Saturday, June 29, 2024

J.D. Masters' Cold Steele

Cold Steele, published in 1989, is the second of the Steele books by J.D. Masters.

I went into Cold Steele expecting a violent but fun pulp action thriller in the men’s adventure mode. It is in fact a very successful adrenalin-rush pulp action thriller but it’s also a surprisingly smart and interesting and somewhat complex cyberpunk science fiction novel.

The hero is a cyborg, but he’s not a robot with a human brain. He’s a partially robotically enhanced flesh-and-blood man but the twist is that he doesn’t have a human brain. He has a computer brain. Well, it’s sort of a computer brain and sort of a human brain.

Donovan Steele was (and maybe is) a cop who got badly shot up. His body survived. It was badly mangled but with bionic enhancements it was made fully functional. His brain however did not survive. Not on organic form. His personality was however uploaded and used as the basis for the software that drives his electronic brain.

This personality uploading idea was very fashionable in the cyberpunk sci-fi of the 80s. It’s an idea that always struck me as very unconvincing. Masters however handles it rather deftly and in a genuinely provocative and interesting way. Donovan Steele doesn’t know if he’s human or not. He has his human memories. He experiences human emotions. Or at least he thinks he does. But he knows he’s not human in the way other people are human.

And he has some problems, which psychiatrist Dev Cooper is supposed to be helping him work through. Steele has nightmares. These seem to be memories. Very vivid memories. He is convinced that they are real memories. The trouble is that they’re not his memories.

Dev Cooper has problems as well. Ethical problems. He’s been working with a digital copy of Donovan Steele’s personality. This is a Donovan Steele who exists only in digital form, with no physical existence. Dev’s problem is that he has to decide if this digital copy is alive. Does it have rights?

This is also a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. The world has been devastated by viruses and nuclear war. Large parts of the United States are nothing but radioactive wastelands. Significant parts of the country are controlled by crime gangs who are essentially warlords. Texas has declared its independence. Nobody knows if anybody is still alive in California because nobody has dared to investigate. The federal government wants to reassert its authority and sees cyborgs like Donovan Steele as a way to do this. One cyborg is as effective as a whole squad of cops, and much cheaper. The government doesn’t care about the ethical issues. It just wants power and control.

Donovan Steele’s assignment in this novel is to take down the Borodini crime family which controls much of New York. It would take a small army to deal with the Borodini family. They live in a fortress. Steele figures he can do the job himself.

He has some help. Ice is a black former gang leader who has agreed to help in return for immunity from prosecution. Steele and Ice don’t trust each other but they both have something to gain from working together, and Ice can certainly handle himself in a tough spot. Steele’s other ally is Raven, a young hooker whom he rescued. She can be trusted insofar as she has a personal grudge against the Borodinis.

A weird emotional bond develops between Steele and Raven. Steele doesn’t care that she’s a hooker. Raven doesn’t care that he’s a robot. They’re both broken inside but they find, to their own mutual surprise, that they’ve started to care for each other.

Of course this book is part of a series so some issues are left only partially resolved, presumably to be dealt with further in later books.

There’s as much action and mayhem as you could possibly desire, combined with a strange love story and some surprisingly deep emotional, moral and intellectual speculation. Some of these issues would also be dealt with a few years later in the excellent Japanese sci-fi anime movie Ghost in the Shell.

I enjoyed this novel enough to leave me quite open to the idea of buying the next book in the series.

Cold Steele is highly recommended.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed

Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1965.

Charles Runyon (1928-2015) was born in Missouri and wrote science fiction as well as crime fiction.

This could be described as a serial killer story and that’s probably my least favourite literary genre but this is a very unconventional and interesting serial killer story, both thematically and structurally.

I’m going to be more vague than usual about the plot since I don’t want to risk giving away even the mildest of spoilers.

The novel uses first person narration but with more than one narrator. At first the switch in point of view may seem puzzling but if you stick with it you will find out why Runyon chose such an approach.

The novel begins with a man telling us how he murdered a woman after manipulating her into an affair. She is not the first woman he has murdered. Not by a long way. He tries to explain his odd motivations. It has something to do with playing a game. Games are an essential part of this story. Sometimes people know they are playing a game and sometimes they don’t.

Then the point of view switches to Velda. We already know that Velda was important to the killer but we don’t know why.

There was a murder many years earlier. A man was convicted. He may or may not have been guilty.

A man returns to a small town called Sherman, for somewhat enigmatic reasons connected with that murder.

There have been several murders. Possibly many murders. There is no way of knowing how many. There have been many violent deaths, some of which may have been murders but some of which may have been accidents or suicides. It’s possible that most of these deaths really were accidents or suicides. It’s also possible that they were all murders.

There is madness here, but the identity of the mad person is uncertain. At times we have reason to doubt the sanity of a number of characters. We certainly have cause to be suspicious of the motivations of a number of characters. There is plenty of paranoia and suspicion.

It will of course occur to us that we may be dealing with an unreliable narrator, or even two unreliable narrators. We can’t be sure. We can’t be sure if any of the characters knows what’s going on. We can’t be sure how many of the characters understand their own motivations. This applies not just to individuals. The paranoia and suspicion infects the whole town. Groups of people as well as individuals can go mad.

There are three, or possibly four, people who are cast in the role of investigators. There is no shortage of evidence, but all the evidence is hopelessly ambiguous. There are witnesses to certain events, but those witnesses may be lying or deluded or confused or stupid. They may have failed to mention crucial details.

These investigations are all conducted by amateurs. There is a sheriff, but his investigations are of no significance. His only interest is in being re-elected sheriff.

Runyon really does take an intriguingly unconventional approach and the result is a novel that initially doesn’t seem all that interesting but that becomes more and more fascinating as the reader is drawn into the author’s clever and devious game. Highly recommended.

This is one of three novels in the Stark House Noir Classics volume A Trio of Gold Medals, along with Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man and Fletcher Flora’s Park Avenue Tramp.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Hal Clement's The Lunar Lichen

The Lunar Lichen is a science fiction novella (or possibly novelette) by Hal Clement. It was originally published in Future Science Fiction in February 1960.

Hal Clement (1922-2003) was an American science fiction writer. He had a real science background and tended towards the hard science fiction end of the spectrum.

A geologist named Ingersoll has made a curious discovery on the Moon. He’s one of ten members of a lunar expedition. The Moon has not yet been colonised. When their research projects are completed the expedition members will return to Earth in their spaceship.

Ingersoll has discovered lichens on the Moon. They couldn’t possible exist there, but they do. Or at least Ingersoll claims to have discovered them. Dr Imbriano is sceptical. He suspects that Ingersoll is perpetrating a scientific fraud and that the lichens are terrestrial, brought to the Moon by Ingersoll. The expedition leader, Kinchen, isn’t so sure. Fraud is a possibility but he’s not about to leap to conclusions.

The expedition soon has other problems to worry about, such as getting back to Earth. That may not be easy, and it may not be easy staying alive on the lunar surface.

There’s a chase, of a sort, across a gigantic lunar crater.

There’s also a possibility that Ingersoll discovered something much more startling and unlikely than lunar lichen.

This is not a shoot ’em up space opera. There’s no real action as such. There is however some suspense, with survival hanging in the balance for the spaceship crew. There’s a touch of paranoia as well.

This novella was published very early in 1960, only a few months after the first unmanned space probe (the Soviet Luna 2) had reached the Moon. The Moon was still somewhat mysterious. The possibility of any form of life existing on the Moon seemed very remote but nothing could be entirely ruled out.

There’s plenty of technobabble here but given Clement’s preference for hard SF it’s possible that much of it really is scientifically at least vaguely plausible. Clement does go to great lengths to demonstrate just how harsh an environment the lunar surface really is, and to point out just how alien a world without an atmosphere is. With low gravity, a hard vacuum and incredibly extreme transitions in temperature you just can’t assume that anything will work the way it works on Earth. When your lunar tractor runs short on fuel the refuelling process isn’t straightforward. Storing anything from water to food to fuel requires considerable care.

There’s also the problem that when you get to the Moon you have only so much fuel for expeditions in those lunar tractors. Use up too much fuel and you’re never going to be going back to Earth.

It’s also nice to encounter a lunar adventure that makes use of the very limited horizon on the Moon. Something can be quite close and yet quite invisible.

The Lunar Lichen is an intriguing attempt to treat lunar exploration fairly seriously whilst still telling a tense and exciting story. It’s an attempt that succeeds quite well. My preference is for outrageous fun science fiction that doesn’t worry too much about realism so this is a bit outside my comfort zone but I enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novella with Henry Kuttner’s novel The Time Trap in a two-novel paperback edition.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Orrie Hitt’s Trailer Tramp

Orrie Hitt’s Trailer Tramp, published by Beacon Books in 1957, falls into the trailer camp sleaze sub-genre. Trailer tramps had mushroomed across the United States in the 50s and gained a reputation as dens of iniquity. These were artificial non-permanent communities. The goings-on confirmed all the worst fears of small town America about the depravity that must invariably flourish when people don’t live in tight-knit communities in which their neighbours act of moral policemen to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Joan runs a successful trailer camp. She isn’t married. She was thinking of marrying Luke, until she discovered that Luke wanted to sleep with her. She was of course deeply shocked. Joan is a decent girl and decent girls don’t do such things. And she caught him with Nora, and Nora clearly isn’t a decent girl at all. Nora lets men do things to her. Shocking things. Nora is the type who allows men to Go All The Way, which no decent woman would ever do.

Joan does however need a man to help her run the trailer park, so (perhaps unwisely) she hires Luke. Also, perhaps unwisely, she allows Nora to rent a trailer to use for her massage business. It sounded harmless enough. With the members of a construction crew currently staying in the trailer camp Nora will get plenty of customers. The idea that a massage business could be anything but respectable has never occurred to Joan. Joan has led a very sheltered life.

The head of the construction crew is Big Mike, and she finds herself attracted to him although naturally her attraction to him is entirely innocent. She’s a decent girl. Then she discovers that after a few drinks even decent girls can become shameless tramps. She is paralysed with guilt and shame, but all is not lost. Mike will marry her. He said he would. She is sure he is really a decent guy and when a decent guy sleeps with a girl he marries her. That’s how life works.

There are all kinds of potential complications. There’s Sally, an old flame of Mike’s, but that’s nothing to worry about. She knows that Mike isn’t interested in Sally any more. He told Joan this, and she knows she can trust him.

As you may have gathered Joan is as dumb as a rock. As a character she presents a slight credibility problem. It’s impossible to believe that anyone as naïve as Joan could run a trailer camp successfully. She is entirely oblivious to the possibility that anything immoral could possibly happen there.

Orrie Hitt was at his best when his books combined mild sleaze elements with very definite noir fiction elements. Hitt was very strong when it came to creating a noir atmosphere of overheated passions and betrayals.

There is some noirness here, as seemingly harmless incidents start to point to more sinister possibilities and Joan finds herself increasingly trapped. There’s no way out for her without a scandal. And in 1957 scandal was a fate worse than death.

Joan is torn between Luke and Mike and she is tortured by the knowledge that, as awful as it may seem, she feels physical desire for both men. She is sure that she can trust one of them but not the other. One of them is lying to her, the other is telling her the truth. Her problem is that she can’t figure out which of them is the one she can trust. And Hitt manages to keep the reader unsure on this point as well.

The sleaze factor here is so mild as to be almost non-existent, but in 1957 the very fact that unmarried people are having sex, even if the sex happens offscreen as it were, was enough to make a book titillating. And there are hints of prostitution, always good for a moral scare in the 50s (in fact rather depressingly it’s still good for a moral scare today).

This is not a crime novel, but eventually there is a crime, and a serious one.

This is not one of Hitt’s better books. It’s still fairly enjoyable and recommended to Hitt fans, and to full-blown trailer camp sleaze aficionados.

The Cheaters, the genuinely sleazy Wayward Girl, the very noirish The Widow and She Got What She Wanted are all better places to start if you’re new to Orrie Hitt’s work.

Trailer Tramp is included in Stark House Cult Classics’s three-novel Trailer Tramps paperback, along with Doug Duperrault’s Trailer Camp Woman and Tom Harland’s Love Camp on Wheels.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Sea Trap - Nick Carter Killmaster 44

The Sea Trap, published in 1969, was the 44th of the Nick Carter Killmaster novels.

Nick Carter as American as super-spy Agent N3 was the last of the radical re-inventions of a character dating back to the 19th century, with each new re-invention having zero connection to earlier versions.

This particular title was written by Jon Messmann. It begins with sleaze and sadism, and there will be more of both to come.

This time Nick is once again up against Judas, a villain who makes many appearances in the series. Judas has had major plastic surgery. His face has been reconstructed and he has a mechanical hand which is also a singe-shot pistol. He has acquired two very creepy henchmen. Harold is a scientific genius. He is also impotent and gets his jollies from torturing women. The Tartar is a huge Mongolian with the mind of a child but with insatiable sexual urges.

To keep Harold happy Judas has arranged a supply of women for him. The women are fooled into thinking they’re applying for a job looking after an elderly recluse who owns a private island in the Caribbean.

Judas has other things on his mind. His latest master plan involves stealing submarines from the navies of various powers, for the purposes of high-stakes international blackmail. He has now stolen a top-secret US research submarine, the X-88.

Nick has five days to get the X-88 back. AXE, the shadowy US intelligence agency that employs Nick, is convinced that Judas’s secret headquarters must be in the Caribbean (although I confess I still don’t understand how they came to that conclusion). Nick is off to the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, his cover story being that he is part of a marine biological expedition.

Despite having only five days to accomplish his mission Nick finds time on the way to the Lesser Antilles to have sex with Betty Lou, a cute girl he met on the plane. She then disappears in circumstances that should have started alarm bells ringing in Nick’s heads, but he shrugs it off.

The leader of the marine biological expedition is of course a young beautiful lady scientist. Nick immediately sets out to seduce her.

Nick takes the expedition’s seaplane out to look for traces of the missing submarines. He encounters a rather battered ketch being sailed solo by a young woman named Joyce. Joyce’s sister vanished in circumstances eerily reminiscent of the disappearance of Betty Lou. Nick has picked up an important lead from Joyce. Naturally, despite being on a very tight schedule, he finds time to seduce her.

Joyce has also given Nick an idea as to how those submarines were hijacked. It’s a crazy idea and he has no evidence for it but he assumes it’s the correct explanation and of course it is. Nick’s ideas always turn out to be correct.

Nick is James Bond exaggerated almost to the point of parody but this is no spoof. We are expected to accept that Nick Carter is the most super of super-spies - tougher, smarter and more irresistible to women than regular super-spies. Nick Carter can bed more women in a weekend than James Bond can manage in a year.

Nick has an extraordinary fixation with breasts. Fortunately all the women he encounters have firm thrusting breasts and prominent nipples that are always erect. Almost every page of the novel contains something that will offend the over-sensitive and have them spluttering about how problematic and dated it all is. In 1969 nobody minded if a book was problematic as long as it was entertaining.

Judas is a very villainous creepy evil super-villain. Harold and Tartar are vicious nasty henchmen.

This is a very sleazy novel with a brutal edge to it. It’s also a very exciting and relentlessly fast-paced novel. There’s some underwater action as well, always a major bonus in my opinion.

The Sea Trap really is very pulpy and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed other Nick Carter Killmaster novels - the excellent The Bright Blue Death, The Executioners (also by Jon Messmann and also featuring underwater action), the slightly disappointing The Mind Poisoners, the outrageous Web of Spies and the fine Spy Castle.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Carter Brown's Where Did Charity Go?

Australian author Alan Geoffrey Yates (1923-1985) wrote more than two hundred novels as well as around seventy-five novellas under the name Carter Brown. His books sold well over a hundred million copies. He created several series characters, including Hollywood troubleshooter/private eye Rick Holman who features in thirty-five books. Where Did Charity Go? is a 1970 entry in the Rick Holman series.

It begins with Rick being told he’s about to be offered a job and if he knows what’s good for him he won’t take it. He gets a beating to make sure the message gets through.

He takes the job anyway. Big-time Hollywood star Earl Raymond has mislaid his daughter Charity. He wants her found. The story told to Rick by Raymond isn’t consistent with the story told to him by Raymond’s personal assistant Sarah Manning. And the stories keep changing. Maybe Charity just ran away from home. Maybe she was kidnapped. Maybe it’s a fake kidnapping. Maybe it’s a real kidnapping. Rick doesn’t like the sound of any of it but five grand with the promise of another five grand if he’s successful is enough to persuade him to take the case anyway.

It’s a complicated family situation. Earl Raymond divorced his wife Mary to marry glamorous movie star Claudia Deane. Rick has four women to to deal with - the first Mrs Raymond, Claudia Deane, Sarah Manning and Charity. And then Daniela enters the picture. That makes five women. And there are all sorts of jealousies and romantic and sexual complications.

Rick can’t trust any of these women. He can’t trust Earl Raymond either. Perhaps Rick would have been wise to avoid sleeping with any of these women, but he sleeps with at least three of them. Rick is that kind of guy.

Every time Rick starts to figure things out he discovers something that doesn’t add up. Like the dead body at the cabin. In fact nothing really adds up.

The problem is that no-one seems to have a motive that would explain anything that has happened. It’s only when motives start to emerge that Rick finally starts to see some chance of solving the case. And the motives could be motives for murder, or just as easily be motives for double-crosses.

The plot is solid enough with reasonable twists.

Rick isn’t really a typical hardboiled protagonist. He’s not a two-fisted hero type. He carries a gun but he prefers to use his brains to get himself out of trouble, rather than his gun or his fists. He doesn’t care too much about justice or any of that kind of thing and he hopes to keep the police in the dark for as long as possible. He’s not crooked but he does like money. And he does like the ladies. Seducing Rick is not exactly hard work for a woman.

Rick is not a tortured hero or an anti-hero. He’s an easy-going guy and he enjoys his work, especially if attractive women are involved. He’s no alcoholic but he likes a drink. He’s not what you’d call a model member of a society so he’s no sleazebag and he’s definitely not a loser.

This is typical Carter Brown stuff. It ain’t literature. It’s very pulpy and it belongs towards the trashy end of the pulp spectrum. Brown however understands this type of writing perfectly. He includes all the right ingredients and he keeps things moving.

Where Did Charity Go? was never going to win critical plaudits but it delivers the pulp goods. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a number of Carter Brown’s Lieutenant Al Wheeler crime thrillers - The Stripper, No Harp for My Angel, Booty for a Babe and Eve it's Extortion. They’re all trashy but highly entertaining.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Henry Kuttner’s The Time Trap

Henry Kuttner’s novel The Time Trap was published in Marvel Science Stories in November 1938.

Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was an American science fiction/fantasy writer who was married to C.L. Moore (one of my favourite weird fiction/science fiction writers).

As the title suggests The Time Trap is a time travel tale. A young archaeologist named Kent Mason discovers two strange metal monoliths in the ruins of an ancient city, Al Bekr. He is transported back into time, to a time when that city was no ruin but was something much stranger. It was the centre of an incredibly advanced civilisation. Impossibly advanced. Such technology could not have existed five or six thousand years ago.

The ultra-advanced technology in the city is from the distant future. This is the work of the Greddar Klon (known as the Master), a time traveller who seeks unlimited power. At some date in the distant future he built a time ship.

Mason makes a friend, a Sumerian named Erech. He battles robots. And he encounters a woman. Nirvor is astonishingly beautiful. Especially when she is naked, and she is indeed naked. Nirvor wants something very badly. She wants a man. Mason was more than happy to oblige, until he noticed something very disturbing about her eyes. There is also something disturbing about the eyes of her two pet leopards. Towards the end of the story both Mason and the reader will find out the secret of those eyes. And the secret of the leopards.

Mason encounters another woman, Alasa. She is a queen and she is encased, unconscious but alive, in a transparent capsule. The Master has stolen her city.

There is another time ship, built by someone other than the Master, or there will be if Mason can help Murdach to build it. Mason and his friends (including the beautiful queen Alasa, now revived) will have countless adventures in various time periods. They will come up against giant bugs, zombies and intelligent plants. They will come close to all kinds of horrifying fates. They will find themselves in a world of endless illusions. They will battle impossible odds.

And Mason will find out Nirvor’s secret.

The pacing doesn’t let up. There’s always some new danger just around the corner. Kuttner displays plenty of skill in providing weird and fairly original dangers for his protagonists to overcome. Each new time period is in effect a different world, briefly sketched but always interesting.

Mason is a pretty stock-standard hero although he’s a man with brains as well as brawn. Alasa is an appealing heroine. Greddar Klon is an effective villain whose motivations are just mysterious enough to make him interesting. Nirvor is dangerous and sexy.

The female characters spend most of the story naked, with Kuttner contriving plenty of reasonably plausible excuses to have them shed their clothes. This is a novel that aims to be lurid, and it is lurid although it’s mostly a tease. Every time Mason and one of the women are about to get to know each other really well some new crisis intervenes.

The action scenes are quite satisfactory.

The plot is nicely put together.

The book doesn’t get into time paradoxes in any substantial way. It’s just a wild romp through time with plenty of exciting adventure. I enjoyed it immensely. Highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Hal Clement's The Lunar Lichen in a two-novel paperback edition. 

I reviewed another Henry Kuttner novel, Crypt-City of the Deathless One, a while back. It’s thoroughly entertaining as well. Henry Kuttner is a writer I’m starting to like more and more.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

W. Somerset Maugham’s Miss Thompson (Rain)

Rain is one of the best known short stories by W. Somerset Maugham (one of the grandmasters of the art of short story writing). It was originally published as Miss Thompson in the American magazine The Smart Set in April 1921. Maugham claims to have written the story in 1920. It’s a longish short story, long enough to be regarded in some genres as a novelette.

The story was adapted into an astonishingly successful stage play, Rain, by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. The success of the play was presumably the reason the title of the story was changed to Rain.

The story was made into a silent film in 1928, with Gloria Swanson starring and with the title Sadie Thompson. 

A few years later it was made into a talkie, Rain (1932), with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. That movie was a commercial flop, for reasons I have never been able to fathom. It has since built a substantial cult following.

In 1953 it was filmed again as Miss Sadie Thompson with Rita Hayworth. This was a sanitised squeaky clean version and a waste of Miss Hayworth’s considerable talents.

This is the story of a battle of wills between a prostitute and a preacher.

The 1920s and early 30s were a period of rebellion against the moralising and social rigidity of the late Victorian era. It was also a period in which at least some sections of society were embracing sexual freedom. The flapper became a symbol of rebellion, and so too did the prostitute. Books and movies not only dealt with prostitutes sympathetically but even admiringly. They were seen as women determined to live their own lives even if it meant flaunting social conventions.

Of course the spirit of rebellion was fairly thoroughly crushed by the Depression, by a resurgence in religious moralism and by the Second World War which trained the population to accept a high degree of social control.

The story begins with the arrival of a steamer at Pago Pago. The passengers include a Dr Macphail and his wife. They also include fanatical puritan missionary Mr Davidson and his malevolent wife. The passengers also include Sadie Thompson. It is to be a very brief stopover. The passengers will soon be departing for other destinations, but an outbreak of measles strands them in Pago Pago for two weeks. The only accomodation on offer is provided by a half-European trader. The passengers are not pleased, and the relentless rain adds to their discomfort.

Davidson and his wife are scandalised by Sadie’s behaviour. She entertains men in her room. They listen to records and they dance. Davidson fears they do other things. He is convinced that Sadie had been working in Honolulu’s notorious red-light district. He is convinced she is a prostitute. Which she almost certainly has been. Whether she is plying her trade in Pago Pago is left obscure, but Davidson sees her very existence as a threat to morality. 

Davidson has proudly told Dr Macphail of his campaign to eradicate sin on the small island where his mission is located. To Macphail it sounds like Davidson and his wife are brutal merciless unscrupulous tyrants who have instituted a reign of misery on the island but Davidson has no doubt he is doing the Lord’s work. Both Dr Macphail and the reader will suspect that Davidson is motivated by an intense pleasure in exercising power over the lives of others. 

And Davidson has no intention of permitting the existence of sinners like Sadie. He is going to save her soul. If that fails she must of course be destroyed. And Davidson has found a way to destroy her - if he has her sent back to San Francisco she will go straight to prison.

The odds seem to be in Davidson’s favour. And it appears that Sadie, utterly defeated, will agree to whatever fate Davidson decrees for her.

But there are some major plot twists to come.

And some slight differences to the 1932 film version. The endings are very very similar with the ending of the story having a slightly harsher edge to it, but to my mind both endings work.

Maugham was a fine writer who was especially adept at the short story format. He seems to be out of fashion these days which is a great pity. This is a superb novelette with plenty of overheated tropical atmosphere and some nice touches of sleaze, hypocrisy, repression, sin and guilt. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jimmy Sangster's Touchfeather

Touchfeather is a 1968 spy thriller by Jimmy Sangster which slots neatly into the “glamorous sexy lady spy” sub-genre. And I do so love that sub-genre.

Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) had an incredibly successful and impressive career as a screenwriter. He wrote a huge number of movies from Hammer, including most of their best early films. He had some success also a novelist although that side of his writing career tends to get overlooked.

Sangster wrote a number of spy novels, including the two Touchfeather novels.

Katy Touchfeather is an air hostess (to call her a flight attendant would be silly and anachronistic). At least that’s her cover. She’s actually a spy (or perhaps counter-spy) working for a very hush-hush British intelligence agency run by a Mr Blaser.

There’s a security leak at a research establishment and a Professor Bill Partnam is under suspicion. Partnam is off to Bombay to read some scientific papers at a conference and Katy’s job is to watch him and find the necessary evidence if he’s passing secrets on to The Other Side. Katy will be the air hostess on his flight to India. She doesn’t think she’ll have much trouble getting close to the Professor. She’s right about that. They quickly end up in bed together.

That’s no problem. Mr Blaser won’t have any objections to that. She does however fall in love with Bill, and Mr Blaser would not approve of that at all. Katy is aware that her emotions are interfering with her judgment. She just can’t believe that Bill could be a traitor. And of course he might not be, but Katy isn’t thinking too clearly where Bill is concerned.

The whole mission starts to fall apart. Katy is going to have some explaining to do to Mr Blaser. To be fair it’s not all Katy’s fault. The whole mission was ill-conceived.

The case is not over yet. Katy is drawn back into it, and once again her personal life and her professional life get all mixed up together.

In the course of this adventure Katy discovers just how dangerous flying can be. And just how dangerous spying can be.

The plot is a nicely constructed web of tangled motives and deceits, and self-deceit. It all leads up to an an absolute corker of an ending. It’s a bit of shock but if you’ve been paying attention you’ll realise that it’s the only possible ending.

We get some backstory on Katy, which explains how she came to be a spy. It also explains why she’s willing to kill in the line of duty, and why she has absolutely no qualms about doing so.

Any English author creating a glamorous lady spy in 1968 was inevitably going to be influenced to some extent by Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, and especially by Modesty Blaise. Katy, like Modesty, has an active sex life. She likes sex, and she likes men. She genuinely likes men, and like Modesty Blaise she gets emotionally involved. Katy isn’t excessively promiscuous. Three regular boyfriends at a time is enough for her. Of course she sleeps with other men occasionally as well. Unlike Modesty Blaise, she does allow her emotional life to interfere with the job.

Katy doesn’t have the psychological, emotional and moral complexity of Modesty Blaise but she does have some complexity.

There is a slight Len Deighton influence at work. There are touches of cynicism and you don’t want to put too much faith in authority figures, or in the rich and powerful. Sangster isn’t trying to be terribly cerebral but he is trying to write a book that is more than just a potboiler. And he succeeds. It all turns out to be a very satisfying spy thriller indeed, with some real punch to it. Very highly recommended.

The good news is that Touchfeather is in print, from Brash Books, and apparently without the text having been tampered with.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Poul Anderson's The Golden Slave

The Golden Slave is a 1960 historical novel by Poul Anderson.

Anderson had a formidable reputation as a science fiction writer but my own preference is for his work in the fantasy, historical fiction and sword-and-sorcery genres. Anderson knew his history and his mythology and he had a genuine feel for those subjects. This comes through strongly in his Hrolf Kraki's Saga and his fantasy masterpiece The Broken Sword.

The story takes place around the year 100BC. A number of barbarian tribes are attempting to conquer Rome. Among these tribes are the Cimbrians, hailing originally from Denmark. Eodan is the son of the tribal war chief. The Cimbrians have won several battles against the Romans, and as a result Eodan has obtained a Roman slave named Flavius. Flavius was a rich and important man. The destinies of Eodan and Flavius will become inextricably entangled.The Cimbrians are about to face the Roman army of Marius in battle. The result is disaster for the Cimbrians. Now Eodan is Flavius’s slave.

Eodan knows that his little son is dead. He saw his wife Hwicca dash the child’s brains out rather than allow him to fall into the hands of the Romans. He does not blame her for this. He would have done the same. He believes Hwicca was killed in the slaughter after the battle.

Eodan is not quite a broken man but there is now an emptiness within him. When Flavius’s wife Cordelia chooses him as her latest bed partner he does not complain. With Hwicca dead nothing really matters. An uneasy friendship develops between Eodan and Cordelia’s Greek slave-girl Phryne. They do not sleep together but their destinies also become intertwined.

Eodan makes some startling discoveries which give him new hope. But first he must escape. With Phryne’s help he does so, and she accompanies him in his flight. He does not understand why. Women are a bit of a mystery to Eodan.

The escape is the beginning of a series of wild adventures on land and at sea. These include a brief interlude as a pirate. He will end up at the court of King Mithradates the Great of Pontus, a kingdom on the Black Sea that is about to challenge Rome for control of Asia. Flavius will play a somewhat sinister part in these adventures.

In his early 1950s sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet tales Anderson had already demonstrated his ability to tell exciting action-packed stories so it’s no surprise that The Golden Slave is a roller-coaster ride of battles, narrow escapes, betrayals and sudden changes in fortune.

There is however a bit more depth to this novel. Eodan, Hwicca and Phryne (and even to a lesser extent Flavius) have complex contradictory motivations and are driven by desires and emotions which they do not always understand and cannot always control. Despite the non-stop action this is a rather character-driven story.

These are also genuinely people from a different culture, very much inclined to see themselves as driven inexorably by a fate they cannot escape. Their attitudes towards honour, duty, pride, sexual propriety and loyalty reflect a totally different cultural mindset.

This is real historical fiction, rather than the fake kind that is so common these days that features 21st century characters with 21st century attitudes being involved in 21st century dramas whilst wearing historical costumes.

It’s only at the end that we find out what Anderson was really up to in this tale, and the revelation links this novel to some of his other historical/fantasy work. This is a fine adventure story but it’s more than just that. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed some of Poul Anderson’s excellent sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet stories from the collection Swordsmen from the Stars (which I also highly recommend).

Monday, June 3, 2024

Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man

Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man was published in 1966.

Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986) was an American writer of noir-inflected pulp crime fiction.

Jim Wilson has decided to murder his wife Mona. He also intends to get away with it. There are various ways to go about getting away wth murder. Jim intends simply to shoot her, with plenty of witnesses. If he plays it right no jury will convict him.

He has some personal resentment towards Mona but that’s not why he wants to kill her. It has more to do with her father, Judge Harrington. Judge Harrington runs the town of Moline in South Carolina and in fact most of the county. He hates Jim and has made things difficult for Jim’s construction company. Jim wants revenge, but he wants more than that. He wants to replace Harrington. He wants to be the guy who runs things in Moline. And he has a pretty good plan to bring this about.

The plan is elaborate and it involves Ludmilla Pierson, with whom he went to high school. It involves blackmail, but he’s interested in influence, not money.

Jim Wilson’s plot to oust Harrington slowly matures. Harrington is old and his health is failing but he’s still powerful. Jim has to cover every angle.

He also discovers that while he’d always considered Judge Harrington a big shot there are much bigger much more powerful players in this game. Jim is moving into the big leagues.

These people are not exactly gangsters and this is not exactly a gangster story. They’re businessmen and politicians, they’re thoroughly corrupt, but they don’t deal in rackets like narcotics and gambling. They deal in rackets like construction. It’s all about carving up a territory and then making sure the right people get the right contracts from city and county and state officials. It’s crooked but respectable. These people don’t have rivals gunned down by machine-guns, but they do play hardball and if someone needs to be taken out of the picture they get the cops to do it. They own the cops.

Jim Wilson is a hard ruthless man and he’s smart, but he’s playing in a league with other smart hard ruthless players with more experience. Jim’s rise to the top seems unstoppable but the elaborate nature of his plans does mean that things could go wrong. He just needs to make one mistake. Trust one person he shouldn’t trust. Make one wrong assumption. Jim is learning, but is he learning fast enough?

There’s also the woman problem. Jim’s relationships with women are difficult. When he married Mona it didn’t take him long to realise he’d made a mistake. He doesn’t intend to make mistakes with Ludmilla or Veronica, but when sexual desire and emotional jealousies enter the picture any man can make a mistake.

There are some major plot twists which are pretty obvious and you have to wonder how a smart guy like Jim didn’t see them coming. But then what makes Jim an interesting anti-hero is that he’s smart but maybe the people he thinks he’s manipulating are actually just a bit smarter than he is.

This is noir fiction, if you’re prepared to define noir very broadly and very loosely. It has a noir kind of plot. There’s more than one femme fatale. But Jim Wilson isn’t quite a textbook noir protagonist. He doesn’t get corrupted. He’s corrupt from the start.

The Vengeance Man isn’t particularly violent. There’s some sleaze, but not a great deal. It is hardboiled, there is an overwhelming atmosphere of corruption and there’s as much paranoia as you could want. It’s reasonably entertaining and it’s recommended.

This novel is one of three in the Stark House Noir Classics paperback A Trio of Gold Medals, along with Fletcher Flora’s Park Avenue Tramp and Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed. All were originally Fawcett Gold Medal paperback originals.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Adolphe Alhaiza's Cybele

Cybele is an 1891 science fiction novel by Adolphe Alhaiza, or perhaps it’s better described by the then-popular term scientific romance.

Jean-Adolphe Alhaiza (1839-1922) was a follower of the utopian socialist philosophy of Charles Fourier, but he was not exactly an orthodox follower. Alhaiza had some intriguing scientific beliefs, some of which had some very slight plausibility at the time. He believed in a 20,000 year cycle in which firstly one of the polar regions became progressively colder while the other became warmer and then the process reversed itself. The result would be regular climatic cataclysms. This idea plays an important role in the novel. This is a novel of ideas, and the ideas are wonderfully eccentric.

It’s a kind of time travel story. The hero, Marius, travels through space and time by means of a form of astral projection. He finds himself on Earth but it’s not the same Earth. It’s a planet named Cybele which is identical to Earth in every respect except that history has progressed by another 6,000 years. On both planets history follows an absolutely identical course. Everything that has happened on Cybele in the preceding 6,000 years will happen on Earth. Every event will be repeated, precisely. Cybele is Earth’s future.

Marius becomes a kind of celebrity lecturer, offering the people of the future a glimpse into the past. He finds that his own life seems to be repeating itself, an aspect of the story that didn’t make much sense to me.

As a novel Cybele fails spectacularly. Every single mistake that a science fiction writer could possibly make is found here. Most of the book is an interminable series of clumsy infodumps. We’re treated to a detailed political history of the next few centuries but that’s the problem - we just don’t need so much detail.

The plot is almost non-existent. There’s nothing to engage our interest or to make us care about this future world or about Marius.

The resolution of the plot is extraordinarily clumsy and makes us feel that we have wasted our time reading the story.

There are some very good ideas here. The 20,000 year polar cycle is interesting and does actually drive the plot, such as it is.

Other good ideas are just thrown in for no apparent reason. The sleepers are a cool idea but they play no part in the story. The problem of interplanetary communication is handled very cleverly, but again it plays no part in the story. Both of these ideas could have been developed in fascinating ways, but they’re not developed at all.

I honestly don’t think the author had the slightest interest in writing a novel. He wanted to write a religio-scientific-political-philosophical treatise. The book does offer an intriguing insight into the utopian mindset. Those who create fantasy utopias always seem to overlook the inconvenient fact that a utopian society will be made up of people, and people never behave the way utopian thinkers want them to. Alhaiza was a man with big ideas but I don’t think he understood people at all.

Alhaiza also lacks technological imagination. There’s no “sense of wonder” here. The most advanced technology in the book is represented by airships that might have seemed high-tech in the days leading up to the First World War but as examples of the ultra-advanced technologies that might be available 6,000 years from now they’re a bit sad.

Cybele does offer some insights into the kinds of things that late 19th century intellectuals were interested in. Things like hypnotism, which gets mentioned a number of times.

Cybele, translated by Brian Stableford, is available in paperback from Black Coat Press. I don’t honestly think I can recommend this book. Black Coat Press however published translations of a lot of late 19th century and early 20th century French science fiction that is worth reading.

The Navigators of Space by J.-H. Rosny Aîné and George le Faure’s The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System are entertaining and the two anthologies News from the Moon and The Germans on Venus are worth checking out. Gustave Le Rouge’s Vampires of Mars is wild crazy stuff.