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.
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 first 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