Friday, April 19, 2024

Modesty Blaise: Warlords of Phoenix

Warlords of Phoenix collects three Modesty Blaise comic-strip stories from the tail end of the 60s. If you’ve only read the Modesty Blaise novels (which are wonderful) I urge you to check out her comic-strip adventures which are also excellent.

Peter O’Donnell created the character in 1963. He wrote the comic strip until 2001. It became the last of its breed - the ongoing comic-strip story unfolding three panels at a time in a daily newspaper.

Halfway through the second story in this collection, Warlords of Phoenix, the strip’s original artist Jim Holdaway passed away. He was replaced by a Spanish artist, Enrique Badía Romero. The result was a very slight change in style, with Modesty’s appearance subtly changed.

It’s also noticeable that there’s just a bit more nudity compared to the earlier strips.

The 1969 story Takeover was the last to be drawn entirely by Jim Holdaway whose collaboration with O’Donnell went back to the 1950s when O’Donnell was writing the popular Romeo Brown comic strip.

In this adventure the Mafia is trying to take over organised crime in Britain. O’Donnell portrays the Mafiosi as smooth business types (albeit with a brutal and ruthless streak) capable of passing as reasonably respectable citizens. In 1969 this was still a slightly unusual approach in fiction dealing with the Mob.

The Mafia’s methods are sufficiently ruthless to discourage informers who might be tempted to talk to the police. Modesty will have to offer herself up as bait. Willie with then spring the trap closed. Her plan is sound enough, provided the Mafia guys are not suspicious enough to scent a trap. But these Mafiosi are very suspicious indeed and Modesty and Willie could be in trouble.

What’s most interesting about this story is that Modesty’s criminal past is a crucial plot ingredient. Her criminal past is also the key to her whole attitude towards the case but I won’t say any more about that for fear of revealing spoilers.

In Warlords of Phoenix Modesty and Willie are in Japan, visiting a very dear friend (and famed judo master). He’s 70 years old but he’s still a formidable master of the art.

His granddaughter’s boyfriend tries to murder her, apparently because she found out about his involvement with an organisation called Phoenix. Nobody knows anything at all about this organisation.

This organisation does however know quite a bit about Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. They have plans to use Modesty and Willie. Modesty and Willie will need all of their combat skills and experience - they are going to come up against some very highly trained killers.

There are plenty of clever action scenes.

Willie the Djinn takes Modesty and Willie into the desert, to a sheikh’s palace. It all started with the sheikh’s obsession with playing games with Modesty. Not sinister games - he genuinely just wants to play backgammon with her.

Modesty and Willie are caught up in palace plots and they have a whole troupe of pretty English dancing girls (the delightfully named Dollyrockers) to protect as well. And Willie is mistaken for a djinn.

There’s plenty of mayhem and the Dollyrockers join in with great enthusiasm. These girls just love having the chance to use submachine guns.

By this time O’Donnell was well and truly in the groove and these are three fine adventures. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed two other early Modesty Blaise comic-strip collections, The Gabriel Set-Up and The Black Pearl, as well as the first three novels - Modesty Blaise, Sabre-Tooth and I, Lucifer.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Thorp McClusky’s Loot of the Vampire

Thorp McClusky’s short novel Loot of the Vampire was published in two parts in Weird Tales in 1936. It’s a vampire story in a contemporary big-city American setting.

Thorp McClusky (1906-1975) is a rather obscure American writer whose works appeared in pulp magazines in the 1930s.

It begins with a jewel robbery. The jeweller has been discussing the sale of a very valuable string of pearls to a European nobleman. The jeweller is found dead and the pearls are gone. The strange thing is that there’s no obvious way the killer could have made his escape.

Even more curious is the fact that the jeweller seemed to be suffering from a very serious case of anaemia. It’s almost as if there’s no blood at all in the body.

Then on the following day the dead jeweller turns up at the jewellery story, very much alive. The police commissioner and Detective-Lieutenant Peters are both puzzled and alarmed.

They do have a suspect, a Count Woertz. The count is about to hold a mind-reading session at a swank charity party. Lieutenant Peters poses as a guy wanting to have his mind read and discovers, to his consternation, that the count really can read minds.

Peters has an interest in the occult and he wonders if possibly they’re dealing with a vampire.

There’s no solid evidence against the count and the police commissioner has another problem. He’s in love with a sweet girl named Mary. They’re going to be married. The count has threatened to steal Mary away from the commissioner and the big worry is that he may be able to do just that by using some form of mind control.

There’s not much more than this to the plot. There are a couple of slightly creepy moments. There’s no action to speak of. There’s no reign of terror carried out by the vampire.

And to be honest there’s not much suspense. We don’t get enough of a sense that Mary is in real danger, and we don’t get enough of the feeling that the natural order is being threatened and that’s something I consider to be an essential element in supernatural horror.

The sea chase is the highlight and it’s not too badly done.

The vampire in this tale conforms to some of the rules of established vampire lore as it stood at the time, but not all. This vampire cannot tolerate sunlight but on the other hand he’s totally indifferent to garlic. The mirror stuff is an interesting variation on the usual idea. I like vampire stories that vary the rules a bit.

Loot of the Vampire is OK but it doesn’t quite deliver the goods. It’s recommended purely for its historical interest and its curiosity value.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with The Man Who Made Maniacs in one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

This story seems to belong to a very short-lived 1930s genre, the weird detective story. These were basically hardboiled detective stories with some supernatural and horror elements added for extra spice. That’s actually a promising combination.

If the weird detective story genre attracts you then you should check out Off-Trail Publications’ volume Cult of the Corpses which includes two novellas of this type by Maxwell Hawkins and they’re both far superior to Loot of the Vampire.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Fletcher Flora's Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart

Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart is a slightly noirish murder mystery by Fletcher Flora. It was published by Avon Books in 1958.

Fletcher Flora (1914-1969) was an American pulp writer who wrote twenty-one rather varied novels including some noir fiction.

Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart is the story of three men who have sex with a young woman (we will later discover her name is Avis Pisano) at an isolated resort hotel. The three are all roughly the same age and curiously enough all are known by the nickname Curly. They have other things in common. All live in the neighbouring town of Rutherford. All three intend to marry Lauren Haig, a pretty heiress. One of the three murders Avis.

They all have motives, since in all three cases their chances of marrying Lauren might be prejudiced if it became known that they’d slept with a young woman of Avis’s dubious reputation.

The three men are all rather unpleasant and they all have issues with women but their issues are quite different and they’re unpleasant in different ways.

There was a witness, or at least an almost-witness.

Avis was killed soon after arriving in Rutherford by train. At the train station was Purvy Stubbs. Purvy is a nice enough fellow but he’s a bit of a misfit and he’s obsessed by trains. He watches all the trains come in. He saw Avis leave the train. He saw something else - a glimpse of a man. He cannot identify the man but that man might be, in fact probably is, the killer. Purvy’s evidence is not worth much to the sheriff, but if Purvy ever remembers a bit more about the incident his evidence might be crucial.

Mostly the book gives us a reasonable character sketch of each suspect. We realise that any one of the three might have been capable of murder but we still have no idea which of them is actually guilty.

We also learn a little about Avis. Her reputation for sleeping with lots of men was well deserved but she was really just a sad lonely girl looking for love in all the wrong places.

The novel does of course reflect the late 1950s small town attitude towards sex. That attitude is that sex is just wrong unless you’re married. Having sex outside of marriage makes a woman a tramp. Avis is not the only woman in the book who is condemned for her sexual misbehaviour. Phyllis Bagley is not only regarded as a tramp but as a whore, even though she is certainly not a whore. She does however have an active sex life and that’s enough to give her a bad reputation.

There’s quite a bit to admire in this novel. We get to know the three suspects pretty well and the identity of the murderer is skilfully concealed until the past page.

There is one major weakness. In a murder mystery I like to feel at the end that the solution feels right. That the murderer really is the person who would have been most likely to commit such a crime. In this case I felt the solution was a bit random. There was no real reason why he should been the killer rather than one of the other two suspects. And since this is not a true fair-play puzzle-plot mystery I was left feeling unsatisfied. There was no evidence to convince me of the killer’s guilt and no psychological reason to believe that he and only he could have killed Avis Pisano.

On the other hand you need to wonder what exactly the author’s intentions were. It seems quite likely that Flora didn’t particularly care about the identity of the murderer. He was more interested in the sexual tensions that drive the characters. All of the major characters are motivated directly or indirectly by sex or by anxiety about sex. And Flora handles this kind of material rather skilfully.

This novel is hardboiled but it would be a bit of a stretch to call it noir, although it does have a certain sordid squalid quality to it which might qualify it as marginally noir.

Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart is quite entertaining with at least some suspense but it misses out on greatness and it’s the weakest of the Fletcher Flora novels I’ve read so far. At least it’s the weakest considered as noir fiction. Considered as a psychological and sexual melodrama it’s much more successful. So I’m going to recommend it and it might even sneak into the highly recommended category if psychosexual melodrama is your thing.

I’ve read a couple of Fetcher Flora’s other novels. Leave Her To Hell is a fine slightly hardboiled private eye murder mystery. Killing Cousins is a witty lighthearted murder mystery with dashes of whimsy and black comedy and it’s excellent. So he’s a rather varied writer.

Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart is part of a stark House Noir triple-novel paperback edition along with two other Fletcher Flora novels, Leave Her To Hell and Take Me Home.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Milton Lesser’s Slaves to the Metal Horde

Milton Lesser’s short novel Slaves to the Metal Horde was published in the science fiction magazine Imagination in June 1954.

Stephen Marlowe (1928-2008) was an American pulp writer who wrote crime fiction under his own name and science fiction under the name Milton Lesser.

Slaves to the Metal Horde is a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale. The Third World War has ended disastrously. An army of robot warriors had been constructed to serve as the ultimate weapon but before they could be used bacteriological weapons were unleashed. The result was a plague that raged out of control. Civilisation collapsed everywhere.

Johnny Hope is twenty-three years old and lives in a small agricultural village, Hamilton Village. It’s a harsh primitive life but the villagers survive. Johnny however has been forced to leave. He is suspected of being infected with the Plague.

He has some vague plan to reach a large now deserted city once known as New York but after a day or so he realises he really does have the Plague. All he can do is lie down and wait to die.

That’s when Diane finds him. Diane, a beautiful blonde girl, belongs to a vey different kind of community,  community of nomadic hunters. She is one of the Shining Ones. These are the tiny minority of people who survive the Plague. They survive, but they will always be carriers of the disease. They are shunned by the rest of society.

Johnny survives. He is now one of the Shining Ones. Diane and Johnny are attracted to each other but there’s another bond between them. They both suspect that the Robots are spreading the Plague. The Robots are now masters of the Earth and are almost worshipped as gods but there are many who fear them. With good reason. The Robots do not see themselves as friends of humanity.

Johnny has some problems fitting in with the Shining Ones. His main problem is Harry Starbuck, a sneaky character with big plans. Johnny has even bigger problems when Diane falls into the clutches of the Robots. Along with an ageing scholar he sets off on a rescue mission which is likely to end in a showdown with the Robots.

This is a fairly typical post-apocalyptic tale but with one rather interesting feature - the nature of the Robots. The big fear has always been that robots/computers will develop consciousness. That would give them free will. That in turn could mean that they would no longer be under human control - they could become our masters.

In this story it’s not clear if that has actually happened. These Robots might just be slavishly trying to follow their original programming without understanding that that programming is no longer relevant or appropriate. Or they might have achieved actual consciousness and free will. Lesser keeps this nicely ambiguous for as long as possible, which means we’re kept guessing about what the Robots’ long-term objectives are. They might not even have any coherent long-term objectives. Or they might have a fiendish master plan.

There are also some interesting questions of loyalty on the part of the humans. Some see the Robots as saviours, some see them as a menace, and some ambitious humans see coöperation with the Robots as a path to power. The humans are divided between the uninfected ones and the Shining Ones and the two groups fear and mistrust each other. Even among those who fear the Robots there is no agreement on what, if anything, can be done to oppose them. This is made more difficult because no-one is quite sure exactly what powers the Robots possess.

It’s an engaging story with fairly good ideas, a few intriguing nuances, some action and some romance. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Joseph E. Kelleam’s Hunters Out of Time in a two-novel paperback edition.

I’ve also reviewed a very early Milton Lesser sci-fi novel, Somewhere I’ll Find You, and it’s highly entertaining. And I’ve reviewed the hardboiled crime novel Model for Murder which he wrote as Stephen Marlowe and it’s sexy, sleazy, trashy, pulp and generally terrific.

Monday, April 8, 2024

The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs

If the essence of the decadent world view is that love is a disease then Pierre Louÿs’ 1898 masterpiece The Woman and the Puppet (La femme et le pantin) is the quintessential decadent novel.

It is Carnival in Seville, and a man is captivated by the briefest glimpse of an extraordinary young woman, whose beauty is matched only by her air of mystery. He is determined to have her, and asks advice of a friend. Don Mateo is a man of the world, a legendary connoisseur of female beauty, but Don Mateo is horrified when he realises the identity of the woman. It is none other than Concha Pérez, and she is (as he informs his young friend) the worst woman in the world. His experiences with Concha have convinced him to avoid any further entanglements with women. He proceeds to recount the story of his own infatuation with her.

He had met her on a train, briefly, and then the acquaintanceship was renewed quite by accident. Concha, then very young, had been working in a cigar factory. She had seemed eager to accept the attentions of Don Mateo, and he is soon convinced that she is as much in love with him as he with her. He is only too happy to help Concha and her mother in their financial difficulties.

His happiness seems assured, but every time it seems that their relationship is finally about to be physically consummated Concha finds some obstacle to place in his way. When he becomes insistent, she and her mother leave hurriedly and secretly, taking a considerable amount of Don Mateo’s money with them.

But their paths are destined to cross again. She is now a flamenco dancer, and she is graciously prepared to forgive him for the wrong she’s done him. Soon he is as obsessed as ever, and Concha tells him she is willing to give herself to him. He buys her an expensive house, and finds himself locked out. He finds her dancing naked for foreign tourists, and in a rage he beats her. She is now convinced he loves her, and is therefore willing to sleep with him.

A cycle of jealousies and beatings and passionate sex escalates, as she taunts him with real and imagined infidelities. She flies into jealous rages as well. Don Mateo tires of her, only to have his passions inflamed again and again.

This is more than simply a tale of obsessive love. It’s reminiscent of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic Venus in Furs, with the relationship between Don Mateo and Concha having very strong elements of sado-masochistic sex, of shifting patterns of dominance and submission, of humiliation and cruelty. 

This is a seductive and memorable novel of twisted sexuality, with an impressive degree of psychological insight. 

And it’s beautifully written. One of the great 19th century novels. Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925) was a Belgian novelist and poet, possibly the greatest writer produced by the fin de siècle Literary Decadence. Very highly recommended.

There have been no less than five film versions including Josef von Sternberg’s exquisite The Devil is a Woman with Marlene Dietrich giving one of her greatest performances as Concha.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Operation T, The Man from A.P.E. 7

Operation T, published in 1967, is the seventh of the Man from A.P.E. spy thrillers by Norman Daniels. It’s somewhat in the style of other pulp spy series such as the Nick Carter Killmaster books.

A.P.E. is the American Policy Executive. They’re an American intelligence agency with even fewer scruples that the CIA. There’s a definite mood of Cold War hysteria to this novel.

John Keith works for a big public relations film but the firm is just a front for APE.

The story begins with killer dolphins eating people on the Great Barrier Reef. The Americans also have reports of Chinese cargo ships heading towards Australia fully laden, then returning unladen, but no-one knows where their cargoes have been discharged. APE suspects a dastardly Red Chinese plot to invade Australia.

Their top agent, John Keith, is sent to Australia to investigate. He almost gets eaten by a dolphin. He’s also concerned about a report from an anthropologist about disappearing corpses in the Outback.

Keith’s cover story is that he’s promoting a new pop star, Oralie Lee. They dislike each other at first. They gradually become more friendly. When he finds a stark naked Oralie trying to climb into bed with him he figures she’s starting to like him.

Most of the action centres on a search for a secret Red Chinese base in the Outback.

The ace A.P.E. agent will be up against an old enemy, Chinese spymaster Chang Chou. They have personal reasons for wanting to kill each other.

Keith has two dangerous women to deal with. There’s Oralie and there’s also Jade Collette, a beautiful half-Chinese spy who seems to be willing to change sides at will. John Keith and Jade have a history, both professional and personal. They can hardly keep their hands off each other. This does not please Oralie.

There’s plenty of mayhem in the action finale, with lots of explosions.

There’s a bit of sex (Keith beds both Jade and Oralie) but it’s very tame.

Norman Daniels was in his 60s by the time he wrote this book. He was clearly bewildered by 60s youth culture and pop music but he wanted to include a pop singer in the story for commercial reasons. His knowledge of Australia geography also seems rather hazy. He obviously has no idea of the distances involved and thinks Arnhem Land is close by the Great Barrier Reef. He does know that Australians say dinkum a lot and never go anywhere without their tucker bags. He also knows enough about dolphins to know that they don’t usually eat people but not enough to know that they aren’t fish. All the stuff that he gets wrong actually adds to the book’s entertainment value.

If you’re over-sensitive to the different social attitudes of the past you’ll want to stay right away from this book. You’ll have apoplexy.

This is a very pulpy novel but it’s fun. This is by no means a good book but it does feature man-eating dolphins, disappearing corpses, a dragon, murder by boomerang, full-scale gun battles, a nefarious conspiracy and sexy dangerous ladies. They’re all fine ingredients for a pulp spy novel.

The plot makes no sense at all. Of course in the mood of Cold War hysteria of the time it’s possible that readers simply didn’t notice its absurd implausibility.

Operation T ends up being schlocky fun. It makes the Nick Carter Killmaster books look like serious literature. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Vampirella Archive volume 2

I of course knew of the iconic comic-strip character Vampirella but until now I had never seen an actual Vampirella comic. I’ve never been much of a comics fan. I have recently developed a taste for European comics such as Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella and Guido Crepax’s surreal erotically charged comics (in collections such as Evil Spells) and even more recently I’ve become a major fan of the British Modesty Blaise comics. But my exposure to American comics has been limited to a couple of 90s graphic novels and my exposure to American comics of earlier periods has been totally non-existent.

So on a whim I bought one of the hardcover Vampirella Archive collections (volume 2 in fact) which includes half a dozen of the original Vampirella comic books which first appeared around 1969.

Vampirella the character was at least partly the creation of science fiction super-fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Each issue of the comic included half a dozen or so comic-strip adventures plus various other features. Disappointingly Vampirella herself only features in one story per issue. This volume begins with issue 8 of the comic. Lots of different writers and artists contributed.

There are also fairly regular sword-and-sorcery stories and they’re pretty good as well. The other stories in each comic are the problem. The stories are often just too short so although the ideas are often very good there’s no time to develop them. By the time you start getting interested they’re over. Some of the non-Vampirella stories work; some don’t.

The comic was definitely aiming to be sexy. There’s quite a bit of nudity. There seemed to be a gradual increase in the level of nudity. In the first few issues in this volume there’s nudity but with the woman’s hair always artfully concealing her nipples. The later issues are not quite so coy. The publishers had evidently figured out that by 1971 they could get away with quite a lot and so they decided to ramp up the nudity quotient. Which I think was a good move. If you’re going to do a sexy comic you might as well make it genuinely sexy.

The Vampirella stories are very good and they’re linked which makes them more interesting. Vampirella is up against a deadly cult. She does have one advantage. She has found out how to survive without having to kill humans for their blood. Vampirella has no desire to hurt humans, unless she is forced to. She is an alien rather than a straightforward vampire and she is cast as heroine rathe than villainess.

In the lead story of issue 8 Vampirella is finding life on Earth to be rather difficult. On her home planet Drakulon blood is easy to obtain but on Earth the only way to get blood is by attacking humans. And Vampirella must have blood to survive. She ends up in a clinic where a kindly doctor tells her that he can solve this problem for her. Vampirella is not quite sure about this clinic - she’s rather suspicious of the doctor’s nurse. With good reason. Vampirella finds herself in a bizarre and terrifying nightmare world of demons. A good action-packed fun story.

In issue 9 Vampirella continues to hunt for the evil cultists but she is in turn being hunted by the Van Helsings (yes, descendants of that Van Helsing). They naturally assume that she is an ordinary vampire and therefore evil.

Vampirella is drawn to a decaying carnival in Carnival of the Damned. It’s not just decaying. There is an atmosphere of misery. And there is magic afoot, and the cult of chaos against which Vampirella has been battling may be involved. Meanwhile the Van Helsings are closing in on Vampirella. Vampirella acquires an ally, a broken-down stage magician named Pendragon who becomes a recurring character. A great story.

In Isle of the Huntress Vampirella and Pendragon are marooned on an island which is inhabited by a werewolf. Or perhaps not a werewolf. Just as Vampirella is not a conventional vampire so this werewolf is not a conventional werewolf. Vampirella could end up as either the hunted or the huntress. A good story.

Lurker in the Deep pits Vampirella and Pendragon against a very nasty aquatic demon. Fun.

As for the non-Vampirella stories, the sword-and-sorcery stories are pretty good. Gardner Fox wrote many such tales and his first story featuring the word-wielding queen Amazonia is excellent. A demon wants to claim Amazonia’s throne. He also wants to kill her but he makes a mistake that makes that impossible. He is however confident that he has neutralised her. This warrior babe is however not all that easy to neutralise. A short but entertaining tale.

War of Wizards is fairly good - a barbarian warrior is caught in a conflict between rival wizards. The barbarian wants to save himself, save his lady love and destroy the empire.

Amazonia and the Eye of Ozirios is a pretty decent sword-and-sorcery tale.

The Silver Thief and the Pharaoh’s Daughter benefits from a properly developed plot with some decent twists. The ancient Egypt setting works extremely well. A very good story.

Eye of the Beholder is the grisly tale of a medieval countess who will take any steps necessary to make herself attractive to men. Possibly inspired very vaguely by the legends surrounding Elizabeth Bathory? It’s a good story anyway.

To Kill a God
takes place in Egypt. A Roman officer seeks to save a beautiful princess. She is threatened by a high priest, or perhaps the threat comes from a god. This tale plays fast and loose with both history and Egyptian mythology but it does so in a very enjoyable way.

Prisoner in the Pool is set 3,000 years in the past. A greek hero has to free a maiden confined to a pool by a magic spell. A story that just needed a bit more plot.

In The Sword of Light a beautiful young queen must defend her realm against an evil magic warrior. One man could aid her, except that he’s a coward. A good fun story with mayhem, magic and a feisty heroine.

The stories with contemporary settings and the science fiction stories are more of a mixed bag. The Curse is promising - a man without a memory meets a half-naked girl who tells him they’ve both been cursed by a witch. It’s rather good.

Snake Eyes is a decent story of a girl named Sara who looks like a reptile girl, despite which she has managed to find a boyfriend. He has plans to launch her career as a side-show attraction but he needs money for publicity. If only he could persuade her to sell that strange pendant. It turns out that there is more to Sara than meets the eye, and there’s another twist as well.

Regeneration Gap is a successful sci-fi story in which an astronaut returns to Earth to find that 128 years have passed. Whether life still survives on Earth depends on how you define life.

The Escape concerns a glamorous female jewel thief in the 26th century. Her costume is even more revealing than Vampirella’s. She’s on the run and takes a desperate chance. Not a bad idea but with an overly obvious ending.

Quest is a very short but very good story. It’s very minimalist. There’s no dialogue and we don’t know where or when it takes place. It has a nicely nasty little twist at the end.

Final Thoughts

Given that so many different writers and artists were involved it’s inevitable that this collection is very uneven. Each issue did however contain a good Vampirella and usually a couple of other very good stories. And each issue contained two or three stories that were either disappointing because they were not fully developed or complete misfires.

That’s not such a terrible success/failure ratio. On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Recommended, and Vampirella is such an icon that you really do need to sample some of her early adventures and that’s probably enough to bump this volume up to highly recommended status.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Carter Brown’s The Savage Salome

Carter Brown’s hardboiled PI thriller The Savage Salome was published in 1961.

Carter Brown was a hugely successful English-born Australian pulp crime writer. He wrote 215 novels and 75 novellas and sold around 120 million books. He’s probably best-known for the Lieutenant Al Wheeler hardboiled cop thrillers but he created a number of other series characters including private eye Danny Boyd. The Savage Salome was the tenth of his 33 Danny Boyd novels.

Danny Boyd is hired by opera singer Donna Alberta to find the man who murdered her beloved Niki. Niki was her dog. Danny thinks this sounds nuts but he gets more interested when he finds out that money is no object to this crazy soprano lady. He gets even more interested when he finds out that if he takes the case he’ll get tickets to see her in a new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Danny knows nothing of opera but apparently in this production Salome will do the Dance of the Seven Veils and she’ll remove all seven veils. The first thing Danny noticed about Donna Alberta is that she has everything a woman should have and it’s all in the right places and in the right quantities. Danny figures that he’ll find watching her shed that final veil very artistically satisfying.

Then a man rather than a dog gets murdered. The murderer has to be one of a small group of people connected with this opera. Soprano Donna Alberta, mezzo-soprano Margot Lynn, tenor Rex Tybolt and impresario Earl Harvey are all possible suspects. Donna Alberta’s manager Kasplin and her private secretary Helen Mills are equally plausible suspects. Not to mention Harvey’s weird sister Marge and his trigger-happy goon Benny.

There’s a whole complicated web of sexual jealousies. There are jilted lovers, and there are thwarted lovers. Helen Mills for example is hopelessly in love with Donna Alberta.

There’s also a blackmail angle.

Danny is fired from the case and then rehired by a different client. Danny is pretty sure he knows the identity of the murderer. Maybe he’s too sure. And he can’t find any solid evidence. The second murder is more puzzling.

Danny is a pretty cocky guy. He expects women to fall at his feet, and often they do. He’s tough enough wen he needs to be but he’s a guy who would prefer to talk his way out of trouble rather than use his fists. Danny’s one great passion in life is women. Especially if they’re well-developed in the bust department. It’s possible that Danny would be well advised to spend more time thinking about the case and less time thinking about dames.

Danny is also pretty hip. He’s the first person narrator and his slightly beat-influenced way of expressing himself is a bit jarring at first but after a while it starts to work.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly noir about this tale but it is hardboiled and there are plenty of wisecracks. The operatic setting is fun. Personally I’m inordinately fond of mysteries with show business, movie business or theatrical settings.

The plot is serviceable enough.

You can always rely on a Carter Brown story to be entertaining. It has to be admitted that his novels are rather trashy. He was an author with zero literary ambitions. He aimed to write books that people would buy, and they did buy them in huge quantities.

Personally I like trashy slightly sleazy PI thrillers and I enjoyed this one. The Savage Salome is highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of the Al Wheeler novels (all of which are fun) - Eve it's Extortion, Booty for a Babe, No Harp for My Angel and The Stripper.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Roy Norton’s The Land of the Lost

Roy Norton’s The Land of the Lost is a lost civilisation novel originally published in 1909.

The two main characters are a US Navy captain named Jimmy Tipton and his adoptive brother Billy Pape. They’re both around 40 and although they do not appear to have much in common there’s a fierce bond of friendship between them. Jimmy is well-educated and successful. Billy is a broken-down cowpuncher and failed prospector.

The novel starts off seeming like more of an “end of the world” story than a lost world tale. A brilliant scientist named Martinez has predicted catastrophe. There will be earthquakes on an unprecedented scale. They will happen in mid-ocean, triggering massive tidal waves. All coastal cities will be destroyed. Massive loss of life can only be avoided if governments undertake mass evacuations. Martinez is dismissed as a crank, until it becomes apparent that his predictions are about to come true.

This all happens early in the story and does not play out as you might expect. It is not the end of civilisation. Not by a long way. The cataclysm does however alter the planet’s geography significantly. This will become important.

And Dr Martinez mysteriously vanishes.

Some time later, as the nations of the world adjust to a somewhat altered world geography, ships start to disappear. Jimmy Tipton, in command of the cruiser USS Seattle, is despatched to search for the missing ships. It should be noted that this is 1909 when radio was in its infancy. The difficulty of long-range communication with ships at sea will play a vital role in the story.

The Seattle discovers a huge island, almost a mini-continent, where no island was known to exist. It was presumably created by the massive underwater earthquakes. And very strange things start happening to the American cruiser and its crew.

It’s impossible that this island could be inhabited but it is. The inhabitants are human but they represent a culture like no other on the planet. They have access to strange advanced technologies. Their outlook is very different.

The Seattle’s crew members find themselves either prisoners or guests. They’re not sure which. They are not mistreated in any way. The inhabitants of the island seem friendly but suspicious. A man named Manco, clearly a very important man in this lost civilisation, acts as either their gaoler or their host depending on how you want to look at it. It’s obvious to Jimmy and Billy that there are things that Manco is not telling them. They want to trust him but they’re uneasy. They get the impression that Manco feels the same way.

Of course there really are things happening on the island that they should be worried about but this is a story with quite a bit of moral ambiguity. There are no villains in the usual sense but misunderstandings can lead to violence and even war.

In some ways it’s a standard lost world tale but the moral ambiguity makes it a bit more interesting.

And the islanders’ high technology is interesting. They have unlocked the power of light, and of the atom. They have nuclear power of a sort although it’s based on the state of scientific knowledge of the world of 1909. This was an era in which electricity, magnetism and radio were ultra high technology. Overall the technobabble is very enjoyable. You could even see it is as having just a slight steampunk flavour.

There is some action. There are divided loyalties and friendships are put to the test. And there is a lot at stake. Jimmy is uncomfortably aware that a mistake on his part could have dire consequences not just for this lost civilisation but for his own.

A rather entertaining tale. Recommended, and if you’re a lost world fan I’d bump that up to highly recommended.

The Land of the Lost has been reissued by Armchair Fiction in their wonderful lost World/Lost Race paperback series.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Doug Duperrault’s Trailer Camp Woman

Doug Duperrault’s Trailer Camp Woman (also published as Trailer-Camp Girl) is a 1959 sleaze novel belonging to the small but intriguing sub-genre of trailer park sleaze.

Doug Duperrault (1929-2005) worked in a huge variety of jobs and wrote at least twenty-four sleaze novels.

While the 50s is often thought of as a decade of unparalleled prosperity there were in fact severe housing shortages and there were plenty of people who were doing it tough. Trailer parks boomed in response. Since these were somewhat artificial slightly impermanent communities they gained a bit of a reputation for encouraging what was by 1950 standards a relatively free-wheeling attitude towards sex. The reputation may have been partly deserved - they possibly were more sexually liberated than ultra-respectable traditional small town America.

And given the 1950s obsession with sin it’s hardly surprising that publishers and writers recognised an opportunity for tales of trailer camp sexual licentiousness.

Arlene Ford lives in a trailer park with her husband Buddy. It is not a happy marriage. Buddy is quite a bit older than his very attractive young wife and he’s insecure about that and about a whole lot of other things - his inability to provide his wife with a proper house, his failure to get her pregnant after five years of marriage, his steadily increasing waistline and steadily receding hairline and his dodgy heart. Buddy is angry, jealous, possessive, bad-tempered, insensitive and intermittently violent towards Arlene. To top it all off he can’t satisfy Arlene sexually, and Arlene is a passionate woman. Despite all this Arlene has tried to make the marriage work and has never been unfaithful.

Then Arlene meets a handsome young sailor named Corey. He’s very young but he’s kind and gentle. Although he’s desperate to get into Arlene’s pants he won’t pressure her. He’s such a sweet boy that she ends up sleeping with him anyway.

Arlene also meets Agnes and Francie. They Iive in the trailer park and are reputed to be lesbians. Arlene has no idea what lesbians actually do in bed but she figures it might be fun to find out. She sleeps with both Agnes and Francie.

So suddenly the previously faithful Arlene is having three separate affairs all at once. She’s a busy girl.

She has one really big problem to worry about. Her psycho ex-fiancé John has started stalking her. She broke off the engagement with him when he tried to rape her. Now he tells her he intends to get from her what he didn’t get five years earlier. He hasn’t quite decided if he’s just going to rape her or if he’s going to kill her afterwards.

Arlene’s life has become much too complicated and there are several more twists to come.

Buddy, John and Arlene’s sleazy neighbour Hank are straightforward villains - they’re pigs or sleazebags or psychos. Agnes and Francie are quite sympathetic characters. They’ll chase anything in a skirt but they’re really nice about it.

Arlene is the most interesting character. She’s a mixture of indecisiveness and recklessness. She should have left Buddy two or three years earlier but she didn’t. We can certainly understand her motivations - a hunger for both love and sex. But having now decided to become a sexual adventuress she’s not as discreet about it as she should be.

There’s plenty of sex but not too much in the way of detailed descriptions of the acts. It’s all titillation but it’s done well enough. The essence of sleaze fiction of that era is that it’s mostly a tease - you think you’re going to get more than the book actually delivers in terms of sexual content but Duperrault builds up a nicely overheated atmosphere of sexual frustration and jealousies.

There is some suspense as the drama with psycho John heats up. There’s romance. Arlene really thinks she’s found the man she’s been looking for in Corey.

It’s well-written and well-paced and it’s pretty enjoyable if you like the sleaze genre. In fact I’ll highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

James Eastwood’s Seduce and Destroy

Seduce and Destroy, published in 1968, was the second of James Eastwood’s three Anna Zordan spy thrillers.

I can tell you very little about James Eastwood. I believe he was born in 1918 and I’m reasonably certain he was English. He may or may not have been the same man as a scriptwriter named James Eastwood who wrote some interesting movies.

The Anna Zordan spy novels belong to the glamorous lady spy sub-genre.

Anna Zordan works for a very shadowy British intelligence agency which uses a film studio as a front. The agency is run by Sarratt. Anna is his top agent. Their professional relationship is complicated by a certain mutual sexual attraction.

Events in central Europe have become rather disturbing. It seems that neo-Nazis may be behind the trouble (the obsession with neo-Nazis was one of the more bizarre features of 1960s spy fiction and spy TV series). Sarratt has also received a letter from a journalist who has disappeared. The journalist seems to have become mixed up with a group known as the Family. The Family seems to be involved in all sorts of nefarious activities.

Anna needs to get herself recruited into the Family.

Sarratt meanwhile has decided to take a holiday in central Europe. Perhaps not the ideal travel destination at this point in time, and he may have had second thoughts had he known he was being trailed.

The Family really are preparing something big. The objective seems to be to create chaos. It’s not just the Family involved. And it’s possible that not everyone involved has quite the same agenda.

The two big spy fiction obsessions of the time both figure in this story - neo-Nazis and the Chinese. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Once the plot really kicks in there are enough twists to keep things pretty interesting.

There’s surprisingly little sex in this story although there is one sexual encounter that you wouldn’t get away with these days.

Anna, as in the other two novels in which she features, sees sex as something that nicely combines business and pleasure. Sex really is part of her business as a spy. She is expected to use sex as one of the tools of the trade.

She’s also rather ruthless. She kills a man early on when she only intended to stun him but she feels no remorse. She’s just annoyed at herself for making a mistake. He won’t be the last person Anna kills in this story. She’s very good at killing and she doesn’t believe in nonsense like giving the bad guys a sporting chance.

She’s a very proficient spy but she’s not infallible. And Eastwood doesn’t make the mistake of making her an unstoppable combat machine. She wins fights when the odds are not too heavily stacked against her but when the odds are really unfavourable she loses and ends up in real bother. Eastwood also avoids the error of giving his heroine excessive escapology skills. Anna has to think her way out of the jams she gets into.

The Anna Zordan books are sexy spy novels but not in the same sex-drenched sense as the Lady from L.U.S.T. books (such as Lust, Be a Lady Tonight and Lay Me Odds) or Robert Tralins’ The Chic Chick Spy. Anna is more in the Modesty Blaise mould and she does bear some resemblance to Modesty Blaise - they’re both non-British but they do jobs for British intelligence, both have pragmatic easy-going attitudes towards sex, both are efficient but not invincible.

Seduce and Destroy might not be absolutely top-tier spy fiction but it offers plenty of entertainment. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the third Anna Zordan thriller, Come Die With Me.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Edgar Wallace's The India-Rubber Men

The India-Rubber Men is a 1929 Edgar Wallace thriller.

London has been hit by a series of daring robberies carried out by men in rubber gas masks, armed with gas bombs. They have become known as the India-Rubber Men.

Inspector John Wade of the river police is interested in the goings-on at the Mecca, a kind of riverfront boarding house for ship’s officers. Not a very reputable establishment. It’s run by Mum Oaks, a very disreputable middle-aged woman. Her niece lives there as well. Lila is a timid but attractive young woman and Inspector Wade has grown rather fond of her.

Wade starts to see some connecting threads but they’re rather puzzling. There’s a penniless lord who isn’t penniless any more. There’s a mysterious sea captain. There’s a mysterious man who takes young Lila out to dinner once a year. There’s a woman who tries to drown herself, and she’s clutching a photograph of Lila. There are numerous attempts on John Wade’s life. There are abductions and a woman is drugged. There are break-ins in which nothing is stolen. There are fast motor launches that appear and disappear. There are suspects who should be thousands of miles away, but they aren’t. There’s a lawyer who knows something. There are links to events in the past. There’s an inheritance.

This is pretty classic Edgar Wallace stuff. Apart from the India-Rubber Men there are small-time river thieves. There are jewel thefts. There are hidden rooms. There’s gunplay (with machine-guns). And Chicago gangsters.

There’s also a policeman in love.

A good deal of the action takes place on the river or at sea. There’s a definite nautical flavour to the activities of the bad guys (and I do love nautical mysteries and thrillers). Naturally there are various sea-going and river-going vessels that seem innocent, even when they’ve been thoroughly searched. But in reality they are far from innocent.

There’s quite a collection of bad guys and it’s not until late in the story that we start to suspect the identity of the most dangerous of the villains. There are quite a few characters who are not at all what they appear to be.

Wallace liked convoluted plots but he was always able to resolve them satisfactorily and this story is no exception.

Wallace also liked to build an atmosphere of breathless excitement and he does that here. There’s suspense, action and last-minute escapes. There’s a very high body count. Wallace was interesting among British writers of that era. He didn’t stint on the murder and mayhem and his villains were violent and ruthless. In some of his books in the 1920s he seemed to be trying to inject a slight American flavour. Not a bad idea since Chicago gangsters were big news at the time.

There’s some romance as well.

Inspector Wade is a likeable enough hero. He bends a few rules, but not too much. He’s also inclined to rely on bluffs, which don’t always come off.

Wallace seemed to be incapable of writing a dull book. He knew his market, he knew the right ingredients to include and he delivered the goods.

This is a fine Edgar Wallace thriller and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel

Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel is a 1953 noir novel published by Fawcett Gold Medal.

Elliott Chaze (1915-1990) had a very long career as a novelist and journalist but wrote only nine novels, and only a minority of those qualified as crime fiction.

Tim has just finished up a spell working on an oilfield. Now he’s in his hotel, having washed off several weeks’ worth of grime and he’s feeling pretty good. And the bellboy has found a girl for him. Her name is Virginia. She’s stunningly beautiful, obviously well educated and has a cultured voice. You’d expect a girl like Virginia, if she happened to be a whore, to be a high-priced Manhattan call-girl rather than turning tricks for ten bucks a throw in some jerkwater town.

Tim isn’t complaining, not when the girl has legs like these.

Three days later they finally get out of bed and head off together. Tim has no intention of allowing anything serious to develop. He has plans and Virginia does not fit into those plans. He’ll dump her at some gas station when he’s tired of her, but he isn’t tired of her yet. Virginia’s love-making is cold and mechanical but undeniably skilful and that’s fine.

Tim’s plan is for a big heist. He’s currently on the run after breaking out of prison. But the plan is perfect and there’ll be enough money to set him up for life. Virginia might be a problem, if she learns too much about the plan.

Then they have a huge fight. They beat the daylights out of each other. They both end up covered in bruises. But the sex afterwards was incredibly hot and there was nothing cold and mechanical about Virginia’s love-making this time. Now they realise they love each other.

Insofar as either is capable of loving anything other than money.

Of course they cannot trust each other. They both know that.

You could not describe Virginia as a classic femme fatale. She never even pretends to be a good girl. With Virginia you know what you’re getting right from the start. She’s selfish and greedy and treacherous but she makes no secret of any of these things. And she is gorgeous and she’s good in bed. She’s everything Tim wants in a woman.

Tim isn’t corrupted by Virginia. He was thoroughly corrupted long before he met her. He’s a criminal and he’s ruthless. He doesn’t like murder but if it’s necessary he’ll do it. He’s selfish and unstable and a bit crazy. And he’s good in bed. He’s everything Virginia wants in a man.

The plot is nothing special. We know how a story like this is likely to end and the ending isn’t likely to be pretty. The ending is however not quite what we expect. Chaze likes the idea of fate having nasty little ironic twists in store for his characters. I have to say that I found the ending to be clever but a bit contrived.

There’s some violence and it’s kind of nasty. There’s plenty of sleaze. There’s as much noir atmosphere as you could possibly want. Virginia and Tim are not very nice people. They’re not particularly nice to each other (except when they’re having sex and the sex is a bit nasty). They’re obsessed by money and they don’t care if other people have to get hurt.

Their relationship is quite complex. There is love, of a sort. Neither of them had any intention of falling in love and whether that love is strong enough to overcome their innate greed and their natural instincts for betrayal is an open question. But however twisted and tenuous their love might be, it is there.

The heist itself is moderately clever. The plan for disposing of the evidence is a bit more ingenious. But the heist is not the focus of the book. In fact crime is not the focus of the book. The relationship between Tim and Virginia is what the novel is all about.

This is a pretty good noir novel. I’m not sure I’d put it in the very top rank of noir fiction but as a twisted love story it’s definitely top-tier. Highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this one with Bruce Elliott’s One is a Lonely Number in one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Jim Harmon’s The Man Who Made Maniacs!

Armchair Fiction have re-issued a lot of obscure but extremely interesting science fiction and other mid-20th century genre novels. Their two-novel paperback editions are usually very much worth buying. In these editions you might get one excellent novel and one that’s not so good but it’s surprising how often both novels turn out to be highly entertaining. Science fiction and horror are their specialities but occasionally they come up with something so weird as to be almost unclassifiable.

That’s definitely the case with their double-header that includes Thorp McClusky’s Loot of the Vampire and Jim Harmon’s The Man Who Made Maniacs! I see Loot of the Vampire as fitting vaguely into the short-lived 1930s weird detective story genre. The Man Who Made Maniacs! was published in 1961 and I have no idea to what genre it belongs. All I know is that it’s deeply weird. It’s The Man Who Made Maniacs! that concerns us in this review.

Jace Reid is a Hollywood screenwriter. A couple of years earlier he had a big success with a book and a movie called Maniac. It was about murderous sex fiends. Naturally a lot of people assumed that a man who wrote about such subjects was most likely a sex fiend himself. One guy saw the movie and then committed a murder, claiming to be inspired by the movie. That was pretty upsetting to Jace.

Now something even worse has happened. Someone has accused him of running a sadistic satanic Hollywood sex cult. And the cops seem to be taking the accusation seriously. The cops come knocking on his door just as he’s about to engage in some serious bedroom fun with his agent Lisa, which is more than a little annoying.

Jace has worked in Hollywood so he, like everybody else, knows that most people in Hollywood really are involved in bizarre sex orgies. But mostly they’re harmless bizarre sex orgies. And Jace is not personally involved in any such goings-on.

Soon things become a lot more disturbing for Jace. He finds himself in a sanatorium where the staff are crazier than the patients. He is drugged, or at least he thinks he was drugged. There’s a girl named Doris MacNiter who accuses him of encouraging her sister Clara’s sadomasochistic tendencies. He has never met Clara. Now he gets to meet both sisters and they’re both rather worrying.

Then the dead body shows up.

The books gets much stranger. There’s a dead guy who may or may not really be dead. There’s a vampire, or at least there might be. There’s lots of sexual kinkiness. People are not who they seem to be, but then maybe they are. Disturbing things happen to Jace, or at least they might have happened. There are beatniks.

This is actually a book that would fit in well with the late 60s vogue for psychedelic freak-out movies and books, but you don’t expect that so much in 1961.

This might be a crime story of sorts. It might have been intended as horror. It may have been aimed at the sleaze fiction market. In fact I’d be fairly certain that was the primary target market but the author seems to have had other agendas going.

There are some amusing moments but it’s not quite certain that this is intended as a spoof, but it might be a spoof.

All of the women have very large breasts. That point is strongly emphasised. Not just large breasts but large thrusting breasts. There are lots of catfights. Those large thrusting breasts always seem to play a key role in the catfights.

It’s hard to say whether the book is well-written or badly written. A decision on that point depends on just how seriously you think the author was taking his story, and whether you think it’s all done with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Either way it’s a wild crazy oddball book and for me that’s enough to earn it a highly recommended rating, as long as you realise that I’m recommending it for its very high weirdness quotient.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

The publication of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent in 1907 is an important milestone in the development of the spy novel. Spy fiction already existed but it was very much of the heroic sort. The Secret Agent is the beginning of a tradition in spy fiction that would reach its full flowering in the works of Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carre and Len Deighton - the pessimistic, sordid, cynical school of spy fiction.

The inspiration for Conrad’s novel was an anarchist bomb outrage in London in the 1880s. Even by the standards of anarchist terrorism this was a remarkably senseless and useless act - an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, of all things. It also seems highly likely that it was influenced by Dostoevsky’s The Devils (also known as Demons or The Possessed) although the rabidly Russophobic Conrad was unlikely to have admitted to the influence.

Mr Verloc runs a sleazy little shop in London, specialising in dirty books. He makes very little money from this trade but he has another source of income - he is a secret agent working for an unnamed European great power. He is in fact an agent provocateur. His problem is that so far he has provided some useful intelligence on the anarchist organisations he has infiltrated he has not actually managed to provoke anything. And now his employers want him to do just that. They want a terrorist outrage in Britain. They believe this will encourage the British Government to join them in a continent-wide crackdown on anarchists, socialists and other trouble-makers.

While the foreign power for which Mr Verloc works is not named it does has an emperor so it has to be the Austrians, the Germans or the Russians. Given that the Polish-born Conrad was not only motivated by his inherent Polish Russophobia but had presumably picked up on the hysterical Russophobia of 19th century England it seems reasonable to assume that the power in question is Tsarist Russia. And it’s made clear that this power is extremely reactionary which tends to confirm the view that it’s Russia.

Mr Verloc has close connections to a committee of anarchist activists. They are in fact a motley collection of dreamers, ineffectual agitators, incompetent propagandists, lunatics, losers and would-be terrorists who would be unlikely to terrify even a sensitive five-year-old child. Somehow Mr Verloc will have to find a way to produce the required terrorist outrage or risk losing his lucrative post as a secret agent. That would mean that he might actually have to work for a living, a prospect that horrifies him. Mr Verloc has a wife to support, as well as Stevie. Stevie is his wife’s brother, a young man who is somewhat child-like, over-sensitive and over-excitable.

Most of Mr Verloc’s anarchist contacts are unlikely to be of much help to him but the Professor is another story. The Professor makes bombs. He also carries a bomb with him permanently concealed in his person, a bomb which he intends to detonate if a policeman ever tries to arrest him.

Preventing such acts of terrorism is the task of the Special Crimes division at Scotland Yard. Chief Inspector Heat is an old hand at the job and he is very competent. His superior, the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Special Crimes division, is perhaps not so competent. He’s an ex-colonial policeman but he is more adept at playing politics than at catching anarchists. The sensible course of action would clearly be to leave the matter to Chief Inspector Heat but the Assistant Commissioner, for reasons which an ungenerous observer might describe as self-interest, decides to meddle.

Conrad clearly has little sympathy for these anarchist misfits and even less sympathy for secret agents. He doesn’t have a huge amount of sympathy for the police either, or for the governments that employ them. And for all his contempt for the anarchists he has to admit that the society they wish to overthrow is corrupt and unjust. He just doesn’t think that throwing bombs will lead to a better society.

Conrad was a deeply pessimistic writer but his tone in this novel is ironic and mocking. It’s often rather amusing. This is not quite the black comedy of Greene’s spy thrillers but at times it does approach black comedy. The world of Conrad’s novel is sordid and cynical. This is not quite Greeneland but one could say that Conrad was mapping out the territory that would later become Greeneland.

This is of course a lot more than a spy novel but it’s The Secret Agent’s place in the history of spy novels with which this review is concerned. Don’t expect a great deal of action and excitement or even suspense (although there is some suspense at the end). The Secret Agent is a study in the psychology of espionage, and the psychology of betrayal, and its influence on writers like Greene and le Carre make it a crucial step in the evolution of the genre. And they make it essential reading for serious students of espionage fiction. Recommended.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Guido Crepax's The Story of O

The Story of O, written by Pauline Réage and published in 1954, is one of the most famous and most notorious of all erotic novels. It’s one of the select group of erotic novels that can be taken seriously as literature. It was hugely controversial in its day with the fact that it was a novel about sadomasochism written by a woman adding to the scandal.

In 1975 it was turned into an excellent movie directed by Just Jaeckin. At exactly the same moment Jaeckin was shooting his movie Guido Crepax was adapting it as a graphic novel. These two adaptations coincide so closely in time that it’s unlikely that either influenced the other.

The Story of O concerns a young woman known only as O who is taken to The Château at Roissy by her lover René. O is to be trained in the art of submission. Not just submission to whippings - she is also taught to make herself available to any man who desires her.

René’s half-brother Sir Stephen adds a complication. Does O belong to René’s or Sir Stephen? Which of these two men does she love? Which of them loves her?

O is not in any sense a prisoner or a slave. She is free. She is not sure if she wants freedom and is not quite sure what the word means. This is one of the major themes of the story. Do any of us want freedom? Is love more important than freedom? What if O makes a free choice not o be free?

This is a story about sex but it is also most definitely a story about love.

Other complications arise when Anne-Marie enters the picture.

Crepax was one of the boldest and most innovative comic book writer-illustrators of his generation. His style both conformed to and rejected the technical conventions of comics. He was equally bold both stylistically and thematically. He was also known for comics that dealt with dream states and fantasies. The Story of O is not a dream story but Crepax’s approach works well here. It is in some ways a story that takes place in a hidden world unknown to most people, the kinky sexual underworld.

Personally I think Jaeckin’s movie is better. This is partly because Jaeckin, having had enormous mainstream success with Emmanuelle, was not making a sleazy grindhouse movie. He was aiming once again at the mainstream market (and The Story of O was a major commercial hit). This meant that he had to focus mostly on creating an atmosphere of eroticism whilst making the sex scenes tasteful and not too explicit. His movie was very much softcore erotica. I think this works I the movie’s favour.

Crepax by contrast was not constrained in any way by censorship so his graphic novel is much more explicit and often crosses the line into hardcore.

The movie also has the advantage of having rather subtle performances by Corinne Cléry as O and Udo Kier as René (and yes I’m aware that I’ve just used the words Udo Kier and subtle in the same sentence but I stand by that - his performance is nicely underplayed). Those performances bring these two key characters to life in a way that Crepax doesn’t quite manage.

The graphic novel is however certainly stylish.

Crepax did a series of adaptations of erotic novels such as Emmanuelle. He also adapted other novels. His version of Henry James’ famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw is superb.

Crepax’s The Story of O retains most of the spirit of the novel which is a provocative look at desire, freedom and the all-consuming desire to give oneself entirely in love. Crepax provides us with a fine example of intelligent erotica done in a graphic novel format.

I’ve reviewed Just Jaeckin’s movie The Story of O (1975) elsewhere.

I’ve also reviewed two collections of Guido Crepax’s comics, Evil Spells (which I highly recommend) and Private Life.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Don Smith’s Secret Mission: Tibet

Secret Mission: Tibet is a fairly early (1971) entry in Don Smith’s Secret Mission spy novel series. At that time there was a huge market for action-oriented spy thrillers. If you were at least a halfway competent writer and could turn out such books fairly quickly they might not make you rich but you’d certainly be able to pay the rent.

The hero of this novel is Phil Sherman (I believe he also features in some or all of the other books in this series). He’s not a professional secret agent. He’s an international businessman although not an overly successful one. He is persuaded to take on an espionage mission, not for the CIA or any of the usual suspects but for NASA. They’ve lost a couple of satellites. What worries them is that they’ve been talking to the Soviets and the Soviets have lost some satellites as well. All these satellites suddenly stopped transmitting while passing over a certain point in central Asia. It looks like foul play was involved.

A top NASA space scientist named Newton wants to find out what happened to those satellites but he wants the investigation to be secret. He’s afraid that if word gets out the US Government will get nervous and suspend the space program. He can’t ask the CIA for help - he certainly doesn’t trust those guys to carry out a discreet secret investigation. So he persuades his old pal Phil Sherman to help. Phil is sceptical but he is assured that all he has to do is get air-dropped into Tibet, place two radio direction finders, and then get air-lifted out. There’s no risk at all.

Phil Sherman has cause to regret his naïvete when he ends up imprisoned by the communist Chinese in an ancient Tibetan monastery. That’s what happens when you offer to help out an old buddy.

This novel was written at the height of hysteria over Red China. The Chinese Communists had taken over from the Russians as the chief villains in spy novels, TV series and movies. In this case the Chinese have a super-laser.

Phil isn’t the only prisoner in the monastery. There’s another American, Bill Rogers, who built that super-laser. There’s a middle-aged German, von Kruger. And there’s von Kruger’s beautiful half-Chinese daughter Suwary. The prisoners are not tightly guarded, the assumption being that the surrounding countryside is totally impassable so only a lunatic would try to escape. But Phil knows something that makes escape essential.

He was hoping to take just Rogers and the girl with him. Rogers because he is the key to the secret of the super-laser, Suwary because Phil has already discovered that she makes an enthusiastic and skilful bed-partner. He eventually finds he has to take von Kruger as well.

Most of the novel is an epic chase through hostile terrain with the Chinese snapping at the heels of the fugitives. There’s plenty of action and excitement.

However most of the interest is provided by the webs of deceit and betrayal in which the four main characters are enmeshed. Phil Sherman cannot trust a single one of them. They cannot trust each other. Phil is pretty certain that all have lied about their backgrounds and motivations. Any one of them might at any moment betray one of the others. The author handles this aspect rather well. He builds up a nice atmosphere of paranoia.

There’s also a great deal of sexual tension. Phil doesn’t know if Suwary has slept with Rogers or not, but she might have. He doesn’t like that idea. Rogers is pretty sure Suwary has slept with Phil and he really isn’t happy about it. And Suwary may have slept with some of their captors.

This is a very solid novel of its type with suspense, well-handled action sequences and huge dollops of paranoia. I liked it enough to persuade me to look for further books in the series. Highly recommended.

Note: The cover features a girl in a skimpy fur costume wielding a very large sword. Tragically this cover illustration has zero connection with anything in the book. But hey, chicks with swords do help to sell books.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Sidney Herschel Small's Festival of the Dead

The Festival of the Dead is a collection of the early Jimmy Wentworth stories by Sidney Herschel Small (1893-1958), published in pulp magazines in 1931. The stories are set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Jimmy Wentworth is an American but was brought up in China and speaks fluent Chinese. He works as a clerk for the chief of the Chinatown detail. The murder in the first story is so baffling that the chief decides to give Wentworth his chance. He’ll put him on the detail ostensibly as a beat cop but his real job is to find out things that an ordinary beat cop could not find out. Jimmy’s advantage is that he is fluent in all the Chinese dialects but nobody in Chinatown knows that. He will get to hear things and the inhabitants of Chinatown won’t know that he understands them.

These are typical pulp stories with plenty of action. There’s also an element of paranoia, as the hero is continually pitted against a diabolical criminal mastermind who seems beyond the reach of the police.

In the first story, Festival of the Dead, a popular beat cop on the detail, a grizzled old-timer named Bannion, has been murdered. This is puzzling. Bannion was an honest cop and was popular with the Chinese. He understood little of their culture and never interfered.

The head of the Chinatown detail is desperate enough to take a chance on putting Jimmy into uniform and assigning him to Bannion’s beat. With his knowledge of the language and his understanding of the culture Jimmy might turn up something. And he does. But it’s not the murderer he wants, it’s the man (or men) who planned the murder.

In Crimson Circles another cop is murdered and Jimmy is on the trail of the mysterious arch-criminal Kong Gai. There is a dope selling racket he wants to bust as well. He has a vital clue - crimson circles painted on the leg of a dead man. He sees similar circles painted on other men’s legs. Nobody knows what they mean, but Jimmy is sure they’re the key to a puzzle.

In King Cobra a rich man named Carrington blows his brains out but the puzzling thing about the case is that a piercing scream was heard from his apartment five minutes before the gunshot. Jimmy thinks it’s murder although the other circumstances suggest that that is impossible. Jimmy also suspects Kong Gai’s involvement, and there is a damsel in distress to be rescued - an innocent girl enslaved by drugs. There’s a link between the girl and Carrington.

Death Rock is a tale of rum-running (this being the days of Prohibition). Not the sort of criminal enterprise one would expect Kong Gai to be involved in but the dying words of a sailor point in his direction. The explanation of the sailor’s injuries is clever and devious.

The Bloody Emerald begins with two apparently unconnected incidents - a daring robbery of San Francisco’s most prestigious jewellery store and the discovery by Jimmy Wentworth of the corpse of a pretty Chinese girl. There’s another devious murder method and a very unusual motive for murder. There’s an even more unusual motive for the jewel robbery.

The Horns of the Dragon begins with the outbreak of a tong war. Tong wars are nothing new in Chinatown but this one begins in an odd way and there are some circumstances surrounding it that puzzle Jimmy Wentworth. It turns out that there’s something other than a tong war going on.

These are all quite entertaining stories and they’re nicely atmospheric, and there’s a fine sinister super-villain. This collection is recommended.

The Festival of the Dead is one of the titles in the excellent Argosy Library series from Steeger Books.