Thursday, January 18, 2018

Desmond Bagley 's The Golden Keel

The Golden Keel appeared in 1963 and launched Desmond Bagley on a successful career as a writer of thrillers. To me Bagley is the guy whose books you read when you’ve run out of Alistair MacLean books to read. Bagley’s style is similar, he’s not as good as MacLean, but he’s OK.

The Golden Keel had a contemporary setting but the early part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks. The technique works since the past is always a presence in this story. What happened back in 1948 is important, and what happened back in 1943 is absolutely crucial. But exactly what did happen in 1943? It’s a story told by a drunk and might be nothing more than a tall story. Or it might be true. Or partly true.

The narrator is English yacht designer Peter Halloran who had headed for South Africa after the war ended. He prospered there and eventually came to be the owner of a very successful boat-building business. He had everything he wanted out of life, and then suddenly something happened and it no longer meant anything to him. And then he encountered the drunk, a man named Walker, once again. He is now convinced that Walker’s story is true and he intends to do something about. It will be an adventure and he may rediscover a reason to go on living.

Walker had been an Allied prisoner-of-war in Italy who, along with a tough Afrikaaner sergeant named Coertze, escaped and joined a partisan band. These were not communist partisans but monarchists, a fact which later assumes some importance. At some point very late in 1943 half a dozen of these partisans, including Walker and Coertze, ambushed a convoy of German trucks. The trucks were carrying Italian Government documents, large sums of currency and an assortment of extremely valuable jewellery. And they were carrying one other thing - four tons of gold. This was apparently the treasure of Mussolini but Mussolini was destined never to see his gold again.

There were several things that the six partisans could have done at this point but human nature being what it is it’s not surprising that they decided to keep the treasure for themselves. Their problem, and a very big problem it was, was how to get the gold out. They decided to hide the treasure in an abandoned lead mine and they dynamited the entrance to keep their hoard secure.

This gold brought ill luck to most of the partisans. No less than four of the six men involved met violent deaths (some in slightly mysterious circumstances) before the end of the war.

Fifteen years later neither Walker nor Coertze has been able to come up with any workable scheme for getting the gold out of Italy. But Peter Halloran has such a scheme. It will require money and careful planning and it will require a yacht. Halloran has the right yacht for the job. The tricky part is that he’s going to need Walker and Coertze to behave themselves and co-operate and since Walker is an alcoholic and Coertze is short-tempered and they hate each other this will be quite a challenge.

As you would expect the top-secret plan to extract Mussolini’s gold from Italy doesn’t remain a secret for very long. There are soon other interested parties, and they play rough. And of course there’s a woman. She’s beautiful and somewhat mysterious and as to whether she is untrustworthy, that’s a question that only time will answer.

There are some ambitious action set-pieces although they are a bit confused and chaotic. Bagley doesn’t quite have MacLean’s gift for building tension. He also doesn’t have MacLean’s gift for taut plotting. His plots lack the neat little twists that MacLean was so good at. There’s a clever story here but it drags just a little in places.

There is one other striking similarity to MacLean in this novel. The romance sub-plot doesn’t quite work. Halloran and Francesca fall in love because the plot requires them to but we don’t really get much of an inkling into the reason for their mutual attraction. It just suddenly happens.

While I’ve always had slight reservations about Bagley’s plotting I have to admit that he handles the character interactions (the non-romantic character interactions) extremely well. He brings together a small group of people who don’t know each other very well, don’t necessarily like each other and definitely don’t trust each other. They also have to deal with several outsiders and those outsiders might be friendly, or neutral, or downright hostile. Somehow they have to pull off a complicated plan without double-crossing or being double-crossed.

The best moments take place on the yacht and Bagley does go close to pulling off a MacLean in these scenes, with the sea itself as much of an enemy as the bad guys. The fact that we’re not entirely sure who are the bad guys also helps. The climax (at sea) is well executed and quite exciting.

The Golden Keel is a pretty solid action thriller. Not quite in the top rank but still recommended.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

R.A.J. Walling's The Mystery of Mr Mock

The Mystery of Mr Mock (the US title was The Corpse with the Floating Foot) was written in 1937 by R.A.J. Walling and of course features private detective Philip Tolefree.

Tolefree and his friend Farrar (who narrates the story) have joined another old friend of Tolefree’s, Professor Pye, for a period of relaxation in the country. They have chosen the village of Combe in Wiltshire. Combe’s main claim to fame (indeed its only claim to fame) is the Wheel Inn. This hotel was converted from an old water mill and the water wheel is still in existence. It has to be admitted that the Wheel Inn really is most picturesque as well as being rather comfortable while Combe itself is a thoroughly pleasant little spot.

Pye is a Professor of Moral Philosophy but he is also somewhat obsessed with a much less respectable subject. Pye just loves crime. Had he not been a Professor of Moral Philosophy he would dearly have loved to have been a detective.

The time passes most agreeably with considerable entertainment being provided by two of the other guests at the Wheel Inn, Mr Mock and Mr Annison. These two gentlemen argue constantly and their arguments include an extraordinary leavening of profanity. This attracts the ire of the godly Mr Cornwood who does his best to save the souls of these two reprobates. Mr Mock and Mr Annison might dislike one another but there is one thing that unites them - their mutual detestation of Mr Cornwood.

And then, on Guy Fawkes Night, Mr Mock vanishes. His ancient car vanishes as well. Actually he’s not the only one who vanishes after that night.

There are a couple of odd little details that worry Tolefree. He’s particularly worried by Mr Mock’s hat. These little details will lead to a grisly discovery (which we already know about since the book opens with the finding of a corpse and we then get a flashback that fills in the story of the previous four days).

The discovery of the corpse raises more questions than it answers. Tolefree would love to have a glimpse of a motive but at this stage there’s absolutely no sign of one. He is convinced that no real progress towards solving the case can be made without knowing why the man was murdered.

This is a fine example of making the most of the unusual features of the splendid setting. The water wheel itself plays a part in the story and the old mill building turns out to be a most curious structure with all sorts of secrets hidden within its depths.

Combe itself is quite an entertaining little place with more than its fair share of slightly odd and colourful characters. The landlord of the inn is a retired naval captain who has been known to forget that on land his authority is no longer unlimited. Professor Pye is a genuine eccentric and his philosophical debates with Tolefree are quite amusing. Mr Mock and Mr Annison are likeable old sinners. Mr Cornwood is a bit of a stereotype, the priggish devout sort always seeking to save souls, but he has some unexpected hidden depths. There’s also the village Don Juan, young Calderstone, who may be less empty headed than he appears to be.

While this is a book that is very much in the puzzle-plot mould it’s not just a matter of looking for clues. The personalities of the characters do count as a factor that Tolefree cannot ignore.

Alibis play a vital role and, rather unusually, the alibis have to be remarkably specific since Tolefree is eventually able to fix the time of the murder almost precisely.

Fishing will be important as well, although in this case the fishermen are not necessarily after fish.

This is not one of those detective novels in which the detective settles himself in his favourite armchair, fills his pipe and proceeds to solve the entire mystery without leaving his study. Tolefree will have to do a great deal of tramping about, he will have to display considerable energy and agility and will even have to put himself in harm’s way on occasion. He even has cause to be grateful that he brought his revolver along with them.

In fact in fairness to Walling it should be pointed out that most of Tolefree’s cases do involve quite a bit of leg work and at times some danger.

If you’ve always assumed that Walling was merely one of the more obscure writers of the Humdrum School and therefore of little interest The Mystery of Mr Mock might just change your mind. It’s really a thoroughly enjoyable tale of detection. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Leigh Brackett's The Last Days of Shandakor

The Last Days of Shandakor is a novelette by Leigh Brackett. It first appeared in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories. It’s typical of the very best of her sword-and-planet tales.

It’s set on Brackett’s Mars, a once-green planet that is now mostly desert. The great Martian civilisations, civilisations that were ancient aeons before the beginning of recorded history on Earth, have fallen into decay. Most have vanished almost entirely, leaving just a few tantalising traces.

A planetary anthropologist from Earth, John Ross, encounters a man named Corin. Corin fascinates him because he seems to belong to no known surviving race. Corin claims to have left the dying city of Shandakor, a city as unknown as the race to which Corin belongs.

Corin wants to return to Shandakor and John Ross, realising that he could be on the brink of discoveries that could make his professional reputation, wants to accompany him.

Shandakor is a city that knew times of greatness. Now it is dying, or is it already a dead city? It depends on what you mean by dead. What John Ross finds is a shadow of that greatness but it’s a very peculiar shadow.

This is the sort of thing that Brackett did supremely well. It’s a story that relies absolutely on mood and it’s a mood of loss, of melancholy, of doom both feared and welcomed. There is physical death, and there is the death of the will to survive.

Brackett was obsessed by the idea of lost civilisations and the death and decay of civilisations. She was obsessed by what might be called the idea of historical deep time, of the past as something incredibly vast and majestic and terribly sad. It’s a subject she approached with sensitivity and compassion but without sentimentality. Civilisations live and they die, that’s just the way things are. men live and they die as well. There is a time to die.

John Ross will make his anthropological discoveries and he will make discoveries about himself as well. He will find love but it seems to be an impossible love. Is love stronger than death? John Ross will find the answer to that question.

This novelette is included in the excellent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea Kings of Mars.

The Last Days of Shandakor is one of Brackett’s most successful stories. Very highly recommended.

Friday, December 29, 2017

reading highlights of 2017

This year I’m going to do something slightly different. I’m not going to do a “best reads of 2017” list because if I did that it would be a list dominated by the writers who dominate my lists every year. So this time I’m just going to focus on the writers who were my most exciting discoveries of the year and the books that provided my most pleasant surprises.

I’ll start with the crime stuff.

Arthur J. Rees’ The Shrieking Pit, published in 1919, combines some definite gothic touches and a nicely creepy setting and there’s a pretty good plot as well.

Arthur B. Reeve’s The Silent Bullet is a 1911 short story collection and an early example of the scientific detective sub-genre. Maybe the plots aren’t masterpieces of fair-play detection but Reeve’s detective uses some gadgets that are both very cool and scientifically plausible and the scientific ideas are fascinating.

W. Stanley Sykes was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels. HIs 1931 novel The Missing Moneylender by is a real obscurity with a delightfully intricate plot.

Average Jones is a 1911 short story collection by Samuel Hopkins Adams, and what a weird and wonderful (and incredibly entertaining) collection it is.

Now on to thrillers.

Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon is a good solid very enjoyable 1948 spy thriller, a bit light on action but with decent suspense. It’s perhaps at the more literary end of the thriller market.

OK, Edgar Wallace is hardly a new discovery for me but his 1926 thriller The Black Abbot is one of his very best efforts.

And now for science fiction.

Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants is one of the classics of dystopian fiction.

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (from 1960) is witty, clever and immensely entertaining. What happens when an advanced and aggressive alien civilisation encounters medieval English longbowmen? The answer of course is a crushing defeat for the aliens, but the fun doesn’t stop there.

Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns is a collection of his very early space opera stories from the 1920s, and thoroughly enjoyable it is too.

As for adventure stories the highlight of the year was unquestionably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story collection The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. Gerard might not be the smartest officer in Napoleon’s Grand Army but he makes up for it with insane bravery and  absurd over-confidence.

And then there’s The Flying Death by Samuel Hopkins Adams, a totally unclassifiable but extremely entertaining and deeply weird 1908 novel that has a little bit of everything in it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Substitute Face

The Case of the Substitute Face was the twelfth of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. It was written in 1938 and it’s a fine entry in the series. It’s a murder at sea story, something I’m personally extremely fond of.

This one starts in Honolulu. Perry and Della Street have been on holiday. A large part of the action takes place on the ship on their return voyage to San Francisco.

A female passenger, a Mrs Newberry, wants Perry’s help. She tells him a complicated story involving her suspicion that her husband had been guilty of embezzling from his employer, the Products Refining Company. Perry explains that it’s not the sort of case he deals with but then he decides that it could provide some interest after all. It will also provide an opportunity to do a good deed for a charming young lady. Mrs Newberry explains that her main concern is the effect that a scandal would have on her daughter Belle, Belle being the charming young lady. Even Della thinks Belle is delightful, and she’s a bit less inclined than Perry to be dazzled by a pretty smile.

Mason cooks up a rather clever plan. He will try to cut a deal with the Products Refining Company whereby Mr Newberry can stay out of prison by agreeing to return most of the money (the portion he hasn’t spent). It’s all going splendidly until the murder takes place.

As in practically every Perry Mason story the lawyer is already on the scene and well and truly involved before the actual crime takes place. The accused is almost always already Mason’s client.  This is an essential part of the Perry Mason formula. The Perry Mason mysteries can be seen as illustrating Gardner’s view of how a defence would always be conducted in an ideal world, with the defence attorney on the spot to prevent the police and the District Attorney from coercing or tricking the accused into making damaging admissions. Gardner felt very strongly that the system was stacked against the little guy and a large part of this came down to the fact that ordinary people simply do not know their rights under the law. In this case Mason is able to make quite sure that his client says nothing whatever to the police.

This case hinges to a large degree on identity. There are eyewitnesses, they saw the murderer and the victim, but the murder took place on an open deck and at the time the ship was in the middle of a severe storm. The eyewitnesses cannot actual identify either the murderer or the victim. The Deputy District Attorney’s satisfaction with what seems like an open-and-shut case turns to disillusionment as Perry reveals that the case rests on certain major assumptions and those assumptions rest on nothing whatsoever.

The witnesses are interesting. They all saw important things, but not the most important things, and what they didn’t see ends up counting for more than what they did see. And eyewitnesses have to be treated with suspicion. The more certain an eyewitness is, the more likely he is to be wrong. The Perry Mason books are full of nice little observations on the quirks of the legal system, which Gardner slips in without ever giving the impression of lecturing the reader.

As usual Mason doesn’t trouble himself too much with legal ethics, and even indulges in a spot of breaking and entering (much to the dismay of Paul Drake).

At the end of the story Perry Mason is annoyed with himself because he didn’t unravel the mystery earlier even though the clues were obvious and the conclusions to which they pointed were obvious. The reader may end up feeling the same way. It’s the mark of a true master of the puzzle-plot mystery to be able to leave the vital clues right out there in the open in plain sight whilst still being confident of being able to lead the reader up the garden path. And Gardner was certainly one of the masters.

Mason is far from infallible in this story. He is taken by surprise once or twice and he even develops doubts about the outcome of the trial.
The courtroom scenes are fairly brief. Gardner understood that lengthy courtroom scenes can become very tedious so he made sure that when he put Perry Mason in court something startling would happen, something absolutely crucial to the plot, and it would happen without wasting too much time.

The Case of the Substitute Face is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Berkeley Gray’s Conquest Marches On

Conquest Marches On, published in 1939, was the fourth of Berkeley Gray’s Norman Conquest thrillers. Gray was actually the incredibly prolific Edwy Searles Brooks (1889-1965) who had already been churning out potboilers for a couple of decades before creating Norman Conquest. His earlier output comprised mostly short stories including quite a few entries in popular series such as the Sexton Blake series.

Norman Conquest is very much a Simon Templar clone. In fact he’s almost a direct copy. He’s a handsome young adventurer who doesn’t mind relieving villains of their ill-gotten gains but he’s always prepared to fight for the rights of ordinary people victimised by criminals. He’s a virtuous hero, but one prepared to bend the law a little, or even quite a lot. He’s Robin Hood with a dash of the buccaneer about him. He loves adventure for the sake of adventure. He loves cracking whimsical jokes. It’s the formula used with such success by Leslie Charteris in his Saint stories. It’s not just a variation on the formula. It’s the identical formula.

It has to be said that the Norman Conquest books are not in the same league as Charteris’s Saint stories. Charteris had the lightness of touch and the sense of style to make the formula work with every appearance of effortless ease. The Norman Conquest books by contrast seem a little contrived and the author sometimes seems to be trying too hard. He just is quite simply not as good a writer as Charteris.

On the other hand the early Norman Conquest tales do possess a great deal of energy and exuberance, and a fair amount of inventiveness. The best of them, such as Miss Dynamite, are extremely entertaining.

Conquest Marches On opens with the hero finding himself in trouble with the police. He has been accused of interfering with a young woman on a tube train. Of course he did nothing of the sort. In fact the young lady launched a bizarre and entirely unprovoked attack on him. It’s all very odd and Conquest is convinced that there’s something strange and sinister going on, and that means there is likely to be some sort of adventure in the offing.

Conquest has stumbled across a blackmail racket. A blackmail racket on a very large scale indeed. The racket is run by a mysterious figure known only as the Voice.

Every time either the police or Conquest think they’ve tracked down the Voice it turns out to be just another minor hireling. The Voice is always one step ahead of them.

The Voice certainly recognises Conquest as a serious danger and makes several attempts to eliminate him but Norman Conquest is not so easy to kill. And the Voice has made the mistake of threatening Conquest’s lady love and that’s a very foolish thing to do.

There are plenty of narrow escapes, plenty of dastardly schemes to remove our hero from the land of the living, and there’s an abundance of the kinds of things that make the pulp fiction of this era so much fun - secret passageways, hidden rooms, concealed microphones and cameras, ingenious communication devices.

And lots of gadgets. Norman Conquest was one of the first thriller heroes to rely heavily on gadgetry. It does give these thrillers a bit of a comic book feel, a bit of a Dick Tray flavour. Which is no great problem, since the Norman Conquest books are very pulpy, much more pulpy even than Charteris’s Saint stories or the Bulldog Drummond books. This is very much pulp fiction and it would even be fair to describe it as trash fiction, but it’s entertaining trash. Brooks throws in every pulp ingredient he can think of (and he can think of many). Brooks had absolutely zero literary aspirations. He came from the school of writing in which authors were paid by the word and in which success as an author depended on the ability to maintain an enormous output. There’s nothing polished about his work, there’s none of the dazzling style of a Charteris, but in its own very down market way it works well enough.

Conquest Marches On doesn’t quite have the manic energy of Miss Dynamite or Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters but if you accept it for what it is it’s pretty enjoyable. Recommended.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

J. J. Connington’s Mystery at Lynden Sands

Mystery at Lynden Sands, published in 1928, is one of J. J. Connington’s earlier mysteries featuring Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield. Driffield is having a pleasant holiday at the seaside and of course as any fan of mystery fiction knows when a detective decides to take a holiday murder is sure to follow him.

The murder victim is Peter Hay, an amiable and much-loved old man who acts as caretaker at Foxhills, the estate of the Fordingbridge family. Foxhills is not very far from the hotel at Lynden Sands when the Chief Constable has been hoping to enjoy his little vacation. Peter Hay didn’t have an enemy in the world and he apparently died of natural causes but Dr Rafford refuses to sign the death certificate. Those odd marks on the victim’s wrists worry him just a little.

Inspector Armadale is a little uneasy as well, in fact uneasy enough to request the Chief Constable’s personal assistance on the case.

The Fordingbridges are having a drama of their own. Paul Fordingbridge’s nephew Derek hasn’t been heard from in years and it is assumed that he was killed during the war. Now Derek has suddenly turned up. Derek claims to have been wounded during the war, which explains why his face is so disfigured as to be unrecognisable. The wound affected his mouth as well, which explains why his voice is also unrecognisable. His handwriting has changed as well, due to the loss of two fingers. There are no fingerprints on file for Derek so there’s no possibility of identifying him positively in that way. Paul’s sister Jay is however perfectly certain that it is Derek. She is in touch with the spirit world and the spirits assure her that Derek is still among the living.

Then a body is found on Neptune’s Seat, a rock in the sea that is uncovered only at low tide. There are quite a few sets of rather interesting footprints on the beach and they seem likely to turn out to be vital clues.

There are all kinds of dramas going on and they all seem to be connected with the Fordingbridge family. The connections between these dramas are however very unclear. Solving any of the mysteries is going to require the tying together of all these threads. Both Connington as author and Driffield as detective succeed in doing so and doing so with great skill.

This is fairly typical of Connington at his best. The plotting is intricate and very tight. Sir Clinton’s approach to the investigation is uncompromisingly logical and rational. His old friend Squire Wendover is naturally involved, and just as naturally the good-hearted Wendover can’t help seeing the case in purely emotional terms.

Inspector Armadale is an efficient and thorough investigator and entirely professional. Not surprisingly he and Wendover clash since the inspector is not a man to allow emotion to distract from his duty.

Towards the end there’s a definite thriller flavour that starts to creep in. One could almost go so far as to say that there’s a hint of Edgar Wallace. This is a classic puzzle-plot mystery with the emphasis on fair play and on the methodical sifting of clues but the touch of excitement and drama at the climax is welcome nonetheless.

There are a few far-fetched moments, as there always are in golden age mysteries, but Connington has a knack for making them seem perfectly plausible.

Sir Clinton Driffield is perhaps the most ruthless, and is certainly the most unsentimental, of all golden age detectives. He is at his most ruthless in this novel. He has also has a breathtakingly acid tongue. It makes him of the more interesting fictional detectives. Maybe it’s easier to respect him than to love him but he’s unfailingly entertaining.

Mystery at Lynden Sands is immensely enjoyable stuff. Highly recommended.