The Black Mask by E.W. Hornung (1901)

The paperback edition of Raffles stories I picked up in a second-hand bookshop contains the first eight Raffles stories (originally collected in a volume titled The Amateur Cracksman, published in 1899) along with the second eight, which were collected in the next volume, The Black Mask, published in 1901.

The final story in volume one had ended with the failure of Raffles’s most ambitious plan – to steal a priceless pearl which was being taken by courier on a German steamer across the Mediterranean. Caught by his nemesis – Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard – Raffles was given a moment to say goodbye to his ‘fiancée’ – a young Australian woman that he’d actually been using to find out more about the pearl – and takes the opportunity to jump up onto the ship’s railing and, as Mackenzie and the ship’s officers run to stop him, to dive overboard into the sea.

His assistant and the narrator of the Raffles tales, ‘Bunny’ Manders, thinks he catches sight of a head bobbing in the long reflection of the sunset across the waves, before he is himself dragged off to be thrown into the brig, taken back to Britain, tried, found guilty, publicly shamed and humiliated, and sent to prison for his part in Raffles’s various thefts.

There the series appeared to end with Bunny in the nick and Raffles drowned off the Italian coast. But…

The stories

1. No Sinecure

The first story in the new set reveals that… it is not so!!

It is 18 months later, Bunny has served his time in HMP Holloway. A wealthy relation has reluctantly taken pity on him and found him a hovel of a garret to live in while Bunny pursues an unsuccessful career as a freelance writer.

One day Bunny gets a telegram telling him to look at an advert in that day’s Daily Mail. It is an advert for a nurse-cum-gentleman’s assistant to an ailing old man, Mr Maturin. Bunny pawns some belongings to buy a suit and heads off for the interview at an apartment block in Earl’s Court.

He is let into the apartment by a zippy young doctor, Dr Theobald, who is the ageing Mr Maturin’s personal physician, and then ushered into the darkened room where the invalid lies in bed, white-haired and white-faced. As soon as the physician has exited, Bunny realises that the figure in the bed is… RAFFLES, his old mentor and partner in crime!!

Even as bubblegum, popcorn entertainment the stories are not as barbed and gripping as they might be. For example, you might have expected Bunny to be a bit cross with the man who led him into a life of crime, got him banged up for eighteen months, and ruined his life. You might have expected some kind of psychological reckoning. But not a bit of it, he’s just thrilled to see old A.J. again.

Raffles gives the briefest explanation of his escape: it was a hard swim, the reflection of the setting sun dazzled any potential pursuers, and life for a half-naked man wading ashore on Capri was challenging. The peasants gave him clothes, he got odd jobs, he worked his way north along the coast and into France. That’s about it. Then we are swiftly on to this week’s adventure.

Bunny helps Raffles get dressed in formal evening wear and they take a circuitous route across the apartment block roof (This is to avoid awkward questions from the porter in the apartment block’s downstairs lobby). They go down by a separate set of stairs, and head to Kellner’s Restaurant in the West End. Here, Raffles explains, he and Bunny are going to pretend to be rich Americans meeting the head of a famous firm of Regent Street jewellers’.

Over dinner in a private room the jeweller places on the table a series of expensive pieces. Raffles, in his guise as American millionaire, declares he wants them all – can he take them and send round a cheque? As expected, the jeweller laughs in his face, so Raffles makes a suggestion. Why doesn’t he place the pieces in the cigarette carton he happens to be carrying, seal it up, and give it back to the jeweller who can post it round in three days, after he’s received and cashed Raffles’s cheque.

The Regent Street jeweller agrees and they call for string and sealing wax, carefully stow the jewels in the carton, wrap and seal it, stand up and shake hands, then the jeweller departs with the carton which he will, as promised, post.

Leaving Raffles to open his voluminous jacket to reveal… the cigarette carton with the jewels in it!!

While there had been a hiatus of waiters coming in with brown paper, string and whatnot, Raffles had swapped the carton with the jewels in it for an identical but empty one – which is the one they wrapped up and gave to the jeweller!

Quickly they take a cab back to Earl’s Court, climb up the parallel staircase, and over the roofs, back into the sick room, where Raffles changes back into pyjamas and gets into bed. Raffles is back! and Bunny has helped him pull off his first job of the new era!!

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

2. A Jubilee Present

Taking advantage of the absence of Dr Theobald, Raffles takes Bunny along to the Gold Room at the British Museum. It is meant to be just a reconnaissance trip, but Raffles is loudly telling his sidekick how he plans to steal a priceless gold cup when a hidden policemen surprises them both by stepping out of the shadows.

After a few moments of trying to bluff his way out of it, Raffles simply hits the man over the head with a stick and they walk quickly but calmly past the attendants in the other rooms, down the steps, and into a hansom cab which takes them to the nearest tube, and so anonymously and safely back to the Earls Court. Here Raffles shows Bunny that in all the confusion – he pocketed a priceless gold relic.

In the event, the relic is too rare to fence, and too culturally precious to melt down for the gold (Raffles is, after all, a gentleman of taste). So, for fun, he sends it anonymously to Queen Victorian to celebrate her Jubilee!

3. The Fate of Faustina

Some Italian organ grinders in the street outside prompt Raffles to reminisce about the time he spent on the island where he had stumbled ashore, naked and exhausted, having made his getaway from the ship, as described above.

Once taken in and given clothes by kind locals, he got a labouring job and fell in love with a peasant girl, Faustina. But she was the beloved of the creepy Stefano, himself a factor to the big, rich lord, Count Corbucci.

Raffles planned with the girl to flee the island and stole a revolver which he shows her how to use. That night he is creeping down the steep staircase carved in the rock towards the cavern which they have made their secret hideaway when… he hears blundering footsteps coming up the other way.

Raffles crouches into an alcove to let the heavy-breathing big guy wheeze past and then lights a match, to reveal that it is the Count. After some ironical exchanges the count tells Raffles to go and find his beloved and turns round to resume the ascent with a scornful laugh.

Raffles hurtles down the steps and into the cavern to find Faustina dead, stabbed to death. She had been caught by Stefano and the Count, had revealed her plan to escape and drawn the gun on them, but they had wrenched it off her and stabbed her to death. Stefano is still in the cave and Raffles shoots him dead.

Raffles runs back up to the steps and along to Corbucci’s house where he roughly ties up the Count and locks all the doors, half hoping the blackguard will starve to death there. Then Raffles takes a dinghy to the mainland, and quickly skims over the way he stowed away on ships taking him further up the coast, getting small jobs where possible.

But there I had to begin all over again, and at the very bottom of the ladder. I slept in the streets. I begged. I did all manner of terrible things, rather hoping for a bad end, but never coming to one.

One day, catching sight of himself in a mirror, Raffles realises he looks like an exhausted white-haired old wreck and that no-one back in London would now recognise him. And so to London he returns, adopts the character of the old paralytic, hires Dr Theobald to make it all look kosher, and then arranged for Bunny to come calling looking for the job.

However, now he tells Bunny that – they have followed him.

Who, the police? asks Bunny. No, the CAMORRA!

Count Corbucci was a top man in the Italian underworld organisation, the Camorra, and Raffles is not surprised that word has been put out to every Italian in London to track him down. If he’s not much mistaken, that’s exactly what the Italian barrel organ people out the front of their flats have been doing. Tracking him down and staking him out.

4. The Last Laugh

Sure enough it was the Camorra. One night Bunny spots a man in the darkness opposite their block of flats standing and watching. Raffles waits till Bunny has changed into his pyjamas to go to bed, then declares he’s going out to confront these watchers in the dark.

Bunny springs to the window and watches Raffles emerge from the apartment block and the man opposite promptly turn and walk away, with Raffles in hot pursuit. But then Bunny sees a big fat man in a slouch hat amble into the street, pass directly under the window of their flat, and make off after the other two. Something’s up. Quick, he better warn his hero!

Bunny changes into his clothes, runs out into the street, hires a hansom and drives around west London in a fever, but can find no trace of Raffles or the others. Finally, he returns to the flat and remains, looking out the window in an agony of suspense all night.

Suddenly, there’s a frantic knocking at the apartment door and a one-eyed Italian stands there talking very fast Italian and gesturing for Bunny to follow. Out into the street, along Earls Court Road to the cab stand, into the first hansom, then it is a feverish life-or-death drive across London to Bloomsbury, with the cab driver using all his wiles to weave in and out of traffic and take unexpected side streets.

It’s exactly the same mentality as the car chases in James Bond or Jason Bourne movies, the same nail-biting tension building up, only set in 1901 and with hansom cabs.

The one-eyed Italian directs the cab to Bloomsbury Square and makes him pull up outside number 38. Out they leap, run across the pavement, burst through the door, run up the stairs, and into a room where Bunny is horrified to discover Raffles bound to the wall by leather ropes threaded through iron hoops attached in the wall, with a gag thrust in his mouth, covered in blood from a beating.

But the Italian doesn’t falter and continues his run at an old grandfather clock standing dead opposite Raffles, knocking it to the ground just as the revolver attached to the clock face fires, as it had been arranged to do, as the clock struck noon.

Not only had the Count’s men tied Raffles up and beaten him… they had arranged this fiendish death as a psychological torture. For the best part of 12 hours Raffles had had to watch the minute hand slowly creeping round and the apparatus inch towards the point where the clock hand would pull the trigger of the revolver and shoot him through the heart!

Who is the one-eyed man and why was it all left to the last minute? As they undo the straps and set Raffles free, he explains to Bunny that the man is one of the Count’s assistants who Raffles got a few moments alone with and managed to bribe – persuaded him that he (Raffles) would see him set up and safe if he would help.

Why the delay and the wild panic drive? Because the Count and his other assistant didn’t leave to get a train from Victorian until 11am. So 11 was the earliest that the one-eyed man could leave on his life-or-death dash for Bunny, all the time knowing that they had to be back before noon.

But did the Count leave on time? Did he ever leave the building? Cue dramatic music!!

For now Raffles reveals a further twist in the story. He had for some time been walking around with a hip flask filled with spirits, tinctured with — the deadliest poison known to man!!

‘It is cyanide of cacodyl, and I have carried that small flask of it about with me for months. Where I got it matters nothing; the whole point is that a mere sniff reduces flesh to clay. I have never had any opinion of suicide, as you know, but I always felt it worthwhile to be forearmed against the very worst. Well, a bottle of this stuff is calculated to stiffen an ordinary roomful of ordinary people within five minutes; and I remembered my flask when they had me as good as crucified in the small hours of this morning. I asked them to take it out of my pocket. I begged them to give me a drink before they left me. And what do you suppose they did?’

What the Count and his pal did was taunt Raffles with the flask, refuse him a drink, then go downstairs and drink a toast to their wicked scheme. And promptly dropped dead, where our heroes find them, grimly spread across table and floor in positions of agony.

These two stories are quite significantly more blood-thirsty than anything which has gone before in the Raffles canon. It was only half a dozen stories back that Raffles was invited down to a country house weekend on the strength of his cricketing skills, in a story as concerned with satirising vicars and duchesses as with robbery. The tone seems to have darkened considerably. It would be interesting to know from a Raffles scholar if this reflected any change in the tone of fiction, or of popular culture, at around this date – or whether someone had suggested to Hornung that he take Raffles in a new direction.

But murder, torture, suicide and poison introduce a new, more highly-strung mood into the stories.

5. To Catch a Thief

There has been an outbreak of jewellery thefts among the highest of high society. Raffles and Bunny know it is not them for the simple reason that they are still in self-imposed hiding in their Earls Court flat.

This entire second series of stories is rather stifled by this fact, the fact that – even though his appearance has changed considerably for the worse – Raffles is still petrified that someone will identify him, the cops will arrest him and he’ll be sent to prison. They tend to only go out at night, generally in disguise, and even then avoid the fashionable parts of London. A lot of the devil-may-care, man on the town spirit of the first set of stories has thus been sacrificed. They feel more claustrophobic.

Anyway, without much detective work Raffles has identified that the man responsible for this little crime wave is himself a member of the upper classes, one Lord Ernest Belville.

So they drive round to his lordship’s apartment in the swanky new King John’s Mansions. When they announce that Lord Ernest is expecting them, the porter nods them through and the page boy obligingly takes them up in the electric lift (a relative novelty in the stories) and unlocks and shows them into his Lordship’s flat. That wasn’t very difficult, then.

Raffles and Bunny thoroughly search every room in Belville’s flat and, as always happens, it is the last place they look that they stumble upon the hiding place of the jewels.

(That trope, that the thing the heroes are looking for is always in the last place they think of, after everywhere else has been searched, must be a deep narrative truth. It is a profound fixture of this kind of ‘search’ story.)

And then there’s yet another cliché which is that, having emptied the hiding place (which was a set of hollow Indian exercise clubs) of all Lord Ernest’s loot, they have just fitted everything back in place, closed the windows and cupboards, turned all the lights off and are about to make a quiet exit when…. they hear a key being fitted into the lock!

Lord Ernest confronts them whereat Raffles, with his lightning wits, waves a gun and pretends to be the police. He leaves Bunny to tie up his lordship, saying he’ll just go for reinforcements. Inevitably big strong Belville manages to overcome Bunny and knock him cold, escaping down the fire escape.

Raffles comes back in, wakens up the groggy Bunny, and they swiftly depart the flats, walking across St James’s to hop into a hansom cab and so home.

Now, as usual, they decide to avoid the porter in the lobby of their block of flats, and so go up a set of service stairs and then across the rooftops. Raffles is in advance of Bunny who is still slow and groggy from being knocked out. Raffles goes to get a light to help him.

In his absence, however, Belville appears brandishing the revolver he took off Bunny. Turns out he did not escape down the fire escape, but hid in the toilet and listened to Raffles and Bunny’s conversation – then followed them in the darkness across St James’s, then by cab etc.

Now he handcuffs Bunny to the railings of a perilous little iron bridge over a deep drop between two wings of the apartment block. Raffles reappears and there is a confrontation while the two gentleman thieves congratulate each other on their style and then proceed to debate how they’re going to proceed.

A big storm is brewing. There is lightning. A tremendous gust of wind blows out the lamp Raffles was holding and he lunges forward. Ernest tries to block his move but trips and plummets down down into the well between buildings, landing splat on the concrete at the bottom.

Raffles releases Bunny from his handcuffs and helps him along into the safety of their apartment.

Somewhere along the line Raffles has switched from the light and airy comedy of Lord Amersteth’s house party and cricket match to a world of murder and cyanide in what feels like a permanent Gothic night. Jeeves and Wooster have turned into Batman.

6. An Old Flame

Wheeling Raffles along in a bath chair in his character as invalid, Bunny is horrified when the old man sees an open window into a posh Mayfair house too attractive to resist. He clambers up to the first floor balcony and into a room with much silver on show, but is caught by the lady of the house entering.

Bunny pushes the bath chair quickly round the corner and away from this disastrous scene – but is amazed when a few moments later Raffles catches up with him. The woman turns out to be no other than Jacques Saillard, a passionate headstrong Spanish woman who has made a reputation as a painter. They had an affair some years before.

They have barely got home before the doorbell rings and it is her. She has followed them. She insists Raffles dismisses Bunny who is kicked out of the flat while she gives Raffles an earful of complaint.

Next thing Bunny knows is that Raffles asks him to find them a place in the country. Now this woman knows he’s alive she will sooner or later blurt out the secret. Raffles tells Bunny to go and find a nice quiet cottage somewhere like Ham Common west of Richmond. So off Bunny goes and does just that, renting it from a kindly old lady. Raffles had made his dismissal official, getting Dr Theobald to pay him off (it’s easy to forget that for all the stories in this volume Bunny has, supposedly, been an assistant and help to the supposedly confirmed old invalid Mr Maturin.

Bunny waits for news of Raffles’s arrival and, after ten days, pays a visit back to the apartment block in Earls Court. Here he is horrified to learn from Dr Theobald that Mr Maturin has passed away. They are just carrying the coffin downstairs. Bunny watches appalled.

Next day he attends the funeral in an agony of unhappiness, watches Dr Theobald and then Jacques Saillard pay their respects and drive away. An odd-looking fellow had been hanging round and now offers Bunny, the last mourner, a lift in his brougham.

Wwll, no prizes for guessing that this chap turns out to be… Raffles in disguise! Yes, he faked his own death to throw Jacques Saillard off the track and paid Dr Theobald a whopping £1,000 to sign the death certificate and keep quiet.

7. The Wrong House

Freed from their Earls Court base, Raffles and Bunny move in to the cottage on Ham Common and tell the kindly old landlady that Raffles is Bunny’s brother, returned from Australia.

But old habits die hard and this story is about the semi-farcical attempt to burgle a stockbroker’s house near the common and make a quick getaway on the newfangled technology of bicycles!

Unfortunately, it is a dark and foggy night and they end up breaking into the wrong house, which is a private school packed with plucky young students, who grab Bunny, until Raffles manages to free him at which point they are confronted by the head of the school and only just about blag their way out – claiming that they were innocent passersby who saw the burglary taking place.

They run out top the drive where they have stashed their bicycles and set off with the students giving such close pursuit that they actually wrench their handlebars, but our heroes manage to shake them off, and make their escape, going on an immense roundabout route before returning, none the better off, to the little cottage.

8. The Knees of the Gods

The Boer War breaks out on 11 October 1899. Raffles and Bunny read about it and then, as the tide turns against Britain, decide to volunteer. Being a bit old, unable to be conscripted in England, they take ship to South Africa and wangle their way into a regiment there, as privates.

Here a very strange thing happens. Hornung’s style turns into Rudyard Kipling’s. Having read almost all of Kipling’s 120 or so short stories, I can report that, in his later tales, he made a point of revising the stories again and again, to remove extraneous words and phrases, repeatedly paring and chipping away at the stories to make them more and more clipped and allusive, often to the point of obscurity.

To my surprise, that’s what happens to Hornung’s style. It’s as if he’s incapable of broaching on the subject which Kipling’s massive imaginative presence, in poems, short stories and novels, virtually owned – Britain’s imperial wars – without adopting his style.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a corporal in Bunny and Raffles’s platoon who they come to suspect is a Boer spy, and catch in the act of releasing British horses and packing them off to the Boer lines. Raffles impresses an officer in the regiment who, it turns out, he was at school with – presents definitive evidence of the corporal’s guilt – and the corporal is shot as a spy (after Raffles and this officer spent forty or so minutes chatting, inevitably, about cricket, that great social marker of the pukka Englishman).

But it’s the adoption of Kipling’s often puzzlingly clipped and allusive style which dominates the story, for me. For example, this dodgy corporal, Connal, picks on Bunny until Raffles steps in to defend him (in best public school style).

Connal was a hulking ruffian, and in me had ideal game. The brute was offensive to me from the hour I joined. The details are of no importance, but I stood up to him at first in words, and finally for a few seconds on my feet. Then I went down like an ox, and Raffles came out of his tent. Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked, but the net result was dreadfully conventional, for the bully was a bully no more.

That phrase, ‘Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked’ – the clipped understatement of ‘Raffles was marked’ – is fantastically redolent of the stiff-upper-lip, public schoolboy tone of Kipling’s stories about schoolboy hi-jinks, Stalky and Co.

This obliqueness really comes over as the story builds to a climax. The platoon is tasked with taking a hill held by Boers, and is crawling forwards when Bunny is drilled by a bullet through the thigh. Raffles of course comes to his aid, pulling him into the shelter of a rock and taking it upon himself to try and locate and shoot the sniper who did it. Up and down he pops behind this rock, chatting away merrily to Bunny, commentating on his progress in identifying the blighter’s location, ducking down again to reload, popping up again to take another pot shot.

Until he is shot dead. Raffles proves himself the ultimate good chap by dying for his Queen and Country. This puzzled me because I know there is at least one more set of Raffles short stories, plus an entire novel, so I am intrigued how Hornung got around the difficulty of killing off his hero.

But what impressed me more than Raffles’s death was the extraordinary way it is described. These last few pages consist almost entirely of Raffles’s confidant chat to Bunny, who is by now, in pain and losing consciousness, with each long paragraph of dialogue, just briefly ended by a phase about Raffles reloading from his bandolier.

His entire activity of jumping up to take pot shots, then ducking back down again, is not described, it is only implied, through the couple of references to bandolier, and some of Raffles’s banter about ‘missing the blighter’ and so on.

It took me a page or so of rereading to figure out what was happening and I was really struck by the technique because this is exactly what Kipling’s later short stories are like. In Kipling’s short stories, also, the explanatory text is pruned so far back that it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. Only a long quote can give the effect, the way rhythm supersedes sense, and the way concrete detail is omitted and key facts only implied.

It was not a minute before Raffles came to me through the whistling scud, and in another I was on my back behind a shallow rock, with him kneeling over me and unrolling my bandage in the teeth of that murderous fire.

It was on the knees of the gods, he said, when I begged him to bend lower, but for the moment I thought his tone as changed as his face had been earlier in the morning.

To oblige me, however, he took more care; and, when he had done all that one comrade could for another, he did avail himself of the cover he had found for me. So there we lay together on the veldt, under blinding sun and withering fire, and I suppose it is the veldt that I should describe, as it swims and flickers before wounded eyes.

I shut mine to bring it back, but all that comes is the keen brown face of Raffles, still a shade paler than its wont; now bending to sight and fire; now peering to see results, brows raised, eyes widened; anon turning to me with the word to set my tight lips grinning. He was talking all the time, but for my sake, and I knew it. Can you wonder that I could not see an inch beyond him? He was the battle to me then; he is the whole war to me as I look back now.

‘Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny. No, that one in the silver paper, I’ve hoarded it for this. Here’s a light; and so Bunny takes the Sullivan! All honour to the sporting rabbit!’

‘At least I went over like one,’ said I, sending the only clouds into the blue, and chiefly wishing for their longer endurance. I was as hot as a cinder from my head to one foot; the other leg was ceasing to belong to me.

‘Wait a bit,’ says Raffles, puckering; ‘there’s a gray felt hat at deep long-on, and I want to add it to the bag for vengeance…. Wait—yes—no, no luck! I must pitch ’em up a bit more. Hallo! Magazine empty. How goes the Sullivan, Bunny? Rum to be smoking one on the veldt with a hole in your leg!’

‘It’s doing me good,’ I said, and I believe it was. But Raffles lay looking at me as he lightened his bandolier.

‘Do you remember,’ he said softly, ‘the day we first began to think about the war? I can see the pink, misty river light, and feel the first bite there was in the air when one stood about; don’t you wish we had either here! ‘Orful slorter, orful slorter;’ that fellow’s face, I see it too; and here we have the thing he cried. Can you believe it’s only six months ago?’

‘Yes,’ I sighed, enjoying the thought of that afternoon less than he did; ‘yes, we were slow to catch fire at first.’

‘Too slow,’ he said quickly.

‘But when we did catch,’ I went on, wishing we never had, ‘we soon burnt up.’

‘And then went out,’ laughed Raffles gayly. He was loaded up again. ‘Another over at the gray felt hat,’ said he; ‘by Jove, though, I believe he’s having an over at me!’

‘I wish you’d be careful,’ I urged. ‘I heard it too.’

‘My dear Bunny, it’s on the knees you wot of. If anything’s down in the specifications surely that is. Besides – that was nearer!

‘To you?’

‘No, to him. Poor devil, he has his specifications too; it’s comforting to think that…. I can’t see where that one pitched; it may have been a wide; and it’s very nearly the end of the over again. Feeling worse, Bunny?”

No, I’ve only closed my eyes. Go on talking.’

‘It was I who let you in for this,’ he said, at his bandolier again.

‘No, I’m glad I came out.’

And I believe I still was, in a way; for it WAS rather fine to be wounded, just then, with the pain growing less; but the sensation was not to last me many minutes, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt it since.

‘Ah, but you haven’t had such a good time as I have!’

‘Perhaps not.’

Had his voice vibrated, or had I imagined it? Pain-waves and loss of blood were playing tricks with my senses; now they were quite dull, and my leg alive and throbbing; now I had no leg at all, but more than all my ordinary senses in every other part of me. And the devil’s orchestra was playing all the time, and all around me, on every class of fiendish instrument, which you have been made to hear for yourselves in every newspaper. Yet all that I heard was Raffles talking.

‘I have had a good time, Bunny.’ Yes, his voice was sad; but that was all; the vibration must have been in me.

‘I know you have, old chap,’ said I.

‘I am grateful to the General for giving me to-day. It may be the last. Then I can only say it’s been the best – by Jove!’

‘What is it?’ And I opened my eyes. His were shining. I can see them now.

‘Got him – got the hat! No, I’m hanged if I have; at least he wasn’t in it. The crafty cuss, he must have stuck it up on purpose. Another over … scoring’s slow…. I wonder if he’s sportsman enough to take a hint? His hat-trick’s foolish. Will he show his face if I show mine?’

I lay with closed ears and eyes. My leg had come to life again, and the rest of me was numb.

‘Bunny!’ His voice sounded higher. He must have been sitting upright.

‘Well?’

But it was not well with me; that was all I thought as my lips made the word.

‘It’s not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I’m not half sure – ‘

Of what I can but guess; the sentence was not finished, and never could be in this world.


Comments

I’ve just read a few novels by H.G. Wells, who is almost always exact and clear in his imagining of a scene (no matter how preposterous). By contrast, I began to get irritated by Hornung’s lack of sequentiality. I mean that:

  1. His sentences often skip over logical connections so you have to do a bit of work to figure out what he’s talking about.
  2. At the same time, his descriptive abilities are limited. I got little or no sense of the interior of the British Museum which is a sitting duck of a subject for a writer – in fact his descriptions of rooms and places is generally thin.
  3. Obscure phrasing.

Maybe I am just not getting his banter but pretty regularly there are phrases I just don’t understand. At the very end of The Last Laugh he writes:

But the worst did not come to the worst, more power to my unforgotten friend the cabman, who never came forward to say what manner of men he had driven to Bloomsbury Square at top speed on the very day upon which the tragedy was discovered there, or whence he had driven them. To be sure, they had not behaved like murderers, whereas the evidence at the inquest all went to show that the defunct Corbucci was little better. His reputation, which transpired with his identity, was that of a libertine and a renegade, while the infernal apparatus upstairs revealed the fiendish arts of the anarchist to boot. The inquiry resulted eventually in an open verdict, and was chiefly instrumental in killing such compassion as is usually felt for the dead who die in their sins.

But Raffles would not have passed this title for this tale.

I’ve no idea what this final sentence means. It makes you appreciate all the more the lucidity and clarity of Conan Doyle’s prose in his Sherlock Holmes stories of the same period.

In the following example, I think Hornung is straining a simile until it breaks. Bunny is waiting with bated breath for Raffles to return to their flat.

I can give you no conception of the night that I spent. Most of it I hung across the sill, throwing a wide net with my ears, catching every footstep afar off, every hansom bell farther still, only to gather in some alien whom I seldom even landed in our street.

What? By ‘alien’ does he mean alien and so useless fish i.e. he saw and heard things but nothing relevant to his watch for Raffles? Or:

Then one night in the autumn – I shrink from shocking the susceptible for nothing – but there was a certain house in Palace Gardens, and when we got there Raffles would pass on.

I have no idea why he is shocking the susceptible, and no idea what the phrase ‘would pass on’ means. Does it mean ‘and when we got there Raffles made me carry on walking right past it’? Why doesn’t he say so?

Every few pages there are phrases like this, which require a bit of effort to parse or understand, and this lack of fluency rises to a peak in the final story, where Hornung appears to be making a virtue of it, emphasising a clipped and deliberately allusive style in – if I’m right – conscious or unconscious imitation of Kipling.

Pop culture

There are high speed chases, priceless jewels, kidnaps and poisonings. It’s a tell-tale sign that an author knows he is writing popular rubbish using popular stereotypes when he knowingly compares his characters to…er… popular stereotypes.

With his overcoat buttoned up to the chin, his tall hat pressed down to his eyes, and between the two his incisive features and his keen, stern glance, he looked the ideal detective of fiction and the stage.

‘For the moment I did think you were one of these smart detectives jumped to life from some sixpenny magazine; but to preserve the illusion you ought to provide yourself with a worthier lieutenant.’

Overtly acknowledging that you’re using penny shocker clichés doesn’t raise you above them, it just tends to confirm the reader’s perception.

ITV dramatisation

ITV made television dramatisations of the stories in the 1970s, starring the dishy Anthony Valentine.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (1899)

He was beyond comparison the most masterful man whom I have ever known. (Bunny on Raffles)

Ernest William Hornung wrote a series of twenty-six short stories and one novel about the adventures of by far his most successful fictional character, Arthur J. Raffles, cricketer and gentleman thief. The stories are told in the first person by his assistant and chronicler, Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders. The series was published between 1898 and 1909.

The first story, The Ides of March, appeared in the June 1898 edition of Cassell’s Magazine and the first eight adventures were collected in The Amateur Cracksman (1899), with further stories in the successive volumes The Black Mask (1901) and A Thief in the Night (1904), followed by the full-length novel, Mr. Justice Raffles in 1909.

Hornung dedicated The Amateur Cracksman to his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, and openly declared that Raffles was a deliberate inversion of the Sherlock Holmes formula, with a faithful amanuensis recording the daring exploits of a clever, bold, resourceful, upper-class English criminal rather than detective. Raffles, as Hornung’s dedication to this volume makes clear, was intended as a ‘form of flattery’.

The eight stories in this first collection are:

1. The Ides of March

Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders is invited to a game of baccarat at Raffles’s rooms in the Albany, a posh apartment block in a little square just off Piccadilly. (Bunny himself lives in rooms in Mount Street.) Bunny was Raffles’s fag at public school. He loses badly at the card game and ends up having to write cheques for £200 to all the other players. When they’ve all left, Bunny tearfully confesses to Raffles that he hasn’t got the money, in fact he hasn’t got any money.

Suavely and confidently, Raffles confides in the young chap that – neither has he! Despite living in a swanky apartment and doing nothing except play a spot of cricket in the summer, he is in fact penniless. The interest in this first story is how Raffles converts Bunny to a life of crime. First he gets him to admit that he needs to do something for money, even something desperate. Then he reminds Bunny of how they used to break the rules at school and asks how he’d feel about ‘breaking the rules’ now. Step by subtle step, Raffles generally leads Bunny on to the brink of admitting that, yes, he would even steal to get the money.

‘Do you remember how we used to break into the studies at school? Here goes!’

At which point, after pausing and considering a bit, Raffles asks him to come along to borrow some money from a friend who lives round the corner. ‘At this hour?’ Bunny asks. ‘Chop, chop old chap’, says the suave head of the cricket eleven, and leads Bunny out into the foggy muddy pavements of Piccadilly.

Raffles takes Bunny to Bond Street and then unlocks the door which gives on to stairs leading up to a flat above a high-class jewellers. ‘So where’s this friend?’ Bunny asks, as a sinking feeling comes over him. Slowly he realises that the flat is empty, abandoned, vacant. The realisation dawns that… Raffles has come to burgle the jewellers.

Over the next few hours Bunny watches Raffles at work, and very impressive it is, too. Raffles has previously reconnoitred the place, and realised that the vacant apartment shared a backyard with the jewellers. So he had approached the estate agent expressing interest in buying the flat and was given a key.

This is how he comes to be able to let himself and Bunny in, taking Bunny through the flat and then down into the basement area between the two properties. Here Raffles crosses the line by breaking open the window into the jewellers. Through the kitchen and up the stairs where they discover… a very strong mahoganny door blocking entry into the jewellers shop.

Raffles removes the lock by painstakingly drilling a series of holes round it. Beyond it is a metal grille door, but Raffles has a set of skeleton keys, one of which opens it. they’re in!

Raffles posts Bunny as a lookout at the street window of the flat and loots all the jewellery he can find, pausing whenever Bunny makes a sign that the local policeman is walking by.

Then they wash their hands and faces (all that drilling was dirty work), lock up what can be locked up, exit and stroll back along Piccadilly to Raffles’s flat. That’s it.

‘Enjoy it?’ Raffles asks Bunny. I’ll quote the entire exchange because, in a sense, it’s the crucial temptation scene, the moment when Bunny passes over to the Dark Side.

‘Like it?’ I cried out. ‘Not I! It’s no life for me. Once is enough!”
You wouldn’t give me a hand another time?’
‘Don’t ask me, Raffles. Don’t ask me, for God’s sake!’
‘Yet you said you would do anything for me! You asked me to name my crime! But I knew at the time you didn’t mean it; you didn’t go back on me to-night, and that ought to satisfy me, goodness knows! I suppose I’m ungrateful, and unreasonable, and all that. I ought to let it end at this. But you’re the very man for me, Bunny, the – very – man! Just think how we got through to-night. Not a scratch – not a hitch! There’s nothing very terrible in it, you see; there never would be, while we worked together.’

He was standing in front of me with a hand on either shoulder; he was smiling as he knew so well how to smile. I turned on my heel, planted my elbows on the chimney-piece, and my burning head between my hands. Next instant a still heartier hand had fallen on my back.

‘All right, my boy! You are quite right and I’m worse than wrong. I’ll never ask it again. Go, if you want to, and come again about mid-day for the cash. There was no bargain; but, of course, I’ll get you out of your scrape – especially after the way you’ve stood by me to-night.’

I was round again with my blood on fire
‘I’ll do it again,’ I said, through my teeth.
He shook his head. ‘Not you,’ he said, smiling quite good-humoredly on my insane enthusiasm.

‘I will,’ I cried with an oath. ‘I’ll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I’ve been in it once. I’ll be in it again. I’ve gone to the devil anyhow. I can’t go back, and wouldn’t if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me, I’m your man!’

And that is how Raffles and I joined felonious forces on the Ides of March.

2. A Costume Piece

Big, brash, loud multi-millionaire Reuben Rosenthall turns up from the diamond fields in South Africa, dominates the newspapers and gossip columns, and holds a huge dinner inviting all the press, at which he boasts of his enormous fortune, the two huge diamonds in his tie-pin and ring, introduces the prize fighter, Billy Purvis, as his bodyguard and pulls out a gun and wants to decorate the hall wall with bullet holes until talked out of it by his hosts.

Well, in case we hadn’t realised it before, this second story gives the author the opportunity of showing just how much Raffles considers himself an artist of crime, an ‘insatiable artist’. Stealing stuff for the sake of it is common and vulgar. The real artist likes a challenge.

Raffles would plan a fresh enormity, or glory in the last, with the unmitigated enthusiasm of the artist.

And few challenges were more obvious than the richest man in Britain offering to take on all-comers.

Raffles takes Bunny to the studio which he rents down an alley in Chelsea. He tells the landlord he’s an ‘artist’ and needs all these costume and props for his models. In fact, the costumes and props are disguises for all occasions.

A few days later, Bunny finds Raffles masquerading as a smelly old tramp near Rosenthall’s hired house in St John’s Wood. Raffles tells him the job will be the next evening.

So they dress up as Shoreditch roughs and sneak through the garden of the house next door. When they see Rosenthall, Purvis and two ladies of the night loudly exit the house and pile into a carriage which sweeps off down the drive, Raffles says, ‘Go go go.’

They leap over the wall, but have barely made it through the open french windows into the dining room before all the lights go on and they find themselves looking down the barrel of a bunch of revolvers.

Rosenthall and Purvis have double-bluffed them, known about their plans for weeks. Raffles immediately starts talking in a broad East End thief dialect. He uses the one piece of information he has about Rosenthall which is that the millionaire is suspected of receiving stolen diamond. This infuriates Rosenthal and his man, Purvis, makes a lunge at Raffles, but this momentarily blocks Rosenthall’s line of fire and Raffles is out of the window in flash, over the wall, through the bushes and gone.

While the other two search for him, Bunny legs it upstairs and hides in a bedroom where, after some searching, Rosenthall and Purvis finally find him and drag him downstairs.

They are just considering what to do with him, when there’s a ring at the door and a policeman walks in who says he is responding to reports of a disturbance from alarmed neighbours. Rosenthall and Purvis indicate that Bunny was one of the burglars at which point the constable briskly handcuffs Bunny and frog marches him out of the building, telling Rosenthall and Purvis that reinforcements will be along in a minute to investigate the burglary.

The policeman is, of course, Raffles, in yet another of his disguises. Well, their plan to rob Rosenthall didn’t come off, so be it:

‘But, by Jove, we’re jolly lucky to have come out of it at all!’

3. Gentlemen and Players

Raffles is, of course, a master of cricket, the ultimate English idea of the gentleman’s game:

a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade,

His cricket prowess gets them invited to a house party down at Milchester Abbey, seat of posh Lord Amersteth, who is hosting a week of Gentlemen versus Players competitions.

Every detail of this story reads like a P.G. Wodehouse comedy, from the deaf old dowager with her ear trumpet, to the callow son of Lord Amersteth, to the dainty young lady, Miss Melhuish, who sits next to Bunny at dinner and tells him an awfully, frightfully, scandalous secret.

Bunny’s reaction to the whole situation, and to Raffles’s imperturbably sang-froid, is priceless.

Of course Raffles has accepted the invitation because he plans to steal the jewels of the posh guests. But Miss Melhuish’s Big Secret had been that one of the guests is a detective from London because two famous London thieves are in the neighbourhood.

This leads to all kinds of comic complications, especially on the part of Bunny, who completely fails to realise that the Scottish ‘photographer’ he spends an hour chatting with after dinner is the detective. Bunny is now terrified that the two London thieves being pursued are him and Raffles.

But they’re not. It is a different set of London thieves. This gang proceeds to carry out an audacious burglary, with inside help from some of Lord Amersteth’s servants, and the room of the Dowager Marchioness of Melrose with the fine jewels is broken into.

Everyone is woken by the rumpus made by the London detective grappling with one of the ‘inside men’ i.e. one of the servants who had helped with the job. Raffles, first on the spot, volunteers to take over holding him guard while the detective – Mackenzie of the Yard – goes dashing out into the garden to try and catch the rest of the gang who have meanwhile shinned down a rope from her Ladyship’s room and are escaping through the garden.

Things take a slightly serious turn when Mackenzie is shot, though survives. The thieves get away. All the guests stay up the rest of the night, discussing the events, on through breakfast and the cab journey to the nearby station and the train ride home.

Only when the train has arrived at Paddington and Raffles and Bunny are alone in a hansom cab, does Raffles reveal that in all the confusion he had darted into the Marchioness’s room and – stolen her necklace!

Burglary as wizard wheeze!

4. Le Premier Pas

Raffles tells Bunny about his first caper. He was on a cricket tour of Australia when his hand was damaged in Melbourne. He desperately needed funds and, asking around and giving his name to people, was amazed to come across a doctor who knew of a relative of Raffles’s who was a bank manager. Who had just taken up a new position in a township fifty miles south, name of Yea.

Raffles saw the opportunity to go and beg money from this distant relative so he borrows the doctor’s fat old mare (who needs an outing) and sets off along a dusty road in the Outback.

At a forest of eucalyptus trees a horse comes bounding out, with a bloody saddle. Raffles blocks it, grabs the reins just as another horseman comes riding up. This horseman is a very rough looking man. He gives the explanation his mate just rode into the branch of a tree, got a bloody nose and fell off, and that he’s come to fetch his horse.

Puzzled, and a little scared, Raffles rides on, arriving at the township of Yea at sunset. He goes to the bank and makes himself known to the man there and then – realises that he’s walking into a big misunderstanding. His namesake, W.F. Raffles, hasn’t yet arrived and the bank official (Ewbank) mistakes Raffles for the new manager.

There is a moment in the conversation when Raffles could have cleared up the misunderstanding, been honest, and waited for his distant relation to arrive. In that moment, he recollects the rough guy and wild horse he saw earlier, and wonders whether they were bushwhackers who had waylaid his namesake. Maybe his namesake has been delayed, kidnapped or even shot.

In that moment, partly out of need and partly for the fun of the thing, Raffles decides to impersonate his namesake and see what opportunities arise.

There follow a couple of pages of comedy as Raffles desperately tries to keep up with what Ewbank knows about the new manager, not least the story that he once saw off an armed robber at his previous job. All this Raffles has to bluff his way through, and finds it nerve-racking but also very exciting.

He asks for a full tour round the bank, and then stays up late jawing with Ewbank, emptying his own drink when the other isn’t watching, trying to get Ewbank as drunk as possible. Eventually Ewbank goes to bed. So does Raffles – for a few hours. Then he sneaks out and saddles the mare, then sneaks down into the bank and, using the keys Ewbank has shown him, lets himself through a door, which leads to steps down into the strong room. Here he fills his pockets with gold sovereigns, carefully balancing the weight. But then—!!!!

He hears banging at the front door of the bank! Caught in the act!!

The banging keeps on till the drunk Ewbank stirs and comes downstairs. Raffles overhears it all. His namesake has arrived and, yes, he was captured and tied up by the bushwhackers. But has worked his way free and here he is more dead than alive.

Raffles hears all this, trapped downstairs in the strong room with the blood pounding in his ears. Ewbank realises that he has been taken in by an imposter (Raffles) and becomes very angry. He grabs his revolver and he and the other Raffles quietly go upstairs to the bedroom where they think our hero is asleep.

Which gives our hero the chance to very, very quietly tiptoe up the stairs from the strong room, along the corridor to the back door, out into the paddock, climb onto the mare and walk her very slowly out into the shadow of the other buildings and towards the road out of town.

There follows a vivid description of Raffles’s ride through the forest of eucalyptus at night with his head pressed against the horse’s mane. He arrives back at Melbourne, stashes the gold in his hotel room, returns the horse to the doctor who is a little puzzled and suspicious but does nothing.

The cricket tour ends. The team return to England. Raffles has discovered a new hobby – thieving!

5. Wilful Murder

Bunny learns that Raffles fences his stolen goods by dressing up in the outfit of an East End crook, and going to meet a fence and swindler named Baird. He puts on a thick slum accent for the purpose – all part of the fun of the game. Except that on his most recent visit, Baird for the first time sees though him and follows him back towards his apartment. Raffles realises he’s being followed. This could be serious.

He takes Bunny for dinner and for the first time Raffles talks about the joys of burglary, giving a surprisingly shallow speech about what larks it would be to have committed a murder and then walk into the club where all the chaps are discussing it and knowing that you are the culprit.

He then sets off to Willesden (which, it is fascinating to learn, was in 1899 still a village on the edge of open countryside) where Baird lives, with Bunny in reluctant but half-fascinated pursuit. They climb over the spiked gate into Baird’s garden, sneak up to the house and carefully cut open the glass with the diamond and treacle trick (look it up) before – discovering Baird’s body at their feet, his head beaten to a bloody pulp with a nearby poker.

This wasn’t part of the plan.

Upstairs they find young Jack Rutter, for some months now a byword among polite Society for dissolution and demoralisation. They discover he was deeply in debt to Baird, with no way to escape, was threatened with ruin and had finally – taken matters into his own hands by battering the old fence and loan shark to death.

Reeling from this discovery, Raffles decides they must take Rutter with them and they leave the house as quietly as they can. All the way home the man is raving that he has done the crime and he must hand himself in, with Raffles begging him to shut up.

Bunny doesn’t see his hero for a few days and, when he does, learns that Raffles took Rutter – still keen for martyrdom at the hands of the law – to his Chelsea hideout, where he fixed him up with a disguise, then caught the train together to Liverpool, where he bought Rutter a ticket to New York and a new life.

6. Nine Points of the Law

Raffles answers an advert in the Daily Telegraph promising two thousand pounds for anyone prepared to take A RISK. He and Bunny are invited to the chambers of a rather shady lawyer and told the problem.

Sir Bernard Debenham has a disreputable son who has drunk and gambled his way into debt. Last time he went down to Sir Bernard’s big country house in Esher the father refused to bail the son out any more. Whereupon the son secretly cut out of its frame a priceless Velasquez painting. He smuggled it up to town and sold it to an unscrupulous Australian tycoon and collector who’s visiting the Old Country, the Honourable J. M. Craggs, M.L.C.

The task is: to reclaim the stolen Velasquez.

Raffles sets off on a whirlwind tour, training it down to Esher to see Sir Bernard, then back up to town, hurrying in and out and not telling Bunny any of his plans.

Then, abruptly, he tells Bunny to make a dinner date for all three of them in Craggs’s rooms at the Metropole Hotel. Bunny assumes he is to be a decoy. He imagines that while he talks to Cragg in one room, Raffles will go to work to extract the rolled up painting from the map carrier in the other room (which is where they’ve discovered it’s hidden).

Bunny shows up for the dinner date at the Metropolem but Raffles doesn’t, and sends a telegram of apology. In actual fact, a little way into the meal, Bunny thinks he can hear Raffles working in the adjoining room and so raises his voice and laughs at inappropriate moments, all the while being subjected to hours of excruciating conversation about the wonderfulness of Australia. It becomes clear that Cragg is a vulgar bore who only bought the picture to upstage an equally vulgar rival back in Oz.

Finally, Cragg insists on showing Bunny the painting itself, and the latter nerves himself for the stream of Australian abuse which will no doubt issue from the millionaire’s mouth when he discovers that the picture is gone. Except that it isn’t. Cragg gets out the map case, opens it, takes out the Velasquez, unfurls it and generally shows off about it.

Bunny is appalled. Raffles must have muffed his opportunity.

Bunny lets Cragg replace the painting, and carries on drinking hard with him until Cragg is so drunk that Bunny has to help him back into his room, where he promptly passes out.

Bunny nips back to his own rooms in Mount Street (which are in Mayfair, only a short cab ride from the Metropole, which was at Charing Cross), then returns, letting himself back up to Cragg’s room. Here he puts a chloroform-soaked hankie over the big man’s nose to make sure he really is out for the count.

Then he extracts the painting from the map case, wraps it round his own body under his coat, gets a cab to Waterloo, and the first train to Esher. He takes a hansom cab to Sir Bernard Debenham’s house where he finds Raffles and, beaming with pride, tells him how he’s saved the day.

Except that he hasn’t. As the reader well suspects, Raffles had successfully carried out the retrieval of the painting, and had replaced the real Velasquez with a fake.

It was procuring this fake which had entailed all the rushing round town which Bunny had partly witnessed. Bunny has gone and taken – the fake! Oh well, Cragg won’t find out till he opens up the case in Australia and will probably be too embarrassed to make a fuss.

Bunny is so mortified that he declares on the spot that he’s going to pack in this life of crime, and go straight!

7. The Return Match

In the third story in this volume, Gentlemen and Players, Raffles and Bunny had gone down to Milchester Abbey for a week of cricket and been caught up in an attempted burglary. Most of the gang had eventually been caught, including the infamous ringleader, Mr. Reginald Crawshay.

Now, in his rooms at the Albany, Raffles reads to Bunny a newspaper report that Crawshay has escaped from Dartmoor prison. Not only that, but he’s stolen the clothes of at least two different civilians in order to escape in disguise.

Raffles suspects he’s heading to London. Why? Because Crawshay wrote Raffles a letter in which he politely and facetiously looked forward to a return match with our hero i.e. revenge. Barely has Raffles finished reading all this, than Mr. Reginald Crawshay emerges from the shadows of the hallway into Raffles’s own flat. Here is right there! Ah. This is tricky.

After much banter it emerges that all  Crawshay actually wants is for Raffles to help him get away, and out of England.

Crawshay has, after all, one enormous advantage over our heroes, which is that he knows that they stole the Marchioness’s jewels. He could blackmail them if he wants to. It’s asmuch in Raffles and Bunny’s interest to help him escape, as it is in Crawshay’s. After agreeing that he’s got them over a barrel, our heroes leave Mr Crawshay with his feet up in front of a fire

They set off towards a station but haven’t even got out of the little square in front of the Albany before they walk past a figure they recognise as Inspector Mackenzie, the Scotland Yard detective who was shot and injured down at Milchester Abbey.

They turn and say good evening to him and are alarmed to discover that the police have tracked Crawshay all the way across London to these very buildings. Raffles reminds the inspector of the service he did the police at Milchester and asks to come along in their investigations. So Mackenzie allows Raffles and Bunny to accompany him up to a vacant room, which the Albany’s manager says funny noises have been heard coming from.

A copper then climbs out onto the lead roof and discovers a rope tied round a chimney, and dangling down above a window… six rooms in. Crawshay must have come up to this empty room, climbed along the roof, then let himself down to the window of… of which room? Mackenzie asks the manager.

Quick as a flash the latter replies, ‘That would be Mr Raffles’s rooms, sir’. ‘Aha’, says Mackenzie. Bunny feels his heart beating fit to burst.

But Raffles is coolness itself and says this has all been very interesting but in fact he now has to rush off for an appointment. He will leave his key with the constable downstairs. Mackenzie can’t say fairer than that.

Looking out the window Bunny sees him hustle, wrapped up tight against the cold fog, towards the entrance to their staircase. And a minute or so later re-emerge, stop with the constable guarding the staircase the police are investigating, and hand over the key, before moving briskly towards Piccadilly.

Then, with a heavy heart, Bunny follows Mackenzie and the police as they go down one flight of stairs, collect the key Raffles has left with the constable, and then go along and up Raffles’s flight.

They open the door to Raffles’s apartment but, instead of finding Crawshay lounging in front of a fire, they find… the figure of Raffles on the floor in front of the fire, with blood on his forehead from a gash and a bloodied poker nearby!!

Coming round, Raffles groggily tells Mackenzie that Crawshay was laying in wait and attacked him before making off with his coat. Bunny of course realises it was another wizard wheeze – Raffles, under extreme pressure, devised the plan of giving Crawshay his coat and instructing him to swaddle himself in it and give his apartment key to the waiting policeman before making his getaway, leaving Raffles to hit himself with the poker, not too hard, making it all look as if Crawshay hit him and escaped.

Just the kind of ‘sport’ which Raffles lives for.

8. The Gift of the Emperor

‘Violence is a confession of terrible incompetence.’

The opening of this story requires a historical footnote. Hornung uses rather facetious and obscure language to refer to what I take to be an actual historical event – which is that the King of Fiji in some way snubs some kind of gift or compliment from Queen Victoria; and to emphasise the snub, the Kaiser of Germany sends an immensely valuable pearl to the king.

This little diplomatic spat caused a storm of indignation in Britain but, more importantly for our hero, it meant that a jewel of immense value was very publicly being sent by steamer to the South Seas.

Thus it is that the story opens with Raffles booking a berth on the German steamer which is transporting this pearl to the South Seas.

We discover that Bunny really has gone through with his threat to give up his life of crime. He is trying to make a career as a freelance writer and, as a consequence, has been forced to give up his Mayfair flat and move out of London to suburban Thames Ditton.

Nonetheless, Raffles manages to persuade him to come on this jolly trip. Maybe he will get some writing done!

Thus it is that Raffles and Bunny take ship to Hamburg where they board the steamer. Raffles quickly identifies the courier of the pearl as one Captain Wilhelm von Heumann. Raffles annoys Bunny by paying lots of attention to a whippersnapper of a young Australian girl, which Bunny thinks is uncharacteristic and distraction from the job in hand. Until he realises that von Heumann has himself been paying the girl a very heavily Teutonic wooing, during which he has shown her the pearl: thus Raffles is flirting with her solely to ascertain its hiding place in the German’s cabin.

Once he does so, Raffles reveals his ingenious plan to Bunny. He strips naked and climbs through the ventilator shaft which connects his ventilator to those of all the other cabins on the same level (including von Heumann’s).

Von Heumann routinely drinks too much at lunchtime, so it is a doddle to suspend a hankie dipped in chloroform over the snoring German’s face until he is really unconscious – and then climb into the cabin, find the pearl, prise it out of its setting, and clamber back into the ventilator shaft, clip von Heumann’s ventilator back into place, and so back to his cabin and the anxiously waiting Bunny.

Like a scene from hundreds of heist movies.

But his triumph is quickly dashed. As the ship steams out of Genoa a new passenger is put aboard. It is none other that Inspector Mackenzie, Raffles’s old nemesis. After a tantalising delay wondering what the inspector’s presence portends, Raffles and Bunny are called into the captain’s cabin, wherein sit von Heumann, Mackenzie and a very beefy first mate.

Long story short – Mackenzie has a warrant for Raffles’s arrest, invoking the Marchioness jewels and two other burglaries. Now they all suspect him of stealing the pearl. Looks like they’ve got him bang to rights. After pretending to get a bit cross, Raffles gives up and shows them where he’s hidden the pearl – inside one of the bullets of his revolver.

But Raffles begs one last request before they put the cuffs on him. He says he’s gotten engaged to the young Australian lassie he’s been chatting to throughout the voyage, and he asks permission to say goodbye to her.

So the forces of law and order escort Raffles to the part of deck where the young lady is promenading, and he gives her a farewell kiss. Then – in a flash – pushes her aside, leaps up onto the rail, waves goodbye to all and sundry, and makes a perfect dive into the sea beneath.

It is sunset and Raffles is immediately hidden in the gathering shadows of the boat and the waves.

Bunny is thrown into the brig in shackles but he thinks he saw, before they dragged him away from the rail, a small dark shape bobbing on the water. Was it the head of a swimmer making for the shore and freedom? Did Raffles survive?


Power, love and control

Bunny was Raffles’s fag at their public school. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to see how it is this master-and-servant relationship which is revived in the first story and forms the basis for everything which follows. Bunny doesn’t enter into a working partnership with Raffles, so much as become his hero-worshipping slave.

It is interesting to learn that Hornung deliberately injected into the relationship a little of the feeling between Oscar Wilde and his ill-fated lover, Alfred Douglas. Raffles is very, very languid at some moments, drawling outrageous cynicisms though his cigarette smoke, while Bunny is so very much in boyish awe of him.

One had not to be a cricketer oneself to appreciate his perfect command of pitch and break, his beautifully easy action, which never varied with the varying pace, his great ball on the leg-stump – his dropping head-ball – in a word, the infinite ingenuity of that versatile attack. It was no mere exhibition of athletic prowess, it was an intellectual treat, and one with a special significance in my eyes. I saw the ‘affinity between the two things’, saw it in that afternoon’s tireless warfare against the flower of professional cricket. It was not that Raffles took many wickets for few runs; he was too fine a bowler to mind being hit; and time was short, and the wicket good. What I admired, and what I remember, was the combination of resource and cunning, of patience and precision, of head-work and handiwork, which made every over an artistic whole. It was all so characteristic of that other Raffles whom I alone knew!

Isn’t that very final sentence the sentiment of a lover? An adoring lover, smug in the knowledge that he, and only he, knows all the secrets of this charming and fascinating man.

I looked at Raffles. I had done so often during the evening, envying him his high spirits, his iron nerve, his buoyant wit, his perfect ease and self-possession.

There was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles when his mind was made up… His arm slid through mine, with his little laugh of light-hearted mastery.

As he spoke he was himself again – quietly amused – cynically unperturbed – characteristically enjoying the situation and my surprise.

I confess to some little prejudice against her. I resented her success with Raffles, of whom, in consequence, I saw less and less each day. It is a mean thing to have to confess, but there must have been something not unlike jealousy rankling within me.

‘his little laugh of light-hearted mastery’

Morality?

I have little or no patience for ‘morality’ in art or literature. ‘Morality’, Freud says somewhere, ‘is obvious’, and I agree. Be decent and respectful to each other would be a start, quite a big start, for most people. Discussing arcane points of ‘morality’ is not only interminable and tedious but also irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day lives.

I can see, however, that a theme or thread running through the stories is the tension between Bunny’s hero worship attraction towards Raffles and his dazzling amorality, and the repulsion generated by his traditional ‘morality” or moral code – stealing is wrong (although it may just be – like so many ‘moral feelings’, based on cruder physical motives: Stealing is nerve-wracking and dangerous).

Anyway, I can see how this set of stories could easily be read not as a set of eight straight dashing exploits, but as a very Victorian morality tale of record of Bunny’s fall from decent behavour, then attempt to free himself by forswearing burglary, and then his come-uppance.

In the last story Raffles gets away, Bunny is clamped in irons and – we learn, rather surprisingly – is sent to prison.

Of what followed on deck I can tell you nothing, for I was not there. Nor can my final punishment, my long imprisonment, my everlasting disgrace, concern or profit you, beyond the interest and advantage to be gleaned from the knowledge that I at least had my deserts.

Public school amorality and the British Empire

I can’t help noticing that Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories about amoral but dashing schoolboys, Stalky and Co., was published in the same year as Raffles, 1899. Stalky and his pals are also fiercely amoral, ducking school rules, conducting feuds and vendettas and punishments – but nonetheless bound by their own schoolboy notions of honour and silence.

However, they are very different in tone – Kipling’s schoolboy stories are, as so often, cruel, gloating and sadistic, whereas Hornung’s are light and gay. Kipling’s style is clipped and sometimes all but unreadable, whereas Hornung’s are meant to be easy-to-consume after-dinner reading.

But both of them share the assumption that public school-educated chaps can get away with more or less anything, because deep down (sometimes very deep down) they are honourable and decent.

It isn’t doing things which are immoral or criminal which brings disgrace. It is doing anything vulgar or crude. It is doing anything which is ‘bad form’. It is letting the side down. After the Indian Mutiny there was a new emphasis among the British ruling classes in keeping up tone, maintaining the form of the thing, playing the game.

It wasn’t necessary to be strictly legal or play by the rules – after all, the empire had been built by a load of chaps who generally bent the rules, often to breaking point. But all this was redeemed by the fact that they were chaps like us. White men who know how to play the game, especially the game of games, the epitome of the spirit of the British Empire – cricket. Raffles’s expertise at cricket is a simple indicator that deep down, right at bottom – no matter how many burglaries and other crimes he is involved in – he is, ultimately, one of us.

Comedy

It is a comedy. Nothing serious happens and if it does it is glossed over with high good spirits, while Bunny paints both his and Raffle’s characters with humorous self-deprecation, in the stylishly amused tone of the moneyed upper classes. Arriving at a house party in the country, Bunny is overwhelmed by poshness.

The chief signs of festival were within, where we found an enormous house-party assembled, including more persons of pomp, majesty, and dominion than I had ever encountered in one room before. I confess I felt overpowered. Our errand and my own presences combined to rob me of an address upon which I have sometimes plumed myself.

‘Address’ is here used in an older sense meaning self-possession and self-presentation. ‘An address upon which I have sometimes plumed myself’ simultaneously combines toffish self-depreciation with toffish assertion. ‘Plumed’. To plume oneself. What a great word.

I’m not really familiar with P.G. Wodehouse but this feels like a precursor of the brisk, upper-class amusement of the Jeeves stories. Lots of the writing is done with great timing and dryness.

‘Candidly, and on consideration,’ said the lawyer, ‘I am not sure that you ARE the stamp of men for me – men who belong to good clubs! I rather intended to appeal to the – er – adventurous classes.’
‘We are adventurers,’ said Raffles gravely.

Language and style

I suffered from a persistent ineffectual feeling after style.

I’ve just been reading the detective stories of Arthur Morrison, more or less contemporary with Hornung, and found myself continually comparing the two writers.

Obviously, Hornung’s stories are light and funny and stylish, whereas Morrison’s are effective little puzzles but often a little dull. But the one really striking difference between them is in their use of language.

Morrison, in all his works, makes heavy weather of using pretentiously archaic and ‘literary’ words like ‘withal’ and ‘ere’ and ‘thereunto’ (none of which appear in Hornung). In his stories about East End slums, this vocabulary is used partly to create a bitter irony between the pompous language and the savage events being described. In his detective stories it is maybe intended to denote the author’s literary abilities and provenance.

But where Morrison uses posh English to create a tone or voice – Hornung uses French and Latin. The narrative voice of Bunny, and the direct speech of Raffles, use Latin or French tags with the blithe confidence of the expensively educated. Morrison’s prose is trying to appear literate and educated. Hornung’s prose effortlessly is so.

‘Enfin, he begs or borrows.’

‘Ergo, as we’re Britishers, they think we’ve got it!”

The man was au fait with cracksmen.

The diamond, the pot of treacle, and the sheet of brown paper which were seldom omitted from his impedimenta.

‘One of the most complete young black-guards about town, and the fons et origo of the whole trouble.’

‘He gives me carte blanche in the matter.’

‘And I had done it myself, single-handed – ipse egomet!’

Not only given to quoting tags from foreign languages, Raffles is just the type of languid dandy who easily quotes from the flowers of literature (Bunny is surprised to find in Raffles’s rooms at the Albany quite so many volumes of poetry – ‘there had always been a fine streak of aestheticism in his complex composition’) or makes knowing references to classic literature.

I particularly liked the moment when Raffles comes across bunny dozing in his bed on their long sea voyage, and knowingly remarks: ‘Achilles on his bunk’.

The poetry quotes aren’t extensive or particularly impressive – he quotes pretty obvious Major Poets such as Tennyson and Keats – it’s more that they indicate the cultured hinterland which Raffles can draw on at will.

A half-educated man uses long, pretentious English words, sometimes not entirely accurately. This was what made listening to trades union leaders in the 1970s so funny.

A well-educated man, by contrast, doesn’t need to – he can use common or garden English prose most of the time, but sprinkle it with just enough Latin and French tags, or casual quotes from the higher literature, to signal his cultural savoir faire.

Raffles’ and Bunny’s Latin and French and Keats and Tennyson offer the same kind of reassurance on the cultural level, that Raffles’s cricketing prowess does on the sporting front – assuring the educated reader of his day and, maybe, still, of ours, that he is one of us!

Arthur Raffles, gentleman thief (standing) and his sidekick Harry 'Bunny' Manders

Arthur Raffles, gentleman thief (standing) and his sidekick Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989)

‘Zina said words freed you or fucked you or turned you inside out. Every word, every single one, was a weapon or a chain or a pair of wings.’ (p.275)

Polar Star is a brilliantly interesting, richly diverse and engaging thriller. It is 437 pages long in my 1990 Fontana paperback edition and divided into three sections: Water, Earth, Ice.

Water (217 pages)

At the end of Gorky Park – the bestselling novel which introduced the character of coldly effective Moscow detective Arkady Renko – our hero had uncovered a smuggling ring led by a rich American who was paying off corrupt Soviet officials. The bloody shootout at the climax of the novel is set in New York but, although given the chance to run away with the woman he’s fallen in love with, Irina, Arkady refuses and returns to the Soviet Union.

Now, eight years later, Cruz Smith published this sequel, and it seems a similar period has elapsed in Arkady’s life. Gorky Park was set in spring and summer 1977, Polar Star refers to the ‘New Thinking’ inaugurated by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985…

Polar Star is the name of an enormous fishing factory ship, which has been working the Bering Sea for four long cold months, its 250 crew processing the vast hauls of fish brought to it by four supporting catcher boats. These latter are American and the two nations are collaborating via a jointly-owned company which shares the profits.

The novel opens powerfully with a vast net full of fish being hauled up the ramp onto the Star and among the tens of thousands of pollock, cod, crabs and so on which pour onto the boat, comes the corpse of a young woman, Zina Patiashvili, a popular member of the catering staff. Grizzled old sea captain Viktor Marchuk sends for – who else – Arkady Renko, a man with a shady background who has been expelled from jobs all across continental Russia till he arrived in the far east of the country at Vladivostock, and who has been working on the ship’s disgusting, below deck ‘slime line’.

Flashbacks

In flashbacks we learn that, immediately upon returning to the USSR after the events of Gorky Park, Arkady was incarcerated in a psychiatric institute where he was interrogated with the use of drugs by the authorities who, more than anything else, wanted to know the whereabouts of his girlfriend/lover Irina. As he doesn’t know, he couldn’t tell them. In a strangely moving scene, he is visited one day by the KGB major, Pribluda, who started Gorky Park as Arkady’s bitter enemy, but ended as his grudging ally. Paying back a debt incurred in the earlier novel, Pribluda smuggles Arkady out of the prison and onto an eastbound train, complete with new clothes and fake papers. ‘Stay out east and no one will bother you.’ (pp.111-124)

Other flashbacks fill in Arkady’s years on the run from one low-paid job to another, always staying one step ahead of KGB agents, travelling across Siberia until he arrives in Vladivostok. Here, desperate to escape land, he signs on to the Polar Star for a long, rusty, salty year, working on the ‘slime line’, gutting and cleaning fish for the freezer, eight hours a day, day in, day out.

Arkady’s investigations

Now Arkady finds himself unwillingly tangling with the pushy third mate in charge of the investigation, Slava Bukovsky, and with the shipboard commissar or Party enforcer, Volovoi. The ship doctor Vunai and officials gather together to declare Zina’s death an accident, but Arkady embarrasses them by almost certainly proving it murder. Over the next 200 pages we follow Arkady – liberated from the prison of the below-decks production line – and given carte blanche to explore the intricate world of ship-board life, its complex network of friendships and alliances.

The Russians

  • Zina Patiashvili – Arkady finds out a lot more about her. Far from being the non-entity she appears at the start, Arkady finds a stash of tapes she’d made recording her conversations and encounters: she had sex with a ‘lieutenant’ in what might be a secret intelligence room somewhere on the ship; there are tapes of a man singing traditional Russian slave songs. Searching her cabin thoroughly he finds uncut precious stones sewn into the lining of one of her jackets. There was more to her than meets the eye.
  • Captain Marchuk – gruffly honest, he turns out to have had a one-night stand with Zina back in Vladivostok. He describes picking her up in a bar and going back to her apartment which looked like it was shared with an absent man – and this opinion is repeated by the radio officer, the one Arkady later identifies as the ‘lieutenant’ in Zina’s recordings of their encounters. Both thought Zina was living with someone back in Vladivostok – so who was he? What was she doing with the hidden jewels? Who else had she had sex with?
  • Volovoi – in the early phases Arkady is opposed by the political commissar, Volovoi, who wants Zina’s death to be a simple accident, for his own and the ship’s good. Volovoi is in charge of two snoops or sneaks, Skiba and Slezko, who follow Arkady.
  • To his dismay, the third mate, Slava Bukovsky, is put in charge of the investigation, something he is completely unprepared for.
  • We get to know Arkady’s room-mates – Gury fermenting illegal alcohol from every sort of rotting vegetable matter, Kolya Mer the would-be scientist and botanis, and Obidin the devout Russian Orthodox. It is in the details of their characters and lives and hopes, trammeled by Soviet society, that Cruz Smith scores imaginatively time after time.
  • Natasha Chaikovskaya is the very large young Russian woman – the classic Russian shot putter – and a fiercely orthodox Communist Party activist, who works on the slime line alongside Arkady and starts the novel as his enemy, but gets to see his dedication to the job at first hand and becomes his assistant for the middle sections.
  • Karp Korobetz – the chief trawlmaster turns out to be Arkady’s bitterest enemy, a man Arkady helped convict 15 years earlier, consigning him to a prison camp in Siberia, where he got himself covered in the tattoos of the urka the professional criminal and convict.
  • Hess – mysterious Fleet engineer who appears out of nowhere to be at the captain’s side for the meetings where the captain tasks Arkady with finding the truth about Zina. Arkady suspects, then confirms that Hess is from Naval Intelligence. He has a small cabin in the prow of the ship which is equipped with sonar machines attached to a long cable lined with detectors which the Polar Star trails behind it. Aha. The ship has a secret espionage function. Is that what Zina had stumbled across? Is that why she was murdered?

The Americans

  • Captain George Morgan of the American catch-ship Eagle.
  • Susan Hightower, one of the Americans on permanent secondment to the Star, she was on the deck of the Polar Star and saw Zina the night she went missing. What did they say to each other? Susan starts off very antagonistic to Arkady, this jumped-up fish-worker turned investigator, but ends up falling for him, in fact they end up sleeping together – though right to the end keeping their emotional distance.
  • Ridley and Coletti, cocky unpleasant workers on Morgan’ ship.
  • Mikhail ‘Mike’, a Russian-born Aleutian Islander, also working on the Eagle.

Arkady’s snooping around the ship awakens dark forces. After he has emerged from the mysteriously empty forward hold – which he went to explore wondering whether it contained the secret chamber referred to on one of Zina’s tapes – he is mugged, has petrol-soaked rags thrust in his mouth and a sack pulled over his body. A belt is tied round his middle and he is carried by several men at speed along gangways till he is thrown into the fish cold storage room.

Cruz Smith gives an absolutely brilliant description of an intelligent man quickly starting to freeze to death. Arkady tries a number of futile remedies – within a minute he is shaking too hard to strike the matches in his pocket – and is only saved because the sound of his demented laughing penetrates the padded door as someone happens to be passing. It is Natasha, and it is from her rescue and the subsequent effort she puts in nursing him back to health that their friendship grows, and then he recruits her to help him.

Scared now, of further attack, extra pressure is added when word gets around that Arkady’s investigations may lead to the cancelling of the long-promised shore leave on Dutch Harbour, in the Aleutian Islands, the main reason most of the crew sail on the wretched ship. His shipmates turn surly, there are not so subtle threats against him. The rumours were deliberately spread by commissar Volovoi who wants to return to port with 100% good conduct record for the journey.

At the climax of the section Slava comes bounding into the captain’s cabin declaring he’s found a suicide note from Zina. Thus the crew can go ashore at Dutch Harbour, and a lot of the pressure seems to be released. But Arkady knows there was no suicide note where Slava claims to have found it.

Earth (56 pages)

Arkady watches the crew go ashore. Then, to his surprise, the mysterious German, Hess, in charge of the ship’s secret monitoring equipment, smuggles him ashore where he is free to roam the streets of the little town watching the crew go mad shopping and getting drunk in the town’s one hotel. Susan the American lures him away from the bar to her room where, surprisingly, she is ready to go to bed but Arkady, standing by the window, happens to see ‘Mike’ the Aleutian leaving the back of the hotel.

Arkady apologises to the now furious Susan and slips away to follow the Aleut, up the hillside towards a secret door in the hillside. He enters to find a secret workshop containing a beautiful half-built native kayak. This, native boat building, was mentioned on one of Zina’s tapes. Did she sleep with Mike, as well? Either way, Arkady discovers Mike – who only went through the door a minute or two before Arkady – is dead, a pair of workman’s scissors expertly stabbed through the back of his neck. Yuk.

Arkady is still bending over the body when the commissar Volovoi arrives, having followed him, accompanied by the massive bulk of Karp Korobetz carrying an axe. Volovoi predictably accuses Arkady of the murder. He casually orders Karp to hit Arkady, at his whim, as he tries to beat the truth out of him. But in a weird and intense scene Volovoi badly miscalculates Karp, goading him almost as much as our hero, until Karp turns on his master and – amazingly – plunges a knife right into his throat, forcing Volovoi to sit back on a bench where he gazes astonished at himself bleeding to death. Then Karp turns back to the business of killing Arkady. There is a long cinematic fight which ends with Arkady desperately throwing a paint pot which knocks over a lantern which starts a fire. As the fire takes and grows, Karp calmly closes the door to the workshop and locks Arkady inside.

Desperately, through the flames, Arkady builds a shaky tower of barrels allowing him to swing some netting up towards a hatch in the ceiling of the workshop, which he manages to force open to emerge gasping, beaten and singed onto the hillside.

Ice (54 pages)

In the final section the Polar Star steams north into the Arctic circle, breaking the ice for the American catch ships following behind it. We find out that after escaping from Mike’s fiery workshop, Arkady had thrown himself into the harbour of Dutch Harbour and got himself fished out, pretending to be drunk, the seawater erasing the smell of smoke and explaining his bruises.

He knows Karp is still after him but has no evidence and doesn’t understand why Karp harbours such animosity to him. How are Arkady’s investigations threatening him? How is Karp connected to Zina? The official line is that Mike and Volovoi got drunk together on their shore leave and accidentally set off a disastrous fire. Captain Marchuk and his sidekick Hess realise something else happened but – as usual – Arkady refuses to contradict the official version, keeping everything he knows to himself.

In this the final section a number of things happen:

  • Karp and his men again try to kill Arkady who escapes into the cabin of Susan Hightower. In a James Bondish way she, drunk, seduces him and reveals that she works for American intelligence. She was recruited by Captain Morgan four years earlier. Morgan is hoping to capture some of the cable lined with echo equipment which the Soviets are using to spy on US submarines.
  • Karp traps Arkady again, this time on the half frozen ramp sloping down into the sea up which the fishing nets from the catch ships are hailed. As he closes in, Karp confirms our man’s suspicions that he is running a drug smuggling operation. Small packs of American cocaine were included in the nets of fish routinely transferred from the American ship Eagle in exchange for larger packs of Russian marijuana.
  • Zina was Karp’s moll. She seduced all the men she needed to in order to get herself onto the ship and then to get the lie of the land. Thus she slept with Slava to get recommended to the crew, with the captain to get him under her thumb, with Volovoi to scare him, with the radio officer Nikolai to understand the range and power of the radios, she used sex as an exchange for information, but all the time remained loyal to Karp’s massive, Siberian love.

The Polar Star‘s spying cable gets caught in something and the ship slows and then comes to a standstill amid the ice. The Eagle a few kilometers south is quickly iced in. Arkady takes a chance, dresses warm and descends to the ice and sets off through the fog across the creaking treacherous ice to the American ship, becoming aware halfway that a figure is following him.

Because of the fog Arkady can sneak unobserved onto the ship and begins to search it when he is confronted – again – with the bulk of Karp. It is finally confirmed that Karp needs to kill Arkady to smother the evidence of his drug running and that he and Zina were lovers and that he saw the opportunity of setting up a drug smuggling operation with the Americans and brought Zina in to help him.

Playing furiously for time, Arkady explains he thinks Zina was killed here, on the American boat. Suspicious, Karp lets himself be talked into helping Arkady search the boat while the three crew are above deck trying to clear the ice. They have just found the storage locker where Arkady realises Zina must have been hidden after being killed, a set of bolts in the side explaining bruises on Zina’s corpse, and even a lock of her hair snagged in the door – when a pair of guns appear at their heads.

It is Ridley and Coletti, the Eagle’s crewmen, along with Morgan the captain. In an intense, knife-edge scene they admit to the drug smuggling and agree to kill Arkady. But the captain objects to this – ‘I’ve gone along with the drugs but there’s to be no killing’ – while Arkady simultaneously plays on Karp’s anger by goading Ridley to admit he slept with Zina and then – when she inconveniently appeared on the ship that fateful night – killed her – ‘Sure, she was in the way.’

Suddenly it all kicks off and in a few confused seconds the captain makes a move on Coletti who shoots and badly wounds him, Arkady fires the flare he’s been keeping in his pocket at Ridley, confusing him long enough for Karp to fling a three-tined grappling hook around his face, pulling him backwards screaming then binding it round his body, throwing the rope over an overhead cable and hauling Ridley’s wriggling body up into the air till he’s dead. Keeping Coletti covered, they help captain Morgan back to his feet, who promises to radio the Polar Star that two seamen are making their way back across the ice.

And here, on the polar ice, in the middle of nowhere, lost in the fog, Arkady and Karp have their final reckoning.

Thoughts

This Fontana paperback version of Polar Star is physically longer than Gorky Park (430 v. 350 pages) because it is printed in larger font with fewer words and less information on each page. Its physical thickness, the embossed cover and the lighter pages all made it feel more like a light airport novel than the dense, intense Gorky Park and the text itself reinforces the impression.

There are poetic flashes which gleam like fish scales on the water, but fewer than in the earlier book. Also, whereas every element of the Moscow book was foreign, from the street names to the food served in the horrible cafes, and although in this one the political commissars, and every aspect of life on the fish factory ship reek of Soviet privation, low expectations, shabby goods and drunkenness, and give it a powerfully claustrophobic, spied-on feel – nonetheless, the basic setting of being at sea is rather more international – or nationless – than the first novel. The descriptions of rusty bulkheads, salt-tanged air, mildew, breaking waves, remind me of the numerous other seaborne thrillers I’ve read by Alistair MacLean or Hammond Innes.

Also, we are a little more used to Arkady’s character and to the rhythm of these books: the most important one being his frustrating habit of discovering all sorts of things about the case but not telling  his superiors who go on thinking he’s wasting his time or, worse, is somehow responsible for crimes when we, the reader, have seen him get beaten, shot at and run over by the real baddies umpteen times. Something of the rhythm and feel of the book are, therefore, less intensely fresh than Gorky Park.

But in a way this helps to make it a slightly easier-to-read and therefore more entertaining and in some ways, more powerful book.

Poetry

There is less of the inspired, poetic use of language than in Gorky Park, but it is still here, like threads of gold buried in the weave of the novel, which occasionally gleam into the light.

He wore the enlightened expression of someone who enjoyed the wrong notes in an amateur piano recital. (p.91)

[Marchuk] poured more water for himself, studying the silvery string of liquid. (p.101)

Pribluda killed the engine, and for a moment there was no sound except the settling of snow, all those tons of flakes gently blanketing the city. (p.119)

Under his cap Pribluda had little eyes driven deep as nails. (p.119)

Water so cold seemed molten. Sea water started to crystallise at 29ºF, and because it carried so much brine it formed first not as a solid but as a transparent sheen, undulating on black swells, going grey as it congealed. (p.293)

These occasional flashes are the icing on the cake of a novel which handles its subject matter with supreme confidence. The book conveys astonishing and thoroughly researched insight into the Arctic fishing trade, with all its equipment, processes, the smell of the sea and the rotting fish, and the very rough camaraderie of a large crew at sea for prolonged periods. Much of the poetry is in the information, the depth of knowledge, which allows Smith to describe the ship, its work, the vividly drawn crew members and the freezing seas with such brio.

Soviet

And throughout you are aware of the series’ unique selling point – it is written by an American but set in Soviet Russia and conveys an unparalleled depth of insight into Soviet life and manners.

In the middle of the long table was a pot of cabbage soup that smelled like laundry and was consumed with raw garlic offered on separate plates, along with dark bread, goulash and tea that steamed enough to make the cafeteria as foggy as a sauna. (p.321)

I liked the notion that one form of Russian rebellion against the stifling communist bureaucracy was to create a whole underground of music based on criminal and prisoner songs, songs of crime, drunkenness and loss comparable to the popularity of the blues in the west.

I liked the idea the KGB is a name to inspire fear but also, among the officers, tired exasperation at the way they’re always sticking their nose in – Hess, the sound engineer who works for Naval Intelligence, doesn’t care about the murders on the ship, he is only concerned that the murders will give the KGB the opportunity to discover the expensive spying equipment installed on the Polar Star and steal it.

In a quietly persuasive scene, Captain Marchuk explains that the ship was delivered to Russia brand new from a Polish shipyard, with gleaming fixtures, and then the KGB descended and stripped it of everything valuable, taking all the linen and cutlery, the bulbs, all the fixtures and fittings, and replacing them with substandard Soviet work. In this scene, and numerous others, Smith paints a portrait of a society ruled by fear and run by an elite gluttonous with corruption. Several characters discuss the astonishing greed of Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, well known for her addiction to diamonds. (Her Wikipedia article confirms that she smuggled jewelry out of the USSR on such a scale as to threaten de Beers’ monopoly!)

Arkady’s nemesis, Karp, covered in tattoos except where his skin has been removed with acid by labour camp authorities, is a strangely attractive figure. He has survived the worst the Soviet system can throw at him and has become a kind of superman, effortlessly confident on the icy ramp of the ship where everyone else slips over, calmly confident in fight situations he knows he will always win – and full of stories, from the pimping and robbery he practiced in Moscow, which led eventually to the murder which saw him caught and condemned to life in Siberian labour camps, working in a reindeer slaughterhouse, hunting in the wild. His description of hearing a snow tiger prowling near one camp is hauntingly memorable.

But then so is the whole book. It is a brilliant work.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

The Crime of The Century by Kingsley Amis (1975)

You couldn’t be our man, because it would have to have meant a bloke who writes detective stories had started setting up a detective story in real life, and that kind of thing only happens in detective stories. (p.129)

Amis was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a detective serial to run in the paper in the summer of 1975. Just two years earlier he had published another murder mystery, The Riverside Villas Murder, suburban in setting, domestic in subject, historic in period (1936) and with much extraneous semi-autobiographical material about the lead figure, the 14-year-old boy, Peter Furneaux.

So, as he explains in the 1986 introduction to the paperback edition to this novel, Amis set out to use the Times commission to try and write something at the other end of the spectrum: grand, big public crime, hundreds of coppers called in, meetings in Whitehall, nation’s best minds on the case, etc.

And, due to the serial nature and tightness of space in a newspaper, forcing him to drop almost all extraneous elements of his style in order to focus on plot, plot, plot (multiple red herrings) and more plot.

It’s his shortest text so far, a mere 130 pages in the Penguin paperback, divided into seven chapters, each with a cheesy cliff-hanger – ‘when they tore off the attacker’s mask, the two men stepped back in amazement’ / ‘At that very moment the two men in the hall heard the sounds of gunfire from an upstairs room,’ sort of thing.

Plot

Young women are being murdered in London, stabbed multiple times, then dumped with a couple of letters cut out from newspapers pinned to their clothes. First one has S and O. Next one U and T. Gruesomely, s-o-u-t-h-e-a-s-t is being spelt out.

Quickly a ‘committee’ of national experts is convened, including a top civil servant, a psychiatrist, a hang ’em and flog ’em politician, a famous barrister, several senior coppers and – a little unexpectedly – a famous rock star who turns out to have extensive underworld contacts and to have helped the authorities before, oh and Christopher Dane, the well-known crime writer.

Each chapter throws up wildly false clues and trails:

  • The barrister is seen returning home suspiciously late on the night of one crime, knowing his alcoholic wife is in a drunken stupor but will provide him with an alibi if required.
  • A gang of three chancers calling itself itself the British Liberation Army starts sending in blackmail notes – give us £200,000 or there’ll be another stabbing – and when they refer to unpublicised details of one of the victims, the authorities are forced to comply, a reluctant senior copper meeting one of them on an unnamed heath with a bag of loot, the heath completely surrounded with plain clothes men, but the crook astonishing them all by climbing on to a horse tethered nearby and galloping off faster than any man could pursue. This line of plot gets more complicated when one of the three says he plans to continue the blackmail scam after the others agree to quit while they’re ahead; so they kill him and dump his body with cut-out newspaper letters on it, to confuse…
  • Meanwhile, a creepy man named Mr Addams goes down to the shed at the bottom of his garden, locks himself in while his wife is in the main house watching TV, and places flags with the victims’ names on a big map of London on the wall, adding their cases to the creepy file he is keeping, fingering his knife. Hmmm. Towards the end of the novel he sits bolt upright, walks into the living room, asks his wife where his bike is (he should know), cycles to the nearest police station and hands himself in for the murders. The psychiatrist the police call up declares Addams has total amnesia combined with some sort of copycat psychosis.
  • In a separate development two men drink up at a pub while the bosomy barmaid closes up. They offer to walk her home but she says it’ll be fine, not far to go, and sets off through the empty streets. Very empty. Very creepy. And then someone darts out from a darkened doorway. A hand goes over her mouth, another hand moves a blade to her chest — but she is a strong lass, seizes the smothering hand and knife hand, head butts the attacker as others come running out their houses, attracted by the noise, and they pull of his mask to reveal…. (this is one of the cheesy chapter-ending cliff-hangers)… the crime writer? the radical psychiatrist? the leading QC? No, the disgruntled she’s dumped a few days earlier. Oh.
  • All the time there is a kind of meta-fiction at work, because the work opens with a page of crime detection which we are just getting into when it is revealed to be the first page of Dane’s next crime thriller; he is having trouble with it, but had been working on a plotline of a number of girls getting murdered. Is he acting out his own storyline? Is someone reading his typescript and acting it out? Preposterous. In the committee meetings, he appears to make predictions about the next developments which are proved to be eerily true.
  • In fact, quite early on Dane develops the theory that someone on the committee itself is responsible, and shares it with the only two men who have cast-iron alibis, the two policemen on it, Barry and Young. Their escalating suspicions lead them to set a police guard on all the committee members, with subsequent discussion/debate/assessment of which of them it could be and what their motivations and how strong their alibis, and so on.

After this orgy of disinformation and wild goose chases, the most suspected individual (the reactionary MP) himself tells the police he thinks the whole thing is part of a conspiracy which – abruptly and implausibly – is targeting the Prime Minister himself! Just as an anonymous phone call comes in that ‘the last one will be at 2.30’ ie Prime Ministers Questions!! It is 2pm!!! Police cars career across London, the MP and Barry race into Parliament, through the lobbies, arriving among the throng just as Big Ben rings the half hour, and… and…

Whodunnit? Get a hold of a copy and find out.

Thoughts

The restriction on space immeasurably improves Amis’s style by making him dump all the mannerisms I have enumerated in previous reviews. Every scene, every encounter, every scrap of dialogue is pared to the bone and serves a purpose, generally fleshing out the half dozen or more red herrings which keep the ‘plot’ ticking over nicely. It is an easier, slicker read than any of his previous books.

That said, plot is not Amis’s strong point. An enjoyable enough concoction, a beach read, I didn’t believe a word, and laughed at the supposedly thrilling climax.

Recently I reread Frederick Forsyth’s debut, The Day of The Jackal, surely one of the best thrillers ever written. Amis is not in the same ballpark.

Jackal can be linked to this novel because both have as a central feature a committee trying to solve the case from which vital information is being leaked to the perpetrator. The comparison makes Forsyth look like The Terminator and Amis like an affable old geezer who likes crosswords. Worlds apart.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis (1973)

‘You’ll find the blurb, the summary inside the jacket, is rather misleading as regards one crucial point. But I think that’s more or less legitimate, don’t you? After all, the whole raison d’être of a murder story is to trick the reader. Isn’t it?’ (p.160)

This is a historic murder mystery novel, set in the summer of 1936 – as we know from a casual reference to an obituary in a newspaper of schoolmaster and ghost story writer M.R. James (died 12 June 1936).

Peter Furneaux loses his virginity

The Riverside Villas Murder is a third-person narrative which (mostly) sees events from the point of view of good-looking, precocious, 14-year-old schoolboy, Peter Furneaux. He lives in one of a row of modest semi-detached houses backing onto a little river in a small suburb on the edge of south-east London (there is a description late in the book of the drive from Waterloo Bridge, through Brixton and Norbury, to his house).

As well as liking model airplanes and toy soldiers and comics and cakes, Peter is precociously sexually active, part of a circle at his grammar school which swap (mostly theoretical) notes about sex, and which also engages in largely ‘innocent’ mutual masturbation. For example, he goes to his pal, Reg’s house, where they read comics, discuss war stories, play old-fashioned jazz records and, when his mum pops out, appear to wank each other off… before returning to the comics and toys.

Inevitably, there is a local girl, the object of his obsessions, 15-year-old Daphne who lives across the Green and ignores, or pretends not to understand, his hesitant flirtations, resulting in Everests of anxiety and frustration.

One central thread in the story is Peter’s incredulous discovery that his young, glamorous, good-looking married neighbour, Mrs Trevelyan, fancies him. He realises this at a dance at the village hall. She dances with him perfectly normally, as all the other married couples and older singletons are politely dancing, or exchanging partners between dances. But when the lights go out she presses herself against him and whispers that she really likes him. A week or so later she invites him over for tea, which his innocent parents approve of, and Peter has to spend a whole day with a hard-on, trying not to shoot his bolt too soon, and agonisingly awaiting the 4 o’clock appointment. When the moment comes, Mrs Trevelyan does not disappoint, taking him upstairs to the bedroom where she takes a dominant role, at least three times, to Peter’s utter amazement, flooding his mind with sensations and memories which dominate his consciousness for the rest of the book.

So this, the most powerful thread in the first parts of the novel, amounts to a coming-of-age or losing-of-virginity tale.

Mr Inman is murdered

But the novel is titled and marketed as a murder mystery, which it also is.

Through Peter’s eyes we get a sense of his parents and their small circle of friends: Captain Furneaux, injured in the Great War, unable to use his right arm, stuck in a dowdy job as an estate agent’s assistant, and his snobbish wife; the neighbour Mr Trevelyan and his vivacious wife (who we’ve met); quiet Mr Langdon, who likes doing his allotment, and his wife; short, fair-haired Mr Inman and his wife, and so on.

1. Early in the novel persons unknown break into the fusty local museum and steal a random collection of old coins, as well as an ancient mummified body, variously described as prehistoric, or Roman or Celtic. Of no obvious value, anyway. At this point we are introduced to the trio of policemen who will be involved throughout (see below).

2. At the local dance (where Mrs T presses against Peter) there is an argument and semi-fight as Mr Inman, clearly drunk, starts making insinuating comments about Trevelyan, Langdon and Peter’s father, causing them all to look uneasy until someone eventually confronts Inman and pushes him over onto a table full of drinks, before his wife rounds him up and takes him home.

3. A few days later, Peter is reading a comic in his front room when there’s a bang at the French windows and Mr Inman bursts in, in a bad way, dripping wet from having fallen in the river, bleeding from the head, barely able to breathe. Peter runs out into the garden, shouts for Mrs Trevelyan to come help, which she does, then phones the police. While he’s doing so, Inman expires. When Mrs T was with him alone. The same Mrs Trevelyan who looked embarrassed by Inman’s insinuations at the dance. Hmmm.

The police soon find a murder weapon, a truncheon-like club with a nail driven through it, which appears to have battered Inman’s temple and penetrated his brain. Statements are taken. The area is scoured. No witnesses are found and nothing can be added to Peter’s terrified account.

4. A week or so later Peter is in the bath (playing with himself), his mother making up the bedrooms, when he hears a knock at the front door, his father answer it, and then a scuffle, shouts, a loud bang. Grabbing a towel and running downstairs he finds his father slightly wounded with a cut around the ear, lying under the heavy hall dresser which has been pushed on top of him, and another version of the truncheon-with-nail abandoned nearby. As the police who question Peter point out – nobody actually witnessed any attacker or assault? So Peter’s father could have faked the attack, pretty harmlessly scratching himself and pulling the dresser on top of himself? Why? To throw the police off the scent if he was Inman’s murderer. Hmmm.

Colonel Manton

Amis is thought of as a conservative-minded man writing traditional novels, but what strikes me about almost all his novels is their oddity. What disrupts the possibility of this being a ‘normal’ murder story is the odd relationship between the three main policemen involved in the investigation: Detective-Constable Barrett of the County CID, his superior – Detective-Inspector Cox – who he dislikes and enjoys needling; but both are swamped by the larger-than-life figure of Colonel Manton, a retired military man, living in a big house from whose living room he calls the silent attendant, Mrs Ellington, by sending Morse code messages on the bell push, among other eccentricities.

Manton’s entire approach is disarmingly offbeat, telling the uniformed officers to carry out house-to-house enquiries while pointing out it will reveal nothing; ordering them to leave no stone unturned at the murder scene, ditto; confidently expecting the murder weapon to have no fingerprints and not to be the actual murder weapon, and in general giving the impression that he effortlessly knows who the killer is although, as he explains to Peter, the trick of detection is not knowing who’s guilty – it’s marshalling the evidence to prove it.

Manton interviews Peter a couple of times (as well as his father, Mr Langdon, Mr Trevelyan and the others in the little circle). But is then given a much longer and more powerful scene three-quarters of the way through, when he invites Peter to a vast afternoon tea. Coming hot on the heels of Mrs Trevelyan’s afternoon seduction, Peter half expects the Colonel to be after something similar and is prepared for him making a dirty-old-man pass or even exposing himself, something Peter’s pseudo-worldly-wise attitude is ready for.

However, nothing of that sort happens, the Colonel just interviews him in depth about his life and loves and character and hobbies, about model aircraft and girls, before moving on to a detailed discussion of contemporary jazz, which they both like to listen to on the BBC or on big long-playing discs sheathed in thick cardboard. Peter declares his favourite band is probably Ambrose and his Orchestra, while the Colonel not only plays him some hot discs by Louis Armstrong, but impresses him by sitting at the piano in the living room and bashing out a 12-bar blues in true stretch piano style. Peter leaves awed by the breadth and depth of Manton’s wisdom, not noticing – as the reader maybe has – how many sly questions about his father, about Langdon et al, Manton had slipped into his display.

From this point onwards the novel is seen through two points of view, from Peter’s intense, close, self-conscious, flustered perspective; and from scenes featuring the indomitable Colonel Manton as he alludes to his various theories to his sidekick, Barrett; alludes to, but never (frustratingly) fully explains. But this makes the book sound too rational and straightforward, when it is anything but…

Super-acute observation of himself and others

Having read 12 Amis books, I feel confident sketching out key elements of his worldview.

The dominating feature of Amis’s voice and presence is a super-self-consciousness of his own behaviour and thoughts, an over-ratiocination which questions every motive and subjects every flicker of consciousness to multiple interpretations, combined with a projection of this onto other people, resulting in a hyper-awareness of other people’s speech, facial gestures, behaviour, in all its ambiguity.

In the early novels this is played for laughs, the air of manic play-acting and over-interpreting other people’s behaviour, treating himself and everyone as if they are acting at least two roles at the same time, contributed to the madcap humour.

But from The Anti-Death League (1966) onwards, the humour is turned right down, sometimes completely absent, whereas the self-awareness remains at the same level or, in some texts such as the ostensible ghost story, The Green Man, reaching an unpleasant level of intensity. It manifests itself in:

  • ascribing multiple motives to almost every scrap of dialogue or bit of anyone’s behaviour
  • in jokey comparisons of his own or other people’s behaviour to actors performing B-movie roles
  • in casting entire ways of thinking into the mock-heroic military style which (we can see from this book) derives from Amis’s own schoolboy reading of war stories and comics
  • in picking up the absurdity inherent in many common phrases and demonstrating this through repetition or unusual manipulation, stretching phrases until they nearly break

Examples

The frequent deployment of the throwaway add-on to any sentence, ‘… or something’:

Back in the sitting-room, [Peter] stared out of the french window at the saturated, scrubby little garden and tried to feel pleased, or relieved, or something… (p.131)

Mock military metaphor Of Peter’s first experience of sex.

He had pictured the business as something rather like drifting down a river in a small boat on a summer afternoon; the reality turned out to be something equally like leading a cavalry charge across rough country under a heavy artillery barrage. (p.136)

Playing with everyday phrases

Was the colonel in fact the strange man that so many people so obviously thought he was? That remained to be seen, and Peter hoped it would go on remaining. (p.146)

At the end of the novel Peter prepares to go across and chat up Daphne. This is a good example of Amis’s tendency to playfulness taking him to the border of incomprehensibility.

[Peter] washed his armpits and slapped into them some of his mother’s talcum powder, put on a clean shirt and a pair of long trousers, gave his hair a good brushing – he could not be absolutely certain, just ninety-nine point nine recurring per cent certain, that Daphne might not be present for a few seconds before she went wherever whoever the hell it was was taking her out or after he brought her back. (p.195)

Whoever. Whatever. Wherever.

Comparisons with B-movie stereotypes

The colonel, eating sandwiches, watched him with a benign air, though you would not have had to change it much for it to suit a poisoner who was very full of himself. (p.154)

The colonel bustled off, reappearing to Barrett’s view before the police car was out of sight. He now wore a green-and-brown-check suit with a highly suspect matching cap, a combination that suggested a bookie thinly disguised as Sherlock Holmes, or the other way round. (p.179)

The two set off side by side down the Meadow, reminding Barrett of a pair of supposed schoolmasters he had once seen in a film. With mortar-boards and gowns on, they had paced a lawn beside a chapel. (p.182)

The dénouement

Whodunnit? Well, there are more twists in the second half.

  • Colonel Manton arrests Peter’s father, much to the latter’s horror.
  • The police are posted a letter with cut & pasted newsprint drawing their attention to two other suspects.
  • Some time is spent on Mr Hodgson, a retired policeman himself, who was called out to a job in a non-existent part of London during the hours of the murder. Hmmm, dodgy alibi…

All the time the two strands – Peter’s and Manton’s – progress in parallel. There is a bizarre sequence where the colonel invites Peter to re-enact the journey of the nearly-dead Mr Inman along the river ie gets him to change into swimming trunks, have a rope tied round him by attending constables for safety, and then put in the river where Inman probably fell or was pushed, to see what the current actually does to it. This re-enactment does turn up something when Peter, from his water-level view, spots the actual murder weapon jammed in the mud – but it is still a very odd way of carrying on, as the attending coppers mutter, and Barrett wonders whether Cox was right in saying the whole thing is just a ruse for the colonel (who is one of ‘those’) to get close to the nearly-naked body of such a pretty boy…

The climax comes the night of a particularly violent storm when Peter and his mother have been invited round to the Hodgson household, the latter feeling sorry for the Furneaux, now that Peter’s father is in custody. At the height of the storm the windows are mysteriously smashed and rain pelts in. Peter runs out into the rain to bump into various policemen in rain-capes waving torches but, on a hunch, hares off to a culvert through which the little river flows. There, his hunch correct, he finally meets the true murderer who is fleeing the scene, and they fight in the dark and then fall into the flooded river.

Peter’s suspicions are confirmed. It is Mrs Trevelyan. She stops fighting when she realises it is Peter. She allows herself to be taken back to her house. There Colonel Manton is waiting beside an extraordinary contraption she has rigged up using the kind of elastic straps Peter uses in his model planes, attached to furniture, to create a large catapult.

With this she has been firing golf balls through the Hodgson’s windows, shattering them. (Why?) Peter is dismissed and told to go back to the Hodgson household but loiters outside the window and hears Mrs Trevelyan refuse to admit anything until Manton says he will be forced to prosecute her for having under-age sex with a minor (Peter). ‘Confess now or see Peter’s name dragged through the mud.’ Peter hears all the spirit go out of her voice, as she admits everything, then signs the confession, to this effect:

She was having an affair with Inman (short and fair and, now we come to think of it, rather like Peter in look and build) but he had a guilty conscience and was threatening to tell everyone. So she rigged up the catapult in her front room, had the french windows open, and the next time he paused at the garden gate o his way to visit her, shot him in the head with a model plane modified into a dart. She disguised herself as a man and staged the assault on Peter’s father to try and prove his innocence. Same motive for sending the cut & paste letter, to throw suspicion away from Peter’s father. And the break-in to the local museum and theft of the mummy in the early chapters? She stole it to practice on.

Manton allows her to go back to her house knowing she will do what she does next – which is commit suicide, stabbing herself and letting her body fall into the flooded little river to be found downstream hours later.

Peter’s father is released, Manton apologises for the arrest (knowing Peter’s father was innocent, aiming to flush out the true culprit) to Peter and explains everything on the long car ride back from a police station in central London to Norbury, during which he also sort of confesses to being ‘one of those’ and that’s why they shouldn’t really see each other again, old chap.

Peter takes all this in his stride and emerges a far more confident, adult boy, who steps right up to Daphne’s porch, refuses to take no for an answer, and insists he will be taking her out that night. The whole ordeal has not been an ordeal at all, has left no visible scars, and just made him a more confident young man.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this summary brings out the sheer oddness of the story. Not an Agatha Christie or Peter Wimsey adventure at all. Something at the same time more strange and troubling in its peculiarly alienated attitude to human nature, in its disconcerting frankness about various sexualities, while also being wildly improbable and a little cack-handed in basic plot mechanics: a giant catapult? golf balls? a model airplane reworked as a weapon?

Above all, there is the strange inconsequentiality of it all. The entire experience seems to have bounced off Peter as it does off the reader. It’s a highly competent, oddly insightful, occasionally funny, but very superficial experience.

Dallas Blues by Louis Armstrong

One of the vintage jazz tracks played and discussed in the novel by Peter and Colonel Manton.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré (1962)

‘This is a critical moment in Carne’s development. Many public schools have conceded to the vulgar clamour for change – change at any price. Carne, I am pleased to say, has not joined these Gadarene swine.’ (p.67)

The snobbery latent in Call of the Dead comes out to dominate this, le Carré’s second novel. Why do so many English writers who went to public school seem unable to escape its influence and so often feel compelled to write about their wretched/happy experiences? Because it isn’t an education – it is an entire world, their world, an insular world of agreed attitudes and behaviours, which teaches them what to wear and how to speak and what to think, a world they can never escape.

Carne

This novel is set in a (fictional) private school, Carne, in Devon, where the ageing teachers drink the finest port, bitch about each other and lament the country going to the dogs, where the pupils are schooled in how to speak snob, how to identify plebs at a hundred paces and how to put servants in their place. Some of the parents and even (gasp!) masters are, to be perfectly frank, old boy, not quite up to snuff, if you know what I’m saying. One of them (it turns out to be the crux of the plot) went to grammar school! How ghastly!! The opening pages set the tone of the school and its pupils:

‘Mrs Rode’s quite decent, though – homely in a plebby sort of way…’ [pupil speaking]

‘He says emotionalism is only for the lower classes…] [pupil speaking]

‘My Pater says he’s queer.’ [pupil speaking]

Mr Terence Fielding, senior housemaster of Carne, gave himself some more port and pushed the decanter wearily to his left. (p.4)

‘What was his regiment, Terence, do you know?’ (p.5)

‘He’d never seen a game of rugger before he came here, you know. They don’t play rugger at grammar schools – it’s all soccer.’ (p.6)

‘I’m told her father lives near Bournemouth. It must be so lonely for him, don’t you think? Such a vulgar place; no one to talk to.’ (p.6)

‘The value of intelligence depends on its breeding.’ That was John Landsbury’s favourite dictum. (p.16)

‘His mother is a most cultured woman, a cousin of the Stamfords, I am told.’ (p.59)

‘I’m never sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed-cake in the parlour… She would wear black crêpe on Sundays… Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p.99)

This isn’t a subtle code. The air of superiority which everyone in this tiny world gives themselves is rammed into your face from the first page. You – poor plebeian reader – are not of this exclusive world. You are admitted on sufferance.

(Maybe le Carré is satirising this world, but he is satirising it from within and is therefore implicated – in its aloofness, its petty cruelties, its unkindness, its ‘effeminate malice’ (p.55), its air of seedy failure, of moneyed stupidity, of well-dressed philistinism. His character Smiley, we know from the first novel, went to a public school and on to an Oxford college, and fusses about the right wine to drink and people’s accents and their suits.)

The plot

A teacher (sorry, master)’s wife sends a letter to an obscure Christian periodical, saying she fears her husband intends to murder her. The woman who runs the periodical single-handed happens to have worked in Intelligence during the War and ponders which of her colleagues could help out. More or less the only one left standing is George Smiley.

She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him. (p.20)

What percentage of the population, I wonder, has a personal tailor? 1%? What percentage was it in 1962? More subtly mannered is the deployment of ‘for’ instead of the common English usage ‘because’. His frequent use of ‘for’ is a symptom of the Victorian prose or Biblical phraseology which le Carré is prone to slip into once he strays from direct factual description (‘For it is written, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”‘). When he wanders from action and factual description into generalising about characters or settings, le Carré is sometimes in danger of sounding portentous (‘done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress’).

Everyone is notable

Inevitably, the letter-writing master’s wife comes from a notable family – the Glastons, don’t you know – ‘Stella’s grandfather was old Rufus Glaston, a Lancashire pottery king; he and John Landsbury’s father built chapels and tabernacles in practically every village in the Midlands.’

Inevitably, Fielding the senior house-master at Carne, is brother of a chap who worked for ‘the Service’. His retirement was mentioned in The Times, dontcha know?

Inevitably, Smiley met him once at Magdalen High Table, nice chap, not quite the same calibre as his brother, dontcha know.

— In this small, privileged world, everyone knows everyone else, a connectedness which is rooted in the public school system and extends beyond it to university, into the professions and the civil service, across the Army and down into the police force (always down into the police force: Smiley et al admire the police but they’re not People Like Us.)

Inspector Rigby looked at Smiley thoughtfully over his desk, and decided that he liked what he saw. He had got around in the war and had heard a little, just a very little, of the work of George Smiley’s Service. If Ben said George Smiley was all right, that was good enough for him. (p.31)

Of course, Rigby the local policeman is himself admirable, competent, efficient, clever. The police always are in le Carré, as they always are in real life.

Strongest and best

Because everyone in these texts just is jolly bright – clever man, good man, solid man, dependable chap, one of the brightest and best. Thus Smiley, who critics sometimes refer to as some kind of everyman, is exactly the opposite: he is routinely described in the novels as ‘the strongest and the best’ (p.23), the cleverest, the cunningest, the subtlest etc. which, if you take it literally, is quite an indictment of our ruling class and its shabby, shambolic intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s.

Old school tie

This is the same old-school-tie world which Len Deighton sets about satirising in his spy novels, which are exactly comtemporary (Deighton’s début, The Ipcress File, was published the same year as this, 1962). Deighton’s protagonist is an insubordinate, joke-making NCO – fun, creative, witty, sexy – everything Smiley is not.

Le Carré was barely 30 when these first two novels were published and yet the main characters – Smiley and the CID inspector, Mendel – are on the verge of retirement. Le Carré seems happiest writing about late middle-aged men, slow, unfit, much given to drinking whiskey at home and claret at their club, tutting over the younger generation. A world away from the smart, cool world of Deighton’s fictions.

Old man

The air of toff-ish superiority, of snobbish knowingness implicit in a lot of le Carré’s prose is brought out if you add ‘dontcha know?’ or ‘old man’ at the end of sentences describing knowledge or expertise, and imagine the speaker wearing a monocle.

The seven-five from Waterloo to Yeovil is not a popular train, but it provides an excellent breakfast, dontcha know? (p.25)

The Sawley Arms is only full at Commemoration and on St Andrew’s Day, old boy. (p.29)

The dénouement

And the woman who was murdered? Far from being a hapless victim, she turns out to have been a monster who was blackmailing the flamboyant house-master Fielding because of some indiscretion with a boy during the war, mercilessly ribbing him till he could take no more. Le Carré steers suspicion at first towards the local loony lady who hangs out in the abandoned chapel on the moors – then onto the husband (after all the wife had been warning everyone he was about to do her in). But both are red herrings. The Master did it. All is revealed when Smiley invites him to his house in Chelsea, tells him the correct version of events and, as he makes a break for it, is arrested by the solid, honest Devon copper, Rigby.

Not unlike an episode of Morse, with its revelations of malice and blackmail among the oh-so-scenic cloisters.

Related links

TV adaptation

The novel was adapted for TV by Thames Television in 1991. Le Carré adapted the book himself, and it starred Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, with Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland, Diane Fletcher, David Threlfall and a young Christian Bale.

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You made it up. There aren’t any people like that. What’s the matter with them? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?’
‘I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.’ (p.100)

After four novels of hard-faced no-nonsense brutality and cunning (as well as the fifty or so short stories he wrote from 1922 to 34 or so) who’d have expected Hammett’s fifth (and final) novel would be a comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. It’s a return to the first person narrator (as in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) but transformed into the voice and character of Nick Charles who is an affable forty-one year-old ex-detective who lazes round in top hotels on the money of his charming and loaded wife, Nora, going to parties and drinking almost continually.

He is reluctantly dragged back into the detective business when the daughter of a former client turns up (Dorothy Wynant), helplessly drunk, her mother (Mimi) is revealed as a violent hysteric, her stepfather (Jorgensen) tries to hit on her and the aforementioned client (eccentric inventor Howard Wynant) is implicated in shooting his secretary (Julia Wolf) to death and, to cap it all, a hoodlum sent by a former client, bursts in to their luxury hotel room and tries to shoot him. It’s the she secretary shooting that becomes the core of a standard murder mystery.

Whodunnit? Nick has to find out and the text consists of decreasing amount of action and increasing amounts of theory-spinning as all the characters behave suspiciously while weaving complicated theories implicating each other. The plot itself is relatively simple but the theory spinning eventually becomes rather tiresome. But it’s not the plot, it’s the nonchalant savoir faire and humorous banter, particularly between Nick and Nora, which make this a genuinely amusing read.

Nora screwed up her dark eyes at me and asked slowly: ‘What are you holding out on me?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you. Dorothy is really my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, Nora. It was spring in Venice and I was so young and there was a moon over the – ‘
‘Be funny. Don’t you want something to eat?’ (Penguin 1961 paperback edition, p.18)

Hammett uses the same approach as the previous novels ie little or no direct access to the characters’ thoughts instead deploying predominantly dialogue or the description of externals – rooms, clothes, appearances, facial expressions. But whereas in the predecessors the dialogue was hard-edged and designed to show the characters’ alienation from each other, indifference to each other, here the tone – even if venturing for spells into tough guy stuff with cops or crims – always returns to the comfy banter between the married couple at the heart of it, or to Nick’s deadpan jokiness.

So far I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing – the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing. (p.28)

The confidante

It is just so damned handy to have a partner or confidente, someone the protagonist-hero-detective can share his thinking with, who can pick him up and dust him down and encourage and support. A sidekick, someone to spar with. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Holmes has Watson; pairing wise guy Nick who knows his way round the underworld with smart socialite Nora, for whom the dark underbelly is a revelation, is a clever manouevre. Violence or plot twists which just seems random and therefore alienating in Falcon and Key, can here be situated and contextualised by being explained to Nora. Even if there isn’t an exact explanation – at least we know there isn’t an exact explanation, instead of being puzzled by random and often brutal violence as we often were in the previous novels.

Nora was wide-eyed and amazed. ‘It’s a madhouse,’ she said. ‘What’d they do that for?’
‘You know as much about it as I do,’ I told her…
‘Listen, you’ve got to tell me what happened – everything. Not now, tomorrow. I don’t understand a thing that was said or a thing that was done.’ (pp.118-119)

Movie versions

When it’s not disappearing into more and more complicated theory-spinning, The Thin Man has the feel of the wisecracking movies of the period, all fix-me-another-drink-dahling. It comes as no surprise to discover it was not only made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (1934) but that the movie was so popular it spawned no fewer than five sequels which were appearing well into the 1940s.

American boozing

Part of the humour – or the humorous backdrop to the comedy – is the couple’s continuous and compulsive drinking, partying and eating out. Reminds me of F Scott Fitzgerald.

‘My nice policeman wants to see you,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.’ (p.47)

‘Where’d you get the skinful?’
‘It’s Alice. She’s been sulking for a week. If I didn’t drink I’d go crazy.’
‘What’s she sulking about?’
‘About my drinking.’ (p.104)

‘How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?’
‘Why don’t you stay sober today?’
‘We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.’ (p.143)

Must have been an incongruous vibe during the depths of the Depression to be putting out fictions about humongously rich people leading boozy lifestyles, parties, opening nights, jazz… Then again, taken as a consumer product, this novel is more like the fantasies of Hollywood which were at their most silken and sparkly when the Depression was at its bleakest. Entertainment. Distraction. Fantasy.

She laughed… ‘Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?’
‘Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drink.’ (p.189)

The Thin Man

Turns out the missing scientist they’re all looking for, who remains elusive despite his phone calls, letters and fleeting visits: he was always very tall and thin but Nick is the first to realise he’s dead.

‘What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?’
I laughed – not at the joke – and said: ‘Wynant’s not that thin, but he’s thin enough, say as thin as the paper in that cheque and in this letters people have been getting.’
‘What’s that Guild demanded, his face reddening, his eyes angry and suspicious.
‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time except on paper.’ (p.179)

Songs mentioned in the text

“Though her life was merry (though her life was merry)
She had savoir-ferry (lots of savoir-ferry)”

Related link

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

‘You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”‘ (p.404)

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretence that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. (p.421)

Like its two predecessors, Hammett’s third novel The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask (between September 1929 and January 1930) before being published as a one-volume novel later the same year. Unlike its two predecessors it doesn’t feature the unnamed Continental Operative as detective-hero, instead introducing Sam Spade.

Third person

The Continental Op stories are told in the first person. We overhear the Op thinking through his cases or explaining that he’s putting on this or that facial expression for his interlocutors, we watch him figuring out, guessing, taking a punt, speculating.

In contrast, the Falcon is told in the third person and this makes a real difference. We are on the outside and Hammett doesn’t give us any of the characters’ thoughts. Instead we get much more detailed descriptions of their faces and expressions and eyes than in the earlier books. Lots more. And we have to figure things out for ourselves.

For example, in the second part of the second chapter, ‘Death in the fog’, the police lieutenant, Dundy, and the detective, Tom, make an unwanted call on Spade’s apartment at 4 in the morning to push him about his partner’s murder. If it had been the first-person Continental Op we’d have been overhearing all his thoughts and calculations. But it’s in the third person so all we get is dialogue, the disposition of bodies and detailed descriptions of faces, as the two men try to outplay each other.

This approach allows much more scope for our interpretation of what’s going on, more scope for ambiguity and uncertainty, making it a much more complex and stimulating read. I’ve read comments praising Hammett’s dialogue but it’s more than a question of dialogue alone, it’s the sentences which describe the facial expressions around the dialogue which give it its power. It’s like a rally in tennis or a ballet. Thus:

The Lieutenant looked at his glass for a dozen seconds, took a very small sip of its contents, and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He examined the room with hard deliberate eyes, and then looked at Tom… Tom moved uncomfortably on the sofa and, not looking up, asked… The Lieutenant put his hands on his knees and leant forward. His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button… Spade smiled and waved his empty glass a little… ‘What do you want, Dundy?’ he asked in a voice hard and cold as his eyes. Lieutenant Dundy’s eyes had moved to maintain their focus on Spade’s. Only his eyes had moved… Spade made a depreciative mouth, raising his eyebrows… He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twitched over his eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry… Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice… Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green discs… He smiled with grim content… The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face round to Tom and asked with great carelessness… Spade nodded. His face was stupid in its calmness… ‘I know where I stand now,’ he said, looking with friendly eyes from one of the police detectives to the other… Spade looked at him and smiled, holding the finished cigarette in one hand… Dundy looked with hard green eyes at Spade and did not answer him… Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candour… ‘We’ve asked what we came to ask,’ Dundy said, frowning over eyes hard as green pebbles… (Picador Four Great Novels edition pp.388-393)

Having a third person narrator, being on the outside of the characters and limiting himself to only reporting, in detail, the changes in their faces, expressions and eyes, paradoxically makes Falcon a much more psychological novel. Whereas the Op told us what he was thinking and when he was lying, here we have to piece it together from the outside, only from what Hammett shows us, which gives the whole text a much greater sense of psychological depth.

The merits of the respective plots play a part (Falcon is just a much better story), but I think it’s also the new-found depth derived from this approach which make the Falcon so much more appealing, more read, better known and more frequently filmed (three times) than the first two novels.

More literary?

In Harvest and Dain a lot of the reader’s effort went into, was designed to go into, trying to figure out the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, before – that is – they were laid bare by the narrator in the concluding, Wind-Up chapter (in the classic detective novel style). This put them towards the pulp, genre end of the spectrum, with its focus on outlandishly complex plot machinations.

Here there is still a lot of plot, but the interest has shifted to trying to suss out the characters moment by moment in scenes which are written with much more interest in the detail of moment by moment flickers of emotion, feeling, intelligence over faces described only from the outside. Sure there’s an overarching crime plot – but there’s a lot more going on in each individual scene, a lot more portrayal of mood and personality and psychology. And this puts Falcon towards the literature end of the spectrum.

The eyes have it

I wrote a long post about the importance of eye imagery in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The same conclusions are true of this novel. Deprived of information from a first person narrator or the knowledge that comes from free indirect speech (where the text depicts the character’s thoughts as if reported by a narrator; Greene uses it all the time) we are put in the same position as the characters, having to suss out the other’s motivation from their facial expressions alone, of which the most acute and revealing facet is the expression around the eyes – smiling, hard, crying, cruel, cold etc.

So, chapter four describes Spade’s visit to Mrs Wonderley aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy who slowly reveals a bit more of the secret, and their sparring is depicted in the dialogue, of course, but also in their facial expressions and particularly in the state of their eyes.

His smile brought a fainter smile to her face… Her eyes, of blue that walmost violet, did not lose their troubled look… Spade smiled a polite smile which she did not lift her eyes to see… she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes… Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes… Her eyes suddenly lighted up… Her face had become haggard around desperate eyes… She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his… (pp.401-403)

The same happens at every dialogue, that is throughout the book, on almost every page: the play of facial expressions and especially the state of the eyes reveals/conceals just as much as the spoken words. There was less in the first two books because there was so much action, shooting and blasting.

  • Sam Spade: yellow-grey eyes (p.408) ‘His eyes were shiny in a wooden satan’s face.’ (p.423)
  • Effie Perine: brown eyes (p.396)
  • Brigid O’Shaughnessy: cobalt-blue eyes (p.375) ‘Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.’ (p.423)
  • Lieutenant Dundy: hard green eyes (p.392)
  • Casper Gutman: dark and sleek (p.466) ‘The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.’ (p.469)
  • Joel Cairo: black eyes (p.538)
  • Wilmer Cook: small hazel eyes (p.456) ‘The boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams under his lashes.’ (p.534)
  • Luke the hotel detective: crafty brown eyes (p.457)

Spade is sexy

The Continental Op emphasised to twenty-year-old Gabrielle Leggett that he was old, middle-aged, forty, and past making a pass at her. He is very close to Dinah Bird in Harvest but never makes a move on her or even contemplates it for a second.

By contrast Sam Spade is sexy, looking ‘rather pleasantly like a blond satan’. He is the regulation six foot tall and

  • he has a comfortably flirtatious relationship with his secretary
  • he has been having an affair with his partner’s wife
  • he handles Miss O’Shaughnessy’s passes at him with savoir faire until he decides to go ahead and sleep with her
  • he pats the secretary at the hotel’s shoulder in a calm confident way

He is portrayed as knowing his way around women, how to manage and handle women, in a way the Op couldn’t. He has a free, easy and confident way with women as with men, as with life. However, he himself says there is a problem with his attitude which is that he only really knows how to flirt with women, implying he doesn’t know how to treat them as just people; whether his Miss Moneypenny-ish relationship with his secretary Effie proves or disproves this is open to debate.

If you were to indict him, central would be the way he betrays Brigid after sleeping with her (and making her strip naked in his apartment to search her) – though he has by that time established that she shot his partner dead in cold blood. And then there’s his shabby treatment of his partner’s widow, Iva – though that seems realistically messy. Nobody’s claiming he’s a saint.

From the outside

Over the course of the novel it becomes very striking how deliberately Hammett describes all the humans in it from the outside as if they’re robots. He describes their movements as if observing animals, pedantically noting every move and flicker. This has a very unsettling effect. Take this, Spade furtively unlocking his office door in case there are intruders inside:

He put his hand to the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no further; the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in. (p.490)

Maybe it’s meant to be building up tension, but the basic idea – he unlocked the door carefully – needn’t have been described this meticulously nor stretched out to this length. Why do it? For the immediacy? To make the reader feel like they’re watching every minute movement? And the same technique is applied to scenes with no tension, when he’s kissing Brigid or rolling a cigarette or sitting on a chair. All described in pedantic and very externalised detail.

If the above is a description of a purely physical act, the following is a small example of what happens in almost every dialogue ie Hammett not only records the words spoken, but describes in minute detail the physical behaviour of each of the participants.

 Spade said, ‘Yes,’ very lazily. His face was sombre. He touched his lower lip with a finger, looked at the finger, and then scratched the back of his neck with it. Little irritable lines had appeared in his forehead. He blew his breath out heavily through his nose and his voice was an ill-humoured growl. ‘You wouldn’t want the kind of information I could give you, Bryan.’ (p.506)

Vocabulary

There’s two or three slang terms in the novel (‘fog’ = kill p.537) but the switch to the third person has allowed Hammett to drop a lot of the patois which the Continental Op used in his racy narration. The slang now only occurs in the dialogue of the characters. Something that stands out on a handful of occasions is Hammett’s use of unusually formal, technical and Latinate vocabulary. It’s as if he wanted to distance himself from his pulp milieu, or was experimenting with a more detached vocabulary, complimenting the more detached, external, objective style of description mentioed above.

  • an ellipsoid p.513
  • incoordinate steps p.518
  • in her mien was pride p.551

Related links

Edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Cover of the September 1929 edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

‘You’ve got a flighty mind. That’s no good in this business. You don’t catch murderers by amusing yourself with interesting thoughts. You’ve got to sit down to all the facts you can get and turn them over and over till they click.’ (p.320)

In retrospect Red Harvest seems a rather delirious fantasy: an entire town populated only by rival gangs of gangsters and their molls and armies, set at loggerheads and wiping each other out in a mounting frenzy of violence. More parable than fiction. The red in the harvest is a harvest of blood; almost everyone dies, should have been titled The Slaughterhouse.

The Dain Curse starts out much more restrained and sober, as a traditional crime story: research scientist Leggett has borrowed some diamonds from a merchant because he thinks he might be able to improve the look and appearance of sub-standard stones. One night they are stolen. The Continental Detective Agency is asked to investigate by the insurance company and our friend, the Continental Op, is assigned the case. We find him rooting through grass outside the burgled house then interviewing various witnesses and suspects. Routine detective work. Only slowly does it, also, unravel into a murder fest…

A back story

Early on we discover Leggett is not at all who he pretends: he commits suicide and leaves a long and improbably detailed account of his improbably colourful life of crime in remote foreign lands – reminiscent of the way the Sherlock Holmes novels rely on long back stories in India (The Sign of Four, 1890) or among the Mormons (Study In Scarlet, 1887) or Buchan will rely on the long-past vow which lights the action in the final Richard Hannay adventure, The Island of Sheep (1936). But maybe the suicide note is not all it seems… and so on…

A partner

It’s just so convenient to have a partner, someone to deploy on missions when you can’t do everything yourself, to act as dummy or decoy but above all, someone to discuss the case with while it’s in mid-stream – and someone to mull over the loose ends with when it’s over, and who can make sense of it all for the reader.

Dr Watson is the archetpye because he fulfils all these roles so well. the Op was able to confide in Dinah Brand in Red Harvest, until, that is, he woke up holding the domestic ice pick which was embedded in her dead chest. In this one the Op conveniently runs into his old mucker the novelist Owen Fitzstephan who helps out with a few minor errands but whose real purpose is the epilogue chapter at the end of each of the three parts, where they sit and piece together what happened and why, for our edification. Until Fitzstephan himself becomes part of the story…

Three parts

The text is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a cluster of deaths and the rather far-fetched explanations which are concocted to account for them:

  • The Dains A few bodies turn up before Leggett is found dead with a note. In an extended revelation scene the Op moves through several theories of who did what to arrive at a sort of truth, that the current Mrs Leggett is one of two Dain sisters who, back in Paris, before the War, were in love with Maurice Pierre de Mayenne. He married the other sister, already pregnant with the daughter Gabrielle. The current Mrs elaborately arranges for the little girl to shoot dead her mother; Leggett takes the rap and goes to Devil’s Island until he manages ot escape and works his way to California and a new identity; the current Mrs brings up Gabrielle, tracks Mr L down, surprises him by arriving on his doorstep then, when Mrs L kills not one but 2 private dicks she’s hired to track him down but were now blackmailing her, she a) kills them both b) persuades Mr L to shoot himself (!). At which point she makes a break for the stairs, is tackled by the Op and Gabrielle’s thick hunky boyfriend Collinson, and in the scuffle, guess what, the gun goes off and she is dead. Among the many facts and fictions thrown around during this mayhem, Mrs Leggatt née Lucy Dain, says there is a Curse on all the Dain family; which now amounts to young Gabrielle.
  • The Temple Ten days later the Op is called off another job by the family lawyer who is uneasy that Gabrielle has insisted on going to stay at the San Fran headquarters of a religious sect. The Op is installed there, with the sect owners’ agreement, but that night all hell breaks loose. The Op is drugged by dope fed into his room by secret pipes, encounters a weird physical illusion, bumps into Gabrielle almost naked holding a blood-stained ornamental knife (see illustration, below) saying ‘I killed him’, finds the famiy doctor stabbed to death by said knife on the religion’s ‘altar’, returns to find Collinson and Gabrielle gone, goes into the servant girl’s room and is overcome with fumes again, then attacked, then nearly knifed, then clubbed, then rushes back down to the altar to find the doctor gone and the lady of the house & cult (Mrs Haldorn) tied up on the altar and her husband, Joseph, having chosen that night of all nights to go beyond the cult they’d cooked up with theatrical robes, hypnotism and dope fed into the followers’ rooms, purely to make money, but on this night he’s finally flipped, thinks he genuinely is God, and is about to sacrifice her on the altar; the Op has to shoot him six times and then stab him through the throat to kill him. Then the Op and Owen the novelist have another session piecing it all together.
  • Quesada the Op is called off another case (again) by an urgent cable from Eric Collinson who has hurriedly married Gabrielle and spirited her off to a secluded cottage in Quesada, rural California. He finds Eric’s body fallen off a clifftop path. A lot then happens. there are car chases and car smashes. The sheriff’s wife is doscovered to be unfaithful to him with another police official, tells our guys her husband did it, but is then discovered murdered, we go out in a small boat round hidden coves round the coast where a bad guy is discovered who has kidnapped Gabrielle but is shot down before he can reveal who put him up to it… A small bomb goes off in the Op’s apartment, injuring him, the crim who brought it, and mangling to a pulp his friend the novelist. The main thrust of this section is the Op helps Gabrielle go cold turkey to get over her morphine addiction, and manages to protect her from potential killers, including Mrs Haldorn from the cult, the Mexican maid with the knife, the crooked lawyer who tried it on with her once, and Fink, the helpmeet at the cult who made and placed the bomb. Quite a few more people get killed before the Op/narrator explains it in a detailed 7 or 8 page finale, packed with detailed explanations of everyone’s outlandish motivations and wildly improbable schemes, which caused so much death and, in the end, changed so little. Gabrielle walks clean and free – there is a Happy Ending.

Four short stories

In fact, as with Red Harvest this ‘novel’ started life as four connected stories in the ‘pulp’ magazine, Black Mask. Seperate short stories, or a conscious novel published in the serial method which dates back to Dickens and beyond?

  • Black Lives’ (November 1928)
  • ‘The Hollow Temple’ (December 1928)
  • Black Honeymoon’ (January 1929)
  • ‘Black Riddle’ (February 1929)

The Continental Op

Striking that the protagonist of these stories is described as short and stocky:

  • ‘He was a man past forty, I should say, rather short and broad – somewhat of your build… ‘ …’ (Picador Four Great Novels edition, p.197)
  • five foot six (p.223)
  • ‘a middle-aged fat man’ (p.284)

Compared with the tall, dark, handsome strangers Sam Spade ‘quite six feet tall’, Philip Marlowe ‘slightly over six feet’, Sherlock Holmes ‘rather over six feet’ etc etc.

Fast

As I noticed in Greenmantle (1916), almost as soon as the motor car had been invented it was getting stolen, hijacked, caught up in high speed pursuits, presumably acting out our unconscious desires for speed and flight and brainless excitement.

He had a Chrysler roadster parked around the corner. We got into it and began bucking traffic and traffic signals towards Pacific Avenue. (p.222)

This ride ends, as any traffic policeman might have predicted, in a bad crash where all the cars’ occupants are injured. Bit more realistic than Harvest in which there are innumerable car chases and high speed shootouts.

Underworld slang

Similarly, now I come to look for it, there is less underworld slang and thieves argot in Hammett than you might expect.

  • dinge = black person
  • dark meat = black person
  • rats and mice = rhyming slang for dice
  • the nut = earnings, income
  • a gallon of the white = alcohol
  • chive = knife
  • heap = car

Style

In this novel the prose is less crunched and abbreviated than in Harvest, maybe because that one was set in a rather comic-book way among hard-talking gangsters, and this one is set among the more civilised professional classes starting with Dr Leggett the scientist, taking in the upper-class devotees of the Temple and including the Op’s pal, the novelist: all very literate and civilised types.

He takes a while to do detailed, rather laborious descriptions of characters. Chandler, Greene or Deighton would have nailed the following character in a few lines. Hammett is surprisingly verbose.

[Edgar Leggett] was a dark-skinned erect man in his middle forties, muscularly slender and of medium height. He would have been handsome if his brown face hadn’t been so deeply marked with sharp, hard lines across the forehead and from nostrils down across mouth-corners. Dark hair, worn rather long, curled above and around the broad, grooved forehead. Red-brown eyes were abnormally bright behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His nose was long, thin, and high-bridged. His lips were thin, sharp, nimble, over a small, bony chin. His black and white clothes were well made and cared for. (p.196)

There are occasional outbursts of jazzy prose, some smart-alec sentences, but not much. A dozen or 15 sentences like this out of a 200-page novel. Nowhere near the stylistic jazz and sparkle of Chandler.

We went outside and asked all the people we could find all the questions we could think of. (p.327)

I piled up what facts I had, put some guesses on them, and took a jump from the top of the heap into space. (p.353)

Go get

The Op is sardonic about the pushy District Attorney in Querada, describing him as ‘very conscious of being a go-getter’ (p.306). I was interested to see the Online Dictionary dating this term to 1920-25, making it very new when Hammett used it; though the Etymological Dictionary dates it further back to 1910.

Author’s message

‘Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wrangle yourself out another to take its place’ (p.331)

Related links

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
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