Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Silken Baroness Contract by Philip Atlee

In the wake of Ian Flemming's success with the James Bond novels, a lot of American publishers attempted to get into the spy game with series books of their own. Most of them are pretty forgettable, but now and then you find one in a library discard pile which was interesting. Such is the case of the Joe Gail series by the writer Philip Atlee. A former intelligence operator, Gall retired early in the cold war game and only comes out of retirement for special assignments. He's a spook for hire and the employer is the US government, who still finds him useful. In between jobs he chills at a 19th century estate built in the in the Ozarks by a Union general.
Silken Baroness has Gall sent to the Canary Islands on an ambiguous mission. He's supposed to be posing as an American writer and rents a small place near the ocean. This gives him plenty of time to party away and make the acquaintance of the European baroness in question. Soon, he finds himself the target of a several murder attempts. Someone wants him dead and Gall doesn't even know why he's been hired.
The Gall books are written in first person, much like a hard-boiled detective novel. In some ways the character reminds me of Ross McDonald's Lew Archer: a personality so thin it would disappear if he turned sideways. One of his contacts remarks that Gall is lost if he can't "murder it, blow it up, or paint it pink."
There's a lot of scenic writing in this novel. The author is so detailed with the local life on the Canary Islands and the Iberian peninsula you almost feel you are there. Quite a feel for Franco-era Spain and what it must've been like to live under the shadow of the yoked arrows.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Hanns Ewers

(cover picture courtesy of Mr. John Squires)

#7- The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Hanns Ewers. The first of the Frank Braun trilogy. Braun hypnotizes a peasant girl into believing she has had a heavenly visitiation, the isolated village goes mad with religious frenzy, and Braun is in over his head.
-KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels.

One of the most interesting and controversial writers on these lists has to be Hanns Ewers. A brilliant writer in the early 20th century, he turned to Nazism in the late 20's. But by the time Hitler and Co. had consolidated power in 1933, Ewers was proscribed and his writings were confiscated. He died in poverty during the next decade. As Karl Wagner said: "The question of who is the victim and the master was is a recurrent dilemma in Ewers' work, one which the Nazis finally solved for him."
Ewers' novels are difficult to find in English editions. I've been lucky to either find them in older libraries or reprints. This one was richly illustrated by Mahlon Blaine. His decedent style fits the book perfectly.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is about Frank Braun, probably an alto ego for Ewers himself. He's a sophisticated German who travels the world, witnessing some of the most bizarre things imaginable. In Alraune, he's there for the birth of a woman without a soul, who causes damage to everyone around her. The Vampire finds him stuck in a hostile America during WW1. Here he decides to take a sabbatical to an isolated Italian mountain village to write. But the village is teeming with religious frenzy.
Braun arrives to this little collection of scrabble farmers to encounter a man who has recently returned from the United States after winning a big sum in a lottery. It seems "The American" had immigrated to the USA from the village of Val di Scodra thirty years previously. While in the States, he joined a Pentecostal church and became quite active in it. Now he's back in town again with plenty of money to finance his missionary activities. The villagers have abandoned the local catholic church and are now attending The American's frequent revivals. The catholic bishop for the area has decided to ignore the situation, least he create a bunch of martyrs.
Frank Braun finds this whole situation amusing. The only people who will have anything to do with him are the innkeeper, Raimondi, the local frontier guard, Aloys Drecker, Ramondi's daughter Teresa, and a hired-hand named Angelo. In the first week, Braun has his way with Teresa, whose father just adds her to the bill.
Soon, Braun is using his elementary knowledge of psychology and hypnotism to bend both Teresa and The American to his will. He conveniences The American that he's the prophet Elijah reborn. And just for kicks he then preaches to the man about the power of self-flagellation. Naturally, The American soon has his entire flock whipping themselves into a mass of blood to chase the devil out.
Very pleased with himself, Braun reflects on how he'll sell the mountain village as a holy spot for all the religious suckers in the world. It seems a good way to make money, so why shouldn't he get in on it? Besides, these rubes will do anything he says. Teresa he even adopts as a pet.
But one day Braun gets lost traveling through the mountains and doesn't return to the village for several weeks. When he shows up at the inn, he discovers Teresa is being worshiped as a saint by the villagers. She's received the stigmata and they are sure the Kingdom of Heaven is upon them. When Braun tries to excert his power over Teresa, he finds it useless. Now Teresa in in charge and she's not about to let Braun leave the village.
The book ends with a description of a blood ritual straight out of Leatherface Central. To go into it further would spoil the ending. Just let me say this is not a book to conclude on a full stomach. However, it is an excellent novel about the power of mass hysteria.

Monday, February 8, 2010

UP FROM EARTH'S CENTER (1949) by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

The final of 181 initially published Doc Savage novels has The Man of Bronze fighting the forces of Hell itself. Since Lester Dent (writing as usual under the house name of Kenneth Robeson) had no idea the series was about to end, it's a little strange he took the final bow of Doc and Co. into Lovecraft territory. Dent's writing is at it's usual crisp style- short and too the point with no verbiage wasted. However, there is quite a bit of information about yachting and sail boating at the beginning of the book, suggesting that Dent had done his homework.
The novel begins with the discovery of a castaway on an island off the coast of Maine. Psychiatrist Dr. Karl Linningen has been sailing his yacht, the Mary Too, on a extended vacation. On the Canadian island of Campobello he discovers Gilmore, a geologist who's been missing for months after disappearing in a cave. Gilmore is certain he's been in hell and is sure the rescue party is a group of demons sent to take him back. Dr. Karl decides to take him to the nearest shore. Naturally, Doc Savage just happens to be in the town were they moor.
This is a more subdued, economy Doc Savage. There is some mention of his sidekick John "Renny" Renwick, but he never makes an appearance. Ditto for "Long" Tom, the electrical engineer. "Monk" Mayfair and "Ham" Brooks are the only two who follow along for the ride.
When Doc makes it back to the yacht, Gilmore has vanished from a locked room. They break down the door to find the mysterious Mr. Wail. Wail is one of the strange and more interesting creations in the Savage universe. He's a short little chubby man who claims to have been a Jr. devil sent from hell to fetch Gilmore back. He provides the comedy relief which is normally Monk's job.
The final portion of the book has Doc and company traveling down a deep cavern, in pursuit of the bad guys. But Doc ends up in a subterranean lair filled with fantastic creatures right out of The Mountains of Madness. Are they fiends from the underworld or hallucinations from an unknown gas? Dent leaves the answer open.
You can't help but wonder where Dent was going with this story line. Did he plan another adventure using the same sub-terrain? Dent wasn't known for re-using characters in his stories. It's hard to believe he would take Doc Savage, super scientist detective, into fantasy land.
But we'll never know.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fade to Blond by Max Phillips

Hard Case Crime shows it can deliver as a book publisher. With novels such as Money Shot, I've become a big fan of the company It's always good to know there are Still a few publishers out there who can deliver the goods.
Fade to Blond is written from the perspective of Ray Corson, a WWII vet and prize fighter. It's the 1950'S in Los Angeles and he's trying to make a living in the building trades. One day a mysterious blond woman comes up to him on a job site wanting to hire Corson to keep a former boyfriend off her back. Needing the cash and smitten with the woman, he takes the job.
But soon he discovers there's more to the job than she let on. Her ex is a small time hoodlum named Halliday who produces adult films and is in fealty to Lenny Scarpa, a major player in the drug trade. Scarpa, in turn, is beholden to Fausto Burri, the mob boss of Santa Monica. Soon Corson discovers all kinds of inconsistencies in the blonde’s (who goes by the name Rebecca Lafontaine) story. But he’s fallen in love with her and becomes ensnarled in a complex of schemes.
Max Phillips has a natural, but not too easy to follow, writing style. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell who's talking if the scene involves multiple characters. But his feel for natural speaking can also work to his advantage, especially if a given character does not speak standard English. And he can turn a sentence. Such as this description of a young woman who lives too fast:

I was always glad to see Joanie, because it meant no one had killed her yet.

And check out how he manages to capture the spirit of the age in one sentence:

I saw a couple more people about as well-known as Neale and Tremaine, and some players who were just half familiar faces, but you couldn't think what they'd done, and some gaudy specimens who must have been choreographers or designers, and some set dressers and grips and a couple guys who might've been artists, the new kind, that try to look like dockworkers.

The ending of the book is quite stunning, although not too surprising. It out-ranks the famous "It was easy” conclusion from another novel.
A good hard boiled book from a company creating crime fiction with an edge