Welcome to Hot Bullets, the book review blog for Thrillers and Action novels. I’m reviewing novels as and when I read them, so there might be the odd long gap when I’m reading something that doesn’t fall under the remit of this site.
Welcome to Hot Bullets, the book review blog for Thrillers and Action novels. I’m reviewing novels as and when I read them, so there might be the odd long gap when I’m reading something that doesn’t fall under the remit of this site.
It’s widely acknowledged these days that the larger proportion of the readership for crime thrillers is female, but it’s often overlooked that this has long been the case. The Victorian equivalent of the crime thrillers was the Sensation Novel; brooding pot-boilers full of crime, blackmail, murder and bigamy that were frequently targeted specifically at women. Though she is largely forgotten today, the queen of the Sensation Novel (and a best-selling author of her time) was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Lady Audley’s Secret was her magnum opus.
Robert Audley, the rakish young nephew of Sir Michael Audley, goes to visit his uncle at the grand Audley Court, taking with him his best friend George Talboys. When they are introduced to Sir Michael’s new young bride Lucy, Talboys seems startled and shortly afterwards disappears without trace. Determined to discover the reason for his friend’s disappearance, Robert starts to look into the circumstances surrounding his friend and a terrible suspicion comes upon him.
What follows next may contain spoilers, but Lady Audley’s Secret was written over a century and a half ago, so I think I can probably get away with it. It turns out that the new Lady Audley, Lucy Graham, is not all that she claims to be. She was once Helen Talboys, the wife of George Talboys and when she was deserted by her husband, who went off to Australia to make his fortune, she left their young son in the care of her drunken father and went off to look for a better life for herself. And indeed found one.
Robert, of course, suspects that Lady Audley has done away with her first husband, though it is largely left up to the reader to match his trail of thought, as this is never explicitly stated until very late in the text. He becomes obsessed with revealing the truth about his Aunt and finding justice for his friend, visiting George’s father-in-law and son and his abrupt, stand-offish father. His investigations cover a lot of ground – this isn’t a short novel – and although they slow to a snail’s pace at times, there’s generally enough intrigue there to keep the reader interested.
Robert Audley is a strange character; he’s effete and something of a dilettante, plagued by indecision and self-doubt. At one point in the narrative, he’s all set to pack in his investigation into George’s death, but one doe-eyed encounter with George’s pretty sister determines him to make it his life’s work. There’s a deep unspoken bromance between Robert and George, long before that was even a word, and it’s oft mentioned that George’s attraction to Clara Talboys is partly down to her physical resemblance to her brother. A bit odd? Well maybe, but I’m sure I’m putting a 20th century spin on something that doesn’t require one.
What is certain is that Lady Audley’s Secret explores the gender politics of her time. Of the women in the book, only Lady Audley herself has any real gusto. Alicia Audley, Sir Michael’s daughter, is childlike and whimsical; Phoebe Marks is a knows-her-place lady’s maid completely under the thumb of her brutish husband and Clara Talboys is the attractive but severe spinster, swayed by the hero’s charms. In a different era, Lady Audley might even be the hero – she takes her destiny into her own hands when her husband naffs off to the other side of the world, leaving her with a babe-in-arms, and succeeds in making a better life for herself as the popular wife of an aristocrat.
When she is eventually confronted with her crimes, Lady Audley breaks down and declares herself plagued by the insanity that runs in her family. It might seem out of character for the coldly manipulative woman that we’ve been told about throughout the rest of the novel, but not really because she’s still maintaining control. She knows that she will be better treated as a madwoman than she would as a murderer, so there’s still manipulation in her actions. As she’s shipped off to an upper-class sanatorium in Europe, you might think that she’s getting away lightly – but there’s yet another twist that adds tragedy upon tragedy to her fate.
Lady Audley’s Secret is, as I mentioned earlier, a lengthy book, but its prose is quite modern and accessible. At certain stages, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are reading a Victorian romance and the language is pretty florid when that happens, but these parts are pretty few and far between. There are also a lot of cultural references that you probably wouldn’t get unless you are a cultural historian of that era but, again, they don’t distract from the story. This is an interesting read; it doesn’t follow the beats that you’d expect from a modern crime story and the passage of time has made parts of it a trifle cliché, but if you can stomach its prose and length, it’s well worth a read, for entertainment as well as historical value.
This edition of Lady Audley’s Secret was published in the UK by Atlantic Books Crime Classics (2009).
Originally (and subsequently) published under the title A Magnum for Schneider, this book is Callan creator James Mitchell’s first adaptation of the popular late-60s / early-70s TV series. It is an adaptation of his script for the TV play A Magnum for Schneider, which acted as an unofficial pilot for Callan and was also later adapted for the movie version of the show. Released at the height of Callan’s popularity on TV, this Corgi edition is one of several versions released under the title Red File for Callan.
For those of you not familiar with Callan, it was a long-running spy series that eschewed the glamour of James Bond in favour of the grim reality of the British secret service. Callan is an assassin, simple as, but the profession does not sit easily with him. Although distinctly more working class than his superior Hunter and his public-school educated colleague Toby Meres, he’s probably more thoughtful and intelligent than both of them. His only real friend is Lonely, a low-rent fence with a personal hygiene problem. Lonely might not be everyone’s idea of perfect company, but he’s the only person that Callan really trusts in a back-stabbing world where life is cheap and loyalties are flexible.
In Red File for Callan, government assassin David Callan is pulled out of enforced retirement to dispose of an arms dealer called Schneider, whose activities have been judged a threat to British interests abroad. The problem is Callan quite likes Schneider; they have a shared interest in military history and a love of collecting model soldiers. As he investigates the gun-runner prior to taking his life, Callan comes dangerously close to becoming friends with him. It doesn’t help that Callan deeply resents his manipulative Government paymasters and is uncertain whether he wants to go back to his old job.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Hunter mistrusts Callan and has him followed everywhere, he also attracts the attention of a local gangster called The Greek, from whom he purchases an unlicensed handgun. Unfortunately for The Greek, he mistakes Callan for a common-or-garden criminal and tries to blackmail him, with unfortunate consequences. Red File for Callan explores the entire spectrum of the underworld in not-so-swinging 60s London, from the petty thief Lonely, through the ambitious thug The Greek, to the amoral Hunter and Meres, who would consider themselves the ‘good guys’ even though they’re prepared to resort to blackmail, torture and murder to achieve their goals.
This is a world in which no one really trusts anyone else – and with good reason, because betrayal and double-cross is everywhere. The closest that Callan comes to a real friend is Lonely, with whom he once shared a prison cell. Callan likes him partly because he’s closer to his own working class background, but mainly because Lonely is the only person he can really trust. Their relationship is complex; Callan is hard on Lonely, but only because he has to be to maintain his cover and he always feels bad about it afterwards. Even Lonely thinks that Callan is some kind of gangster and has no idea that he is a Government assassin.
In the end, invited to Schneider’s house to play war games, Callan almost doesn’t go through with his mission, A mixture of quite liking his target and a growing resentment towards Hunter more or less convinces Callan not to kill Schneider, but the bumbling arrival of Meres blows his cover and forces him to commit to the assassination. The plotline of a spy placed on a mission that he agonises over and then almost doesn’t carry out is a million miles away from the Bonds, the Bournes or even the George Smileys that litter the genre. James Mitchell’s earthy Northern take on the genre (yes, I know it’s set in London, but Mitchell was born in South Shields) is, to this day, almost unique.
Red File for Callan ends with the titular ‘hero’ giving a figurative two-finger salute to his superiors and turning his back on a whole lot of money just to feel in some way clean. He might be a hired killer, but he’s a better human being than either Hunter or Meres. The book was written to be read as a stand-alone, separate from the long-running TV series, so this narrative would suggest that Callan and Hunter part company here. However, James Mitchell wrote another four Callan novels and a whole series of short stories for the Sunday Express.
Like many novels of its era, Red File for Callan is quite brisk, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on the important stuff. Characterisation is always given priority over action, which is only right and proper, because this isn’t a story about shoot-outs and car chases. Guns may be a running theme, from the arms that Schneider deals to the Magnum that Callan purchases to kill him, and Mitchell certainly knows his stuff, but it doesn’t glorify gun use; in fact, they are the root of all misfortune in this novel. Regardless of whether you’ve ever seen the TV series or not, Red File for Callan is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book with more impact almost five decades on than most modern spy thrillers.
This edition of ‘Red File for Callan’ by James Mitchell was published by Corgi Books (1971) and is currently out of print in the UK. It is available under the title ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ from Ostara Publishing.
The second half of Killer in the Rain features the stories Mandarin’s Jade, Bay City Blues, The Lady in the Lake and No Crime in the Mountains. As with the first four stories, elements of each of these were recycled in Raymond Chandler’s later, fuller novels.
Mandarin’s Jade contributed to Farewell, My Lovely, but it’s nowhere near as obvious as in either The Man Who Liked Dogs or Try the Girl (see the first half of this review). In this story, the detective is called John Dalmas, but he’s essentially the same character as Carmady or Philip Marlowe. Dalmas is hired by a wealthy fop named Lindley Paul to act as his bodyguard when he exchanges ransom money for a stolen jade necklace. Carmady feels uncertain about this job but goes ahead with it anyway. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and pretty soon his client is dead and he is a suspect.
As the story progresses, Dalmas teams up with Carol Pride, a tough newspaper reporter. Carol Pride is probably one of the strongest female characters to appear in any of Chandler’s work. All too often the women in Chandler’s books fall into the role of either femme fatale or wild child, but Carol Pride is different; a determined professional woman who matches Dalmas’ barbed dialogue quip for quip. Carol Pride became Anne Riordan in Farewell, My Lovely, but she’s arguably even stronger here.
Also setting the scene for the Philip Marlowe novels is the appearance of cop ‘Violets’ M’Gee, who would go on to be a regular character. Although the central character is still not Marlowe, you can see the slow change towards Chandler’s most beloved character as the rough edges are knocked off and his character is fleshed out. Mandarin’s Jade isn’t the best story in this collection, but it’s solid, enjoyable stuff and a definite progression towards the fiction we associate with Raymond Chandler.
At 100 pages, Bay City Blues is by far the longest story in this collection. In fact, with minimal fleshing out, Chandler could have adapted it into a novel in its own right. Instead, he cannibalised bits of it for Farewell, My Lovely. It’s a shame, because there’s definite potential in Bay City Blues. John Dalmas is back, as is ‘Violets’ M’Gee and this time the plot revolves around the apparent suicide of the wife of a wealthy dentist; M’Gee suspects that it wasn’t quite as clear cut as that and asks Dalmas to investigate.
Although it’s longer than the average for this collection, Bay City Blues is quite low on incident for a lot of its length, which probably explains why Chandler elected not to flesh it out as a full-length novel. The basic storyline is quite clever, but it rather plods along towards its conclusion with less of the wit and exuberance of Chandler’s other stories. Don’t get me wrong, Bay City Blues isn’t bad, but I enjoyed it a lot less than the other stories in this collection and I have to say I somewhat struggled through it.
Of all the stories that Raymond Chandler borrowed from for his later novels, The Lady in the Lake has the most explicit route to its later adaptation; not least because it shares the same name. It’s the first of two stories in Killer in the Rain that take the hard-boiled detective out of the sweating city and into a more rural environment – and I have to say that I really enjoy that angle. There’s something about the fish-out-of-water story that really appeals to me and it works wonderfully in detective fiction. Surrounding our hero with unfamiliar people and places adds an extra frisson of peril that really makes the story pop.
John Dalmas undertakes a case from Howard Melton, whose wife has done a disappearing act and he suspects that she is staying at their upstate lodge in Little Fawn Lake. Travelling to the lodge, Dalmas asks the groundskeeper Bill Haines to give him access to the lodge. Haines is depressed and hitting the bottle after his wife left him. They find no trace of the missing wife at the lodge, but walking out onto a jetty into the lake, they discover a dead body weighted down in the lake. Everything points to the lady in the lake being Mrs Melton, but Dalmas has his doubts.
The novel The Lady in the Lake has always been one of my favourites in the Philip Marlowe series and this seminal short story reads pretty much like an abridged version of the novel. More or less every beat from the novel is here and though the extraordinary cast of colourful local characters might not be quite so fleshed out, they still shine and come across as totally authentic. The Lady in the Lake is probably my favourite story in this collection, which is a tough choice because they’re all of a very high quality.
The final story No Crime in the Mountains features a detective we haven’t met before, John Evans, though he’s basically John Dalmas. The reason for these different names for what is basically the same character is that the original short stories were published in different magazines. The Carmady stories originate from Black Mask, John Dalmas from Dime Detective Magazine and John Evans from Detective Story Magazine. In the years that follow, they would all mesh together and become Philip Marlowe.
No Crime in the Mountains follows a similar vein to The Lady in the Lake, and in fact bits of it were salvaged for the novel. Private eye John Evans is sent a letter from a man called Fred Lacey requesting him to attend his mountain retreat for an urgent case. When he gets there, Lacey is dead; his killers cosh Evans and when he regains consciousness, the body is gone. More dead bodies follow, even though the local sheriff insists that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen round these parts.
This is an interesting story because it contains a lot of elements that are unusual for Chandler’s oeuvre. The villains of the piece are Nazis (though this isn’t apparent at first) and they are assisted by a rather stereotyped Japanese man, but it’s best to remember that this was written in September 1941, when Europe had been at war for two years and the attack on Pearl Harbour would occur before the end of the year. In this sense, it’s much more a product of its time than the rest of Chandler’s output.
Also unusual is that, although he is the first person narrator, John Evans takes a back seat to grizzled local lawman Sheriff Barron for the latter part of the story. Evans seems to be almost an observer of Barron’s brusque handling of the case once things get moving. I couldn’t help getting a feeling of early Twin Peaks in the contrasting relationship between the cosmopolitan hero and the small-town policeman. Barron is a great character and I’d have liked to have seen him in a story of his own.
No Crime in the Mountains is a great way to cap off what has been a wonderful collection of short stories. If you’re a fan of Chandler, you’ll get a lot from this, but if you’ve never read any of his novels, you’re almost at an advantage because this will be so much fresher to you. Definitely recommended for fans and newcomers alike, just don’t be put off by the enormous page count.
KILLER IN THE RAIN by Raymond Chandler is published in the UK by Penguin Books (2011)
Killer in the Rain is a collection of early short stories by Raymond Chandler from the pulp crime magazines Black Mask and Dime Detective Magazine. Although they don’t feature the iconic Philip Marlowe, many of the concepts were recycled by Chandler in his later and more famous novels. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and I’ve decided that I can only really do justice to the eight stories in Killer in the Rain by splitting my review into two parts. This first part covers the stories Killer in the Rain, The Man Who Liked Dogs, The Curtain and Try the Girl.
The private detective in the first story, Killer in the Rain, goes unnamed throughout, but to all intents and purposes it’s Philip Marlowe. He talks like Marlowe, he acts like Marlowe and he reacts like Marlowe. Add to that the fact that an expanded version of Killer in the Rain makes up the first half of The Big Sleep and you’d probably find it difficult to imagine him being anyone else. It’s not always easy to read Killer in the Rain if you’re familiar with The Big Sleep, because your memory keeps filling in little details that aren’t actually relevant to this version of the story; so it’s unfair to judge the short story as being in the same canon as the full length novel that it spawned.
Our nameless hero is hired by a millionaire to find the man who is blackmailing the family and send him on his way. It soon becomes apparent that it all revolves around the millionaire’s wayward younger daughter and her wild and excessive lifestyle. No sooner has the detective discovered that the daughter is being drugged and persuaded to pose for pornographic pictures than the book dealer who’s been peddling the porn is shot dead in his own home. From there it’s a tightly wound-spiral of deceit and betrayal where no-one is quite what they seem.
Killer in the Rain doesn’t suffer at all from being in the short form. If you had no prior knowledge that it existed in any longer format, you would not be left thinking that this is a story which is abrupt or unfinished. The action is taut and well-paced and it’s easy to see why it made such an impact in the pages of Black Mask, leading towards it being picked up and adapted for Raymond Chandler’s first full-length novel.
If Killer in the Rain rang a bell, then you’ll doubtless also find something familiar about the second story in this collection, The Man Who Liked Dogs, as the story crops up again in the latter part of the novel that is often considered to be Chandler’s best, Farewell, My Lovely. The hero is no longer nameless, but he’s not Philip Marlowe either; his name is Carmady. Does he come across like Marlowe? Well, yes and no. He has the characteristic first person narration but there’s something rougher, less principled about his behaviour.
Carmady is hired by a wealthy elderly lady to find her niece, who’s done a runner with not only one of the shady men she’s been hanging around with, but also the family dog. This leads him first to a boarding kennels, owned by a classic Chandler ‘camp’ character. In the seedy world of faded Hollywood glamour that Chandler centres his tales around, we’re often presented with characters who are clearly supposed to be gay, but because of the decade in which the stories were written, their proclivity is usually represented by a subtle description of their clothes and mannerisms.
Carmady’s investigation eventually leads him to the lower decks of an off-shore gambling ship and here you may recognise the closing chapters of Farewell, My Lovely. However, The Man who Liked Dogs reads differently to any of the Philip Marlowe books; it has an almost comedic streak in its early moments that gets darker and darker towards a very bloodthirsty ending.
We return to the roots of The Big Sleep with the next story, The Curtain. Elements of The Curtain were combined with Killer in the Rain to make up the bulk of the first Philip Marlowe novel, so if you’re familiar with The Big Sleep, you might find this rather confusing reading. When our hero Carmady mentions having been hired by a wealthy but sick old man to find his wild-child daughter, I was convinced I’d already read that in Killer in the Rain, but eventually realised that I was just mixing it up with my prior knowledge of The Big Sleep. If you’re a fan of Chandler, these early stories can be very confusing!
The Curtain rattles along at a brisk pace and I was convinced that it was one of the shorter stories in the collection, until I looked at the index and saw that it’s around the same length as the others. Once again, it’s sharp stuff and it’s easy to see why Chandler chose this story to be part of his first full length novel.
With the fourth story Try the Girl, we’re back to Farewell, My Lovely, and as with the full length novel, we have an opening sequence set in a blacks-only bar that sits uneasily upon the modern sensibility. Now, Raymond Chandler didn’t often touch upon the matter of race or racism, but when he did his references were very much of their time. I’m afraid to say that Try the Girl does use the N word, but only once and in a non-aggressive context. That doesn’t excuse it of course, but I’m not getting into the whole can of worms of whether vintage literature should or should not be censored for today’s ears.
Although Farewell, My Lovely is a fantastic book, I have to say that Try the Girl didn’t really do that much for me. It seemed a little confusing, trying to cram a lot into its short length. Sometimes with Chandler you feel like he’s just firing names at you and it’s hard to keep up with who has said and done what; this was one of those occasions. I haven’t disliked any of the stories so far, but I would have to say that this is my least favourite – which isn’t to say that it’s actually bad. Raymond Chandler rarely is.
TO BE CONTINUED
KILLER IN THE RAIN by Raymond Chandler is published in the UK by Penguin Books (2011)
Octopussy & The Living Daylights was the last Ian Fleming James Bond novel, published shortly after his death in 1966. It’s not actually a novel as such; nor is it the pairing of two novellas that it’s sometimes generously referred to as. It’s actually just a pair of fair-sized short stories cobbled together to squeeze a few more pennies out of the passing James Bond novel range.
Running at a brisk 95 pages, the 1966 edition featured only the titular two stories, but later editions bulked out the content with the short stories Property of a Lady and 007 in New York. My copy is an original 1966 hardback, albeit a well-thumbed ex-library copy still adorned with a forbidding red stamp declaring SOUTH TYNESIDE LIBRARIES – WITHDRAWN FROM STOCK. I digress; on with the review.
The first story in the collection is Octopussy, which is barely a James Bond story at all. It tells the tale of a corrupt British Army Major, whose shady behaviour during the Second World War has left him rich but living in exile. In poor health and self-destructively ignoring his doctor’s advice, he spends his days smoking, drinking and scuba diving. Then an agent of the Secret Service turns up and tells him that his past misdeeds have been discovered and he’ll have to return to Great Britain to face the music.
The agent is, of course, James Bond – though it might as well not be for all his relevance to the plot. Basically he’s just the bloke who comes and tells Major Dexter Smythe that Her Majesty’s Government are onto him. We’re given very little insight into the agent that might set him up as Bond and if we weren’t actually told his name he could very easily just be A. N. Agent, without any detriment to the narrative, which is entirely about the decline and fall of a disgraced old soldier and not at all about any British secret agent licensed to kill who might spring to mind.
Octopussy is a good little character piece and an interesting short story, but in truth it’s got bugger-all to do with James Bond. You get the distinct impression when reading it that Fleming might have originally written Octopussy as Bondless, and just added his best-loved character to make it more saleable. Any paucity of 007 in the first half of this book, however, is more than made up for in its second instalment, The Living Daylights.
In The Living Daylights, the British Government are anticipating the defection of a double-agent known only as Number 272, but they fear that the Soviets will try and assassinate him when he attempts to cross from East to West Germany. Consequently, Bond is charged by M to act as counter-assassin and to take out the Soviet gunman before he can assassinate 272. Holed up in a hotel room overlooking the border, waiting for the moment when he will have to act, Bond uncharacteristically allows his mind to wander as he becomes interested in a female cellist that he spies through the lens of his sniper rifle.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the 1987 Timothy Dalton Bond film which shares the name The Living Daylights, utilises the short story almost in its entirety before branching off at various tangents. Of course, Octopussy was also ‘adapted’ for the screen, but the 1983 Roger Moore film shares almost nothing with its source material apart from its title and the vague suggestion that the Major Dexter Smythe character may have been the titular female villain’s father.
The Living Daylights is a lot more satisfying as James Bond fare than Octopussy; it has everything that you expect from our favourite secret agent, including an early briefing from M. It also allows a somewhat queasy insight into the workings of 007’s brain as he considers attending a nearby brothel as a possible method of killing time! Both of these stories are distinctly of their generation and this edition’s imprint of Octopussy uses certain outdated diving terminology that would be considered unsuitable in a modern novel. I’d be interested to know if the word in question remains in modern editions.
Octopussy & The Living Daylights is a curiosity rather than a page-turner. It can easily be read in one indulgent sitting and is probably best done so. I don’t think anyone would ever claim it as the best Bond novel and I imagine it works a lot better as a short story collection with the two other stories I mentioned earlier. Definitely worth a look, but a long, long way from being essential James Bond.
This edition of ‘Octopussy & The Living Daylights’ was published by Jonathan Cape (1966). Current UK edition published by Vintage Classics.
The name Roald Dahl is now so firmly associated with children’s literature that it’s easy to forget he spent most of his 48 year career writing adult fiction, only really knuckling down to the kids’ stuff in the 70s and 80s. Such is the desire of publishers for new children’s material that some of his adult books have been repackaged for teens. Switch Bitch is not one of them – and if you’ve ever read it you’ll know exactly why!
When we read these days that well-known short story writers of the 50s and 60s had stories published in Playboy, it often comes as a bit of a shock; but we’d do well to remember that Playboy in those decades published a much wider range of material, from science fiction to westerns. Having said that, it would come as no surprise to anyone that the four stories presented in Switch Bitch were originally published in that particular magazine, because this is a slender volume that is very firmly and unashamedly concerned with sex.
Two of the stories in Switch Bitch feature Uncle Oswald, a recurring character created by Dahl who would later go on to feature in his own novel, My Uncle Oswald. He’s a wealthy, amoral, middle-aged scoundrel, whose amorous adventures are relayed in typically witty Roald Dahl style. The two Uncle Oswald stories bookend the collection, the first being The Visitor.
In this story, the longest piece in the book, Oswald Cornelius is travelling across North Africa by motor car when he breaks a fan belt. The typical brash, arrogant upper-class Englishman abroad, he harangues a local merchant into ordering him a new one, but it won’t come until the next day. Luckily, an affluent local offers Oswald the chance to stay overnight in his luxurious home, where the randy gent becomes infatuated by the man’s exotic wife and beautiful daughter. He plans to seduce one or both of them overnight, but things aren’t quite what they seem.
Roald Dahl’s short stories are renowned for their ‘twist’ endings, but a lot of this reputation comes from his work on the Tales of the Unexpected TV series; the endings of his short stories are often oblique and open to interpretation. Sadly, The Visitor isn’t one of those. Of the four stories here, it has the most telegraphed quirk at the end; you might not guess the specifics, but a sharp reader will definitely suspect that something is amiss a long time before it is revealed. Nevertheless, it’s a fun story, expertly told, with a sort of queasy first person narrative that puts the reader right among the murky thoughts of Uncle Oswald.
The second story is The Great Switcheroo; a morally questionable tale of two neighbours who cook up an elaborate plan to sleep with one another’s wives. There’s very little more to the story than that really, except to say that the results aren’t exactly what one of the men was hoping for. Here, as in several of these stories, the author sets himself up as the dispenser of karmic justice; none of the unfaithful exactly comes out of their escapades smelling of roses.
Next up is The Last Act, which is much darker in tone than the other stories presented here. It follows a middle aged woman as she has to confront widowhood followed by her children flying the nest. She flirts with suicide but eventually regains balance in her life through voluntary work. Things seem back on track until she runs into an old flame, whose heart she broke back in high school. They seem to hit it off very well and their friendship quickly becomes physical; the acrimony of their past relationship is far behind them… or is it?
The Last Act ends on a very bleak note, but here we see the aforementioned ambiguity of Dahl’s best ‘twist’ endings. Are the unfortunate events that befall our heroine a cruel incidence of fate or an act of bitter, long-gestating revenge? It’s a much more satisfying climax (no pun intended) than either The Arrival or The Great Switcheroo, but it is tremendously dark and you can’t help thinking that, on this particular occasion, it’s an innocent party that has been punished. The Last Act sits nicely in this position in the collection, being too grim for a place at either the beginning or end of the book.
We return to the exploits of Uncle Oswald for the final story Bitch, in which the randy old letch finances a perfumier’s plan to create a pheromonal spray that will send men into a sexual frenzy. The story takes an unexpected detour when Oswald decides to use the spray to discredit a dishonest and unpopular US president, but as with all of these stories, things don’t quite go according to plan.
Bitch (that’s the name of the spray, by the way) is presented as a broad and bawdy comedy and it’s by far the most sexually explicit story in the collection. If you still needed any convincing that you shouldn’t buy this book for Little Johnny’s Christmas stocking, the contents of Bitch should certainly do the trick! It rounds off the book nicely and leaves you on a relatively upbeat note; you couldn’t have ended Switch Bitch with either The Arrival or The Last Act, as that would have been too dark even for Roald Dahl.
If you’re not used to Dahl’s adult works, Switch Bitch might come as something of a shock, but if you are, you’ll find all the familiar tropes present and correct. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a streak of misogyny on display – even the female lead in The Last Act seems cast as a victim – but there’s no glorification in the sexual desires of Dahl’s characters. All of them suffer for their unbridled lust and the overarching message on display here is if you play with fire, expect to get burnt. As Augustus Gloop’s desire for chocolate left him stuck in a pipe, so Switch Bitch’s characters’ desire for sex, power and revenge leaves them in similarly sticky situations.
This book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it’s very firmly lodged in an early 60s pipe-smoking, hair-oiled groove, but if you’re open to this sort of fiction, you’ll certainly find a lot to enjoy. These are cautionary tales and should be taken as such; if you don’t find the actions of the characters here reprehensible, perhaps you need to take a little look at your life.
This edition of Switch Bitch was published in the UK by Penguin Books (2000)
No, you haven’t logged into Space Probe 1 by mistake. Harry Harrison may be best known as a writer of science fiction, but he has also written the odd straight thriller over the years, In fact, one of his first published novels was as a ghost writer for Leslie Charteris on Vendetta for the Saint. 22 years later, along came The QE2 is Missing, a novel very much in the mould of the kind of hard-edged paperback thriller that you might see jammed into a wire rack in the local Post Office throughout the 1970s.
The story starts exactly as it says on the cover, with the famous luxury liner having dropped off the radar. It’s eventually discovered adrift off the coast of Peru– but completely deserted! What has happened to the crew? What has happened to the passengers? Rewind back to several months earlier and the discovery of a planned arms deal between representatives of the Paraguayan dictatorship and bunch of exiled ex-Nazis, which will take place in a luxury suite of the luxury liner QE2 and involve $250,000,000 worth of illegal WWII diamonds.
The information passes into the hands of a Jewish lawyer called Hank Greenstein, who is a conduit to a group of dedicated Nazi-hunters. Naturally, they’re quite keen on getting their hands on the war criminals, but can only do so by striking up an uneasy alliance with rebel forces from Paraguay. Posing as innocent passengers in the cabin next door to the Nazis, Hank and his wife act as cover for the team who have sneaked on board to prevent the deal taking place and head towards bringing the various war criminals to justice. Not everyone has the same kind of justice in mind though and the Greensteins are caught in between an uncomfortable alliance as tempers rise and the deal gets closer.
The QE2 is Missing is quite a slow burner. The action takes a long, long time to get going and along the way we are introduced to lots of characters. Maybe it’s just me, but the main problem I had with this book was remembering who’s who and one what side! You need quite a memory to be able to keep track of the sizeable dramatis personae in this novel; either that or take notes. When the action does take place – quite late in the book – it’s sudden and violent. There’s very little to and fro, no twists and turns; it just builds and builds and builds, then suddenly explodes. In that sense, I suppose it’s how such an event would take place in real life.
Having a multitude of characters can sometimes work against the book. Hank Greenstein, forefront for much of the narrative, drops out of the picture altogether for a big chunk of the action. There are simply too many characters to give everyone an equal share of the pages. Also, because of the number of characters, they’re not all as well-defined as you might hope for.
As I mentioned earlier, this book very much attempts to emulate the style of the archetypal 1970s pulp thriller. Exiled Nazis in South America are a mainstay of the action novels of that era. For anyone familiar with his work, this doesn’t really read like a Harry Harrison novel – it’s quite low on humour and there are infrequent but unexpectedly strong instances of sex and bad language. If your pre-teen son has discovered Harrison through the Stainless Steel Rat series (like I did), I really wouldn’t recommend buying him this one for Christmas!
I love Harry Harrison’s books but, as with all jobbing authors of his era, there were times where you got the impression that he was taking on certain jobs just to boost his bank account. I might be way off track, but that’s how The QE2 is Missing feels to me. It’s not, in any sense at all, a bad book; but there’s a feeling that he’s jumping on the bandwagon of what was popular in 1976. Ironic really, as one year later, Harrison’s preferred genre, science fiction, would suddenly become more popular than ever!
If you’re a fan of Sunday afternoon action films like North Sea Hijack or Raise the Titanic, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in The QE2 is Missing. It has its faults, but there’s a sturdy pulp adventure story at its heart that would probably have worked better as a movie than a novel. Those used to pacey modern adventure novels will most likely find it slow going, but it’s worth sticking in there. This would make a good holiday read, though the fact that the cover is adorned with swastikas might get you a few odd looks on the beach, depending on your destination.
This edition of The QE2 is Missing was published by Tor Books (1980) and is currently out of print.
Public Eye was a long-running ITV series from the late-60s to mid-70s, starring Alfred Burke as the misanthropic loner Frank Marker. Unlike most other detective series of the era, it eschewed car chases and shoot-outs in favour of an often grim real world approach. Cross That Palm When I Come To It was the second of only two spin-off novels from the series and was written by Audley Southcott who, although a TV writer and producer, never wrote for the actual TV series.
The first thing that strikes you about Cross That Palm When I Come To It is that it’s pushing barriers that a TV series of that era wouldn’t dare. The first word out of Marker’s mouth – in fact, the first word in the book – is ‘shit’ and when the author drops the C-bomb several pages later you know that this is going to be much stronger meat than the TV series. And this from the writer and producer of children’s horse drama Follyfoot!
This opening barrage of profanity sets a tone that the rest of the novel doesn’t really commit to. It’s based on bits from a number of TV episodes, the first of which (from which the book takes its name) no longer exists in the ITV archives, so even if you’ve caught up with the whole of Public Eye on the excellent DVD series from Network, there’ll still be something here you haven’t seen before (unless you watched it in 1972). The beginning of the book, in which Frank Marker reluctantly accepts the job of acting as go-between for an insurance company and a gang of jewel thieves, is hard and gritty. The gang are an unpleasant bunch and the author spends much time outlining their moral corruption and how they’re as likely to betray each other as anyone else. However, it turns out to be the fraudulent insurance agent who’s the real joker in the pack, betraying both Marker and the gang and sending the former to prison for two years.
It’s here that the story unexpectedly switches gear. The gang that we’ve grown to know and hate, lovingly described in early chapters, are dispensed with in little more than a by-line and the narrative leaps ahead two years to Marker’s release from prison. You see, this isn’t really a novel about a jewel theft; it’s a novel about a man desperately trying to rebuild his career after a spell behind bars triggered chiefly by his own naivety. It’s a bit of a surprise that Cross That Palm When I Come To It switches tracks in this way (especially to anyone who’s never seen the TV series) but it makes a refreshing change. What could easily have been a rather dour detective novel suddenly becomes something else, and I for one believe that detective fiction is at its best when it’s about people rather than crime.
Moving to a boarding house in Brighton, Marker struggles with life outside prison. The world suddenly seems a scary place, full of deceit and acts of random violence; he’s robbed by a prostitute, victimised by a pair of hooligans and judged by his workmates in the only menial job that he can get. He longs to return to his life as a Private Enquiry Agent, but his confidence is scarred by his experiences and his faith in mankind – febrile at the best of times – is in tatters.
Eventually, Marker is drawn back into the detective business when his landlord asks him to find her runaway teenage niece. Through undertaking this task, Marker rediscovers his love – and his talent – for this kind of work. The book ends with our hero heading for Windsor to set up business as a Private Enquiry Agent once more. This happens quite late in the book and you might find yourself wondering if he’s ever going to get back to his old life.
I wanted to review Cross That Palm When I Come To It in its own right, without constantly harking back to the TV series, but it’s important to note that the events comprising this novel take place over an entire series of the show. There are elements that are missed out altogether for reasons of time, such as Marker’s awkward romance with his landlady Mrs Mortimer, but it’s a fairly slender volume and I think that would have just confused the plot. In all, I think Audley Southcott makes good use of the pertinent bits of plot from this era of Public Eye, weaving them into a fall-and-rise story that works really well as a novel aside from its parent show. Be warned though; the prose, the language and a lot of the references are very much of their time and there are bits and bobs in there that could potentially cause offense, but it has a certain nicotine-stained 1970s charm that sets it firmly in the higher end of the TV tie-in spectrum.
Sadly, Cross That Palm When I Come To It is long out of print, and you might have difficulty finding it, but copies frequently turn up on Amazon at very reasonable prices, so if this review has you intrigued, keep a (public) eye out for one.
Cross That Palm When I Come To It was published by Sphere Books (1974) currently out of print
A while ago I started making my way through Raymond Chandler’s excellent Philip Marlowe novels in order. Sadly for this blog, I completed the last full length novel Playback shortly before starting to write reviews for Hot Bullets. It’s not all over for Philip Marlowe however, as I still had the short story collection Trouble is my Business to read. I say short stories, they’re probably more properly defined as ‘novellas’, but I detest using that word, so to me they’ll always be – fairly long – short stories.
The first of the four stories in this collection is Trouble is my Business, from which it gets its name. This 1939 story sees world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe hired to scare away a disreputable woman from the adopted son of a wealthy businessman. He’s no sooner started following this potential gold-digger before he stumbled across the first murder. From there, the bodies just keep piling up – but who’s responsible? Chandler cheekily waves suspects and red herrings in your face, so the reader – as well as Marlowe – hit many false leads before the final pay-off.
This is much more explicitly a whodunit than most of the longer Philip Marlowe books and even has an Agatha Christie-esque line-up of suspects at its climax, but all of the classic Raymond Chandler elements are still present and correct. Brusque police chief – check! Sharp-tongued femme fatale – check! Troubled offspring of rich industrialist – check! I don’t mean this as a criticism; it wouldn’t be a Philip Marlowe story without this unique cast of archetypes. And this is definitely a Philip Marlowe story.
Trouble is my Business definitely gets this collection off to a great start. It doesn’t suffer from being in the short form at all; it’s like a compressed novel and subsequently cracks along at a hell of a pace. Also moving at a swift pace is Finger Man, the second story in the collection, though it’s quite a different beast from its predecessor.
Finger Man starts with Philip Marlowe being basically hired as a bodyguard for a gambler who’s all set up for a big win from a local mobster. Because this is Raymond Chandler, things naturally don’t go according to plan; Marlowe is separated from his client, who subsequently ends up dead while his lady friend disappears with the cash and Marlowe is blamed for the murder. He’s got both the cops and the mob on his back and nobody’s even paying him for the inconvenience.
I didn’t enjoy Finger Man as much as Trouble is my Business; the pace is a little too frenetic and it seems crushed into its short story format. This is a story that could definitely have done with being longer. I’m not sure that Marlowe really fits into the role of hired bodyguard either; is it a job that he would have accepted? He’s usually so shrewd about what he will and won’t do for money and it doesn’t seem to ring true that he would take such a case.
Any problems I had with Finger Man are more than made up for by Goldfish, probably my favourite story in this collection. In this, the shortest story collected here, Philip Marlowe is put onto the trail of some stolen pearls worth $250,000 (a lot of money in 1936!) but another less scrupulous party is after the pearls and his main lead is already dead by the time Marlowe goes to see him – tortured to death with a hot iron to the soles of his feet. Ouch! Yes, Goldfish is a surprisingly violent story, with more than one gun fight spelled out in operatic detail.
It’s a brisk story, briskly told in almost real time, and full of larger-than-life characters. Like Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake, it strays away from the big city and into a picture book countryside which is full of hidden secrets. Oh, and there’s a cracking twist at the story’s end which just reeks of the cynicism that makes Chandler’s stories so great.
Pearls also play an important role in the final story, Red Wind, only this time Marlowe isn’t specifically aiming to find them. In fact, he’s not aiming to do anything much, other than take a quiet drink in his local bar, but this is Chandler-world, so pretty soon there’s a dead body and a gorgeous dame to deal with. Unusually for a Philip Marlowe story, Red Wind doesn’t start with the detective taking on a case; he’s just kind of thrown into the action against his will.
It’s a strange jigsaw of a story that presents a series of seemingly unrelated events that only really fit together towards the end. Also, there’s not really any good guys, certainly not the cops and possibly not even Marlowe himself. The story is told with an interesting sense of detachment – a sort of Day in the Life of Philip Marlowe – that sets it apart from the other stories in this volume.
Trouble is My Business is a worthwhile coda to the adventures of Philip Marlowe and an interesting collection of stories, though in truth I could probably live without Finger Man. The next (and last) Raymond Chandler book in the Penguin series I’m working my way through is Killer in the Rain; short stories again but this time without Philip Marlowe. Ah, I’m going to miss him.
TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS by Raymond Chandler is published by Penguin Books in the UK
My wife and I were recently enjoying the first series of Bates Motel, when it suddenly occurred to me that, although I’d seen Psycho many times, its sequels of varying quality and even the monumentally redundant Gus van Sant remake; I’d never read the book that started it all – Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
It took me a few months to get around to buying it, of course, but when I did I found that I literally couldn’t put it down. I raced through the book in a couple of days and the fact that I was so familiar with the plot never really spoiled my enjoyment of the book at all.
What surprised me most of all is how closely Hitchcock’s film actually sticks to the book. I’ve had that experience in the past of reading a book after I’ve seen the movie and thinking ‘that was really based on this?’ A good example is Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room upon which the film Soylent Green was based – very loosely it seems. But Psycho isn’t like that at all; Joseph Stefano’s script maintains all of the same beats as the novel and rarely strays from the basic plot. He even adapts some of his dialogue directly from the novel.
There are significant cosmetic changes, of course. Norman Bates in the novel is pudgy, balding and middle-aged. He’s also a much less sympathetic character; his internal monologue makes up much of the text and this portrays his him as misogynistic and utterly antisocial. He’s also obsessed with sociology and amateur psychiatry, as well as pornography. For the film and subsequent media, Norman is softened up and presented as much more of a confused young man with simple and less academic hobbies.
The other significant character in Psycho, Norman’s mother Norma Bates, is kept deliberately vague throughout the majority of the text. Her interactions with Norman are told through Norman’s perception of them. In retrospect, it’s clear to see why, but it’s not done in so obvious a way that any reader of the original novel would have easily guessed the denouement.
The murder of Mary Crane (renamed Marion in the movie) is much more brutal in the novel, though very briskly described. The novel never dwells on the murders, but the beheading of this first victim would nonetheless has been unacceptable in 60s cinema. It’s changed to a famously vicious stabbing in the film, but still retains the novel’s shower setting.
Bloch begins the novel with Norman, and then switches to the back-story of Mary. This was changed in the film because Hitchcock wanted the audience to believe that the central character was Marion, not Norman. Both versions work best for their respective medium. A device which Bloch uses very effectively in the book, but which wouldn’t have transferred effectively to film, is to relate the events of a certain period of time as they happened to one person and then, in the next chapter, to describe the same period of time as it happened to another character. So, effectively, the consequences of a murder are discovered by one character before that murder has been related to the reader. It’s a device that works really well in the novel.
It’s clear that the writers of Bates Motel have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, because there are certain elements found only in the book that resurface in that series. For example, when searching the Bates household, Mary’s sister Lyla discovers a plain-wrappered book in Norman’s room that is implied to contain sadomasochistic images. Anyone who’s been watching the TV show will know that a book of similar contents plays an important role in the first series.
In summary; Psycho is a very dynamic novel. Undoubtedly some of the punch of its original release has been diluted by over-familiarity, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an enjoyable read 53 years after it was first published. If you’re thinking it will come across as dated – think again. If you’re thinking it won’t be as good as the movie – think again. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock was so keen to adapt Robert Bloch’s Psycho for the silver screen.
PSYCHO by Robert Bloch is published by Robert Hale Ltd in the UK