Sunday, April 30, 2023

John Willie’s The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline

The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline is a hardcover volume published in 1974 which collects most of John Willie’s comics and many of his drawings.

John Alexander Scott Coutts (1902-1962), who used the pseudonym John Willie, is perhaps the most famous figure in the history of fetish art and literature of the 20th century. You might be wondering what on earth I’m doing reviewing his work here but if you read on you’ll see that he is not an entirely inappropriate subject for this blog.

John Willie became something of a cult figure in the 70s and he has had a considerable influence on pop culture. Just Jaeckin’s wonderful and delightful 1984 movie Gwendoline was inspired by Willie’s comics. Willie was himself inspired by early movie serials such as The Perils of Pauline.

John Willie was a writer, artist and photographer and was the editor and publisher of Bizarre magazine but he is probably best known for his comic strips featuring his heroine Sweet Gwendoline.

Poor Gwendoline finds herself the victim of sinister plots by dissolute aristocrat Sir Dystic d’Arcy and d’Arcy’s henchwoman the Countess. Gwendoline does however have an ally - a beautiful glamorous lady secret agent code-named U-89.

What will strike the reader immediately about the Gwendoline comics is just how good-natured they are. Gwendoline is continually falling into the hands of the villains and invariably finds herself being tied up, in varied and elaborate ways. But she never actually gets hurt. Her adventures are lighthearted, goofy, outrageously melodramatic and amusing. Sir Dystic D’Arcy is a stock melodrama villain, but really he’s more of a spoof of a stock melodrama villain.

The Countess is unscrupulous and scheming but again she’s more of a melodrama villainess than a genuinely threatening figure.

Gwendoline is sweet and naïve but while there was the danger that such a heroine would end up being a bit saccharine she is in fact likeable and has her occasional feisty moments. Agent U-89 is basically one of the good guys, although sometimes she’s a tad morally ambiguous.

Sir Dystic d’Arcy is such a bungling villain that we never feel that Gwendoline is in any serious danger.

The mood always remains playful and lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek.

Her first comic, simply titled The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, is a racetrack mystery melodrama with Sir Dystic D’Arcy plotting to get his hands on Gwendoline’s home.

The second comic, The Wasp Women, concerns (among other things) a sinister plot to steal blackberries.

In the third adventure The Escape Artiste Gwendoline decides that since she’s always getting tied up she should learn how to escape. She has a bet with Agent U-89. If U-89 ties her up and she escapes U-89 will have to cook dinner. If Gwendoline fails to escape after a couple of hours then she will have to prepare dinner. U-89 ties Gwendoline up repeatedly and poor Gwendoline proves to be something of a failure as escape artiste. So it’s always Gwendoline who ends up cooking dinner. It’s all silly playful stuff.

I suspect that the fourth comic, Gwendoline and the Missing Princess, was written some years later. Willie’s style has changed slightly - it’s become more lush. This adventure is also much more explicitly erotic, in fact it’s quite risqué for its time. In this comic there is, for the first time, nudity. There’s still an amusing and complicated adventure plot.

The book also includes some of Willie’s water colours and these make it obvious just how much the style of the 1984 Gwendoline movie was directly drawn from John Willie.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse of one of the odder corners of 20th century pop culture. It might not appeal to all tastes but the erotic content really is quite tame (very tame indeed by the standards of the 1970s when the first edition of the book was published). It has a certain offbeat cheerfully naughty but at the same time rather innocent charm. Recommended.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Mickey Spillane’s The Delta Factor

Mickey Spillane’s 1967 novel The Delta Factor introduced his series character Morgan the Raider. In fact it was the only Morgan the Raider book to be completed by Spillane. A second, The Consummata, was completed many years later by Max Allan Collins.

Morgan (he doesn’t admit to having a first name but he’s gained the sobriquet Morgan the Raider) is a thief. He shares a name with history’s most famous pirate, and he shares quite a few of that buccaneer’s attitudes as well. Morgan is a thief on the grand scale. His most recent heist netted him forty million dollars. At least that’s what the authorities assume. He was caught but that didn’t bother him too much. He’s pulled more prison breaks than you’ve had hot dinners. And sure enough shortly after beginning his prison term he escaped again.

Escaped, only to be recaptured due to pure bad luck.

Now as the story proper begins he’s facing the prospect of serving the remaining thirty years of his sentence. Then he’s offered a deal by the government. They need someone with his unique skills, specifically his ability to escape from maximum security prisons. Morgan expects that the government will try to double-cross him. We are talking about the government after all. And he has no patriotic feelings whatsoever. He accepts the deal because he figures that he can probably double-cross the government more effectively than they can double-cross him.

The job he has to do involves breaking a scientist out of an impregnable 17th century fortress in a small Caribbean nation.

He is assigned a partner. He’s horrified. He has always been a loner. Then he discovers that the government agent assigned to him is a beautiful young woman named Kim. He decides that having a partner might not be so bad. And their cover story is that they’re newlyweds on honeymoon. That means they’ll have to share a bedroom. The idea sounds better and better to Morgan. Kim makes it clear that there’ll be no hanky-panky but Morgan is confident that he’ll be able to change her mind.

Morgan’s first step is to try to find out how he got recaptured. Someone fingered him, and he’d like to know the identity of that person. There are some other things he’d like to know as well. This sets up a major subplot and also provides Morgan with the kind of motivation that always appealed to Spillane - personal vengeance. A hooker provides him with information and she is murdered. She might have been a whore but she was a really nice girl, and Morgan doesn’t like seeing nice girls get murdered.

The basic concept, a master thief offered a deal if he agrees to do espionage work for the government, isn’t wildly original. And a year later it would be used as the basis for one of the best American TV spy series of the 60s, It Takes a Thief. It’s more than possible that the creators of the series borrowed the idea from Spillane’s novel.

Morgan soon discovers that this tiny Caribbean nation is thoroughly corrupt. It’s run by a dictator named Ortega. He has a brutal secret police chief named Sabin to keep the populace in line.

Morgan doesn’t care about politics but he does care about people and he has a soft spot for women. Women like Lisa Gordot. Lisa has run into major problems with Sabin. She can’t leave the island because Sabin has her passport. Sabin intends to keep tightening the screws on Lisa until she agrees to sleep with him. Lisa isn’t what most people would call a virtuous woman. She’s not exactly honest and while she isn’t a whore she has been known to make profitable use of her body. But Morgan likes her. And not just because she’s sexually available. Morgan isn’t exactly a model of moral rectitude himself and he feels a certain kinship for charming grifters like Lisa. And he really hates seeing women treated badly, even women like Lisa.

The last thing Morgan needs is to get mixed up in political dramas but on this island he finds that while he isn’t interested in politics, politics is interested in him.

To make things more awkward there’s a hurricane on the way. He has to get that scientist out of the fortress and make his escape and time is against him.

It takes a while for the real action to kick in but when it does it’s more than satisfactory. There’s a good deal of bloodletting, and plenty of narrow escapes.

Morgan isn’t just a variation on Mike Hammer. For a big-time career criminal he’s quite a soft-hearted easy-going guy. He’ll kill if he has to, but he tries to avoid it as much as possible. He likes women. He’s no monk. But he likes his women willing. He’s a pretty nice guy.

The plot has some nice twists and Spillane skilfully weaves together the multiple plot strands.

Incidentally you might be amused to find out that the title refers to a portion of the female anatomy.

The Delta Factor is less hardboiled than the Mike Hammer books and it could even be described as somewhat lighthearted. It’s a fun suspense thriller. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was an American writer of science fiction and crime fiction. Although he was a pretty big deal in the crime genre he is a writer whom I’ve overlooked until now. The Screaming Mimi, published in 1949, is one of his earlier crime novels. It was filmed in 1958 and in 1970 it was adapted (apparently “unoffically”) by Dario Argento as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. We’ll get back to Argento later.

The Screaming Mimi has been reprinted by Bruin in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with a slightly later Brown crime novel, The Far Cry.

The Screaming Mimi is the story of a drunken Irish newspaperman named Sweeney. Sweeney is not sure how long he’s been drunk. It could be a few days, it could be a couple of weeks. He doesn’t think he left Chicago during that time but he can’t be sure of anything.

Sweeney witnesses a crime. The crime, an attack on a woman, takes place behind locked glass doors. What the witnesses (including Sweeney) see is the immediate aftermath of a crime rather than the crime itself. A crowd has gathered and the cops have arrived but nobody can get in through those glass doors to help the woman because of the dog. It’s a big dog, a really big dog, and it has no intention of letting anyone in. The cops could of course just shoot the dog but they don’t want to. The woman isn’t dead and while she’s hurt she doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger of death. The dog doesn’t seem to be intending to hurt her. It occurs to the cop on the scene that the dog probably belongs to the woman. If they shoot it she might make a fuss. And the cop likes dogs. He doesn’t want to shoot a dog that is only trying to protect his mistress.

Eventually the cops get in and find that the woman isn’t badly hurt.

This event causes a sensation because in the previous couple of weeks three women have been murdered by a crazed killer who’s been dubbed the Ripper. This woman, a stripper named Yolanda Lang, is the first woman to survive an attack by the Ripper. The newspapers turn the event into a media sensation. Yolanda can’t identify her attacker which makes the story even bigger - a serial killer still on the loose.

The event has a different effect on Sweeney. That’s because Yolanda was nude. Sweeney has never seen such a gorgeous female body. He figures she probably has a nice face as well but he isn’t sure because it wasn’t her face he was looking at.

Sweeney discusses the matter with God. No, not that God. This God is a drunken bum named Godfrey but everyone calls him God. God has a theory. He believes that a man can get anything he wants, anything at all, if he wants it badly enough. He just has to be prepared to pursue the goal with single-minded determination. Sweeney decides to test the theory because for the first time in his life he’s found something he wants badly enough to be prepared to devote himself to achieving it. He wants to sleep with Yolanda Lang. He doesn’t want to marry her, he doesn’t want her to be the mother of his children, he just wants to sleep with her.

Sweeney will have to drag himself out of the gutter to achieve that aim but that part isn’t too difficult. Sweeney isn’t an alcoholic. He’s a moderate social drinker who goes on occasional spectacular benders. He’s even able to get his job back. He’s a reporter.

Now he’s onto the biggest story of his career but Sweeney never loses sight of the fact that solving this crime is merely a mean to an end. The end is to have sex with Yolanda Lang.

Sweeney is a good reporter when he’s sober. And he finds a lead that the cops have overlooked. It’s a naked girl. Not Yolanda Lang, but a different naked girl. This one is a foot high. She’s a nude statuette of a terrified young woman. Her name is Mimi. The company that sells the statuettes has dubbed this particular line the Screaming Mimi. Sweeney has a hunch that Mimi is the key to solving the mystery.

Sweeney has another hunch as well. In fact he has several, but there’s one that obsesses him.

There are several potential suspects. They have alibis, but not rock-solid alibis.

As the author tells us at the start, Sweeney’s story begins with a nude woman. And it ends with a nude woman. Not that nude statuette but an actual nude woman. What’s cute is that while all these nude women add the sort of salacious content that makes crime novels sell they are essential to the plot, and the fact that they’re naked is essential to the plot.

That opening sequence behind the glass doors is a corker. It’s easy to see why it got Argento’s attention. Argento took a fine effective literary scene and turned into one of the best visual set-pieces in cinema history. Aside from that scene Argento’s movie retains some key plot points and scraps others. It’s interesting that the emphasis on the purely sexual nature of Sweeney’s obsession is downplayed in the movie. It’s interesting because the giallo is a sub-genre of the erotic thriller and Sweeney’s obsession with Yolanda’s naked body is ideal erotic thriller material. Overall this is a case of a movie differing somewhat from its source material but both the novel and the movie are masterpieces in their own ways.

Brown’s novel is a fine mystery story with a terrific plot but it’s also very definitely an erotic thriller.

The novel also includes a lot of sly humour. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a humorous detective story but it has some very witty very amusing moments. Brown’s attitude towards his hero is also interesting. Sweeney is a nice guy and he’s likeable but Brown doesn’t gloss over his character failings. He’s a very human hero.

The Screaming Mimi is a gripping well-constructed crime thriller with a few very nice structural touches. Very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Algis Budrys - If These Be Gods

If These Be Gods is a 1957 science fiction novella by American writer Algis Budrys (1931-2008).

In 1958 an airliner (these were the days of prop-driven airliners and the aircraft is a DC-7B) takes off on a scheduled flight to Chicago. For various reasons (Including a UFO scare) there are very few passengers. About half a dozen. There’s a crew of three including just one stewardess.

The flight crew have been told to watch for anything strange. Long-range radar has picked up some odd blips. But nobody is concerned. That’s happening all the time. It always turns out to be a radar malfunction.

For the crew it’s all very routine until the captain spots four flying saucers headed straight for them. The UFOs try to evade the airliner but they’ve left it too late.

The airliner is so badly damaged that it can’t remain airborne for more than a few more minutes. The cabin was depressurised as a result of the collision and the passengers were all sucked out through gaping holes in the fuselage. The members of the flight crew know they have just minutes to live.

But they don’t die. And those passengers sucked out of the aircraft don’t die either. One passenger who remained in the cabin was killed but he’s the only fatality.

It’s the beginning of quite an adventure for these people.

This is obviously going to be a standard alien invasion story but that’s not how it pans out. You also expect the aliens to be bug-eyed monsters or something similar but that’s not how it pans out either.

It’s not the passengers and crew of the airliner are not going to face problems, and dangers. They are in fact facing a frightening bewildering future.

The aliens have their troubles as well. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

This is a first contact story but it doesn’t conform to expectations on that count either.

It’s interesting that in 1957 writers were already trying to avoid the obvious clichés of the alien invasion sub-genre, just as that sub-genre was becoming hugely popular. Budrys obviously realised that some twists needed to be added to the formula. The best way to do that was to introduce some doubts about the actual intentions of the aliens. One way to do that was to cast the aliens as the good guys, arriving on Earth to save us from ourselves. A more interesting twist was to make the intentions of the aliens ambiguous and mysterious.

Even better was to suggest that the aliens’ plan to save us might not be very pleasant for us. Or that the aliens might not even be sure themselves how they feel about us. Or that there might be fundamental misunderstandings on both sides, with possible unfortunate consequences.

In this case Budrys plays around with all of these ideas. We’re not sure until the end whether the arrival of the aliens is a good thing or a bad thing. And we’re not sure how the passengers and crew of that airliner will react to the encounter.

Budrys makes things more interesting by having various members of the passenger and crew react in different ways, based on their own personal agendas and hopes and fears.

This is not one of the great alien invasion stories but it has a few intriguing elements that make it worth a look.

Armchair Fiction have reissued the novella in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with F.L. Wallace’s 1955 novel Address: Centauri.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Don Holliday's Circle of Sinners

Circle of Sinners is a 1961 sleaze novel written by Lawrence Block and Hal Dresner under the pseudonym Don Holliday.

Hal Dresner (born 1937) has worked mostly as a film and television writer although he has written a couple of novels.

Lawrence Block (born 1938) of course became a well-known and successful crime writer. Early in his career he wrote a lot of sleaze fiction, most of it pretty good.

Circle of Sinners is really just a series of episodes strung together very tenuously.

There’s no point in saying anything about the plot because there isn’t one. It’s just a string of sexual encounters involving different people. All the encounters end in violence of some kind. Some of the situations will shock modern readers. It is a pretty nasty mean-spirited book.

There’s no shortage of sleaze. The book covers just about everything that in 1961 would have been considered to be sexual deviance.

Being plotless and lacking a strong viewpoint character Circle of Sinners doesn’t really have much to keep the reader’s attention engaged. It relies mostly on shock value. I enjoy late 50s/early 60s sleaze fiction but shock value is not what I personally am looking for in this type of book.

I’ve read quite a bit of 1950s and early 1960s sleaze fiction and Circle of Sinners is very much an outlier. Most sleaze novels of that era are surprisingly strong on plot, and on characterisation. Many are essentially noir novels or romance novels with added sex. Most of them stand up surprisingly well as novels.

Even the other sleaze novels I’ve read by Lawrence Block and Hal Dresner are not like this one. Kept, which Block wrote under the name Sheldon Lord, is a sensitive grown-up romance novel and if that’s what you’re after it’s pretty good. Sin Hellcat, which he co-wrote with Donald E. Westlake, is also quite good.

Hal Dresner’s Sin School is a very fine sleaze novel.

So both of these guys could write and they both understood the genre. Which makes Circle of Sinners rather disappointing. I can’t really recommend this one.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Desmond Cory’s Hammerhead

Hammerhead (published in the United States as Shockwave) was the thirteenth of Desmond Cory’s sixteen Johnny Fedora spy thrillers. It was published in 1963. Hammerhead forms parts of a five-novel cycle dealing with Johnny Fedora’s battles with a top Soviet spymaster named Feramontov.

Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (1928-2001) was an English academic who was also a successful thriller writer. He was best-known for the Johnny Fedora books.

Johnny Fedora is half Spanish and half Irish. He is an agent for the British Secret Service and it’s understood that if he feels it necessary to kill in the line of duty than that’s quite acceptable. A series of thrillers about a British spy with a licence to kill is obviously going to sound like a rip-off of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels but in fact Cory got there first. The first Johnny Fedora novel was published in 1951, a year before the first of the Bond novels. I don’t think it’s a case of one writer influencing the other. In the postwar period readers’ tastes had changed and it was obvious that the spy thriller was going to become more violent and action-oriented. Desmond Cory and Ian Fleming simply happened to realise that before other writers did.

And Cory certainly knew how to deliver violence and action. Johnny Fedora is pretty ruthless. He’s quite happy to use torture to extract information and in this story he kills a man, chops him up into little pieces and stuffs the dismembered body parts into a suitcase. It’s not a good idea to get Johnny upset.

Hammerhead takes place in Franco’s Spain. begins with Johnny receiving a request for help from the glamorous Marisa de Camba. She wants him to investigate the death of actress Sofia Domecq. Sofia had gone to a journalist named Delgado with some startling allegations about a very rich very powerful man named Chaval. The whole story seems odd, which interests Johnny. The British Secret Service is also interested. Those allegations involves drug-smuggling but more to the point there’s the suggestion that American military personnel are mixed up in it. The sort of military personnel who fly nuclear-armed bombers.

Johnny decides he’ll have to infiltrate Chaval’s social circles. He wants to attend one of Chaval’s parties. He’ll need some help. He gets that help from Sofia Domecq’s sister Carlota, a very high-priced prostitute. Chaval’s parties are the sorts of parties at which high-class hookers are welcome.

When Johnny finds out just what Operation Hammerhead really is he realises he’s stumbled onto something very big indeed. Nobody is going to believe him without evidence. He has the evidence, but whether he can hold on top it is another matter.

The plot twists and turns in a satisfying manner. This is a spy thriller and spies can never be sure whom to trust. Even the bad guys can’t be sure about that.

This story is perhaps just a bit more violet than the Bond novels, but with less emphasis on sex. There is Carlota, and she qualifies as the kind of sexy dangerous female you hope for in a spy novel.

There’s a race against time aspect, always good for adding a bit more tension. And it’s not just that Johnny is running out of time to find the key to the problem. He doesn’t even know what it is he’s looking for and he has no idea where to look. All he knows is that he has to find it, fast. There’s a very effective nail-biting climax.

Johnny Fedora is a bit Bond-like but he’s less of a womaniser and he’s much more ruthless. In fact he’s closer to the Matt Helm of Donald Hamilton’s novels than he is to Bond. The overall tone is also very close to that of the Matt Helm books, although Cory is not as successful as Hamilton in showing us the personal consequences of immersion in the vicious world of espionage.

This is a classic Cold War spy thriller with a straightforward Good Guys vs Bad Guys theme. It is extremely well executed and it offers more than sufficient quantities thrills and suspense. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the previous Johnny Fedora book, Undertow. It’s also very much worth reading.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Avengers - Dead Duck

Dead Duck is an original novel published in 1966 and based on the television series The Avengers

It was credited to Patrick Macnee although it seems to have been written by Peter Leslie (who wrote some very decent TV tie-in novels).

It’s an engagingly offbeat story with a fine crazy finale. It captures the feel of the series reasonably well. Fans of the TV series should enjoy this novel.

My full review can be found at Cult TV Lounge.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Loring Brent's The City of Stolen Lives

The City of Stolen Lives is Altus Press’s first collection of Peter the Brazen stories by Loring Brent. Brent was actually George F. Worts (1892-1967) who wrote pulp fiction under several pen-names and later wrote for slick magazines as well. This collection includes three Peter the Brazen stories originally published in the pulp magazine Argosy late in 1918.

Peter Moore, who becomes known as Peter the Brazen, is a wireless operator on a ship. Worts himself had worked in such a capacity and it seemed like an interesting and promising occupation for the hero of a series of adventure tales set in the East. In 1918 radio was still a new and exciting technology.

Princess of Static, published in Argosy in October 1918, is the first of the Peter the Brazen stories.

Peter Moore has decided to give up his position as a ship’s radio operator. He changes his mind after a strange encounter in Chinatown. A woman’s face glimpsed in a window and a scrawled message lead him to think that something odd is going on and that a woman may be in danger.

He sets sail on the Vandalia, bound for Shanghai. Two women come aboard at the last moment. Moore picks up some odd wireless signals and some unexpected static. Static is never unexpected, but this seems different somehow. And then there’s the matter of stateroom 44. It’s empty, but he knows it can’t be.

The plot, as it is gradually revealed, is very simple and straightforward but it’s enough for an adventure short story. There’s a reasonably effective atmosphere of menace and mystery. And radio does play a key part in the story.

The novella The City of Stolen Lives, dating from late 1918, is a follow-up to Princess of Static. As a result of the events in that story Peter Moore has acquired a mission in life, and a deadly enemy. The enemy is a man known as the Grey Dragon.

After meeting, quite by accident, a young American woman named Amy Vost, Peter takes a job as radio operator on a river steamer. The skipper is an old friend, Bobbie MacLaurin. Bobbie is hopelessly in love with Amy Vost. Peter is enchanted by Amy but his heart belongs to another.

Amy is one of two passengers on the river steamer Hankow.

Once again radio plays a key rôle. Peter picks up a message on a wavelength that nobody ever uses, if fact in normal circumstances nobody can use it. But for some odd reason the Hankow has the equipment to receive such a signal. The messages are cryptic, to say the least. They do however seem to be decidedly sinister.

Again the author doesn’t go in for excessively complicated plotting. He keeps the action moving along and ensures that Peter Moore will have countless dangers to face in the fulfilment of his quest.

The novella Bitter Fountain seems a bit more ambitious. Peter gets involved with two more women and they might perhaps be of the femme fatale type. Romola Borria claims to be in need of help, which may be true. Or there might be more to it. She might be an unwitting pawn of the Grey Dragon. She might be an all-too-willing servant of that mysterious sinister figure. She might be a clever schemer with her own agenda. Or she might really be an innocent damsel in distress. Peter is fairly hopeless when it comes to pretty women. He’s always wanting to rescue them.

Having mysterious possibly dangerous female characters makes this a much stronger story. There’s also more of a sense in this story that Peter really could have embroiled himself in something truly nasty that he doesn’t fully understand.

Once again much of the action takes place at sea and having the protagonist a radio expert is still important.

These stories are not quite in the same league as Theodore Roscoe’s Far East adventure tales but they move along at a brisk clip, there’s plenty of action and there’s a suitably sinister villain. I believe that Peter Moore’s battles with the Grey Dragon continued in several further stories. The three stories in this collection are so closely linked that they can be regarded more as a long episodic novel.

Peter is a likeable enough hero and he’s no superhero. He makes a few mistakes. He’s impetuous. His judgment is terrible when it comes to women. He’s brave and determined but we worry about his fate because we know he’s far from invulnerable. Romola Borria is glamorous and nicely ambiguous.

There’s some fine use of the shipboard settings. On the whole this is a collection that should please fans of pulp adventure fiction. There are better such stories but these offer a good deal of enjoyment. Recommended.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Noël Calef’s Frantic (Ascenseur pour ‘échafaud)

Noël Calef’s Frantic (original French title Ascenseur pour ’échafaud) was published in 1956. Frantic was the title given to the English translation. Louis Malle’s 1958 film adaptation (called Elevator to the Gallows in the US and Lift to the Scaffold in Britain) is better known than Calef’s original novel.

Noël Calef (1907-1968) was born Nissim Calef in Bulgaria. He spent his writing career in France, enjoying some success. Several of his novels and stories were filmed, including his short story Rodolphe et le Revolver which was the basis of the superb 1959 British thriller Tiger Bay starring Hayley Mills.

The book could perhaps with some justice be described as an inverted detective story. We start with a murder and the reader knows the identity of the victim and the identity of the killer. Inverted detective stories focus on the way in which the detective solves the murder but this novel has some other twists that make it classic noir fiction as well.

Frantic can reasonably be described as noir fiction with some added existentialist tinges.

It starts with the perfect crime. A perfect murder is quite possible but alas there is no such thing as a perfect murderer. No matter how clever a plan the murderer comes up with, when it comes to putting it into practice he or she will invariably make a mistake. In this case the plan comes undone partly due to such a mistake. The murderer knows that all traces of the crime have to be removed but leaves one trace behind due to forgetfulness under stress. The plan also goes awry partly through bad luck. It was that damned elevator. If the power to the elevator hadn’t been shut off when the janitor locked up the building for the night all would have been well.

There are several other crimes in this book that are from perfect. A murderer who thinks he’s a superior man but turns out to be an amateur and a bungler. And a man who thinks he has the answer to his marital problems but doesn’t consider the possibility that his wife has already figured out what he’s up to.

There are as many doomed characters as any noir fiction fan could ask for. There’s Julien Courvois, the crooked businessman who decides to take a drastic step to get himself out of a jam but makes a mess of his plans. There’s Fred. He’s a kind of proto-beatnik. He thinks he’s a genius who is going to show the hated bourgeoisie a thing or two but he’s a loser who blames society for his own inadequacies. And there’s Pedro, the Brazilian whose wife has become an inconvenience. None of these men could be described as tragic. They’re responsible for all their own troubles. And none of them could be described as sympathetic.

Each of the men has a woman and the women are perhaps less responsible for the mess their lives have become. There’s Julien’s wife Geneviève, Fred’s girlfriend Theresa and Pedro’s French wife Germaine. Geneviève and Theresa are guilty of very poor judgment when it comes to choosing men. They don’t really deserve to be destroyed for that reason. Maybe the women won’t be destroyed by their men seem hopelessly doomed.

So these are characters doomed by a combination of their own inherent character flaws and the inexorable workings of fate.

The plot is full of nasty little pieces of misfortune. Pedro picked the wrong hotel. Fred picked the wrong car to steal. Julien left it just a few minutes too late to go back to his offie to remove the piece of evidence he’s overlooked earlier. A few minutes earlier and he could have escaped scot-free.

It’s an intricate plot and it’s extremely well executed. The major twist (which I’m certainly not going to reveal) has been used before but in this case it’s done very neatly and very nastily.

If the novel has a weakness it’s the fact that it’s very difficult to care what happens to these people. Even the victim characters are not sympathetic. Theresa isn’t a bad person but she’s such a fool that the reader is likely to lose patience with her. As far as most of these people are concerned the reader is likely to feel that they’re getting what was coming to them.

On the plus side Frantic has a great deal of noirness, there’s fine suspense, a powerful sense of impending doom and the plot is a good one. Noir and mystery fans should both enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

Frantic has been reprinted in paperback by Stark House in their excellent Black Gat Books imprint.