Sunday, October 22, 2017

Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day

Eric Ambler’s 1962 thriller The Light of Day (also published under the title Topkapi) is both typical and untypical of his work. It’s typical in that it uses a classic Ambler plot device - a very reluctant amateur spy hopelessly out of his depth. It’s untypical in being essentially a light-hearted romp.

Arthur Simpson narrates his tale of misadventure and mishap. Arthur is an Englishman living in Athens. He’s British to his bootstraps. Except that he’s not actually a British citizen, and the British government is determined to keep it that way. He holds an Egyptian passport but the Egyptian government doesn’t want him either. Arthur Simpson’s father was a British officer stationed in Cairo. His mother was Egyptian. He was educated at a minor (very minor) public school in England. Arthur feels entirely British and it is a constant sorrow to him that no-one else seems to share his view of himself.

Arthur is a journalist. At least in his own mind he is, although his career in journalism mostly amounts to his involvement in the production of pornographic magazines.

Arthur earns his living driving a hire car. Even that is not quite true. His main source of income is petty theft. The hire car allows him to pick out likely looking targets at Athens Airport. Rich tourists are usually fairly easy to rob.

The American named Harper seemed like a very promising target. But it all went wrong for poor Arthur. He ended up getting a beating and being forced to sign a very incriminating confession and now Harper is using that confession to blackmail Arthur into doing a little job for him. A very simple job. All he has to do is to drive a car, a Lincoln Continental, from Athens to Istanbul. And he’ll get paid for it.

Now Arthur may be many things but no-one has ever accused him of being stupid. He smells a rat. A very big rat. He is sure the car is being used to smuggle drugs or gold or some other contraband but a thorough search of the Lincoln reveals nothing. Everything goes smoothly until he reaches the Turkish frontier. There it is discovered that his passport is out of date. Other discoveries are made as well. His interview with Major Tufan of the Ikinci Büro (the Turkish counter-espionage service) is not a happy experience. Arthur could be facing a very long prison sentence. But Major Tufan does have some good news for him. He may not have to face the death penalty. In fact he may not even have to go to prison. All Arthur has to do is to work for the Ikinci Büro for a while.

Major Tufan has no idea what Harper and his friends are up to but he has a bad feeling about it. He fears it may be political. The guns and the grenades suggest something rather nasty. He needs Arthur’s help. Arthur agrees, because after all he has no choice at all.

Harper and his pals are certainly up to something but finding out what that something is proves to be remarkably difficult. Arthur talks his way into a job as chauffeur for Harper’s mistress, the glamorous Frau Lipp, but Harper and his friends are extremely secretive and by the time Arthur works out what is going on he may have gotten himself in so deep that he will be unable to escape.

This is Eric Ambler so don’t expect a great deal of action (although there is some definite excitement towards the end). Ambler was concerned with suspense and character, especially character. In Arthur Simpson he has created a wonderfully memorable if rather appalling character. He is a coward, a congenital liar, a sneak, a thief and in fact the description of him by one of his former schoolmasters as an unspeakable little cad is pretty accurate. Arthur’s story is an extraordinary concoction of self-delusion and self-justification. His ability to rationalise away his own failings and weaknesses is breathtaking. In spite of all this it is difficult to dislike Arthur. He’s a rotter but he’s a delightfully entertaining rotter.

Arthur’s outlook on most things is idiosyncratic. If someone is careless enough to leave travellers’ cheques lying about then taking them isn’t really stealing. If telling the truth is likely to have unpleasant consequences then lying isn’t reprehensible, it’s sound common sense. Arthur approves of sex, but not when it’s somebody else who is getting it.

Major Tufan is, oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in the book. For a secret policeman he’s a pretty decent fellow and he’s remarkably patient with his bumbling new agent.

Ambler shows great skill in keeping us guessing almost until the end as to the exact nature of Harper’s plot. This is crucial because the success of the story depends upon Arthur’s remaining in ignorance on this subject until he has well and truly painted himself into a corner.

The Light of Day was filmed in 1964 as Topkapi.

The Light of Day is pure enjoyment, it's extremely amusing and it's suspenseful. You can't ask for more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

The Second World War is never explicitly mentioned in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but it casts a long shadow over the book making it a rather interesting Hercule Poirot mystery.

It was published in 1940 but internal evidence suggests it may have been written just before the outbreak of war.

Regarded purely as a detective story it is superb, a classic example of Christie’s ability to lay false scents. She leads the reader by the nose but if it’s any consolation Poirot very nearly falls into the same trap that Christie has laid for the reader.

It starts with the murder of a dentist. As it happens, it’s Poirot’s own dentist who is murdered. It looks like suicide but Chief Inspector Japp is not at all satisfied. The question of motive worries Japp a lot. This is a detective story in which motive is of absolutely critical importance. The case cannot be solved unless the motive can be uncovered. There’s plenty of other evidence but it’s either tantalising ambiguous or downright misleading without a motive. That’s not giving anything away since both Poirot and Japp are keenly aware of this problem right from the start.

Two more murders follow, and the final murder seems every bit as inexplicable as the first. The identity of the murderer seems clear, but once again there’s the vexed question of motive.

Christie has a few other tricks up her sleeve as well. What’s particularly impressive is that even when we know she’s misleading us it doesn’t help us. In several cases we know that what really happened is not what appeared to happen but that just increases our difficulties since it opens up new possibilities that lead us down more blind alleys. She lays more false scents and we follow them, thinking that now we’re on the right track. Christie’s plotting in this novel presents us with cunningly interlocked puzzles.

Poirot firmly believes that a theory is worthless unless it fits all the facts. In this case he finds himself faced with facts that are simply impossible. And yet they are unquestionably facts.

Shoes and buckles do indeed play a part, as do stockings, and ladies’ clothing in general. Poirot is a man who takes a certain aesthetic interest in ladies’ clothing. In this adventure those shoes pose some problems for him.

The time at which the book was written, with Europe on the brink of war and Britain likely to be facing a struggle for existence, clearly had an impact on Christie. The tone is fairly dark. High finance, politics and espionage form the background to the novel. These factors also present Poirot with some ethical dilemmas. If Britain’s survival is at stake how important is the life of an obscure dentist? To Poirot the storm clouds gathering over Europe only make it more important to take a stand for the principle that the lives of obscure dentists do matter. If Britain is worth saving it is because in Britain the lives of unimportant people are in fact very important. And yet he has to admit that there is in this instance a powerful counter-argument.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is Agatha Christie at the top of her game, demonstrating not just her mastery of plotting but also her ability to write a novel that succeeds admirably as a detective story whilst also offering just a little bit more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Enchantress of Venus

Leigh Brackett’s 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus introduced her most famous series character, Eric John Stark. It’s a fairly typical sword-and-planet adventure but it’s a well-crafted example of the breed. It appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in 1949.

Eric John Stark is both a barbarian and a civilised man. He comes from the savage world of Mercury but he has picked up most of the arts of civilisation living on Earth. The barbarian spirit is however still very strong within him. He’s a fairly typical hero of the sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet type. He is possessed of enormous physical strength, he is brave, virile and resourceful. He is quick-tempered and can be impulsive but he is gentle towards women. Unless of course they turn out to be beautiful but evil and dangerous women and of course this story just happens to feature such a woman.

The setting is Venus. Leigh Brackett’s Venus is a world that never sees the sun, a semi-barbaric world of clouds and mists. In this novella the specific setting is even stranger. The Red Sea is not an ordinary sea. It is not a liquid but a gaseous sea, composed of a gas so heavy and so dense that ships can sail upon it. It also differs from ordinary seas in that although moving through it is not unlike swimming you can speak and breathe even at the bottom of the sea.

The Venusians who live in the region of the Red Sea are pale and blonde and at best semi-civilised. Like all of Brackett’s Martians and Venusians they are very close to being human, but with a few subtle differences. The women are attractive but have the disconcerting habit of always being naked from the waist up (this is a story written for the pulps so there has to be some sexual titillation factor).

After ship’s captain Malthor tries to kill him for no apparent reason Stark ends up in a city on a gulf in the Red Sea, a city renowned for piracy and slavery and assorted debaucheries but it is now a city under the shadow of a much more serious malevolent influence. The evil of the Lhari. They are a different race and there are only a handful left but they dominate city and their potential for evil is vast. They are breathtakingly cruel and obsessed with their own imminent demise which they intend to avoid by any means no matter how ruthless. And there is a secret that may allow them not merely to survive but to dominate the whole planet. Stark will have to stop them and in any case he has his own personal grievance against them.

Two women will play important parts in this story. Zareth is Malthor’s daughter, a gentle girl who has stoically endured repeated whippings from her father but who now sees in Stark a chance to escape. And perhaps a chance for love. She is timid and frightened but she has an unexpected inner strength and courage. Varra is a whole different ball game. Even by the standards of the Lhari she is dangerous. She tells Stark that he is the first real man she has encountered in a very long time and she is obviously the sort of woman who is very interested indeed in real men.

The secret mentioned earlier lies at the bottom of the Red Sea, in a ruined city built by yet another race.

This is a novella so there’s not much scope for complex plotting but it’s a decent enough story, although perhaps not quite as dazzlingly imaginative as some of Brackett’s other tales from this period of her career. This is more a fairly routine sword-and-planet adventure, but executed very competently.

There’s a genuine sense of evil, and of decadence. There’s also a decidedly bleak and tragic edge to the tale.

The settings are the most impressive part of this story. Brackett was very good at creating worlds that were clearly alien whilst still seeming reasonably plausible.

There isn’t a great deal of depth to Stark but he’s an effective action hero. The two women, Varra and Zareth, are more interesting.

Enchantress of Venus is enjoyable and fairly stylish pulp fiction. Recommended.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Death by Request

Death by Request was the only detective novel to be written by husband-and-wife team Romilly and Katherine John. Romilly John was the son of the painter Augustus John. The novel appeared in 1933.

The setting is an English country house owned by a certain Matthew Barry, a wealthy man in late middle age with a passion for Greek literature. Matthew’s son Edward is a harmless rather sickly and rather ineffectual young man who spends much of his time in pursuit of the local lepidoptera (which will play an important part in the plot). Matthew’s old friend, the Reverend John Colchester (who narrates the tale), is one of the assortment of guests that you’d expect to find in a country house murder mystery. There’s a blustering and foolish old colonel, a beautiful young widow of slightly doubtful moral reputation, there’s the handsome rake Lord Malvern, there’s Edward’s fiancée Judith Grant and there’s Phyllis Winter, a somewhat hysterical 17-year-old girl.

Of course one of these people is about to be murdered and the others will all be suspects. There is another important suspect, the butler Frampton. Did the butler do it? The police certainly think it’s possible. Frampton is after all a socialist.

The murder victim is found dead in his gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an accident but this possibility is soon dismissed. Suicide is considered next, but also rejected. This is murder.

And this is a locked-room murder mystery, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Inspector Lockitt has an abundance of suspects and an abundance of motives to work through. He makes little headway and seems relieved by the arrival of Nicholas Hatton. Whether Hatton is an actual private detective or merely an amateur is uncertain (the latter seems far more likely) but he seems to make more progress than the Inspector. Even he is unable to unravel this mystery and the lovely young widow Mrs Fairfax then tries her hand at detecting, with much greater success.

There are inheritances, there are romantic triangles, there’s blackmail and there’s jealousy. In fact the authors toss in everything but the kitchen sink.

There’s also a twist ending although even in 1933 it was by no means original.

The authors try very hard to maintain a light-hearted and at times almost farcical tone, with mixed success. There are a few amusing moments but the wit is rather laboured.

The locked-room puzzle itself is moderately clever but if you’re expecting the ingenuity and outlandishness of a John Dickson Carr you’re going to be disappointed. The twist ending is reasonably successful.

There are some problems. The pacing is a little slow, with a tendency to over-explain and over-complicate things. It’s the sort of fault you might expect in a first novel. There are plenty of possible motives but none of them seem truly convincing. The more successful writers of golden age detective fiction tried to make the motivations of their killers at least vaguely psychologically convincing. We should feel that the killer is someone who, once the motive is explained, might really have been tempted to commit murder. In this case the authors don’t quite succeed in selling us on the motives. It’s a pity because the plot does show some genuine cleverness.

For a first novel Death by Request shows some promise but presumably it failed to excite the reading public and it marked both the beginning and the end of their endeavours in the genre.

Death by Request is a moderately enjoyable tale if you’re not in an excessively demanding mood. It’s certainly not a must-read. If you can find a copy in the bargain bin or in the library it’s worth picking up but it’s not a book that I’d suggest you go hunting for. I can only give this one a lukewarm recommendation I’m afraid.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Robert E. Howard's Almuric

Robert E. Howard wrote a vast number of short stories but only a handful of novels, including Almuric which was serialised in Weird Tales in 1939 (three years after the author’s death).

Esau Cairn is a young American of immense physical strength although unfortunately afflicted with a rather short temper. He becomes enmeshed in a web of deceit spun by crooked politicians and he has resigned himself to facing execution on trumped charges. He is given a surprising opportunity to save himself, although at a terrifyingly high price. A scientist acquaintance has discovered a means of transporting living beings, including people, across the vast reaches of outer space. The only problem is that such trips are strictly one-way. Esau Cairn however is willing to accept the price.

He finds himself on the fantastically distant planet Almuric. It’s a planet on which everything seems to resemble some earthly equivalent, but not quite. There is always a slight difference.

For a solitary man, unarmed and unequipped with any tools (it is only possible to transport living things across space), existence on this primitive planet is a challenge. Esau Cairn is however a man of remarkable determination and endurance as well as strength.

There are several human-like sentient species on Almuric. The Guras are somewhat bestial in appearance but they are brave warriors. They’re the sorts of barbarians who appealed to Howard’s imagination, with a certain degree of honour. Their women are very different. The Guras have evolved a rather extreme sexual dimorphism. The men are powerful, hairy and apelike while the women are smooth-skinned, gentle and very feminine. And for all their apparent barbarism the Gura men treat their women with extravagant kindness (apart of course from occasional physical chastisement which they seem to accept).

The Yaga are more worrisome, winged cannibal men of exceptional cruelty. Their queen, Yasmeena, is beautiful but terrifying and frighteningly capricious.

There are other man-like creatures, varying in intelligence and savagery. Many of these have been enslaved by the Yaga. The Yaga are particularly fond of carrying off the women of the other sentient creatures. You might expect that these maidens would be facing the proverbial Fate Worse Than Death. In fact they’re facing horrors that are almost unimaginable. The depraved Yaga certainly use their captive women as sex slaves but they have other uses for them as well.

Esau Cairn will face many dangers and countless horrors but he will also find love in the person of the gentle but high-spirited Altha.

Almuric is very much in the mould of the sword and planet adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard could not match the extraordinary inventiveness of Burroughs but his writing has its own strengths. Few writers have ever been able to match Howard when it came to savage action scenes. He also had a gift for atmosphere, especially for creating an atmosphere of skin-crawling horror. And of course Howard had the ability to create great barbarian heroes, mighty warriors but with a degree of gentleness towards women and with the intelligence and instinctive wisdom to complement their physical prowess. Esau Cairn might be a 20th century American but he is in fact a natural barbarian (which is part of the reason he finds himself exiled from an Earth on which he was never able to fit in).

There’s always a touch of horror to Howard’s fantasy tales, and almost always there are hints of sadism and cruelty, often with sexual overtones. It’s all combined with odd dashes of chivalry. Almuric has more than its share of such qualities. Naturally there’s non-stop violence, some of it pretty hair-raising.

This is a sword and planet rather than a sword sorcery tale so there’s no magic but there are monsters. Howard, who had no great interest in science fiction, solves the problem of finding a plausible way to transport his hero to a distant planet in the simplest possible manner. He doesn’t explain it at all.

This is a short novel but aside from having lots of action it also has copious amounts of plot. The pacing is breakneck and there are no dull spots.

It’s hardly great literature but it’s fun and it’s blood-drenched excitement. It’s pretty much typical Robert E. Howard in other words, and that’s certainly no bad thing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Howling Dog is a fairly early Perry Mason mystery, dating from 1934. By this time Erle Stanley Gardner already had the Perry Mason formula humming along like a well-oiled machine.

As usual Perry Mason becomes involved in the case before any serious crime has been committed. It appears that his latest case is absurdly commonplace - a matter of a man being annoyed by the howling of a neighbour’s dog, and the drawing up of a will. These are matters so trivial that Mason would normally not take such a case. But Perry Mason has the instincts of a detective as well as those of a lawyer and his detective’s nose has detected the scent of something  bigger. Mason likes cases that will bring him lots of publicity, that being the road to fame and success as a trial lawyer. However he also can’t resist anything that promises to be a bit odd or (even better) exciting.

As it happens his client, one Arthur Cartright, has paid him an enormous retainer so money is no problem in this case. Mason decides to spend some money. He asks his old friend Paul Drake to do a bit of digging and pretty soon every man in the Paul Drake Detective Bureau is busily gathering a mountain of information. Perry Mason means to find out exactly why Clinton Foley’s  howling dog should cause so much drama, why a man would go to so much trouble to spy on a neighbour, why a man would draw up a will with such curious provisions, and perhaps most of all he intends to find out why Cartright has such a strange interest in Foley’s wife. There’s also the matter of the beautiful young housekeeper who goes to a good deal of trouble to make herself look old and plain, and the deportation of a Chinese cook.

Mason soon has plenty of data but no real answers but he’s not entirely surprised when the murder occurs.

The plotting adheres to a rigid formula but Gardner always manages to introduce enough twists to make the formula seem fresh each time.

As a successful trial lawyer himself Gardner obviously loved courtroom scenes but he understood the dangers. They can quickly become boring so it’s essential to keep throwing in spectacular surprises. Since Perry Mason is an attorney whose entire approach to his job rests on springing surprises this works well.

This book gives Mason the opportunity to expound his legal philosophy. It’s not a defence attorney’s job to decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent, that’s the jury’s job. The defence attorney’s only task is to give his client the best possible chance, even to the extent of using what might appear to be dirty tricks.  The prosecution will certainly use dirty tricks so a defence lawyer actually has a responsibility to do the same in order to give his client a chance.

Compared to the later novels the Perry Mason of the early books was even more inclined to sail very close to the wind in order to protect a client. He won’t cross the line into actual illegality but he’ll go within a hair’s breadth of doing so, an approach that exasperates policemen and district attorneys who dream of the day that Mason will actually cross that line and they can nail him.

Mason gives a spirited and eloquent defence justification of the the adversarial nature of the trial system. Mason’s philosophical approach to the law was of course Gardner’s and it adds a bit of substance to the Perry Mason novels.

The difficult part is for the lawyer to do all these things whilst still remaining himself within the law. He can stretch the law as much as he likes but he can’t break it. The extraordinary balancing acts in which Perry Mason engages in order to do this provide much of the suspense and interest of the stories. The Case of the Howling Dog has plenty of examples. Even Paul Drake and Mason’s faithful secretary Della Street are horrified by the risks he runs and they’re familiar with his methods.

Gardner adds a nice little sting in the tail this time around.

This is one of several early Perry Mason stories in which an animal provides, directly or indirectly, absolutely crucial evidence. It’s a trick that Gardner used remarkably effectively and without resorting to mere gimmickry.

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian Fleming's Thunderball

Thunderball was the ninth of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and was published in 1961.

It started life as a treatment for a proposed Bond film in the late 50s which was turned into a screenplay by Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. When the film deal fell through Fleming believed there was no reason not to turn the story into a Bond novel, especially given that it was part of the original deal that Fleming should produce a tie-in novel based on the film. McClory and Whittingham disagreed and took Fleming to court. A complicated settlement was eventually negotiated. Thunderball was published as a novel by Fleming, based on a screenplay by McClory and Whittingham, and McClory gained the rights to do a remake of the Thunderball film (which would eventually result in the ill-fated Never Say Never Again). In the midst of the extreme stress caused by the court case Fleming had a massive heart attack.

Unhappy though the experience may have been for Fleming Thunderball is still a fine story. It’s the book that introduces SPECTRE and the most iconic of all Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

A British bomber disappears over the Atlantic, along with two nuclear bombs. A letter is delivered to the British prime minister and the US president, demanding 100 million pounds in bullion. If the bullion is not handed over a major city will be destroyed.

Acting on one of M’s hunches Bond is despatched to the Bahamas where he will be working with his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA. Bond finds what could be a lead, but it’s a very slender one. If the British bomber went down in the sea near the Bahamas then SPECTRE would have to have a sea-going vessel of some sort. It just so happens that a yacht has recently arrived in port. It’s ostensibly engaged in hunting for sunken treasure, which of course requires just the sorts of diving equipment that could be used to retrieve the two missing nuclear bombs. the yacht is owned by the rather colourful and rather mysterious Emilio Largo.

Largo’s mistress, a beautiful Italian girl named Domino, seems likely to offer the best opportunities for finding out what Largo is up to. The more Bond finds out the more convinced he is that he’s on the right track. It builds to an exciting climax beneath the sea.

Thunderball ticks the right boxes for a Bond novel. Bond makes use of a beautiful woman to uncover the villain’s nefarious scheme, there’s a torture scene, there’s the exotic setting, there’s a threat to Destroy Civilisation As We Know it, the villain is a villain on the grand scale, there’s some cool technology (although there’s not as much emphasis on this as there is in the films), there’s plenty of action, there’s sex, and Bond makes a few mistakes. It’s also typical of the novels (and this is another key difference in comparison with the films) that there’s a slightly dark and very ruthless edge to the story. Bond knowingly and deliberately risks Domino’s life because the job has to be done and she’s expendable. There’s also a hint that there things about the job that Bond doesn’t like at all, such as putting a charming girl’s life in danger.

This was the book in which Fleming started to move away from the Cold War themes of the earlier books. The chief enemy is now SPECTRE, a gigantic criminal organisation, rather than the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH. Fleming, quite correctly, realised that an obsession with the Cold War would date the books if the Cold War started to fade in significance.

Blofeld appears in the story but he hasn’t yet taken centre stage. Largo is the primary bad guy but it’s clear that both SPECTRE and Blofeld had great possibilities for future books.

As is customary in the Bond books the first encounter between Bond and the chief villain takes place over the gambling table.

As is also customary, there are subtle hints of all kinds of politically incorrect aspects to the sexual relationships.

As you might expect with a story that started life as a film treatment it’s all very cinematic, with action scenes that are ideally suited to become movie action set-pieces.

Largo’s hydrofoil yacht, The Disco Volante (Flying Saucer), is a very cool piece of technology. The hijacking of the nuclear bomber is a superb touch. It’s an idea that McClory claimed was his but Fleming handles it with great skill.

Thunderball is the kind of thing that Fleming did so well, a story that is far-fetched but not too far-fetched. It’s just plausible enough. This is all great fun. Not the best of the Bond books by any means but still highly recommended.