Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

‘My skill is statecraft and that requires me to be alive and in Rome.’
(Cicero talking to Tiro, Dictator, page 36)

This is the third and concluding novel in the Robert Harris’s epic ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Book one, Imperium, covered Cicero’s life and career over the years 79 to 64 BC, the second novel, Lustrum, covered the five years from 63 to 58, and this concluding volume covers the last 15 years of his life, from 58 to his murder at the hands of agents of Mark Antony in 44 BC.

I’ve covered the outline of Cicero’s life in my reviews of his letters and Plutarch’s Life:

Tiro’s memoirs

As with its two predecessors, Dictator (a weighty 504 pages long) purports to be part of the multi-volume first-person memoir of Cicero written by his loyal slave and personal secretary Tiro almost 40 years after Cicero’s death:

I still possess my shorthand notes…it is from these that I have been able to reconstruct the many conversations, speeches and letters that make up this memoir of Cicero (p.37)

A summary cannot convey the skill with which Harris plunges you right into the heart of the toxic politics of republican Rome, or into the mind of Tiro, the shrewd, literate observer of the dilemmas and experiences of Cicero, a figure who combined wit and dazzling oratory with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and, above all, deep embroilment in the complex power politics of his day. It is an utterly absorbing and thrilling read.

Tiro is aged 46 when the narrative opens (p.40).

Sources

Because there is so much information flying in from different places about so many events, Harris relies much more than in both the previous books combined on actual historical documents, on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the early part (for example, pages 147 to 148), then on the letters to and from Cicero, for example to and from his lifelong friend Atticus.

Like the preceding two novels Dictator is divided into two substantial parts:

Part one – Exile (58 to 47 BC)

‘Exile’ is a slightly misleading title as Cicero was only in exile from Rome for 18 months, returning in late 57 BC. And it doesn’t really refer to a spiritual or political exile either since, once he returned to Rome, he was right back in the thick of political intrigue and returned to his position as Rome’s leading barrister.

The narrative begins exactly where Lustrum broke off, with Cicero, Tiro and a few slaves secretly leaving Rome at night due to the threat against his life issued by the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. Clodius issues a law saying anyone who gives Cicero help, food or fire within 500 km of Rome is liable to execution.

They clandestinely travel south but their attempt to sail to Sicily is blocked by the governor (p.7). Travel back across Italy to Brundisium (11). Nightmare sea crossing to Dyrrachium (13 to 15). Governor of Macedonia, old friend Apuleius Saturninus, sends a message saying Cicero can’t stay with him (16). But one of Saturninus’s junior magistrates, the quaestor Gnaeus Plancius, offers to put him up in his town house in Thessalonika. News of Cicero’s wife and family’s mistreatment back in Rome (21). His luxury house has been burned down, the land confiscated and a shrine to ‘Liberty’ erected.

Clodius and his gangs have complete control of Rome. His sort-of ally Cato the Younger has been packed off to serve as governor of Cyprus (22). Atticus tells him about a fight between Gnaeus Pompey’s men and Clodius’s men for possession of the son of the King of Armenia, a hostage held by Rome, in which one of Pompey’s friends is killed. This decisively turns Pompey against Clodius and he now regrets having supported Cicero’s exile (24).

Unexpected arrival of the fierce ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who has just managed to be elected tribune and offers his services to Cicero, accompanied by a really hard-looking gladiator named Birria (30). He explains he offered Pompey the services of 100 hardened gladiators to confront Clodius’s gangs in exchange for Pompey helping him (Milo) get elected tribune. Pompey himself has been attacked and forced back to his house by Clodius’s gangs so now he whole-heartedly wants Cicero back.

But there’s a catch: Cicero must ‘reassure’ Caesar i.e. promise not to oppose him. So Cicero’s exile will be ended if he agrees to truckle to the Triumvirate. Milo says he must send a letter and emissary to Caesar in person, so Tiro sets off on the long journey across the Adriatic, up Italy and finds Caesar doing his assizes at a town called Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul (41).

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, spots Tiro in the queue of supplicants and takes him to see the great man in person. Tiro finds Caesar naked on a table being given a massage by a big black man (46). He scans Cicero’s letter in which he promises to meekly support Caesar’s legislation and keep out of politics and simply signs it ‘Approved’ (48). (While waiting, Publius shows Tiro copies of the Commentaries Caesar is writing, the annual account of his campaigns which he is having published back in Rome to win support – see my reviews of Caesar’s Gallic Wars for a summary. Harris also uses it to meditate on the appalling atrocities Caesar carried out against the Gauls, see below.)

Atticus is sending him letters from Rome keeping him informed and tells him that although Clodius’s gangs are still beating up their opponents (including Cicero’s brother, Quintus) the tide is turning against him. Friendly senators arrange a vote of the entire citizenry which is unanimous to have Cicero’s exile ended (52) and then restore full rights of citizenship (57).

Cicero’s triumphant march from Brundisium to Rome, feted and welcomed at every village and town. Reunion with brother Quintus who he hasn’t seen for 2 years (while he’s been off serving with Caesar in Gaul) (61). A vivid description of his triumphal entry into Rome and the ceremonies around his restoration as a citizen (63).

Because his house was demolished, Cicero’s household move in with brother Quintus. The two wives do not get on, but Cicero’s marriage to Terentia is under strain. She gave him her full support on the understanding he would be a success. Exile was the extreme opposite of success and exposed her, back in Rome, to any number of threats and humiliations (65).

Straight back into toxic politics. In return for his support in having his exile rescinded, Pompey wants Cicero to propose a bill giving Pompey executive control over Rome’s food supply for the next five years (68). This will redirect the people’s loyalty from Clodius’s crowd-pleasing back to Pompey, an establishment figure.

Clodius still has control of street gangs and sets a crowd to besiege Cicero and his family in Quintus’s house (73 to 78) until they smuggle a slave out to fetch Milo and his gladiators who see off Clodius’s thugs.

Next day Cicero presents Pompey’s grain powers bill in the senate and wins a huge ovation, supporters carry him to the rostra where he addresses a cheering crowd and then introduces the man of the hour, Pompey (81-81). Pompey accompanies Cicero home and tries to strong arm him into becoming one of the 15 food commissioners; is disgruntled when Cicero refuses (he’s only just got back to Rome and his family), so Pompey bullies Quintus into reluctantly taking up a post in Sicily (82).

Vivid description of Cicero presenting his case to the College of Pontiffs to have ownership of his (ruined) house returned to him, claiming it was never properly sanctified, helped by the discovery that the so-called Statue of Liberty Clodius set up in the ruins is actually a half-naked statue stolen from Greece where it adorned the tomb of a famous courtesan. Clodius’s case is laughed out of court and the land restored to Cicero to rebuild his mansion (85-89).

But workmen starting to rebuild it are attacked and Clodius’s gangs throw firebrands onto Quintus’s house nearly burning it down (93), forcing the family to go and stay at Atticus’s empty house. Eight days later they are walking along the Via Sacra when they are attacked by Clodius and a dozen of his hoods carrying cudgels and swords and only escape by dodging into a nearby house (94).

Terentia shows Cicero the weals on her back where she was savagely whipped on the orders of Clodia, Clodius’s fearsome sister, while Cicero was in exile (96)

The affair of Dio of Alexander, philosopher from Alexandria who had come to Rome to petition against the return of the pharaoh Ptolemy and is one day found murdered. Ptolemy is staying with Pompey and so suspicion falls on him, specifically on one of his managers, Asicius. Pompey strong-arms Cicero into defending him (100). Asicius chooses as alibi the young protege of Cicero’s, Calius Rufus. Now this smooth young man had defected from Cicero to Clodius in the previous novel. Now Cicero meets him and realises he has fallen out with Clodius. Cicero discovers his affair with Clodia ended badly with her accusing him of trying to poison her.

Pompey lobbies for a bill giving him sole command of a commission to restore Auletes to power in Egypt. Crassus is so jealous he pays Clodius to launch a campaign to stop him. Meetings and speeches to the people are broken up in violence. Cicero is delighted because it heralds the end of the Triumvirate (105).

The Rufus strategem (pages 105 to 122)

Cicero learns Rufus is scheduled to prosecute Lucius Calpurnius Bestia for corruption. Bestia was a creature of Cataline’s and so a sworn enemy of Cicero’s but Cicero conceives a Machiavellian plan. First Cicero amazes everyone by volunteering to defend Bestia, does a great job and gets him off. Irritated, Rufus issues another write against Bestia. Bestia comes to Cicero for advice. Cicero advises the best form of defence is attack; he should issue a counter-writ. More than that, he should meet with Clodius and Clodia and get them to join his case. They loathe Rufus. With them on his side Bestia can’t lose. Delighted, Bestia goes away, meets with Clodius, and issues a writ against Rufus accusing him of a) murdering the Egyptian envoys b) poisoning Clodia (110).

Cicero chuckles. His plan is working. He takes a puzzled Tiro on a visit to Rufus and finds him disconsolate: just the accusation means his budding career as a lawyer is in tatters. To Rufus’s amazement Cicero offers to be his defence counsel. Neither Rufus nor Tiro understand what is going on.

First day of the trial passes without Cicero’s intervention. Clodius is one of the three prosecutors. He depicts his sister (Clodia) as the innocent victim of a cruel libertine (Rufus). On the second day Cicero takes to the stage (trials were held on raised platforms in the Forum) and proceeds to lay into Clodia with unparalleled fury and accuracy, describing her as a whore, a courtesan, Medea, hinting at her incest with her brother, depicting her as having countless lovers, depicting him as the sensual immoral seducer of a boy half her age (Rufus) and she the daughter of an infamous, merciless, crime-stained, lust-stained house. Clodius is infuriated, Clodia sits motionless. Cicero eviscerates her in front of a cheering Roman audience who end up pointing their fingers at her and chanting ‘Whore, whore, whore.’ It is said she never went out in public again (122).

And this entire elaborate scam? Revenge for Clodia having his wife, Terentia, whipped. Cicero presents the result to his wife as a gift and atonement for her sufferings during his exile.

Cicero makes one more intervention in politics. Next day he speaks in the Senate to the bill to assign 20 million sestercii to Pompey for his grain commission but he uses the opportunity to ask whether they should reconsider the land reform legislation Caesar passed before he left for Gaul. This pleases the anti-Caesarians but infuriates his supporters, not least Crassus (125).

He makes an evening visit to Pompey’s villa outside Rome, politely greeting the great generals’ beautiful young wife. Pompey tut tuts over Cicero’s speech against the land reform but Cicero goes on the offensive saying Crassus’s insensate jealousy of Pompey is far more dangerous than anything he, Cicero, can say. Pompey agrees. Cicero comes away well pleased at his work undermining the unity of the anti-republican triumvirate (130).

Tired, Cicero takes a holiday at Cumae, in a villa left to him by a rich tax collector he did some legal work for (126). They notice it’s surprisingly empty for the time of year (132). Then dusty soldiers approach. Scared, they receive them and they turn out to be envoys from Luca.

After Cicero’s disruptive speech, Crassus went to see Caesar and they then summoned Pompey to what turned into the Conference of Luca, designed to shore up the Triumvirate. Now this soldier has brought an ultimatum to Cicero. He must shut up. He must stop criticising the triumvirs. He must reverse his position and support the land reform.

And astonishes him by telling him Pompey and Clodius have been publicly reconciled. Crassus and Pompey are going to stand for election as consuls. If they stood in the summer they would fail. But the elections will be delayed because of the escalating violence Clodius will provide. By the time it’s safe enough to hold election in the winter, campaigning season in Gaul will be over and Caesar will send thousands of his soldiers to vote for Pompey and Crassus. When they have finished their year as consuls they will be awarded provinces, Pompey to Spain, Crassus Syria. These commands will be for five years, and Caesar’s command in Gaul will also be extended.

Altogether these plans are known as the Luca Accords (136). If Cicero doesn’t support them, bad things will happen to him. After the soldiers leave Cicero is shaken but furious with Pompey. Can’t he see he is being turned into Caesar’s dupe? He is securing Caesar the few more years he needs to thoroughly subjugate and pillage Gaul and then, when he’s done, Caesar will return to Rome and dispense with Pompey.

But Terentia intervenes. She is fed up with Cicero thinking he and he alone must save the Republic. There are hundreds of other senators and ex-consuls. Let them do something about it for a change. Cicero knows he is right. After this ultimatum from the three most powerful men in Rome he realises his time is up. He should back away from active politics (139).

Vivid description of Cato the Younger returning from two years as governor of Cyprus with vast wealth (140). He is shocked at the Senate’s obeisance before the Triumvirate and at Cicero’s pessimism. From now on Cato becomes the leader of the opposition to Caesar (143). Cicero kowtows. In the Senate he humiliatingly withdraws his suggestion that Caesar’s land reform be reviewed – and receives a letter of thanks from Caesar (146).

(150-154) Portrait of Crassus as he prepares to set off on his military campaign against the Parthian Empire. He is only interested in looting everywhere and amassing as much money as possible. It is unpopular with the people. Cato makes speeches against it, declaring it immoral to commence a war against a nation Rome has treaties with. But when Crassus asks for Cicero’s support the latter is happy to invite him and his wife round for supper and pledge his heartfelt support. Anything to appease the Triumvirate and get them off his back. Tiro notes the slack, dilettantish behaviour of the officers who accompany Crassus, a sharp contrast with the whip-smart and efficient officers who surround Caesar. (This is all by way of being anticipation of Crassus’s disastrous defeats and miserable death in Syria the following year).

Over the next 3 years Cicero writes and rewrites the first of his works, On the Republic. Harris has Tiro give a useful summary (p.156):

  • politics is the most noble of callings
  • there is no nobler motive for entering public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men
  • no individual or combination of individuals should be allowed to become too powerful
  • politics is a profession not a pastime for dilettantes
  • a statesman should devote his life to studying the science of politics in order to acquire all the knowledge that is necessary
  • that authority in a state must always be divided
  • that of the three known forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and people – the optimum is a combination of all three, since kings can be capricious, an aristocracy self-interested, and an uncontrolled multitude is a mob

Tiro has a severe fever during which Cicero promises to finally make him free – description of Tiro’s manumission

Crassus is killed at Carrhae – Harris chooses to quote Cassius’s long message as read out by Pompey to the assembled senators

detailed description of the affray which leads to the murder of Clodius – Cicero defends Milo at his trial but can’t be heard above the barracking (p.194)

Cicero is forced to go serve as governor of Cilicia as the political situation in Rome intensifies. Tiro doesn’t want to go but Cicero persuades him with the offer of buying him the farm he’s always wanted (p.198). Terentia wants him to play the traditional Roman governor and fleece the province for everything he can but Cicero knows this will play into the hands of his enemies as well as being against his temperament (202).

En route to take ship at Brundisium, the party is invited to go stay with Pompey at his nearby villa. They discuss the political situation. With Crassus dead the triumvirate is now an unstable duumvirate. Because Caesar has now successfully conquered and pacified all of Gaul, the question becomes what to do about him. Caesar wants to stand for the consulship in absentia to ensure that he gets it and secures immunity from prosecution which the office provides (204).

In Athens discussion with Aristatus, leading exponent of Epicureanism (206). He argues that physical wellbeing, the avoidance of pain and stress, is all. But Cicero argues that physical illness and pain are unavoidable and so the Epicurean notion of ‘good’ is weak and vulnerable. A more robust notion of the Good is needed, namely the moral goodness of the Stoics which endures no matter what state our body is in. Which inspires Cicero to write a guide to the Good Life.

Harris skimps on Cicero’s governorship, giving a very brief account of the one military campaign he led, to besiege the capital of a rebellious tribe. He omits two aspects described in Cicero’s own letters, namely a) his difficult relationship with his predecessor who just happened to be a brother of his bitter (and dead) enemy, Clodius and b) his very real achievement of setting a ruined province back on its feet, reducing taxes, reviving trade and administering justice fairly. You can see that these nuts and bolts aspects of actual administrative work don’t fit the thriller template.

Before his governorship is quite over, Cicero packs and sets off back to Rome, accompanied by Tiro and his entourage. He detours via Rhodes to visit the tomb of his tutor in oratory, Apollonius Molo. However, the winds change and block them there. Finally they sail on to Corinth but Tiro is taken very ill and eventually cannot be moved. He is left in the care of a banker friend of Cicero’s who he was not to see again for 8 months.

So he is forced to watch from a distance as the Roman Republic collapses for it was in January of that year, 49 BC, that Caesar crossed the River Rubicon and sparked civil war against Pompey, the defender of the constitution and senate.

Harris uses a series of Cicero’s actual letters to describe events. Pompey panics, thinking Caesar has his entire army with him (whereas he only had one legion) and orders the authorities to evacuate Rome and head east, ultimately holing up in Brundisium before sailing for Greece.

Caesar just fails to stop him then, without ships of his own, is forced to march back to Rome. En route he stops off at Cicero’s house in Formiae and has a brief meeting. He asks him to come back to Rome, to address the senate supporting him. Cicero refuses. Caesar is angered but leaves.

Cicero realises he must throw in his lot with Pompey and heads back to Greece. Tiro travels from his sickhouse to rendezvous back in Thessalonika, the same house where he spent his exile. Everyone is miserable (226). Cicero talks to Pompey, attends meetings. 200 senators are there with their families and staffs, bickering and politicking.

Caesar finally secures a fleet and sends half his army to Dyrrachium. Pompey marches there and surrounds his camp. It settles down into trench warfare, with the soldiers yelling abuse at each other and the occasional outbreak of fraternisation. Defectors tell Pompey about a weak place in Caesar’s defences so he attacks there. In a confused fight it is generally thought Caesar lost. Next morning his fortifications are abandoned. He is marching east into Greece. Pompey resolves to chase him and also strikes camp. Cicero’s son, brother and nephew all march off, but he doesn’t like war and elects to stay in a villa near the now liberated town of Dyrrachium (249). Cato is put in charge of forces there.

It is here that, weeks later, rumours reach them of disaster. Then Labienus arrives in a terrible state having ridden for days from the disaster that was the Battle of Pharsalus, 9 August 48 BC (252).

The senators and leaders who stayed behind at Dyrrachium hold a meeting and resolve to fight on and rally the Pompeian forces at Corfu, an island and so defensible.

And so amid scenes of chaos and panic the Pompeian forces pack up and sail for Corfu. Here another summit meeting is held in the Temple of Jupiter. Cato proposes Cicero be their leader, but Cicero laughs out loud and says he is fit for nothing. In his opinion they should immediately sue for peace in order to end the bloodshed. Pompey’s son Gnaeus is incensed by Cicero’s defeatism and goes to stab him with a sword, only Cato’s restraining words prevent him and save Cicero’s life (259). Cato lets anyone who wants to, leave, so Cicero slowly rises and walks out:

out of the temple, out of the senatorial cause, out of the war and out of public life. (p.260)

In Patrae they are delighted to come across Cicero’s son, Marcus, his brother Quintus and young nephew, who all fought in the battle but survived (260). Cicero speaks tactlessly of the meeting of leaders he attended, ridiculing them and their cause, not realising how deeply it was offending these three men who put their lives at risk for the cause. This prompts a furious tirade from Quintus in which he expresses a lifetime of resentment at being forced to play second fiddle to his oh-so-clever brother and he and his son walk out (264).

Heart-broken at this family rupture, Cicero returns to Italy accompanied by Tiro who has been away three full years. They find the region round Brundisium controlled by a legate of Caesar’s, Publius Vatinius, who, however, Cicero defended in a trial and so is helpful (267). Cicero is given a villa under guard for his protection and only slowly realises that he is in fact under house arrest while Vatinius finds out what Caesar wants done with him.

Cicero and Tiro realise this is life under a dictatorship: no freedoms, no magistrates, no courts, no elections. One lives at the whim of the dictator.

Cicero’s heart sinks further when Vatinius tells him that while Caesar is absent on campaign, Italy is ruled by his Master of Horse (traditional post for second in command) Marcus Antonius. Cicero and Antonius have always had a distant relationship but there is an underlying animosity because Antonius’s stepfather, Publius Lentulus Sura, was one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death in 63 BC (as described in detail in the previous novel in the series, Lustrum).

Depressing months of house arrest follow. Cicero is deeply upset by the rift with his beloved brother. All the news is of death, including that of Milo the gladiator and Cicero’s promising pupil, Marcus Caelius Rufus (269). Then they all hear news of the the miserable end of Pompey, treacherously stabbed as he went ashore in Egypt (270).

In the spring of 47 the news is that Caesar is still in Egypt with his alleged paramour, Cleopatra. Cicero is still stuck in Brundisium. His beloved daughter Tullia makes the dangerous journey to visit him. Her husband, Dolabella, now ignores her completely and has affairs. Worse, Tullia brings news that his wife, Terentia, has been conspiring with her steward Philotimus, to plunder his estate and belongings for years. Cicero’s private life is in ruins.

Then a letter comes from Caesar, no less, announcing he is returning to Italy and will come to visit Cicero. Soon afterwards Cicero is summoned to meet the dictator at Tarentum. Cicero is rising there with an entourage of cavalry and lictors when they encounter the huge column of Caesar’s army. The dictator dismounts from his horse, greets Cicero and walks with him.

It is a perfectly genial conversation. Cicero asks to be relieved of the damned lictors who still accompany him everywhere because he still, legally, is governor of Cilicia, but are a damned inconvenience. Caesar agrees on the spot. But shouldn’t that take a vote in the senate? Caesar replies: ‘I am the senate’. Caesar politely says he isn’t sure he wants Cicero back in Rome making speeches against him. Cicero assures him that he has utterly retired from politics. He intends to devote his life to studying and writing philosophy. Caesar is pleased. Then Harris has Cicero ask one of the Great Questions of History: Did Caesar always aim at this outcome, a dictatorship? No, is Caesar’s swift reply.

‘Never! I sought only the respect due my rank and my achievements. For the rest, one merely adapts to the circumstances as they arise.’ (p.281)

The thoughtful reader reels at the impact of these words, on the light they shed on the real processes of history, and this encounter makes you review everything, the long complex violent sequence of events which has led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and Cicero’s hectic chequered career which has brought the two men to this encounter on a dusty road amid a huge entourage of battle hardened soldiers. Then Caesar mounts his horse and gallops off (282).

Part two – Redux (47 to 43 BC)

They head back to Rome but Cicero decides to stop and live outside the city, at his country house at Tusculum (287). Description of the house. Here he settles down to translate the best of Greek philosophy into Latin (289). He starts with a history of oratory he called the Brutus and dedicated to him, though the dedicatee didn’t like it (290).

He divorces Terentia (286). They still have much in common but she’s been robbing him blind, stripping his properties of their furnishings and selling them off.

Cicero gives oratory lessons to Caesar’s exquisite lieutenant Aulus Hirtius (who is rumoured to have written many of the commentaries on the Gallic War) (291). He is soon joined by Gaius Vibius Pansa and Cassius Longinus as pupils of Cicero (292). Cassius admits that he regrets allowing himself to be pardoned by Caesar and confides in Cicero that he has already planned to assassinate Caesar (292).

Tullia’s errant husband Dolabella is back from fighting in Africa. He asks to come visit Cicero and Tullia. He tells them about the war in Africa, about Caesar’s great victory at Thrapsus, and about the hideous suicide of Cato (297). The deep impact on Cassius and Brutus, both of whom were related to Cato i.e. shame for having accepted Caesar’s pardon and living on under his dictatorship. Cicero writes a short eulogy to Cato (299).

Caesar holds four triumphs in a row and absurdly lavish games (300) but during one of them his chariot’s axle snaps and he’s thrown to the ground. Caesar’s clemency, forgiving errant senators (302). He pardons many of his enemies, notably Brutus, some said because Brutus was his son by his long-term mistress Servilia, herself half sister of Cato.

Cicero is forced to marry the totally unsuitable Publilia for money (Tiro reviews the three eligible i.e. rich candidates) (306). Description of the wedding including the disarmingly simple Roman marriage vow (‘Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius’) (308). After only a few weeks the marriage isn’t working (309).

His daughter Tullia comes to stay to bear the child she was impregnated with when Dolabella visited (she had been staying with her mother since the divorce). But she is ill with tuberculosis. She gives birth to a healthy boy (named Lentulus) but never recovers. Death bed scene, Cicero holds her hand, she dies peacefully in her sleep (312).

Stricken with grief, Cicero flees his young wife and hides himself away in a succession of friends’ houses and remote villas, writing a handbook of Greek philosophy about consolation (314). Eventually he divorces Publilia (315), and invites Tiro to join him in Tusculum where he sets about dictating the Tusculan Disputations (317). There are to be five books cast in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and his student:

  1. On the fear of death
  2. On the endurance of pain
  3. On the alleviation of distress
  4. On the remaining disorders of the soul
  5. On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life

One must train for death by leading a life that is morally good:

  • to desire nothing too much
  • to be content with what you have
  • to be entirely self sufficient within yourself so that whatever you lose, you can carry on regardless
  • to do no harm
  • to realise it is better to suffer an injury than inflict one
  • to acknowledge that life is a loan from nature which must be paid back at any time

‘Such were the lessons that Cicero had learned and wished to impart to the world’ (319).

Dolabella comes to visit. He is back from the war in Spain. He was badly injured. He asks to take possession of his son by Tullia, and Cicero agrees. Dolabella tells Cicero the fight in Spain was different from the other campaigns, more hard fought, more bitter. When Pompey’s son Gnaeus was killed in battle, Caesar had his head stuck on a lance (321). They took no prisoners. They killed 30,000 enemy i.e. Roman troops. Many of the enemies he pardoned after the earlier wars had fought against him. Caesar has returned a different man, angry and embittered.

Cicero continues turning out books at speed. Burying himself in Greek philosophy , reading, studying, dictating to Tiro, all help him manage his grief over Tullia’s death. He writes On the nature of the gods and On divination.

Caesar is a changed man, angrier, more controlling. His grasp on reality seems to have slipped. He writes a petty-minded riposte to Cicero’s eulogy of Cato. His infatuation with Cleopatra leads him to set up statues of her in Rome, including in temples. He has himself declared a god with his own priesthood (323). He announces a grandiose plan to take 36 legions (!) to the east to smash the Parthian Empire, march back round the Black Sea conquering all the territory, approach Germany from the East to conquer and pacify it. Basically, to conquer the whole world (323). Alexander the Great.

Cicero goes to stay on the Bay of Naples. On the Feast of Saturnalia he gives all his staff presents and finally, after years of prevaricating, gives Tiro the farm he’s always yearned for. It is described in idyllic terms but the thing that struck me was that is staffed by six slaves and an overseer. This doesn’t cause a bump or hesitation in the description by Tiro, the ex-slave (330).

Caesar sends a letter announcing he will drop by. Cicero is thrown into a panic and makes massive preparations. Caesar arrives with his entourage and cohorts of soldiers. Dinner conversation. Caesar flatters him by saying he enjoyed reading the Tusculan Disputations. This leads Cicero to ask Caesar whether he thinks his soul will survive his death. Caesar replies he doesn’t know about anyone else, but he knows that his soul will survive his death – because he is a god! Simples. Cicero concludes the intensity of his isolation, achievements and responsibility have driven him mad (328).

Caesar is made dictator for life. He has the seventh month of the year renamed July. He is given the title Emperor and Father of the Nation. He presides over the Senate from a golden throne. He has a statue of himself added to the seven statues of the ancient kings of Rome. Harris repeats the famous story that at the Lupercal festival Mark Antony repeatedly tries to crown Caesar with a laurel wreath, though the crowd boos (331).

Caesar plans to leave Rome on 18 March 44 BC to commence his huge campaign in the East. A meeting of the Senate is arranged for the 15th or Ides of March, to confirm the list of appointments to all the magistracies which Caesar has drawn up for the three years he intends to be away.

On the morning of the fifteenth Cicero and Tiro get up early and arrive at the Senate ahead of time. The meeting is being held in the theatre built by Pompey because the old Senate house still hasn’t been rebuilt after Clodius’s mob burned the old one down on the day of his funeral in 52.

Harris manages the tense build-up to one of the most famous events in Western history, the assassination of Julius Caesar very well. Tiro gives an eye witness account the main point of which is confusion and delay. Caesar was warned by a soothsayer and his wife’s bad dreams not to attend the session and so the assembled senators mill around increasingly impatient for hours. Eventually Caesar arrives having been cajoled into coming by Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators.

Assassination of Caesar (338). Conspirators retreat to the Capitol Hill. Cicero meets them and is staggered that they have no plan (347). Instead of seizing power they expect the republic to magically reconstitute itself. Leaving this vacuum is their tragic mistake (353 and 368). Lepidus moves troops into Rome and takes control. The assassins address the crowd but don’t win them over:

A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect. (p.349)

Meeting of the Senate at which Antony makes a commanding speech calling for compromise and amnesty for the assassins (358). Several sessions of the Senate trying to reconcile the parties. Nervously the assassins agree to come off the hill and negotiate with Antony, the serving consul after both sides have given hostages (as in The Gallic Wars, the only mechanism for gaining trust between chronically suspicious partners.)

So Caesar’s assassins and supporters sit in a further session of the Senate, which agrees to keep magistrates in place, Caesar’s laws unaltered, then agrees with Antony’s suggestion that Caesar’s will is opened and read publicly (364).

The big surprise of Caesar’s will, that he leaves three-quarters of his estate to his nephew Octavianus, who he legally adopts and is to be named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (367).

Five days after the assassination there is a grand funeral for Caesar, complete with elaborate cortege. Tiro thinks it was stage managed by Fulvia, Antony’s venomous wife. It climaxes with Antony’s speech to the crowd in which he drops all pretence at reconciliation and says Caesar was cruelly murdered by cowards (370). Antony displays Caesar’s corpse and then says he left the people 300 sestercii each in his will to inflames the crowd. When the pyre is lit the crowd go mad, tear off their clothes and throw them in, loot nearby shops and chuck furniture on. Then go rampaging through the streets attacking the houses of the assassins. They tear Helvius Cinna the poet to pieces under the misapprehension he is Cinna the conspirator (372). The assassins leave Rome.

Cicero flees Rome and devotes himself to writing, producing in feverish outburst the books On auguriesOn fateOn glory, and begun sketching On Friendship (375). Visitors from Rome bring stories of Antony’s high handed behaviour.

One day Cornelius turns up with a short skinny kid with pimples. This is the famous Octavian who is staying with neighbours (there is ambiguity about his name so Harris gets the boy himself to tell everyone he wants to be referred to as Octavian, p.377). Octavian butters Cicero up and seeks his advice. He has no small talk. He is a logical machine.

An extended dinner party at which Octavian’s father, advisors, some of Caesar’s senior officers and Cicero discuss what he should do. Cicero is blunt. Go to Rome, claim your inheritance and stand for office. He tells Tiro he doesn’t think the boy stands a chance but his presence will undermine Antony.

Cicero sends Tiro to attend the next meeting of the Senate (he is too concerned for his own safety to go). Tiro witnesses Antony award himself the command of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul for five years and arrange other allies in positions of power. Octavian is nowhere to be seen. He visits Cicero’s son-in-law Dolabella. Cicero wants the dowry which accompanied Tullia back. Instead Dolabella gives him a document which assigns Cicero as Dolabella’s legate in Syria. He doesn’t have to do anything but it gives him the legal right to travel and Greece and immunity for 5 years (385).

Cicero and Tiro travel to Brutus’s family home at Antium to discuss what the leading assassins should do. Brutus’s mother Servilia is disgusted at the thought her son will be merely handed on of Pompey’s grain commissioners, but Cicero advises Brutus and Cassius to take these posts and wait on events (388). But the real point is the assassins are falling out among themselves and have no plan.

Cicero moves on to another of his properties. He is working simultaneously on three books, On friendshipOn duties and On virtues (391). Reluctantly Tiro decides it is time to quit Cicero and go live on that farm. He is 60. Cicero accepts it calmly and returns to his work. Tiro’s farm (393). Nonetheless, he still frequents spas and there overhears gossip about Rome, opposition to Antony.

He meets again Agathe, the slave girl he paid to have liberated but never to to see again. With her freedom she worked, saved money and bought the spa where Tiro has bumped into her (398). [Right at the end of the narrative we are told her full name is Agathe Licinia and she owns the baths of Venus Libertina at Baiae, p.488).

Cicero comes to visit him on the farm. Antony is failing, and Brutus and Cassius have determined to revive the opposition. He is energised and going back to Rome to throw himself back into the fray. His daughter’s dead, he’s divorced from his wife, he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t mean to but Cicero is so charismatic that…he lures Tiro back into his service (402).

It takes them 8 days to travel to Rome. The roads are dangerous. Gangs of Caesar’s demobbed soldiers roam the countryside, stealing, killing, burning. People are terrified. Once in Rome Cicero attends the next sitting of the Senate and makes a speech against the corruption and distortion of the law by Antony. This becomes known as the First Phillippic, in a jokey reference to the speeches Demosthenes delivered against the Macedonian tyrant, Philip II (411).

Antony replies with an excoriating speech to the Senate dragging up every disreputable scrap he can about Cicero, and highlighting his flip-flopping support for great men as signs of a self-seeking sycophant (412).

It is December 44 BC. The military situation is chaotic. There are no fewer than seven armies with different leaders (413). Octavian’s army occupies Rome. Antony is in Brundisium trying to bribe legions returned from Macedonia into supporting him. Octavian makes a speech about calling his adoptive father the greatest Roman, to applause from the crowd. He leaves Rome, Antony exits it but then has to speed to one of his legions which Octavian has bribed away. Chaos.

Cicero’s second Philippic against Antony, packed with scurrilous gossip and accusations of corruption (418). Cicero explains his position to Tiro and Atticus: Antony is the enemy, ‘a monstrous and savage animal’ (432), often drunk dictator in the making. Octavian, with the name of Caesar and many of his legions, is the only force which can stop Antony. Atticus wisely asks whether Octavian will not himself then become dictator. But Cicero naively thinks that he can control and steer the young man, in order to restore the Republic (421).

Cicero meets Octavian at one of Atticus’s houses by Lake Volsinii. Harris is in his element. He imagines the power plays and negotiations. Octavian agrees to be guided by the Senate if Cicero persuades the Senate to give him imperium and legal authority to fight Antony (426).

Antony has marched with his legions to besiege Decimus Brutus, governor of Cisapline Gaul, in the town of Mutena. Brutus remains loyal to the state and Senate, so Antony is clearly everyone’s enemy. Cicero makes a big speech in the Senate claiming the state is being rescued by the boy Octavian. This speech became known as the Third Philippic (430). When he goes out to repeat it to the people in the Forum he is drowned by cheers.

BUT when the Senate meets early in January 43 Cicero is shocked when both new consuls (Hirtius and Pansa) and other senators reject his criticism of Antony and hope peace can still be negotiated. Next day Cicero makes the speech of his life, the Fifth Philippic in which he scorns any peace overtures to Antony, proposes he be declared an enemy of the state, and that Octavian be given full official backing (438).

But the next day Antony’s wife and mother are presented in the Senate. If Antony is declared an enemy of the state, his property will be confiscated and they will be thrown out on the streets. To Cicero’s disgust this moderates the Senate’s decision from open war down to sending peace envoys.

A month later the peace envoys return from Mutena, where Antony is besieging Decimus. Antony refused all their proposals and made his own counter-proposals including 5 years command of Further Gaul. Once again a debate in the Senate where Antony’s friends and relations sway things. Once again Cicero rises the following day to utterly condemn Antony as the instigator of war. As Cato was Caesar’s inveterate enemy, so Cicero has made himself Antony’s.

The two consuls lead a conscript army off to face Antony in the north. The leading magistrate left in Rome, the urban praetor Marcus Cornutus, is inexperienced and turns to Cicero for advice. Thus at the age of 63 he becomes the most powerful man in the city, dictator in all but name.

It takes a while for despatches to return from the north and when they do they initially tell of a great defeat of Antony. Cicero is triumphant. It is the most successful day of his life. But then further despatches reveal that not one but both consuls were killed in the Battle of Mutena. Then Decomus Brutus reveals that his weakened army allowed Antony to flee with his over the Alps.

Worst of all, word has got to Octavian of some casual slighting remarks of Cicero’s. Octavian warns he is not prepared to be subordinate to Decimus, as the Senate ordered. Since there are 2 vacancies for consul, why can he not be made one? (He is only 19; the lower age limit for the consulship is meant to be 43.)

In May 43 Antony and his army arrived at the base of Lepidus, who was meant to be holding Gaul for the Senate. Instead he goes over to Antony. He claims his troops mutinied and wanted to join Antony’s.

When official news reaches the Senate Cicero is called on to make a speech summarising the situation. This is that Antony, far from being extinguished, is more powerful than ever. Deep groans from the senators. To Cicero’s horror the traditionalist Isauricus announces that he has swung his power and influence behind Octavian, and offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and proposes that Octavian be allowed to stand as consul in absentia. In other words, Octavian has dropped Cicero. In his shock, Cicero gives a speech crystallising his political beliefs in a nutshell:

That the Roman Republic, with its division of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s noblest creation (p.475)

And goes on to say that, for this reason, he thinks Octavian should not be awarded the consulship. It’s precisely this kind of bending of the rules which brought them the rule of Pompey, then Caesar. This speech places Cicero, for the first time, directly against Octavian’s wishes.

Crucially, he points out to the Senate that even if Lepidus goes over to Antony and Octavian is of increasingly uncertain loyalty, they can call on the legions commanded by Brutus in Syria and Cassius in Macedon. The point is that, without realising it, Cicero is creating the conditions under which Octavian and Antony will unite as the Caesarian party and declare war on the army of the assassins.

At the end of the new month of ‘July’ they learn that Octavian has struck camp, crossed the Rubicon with his army and is marching on Rome. Cicero had repeatedly assured the Senate of Octavian’s good intentions. Now he looks naive at best, Octavian’s tool at worst (476).

Legions arrive from Africa and Cornutus assures they will be loyal. But when Cicero goes to address them they remain resolutely silent. What do his fancy words about ‘liberty’ mean to them? They want money (480).

Next day the African legions mutiny and join Octavian’s. Cornutus kills himself in shame. Octavian’s troops now occupy Rome. Cicero contemplates suicide, but goes to see him. Their relationship has completely changed. Octavian tells Cicero he has organised to have the consulship, and who his fellow consul will be, an obscure relative who will be a puppet. Soon he will go to meet Antony and Lepidus. He recommends Cicero leaves Rome. Go to Greece and write philosophy. He won’t be allowed to return without permission. Don’t write anything against Octavian. Octavian is the new dictator (483).

Broken in spirit, all his hopes crushed, Cicero retreats to his country villa at Tusculum (485). They hear Octavian has set up a special court to try Caesar’s assassins. Then that he has left Rome with 11 legions, marching to confront Antony.

A month goes by and he conceives the idea of collecting all his letters. Tiro has kept all of them. He unpacks them. Cicero has them read out in chronological order. His whole hectic public and private life. He is fully aware that they amount to:

the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled by a leading statesman. (p.487)

So he instructs Tiro to assemble his letters in the right order, then make several complete copies to be hidden and preserved. Atticus, always keen to ingratiate himself with everyone, averse to all risk, insists that all his letters to Cicero are burned, burns them with his own hands. But copies of the rest are made and Tiro sends his copies down to his farm to be hidden for posterity.

At the end of November 43 Cicero sends Tiro into Rome to recover the last of his papers from his properties. That night there is screaming in the streets. Tiro learns the devastating news that Antony, Octavian and Lepidus have joined forces to create a Second Triumvirate. They have published a list of hundreds of senators and knights who have been proscribed: their properties are to be confiscated and a bounty of 100,000 sesterces on their heads. Both Marcus and Quintus Cicero are on the list (490).

Panic, pandemonium, the city at night is full of death gangs seeking out the proscribed men in order to kill them, cut off their heads, and present them to the auditors. In mad haste, Tiro tells the remaining slaves in Cicero’s houses to flee, scribbles a message to be taken by courier to Cicero at Tusculum telling him to flee to his villa on the small island of Astura, then follows in a carriage.

It’s several days before Marcus and Quintus arrive on the shore. It’s the depths of winter, it’s raining, they look bedraggled. Tiro had a slave go and hire a boat in nearby Antium to carry them down the coast and abroad, but Quintus refuses to get in it.

They spend a miserable night in the little house on the island. Cicero elaborates on what happened: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus have met in Bononia and struck a deal to divide the empire between them. They’ve agreed to fund their armies by the simple expedient of killing the richest 2,000 men in the republic and seizing their property. To vouch for their good intentions they each agreed to include in the list someone dear to them: Antony his uncle, Lucius Caesar; Lepidus his own brother; and Octavian, after several days of holding out, Cicero, his former mentor and adviser (494).

They set off by ship but the seas and the winds are against them. Ten men are rowing the ship but it makes almost no headway. They put into a cove, beach the ship and try to shelter from the elements under the sails. Misery.

Next morning Tiro wakes to find Cicero gone. There is a path up from the beach. Tiro finds Cicero wandering along it, distracted. He tells Tiro he plans to head back to Rome to kill himself on Octavian’s doorstep. He’ll die of the shame. No he won’t, says Tiro. Cicero will just be captured and tortured to death, then decapitated. Reluctantly Cicero turns and returns with him to the beach.

They all embark back in the ship and set off rowing again. But it is hard going, the wind against them, the seas heavy. Cicero recognises the headland of Caieta and knows he has a house nearby. He insists they dock at a small jetty. Tiro checks the villa hasn’t been occupied by soldiers or death squads but it appears untouched so he sends slaves to fetch Cicero from the beach and tells the housekeeper to light fires and prepare a bath.

They sleep deeply but are wakened next morning by a slave saying soldiers are coming. Cicero insists on having a bath and dressing formally. Only then will he enter the litter Tiro has arranged and is being carried down to the sea to board the ship when they are cut off by a dozen legionaries. The slaves turn about face and carry the litter hastily back up the path but are met by more legionaries.

The tribune leading the soldiers turns out to be one Caius Popillius Laenas. By a supreme irony he was one of Cicero’s first clients in law. He defended him against a charge of parricide when he was a measly 15 year old and got him acquitted on condition he join the army. Oh the irony (which Harris appears to havey confected; none of this is in the historical accounts I’ve read).

Popollius orders the centurion under him to execute Cicero. Cicero is utterly resigned and insists they do it while he lies back on the litter, assuming the position of a defeated gladiator. And so with one stroke of his sword the centurion cuts off the head which composed some of the greatest speeches and works of literature in the Latin language. Little good they all did him in the end.

They then chop off his hands and put them all in a basket and depart. Tiro hears Antony was so delighted by the hands he gave Popillius a bonus of a million sestercii. Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to the public rostra as a warning to anyone else who opposed the triumvirate. It is said that Antony’s wife, Flavia, who hated Cicero, stuck needles through his witty tongue (502).

Tiro and the slaves carry Cicero’s body down to the beach and burn it on a pyre. Then he headed south to his farm. Quintus and his son were caught and executed. Atticus was spared because he had helped Fulvia when anti-Antony feeling was at its height.

All the loose ends are neatly tied up and Harris gives Tiro the briefest of spaces, just one page, to reflect on the extraordinary life he has described and the epic times it sheds light on.

My work is done. My book is finished. Soon I will die too. (p.503)

The Victorians achieved moving literary effects by writing too much. Modern writers strive for the same emotional impact by writing too little.

It is a moving and emotional end because Cicero’s life itself was so awesome and his end so wretched. The facts themselves are very moving for the reader who has accompanied Cicero this far, however. Harris’s treatment is a little disappointing. He winds up the narrative by telling us that Tiro marries that slave girl he freed all those years ago, Agath,e and they often spend the evenings together reminiscing. Sounds like a Disney movie or the Waltons.

And he quotes the passage from Cicero’s work, The Dream of Scipio, where Cicero tells the statesman to look down from the vast heavens on the insignificant earth and dismiss the petty activities of humans.

Ah, but that’s what politicians all say when their careers are over. Contrary to all Cicero’s preaching in his literary works, the consolations of philosophy are feeble compared with the full-blooded excitement of action.

Key words

Politics

As I made abundantly clear in my reviews of the first two books, these are novels about politics, not in the broad theoretical sense, but in the narrow sense of the day to day scrabble to win and then maintain positions of power in the state. One of the many pleasures of the previous books is the way Harris has characters state sententiae – maxims or sayings about politics – which are perfectly meaningful in their context but framed in such a way as to be widely applicable to any time and place, including our own.

  • There is always this to be said of politics: it is never static. (p.51)
  • ‘Nothing in politics can be planned in advance for seven years.’ (p.137)
  • It is the most important rule in politics always to keep things moving. (p.433)

But having got into the habit of writing out all the apothegms in all three books made me realise there are far, far fewer uses of the word, and hardly any zingy apothegms about it in this one.

Power

I think the word ‘politics’, central to the previous two novels, is superseded in this one by use of the word ‘power’, signifying a shift in subject and in historical events. With the advent of the Triumvirate the time for petty politics passes and is replaced by the more naked manipulation of power.

And then, possibly, the word ‘power’ is itself superseded half-way through the book by ‘war’. And neither Cicero nor Tiro can make casual, knowing generalisations about war since neither of them are soldiers.

It’s a subtle, lexical indication of the way the focus of a novel supposedly about Cicero shifts its emphasis, spreads it more widely, in this novel. Well before the end of part one the energy centre of the narrative, as of Cicero’s world, has shifted to Caesar. Caesar is the true protagonist and Cicero an increasingly passive cork floating on the huge ocean of disruption and war he causes.

With the outbreak of civil war Cicero – and the text – become increasingly reliant on letters and third person accounts of events scattered all round the known world (Greece, Egypt, Spain).

And then, after the assassination of Caesar, not only all the characters but the narrative itself feels adrift. Retreating to the country, Cicero tries to make sense of the fast-moving series of events where no-one is in control, certainly not the assassins, but not Mark Antony either.

It’s in this chaos that slowly emerges from the confusions of the narrative the cold-eyed, steely determination of young Octavian who is to astonish the world by mastering the chaos created by his elders. Initially Octavian is keen to meet Cicero, ask his advice, when he departs with his army keeps in touch by letter. But when he hears about Cicero’s fateful slighting remark, he goes ominously silent. No letters, no replies, no despatches.

Octavian’s silences signal the text’s final abandonment of Cicero. Tiro’s narrative continues to focus on Cicero’s activities and attitudes but the narrative has moved through three key words – politics, power, war – and the final buzzword is nothing, nothingness.

The authorities in Rome hear nothing about Antony for months, Cicero hears nothing from Octavian for months. But in this ominous silence they are cooking up the Second Triumvirate, which will seize power and unleash an army of assassins whose aim is the end of all words. The end of Cicero. The end of the text.

The law

A little into this one I realised I’d been missing the importance of an obvious subject, the law. Cicero was first and foremost a lawyer. He made his name with the Verres case (described in great detail in part one of Imperium). Even when he ducked out of politics he continued to advocate cases in the courts. And what comes over very loudly is that in ancient Rome the law had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with fancy notions of ‘Justice’ but was entirely a tool of political manipulation, attack and revenge.

Trials in ancient Rome were wildly different from modern trials. They involved a jury of scores, sometimes hundreds (75 jurors were sworn in for the trial of Rufus, p.116), were conducted in the open air with the Roman crowd watching, sometimes in their thousands. Speeches were astonishingly ad hominem, not only dishing up all kinds of dirt on the accused and witnesses but also on the opposing advocates, who were often accused of the most grotesque crimes themselves.

Above all, cases could descend into violence as the onlookers behaved more like a football crowd than the limited number of public allowed into a modern court, and started yelling or applauding or booing, or sometimes throwing things, and sometimes invading the platform where the trial was being conducted.

So much highfalutin’, self-serving rhetoric surrounds the practice of the law but the Roman reality was obvious a shambles. Harris has Cicero tell Rufus:

‘My dear Rufus, have you learned nothing? There is no more honour in a legal dispute than there is in a wrestling match.’ (p.108)

War atrocities

As always, I am appalled at the gross violence, war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Roman army:

  • Dyrrachium is still recovering from the fate ordained by the Senate in the 150s, namely razed to the ground and its entire population of 150,000 sold into slavery
  • Harris makes room for a scene in which Tiro reads through Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic Wars and works out that by Caesar’s own account, he has been responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 Gauls and Germans in just one campaigning season (p.45)
  • Metellus Nepos reads out a despatch from Caesar to the senate in which the great man admits that of the 65,000 strong army of the Nervii only 500 were left alive (p.70)
  • Caesar’s lieutenant wins a great naval battle against the Celts, has their leaders executed and their entire nation sold into slavery. (p.147)
  • Caesar lures 430,000 members of the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes across the Rhine and then annihilates them. (p.148)

It is notable that the only member of the entire ruling class who protests against this behaviour is Cato, who makes a speech in the senate saying Caesar should be declared a war criminal, removed from his command and prosecuted. His suggestion is shouted down.

Even Cicero does’t care that much about these atrocities. But Tiro does. Harris has Tiro dwell on them with horror and this confirms for me, not that Tiro is a sensitive soul, but that he is the representative of the modern liberal consciousness in the novel. Tiro would be a more interesting character if he were either malicious or unreliable. Instead he is the simplest kind of narrator possible, the loyal friend of the protagonist who reports everything he sees with utter honesty. And is as appalled as a Guardian editorial by violence and war.

Family ties

  • The stern republican Brutus was the nephew of the stern moralist Marcus Portius Cato (140).
  • Julius Caesar married off his daughter Julia to Pompey.
  • Mark Antony was the stepson of Publius Lentulus Sura, one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death. One among many sources of enmity between the two men.
  • Cassius Longinus was married to Brutus’s sister.
  • Domitius Ahenobarbus was married to Cato’s sister.
  • The consul Marcus Philippus was married to Caesar’s niece (142).
  • Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew.

Dated diction

In my review of Lustrum I mentioned the way the thriller, as a genre, uses stereotypical characters, situations and language to guarantee an enjoyable read. The characters and events may be unpleasant (betrayal, murder etc) but the shape and feel of the incidents is almost always super-familiar and, in a paradoxical way, despite being superficially unpleasant, at a deeper level, cognitively reassuring.

I meant to mention something else I noticed, which is that Harris’s characters often speak like characters from a 1950s British movie. I mean they use a reassuringly old fashioned and very pukka diction.

Some of the reviewers suggest Harris has rewritten Roman history for our times, and insofar as his narrative focuses on cynical abuses of political power that may be true. But I was struck by how very 1950s the language of a lot of the characters is. They often reminded me of characters from Ealing Comedies or the St Trinian’s movies.

It first struck me when Cicero talks about one of the other characters as ‘not being such a bad fellow’.  From then on I noticed this 1950s upper-middle class professional register.

‘Very well, young man, that’s enough’ (p.29).

On page 107 Tiro refers to Bestia as ‘the old rogue’. Who uses the word ‘rogue’ any more unless they’re talking about the Star Wars movie Rogue One or a ‘rogue state’ or maybe describing a ‘loveable rogue’ in a review of a movie?

Bestia had with him ‘his son Atratinus, a clever lad’.

When characters address each other they’re likely to say things like, ‘My dear Rufus…’ or ‘My dear, poor boy…’ Atticus speaks with the overemphasis typical of the English upper-middle classes: ‘Tiro, my dear fellow, thank you so much for taking care of my old friend so devotedly‘ (p.113). And:

  • ‘What an utter villain that fellow is.’ (Cicero about Crassus, p.154)
  • ‘The man’s ingratitude is unbelievable!’ (Milo on Pompey, p.178)
  • ‘I am delighted to meet you! My wife has always talked of you most fondly.’ (Dolabella to Tiro, p.296)

Now you could argue that the dialogue is a bit old fogeyish as part of a broader authorial strategy by which Tiro’s language as a whole has a definite oldster tinge, like the pages of an old paperback which have yellowed with age.

I slept, and very deeply despite my anxieties, for such was my exhaustion… (p.499)

Not ‘because I was so exhausted’ but ‘such was my exhaustion’. It’s not exactly Victorian or really old diction and it’s not dominant in every sentence; but at moments when he has a choice, Harris always chooses the more old-fashioned, stiffer phrase.

Presumably this dated tinge is a conscious effort. I can see it has two intentions: one is to subtly convey that this is a 2,000 year old document describing a lost world. It is meant to feel, not archaic exactly, but slightly dated, in order to convey its pastness.

The other, more obvious motivation, is that the narrator is 100 years old. Tiro is an oldster. So of course his turn of phrase would be dated, even in his own time. When you ponder that fact, you could argue that the phrasing throughout the book is not dated enough.

But at the end of the day this is not a literary work, but a popular novel, a historical thriller and its default prose style is the crisp, factual manner of the thriller and most literary effects are clinically dispensed with in order to achieve its strong, direct, intelligent but simple impact.

Scraps

Cicero tells Tiro that Cato is the only one of them who clearly sees they they’re on the road to ruin (p.149).

Tiro the slave (p.20). His (sketchy) thoughts about slavery (p.226).

Caesar is like a whirlpool (p.147).


Credit

Dictator by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2015. All references are to the 2016 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

The senate was not the arena for brute force. The weapons here were words, and no one ever knew how to deploy words as well as Cicero. (p.184)

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose and by language I shall survive.’ (p.402)

This is the middle novel in the Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Cicero is an excellent historical figure to dramatise for at least two reasons.

1. We know more about Cicero than any other figure from the ancient world. a) He wrote a prodigious amount, not only his speeches as an advocate but books about oratory, philosophy, politics and morality, most of which have survived. when he writes about Cicero, Harris has an unprecedented amount of primary source material to refer to. b) The extraordinary survival of some 1,000 letters from and to him, many from the leading figures of the day such as Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and others. Harris says as much in his Author’s Note, where he says he’s used, where possible, Cicero’s own words from letters or speeches (for example Cicero’s lament at feeling lonely after his brother and best friend both leave Rome, page 344, which is, I think, a direct quote from one of Cicero’s letters).

2. The second reason is that Cicero was right at the heart of the web of allegiances and alliances which made up the toxic politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was consul at the time of the Cataline conspiracy, he was important enough to be invited to join the first triumvirate in 60; when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, Cicero was one of the half dozen figures in Rome whose opinion he really valued. In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination Cicero advised the killers and, after they were defeated, he became a sort of mentor to Caesar’s heir, young Octavian and a bitter opponent of Mark Antony.

No other figure was as central to the high politics of the age or left such an extensive documentary record.

Tiro the narrator

As I thoroughly explained in my review of the first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, the novels are narrated by Cicero’s slave and private secretary Tiro, a real-life figure who Cicero devoted several letters to praising and thanking and who we know was responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters after his death.

I had been his secretary for sixteen years by this time and there was no aspect of his life, public or private, with which I was not familiar. (p.13)

In other words, Tiro is the perfect person for a narrator, the amanuensis and secretary to Cicero, observer and analyst of his behaviour as Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

The premise of all three books is that Tiro is writing his memoirs long, long after the events he recounts, just a few years before the start of the Christian era and Tiro is a very old man of nearly 100. The three novels are represented as the memories of this old man, looking back at particularly high points in the life of his lord and master, as he himself witnessed and recorded them at the time.

Two parts

The first novel was in two parts. Part one, ‘Senator (79 to 70 BC)’, led up to Cicero’s career-making prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres. Part two, ‘Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)’ covered his campaign to be elected consul, which becomes entangled with a major plot by Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to stitch up control of the Roman state. Taken together it covers 15 years.

This book covers the next five years in Cicero’s life and career (which explains the title, the Latin word lustrum referring, among other things, to the religious sacrifice offered every five years by the state officials known as ‘censors’ and so, by extension, to a period of five years. This is clearly explained in  an epigraph to the book and is referenced in the text on page 392). Once again the novel is divided into two parts:

Part one – Consul

This covers the dramatic and fateful year of 63 BC and gives a compelling and thrilling description of the slow escalation of the crisis which developed into Lucius Sergius Catalina’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state. I’ve described the events in my review of Sallust’s Cataline War, but Harris brings it astonishingly, vividly, harrowingly to life, unforgettably conveying the astonishing, unbearable pressure Cicero came under, as the lead consul in Rome, of proving the existence of the conspiracy and then punishing the conspirators.

The climax of the Cataline conspiracy is the agonised decision to execute the five patrician senators who were foolish enough to be Cataline’s accomplices in the city and allow themselves to be caught (Cataline himself was hundreds of miles away, safely protected by the army raised by his colleague Manlius). It was an agonising decision because the executions were carried out without a formal trial, solely on the basis of a vote in the Senate, and this rash act would come back to haunt Cicero.

Part two – Pater Patriae

This covers the next four years, 62 to 58 BC, describing a number of key events which followed in the aftermath of the conspiracy. Beneath a blizzard of more overt incidents and challenges, the two underlying themes are the unstoppable rise of Caesar and his creation of the First Triumvirate (in 60 BC), and the concomitant rise of the slippery young demagogue Publius Claudius Pulcher, aided by his clever sexy sister, Clodia.

No words can convey the vividness with which Harris describes both the key players in late re[publican power politics, but also the gripping shifts in the endless political powerplay which Cicero finds himself trying to ride and survive.

The book contains many thrilling, nerve-biting scenes, but maybe the most shocking or heart-stopping is the moment when Caesar, doubly powerful in his roles of pontifex maximus and consul, forces the senator Lucius Lucullus to apologise for opposing him in the senate on his knees, commanding he do so like an outraged monarch, and the old general, realising he has no choice and creakily sinking to his knees to beg forgiveness of the dark-eyed force of nature which is Caesar, and the entire senate looking on in silent impotence (p.408).

The book rises to a climax as Clodius triumphs, being first adopted by a plebeian family, then winning the tribuneship, proposing a range of populist measures (a free grain dole for every family) before moving in on his old enemy, Cicero, by proposing a bill accusing him of murder in having the Cataline conspirators executed without a trial and enacting that:

It shall be a capital offence to offer fire and water to any person who has put Roman citizens to death without a trial. (p.417)

This innocent-sounding measure spells death for all around Cicero, his wife, his household and all his friends. The only way not to imperil all of them is to flee the city as quickly as possible and so that is how the second novel ends,

Power

Above all these books are about power, political and personal and Harris brilliantly and thrillingly conveys the world of the Rome’s senior aristocracy where every meeting, every dinner, every conversation is dominated by politics, not just chat about the powerful but every meeting between the social elite was politics: the jungle of social rivalry never stops and never ends.

‘From now on everything is to be written down.’
‘Yes, Senator.’
‘We’re heading into dangerous waters, Tiro. Every reef and current must be charted.’ (p.28)

Because every single reef and current conceals threat, power plays, the strategies and power plays of immensely rich and powerful people like Caesar (with his ‘divine recklessness), Crassus and Pompey, the populares or populists, on one side, and the leaders of the optimates or aristocratic party such as Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Quintus Hortensius (Cicero’s rival to the title best lawyer in Rome) and father of the senate, Vatia Isauricus.

In this way he cut through the posturing and sentiment to the nub of the issue which was, as it always is, power. (p.49)

Ancient and modern

One of the features of the first book was the way the narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s freed slave and secretary, not only loyally described all the events, meetings, conversations and so on which he witnessed, but also drops in comments and reflections – on people, places and situations. Above all Harris has him drop generalisations about the nature of power, especially political power, which are carefully phrased so that they can be applied to contemporary British politics as much as to ancient Roman politics. The result is a pleasant psychological shimmer, where the reader registers the comment’s appropriateness to the plot but also realises it can be applied to much more recent events.

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

Like the descriptions mentioned below, these sententiae are superficially intelligent, insightful and compelling but many, on a moment’s reflection, melt like a snowball in sunshine. They are very like the truisms and bromides (‘a trite statement that is intended to soothe or placate’) which pad out opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, which you nod agreement to then can’t remember half an hour later. For example, saying it is in the nature of politics to deal with one thing another another, is not very different from how you have to cope with one thing after another in your work, in being a parent, or life in general.  It is in the nature of the thriller, as a genre, to present a heightened simulacrum of reality which grips and thrills your imagination at the time of reading, but which you can barely remember a few days later.

A checklist of references

Having read my Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as modern historians who reference other ancient sources, I’m familiar with attributes and anecdotes about many of the key players, not only Cicero, but Caesar, Crassus, Pompey and so on. It is entertaining to watch Harris slip them into his narrative at appropriate moments, like hearing a composer slip snippets of popular songs into a symphony. Thus:

A variation on the much-repeated story that Caesar burst into tears because by the age when Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world, Caesar had achieved nothing (referenced on p.25, and then reprised but this time with Cicero being the one mournfully wishing he’d matched Alexander on p.145) (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar chapter 11, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar chapter 7.)

Caesar telling his mother he will return pontifex maximus or not at all (p.85) (Plutarch’s Caesar, chapter 7, Suetonius’s Caesar, chapter 13).

The most famous courtesan in Rome (Flora) saying she never left Pompey’s house without bite marks on her neck (p.336) (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 2).

Actually there aren’t as many of these as there are in the first novel (or I missed some). Rather more obvious is Harris quoting directly from set piece speeches which were recorded and have survived from antiquity, namely Cicero’s ferocious attack on Catiline in the senate, and the debate about whether to execute the conspirators featuring diametrically opposed speeches from Caesar (advocating clemency and life imprisonment) and Cato (immediate death penalty) which, I think, are sourced from Sallust’s account.

When Caesar as consul drives his fellow consul to retreat to his house but continues to pass laws, Cicero is said to have quipped that the laws were being passed by the joint consulship of Julius and Caesar (p.369) (Suetonius’s Life of Cesar, chapter 20).

Realistic in two ways

The novel is vividly imagined and hugely pleasurable to read in at least three ways:

1. Sensual

The smell, the feel, the noise, the sight of Rome, its streets and people, the crowd cheering a procession, the packed and dusty Field of Mars on election day, the crowd of the white toga-wearing elite waiting outside the Senate house, the queue of clients outside every senator’s door, Cicero’s breath visible on a cold December morning, the chirping of cicadas on a hot Italian evening – the novel presents a steady stream of vividly imagined scenes which bring ancient Rome vibrantly alive (as they say).

The vivid Caesar’s pokey house in a rundown neighbourhood, or Cicero and Tiro’s visit to Lucullus’s stupendous luxury villa overlooking the Bay of Naples (p.107).

2. Socio-political

But more important is the detailed descriptions Harris gives of Roman processes and rituals, religious, social and political.

Now that Cicero is consul there are more scenes set specifically in the Senate and Harris makes this feel eerily like the House of Commons with a great central aisle separating two sets of stepped benches occupied by the opposing parties, the patricians and the populists.

  • the strange and spooky taking of the augury on the morning Cicero assumes his post as consul
  • the inauguration of the two new consults accompanied by prayers, the slaughter of a sacred bull, flags and trumpets (p.45)
  • the weird details of the Latin Festival held on the Alban Mount (p.57)
  • the dignified funeral procession for the old pontifex maximus, Metellus Pius (p.81)
  • the triumph of Lucullus (p.127)
  • the hot dusty crowd packing the Field of Mars to elect next year’s consuls and praetors (p.142)
  • the preparations for the Feast of the Great Goddess (p.211)

This vivid imagining of set pieces of the Roman constitution and procedures exceeds anything I’ve read in any other book. Harris really explains what went on at the ceremonies, how they looked and felt and smelled.

It is fascinating to read his account of the chief augur taking the auguries on the eve of his consulship and then the importance of auguries preceding all other state events, such as sessions of the Senate or elections on the Field of Mars.

It is fascinating to follow the precise sequence of rituals, prayers, the order of procession and so on involved in a classical Roman triumph up to and including the ritual strangling of the foreign kings and captives by the carnifex or public executioner (p.128).

It is illuminating to read the description of a Roman wedding, the wedding of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia, aged just 14, to Gaius Frugi of the Piso clan (p.146).

The ceremony of adoption, even it is the travesty conducted under coercion of Clodius being adopted as a plebeian so he could stand as a tribune (pages 386 to 387).

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

The dramatic ambush of the conspirators on the Mulvian Bridge (pages 203 to 207).

The description of the trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher for blasphemy at which he scandalously bribes the jurors to acquit him despite his obvious guilt (pages 304 to 320).

The dramatic trial in which Cicero’s once-time pupil Marcus Caelius Rufus confidently crushes Cicero’s defence of his corrupt partner as consul, Caius Antonius Hybrida (pages 369 to 384).

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

So far I haven’t conveyed how immensely enjoyable this book is. It is well written, packed with interesting facts about ancient Rome, steeped with insight and intelligence into the workings of power and influence.

Harris makes it live through a hundred vividly imagined details – his description of Caesar’s ancient, venerable but shabby house in the now rundown neighbourhood of the Subura; Caesar’s distinctively dry rasping voice (p.29); Cicero and Tiro’s atmospheric visit to the augurs who take them up onto the roof of their building to observe the prevailing winds and the flight of birds.

The narrative starts at the end of December, just as Cicero is about to commence his year as consul and Rome is experiencing unusual snowfall, so the whole city is white with snowdrifts, vividly described.

A feature of thrillers is the action is all in the events and their threatening, thrilling implications, rarely in the prose style. The prose generally has to be as plain and transparent as possible in order to clearly and quickly explain the facts and let the reader thrill to their accumulating threat and implications.

Therefore thrillers are not afraid of clichés. It’s like a painter painting pictures long after the era of painting has died, because there continues to be a market for painting long after all possible avenues and permutations of painting have been exhausted.

In the same way, despite a hundred years or more of experimentation designed to expand, subvert or blow up the novel as a literary form, the thriller genre continues to thrive, generating endless new novels telling similar stories and using time-honoured techniques and phraseology. Just because there is no longer a literary avant garde doesn’t mean books don’t continue to sell. In fact more novels are sold every year than ever before in human history, just as there are more TV shows and more movies than ever before. More of everything.

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the river Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet. (opening sentence)

An evil antagonist:

‘Damn Caesar!’ said Cicero suddenly. ‘There’s nothing dishonourable about ambition. I’m ambitious myself. But his lust for power is not of this world. You look into those eyes of his, and it’s like staring into some dark sea at the height of a storm.’
(Lustrum, page 34)

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

Catalina’s eyes glittered and his large hands contracted into fists. ‘My first ancestor was Sergestus, companion of Aeneas, the founder of our city – and you dare to tell me to leave?’ (p.169)

And the phenomenally charged confrontation right at the end between a miserable, defeated Cicero being hounded out of his beloved Rome and Julius Caesar, brisk in his shining armour, mustering his legions to set off for his command in Gaul. When Caesar offers Cicero the legateship with him which would ensure his safety from prosecution, Cicero realises he must turn it down:

‘Thank you for your consideration,’ replied Cicero, ‘but it would never work.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because…what is wicked about you Caesar – worse than Pompey, worse than Clodius, worse even than Catalina – is that you won’t rest until we are all obliged to go down on our knees to you.’ (p.439)

Sudden alarms:

I was woken by fists pounding on the front door. I sat up with a start. I could only have been asleep for a few moments. The distant hammering came again, followed by ferocious barking, shouts and running feet. (p.148)

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

Cicero grabbed my arm. ‘So the actual crime will be to help keep me alive? They won’t even give me a trial.’ (p.418)

All very, very well done and yet, somehow, utterly predictable. The cosy familiarity of thriller tropes extends down to the level of individual sentences and metaphors. These are good in their way, but utterly familiar and slip down like an iced drink by the swimming pool at a Mediterranean resort. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome in the depths of winter:

The smoke from the altar fires was curling above the temples. I could smell the saffron burning, and hear the lowing of the bulls awaiting sacrifice. As we neared the Arch of Scipio I looked back, and there was Rome – her hills and valleys, towers and temples, porticoes and houses all veiled white and sparkling with snow, like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom. (p.44)

‘Like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom’ – a metaphor which has been around as long as fiction, for centuries, predigested and processed by the reader with barely a flicker of recognition.

Portraits of Rome

Speaking of Rome, I slowly realised that Harris describes Rome so regularly, in different seasons and moods, that it is obviously part of a concerted strategy to make ‘Rome herself’ a character in the novel. This wasn’t so apparent in Imperium (or I just missed it) but seems to me a deliberate tactic in this novel. At the same time I think these descriptions demonstrate the reliance of this kind of thriller on cliché and stereotype. There are never any surprises; things always exactly fit the mood and needs of the narrative.

The strategy is apparent from the start, when Harris paints an opening picture of Rome as the capital of a great Mediterranean empire but nonetheless stricken with social and economic turmoil, resulting in a decadent febrile atmosphere – which, of course, suits the writer of a tense thriller down to the ground.

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p.8)

Then, here is Tiro’s description of Rome in midsummer:

It was one of those endless hot summer days when the sun seems reluctant to sink, and I remember how still it was, the motes of dust motionless in the shafts of fading light. On such evenings, when the only sounds even in the city are the drone of insects and the soft trilling of the birds, Rome seems older than anywhere in the world; as old as the earth itself; entirely beyond time. (p.130)

‘One of those endless hot summer days’ – see what I mean be generic description: this sentence could come from any one of hundreds of thousands of popular novels. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome at the height of the Cataline panic:

By the time Cicero set off for the temple, tightly protected by lictors and bodyguards, an atmosphere of real dread hung over the city, as tangible as the grey November mist rising from the Tiber. The streets were deathly quiet. Nobody applauded or jeered; they simply hid indoors. In the shadows of their windows the citizenry gathered, white-faced and silent, to watch the consul pass. (p.182)

Here is Tiro’s description of Rome on the night Cicero finally confirms the Catiline conspiracy to the senate:

We stepped out from the library onto the narrow terrace. Down in the valley, the effect of the curfew was to make Rome seem as dark and fathomless as a lake. Only the Temple of Luna, lit up by torches on the slope of the Palatine, was distinctly visible. It seemed to hover, suspended in the night, like some white-hulled vessel descended from the stars to inspect us. (p.226)

Good, isn’t it? Efficient, effective and highly atmospheric but, for me, ultimately, soulless. Harris’s prose tastes of chrome. It feels a beautifully designed, expensive sports car, recently washed and gleaming in the sun. Perfect of its kind.

Terentia

We get to know all the characters well, from the public figures such as Caesar, Crassus, Hortensius, Catalina, Clodius, Cato, Lucullus, Metellus, through to members of Cicero’s household, his brother Quintus and above all his fearsome wife Terentia. Harris steadily builds up a portrait of Terentia as not conventionally attractive but radiating personality and determination and fierce in argument.

It was around this time that Terentia began to play an important role in Cicero’s consulship. People often wondered why Cicero was still married to her after fifteen years, for she was excessively pious and had little beauty and even less charm. But she had something rarer. She had character. She commanded respect, and increasingly as the years went on he sought her advice. She had no interest in philosophy or literature, no knowledge of history; not much learning of any sort, in fact.  However, unburdened by education or natural delicacy, she did possess a rare gift for seeing straight through to the heart of a thing, be it a problem or a person, and saying exactly what she thought. (p.98)

Cicero had married Terentia for her money and it was her money which funded his successful campaigns to  gain magistracies and so enter the senate. Harris rarely mentions her without adding to the impression of fearsome redoubtability:

  • Was Caesar hinting by this remark that he wanted to seduce Terentia? I doubt it. The most hostile tribe of Gaul would have been a less gruelling conquest. (p.24)
  • I must not forget Terentia, who carried a heavy iron candle-holder at all times, and who would probably have been more effective than any of us. (p.177)
  • Terentia had the coolest head present. (p.421)

This gives the impression of painting a character, the kind of thing which people like in their fictions – except that it is all very familiar, the politician’s wife as fearsome termagent, the protagonist’s wife the only person he’s truly afraid of. It feels like another fictional cliché. One of the descriptions of Terentia raising merry hell in Cicero’s household for some reason triggered a memory of Les Dawson dressed as a northern housewife, wearing a hairnet over her curlers and brandishing a rolling pin ready to pick a fight with her henpecked husband.

Tricks of oratory

Harris has Tiro from time to time share with us Cicero’s tips for delivering an effective speech. Presumably these are taken from Cicero’s writings about oratory.

  1. Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, a speech must always contain a surprise. (p.52)
  2. The bigger a crowd is, the more stupid it is.
  3. When addressing an immense multitude it is always good to invoke the supernatural and call on the gods. (p.73)

Finally

All the texts we have from republican Rome were written by the elite. Not aristocrats, necessarily, but nonetheless from the wealthy, slave-owning upper classes. (As a side issue it’s notable that two of the most memorable writers from the period did not belong to this class, but were men on the make, Cicero and Caesar, whose writings were motivated, in part, by the need to prove themselves and improve themselves and lift themselves up into the ruling class. The writings of both men are heavy with self-promotion. LinkedIn literature.)

In all these thousands of pages we never hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people, meaning farm workers, labourers, shopkeepers, businessmen, merchants, tax collectors and the millions of ordinary people who populated the Roman Empire.

Which makes it all the more striking that the narrator of all three of these Cicero novels is a slave. Well educated, highly literate, shrewd and tactful, Tiro is an idealised narrator and it is only occasionally that he reminds us that he is not free. He is utterly reliant on his master for food, lodging and protection and must obey his orders at all times.

Tiro’s character is ‘dramatised’ a bit more in this novel than the previous one because Harris gives him a love interest, namely a slave girl in the household of the super-rich retired general, Lucullus. She is called Agathe and is assigned to Tiro to give him a bath and massage after his long journey to Lucullus’s palace to deliver a message (not in his own right, only because he is Cicero’s secretary) and proceeds, easily and casually, to have sex with him, as nubile young women often do in thrillers written by men, from James Bond downwards.

Tiro glimpses Agathe on a couple of other occasions (pages 307) and on the final occasion is saddened to see she is so worn out with slave life that all her softness and beauty has gone. She doesn’t even recognise him (p.424). But it’s not a major plot strand, in fact it’s very minor, but her presence serves to bring out what may be obvious but I’ll say anyway: the entire Cicero trilogy, consisting of over 1,200 pages, is a slave’s eye view of republican Rome.

I don’t want to belabour the point but it is a mark of the thriller’s lack of depth or seriousness, its determination to remain no more than an intelligent poolside read, that Tiro’s condition as a slave and dependent is from time to time mentioned but the state of slavehood, the central fact of the narrator’s life, is nowhere really explored.

Two or three times Tiro mentions he’d like to gain his freedom and set up on a nice little farm. Three quarters of the way through the book, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about to set off for a governorship in Macedonia, promises Tiro his freedom when he returns (p.324).

And right at the very end, as Cicero is being forced into exile, he magnanimously gives Tiro his freedom and tells him to leave him, as being in his presence jeopardises his life. But Tiro promptly rejects the offer of freedom and pledges to remain Cicero’s slave, secretary and confidante, as the pair, along with a couple of other (unnamed) slaves, scuttle through the midnight streets to elude Clodius’s henchmen, bribe their way out of one of the city’s gates, and set off into exile.

This is a very moving scene to end the long narrative on and yet…To me what was striking was that… these are novels written by a slave in which the condition of slavery is never really broached or investigated or dramatised or experienced.

Tiro mentions that he’s a slave, as you might mention needing to buy a new car or get your roof fixed. It is referred to half a dozen times as a fact. But the condition of slavehood is never really adequately dramatised or investigated, the psychology of slavery not at all. Tiro remains to the end a timid version of the sensible, intelligent but perpetually impressed Dr Watson-style sidekick, in awe of his large-than-life master, observant, obedient and respectful.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, on multiple levels. But the absence of meditation on this subject is a reminder of the limited ambitions and rewards of the thriller as a genre.

Catullus

The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was, during the period covered by the novel, madly in love with Clodia, sister of the disreputable Publius Clodius Pulcher who is a central figure in part two, and wife of Metellus Celer. Harris makes a sly reference to Catullus without mentioning him by name, designed to please the cognoscenti, having Celer tell Cicero, who’s come round on a social call, after Clodia is quite rude to him before walking off:

‘Well, there it is. I wish she talked to you as much as she does this damned poet who’s always trailing round after her…’ (p.340)

A reference to Catullus, for anyone who’s read a bit around the subject. Probably the book contains more sly amused references like that, not all of which I got.


Credit

Lustrum by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2009. All references are to the 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.

Recap

An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.


Michael Crichton reviews

Edwardian reviews

Although King Edward VII reigned from the day his mother, Queen Victoria, died on 22 January 1901 to the day he passed away on 6 May 1910, to be replaced by his son, King George V (reigned 6 May 1910 to 20 January 1936), most historians define the ‘Edwardian period’ as stretching from Victoria’s death to the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 – with some historians, for example, Eric Hobsbawm extending it to 1915, the year the full scale and calamity of the war began to strike home.

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1915

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2006)

‘Face it, we live in a stinking shitwash of cruelty and greed and rotten manners.’
(Honey Santana, the nature girl of the title, page 264)

Chapter one

Tommy Tigertail was the strong, silent Native American member of the four-strong eco-‘terrorist’ group led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, who wreaked havoc in Hiaasen’s farcical first novel, Tourist Season. At the end of that novel, Tommy returned to south Florida’s reservation for Seminole Indians to help run their lucrative casinos.

Ten books and 20 years later, Hiaasen’s eleventh comedy crime thriller opens with Tommy’s young nephew, Sammy Tigertail, disposing of the body of a fat, drunk, middle-aged white tourist named Jeter Wilson. Tommy didn’t murder him. He was giving Wilson a tour of the Everglades when the airboat he was driving through some high grass accidentally threw a harmless, non-poisonous banded water snake up onto Wilson’s neck. Such was Wilson’s panic that he thrashed around screaming trying to get the snake off him till he dropped dead of a heart attack.

Knowing that if he contacted the racist authorities, he would immediately be blamed and arrested, Sammy weighted down Wilson’s body, dropped it in a deep point of a canal, drove to meet his half brother Lee, to collect his favourite belongings (including a spiffy Gibson electric guitar), then, rather than return to the reservation (where he might be tracked down by police and so cause trouble for  his community) hitch-hikes off into the boondocks (definition: ‘rough or isolated country.’)

At the start of a completely different storyline, in a trailer in a park not far away, single mum Honey Santana, aged 39 (p.353) explains to her son, Fry, that she’s lost her latest job at the fish market because the boss, Mr Louis Piejack, crept up and grabbed her right breast, whereupon she turned round and hit him with a crab hammer in the nuts.

In mid-explanation she gets a call from a phone sales company, Relentless Inc, based in a disused B-52 hanger in Fort Worth, Texas; specifically from smooth-talking Boyd Shreave, who tries to sell her a property in some new housing development. When Honey Santana, a smart cookie, effortlessly dances round his call, taking the mickey out of him, Shreave forgets the golden rule of telesales (which is never lose your temper), loses his temper and calls Honey ‘a dried-up old skank’.

This shocks sales operatives sitting in the booth next to Boyd, Eugenie Fonda with whom he’s having an affair. Eugenie herself has a colourful backstory. In 1999 she began an affair with a tree trimmer named Van Bonneville, who claimed to have lost his wife in the recent hurricane – until, that is, police found her body, badly beaten around the head and strapped into the seat of their car which had been dumped in the St John’s River. Van Bonneville was convicted of murdering her and the story became notorious, dubbed the ‘Hurricane Homicide’ trial in the press.

Eugenie, at that point going by her real name of Jean Leigh Hill, was offered a publishing deal whereby a ghost writer came down from New York and helped her knock out her account of the story which, titled Storm Ghoul, became a bestseller and netted her half a million dollars. By this point Eugenie had hooked up with a stockbroker who persuaded her to invest it all in shares in a red hot company from Texas named Enron. Two years later went spectacularly bankrupt in one of America’s largest cases of corporate fraud and Eugenie lost everything.

Which is why she now finds herself sitting in a booth in a converted B-52 hanger in Texas, trying to sell people shares in a new property development and having a sexual fling with not particularly appealing Boyd Shreave, more out of boredom than anything else. After ending the call to Honey, Shreave takes a coffee break and wonders if his career has finally hit rock bottom. And indeed, the call had been recorded, his managers listen to it, and fire him.

Meanwhile Honey, fulled by rage against Mr Piejack, men in general and Boyd’s hideous insult in particular, decides she is going to phone back the company, insist on speaking to Shreave’s supervisor, and generally make his life a misery. She discovers the company has one of those number blockers, so she calls her brother, Richard Santana, a journalist in upstate New York, and he uses his databases to quickly ascertain the telecompany’s phone number and give it to Honey, who commences bombarding its switchboard with calls. Eventually she uses the ploy of pretending to be an insurance company which is trying to find a ‘Boyd’ employed by Relentless Inc in order to give him his payout on a crash. The guileless HR person gives Honey Boyd’s full name and address. Right.

As the story has developed we have learned that Honey Santana has mental health issues. To be precise, she has an obsessively vengeful personality, bordering on the bipolar, which is easily triggered, much to the exasperation of her long-suffering son, Fry. The boy’s father is Perry Skinner, a reformed dope smuggler, who Honey fell in love with, got pregnant by, but who was then busted and sent to gaol.

An example of Honey’s obsessiveness is that, while Skinner was in Elgin prison, she wrote him 147 letters, none of them forgiving him for getting busted for drug smuggling (p.230). She once sent the White House 97 emails to complain about the president’s support for a bill to allow oil drilling in an Alaska national park, bringing her to the attention of the Secret Service, who gave her a full assessment and concluded she didn’t pose a threat. They were wrong. Her doctor has prescribed medication, which she throws away. Her long-suffering son, Fry, tries to help and support her but he’s only 12.

Meanwhile, after the novel has described Boyd’s casual flirting with Eugenie it comes as a surprise to learn that he has a wife, Lily Shreave, though less of a surprise to learn that she has hired a private detective, Dealey, to tail him and take incriminating photos of Boyd and his mistress, Eugenie.

We get to know Dealey, hear his backstory, and to understand why he is particularly proud of a long-lens photo he took of Eugenie fellating Boyd in the car park of a takeaway delicatessen. It’s a career best for Dealey, which he sends off to a private investigator magazine who publish it (faces blurred out), much to the admiration of his fellow professionals (p.148). Amusing.

Pause for breath

All this information, the range of characters and their dense backstories, are conveyed in just the first 40 pages of this 400-page book. It’s a lot of information to process, isn’t it?. The bombardment of facts, people and descriptions suggests both Hiaasen’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are:

  • lots of characters, with colourful and varied backgrounds
  • their backstories described in great detail with journalistic concision and precision
  • the certainty that these storylines are set to intersect and the pleasure of trying to figure out how and why
  • extremely crisp and pithy dialogue, brilliantly capturing the characters’ modern, slangy, abbreviated speech rhythms

The main weakness being that all the characters have the shallowness of people mentioned in newspaper articles. You get name, age, weight, hair colour, a bit of backstory, then they’re thrown into the tumultuous pell-mell of farcical events. Close the book, as you would put down a newspaper, and half an hour later you’ve forgotten about them.

There’s precious little psychology. The characters are what they are and mostly stay the same throughout the narrative. The sense you get in each novel of a large cast of well-defined but somehow shallow characters reminds me a bit of the extravagantly large cast of characters in The Simpsons. And just as in The Simpsons, Hiaasen’s novels offer the amusement and comfort of recurring characters (the main ones being the ex-governor and eco-warrior Skink and his trusty side-man, Highway Patrolman Jim Tile; or, as here, rather poignant references to Tommy Tigertail and Skip Wiley from way back in that first novel, p.150).

Characters from the Simpsons cartoon series

Characters from The Simpsons cartoon series

Characters tend to stand out form the general scum if they have one of two qualities:

  • they conform to well-established thriller or Hollywood stereotypes: strong manly heroes like Mick Stranahan, hero of the previous novel, Skinny Dip, or corporate crooks such as Red Hammernut, or preening, cocky but ultimately weak cowards like the would-be wife-killer, Charles Perrone, also from Skinny Dip
  • or they have grotesque qualities or meet a grotesque fate: such as the over-hairy man-bear ‘Tool’ in Skinny Dip, or the assassin in Double Whammy who is bitten by a pitbull whose jaws he can’t unclamp from his arm, even after he’s killed it, even after he’s sawed its head off, and so goes through the rest of the novel with a rotting dog’s head at the end of one arm

I suppose one way of accounting for the grotesque characters or events in Hiaasen (beside them being gruesomely funny in and of themselves) is the way their fictional garishness compensates for the general lack of psychological depth.

Plot developments

Honey Santana

As we read on we encounter Honey Santana’s back story. We learn about her impulsive marriage to a working man ten years older than her, Perry Skinner, dope smuggler, who discovers her wearing a prom dress by the side of the road next to the car where her drunken teenage prom date was busy throwing up (pages 121 to 123). Skinner took her away, they fell in love, he got busted for smuggling dope and served a few years inside, and was surprised to find Honey waiting for him when he got out (p.230). They got married, they had a son Fry and then her mental disorder, some kind of bipolar condition, never officially defined (her ‘manic spirals’), became steadily worse, till they parted by mutual consent.

One among the many symptoms her son has learned to recognise is when Honey can barely hear anything around her because of the deafening noise going on in her head, ‘the rising babel in Honey’s skull’ (p.171), being combinations of multiple pop music tracks playing inside her head at the same time (for example, ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ at the same time as ‘Karma Chamelon’, p.125, or a disco track and CSN’s ‘Marrakesh Express’, p.82, Smoke on the Water and ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’, p.170, Nat King Cole and Marilyn Manson, p.214).

(It’s noteworthy that Hiaasen had used this riff in the previous novel, Skinny Dip, where Skink, his most frequent recurring character, was having exactly the same problem, of hearing two loud and catchy pop tunes playing inside his head at the same time. I wonder whether the repeat of this idea is an indication that Hiaasen himself suffered from a similar condition. Or just the repetition of quite a good bizarre character angle. Odd that he uses it in two consecutive books, though, as if we wouldn’t notice.)

Honey conceives a Cunning Plan to take revenge on Boyd Shreave. Once she’s got his phone number  she rings him at home, herself pretending to be a real estate salesperson with the made-up name Pia Frampton (p.170). She spins him a line about how lucky buyers will get an all-expenses paid trip to stay in a wildlife lodge in Florida (remember that Boyd, Mrs Boyd and Eugenie all live up in Texas) and gets Boyd hooked. He thinks a city break for 2 in Florida is just what he needs to restart his relationship with Eugenie.

Eugenie

For her part Eugenie has already moved on and has seduced a new guy at work, Sacco, who she gets back to her flat and naked but he won’t stop talking about his obsessions with Bill Gates and Microsoft, so she’s becoming exasperated which is exactly when Boyd knocks on the door with a bunch of flowers and the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to Florida. Eugenie thinks, Well, why not?

Honey’s scam and Richard’s airmiles

So now Honey has suckered Boyd to think he’s going on an all-expenses-paid weekend break to a luxury Florida hotel, how is (slightly demented) Honey going to arrange all this? First the air tickets. She phones her successful journalist brother and persuades him to part with enough airmiles to pay for the  2 American Airlines tickets which she sends to Boyd.

As to the hotel, well, er… She lies to her son, Fry, that she’s got friends coming to stay and paints her double-wide trailer amateurish pictures of macaws and tropical foliage. Ha! Then she gets the boy’s father, Skinner, to take him for a few days, and sits back to wait for Boyd and Eugenie to arrive and their ritual humiliation to begin.

Lily and Dealey

Complicating things nicely is Boyd’s wife, Lily. Lily has all the evidence she needs that Boyd is being unfaithful, but flabbergasts the private investigator, Dealey, by telling him a photo of her husband getting a blowjob in a car park is not enough. She wants a photo of actual penetration. Dealey starts to protest but Lily says she’ll pay him $10,000 cash for it. She is good for the money because she runs a little chain of pizza parlours which she is on the brink of selling to a larger chain for a big figure plus stock options.

So, very reluctantly, Dealey establishes what flight Boyd and Eugenie are getting, books himself onto it, and sets off on his quest to take a photo of them unambiguously having penetrative sex for his client.

Boyd’s excuses

What lies is Boyd going to tell Lily to excuse his absence for a couple of days? He comes up with the story that he is not only still employed by Relentless Inc. but is their star salesman, but, alas, has only just been diagnosed with the very rare condition of aphenphosmphobia (page 122) which means he can’t bear to be touched. So work are going to send him to Florida to visit a clinic which may be able to cure his sad condition.

Lily knows he’s lying and so sets out to torment him, by presenting herself in sexually alluring guises i.e. in bra and panties, in skimpy thongs, and in one memorably pornographic scene, tells Boyd to sit on the sofa, close his eyes, and focus on the fact that she is not wearing any panties (p.132) to focus on her pussy, imagine her shape, the outline of her vulva against her tight jeans in its ‘velvet detail’… then Boyd hears the sound of her slipping out of her jeans and he opens her eyes to see his wife’s naked pussy only yards from him as he nurses what is by now a rearing and straining erection.

But now he’s come up with this preposterous phobia story, he has to stick to it and resist even Lily’s crudest advances. Comedy of a not particularly subtle type.

Sammy and Ginny

Remember how we left Sammy Tigertail canoeing deeper and deeper into the Florida Everglades? He’s not a very competent Indian, much though he wants to emulate his heroic Seminole ancestors. We learn that Sammy’s daddy was a white truck driver who impregnated an Indian woman but, when he was born, took him away to live with him and his white stepmom. They brought him up as a white boy named ‘Chad McQueen’ in the suburb of Broward, till the old guy died from a heart attack on a friend’s stag night, whereupon his Indian mom reclaimed him and took him to live in the Indian community of Big Cypress.

But the rest of the Indian community regarded him as not part of it, both on account of his half-white parentage and also that he seems to be endlessly unlucky (p.163). Sammy thinks of himself as ‘a fucked-up half-breed’ (p.286); ‘I’m only half Seminole… My father was white’ (p.309) and the narrator agrees he is dogged by ‘chronic bad luck’, (p.330).

Above all, Sammy is self-conscious and sensitive about his bright blue eyes, a permanent reminder that he is not pure-blood Indian (p.331).

Proving his bad luck, while he sleeps on an island that first night on the run, a high tide washes away his canoe. But then he hears noises coming from the other side of the island, sneaks over and discovers a fraternity party of students dancing to a boogie box round a campfire, stoned and drunk.

When they’ve all eventually passed out, Sammy tiptoes round to their canoes and starts to steal one. But he is stopped by a voice from among the comatose bodies, a girl’s voice, asking if she can come with him. It belongs to a girl whose name we will discover is Gillian St Croix.

Just as Honey’s prom night date turned out to be useless all those years ago, now this girl, Gillian St Croix (full name p.141; fully backstory p.172), also wants to get away from the lame man who brought her to the island, Ethan.

— Useless men. This is a recurring theme. Pieback, Boyd and Dealey are sorry apologies for masculinity and their womenfolk have correspondingly low opinions of the male sex.

‘One time a guy almost croaked on me in bed,’ [Eugenie] was saying. ‘Lucky I’d passed a CPR class. I kept him goin’ till the paramedics got there, and guess what? He still had his hard-on when they carried him out on the stretcher – that’s all you need to know about men.’ (p.277)

Sammy whispers no way is he going to take her, but Gillian threatens to scream and wake her comatose student buddies up, so, with massive reluctance, Sammy puts her in the canoe, stops once safe round round the headland, then fires a few shots of the rifle to wake the dopey students up, making them panic and hurriedly dress and head off in the remaining canoes.

Which leaves Sammy stuck with Gillian, who turns out to be an incredibly irritating chatterbox, who only stops wittering on when Sammy ties her hands and stuffs a sock in her mouth. But not for long. He paddles blindly for a while, having no compass or map of familiarity with this area, eventually arriving at a remote island called Dismal Key (p.136), though neither of them know it.

Clearly the four storylines of:

  1. Honey Santana setting up Body Shreave for some merciless humiliation at her trailer in Florida
  2. private detective Dealey’s attempts to photograph Boyd and Eugenie in flagrante
  3. Tommy Tigertail and his annoying ‘kidnap’ victim, Gillian, who refuses to leave him alone
  4. Perry Skinner and his son Fry

are going to crash into each other and create all kinds of comic complications. Nature Girl is very well written, elaborately structured, with detailed characterisation, snappy dialogue, vivid imagining of the exotic and outlandish scenes and settings. But somehow, hard to nail down, it lacks the really vehement outrageousness of the earlier novels.

Native American themes

All Hiaasen’s novels are interspersed with factual interludes giving backgrounders on the big issue of the novel. If they were in magazines, they’d be in call-out boxes or side panels, separate from the main text. In the previous novel, Skinny Dip, there were 3 or 4 of them explaining how the runoff of fertilisers and pesticides from vast agricultural landholdings were allowed to illegally leach into the Everglades and destroy their ecosystems.

In this novel we get a series of interludes giving factual background about native American tribes, namely the Seminole nation, which Sammy belongs to (pages 72, 152, 286), also background history of the Calusa people who inhabited Florida at the time of the Spanish conquest and who were decimated by European diseases (pages 202 to 203).

Native American themes are present in other ways throughout the book:

1. Sammy has vivid dreams, dreams in which spirits appear and talk to him, most notably dreams in which the spirit of the dead white man Jeter Wilson appears to him and complains about being weighted down with anchors in some canal where the water’s cold and he’s being bitten to pieces by sharks. In these dreams Wilson angrily asks Sammy to come back and move his body. Later, when Dealey pitches up on the island where Sammy’s taken Gillian, Sammy refuses to believe he’s real, considering him a spirit throughout all their interactions, which is both comic and genuinely a bit spooky. Thus Sammy’s dreams are so vivid that at several points he mistakes people, for example Gillian when she first speaks, for spirits talking to him.

2. Dismal Key turns out to be largely constructed of clam shells by the Indian tribes who lived in this part of Florida for over a thousand years, the Calusa people (p.175) and the story of how they dominated the area but were then wiped out by the diseases brought by the Spanish invaders is not only tragic, but also spooky. For Sammy, their long-gone presence still weighs heavily on his mind.

3. Sammy is also haunted by the memory of his great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Thlocklo Tustenuggee, tricked into signing a treaty with the white man then thrown into prison.

Manifest destiny, otherwise known as screwing native peoples out of their homelands, had been a holy crusade among white people of that era. (p.361)

4. One of these factual callout boxes explains the rise of the casinos and gambling empires which native Americans have built on their reservations to sucker gambling-addicted white folks out of their money (p.357), Many Indians have become very wealthy this way, Sammy describes them as the ‘new Arabs’ in terms of mushroom wealth. Sammy’s uncle Tommy, who we met way back in Hiaasen’s debut novel, is credited with being one of the architects of the Seminole nation’s rise to enormous wealth.

Once written off as a ragged band of heathens, the Seminole Nation grew into a formidable corporate power with its own brigade of lawyers and lobbyists. (p.357)

5. On a personal level, Gillian and Sammy spend a lot of time together and their conversation repeatedly rotates around the issue of ‘race’, her teasing him about having white girlfriends, he very self-conscious of his half-white heritage, determined not to submit to what his uncle calls white pussy’. Whenever  we enter Sammy’s storyline, the word ‘white’ recurs almost continually, and white people don’t come out well in Sammy’s worldview:

The first white person to betray Sammy Tigertail had been his stepmother… The second white person to betray him had been Cindy, his ex-girlfriend… (p.356)

The book bangs on, again and again, that you can’t trust white people and you can’t trust men, impeccably woke anti-men and anti-white attitudes but, as so often, expressed, without a shred of irony, by a…er… white man.

Nature Girl can may be considered Hiaasen’s novel about native Americans (in Florida), their history and current plight (Sammy’s mixed-blood heritage symbolises the way they’re caught between dying notions of their old culture and their full absorption into the capitalist white world) in maybe the same way that Lucky You is his novel about black people, with its feisty black heroine JoLayne and its pair of repellent white supremacists, Bode Gazzer and Chub, whose beliefs, values and temperaments are systematically ripped to shreds. (Note, again, the same tendency of the characterisations in Lucky You: black woman clever and good; white men very bad and very stupid.)

I’m not criticising or damning Hiaasen for the way the themes of race and gender run very loud through his novels. I’m just pointing out how their prominence reflects how dominant they have become in an American society which, over the period he’s been writing in (1986 to the present), he himself is the first to point out has become utterly dysfunctional through the triumph of greed and selfishness, the disappearance of manners and kindness.

In my opinion the two phenomena are connected, and represent twin aspects of a culture and society becoming ever-more putrid. Funny reading about it, but I wouldn’t want to live there, amid the ever-increasing inequality, violence and cultural disintegration.

Highlights of the rest of the novel

Boyd and Eugenie fly down to Florida and catch a cab to the address on the holiday brochure Honey has knocked up and mailed them. You can imagine that they are vastly disillusioned to arrive at Honey’s badly painted trashy trailer and discover that this is the destination of their supposed dream holiday. Eugenie is all for turning round and going straight back to the airport but a) it is now late at night b) it is raining c) Boyd is a cheapskate and despite the obvious crappiness of the situation, insists that they accept Honey’s ‘welcome’ and put up for the night in the trailer’s none -too-clean double bed.

Meanwhile, the private investigator Dealey had been on the same flight as Boyd and Eugenie and trailed them to this trailer park. He is loitering outside Honey’s trailer and is just peeking through a window, when he is surprised from behind by a guy with a shotgun. It turns out to be Mr Piejack from the fish market. He’s in bad shape. Not only did Honey hit him in the nuts with a crab-cracking hammer, but a day later some Latinos turned up and forced Piejack’s hand into a basket of angry live crabs. His screams brought colleagues and then paramedics who hammer the crabs off his fingers, but many of them are clinging onto his fingers. I.e. the fingers of his right hand are all severed. Paramedics rush Piejack to a hospital where an incompetent surgeon sews them back onto the wrong stumps, his thumb being reattached to his little finger stump.

There’s generally one major grotesque incident in a Hiaasen novel and this is it, the case of the wrongly sewn-on fingers. Despite this grotesque mishap, Piejack is more sexually obsessed by Honey than ever (backstory about PIejack, his fishy career and miserable marriage pages 248 to 250). Piejack takes Dealey off at gunpoint…

Next morning, Honey tells Boyd and Eugenie that the next part of the ‘holiday’ is packing some bags and going kayaking along nearby waterways, which Eugenie is rightly suspicious of, but Boyd insists they play along. Truth is Honey doesn’t know exactly where she is going and they kayak badly for a few hours till they arrive at an island in the middle of nowhere.

Little are they to know that this is the exact same island where Sammy Tigertail has brought irritating Gillian, who won’t stop talking, who keeps teasing Sammy about her whiteness, who keeps provoking him with her semi-nudity and asking why he won’t ‘bone’ her.

So that’s two of the groups of characters on the island. The third set consist of the sex-obsessed Piejack and Dealey. Having kept him under guard all night, next morning Pijack forces Dealey to accompany him as they drive to a boat hire place, rent a powerboat and set off to follow Honey and her two luckless kayakers to the unknown island.

Piejack and Dealey are able pick them up using binoculars, then trail them at a distance so as not to be seen and moor their boat on the other side of the island. Things quickly go wrong when Piejack, in the middle of threatening Dealey, is whacked from behind by Sammy, falling into a dense cactus patch. Sammy thinks he’s killed Piejack (damn! the second white man he’s killed in just a few days!) and takes Dealey off with him, poor Dealey, as one character comments, maybe the only person in history to be kidnapped twice in one day!

But that’s not all. The fourth component is Honey’s ex-husband Perry Skinner, the crab fisherman. That morning he spotted Piejack driving with a stranger through the streets of Everglade City (the tiny rural community where Honey and Perry live), realises something is up, quickly picks up his son, and takes out his crabbing boat to pursue Piejack and Dealey in their boat, at a safe distance.

And thus the narrative brings all four sets of characters – Sammy and Gillian; Honey, Boyd and Eugenie; Piejack and Dealey; Perry and his son – to the same remote, mosquito-infested island, with what blurb writers would call ‘hilarious consequences’.

What ensues is almost textbook farce, with a complex series of comings and goings, encounters, violence, threats, running away, and the couples splitting up and partnering off with someone from another pair, comic misunderstandings and confrontations.

It could almost be performed onstage as a Feydeau farce, set in one big room with multiple doors, and characters entering in various combinations, having comical mishaps before exiting and another little set of characters entering to perform their comic scene. The fact that it’s set on an island with four sets of characters and a lot of rueful comedy reminded me a little of The Tempest.

Among a welter of incidents, Boyd, the soulless lunkhead, manages to tazer his own penis. (He thinks it’s a gun and shoves it down his pants like a tough guy only for it to go off accidentally. Men, eh?)

At one point Sammy is confronted in the middle of the day with dead Mr Wilson’s spirit, whining about being stuck in the cold water and eaten by sharks. To get rid of it Sammy shoots his rifle but the bullet ricochets off a tree and hits Dealey, shattering his shoulder. He collapses, loses consciousness, the women tend him but he’s in a poor way.

In other scenes, Gillian wears Sammy down with her incessant chatter till he gives up and agrees to have sex with her, which mainly involves her vigorously riding his erection while continuing her endless chatter.

Boyd demonstrates in a hundred ways what a selfish, useless, spineless, soulless goon he is. Honey had arranged this whole scam in order to get Boyd into the back of beyond and then deliver a lecture about his bad morals and behaviour re. his rude telesales phone call to her which is where the entire narrative began.

And yet, when it comes to it, nothing works. As dawn rises the day after they came to the island, Honey marvels at the change in the quality of the light, the calmness of the water, the beauty of a flight of egrets across the sky. Boyd doesn’t get it, and announces he needs to have a crap.

The man was unreachable, a dry hole. For such a lunkhead there could be no awakening, no rebirth of wonderment. (p.296)

On one level the novel is simply about a mentally ill woman who tries to reform a soulless dolt and fails, leaving her feeling ‘foolhardy and defeated, the queen of lost causes’ (p.297). (By the way, Honey appears to be the ‘nature girl’ of the title.)

On day one on the island Sammy had snuck up on Piejack while the latter was pointing his shotgun at Dealey and whacked him real hard. Piejack was out for a long time, finally came to and crawled off to hide in a cistern tank where he fell on cactus, managing to get covered in prickles. Also a colony of fire ants discovers the juicy food of his recently transplanted fingers under the surgical gauze.

Thus he awakes on the second day on the island looking like a drooling, demented walking puffer fish ‘benumbed by the derangement of lust’ (p.302). He has metamorphosed into the Grotesque Figure who can be found in most of Hiaasen’s novels (cf Chemo, Tool etc al.) Piejack stumbles across Honey alone in her camp and kidnaps her, fitting a noose round her neck and dragging her off into the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, a coast guard helicopter arrives. Dealey had phoned for it with the last power in his cell phone.

Perry Skinner, who, despite his former prison sentence, emerges as the strong, manly hero of the book, doesn’t want to leave the island till he’s found his ex-wife, Honey, who he still loves. On the other hand he’s sort of in charge of the good guys and knows that Dealey is badly wounded by Sammy’s shot to his shoulder and so needs to be choppered out.

So he and Gillian and Sammy put Dealey’s half-conscious body into one of the brightly coloured kayaks and push it out into the main body of water where the coastguard quickly see it. Unfortunately, as the chopper hovers low, Dealey tries to stand up to signal to it and promptly capsizes the kayak, flailing in the water and likely to drown. So Gillian quickly strips to her mesh panties (for the umpteenth time) and swims out to save him. So she and Dealey are winched to safety by the coastguard chopper which flies away. Shame. Sammy was just starting to like her.

In another part of the island, Eugenie had been tending Skinner’s son, Fry, who is only 12 and managed to hit a truck while skateboarding before his dad collected him and brought him on this wild goose chase to some remote island in the Everglades.

Here, Fry has begun to suffer symptoms of concussion and gotten separated from his dad (I told you it’s a labyrinthine series of people getting split up, lost, encountering people from the other groups, with or without guns).

Fry has just fainted and been discovered by Eugenie, who is tending him when they both hear the Coast Guard chopper. Fry tells her not to worry about him and go and so, reluctantly, Eugenie runs off in the direction of the creek where the Coast Guard has spotted Dealey flailing round his kayak and Gillian swimming out to save him.

The narrative then cuts away to a factual account of the precise make and number of Coast Guard patrol, and explains how it had been called to the island after Dealey rang Lily Shreave (his client, remember; the one who sent him to get photos of Boyd actually penetrating Eugenie), describes how he has been kidnapped and brought to some godforsaken island in the ‘Glades. Lily rang the coastguard. Hence the helicopter.

Anyway, the net result is that by page 320 Eugenie, Gillian and Dealey have been choppered back to civilisation.

Leaving Sammy Tigertail and Perry Skinner and the latter’s ill son, Fry, looking for the gruesomely maimed pervert Piejack and Honey, who he’s kidnapped and is leading around on a leash, with the cowardly Boyd blundering around as a kind of wild card.

There is no subtlety about the characterisation. The narrator describes Boyd as a drooling moron, explaining to the reader at factual length what a GPS tracker is and why Boyd had to be an imbecile not to realise what it was and to mistake it for a radio (p.322). And he tazered his own penis.

Sorry apologies for men

Hiaasen’s novels usually have a central topic which is the butt of his factual exposures and satirical flaying. About half way through this book I began to wonder whether the subject being flayed in this one is men and masculinity. Boyd the useless creep. Piejack the pervert. Dealey the craven investigator. The narrative marshals a long list of evidence against men.

Eugenie remembers her former lover, Van Bonneville, who was useless the one and only time they had sex, and then didn’t get any better in the sack after she discovered he had murdered his wife.

We get a vivid scene where Eugenie tries to seduce Boyd’s replacement at the telesales centre, Sacco, who turns out to be a knock-kneed obsessive.

The text keeps up a steady barrage of criticism of the entire male gender, either via the narrator or the no-holds-barred comments of all the female characters:

Honey’s outlook on men was sinking to a point of abject revulsion. The day was new, and yet already she’d been ridiculed by a soulless twit and kidnapped by a reeking pervert. (p.304)

‘Don’t ever change,’ [Eugenie tells Fry]. ‘By that I mean don’t grow up to be a jerkoff like ninety percent of the men I meet.’
‘Mom always tells me the same thing, except she says it’s more like ninety-five.’ (p.307)

‘Don’t be a typical dumb-ass male and get yourself lost in the woods.’ (p.318)

Even the natural world is roped in to make the point. When Fry points out two chameleons on a branch to Eugenie he explains that the one puffing out its chest and doing what look like little press-ups is the male doing a mating dance.

‘That’s the male,’ said Fry. ‘He’s showin’ off.’
‘Go figure,’ said Eugenie. (p.316)

I wonder if an author wrote a book in which characters said 95% of the black people they met were jerkoffs, black people show off all the time, one character told another not to be a typical dumb-ass black, and so on – I wonder whether sweeping abuse and insults about blacks or Jews or Muslims would be seen as quite so funny as sweeping insults and abuse of white men.

When the narrative stops to reflect on the five men Honey dated after divorcing Perry, it’s really just another opportunity to give examples of piss-poor men, namely:

  • Dale Rozelle, ‘a duplicitous shithead’, who lies about being a member of the Sierra Club in order to get into Honey’s pants (or get her to ‘give up the velvet’), slaps his own bum and makes barnyard noises during sex (now there’s something I must try out :)).
  • Dr Tyler Teehorn, her son’s orthodontist, who she gives a ‘mercy fuck’ after his wife left him, but who then clings to her like a mollusc and is a suffocating bore.

When the Coast Guard helicopter appears, Hiaasen makes a joke of the way the routine rescue of a fat white guy in a kayak is transformed when the crew see a nubile woman strip virtually naked (down to just her mesh panties, for it is Gillian) and another hottie waving brightly coloured underwear at them (Eugenie). These sights invigorate the male rescuers, lending them, in the sardonic tones of the narrator, ‘unbreakable focus and esprit de corps‘ (p.323).

Gillian went on, ‘Ethan doesn’t really care about me. It’s just the sex.’
‘Well, he’s a boy.’
‘Why are they all like that?’ (p.364)

Men, eh. Do anything for the promise of poon. Pathetic. In the last hundred pages I collected adjectives used to describe men: lame (345) sonofabitches (351) bores (325), shitheads (324), schmucks, bumblefucks (343), sexual harassers (344), sex fiends (347), toads (352), dumb-ass drooling morons (322), brutish criminals (350) and rancid buckets of scum (347).

Admittedly most of this abuse is targeted at Piejack, the gangrenous, drug-addled, sex-obsessed stalker, but then he was invented precisely to be the butt of this torrent of anti-male abuse. And is unsubtly contrasted with the sterling qualities of the three female leads: confident knows-what-she-wants Gillian; tall, sexy Eugenie; and Honey, the nature girl who wanted to reform slimy Boyd Shreaver, who is a super-devoted loving mother to young Fry, and is ‘tough and outspoken and damn near fearless’ (p.355). Shit men, heroic women.

It’s a tiny comic detail when the Coast Guard tells Gillian that the single most common name men gave their dinghies and boats in Florida is Wet Dream (p.338). Ha ha. Men and their dicks and their dumb-ass sense of humour, eh.

One last thought: it isn’t a new theme for Hiaasen. Reviewing my notes on Strip Tease, I see that that novel, also, as you’d expect from a text all about the ‘erotic dancing’ industry, was crammed full of dismissive comments about men and their desperation for pussy.

  • ‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’ (Strip Tease, page 16)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)

Is this general statement true of men in the real world? Is it true for all men even just in Carl Hiaasen’s novels? Or is it a kind of satirical trope, the kind of predictable, fixed parameter which then enables savage satire to be written, alongside other generalisations such as all white people are racist, all politicians are corrupt, all property developers are evil, and so on.

In other words they are conventions of the genre. Certainly having read a dozen or so Restoration comedies a while ago, and then a set of Ben Jonson’s citizen comedies, sex and, more precisely, the sex-obsession of some men has always been a theme of comedy, and is cranked up to the max in the over-driven form of comedy which is farce.

The climax – Skinner kills Piejack

The climax of the novel comes when Skinner and Sammy come into a beach clearing to discover lurid, ill Piejack threatening Honey with the shotgun and ordering her to strip. Honey’s son, Fry, who got separated from his dad some time back, has snuck up behind Piejack and hits him with a plank but Piejack recovers and points the shotgun at both Fry and Honey.

Seeing this from the trees, Skinner goes running forward but Piejack shoots him in the knee, forcing him to flop to the sand. That just leaves Sammy, still standing on the edge of the clearing, witness to the entire scene, who has to make a choice. In his head he hears his wise uncle saying this is all white people craziness and  that he should walk away, and Piejack points the gun at him and tells him to do just that.

Now, among his personal belongings which his half-brother Lee had brought him to take into the boondocks right at the start of the story, was a lovely Gibson guitar (which he can’t actually play, although Gillian turns out to be able to play it).

Now Sammy sees the guitar has gotten tossed to one side of the beach and politely asks Piejack if he can retrieve it. He walks across with Piejack keeping the shotgun aimed at him, picks up the guitar walks a few paces but then, unexpectedly, hands it to Skinner, still on his knees. Skinner labours to his feet, staggers forward and, as Piejack shoots him, brings the guitar down like an axe and cleaves Piejack’s skull in two.

Postscript

So that’s the end of the jeopardy which had been driving the plot for the previous 100 pages. Now there’s just tying up the loose ends.

We are told Piejack’s last shot blew away part of Skinner’s hip and he is bleeding badly. Honey and Fry carry him to Piejack’s hire boat and she charts a course back to the dock at Everglades City and tells Fry to run as fast as the wind to get help and call an ambulance.

Sammy Tigertail loads Piejack’s corpse into a different boat and chugs back to the canal where he sank the body of Jeter Wilson. He does the same to Piejack’s corpse, stringing it with weights and dumping it in the same deep underwater hole. Almost immediately he starts seeing Jeter Wilson’s death spirit appearing to him, complaining about his new companion.

All this leaves flabby Boyd the coward still on the island. He had climbed up a huge poinciana tree to escape from the general mayhem and from up there he’d tried to the Coast Guard helicopter, though the pilots were, as Hiaasen emphasises, totally entranced when they saw the prospect of picking up not one but two scantily clad women.

When he hears the two shots Piejack fires, Boyd heads off in the opposite direction, eventually hitting another beach and discovering an untended canoe. He quickly sets off but is, of course, useless at paddling, plus night is falling.

In the middle of the night he hears a boat passing nearby and shines a small torch he has, but it is only Sammy in a powerboat towing the body of Piejack and the rest of the canoes, and he flips Boyd the bird, and putters off, leaving Boyd literally all at sea.

The First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God

Then there is a weird comic afterlude. Boyd comes to a beach and finds himself landing on another island. Much earlier in the story Perry and Fry, in search of Honey, had briefly landed on this island and discovered it was being used as a retreat by a small group of revivalist Christians, to be precise, five members of the First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God wearing only white gowns (p.371).

It had already been hinted that these folk are not as pure as they claim to be and, sure enough, Boyd staggers out of his canoe onto the beach and interrupts the Assembly’s leader, Brother Manual, gripping Sister Shirelle by the hips and boning her enthusiastically from behind. Hiaasen points out that Sister Shirelle’s formidable and unbound breasts are jouncing in tandem, which is good to know.

There follows an unexpected passage of broad, farcical satire, as Manuel and Shirelle hurriedly make themselves decent and greet Boyd (almost naked, with hands bloodied from climbing up then back down the big poinciana tree) as the Promised One and the Messiah. For a few days they devout Bible bashers worship, feed and water him. But Boyd turns out to be an obnoxious whiner and even the most deluded devotees quickly lose faith. The congregation depart the island leaving him with a few rations but no canoe.

Boyd is leaning back against the big cross the Assembly had erected on the beach in bleak despair when a huge wild eagle lands on its top and takes a big dump on him. Comedy.

He runs into the sea to wash himself and makes such a racket and commotion that he is spotted and picked up by Coastal Rangers out on patrol, returned to civilisation, hosed down, dressed in charity clothes.

Boyd‘s storyline comes to a savagely farcical conclusion when, thus tidied up, he is enjoying a few beers in a local bar when he overhears some tourists from up north fantasising about moving to the Sunshine State. Boyd smoothly introduces himself as the agent for some (totally fictional) prime beachfront properties and realises with a flash that this is the role which suits his worthless, soulless, slimeball character – he will be an estate agent in Florida!

Eugenie, Sammy and Skinner

Talking of agents, Eugenie quits her job in telesales and presents herself at the office of private investigator Dealey, now much restored after an operation to repair his shot-up shoulder.

Eugenie suggests that, after all the fuss and bother, they send Boyd’s wife, Lily, not a video of Boyd and herself boning, but a video she shot during the brief time she spent with young Fry, a sequence of two chameleons copulating on a tree branch. (Right till the end of this book, ‘boning’ in one form or another is the central subject.) Impressed by her confidence, sales skills and insights into relationships, Dealey decides to take her on as a partner in his detective agency.

Sammy finds peace on another island. He had recovered some parts of the smashed Gibson guitar after it was used to brain Piejack, and starts whittling a new body from treewood. He fishes, cooks and eats, lies under the huge sprawl of night-time stars. The same great eagle which shat on Boyd comes and roosts in the trees every evening. Sammy begins to think of him as a guardian spirit. Slowly, we get the sense of him becoming attuned to the wilderness and the simple life of his ancestors. A fairly happy ending.

And Skinner and Honey get back together. Her jaw is clamped shut while it heals from an almighty whack Piejack gave it back on the island which broke it, and Skinner is walking with a cane while his new artificial hip beds in, so they decided to move back in together and look after each other.

Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Fry is anxious that they’ll just end up arguing and splitting up again. But the novel ends with a symbolic scene. Once again Fry and Honey are sitting at dinner (with Skinner) when the phone rings. Honey gets irate about dinner being interrupted, just as she did at the very start of the novel.

However, both Fry and Skinner tell her to let it ring, let it go. It’s hard for such an obsessive, but Honey takes their advice and eventually it stops. People don’t really change, but they can learn new tricks. The book ends with the happy family joking together over dinner.

Construction

It should be obvious from this detailed summary that this novel, like all Hiaasen’s novels, is wonderfully constructed, the multiple storylines and the complex backstories of its large-ish cast of characters beautifully dovetailed and woven together by a master carpenter. He is an absolute master of narrative construction, it’s one of the most impressive things about his books.

More sex than previously

It might just be me, but it seemed to me that sex – almost pornographically explicit imaginings of naked pussies and willies, and jokey references to cocks and fannies and thongs and bras and breasts and vibrators – is far more present in this novel than any of the previous ones.

‘I’d blow Dick Cheney for a Corona,’ she said. (p.225)

We are casually told Eugenie loves straddling Boyd’s cock and was, indeed, starting to do the same to his replacement, Sacco, when the front door rings. Lily tries repeatedly to provoke Boyd into having sex with her, wearing thongs, straddling him, slipping under the table at a restaurant, unzipping his flies and starting to suck his cock. Later in the story, they haven’t been together long before irritating Gillian (see below) is presenting herself to Sammy Tigertail in ‘mesh panties and a white bikini top’ (p.163) to arouse him.

‘White pussy is bad medicine.’ (Tommy Tigertail, p.142)

All three of the women in the book – Honey, Eugenie and Gillian – are not only described as attractive:

  • ‘Sammy Tigertail had never seen a woman so lovely’ as Honey (p.290)
  • when the Coast Guard appear at the end of the story it is to rescue ‘two extremely attractive female evacuees’ (p.323)
  • Honey is ‘athletically built’ (p.358)

But are impressively sexually active. They are tall and shapely, with nice boobs (Eugenie has ‘outstanding breasts’, in Fry’s opinion, p.316), are continually slipping into thongs and mesh panties, offering blowjobs at the drop of a hat.

I know these are comic, escapist poolside paperbacks, but there does seem to be a more than usually amount of male wish fulfilment in this one.

Eugenie chuckled tiredly. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get off this island, and that includes hand jobs, blow jobs, butt jobs, even singin’ opera stark naked.’ (p.279)

When Sammy stumbles late at night into the little camp Honey, Eugenie and Boyd have made, he accidentally wakens Eugenie, who begs him for water, since they’re all thirsty. And she immediately offers to anything – ‘I’ll do whatever you want. And I mean whatever‘. She is, after all, very proud of her metal tongue stud and the pleasure it gives the men she fellates.

I suppose Eugenie leaping immediately to offer sex at every opportunity is meant to be a comic part of her over-sexed character.  But they’re all obsessed with sex, Piejack and Boyd and Lily, who is obsessed with seeing photos of her husband penetrating another woman, and Gillian uses every opportunity to propose sex to her handsome half-Indian abductor:

‘Meanwhile, Big Chief Thlocko, let me show you what my people call a “quickie”.’ (p.310)

Even the comic details have a more than usually sexual tinge: for example, part of Boyd’s general uselessness is the way he once had a domestic accident in such a way as to straddle a cactus and get his entire groin studded with painful cactus needles (p.341).

When they get to Dismal Island Boyd brandishes the implement he found under Honey’s bed and which he takes to be a gun, swirling it round his hand before sticking it back in his pants, like a tough guy with a revolver, only for it to jolt him with a phenomenal electric shock because it was not a gun but a taser; leaving him with ‘a half-barbecued cock’ (p.239).

We are told that the PI Dealey has only ever been subject to violence once in his career and, you could imagine thousands of forms this could take, but it is entirely in line with the book’s focus on sex that this attack took the shape of the woman he was illicitly photographing as part of a snooping job, spotting him and throwing her nine inch vibrator at him. (It hit him directly in the throat and he couldn’t speak for three weeks, p.196.)

‘Damn, boy, you could be quite the rock star… All the free poon and dope you can stand.’ (p.226)

When Boyd and Eugenie are paddling a two-person canoe, Boyd is so useless that Eugenie wants him to stop altogether. There are many ways she could do this, starting with using the gift of speech. Instead, it’s very much in line with the soft porn vibe of the book, that she prefers to express this wish by taking off her halter top so as to be topless. This appearance of her boobs distracts Boyd so much that he stops paddling alright, but it also… continues the tone of titillation which colours the whole text.

When Skinner and Fry come ashore on a remote island attracted by a fire on the beach, they discover it is in fact a small group of Christian zealots holding an unorthodox act of worship. The point is the narrator draws our attention to the fact that the prettiest one, Shirelle is dancing and gyrating without a bra… and when the leader of the congregation follows them to give them a leaflet, Skinner angrily confronts him with the shrewd guess that he has ‘balled’ Sister Shirelle, that she has kneeled down and worshipped him in a very special way (p.258). And, as we’ve seen, at the end of the book Boyd interrupts the group’s leader in the act of energetically boning Shirelle from behind. Of the religious devotee Sister Shirelle, not only do we learn that her big breasts jounce joyfully around but that, in Brother Manuel’s opinion, she would ‘go down on Judas Iscariot if he was a hottie’ (p.385).

And the entire character of Mr Piejack, the lecherous manager of the fish market who fires Honey after he grabs her breast as she’s placing fresh wahoo steaks on display, such that she turns round and hammers in the nuts (p.232), he is nothing more than sexual obsession personified. He goes to ridiculous lengths to try and see Honey nude and/or touch her, he is a slavering stalker, who’s played for laughs, but is also one more strand of the novel’s sex-obsession. When he abducts Honey, he says he’ll only turn her loose if she promises to ‘give up the velvet’ in a particularly creepy and repellent way (p.304).

Eventually, Gillian (the ‘rambunctious college girl in mesh panties’, p.394) wears Sammy down and he gives in to having sex with her, which is described as her boisterously riding him. That’s the sex position of choice in Hiaasen’s novels, in which all the female characters are depicted as modern, liberated and active, rather than passive recipients.

What stood out in this particular description is the way Hiaasen goes out of his way to describe the way Gillian clenches her cervical muscle around Sammy’s cock, describing it not once but twice (p.287) – just that bit more pornographic detail than we’ve had in the previous novels.

Boyd lies to his wife that his work are sending him to a special clinic in Florida to be cured of his aphenphosmphobia and she pretends to go along with the story, all the while knowing she’s sending Dealey the private dick to photograph his penetration of his mistress. This is the precise term that is used, repeatedly, on pages 112, 113, 115, 147. Lily rings up Dealey to check: ‘Penetration? You got penetration?’, p.242.) Lily wants an unambiguous photo of her husband’s cock entering his mistress’s vulva. If Dealey is unsure how to get the shot, Lily tells Dealey to hire some porn and study the technique and the angles. Which he does and which the novels gives us descriptions of.

I think I know that lots of people are sex mad. It’s not such a novel or informative theme as the bass fishing in Double Whammy or the agricultural pollution in Skinny Dip or the plastic surgery industry in Skin Tight or the extended satire on tacky theme parks in Native Tongue or the detailed explanations of corrupt property development in Sick Puppy. What industry or sector is being satirised here? Telesales, maybe, a bit, at the start. But mostly it’s sex-obsessed creepy men.

A critic might say that all this titillation is here to make up for a slight lack of something else, the lack of a really meaty political or social subject.

Words for sex

Small thing but I was struck by the way lots of characters use the word ‘bone’ for the f word. ‘He just wanted to bone me’, ‘Has he boned her yet?’, ‘She’s paying you twenty-five grand to tape her old man boning some bimbo?’ (p.241) etc. Gillian calls Sammy ‘a serious blue-eyed Bone Machine’ (p.316). Presumably that’s why an erection is referred to as a ‘boner’, because it’s what men use for ‘boning’.

Other synonyms include the more traditional ‘ball’ (‘so I’d ball him’); ‘sleep with’, or just plain ‘do’.

‘I’m getting a complex,’ she said; ‘why aren’t you trying to do me?’ (p.245)

Whatever word is used, ‘boning’ or characters obsessing about ‘boning’, is a much more central theme to the novel than in previous ones. It’s all Gillian or Eugenie or Lily or Piejack or Boyd seem to think about.

Dad rock

Having established in previous novels that the narrator – or at least all his sympathetic characters – are fans of 1970s Adult-Oriented Rockers such as Neil Young and the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hiaasen keeps up the Dad Rock ambience with references throughout this novel to  more Dad Rock classics such as The Eagles (p.163), James Taylor (p.225), The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix (p.227), the Rolling Stones (p.245), Johnny Cash (p.266), the Allmann Brothers (p.312), Kiss (p.316), Neil Young again (p.393). Is it a deliberate marketing ploy, to appeal to boomer rock fans?

Having mulled it over, I think the recurring references to Dad Rock make up one of the 3 or 4 components of Hiaasen’s Good Place. Almost all Hiaasen’s energy goes into eviscerating the forces of evil and corruption at very great length, with often gruesome and violent consequences.

What is there to balance against a world of corruption and lies? Well, I think there is a handful of good things in Hiaasen’s world and good ole rock and roll is one of them. The epitome of Good is the image of the strong, competent, decent guy, Mick Stranahan (who features in Skin Tight and Skinny Dip) alone on his remote house built on stilts out in Biscayne Bay, quietly fishing with a loyal dog by his side and Neil Young on the cassette player as the dawn comes up over the ocean. Good times. Simple down-home values. Beautiful unspoilt scenery. Quiet fishing. Loyal dog. Cool sounds. Maybe light up a half-smoked doobie. Life is sweet. It is still possible to get away from all the crap, and the old-time music which recurs throughout the books are markers for that.

J.B.

Obligatory James Bond reference, p.303.


Credit

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All references are to the 2007 Black Swan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen (2002)

The pros and cons of a first person narrator

Well, this is an oddity, a Carl Hiaasen novel told in the first person. His previous eight comedy crime novels were all told in the voice of a gung-ho, whip-smart, third-person narrator. This one is a departure and an experiment and I didn’t like it nearly as much.

At a stroke it makes you realise a big part of the appeal of Hiaasen’s novels is their relatively large cast of the characters, all engaged on half a dozen different storylines, and a lot of the fun and dynamic comes from the way a third-person narrator can cut at will from one scene and storyline to another. This has two obvious results: 1. it means there’s constant change and variety, giving the reader a sense of dynamism and energy; and 2. it means the scenes he cuts to can be at their best and juiciest moments; the less interesting lead-up to them, or aftermath of them, can be dealt with by an overarching narrator with a few sentences of explanation.

By contrast 1. it’s quite surprising to realise just how boring it is to be trapped in the consciousness of one first-person narrator. Instead of flitting from scene and encountering all manner of outrageous characters and improbable events, you are confined to just the one person’s point of view. 2. Being stuck with one person means that, almost by definition, only so much can plausibly happen.

Not only do you quickly get fed up of that person’s voice and restless at being confined to just the one point of view, but, in terms of ‘events’, a lot less happen in a first-person narrative, because the person you’re following only has so many hours in the day, can only be in one place at a time, can only be drinking in one bar, chatting to a girl in his flat, driving his car or sitting at work, at any one moment. Whereas an omniscient narrator can describe half a dozen characters all doing completely different things at any given point in time.

Therefore an author who chooses to tell their story from a first-person narrator’s point of view has to work quite hard to overcome these built-in obstacles – especially if, like Hiaasen, their previous novels have been spectacularly effective examples of how to create multi-character, multi-scene narratives.

Thinking about it, a first-person narrative must compensate for the loss of narrative breadth with an increase of narrative depth. In other words, a first-person narrative needs more psychological interest: if you’re going to be stuck inside one person’s head for 400 pages, it better be a pretty interesting head.

Hiaasen works hard at it but the way he does so graphically exposes his weakness as a writer, because he doesn’t really do psychological depth; what he tends to do instead is psychological quirks and kinks, and that’s precisely what is on florid display here.

Hiaasen gives his narrator a number of quirks and hangups and obsessions (see below) which are very entertaining, but they are no replacement for the greater depth of psychological complexity the reader is used to from first person accounts.

And he makes another big formal decision which is to write the whole thing in the present tense, an obvious bid to give the narrative more immediacy, and yet… as a result of this one central decision (to be a first-person narrative) Basket Case lacks the panoramic vistas, the range of background fact, the variety of incident and the fast pace of his other novels.

That said, it’s still a Carl Hiaasen novel, he writes his usual super-snappy description and dialogue, and his story features the usual variety of scumbags and amoral users, with a host of other characters, large and small and consistently diverting. So it’s still a gripping, easy and very entertaining read. He is a very skillful writer, an arranger of complex plots, an inventor of all manner of interesting characters, a writer of snappy descriptions and pithy dialogue. It’s a very good book. Just not as good as the others.

Jack Tagger

Jack Tagger Junior is a journalist (p.20). He works for the Union-Register newspaper. He’s 46 (p.39) and will turn 47 in a week (p.200). He’s worked for a number of papers in his time, and came to the Union-Register to work on the news desk. But then the Union-Register was sold by its owner, Macarthur Polk, to the Maggad-Feist Publishing Group for $47 million (p.69), and in the press conference to announce the deal, Tagger was foolish enough to insult the new CEO, smooth yuppie Race Maggad III (‘a money-grubbing yupster twit,’ p.214), on the record, in front of numerous TV cameras (p.70).

He didn’t get fired, Maggad was too canny of public relations to cause a fuss. Instead Jack was relegated to the obituary department, stripped of all investigative powers and reduced to churning out an obituary a day, under the watchful eye of the relatively inexperienced editor, Emma Cole (p.235), aged just 27, who he despises for her callow youth. (It is, as soon as you process this, almost inevitable that they end up having an affair.)

One of the quirks Hiaasen gives Tagger is that he is obsessed with the ages the famous have died at. Whoever he meets, he asks their age and instantly knows the names of the great and the good who died at that age: Bob Marley and F. Scott Fitzgerald (dead aged 44), Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe (40) and, from his own age group, George Orwell, John F. Kennedy and Oscar Wilde, all died aged 46 (p.222).

Over and above this oddity, Hiaasen gives Jack a neurosis about the age his birth father died at, which he doesn’t know because his dad walked out on him and his mum when he was 3. Jack endlessly bugs his mom to know what age his dad died (p.88) and his stepfather died (p.151). He has a morbid obsession that he’s fated to die at the same age.

When you write this obsession out in black and white you can see how contrived it is, but it is made into a massive part of Jack’s character. His ex, Anne Candilla, says part of the reason she left him was because of his endless monologues about age, because of his uneasy the dreams, the midnight monologues, the actuarial charts of people’s life expectancies taped to the fridge (p.223).

Jack has a recurring nightmare of his dad turning up looking like he did in an old photo and the exact same age as Jack now, and then Jack sees himself chasing his dad across a golf course, tackling him to the ground and his dad suddenly being dead and rotting before his eyes. This recurring dream which used to wake him up sweating next to ex-girlfriend Anne, is described on pages 348 to 349.

Jack is not, in other words, a bland and neutral narrator, he is quite a fruit loop himself.

I’m not the most reliable authority on who’s normal and who’s well adjusted. (p.244)

The obsession with the dead helps explain why the last woman he slept with was Karen Penski, mainly because she has a job in the local morgue and overflows with details and anecdotes about the dead, in which Tagger is morbidly interested.

The mysterious death of James Bradley Stomarti

Unlike its lead character, the setup of the novel is fairly straightforward. One day Tagger is commissioned to write the obituary of James Bradley Stomarti, who found fame as the songwriter and singer with the ‘legendary’ rock group ‘Jimmy Stoma and the Slut Puppies’.

Stomarti has just drowned on a scuba dive in the Bahamas, so Tagger digs up the address of his widow, ‘Cleo Rio‘, phones to make an interview, drives over to her condo to interview her, she cries, gives a description of the tragic dive (she was sunning herself on the boat, Jimmy went down with his best friend and band keyboardist, Jay Burns, the pair got separated, Jimmy must have gotten confused and his air run out). And Cleo is the main source of the quotes Tagger then uses for the long, competent obituary which he then writes and is published next day in his newspaper, the Union-Register.

But slowly details crop up which indicate all is not as simple as it seems. The dead man’s sister, Janet Thrush, laughs down the phone when he describes his trip to Cleo, as if the whole thing was a setup. Some backing singers he meets when he attends Stomarti’s funeral tell him Jimmy was working on an album when he died, directly contradicting his widow’s claim that he had severed all ties with the music industry (p.75). A few days later national papers publish obituaries of the singer and the description Cleo gives of the fatal dive are significantly different from what she told Tagger.

The sister, Janet, invites Tagger out to the crematorium to look at Jimmy’s embalmed body ahead of the  funeral service and they take the opportunity to unbutton his shirt and discover to their surprise that the body bears no marks of an autopsy (p.46). Why not?

So, it is a murder mystery, with the first-person narrator stumbling into a situation which is much more complex and shady than it first appears and uncovering various dirty secrets. In other words, it is one of Raymond Chandler’s countless descendants.

In the course of his investigations Tagger meets:

  • Janet Thrush (p.40), Stomarti’s sister who makes a living dressing up in sexy outfits on webcam and slowly stripping while male customers pay (p.82)
  • Cynthia Jane, 23, Stomarti’s wife who goes by the stage name of Cleo Rio (backstory p.123) and outrages everyone who attends the funeral by taking the opportunity to strum an acoustic guitar and sing her latest single, very badly (p.76). Tagger quickly realises she is having an affair with a tall, handsome guy who uses a strong cologne, who he later finds out is a record producer named Loréal
  • Jerry, Cleo Rio’s tough skinhead minder
  • Emma Cole, 27, Jack’s editor at the Union-Register, who he resents for being young, inexperienced and not a good writer, who he has some ill-defined mission to ‘rescue’ from the newspaper business (pages 214, 304), but who he, rather inevitably, ends up sleeping with
  • the paper’s tough managing editor, Abkazion
  • Juan, Jack’s best friend at the Union-Register, a sports journalist who tried to prevent Jack getting demoted from the investigative team, who now jokily calls him ‘Obituary boy’ and regularly drops round to Jack’s fourth floor apartment after work for beer and TV. Juan has his own florid backstory in that he and his family escaped from Cuba along with thirty others on a shrimp boat; when some criminals on the boat took his older sister aside to rape her, Juan stabbed two of them to death, something which still gives him bad dreams (p.255)
  • Anne Candilla, Jack’s most recent girlfriend who dumped him leaving him really, really upset about her
  • Carla Candilla (p.153) grown-up daughter of Anne who works in a photo shop where she makes illegal copies of any sexy photos the customers have included in their rolls, and adds them to a portfolio. Carla likes Jack and enjoys shocking him with her sexual candour and colourful language about blowjobs and tongue studs and bondage (‘Who’s polishing your knob, Jack?’), and so is a useful contact with yoof culture, which is important in a novel which is about a rock star and his would-be rock star wife
  • Jack regularly talks to his mom on the phone. She is now married to Dave, an out and out racist who goes ballistic when a black man is proposed for membership of his golf club (p.258)
  • Macarthur Polk, son of the founder of the Union-Register, who sold it to a big corporation, thus earning the enmity of the paper’s staff. Emma assigns Tagger to go and interview the old man (aged 88) who is wasting away in hospital, preparatory for writing his obituary, but Jack and the ornery old dude ended up getting along pretty well, and they end up making a Big Deal, see below (chapter 11)
  • Jay Burns, keyboard player with the Slut Puppies, the last man to see Jimmy alive, who Tagger approaches at the funeral and agrees to do an interview. But when Tagger looks him up on Jimmy’s old yacht, the Rio Rio, a very stoned and drunk Burns unaccountably attacks him and they have a real fight, whacking each other in the face, until Tagger more or less comes out on top, and the pair stagger up on deck to get some air (chapter 12). Burns’s body later turns up, he’s been murdered and the cops, as in all these American noir-style thrillers, initially think Tagger had something to do with it

As you might expect, sooner or later someone breaks into Jack’s apartment, that always happens in novels, movies, TV programmes like this. He and the masked intruder have an epic fight, rolling round on the floor till Jack grabs the three-foot iguana lizard he keeps in his freezer and so is hard as a rock  (obviously, this has its own little backstory) and whacks the (masked) burglar with it, who staggers to his feet and runs off, but not before swiping Tagger’s laptop.

The fight means that Jack appears throughout the rest of the narrative with a ripe collection of cuts and bruises on his face and legs. The narrators of all thrillers since Raymond Chandler are required to be beaten up and appear next morning to their womenfolk who gasp, ‘Jack, you look awful! What happened?’ which is the hero’s cue to play the whole thing down in a bluff, manly way. ‘Shucks, honey, just guy stuff, you wouldn’t understand.’ All these clichés of the genre are present and correct in this novel.

Hiaasen knows he’s channeling Raymond Chandler (just like William Gibson knows he’s channeling James Bond in his novels) so much so that even the characters realise they’re in a Chandler novel. At one point Jack’s friend, Juan, tells him to ‘quit playing [Philip] Marlow’ (p.199) i.e. Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye.

This plot synopsis takes us up to a little over a third the way through this 30-chapter, 400-page-long book. As you can imagine, there continues to be a steady drip-drip of clues throughout the book, but there are also two big recurring themes.

The newspaper business

One is a number of descriptions of the offices of a modern newspaper, at various hours of day and night and over the weekend, about the hard realities of modern newspapers, how they are being gutted by corporate owners more interested in advertising revenue than journalism, and yet what an important social function journalism performs (pages 186, 267, 300, 328, 410, 416).

Obviously these atmospheric descriptions are based on Hiaasen’s own first-hand experience as an award-winning journalist and they are interesting bits of social history or sociological observation in their own right. But they are also an important part of the storyline about the newspaper’s owner handing Tagger a controlling interest in its future (see below). Out of this storyline spin numerous thoughts and reflections about the role and current state of newspaper journalism (as of 2002).

The big snore: rock music in 50-something men’s fiction

The second theme is rock music, not surprisingly as the suspected murder victim is a rock musician.

As anyone who’s read my reviews of William Gibson knows, I went right off his novels as they became increasingly obsessed with crappy-sounding fictional rock bands and the worlds of contemporary fashion and advertising. The older Gibson got, the more he got addicted to making references to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, managing to turn himself from a really cool pioneer of cyberpunk into an old dad droning on about the Doors and the Rolling Stones.

Well, same here. Hiaasen was turning 50 as this book was published and it displays all the symptoms of Dad Rock. His hero, Jack, still adulates the Rolling Stones as if it’s 1972 not 2002. He admires the district attorney because he’s got a photo of the Stones on his wall signed by Keith Richards (p.310). He has an argument with a woman he’s just stripped to have sex with because he wants to hear the Stones track ‘Ventilator Blues’ off Exile on Main Street (1972) while they have sex and she really doesn’t want to (p.251).

I put a Stones record on the stereo because you can’t go wrong with the Stones. (p.63)

Oh yes you can. By the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s the Rolling Stones were the soundtrack of choice for bankers and oligarchs, driving round in their Porsches, twanging their red braces, blagging $1,000 a seat corporate boxes at stadium concerts, and somehow managing to persuade themselves they were still ‘street fighting men’.

On page 74, when Hiaasen starts describing the different members of his fictional band, the Slut Puppies. When he came to ‘the band’s notoriously moody lead guitarist, Peter P. Proust’, who was stabbed to death a few years earlier, it felt almost identical to the half dozen times I read in William Gibson’s tediously flashy, corporate ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, about the ‘legendary’ rock band The Curfew (which features in all three of those novels) whose ‘legendary’ bassist, Jimmy Carlyle, died of a fatal heroin overdose.

The way these fictional bands consist of the super-traditional fourpiece, and the way one of these four has died an untimely end, is identical in both novels. And both writers were writing about traditional four-piece rock bands in the 2000s, as if rap, rave, drum and bass, hip hop, techno, trance, garage and grunge and grime had never happened. These are the kind of people who iron their jeans, fret about their pensions… but still think they are in some way ‘streetfighting men’.

It’s in this rather tiresome spirit that the title of the book, Basket Case, is itself one of the ‘tracks’ of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies’ hit album, Floating Hospice (p.347).

Music references litter to the book, including mention of Little Richard, Billy Preston, Led Zeppelin and Bob Seger (p.207), James Taylor (p.261), Derek and the Dominoes (p.345), Neil Young (p.380) and Paul McCartney (p.391). Jack’s laptop (which gets stolen) has a Grateful Dead decal on it (p.271), Jack gives his district attorney contact tickets to a Bruce Springsteen gig (p.311).

You could argue that these are all the interests of a fictional character. a) Same difference. Still feels very Dad Rock (or, by now, in 2021, Grandad Rock). b) all Hiaasen’s other heroes have the same taste, popping a Neil Young of Creedance Clearwater Revival song on their record decks as if the past 50 years of music never happened.

The rest of the plot (spoilers)

Jack follows the man he saw at Cleo Rio’s apartment to a nightclub (named Jizz; Hiaasen likes taking the mickey out of nightclubs; the one in Sick Puppy is named Pubes).

Jack approaches him as a journalist and gets his name, Loréal, and the fact that he’s a record producer, claiming to be producing Cleo’s album although, when Jack does some research, he discovers he’s never produced an album in his life.

After being beaten up by the guy who broke into his apartment, Jack makes it round to Emma’s apartment and she puts him up on the sofa, applies ice to his cuts and bruises and, to both their surprise, gives him a soft kiss goodnight. Ah. Shagging on the horizon.

He and Emma then learn that Guy Burns, who he had the fight on the boat with, has been found dead, apparently so drugged up that he laid down behind a garbage truck which promptly rolled over his head. Hmm. It’s possible, but Emma and Jack think it sounds suspicious.

Next day, Jack calls in on young gutter-mouthed Carla and is gutted to hear that her mother (his former lover, Anne) is about to marry a British spy novelist named Derek Grenoble. (Is this some obscure joke about John le Carré? Is it a sly reference to the fact that le Carré’s most famous character, Smiley, is separated from a wife named Anne, for whom he still carries a torch?)

Back in the newspaper office, Tagger has an aggressive confrontation with Race Maggad III, reprising the argument which got him relegated to the obituaries desk.

Jack takes Emma to the Rio Rio boat, now sealed off by police tape following Guy Burns’s death, but they climbed through that and gave the boat a thorough search. Hidden in the fake bottom of an oxygen diving cylinder they discover a portable hard drive. So we all now come round to suspecting that the burglars are after the hard drive.

What is on the hard drive?

My guess is it’s the tapes of James Stomarti’s final album and his ‘wife’, Cleo Rio a) had him bumped off and b) now wants the tapes and has hired goons to get hold of them. Her motive is simple: to dub her voice over Jimmy’s tapes and claim they’re all hers and be a big star and make lots of money. That’s my theory as of half way through the book.

When Tagger takes Emma to meet Janet Thrush he is upset to discover her front door has been forced open and the studio room where she strips for pervey webcammers has been completely trashed. She is nowhere to be seen and there’s a pool of dried blood on the front carpet. They call 911 then leave quickly, but both are traumatised.

Tagger meets with Polk’s lawyer, Charles Chickle (p.229) who confirms what Polk told him in the hospital, namely that he hates Race Maggad III even worse than Tagger does and, having heard that Tagger publicly insulted him, has decided to make Tagger administrator of the shares he still owns in the Register’s parent company. Tagger’s sole job will be not to sell them to Maggad but to stymie everything the Maggad-run board proposes, and to generally piss Maggad off for the rest of his life. For this task, he will be paid $100,000 a year. Tagger is amazed at the offer.

Juan takes Tagger to meet a young 12-year-old black kid computer whizzkid named Dominic Dominguez who opens up the hard drive and, lo and behold, it is music, it’s a whole load of studio recordings, each instrument with a separate track, some of them final mixes, some still being assembled (chapter 12).

Emma Cole drops by with her toothbrush. She’s decided she wants sex. What a woman wants, a woman gets. So they have sex. In fact they have sex three times through the course of the evening and early hours. Life is great in novels. They are now an investigative team and an item.

Next thing we know Jack’n’Emma learn that the Slut Puppies bassist, Tito Negraponte has been shot, though not fatally, at his Los Angeles home.

‘Somebody’s killing off the Slut Puppies!’ (p.281)

Emma gets funds for Jack to fly to Los Angeles to interview Tito in his hospital bed, tells him everything he knows, and in return Tito, stoned on painkillers, confirms Jack’s hunch that it’s Cleo behind everything. She wants one particular track off the album, Shipwrecked Heart, which she’s going to put her vocals on and issue as a single. And she needs to get the master tapes a) to learn the song b) to remix it c) to make sure no-one else has it or can release it to prove she’s ripping off her dead husband.

That, in a nutshell, is the motor for the plot.

Jack breaks back into Janet’s house and cuts a swatch from the blood-stained carpet and swipes a used tampax from the bin, takes them to a forensics guy who owes him a favour and who rings back a few days later with the result. Yes, the blood on the carpet matches the blood on the tampon. It’s Janet’s blood. Jack is crushed. He didn’t have any designs on her but he really liked her. Now looks like she’s been murdered.

But then someone calls the cops on a bad line claiming to be Janet and that the wreckage was caused by an ex-boyfriend who went postal. Jack fears it’s a fake call and the reader is left to stew for 30 or 40 pages, fearing, like Jack, that nice Janet has been wasted.

And this causes deliberate confusion when Jerry, Cleo Rio’s hitman, phones up and tells Jack they’ve got her and want to do an exchange, to exchange her for the hard drive. Jack’s obsession with Janet means it takes stupid Jack a score of pages to realise that who ‘they’ have kidnapped is not Janet but Emma!!

Meanwhile Janet has not been murdered. Turns out she had rung and left messages on Jack’s answer-machine a couple of times stating that it was her who called the cops and the story is true: a jealous boyfriend really did trash her place and hit her. She ran off and is staying with friends in the south, bit bruised but basically OK. But Jack didn’t pick up these answerphone messages till a lot later.

Meanwhile – the bad guys have got Emma and they contact Jack with the details of how to get her back.

He is told to take a call at a payphone at the end of a pier by the sea (where Jack gets chatting to a 92-year-old who’s out there fishing and explains his strategy for avoiding death!).

The pier-end call tells him to go that evening to the nightclub named ‘Jizz’ (which keeps being the setting for meetings throughout the novel).

Here Jack meets with Cleo, Jerry and Loréal, is typically aggressive and insulting, is slapped upside his head a few times, but makes every effort to a) make it clear Janet knows nothing and is not a danger to the bad guys, b) emphasise that quite a few people know the truth including Tito, the backing singers and so on, and will put pieces together if he goes missing. So they oughtn’t to bump him off.

But he promises to bring the hard drive wherever they want and they part.

That night Jack can’t sleep, stays up all night tinkering with an old guitar he played in college, drags his ass to work the next day. The bad guys eventually call and give Jack a long set of instructions for hiring a boat, a GPS system and meeting them smack bang in the middle of the huge Lake Okeechobee.

Juan calls by his desk and Jack tells him the terrible news (Emma has been kidnapped by the guys he’s been investigating; he’s got to hand over the hard drive in exchange for her; he’s been told to do so in the middle of Lake Okeechobee) so Juan says he’ll come along and help out.

Then there’s a kicker. Just as he’s about to  leave, the Managing Editor of the paper, Abkazion, comes up to him, tells him old man Polk just passed away this morning. Magad wants Jack to write the obituary, Polk wanted Jack to write the obituary, Abkazion now demands that he write the obituary, and Jack knows the offer of the job as Polk’s executor and manager of the decisive shares, along with the $100,000 salary are dependent on him writing the obituary, that evening, to make the next day’s front page (p.355).

But he can’t. He has to drive to Lake Okeechobee and save Emma. Right away. And he can’t tell Abkazion the real reason or it will endanger Emma’s life.

Abkazion rants and raves and then is dumbstruck when Jack doesn’t relent. Jack gathers up all his notes and dumps them on the desk of timid Evan, a lowly intern, who’s helped out with a few other details of the plot. ‘This is your big change, kid,’ Jack tells Evan, like Harrison Ford in a movie, then runs off.

Jack and Juan do the 3 hour drive up to Lake Okeechobee at record speed (listening, inevitably, to the Rolling Stones), hire a boat from a sceptical rental guy (from Ernie Bo Tump’s Bass Camp), use the GPS to motor out into the dead middle of the lake, and then wait around being bitten by mosquitoes. It is night-time, it is pitch black.

They hear the enormous whacking sound of a huge airboat. Soon it comes within sight of Jack and Juan, steered by Jerry while Loréal minds Emma who has a sack over head sitting passively in a chair. It’s important to understand what an airboat is in order to  follow what happens next.

An airboat (Credit: Wikipedia)

From the description it sounds like a bigger version of the above. What follows is: Jerry demands the hard drive; Jack says, ‘Not till you throw away your gun’ and holds the hard drive over the side of their hire boat and starts counting down. Reluctantly Jerry tosses his gun which Jack hears splash in the lake. Jack insists they hand Emma down into the hire boat. Once she’s safe he throws the hard drive up at Jerry and Juan hits the motor and they speed off.

However, the bad guys’ airboat can go many times faster than them and their outboard is clogging up with weeds bringing them almost to a standstill, certainly unable to escape. They hear the airboat approaching from the side as if to ram over their boat, aiming to smash it to matchsticks.

Juan advises everyone to jump off but Jack stands up in the stern, ramrod straight and fires off every bullet in the little .38 handgun he was loaned by Carla last time he saw her. It’s unlikely the bullets hit anyone but it’s enough to scare Jerry into taking evasive action. They hear a great swash as the airboat passes close to them, but then… a crash and a scream!

Once they’ve got the outboard working again, our guys putter over towards the noise to discover the cause of the crash and scream. What happened is the airboat, in making its abrupt swerve to avoid Jack’s shooting, hit reeds, ground to a halt and upended.

Juan and Jack use the little spotlight fixed to the hire boat to make out that Jerry was thrown backwards and, when the airboat upended, the huge spinning propeller which drives these things cut his head off, which went flying with a splash into the lake. Loréal managed to keep his place at the front  of the boat but his long stylish ponytail dangled down into the fast-moving propeller, got tangled round  it, dragging him down down down until the machine’s torque ripped his scalp off. Yuk.

Our guys size all this up, then turn and putter calmly back south, back to the boat hire place and their car, and slowly carefully drive traumatised Emma back to safety.

Epilogue

They make it back to Jack’s apartment in the early hours. Emma sleeps like a log then rises and cooks Jack a lumberjack breakfast. Over brekkie they check out that morning’s edition of the Union-Register and Jack is astonished to find that the Polk obituary did get written in the end, is front page and, most surprising of all, appears under his byline, even though obviously written by young Evan.

He and Emma feel bad about this because of their journalistic scruples, but I hardly think the reader gives a monkey’s. Anyway, they ring up Evan and he sheepishly admits that, given the Big Opportunity, he froze with fear and it was the seasoned editor, Abkazion, who knocked it out in 20 minutes. Their consciences are absolved.

By the way, a running thread has been that his ex is not only marrying this cheap spy novelist, Derek Grenoble, but is doing so on Jack’s birthday. Now cheeky young Carla phones up to tell them what a lame pukefest the wedding was, featuring a terrible 3-page poem which Derek wrote Anne.

And Jack gets a birthday card from his mother which finally includes the obituary of his dad who a) died aged 46 – it is Jack’s birthday, he is 47, so he has outlived the jinx – and b) the obituary describes him as a penniless waterfront entertainer who made tips from crowds by being able to juggle anything, even pets, and died after drunkenly climbing up a tree to retrieve a raccoon and falling to his death when a branch broke. So not some big shot mystery man; a drunk street entertainer. Oh well.

Next day Jack meets up with Janet, who has rung him to tell him she’s back, for muffins and coffee.

She confirms that, on the night of her disappearance, she was getting changed into her SWAT outfit when the front door was broken open and two dudes started ransacking the place. Jack identifies them from her description as Jerry and Loréal. Janet got mad and burst into the hall in full SWAT outfit brandishing a (plastic) semi-automatic, which was enough to make them run out. Then she ran in the other direction and caught a cab to a friend’s house. As to the blood on the carpet, they guys had trashed her big studio lights and she trod on some glass. Bled like a hippo. Otherwise unharmed. Ah.

Not only that. Janet then leads Emma and Jack to the grave of a certain Eugene Marvin Brandt. Who? Why? She explains.

She reveals that this guy’s corpse was in the crematorium viewing room at the same time as Jimmy’s and, when everyone had left, she switched the tags. That is: Eugene got cremated while Jimmy now lies buried in this plot under Brandt’s headstone.

Jack is delighted. Now a proper autopsy can be performed! Jack sends the state prosecutor an anonymous message with the result that Jimmy’s body is dug up and the forensic scientists show his stomach was full of now fewer than 20 Benelyn tablets which Cleo Rio had crushed up and mixed into his clam chowder just before he made the fatal dive. Jimmy would have passed out and drowned.

There’s enough evidence for the prosecutor to charge Cleo with murder, to bring in various witnesses who’d seen the couple bitterly arguing, to give as motive the fact that she wanted to steal his best song to further her own career. After a three-week trial, Cleo is convicted and sentenced to 20 years.

Then Jack has a very satisfying meeting with Race Maggad III in his new role as trustee of Polk Macarthur’s shares in Maggad-Feist publishing. Jack tells a furious Maggad he will sell back Polk’s shares in Maggad-Feist on one condition – that they sell the Union-Register to Polk’s widow, the tough nurse who tended him in his last days, Ellen who he knows will look after and protect it.

Maggad is eventually forced to do this, and Ellen becomes the paper’s first female publisher., Her first act is to hire a load of news reporters and restore the paper to its former reporting strength. Given the careful explanations Hiaasen has given us throughout the novel about the financial pressures undermining old-style reporting and newspapers, this is in many ways the book’s real happy ending.

The final scene shows Jack taking Emma out to the pier where he took the goons’ phone call what seems like months ago, and they bump into old Ike the fisherman, the guy Jack chatted to while waiting for the bad guys’ phone call and who proudly tells them he’s just turned 93.

As they turn to go Ike catches a huge tarpon, nearly getting dragged over the safety rail and into the sea, till Jack and Emma grab hold of him. Jack can’t help thinking what his obituary would say and so the book ends with the two subjects closest to Hiaasen’s heart, fishing and journalism.

Thoughts

It has breadth, doesn’t it? Like all Hiaasen’s novels it ramifies out to feature about 20 named characters, many of whom have their own backstories described in some detail. And the first-person narrator is fleshed out with his obsession about dates, his love of newspapers, his oddities (the iguana in his deep freeze), his loving relationship with his mother who used to take him fishing as a boy, his still carrying a torch for the lovely Anne, and so on.

All the usual elements are here and neatly assembled into a cleverly constructed plot. But… for the reasons explained at the start, it lacks the ability to move at speed between characters which is a key aspect of Hiaasen’s novels, and the quirks and oddities Hiaasen ladles onto Jack don’t really compensate for the lack of real psychological depth.

One liners

‘Derek is a good guy. He’s fun, he’s affectionate, he doesn’t take life so damn seriously…’
‘You’ve just described a beagle, not a husband.’ (p.221)

‘Maybe I hit ’em with a shot.’
‘Right, Jack. And maybe one day hamsters will sing opera.’ (p.372)


Credit

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen was published by Macmillan in 2001. All references are to the 2002 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen (1987)

Decker said, ‘May I assume we won’t be alerting the authorities?’
‘You learn fast,’ Skink said.
(Double Whammy, page 115)

Carl Hiaasen, born in Florida in 1953, is one of America’s premiere writers of comedy thrillers, and by  the the rather bland word ‘comedy’ what we’re referring to is savage, bitterly satirical and often very violent farce.

Tourist Season

Hiaasen started out as a journalist and by the mid-1980s was writing a regular column for the Miami Herald. By then he had co-written a couple of novels with a fellow journalist, before launching out on his own with his first solo novel, Tourist Season, a violently satirical portrait of a half-assed gang of would-be eco-terrorists who mount a doomed attempt to try and scare away Florida’s never-ending flood of incoming retirees and tourists (by kidnapping random middle-aged tourists and feeding them to a tame crocodile) in a forlorn attempt to save Florida’s last surviving areas of wilderness.

Everyone in the book comes in for satirical blasting – the journalists on the fictional paper covering the events and whose star columnist turns out to be the wild-eyed leader of the revolutionaries; the disgruntled black, Hispanic and Native Indian losers he recruits to the cause; the redneck white cops and the one, good, Hispanic cop who they patronise; the corrupt and cowardly Chamber of Commerce; along with excoriating satire of the fake razzamatazz of city parades and the hypocritical lechery of beauty pageants – no topic is too sacred to be roasted, no profession goes unmocked (‘Decker didn’t see much  difference between the mob and an insurance company’), no situation is left unmined for brutal and macabre situations, and Florida, Hiaasen’s home state, comes in for unremitting, blistering criticism:

Every pillhead fugitive felon in America winds up in Florida eventually. The Human Sludge Factor – it all drips to the South. (p.202)

Along with repeated caricatures of the white racist rednecks who overflow the state and are also referred to as ‘crackers’:

To a man they were rural Southerners, with names like Jerry and Larry, Chet and Greg, Jeb and Jimmy. When they talked it was bubba-this and brother-that, between spits of chaw. (p.165)

Double Whammy

I thought Tourist Season was great, but Double Whammy is even better. The central subject matter is, improbably enough, the burgeoning sport of largemouth bass fishing. Hiaasen gives us plenty of well-researched background into the rise of national competitions to catch largemouth bass, details about fishing rods and baits and boats. (The ‘double whammy’ of the book’s title is a kind of bait or lure, ‘the hottest lure on the pro bass circuit,’ p.23.)

The point of all this is that there’s big money at stake, and the fishing competition at the centre of the story ties into bitter rivalries, fierce fights over ratings and TV sponsorship, competition for national sales of fishing products, with the result that people are cheating, really cheating, cheating bad enough to make it worth while to murder anyone who finds out.

Enter R.J. Decker, one-time fashion photographer, who switched to newspaper photography – less money but easier work – until one day found himself photographing the rotted corpse of a women journalist he’d worked alongside in the newsroom who’d been abducted, raped and murdered, and realising he couldn’t do it any more (p.44).

His wife, Catherine, divorced him and, two weeks later married a well-off timeshare-salesman-turned-chiropractor. On the day of their wedding Decker caught a black guy stealing the expensive cameras from his car boot, gave chase, tackled the guy and beat him to a pulp (p.42).

Which was a mistake, as the thief turned out to be the nephew of powerful people, who got Decker arrested and sent to Apalachee prison for 10 months for assault, his newspaper sacked him, and so there he was ten months later, an unemployed, divorced ex-con. No wonder his ex-wife Catherine’s nickname for him is ‘Rage’ (p.97). At a loss for anything better to do, Decker sets himself up as a private detective, paid to trail adulterous husbands or employees faking ill health to claim the insurance, and take incriminating photos to be used against them in court.

R.J. Decker is the ‘hero’ of the book and the story kicks off as he is hired by largemouth bass fishing fanatic Dennis Gault to investigate corruption on the largemouth bass fishing circuit. At first Decker thinks it’s a joke (as might the reader) so Gault is used as the main mouthpiece to explain the rise of largemouth bass fishing, the spread of state and national competitions, and the significant sums to be won in the endless series of competitions held across the USA (hundreds of thousands of dollars prize money) plus all the sponsorship, TV advertising and so on which comes with it.

We learn that one of the big names in the sport is Dickie Lockhart, who hosts his own carefully doctored TV show about catching big fish, and rakes in big money from sponsorship and ads.

The actual narrative starts with a run-of-the-mill fisherman named Robert Clinch, getting up in the middle of the night, driving to a fishing lake, launching his dinghy and poking about in the depths. We never find out why, for he never returns to his nagging wife and, a few days later, his corpse is dragged out of the lake. When Gault calls in Decker it is to explain that he (Gault) had hired Clinch to look into fishing skullduggery, and that someone had obviously bumped him off. Gault wants Decker to investigate Clinch’s murder.

From that moment we are on a rollercoaster ride of outrageous plot developments, grotesque caricatures, off-the-scale cynicism and corruption, all retailed in short snappy chapters which each move the plot along with brisk efficiency, all retailed in slick, über-articulate prose. We meet:

Characters

Ott Pickney A feeble old acquaintance of Decker’s from his newspaper days, who is eking out his time on the local newspaper of the remote, rural Harney County where Clinch was bumped off. Decker encounters him Ott when he starts investigating Clinch’s death, which prompts Pickney to do a bit of poking around himself, which is unfortunate. He has barely discovered that Clinch’s boat was tampered with to make his death look like an accident before he himself is bumped off by local toughs who are clearly behind Clinch’s murder.

The world at large learns that Pickney has gone missing from the characteristically bizarro fact that Pickney is not only a poorly-paid hack for a remote rural newspaper, but doubles as ‘Davey Dillo’, the mascot for the local Harney High School football team, the Armadillos. People know something’s wrong when he doesn’t turn up for that night’s football game to perform his clumsy stunts dressed as an armadillo on a skateboard (!).

Elaine ‘Lanie’ Gault Ex-model, terrific figure, Lanie is sister of Dennis Gault and sent by him to spy on Decker. Decker encounters her at the large funeral for Clinch, where he learns she was (rather improbably) the dead man’s mistress, and she crops up regularly after that, generally scantily clad, fragrant and very seductive. Turns out she and Decker met some years earlier, when she was a model on a fashion shoot with Decker. In fact it later turns out it was at her suggestion that Dennis hired R.J. in the first place.

Dickie Lockhart is the desperate fraud who fronts the smash-hit TV show, Fast Fish, all about largemouth bass fishing, but only maintains the show and his reputation at competitions by having paid associates pre-capture large fish and secure them in places they’ll be easy for him to uncage and claim as his own.

The Reverend Charles Weeb is president, general manager and spiritual commander of the Outdoor Christian Network (p.52) and front man for its hit show, Jesus In Your Living Room (p.194). He is everything you’d expect in an American TV evangelist, i.e. he’s a foul-mouthed, money-mad hypocrite who preaches to the faithful during the day and has sex with multiple hookers by night, something caught in the following sentences which are typical of the way Hiaasen casually states the most breath-taking hypocrisies and immoralities.

Weeb was wide awake now. He paid off the hookers and sat down to write his Sunday sermon. (p.198)

We later find out that Weeb is also, in a move clearly designed to make him as cynical a character as possible, Jewish! (p.193). It is typical of the novel’s hilariously foul-mouthed profanity, that Weeb thinks of Lockhart, his premiere TV star, as ‘a shiftless pellet-brained cocksucker’ (p.257).

Weeb also performs ‘miracle cures’ and there is a rich comic sub-plot in which his fixer, Deacon Johnson, has to go out and find children, preferably blonde to appeal to his redneck audience, who can be made to look halt or lame and then undergo a ‘miracle’ transformation i.e. be paid to pretend to be halt or lame then stand up and walk on cue.

R.J’s ex-wife is Catherine, beautiful and soulful and still half in love with him, as is demonstrated by the number of times she not only kisses but they have full-blown sex, despite the fact that she is married to her second husband, creepy but successful chiropractor, James. At the climax of the novel Decker saves her life, which often helps to rejuvenate a relationship.

Then there’s the retarded red-neck brothers Culver and Ozzie Rundell who run a bait shop and are involved in some of the early murders. Ozzie is a hilarious portrait of a mumbling, drooling moron with the comic habit of answering the questions he’s asked out of order. Ozzie was:

one of the most witless and jumble-headed crackers that Jim Tile had ever met. (p.251)

Slowly the reader realises that it is Gault, who ostensibly hired Decker to find who murdered Clinch, who is himself behind the murder, using his hired killer, Thomas Curl, a low-grade thug who Gault has hired to look after his interests and investments and bump off anyone who threatens them. When Thomas and his brother Lemus trail Skink and Decker into the backwoods and start shooting at them, Skink hides, doubles back and shoots Lemus neatly through the forehead – which doesn’t improve his brother, Thomas’s, attitude one little bit.

But the most important character in the book, and Hiaasen’s greatest fictional creation, is Skink, a huge dirty, demented environmentalist-cum-hobo, who wears dayglo jackets and a flower-patterned plastic shower cap, who lives in a shack way out in the boondocks and eats roadkill scraped off the state’s blacktop roads (p.32).

In chapter 9 we learn that Skink was once Clinton Tyree, 6 foot 6 ex-college football star and Vietnam vet, who successfully ran to become Florida state governor but wasn’t prepared for the rampant corruption and sleaze involved. When he refused kickbacks to allow commercial developments to go ahead, and in fact tape recorded the incriminating conversations and set the police onto the corrupt corporations, the powers that really run Florida – big business, banks, finance houses, property developers, holiday companies – decided Tyree had to go.

They suborned all the other state officials so that Tyree lost every important vote in the state senate. Then when the corrupt property developers came to trial they were all let off and, as fate would have it, on the very same day, an important wildlife preserve (the ‘Sparrowbeach Wildlife Preserve’, p.119) was sold off to more developers. (A lot later on we learn that Catherine’s salesman husband was involved in selling timeshares at the destroyed wildlife preserve, p.227.)

Depressed and disillusioned by this double blow (a double whammy), Governor Tyree gave up. He had his limousine drive him to a Greyhound bus terminal in Orlando, got on a bus to Tallahassee, but never arrived. Somewhere en route, at a gas stop, he slipped off the bus and was never seen again. It now turns out that he chose the little parish of Harney to hide out in because it is, politically and culturally, the most backwards county in all Florida (p.121), in fact it is:

the most backward-thinking and racist county in the state. (p.241)

Thus the backstory of ‘Skink’, the man Ott Pinkney introduces Decker to (before the former’s unfortunate demise). Pinkney drives Decker out to Skink’s remote shack and from that point onwards the two come to form a very unlikely double act as they delve deeper into the murky waters of Florida’s crooked largemouth bass world. We come to like the way Skink refers to Decker as ‘Miami’ throughout the novel.

Except it isn’t a duo, it’s a trio. Skink has a trusty assistant or compadre, Jim Tile, a black state trooper. Hiaasen goes out of his way to emphasise the entrenched racism of the Florida authorities, and pauses the narrative on a number of occasions to give ample accounts of the racist attitudes and professional obstacles placed in the way of Jim Tile, who is one of the few black troopers working in Florida’s highway patrol. When Tile announced his ambition to one day be in charge of Florida highway patrol, the white authorities promptly exiled him to the most remote dirt-bucket country in the state, Harney County in order to quash his ambition (chapter 11).

It was here, back when Skink was running for governor, that Tile was assigned the job of protecting the then-unelected gubernatorial candidate, Clinton Tyree, as he made a swing through Harney county on the campaign trail. Over the course of the day they spent together Tyree came to appreciate Tile’s honesty and steadiness and, when he unexpectedly won the governorship, he ordered Tile assigned to his personal detail in Tallahassee (which is the state capital of Florida).

So they got to know and trust each other more. When Tyree walked away from the corruption a few years later, Tile was immediately sent by the anti-black authorities back to Harney County, where Skink had, as it happened, decided to hole up, the pair remained in touch, and Jim emerges as a key figure in the novel.

Al García About half-way through the novel (page 206) we are surprised at the arrival of Al García as the detective sent up from Miami to investigate the murders in Harney County. Surprised, because García was a fairly central character in the predecessor novel, Tourist Season. Towards the end of that book García had been shot and badly wounded in the shoulder by the feverish screw-up of a would-be terrorist, Jésus Bernal, just before the novel’s ‘hero’, Brian Keyes, himself shoots Bernal dead. In this novel, there is no reference to any of those events, although there are references to the fact that Al’s shoulder still hurts and he needs painkillers (p.212).

Hiaasen’s prose

It’s a well-established principle that thrillers, especially American thrillers, foreground (generally male) characters who are super-competent, who can drive any vehicle, fly any plane, handle any gun, know how to fight, know how to work the system, know to schmooze journalists or cops or whoever necessary, are men of the world in the fullest sense. (It is revealing that Hiaasen, like William Gibson, is aware that the king of this trope is James Bond and so makes an explicit reference to Bond on page 126, where Lanie is watching an old 007 movie and tells Decker she thinks Connery was the best Bond.)

But in Hiaasen it’s the third-person narrator himself who is astonishingly knowledgeable and confident. To open up a Hiaasen novel is to be immediately in the company of a breezily confident dude who knows all the names for all the angles, all the lingo for all the kit, all the slang for every scam and racket in town and reels off highly informed factual sentences with wonderful brio and verve. Here’s TV host Dickie up in New Orleans for an out-of-state largemouth bass tournament.

On the night of January 15, Dickie Lockhart got dog-sucking drunk on Bourbon Street and was booted out of a topless joint for tossing rubber nightcrawlers on the dancers. (p.148)

There’s at least two levels of pleasure in that one sentence. Number one, it makes the (probably male) reader feel as if they also live in a world which is this rangy, open and confident, New Orleans, jazz bars, strip joints, wow! In reality, despite having knocked about a bit, I don’t think I have ever actually been to a ‘topless joint’ and never will. But for half a page I felt like I was at one.

The second level is the breezy confidence of the prose, which itself can probably be broken down into two levels. First, the grammatical clarity of the sentence. Hiaasen wasn’t an experienced journalist for nothing. Instead of showing off its oblique and angled surfaces like a William Gibson sentence, Hiaasen’s periods get on and tell you what happened, in no-nonsense, no stuffiness, unpretentious, rangy prose. When you come to visualise it, you realise an entire scene is captured in just that one sentence.

Secondly, the narrator shows boundless confidence with terminology, whether it’s street slang or specialised terms. Thus I think I’ve heard lots of synonyms for ‘getting drunk’ but never ‘dog-sucking drunk’ before. Always a pleasure to encounter a new word or phrase, specially if it’s a comically slangy one. And I had to look up ‘nightcrawlers’ to discover that they are, in line with the novel’s fishing theme, worms used as bait.

So it’s not Faulkner or Joyce, but sentence by sentence, Hiaasen gives a lot of pleasure just from his use of prose, its vim and energy, its confidence and its competence.

And this is before you get to any actual plot. The sentence quoted above marks the opening of chapter 12 which goes on to describe the ‘dog-sucking’ drunk Dickie getting thrown out the strip join and staggering over to the hotel where he knows his boss, the Reverend Charles Weeb, is staying, in order to confront him with the fact that he (Dickie) knows that he (Weeb) has been talking to Ed Spurling, another famous fisherman, with a view to sacking Dickie and replacing him with Ed as front man on the TV show Fish Fever.

It helps his case that Dickie discovers the Reverend Weeb in bed with two hookers, one wearing only thigh-length waders, the other riding Weeb’s manhood wearing ‘a Saints jersey, number 12’. Dickie threatens to blackmail Weeb. Weeb has to concede defeat. The reader has experienced a hilariously extreme satire on the nexus of Florida religion, TV business and the sex trade. Snappy stuff, designed to amuse, and it does amuse and entertain, and shock and amaze, very successfully.

Command of language

So many of the sentences stand out for their confidence. Rather than belabour the point they say what they want to say directly, with the minimum of fuss, but often with startling use of language.

  • Already one or two bass boats were out on the water; Decker could hear the big engines chewing up the darkness. (p.101)
  • A speeding motorist could see Skink a mile away. He looked like a neon yeti. (p.36)
  • It was only when he got to his feet that Decker saw what a diesel he truly was. (p.35)

With occasional bursts of real lyricism:

The Everglades night was glorious and immense, the sweep of the sky unlike anything he’d seen anywhere in the South; here the galaxy seemed to spill straight into the shimmering swamp. (p.383)

In addition to Hiaasen’s wonderfully casual fluency are the scores of new (to me) words, terms and phrases he lards the text with:

  • ‘a hundred large’ = hundred thousand dollars (p.97)
  • ‘hulking out’ = working out (p.96)
  • ‘the goldbrick fireman’, where ‘goldbrick’ = super-fit (p.97)
  • ‘it’s going gangbusters’ = the business is thriving (p.99)
  • ‘sportfucking’ = sleeping around (p.322)
  • ‘a through-and-through’ = a bullet wound where the bullet goes direct through soft muscle; Culver Rundell shoots Jim Tile through the thigh, before Tile disarms him, smashes his jaw and systematically breaks all his fingers (p.381)

And mystery words: there are loads of sentences which casually include a word I’ve never read before:

  • ‘I figure they’re poaching gators or jacklighting a deer that came down to drink.’ (p.104) ‘jacklighting’?
  • ‘What kind of work?’ Decker asked. ‘Scut work,’ Skink said. (p.107) ‘Scut work?’
  • ‘Only thing I could figure is that he’d gone out Saturday night and tied one on.’ (p.134)

Occasionally this articulacy crystallises in memorable apothegms:

  • [García] hated trailer parks; trailer parks were the reason God invented tornadoes. (p.210)
  • Guns make people say the darnedest things. (p.404)

The second sentence would make a cracking TV show, a redneck version of ‘You’ve Been Framed’.

Omni-competence

The narrator has that thriller writer’s dazzling super-knowledge about every material aspect of American life, about its reams of products and brands. Thus every item of clothing that every character wears is described, as is the exact make of every car, boat, piece of fishing tackle, everything, is nailed and named:

Dennis Gault was holding a stack of VCR cassettes when he answered the door. He was wearing salmon shorts and a loose mesh top that looked like it would have made an excellent mullet seine. (p.86)

What is a loose mesh top? Is it like a string vest? What is a mullet seine? Is it a type of net?

  • Lanie was dressed in a red timber jacket, skintight Gore-Tex dungarees, and black riding boots. (p.390)
  • He put on his favourite desert-tan leisure suit, buffed his cream-colour shoes, and trimmed his nose hairs. (p.392)
  • [Weeb] wore a powder-blue pullover, white parachute pants, and a pair of black Nike running shoes. (p.304)

‘Timber jacket’, ‘leisure suit’, ‘parachute pants’? I don’t know what any of these are. And the author knows about lots of other stuff, about all aspects of everything. Here’s Skink explaining some background to the fishing:

‘Some of the guys fish the slough when the water’s up,’ Skink cut in. ‘You need a johnboat, and no outboard. Ten minutes from the highway and you’re into heavy bass cover.’ (p.103)

All the characters seem to be impressively knowledgeable about motorboats, possibly true of Florida as a whole, with its watery sports environment:

The boat was an eighteen-foot Aquasport with a two-hundred-horse Evinrude outboard; smooth trim, dry ride, very fast. (p.248)

Everyone is articulate, everything has a name and everyone knows the names of everything. There’s very little doubt or indeterminacy. I’ve just read Samuel Beckett’s complete works and his prose, in particular, is about the impossibility of knowing anything and, for that reason, of ever managing to properly express anything.

Hiaasen’s brazen American confidence is at the extreme opposite end of the psychological and literary spectrum. In Hiaasen’s world everything, absolutely everything, can be known and named and understood.

Decker nodded. ‘Sounds like a Ruger Mini-14’. Very popular with the Porsche-and-powder set in Miami, but not the sort of bang-bang you expected upstate. (p.113)

‘Porsche-and-powder set’. ‘Bang-bang’.

Another running thread is the way everyone eats out and the names of each restaurant or chain and the dishes ordered are specified. I never eat out. I can’t afford it. All the characters in all of Hiaasen’s novels eat out all the time.

  • They sat in a corner table at Middendorf’s
  • They went to the Acme for raw oysters and beer. (p.188)
  • Just what I need is that asshole jetting up for brunch at Brennan’s, thought Decker. (p.199)
  • They went to a Denny’s on Biscayne Boulevard. (p.214)
  • ‘We hit Mister Donut on the way in,’ Decker said (p.347).

Same goes for human behaviour, it is supremely knowable and therefore predicatable. Routinely, characters expect the other person to say or do this or that, and that is exactly what they then do. This notion, that people are predictable robots with set repertoires is the basis of much humour, as pointed out by Henri Bergson a century ago. A good example comes on page 98 where R.J. is chatting to his ex-wife Catherine, and he can tell she’s about to go into her ‘You’re wasting your life’ routine and, sure enough, she does, much to the reader’s amusement.

Of course the weakness of this approach is that, if everything is already known and named and identified, both the plot and the characters risk realising that they are in a thriller, conforming to thriller stereotypes. It’s interesting how often thrillers themselves raise this issue, presumably hoping to allay the reader’s suspicions, but on the whole serving only to highlight their own secondariness, their ‘already-read’ nature.

Thus when Lanie visits Decker in his motel bedroom in the second half of the novel and bursts into tears, he knows by this stage that she’s a lying actor, knows it’s all an act, but nonetheless finds himself moving to the bed to hold her and comfort her, painfully aware how clichéd the whole scene is.

Of course then the tears came, and the next thing Decker knew he had moved to the bed and put his arms around Lanie and told her to knock off the crying. Please. In his mind’s eye he could see himself in this cheesy scene out of a cheap detective movie; acting like the gruff cad, awkwardly consoling the weepy long-legged knockout. (p.129)

‘Knockout’, the thing that’s often missed about tough-guy, hard-boiled prose is that it’s often funny, it’s knowingness is a fundamentally comic attitude. One way to avoid accusations of over-familiarity and stereotype, to decisively step out of the deep shadows of Fleming or Chandler, is to outgross and outgrotesque all your predecessors, and this Hiaasen very successfully manages to do.

Evermore grotesque

There’s a lot more plot, a plot which gets steadily more convoluted and farcical, but it is a savage farce in which people get beaten up, tied up, shot and gruesomely murdered. For example: Lanie, sent to seduce and spy on Decker, gets kidnapped, stripped naked and tied up in hundreds of yards of tough fishing twine; slick Dickie Lockhart gets hit in the head and drowned; and Dennis Gault is, eventually, revealed as the bad guy behind almost all the murders, and meets a sticky end when he catches a monster bass which pulls him by his rod and line backwards over the stern of a shiny new fishing boat where is instantly shredded by its state-of-the-art high speed propeller.

Probably the funniest element of the novel (or the sickest, depending on how squeamish you are) is that the hired hitman of the book, the thug Thomas Curl, is trying to break into Decker’s trailer when he is attacked by one of the chavvy neighbours’ pitbull terriers. The beast jumps up and bites him in the arm and, although Curl then stabs and kills it with a screwdriver, the pitbull refuses to let go.

In fact so tightly are the animal’s jaws clamped on his forearm that even after Curl’s sawed the head clean off, the dog won’t let go. And so killer Curl goes through the last third of the novel with a dead pitbull head clamped to his arm. Inevitably, the thing begins to rot and fester and the infection gets into Curl’s bloodstream, making him increasingly delirious and feverish.

Thus when he kidnaps the lovely Catherine, Decker’s ex-wife, she is terrified to realise that Curl is talking to the dead dog’s head as if it were a friendly pet. It’s a very funny moment when Catherine realises that, to stay on his good side, she’d better play along too, and so she starts to make doggy barking noises behind her hand, which Curl, in his hallucinatory state, takes to be the yapping of his nice doggy which he has, by this time, named Lucas.

The hallucinating killer with a rotting dog’s head clamped to his arm is one of Hiaasen’s most vivid and fabulously grotesque creations.

The climax

Tourist Season led up to a ghastly climax during the half-time entertainment of the big local football game, when the would-be environmental terrorists, led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, kidnap the local beauty queen in front of not only a live audience but a stunned national TV audience.

Something similar happens here, for the ever-accelerating plot leading up to a climax set in the biggest richest largemouth bass fishing competition in the country, set up by the Reverend Weeb in order to promote the fishing ‘lakes’ created next to the building development he’s invested all his money in. For, deep down, the ultimate motor of the plot is not the fishing competitions as such, but Hiaasen’s deepest and most consistent enemy, illegal, corrupt and environmentally devastating property developments.

Weeb has invested a lot of time and money setting up this competition, offering the biggest prize money and invited all America’s top fishermen to ensure maximum coverage for his new housing development and scenic fishing lakes, and which he intends to preface with an extra special edition of his TV evangelism show, Jesus in Your Living Room.

As you might imagine, the religious show and the televised fishing competition which follow it turn into a chaotic fiasco with half a dozen plotlines all converging to create maximum havoc, not least the fact that the entire development that Weeb has invested millions in turns out to have been built on an old landfill site so that, in scooping out the supposed ‘lakes’ the developers created vast pools of toxic liquid not that dissimilar from battery acid, in which no fish – let alone the thousands of largemouth bass the Reverend has had carefully and expensively bussed in to stock the water and provide telegenic catches – can survive for even a day.

Another comic aspect of the climactic scenes is the way the black man Jim Tile and the Hispanic Al García enter this super-fishing competition a) thus outraging all the other whiter-than-white contestants, and the Reverend Weeb, but also b) taking the mickey out of their racist opponents by speaking each other’s idiolect, so that Tile speaks bad Spanish and García speaks street jivetalk. It is preposterous, absurd and very funny.

So the fishing competition turns into a catastrophic disaster with not one fish being pulled out of the so-called ‘lakes’ alive, but it is matched for farce by the TV evangelism strand in which the Reverend Weeb was meant to perform a miracle cure of a poor sinner, which leads to his poor assistant scouring the streets and towns near to the lake development to find a tramp or hobo, or preferably a kid from an orphanage who can be paid to play lame or blind or paralysed and then, at the climax of the Revere and Weeb’s prayers and performance, miraculously rise and see and speak. Except that the assistant, running out of time and getting desperate, chooses none other than Skink, sitting alone and derelict looking in a bus shelter and wearing sunglasses, who immediately twigs what is going on, and plays along pretending to be blind, right up till the moment the reverend claims to cure him when, of course, he reveals his true character and delivers a grotesque rant to the live TV audience with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

There’s a huge amount more plot and detail to this riotous book, multiple other plotlines which are laid out and drawn together with brilliant precision and comic timing, and all lead up to this savage, satirical, violent and riotous climax. Double Whammy is a brilliantly shocking, scandalously entertaining and hilarious novel.


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)

Reading the final novel in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy was like having my teeth pulled out one by one. It was a gruelling slog. Several times, as I forced myself to crawl on across the shiny, beautifully engineered desert of Gibson’s prose, I caught a glimpse of a pile of old Carl Hiaasen paperbacks I bought in the 1990s lying around by my shelves, and began to fantasise about escaping from Gibson’s pretentious, globe-trotting, expense account narratives, with their exhaustive descriptions of every item of clothing every character is wearing, and the expensive cars they drive and the pretentious gadgets they use, and Gibson’s eerie absence of plot and disappointing denouements, for something simpler and funnier from a simpler, funnier time.

Hiaasen’s books, by contrast, are quick and hilarious. Instead of Gibson’s laboured, carefully-wrought, burnished chrome sentences, Hiaasen just tells it quick and dirty.

‘Look at that crybaby,’ Jesús Bernal said, scowling at the heartsick Indian. ‘Somebody shot his pet lizard.’
‘You shut up,’ Viceroy Wilson hissed at the Cuban, ‘or I’ll nail your nuts to your nose.’ (p.218)

Hiaasen’s plots are outrageous and farcically convoluted (as opposed to Gibson’s plots which are contorted and obscure yet consistently disappointing). Hiaasen’s characters are varied, over the top and grotesquely colourful, unlike Gibson’s monotonously soundalike ‘cool’ characters who display as much personality as shop window mannequins.

Potted biography

Hiaasen was born in 1953 in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated with a degree in journalism and, by 1976, was writing for the Miami Herald where he worked for the city desk, Sunday magazine and award-winning investigative team. In 1985 he became a thrice-weekly columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, the ambitious author had already published his first novel, Powder Burn, co-written with friend and fellow journalist William Montalbano, in 1981, followed by Trap Line 1982.

In 1986 came his first solo novel, Tourist Season. It’s a rip-roaring comedy crime thriller, by turns breath-takingly violent and gut-wrenchingly funny. The plot makes sense, albeit in a savagely satirical manner, and the characters are immediately colourful and entertaining.

The setup

The lead writer and columnist for the fictional newspaper the Miami Sun, ‘Skip’ Wiley, who had been writing increasingly savage satirical pieces against the ruination of Florida by mass immigration from other parts of the US of fat philistine retirees, finally goes postal and sets up a half-assed band of environmental ‘revolutionaries’, dedicated to acts of terror designed to wreck Florida’s reputation as a haven for the old and tasteless. They call themselves Las Noches de Diciembre and consist of Skip himself (aged 37) and:

  • Daniel ‘Viceroy’ Wilson (black, 36), previously a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team who, after being dropped from the sport, spent some time as a drug addict and a petty criminal, before reading up on history and realising how his people had been exploited, cleaning himself up and dedicating himself to the fight against the white-dominated Florida establishment
  • Jesús Bernal (Cuban, late 20s), a shifty, sneaky Hispanic, formerly a member of an anti-Castro group named the First Weekend in July Movement, who was their lead bomb-maker and letter-writer, but was kicked out for his farcically inept attempts at making and planting bombs (they’re always going off too soon or he blows up the wrong people) and in any case, his revolutionary politics are a pose, since he was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from posh Dartmouth College, and has never been to Cuba in his life
  • Tommy Tigertail (mid-20s), a cool, looming, unspeaking member of the Seminole Nation who, in one of the novel’s thousands of ironies, are allowed to run gambling operations and so have made a fortune by catering to the infatuation of white retirees for bingo – like the others he is motivated by anger at white men’s over-development of Florida’s natural habitat, and also whitey’s victories over his forebears

Tommy keeps a ‘tame’ crocodile named Pavlov and in the early phase of the ‘revolution’, the Noches kidnap random tourists and feed them to the crocodile, starting with a blameless middle-aged tourist visiting Florida on a convention of Shriners, Theodore Bellamy, whose fez washes up on a Miami beach. The Noches crank things up a notch when they kidnap president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, dress him in Bellamy’s garish tourist outfit then have the crocodile tear him in half and stuff the remains in a tourist suitcase for the cops to find, with a a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.

So the novel is, in part, a satire on a terrorist group made up of cranks and, to some extent, ethnic stereotypes; but mostly a fierce satire on the tackiness of northern tourists in Florida, and the desperate and destructive commercialisation of the state and its fragile environment.

There are two other groups of characters, namely the cops and Wiley’s fellow journalists. Chief among the cops is Al García, Detective Sergeant for the Metro-Dade Police Homicide unit, who we see being routinely patronised by his predominantly Anglo colleagues and by the decidedly white, middle-aged men of the Chamber of Commerce. García is appointed head of a task force to catch the terrorists.

As to the journalists, at the Miami Sun were are introduced to two main characters, the paper’s long-suffering managing editor, Cab Mulcahy, and Ricky Bloodworth, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter. Energetic and ambitious, Bloodworth yearns for success in journalism, but lacks all the qualities necessary for a good reporter, including sensitivity, tact, and even basic writing skills. It is a running gag that Skip reads the articles about him and the Noches in the Sun and is professionally insulted when they fall below his own high standards and rings up the paper’d editor to shout down the phone at him. He is especially enraged when Bloodworth rewrites some of the copy he himself has submitted.

The joke being an ironic one about journalists as a profession, that Skip may have become a murdering fanatic but he still gets incandescent at poor writing style.

(It’s also a running gag that most of the white cops and journalists find it hard to pronounce Las Noches and don’t know what it means, finding it much easier to refer to the nachos, much to Skip’s exasperation.)

Sitting mid-way between these groups, and overlapping all of them is probably the central character of the book, Brian Keyes (32), a former reporter for the Sun and now a private detective, who gets caught up in the increasingly psychotic behaviour of Skip’s ramshackle band of would-be terrorists.

The victims

  • Theodore Bellamy, shriner
  • B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce
  • Renee LeVoux, tourist from Montreal
  • Ida Kimmelman, retiree
  • Dr. Remond Courtney, shill psychiatrist
  • Pavlov: a giant American crocodile
  • Jenna: Skip’s girlfriend, Brian’s ex-girlfriend

Plot developments

Keyes is hired by the widow of Theodore Bellamy to find out what happened to him. Slowly it becomes clear the Noches, led by his old friend and star newspaper reporter Skip Wiley, murdered him. In her meeting with the widow, she introduces him to two burley Shriners, colleagues of Theodore, who volunteer to help him.

Keyes goes out into the Everglades in search of Las Noches and finds a derelict cabin on stilts. He’s captured by Las Noches and forced to watch the ritual killing of tourist Ida Kimmelman, as Viceroy and Tiger throw her to the crocodile, Pavlov. Brian tries to stop them but sneaky little creep Bernal stabs him in the back. The Noches motorboat Brian back to the mainland, dumping him on a highway, where he flags down a car and is taken to hospital to be treated.

Skip’s girlfriend is the flakey Jenna, who Brian used to go out with, so there is an immense tangle of emotions and relationship damage, particularly since her loyalties seem to waver between the two men.

Keyes tails Jenna from her apartment to the airport, where he discovers that two Shriners have been tailing him. With commendable professionalism, the Shriners identify that Jenna has caught a plane to Grand Bahama, and all three catch the next one.

Here Keyes tracks Wiley down to a beach where he is sunning himself and confronts him with his deeds. He tries to reason with him, but Wiley puts his side of the argument: 1,000 new Northerners arrive every day to foul up Florida’s beautiful countryside, the only way to protect it is to terrify them away.

Keyes seriously contemplates killing Skip there and then to prevent any more innocent civilians being kidnapped and murdered. But while he’s still figuring out the possibilities, Skip blows a whistle and a bunch of compliant Bahamian cops come running, arrest Keyes and the Shriners and deport them. Skip has lavishly bribed the local authorities.

Just before he blew the whistle, Skip portentously announced to Keyes that he is planning the biggest spectacular so far, and mysteriously announces he is going to defile the most famous virgin in Florida. Keyes spends the plane journey home wondering what this can possibly mean and, by the time he has another meeting with Cab Mulcahy, has come to the conclusion that Skip and Las Noches are going to disrupt the annual beauty pageant and parade which leads up to the climax of the state football season.

One of the consistent characteristics of Hiaasen’s novels is their artful construction, whereby he creates about 4 or 5 sets of characters and then stages their increasingly convoluted and frantic interactions with masterful skill. That and a steady stream of outlandish and grotesque incidents.

Ricky Bloodworth and the bomb

A good example is the bomb. Jesús Bernal is a short weedy guy who feels jealous of the tall manliness of the others in the Noches and is continually trying to prove what a real man and real terrorist he is. Inevitably each attempt is even more of a fuck-up than its predecessor.

This Bernal has the bright idea of posting a parcel bomb to Detective Al García who is doing a good job tracking down Los Noches. But unfortunately the parcel arrives on García’s desk at the police station as ambitious young journalist Ricky Bloodworth is hanging round waiting for a scoop. In García’s absence and convinced the package contains vital information, Bloodworth swipes it and nips down to the station toilets to open it. It is perched on his lap when he opens it and triggers the bomb, which explodes, blowing his fingertips off and scorching his penis. See what I mean by outlandish and grotesque.

The kidnap of Detective García

When he reconvenes with the other Noches Bernal is ridiculed for his abject failure and for  so he ups his ambitions and kidnaps García, driving him out to an isolated lake where he tries to get him to sign a document admitting he is a traitor to the cause of Cuban Liberation, the cause García kids himself he is a leading light in. The scene builds up to a gruesome climax when Jesús shoots Al in the shoulder with a shotgun and his body falls into the lake, but we have been following Brian Keyes as he tailed the car out to this isolated spot and now Keyes shoots Bernal dead.

The cruise ship full of snakes

Next evening Skip pulls off another of his anti-tourist stunts. He hires a helicopter and flies low over a cruise ship full of fat tourists, abruptly throwing from the chopper loads of shopping bags. Initially the tourists think it’s some kind of marketing game until the bags land and out of them slither thousands of swamp snakes. Panicking passengers dive off the ship which radios for the Coast Guard but as it begins to fly in in pursuit, there’s a big surprise for the reader as Skip’s helicopter unexpectedly crashes at sea before it reaches land. There’s realistic wreckage and no bodies are found.

The Orange Bowl Parade

Throughout the second half of the novel the city authorities, the cops and Brian had been assuming that Skip’s threat had meant he was going to attack the annual Orange Bowl parade. Central feature of this is the presence of the winner of the annual beauty pageant., so this prompts a lot of satire about the utterly impure and often seedy motivation of all concerned behind such parades.

At the final pageant the young woman chosen to be beauty queen is Kara Lynn Shivers who has only entered the pageant to please her father. The authorities had been thinking the Noches were going to  attack the parade and seize the queen, but they didn’t want to ruin it and wreck the start of the tourist season by either calling it off or stuffing it with heavy-handed cops. Instead Garcia suggested a compromise which is to hire Brian Keyes as personal bodyguard to Shivers. Initially wary of him, Shivers begins to appreciate his honesty and valour and the pair, unexpectedly, fall in love.

Although Skip’s helicopter appears to have crashed and the Noches been wiped out, the authorities take no chances and Brian’s personal protection of Shiver is accompanied by a strong undercover police presence, and the Orange Bowl Parade itself is described in great detail and the reader is genuinely on tenterhooks about whether something very bad will happen. But it doesn’t. The entire thing passes off without a hitch and there is a sense of anti-climax among all concerned.

The big game

It is only after the parade is over, Kara has gone home and Brian has gone off duty that it dawns on him that on the following evening Kara will make a brief appearance during half time at the big annual football game. He buys a ticket and goes along, but is helpless when the Noches do appear, outrageously and flamboyantly, using an airboat to skid across the football pitch and scoop Kara from the half time podium.

The black ex-football player ‘Viceroy’ Wilson had bribed one of the players to lend him his kit so that he can take part in the kidnap, scooping Kara off the podium and then helping her into the airboat, but Kara fiercely resists. The airboat is followed by none other than the two dogged Shriners we met right back at the start of the novel and, at the moment when Viceroy finally throws the squealing Kara into the airboat and turns and gives a black power salute, one of the Shriners shoots Viceroy dead.

Tommy Tigertail is piloting the airboat out of the stadium and hands Kara over to Skip waiting in a fast car, which roars off down the road before the stadium cops can catch up. Tigertail turns in the other direction and heads off to hole up with his uncle somewhere in the swamps, hoping to never see a white man again. (Note that Tommy makes a cameo appearance in Hiaasen’s 2006 novel, Nature Girl, which features his mixed-race nephew, Sammy Tigertail, as a lead character.)

In a fury Brian descends on Jenna’s flat. Up to now she has limply defended Skip’s actions and Brian has given her the benefit of the doubt because he still holds a candle for her. But now he is furious. One of Skip’s foibles was keeping all his cuttings in a real wooden coffin. Brian rips it open and leafs through all his cuttings.

Confrontation on Osprey Island

One of them gives a clue that he has taken Kara Lynn to a remote place called Osprey Island, a small nature preserve in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

Cut to Skip on the island with Kara Lynn who he has tied and gagged. He explains that a massive new condominium development has been planned for the island which is going to be ploughed flat. Step one was the developers have comprehensively mined the island with dynamite set to be exploded at dawn.

Now Skip explains to Kara Lynn that he is going to leave her here to be blown up along with the rest of the island’s wildlife and when her death is discovered it will cause such a stink that it will send a ‘revolutionary’ message to Florida’s greedy developers. As he explains all this Skip is impressed by the way Kara Lynn keeps her head and tries to reason with him. He begins to regret his plan, certainly taking her gag off and listening to her. Shame. She seems like a sweet kid.

He’s still talking to her when Brian arrives and shoots Skip in the leg. Brian tells him the boat he came is out of fuel, they need his one to escape in. Initially Skip refuses to tell Brian where he has anchored his boat and is ready for the dynamite to kill all three of them till Brian reveals that he brought Jenna along too. At which point Skip caves in, tells him where his boat is moored but, to Brian’s surprise, refuses to come along. He will see his crusade out to the bitter end.

Kara, Jenna and Brian run to Skip’s boat, fire it up and are motoring away as the seconds count down. As they come out into clear water they all see the Skip is climbing a tree because a bald eagle nesting there has returned to its roost and Skip is desperately trying to scare it away.

After so much comic mayhem the novel ends on a surprisingly moving note, just as the ‘all clear’ signal for the detonation sounds, with Jenna, Brian and Kara all praying for the eagle, a powerful symbol of the dignity of the Florida environment, to fly away and be safe.

Nostalgia

Ah the good old days, before the internet, before smartphone, before social media. When the only phones were in offices, private homes or payphone boxes on the street. When the height of digital technology was sending a fax. When there were computer monitors and keyboards on desks but only so you could send documents through internal systems, such as journalists sending their copy to the printing section of the Miami Sun. None of them were connected to the wider world. Nobody had heard of the internet let alone smartphones and social media. People were just as corrupt and violent but the technology they were corrupt and violent with was easier to understand.

Also, no mention of climate change. Hiaasen was writing from a time when green and environmental issues really were for a tiny minority of fruit loops and eccentrics. What everyone now knows about global warming and systematic environmental degradation (death of the corals, seas full of plastic) has tipped the balance in Skip’s favour. Doesn’t seem so mad now. This novel feels like a message from much simpler times.

Florida’s environment

In 1986, when this novel was published and Hiaasen was raving against the overpopulation and resulting environmental destruction of the state, Florida’s population was 12 million. Today it is 21 million. People means pollution, means degradation of the environment, destruction of habitats, obliteration of other life forms. Thus:

Sprawling development has carved wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, divided by highways or paved over altogether for shopping malls and office parks — threatening state symbols such as the Florida panther and the Florida black bear. Many of Florida’s coastal marshes and barrier islands — home to endangered wildlife such as manatees, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles — have been transformed into marinas and condominiums. The Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 68 federally endangered or threatened plant and animal species, has already lost half of its area to agricultural and urban development and continues to face pressure from South Florida’s booming development. (Floridian nature)

I wonder whether anything Hiaasen has written has had any impact at all in slowing the destruction of Florida’s environment. (If you read his most recent novel, Squeeze Me, his explicit reply is No. Squeeze Me explicitly despairs of saving the Florida environment, which he now [2020] sees as irreparably ruined.)


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, and they are sent together on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and turns from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer into a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely, in fact, even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking, crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s, but to everyone else they’re Derek from IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was the lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy, too. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates – short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs and about another band named The Stokers (p.156). This is incredibly tedious.

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later, Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now, Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of fictional ‘locative art’ was…wait for it…a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, who died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307: career peak 1960s and early 70s). On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the writer of the 1967 song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow). And yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and these later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter the world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s now forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned her research into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (a photographer who was at his peak in the 1980s and 90s) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and served by a steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés all over the text like slug trails.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills to monitor a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. All of this makes up a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights, or sober advice his therapist gave him, to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on in the story an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But this sour of the moment act will turn out to have big consequences later on.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

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