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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Missing Money-Lender by W. Stanley Sykes

W. Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels in the early 30s. The Missing Money-Lender (also published under the title The Man Who Was Dead) was the first of these, published in 1931.

As you’d expect from an author with a medical background many of the key plot elements involve science and medicine. There’s an obvious debt to R. Austin Freeman but there’s also an affinity to the police procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts.

A money-lender, Mr Israel Levinsky, has gone missing. Inspector Ridley of the Southbourne Constabulary is a conscientious and competent officer and his investigation is thorough and efficient but it produces no results. In fact there are scarcely any clues. The one lead that seemed promising ended up going nowhere. It involved a Dr Osborne who had been called in to treat a fellow medical practitioner, a Dr Laidlaw, who subsequently died. There seemed to be no direct connection between the deceased medico and the vanished money-lender but there were several indirect connections and it was with considerable regret that Inspector Ridley had to abandon that particular lead. 

With Mr Levinsky still missing the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and asks Scotland Yard for help. As luck would have it Detective Inspector Drury and Inspector Ridley are old friends so they have no difficulty working together. And finally persistence starts to pay off. 

This first half of the novel is almost pure police procedural, with patient methodical routine police work producing slow but definite progress. 

Of course to launch a successful prosecution for murder it is very desirable to have a body and that’s where Inspectors Ridley and Drury strike real problems. There is a body, possibly more than one, but how many bodies there actually are is uncertain. The identity of the various bodies is even more uncertain. And as for finding a cause of death - there seems to be no hope of that at all. 

The story now starts to move into impossible crime territory. Perhaps not actually impossible crimes, but exasperatingly inexplicable crimes. While police procedurals often deal with crimes that are straightforward once the detective has sifted through all the clues the impossible crime story by its very nature usually involves bizarre and ingenious murder methods. 

This novel is thus a bit of a hybrid but it works quite well.

Inspector Drury is the right kind of detective for a police procedural. He believes in teamwork and he believes in delegating important aspects of the investigation to his subordinates, trusting them to be quite capable of doing their jobs efficiently (and his subordinates are extremely competent). He doesn’t bother with leaps of intuition. If he can’t find a solution then he goes back to square one and combs through the evidence once again. If you’re sufficiently painstaking in your methods you should get results, even if it takes a while. 

In the second half when the impossible crime element starts to predominate we see Inspector Drury unexpectedly receiving help from an amateur sleuth (although admittedly an amateur whose own area of expertise is highly relevant to the case in hand). And suddenly we have some theorising rather than just methodical sifting of evidence.

Whether the impossible crime really would have been plausible in 1931 is a question I can’t answer and I don’t really care. It’s a very cool and ingenious murder method and it works for me. The details are perhaps just a little fantastic but for a keen golden age detection enthusiast that just adds to the enjoyment.

Mr Israel Levinsky is of course Jewish but that fact plays virtually no role at all in the story. I doubt if even the most politically correct modern reader could find anything here to worry them.

The Missing Money-Lender is a marvel of intricate and ingenious plotting and while it falls into the scientific detection category it never becomes excessively dry or dull. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as an overlooked gem but I found it to be a very satisfying and entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust was published in 1961 at a time when its author, Arthur C. Clarke, was at the peak of his powers as a science fiction writer. A Fall of Moondust is not quite typical of Clarke’s oeuvre, this being the closest he came to writing a science fiction thriller.

Back in 1961 there was a popular theory that much of the Moon’s surface comprised vast seas of dust and it’s this idea that provides the inspiration for the story. The idea turned out to be incorrect but it’s still a great setting and a great story.

It is somewhere around the late 21st century, on the Moon (which is now well and truly inhabited). The Selene is a dust cruiser, a kind of pleasure boat that takes tourists on jaunts across the the largest of the lunar dust seas, the Sea of Thirst.

The Sea of Thirst is more than just a dust bowl. This is incredibly fine dust that covers the lunar surface to a depth of anything up to a hundred metres. The combination of the fineness of the dust, the hard vacuum of space and the Moon’s weak gravity causes the dust to behave like a fluid, but not quite like any normal fluid. You can sail the sea of dust, if you have a lightweight dust ski, or even better a dust cruiser like the Selene

The Moon is not always as predictable as its reputation as a dead world would suggest. It is capable of springing surprises and one of these surprises brings disaster to the Selene. The dust cruiser and her twenty-two passengers and crew sinks. 

The Selene is perfectly intact and her passengers are unharmed but they are stuck fifteen metres beneath the surface of the Sea of Thirst, beneath thousands of tons of dust.

A very popular genre in movies at the time was the submarine disaster movie. The best of all these movies was the 1950 British film Morning Departure, in which a rescue operation is mounted to try to save the lives of sailors stuck in a submarine which sank during a training exercise. A Fall of Moondust is very very similar in general outline to Morning Departure and I would bet money that Clarke had seen the movie and had been inspired by it.

However a dust sea is not quite the same as an ordinary sea. In some ways the lunar dust behaves very much like water and in other ways it behaves very differently. The difficulties faced by the rescue operation are similar in some ways and very different in others to those faced by a submarine rescue operation. It’s the similarities to the submarine disaster genre that make this novel such a tense and gripping tale and it’s the intriguing differences that make A Fall of Moondust a genuine hard science fiction novel.

Finding the vanished dust cruiser is difficult enough. Rescuing her passengers and crew is  quite simply something that has never been attempted before. There is no established procedure. The entire operation will have to be improvised. Even if nothing before goes wrong the odds are not that good, and of course something further does go wrong.

Clarke always had a reputation for being a writer with zero interest in characterisation. In this book he makes a few token efforts to bring some of the characters to life. These efforts are notably unsuccessful. Fortunately Clarke does not allow these feeble attempts at characterisation to slow down his story. As it happens he has a terrific story to tell and it’s the scientific and technological challenges that drive the story. 

What is surprising is that Clarke seems to have an instinctive understanding of the demands of the thriller genre. He builds the tension rather nicely and every time it looks like everything is going to be OK he throws a new disaster at the hapless passengers. It’s a genuinely exciting tale and given the unusual and indeed unprecedented conditions in which it takes place we really don’t know just how the rescuers are going to go about the task, mainly because they don’t really know themselves. They’re going to have to invent an entirely novel method of rescue and nobody has any way of knowing if it will work.

A Fall of Moondust has the hard SF elements that Clarke’s fans always enjoy but with enough action and excitement to give it a potential appeal even to those who aren’t hardcore Arthur C. Clarke fans. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Arthur W. Upfield’s Mr Jelly's Business

Mr Jelly's Business (also published as Murder Down Under) was a fairly early entry in Arthur W. Upfield’s cycle of mysteries featuring the half-Aboriginal Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (universally known as Bony). This book came out in 1937.

This time Bony is in Western Australia, in the wheat town of Burracoppin. Bony is on leave from the Queensland Police Force when he finds himself drawn into solving the mysterious disappearance of farmer George Loftus. As he often does Bony goes undercover, posing as a worker on the famous Rabbit Proof Fence (the world’s longest fence).

George Loftus had left the pub in Burracoppin, somewhat the worse for drink. He had apparently crashed his car into the Rabbit Proof Fence and then reversed and ended up in a ditch. After which he simply vanished. Was he murdered or did he decide for some reason of his own to disappear? Bony suspects murder but he has to admit there is absolutely no solid evidence of foul play.

There is another mystery to be solved in Burracoppin. The Jelly farm is not far from the Loftus farm. Mr Jelly is an amiable widower in late middle age, devoted to his two daughters. At regular intervals Mr Jelly vanishes as well, only to reappear a few days later.  Whenever he reappears he is uncharacteristically withdrawn and morose for a couple of days and drinks heavily (which again is very uncharacteristic of him). The obvious suspicion is that his disappearances are linked to an indulgence in some secret vice - women, drink or perhaps gambling. The really puzzling thing though is that when he reappears he always has more money than he had when he disappeared! It’s an odd sort of vice that pays well and pays regularly.

Compared to Wings Above the Diamantina, published a year earlier, Mr Jelly's Business is perhaps a slight disappointment in the plotting department. There are actually two plots, two mysteries to be solved, and Upfield weaves them together quite skillfully at the end. The problem is that once you’ve figured out one of the mysteries the solution to the other becomes fairly obvious and it isn’t particularly difficult to work out either mystery. A few more red herrings would have helped. The shock ending wasn’t a great shock to me.

On the other hand this novel does display Upfield’s strengths. The atmosphere of the wheat country is captured superbly. As always Upfield is very solid in his portrayal of life in rural Australia. Upfield not only knew rural Australia, he liked it and he liked the people. He doesn’t glamourise either the life or the people, he can see the downsides as well as the upsides, but on the whole there’s a real respect for both.

In this novel we learn a little bit more about Bony’s career. He has been fired more than once by the Queensland Police Force. In fact it’s apparently a regular occurrence. Bony treats direct orders from superior officers with disdain. If it suits him he obeys; if it doesn’t he simply ignores the order. And gets fired. It doesn’t worry him. He knows they’ll always reinstate him once the fuss dies down. He gets results and his superiors know it. They don’t care how unconventional his methods might be or how exasperatingly oblivious he is to discipline. Once a tough case comes up Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte will be back on the force.

There is a good reason for Bony’s preference for working undercover. He has no great problem with racial prejudice - he encounters it and is hurt by it but he is always confident that he can overcome it by means of his obvious competence, his first-class education and his very considerable charm. There is however one form of prejudice that is not so easily overcome - the almost universal prejudice against policemen. That’s the prejudice that really worries Bony. It makes his job much harder so whenever he can he works undercover.

Bony also displays his characteristic generosity towards other police officers. His own reputation is already well and truly made and he has no interest in further promotion so he’s more than happy to solve a case and give the credit to a promising junior officer. 

We also discover one minor flaw in his character - he is subject to occasional bursts of temper.

If you’re new to Upfield then Wings Above the Diamantina is a better place to start, with its clever impossible crime plot. Mr Jelly's Business is still a good read. Recommended.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Dennis Wheatley's They Found Atlantis

Dennis Wheatley was most famous for his “Black Magic” occult thrillers but these were only a small part of his very large output. Wheatley wrote thrillers, adventure tales and even science fiction. He wrote three lost world novels, including (in 1936) They Found Atlantis.

I happen to be a great fan of lost world stories and Wheatley’s forays into the genre were both interesting and rather idiosyncratic.

An eccentric German scholar, Dr Herman Tisch, is convinced that he has discovered the location of the fabulous lost civilisation of Atlantis. It was located in mid-Atlantic, just south of the Azores. He also believes he has discovered the precise location of the capital city, with its vast treasures. 

The problem is that the city is now a thousand fathoms below the surface of the Atlantic. That problem he has solved by obtaining a bathysphere. Not just a bathysphere, but a very large and very sophisticated example capable of safely transporting up to eight people to the deepest depths of the ocean. 

He does still have one problem though - his expedition will be very expensive and he has no money. He did secure a wealthy backer but alas his patron managed to lose his fortune on Wall Street. Now he has another patron in view - the fabulously rich Duchess Camilla da Solento-Ragina. The duchess, an American beauty, proves to be amenable to persuasion.

Joining the Duchess and Dr Tisch on the German scholar’s yacht are Camilla’s cousin Sally, a middle-aged ex-Royal Navy officer always referred to for some reason as The McKay, Camilla’s business manager Rene P. Slinger and three men locked in desperate competition to becomes Camilla’s second husband - Hollywood star Nicky Costello, a Romanian prince and a Swedish count.

There is however dirty work afoot. A gang of international criminals has a plan to get its hands on Camilla’s millions. What seemed likely to be an amusing cruise with the possibility of making a genuinely important archaeological discovery becomes a nightmare. The gang has no plans for murder. What their ringleader has in mind is much more cunning and much more terrifying.

The first half of the book is therefore mainly a crime thriller, interspersed with visits to the sea bed in the bathysphere. Then it changes gears dramatically as the lost world story takes over. Our protagonists face dangers and horrors of a very different sort, and find Atlantis. Leaving Atlantis will however be much more difficult.

Herr Doktor Tisch was right after all. His theory as to the location of Atlantis was correct, but Atlantis is not quite a dead civilisation after all.

Atlantis is a kind of Garden of Eden. I assume Wheatley intends us to think of it as a Paradise. It’s all free love and everyone is always blissfully happy and there’s no jealousy and no conflict. Or perhaps his depiction of Atlantis is intended to be just a little ironic (although Wheatley was not known for his irony). To me it seems more like Hell than Paradise and the wise happy Atlanteans seem vacuous complacent and horrifyingly shallow. 

There are moments that may strike the reader as rather Lovecraftian. It’s possible, although unlikely, that Wheatley was aware of Lovecraft at that time so the atmosphere is more likely to derive from William Hope Hodgson (who was himself an influence on Lovecraft). Hodgson specialised in weird maritime tales and They Found Atlantis can be thought of as a weird maritime tale.

As you expect from this author there are long passages of expository dialogue but given the nature of the story it’s hard to see how they could have been avoided and they’re not overly clunky. There’s also some black magic!

Wheatley had his weaknesses but he knew how to tell a decent adventure story and this one has some real excitement and quite a bit of action. Recommended. 

His later lost world tale, The Man Who Missed the War, is also recommended.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Victor L. Whitechurch’s Murder at the Pageant

A village pageant, a stolen pearl necklace and a body in an antique sedan chair are the main ingredients in Victor L. Whitechurch’s enjoyable 1930 murder mystery Murder at the Pageant.

Victor L. Whitechurch (1868-1933) was an Anglican clergyman and a popular writer of both spy fiction and detective stories. He is best known for his Thorpe Hazell short stories dealing with railway crimes (these stories and Whitechurch’s other railway mysteries and thrillers were included in Coachwhip’s excellent volume of a few years back The Thorpe Hazell Mysteries: And More Thrilling Tales On and Off the Rails.

This is a country house murder mystery but not quite a typical example because there is the real possibility that the crime was an outside job (although it is by no means a certainty that this is the case). The list of suspects is not necessarily limited to the inhabitants of the house and their invited guests.

The mystery begins in the aftermath of the pageant held in the grounds of Frimley Manor, the seat of Sir Harry Lynwood. The pageant, devised by Captain Roger Bristow, has been a great success. One of the highlights had been the re-enactment of the arrival of Queen Anne at Frimley Manor in 1705, utilising the exact same sedan chair in which the monarch had made her entrance. 

The night after the pageant brings tragedy. Captain Bristow discovers the body of one of Sir Harry’s tenants in the sedan chair. The unfortunate man has clearly been murdered. The following morning reveals that this was not the only crime committed that night - Mrs Cresswell’s fabulously valuable pearl necklace was also stolen. There was a third minor crime as well - the vicar’s car was stolen, and it was that car that was observed leaving the murder scene.

Finding a connection between these crimes will be a challenge to Superintendent Kinch. 

There are two crime investigations in this story, one official and one unofficial. Superintendent Kinch, a very competent officer, heads up the official police enquiry. Roger Bristow conducts his own investigation, although we’re not quite certain how far his aims and Superintendent Kinch’s coincide. Kinch and Bristow are keenly aware that they are engaging in parallel enquiries and they’re content to do so - it’s a fierce but friendly rivalry.

Of course it’s very common in golden age detective fiction to have parallel investigations like this with a private detective or an amateur sleuth competing with the police. Murder at the Pageant is a bit different. Bristow is a former Secret Service man and there’s really no such thing as an ex-spook. It’s possible that Bristow may have some official or semi-official reason for taking an interest in the case, and we certainly can’t ignore the possibility that he knows a lot more than he appears to.

Although Whitechurch’s mystery novels were written in the 1920s and early 1930s his career as an author began as early as the very start of the 20th century and his successful  crime short stories appeared before the First World War. This means that while he was writing during the “golden age” detective fiction he was not actually of that age. He does not necessarily conform to the conventions we associate with that age. In fact he breaks several of the cherished rules of the golden age detective story. To some readers the breaking of these rules might well seem to constitute an infringement of the principle of fair play.

Whitechurch loved trains so it’s no surprise that railways (and railway timetables) play a part in the story. There are some elaborate alibis and there are most of the features one expects in a golden age mystery, and the fact that it breaks some of the rules does make it more of a challenge to the reader. 

The pageant itself adds colour to the tale. There are vital clues provided by details of sixteenth century costume.

Murder at the Pageant is on the whole lightweight but rather delightful. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Assignment...Suicide by Edward S. Aarons

Sam Durell is parachuted into Russia to help one Soviet faction against another and avert nuclear war in Assignment...Suicide, written by Edward S. Aarons in 1956. This was the second of the forty-two Sam Durell spy thrillers penned by Aarons between 1955 and 1976. 

The prolific output of American-born Edward S. Aarons (1916-1975) covered both the espionage and crime genres. There’s an understandable tendency to assume that a spy fiction writer who emerged in the 1950s was probably to some extent at least an Ian Fleming imitator. In the case of Aarons it isn’t really true. The James Bond books did not start to achieve spectacular sales in the US until the end of the decade by which time the Sam Durell series was well and truly established. It’s also important to point out that the US had its own spy fiction tradition. American writers like F. Van Wyck Mason and John P. Marquand had been writing fine spy adventures since the 30s. 

There’s very little real resemblance between the Bond novels and the Sam Durell books. What made the Bond novels so seductive was not so much the sex and violence as the wealth and glamour of the backgrounds, and the eroticisation of power. The Durell tales have much more of a pulp feel and Durell himself, although he is naturally brave and resourceful, is just a professional doing his job.

This assignment is tricky even by the standards of the assignments that a spy can expect to face. There are two rogue factions within the Kremlin. One faction, the extreme faction,  wants a nuclear war with the US immediately and believes it has a way of winning such a war. That faction also wants a return to unquestioned one-man rule. The other faction, the moderate faction, wants to stop them. The CIA is backing the second faction but it’s at best a short-term marriage of convenience - the moderate faction is still composed of loyal communists who do not trust the United States and especially do not trust the CIA.

Sam Durell has to link up with the moderate faction and he also has to make contact with another CIA agent in Leningrad, an agent who is apparently either dying or in extreme danger or perhaps both.

For the CIA this was a rush job and it’s kind of improvised. As often happens with rush jobs it starts to go wrong right at the beginning and it keeps on going wrong. Sam makes contact with members of the moderate faction but they are even more suspicious of him than he’d expected and it’s obvious that any kind of co-operation is going to be very difficult. They expect him to betray them and in fact if he follows his instructions that’s exactly what he’ll he be doing. He suspects they’re going to betray him and they’ve made it clear that they intend to do so.

His main contact is an attractive young woman named Valya. Appearances can be deceptive. Valya has killed at least nine men so her ruthlessness is not in doubt. She’ll work with him, up to a point. Her friend Mikhail is a bigger problem - he is cowardly and unstable and he conceives an instant hatred for Sam Durell. To make things worse Sam and Valya are already being pursued by implacable MVD man Kronev. 

The plot is basically an extended chase, or to be more accurate it’s a series of interlocking hunts with the hunters being hunted themselves. There’s also a web of intersecting loyalties and potential betrayals with uneasy alliances that could turn in an instant to deadly enmity.

There’s as much action as any spy fan could reasonably wish for and the action is handled skillfully. And there’s a dash of romance. 

I suspect the author had no real knowledge of the Russian geography that he describes but he fakes it well and confidently. The paranoiac atmosphere that is an essential ingredient in the spy genre is present in abundance.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, but this is a pulpy action-fueled spy thriller so who cares? 

The one real weakness, and it’s a minor quibble, is that Durell isn’t quite cold-blooded enough to be an entirely convincing spy. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout but he does have slight Boy Scout tendencies. He lacks the ruthlessness of Fleming’s Bond or Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm.

The plot has a couple of twists that are somewhat surprising for a Cold War spy thriller, especially from the 1950s.

What matters is that the book is fast-moving and exciting and very entertaining. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur B. Reeve's The Silent Bullet

American mystery fiction author Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) is sometimes regarded as the creator of the first scientific detective, Craig Kennedy. He wasn’t really the first but he was a pioneer of that sub-genre. The Silent Bullet was his first short story collection, published in 1911.

Craig Kennedy is a professor of chemistry who takes a keen interest in crime. He is exasperated not only by the non-scientific approach still adopted by the police but also by the non-scientific approach of the average criminal! Science and technology have the potential to revolutionise both crime and crime-fighting. Eventually he succumbs to temptation and starts helping the police on cases in which his knowledge is likely to be useful. It isn’t long before Kennedy finds himself becoming a rather busy amateur detective.

Inevitable Reeve’s work gets compared to R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. The similarities are obvious but there are some major differences as well. Dr Thorndyke is both a physician and a lawyer. His methods as a detective are what you would expect given his training - he relies on absolutely meticulous investigations of crime scenes and to a great extent on careful post-mortem examinations and pathology tests. The tools of his trade are microscopes and scalpels. Craig Kennedy is more inclined to see the big picture and to form elaborate theories which he then proceeds to test. And Kennedy loves gadgets. He has a vast collection of wondrous and ingenious devices which he employs in his investigations. Most of them are powered by electricity. It’s no fun having a gadget unless it works by electricity!

Reeve’s stories are often more outlandish than Freeman’s but Craig Kennedy’s gadgets are usually scientific plausible. Many of them actually existed at the time, or were theoretical possibilities about to become actualities. For example Kennedy uses an early version of a lie detector test in several cases. Reeve was not interested in totally imaginary technologies. That’s not to say that the science is always absolutely sound in his stories but his intention was certainly to remain within the realm of the possible. Reeve was very enthusiastic about science and that enthusiasm comes through very strongly in his stories. At times there’s a Gee Whizz tone that you certainly don’t find in Freeman.

In the title story Professor Kennedy has to solve the murder of a financier. The man was shot in a crowded office but no-one heard the shot and no-one saw a gun discharged. The murdered man was at the centre of some rather tortuous financial dealings and some complicated romantic entanglements. Kennedy solves the mystery by revealing no less than four startling advances in scientific detection, all in the space of a single short story! It’s a tour-de-force and they’re all pretty plausible scientifically. This is great stuff.

The Scientific Cracksman is amusing for the motive of the criminal and for Kennedy’s attitude towards it. A wealthy industrialist is found dead. His safe has been opened but nothing has been stolen? Or at least that’s how things appear. Again Kennedy relies on the latest scientific gizmos and the very latest methods.

Kennedy speculates about the kinds of murder methods that could be used by criminals if they made an effort to keep up with the times and in The Bacteriological Detective he finds himself up against just such a criminal. Death by natural causes can in fact be murder. This is a clever little story.

The Deadly Tube is great fun. A famous society beauty is suing a doctor who has been treating with with X-rays. She claims that the treatment has ruined her looks. Dr Gregory is puzzled by this because he is well aware of the dangers of X-rays and he is obsessively cautious in his methods. Craig Kennedy is convinced that Dr Gregory could not have been at fault but he still has to deal with the fact that the damage to the woman’s skin tissues was caused by X-rays.

How do you go about exposing a phony medium? There are many way of proceeding but Craig Kennedy’s is the most original - in The Seismograph Adventure he uses a seismograph. There’s also some very entertaining stuff about poisons and inks. An excellent story.

The Diamond Maker is a rather bland story. A jeweller dies, apparently of pneumonia, but the insurance company that insured his life is not entirely happy about the circumstances especially in the light of the spectacular robbery of the man’s safe. Before he died the jeweller was talking in his delirium of an immense fortune, far in excess of the value of the diamonds in his safe. The solution to this one is just a bit too obvious.

The Azure Ring is another of the weaker stories, about the mysterious deaths of two young people who were about to be married. It’s one of those “poisoning by an unknown poison” stories but not a terribly inspired example of the breed.

“Spontaneous Combustion” deals, obviously, with a case of suspected spontaneous human combustion. It also deals with a family dispute and a missing will. Kennedy makes use of a newly discovered scientific technique to solve this mystery. It’s a pretty decent story.

The Terror in the Air is one of my favourite stories in this collection. An inventor/aviator named Norton is trying to win the Brooks Prize, the prize being for anyone who can bring an aircraft to a complete standstill in the air for five minutes. Norton thinks he can do it by means of a gyroscope but so far his attempts have led to the deaths of two pilots. 

Craig Kennedy suspects that the fatal flying mishaps may not have been quite so accidental. In fact, as you’d expect, there’s a nefarious plot behind it all and it’s a splendid excuse for all manner of 1911-era technological wizardry to be displayed. This was a time  when things like radio and aviation were in their infancy and were terribly terribly exciting. Reeve manages to make this story as thrilling today as it was in 1911.

The Black Hand pits Kennedy against Italian gangs in New York. They have kidnapped the daughter of a famous tenor. The Black Hand gangs are ruthless and efficient and few people have the courage to stand up to them but Craig Kennedy has technology on his side. This story is most notable for the light it sheds on the lives of Italian immigrants in New York at the beginning of the 20th century and on the Italian criminal underworld.

The Artificial Paradise deals with South American revolutionaries, psychedelic drugs (specifically mescal which was only just becoming known to science at the time) and a startling medical technique that allows Kennedy to solve the case in a very unexpected way. This is a rather disappointing and far-fetched tale with no real mystery in it.

The Steel Door involves a gambling hell in London. There’s no mystery in this one at all. The one problem facing Craig Kennedy is how to help the police by finding a way to get through the massive steel door that protects the gambling club. There’s a bit of a sub-plot about a young man headed for ruin through his passion for roulette. Not a very interesting story.

This is an uneven collection but the good stories certainly outnumber the not-so-good ones. Compared to the other scientific detective stories of the same era Reeve’s Craig Kennedy stories have a distinctive flavour of their own. Some of them stretch scientific  credibility while others are completely plausible but they all share a sense of excitement about the possibilities opened up by science and technology. The mysteries themselves are generally unremarkable and fairly obvious and they’re definitely not fair-play (fair play being a concept that would not be generally embraced for at least another decade). On the other hand the weird and wonderful and incredibly varied gadgets  that Kennedy uses provide a great deal of entertainment and the outlandishness of the best of the stories is great fun. 

This collection that might well be enjoyed as much by science fiction fans as mystery fans and devotees of steampunk might enjoy them as well. I found them to be on the whole very entertaining. Recommended.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and published in 1953. It’s also one of the great dystopian novels of the modern era.

The future world of The Space Merchants is controlled entirely by huge corporations. Government functions merely as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the corporations. Congress is owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations and the President is a figurehead with no power at all. By far the most powerful companies are the advertising agencies, and the most powerful agencies are Taunton Associates and Fowler Schocken.

This is a horrifically overpopulated world but population growth is still enthusiastically encouraged. More population means more cheap labour and more consumers and therefore more sales, and that means more profit. No-one questions the assumption that this is a good thing.

This is also a totalitarian society but it’s what we would today call a soft totalitarianism, enforced mostly by propaganda and social pressure. The iron fist beneath the velvet glove is only revealed when a consumer commits a really serious crime, such as questioning the value of advertising.

Competition between corporations is fierce but out-and-out murder is frowned upon unless proper notification has been given that a state of commercial feud exists. Corporations have gone beyond the stage of running the state - they now function as states themselves. There are no police forces - law enforcement has been entirely privatised.

Art and popular entertainment no longer exist apart from their role in providing opportunities for advertising.

The story is narrated by Mitch Courtenay, a star class copysmith with Fowler Schocken. Mitch has just been given a new assignment. He has been put in charge of the Venus account. An immense rocket has been constructed which will transport the first Earth colonists to Venus. The colony will of course be run by Fowler Schocken entirely for the benefit of Fowler Schocken and its associated companies. 

One minor problem is that nobody in their right mind would want to be a colonist on Venus. But this isn’t really a problem at all. By the time Fowler Schocken’s Venus advertising campaign is in full swing everyone will want to be a Venus colonist.

Mitch Courtenay’s life is going pretty well, apart from his marriage. He’d like to make the marriage permanent but Kathy won’t agree. In fact she wants to end the agreement before the end of the trial period. And there is one other minor irritant in Mitch’s life - someone is trying to kill him. This is puzzling since as far as he knows no other corporation has declared a commercial feud against Fowler Schocken.

Mitch soon finds himself on a roller coaster ride of terror and misery. Having people trying to kill you is bad enough but he finds that his identity has been stolen and he now faces the most appalling fate imaginable - having to live as a consumer.

He also gets mixed up with the consies. The consies are the Conservationists. These are dangerous fanatics who believe that overpopulation is out of control, that life has become sterile and meaningless and that deurbanisation and a return to a more traditional lifestyle are essential. They are so extreme that they even question whether increasing consumption is a good thing.

The plot has some rather wild twists and turnings as Mitch discovers that all his assumptions about the world and about the people he knows may be quite wrong.

While this novel doesn’t have the literary polish of the great dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell it does feature a dystopian which is every bit as fully worked out and every bit as convincing. If 1984 was the great communist dystopian novel then The Space Merchants is the great capitalist dystopian novel. There is however one feature that both dystopias have in common - they are societies in which the elites have absolute power while the mass of the people have no power at all. And, interestingly enough, the capitalist elites of The Space Merchants maintain their control by much the same methods as the communist elites in 1984 - through the control of language, by rewriting the past, by encouraging people to denounce dissidents and through endless and all-pervasive propaganda. And the consies serve much the same purpose as Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984 - it seems that every totalitarianism has to have an enemy as a focus of fear and hatred.

Pohl and Kornbluth are careful not to introduce any radical new technologies into their tale.  Every technology is this novel is merely an extrapolation of technologies that existed in the early 1950s such as rocketry, radio and television. The intention was obviously to make this dystopia as plausible as possible. What makes the book truly terrifying today is not this plausibility but the fact that so much of what the authors predict has already come true.

The Space Merchants is also very amusing (in a sometimes very dark way) and highly entertaining. It’s very pulpy but in a way that’s a strength - the crassness of a wold run by advertising agencies lends itself to a pulpy treatment. 

Very highly recommended.