Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark

In the 1960s McFadden books published their After Dark series, a whole series of non-fiction sex and sin exposés focusing on the raunchy erotic night-life of various European cities. It included Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark, published in 1966.

There is of course no way of knowing how much of these books had some basis in fact and how much was wild journalistic exaggeration, wishful thinking or even pure fiction.

I’ve only read one other book in this series, Hamburg After Dark, but I think I’ve got the formula pretty well mapped out. The author purports to be a man of the world with an intimate knowledge of the erotic nightlife of the city in question. He gives the impression that he’s going to offer us a kind of documentary tour but what we mostly get are lots of personal anecdotes most of which are fairly obviously pure fantasy. Hamburg After Dark does give the impression that the author has at least done some background research whereas I suspect that Paris After Dark is about 95 percent pure fiction.

Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the erotic life of Paris. We get a chapter on what we are told is a new feature of Paris’s nightlife - Les Call Girls. We’re told that this is an imported American fashion. We also get the lowdown on the endless orgies taking place all over the city (or at least taking place in the author’s overheated imagination).

There are chapters dealing with the gay bars, and with the drug scene. The reader is assured that the drug scene in Paris is almost non-existent, being mostly confined to intellectuals and beatniks. Other chapters tackles subjects such as sex amongst university students, part-time prostitutes, mistresses, artists’ models, strip clubs, naughty books and blue movies. Every chapter quickly becomes a series of personal reminiscences (or perhaps personal fantasies).

This was 1966, a time when teasing and titillation were still the order of the day, and there’s plenty of titillation here. There is a certain amusing and charming innocent naughtiness to this, just as there is with the erotic movies of that era.

There’s also plenty of emphasis on vicarious enjoyment of Swinging 60s jet-set glamour. Sex and sin in exotic locales seem a lot more alluring than sex and sin in your own backyard.

At times one gets the impression that this is not the Paris of 1966 but the Paris of a few years earlier. In fact at times the author offers us lengthy digressions on the Paris of Hemingway or on the careers of famous artists, writers and models of the interwar years. He has an obsession with Kiki of Montparnasse and while she was indeed a fascinating woman her heyday was the 20s and 30s and she died in 1953.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an historical overview of Parisian erotic life but a reader expecting a handy field guide to the sensual delights of Paris in 1966 might have been a little perplexed. And one does wonder just how accurate the author’s historical asides might be.

While this book probably does not present anything approaching an accurate account of the Parisian sexual scene in 1966 it is interesting in giving us a glimpse of the popular conception of what that scene was like, and of the sexy sinful delights on offer. The Swinging 60s were never quite as swinging as the media would have led one to believe. For most people the erotic indulgences of the period were mostly experienced vicariously. Experienced vicariously by reading books such as this. So in its own way it’s still a fascinating time capsule even if it’s a time capsule from a world that was partly imaginary.

The supposedly non-fiction exposé was a sub-category of sleaze literature which reached its peak of popularity in the 60s and 70s. The After Dark series fit neatly into this category. Paris After Dark isn’t great but it has some amusement and entertainment value.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Cornish Pixie Affair - The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Peter Leslie’s The Cornish Pixie Affair, published in 1967, was the fifth of the original novels based on the TV spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

It's a competent enough spy thriller which should satisfy fans of the television series. It has a somewhat more serious tone than the series. 

The travelling circus setting adds some interest. I always love circus settings.

You can find my full review here at Cult TV Lounge.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Richard Stark's The Man with the Getaway Face

Donald E. Westlake wrote 24 novels, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, featuring his anti-hero Parker. The Man with the Getaway Face was the second in the series, appearing in 1963.

These are definitely hardboiled crime novels (very hardboiled) but they don’t qualify as noir fiction.

Parker is one of the great anti-heroes in fiction. He’s a career criminal specialising in large-scale robberies and he’s unstoppable because he simply doesn’t consider the possibility of losing. If a job does go sour Parker just moves on.

This novel opens with Parker getting a new face, a necessity after the events of the first Parker novel (and I'm not going to reveal even a hint of a spoiler for that one). The plastic surgery has depleted Parker’s funds somewhat so he agrees to do an armoured car job with Skimm. Skimm’s girlfriend Alma came up with the plan.

Parker doesn’t trust Alma and he doesn’t like her plan. Right from the start he has no doubt that Alma is planning a double cross. But Parker really does need money urgently so he’s prepared to do the job. He’s sure he knows exactly how Alma intends to execute her double cross and he’s confident he can take appropriate steps. He’s also confident that he can make sufficient changes to her plan to make the job viable.

Interestingly the heist is not the real focus of the novel. The real focus is entirely unconnected with the heist. It concerns that plastic surgery job.

The heist itself provides some excitement and suspense but the real suspense kicks in afterwards. In a lot of crime stories it’s the betrayals that come after the crime that are the meat of the story but that’s not the case here. There really are two entirely separate plots running in parallel.

Anti-heroes don’t come much more ruthless and coldblooded than Parker. He is incapable of feeling remorse or regret. He cares about other people only insofar as they are useful to him. He will kill without hesitation. He will use whatever level of violence he considers necessary.

Parker’s mind is icily logical. Emotion is never allowed to interfere with his plans.

He should be a monster, and human monsters are rarely interesting. Parker does however have a couple of redeeming qualities. He kills only when he feels it is necessary. He uses violence only when he feels it is necessary. He gets no pleasure from violence. It’s not that he has a conscience. He simply sees unnecessary violence as inefficient, wasteful and risky. He might be incapable of feeling genuine human affection but he is also incapable of actual cruelty.

He is also, in his own way, an honest crook. If you’re involved in a job with Parker and you play things straight with him he’ll play things straight with you. He won’t consider double crossing someone unless he knows for sure that that person has double crossed him.

Parker has no illusions about women and has no intention of ever getting emotionally involved but he has no actual dislike of women. In fact he has no actual personal dislike of anybody. That would be a distraction and it would be inefficient.

And there was a woman once, and he still thinks about her. Once, just once, he experienced something resembling a normal human emotion.

All of this means that despite his extreme anti-hero status the reader finds it impossible to hate Parker. We feel a certain grudging admiration. He’s an unapologetic ruthless criminal but we can’t help hoping he gets away with his crimes.

There are indications in this book that by this time Westlake knew he had found a winning formula and that there were going to be more Parker novels to come.

The Man with the Getaway Face is great hardboiled crime. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the first Parker novel The Hunter (AKA Point Blank).

Monday, May 20, 2024

Frederick Pohl’s A Plague of Pythons

Frederick Pohl’s science fiction novel A Plague of Pythons was serialised in Galaxy Magazine in 1962.

The writing career of Frederick Pohl (1919-2013) spanned, incredibly, no less than 75 years during which time he won just about every science fiction award going. And, interestingly, he was for quite a few years the editor of Galaxy Magazine.

The story begins with a man named Chandler on trial for rape. He should be able to look forward confidently to an acquittal. He was after all possessed at the time. Dozens of people in his small town have been acquitted of crimes such as murder, rape and arson on the grounds of possession. Chandler knows he was possessed and he knows that nobody has any control over his actions in those circumstances. The law recognises this.

The problem is that the crime took place in a pharmaceutical plant, and everyone knows that demons avoid such places. So he looks certain to be convicted and shot, until events take a strange turn.

Chandler lives in a very near future world in which possession is all too common. It began very suddenly, almost overnight. Since then civilisation has been brought to its knees by an extraordinary epidemic of demonic possession. The world has reverted to a state of near-barbarism. Orgies of murder and destruction are commonplace. Terror stalks the world.

Chandler, having escaped being shot, discovers a strange little community known as the Orphalese. They believe they have found two defences against possession - pain and the writings of Kahlil Gibran (whose works were quite a thing in the U.S. at that time among those with a taste for esoteric spirituality). Maybe there is hope after all.

Chandler later finds himself possessed again and ends up in Hawaii. He hasn’t gone there of his own free will. He was driven to go. For an important project. But for whom?

The possessions are real, but it’s not demons doing the possessing. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that actual demons are not involved is debatable. Either way there seems to be no effective defence. Most people have given up even trying to resist.

Chandler slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together and figures out what is going on. He just can’t see that he can do anything about it. And he has no idea how it is all likely to end.

There’s also Rosalie and she’s a disturbing factor. He’s not quite sure where Rosalie stands, or where he stands with her. Her loyalties are at best uncertain. Perhaps he should not trust her at all. Perhaps he will have to trust her. Having nothing to do with her is not an option.

There are no actual demons but there are things worse than demons. I don’t want to reveal what those things are because that is something that is revealed gradually and I have no desire to reveal spoilers.

This is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy or horror novel, although there are worse horrors in this book than in most out-and-out horror novels.

The novel taps into one of the major obsessions of the period (the early 60s) but again I’m reluctant to be any more specific than that, other than to say that it taps into that obsession in a fascinating way and with a few original touches.

Pohl certainly knows how to create an atmosphere of paranoia and despair. Time and again Chandler thinks he’s found a reason to hope only to have that hope brutally snatched away from him.

And I do love the ending.

A Plague of Pythons is highly recommended.

This one is paired with The Bees of Death by Robert Moore Williams in an Armchair Fiction double-header paperback. In this case you get two very good very interesting novels so this paperback is a very worthwhile purchase.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Gardner Francis Fox's Silverfinger

Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986) was a prolific author of pulp fiction in numerous genres as well as a hugely prolific writer of comics.

Silverfinger, published in 1973, was the third of his Cherry Delight sexy crime thrillers written under the pseudonym Glen Chase. These novels were sometimes marketed as the Sexecutioner series and they have some vague affinity with the Mafia thrillers that were popular at the time.

Cherise Dellissio, better known as Cherry Delight, is an ace agent for the top-secret agency N.Y.M.P.H.O. (New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organisation). She’s part of the elite Femme Fatale squad, highly trained in both combat and bedroom skills (both of which are equally useful in her line of work).

The Mafia is trying to take over the Italian shipping empire of the della Fanzio family. There are three della Fanzios, two brothers and a sister. Their father built the business and he was a hard man but his three children are not so tough. They’re frightened and they’re inclined to cave in to all the Mafia demands. Cherry has been sent to Calabria to put some backbone into the della Fanzios and to foil the Mafia’s plans.

Her first task is the keep the della Fanzios alive.

She also needs to infiltrate the Mafia operation, and specifically to get close to the local Mafia kingpin, a man known as Silverfinger. His mane of silver hair earned him his nickname but he likes it and he drives a silver-plated Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

Somewhat to her surprise Cherry also finds herself dealing with devil-worshippers. In this part of Italy the old pagan beliefs and superstitions have survived and gradually morphed into Satanism. Cherry has to attend a Black Mass and while she’s horrified she’s also rather excited the sight of so many naked bodies. Sex is something that is never far from Cherry’s mind.

There’s plenty of action and plenty of sleaze, Cherry has some narrow escapes, she has an epic cat-fight with Silverfinger’s now discarded mistress, there’s a very high body count. It has to be said that Cherry does most of the killing, quite a bit of it with her bare hands.

Cherry is a ruthless and efficient agent although there are times when perhaps she should concentrate more on the job in hand and less on satisfying her sexual urges. She’s a feisty likeable heroine.

Fox’s prose style is pure pulp but with plenty of energy.

The plot is pretty straightforward. It’s mostly an excuse for the action scenes (which are very good) and the sex scenes (which are quite explicit). But that’s the sort of book this is. It’s a violent sleazy sexy action thriller and it’s not trying to be the least bit literary or the least bit subtle. There’s no message and the characterisations are basic. We don’t get any profound insights into Cherry’s personality or motivations. We know that she’s tough and resourceful and dedicated and she likes to get laid as often as possible. We really don’t need to know any more about her than that.

If this is your thing then Silverfinger delivers the goods. I enjoyed it. Recommended.

I’ve reviewed a lot of Gardner Francis Fox’s books including the first two Cherry Delight thrillers (the excellent The Italian Connection and Tong in Cheek), several of his Lady from L.U.S.T. sexy spy thrillers (Lay Me Odds, To Russia With Lust and Lust, Be a Lady Tonight) and one of the Coxeman sleazy spy thrillers, The Best Laid Plans. And I’ve reviewed his superb sword and sorcery/occult thriller The Druid Stone which shows what he could do when he tried to be a bit more ambitious. He’s always entertaining.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Scott C.S. Stone's The Dragon’s Eye

The Dragon’s Eye is a 1969 spy thriller by Scott C.S. Stone published by Fawcett in their Gold Medal series. I’m afraid I know nothing about the author other than that he had certainly spent time in the Far East.

This is an amateur spy tale. Michael Hawkins is a reporter covering the war in Vietnam. When his best friend, a fellow war correspondent, is killed in the fighting Hawkins decides he has had enough. He’s getting out of Asia and he’s going home. He gets as far as Hawaii and falls in love with the place. He’s going to settle down and write a book. And maybe get his chaotic love life in some sort of order.

Then an old buddy, Leslie Trent, shows up. Trent is now a spook. The mysterious intelligence agency for which he works wants Hawkins to do a job for them. Hawkins is informed that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

An English journalist, Malcolm Leigh, has become rather a big wheel in the Red Chinese hierarchy. He’s an intelligence analyst but he’s highly placed politically. Now he’s considering defecting to the West. And he won’t negotiate with anyone but Michael Hawkins.

Leigh’s defection is not going to be a simple matter. The Chinese don’t know that he plans to defect but they do know that something is up, and they know that Leslie Trent and Michael Hawkins are involved. Hawkins’ cover is blown right from the start. And the Chinese do not entirely trust Malcolm Leigh and they never have.

A further complication is that Leigh wants to bring his Chinese girlfriend Choy-Lin with him to the West. Getting two people out will be more difficult than just getting one out.

And then Trent’s contacts start getting killed. What’s worse is the strong probability that at leas one of them talked before being killed. The Chinese intelligence services do not know the exact plan that Trent and Hawkins have in mind but they’re now in a position to make some shrewd guesses.

Most of the book is taken up by an extended chase through South-East Asia. Trent, Hawkins, Leigh and Choy-Lin are never more than a short step ahead of their pursuers. It’s also the middle of the monsoon season. And everything that could go wrong seems to go wrong.

There’s a fair amount of action and suspense.

The plot is really a fairly standard defector plot. It’s handled with some skill and there is one extra complication (which I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers) that adds a slight touch of originality.

Hawkins is a typical amateur spy. He doesn’t want to be killed and he doesn’t want to kill anybody. He just wants to go back to Honolulu and resume work on his book. He’s moderately brave and moderately resourceful. He’s not cut out to be a spy but he does his best. He’s likeable enough. He’s just a regular guy.

There’s no one particular villain who stands out. The bad guys are rather anonymous which is probably a lot more realistic.

Malcolm Leigh is the most interesting character because he has complex and contradictory motivations.

The author offers us some background on the workings of the Chinese intelligence services although whether any of this stuff is accurate is a question I can’t answer.

The Dragon’s Eye makes good use of exotic settings and captures the severely paranoid flavour of the Cold War, and the paranoid treacherous world of espionage, pretty well.

The Dragon’s Eye is a solid pulp spy thriller. Recommended.

Monday, May 13, 2024

The House of Invisible Bondage

Between 1912 and 1934 American authors J. U. Giesy (1877-1947) and Junius B. Smith (1883-1945) wrote a whole series of novels, short stories and novellas featuring the exploits of occult detective Semi Dual. These were serialised in various pulp magazines. The House of Invisible Bondage was serialised in Argosy in 1926.

Semi Dual is a physician but he is also a student of various forms of esoteric knowledge including astrology. He has some limited telepathic abilities. He is a rich man who lives in luxurious and tasteful seclusion in a penthouse above the 20th floor of an apartment house. He has a passionate devotion to the righting of wrongs and a keen interest in crime-solving. He does not operate directly as a private detective but he has persuaded two trusted associates, Glace and Bryce, to set up a private detective agency. When a case interests Semi Dual he allows Glace and Bryce to do the legwork and the routine investigation while he directs things from the background, making use not just of his knowledge of esoteric lore but also his keen understanding of human psychology.

Semi Dual knows that Marya Harding is about to ask for his help. He has no way of knowing this, but he knows it nonetheless. Sure enough a few hours later she shows up seeking help. The help is actually for her friend Moira. Moira’s fiancé Imer Lamb has just been arrested for launching a murderous attack on his valet. It makes no sense. Imer is a healthy, outgoing thoroughly cheerful and good-natured young man. He has no serious vices. His valet is devoted to him and relations between master and servant have always been easy-going and cordial.

Nonetheless Imer is now behind bars. And it’s worse than that. The police surgeon has decided that he is an incurable homicidal maniac. Imer Lamb is likely to spend the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum. In the short term his brother has managed to get him admitted to a private psychiatric clinic.

Semi Dual agrees that this is extremely curious and once he has cast the young man’s horoscope he perceives that the case is much more complex and much more devious. He does not yet know what is behind it all but he does know that Imer Lamb is not a murderous madman.

There are family dramas involved, a has-been Hollywood starlet comes into the picture, there are questions of inheritance, there are various financial entanglements of a dubious nature and there is also the screaming woman at the clinic. On top of this there is another inexplicable outburst of violence, not on the part of Imer Lamb but involving someone closely connected to him.

Semi Dual is a patient man. He may not know the identity of the guilty party but he is weaving a web and that guilty party will inevitably become entangled in it. Semi Dual’s patience is matched by his confidence.

It’s a solid enough plot. The paranormal and occult elements are important and add some spice and flavour but they don’t overwhelm the story. Good old-fashioned detective skills are still required. And the story doesn’t rely on supernatural evil - this is a tale of very human evils such as greed and jealousy.

Semi Dual makes a fascinating hero. In his speech and behaviour he comes across like some kind of medieval wizard. He seems out of place in the world of the 1920s but in fact he is also a man of science and reason.

Bryce is a fun character - a hardboiled ex-cop who is nonetheless a true believer in Semi Dual’s mysterious powers. Moira is a likeable heroine who is determined to stand by the man she loves. There are several villains but they’re not necessarily motivated by pure evil. In this story it’s human weakness that drives people to act badly.

It’s all very entertaining and if (like me) you love occult detective stories you should be well satisfied. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed The Complete Cabalistic Cases of Semi Dual, volume 1, which contains the first three Semi Dual novellas. Most of the Semi Dual stories have now been reprinted in paperback by Steeger Books in their Argosy Library series.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Peter Rabe’s The Box

Peter Rabe’s The Box is a 1962 hardboiled crime novel with a tropical setting and maybe a dash of noir.

Peter Rabe (1921-1990) was an American pulp crime writer who deserves to be better remembered.

The Box begins with a man in a box. It’s a packing crate to be precise. His name is Quinn. He’s a lawyer and a racketeer. The box is a punishment. The idea is you put a guy in a packing crate in New York. The crate is put on a freighter. The guy has plenty of food and water but he’s in the box in complete darkness lying in his own filth. After going right around the world the crate arrives back in New York. By that time the guy has learnt his lesson and he’ll be a good boy in future.

Quinn only gets as far as a small city in North Africa, a city named Okar. Someone has noticed that the box doesn’t smell so good so it gets opened. And there’s Quinn. Alive, but not very happy.

Quinn recovers but he has two problems. He has no papers, and he has no money.

Okar is run by Remal. Remal is the mayor and controls every other public office. This is his town. He has some nice rackets going, small-time smuggling mostly but profitable. He doesn’t want anyone around who might make waves. He likes Quinn and he has no wish to do him any harm. He just wants him to leave.

Leaving would be sensible but Quinn is stubborn, and then there’s Beatrice. She’s Remal’s woman but there’s a definite attraction between Quinn and Beatrice. If Quinn stays he’ll need to earn a living and the only way he knows how to make a living is dishonestly. That means muscling in on Remal’s rackets. That could cause problems, and it does.

While there’s a good plot here the main focus is on Quinn’s psychology. When he got out of the box he found he’d lost his touch. His edge. All the habits that had made him such a smoother operator. He wants to get those things back, so he can go back to being the man he was. But there’s a niggling doubt. Maybe the man he was wasn’t so great. Maybe he’d been in a box his whole life, a box of his own making. Maybe he needs to get out of that box.

It’s important to note that Quinn has choices. Unlike most noir protagonists he is not trapped. What he has to do is to decide which choices to make.

There are no clear-cut heroes and villains. Quinn is a gangster but he’s not such a bad guy and he prefers to avoid violence. Remal is equally amoral but he’s a likeable rogue. Even the Sicilian gangsters who get involved at one stage are quite pleasant. Sure, they have to have guys rubbed out sometimes but it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Whitfield, the shipping clerk who plays a key role in Okar and in the story, just wants to avoid anything unpleasant. He just goes with the flow. He’s the kind of character who would have been played by Wilfred Hyde-White had this story been filmed in the 60s.

There’s a nice atmosphere of tropical sleaze. There’s the quiet desperation and moral corruption of expatriates gone to seed.

Every character in the novel is corrupt but not evil. They’ve made easy soft choices.

There’s not much action but there is a little and there’s some decent suspense at the end.

Is it noir fiction? Perhaps, if you define noir fiction broadly enough. I’d prefer to think of it as hardboiled crime. Either way it’s a very good entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this one with Rabe’s 1957 novel Journey Into Terror in a two-novel paperback edition.

I’ve also reviewed Peter Rabe’s excellent 1955 hardboiled thriller Stop This Man!

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Robert Moore Williams' The Bees of Death

The Bees of Death by Robert Moore Williams is a 1949 pulp science fiction novel.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-77) was a prolific American writer, mostly of science fiction.

There are no bees in this novel. There is however plenty of fun strange stuff. It starts with an old cannonball, found where no cannonball could possibly be. But it turns out not to be a cannonball. It falls into the possession of Professor Featherstone.

Professor Featherstone is a phoney psychic, charlatan and con-man. Now he possesses something very important.

The story also begins with a nervous client seeking help from a private detective named Graham. Graham specialises in exposing fraudulent psychics and other tricksters. He and Featherstone have crossed swords before. The client is Mildred Whittaker, the daughter of a fabulously wealthy tycoon. She is very frightened. She brings with her a rabbit. A rabbit that will never hop again. There’s something very strange and disturbing about the rabbit, and about the circumstances under which Mildred found it.

Graham gets really interested in the case when he confronts Professor Featherstone. Featherstone is frightened. Featherstone does not frighten easily. If he’s afraid then it’s likely there is something to be afraid of.

The bees are something to be afraid of. They’re not bees. Whether or not they’re alive could be debated. They’re not invisible but they cannot be seen. No barrier can stop them. And they’re not friendly.

They’re called dreth. There is also the draal. The draal is both less scary and more scary.

Where these entities come from is a mystery. Whatever the answer to that question they must be stopped. A very unlikely alliance is formed to do just that but the odds seem unfavourable. It’s not easy to fight an enemy that you don’t understand.

It’s all very pulpy but there are some reasonably cool ideas here. There’s a sense of menace which is more effective since no-one knows the exact nature of the menace.

In their own ways Graham and Featherstone are both colourful characters. Featherstone is a rogue but perhaps a bit more than a conventional villain. Mildred Whittaker is a fine feisty heroine.

It’s a short novel and as with many pulp novels that proves to be an asset. There’s no time for extraneous subplots. The plot moves along briskly.

There’s some action and a fairly exciting climax with a fight against impossible odds.

There’s no attempt to make the science plausible but the book does deal with some genuine science fiction concepts.

There’s potential for silliness here but it’s kept under control pretty well. It’s just silly enough to be enjoyable, but also just serious enough to work as science fiction.

The Bees of Death is no masterpiece but it’s an intriguing moderately scary alien invasion tale that doesn’t make the mistake of trying to over-explain things. Recommended.

This one is paired with Frederick Pohl’s A Plague of Pythons in an Armchair Fiction double-header paperback.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Ogden Fox’s Hamburg After Dark

In the 60s McFadden books put out a whole series of non-fiction sex and sin exposés focusing on the raunchy night-life of various European cities. This was their After Dark series and it included Ogden Fox’s Hamburg After Dark, published in 1968.

Of course with such books there is no way of knowing how much was fiction and how much (if any) was fact. It is however quite true that Hamburg was rather notorious for its sleazy night-life in the 60s. So while there’s undoubtedly a fair amount of gossip and rumour (and completely made-up stuff or wishful thinking) there’s a possibility that quite a bit of it was true, or at least had a basis in fact.

The book purports to be written by an American, fluent in German, who lives in Hamburg and spends his free time sampling the erotic delights the city has to offer. The book is presented as a kind of guided tour of the city’s sexual night-life. What it has to say about Hamburg’s red light district is consistent with other accounts I’ve read so I’m inclined to give the publishers the benefit of the doubt and accept that the author has at least visited the city.

The author gives us some supposedly factual background on various aspects of Hamburg’s night-life interspersed with his reminiscences of his own sexual adventures there. One assumes that these personal reminiscences are largely or possibly entirely fictional. This was of course 1968, with the Sexual Revolution in full swing, and the book deals with a very large sophisticated European city rather than small-town America, so these reminiscences would have sounded quite plausible and there may even be some genuine adventures mixed in with the fantasies.

At this time there was a whole sleaze sub-genre of books masquerading as serious sociological/sexological non-fiction claiming to have been written by eminent psychiatrists. These books were in fact pure fiction churned out by various sleaze novelists. McFadden’s After Dark books would seem to be representative of a closely related sub-genre, with the difference that Hamburg After Dark presents itself as having been written by an amateur aficionado rather than a psychiatrist or sociologist.

Since the author’s sexual interests are confined to the female of the species (both prostitutes and non-prostitutes) he adds some stories told to him by others with differing sexual interests. These provide the material for the accounts of call-boy rings and bars catering to girls who like girls.

Firstly we’re introduced to the Widows’ Club. This is a bit like an internet hook-up site but done entirely with good old-fashioned analog telephones. Gentlemen and ladies who want a sex partner for the night can arrange a meet. If the man and the woman like the looks of each other they spend the night together. No questions are asked, no money changes hands. They never see each other again.

We’re taken to the red light district in the St Pauli district. To the Herbertstrasse, where the prostitutes display themselves in windows (as they apparently still do to this day). And to the Reeperbahn. In the dance cafes professional and amateur prostitutes contact prospective clients by means of telephones connecting the tables.

There’s also the street that within a single city block boasts no less than nineteen strip clubs.

We are also treated to accounts of the wild sex lives of the young women of Hamburg. Some of whom apparently indulge in kinks I had never heard of before (the girl with the kink that involves watching television is a new one on me).

The author finds out what a kinki session entails (it entails whips) and that such sessions are available for ladies as well as gentlemen. He also samples a few blue movies and watches one being filmed. And discovers that lonely ladies in Hamburg in need of male company (either in the bedroom or out of it) need only pick up a telephone to have their requirements fully satisfied.

While the various anecdotes thrown in by the author are doubtless pure fiction much of the essential background is probably fairly accurate. While there might be plenty of fiction mixed into this book it is a fascinating glimpse into the free-and-easy mindset of the heyday of the Sexual Revolution.

And it is definitely entertaining. Highly recommended for those seeking to explore the more intriguing corners of the world of 60s literary sleaze.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Desmond Cory’s Trieste (AKA Intrigue)

Trieste (originally published as Intrigue) was published in 1954 and is the fourth of Desmond Cory’s Johnny Fedora spy thrillers.

Englishman Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (1928-2001) was quite a prolific author, writing under the name Desmond Cory. If you’re new to the Johnny Fedora books you might make the mistake of thinking that they’re Bond imitations. In fact the first of the Johnny Fedora books pre-dates the first Bond novel.

Trieste begins with the British arresting a Communist agitator named Panagos. They believe that he’s the head of a major subversive organisation which is planning an operation in Trieste, backed by the Soviets. The ultimate objective would be to secure Trieste for the Soviets as a naval base. The problem is that the British have zero evidence against Panagos. Then comes a surprise - the Soviets want to exchange two captured British agents for Panagos. The British are willing to make the exchange, but only if they can first put a spoke in the wheels of Panagos’s Trieste operation.

Johnny Fedora has no official standing. He’s a freelancer but for various reasons British Intelligence think he’s the right man to send to Trieste to find out what Panagos was planning. And Johnny has a personal stake in the case - one of the captured agents the Soviets are willing to exchange is his girlfriend, who also seems to be a freelance spy.

Johnny has a professional British spy, Sebastian Trout, to help him on the case.

There just don’t seem to be any leads to follow up. Johnny and Trout have an uneasy relationship with the local authorities. Johnny has a hunch there’s a woman involved somewhere but a hunch is all he has. The prisoner exchange is coming up on the 30th of the month so there’s a race against time aspect.

Once things start happening they happen quickly and there’s plenty of action. People get shot, Johnny gets arrested and somehow he has to keep a key informant alive. He was right about the woman - there is one, her name is Gisella, and she’s Panagos’s girlfriend, or maybe she isn’t really. There are some further clues but it takes a surprisingly long time for Johnny to spot their real significance. There’s a deadly marksman hunting both Johnny and the girl.

There’s action at sea, which is always fun.

The plot has a few twists, including a major one that makes Johnny realise he’d been groping in the dark.

Johnny Fedora, in this story at least, has an ambiguous official status. That gives him a certain freedom of action. It’s not specifically stated that he has a licence to kill but it’s understood that if he feels the need to do so that’s OK with the British Government. And as we will find out Johnny is very good at killing and it doesn’t bother him. He’s not particularly good at following rules, but that makes him more useful in some ways.

He’s only a part-time secret agent. He has a day job. He’s a piano player, and a pretty good one.

Trieste is a kind of transitional spy thriller. It still has some of the feel of the pre-Bond British spy fiction of the 40s and early 50s, but it also has some of the toughness of the new breed of Cold War spy novels (the later Johnny Fedora books become a bit more Bond-like). The violence is only moderately graphic. There’s no actual sex, but there’s a degree of sexual frankness in regard to Gisella’s relations with men.

Trieste is a good solid Cold War spy thriller. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed two of the later Johnny Fedora novels, Hammerhead and Undertow. They’re both pretty good.