Sunday, January 29, 2017

Panther’s Moon by Victor Canning

Victor Canning (1911-86) was a British thriller writer who enjoyed considerable success during the period from the 1940s to the 1960s only to be largely forgotten since. Panther’s Moon was published in 1948.

Panther’s Moon begins in Milan. Roger Quain is an English engineer who has accepted a slightly unusual task from his French father-in-law - to transport two black leopards from Rome to Paris. In Milan he meets a young Englishwoman who spins him a strange and rather unlikely tale, about being a British spy and about a murdered man and some secret and terribly important micro-film. He doesn’t believe a word of it, at first, but she’s able to produce both the corpse and the micro-film so then he starts to believe her.

This woman, Catherine, wants him to help her smuggle the micro-film out of Italy. Surely any patriotic Englishman would be willing to help a British spy?

As it happens she has a plan for smuggling the micro-film out. It’s a very good plan. Nothing could possibly go wrong. No-one is likely to try to search a not-very-friendly panther (especially one who has already killed one man).

Of course something does go wrong. Roger finds himself having to hunt panthers in the Swiss Alps but somebody else has found out about the micro-film and Roger could find himself the hunted rather than the hunter.

This novel is a far cry from the popular British thrillers of the 20s and 30s featuring rambunctious heroes like Bulldog Drummond and it’s also very different in tone from the action-packed British thrillers of the 50s and 60s. Canning has rather more serious intentions. He’s trying to write a serious thriller with an emphasis on psychology and with perhaps even a few things to say about the human condition. In this objective he succeeds at least moderately well.

Panther’s Moon is an avowedly literary thriller. It’s also not quite a classic suspense novel - the reader knows no more about what’s going on than the hero. The identity of the enemy agent remains hidden until the end, although we know it has to be one of a limited number of people staying at a hotel in a Swiss valley. So in structure this book has some similarities to the detective fiction of the golden age.

Roger Quain is at least a reasonably interesting character. He’s one of the many men who found it difficult to settle down after the war. He doesn’t like to think himself as being adventurous or a romantic but he is in fact both of these things. This adventure fulfills a need in him.

Catherine had spent the war on top-secret assignments behind enemy lines, had fallen in love and had then lost her lover. Now she can never love again (or so she imagines) and she perhaps  welcomes the prospect of danger - death would reunite her with her lost love.

Several of Canning’s thrillers were filmed in Britain, including The Golden Salamander and Venetian Bird. Panther’s Moon was made into a US film, Spy Hunt, unfortunately a film that is almost impossible to get hold of.

Panther’s Moon is a decent spy thriller with very little action but some nice attention to setting and some effective tension towards the end. If your tastes run to the more literary type of thriller it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Freeman Wills Crofts' The Loss of the Jane Vosper

The Loss of the Jane Vosper is one of the Inspector French mysteries written by Freeman Wills Crofts and was published in 1936. It’s one of several Crofts novels that deals with the sea.

To be more specific, this book begins with the final voyage of the Jane Vosper. The Jane Vosper is an elderly freighter which makes regular trips to South America. She’s old but she’s well-built and a fine sea boat. The weather is somewhat dirty but Captain Hassall knows the old freighter can handle worse weather than this and he is not the least bit concerned.  At least he is not concerned until the first explosion rocks the ship.

The loss of the Jane Vosper is a set-back for the Southern Ocean Steam Navigation Company but it is nothing short of a disaster for the Land & Sea Insurance Co Ltd. They have insured part of the cargo for the sum of £105,000 and they have already had a very bad year. The Land & Sea Insurance Co Ltd is a very reputable firm which would never contemplate disputing a claim without very good reason but this is a very curious case. If the sinking of the Jane Vosper was not an accident, are they still liable? After all they insured the cargo, not the ship. The situation is uncertain enough to convince the directors to engage a private detective to look into the matter.

At this stage it is not a police matter, there being no actual evidence as to the circumstances of the sinking, although the explosions make it highly likely that explosives were placed on board the ship. The disappearance and presumed murder of a man does however make it very much a police matter and Scotland Yard is called in. Joseph French, having finally earned his promotion to Chief Inspector, undertakes the investigation.

It’s a very perplexing case. French has no doubt that the presumed murder is connected with the loss of the Jane Vosper but there is not a shred of evidence to support his belief. Even worse, although it is practically certain that the sinking was due to the detonation of a series of bombs, all his investigations (and very exhaustive investigations they are) seem to prove is that there was absolutely no way in which explosives could have been planted on the ship. It was an impossible crime, and yet it most definitely happened.

This, like all the Inspector French mysteries, is a classic police procedural and this is a genre in which Crofts really excels.

Any competent police detective must be thorough and methodical but Chief Inspector French takes these qualities to extremes. Every single lead is pursued as far as is humanly possible. Not even the tiniest detail is overlooked. Details which any reasonable person would consider to be completely insignificant are doggedly followed up, much to the amusement of French’s sergeant. But this is how French works and it’s an approach that has brought him a great deal of success. In this case French chases down leads that seem to be absurdly irrelevant and it’s just such an absurdly irrelevant lead that finally enables him to crack the case.

If Inspector French’s methodical approach brought him great success as a policeman then the equally methodical approach of Freeman Wills Crofts brought him equal success as a writer of detective novels. Crofts is all about the plotting and the investigative methods of his detective. If you want in-depth psychological analysis and well-rounded characters then you had best look elsewhere. Crofts did plotting. That’s the one thing he did really well, and he did it very very well indeed. When it came to plotting he had few equals. In fact I’d almost go so far as to say he had no equals at all in that area.

This particular novel is slightly unusual for Crofts in that the solution does not hinge on the question of alibis, and there are no railway timetables or shipping schedules consulted.

The opening sequence on board the Jane Vosper is one of the high points of the book. It’s atmospheric and wonderfully thrilling and suspenseful. Of course we know the ship is going to sink - the title of the book makes that much clear - but we have no idea if the crew are going to survive or not and Crofts manages to make us care deeply about that question. There’s another reasonably good action scene at the end.

The Loss of the Jane Vosper displays all Crofts’ failings as a writer but it also showcases his great strength - his superlative plotting. Your tastes may vary but for me his plotting is so good that it easily compensates for his weaknesses. And as a bonus this novel does display an unanticipated skill in writing action scenes. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mickey Spillane’s Day of the Guns

Day of the Guns was the first of Mickey Spillane’s four Tiger Mann espionage thrillers written between 1964 and 1966.

Not surprisingly the formula is not all that different from Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. There’s plenty of sex and violence. Tiger Mann resembles Mike Hammer in that he gets personally involved in a case and the case quickly becomes a kind of one-man crusade.

Tiger Mann is a counter-espionage agent but he doesn’t exactly work for the US government. Although he does at times work in with official intelligence agencies his actual employer seems to be a wealthy individual named Martin Grady who runs a kind of private intelligence and espionage operation. Grady’s organisation runs operations that the official intelligence agencies are not prepared (or not permitted) to handle. Whether Grady’s outfit operates with the unofficial blessings of the government is not entirely clear. Grady clearly has powerful political connections and there are many important people who are happy to allow him to run his private spy operations but it’s also made obvious that there are other important people who would like Grady’s outfit shut down.

So Tiger Mann is an outsider of sorts, or rather he’s very much like Mike Hammer in being not quite an insider and not quite an outsider. Tiger does not worry overmuch about legal niceties. In fact he doesn’t worry about such things at all. He not only ignores the law when he finds it convenient to do so he also totally ignores matters like diplomatic immunity. Soviet spies operating under diplomatic cover generally don’t have much opportunity to claim diplomatic immunity when they encounter Tiger Mann - he usually just kills them and lets someone else worry about clearing up those kinds of irritating details.

Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a character who was inclined to take the law into his own hands, a habit which upset many of Spillane’s critics. Tiger Mann takes things much further than Hammer. To Tiger the threat of communist subversion is so great that it can only be countered by using methods that are just as ruthless and immoral as those of the communists themselves.  

In fact of course just about every fictional spy hero at some point finds himself doing things that are technically illegal and morally dubious.  Espionage is a dirty game. Tiger Mann is just more blatant about it than most. He doesn’t even pretend to play fair and he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise the elements of vigilante justice and personal vengeance in his motivations. Some readers might feel that Spillane pushes these things too far in this novel but really if you’re squeamish about such things you probably shouldn’t be reading Mickey Spillane at all.

Day of the Guns opens with Tiger Mann encountering a woman quite by chance. He hasn’t seen her for twenty years but he recognises her immediately. Rondine Lund had been a Nazi spy during World War 2 and a young American spy named Tiger Mann had fallen in love with her. Tiger paid a high price at the time for making such a foolish mistake. Rondine had also been responsible for the deaths of a number of American agents. Tiger has nursed his hatred of Rondine for two decades and now he knows she’s alive and in New York City and he intends to kill her. 

Rondine doesn’t look quite the same. She has had plastic surgery and she now claims to be Edith Caine, an English translator working at the UN. Tiger however has no doubt that Edith Caine is indeed Rondine Lund. He also has no doubt that she is up to her old games of espionage and he intends to find out exactly what nefarious conspiracies she is currently involved in. Once he finds that out he can kill her.

Of course it is immediately obvious that while Tiger hates Rondine he still loves her as well. Even Tiger is aware of this.

While the sexual tension between Tiger and Rondine is one of the engines driving the plot there’s no graphic sex and by later standards the sleaze is fairly muted. The violence on the other hand is quite graphic at times. 

Spillane had dealt peripherally with espionage themes in several of his Mike Hammer novels so it was an obvious move to start writing actual spy thrillers. Day of the Guns isn’t quite your usual spy thriller. It’s more of a crossover crime/espionage tale which has (like the Mike Hammer books) a mystery to be solved. Tiger Mann is very much like Mike Hammer, only more so. Since the plot involves the UN Spillane takes the opportunity to express his views on that subject - not surprisingly he is not a fan of that organisation.

If you’re not a fan of the Mike Hammer books then you’re not going to like this one. If you are a Hammer fan then you’ll find much to enjoy, with typical Spillane themes of love, friendship and betrayal and lots of action and violence. In fact Day of the Guns is pretty much non-stop action with just about everyone wanting to kill poor old Tiger. It’s good hard-boiled fun with a characteristic Spillane plot twist at the end. Recommended for Spillane fans.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery

The Chinese Orange Mystery appeared in 1934. It was the eighth of the Ellery Queen mysteries written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (not counting the Drury Lane books published under the Barnaby Ross pseudonym). And it has a wonderful setup.

A fat little man is murdered on the twenty-second floor of the Hotel Chancellor in New York. Everything about the murder is backwards. The victim’s clothes are on back-to-front. Every item in the room has been turned back-to-front as well. As the case progresses more backwards items emerge. Even Ellery Queen has to confess to being puzzled.

The twenty-second floor is occupied by the wealthy Kirk family - the elderly curmudgeonly scholar Dr Kirk, his son Donald and daughter Marcella. The body was found in Donald Kirk’s office. In partnership with the rather snobbish Felix Berne Donald runs an up-market arty publishing business known as the Mandarin Press (one of the many links to China in this story).

Also present at the time of the murder were Donald’s friend Glenn MacGowan (engaged to Marcella), a young would-be writer named Jo Temple who was brought up in China, the glamorous and slightly mysterious beauty Irene Llewes, Dr Kirk’s nurse Miss Diversey and Donald Kirk’s private secretary Jimmy Osborne.

As well as everything about the murder being backwards there are also various connections to both China and stamp collecting. One particular stamp plays a vital role in the story and that stamp happens to be a great rarity - because it was printed backwards!

There’s another puzzle that has to be unravelled - the identity of the murder victim.

The setup is so clever and the idea of the backwards crime is so original that you can’t help worrying that the solution, when it’s finally revealed, will be a letdown. Fortunately though it doesn’t disappoint. It’s far-fetched certainly but it’s conceived with such skill that we have to admit that it really is plausible. The motive and identity aspects are also tied in with the murder method in an intricate and entirely satisfying way. There’s also some fine misdirection. I have to confess that I didn’t have the remotest idea of the identity of the murderer until Ellery revealed it. As a pure puzzle plot this is one of the very best of the Queens.

There’s also some fun stuff about stamp collecting, such as the fact that some collectors specialise entirely in “locals” - semi-official stamps issued before proper government-controlled postal systems were established. The rather curious obsession that stamp collectors have for flawed or misprinted stamps adds an amusing touch and becomes a plot point as well.

This is also very much a New York novel. By the mid-30s Dannay and Lee were starting to send Ellery off into the countryside but personally I think he’s most at home in New York.

The S.S. Van Dine influence is still evident in this tale and Ellery has his Philo Vance-ish moments. Personally that doesn’t bother me. I like Philo Vance, and I like the early incarnation of Ellery Queen. The affectionate antagonism between Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, adds more fun.

The Chinese Orange Mystery is for my money one of the most completely successful of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. Very highly recommended.

The book was filmed in 1936 as The Mandarin Mystery.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

G.K. Chesterton’s The Incredulity of Father Brown

The Incredulity of Father Brown was the third of G.K. Chesterton’s collections of Father Brown detective stories, appearing in 1926. Like most short story collections it’s a mixed bag but the good stories are very good indeed.

The Curse of the Golden Cross involves an American professor named Smaill, on his way to Surrey in England to investigate a rumour than an unusual Byzantine gold cross has been unearthed. The only other cross of similar type was discovered a few years earlier by Professor Smaill himself. At the time of his original discovery, as he later explains to Father Brown, he was threatened with death. He did not see the person who made the threat.

The newly discovered cross was found by an English country clergyman who is a little concerned because the cross apparently comes with no less than three curses. Professor Smaill is also increasingly worried. In fact tragedy strikes not once but twice. 

The solution, delightfully, hinges on a proper understanding of mediaeval civilisation.

In The Resurrection of Father Brown Chesterton loses interest in detection altogether. It’s a story about faith and miracles and politics and the abuse of miracles. Father Brown is running a mission station in South America and gets caught up in a political dispute. It might be good Catholic apologetics but as a detective story it is very poor indeed. 

The Miracle of Moon Crescent is a rather fine locked-room mystery about the extremely puzzling death of an American philanthropist. The solution is plausible and it’s also (by the standards of locked-room puzzles) elegant and simple. One thing that I have noticed in this collection compared to the earlier Father Brown collections is that Chesterton seems more inclined to succumb to the temptation of halting the action so that Father Brown can deliver little lectures on questions like faith and miracles and materialism. Chesterton always had this inclination but it does seem to be given freer rein here. Luckily in this story it’s not entirely out of place. After all it is a story of an impossible crime so the question of credulity is quite relevant. And it is a good impossible crime tale.

The Doom of the Darnaways is one of the best stories in this collection. The grand but decaying house half sunk in the sea, inhabited by an equally grand but decaying family, provides a superb background. It’s a story that is reminiscent in some ways of much of the gothic fiction of the late 18th century, leading the reader to believe that the solution has to be at least partially supernatural but Father Brown is sceptical of such supernatural explanations.

The Arrow of Heaven concerns the murder of an American millionaire. Father Brown is in the United States and is called in to investigate threats against the millionaire’s life by the mysterious Daniel Doom. The little cleric is alas too late to save the millionaire. An arrow is an unusual murder weapon for the modern United States - in fact the elaborate security precautions taken to protect the victim’s life were based on the assumption that the would-be assassin would employ something sensible, like a revolver.  Father Brown solves the case and finds time to deliver a little lecture on the subject of private vengeance.

The highlight of this story is the millionaire’s home - a stark steel tower with only a single window on the top level, with access only by a single elevator, and surrounded by an electrified wall. The story is another impossible crime story with an incredibly simple yet elegant solution.

The Dagger with Wings is I think one of the best of all the Father Brown stories. A wealthy old man had three sons, plus an adopted son. The adopted son dabbled in the occult and had a general evil reputation which resulted in his being written out of the old man’s will. A series of accidents has led to suspicions of foul play and now only one brother has left and he hopes that Father Brown can protect him from the wrath of his adopted brother.

This is yet another impossible crime story. If the solution to The Arrow of Heaven was a miracle of simplicity and elegance then the solution to this one is a triumph of ingenuity and complexity but the results are even more satisfying.

The Oracle of the Dog is one of the most famous of the Father Brown stories. And yes, you guessed it, it’s an impossible crime story. 

At no time does Father Brown go within a hundred miles of the scene of the crime. A young man named Fiennes tells Father Brown about a recent sensational impossible crime. Colonel Druce was found, stabbed to death, in his summer-house. There is only one entrance to the summer-house and it can only be approached by a single path and both entrance and path were under observation by three independent witnesses at the time of the murder. The colonel was alone in the summer-house. It is quite impossible that he could have been murdered, but there is no question that he was murdered. Fiennes is convinced that the odd behaviour of the dog Nox holds the key to the mystery. He is correct, but he fails to understand the meaning of the dog’s behaviour.

Father Brown has some ideas about this murder. A few days later Fiennes returns and Father Brown tells him how the crime was committed.

Chesterton was addicted to impossible crime stories but he preferred fairly straightforward solutions. He generally avoided secret passageways, trap-doors, infernal machines and gadgets. The Oracle of the Dog is a fine example of the Chesterton method. Father Brown solves the puzzle because he understands that dogs do things for dog-like reasons rather than human-like reasons. Chesterton also loved stories with a moral. This one however is more concerned with psychology - both human and canine. It’s a story that really does live up to its very high reputation.

The Ghost of Gideon Wise is an exasperating story. Much of it consists of Chesterton dilating upon such diverse subjects as penitence, conversion, the evils of bolshevism and the evils of capitalism. All very irritating to the reader (unless you happen to be intensely interested in those subjects), but hidden away amongst all this is a clever impossible crime story with a nice little unbreakable alibi twist.

This is the sort of thing you just have to accept about Chesterton. The Father Brown stories are detective stories and they’re also religious tales and moral speculations and political diatribes. In this collection these tendencies are even more pronounced than in the earlier collections. Chesterton believed he could combine all these elements successfully. Whether he did succeed is a matter for the individual reader to decide. It is worth reiterating though that they really are  detective stories and often very fine examples of the breed. Chesterton’s love for the detective story was quite genuine and quite ardent.

Of the eight stories in this collection one, The Resurrection of Father Brown, is a complete dud. One, The Ghost of Gideon Wise, is heavy going but the solution makes it just about worth the effort of reading. The Doom of the Darnaways is slightly disappointing as a detective story but the superb atmosphere offers more than ample compensation. The Curse of the Golden Cross, The Arrow of Heaven, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, The Dagger with Wings and The Oracle of the Dog are all top-notch stories. 

The Incredulity of Father Brown is a more than worthwhile collection. Despite a couple of misfires it can be highly recommended.

Four of the best stories here (The Curse of the Golden Cross, The Arrow of Heaven, The Dagger with Wings and The Oracle of the Dog) were adapted for the excellent 1974 Father Brown TV series which I reviewed here.

Monday, January 2, 2017

my favourite reads in 2016

These were the vintage pop fiction novels that most impressed me in the past year, with links to my reviews.

First off the best detective novels I read in 2016:

Freeman Wills Crofts, Mystery in the Channel (1931)

J.J. Connington, The Boat-House Riddle (1931)

John Rhode, Dead Men at the Folly (1932)

Christopher Bush, The Body in the Bonfire (1936)

Carter Dickson, The Judas Window (1938)

Miles Burton, Death at Low Tide (1938)

Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar (1939)

Clayton Rawson, The Headless Lady (1940)

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Baited Hook (1940)

Hake Talbot, Rim of the Pit (1944)

And then my favourite non-crime reads of the year:

F. Van Wyck Mason, The Branded Spy Murders (1932)

Hammond Innes, The Blue Ice (1948)

Donald Hamilton, The Removers (1961)

Alistair MacLean, Ice Station Zebra (1963)

John le Carré, The Looking Glass War (1965)

Gavin Lyall, Shooting Script (1966)