Sep 212014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


STREET OF CHANCE. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Burgess Mededith, Claire Trevor, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, Frieda Inescort, Adeline de Walt Reynolds, Louise Platt. Screenplay by Garrett Fort based on The Black Curtain by Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish. Score: David Buttolph. Directed by Jack Hively.

   Street of Chance is film noir before anyone knew they were making film noir and while there are noir touches in the black and white cinematography and low lighting, it is primarily the script based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Curtain that makes this noir and the presence of actors such as Burgess Meredith, Claire Trevor, and Jerome Cowan.

   When ordinary joe Fred Thompson, Burgess Meredith, is almost killed by a beam falling from a construction site (shades of the Flitcraft story in The Maltese Falcon) he wakes up, stunned. He tells a policeman his name, but when he reaches in his pocket he finds a cigarette case with the initials DN and his hat has those same initials sewn in it. Shaken up and confused he goes home only to find his wife moved out — a year earlier.

   He finds his wife Virginia, Louise Platt, and she is delighted to have him back but has no more explanation than he does as to what happened. He obviously has amnesia, and recovering those memories of that missing time becomes vital when he discovers DN, Danny Neary, is wanted for murder.

   Danny Neary’s trail leads him to the Diedrichs (Frieda Inescort and Jerome Cowan), their bed ridden grandmother (Adeline de Walt Reynolds), and nurse Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor). Did Danny Neary really murder someone or is he the fall guy for the hothouse drama and conspiracy in the Diedrich household? This part of the film is as much a gothic as noir drama with Meredith our Jane Eyre.

   Street of Chance is an entertaining enough film, and the actors are fine, but it sounds better than the film really is as far as noir goes. It drags a bit once the main story line kicks in, and there are no surprises, not even the big shocker at the end.

   Leave it to say Meredith is cleared by a dying statement overheard by the cop, Sheldon Leonard, who has been after him and by Grandma Diedrich even though she can’t speak. It’s Woolrich’s story that marks it as noir more than any other factor. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or Laura, the noir elements here are mostly accidental or budget matters, not attempts at style or German Expressionism. Even the low lighting is mostly budget and not art, though there are attempts at visual distinction by director Hively and cinematographer Theodor Spakuhl.

   Without a visual equivalent of Woolrich’s overheated, sometimes purple prose, there is none of the feverish near hallucinatory quality that marks the best noir films. Despite these caveats its not a bad film or a bad adaptation of Woolrich’s novel from the fabled black series.

   It’s only that it’s more noir in retrospect based on our familiarity with noir than it was all that obvious at the time. Films such as those I mentioned earlier or Alan Ladd’s This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key were much more obviously noir. Some of William Castle’s B “Whistler” films are as much noir as this.

   A more faithful and more noirish version of this appeared as the 9th episode of the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twenty years later under its original title, directed by Sydney Pollack, with Richard Basehart in the lead and with Lola Albright as Ruth. Any noir aspects there were deliberate.

 Posted by at 6:56 pm
Sep 212014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TEENAGE CAVEMAN. American International Pictures, 1957. Robert Vaughn, Darah Marshall, Leslie Bradley, Frank De Kova, Charles Thompson, June Jocelyn, Ed Nelson, Robert Shayne. Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell. Director: Roger Corman.

   Teenage Caveman, a low-budget project ($70,000) with a title that conveys adolescent culture, is a far more interesting film than you might expect it to be. Directed and produced by Roger Corman, the movie’s original title was “Prehistoric World.” Which makes sense given that there are dinosaurs and strange lizard creatures lurking about in the background.

   Whatever it rightfully called, the occasionally stylish movie stars Robert Vaughn as – you guessed it – a teenage cave man. Known as “Boy,” Vaughn’s character is plagued by curiosity. Why does his society’s law forbid people to travel beyond the river? What’s there that’s so forbidden or so dangerous? Right from the get go, one is plunged into a society seemingly ossified by religious dogma and intolerance.

   By the time it’s all over, one feels as if the rug has been ripped out from under one’s feet. Perhaps there was a reason – a very good one, at that – why the Boy’s elders warned him against traveling far beyond his immediate surroundings. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that fans of Planet of the Apes will find Corman’s worldview, as conveyed in this particular film, to be not all that different from Rod Serling’s.

   So, is Teenage Caveman a good movie or is it just a silly exercise in filmmaking? The best way to answer that question is as an attorney would: “It depends.” It depends what you’re looking for or how much stock you put in Corman’s abilities to convey serious ideas with a meager budget.

   In terms of realism special effects, it’s basically a notch below a B-film. The lizards and dinosaurs, for instance, look more silly than scary. And Vaughn has to have the best coiffed haircut of any caveman since time began. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a very good actor or that he doesn’t take his role in this movie seriously. He does. And that’s what makes what could have otherwise been a total dud something worth watching, even if you have an inkling what the surprise ending is going to be.

 Posted by at 5:04 am
Sep 212014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MILTON LOTT – The Last Hunt. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Cardinal paperback C-203, 1955. Gregg Press, hardvover reprint, 1979.

THE LAST HUNT. MGM, 1956. Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis. Based on the novel by Milton Lott. Director: Richard Brooks.

   Fans of Western fiction need to run out and get a copy of this book, which ranks right up there with The Big Sky, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones and a very few others as one of the great novels of the American West.

   Lott takes a simple tale of buffalo hunters in the 1880s, charges it with vivid description of an unforgettable countryside, adds some thoughtful and very surprising plot twists, and lights it up with scenes and characters you won’t forget.

   Lott has a way of telling a story that seems to build up to a dramatic life-or-death confrontation every so often, then suddenly develops it with a maturity and naturalness that seems to grow directly from the characters and their setting.

   Even the bit players come alive here, and Lott’s descriptive powers are such that — well let me just say that when the freighter trekked through a Dakota blizzard, I forgot the warm Ohio Sun on my back and felt myself shiver!

   MGM filmed this in 1956, and they did a pretty fine job of it, too. Writer/director Richard Brooks always loved filming Literature, but he sometimes stumbled rather badly. Here though, he takes the best bits form Lott’s novel, simplifies when he has to, plays up the drama nicely, and doesn’t flinch from the grimmest parts. Along the way, he loses a bit of what makes the book so unique, but he turns out a damfine movie, so what’s to complain?

   I should also mention the acting: where Lott evoked character, Brooks provokes performance. Robert Taylor makes a chilling kill-crazy hunter (his second portrait of a psycho, after Undercurrent) Stewart Granger — who lost his wife to Brooks in real life — seems at home on the range in his first and best real Western; Russ Tamblyn looks a bit unlikely as a red-haired Indian, but that’s how Lott wrote it; Debra Paget, typecast again as a dusky Indian maiden walks through the part with assurance, and best of all—best of all is Lloyd Nolan as a one-legged mule-skinner whose commentary on the proceedings puts things into context.

   He sometimes seems to be carrying Brooks’ Important Message for him a little too obviously, but he does it with such robust good humor I didn’t mind a bit.

 Posted by at 2:38 am
Sep 202014
 
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins


  WILLIAM ARD – Hell Is a City. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Popular Library #756, paperback, 1956. Ramble House, softcover, 2012.

   In the early 1950s, when our political and cultural life was dominated by Senator Joe McCarthy and HUAC, and our crime fiction by the bloody exploits of Mike Hammer, a young man named William Ard joined the handful of hard-boiled writers — among them Ross Macdonald, Thomas B. Dewey, and William Campbell Gault — who carried on the legitimate private-eye tradition of Hammett and Chandler.

   In Ard’s world the PI stands for personal and political decency, a clear line is drawn between dramatically justified violence and gratuitous brutality, and sex is seen as a restoration of oneself and caring for another. Anthony Boucher, the dean of mystery critics, praised Ard over and over for his “deft blend of hardness with human warmth and quiet humor,” for turning out “masterpiece(s) of compressed narration … backed with action and vigor, written with style and individuality.”

   Hell Is a City, seventh of Ard’s nine novels about private eye Timothy Dane, is the most powerful and exciting of his novels. Dane is pitted against the corrupt forces of law and order in a nightmare New York where the mayor, the police commissioner, and most of the officials are allied with the mobs and determined to hang on to their power in the coming mayoral election.

   When a young Latino shoots a Brooklyn vice cop who was about to rape the boy’s sister, the municipal bosses use their puppets in the news media to portray the case as the cold-blooded murder of a heroic officer, and put out word to shoot on sight whoever might contradict the party line.

   Brought into the picture by a crusading newspaper editor, Dane finds himself in the classic roman noir situation: knowing the truth no one else will believe; threatened on all sides by killers with badges and without; hounded through city streets dark with something more than night.

   With its sharply drawn characters, pulsating pace, and terrifying premise, this book could easily have been masterpiece, were it not for its grotesquely bad denouement, perhaps the first televised criminal trial scene in fiction, where all is set to rights in record time and in an impossibly silly manner. In a later Dane-less novel, As Bad As I Am (1959), aka Wanted: Danny Fontaine, Ard reworked the same story line to a better effect, but without the raw, nightmarish tension of Hell Is a City.

   Ard was far from a model of all the literary virtues. He wrote quickly and revised too little, and his style, though readable and efficient, lacks the hauntingly quotable quality of Chandler and Ross Macdonald. His plots tend to fall part under scrutiny and he recycled certain names again and again so that his novels contain small armies of characters named Stix Larsen and Barney Glines.

   But his best books — among which are The Diary (1952), .38 (1952), Cry Scandal (1956), and the paperback original Club 17 (1957), published under his pseudonym, Ben Kerr — are miracles of storytelling economy in which Ard’s special brand of tenderness is integrated with the standard elements of mean-streets fiction.

   His death from cancer in 1960 at age thirty-seven silenced one of the most distinctive voices in the history of the private-eye novel.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

 Posted by at 1:37 am
Sep 192014
 

WILLIAM O. TURNER – Mayberly’s Kill. Doubleday “Double D Western,” 1969. Berkley X2017, paperback, 1971; later printings, 1977, 1982.

   Turner wasn’t a prolific writer, so I took a short amount of time to come up with complete bibliography, more or less. The major secondary source used was 20th Century Western Writers, 2nd edition. [I've moved the list of books and stories to the end of this review, rather than here at the beginning, where it first appeared.]

   Turner was born in 1914 and died in 1980. [If you go through the list of books he wrote], you can see that his career had the usual ups and downs and various digressions that a good many of his fellow writers did. He started in hardcover in the mid-1950s with what looks like solid western historicals.

   When he was dropped by Houghton Mifflin, he was picked up by Doubleday – but for not all of his books. Then comes the usual mixture of hardcovers and paperback originals, along with some books that came out first (or only) in England, with some hardcovers eventually never having softcover editions.

   Catch Party was a posthumous book, and why it came out from Zebra, who never did any of his other books, so far as I’ve been able to learn, is a minor puzzle. (Not one that’s keeping me up at nights, you may reassured to know.)

   Moving on to the book at hand, what the first few paragraphs reminded me of was nothing more (or less) than a good old-fashioned private eye novel:

    Zach Mayberly sat with the scrubbed surface of the kitchen table between him and the girl. She was small and slender with a delicate face and black eyes. She was young. Nineteen, she said. She sat straight and looked him in the eye and answered his questions readily. A little too readily, he thought.

   “How long did you live up there on Grizzly Creek?”

   “Since I married Eduardo. That was in February, two years ago.”

   “And Eduardo was killed Wednesday, the fourth of April? Three weeks ago tomorrow?”

   “Yes.”

   The room was dark, low-ceilinged, a typical Mexican kitchen. Susanna Velasquez was not Mexican. This was the house of her sister-in-law, Eduardo’s sister.

   The killer of Susanna Velasquez’s husband Eduardo is not Mayberly’s primary interest, but the two men who had been staying with the couple may be the Ambrose brothers, the men whose trail he’s been following. That they may have had something to do her Eduardo’s death is largely incidental, but Susanna’s subsequent and hasty later departure seems to confirm that something shady had occurred, up there on Grizzly Creek.

   Mayberly soon discovers an even better lead to follow, however, when he learns that the sister of the woman whom one of the men married is also looking for the them. Her sister’s son was living with her after she died, having left her husband, Sip Ambrose, but when the man stole his son back from the sister, she is doggedly tracking them down, hoping to get the boy back.

   Another bounty hunter, a fellow named Yadkin, is also the picture, as well as a Pinkerton man named Deeds. The latter also makes himself a good friend and traveling companion of Melanie Coates (that’s the sister), which somehow displeases Mayberly, and for more reasons than one.

   This is a slim novel, taking up only 188 pages of normal-sized type, and believe it or not, what I’ve told you so is only the beginning. Eventually all of the characters in this novel – the two outlaws and the boy; Susanna Velasquez; Mayberly and the girl; Yadkin and Deeds – find their way to a free-thinkers’ settlement called New Sanity, which the Ambrose brothers (Tucker disguised as a woman) have hopes of taking over, with the aid and abetting of one of the more nefarious members of the group already there, not to mention a stockpile of dynamite.

   If you’re thinking that this sounds rather ludicrous, I guess it does, but it all makes sense as you’re reading it, in a smile-to-yourself kind of way. When all of the plot threads come together, it is truly a delicious sight to behold, and since the copy I read was a third printing, as you will recall, I imagine that I’m not the only one to have thought so.

   Turner was very much a writer in the traditional mode, as off-beat as the setting his characters find themselves in may have turned out to be. The level of language he uses, it occurred to me once while I was reading, seldom exceeds a young adult level – even though more than a few events may be sometimes a little darker than that – but if clarity in story-telling is a virtue, then Turner was a fellow who had it.

          BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Proud Diggers. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Paperback editions: Dell #844 1955; Berkley, 1980.

The Settler. Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Paperback editions: Dell #947, 1957; Berkley, 1977.
War Country. Houghton Mifflin, 1957. Paperback: Berkley G-433, 1960.

The Long Rope. Doubleday, hardcover, 1959. Paperback: Hillman #183, 1961.

Throttle the Hawk. Ward Lock, British hardcover, 1960. Paperback: Berkley, 1966. (*)
The Treasure of Fan Tan Flat. Doubleday, hardcover, 1961. Paperback: Berkley, 1975.

The High-Hander. Ace Double F-186, paperback original, 1963. (Bound back to back with Wild Horse Range, by Louis Trimble.)
Gunpoint. Berkley, paperback original, 1964.
Destination Doubtful. Ward Lock, British hardcover, 1964. US paperback original: Ballantine U1050, 1965.
Five Days to Salt Lake. Ballantine U2252, paperback original, 1966.
Ride the Vengeance Trail. (*) Berkley F1264, paperback original, 1966.
Blood Dance. Berkley F1439, paperback original, 1967.

Mayberly’s Kill. Doubleday, hardcover, 1969. Paperback: Berkley X2017, 1971.
A Man Called Jeff. Berkley X1650, paperback original, 1969.
Crucifixion Butte. Mayflower, British paperback, 1969. No US edition.
Place of the Trap. Doubleday, hardcover, 1970. No paperback edition.
Call the Beast Thy Brother. Doubleday, hardcover, 1973. Paperback: Berkley N2739, 1975.
Thief Hunt. Doubleday, hardcover, 1973. Paperback: Manor Books, 1974.
Medicine Creek. Doubleday, hardcover, 1974. No paperback edition.
Shortcut to Devil’s Claw. Berkley, paperback original, 1977.
Catch Party. Zebra, paperback original, 1988.

(*) If Throttle the Hawk appeared as a Berkley paperback, it was under a different title, with a high likelihood that it was Ride the Vengeance Trail, which is not included in the 20th Century bibliography.

NOTE: 20th Century also lists a non-western by Turner, The Man in the Yellow Mercedes, Berkley, 1979, but no book of this title, by Turner or anyone else, could be found in the online WorldCat.

   Short stories, with no information that any of these stories had earlier appearances:

   “The Proud Diggers.” Contained in Wild Streets: Tales of the Frontier Towns, Don Ward, ed., Doubleday, 1958. WWA anthology.
   “Blackie Gordon’s Corset.” Contained in Frontiers West, S. Omar Barker, ed., Doubleday, 1959. WWA anthology.
   “The Tomato Can Kid.” Contained in Western Roundup, Nelson Nye, ed., Macmillan, 1961. WWA anthology.
   “The Lobo Parker Legend.” Contained in WWA Presents: Great Western Stories, no editor stated, Berkley Highland F1055, paperback original, 1965.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly revised).


 Posted by at 2:17 am
Sep 182014
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman


SUE GRAFTON – “B” Is for Burglar. Holt Rinehart and Winston, hardcover, 1985. Bantam, paperback, 1986. Reprinted many times since.

   Sue Grafton has been praised, with justification, for carrying on the traditions of the private eye novel, and I’m glad that her second book, “B” Is for Burglar, is now available in paperback from Bantam at $3.50.

   Grafton breaks no new ground, but her books and her heroine, Kinsey Millhone, are so reminiscent of Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer at their best that I strongly recommend this book, The setting is California’s Santa Teresa, a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, the city in which Kenneth Millar lived, and one to which he frequently brought Archer.

   Millhone, like Archer, is a decent person, and she clocks as many miles on guilt trips as he did. Both of their creators provide excellent prose, even if they did go overboard on similes. Grafton has a wonderful career in front of her, and a little more discipline as to that tendency should permit her to consolidate her considerable talent and provide us with some of the best hardboiled mysteries of the next few decades.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


Editorial Comment:   It is now 28 years since Marv wrote this review, and Sue Grafton’s latest is “W” Is for Wasted, published last month in paperback. Question: What is “X” for?

 Posted by at 1:17 am
Sep 172014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


C. DALY KING – Obelists at Sea. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1933. Heritage, UK, hardcover, 1932; Penguin Books, UK, paperback, 1938.

   During the bidding for a number in the ship’s pool on distance traveled by day, the lights go out and Victor Smith, either a copper king or a Western railroad magnate, is shot twice in the heart. Only one gun is found to have been fired, and that is proved not to have committed the murder. Smith’s daughter also dies, although of what cause is not known. To add to the complexity, Smith had taken or been given poison almost immediately before he was shot.

   The case is too much for the ship’s detectives, so four gentleman aboard assist in the investigation. Dr. Hayvier, a well-known behaviorist, Dr. Pechs, an equally well-known psychoanalyst, and Dr. Pons, inventor of Integrative Psychology, and Professor Miltie, who had carefully avoided being identified with any of the schools of his “science” — all have their theories, all different, with different suspects.

   Put aside the fact that the Meganaut has ten decks above the water line and a crew of at least a thousand and that Captain Mansfield invariably refers to it as a “boat.” This is still a fascinating, albeit a bit slow, novel.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Editorial Comments: While I do not know if all four of the detective characters in this novel appear in all of the books below, Professor Pons is stated in Hubin to be in each of them.

       The Dr. L. Rees Pons series –

Obelists at Sea. Knopf, 1933.
Obelists en Route. Collins, UK, 1934.
Obelists Fly High . H. Smith 1935.
Careless Corpse. Collins, UK, 1937.
Arrogant Alibi. Appleton, 1939.

    Also of interest, I believe, is the following quote taken from author Martin Edwards in his review on his blog of C Daly King’s mystery output in general:

    “‘Obelist’ was a word that King made up. He defined it in Obelists at Sea as ‘a person of little or no value’ and then re-defined it in Obelists en Route as ‘one who harbours suspicion’. Why on earth you would invent a word, use it in your book titles, and then change your mind about what it means?”

For more on C. Daly King, the mystery writer, may I also direct you to Mike Grost’s comments about his work on his website.

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Sep 172014
 

I’m a sucker for a good hero. I don’t mean the carbon copy type that can do no wrong. I like heroes with flaws, and those who’ve grown and learned from their mistakes. I especially like heroes, protagonists if you will, who do not fit the typical literary mold. Block has made a career of crafting such heroes. You’ve already met Tanner. There’s also Matthew Scudder, a private investigator and recovering alcoholic, Bernie Rhodenbar, a cat burglar and used bookstore owner (his sidekicks include a dirty cop as well as a lesbian dog groomer), and Keller (John Paul Keller), an assassin who also happens to be an avid stamp collector. These are not cookie cutter heroes. They are about as unlikely as an assassin who collects stamps. Still, somehow, Block makes it work. To be honest, I’m not crazy about the Keller stories. The Tanner novels are fun, the Rhodenbar ones are absolutely brilliant, and Matthew Scudder is one of my all-time favorite characters. His character arc, which now spans almost forty years and is perhaps partially autobiographical, is a true masterpiece. Block is a masterpiece as well. Grab a copy of Tanner’s Virgin, or any of his other books. You won’t be disappointed.

Click here to read the full review

 

Sep 172014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO. Universal International, 1954. Audie Murphy, Susan Cabot, Dan Duryea, Abbe Lane, Russell Johnson, Paul Birch, William Pullen, Jack Elam, Denver Pyle. Director: Jesse Hibbs.

   While Ride Clear of Diablo may not be the best Western ever made, it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. Directed by Jesse Hibbs, the film stars soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Clay O’Mara, a man who seeks revenge for the murder of both his father and brother at the hands of cow rustlers.

   O’Mara’s good with a gun, but he’s still got a lot to learn about how the world really works. It’s this juxtaposition of fluidity with guns and naivety about society that makes Murphy’s O’Mara an interesting character. True, O’Mara’s not the sort of brooding hero that Randolph Scott portrayed so successfully in the Ranown cycle, but he’s a step above the typical gunslinger hero that populated hundreds of 1950s Westerns.

   And there’s more to the film than Murphy. Although the former World War II hero got top billing, the real star of the show is Dan Duryea, an actor so incredibly good in portraying bad guys. In Diablo, Duryea portrays Whitey Kincade, a wild-eyed outlaw with a hyena laugh who takes a liking to the green Clay O’Mara.

   After a series of twists and turns, Kincade eventually teams up with O’Mara and assists him in capturing and killing the men who were both directly, and indirectly, responsible for the deaths of his brother and father.

   O’Mara has another interest besides revenge. Her name is Laurie Canyon (Susan Cabot). She happens to be the niece of the sheriff, Fred Kenyon (a well cast Paul Birch), who hires O’Mara and instructs him, for dubious reasons, to bring Kincade in for justice. She also just happens to be engaged to local attorney, Tom Meredith (William Pullen), who is actually the man responsible for murdering O’Mara’s brother and father. The plot thickens.

   Along for the wild ride in and out of Diablo is future Gilligan’s Island star, Russell Johnson, who portrays Jed Ringer, a criminal and a double-crosser who (deservedly) gets it in the chest from Murphy’s character in a dank silver mine. Abbe Lane portrays Kate, a saloon girl and Ringer’s lady friend, who, unlike the men she associates with, turns out to have a conscience.

   While there’s not all that much in the way of exceptional cinematography, the action sequences are both well filmed and choreographed, particularly those where Murphy is at the center of attention.

   At the end of the day, however, it’s Duryea, not Murphy, who makes this film worth watching. If you like Duryea as a crazed villain with a wild laugh and a devil-may-care grin, you’re just going to love watching Ride Clear of Diablo. It may not be one of the fine character actor’s best-known performances, but it’s surely a memorable one.

 Posted by at 1:52 am
Sep 172014
 

JOHN RACKHAM – Dark Planet. Ace Double 13805, paperback original, 1971. Published back to back with The Herod Men, by Nick Kamin. Cover art by Jack Gaughan.

   I don’t read nearly as much science fiction as I used to. I don’t care for fantasy, except on occasion the humorous kind. I’m not interested in military science fiction, even though the first three Star Wars movies were a lot of fun. I don’t like long series of books in the same world or universe, especially the big fat thick ones. I know if I ever start one, either I’ll never finish or (wonder of wonders) it is what I’m looking for and it sucks all of the reading time out of my day.

   I thought I’d like the new fad, or at least I think it is, of steampunk SF and fantasy — the kind that takes place in Victorian times — but I quickly discovered that a little bit of gaslights, diesel-powered zeppelins and intricately machined robots goes a long way. (If I’m mischaracterizing the genre, I assume someone will let me know, gently, of course.)

   I assumed for a while that, even no one’s publishing it, what I like is good old-fashioned space opera, until I tried to read one of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s old Lensman series. No for me, not any more, not stickboard characters like this. Maybe I’m too old for science fiction, both the current variety and last century’s.

   Or maybe not. Coming across a duplicate copy of one of Ace’s well-remembered and long-lost Ace Doubles, I gave it a try, and while Dark Planet showed its roots far too clearly, it was a lot of fun to read. I liked it. It’s my era of Science Fiction, circa 1966-72, when I wasn’t yet 30 but had started my teaching career and life was as fine as it could be. Maybe everyone has their own particular niche in terms of favorite reading material, and could it be that I’ve only been reading the Wrong Stuff?

   Stephen Query is the protagonist in this one. He’s a misfit in the world of humanity in which he is forced to live. He doesn’t belong. He walks to the beat of a different drummer. He’s been forced out of the Space Service, where he thought he’d found a home, and sentenced to a life of drudgery and loneliness on a world with an atmosphere so noxious that it would dissolve the clothing right off your back. Sentenced there unjustly for disobeying a high-ranking officer’s direct orders. A world that’s fit only as a stopping-off and refitting station for spaceships on their way to fight in another part of the galaxy.

   But loneliness he doesn’t mind, and it comes with some dismay to learn that he has been pardoned and is forcibly ordered to ship out and off to war. But the ship is sabotaged, and he and the Admiral and the Admiral’s daughter are forced to make a crash landing on the planet.

   The Admiral’s daughter has one outstanding feature, according to the author, and that is her bosom. Her breasts are mentioned with obvious admiration several times, and on a planet where clothing dissolves, along with all other non-living material, we think — or at least I did — we have an inkling where this is going.

   Wrong. It turns out that the world, previously unexplored, is inhabited. Not only by the people who eventually rescue the unlucky trio, but there are also sentient beings on the upper levels of the planet. Not only that, but only Query can communicate with them, being a human of other talents, and not only mentally and emphatically, but in a (shall we say) in a more sensual way, or so I gathered — since we the readers do not have the same talents, but need to be given hints at times as to what is transpiring.

   Very reminiscent, I thought, of novels of the late 40s, by authors such as Henry Kuttner, in only a slightly upgraded and a bit more sophisticated telling, complete with happy ending.

   But the most enjoyable aspect of this short novel (just over 100 pages, but of small print) is that I both did and didn’t know exactly where the novel was going. Not Hugo-winning material at all, in any year, don’t get me wrong about that, but this fit the bill at exactly the time I wanted to read it. Good stuff!

 Posted by at 1:02 am