Thursday, September 14, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Howling Dog is a fairly early Perry Mason mystery, dating from 1934. By this time Erle Stanley Gardner already had the Perry Mason formula humming along like a well-oiled machine.

As usual Perry Mason becomes involved in the case before any serious crime has been committed. It appears that his latest case is absurdly commonplace - a matter of a man being annoyed by the howling of a neighbour’s dog, and the drawing up of a will. These are matters so trivial that Mason would normally not take such a case. But Perry Mason has the instincts of a detective as well as those of a lawyer and his detective’s nose has detected the scent of something  bigger. Mason likes cases that will bring him lots of publicity, that being the road to fame and success as a trial lawyer. However he also can’t resist anything that promises to be a bit odd or (even better) exciting.

As it happens his client, one Arthur Cartright, has paid him an enormous retainer so money is no problem in this case. Mason decides to spend some money. He asks his old friend Paul Drake to do a bit of digging and pretty soon every man in the Paul Drake Detective Bureau is busily gathering a mountain of information. Perry Mason means to find out exactly why Clinton Foley’s  howling dog should cause so much drama, why a man would go to so much trouble to spy on a neighbour, why a man would draw up a will with such curious provisions, and perhaps most of all he intends to find out why Cartright has such a strange interest in Foley’s wife. There’s also the matter of the beautiful young housekeeper who goes to a good deal of trouble to make herself look old and plain, and the deportation of a Chinese cook.

Mason soon has plenty of data but no real answers but he’s not entirely surprised when the murder occurs.

The plotting adheres to a rigid formula but Gardner always manages to introduce enough twists to make the formula seem fresh each time.

As a successful trial lawyer himself Gardner obviously loved courtroom scenes but he understood the dangers. They can quickly become boring so it’s essential to keep throwing in spectacular surprises. Since Perry Mason is an attorney whose entire approach to his job rests on springing surprises this works well.

This book gives Mason the opportunity to expound his legal philosophy. It’s not a defence attorney’s job to decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent, that’s the jury’s job. The defence attorney’s only task is to give his client the best possible chance, even to the extent of using what might appear to be dirty tricks.  The prosecution will certainly use dirty tricks so a defence lawyer actually has a responsibility to do the same in order to give his client a chance.

Compared to the later novels the Perry Mason of the early books was even more inclined to sail very close to the wind in order to protect a client. He won’t cross the line into actual illegality but he’ll go within a hair’s breadth of doing so, an approach that exasperates policemen and district attorneys who dream of the day that Mason will actually cross that line and they can nail him.

Mason gives a spirited and eloquent defence justification of the the adversarial nature of the trial system. Mason’s philosophical approach to the law was of course Gardner’s and it adds a bit of substance to the Perry Mason novels.

The difficult part is for the lawyer to do all these things whilst still remaining himself within the law. He can stretch the law as much as he likes but he can’t break it. The extraordinary balancing acts in which Perry Mason engages in order to do this provide much of the suspense and interest of the stories. The Case of the Howling Dog has plenty of examples. Even Paul Drake and Mason’s faithful secretary Della Street are horrified by the risks he runs and they’re familiar with his methods.

Gardner adds a nice little sting in the tail this time around.

This is one of several early Perry Mason stories in which an animal provides, directly or indirectly, absolutely crucial evidence. It’s a trick that Gardner used remarkably effectively and without resorting to mere gimmickry.

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian Fleming's Thunderball

Thunderball was the ninth of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and was published in 1961.

It started life as a treatment for a proposed Bond film in the late 50s which was turned into a screenplay by Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. When the film deal fell through Fleming believed there was no reason not to turn the story into a Bond novel, especially given that it was part of the original deal that Fleming should produce a tie-in novel based on the film. McClory and Whittingham disagreed and took Fleming to court. A complicated settlement was eventually negotiated. Thunderball was published as a novel by Fleming, based on a screenplay by McClory and Whittingham, and McClory gained the rights to do a remake of the Thunderball film (which would eventually result in the ill-fated Never Say Never Again). In the midst of the extreme stress caused by the court case Fleming had a massive heart attack.

Unhappy though the experience may have been for Fleming Thunderball is still a fine story. It’s the book that introduces SPECTRE and the most iconic of all Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

A British bomber disappears over the Atlantic, along with two nuclear bombs. A letter is delivered to the British prime minister and the US president, demanding 100 million pounds in bullion. If the bullion is not handed over a major city will be destroyed.

Acting on one of M’s hunches Bond is despatched to the Bahamas where he will be working with his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA. Bond finds what could be a lead, but it’s a very slender one. If the British bomber went down in the sea near the Bahamas then SPECTRE would have to have a sea-going vessel of some sort. It just so happens that a yacht has recently arrived in port. It’s ostensibly engaged in hunting for sunken treasure, which of course requires just the sorts of diving equipment that could be used to retrieve the two missing nuclear bombs. the yacht is owned by the rather colourful and rather mysterious Emilio Largo.

Largo’s mistress, a beautiful Italian girl named Domino, seems likely to offer the best opportunities for finding out what Largo is up to. The more Bond finds out the more convinced he is that he’s on the right track. It builds to an exciting climax beneath the sea.

Thunderball ticks the right boxes for a Bond novel. Bond makes use of a beautiful woman to uncover the villain’s nefarious scheme, there’s a torture scene, there’s the exotic setting, there’s a threat to Destroy Civilisation As We Know it, the villain is a villain on the grand scale, there’s some cool technology (although there’s not as much emphasis on this as there is in the films), there’s plenty of action, there’s sex, and Bond makes a few mistakes. It’s also typical of the novels (and this is another key difference in comparison with the films) that there’s a slightly dark and very ruthless edge to the story. Bond knowingly and deliberately risks Domino’s life because the job has to be done and she’s expendable. There’s also a hint that there things about the job that Bond doesn’t like at all, such as putting a charming girl’s life in danger.

This was the book in which Fleming started to move away from the Cold War themes of the earlier books. The chief enemy is now SPECTRE, a gigantic criminal organisation, rather than the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH. Fleming, quite correctly, realised that an obsession with the Cold War would date the books if the Cold War started to fade in significance.

Blofeld appears in the story but he hasn’t yet taken centre stage. Largo is the primary bad guy but it’s clear that both SPECTRE and Blofeld had great possibilities for future books.

As is customary in the Bond books the first encounter between Bond and the chief villain takes place over the gambling table.

As is also customary, there are subtle hints of all kinds of politically incorrect aspects to the sexual relationships.

As you might expect with a story that started life as a film treatment it’s all very cinematic, with action scenes that are ideally suited to become movie action set-pieces.

Largo’s hydrofoil yacht, The Disco Volante (Flying Saucer), is a very cool piece of technology. The hijacking of the nuclear bomber is a superb touch. It’s an idea that McClory claimed was his but Fleming handles it with great skill.

Thunderball is the kind of thing that Fleming did so well, a story that is far-fetched but not too far-fetched. It’s just plausible enough. This is all great fun. Not the best of the Bond books by any means but still highly recommended.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ashton-Kirk Investigator

John T. McIntyre (1871-1951) was a Philadelphia-born  American writer who achieved considerable success only to fade into obscurity shortly after his death. He wrote hard-boiled novels, including several in the private eye genre. Early in his career he wrote four novels featuring amateur detective Ashton-Kirk, the first of them (in 1910) being Ashton-Kirk Investigator.

Ashton-Kirk Investigator is very much in the Sherlock Holmes mould. Ashton-Kirk is a wealthy well-educated young man with a fondness for foul-smelling Greek tobacco and a considerable reputation as an amateur sleuth. He often collaborates with the police and almost invariably solves case that have baffled the official detectives. And in common with so many Victorian and Edwardian fictional detective he is also a master of disguise!

Despite its adherence to the Sherlock Holmes school of detective fiction this novel is of some interest to golden age detection fans as well. It’s not fair-play but Ashton-Kirk’s methods make sense and there are clues which do point in the direction of the solution.

The story involves the murder of a renowned but rather shady numismatist. Stories involving collectors of art and assorted artifacts would become one of the staples of the golden age.

Ashton-Kirk gets involved in this case through a beautiful young lady. The lady is to be married soon but her husband-to-be seems to have recently become very distracted and worryingly reluctant to set a date for the wedding. The young man will soon have much bigger problems to deal with.

The plot has some nice touches. The murdered numismatist was also an indefatigable collector of portraits of Revolutionary Way hero General Anthony Wayne. This obsession, and the reason behind it, will become quite important to the unraveling of the mystery. Other important questions concern a fine violinist whose talent is undimmed but who is now reduced to eking out a living as a street musician, a school for the deaf, modern German drama, the Pitman method of shorthand, candle grease and aeroplanes. McIntyre is certainly throwing lots of ideas into the mix and mostly it works.

Ashton-Kirk is a not a professional police detective but he is a bit more than an amateur. He refuses even to call himself a detective but prefers to be known as an investigator. He is more in the nature of a consulting detective in the Sherlock Holmes mode than an amateur in the golden age mode. He employs several other investigators and his business is well-organised and efficient. His methods of detection involve a good deal of pure reasoning but also a considerable amount of leg work and careful routine investigations - certainly far more so than most detectives of his era.

The police and other public officials such as the Coroner are portrayed fairly sympathetically. They’re honest, they do their best and they’re not entirely lacking in competence, they simply are not in a position to devote the same amount of time and effort to the case as an independent investigator.

There are multiple suspects and they all manage to behave in a manner that is going to invite even more suspicion. There are no hints here of scientific methods of detection and alibis play no part in the story. The major weakness, and one found in a number of writers of the period, is one I can’t say anything about other than that it limits the range of viable suspects. The story isn’t as elaborate as those that typify the later golden age, relying more on some amusing and outlandish details rather than on intricate and tightly connected plotting.

I’m not sure that I’d bother rushing out to buy the other Ashton-Kirk novels but it’s a worthwhile read for those who share my fondness for Victorian/Edwardian detective fiction.  Entertaining.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Edgar Wallace's The Black Abbot

The Black Abbot, which first saw the light of day in 1926, has absolutely everything an Edgar Wallace fan could wish for. There’s a malevolent ghost, buried treasure, the elixir of life, a crooked lawyer, a tangled romance, a scheming young woman, another young woman facing a fate much worse than death, an atmosphere of breathless excitement and non-stop Edgar Wallace thrills.

Harry Alford, 18th Earl of Chelford, is a pale bookish highly strung young man, the very model of the decadence of a decaying aristocracy. Dick Alford is the unlucky second son of the previous earl. Dick has all the virtues of the aristocracy in its heyday - he’s brave and noble with a selfless devotion to the land, the people and the rich Chelford estates. He has some modern virtues as well. He is intelligent and industrious and level-headed. Alas it seems like none of this is going to do him any good. Harry inherited the estates, the money and the title. Dick inherited nothing. It’s Dick who keeps the estates going but in his own right he has nothing.

Harry is engaged to be married to Leslie Gine, the sister of a prominent local solicitor and the heiress to a vast fortune. The match seems ideal but for one or two problems. Leslie doesn’t love the pale scholarly young earl while Harry is indifferent to her charms. He is indifferent to everything apart from his peculiar obsessions. Four four hundred years the legend has persisted that there is an immense trove of gold buried somewhere on the Chelford estates. Harry hopes to find the treasure but it’s not the gold he wants, it’s something else mentioned in the legend, the elixir of life, brought back to England from the New World in Elizabethan times.

There’s another legend as well, of a sinister black abbot who stalks the estate, the ghost of an abbot murdered many centuries before in scandalous circumstances involving the sort of sexual impropriety that no abbot should have been indulging in. 

There is another suitor for the hand of Leslie Gine and he is in a peculiarly favourable position to press his claim. It’s not that Leslie wants to marry Harry. She’d prefer to marry Dick Alford. Dick favours this idea as well but it all seems hopeless and meanwhile there are nefarious schemes afoot for other matrimonial alliances. Everybody has money troubles and they all like the idea of solving those problems by marrying money. The difficulty is in figuring out who actually has money and who just seems to have money.

Everybody wants the Chelford gold as well, and they’re prepared to resort to ruthless methods. Of course the ghostly Black Abbot may also have something to say on the subject. And of course it all leads to murder and mayhem.

The plot is delightfully convoluted and outlandish. There are villains aplenty. Everyone seems to have an ingenious scheme to get what they want but all those ingenious schemes are hopelessly in conflict with each other. Temporary alliances are formed but always with the intention of an eventual double-cross. 

The interesting thing about the characters is that they don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Upon reflection they actually behave realistically, but not necessarily in accordance with the conventions of the genre. The plot is melodramatic to a high degree  but the villains are not melodrama villains.

Of course given the setting - an ancient manor house and an adjoining ruined abbey - there are secret passageways and hidden chambers and all manner of unexpected perils. This being an Edgar Wallace thriller we’re naturally sceptical about the ghostly nature of the Black Abbot but while he may be no ghost he is certainly likely to be murderous.

It all adds up to great entertainment. Once Wallace reveals the solution to the big mystery the book really kicks into high gear with an exciting and very tense climactic episode which then leads us to the solution of the remaining mysteries.

In 1963 this novel was made into one of the best of the German Edgar Wallace krimi movies, and this movie version of The Black Abbot is one I heartily recommend.

The Black Abbot is non-stop fun, one of Wallace’s best. Very highly recommended.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Miles Burton's The Secret of High Eldersham

The Secret of High Eldersham was the second of the Desmond Merrion mysteries written by Cecil John Charles Street under the Miles Burton pseudonym. It was published in 1930. It’s recently been issued in paperback in the British Library’s excellent Crime Classics series. In some ways this title was an unfortunate choice for the series, as we shall see.

The setting is a quiet village in East Anglia called High Eldersham. A very quiet village. A village where strangers are regarded with a good deal of suspicion. Retired police sergeant Sam Whitehead has just taken over the lease of the village pub, the Rose and Crown. He seems to be doing quite well and then one day he is found brutally murdered. There is an obvious suspect but the Chief Constable feels that this is a case that should be passed on to Scotland Yard. The Yard sends Detective Inspector Young to take charge.

Young has an odd feeling about the case and asks his old friend Desmond Merrion to take a run down to High Eldersham. Young feels that he really needs someone he can trust with whom to discuss a case that he is convinced is not going to be at all simple. Young has a theory but it’s so outrageous that he’s hesitant even to mention it. He doesn’t need to - Merrion has spotted the same indications that worried Young and has come to the same conclusion. There is evil afoot in High Eldersham but it’s not ordinary everyday evil. It’s an ancient evil that most people thought had disappeared from England’s green and pleasant land centuries ago.

This is all disconcerting enough but there’s an element that is even more disturbing to Desmond Merrion. That factor is Mavis Owerton. Mavis is a very pretty young woman, a bit of a free spirit, and Merrion has fallen in love with her. The really awkward thing is the possibility that Mavis may be involved in the evil goings-on in High Eldersham. Merrion is convinced that she can’t be involved because she’s very pretty and he’s in love with her.

Mavis is the daughter of Sir William Owerton, the local squire who appears to be a dusty but harmless scholar. Mavis has another suitor (a most unwelcome suitor), a Mr Hollesley, who lives at Elder House. Hollesley and the Owertons are the only gentlefolk in the area. They seem innocent enough but there’s a strange atmosphere in the village.

Apart from ancient evils there’s also a good deal of messing about in boats in this story. Merrion hires a yawl to use as his base of operations. Hollesley has a yacht. There’s a Dutch tramp steamer that plays a key role, and there’s also Mavis’s speedboat. In fact this almost qualifies as a nautical adventure.

While there’s certainly a mystery here and Young and Merrion do a certain amount of detecting this is really more of a thriller than a detective story. It has more in common with Edgar Wallace’s potboilers than with the detective novels Street published under the name John Rhode. I happen to like Edgar Wallace potboilers so that’s not a problem for me but if you’re not a fan of that sort of tale then this might not be quite your cup of tea. Street was a master of the classic golden age detective story so this novel is not at all typical of his work, which is why I’m not sure it was a good choice for the Crime Classics series. 

The Secret of High Eldersham is also untypical of Street’s work in that it features a major romantic sub-plot.

Death at Low Tide, which I reviewed here not long ago, is a Miles Burton book that is much more a detective novel, and a very very good one.

If you’re new to the work of this author then this book is probably not the place to start. Personally I thought The Secret of High Eldersham was great fun. If you don’t mind your detective fiction mixed with thriller elements, romance and a touch of the gothic then you might enjoy this one as much as I did. Highly recommended, with those caveats.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman

The Talisman is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders. It was published in 1825. It deals with the adventures of a brave but penniless Scottish knight, Kenneth of the Leopard, during the Third Crusade (1189-92). It also deals with the intrigues among the Crusaders which played a major part in the crusade’s failure.

Sir Kenneth of the Couchant Leopard had set out on crusade with a small retinue and high hopes. Now most of his retinue are dead or dispersed. Kenneth’s hopes remain as high as ever. For some obscure reason Kenneth had been sent on a secret mission, connected with peace negotiations with Saladin. Kenneth encounters a young Saracen emir on the road, they fight, and the fight having ended in an honourable draw they become firm friends. 

King Richard I of England, Richard Coeur de Lion, is the military leader of the crusading forces but the other crusading kings and princes all have their own agendas and their own ambitions as combined with various petty jealousies and secret betrayals the crusade has the potential to become a chaotic farce. To make thing worse Richard is seriously ill with fever. Kenneth returns to Richard’s camp with a Muslim physician, sent by Saladin to minister to the ailing Coeur de Lion. Can a doctor sent by the crusaders’ most dangerous enemy be trusted? King Richard has reason to think that he can.

The idea of Saladin and Richard as worthy adversaries, each in his own way representative of the very highest ideals of his respective culture, is one of the book’s major themes. 

For Sir Kenneth there are many misfortunes in store. He has, in accordance with the  ideals of chivalry (another major theme of the novel), pledged himself to the service of a noble lady. He has perhaps set his sights too high, the lady in question being of royal birth, a close kinswoman of King Richard, a certain Edith Plantagenet. This is only the beginning of Kenneth’s woes. Dishonour and slavery await him.

King Richard has his problems as well. The alliance of princes who launched the Crusade is falling apart, torn by jealousies, conflicting ambitions and outright treachery. A wise physician can heal the King’s bodily infirmities, and some physicians seem to have other talents as well.

There’s also a bold, perhaps overbold, plan to bring the wars between Christians and Saracens to an end in a most surprising way, by means of an extraordinary marriage alliance.

The plot is certainly extravagant, with all manner of surprising revelations and unexpected twists. Modern readers may be disappointed that there’s very little in the way of actual action. There is however plenty of tension and intrigue. There’s also a focus on questions of honour, matters of critical importance to the medieval mind (and not entirely forgotten even in the Britain of 1825). There’s also romance of course, in the form of the hopeless love between Kenneth and Edith.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) more or less invented modern historical fiction. He remained immensely popular until well into the 20th century although his critical reputation plummeted as the idea of reading books for enjoyment became anathema to critics. Scott was everything modernist critics hated - his political views were unacceptable, he was patriotic, his novels had coherent plots and worst of all his books were exciting and entertaining. His Tales of the Crusaders committed the further sin of being extremely sympathetic to the ideals of chivalry.

The Talisman is very much a product of the Romantic Movement although Scott is brutally realistic in his treatment of the cynical, scheming and treacherous leadership of the crusade. Both Sir Kenneth and King Richard personify the ideals of chivalry, as does Richard’s enemy Saladin. The novel is remarkably even-handed on the subject of religion. Amusingly both Christian and Muslim characters betray the same profound misunderstandings of each other’s faiths.

One thing Scott did understand about historical fiction - there’s no point in writing such fiction if you populate your stories with anachronistically modern characters. You have to make an effort to capture the spirit, and the prejudices, and the obsessions, of another historical epoch. This lesson has now been all but forgotten, with catastrophic consequences for historical fiction. Scott does make the effort to make his characters convincingly medieval. Perhaps he doesn’t always succeed, but he does try. And there are times when you almost want to strangle Sir Kenneth because of what seems to a modern reader to be a monumentally stubborn refusal to compromise on matters that he believes to be essential to honour or religion. The fact that we grow exasperated with him demonstrates that Scott has managed to make him reasonably believable as a man of his times.

King Richard is the most interesting character. Scott portrays him as a great and charismatic hero but one with very definite flaws, although he remains a sympathetic character. He’s a man destined not to achieve his great objectives, partly through his own failings.

If you have any interest at all in historical fiction you have to at least sample Sir Walter Scott’s work. Even if it’s somewhat lacking in the degree of action you might expect The Talisman is an absorbing and entertaining tale, somewhat far-fetched but all the more enjoyable as a result. Recommended.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars

Anthony Boucher was much better known as a critic but in the late 30s and early 40s he wrote a handful of very well-regarded detective novels. The most famous is perhaps The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, published in 1940. The title would lead the reader to expect a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but this book is actually something very different, and far more interesting. 

This is a Holmesian puzzle but not only does Sherlock Holmes not appear in the book, there is also no Sherlock Holmes imitation or clone or anything along those lines in the story. It’s actually a novel about Sherlock Holmes fans. In fact it’s perhaps the earliest detective novel that takes fandom as its subject matter. The Baker Street Irregulars was (and still is) in real life a kind of club composed of mostly literary figures united by their obsession with the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

Metropolis Pictures is about to make a film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Speckled Band. Metropolis Pictures is a typical Hollywood studio run by a typical Hollywood mogul, F.X. Weinberg. Weinberg is a man who proudly wears his vulgarity on his sleeve. Any chance that the film will be a faithful adaptation went out the window when Stephen Worth was assigned to write the screenplay. You see Stephen Worth is a hardboiled crime writer who despises the Sherlock Holmes stories and despises Sherlock Holmes fans, especially the Baker Street Irregulars. Worth intends to write a screenplay that will be a merciless mockery of Conan Doyle’s creation.

Even a man as crass as F.X. Weinberg can see that this could cause problems. It could cause problems that would hurt the picture at the box office. He wants to fire Stephen Worth from the picture but Worth has an air-tight contract - if Weinberg wants the picture made Worth has to be the screenwriter. Weinberg’s solution is to hire five prominent Baker Street Irregulars to act as technical advisers to make sure the movie is properly Sherlockian. The combination of Worth and the Baker Street Irregulars is guaranteed to lead to fiery confrontations. In fact it quickly leads to murder. The police are faced with a major problem - there was definitely a murder but there’s definitely no body.

At this point the novel starts to become slightly surreal. The day after the murder the five Baker Street Irregulars all have extremely bizarre adventures and these adventures are all eerily reminiscent of various Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact the whole case becomes more and more a tangle of Sherlockian references and Sherlockian clues. It has to be said that Boucher handles this with great dexterity and ingenuity. 

The main plot has plenty of suspects, lots of alibis and lots of twists. And there are floor plans, and diagrams, always a major plus in my view.

If there’s a weakness it’s the political angle which becomes a bit tedious. OK, Nazis were very topical in 1940 but today they get boring rather quickly.

Boucher was nothing if not ambitious since he also throws in a romantic sub-plot. This is something I mostly disapprove of in golden age detective stories but this one is handled pretty well, and more importantly the author manages the difficult feat of not allowing the romance to slow down the plot.

If you love codes and ciphers then you'll be overjoyed to learn that there are a whole swag of them in this story.

This is a book that is probably not capable of being appreciated by readers who don’t have at least some acquaintance with Conan Doyle’s stories. Such readers are going to miss all the in-jokes and all the wit and will probably find the book to be mystifying, but mystifying in a bad way. On the other hand if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan you’re likely to find the whole thing to be very enjoyable indeed. On the whole I liked it and it’s clever enough and original enough to be regarded as a substantial achievement. So for Sherlock Holmes fans, highly recommended. For non-Sherlock Holmes fans, possibly one to avoid.