Sunday, December 31, 2023

Rogue Planet by E.C. Tubb (Space: 1999 TV tie-in novel)

E.C. Tubb’s Rogue Planet, the ninth of the Space: 1999 TV tie-in novels, published in 1977. It is an original novel, not a novelisation of episodes from the TV series. It’s based on Year One of the TV series.

It captures the feel of the TV series extremely well.

Fans of the TV series will enjoy this one and it's a pretty decent science fiction novel in its own right.

My full review can be here at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Richard E. Geis's Like Crazy, Man

Like Crazy, Man is a 1960 sleaze novel by Richard E. Geis. It was his debut novel. It belongs to the small but fascinating beatsploitation genre.

Jeff (who narrates the tale) is the advertising manager for a department store in Portland, Oregon. At the novel opens he’s in California, in Venice Beach, looking for his wife Dawn. She ran off with a lesbian and now she’s living among the beatniks. It wasn’t a happy marriage but Jeff needs to get her back. His boss only employs married men. If he has no wife he has no job.

This is a fish out of water story. Jeff is a square and he finds the beatniks bewildering.

His efforts to get Dawn back get off to a bad start. Her butch girlfriend beats him up. He gets drunk, which is his standard response to setbacks.

He spends the night with a soft-hearted hooker named Shirley who offers him a freebie and a place to stay. He’s grateful for both. He’s such a square he had no idea she was a hooker. He also had no idea that she had a lesbian girlfriend, Lena. Lena does not like men and she does not like Jeff.

Jeff movies into an apartment house full of beatniks. They get him high. He gets drunk again. He gets seduced by a crazy sexually insatiable beatnik chick named Rill.

All of this is not helping him to regain his wife. A wild beatnik party doesn’t help either.

Jeff’s life spirals out of control. Squares like Jeff can’t dig the beat scene at all.

Dealing with beatniks and lesbians is enough of a nightmare for Jeff but he also has to face up to his very conflicted feelings about his wife. He isn’t sure he really wants her back. And in the space of a couple of days he sleeps with Shirley, Rill, Lena and Rosemary. They’re all complicated women with their own issues to deal with getting sexually involved with any of them is not exactly conducive to Jeff’s psychological or emotional stability.

The crazy world of the beat scene has also unleashed Jeff’s wild side. He’s not sure he can deal with some of the things he’s done. He feels there’s no way out for him.

Jeff is not exactly a likeable protagonist. His biggest problem is the booze but when he starts thinking about that he needs a drink. He is not a happy drunk.

Neither the squares nor the beatniks come out of this story looking good.

It was a common practice for sleaze writers (and exploitation film-makers) in that era to include a square-up that seemed to come down strongly on the side of traditional morality. Like Crazy, Man certainly appears to condemn deviant behaviour but it didn’t do the author any good. Like a lot of writers, publishers, editors, artists and photographers at that time he found himself prosecuted for obscenity, almost went to prison and was persecuted by the US Government for several years.

Richard E. Geis also wrote lesbian sleaze novels under the name Peggy Swenson and then went on to write some really outrageous stuff which suggests that the apparent championing of traditional morality in Like Crazy, Man was simply an attempted square-up. I believe that Geis wrote other beatsploitation novels as well.

There are elements in this novel which will have some modern readers foaming at the mouth in rage, but I can’t reveal what those other elements are without revealing crucial spoilers.

Like Crazy, Man is a reasonably entertaining entry in an oddball genre. Recommended.

Stark House have included this novel in their three-novel paperback volume A Beatnik Trio.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Marvin H. Albert's The Gargoyle Conspiracy

The Gargoyle Conspiracy is a 1975 thriller by Marvin H. Albert.

Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) was a prolific American genre writer who wrote westerns, private eye thrillers and adventure thrillers under various pseudonyms from the early 50s to the mid-90s. The Gargoyle Conspiracy was one of the few books published under his own name. It’s a thriller about a terrorist plot, a very topical choice of subject matter in the mid-70s. Most of Albert’s books are pulp fiction, but very superior pulp fiction.

The Gargoyle Conspiracy is much more ambitious. This is Albert trying to do a Frederick Forsyth. There’s the same emphasis on meticulous research and on creating a very detailed and realistic background for the story.

The novel begins with a bungled terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner. The bomb explodes prematurely in the airport terminal, killing five people. A renegade Moroccan named Ahmed Bel Jahra planned the operation and its failure could mean the loss of Libyan support for his future plans. Those future plans involve the takeover of the Moroccan government. Bel Jahra knows his only chance is to come up with another operation so tempting that the Libyans will be unable to refuse to support him. Quite by accident he discovers a perfect opportunity. King Hussein of Jordan (hated by Arab guerrilla groups) and the American Secretary of State will be attending a party given by an ageing but famous artist on the Riviera. And Bel Jahra is confident that both these men can be assassinated. A lot of other people will have to be killed as well, but that doesn’t bother Bel Jahra.

Simon Hunter is a former cop now working for the State Department and he becomes obsessed with finding the man behind that attempt to blow up an airliner. Slowly Hunter becomes convinced that he has stumbled onto something really big.

The novel constantly intercuts between the two plot strands, Bel Jahra’s elaborate planning for that double assassination and Hunter’s patient painstaking efforts to prevent the terrorist coup.

Both plot strands are incredibly complex and detailed. Hunter has a few allies. There’s an ex-CIA man by the name of Shamsky, now fallen on hard times. And there are various unofficial contacts that Hunter has in various European police forces. As the evidence mounts that something big really really is in the wind he gets some assistance from other sources, such as the Israeli security service Mossad. But Hunter cannot rely on help from official channels in Europe. European governments totally reliant on Arab oil do not want to be seen as being openly opposed to Arab guerrilla groups.

Simon Hunter is a cop. He isn’t worried by the frustrations of routine police work. He knows that most of the leads he gets will turn out to dead ends but that’s something that a detective just has to accept. As each lead goes nowhere he turns to the next lead. He knows that if he follows up enough leads he must eventually get a break. His main problem is that he knows he doesn’t have much time but he has no way of knowing just how little time he might have. The evidence he has is tenuous but he is sure that a very major terrorist attack is on the way and he is fairly sure that the target is somewhere on the Riviera.

It all build to a satisfyingly nail-biting ending. Hunter still has nothing definite to go on and the clock is ticking.

Bel Jahra is breathtakingly ruthless. He is driven more by ambition than fanaticism. He wants power and terrorism is just a means to an end. He’s a character without any real depth but he does at least have plausible motivations.

Hunter is a man who has been without purpose since his wife’s tragic death a couple of years earlier. He’s a good cop doing his job but the reason for his obsession with this case (a reason he himself doesn’t fully understand) is that he needs to regain a sense of purpose in his life. He is acting most of the time without official sanction but he’s willing to risk his career. He has to crack this case. There’s nothing else in his life that matters. So there’s at least some complexity to his character.

The first few chapters drag a bit but that’s unavoidable. It’s not the kind of story that is going to draw the reader in unless a fair amount of background information is provided. As the novel progresses it picks up steam and the latter part of the story is fast-paced and effectively suspenseful. There are only a few action scenes but they’re expertly handled.

The book’s main strength is the slow accumulation by Hunter of an incredible number of tantalisingly vague clues which are like countless pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that he somehow needs to assemble into a picture that makes sense, with the added complication that a lot of those pieces end up meaning nothing. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that requires a hundred pieces but you find yourself with five hundred pieces and you have to figure which ones you actually need. If Hunter can’t put the right pieces together his career will be ruined and a lot of people will die. Albert handles this aspect of the story with consummate skill.

It really is very Frederick Forsyth-like and for once the cover blurb (comparing it to The Day of The Jackal) is accurate. Albert never did gain the immense success that Forsyth achieved but he had a long and very solid writing career.

The Gargoyle Conspiracy works extremely well. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed two of the very good Jake Barrow private eye novels written by Albert under the name Nick Quarry, The Girl With No Place To Hide and No Chance in Hell as well as two of the excellent adventure thrillers he wrote under the name Ian MacAlister, Driscoll’s Diamonds and Valley of the Assassins.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Theodore Roscoe's The Tower of Death

The Tower of Death is a collection of stories by Theodore Roscoe published in the pulp magazine Argosy in 1932. These are tales of the American curio hunter Peter Scarlet and the naturalist Bradshaw. They are tales of adventure in wild and exotic places, adventures laced with considerable dashes of horror.

Theodore Roscoe was one of the great pulp writers, best known perhaps for his Foreign Legion stories but everything he wrote is worth reading.

Bradshaw narrates the first story, The Last Battle. It concerns the final battle of the First World War, a very strange battle indeed fought on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The story begins in 1920, when an expedition sets out to collect specimens for museums. They encounter a small British outpost, entirely abandoned. This is strange and disturbing. They decide to strike out for a nearby Belgian outpost and it’s abandoned as well. Now things are getting really disturbing but the strangeness has only just begun. A fine story.

In Yankee Beware! Peter Scarlet is on a mouldering steamer on the Caspian Sea, skippered by a giant crazy scoundrel of a Russian named Rachmaninoff. The steamer is carrying a Moslem holy man and a group of Moslem pilgrims. The holy man tells a story Scarlet has heard many times before, the tale of Genghis Khan’s ghost and his fabulous lost emerald crown. Many have set out to find that emerald crown. None have returned. But thanks to some strange twists of fate the holy man promises Peter Scarlet that he will see Genghis Khan’s emerald crown.

As a result of the holy man’s promise Peter Scarlet will certainly see strange sights and be plunged into a wild and murderous adventure. A superb rousing tale of adventure, madness and horror.

It’s hard to imagine a greater horror than the one that faces Peter Scarlet in Tower of Death. The tower in question is a Parsee burial tower. The dead are exposed at the top of the tower where they are feasted upon by vultures.

It all starts in Turkestan when Scarlet wants to buy some pearls from a trader named Maqboul, a trader with an evil reputation. Maqboul and his henchman, the hunchback Hamid, have many deaths on their consciences, or they would if they had consciences. There is a suspicion that Maqboul was responsible for the disappearance of a British policeman named Smith. Scarlet and Smith had been very old friends and Scarlet would very much like to bring Smith’s killer to justice.

What Scarlet doesn’t know is that Maqboul has already marked him down for death. Maqboul intends to make no mistake. A reasonable enough plot but it’s the atmosphere of terror that makes it a very good story.

In The Killer of Kelantan Bradshaw the naturalist is in Malaya trying to capture a white elephant. A huge bad-tempered bull white elephant. After capturing him he will have to get the beast on board the ship. Dealing with the elephant is bad enough but Bradshaw soon has other more urgent things to worry about. This story has some terror but a slightly whimsical feel as well. It has the feel of a tall tale told to newcomers by old jungle hands. To some limited extent all of the Scarlet and Bradshaw stories have that feel but it’s much more overt in this tale. It’s a lot of fun.

The Emperor of Doom has shipboard setting. In Sumatra Peter Scarlet had received a threatening letter and had a shot fired at him, apparently an attempt to frighten him into giving up a jewel he had purchased. But Peter Scarlet doesn’t frighten easily, the jewel has been safely deposited in a bank and now he’s on a ship at sea and he feels he is quite safe. And he has his old friend Schneider, a fat Dutch planter, with him.

The voyage becomes a whirlwind of action, intrigue and murder. The murder was carried out by a black-bearded Moslem priest who promptly vanishes. The action just doesn’t let up in this story and Peter Scarlet finds himself in a very awkward situation. He has a puzzle to solve and if he doesn’t solve it his life won’t be worth two cents.

Roscoe uses the shipboard setting with great skill. A fast-paced clever and very exciting story.

The Scarlet and Bradshaw stories are absolute must-reads for all adventure fiction and pulp fiction fans. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Roscoe’s wonderful zombie mystery novel Z is For Zombie, his short story collection The Emperor of Doom as well as two earlier Scarlet and Bradshaw collections, Blood Ritual and The Ruby of Suratan Singh. I warmly recommend all these books.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry

Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry was published in 1951.

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was an American writer of science fiction and crime fiction.

There’s a brief prologue, in a tiny town in New Mexico. A young woman named Jenny Ames is pursued by a man with a knife. He catches her and kills her.

Eight years later George Weaver arrives in the same town. Weaver has no connection whatsoever with the murder, at least not yet. Weaver is still recovering from a breakdown brought up by overwork, alcohol and an unsatisfactory marriage. He wants peace and quiet, and a really cheap place to live for the summer. He finds a place that is incredibly cheap. It’s the house from which Jenny Ames was pursued to her death eight years earlier. No-one wants to live there, partly because of the murder.

Weaver’s pal Luke is a true crime writer. He’d tried to do a story on the Jenny Ames murder but there just wasn’t enough evidence to make for a good story. Luke suggests that if George gets really bored he might try digging up some details on the Jenny Ames case. If he comes up with enough for a story Luke will write it up and split the fee with him.

Weaver isn’t interested at first but then he really does get bored. And the Jenny Ames case is fascinating precisely because there was so little evidence. The sheriff was never able to find out if Jenny Ames really was the victim’s name. She was a mystery woman. No-one in town or in the nearby larger town of Taos knew anything about her. There was a suspect, a man named Nelson, but Nelson wasn’t his real name and he disappeared and was never traced. Nobody has any idea what the motive for the crime might have been.

One of the few things that is known is that it was a Lonely Hearts murder - the victim met her killer through a Lonely Hearts column in a magazine. That’s why Luke is hoping Weaver can can find out enough to justify a story. True crime magazines are eager for stories with a Lonely Hearts angle.

Weaver eventually decides he’d prefer to write the story himself.

Weaver’s wife Vi arrives on the scene, which doesn’t please him. They’re only staying together for the sake of their children. They have nothing in common.

Weaver becomes more and more obsessed by the Jenny Ames case. He thinks there’s a major piece of the puzzle missing, and the missing piece is Jenny herself. No-one knows what her real name was. No-one even knows what she looked like (her body wasn’t found until months after the murder). No-one knows where she came from. Or why she was murdered. Weaver feels that he has to find out who Jenny Ames really was and what she was like.

He does uncover a couple of angles that were overlooked at the time. They’re not exactly red-hot pieces of evidence, but they could lead somewhere. They’re tantalising hints.

Everyone assumes that the guy who called himself Nelson was the killer but Nelson is as much of a mystery as Jenny Ames. All that is known about him is that he wasn’t interested in women. His interests lay in another direction.

The entire focus of the novel is on George Weaver. He is not a particularly happy man. His marriage is a failure and he has no idea what he really wants to do with his life. He doesn’t want to go back to real estate. He drinks too much. He can’t concentrate enough to read a book. He tries painting but it fails to ignite his enthusiasm. He is a man looking for something without knowing what it is that he’s looking for. Maybe his interest in an eight-year-old murder is an attempt to find some meaning in his own life.

In that sense it can be seen as psychological crime novel, but with the focus on the psychology of the amateur detective rather than the killer.

There is certainly a puzzle to be solved, but it’s primarily a psychological puzzle.

And then we get the ending. It’s clever but rather contrived. It’s satisfying in some ways and unsatisfying in others. I wasn’t totally sold on the ending but I suspect that others will be more satisfied by it.

Psychological crime novels are not really my thing but there is a lot to be admired in this book. Recommended.

The Far Cry has been reprinted by Bruin in a two-novel paperback edition, paired with his excellent 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Henry Carew’s Vampires of the Andes

Henry Carew’s Vampires of the Andes is a lost world novel published in 1925.

Henry Carew is a very obscure author indeed. He wrote another novel called The Secret of the Sphinx, published in 1923. He was probably English. Beyond that I can tell you nothing about him.

The plot is rather convoluted and there are a lot of characters to keep track of but the ideas are undeniably interesting, if exceedingly weird and mystical.

An English archaeologist-explorer named Wootton discovers a strange apparently sacred block covered with inscriptions on an expedition to the Andes. He ships it back to England where he hopes his former teacher Professor Stevenson will be able to decipher the inscriptions. That proves to be quite difficult. They’re in a variety of ancient languages some of which defy translation. Making sense of what can be read is an even bigger challenge.

There are those in Peru who feel that the block belongs to them and that the inscriptions must not be deciphered. They are the key to an ancient mystery. It’s a mystery concerning people who trace their descent back to unimaginably old civilisations, perhaps more than ten thousand years old. The mystery involves an event that occurs once every thousand years. It has some connection to a legend concerning the sacrifice of seven maidens, a sacrifice that may also occur once every thousand years. The maidens end up drained of blood.

There seem to be several groups seeking possession of that sacred block, and those groups may possibly have quite different agendas.

Wootton is engaged to be married to a charming Peruvian girl named Quitu. There is some doubt about the girl’s parentage. She was found abandoned in odd circumstances. She was adopted by a respected and prosperous family, friends of both Professor Stevenson and Wootton. At that time the girl’s adoptive mother received an enigmatic warning concerning a great danger the girl would face at some time in the future.

There’s also a wicked priest who is involved in one of the conspiracies centred around that sacred block.

Those who want to gain possession of the sacred block also seem to be interested in gaining possession of Quitu.

There are also rumours that the vampires have returned. The nature of these vampires is mysterious unknown. There was a fabulous bird known as the Ara that was worshipped by those long-vanished civilisations mentioned earlier. The Ara might be connected with the vampires, or might even be the vampires.

There are a lot of puzzles that Wootton and Professor Stevenson will need to solve and while they know that the stakes are high they don’t know exactly what those stakes are. They really don’t know what they are dealing with. They’re not even sure that they’re dealing with something real. It might be mere legends. Wootton is driven on by his concern for Quitu’s safety. That’s a concern for the Professor as well but he is also driven by an insatiable desire to discover long-hidden secrets.

There’s likely to be plenty of danger and adventure in store for the protagonists. They’re up against formidable enemies. Those enemies might be evil, but that is by no means certain.

It seems that this is to be a story of thrilling adventure, but appearances can be deceptive. As the book progresses it becomes more and more concerned with metaphysical, quasi-religious, mystical and esoteric themes. The author throws just about every ancient legend and elements of just about every mythology into the mix. It’s all about secret knowledge and cosmic wisdom. It’s surprising that this book was not rediscovered back in the 70s. At a time when ancient astronauts, the Bermuda Triangle and psychic phenomena were all the rage it should have been a sensation.

If you enjoy that sort of thing then you’ll be in Seventh Heaven. If you don’t enjoy that sort of thing you’ll be bored out of your mind. You’ll just have to decide for yourselves if Vampires of the Andes is likely to be your cup of tea. It certainly wasn’t mine.

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

Friday, December 8, 2023

Orrie Hitt's Dial ‘M’ for Man

Dial ‘M’ for Man is a 1962 novel by Orrie Hitt. Hitt is usually described as a writer of sleaze fiction but most of his books would be more accurately described as noir fiction with some added sleaze. Dial ‘M’ for Man is almost pure noir fiction.

Hob Sampson runs a TV repair business in a small town. The business is doing pretty well. He has a nice girlfriend named Kathy.

Hob is a very ordinary sort of guy. He’s honest - he would never cheat a customer. He’s no intellectual but he’s far from dumb. He Iikes a few beers when he gets the chance but he definitely does not have a drinking problem. He hasn’t slept with Kathy because she’s a nice girl and nice girls don’t do that sort of thing. That doesn’t bother Hob too much. He’d like to sleep with her but he’s prepared to wait. In the meantime he occasionally picks up women in bars but he’s not really a lecher. You couldn’t call Hob a loser but he’s not really a winner either. Hob is the kind of guy destined for a very ordinary life.

Then two people change his life forever. The two people are Doris Condon and her husband Ferris. Ferris Condon is a very rich very crooked builder. Years earlier Hob’s father had been a building inspector who had caused Condon a lot of trouble. He even refused to accept bribes from Condon. Condon has nursed a seething resentment about this for years. He can’t strike back against Hob’s father but he can strike at Hob. He has decided to ruin Hob. And he can do it. Ferris Condon is the most important man in the town. If he decides to ruin your business there’s nothing you can do.

Doris Condon is another matter. Doris is a blonde and she’s about twenty-two. Her husband is around forty years older. He bought Doris. That’s what it amounted to. She hates him but she’s not going to walk away from all that money. She’s a girl who likes money and the things that money buys. She and her husband have a kind of arrangement. If she wants something expensive he buys it for her. If he doesn’t then he doesn’t get to share her bed.

The trouble with Doris starts when Hob calls at the luxurious Condon home to fix their TV set. Condon isn’t home but Doris is. She’s wearing a dress that reveals more than it conceals. What it reveals is pretty enticing. Doris has a body that takes Hob’s breath away. The second time he calls she’s taking a swim and she’s wearing nothing at all. Once Hob has seen Doris’s naked body he is helpless. He will do anything to have her.

There are other complications that suddenly arise in Hob’s life. Things have become very strained with Kathy, and then there’s his former business partner Ben. Ben really is a loser.

Hob is not stupid. He knows that getting involved in any way with Doris would be crazy. But then he starts thinking about that body of hers, and his judgment goes out the window. When she asks him to do something for her he agrees, even though he knows it’s insane.

The plot setup is classic noir fiction stuff although noir purists might not be entirely satisfied with some aspects. It’s worth pointing out that nobody in 1962 was consciously writing noir fiction because nobody in 1962 had even heard of noir fiction. Which means that no writer at that time had any idea that critics several decades later would come up with conventions with which they thought noir fiction should conform.

Hob is certainly a typical noir protagonist, a reasonably decent guy with one big weakness that leads him astray. In this case that weakness is blondes. There are several female characters and at least one qualifies pretty definitely as a femme fatale. The novel also takes it for granted that rich powerful men like Ferris Condon will weave a web of corruption around them.

Hitt’s characters have some complexity. Hob’s friend and former business partner Ben is dishonest and a loser but he has enough awareness of his own flaws to make him not entirely unsympathetic. Hob is tempted into doing things that he knows are wrong but he worries about it. He doesn’t want to do these things but somehow he finds himself doing them anyway and then he feels bad. The women characters mostly have motivations that seem to them to be entirely reasonable.

I’d be a bit dubious about describing this book as sleaze fiction. Characters in the book do have illicit sex but the sex takes place off-stage so to speak. There is however a somewhat sleazy atmosphere.

Dial ‘M’ for Man is typical Orrie Hitt and that’s no bad thing. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Sydney Horler's The Man Who Walked with Death

The Man Who Walked with Death is a 1941 spy thriller by Sydney Horler (1888-1954).

Englishman Horler (1888-1954) wrote 158 books. He was very popular in his day although critics hated his books. Since his death he has fallen into obscurity. In his 1971 book Snobbery With Violence Colin Watson was particularly scathing about him. As far as I’m concerned if Watson hated his books so much they can’t be all bad.

The Man Who Walked with Death is a wartime spy yarn and like so many such tales it is characterised by a tone of hysterical patriotism and paranoia.

This is one of a series of books featuring British spymaster Harker Bellamy, some of which also feature Bellamy’s ace agent Tiger Standish. Bellamy himself remains in the background for much of The Man Who Walked with Death but he is after all a spymaster rather than a field agent.

The book begins with an odd proposition being made to a man named Lorimer. An American intelligence agent named Tarleton wants Lorimer to impersonate him. This should be easy since the two men look remarkably alike (an excessive reliance on coincidence is something for which Horler has often been criticised). For some reason the proposal makes Lorimer uneasy and he refuses.

Shorty afterwards Lorimer is set on by a gang of thugs and while attempting to escape. He wakes up in hospital to find himself accused by British Military Intelligence of being a German spy named Schwarz. He then finds himself recruited as a British spy. He’s having a confusing if adventurous time.

Fortunately adventure is no stranger to Lorimer. Before the war he was a noted explorer well known for his expeditions in the jungles of Africa.

Lorimer has to pose as a German spy who is posing as an American. He thinks his deception is working but he can’t be sure. He thinks that his cook has her suspicions, and he has his own suspicions about her.

British Military Intelligence is trying to break a German spy ring which includes some very prominent people. There really was at this time (1940) an obsession that Britain was riddled with German spies.

This spy ring is planning a coup that will win the war for Germany overnight. It’s certainly an audacious plan. The spy ring is headed by a wealthy industrialist. He is not actually an Englishman. The idea of an Englishman turning traitor would have been too upsetting in 1941 so Horler goes to great lengths to make it clear that all of the German spies are really foreigners. This particular individual happens to be a close friend of the British Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not called Winston Churchill in this novel but obviously that’s who he is and Horler’s hero-worship of Churchill gets a tad embarrassing at times.

Lorimer is an amateur spy. He’s brave and resourceful but he isn’t always aware of what’s really going on.

There’s an intriguing subplot about a German resistance movement trying to overthrow Hitler. The movement is led by followers of Ernst Röhm, the Nazi SA leader liquidated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This adds a rather bizarre touch.

Horler was not a great writer but he was nowhere near as bad as his reputation would suggest. I’m not much of a fan of wartime spy thrillers but if that sub-genre does appeal to you then you might enjoy The Man Who Walked with Death. I think it’s worth a look.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of Horler’s Tiger Standish thrillers, Tiger Standish and Tiger Standish Comes Back. They’re trashy but quite entertaining.

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella by Henry James, is one of the most famous of all ghost stories. And a very complex ghost story it is.

A young woman, whose name we never learn, is offered a position as governess to two orphan children. Their uncle and guardian imposes an unusual condition. He does not want the governess to trouble him at any time on the subject of the children. She is to take complete charge of his house at Bly, and to take complete responsibility for the children.

Miles is ten and his sister Flora is two years younger. Miles has just arrived home from his boarding school for the holidays. Bly House is much more cheerful and comfortable than the governess had feared it would be and the children are adorable. Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, is kind and competent and the governess is sure that they will all get on splendidly.

The only fly in the ointment is a letter that has just arrived from the headmaster of the school. Miles has been expelled, and the headmaster has declined to give any reason. The governess is concerned but as soon as she meets Miles she realises that he is sweet innocent boy. She cannot believe he could have done anything very wrong.

All is well until the governess sees a man, a man on whom she has never before set eyes, standing on one of the two towers that form an odd part of the design of the house. Not long afterwards she is frightened by a man’s face peering in at a window. From her description Mrs Grose thinks that the man must resemble Peter Quint, but Peter Quint is dead. Peter Quint had been the children’s uncle’s valet and had for some time been placed in charge of the household at Bly.

There had been rumours of a scandal involving Peter Quint and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel is also dead. Nobody seems to want to talk about Peter Quint or Miss Jessel although Mrs Grose felt that Quint had been a bad influence on Miles. From what little Mrs Grose has to say on the subject it seems that there was a sexual relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel.

The new governess is deeply shocked by such goings-on. A short time later she sees Miss Jessel by the lake. She is certain that Flora has seen her as well although the child denies it.

The whole picture starts to become horrifyingly clear to the governess. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were evil and depraved and now they are reaching out from the grave to corrupt and destroy two innocent children. The children may already be partially corrupted. The governess must somehow save the children.

As the struggle of the governess against the forces of darkness for the souls of the children draws towards its climax several disturbing things will be obvious to the reader. No-one but the governess has seen the two ghosts. The governess has convinced herself that the children have seen the ghosts even though they deny it. She has become obsessed. And it will occur to the reader that perhaps the whole thing is the product of the governess’s overheated imagination. It might also occur to the reader that this woman’s certainty that she is dealing with evil forces may be the result of her horror at the thought that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were having sex. It might also be due to her own sexually repressed nature.

The governess could be a kind of unreliable narrator. She is certainly inclined to interpret every facet of the children’s behaviour as evidence of evil forces at work.

Of course there is also the possibility that it isn’t a delusion and that demonic forces are indeed targeting the children. James keeps us guessing right to the end.

I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens at the end but in fact you can’t really spoil the ending of this story. If you ask half a dozen scholars to explain the events of the last few pages they’ll be quite capable of giving you half a dozen explanations. It’s not just that there are two possibly ways of interpreting the story. There really are quite a few interpretations that can be put forward.

To add to the mystification no-one knows exactly how the author intended it to be interpreted. No-one is even sure if Henry James believed in ghosts. He had an interest in the subject but that does not imply belief. What does seem certain is that James was being deliberately ambiguous. That’s why the novella remains so fascinating.

It’s also undeniably disturbing, often in very subtle ways. Very highly recommended.