Dr No by Ian Fleming (1958)

It is several months after the cliff hanger ending of From Russia with Love. On the last page of that novel Bond was kicked in the calf by the head of SMERSH’s Execution Division, Rosa Klebb, with a pointed shoe tipped with poison. Now we learn that it was fugu poison from the Japanese globe-fish, and that Bond would have died but for the prompt action of his friend Mathis, from the French Deuxième Bureau, who gave him the kiss of life until a doctor arrived with an antidote.

After some months resting and recuperating, Bond is given a ‘simple’ mission in Jamaica. The Head of station, Strangways (handsome man with an eye patch) and his female number two, Truelove, have disappeared, presumed absconded as lovers. We, the readers, know they were in fact assassinated by three black men (in a typical macabre Fleming touch, pretending to be blind), who removed their corpses in a hearse (!) and burned the station building to the ground.

In the Regents Park HQ of the Secret Service, M and the Chief of Staff (Bill) fill Bond in on Strangways’ last piece of work. Some rare ‘roseate spoonbills’ inhabit an island off Jamaica, Crab Key. The island was bought before the war by a Chinese-German businessman named Dr Julius No, who invested in a business reclaiming and selling guano. The war caused a boom in prices. But since the war ended the island has become off limits to locals and fishermen. In fact two long-term bird watchers from the American Audubon Society recently had some kind of accident: one of them died, the other washed up on the mainland with some crazy story about a fire-breathing dragon. When the Society sent a plane to the island’s small airport to investigate, it crashed, killing the Society’s members. Strangways was trying to get to the bottom of this nonsense, says M dismissively, when he ran off with Truelove. ‘Go and sort it out, Bond.’

Jamaica

So Bond flies to Jamaica (involving another typically detailed description of a jet airliner journey and of the view from the plane descending into the tropical island). He is delighted to be met by the Cayman Islander, Quarrel, who he worked with on the Live and Let Die adventure. Not so happy, however, to be photographed at the airport and then tailed into Kingston: someone knows he’s here.

In fact, in several ways he realises that he’s being followed and threatened. When he visits the Colonial Secretary, Pleydell-Smith, the latter is already aware of Bond’s existence, because he found Bond’s file lying around on his desk. Hmm. Who had got it out? When Pleydell-Smith asks his secretary to find the Crab Key file, Bond isn’t surprised when the secretary, Miss Taro, politely says it is empty. Her excuse is that Commander Strangways must have taken it. But she is a Chinese and, Bond strongly suspects, working for Dr No. Now he realises that the woman photographer who snapped him at the airport then turned up again at the beachfront bar where Quarrel and Bond eat dinner, was called Annabel Chung, and was also Chinese. Like Dr No.

Bond gets Quarrel to carry out a complicated subterfuge: finding and paying two men who look like them, to dress like them and drive Strangways’ old sports car (a Sunbeam Talbot) over the hills to a distant port. A day later he reads in the newspaper (the Daily Gleaner) that the car had a mysterious crash, killing both its occupants.

Someone is not only tailing him, but trying to kill him. The game is on!

Pleydell-Smith gives him a briefing about Crab Key which more or less repeats the one he had in London. The price of guano shot up during the war. Dr Julius No had bought the island and begun harvesting it before then, so must have made a fortune. Employs coolie labour which he probably works to death. But stays on the island, no-one sees him, doesn’t encourage visitors.

That night, retiring to his smart hotel bedroom, Bond is told a basket of fresh fruit was delivered courtesy of the High Commission. He’s suspicious. When he examines the fruit he finds a tiny discoloured pinprick in each item. He packs the box in a crate and sends it to Pleydell-Smith, a few days later getting a reply that each fruit was injected with enough cyanide to kill a horse. So…

In the middle of the night he wakes and lies stock still in terror, realising some kind of enormous insect is slowly climbing up his leg. In a gruesome piece of macabre horror, Bond realises it is a giant poisonous centipede and we are given a typically vivid Flemingesque description of precisely how it feels to have lots of little insect legs rippling up your leg, then stomach, then pausing at the heart (‘don’t bite, don’t bite’ Bond thinks) then, even worse, up to the beating pulse of the carotid artery in his neck, before finally climbing over his face, along his nose and through his hair, and finally, thankfully, off his body and onto the pillow. There is no explanation of how it got there, but Bond – having shaken it out of the bed and stamped it to death – realises he can’t leave town soon enough.

Repetition

Quarrel is worried at the prospect of this mission and asks Bond to insure his life, which Bond agrees to do for $5,000, with Quarrel’s family as beneficiaries. He and Quarrel drive over to the northern coast of Jamaica, to the very same bay – Morgan’s Bay – in which sits Surprise Isle, the base of Mr Big in Live and Let Die. Bond remembers the gruelling undersea trek out to the island in that book, and then the wildly improbable way he saved himself and Solitaire from being torn to shreds on the coral reef. He wonders where Solitaire is today, he has no idea… (p.60)

He and Quarrel have come to the north coast to set up base once again in the abandoned Beau Desert Plantation Mansion in order a) for Bond to train under Quarrel’s guidance, then b) to sail in a fishing boat to Crab Key and go poke around.

What is astonishing about Dr No is the prominence of this repetition: not just Jamaica, but the same abandoned plantation, Beau Desert, with the same view over the self-same Morgan Bay as in Live and Let Die, and then the same training regime (swim down the coast, run back along the beach) with the same aim – to go by sea into the Enemy Island (Surprise Isle or Crab Key).

Crab Key

After a week’s training, Bond and Quarrel set sail in Quarrel’s primitive sailing boat. Fleming vividly describes the journey, the different sounds of the waves as the sea changes from shallow shoreline, to reef, to deep ocean. In the final approach to Crab Key they take down to the sail to avoid radar and paddle till their arms and backs are breaking with the exertion. They pull the canoe up the sandy beach, hide it and their tracks and fall fast asleep.

Honeychile Rider

In the morning Bond is awoken by movement and opens his eyes on a vision: standing on the soft sand, silhouetted by the dazzling blue sea, is the naked figure of a stunningly beautiful woman, reminding him in her pose of Botticelli’s Venus (p.77). Her nakedness is accentuated and made powerfully erotic by just one accoutrement – a leather belt around her waist (just as Tatiana Romanova’s nakedness was accentuated by the black velvet choker she wears in Bond’s bed in From Russia with Love).

She is humming a calypso, ‘Marion/Marianne’ and Bond startles her by completing the verse she had started:

She turns, naked, but instead of covering her crotch conceals her face. Bond eventually realises that, although stunningly beautiful, she’s ashamed of the way her nose has been brutally broken and badly fixed. She says her name is Honeychile Rider and, in another whopping coincidence, that she lives in the very same Morgan Bay where bond and Quarrel are based, in the ruined Grand House along from Bond’s base in Beau Desert. She is of white parentage, in fact her family claim descent from one of the first settlers, given land by Cromwell for signing Charles I’s death warrant (though there is no ‘Rider’ in Wikipedia’s list of regicides). Her house was burned down and her parents killed when she was five. She lived among the ruins with a black nanny who resisted all attempts to send her to school etc till the nanny died when she was 15.

Since when she has had to fend for herself, teaching herself about the world from an old set of encyclopedias, although throughout her childhood she had accumulated an in-depth knowledge of animals and sea creatures. It is this which has brought her to Crab Key, for over the past year she has been learning how to collect rare shells and send them to a merchant in New York who pays her good money. She is saving up the money to fly to New York and get her nose fixed.

Altogether a beguiling mixture of naivete and sophistication, a well-spoken wild child. A fantasy creation, but a fascinating and persuasive one.

The machine-gun boat

Suddenly they hear the sound of a motorboat puttering round the headland. Quarrel appears and says it’s the bad guys. All three of them retreat up the beach and burrow into the sand just beyond the treeline. A motorboat putters into the bay and the black security guys aboard use a loudspeaker to tell Bond and the others to come out with their hands up. Obviously our guys don’t move, or only to burrow deeper into their shallow sandy trenches.

Having warned them several times, the motor boat opens up with a heavy-duty machine gun (a Spandau, Bond thinks). It slices the mango trees above them to ribbons in a storm of metal, the slicing, ringing shots reminding Bond of battlefields in the Ardennes in 1944 (p.77).

Eventually the boat stops firing and the loudhailer tells our heroes that they’ll be back, with the dogs, and it motors out of the bay. Bond, Quarrel and Honeychile emerge from their trenches and see that Honey’s boat has been torn to shreds by the bullets. Now the only way she can leave the island is in Bond’s boat – destiny has thrown them together!

To avoid the security posse, Bond and Quarrel decide to go inland along the small creek which crosses the beach near them. So they pack some food and guns and set off. Cue an atmospheric description of wading up a muddy, swampy, tropical river, bursting pockets of disgusting marsh gas as they go, feeling horrible, slimy things wriggle from under their feet, occasionally stooping to wipe off the leeches.

The posse

Quarrel stops because he can hear the dogs. Then they all hear the sounds of whistles, dogs, the security guards. Honey has the idea of cutting some bamboo shoots and using them as breathing poles from underwater. Bond leads the way through a gap in the mangrove into a hidden pool and they all go underwater, breathing through the hollow poles. They feel/hear the search party barking and splashing past, give it an extra five minutes, then Bond emerges from the water.

But he thinks he can still hear something, a stealthy tread, but before he can warn them the others have made loud spluttering and coughing sounds. The stealthy creeping stops. Bond realises someone was cannily following the main search party. He signs the others to go back underwater. Sure enough, seconds later they feel someone coming into their little pool. When a foot treads on Bond’s shin, he erupts from the water and, just as the bad guy’s rifle butt cracks down onto his forearm, he pushes his revolver right against the chest of a big black guard and pulls the trigger. Bond is thrown backwards but he sees the man, his chest ripped open, disappear back into the water with a horrible gurgling sound.

Honey is appalled and Bond apologises, then leads the gang further upstream. They come to the end of the mangroves, to a more open stretch where they can see the big sugarloaf hill covered in guano, with a set of pre-fabricated Quonset huts at its base. As dusk falls they press on to the inland lake which is the source of the river, pushing through sandy grass to some abandoned huts where they make camp for the night, and eat cold rations.

Along the way they have come across various places which are blasted and scorched, with the bodies of countless birds. Honey explains she’s seen the ‘dragon’ on a number of occasions using its fiery breath to burn and roast the birds and their colonies. Obviously Bond doesn’t believe in any dragon, but he’s intrigued: why has Dr No gone to such trouble to create some kind of ‘dragon’, but more pressing: what has he got against the damn roseate spoonbills?

The abandoned huts are the setting for Honey to add more detail to her backstory, including how her nose got broken: Mander, the overseer of the old estate, was always pestering her and one night arrived drunk and ready to rape her. She fought back and he broke her nose before carrying out the deed. Bond marvels at her beauty and strength and independence, as the confiding of secrets draws them together and they begin to fall in love with each other under the bright stars. If you allow yourself to go with it, it is an exotic and romantic interlude.

The ‘dragon’

In the middle of the night Quarrel wakes them to say he hears the ‘dragon’. Lumbering across the lake comes something with two piercing eyes, the outline of a tail and wings and fire trembling at its mouth. But Bond can also hear the rhythmic pulsing of an engine, probably a diesel. He tells Quarrel to go over one side and fire the rifle at it. Bond will stay this side and try to take out the lights or tyres. But this leads to tragedy. Because Quarrel starts firing first, the dragon turns in his direction and lets out a long stream of fire. Christ, Bond thinks: a flame-thrower! There is one piercing scream from the bushes where Quarrel had been hiding, and then silence. Sickened, Bond (and Fleming and the reader) vividly imagines the warm, friendly man now reduced to a smoking crisp, and the searing unbearsable pain which were his last moments.

The dragon turns towards Bond who fires futilely at the big wheels he can now see, then a loudspeaker tells him to drop his weapon and come out. Honey has run to be by his side and so Bond has to surrender. The back of the ‘dragon’ opens and two black guys with guns get out. They fix handcuffs on Bond and the girl and shepherd them into the back of the vehicle, though not before Bond has walked over to see Quarrel’s body (it is much worse than he’d imagined), cursing himself for dragging Quarrel and the poor girl into this mess (p.104).

The ‘dragon’ wheels and rumbles like a sort of tank on its huge airplane wheels across swamp and marsh, then uphill, then pulls through gates into a compound. Bond and the girl are pushed out at gunpoint, ushered into one of the Quonset huts and along to a doorway.

The luxury trap

When they go through, they are dumbfounded. Suddenly they are in a space which looks like the reception of the swankiest of hotels. Two Chinese women – Sister Lily and Sister Rose – come forward respectfully, tutting over the state of them, removing the handcuffs and apologising for their treatment, saying their rooms await them, with fresh food and clean clothes.

This is a brilliant surreal coup, anticipating the surreal oddity of much 1960s fantasy fiction, like the TV series The Prisoner. Forgetting the brutality of their big black guards and their murder of Quarrel, Bond and Honey fall in with the role of being pampered guests at an upmarket spa. They are shown to their luxury rooms, his and hers, equipped with clean kimonos to wear, deep baths and showers with brand name soaps and bubble baths – Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. They wash and clean thoroughly and Honey, now totally at home with Bond, flirts naughtily, inviting him to join her in her bath, before they tuck into a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs, pineapple juice and coffee. Which is drugged. Honey passes out on her bed; Bond staggers towards his and also passes out.

This surreal chapter ends with a very tall figure, hours later, spectrally entering their respective rooms, pulling back the sheets and examining the naked bodies of his captives, before pulling the sheets slowly back up, using not flesh and blood hands, but eerie, spooky, metal claws! Ooooh flesh-creeping stuff.

Dinner with Dr No

Hours later, Bond and the girl awake to be waited on again by the decorous Chinese ladies. They point out the evening wear which has been laid out for them, and present them with luxury menus from which to choose dinner with Dr No. Will 7.45 for 8 be acceptable?

They wash and dress, Bond amused at Honey’s uncertainty in such ‘civilised’ surroundings, and then they are escorted into the grand dining room of Dr No, an enormous room, beautifully furnished and lined with books, except for the furthest wall which is a shiny black. Slowly Bond and Honey realise this wall is made of glass and directly next to the ocean; they are under sea-level, with the tops of the waves appearing right at the very top of the glass, and so are looking into a real life aquarium of the sea, where they watch, fascinated, as various fish and creatures flit including, memorably, a lazy shark.

Dr No arrives and invites them to sit to dinner. He is well over 6 foot tall, with a curious head shaped like an inverted raindrop, black circles for eyes, and two metal pincers for hands. As in most of the books, the baddie now proceeds to give a full account of his complete autobiography (p.133+), designed to show how his twisted and megalomaniac worldview came about.

(Rarely, for a Bond book, there is little food or opportunity for meals in Dr No, cf for example, Diamonds Are Forever. The dinner with Dr No is almost the only swanky meal Bond enjoys: he orders caviar, grilled lamb cutlets and salad, and angels on horseback, and Honeychile has melon, roast chicken à l’Anglaise, and vanilla ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce, p.123. Yummy. Incidentally, Bond orders a medium Vodka dry Martini, ‘shaken but not stirred’ (p.128), only the second time this formula appears in the books.)

Dr No’s autobiography

Dr No was the son of a German Methodist preacher and a Chinese mother in Peking. His parents abandoned him to be brought up by an aunt. As a youth he was drawn into the ambit of the Chinese criminal gangs, the Triads, in Shanghai, before gang warfare threats caused him to be smuggled into the USA. Here he rose to have responsibility for a lot of Triad money which he has foolish enough to steal. The gang tracked him down and systematically tortured him to reveal where he’d hidden the money. When they failed and he continued to hold out, they cut off both his hands and shot him through the heart. What they didn’t know was that No was the one in a million human beings who have their heart on the right side of their chest, and so he survived.

In hospital recovering, and getting used to the metal hands the state fixed him with, he recast his identity. He called himself doctor because it arouses trust; he gave himself a new surname, No, as a rejection of the father who abandoned him (this reminded me, obscurely, of Malcolm X rejecting his surname/slave name), he had traction to make himself unusually tall.

He emerged from hospital with a new identity, collected the hidden money and set out to find the most isolated spot on earth. He found it in Crab Key, bought it, and used his money to import coolie labour from the mainland and set up a guano-harvesting business. No goes on to explain his need for the utter isolation which gives him complete control over his little kingdom.

No had just arrived at a position of complete control over a self-sustaining colony, when the interfering Audubon Society in America announced that they planned to expand the little colony of two bird-watchers on the island, to build a hotel and make it an international destination for birdwatchers. That explains why No terrorised the two Society bird watchers (making the fatal error of letting one of them survive and make it back to Jamaica) and then arranged for the airplane of Society members to crash and kill them.

Bond takes every opportunity to needle and satirise No to his face. As in other captive situations, Bond’s aim is to unsettle the baddie and also to distract him by fiddling with his cutlery or food and making broad gestures with his hands. This is because, at key moments, Bond palms a sharp steak knife and, after he’s lit the cigarette No offers him, the cigarette lighter.

Missiles

In a surprise development, No then reveals that he didn’t just create a self-enclosed community of peons on an isolated island to gratify his power lust; he has recently taken things a step further. He has been using a powerful radio transmitter to interfere with US Army missile testing which is based on the Turks Islands, a few hundred miles away. No’s people have decoyed several experimental US missiles to crash land at marine locations where they have been able to salvage them and sell them on to the Russians!

This was a big game, a game that explained everything, a game that was certainly, in the international espionage market, well worth the candle. (p.144)

This Cold War/missile plotline feels what my kids call a bit ‘random’, a bit tacked onto the main narrative, to give it a spurious contemporary relevance and urgency. It hadn’t been referred to at all by either M or the local officials in Jamaica in his briefings (surely disappearing US missiles would have been jangling both their bells), and isn’t referenced again at the end of the adventure.

The pain challenge

At the end of the meal, No reveals that his own terrible experiences have given him a horrible, clinical, detached interest in human pain and that he will be using his two guests as lab animals. They were drugged to ensure they had plenty of rest, and now he has fed them good food. They are in their prime and ready for the experiment to begin. The girl will be staked out on a beach over which the island’s thousands of crabs swarm up out of the sea; at first they will crawl over her splayed, naked body with no curiosity, but sooner or later one will nip her and draw blood which the others will taste, and also nip and then they will begin to feed in their thousands, eating her alive (p.147). It will be fascinating to observe.

As this description progresses Honey faints and Bond goes to leap to his feet but an enormous black guy is behind him and grabs his body, holding him in a vice-like grip in his chair.

(The Chair Scene: chairs are dangerous things in James Bond. He was tied to a cane chair with the seat removed in order to be horribly tortured in Casino; and then again secured to a chair while one of Mr Big’s goons deliberately broke his little finger in Live and Let Die; and now this.)

No explains that he has created something special for Bond: a pain challenge, a pain Olympics, a pain odyssey. He will be watching at every point. Enjoy, Mr Bond. Hurling curses and abuse at No, Bond is hustled out of the dining room, up a lift, and along a crude concrete corridor and thrown into a cell.

The Tunnel of Pain

The cell is bare apart from a chair and a grille covered with wire up near the ceiling. It is the only way out; obviously it is the beginning of the test; no point hanging around. There begins an amazing sequence in which Fleming submits his character to a staggering series of tortures and suffering; has any author ever submitted his creation to such pain? Briefly:

When he touches the grille he is electrocuted and regains consciousness on the floor with burned hands. Second time round it’s not electrified and he a) rips it out on the wall b) takes the time to unravel the wire grille and shape the wire strands into a coiled, long, wire harpoon. He folds it double and slips it inside his trousers, and then heaves himself up and through the grille. He turns out to be in a circular tunnel just wider than his shoulders.

  • First, as he crawls along it, the metal walls slowly become hotter: he tears of strips of shirt and binds them round his hands and feet, but despite them is badly burned on the now scorching metal, screaming when his bare skin touches it. Eventually the metal cools.
  • Next the tunnel take a vertical turn and he has to inch himself painfully upwards, sometimes slipping depressingly back down it.
  • Eventually, more dead than alive he flops over the tunnel where it levels out again. As he proceeds, there are portholes at strategic places where the security guards’ faces leer and grin at him.
  • As he wearily proceeds, bleeding, his burns blistering then bursting, he becomes aware of a grille in front of him with red eyes behind. Horrifyingly it is a cage full of giant spiders. Distraught, Bond has to cut the grille open (with the knife he secreted at dinner) and then uses the cigarette lighter he also palmed, lighting it to drive the monsters back. But sooner or later they are crushed up against the other end, and Bond has to slash around him with the knife and the push himself on through the disgusting dead bodies, to the next grille and cut his way through.
  • Out in the clear tunnel again, he faints.

Fleming records Bond’s suffering in vivid detail. This was the sequence which seared itself on my memory when I first read it as an eleven-year-old. Rereading it, I see how Fleming slowly degrades and dehumanises his hero. By the end Fleming has stopped describing Bond as a human being; he has become an animal running on instinct. A rag. An object.

Critics at the time and down to our day are quick to sniff out places where Fleming patronises or condescends to his women or black characters. But this pales into insignificance compared to the dehumanising degradation he repeatedly subjects his hero to, and nowhere more than in this sequence which subjects Bond to cruel and degrading treatment, sinking him below the level of subhuman.

The stinking, bleeding, black scarecrow moved its arms and legs quite automatically. The thinking, feeling apparatus of Bond was no longer part of his body. It moved alongside his body, or floated above it, keeping enough contact to pull the strings that made the puppet work. Bond was like a cut worm, the two halves of which continue to jerk forward although life has gone and been replaced by the mock life of nervous impulses… (p.166)

Coming round some time later, Bond weakly drags himself forward until he realises the tunnel is sloping downwards, and then more so, and suddenly Bond finds himself slipping and sliding, and then falling directly down the vertical tube.

The giant squid

And then he is out of the tube falling 100 foot vertically into the Caribbean water beneath. He just has time to take a breath and try to arrow his body, so that he dives through the water rather than smacking against it and breaking countless bones. When, after a long time, his body finally returns to the surface and breaks water and he can breathe again, he realises he’s near a fence which stretches across this little bay and extends under the water.

Slowly, wearily, painfully, he pulls himself up the wire fence, noticing the odd, long black strands which seem to be trailing from it down into the water – then realising it is his blood, he is bleeding thick blood from countless burns and wounds. But as he watches he becomes aware of a bubbling under the water and, to his horror, a giant squid appears just below the surface and in a flash a long catcher tentacle leaps up out of the water to touch his foot, then calf, then thigh.

Dazed and dizzy Bond waits till the ‘hand’ of the tendril is up to his chest, then viciously slashes at it with the knife. There’s an explosion of activity in the water and other tentacles shoot up to grab him and pull him down towards the enormous clacking beak at the centre of the monster. Bond feels himself slipping downwards until he is hanging down by one folded leg, then chooses his moment – letting himself drop and using the ‘harpoon’ made of twisted grille wire, which he made what seems like months ago and has accompanied him in his trousers – falls and jabs it directly into one of the enormous eyes peering up at him, pushing deep, deep into the jellied orb.

He comes too, again, hanging painfully from the wire fence in total blackness, his limbs painful to move. Slowly he realises his face and eyes and whole body have been plastered in a huge squirt of poisonous ink from the squid. It is gone, nowhere to be seen. Slowly Bond wipes the muck from his eyes and crawls inch by inch along the top of the wire fence to the nearest headland.

No’s death

Bond collapses on a path next to the fence and catches his breath. Then peers round the corner of the rock and sees: a quayside, Dr No supervising an enormous crane which holds a sort of icing sugar sack through which huge amounts of guano are being directed down into the empty hold of a cargo ship docked alongside.

Nerving himself for a final effort, Bond sprints the hundred yards to the crane and, under cover of the noise, pulls himself up into the cab, ruthlessly stabs his steak knife down deep into the carotid artery of the black cab driver, yanks him out of the seat as the guano stream goes out of control, then pulls the correct levers and turns the steering wheel away from the ship and towards the quay, directing a huge stream of guano with it. At first Dr No shouts with irritation, then Bond can see the sudden realisation on his face, as he turns to run, but it is too late. Bond stops the crane’s extended arm directly over the gangling sadist and in a split second his body is buried in tons and tones of stinking bird crap.

Escape in a ‘dragon’

Mission accomplished, Bond leaps out of the cab, runs along the quayside and up to the hole in the cliff where the conveyor belt bringing the guano comes out. There’s a walkway alongside it and Bond sprints up it till he collides with a figure dressed in overalls and, after some desultory rough and tumble, realises it’s Honey. Honeychile alive! Quickly she tells her story: being a lifelong friend of animals and a water baby it turns out that she was not afraid of the crabs which crawled over her, and spent her time loosening one of the stakes they’d used to spread her on the sand. As soon as one was free, it took a few minutes to loosen the others, clamber up the beach, find some spare overalls in a locker, and here she is! Not particularly plausible…

They hide as some security guards go running past, then head down a corridor and arrive – very fortunately – in the chamber where the ‘dragon’ is kept. Bond locks the chamber door, they climb into the ‘dragon’, fire up the engine and smash through the doors of the ‘dragon’ shed. Crunch and munch over buildings, over the perimeter fence along tracks and over marshes. After a while they hear the tracker dogs pursuing them, so Bond parks on the edge of a bog and, as the dogs arrive, shoots a few through the gun slit, and the rest of the pack turn on the wounded ones in a frenzy. Yuk. In this book the bloodshed seems to go on forever. But now Bond’s battered, bleeding, broken body is at the end of its tether.

Epilogue in Jamaica

Cut to Bond in the High Commissioner’s office back in Kingston, talking to him, the Assistant Commissioner, Brigadier of Police and local Navy representative. They agree to send a visiting Royal Navy ship to Crab Key to mop up Dr No’s associates.

Fleming backfills the events leading up to this scene. How Honey helped Bond out of the dragon and into Quarrel’s boat; how she sailed capably back to Jamaica; how she helped him out of the boat and into the Beau Desert house, washed and tended his wounds and then laved him in antiseptic, while he screamed and wept at the pain; before driving him to Kingston Hospital where proper doctors tended to his wounds. And then onto the Queen’s House and presenting his story to the gathered officials. (Doing it this way, as a flashback, allows Fleming to skip over the events quickly and, especially, to avoid Bond’s report to the British officials ie skip a great deal of repetition).

Glad to be out of the house of bureaucrats he guns his car at all speed back to Morgans Bay. Here Honey is waiting for him in the ruins of the old mansion which have been her home. To Bond’s surprise her secret lair is surprisingly clean and she has laid a neat table and prepared cold lobster and home-made mayonnaise under a chandelier lit with candles.

Honey had asked him to join her in her sleeping bag when they camped by the lake on Crab Key, but Bond had refused, needing to keep his mind clear. She had invited him to join her in the bath in Dr No’s weirdly luxurious hotel-prison and, again, he had refused. Both times Honeychile pointed out that he owed her, owed her ‘slave time’. Now, for the third time, she indicates the homely bed she’s slept on for years, carefully laid with a clean new double sleeping bag, unzipped, open and waiting. Now Bond must fulfil his ‘slave time’ debt to her. He begins to object and the novel ends with a smile, on Honeychile’s commanding voice saying with mock sternness: ‘Do as you’re told!’

Critics accuse Fleming of being sex-mad or stuffing the books with sex. This long and very physical narrative has a number of moments of flirtation and sexiness – but not one actual act of coitus. ‘Literary’ and ‘comic’ authors like David Lodge or Howard Jacobson have much, much, much more sex in them and no-one seems to complain, in fact they win loads of prizes.


Enjoyment of life

There are some scattered references to sex, there are fast cars and gambling, there is the swift, effective handling of the melodramatic plot – but what strikes me and appeals most to me about the Bond books is the tremendous sense Fleming gives of his hero being a fit, healthy man who is sensuously aware of his own body, of its powers and passions, and who loves and enjoys his life.

Bond exercises, he works out, he has bracing cold showers, he stands naked in hotel rooms and saunas, rejoicing in the life that is in him. He flies around the world, stays in luxury hotels, eats choice meals and knows his beverages. He sails, scuba dives, swims and knows how to drive a fast car. And of course he has a well-publicised taste for light sado-masochistic sex (although all this really seems to amount to is some spanking, maybe grabbing the woman’s hair curing coitus: nothing compared to Fifty Shades of Grey). And his author subjects him to staggering amounts of damage and torture – maybe more in this book than any other – but all of which has the effect of emphasising the value of life and health, and make this reader grateful for the sheer glory and power of existence.

Compared to the suicidal adulterers of, say, Graham Greene’s fiction, or the pessimistic vision of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), or the nihilism of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957), or Samuel Becket’s despairing dramas (Waiting for Godot was first performed in the year Casino Royale was published, 1953) – compared to the dour, depressive negativity of so much ‘serious literature’, Fleming’s fiction chooses life, affirms life, celebrates life, which is most keenly felt at the edge of danger and death.

I think Fleming’s fictions’ whole-hearted embrace of the good things of life – physical health, mental alertness, the beauty of the world, stunning landscapes and ravishing women, fast cars and exciting sports – outlive and outweigh the silly plots and remain to this day powerfully written affirmations of the wonder of being alive. I think this is the secret of his enduring success.

The Blue Hills was a comfortable old-fashioned hotel with modern trimmings. Bond was welcomed with deference because his reservations had been made by King’s House. He was shown to a fine corner room with a balcony looking out over a distant sweep of Kingston harbour. Thankfully he took off his London clothes, now moist with perspiration, and went into the glass-fronted shower and turned the cold water full on and stood under it for five minutes during which he washed his hair to remove the last dirt of big-city life. Then he pulled on a pair of Sea Island cotton shorts and, with sensual pleasure at the warm soft air on his nakedness, unpacked his things and rang for a waiter.

Bond ordered a double lime and tonic and one whole green lime. When the drink came he cut the lime in half, dropped the two squeezed halves into the long glass, almost filled the glass with ice cubes and then poured in the tonic. He took the drink out onto the balcony, and sat and looked out across the spectacular view. He thought how wonderful it was to be away from headquarters, and from London, and from hospitals, and to be here, at this moment, doing what he was doing and knowing, as all his senses told him, that he was on a good tough case again. (pp.33-34)


Bond details

In the second chapter Bond is told he must give up his beloved .25 Beretta 418 handgun. It was the silencer momentarily snagging in his pocket which helped Klebb overcome him in Russia. Instead, M orders him to take the advice of the Secret Service Armourer, Geoffrey Boothroyd, and replace it with a Walther PPK 7.65mm.

The sound of bullets from the heavy Spandau machine gun remind Bond of his wartime experiences in the Ardennes (p.77), presumably in the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 to January 1945.

More calypso

In chapter four, Quarrel takes Bond to the seafront bar, the Joy Boat, where there’s a live band which, among others, plays this song.


Credit

Dr No by Ian Fleming was published in 1958 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1960 Pan paperback, 1972 edition (price: 30p).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1958

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

I Like It Here by Kingsley Amis (1958)

It would be very easy, cheap and pleasant, Bowen often reflected, to drink oneself to death in Portugal. Perhaps he would try it some time. (p.85)

Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’  in London, married with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to do the unthinkable and go ‘abroad’ – you know, where foreigners live, babbling their incomprehensible languages, cooking their oily food, imbibing their undrinkable concoctions.

Although Portuguese beer tasted much less of bone-handled knives than other continental beers, it still wasn’t as nice as English beer. (p.73)

The hero as philistine

This is Kingsley Amis’s third novel and the third to feature a protagonist who makes a virtue of working in the humanities (lecturer, librarian, writer) but cordially loathing them – mentioning classics from the Iliad to Aaron’s Rod only to dismiss them as mind-erodingly boring, mentioning contemporary authors (Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch) only to explain how tired even thinking about them makes him feel (Conrad is memorably dismissed as ‘that crazy Polish scribbling sea-dog’ p.155). If he does betray any cultural knowledge (a quote from Dr Johnson, fondness for Henry Fielding) he immediately downplays it as an accident, immediately vowing to disown it if anyone repeats this slur on his manhood.

He expresses the same attitude for all the other arts. Frank Sinatra is singing on the radio but he cuts him off in mid-yowl. Dismisses Tchaikovsky and all the rest of that boring rot.

Oh, how he loathed architecture. He would have liked to see it all done away with. (p.39)

Bowen was thinking what a dreadful thing the theatre was… (p.96)

(Bowen is struggling/pretending to write a play during his stay in Portugal and there are several extended and very funny passages about how ghastly the theatre is and actors are.) Other people are tiresome craps or awful sods, to be avoided as much as possible. As to being specific or precise about things, listen I can’t be bloody bothered.

Later they had Three Coins in the Fountain, a song – taken from an American film about some place in Italy… They also had A Pulha or whatever it was… (p.66)

Whatever. Something or other. The thingummy. Many writers make a show of their precise knowledge, especially of foreign phrases, places, customs. Amis goes out of his way not to be bloody impressed by foreigners and not to give a stuff, alright chum?

Sitting drinking away under a tree in an important-looking thoroughfare called something like the Avenida da Liberdade, Bowen tried to feel full of fun. (p.163)

Bowen drank up his whiskey-soda thing, of which he knew nothing except that it contained no whiskey or soda and was bloody good. (p.164)

I thought the title should be pronounced ‘I like it here’, evincing a soupçon of enthusiasm for the foreign location – but now realise the ‘here’ refers to England, London, his house, where he likes being, thank you very much – and so the title should be pronounced, ‘I like it here, right here, alright? why should I have to leave for bloody wogland’?

Plot

This amusingly grumpy travelogue is injected with a rather spurious plot. Over a boozy lunch in London, Bowen’s publisher tells him a famous old writer, Strether, who ended his career with a swan song novel a decade earlier, has suddenly popped up with a new manuscript. He lives in Portugal, had always kept an ultra-low profile and dealt via a literary agent out there. Could Bowen track him down and ascertain that it is the actual Strether, that he’s still alive and that he wrote the manuscript now sitting on the publisher’s desk in London. Would that be alright, old boy? We’ll make sure our man in Lisbon, Oates, is there to meet you off the boat and he can probably put you up at his place for a while…

The great bulk of the text is made up of Bowen’s anxieties about going abroad, and the awful practicalities of organising going abroad (all the people you have to deal with), descriptions of the lengthy sea voyage and then all his impressions of arriving in Lisbon and going to be put up in the badly-kept, uncomfortable household of Carlos Oates, half-Portuguese.

He and his wife pay a brief visit to this man Strether, from which it is impossible to work out whether he is a fraud or not, and then the novel concentrates on the parties and socialising at Oates’ and in bars and restaurants around Lisbon. At one particularly drunken outing they meet an ex-pat couple, the Bannions, and get themselves invited to stay in their spare villa, thus departing the insalubrious Oates stables.

Some more days pass lazily drinking and eating before Barbara is suddenly called home by a telegram saying her mother is ill, and another message arrives from the writer, Strether, asking if Bowen would like to go and stay with him a little. Which he does, getting to know the civilised old man over a couple of days, but also witnessing his problems, viz. the visit of a smooth young buck who, Bowen decides, must be blackmailing him. The Buck is accompanied by a young beauty and when both buck and Strether encourage them to walk down to the village bar for a drink, Bowen finds himself wandering through the woods with her, then stopping in a clearing and kissing, then lying on the dry grass and moving into a compromising position when – he is stung on the leg by a hornet, jumps up and runs round the clearing yelling! This and the drunken outing to a restaurant in Lisbon, earlier on, are probably the two most deliberate comic set pieces. The moment is ruined and Bowen accompanies the beauty to the local bar where the young buck arrives to collect her shortly afterwards.

Bowen had noticed bad feeling between Strether and his smartly uniformed young chauffeur and late that night he is awoken by bangs and bumps and sounds of scuffling downstairs – he stumbles down to see Strether on a heap on the verandah which a fit young man leaps over and disappears into the night. For a moment I thought he might be dead and this novel take a complete change in tone, but he is just a bit beaten and hurt his leg falling down some steps. Bowen wraps him up warm, fetches him a whiskey and drives off to get a doctor.

The text cuts to Bowen having another boozy lunch with his publisher back in London, giving a brief summary of his trip and explaining why he’s come to the conclusion Strether is the real thing, is the long-silent writer. Bowen ends with a few more thoughts about how abroad is different from home.

Without the thin Strether sub-plot, this would be in effect an autobiographical account of what the reader strongly suspects was an actual holiday the Amis family enjoyed in Portugal, complete with drunken evenings and minor comic complications.

Analysis

This is a broadly comic novel in that the tone is always light and humorous and, quite apart from the (fairly rare) comic set-pieces, is full of light-hearted phrases and moments, often deploying the device of ‘the incongruous comparison’. After struggling to make any progress on his stalled play, Bowen

got up and stumped round the room for a bit, clawing like a science-fiction monster at the flies which wove about him their delicate flight-patterns. (p.97)

When the fleas began in Portugal Bowen felt, as one who finds Mont Blanc impressive or sees a knife drawn in a Shanghai bar, that tradition was reasserting itself. (p.86)

There’s a really funny description of a Portuguese official on the phone, trying to sort out a refund for Bowen’s sea tickets, once Barbara has been summoned to fly back to England to see her mother – and the way he use every part of his body to back up the sometimes wheedling, sometimes threatening, sometimes devastated tones he deploys down the line.

Pop culture Amis’s tone and approach go out of their way to avoid the grandiose, the literary, the well-mannered style, and instead rummage around for comparisons and metaphors drawn from the popular culture of the day. Cricket, booze, the radio, the latest novels, magazines. Lots of times Bowen catches himself, or realises someone else is, acting just like someone in the movies. When Strether is beaten up by the chauffeur, Bowen comes to his rescue, sees off the assailant, then wraps Buckmaster in a blanket, brings him whiskey etc. It’s a potentially serious moment, but Strether

looked, with the blanket round his shoulders, like an old Red Indian, the wise one who keeps saying that the white man is his brother and there must be no more blood. (p.175)

An important element of the Amis style is the constant use of rather boyish cultural references, this one brings to life a TV Western or maybe even a boys’ comic.

Comic characters: He is as acute as ever in seeing and quickly delineating the comedic in everyone around him, in  his hands everyone becomes a comic character.

For example, Oates’s two Portuguese friends, de Sousa and Bachixa, always seen together arguing fiercely and both extremely proud of their shiny motorcycles.

– The extraordinary Mr Bannion, retired banker who served in India and issues forth a continuous stream of Gilbert & Sullivan parodies of various nationalities, n’est-ce pas, Danke schön, here’s looking at you kid, quotes, songs and speeches to everyone’s bewilderment.

– A tight-arsed disapproving Welsh couple, the Parrys, who appear in the drunken-night-out-in-Lisbon scene:

[Bowen] wondered if you could have so much the air of going round looking for something to put a stop to unless you really were going round doing that…The circle [round the table] expanded to thirteen persons. Mrs Parry stared round it as though it was composed of card-sharping perverts. (p.120)

Panic That said, a lot of the comedy in the novel is based on the same sense of panic I noticed in its two predecessors. Other people are not only ghastly, they’re often completely incomprehensible. ‘What? What did he just say? What does he want me to do?’ – are common thoughts for the bewildered Amis protagonist.

There’s a particularly humorous scene where de Sousa proudly shows Bowan every inch of his shiny, well-maintained motorbike, pointing out bits and looking up expectantly for Bowan to say something appreciative, but Bowan knows nothing about motorbikes and can’t speak Portuguese, and his mounting exasperation comes just this side of desperation.

Lots of Amis encounters take place on this delicate border between hilarity and hysteria.

In fact, it occurs to me that the Amis hero copes with the problem of other people by turning them into comic types. People haven’t been around much before he’s pointing out their funny hair, or mannerisms, or habits of speech, thus neutralising their ever-present sense of threat. Comedy as a coping mechanism.

He-man According to the etymological dictionary, the phrase ‘he-man’ dates back to the 1830s in America. After the war, Charles Atlas-style American body-builders became a prominent cultural meme. According to Atlas’s Wikipedia article, adverts showing an 8-stone weakling having sand kicked in his face by a bully on the beach but vowing to do a body-building course in order to take his revenge, were very widespread in boys’ comics in the 1940s and 50s. An enduring cultural presence.

A key element of these novels’ proposition is the permanent sense of the hero’s inadequacy. It’s always exaggerated for comic affect, but it feels real nonetheless.

I am exactly the kind of man for this not to happen to, he thought. (p.172) He hoped there was nothing still to come tonight which would find him wanting. There were plenty of things which would to choose from. He was that sort of chap. Quite a number of his actions and attitudes had in the past struck him as unworthy of a man of his alleged sensibility, or a man of his age, or a man. (p.175)

Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim is uneasily aware of failing in every way – professionally, intellectually, artistically, romantically. The naive librarian John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling is not adequate to the task of mixing with Mrs Gruffydd-Williams’s posh, cultured friends or of coping with her advances. Similarly, in an unexpected amorous encounter with a gorgeous young Portuguese woman, Bowen experiences the characteristic Amis feeling of male inadequacy. What the devil should he say or do in response to her advances?

He wished, as often in the past, that he was a really mature man who ‘knew’ things like this ‘by instinct’. (p.151)

It is typical that Bowan’s memories of wartime service include stalling a motorbike which promptly fell on top of him and crashing his jeep into the back of a lorry (p.178). Inept. Inadequate. Found wanting…

Hatred And the other side of the coin to this crippling sense of inadequacy is an emotional backlash, a reaction, of resentment or hatred. After all, lots of comedy derives from negative feelings but generally siphoned off, redirected or sublimated into exaggeration, parody etc. Here the negativity is often on open display.

For example, Amis takes a page to explain that almost all Bowen’s creative ideas stem, at some level, from his loathing of his mother-in-law. He wants to write something which will express his detestation:

Christ, what a book it would be. A gorgeous, star-shot, blood-red, awesome pall of hatred. (p.98)

Later, the squalid conditions of the Bowen family stay at ‘that bleeding insect-vivarium Oates called a house’ build up to a climax of frustration:

Bowen had waited for Oates to change his suit jacket for his pyjama jacket – a habit of his on hot evenings – because he could hate him more thus attired. (p.133)

before giving his notice to quit. Hatred and resentment are like the below-decks engines of the comedy.

Fear And underlying the entire attitude and persona, as in the previous novels, Amis is quite explicit that the basis of the protagonist’s character is fear.

He had thought in the past that a binary system of laziness and conceit accounted fully for all the motions of his life, but of late its orbit had shown perturbations from a third component. This additional body seemed to be fear, and abroad, of course, was what took him to perihelion. (p.134)

He is afraid of other people, of new situations, of being anywhere strange – of ‘encounters with the unmanageable’ (p.140) – and controls his fear and anxiety with deeply ingrained routines of ridicule, criticism and insult.

It is difficult not to see the entire text as a fascinating set of variations on all the possible ways, at every conceivable level – from overall plot, through incident and character, down to the choice of metaphors and similes, and even to individual words – in which these defence mechanisms against his fundamental people-phobia can be embodied and deployed.

A bit of politics

Just a whiff. Not too much. Bowen feels in some vague way ‘for the poor’ and is certainly against anyone more successful or hoity-toity than him. In Portugal, their host, Oates, turns out to be a supporter of the dictator, Salazar, listing his achievements (schools, hospitals). But then Bowen and his wife meet a man in a bar who is a staunch opponent of the dictator and depicts all of Portuguese society as based on corruption and graft, the hospitals and schools built in a few obvious places to palliate Western allies (the Americans) on whom the dictator relies for support and money.

In an interesting passage Bowen compares this corrupt set-up to the dismal politics of Blighty, where sleepy old Macmillan slogs it out with dire Hugh Gaitskell, while the unions strike for more pay; and contrasts both with the situation in France, where the communist party has a real political presence and the country is tearing itself apart over the Algeria Question. In Paris Sartre and Camus; in London Amis and Osborne.

Conclusion

A reliably funny comic novel, replete with all the Amis comedic effects, but rather thin on plot, and unusually short (180 pages).

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fine comic novel which, like Loser Takes All, keeps a good-humoured smile on your face as it leads you through a succession of humorous or farcical episodes. Because of the dated way people speak it’s difficult not to see it as a black-and-white Ealing comedy and the book was in fact made into a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guinness as the hapless hero.

Plot summary

Jim Wormold (worm + old, geddit?) is rather a failure in life. He lives in Havana where he works as a vacuum cleaner salesman. His wife has left, leaving him in charge of their flighty and spoilt, St Trinians-y teenage daughter. She is hanging round with unsuitable company who encourage her to borrow a lot of money to buy a horse along with all the extras and to join the expensive, high society Country Club.

Out of the blue, a shifty Brit named Hawthorne comes sidling round the vacuum cleaner shop, takes Wormold for a few drinks, manhandles him into the loos (‘for security, old man’) and bamboozles him into becoming an agent for British Intelligence. Wormold is in the middle of spluttering his opposition when Hawthorne mentions the £150 per month pay, plus expenses, plus extra money if he runs sub-agents. Wormold thinks of his daughter’s Country Club fees – and accepts. Thus, our man in Havana is recruited.

Back in Blighty, Hawthorne visits the Chief in his underground bunker in Maida Vale and very amusingly manoeuvres him into embroidering Wormold’s character, helping build a fantasy of a well-connected old planter type with contacts in high society. ‘Useful chap, eh?’

After a month or so Wormold receives a (coded) message, via the embassy, asking where’s the information they’re paying him for. That night he has a brainwave. At a stroke he invents five sub-agents – a pilot, an engineer, a professor, a Mata Hari glamour girl etc – and cooks up completely fake intelligence about big clearings being made in the jungle, concrete platforms being built, scary new weapons being constructed.

When London ask for more details Wormold, now working with a fluency and confidence that surprises even himself, sits down and draws technical diagrams of enormous and ominous-looking weapons based on… the vacuum cleaner parts lying around in his shop! In London HQ the Chief calls Hawthorne over and there is a very funny scene where, the more the Chief evinces horror at this ghastly new secret weapon, the more Hawthorne realises what they’re actually sketches of, realises Wormold is pulling a fast one, and hears the crashing noise of his own career hitting the buffers.

The Chief (or C) says Wormold (or agent 59200/1) is now generating such important information he’s going to need a properly-trained secretary and a radio operator, which are duly despatched. They arrive in Havana to Wormold’s horror – and it’s then that the fun really begins.

For it turns out that there actually exists a pilot with the name Wormold thought he’d invented for him – and he is assassinated by ‘the Other Side’! Soon after an attempt is made on the life of the (actually existing) engineer he’d frivolously named in his reports to London. The police are called in. Wormold is questioned. The sinister head of police, Captain Segura, tells him someone has cracked his code and is taking his wild fictions for fact, taking them so seriously they are prepared to threaten and kill to get their hands on the photos of the new secret weapon!

How can Wormold get out of this fix? How long can he conceal his massive deception from Beatrice, the female assistant sent out from London? What is the role of Wormold’s secretive friend, the German Dr Hasselbacher? Will Wormold get his fingers burned playing a dangerous game of deception with the head of Havana’s intelligence, Captain Segura, who is rumoured to be an expert torturer? And what grim fate awaits Wormold at the European Traders’ Association annual jamboree?

The plot darkens

Arguably the plot darkens a bit from here onwards. The eccentric German emigre doctor, Dr Hasselbacher, who, over drinks at the bar, first suggested the idea of inventing agents and reports, has himself been approached by ‘the other side’. It is he who reports that the pilot Wormold thought he’d invented has in fact been assassinated. And then he himself is murdered. The novel moves towards a climax of sorts when Wormold confronts the fellow Englishman who tried to poison him at the annual lunch.

These actual deaths ought to spoil the book, but Greene maintains a light-hearted tone, combined with crisp writing which continues to produce comic effects, banter, repartee, comic asides, and leads up to the high comic ending, so that you close the book with a broad smile on your face.

Sententious

The sheer volume of Greene’s wise sayings in his early novels prompted me to devote a blog post to Greene the preacher. The dictionary defines ‘sententious’ as ‘abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims’ or ‘given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous’. This essentially light, witty novel would be lighter if Greene didn’t feel compelled to sprinkle it with pithy apothegms:

A picture-postcard is a symptom of loneliness. (p.64)

Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy. (p.70)

There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim. (p.72)

The irritating thing about them, is they’re nearly all not true. When my mother died there were no banana skins around. When I’ve watched friends or family write piles of postcards on holiday, it wasn’t anything to do with loneliness, generally the opposite. I can think of many jokes with no victim. What’s yellow, lumpy and extremely dangerous? Shark-infested custard. Can’t see the victim there. Greene’s pithy maxims are invariably slick and false.

But these, and the occasional potholes in the road caused by references to his daughter’s Catholic convent education, and even the sudden deaths on the last part, can be easily overlooked in the sheer enjoyment of this confident and extravagantly funny novel.

Related links

The movie

Apparently, Greene based the story on a well-known agent he came across while running British Intelligence’s Portuguese network of agents during the War. The agent, codenamed ‘Garbo’, earned a fortune sending the Germans entirely spurious information about British troop movements and so on without ever leaving the comfort of his apartment. Greene wrote a movie treatment in 1946, which wasn’t commissioned and which he dusted off after making trips to Cuba in the late 1950s and realising the farcical plot could be relocated there.

Our Man In Havana was immediately optioned and gave Greene the opportunity to collaborate once again with director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). The resulting movie stars Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives and Ralph Richardson and was released in 1960. It is beautifully shot in and around Havana, uses lots of Cuban music and extras, and has brilliant comic actors. Why, then, does it fall flat? There isn’t a real laugh in its nearly 2 hours duration whereas I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel.

It might be something to do with the way a book cocoons you in its own little world, carefully selecting the details it provides you and where you’ll end up believing anything (eg Harry Potter), including this farcical intrigue involving half a dozen characters. Whereas this film all-too-beautifully shows you the ‘real’ world of Havana with its millions of people going about their lives in the hard tropical sunlight, and this somehow destroys the delicate bloom of the novel’s comedy. The reality of the bustling streets and busy highways makes the fragile farcical fiction harder to sustain.

Plus, it could be that Reed, the master of sinister effects and noir camera angles in The Third Man, was just not so good at filming comedy. Comedy is always about timing – there are plenty of funny moments in the screenplay: the moment when Hawthorne realises that the diagrams his boss is holding in his hands and raving about are in fact just enlarged drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, that Wormold is a fraud, that his boss will sooner or later realise this and then Hawthorne’s goose will be cooked – is a great moment in the book and it occurs here in the film but, as with almost all the other would-be comic moments – just doesn’t quite click.

Greene’s books

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

The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes (1958)

‘He’ll be dead anyway by now.’ Laroche said …
‘But he wasn’t when you left him, was he?’ I asked …
But he didn’t seem to notice my question, or else he didn’t care whether I knew or not. He sat, staring down at the embers, lost in thought, and I wished I could see into his mind. What had happened after the crash? What in God’s name had induced him to say Briffe was dead when he wasn’t?… As though conscious of the thought in my mind, he suddenly raised his head and looked at me. For a moment I had the impression he was about to tell me something. But he hesitated, and finally got his lips tightened into a thin line and he got abruptly to his feet and walked away. (p.190)

Frustration and delay in the novels of Hammond Innes

Having read five in a row I have good feel for Hammond Innes’ adventure novels, and am concluding that their key characteristic is the wilful refusal of a central character to tell the story at the heart of the narrative, and the slowness or obtuseness of the narrator to confront that wilfulness and drag the story out of them. Innes’ novels are made up of lengthy delays.

By the time this book was published in 1958 the new kid on the block, Alistair MacLean, had published three novels and was beginning to crystallise the formula which would make him one of the bestselling authors in the world by the mid-60s. In MacLean novels the sequence of events is fast and furious with the protagonist thrown into perilous situations almost from the first page and then finding himself in almost continuous physical danger. In addition, there is at least one if not more profound twists in the story which (thrillingly) transform your understanding of what’s going on. X turns out to be a spy or an agent or to have known all along that Y was a traitor, and to have made cunning counterplans in advance. But Y has anticipated this and laid cunning counterplans etc. The author is always two or three clever and unexpected steps ahead of the reader.

Innes’ novels are very strong on setting and atmosphere, but I’ve come to realise a central characteristic is that the reader spots what’s going on, or sees the danger signals, way before the central protagonist. There are two aspects of this: the protagonist is slow to the point of being dim; and a key figure who knows the secret of the riddle at the centre of the plot just obstinately refuses to reveal it, unnecessarily prolonging the agony (and the text). Thus:

  • The White South Narrator Duncan Craig is slow to realise just how dangerous the spoilt millionaire’s son Erik Bland really is until it is too late and they’re all marooned on the ice. Even then he continues to be forgiving and understanding of Bland who goes on to try and kill everyone. The reader is screaming, ‘Let the bastard die’, while Craig continues to err on the side of kindness, with the result that a lot of innocent people die.
  • The Angry Mountain (1950) Narrator Dick Farrell is extremely slow, almost retarded, in figuring out that his Czech friend has smuggled industrial secrets to the West in his artificial leg (!), and then very stupid in allowing himself to be seduced by the Contessa into going up to a remote and isolated villa, where he can be cornered by the evil doctor.
  • Air Bridge (1951) Narrator Neil Fraser is criminally slow in realising that the man he gets mixed up with, Bill Saeton, is so obsessed with building and flying a prototype plane that he is prepared to lie and betray and eventually murder his best friends to do so. Whenever he has to make a decision, Fraser makes the obtuse and dim and slow one.
  • The Strange Land (1954) Narrator Philip Latham is particularly frustrating: despite scores of pages of half-baked questioning, he fails to realise the real motivation of his guest, Dr Kavan, until it is far too late. On a larger scale, the European characters all hopelessly fail to understand how angry the Berber community has become until tragedy strikes causing a lot of unnecessary deaths.
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1956) Narrator John Sands spends hundreds of pages quizzing Patch, the haggard captain of the Mary Deare, who is obviously hiding something but, frustratingly, refuses to come clean and simply tell the story – which could be done in a paragraph. Instead, he lets it leak out in dribs and drabs over a hundred pages with the result that several people die unnecessarily.

My point is that Innes’ narratives exist largely because they consist of frustration and delay. MacLean’s race at hurtling speed through peril and revelation and plot twist after plot twist. You need two hundred pages to recount and explain the concatenation of twists and turns, they’re so complex and full of thrilling surprises. Innes’ novels, in sharp contrast, consist of hundreds of pages of dim-witted delay, where the reader is way ahead of the story-teller and continually frustrated, yelling at the thick-headed narrator, ‘Watch out he’s a psycho’ or at the Obstinate One, ‘For God’s sake, just tell everyone what happened.’

The Land God Gave To Cain

And so it is, again, in The Land God Gave To Cain. The first-person narrator is Ian Ferguson. He’s working on an airfield in the west of England when he gets a message from his mother to come back to London. His father has died. His father was injured in the War and lived the last few years in a wheelchair but was obsessed with his hobby of being a radio ‘ham’ – communicating with other radio enthusiasts round the world via a set in his attic. Ferguson’s mother said she heard him shout something and, when she rushed to the attic he was standing, for the first time in years, and pointing at the map on the wall – before falling to the floor and passing out, never to regain consciousness. On the wall is a map of Labrador, the north-eastern province of Canada. Ferguson is intrigued. He goes back over his father’s notebooks and, in among all the scribbles and doodles, discovers a mystery.

His dad had been following the radio broadcasts of an expedition into the barren interior of Labrador, as relayed by a radio ham in Goose Bay named Ledder. Something had gone wrong, the plane had crashed, two of the expedition (Baird and Briffe) were badly injured. A week later the injured pilot, Bert Laroche, stumbled out of the wilderness reporting Baird and Briffe were dead. But Ferguson’s father’s notes seem to indicate he picked up a radio transmission from Briffe – one of the supposed dead men – one week after they’d been reported dead.

The narrator is slowly gripped by the enormity of this and, back at his airfield, discovers one of the pilots he’s matey with (Farrow) happens to be flying to Canada that day. On the spur of the moment he hitches a lift to Labrador, to Goose Bay. Here he meets the radio ham whose relays his father had monitored, who is sympathetic but doesn’t believe his father received the fateful broadcast. Farrow agrees to fly him north to the base from which the expedition set out, to what was once the small village but is now the iron ore and railroad boom town of Seven Islands.

As usual, Innes is excellent at conveying the barrenness of the landscape and the weird disconnected feeling Ferguson has, arriving from warm safe England into a bleak wasteland populated by rough, tough frontiersmen. But when Ferguson meets officials of the iron ore prospecting company and the railroad company which are exploring the barren north, they present him with a barrage of evidence that Baird and Briffe must be dead and that his father couldn’t have received a transmission from them. But the more compelling their argument the more Ferguson becomes determined to vindicate his dead father.

The iron ore people drive him firmly back to the small airfield and organise his ticket for the flight back to Montreal and then back to England. Get on it! Stop messing with things you don’t understand! But Ferguson discovers another flight is leaving for camp 224 to the north, one of the many railroad settlements which don’t even have names, just numbers. In a tense scene he switches tickets and fools sceptical flight officials to let him on the northbound flight.

Here, at camp 224, he confronts the pilot, Bert Laroche, on whose testimony the whole thing hinges. This scene, around page 110 of a 250-page book, is immensely frustrating. Exactly like Kavan in Strange and Patch in Deare, the pilot is the Obstinate One – the only character who knows what happened (and who could wind up the mystery and therefore end the novel, in a few words) but, irritatingly, refuses to give a straight answer. Instead, he displays all Innes’ characteristic delaying tactics. He looks distracted, mumbles, breaks off, stares into the distance ‘as if reliving those moments’, then shambles out the room. You want to grab him, slap him and just get him to tell the truth: were his two colleagues definitely dead when he left them? Why is he lying? What is he covering up?

Meanwhile, fulfilling his role of Dim Narrator, Ferguson slowly discovers that his grandfather was involved in an expedition to this very same part of the country in 1900 – the Freguson Expedition. There was some kind of disaster and the Canadians claim that Ferguson’s father inherited the shame of that expedition, and that is the reason for his obsession with Labrador, with this expedition in particular, and what led him – they claim – to hallucinate these final messages from men who are officially dead. The bosses of the ore company and then the Obstinate One are amazed that Ferguson knows nothing about this crucial part of his family history.

I couldn’t sleep, for my mind was too full of Laroche’s visit. His manner had been so strange, and the tension in him; there was something there, something I didn’t understand, some secret locked away inside him. The way he had said: I suppose you think I killed them. And that interest in the Ferguson expedition – it was almost pathological. Or was his manner, everything, the result of his injury? All I knew was that he’d left Briffe alive and that I had to find somebody who would believe me – or else locate this Lake of the Lion myself. (p.112)

You can see how Innes has thought that the narrative will work well if the narrator not only reveals the secret of what happened to the contemporary expedition but, alongside it, learns about the historic expedition of 1900; that gives a neat parallelism to the narrative. But, unfortunately, in practice (ie the actual experience of reading) it has the effect of making Ferguson seem almost ridiculously thick.

Padding

And then there are a lot more circumstantial incidents from page 110 to about 200. I think this is another feature of Innes’ novels: a great deal of detailed goings-on which don’t really affect the basic story.

For example, in Mary Deare the 100 central pages are about the long enquiry into the shipwreck. It’s OK if you like detail of court procedures and pen portraits of barristers, judges, court officials and so on, in fact it’s rather interesting and very well drawn. But this long sequence, two-fifths of the novel’s total length, doesn’t really advance our understanding of the plot very much. The ‘plot’ – what happens to the main characters – treads water, is on hold, while this circumstantiality pads out the story.

Similarly, in Land, Ferguson travels north to the end of the line. Literally – to the place where the railway which is under construction peters out into wilderness. And he encounters various people along the way and has typically inconclusive Innes conversations with them. But nothing really advances the plot.

In Deare the enquiry is just a very long way of leading up to the finale ie the chase across the Channel to the wreck; it sets the scene, gives a bit more background, and gives the whole text a kind of rootedness in reality which is then the springboard for the melodramatic climax.

So, in Cain, there are a lot of incidents – Ferguson hitches rides on trains, bumps into the Company man Lands, avoids Lands, bumps into him again, bumps into Laroche again, sees him leaving on a train, then meets him again at a camp up the line, meets an older frontiersman named Darcy, goes for a drive with him, comes back to the camp, encounters Laroche again – and so on and so on and so on; there are numerous meetings and avoidance of meetings, and inconclusive conversations and broken off conversations and conversations where people never quite spit it out.

I think that, as with the Deare enquiry, since these divagations don’t really advance the plot one iota, their purpose must lie elsewhere: in the creation of ‘atmosphere’. The blurb on the back of the book repeats the statement made in the Foreword that Innes travelled some 15,000 miles around Labrador in researching this book, going by railway, road, floatboat, helicopter and on foot. I think, then, that the scenes in Goose Bay, at Seven Islands, and at various construction camps along the railway, the numerous scenes where he eats in big canteens with the workmen or rides the train north, or steals a small speeder engine, or gets out and walks 10 miles or so as darkness falls until he is forced to lie down and sleep in the wilderness, before he is – fortunately – discovered by big Ray Darcy and taken to his camp to eat hot food and explain himself — all these well-described scenes, which don’t advance our understanding of what’s going on by one inch, are all here to create verisimiltude: to powerfully convey the hard work of building a railway through frozen wilderness – and to add plausibility to Ferguson’s odyssey into the heart of the north to vindicate his father.

However, in this reader’s opinion, it fails psychologically. It paints the scenery alright, and the life of the tough men carving through the wilderness. But it fails to persuade me that an educated 24 year-old Englishman would read his deceased father’s old notebooks in London, then hitch a plane ride to an isolated community in Canada (Goose Bay), then on to a construction boom town (Seven Islands), then lie his way onto a plane north to a construction camp, then steal a ‘speeder’ train to head north up the line and evade the authorities he knows are after him, then abandon the train and set off on foot across wilderness towards an even more isolated camp – all this with no clear plan at any point in the journey, except the dumb obstinate intention of proving that his father did receive a message from a man the authorities are convinced is dead.

There are no clever twists or revelations, nothing that suddenly proves him right and convinces him to go on. Just this dumb journey – and I don’t buy it.

Climax

Eventually, finally, something actually happens – which is the that main characters finally all arrive in one of the forward camps of the railway, on the edge of the wilderness, and decide they will trek inland to try and find the damn Lake of the Lion where Laroche crash-landed, where Briffe will be – if still alive – and where (cue spooky music) the ill-fated expedition of 1900 met its doom.

(It is very characteristic of Innes that it sort of happens twice, because they first of all set off by helicopter to find the lake, but are turned back by a ferocious snowstorm. It is very Innes that this is a) vividly described b) inconsequential – they don’t get as far as their destination and nothing surprising or important is revealed. It is absolutely inconsequential to the plot except to add a bit of realism, that they’d try to make the journey by air before taking the bigger risk of going on foot.)

(These books feel more like adventures than thrillers. Thrillers need to thrill, to make you tense and alert that revelations or threats can occur at any moment by the simple technique of peppering the story with scary threats and surprise revelations. In this novel there is no threat whatsoever for the first 200 pages, except that Ferguson might do something stupid like crash the train he steals, or wander off into the wilderness and die of exposure. And there are no thrilling revelations, no sense of a complex conspiracy or plot which our man is unfolding. Just lots of description of a railway being built in north Canada.)

Setting off are Ferguson, the suspicious-acting pilot Laroche, his girlfriend who just happens to be the daughter of the missing man, and the older, sympathetic frontiersman, Ray Darcy. They gather all the equipment they’ll need for a five-day trek into the interior, just as the weather warnings arrive of a snowstorm coming in.

Will it end well? Will they discover Briffe, the survivor of the wretched air crash still alive after weeks in the frozen interior with no food or drink? Or will one of the members of the expedition sabotage it, as Ferguson’s grandfather’s expedition was sabotaged? And what the hell is really going on? Why is everyone so nervy about what on the face of it is a simple accident? Is someone hiding something? And if so, what?

Spoiler

They finally arrive at the place where the floatplane supposedly crashed and the Big Secret is this: the plane landed in bad weather on a lake: they made a camp ashore where Briffe (Paule’s father) discovered gold nuggets. He went mad with gold fever and attacked his colleague Baird with an axe, killing him. Laroche fled into the wilderness and took a week to arrive back at a forward camp, barely alive. Yes, Briffe must have made the transmission on the radio, which was unloaded from the plane with other stores before Briffe went bonkers. But now they arrive to find him dead from exposure.

That’s what happened. Laroche reported this to the head of the iron ore company and they took the decision not to tell the truth but to concoct the lie that the plane crashed and both men died, in order to save everyone’s reputations and the feelings of Briffe’s daughter. That’s the sum of the conspiracy which Ferguson takes 250 pages to uncover.

Oh and they find the body of Ferguson’s grandfather up under some rocks, shot in the head as they already knew from all the reports of the 1900 expedition. Absolutely no surprises.

The descriptions of the Labrador landscape and the explanations of how a railroad is built across frozen wilderness are very readable. But almost all the scenes involving people, where those in the know refuse to reveal this feeble deception and Ferguson fails to have the character to force them to come clean, become almost intolerably frustrating.

Related links

1963 Fontana paperback edition of The Land God Gave to Cain

1963 Fontana paperback edition of The Land God Gave to Cain

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

South By Java Head by Alistair MacLean (1958)

World War Two

At the end of World War Two MacLean was a sailor aboard HMS Royal and saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. This provided him with the broad setting for his third novel, the story of the attempts of a ragbag collection of civilians and soldiers to escape the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone, Java – three war novels one after the other.

The wartime setting allows free rein for MacLean’s distinguishing feature, Extremity: physical and psychological extremity. This is the state of the shell-shocked nurses, exhausted soldiers, the injured and wounded aboard the little freighter Kerry Dancer, or the experience-hardened captain and crew of the tanker Viroma who steer to their rescue, even before they are attacked by the Japanese – and the narrative propels them through ordeal after ordeal, far beyond the bounds of plausibility.

Something struck him with cruel, numbing force against his knee-caps. The boat, drifting upside down. He somersaulted in mid-air, struck his shoulder against the keel, landed flat on his back on the water on the other side with an explosive smack that drove all the breath out of his body, then was on his way again, propelled by a fear and a nameless anger such as he had never known before. The pain in his chest and his legs was another turn of the rack for every step he took, but he drove himself on remorselessly as if the fire in his legs and his body’s gasping demands for air simply did not exist. (Ch 12)

The heat inside struck at him with the physical impact of a violent blow, he could feel it engulf him, wash over him in a great wave of burning pain. The superheated air, starved now of its life-giving oxygen, seared down into his lungs like fire itself. He could smell his hair singeing almost immediately, and the tears flooded into his eyes and threatened to blind him. (Ch 14)

All three men were hurt, and badly: all of them had lost blood, Telak most of all, and no competent doctor would have hesitated to immobilise any of the three in hospital: but they ran all the way to Bantuk, across impossible, energy-sapping, heart-breaking terrain, never once breaking down into a walk. They ran with their hearts pounding madly under the inhuman strain, leaden legs fiery with the pain of muscles taxed far beyond endurance, chests rising and falling, rising and falling as starving lungs gasped for more and still more air, the sweat running off their faces in streams. (Ch 15)

Natural hazards

And inevitably, the natural world joins in the agony as a typhoon bears down on both ships – similar to the ferocious storms in Bear Island, Night Without End, HMS Ulysses, Fear Is the Key, making a difficult situation almost unendurable.

The Viroma was now thrusting north dead in the eye of the gale-force wind, and the heavy driving rain, strangely cold after the heat of the day, was sweeping almost horizontally fore and aft across the decks and the bridge, numbing his face with a thousand little lances, filling his eyes with pain and tears. Even with eyes screwed tight to the narrowest slits, the rain still stung and blinded: they were blind men groping in a blind world and the end of the world was where they stood. (Chapter 3)

First the escape through the ruined city; then the defeat of no boat being there, the reprieve of a rowboat arriving and escape to the Kerry; then murderous attack by Jap airplanes; then rescue by the Viroma in the midst of a fierce typhoon; then renewed attack by Jap planes which devastate the tanker killing most of its crew, the few survivors managing to escape into a lifeboat. And then – the opposite of the tropical typhoon – they are completely becalmed under a blistering tropical sun, for days on end as the food and then the water slowly run out, until crew members go literally mad, drinking sea water and then throwing themselves overboard to die.

Nicholson tried to thrust aside the nagging, dominating pains of thirst and swollen tongue and cracked lips and sunblistered back and to assess the complete change brought about by those terrible days that had elapsed since the storm had ended, endless, torturing hours under the pitiless lash of the sun, a sun at once dreadfully impersonal and malignant beyond belief, a sun that steadily grew more and more intolerable until it drove helpless, uncaring men over the edge of breakdown and collapse, physical, moral and mental. (Ch 10)

Permanent strain

At any moment the Japanese might attack. At any moment the full force of the storm might break on them. All nerves are tight as bowstrings, all men exhausted after prolonged strain. And thus the text continually explodes in hyperbolic exaggeration.

He broke off abruptly, fists clenching by his sides, as the klaxon above his head blared into sudden, urgent life, drowning his words as the raucous clangour, a harsh, discordant, shocking sound in a confined space, filled the dining-cabin. (Ch 5)

MacLean’s  texts take more or less time to warm up, but all of them aspire to this level of permanent boil, and then continue at fever pitch for the remaining 100, 150 pages.

Conclusion

This is an exhausting book, a sustained litany of physical suffering and endurance as MacLean submits his characters to an unrelenting series of ordeals which eventually become preposterous. No-one could have survived all these terrible events. But then these terrible events couldn’t have happened with the comic-book consistency described. I lost count of the number of times Everything was up – when the Jap sub corners them, when the Jap motor boat corners them, when the Japs arrest them in the native compound and so on – only to be rescued by a last-minute shoot-out, or an act of suicidal bravery by the heroic Brigadier Farnholme, or the defection of the German agent Van Effen who, at the last minute is so revolted by Jap brutality, that he saves the Brits. Right up to the final pages there are last-minute setbacks and last-minute reprieves.

For the first time the fear and anxiety swept through his mind like a wave, a fear that would have panicked his mind and an anxiety that would have wrecked his plans but he thrust them ruthlessly aside. (Ch 15)

But long before this point Java has left the realm of plausible literature and become a version of the boys’ Commando magazine in which plucky Brits battle against all the odds to save the day, to rescue the pretty girl and the small boy and the old lady from the hands of the fiendish Japs. You can tell the Japs are baddies: our men are tall and dignified, like the self-sacrificing Brigadier, whereas

Colonel Kiseki occupied the ornate, high-backed chair of honour at the top of the table, a short, massive man of tremendous girth, with his neck bulging out over his tight uniform collar, tiny, porcine eyes almost hidden in folds of fleh, and very short hair, grey at the temples, sticking up from the top of his round head like the bristles of a wire brush. His face was flushed with alcohol and empty bottles littered the table in front of him… (Ch 15)

Java is the worst early MacLean book, the one where all the elements are on display but not arranged correctly. There is a thread of sorts – all along Farnholme has been smuggling secret Japanese war plans – but it is not enough to justify the relentless series of ordeals and escapades the characters are put through. In the later books there will be several adjustments & improvements:

  • the suffering which MacLean excels at describing will be better justified by the plot
  • the plot itself will
    • be more focused
    • have more rhythm ie there will be lulls for the hero to recuperate, consider his plans and adjust to new developments
    • contain one big unexpected twist
  • the narrative will focus on one person; in this book several of the Viroma’s officers perform heroically and Nicholson only slowly emerges as the leading character; MacLean will learn that it is psychologically more effective for the reader to have just the one hero to focus on

War in peace

Java confirms the insight that the later thrillers perform the simple manoeuvre of transferring the unbearable tension and extreme violence of wartime into peacetime settings. The agent or hero of a thriller effectively carries around in his vicinity his own mini-war.

In which case the author’s task becomes putting the agent through a succession of challenges, perilous situations and unexpected twists which continually justify the maintenance of this hi-tension, almost hysterical atmosphere, but without losing the focus of a consistent plot-line or end goal.

MacLean incorporates all these lessons into the next book, The Last Frontier, about a British agent on the run in communist Hungary. It is still not a classic though, because the formula hasn’t quite been perfected: a) MacLean includes quite a lot of political/philosophical reflection in Frontier, which readers didn’t like; b) it is still told in the third person (though strongly leaning towards providing insights into the hero’s (generally extreme) state of mind).

It is when MacLean realises we have to be inside the hero’s mind, in a first person narration, and that reflections extraneous to the plot must be ruthlessly ditched, that all the elements of the formula click into place, and MacLean goes on to write the dozen or so classic thrillers which are so very effective and compelling.

Related links

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.

After purging himself by writing at great length about alcoholics with a grudge against the modern world in The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s final novel is his shortest and most focused. I’d read that it was his weakest and nearly didn’t read it, but I’m glad I did.

Plot

The events take place over just a few days in the small Californian coastal resort of Esmeralda, based on La Jolla where Chandler spent his final years (the only one of the novels set outside Los Angeles). Marlowe is hired by a big-time LA lawyer to tail a woman arriving on a train from out East. He doesn’t know why and has to find out what the job is as he’s doing it, with the usual interruptions from blackmailers, local hoods, small-time crooks, a rival PI and, as always, the cops. (‘Perhaps if I had a rest and my brain cleared, I might have some faint idea of what I was doing.’ Ch 17)

The attitude is the same abrasive tough guy – given a choice Marlowe will always insult and antagonise whoever he’s talking to – everyone is crooked and two-faced, especially the broads, the cops are brutal and the crooks are brutaller.

I guess what critics mean when they disparage the book is that a lot of the verbal fireworks of the earlier books have gone – there are almost none of the smart-ass similes which set The Big Sleep alight – but that is symptomatic of the way the style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused. It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment, although a lot of the energy missing from the narration has gone into the dialogue, which is as tight and edgy as ever.

And – despite all the guns and fights and blackmail and corruption – what I see as the essentially comic nature of Chandler’s work is close to the surface.

Tough guy

  • I caught Mitchell on the side of the neck. His mouth yapped. He hit me somewhere, but it wasn’t important. Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch because at that moment an army mule kicked me square in the back of the brain. (Ch 5)
  • He looked durable. Most fat men do. (Ch 6)
  • The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis muscles. (Ch 8)
  • He looked tough asking that. I tried to look tough not answering it. (Ch 17)

Almost all the characters call each other tough (‘Tough guy, huh?’, ‘So Mr Tough Guy’, He wasn’t as tough as he looked, ‘Don’t get so goddam tough’, I was a real tough boy tonight, etc etc). In fact most of them aren’t and Marlowe, above all, exists in this contradictory space where he tells us he’s tough, he talks ironic wisecracking tough, he’s rude and aggressive, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know he is Sir Galahad, an essentially pure man with a clean conscience.

‘How can such a hard man be so gentle?’ she asked wonderingly. (Ch 25)

That’s the paradoxical effect of reading all Chandler’s novels. they seem like they’re dealing with human corruption, violence, evil – and yet the vibrancy of the style and the supreme confidence of the manner leave you feeling invigorated and clean.

Eyes

In earlier posts I’ve written in detail about Chandler’s awareness of eyes, as the characters constantly probe and size each other up, and about the wonderful phrases he creates for even the simplest looks. In this last novel his ‘eye-awareness’ is still prominent – eyes and looks and stares and glances are described on every page – but the astonishing verbal inventiveness of the earliest novels has vanished like morning mist:

  • She leaned back and relaxed. Her eyes stayed watchful. (Ch 5)
  • His colour was high and his eyes too bright. (Ch 5)
  • He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. (Ch 8)
  • She looked at him. He looked at her. (Ch 8)
  • We stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing. (Ch 9)
  • I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes. (Ch 10)
  • He looked me over. His eyes were wise eyes. (Ch 15)
  • He wore glasses, had a skin the colour of cold oatmeal and hollow, tired eyes. (Ch 17)
  • I stood up. We gave each other those looks. I went out. (Ch 24)
  • He stared at me with cool, blank eyes. (Ch 26)

Locations

The same precision of observation that I’ve pointed out in an earlier post on Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors, just used less often.

  • There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was panelled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checker-board effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blonde, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. (Ch 11)

For me that ‘probably’ weakens the whole sentence. One way to describe it is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measure and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgement. But it was the absence of doubt, the complete confidence in his own perceptions, which made the earlier novels so thrilling.

Similes

The smart-ass similes, the single most striking element of his style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. These are pretty much the only ones in the book.

  • There was nothing to it. The [train] was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. (Ch 2)
  • ‘The walls here as as thin as a hoofer’s wallet.’ (Ch 5)
  • I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors. (Ch 11)

Comedy

On the other hand, a couple of sequences or lines in this novel made me laugh out loud, something none of the others had done, hence my suggestion that, despite serious or even tragic incidents elsewhere in the book, on the whole this seemed to me to bring out Chandler’s essentially comic nature.

When I entered Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blonde coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
‘Well, well, Mr Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honour?’
‘Umney’s expecting me.’
‘Mister Umney to you, buster.’
‘Boydie-boy to you, sister.’
She got raging in an instant. ‘Don’t call me “sister”, you cheap gumshoe!’
‘Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.’
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. ‘You son of a bitch!’ she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: ‘Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.’
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. ‘I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.’
‘Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,’ I said. ‘But hard work’s no substitute for talent.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. (Ch 11)

Happy Ending

And, astonishingly, there is a happy ending! Chandler sets us up to expect the opposite with some ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, 1950s existentialism, as our hero returns, exhausted and jaded to his poor man’s apartment:

 I climbed the long flight of redwood steps and unlocked my door. Everything was the same. The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this is what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Ch 28)

When, to my absolute amazement, the phone rings and it is Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye, a millionaire’s daughter who he had a thing for but who left him to go to Paris. And here she is, phoning from Paris and saying she loves him and can’t live without him, and she agrees to catch the next flight to LA to be with him. Marlowe is going to live happily ever after!!

I reached for my drink. I looked around the empty room – which was no longer empty. There was a voice in it, and a tall, slim, lovely woman. There was a dark head on the pillow in the bedroom. There was that soft, gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, whose eyes are half-blind… The telephone started to ring again. I hardly heard it.

The air was full of music.

 Who’d have guessed! At its most basic a tragedy has a happy ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before, and this astonishing turnup on the last few pages of Playback not only ends the book on a comedic and positive note, it sheds its light back over the whole series, highlighting the ironic, witty humour and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, American Oscar Wilde.

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Pulp book cover for Playback

Pulp book cover for Playback

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas was producer on this swashbuckling movie of Viking life and love and so it is no surprise that he dominates the screen as Einar, the gorgeously handsome, superbly strong and confident son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (‘Hairy-Breeches’).

The opening sequence voices over rostrum shots of the Bayeaux Tapestry to give a surprisingly evocative introduction to the Viking Age, before getting straight into the rape and pillage as Ragnar kills the English king Edwin and rapes his wife. The result of this union, the bastard son who will grow up to be Tony Curtis, is sent abroad soon after birth with only a stone pendant to identify him. Twenty years later, caught and sold on as a slave, he ends up at the Norwegian base of none other than Ragnar, his natural father, and comes into conflict with Einar (Kirk), Ragnar’s lawfully acknowledged son, all three men blissfully/tragically ignorant of their true blood relationship. Kirk and Curtis are half-brothers and rivals to the death, which feels authentically saga-ish.

And the rest of the plot is the colourful story of their conflicts, particularly over the stunningly beautiful Janet Leigh, fiancée of the horrible Anglo-Saxon King Aella of Northumbria and kidnapped by Ragnar’s Vikings for ransom. And rekidnapped by Tony and taken back to England along with Ragnar as prisoner. And so on.

It’s a great rainy Sunday afternoon film. One one hand, mildly surprising they bothered to use real historical figures, but then it’s based on a historical novel The Viking by Edison Marshall itself based on sagas and the chronicles. On the other it is notably unhistorical – King Aella is reported to have died in battle with the invading Great Heathen Army, not pushed into a pit of wolves by Tony Curtis. And the son of Ragnar who led the revenge attack on Northumbria was named Ivar the Boneless, not Einar. Then again, the sources offer conflicting accounts and the sagas freely shape history for dramatic purposes so why shouldn’t a movie?

It’s a relief the film didn’t show Aella having his ribs being separated from his spine and his lungs being pulled out through his back, the torture or mark of the so-called ‘blood eagle‘, as some accounts report.

They used real Norwegian locations for Ragnar’s settlement which are breathtakingly beautiful. But dominating the film is the super-manly figure of the virile, drunk, angry, superbly confident, scarred and ultimately doomed Kirk Douglas. Watch and adore!

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