Tuesday, August 29, 2023

James Eastwood’s The Chinese Visitor

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

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

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

The Chinese Visitor provides us with Anna’s backstory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Dream Story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a tragic inevitability to this tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also plenty of action and adventure.

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Meg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is she happy? No, she isn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2023

Kenneth Royce’s The XYY Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #6

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

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

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

The Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story just doesn’t quite pay off.

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

Final Thoughts

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

Friday, August 4, 2023

Peter Marsh’s The Devil’s Daughter

Peter Marsh’s The Devil’s Daughter was published in 1942 and reprinted by Lion Books in 1949. It has recent been re-issued as part of a Stark House Noir three-novel paperback edition which also includes Paul S. Meskil’s Sin Pit and Walter Untermeyer Jr’s Dark the Summer Dies (both of which are worth reading).

The Devil’s Daughter might not be totally conventional noir fiction but it does definitely qualify as slightly unconventional noir. And while the central character isn’t quite a straightforward femme fatale she certainly has affinities with that sisterhood.

Michel Perry runs the Ecuador, the swankiest night club in New York. A striking woman has suddenly turned up there and that interests and disturbs Perry for three reasons. Firstly, the woman is not only beautiful and classy, she’s exactly Michel’s type (and Michel takes a particular interest in the female of the species). Secondly, he doesn’t know who she is, and Michel likes to know all about all the people who frequent the Ecuador. And thirdly, he has this nagging feeling that he knows her from somewhere but for the life of him he can’t figure out where he might have met her.

Michel is a respectable businessman but with a shady past. He had been part of the organisation of gangster Joe Buonarotti. Buonarotti’s gang turned against him and rubbed him out. Now Michel suspects that someone is killing off the members of that gang one by one. He fears he will be on the list.

The woman calls herself Laura. Laura has a past as well. Michel slowly comes to realise her true identity although it seems impossible. Laura does look a bit like a woman he knew as Maria, but she doesn’t look exactly like Maria.

Laura’s past begins with a Sicilian girl being brought to America by her uncle who has lined up a husband for her. She marries someone else instead. A gangster named Joe Buonarotti.

Michel and Laura begin an affair. She adopts the rôle of Scheherazade, the story-teller in the Arabian Nights. She tells stories of murder, but Michel has to wait until the following night to hear the end of the stories.

Michel fears that Laura intends to kill him, but he’s not sure. He’s also not sure if those tales she tells are true. There isn’t much supporting evidence.

The basic plot is pretty good but Marsh adds a few wrinkles that make it even more interesting. There are the doubts about whether Laura really is a killer or not. If she is a killer it’s possible but by no means certain that she intends to kill Michel. He’s not sure about this, and the reader is not sure either. It’s likely that Laura herself can’t answer that question. The relationship between Michel and Laura is complicated and it changes over time. The reader will easily be able to imagine a number of ways the plot could resolve, without having an idea which resolution will turn out to be the correct one.

And there are a few more twists at the end.

Laura may be a serial murderess. She resembles a femme fatale in that she’s beautiful, sexy and possibly dangerous but she’s not really a classic femme fatale. Femmes fatales manipulate rather than act directly. Her motivations are not those of a classic femme fatale. She is closer in spirit to the female revenge heroine who would became such a feature of pop culture in the 70s - Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder, Camille Keaton in I Spit On Your Grave, Christina Lindberg in Thriller: A Cruel Picture and especially Soledad Miranda in Jess Franco’s She Killed in Ecstasy. Laura however is more complex. We’re not at all sure that her actions are justified, assuming she is a killer.

This is a story of love and lust, of hate, of revenge and of suspicion and betrayal.

The main narrative is third person and mostly told from Michel’s point of view but Laura’s stories take the form of extended flashbacks from her point in view with first-person narration. We’re left in doubt as to whether Michel or Laura is the noir protagonist here.

It’s a complex tale and it’s unfolded with a good deal of skill. There’s suspense and there’s emotional nuance and there’s plenty of ambiguity. There’s more than enough here to qualify this novel as noir fiction.

And very good noir fiction. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Clinton Constantinescu’s War of the Universe

Clinton Constantinescu’s novel War of the Universe appeared in Amazing Stories Quarterly for Fall of 1931. Constantinescu is a pretty obscure science fiction writer. I believe he was actually a Canadian scientist. This seems to be his only published work of fiction.

It features super-intelligent giant bugs and also birdmen, so that’s two points in its favour.

At some stage in the distant future all the planets in our solar system have formed a kind of loose federation which appears to be stable and amicable. All the planets are inhabited by native life forms and they’re all human-like and intelligent and they have all developed advanced technological civilisations. In 1931 the idea of the other planets in the solar systems being not only habitable but actually inhabited would not have particularly silly or far-fetched. Almost nothing was known about the true nature of the other planets.

And then the solar system comes under attack. Hostile celestial bodies are headed our way. There’s a hurried conference on Mars. The solar system’s top scientists make plans to repel the attack. The narrator of the novel is a scientist from Earth.

It makes sense that this novel was written by a scientist. This is clearly a society in which scientists make all the decisions. There’s not a single character from our solar system who isn’t a scientist. It’s the sort of idea which appealed to a lot of scientists at that time (and appeals to quite a few scientists today). If only we could get rid of all those pesky non-scientists, or teach them to do exactly what scientists tell them to do, utopia would be just around the corner.

Most of the book is occupied by space battles. If you like your space battles on a truly epic scale you’ll have nothing to complain of here. Meteorites, asteroids, comets and even suns are used as weapons.

It’s not a straightforward war. There are multiple advanced civilisations and all of them aim to exterminate all the others. They’re not even very interested in temporary alliances. It has to be said that the civilisation of our own solar system is just as ruthless, being quite prepared to watch other civilisations destroy each other and then jump in to finish off the survivors.

The characters are extraordinarily flat and lifeless. The author seems to be solely interested in civilisations in the abstract, rather than as collections of individuals.

The science is all very silly but it’s imaginative and there’s plenty of enjoyable technobabble. The author even throws in some equations to convince us that this is Real Science! and not just made-up stuff.

The book does have some structural weaknesses. It’s not much more than endless succession of space battles. There is no attempt to explain the motivations of any of the warring civilisations - the assumption seems to be simply that it’s entirely natural for advanced civilisations to try to destroy each until one achieves total galactic domination.

There’s no dramatic tension, no sense that events are moving in a particular direction for some reason. It’s just non-stop space mayhem.

The ending is a rather contrived attempt to wrap things up neatly, and also perhaps to try to find a belated justification for all that butchery.

The book does however have two interesting alien races. There are the intelligent birds, who had once possessed an advanced civilisation of their own. The birds are friendly and they’re on the side of the good guys (insofar as there any good guys in this tale). The second alien species - giant hyper-intelligent spiders. They’re highly advanced and they’re aggressive and malevolent although the narrator has to admit grudgingly that they’re brave and determined.

There’s no way I’d recommend the purchase of this novel on its own but those fine people at Armchair Fiction have re-issued it in a two-novel paperback edition paired with Otis Adelbert Kline’s Lord of the Lamia. It’s worth buying the paperback for Lord of the Lamia (which is excellent) so if you think of War of the Universe as a kind of bonus novel then by all means give it a read. You might get some amusement out of it, especially if you crave space battles on a truly grand scale.