A Year In Books – July

Detour – Martin M. Goldsmith
Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon
The Liquidator – John Gardner
Elak of Atlantis – Henry Kuttner
The Fourth Crusade – Jonathan Phillips

Detour by Martin M. Goldsmith

Something of a minor noir classic, Detour tells two parallel but interconnecting stories.

The first concerns Alexander Roth, a talented but down-at-heel musician en route from New York to Los Angeles to meet up with his estranged, would-be-movie-star girlfriend Sue.

Along the way he meets a bookmaker who offers him a lift as well as food and companionship, but when the bookie dies in strange circumstances, Alex takes his wallet, clothes, car and identity leading to blackmail, murder and, ultimately, the loss of Alexander Roth himself as an individual.

Sue’s story is similarly to do with loss of identity, how a person can become sublimated by the pursuit of fame and the impossible Hollywood Dream, and since both stories are told in the first person, information, opinions and revelations leak from one into the other, adding a further level of narrative sophistication to both characters.

An incredibly claustrophobic novel – despite the sweeping terrain against which it is often set – much of the action taking place at night in hotel/ motel rooms, seedy diners and the interiors of automobiles, Detour, first published in 1939 and later adapted by Goldsmith into a well-received movie starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage, is a fine dark slice of American Noir.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

Although probably most famous for his Inspector Maigret novels, Georges Simenon wrote a staggering amount of books in his career, of which Dirty Snow (1948) is one of the most remarkable. At times reminiscent of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock or The Third Man, at others – particularly in the disturbing and disorienting last third of the novel – becoming almost Kafkaesque, there is a bleak immorality that runs through the story and its central protagonist, Frank.

Although the setting is never made absolutely clear, it’s appropriate to assume that the action takes place during the Nazi occupation of France; but this is no tale of heroic resistance against an implacable enemy but rather of a psychopathic criminal who lives on the fringes of society, exploiting those around him.

Character rather than plot driven, Dirty Snow follows Frank as he carries out his first murder – ‘losing his virginity’ as Simenon puts it – and descends further and further into a moral abyss leading to robbery, another cold-blooded murder and the rape by proxy of the young woman who loves him.

Like Pinky in Brighton Rock, Frank is a repellent yet fascinating character, one who holds our attention because of, rather than despite, his cruel and self-serving nature.

When Frank is finally arrested by the occupation forces – although it is never clear why, despite his many crimes – Simenon manages to build a grudging sympathy for him, dragging both Frank and the reading along into a strange prison, once a school, which has echoes of Kafka’s The Trial. And it is here that the novel takes its strangest turn and, ultimately, brings a sense of revelation to the story and its protagonist.

Dark, bleak and often disturbing, but never less than compelling.

The Liquidator by John Gardner

Written in 1964 at the height of the 60s spy boom in both film and print, The Liquidator is the first of John Gardner’s novels featuring Boysie Oakes, the Liquidator of the title, top assassin for the British Secret Service.

Suave, cultured, impeccably dressed and with ice-water in his veins, Boysie Oakes is a man to match that paragon of secret agents, James Bond. Except. . .

Except that Boysie Oakes is not what he appears to be. Terrified of flying, of heights, of spiders and, above all, terrified of violence, Boysie has earned and kept his reputation through misunderstanding, downright lies and a less-than-subtle deception, outsourcing (to use a modern term) his assignments to an East End gangster for £300 a ‘hit’.

When a romantic/ dirty weekend away in the South of France takes an unexpectedly dangerous turn, Boysie finds himself embroiled in a plot to assassinate a high-ranking member of the British Royal Family, and that’s just for starters. . .

Less a parody than an affectionate tweaking of 50s and 60s spy fiction – Bond in particular, of course – The Liquidator is a fast, fun read, and Boysie himself is a likeable character, despite (or perhaps because of) his cowardice, deception and good old-fashioned lechery. Like George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman, with whom he shares a few traits, Boysie Oakes finds himself cast in the role of reluctant hero, gaining plaudits where none are deserved and a fearsome reputation that is totally at odds with the truth.

Gardner’s style is crisp and efficient, deftly and gently mocking the jet-set-gentleman-killer genre and peppered with laugh out loud moments (due mostly to Boysie’s relationship with his boss/mentor Colonel Mostyn) and filled with villainous enemy agents, exotic locations and sultry beauties.

Gardner would go on to write several more Boysie Oakes novels and later (perhaps ironically) a number of official James Bond novels.

Cracking stuff from the Golden Age of spy fiction.


Elak of Atlantis by Henry Kuttner.

The death of Robert E Howard left something of a Conan-sized hole in the world of pulp fiction. Readers were still eager for the sort of sword-swinging adventure that Howard had so expertly provided, and several writers rose to the challenge, among them a young Henry Kuttner.

In the early part of his literary career, before he and Catherine Moore became a prolific and often brilliant husband and wife writing team, Kuttner had tried his hand at a number of weird genres of which sword and sorcery was one.

Set in a pre-disaster Atlantis, the Elak stories are very much in the Howard mould (recalling King Kull as much as Conan) filled with brave swordsmen, evil sorcerers, dark gods and beautiful maidens. And if they are less polished than his later work it has to be remembered that this was (as Joe Landsdale has so eloquently put it) Kuttner ‘sharpening his literary sword’.

And certainly there is much to enjoy in the adventure of Elak and his drunken companion Lycon. The swordplay is swift and frequent, the atmosphere of ancient Atlantis suitably colourful, decadent and dangerous – in other words, good old-school sword and sorcery.

Both the Planet Stories edition of a few years ago and the more recent SF Gateway e-book edition contain all the Elak stories as well as two stories featuring Kuttner’s other sword and sorcery character, Prince Raynor, and a glowing introduction by Joe Lansdale.

Highly recommended for fans of s&s and heroic fantasy.

The Fourth Crusade by Jonathan Phillips

The second book about the Fourth Crusade that I have read this year, the other being Ernle Bradford’s The Great Betrayal, Jonathan Phillips’ treatment of the siege and sack of Constantinople by crusader forces in 1204, delves deeply into the political aspects of the campaign.

Whereas many commentators on the Fourth Crusade have laid the blame at the feet of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, Phillips presents a more balanced view of the events while attempting to unravel the complicated strings of history, religion and politics which led to the downfall of Byzantium at the hands of what should have been her allies.

Also on the Pile

Spaghetti Westerns by Christopher Frayling. An excellent and scholarly analysis of the Euro-Western, exploring its origins in the work of writers such as Karl May, its emergence as a popular cinematic form and its eventual decline.

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