Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Callan Uncovered

Callan Uncovered is a collection of all the Callan short stories written by James Mitchell. Mitchell was the creator and main scriptwriter for Callan, probably the most acclaimed TV spy series of all time. The book also includes a complete script for an episode that was never made plus a treatment for another unmade episode.

The stories are even more cynical than the television series (and the TV series is very cynical).

Callan worked better on the small screen but these stories are still well worth reading for spy fiction fans.

I've posted a full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Doc Savage: The Polar Treasure

The Polar Treasure was the fourth of the Doc Savage novels. It was published in 1933. It appeared under the house name Kenneth Robeson but was in fact written by Lester Dent.

The Doc Savage novels were originally published in the pulp Doc Savage Magazine.

Doc Savage has attended a concert by famed blind violinist Victor Vail. And someone tries to kidnap the violinist, by leading him to believe he is to meet Ben O’Gard, the man who saved his life a decade-and-a-half earlier. The violinist is set on by a gang of thugs led by a sailor.

Victor Vail had been one of only two survivors when the passenger liner Oceanic, forced hundreds of miles off course, met disaster in the Arctic pack ice. That was the occasion on which Ben O’Gard saved his life. Victor Vail’s wife and daughter must certainly perished in the disaster but Vail has always clung to the belief that by some miracle they might still be alive. The loss of the Oceanic interests Doc. Officially the ship was simply lost at sea. There is no supporting evidence for Vail’s story that the ship had ended up in the Arctic but Doc is inclined to believe him.

There is also an interesting rumour about the Oceanic’s fate. Was the ship really carrying a vast fortune in jewels and bullion? That would explain much. It might even explain why two gangs of thugs (and there appear to be two gangs at work) want to get their hinds on Victor Vail. The blind violinist might, quite unwittingly, be the key to the finding of that treasure.

Doc is willing to finance an expedition to find the answers. It will be the world’s first submarine voyage beneath the Arctic icecap. A bold venture in a diesel-electric submarine but Doc has come up with some ingenious inventions that might make it possible. The submarine, the Helldiver, will also be carrying a small floatplane and that tiny aircraft will play an important part in the adventure to come. Doc will of course be accompanied by his faithful followers Ham, Monk, Johnny, Long Tom and Renny.

The story is non-stop action from start to finish. There is trouble with the crew of the Helldiver. There are conspiracies and betrayals. There will be desperate struggles for survival in the frozen Arctic wastes. There will also be aerial battles over the ice.

Doc is a fascinating example of an early pulp superhero. Dent is at pains to explain that Doc does not in fact possess any superpowers. His physical prowess is the result of an extraordinary regime of physical training. His intellectual genius is the result of intensive study. His amazing and improbably abilities (such as his ability to render men unconscious merely by touching them) all have perfectly natural explanations. Doc’s physical and mental capacities are so immense as to stretch credibility to the breaking point but he is in fact simply a man who has trained himself to an extraordinary degree.

The one flaw of the Doc Savage books is perhaps that Doc is just too perfect, but then he is supposed to have trained himself to an extent that makes him a proto-superhero.

The plot of the story is outrageous and far-fetched but that adds to the 1930s pulp feel. There are no supernatural elements or monsters (although we think at one point that there might be a monster). Doc’s extraordinary inventions do push the book into slightly science fictional territory.

The style is pulpy to an extreme but that makes it more fun.

Dent makes fine use of the harsh setting in the snow and ice and I have a particular fondness for such settings for thrillers and adventure tales.

The Polar Treasure is a wonderfully enjoyable slice of pure pulp fun and it’s highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the first two Doc Savage novels, The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror as well as the 1975 movie Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (which I also highly recommend).

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Fletcher Flora's Leave Her To Hell

Leave Her To Hell is a private eye thriller by Fletcher Flora, published in 1958 by Avon. It’s an expanded version of a short story, Loose Ends, published that year in Manhunt magazine.

Fletcher Flora (1914-1968) is an often overlooked American pulp writer of the 50s and 60s. He wrote crime fiction, sleaze fiction and historical fiction. His output of short stories for various magazines was prodigious.

Percy Hand is a private detective with a reputation for being, by private detective standards, ethical. Faith Salem wants to hire him. Faith is the mistress of a rich man, Graham Markley, and she’s about to become his wife. Before she marries him she’d like to know what happened to his third wife, Constance. Faith and Constance had once shared an apartment but that’s not the reason for her interest. She knows the story of what happened to Constance and she’s not entirely satisfied with it.

Constance had been having an affair with a man named Regis Lawler. One evening Constance and Regis disappeared and neither has been heard from since. Of course it is assumed that they ran away together. Faith feels that the story leaves a few loose ends dangling and Percy Hand has to agree with her.

Regis Lawler’s brother Silas has a shady past and now he’s at best marginally respectable. He runs a gambling club and the games are reputed to be honest. He offers Percy five grand to drop the case, Percy refuses and gets beaten up. But he won’t drop the case.

Graham Markley also offers him money to drop the case, although this time the offer is not followed by a beating.

Percy gets some slightly interesting information from Silas’s mistress Robin. He gets a lot more from her than that. They spend a pleasant night together in bed.

He has picked up something that is not quite a lead but at least it’s the hint of a lead. There was a hit-run case shortly before Constance and Regis disappeared and someone was interested in that case and Percy wonders why. Most of all Percy wonders why a very disreputable private eye named Colly Alder is tailing him. Percy is even more puzzled when Colly asks him for a favour. It all seems quite innocent but it is very curious.

Percy decides to pay a visit to the nearby town of Amity. He has no idea whether he’ll find anything there but the name of that town just keeps popping up. He certainly finds something there.

Percy Hand is a likeable hero. He’s not a tough guy. He’s not lacking in guts but fistfights and gunfights are not his style at all. He’s more at home sitting and thinking things through than he is in a brawl.

This is only very very marginally noir fiction. It is moderately hardboiled. Essentially it’s just a murder mystery. You will probably find yourself being fairly convinced that a murder has taken place and you might have your suspicions as to the killer’s identity but while there has certainly been a crime it’s not quite the crime you expected it to be. And the interest here lies not in the crime itself or the identity of the criminal but in the reasons the crime was committed.

I would not call this a fair-play mystery but there are a few psychological clues.

My view is that when the solution to a murder mystery is revealed the most important thing is that that solution should be psychologically plausible. The reader should feel that the various players in the drama behaved in ways that were consistent with what we have been told about their personalities. That’s certainly the case with Leave Her To Hell. Despite one slightly far-fetched element the solution is entirely satisfying.

Flora’s prose is pleasing and witty and he has a good ear for dialogue.

Leave Her To Hell is a fine slightly hardboiled private eye murder mystery. Highly recommended.

Leave Her To Hell has been reprinted by Stark House in a Fletcher Flora triple-header paperback edition.

I’ve reviewed another Fetcher Flora novel, the lighthearted witty Killing Cousins.

Friday, October 20, 2023

John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire

John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire is a 1924 lost world adventure tale.

John Taine was a pseudonym used by mathematician Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) for his science fiction writing.

General Wedderburn, a rather pompous English officer, approaches American gem dealer and adventurer John Ford with a proposal. The general wants Ford and his niece (and partner) Rosita to find his daughter Evelyn. She disappeared thirteen years earlier, at the age of eight, and the general suspects his servant Singh of some involvement in the disappearance. Ford informs the general that he is not in the business of finding lost children.

Then General Wedderburn shows him something that changes his mind. It is the most extraordinary sapphire he has ever seen. If Ford can find Evelyn he will also find a lot more such sapphires. The general is convinced that Evelyn is somewhere in the unexplored wilds of Tibet, and that those sapphires are to be found in the same place.

The general has a vital clue - a half-dead man who also has such a sapphire in his possession. This wretched wreck of a man turns out to be another English officer by the name of Joicey, a man thought to have been dead for many years.

Joicey slowly recovers his strength and his sanity. He knows where the sapphires come from because he has been there. It is the land once inhabited by the Great Race, whose knowledge of science was so far in advance of our own that it beggars belief. Their descendants still live there although almost all of their ancient knowledge has been lost. It was a perilous journey to that land and an even more perilous journey back but it can be done. He has never seen Evelyn Wedderburn but he has reason to believe that she is safe and well. He also knows something about the mysterious Singh. Singh was a descendant of the Great Race.

Ford, Rosita and Joicey set off to repeat Joicey’s earlier journey. They do indeed find a lost world and the remnants of a lost civilisation and they slowly piece together the history of that civilisation and of the disaster that befell it.

The descendants of the Great Race have lost most of their ancient knowledge but they hope to regain it and the three adventurers are also rather attracted by the idea of unlocking the Great Race’s ancient secrets.

The motivations of the three adventurers are complex. They certainly hope to return with a bag full of sapphires but there’s also a sincere desire to rescue Evelyn Wedderburn. There’s also a lust for both knowledge and adventure. They are somewhat unscrupulous but also strangely decent. They rely on cleverness rather than violence. They don’t mind using deceit.

This is a lost world that is certainly no utopia. It’s a priest-ridden society in which there is no actual religion, just superstition. It’s a society obsessed with a past that it doesn’t even understand. People know how to follow rules but they don’t know how to think. They dream of regaining the immense powers over nature that their ancestors possessed but they have no idea how to go about it. All the information they need still exists but nobody can read the ancient texts. It’s also questionable whether they could be trusted with those immense powers. In fact it’s questionable whether their all-powerful ancestors had the wisdom to wield such powers.

It’s also a story about how civilisations can decline and ultimately destroy themselves.

There’s an almost complete lack of violence in this story but there’s plenty of danger and excitement.

An absorbing story, fairly complex characters and an interesting lost civilisation add up to a very fine novel which I highly recommend.

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

I’ve also reviewed another excellent lost world adventure by the same author, The Greatest Adventure.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Orrie Hitt's The Cheaters

The Cheaters is a 1960 sleaze noir novel (actually much more noir than sleaze) by Orrie Hitt, published by Midwood Books in 1960.

Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) wrote around 150 novels, most of them sleaze fiction. But the Orrie Hitt brand of sleaze fiction had its own flavour. It was sleaze heavily laced with noir. In fact it was often a lot more noir than sleaze. Hitt deserves to be regarded as one of the premier noir writers of the 50s and 60s but he has never gained the respect due to him.

You couldn’t wish for anything scuzzier and grimier and more noirish than The Cheaters.

Clint (the narrator) and his girlfriend Ann have just blown into town. They grew up on farms which is why they now want nothing whatever to do with farming or farm country. They both need jobs badly and Clint gets lucky. Tending bar usually pays fifty or sixty bucks a week but he lands a bartending job that pays seventy-five. Ann is delighted. Soon they’l be able to afford to get married. What she hasn’t realised yet is that Clint has no intention of ever marrying her. Clint is no good but she hasn’t figured that out yet either.

Charlie Fletcher owns the bar. The bar is in the Dells, the worst part of the city. It’s a slum, and a particularly pestilential slum. Nobody who lives in the Dells is any good. Clint doesn’t like the Dells at all but in fact he’s as rotten as all its other inhabitants. Most of the bar’s profits come from prostitution rather than selling liquor. It’s a very profitable business. The one fly in the ointment is Red Brandon. He’s a cop and even by the standards of corrupt cops he’s a nasty vicious piece of work. He demands, and gets, a big slice of the action. But even after paying off Brandon the bar is a major money-maker.

Charlie is married to Debbie. She’s thirty years younger than Charlie. Debbie has the most impressive breasts Clint has ever seen. All Clint can think about is getting her into bed.

Charlie wants to sell up his business interests. He offers Clint a great opportunity to take over the bar. It’s a goldmine. He’ll still have to pay Brandon but Clint doesn’t think that will be a problem.

Clint’s life gets very complicated. Ann gets pregnant and starts pressuring him to marry her. Clint has started a torrid affair with Debbie Fletcher. He wants her to divorce Charlie but she won’t do it. Brandon wants bigger and bigger pay-offs. The city starts a crackdown on prostitution. There are rumours of a docker’s strike (which will cut into Clint’s liquor sales). What seemed like a golden opportunity now seems more and more like a trap. The walls start closing in on Clint. And he starts to think about desperate solutions.

When we talk about noir we have to bear certain things in mind. Nobody in 1960 was consciously writing noir fiction, just as nobody in the 1940s was consciously making film noir. The idea that there was such a thing as film noir did not gain currency in the US until the 1970s and the concept of a noir fiction genre is even more recent. We can look at a book like The Cheaters and agree that it ticks most of the noir fiction boxes but when he write it Orrie Hitt would have thought he was just writing a hardboiled crime story with enough sleaze content to get it accepted by Midwood Books. The Cheaters does however very definitely tick most of those noir fiction boxes.

Clint is a very unsympathetic protagonist. He’s a drunk. He isn’t very honest. He treats Ann very badly (and she really loves him). He’s having an affair with another man’s wife. And in between he sleeps with some of the prostitutes operating out of his bar. We feel that a lot of his troubles are his on fault but as those troubles multiply we can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, just as we would feel sorry for a rat caught in a trap.

There aren’t very many admirable characters in this tale. Ann perhaps, and Martha (one of the whores working out of Clint’s bar).

The book deals with sleazy situations but the sex scenes are incredibly tame.

The Cheaters is prime Orrie Hitt. Highly recommended.

The Cheaters has been reprinted by Stark House in a double-header paperback edition (paired with Dial 'M' For Man).

Monday, October 16, 2023

A.S. Fleischman's Malay Woman

Malay Woman is a 1954 thriller by A.S. Fleischman.

A.S. ‘Sid’ Fleischman (1920-2010) Fleischman was an American professional magician working in vaudeville. When vaudeville died he turned to writing fiction. He wrote half a dozen spy thrillers, most of them paperback originals published by Fawcett Gold Medal between 1951 and 1954. He later wrote screenplays and subsequently found success as an author of children’s books.

The story begins in Singapore. Jock Hamilton needs to leave and leave fast. He books himself on a flight to Melbourne, but the police are onto him at the airport. He makes his escape and decides to take a steamer up the coast and then head for his friend Gabb’s rubber plantation, Silver Jubilee. He can’t think of anything else to do. He is just a little concerned that when he telephoned Gabb his old friend claimed not to know him. The important thing is to stay a step ahead of Inspector Kris.

Jock has left behind his plantation in Sumatra and his wife Eden. Eden is dead. Jock doesn’t think he killed her. He’s fairly sure he didn’t. Although to be honest he’s not overly sure of anything. He doesn’t remember anything of what happened. The important thing is that somebody shot her.

Jock’s life started to fall apart when he caught his wife with her lover, or at least with one of her lovers.

Now he’s on a coastal steamer, he’s a stowaway and until the ship is safely at sea he’s hiding in a closet. And he overhears a conversation between an Englishman named Edgett and a Dutchman named Hoven. They are discussing their plans for the murder of one of the female passengers, an Australian woman named Kay Allison. It’s none of Jock’s business but he can’t just let a woman get murdered.

Kay Allison has a rubber plantation as well, called Jade Tiger.

Jock comes up with an idea to keep Kay alive. The steamer reaches Kuala Tang. Gabb’s plantation is not far away. And Jock, who had decided he wanted nothing more to do with women after Eden finds himself, finds his life complicated by two women - Kay Allison and Gabb’s new wife Monique. He also has another murder to deal with. He still has the even bigger problem of being wanted for the murder of his wife. He will need to clear his name but he has no idea where to begin.

He does have one clue that would have made things clear but he takes a long time to recognise its significance.

The background to the novel is the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war fought between communist insurgents and the British. Both Gabb’s plantation and Kay Allison’s are targeted by the communists. Kay is particularly vulnerable, a woman trying to run a plantation on her own (she is a widow). It all adds to the feel of paranoia, and Jock Hamilton had reason enough for paranoia already. He is still convinced that someone wants to kill Kay, but he has no idea of the identity of such a person and nor does Kay.

The author makes effective use of the setting and the historical background (which will eventually play an important part in the plot).

This is a kind of mystery thriller. There’s not a great deal of action but there’s a pervasive sense of danger with plenty of possibilities for betrayal. There’s romance as well.

The plot is solid enough, Fleischman keeps things moving along and his prose is more than serviceable. It’s pulpy, but not too pulpy.

Jock Hamilton is a nice enough guy but he tends to allow himself to be swept along by the tide of life. He’s reluctant to confront problems. His first priority should be to find out what happened on that fateful day in Sumatra, and whether he did kill his wife or not. He keeps putting this off. He’s also a bit of an innocent.

Malay Woman is a very solid entertaining thriller. Highly recommended.

Stark House have reprinted Malay Woman in a two-novel paperback edition paired with Fleischman’s excellent 1953 thriller Danger in Paradise.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Niven Busch’s The Furies

I recently bought the Criterion DVD of Anthony Mann’s 1950 western The Furies and included as an extra is Niven Busch’s 1948 novel of the same name. Not a digital copy but an actual paperback. Since I loved the movie so much I naturally had to read the book. Busch also wrote the novel on which the outrageous Duel in the Sun was based so I figured he was a writer I needed to check out.

The setting is the late 1880s. T.C. Jefford owns a vast cattle empire in New Mexico. He’s a ruthless larger-than-life character. He has two sons but he considers them (rightly) to be weaklings and of no account. His nineteen-year-old daughter Vance is another matter. She has the potential to be T.C.’s successor.

While T.C. has a lot of land and a lot of cattle he’s cash-poor and has to raise a loan from the bank. The problem is that the bank is reluctant to accept his ranch as security because of the hundreds of squatters living there. They’ve been there for generations, they have no intention of leaving and they make a living from thieving. These problems will have momentous consequences later in the story.

He has told his daughter that she is free to marry any man she chooses but he has attached some very tricky conditions to his offer. In practice if she wants to own the ranch one day she’ll have to marry a man approved of by her father. She has been having an affair with one of the squatters, Juan Herrera. She’s prepared to give Juan up to please her father but she’s not so sure about giving up her next suitor, a gambler named Darragh. Old T.C. is too clever to forbid the marriage but he comes up with a devious plan to expose Darragh as a fortune-hunter.

The real trouble starts when T.C. brings his mistress Flo home to the ranch. It’s obvious to Vance that Flo intends to get her hands on T.C.’s entire fortune. It’s also obvious to Vance that that will mean that she will end up with nothing. Vance does not intend to stand by and let that happen. There’s going to be a power struggle between these two women and tensions rise when T.C. announces that he intends to marry Flo.

That power struggle leads to a dramatic and shocking incident. As a result Vance flees the ranch. Vance’s efforts to build a new life end in disaster and she (quite correctly) blames her father. Vance now decides that she has a score to settle and she has a clever plan to achieve that objective.

The focus of the novel is the strange, obsessive, passionate and unhealthy relationship between T.C. and Vance. There’s certainly a hint of something incestuous in the relationship. T.C. has had plenty of women but the woman who dominates his whole life is his daughter. Vance has love affairs and she has sexual relationships with two men but no man can ever measure up to her father. It’s implied that the strange bond between father and daughter is the reason that T.C. feels no emotional bond with any of his other women and it’s the reason Vance’s relationships with other men end in failure.

The major theme of the novel is that love can turn to hate but when you hate someone whom you once loved the love doesn’t just disappear. It remains, inextricably entangled with the hate. And the more intense the love, the more intense the hate. Both T.C. and Vance are entirely consumed by these dangerous mixtures of love and hate.

A minor but important theme is rivalry between women. Flo and Vance are both clever ambitious strong-willed women fated to be deadly enemies. Flo has the advantage of being more experienced but Vance has the Jefford ruthlessness.

Compared to the movie the novel is of course much more sexually frank. Vance’s relationships with Juan and Darragh are most definitely sexual, while the movie suffers little from a lack of sexual heat in those relationships.

The changes made in the movie adaptation are relatively minor. To a large extent it was a matter of streamlining the story. Both novel and film end in the same way but the novel’s ending has some added complications which the movie screenplay dispenses with. This perhaps weakens the movie’s ending just a little but certainly not fatally. Both endings work.

Some of the changes in the movie have the effect of making the story more melodramatic, which I think is a good thing.

This is a rare case of an interesting complex novel being made into an equally interesting complex movie.

This is most definitely not a conventional western novel. This is a psychological western, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s a psychosexual melodrama in a western setting. The novel was written in 1948 when Freud was all the rage and there are obvious Freudian influences. The Furies is fascinating and absorbing. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Anthony Mann’s excellent movie adaptation The Furies (1950).

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart

Lawrence Block’s writing career has, incredibly, spanned more than sixty years. I’ve read a few of his early sleaze novels (which are pretty good if you enjoy that genre) but the only crime novel of his that I’ve read is Borderline. Borderline is in fact a sleaze/noir hybrid and to be honest it left me a bit cold. A bit too bleak for my tastes. I am aware however that he’s not a writer whose crime fiction I can continue to ignore. Which brings me to his 1965 standalone crime noir novel The Girl with the Long Green Heart.

This is a novel about a con, and I’m inordinately fond of that crime sub-genre. It isn’t easy to pull off really well - the author has to come up with some variation on one of the classic cons and convince the reader that it would actually work. In this instance the con is pretty clever. The con depends not just on exploiting the greed of the mark but on exploiting his shrewdness. As the conman narrator John Hayden explains, this is a con that would never work on a stupid man.

John Hayden served seven years in San Quentin after a grift went sour and for a year he has been strictly a law-abiding citizen. He has no intention of going back inside. He has a poorly paid job as assistant manager in a bowling alley. He has a dream. There’s a roadhouse in Colorado that is being badly mismanaged. It could and should be a gold mine. Hayden could make it a very profitable proposition. He could be a strictly legal businessman. All he needs is thirty thousand dollars to buy the place. It’s just a dream. He’s forty-two and it would take ten years to save thirty grand. By that time he’d be too old to make a fresh start. It will stay a dream.

Then Doug Rance looks him up. Hayden and Rance had worked cons before when Rance was just a fresh-faced kid. Now Rance claims to have come up with what every conman dreams of - a totally fresh variation on one of the classic long cons. Hayden isn’t interested, until Rance tells him his cut would amount to around - thirty thousand dollars.

A few years earlier a small-town real estate tycoon named Wallace Gunderman got taken by a bunch of Canadian grifters and ended up with thousands of acres of worthless land. Rance’s idea is beautiful. Gunderman will get conned a second time over the same land while thinking he’s outsmarted everyone. The first time he got taken for twenty-five thousand dollars but this time he’s going to be bled for a lot more.

What makes the grift fool-proof is the girl. Evvie is Gunderman’s secretary and she has a grudge against him. She’ll be working on Gunderman from the inside, drawing him in to be fleeced.

Of course it would be better for Hayden not to get involved with Evvie but every man has his weakness. Hayden’s weakness is women.

Fortunately the plan really is fool-proof. Everything goes off like clockwork. When it comes to the final stretch, taking Gunderman’s money, it will be smooth sailing. They hope.

When fictional criminals have a plan for a perfect crime you just know something is going to go wrong. And of course it does. For our two grifters it then it becomes a question of trying to at least stay out of prison. They improvise another plan. Whether it will work or not is another matter.

Block describes the grift in great detail and it’s a delight to read. The intricate process of laying out the bait for Gunderman and then playing him along just right is fascinating.

This is definitely noir fiction, or at least fiction with noirish tinges, although the noirness isn’t entirely obvious in the early stages.

Hayden is a professional and he’s an artist when it comes to a con. He’s also a man with a dream. He’s a perfect noir protagonist. He’s a rogue but he’s totally non-violent and he’s likeable and he’s just trying to pull off one last big score and we can’t help wanting him to succeed.

Evvie might be an amateur but seeing her in action is a joy. She’s an astonishingly gifted amateur and she knows all the tricks when it comes to stringing along a man like Gunderman.

I’m not going to tell you anything about the ending except that I liked it a lot.

The Girl with the Long Green Heart is wildly enjoyable and is highly recommended. It's been reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Frank Belknap Long's Mission to a Distant Star

Mission to a Distant Star is a short science fiction novel by Frank Belknap Long which appeared in Satellite Science Fiction in February 1958 and was later published in book form.

Frank Belknap Long (1903-1994) was an American writer in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. He was part of Lovecraft’s circle of friends and correspondents and he contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos.

Mission to a Distant Star is a first contact story and an alien invasion story, although whether it’s a conventional alien invasion story is not at first clear.

The novel is set at some unspecified time in the not-too-distant future. At one point there’s a reference to a battered old 1987 model car. Seven years before the events described in the novel the Scorpions arrived on Earth. The Scorpions are alien but they are very very human-like, in appearance at least. They make a request that they be allowed to stay and to move around freely. They back up their request with a demonstration of their power, by vaporising an uninhabited island. Their request is, not surpisingly, granted.

The Scorpions prove to be friendly and harmless. People learn to take them for granted, and even to like them.

The US Government isn’t entirely convinced and Jim Lawrence is given the job of travelling to his home town, Quarry Hill, in Vermont. There’s a damaged Scorpion spaceship there, which the Scorpions are repairing. An old man wandered too close to the stricken spaceship. Now he’s suffering from a kind of amnesia but he’s also now very happy. He has never been so cheerful and content. The Bureau doesn’t like the sound of that, hence Lawrence’s mission.

The Scorpions have taken in a young human woman named Ruth. They didn’t abduct her. She has joined them entirely voluntarily. Ruth has always been a troubled young woman and the Scorpions tell her that they can help her. They are extremely interested in her. They do not understand why so many humans lack joy in their lives. They want to understand this mystery. As we will later discover they have their reasons for being concerned about this problem.

Whether the Scorpions are benign or malevolent remains in doubt until the end of the story. Eventually the action moves to their home planet and we discover just how strange and disturbing their culture is. We discover that the Scorpions are both very human and very non-human.

This book is more concerned with psychology than with action. In fact there’s virtually no action at all. Up until the ending this is a rather interesting tale. Then we get the ending and that’s where disaster strikes. This novel has possibly the worst ending I have ever encountered in a science fiction story. It’s cringe-inducingly bad. It’s the sort of ending that makes one want to hurl the book across the room.

The ending is so bad that even though there’s a lot to admire in this novel I cannot in all conscience recommend it.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with J.F. Bone’s rather good novella Second Chance in yet another of their excellent two-novel paperback editions. Armchair Fiction are to be congratulated for coming up with so many intriguing and often genuinely excellent obscurities for this series. I’ve bought a stack of these Armchair Fiction editions and Mission to a Distant Star is the first significant disappointment I’ve encountered.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Florence Stonebraker’s Three Men and a Mistress

Florence Stonebraker’s Three Men and a Mistress is a sleaze novel published in 1950, but you have to remember that a sleaze novel of 1950 is very different from a sleaze novel of 1960. Early 50s sleaze novels were very tame indeed. Many were were basically steamy romances.

Florence Stonebraker (1896-1977) was a prolific American writer of both straightforward romance fiction and sleaze fiction. Her sleaze novels were romances that added hints of sleaziness and a lot of melodrama and accepted that sex was a part of romance. That was enough to make a book like Three Men and a Mistress scandalous in 1950.

Sue Harris was brought up in the very staid very respectable very stuffy little town of Bradmont. She was about to jump into bed with her boy friend Frankie Stolter when her father walked in. He accused Sue of being a slut and threw her out of the house. What rankled for Sue was the she never had the chance of actually doing anything. She was labelled a tramp when in fact she was still a virgin.

Sue decided she had had enough of her father and enough of Bradmont. She headed for the big city. For a while she really was a tramp, until she met millionaire Texan Luke Wilson. She is now Luke’s mistress but they have settled down into cosy domesticity and Sue is entirely faithful to him.

Five years later she returns to her home town when she is told that her father is broke. She wants to help him out financially, not out of love but out of revenge. She loves the idea that her father will have to accept financial help from his now very rich tramp daughter.

Sue decides to celebrate her return home by looking up Frankie Stolter. She wants to find out if she still has the hots for him. She discovers that she no longer feels anything at all for him. She is also reunited with her sister Retta. The two sisters have always hate one another and that hatred has grown even more intense. Retta is outwardly respectable but she is a liar and a hypocrite.

Then comes Sue’s fateful meeting with aspiring actor Dick Durant. He is shallow, vain, selfish, stupid and vicious but terribly good looking and she falls head over heels in lust, and in love, with him. Sue’s stable happy world is about to become a messy nightmare. Especially when the action moves to California (where Dick is aiming for stardom in Hollywood).

As is the case with other early 50s sleaze novels there is plenty of sex happening between the characters but it all takes place offstage as it were. On the other hand sex is certainly a major motivating force for the various characters.

It’s not the only motivation. Retta is driven by spite and jealousy. Dick Durant is driven by lust, but much more strongly by selfishness and ambition. Luke was initially drawn to Sue by sex but he has fallen genuinely in love with her.

Sue’s motivations are complicated. Sex plays a part but she’s also driven by a sense of restlessness, a certain amount of self-doubt and to a considerable degree by unrealistic expectations. There’s a definite streak of self-destructiveness as well.

What really made books like this scandalous was that they didn’t necessarily demonise women like Sue. Sue is not demonised at all. She thinks of herself as a bad girl but she isn’t really. She has some growing up to do. Her judgment as far as men are concerned could use some improvement. Most all she needs to figure out what she really wants from a man, and she needs to realise that she is entitled to happiness.

She does evolve as the story progresses, shedding a few illusions and learning more about herself. The question is whether she can learn enough in time to avert disaster.

This is romantic melodrama but with at least some emotional complexity.

The reader will find Sue exasperating at times but it’s impossible to dislike her. She makes mistakes because she’s human, and because people do allow sex to cloud their judgment.

This book doesn’t have much of an axe to grind. It does take a few swipes at small-town hypocrisy and at Hollywood shallowness but for the most part it’s blessedly free of heavy-handed social commentary or moralising. The total lack of moralising is particularly welcome.

On the whole Three Men and a Mistress is an enjoyable read if you enjoy romantic melodrama. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have reprinted this novel in paperback in their Scandalous Classics series.

I’ve also reviewed Stonebraker’s excellent Reno Tramp as well as Flesh Is Weak (which is also pretty good).

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Modesty Blaise: The Hell-Makers

The Titan Press volume The Hell-Makers contains three of Peter O’Donnell’s fairly early Modesty Blaise comic-strip adventures. At this stage Jim Holdaway was still doing the artwork.

I’ve written at length on the subject of Modesty Blaise as a character in previous reviews. Suffice to say that I’m a major fan. Modesty Blaise was like a breath of fresh air in the world of British comics when the strip made its debut in 1963. Like its heroine it was exciting and sexy and stylish and totally in tune with the mood of Swinging London.

Modesty Blaise is in the great tradition of criminals turned amateur crime-fighters and she bears at least a passing resemblance to the greatest of all such literary characters, The Saint. As well as fighting crime Modesty dabbles in espionage and counter-espionage on a strictly freelance basis. Modesty is always her own boss.

The three adventures in this volume originally appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1968 and 1969.

The Galley Slaves

In The Galley Slaves Modesty and her crimefighting partner (but not lover) Willie Garvin are guests on a yacht in the South Pacific but they’re bored so they get themselves put ashore on a tiny island. The island is not very far from Tahiti. Willie is sure they can easily build a raft to reach Tahiti.

While taking a break from raft-building they notice something unusual heading for their island. It’s a Roman trireme filled with Roman legionaries. Of course it turns out that somebody is making a movie.

Other things are happening in this South Seas paradise. The Americans have misplaced a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. It’s a drone submarine and they think somebody stole it. Modesty and Willie know who stole it - an old friend of theirs from their criminal days. A man named Lim. And Modesty owes Lim a big favour. Modesty never forgets a debt.

The submarine was not the real prize. What Lim was after was the telemetry system which made the drone submarine operable. And that system is a lot easier to hide than a submarine. It could be hidden anywhere. It may be necessary to negotiate with Lim and the possibility of a double-cross is very real.

There’s a fine action climax on board the trireme. A good story.

The Red Gryphon

In The Red Gryphon Modesty is in Venice with her new boyfriend Max, a young Italian architect. Max is restoring a palazzo on an island for a client. The client bought he island from Count Alborini. Modesty’s chance encounter with two cute but larcenous orphan children indirectly leads to a discovery by Alborini. There is something on that island, something worth killing for. There’s a connection with a huge statue of a gryphon.

And murder does indeed soon follow. Modesty and Willie have to foil Alborini’s plans, but Alborini is ruthless and has a team of rather nasty thugs in his employ.

This story has (as usual) some fine action scenes and it makes good use of the Venetian setting. Another solid story.

The Hell-Makers

The Hell-Makers starts with Willie Garvin stopping to help a distressed young woman by the side of a highway in Montana. Willie doesn’t know it yet but he just made a big mistake. Somebody intends to use Willie as the ammunition in an attempt to blackmail Modesty as part of an espionage plot. It’s going to be a nightmare time for Willie.

Modesty makes an unlikely friend, learns a new way of climbing unclimbable cliffs, makes an unexpected visit to a naturist resort and gets some help from a couple of birds, of the feathered variety.

There’s also a great deal of gunplay, with Modesty in a ruthless mood. And Modesty faces a more personal battle as well. A very good story.

Final Thoughts

Three very fine adventures, with The Hell-Makers being particularly interesting in that it tells us a bit more about the strange relationship between Modesty and Willie. A great collection, highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of the Modesty Blaise novels - Modesty Blaise, Sabre-ToothI, Lucifer and Last Day In Limbo - as well as a couple of the earlier comic-strip collections - The Gabriel Set-Up and The Black Pearl.