Friday, December 25, 2009

The Flying Beast by Walter S. Masterman

"Masterman again takes the detective formula and runs berserk, this time with a haunted English manor, murder, anti-gravity metal, a lost race of troglodytes, and a hidden abyss in the desert."

#7 of Karl Edward Wagner's Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels list is The Flying Beast by Walter S. Masterman. Masterman has the distinction of providing two books to this list with The Yellow Mistletoe (previously reviewed) being the other. Once again, we have the distinguished book publisher Ramble House to thank for making this gem available at less than astronomical prices.
As in Mistletoe, Beast is preoccupied with bright young things who have little more to do than race around the world in pursuit of a mystery. Years before a foursome was traveling the backwoods of America looking for a mystery, Masterman had his youthful heros doing similar work. And in typical stiff-upper-lip fashion, there is a butler who lives to serve his master. Sir Arthur Sinclair, the polygot investigator, makes another appearance.
Beast begins with Dick Maldon, a toff on a walking tour of England, taking refuge from a storm at an isolated country inn. He soon learns of an even more isolated country mansion. It's surrounded by barb wire and can only be entered by a secret underground passage. In this strange house dwells the Furgeson brothers and a daughter named Joan. Before Dickie even has a chance to say "What, ho!", Joan Furgeson dashes into the inn announcing the sudden death of her uncle.
A party makes its way to the mansion and finds one of the Furgeson brothers dangling from a rope. Dick stays on at the house overnight and encounters strange creatures moving around hidden passages. By the time the police make an show the next morning, he's decided to get to the bottom of the secret inside the house.
The novel introduces plenty of characters and, once again, it's not easy keeping up with them all. There's "Bunny" Vincent, Dick's lifelong friend and companion. Hilda, Dick's fiance. Higgins, a British Amelia Erhardt and her father, the eminent archeologist Professor Higgins. There's also Inspector Heldon, a gruff Scotland Yard investigator who doesn't approve of meddling kids. No talking Great Danes, but there is a race of subterranean cave dwellers who figure prominently into the book.
Characters have a tendency to expire just as they are about to reveal some dreaded secret. Others are sworn to secrecy and refuse to tell what they know. After awhile it's hard to put the book down because you want to find out what everyone is hiding.
Most of the book takes place in England, but the last fifty or so pages conclude in the deserts of Arabia. And it's this section which makes the book memorable. Again, Masterman travels into Lost Horizons territory with a hidden civilization and secret treasure. My only complaint with Beast is that it takes too long to get to Shangra-La. For some reason, most of the characters are quite ready to listen to their betters and stay put when danger is all about. The title refers to an airship which features into the plot, although the author doesn't give it much of a description.
A neat little book, I can see why KEW included it in these lists.

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