Friday, December 22, 2017

Brett Halliday - Marked for Murder

Shayne's wide nostrils flared and he felt a prickling in the back of his neck. He pushed the bedroom door wide open, turned on the light, and looked somberly down at the corpse of a young girl lying half off the bed. She wore a pair of black net stockings, the tops rolled above her knees. The rest of her slim young body was nude. She lay on her stomach with her right arm and leg trailing off the bed, her left leg stretched straight and taut with the toes pointing toward the footboard. Her left arm encircled a pillow, and there was dried blood on the pillow and on the sheet beside her breast.

Dell Books June 1959 - Cover by Robert McGinnis

Okay, I'm a sucker for paperback covers featuring beautiful women, especially ones painted by Robert McGinnis. There are tons of Mike Shayne novels with McGinnis covers, and I have a couple others on my bookshelf. In the 60's and 70's the Shayne covers were often photos of hot babes, in various states of undress, typically wielding a gun. These were never as cool as the McGinnis covers, for obvious reasons. As far as the Mike Shayne novels themselves go, they're perfectly serviceable reading if you're in the mood for a private eye novel. I've only read a few and the things I take away from them is that for a private eye, Mike Shayne is as famous as your average celebrity, and he drinks a shit-ton of brandy. Most P.I.'s drink bourbon, or scotch. but it's brandy for our pal Shayne. And he's hot with the ladies too. He's also smarter than the cops, particularly Peter Painter, the Miami Beach police chief. But all in all, he's a decent Joe to have in your corner.

This is an early Mike Shayne mystery, going clear back to 1945. By then he was famous enough to already star in a handful of films from 20th Century Fox. He'd also star in radio and TV, and scads of more novels. I noticed that there are a lot of them available on Kindle, but I prefer the old paperbacks, for obvious reasons. Anyway, this is, I believe, the 12th novel in the series, and written by Davis Dresser. Ghost writers under the Brett Halliday name would take over the later novels.

In this one, Mike Shayne is called back from New Orleans to go after whoever it was that shot his reporter pal, Timothy Rourke. Rourke had been hot on the story of a series of murders where the victims had all recently struck it big at various casinos in Miami Beach. All of the casinos are run by the syndicate, in particular a hood named Brenner. Each of the victims was found with a .32 slug in their heart only hours after being seen in the company of a hot blonde dish at the casino. Rourke's crusade has everyone pissed off at him, the cops, Brenner, and Rourke's boss Walter Bronson. Rourke is warned off the story and given a beating by Brenner's thugs, and is found a few hours later in his apartment, near death from, you guessed it, a bullet to the chest. And wouldn't you know it, the last person seen leaving his apartment was a hot blonde babe!

This novel was a fast read, well-paced and with enough twists and angles to never get boring. And, as Shayne himself says a more than a few times, "There are too many blondes!" Yeah...I don't know if you can ever have too many blondes around. Just as long as none of them are packing a gat, I'm okay with it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Voyage of the Space Beagle - A. E. van Vogt

The drive was on. The ship was accelerating, going ever deeper and faster through the gulf of blackness that separated the spiral galaxy, of which Earth was one tiny spinning atom, from another galaxy of almost equal size. That was the background to the decisive struggle that was now taking place. The largest, most ambitious exploratory expedition that had ever set out from the solar system was in the greatest danger of its existence. 

Continuing on with the 2nd novel in my old copy of Triad by A.E. Van Vogt, we get to what is probably regarded as his best "novel." I'm guessing that most people think of this one as his best novel simply because it's mentioned more frequently in articles and essays about him than his other novels, like The World of Null-A. I put "novel" in quotes because it's really built from four of his short stories published during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And these were some of his best stories, as long as you're asking me. Most of A.E. van Vogts "novels" were built from previously published short stories. Building a novel this way can come with some hurdles. They're often awkward and poorly paced. I think I read somewhere that A.E. van Vogt intended a climactic bit of action approximately every 800 words in any given story. This leads to a breathless pace that is hard to maintain for an entire novel. I've also read that some of his stories were inspired by dreams, which is another hurdle to leap if you're going for continuity and logic. But that's all stuff for the critics to bicker over.

Voyage of the Space Beagle is probably the best novel to read if you're going to read anything by van Vogt. I say this with a caveat that his short stories, particularly the early ones like "Black Destroyer" are better in their original forms. Voyage of the Space Beagle begins with "Black Destroyer" which was first published in Astounding Science Fiction way back in July of 1939. I first read "Black Destroyer" in a collection called The Great SF Stories 1 1939 published by DAW books in 1979. That collection was edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and was the first of what was planned to be a year by year gathering of the greatest Science Fiction stories, as chosen by the editors. I bought that paperback the year it was published and was absolutely enthralled by the stories in it. 1939 was deliberately chosen by the editors as being the launch of what is known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. If you happen to see any of these DAW editions of The Great SF Stories I'd say grab them, because you're guaranteed some excellent reading. I still have the first 7 books in the series, and wish I had more. As far as I was concerned I needed no other Science Fiction anthologies with these coming down the line. Unfortunately I missed the last half of the 40s and later.

July 1939

"Black Destroyer" just might have influenced the creators of the movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. Same can be said for another story "Discord in Scarlet" that makes up part of the latter half of Space Beagle. If you have a chance to read "Black Destroyer" do it. It's an excellent example of A.E. van Vogt at his best. It's that whiz-bang action science fiction pulp adventure that nerds like me love. Basically, an expedition from Earth lands on what they believe is an extinct planet and finds a lone cat-like creature outside the ruins of an ancient city. They let the creature board their ship only to learn in horror that it intends to feed off them as it takes control of their ship.

December 1939

As for the Space Beagle itself, we're told that it's manned by approximately 1000 men, made up of both scientists and military personnel. Yup, I said men, because the Space Beagle is a sausage factory. There isn't a single female on board. Maybe a poster or two of Jean Harlow over a bunk, but definitely no women. In order to manage an expedition so long without women, the men have taken some kind of drug that inhibits their libidos. Apparently women would be just too much of a distraction and there'd probably all kinds of fights over them going on and stuff like that. Or, in the future, according to A.E. van Vogt, women just ain't cut out for interstellar explorations. I suppose I should mention that one might think Voyage of the Space Beagle influenced Star Trek. Perhaps, but who can say. Certainly their exploratory missions sound similar even if the Enterprise had women on board.

After the events of "Black Destroyer" are settled we get into some of the politics of the Space Beagle. Our hero of the novel is a Nexialist scientist named Grosvenor. He's the only Nexialist on board, so he's got to deal with a bunch of professional rivalries and power plays. But through each of the adventures, it's always Grosvenor who comes up with the best solution. Grosvenor and Nexialism is the glue that holds the episodic structure of the novel together. Nexialism is described as "joining in orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields." It works better here than other cobbled together novels by the author. The individual pulp stories fit together with more elegance with Grosvenor as a lead protagonist.

The two other stories making up Space Beagle's adventures are "War of Nerves" from 1950 and "M33 in Andromeda" from 1943.

MacFaddon Books March 1968

I had a good time reading the book. I'm not totally jazzed on the title. I remember a friend of mine years ago seeing my paperback copy of Space Beagle (seen here) and cracking up at the cheesiness of it. I can't really blame her. It's kind of a clunker of a title and the dude on the cover always reminds me of Major Matt Mason. You've got to be of a certain age to know who Major Matt Mason is.

That's about it for A.E. van Vogt for now. I still have Slan to read in my collection, but I'm about pulped out with his novels, so I'll spare you a triple play. I will get to it eventually though.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The World of Null-A - A.E. van Vogt

He waited till the blazing beacon of the Games Machine was like a raging fire below him, then slightly behind. He saw the vaguely shaped buildings of the presidential residence just ahead. When the plane was almost over the palace, he pulled the trigger of the exit door.

Instantly he was falling though the foggy darkness.

So, let me see if I can get this straight. I’m warning you now that you need to buckle in and hold on tight because this dang novel careens all over the place! And spoiliers ahead, so you may want to skip some of the stuff below.

Our hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, arrives at the city of The Machine, in the World of Null-A (the planet Earth), to participate in The Games. During the month-long duration of The Games, there is no police protection for citizens. All citizens can join in the Games, wherein their future roles in society are determined through an analysis of their performance level in The Games. Within his first day Gosseyn is accused of being an imposter by another contestant. Gosseyn’s memories of his dead wife, Patricia Hardie, are denied. It’s revealed that the real Patricia Hardie is alive and living in the presidential palace of The Machine with her father Micheal Hardie, the President of Earth. Gosseyn allows himself to be subjected to a Lie Detector (you’ll learn that there are no shortages of Lie Detectors in this novel) which reveals that his identity as Gosseyn is phony, but that his real identity is too embedded to reveal itself. Gosseyn is then evicted from the hotel where he’s staying. Wandering through the city he meets a young woman calling herself Teresa Clark, who tells him she’s unprotected and fleeing from her boss after refusing his advances. Gosseyn and Teresa spend the night in a park. The following day, they go together to The Machine to participate in The Games where it’s Gosseyn’s hope that his performance will earn him a position on the planet Venus. He sees Teresa sneaking away from the Games to enter the Palace. That night, they meet again in the park where he decides not to let on that he’s suspicious of her. It doesn’t matter because he’s suddenly arrested and taken by flying car to the Machine where he learns that Teresa is really Patricia Hardie, the President’s daughter! He’s taken into an interrogation room where he meets Jim Thorson and another strange, half-cyborg dude referred to only as X. An attempt is made by Thorson and X to penetrate Gosseyn’s memory blocks to discover his real identity. It fails and Gosseyn is confined to a cell, where he’s quickly sprung out of by a sneaky Patricia Hardie who hides him in her private chambers. There, she’s visited by someone named Eldred Crang. Teresa…er, I mean Patricia Harding, and Crang discuss some political intrigue while Gosseyn remains hidden, listening to them. A conspirator named Prescott is mentioned by Crang. Gosseyn’s eavesdropping is interrupted by guards barging into the chambers looking for him. He leaps over the balcony onto the palace grounds and attempts to flee but is blasted by flaming ray-guns and is killed. Next thing Gosseyn knows is he wakes up in a forest on the planet Venus!

Are you still with me here?

Gosseyn follows a light to a house which is conveniently occupied by Prescott and his wife. Yup, this is the Prescott who is in cahoots with Crang, back on Earth, or Null-A, or just…whatever. Gosseyn jumps Prescott and his wife, and tries to get the scoop from them on what the hell is going on. Prescott says that he needs to see a guy named Eldred Crang, who lives on the other side of the forest. Gosseyn leaves Prescott tide up and takes his wife with him as hostage, then lets her go, and finds Crang’s residence on his own. Crang is gone, so Gosseyn hangs around his place reading books and sleeping and eating. After a couple days Crang shows up with detectives and arrests Gosseyn. Crang wants to know how Gosseyn is alive on Venus after being killed on Earth. They all climb into a ship and travel back to Earth, to the Machine. At the Machine Gosseyn is returned to Thorson and X and is taken to a room where he’s allowed to see his own dead body. Also in the room is Prescott’s wife for some reason. Patricia Hardie and her father show up and everyone is agitated about a conspiracy and how Gosseyn plays into it, but things go no further than that because everyone collapses by an invisible gas emitted through the air conditioner by Prescott. But Gosseyn doesn’t succumb to the gas because he was given an antidote ahead of time by Prescott. Unfortunately, Prescott’s wife dies, so Prescott goes sort of berserk and blasts X, President Hardie and some guards, with his ray gun and is just about to kill Thorson when Gosseyn disarms him. They escape and leave the palace together in a getaway car. It’s determined that Gosseyn should see the brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Kair who may be able to get past all the blocked memories to discover who Gosseyn really is and how he fits into this whole plot. At Dr. Kair’s office, Gosseyn undergoes a battery of Lie Detectors (remember those?) that indicate he has a second brain that has untapped potential to alter the course of events. Gosseyn uses his Null-A training to figure out that Prescott never intended to kill Thorson, and just wanted to frame Gosseyn for the assassination of President Hardie. Knowing he can’t trust Prescott, Gosseyn and Dr. Kair tie him up and take off for Dr. Kair’s island retreat where Gosseyn can further train his 2nd brain. Halfway there Gosseyn decides he needs to return to The Machine instead, so he rigs Dr. Kair’s plane to reverse course while Kair is asleep and he steals a parachute and bails out midair. Before doing so, he leaves the sleeping Dr. Kair a note telling him to place an ad in the personals column should he need to contact him for any reason. Back at the Machine, Gosseyn hooks up with Patricia Hardie again and she informs him that Venus and Earth are under invasion by men from another star system and that he needs to work with Crang to somehow halt the invasion. It turns out that her father was a tool for X and Thorson, and that Thorson is leading the invasion. But in order to help Crang, Gosseyn has to commit suicide so that his third hidden body, Gosseyn III, can come to life and utilize the full potential of his 2nd brain. Gosseyn checks into a hotel and hypnotizes himself to commit suicide, but instead he receives telepathic messages from the Machine informing him that he must not kill himself because the Machine is under attack and Gosseyn’s hidden 3rd body has been destroyed.

Gosseyn and Crang return to Venus where Crang explains the whole invasion plan to Gosseyn and that Thorson is leading the charge to wipe out Venus and Earth. While on Venus they see the Venusians, who are really Null-A Earthlings, halt the invading forces using guerrilla warfare tactics. They return to Earth to discover the Machine and the Palace are in ruins, on the edge of total annihilation. Crang takes Gosseyn to see Patricia Hardie again where Gosseyn ties her up to find some kind of machine named The Distorter that blocks transmissions or something like that. Patricia Hardie tells Gosseyn that to halt the invasion once and for all he needs to go to a hidden chamber of the Machine and see a man with a beard. She doesn’t know the guy’s name; just that he’s old and has a beard. Gosseyn is captured by Prescott before he can get there and is used by Prescott to infiltrate the remaining strongholds of The Machine. Gosseyn pulls a trick play on Prescott, thanks to some handy telepathic communication from within The Machine. Gosseyn kills Prescott, gets inside The Machine and finds the man with the beard who turns out to be X whose real name is Lavoisseur. Lavoisseur founded the philosophy of Null-A back 500 years ago and has remained alive by living through several bodies after each body dies. Together, Gosseyn and Laviosseur beat the invasion by means of The Distorter, but Lavoisseur succumbs to injuries and dies before he’s able to tell Gosseyn who Gosseyn really is. Gosseyn mourns the death of Lavoisseur for a few minutes before thinking he recognizes Lavoisseur from somewhere. He gets a razor and shaves off Lavoisseur’s beard and recognizes his own face!

Gosh, the only thing this whole plot was missing was a dwarf in a top hat running around randomly kicking people in the ass! I guarantee you that I didn’t get some of that plot correct, and I just finished the book a day ago. It goes without saying that this book has a lot going on in it. Too much going on, actually. There is so much going on that you’re never really grounded in understanding anything. At least I wasn't. Maybe I'm getting old. I have no idea what Null-A means other than it’s Non-Aristotelian logic, I think.

But so what? That doesn’t mean anything to me. And I gave up keeping track of the double crosses and switcheroos performed by Prescott and Patricia Hardie and the rest of the gang. But whatever! The World of Null-A is considered something of a Golden-Age Classic and I’m not gonna be a jerk and shoot it down. Because, in the end, it was kind of fun reading the damn thing.  

It was first published in serial format in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945. At the time Astounding was edited by John W. Campbell who is credited by many as the main guy who oversaw what’s been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Campbell took science fiction away from pulpy, melodramatic space-opera type stories into more serious, science-based stories in Astounding. If you couldn’t meet his high standards, you didn’t get published by him. Certainly, there was plenty of space-opera still around. I have a few issues of Astounding from the 1930’s and completely dig them, but they were before Campbell’s time, mostly. Campbell brought writers like A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon into the field. He was a huge influence on Isaac Asimov’s early writing. He also got into Dianetics and published L. Ron Hubbard’s early articles on the subject. A.E. van Vogt also jumped onto the Dianetics field. Maybe someone with more expertise than me can say if Null-A is a response to Dianetics, since the novel was dedicated to Campbell.

My version of this novel was published in a hardback collection of 3 novels by A.E. van Vogt. The original owner of my book was kind enough to leave a note inside the cover informing me that he finished reading it on September 9th, 1963. My intent is to follow this post up with the remaining novels in the collection, Voyage of the Space Beagle and Slan. But who knows…I ain’t the most reliable kid on the block.