Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Charles Williams' Nothing in Her Way

Charles K. Williams (1909-1975) was an American pulp crime writer. He wrote twenty-two novels. The 1960 novel Fires of Youth was published under his name but he did not write it. He sometimes gets confused with the other Charles Williams, an English writer who was part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Inklings circle.

Nothing in Her Way, published by Gold Medal in 1953, is a book about a confidence trick. I just love crime novels dealing with conmen and con tricks. And this novel deals with a whole series of fascinating confidence tricks.

It all starts when the protagonist/narrator, Mike Belen, runs into his ex-wife Cathy. This happens while a conman is trying to persuade Mike to fall for the oldest con in the book. Mike and Cathy have quite a history. They knew each other when they were little kids. And there’s a weird bond between them. While they were still kids Mike’s father was swindled by a man named Lachlan and ended up in gaol. Mike and Cathy swore they’d get revenge one day. Kids make such promises but these two have never forgotten that childhood pledge. It’s been an obsession with them. Especially for Cathy. Now Cathy tells Mike that the time has come. She knows where Lachlan is and she has a fool-proof plan.

But this con can only work if they have a lot of money to play with. Cathy has that figured out as well. They will first pull another confidence trick, on a man who was one of Lachlan’s accomplices.

They’re going to have a couple of accomplices themselves. One will be Wolford Charles, one of the sharpest bunco artists around. The other is a mysterious guy named Bolton.

Then Donnelly steps into the picture. He’s a gangster type and he claims that Cathy owes him money but won’t pay. This worries Mike but doesn’t seem to bother Cathy.

The plot comprises two incredibly complex cons plus minor cons plus countless double-crosses. No-one knows how much anyone else knows. No-one knows if anyone else can be trusted. No-one knows what their partners’ motivations are.

There aren’t just double-crosses. There are triple-crosses and quadruple-crosses. There are devious schemes hidden inside other devious schemes. Williams provides us not just with plot twists, but with genuinely unexpected plot twists. There’s plenty of misdirection.

There’s not much action. There’s some, but these are non-violent criminals. Conmen don’t wander about with guns. They rely on their wits rather than on muscle or firepower. And the conmen in this story know how to think on their feet. No matter what kind of jam they get into they figure they can talk their way out of it.

The plotting is so tight and the plot twists are so good, and the suspense is so effective, that Williams is able to resist the temptation to throw in superfluous gunplay and fistfights. This story doesn’t need them.

The story builds to a very satisfying conclusion.

Cathy has plenty of femme fatale qualities. She can twist men around her little finger. She’s been doing that to Mike for years. Even when he knows what she’s up to she can still manipulate him. And she always has her own agenda. She is not however merely an evil spider woman. She’s the best kind of femme fatale - you can never be sure if she’ll turn out to be a good girl or a bad girl, or maybe both. Mike has known her for twenty-three years and he still can’t figure her out.

Mike is an interesting character as well. He’s not quite a crook and he’s not quite an innocent dupe. He doesn’t mind doing things that are illegal but he has to be able to justify his actions to himself, under his own particular moral code. Now he’s in a situation where he’s walking a tightrope, doing criminal things whilst trying not to succumb entirely to the lure of easy money through crime.

Even the minor characters have some complexity. Mike isn’t sure what to make of Bolton or of Donnelly and the reader also isn’t sure about them. They might be what they seem to be, or they might not. They might be genuine bad guys, or they might not.

Intricate and skilful plotting, ingenious confidence tricks, characters with some depth, taut suspense - what more could you want? Highly recommended.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Perry Rhodan 39: The Silence of Gom

There’s something awe-inspiring about the German Perry Rhodan science fiction series. It was created by German writers K. H. Scheer and Walter Ernsting in 1961. The series is still being published. Each issue is novella-length and to date there have been over 3,000 issues. Yes, 3,000. They have sold in total over two billion copies. Yes, two billion. Not two million.

Ace Books in the US published English translations of the first 126 novellas between 1969 and 1978. The first 39 were also published in Britain, by Futura.

The Perry Rhodan series comprises very long story arcs, some extending to as many as 100 issues.

I recently picked up Perry Rhodan 39: The Silence of Gom by Kurt Mahr. The English translation dates from 1974 but I assume the original German edition dates from the early 60s.

Since this one comes in the middle of a story arc I wasn’t sure how much sense it would make reading it on its own. But it does work, to some extent, as a standalone novella. It helps if you do a bit of reading on the background to the series. That background is a bit bewildering but it’s certainly interesting. Apparently it starts with the first moon mission, commanded by Major Perry Rhodan. They discover an extra-terrestrial spaceship and advanced alien technology. It’s the beginning of a human galactic empire. And apparently the series covers a timespan of thousands of years and several different universes!

The Silence of Gom begins with Bell and his crew of mutants landing on the surface of the planet Gom. Their commander Perry Rhodan is in orbit around the planet, in the mother ship.

Gom is not a very inviting place. It’s an immense planet with twice the gravity of Earth. It’s home to plant life which may or may not be sentient.

Our spacefarers soon discover that Gom is home to much stranger things than semi-sentient plants. There are living things there which really stretch the definition of living things. Really weird things that also may be sentient, but which really really stretch the definition of sentient. They may be hostile, or friendly, or totally neutral. It’s very hard to tell. They eat spaceships, but they may not mean any harm. Or they may mean a great deal of harm.

Bell and his crew have other things to worry about. Other creatures that are definitely hostile, although again whether they possess intelligence is an open question.

Taking refuge in a tunnel seems like a good idea at the time. It turns out to be a vast network of tunnels. Bell and his crew are inside something but they have no idea what it is that they’re inside. They also have no idea how to escape.

The mutants possess paranormal powers. Some are telepaths. Some have telekinetic powers. Others have much stranger abilities. These abilities make them extremely useful and their powers are going to be put to good use.

It is obvious when reading this novella that you’re jumping into the middle of an ongoing story arc but it’s not as much a problem as I feared. Enough background information is provided to make sense of what is going on. Earth is threatened with war and the mission to Gom is part of Earth’s defensive strategy.

I get the impression that even though this series comprised lengthy story arcs each novella can function as an independent episode in a longer story. I had no problems figuring out what was going on.

The author certainly manages to create some interesting aliens. I like my aliens to be truly alien-like and these creatures certainly qualify on that count. There’s obviously a fascination with concepts like hive minds.

There’s no shortage of action, with some epic battles and some narrow escapes.

The tone is pulpy, but not as pulpy as I had expected. Kurt Mahr (one of the countless writers who contributed to the series over the years) appears to have been a perfectly competent science science fiction writer. The characters don’t have a huge amount of depth but the interactions between them have at least some degree of complexity. There’s a bit of tension between Bell the commander and Marshall, one of the telepaths. There’s no conflict between them, such enough of a hint of mild tension to keep things interesting.

There’s one female member of the crew, Betty Doufry. She’s a telepath and while she’s not quite a clichéd kickass action heroine she can handle herself in a crisis.

The Silence of Gom is pretty decent science fiction. If I can manage to get hold of a few consecutive novellas in the series so I can at least read a few in sequence then I’d be willing to read more Perry Rhodan. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Tong in Cheek (Cherry Delight #2)

Tong in Cheek, published in 1973, is the second of Gardner Francis Fox’s Cherry Delight sexy spy thrillers which he wrote under the name Glen Chase. This series is sometimes known as the Sexecutioner series. Fox had plenty of experience in this genre having written the very entertaining The Lady From L.U.S.T. spy thrillers in the late 60s.

Whether the Cherry Delight books qualify as spy thrillers can be debated. Cherry isn’t quite a spy. She is however a secret agent working for N.Y.M.P.H.O., a shadowy top-secret US government agency. N.Y.M.P.H.O. is mostly engaged in the fight against organised crime but some of their cases (including this one) do involve international intrigue. N.Y.M.P.H.O.’s methods are so unconventional that even the F.B.I. would consider them to be unethical.

Cherry is actually a gorgeous redhead by the name of Cherise Dellissio but inevitably everybody calls her Cherry Delight. She’s not just a secret agent, she’s also a high-class call girl. That’s actually part of her job. She belongs to an elite squad known as the Femmes Fatales. They work as prostitutes because it’s a useful cover and one that offers plenty of opportunities for them to get close to organised crime figures. Cherry doesn’t mind. If there’s one thing Cherry enjoys more than being a secret agent it’s having sex. Her job allows her to combine business with pleasure.

Cherry’s latest case has very definite international ramifications. The Mafia is forging links with tongs operating in Red China. It’s a disturbing development which has to be nipped in the bud.

A N.Y.M.P.H.O. agent has been killed by three Mafia hitmen. The three Mafiosi are now believed to be in Hong Kong en route to Red China. Cherry’s assignment is to prevent them from making contact with the Chinese tongs but mostly her assignment is to kill those three men. Cherry’s duties with N.Y.M.P.H.O. include assassinations. She’s quite relaxed about that.

Once she gets to Hong Kong Cherry will be working with an Englishman named Derek Guyfford. He knows the territory and he happens to be a part-time N.Y.M.P.H.O. agent. Cherry is pleased that he seems to know his job. She’s even more pleased when he turns out to be very good in bed. Derek is keen to help Cherry make the hit on the three Mafia goons but he has another agenda as well. He has a more personal more selfish reason for wanting to go to China. A reason that could make him a vast amount of money. Money that he might be prepared to share with Cherry.

It has to be admitted that the Cherry Delight books are very very trashy. Fox’s prose is more than a little rough around the edges. There is however one thing that Fox understood. If you’re going to combine the thriller and erotica genres you have to make sure that your books deliver on both counts. There has to be plenty of sex and the sex has to be pretty explicit but there has to be lots of action and mayhem as well. And if possible you have to integrate the sex stuff with the thriller stuff. Fox made sure to do this.

You have to consider the historical context. In the late 60s and the 70s there was a widespread feeling that the idea that there was a dividing line between erotica and other genres was rather artificial and outdated. In both the literary and film worlds there was increasing interest in breaking down the barriers between softcore porn and other genres. The 70s was the golden age of cinematic art porn and film-makers with respectable arty credentials were enthusiastically embracing the concept of art porn. The idea of combining erotica with other pure entertainment genres was also becoming quite popular.

The spy sleaze novels which blossomed in the 60s and 70s were very much a part of the zeitgeist. Sexiness was cool. Sexiness was fun. And in the 60s and 70s (unlike today) fun was more or less legal.

Personally I think that the first of the Cherry Delight novels, The Italian Connection, is much superior to Tong in Cheek. It’s faster-paced and it puts more emphasis on action and excitement and non-top mayhem. The Italian Connection is enormous fun.

Tong in Cheek is still reasonably good fun and if spy sleaze is your thing you’ll enjoy it.

You might want to check out my reviews of the first of Fox’s The Lady from L.U.S.T. novels, Lust, Be a Lady Tonight and the first Cherry Delight novel, The Italian Connection.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Helene

Assignment Helene, published in 1959, is the tenth of the Sam Durell spy thrillers written by Edward S. Aarons (six more were published after Aarons’ death credited to his brother Will but in fact ghost-written by Lawrence Hall).

CIA agent Sam Durell has been sent to the (mythical) newly created island republic of Sarangap in South-East Asia to investigate the murder of the US consul in the old city of Sarangap. The new nation is highly unstable. There’s a rebel army in the hills trying to overthrow the government. The US doesn’t want that to happen but they don’t want to get officially involved. The rebels might be bank-rolled by the Chinese or by Taiwan but either way it is known that an American is involved in running guns to those rebels and that has the potential to cause embarrassment. The deceased consul, Hansen, had presumably been close to finding out the identity of that American.

Durell arrives in Sarangap accompanied by Hansen’s widow, a glamorous movie star. She had been estranged from her husband and it’s odd that she now seems to so keen to go to Sarangap to collect his body.

The first thing Durell discovers is that his cover has been blown. He also discovers that there was a romantic triangle involving Hansen, Hansen’s wife and the Vice-Consul, an arrogant Ivy League pup named Twill.

Sam is eager to interview the three Americans whom Hansen suspected of gun-running but one (a peace activist) has disappeared and one is probably going to be too drunk to provide much useful information. And of course it soon becomes evident that somebody is prepared to disrupt Durell’s investigation by having him killed.

Durell finds himself in the jungle with two beautiful women, neither of whom he can trust, a possibly equally untrustworthy American diplomat and a broken-down American ex-intelligence agent. They fall into the hands of the dangerous rebel leader Trang. What all of these people have in common is that it seems that would all like to see Sam Durell dead.

Sam Durell isn’t quite a stereotypical square-jawed all-American hero. He has just a bit of psychological complexity. He’s not very ideologically driven. In a vague way he believes in freedom and democracy and all that stuff and he’s loyal to his country but he’s capable of understanding that people in the Third World often have very valid reasons for disliking and resenting America and he’s capable of admitting that US foreign policy is sometimes disturbingly wrong-headed and selfish. 

The Sam Durell spy thrillers do not belong to the cynical pessimistic school of spy fiction typified by Greene, le Carre and Deighton but they’re also not quite simplistic exercises in flag-waving.

In this book Durell faces some genuine moral dilemmas and while he’s keen to do the right thing he has to admit that he has no idea what the morally correct decision might be. He knows where his duty as a CIA agent lies but it might not be consistent with his duty as a human being. And Durell isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of merely following orders like an automaton. He’s aware that people sometimes do bad things for good reasons.

The two women are Hansen’s wife and Hélène, part Sarangapese and part European and all dangerous. Either woman could turn out to be the femme fatale of the story and just about any of the main characters could be the murderer. Durell wants the murderer.

This is therefore part spy fiction and part murder mystery and the mystery angle is handled pretty well with some decent misdirection.

There’s no shortage of action either.

Maybe Aarons wasn’t quite in the premier league as far as spy fiction writers are concerned but he wasn’t far out of that league. Among American spy writers of the same era Donald Hamilton was better but Aarons is very much worth reading. He’s definitely a cut above the average pulp spy writer.  Assignment Helene is highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of other Sam Durell spy novels, Assignment…Suicide and Assignment - Karachi.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Frank Kane’s Time To Prey

Time To Prey is a 1960 entry in Frank Kane’s long-running series of Johnny Liddell private eye thrillers. Frank Kane (1912-1968) has never been considered as one of the greats of American hardboiled fiction but he gained respect as a consistently solid and entertaining pulpster.

Time To Prey starts with a girl named Blossom Lee passing an envelope to private eye Johnny Liddell. Then Liddell gets into a fist fight. He’s always getting into fist fights. He’s that kind of guy.

He has no idea why the girl passed him the envelope and he has no idea what was in it since a couple of hoods took it away from him. But when the girl turns up dead Johnny decides to interest himself in the case. She was a client. Well, not actually a client, but almost a client. And Johnny doesn’t like it when pretty girls get murdered.

He’s even more keen to get involved when he discovers that the Treasury Department is interested in the case. Apparently it’s connected with a nefarious commie plot to infiltrate Red Chinese agents intro America. Johnny doesn’t like commies.

The case seems to be running into a brick wall until Johnny comes up with a clever plan to get things moving. What this case needs is another corpse and he thinks he knows a way to arrange it.

He certainly manages to get things moving, in a big way.

Johnny Liddell comes across as very much a Mike Hammer clone, but more cold-blooded and less ethical. Yes, he’s a guy who makes Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout and a liberal bleeding heart. Being responsible for cold-blooded murder doesn’t bother Johnny, as long as it’s cold-blooded murder of commies. And Johnny is in a way working for the US Government. Cold-blooded murder is definitely A-OK if it’s a commie and you’re working for the US Government.

Johnny is a guy who knows he’s one of the good guys and if bad guys need killing then the best thing to do is to kill them, or arrange things so they get killed.

Trying to emulate Mickey Spillane certainly made solid commercial sense in 1960 but Kane is just not quite in the Spillane league. His writing doesn’t have Spillane’s manic energy. And while not everybody approves of Spillane or Mike Hammer the fact is that Hammer was more than just a thug. He had slightly more complex motivations and he had an actual emotional life. You might not like Hammer but the character had a certain reality. Spillane was a first-rate writer. Kane was a second-tier writer. Emulating a successful formula is not as easy as it looks.

That’s not to suggest that Kane was a poor writer. He was very competent and entertaining but he lacked that extra something that writers such as Spillane had.

Apart from his total lack of ethics there’s not much in Johnny Liddell’s personality to make him stand out. He’s basically a stock-standard tough guy hero.

And you could say the same about the novel itself - there’s very little to distinguish it from any other hardboiled PI novel. It is however competently plotted, it’s well-written, fast-paced and action-packed. I wouldn’t call it sleazy but Kane does add a few sexy moments.

As long as your expectations haven’t been set too high Time To Prey is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Frank Kane’s 1957 interesting hardboiled novel about corruption in the music business, The Living End.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Kris Neville's Special Delivery

Special Delivery is a 1967 science fiction novel by Kris Neville. Kris Neville (1925-1980) was an American science fiction writer who achieved some early acclaim but then semi-retired, producing a handful of novels in the 1960s.

Special Delivery is an alien invasion story with a few twists. The Knoug Empire is a vast galactic empire which is about to add Earth to its possessions, not because they want our planet but because they see it a vital step in their endless struggle with their galactic rivals, the Oholo. We will gradually come to realise that these are two very different empires based on very different philosophies.

The Knoug plan is to demoralise the people of Earth first, after which their invasion should be a simple matter. Their demoralisation plan will make use of the U.S. Postal Service. The Knoug intend to send out millions of packages. We find out very late in the story what those packages contain.

Parr is an advanceman for the invasion. He’s in charge of the mailing out of those packages. He quickly realises that he has a problem. The Oholo are mot supposed to know about the invasion but he becomes aware that there is an Oholo agent on Earth, and that agent is uncomfortably close by. Most of the book is taken up by an extended duel between parr and the Oholo agent.

What makes it interesting is that the duel takes place entirely in the minds of the two rival agents. Both the Knoug and the Oholo are telepaths and they practise advanced forms of mind control. What worries Parr is that the Oholo agent (whose name we later discover is Lauri) seems to have astonishingly powerful mental powers.

There’s another battle being waged, this one entirely inside Parr’s mind. He doesn’t know at first that this internal mental struggle is happening but gradually he becomes paranoid that he is guilty of something. He has no idea what it is but he senses that it is important. And he’s right. It’s very important indeed.

You could probably try to see a political subtext in this novel but that might be a mistake. I think it would definitely be a mistake to assume that this is another science fiction book with alien invaders used as a metaphor for communism. I don’t think it’s that simple. The story definitely is concerned with themes of power and ambition, and with paranoia and mistrust, and manufactured hatred. Parr hates the Oholo, but he isn’t sure exactly why. Of course they’re the enemy, so you have to hate them, but that’s about as far as his mental processes go on the subject. Until now. Now he’s not only troubled by guilt but by an obscure feeling that he’s been wrong about something.

There’s not much action in this story, at least not much of the kind of action you expect in an alien invasion story. No space battles. Some bloodshed, but very little.

The action all takes place within the minds of the rival agents but it’s an epic struggle. A struggle that must end with the destruction of one or both rivals. But they’re fairly evenly matched. It’s not just a matter of brute mental force. It’s a matter of devising a strategy that will end with the destruction of either Parr or Lauri.

The result of the telepathic/mind control duel between these two will determine whether the Knoug invasion succeeds or not.

It has to be said that these are aliens who are very human. But then that’s the point of the story. The author isn’t trying to create alien-like aliens. It’s an encounter between two different cultures that are both essentially different human cultures with fundamentally differing values. Neville has no real interest in anything scientific or technological. There’s no attempt to make anything in the story seem scientifically plausible. This is science fiction about cultural values rather than about spaceships or laser blasters.

It’s at least a moderately ambitious novel and it’s original enough to be interesting. I’m going to recommend it.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Charles F. Meyers’ whimsical No Time for Toffee in one of their two-novel paperback editions.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Troy Conway's Coxeman: The Best Laid Plans

The Coxeman series of sexy spy thrillers is credited to Troy Conway which was a house name. Several authors wrote books in this series, notably Michael Avallone. The tenth book in the series, The Best Laid Plans, was written by Gardner F. Fox in 1969. Given that he was the author of the wonderful Lady From L.U.S.T. and Cherry Delight sexy spy/crime thrillers he was clearly an ideal choice to contribute to this series.

The Coxeman is Professor Rod Damon. He’s a sociologist and a sexologist but he’s also a part-time secret agent, working for the Thaddeus X. Coxe Foundation (whose agents are therefore called Coxemen).

The Best Laid Plans begins with Rod Damon saving a woman who is about to commit suicide. The curious thing is that she has no idea why she tried to throw herself in front of a car.

It turns out that she’s a high-powered diplomat who seems like she might be the Oman to bring peace to the Middle East. Which is why the Thaddeus X. Coxe Foundation becomes interested. They suspect a plot to derail her peace plans. They further suspect that a shadowy organisation known as HECATE is behind the plot. HECATE is a bit like SPECTRE or THRUSH - they aim at global power but their main objective is to enrich themselves. They’re not ideological.

HECATE have perfected a form of mind control. Rod Damon’s job is to get himself recruited by HECATE. He’ll be safe because he’s been implanted with a device which will nullify HECATE’s mind control techniques. At least in theory he’ll be safe. In practice things don’t go so smoothly. He has no problem getting recruited by HECATE but he discovers that he may not be able to prevent himself from being turned into a robotic assassin.

Like any good fictional spy Rod Damon is highly trained in unarmed combat and firearms skills. He’s also a highly trained sex machine. The Thaddeus X. Coxe Foundation has found that it’s very useful for their agents to possess advanced bedroom skills. Damon is a natural stud whose background in sexology has developed his sexual prowess to an extraordinary degree. On this mission he will make full use of all his special talents.

The trick to writing a successful sexy spy thriller is to put as much emphasis on the spy plot as on the sex. Fox managed this trick extremely well in the first of the Lady From L.U.S.T. and Cherry Delight books, mixing non-stop secret agent action with lots of sex. And with genuinely exciting action scenes. He doesn’t pull this off quite so successfully in this book. The plot is just a bit too thin and there’s not quite enough action.

On the other hand Fox does manage to make all the sex integral with the plot, given that HECATE’s plans for world domination involve using sex as a tool of espionage. And he does manage to have his hero engage in an action scene whilst having sex at the same time.

The sex is relatively explicit without being overly crude.

The sexy spy thriller genre which blossomed in the mid to late 60s was very much a part of the zeitgeist of the 60s. The release of the first Bond movie, Dr No, in 1962 had established the idea of the sexy spy. In that very year Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale became the first sexy kickass lady spy in The Avengers. Modesty Blaise made her first comic strip appearance in 1963 with the Modesty Blaise movie and the first Modesty Blaise novel following in 1965. Ramping up the sexual content to create the spy sleaze sub-genre was an obvious move that was going to occur to canny publishers and pulp writers.

And some of these spy sleaze novels really were fun.

The Best Laid Plans is very much of its time in another way, dealing as it does with scientific mind control. This was a huge pop culture obsession at that time.

Rod Damon is a hero you’ll either love or hate. He not only thinks he’s God’s gift to women he really is the ultimate sexual athlete and he’s pretty arrogant about it. He expects women to swoon over him. Given that he’s a super-spy as well you might think that the characters take wish-fulfilment fantasies to an absurd extreme. On the other hand we’re clearly not intended to take this book at all seriously and you can derive some amusement from the hero’s ludicrously inflated ego and impossibly awesome sexual prowess.

Personally I think this is a genre that works better with a sexy lady super-spy rather than a male super-stud super-spy. Fox’s sexy lady spies, Eve Drum (the Lady from L.U.S.T.) and Cherry Delight, are just as sex-obsessed as Rod Damon (their sexual appetites are awe-inspiring) but they’re amusing and charming and likeable as well.

The Best Laid Plans is however reasonably enjoyable if you’re in the mood for a very sleazy spy thriller. It knows it's trash and it doesn't care. It’s recommended if your tastes run that way.

I’ve reviewed a couple of Gardner F. Fox’s other books in this genre, The Italian Connection (Cherry Delight #1) and Lust, Be a Lady Tonight (The Lady from L.U.S.T. #1) both of which are great fun.

Friday, January 6, 2023

E. Howard Hunt's The Towers of Silence

Former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt became best-known (and most notorious) for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, for which he served nearly three years in prison. Hunt had been involved in many CIA covert operations, most of them probably illegal. He was therefore ideally qualified to write spy fiction and using the pseudonym David St. John he wrote the ten successful Peter Ward spy thrillers. Hunt was an extremely prolific writer using his own name and various pseudonyms, writing numerous other thrillers and some excellent hardboiled crime fiction. Whatever you might think of his activities on behalf of the CIA Hunt’s fiction is worth checking out.

The Towers of Silence, published in 1966, was the second of his Peter Ward spy novels.

CIA agent Peter Ward has been sent to India, to Bombay, to find out how Paul Walker met his death. Walker was a low-grade CIA agent but he was murdered and the CIA isn’t happy about that. The problem is that nobody knows what Walker was working on at the time and therefore neither Peter Ward nor his bosses at Langley have any idea why he was killed.

What Peter Ward does discover is that Walker took some photos just before his death. Photos of very explicit Indian erotic art works. This surprises Ward. He’d assumed that Walker was a clean-living all-American hero.

Ward makes contact with Helene Bush. She was working for Paul Walker but Ward is disturbed to learn that she is a former British spy, an MI6 agent. In fact she might well be a current MI6 agent. The British are America’s allies but as Ward knows that doesn’t mean they’re on the same side. The CIA and MI6 would cheerfully slit each other’s throats if there was some advantage to be gained thereby.

What does attract Ward’s interest is a new Indian political movement which might be innocent or it might not be. A very wealthy man named Paramandi, a Parsi, is involved. Ward takes an interest in Paramandi’s daughter Nara. He thinks she might be worth recruiting although perhaps his interest in her isn’t entirely professional.

Ward is still puzzled by those erotic photographs taken by Walker. They were photographs of carvings in caves on the island of Elephanta. Maybe Walker wasn’t interested in expanding his knowledge of the art of love. Maybe he was more interested in that island.

Ward must be on to something because people keep trying to kill him (in one case in an extraordinarily imaginative and horrible way).

This could perhaps be described as the spy fiction equivalent of a police procedural, an espionage procedural if you will. The emphasis is on solid routine espionage tradecraft. Sifting intelligence, making connections, putting suspects under surveillance, gradually building up a picture. You don’t know what the subject of the picture is until it’s complete but you follow procedures. There are certainly action scenes but Peter Ward is not a fly-by-the-set-of-your-pants follow-your-instincts kind of spy. He’s a professional. He doesn’t take risks and he doesn’t act as a lone wolf. British fictional spies tend to work along because they’re working for British Intelligence which has virtually no money and virtually no resources. Peter Ward on the other hand is CIA, with unlimited resources and money behind him. He’s an organisation man.

Hunt was clearly aiming for verisimilitude, to make us feel that we’re watching a real spy working a real case. The plot has twists but it’s very much grounded in reality. There are no outrageous fanciful elements to the plot.

Hunt was a profession intelligence agent so naturally he tries to make the tradecraft fairly realistic and he certainly goes to great lengths to give us a rundown on the political situation in India in the mid-60s and the activities of British, America, Chinese and Soviet intelligence agencies in that country. He devotes a lot of attention to various organisations used as fronts by those intelligence agencies. I have absolutely no idea how authentic any of this background is but what matters is that it feels authentic. It makes us feel that we are getting a glimpse into the real world of international espionage.

And Peter Ward is what real spies (the successful ones anyway) are like. He isn’t colourful. He’s a cog in a machine. He gets the job done. He doesn’t expect the job to be glamorous.

He is however a bit of a womaniser and he’s more cold-blooded about it than Bond. He beds women who will be useful to him and he doesn’t worry himself about their feelings.

The first thing you have to do if you’re going to enjoy Hunt’s spy thrillers is accept the idea of the CIA as the good guys. Hunt wasn’t just trying to write entertaining thrillers, he was also trying to clean up the CIA’s image.

The Towers of Silence obviously doesn’t belong to the high adventure over-the-top school of spy fiction exemplified by Ian Fleming but just as obviously doesn’t belong to the Graham Greene-John le Carre-Len Deighton school of cynical spy fiction. There’s not a trace of cynicism here. The CIA is working for freedom and democracy and the commies are the bad guys and there’s no room for doubts. So as I said earlier I’d call it an espionage procedural. Whatever it is it moves along at a good pace and it just about convinces us that it’s hyper-realistic. And it’s entertaining. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed one of Hunt’s slightly later Peter Ward spy books, One of Our Agents Is Missing. And I’ve reviewed his excellent 1950 hardboiled noir crime thriller The Violent Ones.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Tabor Evans' Longarm and the Loggers

Longarm and the Loggers by Tabor Evans (published in 1979) belongs to a pulp fiction genre the existence of which I had never even suspected until recently - the adult western. What exactly adult western means I have no idea but I’m about to find out.

Tabor Evans was a pseudonym used by Lou Cameron (1924-2010) who wrote adult westerns under other names as well, including his own.

Longarm and the Loggers is the sixth of the Longarm series. Another 430 (!) titles would follow. I don’t know how many of these were in fact written by Cameron.

Longarm is Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long. Folks call him Longarm. He’s been sent to Nevada to track down an army deserter. He arrives in Silver City and pretty soon he’s got the town figured out. It’s a company town. The logging company runs the town. There’s a sheriff but no deputies and the law is enforced by the company guards. The logging company is the law in this town.

At the moment there’s some excitement in town. A new shipment of whores has arrived. Somewhat to his surprise Longarm gets a free sample of the merchandise, and finds the quality to be most satisfactory. There’s more excitement later, with the loggers fixing to Lynch four of the local Paiute Indians. Longarm puts a stop to that but he makes enemies by doing so. Longarm isn’t setting out to make enemies but in this place it just seems to keep happening. Things are pretty tense in the small logging township of Whipsaw as well.

The tension stems from irreconcilable differences between the loggers and the cattlemen. The logging is destroying the country, turning lush fertile land into a waterless desert. The cattlemen have resorted to extreme measures, such as shooting up logging camps. Longarm is caught in the middle. He sympathise with the ranchers but the law is on the side of the loggers, and he has to enforce the law.

It would be a bad idea for Longarm to start getting personally involved but that’s exactly what happens. After being forced to shoot young cattleman Wally Troy (in self-defence) he takes the wounded boy back to the Flying T Ranch. That’s where he meets Terry Troy. Terry Troy is a spirited young woman and she owns the ranch. It’s a lonely life for a woman, especially for a woman with strong physical needs. She uses her foreman Russ Blodgett to satisfy her physical cravings but sleeping with an employee makes discipline difficult. Once Terry sets eyes on Longarm she realises that he can satisfy her physical cravings much more effectively and pretty soon Longarm and Terry are getting to know each other real well.

And Longarm will find himself meeting other interesting women as well, such as a glamorous young lady anthropologist.

So there’s a reasonably complex plot with lots of emotional complications. This is a western that is not just about gunfights and six-guns. There are gunfights certainly, quite a few of them, enough to satisfy those who like action scenes. There’s lots of bedroom action as well (although Longarm and Terry seem to prefer having sex in the great outdoors).

The problem with historical fiction (and westerns are after all a form of historical fiction) is that it’s immensely difficult to avoid anachronisms, especially anachronistic social attitudes. That’s a bit of a problem here. Longarm does at times seem like a very 1970s hero. He’s very very sympathetic to the Indians, to an extent that might perhaps be a bit unrealistic for the period. The female characters are a bit too sexually liberated. OK, there was plenty of sex in the Old West. There were as many prostitutes as there were cowboys. But in this tale respectable women seem just a bit unrealistically enthusiastic about jumping into bed with any man who catches their eye. It’s not a fatal flaw in the book but at times it stretches credibility a bit.

There are definite political themes in the book. The Federal Government is portrayed as being totally corrupt (which of course is perfectly accurate for this time period). There’s a bit of a 1970s environmentalist slant.

The political stuff is a bit overdone, and it’s all 1970s politics. All the political and social attitudes of all the characters are straight out of the 70s.

And the characters are 1970s characters, suddenly dropped into the 1880s. So the book just doesn’t quite ring true. People in the 19th century were not necessarily as sexually repressed as the popular legend of the 19th century would suggest, but they certainly didn’t

As for the book’s claims to be an adult western - there’s plenty of sex and it’s fairly explicit. Which is rather refreshing for a western.

Longarm and the Loggers is well-written and entertaining. It just would have worked better in a 1970s setting. It’s still worth a look if you want to find out what the adult western genre is all about.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

highlights of my 2022 reading

Some books I reviewed in 2022 that particularly impressed or interested me.

Bill S. Ballinger's Portrait in Smoke (1950). Intriguing use of split narration.

Poul Anderson's Swordsmen from the Stars. Not quite sword-and-sorcery and not quite sword-and-planet tales but a bit of both, and highly entertaining.

John Gardner's The Liquidator (1964). A tongue-in-cheek saga of a very unheroic spy.

Gardner Francis Fox (using the pseudonym Simon Majors), The Druid Stone (1967). Sword-and-sorcery combined with travel, through space and time, and with occult thriller elements as well.

James O. Causey's The Baby Doll Murders (1957). Solid noir.

Alistair MacLean's The Last Frontier (1959).  Maclean was just starting to reach his peak at this time.

Len Deighton’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976). Underrated Deighton, featuring (possibly) his unnamed spy).

Robert Tralins, The Chic Chick Spy (1966). Silly crazy sexy spy fun.

William Knoles' Sexperiment (1966). Sex research goes horribly but hilariously wrong. Very funny.