Friday, March 31, 2023

Comic Cuts — 31March 2023

After a break of some eighteen months, Bear Alley Books is back with a new book. Our proof copies arrived during the week and I'm very happy with them. I've set up a link page for the book over at the Bear Alley Books webpage and it can now be ordered in various formats through Amazon. Just click on the link for your preferred format... if it doesn't work, it means that format isn't available in that territory.

I talked about the history of the project last week and how it had been hanging around since 2008. I recently stumbled across the proof copy I had printed 15 years ago and thought that, with Mel's help, we could finally get the book out to a public thirsty for a 150-year-old spy thriller they had never heard of. It won't trouble the best-seller charts, but it lives up to the brief of Bear Alley Books to publish titles that I'd like to see on my shelves.

When I had an opportunity to read the book back in the mid-noughties, I found it incredibly readable, fast-paced with excitement in every chapter. Even when the thrills and the action were over-the-top – and there are plenty of over-the-top scenes in the book – it never failed to be enjoyable. It was a fun read with no pretensions to be anything more... although the author definitely had a conscience about some of the things he was writing about.

Mel and I were chatting this morning about the book and I jotted down some of the conversation.

The book is a story of two halves. The first half has its hero, Harry Dunbar, travelling to the Crimea as a Queen's Messenger. He undertakes an exotic trip across Europe by boat, carriage and train, in much the same way that the thrillers that I read in the sixties and seventies often had exotic locations. It was one of the attractions of the James Bond movies in the years before package holidays became popular. And this was 100 years earlier when the book's audience quite likely lived and worked within a square mile of where they were born.

James Bond is an apt comparison, because Harry Dunbar is the Bond of his era, attacked by spies and Russians who are trying to prevent him from carrying out his mission. In the course of his journey, he comes up against Cossacks, attacked by an enormous ape in the mountains and even has a kind of Bond villain in the shape of Louis Foucarte, who keeps returning from the dead like a bat-shit crazy Blofeld. There's a final battle between the two on a hot-air balloon. Foucarte is throwing out the ballast and cutting the basket away from the balloon in order to ascend to the Moon. Imagine Roger Moore in a Bond movie that was a mix of Moonraker and A View to a Kill, but then have Bond discover Noah's Ark when he finally manages to land the balloon on Mount Ararat.

There's a bit of everything in the book: plenty of drama and action, but also romance, horror and humour. As with any penny dreadful there's quite a lot of gruesomeness as the books were aimed at young men who wanted to read a ripping yarn that took them out of their grimy existence for a while. It can be as simple as when Harry is attacked by a Russian spy. The spy is thrown from the train, but in the next chapter and eyeless and noseless apparition appears at the window before falling away. Or the dream that Harry has about a merchant being attacked by ghoulish creatures who murder and rob him in his train carriage; and when Harry awakens, he discovers... but that would be telling!

Later, Harry is in a besieged city and, along with a number of unsuspecting men, is lured to a house of beautiful, healthy young women. How, wonders Harry, can they look so good in a city where everyone is starving and looking emaciated? Think Yellowstone...

The audience must have liked its more "penny blood" moments. There's another scene when, after the French and English have taken back the besieged city, Harry goes exploring the catacombs beneath the church with a friend, an army Captain who thinks there might be a secret passageway in and out of the city that might be used to the advantage of the allies forces. What they find is that this is where the Russians have been dumping all their dead bodies, which Bradley describes as a churning wave of putrefying, maggoty bodies. The two friends are affected by the miasma and the captain almost immediately falls ill and dies. Harry is also affected ... just as the Russians arrive with more dead bodies. They chuck them into the charnal pit and the dead Captain follows, and they're just about to throw Harry in, too, but he's saved at the last minute.
There's also a bit of romance with beautiful young women with tiny waists and feet, gorgeous eyes, white shoulders and heaving bosoms.

The second half of the book also has a bit of social commentary to add to the action. Harry reaches the front and while there's plenty of patriotic descriptions of the battle, it isn't all British bulldog dialogue. The book also deals with some of the reality and the horrors of war, with descriptions of allied soldiers torn apart by cannon fire. There's some pointed complaints about how the rank and file are poorly treated and suffer the exploitation of those higher ups. On the war front they're often fighting without adequate food, uniforms or weapons. And if they do survive and return home, their reward is a meagre pension and the denigration of others, who wouldn't want their daughters to marry someone as low as a soldier, many of whom end up in the workhouse.

Hopefully you'll take a chance and enjoy this mixture of Bond, Indiana Jones and penny blood that combines to make an outlandish Ripping Yarn.

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