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.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ralph Milne Farley's The Radio Man

Roger Sherman Hoar (1887-1963) was a prominent Massachusetts politician who wrote a considerable amount of science fiction under the name Ralph Milne Farley. His biggest success was the Radio Man series. The first novel in this series, The Radio Man, was written in 1924 (it was later re-issued in paperback by Avon as An Earthman on Venus).

The Radio Man starts off in a manner rather reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with the narrator receiving a very surprising message from outer space. The message purports to come from a certain Myles Cabot, a radio engineer who vanished several years earlier. The narrator is convinced that the message is genuine. The message from Cabot tells his story since his disappearance.

Cabot has been experimenting with the use of radio for the purposes of matter transference. The experiment goes wrong and Cabot is transported to Venus.

Venus is partly habitable. Civilisation is confined to the central continent which is surrounded by the Boiling Sea, a quite impassable obstacle. Cabot awakens to find himself in a civilisation of human-sized ant-men. He recognises them as being obvious intelligent and they come to the conclusion that he is also a creature possessed of intelligence and reason but initially there seems to be no possibility of communication.

Cabot’s scientific background and his work in radio now proves to be crucial, allowing him to save the communication problem.

There are two intelligent species on Venus, the ant-men (the Formians) and a human-like but not quite human species known as the Cupians. The Formians are the dominant civilisation. The Cupians are not exactly slaves but they politically subject to the Formians.

Cabot is caught up in various political intrigues involving a beautiful Cupian princess. Cabot makes enemies among both Formians and Cupians but he finds allies among both sides as well.

Given that the Formians are an ant society and the book was written in 1924 you might be forgiven for thinking that they represent the Bolsheviks but The Radio Man doesn’t really seem to have any particular political axe to grind. The Formians are somewhat socialistic and militaristic and they do oppress the Cupians but they’re not evil by any means. In some ways they’re quite enlightened and humane while in other respects their society is rigid and mechanical. Their political oppression of the Cupians is exceptionally mild.

The Cupians are a monarchy and their society has both strengths and weaknesses as well. There are noble and kindly Formians and villainous ones as well, and there are Cupians who are treacherous and cruel and others who display nobility and kindness.

There’s an obvious Edgar Rice Burroughs feel but there’s a definite Mark Twain influence as well (the Mark Twain of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). There’s also a touch of The Prisoner of Zenda with Cabot getting mixed up in Cupian palace intrigues.

Farley does not quite succeed in making the Formians convincingly alien. Despite having a society based on ant society they’re a bit too human in their thinking and their emotions. Farley misses the obvious opportunity to examine the nature of the hive mind of an insect society. Farley also seems uninterested in using his story as the basis for a political satire.

On the plus side this is quite an entertaining adventure tale and the ways that Cabot uses his expertise in radio technology to extricate himself from the many scrapes he gets himself into are quite clever.

Apart from being a politician the author was a noted patents attorney and his interests in both inventions and the law are put to good use.

This is a fairly light-hearted adventure romance romp. It’s certainly not in the same class as the planetary romances of Burroughs but it’s quite enjoyable. It’s worth a look.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Stuart Palmer’s The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla

The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla appeared in 1937, being the seventh of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers mysteries.

This being my first Hildegarde Withers book I’m a little vague on the backstory of the two main characters but clearly middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers is in the habit of helping out hardbitten New York cop Inspector Oscar Piper on some of his more challenging murder cases.

The Inspector has scored himself what promises to be a pleasant little junket down Mexico way. The reason he scored the junket sheds some interesting light on the way things were done back in the 30s. Piper seems to be a perfectly honest cop but he’s been happy to go along with the rather shady shenanigans of New York’s political bosses and now he’s getting his reward. It’s taken for granted that all branches of government are basically corrupt and if you want to have a career you don’t make waves. This is an intriguing bit of what would normally be considered to be hardboiled content in what is otherwise a very light-hearted tale.

The train trip to Mexico City is not overly comfortable but it’s fairly uneventful, apart from the occasional murder. This is a slightly odd murder. Why would anyone want to murder a Mexican customs officer, and why murder him in such a manner? Poison in a perfume bottle is a strange way to bump off a customs official. And what connection could there be between such a murder and the youngish wife of a New York alderman? Yet the connection is undeniable. Oscar Piper is well acquainted with the alderman in question, a notoriously corrupt city official.

Oscar is puzzled and there follows a frantic exchange of telegrams between the Inspector and Miss Hildegarde Withers, an exchange that becomes more urgent as Miss Withers quickly becomes convinced that Oscar is on the wrong track entirely. The good Inspector’s approach to crime-solving seems to be to pick the most obvious suspect and then have them arrested, the matter of finding any actual evidence being apparently of little importance. It’s just as well that Miss Withers hops aboard the first plane to Mexico City, just in time to bail Inspector Oscar Piper out of gaol. 

The murder will later strike again, in equally puzzling circumstances.

Palmer’s still is breezy and energetic. Oscar Piper is an engaging and amusing character even if he appears to have certain worrying deficiencies as a detective. Miss Withers is your classic middle-aged spinster genius amateur detective, a type of which I’m not overly fond. There’s plenty of humour but it doesn’t overwhelm the story which never threatens to descend into silliness or contrived whimsy. The humour flows naturally from the characters and the situations. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but it is gently amusing.

The plot has a few clever touches and there’s an abundance of red herrings but the central mystery is not overly brilliant. Some of the important plot elements are all too obvious. Palmer makes up for this to some extent by keeping the action moving along at a fairly frenetic pace. Palmer had already started writing screenplays by this point and to my mind the novel is rather cinematic (and I mean that as a compliment). The complex set-piece involving the bullfight is adroitly executed and would have been the ideal centre-piece for a film adaptation.

This is perhaps not quite an impossible crime story but one of the murders is certainly superficially difficult to explain. Solving the mystery of how it was committed is a key plot point but unfortunately the explanation is quite straightforward - it certainly lacks the dazzling ingenuity that a John Dickson Carr would have put into such a puzzle.

Oscar Piper is a remarkably clueless policeman. The Mexican police are considerably more intelligent and more professional although of course even they cannot solve the mystery with Hildegarde Withers. Miss Withers herself is not as irritating as I’d expected her to be. She’s eccentric but Palmer wisely doesn’t push her eccentricities too far.

So did I enjoy this novel? Yes, it’s a good-humoured and well-told tale even if the mystery is a little on the weak side. Would I read any more Hildegarde Withers mysteries? To be honest, probably not. Would I recommend it? Probably, to those who like middle-aged spinster genius amateur detectives and lightweight comic-tinged detective stories.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes)

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) was a popular British crime writer who would now be entirely forgotten but for the fact that two of her novels were made into extremely good movies. Her 1936 novel The Wheel Spins was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes while her 1933 novel Some Must Watch was filmed by Robert Siodmak as The Spiral Staircase. It is The Wheel Spins with which we are concerned at the moment.

White seems to belong to the dreaded Had I But Known school of crime fiction. In this case, given that the book is narrated in the third person, it’s more of a Had She But Known story. It’s also more of a suspense novel although with some detective story elements.

The heroine is a very rich and very unpleasant young woman named Iris. Iris and her friends are holidaying in an unnamed central European country and they are displaying their usual mix of boorishness, pretension and shallowness. It’s clever to display rudeness and cruelty because all the smart people do so. In the 20s Iris’s crowd would have been known as Bright Young Things.

The early part of the book tells us far more than we wish to know about Iris and about the motley collection of English guests staying in a hotel in the mountains. We assume that these people are all going to be passengers on the train which is to be the novel’s main setting. In fact they will be passengers on that train but mostly they don’t play much of a role in the story. This introductory section of the book also gives White the opportunity to throw in lots of Had I But Knowns.

The season is almost at an end and the English visitors are about to head back to England. Iris has an odd experience at the railway station, an experience which is put down to a touch of sunstroke. On the train she encounters an English spinster, a Miss Froy. Miss Froy then vanishes. Vanishes into thin air. The view of the other passengers, and the railway employees, is that there never was a Miss Froy. After a while Iris has her doubts as well. If Miss Froy existed then the mystery of her disappearance can only be explained by a vast and elaborate conspiracy theory, which just doesn’t seem possible.

Iris’s big problem is that nobody will believe her. Even her one ally, an amiable young English linguist, doesn’t believe her.

The basic story idea is good but the execution is very disappointing indeed. White does not really seem to know how to maintain suspense. Her pacing is poor and she is inclined to reveal too much information too soon. She spends too much time on unimportant peripheral characters and irrelevant sub-plots. She has a tendency towards sentimentality. Most of all she seems to lack the ability to structure a suspense story.

There’s a romance here. I am one of those people who dislikes romance in mystery novels but I have no problem with a romance element in a thriller. The difficulty in this book is that the romance is unconvincing and worst of all it just isn’t very romantic.

White obviously wanted to focus quite a bit on Iris’s character flaws and the ways in which she learns to overcome at least some of them and transform herself from an unsympathetic and very flawed protagonist into a reasonably sympathetic and rather less flawed heroine. This is actually a worthwhile idea and it does succeed to a certain extent.

With all its flaws there is as I said a story idea with potential and it’s easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock saw that potential. Fortunately he had the services of two very competent screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and they were able to eliminate most of the novel’s flaws. Hitchcock also had a fine cast and characters who were tedious in the novel become quite entertaining in the movie. The screenplay made some significant plot changes, all of which were beneficial.

Hitchcock’s film is a masterpiece of suspense and it’s also great fun. White’s novel is a bit of a mess and it’s rather lacking in fun.

If you’re a fan of Hitchcock in general and The Lady Vanishes in particular then The Wheel Spins will be of some interest. It’s actually a textbook example of the ways in which good screenwriters and good directors can produce great results working from mediocre source materials. If you’re not a fan of the movie there’s really no pressing reason to seek out this book.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Conan Doyle's The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard

In 1894, having finished (as he thought) with Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to find some sort of replacement. He still had a living to make as a writer and he was now very much in demand. The Strand Magazine wanted more short stories. A new series character was needed. Conan Doyle came up with one, a character who was very different indeed from Sherlock Holmes. At the end of 1894 the first of his Brigadier Gerard stories appeared in the Strand Magazine. In 1896 the Gerard stories were published in book form, as The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (a second collection would follow in 1903).

Conan Doyle was very enthusiastic about his historical fiction, considering it to be his best work. He may well have been right. His medieval adventure novel The White Company is one of the classics of the genre. The Gerard stories differ in tone from his medieval stories but they are every bit as good.

Etienne Gerard is a dashing hussar officer in Napoleon’s Grand Army. The stories are narrated in the first person and it is immediately apparent that Gerard has a very high opinion of himself. He is in fact a very brave officer, a skillful horseman and a fine swordsman. He is conscientious and keen. He is unfortunately a man of strictly mediocre intelligence and very limited imagination. His greatest fault is his absurd over-confidence. His faith in his own judgment is unlimited, and sadly misplaced. The Emperor himself has described Gerard as having the thickest head but the stoutest heart in his army.

A conceited dimwit could have been a rather unattractive character but Gerard is someone we cannot help liking. He means well and he tries so hard. Mostly though it’s his total lack of self-awareness that makes him so endearing. 

The Gerard stories may well have been part of the inspiration for George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. That might seem like an odd claim since Flashman and Gerard are very different types of men. Both sets of stories do have one major thing in common though, a kind of mock-heroic tone. Both Flashman and Gerard appear to the world to be the very quintessence of the hero, but in both cases it’s an illusion. Flashman is actually a bully, a coward and a cad. If he does anything heroic it is quite by accident. Gerard is an honourable and gallant soldier but the combination of his limited intelligence and his ludicrous over-confidence makes him a slightly dubious asset to Napoleon’s army. Like Flashman he is more likely to commit his feats of heroism, by blundering into them.

There is another similarity between the two characters. Both have an enormous liking for the ladies. Both are in fact breathtakingly promiscuous although of course Conan Doyle is somewhat coy about describing Gerard’s conquests in detail (and it is possible that Gerard’s vast ego has inflated his success with the ladies somewhat).

The other quality that the Gerard stories and the Flashman stories have in common is that they are extraordinarily enjoyable. Conan Doyle took historical fiction seriously but he never made the mistake of thinking that good writing does not need to be entertaining.

Blending humour with action is quite a tricky balancing act. The humour cannot just be a gratuitous addition. It must flow naturally from the story. In this case Brigadier Gerard, our narrator, believes he is simply recounting his adventures and his amazing feats of heroism. He is not trying to be amusing. The humour comes from his own absurdities of which Gerard remains blissfully unaware. At the same time Conan Doyle cannot allow Gerard to become too ridiculous. We must be able to admire his very genuine daring and courage and his formidable determination. It’s a balancing act that Conan Doyle manages with superb skill.

The Medal of Brigadier Gerard was the first of the Gerard stories to appear in the Strand Magazine. It is 1814 and Napoleon is fighting desperately to save what is left of his empire. He is hopelessly outnumbered but he has devised a plan which may yet save the day. It is essential that the details of the plan should reach Paris as soon as possible. Two brave officers are selected for this dangerous mission. To ensure that at least one copy of the message gets through they will follow different routes. One of the two officers is Brigadier Gerard. Gerard understands the vital importance of his mission. Except that he doesn’t understand at all, which is what makes the story so clever and entertaining.

In How the Brigadier Held the King it is 1810 and Gerard, at this point a very young colonel of hussars, is serving with the Emperor’s forces in Spain. He has an unfortunate encounter with Spanish guerillas, an encounter that has the potential to be not merely fatal but fatal in a particularly unpleasant way. It is a situation that demands coolness, subtle intelligence and fine judgment. Gerard possesses none of these qualities, but luckily he is a skilled card player.

This story also marks Gerard’s first encounter with British officers and there is a good deal of amusement to be derived from Gerard’s extraordinary capacity for entirely misunderstanding everything to do with English life, culture and social habits.

How the King Held the Brigadier tells the story of Gerard’s period as a prisoner-of-war at Dartmoor. He is determined to escape but as usual, despite his boldness and courage, his plans go disastrously awry. his one is great fun.

The excellent How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio is one of several stories in which Gerard undertakes a secret mission on the Emperor’s personal instructions. It is 1807, Gerard is a young lieutenant, and the emperor’s past threatens to catch up to him.

How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom shows us another side to Gerard. This time he is engaged in a purely private adventure and he will need to use his brains to get out of a particularly awkward predicament. This could be a problem since brains are not really Gerard’s strong point. We find however that although Gerard lacks imagination and intellectual subtlety he is not after all a complete fool. He does have perseverance, mental toughness, a certain amount of resourcefulness and is quite good when it comes to finding immediate practical solutions. We know that Gerard, despite his own fantasies on the matter, would have been a catastrophically incompetent general but as a junior officer he is reasonably efficient and effective. It adds some depth to the character to see him confronted by the sort of problem that demands the very qualities that he does possess. It’s also a wonderfully action-packed little story.

How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs has Gerard hunting for a notorious brigand, a renegade English aristocrat. Gerard has a surprising ally this time - the captain of a troop of British dragoons. The brigand, known popularly as Marshal Millefleurs, has his headquarters in a very sturdy castle. This brigand also has the advantage of being both clever and unscrupulous, surely too clever for poor Gerard. But Gerard can be ruthless as well and he can show occasional flashes of very good sense. A fine stirring story.

In How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil it is 1814 and the end has come for Napoleon, but the Emperor has hopes that perhaps one day he will have a chance to retrieve his throne, in which case there are certain papers that must be secured at all costs. Gerard and two other officers must ensure that those papers are safe. Not one of the stronger stories in the collection but still reasonably entertaining.

In How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom it is 1813 and events are turning against Napoleon. Gerard is caught up in a dangerous game with the highest possible stakes, the very survival of Napoleon’s empire. His opponent in this game is a beautiful and very clever woman. A more serious story and perhaps not a great Gerard story but it does provide a suitable conclusion to the first collection of Gerard stories.

Each of these stories has a plot twist. The reader will see the twist coming. The reader is supposed to see it coming. The fun comes from the fact that not once does poor old Gerard see it coming.

These are generally light-hearted rollicking tales of adventure very liberally laced with humour but they have the occasional grim moment - at times surprisingly grim.

Conan Doyle was one of the grand masters of the genre. A couple of the stories are slightly weak but six of the eight stories are true classics of historical fiction as well as terrific swashbuckling adventure tales. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard is superlative entertainment. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat who had a very successful parallel career as a writer of the Judge Dee mystery novels. His career as a mystery writer began in the late 1940s with his translation into English (under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) of the 18th century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An. Van Gulik felt that Judge Dee was a character with great potential and he tried his hand at writing an original Judge Dee detective novel, The Chinese Maze Murders. Many more were to follow. The third of his original Judge Dee mysteries was The Chinese Gold Murders, published in 1959.

Van Gulik wrote his novels in English. The early Judge Dee novels appeared first in Chinese and Japanese translations but it soon became apparent that the more sensible approach was to publish the English language versions first.

Van Gulik’s idea was to retain as many of the features of the traditional Chinese detective novels (or gong'an) as possible, but presented in a way that would make them more accessible to modern readers. Judge Dee always has three cases that he must solve simultaneously. There are hints of the supernatural but these are toned down considerably. (although not eliminated altogether).

The Judge Dee stories are set in the seventh century AD during the Tang dynasty but as in  the Dee Goong An much of the detail is representative of later eras.

Judge Dee is a magistrate but his duties go beyond judging cases. He is also in charge of the investigation of crimes. He’s like a judge, a District Attorney and a police officer all at once.

The Chinese Gold Murders deals with three early cases that Judge Dee deals with after his appointment as magistrate of the town of Peng-lai. The first and most urgent case is to solve the murder of his predecessor in the magistrate’s post, who was poisoned although there seems to be have been no possible way that the poisoning could have taken place. This certainly qualifies as an impossible crime story.

He also must discover the whereabouts of a missing bride, and the whereabouts of his own chief clerk, as well as solving the puzzle of the body of a dead Buddhist monk. There’s another murder as well plus there’s a man-eating tiger to worry about. Not to mention the possibility of a major smuggling ring. And what is a Korean prostitute doing in possession of official court papers?

As always Dee can rely on the services of the indefatigable Sergeant Hoong and in this novel he acquires two very useful assistants, both former highwaymen.

The idea of three mysteries running in parallel works quite well and adds a touch of realism. Unlike 20th century amateur detectives a district magistrate like Judge Dee would not have the luxury of being able to concentrate all of his attentions on a single case. There are also possible links between the three main cases.

The solutions to some of the puzzles were apparently drawn from the extensive Chinese detective literature so if the explanation for the impossible murder might seem a little far-fetched that’s not Van Gulik’s fault. And the murder method is just about plausible, and it’s certainly ingenious.

The Chinese setting is fascinating and while the details are not always authentically of the Tang Dynasty Van Gulik did have an extensive knowledge of Chinese jurisprudence so those details can be assumed to be basically correct. 

Dee’s techniques are those you expect from a western detective - common sense, observation, interviews with suspects, examinations of the scenes of the crimes, considerations of motives and logical reasoning but they’re combined with a couple of novel methods. Judge Dee is prepared to accept hints with a supernatural (or possibly supernatural) source and he’s also willing to employ torture, torture being regarded during the Imperial period in China as a perfectly legitimate means of obtaining information. Torture was also considered to be essential for procuring a confession, it being impossible to convict someone of a crime without a confession.

The idea of a fair-play mystery was of course quite unknown in traditional Chinese detective fiction. Since that’s the feel Van Gulik is aiming for it’s hardly reasonable to complain if the story does not conform to more modern notions of fair play.

The Chinese Gold Murders is wonderfully entertaining. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 19, 2017

John le Carré’s Smiley’s People

Smiley’s People is the concluding volume in John le Carré’s Karla trilogy. It appeared in 1979.

George Smiley has now retired and this time he expects his retirement to be final. And it would have been, if only Vladimir hadn’t managed to get himself killed. Vladimir, otherwise known as The General, had been one of the Circus’s best agents. That was a long time ago. He has long been inactive and the Circus had just about forgotten his existence. What’s disturbing about Vladimir’s death is that just before he died he had telephoned the Circus, demanding an immediate meeting with Smiley (of course the old boy had no way of knowing that Smiley had retired).

Now the Circus wants Smiley to clear up the loose ends of the case. What they mean by this is that they want the whole thing buried. They don’t want anything to be found that might link Vladimir to the Circus. They want a cover-up.

Since it’s a cover-up they want it may have been unwise to ask Smiley to take care of it. Smiley is a man who still takes the business of espionage very seriously. They should have realised that if he found anything worth following up he’d follow it up. And he finds quite a few things worth following up. Like the way Vladimir was killed, by a method used only by the Soviet intelligence services. The General had really been on to something. Something big.

There have been big changes at the Circus. As Toby Esterhase (now also in retirement) puts it, the Circus has now joined the Boy Scouts. They are no longer allowed to use any of the techniques of actual espionage. With Saul Enderby now in charge the Circus is merely a political tool and it’s a tool in the hands of a government that wants an intelligence agency that costs nothing to run and doesn’t make waves. One of the things the Circus is no longer permitted to do is to make use of émigrés like Vladimir. They’re yesterday’s men, men who think the Cold War is still going on.

Smiley is a yesterday’s man as well. There is one problem. An ageing superannuated ex-spy he may be but George Smiley is still the the best man in the business and now he has found a scent and he intends to pursue it, wherever it may lead.

The yesterday’s man theme is one that seemed to fascinate le Carré. The Looking-Glass War deals with a British intelligence agency composed of World War 2 heroes who have never adapted to the new post-war world. In Smiley’s People it’s Cold War spies who can’t adapt to a world in which the Cold War is winding down. This obsession gives le Carré’s spy fiction much of its distinctive tragicomic tone. 

This novels falls into two quite distinct halves. The first charts the course of Smiley’s investigation. It’s essentially a detective story with Smiley playing the role of private detective, the Circus having no knowledge of what he’s up to. The second half follows the course of Smiley’s operation, a semi-official undertaking by a whole bunch of yesterday’s men. Smiley is now the hunter.

In The Looking-Glass War the yesterday’s men are bumbling incompetents but in Smiley’s People they’re the old school professionals contrasted with the inept new men.

One very odd thing about le Carré is that although he could never be described as an upbeat writer his 70s spy fiction strikes me as being slightly less defeatist than his 60s work. This is very odd since it’s also obvious that he’d become even more cynical about government and the uses to which intelligence agencies were put by government. Perhaps he had at the same time become marginally less cynical about human nature.

Karla has always been like a sinister inhuman force lurking in the background. In Smiley’s People he finally takes on a human face, much to George Smiley’s consternation. Could the great Karla actually suffer from human weaknesses?

This is a fine conclusion to the Karla trilogy, and to the George Smiley saga (although I believe he makes cameo appearances in a couple of later novels). Highly recommended.

The 1982 BBC TV adaptation is worth seeing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) was a colourful American muckraking journalist who also wrote successful fiction in a number of genres, including detective stories. His most notable effort in the latter category was his 1911 short story collection Average Jones.

The hero of these stories is actually a wealthy young man by the name of A.V.R.E. Jones who has inevitably acquired the nickname Average Jones. Like many young men in his position his otherwise comfortable life is marred by one great affliction. He is bored. He is an intelligent man who has never found anything that has really captured his interest. One day as he is taking at ease in his New York club his newspaper proprietor friend Waldemar suggests that he should consider becoming a crank. This is in his view virtually a guarantee of a happy and contented life. He points to the example of an acquaintance who collects scarab beetles and another who collects medieval musical instruments. Their hobby-horses give them unending pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Waldemar even has a hobby-horse in mind for his young friend. He has often thought that an obsession with curious and/or fraudulent advertising could prove to be a satisfying and possibly even remunerative career.

Jones is bored enough to act on Waldemar’s suggestion. He sets himself up in an opulent office and embarks on his new career as New York’s resident expert on peculiar advertisements. This will lead him into a second unexpected career, as an amateur detective. Perhaps not entirely unexpected - it stands to reason that behind an eccentric or bogus advertisement it’s quite likely there will be a crime.

Waldemar has shown shrewd judgment in choosing a hobby for Jones. For a young man being rich, intelligent and easily bored can be a dangerous combination and could easily lead him into a life of dissipation and viciousness. What Jones needs is an occupation that will offer both mental stimulation and the ability to do some good in the world, and to feel that he is doing something worthwhile. 

Jones has a bit of a personal motivation as well. His wealth comes from an inheritance from his uncle, a notoriously corrupt and grasping businessman. The old man used his will as his final means of expressing his contempt for humanity. The will leaves his entire vast fortune to Jones on the condition that he must complete five years’ continual residence in new York City. The old man reasons that five years in New York will be enough to corrupt the morals of any man and he is confident that his nephew will subsequently squander his fortune. Jones is an easy-going fellow but he does like the idea of proving his uncle wrong by not making a mess of his life.

The newspaperman Waldemar is a kind of ideal self-portrait of the author - they are both men who make a good living from muckraking journalism but also have a genuine zeal for exposing corruption and sharp practice. Waldemar clearly hopes that Jones will absorb at least a little of that same zeal from his new hobby.

These stories were published in 1911 and therefore pre-date the age of the fair-play detective story. In this earlier era the rules of the game were simpler but there were still some rules, these being essentially that however outlandish the plot it should have at least some tenuous plausibility and more importantly that the reader should feel that the detective really could have solved the puzzle based on the clues available to him. Adams adheres to these rules quite faithfully.

The B-flat Trombone introduces us to our detective. His first case comes about by accident. An odd and rather bizarre crime stirs a memory in Jones, a memory of one of the first eccentric advertisements that came to his attention. There has to be a connection and he is determined to find that connection, between an advertisement seeking a trombone player and an explosion which propels a crooked politician from a third floor window. It’s a complicated but extremely clever crime, the main weakness of the story being that the reader is almost certain to see the connection before the detective does. The ingenuity of the idea is still admirable and the story is very entertaining.

The Red Dot is even more ingenious but this time the reader will find himself facing a tougher challenge. In fact in this case the clues that lead Jones to the solution are all clearly laid out. The outrageousness of the plot is an absolute delight. It starts with a young chemist whose dogs have been poisoned but not with any of the more commonly encountered poisons. Other dogs have met similar fates elsewhere in the country. Dogs aren’t the only animals involved - moths also lay a part in the story. Much suffering might have been averted but for the weather.

Open Trail isn’t particularly challenging as a mystery but there is high adventure that takes Jones to the wilds of Baja California. Gold mines can be lucrative but there’s even more money in water, in the right circumstances. Quite an entertaining tale.

In The Mercy Sign a young scientific assistant disappears. A cardboard box with the label Mercy is the chief clue that helps Jones avert a diplomatic incident. This is a classic example of the sort of outrageous plotting that was popular in detective stories of this era and it’s great fun.

The Blue Fires of the story of the same name are stones. Not very precious stones but a couple’s happiness depends on them and they have been stolen. Bed knobs, torn curtains and milk vendors play key roles in this case. The solution is very far-fetched but it’s fun.

Pin-Pricks is a story of persecution. A man has no idea why anyone would want to persecute him, and in such a strange way, by means of coded messages using pin-pricks in old advertising material. Codes of some kind were a staple of pre-golden age detective fiction but Adams finds a new twist. In this story Average Jones discovers that it is possible to be a professional stamp eraser. A basic knowledge of fishing is also always useful to a detective.

Big Print tells the story of the celebrated Harwick Meteor, and the disappearance of a young boy. Objects falling from outer space might not seem to have an obvious connection  with vanishing 14-year-old boys but remember that Jones has that theory that detective work is all about seeing patterns in apparent coincidences. This is a charmingly over-the-top romp.

The Man Who Spoke Latin is a very quirky tale. Lots of people speak Latin but in early 20th century New York it’s decidedly unusual to encounter a man who speaks no other language but Latin. Even more unusual is that he claims to be the only man who speaks Latin with the correct accent of Cicero’s day. It’s enough to arouse our detective’s curiosity.   It’s a story that could almost have been too offbeat for its own good but it works.

The One Best Bet throws Jones into the middle of a struggle between a reforming politician and a gambling boss and Jones finds that photography can be a deadly pastime. Not one of the stronger stories in the collection.

The Million-Dollar Dog involves a very wealthy dog, an heiress, a crooked judge and several hundred small black beetles.

Average Jones is an engaging detective hero. He might be wealthy, well-educated and cultivated but he lacks the extreme affectations of a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Philo Vance. He feels no need to bludgeon others into admiration of his obvious intelligence. He does have one amusing quirk - you can tell that his mind is working at top speed when he starts to speak even more slowly than usual. Jones also has his own theory of detection which is that the successful detective is a man who has the ability to discern a pattern in what would appear to be others to be merely a chain of curious coincidences.

Curious advertisements provide more than just clues in these tales - the advertising columns are also among the chief tools employed by Jones in gathering his evidence. 

Adams has a bit of an axe to grind in regard to political corruption but unlike so many politically motivated writers he never lets this get in the way of telling a good and clever story.

This is a strong collection of consistently interesting stories with an emphasis on quirkiness and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek flavour. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was an American science fiction writer. He was married to fellow science fiction writer Leigh Brackett. Crashing Suns, published in 1965, is a collection of some of his very early work in the genre dating back to the 1920s.

It has to be emphasised that this is very very early space opera. In fact in some ways these stories mark a transitional phase between the scientific romances of the late Victorian era and the space opera of the early part of the “golden age” of science fiction.

These stories recount the adventures of the Interplanetary Patrol, later renamed the Interstellar Patrol. They are very much space opera in general theme but they take place in a very different universe compared that to the universes we find in later space opera. In the late 1920s it still seemed quite possible that planets such as Saturn and Jupiter would be habitable. The nature of the great gas giants was as yet not generally understood. These are also stories that still assume that the vast reaches of outer space are not vacuum but are filled by that mysterious substance known as the æther. Light was believed to be propagated by means of waves in the æther.

In actual fact the æther theory had been pretty much abandoned by the 1920s, having been rendered unnecessary by relativity. At least it had been abandoned by physicists but to non-scientists like Hamilton relativity was still new-fangled esoteric stuff. Hamilton understood that faster-than-light travel was a problem but his understanding of the problem was rather primitive. My impression also is that despite his love for epic scale Hamilton really could not conceive of the ramifications of the vastness of interstellar space.

Most of the science in these stories is completely fanciful and would not have been wildly out of place in the works of Wells and Verne. For some readers this might be a problem. For me it just adds to the charm and the fun. This is Flash Gordon stuff but I happen to love Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The best way to enjoy these stories is to pretend that they take place in an alternative universe in which all the laws of physics are different. It’s easy enough to accept magic in a fantasy story so it’s really not that much of a problem. And I rather like the idea of a universe that works in a late Victorian manner. 

The novella Crashing Suns, one of Hamilton’s most famous works, first appeared in 1928. It takes place a hundred thousand years in the future and it can’t be accused of lacking ambition. A dying red giant star is on a collision course with our sun! Mankind has only just developed the technology to achieve interstellar travel. A brilliant young scientist has designed an interstellar drive which creates its own waves in the æther which the spaceship then rides. Young Interplanetary Patrol cruiser captain Jan Tor is put in command. His mission is to reach the dying red star and find a way to stop it!

This story has delightfully goofy science, high adventure and an epic space battle. Most of all though it has sweeping scale. This is pure pulp space opera and it’s terrific fun.

The Star Stealers is on an equally gigantic scale. Aliens are trying to steal our sun! There are might space battles and lots of breathless excitement and you have to love the idea of an inhabited sun, with cities on it.

Within the Nebula concerns another threat to the galaxy. The vast nebula at the centre of the Milky war has started to spin. If it keeps spinning it will fly apart, ending death and destruction to all the worlds of the Federation. A new star cruiser, designed to withstand intense heat, is dispatched to discover the cause of this impending disaster. The three crew members, of three different species, penetrate into the heart of the nebula itself. Inside they find a strange world and the source of the menace but it seems they may be powerless to avert the coming catastrophe.

The Comet Drivers presents yet another deadly menace to the galaxy - a gigantic vampire comet! As the story title suggests this comet does not follow a random orbit - it is controlled by some form of intelligent life. Intelligent but distinctly unfriendly.

The Cosmic Cloud presents the interstellar civilisation with yet another horrific threat - a gigantic cloud of darkness at the centre of the galaxy. This is a region of absolute utter darkness. There is no light at all. Not a glimmer. Of course it’s impossible that any kind of intelligent life could survive under such conditions. Or is it? This world of darkness is one of Hamilton’s most unsettling concepts.

Hamilton’s style is pure pulp. There is absolutely zero characterisation. It’s all action and all on the vastest scale and the breadth of imagination is nothing if not impressive.

As you may have gathered by now these five stories are all variations on a single theme. A massive heavenly body of some kind is about to destroy the galaxy, there are malevolent aliens directing these events, these aliens are entirely evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, the heroes are captured and must escape, there is a race against time and there is at least one huge space battle. It’s a formula that was working for Hamilton at the time and he stuck to it quite rigidly.

It’s interesting to contrast Hamilton’s early work with the early work of his wife Leigh Brackett (here’s the link to my review of some of her early stories). Brackett was interested in the fate of individuals. Hamilton is interested solely in the fate of galaxies. Brackett was fascinated by the past, by ancient civilisations. Hamilton writes about a 200,000-year-old civilisation but he tells us not one single thing about its history. In fact he tells us very little of any kind about this civilisation.

Of course these tales were written by Hamilton when he was in his mid-twenties. He may have developed a much greater sophistication in his later books. These stories did however establish him as a writer of space opera. His faults, like his stories, are on the grand scale. Those faults are balanced by real strengths - breathless pacing and non-stop excitement. Their pulpiness makes E.E. Doc Smith seem subtle and polished. But they are fun and the odd late Victorian scientific concepts give them a distinctive flavour. 

The quality of the five stories, written between 1928 and 1930, is quite consistent. All are fun in their own way.

Recommended, especially if your tastes run to early space opera and you have no problems with wildly unrealistic science.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

John Ferguson's Death Comes to Perigord

John Ferguson (1871-1952) was a Scottish clergyman who enjoyed success as a playwright and as an author of mystery thrillers. His mysteries mostly feature Scottish private detective Francis McNab. His ten books in the genre apparently vary quite a bit with some being pretty much pure thrillers and others being true detective stories in the golden age mould. Death Comes to Perigord, published in 1931, falls more into the detective story category.

Ferguson lived for a time in Guernsey and the island provides the setting for Death Comes to Perigord. And a very effective setting it proves to be. The smallness of the island allows the local police to be quite sure that certain key players in the mystery either did not leave the island, or did not enter it, at a critical time period and this provides very important clues. It’s also a nicely colourful and slightly exotic and interesting setting for a murder mystery - Guernsey is a possession of the British Crown but it is not part of the United Kingdom and it has its own laws. It’s also (or at least was in 1931) partially bilingual and Ferguson makes use of this as well, with French underworld slang providing important clues also.

The novel is narrated by Dr Dunn, a young Englishman serving as locum tenens for a local doctor. The fact that Dr Dunn is not a Guernsey native will also have some importance. Dr Dunn has been asked by the avocat (as lawyers are known on the island) Le Marinel to look in on one of the island’s wealthier and more irascible residents, Hilaire de Quettville. The man seems in perfectly sound health for a man in late middle age and Dr Dunn is rather puzzled as to why Le Marinel was keen to have de Quettville checked up on.

Now things start to get a bit strange. A superstitious old woman had convinced herself that a decaying ship’s figurehead in the form of the god Neptune is actually a statue of a saint. This Neptune is then stolen and placed over the gateway to de Quettville’s estate. This is interpreted by de Quettville as either a mortal insult or possibly even a threat. And then de Quettville simply disappears.

Dr Dunn would probably have given the affair little thought but the fact that he was called in to attend de Quettville means that the vanished man is his patient and he therefore has a certain responsibility. He’s also quite intrigued. Guernsey has turned out to be a place in which odd things happen and a place inhabited by people with surprisingly strong and unpredictable passions. What really gets Dunn’s attention is an attempt on his own life. At this point he makes a rather wise decision - he asks his friend McNab to join him on the island as soon as possible. Francis McNab is a private detective and Dunn has assisted him in a number of his investigations. Maybe McNab can make sense of things.

At this rather late stage there’s been no actual crime but that is about to change. And McNab notices a couple of very important points that the Chief Constable has overlooked. Not only has there been a crime, the crime is almost certainly murder.

Murder has been committed but both the method and the identity of the killer remain mysterious. The most promising suspects have unbreakable alibis. The medical evidence had at first seemed to be ambiguous. When the ambiguities are resolved it just makes things worse since it makes those alibis absolutely unbreakable. The medical evidence also raises perplexing questions about how the murder was done. To cap it all off there are completely unexplained elements - there can be no possible rational motive for the attempt to kill Dr Dunn.

This is a plot with the complexities that are so beloved by devotees of this kind of mystery, and Ferguson resolves those complexities convincingly enough. The trick to pulling off a successful golden age detection story is to ensure that while various plot elements might be unlikely or even outlandish the reader will accept them as being within the bounds of the possible. Ferguson succeeds in doing this. 

Is it fair play? I’d say that yes it is. The clues are there and they’re hidden in plain sight.

And is it enjoyable? Again the answer is yes. There’s an absorbing mystery with some nicely odd features and as a bonus there’s an exciting action climax (which betrays the fact that the author also wrote thrillers). Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, review part one

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the more notable practitioners in the popular pulp genre of sword and planet stories. The sword and planet genre began with Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s interesting that two of the best writers in this genre were women, Catherine L. Moore (author of the Northwest Smith stories and Leigh Brackett. Brackett enjoyed even greater success as a screenwriter, in which connection she is best known for her contributions to some of the best movies of Howard Hawks including The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. She was also the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back (or at least she wrote the first draft).

Gollancz have collected Brackett’s early sword-and-planet adventures in their Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories. Since the twelve stories included in this volume are mostly novella-length and a couple just about qualify as short novels a review is inevitably going to be rather lengthy. As a result I’m going to split this review into two (or it might possibly end up being three) parts.

First up, her very early sword-and-planet stories from the period 1942-48. 

The Sorcerer of Rhiannon is a very early story, dating to 1942. The hero, Max Brandon, is a kind of Indiana Jones-style archaeologist/adventurer and he’s searching for lost treasures on the now dry bed of one of the seas of Mars. He finds the wreck of a ship that sank aeons ago. At the time he finds the wreck he is in deep trouble, hopelessly lost and without food or water. Finding the wreck can’t help him now. There’s not going to be anyone alive to help him there. And there isn’t anyone alive. Not exactly alive. But there are two people there. They’re not alive but they’re not dead either, and they have things they wish to do and they need Max Brandon’s help and saying no isn’t going to do him any good.

The ideas of mind control and possession seemed to have a good deal for attraction for Brackett, popping up in many of her early stories. The idea is handled competently enough in The Sorcerer of Rhiannon. It is obviously an early effort but it has a reasonably good blend of action and atmosphere.

The Jewel of Bas dates from 1944 and mind control is again a central concern. It’s handled more ambitiously and more interestingly this time. The hero is a kind of gypsy, a wandering minstrel who, along with his wife, is captured by rather creepy grey beast-men. They live on a very strange planet on which even stranger things are starting to happen. The planet is experiencing moments of darkness, a frightening thing on a world that has never ever experienced a single moment of darkness. There are megalomaniacal androids, a hidden world inside a mountain and an immortal wizard who may or may not be able (or willing) to save them. 

Again there’s some nice otherworldly atmosphere and some genuinely weird and disturbing moments, and overall it’s an exiting and enjoyable story.

Terror Out of Space takes us to Venus where a cop has been given an assignment that has turned into a nightmare. He has to take into custody an alien being about which little is known except that it is very female and she has the power to enslave men in a very complete way. She is also telepathic. Her voice can drive a man mad but if he looks into her eyes he is truly lost, even though she does not actually have eyes. This is a tale that veers into horror territory and can be considered as an early and very fine example of the mind vampire genre.

The novella Lorelei of the Red Mist was half completed when Brackett was offered a job she couldn’t refuse, as screenwriter on Howard Hawks’ production of The Big Sleep. Ray Bradbury completed the story, apparently without having any idea how Brackett had intended to end it.

A race of man-like creatures lives beneath the Red Sea on Venus. Some of these aquatic men have left the sea to live on land, and have enslaved the humans living near the sea. Those who have left the sea and those who reman hate each other. Another race has appeared on the scene, basically human sea rovers, and they’re engaged in a ferocious war with the formerly sea-dwelling man-creatures.

This sea is not an ordinary sea. It’s a very very strange sea indeed.

All this takes place in a more or less unknown land beyond the a mighty range on Venus. Hugh Starke, a daring thief, is on the run and his only hope of escape is to take his rocket aircraft over that mountain range where no-one will dare to pursue him.

Now he’s in the strange and primitive world beyond the mountains, a world of heroism and war. And he has a new body to get used to. That’s tricky enough but he doesn’t have complete control of this body. There is another mind contesting his control. Also there are people trying to kill him for things that the previous owner of the body did.

So this is another variation on Brackett’s favourite theme of mind control, and a very interesting variation it is. It’s a violent, dark and quite macabre tale. And it’s an extremely good story.

The Moon That Vanished, from 1948, concerns the moon of Venus. Venus of course does not have a moon, but we learn that in the remote past it did have a moon. That moon may have been destroyed or it may have crashed into the surface of Venus, or perhaps it was the moon god that crashed into the planet. The legend is not clear on this point but it is clear about one thing - if a man can reach the Moonfire he can become a god. No-one knows what the Moonfire is and no-one knows where it is. In any case it is forbidden by the priests to seek the Moonfire.

There is one man who knows where the Moonfire is to be found. David Heath is from Earth and he found the Moonfire. Actually many men have found the Moonfire but what makes David Heath unique is that he returned from his quest alive. Alive he certainly is but he is a wreck of a human being, haunted by the shadows in his mind and find temporary oblivion in drugs. And now someone wants him to take them to the Moonfire.

This is a tale of adventure, with a plentiful supply of perilous obstacles to be overcome in order to reach the Moonfire. It becomes something much more interesting when David Heath and his two companions reach their destination to find that what they were seeking was not what they expected even if perhaps it was the fate for which they were destined.

This story does not involve mind control as such but it does deal with the powers of the mind as well as the nature of dreams and reality. It’s another ambitious story (a novella really) that succeeds extremely well.

It’s obvious that at this stage of her career Brackett was still finding her feet but she was doing so very quickly and very impressively. The Moon That Vanished is a very accomplished novella indeed. Brackett has a strong feel for atmosphere. She has her hobby horse, the powers of the mind and the ways in which those powers can be controlled and manipulated, but if it’s a fixation it’s one she makes very effective use of and in each story she manages to find a slightly different angle from which to attack the problem. Being a pulp writer she understands the necessity for keeping the plot moving along at all times. She is (at this stage of her career at least) a pulp writer but she’s a skillful and thoughtful pulp writer. On the basis of these early tales I’m pretty impressed. More to follow in a later post.