Saturday, December 9, 2017

J. J. Connington’s Mystery at Lynden Sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon

Leigh Brackett’s sword-and-planet adventure The Sword of Rhiannon was published in book form in 1953. It had originally been serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949, under the title Sea-Kings of Mars.

Planetary archaeologist Matt Carse is from Earth but has spent most of his life on Mars. Mars is now largely a desert planet but it had a glorious past and was once green and lush.

Carse encounters a thief (he has many friends among the thieves of Mars) who offers him an artifact of stupendous value. It is nothing less than the sword of Rhiannon. Rhiannon is a dim figure from the planet’s distant past, a member of a race known as Quiru. Rhiannon committed some grievous sin and was consigned to a lonely tomb, a tomb that has never been discovered. Although now it appears that a Martian thief has found the tomb.

Carse is excited by the archaeological significance of the find but he is equally excited by the prospect of making a very great deal of money out of the find. The tomb however conceals a terrifying secret and Carse finds himself transported back a million years in time, to a green and verdant Mars. It’s also a very dangerous Mars, for Matt Carse. He is mistaken for a Khond spy which is irritating since he doesn’t even know what a Khond is.  He is condemned to the galleys.

Even worse, he is in the power of the beautiful but deadly Queen of Sark, Ywain.

Something else happened when Carse entered Rhiannon’s tomb. Rhiannon had been imprisoned there for a million years, but Rhiannon is not dead. At least his mind is not dead.

Carse is caught up in the struggle between Sark and the sea kings. The outcome of the struggle hinges on certain terrifying weapons possessed by Sark but Rhiannon had even more formidable weapons and Carse believes he knows how to unlock the power of those weapons. His difficulty will lie in persuading the sea kings to trust him.

There’s action and there’s treachery and betrayal, there are dark secrets that perhaps should have remained secret, and there’s a strange love-hate relationship between Carse and Ywain. She is evil but he cannot bring himself to desire her death. Perhaps it is something else that he desires. She is cruel and ruthless but to some men that can make a woman strangely attractive.

The world of Mars in the distant past is a barbarian world, a world of oared galleys and swords and spears and battles, but mixed with some ultra-high technology that serves the role that magic serves in sword-and-sorcery tales. It’s not quite as interesting and exotic as the worlds Brackett created in some of her other tales of the 1940s. The Mars of her other stories is more interesting as a desert world littered with ruins of ancient civilisations. The Mars of The Sword of Rhiannon is a bit more of a generic heroic fantasy world.

Matt Carse is a slightly ambiguous hero, a man who has in the past been motivated by greed. Now he has found a cause but does he really believe in it or is it simply a matter of survival for him to throw in his lot with the sea kings? Ywain is pretty much your standard beautiful but evil queen (with perhaps just a shade more depth), a type of character that is to be found in countless adventure stories. The cynical and treacherous but clever and resourceful Boghaz, Carse’s reluctant ally, is a much more entertaining personality.

Brackett was a fine prose stylist and her plotting was always skilful. She builds the suspense slowly. We cannot be sure of Carse’s motives and we certain cannot be sure of the motives of Rhiannon.

The climax is fairly exciting as we discover the nature of Rhiannon’s super-weapons and his true motivations.

I reviewed some of Brackett’s excellent earlier sword-and-planet novellas (collected in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories) in an earlier post and Ive also reviewed her 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus.

The Sword of Rhiannon can certainly be unhesitatingly recommended to fans of the genre.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

John Rhode’s Death on the Board

John Rhode’s 1937 Dr Priestley mystery Death on the Board (published in the United States as Death Sits on the Board) opens with a bang. Literally. An enormous explosion tears apart the suburban home of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, chairman of the prosperous corporation Hardware Ltd, with fatal results for Sir Andrew.

An event such as this would of course normally be put down to the explosion of a gas main. The blast that destroyed Sir Andrew’s home was however much too powerful to be accounted for in this manner. According to an expert from the Home Office only high explosives could have caused such devastation. But he can offer no explanation as to how or why a fairly ordinary house should be destroyed by high explosives.

Superintendent Hanslet is always anxious to have Dr Priestley’s assistance but the problem is that the somewhat eccentric Priestley is unlikely actually to offer his help unless a case really attracts his interest. Everyday crimes, even everyday murders, are beneath Priestley’s notice. The demise of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall does interest him, although at this stage there is still no certainty that foul play was involved. The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.

The second murder is even more puzzling, and when once again the inquest ends with a verdict of death by misadventure Dr Priestley is moved to make some rather acerbic remarks on the usefulness on inquests. While there is no evidence of murder the circumstances of this death are very puzzling indeed, and as Priestley observes the lack of evidence pointing to murder may well be merely due to the fact that no proper investigation was made and any such evidence is now irretrievably lost. While Priestley is not yet prepared to become actively involved in the case something the crusty scientist is always reluctant to do) he is now most definitely very interested indeed. The fate of the pyjamas worries him a good deal. And this second sudden death involves a fire that behaved like no fire Dr Priestley had ever head of.

Apart from Priestley’s scepticism on the subject of coroner’s juries this novel also points out some other deficiencies in the system of criminal investigation in England in the 1930s. There is a very extraordinary coincidence that no experienced investigator would have overlooked (and Superintendent Hanslet is both very experienced and very competent) but the coincidence goes unnoticed for the simple reason that only one of these suspicious deaths comes to the attention of Scotland Yard.

There will be more deaths. The only connection between them is that the victims are, or rather were, all directors of Hardware Ltd. While in each individual case there are certainly people who would benefit there seems to be no-one who would stand to benefit from all these deaths. And there is still no certainly that all, or even any, of the deaths were murder.

Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) wrote an enormous number of Dr Priestley mysteries as well as a considerable number of other mysteries under other names. He was an author with a particular fondness for unusual, even bizarre, murder methods. This book offers several fine examples. While none of the murders could be described as impossible crimes they are all fiendishly ingenious.

There is certainly a solid whodunit plot here but it’s the howdunit aspect that is most impressive and that’s the aspect of mystery writing at which Street really excelled. It’s significant that Dr Priestley is not a detective. He’s not even an amateur detective really. He approaches crime purely from the dispassionate point of view of a scientist. In most of his cases (there are exceptions in some of the novels where he has a personal stake in the matter) he has little real interest in whether the criminal is brought to justice or not. That’s a problem for the police. As a scientist he finds certain aspects of certain crimes to be interesting as scientific problems or logical puzzles. He also has no interest in accumulating the evidence necessary to secure a conviction. That is most definitely a problem for the police. If he can solve a case to his own satisfaction then he is quite content.

In this case his scientific insights are essential in establishing the fact that these deaths really were murder. He is able to prove that neither suicide nor accident could account for them. As for the identity of the killer, that is something that he arrives at by a rigorous logical analysis. The police like to collect evidence but this is an enthusiasm that Dr Priestley most certainly does not share. Such a process seems to him to be tedious and time-consuming and of no interest, plus it is likely to be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Priestley prefers to do his crime-solving in the comfort of his own home.

Street has often been accused of dullness. His style is admittedly very sparse and rather dry but his plots are wonderfully inventive and his murder methods are so baroque that I fail to see how any detective fiction fan could find his books dull. And once Dr Priestley gets into his laboratory things get quite entertaining. In this case one of his experiments, the one that provides the first vital breakthrough, involves dolls in pyjamas.

Death on the Board is Rhode at his best with a whole series of delightfully inventive but entirely plausible murders. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alistair MacLean's The Golden Rendezvous

Alistair MacLean was well and truly on a roll when he wrote his eighth novel, The Golden Rendezvous, in 1962. It’s fairly typical of his output at this time, with first-person narration, some wry humour and plenty of atmosphere.

In normal circumstances the SS Campari is a fairly happy ship. It’s a kind of tramp steamer, but a very superior type of tramp steamer. It carries both cargo and passengers and the passengers (and the Campari’s passengers are all very rich) enjoy standards of luxury that put the ship in a class of its own. A happy ship normally, but not at this time. The Campari’s latest voyage has been nothing but frustrations and headaches. It all started with a curious event that had nothing whatever to do with the ship. An American scientist suddenly disappeared, taking with him the prototype for a new nuclear weapon. Circumstances suggested that he might have made his escape on board the Campari. A thorough search proved that this was not the case but the search disrupted the ship’s sailing schedule and left the officers and crew decidedly disgruntled.

In fact their troubles have only just begun. A crew member disappears; another is murdered. And worse is to come. Much worse.

The hero, the Campari’s First Officer John Carter, is a typical MacLean hero. He’s tough and determined with a streak of ruthlessness but he’s fallible. He thinks he’s figured out what is going on on board the Campari but while he’s partly correct he’s partly incorrect, and his incorrect inferences prove to be costly.

There’s never any sex in a MacLean thriller and there’s usually not a great deal of romance. MacLean knew his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He was superb at atmosphere and action but love stories were not his forte. The Golden Rendezvous though has a bit more romance than most of his novels, and (by MacLean standards) a reasonably interesting heroine. Susan Beresford is an unlikely heroine and an unlikely love interest for First Officer Carter. She is rich. Very very rich indeed. And very spoilt. Carter dislikes her on sight but in the course of the adventure they seem to be continually thrown together and she turns out to be a young woman with a bit more substance than initial impressions would have suggested. As Carter grows to like her more he finds her even more disturbing. She is not only rich but also exceptionally beautiful.

The plot is rather far-fetched, but that’s no great fault in a thriller. It’s ingenious, and that’s what matters.

Many of MacLean’s best books have nautical themes. He had a very deep feeling for the sea. This was matched by his ability to convey not so much the romance of the sea as the perils and hardships associated with ships and the sea. He loved the sea but knew what it could do to men.
You can practically smell the sea in his maritime thrillers. In a MacLean sea-borne thriller the sea it as much an enemy, and as much a character, as the villain.

Speaking of villains, this book has a full-blown conspiracy that is (unusually for MacLean) almost reminiscent of Ian Fleming. The chief villain is not the larger-than-life character Fleming would have made him. He’s cold and calculating and grimly efficient.

MacLean was not exactly renowned for his skill in characterisation. This time however he does manage to create a few interesting minor characters who could have been very stereotyped standard types but instead they have a a few interesting quirks to them.

And there is of course plenty of action. It starts with a mystery and a sense of foreboding but by the halfway point it’s full-scale mayhem. There’s an impressive body count - by the time the story is finished, very impressive indeed. There’s not just murder, but piracy and other intended crimes that make mere piracy seem almost trivial.

MacLean often included surprisingly elaborate mystery elements in his thrillers. At the very least he always liked to keep at least one surprise up his sleeve. The Golden Rendezvous is no exception although the mystery angle is considerably weaker than in some of his other books.

I wouldn’t put this novel in quite the same league as Night Without End, Ice Station Zebra or Fear is the Key but The Golden Rendezvous offers plenty of thrills, suspense and excitement. Recommended.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Case of the Three Strange Faces

Christopher Bush, an extremely popular writer from the 1920s right through to the late 1960s, has been in the past half century one of the most unjustly forgotten of the golden age masters of detective fiction. All of which is about to change, with Dean Street Press announcing their intention of re-releasing all sixty-three of his Ludovic Travers mysteries. They have already issued the first ten. And the best news of all is that they’re being published as actual books, not just ebooks. The Case of the Three Strange Faces, originally published in 1933, is one of the titles already released.

Even by the standards of the golden age this is an elaborately plotted mystery. The plot twists and turns, and then it twists and turns some more, and then it just keeps on twisting and turning. The plot is so complex that one can’t help wondering if the author is going to succeed in keeping all those balls in the air at the same time. But he manages to do so.

One of the conventions of the golden age detective tale is that the detective hero always somehow seems to be right on the scene when a murder is about to take place. This novel pushes that convention even further - murder is committed in a compartment on a train, and committed while Ludovic Travers is in that very compartment. Unfortunately even detectives need to sleep occasionally, and Travers sleeps through the murder.

And a puzzling murder it is. Or is it two murders? Is it one crime, or two? Whatever the case may be it is clear that someone in the compartment must be the killer, and yet that seems difficult to believe.

The murder occurs on board a train in France but the victim is English so both the Sûreté and Scotland Yard are involved in the investigation. As luck would have it the Yard assigns Travers’ old friend Superintendent George Wharton to the case.

The investigation takes place in both France and England, with the Sûreté and Scotland Yard co-operating closely but having very different ideas about the nature of the murder (or murders).

Mysteries and thrillers set on trains are (to me at least) always great fun and Bush uses the setting skilfully in building up the possible murder methods and not just for atmosphere.

To a purist this might not be quite an impossible crime story or a locked-room mystery but it does have some elements associated with those sub-genres. The crime might not be impossible but there’s no immediately apparent satisfactory explanation for how it was carried out.

There are also doubts about identity, and there are some complex alibis to deal with. It’s always fun when an author of this era throws in one of those wonderful clichés of the genre, things like hitherto unknown poisons and such delights. In this book Bush throws in a whole grab-bag of such goodies. There are times when truly nothing succeeds like excess and this is one of them.

Ludovic Travers and George Wharton (at least in Bush’s 1930s mysteries) comprise one of the few genuine teams in detective fiction. They’re both equally clever detectives and there’s a great deal of mutual respect between them. In this case it’s Wharton who makes the running for most of the story.

Criminals habitually get themselves into trouble by telling lies. Once you start telling lies you have the problem of keeping your lies straight and sooner or later you’ll make a mistake and those lies will convict you. In this tale the police tell just as many lies as the criminals, and they also discover that it can be a dangerous practice. You can find yourself trying to be too clever and you can discover that you’ve painted yourself into a corner. The police of course believe they have every justification for not being entirely truthful but the dangers are still real. In this instance George Wharton gets himself into a very tricky situation indeed.

The Case of the Three Strange Faces is extravagantly plotted but it holds together and it’s a wonderfully gripping story. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Saint vs Scotland Yard

The Saint vs Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror in 1932) is a collection of three novellas featuring Simon Templar, the Saint. The novella was probably the ideal format for stories about The Saint and Leslie Charteris made use of it frequently.

The Saint stories fall into several very distinct phases and this collection still very much belongs to the first phase. Although Simon Templar no longer has his gang he does still have Patricia as an invaluable partner in his adventures. The partnership with Patricia was a little daring for the early 30s since it is crystal clear that she is his live-in lover and that marriage does not figure in their plans for the future.

First up in this collection is The Inland Revenue and it deals with the battle of wits between Templar and the ruthless criminal mastermind known as the Scorpion. The Scorpion’s speciality is blackmail, on a rather spectacular scale. He is slightly unusual among literary diabolical criminal masterminds in that he is essentially a gifted amateur criminal, albeit a very ambitious one. He is also unusual in being something of a lone wolf.

Simon Templar is certainly not afraid of criminals like the Scorpion but in The Inland Revenue Service he has finally encountered an enemy he cannot defeat. He is going to have to pay the very large tax bill with which they have just presented him. Or rather someone is going to have to pay it and Simon is determined that the money is not actually going to come out of his own pocket.

The Scorpion might be an amateur but he proves to be a dangerous and cold-blooded adversary.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal has accepted Templar’s assistance many times in the past but generally with reluctance and a deep sense of foreboding. In this story however he is prepared to accept the Saint’s help willingly and with remarkably good grace.

The Million Pound Day begins with a scream and a terrified man being pursued by a figure who seems to have stepped straight out of the steamy jungles of Darkest Africa. It’s nothing to do with Simon but of course he intervenes and he discovers that he has stumbled upon a gigantic international currency racket. This racket is going to cause untold economic devastation so this is one adventure in which the Saint’s motives are almost entirely pure.

This time he’s up against a much more profession type of villain, one whose methods are so thorough and so devious, and so murderous, that one false step will mean instant death. To Simon Templar of course this makes the whole affair even more appealing.

These first two stories are fairly standard Saint tales, with Simon cheerfully hoodwinking other thieves. The third novella, The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal, is rather different.

In this story Simon Templar is after some diamonds. A rather considerable quantity of them. They don’t belong to Simon, but then technically they don’t belong to the man who is currently in possession of them either. Since they’re already stolen they might as well be benefiting Simon’s bank account rather than someone else’s. Fortunately Simon’s ethics are somewhat flexible on matters such as this.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal would like to find the diamonds as well, and the man who stole them. But mostly he would like, at long last, to find a way to lay the blame for a crime at Simon’s feet and make the charges stick. It has become an obsession.

In this story the long duel between the Saint and Chief Inspector Teal takes a turn that neither the Saint nor Teal could have anticipated and both men are going to be forced to deal with a dramatic change in their relations. The Saint’s life will also reach a crossroads. He will have to think seriously about the future and this is not something he finds easy to do.

Most successful thriller writers find a formula that works and more or less stick to it, and when they create a successful hero that hero tends not to change very much. Leslie Charteris was a bit different in this respect. Over the course of his lengthy literary career the Saint did change. The circumstances of his life changed, and his character evolved somewhat as well. The Saint did something that few thriller heroes do - he got older and wiser, and perhaps just a little sadder. The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal is the first indication that the Saint’s personality might not be set in stone. He always remained recognisably the same character but gradually he became a slightly more mature version of that character. In this story Simon Templar has the first intimations that his life may not continue forever in the exact same manner. It is fascinating to see hints of this in what is still a very early Saint story. Charteris was the master of the light-hearted thriller but there was a touch of subtlety in his writing that one doesn’t quite expect. It’s typical of Charteris that these hints of subtlety never interfere with the fun.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with Charteris’s ability to construct a plot the real attraction is, as always, the sheer joy and reckless bravado with which Simon Templar enters into the battle of wits and the superb lightness of touch of the author. In the early Saint books Charteris would push the jokiness about as far as it could be pushed and then some and while this is a risky approach (which in the hands of a lesser writer could easily become irritating) somehow he always gets away with it. Which is appropriate since the Saint’s own approach to life is one of cheerfully accepting insane risks.

The Saint vs Scotland Yard is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Flying Death

The Flying Death is one strange little book. Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) was a famous American muckraking journalist in his day although be’s better known to fans of Edwardian crime fiction for his excellent Average Jones stories.

The Flying Death begins with Dr Dick Colton being ordered to Montauk for a rest cure. However he’s not going to get much rest. Apart from the murder and mayhem he will also find love, and that is rarely restful.

He is staying at Third House, the inhabitants of which are a varied lot. There’s Professor Ravenden, a slightly dotty but very eminent entomologist. His daughter Dolly is rather more disturbing to Dr Colton, being very beautiful and altogether the most wondrous specimen of young womanhood he’s ever set eyes on. Dr Colton falls instantly in love. More disturbing in some ways is Helga, equally young and beautiful but gifted (if that’s the right word) with the second sight. Helga had been involved romantically with Dick’s brother Everard until the Colton family vetoed the match. Now Dick decides it would be a fine idea to invite Evarard to Third House. Making things more complicated is Helga’s relationship to newspaper reporter Harris Haynes, since nobody seems to know what exactly that relationship is. Nobody, including Haynes and Helga. The stage is set for some romantic melodrama, all done in a very Edwardian (but rather charming) style.

The action itself kicks off with a shipwreck. Most of the crew of the stricken schooner are saved but one man is brought ashore dead. The only problem is that he can’t be dead, or at least he can’t be dead in the way he appears to have died. It’s simply impossible.

Other murders follow, and they’re all in their own ways equally impossible.

Haynes decides to take charge of the investigation, being convinced that the police would be no use at all. Haynes has been a crime reporter for years so he does know a thing or two about investigating crime and there will be some actual detecting done in this story.

There are some clues but they seem to lead to further impossibilities. There are for instance the tracks on the beach, leading to one of the dead bodies. There’s no doubt about what the tracks are. They are the tracks of a pteranadon, and a rather large one. The fact that pteranadons have been extinct for a hundred million years or so is however a minor problem.

There’s also the matter of the unfortunate pioneer aeronaut, yet another impossible crime.

The most promising suspect appears to be a Portuguese juggler/magician whose act includes some rather impressive knife-throwing feats. Alas even more impossibilities will arise in connection with this suspect.

As you might have gathered Adams throws everything but the kitchen sink into this tale. And it works. He was a newspaperman and he knew how to give the public what it wanted.

In a story from this era that involves both crime and the suggestion of possible supernatural or science fictional explanations you can never be quite sure how the author will play things. Will he produce a perfectly rational solution at the last moment, or will he throw caution to the wind and go for a solution of a truly fantastic kind? Needless to say I have no intention of spoiling the story by telling you which option Adams chooses.

Stylistically the book is very much of its era, which (when combined with the outrageous plot) adds to the charm.

Adams keeps things moving along at a decent clip, both on the mayhem and the romance fronts. Romance in a detective story can have the effect of slowing things down too much but Adams doesn’t allow that to happen.

Is this actually a detective story? You’ll have to wait until the end to find out. Whatever it is it’s a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day

Eric Ambler’s 1962 thriller The Light of Day (also published under the title Topkapi) is both typical and untypical of his work. It’s typical in that it uses a classic Ambler plot device - a very reluctant amateur spy hopelessly out of his depth. It’s untypical in being essentially a light-hearted romp.

Arthur Simpson narrates his tale of misadventure and mishap. Arthur is an Englishman living in Athens. He’s British to his bootstraps. Except that he’s not actually a British citizen, and the British government is determined to keep it that way. He holds an Egyptian passport but the Egyptian government doesn’t want him either. Arthur Simpson’s father was a British officer stationed in Cairo. His mother was Egyptian. He was educated at a minor (very minor) public school in England. Arthur feels entirely British and it is a constant sorrow to him that no-one else seems to share his view of himself.

Arthur is a journalist. At least in his own mind he is, although his career in journalism mostly amounts to his involvement in the production of pornographic magazines.

Arthur earns his living driving a hire car. Even that is not quite true. His main source of income is petty theft. The hire car allows him to pick out likely looking targets at Athens Airport. Rich tourists are usually fairly easy to rob.

The American named Harper seemed like a very promising target. But it all went wrong for poor Arthur. He ended up getting a beating and being forced to sign a very incriminating confession and now Harper is using that confession to blackmail Arthur into doing a little job for him. A very simple job. All he has to do is to drive a car, a Lincoln Continental, from Athens to Istanbul. And he’ll get paid for it.

Now Arthur may be many things but no-one has ever accused him of being stupid. He smells a rat. A very big rat. He is sure the car is being used to smuggle drugs or gold or some other contraband but a thorough search of the Lincoln reveals nothing. Everything goes smoothly until he reaches the Turkish frontier. There it is discovered that his passport is out of date. Other discoveries are made as well. His interview with Major Tufan of the Ikinci Büro (the Turkish counter-espionage service) is not a happy experience. Arthur could be facing a very long prison sentence. But Major Tufan does have some good news for him. He may not have to face the death penalty. In fact he may not even have to go to prison. All Arthur has to do is to work for the Ikinci Büro for a while.

Major Tufan has no idea what Harper and his friends are up to but he has a bad feeling about it. He fears it may be political. The guns and the grenades suggest something rather nasty. He needs Arthur’s help. Arthur agrees, because after all he has no choice at all.

Harper and his pals are certainly up to something but finding out what that something is proves to be remarkably difficult. Arthur talks his way into a job as chauffeur for Harper’s mistress, the glamorous Frau Lipp, but Harper and his friends are extremely secretive and by the time Arthur works out what is going on he may have gotten himself in so deep that he will be unable to escape.

This is Eric Ambler so don’t expect a great deal of action (although there is some definite excitement towards the end). Ambler was concerned with suspense and character, especially character. In Arthur Simpson he has created a wonderfully memorable if rather appalling character. He is a coward, a congenital liar, a sneak, a thief and in fact the description of him by one of his former schoolmasters as an unspeakable little cad is pretty accurate. Arthur’s story is an extraordinary concoction of self-delusion and self-justification. His ability to rationalise away his own failings and weaknesses is breathtaking. In spite of all this it is difficult to dislike Arthur. He’s a rotter but he’s a delightfully entertaining rotter.

Arthur’s outlook on most things is idiosyncratic. If someone is careless enough to leave travellers’ cheques lying about then taking them isn’t really stealing. If telling the truth is likely to have unpleasant consequences then lying isn’t reprehensible, it’s sound common sense. Arthur approves of sex, but not when it’s somebody else who is getting it.

Major Tufan is, oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in the book. For a secret policeman he’s a pretty decent fellow and he’s remarkably patient with his bumbling new agent.

Ambler shows great skill in keeping us guessing almost until the end as to the exact nature of Harper’s plot. This is crucial because the success of the story depends upon Arthur’s remaining in ignorance on this subject until he has well and truly painted himself into a corner.

The Light of Day was filmed in 1964 as Topkapi.

The Light of Day is pure enjoyment, it's extremely amusing and it's suspenseful. You can't ask for more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

The Second World War is never explicitly mentioned in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but it casts a long shadow over the book making it a rather interesting Hercule Poirot mystery.

It was published in 1940 but internal evidence suggests it may have been written just before the outbreak of war.

Regarded purely as a detective story it is superb, a classic example of Christie’s ability to lay false scents. She leads the reader by the nose but if it’s any consolation Poirot very nearly falls into the same trap that Christie has laid for the reader.

It starts with the murder of a dentist. As it happens, it’s Poirot’s own dentist who is murdered. It looks like suicide but Chief Inspector Japp is not at all satisfied. The question of motive worries Japp a lot. This is a detective story in which motive is of absolutely critical importance. The case cannot be solved unless the motive can be uncovered. There’s plenty of other evidence but it’s either tantalising ambiguous or downright misleading without a motive. That’s not giving anything away since both Poirot and Japp are keenly aware of this problem right from the start.

Two more murders follow, and the final murder seems every bit as inexplicable as the first. The identity of the murderer seems clear, but once again there’s the vexed question of motive.

Christie has a few other tricks up her sleeve as well. What’s particularly impressive is that even when we know she’s misleading us it doesn’t help us. In several cases we know that what really happened is not what appeared to happen but that just increases our difficulties since it opens up new possibilities that lead us down more blind alleys. She lays more false scents and we follow them, thinking that now we’re on the right track. Christie’s plotting in this novel presents us with cunningly interlocked puzzles.

Poirot firmly believes that a theory is worthless unless it fits all the facts. In this case he finds himself faced with facts that are simply impossible. And yet they are unquestionably facts.

Shoes and buckles do indeed play a part, as do stockings, and ladies’ clothing in general. Poirot is a man who takes a certain aesthetic interest in ladies’ clothing. In this adventure those shoes pose some problems for him.

The time at which the book was written, with Europe on the brink of war and Britain likely to be facing a struggle for existence, clearly had an impact on Christie. The tone is fairly dark. High finance, politics and espionage form the background to the novel. These factors also present Poirot with some ethical dilemmas. If Britain’s survival is at stake how important is the life of an obscure dentist? To Poirot the storm clouds gathering over Europe only make it more important to take a stand for the principle that the lives of obscure dentists do matter. If Britain is worth saving it is because in Britain the lives of unimportant people are in fact very important. And yet he has to admit that there is in this instance a powerful counter-argument.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is Agatha Christie at the top of her game, demonstrating not just her mastery of plotting but also her ability to write a novel that succeeds admirably as a detective story whilst also offering just a little bit more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Enchantress of Venus

Leigh Brackett’s 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus introduced her most famous series character, Eric John Stark. It’s a fairly typical sword-and-planet adventure but it’s a well-crafted example of the breed. It appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in 1949.

Eric John Stark is both a barbarian and a civilised man. He comes from the savage world of Mercury but he has picked up most of the arts of civilisation living on Earth. The barbarian spirit is however still very strong within him. He’s a fairly typical hero of the sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet type. He is possessed of enormous physical strength, he is brave, virile and resourceful. He is quick-tempered and can be impulsive but he is gentle towards women. Unless of course they turn out to be beautiful but evil and dangerous women and of course this story just happens to feature such a woman.

The setting is Venus. Leigh Brackett’s Venus is a world that never sees the sun, a semi-barbaric world of clouds and mists. In this novella the specific setting is even stranger. The Red Sea is not an ordinary sea. It is not a liquid but a gaseous sea, composed of a gas so heavy and so dense that ships can sail upon it. It also differs from ordinary seas in that although moving through it is not unlike swimming you can speak and breathe even at the bottom of the sea.

The Venusians who live in the region of the Red Sea are pale and blonde and at best semi-civilised. Like all of Brackett’s Martians and Venusians they are very close to being human, but with a few subtle differences. The women are attractive but have the disconcerting habit of always being naked from the waist up (this is a story written for the pulps so there has to be some sexual titillation factor).

After ship’s captain Malthor tries to kill him for no apparent reason Stark ends up in a city on a gulf in the Red Sea, a city renowned for piracy and slavery and assorted debaucheries but it is now a city under the shadow of a much more serious malevolent influence. The evil of the Lhari. They are a different race and there are only a handful left but they dominate city and their potential for evil is vast. They are breathtakingly cruel and obsessed with their own imminent demise which they intend to avoid by any means no matter how ruthless. And there is a secret that may allow them not merely to survive but to dominate the whole planet. Stark will have to stop them and in any case he has his own personal grievance against them.

Two women will play important parts in this story. Zareth is Malthor’s daughter, a gentle girl who has stoically endured repeated whippings from her father but who now sees in Stark a chance to escape. And perhaps a chance for love. She is timid and frightened but she has an unexpected inner strength and courage. Varra is a whole different ball game. Even by the standards of the Lhari she is dangerous. She tells Stark that he is the first real man she has encountered in a very long time and she is obviously the sort of woman who is very interested indeed in real men.

The secret mentioned earlier lies at the bottom of the Red Sea, in a ruined city built by yet another race.

This is a novella so there’s not much scope for complex plotting but it’s a decent enough story, although perhaps not quite as dazzlingly imaginative as some of Brackett’s other tales from this period of her career. This is more a fairly routine sword-and-planet adventure, but executed very competently.

There’s a genuine sense of evil, and of decadence. There’s also a decidedly bleak and tragic edge to the tale.

The settings are the most impressive part of this story. Brackett was very good at creating worlds that were clearly alien whilst still seeming reasonably plausible.

There isn’t a great deal of depth to Stark but he’s an effective action hero. The two women, Varra and Zareth, are more interesting.

Enchantress of Venus is enjoyable and fairly stylish pulp fiction. Recommended.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Death by Request

Death by Request was the only detective novel to be written by husband-and-wife team Romilly and Katherine John. Romilly John was the son of the painter Augustus John. The novel appeared in 1933.

The setting is an English country house owned by a certain Matthew Barry, a wealthy man in late middle age with a passion for Greek literature. Matthew’s son Edward is a harmless rather sickly and rather ineffectual young man who spends much of his time in pursuit of the local lepidoptera (which will play an important part in the plot). Matthew’s old friend, the Reverend John Colchester (who narrates the tale), is one of the assortment of guests that you’d expect to find in a country house murder mystery. There’s a blustering and foolish old colonel, a beautiful young widow of slightly doubtful moral reputation, there’s the handsome rake Lord Malvern, there’s Edward’s fiancée Judith Grant and there’s Phyllis Winter, a somewhat hysterical 17-year-old girl.

Of course one of these people is about to be murdered and the others will all be suspects. There is another important suspect, the butler Frampton. Did the butler do it? The police certainly think it’s possible. Frampton is after all a socialist.

The murder victim is found dead in his gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an accident but this possibility is soon dismissed. Suicide is considered next, but also rejected. This is murder.

And this is a locked-room murder mystery, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Inspector Lockitt has an abundance of suspects and an abundance of motives to work through. He makes little headway and seems relieved by the arrival of Nicholas Hatton. Whether Hatton is an actual private detective or merely an amateur is uncertain (the latter seems far more likely) but he seems to make more progress than the Inspector. Even he is unable to unravel this mystery and the lovely young widow Mrs Fairfax then tries her hand at detecting, with much greater success.

There are inheritances, there are romantic triangles, there’s blackmail and there’s jealousy. In fact the authors toss in everything but the kitchen sink.

There’s also a twist ending although even in 1933 it was by no means original.

The authors try very hard to maintain a light-hearted and at times almost farcical tone, with mixed success. There are a few amusing moments but the wit is rather laboured.

The locked-room puzzle itself is moderately clever but if you’re expecting the ingenuity and outlandishness of a John Dickson Carr you’re going to be disappointed. The twist ending is reasonably successful.

There are some problems. The pacing is a little slow, with a tendency to over-explain and over-complicate things. It’s the sort of fault you might expect in a first novel. There are plenty of possible motives but none of them seem truly convincing. The more successful writers of golden age detective fiction tried to make the motivations of their killers at least vaguely psychologically convincing. We should feel that the killer is someone who, once the motive is explained, might really have been tempted to commit murder. In this case the authors don’t quite succeed in selling us on the motives. It’s a pity because the plot does show some genuine cleverness.

For a first novel Death by Request shows some promise but presumably it failed to excite the reading public and it marked both the beginning and the end of their endeavours in the genre.

Death by Request is a moderately enjoyable tale if you’re not in an excessively demanding mood. It’s certainly not a must-read. If you can find a copy in the bargain bin or in the library it’s worth picking up but it’s not a book that I’d suggest you go hunting for. I can only give this one a lukewarm recommendation I’m afraid.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Robert E. Howard's Almuric

Robert E. Howard wrote a vast number of short stories but only a handful of novels, including Almuric which was serialised in Weird Tales in 1939 (three years after the author’s death).

Esau Cairn is a young American of immense physical strength although unfortunately afflicted with a rather short temper. He becomes enmeshed in a web of deceit spun by crooked politicians and he has resigned himself to facing execution on trumped charges. He is given a surprising opportunity to save himself, although at a terrifyingly high price. A scientist acquaintance has discovered a means of transporting living beings, including people, across the vast reaches of outer space. The only problem is that such trips are strictly one-way. Esau Cairn however is willing to accept the price.

He finds himself on the fantastically distant planet Almuric. It’s a planet on which everything seems to resemble some earthly equivalent, but not quite. There is always a slight difference.

For a solitary man, unarmed and unequipped with any tools (it is only possible to transport living things across space), existence on this primitive planet is a challenge. Esau Cairn is however a man of remarkable determination and endurance as well as strength.

There are several human-like sentient species on Almuric. The Guras are somewhat bestial in appearance but they are brave warriors. They’re the sorts of barbarians who appealed to Howard’s imagination, with a certain degree of honour. Their women are very different. The Guras have evolved a rather extreme sexual dimorphism. The men are powerful, hairy and apelike while the women are smooth-skinned, gentle and very feminine. And for all their apparent barbarism the Gura men treat their women with extravagant kindness (apart of course from occasional physical chastisement which they seem to accept).

The Yaga are more worrisome, winged cannibal men of exceptional cruelty. Their queen, Yasmeena, is beautiful but terrifying and frighteningly capricious.

There are other man-like creatures, varying in intelligence and savagery. Many of these have been enslaved by the Yaga. The Yaga are particularly fond of carrying off the women of the other sentient creatures. You might expect that these maidens would be facing the proverbial Fate Worse Than Death. In fact they’re facing horrors that are almost unimaginable. The depraved Yaga certainly use their captive women as sex slaves but they have other uses for them as well.

Esau Cairn will face many dangers and countless horrors but he will also find love in the person of the gentle but high-spirited Altha.

Almuric is very much in the mould of the sword and planet adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard could not match the extraordinary inventiveness of Burroughs but his writing has its own strengths. Few writers have ever been able to match Howard when it came to savage action scenes. He also had a gift for atmosphere, especially for creating an atmosphere of skin-crawling horror. And of course Howard had the ability to create great barbarian heroes, mighty warriors but with a degree of gentleness towards women and with the intelligence and instinctive wisdom to complement their physical prowess. Esau Cairn might be a 20th century American but he is in fact a natural barbarian (which is part of the reason he finds himself exiled from an Earth on which he was never able to fit in).

There’s always a touch of horror to Howard’s fantasy tales, and almost always there are hints of sadism and cruelty, often with sexual overtones. It’s all combined with odd dashes of chivalry. Almuric has more than its share of such qualities. Naturally there’s non-stop violence, some of it pretty hair-raising.

This is a sword and planet rather than a sword sorcery tale so there’s no magic but there are monsters. Howard, who had no great interest in science fiction, solves the problem of finding a plausible way to transport his hero to a distant planet in the simplest possible manner. He doesn’t explain it at all.

This is a short novel but aside from having lots of action it also has copious amounts of plot. The pacing is breakneck and there are no dull spots.

It’s hardly great literature but it’s fun and it’s blood-drenched excitement. It’s pretty much typical Robert E. Howard in other words, and that’s certainly no bad thing. Highly recommended.

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.