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.

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