Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Book Review: The Financial Expert

Book Review: The Financial Expert by R.K.  Narayan

In the South Indian town of Malgudi, across from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank, there is a banyan tree under which sits Margayya, the financial expert.  Margayya (“the one who shows the way”) is an unofficial middleman who helps the unlettered villagers apply for small loans from the bank (for a small fee), arranges for people who still have good credit to take loans to help out those with bad credit (for a small fee) and gives financial advice, among other services (for a small fee.)  He works hard at his dubiously legal profession, from early in the morning to when the sun is setting.

The Financial Expert

The problem with nickel and diming poor people for a living is that at the end of the day what you have is a small pile of nickels and dimes.  Margayya is on the “needs reading glasses” side of forty, lives in half a house with his wife and preschooler son Balu, and hasn’t bought a second set of clothing in years.   When the Bank officially takes unfavorable notice of his business, and Balu playfully tosses the only copy of his financial ledger in the sewer, Margayya realizes that he needs a lot more money if he is to be treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.  But where to get it?

R.K. Narayan (full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, 1906-2001) is considered one of the most important writers of literature from India, at least partially because he wrote in English which made it easier to spread to the rest of the Commonwealth and eventually America.  His novels and stories were set in the fictional community of Malgudi, a “typical” large town somewhere in southern India, which allowed him to invent geography as needed and avoid lawsuits when he used real-life incidents as the basis for the story.

In this case, Margayya is a composite of two real-life people, one an actual middleman who performed the services Margayya does at the beginning of the novel, and a high-flying financial wizard who was incredibly rich for a short time before crashing and landing in jail for his shady practices.

In the story, Margayya makes a fervent appeal to Lakshmi, goddess of Fortune, and in the process happens to run into a writer named Dr. Pal.  Dr. Pal is interested in psychology, sociology and improving the life of his fellow humans.  He’s written a manuscript that will eventually be titled Domestic Tranquility, an important sociological work to improve married life.  To be blunt, it’s a sex manual.  He gives the manuscript to Margayya to do with as he will, and the businessman gets it printed; the book is apparently phenomenally successful.

Mostly what Margayya does with his new-found cash flow is try to get a good education for his son Balu.  Unfortunately, Balu  is not the kind of kid that the formal education system of the time served well, and since no one ever bothers finding a better way to engage him, Balu becomes a wastrel instead.  Part of the problem is that Balu has inherited his father’s habit of being sullen and silent when he has issues, and thus the two never have honest conversations instead of blowups.

Eventually, Margayya gets tired of the publishing business, where he never directly gets to see the money, and cashes out.  With a substantial capital, he can now open a formal money-lending and investment business, becoming a “financial expert” who is respected by even the wealthiest men in town.  But he again has left a single-point weakness in his business, which leads to ruin.

Margayya is not a very likable protagonist; he’s small-minded, sneaky and arrogant.  He’s good at making money in the short term but poor at long-range planning.  His relationship with his wife is more “she can’t bring herself to leave this jerk because there isn’t anything better for her in her society” than any form of mutual loyalty.  Margayya’s constantly worried that other people are taking advantage of him, while taking advantage of others whenever possible.  Margayya’s dignity is easily wounded, and he is quick to injure others’ dignity when he can.  He loves his son, but completely fails to understand him, so the rottenness in the young man’s character grows.

The Time-Life edition, which is what I read, has two introductions, by the editor (you may want to save this one for after you read the book) and by the author.  Mr. Narayan explains the background of the novel, including the economic conditions that lead to a cycle of debt, and how things had changed in India since the book was written.

There are several references to teachers striking students, and classism is often a subtext to what’s going on.

Recommended for those looking for a mostly realistic novel about life in India before independence with a not particularly sympathetic protagonist.

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace by Noël Sainsbury, Jr.

William “Billy” Smith, noted teen aviator, has been called to Australia by a wealthy banker, Mr. Clafflin whose daughter Janet was on the missing passenger liner GLORIA (sic).  The banker believes that the ship was not sunk, but is stranded off course somewhere in the Solomon Islands.  He has hired Billy to search the islands by seaplane.  However, no sooner has Billy started preparing for the journey in Sydney than he is tricked into an ambush.

Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Billy finds himself shanghaied aboard the blackbirder (slave ship) PAULINE S, under the command of Captain Hammond.   This is bad enough, but after the ship goes through a dangerous “white squall”, Billy is lost overboard.

By an amazing coincidence, Billy is rescued by the only other boat in these waters, a whaleboat crewed by four Tahitians and a lad slightly younger than Billy, John “Jan” White.  As it happens, they are headed to Rennell Island, where the PAULINE S. was also sailing.  They were passengers on the GLORIA who managed to escape when the Malay pirate Che’ Ali captured her.  Jan has an aunt on board and wants to rescue her.

Billy, being a famous hero (he already has a series of books about his adventures despite being no more than eighteen, in universe!), is put in charge of the rescue effort.  The small party soon learns that the blackbirder captain and pirate are in cahoots, and the GLORIA is somewhere near the dangerous island of Malaita.  Billy is able to regain his seaplane, and the rescuers luckily coordinate with the one white man allowed to live on the remote Solomon Isle.

This 1934 book is part of the Great Ace series by Mr. Sainsbury.  Technically, Billy is not a true ace; while he spent two years at Annapolis Naval Academy, he apparently has not shot down the requisite five enemy aircraft in formal war conditions.  But other than that, he’s very much the standard boys’ adventure hero.  Gray eyes, a muscular 160 pounds, expert in wrestling and cutlass fencing, and qualified as navigator and pilot of both air and sea vessels.  He’s honest and upright, and makes friends easily.  But he’s not perfect, I’ll discuss his one in-universe flaw in the spoilers section below.

The glaring problem with this book for modern readers is the racism.  Once the Solomon Islanders come into the picture, constant mention is made of how ugly, dirty and smelly they are, as well as how savage they are, being cannibal headhunters.  The “black” Melanesians are compared unfavorably to the “brown” Polynesians, and one of the villains even uses the N-word (and he’s the sympathetic villain!)

Also, for purposes of the plot, Malaita is mischaracterized.  By the time this story takes place, the natives were well acquainted with the outside world and quite a few missionaries and traders lived there.  After a British punitive expedition in 1927, many Malaitans converted to Christianity.   A far cry from the howling wilderness populated by stupid, superstitious barbarians who can only be pacified by one eccentric butterfly collector and his mastiff Satan.

As a side note, the butterfly collector, Mr. Bailey, is named after the artist who did the covers for the Great Ace series.

There’s even a plot development where Billy dons blackface to pass as a local.  Erm.

On the other hand, the sailing and flying stuff is terrific, with lots of technical detail for the air enthusiast reader.

Not recommended except as a curiosity.

SPOILERS after this video which will allow some folks from Malaita to have a voice here.

SPOILERS!

Billy Smith’s one flaw, as it turns out, is that he’s a little too willing to accept things at face value.  It gets him shanghaied in the first place.

When they first pick Billy up, the Tahitians pretend to only speak beche de mer (sea cucumber) a kind of Pidgin English better known as Tok Pisin, and that Jan is their master.  They are in fact able to speak American English, and are independent businessmen.

Moreover, Jan White’s full name is Janet White Clafflin, the very girl Billy was sent to rescue in the first place!  She is, as she admits by way of describing “Miss Clafflin” “a bit of a tomboy” and wore male clothing to help her escape when the GLORIA was captured.   She realizes when Billy describes his mission that he would never let her participate in the rescue and would insist on taking her to safety, so she pretends to be a boy.

And Billy falls for it hook, line and sinker, as does Mr. Bailey.   The result is surprisingly feminist for the time period and genre, as Jan fights a shark, and gets to behave competently all the way through without ever giving herself away.  It’s only when she shows up wearing a dress in the final chapter that Billy learns he’s been had.   Billy does plan to scold her for unbecoming behavior, but the story mercifully ends before then.

Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner

Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner by Van Powell

Rodney Ellis is the son of an aircraft designer whose firm is on the verge of bankruptcy after the Crash of 1929 and the crash of a previous airplane designed by his company.  Mr. Ellis’ one hope is his new airliner, the Oakland Queen.  He hopes to demonstrate it for a group of wealthy investors called the “Billion Dollar Club.”  Seventeen year old Rod and his 15 year old chums, fraternal twins Tim and Pat Kelly, are on the flight to where the investors are when Pat notices that the plane is off course.

Frontispiece
Frontispiece

When the plane lands in an effort to solve this mystery, the boys become separated, and a curious message is found that seems to indicate Mr. Ellis is up to no good.  Rod manages to find a radio buff named Ted who is much more closely involved with the matter than either of them could guess, and exciting adventures ensue!

This is a boys’ adventure book from 1932, full of daredevil piloting, narrow escapes and Mexican bandits.  While aviation had advanced quite a bit, it was still a chancy business involving a lot of guesswork and improvisation; much wordage is given to the operations of the various flying machines.  There’s also reference to the Boy Scouts, with Rod being in favor of creating a Sky Scouts branch of that organization.

Rod is your standard clean-jawed, heroic youth; Tim and Pat have slightly more characterization (Tim is thin and quick-witted, Pat heavier and slower of thought but better at seeing deep implications.)  Ted is more or less a less active version of Rod.

There’s a certain amount of period racism involved in the treatment of the Mexican bandits (they need a white American to actually make plans and operate technology) whose primary activity is smuggling illegal immigrants across the border.  (Back in the 1930s, it was Asian immigrants who came in from Mexico.)  The story sidesteps sexism by simply never mentioning the existence of women.

The Great Depression plays a larger role in the story than I expected, tying into the real villain’s motives.  The plot is twisty, and at least one character does some things early on that don’t make sense considering who he turns out to be.  The ending is rather unsatisfying–the villain reveals everything in a massive rant, then self-destructs, tying things up neatly.

This book is less bad than severely dated–boys might enjoy it if they can get past the old-fashioned style and characters.  It’s apparently never been reprinted, so good luck hunting down a copy!

Book Review: The Partnership

Book Review: The Partnership by Pamela Katz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This copy was a bound galley, and changes have been made in the published edition (most notably, a proper index.)

The Partnership

The Weimar Republic, Germany after World War One and before the rise of the Nazis, was a time of great change.  The Kaiser had been dethroned, militarism had been discredited with large sections of the population, and social movement was greater than ever before.  But at the same time, the economy was dreadful, many in Germany felt they could have won the war if they weren’t “betrayed”, and political extremists rioted in the streets.  This was the crucible in which the partnership of playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was born.

The two men, brilliant on their own, inspired each other to greatness in their two most famous collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as a handful of lesser works.  This volume concentrates on the years of their partnership and how it was facilitated by three important women, actors Lotte Lenya and Helene Weigel, and writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The partnership only lasted a few years, with brief reprises necessitated by their joint ownership of their plays.  While there were many factors involved in the breakup (political differences, diverging artistic aims, Weill becoming independently successful in America), the author posits that the main reason the team splintered was that neither man could stand not being in charge.  They hadn’t quite realized this during their initial creative period, but as the political climate changed, and each had his own goals in mind, it became obvious.

Brecht comes across as a deeply unpleasant person, the type of man who has three children by three different women before he even had a proper career.   It feels like the biographer bends over backwards to excuse Brecht’s behavior towards his wives and mistresses (especially as he hypocritically expected them to be faithful to him.)  He seems to have believed that his superior creativity and artistic vision gave him license to run roughshod over anyone in his path.  It didn’t go over so well in America, where no one was impressed by his European reputation and he didn’t speak the language.

Weill, by contrast, though he had his flaws, seems to have known how to adapt his desire for creative control to the demands of Broadway, working with many excellent writers.

The book goes into great detail about the production of Threepenny; rehearsals were disastrous, entire parts had to be cut at the last minute, and it took several scenes in before the audience figured out which play they were watching.  The song “Mack the Knife” was written and scored in 24 hours as a simultaneous concession to and dig at the actor playing MacHeath, as he’d demanded a song about how awesome his character was.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on the women; Lenya and Weigel brought their husbands’ work to life on the stage, and after they became widows truly kept the legacies alive as well as coming into their own careers.  Hauptmann is a bit harder to read; as the translator who brought Brecht many of the works he freely adapted, and probably much more involved in his writing than was ever acknowledged by either of them, she’s a shadowy figure.  The Weimar Republic gave women new freedom, but it was still in relation to powerful or creative men.

The book skimps on the parts of Brecht and Weill’s careers that did not involve each other; you’ll need to read their separate biographies for those. The writing gets a bit pompous at times, and there’s some use of gratuitous mind-reading, along the lines of “Weill would have enjoyed the breezes.”

There are extensive end-notes with bits that didn’t fit into the main text, and a good bibliography.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Brecht, Weill and theater in general.

And if somehow you haven’t heard it before, here’s Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” for the BBC.

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (playing himself) needs a story for his Sunday slot, and goes to his favorite nightclub, the Trocadero.  It’s hopping as usual, but headwaiter Sam (Ralph Morgan) finds a moment between celebrity cameos and musical numbers to talk to the columnist.  He reveals that things were not always so rosy here….

Trocadero

The club used to be Tony Rocadero’s Restaurant, and we see the owner (Charles Calvert) at the end of Prohibition getting a legitimate liquor license.  He wants to turn his place into a class joint for the sake of his adopted children Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane & Johnny Downs.)   Unfortunately, he is killed in a street accident.  There’s only enough income from the restaurant to send one of the kids to college; the other will have to stay and help manage the place.

Johnny goes off to earn a degree while Judy takes over as acting manager and star singer of the night spot.  They struggle along until in 1935, the place is broke and about to close its doors.  Musical agent Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) buys ten percent of the business as he’s convinced it can be revived with a new jazz band he’s representing.  Even this might not have worked, but then swing band leader Spike Nelson (Dick Purcell) barges in with his own musical troupe, and Judy takes the risk of having two house bands.

It’s obvious that both Jones and Nelson have more than a business interest in Judy, but she’s got a nightclub to run.  A slip of the tongue renames the place the Trocadero, it shifts emphasis from dining to dancing, and business heats up.

Some time later, Johnny has finally graduated from college, and returns.  Problem!  He’s fallen in love with society dame Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners), whose father (Emmett Vogan) owns a tobacco brokerage.  She’s less than enthused by the tawdry entertainment industry, and wants Johnny to join her father’s business.  So he can’t take over the Trocadero after all.

Judy has her own problems.  Jones is more or less okay with just being friends, but Nelson feels he’s been strung along too long and accepts another gig.  Only after he leaves does Judy realize that she actually loves the lug.

Meanwhile, Johnny discovers at the engagement party that Marge’s relatives are deadly dull people who care only for money and prestige, and look down on “hoofers” like himself.  He dances a fiery rebuttal and calls off the marriage.  He returns to the Trocadero to console his lovelorn sister and finally help manage the place, which is more popular than ever.

Which brings us back to the present day.    But this is a Hollywood musical, and there’s no way it’s going to end on a bittersweet note.

There was a real-life Trocadero nightclub, one of Hollywood’s hottest spots, but its history was nothing like this movie’s version.  Still, it’s a sweet story in its own way, a fantasy of making it in show business.  There are several fun musical numbers, including a grand finale with four, count ’em, four bands combining their talents.  One song in the modern section obliquely references World War Two, which was going on at the time.

As mentioned, there are several celebrity cameos, the most unusual of which is animator Dave Fleischer, with a little cartoon creature that comes out of his pen.

There’s of course lots of drinking, but the cigarette girl isn’t too keen on smoking (at least the Carson brand.)   Johnny and Judy do some playful scuffling, and have perhaps a bit too much chemistry for siblings, but that and the slightly offscreen death of Tony are it on the violence front.  By 1940s standards the movie is surprisingly non-sexist; no one thinks Judy can’t run a nightclub just because she’s a woman.

This is a lovely confection, fun but not very deep, and should be okay to watch with younger viewers.

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open by David Hume

Cardby and Son is a detective firm comprised of ex-Chief Inspector Cardby (late of Scotland Yard) and his son Mick.   They’ve been engaged by a consortium of banks to discover where a recent flood of “slush”, counterfeit money, is coming from.  Nick realizes that one way of tracking down forgers is to consult an expert.  As it happens, a former forger of note is being released from Dartmoor Prison, and owes the Inspector a favor.

The Jail Gates are Open
Dust cover image snaffled from seller on Amazon.com

 

While on his way to pick up the soon to be ex-convict, Mick runs into (nearly literally) a man named Milsom Crosby.  Mr. Crosby is a wealthy man who interests himself in the rehabilitation of criminals, especially those who have committed particularly brutal or violent crimes.  He’s at Dartmoor to pick up Bonny Slater, a hard man who’d done time for assaulting a police officer.  Mick is intrigued, but has other business to attend to.

Back in London, Cardby and Son soon have a new client, a Mr. Carter.  It seems his son Kendrick had served a term for bank robbery and recently been released, but failed to come home.  His only communication has been a letter saying that he was under the care of…Milsom Crosby.  When the father tried to visit, he was told that Kendrick was on holiday in south France, but he smells a rat.

Shortly thereafter, a beautiful woman tries to engage the firm for a lengthy but lucrative embezzlement investigation in Barcelona.  The Cardbys point out that this would be better accomplished by a forensic accountant that speaks Spanish, and she is forced to reveal that she is Iris Crosby, and the person she’s speaking on behalf of is her father, Milsom Crosby!

This is a thriller, rather than a mystery, and it’s soon obvious that Milsom Crosby is behind the counterfeiting ring and sundry other crimes.  But this cunning criminal mastermind will stop at nothing to punish those that get in his way–can Cardby and Son save their beloved wife and mother, let alone themselves?

The Tired Business Man's Library logo. The hilt of the knife has "AC for Appleton-Century" and the skull's teeth spell out TBML.
The Tired Business Man’s Library logo. The hilt of the knife has “AC for Appleton-Century” and the skull’s teeth spell out TBML.

 

This 1935 novel is part of the Tired Business Man’s Library, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, and “David Hume” appears to be a pen name (certainly not the famous philosopher!)  There’s a prologue in which the author explains some of the British criminal slang that is used in the book for “authenticity.”

Mick Cardby is very much the protagonist of the story, a young clean-cut fellow who’s athletic, clever and formidable.  We don’t get any background on him except that he has worked with his father in the firm for some years to great success.  His father, as noted above, retired from Scotland Yard, and his old partner Chief Inspector Gribble (a hardened pessimist) is scheduled to join the firm on his own pending retirement.  Both of them, and the various other policemen who show up, are primarily extra hands when Mick is outnumbered or busy doing something that needs concentration.

Milsom Crosby is a clear forerunner of the Bond villain–wealthy, powerful, a veneer of respectability, but a tendency to gloat and not quite as clever as he thinks.  Genre-savvy readers will see his repeatedly taking the choice that will least accomplish the goal of deterring the Cardbys and shake their heads.

As is sadly common in adventure fiction of the period,  women’s roles are limited.  Mrs. Cardby is taken hostage, rescued and otherwise not in the story at all (she has zero knowledge of or interest in her husband and son’s business other than fretting).  An engraver’s pretty daughter, taken hostage to ensure his cooperation with the counterfeiters, is only marginally more useful and mostly serves as a mild romantic interest for Mick.

And then there’s Iris Crosby, who tries to act the femme fatale but is easily thwarted by locking her in a room.  There’s a couple of nasty twists involving her in the final chapter, just so Mick can drive home how completely she’s failed.

Mick is pretty callous about usng violence, and sheds not a tear for a man he sends to his death (even cutting a deal with his murderer later on!)  He’s also willing to use a veiled homophobic slur, Mr. Crosby being quick to take offense at it being directed at him.

This book doesn’t seem to ever have been reprinted, so your chances of finding it outside of hole-in-the-wall used bookstores are slim.  Still, it’s a fun read suitable for unwinding after a long day at work.

Book Review: The Green God

Book Review: The Green God by L. Ron Hubbard

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Green God

This is another in the line of pulp reprints put out by Galaxy Press, and continues their tradition of excellent physical quality.  I should also give a shout-out to GP’s distinctive shipping materials.  This time, the focus is on adventures in the exotic land of China.

“The Green God” is an exciting tale of Lieutenant Bill Mahone of Naval Intelligence.  It seems someone has stolen a jade idol, and the city of Tientsin has erupted in riots.    There’s a minimum of exposition, and the lieutenant is in constant danger from the first sentence.  Among other things, he is buried alive according to the customs of the local Chinese.

Bill takes quite a beating over the course of the story, and it eventually becomes a bit much for him still to be moving, even by pulp standards.  There’s some on-screen torture, so be advised.

“Five Mex for a Million” is novella length, and requires a bit of explanation for the title.  A “Mex” was a Mexican peso, which was used as a trade coin with and in China from 1732-1949.  As it happens, Captain Royal F. Sterling has five Mex and a small silver coin in his pockets at the beginning of the story.

That’s not very much money for a man on the lam for murder (it was self-defense) from the Chinese military.   He goes to the Thieves’ Market in Peking to buy local clothes for a disguise, but sees a mysterious chest and purchases it on a whim.  The chest carries the ideograms for “Good luck”, “Long life” and “Happiness.”  The contents of the chest?  That would be a spoiler, but it leads Captain Sterling on an adventure to Outer Mongolia.

This story has a bit of romance, rushed though it may be.  Sandra Kolita starts the story as a damsel in distress, but pulls her own weight quite well once Royal gets her out of the initial fix.  Just don’t ask for realistic character development for anyone involved.

Both stories treat the Chinese as superstitious at best, and expendable fanatics at worst.  This was typical of pulp stories of the time, but is still jarring to modern readers.

There is also a preview of “Spy Killer”, the lead story in the next volume.  Violent sailor Kurt Reid jumps ship when he’s falsely accused of murder, but on land he may be in more danger from Varinka Savischna, sultry Russian spy.

There is a glossary of terms that may be unfamiliar to 21st Century readers, which should be helpful to most.  As with all volumes in the set, the book is fitted out with the stock prologue and author biography.  Because the book is such a fast read, and the repeated material makes it even shorter than it looks, casual readers may want to check their library or used book stores.

Still, this is exciting stuff, with non-stop action–great for a night’s escape from the everyday world.

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever by Leslie Charteris, with art by Dave Bryant

Simon Templar, the Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris in the late 1920s and went on to become a major franchise.  Mr. Templar (not his birth name) was a roguish young man with a murky past, and a fondness for sticking it to wealthy criminals he considered “ungodly.”  He and his associates used confidence tricks, disguise and good old fisticuffs to deliver a form of justice, stealing from the crooked rich to give to the poor–minus a percentage to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed.

The Man who was Clever

“The Man Who was Clever” is the earliest Simon Templar story by internal chronology; there had been others published first, but Mr. Charteris was dissatisfied with them.   Although he already has the nickname of “the Saint” and his band of friends, this is the first time he publicly operates under the Saint brand, complete with his calling card stick figure.

It begins with Simon witnessing an act of brutality by a gang of small-time extortionists.  But rather than jump in immediately, he investigates the gang and learns the full extent of their organization, then begins a campaign to bring not just them, but their backers as well, down.  As part of this, the Saint locates the one member of the gang who’s redeemable, a basically decent fellow who has racked up gambling debt, and recruits him as a double agent.

Simon Templar is a cool customer, looking innocent (but sexy) and calm, even in the worst circumstances.  He’s also a cunning planner, with only a stroke of bad timing causing any difficulty with the gambit he has in play.  He’s also a good fighter, able to take down five hoodlums alone with little difficulty.  (And a swordcane.)

This being written in the time period it was, Mr. Templar smokes and drinks, but is down on the harder drugs.  (The villain of the piece considered himself no worse than a bartender in this regard.)   There’s a bit of the xenophobia common to pulp stories of the period, with the main criminal being a foreigner who has changed his name to sound more English, and his insidious contact in Greece.  The main female character, the double agent’s sweetheart, is a damsel in distress type, while Simon’s love interest Pat barely appears before being bundled off to avoid being distressed.  (In other Saint stories, Pat is much more useful.)

Charming though Simon Templar is, I think he’d be hard to put up with for long in real life, with his bad poetry, annoying nicknames and endearments, and general smugness behind an innocent looking face.

The advertising calls this a “graphic novel”, but it’s really more of a heavily illustrated novella with all the original words.   The illustrations are quite nice (more comic book than pulp magazine style art) but like the pulps of yore, the pictures are often nowhere near the part of the story they’re illustrating.

This is a short read (81 pages even with copious illustrations.)  It’s best suited for people who are already fans of Simon Templar or other pulp characters–new readers will want to perhaps check out Enter the Saint or any of the other Simon Templar books (make sure it’s one of the ones actually by Leslie Charteris) from the library to see if they like the character before making the plunge.

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