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.