrassing was the time he thought he was transporting forty-eight harem girls belonging to an important shiekh. The girls turned out not to be girls at all but soldiers employed by the sheikh to stage a coup. Since they were covered from head to foot poor Jake had no way of knowing these were not harem girls. Jake ended up making a forced landing in a neighbouring Middle Eastern country and spending three months behind bars.

As a result of this misadventure Jake earned a totally underserved reputation as a ruthless mercenary leader.

And that’s what led oil tycoon Mr Tamerlane to employ his services. Tamerlane has had his prospective new employee thoroughly investigated and he is well aware that Jake’s reputation as a glamorous soldier of fortune is totally phoney. It turns out that what Tamerlane wants is a phoney soldier of fortune. Tamerlane’s 18-year-old son Sam is neurotic and lives in a dream world. He has decided he wants to be a soldier of fortune. Tamerlane’s plan is to employ Jake to get Sam into some mercenary adventures but what Jake has to do is to make sure these adventures are entirely fake and entirely safe. Tamerlane Sr hopes that this will get all that soldier of fortune daydream nonsense out of Sam’s system and the young man will then be content to go into Daddy’s oil business.

Jake think it’s a crazy idea but Tamerlane offers him an enormous amount of money, so he accepts the offer.

The problem is that Jake knows nothing whatever about being a soldier of fortune and has no idea how to provide Sam with a safe fake adventure. Then Jake gets a brainwave. Why not hire a scriptwriter to come up with some ideas? He can easily persuade Tamerlane to pay the writer lots of money. His friend Barnaby was a writer on a TV series about mercenaries and he likes money so he agrees.

Jake and Sam then become in effect characters in Barnaby’s story. Barnaby sends them off to exotic places and hires actors to play the parts of the kinds of dangerous shady characters that soldiers of fortune would be likely to encounter. Sam is enjoying himself but Jake worries a little. He’s not keen on being shot at, even if he knows it’s only actors shooting at him.

The idea seems to be working but then the plot twists kick in.

There’s plenty of sleaze. Sam takes being a soldier of fortune very seriously and avoids smoking, liquor and sex but Jake is happy to entertain himself with the various women Barnaby provides to play the parts of ex-crazed femmes fatales. Jake has a lot of fun with the twins. They teach him quite a few new tricks.

Jake also has fun with Sugar. She’s a cute blonde girl whom Barnaby keeps as a sort of pet. She doesn’t speak but she giggles a lot and she proves to be very affectionate. So affectionate that she almost exhausts poor Jake.

The sex is moderately steamy by 1962 standards. There’s very little violence. There is a great deal of humour and the novel is genuinely funny.

The basic plot idea is clever and it’s developed with skill and wit.

Incidentally the cover suggests that this is going to be a private eye spoof but there are no private yes in the story at all.

Have Nude, Will Travel is lots of fun. Highly recommended.

I highly recommend all of William Knoles/Clyde Alison’s sleaze novels. They're all rather ingenious. I’ve reviewed a number of them including Shame Market (very funny), Sexperiment and one of his Agent 0008 spy sleaze/spy spoof books, Gamefinger (which is terrific).

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Mickey Spillane’s Bloody Sunrise

Bloody Sunrise, published in 1965, is the second of Mickey Spillane’s four Tiger Mann spy thrillers.

Tiger doesn’t work for the government. He works for a private agency set up by a rich guy named Brady. It’s a very generously funded private espionage/counter-espionage agency and it’s not strictly legal but Brady doesn’t think the official US intelligence agencies can be relied on. In that respect Tiger resembles Mike Hammer - he’s not constrained by the rules that apply to official cops or official spies.

Tiger has decided to quit the espionage business. He’s getting married and his bride-to-be doesn’t want a spy for a husband. Tiger is crazy about the girl and he’s fed up with the spy game anyway.

His wedding day doesn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Instead of getting married he ends up being recalled to duty. This is a big case, a really big case, and there’s no getting out of it. Tiger isn’t too pleased but the codename Plato has an effect on him. It means there’s a danger that the case could lead to war. Tiger still has enough of a sense of duty to accept the delay to his wedding plans.

The problem is a Soviet defector, Gabin Martrell. He could provide incredibly useful information, if he could be persuaded to talk. But for some reason he won’t talk.

The reasons for Martrell’s defection are mysterious. Tiger figures it could be a sincere change of heart, or there could be a dame behind it. Tiger favours the latter theory.

Brady doesn’t think the CIA will be able to persuade Martrell to talk, but maybe Tiger will be able to. That’s Tiger’s mission and he intends to pursue that dame angle.

He finds the dame, Sonia, but there are complications. Plus he has to keep her out of the hands of the official intelligence agencies. They’re not going to like that. They don’t like Grady’s organisation.

Tiger also needs to keep himself out of trouble. He doesn’t need to have the police pursuing him for a murder rap. But Tiger has never been able to avoid trouble and corpses seem to accumulate whenever he’s around.

And of course he has to worry about the KGB. They’ll be gunning for both Martrell and Sonia. Tiger is going to have almost as much trouble with the CIA as he has with with his own government’s intelligence agencies.

He has two distractions. One is minor. A seaman Tiger once saved has contacted him with a strange story about something he found on a ship. Tiger thinks the guy is drunk and crazy but the story sticks in his mind. The major distraction is Tiger’s relationship with his bride-to-be, Rondine. She isn’t really Rondine. Rondine is dead. This is Rondine’s kid sister Edith. Tiger’s relationship with the real Rondine dates back to the war and it was messy and complicated. Whether Tiger has ever really dealt with what happened to Rondine is open to doubt.

Tiger certainly bears a resemblance to Mike Hammer. Like Hammer he prefers to work alone and his relationship with official government agencies is rather strained. Like Hammer he doesn’t worry too much about following rules. He makes his own. He has a tendency to use violence as a first resort. He is basically Mike Hammer retooled as a spy but I like Hammer so I’m not complaining.

And like Hammer he has a complicated attitude towards women. In both cases it’s because they get involved with complicated women, which is not surprising - a PI or a spy is inevitably going to encounter women with issues, and women who are not what they seem to be.

The style is standard Spillane. Again I have no complaints - I like Spillane’s style.

The plot is decent enough although the major twist won’t come as a huge surprise to seasoned spy fiction readers.

The most interesting thing about this book is that Tiger Mann is not an official intelligence agent and he’s not a reluctant spy or an amateur accidentally caught up in the world of espionage. Having him work for a private espionage organisation is a nice touch. In a way it makes him a throwback to much earlier heroes like Bulldog Drummond but it’s an idea that Len Deighton would explore a year later in Billion Dollar Brain (from a very different perspective).

Bloody Sunrise is a solid spy thriller. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Karl May's Winnetou I

To say that Karl May (1842-1912) was a popular German writer would be an understatement. His books have sold around 200 million copies. And they’re still in print. He is best known for his westerns. Those westerns were the basis for a series of very successful 1960s German movies.

Most famous of all his books were the Winnetou trilogy. It is the first volume in this trilogy, Winnetou I, with which this review is concerned.

There are three interesting things about Karl May’s westerns. The first is that they were written at a time when the Wild West still existed. The second is that at the time he wrote his best-known westerns he had never been anywhere near America. His westerns were based entirely on his reading, both fiction and non-fiction, on the subject. And on his own rich imagination.

The third interesting thing is that May’s westerns are very very sympathetic indeed to the American Indians.

A young German (who is the narrator of the novel) arrives in the United States. We will eventually discover that his name is Karl. It’s quite likely that the author was hoping to persuade his readers that the book recounts his real-life adventures, although at this stage he had never left Germany.

He finds himself manoeuvred into a job as a surveyor on a railroad in the West. He meets an eccentric frontiersman named Sam Hawkens who is employed by the railroad as a scout. Sam sees himself as a mentor to the naïve young hero. Apart from Sam and the two other scouts the surveying team is comprised of lazy good-for-nothing drunks, the worst of them being a man known as Rattler.

The young German acquires the nickname Old Shatterhand. He proves himself to be a mighty hunter, killing a grizzly bear with a knife and bringing down a huge bull bison with an almost miraculous shot.

An encounter with two members of a local Apache tribe, a chief and his son Winnetou, will change his life. He and Winnetou will become lifelong friends but their first meeting is very uneasy. Winnetou’s father orders the surveying team to leave Apache land. Rattler kills an Apache and it is clear that the Apaches will return for revenge.

Sam comes up with an ingenious plan involving another tribe, the Kiowa, currently at war with the Apaches. Sam’s hope is that his plan will avoid bloodshed. Things don’t turn out as he had hoped.

Sam gets captured more than once. Old Shatterhand gets captured more than once. They get caught up in the middle of the hostilities between the Apaches and the Kiowa. They encounter a band of white bandits, with serious consequences both good and bad. This event does eventually lead to a firm friendship between the young German and Winnetou. Winnetou’s lively attractive kid sister will play an important part in the story also.

This novel is quite heavy going. On the whole I think the idea that 19th century novels are slow and long-winded is a myth, but this one really is very slow and very long-winded. And the characters talk so much. Dialogue scenes go on for page after page.

The hero, Old Shatterhand, is much too perfect. He’s in his early twenties and he’s never been in the West before but he can shoot better than anybody and he’s a better tracker than Sam even though Sam has been doing it for a quarter of a century and Old Shatterhand has only read about such things in books. The youngster can take on grizzly bears armed only with a knife. At one point, even though he has never fought with a knife, he easily wins a knife fight to the death with the finest warrior of the Kiowa tribe. He has better than everybody else at absolutely everything.

And despite his youth and inexperience he is wiser than everyone else. And nobler and braver. Apart from stretching credibility to ludicrous extremes it gets to be a bit irritating.

Old Shatterhand is a devout Christian and naturally he’s more devout and more virtuous than just about any other Christian in North America.

Winnetou is almost as perfect as Old Shatterhand. Sam starts off promising to be quite interesting but soon becomes no more than a comic relief character. There are several villains, and they’re very villainous indeed.

When reading a translation (in this case by Marlies Bugmann) you can never be sure how much of the stodginess of the prose is due to the author and how much to the translator. Either way it’s pretty stodgy.

On the plus side the story itself is quite good and when the characters finally stop talking there is some decent and moderately exciting action. There are countless hair’s-breadth escapes from danger. There is treachery and there are divided loyalties.

Karl May himself was a colourful larger-than-life character who spent much of his early life in and out of prison. I’m glad I read this book but I can’t see myself reading any more of his work. This one was too much of a slog. This novel has immense historical significance. It exerted a huge influence on European and especially German popular culture. It’s recommended for those reasons, but with the very major caveat that it’s a very tough read.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Honey West: Kiss for a Killer

Kiss for a Killer, published in 1960, was the sixth of the eleven Honey West private eye thrillers written by American husband and wife writing team Gloria and Forest Fickling as G.G. Fickling.

These novels were the basis for the 1965-66 Honey West TV series which starred Anne Francis. Both the novels and the TV series are seriously under-appreciated.

Honey West made her first appearance in This Girl for Hire in 1957. A girl PI was a pretty new concept for crime fiction at that time. Honey West runs a private detective agency that belonged to her dad before he was murdered.

In the TV series Honey has a side-kick but in the novels she works alone although she does co-operate with Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Storm (who has a bit of a thing for her). Honey is fairly hardboiled, she’s adept at unarmed combat and she carries a pearl-handled .22 revolver (in a garter holster under her skirt).

These were intended from the outset as sexy PI thrillers and there’s plenty of sleaze. Honey always seems to be losing her clothes.

Honey West paved the way for other action heroines in fiction, comics, TV and movies. Heroines like Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Modesty Blaise. Honey has a quirky quality all her own (which Anne Francis captured extremely well in the TV series). She has an amazing capacity for getting herself into trouble but it doesn’t faze her at all. She just assumes that somehow she’ll extricate herself.

Honey loses her clothes a lot in Kiss for a Killer, perhaps not surprising since she’s investigating a nudist religious cult. The cult is also into a bit of sadomasochism and other kinks.

The novel starts with football player Rip Spensor crushed to death by a steamroller, and it was no accident. Honey had been dating him which is how she becomes involved. There are other fairly gruesome murders. There also seems to be a connection with an Italian movie star, Angela Scali. When she makes her first appearance in the book she’s stark naked as well.

On her way to the murder scene Honey has a narrow escape from deadly spiders and then she is chased by a naked man in a car.

Honey suspects that the cult leader, Thor Tunny, controls his flock through hypnotism but she can’t prove it.

The cult might have murdered Rip Spensor but there are plenty of other suspects, Rip’s brother for one. There’s also a crippled reporter and Angela Scali’s agent. Plus the cult leader’s crazy depraved daughter Toy. All these people seem to have been involved with one another but Honey will have to find the exact nature of the connection. She will also have to try to keep her clothes on, which will be an even bigger challenge.

The plot is pleasingly outrageous, and it’s resolved quite satisfactorily. The action is non-stop and it’s inventive. Honey gets beaten up, there are several attempts to kill her, she has a narrow escape from a crashed car and she gets captured more than once. It’s all in a day’s work for a busy lady PI.

The style is pulpy but entertaining. Honey is as quick with a wisecrack as she is with her gun. There’s plenty of violent action, but it’s only moderately graphic by the standards of the day (although a guy getting squashed flat by a steamroller could perhaps be described as graphic). There isn’t really any sex but there’s the implication that such things are going on. The titillation factor is provided by the amount of time the various characters spend naked but it’s all done in a playful good-natured way.

Like the other Honey West novels Kiss for a Killer is unashamedly violent, lurid, trashy and sleazy with hints of kinkiness. And it's extraordinarily enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several other Honey West novels here - This Girl for Hire (1957), A Gun for Honey (1958), Girl on the Loose (1958) and Honey in the Flesh (1959). They’re all worth reading.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Ray Cummings' The Sea Girl

The Sea Girl is a 1930 lost world novel by Ray Cummings and, even better, it deals with a lost world in the deeps of the ocean. As a bonus, there are mermaids. Well, not quite mermaids, but there’s definitely a beautiful aquatic girl.

Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was a pioneering American science fiction writer. He enjoyed considerable success in the 1920s and 30s but his career faded after that.

The story takes place in the future - in 1990. This is a world in which few conventional ships remain. Overseas trade and travel is dominated by aircraft and giant submarines. Jeff Grant, the narrator of the story, is second officer on a commercial submarine. Aboard his submarine is 18-year-old Arturo Plantet, the son of a doctor who has retired from medicine to take up oceanography.

Odd things are happening at sea. Several of those remaining surface ships have sunk, for no apparent reason. Then a submarine sinks. The tides seem to be behaving abnormally. At least that’s what is assumed at first but slowly it becomes obvious that sea levels are falling. Falling dramatically.

Then comes a report that a mermaid was seen on an island in Micronesia.

This interests Jeff. From the glassed porthole of a submarine he and Arturo had seen a strange globe-shaped undersea vessel and they had caught a glimpse of a girl aboard that vessel, a girl who struck them as being rather like a mermaid.

Arturo’s father is convinced that civilisation is under threat. He has designed a small advanced submarine capable of operating at extreme depths. He intends to use this vessel to find out what is going on beneath the sea. He needs three crew members. He has selected his son Arturo, Arturo’s sister Polly and Jeff Grant. At the last moment Arturo withdraws from the expedition and sets off for Micronesia in a small aircraft. Arturo intends to find that mermaid. He does find her. She’s not exactly a mermaid but she’s not quite human either. She appears to belong to a species closely related to and very very similar to our own. He calls her Nereid.

Arturo finds out all sorts of other things as well.

A year passes and nothing is heard from Arturo. Then Arturo contacts Jeff. Jeff thinks at first it’s a dream but soon realises it is a form of telepathy.

Jess, Arturo, Nereid and a seaman named Tad (who disappeared a couple of years earlier and had been presumed drowned) then embark on an extraordinary voyage not just to the bottom of the ocean, but to a lost world hundreds of miles beneath the ocean floor. And they will have to try to save human civilisation from an extraordinary threat.

Cummings at his best could create wonderfully strange imaginary worlds. In this case he’s succeeded in creating a fantastic world that rivals Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar.

Jess is a stock-standard hero type but Arturo is more interesting - a dreamy over-imaginative youth who does not at first appear to be the stuff that heroes are made of but he slowly begins to show real presence.

Nereid is also a fairly typical beautiful good girl heroine. Rhana, the Empress of the undersea lost world, is beautiful as well but she’s also evil and cruel.

There are atomic-powered submarines and other technological novelties such as clothing that confers near-invisibility. The scientific (or pseudoscientific) explanations are amusing. There’s a lot of imaginative speculation about the nature of the interior of the Earth.

It’s an exciting enough adventure with some action and with a small heroic band on whom the future of civilisation depends.

It is a lost world story but it’s also a story of a struggle between competing civilisations. It’s very much pulp fiction but thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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

I’ve reviewed a couple of other Ray Cummings novels - Into the Fourth Dimension and The Girl in the Golden Atom.

Other notable undersea worlds science fiction novels that I’ve reviewed - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Maracot Deep, John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, Henry Slesar’s The Secret of Marracott Deep.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Lust Queen (AKA The Decadent)

Lust Queen is a 1961 sleaze novel by Robert Silverberg. It has been reprinted by Stark House in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with a slightly later Silverberg sleaze effort, Lust Victim.

Some background is needed to explain how one of the most revered names in science fiction came to be writing sleaze novels.

In the late 50s Silverberg was already attracting notice as an upcoming science fiction writer and then the bottom suddenly (although temporarily) dropped out of the science fiction market. Most of the magazines that published science fiction stories went bust and at that time the market for science fiction novels in hardback and paperback was extremely small. Unless you were one of the big names it became very difficult to earn a living writing science fiction. Silverberg had been making a very decent living and the prospect of giving up a comfortable lifestyle held no appeal to him.

There was however a thriving market for paperback original sleaze novels. That market was about to experience a boom. Like a number of other writers who later became famous and respected genre fiction writers Silverberg jumped on the bandwagon. And became quite rich as a result. To succeed as a sleaze writer you needed to be able to write quickly. Silverberg could write very quickly indeed. He could write a novel in six days. In the space of five years he wrote 150 sleaze novels under a variety of pseudonyms.

Lust Queen was originally published in 1961, under the pseudonym Don Elliott. It was reprinted in 1974, this time with the title The Decadent. The version reprinted by Stark House would seem to be the 1974 version which appears to have included quite a few revisions. Dates have been changed to give the impression that the events take place in the early 70s. There’s a reference to Kennedy Airport. The name of the airport was not changed to Kennedy Airport until 1963. A couple of four-letter words (absolutely verboten in 1961) have been added to try to give it a 70s feel. The overall feel of the book is however pure early 60s sleaze, and that’s what gives it its appeal.

The story concerns a writer, Joey Baldwin (he’s the narrator of the novel). He’s making a reasonable living writing in various genres and he’s just finishing up a detective novel. He’s in need of extra money, what with his impending divorce. When he’s offered a great deal of money to ghost-write the autobiography of faded movie star Mona Thorne he jumps at the chance. He has zero interest in the star in question but he’s very interested in the money on offer. And he has to admit that Mona Thorne’s life story is bestseller material. Alcoholism, multiple marriages, adultery, drug addiction, nymphomania - Mona has covered all the bases. Joey signs on the dotted line.

It will mean leaving New York and moving to LA for a couple of months. Joey doesn’t want to leave his fiancée Lisa but a curious facet of the deal is that he’s not allowed to bring his fiancée with him.

Joey arrives in LA to find out that the deal is not quite what he expected. He hadn’t realised that he’d be living in Mona’s house for the two months while the book is being written. He also hadn’t realised that sharing a bed with Mona would be part of the deal. He’s not sure if he’s being employed as a ghost-writer or a gigolo. At first he’s inclined to pack his bags and return to New York but then he changes his mind. The fact that Mona is really hot stuff in bed might perhaps contribute to his decision. And then there’s the money.

He slowly realises that this book is likely to make him a very great deal of money. He figures he can keep the situation under control. Keeping any situation under control when Mona Thorne is involved is however quite a challenge. He’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants from him. He will eventually find out.

Joey Baldwin is quite an interesting protagonist. He isn’t entirely unethical but his ethics are very flexible. He isn’t immoral. Sure he cheats on Lisa with Mona but at least he feels bad about it every time he has sex with Mona. Then he has sex with her again. He’s not entirely a weak-willed person but he has a bit of a tendency to go with the flow. He does have principles but he doesn’t stick to them very consistently. He’s easy-going. He’s cynical, but not so cynical that he ever totally loses our sympathy. He’s a very flawed hero but he’s not such a bad guy.

And living in Hollywood he finds that his ethical standards are becoming more and more flexible. He soon abandons any idea of making the book even marginally truthful. He’s a realist. The reading public doesn’t want truthful books. They want books that make them feel good about themselves.

I don’t think the sex scenes were tampered with at all in the 1974 revision. They’re very much in the mode of 1961 sleaze fiction, and they’re very much in the mode of sex scenes in Silverberg’s other sleaze novels of that period. In other words they’re very tame by 1970s standards. We know what people are doing together in bed but we don’t have it described to us in clinical detail. This is the softest of softcore erotica.

You may have noticed that the two women in the story are called Mona and Lisa. As in, Mona Lisa. They are in many ways mirror images. Lisa is blonde and she’s uncomplicated. She loves sex but she loves it in a healthy kind of way. Lisa also loves in a straightforward healthy kind of way. Mona is a brunette and she’s very complicated and manipulative and there’s nothing remotely healthy about her approach to either sex or love. It’s not quite a good girl/bad girl dichotomy (Silverberg is not a writer who would be as crude or obvious as that). Mona isn’t truly a bad girl. She’s just seriously messed up. She’s dangerous because she’s messed up, not because she’s evil.

Like a lot of the writers who turned out sleaze novels in the late 50s and early 60s Silverberg is giving us a novel about human relationships and ethical choices, with some mildly risqué sex added in order to make it sell. You can quite reasonably judge this book as a straightforward novel rather than as a work of erotica. And it’s a pretty good little story. Silverberg was churning these books out at a furious pace but the guy was a real writer and a good one and he couldn’t avoid making these novels a lot better than they needed to be in strictly commercial terms.

Lust Queen is pretty good stuff. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed a couple of Silverberg’s other sleaze novels, Gang Girl and Sex Bum, both of which have distinct noirish tinges. Both are worth reading, with Gang Girl being particularly good.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

James Eastwood’s The Chinese Visitor

The Chinese Visitor was the first of James Eastwood’s three Anna Zordan spy thrillers. It belongs to the sexy spy thriller sub-category.

It was published in 1965. This was at the height of Bond Fever but it was also a time when lady spies were becoming very much the in-thing. Cathy Gale had become a pop culture icon in The Avengers TV series while another pop icon, comic-strip heroine Modesty Blaise, made her first appearance in print in 1963. So a series of novels about a female spy was almost guaranteed to attract a readership.

I have been able to find out virtually nothing about James Eastwood. He was almost certainly English and appears to have been born in 1918. I suspect he’s the same man as the James Eastwood who wrote some extremely interesting movies such as Devil Girl from Mars, Urge To Kill and The Counterfeit Plan.

The Chinese Visitor provides us with Anna’s backstory.

It opens with the assassination of a top Chinese politician while on a visit to London. In the ensuing confusion the police naturally arrest anyone they don’t like the look of. One of those arrested is young Hungarian-born Anna Zordan. They can’t pin anything on her apart from resisting arrest. She spends a couple of days locked up.

She returns to her flat to find she has a sinister visitor. A visitor who has some disturbing things to tell her about the murder of her parents in Vienna some time earlier, a trauma from which Anna has not fully recovered. The visitor informs her that her father was a spy for the Chinese. She doesn’t believe him but she does believe that he was the one who killed her parents and that she’s about to be killed. Fortunately her would-be killer didn’t expect to encounter any serious resistance from a harmless-looking girl. She does more than resist. She puts a couple of bullets into him.

A dead man in her living room is a bit of an embarrassment. Then she remembers a very nice middle-aged Englishman who was very sympathetic to her in Vienna after her parents were murdered. His name was Sarratt and he worked for the Foreign Office. He told her to contact him if she ever found herself in trouble. She contacts him and that’s how she finds herself recruited to an ultra-top secret British counter-espionage agency.

Her first assignment is to check on a man named Steiner, an American who runs a virulently anti-communist aid organisation for refugees. He seems clean, but Sarratt isn’t convinced. He’d have been less convinced had he known of Steiner’s recent trip to Albania, Albania being China’s loyal ally.

Anna will have to get close to Steiner and there’s a race against time element. Sarratt knows of a Chinese plot to assassinate important western leaders, including the British Foreign Secretary. He has a hunch that Steiner is involved.

Anna is new to the spy game but she’s a natural. Even without training she had been able to dispose of a professional assassin. She’s demonstrated that she’s a girl who keeps her cool in sticky situations. She speaks five languages. She likes playing games, the more dangerous the better. She’s intelligent and she’s an expert seductress.

Anna is a very 60s heroine. She likes sex and she gets plenty of it. She’s not overly fond of rules. She likes her independence.

There’s not as much sex as there is in the later books in the series but there’s some, and as in those books there are hints of perversity. Anna picks up a nice young Italian stud at a party only to find that his favourite hobby is torture.

The violence is low-key. There’s suspense and Anna has a few hair’s-breadth escapes.

The plot is serviceable enough. Atmosphere is more important than plot in spy fiction and this book achieves the right mood of duplicity and ruthlessness.

The Chinese Visitor is a solid competent spy thriller with a likeable heroine. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the third Anna Zordan thriller, Come Die With Me, which is very clever and a lot of fun (and in my view superior to The Chinese Visitor).

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Dream Story)

Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 short novel (more a novella really) Traumnovelle, also known as Dream Story or Rhapsody, was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was a successful although controversial Viennese writer. He wrote many plays and short stories as well as two novels. He can be considered to be both a Modernist and a Decadent. He qualified as a doctor and practised medicine before turning to writing full-time.

Traumnovelle was published in 1926 and although no time period is specified it clearly takes place before the First World War, in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The hero fought several duels during his student days and it is clear that duelling is still reasonably common. There is very much an atmosphere of fin de siècle decadence.

Fridolin is a 35-year-old Viennese doctor, happily married to Albertine. They have a six-year-old daughter. After a masked ball Fridolin and Albertine discuss sexual temptations that they have experienced. Albertine tells her husband of a young Dane with whom she was tempted to have an affair. This disturbs Fridolin more than he expected.

Fridolin has a slightly unsettling encounter with the daughter of a patient who has just died. The woman, Marianne, tells Fridolin that she is love with him. Fridolin beats a hasty retreat.

Fridolin then has an encounter with a young prostitute but the fear of syphilis prevents him from doing anything.

He doesn’t want to return home. He walks the streets until dark. He runs into Nachtigall, an old acquaintance from his medical school days. Nachtigall is now a slightly disreputable piano-player. Nachtigall tells Fridolin of an odd piano-playing job he has to go to that evening. It involves playing the piano at what might be private house parties, or secret meeting, or orgies. He really doesn’t know what goes on at these parties since he is blindfolded, and he has no idea where the parties take place although he’s fairly sure the locations are a number of country houses. All he knows is that he is blindfolded and taken somewhere in a coach. Fridolin is fascinated and wants to go as well. A password is required, which Nachtigall may be able to provide.

But first Fridolin must get hold of a costume and a mask - everyone at these meetings wears masks. While obtaining the mask he has another odd experience, involving two men dressed as judges and a young girl.

Fridolin manages to attend one of the secret meetings. The men dress as monks, the women as nuns. But the women soon shed their nuns’ habits. Fridolin has no idea if he is witnessing a commonplace orgy or a religious ritual or a meeting of a bizarre esoteric or even political cult. What happens to Fridolin at this strange house party, and what happens to one of the women who tries to warn him off, leaves him bewildered.

His attempts to contact Nachtigall again, and to learn the fate of the woman at the house party orgy who tried to save him, leave him even more bewildered.

If you’ve seen Kubrick’s movie it will be obvious from what I’ve said so far that it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel. Most of the incidents of the movie are taken directly from the novel. There’s also the same sense of a blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. There is no way to be sure which events really happen and which are dreams or fantasies or illusions. Everything might be real. Everything might be a dream. Or the events might be a mixture of dream and reality.

There’s the same sense of decadence and forbidden pleasures and the same sense that what is happening might be sinister, or it might be just a rather wild party.

Even the conspiracy theory angle which fascinates so many viewers of the movie is there, although it is given much greater prominence in the movie. Secret societies, whether political or religious or occult, were not exactly unknown in period leading up to the First World War. No-one was really certain how many such societies actually existed, but plenty of people believed in their existence. And some almost certainly did exist. There were real conspiracies in that age.

There are some differences between novel and film. In the novel Albertine has a dream which becomes pivotal. Fridolin seems to regard her dream as being more real than his real-life adventure, and given that we have our doubts about the reality of his adventure perhaps it is more real. As in the movie there is also the possibility that Fridolin’s adventure is real, but that he has misinterpreted its meaning. In fact he has no clear idea at all of the significance of the events at that mysterious country house.

As in the movie the real question is whether Fridolin’s marriage can survive such a series of revelations and adventures, real or imaginary. Has Fridolin betrayed Albertine? Has she betrayed him?

There are obvious Freudian influences (and Freud and Schnitzler admired each other’s work). Whether Fridolin’s adventures are real or just dreams doesn’t matter, since dreams are more significant than conscious thoughts. Schnitzler was linked to the literary avant-garde and had a great interest in literary explorations of both the conscious and unconscious mind. He was one of the pioneers of stream-of-consciousness fiction.

Traumnovelle is a fascinating novella. If you’re a fan of Eyes Wide Shut or of decadent fiction it’s a must-read. Highly recommended. The English translation has been published by Penguin.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle is a 1949 novel by W.R. Burnett (1899-1982), one of the great hardboiled/noir American crime writers.

This is the story of a heist. It’s told mostly from the point of view of the criminals but we get the cops’ point of view as well, as Police Commissioner Hardy struggles to restore the pride of his corrupt police force. There’s a lot at stake for him. This is a very big high-profile heist. If the police fail to solve the case Hardy’s reputation will be in tatters and the City Administration will fall. If they do solve it Hardy will be a hero and the reputation of the police will be freed from the stench of corruption and incompetence.

But mostly it’s the story of the men carrying out the robbery. Riemenschneider, a mild-mannered German, is just out of prison. He might look like a harmless academic (and he is known as the Professor) but his profession is crime. Big-time crime. And he has in his possession a fool-proof plan devised by his cell-mate, Joe Cool. The plan is for a jewel theft on the grand scale, the robbery of the city’s most famous jewellers.

Riemenschneider needs someone to put up fifty grand to cover the expenses of the operation. The heist should net at least half a million dollars in jewels. Riemenschneider wants crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich to finance the heist. The plan sounds so tempting that Emmerich can’t say no. They’ll need a toolman. Louis Bellini is the obvious choice. Gus, who runs a hamburger joint, will be the driver. But they need a strong-arm man. Gus suggests Dix Handley. Dix seems a bizarre choice. He was big-time once but now he’s strictly small-time but they can’t find anyone else so Dix gets the job.

What the reader knows but the heisters don’t know is that a double-cross has been planned right from the start. The reader will also have formed the impression that this is a heist doomed to failure. These guys think they’re big-time but they’re losers. They’re just not smart enough. The only one with any brains is Riemenschneider.

We figure something will go wrong but we don’t know exactly what it will be.

The cops in this story are not very smart. They don’t need to be. They have the entire apparatus of the criminal justice system behind them. And they’re well aware that they have other advantages. In any heist there’s at least one weak link, one guy who will shoot off his mouth or betray his fellow heisters. The cops also know that while they can afford to make a few mistakes the criminals cannot afford any. The criminals also cannot afford a single piece of bad luck, and no heist has ever gone off without at least one piece of bad luck. The cops know from the start they’re going to win in the end. The heisters just don’t realise that the odds are so heavily against them. That’s why they all have prison records. They have never learnt that something always go wrong, and then you wind up in the penitentiary.

There’s a tragic inevitability to this tale.

Dix is the character who stands out for us. He’s a lot like Roy Earle in Burnett's High Sierra. He’s a career criminal who doesn’t really understand how his life turned out the way it did. Like Roy he has some redeeming qualities. Dix has a woman, a cheap prostitute named Doll. He keeps thinking he should ditch her. But that would necessitate being cruel to her, and cruelty just isn’t in Dix’s nature. He just can’t bring himself to hurt Doll. Like Roy Earle, Dix is obsessed with daydreams of his boyhood. He lived on a farm. It was an idyllic life. He is slowly coming to realise that he should never have left the farm. Now he can think of only one thing - going home again. It’s a fantasy, but more and more he lives in that fantasy.

Dix is not evil. He has done many bad things but he has never quite lost a certain core of decency. That decency is now tattered and torn but it’s still there.

The other heisters aren’t really evil either. They are men with at least one weakness. For Louis it’s his family. He’s a devoted husband and father. Crime seems to be the only way he can provide for them. Gus is a really nice guy and he’s gone straight since his last stretch inside but he gets drawn into the gang anyway. Riemenschneider is basically a gentle man but he likes money. He also likes young women, and money attracts young women. Emmerich has been so successful for so long that he’s become over-confident and he’s allowed his financial affairs to slide into chaos. And he has a very expensive young mistress.

There’s enough of a sense of doom and corruption to qualify this book as noir fiction. Dix has enough moral ambiguity to qualify as a typical noir protagonist. There is however no femme fatale. Doll is simply hopelessly devoted to Dix. Emmerich’s mistress Angela is on the make but she’s quite transparent about it, and she’s too sweet and good-natured to be a femme fatale.

The Asphalt Jungle is a fine suspenseful story but it’s the psychological complexity and the sense of yearning for a largely imaginary past that makes it a great crime novel. Highly recommended.

Stark House have re-issued The Asphalt Jungle in a two-novel paperback edition paired with another great Burnett crime novel, High Sierra.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis

C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis was published in 1899 and it qualifies as a lost world story although not quite a conventional one. There are also a few science fictional tinges.

Two archaeologists make an extraordinary discovery in the Canary Islands. It’s a narrative written on wax tablets, although the tablets differ in composition from any previously known. It is an astoundingly old narrative which when deciphered proves to be the story of the fate of Atlantis. The author, Deucalion, played a pivotal rôle in these events.

As the narrative opens Deucalion is governor of the Atlantean colony of Yucatan. He has not been home to Atlantis for twenty years. He has just been recalled to Atlantis by the Empress and must undertake a perilous sea voyage.

When he reaches Atlantis he finds it much changed. Not for the better, in his opinion. The old king Is dead. Atlantis is now ruled by the Empress Phorenice, a very beautiful but very headstrong woman. There is wealth but the common people see little of it. Trade seems to be in decline. The worship of the old gods is in decline. Phorenice is worshipped as a living goddess. And rebellion is brewing.

Deucalion discovers that the reason for his recall is that Phorenice wants a husband, and he has been chosen.

Deucalion is a man torn between conflicting loyalties. He is a member of the priestly caste. They once ruled Atlantis unchallenged but their power has been sadly diminished by Phorenice. Deucalion owes absolute obedience to the high council of the priests. He also wants to do what is best for Atlantis. And he intends to give Phorenice the loyalty due to her as Empress. He will soon discover that these three loyalties are hopelessly irreconcilable. The orders given to him by the priestly high council make things even more difficult. Those orders might compel him to betray Phorenice.

He will also be torn between two women, Phorenice and Nais, a leader of the rebels.

Deucalion tries to navigate his way through these shoals but eventually he will be forced to make some hard choices.

The Atlantis of this story is not just a vanished ancient civilisation. It exists in a very different world, a very very ancient world. Phorenice owns a tame mammoth. There are no supernatural elements but there are plenty of natural monsters - gigantic man-eating birds, huge carnivorous sea turtles and other equally fierce aquatic reptiles. There is mention of deadly destructive firestones that fall regularly from the sky. This seems to be an Earth subject to regular meteor storms. There is no magic, but the Atlanteans do have some advanced technology, such as a kind of water-jet propulsion for their ships. Or perhaps there is magic of a sort - the highest grade of the priesthood seem to possess some extraordinary powers.

The time setting is very obscure. There is mention of Egypt and it is implied that the land is on its way to developing a civilisation of its own. Which suggests a setting within the past ten thousand years. The mammoths suggest an earlier time period, and the dinosaurs (yes there are dinosaurs) suggest a time millions of years in the past. Of course in 1899 such things as carbon-dating did not exist and knowledge of the chronology of the Earth’s history was very incomplete. It doesn’t matter - all these elements provide a suitably strange setting for a fantastic tale.

Deucalion is an interesting hero. In some ways he’s a conventional hero. He is brave and noble and a mighty warrior. There are other things about him that are less sympathetic (although how these things would have struck a reader in 1899 is something on which we can only speculate). He is humourless and has a horrifyingly stern sense of duty. His devotion to the old gods borders on fanaticism. He also has some odd gaps in self-awareness. He does not seem aware that his ostentatious poverty, his repeated stated disinterest in sensual pleasures or emotional indulgences and his taste for extreme simplicity in dress and in diet could be seen as a kind of pride bordering on arrogance. Even his high sense of duty suggests a man who wants to seem (to himself and to others) to be a paragon of virtue. He is so virtuous and so pious that he is difficult to like, but this does make him intriguing.

Phorenice is Deucalion’s polar opposite. She has born a swineherd’s daughter and has made herself an Empress, not just through her beauty but through her courage, her skill as a warrior, her tenacity, her intelligence and her resourcefulness. She is quite open about her enjoyment of power and luxury. She is selfish and can be extremely cruel. She is wicked, but she is incredibly likeable. You can’t help admiring her, even while being appalled by some of her behaviour. She is a fun sexy bad girl.

Deucalion has to choose between Phorenice and Nais, but he has an even more difficult choice to make. The priests want Phorenice dead, even if it means destroying Atlantis. Deucalion is inclined to a fatalistic belief in the will of the Sun God. If the Sun God is prepared to see Atlantis destroyed in order to punish Phorenice for her blasphemy Deucalion is wiling to accept this.

One might also wonder at the motives of the priesthood - are they driven by a desire to save Atlantis or are they motivated merely by resentment that Phorenice has usurped their once limitless powers?

There’s some definite moral complexity in this tale. We have a narrator who sees everything ordained by the old gods and their priesthood as just and proper, but the reader might have serious doubts on that score. I have no idea whether Cutcliffe Hyne expected us to have those doubts or whether he expects us to take Deucalion’s views at face value.

There’s also plenty of action and adventure.

I enjoy Cutcliffe Hyne’s prose although some modern readers might find it a trifle pompous and formal. I think that’s actually a plus. Deucalion is the narrator and he really is pompous and addicted to formality so the style is entirely appropriate.

The Lost Continent is a pretty interesting lost world adventure (although I might be biased because I have a bit of an obsession with stories involving Atlantis). Highly recommended. It’s been re-issued by Armchair Fiction in their excellent Lost Race/Lost World paperback series.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Meg

Meg is one of the sleaze novels written by Robert Silverberg in the late 50s and early 60s, before he went on to become one of the greats of the science fiction genre. Meg is one of the books he wrote using the pseudonym Loren Beauchamp. It was published in 1960.

This is another tale of the horrors that lie in wait for small-town girls who try to make it in Hollywood.

Meg lives in a very small town in Idaho. She is twenty when she loses her virginity. She has a sudden glimpse of her future. Her boyfriend Jack is going to be a potato farmer. She is going to be a potato farmer’s wife. By the time she’s thirty she’ll have a tribe of kids underfoot. This is not a future that appeals to Meg. Meg is going to be a movie star.

Meg decides it would be smarter to go to New York first, rather than Hollywood. Once she has established herself in show business in New York the Hollywood studio will come courting her. So she goes to New York and she finds an agent, Max Bonaventura. Max knows immediately that Meg is going to be a star. She has no talent but she has a stunning body and she has the right attitude. Meg is prepared to do anything, anything at all, to become a star. Max knows that that is the magic ingredient that separates those who make in in Hollywood from the losers.

The first step is for Meg to win a minor beauty contest. Then she will go on to win the Miss Galaxy crown. That will win her a screen test. Winning the contests will be no problem. They’ll be rigged. Max knows how these things work.

The screen test is a disaster but Meg gets a contract anyway. Max has created so much publicity for her that the studio doesn’t care if she can’t act.

Meg’s rise is rapid. Before she’s twenty-two she is the new Queen of Hollywood.

But is she happy? No, she isn’t. 

And this is the major weakness of the novel. We know that Meg wants success at any price. Max explained to her just how sleazy her road to the top was going to be, and how many sleazy guys she’d have to sleep with. Meg wasn’t worried at all. But now suddenly she doesn’t care about success. Certainly her experience in Hollywood have been humiliating, but she knew she’d have to humiliate herself and whore herself to become a star. Her experiences haven’t really been traumatic enough to explain her sudden change of heart. Her disillusionment sets in too early to be totally convincing.

A couple of years pass and now we can see that she really does have reason to be disillusioned. It’s not so much the things that she’s had to do to reach the top. The disillusionment comes from the fact that she can’t find love. She can find sex. She can have as much sex as she wants, and she has a great deal of it. But she always has the feeling that the men who bed her are doing so for the thrill of sleeping with a famous movie star. She fears she’ll never find a man who loves her for herself. It’s not that she’s grown tired of the money. It’s just that she’d like to have love as well.

If you enjoy exposés of the seamy side of Hollywood with lots of sleaze then you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. The sex is not the least bit explicit but there’s a lot of it and the atmosphere as sleazy as your heart could desire. This is a book that really goes for Hollywood’s jugular.

You never know how these sleaze noels will end, whether the bad girl will get punished or find salvation. I’m not going to tell you how this one ends, but I found the ending quite satisfying.

We do get some insight into Meg’s inner world. However the most memorable character in the novel is Max Bonaventura. Max has zero ethics. He is entirely corrupt. He will do anything to boost Meg’s career, and he gets twenty-five percent of everything she makes. He comes up with some breathtakingly cynical publicity stunts. And yet, in spite of all that, he’s a really nice guy. He’s likeable because he’s so open about his cynicism and his unscrupulousness. He never tries to cheat Meg, he never tries to hurt her, he never tries to sleep with her. He never made her any promises he didn’t keep. He told her he’d make her a star and he told her the methods he’d use and he told the truth on both counts. You just can’t help liking the guy.

Meg is a fun novel about the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood and it’s a novel about a woman’s search for love and for some reason to keep going. It works quite well on both levels. Recommended.

This novel has been re-issued by Stark House Noir in a two-novel paperback paired with Silverberg’s slightly earlier novel Connie. Meg’s claims to being noir fiction are a bit thin, but I guess it has some slight noir flavour.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Kenneth Royce’s The XYY Man

Kenneth Royce’s 1970 spy novel The XYY Man has an interesting psychiatric twist to it, which we’ll get to later.

Kenneth Royce Gandley (1920–1997) wrote a series of novels featuring cat burglar Spider Scott (the XYY Man) and other novels featuring Detective Sergeant George Bulman, a character who first made his appearance in The XYY Man.

Spider Scott has just been released from prison after serving a five-year stretch. At the age of 34 he is determined never to go back inside again.

During his time inside the prison doctors discovered that he has a chromosomal abnormality. Instead of an X and a a Y chromosome he has an X and two YY chromosomes. The doctors believe this is the reason for his criminality. They also believe it’s the reason he only ever commits crimes against property, never against persons. Their theory is that XXY men are highly inclined to criminality but very non-violent.

Back in 1970 the idea that behaviour is influenced by chromosomal abnormalities was quite fashionable in medical circles and the idea of XXY men being inclined to crime was exciting a lot of criminologists.

Spider finds that going straight isn’t so easy. Detective Sergeant Bulman is trying to frame him for a series of burglaries. Spider’s kid brother is a cop (and a real straight arrow) and it seems like someone is trying to wreck his career. Spider gets the feeling that someone is really out to get get him and he doesn’t know why but eventually he will find out.

Then Spider is made an offer he can’t refuse. He wants to refuse it, he is sure it’s a bad idea, but he really has no choice. The offer is made by a man named Fairfax, a man who seems very much part of the Establishment. Fairfax wants Spider to carry out a burglary, but in the best interests of Queen and Country. All Spider has to do is break into the Chinese Legation. One look at the place convinces him that the idea is madness but he’s been well and truly trapped into doing this job, and he is almost convinced that it really is his patriotic duty.

When Spider finds out what it is that he’s been sent to steal things suddenly become very clear to him. And he realises just what a horrible mess he’s in.

Spider needs to find somebody he can trust, but those he thinks he can trust turn out to be not trustworthy at all. He has possession of something that is political dynamite but he has to figure out a way of using it, and he’s a rank beginner at the grubby game of espionage.

This book falls into the sub-genre of spy thrillers about reluctant spies but it’s even more paranoid than most such tales. He’s being manipulated by the intelligence agencies of at least four different countries and while he knows the nature of the documents he stole he doesn’t know the use to which these various agencies intend to put those documents. In some cases they don’t know that themselves, because they don’t know what is in those documents. They just know that they have to have them, because all those other countries are so keen to have them.

Spider is a sympathetic hero. He really does sincerely want to go straight and despite his larcenous history he has a perverse honest side to him. He likes to steal but he doesn’t like cheating people or lying to them. If he’s going to survive in the world of espionage he’s going to have to learn to be a lot more dishonest and a lot more devious. And a lot more ruthless. It doesn’t come naturally to him, but he wants to survive.

The novel’s view of the world of spies is extremely bleak and cynical. It’s not a world of adventure, honour or glamour. It’s vicious and sordid. In 1970 spy fiction (and spy TV series) was becoming steadily more cynical and paranoid and The XYY Man is very much in tune with the mood of the late 60s/early 70s.\

There’s plenty of action and plenty of violence, and the violence is fairly brutal at times.

The psychiatric angle isn’t developed to any great extent, although we do get the sense that Spider is basically a decent guy with an overwhelming urge to steal things.

The XYY Man is gritty and action-packed with a bit of a serious edge to it and it’s thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.

The XYY Man was was made into a British spy TV series by Granada in 1976, which I reviewed here a few years back. I wasn’t entirely sold on the TV series but having now read the book I’m tempted to give the TV series another look.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #6

Issue 6 of Men’s Adventure Quarterly focuses on heists, which certainly sounds promising. These stories all appeared in men’s adventure magazines in the late 60s and and early to mid 70s. Men’s adventure magazines enjoyed huge popularity for quite a while. In a way they were successors to the old pulp magazines.

The most impressive features of these magazines were the terrific illustrations by some of the greatest pulp artists of all time, and Men’s Adventure Quarterly includes full-colour reproductions of the illustrations plus lots of cover artwork. Men’s Adventure Quarterly really is beautifully presented.

The bonus feature in this issue is a profusely illustrated piece on Angie Dickinson who of course starred in one of the classic heist movies, Ocean’s Eleven, in 1960. I suppose at a pinch her 1974 movie Big Bad Mama could almost be described as a heist movie as well. And what’s not to love about Angie Dickinson?

The Stories

The Flying Bank Looters by Tom Christopher appeared in Man’s World in October 1967. Tom Christopher was a pen-name used by Thomas Chastain who went on to a fairly successful career as a writer of thrillers.

This is the story of a bank robbery, but the target really is a flying bank. In the wilds of Colombia people don’t have access to banks so they have to keep their money hidden under the bed. Now a local bank has introduced a flying back service. Once a week a DC-3 arrives and the locals can do their banking.

Frank Cage has a plan to rob the flying bank. The DC-3 of course carries armed guards (one of whom has a machine-gun) but Frank thinks the heist can be pulled off anyway.

This is an exciting clever fun story with a genuinely inventive heist, reasonably colourful characters and some fine action stuff.

The G.I. Stick-Up Mob That Heisted $33 M in Nazi Gold appeared in Male in November 1967. It was written by Eugene Joseph. It’s based on a legend that may contain some truth - that in the closing days of the Second World War a group of American soldiers stole a huge shipment of Bavarian gold.

The story starts a few years after the war. First Lieutenant Steve Brock is heading to a meeting with the last survivors of his platoon. He almost doesn’t make it to the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to divide the loot from a daring heist his men pulled off in January 1945. The story of the heist will be told in flashback.

It’s a surprisingly complex story and a surprisingly dark one. Let’s just say that Brock’s plan is a clever one but it doesn’t go too smoothly. An ambitious story with nasty nifty twists and it really is excellent.

Stop California’s Iron Shark Heist Commandos
was written by Tom Irish, a pseudonym used by Martin Cruz Smith (who later became reasonably successful under his own name). It appeared in For Men Only in December 1967.

You have to have a gimmick if you’re going to write a heist story. The gimmick in this one is that the robbers use a military hovercraft to raid a waterfront casino. It has to be said that as gimmicks go this one is pretty good. A fairly exciting story packed with mayhem and a very high body count.

Band of Misfits by Don Honig was published in Action For Men in 1970. Grady Benson decides to rob a casino in Puerto Rico. But first he has time for a little sexual escapade with a pretty blonde divorcée. He also has to deal with a guy who seems to be following him. The robbery is easy, getting away with the loot is more of a challenge.

This is a very disappointing story. The heist is incredibly unimaginative. There’s a sub-plot that is pure filler. There’s a bit of sex and a bit of action but neither is exciting enough to compensate for the dullness of the basic story.

The Great Sierra Mob Heist by C.K. Winston was published in Male in December 1971. This is another story that relies on a gimmick - the thieves use a customised all terrain vehicle to reach a resort hotel in the mountains by an otherwise in accessible route. The heist itself is straightforward and without a great deal of interest.

It’s the way the story is told that is interesting. This is a cynical, even nihilistic, tale with a nor fiction flavour. It’s also pretty brutal. It’s not a bad story.

The G.I. Wild Bunch by Grant Freeling was published in Male in March 1975. This story opens with a heist. In Germany an armoured car is robbed by a gang armed with an anti-tank gun. The robbers were American Army uniforms and speak German with heavy American accents. The US Army is coöperating with the local German police and they soon have a suspect under lock and key and they have hopes he’ll reveal the identities of the other gang members. But despite the evidence against him Corporal Landers stubbornly insists on his innocence. What Landers needs is a chance to prove his innocence, and he gets it in an unexpected way.

Landers is a typical men’s adventure protagonist. He’s a soldier with a glittering record in wartime but in peacetime his temper and his dislike of authority land him in constant trouble. A decent enough fairly well-plotted story and an interesting protagonist.

G.I. Hayseeds Who Pulled a $2 Million Gold Heist by Michael Cullen appeared in Male in July 1975.

Three amateurs, all Vietnam vets, rob a train in Canada. They steal a huge shipment of gold coins. The most interesting things about this story is that the coins are counterfeit, . but they’re still worth $2 million since they are 20% gold. The heist itself is disappointingly straightforward. The problem for the heisters is that they really are amateurs and disposing of the gold presents problems. And then they find that they have gangsters plus the Mounties plus the F.B.I. all pursuing them.

This story just doesn’t quite pay off.

Arizona’s Incredible ‘Kung Fu’ Vengeance Heisters appeared in Male in November 1973. This is another reasonably entertaining tale. The idea of a heist carried out without guns is a good one, but in fact guns do end up getting used.

Final Thoughts

Men’s Adventure Quarterly is doing a great job in making these long-forgotten stories accessible. Issue #6 is recommended, especially if you’re nuts about heist stories.