Saturday, February 17, 2018
Behold a Fair Woman takes place in the Channel Islands. Amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine is staying with some friends on one of the islands and he’s hoping that his restful holiday is not going to be interrupted by any murders (like most amateur detectives he finds that murder has a way of following him around). Initially it all seems rather idyllic. He meets some interesting acquaintances. For quite a while nothing much happens, except that there are a few small things that make Mordecai Tremaine slightly uneasy. Odd quirks of behaviour on the part of a number of people, and the relationships between various people also seem slightly wrong.
Finally murder is committed. The murderer could have been one of the half a dozen people staying at the Rohane Hotel, or one of several others associated with those people.
The Chief Officer of the island (more or less equivalent to a Chief Constable) is happy to have the assistance of the famous Mordecai Tremaine. There’s an obvious suspect, but maybe just a bit too obvious. There are plenty of other suspects and it’s fairly clear that none of them are being particularly truthful. All of them seem frightened, or anxious. It builds to a violent climax with unexpected results.
There’s plenty here to like. The setting is good although I couldn’t help thinking that the author didn’t really take full advantage of it. Mordecai Tremaine is a likeable detective. He’s a man of somewhat advanced years and apart from criminology he has another unusual hobby - he is passionately fond of romance stories. He’s a nice old fellow who likes nothing better than to see young people find true love.
Perhaps not surprisingly given Tremaine’s interest in human relationships, it’s the relationships between the characters that are the key to the mystery and those relationships are complex and are handled reasonably well.
There are however some weaknesses to this novel. Some of the clues are too obvious. They don’t necessarily reveal too much about the identity of the murderer but they do reveal too much too soon about the background to the murder. More serious is the fact that the detective overlooks some blindingly obvious clues. Apart from being unconvincing this also shook my faith in Mordecai Tremaine a little. I also got the feeling that this wasn’t a matter of deliberately making the detective prone to human weakness but simply a structural fault in the plot. A more skilled writer might have avoided such plotting weaknesses.
There’s also the fact that the crucial discovery in the case is made by accident but it feels contrived. It relies on a character just happening to do something unexpected because the plot requires him to do so.
Mordecai Tremaine doesn’t really do all that much in the way of detecting. Mostly he just stumbles upon things. There’s way too much reliance on overheard conversations, with Tremaine just happening to be in the right spot at the right time so he can overhear things without being seen.
If you’re drawn to golden age detective fiction because you love impossible crimes, locked-room mysteries or unbreakable alibis you might be a bit disappointed by this one. The plot is quite good but what it lacks is the remorseless unravelling of the puzzle by an astute detective with a genius for spotting the significance of vital clues. Tremaine is a rather passive detective who goes for lots of walks whilst waiting for the murderer to make a mistake - he’s not a detective who makes things happen.
By the standards of 1954 this is a fairly old-fashioned book (which to me is a good thing). It adheres to the conventions of the golden age murder mystery. It just doesn’t quite demonstrate the sheer joy in the solving of intricate puzzles that you get in the works of the great masters of the golden age. The puzzle is intricate enough but it’s largely allowed to just work itself out. Mordecai Tremaine’s contribution is mostly limited to explaining the puzzle at the end rather than actively solving it.
On the whole I’m afraid I was somewhat underwhelmed by this book.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Lyall’s first two thrillers had aviation backgrounds. Midnight Plus One stays firmly on the ground but there’s no shortage of action and excitement.
Lewis Cane (the narrator) had been a renowned secret agent for the British in the Second World War, working behind enemy lines in Occupied France. After that he was a spy with the British Secret Intelligence Service. Now he describes himself as a business agent. He solves ticklish business problems. His solutions are never illegal but they do require a certain ethical flexibility. He likes to think of himself as having moral standards. He doesn’t work for criminals and he’s not a hired killer but if someone shoots at him he’ll certainly shoot back.
An old acquaintance, a French lawyer named Merlin, has offered him a lucrative job. All he has to do is to drive a businessman named Maganhard from Brittany to Liechtenstein. It sounds simple but there are complications. It’s quite possible that business rivals may try to stop Maganhard from reaching Liechtenstein. They may try to stop him by killing him. And the police are after Maganhard as well (although Merlin assures him that Maganhard is entirely innocent). Cane can handle himself pretty well but for this job it seems advisable to have a professional gunman/bodyguard along as well. Cane would like to have Bernard or Alain, regarded as the two best gunmen in Europe. They’re not available but Harvey Lovell is. Lovell is an American and he’s considered to be Europe’s third best gunman. He’s a former member of the US Secret Service so he certainly has had the right training to be a bodyguard and he seems like the ideal man.
Another complication is that Maganhard insists on bringing his secretary along. Helen Jarman is a young, pretty, very upper-class Englishwoman and she regards Cane and Harvey as being little more than glorified gangsters. This happy little party sets off in Maganhard’s Citroën DS. The first signs of trouble had already appeared when they picked up the car. The man from whom they picked it up died rather suddenly, possibly as a result of the three bullet-holes in his body.
It soon becomes apparent that somebody knows about their little excursion to Liechtenstein and that the somebody in question has employed quite a few very nasty and very well-armed thugs to stop them from reaching their destination.
It’s a thrilling chase across western Europe, a chase that leaves an impressive trail of mayhem and dead bodies behind it.
It doesn’t take long for Cane to discover that he has another problem. Harvey Lovell is very good at his job but he drinks a bit. In fact he’s a full-blown alcoholic. Harvey’s problem is that his job as a bodyguard requires him to be prepared to kill people if necessary, and to be prepared to get himself killed to protect his client. He’s OK with the risking his own life part of the deal. He definitely is not lacking in guts. But he’s not quite so OK with the killing people bit. If he drinks enough he can deal with it. When he’s sober he’s very very good at his job. The question is whether he can stay sober.
While this is very much an action thriller it’s also an interesting psychological study of men who live by violence. Harvey has his troubles but Lewis Cane has his own demons to wrestle with as well. The war never did really end for Cane. In the course of this adventure he will be brought face-to-face with unfinished business from the war and he will encounter old Resistance comrades for whom the war also never ended. Lyall combines the action and the psychology with consummate skill. There’s a psychological dimension but also a moral dimension as well. Cane and Harvey are not mere thugs or strong-arm men. Maybe life would be simpler for them if they were but they are what they are and they have to learn to deal with it.
There are some splendid and original action set-pieces, including trench warfare (in 1965) with a vintage Rolls-Royce. There are the expected double-crosses but Lyall throws in some pleasing surprises.
This is an intelligent complex thriller. Lyall was one of the best thriller writers of his generation and Midnight Plus One sees him at the top of his game. Highly recommended.
And definitely check out Lyall's aviation-themed thrillers, The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
The book starts with the murder of a policeman. Even more shockingly, a senior policeman is the victim. There is no mystery about the murder at all. Albert Hinde, recently released from prison and a man with a very strong grudge against the victim, had sent a threatening. He was seen in the area and he followed up the letter with a personal confrontation with the victim. There can be absolutely no doubt of Hinde’s guilt.
There can also be absolutely no doubt that Hinde will soon be in custody. His distinctive personal appearance combined with the fact that he has every policeman in the Brodshire Constabulary, and every policeman in all the neighbouring counties, searching for him guarantees that. A shocking crime but hardly a challenging case. The superintendent in charge of the investigation sees no need whatsoever to ask Scotland Yard for help.
But of course it doesn’t turn out to be quite so simple. Albert Hinde cannot possibly elude such a massive manhunt for very long, but somehow he manages to do so. It’s as if he has vanished from the face of the earth. And the superintendent has some tiny niggling doubts. He is also unable to resist the mounting pressure to call in Scotland Yard. Inspector John Poole is despatched by the Yard to lend assistance.
Poole soon discovers that there are quite a few puzzling things about this case. Not just puzzling, but very disturbing. If his suspicions are correct the case is even more shocking than initial appearances suggested. Poole is patient and methodical. His belief is that when you reach a dead end you simply have to start again from the beginning, discarding all preconceptions.
Apart from the delightfully complex and ingenious plot the most interesting thing about this book is that it deals with matters that most English detective writers of the 30s would not have dared to go anywhere near. Poole finds evidence that suggests police misconduct. Not just misconduct by one “bad apple” but possibly involving a number of officers. And not just minor indiscretions but possibly misconduct of a sort that could discredit the entire criminal justice system. In fact Poole finds himself in a very awkward situation - he cannot share some of his suspicions with anybody, not even fellow police officers.
There are also questions of loyalty, and the conflict between loyalty and duty. Wade does not try to pretend that these are easy questions and he teases out the nuances with considerable skill.
Poole is a fairly believable character. He’s a fine detective but he’s not infallible. He’s honest and conscientious but there are times when he feels that he has to pursue a particular course of action even though he’s not entirely confident that it’s the right to do. His strength, in the moral sense, is that he is aware of the potential problems. He always tries to do the morally right thing and he’s also the sort of policeman who instinctively dislikes cutting corners. He’s also very much a believer in respecting the rights of suspects even if it makes his job more difficult.
The relationship between Poole and the local superintendent is quite complex. They both appear to be trying to do the right thing but they don’t always agree as to what the right thing is.
The plot itself is not quite an impossible crime but it does tend in that direction. It’s easy to see how the crime could have been committed, except that the physical evidence does not seem to square with any of the possible explanations.
There’s also a neat unbreakable alibi aspect to the story.
Constable Guard Thyself! is Wade in top form and golden age detective fiction doesn’t get much better than that. Highly recommended.
Wade’s The Hanging Captain, The Duke of York’s Steps, No Friendly Drop and Heir Presumptive are all very much worth reading as well.
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Lovecraft and Howard achieved major cult followings by the 1960s and their popularity remains extremely high. Smith has never quite achieved the same level of popularity with the book-buying public although among true aficionados of weird fiction he is generally regarded as being their equal.
Smith was a writer who relied on atmosphere and style to an extreme degree. Many of the great pulp weird fiction writers were fascinated by the idea of civilisation in decline. Lovecraft wrote about civilisation decay and degeneration. Smith was obsessed by civilisational decadence. His great strength was that his style was in itself decadent and therefore perfectly matched his material. His prose is more self-consciously literary than Lovecraft’s but his prose is even more purple. Prose just doesn’t get any more purple than this. But it works.
The bulk of Smith’s short stories belong to several cycles, the best-known being the Zothique cycle. Somewhat lesser known are the handful of Poseidonis stories. Poseidonis is a mythical island, the last remnant of the lost continent of Atlantis. It is a world of sorcery, and of power struggles between great (although frequently evil) sorcerers. Smith’s Poseidonis cycle comprises eight stories and poems. I will be considering three of the stories here (and they happen to be three very fine stories).
In The Last Incantation the ageing but powerful sorcerer Malygris discovers that even his formidable magic cannot recapture the memories of youth. There’s no real horror in this tale. It’s more a story of melancholy and perhaps of the limits of power.
In The Death of Malygris the King, Gadeiron, suspects that the much-feared sorcerer Malygris may have finally died. But so powerful is this sorcerer’s magic that no-one wants to take the risk of entering his tower to find out if he is really dead. A sorcerer with Malygris’s powers can be dangerous even when dead. The King has the services of the master necromancer Maranapion but he knows that will not be enough. He recruits twelve more sorcerers but perhaps even that may not be sufficient to deal with Malygris.
The Double Shadow is the tale of a master necromancer and his acolyte who conjure forth a demon whose existence was previously unknown, a demon from the impossibly remote past, from the age of the serpent-men. It might have been infinitely wiser not to have conjured this particular demon.
Among Smith’s lesser known works are his interplanetary stories, set on Mars or on several imaginary planets. They’re perhaps as close as he got to science fiction and that’s not very close.
The Flower-Women has a science fictional setting but it’s still basically a story of sorcery, concerning a sorcerer who becomes bored because his magic is too powerful and he no longer faces any real challenges. He gives up (temporarily) most of his magic to pursue adventure on one of the several planets of which he is ruler. The flower-women really are flower-women - half carnivorous plant and half woman. The flower-women are being menaced by reptilian sorcerers who seem like they might provide an invigorating challenge.
The Monster of the Prophecy is much closer to actual science fiction. A poet, unable to face poverty and the indifference of the world, is about to find a watery death by throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. A strange old man offers him an alternative. The old man is an alien wizard and he transports the poet to a distant planet inhabited by very strange creatures. The alien wizard is more scientist than wizard and he intends to use the poet to further his ambitions. The plan doesn’t work out as neatly as he’d hoped. There’s no actual magic in this story, which is pretty unusual for a Smith story.
The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis is one of Smith’s Mars stories. This is Mars as imagined in the early 1930s, an inhabited world with life being mostly clustered about the canals. An archaeological expedition is exploring the ruins of the impossibly ancient city of Yoh-Vombis, a city built by a long-extinct Martian race rather different from present-day Martians. Yoh-Vombis is far from the life-giving canals and there is no possibility that anything could be alive in those desolate ruins. What the expedition finds there is an unimaginable horror, the secret to the disappearance of the people of Yoh-Vombis. This is a very Lovecraftian story, in both content and style.
I still regard the Zothique stories as being Clark Ashton Smith’s greatest achievements but his other story cycles are well worth investigating. Highly recommended.
Thursday, January 25, 2018
It begins with Vance receiving a typewritten letter warning him that some unspecified doom is about to descend of the wealthy Llewellyn family. It’s the sort of letter that might well have been sent by a crank but there’s something about it that worries Vance. The note particularly warns Vance to keep an eye on young Lynn Llewellyn on the following night when he will be visiting his uncle Richard Kincaid’s casino.
The young man does indeed suffer a serious misfortune after winning big at the casino. The really odd thing is that his wife suffers the same misfortune at the same moment, on the opposite side of the city. In both cases poison is involved but how could someone poison two people simultaneously miles apart?
And the poisoner has not yet completed his (or her) work for the evening.
Right from the start Vance has the feeling that both he and the police are being toyed with, but in a very subtle and ingenious way. There are clues that seem too obvious, but are they deliberately intended to seem too obvious? Is the killer trying to point Vance in a particular direction, or simply trying to make Vance think that he is doing so?
There have been three poisonings, but only one was successful. There are possible motives but none that seem sufficient to lead to murder. On the other hand there are so many complex personal dislikes and resentments within the family and their circle of hangers-on that nobody can really be eliminated from suspicion.
The murder methods seem more conventional than in Van Dine’s other novels but he makes up for this by making the circumstances surrounding the murders and attempted murders so puzzling. And once Vance starts to come up with possible solutions we find that they’re not so conventional after all.
As always with Van Dine the crimes take place among the rich and famous. Glamorous settings were an essential part of the Van Dine formula. That’s something I don’t have a problem with. One of the privileges of being rich is that if you want to commit murder you can do so in an imaginative and stylish manner. Murder might be unpleasant but there’s no reason for it to be commonplace or sordid.
Vance is in fine form, fretting about cultural influences on ancient Sumerian civilisation and missing out on dog trials (we already know from The Kennel Murder Case that Vance has a passion for dogs), and on the vanity of human passions. He also indulges himself in frequent biblical allusions.
As usual his friend, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, is mystified by the workings of Vance’s mind. Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Squad is equally mystified but he’s accustomed to Vance’s peculiar methods.
Psychology certainly plays a role in this story. Vance is sure that if he can understand why the murderer has carried out the crimes in a particular way he can crack the case. The difficulty is that he’s dealing with a group of people all of whom are perhaps slightly psychologically abnormal.
This one doesn’t have the over-the-top baroque flourishes of The Scarab Murder Case or The Dragon Murder Case but it does have a pleasingly fiendish plot. Highly recommended.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
The Golden Keel had a contemporary setting but the early part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks. The technique works since the past is always a presence in this story. What happened back in 1948 is important, and what happened back in 1943 is absolutely crucial. But exactly what did happen in 1943? It’s a story told by a drunk and might be nothing more than a tall story. Or it might be true. Or partly true.
The narrator is English yacht designer Peter Halloran who had headed for South Africa after the war ended. He prospered there and eventually came to be the owner of a very successful boat-building business. He had everything he wanted out of life, and then suddenly something happened and it no longer meant anything to him. And then he encountered the drunk, a man named Walker, once again. He is now convinced that Walker’s story is true and he intends to do something about. It will be an adventure and he may rediscover a reason to go on living.
Walker had been an Allied prisoner-of-war in Italy who, along with a tough Afrikaaner sergeant named Coertze, escaped and joined a partisan band. These were not communist partisans but monarchists, a fact which later assumes some importance. At some point very late in 1943 half a dozen of these partisans, including Walker and Coertze, ambushed a convoy of German trucks. The trucks were carrying Italian Government documents, large sums of currency and an assortment of extremely valuable jewellery. And they were carrying one other thing - four tons of gold. This was apparently the treasure of Mussolini but Mussolini was destined never to see his gold again.
There were several things that the six partisans could have done at this point but human nature being what it is it’s not surprising that they decided to keep the treasure for themselves. Their problem, and a very big problem it was, was how to get the gold out. They decided to hide the treasure in an abandoned lead mine and they dynamited the entrance to keep their hoard secure.
This gold brought ill luck to most of the partisans. No less than four of the six men involved met violent deaths (some in slightly mysterious circumstances) before the end of the war.
Fifteen years later neither Walker nor Coertze has been able to come up with any workable scheme for getting the gold out of Italy. But Peter Halloran has such a scheme. It will require money and careful planning and it will require a yacht. Halloran has the right yacht for the job. The tricky part is that he’s going to need Walker and Coertze to behave themselves and co-operate and since Walker is an alcoholic and Coertze is short-tempered and they hate each other this will be quite a challenge.
As you would expect the top-secret plan to extract Mussolini’s gold from Italy doesn’t remain a secret for very long. There are soon other interested parties, and they play rough. And of course there’s a woman. She’s beautiful and somewhat mysterious and as to whether she is untrustworthy, that’s a question that only time will answer.
There are some ambitious action set-pieces although they are a bit confused and chaotic. Bagley doesn’t quite have MacLean’s gift for building tension. He also doesn’t have MacLean’s gift for taut plotting. His plots lack the neat little twists that MacLean was so good at. There’s a clever story here but it drags just a little in places.
There is one other striking similarity to MacLean in this novel. The romance sub-plot doesn’t quite work. Halloran and Francesca fall in love because the plot requires them to but we don’t really get much of an inkling into the reason for their mutual attraction. It just suddenly happens.
While I’ve always had slight reservations about Bagley’s plotting I have to admit that he handles the character interactions (the non-romantic character interactions) extremely well. He brings together a small group of people who don’t know each other very well, don’t necessarily like each other and definitely don’t trust each other. They also have to deal with several outsiders and those outsiders might be friendly, or neutral, or downright hostile. Somehow they have to pull off a complicated plan without double-crossing or being double-crossed.
The best moments take place on the yacht and Bagley does go close to pulling off a MacLean in these scenes, with the sea itself as much of an enemy as the bad guys. The fact that we’re not entirely sure who are the bad guys also helps. The climax (at sea) is well executed and quite exciting.
The Golden Keel is a pretty solid action thriller. Not quite in the top rank but still recommended.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Tolefree and his friend Farrar (who narrates the story) have joined another old friend of Tolefree’s, Professor Pye, for a period of relaxation in the country. They have chosen the village of Combe in Wiltshire. Combe’s main claim to fame (indeed its only claim to fame) is the Wheel Inn. This hotel was converted from an old water mill and the water wheel is still in existence. It has to be admitted that the Wheel Inn really is most picturesque as well as being rather comfortable while Combe itself is a thoroughly pleasant little spot.
Pye is a Professor of Moral Philosophy but he is also somewhat obsessed with a much less respectable subject. Pye just loves crime. Had he not been a Professor of Moral Philosophy he would dearly have loved to have been a detective.
The time passes most agreeably with considerable entertainment being provided by two of the other guests at the Wheel Inn, Mr Mock and Mr Annison. These two gentlemen argue constantly and their arguments include an extraordinary leavening of profanity. This attracts the ire of the godly Mr Cornwood who does his best to save the souls of these two reprobates. Mr Mock and Mr Annison might dislike one another but there is one thing that unites them - their mutual detestation of Mr Cornwood.
And then, on Guy Fawkes Night, Mr Mock vanishes. His ancient car vanishes as well. Actually he’s not the only one who vanishes after that night.
There are a couple of odd little details that worry Tolefree. He’s particularly worried by Mr Mock’s hat. These little details will lead to a grisly discovery (which we already know about since the book opens with the finding of a corpse and we then get a flashback that fills in the story of the previous four days).
The discovery of the corpse raises more questions than it answers. Tolefree would love to have a glimpse of a motive but at this stage there’s absolutely no sign of one. He is convinced that no real progress towards solving the case can be made without knowing why the man was murdered.
This is a fine example of making the most of the unusual features of the splendid setting. The water wheel itself plays a part in the story and the old mill building turns out to be a most curious structure with all sorts of secrets hidden within its depths.
While this is a book that is very much in the puzzle-plot mould it’s not just a matter of looking for clues. The personalities of the characters do count as a factor that Tolefree cannot ignore.
Alibis play a vital role and, rather unusually, the alibis have to be remarkably specific since Tolefree is eventually able to fix the time of the murder almost precisely.
Fishing will be important as well, although in this case the fishermen are not necessarily after fish.
This is not one of those detective novels in which the detective settles himself in his favourite armchair, fills his pipe and proceeds to solve the entire mystery without leaving his study. Tolefree will have to do a great deal of tramping about, he will have to display considerable energy and agility and will even have to put himself in harm’s way on occasion. He even has cause to be grateful that he brought his revolver along with them.
In fact in fairness to Walling it should be pointed out that most of Tolefree’s cases do involve quite a bit of leg work and at times some danger.
If you’ve always assumed that Walling was merely one of the more obscure writers of the Humdrum School and therefore of little interest The Mystery of Mr Mock might just change your mind. It’s really a thoroughly enjoyable tale of detection. Highly recommended.