Friday, February 28, 2014

Old Bestseller Reviews: Graustark, by George Barr McCutcheon

Graustark, by George Barr McCutcheon

I found an omnibus of two of George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark novels at an antique shop. McCutcheon was an American novelist and playwright. He was born in 1866. His most famous novels date to the first decade of the 20th Century, particularly Graustark (1901) and Brewster's Millions (1902). Graustark is set in a fictional Eastern European kingdom, and it spawned a number of sequels. The books were very popular, and indeed romantic fiction set in fictional kingdoms, usually called "Ruritanian" after the country in Anthony Hope's slightly earlier (and far far superior) The Prisoner of Zenda, is occasionally called Graustarkian.

I do have a weakness for the Ruritanian subgenre. So I went ahead and read Graustark. The story opens with a man, Grenfall Lorry, presented as something of a paragon, against the evidence ... He's an American with lots of family money, but he seems too lazy to do anything with it -- he is shown being a terrible lawyer. He bumps into a beautiful young woman traveling with an older couple -- Lorry and the young woman end up missing a train connection and Lorry arranges for a dangerous coach ride in the West Virginia mountains to reunite her with her Aunt and Uncle (as it turns out). He becomes obsessed with this woman, who has given her name as Sophia Guggenslocker (before checking, I wanted to say "Shickelgruber"). Eventually he decides to go to Graustark to find her, confident that someone named Guggenslocker must be the daughter of a butcher or something, and will gladly leap into his arms and return with him to the US.

Accompanied by his friend, the curiously named Harry Anguish, Lorry makes his way to Graustark. But there are no Guggenslockers in that tiny country. To no reader's surprise, we learn that Sophia Guggenslocker was a pseudonym for the Princess Yetive. Ahh, such agony for Grenfall Lorry. For of course the Princess -- the ruler of her country -- cannot marry a commoner. Worse, her country is threatened with ruin as the result of a disastrous war with their neighbor, Axphain, some time back. They owe millions of gavvos. The only way to pay back the loan is an advantageous marriage, either to the rather dull heir to the throne of Axphain, or to the caddish young prince of another neighbor, who will advance the money in exchange for Yetive's hand. She has agreed to marry the young prince of Axphain, but his character is revealed when Grenfall overhears him offering to share Yetive's favors once he's tired of her. Meanwhile the other prince attempts a kidnapping, which Lorry and Anguish foil. Yetive's presumptive fiance is murdered, and Lorry is immediately the prime suspect, and the dead prince's father agrees to delay payment of the indemnity in exchange for Lorry's head on a stake, but Yetive cannot bear to have him killed and tries to convince him to escape ... Well, we see where this is going, and we can all guess who the real killer is ...

It's all rather humbug, of course, and it simply pales next to The Prisoner of Zenda. It does bounce along nicely enough. The book is horribly sexist, of course, but in fact Yetive shows some real spunk and independence at times, almost in spite of the author it seems. She's the best part of it -- Grenfall Lorry is rather a cipher, or an implausible paragon. In the end, it is what it is. Easy to see why it sold well in its day, and spawned many sequels, but also easy to see why it's nearly forgotten now.

[Jacket pictures to come!]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Old Bestseller Reviews: Half a Rogue and The Best Man, by Harold Macgrath


Half a Rogue, by Harold Macgrath  

Half a Rogue was published in 1906, by Bobbs-Merril. It was the tenth best-selling novel of that year. I found a Grosset & Dunlap reprint of the book. Harold Macgrath (or MacGrath, spellings vary) was a novelist from Syracuse, New York, and an early writer for films. He is all but forgotten today, despite reputedly having originated Boris Karloff's stage name. (Karloff was born William Henry Pratt, and MacGrath's 1920 novel The Drums of Jeopardy, which was filmed twice (in 1923 and 1931), featured a mad scientist named Boris Karlov. However, William Henry Pratt apparently used the name Boris Karloff as early as 1912, so if anything the inspiration for the name in MacGrath's novel may have run the other direction.)

The book is short (perhaps 80,000 words), and on a brief scan looked like it might turn sexily on a love triangle or quadrangle, so I thought it might be fun. And to be fair, it reads quite breezily, and holds the interest OK. But it's full of cliche, both in the writing and in the characterization. There's some offensive characterizations of ethnic groups, particularly Italians and Irish (no mention of black people) -- I suppose par for the course in popular fiction of that era. There's also a notable classism -- there's a strong sense that we are to be led by "gentleman", though to be sure the main character is the son of a potato farmer, a self-made man -- but still, it's clear, a "gentleman".

Anyway, the novel opens curiously with playwright Richard Warrington approached in a restaurant by a young woman, who it seems cannot pay for her meal, due to a sad story concerning her father's bad habits. Of course he pays for it (the gentleman), and then it turns out she's an actress who can't get a fair hearing, and this her means of proving how talented she is. As it happens, Warrington is looking for a new lead for his latest play, because his current star is insisting on changes to give her a more flattering role, and that would ruin his art. This made me think the story would be set on Broadway at the turn of the century ... but then suddenly we are several years in the future. Katherine Challoner, the actress he had hired in the first chapter, comes to him with news -- she is getting married, and will leave the stage. There is a hint of romantic entanglement in the past between Warrington and Challoner, but nothing came of it (their hearts were not truly engaged). Meantime Warrington is pondering a very flattering letter praising his work -- from an anonymous very young woman. And then his old University friend, the rich businessman John Bennington, visits and asks him to be his best man -- for he will be married soon. Of course it turns out that Bennington is in fact marrying Katherine Challoner ... and (gasp!) Katherine left her gloves with Warrington when she came and told him of her plans to leave the stage and get married.

The wedding of course will be in Bennington and Warrington's common home town, Herculaneum, in upstate New York. (It seems overtly modelled on MacGrath's home town, Syracuse.) The scene shifts quickly there. A few threads are set up. In one, the local social leader, Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene, an odious woman, begins to plot to make sure that the soon to be Katherine Bennington will not be able to upstage her social position -- after all, an actress! In another, Warrington, who comes to stay with his beloved Aunt, who raised him after his father died (his mother having left at his birth), again meets Bennington's much younger sister, Patty, and an attraction quickly blooms. (Warrington, no surprise, soon discovers that it was Patty who had written the anonymous letter of praise that he so treasured.) In a third, Warrington is recruited to run for Mayor, to oppose the entrenched candidate, who is the tool of an odious man named McQuade, who uses his influence to arrange for corruptly awarded city construction contracts. And in the fourth, Bennington's steel mill is threatened with a strike because he employs a non-union engineer, who, even worse, is British, and worse still, is perfecting a labor-saving device.

Naturally all these threads converge. Bennington's association with Warrington means that his business decisions may throw votes to the other guy. McQuade plots to ruin Warrington's reputation, and his eventual tool is to suggest that Warrington and Katherine Challoner had an affair. Patty's love for Warrington is threatened if she too believed that her new sister-in-law (whom she loves) was previously involved with her new paramour. And the same scandal that may affect Warrington's reputation of course also affects Katherine Bennington's -- which plays into Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene's hands.

At times the novel reads a bit like Atlas Shrugged, at least in John Bennington's attitudes. (His response to the strike is to close his business.) But more than that it's a lightly sketched paean to a man who is hardly portrayed as even a tenth of a rogue, let alone half -- instead he's rather implausibly perfect. The romance with Patty is underwhelming, and the "scandal" of his relationship with Katherine has no legs at all for a contemporary reader. Perhaps back in 1906 a woman visiting a man's apartment twice (as far as I can tell) ... a man with whom she had a professional relationship ... would be shocking. For me, I think the novel would have been much better if (as I had assumed at first) Katherine and Richard had been lovers, but realized they didn't love each another enough to live together ... if John and Patty each had to adjust to that fact ... but no. The story of political corruption is somewhat unsatisfactorily resolved as well: Warrington and Bennington, after discovering damning information about McQuade and his tools, are too much the gentlemen to ruin him as he deserves -- they just hope to use the knowledge to neutralize him in future. Hmmmph. Still, as I said, the novel didn't bore me, and there is a sweet closing scene. It never convinces, it's full of cliches, but I can see why MacGrath had readers. After all, he was a far better writer, line by line, than Dan Brown. (Though to give Brown his due, Brown appears to have a much better plotty imagination.)

 I will mention briefly that I also ran across a collection of short stories from Macgrath, The Best Man (1907). (My copy is an A. L. Burt reprint of a Bobbs-Merril original.) It comprises four not terribly long stories: “The Best Man” (12000 words), “Two Candidates” (6000 words), “Mr. “Shifty” Sullivan” (7200 words), and “The Girl and the Poet” (2800 words) – that's a total of less than 30,000 words, a pretty slim book. “Mr. “Shifty” Sullivan” was previously published in Ainslie's Magazine – no previous publication is credited for the other stories. “The Best Man” is about a man in love with a woman who is convinced he will lose her because he has discovered that her father is guilty of financial bad dealing. “Two Candidates” is a morality tale about two men running for office, both apparently decent people, both of whom are faced with seemingly unimportant temptations to support their political backers' interests. It's kind of obvious stuff, but not too bad really. “Mr. “Shifty” Sullivan” is about the visit of a prizefighter to dinner at a society woman's house, and the surprising knowledge the local Rector shows of boxing. And “The Girl and the Poet” is about a failed poet and the woman he loves. These are all slightish pieces, and quite obvious in their messages, and plots too, but they are decent entertainment.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Brood of the Witch Queen, by Sax Rohmer

Brood of the Witch Queen, by Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer was an Englishman, real name Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959). He was famous almost entirely for his series of novels about a Chinese master criminal named Fu Manchu. It doesn't take much in the way of "politically correct" feeling to detect an unpleasant racist tone to the depiction of Fu Manchu, and indeed to the plots of some of the novels, which concerned the Yellow Peril. I am however not terribly familiar with Rohmer's work, so when I ran across an A. L. Burt edition of his 1918 novel Brood of the Witch Queen, I figured I'd give it a try. (A. L. Burt, by the way, did cheap hardcover reprint editions of popular novels -- they filled, seems to me, a similar marketplace function in the early 20th Century that the mass market paperback did after WWII.)

Brood of the Witch Queen is not a Fu Manchu book. Instead it concerns an Englishman named Robert Cairn, and his unpleasant acquaintance Antony Ferrera. We quickly learn that Ferrera is thought to be excessively effeminate in dress and manner, yet still fatally attractive to certain women. Moreover his is suspected of dark magics, at least by those in the know, like Robert's father, Dr. Bruce Cairn, an old friend of Antony Ferrera's adopted father, Sir Michael Ferrera. Soon Sir Michael Ferrera dies mysteriously. This puts Antony in line to inherit a lot of money, particularly if he can deal with his cousin, Sir Michael's ward, the beautiful Myra Duquesne. Of course, Miss Duquesne is of particular interest to Robert Cairn as well.

Bruce tells Robert a story of Sir Michael's investigations in Egypt, which undercovered evidence of an ancient immortal being, the Witch Queen. Apparently Antony must somehow be the current incarnation of this Witch Queen. And soon the older husband of one of the young women ensnared by Antony dies, also mysteriously. Robert is also threatened by magical means. Before long the action shifts to Egypt, where ancient pyramids, mysterious evil winds, hidden rooms, and so on come into play.

All that is pretty much what I expected in the way of a plot outline. Fair enough. The problem is the execution. The novel, even at the relatively short length of some 65,000 words, seems padded. The characters are not just thin -- that we expect -- but uninteresting. Robert Cairn's love affair, such as it is, with Myra Duquesne is bloodless and uninvolving -- partly because Myra has so little agency of her own. Indeed Robert himself is a weak individual, relying mainly on his father's guidance. It is, to be honest, the sort of book that gives "pulp fiction" a bad name -- it is just as bad as detractors always say, without the good parts (fun parts) that we fans of trashy old stuff hold up as the reason to put up with the bad writing and silly plotting and thin characterization.

To be fair, it doesn't seem to me, discussing this with others who have an interest in old pulpish fiction, that Rohmer's reputation has survived at all well with much of anyone.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen

I have a certain interest in old bestselling novels, mostly those published in the first half or so of the 20th Century (and often findable quite cheap in antique shops). So I thought I would start a series of looks at these old books. I'll begin with something I wrote a few years ago.

I first heard of The Green Hat in connection with Anthony Powell, a favorite of mine. (Powell mentions The Green Hat in A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of A Dance to the Music of Time; and he also lived in Shepard's Market (London), as did Dance's narrator Nick Jenkins, which is where the action of The Green Hat opens. In his memoirs Powell says something to the effect that he chose that locale when he moved to London because of its relative notoriety, derived from The Green Hat.)

The Green Hat was a major bestseller in 1924, when it was published. It was twice made into movies, the most famous of those being a late silent movie, A Woman of Affairs (1928), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. (The Green Hat was sufficiently controversial that the censors made the producers change the title, the character names, and such major plot points as one character having a venereal disease.) Michael Arlen, original name Dikran Kouyoumdjian, was born in Bulgaria of Armenian parents, but moved at a fairly young age to England. He became wealthy after the success of The Green Hat, and later moved to the U.S. His son, Michael J. Arlen, became a well-known journalist in the U.S., mainly as a TV columnist for the New Yorker, and also wrote a couple of memoirs of his parents (not entirely happy memoirs, apparently), as well as some novels.

The Green Hat is an interesting book to read, but to a contemporary reader I think it mostly fails. At least it does for me. The main issue is that the character motivations fail to convince -- there is just too much melodrama. Perhaps these motivations really did make sense in 1924, but I'm not really sure of that. [This is what I wrote on first reading the novel. But I will say, the book has stayed in my mind ever since -- it's a wildly overwrought book, and indeed sometimes silly, but it's an arresting and interesting read nonetheless.]

Arlen also makes a bunch of statements about Englishness and so on that I thought silly. To be sure, perhaps Arlen was having us on -- he was after all an outsider -- born in Bulgaria, treated with suspicion during WWI because Bulgaria was an enemy, looked down on as an Armenian (one quote I have read has someone saying "Arlen is the only Armenian I've met who didn't try to sell me a carpet"). On the other hand, Arlen seems to have desperately wanted to be regarded as an English gentleman, and later as an American.

He did become famous and rich after The Green Hat, but none of his other works were ever as successful. He did write one SF novel, Man's Mortality (1933), a dystopia said to resemble Brave New World. (Arlen and Aldous Huxley were friends.) His writing career came to an end in about 1940. After the war he moved to the U.S., where he died in 1956. [I did a brief review of Man's Mortality for the Curiosities column at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction]

I'll do a brief sort-of-review then a fuller spoiler-laden synopsis, complete with warning. First, the review.

The Green Hat tells of the doings of a small group of English people, the main ones around 30 years old, in 1923 and 1924. Thus it is set just after the debacle of World War I, and indeed its theme -- stated fairly baldly at places in the book -- is one of reaction against the "old values" of European civilization that were, as it is sometimes said, "destroyed" by the War. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is more of an observer of events than a participant (though he does take some actions in the novel).

The central story is of Iris Storm, the woman in the green hat of the title, a woman of rather unsavoury reputation. The narrator meets her at the opening -- he lives in the same building as her estranged alcoholic brother -- and from her he hears some of her personal story (and perhaps sleeps with her). We gather that Iris has been married twice, both husbands dying very soon after the marriage (her first, a suicide, on their wedding night). She is rumored to have had multiple lovers. She herself thinks her family under a sort of curse.

As the story continues a traumatic event seems to drive Iris to a further destructive act -- the seduction of Napier Harpenden, a childhood friend and an up-and-coming civil servant, only three days before his wedding. Napier still gets married, but months later Iris lures him back, and makes ready to run off with him, at which point a final confrontation reveals the true secret behind Iris's rackety life.

It's a very melodramatic novel. It's told with considerable verve, and plenty of arch turns of phrase, that at times intrigue, but often come off (at this remove) forced or false. The tone varies a bit -- though appropriately, I think -- from comic to cynical to tragic to resigned. The major problem is that the character motivations never really convince. They are given dramatic gestures to make, and I just didn't believe in them. We are told that the characters have certain features -- but we aren't shown them, and so they don't come alive. (Not even Iris Storm, though she comes closer to being fascinating than any of the men.) I'm not surprised that it was a bestseller, and I do think it reads rather better today than many bestsellers of its time, but it is ultimately slight and artificial. But I'm glad I read it.

For those who are interested, I'm going to add a more detailed synopsis of the plot below -- but beware, this will give the whole thing away.

The story of The Green Hat unfolds somewhat murkily -- on purpose I think -- though all is quite clear at the end. It opens with the ever unnamed narrator meeting a fascinating woman in a green hat. She's about his age (30 or so), and very beautiful. It seems she wants to see her brother, Gerald March, who lives in the same building as the narrator. He takes her up to her brother's room, who is (as usual) dead drunk. The woman in the green hat, Mrs. Iris Storm, spends some time talking to the narrator, telling bits of her family's story -- they are a cadet branch of a noble family, and rather corrupted, mostly by drink, also perhaps by fate. At the end, I think -- but I am by no means sure! -- that the narrator sleeps with Iris, but it is clear that they will remain friends but not lovers.

The story continues with repeated encounters between the two -- the narrator's role being mainly an observer to the main action of the story. (In this he resembles the narrator of Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins.) We learn that Iris Storm has been married twice -- quite young she married Boy Fenwick, who committed suicide on their wedding night, apparently "For Purity!". The implication is that Boy was disgusted to learn his new wife was not a virgin. Boy, apparently, was Gerald March's best friend, and his relationship with his sister was permanently ruined by Boy's suicide. Iris apparently conducted numerous affairs and became notorious in England after this. She married once more, a certain Hector Storm, but he too soon died -- murdered in Ireland by members of Sinn Fein. But did he put himself in harm's way to escape his faithless wife?

Then Gerald March commits suicide after he is charged with making unwelcome advances to a woman. The very same night Iris seduces Napier Harpenden, a childhood friend and a rising star in the foreign office, who is to be married in three days. A sort of Greek chorus of the narrator and two older friends, the Tory Guy de Travest and the Liberal Hilary Townshend, take against Iris at this point -- she has gone too far. Napier and his fiancée, Venice, get married, and Iris goes to France. Nine months later, the narrator is in France and chances to find Iris in a hospital, recovering from septic fever occasioned by the stillbirth of her child by Napier. Iris has lost hope (this is her second failed pregnancy) and she will surely die unless she sees her lover again. Napier is also in France, on vacation with Venice, and he dodges Venice long enough to go to Iris's hospital room, which alerts Venice to the possibility of a relationship. Iris survives and agrees to forsake Napier.

But a few months later Iris is back in England, and she and Napier plan to run away together to South America. This causes considerable consternation among the mutual circle of friends involved, particularly as Venice is a much-liked young woman. Two further events drive the story to crisis. First a dinner party/swimming party, involving Napier, Venice, the narrator, Hilary, Guy, Iris, and one or two others, which ends with the group (not quite) skinny-dipping, and with Iris saving Venice from drowning ("Venice drowning" ... what an image, eh?). In the process Iris loses a treasured emerald. Then, the day before Napier and Iris are to leave, Iris agrees to meet with Napier's father, Sir Maurice Harpenden. Sir Maurice emerges has the true villain of the story. We learn the real truth about the past of Gerald, Iris, Boy, and Napier: they were all fast friends as children. Gerald hero-worshipped Boy (there is a definite hint of a homosexual crush there, though nothing is explicit), while Iris and Napier were best friends who decided they were in love. At 18 or so, Iris and Napier decided to marry, but Sir Maurice, convinced that the impoverished and decadent March family was not a good match for his son, scotched the idea. Napier agreed to have no more to do with Iris. Gerald, infatuated with Boy, more or less pushed him on Iris, who in despair agreed to marry him. But on their wedding night, he confessed he had syphilis, and instead of infecting Iris, through himself out the window of their hotel to his death. Selflessly, to protect Boy's good name, Iris allowed it to be known he killed himself "for purity!" -- technically a true statement, as he was surely impure, but something that forever dashed Iris's reputation, as all society assumed she was the impure one. Then followed her rackety career, including the marriage to Hector Storm that effectively ended when she cried Napier's name in a fit of passion.

Sir Maurice is to an extent repentant, but Iris gets the notion that Venice might be pregnant. She decides that after all it would be horrible for her to ruin Venice's life, especially if a child is involved, and she rushes out to her beloved yellow Hispano Suiza, and drives madly off into the night, and purposely crashes into her and Napier's favorite tree from childhood, which they called Harrod's, killing herself. (It is hinted that Napier does not divorce Venice but still leaves her, heading for India to throw himself into work.)