Having enjoyed Stark House’s earlier A.S. Fleischman duo, The Sun Worshippers / Yellowleg. I welcomed the arrival of this new volume. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Shanghai Flame, a Gold Medal orginal from 1951, is a corker of an adventure set in (you guessed it) Shanghai and at sea during the Chinese Revolution. The Commies are taking over the town, and it’s no place, as the author tells us, “for an American journalist without a gun in pocket.” But recently canned reporter Alex Cloud is obsessed with finding and regaining the love of the woman he wronged, a red-haired fellow reporter he calls “Flame.” Trouble is, she hates Cloud, is obsessed with a lost love of her own, and may have turned Red.
In his pursuit of Flame, Cloud gets entangled with smugglers, thieves, cops, killers and spies, and saddled with microfilm that must—at all costs—be kept out of the hands of the bad guys. Fleischman supplies a multinational cast of well-drawn characters, each with his or her own agenda. There’s a treacherous French tavern owner, an all-knowing German with fingers in every evil pie, a mysterious Italian, and any number of murderous Chinese. And: an Irish ship captain of uncertain loyalties, a White Russian vamp with a killer bod, a French-Chinese wife who steals the key to her chastity belt, a snooty French filmmaker, a Mexican attorney/juggler, and a black Irish mercenary. All this, and (shades of Terry and the Pirates) pirates too.
Plot-wise, there are echoes of The Maltese Falcon (a good book to echo), with a conniving mastermind, a Joel Cairo stand-in, and a Captain Jacobi-like scene, where a guy comes through the door with a knife in his back.
The book is an interesting snapshot of the political climate. One character nicely sums up the situation in Shanghai: “China was opened up like a melon one hundred years ago for the profit of our world. Now she closes the melon, picked and rotted. But a few remain, like flies.” So the flies are flying away, as fast as they can. In one scene, anti-American protestors are rampaging through the streets carrying grotesque effigies of Uncle Sam and wearing dogs-head (as in “running dogs) masks.
Counterspy Express, featuring a CIA agent, was first published as half of an Ace Double in 1954, only a year after James Bond made his debut in Casino Royale. It’s an interesting look at an American spy novel of the same era. The spy in this one, who uses the alias of Jim Cabot, is sent to Italy to find and rescue a Russian defector with info vital to the Cold War. Among his many obstacles are an Italian Commie intelligence officer, a smug Brit turncoat who sells secrets to the highest bidder, and the gorgeous Italian babe Cabot tries hard not to fall for.
Bond-like, the tale features a sequence of exotic locales and foreign villains, a harrowing drive over the Austrian Alps and a deadly train ride.
In the Introduction by the esteemed Mr. George Kelley, we learn that Fleischman deliberately modelled his prose on Hemingway, but there are numerous lines that would have been at home in a Hammett story.
I never take good advice.
I didn’t smuggle myself into this Red squirrel cage to do business with you.
I looked at her breasts, full and breathing apprehensively. I liked what I saw and it made me angry. I didn’t want any entanglements.
She stared at me.
“You bastard,” she breathed.
“You meddling idiot,” she growled.
“You goddam newspaperman,” she spat.
We walked out of each other’s lives once. I wanted you to keep walking. I still do.
The brittle edge came back into her voice. “I’m trying hard not to be a bitch.”
“You must not be trying very hard.”
He spent the rest of the afternoon in the pilot house boiling over with oaths. Rage did not die easily within him.
I threaded my way to the main deck, where several hand-to-hand fights had broken out. I got in one.
Shanghai Flame/Counterspy Express will be published this Friday, and is now available for pre-order from Amazon and other fine retailers.