2015 August 20: “The Black Phoenix” by Martin Lester (Curtis Warren Ltd., 1954)

“The Black Phoenix,” by Martin Lester, is in fact a spy thriller (a la James Bond-esque) written by Edmund Cooper. It was published by Curtis Warren Ltd. (February 1954) and represents Cooper’s second printed title.

CW The Black Phoenix                    CW Ferry Rocket

NOTE: The first was “Ferry Rocket” (via Curtis Warren Ltd., January 1954) as by George Kinley, and that was incorporated into his classic “Seed of Light.”

But, let us return to the spy thriller….

British special agent Peter Mars, after infiltrating and demolishing a nefarious Russian plot early in the novel with the aid of an American special agent (actually, Peter lapses into amnesia throughout the entire episode after being bopped over the head) returns home to England for rest and relaxation.

However, in the espionage business, there is no such thing as snatching a little R & R, eh?

Peter Mars is immediately drafted to replace the recently deceased English counterfeiter Hildebrand, whom was knocked dead by a lorry. (On his deathbed, Hildebrand had mumbled incoherently some future arrangements). Thus assuming the role, Mars travels to Iceland and is immediately met with unpredictable complications: a driver that picks him up but presumably doesn’t speak English, and a young lady at the hotel accosts him under the guise of being Hildebrand’s wife!

Clearly the girl can blow his cover, but, incredibly, she doesn’t. She is there to locate her father, a Nazi officer, that she has not seen since the Second World War, and coerces Mars to bring her along with him.

With a note slipped under his hotel room door at night, he reads and readies himself for his ordeal. The pair are driven far away from civilization, then take a helicopter out to a remote island, seemingly uninhabitable, when a platform rises out of the surface. They land and the platform drops beneath the island to an underground facility, like something right out of an Ian Fleming thriller. (Mind you, his first Bond book was “Casino Royale,” in 1953, so I’m not entirely certain what Cooper modeled his concepts after).

Having arrived, he is greeted as Hildebrand, since the girl does not betray his trust. Further, we learn she is the daughter one of the top brass Nazis. Point of fact, the entire underground base is a secret Nazi regime waiting to bring the world to its knees! And their deepest guarded secret: a young teen-aged boy that reportedly is . . . the son of Adolph Hitler!

Without revealing further details, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the well-thought-out initial Peter Mars tale of espionage and intrigue against the Russians, but, Edmund Cooper truly shines in this complicated tale of Nazism surviving years beyond the war, secretly plotting to undermine the world economic system. The entire “son of Adolph Hitler” could have been eradicated from the novel, as it lent absolutely nothing to the plot.  The fight scenes are intrinsic and elaborate, drawing the reader deeper into the chaos that ultimately ensues.

Cooper, sir … you’ve done a damn fine job entertaining me this week with your first two (of three) novel achievements.

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2015 August 20: “The Black Phoenix” by Martin Lester (Curtis Warren Ltd., 1954)

2015 August 16: “They Shall Not Die” by Broderick Quain (Curtis Warren Ltd., 1954)

Nearly a decade has passed since I first acquired “They Shall Not Die,” a crime thriller written by Edmund Cooper, under the pseudonym of Broderick Quain. It was published by Curtis Warren Ltd. (March 1954) and represented Cooper’s third printed title, all within a month of each other.

CW They Shall Not Die

Richard Sinclair, a psychiatrist, is visited by a 20-year-old lovely lady by the name of Maxime Barry. She confides that she has [in the past] murdered a man and he continues to haunt her. Nobody sees him; nobody believes her. Assured of her insanity, she seeks out Sinclair’s aid to prove her sanity or, lock her up in a padded cell.

Confident that Maxime Barry is in fact sane, Sinclair advises her to stay calm, etc. No sooner does she depart than Antoinette Barry enters. She is essentially her step-mother. She insists that Sinclair abort his sessions with Maxime; that she is in fact insane; and his intervention may prove to be quite dangerous. She then attempts to bribe him.

As soon as he removes her from his offices, he ‘phones his old mate, Dennis Byrd, an Inspector with the Cambridge C.I.D., to set up a joint venture into the countryside for a week of rest and relaxation. Whilst driving to East Cotton, Sinclair asks Byrd if he’s had any peculiar, unaccounted for deaths. Byrd realizes something is afoot, for Sinclair never shows such an interest in Byrd’s morbid work. He obtains from Sinclair, off-the-record, a report on his psychiatric activities.

Arriving in East Cotton and taking up residence, go for a walk, and, after hearing a gun discharge, the pair stumble across Maxime Barry! [While the author makes poor use of an impossible coincidence, Cooper adroitly handles the mysterious conspiracy that follows].

Sinclair and Byrd are confident that Maxime is purposefully being driven insane before she becomes heir to a small fortune upon her 21st birthday, and further, that the villains in the case are using an Occult Research Society as a front for the distribution of drugs.

Unable to prove their theories, they are forced to solve the “crime” themselves, or, die trying.

Now, I had initially put off reading “They Shall Not Die” for ten years because Cooper reportedly had less than savory words for women. I was afraid that his own viewpoints might make themselves quite evidently present within his earlier novels. Finally, taking this into account, I charged forward, realizing these elements might be present, but accepted them. While Cooper does in fact make some slight off-remarks, on the whole, I felt the novel to be adventurously a pleasing read, even if the villains, themselves, were clear at the onset, even if their motives were somewhat opaque. And while Maxime Barry begins as a weak feminine entry, she turns out to be all the stronger by the end of the novel, a complete 180 in her status, clearly indicating that Cooper was firmly aware to avoid the conventional play-up-the-weaker-sex angle that most authors tended to adhere to in their stories. I applaud Mr. Cooper for the unconventional.

2015 August 16: “They Shall Not Die” by Broderick Quain (Curtis Warren Ltd., 1954)