England Made Me by Graham Greene (1935)

Stamboul Train and It’s A Battlefield were ensemble pieces with eight or so characters in each. The differing characters gave a merciful bit of variety to Greene’s treatment of his core themes of futility, faithlessness, betrayal. England Made Me is longer than his previous novels but narrower: it focuses on twin brother and sister, Kate and Anthony Farrant who have an unnaturally close relationship. He is a posh loser who tags along with her to her new job working for the eminent financier Krogh in Sweden. They’re all spied on by the creepy (and, I think, gay) journalist, Minty. Not much happens. Page after page is filled with the characters feeling a bit lost, reminiscing in a confused way about their earlier lives – umpteen sackings and swindles in the East for Anthony, their joint childhood for Kate, his poor origins for the now-wealthy Krogh. They go to the opera, the pleasure gardens, meet in cafes or bars.

The opportunity had gone, leaving a sense of guilt, of melancholy, of opportunities lost, as if, hearing the limping music of the lame band round the corner of the street, one had to admit want of charity and indecision. (p.94)

This sentence with its guilt, depression, failure could be inserted into any novel about any Greene character.

Character motifs

Greene’s technique is to establish three or four memories for each character, and then have them reappear in that character’s internal monologue for the rest of the text. For example, in Battlefield Conrad Drover remembers his brother’s wedding and his sister-in-law Milly speaking her vows as pneumatic drills were tearing up the road outside, and that depressing anti-romantic image returns again and again in his memory, then just as isolated sentences in the text, like a Wagnerian leitmotif, evoking a mood.

Maybe it was bold and novel in the 1930s but this technique quickly becomes tiresome and factitious. Contrived. So, in this novel, there’s a memory of Anthony running away from his hated school but meeting Kate in a nearby barn first and she persuades him to return – once set up, this memory-motif crops up again and again. Ditto Anthony skinning a rabbit as a boy, the knife slipping and him cutting just below his eye, everyone scared he’d lose his sight. Ditto Krogh and memories of his early poor days in Barcelona, or one vivid memory of his poor times in America, eating a hamburger under a windswept archway or Minty who appears to have been beaten up and ‘ragged’ at his school. These image-themes recur in the text, sometimes as paragraphs, sometimes sentences, sometimes just a few words, designed to evoke a mood, colour the scene.

The odd thing is that although this approach is presumably intended to quickly seperate and identify each character, it has the opposite affect. Because he’s using the same technique or structure for all the characters it has the effect of making them all read the same; they are all given to lengthy introspection in which fragments of their past continually intrude into their present consciousness, and so they all end up seeming like they have the same kind of mind, the same circular mental processes, the same way of being trapped in fragments of their own pasts.

Greene’s books are stuffed with coldly observed detail on every page, pages are filled with the views from the Stamboul Train or what the Assistant Commissioner sees as he walks round central London in Battlefield, or, here, what the views are from various locations around Stockholm. This abundance of detail should make them bright and clourful, but it is the narrowness of this motif technique which, I think, partly accounts for these novels’ monotony, their lack of light and shade. Althought the details change they are presented from within the same mood 0f solipsistic misery on every page.

Confused

Because all the characters share the fundamental Greene outlook – which is feeling confused, stymied, blocked and scared of life. Anthony

Then at the sound of a key turning in the hall door he momentarily lost his confidence. This was the price he paid for his freshness, his schooloy air of knowing a thing or two; he lived in the moment and was never prepared for th sudden crisis, the stranger’s face, the new job. Before he followed Kate into the drawing-room he looked hopelessly round, plumbing the possibilities of the bed, the wardrobe and the door beyond. (p.62 Collected Edition)

Just like Myatt and Czinner and Mabel in Stamboul or almost all the characters in Battlefield, both Anthony and Krogh in England are routinely confused and scared and terrified of being alone. Early on in the book we get a portrait of the financier Krogh walking alone through his up-to-date glass-and-steel office block. Krogh

Again he was obscurely troubled by the feeling that he had nelected something. The statue in the court came back to worry him. On this building he had employed men whom he had been told were the best architects, sculptors, interior decorators in Sweden. He looked from the carved tuiya wood desk to the glass walls, from the clock without numerals to the statuette between the windows of a pregnant woman. He understood nothing. These things gave him no pleasure. He had been forced to take everything on trust. (p.38)

‘No,’ Krogh said,’ no. I don’t understand it.’ He was embarrassed… A tiredness touched him at manners he could not understand and words he did not appreciate… (p.46)

But after twenty years of prosperity he was still uneasy, still afraid of a slip in manner which would betray his peasant birth. (p.51)

Kate is more focused, mature, ambitious than her brother – though even her ‘success’ is tainted by the fact she is not only Krogh’s PA (impressive) but, alas (and wildly improbably) his lover (tacky). But she still suffers some sense of incompletion without her brother. Apparently, they are meant to have incestuous feelings for each other which makes the book rather risqué. Ooh. To me, they are just variations on Greene’s monotone theme of failure, unfulfilment, the seedy disappointment of life.

He was cocky, but he was sullen. He stood there pluming himself in her mirror, waiting for her to guess what he had been at. His was the weakeness which should have been hers, the uncertainty, the vanity, the charm of something rash and unpremeditated. It was the nearest she could get to completion, having him here in the same room, arguing, bullying, retreating. She bitterly envied lovers their more complete alliance. (p.166)… He was hopeless; he couldn’t see her point. (p.168)…  She thought with a sense of hopeless ennui. (p.169) Is this how one feels after the abortion has been successful? No more pain, no more movement, nothing to fear and nothing to hope for, a stillness indistinguishable from despair. (p.170)

Stream of consciousness

Linked to the use of motifs is the deployment of stream-of-consciousness internal monologies. But what was astonishing in Joyce’s Ulysses and in some Virginia Woolf in the 1920s, has become a cliché, a stock-in-trade by the mid-1930s. Another handy way to cram together a handful of verbal motifs and call it a character’s personality. Scattered through the text are (mercifully) short chapters devoted to the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of Anthony and Kate.

I awake and Erik sleeping and his hand cold on my side. He said to me, ‘Laurin’s ill,’ but I knew it was not that. So tired he was. Never seen so tired now asleep so cold his hand. Anthony asleep now, the scar below the eye, the knife slipping upwards suddenly through the rabbit’s fur, the scream, he went on screaming, no control the matron said. I woke in the middle of the night hearing him fifty miles away. Knew he was in pain. Father ill. They wouldn’t let me go. the French exam all that day long the irregular verbs and twice the supervisor went out with me to the lavatory. I spoke to her and she said to me: ‘You mustn’t speak until you have handed in your paper.’ Like an old married couple after thirty years. A silver copper what d’ye call it golden wedding ring. (pp.71-2)

Joyce was a genuine genius, a writer with an amazing feel for the English language, a master of English prose, a deeply lyrical ability to conjure sensuous phrases and rhythms in from the language. Greene is not in the same league, he wrote imperfectly, in a tremendous hurry, up against tight deadlines. So much so that he repressed two of his earliest novels and dismissed the others as ‘entertainments’. In his hands modernist techniques feel hurried, forced and thin.

Up the long flight of stairs to the fourth floor, treading upwards form Purgatory (left behind on the other bank the public lavatories with the smutty jokes, envy, and the editor’s dislike, mistrust, the nudist magazines) to Paradise (the house groups, the familiar face flannel, the hard ascetic bed), mounted unscathed, I, Minty. (p.135)

Reminiscent of ‘Stately plump Buck Mulligan’ but without the genuine feel for the language, or the freshness or clarity of discovery you find throughout Ulysses. Instead the obsession with ambience of smut and porn mags and human squalor which you can rely on Greene to find everywhere, overrides the quality of the writing, which is thorough and perfunctory.

Seedy

The following is meant to be an insight into Minty’s mind, after he has caught the Military Attaché at the British Legation (Gullie) looking at a German nudist magazine (porn). But it could stand for the anti-romantic, pro-disgust attitude of almost all the characters in these early novels.

Yes, it was ugly, the human figure. Man or woman, it made no difference to Minty. The body’s shape, the running nose, excrement, the stupid postures of passion, these beat like a bird’s heart in Minty’s brain. Nothing could have more stirred his malice than the sight of Gullie poring over the photographs of naked breasts and thighs. A gang of schoolboys raced through Minty’s mind, breaking up his pictures of Madonna and Child, jeering, belching, breaking wind. (p.102)

This passage centres on repugnance for the human body, but brings in Minty’s twopenny-halfpenny Catholicism (a Catholic upbringin connected to disgust at the human body! who knew?) and the beastliness of beastly beastly boys at one’s ghastly public school. I’ve read numerous essays about Greene where these are taken to be interesting and fascinating ‘themes’ to be expanded and chewed over (Greene and Catholicism, Greene and public school). To me they seem more like symptoms of the man’s enormous disgust at himself and sneering contempt for everyone else.

Old school tie

And that’s another recurring obsession – with ‘the old school’. Of all covers, the political exile Czinner in Stamboul Train has been a teacher in a private school while awaiting return to his native Serbia: cue umpteen reminiscences of beastly boys playing beastly tricks. Here, Anthony fatefully pretends to have gone to Harrow (just one of his many lies and confidence tricks) but has the bad luck to stumble into Minty, the disreputable journalist – who genuinely did go to Harrow, though he appears to have mostly bad memories of beastly boys beastly tormenting him. Possibly the tiresome complications that arise from this are meant to be funny but, like everything else in Green, just contribute to the ambience of failed jaded men deceiving each other and – worse – to the sense that adult life is just a continuation of schoolboy pranks, schoolboy cruelty, schoolboy plots. Maybe for this generation, it was.

Related links

The movie

This Greene novel took longer than usual to make it to the screen, being released in 1973 and starring Michael York and Hildegarde Neil as the twins and Michael Horden as the seedy journalist, Minty.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

It’s A Battlefield by Graham Greene (1934)

‘It’s the flattest joke,’ Milly said, ‘that I’ve ever heard.’ (p124)

Greene’s fifth published novel but, as he repudiated numbers two and three, his third ‘official’ one, written at a time of great financial stress: he’d left his safe job on the Times, none of his other books had made any money, and the publishers renewed his contract reluctantly and only to pay him once the losses from the previous books had been paid off. With a wife and a child on the way he was looking at limitless debts. In this tense personal situation he decided to complete a novel whose theme is the depressing, trite and unpopular notion that man’s justice is no justice. It failed to sell and is the least-read of his novels.

Characters

  • the Assistant Commissioner (presumably of the Metropolitan Police), a hesitant man, permanently reminiscing about his time in the police force in some tropical British colony
  • Jim Drover, a slow-witted bus driver and communist party member, condemned to death for murdering a policeman
  • Conrad Drover, Jim’s brother, trying to raise a petition for his life, with his ‘thin melancholy irritable face’, unhappy as a chief clerk, obsessed with everyone ridiculing him, he buys a gun
  • Conder, a middle-aged journalist who pretends to a wife and six children but in fact lives in a bed-sit in Soho, collects foreign coins and attends communist meetings, ‘short, shabby, with a bald head and ink-stained fingers, and nails blunt from a typewriter’
  • Bennett, his rival in the CP, who spies on him and frightens him
  • Milly Rimmer, Jim Drover’s pathetic wife, always convinced their happiness was doomed
  • Kay Rimmer, gay young sister of Drover’s wife, Milly, works in Battersea match factory, sleeps with Mr Surrogate one night, then Jules Briton the next
  • Mrs Coney, wife of the murdered policeman, a ‘small grey woman’ with a stuffed bear in her hallway
  • Mr Surrogate, ludicrously-named plump pompous communist party leader, fond of the old Fabian days when it was easy to chat up idealistic young women, beds Kay Rimmer, feels guilty re. his deceased painter wife who he couldn’t satisfy sexually
  • Davis, Mr Surrogate’s man; thinks him a ‘dirty old bastard’
  • Jules Briton, son of a deceased English mother and an absent French father; dejectedly works in a café till news of his father’s death and a legacy makes him go on a wild spree, buying a car, driving Kay out to Berkhampstead planning to propose but, once he’s unsatisfyingly bedded her, recants and says nothing

Plot

If there is a plot it rotates around all the characters’ relationship to the man on death row, examining in minute detail their damp dreary thoughts and sad encounters. There’s a feeble communist party meeting. Resentment and rivalry in various offices. Dull conversations in rented rooms. Briton’s car trip to the Chilterns ending in failure and deceit etc.

Theme

The world-shattering revelation that human justice is flawed. Who knew? To be charitable you might argue that this trite truism is just a convenient peg on which to hang an exploration of a varied cast of characters. Nonetheless, it is trite and it is rammed home with great unsubtlety throughout the text.

A journalist was supposed to understand the working of the world, but Conder had spent his life learning the incomprehensibility of those who judged and pardoned, rewarded and punished. The world he thought, as they walked between the coffee-stalls, past the lit restaurants, the foreign newspaper shops, and the open doorways, was run by the whims of a few men, the whims of a politician, a journalist, a bishop and a policeman. They hanged this man and pardoned that; one embezzler was in prison, but other men of the same kind were sent to Parliament. (p.36)

Fancy that.

Greene’s worldview

Is cold. Men are unfeeling, isolated monads, incapable of warmth or sympathy. They observe each other coldly, puzzled by each others’ impenetrable motives and actions, puzzled, confused and stifled by their lives.

‘I don’t understand,’ the Assistant Commissioner began. It was one of his favourite expressions; extraordinary the number of occasions on which he could apply it… (p.8, GG Collected Edition)

Conrad was taken by surprise. All his life he had been taken by surprise. People had promoted him when he expected dismissal; they had praised him when he expected blame. (p.113)

His nerves were in a shocking condition. Ever since he had rapped the skull of the wooden bear in Mrs Coney’s passage he had lost control of the present and of the past… All the familiar world was being snatched from himand sent tumbling over the Schaffhausen falls… What he remembers only too distinctly were despair, shame, tears. (p.145)

People are described from the outside, like robots. Observed like animals. Maybe this was new and with-it in the 1930s but it has a terribly dispiriting affect.

Jules Briton dried his hands on the towel which hung behind the counter and warmed them close to the great copper urn. A French prostitute leant on the counter and talked to him; she had left her beat in Lisle Street to swallow some coffee. (p.33)

‘Swallow’. Not drink, and there is no further reference to her. If she had been drinking it, her hands cupped round it for warmth, the steam rising into her face, anything! would have humanised her and the scene. Instead of which Greene goes out of his way to be detached and clinical.

Style

Sentences jump from one cold perception to another (with admittedly clever similes and metaphots dropped in) but often making it difficult to figure out quite what’s happening. For example, in the opening pages the AC meets the Permanent Secretary (presumably to the Home Office?) at a restaurant, then they proceed to Wandsworth prison, the AC having suggested they go by bus, the Secretary saying, I have a car outside. But there is no mention of getting into the car and no mention of the driver, the noise, the ambience of a car journey, just a succession of smart observations of London scenes along the route. It wouldn’t have taken much to say, We got into the car, He opened the door to the car, The noise of the engine increased, or anything which indicated their location, which fully set the scene, but Greene doesn’t. He takes the same frustratingly under-explained approach to every scene. The effect isn’t artistic, it’s just puzzling and frustrating. No amount of smart similes or crisp descriptions can recompense this basic reluctance to explain what’s happening.

Then the bell stopped and the light went out, and after its brilliance the lamps at every corner, the lamps over every doorway lost for a moment their harshness. Shadows fell like earth from a tilted spade. (p.14)

Seedy

Because we are in the mind of a policemen, visiting prisons, we are also reminded not only of Drover’s murder but of the case the AC is working on, namely a rape and murder on Streatham Common. Jules and Mr Surrogate live in Soho where, unsurprisingly, all their comings and goings are past prostitutes loitering in doorways. In the heat and noise of the match factory Kay signs to her neightbour:

‘Hunting tonight?’
‘No, the curse.’ (p.23)

All sex is sad and sordid. All men are running to fat, bald, disappointed. All characters are  confused. London is grey, misty, rainy. Tawdry exploitative newspaper headlines distract the great unwashed from their tawdry exploited lives. Kay Rimmer, the tarty younger sister, tells Milly about being picked up and taken home by Mr Surrogate.

‘Darling, such a bed. But it took ages to bring him to the point.’ (p.130)

By contrast, when Conrad gives in to pity, and goes to bed with his condemned brother’s skinny pitiful wife, the act brings both of them nothing but sadness and shame.

When he felt her shudder, he had a dull sense of an irrevocable injury which one of them had done to the other. (p.133)

He wakes in the night to hear her crying, inconsolably. In fact, as the novel progresses it leaves behind the nominal subject of the condemned man and repeats again and again the pitifulness of sex, its fumblings and failure.

‘Jules, Jules, can’t you wait?’ but she had no wish to wait, she welcomed him: she only regretted the promptitude of the embrace when it was so quickly finished that it might have been no more than the gesture he had made her in the park, a salutation across the street. He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune. (p.162)

After sleeping with his condemned brother’s wife, Conrad wakes later that night to hear her weeping. He is alone. She is alone. They both feel dreadful. On a (very tired and clichéd impulse) Conrad uses his position to get hold of a revolver, feeling it will make man of him, that’s show those clerks in the office, his boss, the judge who condemned his brother etc.

[The pawnbroker’s] large soft trustless eyes swept Conrad like a couple of arc lamps, picking out his misery and loneliness. (p.168)

But, after trailing the Assistant Commissioner across London for 40 pages of tediously despairing inner monologue, when the chance comes and he steps forward to pull the trigger, nothing happens. the pawnbroker sold him blanks and in that moment a car knocks him down. that night he dies from his injuries in hospital, leaving Milly abandoned.

Humourless & depressed

There is nowhere in this novel (or the previous one) the slightest flicker of humour or comedy. There are sustained bursts of bitter irony. But no warmth or humanity or love or compassion.

He watched with pain and tenderness her white hopeless face, her shoulders a little bent with the weight of five happy years. He became aware with sudden clarity how injustice did not belong to an old tired judge… it was as much a part of the body as age and inevitable disease. There was no such thing as justice in the air we breathed… Death could not hurt them, it could only hurt those who were happy. Intolerable the weight of those happy years… of the shared bed and the shared meal and the shared misery. (p.62)

The Morrissey of novelists.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It's A Battlefield

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It’s A Battlefield

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene (1932)

Born in 1904, public school, Oxford, The Times, this was Greene’s fourth novel (he later suppressed numbers two and three so this became his second ‘official’ novel), written when he was 27, a young man’s book, flashily written, showily cynical, larded with would-be worldly wisdom.

Having read a number of thrillers recently I’ve gotten used to everything in a novel – characterisation, description, thoughts & reflections – being subjugated to the speed and excitement of the (sensational) plot. Here it’s the opposite: the pace is extremely slow, almost dreamlike and the emphasis is on poetic descriptions for their own sake and on characterisation – though not done directly, done by sideways approaches, the same characters seen objectively by the 3rd person narrator, then through each others’ eyes, the overall impression a slow building up of layers and (often false) insights.

In another blog post I compared Raymond Chandler and F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels about Hollywood and concluded that the multiple viewpoints and multi-layering of The Last Tycoon is a large part of what makes it ‘literature’ ie a fictional text with more than just the story on its mind.

The characters are:

  • Coral Musker – a thin girl, a dancer on her way to join a troupe in Istanbul, poor, a scared virgin
  • Coleman Myatt – wealthy young partner of a raisin import company, worried about corporate rivalries, his Jewishness heavily emphasised
  • Dr John with his long shabby moustache turns out to be a political exile, Dr Czinner, from Serbia, returning to head a revolution which goes off half-cocked without him
  • Mr Opie the clergyman, obtusely buttonholing everyone about cricket
  • a lesbian couple – Mabel Warren the alcoholic woman journalist and the slender pretty Janet Pardoe – Warren’s fierce journalistic ‘attitude’ revealed as being a continual war on the men she thinks despise her unnatural loves
  • popular Cockney author Quin Savory who is heavily satirised as a populist vulgarian
  • Josef Grünlich, a thief in Vienna who has chatted up an ageing maid in order to smuggle himself into her master’s apartment and is in the middle of breaking into his safe when he returns and Josef shoots him dead, socks the maid, and flees onto the Express, nicking Mabel Warren’s handbag in the process

Conspiratorial air

The novel reeks a bogus sense of secrecy and furtiveness – Mr Czinner the political exile who Mabel Warren spots and bullies, the novelist traveling incognito, the thief on the run, Warren with her secretive despatches by phone back to her newspaper, the general idea is that everyone has their secrets (and delusions), but this cloak-and-dagger vibe feels contrived, bogus, melodramatic, unconvincing, cartoonish.

Failure

And only exists, really, to point up their failures. Typical of Greene’s cynicism and pessimism that the big Socialist revolution Czinner had intended to spearhead kicks off without him and is easily defeated by the Belgrade police rendering his train journey utterly pointless. Typical again, that the past five years in exile have been spent as languages teacher at a public school. (Very 1930s that the snapshots of public schoolboy life are among the most vivid strands of description. That generation never outgrew their schoolboy mentality, think of Auden and the schoolboy agents in his 1930s poems masquerading as adult commentary on the age.)

Into his grandiloquent dream obtruded the memory of long rows of malicious adolescent faces, the hidden mockery, the nicknames, the caricatures, the notes passed in grammars, under desks, the ubiquitous whispers imposible to place and punish. (Penguin edition p.102)

Typical that Grünlich thinks himself a big shot criminal but in fact fails to crack the safe and likes to think the cops are after him when all along they’re seeking Czinner. Typical that when Czinner needs to make a confession, seeks some kind of absolution and stops into Mr Opie’s compartment, the clergyman completely fails him and starts talking about school sports.

Seedy

The novel shows a marked preference for seediness: when Myatt first sees Coral she is asleep on a bench next to a man sitting opposite his wife, and the man is furtively running his hand up her leg. Greene quite openly describes women’s breasts and thighs. Myatt has a dream which is half recollection of sampling the young women on Hampstead Heath who hang round waiting to be bought a drink, taken for a ride in a posh motor then screwed in the bushes. The drunk lady journalist’s track record includes covering a disproportionate number of rapes. Coral worries whether she needs to repay Myatt’s kindness in looking after her after she faints, with sex; she is a virgin with only the confused voices of older women and numerous seedy encounters backstage to guide her.

He thinks I want him to make love to me, she thought, and wondered, do I? Do I? It would complete the resemblance to other men she had known if he rumpled her hair a bit and pulled her dress open in getting  his lips against her breast. (Part 2, 2)

And the act of sex between Myatt and Coral, in the hurried uncomfortable railway compartment, is described in a way that emphasises her painful loss of virginity and the seediness of the setting, but with a puzzling lack of intimacy or sensuousness. In the same squalid way Greene enjoys describing the sad old maid who’s taken her skirt off in anticipation of sex with the burglar Grünlich who slowly realises how he’s conned her. After he shoots the flat-owner Grünlich momentarily considers blinding this maid, Anna, with one of his chisels so she can’t identify him, Greene going beyond a fondness for squalor into sadism and horror.

Sneering

It could charitably be argued this disgust with people is a result of a great idealism horribly disappointed with reality, and that one should feel sympathetic for Greene’s conversion to Roman Catholicism as a logical response to his horror of the squalor of merely human realities.

Or it could be argued that his attitude is a repellent one of young-man superiority and that the book amounts to one long sneer at poor, sorry, sordid, futile humanity and ‘his shabby waiting fate’.

Satire

It is odd and boring how much writers are drawn to write about other writers. Thus one strand of the book is sneering satire on the popular novelist Quin Savory who complacently gives an interview to the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren who a) despises him b) all the time is trying to figure the angles of the exile Czinner. He is satirised for dismissing contemporary fiction (summarised in journalistic shorthand as ‘Joyce, Lawrence’) and for his ludicrous aim of restoring a healthy attitude to fiction, of bringing back Chaucer.

But it is a cheap victory and exposes Greene to a similar satirical approach: What is your attitude to life? Oh it is a sorry futile panorama of squalor and failure. What would you like to bring to the English novel? A sustained focus on the seedy and sordid aspects of modern life, rejecting all glamour and ‘goodness’ [knowing, dismissive chortle] presenting absolutely all human effort as doomed to pitiful failure.

All the characters are shown failing in their intentions.

  • Myatt is honourably inclined to Coral but she is arrested along with Czinner when, on a kindly impulse she goes to help him walk by the train when the soldiers stop it.
  • Grünlich escapes from arrest by the soldiers and ends up being rescued by Myatt who had come back for Coral, ling fluently to him that she isn’t there.
  • Coral wants Myatt but ends up being rescued by the predatory lesbian Warren.
  • Czinna wants to start a revolution, and we are treated to pages of his experiences as a doctor among the Serb poor which inspired his socialism, and he ends up dying in a farm shed in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

It is lyrically written and full of intensely imagined scenes but this superior, knowing, cynical attitude of the oh-so-worldly young author makes it a very depressing book.

Style

Greene is supposed to be a great stylist but I’ve never understood this. The most noticeable aspects of his style here are his poetic metaphors, which are nice –

The sparks from the express became visible,  like hordes of scarlet beetles tempted into the air by night; they fell and smouldered by the track, touched leaves and twigs and cabbage-stalks and turned to soot. (p.16)

A lamp-lit bridge across the Danube gleamed like the buckle of a garter. (p.134)

Below them, between a tall bare tenement and a telegraph-pole, the domes of the Blue Mosque floated up like a cluster of azure soap bubbles. (p.204)

– his frequently clumsy word order, and the portrayal of thoughts in a wordy, mealy-mouthed way which is often confusing.

Confusion

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the approach or technique is the very immediate focusing on characters’ perceptions rather than intentions or actions. In the thrillers I’ve been reading recently the (male) characters are decisive and act. In this novel characters rarely act but drift, their minds generally portrayed as confused and clouded. Thus they are regularly falling asleep, waking up, passing out, drunk, hungover, startled by a woman sitting down opposite them and starting to interview them, dreaming and so on – giving Greene the opportunity on every page to portray them as uncertain, hesitant, unclear and confused, and reinforcing his worldview about the inability of feeble humans to achieve anything.

Coral sort of thinks she might owe Myatt something for him buying her a sleeper car for the journey, but she’s not sure if he expects her to offer to sleep with him, and when she tentatively suggests it he himself is not sure if it’s what he wants. The rather sordid offer is made but neither side is happy about it. Typical Greene.

These words did not at first reach her. She was too confused by her relief, even by the shame of being desirable only in a dream, above all by her gratitude. And then pursuing her out of the silence came the final words with their hint of humility – this was unfamiliar. She faced her terror of the bargain, putting out her hand and touching Myatt’s face with a gratitude which had borrowed its gesture from an unknown love. ‘If you want me to,’ she said. ‘I thought that you were bored with me. Shall I come tonight?’ (p.77)

Confusion about themselves, their lives, what to do next, is the dominant note:

He was back in familiar territory, he was at home, no longer puzzled by the inconsistency of human behaviour. (p. 98)

Dr Czinner, thrusting both hands into the pockets of his mackintosh, swayed backwards and forwards upon his toes. He appeared the master of the situation, but he was uncertain how to speak, for his mind was still full of grandiloquent phrases, of socialist rhetoric. (p.109)

She stared at him, bewildered by the flood of his explanation and the strength of his conviction, without understanding a word he said. (p.110)

The sense of unfamiliarity deepened around him. (p.122)

For a moment everyone sat still as though they were at a concert and a movement had ended and they were uncertain whether to applaud. (p.167)

The sudden terror of strangeness on the quay at Ostend. (p.191)

There are actually quite a few troubled, confused and confusing dreams which haunt and disorientate the characters –

Before the spill had flickered to its end, his sight had dimmed, and the great shed with its cargo of sacks floated away from him into the darkness. He had no sense that he was within it; he thought that he was left behind, watching it disappear. His mind became confused; and soon he was falling through endless space, breathless, with a windy vacancy in head and chest, because he had been unable to retain his foothold on what was sometimes a ship and at othet times a comet, the world itself, or only a fast train from Ostend to Istanbul. (p.186)

– and Quin, Opie and Czinner have a brief conversation about Dr Freud and psycho-analysis in the scene which is mostly about Czinner’s frustrated wish for some kind of confession and atonement. Freud, Catholicism, communism, anti-semitism, lesbianism, sex, virginity, revolution, crime, murder – Greene threw everything and the kitchen sink at this one with the result that it sold well and helped establish his name.

Related links

Cover of the 1980s Penguin edition of Stamboul Train, artwork by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the 1980s Penguin edition of Stamboul Train, artwork by Paul Hogarth

The movie

The book was adapted into a movie in 1934, titled Orient Express, directed by Paul Martin and starring Heather Angel as Coral Musker.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Running Blind by Desmond Bagley (1970)

How in hell did Kennikin get ahead of me? That was my first bitter thought.
But idle thoughts were no use and action was necessary. (Chapter 5, III)

This is a first-person spy thriller told by British counter-espionage agent Alan Stewart and set in Iceland, where he has gone to do a simple courier job which goes badly wrong, and where he also has an apartment and a girlfriend who swiftly gets dragged into the turmoil.

Facts

Being Factual Bagley, the location is the cue for plenty of facts and figures about Icelandic geography, history, language, food and customs.

I frowned. Most people think that because Greenland is covered with ice and is wrongly named then so is Iceland, and there’s not much ice about the place. They’re dead wrong. Thirty-six icefields glaciate one-eighth of the country and one of them alone – Vatnajökull – is as big as all the glaciated areas in Scandinavia and the Alps put together. (Ch 4, II)

There’s even a brisk summary of the most famous of the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga.

Voice

The narrator’s voice is mostly very flat and factual. This is Bagley’s default style – no metaphors or similes, precious little description – just facts. But having just read Landslide, where Bagley creates a credibly ballsy Canadian persona, I know it’s also a deliberate choice. The most noticeable element of the style is how much the hero swears, saying ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ a lot, in a way he didn’t in the earlier books, and Alistair MacLean never does. I blame it on the Permissive Society.

‘I don’t know, damn it! I wish to hell I did.’ I retrieved the carbine. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
So on we went along that bastard of a track, round and round, up and down, but mostly up, until we had climbed right to the edge of Vatnajökull, next to the ice. (Ch 4, III)

Phony philosophy

‘There’s only one way of opting out of the world and that’s by dying,’ said Slade with phony philosophy.

Adventure stories are primarily entertainment and the entertainment is in exercising the predatory parts of our brains, either in calculating and scheming against the enemy or in direct physical action. Adventure authors could be distributed around a graph with axes for cerebrality and action, with Le Carré at the chess-playing pole, MacLean at the blood and gore physicality pole and Deighton a rather confusing combination of the two.

Bagley is an odd case because there’s quite a lot of cold factual information (gleaned from enyclopedias and then sown into the text) but no subtlety at all. There are none of the abrupt twists and unexpected revelations which make MacLean’s books so riveting, there is none of the super-subtlety of le Carré’s psychological battles or the clever-clever gaming of Deighton’s texts.

Bagley’s simple heros commit to a course of action and then see it through, overcoming various physical challenges on the way and getting the girl in the end. The goodies remain goodies. There is a clean-cut, honest innocence about Bagley’s novels. Although they make a few fashionably jaded comments about contemporary life these are just Daily Mail whinging ie they don’t penetrate the surface, they aren’t fully dramatised in the story. Characters may spout a bit of philosophy or politics at the appropriate moment in the plot – ‘If only the people back home knew what wicked deeds were done to keep them safe’ or some such – but it is phony philosophy, untroubling and easy-to-digest oiling for the machinery of the plot.

In this overtly spy novel he makes a stab at the cynicism and world-weariness which are associated with the genre – his boss seems to be playing a double game, sending one of his colleagues in to assassinate him and threatening to alert his KGB opposite number to his whereabouts – but it is an easy and obvious cynicism, expressed, in this example, in the tritest metaphor of all for espionage, the game of chess.

Graham was dead – a pawn suddenly swept from the board. He had died because he obeyed orders blindly, just as I had done in Sweden; he had died because he didn’t really understand what he was doing. (Ch 3, II)

If that’s meant to have dramatic impact it fails because Bagley is announcing as news what have become, in the 45 years since this novel was published, the basic clichés of the genre: trust no-one, everyone is out to get you, your own side are more dangerous than the nominal ‘enemy’, we’re all just disposable pawns in a Great Game.

Similarly, although the novel gives the appearance of plot twists, there aren’t really any: Stewart hates his boss, Slade, from the start and, it turns out, justifiably; he fears his Russian enemy Krennikin from the start and is right to do so; he is saddened that his old mate Jack Case seems to be siding with Slade, but he turns out to be the ‘Genuine Buddy Who Is Cruelly Betrayed’ figure. What would have surprised me a bit is if his long-term girlfriend had turned out to be spying on him but this is Bagley so, no, she is as good as he paints her from the start, in fact comes up trumps and saves the day.

Decisive action beats idle thoughts

This book dates from before the Great Cynicism of the 1970s and suffers from its simplicity and honesty. But whereas crashing obviousness is not a problem for the high-spirited heroes of such straighforward actioners as The Golden Keel, The Vivero Letter, Landslide or The Spoilers who just have to biff the bad guys, it is a problem when Bagley attempts a genre which has come to signify subtlety, complex undercurrents and confusion. He is good at action, at the practicalities of disposing of a body, fording a river, stalking an assassin, dressing a wound and the rest of it – a lot less good at psychology.

We expect our spies to be clever if nothing else. The Ipcress narrator is always several steps ahead of the reader, as is Le Carré’s Smiley. Bagley’s Stewart is the opposite, slower than the reader. It is one thing to admit you’re at a loss in an adventure story, especially when you’re a Bagley hero masquerading as Joe Ordinary and wanting to involve the reader in your perilous plight. But we expect our spies to be smart and are disappointed when we can figure out things quicker than them.

‘I don’t know,’ I said despondently. ‘It’s too damned complicated and I don’t know enough’… I needed more than help, I needed a new set of brains to work out this convoluted problem.

These remarks come under the category of identifiers, phrases designed to help or make the reader identify with the hero. Bagley does this more than MacLean; he is known for the (supposed) ‘ordinary’ nature of most of his heroes. Thus the ‘thoughts’ of a Bagley protagonist given in the text are at least as much to rope the reader in, to make the hero accessible to the average reader, as an actual attempt to mimic the thought processes of a spy. If they are meant to be his thought processes, then he’s pretty dim.

This playing to the gallery also explains his late ’60s sexism.

I set out toward the Land Rover at a dead run, holding Elin’s arm, but she dragged free. ‘The coffee pot!’
‘The hell with it!’ Women are funny creatures; this was not a time to be thinking of domestic economy. I grabbed her arm again and dragged her along.

These kinds of remarks aren’t interesting for anything they tell us about Mr Bagley, they are much more interesting as an insight into how he conceives of his audience, its reflexes and expectations, ie middle-aged, middle England, Daily Mail-reading men, complete with their prejudices against women, the trendy young, foreigners and so on. The steady stream of not-too-demanding quips, would-be cynical remarks, moans about Modern Life or very obvious quotes from the only poet his readers have heard of, Shakespeare, paint a vivid portrait of the target audience for this kind of flat, efficient, clichéd melodrama. It’s effective and professional at what it does, but this is not a good book.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

The Spoilers by Desmond Bagley (1969)

This is a great action adventure yarn, starting slow and factual with the body of a dead junkie in a Notting Hill flophouse and building to exciting shoot-outs in the Iraqi desert before an explosive climax in the Mediterranean.

Bagley returns to third-person narrator which allows him to describe and portray a wider range of characters, especially as – like in High Citadel – they are split into two groups with two completely different narrative arcs.

Heroin

The story is about heroin and heroin smugglers. Interesting that in this same year, 1969, Alistair MacLean published his thriller about heroin smuggling, the gruesome Puppet On A Chain. A hot topic? Something in the air? Interesting to compare and contrast the two author’s approaches to the same issue. Bagley is characteristically more formal and factual, giving an interesting overview of the problem of heroin addiction in London, the work of a reforming doctor in the area, along with the basic facts about Papaver somniferum, the supply chains from the East, and the prices and profits to be made along the supply chains to America, before the novel metamorphoses into an action adventure in the deserts of Kurdistan, which is where our heroes find an enormous heroin factory.

MacLean’s feels like a thriller as it is full of violence and the threat of violence and the tension of impending violence from the very start. Bagley’s is an adventure as it takes well over 100 pages of careful factual build-up to get to any action scenes ie there isn’t the same sense of tension, of suppressed anxiety, as in the MacLean.

I am not James Bond

As in the previous novel, Bagley’s ‘I am not James Bond’ obsession recurs. Why does he feel the shadow of Commander Bond weighing so heavily on him?

‘You’ve picked the wrong man. I don’t think the man exists, anyway. You need a combination of St George and James Bond. I’m a doctor, not a gang-buster.’ (Ch 2, I)

Just after ten o’clock Warren strolled through the gambling rooms towards the bar…He watched the roulette for a moment and thought sardonically, If I were James Bond I’d be in there making a killing. (Ch 2, IV)

His decision was made and all qualms gone. He was tired of fighting the stupidity of the public, of which the queasiness of this narrow-gutted landlord was only a single example. If the only way to run his job was to turn into a synthetic James Bond, then a James Bond he’d be. (Ch 2, VI)

Mission impossible

Despite all his disclaimers the quiet studious doctor Nick Warren quite quickly morphs into the stock Bagley hero, clear-headed, unafraid, resourceful; taking the money of multi-millionaire movie mogul Sir Robert Hellier and assembling a scratch team of likely lads to help him tackle the heroin gangs at source.

  • Dan Parker – ex-Royal Navy mechanic, good with torpedoes etc
  • Andy Tozier – mercenary
  • Mike Abbott – inquisitive Fleet Street journalist
  • John Follett – Soho nightclub owner and con-man

The assembly of the team reminds me of the original TV series of Mission Impossible (1967-73) and way the plot depends on ‘stings’ or ‘cons’ just as much as violence is reminiscent of The A-Team (1983-87), though the premise of a small team tackling international criminal masterminds was a very common theme of popular TV series of the 1960s such as The Avengers (1961-69), Danger Man (1960-68), The Saint (1962-69), The Prisoner (1967-8), The Champions (1968-9), Department S (1969-70), The Persuaders (1971) and Jason King (1971-2). Even the title, the Spoilers fits in with these TV names.

And he may protest that he’s not James Bond but there’s a gorgeous nymphomaniac baddie, who likes to be wined and dined at the best hotels, there’s exotic locations in Iraq and the Lebanon, there’s clever gadgetry, with guns smuggled in as parts of Land Rovers, a torpedo being adjusted to travel super distances, a cutting-edge video recorder, there’s blowing up the baddy’s super-laboratory, escapes along secret underground passageways and improbable shoot-outs against the Kurdish militia, complete with panicked camels getting in everyone’s way.

Research

As usual with Bagley, the novel is larded with factual information and the reader is treated to lectures on:

  • the Kurdish Question ie the Kurds’ attempts to gain their own homeland
  • how to make dynamite out of fertiliser, charcoal etc
  • how torpedoes work and can be re-engineered
  • how to conceal weapon parts in a Land Rover
  • heroin manufacturer and the economics of the dope business
  • game theory

Metcalfe

Out of the blue the smuggler and baddy from Bagley’s first novel, The Golden Keel, Tom Metcalfe who chased our heroes across the Mediterranean in a high speed boat, sinks but ultimately saves them in that book – turns up here! He is running guns to the Kurdish peshmerga but rather improbably switches sides when he meets old friend and fellow mercenary Andy Tozier and learns that his deal was being funded by heroin which he, rather high-mindedly, objects to.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

The Vivero Letter by Desmond Bagley (1968)

‘This sounds like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a detective story,’ I said.

Quiet accountant Jeremy Wheale’s life is turned upside down when his brother is shot dead on the family farm in Devon, and a lot of people are suddenly showing interest in a family heirloom, a brass tray which turns out to be the clue to a fabulous Mayan treasure.

Manuel de Vivero was taken prisoner by the Mayans during the Spanish invasion of Central America early in the 1500s but wrote a letter from captivity in the Mayan city of Uaxuanoc to his two sons, accompanied by two presents. The set-up is that a) the city was overflowing with gold – buildings and temples and treasure and everyday utensils made from gold b) the two trays, when combined, give the clue to the location of this lost city.

The idea of a set of physical artefacts which need to be combined to give the location of lost treasure is slightly reminiscent of the founding adventure story, Treasure Island (1883) but reminds me more of the Tintin adventure, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) where the maps found in three model boats must be combined to give the location of the treasure.

Thriller or adventure?

Like The Golden Keel maybe this isn’t a thriller at all, it’s more straight adventure story with some thrilling scenes at the end. According to Wikipedia, ‘Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it “thrills”, it is a thriller.’ For two thirds of the text this book, like Keel, does not thrill. It moves slowly and leisurely as the protagonist, in perfect safety, finds out about the Vivero Letter, the importance of his ‘tray’, persuades the rival archaeologists to collaborate and accompanies them to their luxury house in Mexico City, then to base camp on the Yucatan peninsula, then helps with the prolonged and rather boring excavations to find the ruined city.

Only in the last fifth or so of the text does the gear shift as baddies try to muscle in on the dig to steal the excavated treasure. Only at this point do we enter ‘thriller’ territory ie enter the atmosphere of tension and jeopardy and reach full throttle in the last thirty pages which combine an armed attack on the base, the arrival of a tropical hurricane, a tense escape to an underwater cavern, and then a nail-biting duel with machetes!

Coincidences

The tale is told by Wheale as first person narrative, and his ignorance of archaeology, history and so on help to smooth over a series of improbable coincidences and unlikely events – that the tray/treasure clue ever came into his family’s possession, that a couple of American archaeologists both just happened to read an article in the local Devon papers about it (!) and that brings them both to his door, that Wheale can persuade the rivals (who both know about the letter and its secret) to work together on a joint treasure hunting expedition in Mexico, and so on.

Ordinary man protagonist

But the main oddity of the story is that Bagley goes out of his way to make Wheale a boring non-entity, a timid accountant. This is established in the opening scene at a ‘swinging 60s’ party where he overhears his with-it girlfriend describe him as deadly dull, ‘a grey little man in a grey little job’. His on-impulse decision to force the two collectors to take him on the treasure hunt is supposed to be his response to this hurtful jibe. This ‘I am not a hero’ theme runs very self-consciously throughout the text:

Jemmy Wheale, New Elizabethan, adventurer at large – have gun, will travel. The thought made me smile, and the man in the mirror smiled back at me derisively. I didn’t have a gun and I doubted whether I could use one effectively, anyway. I suppose a James bond type would have unpacked his portable helicopter and taken off after Jack Gatt long ago, bringing back his scalp and couple of his choicest blondes. Hell, I didn’t even look like Sean Connery. (Ch 5, I)

And yet he is the hero. He is foolhardy enough to go to Mexico with the archaeologists, he is man enough to stand up to the bullying one, Halstead, and to provoke him by flirting with his wife. He turns out to be an advanced scuba diver, capable of organising and running a sustained joint dive to the bottom of the giant well in the abandoned city where most of the treasure is found. And then, when the baddies move in, he is tough enough to survive a helicopter crash and several days in the jungle before coming to the rescue of the other goodies, shooting dead about four of the attackers, he organises the armed resistance, getting rid of the treasure, saves the girl in the underwater cave and turns out to be an expert fencer (that’s fighter with a sword). I know a few boring English accountants. They couldn’t do all this.

This primitive world of kill or be killed was a long way from Cannon Street and the bowler-hatted boys. What the hell was a grey little man like me doing here? (Ch 10, I)

In fact the ‘ordinary joe’ schtick is a routine, part of Bagley’s brand, making him stand out distinctly from Le Carré’s spies, from the special agents who feature in MacLean’s 1960s thrillers and, of course, from the great dominating figure in this field, Commander Bond.

Maybe Sheila had been correct when she had described me as a grey man but only in a circumscribed way. She expected Sean Connery disguised as James Bond and what she got was me – just a good, old-fashioned, grey, average type. (Ch 1)

But asserting something in a fiction is not the same as dramatising it. Wheale doesn’t actually think or behave anything like the boring accountant the author keeps telling us he is. In Landslide Bagley keeps repeating that Bob Boyd is a man who (due to the car crash he was in) does not know his true identity and that this plunges him into some kind of existentialist crisis – but it doesn’t; it doesn’t make any difference to the way the character actually thinks or behaves. Same here with Mr grey accountant Wheale. Despite the author’s assertions to the contrary, both these characters behave like the standard Bagley hero, tough, resourceful, unafraid, physically fit and strangely attractive to the only nubile woman in the vicinity who he ends up carrying off into the sunset.

Well-researched

As usual, half the pleasure of reading Bagley is for the encyclopedia-style information which not only decorates the text but which the story is in fact premised on. A reader of  this book learns a lot about the (two) Mayan empire(s), about the geography of the Yucatan Peninsula, a lot about scuba diving to depths of 120 feet or so, there is a neat exposition of how a helicopter works (to explain how one is sabotaged), as well as some introductory facts about the Mafia in case you hadn’t heard of them before.

As in The Golden Keel (which is stuffed from start to finish with detailed information about yacht design, building and sailing) the dense factuality of Mayan history and archaeology takes the place of the ‘thrill’. As in Keel we are introduced to the possible baddy Metcalfe fairly early on, but it is only in the last 50 pages that he becomes an explicit enemy in the exciting sea race across the Med – so in this book we are introduced to the Mafia boss John Gatt fairly early on as a possible instigator of the murder of Wheale’s brother, only for him to be forgotten in the detail of diving and digging which takes up the next 150 pages, and only for him to reappear in the last 50 pages leading the attack on the archaeologists (and their treasure).

Thus the majority of the text of these books is not thrilling. It is taken up with lengthy descriptions of the interplay between fairly mundane characters, in Vivero between the accountant-turned-adventurer Wheale, the multi-millionaire archaeologist Fallon, his embittered rival Halstead, Halstead’s dishy and deluded wife Katherine, Fallon’s savvy investigator Harris (who provides the factual info about John Gatt and the mafia), as well as the factual background listed above as well as plenty of detail about how to set up a camp in a tropical rainforest, and so on.

All of this stuff is interesting, and the low-level drama between the characters is amusing in a kitschy Dallas kind of way, but thrilling it is not. A sober, factually-based adventure story with a thrilling finale is what it is.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

The Man Within by Graham Greene (1929)

Andrews’s mind pierced its maze of vague thinking in a flash of fear, and he half ran across the room to the door through which he had entered the night before. A sense of overwhelming desolation passed over him, a wonder whether he would ever know peace from pursuit. (p.27)

This book is tripe. A rich slice of teenage angst, narcissistic self-obsession and histrionic emotions hung on the scaffold of a lurid and melodramatic plot stuffed with ludicrously stereotyped and clichéd characters, spouting long speeches of Victorian bombast.

Never before can a ‘major writer’ have started his career with such a pitiful production and left it in print for everyone to identify the adolescent attitudes and self indulgent self-pity which were to inform all his later work: the thumping repetition masquerading as meaning, the sentimental religiosity masquerading as theology, the addiction to pornography and prostitutes masquerading as ‘daring’, and the continual pull towards despair and suicide masquerading as ‘living on the edge’.

Author’s apology

In an Author’s note Greene apologises for the republication of such an immature work, begun while he was still 21 and published when he was just 24. He had already had two novels rejected by Heinemann and was to forbid the republication of the two novels he wrote after this one, well aware they were rubbish.

So Greene had a very shaky, uncertain start to his writing career and, this novel clarifies, never shook off the profound misery, the suicidal despair, the outsize theatricals of his adolescence. His later Catholicism, far from being a carefully evaluated intellectual position, merely gave him permission, an acceptable outlet for the extreme feelings of rejection, alienation, damnation and despair which haunted him from his earliest years and are all-too-evident here:

To Andrews the falling clods were a measurement of time, recording the vanishing moments of his peace. He would be happy to stand in the cold and the mist through eternity watching the shovelling spades. Fear was pressing in upon his mind. (p.39)

He felt no fear of death, but a terror of life, of going on soiling himself and repenting and soiling himself again. There was, he felt, no escape. (p.167)

The plot

Set in a vague, undefined eighteenth century, the novel opens pell-mell with one Frances Andrews fleeing through woods somewhere on the South Downs near Shoreham, his consciousness saturated by terror and dread of his pursuers, stumbling through trees in a dense fog until he stumbles on a cottage in a clearing, raps on the door and collapses as it opens, glimpsing an attractive young woman pointing an antique rifle at him. He is being pursued by a man named Carlyon who he has a supernatural dread of. And dread and fear are very much the keynotes:

Loneliness and fear were like the emptiness of hunger to his belly… a friend who would pity him and understand his fear… he forgot his danger and his fear… the mere abstract fear of light…in almost continuous fear of Carlyon… it seemed incredible that he should so fear Carlyon… he found it impossible even in flight and fear… in the dark of the wood and far from Carlyon he had feared him… torn between his fear, precipitate, unreasoning fear… as he stared into the orange glow, fear was given an opportunity to assert itself… (pp.40-45)

Elizabeth

The young woman is called Elizabeth. When Andrews blundered into her cottage she had the corpse of her guardian, Mr Jennings, laid out in a coffin between candles. Andrews barges against it, almost hallucinating with fear, then passes out. Next day, through Hammer Horror mist, Andrews attends the dead man’s funeral, suspended in a strange equivocal relationship with Elizabeth, herself, it turns out, an outsider among the mute villagers who attend the funeral.

On the way back, in thick fog, Andrews is paralysed with fear at the sound of Carlyon’s voice in the mist, calling to a henchman. Heart racing, he inches away from the voice. Back at the cottage Andrews finally spits out his life story – his dad was a big bad smuggler who made enough money to send him to school, but then interrupted interrupted his education and bullied him into the family trade ie forcing him to take ship with the smugglers. When his dad died, Andrews was alone with them.

Stuck on board Carlyon’s ship he was mocked by the smugglers for being a coward and a mummy’s boy. And after three years of bullying he finally snapped, wrote to Shoreham Customs and betrayed the latest run of Carlyon and his crew. Customs intercepted them on the beach, there was a shootout, six of the smugglers were captured and one excise man – or ‘gauger’ – was shot dead. Three escapees made off in a boat while Andrews escaped up the beach, over the hills and is now running in fear of his life from his employer and former friend, Carlyon.

Then Elizabeth shares her story: the dead man is the lodger, a Mr Jennings, who moved in with her mother and her when she was a child, then bought the house. When her mother died, Mr Jennings looked after Elizabeth and sent her to school until the fateful day when he realised she had become a woman and made a pass at her. She fought him off and there was a year of tension in the little cottage until Mr J abruptly died, was laying out in his coffin, and Andrews comes blundering through the front door.

As she winds up her tale there is a knock at that same front door. Andrews slips behind the door to the stairs and listens as Elizabeth confidently holds off the dreaded Carlyon, for it is he! Eventually Carlyon leaves, persuaded by Elizabeth’s brave lies that there is no-one else there, and Andrews re-enters the small living room with its fire and kneels down to literally worship Elizabeth, overcome with maudlin images of her purity and honour etc. She takes advantage of his feeble devotion to insist that he goes to the Lewes Assizes, where the six captured smugglers are going on trial, to tell the full story.

Part two

So next day, very reluctantly, Andrews drags himself away from Elizabeth’s cottage, up onto the downs and walks to Lewes. Here he is overcome with fatalistic self pity, determines to get drunk in a low tavern and gets chatting to an intense little man who invites him back to his hotel for a meal. Instead, however, he introduces him to Sir Henry Merriman, the prosecutor at the forthcoming trial of the smugglers.

With phenomenal improbability Sir Henry is described as being accompanied by a lazy, sensuous ‘lady of easy virtue’ named Lucy. Sir Henry tells Andrews he must be a witness for the prosecution, Andrews dithers, and they argue, while Lucy provocatively, stagily, mocks the men and their self-importance. On the stairs outside she tells a flustered Andrews, ‘Be a witness and I’ll sleep with you.’

Surprisingly, disconcertingly, the trial is told in a completely different voice and style from the first part. Unlike the self-pitying murk of part one, with its impressionistic portrayal of Andrews’ frenzied dread, the trial is told in a brisk factual style, with a dollop of satire (the various clerks of court are described as nodding off asleep after each one performs his brief duty) and an ironical portrait of the judge, Sir Edward Parkin literally playing to the gallery which is full of attractive women.

Andrews is called as the star witness for the prosecution, bringing with him into the text his localised zone of self pity and ineffective anger and self hatred, but almost every other character in the scene – the barristers for prosecution and defence, the judge and the angry defendants, the six smugglers – are more vivid, vibrant, memorable for just being depicted as they are, without the vast Greene-ish despair. If Greene can leave out the teenage emoting, when he’s just describing people not labouring under fear and loathing, he can be quite funny. Almost a decent writer.

One by one the defendants go through their alibis and are backed up by wives and sweethearts. Then, to his horror, Andrews’ credibility as a witness is adroitly undermined by the defence counsel who brings up the whole matter of him recently staying under the same roof as a notorious ‘loose woman’ who lives in a cottage under the downs. He is, of course, referring to Elizabeth. Despite his feeble protestations that she is a Lady of Shining Honour and Unstained Virtue, the jury snigger and titter and Andrews’ reputation is shot.

Back in the witness room, Andrews is appalled to be told by the sergeant of the court that the smugglers have all been found innocent and are walking free. Andrews is not a popular man and the officials smuggle him back to the inn. Here a) one of the smugglers that had not been caught and who had watched the trial from the public gallery – and who Andrews had spotted but didn’t betray during the trial – enters his room and warns him that Carlyon and the others are likely to go to Elizabeth’s cottage and pay her back for harbouring Andrews. Obviously, he should race off to warn her. But then b) he is handed a note from Sir Henry’s lady friend, Lucy, saying she is waiting for him upstairs, bouncy bouncy.

Of course this plunges Andrews into black pits of despair and uncertainty: Should he stay true to the bright star of pure undefiled Elizabeth, shining in his memory as a symbol of purest Womanhood? Should he rush off at top speed back along the downs to warn her? Or should he pop along the corridor to Lucy’s room and enjoy rampant sex with her, wantoning among her soft breasts and warm thighs etc etc? He thinks of God, he thinks of his mother, he thinks of the saints, oh Hell, oh Fear, oh Despair.

He imagined her naked and in disgusting attitudes and tried to whip his body into a blind lust which would forget for a time at least the dictates of his heart. (p.159)

‘The dictates of his heart’. Even Mills and Boon would be embarrassed.

At moments like this you realise Andrews’ agonising is simply immaturity and ineffectiveness. He needs to man up and make some decisions. And you realise how much of the tortured, self-inflicted agonising, the hand-wringing and despair, the self-centred, self-dramatising self-loathing of almost all Greene’s protagonists, are variations on this central failure simply to think and act like a mature, responsible adult.

The religion, the Roman Catholic dogma which was to spread like a cancer through all Greene’s mature fiction, is a way of justifying the continuing deployment of the same adolescent, narcissistic wallowing in self-pity and self-obsession which are so nakedly on display here, only dressed up in a socially acceptable phraseology of ‘sin’ and ‘betrayal’ and ‘evil’ and ‘redemption’.

After a great deal of delay, even after he’s gone into her room, even after he’s sat on her bed, even after he’s stroked her bare breasts – continually soliloquising about Hell and Damnation and Sin and Faithfulness and Betrayal and Loyalty and Devotion and countless other Victorian proper nouns – even while he’s vowing his faithfulness to distant Elizabeth, oh Elizabeth shining like a Beacon of Purity, my angel, my saint, my Eliz – oops, he finds himself fucking Lucy.

Shag shag shag. Then – guess what? – immediately afterwards he feels wretched and miserable, as if he is damned, as if Trapped By Sin, as if he is a Wicked, Soiled, Sullied Evil Man. What a pathetic loser. He colloquises with Lucy. Women are devils, you lure us to our doom. No, it is men who are devils, you shape us to your lusts. It’s not just like reading a Victorian melodrama, it’s like reading a really bad Victorian pamphlet about Fallen Women and the Sins of the Flesh.

He was disgusted with himself and her. He had been treading, he felt, during the last few days on the border of a new life, in which he would learn courage and even self forgetfulness, but now he had fallen back into the slime from which he had emerged. (p.166)

Part three

Andrews gets dressed and finally hurries back along the downs and into the little valley where the picture book cottage nestles with a frail column of smoke drifting from its adorable little chimney. The door is ajar, oh have the Foul Fiends come to despoil his True Love? No, she’s there perfectly alright, and there are twenty pages of the most excruciating prose ever written, describing how the two young people shyly and bashfully Declare Their Love for each other. I love you. I love you too. Oh Victoria! Oh Albert! He admits he slept with this other woman, a ‘harlot’. Elizabeth forgives him. Oh, but she is a saint.

‘You were right. You are holy. I don’t see how I can ever touch you without soiling you a little, but, my God,’ his voice became vehement and he took a step towards her, ‘I’ll serve you, how I’ll serve you.’ (p.201)

Schoolboy sentimentality. He warns her the smugglers may be coming for her. She fetches out the antique rifle. He loads it. She picks it up. ‘Oh but we’ll need water, go and get it from the well!’ He goes to the well but when he turns, sees a man in the doorway. One of the smugglers! Oh fie fie!!

Petrified, Andrews runs runs runs to the nearest house ten minutes away, and stands arguing with the peasant owner to go fetch the Revenue or the Watch, and lend him an old nag so he can gallop back to rescue Elizabeth like, er, he should have done in the first place. But he didn’t because the whole plot is contrived so that when he enters the cottage – the door now swinging ajar – he finds his nemesis, Carlyon, sitting at the table and Elizabeth slumped in the chair opposite him, dead, dead I tell you, dead!

Allegedly the figure he saw in the doorway was one of the other, rougher, smugglers who began grappling with her and she killed herself with Andrews’ own knife before Carlyon arrived on the scene, just too late.

In a dizzy psychofantasia a dazed Andrews skips past his own (evident) guilt and instead starts blaming everything on his father, his bullying, harsh controlling father, who wore his mother out and dominated the poor boy, it is his father who drove him to a life of smuggling and whoring, his father who made him run away and abandon Elizabeth but now – hahaha – he is going to take revenge on his father, now he is going to kill his father. And as the appalled neighbour and other helpers arrive at the  cottage, apparently catching Andrews red-handed, his knife in Elizabeth’s body (Carlyon has tactfully slipped away) Andrews takes the knife and plunges it into his own panting breast etc etc.

Orchestra reaches a climax. He staggers forward across the stage, reaches his hands up towards the cruel heavens and then falls – oh Tragic Victim of a Cruel World – to the floor. The curtain comes rushing down while the audience bursts into applause. — Actually it’s not quite like that. The book ends as the now demented Andrews reaches forward to sneak a knife out of the belt of the villagers marching him through the wood with the strong implication he is about to put an end to the father-in-him by topping himself.

Immature style

The prose is unbearable: larded with abstract, pseudo-philosophical terminology, every time preferring portentous vagueness to concrete detail, dealing oh-so-casually with really big ideas and feelings as if they were smarties, reducing them – through endless and casual repetition – to the cheap jingles they will become throughout Greene’s prose.

With unexpected resolution he turned his back on the way he had come that morning and half ran as it were into an obscure future. (p.41)

At the thought the dry, strained despair in which he dwelt gave way before a kind of blessed grief. (p.215)

At his own words his heart became a battleground between exaltation and fear. (p.209)

Even extinction was not so dread as the continuance of this aching nightmare. (p.218)

It is as if Lord Tennyson lived on into the 1920s and started writing novels, or Edgar Allen Poe had been reborn in Berkhamsted. Not just the language but the histrionic emotional attitudes, the violent lurching between fear and despair and exultation and release and doubt and despair and fear and exultation and release — round and round like a hamster in a cage the prose hopelessly circles, ringing the changes on the same, narrow, obsessive, neurotic vocabulary:

Over for ever friendship, poetry, silence at the heart of noise; remained fear and continual flight. (p.48)

He advanced cautiously, with one arm of his spirit raised to ward off a blow. (p.49)

It touched his hot brain with cool fingers like the fingers of a woman and the ache and restless longing and despair were at an end. (p.219)

Fear and peace

To stop myself throwing the book across the room in disgust I concentrated on looking for structures and patterns, first in the language (fear/peace, hope/despair), which quickly led me on to realise that the narrative itself is underpinned by a system of binary opposites:

  • whore (Lucy) / Madonna (Elizabeth)
  • strong manly father (his father) / weak cowardly son (Andrews)
  • sea / land
  • law (the lawyers) / criminals (the smugglers)
  • agitated fear / dreamy peace
  • doomed adulthood / innocent boyhood

Something so immature about this worldview which casts every human situation as black or white, a habit of mind which explains – or mirrors – the mad veering from heights of exultation to depths of despair in the protagonist’s wretched consciousness, a failure to experience the world as a hugely more complex tapestry of multiple moods and colours, as a spectrum, as a variety.

It feels as if the ‘story’ with its lurid extremities is a cack-handed fantasy created by Greene to funnel and control the intense and extreme emotions he suffered from. It reminds you in almost every sentence that the author spent his teens in a profound misery which led to numerous suicide attempts and that Greene eventually underwent prolonged psychiatric treatment. ‘Why don’t you write about how you feel?’ his therapist suggested. And the result is a huge bibliography, an unstoppable outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, articles and reviews, one of the most extensive psychological exorcisms on record.

Running away

The topos of the Fearful Flight, a heart-stopping running-away from a menacing enemy, provides a narrative structure and justifies the melodramatic atmosphere of much of Greene’s fiction of the 1930s – A Gun for Sale, Brighton Rock, The Confidential Agent, The Power and the Glory and The Ministry of Fear all feature a man on the run.

In a sense, the mature post-war novels describe the ongoing problems of men who have run away, far far away – to Vietnam (The Unquiet American), Cuba (Our Man In Havana), Congo (A Burnt-Out Case), Haiti (The Comedians), Argentina (The Honorary Consul) – but still can’t escape the crushing sense of failure and despair which dogs them just as much as it cripples this, his very first protagonist. What a wretchedly unhappy man. And what a sequence of desperately unhappy books he created.

The movie

The Man Within was made into a movie of the same name, quite a lot later, in 1947, directed by Bernard Knowles and starring Ronald Shiner as Cockney Harry, Michael Redgrave as Carlyon, Jean Kent as Lucy, Joan Greenwood as Elizabeth and Richard Attenborough as young Andrews.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Landslide by Desmond Bagley (1967)

A return to the first person narrative Bagley used in his debut novel, The Golden Keel and, as so often when thriller writers do the first person, he is channeling Chandler.

The little fat guy who appeared to be the factotum around the depot looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and tittered. ‘You must be a stranger around here.’
‘Seeing I just got off the bus it may be possible,’ I conceded. I wanted to get information, not to give it.
He grunted and the twinkle disappeared. ‘It’s on King Street; you can’t miss it unless you’re blind, he said curtly. He was another of those cracker-barrel characters who think they’ve got a franchise on wisecracks – small towns are full of them. To hell with him! I was in no mood for making friends. (Ch 1)

Yep, he’s a street-wise tough guy alright. Mind you, here it’s appropriate; he and everyone else in the novel talks with a deliberate North American slanginess as it is set in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. It’s a very conscious choice of tone and idiolect and over the course of the book it succeeds in building up the no-nonense, tough guy persona of the narrator, hard-up mining geologist Bob Boyd who arrives in the small town of Farrell, where he signs up to work for the big family in the area, the Mattersons, to survey land they plan to flood by building a new dam to generate power for their various businesses. Where the prose was a little prissy in Hurricane, here it is rugged and manly: eg Hurricane refers to people swearing or uttering profanities; here almost every male character says ‘bastard’ on every page.

Heavily researched

Bagley’s books contain large chunks of researched information. He worked in a room completely lined with reference books and it shows. No aspect of the plot goes by without hefty chunks of factual back-up, from pages of info to throwaway factoids.

Eg I was struck by a detail in Hurricane, when the British consul and the air stewardess are fleeing for their lives through a banana plantation, that the old man still has time to examine the roots of the plants and announce that, as they weren’t properly bedded in, they would be liable to Panama Disease. Uh-huh. Here, the old newspaperman offers Boyd a drink and Bagley has to insert half a page explaining the difference between cheap blended Scotch and true single malt whiskey. He comes across a grizzly bear and informs us of the habits and behaviour of Ursus arctos, along with the best way to manage him.

The background to the plot is the construction of a new dam in the forest of British Columbia. Unsurprisingly, Bagley has done his research into Canada’s Forestry laws.

British Columbia is very conservation-minded where its ;umber resources are concerned. Out of every dollar earned in the province fifty cents comes ultimately from the logging industry and the Government wants that happy state of affairs to continue.So the Forestry Service polices the woodlands and controls the cutting… The idea is that the amount of lumber cut, in cubic feet, should not exceed the natural annual growth. Now, when you start talking in cubic footage of lumber in British Columbia you sound like an astronomer calculating the distance in miles to a pretty far star. The forest lands cover 220,000 square miles, say, four times the size of England, and the annual growth is estimated at two and a half billion cubic feet. So the annual cutting rate is limited to a little over two billion cubic feet and the result is an increasing, instead of a wasting, asset. (Ch V, 1)

Bucket philosophy

A central theme of the plot is that the hero has amnesia, no memory of anything till he wakes up in a hospital bed aged 23 covered in burns after a bad car crash. In the early chapters he is treated by a psychologist and the author shares with us some bucket philosophy.

Everyone comes up against this problem sometime in their lives; he asks himself the fundamentally awkward question: ‘Who am I?’ There are many related questions, too, such as, ‘Why am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?‘ To the uncaring the questioning comes too late, perhaps only on the death-bed. To the thinking man this self-questioning comes sooner and has to be resolved in the agony of personal mental sweat. (Ch II)

Presented here as new and challenging ideas, this would amuse my son and his mates doing their Religion & Philosophy GCSE with its naïveté. But then again, this isn’t a philosophy text book. The pages about identity are there because the main character lost his memory in a car crash, and the themes of identity and the question whether you want to find out who you were before amnesia, drive the plot. They are only sketched in as much as the info about Canadian forestry law or the geology of ‘quick clay’, that’s to say enough to fuel the plot, and no more. This isn’t a book about amnesia, it’s a book about thrills and spills.

Women

It’s 1967, Boyd is a man’s man and he knows how to treat women.

I had left Clare early on the morning following our encounter and was surprised to find her reserved and somewhat distant. True, she cooked a good man-sized breakfast, but that was something a good housewife would do for her worst enemy by reflex action. I thought that perhaps she was regretting her fraternisation with the enemy – after all, I was working for Matterson – or maybe she was miffed because I hadn’t made a pass at her. You never know with women. (Ch III, 3)

I began to think that to get rid of her was going to be quite a job; there’s nothing you can do with an uninsultable woman short of tossing her out on her can, and that’s not my style. (VI, 1)

Daily Mail complaints

Like MacLean, Bagley was old enough to live through the 1960s but not to like it. There is refrain of ‘world going to the dogs’ comments:

Any murderer can get his name in the newspapers, but if a decent man wishes to announce to the world that he’s lived happily with his wife for twenty-five or fifty years, he has to pay for it, by God!

She was tall and thin with the emaciated thinness which seems to be fashionable, God knows why. (V, 2)

Presumably he knows his Daily Mail-type audience, and these Angry-of-Tunbridge-Wells comments cement his bond with his middle-aged male readership. To the modern reader they make the narrator seem unnaturally old and out of touch. But much more importantly, make him look not savvy, ignorant of the world he’s operating in, a fatal flaw for this kind of hero in this kind of tale, who needs to appear worldly-wise, knowledgeable and in control.

The plot

Turns out Bob was badly burned and lost his memory in a car crash which conveniently killed off the Trinavant dynasty who had helped found the town, and that all their assets went to their partner Bull Matterson. Suspicious, eh? Having survived the crash, been repaired physically by plastic surgeons and mentally by the psychologist with the patter about self-examination, Bob returns to the scene of the crime, the small town where it all happened, and sets about provoking Matterson’s head-strong son and his thuggish sidekick, while contacting (and falling in love with) the only surviving Trinavant, the attractive Clare.

Boyd needles them again and again so I’m not surprised that when his revelations about his own background make the old man collapse of a heart attack, the sadistic son, Howard, is able to persuade all the loggers that Boyd hit the old man, and so organises the exciting manhunt through the Canadian forest which makes up the final 50 pages of the book. Here Boyd/Bagley come into their own with scads of boys own adventure tips and advice about surviving in the wilderness with a posse of angry lumberjacks at your heels and the traps he sets for them, the ways he outfoxes and escapes them, are highly entertaining.

All of which leads up the dramatic finale which is rather given away by the title of the book. In the last few pages Boyd gets old man Matterson to confess it was his son who set up the car crash to kill the Trinavants, rescues Clare from the dungeon in which she’s been held prisoner, gets the sheriff to believe him and to capture his enemy, Howard, and gets his prediction about the unsafety of the dam dramatically vindicated. Completely cleared, he looks set to inherit the Trinavant millions and walks off into the sunset with his best girl.

Although Bagley isn’t exactly a stylist, and although long stretches are what we could call ‘Bagley Factual’ in intention, and although the plot is a combination of Dallas-style machination with a dollop of 1970s disaster movie thrown in, Bagley has made a concerted effort to create a voice and style for his tough, reckless, aggressive hero, and over the long run it works. The swearing, the ‘bastards’, the ‘I didn’t give a damns’, the ‘one move and I’ll plug yous’, do create a distinctive (if often rather ludicrous) voice, a comic-book hero appropriate for the TV-movie story.

Of the three I’ve read so far this is the one I enjoyed most and would recommend other people to read.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Wyatt’s Hurricane by Desmond Bagley (1966)

Bagley’s trademark research is on show in this novel about an unusually fierce hurricane hitting the (fictional) Caribbean island of San Fernandez and, because that’s not dramatic enough, coinciding with a rebel uprising against the deranged military dictator, Serrurier.

The novel opens with hurricane expert David Wyatt being flown across the storm by US pilots as part of his ongoing research. All the details of the plane and instruments and satellite readings, and Wyatt’s careful exposition to his air stewardess girlfriend of how a hurricane starts and develops, all shine with the gleam of up-to-date research put prominently on display.

Wyatt goes to persuade the President that the hurricane will strike the island but he is ignored out by a man more intent on defeating his enemies in the field. With his return to the US Navy base blocked by a military curfew, Wyatt falls in with a motley crew of civilians holed up in the only decent hotel in town, the Imperiale.

  • Julie Marlowe – air stewardess and girlfriend
  • Big Jim Dawson – drunk novelist and Hemingway wannabe
  • Causton – shrewd foreign correspondent
  • Eumenide Papegaikos – unreliable Greek
  • Miss Warmington – prickly spinster

Multiple protagonists

As in Citadel so here in Hurricane, Bagley quickly establishes the basic setup, creates half a dozen or so characters, and then splits them into groups whose diverse storylines exploit as many aspects of the situation as possible. In this case:

  • Dawson and Wyatt are arrested by the army and taken for interrogation at headquarters, where the rebels artillery attacks finally blow in the walls and kill most of the guards allowing them to escape
  • Causton rather ludicrously uses boot polish to black up and goes to scout ahead and finds himself rounded up among other deserters and forced into the front line of the battle
  • Julie, Miss Warmington and Papegaikos are rescued from the hotel by the British envoy Rawsthorne who packs them into a car and heads for the hills where they encounter various threats

So the narrative is able to jump from one small group or individual to another as the same sequence of events unfolds, namely the battle for San Pedro and then the disaster of the hurricane.

Style

There isn’t the hysteria of MacLean, the long sentences full of words like ‘despair’, ‘defeat’, ‘savage’, ‘vicious’. There are hardly any metaphors or similes. The prose is concerned to be factual and accurate.

At last all the stores  had been moved and they rested for a while on the ridge-top. On the seaward side they could see the main coast road, still aswarm with refugees heading east away from St Pierre. The city itself was out of sight behind the headland, but they could hear the distant thud of guns and could see a growing smudge of smoke in the western sky. On the other side of the ridge the ground sloped down into a small green valley, heavily planted with bananas in long rows. (Chapter 5, II)

Factual. Precise. The most notable oddity is the occasional use of jolly hockeysticks Englishisms which seem inappropriate to the modern ear. Inadvertently (and wildly improbably) drafted into the front line, Causton has to dig a trench, watch soldiers fleeing through no man’s land getting mown down, before himself coming under sustained artillery bombardment. Nonetheless he is impressed by the sergeant who is keeping his platoon of deserters in their place.

Causton sank back as a tirade of mashed French broke from the sergeant’s foxhole. He had to admire the man – this was a tough, professional soldier who would brook no nonsense about desertion in the face of the enemy – but he was confoundedly inconvenient. (Ch 5, I)

Jeeves and Wooster go to war.

Callousness

And yet the occasional pukka Englishism doesn’t mitigate the overall impression which is one of supreme callousness. As in Citadel individuals we’ve come to like (Rohde in the earlier book, Papegaikos in this one) are horribly and brutally killed. And this micro-brutality is echoed by larger-scale lack of sympathy in the way the author merrily kills off scores and scores of ‘communists’ (in Citadel) and, in Hurricane, really goes to town as the civil war battles kill thousands, then the forced exodus of civilians from the soon-to-be-flooded capital results in scores of deaths, and then the tsunami which accompanies the hurricane completely wipes out the loyalist army, killing thousands of soldiers, and then our characters stumble among the tens of thousands civilians abandoned in the open who are dead or dying from shock and exposure. It is two enormous disasters – civil war, tornado – cobined into one for maximum death & destruction. There’s something unpleasant about it all being used merely as a backdrop to the rather silly adventures of some very shallow characters.

In terms of body count it’s a holocaust of a novel but Bagley treats it with unnerving detachment and a kind of brisk no-nonsense certainty. Battlefields are traditionally immensely confused places but not in Bagley’s novel, where the characters are able to analyse the movements of opposing forces with clinical accuracy, as if studying it in a study decades later. Similarly, being in the middle of a hurricane is probably a severely disorientating experience but it doesn’t stop Wyatt delivering quite a lot of encyclopedia britannica-style information disguised as dialogue. And there is an opportunity to package more up-to-date research when Wyatt and Dawson emerge from their foxhole to see the entire length of the Negrita river valley lined with thousands of civilian survivors of the storm and Wyatt is able to deliver a short lecture about Disaster Shock.

Set against this bloodless detachment from the suffering of scores of thousands of people, is the rather risible psychology of the main characters. There’s a storyline concerning the character Jim Dawson, initially satirised as a big-talking American novelist whose image is created by PR firms but who is actually a coward. During the course of the novel he learns – through being tortured by the dictator’s goons and then surviving the hurricane – ‘true humility’ and to appreciate ‘what really matters in life’. This is such a thin and obvious character, and the lessons he learns so shallow and trite, and the escapades he goes through so risibly improbable, that he epitomises the paper-thin characterisation and thumpingly banal ‘lessons about life’ that these books contain.

MacLean learned not to clutter the stories with cheap author’s messages from the negative reviews of The Last FrontierI wonder if Bagley continues with the twopenny-halfpenny philosophising in his subsequent novels…

Dated

The journalist Causton is a veteran of foreign wars: he says he’s covered Congo, Vietnam, Malaysia. The mercenary Manning says he learned about Favel’s revolt while fighting in the Congo and, now it’s successful, may move on to Yemen. Interesting snapshots of recent troublespots as seen from 1965.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wyatt's Hurricane

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wyatt’s Hurricane

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965)

O’Hara’s lips quirked as he mentally reviewed his garrison. An old man and a young girl; two sedentary academic types; a drunk and someone’s maiden aunt; and himself – a broken-down pilot. On the other side of the river were at least twenty ruthless men  – with God knows how many more to back them up. His muscles tensed at the thought that they were communists… (Chapter 3, II)

Desmond Bagley (1923 – 1983) was a British journalist and author of 16 thrillers, the last two published posthumously. Along with Alistair Maclean (b.1922) and Hammond Innes (b.1913), Bagley helped establish the conventions of the modern thriller genre, a tough, resourceful lone hero up against a gang of desperadoes involved in a fiendish scheme.

All three authors published throughout the 1960s and 70s in stylish and distinctive paperbacks by Fontana books at the bargain price of 25p or 30p or even 35p.

Though almost exactly contemporary with MacLean, Bagley started publishing almost a decade later. After various adventures in Africa, including working in the mining industry for some years, he gravitated towards journalism, then short story-writing and only published his first novel, The Golden Keel, in 1963 at the age of 40.

High Citadel

This is his second novel. It is a ‘motley crew’ thriller ie a small random assortment of passengers are moved from an intercontinental airplane experiencing engine trouble, to the knackered Dakota freighter of a ramshackle charter company to be flown by jaded pilot Tom O’Hara across the Andes in the fictional country of Cordillera, based on Chile.

Set-up

O’Hara is surprised when his shiftless hispanic co-pilot pulls a gun on him and forces him to land at a makeshift landing strip high in the mountains, though the hijacker dies in the resulting crash. At which point it is revealed that one of the older passengers is a well-known politician who has returned to the country with the aim of overthrowing the military dictator, Lopez. But it is not the dictator’s men who organised the hijack, but the communists who also want this good democrat dead.

Thus begins a narrative in which the 10 or so survivors of the crash must make their way back to civilisation, despite attacks by the communists which turn into a miniature war.

  • Tim O’Hara – Irish charter airplane pilot, flew fighters in the Korean War, wife left him, became a drunk
  • Filsom – owner of ramshackle Andes Airways for which O’Hara flies a beaten-up old Dakota
  • Grivas – his co-pilot, who pulls a gun and forces him to land high in the Andes
  • Aguillar – elderly politician, the democratic leader before a military dictator seized power
  • Benedetta – his niece and carer
  • Miguel Rohde – Aguillar’s bodyguard, with a gun
  • Forester – very capable American businessman, who also flew fighters in the Korean War
  • Peabody – fat drunk Yank
  • the Coughlins – elderly couple reliving their honeymoon; both killed in the crash
  • Dr Willis – academic studying high altitude conditions
  • Miss Ponsky – elderly American spinster
  • Dr Armstrong – pipe-smoking medieval historian on holiday; turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and supervises the manufacture of a working crossbow and trebuchet

Plot development

The actual hijacking is over very quickly. The plane has crashed at a landing strip for abandoned mine workings and the survivors set off the next day to walk down the track to civilisation. However, as they turn a corner leading to the only bridge over a deep river they are fired on by armed forces on the other side. It is the communists, the old rope bridge has partly given way as one of their lorries crossed it on the way up to rendezvous with the plane to capture and kill Aguillar, and they are busy repairing it.

This leads to the heart of the book which is a stand-off: communist guerillas on one side of the gorge with jeeps and lorries and lots of guns; our motley crew of survivors on the other with just one gun but – in an unexpected development – an academic who turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and shows our guys how to make lethal crossbows and a working trebuchet using tools in the workshop of the abandoned mining camp. Our chaps hold off the guerillas by preventing them repairing the bridge, while the toughest men – Rohde and Forester – set off to cross a high pass in the Andes to the other side and contact troops who (hopefully) have been suborned to support the democrat politician.

Communists

The drunk pilot O’Hara is given memories of being tortured by communists during the Korean War to explain his determination not to let Aguillar fall into their hands, and most of the other characters are American with a phobia of communism. O’Hara mentions Castro, whose seizure of power in Cuba had only happened 6 years earlier, in 1959, and whose agents are said to be spreading across south America fomenting revolution. The US attempt to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion was as recent as 1961. Whatever else it is, the novel is topical but it’s striking how the very name communist is equated with total evil, with no attempt to distinguish the Korean version from the Latin American one.

Willis was glad to get away from the certainty of a hand-to-hand fight, defenceless against the ruthless armed men who were coming to butcher them. (Ch 8, V)

They might as well be orcs or followers of Lord Voldemort. It is a binary worldview in which they are simply pure malevolence. Really?

Style

After the non-stop hysteria of MacLean, the style is commendably sane and sober as the lead characters formulate and discuss plans in a calm rational manner. The calm and sane style makes the natural forces which get involved – a blizzard which attacks the men as they are crossing the high pass, and the accompanying fog lower in the valley – all the more believable. Rohde and Forester’s ordeal in a high-altitude snow-storm is particularly gripping because understated, and when they do reach the final stages of snow exhaustion it is very plausibly described.

Forester felt warm and at ease, and to him the two were synonymous. Strange that the snow was so warm and soft, he thought; and opened his eyes to see a glar eof white before him. He sighed and closed his eyes again, feeling a sense of disappointment. It snow after all. He supposed he should make an effort to move and get out of this deliciously warm snow or he would die, but he decided it was not worht the effort. He just let the warmth lap him in comfort and for a second before he relapsed into unconsciousness he wondered vaguely where Rohde had got to. (Ch 9, I)

If anything, the style and the mentality is a little too cerebral. All the passengers accept the hijack, the crash-landing in which some passengers are horribly crushed, the forced march down the mountainside then attack by the communists, then a prolonged state of siege and being called on to fire crossbows to kill their opponents or blow up their vehicles pretty calmly. The elderly lady cries a little after she’s killed a man with a crossbow, that’s about it. Apart from the drunk Peabody who soon gets his comeuppance, all the men are calm, focused and practical.

There are a few attempts to give the characters some ‘realistic’ psychology, but these tend to sheer away into thriller cliché almost immediately: O’Hara is given a scene away from the others, discovered getting drunk by the nubile Benedetta and after a few rebuffs he confesses the story of his capture and torture by communists in Korea as she holds him to her bosom and realises he is the man for her. Tough guy opens his heart; pretty heroine falls for him with a Victorian simple-mindedness.

She felt an almost physical swelling pain in her bosom, a surge of wild, unreasonable happiness, and she knew that she had been wrong when she had felt that Tim was not for her. This was the man with whom she would share her life – for as long as her life lasted. (Ch 6, IV)

Conclusion

The book appeals to boys and men interested in the mechanics of survival but it is genre fiction because it pays almost no attention to realistic psychology, to the likely consequences of even one of this sequence of quite drastic events on the average person it claims to depict, and converts the potentially interesting cast into pawns in a simplistic battle between Good and Evil.

He felt a growing rage within him at the unfairness of things; just when he had found life again he must leave it – and what a way to leave; cooped up in a cold, dank tunnel at the mercy of human wolves. (Ch 10, II)

And then in the last 50 pages, all attempts at realism are dropped as the story goes pyrotechnic in a manner worthy of the new and fashionable James Bond films, with the enemy airfield blown up, Forester heroically piloting a stolen jet fighter against the comunist forces, all the baddies shot up and the gallant survivors driving a battered bullet-flecked truck down the hill to freedom. To top off the sense of adolescent absurdity, Dr Armstrong the academic, quotes the famous Band of brothers speech from Henry V.

Planes mentioned in the text

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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