Monday, April 29, 2024

Don Tracy’s Criss-Cross

Criss-Cross is a 1934 noir novel by Don Tracy, an American writer who seems to have been overshadowed by Hammett, Cain et al.

I confess that I know little about Don Tracy (1905-76) other than the fact that he wrote quite a few noir novels, some historical novels and some TV and movie novelisations.

Noir fiction had not yet been given a name and at the time this would have been thought of as hardboiled crime. But noir fiction already existed and Criss-Cross is the real deal. It’s also a heist story.

The protagonist-narrator is a washed-up boxer who goes by the name of Johnny Thompson. Johnny is a total loser and he’s as dumb as a rock but he thinks he’s pretty smart, which is of course very noir.

He does admit that he’s not smart when it comes to Anna. He’s crazy in love with her. Anna goes out with him when he has money. When he doesn’t have money he can forget about it. They have a good time together but Anna’s idea of a good time with a guy always involves money. And even when he has money she won’t go to bed with him. There’s clearly no future in this for Johnny but he’s obsessed with this dame.

Johnny has a rival for Anna’s affections, Slim. Slim always has plenty of cash. Johnny can’t figure out where Slim gets all this money.

Johnny works as a security guard in an armoured car. It pays OK, but not enough if he hopes to get Anna. He also has a kid brother to worry about.

Then Johnny is offered a chance to make some real money. It’s highly illegal and it involves that armoured car but the plan is fool-proof. This story is full of guys who are dumb but think they’re smart.

You know that in a heist story the heist will not go off the way it’s supposed to but in this case things go off the rails in an interesting and devious manner.

The Anna situation gets complicated. She gets married to Slim but as soon as she’s married she starts sleeping with Johnny. Johnny convinces himself that this means she’s starting to love him. The Anna situation is definitely going to complicate the heist.

Johnny is not really evil, he’s not even by nature criminally inclined, but he just can’t think straight where Anna is involved. And he keeps thinking he’s got things all figured out.

There’s only one decent character in this tale. Bertha is a whore but she’s a really nice girl and she’s crazy about Johnny. She’s decent and honest but Johnny doesn’t want her.

Anna is of course the femme fatale. The femme fatale had not yet been given a name but she definitely existed. In movies she was called the vamp. The most interesting femmes fatales are always the ones that the reader can’t be sure of. They might turn out to be evil spider women or they might turn out to have valid reasons for their actions or they might turn out to be good girls who have landed themselves in a jam. Anna is one of the ones with this touch of ambiguity. She appears to be heartless and scheming but you just never know what she might do.

There’s a bit of action and a bit of violence but mostly this is a twisted tale of unhealthy love and lust, and betrayal. And double crosses. With a nicely twisted ending.

There’s also plenty of noir desperation, delusionalism and typical noir bad decision-making and poor judgment.

Criss-Cross was filmed in 1949 by the great Robert Siodmak. Obviously some changes were made but it’s a superb example of film noir. I've reviewed the movie here.

Criss-Cross is top-notch noir fiction. Highly recommended.

Stark House have re-issued this novel paired with another Don Tracy title, Road Trip, under their Staccato imprint in their Jazz Age Noir series.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Joseph E. Kelleam’s Hunters Out of Time

Joseph E. Kelleam’s Hunters Out of Time (apparently also published as The Little Men) appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories in February 1959 and in book form in 1960.

Joseph E. Kelleam (1913-1975) was an American science fiction writer of whom I know nothing.

Jack Odin had been an army doctor. The Korean War convinced him that he did not want to be either a soldier or a doctor. Luckily for Jack he has a lot of money so he’s taking some time off to think. Then he receives some mysterious visitors. There’s a lovely young woman named Maya. She is accompanied by four dwarves and a wounded man. Jack patches the man up. His visitors depart but Maya leaves him with a fancy key, assuring him that he will need it.

Much to his surprise Jack is later arrested for aiding and abetting a murderer. That wounded man had killed a very high-ranking general. The case against Jack is flimsy and the charges are soon dismissed.

Then his visitors turn up again. They invite him to visit their land. Jack, being rather bored with life (and being rather taken with Maya’s beauty), accepts.

It turns out that their land is the land of Opal, deep beneath the surface of the Earth. At first it seems like a kind of underground fairy kingdom, complete with a miniature artificial sun.

Opal is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s no better or worse than our world. There is violence and ambition and treachery but to Jack it appears to have a sense of purpose missing in our world.

The dwarves are not human. They are Neeblings. They are the little people of so many legends. Maya is not human either. She is a Bron. The Bron come from a very distant planet. The Bron and the Neeblings share the world of Opal but there are plenty of tensions between them.

The inhabitants of Opal have always avoided contact with humans. Opal now faces a deadly threat and they may mo longer able to avoid such contact. There is also a bitter power struggle going on in Opal. Jack Odin is somewhat caught in the middle and being human he is not entirely trusted by either the Bron or the Neeblings.

It’s the fact that Opal is neither a paradise nor a hell that is this novels’s most interesting feature. The author also throws all kinds of interesting things into the mix - the legends of Atlantis, the folk tales of the little people, sea serpents, dinosaurs, a giant spaceship, Norse mythology and some very advanced technology.

Having been written in 1959 it’s fair to say that to some degree it reflects the anxieties of its time, such as the Cold War. But happily Kelleam has no particular political axe to grind.

There’s some reasonably adept world-building. There is action (including plenty of sword-fights) and there is some low-key romance.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on questions of trust and loyalty. And plenty of emphasis on the doomed (or potentially doomed) lost civilisation angle.

Hunters Out of Time is by no means a neglected classic but it’s reasonably enjoyable and it’s worth a look.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Milton Lesser’s rather good Slaves to the Metal Horde in a two-novel paperback edition.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Dell Holland's The Far Out Ones

The Far Out Ones by Dell Holland is included in Stark House’s three-novel paperback edition A Beatnik Trio. It was published in 1963.

The authorship of late 50 and early 60s sleaze novels can be challenging to untangle. Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, prior to finding fame as crime writers, made a very good living churning out sleaze fiction using pseudonyms such as Andrew Shaw. They figured it would be cool if they could get other writers to ghost-write some of these novels. Which is how William R. Coons came into the picture. He wrote sleaze novels as Andrew Shaw and as Dell Holland. The Far Out Ones is one of the books he wrote as Dell Holland.

It has to be said that The Far Out Ones doesn’t have a huge amount to do with beatniks. The only beatnik is Jim, and he never considered himself a fully-fledged beatnik.

Jim is hitchhiking and gets picked up by two gorgeous young women, Sue and Joan. Sue and Joan are headed for New York. The three need a place to stay for night and end up at Zach’s Inn. The inn is hard to miss, what with the nude girl on the roof and all. Not a picture or a statue but a real nude girl. Her name is Emmy. She’s fixing the roof for her pa. Emmy isn’t keen on wearing clothes.

Her pa is Sam. He has a distant cousin by the name of Charlie working for him as handyman. Charlie belongs to the local tribe but they’re a bit embarrassed by him. Every time he ventures into the woods he gets lost. Charlie has no more idea how to survive in the woods than any greenhorn city boy.

Jim is keen to get Joan into bed. Sam and Charlie are equally keen to bed Sue. They all get their way. Sue is a very broadminded girl and she’s happy to have two men alternating as her bed partners. Joan is a bit more prim and proper but Jim’s charm wins her over and she’s soon shedding her clothes for him.

It’s all rather cosy, until disaster strikes. But it’s not a real disaster, since Sam ends up with quite a bit of money. Sam likes making his friends happy so they all head for new York. They end up in Greenwich Village. Emmy comes along as well - she has dreams of making it as a dancer.

Joan is the only one with any keenness for work. Emmy does however get a job as a belly dancer. Jim has decided to become a famous playwright. It sounds like a good way to make a living, as long as he doesn’t actually have to write plays. He thinks he’s found a way to make his plan work.

Along the way there’s lots of sex for everybody.

Despite the fact that some later scenes take place in the Village and despite Jim’s semi-beatnik status it’s a stretch to call this a beatnik novel. It’s basically just a sleaze novel.

A sleaze novel with major comic overtones. In fact at times it approaches farce. And it is genuinely amusing and pleasingly crazy and frenetic.

It’s also reasonably sexy, with the sex being described moderately graphic (by 1963 standards). One nice thing is that everybody enjoys the sex. The women enjoy it every bit as much as the men. This is a cheerfully amoral good-natured feel-good story. Nobody gets punished for having sex. Nobody gets punished for choosing freedom rather than the daily grind of a 9 to 5 job. It’s OK to have a good time. In that respect, in its rejection of the conventional social norms of its day, I guess it could be considered a sort of counterculture or beatnik novel.

This isn’t a work with any literary aspirations but it’s a lot of fun. Highly recommended.

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.