Three quick reviews - probably the most obscure collection of books since the infamous 'Nurse Romance Round-up of '11'. Holiday reading: got to love it. (Or not, in this case.)
Bernard Girard's Cool Jade (1975) follows con artist Ira Hand as he plans an elaborate operation in the heart of San Francisco. Ira's set up as a cool character, picking up and dropping identities at the drop of a hat, and often several times on each page. To some, he's a far right conspiracy theorist. To others he's a violent anarchist. Even Ira can't keep track of his own lies - in several scenes, he has to do a double-take before realising people are talking to him.
Ira is after the collection of jade in Gumps department store - a very real San Francisco landmark, and one of the few enjoyable notes in this otherwise dire book. To do so, he's come up with a scheme that involves, amongst others, a legion of plumbers, insurance fraud, a series of bombing attacks, a Boy Scout troop and a (presumably contractually-mandated) love affair with a flighty-but-good-hearted blond.
On the whole, Cool Jade is pretty silly stuff. Although the elements of the con build to a sort of slap-stick crescendo, there are so many red herrings that the reader (like Hand) often loses track of what's important. Hand's methods are partially improvised, partially organised, and the result is a sort of murky, unpleasant chaos. That's not to say Cool Jade is a total loss. Although the crime plot is forced (and, again, rubbish), Mr. Girard (that's got to be a pen name, right?) does have a wicked sense of humor, with pointed attacks on both the Right and Left. The ridiculousness of the anarchist groups is only matched by the malignancy of the conservative organisations, and Mr. Girard pulls no punches when he mocks the stupidity of both. Curiously, his contention isn't that these groups are hypocritical, rather, he is scathing about anything or anyone that tries to distill the complexity world into a single issue. Hand, who is able to see the many facets of an argument, finds these true believers easy to manipulate: "pushbutton people... all you had to do was push the button and they would respond".
Meanwhile, W. Howard Baker's Take Death for a Lover (1972) is a clunky fusion of a half-dozen different crime tropes, all expressed as poorly as is possible. Tom Mason is a down-and-out journalist with one last chance at glory: he thinks he can score an interview with Gail Turner, the reclusive superstar model.
Why will Tom succeed where so many others have failed? He's her husband - married during the war (before he was a) shot down, b) captured by Germans and c) then captured by Soviets because d) this is the sort book that says all that in a paragraph and then forgets it because e) it is kind of terrible). Tom weasels his way past the doormen of her exclusive (but badly-guarded) hotel and breaks into her room... only to find that she's dead!
Tom is, of course, the prime suspect. But being a first-person narrative, we know it couldn't have been him. Was it her playboy fiance? Her playboy fiance's billionaire father? Her ruthless ex-ballplayer bodyguard who had the hots for her? A rival model? A rival model's boyfriend?!
Although the corrupt cops are happy to pin this on Tom, our intrepid hero has one mighty ally: the British super-sluth Quintain happens to be staying in the same lavish hotel, and has decided to intervene, because... because.
What follows is the most lackluster interpretation of the Innocent Man Accused storyline I may have ever read. Tom follows meekly in Quintain's shadow, continually confused and perpetually panicked. He falls for every trap and lie, constantly diving over hedges and out windows, only to be brought back by the (magically) patient private eye.
Meanwhile, Quintain does stuff: spotting clues that the reader isn't given, interviewing witnesses and suspects that we never see and roping in political allies that we never meet. Eventually, it all wraps up in a classic interrogation session, in which Quintain describes, at length, a far more interesting book than the one we just read.
Take Death for a Lover isn't just bad, it is bafflingly terrible, as if the author went out of his way to avoid writing something that might be might accidentally be good. It isn't helped by the shoddy line-editing either: Take Death is littered with repetition. I'm sorry to say, but I've found this approach generally indicative of most Five Star Paperbacks - they feel like second-generation photocopies of the better paperback imprints. Even the McGinnis cover feels half-assed, depicting the "honey blonde" Gail Turner as a brunette (and in a studio that... never appears in the book).
Well, one out of three ain't bad, but I wasn't expecting David Beaty's Sword of Honour (1965) to be the best of the lot - if only because I don't normally seek out "aeronautical thrillers". Sword of Honour is based at a British flight school, which, if I understand correctly, is a bit of a government-sponsored thing. Britain needs (commercial) pilots and, if young men show the aptitude and pass the course, they make it through the programme and into a lavish captain's job for BEA.
Top Gun it ain't - these are largely working-class young men flying slightly clunky old planes that, rumor has it, have been reconstructed time and time again. And that is where Sword of Honour's conflict arises - with G-AHVK aka Victor Kilo aka Victor Killer aka The Bastard - one of the school's old Astras. The Bastard is surrounded by rumours and superstition: she's crashed a dozen, two dozen times - killed a pilot, three pilots. She's cursed, no doubt, and all the cadets hate to fly her.
Benson, our protagonist, is the definition of average: he's ok as a pilot with ok looks, ok smarts and ok courage with the ladies. His roommate, however, is Miller - who is the best at everything. The two are friends, but there's a fair amount of resentment there as well... Benson, flying The Bastard, clips a tree. The school sends him to apologise, and Miller (scenting an opportunity) comes along. The tree's owner is an irate gentleman: the tree's owner's daughter is a beautiful young woman. Cue: hijinks.
But the friends' chase for Antonia is nothing compared to the tension back on the base. As The Bastard is involved in accident after accident, the cadets grow more and more unsettled - eventually leading to a strike amongst the students. Miller, the only skeptic, refuses to take part, and the mood turns even uglier. Benson, as Miller's closest - and only - friend is caught in-between.
Sword of Honour puts Benson into the role of the everyman, with his utter averageness a plea for reader empathy. Benson is also caught between greater forces: superstition and science, ambition and decency, romance and friendship. Although he never aspires to heroics (indeed, nothing he does ever feels heroic), Benson somehow always does the right thing - although it never seems that clear-cut at the time. He grows up a little during the course of the book, becoming a little less superstitious, a little less melodramatic and, most importantly, a little more confident. Sword of Honour is a book about luck, not fate or destiny - the breaks always seem to fall for some people and not others, a stance fully endorsed by the 'official' pilot training. But if there's one core lesson of Sword of Honour, it is that you make your own luck - in life, as with flying, there's an infinity of tiny, uncontrollable factors - it isn't about how you control them, but how you react.*
*Well, not to ascribe authorial intent, but post-review research says that this probably is David Beaty's point. It seems that he wrote a great deal of non-fiction about the importance of psychology and "pilot error" in aviation accidents. It wasn't popular at the time, but has since become part of the curriculum in pilot training.