Thursday, December 14, 2006

4-10 Torment (Apr 1953)

The publication of Torment confirmed a sense that, with the later novels of the Fourth Series, Frances had moved his writing onto a new plane. The texts themselves had lengthened to 140 pages plus, but along with this there was a far easier, more fluid, indeed more confident style about the narratives. Amongst the very earliest texts Frances' creative strengths stood out precisely because they seemed so at odds with the surrounding narrative. With the later novels of the Fourth Series, exemplifying individual instances of such strengths becomes however increasingly difficult as their deployment becomes both routinised and integrated. Torment concerns a labyrinth tale of telepathy, murder, grave robbing and infidelity, in which assessments of Janson's character are reflexively based on the novels he writes and where - with a charmingly ingenuous conflation of fictional Chicago and real-world England - a footnote invites readers to see the telepathy act cited in the novel at an Ideal Homes Exhibition in Portsmouth.

The book concerns four apparently unrelated themes. One has Janson attending a telepathy act - Los Guitanos - that ends with a sealed prediction being made of the following Saturday's headline in the Chronicle. The second finds Janson witnessing the arrest of one Joe Bates for attempted grave-robbing, although the eventual charge relates to the possession of pornographic photographs, which Bates claims to have found in the cemetery while climbing in simply to pick flowers. The third strand concerns the wife of the cemetery Superintendent, Preston Williams, who has been missing for three weeks. Muriel Williams had an inheritance of $200,000 that she withheld from Preston as a result of his gambling. Inspector Blunt believes this points to Preston's culpability, although Janson cautions the motive is too obvious to invite serious consideration. The final strand involves Betty Scott, who asks for Janson's help in tracing her younger sister, who fell in love with and became pregnant by a John Maitland, eventually committing suicide. Janson warns that, even should she find Maitland, he has committed no offence.

The various strands are brought together in a scheme that does in fact see Preston Williams plotting to kill his wife and inherit her money. Jackson was an accomplice who moved to Chicago under an assumed identity of John Maitland. The plan was to present Maitland as a womaniser who eventually came to know Muriel Williams. A fake suicide pact would then be devised in which Preston Williams would substitute a recently-deceased body for that of John Maitland, the Mills bomb being necessary to disguise the different facial features. Jackson would be on hand to provide a false identification, posing as Maitland's former flatmate, while Williams would be left free to inherit Muriel's money. There were however two weak links in the plot. Firstly, Betty Scott's sister described in a letter a birthmark borne by Maitland. Betty subsequently discovered the same birthmark on Jackson, suggesting Maitland and he were one and the same. Maitland was also known to possess pornographic photographs of Betty's sister; the same as Joe Betts claimed to have found in the cemetery. Inspired by Los Guitanos's theme of substitution, Janson consults mortuary records and discovers a body approximating to that of Maitland's. On visting the cemetery he discovers the coffin is empty. They are disturbed by Jackson and Williams, but the boyfriend of Joe Bett's sister arrives to help save the day. The book ends with Janson in his role as New-Man wondering how long it will take to forgive Betty for sleeping with Jackson.

4-11 Amok (May 1953)

The last of the ten Series novels not to feature Hank Janson, Amok adheres to the by now familiar formula of featuring a lead character to whom both fate has dealt a cruel blow, and who occupies the subservient role in a relationship where the woman proves to be the stronger character. The story is generally well-paced and eventful from the moment it opens with Jimmy Martin engaged in a game of gin rummy. Reliving childhood games, where stepping on a crack in the pavement is fantasised as invoking all manner of consequences, Martin fantasises that victory in the game will win him his life. Only as the narrative develops is it revealed that his opponent is a warder and Martin is awaiting execution on death row. From this point on the tension is maintained by the reader being kept unaware of the precise nature both of his crime and his relationship with the woman who assists in his escape until some considerable way into the story. Like its early predecessor, No Regrets For Clara, Amok does however contain an unsettling and essentially superfluous narrative theme that tends to overshadow other events. This concerns the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of a 20-year old woman by Martin's fellow escapee.

Following an introductory account of Martin's anxious thoughts regarding the execution he faces, the action takes off when, following smuggled instructions, he succeeds in getting transferred to the prison hospital. Here his "saviour" appears in the form of Al Dexster, a psychotic killer who, while achieving their escape, shoots dead two guards and the prison doctor. Martin then discovers the getaway car is driven by his fiancee, Marilyn. Dexster explains that he chose Martin because, facing death, he had nothing to lose while, unlike Dexster's accomplices, Marilyn could be relied on simply through the presence of Martin. The trio hide out in Dexster's parents' run-down smallholding, with Dexster displaying a typical callous disregard for his deaf-mute parents, coupled with an unwelcome regard for Marilyn. The partnership is also profoundly unequal, with Dexster ensuring his unwilling partners' compliance by hiding the guns plus, later, most of Martin's and Marilyn's clothes.

The story of Martin's past unfolds. An orphan who successfully graduated law school, Martin met Marilyn initially as a client. While their relationship grew, he defended unsuccessfully another client named Weechell, who subsequently placed a contract on him. One night, mistaking a stranger for an assassin, Martin shot and killed what in fact was an unarmed man. Charged with murder, he was sentenced to die.

Lacking funds, Dexster decides to rob a local bank but, on returning from a reconnaissance with Martin, he kidnaps a 20-year old woman who he subsequently treats as a sex-slave, chaining her to a bunk bed. Underlining his psychotic nature, a visiting salesman is summarily murdered. The bank raid goes off, with yet more deaths following at the hands of Dexster. While returning from the raid, Martin realises the only reason he is still alive is because Dexster craves Marilyn, but knows that hope of winning her over is futile if he kills Martin. Nevetheless, when Martin returns one day from snaring rabbits he finds Marilyn has been raped by Dexster. This act seems finally to goad Dexster's father into action, and he leads Martin to the cache of weapons. Dexster returns just as a police car enters the access road to the farm and, in a prolonged shoot-out, Martin succeeds eventually in killing his quarry. The tale ends with him having come full circle and awaiting once more the electric chair; this time praying that Marilyn's experiences will not have caused her any lasting harm.

4-12 Corruption (Sep 1953)

Frances brought everything together in a novel the result was hugely satisfying. It should however by this stage be apparent that this aim was not routinely achieved, and it is perhaps therefore fitting that Corruption should end the Fourth Series by illustrating both characteristic strengths and weaknesses that often surfaced in the later Janson books. The central theme, comprising a high-class call-girl racket used to obtain tendered contracts, is generally handled in an engaging manner, avoiding a neat imaginary resolution in favour of a far more convincing "public interest"-driven moratorium on news coverage. Moreover, Frances's writing had by this time achieved a level of competence whereby pace could be maintained without recourse to the graphic levels of violence used to bolster the narrative of earlier books. All told, the tale of Corruption contains enough twists, turns and engaging digressions to provide an entertaining read. The problem is, just as with the sexual-enslavement episode in Amok, that Frances seems compelled at times to introduce sub-plots that are not only unnecessary but also inexplicable. While Janson had a history of engaging with women who cried foul at the very moment passions ran highest there was always a rational ulterior motive for their behaviour. Yet no such motive emerges in the case of Janson's relationship with Mrs. Ralph, who appears possessed of insatiable desire only just as suddenly and fiercely to reject his advances (before or after intercourse is never made clear). This bizarre mode of behaviour leaves Frances once more struggling to construct around it a plausible dialogue.

The opening scene finds Janson present at a corruption trial in which a City Administrator, Dugdale, surprisingly offers no defence against the charges laid before him. Dugdale's daughter (referred to throughout, rather primly, only as "Miss Dugdale") later tells Janson that her father was the victim of a call-girl racket that is systematically engaged in corrupting city officials. In an apparently unconnected event, he witnesses the death of a drugged man beneath the wheels of city traffic, retrieving a car key with telephone number that the victim dropped. Inspired by Dugdale's daughter's revelations about call-girls, Janson attempts to run a feature exposing vice, but has no success in infiltrating the high-class call-girl circuit. He does however meanwhile trace the dropped car key back to a Mrs. Ralph who, while claiming to know nothing of the dead man, encourages Janson's advances before offering a resounding rebuff. Janson leaves believing she knows more that she admits to. The vice articles prove to be taking effect when Janson is duped into calling in the police on what it transpires is a staged murder, the intention being to discredit him in the eyes of the police.

Still suspicious of Ralph, Janson follows her to a beauty parlour she owns, where he once more encounters Dugdale's daughter, this time claiming that the vice ring that snared her father is run from the beauty parlour. He meets Mrs. Ralph and (still under an assumed name) succeeds in getting an introduction to a call-girl. He also learns from the receptionist that Ralph had indeed met the traffic accident victim, while adding only that he came from Boston. On returning home he is once again tricked into calling out the police on a faked murder.

Janson meets and is charmed by his "escort", Laura, but is alerted by her disclosure that she is from Boston. Delving further, he confirms that she is the daughter of the dead man, Clements, who had traced her to Ralph's premises. Later, having identified her father at the mortuary, Laura agrees to help Janson expose the vice ring. He is then visited by a Mr. Jordan who offers evidence on Ralph, fearing that the vice-feature publicity will adversely affect his chain of brothels, but the pair are interrupted by one of the men who had previously faked the murders. This time the murder is real and Jordan is left dead with only Laura, lying in concealment, saving Janson from being implicated. The killer is traced back to Mrs. Ralph, who is arrested and charged with Clement's murder, while Janson's attempts to print the story are vetoed by the FBI on the grounds that their investigations are incomplete. The book ends with consolation being found in the arms of "Miss Dugdale".

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

5-00 Introduction to the Fifth Series

The Fifth, or Continental, Series of Hank Janson novels broke with tradition by moving the locations from the USA to Europe. By 1953, however, the noose of censorship was tightening firmly around the necks of Frances and his compatriots in the publishing business (Holland, 1991). Only two novels eventually appeared under the Fifth Series, being Silken Menace and Nyloned Avenger. The first took place in an Amsterdam location, while for the second Janson travelled to Bonn, Germany.

In terms of the narratives, both books were pretty much standard fare, involving respectively a smuggling gang and the by now familiar tale of an inheritance predicated on the continued life of the primary beneficiary. Silken Menace did however make good use of its European location. This was achieved firstly by constructing the smuggling tale around goods being shipped across the Iron Curtain, and secondly by employing an evocative chase scene through the canals of Amsterdam. Frances here used his descriptive skills to full effect, juxtaposing the bright lights and noisy tourist revelry aboard the canal tour boat with the brooding threat contained beyond the dank, dark walls of the canal itself. Other than that, there is little more to be learned from the two Fifth Series books.

5-01 Silken Menace (Oct 1953)

The first of the Fifth, or "Continental" Series, Silken Menace takes place in Amsterdam, with the closing paragraph being used as a link to the next story in the Series; a move reminiscent of the First Series books. At times it feels rather like a stock gangster novel uprooted and transported across the Atlantic, although the evocative canal scene and theme of Iron Curtain smuggling does render the change of location more than simply one of novelty. Rated purely on intrigue and suspense it works well although, with the exception of Hanna Janson, the characters never really come to life, leaving the various suspenseful themes to carry what otherwise might be an unremarkable gangster narrative.

The story begins with Janson touching down at Amsterdam airport, while simultaneously getting the brush-off from an attractive fellow-American traveller. No sooner has he reached his hotel room than a guest (Helga) in an adjoining room asks him to prise open the lock on her suitcase. Janson follows by inviting her to dinner, but is later visited by three men who demand - with extreme menace - an unnamed item they believe him to possess. Knocked unconscious, he is later found by Helga. The pair eat at The Cartwheel but Helga subsequently disappears while visiting the lavatory in Leidseplein Air Terminal . Janson is then separately pursued by two strangers, escaping firstly by jumping a canal cruiser and secondly by hiding out with a female night-watchman who takes pity on him (one of those strange, ostensibly unrelated interludes that crop up from time to time in Jansons).

On returning to his hotel room he receives an urgent call from Helga who implores him to meet her at an address she provides. Janson hurries there, only to discover it is a trap, and the three-man gang, led by Max Baumer Trenchart (!) beat firstly him then Helga - who is also a prisoner - in order to obtain what it is they believe him to possess. Still completely ignorant of their purpose, Janson bluffs that he has posted a document to himself at the hotel. Temporarily mollified, Max and an accomplice leave for the hotel after the surprise revelation that Helga was in fact a member of the gang and simply another ruse through which to obtain information from Janson. Helga meanwhile feels pity for Janson who, believing her to be Max's prisoner, had attempted to save her. Having firstly overpowered the third gang member, she then sets Janson free.

It transpires the gang is after a valuable Bill of Lading relating to machinery being shipped across the Iron Curtain. Janson deduces the only way they can think he possesses it is because there were two Jansons on the flight. Visiting the airport terminal his suspicions are confirmed, with his discovering the other H. Janson (Hanna) is none other than the woman who ignored him while the flight was landing. She indeed has the Bill of Lading, and a fairly complicated ruse then follows that reveals the two canal pursuers as being members of a rival syndicate to that of Max. Having paid Janson $3,000 ($500 of which he gives to Helga), Janson then sends them separately, with Helga, to the address where he had been held captive. He meanwhile hastens there with Hanna Janson, who the gang searches thoroughly before discovering the document. Helga subsequently arrives with the other two men, and a predictable fight breaks out, during which Janson escapes with his namesake, the latter clothed only in a camel-hair coat. Reaching their hotel Janson asks to search the coat and, on discovering the Bill of Lading, leaves Hanna stranded naked, and with no money, in the hotel room. Outside he destroys the document before departing on a train bound for Berlin.

5-02 Nyloned Avenger (Nov 1953)

Whereas Silken Menace made some use of its Amsterdam location, there seems no compelling reason why Nyloned Avenger should have taken place in Bonn, Germany. There is only one descriptive reference to the city (on page 43) and the rather tired plot (murder in order to inherit) could have been set anywhere. In fact Frances's inability to move "tough guy" dialogue beyond Chicago works firmly to the novel's disadvantage. Names such as "Luke", "Chris" and "Jan" hardly conjure up an image of dyed-in-the-wool Germanic stock, while the issue from their lips of lines such as "You've got a way with dames, ain't you, Mister?" (p.85) almost evokes the gloriously inept dubbing employed on Sergio Leone's Dollar films. In mitigation, the book is full of the rich description that marked out the best Jansons and which was absent - for the most part - from Silken Menace. While the representation of Maria is characteristically over-cooked, the relationship between Janson and Klara is handled well, with her past insanity being introduced just at the point where her behaviour seems to be verging on the absurd.

The tale begins with Janson acquainting himself with Klara, who shares his train compartment. Having dined together, Janson is returning to his carriage when he hears a scream. Rushing back, he finds a man attempting to throw Klara from the train. She seems unwilling to pursue her attacker but, ascribing Janson's lack of hard currency to penury, offers him a job guarding her for three days. The conditions are that they should act as if married, and that he should defer to her every command. Out of inquisitiveness he agrees.

On reaching Bonn, Klara orders Janson to buy a car, and the pair set off to a farm she knows in a remote location. There they meet an unsavoury collection of individuals named Luke, Chris, and Jan, plus Anna and Maria, who are incensed when they believe Janson and Klara to be married. The pair only narrowly escape with their lives. Klara refuses to tell Janson the anything about them or the reason for their anger. Later that evening Janson notices a woman, Rosa Gottlieb, recognising Klara (although the latter refuses to acknowledge her), and invites her for a drink. Rosa tells that she knew Klara, but had not seen her for four years since the latter's father died. Her brother also died two years later, with Rosa adding that around that time Klara was declared insane and committed. Janson returns to his hotel, only to incur Klara's wrath when she detects Rosa's perfume.

The next day Janson meets Maria in the hotel lobby, and discovers not only that Luke is Klara's step-brother, but that he inherits if she dies. She entices him out to the cabin where he is once more nearly killed. Returning to the hotel he demands an explanation from Klara. It transpires that Luke, Chris and Jan are all step-brothers, and that they will indeed inherit her considerable wealth should she die, unless she is married. After the death of her brother she suffered a breakdown, at which point her step-brothers capitalised by making it appear as if she had mutilated herself with a razor, thereby ensuring her incarceration. Janson suggests they at least forget about events for the rest of the evening and prepare for dinner. Their preparations are however interrupted by the arrival of a parcel that subsequently explodes in Klara's room.

Janson returns once more to the farm and entices away Maria, building on an attraction she has developed for him. In his room she makes advances, but is suddenly terrified when seeing a replica of the parcel in his suitcase, which he explains as never having been opened. In terror she admits that Luke also killed Klara's full-brother, through inducing pneumonia, and sent a parcel bomb to Klara. She attempts to escape and runs into the arms of the police, who Janson had standing by to hear to confession.

The final chapter opens with Janson talking to a woman who, it transpires, is Klara. Being in the bathroom at the time of the blast, she missed the force of it and survived with only bruises. She once more incurs his ire through offering him a job but, reconciled, the tale ends with his agreeing to stay on with her in Bonn.

The Moring Covers

Compared to their counterparts in the Gaywood series, the Morings remain relatively overlooked. This undoubtedly is due to one single factor: the absence of a signature that might otherwise confirm the cover artwork to be that of Reginald Heade. This, combined with a lack of any other corroborating evidence, leaves collectors with a choice. They may choose to reject the possibility that any covers were by Heade, maintaining instead that an artist was employed by Alexander Moring to work in the style of Heade. They may take the opposite stance and argue that all the covers were by Heade, but that he was simply no longer fully engaged in his work. Or they may attempt to identify covers that approximate closely to Heade's style, leaving attribution of the remainder open to question.

The first position gains strength from the argument that Heade tended as a matter of course to sign his work, and asks furthermore why he would produce what are, in many cases, clearly inferior reproductions of his earlier illustrations. While it is however true that for the most part he did sign his work, Chibnall (1991) notes that around the time the Morings were being produced Heade failed also to sign work for other publishers. This lapse may therefore be a consequence of the rash of prosecutions that were plaguing publishers and distributors at the time, and a resulting wish for anonymity. As to the inferior quality of the work, the incorporation of the red and yellow Moring title banner and increased price of 2/6d would have meant Heade would have had to rework any covers he had originally used for the Gaywoods. There might be any number of explanations as to why this work was not up to earlier standards; the fact alone that it was not does not however seem ample reason to dismiss it as the hand of another artist.

The second position (that all the covers were by Heade) gains currency through the incidence of well-executed illustrations (e.g. Sinister Rapture) that are interspersed with those of poorer quality, the argument being that, towards the tail-end of the Morings, Heade simply had more off-days than not. The problem with this is that elsewhere Heade was producing some of his best work, so why should the Morings alone be singled out for neglect? It is also too speculative, the argument being premised on nothing more than continuity in the case of inferior covers. We choose therefore to follow Chibnall (1991) in claiming that some, but not all, of the Moring covers bear sufficient similarity to Heade's earlier work to be - tentatively - attributed to him. Indeed, in the case of Framed this is more than tentative: the illustration is a direct lift from the cover of the Gaywood Deadly Mission. Steve Chibnall also attributes other titles to Heade, and these are accordingly highlighted in bold below. In fact we would go further and include every cover up to and including Sweet Fury. The Civil Guard in Contraband may appear forced and wooden but, as Chibnall notes, Heade's ability to portray female models far exceeded that when dealing with males - more significant is the use of light and colour in the mountainous backdrop. Elsewhere Strange Destiny and Bewitched are certainly strong Heade contenders, while even the simplicity of The Big Lie should not necessarily be taken as an indication of an artist unable to deal adequately with facial expressions (Heade often chose not to depict models' faces, e.g. It's Always Eve That Weeps). The two weakest contenders for the Heade mantle in these early Morings are probably Bring Me Sorrow and They Die Alone. Like Contraband, however, the key to Bring Me Sorrow lies not in the model, whose face is unexceptionally rendered, but in the detail of the background, specifically the silk of the sheet and headboard covering. Likewise with They Die Alone, while the face is awkward and coarsely drawn, the carefully contrasted transparency evidenced in the folds respectively of the camisole and gown are pure Heade.

Of the rest, Sinister Rapture is probably the most evocative of Heade's work (the model lit by moonlight), while the others offer as many arguments against as they do for. When all is said and done, however, that fact remains that without the all-important signature attribution of all but one of the 50 illustrations remains speculative. This is unfortunate, as there is strong evidence to suggest Heade continued to produce covers for Jansons well into the Moring period. The absence of that signature means however that those covers tend to attract considerably less attention than, judged on merit alone, they deserve.