Weirdness Rodeo
Extended Memory: Captain Bible in the Dome of Darkness

Review Round-up: Planes, Fruit, Rags and Lions

Four oldish treats from the 1950s and 1960s. I suppose they're all sort of joined up by being "thrillers" in unconventional settings. But that's pretty spurious - they're really joined up by being four books that caught my eye recently; there's not much more pattern than that.

High CitadelHigh Citadel (1965), by Desmond Bagley, is a nice combination of survivalist horror and siege-porn. A small plane carrying a motley group of passengers is hijacked, and makes a crash-landing in the Andes. It turns out one of the passengers is politically important (the ex-President of a mythical South American country) and a group of Communist insurgents are keen to see him disposed of and out of the way.

But the Commies didn't count on American derring-do! The plane's captain, a former POW in Korea, shrugs off his burgeoning alcoholism and assembles the remaining passengers into a rag-tag group of freedom fighters. It is more fun (and less preachy) than it seems, as the team defend their mountain perch with a combination of medieval and jury-rigged weapons. And, in parallel, others try the murderous march over the mountains to get help - but with almost no supplies.

Although it tries, this isn't exactly a soaring novel of human triumph - the characters are mostly one-dimensional and the situation escalates far past the ability to suspend disbelief. But the detail is enjoyable, in a Robinson Crusoe Goes to War kind of way.

Ripe FruitI'm a fan of John McPartland - one of Gold Medal's unfairly forgotten pulp authors (check out his obituary). And Ripe Fruit (1958) is another of his works well-worth tracking down. In a sense, this is a companion volume to H. Vernor Dixon's exceptional The Hunger and the Hate, as it also features an ambitious young man's struggles to achieve financial success in the world of farming, but also climb the social latter. The difference between the two is that Dixon's book features a (frankly) slimy character on his way up - Dean is scheming and crawling his way to the top. Ripe Fruit's ostensible protagonist is at the top: he's the heir to a farming fortune, but the quest to preserve his land and his family's legacy is proving surprisingly Quixotic.

After his father's untimely death (a suicide that everyone politely covers up), Reeves Buchanan returns home and vows to restore the business to its former glory. The Buchanan family have always been pillars of the community; men that command respect and serve as the de facto lords of the manor. But this is, we learn, a sham. Reeves' father's suicide was due to a combination of seedy factors: buying in to his own myth, too afraid to age, he made terrible financial investments and began an expensive affair. Reeves' brother, Blair, is a well-meaning fop, fully aware that he's lived his life expecting to inherit millions, and is now completely buried in debt. Only Reeves has the gumption and the manliness to put things straight, and, after conversations with the bank and his neighbors - impressing them with his attitude and his straight shootin' - things might actually work out.

Except, of course, for Rena. The true star of the book is the daughter of one of the Mexican field hands, and a maid in the Buchanan house. She's caught between two worlds: appreciative of the chaos that Reeves faces, but also trapped dealing with serious problems of her own - a growing gang culture, her brother's predatory 'friends', and the tacit acknowledgement that she too is ageing, and will someday lose her one 'asset' (her stunning beauty). (Ageing is, as you can tell, a bit of a theme.) Rena and Reeves spark a torrid affair, the results of which are unexpectedly explosive. Nor is this a fairy tale - their worlds are too different, separated by a grotesque, systemic unfairness of which McPartland is unhesitatingly critical. As sympathetic as Ripe Fruit may be to Rena (and, arguably, the book is far more impressed by her than by Reeves), there's no happy ending. For anyone. Cheering!

The Rag PickersSpeaking of H. Vernor Dixon, another 'business noir' - The Rag Pickers (1966).This over-sexed little drama is set in a San Francisco department store. Lew Kane has just merged his small, 'spunky' chain of stores with those of one of San Francisco's most glorious, up-market names. He's coming up in the world. But the merger comes with its problems, and he's stuck battling the jaded old board members, departmental politics and (sssh) the fact that he's financially over-extended. How's he going to pull this off?

Lower down the latter, Kane's protege, Betty, is taking over the women's fashion department - one of the store's most important. But Betty's also diving into the deep end, and the saleswomen she's now commanding resent her presence - and the unfair amount of attention she seems to be receiving from Kane.

Also lavishing attention? Her equivalent in men's fashion - Joe. Despite his happy (Catholic) marriage, he's an inveterate womaniser, and sees in Betty a challenge he can't resist.

If this all sounds sordid, that's just the tip of the iceberg. By the end of the book, we've got multiple generations of secret affairs, abortion, incest, rape, death, theft, violence and fraud. Everyone, everywhere, is seedy as hell, and what begins as a promising, Arthur Hailey-esque look into the workings of a complicated system turns into a ludicrous soap opera. This contemporary review from Kirkus nails the book perfectly - it is so over the top, it is impossible to ignore; so bad that it may be (yet and never was) a vast commercial success.

One last one, and also on the theme of 'business noir' - Frank Harvey's The Lion Pit (1962), which has at its heart a steel refinery. The Carey Furnace Company owns Carey Furnace, Pennsylvania, and the entire town lives and dies by its fortunes. Harvey's book explores all levels of this capitalist-feudal society, from Carey himself all the way down to the humble (and psychopathic) shop assistant in the company story. In-between, the lesser nobility of department heads and salesmen all squabble and fight for position. There's a bit of blackmail, a lot of staring into the hills and saying 'one day, this will all be mine', and a lot of men feeling betrayed (and being betrayed) by their wives. There's a promise of adequacy - largely due to the fact that the two big rivals for the future of Carey Furnace are both presented with empathy. But whatever tentative claim the book has on literary merit is lost in the final pages, when an apocalyptic train wreck conveniently separates the Good from the Evil and sorts out all the town's (and business's) problems like the hand of God.