Friday, September 30, 2016

BULLDOG DRUMMOND by "Sapper" (aka H. C. McNeile)

Capt. Hugh Drummond is bored. The Great War is over, he craves excitement, and places a tongue-in-cheek ad in the paper offering his services to anyone needing an adventurer. And then the story gets rolling....he's called in by a damsel in distress, who needs help in untangling her father from the influence of Carl Peterson, an international criminal and schemer. It proceeds from move to counter-move, with a heinous conspiracy unmasked at the end.

Published in 1920, "Bulldog Drummond" is notorious for being a shining example of the patriotic two-fisted adventurer types that populated British pulp fiction between the wars. Politically, Drummond would horrify some modern readers, as he functions largely to preserve a conservative status quo, and I've read that in later books he becomes a sort of Ayn Rand-ian Rugged Individualist. But in this book he's palatable; he's doing what he's doing for the sake of adventure and excitement, and I was impressed about halfway through when he starts to wonder if he's not in over his head and should bring in the police. He decides against it, of course (because otherwise there's no story) but that moment of reflection and self-doubt is something you don't see often, especially in macho fiction of this era.

Drummond was also famously xenophobic in later works, but in this one it's not visible aside from a certain pro-British jingoism that's par for the course in this era. There's a peripheral character who's referred to as a "Jew" but not disparagingly so; it's just that they felt it necessary to include that. Yeah, it's not the most enlightened, but it's extremely mild for those days.

It was also interesting to pick up on ways it influenced other works, and was influenced by others. Villain Peterson keeps a number of exotic poisonous animals in his house, and has a number of elaborate traps, all of which were reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu" novels....and Rohmer had been writing of the Devil Doctor since 1913, so it's likely Sapper read them. And some of the goings-on here reminded me of some of the early Saint stories by Leslie Charteris, and Simon Templar didn't appear in print until 1928, so it's likely Charteris was influenced by Sapper. (And The Saint is much more compassionate than Drummond on any day of the week...)

Overall, the story is sometimes a bit muddled and is preposterous as hell, but it is entertaining enough in a sort of idealized picture postcard England kind of way. We know from the start that Peterson is trying to bring about a Communist revolution in England and reap millions as a result (yeah, it's vague) and I actually agreed with Drummond's speech that capitalism is badly flawed but at least it works halfway, and communism simply won't work. (Liberal as I am, I do have occasional flirtations with socialism, but consider communism and Marxism to be failed philosophies [there are differences, look them up if you think they're all the same], and while capitalism has serious problems it's likely the best system we have.) I can imagine this getting more conservative and right-wing as times go by, but I enjoyed this enough to want to continue with the series.

Wordsworth Editions has an omnibus of the first four books (all of which feature Carl Peterson) and there's some ebooks out there; otherwise, check your used bookstore. McNeile died in 1937 and this work is in public domain in the US and can be downloaded for free from the usual suspects, but the rest appear to be still protected by copyright here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


More YA horror from Brad Strickland, using John Bellairs' characters. This time Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger are facing a horrific situation...they are being forced to perform in the school's talent show. Talking it over with Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann, Lewis has the idea of doing a magic act, and they visit a local museum of stage magic (that's under construction) for assistance and ideas. While perusing the library there, Lewis finds guidance, and Rose Rita stumbles on a strange document, a scroll that was the last will and testament of a female magician/faux-spiritualist named Belle Frisson. Rose Rita gets a paper cut from the scroll...and the drop of blood turns into a spider!

This turns into a fun adventure with Rose Rita falling more and more under the influence of a malevolent spirit, and the two visit a strange magician's cemetery in a nearby town. (The Gorey frontispiece shows a photo of Belle Frisson and an image of the cemetery that I just love.) Belle's marker is a tall column that is capped by a stone sphere...that turns slowly, one revolution in about six weeks. (That gives me a macabre shiver.)

This delves a bit more into Rose Rita's personality, as we see her becoming withdrawn and sullen toward Lewis and the others, and Strickland smartly puts a supernatural spin on normal adolescent behavior. I will criticize it for having a few clumsily-inserted character with some of Lewis' classmates suddenly having speaking parts, but I found out that these were contest winners who had their names used in the story. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann are fully involved, not kept on the sidelines, which makes a good change.

The final confrontation with Belle Frisson is memorable and spooky, and I wish there had been more about her background and personality; she's a bit of a cipher. But overall, it's still good fun and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Autumnal Equinox at the movies!

It may be the autumnal equinox, but the air is still warm and damp with lingering summer heat and humidity. And now word comes that there may be 90 degree days in October! Who says global warming isn't real?

But it's a good night to meet for a movie, isn't it? We gather in our usual restaurant, happy for the new specials, teasing the waiter, and always leaving a good tip. Then it's up to the theater for the show!

Tonight's movie is a 1935 mysteries-of-the-orient opus, "Hong Kong Nights"!

This flick has some slight notoriety for being the subject of some Tong action when there was a kerfuffle over money due a Chinese extra, but it was all resolved peacefully. We hope.

The show's over...let's go grab a drink, shall we?

Monday, September 12, 2016

RESORTING TO MURDER, edited by Martin Edwards

This is another excellent anthology by Edwards, who's turning out to be one of the great powerhouses of traditional British mystery scholarship; he's edited a number of anthologies and written a history of them.

The running theme here is mysteries taking place on vacation, and it's quite a mixture of material. It kicks off with an old warhorse, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" by Arthur Conan Doyle, which takes place while Sherlock Holmes is on vacation in Cornwall. The next story, "A Schoolmaster Abroad" by E. W. Hornung, is not one of that author's better works, and doesn't linger long in the memory.

Arnold Bennett's "Murder!" is an OK story, kind of a macabre comedy where we witness a murder being committed, then watch a pompous police officer botch the investigation. "The Murder on the Golf Links" by M. McDonnell Bodkin showcases his now-forgotten sleuth Paul Beck, in a murder on a golf course; not great, but a serviceable story of its time. The next tale, "The Stone Finger" by G. K. Chesterton, is subpar; it's not a Father Brown story, and the method used to hide the body is so utterly daft I wanted to hunt down Chesterton's grave to spit on it.

"The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" by Basil Thomson is a journalistic recycling of the old "so long at the fair" urban legend. R. Austin Freeman gives us his medical sleuth Dr. Thorndike in "A Mystery of the Sand Hills," which has an unsatisfying plot but at the same time is a good (and well-written) look at Thorndike's deductive reasoning.

Then we get to the really good stuff. H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune turns up in "The Hazel Ice", investigating a murder in the Alps. It's a cracking good story, and I'm quickly becoming a fan of Bailey and Fortune. Then we have Anthony Berkeley's rarely-reprinted story "Razor Edge," which has sleuth Roger Sheringham looking into a suspicious drowning by the seaside. Then we have Leo Bruce's Sgt. Beef in the short-short "Holiday Task", looking into a strange death along the cliffs in Normandy (with a very clever twist at the end!).

A now-forgotten author, Helen Simpson had two works filmed by Hitchcock (MURDER! and UNDER CAPRICORN), and died young. She is represented in this collection by her rare story "A Posteriori," a comic tale of a tourist in France who becomes reluctantly embroiled in espionage, and has a hilariously ribald twist at the end that I don't dare spoil. "Where is Mr. Manetot?" by Phyllis Bentley is another rarity, written for an anthology of missing-persons stories. This one's about an academic who goes on an unexpected holiday and wanders into the midst of a heinous plot.

The next author, Gerald Findler, is an enigma; nothing is known of him, and there's only a couple of brief stories and a pamphlet credited to him. But "The House of Screams" packs a whallop, a haunted-house story which conceals an ingenious murder. And the anthology wraps up with Michael Gilbert's "Cousin Once Removed," a tale of murder with an ironic twist.

Despite a sluggish start, and some stuff you've seen before, this is still a superior anthology and a great way to sample some of the golden age's best mystery writers. Check it out!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A September Evening at the Phantom Cabaret!

September so far is warm and stuffy, and while the days are still like we're in the depths of summer, at least the nights are longer and more relaxed.

Tonight, we're indulging in an evening out at that cabaret in town. We haven't been in for a while; they haven't booked any acts that appeal to us, and that one band we saw there was a disaster. But we're assured by the manager that they're getting things back on track. After a light supper, we gather around a comfortable table, and the manager sends out a complimentary bottle of cava, so we're all in a good mood.

And the act is great! Just the thing for a meditative September night....

We have a great time, and promise to return soon....