Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Lawrence Block's Campus Tramp

Campus Tramp is one of the many sleaze novels penned by Lawrence Block very early in his career. He wrote this one in 1959 under the pseudonym Andrew Shaw.

Linda Shepard Is a new student at Clifton College. She managed to get through to graduation from high school with her virginity intact. Now that she’s a college girl she intends to lose her virginity as quickly as possible. Nice girls don’t have sex with boys at high school but it’s different for college girls.

Clifton College might not be the nation’s most prestigious seat of higher learning but from the female point of view it has one very big thing in its favour. The men in the student body outnumber the women three-to-one.

The first boy she meets is Joe. He’s a really nice boy, very kind and considerate and obviously hopelessly in love with her. Naturally she’s not interested in him.

Then she meets Don Gibbs, the editor of the student newspaper. Don is cynical and sarcastic, totally self-obsessed and has a reputation as an inveterate womaniser. He obviously doesn’t love Linda but he does want to get her into her pants. Naturally she falls for him. Soon she’s spending so much time having sex with Don that she doesn’t have time for boring stuff like going to classes.

When their relationship predictably crashes and burns she decides to devote her life to the only thing she considers herself to be any good at - having sex. Pretty soon she’s had sex with most of the men on campus. She does try to keep within reasonable limits - no more than two men per night. Except for gang bangs, but even then she doesn’t take on more than half a dozen guys at a time.

She even has a fling with her female roommate.

She discovers another passion in life - gin.

She feels that she’s achieved her destiny. She’s the college tramp. Every man on campus knows he can have her. He just has to ask. Sometimes she’s happy with her new life of non-stop sex but then the self-pity kicks in and she starts to hate herself.

And life throws her a few extra curve balls to keep her on her toes.

Like a lot of sleaze fiction of this era this is essentially romantic melodrama but with lots of sex (although the sex is described very coyly).

What’s most interesting is what the novel says about the sleaze fiction genre in the late 50s and very early 60s. Both writers and publishers had to tread very carefully. And what’s interesting about that genre is what it says about a society both fascinated by and terrified of sex. A sleaze writer could certainly get away with a book in which the heroine has sex with dozens of men (and Linda’s score probably runs into the hundreds rather than the dozens), as long as the author was careful to give the impression of disapproving of such wickedness. The author had to make it clear that bad girls like Linda always pay for their sins. He had to go through the motions of appearing to hold to rigid traditional moral standards.

In fact most of these writers did not share these traditional moral views at all, so the challenge was to write a book in such a way as to avoid getting into trouble with the law whilst also sneakily suggesting that maybe girls like Linda were not monsters of depravity and did not deserve to suffer horrible fates. So you always have to bear in mind that the reader is not necessarily supposed to take everything literally. When Linda indulges herself in orgies of shame and guilt over her sexual adventures we’re not necessarily supposed to agree with her savage self-denunciations. Some readers at the time may have judged such characters harshly but the writers may have hoped that their readers would be less condemnatory.

Endings also presented a challenge. The writer again had to be careful not to outrage traditional morality, but would often try to come up with an ending that wasn’t merely a straightforward punishment for breaking the moral rules.

Exploitation movies of the 50s would often include a “square-up” - sometimes a prologue in which someone purporting to be a psychiatrist or a cop would warn of the deadly menace to America of immorality, while the movie itself gleefully exploited that very immorality. Sleaze fiction often did something similar (although not so obviously) with endings that managed to have it both ways - with the bad girl redeemed without being destroyed.

So on the surface Campus Tramp is a very conventional moral tale but it’s a bit more intriguing when you read between the lines. It’s not one of Lawrence Block’s finest moments but it has points of interest.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

David Lewis’s The Omega Assignment

The Omega Assignment, published in 1976, was the second of David Lewis’s two Steve Savage spy thrillers. I believe that was the extent of Lewis’s literary endeavours. His real name was Patton D. Lewis. That’s all I know about him. Given that his spy hero is British it’s reasonable to assume that Lewis was British.

Steve Savage is a photo-journalist who does occasional jobs for the British intelligence services. He’s strictly a free-lancer. He does intelligence jobs for the cash.

This adventure starts with the sinking of an incredibly expensive and luxurious private yacht, the Cytherea, not far from Cyprus. The Cytherea was owned by a wealthy German businessman, Herr Braeder. The sinking was no accident. There appear to be no survivors.

The Cytherea was a floating pleasure place. The pleasures it catered for were the pleasures of the flesh. Whatever your sexual tastes, no matter how outré, the girls on the Cytherea would ensure that those tastes would be accommodated.

Half a dozen of the passengers on the Cytherea’s final voyage were senior NATO officers. They did not meet easy deaths when the ship went down, not did any of the passengers or crew. Although nobody knows it in fact one man and three of the girls survived. Their survival was not due to luck.

Shortly afterwards Steve Savage is offered a photographic assignment. A German magazine wants photos of the wreck. This surprises Steve, since as far as he was aware the wreck had not been located. He will be working with a journalist named Destiny Blaine. Destiny is a pretty blonde American, very feminine, although feminine girls usually don’t carry Colt .45s in their handbags.

Steve and Giorgio (an expert Cypriot diver with whom Steve has worked before) find the wreck easily enough but in that sunken ship there are a lot of things that are puzzling and disturbing. There are signs that some terrible things went on before the ship went down. Steve isn’t entirely surprised when it turns out that someone does not want them to investigate that wreck, and will take drastic steps to dissuade them.

Things get more dangerous and more violent. Steve also figures out that that there are a lot of things he wasn’t told. He is half inclined to have no more to do with any of it. That changes when events transpire that give him a personal stake in the case. In fact two personal stakes.

There is non-stop action. The plot isn’t anything special, it’s pretty standard spy stuff, but the book powers along at such a pace that you don’t have time to worry about plot weaknesses. The action scenes are violent and exciting and very well handled.

There’s some underwater action, always a bonus as far as I’m concerned.

There’s definitely a brutal edge to this book. There are scenes of horrific violence and torture, and they’re described very graphically. There are also touches of perversity.

There’s some sex but it’s pretty tame by mid-70s standards.

Steve Savage is a fairly stock-standard secret agent hero. He’s more cynical than Bond. He doesn’t care about ideology. He just wants to live to get paid. Destiny is a likeable enough heroine. There’s no real depth to any of the characters.

The novel does have a memorable villain. He’s a diabolical criminal mastermind but more insane than most of that breed and more sexually perverse. And he has a proper diabolical criminal mastermind secret headquarters.

I have no idea why this author wrote just two spy thrillers. On the basis of this one I’d have expected him to have a decent career writing pulpy action-adventure thrillers.

The Omega Assignment is fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

I discovered this book through a rather favourable review at Paperback Warrior.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Blue Fire Pearl - The Complete Adventures of Singapore Sammy, Volume 1

George F. Worts (1892-1967) was a prolific pulp writer under his own name and also using the pseudonym Loring Brent. The Blue Fire Pearl: The Complete Adventures of Singapore Sammy volume 1 includes five stories featuring the young American adventurer known as Singapore Sammy. Sammy is on a quest to find his father. He’s tracked him all over the Far East.

These stories, written in the late 1920s, are typical of the tropical adventures pulp genre and they’re fairly good examples of that genre.

In The Blue Fire Pearl Singapore Sammy is confined in the dungeons of an evil crazy maharajah. Sammy is still looking for his father, not out of filial affection but because his old man cost him his inheritance and he wants that money. His father has two obsessions, elephants and pearls. This maharajah’s realm has plenty of both. Sammy is to be pitted against another American captive in a boxing match. The winner gets his freedom and a fabulous blue pearl worth a fortune. The loser will be executed.

A temporary alliance might be useful, but it might also be dangerous. A competent story.

The second story, Cobra, also concerns pearls. Specifically a black pearl. Singapore Sammy is robbed and left for dead and he’s out for revenge. All he knows about the man responsible for the attack is that the guy has the eyes of a cobra. Sammy also has to help out an old buddy down on his luck. Maybe he can do that in a way that will further his bid for vengeance. What Sammy needs to do first is to turn a small amount of money into a large amount and he has a rather clever plan to do just that.

Sammy’s plan is clever and the story itself is very clever and a lot of fun.

In South of Sulu that blue pearl leads Sammy into another dangerous adventure. He is tempted by stories that the pearl is one of two identical pearls and of course the two together would be worth a vast fortune. He also feels that he may be getting close to finding his father. Perhaps it’s the thought of owning two blue pearls that makes him careless. He falls victim to a card sharp. He finds himself in big trouble, and those sharks (real sharks not card sharks) may be an even bigger problem.

Plenty of action in this tale and a nicely gripping finale in which Sammy faces apparent certain doom.

In The Pink Elephant Sammy really does find a pink elephant. At least it’s a baby elephant that is not the normal elephant colour and and that makes it sacred. And being sacred makes it fabulously valuable. Unfortunately Sammy is not the only adventurer who knows about this elephant. Sammy hoped to get rich and win the favour of the King of Siam but now his problem is how to get out of the kingdom alive. He is very hot on his father’s trail now but his father is smart and treacherous and ruthless.

Some good double-crosses and some humour in this entertaining tale.

Octopus is a story about a real octopus and a man known as the Octopus. Both are equally dangerous. It starts with two American sailors being fleeced in a card game. This is a situation that is always likely to end in a brawl but in this case the consequences are much more serious.

One unexpected consequence is that Sammy turns treasure-hunter, in partnership with one of the sailors. It’s sunken treasure and deep-sea diving for treasure is perilous at the best of times. We’re talking old school deep-sea diving here, not scuba diving. Finding the treasure is easy. The problems start once they find the treasure. A fine exciting story.

All five stories are good. The first story is slightly the weakest but the other four are excellent.

This is fine pulp adventure fiction that makes good use of its exotic settings and provides ample thrills. Highly recommended.

The Blue Fire Pearl is one of the titles in the excellent Argosy Library series from Steeger Books.

I’ve reviewed one of the collections of Peter the Brazen Far East adventure tales, The City of Stolen Lives (written as Loring Brent). I think the Singapore Sammy stories are stronger than the Peter the Brazen stories.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Eugene Thomas’s Bait for Men

Bait for Men collects the first of Eugene Thomas’s stories about Vivian Legrand, The Lady From Hell, published in Detective Fiction Weekly during the mid-1930s. She was a notorious criminal and blackmailer who later reformed. This volume contains the early Lady From Hell stories and in these tales she certainly shows no signs of being a reformed character.

These are linked short stories so they really do need to be read in sequence. In fact it’s more like an episodic novel.

While the stories date from the mid-30s they’re set in the period before the First World War.

The first story gives us her backstory. She is the daughter of a ruthless gambling club owner and criminal in Shanghai. He is Duke Donellan. Duke is putting the screws on the hapless Alan Legrand. Legrand owes Duke a lot of money. Duke doesn’t want the money back, he wants to use the debt to force Legrand to do his bidding. Poor Legrand is also hopelessly in love with Duke’s daughter Vivian. He hasn’t figured out that Vivian has inherited her father’s ruthless streak. Legrand and Vivian hatch a plan but will they prove to be clever enough to get the best of Duke?

Vivian’s story continues in Bait for Men as she gets mixed up in a plot against a rajah in Malaya, and lands herself in trouble. Vivian is still inexperienced in the word of crime and intrigue but she’s learning fast. She has acquired a partner, Doc Wylie. And she has learnt to think on her feet.

No-one would be crazy enough to try to blackmail the British Secret Service but in The Episode of the Secret Service Blackmail that is exactly what Vivian Legrand does. The case involves a stolen letter that could be political dynamite. Vivian did not steal the letter but she knows who did. The British Secret Service is desperate. For three thousand pounds Vivian can save them a great deal of embarrassment and anguish.

What Vivian doesn’t know is that there’s more than embarrassment at stake for the British. The entire future of British India hangs in the balance. Vivian doesn’t care about British India but with so much at stake there could be a chance of gaining more than three thousand pounds. She is forced to behave ruthlessly, but that doesn’t bother her one bit.

The Episode of the Forty Murderers concerns a prisoner in the Andaman Islands. That prisoner knows something that could be worth a lot of money to several different countries, and could mean a hefty profit for Vivian Legrand. She will have to engineer a gaolbreak. That certainly doesn’t bother her.

In The Episode of the Grave Robbers Vivian is intrigued by an old woman who has been losing vast amounts of money at the casino at Monte Carlo. The old woman lives in squalor and has no money, so where does the money she squanders at the casino come from? Vivian suspects that the money is not come by honestly, and that could be an opportunity for a ruthless blackmailer like herself.

Vivian gets into more trouble in The Episode of the Levantine Monster and has more narrow escapes. She is betrayed by a woman but Vivian knows how to deal with such situations. She has the girl sold into slavery.

Vivian was always likely to end up behind bars, which happens in The Episode of the League of Death. But you can’t keep a bad woman down. Vivian certainly has no intention of remaining in a Turkish prison. Getting out will require a considerable amount of ruthlessness, a quality she has in abundance.

In The Episode of the Orient Express Robbery Vivian finds herself held captive by a bandit chieftain. He wants to marry her. Her other problem is that the bandit chieftain’s daughter wants her dead. She comes up with a plan to evade the marriage and stay alive and if it all goes well she will also pull off one of the most spectacular robberies in history - robbing the Orient Express. Her plan is as devious as you would expect.

In The Episode of the House of Secrets a crooked American banker on the run needs help. Perhaps Vivian will help him. At a price. All he has to do is to trust her. People have trusted her before. They always regretted it.

The Pounce of Death involves an inheritance and Vivian’s devious scheme to get a share to which she is most definitely not entitled. There’s more than one criminal conspiracy in this tale, and more than one criminal gang. Vivian has no doubt she will come out on top as usual.

Vivian has no redeeming qualities. She is a thief, a blackmailer and a murderess. She is cruel, vindictive and has no moral scruples. She is also intelligent, resourceful and daring and one can’t help developing a liking for her. She’s a classic sexy bad girl. She’s also an early example of an anti-heroine.

The stories are clever, fast-paced, devious and fun. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Emmett McDowell's Citadel of the Green Death

Citadel of the Green Death is a short novel by Emmett McDowell originally published in the fall 1948 issue of Planet Stories.

Emmett McDowell (1914-1975) was a very obscure American science fiction writer.

The novel is set several thousand years in the future. Joel Hakkyt has been convicted on manslaughter and maladjustment. He is to be sent to the Experimental Station where the maladjusted are used as guinea pigs in scientific research. No-one ever leaves the Experimental Station alive. Joel is however offered an alternative. Selected convicts are sent to Asgard, a planet in the Centauri system, rather the Experimental Station. Slave labour is desperately needed for the colony on Asgard.

Joel is puzzled by a cryptic message given to him by a guard.

Asgard is a jungle planet and it’s rather hostile. The plants can move about and some are carnivorous. It is believed that there are human-like creatures on Asgard. Their villages have been found. Curiously the creatures themselves have never been seen.

Joel makes a deadly enemy on the voyage to Asgard but he also meets a pretty slave girl named Tamis. There’s a certain immediate attraction between Joel and Tamis.

Joel will find out that he has already met one of the human-like inhabitants of Asgard. They are the Ganelons. Physically them seem very human indeed but in other ways they have evolved very differently. Joel will also find himself mixed up in a simmering revolt.

He has also attracted the attention of Priscilla Cameron, the notoriously wicked daughter of the governor of Asgard. Priscilla decides to buy Joel as her personal slave. She’s had a good look at his body and she likes what she sees.

There’s also something strange about Joel. He’s not just maladjusted.

And there isn’t just one revolt in the offing on Asgard. There are plots and counter-plots and conspiracies within conspiracies.

This novel deals with one of those “utopia gone wrong” futures. Human civilisation seems to be thriving but anyone who doesn’t fit in is ruthlessly weeded out. Humanity has already wiped out the human-like civilisations of Mars and Venus. There’s a subtle but definite edge of totalitarianism to this future human civilisation. It’s a society that seems to be run by doctors and scientists but it’s far from being a humane society, and aliens who encounter humans can look forward to extinction or exploitation. The scientists believe in rational scientific breeding and have eliminated useless outdated concepts like love.

The novel explores evolutionary alternatives. The Ganelons have primitive technology but they have developed some remarkable powers over their own bodies. They have some telepathic powers (an incredibly popular theme in science fiction from the 40s to the 70s). They also have other abilities which explain why the colonists on Asgard have never seen them.

Their society is based on coöperation rather than exploitation.

McDowell isn’t a great prose stylist and this novel is a bit rough around the edges. It’s typical of quite a bit of pulp science fiction of its era, a pulp action-adventure tale that also tries to deal with some science fiction Big Ideas. That’s one of the things that makes the pulp science fiction of that era so fascinating. In this case the Big Ideas are ideas that other writers were addressing as well. McDowell does a reasonable job grappling with ideas about the future of the species whilst still providing plenty of romance and mayhem. And yes, it includes space opera staples such as battles with ray guns.

Citadel of the Green Death is fast-paced and entertaining and manages to deal with potentially silly concepts quite skilfully. Highly recommended.

This novel is paired with Dwight D. Swain’s Drummers of Daugovo in one of Armchair Fiction’s excellent two-novel paperback editions.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise: A Taste for Death

A Taste for Death, published in 1969, was the fourth of Peter O’Donnell’s eleven Modesty Blaise novels. Modesty Blaise of course made her first appearance in comic-strip form in 1963. O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise comics are excellent but the novels are even better, having a lot more depth.

Modesty Blaise is one of the great fictional spy/crime thriller characters. Her nightmarish childhood left her psychologically damaged but she learnt to turn her psychological damage into assets that made her more dangerous and more formidable. She acquired the ability to shut down completely psychologically whenever she was in a really unpleasant situation and this now gives her an extraordinary resistance to pain and suffering.

Modesty became a very successfully criminal. She is now not so much reformed as retired. Like that other great fictional rogue, the Saint, she feels no remorse or guilt for her criminal past. She gave up crime because she was smart enough to quit while she was ahead. Like Simon Templar she has an amazing ability to find adventure. In fact adventure finds her. She sometimes does jobs for a British counter-intelligence agency but she is strictly a freelancer. Modesty is her own boss. If the agency wants her to do a job for them she does it in her own way on her own terms. Modesty takes orders from no-one.

She is also rather complex emotionally and sexually. Willie Garvin was her righthand man in her criminal days and he is still her righthand man. The emotional bond between them is intense but unconventional. They know they can never sleep together. Which is not to suggest that Modesty has a problem with sex. She has a healthy enthusiasm for it. She has no difficulty forming emotional attachments with men, but those attachments remain loose and temporary.

A Taste for Death begins when Willie, on holiday on a remote island, witnesses a murder. He witnesses it at long range and cannot prevent it. Two hoods are about to murder two girls but they kill only one of them. For some unknown reason they want the other girl alive and undamaged.

Willie rescues the surviving girl. She is a blind Canadian girl named Dinah. And the reason the hoods wanted her alive cannot be because they hope to hold her for ransom. She has no money and her family has no money. She also possesses no knowledge likely to prove useful to a criminal gang or a spy ring.

Willie sees something else that really interests him. He sees two men on a yacht. They are clearly awaiting the return of those two hoods. Willie recognises both men on the boat, and one of them is Gabriel. If you’re familiar with the previous adventures of Modesty and Willie you know that Gabriel is one of the most formidable villains they have ever encountered. If Gabriel is involved then something big is about to go down.

While this is happening an archaeologist is murdered in London. There is no obvious connection between these two events but of course a connection does eventually emerge. And the reason for Gabriel’s interest in Dinah slowly becomes clear. Dinah has a peculiar talent. A very useful talent.

Gabriel is not the principal villain on this story. That rôle is played by Simon Delicata, a giant of a man and a man far more dangerous and evil than Gabriel. He’s a wonderful creation.

Most of the action takes place in the desert, at the site of an archaeological dig. Modesty and Willie have a plan but it misfires and this time there seems likely to be no way they can escape with their lives. But Modesty and Willie never give up and Dinah’s strange talent comes to their aid.

There is action and excitement, there is a vast criminal conspiracy, there is suspense. The peculiar talents of Modesty and Willie are called for. While they both possess the kinds of abilities you expect, such as formidable combat skills, what really makes Modesty and Willie so dangerous is their extraordinary psychological self-training. Both Modesty and Willie will face fights to the death with the odds stacked against them but it is their mental toughness and flexibility that will give them a chance of survival. Modesty also has a frightening willingness to put herself in extreme danger quite willingly, and to endure tremendous punishment. It’s a price she is prepared to pay if it will give her a psychological edge.

A Taste for Death is top-notch action adventure fiction. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed the earlier Modesty Blaise novels, Modesty BlaiseSabre-Tooth and I, Lucifer, which are all excellent. I’ve also reviewed several of the earlier volumes of the collected Modesty Blaise comics, The Gabriel Set-Up, The Black Pearl and The Hell-Makers which I also highly recommend.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Battle Mask - Mack Bolan The Executioner 3

Battle Mask, published by Pinnacle Books in 1970, is the third of the Mack Bolan (or The Executioner) series of men’s action-adventure novels. The series eventually ran to a total of 464 novels over the course of half a century.

All but one of the first 38 novels were written by Don Pendleton (1927-1995). Pendleton later sold the rights to the character and apparently the series later changed dramatically. This is my first Mack Bolan novel so I can’t comment on these later changes.

Mack Bolan is a Vietnam vet who has been conducting a private war against the Mafia, with his own small private army. We get some backstory on the character. He was a sniper in Vietnam. He has a personal grudge against the Mafia and the methods he uses against them are the ones he learnt in Vietnam.

Now, for various reasons, he has to work alone and the Mafia is closing in on him. The odds against him are impossible. There may however be one way out. He could get a new face. He happens to know a surgeon (an ex-army doctor) who could perform such an operation.

First Mack has to throw a Mafia death squad off his scent. The opening pages are non-stop action as Mack uses every trick he knows to keep one step ahead of those Mafia goons.

Mack does not intend to keep running. His war against the Mafia is far from over.

His target will be West Coast capo Julian DiGeorge. Only a crazy man would try to infiltrate himself into the upper echelons of a Mafia Family operating entirely on his own but Mack Bolan intends to do just that. He makes use of the capo’s daughter Andrea, taking advantage of her uneasy relationship with her father.

The problem he faces is that sooner or later, even with a new face, his cover is going to be blown. Mobsters check up on new recruits very very thoroughly. The other problem he has it that the cops are after him. They don’t approve of his methods. Officially at least. Unofficially he may get some help from some cops.

What follows is a great deal of mayhem and carnage and Pendleton handles the action scenes with plenty of energy and style. Some of the violence is fairly grisly. Except in the opening scenes Bolan doesn’t rely on fancy weaponry. He relies on his jungle warfare training and his wits rather than massive firepower.

Bolan’s strategy is to pit one faction of mobsters against the other.

This is a classic one-man vigilante tale. Vigilantes are not overly attractive but Pendleton makes sure our sympathies remain with Bolan. He pulls no punches in describing the brutal methods used by the Mob. However ruthless Bolan might be his enemies are much much worse. We’re also told that Bolan saved the lives of lots of children in Vietnam. He’s a merciless killer with a sensitive side.

Pendleton doesn’t get into politics. This is a straight organised crime story.

The sleaze factor is non-existent. There’s no sex at all. There’s an attraction between Bolan and Andrea but nothing happens.

There’s some decent suspense. It seems that DiGeorge and his goons must at any moment figure out out that they’ve been conned and that their new recruit is actually their most feared enemy, Mack Bolan the Executioner.

It’s a pretty dark book. Lots of innocent people, good people, get hurt very very badly. Bolan is aware that his crusade against the Mafia has put those people in danger. For Bolan it’s a war but innocent civilians get killed in wars. He’s also aware that he’s putting Andrea in danger. There’s not a huge amount of moral complexity in this tale but there is some. And there are lots of betrayals.

Overall it’s a wild action-filled ride. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Gaston Leroux’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Gaston Leroux’s impossible crime novel The Perfume of the Lady in Black (the original French title is Le parfum de la dame en noir) was published in 1908.

Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) is best known in the English-speaking world as the author of The Phantom of the Opera. Keen detective fiction fans are also aware of his 1907 locked-room mystery The Mystery of the Yellow Room but Leroux is not regarded as a big deal in the Anglophone world. Leroux was however a prolific and extremely successful author and in France he is definitely a big deal, being considered one of the greats of genre fiction.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a kind of sequel to The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Once again the hero is Joseph Rouletabille, newspaper reporter and amateur detective. Joseph Rouletabille was a mere teenager when the events recounted in The Mystery of the Yellow Room took place. Since this book constantly refers to the events of The Mystery of the Yellow Room you probably should read that one first. To avoid spoilers I’ll be very vague about plot details.

There’s a man who should be dead but may not be. He was (or is) a nefarious villain, cunning and ruthless.

Rouletabille has become obsessed with the perfume of the Lady in Black. It’s a childhood memory with immense significance for him.

Most of the story takes place in a castle on the border between France and Italy. The castle was built in the 12th century, extended in the 15th century and again in the 17th century. It’s a maze of intact and partially ruined towers on a peninsula which is almost an island. It’s a great setting for a story of mystery and terror and Leroux makes extensive and skilful use of it. The castle has withstood attack many times and now Rouletabille is hoping it can withstand a more modern type of attack - by a master criminal.

Leroux goes to extraordinary lengths to convince us that the impossible crime which occurs really is impossible. He provides us with floor plans. The big problem is that there is one body too many.

There are several murders and several disappearances. Rouletabille is sure that Larsan is not far away.

The plot hinges on a device that was immensely popular in the mystery and thriller fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s device which most modern readers will find much too far-fetched. The plot is ingenious but contains a number of elements of doubtful plausibility. Very few readers today will be satisfied with the solution to the impossible crime angle.

Modern readers will also have problems with the pacing.

There are two major plot strands. One concerns events in the here and now and one concerns events in the past, events which concern Rouletabille. The perfume of the Lady in Black continues to haunt him. He feels it is the key not just to his past but to his future happiness and sanity.

Rouletabille is a boy genius detective who enjoys keeping his secrets. He knows certain things which he has reasons not to reveal to anyone else. His plan to apprehend a dangerous criminal depends on secrecy.

I like the breathless sensational tone and the general atmosphere of overheated emotional hysteria.

The concept of fair play had not yet become an accepted part of the detective fiction genre but if you’re familiar with the conventions of the crime fiction of that era you will have your suspicions as to at least a part of what is going on.

There are also several interlocking romance subplots.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is, to be honest, mainly of historical interest. It has some slight affinities to the 19th century English sensation novel. I enjoyed it well enough but you do have to be a fan of the crime fiction of that era. If you fall into the category you’ll find it worth a look.

There have been several film adaptations of this novel, including Francesco Barilli’s giallo Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Maison de rendez-vous

La Maison de rendez-vous is a 1965 novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008). Robbe-Grillet received great acclaim in his native France as a novelist, belonging to the so-called New Novel (Nouveau Roman) school. This was one of the many variants of modernism with perhaps some touches of what would later become known as postmodernism. Writers such as Robbe-Grillet were not notably concerned with traditional approaches to narrative and characterisation.

Robbe-Grillet also achieve both fame and notoriety as a filmmaker. His movies play around with conventional narrative and include some very marked surrealist influences. He is best-known in the English-speaking as the screenwriter of the superb and influential 1961 movie Last Year at Marienbad (which was directed by Alain Resnais but feels much more like an Alain Robbe-Grillet movie).

La Maison de rendez-vous concerns certain events connected with the Blue Villa in Hong Kong. This is a kind of salon presided over by Lady Ava. Or perhaps it’s more of a high-class brothel. There are two murders although one might be suicide. There is a mysterious man known as Sir Ralph but he is also known as The American even though he might not be an American.

There is a beautiful Eurasian servant girl with a large dog on a leash. Her name is Kim. She keeps popping up. It might not necessarily always be the same servant girl. Sometimes it might be her sister, if she has a sister. Her sister’s name might be Kim.

There is a young Japanese prostitute named Kito. There is drug-smuggling going on. There might be espionage as well. There are subtle hints of sadomasochism, and possibly vampirism, and possibly human sacrifice.

The entertainment at the Blue Villa includes theatrical performances. The star is Lauren, or her name might be Loraine. Sir Ralph is obsessed by her and wants to buy her, if he can raise the cash.

There are interesting groups of erotic statuary surrounding the Blue Villa. The theatrical performances sometimes mimic the statuary.

The events surrounding the Blue Villa are recounted many times and they never turn out exactly the same way twice. The characters are somewhat malleable as well. Their names change slightly. It’s not entirely certain Kito exists. Or she may have been killed.

The narrative is unstable and fragmented and non-linear and it is impossible to know which events really happened. There are point of view shifts and occasionally there’s a first-person narrator. The characters are unstable.

There are certainly some surrealist influences, as there are in Robbe-Grillet’s movies. Maybe we’re in the world of dream, or maybe we’re in the world of books which are not necessarily the same as real life. There are no concessions to conventional realism. The characters are not real people, they’re characters in a story. Or maybe that’s what real life is.

There’s an atmosphere of slightly off-kilter eroticism, just as in his movies.

What really links this novel to Robbe-Grillet’s movies is its playfulness. In his movies Robbe-Grillet plays games with the viewer but the viewer is welcome to participate and Robbe-Grillet wants the viewer to have as much fun as he’s having. This novel takes more or less the same approach. With Robbe-Grillet you don’t want to agonise too much about meanings or waste time looking for messages. It’s more enjoyable to go with the flow and enjoy the ride.

If you’ve seen Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Robbe-Grillet’s own films such as Trans-Europ-Express (1966) and La Belle Captive (1983) and the wonderful L’immortelle (1963) then you know what to expect from this novel. If you enjoyed those movies you’ll enjoy this novel just as much. I love his movies and I loved La Maison de rendez-vous. It's quite easy to find in an English translation.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Gil Brewer's Nude on Thin Ice

Nude on Thin Ice is a 1960 noir novel by Gil Brewer. The protagonists in noir fiction (or movies) can be led to disaster by various things but usually it’s greed or lust. Gil Brewer tended to be more interested in the lust angle.

In this novel we have a protagonist who seems to be motivated by greed but lust will soon put in an appearance.

Ken McCall is a loser. He wants to be a winner. He wants money. He wants money so badly he’s prepared to do anything to get it, anything that is other than work for it. Like a lot of noir protagonists he thinks work is for losers. To get real money you need to wait for your one big chance and have the daring and the guts to grab it.

Ken thinks his opportunity has arrived when he gets a letter from his friend Carl Shroeder. Carl is dead. The letter, written shortly before Carl’s death, makes an odd request and that request seems like Ken’s big chance. Carl is worried about how his widow Nanette will cope without him. Maybe Ken could go to her and comfort her.

Carl was rich. Very rich. And Ken always wanted to have Nanette. He figures he should be able to get his hands on both Carl’s millions and Nanette.

The first thing Ken has to do is ditch his current girlfriend Betty. He isn’t bothered by that. He only ever wanted her for sex. Dumping her will be easy. Or so Ken thinks.

When he gets to Carl’s isolated mansion he realises he has walked into a situation that is dangerous, crazy and evil. He knows he should head straight back where he came from but by now he has met Justine. Justine lives at the Shroeder mansion. He has no idea who she is or where she fits in. What he does know is that she is young and gorgeous and horny. She is frantic to get Ken’s trousers off. They begin what in 1960 was known as a torrid love affair.

Ken hasn’t yet figured out what the wrongness is in this house, but he knows there’s a real wrongness there. By the time he figures it out it is too late. He’s hooked. He cannot escape.

There’s a wrongness in Ken as well. He’s a loser and a louse. He’s had plenty of women but he’s never loved any of them. Now he might be in love, or maybe it’s the money. Ken isn’t sure which he wants most, the woman or the money. He thinks it doesn’t matter because he thinks he can have both. The price will be high but he’s already gone so far he might as well keep going. He’s not a sympathetic protagonist but we understand his motivations. They’re lousy, but we understand them. We understand why he thinks he’s making good choices when in fact he’s making seriously bad ones.

There’s not just a femme fatale. Ken is mixed up with three women and any or all of them could lead him to disaster. They have their own agendas. Ken has never been able to put himself in another person’s shoes and he doesn’t understand women at all.

He understands himself, up to a point. That’s the closest he comes to having a redeeming quality. He has no illusions about himself. He doesn’t think he’s a nice guy. He knows that he isn’t. It has just never bothered him.

His greed for money and his obsession with sex are two sides of the same coin. When he wants something he convinces himself that he’s entitled to it. He thinks he’s entitled to money and sex.

It isn’t easy to make the reader care about a guy like Ken but Brewer manages it. Ken is trapped and there’s no way out and we can feel his desperation. To be fair to him, he’s only ever been a small-time thief and chiseller. He never wanted to get involved in murder. He is shocked by it. But he is swept along by events and he can’t see the extent to which he is not in control.

It should be added that the female characters are as depraved and corrupt as Ken McCall. They’re not women that a sensible man would have anything to do with, but then Ken McCall is not sensible when it comes to women. And he’s not exactly the kind of guy that a sane sensible woman would choose. All the characters in the book are people you get mixed up with in noir world.

This is a very sleazy book but Brewer does sleaze extremely well. It’s also very very noir. An excellent book, highly recommended.

By the way, there is a nude in the book and she is on ice. Stark House have paired this one with another Gil Brewer noir novel, Memory of Passion, in a double-header paperback edition.

Monday, January 1, 2024

best reads of 2023

I read 141 books last year. I read 30 sci-fi novels. The best of them was Harry Harrison’s semi-comic space opera adventure romp The Stainless Steel Rat (1961).

I read 37 crime novels in 2023. The highlight was Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart from 1965. I just love novels about con-artists. And this is a great one.

In 2023 I read 29 books that could at least vaguely be called spy stories. If I had to pick one highlight it would be Peter O'Donnell's The Black Pearl, a collection of four Modesty Blaise comic-strip adventures.

And last year I read 20 books fitting vaguely into the thriller/adventure genres. My favourite was Ian MacAlister's superb "treasure hunt in the desert" tale Valley of the Assassins.