Friday, October 21, 2016

E.W. Hornung's The Crime Doctor

The Crime Doctor is a 1914 collection of linked short stories by E.W. Hornung, a writer best known for his very successful stories of the gentleman-thief Raffles. The crime doctor is a Doctor John Dollar and he has come up with a theory that all crime is a form of madness and can therefore be treated the way madness would be treated.

Doctor Dollar claims that his theory is based on his own first-hand experiences. A mild brain injury some years earlier had caused him to develop certain very specific criminal tendencies. He claims to have cured himself and now he hopes to cure others.

As we reach the later stories it becomes increasingly obvious that this is more an episodic novel than a collection of linked short stories although one or two of the stories (such as A Schoolmaster Abroad) can stand on their own. 

The first story, The Physician Who Healed Himself, give us Doctor Dollar’s backstory while also revealing the unconventional methods he uses to promote his revolutionary new theory on the treatment of crime.

The Life-Preserver deals with a murder committed during a suffragette riot. An habitual criminal has been condemned to death for killing a policeman during the disturbances but the notorious Lady Vera Moyle claims to have evidence that the man is innocent.

In A Hopeless Case Doctor Dollar is persuaded, against his better judgment, to try to cure the thief who figured in the previous story and he discovers that curing some criminals can be a very great challenged indeed. 

A Schoolmaster Abroad takes Doctor Dollar to Switzerland. Serious accusations have been made against a Swiss doctor who happens to be the man who cured Doctor Dollar of his criminal tendencies. The accusations involve a young man of good family who has rather suddenly become wild and unpredictable and is proving to be quite a handful for his tutor. Doctor Dollar claims to dislike having to act as a detective but that is what he must do in this tale.

One Possessed is probably the highlight of the book. A highly decorated army officer retired after long service in India is desperately anxious about his Anglo-Indian wife’s erratic behaviour. There is certainly a tragic secret here but perhaps not the obvious one. If the solution is a little outlandish it’s also highly entertaining.

In the later stories (or chapters if you prefer to treat the book as a novel) we return to the events and characters introduced in The Life-Preserver. The manner in which the various floating plot strands are brought together is reasonably effective if a little contrived, and the ending is perhaps really too contrived.

The premise of the book is quite clever and taps into the zeitgeist of the times. At the beginning of the 20th century psychological theories were all the rage and seemed to hold the promise of opening up a brave new enlightened world in which human happiness would attain unheard of heights and most human misery would be eliminated by scientific progress.

Doctor Dollar has all the zeal of a prophet. Interestingly enough although he might sound like a starry-eyed idealist and even a bleeding heart his compassion for those who break the laws has its limits. While he believes in trying to cure some offenders he thinks that habitual criminals should be ruthlessly exterminated!

Mercifully Doctor Dollar is not a Freudian so we’re spared that misfortune.

The Crime Doctor has some historical interest as an early example of the psychologist-as-detective sub-genre (although it was preceded by the rather more interesting Luther Trant, Psychological Detective stories which appeared in 1909-10). The Crime Doctor is a mixed bag but it has its moments. It has to be said that Doctor Dollar does not do a great deal of actual detective work. Worth a look if the subject matter appeals to you.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Branded Spy Murders by F. Van Wyck Mason

The Branded Spy Murders was the fifth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six Hugh North spy thrillers. The first of the Hugh North books appeared in 1930 and the last in 1968.

Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) was a prolific and extremely successful American writer of detective fiction, spy thrillers and historical fiction. He published some 78 novels altogether.

The Branded Spy Murders appeared in 1932. Captain Hugh North is a U.S. Army officer assigned to G-2, Military Intelligence. He has been sent to Honolulu to try to retrieve a desperate situation caused by the failures of two other American intelligence officers. These were brave and reliable men but they proved to be no match for one of the deadliest and most seductive of all female spies. Even Captain Hugh North himself will find it difficult to resist her lethal charms.

Somehow Captain North will have to avert a war between the United States and Japan. A complex conspiracy is afoot to push the two nations into war. A series of incidents has been engineered in China and these have raised tensions very dangerously indeed and now a Japanese cruiser squadron in on its way to Hawaii. It is intended as a goodwill visit but in the present overheated atmosphere the fear is that the visit could be misunderstood.

The first problem facing Hugh North is to discover the identity of those behind the plot. This will not be easy since Hawaii is swarming with intelligence operatives - there are  American, British, German, French, Japanese and Soviet spies all active in the islands and there are private interests represented as well. 

There is also a dead girl, found floating in the water near the Honolulu mansion of an American steel magnate. The dead girl was a spy, but which of the intelligence services was she working for? Who killed her, and why? 

There will be more murders before this case is solved. Anxious as he is to solve the murders Hugh North is considerably more anxious to avert a war that neither Japan nor the U.S. really wants.

Van Wyck Mason liked to set his spy thrillers in exotic locations and in this book he uses the Hawaiian setting very effectively indeed. We get to see a glamorous side to the islands but we see the seedy sleazy side as well. Hugh North’s investigation will lead him to luxurious mansions and expensive restaurants but it will also lead him to some very low dives in parts of Honolulu that respectable tourists avoid - a sordid world of brothels and cheap bars. 

Also impressive is the way Mason makes use of the very real tensions that existed in this part of the world at the time. The Japanese had overrun Manchuria in 1931 (the so-called Manchuria Incident) and by 1937 they would be embroiled in full-scale war in China (the so-called China Incident). The idea of a war between the U.S. and Japan was by no means totally fanciful. And in 1941 it was in fact Hawaii where the spark was struck that plunged Asia into all-out war.

You might expect the Japanese to be cast as the bad guys but things are not that straightforward. It’s possible that both the Japanese and the Americans are being manipulated.

Compared to other spy thrillers of the interwar years there’s a surprising touch of cynicism (the conspirators would be quite happy to start a full-scale war as long as there’s a profit to be made) and there’s a good deal of emphasis on the use of sex as a tool in espionage. There’s no actual sex but there’s an enormous amount of sexual tension, sexual jealousy, and sexual betrayal. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s plenty of suspense and plenty of danger.

Hugh North is a dedicated professional spy in an era when most literary spies were enthusiastic amateurs. In some ways he has more in common with postwar spies like James Bond than with his contemporaries such as Bulldog Drummond. In fact the tone of the book really does to a certain extent anticipate the Bond novels.

And the glamorous and deadly female super-spy Nadia Stefan could quite easily be a Bond girl.

The Branded Spy Murders is a taut and exciting spy tale with some fine plot twists. Hugh North is an interesting slightly flawed hero - he’s a brave and brilliant officer but he does have his weaknesses and he does make mistakes. The novel has a memorable femme fatale. When you add the exotic setting you have all the ingredients for a very superior piece of spy fiction. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

some vintage crime film reviews

Some recent reviews of vintage crime films from my movie blog.

Johnny Angel (1945) is an interesting RKO film noir with a nautical theme starring George Raft (and I'm quite a fan of George Raft).

Wide Boy (1952) is an excellent low-budget film noir-tinged British crime melodrama with a superb performance by the very underrated Sydney Tafler.

The Terror (1938) is a thoroughly enjoyable potboiler based on an Edgar Wallace story. It has an excellent cast and with just a hint of horror as an added bonus.

Assassin for Hire (1951) is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and another superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but B-movie fans will find plenty here to enjoy.

The Teckman Mystery (1954) is a decent British crime thriller, co-written by Francis Durbridge, and with a hint of espionage as well.

Born To Kill (1947) a strange, overheated and disturbing RKO film noir based on James Gunn’s strange, overheated and disturbing 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male.

Green for Danger (1946), an extremely entertaining British film adaptation of Christianna Brand’s much-praised 1944 novel of the same name. A wonderful performance by Alistair Sim is the highlight.

Raffles (1939), a not entirely successful movie based on E.W. Hornung's Raffles short stories although David Niven had the potential to be a great Raffles.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Baited Hook

Erle Stanley Gardner’s sixteenth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Baited Hook, was published in 1940. It’s a fine example of the qualities that made Gardner one of the bestselling authors of all time.

One of the curious things about the Perry Mason mysteries is that Gardner liked to bring Mason into his cases before the main crime was committed. In fact this was almost an essential ingredient since a large part of Mason’s success as a lawyer hinges on his ability to prevent his clients from doing anything foolish, like talking to the police. Mason understands very clearly that the prosecution’s best chance of winning any case comes from the ability of the police to persuade the accused to make damaging and quite unnecessary admissions. In order to avoid this it is obviously an enormous advantage if somehow or other Gardner can contrive things so that Mason is retained by a client before the client actually needs an attorney.

It has to be said that Gardner consistently managed to pull off this trick with remarkable success. The Case of the Baited Hook provides a particularly imaginative example. Perry Mason is approached (at midnight) by a man who is reluctant to revel his real name. The man is accompanied by a masked woman ho does not speak. The man offers Perry two thousand dollars as a retainer with the promise of an additional ten thousand dollars should his masked lady friend suddenly require the services of a top criminal lawyer. He refuses to tell Perry the name of the woman concerned.

It’s an impossibly awkward situation for a lawyer but on the other hand ten thousand dollars (remember this is 1940) is a colossal sum of money. It’s the proverbial offer that one can’t refuse although there will be times when Mason wishes he had refused it.

Mason has another case to deal with, a case involving an orphanage functioning as a baby farm, an illegal adoption, Russian refugees fleeing from the Bolsheviks, the possible misappropriation of trust funds and a very suspicious share deal. 

Perry Mason is used to having to play detective to discover the identity of the real killer in order to clear his clients but in this case he faces a more unusual challenge - he must first discover the identity of his client. 

It’s a typically ingenious Gardner plot with a plethora of suspects and possible motives. This is a detective story in which the solution depends on establishing the actual time that the victim was killed - as Mason remarks at one point the alibis (and everyone in this story has one) remain fixed but the time of the murder keeps jumping around.

As usual Mason gets plenty of help from Della Street and from the Paul Blake Detective Agency. And as usual he finds himself at odds with the police (in the person of Detective-Sergeant Holcomb) and the DA’s office (in the person of his perennial adversary DA Hamilton Berger). 

Also typical of Gardner is the fact that Mason’s issues with the police have nothing to do with dishonesty (whatever his faults Sergeant Holcomb is a scrupulously honest cop). The problem is the very nature of the police culture. Police officers are trained to use persuasion, trickery and coercion in order to get an accused person to say a lot more than he should say, and a lot more than he is legally required to say. It’s the way the police get results. It means that even when the police are honest the system is stacked in their favour. 

Most (but not all) of the Perry Mason novels end with a climactic courtroom scene. The Case of the Baited Hook has no courtroom scenes at all. It does have a quasi-legal disciplinary hearing at one stage and several vital plot points rely on very nice points of law. One of Gardner’s strengths is his ability to have Perry Mason make use of arcane legal points to baffle his adversaries while at the same time making those legal points clear and straightforward to the reader.

I’ve now read half a dozen of the Perry Mason books from the 1930s and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. The Case of the Baited Hook has just about everything you could ask for in a Perry Mason mystery. It has a complex tightly constructed plot and it has Mason, as always, displaying his highly individualistic and flexible (if risky) approach to legal ethics. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil

Ira Levin (1929-2007) wrote only a handful of novels but that handful included some major bestsellers, the best-known being probably Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The Boys from Brazil, published in 1976, was another notable commercial success for him.

In the 1960s pop culture became obsessed with Nazis. Not just war stories but stories of Nazis as a contemporary threat. It was the era of stories about Nazi plots to regain power and rebuild the Third Reich and make another bid for world nomination. This theme popped in numerous movies and just about every TV spy/action series included at least one episode dealing with neo-Nazis or old Nazis coming up with some nefarious conspiracy. This obsession continued into the 1970s with The Boys from Brazil being one of the last notable manifestations.

Many of these stories are highly entertaining although none are quite able to overcome the inherent silliness of the idea. The chances of a Nazi return to power during the 1960s and 1970s were absolutely zero. It’s perhaps not entirely a coincidence that the more outlandish such stories were the better they worked. The Boys from Brazil is certainly far-fetched although the central premise is undeniably ingenious and cleverly worked out.

I’m not going to spoil this one by revealing any of the major plot twists (although some will become fairly obvious fairly quickly when you read the book).

While Levin’s novels were usually thrillers there’s often a science fictional element as well. This is definitely the case with this novel.

Levin’s novel begins with a meeting of a top-secret cabal of ageing Nazis in Brazil. The meeting has been called to discuss an ambitious plan hatched by the infamous Dr Josef Mengele. The meeting is not quite as secret as they’d hoped. A young American working as an amateur Nazi-hunter has obtained a tape-recording of the meeting. He has passed on some of the information he has acquired to famous Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann. 

This information is very puzzling indeed. Ninety-four civil servants, all aged around sixty-five, are to be murdered over a period of three years. Liebermann’s first problem is to identify the victims. The murders may well be, indeed probably will be, disguised as accidents. Having identified several of the victims he faces an even bigger problem. There seems to be no logic to the murders and no connection between the victims. It’s not as if these were important men - they were at best middle-level civil servants. Most were retired, or about to retire. None have any Nazi connections and in fact none have any significant political affiliations. It just makes no sense. There must be a common thread but  what it might be remains a mystery.

Mengele and the Nazis have a problem as well. They know that Liebermann has this information. They know that the information that Liebermann has is not enough to be dangerous at this stage but it might be just enough to lead him to the answer. The Nazi organisation is in panic mode but Mengele is determined to press on.

Of course Liebermann does eventually start to develop strong suspicions as the nature of the conspiracy but can he stop his old enemy Mengele?

The climax, in an obscure American town, is handled with great skill and the tension is maintained exceptionally well. The ending, replete with moral dilemmas and moral ambiguity, is even more interesting.

Mengele is obviously the chief villain but Levin is smart enough not to make him just a storybook villain. He’s ruthless and utterly lacking in conscience but he does have a cause in which he believes with singleminded intensity. What makes Mengele scary is not the inherent evil of his cause - it’s the single-mindedness, the tunnel vision.

Liebermann has a cause as well which he pursues with just as much single-mindedness. As the story unfolds he begins to realise just how perilous this kind of single-mindedness can be. Whether your cause is good or evil if it’s pursued with fanatical zeal the results can be evil. Liebermann is certainly zealous and some of his allies have definitely crossed the line into fanaticism and it’s a line he may be tempted to cross as well.

Considering the subject matter it’s surprising to find it dealt with in such a complex manner.  At times it’s difficult to know how much of the moral ambiguity was intentional on the author’s part and how much may have been unconscious (and may have been merely a side-effect of the author’s willingness to deal with complex and potentially controversial subjects). His other novels, such as The Stepford Wives, demonstrate that Levin was not afraid of allowing the reader to form his own judgments.

Mengele was of course a real Nazi, notorious for his medical experiments in concentration camps. Yakov Liebermann is an idealised version of famed but controversial Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

The Boys from Brazil is a complex thriller but it’s also highly entertaining. The story itself is ludicrously far-fetched and implausible but that adds to the fun. Recommended.

The 1978 film adaptation is also well worth seeing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A.E.W. Mason's The House of the Arrow

The varied and prolific literary output of London-born A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) included five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud. The House of the Arrow was the second Hanaud novel, appearing in 1924 (14 years after the character made his debut in At the Villa Rose).

A London firm of solicitors receives some disturbing news about one of their clients who resides in France (in Dijon in fact). A rather wild accusation of murder has been levelled at Betty Harlowe after the death of her aunt (and adoptive mother). It seems quite likely that the accusation may have been inspired by blackmail. The famed Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté has been assigned to investigate the case, a circumstance that suggests that the French authorities may be taking the charges seriously. Junior partner Jim Frobisher is despatched to Dijon to ensure that the interests of the firm’s client are adequately represented.

Betty’s aunt had died more than a week previously, apparently of natural causes. The charges against Betty were made by old Mrs Harlowe’s disreputable brother-in-law Boris Waberski who had been more than a little incensed when his hopes of a large legacy were dashed.

Jim Frobisher is no fool but he is young and inexperienced and he proves to be very susceptible to the charms of Betty’s paid companion, Ann Upcott. Ann’s account of the events of the night of Mrs Harlowe’s death is puzzling to say the least.

Hanaud has no evidence whatsoever that foul play was involved but he has his suspicions. In fact his suspicions amount almost to certainty. And if it is murder this is precisely the kind of murderer that he intensely dislikes.

Inspector Hanaud’s English friend Mr Julius Ricardo, who usually plays the Watson role,  does not appear in this novel. Jim Frobisher fulfills the role instead. He finds the celebrated inspector  from the Sûreté to be an impressive figure and he is awed by Hanaud’s skill and cunning in interrogating witnesses. Young Jim is however a very proper young Englishman  and he does not altogether approve of Hanaud’s odd mix of theatricality and ruthlessness.

This novel includes just about every ingredient that critics of golden age detective fiction love to mock. In fact if you were planning to write a parody of the classic English detective novel you could use The House of the Arrow as a template. On the other hand the ingredients that cause critics to gnash their teeth are exactly the ingredients that fans of golden age detective fiction (like myself) adore. To a true fan the more outlandish these elements are the better and in this instance they’re delightfully outlandish.

Mason combines these ingredients with a considerable degree of panache.

When Mason originally created Hanaud in 1910 he was attempting, like so many Victorian and Edwardian crime writers, to create a detective with as few similarities to Sherlock Holmes as possible. He succeeded pretty well. Hanaud is a massive bear of a man and while he has his quirks he has none of the neuroticism of Holmes. He is as arrogant as Holmes but in a blustering and ebullient sort of way. Hanaud has his serious side too. He takes murder very seriously. Unlike Holmes he is a professional policeman. He likes his job but the detection of crime is not a game to him. He also has an immense belief in the majesty of the law. It is not pleasant to send someone to the guillotine but the law is the law.

Is The House of the Arrow fair play? I think that on the whole it is. Hanaud certainly makes use of psychological insights but mostly as a means of getting the truth out of reluctant witnesses. Hanaud’s skills as an interrogator of witnesses are a major reason for his success as a policeman. Alibis, the timing of events and physical clues are not ignored either.

The House of the Arrow is splendid entertainment. It’s not as ground-breaking as his earlier At the Villa Rose and it lacks the hints of the supernatural of his later The Prisoner in the Opal but it’s a fine example of the classic detective story. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

James Mitchell's Russian Roulette

James Mitchell was a very successful television writer, best known as the creator of the best TV spy series ever made, Callan. Mitchell also wrote espionage thrillers. He wrote a series of spy novels under the name James Munro and under his own name wrote several Callan novels. Russian Roulette, published in 1973, was the second of his Callan novels and it’s just a little disappointing.

David Callan works for the Section, a small ultra-secret branch of the British Intelligence services. The Section does the jobs that are too dirty for any other intelligence agency to handle - blackmail, intimidation and on occasion assassination. Callan is the Section’s top operative. He is a very efficient killer. The problem is that Callan has started to develop a conscience.

Callan has a big problem. He is having eyesight difficulties, difficulties that can be temporarily alleviated by eye drops that will very soon require an operation. The operation has a good chance of being successful but in the meantime an even bigger problem has arisen for him. Callan’s boss, referred to only by his code-name Hunter, has done a particularly dirty deal with the KGB. In exchange for the return of a very important British spy recently captured by the KGB Hunter has agreed to allow the KGB to kill Callan (which is something the KGB is very very keen to do). Hunter informs Callan that he is now out of the Section and that the Soviets have despatched their three best assassins to kill him. Hunter has made things easy for the KGB. They have been told where to find Callan, he has had his assets frozen so that he has no money, his passport and his gun have been seized and steps have been to ensure that no-one will dare to sell him a gun legally or illegally.

Callan is now not only a hunted man, he is a hunted man with no chance of survival.

My first reservation about this book is the basic premise. It just isn’t logical. Intelligence agencies may get up to all sorts of dirty tricks (often very dirty indeed) but selling out their own agents in this manner just doesn’t make sense. They would very quickly find themselves without any operatives.

There are other problems with the book. You would think that a novel would offer more opportunities than a TV series to develop characters in depth. That’s exactly what MItchell tries to do, but paradoxically it makes the principal characters less interesting. In the TV series the emotions and motivations of the characters (especially David Callan himself) are conveyed to the viewer, with extraordinary skill, by means of hints and suggestions. In this novel Mitchell makes the mistake of simply telling us what the characters think and feel rather than allowing their words and actions to reveal these things to us. In the TV series it’s obvious that the Section’s number two operative, the smoothly sinister Toby Meres, regards Callan with a complex mixture of admiration, fear, contempt and jealousy. These things are never spelled out - the viewer picks them up gradually through various subtle suggestions. In the novel Mitchell spells these things out very crudely right at the start and as a result the reader is going to find the character to be of no further interest. We already know everything important about him.

Mitchell makes the same mistake, more disastrously, with David Callan. Rather than having Callan’s feelings and motivations slowly revealed he tells us straight-out what makes the character tick. He makes a further error by making Callan not just a killer with a conscience but much too touchy-feely and it isn’t quite convincing.

There’s also an attempt to explore in much greater depth the odd friendship between Callan and the cowardly but extremely useful small-time burglar Lonely. Unfortunately this friendship ends up being a lot less fascinating than it is in the TV series. Mitchell also makes Lonely less interesting by making him a lot less cringing and cowardly. 

Reading this book has led me to the conclusion that the success of the TV series may have been mostly due to the superb acting of Edward Woodward, Anthony Valentine and Russell Hunter.

The plot has some flaws as well. The twists are too predictable. 

The 1960s had seen spy fiction move in a much more cynical and even nihilistic direction and Russian Roulette reflects this trend towards bleakness.

If you’re a fan of the Callan TV series might come away from this novel feeling somewhat let down. It simply isn’t up to the standard of the TV series. My disappointment may have been partly due to the fact that certain key elements are handled in a slightly different way compared to the series and I feel the series did these things more successfully. It might sound like I’m doing a hatchet job on the novel which would be a bit unfair. It has its merits. The action scenes are imaginative and handled extremely well, especially the construction site ambush.

Perhaps I was just expecting too much. Russian Roulette isn’t a bad spy novel and it’s worth a look.