Monday, February 27, 2023

John Flagg's The Lady and the Cheetah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 24, 2023

Theodore Roscoe's Z Is For Zombie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 20, 2023

Lorenz Heller's Dead Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Laurence Manning's World of the Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 13, 2023

Lawrence Block's Born To Be Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

John Flagg's Death and the Naked Lady

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

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

On the Dauphiné he meets the Naked Lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Johnston McCulley’s King of Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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