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.