Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Clifton Adams, Death’s Sweet Song

Clifton Adams (1919-71) had a very successful and prolific career as a writer of westerns but he also wrote a handful of noir novels, including Death’s Sweet Song in 1955.

Joe Hooper runs a fleabag motel in Creston, Oklahoma and he’s a loser who clings to the idea that one day he’ll be a winner. He knows that you don’t need talent or hard work to succeed. You just have to wait for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come along and have the guts to grab it. When that happens for Joe he’s going to have real money and he’s going to get the hell out of Creston, Oklahoma.

That opportunity seems to have arrived when the Sheldons rent Cabin Number 2. Joe knows there’s something odd about them because Karl Sheldon is driving a new Buick. No-one who can afford a new car would stay in a dump like Joe’s motel. Sheldon also has an obviously phoney story about car trouble.

What really catches Joe’s attention is Sheldon’s wife Paula. She’s a gorgeous blonde. Joe wants a woman like that almost as much as he wants money. Maybe more.

Joe’s lucky break comes when he overhears a conversation in the Sheldons’ cabin. They are planning a payroll robbery. They’re going to rob the Provo Box company, Creston’s biggest employer. The payroll has to amount to at least thirty grand.

Joe doesn’t have any real criminal intentions until he has sex with Paula Sheldon. Then a plan starts to take shape in his mind. He’s going to force Karl Sheldon to cut him in on the robbery. After that Joe figures that somehow or other he and Paula will find a way to leave Karl out in the cold and they’ll go off together. Paula has already told him that she doesn’t love her husband. Joe will have everything he has ever wanted.

Joe is cunning but his grasp on reality is a bit tenuous. He should have realised right at the start that this blonde was going to be trouble. There were plenty of warning signs. It was obvious that there were things she wasn’t telling him about herself and about Karl. But Joe is so obsessed by Paula that he misses every single one of those warning signs.

The robbery is an attractive proposition. It will be a pushover. Of course in the world of noir fiction robberies that seem too easy never quite turn out that way. This time there’s a slight hitch, which means there’s a body to dispose of. Another hitch happens later.

Joe still thinks that everything will be OK and soon he’ll have Paula Sheldon.

Joe Hooper is the kind of guy who relies a lot on wishful thinking and he doesn’t think things through. And with Paula’s willing body to think about it he really isn’t thinking about anything else. He’s one of those guys who isn’t really evil but he’s weak and he’s greedy and he’s a sucker for glamorous blondes.

Paula is a classic femme fatale and poor Joe just can’t see that she’s a woman who uses sex ruthlessly to get what she wants. There’s also a slightly more complicated side to her. She isn’t completely rotten and corrupt. Things might have been easier had that been that case. She has more complex motivations which Joe just can’t fathom.

This is rural noir, with typical noir passions running amok in a small town. Small towns in which everybody knows everybody else can turn into nightmare noir worlds just as easily as the mean streets of the meanest big city. The desperation of dead-end life in a dead-end town is palpable.

The violence is very low-key. There’s lots of sexual tension and there’s lots of paranoid atmosphere and desperation.

It’s a classic noir plot but it’s nicely constructed and the very effective very noir ending hinges on something that Joe could never have anticipated.

The relationship between Joe and Paula is full of deceptions and contradictions. Joe can’t figure out if he loves her or hates her. Joe is a mess. His feelings about almost everything are confused. All three main characters are a bit more than just noir fiction stereotypes. They’re complicated people who don’t always fully understand why they do the things they do.

This is a fine noir novel and it’s highly recommended.

The Stark House Noir paperback edition also includes Adams’ first noir novel, Whom Gods Destroy.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

John W. Campbell's Beyond the End of Space

Beyond the End of Space is a 1933 science fiction novel by John W. Campbell.

John W. Campbell (1910-1971) was a reasonably prolific science fiction author in the 1930s but his main contribution to the genre was as an editor. He was editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971. He did a great deal to encourage a more serious approach to the genre and was arguably the moist important science fiction editor of the 20th century. His early fiction however was more in the space opera mould.

Beyond the End of Space is clearly set at some point in the fairly near future. Ran Warren is working on a major research project at a university. He is working on the annihilation of matter and hopes to unlock limitless power. The result of his project is a minor earthquake but he is sure he is on the right track. He believes that he has not actually annihilated matter but sent it to another universe.

At this point intrigue within the corporate world and the scientific world takes a hand. A tycoon named Nestor wants to get his hands on Warren’s project. Nestor employs another brilliant but far less ethical physicist named Atkill to try to replicate Warren’s results. Nestor has double-crossed Warren and Atkill intends to double-cross Nestor.

At stake is world domination. The discovery has the potential to give Nestor control of the world but he is not the only one who seeks such power.

Warren allies himself with another tycoon, Putney. For various reasons Warren has decided that he needs to build a highly advanced spaceship (the Prometheus) to continue his research in space. His enemies bomb his laboratory but Warren, Putney and a few associates make their escape in the Prometheus but where have they escaped to? Wherever they are they are no longer in the known universe.

The book becomes a bit of a political thriller crossed with a crime thriller (with gangsters) and a space opera. There’s quite a bit of action throughout and we get a decent spaceship battle at the end.

In 1933 people were very excited by Einstein’s theories, by quantum mechanics and the promise of atomic power and Campbell taps into these obsessions. He takes the science stuff in fairly outlandish directions and there’s plenty of technobabble but I enjoy that sort of stuff. And the science stuff is amazingly convoluted and bizarre.

In 1933 it was believed that atomic power would be able to do truly extraordinary things. In the future everything would be atomic-powered. In the novel Warren’s discovery is expected to revolutionise the world. Nobody will ever have to work. It will be utopia, but if the discovery falls into the wrong hands it could just as easily be a dystopia, with a handful of ruthless men in control of government and of every industry.

Most of the characters are standard pulp science fiction types although Atkill is a bit more complex, and Warren is an interesting portrait of an obsessed scientist, albeit obsessed in a good way.

Campbell’s prose is serviceable rather than dazzling but he keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

Beyond the End of Space is very much of its time, but that’s why I love the science fiction of earlier eras. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Campbell’s famous 1938 novella Who Goes There? (adapted for film in 1951 as The Thing from Another World and by John Carpenter in 1982 as The Thing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Lawrence Block's A Diet of Treacle (Pads Are for Passion)

Lawrence Block wrote Pads Are for Passion in 1961 under the name Sheldon Lord. It was republished by Hard Case Crime in 2011 as A Diet of Treacle. For convenience I will henceforth refer to it as A Diet of Treacle.

Sheldon Lord was a pseudonym used by Block for the many sleaze novels he wrote before finding fame as a crime writer. The book was published by Beacon Books who published a lot of sleaze fiction, but it’s not really sleaze fiction. You could call it beatnik noir.

When the subject of beatniks was approached by writers of film-makers in the late 50s or early 60s it was usually done either in a mockingly humorous way or treated as a kind of social disease. Block’s approach was much darker and much more interesting.

Even in his late 1950s and early 1960s sleaze books, churned out very quickly, it was obvious that Block was a very fine writer. It takes a while for the noirness to become evident in A Diet of Treacle but when it does it has a real kick to it.

It’s obvious that Block was not exactly an unabashed admirer of the beatnik subculture.

Shank and Joe live in a squalid apartment in Greenwich Village. Shank supports them both by selling pot. Shank is a 27-year-old Korean War vet and his experiences in that conflict left him drifting hopelessly and aimlessly. He is filled with self-hatred. He knows his lifestyle is pointless and empty but he doesn’t think he can do anything about it. Shank is much younger (about 20) and quite a bit meaner. He ran with a teenage gang for a while. He carries a switchblade and enjoys terrorising women with it.

Joe meets Anita Carbone in a coffee shop. They don’t seem likely to be compatible. Joe is Hip while Anita is strictly squaresville. They sleep together and Anita decides to move in.

Anita is both fascinated and repelled, and a bit frightened, by the beat culture. It takes her a while to become Hip. At first she’s so square she won’t even smoke pot but that soon changes.

Shank knows he has a narcotics cop after him but he thinks he can handle the situation. He is wrong of course.

The noir flavour then really starts to bite. The trio end up on the run but they’re pathetically helpless and it doesn’t seem likely that they will succeed in running very far.

Shank is just a nasty little punk although in the book’s later stages he doesn’t behave in quite the way you might be expecting.

Anita tries hard to be Hip but it never quite works. She had been a nice Italian girl destined to marry a nice Italian boy and she can quite shake off her guilt about her new sex and drugs lifestyle. She would probably have soon drifted away from the whole beatnik scene had she not started to fall in love with Joe.

Joe is the most interesting character. He thinks he’s having an existential crisis but really it’s mostly self-pity and self-loathing. His problems also stem to a large extent from a basically weak personality. He’s quite a few years older than Shank but he allows himself to be dominated by the young punk. It’s not that he’s scared of Shank. He just doesn’t like the idea of making decisions for himself.

You expect a novel about beatniks to focus heavily on coffee shops, beat poetry readings and adolescent existentialist philosophising. You expect lots of characters who think they’re poets or artists. Block however focuses on the seamy squalid miserable side of the subculture. Weak aimless people drifting through life in a drug haze.

There is a decent enough crime plot here which eventually becomes the novel’s primary focus.

As always Block writes extremely well. He had spent some time in the late 50s on the fringes of the Greenwich Village Hip subculture so his portrayal of that subculture is probably a bit more brutally accurate than the portrayals offered by most writers. It’s also mercifully free of the pretentiousness of the work of actual Beat writers.

In his Sheldon Lord books Block treats emotional complications in quite a sensitive way, something that is evident in this novel.

There is something about the ending that throws a lot of readers but I’ll let you find out about it on your own.

A Diet of Treacle is an offbeat kind of book but it works and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed a couple of Block’s other Sheldon Lord books, Born To Be Bad and Kept both of which I liked a great deal), as well as another early book he wrote using the pseudonym Don Holliday, Borderline (AKA Border Lust).

Saturday, November 18, 2023

John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto Is So Sorry

Mr Moto Is So Sorry, published in 1938, was the fourth of John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto spy novels.

Between 1937 and 1939 eight Mr Moto movies were made, all starring Peter Lorre. The Mr Moto of the movies differs somewhat from the Mr Moto of the books. In the movies Moto is an international policeman, a Japanese Interpol agent. In the books he is a Japanese spymaster.

Which is not to suggest that Mr Moto is the villain of the books. Far from it. When the first four Moto novels were published the U.S. and Japan were at peace. There were tensions but there were all sorts of international tensions during the 1930s. In the Far East those tensions involved not just the U.S., China and Japan but other powers including the Russians and the French. Mr Moto is loyal to Japan but he is by no means hostile to America or Americans.

In the novels various Americans get themselves mixed up in international intrigue in various parts of Asia. Mr Moto is always on the scene somewhere. His first priority is always his duty to the Emperor but he usually ends up extricating those various Americans from awkward situations.

Calvin Gates is in an awkward situation. He is a young America anthropologist on his way to join the Dilbreth Expedition in Mongolia. At least he claims to be an anthropologist. He has reasons for preferring to be in Mongolia rather than home in the States. Those reasons involve a misunderstanding about a cheque, a misunderstanding about which the American police might be inclined to be tiresome.

On the ship from Japan to Korea Gates meets a young American woman, Miss Dillaway. She is heading for Dilbreth’s expedition as well. She is an artist and her job will be to make drawings of the finds made by the expedition. Miss Dillaway is young, beautiful, fiercely independent and bad-tempered. She tells Gates to call her just Dillaway (she hates her Christian name which is Sibyl).

Gates also meets a very polite mild-mannered Japanese gentleman named Moto. Mr Moto assures him that he is not connected with the police but it is obvious that Moto has a surprising amount of influence. Officials defer to Mr Moto in a remarkably obsequious way.

Dillaway has in her possession a silver cigarette case with a rather attractive design featuring birds. It was given to her in odd circumstances. Someone wants that cigarette case. A man gets shot because of it.

Gates and Dillaway have no idea what the significance of the cigarette case is. Mr Moto knows, but Mr Moto is playing a very complex and very dangerous diplomatic game for the highest of stakes and he believes it’s best for the two young Americans to know as little as possible. The more they know the more likely they are to be killed.

An Australian ex-soldier named Hambly wants the cigarette case but Gates is not inclined to trust him. Hambly could be working for some government or he could be working for himself or, more likely, he could be planning to double-cross everybody.

The problem is that Gates has figured out that he and Dillaway are in danger if they have the cigarette case but they’re probably in just as much danger if they don’t have it.

The plot gets more and more complicated. The cigarette case is more than just a McGuffin. The meaning of that cigarette case is crucial to the plot.

The story builds to a remarkably tense finale in Mongolia. The losers in this game are not going to escape with their lives. A lot depends on how Gates plays things. He’s decided he’s sick of doing what other people tell him to do. He’ll make his own decisions. He knows how dangerous the game is but for the first time in his life he feels truly alive.

Mr Moto is not actually the protagonist in any of the novels but he’s always the most important character. He’s the one pulling the strings. He’s the catalyst for everything that happens. The other characters slowly come to realise how much they have underestimated him. Mr Moto doesn’t mind if people think he’s a fool. That can be a huge advantage for a secret agent. Mr Moto is a very dangerous very powerful man but he doesn’t like people to realise that.

There were all sorts of political factions within Japan in the 1930s and the political infighting was vicious and bloody. Mr Moto belongs to a moderate faction. He would prefer to see Japan’s political objectives achieved peacefully. He thinks violence is clumsy and unpleasant. He prefers subtle means. But he can still be very very dangerous.

Mr Moto is generally a very sympathetic character. He’s likeable even when he’s dangerous.

Gates makes a fine hero who slowly grows in stature as the story unfolds.

Mr Moto Is So Sorry is a top-notch spy thriller. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed other Mr Moto novels - Your Turn, Mr Moto (1936), Thank You, Mr Moto (1936) and Think Fast, Mr Moto (1937).

Monday, November 13, 2023

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #7 Gang Girls

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #7 is the Gang Girls issue, devoted to female juvenile delinquents. Which certainly sounds promising.

As usual with Men’s Adventure Quarterly this volume is beautifully presented and copiously illustrated. As a bonus there’s a photo feature on Mamie van Doren.

The Stories

The first two stories are in fact non-fiction exposés. The Vicious Girl Gangs of Boston by Henry S. Galus appeared in Man to Man in August 1954 while Wenzell Brown’s Tomboy Jungle appeared in For Men Only in November 1957. The hysterical tone is mildly amusing but these pieces are not all that interesting.

Zip-Gun Girl by Albert L. Quands was published in Man’s Illustrated in September 1958. It’s a condensed version of a novel which might be why it seems a bit messy and complicated. An ex-con named Lou Jackson and his daughter Pebbles (yes her name is Pebbles) arrive in the city but they get a lot of aggravation from neighbours because of Lou’s prison record. Pretty soon Pebbles is unpopular as well, both her and her father being suspected of snitching to the cops.

Pebbles is desperate to join one of the two local warring gangs, the Tigers and the Buccaneers. It’s not easy for a girl to join a gang while keeping her virtue intact which is what Pebbles hopes to do (this was 1958 so the heroine has to remain virginal). Pebbles has a plan - to form an all-girl gang. Meanwhile an idealistic cop is trying to save her and transform her into a good girl. It’s an OK story.

Jack Smith’s Street Queens Are Taking Over is from the January 1962 issue of Wildcat Adventures. This one is fiction but presented as a true story written by a reporter who has gone undercover to join a teen gang. The leadership of teen gangs in the city is being taken over by girls, and they’re really mean really bad girls. Tougher than any of the boys. In this story the girl leading the gang seeks revenge on a girl who stole her boyfriend. Revenge, with a motorcycle chain used as a weapon.

A pleasingly trashy and quite hard-edged story.

Lust On Our Streets by Allan Hendrix appeared in Wildcat Adventures in September 1963. This one takes its inspiration from what was supposedly a trend at the time - instead of gangs engaging in large-scale rumbles a few gang members would pick a wealthy young couple as victims and lure them into an ambush which would end in robbery and brutal assault.

There’s hardly any actual story at all, with far too much time devoted to pompous pontificating by (almost certainly imaginary) experts. Rather boring.

The ‘Passion Angel’ Cycle Girls by Clinton Kayser appeared in Men for December 1967. This is another faux non-fiction exposé, purportedly made up of interviews with biker chicks and focusing entirely on their sex lives. The reader learns the difference between Old Ladies, Strange Chicks and Mamas. The article makes a vague attempt to analyse the girls’ motives. An amusing piece.

Cycle Queens of Violence by J.R. Wayne was published in Man’s Conquest in June 1970. Yet another non-fiction piece and also pleasingly hysterical.

Final Thoughts

The most fascinating thing about this volume is of course what it has to say about the juvenile delinquent hysteria of the period. This was an age, very much like our own, of rigid social control in which even the slightest deviation from accepted social norms was viewed with suspicion, hostility and paranoia. An age of endless moral panics.

These juvenile delinquent tales reinforce the paranoia whilst gleefully exploiting the shock value.

There’s plenty of amusement and entertainment here. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation is regarded as one of his best movies and is better remembered than Highsmith’s novel.

Both the novel and the movie start with the same setup. Two men, total strangers, meet on a train. Guy is an up-and-coming architect. Bruno is a self-pitying drunk. Guy has a huge problem with his wife Miriam. He wants a divorce so he can marry rich girl Anne Faulkner. Miriam isn’t just being difficult about the divorce, she is also deliberately sabotaging Guy’s career. After a few drinks Guy tells Bruno all his troubles and it’s obvious that as long as Miriam is alive Guy has no chance of either personal happiness or professional success.

Bruno hates his father. He believes his father is preventing him from getting his hands on money that Bruno believes is rightfully his. Bruno blames his father is responsible for all his problems. He would like to kill his father.

Bruno comes up with an ingenious plan. If he kills Guy’s wife and Guy kills Bruno’s father it would be a perfect murder setup. No-one would suspect either of them of killing someone with whom they had absolutely no connection. Guy dismisses the idea contemptuously. Unfortunately Bruno convinces himself that Guy really would like to have his wife murdered and since Bruno likes Guy he decides to do him a favour by killing Miriam.

In the Hitchcock movie this setup is used as the basis for one of the great suspense thriller movies. The novel however is not a suspense story. It falls into the category of the psychological crime novel, in which the author tries to take the reader inside the mind of a murderer. This is a type of crime fiction that I personally dislike. I’m not interested in incredibly detailed dissections of a murderer’s every single action and every single emotion and in this case Highsmith’s dissection is incredibly detailed and incredibly long-winded. I’m also always rather sceptical of the claims of this type of crime fiction to be psychologically realistic.

The key to Bruno’s character is that he has never grown up. He has never taken any adult responsibility and he has never had an adult emotional relationship. In fact he has never had a single adult inter-personal relationship with any person.

Bruno isn’t stuck in perpetual adolescence. He’s stuck permanently in early childhood. His fixation on his mother is what you would expect from an eight-year-old. His hatred of his father is a childish hatred. His feelings towards Guy are similarly childish. He develops a childish hero-worship of Guy. And Bruno has the extreme self-centredness of a small child.

Guy’s problem is his passivity. He drifts through his life without ever taking charge of it and he has a tendency to do what people want him to do.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the psychological motivations of Bruno or of Guy. I felt they were a bit muddled and stretched credibility a little. A bigger problem for me was that I really didn’t like either character and I found it difficult to feel any real investment in their fates.

The plot of the first half of the novel is almost identical to that of the movie but in the second half of the story the novel and the movie diverge radically.

This is also an inverted mystery in the sense that the mystery plot hinges not on the revelation of the identity of the murderer (which we already know) but on the means by which the crime is solved. In this case the solution comes about through a combination of a dogged private detective and a long series of mistakes on the part of the murderer. Even a perfect murder can go wrong if the murderer is careless and clumsy and reckless in the aftermath of the murder.

I’m hesitant to recommend this novel because I personally did not enjoy it very much at all, but I’m also hesitant about advising anyone to avoid it. If you enjoy psychological crime novels you might enjoy this one a lot more than I did.

I’ve reviewed Hitchcock’s film adaptation Strangers on a Train (1951).

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Robert Silverberg's Cosmic Kill

Robert Silverberg wrote Cosmic Kill for the April 1957 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. He had been given two days to write the novella and with the aid of handfuls of benzedrine tablets he made the deadline.

Lon Archman has been given a top-secret (and entirely illegal) mission by Earth’s Universal Intelligence Agency. He has to kill Darrien. Darrien is a brilliant renegade Earth scientist who has created a vast and powerful criminal empire on Mars.

In a seedy space bar on Mars Lon sees an opportunity. A blue-shelled Mercurian has just bought a beautiful near-naked human slave girl from two drunken black-tailed Venusians. The Mercurian, named Hendrin, intends to offer the girl as a gift to Darrien. Hendrin has his own sinister reasons to wanting to get close to Darrien and the slave girl, Elissa, is the means by which he intends to achieve that objective. Lon Archman quickly forms a plan by which he will use the girl to achieve his objective. He also hopes he’ll eventually be able to free her. Lon doesn’t like seeing Earth girls sold as slaves.

Getting into Darrien’s palace is just the first step. Even if he finds himself in Darrien’s presence he can’t be sure it will really be Darrien. The renegade scientist has created three robots in his own image. There is no way to tell the real Darrien from the robots. The only person who can do that is Darrien’s mistress Meryola.

Meryola isn’t too happy about Darrien’s pretty new slave girl. Meryola is a very jealous woman. She has already decided to have Elissa executed, on the grounds that the girl is just too pretty. Meryola does not tolerate rivals. Both Lon Archman and Hendrin have devised plans in which both Meryola and Elissa will play parts, not necessarily willingly and not necessarily with any understanding of the ways in which they will be manipulated.

Lon Archman and Hendrin might be able to work together but they cannot trust each other. Hendrin has his own agenda. He is working for the ruler of Mercury who wants Darrien’s scientific secrets. Once those secrets have been obtained he wants Darrien dead.

Neither of then can trust Meryola.

Lon, Hendrin and Elissa all find themselves in Darrien’s dungeon. Plenty of narrow escapes and mayhem follow. And lots of temporary alliances are formed, all practically certain to lead to double-crosses.

Lon Archman is a ruthless hero. He is an assassin and he’s not overly worried about leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. He really does hope to save Elissa but saving himself will be difficult enough. Assassinating Darrien is the priority and the Universal Intelligence Agency doesn’t care what he has to do to achieve that and they don’t care if he comes back alive. You might think that the Universal Intelligence Agency sounds a little bit like the Central Intelligence Agency, and you’d probably be right.

Armchair Fiction have published Cosmic Kill in one of their two-novel paperback editions, paired with John W. Campbell’s Beyond the End of Space. Silverberg provides a brief introduction to Cosmic Kill. He has a very refreshing attitude towards his early work. In the late 50s and early 60s his output was enormous. He wrote sleaze fiction, crime and men’s adventure fiction as well as pulp science fiction, all churned out at breakneck pace. He thoroughly enjoyed that early part of his career, he’s quite unembarrassed by those early stories and in fact has a certain fondness for them. He considers Cosmic Kill to be pulpy fun and he’s right.

As he explains in his introduction by 1957 everybody knew that the idea that the other planets in the solar system were inhabited was scientific nonsense but Cosmic Kill was supposed to be a sequel of sorts to a 1951 novella by Paul W. Fairman and that novella included Martian, Mercurians, Venusians and Plutonians so Cosmic Kill had to have those things as well.

Cosmic Kill is an enjoyable little science fiction action potboiler. It’s very pulpy but it’s supposed to be. Silverberg knew what his editor wanted - fast-paced action with lots of exotic aliens and robots plus naked slave girls. That’s what Silverberg provides and he does it with plenty of energy and the results are satisfying. Recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Norman Lindsay's A Curate in Bohemia

Norman Lindsay is (in my opinion) the only truly great painter Australia has ever produced. Lindsay was also a very successful writer. A Curate in Bohemia, published in 1913, was his first novel.

The Rev. James Bowles is about to depart for Murumberee to take up his first curacy but before doing so he makes the fateful decision to look up his old school chum Cripps. The young curate finds himself in the world of pre-WW1 Melbourne arty Bohemia.

Cripps and his friends are art students. Their idea of the pursuit of art is centred around talking about painting rather than actually painting, but mostly it’s centred around beer, tobacco and girls. The curate does not drink nor does he smoke. He is however a young man who always takes the path of least resistance and he is easily persuaded that one drink would do no harm. One drink having produced no great ill-effects he decides to have another. And another.

He wakes up the next morning with his finances sadly depleted but with happy memories of conviviality and even happy memories of long conversations with Florrie, Florrie being an artist’s model who poses for Cripps.

The curate has more convivial evenings. His finances are even more sadly depleted. And somehow he has still not managed to get himself to the railway station to take that train to Murumberee.

Bowles soon discovers that he rather likes beer and he rather likes girls as well. And the reader discovers that the curate doesn’t exactly have a strong vocation as a clergyman. He just drifted into it as a result of his usual practice of taking the line of least resistance.

Matters will come to a head when Cripps decides that his old school chum simply must have a grand send-off party before entraining for Murumberee. Paying for the party will be the challenge. The art students are all broke. They are always broke. Cripps somehow manages to scrape up enough money for the alcohol for the party but he has to adopt desperate and unorthodox measures to provide the food. As a result of those desperate measures he has the law after him.

An ingenious expedient is adopted to keep Cripps out of gaol and that expedient will have consequences for the hapless would-be curate of Murumberee. And things become steadily more farcical and more delightfully absurd.

The book is to some extent autobiographical, with Lindsay admitting that one of the art students, Partridge, is a thinly veiled version of himself.

A Curate in Bohemia is totally outrageous and filled with the vitality and joie de vivre that also infused his paintings. It expresses Lindsay’s love of the sensual pleasures life has to offer. It’s an extremely funny novel. Lindsay might be poking fun at the clergy but he’s deriving just as much enjoyment poking fun at himself and at the world of artistic Bohemia. He also has some fun with the terribly serious debates among the art students about the latest artistic theories.

Lindsay spent his whole life battling those who would censor art and literature. He was always controversial and he relished controversy.

I’ve also reviewed Lindsay’s wonderful 1938 novel Age of Consent which, along with several of his other novels, was banned in Australia.

A Curate in Bohemia was one of five Lindsay novels adapted by ABC Television in the early 1970s but tragically not one of those TV adaptations survives.

A Curate in Bohemia is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.