The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Slapstick (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The Triumph of Time by James Blish (1959)

The final instalment of James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy opens with yet another prologue reminding us of the key dates in its ‘future history’ (pp.477-79):

Cities in Flight chronology

2018 discovery of the first anti-agathic drugs
2019 discovery of the gravitron polarity generator
2105 establishment of the Bureaucratic State
2289 first contact with the Vegan Tyranny
2394 IMT sack Thor V
2310 Battle of Altair with Vegans
2413 struggle with Vegans ends with scorching of Vega
2464 Battle of BD 40º 4048′ between Earth and Hruntans
2522 collapse of the Bureaucratic State
3089 Admiral Hrunta is poisoned / John Amalfi becomes mayor of New York
3111 Arpa Hrunta installed as ‘Emperor of Space’ / New York takes flight
3600 New York lands on Utopia
3602 ‘reduction of the Duchy of Gort’ / Dr Schloss boards New York
3900 collapse of the germanium standard for currency
3905 Battle of the Jungle in the Acolyte Cluster
3944 New York lands on the Blasted Heath
3948 Battle of the Blasted Heath in which New York defeats the IMT
3975 Battle of Earth attacked by Okie cities
3976 passage of anti-Okie law on earth
3978 New York leaves the galaxy for the Magellanic Cloud
3998 New York lands on planet in the Magellanic Cloud
3999 New York christens this planet New Earth
4104 ‘totally universal physical cataclysm’

In the series of events preceding this book and described in Earthman, Come Home, John Amalfi had steered the space-flying Okie city of New York through umpteen perils and finally out of the galaxy altogether to land, once and for all, on a planet in the Magellanic Cloud.

‘Once and for all’ because a) after the Battle of Earth, Okie cities had been outlawed b) at least two of the city’s spindizzy engines were fatally malfunctioning.

After defeating the incumbent inhabitants of this planet – the Intergalactic Master Traders who were the bad guys who had annihilated Thor V centuries earlier – the inhabitants of New York named the planet New Earth and settled down to make it home.

(NB some of the dates don’t match up. For example, in the prologue Blish says New York landed on this final planet in 3998 (p.479) but in the text he says they fought the Battle of the Blasted Heath by which they won control of the planet in 3948 (p.483) – fifty years earlier. They can’t both be right. Similarly, he says the Okies christened the planet New Earth in 3999 (p.479), and yet the novel opens with Amalfi sick and bored of life on New Earth, in ‘this year of 3995’, four years earlier (p.497). Either I’m misunderstanding something, or this was poor proofreading by Blish and/or his editors.)

So it is 3995 and legendary Okie city mayor John Amalfi, blessed or cursed with a very long life, is bored of his peaceful existence on New Earth, of fancy fashions and outlandish pets, and misses the old space-flying days. He goes poking around the now-abandoned city of New York, chatting to the city’s former chief astronomer, Jake Freeman, about maybe salvaging part of it and going roaming again… when he’s told a huge object is heading their way.

This turns out to be the planet He, which we last met in Earthman, Come Home, the planet with a primitive civilisation which was cursed with an oppressively tropical jungle climate. Amalfi had made a contract to change and improve it by fitting spindizzies to the planet’s cardinal points. He had intended to alter its spin a little to give it a milder climate but ended up miscalculating and sending the planet careering not only out of the orbit of its sun, but flying faster than the speed of light right out of the galaxy itself.

Now, by some miracle, He’s people have mastered the technique of steering their planet (!) and are heading straight for New Earth. Radio communication is made and it turns out the entire planet is now led by our old friend Miramon, who had been Amalfi’s lead contact in the original story. Miramon explains that they made it all the way to the next galaxy in the universe, Andromeda, but on the way discovered something: All of space and time is coming to an end!

The reason is something to do with anti-matter. The rest of the book is now dominated by page after page of detailed, would-be highly scientific discussion of the relationship between matter and anti-matter, with reference to all kinds of theories and explanations invoking Einstein, quantum physics, and so on. It’s all very impressive and features a number of mathematical equations, but remains incomprehensible to me, and could all be bluff as far as I know. Basically, the cleverest scientists on he and on New Earth discuss whether a) the universe really is running down heading towards an apocalyptic end b) what this end will look like c) if there is any possible way to escape it.

When Amalfi takes New Earth’s top scientists to He to discuss the situation, he takes along Dee, wife of his deputy Mark Hazleton, with whom he is himself deeply in love, and Mark and Dee’s grandson Webster Hazleton, along with his ‘friend’ Estelle Freeman (daughter of Jake the astronomer). Against the backdrop of the end of the universe is played out the growing puppy love between these two young teenagers. For example, there is a long and completely unnecessary scene where the two New Earth kids are shown complicated games with the kids their own age from He, both sides translating the complex rules of the games into pidgen English for the readers’ benefit.

In a sub-sub-plot Dee’s presence and contribution to the learned discussions vexes some of the scientists from He. Blish has to explain that this is because it was only within living memory that He’s womenfolk were raised from the status of naked animals, a feminist liberation largely carried out by Dee. Now here mere presence irritates them and so, reluctantly, Amalfi orders Dee, Webster and Estelle in a spaceship back to New Earth.

But while the physicists are discussing how and why the universe is about to end and the kids are playing truth or dare, good old power politics erupts when the leader of a religious cult – the Warriors of God led by Jorn the Apostle – rises up and storms New Earth, seizing Mark Hazelton. Not only that but we learn they seized the spaceship carrying Dee and the kids.

Amalfi uses one of Carrel’s little ‘proxies’ or remote control rocket ships to fly back to New Earth, landing in the now abandoned and empty Central Park and reactivating the old City Father’s namely the city’s ancient supercomputers. Using these he makes contact via a Dirac communication machine, with Jorn the Apostle. This man, wizened and canny, turns out to be more than a match for John Amalfi. Amalfi tries to bluff Jorn – in the way he has manipulated and bluffed so many antagonists in the earlier stories. This time he tells the leader of the fundamentalist army that New Earth is packed with believers in a lay philosophy named Stochasticism. Jorn doesn’t really believe him and, while Blish spends several pages mapping out Amalfi’s tortuous plan to outbluff the Apostle, the kind of convoluted semi-cunning plans we’ve got used to Amalfi spinning – when Jorn calls off his men and releases Dee and the kids.

Now time passes. Years pass. The New Earth scientists have all agreed the end is being precipitated by the winding down of the current universe and its interception or crash with a parallel universe of anti-matter. They have named the intersection of the two universes No Man’s Land. It was a casual suggestion of the child Estelle that they fire a bullet across No Man’s Land that set the scientists wondering whether they could make an anti-matter probe in this universe which could travel into the anti-matter universe.

Meanwhile Blish goes for pathos and human interest by glossing over the following few years during which Web and Estelle – the last human children to grow up – blossom and mature.

Our team send an anti-matter probe – very colourfully and cinematically described as a luminous sphere about six feet wide of neutrinos containing one grain of anti-matter – over to the other side. It reappears in the ancient control room of the city – which has been turned into a physics lab – with a burst of radiation which burns everyone, makes their hair fall out and gives mild radiation sickness – which they are advanced enough to be able to cure. The experiment shows that:

  1. someone else has sent a probe through and is conducting similar experiments
  2. it may be possible to survive the catastrophe but not in human form, maybe not with human consciousness
  3. the date of The End is precisely three years away, 2 June 4104

The main characters hold a valedictory meal at which Amalfi announces that he is going to travel on planet He as it heads towards the metagalactic centre, to which Mark announces that he wants to say on New Earth to put its affairs in order, Dee says she’ll stay with Mark, Jake the astronomer will also stay, but Estelle, Jake’s daughter, and Web, Mark and Dee’s grandson, announce that they want to accompany Amalfi on He.

The book contains complex emotional relationship elements which I struggled to give a damn about. Earlier we had learned that Mark and Dee’s marriage is hollow: he is too busy working and ignores her. She has taken a succession of waif and stray women into the household, I didn’t quite understand whether these were supposed to have been lesbian affairs. When they went to He together Amalfi declared her love for Dee and she told him all this, but refused to leave Mark. Now on this final evening on New Earth, Amalfi takes Dee for a walk and they have a lover’s quarrel, not least because Dee spots that Amalfi is in love with Estelle, who must be nearly a thousand years younger than him!

They agree to meet up in New York’s old control tower and ask the City Fathers. The City Fathers advices Mark and Dee, and Web and Estelle, and Amalfi to all go on with He to the metagalactic centre. But surprise the humans by saying that they, the City Fathers, should be taken too.

Somehow, not very logically but by narrative sleight of hand, Blish persuades us that it is vital that He get to the Metagalactic centre before the ‘opposition’, the rivals who had also sent a probe through into the anti-matter universe… do something, or win something, though that something is left vague. These rivals are named the Web of Hercules, although what that means is also left very vague.

The metagalaxy is described as the centre of the original Big Bang which brought the universe into being. Now planet He is hurtling towards it. The physicists speculate that, by being there at a place of stasis within a dynamic universe there might, just might, be some equivalent in the anti-universe, and might be some possibility of outliving the coming destruction.

The situation as we see it is this: Anything that survives the Ginnangu-Gap [the name they’ve given the annihilation of the universe] at the metagalactic centre, by as much as five micro-seconds, carries an energy potential into the future which will have a considerable influence on the re-formation of the two universes. If the surviving object is only a stone – or a planet, like He – then the two universes will re-form exactly as they did after the explosion of the monobloc, and their histories will repeat themselves very closely. If, on the other hand, the surviving object has volition and a little manoeuvrability – such as a man – it has available to it any of the infinitely many different sets of dimensions of Hilbert space. Each one of us that makes that crossing may in a few micro-seconds start a universe of his own, with a fate wholly unpredictable from history.’ (p.591)

First of all planet He arrives at the dead centre of the universe as indicated by the cessation of all external signals and information. All the controls in the control room on the peak of He’s highest planet go into overdrive and are cut off. Amalfi is consulting the City Fathers on what to do next, when the entire planet comes under attack from the Web of Hercules. So far as I understood it, they use tendrils of anti-matter to deliver fatal doses of radiation sent from control machines as much as a light year away.

In a twist, Miramon, leader of He, announces a physics-chemistry weapon they possess but hadn’t mentioned which eats away at these rays. They unleash it and watch the corrosive poison creep back up along the rays, eliminating them, presumably as far back as the control rooms, presumably eliminating the Web of Hercules.

It is is difficult to follow the hard science explanations but I think the Web of Hercules appeared, and was dealt with, in just a couple of pages. Hazleton announces that all the main characters have received fatal doses of radiation and have only a few weeks to live, but he and Amalfi bitterly joke that it’s alright – the universe itself is set to expire in ten days, and counting…

The final chapter is just four pages long and describes the end of the universe which is very simple. They go through the instructions one last time and climb into spacesuits. When the moment of annihilation of the present universe comes, the spindizzies will operate at peak performance for a few micro-seconds during which the half dozen of them, here at the core, the centre of the annihilating universe – Mark, Dee, Estelle, Web, Miramon and Amalfi – will have a split second to create new universes. The clock ticks down. The City Fathers say goodbye. The end comes instantly and completely. Amalfi is aware of the others and their human emotions. But he has lived long enough, seen the universe of human suffering, he wants to try something else.

What would happen if he just touches the detonator button on his spacesuit, blows himself up, and lets all the elements of which he and the suit are composed flash into the plasma which will form the basis of a new universe?

He touched the button over his heart.
Creation began. (p.610)

Quite a mind-blowing end.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959)

Murder in Mexico

Bond dislikes killing and it gives him a bad conscience. He tries to persuade himself it’s just part of the job, he does it then moves on, but in reality he broods and worries. Thus Goldfinger opens with Bond in the departure lounge of Miami airport, obsessively going over his most recent job in Mexico. Fleming gives a brief description of how an informal heroin smuggling circle was set up by a posh, amateur Brit which led from poppy fields in Mexico via a courier to Victoria Coach Station and then distribution via Soho. Bond tracks the pipeline to its source and blows up the heroin warehouse, but then is approached in the street that night by an assassin hired by the gang, and after a brief intense fight, kills him. But Bond broods.

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving license. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for a dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico. (p.7)

This passage, especially its portentous final phrase, reminded me of Fleming’s contemporary, Graham Greene (b.1904). (This brooding over the mystery of death, the extinguishing of life, also reminds of the shock Bond feels at the death of Darko Kerim, the one-man life force, in From Russia with Love, p.277.) At the end of the novel Bond will feel the same way about the broken rag-doll body of Tilly Masterton.

Bond stood and looked down at the little empty tangle of limbs and clothes. He saw the bright, proud girl with the spotted handkerchief round her hair in the flying TR3. Now she had gone. (p.205)

Death is the great mystery, the real puzzle, at the heart of these books.

Goldfinger exposed

As he sits worrying, Bond hears the announcement that his flight to New York has been cancelled, and then is approached by a middle-aged American. He introduces himself as Junius Du Pont, one of the couple who were sitting next to Bond during his climactic card game which forms the centrepiece of Casino Royale. Briefly, he is a millionaire but has a problem: he’s been playing canasta with a fellow millionaire, strange guy called Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger, and has consistently lost, far more than the odds would predict, losing some $25,000. Having seen Bond in action and knowing him for an expert, he invites Bond to stay over in Miami a night, all expenses paid, then pose as a businessman come to visit Du Pont and in reality figure out how Goldfinger is cheating.

Excellent! This is just the kind of relaxing, easy, no pressure break Bond needs to take his mind off death and destruction. He goes with Du Pont in his chauffeur-driven car to a luxury hotel and has the best meal of his life: crab in melted butter with toast, washed down by pint mugs of pink champagne.

So Bond goes along next day to the poolside table where Du Pont plays and meets Goldfinger. As with all the Bond villains he is distinctively misshapen and ugly, really a kind of cartoon. Goldfinger is just five foot tall, tubby, with no neck and an enormous round moon-shaped head, topped by a crew cut of bright red hair. He is very rich and very cool. Bond is introduced and sits idly reading his paper and half watching the game. He watches Goldfinger win hand after hand of canasta, fleecing Du Pont, and eliminates all the usual card sharping tricks. When Goldfinger says he never moves from his chair because he doesn’t like the view over the sea, it gives him agoraphobia, Bond gets a clue. He realises Du Pont is sitting with his back to the hotel so someone in an apartment could, in theory, look over his shoulder and see his cards.

He gets a camera from his apartment and the well-connected Du Pont gets a pass key from the hotel manager. Then, during the afternoon game, while Goldfinger is fleecing Du Pont again, Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s room to discover a beautiful posh English woman wearing only bra and panties (p.34, and is first seen from the back, just like Tiffany Case in Diamonds). She is looking through binoculars down at Du Pont’s hand and giving Goldfinger detailed instructions. This is how he wins so consistently.

Bond startles the girl by taking a flashlight photo of the set-up, then chatting to the (obviously) alarmed and scared woman, who gives her name as Jill Masterton (p.39). She is Goldfinger’s private secretary. As they chat, and Bond explains he’s working for Du Pont and simply wanted to discover the scam, she relaxes and even begins to warm to Bond. Having not told him the winning cards for quite a few moments, Goldfinger has begun to lose. Now Bond decides to put the finishing touches: he takes the radio microphone from Jill, and dictates his terms to Goldfinger: he will send the photo and full details of his scam to the police and FBI unless Goldfinger a) admits to Du Pont he’s been cheating b) writes and gives him a check for $50,000, including all the money he’s won off him as well as a tidy fee for Bond. And then, to rub it in, Bond insists Goldfinger pays for a luxury train sleeper compartment for him and Jill to New York. Reluctantly, Goldfinger agrees and does these things.

Bond gets effusive thanks from Du Pont, then takes the sleeper to New York (all told in retrospect) where he makes passionate love to Masterton, five times, apparently (p.43 – almost as soon as they met, she was looking at him with a look of submissiveness and longing, and later says she will do anything if Bond doesn’t hurt Goldfinger: ie she is much more quickly submissive than either the feisty Tiffany Case or distant Gala Brand, falling more into the ‘immediately seduced’ category of Solitaire, who fancied him straight off). But when they get to New York, Jill insists on going back to Goldfinger, despite both their misgivings about how he might react to having been so systematically humiliated…

Back in London

Cut to Bond back in the Secret Service building overlooking Regent’s Park, where he has been assigned night duty and is logging calls from stations round the world. Fleming has just explained how much he actually enjoys being up through the night, when he is called in for a breakfast meeting with M. Surprise surprise, it concerns the man he just happens to have met on Miami, one Auric Goldfinger who, M tells him, is the richest man in England. (It has rather the same effect as the way Sir Hugo Drax is introduced in Moonraker as the most popular man in England.)

The Bank of England

His name is mentioned as M describes having dinner with the Governor of the Bank of England the previous night and listening to his concerns about the drain of gold from England. A certain Colonel Smithers is Head of the Bank’s research department and an expert on the subject. ‘Go and meet him 007.’ So off Bond goes and submits to a long, detailed history of gold, its use, importance and why the Bank is concerned it is being drained out of the country. Smithers gives us the backstory to Goldfinger: refugee from Riga before the war, set up a chain of pawn shops which now operates round the country, paying cash for small gold trinkets; these are melted down in his smelting works / factory near Reculver in Kent, which also deals in fertiliser and other chemical works. Goldfinger had been exporting fertiliser to India for years but when one of his ships was wrecked off Goodwin Sands, scientists found traces of gold in a chemically treated form had soaked into the hold. Smithers deduced Goldfinger has been converting the gold into a brown powder which passes customs as fertiliser, then having it restored to gold and selling at a big profit in India.

Bond reports back to M at 6 that evening, where M has more to tell him. They know Goldfinger marks his ingots (out of vanity) with a tiny incised ‘Z’. The most recent ingots the Service has come across thus marked have all been recovered from SMERSH operatives! Yes! From being some cheating millionaire, Goldfinger has suddenly been revealed as SMERSH’s banker! Bond is ordered to find him, confirm his activities and stop him, so he motors down to Kent in a work DB III, along the way filling in Goldfinger’s backstory, mainly from speculation: trained and briefed by SMERSH, despatched to Britain in 1937, told to lie low and set up a network of pawnbrokers as a front; while all the time he was given greater and greater responsibility as SMERSH’s overseas banker. Who knows how many deaths, assassinations and terror attacks he has helped organise and fund (pp.62-64).

As Umberto Eco points out, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Bond rarely has to detect anything and certainly never discovers a baddie behind a criminal activity: the baddies are always identified early on in the text, Le Chiffre, Mr Big, the Spangled Mob etc, the only interest is what form the confrontation and final struggle will take. (In this respect, From Russia With Love is an exception, since Bond is unaware of the conspiracy to entrap him and doesn’t know who his opponents are – Klebb and Grant – until very near the end: maybe it’s this element of genuine puzzlement and revelation (for Bond) which explains why many people think Russia is the best Bond book.)

A game of golf

In Miami, during the open social chitter chatter, Goldfinger and Bond had both admitted a fondness for golf, and even promised to play each other one day. Now Bond drives down to Goldfinger’s house in Kent and on to the famous golf course of Royal St Marks. Says hello to his old caddie and trainer, Blacking, and we learn that the teenage Bond was a golf prodigy who his trainer thought could have gone professional. While they’re chatting Goldfinger’s immense canary-yellow car comes rolling up the gravel drive, driven by the striking figure of a bowler-hatted Korean chauffeur. Bond makes like them bumping into each other is a happy accident and after some banter, Goldfinger challenges him to a round, with the stakes being the $10,000 he took off him in Miami.

Chapters eight and nine contain a very detailed description of each of the eighteen holes the two men play during the ensuing game of golf. Goldfinger has a good game so that it is very close, plus he cheats by a) putting Bond off his stroke b) tamping down the ground around his ball to make his shots easier. Eventually Bond and his caddy decide to cheat back and swap Goldfinger’s ball for a different make on the last hole. Thus at the moment that Goldfinger wins the round, Bond is able to reveal it is with the wrong ball thus, technically, losing the match. Goldfinger sputters with fury, almost declares Bond guilty of cheating, then contains his anger, and invites Bond to dinner at his house that evening.

Dinner at the Grange

1. Goldfinger welcomes Bond, but says he unfortunately just has to pop out to sort out some trouble one of his servants has got to in Thanet; back in 30 minutes. Bond sees this as a transparent invitation to go snooping round Goldfinger’s house. A doorway takes him into the overseer’s office of the factory, from where he looks down into a workshop and sees men fiddling with the door of Goldfinger’s Rolls. Back in the house he pokes around in the upper floors, coming across a male bedroom, all the way followed by a friendly ginger cat. Everything in the bedroom is pure and clean until he follows a whining sound to discover cine-camera film from three concealed cameras whirring round their spools in a concealed closet: obviously turned on when Goldfinger left, to monitor Bond’s movements. Bond deliberately exposes the film strips all to the light, then puts the cat into the container where the film had been spooled, as a feeble attempt to explain his sabotage.

2. Goldfinger returns and treats Bond to a quality dinner: curried shrimp and rice, with a Moselle, the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen ’53; roast duckling with Mouton Rothschild 1947; cheese soufflé and coffee.

3. Throughout the book there has been mention of Goldfinger’s Korean servants: he employs five of them. Now he gets his personal servant, Oddjob, to demonstrate his skills, and Oddjob proceeds to: slice through the wooden banister on the stairs with his bare hand; create a divot in the mantelpiece with a flying kick; destroy a wall fixture with his steel-rimmed bowler hat, thrown as a weapon.

Goldfinger explains that all five are Karate experts, Oddjob being one of the only three karate black belts in the world. (It is striking that Fleming feels he has to explain from scratch what karate is and give its history.) Goldfinger claims the Koreans are ‘the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world’. The cat which Bond left in the cinefilm basket? Goldfinger hands it to Oddjob and tells him he can eat it for his dinner.

Throughout there is the strong sense of menace and threat, while Bond plays his role of pretending he is fed up with Universal Exports and wants a way out, a way to make easy money. He even retells the story of the heroin business he foiled in the opening chapter, but casting himself as one of its organisers. Goldfinger listens impassively and hints that he may have a role for Bond in his organisation.

Across France

Goldfinger had mentioned that he was flying out of Lydd airport the next day, with his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Bond gets the Service to book him a ticket on the next flight following. He drives up to the airport before Goldfinger is due and tells the Customs people he’s with Scotland Yard. They let him inspect the Silver Shadow after Goldfinger and Oddjob have boarded the plane, giving Bond the opportunity to insert a primitive homing device into it.

Two hours later Bond’s flight carries him and his DB III over to Le Touquet where he picks up the trail of the Silver Ghost. There follows a long knowledgeable tour across northern France, down to the Loire and then East heading towards Switzerland. Fleming knows his French Routes Nationales and shows off his acquaintance with the best hotels and Michelin restaurants along the route. On the first night Goldfinger stops at Orleans where Bond checks into the Station Hotel and enjoys ‘one of his favourite meals’: two oeufs cocotte à la crème, a large seule meunière and an ‘adequate’ Camembert.

Next day Bond tracks Goldfinger south and east along the N73 when he stumbles across the car pulled over for a picnic by a river. Bond just has time to drive off down a cart track and isn’t noticed, but after Goldfinger and Oddjob finish their picnic and drive on, Bond goes to investigate and discovers, under some freshly disturbed turf, a big gold ingot (with the tell-tale ‘Z’ scratched into it). He takes it with him a) causing Goldfinger and SMERSH inconvenience b) maybe saving lives in whatever schemes it would have financed.

Slowly he realises that another car is tailing Goldfinger, a nifty little Triumph driven by a pretty woman wearing a pink head scarf. Now he thinks about it he realises the same car was at Lydd airport. In the busy streets of Mâcon he sees it behind him and deliberately reverses into it, writing off the bonnet and fan belt. He apologises profusely while the pretty woman gets out and is livid, saying she must get to Geneva to play in some golf tournament. Bond discovers her name – Tilly Masterton – aha! she is the sister of Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s confidential secretary. Bond offers her a lift and so they share the rest of the journey to Geneva.

Bond drops her at a hotel on the outskirts of Geneva, then trails Goldfinger’s Silver Ghost to a large mansion behind high railings, with a sign reading ‘Enterprises Auric A.G.’. He parks in nearby woods and doubles back to a vantage point where he sees technicians come out of a factory-like building and start to disassemble Goldfinger’s car. Then he drives on into Geneva and contacts the Service’s man there. 1. He hands over the gold bar and tells him to send it with a message confirming Goldfinger’s role as SMERSH banker, back to London. 2. The Service man knows about Auric Enterprises: it makes metal-work products, most notably chairs for Mecca Charter Airways planes, a company Goldfinger part owns and which flies to India. Aha.

Everything clicks into place. After his boat was wrecked and investigated off the Kent coast, Goldfinger abandoned gold smuggling by sea: now he fits his ‘armour-plated’ Rolls Royce with gold panels, drives it across France to his factory in Switzerland, where the panels are extracted from the car, and remoulded, with alloy, as airplane seats, installed in planes which are flown to India, there melted back to gold and sold at a terrific profit.

Captured

That night, after checking into a Geneva hotel etc, Bond drives back out to the woods above the Goldfinger mansion. He is creeping towards a good vantage point when he sees a slender figure in black lying by a tree ahead of him: it is Tilly. He jumps her from behind, putting his hand over her mouth, then slowly freeing her once she knows it is him. Furious she tells him her story: Jill Masterton returned to Goldfinger after her train trip of passion with Bond in the early chapters, and Goldfinger killed her, in a typically macabre Fleming way: he had her body painted with gold paint all over so her pores couldn’t breathe, evacuate sweat etc, poisoning her. (Fleming adds the gruesome detail that Goldfinger likes sex once a month with prostitutes who Oddjob paints with gold, but leaving their backs free to ‘breathe’ before the furious animal act. Then Oddjob sluices them down in a chemical shower to retrieve the gold.)

Well, Tilly is Jill’s sister; so she has come here with a rifle to take revenge. While they’re still squabbling about who is getting in whose way a crossbow bolt thwacks into the tree above them. Oddjob and some other Korean guards. Bond tries to make light of it, claiming Tilly is his girlfriend and they’ll call in on Goldfinger tomorrow, but the Koreans shepherd them down through the fence and towards the house, through the front door and into the main room where Goldfinger is waiting. Now Goldfinger knows Bond is an enemy agent and spy, and after a bit of banter, orders him to be taken to ‘the Pressure Room’.

Bond throws himself across the table, head butting Goldfinger in the chest, and gets as far as throttling him with his bare hands, when Oddjob hits him very hard and the lights go out.

Sawn in half

Bond awakes to find himself tied to a large table with a circular saw designed to cut right across it, up between his legs and carve him in half. ‘Talk,’ says Goldfinger, ‘or you’ll be sawn in two; and then the girl will be handed over to the Koreans for their sport.’ Bond swears (he’s taken to swearing four letter words a lot in the last few books –  e.g. ‘You can go —— yourself’, p.149). As if the saw wasn’t enough, Bond is worked over by Oddjob who knows exactly how to hurt him very much. Fleming, as so often, takes us into Bond’s mind as he tries to master the pain, control the pain, rise above his body…

Next thing we know it’s a new chapter and Bond thinks he’s died and gone to heaven, complete with white lights, nice music, warm woozy feelings. Slowly he interprets the succession of lights and faces to mean he’s been doped up and flown somewhere, the American accents suggesting the USA. Eventually he regains consciousness in some kind of sealed accommodation, in a bed in a room with his clothes and case all carefully returned. Goldfinger enters with a handgun and explains: he was on the verge of wiping Bond out when he realised he may actually be of some small use in his next and final crime. Like all Bond villains Goldfinger has to unburden himself of his plans and so tells Bond that he plans to go down in history for pulling the biggest crime ever, and stealing the entire American supply of gold from Fort Knox! —Fleming always thinks with a kind of cartoon, bravura excess, egged on by his uninhibited villains.

The preparation

Briefly, Bond and Tilly have been kept alive to act as secretaries to the organisation of the job. The building they’re in is some kind of warehouse near the river in New York. At Goldfinger’s instruction, Bond types out and copies the agenda for a meeting with the six biggest organised crime gangs in America. When they arrive they are a suitably florid and ugly bunch, but the stand-out member is one Pussy Galore, leader of a lesbian gang in New York.

Goldfinger gives these men and Pussy a detailed explanation of  his plan: to slip sleeping powder into the water supply of Fort Knox; to put the word out that there’s been some kind of attack or medical emergency; to organise a special medical emergency train to go into the danger zone, staffed by his own Korean and German guards along with selected members from each gang; to secure the perimeter of the Knox building, then to blow open the stainless steel doors of the vault with a small nuclear device!

Nuclear device!!

At this point Bond realises Goldfinger is a megalomaniac genius, and the reader realises how preposterous the entire scheme is. This warhead has been bought through bribery and corruption from the US Army in Germany, and is – allegedly – one of a new generation of fallout-free weapons. Yes. So the first men in will need radiation suits but will be able to pass the gold safely out to the gangsters waiting in their long lines of lorries to take their share of the gold wherever they want to.

Five of the gangsters sign up for the deal on the spot. The fifth says he’s not interested and leaves. Moments later Goldfinger tells the assembled hoods, the leaver has met with an unfortunate accident, fallen down some stairs and is dead.

After the hoods have gone, Goldfinger reveals that a) it is not going to be sleeping chemicals his men slip into the dam, but a deadly nerve gas which will kill the entire 60,000 population of Fort Knox, b) he is in fact going to take his $5 billion of gold to the coast where it will ship onboard a Russian submarine. The money will be used to fund SMERSH operations for decades. (For some reason, for the first time, the way everything comes back to SMERSH seemed silly to me, and also very small-minded: oh it’s another SMERSH operation.)

Next day Goldfinger, Oddjob, Tilly, Bond and others take a charter jet to fly over Fort Knox and check everything is as per the detailed map he had displayed at the meeting. In fact this is a plot device to allow Bond to scrawl a very long detailed account of the plan, roll it into a tight tube, write a warning message on the outside, that anyone taking this document to Felix Leiter at the Pinkerton Agency in new York will get a reward of $5,000 on the spot, and sellotape it to the underside of the toilet seat.

For the rest of the flight, and then for the next few days, Bond is in an agony of uncertainty, not knowing whether the message will be found at all, whether it will be acted on, or whether it’ll be found by Goldfinger’s people and he can expect a bullet in the neck at any point.

D-Day

In the event, on D-Day, the poison is put into the drinking water, news gets out and Goldfinger and his team man the rescue train into stricken zone posing as medical emergency team. As it enters Fort Knox they see cars which have crashed, people fallen across their lawns and washing lines, prone bodies everywhere, even with pinkish foam at the lips. Bond’s heart sinks. My God he is responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people; he should have murdered Goldfinger before this, even at the cost of his own life, done anything. (Bond is prone to a lot of self-doubt and worry and even guilt, throughout the books.)

The bluff

But it’s an immense con trick. A maroon warning flare is shot into the sky and thousands of people, including a lot of US Army troops spring to their feet and begin a terrific firefight with Goldfinger’s people and the assembled crooks. Bond jumps off the cab of the train which he had been viewing everything from, along with Tilly but they’re immediately pursued by Oddjob who has been tasked with keeping tabs on Bond throughout. Tilly turns to run back to Pussy but is immediately killed by Oddjob using his steel-rimmed bowler hat, and then throws himself into a flying karate kick at Bond, knocking him to the floor. He is moving in for what will no doubt be the kill when the train starts to pull out and Oddjob runs and jumps on to it. At that very moment Bond’s old pal Felix Leiter emerges with half a dozen soldiers and a bazooka which Bond seizes and fires at the escaping train, damaging the rear engine but not the front one and it steams over a river bridge and is gone.

Bond walks back down the track and looks down at the poor, huddled rags of the dead Tilly.

On the plane

Days later, after a full debriefing over the phone to M, then the FBI and then an embarrassing 15 minutes of thanks from the President himself (!), after a lot of joshing and ragging with Leiter, Bond is dropped at the BOAC terminal outside New York, checks in his bag etc but is then told he has to have a vaccination jab (!). No sooner is he injected than he passes out. When he awakes it is tied by the wrists and arms to the seat of an airliner which is airbound and next to the ever-vigilant Oddjob. Goldfinger comes strolling down the aisle: ‘Well, Mr Bond, I underestimated you’ etc.

Bond asks to be served Bourbon and ice to free his hands. To his surprise the coaster the drink arrives on has a message from Pussy reading ‘I’m on your side’. This gives him the courage for a desperate plan. He pretends to drowse and nod of and slowly Oddjob eases his supervision so that, with a sudden lunge, Bond leans across him and stabs the dagger concealed in the heel of his trick shoe, through the perspex window. It shatters and all hell breaks loose, the cabin depressurising, the plane going into a nose dive and Oddjob, sitting next to the window, is very gruesomely sucked into it and then squeezed through it like toothpaste.

When the plane has levelled out Bond undoes his seat belt and encounters Goldfinger in the aisle, for once in his life going into a complete berserker frenzy and strangling him to death in a hard-fought physical battle. He takes Goldfinger’s gun into the cabin of frightened pilots, gets the radio, establishes they don’t have enough fuel to get to any dry land, and contacts a radio ship in the north Atlantic, asking it to put out a flare landing path (?). It does this and an hour later the airliner hits the choppy sea, almost immediately breaks up, Bond and Pussy just having time to escape through an emergency exit with a life raft. The plane, with its cargo of $5 billion, and the crew, breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

An hour later, picked up by the crew of the radio ship, Bond and Pussy are clean and in spare clothes. Pussy comes into his cabin wearing only a fisherman’s sweater. Get into bed, he orders, and she is meek and compliant. She explains she was a lesbian all her life because she was raped and abused by an uncle in the Deep South. Bond explains that all she needs is TLC (it is interesting that he has to explain that this stands for Tender Loving Care) and he commences his version of it by slipping his hand up over her flat belly to feel the curve of her breast and its hard nipple, then kissing her hard.

Lesbianism and lameness

Thus the novel ends on the ‘curing’ of Pussy’s lesbianism. Obviously, this is insulting to real life lesbians, then again Pussy is as realistic a character as Goldfinger, ie the entire thing is a preposterous fantasy. Nevertheless, even in its own terms, I think it is a shallow, lame ending.

You could possibly draw a graph showing the number of hours Bond puts into a relationship before he sleeps with a woman, in each of the novels. Thus Casino Royale invests a huge amount of time and energy in the relationship with Vesper Lynd which, unfortunately, ends up so tragically. We are in the company of Solitaire, Gala Brand or Tatiana Romanova for long stretches of their respective novels and we get to know them and share Bond’s thoughts and developing feeling for them over many chapters, before he gets anywhere near taking them to bed.

Goldfinger feels like the first novel which reflects the ‘easy-lay’ philosophy of the movies. Bond’s whirlwind romance with Jill Masterton feels shallow and porny, the way that, just five minutes after Bond bursts into her hotel bedroom to find her wearing only pants and bra, she is looking at him with need in her eyes, and offers to do anything for him – this insults, I think, both the reader and Bond as a character, when he is at his best and most feeling.

But the way a supposedly confirmed, hardened, man-hating lesbian crime leader like Pussy can – over the course of just half a dozen casual bantering exchanges in rooms full of other mobsters or Goldfinger and his gang – abruptly realise that Bond is ‘the first real man’ she’s met in her life, and therefore end up presenting herself on a plate for Bond and the reader’s pleasure, seems to me a forced and superficial ending to this book.

This is the first Bond novel which failed to convince me, even on its own pulp, comic-book level. For me the realistic descriptions of Jamaica, of meals and showers and scenery and settings, the prosaic details of Bond’s day-to-day living, along with a lot of his thought processes, in the earlier books, outweighed the silliness of the plots. This is the first one where the balance shifted and the preposterous, cartoon, wish-fulfilment elements outweighed the interesting and good descriptions.

And the ‘curing’ of Pussy stands as a fitting emblem of this tipping-over into the absurd.


Comments

Timeframe

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, taking a supposed saying of Goldfinger’s as an organising principle: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action’ – and so the three parts are named Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action, as Bond encounters Goldfinger three times, with mounting antagonism.

None of this is earth-shattering, but I admire Fleming’s restless drive to vary the format and structure of his fictions: sure, the fundamental narrative arc remains remarkably samey (baddie, girl, fight), but that makes it all the more interesting to note the themes and variations he plays on it.

Food

  • Du Pont treats Bond to the most delicious meal he’s ever eaten (p.22): fresh stone crabs with melted butter and thick toast, washed down with two pints of pink champagne (Pommery 1950) served in silver tankards.
  • Next day for lunch Bond and Du Pont have shrimp cocktail, native snapper with tartare sauce, roast prime ribs of beef au jus, and pineapple surprise. (p.32)

Personification

A new element enters Fleming’s writing in this book, the use of personification ie giving inanimate objects intention and agency. As Colonel Smithers warms up to deliver his lecture about gold,

Bond felt boredom gathering in the corners of the room. (p.50)

In general Fleming’s style is blunt and factual. I think it works best this way though, of course, he has been criticised for this as for just about everything else in the books. For example, back in London after the Mexico trip, Bond is on night duty:

Bond stood at the open window of the seventh-floor office of the tall building in Regent’s Park that is the headquarters of the Secret Service. London lay asleep under a full moon that rode over the town through a shoal of herring-bone clouds. Big Ben sounded three. One of the telephones rang in the dark room. (p.40)

Admittedly this passage personifies London, but in a traditional way most readers don’t register. What counts is the diminuendo towards the short factual sentences, which mimic Bond’s cold, calculating decisive actions, when he is on his mettle. Compared with all that, the half dozen personifications in Goldfinger strike a new, almost Dickensian, note.

Bond got slowly out of the car and stood looking at the house. Its blank, well-washed eyes stared back at him. The house had a background noise, a heavy rhythmic pant like a huge animal with a rather quick pulse… The quiet watchful facade of the house seemed to be waiting for Bond to do something, make some offensive move to which there would be a quick reply… The silence, helped by the slow iron tick of a massively decorated grandfather clock, gathered and crept nearer. (pp.96-97

Bond facts

M wears a stiff white collar and a loosely-tied spotted bow tie (p.46).

The Secret Service employs 2,000 staff (p.54).

For the first time Bond drives a Service Aston Martin DB III. For the first time in the series there are gadgets: the front and back lights can change colour and appearance; reinforced steel bumpers in case of ramming; a long-barreled Colt .45 in a secret compartment; and plenty of concealed space (p.62).

Bond is bored so he is working on a book to be titled Stay Alive! about all the known methods of unarmed combat from around the world (p.42) though, interestingly, he is sickened by some of the things he reads, especially in the Russian manuals.


Credit

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming was published in 1959 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1961 Pan paperback, 1964 edition (price: 3/6).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1959

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.

Eating People Is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury (1959)

To Treece, the existence of people, of liberal intellectuals, like himself was infinitely precarious, infinitely unsure, and infinitely precious. The kind of intellectual purity he stood for was a tender blossom that had little or no chance in the bitter winds of the world. Sometimes you could do no more than thank God that there were people such as he, thought Treece in no spirit of self-congratulation; he simply meant it. But those who live by the liberalism shall perish by the liberalism. Their own lack of intransigence, their inevitable effeteness, betrayed them. Already liberal intellects like his own found themselves on the periphery. The end was coming, as people like him had less and less of a social function, and were driven into an effete and separate world of their own, to the far edge of alienation. (p.210)

This is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. Pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, wordy, mealy-mouthed, repetitive, under-imagined, 290 pages of high-minded but hollow rhetoric, the lofty tones of a bloodless spinster channeling E.M. Foster at his most old ladyish and pointless.

A world away from Kingsley Amis or Keith Waterhouse with their irreverent protagonists, short punchy novels and their vividness of prose. Although Bradbury (b.1932) was younger than either Amis (b.1922) or Waterhouse (b.1929), this – Bradbury’s first novel- feels like the work of a much older man, in fact a much older woman, a maiden aunt. I imagine this is what the Mapp and Lucia novels are like, with lots of tea parties and characters feeling the world is all changing a bit too fast, and ‘in my day we really believed in something, young people these days…’ etc etc. There is a moment when someone puts a lump of sugar in Treece’s tea but he doesn’t like sugar in tea, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene, so he drinks his sugary tea trying not to grimace. Wow, high-powered comedy. Wow, this is living all right.

And God, it is so dull, so prolix, so wordy, lacking any kind of wit or sparkle or edge or turn of phrase or precision. The language lies formal, dead and inert on the page. Just horribly second rate characters endlessly discussing their feeble souls.

‘The trouble is,’ said Emma, when the waitress had gone, ‘that, with one’s behaviour one doesn’t know what to believe.’ Believe, believe, who said believe? Treece’s eyes seemed to say; here in my universe there is someone who talks of believing!
‘Do you believe?’ asked Treece.
‘No; I don’t believe; I just do things,’ said Emma. It was only men, Emma considered, who believed in things; women recognised that being a woman was way of life enough.
‘Do you believe?’ asked Emma.
‘I believe, I suppose, in my way; I believe in scrupulousness in the face of action. You know, I’ve spent all my life trying to understand the relationship of action and consequences. I wonder if I shall ever learn – I find myself singularly obtuse. But the two seem in such different sphere – actions are in time and consequences are in suspension.’
‘I know what you mean, and in a way I’d say the same,’ said Emma. ‘But at the same time you aren’t really saying anything, are you? Not about the world. I mean, where do you take your values from, and how does this apply to other people?’
‘But it doesn’t, said Treece, ‘and it isn’t a valuable position. You mistake me if you think I’m trying to elevate it into a public philosophy. All I’m saying is that I don’t believe in public philosophies, that I want to live according to my own lights, and that I don’t want to change anyone else.’
‘But you did, with me,’ said Emma.
‘That’s true,’ said Treece, ‘and I’ve repented. But… if people can believe in God, so much the better; they have a code they can, and ought, to live by.’
‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.
‘And how do you determine what’s scrupulous?’
‘The same way as you do,’ said Treece ‘I try to examine what lies before me in all its complexity and to bring to bear on it all the moral resources at my disposal.  That is what life is, as far as I’m concerned.’ (p.96-97)

My avant-garden. Ha ha. You see what he did there? It is all this lame, precious, pretentious and empty-headed.

There is no plot just a sequence of half-arsed events, which come to an abrupt and brutal halt. We are at some provincial university and introduced to Stuart Treece, ‘congenitally a person who is always served last’ (p.175), an English professor pushing 40 who, next to Lucky Jim or Billy Liar, looks like a fossil from a bygone era. He has published one dull book about A.E. Housman and keeps crapping on about the 1930s and how the world is going downhill and agonising about his moral scruples and his scrupulous morality and the morality of art and the ethics of morality and What Is The Point of The University in The Era of Television and so on. All at a succession of bloody tedious ‘parties’ (tea and cake, gin and port) with a selection of deeply boring colleagues, male and female, against a backdrop of inane students getting drunk and being unfunnily ‘witty’.

He is wet. He is inept. We watch him fail the driving test for his motorised bicycle. Twice. Attend faculty and student parties, generally ending up in a corner reading a critical magazine, justly ignored by everyone. Dim, timid, feeble, ineffective, Treece is the lead character and a pitiful loser.

‘I’m nearly forty and I can’t even cook myself a proper meal. (p.253)

‘I feel that when they made me, they botched it.’ (p.278)

‘Really Stuart,’ said Emma, ‘you’re hopeless.’ (p.257)

He has nothing interesting to say and says it at great length. What a depressing, demoralising character. He has no energy or life, no insight or ideas, just a cold porridge of worrying and the ability to talk for hundreds of pages about his values and moral scrupulousness and the end of liberal values and, oh dear, what is the world coming to.

Literary theory (absence of)

Never did a professor of literature have less to say about literature or books. He has no ideas beyond worrying about ‘morality’, no theory, no system, pattern or interpretive principles, no notion of hermeneutics, of reader reception, of Marxist or psychoanalytical criticism. David Lodge’s novels, when they feature academics, always contain useful, sometimes inspiring, précis of their theories, sometimes entire lectures outlining them are included in the text. Although this novel is entirely dedicated to a professor of English literature and the small circle of his fellow academics and students, there is absolutely nothing of intellectual substance to get your teeth into, just reams of spinsterish worrying.

For Treece literature’s function lay here: as a humanist he pursued the record of experience as he pursued experience itself, seeking to distil from it more searching exploration of the human fabric, to chart new worlds in the universe in which human sensations are played out; he looked searchingly into the ocean to see what sort of channel was made by the human passage across the world. (p.249)

A) This is a rubbish definition of literature, which is much more various, anarchic and inspiring than this dull, old-fashioned prospectus. B) But even on his own narrow terms, he is a vast and epic failure: he doesn’t distil anything (except mousy navel-gazing), he doesn’t seek any new worlds, he emphatically doesn’t look out searchingly into any ocean. He is a self-deluding coward.

On one, yes one, occasion he lets himself be persuaded to leave the college to go out into the town, taken by the university’s sociology professor on a tour of clubs, pubs and espresso bars, and is appalled at the crude energy, the loud adverts, louder music, the shouting and drinking of the working class – relieved to scurry back to the safety and security of the little tutorial room where he can discuss Moral Values, happy like a hamster in its cage.

As far as I understand it, all the characters parrot a particular strand of washed-out English liberalism derived from G.E.Moore’s Principia Ethica as popularised by the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s, ie that personal relationships are the be-all and end-all of existence; mixed with a fifth-form awareness of the best quotes from Keats’s letters (‘O for a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’), underpinned by the pervasive influence of F.R.Leavis that Literature is important because it is about Life, about feeling Life, it helps you to understand Life and live Life more intensely. That’s it.

‘Surely, [Viola said] vitality of personal relationships is all; it’s all there is. Life is catalysed by knowing interesting people. That’s where the vivid moments come from.’ (p.193)

The whole pack is a dreadful advert for higher education, giving the impression it is populated by feeble inadequates who, beneath all their high-mindedness, think about sex all the time, do nothing but attend parties, and then spend days afterwards agonising about the tiniest friction in a social encounter or an accidental harshness of conversation, because of the ‘moral’ issues they throw up. ‘Yes, maybe one was a little sharp with that new sociology student, but oh, it is so difficult to act with moral probity all the time.’ The university as a kind of refuge for the socially inadequate.

In the first half or so there are only two characters with a pulse – an African, Eborebelosa, who already has four wives and propositions all the women on the campus in search of a nice white woman to be his fifth. This promising comic character disappears around page 60, only to make a page-long reappearance towards the end when he is beaten up by some Teddy Boys simply for being black. Not so funny any more.

Louis Bates, the working class loser

The other is a repellent hulking caveman in a long raincoat named Bates whose monotonous role is the whiningly obsessive pursuit of the pretty but oh-so-sensitive post-grad student, Emma Fielding. To my dismay, Bates goes on to become the dominating presence of most of the book, screwing up every social situation he appears in, making the comfortably middle-class characters dislike but pity him, and helping to make the book the long, dire, dreadful dirge it is.

Bates is meant to be some kind of portrait of a working class adult student, in which case he is a grotesque travesty and imaginative failure. Instead of learning anything about the challenges facing men of his class in this era trying to better themselves through adult education (a potentially interesting subject), we are subjected to hundreds of pages of the altogether easier-to-write and desperately-irritating-to-read trope of him whining why nobody likes him, and pursuing Emma like a stalker. He is clumsy, ugly, smells and has no social graces. By half-way through the book I wanted to scream every time ugly Bates appeared because I knew it would lead to another 5, 6 or 7 pages whining at Emma, ‘Why won’t you love me, or kiss me, or sleep with me, or go out with me? Is it because I’m working class? What have you got against the working class? I know I’m a bit clumsy but I love you, Emma. Why won’t you go out to me? Can I come to your room and we can talk? I have so much to say to you? Why won’t you go out with me, Emma?’

On and on and on and on and on and on, at the same level of whining importunity, for nearly 300 pages, with no real insight into his character or motivation, no development or change in his situation. Reading this novel is like being in prison.

When you consider this was the era of the Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerRoom At the Top and numerous other novels dramatising working class life, as well as all those classic new Wave movies – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar – it is a scandal that this thin, dull, self-satisfied failure of a shallow under-imagined cartoon was ever published.

Moral claptrap

Dire, dull, heavy and boring, with no plot and no characters worth getting to know, this novel is made almost intolerable by the reams of high-falutin’ and utterly meaningless rhetoric about ‘morality’ which dominate all these effete ‘intellectuals’ thoughts and lives. They fart out their petty tastes and their little opinions but insist on dressing them up as Moral Principles and Grand Insights, when they are nothing of the sort, – as is demonstrated by the way these Principles have little or no impact on their actual behaviour.

‘The trouble is one does like charming people better than good people; it’s a moral corruption’ (p.159)

Yes, whether to like charming people more than ‘good’ people, it is a Profound Moral Dilemma.

It seemed as if his special human situation had somehow sapped him morally, in the plain sense of the word moral, which demands a sound and simple capacity for living life itself… The moral passions can drive one too hard until, as with Gulliver, home from his travels, ordinary life is hardly to be borne… One can’t use one’s illnesses as a kind of moral lever…

One can’t, can one? What does that mean, what does that even mean, if anything? High-minded, grand-sounding bollocks. At yet another party, we are briefly introduced to a minor character – a ‘morose, barrel-chested artist named Hermann’. This is solely so the author can point out that he has a partner, ten years older than him, who works as a prostitute to support them both. And this is solely to prompt yet another ‘moral’ discussion between radical young Viola who thinks the girlfriend is a ‘saint’ and elderly librarian Miss Enid, who is horrified:

‘Viola, dear, if she walks the streets, how can you call her that?’ ‘But she’s giving herself because of something she believes in, his work, and because she loves him,’ said Viola. ‘She’s spending herself.’
‘But why, Viola dear, do you call that saintly? I know I’m an old-fashioned thing; but you know a lot of saints got their promotion, so to speak, because of their chastity. You talk as if she’s doing something very moral; I can’t see how she is even by your standards.’
‘”Even by your standards” isn’t very kind,’ said Viola, ‘but it is moral, in the sense that she’s living life worthily.’
‘I suppose sex has just ceased to be a moral issue,’ said the librarian.
‘No,’ said Viola, shocked. ‘Oh no. It’s just a different morality. I think sex is full of moral problems; luckily, I like moral problems, and I think that’s the difference. People are prepared to have moral problems today, instead of shying away from the places where they came up.’
‘I insist,’ said the librarian. ‘You aren’t moral about personal behaviour…’ (p.102)

And so on for 290 pages. Wading through reams of piffle about ethics and morality and the morality of ethics and the ethics of the morality of ethics, made me realise this is the kind of thing people talk about at length, when they haven’t got anything interesting to say, but are convinced that they have.

They know they are special. They are really convinced they are special. But they are nervously aware that they don’t have an original thought in their heads. They don’t understand the times, they are hopelessly cut off from the culture around them, but – aha! – what they do have is their moral insights!

Yes, despite being cut off from the world around them, failing to understand anything happening in the wider society, despite being puzzled by the motor bicycle and unable to operate a payphone, incapable of cooking a meal, despite disliking this new ‘rock and roll’ music, despite not liking ‘modern’ art and despising the new fashion for ‘coffee bars’, despite in every way being marginalised and irrelevant losers, this cohort of characters keep their spirits up and persuade each other they are doing something valid by dressing up their inconsequential thoughts and insignificant lives (‘Oh should I kiss Louis just to cheer him up? Is it the moral thing to do?’) in the grandiose rhetoric of Morality and Liberal Values.

‘Humanity is hung around everyone’s neck, but we seek ourselves to live in a kind of moral and human suspension.’ (p.264)

Oh how precious and saintly and fine and sensitive their moral vibrations are. Or do I mean: Rubbish. Empty words signifying nothing but their self-love.

The pitiful thing is that all this talk about morality doesn’t – as per usual, as so often in ‘real life’ – actually make any difference to anybody’s behaviour. As Bob Dylan said, people do whatever they want to and then find fancy reasons to justify it afterwards. In a classic example, Treece spends 150 pages wondering about his soul and his moral scruples and feeling old and like his day is passing, the narrator describing on scores and scores of occasions each little flicker of moral scrupulosity his pathetic brain farts out – and then goes ahead and sleeps with one of his students anyway, pretty Emma, the postgraduate Louis Bates is obsessed with.

Ah, but what makes them so precious, you see, is that the sleeping together makes him (Treece) and Emma unhappy – their big achievement (which they confuse with being thoughtful or insightful) is to transform every aspect of human experience into over-analysed misery. And they discuss their unhappiness at great length, taking comfort from it, taking solace from the way they can’t even have sex without complicating it with pompous and ineffectual hand-wringing.

Suicide (the only way out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel)

And when Louis finds out, when Emma tells him flat out NO she will not sleep with him because she is having an ‘affair’ (the word of choice of the ineffectual, the self-deceiving, the self-dramatising – she has clumsy, inevitably unsatisfying sex with the man who can’t even ride a bicycle in a shabby single bed in her dingy rented room – once – but darling, it wasn’t sex like those ghastly working class people have, it is an affair because we talk about D.H.Lawrence and we know foreign languages, it is an affair because we spend hundreds of hours worrying and agonising over whether we have betrayed our Values, whether it is a Moral Action or merely a satisfaction of Animal Lust, and in these Fallen Times of ours, after all, darling, what can An Intellectual like me do: would you like to listen to us discuss the meaning of our one act of sex for hundreds of pages?) Louis tries to kill himself.

This crude, violent (and typically depressing, sterile) event happens very abruptly at the end of the book. After 200 pages of whining at Emma and being rejected and refusing to let that stop him, of asking ‘Emma, why don’t you love me?’ every time he meets her at every party, reception and drinks which make up the ‘events’ in the novel – ‘is it because I’m working class? But I love you Emma,’ on and on and on and on, when finally confronted by her conclusive rejection, he abruptly swallows a bottle of aspirin and is rushed to hospital.

We know this because Treece is already in hospital because of stomach ulcers he’s been suffering which have been leading to haemorrhages, loss of blood, weakness etc. The novel isn’t really developed enough to have symbolism or pattern or meaning to it, but it seemed entirely appropriate that Treece’s body is bleeding away into a physical inanition perfectly reflecting the wordy vacancy of his mind and his self-pitying sense that his Values are no longer relevant in the world.

I was surprised when I read Bradbury’s most famous book, The History Man, trailed as one of the great comic novels of the 1970s, to find that not only is it not funny, but it opens and ends with a character at one of the Kirks’ ‘famous parties’ gashing their wrists on the perennially broken window in the spare bedroom. It is not only not funny, it is actively bitter and miserable.

So both Bradbury’s first and his most famous novels conclude with characters trying to commit suicide. Can’t help feeling this is what they are really about: 200 pages of humour-free ‘comedy’ and then the real point: ‘I may have read all these books, my mutual admiration society thinks I’m so clever – but God, I am sooooooooo unhappy. Help me.’

Mal mots

My teenage son and his friends are ruthlessly critical of each other’s gags and routines. Pointing both hands at someone like a cheesy American game show host and saying, ‘Ha. Ah ha. I see what you did there,’ is a favourite way of indicating obvious, laboured and contrived attempts at humour. This novel has a steady trickle of mots you feel the author has laboured over long and hard and which fall lifeless to the floor.

‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.

‘It must be wonderful to be educated. What does it feel like?’
‘It’s like having an operation,’ said Treece. ‘You don’t know you’ve had it until long after it’s over.’ (p.141)

It is wit not humour, in that you don’t laugh. It is designed to prompt a knowing smile. Oh how clever. Ha. Ah ha.

Over at the table beside the bottles a serious literary conversation was taking place, Treece found. ‘How is your novel?’ asked a brittle, cultured voice. ‘My novel, did you say, or my navel?’ replied someone. ‘Your novel, old boy,’ said the brittle voice. ‘Well, they’re both suffering from lack of contemplation,’ said the second voice. (p.153)

‘Ah,’ said Jenkins, shaking a waggish finger in a very Continental way, ‘you want to have your cake and eat it.Why not, of course? It’s an absurd proverb. I always have my cake and eat it. It’s the only wise thing to do.’ He ate several cream pastries with great rapidity. ‘You expect too much,’ he said finally, sucking his fingers. (p.202)

‘A lot of water has flowed under Robert Bridges since then… ‘ (p.194)

Boom boom.

Academics are idiots

Like pseudo-intellectuals everywhere, Treece and the members of faculty he bumps into at parties and receptions all think the intellectual life of the world officially ended when they and their friends say so – that culture has gone down the pan, that the Great Tradition is ended, that – in their case – the arrival of television and advertising spell doom, the Life of the Mind is over, darling, I have lived on into a Philistine Age, what is the point of our possessing such Fine Moral Sensibilities?

It is 1959. On the eve of the 1960s and the vast worldwide explosion of entirely new modes of seeing, writing, making music and art and fashion and design, these dull, shallow, blind provincial, petty intellectuals see their feeble lines of though puttering to a seedy end – and knowing or understanding nothing, absolutely nothing, about the world they live in, they draw the self-deluding conclusion that the world is ending, when in so many ways, it was just beginning.

‘But then there is no English culture left, is there?’ (p.178)

… Here there were, really, no heroes and no vital men, and one simply filled in time… (p.179)

‘But there are no rich cultures left, are there? It’s a seedy world.’ (p.187)

‘How can I explain it to you? I do bad things. I lack the energy to carry through any process I conceive. And when I look at all the people in the modern world, and at the way things are moving… then I trust nothing. I simply have no trust or repose anywhere. All is change for the worse.’ (p.207)

What an imperceptive idiot. What a truly dreadful novel this is.

Related links

Malcolm Bradbury’s novels

1959 – Eating People Is Wrong – a dire, heavy, boring and tiresome portrait of a bunch of effete dullards at a provincial university, pitifully obsessing over the tiny outpourings of their feeble minds.
1965 – Stepping Westward
1975 – The History Man – Howard Kirk is a repellent sociology lecturer.
1983 – Rates of Exchange
1987 – Cuts: A Very Short Novel
1993 – Doctor Criminale
2000 – To the Hermitage

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)

‘The trouble with you, cocker, is you’re a pathological bloody liar,’ said Arthur. (p.43)

Billy Liar

William ‘Billy’ Fisher lives in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. He is 19, still lives at home with his mum and dad and Gran, and works at a local undertaker firm, Shadrack and Duxbury. He is a pathological liar and the novel opens with his lies having got into several fixes:

  • when tasked with sending calendars publicising the undertakers to every other firm and important person in the town, Billy hides them under his bed in order to keep the postage money for himself
  • his mum asks him to post a letter to a radio programme but he keeps it, opens and reads it himself
  • he is carrying on with three local girls, Liz, Rita, the Witch and promises them all he’s engaged to them, recycling a cheap ring to each in turn
  • he has lied fluently and creatively to the mum of his mate, Arthur, telling her that he (Billy) has a sister called Sheila, who’s married to a market trader named Eric, who has three shops, they have two children, Norma and Michael, the latter born with a deformed foot which was miraculously cured by one Dr Ubu, an Indian at Leeds University – all completely untrue, so that Billy is petrified of Arthur’s mum ever meeting his mum and finding out
  • he’s told his friends, his employer and his family that he’s been offered a job in London, script-writing for comedy entertainer Danny Boone – but he hasn’t

The novel chronicles the Saturday – starting with being roused out of bed and following to last thing at night, after the Saturday night dance – when all his chickens come home to roost, when all these fixes are exposed, his enemies gather round him, his girlfriends find out about each other, and Billy must face the reality behind his fantasies.

Billy’s fantasies

All this would be the stuff of a gritty 1950s kitchen sink novel but it is transformed by – the text is completely dominated by – Billy’s bright, vivid and hilarious fantasies – his mind is an unstoppable producer of amazing fancies and visions, comic scenes and scenarios, soaring far above the disappointing limits of ‘real life’. They come in a prolific flood of sketches, routines, phrases, gags, one-liners and extravagant visions.

Probably the largest is the well-worked-out alternative country of Ambrosia, where Billy is President, King, decorated war hero, whatever his mood requires, building a brand new capital city, celebrating Ambrosia’s recent triumphs in war. He carries (in his imagination) an Ambrosian machine gun which can be pulled out at the drop of (an imaginary) hat to slaughter anyone and everyone who is frustrating his day or looks like exposing his various scams.

Then there is a large number of ‘routines’ he can go into, merging seamlessly with ‘normal’ conversation and situations:

  • the trouble at t’mill routine, with Arthur taking the part of Olroyd and Billy the wayward son
  • the two Yanks in a drugstore routine
  • the Winston Churchill routine
  • the (impersonating his elderly Yorkshire employer) Duxbury routine
  • the Bible routine (‘And a voice spake…’)

Encompassing

The marvellousness of the novel, still fresh and laugh-out-loud funny after all these years, is due, I think, to two factors:

The faultless comic timing of these sketches and routines, the way one encounter, conversation or event effortlessly spawns witty one-liners or larger routines, all weaving in and out of Billy’s permanently-wired consciousness.

My heart missed a beat, and I wondered quickly how many beats it had missed this day, and whether it could only miss so many before you were dead, and if so how far was I off the total. (p.88)

And the fact that almost everyone is at it – the entire world is involved in the comedy. His workmates, his bosses, passersby, shop assistants, his three girlfriends, his family, everyone is reciting lines and playing parts and working routines.

The Witch turned away with a quick movement of the head, bringing tears to her eyes without difficulty. I suspected that she had perfected the whole action in front of a mirror. Its point was to make it quite evident that she was turning away and not just looking away. (p.99)

It is an embracing vision of a world completely transformed to become an endless source of humour and wit:

Stradhoughton was littered with objects for our derision. We could make Fascist speeches from the steps of the rates office, and we had been in trouble more than once for doing our Tommy Atkins routine under the war memorial in Town Square. Sometimes we would walk down Market Street shouting ‘Apples a pound pears’ to confuse the costermongers with their leather jackets and their Max Miller patter. (p.41)

The three apprentices at the undertakers carry on various high-powered sketches, and everybody at the Kit-Kat cafe knows routines or is performing their particular ones. The old jossers in the pub have their secret conversations, the local masons have their rituals, even the old prostitutes in the railway station late at night have a well-rehearsed patter for chatting up the soldiers. The novel portrays a world where everyone is performing one or other comedy sketch (even if they don’t realise it).

Everybody I knew spoke in clichés, but Rita spoke as though she got her words out of a slot machine, whole sentences ready-packed in a disposable tinfoil wrapper. (p.47)

Word cloud (Words and phrases throughout the text supporting the theme of play acting and putting on voices):

raillery, the high-pitched university voice, primitive verbal by-play, mechanical badinage with lorry-drivers, his Western brothers voice, the standard ready-to-use repartee, a pantomime of amazement, the grandiloquent voice, speaking the phrase as if it were a headline, the robust voice… his rich, so-called Yorkshire relish voice… the low voice… her icy voice… I went into the hard voice… from the hard voice into the matter-of-fact voice… I said in the bitter voice… I put on the intellectual act… in the light voice I said… I spoke in what I hoped was the low, husky voice… I gave them the deprecating smile… the cracked phonograph voice… the studied, indifferent approach… I said in the high-pitched voice, ‘I cannot tell a lie’… I put on an elaborate mock-sheepish act… I struck the farewell attitude…


Amis and Waterhouse

Age Amis born 1922, Waterhouse 1929, so Waterhouse is the younger man and got his first novel published at a younger age – Amis’ first novel Lucky Jim, 1954 (aet. 32) Waterhouse’s first novel There Is a Happy Land, 1957 (aet. 28).

Writer’s block In chapter two, bored at work, Billy gets out the manuscript of his play, The Two Schools at Gripminster – which has barely progressed beyond the stage directions of the first scene – and stares at it, unable to write a word. This reminded me of the scene in I Like It Here where the protagonist, Garnet Bowen, stares at the manuscript of his unfinished play, and spends a couple of pages of the novel agonising over just one sentence of dialogue. Which itself reminded me of Lucky Jim Dixon’s efforts throughout that novel to write anything meaningful for the hour-long public lecture he is doomed to give.

Writers writing about the difficulty of writing. But it’s not the only thing the two authors have in common:

Funny voices Lucky Jim and, to a lesser extent, Amis’s other early novels, feature protagonists much given to making funny faces and doing funny voices, to relieve the tedium of existence, to dramatise their boring lives, to cope with the antagonism of other people. It is striking to come to Billy Liar and find a novel which is entirely about a young man who spends every waking hour doing funny voices, living out sketches and routines, inhabiting fictional characters and fantasy worlds. Lucky Jim on speed.

One of the habits I was going to get out of was a sort of vocal equivalent of the nervous grimace, an ever-expanding repertoire of odd noises and sound effects that I would run through in time of tension… I would begin to talk to myself, the words degenerating first into senseless, ape-like sounds and then into barnyard imitations, increasing in absurdity until I was completely incoherent… I began to repeat this sentence in a variety of tones, stresses and dialects, ranging from a rapid Mickey Mouse squeak to a bass drawl, and going through all the Joycean variations… (pp.67-68)

Was there something in the air or the water? Were all young men in the late 1950s doing silly voices? There is, of course, the possible influence of The Goon Show (1951-60)…

Teenage attitude Another notable aspect of the Amis novels is the pride in dismissive vagueness, ‘Dr Johnson or whoever it was’, ‘the burgundy or whatever it was’ etc. It is a kind of insolent, disrespectful attitude which says, ‘You people think this is important, but it’s just a load of crap.’

The same attitude is prevalent throughout Billy Liar:

St Botolph’s… was the home of a Ladies’ Guild, a choir and some mob called the Shining Hour… [Maurie] was interested in youth work and all the rest of it… The long bar was where the members of the Ancient Order of Stags or whatever it was gathered on Saturday nights… in the middle of them was Councillor Duxbury, wearing the chain of past grand warden or something… [The Roxy nightclub] was supposed to be a suburban amenity or something… [Arthur at the microphone] looked like Danny Kaye or somebody doing a relaxed season at the Palladium… If [Gran’s] fit recurred it was meant to be serious or something… life and death and all the rest of it…

It is a stylistic tag or tic, emphasising how the hero’s values are different from the boring adult, official world, that he doesn’t give a tinker’s toss about their shagging orders or amenities.

Loneliness In the Amis novels the Amis protagonist is essentially alone in a sea of fools – something which gives them an occasional desperate edge. In Billy Liar everyone is portrayed as acting out one routine or another, everyone is playing a part, or struggling to:

I was trying on expressions, as though I carried a mirror about with me and was pulling faces in it. I tried to look stunned, because after all there was the material for it, and I tried to assemble some kind of definite emotion that I wasn’t putting on or concocting. (p.108)

But what the Amis and Waterhouse have in common is they are all playing a part in order to escape. As in Amis, the comedy conceals anxiety. For example, the only one of his three girls Billy has any feelings for is Liz, and it’s because he feels safe with her, because her presence is like a ‘refuge, her beaming comfortable presence protecting me from the others’ (p.129).

There is the same underlying fear of other people which I noticed in Amis’s comedy.

The idea of ever seeing Stamp again, or indeed anybody, filled me with horror. (p.154)

Was it just these two, or was it a broader cultural theme, the loneliness and alienation of young people in the 1950s? The sense of not being real? The sense of being bombarded with alternative realities and personas, all of which can be sampled like a menu, but none of which really fit?

Plot part 2

During the day Billy’s fantasies unroll with a wonderful carefree quality, he knows he’ll be in trouble with all sorts of people if the truth comes out but manages to keep all the balls in the air. We see him:

  • joshing with the guys at work, his friend Arthur and his enemy, the boorish Stamp
  • coping with his aggressively chavvy girlfriend who serves at the local coffee bar
  • dealing with his ponderous boss, Mr Shadrack (in a great scene Billy is in what he thinks is the empty undertakes office and starts saying ‘Shadrack’ in funny accents, until he is yelling it at the top of his voice – at which point Mr Shadrack emerges from the downstairs toilet)
  • ignoring the thundering criticism of  his parents and shouty Gran
  • slipping the frigid Barbara a couple of so-called ‘passion pills’ and then trying to grope her in St Botolph’s churchyard

All good comic material. But as the day turns to night, things become more fraught:

  • Billy bundles up the incriminating calendars and is smuggling them out to the ashpits on the outskirts of town when he has a tense and puzzling encounter with the senile older partner at his work, old Duxbury
  • he has a spot to perform a bit of stand-up at the local working men’s club and goes down like a lead balloon, not least because  his Dad turns up unexpectedly, only to turn his back in shame and embarrassment
  • the evening is set around the one night-club in town, the Roxy. Here Billy encounters all the characters in his scams who humiliate him in one way or another
    • the two girls he’s proposed to – chavvy Rita and frigid Barbara (aka the Witch) – meet and spot that one is wearing the other’s engagement ring and their St Nicholas necklace – which kicks off a big fight
    • his boss, Shadrack, lets him know they’ve twigged about the calendars and him stealing the postage money and he is not required back at work on Monday
    • his friend, Arthur, performs a song they co-wrote, along with a smooth band, the Rockets, and it is clear Arthur is actually achieving something compared to all Billy’s fantasies
    • to avoid his fighting fiancées, Billy takes the one girl he has real feelings for, Liz, out for a walk beyond the slag heaps on the edge of town and into the woods where, to his amazement, she lets him undress her and they appear to have full-blown sex – unfortunately, just after ‘the moment of satisfaction’, Billy hears rustling and sniggers from nearby bushes, leaps up and discovers his enemy from the office, Stamp, has watched the whole thing along with two drunken friends. Billy chases them off, then returns to collect Liz and they traipse back to the club in humiliation
    • when he finally arrives home after an eventful evening, it is to discover his Gran, taken ill earlier, has been sent off to hospital in an ambulance along with his Mum. Billy has a stand-up fight shouting match in the hall with his Dad, not only about his irresponsibility, but it comes out they’ve broken into the chest under his bed and discovered the stolen calendars and the letter his mum wrote the radio station which Billy was meant to post but instead opened and hid
    • disgusted and humiliated, Billy packs his things in a suitcase and takes a taxi to the hospital to be with his mother. His Gran dies while he is there. He and his mum sit there mouthing empty conventionalities. Once again, he is oppressed with the sense that not just he, but everyone is acting – the doctor, the nurses, his mum. He just wants to run away from the oppression of their inauthenticity.

And so Billy sees his mum into a taxi home and then walks to the railway station. He buys a ticket to London. He’s lost his job and will quite possibly be prosecuted for theft, he’s been shown up as a rotten stand-up, he was humiliated at the most important emotional moment of his life (with Liz), his best friend quietly despises him, his family are through with him…

He stands under the big clock at Stradhoughton station, the ticket to London in his hand, watched by the three old prostitutes trying to pick up drunk soldiers and realises that, for once in his life, he must make a real decision.

Can he? Will he? What will it be?

Conclusion

These final twenty or thirty pages significantly alter the mood of the novel. A lot of the joyful fizz expires like old champagne and, with the death of the Gran, in particular, something like the reality of life creeps over the text like a grey pall. His Dad is still the blustering bully and his Mum is still the shallow nag, but for a moment he realises they are people too, they too feel and suffer.

The sex-with-Liz scene had also been strangely anti-climactic – not only in the obvious sense that it was ruined by Stamp et al eavesdropping – but that, when it came to it, even at this moment of what should have been genuine emotional fulfilment, Billy feels empty, he stares beyond her into a void.

Shame the book has to end like this, on a downbeat. There are lots of earnest books about existential anxiety, about being a hollow man, in fact the twentieth century is lousy with them. There are far fewer genuinely fizzing, bubbling comic masterpieces – far rarer, far more valuable.


The movie

Made into the classic English ‘new wave’ Sixties movie, directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, released in August 1963. The film is beautifully directed, the locations (in black-and-white Bradford) wonderfully evocative, and the central performances buoyed up by great support from Leonard Rossiter as Shadrack and Rodney Bewes as Billy’s friend, Arthur.

But what it gains in visual style it loses in comic sparkle. The book is dominated by – is composed of – Billy’s endlessly joking, fantasising consciousness, carrying us on a roller-coaster in which other people are merely material for comic riffs. The movie, in contrast, has to show the reality of the other characters right from the start, has to give them realistic dialogue and so make them more real and sympathetic, which has the effect of drastically damping down the comedy. Beautifully made, nonetheless it brings out the grimness of the environment and Billy’s torturedness much more than the novel.

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Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler (1959)

The title is literal. This longer-than-usual novel is a very detailed account of the passage of a small arms cache as it moves from the communist Malay bandits it originally belonged to, via a succession of intermediaries, on to Indonesian anti-communist insurgents. There is little or no violence for the first 160 pages. Instead, there are:

  • slow, patient, thorough and convincing portraits of each of the players in the game and of their various nationalities, British, Indian, Chinese, American and Indonesian
  • and lots of detail about the complicated import-export regulations of the region which, surprisingly, make for an interesting and satisfying story and a vivid insight into the people, mores, fragile political situations and murky business practices of the Far East of the 1950s.

The beginning and, especially, the ending, have the light feel of an Ealing Comedy rather than a gripping thriller.

The story

Girija Krishnan, the Indian manager of a white rubber plantation, has had a lifelong interest in British buses ever since his father went to England and visited a bus factory in Acton (!). He has treasured the brochure of buses since he was a boy, knows all the specs and descriptions, and harbours a fantasy about setting up a proper British-style bus service in the Malay jungle. It is the mid-1950s, and the Malay Emergency is at its height, ie westerners and their workers are threatened by jungle-based communist guerillas.

One day Krishnan is asked by the manager of the rubber plantation he works on to go and help in clearing up after some communist guerillas who have been ambushed and killed by British forces. Because he knows the area better than the British officer in charge of the ambush he deduces the guerillas must have been based nearby. And when he notices some of the rubber plantation workers who are digging the graves not being surprised at the bodies, he further deduces the guerillas have been hiding out near their village.

Krishnan sets out to investigate and his patient investigations eventually uncover the cache of brand new rifles, ammunition, grenades etc which is the McGuffin at the centre of the narrative.

As the ‘Emergency’ draws to a close, Girija Krishnan contacts a Chinese middle-man, Mr Tan Siow Mong. Their courteous and roundabout conversations wonderfully capture eastern delicacy and tact. Mr Tan himslf contacts his brother, Mr Tan Tack Chee.

The Chinese dealers know that they can sell on the arms but only if they have first been ‘authenticated’ by a white man, preferably an American. Coming out of nowhere they would be confiscated. Officially owned by a westerner they can be transported anywhere.

So Mr Tan tasks his niece’s husband, Khoo Ah Au, who chauffeurs tourists round Hong Kong, with finding a suitable American. After a few false starts, Khoo chances upon Greg Nilsen, the mid-western engineer on a cruising holiday with his wife which is going to take in Hong Kong, Manila, Saigon, Singapore. Perfect!

Hong Kong: The stealth with which Khoo slowly manoeuvres Greg Nilsen into becoming interested in the proposition is admirable and once he’s agreed, all sorts of wheels click into motion. Mr Tan comes to see Mr Nilsen in person and explains the deal. Simply for agreeing to be the legal owner of the shipment for however long it takes to find a buyer, Nilsen will be paid $1,000. He tells his wife. They both think it’s an adventure.

Singapore: Meanwhile, Mr Tan’s rather thuggish brother has been looking for a buyer and finds one in the blustering ex-British Army Captain Lukey. He claims to be the front man for muslim anti-communist insurgents in Sumatra. There is some fencing because although they are brought together by the unpleasant Tan Yam Heng, neither of them like him. Lukey takes the Nilsens out for an evening of curry and drinking over which he slowly persuades Nilsen that they can dispense with the services of the regrettable brother, Tan Yam Heng. Nilsen phones Mr Tan Siow Mong who reluctantly gives his permission (he will still make most of the profit on the sale).

Intelligence services: Nilsen has the unpleasant experience of being approached by a newspaperman for an interview about American tourists who invites him and Dorothy for lunch, introduces a friend of his and discreetly leaves. The friend turns out to be the middle-aged Colonel Soames, who has a position with British Intelligence in Singapore and knows all about this gun running exploit. He drops various hints and threats to Nilsen, who is not deterred…

Until Lukey tells him the cheque he will give him needs to be counter-signed in person by a representative of the Independent Party of the Faithful, an anti-communist Islamic insurgency in northern Sumatra, in the town of Labuanga – which is a plane journey away.

Nilsen hesitates big time: this is the first time he and  his wife have detoured from their holiday schedule for this business. But Dorothy thinks it will be an adventure to go off the beaten track, and so they agree to have their tickets bought for them and to go to Labuanga accompanied by Mrs Lukey.

Things turn nasty

It is here, about two-thirds into the novel, that it finally stops being a pleasant travelogue with interesting characters talking about import-export arrangements, and becomes increasingly tense. Labuanga is not an easy thirty-minute hop across the sea, it is a serious 2-hour flight to a monsoon-swept, muddy, filthy oil port. Here Greg and Dorothy are guided by Mrs Lukey to an isolated bungalow where they meet officials from the Independent Party of the Faithful, who are deeply suspicious of this fresh-faced American. Then, as they leave, the trap is sprung. They are surrounded by soldiers. Greg has the sense to put up his hands, but some of the others aren’t quick enough and are machine-gunned.

Greg is thrown into a filthy gaol cell with the Pole who, it quickly becomes clear, is a fascist who served with Nazi forces during the War. The American Consul, Hallett, visits and makes the situation clear: Nilsen has been caught illegally running guns to a banned insurgency; he may never see America again.

Gaol break

But the novel now moves through Drama into Melodrama as the rebels stage an attack on the gaol to free their Major Sutan before he is tortured to death by the Sumatran Army. The attack is successful but, rather improbably, the British and American consuls ring each other and decide they need to be at the gaol to protect their nationals: all of which leads to a complex situation where, amid the smoke from the bombs and slipping in the blood of the dead guards, the American Consul makes a Machiavellian suggestion to the leader of the rebels, Colonel Oda:

  • as and when they come to power, the muslim rebels will need American and British support – helping free these three prisoners will secure their governments’ friendship
  • General Iskaq will probably make out a safe passage for them, in exchange for the return of his deputy, Major Gani, in one piece

There’s more to it, involving the exchange of other hostages so neither side double crosses the other. The whole thing stretches credulity to snapping point.

Final act

And it’s as simple as that: Greg and Dorothy and Mrs Lukey are freed to be driven to the airport by the Consul, there guarded by the Army till a Malay Airlines cargo plane ships them back to Singapore, they make it back to their hotel, shower and sleep.

Nilsen is a lucky man: he now has a better grasp of what he got himself into. He asks British Intelligence officer Colonel Soames for a meeting, and thrashes out what he should do. They arrive at a plan which is to get Lukey’s counter-signature to the famous cheque, cash it at the bank but, instead of paying it into an account where Mr Tan can control it, cash the cheque and hand the money – all innocence – over to the diresputable gambling addict, Tan Yam Heng. Which is what they do.

When the news gets back to the respectable Tan brothers -Mr Tan Siow Mong and Mr Tan Tack Chee – they go very gratifyingly mental. They travel to Singapore for a tense family discussion with the errant brother who has, of course, gambled away over half the money.

Mr Tan returns to Kuala Pangkalan with not enough money to honour his cheque to Krishnan but is amazed when the Indian brushes it aside to reveal his fully worked-out plan to buy some reconditioned English buses, set up a service, on condition he has 50% of the shares and is general manager. The Chinaman is impressed by the Indian’s astuteness. Maybe they can have a beautiful future together…

Conclusions

  • Ambler is wonderfully cosmopolitan: once again the hero is American, not British, and almost all the other characters are non-British. The earlier novels gave a powerful sense of the politics and character of Eastern Europe. This and its predecessor do the same for the Far East.
  • Like the other post-War novels, particularly The Schirmer Inheritance, the book is patient and slow-moving, with a strong emphasis on legal and official procedures, the processes which allow the scam or plot to exist in the first place. This conveys a tremendous sense of verisimilitude and plausibility…
  • … up until the last 30 or 40 pages where the suddenly violent ‘thriller’ element comes in. Shame. Shame he couldn’t have devised a subtler climax with less bombs and bullets and bloodshed.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Wright: rubber estate manager
  • Girija Krishnan: his Indian clerk, who discovers the dead guerrillas’ arms cache.
  • Mr Tan Siow Mong: manager of the Anglo-Malay Transport Company which receives and ships Mr Wright’s rubber: Girija turns to him for advice on how to dispose of the cache.
  • Mr Tan Tack Chee: Mr Tan’s brother
  • Tan Yam Heng: Mr Tan’s other brother, in Singapore, a disreputable gambler: uses the pseudonym Mr Lee when he meets Krishnan, then later takes delivery of the arms one dark, tense night.
  • Greg Nilsen: American engineer and manager of a die-casting factory. An innocent abroad.
  • Dorothy: his wife.
  • Arlene: irritating, clumsy and rude American they get lumbered with on their cruise.
  • Khoo Ah Au: Mr Tan’s niece’s husband, who works as a taxi driver and guide for foreign tourists to Hong Kong and is tasked with finding a suitable American to act as legal ‘owner’ of the arms cache to make it legally shippable.
  • Colonel Soames: British police intelligence, Singapore: ‘discouraging the bad boys’. Tipped off about Nilsen’s activities, tries to warn him off.
  • Captain Lukey: disreputable ex-British Army, front man for the rebels in Sumatra ie potential purchasers of the cache. Persuades Nilsen to dump Tan Yam Heng and deal with him direct.
  • Betty: his stunning Eurasian wife: chaperones Greg and Dorothy to meeting with rebel representatives in a remote bungalow in the Sumatran port of Labuanga.
  • Major Sutan: official in the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • Captain Voychinski: Polish trainer to the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • General Iskaq: military governor of the Labuanga District; violently dislikes all white people after watching, as a child, his father be beaten and humiliated by the Dutch colonists.
  • Major Gani: General Iskaq’s cocky deputy, secretly a communist conspiring to arm his party.

British

Everyone behaves sensibly and maturely and intelligently until we arrive at Singapore and meet the British characters, who are public school stereotypes, all ‘old boy’ and ‘dear chap’ and drink too much, are shifty and permanently compared to naughty schoolboys. Maybe our men in the colonies really were all like that. No wonder the Chinese and Indians despised them.

The Quiet American

One page 104 their Vietnamese guide insists on taking them to locations which feature in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American the Continental hotel where the big bomb goes off, the bridge where the body of the American himself, Alden Pyle, is found. Greg is outraged that his country is giving aid to Vietnam whose tourist guides are promoting a vehemently anti-American novel. It is striking that Greene’s novel, published in 1955, had made sufficient impact to be referenced in a novel of 1959. Or is it some kind of joke between Ambler and Greene?

Related links

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Night Without End by Alistair MacLean (1959)

Night Without End is the fifth action / adventure / thriller novel Alistair Maclean published. It inaugurates the series of books told in the first person by the kind of competent, mature, experienced, everyman hero who features in most of the rest of the novels.

It is by far the most gripping and exciting of his novels I’ve reread so far, impossible to put down, completely compelling from the first page, from the first sentence, when the half-Danish, half-Eskimo member of a scientific team on the remote Greenland ice cap hears the sound of an airplane overhead.

The plot is simple: our hero, with the bland everyman name of Dr Morris, is running a small research base high up on the Greenland ice plateau in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. It is below zero even in the pathetic shelter buried in the ice which they call their base and brutally cold outside. The plane they hear on page one proceeds to circle back and forth above them before it crash lands in the midst of the howling, freezing sleet of an Arctic storm and, before they can really prepare, the passengers need to be rescued.

You will not be surprised to learn that there is more to the situation than meets the eye and that Dr Morris, his young assistant Joss and the native Jackstraw are soon facing dangers of a kind they had not anticipated in a desperate, multi-levelled race against time through the appalling, inhuman Arctic weather and across 300 miles of the harshest lanscape in the world, to their supply base on the coast… A real cracker, sizzling with excitement and suspense, and really fast-paced, with the disasters and twists & turns in the plot coming thick & fast.

Related links

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

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.

The Last Frontier by Alistair Maclean (1959)

The Hungarian Uprising against the communist government and rule from Moscow took place in October 1956, so MacLean was writing this spy story set in Hungary just a few years after it was brutally crushed, while the memory was still fresh, while the harsh repressions, imprisonments, tortures and executions were recent events. It was his first foray into writing an espionage thriller as opposed to war stories, with mixed results.

As usual the hero has a bland, everyman sort of name – Michael Reynolds – and is an unspecified age, maybe mid-30s. He is a highly-trained British special agent, smuggled into Hungary to retrieve an idealistic British rocket scientist who has defected in the naive belief that the Soviets will use his knowledge to bring about world peace. Things go wrong from the start, and our hero is thrown into a series of tense and dangerous situations.

First or third person narrator

Unlike the later novels a) it is told in the third person b) the protagonist, Reynolds, is a rather unrealistic character – he is, at least to start with, just a bit too much of a cold, calculating espionage machine. Possibly the two are connected. Describing someone else allows you to romanticise or exaggerate their abilities, possibly a little too far. Inhabiting a character in the first person:

  • Tends to bring them more down to earth – as author you can express, as reader you can experience, their worries and calculations.
  • Allows you to be aware of their mistakes – it seems to be a characteristic of the thriller genre to insert regular ominous proleptic comments – ‘If I hadn’t forgotten that key fact, lives wouldn’t have been lost later that could have been saved. I’ll have to live with that knowledge.’ This conceding of mistakes makes more of a psychological impact if done in the first person. It adds greatly to the sense of realism (we all make mistakes) and to the tragic, gritty, it’s-a-man’s-world ideology which is what these books are for.

So the switch to first-person narratives after this novel may have come because MacLean realised the advantages it gave in terms of psychological impact and narrative flexibility.

Physical trials and tragedy

A key characteristic of the thriller is the extreme physical trials the hero must undergo. In HMS Ulysses and Night Without End and even the Guns of Navarone and in the hurricane scenes of Fear Is The Key the protagonists fight not just the enemy but really extreme weather conditions. The elements, the very universe, is against them in a King Lear kind of a way.

It was hopeless, he told himself, worse than hopeless. With a steadily increasing wind gusting up to forty, perhaps even fifty miles an hour and the train doing the same speed diagonally into it, the combined total strength of that now howling wind outside was that of a whole gale, maybe a little more – and a whole gale that was no gale at all, just a screaming white wall of almost horizontally driving snow and ice. (Ch 10)

And the enemy fights them. They are always getting beaten up and injured, pretty badly. Shot, beaten, broken nose, broken limbs, smashed teeth, pumped full of mind-bending drugs to drive you insane or having headphones clamped to your head which play the chimes of massive bells at earsplitting volume, designed to kill (Puppet on a Chain).

And almost always a close colleague dies:

  • making the danger seem real and close
  • giving the hero and the reader an opportunity to deal with his emotions in a tight-lipped, tough guy manner (‘I pulled his coat up over his face, but there was no time to lose…’)

The intensity of these physical and emotional trials connects them with the literary tradition of tragedy, where men are stripped back to their raw essence in face of a cruel world; and back beyond that, to rites of passage and trials of manhood or to earn kingship, which are routinely found in pagan, ancient or primitive societies. The hero is put through a physical wringer but also learns about the world and emerges dis-illusioned, with clearer insight into Life, Humanity, the World as, of course, we the reader, the vicarious partaker of these extreme experiences, also does.

But, completely unlike tragedy, there is a conventional love component i.e. the (always) male protagonist, almost always stumbles across an eligible, single, child-rearing-age woman in the course of his adventures and, whatever else the mission started off being about, now at least part of it ends up being about saving the girl. Thus the air stewardess in Night Without End, the heiress in Fear Is The Key, the girls in Puppet on a Chain and When Eight Bells Toll.

Against this background, then, it is no surprise that in The Last Frontier the hero is arrested several times, badly beaten (face smashed, lips burst, loses some teeth) and undergoes experimental chemical treatment designed to drive him out of his mind, along with torture based on extremes of heat and cold, plus the basic challenges of surviving the intense cold of the Hungarian winter. All of which he walks away from to still, single-handedly, save the day. One of his closest colleagues ‘tragically’ dies but, of course, our man saves the girl, and they both eventually make it back to Austria and ‘freedom’.

Overdoing the enemy

And then there is the wickedness of their human opponents, who often have superhuman attributes such as: computer-like rationality, imperviousness to pain, complete absence of empathy as they torture or kill innocents. Literature is (meant to be) interested in subtlety, and is capable of investigating great psychological subtlety and complexity: the descriptions of people in these thrillers lack subtlety, they make a merit of going to extremes, of using hyperbole.

Reynolds stared at him and had to force himself not to shiver. There was something evil, something abnormally wrong and inhuman about the quiet-talking commandant with the gently humorous professorial talk, all the more evil, all the more inhuman because it was deliberately neither, just the chillingly massive indifference of one whose utter and all-inclusive absorption in an insatiable desire for the furthering of his own particular life’s work left no possible room for any mere consideration of humanity. (Chapter 8)

In my opinion MacLean routinely overdoes this. The German commandant in Guns of Navarone was described in similar terms, the baddies in Puppet On A Chain ditto, when Doc Morris looks into the eyes of the reverend Smallwood in Night Without End MacLean goes into a dithyramb about evil.

Whereas everything we have learned about evil over the past hundred years is how squalid and banal and everyday it is. It is only presented in the form of highly intelligent, suave and polite psycho masterminds who enjoy having long civilised chats about just how clever you’ve been to get this far, in this kind of over-wrought thriller and James Bond movies.

In fact, the ‘Ah, Mr Bond, we meet at last….’ moment occurs in this novel not once but several times as Reynolds is (very believably) caught and (wildly improbably) escapes – several times. Thus the commandant of Szarháza, Hungary’s most feared prison, is no thug (‘Gentleman, please take a seat’) but a refined and educated man, ‘reckoned the greatest expert on psychological and physiological breakdown procedures outside the Soviet Union’.

‘This, gentlemen, is the moment, if ever there was a moment, for gloating: a self-confessed British spy – that recording, Mr Reynolds, will create an international sensation in the People’s Court – and the redoubtable leader of the best-organised escape group and anti-communist ring in Hungary, both in one fell swoop…It is, incidentally, a pleasure to deal with intelligent men who accept the inevitable and who are sufficiently realistic to dispense with the customary breast-beating lamentations, denials and outraged expostulations of innocence.’ (Ch 8)

In Night Without End there are a lot of paragraphs repeating just how evil, wicked, cold and heartless the two baddies are: ‘I was looking into the eyes of ultimate evil…’ etc. The cheesiness of this is quickly and easily ignored because the plight of the heroes, struggling against the terrifying Arctic storm conditions, has a truly epic feel, is all-encompassing, and you skip the commentary to find out what happens next.

However, in The Final Frontier, Reynolds is confronting the entire communist system in Eastern Europe, specifically the feared secret police, or AVO, in Hungary, backed by the looming menace of the USSR. This is a big enemy, a big subject to define and describe, and in my opinion the more MacLean stops the plot to describe the AVO in detail and fill us in on the background of the Hungarian Rising, and then the background before that – the sufferings of Eastern Europeans under the Nazis, how the Russians were initially and mistakenly greeted as saviours etc – the less successful he is.

Certainly, fear and dread have to be created in a thriller to raise the stakes, in order for the events in the novel to have a high-wire, edge-of-your-seat quality – ‘Oh my God, what will happen to them if they’re caught?’ To scare the reader into turning each page with white knuckles.

Which is why although slowing the flow of events to a standstill while, for example, the underground leader’s daughter describes in some detail the harrowing suffering of her father before, during and after the war certainly adds detail and background and lays on the atmosphere of fear and menace, it also undermines the pace.

In this respect The Last Frontier is an interesting experiment, an attempt to give historical and psychological background to a story, but I’m guessing MacLean realised it was a mistake and got in the way of the main purpose of his novels – Pace: the relentless unfolding of high tension events, which the immediately following novels, Night Without End and Fear Is the Key, have in spades.

Philosophy and politics

Something else MacLean tries out here and never tries again, is long philosophical and political speeches. The venerable, white-haired underground leader, Jansci, builds up respect as we learn more about his appalling sufferings before, during and after the war, which have conspired to turn him into a quietly-spoken saintly figure. Towards the end of the book he is given a speech which lasts 4 or 5 pages pleading for better mutual understanding between eastern and western blocs. Only by ceasing to hate and fear each other, only by meeting and talking and understanding each other, can we overcome the fear that threatens the existence of the world, in an era of superpowers with huge arsenals of thermonuclear weapons.

‘There is no certainty that it will come in our time. It’s a gamble, it must be a gamble, but better surely a gamble from hope, however tenuous that hope, than a gamble from despair and pressing the button that sends the first intercontinental missile on its way. But for the gamble to succeed, understanding comes first; mountains, rivers, seas are no longer the barriers that separate mankind, just the minds of mankind itself. The intolerance of ignorance, not wanting to know – that is the last real frontier left on earth.’ (Ch 11)

The novel has unusual complexity for a MacLean thriller because there are counter-threads, different characters represent different views, and the plot regularly stops so they can fill in historical background or have political debates:

  • The rocket scientist the whole plot was meant to be about goes on a journey from his early position of even-handedly debating the relative rights and wrongs of East or West (i.e. he naively believes the Soviets want peace, which is why he has defected) to witnessing the brutality of the secret police against his friends and against himself, before arriving at a much chastened view.
  • The Count, the Zorro-like dashing trickster who impersonates a high-ranking AVO officer and saves the day more than once, has also experienced the brutality of the inter-war years and his more jaundiced view is set against Jansci’s idealism.
  • And Reynolds, the hero, is confused enough by the complexity of the society he is infiltrating and especially by the subtlety and forbearance of Jansci’s philosophy, to swear that this will be his last mission for the Secret Service.

Cold War, old war

The arguments of the various characters about the political situation of East and West and how to handle communism were probably current and relevant in the late 1950s. Now, even for someone interested in history like me, they seem antiquated in a way the plot isn’t. The thriller, with its primitive ethos of testing manhood, will never go out of date. Whereas the arguments about whether to try to outgun the Soviets or engage at cultural and economic level are over 50 years-old and belong to a vanished world. I have to explain to my children what communism was and how the world was split into two power blocs – and they don’t believe me. Why didn’t they just agree to live by their different systems, my son asks me.

This is a good and interesting read, but not a classic MacLean.


Related links

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrators

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 narrators – 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.

Still pretty good

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.

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