Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Fred MacIsaac’s Balata

Fred MacIsaac’s adventure novel Balata originally appeared in serial form in six issues of Argosy magazine in 1930 and 1931.

Fred MacIsaac (1886-1940) was an American who turned to writing fiction after a varied career in journalism and concert management.

Balata is the story of a small group of men searching for a balata forest deep in the Amazon rainforest. The Brazilian rubber industry, once thriving, is now languishing due to competition from British plantations in Malaya. But somewhere in the Amazon basin there is a much greater prize than rubber - balata. What is balata? According to the story it’s a kind of super-rubber, and much more valuable than rubber. It is harvested like rubber and the balata tree grows nowhere else in the world.

American explorer Felix Dexter has found the world’s biggest balata forest. He needs money to exploit his discovery and that’s where millionaire Les Gorman comes in. Gorman has an adventurous spirit and is prepared to back the project but first he wants to see that balata forest for himself. An expedition is organised. Gorman invites his old college buddy Peter Holcomb, now fallen on hard times, to join the expedition. Gorman’s sister Louise invites herself along, despite the protests of the men who feel that it is much too dangerous. Gorman recruits a dozen other ill-assorted Europeans and some native porters. The expedition will begin on a river steamboat.

Other people want that balata. And they will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get it. The most dangerous of these men is Brazilian rubber baron Carlos Aguedarno, a very ruthless man indeed.

To complicate things Peter Holcomb, Felix Dexter and Ageudarno all want to marry Louise Gorman. Louise wants nothing to do with Aguedarno but the rubber baron is prepared to use whatever methods may be necessary in order to persuade her. So there are going to be major romantic dramas.

The expedition seems to be ill-fated from the start. There are cut-throats lying in wait as well as hostile tribes, all stirred up by Aguedarno’s money.

You can anticipate a lot of the obstacles and dangers these adventurers are going to face but MacIsaac throws in a few neat plot twists and turns, and even the more clichéd action scenes are handled with energy and style. And there really is as much action and danger as any reasonable reader could hope for.

And it is a neat plot. On more than one occasion the adventurers seem to be in hopeless predicaments but MacIsaac finds interesting ways to extricate them. The ending is nicely suspenseful and satisfying.

Most of the characters are standard types but there are some colourful villains. Both Pete Holcomb and Felix Dexter are a bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes. Pete has been a failure at everything he has attempted and he’s really just drifting through life. The expedition is his chance to make something of himself. It might be his last chance. And he may find out something about himself. Felix Dexter is on the surface the perfect heroic man of action but as the adventure proceeds some of the expedition members develop nagging doubts about him, and the reader will share those doubts. Perhaps in some ways this is Dexter’s last chance as well.

We remain uncertain until the end just how the characters arcs of these two men will resolve themselves.

The style is pure pulp, which is perfectly fine by me. It’s lively and the story powers along at a pleasingly brisk pace.

Balata is a very fine tale of jungle adventure and it’s highly recommended.

Balata has been reprinted in paperback in Altus Press’s Argosy Library series. It’s also available in those ebook formats of which I disapprove so strongly.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Richard Stark's Point Blank (AKA The Hunter)

The Hunter, published in 1962, was the first of the twenty-four noir novels featuring his anti-hero Parker written by Donald E. Westlake under the name Richard Stark. It was filmed in 1967 as Point Blank and subsequent printings of the novel carried the title Point Blank. I believe it has also appeared under the title Payback. For convenience I’ll refer to the novel as Point Blank.

The Richard Stark books are harder-edged than the books he published under his own name. Point Blank is very hard-edged indeed.

Parker is a career criminal. About once a year he pulls a job, usually a payroll or something like that. After a year or so, when the money starts to run out, he pulls another job. He is very careful and he’s never been caught. Between jobs he lives in resort hotels. He has a pretty wife named Lynn and although Parker isn’t the falling in love type he’s as close to loving Lynn as he’s ever been to loving any woman. It’s a nice life. It suits Parker.

Then came a job that didn’t go smoothly. Parker was killed, or at least that’s what everyone thought. He wasn’t killed and now he’s back and he has some scores to settle. He was double-crossed and that’s not the sort of thing he’s prepared to forget.

He intends to find Mal Resnick. He believes Mal was the one who double-crossed him. Mal isn’t easy to find but Parker has plenty of time and he’s patient.

At first Parker just wants revenge, but later he decides he wants something more. Going after that something more would be crazy but Parker is running on momentum and he’s determined to see it through to the end.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the plot the most impressive thing about this novel is Parker. He’s an anti-hero on steroids. He doesn’t get any particular pleasure out of killing but it doesn’t bother him either. He is obsessed and relentless. He’s not so much brave as simply indifferent to risks. And he is a very hard man. In this story he runs into a lot of men who think of themselves as tough guys or hardened professional killers but they’ve never come up against anyone quite like Parker. Parker tends to wrong-foot them because he takes risks that they never expected any sane man to take.

There’s not much positive one can say about Parker. He doesn’t have a good side and he doesn’t have a lighter side. But he is fascinating.

We learn a little about the motivations of the other characters, especially Mal Resnick, but the focus is overwhelmingly on Parker. Westlake uses third-person narration but we see events entirely from Parker’s point of view. What we learn about Parker’s motivations is that he hardly understands them himself. He isn’t operating according to a coherent plan. He’s like an out-of-control locomotive. Once it’s started it could end up anywhere.

There are no agonising internal conflicts. Parker is aware that he has made some mistakes. The heist that went wrong and that caused all the problems is one he should have stayed well clear of. But he doesn’t spend time on regrets or remorse or self-reflection.

Westlake’s prose is as tough and relentless as Parker. This was not Westlake’s usual style. He used the Richard Stark books to experiment with a very different ultra-hardboiled style.

The book is not short on violence. It’s not described in particularly graphic detail. Its impact of the violence depends more on its sheer cold-bloodedness and casualness than on anything else.

There’s some sex but not much and it’s not even moderately graphic.

It’s certainly a dark story. Is it noir fiction? The answer is yes, to a certain extent. It sure is hardboiled.

Point Blank is a roller-coaster ride and a very entertaining one. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a slightly earlier Westlake crime novel, The Cutie. It was his first crime novel and has appeared under several alternative titles. It’s worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

J.F. Bone's Second Chance

Second Chance is a science fiction novella by J.F. Bone. It was published in Satellite Science Fiction in February 1959.

J.F. Bone (1916-1986) was an American veterinarian who moonlighted as a science fiction writer from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

Bennett is an early 24th century spaceship pilot. He doesn’t know where he is. All he knows is that he’s in the biggest building he has ever seen. It is unimaginably vast. It seems deserted, and it also seems like it has been deserted for a very very long time.

Eventually he discovers that he is not alone. He encounters a young woman, obviously human. She seems confused and ill. She claims to be Laura Latham but that’s impossible. Laura Latham, the fabulously wealthy space travel tycoon, is an old woman. This girl cannot be more than twenty-two.

The girl recovers and Bennett discovers that she thinks it’s the year 2289 while he thinks it’s 2316 but his recording device says it’s 2327. It’s all very puzzling.

The answer eventually becomes clear. She is Laura Latham, or rather she is and she isn’t. Either way Bennett and the girl are soon a couple. That has consequences.

The vast building is located on top of a mesa on a desert planet. And they discover that there is someone else there’s or something else there. Something intelligent, but it isn’t a human or a robot or an alien. Well, not exactly.

We later find out why the story is called Second Chance.

The science is typical pulp sci-fi pseudoscience but there are interesting speculations about non-human intelligences. And there’s more than one non-human intelligence in this story.

The author deals with faster-than-light travel in an interesting way. In this tale such things are possible but not so easy as in most science fiction stories. You can travel through hyperspace but interstellar voyages still take years, although to the travellers themselves they might seem to take only days. There is faster-than-light communication but it’s by no means instantaneous. Over interstellar distances it can take years as well. So the hero and the heroine, marooned in a remote part of the galaxy, are in practice completely isolated. They will have to face the problems they encounter on their own.

I think it’s a nice compromise. Allow faster-than-light travel but don’t make it so easy that it can be used like magic (and in a great deal of science fiction FTL travel really is effectively magic).

The plot is rather clever and the two main characters are faced with some tricky choices and have some strange truths to deal with. They have to face truths about themselves and about each other.

There is a love story here but it’s made very unusual by some age and time paradoxes.

This is not an action/adventure science fiction tale. The author was shooting for Big Ideas science fiction. He succeeds reasonably well. He was not one of the giants of the genre so don’t expect the complexity of ideas that you’d get in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, but there are interesting ideas here.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Frank Belknap Long’s Mission to a Distant Star in yet another of their wonderful two-novel paperback editions. They really have come up with some fascinating and often excellent obscurities for this series.

Second Chance is worth checking out. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Clyde Allison's Have Nude, Will Travel

The sleaze fiction of the 50s and 60s embraced everything from grim noirish tales to romance to comedy. Of those who wrote comic sleaze fiction the best by far was William Knoles (1926-1970).

Have Nude, Will Travel, published in 1962 under the pseudonym Clyde Allison, is typical of his crazy sexy comic romps.

Jake O’Day is a pilot with a knack for getting himself into absurd and embarrassing predicaments. The most embarrassing was the time he thought he was transporting forty-eight harem girls belonging to an important shiekh. The girls turned out not to be girls at all but soldiers employed by the sheikh to stage a coup. Since they were covered from head to foot poor Jake had no way of knowing these were not harem girls. Jake ended up making a forced landing in a neighbouring Middle Eastern country and spending three months behind bars.

As a result of this misadventure Jake earned a totally underserved reputation as a ruthless mercenary leader.

And that’s what led oil tycoon Mr Tamerlane to employ his services. Tamerlane has had his prospective new employee thoroughly investigated and he is well aware that Jake’s reputation as a glamorous soldier of fortune is totally phoney. It turns out that what Tamerlane wants is a phoney soldier of fortune. Tamerlane’s 18-year-old son Sam is neurotic and lives in a dream world. He has decided he wants to be a soldier of fortune. Tamerlane’s plan is to employ Jake to get Sam into some mercenary adventures but what Jake has to do is to make sure these adventures are entirely fake and entirely safe. Tamerlane Sr hopes that this will get all that soldier of fortune daydream nonsense out of Sam’s system and the young man will then be content to go into Daddy’s oil business.

Jake think it’s a crazy idea but Tamerlane offers him an enormous amount of money, so he accepts the offer.

The problem is that Jake knows nothing whatever about being a soldier of fortune and has no idea how to provide Sam with a safe fake adventure. Then Jake gets a brainwave. Why not hire a scriptwriter to come up with some ideas? He can easily persuade Tamerlane to pay the writer lots of money. His friend Barnaby was a writer on a TV series about mercenaries and he likes money so he agrees.

Jake and Sam then become in effect characters in Barnaby’s story. Barnaby sends them off to exotic places and hires actors to play the parts of the kinds of dangerous shady characters that soldiers of fortune would be likely to encounter. Sam is enjoying himself but Jake worries a little. He’s not keen on being shot at, even if he knows it’s only actors shooting at him.

The idea seems to be working but then the plot twists kick in.

There’s plenty of sleaze. Sam takes being a soldier of fortune very seriously and avoids smoking, liquor and sex but Jake is happy to entertain himself with the various women Barnaby provides to play the parts of ex-crazed femmes fatales. Jake has a lot of fun with the twins. They teach him quite a few new tricks.

Jake also has fun with Sugar. She’s a cute blonde girl whom Barnaby keeps as a sort of pet. She doesn’t speak but she giggles a lot and she proves to be very affectionate. So affectionate that she almost exhausts poor Jake.

The sex is moderately steamy by 1962 standards. There’s very little violence. There is a great deal of humour and the novel is genuinely funny.

The basic plot idea is clever and it’s developed with skill and wit.

Incidentally the cover suggests that this is going to be a private eye spoof but there are no private yes in the story at all.

Have Nude, Will Travel is lots of fun. Highly recommended.

I highly recommend all of William Knoles/Clyde Alison’s sleaze novels. They're all rather ingenious. I’ve reviewed a number of them including Shame Market (very funny), Sexperiment and one of his Agent 0008 spy sleaze/spy spoof books, Gamefinger (which is terrific).

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Mickey Spillane’s Bloody Sunrise

Bloody Sunrise, published in 1965, is the second of Mickey Spillane’s four Tiger Mann spy thrillers.

Tiger doesn’t work for the government. He works for a private agency set up by a rich guy named Brady. It’s a very generously funded private espionage/counter-espionage agency and it’s not strictly legal but Brady doesn’t think the official US intelligence agencies can be relied on. In that respect Tiger resembles Mike Hammer - he’s not constrained by the rules that apply to official cops or official spies.

Tiger has decided to quit the espionage business. He’s getting married and his bride-to-be doesn’t want a spy for a husband. Tiger is crazy about the girl and he’s fed up with the spy game anyway.

His wedding day doesn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Instead of getting married he ends up being recalled to duty. This is a big case, a really big case, and there’s no getting out of it. Tiger isn’t too pleased but the codename Plato has an effect on him. It means there’s a danger that the case could lead to war. Tiger still has enough of a sense of duty to accept the delay to his wedding plans.

The problem is a Soviet defector, Gabin Martrell. He could provide incredibly useful information, if he could be persuaded to talk. But for some reason he won’t talk.

The reasons for Martrell’s defection are mysterious. Tiger figures it could be a sincere change of heart, or there could be a dame behind it. Tiger favours the latter theory.

Brady doesn’t think the CIA will be able to persuade Martrell to talk, but maybe Tiger will be able to. That’s Tiger’s mission and he intends to pursue that dame angle.

He finds the dame, Sonia, but there are complications. Plus he has to keep her out of the hands of the official intelligence agencies. They’re not going to like that. They don’t like Grady’s organisation.

Tiger also needs to keep himself out of trouble. He doesn’t need to have the police pursuing him for a murder rap. But Tiger has never been able to avoid trouble and corpses seem to accumulate whenever he’s around.

And of course he has to worry about the KGB. They’ll be gunning for both Martrell and Sonia. Tiger is going to have almost as much trouble with the CIA as he has with with his own government’s intelligence agencies.

He has two distractions. One is minor. A seaman Tiger once saved has contacted him with a strange story about something he found on a ship. Tiger thinks the guy is drunk and crazy but the story sticks in his mind. The major distraction is Tiger’s relationship with his bride-to-be, Rondine. She isn’t really Rondine. Rondine is dead. This is Rondine’s kid sister Edith. Tiger’s relationship with the real Rondine dates back to the war and it was messy and complicated. Whether Tiger has ever really dealt with what happened to Rondine is open to doubt.

Tiger certainly bears a resemblance to Mike Hammer. Like Hammer he prefers to work alone and his relationship with official government agencies is rather strained. Like Hammer he doesn’t worry too much about following rules. He makes his own. He has a tendency to use violence as a first resort. He is basically Mike Hammer retooled as a spy but I like Hammer so I’m not complaining.

And like Hammer he has a complicated attitude towards women. In both cases it’s because they get involved with complicated women, which is not surprising - a PI or a spy is inevitably going to encounter women with issues, and women who are not what they seem to be.

The style is standard Spillane. Again I have no complaints - I like Spillane’s style.

The plot is decent enough although the major twist won’t come as a huge surprise to seasoned spy fiction readers.

The most interesting thing about this book is that Tiger Mann is not an official intelligence agent and he’s not a reluctant spy or an amateur accidentally caught up in the world of espionage. Having him work for a private espionage organisation is a nice touch. In a way it makes him a throwback to much earlier heroes like Bulldog Drummond but it’s an idea that Len Deighton would explore a year later in Billion Dollar Brain (from a very different perspective).

Bloody Sunrise is a solid spy thriller. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Karl May's Winnetou I

To say that Karl May (1842-1912) was a popular German writer would be an understatement. His books have sold around 200 million copies. And they’re still in print. He is best known for his westerns. Those westerns were the basis for a series of very successful 1960s German movies.

Most famous of all his books were the Winnetou trilogy. It is the first volume in this trilogy, Winnetou I, with which this review is concerned.

There are three interesting things about Karl May’s westerns. The first is that they were written at a time when the Wild West still existed. The second is that at the time he wrote his best-known westerns he had never been anywhere near America. His westerns were based entirely on his reading, both fiction and non-fiction, on the subject. And on his own rich imagination.

The third interesting thing is that May’s westerns are very very sympathetic indeed to the American Indians.

A young German (who is the narrator of the novel) arrives in the United States. We will eventually discover that his name is Karl. It’s quite likely that the author was hoping to persuade his readers that the book recounts his real-life adventures, although at this stage he had never left Germany.

He finds himself manoeuvred into a job as a surveyor on a railroad in the West. He meets an eccentric frontiersman named Sam Hawkens who is employed by the railroad as a scout. Sam sees himself as a mentor to the naïve young hero. Apart from Sam and the two other scouts the surveying team is comprised of lazy good-for-nothing drunks, the worst of them being a man known as Rattler.

The young German acquires the nickname Old Shatterhand. He proves himself to be a mighty hunter, killing a grizzly bear with a knife and bringing down a huge bull bison with an almost miraculous shot.

An encounter with two members of a local Apache tribe, a chief and his son Winnetou, will change his life. He and Winnetou will become lifelong friends but their first meeting is very uneasy. Winnetou’s father orders the surveying team to leave Apache land. Rattler kills an Apache and it is clear that the Apaches will return for revenge.

Sam comes up with an ingenious plan involving another tribe, the Kiowa, currently at war with the Apaches. Sam’s hope is that his plan will avoid bloodshed. Things don’t turn out as he had hoped.

Sam gets captured more than once. Old Shatterhand gets captured more than once. They get caught up in the middle of the hostilities between the Apaches and the Kiowa. They encounter a band of white bandits, with serious consequences both good and bad. This event does eventually lead to a firm friendship between the young German and Winnetou. Winnetou’s lively attractive kid sister will play an important part in the story also.

This novel is quite heavy going. On the whole I think the idea that 19th century novels are slow and long-winded is a myth, but this one really is very slow and very long-winded. And the characters talk so much. Dialogue scenes go on for page after page.

The hero, Old Shatterhand, is much too perfect. He’s in his early twenties and he’s never been in the West before but he can shoot better than anybody and he’s a better tracker than Sam even though Sam has been doing it for a quarter of a century and Old Shatterhand has only read about such things in books. The youngster can take on grizzly bears armed only with a knife. At one point, even though he has never fought with a knife, he easily wins a knife fight to the death with the finest warrior of the Kiowa tribe. He has better than everybody else at absolutely everything.

And despite his youth and inexperience he is wiser than everyone else. And nobler and braver. Apart from stretching credibility to ludicrous extremes it gets to be a bit irritating.

Old Shatterhand is a devout Christian and naturally he’s more devout and more virtuous than just about any other Christian in North America.

Winnetou is almost as perfect as Old Shatterhand. Sam starts off promising to be quite interesting but soon becomes no more than a comic relief character. There are several villains, and they’re very villainous indeed.

When reading a translation (in this case by Marlies Bugmann) you can never be sure how much of the stodginess of the prose is due to the author and how much to the translator. Either way it’s pretty stodgy.

On the plus side the story itself is quite good and when the characters finally stop talking there is some decent and moderately exciting action. There are countless hair’s-breadth escapes from danger. There is treachery and there are divided loyalties.

Karl May himself was a colourful larger-than-life character who spent much of his early life in and out of prison. I’m glad I read this book but I can’t see myself reading any more of his work. This one was too much of a slog. This novel has immense historical significance. It exerted a huge influence on European and especially German popular culture. It’s recommended for those reasons, but with the very major caveat that it’s a very tough read.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Honey West: Kiss for a Killer

Kiss for a Killer, published in 1960, was the sixth of the eleven Honey West private eye thrillers written by American husband and wife writing team Gloria and Forest Fickling as G.G. Fickling.

These novels were the basis for the 1965-66 Honey West TV series which starred Anne Francis. Both the novels and the TV series are seriously under-appreciated.

Honey West made her first appearance in This Girl for Hire in 1957. A girl PI was a pretty new concept for crime fiction at that time. Honey West runs a private detective agency that belonged to her dad before he was murdered.

In the TV series Honey has a side-kick but in the novels she works alone although she does co-operate with Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Storm (who has a bit of a thing for her). Honey is fairly hardboiled, she’s adept at unarmed combat and she carries a pearl-handled .22 revolver (in a garter holster under her skirt).

These were intended from the outset as sexy PI thrillers and there’s plenty of sleaze. Honey always seems to be losing her clothes.

Honey West paved the way for other action heroines in fiction, comics, TV and movies. Heroines like Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Modesty Blaise. Honey has a quirky quality all her own (which Anne Francis captured extremely well in the TV series). She has an amazing capacity for getting herself into trouble but it doesn’t faze her at all. She just assumes that somehow she’ll extricate herself.

Honey loses her clothes a lot in Kiss for a Killer, perhaps not surprising since she’s investigating a nudist religious cult. The cult is also into a bit of sadomasochism and other kinks.

The novel starts with football player Rip Spensor crushed to death by a steamroller, and it was no accident. Honey had been dating him which is how she becomes involved. There are other fairly gruesome murders. There also seems to be a connection with an Italian movie star, Angela Scali. When she makes her first appearance in the book she’s stark naked as well.

On her way to the murder scene Honey has a narrow escape from deadly spiders and then she is chased by a naked man in a car.

Honey suspects that the cult leader, Thor Tunny, controls his flock through hypnotism but she can’t prove it.

The cult might have murdered Rip Spensor but there are plenty of other suspects, Rip’s brother for one. There’s also a crippled reporter and Angela Scali’s agent. Plus the cult leader’s crazy depraved daughter Toy. All these people seem to have been involved with one another but Honey will have to find the exact nature of the connection. She will also have to try to keep her clothes on, which will be an even bigger challenge.

The plot is pleasingly outrageous, and it’s resolved quite satisfactorily. The action is non-stop and it’s inventive. Honey gets beaten up, there are several attempts to kill her, she has a narrow escape from a crashed car and she gets captured more than once. It’s all in a day’s work for a busy lady PI.

The style is pulpy but entertaining. Honey is as quick with a wisecrack as she is with her gun. There’s plenty of violent action, but it’s only moderately graphic by the standards of the day (although a guy getting squashed flat by a steamroller could perhaps be described as graphic). There isn’t really any sex but there’s the implication that such things are going on. The titillation factor is provided by the amount of time the various characters spend naked but it’s all done in a playful good-natured way.

Like the other Honey West novels Kiss for a Killer is unashamedly violent, lurid, trashy and sleazy with hints of kinkiness. And it's extraordinarily enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several other Honey West novels here - This Girl for Hire (1957), A Gun for Honey (1958), Girl on the Loose (1958) and Honey in the Flesh (1959). They’re all worth reading.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Ray Cummings' The Sea Girl

The Sea Girl is a 1930 lost world novel by Ray Cummings and, even better, it deals with a lost world in the deeps of the ocean. As a bonus, there are mermaids. Well, not quite mermaids, but there’s definitely a beautiful aquatic girl.

Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was a pioneering American science fiction writer. He enjoyed considerable success in the 1920s and 30s but his career faded after that.

The story takes place in the future - in 1990. This is a world in which few conventional ships remain. Overseas trade and travel is dominated by aircraft and giant submarines. Jeff Grant, the narrator of the story, is second officer on a commercial submarine. Aboard his submarine is 18-year-old Arturo Plantet, the son of a doctor who has retired from medicine to take up oceanography.

Odd things are happening at sea. Several of those remaining surface ships have sunk, for no apparent reason. Then a submarine sinks. The tides seem to be behaving abnormally. At least that’s what is assumed at first but slowly it becomes obvious that sea levels are falling. Falling dramatically.

Then comes a report that a mermaid was seen on an island in Micronesia.

This interests Jeff. From the glassed porthole of a submarine he and Arturo had seen a strange globe-shaped undersea vessel and they had caught a glimpse of a girl aboard that vessel, a girl who struck them as being rather like a mermaid.

Arturo’s father is convinced that civilisation is under threat. He has designed a small advanced submarine capable of operating at extreme depths. He intends to use this vessel to find out what is going on beneath the sea. He needs three crew members. He has selected his son Arturo, Arturo’s sister Polly and Jeff Grant. At the last moment Arturo withdraws from the expedition and sets off for Micronesia in a small aircraft. Arturo intends to find that mermaid. He does find her. She’s not exactly a mermaid but she’s not quite human either. She appears to belong to a species closely related to and very very similar to our own. He calls her Nereid.

Arturo finds out all sorts of other things as well.

A year passes and nothing is heard from Arturo. Then Arturo contacts Jeff. Jeff thinks at first it’s a dream but soon realises it is a form of telepathy.

Jess, Arturo, Nereid and a seaman named Tad (who disappeared a couple of years earlier and had been presumed drowned) then embark on an extraordinary voyage not just to the bottom of the ocean, but to a lost world hundreds of miles beneath the ocean floor. And they will have to try to save human civilisation from an extraordinary threat.

Cummings at his best could create wonderfully strange imaginary worlds. In this case he’s succeeded in creating a fantastic world that rivals Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar.

Jess is a stock-standard hero type but Arturo is more interesting - a dreamy over-imaginative youth who does not at first appear to be the stuff that heroes are made of but he slowly begins to show real presence.

Nereid is also a fairly typical beautiful good girl heroine. Rhana, the Empress of the undersea lost world, is beautiful as well but she’s also evil and cruel.

There are atomic-powered submarines and other technological novelties such as clothing that confers near-invisibility. The scientific (or pseudoscientific) explanations are amusing. There’s a lot of imaginative speculation about the nature of the interior of the Earth.

It’s an exciting enough adventure with some action and with a small heroic band on whom the future of civilisation depends.

It is a lost world story but it’s also a story of a struggle between competing civilisations. It’s very much pulp fiction but thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have issued this book, in paperback, in their excellent Lost World-Lost Race Classics series.

I’ve reviewed a couple of other Ray Cummings novels - Into the Fourth Dimension and The Girl in the Golden Atom.

Other notable undersea worlds science fiction novels that I’ve reviewed - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Maracot Deep, John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, Henry Slesar’s The Secret of Marracott Deep.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Lust Queen (AKA The Decadent)

Lust Queen is a 1961 sleaze novel by Robert Silverberg. It has been reprinted by Stark House in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with a slightly later Silverberg sleaze effort, Lust Victim.

Some background is needed to explain how one of the most revered names in science fiction came to be writing sleaze novels.

In the late 50s Silverberg was already attracting notice as an upcoming science fiction writer and then the bottom suddenly (although temporarily) dropped out of the science fiction market. Most of the magazines that published science fiction stories went bust and at that time the market for science fiction novels in hardback and paperback was extremely small. Unless you were one of the big names it became very difficult to earn a living writing science fiction. Silverberg had been making a very decent living and the prospect of giving up a comfortable lifestyle held no appeal to him.

There was however a thriving market for paperback original sleaze novels. That market was about to experience a boom. Like a number of other writers who later became famous and respected genre fiction writers Silverberg jumped on the bandwagon. And became quite rich as a result. To succeed as a sleaze writer you needed to be able to write quickly. Silverberg could write very quickly indeed. He could write a novel in six days. In the space of five years he wrote 150 sleaze novels under a variety of pseudonyms.

Lust Queen was originally published in 1961, under the pseudonym Don Elliott. It was reprinted in 1974, this time with the title The Decadent. The version reprinted by Stark House would seem to be the 1974 version which appears to have included quite a few revisions. Dates have been changed to give the impression that the events take place in the early 70s. There’s a reference to Kennedy Airport. The name of the airport was not changed to Kennedy Airport until 1963. A couple of four-letter words (absolutely verboten in 1961) have been added to try to give it a 70s feel. The overall feel of the book is however pure early 60s sleaze, and that’s what gives it its appeal.

The story concerns a writer, Joey Baldwin (he’s the narrator of the novel). He’s making a reasonable living writing in various genres and he’s just finishing up a detective novel. He’s in need of extra money, what with his impending divorce. When he’s offered a great deal of money to ghost-write the autobiography of faded movie star Mona Thorne he jumps at the chance. He has zero interest in the star in question but he’s very interested in the money on offer. And he has to admit that Mona Thorne’s life story is bestseller material. Alcoholism, multiple marriages, adultery, drug addiction, nymphomania - Mona has covered all the bases. Joey signs on the dotted line.

It will mean leaving New York and moving to LA for a couple of months. Joey doesn’t want to leave his fiancée Lisa but a curious facet of the deal is that he’s not allowed to bring his fiancée with him.

Joey arrives in LA to find out that the deal is not quite what he expected. He hadn’t realised that he’d be living in Mona’s house for the two months while the book is being written. He also hadn’t realised that sharing a bed with Mona would be part of the deal. He’s not sure if he’s being employed as a ghost-writer or a gigolo. At first he’s inclined to pack his bags and return to New York but then he changes his mind. The fact that Mona is really hot stuff in bed might perhaps contribute to his decision. And then there’s the money.

He slowly realises that this book is likely to make him a very great deal of money. He figures he can keep the situation under control. Keeping any situation under control when Mona Thorne is involved is however quite a challenge. He’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants from him. He will eventually find out.

Joey Baldwin is quite an interesting protagonist. He isn’t entirely unethical but his ethics are very flexible. He isn’t immoral. Sure he cheats on Lisa with Mona but at least he feels bad about it every time he has sex with Mona. Then he has sex with her again. He’s not entirely a weak-willed person but he has a bit of a tendency to go with the flow. He does have principles but he doesn’t stick to them very consistently. He’s easy-going. He’s cynical, but not so cynical that he ever totally loses our sympathy. He’s a very flawed hero but he’s not such a bad guy.

And living in Hollywood he finds that his ethical standards are becoming more and more flexible. He soon abandons any idea of making the book even marginally truthful. He’s a realist. The reading public doesn’t want truthful books. They want books that make them feel good about themselves.

I don’t think the sex scenes were tampered with at all in the 1974 revision. They’re very much in the mode of 1961 sleaze fiction, and they’re very much in the mode of sex scenes in Silverberg’s other sleaze novels of that period. In other words they’re very tame by 1970s standards. We know what people are doing together in bed but we don’t have it described to us in clinical detail. This is the softest of softcore erotica.

You may have noticed that the two women in the story are called Mona and Lisa. As in, Mona Lisa. They are in many ways mirror images. Lisa is blonde and she’s uncomplicated. She loves sex but she loves it in a healthy kind of way. Lisa also loves in a straightforward healthy kind of way. Mona is a brunette and she’s very complicated and manipulative and there’s nothing remotely healthy about her approach to either sex or love. It’s not quite a good girl/bad girl dichotomy (Silverberg is not a writer who would be as crude or obvious as that). Mona isn’t truly a bad girl. She’s just seriously messed up. She’s dangerous because she’s messed up, not because she’s evil.

Like a lot of the writers who turned out sleaze novels in the late 50s and early 60s Silverberg is giving us a novel about human relationships and ethical choices, with some mildly risqué sex added in order to make it sell. You can quite reasonably judge this book as a straightforward novel rather than as a work of erotica. And it’s a pretty good little story. Silverberg was churning these books out at a furious pace but the guy was a real writer and a good one and he couldn’t avoid making these novels a lot better than they needed to be in strictly commercial terms.

Lust Queen is pretty good stuff. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed a couple of Silverberg’s other sleaze novels, Gang Girl and Sex Bum, both of which have distinct noirish tinges. Both are worth reading, with Gang Girl being particularly good.