Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene (1980)

They all drank. I could tell they were more than a little intoxicated – it was only I who seemed hopelessly condemned to the sadness of sobriety however much I drank. I left my glass empty. I was determined to drink no more before I was at home alone and I could drink myself to death if I chose. (p.123)

A novella (140 pages) from Greene’s old age (he was 76 when it was published) showing he was just as miserable and suicidal in his seventies as in his teens.

The plot

A first-person narrative by Alfred Jones, fifty-something clerk and translator who works for a chocolate company in Geneva and who, despite having only one hand (having lost his left one as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz) falls in love with beautiful, young, high-spirited Anna-Luise Fischer. She is the daughter of the notorious Dr Fischer, a self-made millionaire whose fortune is based on a phenomenally successful toothpaste (Dentophil Bouquet).

A miserly misanthrope Dr F domineered over his wife, ridiculing her love of music and, when he discovered she was spending time with a lowly clerk who shared her love of classical music, he got the clerk sacked and his wife went into a decline. Anna-Luise tells Alfred how her mother told her all this, emphasising what a swine her father is. No love lost.

Compelled by good manners, Jones reluctantly goes along to tell Dr F that he’s marrying his daughter, experiencing the millionaire’s big house by the lake, his rude and surly butler, and encountering one of his regular guests in the waiting room. Dr F himself is abrupt and rude and not remotely interested in his daughter’s marriage, grateful to have her off his hands.

Shopping for records in a record store, Alfred and Anna-Luise encounter her mother’s confidente, the one who got into trouble and was sacked for playing classical music with her at their secret trysts, a sad man named Steiner. In fact Steiner faints at the sight of Anna-Luise so much does she look like her mother. They see him restored to health, at which point he fills in a bit more detail about what a swine Fischer is…

Back in their love nest, Anna-Luise explains to Alfred that Dr F has gathered round him a motley crew of sycophants and toadies. In her imperfect English she calls them the Toads. Funny thing is they’re not poor, they’re rich. But Dr F believes it’s only the rich who are truly greedy, and so he invites them to parties to ritually humiliate them before handing out (luxurious) presents.

The Toads

When a card arrives inviting Alfred to one of these parties he and Anna-Luise argue about it, she warning him off, he saying he’s curious. In the event he witnesses Dr Fischer’s guests more or less grovelling in order to earn their luxury gifts, on this occasion being forced to eat cold porridge while the Doctor enjoys fine caviar. Alfred alone refuses to eat and is not to be bought, unlike the other Toads: wealthy blue-rinse Mrs Montgomery, alcoholic movie star Richard Deane, the Divisionnaire – a retired Swiss military officer – Belmont a lugubrious tax accountant, and Mr Kips, a wizened old man bent almost double.

Anna-Luisa recounts how her father humiliated Kips by commissioning a children’s story writer to write a story about Mr Kips in Search of A Dollar with plenty of illustrations showing Mr Kips as he actually appears, and which Fischer got placed in every bookshop in Geneva at Christmas. Since he had just made Kips his lawyer on a healthy retainer the deformed old man had to put up with this appalling humiliation.

Anna-Luisa dies

Christmas approaches and Alfred takes Anna-Luisa to one of her favourite skiiing locations for her to have a morning’s exercise while he – too old and never learned to ski – waits in the cafe below. When an ambulance is called and a figure brought down on a stretcher he has a bad feeling and indeed it is Anna-Luise who swerved to avoid a boy on the piste and went head-first into a tree. Ambulance to hospital. Kindly doctors. Emergency operation. She dies under anaesthetic. Alfred goes back to their flat numbed.

Jones’s suicide attempts

Greene, the patron saint of suicides, lets rip. Alfred mixes all the aspirin he owns into half a bottle of whiskey and drinks it all. Wakes 18 hours later with a hangover. Goes to work and considers jumping off the top of his building. Driving his car off the road. Throwing himself into Lake Leman, letting the freezing water numb him till he drowns. Gas from the cooker. Fumes from the car. Starvation? Yes, he will set out to starve himself to death.

Dr Fischer

Fischer invites Alfred to visit him and tells him he despises humanity and he enjoys humiliating the Toads. Alfred asks why he didn’t come to his own daughter’s funeral and tells him he hates him. ‘But you must come to my final party,’ says Dr F. It will be a very special party with very valuable gifts for those who endure and submit. Disgusted with himself, but with nothing to live for, a few days later Alfred posts an RSVP saying ‘Yes, he’ll come’.

The bomb party

Dr Fischer gives his grotesque parties names. Alfred (and we) witness the Porridge Party. (We hear about the Lobster Party and the Grouse Party). When the Toads and Alfred are assembled for the final party, to be held outside in the snow by the light of flares at a luxuriously appointed table, waited on by the butler, Dr F tells us it is to be a bomb party. In the tombola barrel are six little crackers. Five contain cheques for 2 million francs; one contains a small explosive, big enough to kill.

In the following few pages the various guests at first think he is joking then rush and push others out of the way to get at the barrel. Mrs Montgomery opens her first with no explosion: the very drunk actor Deane opens his ditto; Kips walks away refusing to play; Belmont swiftly opens his. At last it comes down to the military man who has picked his sachet but is standing paralysed with fear. Impatiently Alfred seizes and rips open his, the final, sachet – but there is no explosion, there was no bomb. They’ve all been fooled and humiliated. Again.

Dr Fischer commits suicide

Alfred walks down to the lakeside in a daze of disappointment and has only been there a few moments when Steiner comes sidling along the waterfront. He must have broken into the grounds somehow. He reaffirms his hatred of Fischer and there are some Greene-ish maxims and quotable thoughts about hate and spite and so on.

‘You hate him and I suppose I hate him too. But hate – it isn’t important. Hate isn’t contagious. It doesn’t spread. One can hate one man and leave it there. But when you begin to despise like Doctor Fischer, you end by despising the whole world.’ (p.141)

Steiner says he has come because he wants to spit in Fischer’s face for causing the death of the beautiful wife. Almost immediately this becomes possible as Dr Fischer walks down the pitch-black night-time lawn to join them at the lakeside. He complains to Alfred that he really has spoiled the party; he particularly wanted to see the cowardly Divisionnaire pull his own cracker. Oh well. ‘And you, Steiner, I shouldn’t have got you sacked, I should have got you a pay rise and left you and Anna to play all the Mozart records you wanted to.’ To the last casually toying with people’s lives… Oh well, ‘Time to sleep’, he says and strolls off along the lakeside. A minute later there is a loud report. Fischer has shot himself in the head.

That’s it.


Thoughts

This is a way to spend 3 hours or so as long as you suspend everything you know about human nature or behaviour and as long as you enjoy a simplified mental world full of extreme abstractions like Love, Hate, Guilt, Despair, Suicide, Nothingness and so on.

Like all Greene’s entertainments it seems to me cranky and wilful. Supposedly a satire on the Euro-rich it is in fact far too tame and simplistic. One suspects the Euro-rich are much more clever, complex and corrupt than this fairy story portrays. And the suicidal thoughts which follow the death of his lover and which also, it turns out, plague Dr F, are the same suicidal thoughts which followed Greene throughout his life and recur in the minds of so many, too many, of his protagonists.

If one were feeling harsh, one could describe it as melodramatic twaddle.


The movie

In 1985 the novel was made into a TV film, Dr. Fischer of Geneva, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring James Mason (in his last role) as Dr. Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred Jones, and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise. Doesn’t look like it’s available on DVD. A glance at this crude trailer, cut from the VHS version, suggests why.

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.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs (1975)

David Nobbs’ fictional character Reginald Perrin proved to be quite a success. The book was popular and quickly spawned the TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, itself a hit, prompting Nobbs to create two further novels both themselves quickly converted into TV series. In 2009 the character was resurrected in a new BBC TV series played by Martin Clunes.

Three things of note in this, the first novel in the series:

1. Funny In the first half it is regularly very very funny, peopled by excellent comic caricatures, constructed from marvellously comic scenes, littered with observations of a kind of subdued, English, domestic surrealism.

‘This is a happy house, Mr Potts,’ said Mr Deacon [the landlord]. ‘And as regards the lights going off suddenly, don’t worry. They only do that when we watch BBC2.’ (p.224)

Davina sat at the bedside.Uncle Percy Spillinger’s breathing was laboured. His wardrobe doors were open. Davina closed them quietly. It didn’t seem right that his last moments should be witnessed by all his suits. (p.209)

He led Constable Barker into the living room. It was comfortable in the impersonal way of furnished flats. Whatever could conceivably have a tassel, had a tassel. (p.277)

2. Clipped It is written in an oddly clipped, functional prose. Short sentences. Brisk paragraphs. Brief descriptions. Punchy dialogue. Almost as if worked up from a screenplay.

‘Listen to those damned dogs,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.
Davina listened. She could hear no dogs.
The wardrobe doors opened again with a shuddering groan. Again Davina shut them. (p.209)

If you compare book and TV series, it is striking how very closely the TV follows the book, right down to exchanges of dialogue. Ready-packaged.

3. Despair Beneath it all runs a dark river of despair. It is about a 46-year-old respectable executive in a fruit puddings company (Sunshine Deserts) having a mid-life crisis. Unable to have sex with his wife. Fantasising about his secretary. Driven mad by the routine crapness of life –

  • his morning train is always 11 minutes late
  • the lifts don’t work
  • the clock on the tower of the Sunshine Desserts building has been stuck at 3:46 since 1967)

– Reggie feels impelled to:

  • write increasingly rude letters to his suppliers
  • implementing madder and madder schemes eg taking a map of Bedfordshire and drawing the outline of his secretary’s handbag on it and then presenting it to a subordinate as the ‘target sales area’ for a new fruit ice cream.
  • hold a dinner party for his boss and colleagues at which he doesn’t actually serve any food but drives them mad with frustration before announcing he has sent a cheque for the value of the food to Oxfam to feed the starving millions.

Finally Reggie fakes his own suicide, leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach late at night, swimming about a bit, then exiting the sea to dress in new clothes, taking the cash he’d been extracting from banks, and setting off into a new life, adopting a variety of madcap identities along the way…

Comic characters

Work

  • CJ, head of Sunshine Deserts and famous for his catchphrase ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, applied in more and more ludicrous situations eg ‘I didn’t get where I am today without knowing a real winner when I see one’ (p.9), ‘I didn’t get where I am by being blown up in the end of the world!’ (p.230)
  • Mrs CJ: very nervous, justifiably so as CJ is always ferociously criticising her.
  • CJ’s office chairs: anyone called for a meeting in CJ’s office runs the gauntlet of his cheap plastic office chairs which more often than not emit a loud farting sound when you sit on them, or get up.
  • David  Harris-Jones: nervous, sycophantic colleague at work: ‘Super CJ’.
  • Tony Webster: smooth, sycophantic young colleague at work: ‘Great CJ.’
  • Joan, his secretary. For eight long years she’s taken dictation of his boring letters to suppliers and retailers and now, when he makes a pass at her, he is astonished when she responds enthusiastically and throws her clothes off.
  • Doc Morrisey: wizened, rubbish old doctor who himself, comically, suffers from much the same male menopause symptoms as Reggie.

Personal

  • Elizabeth: his long-suffering wife, who every morning holds his bowler hat and umbrella and picks fluff off his suit before he sets off to work. She is sweet and loving and kind and Reggie can’t get an erection for her any more and can’t bear living this stifling, predictable clockwork life.
  • His mother-in-law: we never meet her but early on Reggie, his mind slipping, associates her with a hippopotamus, one of the most visually memorable gags in the TV version.
  • Jimmy: his brother-in-law, failed Army type, hopeless at organising anything hence his frequent visits at inappropriate moments with the catchphrase ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, which can also be applied to most other fronts eg, ‘Well, Mark, how’s things on the acting front?’ (p.53)
  • Mark: his grown-up son, a failing actor, scrabbling for work in obscure provincial theatres, routinely popping home for ‘a bit of a loan’.
  • Linda: his grown-up daughter, running to fat and married to Tom.
  • Tom: Linda’s husband and Reggie’s son-in-law, incredibly boring, earnest, bearded, alternative type, keen on composting, not disciplining the children and so on. Catchphrase ‘I’m a x person’ as in ‘I’m very much a stone person’ (p.201).
  • Uncle Percy Spillinger: distant relative, posh, slightly deaf, very eccentric, arrives for the dinner party in full black tie, talks about his collection of curios including a finger bought in Hong Kong, chats up busty Davina, one of the secretaries from work, though puts her off a bit by mentioning his six previous wives, all of whom have died and been buried in Ponders End. He dies and Davina moves fast to secure his inheritance.

Farcical scenes

  • When his wife goes to stay with her mother Reggie invites his secretary round one Sunday for sex and they’ve got as far as stripping naked in his (grown-up, long departed) son’s bedroom when there’s a knock at the door.
  • David Harris-Jones gets so drunk at Reggie’s dinner-party-without-food that he passes out and the other guests have a bet what colour underpants he’s wearing. When the men unzip and pull his trousers down they discover they’re white pants with a bog face of Ludwig van Beethoven on them, something he is never allowed to forget.
  • Early on Reggie suggests taking Elizabeth, Tom and Linda and their two little children to a safari park. It is a hot stifling day and the adults’ blandness and the children’s whining drives him so mad, that when the car overheats and breaks down in the lions enclosure Reggie gets out to go and talk to them. Except that they get to their feet and come loping towards him with an increasingly hungry look in their eyes, Reggie turns and runs screaming and it is only a park guard shooting one with a tranquiliser gun before Reggie makes it back into the car that prevents an early departure for our hero.

Despair

In 1849 the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,’ and that could be the epigraph for the Perrin books and TV show, the horribly spirit-slaying, soul-crushing requirements of the daily commute to a pointless, unfulfilling job. Despite the comic flourishes, a lot of the book is just plain depressed.

The corridors of the hospital smelt of decline and antiseptic, and they reminded Reggie of his future. (p.81)

The first few TV episodes follow Reggie being driven over the border of rage and frustration into active despair by everyone and everything around him – by his insufferable brother-in-law, his ghastly son-in-law Tom, his overbearing boss CJ, his horribly cheery colleagues Tony and Adam. The episodes end with Reggie screaming, doing a heartfelt Munch-like scream of soul-pain, as the credits start to roll. Funny? Maybe, but painfully so, disturbingly so.

He was alone, utterly alone. No family. No friends. Not even a friendly bank manager in the cupboard. He began to cry. He lay on his bed and wept, until there were no more tears and he was exhausted and empty. (p.219)

In my review of The Wilt Alternative (1979) I wondered why so many of the novels of the 1970s are about unhappy middle-aged men (see the novels of Kingsley Amis, of David Lodge, the Wilt series, this). Chuck in the depressed, shuffling protagonists of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels, and then the smothering presence of the patron saint of suicidal depressives, Graham Greene (The Human Factor, Dr Fischer of Geneva), to give a powerful sense that it was, at bottom, for this cohort of middle-aged white men, a decade of despair.

One old man had a compulsive snort. As he listened to the compulsive snort Reggie thought about that old man’s life. His first rattle, his first step, his first word, his first wank, his first woman, his first conviction, his first stroke, his first compulsive snort. The history of a man (p.220)

Finale

After faking his suicide Reggie travels across the west of England, changing his name and appearance to try out new personalities, with often ludicrous results. Finally, he realises how lonely and unhappy he is and moves back to London. He gets a job as an under-gardener in a mental hospital and takes to hanging around his old house in his spare time. Eventually, he reveals his true identity to his daughter, Linda, who tells him the family are holding memorial service for him. Reggie attends it in the fake persona of a long-lost friend, Martin Wellbourne. Elizabeth takes to him. He seems strangely familiar…

And in the final scene of the book, after some weeks of seeing each other, of dates and drives and dinners, Elizabeth announces to a surprised family that she is going to marry Martin Wellbourne (in fact, Reggie). They hold an engagement party for the family. Linda corners Elizabeth in the kitchen. ‘Mother, there’s something I have to tell you. Martin, he’s not… he’s not who he seems.’ But Elizabeth amazes her daughter by revealing that she knows Martin is really Reggie, has known for some time. But it will be fun to be married again, to give it all another chance, to live a little.

After trawling down to some pretty grim depths, the novel finally ends on an upbeat note, leaving the reader smiling. Thank God.

TV series

The three Perrin books were made into three BBC TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, which aired in 1976, 1977 and 1979 respectively.

Related links

The Reginald Perrin novels

  • The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975, later reissued to tie in with the TV series, as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin)
  • The Return of Reginald Perrin (1977)
  • The Better World of Reginald Perrin (1978)
  • The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996)

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was a phenomenally successful author of international thrillers, publishing some 24 novels plus the three Bourne novels, and lending his name to another dozen or so books either co-written with, or entirely written by, other writers. Thus, after Ludlum’s death, with the full permission of his estate, the splendidly named Eric Van Lustbader has produced a further ten Bourne novels.

Like most modern American thrillers this is a long book, at 566 pages. If you see a few of the Bourne paperbacks side by side you get the feeling that, like so much else in American culture, American authors and publishers in this genre measure by size – and this text is as big and unsubtle as a Texas steak, packed with protein, big in size, scope and ambition, raw and bloody.

However, The Bourne Ultimatum is the only one of this large brood I’m likely to read because the price of being so productive, of churning out so many very long texts, is a concomitant thinness of fabric and style and a curious metallic emptiness of character. In fact this is one of the very rare books which I eventually found so insulting to my intelligence and taste that I abandoned it around page 300. I was hoping it would be gripping and intelligent and found it the opposite. Ludlum makes Frederick Forsyth look like Tolstoy.

The plot

There are a lot of facts to digest, but the basic idea is that Jason Bourne’s body is found floating at sea by fishermen who bring him aboard and hand him over to a portside doctor who nurses him back to health. He is fit and intelligent but has lost his memory. Stitched into his body is a microfilm with the address of a bank in Zurich, so the doctor gives him some money to travel to Switzerland where the novel becomes very violent. At the Swiss bank he runs foul of its strict security measures and is attacked on the way out by men with guns; he manages to fight his way free and get back to his hotel where he is again surrounded by a number of armed men so he grabs a hostage, a woman lecturer named Marie attending the economics conference being held at the hotel.

Jason drags Marie out the back of a packed auditorium using her body as a shield against the bad guys, shoves her into a car and forces her to drive around town, while she has hysterics, tries to escape, panics, cries, pleads to be released etc. They go to the house of a legless old concentration camp survivor – Chernak – whose name Jason had been given as a contact, but when Jason turns his back the old man pulls out a gun and is about to shoot him, when Jason shoots first.

Back on the street they are caught by three goons. The boss despatches goon 1 with Marie, saying take her to the river, shoot her and dump her in it. After some interrogation Jason manages to shoot or disable his interrogators and escapes, going down to the river to rescue Marie who he finds being raped in the back of a car by goon one, prior to being shot dead.

Jason rescues Marie, though the baddy gets away in the confusion of gunshots. Marie drives Jason to a village outside Geneva where they rest and recuperate. They review the evidence – that Jason is known and feared wherever he goes, whichever contact he talks to is petrified of being seen with him. They all refer to him as Cain. Meanwhile, the men seeking to kill him appear to work for a figure called Carlos, head of some kind of gang or cartel. (We are shown Carlos, bizarrely, working out of a confessional box in a Catholic church, where he receives a succession of old, ancient men who form a network of agents and messengers. A touch of the deliberately grotesque.)

I’d just got to the scene where Jason has abducted another woman, the owner of a high-class boutique in Paris who is some kind of contact for Carlos. She explains

  • that Cain/Bourne came from a network of assassins and killers groomed during the Vietnam War for illegal operations in one ‘Operation Medusa’
  • that out of that environment came a number of killers who set up international hitman organisations
  • that Carlos has been top-dog in Europe for some time and that Cain/Bourne had carried on being ultra-cruel, ultra-effective killer in the Far East
  • but that some disruption has forced Cain/Bourne to come West and set up in direct competition with Carlos

So that’s why Carlos, via his hitmen, is out to kill him; and also explains the shadowy links to someone or something in the States, maybe the original controllers of the ‘Medusa’ set-up…

After three or four days together, the woman Jason has kidnapped, slapped and hurt and threatened with death and whose actions led directly to her being raped – has fallen in love with Jason. They have sex, and Marie begins to use her in-depth knowledge of international economics, and specifically banking practices, to figure out how to help Jason find out who he is and to counter his enemies…

Rape then love

My son, like me, gave up reading at the point where the woman who has been kidnapped and violated falls in love with Jason. This seems so unlikely as to be unpleasant and repellent. It simply defies belief and breaks the credibility of the story. I suspect any person who’s undergone such a trauma doesn’t particularly want to have sex with anyone for a while. Especially not with a man who kidnapped her and indirectly caused it all.

From this point on the novel treats both characters as if they are sincerely and deeply in love, with many paragraphs devoted to their concern for each others’ feelings etc. These struck me as unreadable, sentimental, fantasist hogwash and were the biggest reason for me abandoning reading the book.

The problem is acknowledged in the film version where Bourne abducts Marie but there is no rape scene and, after they go through some hair-raising chases and shootouts together, their slow rapprochement to becoming lovers is therefore a bit more believable. Or less preposterous than in the novel.

Suspense (lack of)

A thriller is meant to thrill. A key element in this is ongoing suspense about what’s going to happen next. The Bourne Identity suffers for the simple reason that the reader knows there are 12 or so sequels and a whole box set of movies about the guy – and the sheer fact of their existence indicates that Jason Bourne sticks around. Coming to the text with all this baggage means there is no mystery or suspense about the hero’s survival. He survives and thrives, by the look of it.

And if we know these fundamental outcomes – he survives, he will ultimately find out who he is – then the reader’s focus turns more onto the style, the page-by-page experience of reading the text. Does that grip and hold and please us?

Style

Once you stop believing in the story, you are left with the style, which is deliberately clipped, abrupt, telegraphic.

Four slaps in rapid succession, flesh against flesh, blows maniacally administered, received with muted screams of terror. Cries terminated, gasps permitted, thrashing movements part of it all. Inside the car! (2004 Orion paperback edition p.128)

Ludlum uses italics to emphasise things, particularly when a character is thinking or several characters are talking  ‘My God, what shall I do next?’ It becomes very distracting: is it meant to make the prose seem more immediate, or does it reflect a failure to make the words exciting by themselves without having to add extra shouty italics? And in case you didn’t realise that the italics are being used in urgent and exciting moments, there are lots of exclamation marks at the ends of sentences to help!

Here is Marie learning that the colleague she contacted back in Canada to help her track down some of the bad guys’ bank payments has himself been murdered:

‘They killed him. They killed him! My God, what did I doPeter.’
‘You didn’t do it! If anyone did it, I did it. Not you. Get that through your head.’
‘Jason, I’m frightened. He was half a world away… and they killed him!’ (p.198)

She’s scared, you see. You can tell by the italics. And the exclamation marks!! — The odd thing about this epidemic of italics is they often read, to me, to be in the wrong place, giving an odd emphasis to the sentences:

‘Why is it so important?’
‘It… just is.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Yes… No, I’m not sure. Don’t ask me now.’
‘If not now, when? When can I ask you? When will it pass? Or will it ever?!’
‘Stop it!’ he suddenly roared, slamming the glass down on the wooden tray. ‘I can’t run! I won’t! I’ve got to stay here! I’ve got to know!’ (p.209)

Characters like robots

Harder to demonstrate with quotes because it only emerges over lengthy sections, is the way the dialogue, the supporting text, the access to characters’ thoughts, all make them seem like robots. There is no doubt or hesitation. Bourne – none of the characters – really make mistakes or fluff things. They are relentless calculating machines, working the odds and angles, a predatory ruthless attitude which finds its fulfilment in the regular action-packed shootouts. All the accounts of actual combat I’ve read indicate how confusing and bewildering it is, involving a great deal of chaos and accident. In this text there is certainly wild firing which doesn’t hit its target, but it is always extremely clear who is where, who is good, who is bad, what are the angles. It is a fantasy of violence. A video game world with no real risk.

This mechanical, robotic, computer game element lends itself perfectly to the films which set a new standard for incredibly fast, precise, robot-like fights and shoot-outs, with Jason and his opponents converted into terminator level killing machines. As a man, it is thrilling and totally absorbing to watch these techno-fights; your body tenses and flexes as you watch, feeling yourself one of the participants.

But the ‘novel’, as developed by Defoe and Richardson and Austen as a device for the minute calibration of characters’ thoughts and feelings, for the subtle exploration of human consciousness, delicacy of feeling and sentiment, doesn’t feel the right medium for this story. To put it another way, this shallow, overblown, confusing and patronising text doesn’t feel like it belongs to the same tradition or same world at all.

The franchise

Like McDonalds or Krispey Kreme, the Bourne brand has become a franchise. The original three novels by Ludlum – known as the Bourne trilogy – have been joined by nine further Bourne books (with one in the pipeline), written by noted thriller author Eric Van Lustbader. As and when Lustbader desists there’s no reason the franchise couldn’t be taken up by another author(s) and continue forever.

It is tempting to say that Bourne franchise is as globally successful – and as tasteful and as good for you – as McDonalds and Krispy Kreme, and for the same kind of reasons: it delivers a concentrated burst of flavours/sensations/predator memes ruthlessly targeted at the most obvious taste buds/brain receptors which prompt instant and overwhelming nervous system/lower brain gratification but which, if consumed without any variety of over any length of time begin to make you really very ill, and which, even at the moment of consumption, makes you aware that what your body really wants is healthy, nutritious, more subtle, more soulful sustenance.

The movie

The three Ludlum-written Bourne novels were made into box office smash movies – The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Their success is down to the fact that they ditched a lot of the plot and paraphernalia of the novels, replacing Bourne’s rivalry with fellow international assassin Carlos, with a completely different emphasis on the idea that he is a CIA-trained superassassin and his worst enemy is actually his own people who are trying to track him down and kill him before he blows their (illegal) assassin-training operation.

The movies are so brilliant because the scripts so comprehensively dump much of the novel, keeping only the central idea of the super-assassin who’s lost his memory, because they are extremely well directed (Doug Liman the first one, Paul Greengrass for the second two), and because Matt Damon inhabits the role with total, blinding conviction. But also because the concept and sequences themselves belong in the flashy, fast-moving medium of film, not in the slower, more thoughtful world of prose.

Related links

Bahama Crisis by Desmond Bagley (1980)

I turned at a metallic noise at the door. The first man to enter had a shotgun pointed at my belly. He was dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt open almost to the waist, and had a lined grim face. He took one pace inside the room and then stepped sideways, keeping the gun on me. ‘On the bed.’ The barrel of the gun jerked fractionally. I backed away and sidled sideways like a crab to the bed. The muzzle of that gun looked like an army cannon. (p.146)

First-person action adventure yarn which Bahamian businessman Tom Mangan kicks off with a brief history of the Bahamas, situating himself as the successful scion of one of the oldest families of the islands’ white settlers, married to a beautiful wife with two lovely daughters, the owner of a couple of successful tourist hotels, planning ahead for the anticipated expansion of air tourism to the islands. Indeed, he has everything a forty-something man could desire – when tragedy strikes.

One fine day he waves his wife and one of his daughters off in the family motorboat driven by the trusty Peter which will take them 120 miles across peaceful seas to Miami on a trip to visit relatives – except the boat never arrives and three days later his daughter’s badly decomposed body is recovered 200 miles in the wrong direction.

Local police speculate it’s cocaine smugglers who have a recognised modus operandi – steal a domestic boat, repaint it, use it for one drug run from south to north America, then scuttle it. More rarely, they hijack a boat in use, as appears to have happened here. ‘Was there anyone else aboard?’ the police ask. Yes, a hand Peter had hired for the journey. ‘Did he know this hand, had he ever met him, did he see him?’ Er, no. ‘Aha. That was probably your hijacker. Sorry Mr Mangan.’

The disappearance occured as Mangan was in the middle of high-level business talks: an American acquaintance from business school, Billy Cunningham, represents the extended Cunningham clan which owns lots of interests in Texas and wants to expand into the Caribbean. After initial discussions, then due diligence by lawyers and auditors, Tom and Billy sign a deal which gives our man 10% of shares in, and makes him President of, the new Theta Corporation, which will combine his local know-how and contacts with the huge resources of the Cunninghams for investment and expansion.

During the socialising surrounding Billy’s visits Mangan meets Billy’s beautiful spoilt cousin, Debbie, 25 years old and on the rebound from a dashed love affair. —Hmm. A gorgeous young lady on the rebound, a recently bereaved wealthy businessman in need of comfort, what could possibly happen?… In the short term he suggests she throws herself into charitable work: why not bring poor black kids from the slums of Texas out to the Caribbean and teach them to swim and surf and sail? Off she goes inspired.

Meanwhile, one slender clue emerges from the boat-napping. When the boat left the quay Tom’s daughter forgot her camera which she’d been running round taking snaps on in the last minutes before departure. Debbie has the film developed and one or two pics show the face of the mystery hired hand. He’s white, a well-known Californian yacht bum named Kayles, who was in the islands in the weeks running up to the disappearance; now he’s nowhere to be found.

Tom passes what he knows on to the local police, headed by Deputy-Commissioner Perigord. But then things move on to a longer-term description of Tom’s adept handling of business. The deal is signed with the Cunningham Clan; Tom moves immediately to create a new boat hire division, starts the building of new hotels in underdeveloped islands, sets up a school devoted to training locals to become top hotel staff and so on. Debbie, along with some young teacher friends, sets up her charity to bring deprived city kids out to the islands for the holiday of a lifetime. After a year of being close to each other, Tom does the inevitable and proposes and she accepts. He has not only gone into business with Cunningham money, he’s married into it too.

Thoughts

After the stratospherically high-level politics of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Devil’s Alternative – published in the same year – with its conversations about nuclear war set in the Politburo and West Wing, with its quick cross-cuts from the Kremlin to a dockyard in Japan to the SAS training barracks in Devon – this Bagley novel feels small and personal, almost cosy. One man’s account of how he got mixed up in some nasty but essentially local crime activities, almost a police procedural about how he uncovers the conspiracy behind the immediate crime. Although, in the event, the perspective does expand a little…

More plot

Things go badly for the Bahamas tourist trade. There’s a severe outbreak of legionella disease which kills nearly fifty tourists; a vast funfair on one of the islands burns down; and there’s a sudden riot in the capital Nassau in which three locals are killed. It’s as if the islands are cursed!

By far the biggest incident for Mangan, though, is when an employee sights the boat belonging to Kayles in a distant cay. Tom flies with Sam, his leading boatman, to the nearest small airport then hires the boat of a local fisherman to putter for 6 hours to the isolated cay where the boat was seen, and discovers it’s still there. They confirm it’s manned by Kayles, jump him and tie him up. Search the boat and find charts, log of journeys all over the Caribbean, and suspicious ampoules in his first aid box, containing a yellow liquid. Aha. Liquid cocaine? Heroine?

But while they’re topside searching the deck Kayles escapes and emerges firing a gun, both Tom and Sam leap overboard. When they resurface Kayles has killed Bayliss, stolen his boat and made his getaway. When Tom and Sam finally repair Kayles’s boat and make it back to civilisation, Mangan informs Commissioner Perigord of everything that happened and the latter is understandably furious he went it alone instead of letting the police handle it.

Then a small plane flown by his best pilot and carrying four VIP Yanks goes missing presumed crashed, just after Mangan cancelled his involvement in the flight at the last moment. When he gets back from these numerous entanglements he finds his wife, Debbie, has stormed out, fed up that he spends all his time on the corporation, the hotels, the business, and these other wild goose chases and none with her, leaving a note saying she’s flown back to the family in Houston.

Part two – the American chapters

This inaugurates part two of the narrative, set largely in the States: for a few days later the angry Cunningham clan phone up to say Debbie’s never arrived and they want Tom at company HQ in Houston asap. He flies into the middle of a rancorous family and boardroom argument among the bickering clan of outsize Texan personalities which make up the Cunninghams and I was once again reminded of the TV series Dallas (started 1978 – the feuding Ewing clan) and Dynasty (1981 – the feuding Carringtons). There’s an old patriarch Cunningham, two powerful sons (including Billy One, Billy’s dad), and their grandsons (including angry Frank who hates Mangan). A significant handful of them never wanted Debbie marrying Tom in the first place, and now look what’s happened!

They reveal to a shocked Mangan that Debbie has been kidnapped – they show him the ransom note – and the ransom the kidnappers are demanding is – Mangan himself! As the clan discuss and bicker, a further demand arrives, a complicated 10-step hostage handover process complete with photos of locations and detailed notes of procedures to be followed. The clan are pondering this when Tom steps down to the foyer to buy a packet of fags and is stabbed in the thigh with an injection of some kind of paralysing poison. Out of the crowd a fake doctor appears and Tom finds himself, paralysed but conscious, being whisked away in a fake ambulance. The elaborate document delivered to the Cunninghams was a delaying tactic. They were waiting for him to expose himself. And now…

Taken hostage

Tom awakens in a primitive cell somewhere rural. The Baddy arrives preceded by ‘Leroy’, a psychopath with a shotgun. The Bad Man calls himself ‘Robinson’ with a smirk and explains that, yes, they do have Debbie. ‘Robinson’ explains he is Kayles’ employer, Kayles is a fool, he was told to get from the Bahamas to Miami quickly and, since his own boat had an engine fault, heard about the need for a spare hand on Tom’s wife’s boat journey to Miami, applied, was hired, then killed all aboard – the loyal Peter, Tom’s wife and daughter.

Mangan is sickened to hear all this so casually explained. But why is he here? Because when Sam and Tom shanghaied Kayles a few weeks later, tied him up and searched the cabin – Kayles claims he overheard Tom explaining Robinson’s whole plan to Sam. Now the Bad Man needs to know what Mangan knows: ‘Tell me what you know, Mangan; tell me what you’ve told Commissioner Perigord. Or your wife gets it.’ And he leaves Tom to think it over but our man is completely puzzled. He has no idea what Robinson’s game is. He had gone along with the cops’ theory that the boat-jacking was down to cocaine smuggling and has no recollection of explaining ‘the whole plan’ to Sam. He has no idea what ‘the whole plan’ could be.

Meanwhile, being a practical type, Tom realises the potential in the full water pitcher they’ve left him in his cell to drink and/or wash with. He perches it in the thatched roof above the doorway, suspended by a thin twig, and creates a string out an old rag leading from twig to his bed – and waits…

Some hours later there come shouts from outside as of a maddened crowd, and then screams which he recognises as his wife’s. Moments later shotgun man enters the room and stands in the obvious security spot, Tom pulls the string and leaps to one side, the thugs fires and blasts half the wall out but the big jug hits him directly overhead, cracking his skull. As the number two – not Robinson, but this is no moment to hesitate – rushes in, Tom half tackles him, ripping upwards with the sharpest fragment of the porcelain bowl they had left him and which he had shattered into shards, tearing open the baddy’s stomach.

Mangan grabs the shotgun and runs out but to his dismay encounters a large crowd, a dozen or so men who all turn towards him and the first shots are fired. Realising he can’t rescue Debbie, Tom legs it into the woods and there begins a classic manhunt with the pursuers splitting into groups and cutting him off in territory they know intimately, while he blunders on blindly, cut by trees and brambles, loses shoes in the stream and is near the end of his tether as he scrambles up higher ground, trips and collapses, the shotgun goes flying – when he feels a hard boot step onto his wrist. Cut to close-up of hero squinting up into the face of a figure standing over him, his face blotted out by the southern sun.

And, just like in the corniest movie, it is not one of the pursuers (who, it transpires, are the no-good, low-down Ainslee family), it is their ornery neighbour, Dade Perkins. We are in the deepest, most backward, South and Dade tells the exhausted Tom to hide because ‘No goddam Ainslee is comin’ onto my land, no matter what you gone and done, mister’. Long story short: Dade faces down the pursuers (along with his beautiful buxom daughter Sherry-Lou, hiding in the bushes and who fires a warning shot over the pursuing posse’s heads when they threaten to ignore Dade’s threat not to go one step further). Cussing and spitting Leroy Ainslee (the main thug) and the others slope off.

Tom gets Dade to phone Billy at Cunningham HQ. Turns out the Cunninghams have harassed the Perkins for several generations, trying to hustle them off their land to seize the hardwood, cut everything back for grazing etc. Tom promises, ‘You’ll never have any more hassle from any more Cunninghams if you help us find Debbie’. Half an hour later six helicopters, Cunningham private ones and police ones, arrive and go on to storm the Ainslee compound but all the menfolk heard them coming and have fled. Tom, Billy, the cops and a doctor find Debbie in an outhouse having been gang-raped (‘and worse’). Doctors, sedation, chopper to hospital.

More disasters

Meetings: Tom meets with the Police and Commissioner Perigord who all the way through has been telling him, in exasperation, to leave it to the police, advice Mangan cheerily ignores and ignores again as the Cunningham clan circle the wagons, despatching a bodyguard of six ex-US Treasury men to protect him and Debbie.

Debbie is finally released from hospital and there are brisk descriptions of her (swift, clean) recovery from the gang-rape ordeal. (The male narrative romps on, leaving this reader with misgivings about the whole gang rape storyline…) Back at his home island, Tom catches up on hotel business and soon discovers that Sam, who accompanied him out to Kayles’ boat, has been badly injured in a suspicious accident. Are ‘they’ pursuing anyone who came into contact with Kayles? Why? Then there’s another catastrophe when the new luggage handling system at the airport goes haywire, ripping open the baggage of an entire flight of American tourists. God why all these misfortunes, is he cursed or something?

And then Legionella breaks out in his hotel and hundreds of guests go ill, the place is quarantined, Mangan has to supervise the organisational mayhem which ensues. Extensive search eventually shows the seals on the water tanks on the roof are broken. And it is here, checking it for himself with the hotels’ water engineers and security men, that Tom stumbles over an ampoule like the one he saw in the medicine box on Kayles’s yacht.

Aha. Suddenly he sees a pattern and understands why ‘Robinson’ was interrogating him. The plan is nothing as small as smuggling cocaine; it is to undermine the entire tourist economy of the Bahamas while fomenting political unrest: ‘Robinson’ is a communist subversive. What Kayles half heard as Mangan outlining the ‘whole plot’ to Sam was simply Mangan reciting a list of the misfortunes which had occurred up to that date, with no idea that they were planned.

Threaded around these events are Mangan spotting Carasco, one of the baddies who was involved in abducting him in Houston, in the hotel itself, though in a thick disguise. Hotel security, the police and the bodyguards are alerted and tail him. Although he gets away some night photos emerge of him disembarking the dinghy of a yacht named Capistrano. Aha.

Final chase

An all points bulletin is put out for this yacht. Once located the troops move in, both official police, the US bodyguards and our hero along with his Yankee pal, Billy, complete with hand gun. There follows a powerboat chase through the maze of canals on the island, reminiscent of Live and Let Die (1973) or Puppet on a Chain (1972). It is a stock ‘exciting climax’ to a certain kind of 1970s made-for-TV level entertainment.

True to form, both boats race, overtake and sweep past each other, the splashed protagonists ducking and weaving and taking pot shots at each other – classically, these things climax in the baddy’s boat exploding in a fire ball, but here the baddy beaches on a low strand, runs towards a house being built, there’s more shoot-out while the bewildered builders look on. Finally, as the official police catch up and join Tom and Billy, the baddy makes a bid for freedom across a street and the up-till-then restrained Commissioner Perigord surprises Tom (and the reader) by throwing the swagger stick he has used up to this point as an ornamental sign of authority, at the fleeing ‘Robinson’. Turns out this decorative stick is tipped with lead and is a powerful weapon: it hits ‘Robinson’ on the head, who drops stunned in the road. However, before we can get hold of the Baddy, interrogate him and get the conspiracy clarified, a London Routemaster bus (common in the islands) swerves round the corner and runs clean over his head. Oh well.

Epilogue

In the Epilogue the Commissioner explains that US records show ‘Robinson’ to have been a Cuban revolutionary and his plan the systematic destruction of the Bahamian tourist economy in order to foment revolution among the impoverished population – hence everything from the legionella outbreaks, burning down of the pleasure attraction, small flight crashing with high profile VIPs abroad, even the sudden riot in Nassau.

Now everything will be alright, the tourism business return to normal, and the text ends with a fully restored Debbie bearing a baby. Restoration of order, natural rhythms, new life.

Thoughts

Like most plots which fuel this kind of thriller, the conspiracy which drives it is better seen in glimpses, as hints of some unstated dastardly plan. The final revelation of the conspiracy is not particularly plausible. It’s a hard moment for thriller writers. The final rationales all-too-often fail to fully justify the mayhem which they allegedly cause. (For example, the giant stakes behind the Forsyth thriller I just read – The Devil’s Alternative – namely the risk of the Russians launching an all-out nuclear war, ends up feeling ludicrous, over-wrought, even, maybe, to the author, so that the ending has a peculiarly comic or romantic feel about it.)

Bahama Crisis boils down to guys with guns chasing each other, being kidnapped and held in Dr No-style cells, or busting out and being chased through mangrove swamps, leading up to the familiar trope of a speedboat chase.

There is just enough characterisation to differentiate the various cardboard characters but the treatment of, for example, the rape and the post-rape impact on Debbie, or the impact on the protagonist of his wife’s abduction and murder, go about an inch deep. They are pretexts or nodes around which cluster plot functions and motivations, not real events. They have little or no psychological depth, and so minimal impact on the reader.

That said, this is tauter and more believable than many of Bagley’s earlier thrillers. As always he has done plenty of factual research which he includes often raw in the text but which sheds interesting light on the Bahamas history, geography and people. And a lot of information about running a tourist hotel, managing a chain of hotels, and the tourism business more generally. Not many novels are set in this milieu or this location and I found both congenial and interesting.

The comparison with Forsyth brings out some of Bagley’s other strengths: whereas Forsyth’s tone is lofty, detached, a journalist reporting on the events he’s describing, always detached enough to give you a full technical run-down of every gun being fired or a detailed explanation of just how the SAS is organised and which sub-section of the organisation the men he’s describing belong to – Bagley is inside the mind of a hot, sweaty, scared guy stumbling through the mangrove swamps pursued by psychos with guns.

Although they’re both thrillers, it feels like Forsyth belongs to the shiny, consumerist, Sunday Times Rich List 1980s which focuses on gadgets and well-run organisations, whereas Bagley belongs to an older tradition of visceral thrills and spills, an everyman thrown into exciting situations of peril and jeopardy, the Eric Ambler-Ian Fleming tradition. Which, on the whole, I think I prefer.

I thought Bagley would go off in his final works but I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a slightly dated but engaging poolside read. It may lack psychological depth but it has a nice warmth towards its characters and setting. It is not deliberately heartless and cynical as the new generation of techno-thriller writers in the 1980s were.

I’m looking forward to reading his last few novels…

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

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 Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth (1979)

While Adam Munro was changing trains at Revolution Square shortly before 11am that morning of 10th June, a convoy of a dozen sleek, black, Zil limousines was sweeping through the Borovitsky Gate in the Kremlin wall a hundred feet above his head and one thousand three hundred feet southwest of him. The Soviet Politburo was about to begin a meeting that would change history. (p.46)

Forsyth’s fourth novel, published in 1979, is long (479 pages long), very densely factual, and set in what was then the future ie June 1982. It’s far bigger than a ‘spy novel’, it’s a thriller about international affairs, a geopolitical thriller, rooted in the machinations of Cold War politics at the highest level.

Plot – part one

A catastrophic grain harvest in the USSR prompts a split in the Soviet Politburo: If they do nothing the USSR will be plunged into famine by the spring:

  • half the delegates, led by current General Secretary Maxim Rudin (a sort of ‘moderate’, in this context), want to explore lengthy negotiations at a neutral venue (turns out to be Ireland) in which the US and Canada can be persuaded to sell the USSR their surplus grain at a knock-down price in exchange for reductions in Soviet conventional and nuclear arms;
  • the other half, led by Party theoretician Yefrem Vishnayev backed by head of the Red Army, Marshal Kerensky, put forward the gob-smacking plan of invading Western Europe in the spring to seize the West’s grain and to further the glorious communist revolution – using tactical nuclear weapons if necessary, and ready to reply to any American long-range strikes, ie are prepared to start World War Three.

When put to the vote, six delegates opt for peace, six for war; the deciding vote is cast by Rudin for negotiation, but Rudin is a sick man and knows the opposition will use any pretext they can seize to force a vote of no confidence, overthrow him and proceed with the war plan.

Such an opportunity comes along when the head of the KGB is assassinated while visiting his mother in Kiev by a group of Ukrainian nationalists well-organised by their (improbably) English emigre leader, Andrew Drake (Andriy Drak). These nationalists want to strike a devastating blow at the ‘tyrant Russia’ which has invaded their country and destroyed their culture. The hit is carried out with the kind of technical and organisational precision we expect of all Forsyth characters: the best long-range rifle, night-sight from Britain, and so on. The conspirators knock the KGB boss’s mother over as she crosses the road, but are careful not to be fatal. They know the hospital she’ll be taken to; they know the security back entrance to it; they are waiting for the KGB boss to arrive to visit his stricken mum. One shot is all it takes to plunge the Politburo into seething chaos as the various factions jockey for power and the security organisation moves to hush up this catastrophe…

The conspirators’ next step is to smuggle the two assassins (who happen to be Ukrainian Jews) out of the country, ideally to Israel, where they can reveal at a press conference that the KGB is leaderless and rudderless. This, they hope, will prompt their people – largely kept in thrall by fear of the Russians’ security organisation – to rise up and throw off their oppressors, an uprising against communist tyranny.

The conspirators are blithely unaware that a famine of massive proportions is heading towards the whole USSR unless the negotiations in Ireland work out ie that this unprecedented famine will foment widespread unrest and massively help their cause – but the Kremlin knows and institutes both a massive manhunt for the killers and a ferocious clampdown on any witnesses to the assassination: the dead man’s driver, security guards, the doctors that treated him, the undertaker etc are all swept off to prison camps, while the official story put about is that comrade Ivanenko has suffered a heart attack.

The two assassins make their bid to escape by hijacking a domestic Soviet passenger flight and insisting it fly to West Berlin. When the pilot tries to trick them by landing at the East Berlin airport some kind of accident happens – maybe the wheels touching down bumpily or the terrorist with the gun at the pilot’s head panicking – the gun goes off, the pilot is shot dead. The terrified co-pilot flies them on to an airstrip in West Berlin where they are both promptly arrested, charged and set for trial.

When the Ukrainian terrorists learn this, the leader of the group back in England formulates a bold and dramatic rescue plan, which will both liberate his comrades and achieve massive publicity for their cause. He and the original cell members recruit more Ukrainian nationalists for the dramatic gesture which will form the second part of the novel.

Plot – part two

A reformed group of seven Ukrainian nationalists led by Drake hijack the largest supertanker in the world, the Freya, as it approaches the Hook of Holland carrying the largest cargo of crude oil ever carried by one vessel – 1 million tonnes.

It is only at this point that the reader realises why the many threads and storylines covering the previous six months or so (and many of which I haven’t mentioned) had included one about the commissioning, construction, launch and maiden voyage of this behemoth, as well as a biography of its craggy Norwegian captain, Thor Larson.

The nationalists demand the two hijackers are released from West German prison and flown to Israel within two days: otherwise they will blow up the Freya, killing its crew of 30 and causing the biggest environmental catastrophe of modern times, destroying marine life in the North Sea and polluting the beaches of France, Britain, Holland, Germany for years.

Until this point the narrative had covered days, weeks and months as the various storylines (agricultural reports, Politburo power struggle, US President and advisers, UK embassy staff in Moscow, construction of Freya, career of Larson) had slowly unfolded. With the hijacking, about half way through the text, it changes tempo and the chapters gain a timeline measured in hours (‘1500 to 2100’) as the pace quickens to fever pitch.

A number of world leaders now face a complex of interlocking dilemmas, each of which Forsyth explores in his straight-talking no-nonsense style, supremely confident of putting words into the mouths of the members of the Politburo, the US President and his advisers, the British Prime Minister, West German Chancellor and Israeli Premier and so on.

It boils down to:

  • The North Sea nations put pressure on West Germany to release the terrorists, the German Chancellor having to balance giving in to terrorism against the ecological and political results of the oil explosion
  • The Israelis also have to balance acceding to terrorism with the complication that the two Ukrainians happen to be Russian Jews, a powerful constituency within Israel who will applaud their release
  • It falls to the British to follow the European line but to make independent plans which involve the SAS and its seaborne wing the Special Boat Service: we are introduced to them, their leader and all their equipment, as they make an elaborate plan to storm the Freya and kill the terrorists, liaising with the Americans
  • Meanwhile, as the siege progresses, the nearest US warship ordered to take a station near the Freya (but outside the 5 mile zone the terrorists have stipulated) has orders to blow the Freya, its crew and cargo out of the water, when signalled by the President

Having created the situation or dilemma, Forsyth explores the logical possibilities for all the main players with the thoroughness of a chess instructor or an academic paper on international affairs.

The Devil’s Alternative

But all calculations are thrown into turmoil when the Russians suddenly and unexpectedly announce they will cancel the arms treaty if the West releases the two terrorists. Now there is a real stand-off:

  • Release the terrorists and the treaty will fail, raising the prospect of the overthrow of the Soviet leader Rudin, by the hawkish Politburo faction and the very real threat of another European war;
  • don’t release them and the terrorists will blow up the Freya, killing its captain and crew, destroying nearly a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of boat and oil, creating the largest environmental disaster of the century. (It is to avert this last scenario that the President has ordered his own ships – as a last resort – to blow the Freya up, since phosphorus shells will ignite the crude oil which will mostly burn off in a fiery inferno, leaving a lot less residue to be cleared up than the raw crude.)

This is the Devil’s Alternative of the title which confronts, more than anyone else, the US President. What should he do?

The Nightingale

And it is here that the ‘Nightingale’ thread of this amazingly multi-faceted text assumes a central role. Much earlier we had learned that the head of British Security in Moscow, Harold Lessing, had gone off sick with suspected gastric ulcers. At short notice, a slightly maverick replacement, Adam Munro, is selected on the basis of his flawless Russian during what is bound to be a tricky period of negotiations.

Munro’s secret is that fifteen years earlier he was in love with a beautiful Russian woman, Valentina, who spied for him in Berlin but wouldn’t desert her family and walked through the early stages of the Berlin Wall away from him, never to return, leaving him devastated.

Not long into the new role in Moscow Munro is astonished to be contacted by her and told she now has a highly sensitive role in the secretariat of the Politburo itself! And she has notes from the most recent meeting which she proceeds to show him, the one where Kerensky made his suggestion that Russia kick off World War Three. Aware that this is one of the biggest security coups of all time, Munro immediately makes her his agent, under the codename Nightingale, and forwards her reports back to England where Forsyth conveys, with characteristic attention to organisational structure, protocol and detail, how the information is processed and then fed up the pecking order to the Prime Minister.

This back channel into the reality of Politburo infighting provides a vital source of information for US President Matthews and British (woman) Prime Minister Carpenter.

And it is here, in the vital final stages of the plot, when Rudin springs his surprise that he will walk away from the arms for grain negotiations if the hijackers are released, that Nightingale becomes vital. Matthews asks the Prime Minister who asks the head of SIS who passes on the request to Munro to ask Nightingale to risk everything to lay hold of the notes of the most recent Politburo meetings to find out what the devil the Russians are up to.

Despite being sickened at the risk this exposes her to, Munro asks her and, because of the personal bond between them, she copies and gives him the vital notes. These minutes of the most recent Politburo meeting reveal that the War Party blames Rudin for the KGB head’s assassination and that, if the terrorists are released and are allowed to make their public declaration that they assassinated the head of the KGB – that the world-famous security force is in fact vulnerable – and if this prompts rebellions (aided by the widespread food shortages) all this will lead to the overthrow of Rudin and triumph of the War Party.

And it is this this secret information gained by this backdoor channel which explains to the West the real motivation behind the USSR’s sudden threat to abandon the talks and which gives President Matthews the confidence to go ahead with a complicated and immoral solution to the dilemma. This is a plan hatched and carried out by the same Adam Munro, the man who knows his final request to his beloved Valentina has almost certainly consigned her to her doom in the gulag, and who therefore pursues his high-risk plan in the final chapters of the book fuelled by anger and bitterness.

Cliffhanger

So, does the West give in and release the terrorists? Do the terrorists make the announcement which threatens to spark uprisings in the Soviet Union and overthrow the ‘moderate’ Rudin? Or does the West stand firm against ‘terrorist blackmail’ and risk the detonation of the Freya and an environmental apocalypse, in the better cause of keeping the arms for grain talks on track? Or does Munro’s cunning and complicated plan manage to square the circle and reconcile both the devil’s alternatives?


Walls of facts

In the early 1960s record producer Phil Spector invented the ‘wall of sound’ in which every element of a pop record was doubled or trebled, which chucked in lots of additional percussion, and used echo chambers to fill out the dynamic range of the instruments to create a ‘wall’ of sound with no gaps or chinks – a solid sonic block.

Forsyth does something similar with the factual research for his novels. No name, no body, no institution, no place goes unsupported by a paragraph of factual information. Before we get to the characters in the Kremlin we are given a tourist’s guide to the precise layout of all the buildings in it. Before we meet the British Prime Minister we are treated to a couple of paragraphs describing the exact layout of buildings in Downing Street. Before anyone shoots anyone else we get paragraphs explaining the exact provenance, origin, design and full technical specification of all the guns, bullets, silencers and sights involved. Before the US President meets his security advisers we get several (very interesting) pages explaining the exact relationship between the various (competing and bickering) US security services. And so thoroughly on.

Forsyth’s background is as a high-end journalist working for The Times and Reuters and boy it shows. For stretches the text reads more like one of the Sunday Times Insight team specials, the kind of highly technical, detailed pullout they did about the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy or any aspect of terrorism or counter-terrorism for the past 50 years or so. A very male focus on precision of timing, complexity of organisation, on hard-eyed special forces trained to kill, suave diplomats capable of the subtlest manipulations, hierarchies of steel-eyed men all displaying incomparable competence and professionalism.

Nobody makes a mistake in a Forsyth novel. Nobody is human or fallible. They are like terminators all starting from different positions on the board, programmed with certain aims, and then let loose into the shiny, steel and chrome tracks of the narrative.

Character

Brilliant at organisation structure, complex fast-moving dilemmas described with documentary realism and the hard burnish of the latest military hardware, Forsyth is rubbish at human character. The characters aren’t really characters in the traditional sense, they are ciphers in the schema, functions in complex programs. Forsyth’s novels show an astonishing, a peerless grasp of documentary fact concerning international corporations, governments, espionage and security departments, armies and their technologies. He puts a vast cast of characters through an asonishing maze of logical permutations and possibilities. The text is less like a novel than a complex flowchart, populated less by characters than by animated organograms.

Predator World

At a deeper level Forsyth’s novels have an evolutionary biology element. All carnivores have large complex brains to help them outwit slow-moving herbivores. After all, the brain evolved to help mammals survive in a shifting matrix of predators and prey, including – in the apes and other large mammal communities – rivals within the same group, rival lions or chimps, rival humans. A key function of the brain, a key driver in its evolution, has been to help us assess and outwit other animals, and other rivals within the same cohort.

It seems to me that Forsyth’s novels are designed to pique and pleasure that part of our primitive mind; the revelation of complexities within complexity, the deceptive power arrangements of human societies, organisations, nations, political parties, leadership groups. Seems to me that the webs of machiavellian scheming and counter-scheming described in this novel please a particular type of (probably male) reader, and a particular part of that reader’s brain, in a very deep way.

But the other, more traditional pleasures of the novel – in depth characterisation; development of character through moral events pondered on and analysed; imaginative use of language – are completely, deliberately and clinically absent.


Related links

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil's Alternative

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil’s Alternative

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

He told himself that he was a free man, that he had no duties any longer and no obligations, but he had never felt such an extreme solitude as he felt now. (p.215)

Greene was 74 the year this novel was published. The pace of the book is slow and steady and unhurried, the opposite of, say, the helter-skelter of violent incidents in a thriller like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, published the same year. And the prose of this, Greene’s later period or style, is similarly cool and clear and unhurried, lucidly unfolding descriptions, events, thoughts, dialogue, in a measured, stately pace. You can open it at almost any page and immediately start enjoying the clear, declarative sentences, arranged in a logically advancing order in beautifully weighted and judged paragraphs.

Sample quote

Colonel Daintry had a two-roomed flat in St James’s Street which he had found through the agency of another member of the firm. During the war it had been used by MI6 as a rendezvous for interviewing possible recruits. There were only three apartments in the building, which was looked after by an old housekeeper, who lived in a room somewhere out of sight under the roof. Daintry was on the first floor above a restaurant (the noise of hilarity kept him awake until the small hours when the last taxi ground away). Over his head were a retired businessman who had once been connected with the rival wartime service SOE, and a retired general who had fought in the Western Desert. The general was too old now to be seen often on the stairs, but the businessman, who suffered from gout, used to get as far as the Carlton Club across the road. Daintry was no cook and he usually economised for one meal by buying cold chipolatas at Fortnum’s. He had never liked clubs; if he felt hungry, a rare event, there was Overton’s just below. His bedroom and his bathroom looked out on a tiny court containing a sundial and a silversmith. Few people who walked down St James’s Street knew of the court’s existence. It was a very discreet flat and not unsuitable for a lonely man. (pp.84-85 of the Penguin paperback edition)

Textual analysis

This, the opening paragraph of Part Three, Chapter 1, Section 2, is packed with information:

  • There is no physical description of Dainty. His physical appearance is of little or no concern.
  • Instead noscitur a socio – one is known by the company one keeps – and Daintry is firmly situated in a web of relationships which place him very solidly in the security wing of the military establishment. His flat was previously used by MI6; was passed on by a fellow security officer; his neighbours are an ex-SOE officer and ex-Army officer.
  • Geographically, he is located in the heart of London’s Establishment clubland, in St James’s Street, opposite the Carlton Club If you consult a map you’ll see this is just behind The Ritz, on the way down to St James’s Palace, and just round the corner from the Reform Club and the Travellers Club, which both feature in the novel.
  • An upper-class mindset which extends to his shopping habits: not Sainsbury’s, not Waitrose – Fortnum’s.
  • The one glimpse of what you might call real life – the noisy restaurant downstairs – is mostly there to emphasise his solitary, unclubbable nature, and to highlight the contrast with the sad final words of the paragraph – ‘a lonely man’.
  • But in among this litany of loneliness is a sliver of winter sunlight: the view from the bedroom onto the (inevitably small, this is central London) court which contains ‘a sundial and a silversmith’. This is an unusual splash of (admittedly wintry) alliteration from so cold and uncolourful a writer as Greene. And it has a subtle symbolism: the sundial evoking the inflexible passage of time and, by implication, the withered, near-retirement mentality of the unhappy Colonel, and somehow the second-rate, silver nature of his existence. (Elsewhere Greene describes the gold-rimmed glasses of his main South African interrogator and the gold ring the second, thuggish, interrogator has on his punching hand – from which he extrapolates that South Africa itself is a virile, sun-filled, golden country. But not cold, cramped England. The best we can hope for a thin parings of silver…)
  • Because the whole passage feels very English and Londony and cramped and confined and claustrophobic:
    • In terms of Daintry the man, we are told of his appallingly limited diet: he is rarely hungry and then only buys cold chipolatas, symbolising the notorious absence of gastronomic savoir faire in the public school-educated British upper classes so satirised by the French and Italians. (In other scenes there are a number of discussions about food, especially Lady Hargreaves’ famous steak and kidney pudding; the characters spend half a page contrasting steak and kidney pudding with steak and kidney pie.)
    • And the flat itself is such a cramped, inconvenient space: the noise of the restaurant below keeps him awake, the view is into a tiny court. Can you imagine an American security officer putting up with these Dickensian conditions for a minute?
  • Finally, if we reread the paragraph we can admire the logic and clarity with which the information unfolds, is set down in an orderly manner almost like an intelligence report except that, unlike a report, it has dots of imagery which convey the information in a different sort of way: the cold chipolatas sum up a lifetime of bad food; the noisy restaurant symbolises everything Daintry excludes himself from; the tiny courtyard offers a bleak, superficially impressive, but ultimately empty recompense for the life of secrets and evasions which Daintry has chosen, and which – we later learn – has resulted in his divorce and all-but-estrangement from his only child, a grown-up daughter.

There are similar amounts of precise information and imaginative wealth on almost every page of the novel, which is why I think it is so good.

The plot

Maurice Castle is an anxious, middle-aged man, living in a suburban house in Berkhampsted, commuting every day to his office in St James’s, bantering with his younger colleague Davis, wryly amused by the latter’s frustrated lust for their uninterested secretary, Cynthia. What makes him different is he works for MI6, in a department known as 6, his section is 6A, and he and Davis receive encrypted messages from a network of agents in southern Africa. Slowly, in his stately late-period prose, Greene paints a very realistic portrait of the little office with its daily frustrations, lunch at the pub, drinks after work at one of the London clubs.

Castle is called in to meet ‘C’, the head of the organisation, who we also see at his large country house, entertaining various other officers on ‘the firm’ on a pheasant shoot: Watson, Castle’s section chief, Percival, the sinister ‘doctor’ and senior adviser, and Daintry, who’s been called in to do a security review of Castle’s section. Because there is a leak. Some of the information about situations in south African nations is getting to the other side. We witness conversations between Daintry and C and between C and Percival where they speculate who the leak is; on the flimsy basis that Daintry caught Davis taking an office file in his briefcase out to read over lunch, and that Davis told Castle a white lie – that he was going to the dentist when he was in fact taking Cynthia on a lunch date – the finger of suspicion, in a very amateurish way, points towards Davis. Castle contributes his pennyworth by describing to C the way Davis is restless, unhappy and wants a foreign posting. Aha. Chap wants an easy escape once we rumble him, eh?

Indeed, the whole story is set in the world of ‘chaps’. They all went to public school, then knew each other or of each other, at Oxford or Cambridge, before going on to eminent careers in the law, medicine, in the Army, in government, in Whitehall – running the country. Daintry, a little outside these circles, provides an uneasy contrast when he attends the shooting weekend at C’s, finding it hard to read the code and manners of the English upper classes. The (completely innocent) suspect, Davis, is outside the magic circle altogether, having gone to a grammar school and Reading university, the poor fellow, part of the reason it’s so easy to dispense with him…

While this is going on, Castle reflects anxiously on his past, on his time as an MI6 agent in South Africa, how falling in love with a black woman broke SA’s race laws, resulting in him being called in for interrogation by South Africa’s police, and the oblique threats made by the intimidating BOSS interrogator against, not him, but his lover, Sarah. Released from questioning, Castle used his contacts in the anti-apartheid underground to spirit him and Sarah across the border to Mozambique, and on to England, where he married Sarah and, when she had her baby (by another, black, lover) was happy to adopt the boy – Sam – as his own son. She is the (colourful, foreign) love of  his life.

Now, in a grand irony, the very same BOSS officer who interrogated him seven years ago, has flown to England to be liaison between BOSS and MI6 on a new project, Operation Uncle Remus. It is explained to Castle (and the reader) that a capitalist South Africa is vital to Western interests, as the free world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and uranium. Threatened by Soviet-backed communist guerrilla forces in Namibia and Mozambique, Operation Uncle Remus plans to bring together intelligence from SA, the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies, to guarantee SA’s government. At its heart is the plan to develop tactical battlefield nuclear weapons which would be deployed against any communist forces invading from those countries… with obviously devastating consequences not only for the force targeted but all the nearby civilians.

Half way through the slow unfurling of this story, with its multiple characters, settings, strands and dynamics, two major events take place.

  1. We had previously witnessed the sinister Dr Percival discussing in a speculative way with Hargreaves and Daintry the various ways to poison or kill a man so as to leave no trace. To this reader’s surprise, he goes ahead and poisons Davis (one of their own operatives) with a natural fungal toxin, designed to build up, make someone ill and slowly die over a period of time with symptoms identical to liver failure. In fact, Davis dies unexpectedly quickly, within 24 hours. C flies back from Washington for the funeral, knows Percival murdered one of their own men, but is merely irritated. Colonel Daintry remembers the creepy conversations he’d had with Dr Percival and strongly suspects Percival murdered a man on little or no evidence and silently disapproves. Castle keeps his suspicions about Davis’s death to himself. But they all accept this murder of one of their own men which I find completely extraordinary.
  2. Not least because, in the major revelation of the book, we learn that Davis was completely innocent because it is the protagonist of the novel – Castle himself – who is the spy leaking information. Having been merely a harassed middle-aged office worked in part one, in the second half of the novel – once his secret is revealed – we delved deeper into the psychological motivation and and experience of being a double agent, a traitor. We witness Castle going to a safe house to meet his control, a Russian named Boris, and Greene fascinatingly explores the psychological dependency of the agent on his master. For Boris is the only person in the world who knows the complete truth about Castle and to whom he can be completely honest. Not to his wife, not to anyone else can he pour out his burdened soul. Their conversations are like therapy or (of course, this being Greene) like the Catholic confessional, from which he emerges purged and lighter in heart. In these scenes it is revealed that Castle’s treachery is not ideological – he liked some communists he met in SA but is not himself a believer – but due to simple gratitude: it was a communist, Carson, who was instrumental in smuggling Sarah to freedom when she was in danger of being arrested by BOSS. Castle owes him/the Party her life and all his subsequent happiness. His betrayal is based on love. Aha… It is the same psychodrama as fuels so many other Greene novels where it is the ‘finer feelings’ which lead us into squalid betrayals (cf Scobie’s pity for Helen Rolt which leads him into a love affair with her and then to break various police rules in order to help her, in The Heart of The Matter).

Greeneland

1. Apothegms This is a very familiar Greene trope, one of his favourite paradoxes – love is more dangerous than hate – up there alongside ‘pity is more fatal than anger’ and ‘betrayal is the greatest form of fidelity’, and so on. There are typically grand-sounding Greene apothegms scattered through this text:

‘We are grateful to you, Maurice, but gratitude like love needs to be renewed daily or it’s liable to die away.’ (p.260)

I guess many of his devotees like these wise sayings and ‘profound insights into human nature’ which are always inserted at the appropriate moment in the appropriate place – but I don’t. They come too easy, they are too glib for my taste and, on examination, most of them turn out to be empty rhetoric – but in this novel there are not too many of them. There is more of the slow steady encrustation-of-detail type writing that I quoted above, writing which embodies its meaning via literary techniques – assonance, imagery, rhythm – rather than proclaims it in sound bites like t-shirt slogans.

2. Downbeat And, skimming back through the novel now, I realise a lot of the sections end on a miserable downbeat: Castle thinks that Davis, in death, is finally ‘free’; Sarah wonders if Castle will ever be ‘free’ to tell her the complete truth; Castle dreams of drifting down an African river to a mythical place called Peace of Mind; Castle’s secret sorrow is that he failed to protect his first wife, killed by a buzz bomb during the Blitz; steady drip-drip of images of misery…

He took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them carefully. It was as though he were removing the fingerprints of his despair. (p.211)

It sometimes seems as if books like this are written to make their middle-aged, menopausal, miserable male readers feel less wretchedly alone. Feminists of my generation talk glibly about how the world is run by men, by the worldwide Patriarchy who own, run and control everything. Why, then, are the older male characters in the novels of Greene, Le Carré, Len Deighton or the contemporaneous ‘comedies’ of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, so bloody miserable?

[Daintry] felt guilty of failure – a man in late middle age near to retirement – retirement from what? He would exchange one loneliness for another. (p.169)

[Halliday said] ‘It’s been a lonely life, I have to admit that.’ (p.219)

But what makes this one of Greene’s best novels – for me – is that he doesn’t belabour these points: there aren’t entire sections lecturing the reader about love and hate and betrayal and guilt and all the rest of Greene’s miserabilist worldview. The tangle of motivations are embodied in the story which, because of its slow, convincing accumulation of the details of the lived life of its numerous interlocking characters, are more emotionally and imaginatively powerful than the blunt lectures and fancy aphorisms which disfigure so many earlier Greene novels.

More plot

After Davis’s death, Castle writes his Russian control a letter saying he daren’t send any more information. If they now adopt radio silence it will persuade his firm that the innocent Davis was the leak and guarantee his – Castle’s – safety. However… He then has the interview with Muller, the man from South African security, who tells him about Operation Uncle Remus, including the possible use of atomic weapons which would, of course, slaughter large numbers of black civilians as well as any invading forces, were they to be deployed… And so, in a typical Greeneism, it is pity and concern which betray Castle into betraying himself, which prompt him to make one last communication with a control who might, for all he knows, have left the country, with a word-for-word copy of Muller’s notes which the BOSS man left for him at their meeting. Except that the BOSS man’s report was a trap, deliberately filled with standout phrases different from all other versions; if this one is leaked, the case against Castle will be conclusive.

And now Castle gives way to paranoia and the final 80 pages or so of the novel successfully convey his increasingly sickening feeling that his superiors are onto him. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother’s house, telling her to tell some cock-and-bull story that they’ve had a big row – but in fact because he wants to face whatever happens next alone. After waiting a tense day in the empty house he is visited by Daintry, himself a disillusioned loner, who chats about Davis’s death and his marital problems. Castle unwisely assures him Davis was innocent. Of course, he could only be sure of this if he knew someone else was guilty, and only be 100% certain of it if the guilty man was himself. Daintry drives off, stops at a pub and phones in a report to Percival and C, saying he strongly suspects Castle is the leak. Muller has already driven out to Sir Hargreaves’ country pile to tell him the same thing, based on his meeting with Castle. Ports and airports are alerted with copies of Castle’s photo. The net is closing in.

Then, as he sits sweating and panicking in his house, one of Castle’s contacts unexpectedly knocks on the door – not at all the man he was expecting  – an English communist party member of long standing, who drives him to a hotel near Heathrow while they debate the rights and wrongs of Soviet communism a bit half-heartedly. Here Castle is to wait for the next link in the escape chain but, most unfortunately, bumps into an acquaintance from America who insists on making a date for a drink at the bar. Once safe in his hotel room Castle has barely settled before another stranger knocks, identifies himself as the next link in the escape route, trims Castle’s hair and eyebrows, applies a thin fake moustache and gives him a white cane and fake passport. Castle is to pretend to be blind and catch the next bus to the airport and the next flight to Paris. In the lobby the American he met earlier runs up to castle as he walks by, recognising Castle’s outline – but then thrown by the strange face and white stick… He stands staring as Castle enters the bus…Will he call the authorities…?

The narrative switches to Sarah’s point of view as she arrives and stays with Castle’s unfriendly mother, and the unfriendly days pass and Sam doesn’t like his new school and Sarah has no-one to talk to and the reader is wondering whether the Yank tipped off the authorities and Castle is being held and interrogated.

None of Greene’s novels really strike me as thrillers because a thriller must grip and thrill with the excitement of fast-moving action. I’m not sure any of Greene’s novels do that; what he excels at is creating an atmosphere of dreadful anxiety and unease, with a growing feeling of suicidal despair.

The reader’s anxiety is laid to rest when the narrative switches back to Castle in Moscow. He has escaped. He is safe. We see him being introduced to his ‘luxury’ flat by a grumpy KGB officer (jealous because it has furniture), and to other exile English spies, a uniformly sad bunch. But all Castle wants is for Sarah and Sam to be brought out to him, to be reunited with his only love.

But history never repeats itself; there is no Carson to arrange her escape as in South Africa. And Greene twists the knife deep into the heart because Sam, the beloved son who he unquestioningly adopted and raised as his own, turns out to be the stumbling block. Sam is too young to have been put on Sarah’s passport. She could be smuggled out somehow, but neither officially nor unofficially would she make it with a young boy in tow, too obvious.

And so the novel ends with a heart-breaking phone call when, after weeks of frustration, Castle finally gets through to his mother’s number, Sarah answers the phone and they have a page declaring their love for each other and stuttering over how and when they will ever see each other again. Then, receiver still in hand, she realises the line to Moscow has been cut. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the strong implication is that they will never be reunited. All his secret work and betrayal was motivated by the one desire to keep them together and it has, instead, forever torn them apart. I, for one, had tears streaming down my face.

Related links

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

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.

SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978)

A gripping, thrilling and powerful alternative history, depicting what happens to Britain when it is defeated by the Nazis – making a sort of trilogy with Kingsley Amis’s Russian Hide-And-Seek (1980) and Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992).

SS-GB

In this alternative universe, Hitler successfully carried out Operation Sealion, a sea-borne invasion of England, their unstoppable Army fighting its way up from Portsmouth, from points along the South Coast, up through Kent and Surrey into London and through to Essex, where last ditch defending allowed some of the forces to make an escape by sea. By February 1941 it is all over and Britain has capitulated: Churchill has been executed, King George VI is in the Tower, a puppet government has been installed and various elements of the government machine have been taken over by the relevant Nazi departments, the Wehrmacht, the SD, the SS, the Gestapo.

Now it is a cold foggy September and Deighton paints a persuasive picture of a run-down, rationed, dirty and dingy country, covered in unrepaired ruins, reminders of the devastating battle which the English, eventually, lost.

Archer of the Yard

Against this setting Inspector Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard (now answerable to the cunning affable Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman of the SS) is assigned a new murder case, a young man shot dead in an antiques shop in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair. He has made the preliminary steps when he’s surprised to learn that an abrupt, no-nonsense SS officer, Standartenführer Huth, arrives from Berlin with orders from the great Himmler himself to personally supervise the investigation. Huth and Kellerman are quickly revealed as enemies at daggers drawn as Archer finds himself drawn into a high-level, fast-moving, cunningly plotted and conceived battle of wits.

The plot has all the twists and turns of Deighton’s classic early Harry Palmer novels, now told in a much clearer, no-nonsense prose. Key developments include:

  • Archer realising there are various fishy aspects to the Shepherd Market murder. He discovers the antique dealer was not Peter Thomas, as claimed by neighbours and his card, but some kind of scientist, probably named Spode, and that the place is a rendezvous for the British Resistance.
  • At a classy party of arriviste spivs and salesmen, Archer meets four senior members of the Resistance and learns their plan is to release the King from the Tower of London and smuggle him somewhere where he can validate the Free Government represented by General Connolly (a General de Gaulle figure) who is struggling to gain recognition in Washington. Big stakes. Enormous stakes.
  • At this swanky party he also meets (for the second time) American war correspondent Barbara Barga, ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ who, in a James Bondish scene, he dances with and she immediately wants to go to bed with him; which they do, later that night, at her flat. From that point on they are an item in a very dangerous town, full of factions all plotting against each other. In fact, despite falling love with her Archer finds himself asking, Whose side is she on? The Resistance, it seems, at some points; or is she an agent for the American government…?
  • Soon afterwards Archer finds weird astrological diagrams in Huth’s papers which he is then explicitly told refer to experiments with radiation and an atomic bomb. The British had been conducting research into such a bomb but SS Reichsführer Himmler will only take the idea seriously if it is wrapped up in the black magic, astrological voodoo which he is partial to. As the tortuous plot proceeds Archer learns of the intimate link between the atomic secrets and the King’s release: Resistance leader (and pillar of posh society) Colonel Mayhew is promising the Wehrmacht the former, if they can arrange the latter…
  • Late one night Huth takes Archer on a madcap motorbike-&-sidecar ride to his ruined house in Cheam, where the fighting on the approach to London was fiercest and where nearly everything was destroyed. Here Huth shows him, tied to the wrecked double bed in his former bedroom, the tortured carcass of the young detective Archer had tasked with finding out more about the Spode brothers and a certain Professor Frick. This is to show Archer that the Resistance means business, and that they are after Archer himself for being a collaborationist.
  • This is confirmed later that day when someone follows Archer through the foggy streets of London – at first he thinks it’s a shadow set by Huth – but who then tries to assassinate him by stabbing him on the escalator of the Piccadilly Circus tube, the longest on the system. In a grim struggle among screaming commuters, Archer is cut with the knife before kicking and punching the assassin who tumbles the full length of the escalator crushing his skull.

That takes us to about half way through this elaborate and action-packed novel. There are many more twists and turns before its bitter and disillusioned climax.

Backdrops

Many thrillers feature a backdrop of events which build to a symbolic climax. Here, not dominating but trucking along in the background, is the preparations being made across London for a week-long pageant celebrating Nazi-Soviet Friendship, a major highlight of which is the digging up of Karl Marx’s coffin from his grave in Highgate Cemetery. Dignitaries fly in from both dictatorships, von Ribbentrop for the Nazis, Molotov representing the Soviets. With a certain inevitability the carefully stage managed event turns into a slaughterhouse when a massive bomb explodes, killing many of the dignitaries and sparking a massive crackdown by the Army, in which Archer’s deputy and former girlfriend are seized, and which significantly ratchets up the tension and the stakes everyone is playing for.

Nazi bureaucracy

Part of what makes the book feel so authentic is Deighton’s fluent display of his immense knowledge of German wartime organisation under the Nazis. Deighton had already displayed an awesome grasp of technical and administrative expertise in his 1970 documentary novel, Bomber. SS-GB comes between his historical factual books, Fighter (about the Battle of Britain) and Blitzkrieg (about the rise of Hitler up till Dunkirk). The breadth and depth of Deighton’s factual research shines from every page and underpins a novel which is, ultimately, about the labyrinthine and convoluted relations between the various warring factions with the Nazi state.

Thus Archer confirms to his Resistance contacts that the SS man Huth might actually want the King to be spirited out of the Tower as it, and he, are guarded by the Wehrmacht who would be plunged into such ignominy that his arch-enemy Kellerman would probably have to resign and the SS would step in to run things previously administered by the Army. Certainly, Huth has made clear that every detail of the investigation must be kept absolutely confidential and known only to himself and Himmler (!). But this doesn’t stop Archer reporting back key developments to Kellerman, keeping all his options open in case Huth somehow fails and falls. And all the time he is trying to puzzle out the true motives of the enigmatic Colonel Mayhew of the Resistance who seems to be playing all the sides off against each other…

Harry Palmer

In his astute manipulation of conflicting superiors, as well as his ongoing puzzlement about what’s really going on, as also in his dry wit and his shrewd assessment of men and situations – even when he repeatedly discovers he’s got it wrong – Archer reminds me very much of the unnamed narrator (‘Harry Palmer’ for movie purposes) of The Ipcress File. He’s cool company to keep. This is a great book.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises that Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The unnamed narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved in the Battle of Britain.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the River Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies i.e. nine Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives, and a German businessman. All this is designed to make Bernard defect East and was probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (i.e. very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Wilt Alternative by Tom Sharpe (1979)

The Wilt Alternative is the sequel to Wilt (1976), possibly Sharpe’s best-known novel. It starts in the same comic-fantastical mode as its predecessor, with absurd events trying Wilt’s threadbare patience:

  • drunk on the way back from the pub, Henry Wilt has a pee in a rosebush but badly scratches his member, is then caught by his wife dipping it into her tooth mug which he’s filled with antiseptic, prompting a hissy fit from her, then is forced to go to hospital where he refuses to let various nurses or consultants touch it, and so on.
  • meanwhile one of the ‘radical’ tutors at the technical college where Wilt is head of department, has made a ‘revolutionary’ film featuring one of the students simulating sex with (what turns out to be a model) crocodile, thus involving Wilt in embarrassing or confrontational scenes with the other staff members and the college Principal.
  • his wife, Eva, with whom he’d been largely reconciled at the end of Wilt, is irritating him again with her enthusiasm for the Alternative Society – what we call environmentalism – eg composting household waste, recycling poo, drinking home-made wines and beers and – the latest enthusiasm – solar powered panels on the roof.

But at page 90 the novel turns into something drastically different.

For the Wilts have gone up in the world and, to suit their higher status, purchased a larger house, not least to be home to the four quadruplets Eva conceived and bore after going on fertility treatment between the last novel and this. And since there’s a spare room in the attic they let it out to a nice German au pair. Except that, as Wilt discovers when he takes her cash payment to the bank, the ‘au pair’, real name Gudrun Schautz, is one of the most wanted terrorists in Europe.

As Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist forces and Army descend on his quiet suburban street, a shocked and stunned Wilt is persuaded to venture back into the house to quietly extract Mrs W and the quads. Unsurprisingly, things go disastrously wrong. His wife and children aren’t even in the house but Wilt determines to press on and confront this young woman who’s caused so much trouble, going upstairs to find her in the attic bathroom having a bath and, taking the opportunity to have a root around in her luggage, discovers various machine guns and grenades. It’s all horribly true!

At that fateful moment the children do return to the house through the garden door in the care of a kindly old neighbour, Mrs de Frackas, just as two of Gudrun’s ‘boyfriends’ – terrorist accomplices – come in the front, and Wilt, in his amateur zeal, stumbles out of the cramped attic storage space and trips over, oops, accidentally firing the machine gun through the roof.

All hell breaks loose. The assembled security forces in the garden start firing back at this attack from the house, the accomplices climbing the stairs start firing out the windows at the cops, Wilt locks Gudrun in the bathroom, the accomplices find and force the quads and old lady down into the cellar – and we have the beginning of quite a lengthy hostage/siege situation.

Somehow Sharpe manages to make this funny: the old lady shepherding the quads is the indomitable wife of a (deceased) British colonial officer, well-used to dealing with uppity natives, and the quads run around enjoying themselves, loving the gunfire, gorging themselves on miscellaneous foodstuffs and throwing up everywhere. While Wilt in the attic progresses from complete panic to various cunning stratagems designed to unnerve the terrorists. On the party phone line he puts on a funny voice and pretends he is a splinter group of the cell the main two terrorists are part of, making completely contradictory demands to theirs, puzzling and confusing them so they wonder whether their leader is part of a different cell.

Wilt then manages to talk Gudrun out of the bathroom by playing-acting the dim English twit and then, improbably enough, finds himself being seduced by her. All this is captured on the secret microphone the cops have dropped into the room from a hovering helicopter and is overheard in graphic detail by Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint of the local constabulary and – the seduction part – by his outraged wife, Eva. In a later phase of the long siege Wilt bamboozles Gudrun with the kind of Marxist rhetoric he’s picked up from the half-baked communist lecturers at the Tech, into almost believing that Wilt is the member of a subversive sleeper cell (not-that-funny satire on the Marxist mumbo-jumbo spouted by so many academics at this period).

The siege goes on for quite a long time and eventually, despite all the twists and turns – as the cops drop a microphone into the attic, as Eva breaks out of the local police station where she’d been kept for her own good and makes her way across country through the police cordon and into the house, as Wilt desperately runs through a series of ‘alternative’ scenarios to keep the terrorists confused, the Wilt alternatives of the title – eventually it becomes a little boring. Finally, as Mrs de Frackas distracts the terrorists by openly making for the kitchen door, Wilt bundles the quads into the cellar slamming the door shut, then up the external trap door into the garden and into Eva’s beloved compost heap. At which point Eva’s bio-loo device handily explodes covering the terrorists in crap and disorientating them long enough for the cops to move in and arrest them.

‘Shits in shits’ clothing,’ muttered Professor Maerlis, gazing in awe at the human excreta that stumbled about the lawn. (p.212)

The quads are freed. Wilt is freed. Eva up in the attic where she had swapped places with Wilt, is freed. The two accomplices covered in poo are arrested. And Gudrun is taken down from the complicated gallows Eva had barnstormingly constructed for her in the siege’s final moments. Alles gut.

In the final chapter Wilt is exonerated of all blame by the authorities, keeps his job at the Tech, and decides he and Eva will move out of the now ill-fated posh house into something more modest. The new neighbours won’t know what hit them… But we will, presumably, find out all his adventures in the next sequel, Wilt on High (1984).

1970s terrorism

Earlier this year I read The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot and one of the main themes of the decade is the widespread terrorist violence which occurred in almost all western countries: the Weather Underground (USA), the Angry Brigade and IRA (Britain), ETA (Spain), Baader-Meinhof (Germany), the Red Brigade (Italy), the PLO (everywhere).

With the benefit of hindsight, with access to interviews and even the autobiographies of some of the surviving terrorists themselves, DeGroot is able to show that their shared theory of ‘spectacle’ – that violent and spectacular terrorist atrocities would awaken the slumbering masses, make them realise their oppression and rise up in revolutionary fervour – was an unmitigated failure. And not only did revolutionary violence fail to create revolutionary mass movements, it failed in a secondary motive, to ‘purify’ and ‘cleanse’ the terrorists of their bourgeois guilt.

Instead, all the groups found themselves being drawn inexorably into a vortex of ever-more savage and pointless violence, eventually killing people for the sake of it, just to maintain their reputations, and to maintain discipline within their faltering ranks.

Which makes it all the more striking that this was Sharpe’s unsparing opinion during the period itself.

The vast majority of mankind lived in abject poverty, were riddled with curable diseases which went uncured, were subject o despotic governments and lived in terror and in danger of dying by starvation. To the extent that anyone tried to change this inequity, Wilt sympathised… [But] terrorising the innocent and murdering men, women and children was both ineffectual and barbaric. What difference was there between the terrorists and their victims? Only one of opinion. Chinanda [one of the accomplices] and Gudrun Schautz came from wealthy families and Baggish [the other accomplice], whose father had been a shopkeeper in Beirut, could hardly be called poor. None of these self-appointed executioners had been driven to murder by the desperation of poverty, and as far as Wilt could tell their fanaticism had its roots in no specific cause. They weren’t trying to drive the British from Ulster, the Israelis from the Golan Heights or even the Turks from Cyprus. They were political poseurs whose enemy was life. In short they were murderers by personal choice, psychopaths who camouflaged their motives behind a screen of utopian theory. Power was their kick, the power to inflict pain and to terrify. Even their own readiness to die was a sort of power, some sick and infantile form of masochism and expiation of guilt, not for their filthy crimes, but for being alive at all. Beyond that there were doubtless other motives concerned with parents or toilet training. Wilt didn’t care. It was enough that they were carriers of the same political rabies that had driven Hitler to construct Auschwitz and kill himself in the bunker, or the Cambodians to murder one another by the million. As such they were beyond the pale of sympathy… (pp.166-167)

In my review of Sharpe’s first novel, Riotous Assembly, I wrote that a great attraction of his violent farce was its hallucinatory detachment from the ‘real’ world, achieving a mad kind of imaginative purity. This has become noticeably less true as his novels proceed:

  • Wilt is a kind of portmanteau of middle-class male whinging about bloody Yanks and their bloody trendy fads and bloody women’s libbers
  • The Great Pursuit reveals a genuine hatred for the stiflingly narrow interpretation of literature he was taught at Cambridge, with large dollops of anti-American sentiment thrown in
  • The Throwback, set in the wilds of Northumberland and a fantastical Surrey cul-de-sac should have had that imaginative purity but contains numerous passages editorialising about the iniquity of income tax, the VAT inspector, what does the bloody government spend it on anyway?-type moaning which read like Daily Mail editorials

And now The Wilt Alternative which, despite numerous comic scenes, can’t help being overshadowed by its serious, angry, and still tragically relevant, analysis of the terrorist mindset.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. The cover above chooses Wilt’s accident in the rosebush as the main subject but also shows him firing the machine gun by accident (top left), the police helicopter at top right, the naked Gudrun emerging from the bath top right, the two terrorist accomplices middle left, his wife Eva a little too violently pulling the sticking plaster the doctors put over his ravaged penis middle right, and the terrorists slipping and sliding on the quads’ vomit bottom right.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978)

The Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978) continues his vein of aggressively crude and violent farce, often with hilarious results. As I read it I realised that, if the plots are designed to be convoluted and contrived and the characters grotesque and improbably naive or fiendish or weird, in order to bring about ludicrous scenes and situations, then it makes sense that the language used is similarly crude and extreme. The characters certainly f and blind with ease.

Plot Old Flawse, 90-year-old owner of Flawse Hall in bleakest Northumberland, had a daughter who died giving birth to a bastard son during a hunt. The son is named Lockhart. Old Flawse hands the boy over to the gamekeeper Mr Dodd to be brought up in Puritan cleanliness of body and mind, dedicated to hunting on the moors. His doctor says he’s looking a bit peaky, so they both go on a cruise where they encounter calculating divorcée, Mrs Sandicott, whose husband has died leaving her with a dozen properties in Surrey, and a naive but stunning daughter, Jessica. The fortune-seeking Mrs Sandicott marries the old man, Lockhart marries Jessica, the old people maliciously calculating against each other, the young people ruinously naive about the realities of sex.

Back in Flawse Hall Old Flawse imposes a byzantine will on Mrs Sandicott by which she will inherit the hall but only on condition she never leave the house, never updates its ramshackle amenities etc. Though all these stipulations fall if young Lockhart can find his unknown father – and then thrash him within an inch of his life – whereupon he will inherit.

Meanwhile, young Lockhart moves in with his wife in Sandicott Close, East Pursley, Surrey and finds it very different from the wilds of Northumbria. He would very much like the money from selling the properties but finds himself constricted by modern tenancy agreements which mean the tenants of the 12 houses Jessica owns can’t be evicted. Ah, but they can be terrorised out of their properties – and this the bold huntsman proceeds to do, through a succession of evermore bizarre, violent, inflammatory and explosive techniques.

This goes on for some time, is very elaborate and very funny. Lockhart posts the two little old ladies in number 7 a variety of sex toys and a gigantic vibrating penis with realistic testicles, which they are unwrapping and wondering how to operate just as the vicar’s wife makes an impromptu visit and faints clear away, to come around to find herself on the kitchen table, being given the kiss of life by one old lady while the other approaches sinisterly with the gigantic penis – at which she leaps up and runs out of the house screaming: that gives a good flavour of the scenes. Another brilliant sequence is when Lockhart gives the retired Colonel’s bull-terrier LSD and it starts hallucinating prehistoric monsters everywhere, running round howling biting fences and telegraph poles and cars and policemen and fire engines before running off into the nearby bird sanctuary to cause untold mayhem…

Daily Mail Old Flawse and young Lockhart share a dislike of officialdom and, in particular, the Taxman and the VAT man. One of the latter is mercilessly hounded and hospitalised (as he approaches Flawse Hall Dodd opens the sluices of the nearby reservoir which washes him, and his car, miles along the Fell.) The accumulated gripes about the government, the taxman, the  corrupt ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the collapse of our manufacturing economy, the collapse of the currency, the balance of payments deficit blah blah blah, begin to have the affect of being stuck at the bar with a drunk, middle-aged Daily Mail reader determined to go through his list of everything which is wrong with this blasted country, what.

Longeurs The book is funny – outrageously, savagely, brutally, funny – but ultimately rather wearing. (There’s a lot less violence in the Anglo-Saxon poetry I’ve been reading recently.) Like a lot of Sharpe’s books, you’re quite exhausted by page 180, but it goes on to start up a whole new series of outrages, in this case, the approach of the VAT men to Flawse Hall which is interrupted because Lockhart has buried loads of loudspeakers across the moor, and made recordings of the nearby Army training exercises complete with shellfire and machine guns – which recordings he suddenly turns on at full blast leading the terrified men to think they’re in the middle of the Battle of the Somme, some falling to the ground and covering their ears, some jumping into the reservoir to escape the banshee wailing, some running away screaming.

Practical jokes Farce as a genre is the Practical Joke transferred to the stage or page, crude physical humour designed to prompt explosive laughter. Pure farce is a narrative or text whose only concern is to hurry you on to the next practical joke, the next outrageous physical debacle.

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

%d bloggers like this: