popular but forgotten Australian writers – Arthur W. Upfield

In a recent comment by Roy mention was made of popular Australian writers of the past such as Nevil Shute, Morris West and John Cleary. I’d add Arthur W. Upfield to that list. Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries were immensely popular from the late 1920s up to at least the 1970s. They now seem to be out of print.

Upfield’s books enjoyed considerable international success at the time.

The Bony books, dealing with a half-Aboriginal detective, might not satisfy modern standards of political correctness although in fact there’s nothing even remotely racist about them. On the other hand Upfield carefully refrained from the modern practice of lecturing his readers.

The novels formed the basis of a successful (and extremely good) 1970s Australian television series, Boney, which now seems to have vanished without trace. I’m not even sure if the series survives but it certainly hasn’t been released on DVD.

James Laurenson as Boney in the TV series

The TV series caused some minor angst because a white New Zealander, James Laurenson, was cast in the title role. In fact the producers tried to find a suitable half-Aboriginal actor but without success.

I’ve just posted a review of one of the more celebrated Bony mysteries, Wings Above the Diamantina, at my Vintage Pop Fictions blog. Here’s the link.

Both the novels and the TV series are a great deal of fun.

As for Nevil Shute, I think No Highway is an absolutely superb novel. I think I read most of his books years ago.

I know I’ve read a couple of Morris West’s books. I’m afraid I’ve never read anything by John Cleary though.

exploring the popular culture of the past

For a while now I’ve been pushing the line that not only is modern popular culture poison, it’s a poison that can be avoided. The popular culture of the past is easily accessible, is relatively free of political correctness and it’s a lot more fun than today’s trash.
So I suppose what I should do is give some examples of fine pop culture from the past. It will at least make for a more light-hearted and optimistic post! As it happens I run a couple of blogs that focus exclusively on pop culture from the past – Vintage Pop Fictions and Classic Movie Ramblings.
One recent read that I think is definitely worth checking out is G.K. Chesterton’s The Wisdom of Father Brown (in which the little Catholic priest uses his spiritual insights to solve crimes).
For those who enjoy golden age detective fiction I’d recommend Christopher Bush (a very neglected writer whose The Body in the Bonfire is a particularly fine mystery, Freeman Wills Crofts (whose Inspector French is possibly the most dogged and methodical of all fictional detectives). All the early Crofts are excellent, with The Sea Mystery and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey being especially good. John Rhode is another unfairly overlooked mystery writer of the golden age. I particularly enjoyed The Motor Rally Mystery. J.J. Connington is also excellent with The Two Tickets Puzzle being representative. 

There are also a couple of criminally neglected American detective fiction writers from this era – Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Circus Queen and Rufus King’s Murder Masks Miami are wonderful. King’s nautical mysteries such as Murder by Latitude are also superb.
If you’re a fan of thrillers you can’t go past the British thriller writers of the interwar years. Leslie Charteris is terrific. His early Saint stories are all tremendous fun with The Saint Meets His Match being a good example. The Saint stories should if possible be read in sequence. H.C.McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond books are equally enjoyable. They absolutely have to be read in sequence, starting with Bulldog Drummond. Among the postwar thriller writers Alistair MacLean is a standout. MacLean was a surprisingly complex writer and he’s quite fond of throwing in unreliable (or partially unreliable) narrators. Night Without End might well be his best work but all his stuff up the early 70s is excellent. If you enjoy submarine adventures (with spy dramas as well) then MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra is very highly recommended.
I was for many years a keen science fiction fan. These days I confine myself entirely to science fiction written before 1960 but still there’s plenty of superb stuff to choose from. I’ve recently enjoyed revisiting John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. If your tastes run more to space opera there’s Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space

Any genuine science fiction fan must also read Rudyard Kipling’s science fiction stories. Kipling’s With the Night Mail is one of the most important science fiction stories ever written.
I’m personally quite partial to stories featuring diabolical criminal masterminds. Australian writer Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola was probably the first of all villains of this type. The most famous is of course Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu and the Fu Manchu books are enormously enjoyable. The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of the best in this series. Rohmer created another equally interesting diabolical criminal mastermind in the person of Sumuru who wants to create a world without violence and ugliness even if she has to kill everybody to do it! Sumuru first appeared in The Sins of Sumuru.
The two giants of pulp fiction are of course Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lovecraft seems remarkably prescient today with his concerns about cultural decline and disintegration (as outlined vividly in stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth. When it comes to sheer imagination no-one can hold a candle to Burroughs. I’m inordinately fond of the Caspak Trilogy, starting with The Land That Time Forgot, and the Pellucidar novels (starting with At the Earth’s Core)

One pulp writer who must not be overlooked is A. Merritt, the master of the lost world story (The Moon Pool is a good place to start). 
As for historical fiction, for my money no-one has ever surpassed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The White Company is one of the masterpieces of the genre. 
I’ve only mentioned the better known writers – in all these genres there are lesser know authors who are often every bit as good.
Whatever the genre that appeals to you there is an absolutely enormous wealth of top-notch fiction from the past that can be obtained very easily and generally quite cheaply. There’s simply no reason to bother putting up with the politically correct sludge of today.

The Machine Stops

I’ve posted a review of E. M. Forster’s fascinating 1909 science fiction short story, The Machine Stops, at my book blog.

The Machine Stops has been credited (with some justification) as being the first story to predict the internet, and social networking. More importantly it is uncannily and disturbingly accurate in predicting the social consequences of such developments.

It is also an uncannily accurate prediction of so many of the characteristics of early 21st century life that are of concern to those who value tradition and view progress with scepticism.

It was written as a counter to the socialist utopianism of the science fiction of H. G. Wells, of which Forster very strongly disapproved.

It’s one of the first great dystopian science fiction tales and an intriguing anticipation of the soft totalitarianism of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Here’s the link to my review.

politically incorrect sci-fi – Lucifer’s Hammer

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer is, quite rightly, considered to be a classic of post-apocalyptic science fiction. There are two distinct strands in post-apocalyptic SF. The pessimistic strand sees even mere survival as just barely possible and  usually assumes that once civilisation has been wrecked the descent into barbarism will be unstoppable. Lucifer’s Hammer belongs to the optimistic strand that assumes that perhaps civilisation might eventually be rebuilt.
This is also a novel that has much to say about politics. The authors are interested in the scientific implications but they’re at least as interested in the social and political implications of catastrophe. If this book has one really major theme it is that in the face of global disaster we’re not going to need group hugs and we’re not going to be able to indulge in emotional posturing. Feelings will have to be subordinated to reason and tough decisions will have to be made. This is a very politically incorrect book indeed. In fact at one point one character remarks that the one good thing about the catastrophe is that feminism was dead milliseconds after the disaster hit.
Lucifer’s Hammer was published in 1978 but it had a distinguished (and equally politically incorrect) predecessor in 1923 in J. J. Connington’s Nordenholt’s Million. J. J. Connington was the pseudonym used by British scientist Alfred Walter Stewart and not coincidentally it can be considered as an early example of hard science fiction (a sub-genre to which Lucifer’s Hammer most certainly belongs). Nordenholt’s Million and Lucifer’s Hammer have something else in common – in both novels the authors accept that saving enough of civilisation to form a basis for rebuilding will come at a cost. It will require a leader willing to make very tough decisions in a clear-sighted rational and even brutal manner. It will not be possible to save everyone. Trying to save everyone would mean saving no-one. As Senator Arthur Jellison remarks in Lucifer’s Hammer, “every civilisation has the morality and ethics it can afford.”
Lucifer’s Hammer begins with the discovery be amateur astronomer Tim Hamner of a new comet. It’s a very exciting discovery because the Hamner-Brown Comet is going to pass very close to Earth. Scientists will have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about comets. It soon becomes clear that the comet will pass very close indeed to Earth. There’s very little chance it will actually hit us of course but we’re going to get an extremely close-up view.
Initially astronomers dismiss the chances of the comet hitting our planet as billions to one against. As the Hamner-Brown Comet approaches ever closer they revise the estimate to one in a hundred. This is just a tiny bit worrying. It’s not entirely surprising that pretty soon people are stockpiling food and survival gear. This provides one of the most interesting elements of the novel, as Harvey Randall discovers to his amazement and horror that a lot of people actually seem to be hoping the comet will hit. Niven and Pournelle have in this instance put their finger on one of the more disturbing aspects of modern western civilisation – our tendency to develop a kind of collective death wish, driven by a mixture of disillusionment, guilt and what can perhaps be best described as self-indulgent adolescent despair.
The enthusiasts of doom get their wish and the comet does hit the Earth. 
The first half of the book introduces us to a huge cast of characters most of whom seem to have nothing in common but all of whom are destined to play important parts in the struggle for survival after the comet hits. The second half deals with that struggle for survival. Interestingly enough those who survive are not necessarily those who made elaborate preparations. The end of civilisation poses so many varied and unexpected challenges that it is impossible to prepare for them. Survival has more to do with grit and a stubborn refusal to give up in the face of apparently hopeless odds than with careful preparation. Interestingly enough those who contribute the most towards survival are not necessarily those with obviously useful skills. It is obviously vital to have a few doctors, engineers and scientists but you would hardly expect an accountant like Hamner’s new-found girlfriend to be useful in a post-apocalyptic world. In fact she turns out to be a brilliant administrator, a very handy commodity in a world threatened by chaos.
Although this novel has plenty of action, excitement and adventure Niven and Pournelle have bigger fish to fry. Their overriding theme is that if survival means living as subsistence farmers in a world without hope of progress then survival is simply not worthwhile. There has to be hope. Hope that things will get better, that civilisation will rise again from the ashes. If you don’t have that hope you have nothing.
Niven and Pournelle being very much hard science fiction writers there is naturally a wealth of fascinating and presumably fairly realistic speculation as to what exactly the results of a comet strike might be. Equally interesting though is their focus on the social, psychological and political implications of catastrophe. Their conclusions are likely to be extremely unpalatable to devotees of the cult of political correctness.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a passionate defence of science and technology, of the necessity of clear-headed rational and courageous leadership, and of human indomitability. Most of all it’s a plea for optimism – civilisation might have its faults but it’s worth fighting for and it sure beats barbarism. Highly recommended.

politically incorrect writers – Sydney Horler

Sydney Horler (1888-1954) belonged to the breed of thriller writers that Alan Bennett described as the “snobbery with violence” school. The type of thriller writer that upsets sensitive leftists (poor darlings). Horler compounded the offence by being extremely popular, and nothing enrages leftists more than non-PC authors who sell books by the truckload.
Tiger Standish was Horler’s most popular hero, featuring in a series of novels in the 1930s. The first book in the series, titled simply Tiger Standish, appeared in 1932. Here’s the link to my review of this book.

Horler wrote no less than 157 novels. He not only wrote politically incorrect books, he was also a social conservative and (perhaps his most heinous offence of all) a Christian.
Tiger Standish could be considered to be the poor man’s Bulldog Drummond, and he’s even more politically incorrect than Drummond. While I wouldn’t claim that Horler’s thrillers  were in the same league as the Bulldog Drummond books (to be honest he’s not even close) there’s still a certain amount of enjoyment to be derived from them. He definitely belongs in the guilty pleasure category.

politically incorrect writers – Mickey Spillane

I just can’t get enough of politically incorrect writers, and Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) was about as politically incorrect as a writer could possibly be. If you really want to upset a liberal buy them an omnibus edition of Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. Mike Hammer really was the ultimate tough guy private eye.
Spillane pushes liberals’ buttons for all sorts of reasons but undoubtedly his biggest crime in their eyes was his success. It’s hard to argue with a guy who sold 225 million books.
Mike Hammer approaches crime in a manner that liberals will find extremely confusing. He doesn’t think society is responsible for crime; he thinks criminals are responsible for crime.
Spillane burst onto the literary scene in spectacular fashion 1947 with his debut novel I, the Jury. He became the first writer of private eye novels to top the New York Times bestseller list.
I’ve reviewed four of the twelve Mike Hammer novels on my Vintage Pop Fictions blog – I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick (published in 1950), Vengeance Is Mine! (also 1950) and Kiss Me, Deadly (which appeared in 1952). 

Spillane did some acting as well and in the The Girl Hunters (1963) he plays the role of Mike Hammer himself.


politically incorrect books – Bulldog Drummond (1920)

Books don’t come much more politically incorrect than the Bulldog Drummond novels of H. C. McNeile (published under the pen-name Sapper). The first in the series was Bulldog Drummond, published in 1920. Apart from being politically incorrect these books are enormous fun. My review of Bulldog Drummond can be found on my book blog here.

Things get even more politically incorrect with the second book, The Black Gang.

The first four Bulldog Drummond novels from the Carl Petersen tetralogy which I recommend in its entirety.