Picture the scene: it is 1946 and T.C.H. Jacobs is discussing his next novel with his agent, lamenting “So many types of detective story have successful during this Golden Age, in what style should I write? Some scientific detection? A police procedural? A pulpy shocker? Should I have an amateur detective? A gentleman detective? A criminal gang?” and his agent leans forwards slowly, steeples his fingers, and says simply, “Yes”.
Last week my efforts at garnering some attention for the unpopular books on my TBR was, as the French would say, not enjoyable (they’d say it in French, obviously). This week, T.C.H. Jacobs’ The Curse of Khatra (1947) provides very much the pulpy, erratic thrills for which I’d been hoping. It’s not a piece of art, but it does have a hugely roguish charm that seeps through on every page — for sheer energy alone, this comes highly recommended. So, rather than pick it apart in long-winded fashion, lets look at some of the ingredients that make it work so well.
Two plot threads run throughout, the first being the police investigation into the murder of Lu Cohen by Superintendent John Bellamy and his men. Bellamy’s fine — he’s a competent, stand-up officer in the Lancelot Carolus Smith mould, a but square-jawed and Pulp Hero at times (“Crime, like a disease, is not interesting, it is just something unhealthy to be done away with.”) — but best is the lugubrious, Latin-quoting DS Blott. From chastening a uniformed sergeant for trying to “teach the super his job” to leaping “with a whoop of pure joy” into a confrontation with a hoodlum, there’s never a dull moment with Blott on the page.
The investigation, too, is well-structured, using the sheer size of the police force to gather information in the manner of Freeman Will Crofts, and with a few false starts, dead ends, clever misdirection, and general grit in the gears to stop this feeling like a Saturday morning serial. It turns into a bit of a hidden passage palooza towards the end, but Jacobs precludes it veering into pure pulp with some witty exchanges and a few knowing nods to the idiom in which he’s writing:
“Where is he?”
“In the library, sir.”
“Ah, the proper place for all the best murders.”
From the opening chapter, where victim presumptive Lu Cohen starts off as a Jewish stereotype and then becomes something more interesting, there’s an air of intrigue about the villains of this piece. However, this is not a subtle book and some of the bad guys here are German, and the post-WW2 anti-German feeling is strong. “These Germans, they are not to be trusted,” says M. Dillon, head of the Surete. “They are up to something and it is in the interests of France that I should know.” Though maybe it’s just M. Dillon, since he’s at it again later on:
“These Germans, they are not to be trusted. Always they work for their fatherland and the domination of the world. It is their mad dream and they will never give it up.”
We’re post-WW2 in setting, too, so the painting of the German people are swivel-eyed loons feels a little reductive, even if the anger at arguably the key antagonist of a conflict that claimed millions of lives all over the globe in the preceding six years can be appreciated in context. Pulp villains are never that finely realised, let’s be honest, but here there’s an element of discomfort to be found for those of a sensitive and historically-ignorant disposition.
Then, just as you prepare to write it off as a Teutonic rendering of the Yellow Peril, the book takes some delightful turns into what appears to be actual forensic examination. Some of it is simple intelligent discussion about, for example, whether or not a corpse thrown into a river would lose its shoes, and then you get a virtual textbook explanation about the extraction of nicotine and its assessment as a poison. It’s like jumping from Bulldog Drummond into John Rhode.
And then, well, then there’s also some bullshit about magnetic fields, “magnetic discharge with radium rays”, a MacGuffin about a new metal that most shilling shockers would be embarrassed to entertain, and the assertion that someone smoking marijuana cigarettes would be transformed into a blood-crazed loon. It’s…wild. However, the best piece of science is easily the most appreciable, and involves something being rubbed on someone’s hair before put to a purpose that it quite brilliantly subtle. I shall leave it to any interested parties to track down a copy and find out what this might be.
We’re coming to the end of the Golden Age, and the genteel era of bloodless detection has been superseded by an increasing interest — no doubt as a result of the horrors of war, which would have had a desensitising effect — in the pulpy details of blood and unpleasantness. Thus, early on we’re told of the Germans capturing a prisoner and “goug[ing] out his eyes and fill[ing] the sockets with maggots” — delightful. Elsewhere a man is tortured (off-page) by having hot irons pressed to his feet (“Only a Frenchman would use that means of persuasion.”), and a late shooting sees someone falling back with “blood trickling from the ragged little hole between his eyebrows”.
Equally, the crimes on the page are veering towards the weirdly technical, like a throat-slicing “which had divided the muscles of the neck, the windpipe, and the gullet and had opened both carotid arteries and the jugular veins”. The scene, unsurprisingly, is bedecked with much blood, though not dwelt over. if you read a lot of modern Scandi fiction, you probably won’t even notice it, but the lack of subtlety and restraint stands out when put against GAD from the same era.
Our amateur detective is reporter Wally Tremain, cousin of John Bellamy, who stumbles into the other plot thread and is swept up into the auspices of Sir Adrian Howard and his man Parker. Adrian Howard is a delight, and I have no idea if he featured in any of Jacobs’ other books — but, goddamn, I would read 20 more about him tomorrow. Tremain is…fine, he’s there a lot of the time, and game for anything to get The Story, but he somewhat pales when placed in the half of the book with Sir Adrian. Because, see, Sir Adrian Howard is Lord Peter Wimsey if Wimsey was Han Solo. If Han Solo was James Bond. If James Bond was Batman.
A more crime-fightin’, head-bashin’, woman-charmin’ man you could not hope to meet, and with the omni-talented Parker at his side “I hope you have not lost your skill at picking a lock.”), and untold services to his country in his past, he cuts a swathe through the second plot strand that veers from pure Boys’ Own (night-time raid on an Essex mansion!) to ingeniously subtle (the action he undertakes when his car is stolen, say). And he does it all behind the facade of being a mere collector of antiquities. It is sort of hilarious, though, that he insists on everyone speaking French while on the raid as a form of misdirection only for everyone to call each other by their real names.
So, yes, this is derivative and familiar — “Whatever happened, his expression was always that of one meditating over a glass of wine” we’re told of M. Dillon, which I’m pretty sure is lifted verbatim from John Dickson Carr’s description if Henri Bencolin — but also invested with a wild, manic energy and a hugely playful sense of just how loony-yet-serious the pulp story can be. I have no idea what the opening murder has to do with the rest of the plot, nor why the book’s title is The Curse of Khatra, nor what the image on the cover is supposed to depict (there are three wimmin herein — the Slattern, the Reptile, and the Good Girl — and at no point do any of them climb through a window), but that simply adds to the charm.
If you want an easy read and can find a copy of this, you’re in for a fun, loose, entertaining, invigorating time. It was precisely what I needed given The Current Situation, and if it sounds like your sort of thing, well, it probably is. Happy hunting!