Friday, September 2, 2011

FFB: The Godless Man- Paul Doherty

Had Paul Doherty been one of the many fictioneers living in the 1930s he would have been right at home writing for Dime Mystery, Dime Detective, and Ten Detective Aces. Certainly he was prolific enough and imaginative enough to have filled the pages of several of these magazines. These were the most prominent pulp magazines that developed the type of story known as "weird menace." They were collectively known as the shudder pulps by historians who wrote about the genre. Weird menace was characterized by stories that focused on scenes of graphic violence, torture, and sadistic villains. Often the crimes would appear to be the work of some supernatural agency or strange creature hence the "weird menace" moniker, but this would always be rationalized and the villain would turn out to be, for instance, some nasty sicko with a penchant for phosphorescent disguises and not a glowing green goblin. Doherty's own brand of weird menace also incorporates another prominent feature of these stories -- that of the impossible crime. His primary choice of subgenre for his brand of detective novel is the historical mystery with most of his books set in the medieval period of England, but he also travels as far back to ancient Egypt and in the case of The Godless Man to the reign of Alexander the Great. But whether he is writing of a medieval monk, a spy chaser serving Edward I, or a magistrate in the employ of a female pharaoh nearly all of his historical mysteries favor high body counts, lurid murder methods and a bloodlust to satisfy any teenager addicted to slasher movies. He is truly a writer in the pulp tradition whether he intended it or not.

Statue of Alexander in the Istanbul Archeological Museum
The Godless Man is the second of three books featuring Telamon, a physician and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great. The series is set during Alexander's war with the Persians and in the opening we learn he has just taken the city of Ephesus. Eight men suspected of being spies for Darius, ruler of Persia, have taken refuge in the Temple of Hercules. It was locked and sealed at both entrances yet all eight men have been found murdered, most of them apparently stomped to death. One has been set fire to and another dead from a series of scratches on his arms and face apparently was poisoned. Additionally, a sacred silver vase containing a holy relic has been removed from a raised area surrounded by a ring of hot coals. So by the first chapter there are already nine problems to solve for Alexander and Telamon. And there are more to come.

Roaming the city is another spy who calls himself the Centaur. He is part of a covert operation to create havoc within the city among the already two warring political parties of Macedon - the Democrats and the Oligarchs. Rumor has it that there was a secret society of hired assassins who called themselves the Centaurs and this particular man not only is taking advantage of that gossip but also adopts the terror filled image of the mythical creature who many believe to have been real.

The reader learns that, unlike the Walt Disney version of the cute centaurs and lusty satyrs that romped across the screen in Fantasia's "Pastoral Symphony" sequence, the true centaur was an ugly vicious beast. Yes, he was half man and half horse, but he only had one eye, his human hands ended in claws with poison talons, and he could create fires at will leaving behind him a toxic fog in his wake. The men murdered in the sealed temple all showed signs of having been done in by such a monster. The hoof print like wounds on the faces and chests, the scratches on one corpse and the torched body all indicating the presence of a centaur or someone who clearly is preying on the superstitious minds of the Ephesians. Weird menace was never more vivid than in this book.

By page 77 there have been 13 violent deaths and by the middle of the book five more victims will be added to the carnage in true Grand Guignol fashion. Doherty has a veritable bloodlust for gruesome murders and bizarre grisly methods of dispatching victims. Drowning, decapitation, hanging, immolation, strange poisons, impaling by arrow, and a swarm of marauding wasps -- the mascot of the centaur -- this is one bloody and violent book. There is a war going on and spies and treachery are everywhere. Granted, wartime can never be as peaceful and quiet as a picnic, but the carnage on display here really took me by surprise. This is perhaps the most violent of Doherty's books I have read.

The impossible crimes are handled well here and although an attempted assassination aimed at Alexander is easy to figure out, some of the problems in the Temple of Hercules are not so transparent. The solution to the theft of the relic and its being moved to a darkened corner of the room is probably the most satisfying and clever solution out of all the problems presented here.

The historical parts of the book are limited to the beginning when the background of Alexander's war with the Persian armies and his recent invasion at Granicus are described and a lengthy battle sequence towards the end. Alexander is depicted as a mercurial boy/man with delusions of grandeur. He appears to be in love with the idea of being a demigod and the son of Artemis. Later, this is revealed to be a clever pose in order to manipulate his people. This is not really giving anything away as any astute reader will catch on to his ploy rather early in the game.

There are three books featuring Telamon as sleuth directed by Alexander the Great to solve the murders plaguing his realm. Doherty also wrote two other books in which Alexander acts as a detective himself in solving the murder of his father, Philip of Macedon, in the first book, and investigates some more spying and murders in a second book set in Thebes. These were written under the name Anna Apostolou, one of Doherty's many pseudonyms.


Telamon, the physician and Alexander the Great
The House of Death (2001)
The Godless Man (2002)
The Gates of Hades (2003

Alexander the Great (going solo) series by "Anna Apostolou"
A Murder in Macedon (1997)
Murder in Thebes (1998) 

4 comments:

  1. Oh, I was going to leave this series for a while (due to rather obsessively trawling the second hand book sites for most of the other ones). That's such an intriguing review, though, it seems I'm going to have to chase these up too... Curses! (But in a good way)

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  2. I'll admit your review has interested me in these, or at least the first for a try, so I'll see if I can't find a cheap copy somewhere, or even free on BookSwap.

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  3. Well, if I'm ever in the mood for carnage, I know what author to turn to. :)

    Though I do like the idea of Alexander the Great serving as a detective.

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  4. Ah, well...bronze-age splatterpunk, kinda. FWIW, DIME DETECTIVE rather quickly moved away from shudder, and became one of the more interesting of the crime-fiction pulps, featuring a lot of hardboiled classics...it's my impression that DIME MYSTERY, too, gave up the (fake) ghost(s) soon after, and ran more straightforward cf fare, too. Meanwhile, the other big titles in shudder included HORROR STORIES, TERROR TALES and UNCANNY TALES, none of which were particulary much like WEIRD TALES or STRANGE TALES or STRANGE STORIES or UNKNOWN, despite sharing writers...

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