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.

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.