Sunday, 31 May 2015

Blue Octavo - John Blackburn

Blue Octavo is a bibliographic whodunnit.  Book dealer Roach pays way over the odds for a copy of an obscure limited edition book on British mountaineering only to be found dead that evening, ostensibly by suicide.  He leaves his home and entire stock to a younger colleague, John Cain, who is more engrossed by the riddle of the book than the dubious suicide.  The course of his inquiries leads him, and us, to a familiar face from Dead Man Running.  Yes, it's J Moldon Mott, explorer and author.  Mott immediately plunges himself into the mystery with comic results.  As before, he falls slightly short in the end - but there's an interesting and amusing twist at the very end, which obviously I'm not going to reveal here.

Blue Octavo dates from 1963 by which time Blackburn was an established, confident author.  What's interesting is that he was also a second-hand book dealer, and so is able to go into much more detail about the trade than anyone else who has employed a similar mcguffin.  In fact it's much more involving than the main murder plot.  I guessed who was responsible the moment he appeared, though I kept going in the hope I was wrong.

I remember Blue Octavo being quite a seller in its day.  I have to say it hasn't worn as well as other Blackburn books.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

My latest and shortest short story appeared on last night and got 25 downloads in the first twelve hours.  That's the best response I've had thus far.  Thanks to one and all!  As for the rest of you ... what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Beetle - Richard Marsh

There are many reasons for adopting a pseudonym.  One of the best has to be Bernard Heldman.  He had a reasonable reputation as a writer but then, in 1884, he was sentenced to eighteen months for issuing dud cheques.  Since many of the recipients had been literary people, Heldman wisely took the name Richard Marsh on his release, and it was as Marsh that he published the hugely successful The Beetle in 1897.

How successful was The Beetle?  Initially it outsold Dracula, published the same year.  That is not the case today and I had never heard of Marsh until I came across Penguin's shortlived yellowback horrors in 2011.

It's perhaps the first Revenge-of-the-Pharoahs chiller.  A mysterious Arab pitches up in London.  He (or perhaps an entity he brought with him) takes control of a homeless man who is sent to burgle the house of the rising star of Parliament, Paul Lessingham.  Lessingham captures the burglar in the act but rather than tackle him or summon a constable, he is overcome with horror.  This, we eventually learn, is due to a youthful misadventure Lessingham suffered in Egypt.  In the meantime inventor Sydney Atherton bumps into the naked burglar (yes, there is a phenomenal amount of male and female nudity here - no wonder it sold well) in the street outside Lessingham's house.  Atherton and Lessingham are already at loggerheads because both are enamoured of Marjorie Linden.

Marsh uses Wilkie Collins' technique of multiple narrators - we have Holt (the homeless man), Atherton, Marjorie, and finally and least successful, the account of the Hon Augustus Champnell, confidential agent.  Champnell fails to engage us because he is not caught up in the main narrative and because he seems to have too much pre-knowledge.  His involvement starts when Lessingham consults him on the very last day of the story yet Champnell doesn't bat an eyelid when he's told there is a gender-bending Egyptian priest(ess) on the loose in London whose party trick is to transform into a giant scarab beetle.  I wondered if Champnell is a Holmesian super-detective, perhaps carried forward from another strand of Marsh's prolific output.

Nevertheless The Beetle ends with a train chase, and you can't get more Victorian than that.  Marsh also cleverly leaves many key questions unanswered.  Perhaps he intended to write a sequel.  In the end Heldman/Marsh died relatively young (58).  His grandson, interestingly, was that master of the supernatural short story, extensively reviewed on this blog, Robert Aickman.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Operation Mincemeat - Ben Macintyre

I had seen Macintyre's TV documentaries and especially enjoyed the one about Kim Philby, so picking up one of his books was a no-brainer.

Operation Mincemeat is an update of The Man Who Never Was, the book by Ewen Montagu, filmed by Ronald Neame in 1956.  That was inevitably partial - Ewen Montagu was the man behind the Man Who Never Was - and circumscribed by the demands of British foreign policy and the Official Secrets Act.  Sixty years on, Macintyre is able to go into much greater detail and take an objective overview of events.

Essentially, this is the story of the misinformation by which the British were able to deceive the Germans about where the Allies intended to invade Europe in 1943.  A dead body was given an encyclopedic back-story and dumped off Gibraltar loaded with fake information that the invasion point was to be Greece or perhaps Sardinia but certainly not Sicily, which was the true destination.  The body washed up as intended in neutral Spain.  The neutral Spanish copied the contents to the Germans and then politely returned them to the British.  The German High Command was taken in, not merely by the quality of the faked documents but also because Hitler's favourite intelligence guru was actively conspiring against him on humanitarian grounds.

And that is where Macintyre's account achieves greatness - the expert way he is able to normalise the bizarre preoccupations and habits of spies.  Montagu, in this context, comes across as a fairly straight bat, unlike the recluses and obsessives and the cross-dressers who also crop up.  On the other hand, his brother Ivor, filmmaker and table tennis enthusiast, was a spy for Soviet Russia, something which everyone in the British secret service knew full well.  Well, everyone except perhaps brother Ewen.

Despite the complexity of his tale, Macintyre tells it smoothly and persuasively.  He obviously knows huge amounts about his subject but pulls off the really clever trick of not showing off his knowledge.  Highly recommended.

Dead Man Running - John Blackburn

Blackburn was incredibly popular when I was a child.  I remember exactly the shelf where his books were ranged in my local library.  I remember aspiring to be as successful when I grew up,  Yet he was largely forgotten even before his death in 1993, and since then he has vanished entirely.  I cannot for the life of me think why that is.

In the main, and certainly to start with, Blackburn wrote in two genres, John Wyndham style sci-fi horror and Eric Ambler style thrillers.  It seems unfair to suggest that he copied two better known writers; it is better to say he worked in similar fields.  Like Wyndham, his sci-fi tends to be set in the immediate tomorrow, so similar to now that it might as well be today.  Like Ambler, his world of subterfuge is European, his protagonists ordinary men cast adrift from normality.  In both forms Blackburn anchors his narrative with a whodunnit structure.  He is very good indeed at the mystery element,

Dead Man Running is the first of his thrillers, written in 1960, before the Berlin Wall but at a time when Russia was the deadly enemy of the West.  On the face of it, it is a murder mystery: Who killed Peter Carlin's wife and where is Peter Carlin?  Carlin, it turns out, is being interrogated by KGB thugs in Moscow.  The British authorities know exactly where he is.  To the great British public Carlin is both a killer and a traitor.

The rest of the story is Carlin's attempt to prove he is neither.  The conspiracy is incredibly murky.  The cast of characters is varied and colourful - the snobbish ex-maid, the last of his line aristocrat and philanthropist, and best of all the mad man-of-action adventurer J Moldon Mott.

OK, it's old-fashioned, but it is written with great skill, admirable economy (a modern equivalent would be a padded 350 pages whereas Dead Man Running is a well-honed 158) and a healthy humanity.  Nobody here is a total villain, no hero without fault.  Blackburn is every bit as good as I assumed he was back when I was a lad.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder - William Hope Hodgson

Hodgson was killed in action in 1918.  He had never known huge literary success but was instantly forgotten in death.  The mighty Lovecraft tried to revive interest after more than a decade, and he succeeded insofar as August Derleth, king of horror pulp, continued to extol Hodgson's work.  Dennis Wheatley referenced him in The Devil Rides Out (in exactly the same way I reference him in my forthcoming short story on but it was Hugh Greene who finally rescued him in his Rivals of Sherlock Holmes collections in the early Seventies.  Obviously Carnacki was not a detective as we like to think of Holmes, but actually the Holmes stories aren't that clever, they just seem so, and actually Carnacki would be entirely at home in The Hound of the Baskervilles or 'The Speckled Band'.  Anyway, Hodgson's works returned to print and have remained so.  This particular edition came out in 1980 and includes all the original Carnacki tales from 1913 and a couple of additions of dubious quality and/or pedigree.

To deal with the latter first. 'The Find' is crud, has nothing to do with ghost-finding and was probably abandoned by the author.  That author, though, was undoubtedly Hodgson, which is more than can be said about 'The Hog'.  This is a good story but much longer than the others and may well be the work of the aforementioned Derleth.  I am unsure.  If it is a pastiche or continuation it's a good one.  Perhaps Hodgson was trying to write a full-length Carnacki but couldn't get past a novella.

For the undoubted originals, the premise is always the same.  Carnacki invites four male friends round to his flat in Cheyne Walk, gives them supper and then regales them with an account of an investigation.  Some are paranormal, others fakes.  The best, 'The Horse of the Invisible', is both, a clever trick indeed.  I also liked 'The Whistling Room', which features a type of entity I've never come across before.  Hodgson's style is of its period.  He first published the stories in The Idler magazine in 1910, which gives me a chance to include an image from the magazine---

---and the house literary style is used.  It wasn't actually Hodgson's usual style.  An ex-seaman himself, his forte was the eerie sea yarn, more often than not written in oo-ar-matey style.  I reacquainted myself with Hodgson recently through his Sargasso Seas series.  There is one such here, 'The Haunted JARVEE', which is probably my third favourite.

In summary, then, definitely a classic of its genre, and inspirational, in my case at least. 'Carnacki: The Saiitii Manifestation' will shortly be available for free download.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Lightning Bug - Donald Harington

Luddites can say what they want, but there's no way I would have encountered Donald Harington without my Kindle.  And what a loss that would have been.

Some people call him the best unknown American writer of his era (he started in the sixties and died in the noughties).  There are worse fates.  Anyhow, he will be appearing a lot in this blog because there are half-a-dozen novels in Volume 1 alone, and I shall be reading the lot.

To begin at the beginning...  Well not quite the beginning...  There was another novel, a first novel, The Cherry Pit (1965) which sits outside his main canon and is the reason this collection is called The Nearly Complete Works.  Everything else, from Lightning Bug (1970) to Enduring (2009) is set in the fictional Arkansas hamlet of Stay More in the Ozark Mountains.  The people are simple folk who live a simple life - but who have rich and imaginative inner lives.  And Harington shares those lives with us in radical ways.  He starts and ends Lightning Bug like a film script; he slips from past to narrative present (actually 1939); he takes us into their fantasies; he uses tenses like nobody else I have ever read.  And because he is not showing off, because he is so immersed in the truth of his characters, his tricks only enhance the reader's experience.

The titular bug is Latha Bourne, postmistress and sexual siren of Stay More, knocking forty.  Like a real lightning bug Harington tells us, she flashes to attract a mate then changes her mind when a better prospect wanders into view.  She is a woman with a past, which Harington gradually reveals.  The mountain folk would supposedly be scandalised by her secrets but they only make us, the reader, love her more.  The contending beaux in this episode are Every Dill, her childhood sweetheart, a rapscallion, army deserter, pretend rapist and suspected bank robber turned revivalist preacher, and Dolph Rivett, a farmer from another settlement a ways off.  But the real love of her Latha's life, Harington tells us, is four-year-old 'Dawnie', actually Harington himself, which completes the illusion of actuality.

A truly wonderous book.  Can't wait to read the next instalment, Some Other Place, The Right Place.