Tuesday, December 31, 2013

best reads of the year

These are the books I've enjoyed most in 2013:

Henry S. Whitehead, Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead

Dennis Wheatley, The Man Who Missed the War (1945)

Henry Wade, The Duke of York’s Steps (1929)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel (1906)

Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die (1954)

Richard Sale, Benefit Performance (1946)

Edgar Wallace, The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder (1925)

Edwin Balmer & William B. MacHarg, Luther Trant, Psychological Detective (1910)

Donald E. Keyhoe, The Vanished Legion (1934)

Abraham Merritt, The Moon Pool (1919)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s earlier Perry Mason mysteries, published in 1935. And it’s a treat for Perry Mason fans.

Perry Mason is approached by a client named Brunold who has an unusual problem. One of his glass eyes has been stolen and replaced by an inferior quality eye. His fear is that the missing eye could be used to frame him for a crime.

There are two kinds of glass eye. There’s the kind you buy off the shelf, and then there’s the custom-made variety. Only a handful of people in the United States make the custom-made variety. It’s a very specialised art and an expert can easily identify the maker of a particular eye. Brunold’s fear is therefore quite plausible.

Perry also has another client, a young man who has been embezzling money from his employer, a notorious loan shark.

These two sub-plots will come together in an intricate manner which involves murder, divorce, inheritances and glass eyes.

Gardner’s plots were always clever but the real interest of the Perry Mason novels, at least the early ones, lies in the methods of the famous trial lawyer. Perry Mason is not exactly unethical but he certainly pushes legal ethics about as far as they can possibly be pushed, and there are times when he comes perilously close to unethical or even downright illegal practices. Mason is not a rogue lawyer but he believes in doing everything he can to protect the interests of his clients.

Mason’s methods naturally enough tend to outrage the police and in the past they have aroused the ire of the District Attorney. Now there’s a new DA, Hamilton Burger, who will of course feature in further Perry Mason stories. Burger isn’t exactly delighted by Perry’s methods but he is inclined to think that those methods, while they might involve sailing rather close to the legal wind, are essentially legitimate. The new DA’s tolerance will however be stretched to the limit in the course of this case.

Mason’s flexible approach to legal ethics makes him an interesting character. There is certainly a degree of moral ambiguity about him. The DA considers Mason to be a very good trial lawyer but an even better detective. The really interesting aspect of Mason’s character, and the chief appeal of Gardner’s novels, is the extraordinary way in which he manipulates the legal system to serve his clients’ ends. Mason knows every lawyer’s trick in the books plus a few he’s invented himself. Gardner had been a California trial lawyer himself and his specialised legal knowledge is put to exceptionally good use in his novels.

The Perry Mason stories, naturally enough, always involve at least one court-room scene. Court-room scenes can become rather tedious and Gardner was very much aware of that danger. He never allows the court-room scenes to dominate the action too much. He also has a knack for basing important plot elements on complex points of law without running the risk of confusing the reader or boring him with too much legal detail. He explains the legal points lucidly and succinctly.

Perry Mason is a man who enjoys his work. He likes to win his cases but the real pleasure for him lies in pitting his wits against criminals, against the police, and against the DA. The joy he takes in this is communicated to the reader and helps to make these novels so much fun. And The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is great fun indeed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

M. P. Shiel's Prince Zaleski stories

One doesn’t normally think of decadent literature and the detective story as having very much in common with each other. Be that as it may, somehow or other M. P. Shiel managed to combine the two in his Prince Zaleski stories.

Shiel wrote only four Prince Zaleski tales. Three were published in a slim collection in 1895; the fourth did not see publication until 1955, several years after the author’s death, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

The combination of the detective story with the gothic tale or the weird tale was a very common one at the time. William Hope Hodgson’s stories of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories being notable examples. The Prince Zaleski stories have something in common with these, but really they form a strange little sub-genre of their very own. There are hints of the world of the irrational, there’s an interest in the psychology not only of the actors in the drama but of the detective himself. But while the mysteries are certainly out of the ordinary, they contain hints not so much of the world of the supernatural as of the world of the fantastic. Perhaps it would be fair to consider them as being related to the branch of literature referred to by the French as the fantastique.

What really distinguishes them though is the atmosphere of decadence. It’s as if Huysmans’ celebrated decadent des Esseintes had decided to try his hand at crime-solving.

Prince Zaleski never leaves his vast, remote and crumbling old house. Consumed by elegant despair and cultured ennui, he smokes hashish and contemplates the beautiful objects with which he has surrounded himself. He shudders at the thought of reading a newspaper. The idea of taking an interest in the world horrifies. From time to time he is visited by his friend Shiel (who narrates the stories). Shiel is interested in crime and knows that from time to time a case arises that is so bizarre that it has the power to rouse Zaleski from his strange dream-world. Zaleski then applies his immense his intellectual gifts to the solving of the puzzle. He is invariably able to solve the crime without having to suffer the ordeal of having to leave his house, or even to stir himself from his divan.

The three original Prince Zaleski stories are all quite different. The Race of Orven is a gothic murder tale combined with a locked-room mystery.

The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks is much stranger. The ingredients are an ancient amulet, a stone with possibly mystic powers, a family curse, a mysterious Persian, an indecipherable inscription, and an elderly scholar who may be insane or may in fact be all too sane.

The third tale, The S. S., is stranger still. An epidemic of suicide is sweeping Europe. But is it suicide, or murder? Or even both? Can it be possible that thousands of deaths all over the continent could all be linked in a sinister conspiracy? The only clues are  the slips of papyrus coated in honey found under the tongues of the victims. While the other stories start out strange but eventually the mystery is to some extent dispelled, this take just keeps getting stranger.

These stories are truly not quite like anything else in the crime gene, or any other genre for that matter. They are however weirdly and seductively fascinating and I highly recommend them.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Murder by Experts

Anthony Gilbert was one of the pseudonyms used by English crime writer Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973). Murder by Experts, originally published in 1936, features her main series detective, a shabby pot-bellied lawyer-detective named Crook.

This is a country house murder mystery but at first no-one realises that there has been a murder. In fact no-one suspects that a murder has taken place until several weeks later.

A wealthy English Jewish art collector, Sampson Rubenstein, has invited a number of people to his country house to see his latest acquisition, a very rare and very valuable Chinese cloak. Chinese art is Rubenstein’s ruling passion and his collection includes a large number of cloaks, robes and other items of ancient and fabulously valuable clothing. In a slightly macabre manner the cloaks are all displayed on wax dummies.

Rubenstein’s wife Lal is Spanish. She’s a hot-blooded fiery Latin type to the nth degree, and she is insanely jealous. The current target of her jealousy is Fanny Price. Fanny Price is an intelligent beautiful ambitious woman who fascinates every man who meets her the way a cobra fascinates its prey. Fanny is the mistress of a middle-aged art dealer name Graham. She acts as his agent in the buying and selling of antiquities, especially Chinese antiquities. Her knowledge of Chinese art is encyclopaedic. Fanny is the sort of woman who would have been described at the time as an adventuress. In fact she has been described frequently in far less charitable ways.

No less than three of the people at the house party are under Fanny’s spell - Rubenstein, a young artist-photographer named Norman Bridie and Curteis, the middle-aged narrator of the novel, a man of artistic tastes who knows that Fanny is dangerous but doesn’t care. Also present are Bridie’s girlfriend Rose and Rubenstein’s capable but rather harassed secretary  Parkinson.

Trouble erupts on the first evening when Rubenstein offers to drive Fanny Price to the railway station. The weather is atrocious, with heavy ran and fog, and Rubenstein is a notoriously bad and reckless driver. Lal causes a rather spectacular scene. Rubenstein and Fanny set off for the railway station.

And that is the last that is heard of Sammy Rubenstein. And of Fanny Price. At least that is the last that is heard of either of them for several weeks, until evidence is found that suggests murder.

The police believe they have a strong case and they make an arrest. At this point Curteis decides to avail himself of the services of the lawyer-detective Crook.

Crook actually plays a subsidiary rôle with Curteis playing amateur detective doing most of the investigating. Curteis’ methods are rather rambling and undisciplined. Some of the leads he follows up seem to have only the sketchiest connection with the case. The plot meanders a good deal in the middle stages with the amateur sleuth appearing to work mostly by instinct, driven by his certainty that Fanny Price cannot possibly be guilty. The only reason he has for believing in her innocence is that he’s in love with her.

A single red hair is his most important clue and the deductions he makes from this hair stretch credibility quite a bit. A mysterious but sinister red-haired man may strike some readers as a bit of a cliché, as even being the kind of thing that made detective fiction a subject for mockery in some quarters.

The plot does eventually come together, after a fashion.

It’s a pity that Crook, a far more interesting character than the earnest obsessed Curteis, doesn’t take centre stage. Crook is a clever lawyer, but not a very honest one. He likes to win cases and he’s prepared to adopt methods that might raise eyebrows if they ever came to the attention of the Law Society.

It’s also a pity that the book’s femme fatale, Fanny Price, plays a disappointingly small part in the story. She’s also potentially a fascinating character but she’s left in the background.

The first third of the book, dealing with the build-up to the discovery of the murder, is the highlight. It’s a genuinely clever set-up. The book loses focus after that. The book also loses interest in some of the prime suspects quite early on, for no obvious reason, and this has the unfortunate effect of narrowing down the range of possible murderers.

Murder by Experts can scarcely be described as a classic of the genre. It’s main strengths is that it’s unusual among English detective stories of its era in featuring a full-blooded femme fatale who wouldn’t be out of place in an American hardboiled crime story, and in featuring a very disreputable detective. It’s worth a look if you can get hold of a copy in an inter-library loan but I wouldn’t go spending big bucks on this one.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Francis Beeding's The Four Armourers

Hilary Aidan Saint George Saunders (1898-1951) and John Palmer (1885-1944) wrote both thrillers and detective novels under the name Francis Beeding, their best-known book being undoubtedly The House of Dr. Edwardes (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Spellbound). The Four Armourers, published in 1930, is one of their thrillers.

I was not overly impressed by the one Francis Beeding detective novel I read, Death Walks in Eastrepps, but The Four Armourers turned out to be much more to my taste. The novel features their main thriller series hero, Colonel Alistair Granby.

Granby and John Baxter, a friend who works for the League of Nations (and who serves as narrator), are in Spain when they run across an old acquaintance of Granby’s, Jules Lemaistre. This pint-sized Frenchman who seems to be perpetually afraid is in fact a daring freelance spy and he is convinced that he is on to something very big indeed. Lemaistre dies before he can reveal all the details, leaving Granby and Baxter with a rather inconvenient body on their hands. Granby is used to such situations and deals with it in a characteristically ingenious manner.

Granby finds himself up against some old foes, a sinister cartel of arms dealers known as the Four Armourers. This cartel is after something very important, and so is a a very wealthy American arms dealer named Hazelrig. It is something worth killing for, and something that could have momentous consequences for the peace of Europe, and indeed the world.

What is this mysterious something they are all seeking? The authors, wisely, don’t tell us, at least not until the very end. It is after all what Alfred Hitchcock termed a McGuffin - something the audience (or in this case the reader) doesn’t need to know anything about other than that is very important to the characters in the story. It is the plot device that drives the story. The more mysterious the nature of the McGuffin the more effectively it serves its plot purpose. Explaining its nature would distract the reader from the chase. The authors have no intention of slowing down their story by doing this.

This puts the emphasis on the excitement of the chase, the danger, and the suspense and the authors prove to be very adept at maintaining this focus. There is no shortage of excitement as first one side and then the other seems to be on the verge of attaining the object only to have it snatched away again at the last moment. There are double-crosses aplenty. There are knife fights, shootouts, car chases and kidnappings. There are chases on foot, by aeroplane, by train and in fast cars. There’s a rather clever scene in the vast palace of the Escorial near Madrid, a race against time to locate a key character. The race against time element is always useful to a thriller writer and it’s used skillfully and in a number of different ways in this novel.

Of course you can’t have a thriller without a beautiful dangerous woman who may be an ally of the heroes, or may just as well turn out to be a deadly enemy, and in The Four Armourers Donna Concepcion plays that femme fatale rôle nicely. And of course a thriller has to pit its hero against worthy villains and this novel offers some very worthy and very smooth villains.

Granby is the classic type of hero you expect in a British thriller of this era - brave and noble but in an understated and very British way.

The only real weakness comes when the nature of the McGuffin is revealed. The McGuffin itself is ingenious enough but to modern readers familiar with the futility of such organisations the heroes’ faith in the League of Nations now seems sadly naïve. That’s a very minor quibble however.

The Four Armourers is a tightly-plotted spy adventure tale that works very neatly. It’s very much in the John Buchan style and that’s certainly no bad thing.

Highly entertaining. This one is a definite recommendation.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A. E. W. Mason’s At the Villa Rose

Published in 1910, At the Villa Rose (sometimes known as Murder at the Villa Rose) was the first of A. E. W. Mason’s detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud.

A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best known for his classic adventure novel The Four Feathers. He wrote only five detective novels but they are both important and unusual (The Prisoner in the Opal being both a detective story and an occult thriller).

Inspector Hanaud is a French detective with an English Watson, Mr Ricardo. Mr Ricardo is a wealthy financier and a man of culture and refinement but it has to be admitted that he is of little help to Hanaud when it come to crime-solving. Fortunately Hanaud does not require assistance and Mr Ricardo’s main function is to give Hanaud somebody to whom he can explain important plot points, and somebody to whom Hanaud can display his own superior talents. Hanaud is not a man to hide his light under a bushel.

Hanaud was loosely based on two real-life officers of the Sûreté, Macé and Goron.

Hanaud is on vacation when he is drawn into the investigation of the murder at the Villa Rose by a young Englishman, Harry Wethermill. The wealthy Mme Dauvray has been murdered, apparently during the course of a robbery (her famous jewels being a very obvious temptation to thieves). Mme Dauvray’s English companion, a young woman named Celia, appears to be the prime suspect. Harry Wethermill is in love with Celia and is convinced of her evidence. He begs Hanaud to take over the case. As the case promises to be an interesting one Hanaud agrees.

Mme Dauvray had been intensely (although rather naïvely) fascinated by spiritualism and appearances suggest that Mademoiselle Celia’s talents as a medium had been the means by which the penniless young Englishwoman had ingratiated herself with the wealthy lady. It further appears that Mlle Celia was to have conducted a séance on the night of the murder.

Hanaud does make some use of psychological insights in order to solve crimes but he most certainly does not neglect physical clues, and those physical clues in this case seem to be so contradictory than even the great Hanaud has to confess himself baffled, at least temporarily. Hanaud is not however a man to be put off by difficulties. The more challenging the case the better he likes it.

At the Villa Rose has the complex plotting that would later come to characterise the golden age of detective fiction. While the plot is ingenious Mason generally avoids the more bizarre and unusual elements that often appear in detective stories of its era.

Rather usually, and rather boldly, the identity of the murderer is revealed two-thirds of the way through. The ensuing very long explanatory segment of the book could have been a serious weakness (such lengthy explanations generally are) but although we know who the murderer is we do not know Hanaud arrived at his conclusions nor do we know how the murder was committed. As a result the last third of the book maintains our interest without too much trouble.

The spiritualism aspect is an intriguing foreshadowing of the much more involved occult elements in The Prisoner in the Opal.

At the Villa Rose is an Edwardian crime novel that looks forward to the tightly plotted detective stories of the 1920s. Hanaud is a great detective in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, with all the egotism we expect from such figures, but he is amusing and Mason’s considerable literary gifts are a major plus. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mad Monkton and Other Stories

The Moonstone Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was one of the most popular writers of the “sensation novels” of the 1860s and 1870s. These were in some respects forerunners of the true detective story although they were also heavily influenced by the gothic novel. Collins’ two masterpieces in this genre were The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). Mad Monkton and Other Stories is a collection of his shot stories, mostly dating from before his major commercial breakthrough with The Woman in White.

Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were very close friends and occasional literary collaborators. Dickens published many of Collins’ stories in the weekly magazine Household Words.

Mad Monkton, dating from 1855, is the longest story here and it’s one of his best. As its title suggests it’s a tale of madness although as the story unfolds the reader will feel increasing doubts as to whether Monkton is actually mad or whether he really is the victim of a family curse. It’s also a tale of obsession. This is one of Collins’ more gothic tales and its ambiguity makes it exceptionally disturbing and fascinating.

The Ostler (which also saw publication under the title The Dream Woman) is a horrifying tale of a man who has made a very unfortunate marriage indeed. He has driven himself at least half mad with fear, but are his fears warranted or merely a delusion. This is the kind of ambiguity at which Collins excelled.

In The Clergyman’s Confession (also published as Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman) a man was acquitted of murder but an elderly dying clergyman knows far more about the murder than was revealed at the trial.

In The Dead Hand a man finds himself spending the night in an inn with a dead man. But is the man truly dead? A Terribly Strange Bed is one of Collins’ best known stories in the gothic vein, and a very effective little chiller it is. The Lady of Glenwith Grange is a less successful story involving one of the favoured themes of gothic fiction, the double.

The Biter Bit, Who Killed Zebedee? and The Diary of Anne Rodway, both dating from the 1850s, mark important steps in the evolution of the detective story. The Biter Bit also demonstrates the author’s flair for comedy while The Diary of Anne Rodway may perhaps mark the first appearance of the amateur detective, in this a girl who believes her friend’s death was due to foul play. She is determined to see justice done.

A Stolen Letter is clearly influenced by the best of Poe’s detective stories, The Purloined Letter, although Collins gives it his own twist.

John Jago’s Ghost concerns what would today be labelled a very dysfunctional family indeed. The disappearance of John Jago brings matters to a crisis, but is he dead? Is he a ghost? Has there been a murder? It’s another skillful blending of the mystery and gothic genres.

The Captain’s Last Love is the odd man out here, being more of a quirky romantic adventure fantasy which works more successfully than it has any right to do.

This is a collection that neatly demonstrates the author’s considerable importance to both the crime story and the gothic tale, while also displaying the breadth and inventiveness of his writing. The immense success of The Woman in White and (and they are undeniably superb) have unjustly overshadowed his other works. This collection is a fine starting point for anyone wanting to explore his very underrated short fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four is a 1927 Hercule Poirot mystery, only it’s not a mystery at all. What it is is Agatha Christie’s attempt at an Edgar Wallace-style thriller. Given that Wallace was just about the most popular author of the 1920s it’s perhaps not so surprising that Christie tried to emulate him. The results are more successful than you might expect.

Poirot and his friend and colleague Captain Hastings find themselves involved in a case that soon proves to be much bigger than it seemed. They have stumbled upon a gigantic criminal conspiracy by a cabal of diabolical criminal masterminds known as the Big Four.

The Big Four are not only the powers behind many criminal undertakings, they are also involved in international intrigue and even in revolution. Their aims are nothing short of world domination. The fact that the leader of this vast criminal empire is Chinese indicates that Christie was also influenced by Sax Rohmer’s very successful Fu Manchu novels.

The plot is radically different from a conventional Poirot story. It’s rather episodic and some of the episodes allow Poirot to function in his usual crime-solving manner but the main story involves no actual mystery. The structure is that of a pure thriller rather than of a detective story.

And Christie is not afraid to throw in the kinds of touches that you would find in the most outrageous thrillers of that era. One member of the Big Four is a brilliant mad scientist who has developed a kind of death ray based on concentrated radio waves, and is on the verge of discovering the atom bomb.

All this is a very long way indeed from the cases that we are accustomed to see Poirot involved in. The plot is outlandish, and the methods Poirot employs in his battle against the Big Four are just as outlandish. The overall feel is very similar to the kind of breathless excitement that one expects in a very pulpy thriller of that era. Poirot and Hastings have narrow escapes from certain death, and the villains resort to the kind of outrageously melodramatic evil that is bizarrely different from the kinds of crime that Poirot generally deals with.

Fortunately Christie understands that you can’t take this kind of thing too seriously, and the whole thing has something of a tongue-in-cheek tone, especially when Christie has some fun with a certain aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Christie also understands that the one thing you cannot do in this type of thriller is to give the reader enough time to start thinking seriously about the plausibility of the plot. You have to keep throwing new thrills and new horrors at the reader and you have to keep the pacing relentless.

The Big Four is not typical Christie but it is a good deal of fun. Recommended.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

E. Charles Vivian’s City of Wonder

City of Wonder, published in 1922, is the best known of E. Charles Vivian’s lost world adventure novels and regular readers of this blog will know how fond I am of that genre.

E. Charles Vivian was the pseudonym used by Charles Henry Cannell (1882-1947). He wrote science fiction and detective stories but it is his fantasy novels, and more particularly  his lost world novels, for which he is best remembered.

Faulkner (who narrates the tale), Bent and Watkins are three adventurers in search of the lost city of Kir-Asa. They are all old Asia hands, tough and a little cynical but brave and fundamentally decent men. Watkins is the leader and he has promised the other two not just generous pay but the prospect, or at least the potential prospect, of vast riches. Watkins knows rather more about Kir-Asa than he is willing to reveal.

We are never told where this lost city is although we are led to assume it is on an island, possibly Borneo. The journey is fraught with the usual jungle hazards but the legends surrounding the city, and information Watkins has obtained from a journal kept by one of his ancestors (who had reached the city 150 years earlier) tell of additional dangers as well - giant apes controlled by a woman, natives who favour poison-tipped darts, and most mysterious of all the “ghosts who chase women.”

The discovery of an ancient road, a road built on a scale that makes the roads of the Romans look like goat tracks, assures them that the lost civilisation they are seeking was certainly a reality at one time although whether that civilisation survives is uncertain. Unfortunately an earthquake in the distant past has opened up a gigantic chasm that appears to be an insuperable barrier. Watkins however is not the kind of of man to be daunted by anything. A way is found to traverse this obstacle although it involves the terrifying crossing of the “trembling bridge” - a hazard that would make the bravest man think twice.

They find Kir-Asa, but although they also find a civilisation it is not the civilisation they expected. The men who built the city are long gone. The present inhabitants represent a rather lower order of civilisation, but one that is not without its merits and its attractions. The arrival of the three outsiders will precipitate momentous upheavals, upheavals that may be disastrous but that may also be extremely beneficial. Whether events turn out well or ill will depend on the ability of Watkins and his party to guide those events.

One notable feature this book shares with the lost world stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs is a fascinating variation on the theory of evolution. The variation Vivian comes up with is not only as outlandish but also as brilliantly inventive as that of Burroughs.

Vivian was influenced by writers like Rider Haggard and has more literary aspirations the pulp writers who dealt with similar ideas. His writing is not as stylish as Haggard’s but his prose is pleasing enough.

Watkins is the most interesting character, a man who is something of an idealist under a crusty exterior.

The lost world of Kir-Asa is the kind of unspoilt bucolic paradise that appealed so much to so many late 19th century and early 20th century writers. The possibility that the people who lived in such places might actually be keen to enjoy the fruits of civilisation is an idea that never seems to have occurred to such writers. Kir-Asa has its weaknesses though - it is a very stable society, perhaps too stable. Stable to the point of stagnation.

The monsters are the most impressive elements in this book. These monsters are not quite human but share an ancestry with humans, and they are not quite alive but also not quite ghosts.

City of Wonder might not be the greatest of lost world adventures but if you’re a fan of the enjoy you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hanging Captain

Henry Wade was the pseudonym used by Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO (1887-1969) for his detective novels. He’s one of the more unjustly neglected writers of the golden age of detective fiction.

Wade’s main series detective was Inspector John Poole but The Hanging Captain, published in 1932, features two other detectives, both of whom are intriguing characters in their own right.

There had been a time when Captain Herbert Sterron had seemed to be a very lucky man. The dashing dragoon officer had a promising military career and a lovely wife, and an income that was ample for the maintenance of Ferris Court, a handsome Tudor mansion that had been in the Sterron family for four hundred years. Just prior to the outbreak of the Great War a change came over the captain, a change that was very much for the worse. So much so that when two decades later he hanged himself it came as no great shock.

There certainly seems no doubt that his death was suicide. And yet Superintendent Dawle is not quite satisfied. The Chief Constable is anxious to have the whole matter dealt with as expeditiously as possible, having no desire to start digging into the private lives of prominent county families. The Chief Constable’s hopes are dashed when Sir James Hamsted throws a spanner in the works, raising string suspicions of foul play. Hamsted had been staying at Ferris Court at the time of Sterron’s death. Hamsted is a harmless old gentleman occupying an important if rather dull government post, or at least that’s the impression he gives. In fact Hamsted is a medical practitioner with an extensive knowledge of medical jurisprudence, having occupied the post of coroner for many years. Sudden death is something he knows a great deal about, and he is far from satisfied.

With sinking heart the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and Scotland Yard is called in. Detective-Inspector Lott is assigned to the case. Like most Scotland Yard men Lott regards county constabularies with a considerable amount of disdain and he expects that working with a well-meaning but rather incompetent bumpkin like Superintendent Dawle will be something of an ordeal. He will soon discover that Superintendent Dawle is no bumpkin and is far from incompetent. He’s a shrewd old bird who can teach the Yard a thing or two about criminal investigations.

Much of the interest in this book comes from the interplay between Dawle and Lott. Wade was rather stronger in the area of characterisation than most golden age detective writers and the two detectives are both well fleshed out and fairly complex characters. The rivalry between local police and Scotland Yard officers is a theme that runs through many English detective novels of this era. Wade handles it with particular skill as the two rival detectives match wits and a mutual respect slowly develops between them.

The other key characters are equally interesting. Wade is strong on plotting and he’s especially strong on motive. The various suspects all have possible motives but these motives are by no means clear cut. In several case the motives have a definite sexual angle that is dealt with more openly than one generally expects in detective fiction of this era.

One of the suspects happens to be High Sheriff of the county, with aspirations to be Lord Lieutenant. The author himself served as High Sheriff and subsequently Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. Not surprisingly Wade displays in his crime fiction a keen understanding of the ins and outs of county politics and the subtle pressures they can exert on police officers in the course of an investigation into murder involving notable county families. THis is one of the elements that makes this book more than just another country house murder mystery.

Wade’s crime novels can be difficult to find but they are certainly worth the effort. The Hanging Captain is a splendid example of the golden age detective novel. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ashenden, or the British Agent

W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, or the British Agent is an example of one of my favourite genres, the early 20th century espionage tale. While spy stories set during World War 2 and during the Cold War have their charms I find the earlier tales set during the First Word War or in the years leading up to that war much more appealing.

Ashenden, or the British Agent, first published in 1928, is a series of linked stories relating the adventures of a writer of comic plays who is recruited into British Intelligence. Maugham himself actually did serve in British Intelligence during the Great War and based these stories to a considerable extent on his own experiences.

The stories in some ways form a kind of episodic novel because we do see some evolution in the character of the hero. In the earlier tales he’s still something of an innocent and still treating the whole affair as a bit of a lark, and is rather shocked when he finds that he intelligence service’s activities include assassinations. In the later stories he has become considerably more hardened.

The tone of the stories varies considerably. Some are gently humorous, some verge on farce, while others have the feel of black comedy. And some are surprisingly dark and cynical, to a degree that you don’t really find again in the spy story until the emergence of writers like John le Carré in the early 60s.

Ashenden is based in neutral Switzerland and is more a spymaster than a spy. He receives his instructions from a senior officer in British Intelligence known only as R. Much of his work is fairly routine, collating reports from his agents in the field. Initially it seems like an amusing sport which can be pursued without getting one’s hands dirty but Ashenden soon discovers that it has a dark side. He finds himself being assigned to work with a mysterious and eccentric Mexican general on a mission to prevent a certain Greek diplomat from handing over some confidential an extremely vital papers to German agents. Ashenden is horrified to learn that his Mexican colleague’s orders are to prevent this from happening by the most simple and direct method - killing the Greek diplomat in cold blood. Ashenden well and truly loses his innocence on this mission.

Other assignments involves some rather nasty double-crosses and Ashenden has to resort  to some very unpleasant methods.

While Maugham certainly shows us the darker side of the world of espionage he avoids making glib or naïve value judgments. Espionage might be an unpleasant occupation at times but sometimes unpleasant things have to be done.

This book was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s very underrated 1936 film Secret Agent and it’s remarkable just how closely Hitchcock reproduces the tone of the book, with the same mix of black humour and cynicism, of innocence and cold-bloodedness.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of the espionage story Maugham’s book is essential reading. It’s witty and highly entertaining with a very dark edge to it, and it's one of the finest works of spy fiction ever written. Very highly recommended.