One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper. (p.17)

It is the start of 1951 (p.36), some prisoners are discussing what will happen now that China has joined the Korean War, will there be a world war? (p.124) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, 40 years old (p.39) is prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team at an unnamed forced labour camp somewhere in Siberia, where the daytime temperature is -27 degrees C.

Daily life is about survival, decent boots, making the most of the pitiful thin fish soup and magara porridge, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to wangle your way out of the physically most draining labour and into something cushy like cleaning the floor of the guards’ room (nice and warm), trying to wangle a puff of someone’s cigarette butt, a fragment of extra food.

Shukhov has woken up feeling feverish so goes along to the camp doctor but is too late; only two prisoners a day are let off work and the two slots are already taken. Back in the barrack he and the rest of the 104th are told to dress, line up and march to the camp gates where they are thoroughly searched, before marching off to the building site of a new power station, rags and muffles pulled to cover as much of their faces as possible from the biting wind.

Solzhenitsyn emphasises that Shukhov is an ordinary guy, ‘a man of timid nature [who] knew no way of standing up for his rights’ (p.24). He is not educated, not an intellectual, thus the poem which the medical assistant Vdovushkin is writing ‘is beyond Shukhov’s ken’ (p.22) and he doesn’t understand the two men in the building site office who are discussing the merits of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

When Shukhov gets out, in two years time, he hopes to be a stove-setter or a carpenter or a tinker (p.39). He is meant to be everyman or, in this case, everyzek (zek being an abbreviation for the Russian for prisoner). He is a Christian, is surprised anyone isn’t, but right at the end tells the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha, that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. And he seems to half believe the folk myth that each month God creates a new moon. Why? Because he crumbles the old one up to make stars. (p.94) In his village they call the moon ‘the wolf’s sun’ (p.134).

Shukhov hasn’t been back to his home village of Temgenovo (p.84) or seen his wife since 1941 when he marched off to war. Ten years absence. During the war, in 1942, his unit was surrounded and captured by Germans. After a few days five of them managed to escape back to Russian lines. Three were shot dead by sentries, and the authorities considered Shukhov and his comrade must be spies. So they were convicted of treason and given ten years (pp.58-59).

He met team leader Tiurin in his previous camp, at Ust-Izhma (which is where he made the hand-made spoon which he still uses and hides carefully in his boot). Shukhov spent seven years in the far north, logging.

Well, a zek’s belly can stand anything. Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (p.72)

The simple format of a day in the life allows Solzhenitsyn to describe a surprising variety of people, and the work they have to do, and the world of dodges and scams the zeks pull on each other and the authorities. Anything for extra food. Anything to be near a fire or – God be praised – inside out of the sub-zero cold

He describes the crucial relationship between a team leader and his men, in fact the complex web of networks a prisoner finds himself in. He casts an experienced eye on those around him, from the 16-year-old Ukrainian Gopchick, who is quick and savvy and will survive, to the recently arrived naval captain who still thinks the world owes him a favour, is not adjusting quickly enough to the necessary posture of complete submission.

They are marched out of the camp to the power station and, by the afternoon, have got stoves going to heat up the sand enough to make mortar and actually get so into their work, priding themselves on working as a team to send up mortar and bricks to the third story which they’re building, that they’re late finishing.

At going home time, just one zek who’s dropped off somewhere means the entire contingent of 463 zeks have to wait stamping their feet as the sun disappears and the stars come out. After a lot of pushing and shoving, they’re allowed through the wire perimeter fence and march back to camp. While standing around Shukhov spots a bit of hacksaw blade lying in the snow and quickly palms it. There’s a tense moment when each zek is searched before entering the main camp, but he successfully smuggles it through in his mitten and slips it in a crack in his bunk. Later he’ll find a stone, whet the blade, and make it into a cobbler’s knife. He earns a little bit of cash making slippers for zeks with money from rags and waste bits of wood.

Back inside the main camp, Shukhov carries out a number of complicated manoeuvres. He offers to stand in the cold queue for parcels for a posh zek named Tsezar, who turns up late and takes the place Shukhov has kept. In exchange Tsezar says Shukhov can have his portion of skilly for dinner. Graphic description of the mob of zeks trying to get into the hot filthy canteen, where the harassed cook serves out skilly which is glorified dishwater with a few fragments of rotten fish or vegetables.

Fine details of how you have to scrounge a decent tray to collect the bowls for your team. There are 24 in the 104th. Shukhov and Gopchik pinch trays, and bring the bowls to a section of bench where his ‘brothers’ are sitting. His body rejoices as the tepid skilly slips down into his belly, and he takes the old zek’s precaution of sucking the fish, its bones and gills and eyes, slowly and methodically. Calories in every slurp.

Then over to Hut 7 to swap a few hard-earned roubles for a tiny glassful of excellent tobacco from the Lett. Back to his hut to listen to Tsezar excitedly open his parcel (after it had been opened and rifled through by the guards, of course), and discuss it with the naval captain.

But the latter irritated Lieutenant Volkovoi, the Security Chief, at roll call. Now he is taken away for ten days in an isolation cell. Skilly only every other day, the walls covered with ice. Not everyone survives.

Then they’re turfed out of the huts for a final head-count, all five hundred of them under the frosty moon, with more swearing from the guards, and the hut-commander beating the slowcoaches. Shukhov gives Tsezar good advice about hiding the contents of the parcel and makes sure he is first back to protect its hiding place for him. Good to have someone like Tsezar as a friend.

He climbs up to his bunk, belly full of two helpings of the wretched skilly, Tzesar’s ration of bread hidden in his jacket to be enjoyed next morning. He lies on the hard mattress, no sheets, head on the pillow full of wood shavings, feet in the sleeves of his jacket to stop them freezing, grubby blanket pulled over him, and his coat laid on top of that.

It has been a good day.


  • the old artist with a grey beard who touches up the prisoners’ numbers
  • Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin, team leader of the 104th
  • Alyosha the Baptist, who’s hidden a copied-out manuscript of the New Testament
  • Buinovsky the ex-naval captain, only been in the camp three months, has a lot to learn, imprisoned because a british admiral he was seconded to during the war sent him a thank you gift, which led to his trial and imprisonment
  • Der, B 731, a convict-supervisor on the power station building site
  • Eino, an Estonian on the 104h
  • The camp security officer, known as ‘the Father Confessor’
  • Fetiukov, a snivelling sneak and hanger-on in the 104th
  • Gopchik, Ukrainian lad of 16
  • ‘One and a half’ Ivan, a thin weedy camp guard
  • Khromoi, the mess orderly
  • Kilgas the Lett in Hut 7, always has good tobacco
  • Kolya Vdovushkin, medical assistant to the camp doctor, who is writing a long poem
  • Panteleyev, member of the 104th
  • Pavlo, deputy of the 104th, with his rolling West Ukrainian accent
  • Stepan Grigorych, the camp doctor
  • Senka, deaf member of the 104th, he’d survived Buchenwald
  • Shkuropatenko B219, a supervisor at the building site
  • The Tartar, lean violent disciplinarian guard
  • Tsezar, team-mate of Shukhov’s who receives impressive parcels from home
  • Lieutenant Volkovoi, Security Chief, who used to use a thick bullwhip on the prisoners
  • S 123, a stringy old man serving a 25 year sentence

Demotic style

The translation by Ralph Parker dates from 1963. English writers, even up to the present day, especially if they went to private school, still think it is acceptable to write about ‘one’ doing this or that, and break the back of sentences in order to avoid ending a sentence with a participle (preferring to write ‘the man about whom I told you’ rather than what every normal person would say, ‘the man I told you about’).

Presumably Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is pretty demotic, capturing the everyday speech of the zeks, the swearing of the camp guards, and the thoughts of the profoundly uneducated Shukhov – and all this has forced Parker to be more demotic than, maybe, his natural English would have permitted.

Thus it would be ludicrous to have prison camp inmates saying ‘one does’ and one does not’ all the time and so, very sensibly, Parker uses the phrasing most ordinary people would use, using ‘you’, you have to look sharp, you have to keep your wits about you, you have to know when to bend to authority etc.

And he uses ‘fuck’ sparingly, for example when Solzhenitsyn conveys the attitude of the zeks to the guards and petty officials who lord it over them. Fuck ’em, is the attitude. I imagine camp inmates swore all the time. Maybe this was Solzhenitsyn’s own restraint, and maybe he knew what would bear publication in 1962. The subject matter was controversial enough, best not to offend the literary sensibilities of the editors and writers he was trying to recruit to his cause.


Instead of learned quotations, the poor and illiterate have folk wisdom and proverbs. Shukhov’s mind is full of them.

  • You’ve only to show a whip to a beaten dog. 53
  • Thrift is better than riches 71
  • A man with two trades to his name can easily learn another ten.
  • Hasty work is scamped work. 89
  • A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing. 96
  • The quickest louse is always first to be caught in the comb. 131

In The Great Gatsby F.Scott Fitzgerald makes the simple observation that there are only two kinds of people, the sick and the well.

In Denisovich Solzhenitsyn divides people into two further categories – the warm and the freezing.

Also: the hungry and the full. As in Primo Levi’s accounts of Auschwitz, concentration camp inmates may not always be cold, but they are always hungry, permanently surviving on the verge of malnutrition.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

I am a mask, concealing the real. Behind me, hidden, actuality goes on, safe from prying eyes. (Mr Tagomi, p.227)

An alternative history

The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962 in an America which lost the Second World War. Through the everyday lives and worries of a bunch of characters in San Francisco, and a couple in Colorado, Dick slowly drip feeds to the reader the story of how this alternative history came about.

Most alternative history have a ‘point of divergence’, the point where the fictional alternative branches off from actual history. Here it is the attempt of Italian immigrant Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara who, on 15 February 1933, to assassinate President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. In actual history Zangara got off five shots but missed the President; in Dick’s alternative version, Zangara shoots Roosevelt dead.

In ‘our’ history Roosevelt went on to mastermind the New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression and ensured she was ready to wage war in Europe and the Pacific after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. America’s economic and military might were decisive in beating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In Dick’s alternative universe, no Roosevelt, no New Deal, America was unprepared for war and so a) the Japanese successfully destroyed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour, going on to seize the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, and then the West Coast of America, leading up to Capitulation Day in 1947.

Meanwhile, Dick’s alternative history of the war in Europe has the Nazis seizing Malta forcing Churchill to resign (p.70). His successors are all non-entities who fail to rally Britain while the Germans a) decisively conquer North Africa before b) turning east to defeat Russia, pushing the surviving Russians far back into Asia and then c) sending a fleet across the Atlantic which conquers the Eastern United States. Due to their slow start, the Americans never develop the atom bomb, the Germans get there first and nuke Washington DC. Now the Germans run a unified Europe under German rule, Festung Europa.

As the novel opens the Japanese are smoothly administering what is now known as the P.S.A. or Pacific States of America, main city San Francisco where most of the action is set. Their rule is mostly benign, if very hierarchical based on race, so that everyone has a ‘place’, above or below everyone else: Japs at the top, Caucasians next, Mediterranean Europeans next, blacks at the bottom.

They rule with relative freedom and civilisation compared to the Eastern Seaboard, where the Nazis have implemented their anti-Jewish policies, which they have also extended into Central and Southern America. The Military Governor of the Eastern states was for a while Erwin Rommel, the victor in North Africa. It was only when he was replaced in 1949 that the full implementation of the race laws and the concentration camps kicked in.

We learn that Hitler is now a disease-raddled recluse and has been succeeded as Führer by Martin Bormann, with much gossip about the other Nazi leaders, Goebbels, Göring and so on.

One character admires the Germans’ technical know-how, exemplified by the way they have sealed and drained the Mediterranean (!), giving them a vast new area to colonise. But several characters are less keen about their attempts to solve ‘the African Problem’, which appears to have consisted in exterminating the entire black population. A high level Japanese briefing states that the Germans’ genocidal policies in Eastern Europe, and Africa, have been an economic catastrophe.

There are some readers for whom just the outlines of alternative histories are thrilling, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. It’s fairly standard procedure, but I’m still a sucker for the way the facts which I’ve summarised above, emerge in the narrative only through hints and casual references in the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. This makes the glimpses and hints of what has happened in this alternative view of world history all the more tantalising and intriguing.

The plot

So that’s the dramatic and large-scale historical background against which Dick sets his handful of more or less humdrum characters, and shares their private worries and concerns.

Robert Childan runs American Artistic Handicrafts Inc, a successful business selling senior Japanese officials authentic Americana and antiques, from Mickey Mouse watches to handguns from the Wild West. He is trying to pull off a deal with a Mr Tagomi and goes with great trepidation to his office in the Nippon Times Building. Childan has completely assimilated the Japanese idea of ‘place’, the notion that everyone knows their place in hierarchical Japanese culture. So Childan is alert to keeping the black porters in their place, trying to gain favour and place by bowing and scraping to the Japanese and so on. This assimilation of Japanese values even extends to thinking in a highly fragmented, truncated, Japanese prose style.

An appointment was made for two o’clock. Have to shut store, he knew as he hung up the phone. No choice. Have to keep goodwill of such customers; business depends on them. (p.10)

Not only Childan’s but numerous other characters think and even speak in the same truncated style. It is a bit weird but gives a verbal coherence to the book which really distinguishes it and which I enjoyed.

He held the squiggle of silver. Reflection of the midday sun, like boxtop cereal trinket, sent-away acquired Jack Armstrong magnifying mirror. Or – he gazed down into it. Om, as Brahmins say. Shrunk spot in which all is captured. Both, at least in hint. The size, the shape. He continued to inspect dutifully. (p.219)

Frank Frink is a Jew whose tour of duty in the army got him out of the East, now controlled by the Nazis. He’s been working at a factory run by a Mr Wyndam-Matson but has just been fired for speaking out of turn. But a colleague, Ed McCarthy, suggests they go into business together, manufacturing fake ‘antique’ guns. They blackmail Wyndam-Matson, threatening to expose the fact that he is himself manufacturing fake antiquities as a side activity to his ostensible metal working factory, unless he gives them $2,000. He coughs up, and the pair set up a workshop in a ramshackle basement and start producing a new style, of contemporary jewelry designs, calling the company Edfrank Productions.

Wyndam-Matson has a mistress or girlfriend who irritates him, especially when she decides to tell him at length about the novel she’s reading, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It is an alternative history whose author, H. Abendsen, speculates about what might have happened if Roosevelt hadn’t been assassinated, but had brought America out of the Depression and pursued aggressive anti-Nazi policies, such that America and Britain had won the Second World War. Nonsense, Wyndam-Matson snorts.

Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana Frink left him some while ago, and now scrapes a living as a judo teacher in the Mountain Zone between the occupied West and East coasts. We are introduced to her as she handles two lippy lorry drivers at a truck stop café. She takes one, an Italian, home to bed. Next morning she discovers he fought for the Italian army during the war and Dick uses the Italian’s wartime experiences to gives us more alternative war history, specifically about the campaign in North Africa. They both agree about how fanatical the British became as it became clear the Allies were going to lose, and about the brutality of their use of phosphorus bombs and napalm once the Germans were advancing across England.

More to the point, this guy, Joe Cinnadella, is also reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and at points in their day Juliana picks it up and reads sections which lead to further comments on whether the right side won the wear, and why. Juliana happens to know that the author of the book, Abendsen, lives in the Rocky Mountain states, somewhere in Colorado, in a heavily fortified encampment which he fancifully calls The High Castle.

The Mr Tagomi that Robert Childan is so anxious to suck up to and sell a good quality piece of Americana to, himself only wants to buy it in order to give it as a gift to, and impress, a visitor from Europe, Mr Baynes. We watch Baynes fly across the Atlantic in one of the new atomic-powered airliners, and wind up a German he gets into conversation with and who turns out to be an unrepentant anti-semitic Nazi.

As the plot proceeds we learn that Baynes is not Swedish, as he pretends to be. His name is Rudolf Wegener, he is a member of the German Abwehr, and he has been sent by a faction of the German Partei to make contact with a retired 80-year-old Japanese general, General Tedeki, former Imperial Chief of Staff, here in San Francisco. Lots of heavy hints are dropped but it’s only at page 190 of this 250-page novel that we find out why.

In the office of Mr Tagomi, Baynes/Wegener reveals to General Tedeki that the German Wehrmacht are planning to create an ‘incident’ in the neutral zone of America, which will lead German forces to intervene, and which will be carefully arranged to draw the Japanese in, escalating diplomatic tension and then – the Wehrmacht are planning a sudden nuclear attack on the Japanese Home Island which will wipe them out. This top secret plan is named Operation Dandelion.

Barely has Wegener handed over a cigarette case full of microfilms proving his assertions when Mr Tagomi’s secretary rings up to announce that a number of Nazi goons are in the lobby throwing their weight around and demanding to be let up to Tagomi’s office. They have come to arrest Wegener. He gave himself away when he made contact with an Abwehr agent in a department store, who was being watched by the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst or SS.

To grasp this plotline it helps to understand that right from the start the Nazi state was divided into mutually loathing sections or departments, which competed and jostled with each other. The Wehrmacht is the army, the Abwehr which Wegener works for is the intelligence service, and the SS is staffed by psychopaths and sadists.

  • Dick has extrapolated the historical tensions which we know about from the history books, on for another 17 years after the end of the war, an intellectually interesting exercise
  • and dramatised these tensions, so that
  • we are witness to the contrasting attitudes of different Nazi officials, often deeply distrustful of each other
  • and, a t a higher level, as it were, we frequently overhear Japanese and American characters expressing their contempt for the endless internecine feuding of the unstable Nazi regime

This is where Freiherr Hugo Reiss, the Reichs Consul in San Francisco, comes in. He cordially dislikes his opposite number in the SS, Kreuz vom Meere, an officious thug. It is vom Meere who is overseeing the trailing and entrapment of Wegener. When he asks for co-operation, Reiss is inclined to delay and obfuscate. Until, that is, he receives a direct personal call from the new Head of the Partei, Kanzler Josef Goebbels. Who orders him to give full co-operation to the SS in the case of Wegener. Jawohl, mein Führer. He puts the phone down, shaking, while vom Meere watches with a brutal smile on his face.

This is the background to the armed goons who come to Mr Tagomi’s office to arrest him. However, they hadn’t bargained with Japanese pride, and in particular with Mr Tagomi’s fondness for authentic American antiques. Now that strand of the plot, which had been introduced right back at the start in Robert Childan’s antiques emporium, comes into play. Mr Tagomi takes an authentic Wild West Colt .44 out of his desk and points it at the door, with the evident approval of General Tedeki. When the SS men smash the door open and saunter towards Wegener, Tagomi shoots them both down. There will be consequences, but this is Japanese territory, so what precisely they will be…

Meanwhile, the scenes with Juliana Frink and her Italian lover, Joe Cinnadella, move on in counterpoint to the San Francisco scenes. First he accidentally on purpose misses the truck he was meant to be part-driving, which leaves without him. Then he suggests they drive to the nearest city, Denver, so he can show his new girl a good time. It’s on the way, in the car (her car), while he’s driving, that Juliana insists on reading out long excerpts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which leads to them discussing the national characteristics of the Italians, Germans, Russians, Americans and Japanese. In fact, suddenly and spontaneously she suggests that they drive on the hundred miles or so to the author’s supposed ‘castle’ redoubt up in the hills. Sure, says Joe, after we’ve had a good time in Denver.

But in Denver things turn bad. Joe has a haircut which reduces his hair to a close crop, and has it dyed blonde. He takes Juliana shopping but in a focused mechanical way. He makes sure she buys a low-cut blue dress and half-cup bra. They check into a swanky hotel and she is looking forward to a night on the town, when Joe brutally announces that they are going to dine early, then leave for the High Castle.

Finally, it dawns on Juliana that Joe is not Italian at all. He had been wearing a black hairpiece. He didn’t have a haircut, he simply removed the wig to reveal his blonde Aryan haircut. He is a German agent. He has been sent with a wad of cash to do whatever it takes to assassinate the author of the anti-German novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘So why do you need me?’ Juliana whines pitifully. Because this Abendsen guy has a fondness for sexy black-haired Mediterranean types. Like Juliana. Hence the low cut dress. They’ll get invited in. Abendsen will be attracted to Juliana, while Joe does his dirty work.

Back in San Francisco, someone has reported that Frank is a Jew. He’s having a smoke on the sidewalk outside their workshop when white cops arrest him, take him downtown, confirm that he’s a Jew, and tell him he’s going to be shipped out to the Nazi East Coast.

Probably the biggest event – the one which unifies all the characters in speculating about it – is the death of Martin Bormann, the current Führer. Characters speculate on who will succeed him, with Mr Tagomi’s superiors holding an interesting briefing at which an official runs through the possible successors – including Goring, Heydrich, Goebbels and so on- giving fictitious biographies for what they’ve been doing since the war ended in 1947. For those of us who like actual history, alternative histories like this are always interesting because of the way they shed fresh light and different perspectives on what actually happened.


  • will Wegener and Tedeki escape alive from Mr Tagomi’s office?
  • will Tedeki manage to get the message about Operation Dandelion back to his superiors in time for them to approach the relevant sections of the German state in order to get Operation Dandelion called off?
  • will Frank Frink be deported back to the east Coast and gassed by the Nazis?
  • and will Juliana and Joe find the High Castle of this Abendsen guy, manage to get admission, and murder him?


In fact, what happens is several of the characters have nervous breakdowns. In response to being told she is being so comprehensively used as cover in an assassination attempt Juliana has a florid breakdown, asking for pills, delirious, getting into the shower fully dressed, stabbing Joe in the neck with a razor blade and wandering down the hotel corridor stark naked, until hustled back to her room by a maid.

Similarly, Mr Tagomi, the day after the unpleasantness in his office, wanders the streets of San Francisco in a daze, fetching up at Robert Childan’s emporium, who rather forcefully sells him one of the new piece of jewelry, which Tagomi takes to a park bench and tries to get to reveal its secrets, shaking it, threatening it, shouting at it, begging it to open the door of the meaning of life.

All the way through the book Robert Childan is on the edge of sweaty-palmed panic. And he only needs to be reminded that he’s a Jew for Frank Frink to fall into a funk of fear, justifiably so, as it turns out.

This is the ground bass of Dick’s fiction. Characters live with gnawing anxiety which sooner or later blooms into goes madness, nervous breakdown, hallucinations. His texts deal you plots and characters but, like an alcoholic sizing up every room for its stash of booze, is constantly manoeuvring the reader to a place where he can let rip with pages of delirious, drug-fuelled, nervous breakdown prose, delirium, bewilderment, hallucinations, confusion, hysteria.

I wish I understood, he said to himself as he moved along the busy evening sidewalk, by the neon signs, the blaring bar doorways of Grant Avenue. I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would. Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving. (p.232)

Ideas and issues

All the characters are considerably more self-aware, given to long intense internal monologues or to lengthy thoughtful conversations, than most people I’ve met in my life. Much of their thoughts and dialogue is devoted to ideas. They are all much more interested in history than most people I’ve ever met, which is fortunate for it allows Dick, through their conversations, to pass along all kinds of backstory information about the course of events of the previous 15 years or so.

It is a very self-aware book. Dick makes it clear to us he knows what he’s doing, and his lead characters are also painfully self-aware at almost all moments.

Is alternative history a type of science fiction?

Being the very self-aware novelist that he is, Dick has two of his characters debate this very question. When he is invited to dinner with Paul and Betty Kasouras, the trio end up discussing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (in the clipped verbless style which dominates so much of the text):

‘Not a mystery,’ Paul said. ‘On contrary, interesting form of fiction possible within the genre of science fiction.’
‘Oh no,’ Betty disagreed. ‘No science in it. Not set in future. Science fiction deals with future., in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.’
‘But,’ said Paul, ‘it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.’ (p.109)

There’s plenty of alternative history fiction in the world.

Whether some, all, or any of it qualifies as science fiction is a topic for a different essay.

Alternative histories within the story

Given that the main story is set in an alternative universe, and that half the characters in it are reading a book which gives a further alternative history, the novel thus contains or navigates no fewer than three realities:

  1. ‘real’ history – the one we’re living through
  2. the alternative history of the novel
  3. the alternative alternative history described at some length by H. Abendsen

These three realities curl and intertwine throughout the text, a little like a piece of classical music, with its main theme, secondary theme, and variations on both, reappearing throughout like silver threads. Or, alternatively, like the person standing between two parallel mirrors who sees their reflections stretching into infinity in both directions.

Secrets and lies are a central theme. Or truth and falsehood. Or reality and fantasy. At one point Baynes / Wegener reflects:

Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. but the broad masses… what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth? (p.45)

Which sums up the broad streak of paranoia which runs throughout Dick’s work – that’s if you take his work very seriously. Or, if you are a tad more critical of his troubled worldview – this kind of thing (‘Look at me, see how I suffer, see how special I am!’) could be interpreted as the adolescent sense that I know this is all fake, but what of all the other poor ‘normals’? Immature.

Similarly, Dick and his characters are well aware of the power of fiction to lie and distort. Since almost every character seems to be reading H. Abendsen’s book, quite a few have extended dialogues or thought monologues about the uncanny power of fiction to create its own realities. These could be quoted to form the basis of a disquisition about fiction and fictions but… don’t we already know that? Isn’t that why people buy airport novels, so they can be completely transported on long haul flights or lying by the pool?

If you were an earnest literary type you could work this insight up into a profound discussion of the nature of fiction. Except it is a nature that pretty much everyone who’s ever read a novel is well aware of.

Childan and Kasoura, America and Japan

A prolonged thread is Childan’s on-again, off-again business relationship with a potential pair of Japanese clients, high-place Mr and Mrs Kasoura. He offers them a high value gift,in response to which they invite him to dinner, a scene which is a prolonged tour de force, describing with minute subtlety the wavering atmosphere and tone of the inscrutable orientals, as Childan desperately tries to be polite and submissive. His problems reach a kind of climax when he presents Mr Kasoura with an example of Edfrank’s new, modern, contemporary jewelry.

(In a painful earlier scene we had watched Frank Frink’s shambling, lanky partner, Ed, try to sell some of their new jewelry to Childan, and Childan’s deliberate humiliation of the salesman: here, as in every other aspect of his life, Childan is keen to maintain his place.)

In this ten-page scene (pp.168-179) Childan goes to visit Mr Kasoura at his office, to ask how his wife liked the new contemporary piece he had given him. Kasoura brings the piece from his deskdrawer and reveals that he never passed it on to his wife. He showed it tovarious colleagues who alllaughed at it for being a shapeless blob of metal. Childan feels justifiably humiliated. But then, Kasoura continues, he found himself becoming beguiled by it, attracted to its very formlessness and lack of design. After pondering why, he has come to the conclusion that is contains wu. At which Childan racks his brains to try and remember what the hell wu is. Is it even a Japanese quality or something else they’ve ripped off from the Chinese?

But, Kasoura continues, when he tried to explain this quality to his superiors, they still dismissed it but came up with a suggestion. The general population of South America is still mostly peasant, and they like good luck charms. One of Kasoura’s superiors has contacts with a man who manufactures and ships trinkets to South America by the tens of thousands. This piece might be a model for a new line of good luck charms and trinkets?

Dick is very careful to have Kasoura explain all this as if he himself is aloof and above mere business considerations. Childan, struggling to keep an absolute straight face throughout, suddenly realises he is being humiliated. Doubly humiliated. Not only did Kasoura start the conversation by saying the piece was junk. But then, having withdrawn that a little with the introduction of the concept of wu, has travelled all the way round to a new level of humilation, this time suggesting that not only is the piece junk, but that it would be appropriate for Childan to take part in an enterprise to mass produce and sell junk.

Childan is flooded with mortification and humiliation and begins to make his departure, promising to take up the contact Mr Kasoura has suggested. Does he read contempt in Kasoura’s eyes? Or professional satisfaction? Or lofty disdain for the whole business?

Suddenly his soul revolts at the endless kow-towing and abasement he has to go through and Childan decides to stand up for his country, its artists and manufactures. Abruptly he changes stance and demands an apology from Mr Kasoura. There is a very long silence as both men stand stock still. Then, very slowly, Mr Kasoura apologises. They shake hands. What expression is in his eyes? Even now, Childan doesn’t know. He leaves Kasoura’s office with a shattering sense that he has no idea what just happened. Did he just throw away the business opportunity of his life? Or did he just proudly stand up for American craftsmanship? Was he tricked into making a foolish decision? Or has he just shown a Jap what spine and character mean? Does Mr Kasoura now respect him? Or despise him even more?

I thought this was a really brilliantly calibrated scene, and more than some of the more obviously thriller-ish moments, really drove home Dick’s central theme of anxiety and disorientation.

The I Ching

Several characters – Frank Frink and Mr Tagomi and Juliana – use the I Ching methodology to make decisions, and Dick explains it at some length – the sorting of the forty-nine yarrow sticks whose shape or number indicates a hexagram, which then has to be looked up in The Book of Changes, which then gives a very oblique analysis of your current situation, and obscure advice on what to do next.

I found this whole theme of the book pretty boring, except insofar as it dramatised the intense anxiety of several of the key characters (Childan, Tagomi). They might as well have been examining the innards of chickens or reading patterns in tea leaves or consulting the stars.

Obviously its inclusion adds to the Japanese and generally oriental flavour of much of the prose and subject matter. More interesting, for me, was the several conversations the antique salesman Robert Childan has with Japanese customers. In these Dick very effectively dramatises the vast gap between Anglo-Saxon common sense and the ultra-fastidious and refined tastes and manners of the Japanese.

Finally, Juliana arrives at the Abendsen house which she finds is a perfectly normal suburban stucco-fronted place, with a little drinks party going on. She confronts Abendsen and in particular accuses him of using the I Ching throughout. Eventually he confesses that at every point, the choice of subject matter, characters, plots and development he consulted the oracle extensively.

Juliana then insists on asking for Abendsen’s I Ching equipment and asks the oracle whether The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is true. The oracle says it is.

think what this means is Juliana, Abendsen and his wife all realise that the oracle is communicating to them from an alternative universe, from our universe – and that it has told them what really happened. In other words, the characters know that they are in an alternative, and secondary universe.

What’s odd, in the book, is how calmly everyone takes this, this interpenetration of realities. Juliana walks back to her car and the Abendsens get on with their drinks party, so calmly that I wondered if I’d completely misunderstood the ending.

Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

Other fictional alternative histories

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe
  • SSGB by Len Deighton (1978) – the Germans conquered England in 1940 and now, amid the ruins of London, Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer tries to solve a murder which leads him to a massive conspiracy
  • Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) – 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
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) – it is 1964, Nazi Germany won the Second World War, and in Berlin detective Xavier March investigates a murder which leads him to uncover the horrific fact at the heart of the German Empire

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 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants 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 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 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 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 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 tale of 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 quicksand-like 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
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

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

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

A Life For The Stars by James Blish (1962)

From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off.

As opening sentences go, this is a cracking introduction to this, the last-written but third-in-chronological-order of Blish’s four ‘Okie’ novels, about entire cities which take advantage of anti-gravity ‘spindizzy’ technology, to depart earth and go roaming around the galaxy (already well-colonised by humans), trading and dealing and getting into scrapes.

The central Okie novel is Earthman, Come Home, the first to be published (in fact a ‘fix-up novel’ of four or five earlier short stories, brought together in 1953), set around the year 4,000 and which features a series of cracking space opera adventures starring John Amalfi, ‘mayor’ of New York as it roams across the galaxy getting in and out of trouble.

Next in the series was They Shall Have Stars, published in 1956, set in the 2010s (from 2013 to 2020, to be precise). This ‘fix up’ of two long short stories gives us the origins of the two technologies which made interstellar space travel possible, namely

  1. the discovery of anti-death drugs, which allow humans to live for thousands of years
  2. and the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator which not only allows an object of any size to travel at any speed – faster, even, than light – but also secures a protective field around it enclosing water, atmosphere and so on

Rather than just plonk these discoveries down in front of the reader, Blish goes to great lengths to depict the way the West – specifically America – will, by the 2010s, have become an authoritarian regime dominated by an eavesdropping FBI, which is virtually indistinguishable from the repressive system in the Soviet bloc. Eventually the West, as such, will fall to Soviet domination… but not before a heroic few pioneers have used the spindizzy technology to escape to the stars.

Chapter one: Press gang

I expected this third novel to bridge the gap between those events, which climax in 2020, with the Amalfi era of 4,000 or so AD – but it doesn’t.

Instead the story is set in the 32nd century where anyone with any get up and go has got up and gone in a city to the stars. The entire (short) novel describes the adventures of young teenager Crispin DeFord (p.150, Chris to his family). He is one of the few last impoverished inhabitants of 32nd century earth, living with his father who was once a professor but now routinely suffers from diseases of malnutrition.

Chris comes from their shack to the perimeter of the raggedy old steel-manufacturing city of Scranton to watch it take off but, at the last minute, is caught by perimeter cops and press-ganged aboard. The city takes off, much to Chris’s amazement.

Chapter two: A line of boiling dust

He is dragged in front of the city’s mayor, Frank Lutz, who reminds him of a skunk and demands if he has a speciality (specialists in anything get to eat, non-specialists, not so much). On the spur of the moment Chris claims to know all about astronomy, and manages to answer some basic questions such as the order of the planets, so he is apprenticed to the city’s astronomer, Dr Boyle Warner. He spends a year studying but not getting very far.

Chapter three: ‘Like a barrel of scrap’

Then he and Boyle, attending one of the mayor’s endless public consultations, hear him saying he plans to do a swap with a much bigger city they’ve come in contact with. When he mentions that it’s led by someone named Amalfi, we know this is New York from all the stories we read about in Earthman, Come Home. New York will give them some tech and technies, plus directions to an iron-bearing planet, in exchange Scranton will hand over 300 or so of its least useful citizens.

Chris knows that includes him and finds a hiding place in a disused warehouse. But he’s tracked down by the leader of the press gang which shanghaied him, Frad Haskins (p.146), who has turned out to be a kindly protector of the boy, and persuades him it will be easier to go.

Chapter four: Schoolroom in the sky

So he joins the three hundred or so who take a rocket ship from Scranton to New York, his mind boggled by the awesome scale of the bigger city. Arriving, he is put in a cubicle and questioned by a computerised voice – the City Fathers no less – who reveal that

  1. the first anti-death drugs were perfected in 2018
  2. Mayor Amalfi was born in 2998

Chris is submitted to intense hypnopedia i.e. put in a trance while wearing a helmet which pumps him full of facts. This gives Blish a convenient opportunity to write a prolonged and factual history of spindizzies and anti-agathic drugs which links the years described in They Shall Have Stars (the 2010s), follows through the collapse of the West, the creation of the Bureaucratic State which banned spaceflight, how dissidents who kept secret spindizzies nonetheless set off into space where they bumped into the Vegan Empire (2289), which led to war (2310), how the spindizzy technology (repressed by the Bureaucratic State) was rediscovered by the Thorium Trust’s Plant Eight which promptly took off into space and never came back (2375), followed by other power plants, towns then cities. How the city of Gravitogorsk-Mars, calling itself the Interstellar Master Traders (IMT) annihiliated the earth colony on Thor V (2394) giving Okie cities a terrible reputation. The capital planet of the Vegan Empire was ravaged by earth cities, including IMT, in 2413. How the Third Colonial Navy under Admiral Alois Hrunta destroyed Vega II instead of subduing then fled and set up his own empire, naming himself Emperor of Space (after a battle in 2464). So many cities left earth that the Bureaucratic state collapsed in 2522. Succeeded by a police state which lacked real power, but sent out police forces to police the galaxy, giving rise to the situation whereby Arm II of the galaxy is economically underpinned by Okie cities trading and policed by the earth cops, but neither system is really efficient i.e. there’s lots of friction. And that’s where we are when the story begins.

We learn that in the middle 2000s all the fossil fuels ran out and the highlands around earth were returned to farmland.

Chapter five: ‘Boy, you are dumb!’

Chris is put in the class of the martinet Dr Helena Braziller, and meets classmate Piggy Kingston-Throop, which allows the pair to discuss issues surrounding Okie cities, the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and other backstory information Blish wants to convey. Bascially, to become a ‘citizen’, to enjoy the benefits of the anti-agathic drugs, Chris must study and must pass the citizenship exam.

Chris is made the ward of Perimeter Sergeant Anderson, who we read about in Earthman, Come Home: he is head of a sort of Marine corps which is sent out whenever the city lands.

Chapter six: A planet called Heaven

New York lands on a planet where it is always raining, broken by electrical storms – ironically named ‘Heaven’. Chris isn’t involved in any of this since he is still only 17 and still at school – intensive hypnopedia school – but his guardian being Sergeant Anderson he overhears a lot, such as the planet is ruled by a smallish (60,000) caste of aristocrats, named ‘archangels’, who lord it over a vast population of serfs.

The archangels have made a typical Okie deal, that they’ll provide food and raw materials in exchange for the Okies helping them inaugurate an industrial revolution.

Piggy and Chris hang round one of the wharves on the edge of New York, staring out into the endless rain of Heaven, lit by fierce lightning storms, and generally getting in people’s way. Chris learns that the archangels speak a debased form of Russian, ‘the now dead universal language of deep space’ (p.197) (to understand why you really have to have followed the repeated notion that the Soviet Union wins the Cold War by making the West turn into its mirror image, before finally subsuming the entire world in the Bureaucratic Rule.)

Impatient and curious, Chris tries talking to one of the Archangels who stomp back and forth across the wharves, offering him the ‘small cheap clasp knife with a tiny compass embedded in its handle’ in return for… a go on one of the kind of bubble boats the Archangels speed about in: these are boats but completely covered over in perspex to protect from the awful weather.

The Archangel laughs a big Russian laugh and agrees, they climb aboard the ship (they’re known as swan boats), the guy shows him the pretty simple controls and lets him try it out a little, pushing the accelerator and steering. There’s a call from his mates back in the cabin, so he tells Christ to be careful and goes abaft.

Chris has a happy time steering, but curiosity makes him lean back towards the door into the aft cabin and he hears snippets of Russian which he can just about understand are the six Archangels talking about a conspiracy to seize New York, mentioning hostages they’ve already taken, and a ‘Castle Wolfwhip’.

On impulse Chris throws the lock on the cabin door, takes the helm of the swan boat and sets it towards the homing beacon he’d noticed. It is Young Sherlock, Young James Bond.

Chapter seven: Why not to keep demons

Chris begins to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing and decides he better turn round and steer the boat back towards the New York wharf, when it is seized by the Archangel tractor beam and the controls stop functioning. He sees a huge building emerge from the rain and fog and then the swan boat abruptly sinks beneath the surface of the ocean, down down till its tracks hit bottom and then it clambers along, emerging back up above the surface in a sheltered cavern.

Here he is quickly arrested and thrown into the same cell as his guardian Sergeant Anderson, and a colleague Dulany, as per thousands of American adventure series and movies.

When he tells them that their ‘hover suits’ are hanging up in the main hall where he was interrogated. Anderson and Dulane break out of the cell, fight their way to their suits, and then tear ‘Castle Wolfwhip’ to pieces. Since he hasn’t got a suit, they put him in a swan ship and guide it back to New York.

Where his guardian reads Chris the riot act for being a very naughty boy.

Chapter eight: the ghosts of space

To Chris’s amazement Amalfi keeps on with the contract with Heaven’s Archangels. Business is business, and they need the raw materials.

Chris goes back to school for more densely packed hypnopedia sessions, which Blish summarises. He carries on chatting on quays with Piggy, who tells him the urban legend of the great Lost City of Los Angeles which landed on a remote planet where antiagathic drugs grow in the plants. Chris drops into a Library cubicle after school and quizzes a librarian i.e. one of the city father computers, which tells him about this kind of urban legend.

Then he discusses the idea with his guardian Anderson and wife Carla, and they end up reeling through a number of aspects of their world which are basically backstory which introduce various legends or entities we will meet in Earthman Come Home, such as:

  • cities that go rogue, named ‘bindlestiffs’
  • specifically the city of the IMT which genocided Thor V
  • the Vegan orbital fort

This handy little bit of exposition, or reminder, is threaded through with a bit of home-made Freud: namely that some of these stories may be true (they will, in fact, all prove to be true in Earthman, Come Home) but there is a deeper psychological force at work, namely that we make up bogies to scare us about things we ourselves actually want to do.

‘It’s always themselves that people are scared of.’ (p.207)

Chapter nine: The tramp

New York’s contract with Heaven is fulfilled and it takes off (we hear nothing at all about the supposed industrial revolution the city was meant to have organised).

Chris’s hypnopedia education continues regardless, and becomes so intense, he is being daily stuffed with so many facts via the hypnopedia headgear, that he begins to feel physically ill. He asks his tutor Dr Braziller if this is normal and she explains that the City Fathers (who run the hypnopedia) don’t care about individuals; pupils are stuffed with facts like geese with grain, because the Fathers are waiting to see what traits, what qualities will emerge, which the city can use in its eternal quest for survival.

Wistfully, Dr Braziller tells Chris she harboured hopes of becoming a composer but the City Fathers had never heard of a woman composer so that was that.

Chris is worried because the only subject he shows any gift for is history and the City Fathers are already, in effect, the city’s historians, since they contain a vast database of dates and events which he’ll never be able to match.

All this is interrupted one day when Anderson tells him the city has a new contract but it’s complicated. It’s with a planet, Argus III, to do mining, but it has slowly emerged that the planet already has another city on site, which was under contract but failed to deliver. That city? Scranton. The city which shanghaied Chris right at the start of the story. Not fulfilling your contract but squatting on the site defines you as a ‘tramp’. Theoretically Argus III could call the cops (cops always come into these city disputes) but then Scranton could counter-claim that their contract was being breached and/or New York was trying to poach the work, a serious breach of earth law and Okie tradition.

New York has picked up radio broadcasts by both parties, Scranton and the Argolids. John Amalfi himself wants Chris to listen in on the Scranton broadcasts and use every scrap of knowledge he gained on the city, to help interpret them.

Chapter ten: Argus asleep

New York lands on Argus III. There’s some nice science about how the stars of the system are relatively young and so full of metals, as are the planets. Good mining country. Chris begins to analyse Amalfi’s decisions which, of course, allows Blish to explain them to us, the reader.

Not only that he begins to make his own suggestions based on the little he picked up from seeing Scranton’s mayor in the flesh, namely that he is ruthless, treats passengers like scum, has a shortage of anti-agathic drugs. Also he points out that something must have been going wrong for a while if Scranton is so far from the planets of metal which New York recommended to her back when they did the passenger exchange.

Then the situation is transformed when it is revealed that Chris’s friend, Piggy, has defected to the other side, taking two women with him, one the unhinged wife of a New York cop who had been taught how to fly one of the city’s planes and then stole it. Piggy must have had some plan to become a big valuable man over there, but first thing New York knows is a message from Scranton saying the three are being held hostage.

Chris suggests sneaking over to Scranton on a solo mission, but his guardian emphatically rules it out.

Chapter eleven: The hidey hole

Chris does it anyway, with a plan. He meets up with Frad Haskins, the leader of the grab squad who press-ganged Chris onto Scranton right at the start of the story. Frad explains how even those close to him think Scranton’s mayor has gone nuts. He discusses with Chris what concessions and peace Amalfi would offer if Frad leads a coup to overthrow the mayor. then Chris hides away in his hidey hole in the disused warehouse, the one we saw him seeking refuge in back in chapter three, while a coup actually takes place.

When Frad comes to fetch him it’s something like a week later and Lutz has been overthrown. Frad is shabby, unshaven, dirty and has a black eye. Exiting back onto the streets Chris sees bulletholes and shell holes. Obviously the coup was violent. (It is, pretty simply, a cop-out of Blish’s part not to show any of it at all; all we get for the entire period of the coup is an account of Chris hiding, getting hungry, and trying to sleep. This reminded me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series where there’s a lot of talk about battles and political struggles, but precious little actual description of them. This, I think, is because the entire approach of space opera is surprisingly limited: the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance – again and again – and yet turns out to hang on the confrontations of a few super-clever characters in a room. This is the opposite of history as we know it, where the fate of empires and nations has been decided by wars which drag on for years and about which vast multi-volume libraries can be written.)

Chapter twelve: An interview with Amalfi

Chris is brought back to New York, along with the new leaders of Scranton to negotiate a deal with Amalfi. With fairy tale simplicity the deadline for doing a deal with Scranton had expired on Chris’s 18th birthday, which was also when his citizenship exam, the one he’s been cramming for for the previous couple of years, was due to take place.

At a stroke Amalfi announces that Chris has shown all the qualities required by a citizen, and amazes Chris and his guardian and Frad by offering to make Chris city manager of New York. Happy ending.


Very casually, half way through the last book in the series, The Triumph of Time, Blish tells us that DeFord was shot by the City Fathers for crooked dealing ‘seven centuries’ before that story is set, so about 3295 (p.559). Since The Triumph of Time was published in 1959, three years before A Life For The Stars, anyone who’d been reading the books as they came out, will have known Chris’s ultimate fate throughout their reading of this narrative.

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 embittered working class 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 – a 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 –

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

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962)

The most obvious thing about this book is the quality of the illustrations: in contrast to the crystal clear, crisply drawn illustrations of all the previous books, the pictures in Tales from Moominvalley are rough and sketchy i.e. where one precise line did the job in earlier books, here they take multiple lines to sketch out a character’s outline or other objects, giving a far rougher, hastier, smudgier appearance to the pictures and to the entire page.

Why? Are they early works saved up for this relatively late publication (1962)? Is this her late style? Or did she make a conscious decision to explore a rougher, more sketchy style? In some of the illustrations the familiar Moomin characters barely look themselves. Compare early and late:

Here’s a gallery of illustrations from the book. Judge for yourself how rough-hewn, primitive and unfinished they look, compared with the earlier style.

Nine stories

The book consists of nine short stories. They are all more elliptical and serious than in the previous books. Instead of carefree childhood adventures – as the previous books – they investigate what are essentially adult psychological states.

Thus in the first story Snufkin is happy walking alone through the woods on the verge of creating a new song. He stops to camp by a stream but a little woodland creature plucks up the courage to speak to him, then comes over and starts a nattery conversation and, when he finally leaves, Snufkin discovers to his frustration that the idea for the new song has been completely driven out of his head.

But that’s not all, the little creature had heard of the famous traveller Snufkin, and before he left asked if he could give him a name. A bit irritated, Snufkin names him Teety-woo after birds he can hear singing in the treetops. Next morning Snufkin, still irritated at this intrusion into his solitude, sets off north but can’t get the little creature’s babbling chatter out of his head and eventually turns round and walks back to the woods to find him.

Here he finds Teety-woo and discovers that, now he’s got a name, he is making up for lost time and running round experiencing everything for the first time as Teety-woo! In fact, he’s far too busy living to listen to Snufkin who, only yesterday, he sought out all timid and shy: now he is the brave confident Teety-woo.

He runs off and Snufkin sits, pondering, as does the reader, this parable about identity and existence. Then gets up and sets back off towards the north, whistling. Soon a tune begins to form in his mind. A lesson learned.

See? Not a kiddy adventure, is it? More a life lesson. I wonder what on earth my 8-year-old self made of it.

The stories

All the others are all like this. In one a very nervous fillyjonk, always worrying and fretting about the worst, actually does experience the worst when a terrific tornado blows in from the sea and lays waste her home and, in the end – you know what – it turns out not to matter.

The fillyjonk drew a deep breath. Now I’ll never be afraid again, she said to herself. Now I’m free. Now I can do anything. (p.58)

So far so sort of Moominish. But I haven’t mentioned that the main part of the story consists of a tea party the fillyjonk gives for her ‘friend’, Gaffsie, who is depicted as an empty-headed housewife. The fillyjonk gets more and more frustrated with gossip about the best way to clean carpets and so on and, suddenly – out of nowhere – erupts into a great speech about how disaster is going to strike the world, everything is going to be destroyed, ‘they’ are coming to get us all! Gaffsie looks into her teacup, deeply embarrassed. It is the story of a suburban nervous breakdown.

Maybe this is why the pictures are so different, so much rougher, in this book. Jansson wanted to indicate this was a different, more teenage (at least) type of book.

Other stories are about:

A Tale of Horror A little whomper who tells such lies his parents send him to bed without tea, so he runs away and, after a scary spell in the dark, stumbles into a house where Little My is hiding on top of the wardrobe and she proceeds to tell such outrageous lies (about a man-eating fungus) that the little whomper is relieved when his daddy knocks on the door and comes to take him home, a chastened little boy.

The Last Dragon in the World Moomintroll catches a teeny, tiny dragon which fits into a jam jar but, when he shows it to the others, it immediately flies to Snufkin and refuses to leave. This makes Moomintroll sad and sulky. Realising this, Snufkin who’s fishing down by the river, eases the sleeping dragon into his kettle and gives it to a hemulen skippering a passing boat, asking him to slip flies down the spout to feed it, and then, after a few days, to release the dragon somewhere miles downstream. When Moomintroll moodily comes down to the river, Snufkin says he hasn’t seen the dragon, they’re notoriously flighty and go their own way, it’s probably flown off. And Moomintroll, reconciled, sits down to fish with him. It has a baby dragon at its centre, but this is quite obviously a story about friendship and understanding.

The Hemulen who loved silence The old hemulen works at a pleasure ground punching the visitors’ tickets and has got sick of the endless people and the blaring noise and can’t wait to retire. One day it starts raining and doesn’t stop for eight weeks. Bit by bit the pleasure ground attractions are washed away and he is glad. All the children are stuck inside their homes with their noses pressed to the windows. The hemulen uncles who owned the park decide they’ll abandon it and build an ice rink. When they offer him a job there, the hemulen says, ‘No, he wants to retire’. The hemulen uncles fall about laughing and give him the key to his grandmother’s old park.

Slowly, at length, the hemulen explores the overgrown gardens – described with typically Jansson-like wondrous spookiness – and settles into his new life of silence. But — the children have followed him and bang at the gates. They tell him they’ve recovered lots of bits of the pleasure ground from the rain and flood and can he put them together again. So, very reluctantly, the hemulen opens the locked gates and drags some of the wreckage inside. Long story short: the parts are too damaged and random to rebuild any of the rides but it does occur to him that he can create a sort of theme park with magic bits and painted faces and so on scattered through the underbrush, and so he does. He lets all the children in on condition they play very quietly. And they do, for that is part of the game in the marvellous jungle playground the hemulen who loved silence has built.

The Invisible Child Too-tickey comes home to the Moomin house one day with a completely invisible friend, Ninny. (Note, this strange new addition to the household, as so many, is a girl. It’s reassuring, the way so many of the characters are female.) Moominmamma makes up a traditional medicine handed down from her grandmother (note the importance of the matriarchy, as in Moominland Midwinter) and it helps start to make some of Ninny visible, but she also requires quite a bit of coaxing and reassurance from the others.

Little My diagnoses the real problem – Ninny has never been really angry and never laughed. They try to teach her games but she doesn’t get them. She doesn’t know how to have fun. Until one day they take her down to the seaside where they’re fixing up the old boat. First of all Ninny is terrified and appalled by the sea, which she’s never seen before – it’s just too big! And then she spies Moominpappa creeping up behind Moominmamma to give her a friendly fright, and Ninny leaps to mamma’s defence, giving Moominpappa a hard bite in the tail. She starts to laugh as Moominpappa curses and, reaching for his top hat which has fallen into the sea, tips over and falls headfirst into the waves. At which Ninny roars with delight and becomes fully visible.

So maybe the story could be retitled ‘the girl who learned how to laugh’. It seems pregnant with significance and meaning, like a fable.

The Secret of the Hattifatteners We’ve met the hattifatteners in numerous previous books. This tale describes how Moominpappa came to feel asphyxiated by happy Moomin family life and just had to get away. Moominmamma encouraged him. So he went to explore a secret bay he had once glimpsed from their boat and is surprised when a little boat with hattifatteners in it floats out. He hops in and spends the next few weeks journeying with the hattifatteners. He discovers they go to remote islands (of which there are thousands on the coast of Finland) and leave rolled-up birch bark scrolls. Not with any hidden messages or treasure maps. Just rolled-up birch bark scrolls.

Slowly Moominpappa feels his own mind becoming flattened and emptied. Sometimes he finds himself staring out over the sea as empty-mindedly as a hattifattener. Eventually they congregate with other boats of hattifatteners at a particular island and there is a big thunderstorm with plenty of lightning.

Moominpappa is knocked flat by a gust of wind and woken from his daze. Looking round at the hattifatteners yearning up into the sky, he realises they seek the lightning in order to come alive.

Only in the presence of electricity were they able to live at last, strongly and with great and intense feelings. (p.141)

Chastened by his adventure, Moominpappa realises that he not only misses home and wants to be back on the Moomin veranda – but that it is only there that he can feel free and adventurous.

Running through this story is a disconcerting anxiety about the act of thinking itself and the kinds of thoughts people have. Right at the start, Moominmamma rationalises her husband’s decision to go by saying that he’d been acting oddly for a while. But is that right? Or was it:

… just one of those things one thinks up afterwards when one’s bewildered and sad and wants the comfort of an explanation. (p.120)

This is a bit more unhappy and psychologically searching than any of the previous books. Later Moominpappa wishes he could communicate with the hattifatteners because talking:

‘is such a good way to keep one from thinking. And it was no use to leave the big and dangerous thoughts aside and concentrate on the small and friendly sort… (p.126)

Suddenly these are characters who have to keep from thinking.

As Moominpappa slowly falls in with the hattifattener way of life he finds his thoughts becoming white and empty. It is only the gust of wind which blows him over during the storm which makes him realise the whole situation and leads to his ‘happy’ realisation that home is where the heart is.

But to the adult reader, this all sounds like a fable working through real mental unhappiness and distress. ‘Fear of the big thoughts’ which make you so unhappy? A wish for an end to thinking, to the hattifatteners’ mindlessness? This is not the clever, warm humour of the earlier books, but something much darker.

Cedric Cedric is the name of Sniff’s toy dog. Moomintroll persuaded him to give it away to Gaffsie’s daughter because he said giving gifts makes you feel good – but in fact it’s made Sniff feel miserable.

‘When Sniff’s thoughts became too black’ he jumped out of bed and went to see Snufkin. Snufkin tells him a fable, the story of an aunt of his who had no husband or children or friends but a house stuffed full of belongings. One day she swallowed the bone in a lamb cutlet and went to see the doctor who told her she had only a few weeks to live. She’d always had an ambition to see the Amazonas and go deep sea diving so she decided to give away all her things and set off. But giving away everything turned into quite a project, especially since she wanted to give some thought to giving the correct things to the right people.

The more she gave away, the lighter and brighter the house became, and friends popped round to thank her. She laughed more, people enjoyed her company, came round for the evening and told funny stories and one day she was laughing so hard at one of these stories that the stuck bone popped up out of her mouth.

Sniff thinks it’s a foolish story and goes back to bed.

The adult reader gets the point – stop being a lonely miser, give away your belongings and become a happy person with lots of friends.

But the acute reader also notices the little trills and grace notes in the prose. In all the previous books these notes and details pointed upwards, they delighted you with sweet and touching details. But in every one of the stories in this volume the details point downwards. Moominpappa can’t bear to be at home any more. Sniff doesn’t just get restless; he gets out of his bed when his thoughts become too ‘black’.

(Compared to the masterpieces of her earlier illustrations, this picture feels roughly done and poor.)

The Fir Tree In which the Moomins are woken from their winter hibernation by a thoughtless hemulen who warns them about Christmas. On the surface the story is meant to be a joke, because the hemulen unwittingly gives the panic-stricken impression that ‘Christmas’ is a monster who has to be placated with a cut fir tree and presents, so the Moomins chop down a fir tree and each chooses a gift to give to the awful god ‘Christmas’.

And the joke is maintained by the way the hemulen is so stressed with all the gifts he has to give, and also by the hemulen’s aunt rushing to and fro in a sledge packed with presents, loudly fretting about what she’s going to cook because, oh dear, Christmas it always requires such a massive meal, and so on.

All round, this ‘Christmas’ thing is presented as an awful, stressful time which makes everyone unhappy and miserable.

The joke ends fairly humorously as a shy timid woody and his family come out, awe-struck, to look at the decorated tree and all the presents in the Moominhouse. ‘Is Christmas coming?’ ask the Moomintrolls, full of anxiety. ‘Why this is it!’ smile the woody and his family. Still scared, the Moomins declare the woody and his family are welcome to it all and sneak off to the veranda to await the disaster.

But there is no disaster. They peek through the window and see the woody and his family merrily eating and drinking and opening presents. Maybe the hemulen and his aunt got it wrong all along. Maybe Christmas isn’t about stress and lists and social obligations and worrying about food. Maybe it is about eating what you like and simply giving something meaningful to others.

Hopelessly confused, the Moomin family sneaks back to their bedrooms to carry on sleeping through till the spring.

The illustrations

I can’t get over how different the illustrations are. Here is Moomintroll from an earlier book, depicted with great clarity and precision, in perfect outlines set against a background created by incredibly detailed shading.

And here is Moomintroll as he appears in this book, looking at the baby dragon in its jam jar. There’s no comparison in the level of artistry. It looks like the roughest or preparatory sketches. Was she ill? Had she lost interest?


Moomintroll and the last dragon in the world

Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)

‘Bond. James Bond.’
‘That’s a pretty chump name. From England, huh?’ (p.124)

A colossal experiment, a James Bond adventure told from the point of view of its ‘Bond girl’, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel. Fleming had experimented with structure and time-frame in previous novels, but this is an extraordinary departure from the formula. It was panned by the critics and Fleming later tried to suppress it.

The Spy Who Loved Me is a short novel, divided – very slickly – into three sections: Me, Them, Him.

Me (74 pages)

The first 70 or so pages are a first-person narrative told by Vivienne Michel, 23-years-old, five foot six, still fresh, young and naive. It is the long, sensitive autobiography of a well-brought-up young woman in which JB isn’t mentioned – a really remarkable production for the author of the famous bang-bang espionage novels.

Viv comes from an established French-Canadian family, her parents died when she was young (like so many Bond girls, making her that bit more free, wayward and independent – characteristics which always appeal to him) and she was brought up by an aunt who sent her to a traditional, Catholic convent school.

As her education neared completion, the (Protestant) aunt decided she needed to be ‘finished’ in England, and so sent her to a very posh finishing school in the Sunninghill area of East Berkshire, not far from Windsor. There’s a brief account of the bullying she got there from the other girls for having a ‘funny’ accent, before she settles down to be turned into a model young lady.

But the lion’s share of the section is devoted to a long and embarrassingly detailed account of her seduction by ‘Derek’, from a local public school. By this stage Viv has left her school and set up in a shared flat in Chelsea. She and her flat-mate hold their first party, lubricated with plenty of pink champagne and amateur canapés, and she finds herself being charmed by the tall sixth-former, Derek Mallaby, who plays cricket for his school’s first XI.

Viv and Derek proceed to meet up every Saturday throughout that long lovely summer for walks or even little pleasure cruises along the Thames. One thing leads to another and she describes, in minute and excruciating detail, the evening he takes her virginity – first trying it on in the cramped box at the local fleapit cinema, until the management throws them out – then persuading her to go for a ‘walk’ down by the river Thames, till they find an isolated spot, littered with the detritus of previous ‘courting couples’. Here Derek does the deed, Viv cries in pain but, once satisfied, he turns cold and aloof, all but ignoring her on the cold, sad trudge back to Windsor railway station.

We are plunged into her point of view, experiencing all this from the perspective of a confused teenager, puzzled by the  now-passionate, now-frigid behaviour of the man she thinks ‘loves’ her.

It comes as no surprise to the reader when young Derek writes her a ‘Dear Jane’ letter, explaining that now he is going up to Oxford, things are going to be different, his parents don’t want him consorting with someone who isn’t ‘the right type’, in fact – he now reveals – he’s been sort of engaged to a young lady from a good family for a while now. Sorry. Bye.

Viv cries her eyes out for six months. But there’s more, lots more of her narrative. We hear about her career in journalism, first of all in a local paper distributed in the Chelsea area. We learn what its editorial policy is, how Viv turns out to be a natural at researching and sub-editing, as well as chivvying adverts out of local traders. She is promoted, then gets a new job at a large-scale German media company in town. This is run by the excessively Teutonic Kurt Rainer and, once again, we get an extensive description of Viv’s role in the processes whereby news copy is generated, fact checked and distributed to the German news agencies.

Rainer has a fiancée and shares completely inappropriate confidences with Viv about his plans for the marriage, for the honeymoon (sex once a night), then settling down into married life (sex every Wednesday and Saturday). All these confidences draw him into her ambit until the (inevitable) night when he arrives in floods of tears, announcing his fiancée has dumped him and married a man in Germany. One thing leads to another and she ends up sleeping with him and then, basically, becoming her boss’s mistress.

All goes sort of OK until she realises she’s pregnant. When she tells him, Rainer reacts with callous Teutonic coldness and efficiency. He ceases all friendly relations with her, becoming coldly professional in the office and finally calling her in for a ‘meeting’ where he explains that he has organised every detail for her to fly to Switzerland, stay in such and such a hotel, go and see such and such a doctor, and have an abortion. He hands over an envelope with the necessary money (£150) and then announces that she is fired.

The text follows Viv’s experiences flying to Switzerland by herself and enduring the abortion process with no-one to help or support her. It all makes excruciatingly embarrassing reading for any man who’s ever seduced a young woman, or who is father of a teenage girl, or just any man.

[I found Viv’s story a fascinating slice of social history – the experiences of a (in fact, fairly privileged and well-off) young, single woman in England, circa 1956 or 57. Reminds me of the grim kitchen sink dramas of the later 1950s or the black and white movies – Saturday Night and Sunday MorningA Taste of Honey – or another novel about a naive young woman in London (written by a man) Take A Girl By You by Kingsley Amis.]

Back in London, Viv realises she just needs to escape – the horrible weather, the narrow horizons, the snobbery and disapproval. She needs to get back to the wide, open spaces of her youth, back to Canada. She buys a Vespa scooter and flies with it back to Canada, then packs off on an open-ended adventure motoring south into the States, into upstate New York State, to be precise.

Viv scooters round the area, exploring nooks and crannies while her money begins to run low and till, by good luck, she checks into an obscure little motel, ‘The Dreamy Pines Motor Court’ run by lecherous Jed Phancey and his long-suffering wife, Mildred.

This couple explain that the motel is owned by a rich Italian guy – Mr. Sanguinetti – and they’re looking for a young woman to become receptionist and look after the place in the last few weeks of the season till it’s closed up for the winter. Sounds like an easy way to pick up some dollars, so Viv agrees, dodging Jed Phancy’s lecherous comments and gropes as the couple show her where everything is, pack up their stuff, and motor off.

–All the above – Viv’s life story – has been told as a long flashback. It began as Viv watched the Phancies depart – then a violent rainstorm hit the motel, forcing Viv to retreat inside, pour herself a long drink of bourbon, and snuggle up in a comfy chair, as she reflected on her life and on the tangled web of events which had brought her to this isolated motel in the middle of nowhere. It is a persuasive and mesmeric performance.

Them (23 pages)

Viv is roused from her reveries by a harsh knocking at the door. Two men in raincoats are standing in the thundering downpour; they say they’re from Mr Sanguinetti. No-one had told her to expect them and as soon as she’s let them in she realises she’s in trouble, really bad trouble.

Tall, thin Sol Horovitz (aka ‘Horror’) with his bony skull and callous stare is accompanied by bald, fat Sluggsy Morant (‘Sluggsy’), who immediately sizes Viv up and starts making the crudest comments about her figure, promising that, when night falls, he’s going to give it to her good and hard and lots of times. Yuk. Viv has been pitched, with no warning, into a nightmare. — The 20 or so pages of this section amount to a systematic mental and physical degradation of this ‘innocent’ young woman, the kind of punishment which Fleming normally reserves for Bond.

The two men take complete control of the kitchen-diner area, Sluggsy groping and verbally threatening Viv at every opportunity. Eventually she makes a desperate dash for the door and runs in the pouring rain between the cabins and into the nearby pine woods. But Horror switches on the car headlights which penetrate deep among the pines, and Sluggsy easily catches her at gun-point.

Back in the cage of the kitchen-dining area she has another go at her attackers, using a corkscrew to try and skewer Horror, but only managing to scratch his forehead. Now this forbidding scarecrow loses his temper, his tiny black eyes seeing red and, while Sluggsy holds her, Horror sets about systematically punching Viv’s face, then her body, at its most vulnerable and painful points, until she is whimpering, then screaming, then begging, then blacks out.

Viv recovers consciousness stripped naked in the cold shower with Sluggsy leering over her, waiting while she throws up, having been reduced to the level of a beaten animal. ‘Get dressed and come back to the diner and no funny business,’ he tells her.

It takes her a while to recover, to stand up, to dry off, to dress in white overalls, and stagger the short distance to the diner. Once again, the impassive baddies tell her to fix them hot food – eggs and bacon and coffee – while her flayed mind vows that, God, if she makes it through this nightmare night she will never take peace and safety and security for granted again.

As the bad guys come to collect their food, she makes another feeble rebellion, throwing a drawer full of knives and forks in Sluggsy’s face, then trying to fend Horror off with plates, but they easily overpower her and this time Sluggsy begins ripping her clothes off with the declared aim of raping her when — there is a knock at the front door. And, like characters in a bedroom farce, they all freeze in a static tableau.

Him (79 pages)

‘OK, babe,’ they tell her, ‘answer it, but no funny business.’ Viv opens the door and it’s James Bond, six feet tall, lean, fit, scar on his face, cool grey-blue eyes (p.127). As usual, there is no detection involved in a Bond story. He is immediately thrown into confrontation with the bad guys – the only question is when the shootout will erupt.

Viv almost faints with relief as she invites Bond into the dining area, making secret signs with her fingers and winking at him. He says he was driving down to Albany when he got a slow puncture a mile or so back. Now it’s completely flat, he saw the ‘Vacancy’ sign on and wants to stay the night. Menacingly, the two hoods try to deter him, but Bond insists, so they shrug and say, ‘OK doll, get him a key’.

Very relaxed, the goons tell Bond that Viv is in a bit of a state because they’re investigators for the motel’s owner and were sent up to investigate claims she was fiddling the books. Bond instinctively disbelieves them. Amazingly, they let Viv go out to Bond’s car with him to collect his bags and stuff where she tells him in full and graphic detail what a nightmare she’s been in, and how evil the bad guys are. Bond reassures her, palms a gun and a small attaché case, and returns to the dining area, while the two hoods watch resentfully.

Bond confidently orders a meal and Viv scrambles yet more eggs and fries yet more bacon, while he explains why he’s here.

Complicated backstory

Apparently, a high-level Russian scientist from the nuclear sub base at Kronstadt, ‘Boris’, has defected. Our chaps offered him a new identity in the West. The Russians generally shrug when defectors leave, but this one was so high-level they want him liquidated to set an example. So they put out a contract of £100,000 on him.

Word got round to SPECTRE – the nefarious criminal organisation introduced in the preceding novel, Thunderball. (In fact Bond specifically references ‘Operation Thunderball‘ and Viv turns out to have read about it in the papers.)

An ex-Nazi (as so often, cf the ex-Nazi von Hammerstein in For Your Eyes Only or Hugo Drax in Moonraker), Horst Uhlmann, picks up the contract. All this is discovered and reported by the Canadian Mounties and Bond is sent to Canada on the case. They decide he will impersonate ‘Boris’, since he happens – fortuitously – to be a dead ringer for him (handsome physicist!). Thus Bond camps out in the defector’s flat waiting for the assassination attempt to come. So one day the bad guys come knocking and there is a furious shootout in the apartment building hallway. The wounded Horst forces open the apartment door, into where Bond is kneeling to fill him full of lead. End of assassination attempt.

But Horst had recruited a back-up team from bad guys attached to The Mechanics crime gang in Albany, upstate New York, and Bond wants to complete the job by tracking down and capturing them. (This is a very convoluted back story.) So Bond set off to drive from Canada down to Albany and was cruising along the highway when he realised he had a puncture, and limped past the bright ‘Vacancy’ sign on the motel just as the storm broke. That’s why he’s here.

I found this explanation tortuous, implausible and hard to follow. As often, the ‘international espionage element’ felt like it was tacked on to a plot which in essence is much more like a kind of Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane gangster story. Remove the defector, and it’s the cops / special agent, against organised criminals / the Mob.

All this has been conveyed by page 140 of this 190-page novel. What remains? The shootout and escape.

The long dénouement

The ending is very dragged-out. Eventually the hoods let Bond and the girl go to their cabins to sleep, though ensuring Bond’s is the one right at the end of the line. Bond shows Viv how to secure her bedroom bu shoving wedges under the door, pushing the TV cabinet against the window, creating a pretend body in the bed, and sleeping on the floor. Only then does he kiss her and go off to his cabin.

In the middle of the night Viv wakes to see a glimmer of light coming from the built-in wardrobe, then there’s a crash and Sluggsy bursts in through a rent the baddies had obviously made through the back of the wall and into her wardrobe, earlier in the evening. Sluggsy seizes Viv by the hair and cuffs her unconscious.

As she comes to, Viv realises she’s being pulled along the ground, in pain, while light and sound rage around her. Slowly she realises the motel complex has been set on fire and that Bond has rescued her from the burning building. He makes sure she’s safe, breathing and conscious, leaving her at the edge of the trees to run back to the burning cabin to retrieve the pistol he gave her. Along with his Beretta, that makes two weapons.

He explains that the bad guys had shot bullets through his cabin window into the fake body Bond created in his bed. Bond had waited till they were satisfied they had ‘killed’ him and left, slipping out the back of his cabin. He had seen them begin to torch the motel buildings, then scampered along to Viv’s cabin, to find her unconscious and rescue her, which is where the narrative picked up.

From their vantage point, Bond and Viv watch the two hoods walking from the motel carrying TV sets; so they’re doing a little freelance looting as well as arson. The plot is finally clear to Bond: it is an insurance scam. The two hoods are paid by Sanguinetti to torch the motel. The girl was to be the patsy. The Phancies were in on the scam. They would testify that they left the girl in charge and told her to turn off the electricity and use oil hurricane lamps. One of these would be found overturned among the burned ruins, along with the body of the girl. It would all be blamed on her and Sanguinetti would collect half a million cash. Tidy.

Now Bond walks into the light and tells the men to freeze. He sends the girl to pat their pockets and armpits to get their guns, but Horror moves like lightning, dropping his TV set, swirling and taking the girl hostage and counter-threatening Bond, as in a million TV and movie scenes. So the baddies edge to the corner of the building using the girl as a shield, then get away, not without a shot or two of Bond’s winging them.

There is then a great deal of crawling round buildings, hiding behind walls – as the fire continues to rage – dodging bullets, with the opposition popping up in unexpected places, everyone firing at everyone else. Might look good on TV or in a film, but a little boring to read. (Compare and contrast with the opening section about Viv’s teenage experiences, which were fascinating and original.)

Then the baddies are in their car, making their escape, and Bond leaps to his feet right in their path and, in classic duelling stance, side-on to his target (exactly as he did when he shot into the cab of the high-speed locomotive in Diamonds Are Forever) Bond shoots point blank into the car, which suddenly veers off the drive, across the lawn and over a small cliff into the lake – SPLASH – and sinks. End of bad guys.

Bond and the girl stagger through the still-burning ruins to one of the remaining motel cabins and have what is presumably meant to be a sensual shower together, tenderly soaping each other, the girl’s extensive injuries and wounds from Horror’s torture now conveniently forgotten. This reader found it impossible to relax into this soft porn after, not just the shootout we’ve just experienced, but the girl’s brutal degradation in the second section, let alone her traumatic sexual experiences in the opening. Far too much has happened and been too serious and traumatic to let the reader enjoy a sudden bit of Emmanuel or Bilitis.

And, disappointingly, we are now subject to paragraphs of gush about how strong, tall and handsome Bond is. As they shower or dry each other with soft towels, Viv thinks how Bond is ‘like the prince from the fairy tales’ who has saved her from the dragon and now is justified in taking his reward – her (p.176). He makes love to her, and she reflects:

All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful. That and the coinciding of nerves completely relaxed after the removal of tension and danger, the warmth of gratitude, and a woman’s natural feeling for her hero. (p.176)

After the tremendous insight and sympathy Fleming showed in the opening autobiographical sequence, this feels like an imaginative and moral collapse into pulp, cliché, stereotype.

The lovers fall asleep. In the middle of the night Viv hears something and looks up. There is a nightmare face at the window, slobbering, drooling, grimacing. There is a powerful Edgar Allen Poe-ish paragraph where she says she feels her hair literally stand on end, and tries to cry out but is literally frozen with terror. Then the window smashes and Bond reacts like a snake, whipping the gun out from under his pillow and shooting the figure at the window multiple times. He goes outside to check the body – Sluggsy – is definitely dead, comes back into the room, pulls the curtains over the smashed window, and then takes Viv again, ‘fiercely, almost cruelly’ (p.182). Pulp. Sensationalism. Crudity.

And in the morning he is gone, leaving a long practical letter and Viv to her gushing schoolgirl thoughts.

He would go on alone and I would have to, too. No woman had ever held this man. None ever would. He was a solitary, a man who walked alone and kept his heart to himself. (p.146)

The final section also drags quite badly. Bond’s letter tells Viv he’s up, fixed his wheel and on the road south to track down the Mechanics baddies, as he first explained. He will call the local police to come interview her (and get them to bring hot food) and do everything he can to make sure she gets the reward from the insurance company for foiling the arson scam.

Sure enough, there’s the drone of a police car pulling up outside and then some motorbikes. The handsome young motorcycle policeman has brought hot coffee and doughnuts. While Viv tucks in, the friendly old police chief first takes down all the details of the night before (corroborating the account Bond’s already given) then takes her aside for a friendly word of advice.

In a frankly odd finale, the old cop tells her she has had an insight into the dark underbelly of society, the hidden world of crime and law enforcement. The men who inhabit it – whether good guys like Bond or bad guys like Sluggsy and Horror – live a life apart, different from nice girls like Viv, from most good citizens. So, the cop tells her, she mustn’t go hero worshipping such a man. He comes from a different world, one she doesn’t want to enter. She must stay in the normal world, the real world, of decent folks. Viv agrees. She looks at the handsome young motorbike cop who kindly brought the coffee and doughnuts. Yes, he’s the kind of man she should fall in. Decent, reliable, someone from her world.

With these thoughts she packs up her few worldly goods onto the back of the Vespa and, with a parting wave at the kindly cops, speeds off down the highway.

It feels like a bizarre attempt to reintegrate the narrative into the everyday world of its likely readers. Why? Reminds me of the odd disjunction in many Hitchcock movies, which start in the (to us) stiflingly conformist ‘Hi honey, I’m home’ world of 1950s American suburbia, before taking us off into situations of extreme violence or horror (North by North-West, Psycho) before returning the viewer to normality, closing the violence cupboard, resolving the trauma.

It’s such a reassuringly conformist ending that is seems to us, 50 years later, almost surreal. But her farewell wave, and the image of a tough young woman who has survived a nightmare ordeal, still independent and undaunted, setting off down the highway into an unknown future, that still has a curiously contemporary ring.


It is an extraordinary tour de force by Fleming to devote so much time and effort to a sympathetic portrait of a young woman in 1950s England. It reminds me straight away of the extended sequence towards the end of its predecessor novel, Thunderball, where that book’s ‘Bond girl’, Domino, shared with Bond a long reminiscence of her teenage fantasies about the sailor figure who appears – or used to appear – on packets of Players cigarettes, a sequence which, the longer it went on, the more moving and beguiling I found it.

For a man sometimes accused of hating or degrading women, Fleming spent a lot of time imagining himself into the lives and experiences of his female characters. (The Wikipedia article on the book – linked to below – includes a round-up of contemporary reviews of Spy: almost all the critics really disliked it, among other things for its graphic sex scenes; but it is notable that the only positive review is from a woman, Esther Howard, who commented on the romantic element in the book, praising its ‘Daphne du Maurier touch’. Odd that the male critics noted only the sex and sexual violence, which they (presumably) felt duty bound to disdain; but it took a woman to recognise and enjoy the various elements of romantic psychology which Fleming had consciously given Vivienne.)


Nearly all the novels mention the phrase ‘all the time in the world’ somewhere or other, here on page 131. It is a leitmotif scattered through the oeuvre, and each time I read it reminds me of the Louis Armstrong version of the song.

But they also nearly always reflect, somewhere well on into the action, on how the early scenes of Bond being briefed by M or arriving at the location fresh and innocent, now seem like months even years ago, so much has happened in the interim.

And so, although the immediate action of this novel takes place over the 8 hours or so of one nightmare night, from the Phancies leaving Viv in the motel at dusk to the police arriving the next morning, the intensity of the psychological experiences feel like a lifetime.

I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock. So it was only five hours since all this had begun! It could have been weeks. My former life seemed almost years away. Even last evening, when I had sat and thought about that life, was difficult to remember. Everything had suddenly been erased. Fear and pain and danger had taken over. (p.160)

A lot is experienced in a very short space of time. Arguably it is the mark of the thriller genre that it focuses on intensity over depth of experience. What sets Fleming apart is that he embeds his intensities into writing with a number of other virtues or merits. I especially like his realistic descriptions of places, people, meals and landscapes. But it is clear from sequences like the long opening section of this novel, that he was also interested in trying to create a realistic psychology for his characters. It is only intermittently successful and when it fails – as with Viv’s collapse into gushing schoolgirl adoration of her hero – it fails badly. But it is the sheer fact of the attempt which is interesting.

The life-affirming effect of danger

And the simplest element in a character’s psychology is their thoughts and reflections. Are they the bare minimum required by the plot, to create a kind of entry-level sympathy? Or are they a bit more ambitious, pointing the moral not only of the story itself, but maybe of the genre and the act of reading?

Thus Viv is given quite a few moments of reflection, in the early section mulling over her disastrous love life (effective), in the final section full of gushing hero worship of the Sir Galahad who has saved her (poor). In the middle sequence, though, while she is being threatened, terrorised, then beaten, she expresses the simple credo which is at the core of the entire thriller genre.

The simple act of living, how precious it was! If I got out of this, I would know it for ever. I would be grateful for every breath I breathed, every meal I ate, every night I felt the cool kiss of sheets, the peace of a bed behind a closed, locked door… Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it. (p.111)

‘Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it.’ And thrillers, spy novels, pulps, with their varying levels of violence and escape, vicariously take the reader into scenes of danger, then restore them to the everyday world, chastened, stunned, ready to value every moment of health and happiness we can seize in such an unstable world.

The true jungle of the world, with its real monsters, only rarely shows itself in the life of a man, a girl, in the street. But it is always there. You take a wrong step, play the wrong card in Fate’s game, and you are in it and lost – lost in a world you had never imagined, against which you have no knowledge and no weapons. No compass. (p.106)

Hardly profound philosophy, but the frequency of passages like this – or the many places where Bond reflects on his job as a killer and is troubled by the deaths he’s caused – suggest that Fleming is more interested in the thoughts and reflections his characters give rise to than in the rather paltry, often silly scenarios he has to put them through for the entertainment of his pulp audience.


The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming was published in 1962 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1962

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.

My Enemy’s Enemy by Kingsley Amis (1962)

Meanwhile I put to myself the question whether the removal of all social workers, preferably by execution squads, wouldn’t do everyone a power of good. (Moral Fibre)

Amis wrote short stories throughout his career, often experiments for, or by-products of, the longer fictions so that the Complete Short Stories is 550 pages long. This is an early collection, published in 1962, of stories from the 1950s, the first three all based on Amis’s wartime experience in the Royal Signals Corp, several others referencing characters from the contemporaneous novels, and the final one – unexpectedly – showcasing Amis’s enduring interest in science fiction.

My Enemy’s Enemy (1955) A rather complicated story about British soldiers in a wire maintenance unit during world war II. When Oxford-educated Thurston hears that a line engineer he respects, Dalessio, is being set up by the jumped-up Adjutant to fail an inspection of his rooms by the General, Thurston knows he ought to tip him off but doesn’t. In the end, Dalessio is tipped off by another officer, his quarters are spotless, the Adjutant is furious blames Thurston, despite the latter having done nothing – and feeling bad about it.

Court of Inquiry (1956) Another Army story, with some of the same characters from the Signals unit featured above. During a move from one base to another, a soldier mislays an out-of-date power charger, and his superior takes the opportunity (unnecessarily and vindictively) to hold a court of inquiry about it. This, however, fails embarrassingly when one of the witnesses admits it was his fault, not the man being blamed.

I Spy Strangers – The third Army story set in the Signals Corp and featuring some characters from the above. Starts one week before the 1945 General Election which swept Labour to power and one of the officers has set up a dummy ‘Parliament’ in which the men take sides and debate the issues at stake in the election. The issues arising here (the men ranging from Communist to proto-Fascist) become entangled with personal conflicts and resentments between seven or eight officers which, to be honest, I didn’t really follow. The story progresses to the night of the Election when it is clear Labour has won its historic landslide and this prompts a drunken confrontation between some of the officers, one of whom is knocked off the stairs, breaking his arm.

Having just read David Lodge’s first novel, The Picturegoers, with its priggish revulsion from the contemporary world (his comments on 1950s rock’n’roll are amusingly short-sighted but especially the brutality of National Service – the latter of which goes on to be the subject of his second novel, Ginger You’re Barmy) I realise that, while the young Lodge (b.1935) prissily spurns modern life, cleaving to his high-minded Catholicism and to ‘Literature’, all evinced in an oddly formal prose style, Amis (b.1922) had the impact he did because he embraced the reality of life as it was lived in the mid-1950s, and did it in the prose style, the stroppy speaking voice, of his contemporaries.

[The unit debating club] resettled itself sulkily, feeling and muttering that it was always the bloody same: the moment you got a decent row going, some pernickety sod piped up with some moan about order. Might as well be sitting in the billet reading last week’s paper. (p.56)

Why Amis was publishing stories about the weeks before the 1945 General Election, in 1955 and 1956. Was it just a question of being famous and publishable and so clearing out his backlog? Did they actually date from the 1940s? The theme of all three is the petty bureaucracy of the Army and how the military environment gives perfect scope for people to cultivate petty rivalries, jealousies and vindictiveness.

Moral Fibre (1958) John Lewis, the protagonist of The Uncertain Feeling (published three years earlier in 1953) is living in shabby digs with his wife, Jean, in the south Wales town of Aberdarcy. A friend of hers is the self-righteous social worker, Mair, and John gets dragged in to her ‘treatment’ of a local delinquent, Betty. Betty has twin kids by one man, is shacked up with another (a Norwegian sailor) and at one point, when the sailor is away, goes out on the streets as a prostitute. –Throughout the story John is driven by the characteristic bolshie male idea that Mair the social worker and all her works are awful, but is uneasily conscious that he doesn’t have any alternative. The outrageousness of his attitude and his seething dislike of Mair made me laugh out loud.

Interesting Things (1956) A short short story about young Gloria Davies from the tax office, being asked out by old Mr Huws-Evans, twice her age, on a date at a cinema. As in David Lodge’s contemporary novel The Picturegoers (1960), the cinema is depicted as a kind of Sodom of snogging couples and people stuffing their faces noisily with peanuts and sweets. Huws-Evans bores her with speeches about tax affairs, takes her back to his house so he can have a shave (there to be met by his disapproving mother), then into a park where he makes a very clumsy move to kiss her and she realises in a flash that, for all his knowledge of personal tax allowances, he is in fact an unattractive sad old man. They continue on to the swanky party he’s been invited to where she immediately takes up with a young attractive man.

The most interesting part of the story is its references to other Amis texts: to an Italian restaurant called Dalessio’s – a Dalessio whose Dad runs a restaurant in south Wales is a key character in the first story in this collection, he is the man the Adjutant tries to get dismissed; and Huws-Evans describes the party they’re going to as featuring posh folk, including a dentist with an, er, sort of friend. This must be the dentist who keeps a mistress who hangs around with the ‘fast set’ attending the parties given by Mrs Gruffydd-Williams in That Uncertain Feeling.

Glimpses like this, of interconnections of characters across novels and stories, give a pleasing (and comforting) sense of the interconnectedness of stories and – we wish – of the world.

All The Blood Within Me (1962) A gloomy story about two men aged around 64 who catch the train to a town a bit north of London, there to attend the funeral of a woman, Betty, they were both friendly with. Slowly it emerges that the mousy, unsuccessful one of the pair, Alec Mackenzie, had – he thinks – a thirty-year-long, unexpressed but deeply felt, love for Betty. At the funeral service and at the burial, Alec is transported by fond memories of her but at the wake in a nearby pub, drunk, he foolishly has a bit of a go at the Italian man who married Betty’s daughter, Annette.

This prompts Annette to follow Alec outside when he goes for a fag, and to give him a piece of her mind. She dismays him by laying into her mother, into Betty, revealing that she was a spiteful mother to her and her brother who couldn’t wait to escape home, that she disliked the Italian husband, that she disapproved of the grand-children because on their Italian blood, and that she maliciously and cruelly dangled Alec himself on a chain, all the time laughing behind his back. His saintly image of his beloved shattered, Alec is devastated.

Maybe the moral of the story is the unknowability of ‘other people, Amis’s fundamental subject.

Something Strange (1960) Out of the blue, a science fiction story. Two couples are isolated in a metal sphere millions of miles from earth. Their monotonous routine of fixing equipment has recently been interrupted by strange happenings, sightings of objects speeding towards them, the suddenly enclosing of the sphere by an unknown substance etc. I was totally captivated and in the story when…

… they see a new ‘happening’ as if a door is opening and human shapes are approaching. Who unlock the sphere and lead them out. And reveal to the dazed and uncomprehending foursome that they have been part of a long-term psychological experiment, carried out by a fiendish regime which has now been overthrown by the chaps liberating them.

Like a lot of science fiction it is powerful and disturbing in the way it directly invokes basic fears and archetypes – yet silly and superficial at the same time, in being so easily explained and resolved…

Tricks and tics

Whatever Amis’s habit of writing ‘blah blah blah or something like it‘, ‘… or something’, ‘or whatever’. Deliberate posture of shrugging his shoulders, it’s too complicated, I’m a normal-bloke-not-a-ruddy-expert.

Ordinary speech The narrating voice has the ring of ordinary speech even when that involves clumsiness and repetition. He has the confidence to write down what people actually say: not all the time, but often enough to be striking. (Compare and contrast with David Lodge’s style which is always studied, limpid, classical and often a little dead.) It is light, flexible, funny.

The first person he saw on entering the dining-car was Bob Anthony, wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup. (p.141)

Tones of voice Amis is extraordinarily sensitive to tones of voice and the countless ways there are to adjust tone and register for different situations or phrases. His lead characters, the narrator-substitutes, are phenomenally self-aware, full of words and strangled emotions but often speechless while they agonise about precisely which of the many available tones to say it in. They are also super-acute at noticing similar shifts of register in the people they’re listening to, detecting and categorising them with the precision of a collector.

The man spoke again. He was plainly drawing to a close, and now the hint of a new tone was heard, the detached disgust of a schoolmaster reading out some shameful confidential document he has snatched from the hot hand of one of their number. (p.151)

(I like ‘hot’. Adds precise detail to the thought.) But the main point is that, as Alec listens to the vicar’s long elegy for the departed Betty, he not only hears the words, he registers the changes of tone with which the vicar delivers them. Similarly, when her daughter is criticising the dead woman, Alec notices acutely how her voice changes.

At the mention of anger, anger itself returned to her voice, which had softened in the last minute or two. (p.163)

Bewilderment His heroes are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life. There is a particular shape of Amis paragraph which describes a person or activity in acute detail only to end, ‘Why?’ Why? Why does he say that? Why do they do that? Why does he wear that? etc.

Alec found nothing to say; his attention was like a weight too heavy to move from where it had landed, on Bob’s suit. Why was he wearing it? He must have others. Where were they? (p.143)

An air of permanent amazement at other people’s sheer inexplicability – sometimes blank, serious and unnerving, but on many other occasions giving rise to a kind of hilarious exasperation, the fundamental tone and worldview of Amis’s fiction.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy's Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy’s Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

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

Ginger, You’re Barmy by David Lodge (1962)

It was as if the authorities had determined to seed out from the intakes of new recruits anyone with a spark of intelligence or individuality, together with the odd moron or psychopath, and to subject us all to the most farcical and futile form of training they could devise, just to teach us our place. (p.136)

Closely echoing Lodge’s own experience, the novel is the first-person narrative of a clever only child of older parents, Jonathan Browne. Like David, Jon made it to grammar school and then on to university to study English and take a First class degree, before being compelled to report for his National Service in darkest Yorkshire.

Here he encounters the brutality and vulgarity of the working class (‘the vast, uncouth British proletariat’ p.26), in the company of fellow ex-student Mike Brady, who is a deliberate contrast and foil to the restrained narrator – a clever man, big, solid and ginger-haired, who dossed away his time at uni and has a troubled relationship with his sweetly feminine girlfriend, Pauline.

Lodge was 25 or so when he was writing this, his second novel. The tone of voice is calm and reasonable, the style clear and devoid of tricks and flashinesses – the same style which makes his books of literary criticism so reasonable and his newspaper articles about literary technique so sensible and accessible. Only sometimes is the narrator a bit too pleased with his First, a bit too keen to namedrop Two Gentlemen of Verona or Lord Rochester, and occasionally drops into an ornate prissiness of phrasing which bespeaks the author’s reverence for the periphrastic periods of Henry James.

National Service

From 1 January 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the Armed Forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. In October 1950, in response to the British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two years. National Service ended gradually from 1957. In November 1960 the last men entered service, as call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960, and the last National Servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963. (Source: Wikipedia)

As his afterword states, Lodge served from August 1955 to August 1957. The novel was published five years later, just as National Service ceased to exist, and the whole era he describes was shortly to be swept away by the revolutionary changes of the 1960s. Even a decade later it must have seemed a period piece and now it seems like ancient history.


Although the narrator looks back on the entire period as a pointless waste of time, characterised by grimly early starts, late nights polishing boots and buttons, disgusting food, freezing barracks, scratchy uniforms and sadistic sergeants, nonetheless Lodge’s characteristic warmth and humanity shine through. Even the sensitive narrator’s rude exposure to the violent and coarse working class with their shallow pleasures and brutal humour convey fondness. The barrack room lout, Norman, who bullies the weakest recruits, forcing them to the floor and ‘riding’ them like horses, is met much later in the novel, having discovered a remarkable aptitude for looking after the garrison pigs 🙂

We went over to the cookhouse for tea, and discovered that the meal was Shepherd’s Pie. We had rashly eaten this before. Mike swore it was made from real shepherds. (p.145)

The bedrock, the majority, of the text is an amusing and humane memoir of National Service in the mid-50s.


The 1950s were the era of sexual frustration, when a generation which had been through the crisis of World War Two and was subject to floods of racy American movies and fiction, still found it difficult to take their clothes off without turning out the light.

The narrator’s sexual frustration is a prominent theme in the novel and the tone is set by a scene in the first few pages where Jonathan is talking to his lady love, sits on the sofa with her, they start kissing and – this time, hooray! – he gets as far as slipping his hand inside her pyjamas and stroking up her side just far enough to touch her naked breast – at which point she says, ‘Better not’, and he reluctantly agrees, withdraws his hand and spends the rest of the scene quietly burning with frustration.

This time I seemed to be climbing higher up her rib-cage than usual, until my fingers met the soft protuberance of her breast. I held my breath like a thief who has trodden on a creaking floor-board, and then my hand closed over her breast… Pauline moaned faintly, ‘Better not, darling,’ and I withdrew my hand. (p.15)

People spent their entire lives like that. What must they have thought of the Swinging London depicted by people like Adam Diment, which was to erupt just 3 or 4 short years later – short skirts, the Pill, women falling into your lap like cherry blossom.

A major strand of the plot is that Jonathan slowly falls in love with (becomes infatuated with/realises he stands a chance of getting off with) his friend Mike’s girlfriend, Pauline. Plenty of cold nights in the barracks are made a little less dreary by his heated fantasies about Pauline. Swiftly followed, of course, by pangs of guilt.


Speaking of guilt, Lodge is a Roman Catholic. In the novel’s afterword he records his debt to Graham Greene who, as the most famous Catholic novelist in English, was a huge influence on the young writer. Pity. Graham Greene’s characteristic subjects are adultery, guilt and despair tending to suicide, the permanent impossibility of happiness. Greene’s influence was to make people think that feeling desperately unhappy, behaving badly and then luxuriating in a pornographic sense of your own sinfulness and damnation, somehow made you a superior person, proved your refined morality, cursed oh cursed with these damn finer feelings and a suffering spirituality which set you apart from the common herd.

All very appealing to the anxious and immature, of all ages.

The voodoo of Greeneish Catholicism (‘oh Hell! oh Damnation!’) leaves a scar across the text in the suicide of Percy Higgins, a clumsy, sensitive posh boy hopelessly out of place in the Army, a weakling driven to suicide by their crude, cruel NCO.

Or was he? To extract maximum thrills, Percy is made a Catholic and so is Jon’s friend, Mike who, when they hear Percy’s gun go off, is first to Percy’s side where he kneels and desperately gives him the Last Rites (without which an all-loving God apparently sends you to Hell). The authorities then have to decide whether Percy deliberately shot himself or was just so damn clumsy he discharged his weapon by accident, a debate lent spurious depth by the application of Catholic melodrama.

This is the most violent and striking event in the novel (the soldiers never go abroad to fight in Korea or Kenya or Malaysia, as other National Service soldiers did; they never get further than Darlington) and turns out to be the central plot strand. It causes Mike and Jon to be held back from leave and compelled to give evidence at the resulting coroner’s hearing, and prompts Mike, one quiet night, to take his revenge on the NCO who bullied Percy to his death, by beating him unconscious. A disastrous movie which leads Mike to be arrested, and enables Jon to move in on his girlfriend, the softly feminine Pauline.

Two timeframes

Lodge takes his basic memoir of National Service and subjects it to some interesting technical modulations, mainly around the time scheme. It opens with a description of Jonathan’s nerves about his call-up, his preparations and journey by train north to Catterick, his first impressions and experiences. Chapter two, however, leaps 2 years down the line, to his last few weeks as a soldier: he is now an old hand, has made it to Corporal, knows how to rig the system, and has acquired a girlfriend, Pauline, with whom he’s planning to celebrate his freedom with a trip to Majorca and (maybe, just maybe) actual sex!!!

Thereafter the two timeframes alternate, one chapter moving us forward through the intense first weeks of Jonathan’s basic training, introducing us to key characters in his cohort of recruits, NCOs and officers –  the next leaping to his last few days, as he effectively says goodbye to a world he’s become so familiar with.

(In the afterword, Lodge freely admits this is another borrowing from Graham Greene, whose mature novels, from The End of The Affair to The Honorary Consul, are often a complex mosaic of memories, diaries, dreams and flashbacks.)

It works. It creates narrative tension because, whereas in the ‘first days’ sections he only slowly gets to meet Pauline in her role as his best friend’s girlfriend, let alone talk to her, in the ‘last days’ sections we see Jonathan as her well-established boyfriend, sitting on the sofa and managing – just now and then – to touch her bare breast! Clearly, in the middle of the two sections, something interesting happens – but what?

Meanwhile, the final section of the novel moves it onto a new plane of melodrama.

Mike is sentenced to two years in military prison for assaulting the NCO. He asks Jonathan to smuggle out and post a letter. Some time later Mike benefits from an audacious jailbreak and is spirited away. Time passes in the usual boring squad-bashing way, until the very last day of Jonathan’s service when, by an enormous coincidence, he is able to foil an armed attack on the lax barracks by masked members of the IRA (!). And who was among these desperadoes? Mike! Turns out Mike is of Irish extraction – Jonathan had met some of his Irish friends on leave in London – they were the only people he could turn to after his arrest, and after they sprang him from prison it was at the price of forcing him to give them the inside information which would allow them to make an embarrassing raid on a British Army barracks. And Jon happened to be on guard that night!

As a direct result of the information Jon provides the authorities, Mike is captured and sentenced to three years in gaol and Jonathan is racked with a Catholic’s best friend, gnawing guilt. The whys and wherefores of how Jonathan took over Pauline from Mike are understandably overshadowed by this dramatic turns of events.

Third timeframe

And in rather the same way, the basic structure of alternating timeframes is itself transcended by another framing device: for the novel opens with a three-page prologue in the narrator’s voice, teasingly mentioning that the entire narrative has been written at some kind of decisive moment, for some kind of important reason — without revealing anything more… oooh what is it?

And the final few pages of the book consist of an epilogue which swiftly places all the preceding events in historical perspective. Jonathan quickly explains that: immediately after foiling the IRA raid he left the Army and went on his long-awaited holiday with Pauline. As might be predicted for a such a long-expected sexual jamboree, the holiday is a disaster as Pauline promptly comes down with food poisoning and the runs and is bed-ridden. Bored, Jonathan finds himself buying a notebook and starting to jot down memories of his National Service, until it turns into a compulsion and, even when Pauline is much better, up and ready to enjoy herself, old boring-face can hardly be torn away from pen and paper.

Eventually, she manages to get him tipsy at a dance and, in a horribly sex-hating, typically English scene reeking of embarrassment and shame about sex, they make love.

Pauline, demoralised and disarmed by my erratic behaviour, responded with starved eagerness, and I ended the night in her bed. There, after much effort, I succeeded in rupturing her hymen, and planted in her the sperm which became the small boy now emitting such an offensive odour at my feet. (p.209)

Yuk. As a result of this one joyless union, Pauline, inevitably, becomes pregnant and Jonathan finds himself forced to abandon his ambitions to become an academic, obligated to marry Pauline – who he is not now sure that he particularly likes and – in the final twist of the novel, decides to move down to Devon to be near the prison (presumably Dartmoor) where Mike is sent. In fact he decides to do something selfless and moral with his life, and sets up adult education classes in the prison and visits Mike every week without fail for three long years.

On the last page we find out what the prologue had been hinting at when it said, 200 pages earlier, that the narrator was jotting down these notes on this momentous morning… For it is the morning when Jonathan is going to meet Mike upon his release from prison, to offer him the shelter of his house, to rehabilitate him, to reintroduce him to the girlfriend who has since become his wife and borne him two children. What will happen? What will Mike be like and say? What do their futures hold in store?


  • I liked the basic material of the memoir of National Service very much, it is honest and interesting.
  • I liked the bullying of the barrack room weakling a lot less, as this is a standard-issue cliché of new recruit novels and movies.
  • The positioning of the girl as the love interest between two boys felt like a contrived plot device.
  • I thought the increasing focus on Mike, his imprisonment, his escape, and then the last-day raid by the IRA, disappeared over the edge into silliness.
  • Thus, I had zoned out by the time I came to read the epilogue with its very compressed résumé of Jonathan’s life, the unplanned pregnancy, the hurried wedding, the loveless marriage, the abandoned career and the decision to devote his time to selflessly visiting and supporting Mike.

It is the tragedy of the novel as an art form that so many of its practitioners feel obliged to tell a story, no matter how contrived and clichéd, instead of somehow being able to rest content with the descriptions, moods, incidents and anecdotes, which so many of them are so much better at, and so much more at home with.

Ginger, you’re barmy

It’s a music hall song. Lodge gives a version of the lyrics which rhyme ‘barmy’ with ‘Army’ but this doesn’t occur in any of the versions on YouTube, which only features the version below, where the hero is ‘barmy’ because it is 1910 and he refuses to wear a hat.

Reviews of David Lodge novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes (1962)

There’s a frame narrative which announces immediately that this is to be a first-person account of a major military disaster at sea in which many lives were lost, which led to a Court Martial and a Board of Inquiry. So the main theme of the book is sketched out right at the start – there will be no suspense about this. The narrator, Donald Ross, is brother to one of the men involved in the disaster and makes it plain in the first few pages that he has read all the documents available and interviewed all the survivors plus the officials who made the fateful decisions – so this will be an eyewitness account but embedded, as it were, in official discourse.

The plot

There’s an Army missile testing base on the (fictional) island of Lairg off the Outer Hebrides. As part of cost-cutting in Whitehall, officials decide it should be abandoned for the winter rather than expensively provisioned. But the order to do so is delayed while a bad weather front moves in. This is unexpectedly intense, creating a disastrous storm which causes a landing craft with 50 or so men aboard to founder in heavy seas, lose power and be dashed to pieces against one of the island’s treacherous cliffs.

Some of the men manage to clamber up the cliff to a spine of rock isolated from the island and completely exposed. A couple of men make it ashore and back to the mostly-abandoned base where they radio for help. The first attempt fails, as a parachutist is simply blown out to sea to drown. The second attempt by helicopter fails, when the helicopter is itself hit by a treacherous downburst of wind which smacks it into the sea. The third attempt is by tug and relies on the heroism of a Major Braddock who swims to the cliff with a rope, and then of a Captain Field, formerly a mountain climber, who scales the cliff with the rope. Thus they are able to rig up a harness to bring the shipwrecked men to the main island, and thence away on the tug.

In all 53 men are lost, along with the landing craft, helicopter and a large amount of military equipment, in an intensely described and harrowing disaster.

The personal angle

However, as with many of Innes’ adventure yarns the main incident is intertwined with a complicated personal backstory. In this case, everything revolves round the narrator Donald Ross, who is at the centre of events both public and private.

Although a painter by trade, he was formerly in the Royal Navy and then Merchant Marine. Why on earth does he travel up to the Naval Station supervising the withdrawal from Laerg, at a rather unpropitious moment? Because the officer who has been sent to organise it, one Major Braddock, turns out to be his long-lost brother, Iain.

His brother had served in the Second World War but was always a wrong ‘un, given to fighting and brawling, and he struck an officer while on active service. He was being brought back by ship to face charges when that ship was torpedoed and sunk with almost all hands. Donald mourned and got on with his life. Now a Canadian businessman turns up on his doorstep: a distant relative of Braddock’s in Canada has died and left him a pile of money. But the businessman’s wife is set to inherit if Braddock can be excluded from the will. Therefore, the businessman has been snooping into Braddock’s history, and especially into the wreck of the ship he was on, and he has tracked down and interviewed a number of other survivors and now he is convinced that the criminal Iain Ross, escaping the wreck on a liferaft with half a dozen others, murdered Braddock and stole his identity in order to escape prosecution.

In a further twist it turns out that Donald and Iain were both born and raised in the Highlands, listening to stories of their grandfather’s life and exploits as a native islander on Laerg, in the distant days before radio, oil or many boats, when the islanders lived a harsh and isloated life. Donald’s always wanted to see it for himself and now he has the motivation to combine it with seeing his brother. He withdraws all his money from the bank and catches the train north.

It is under these rather contrived circumstances that Donald meets his brother – or is it? – who refuses to acknowledge him, insisting on the name Braddock, before hitching a lift on one of the landing craft which are working a schedule of sailing out to Laerg to take off men and equipment to a regular schedule. The weather is rough but he’s allowed to go because none of them know about the disastrous storm which is brewing.

Disaster and rescue

These are the circumstances which bring the civilian painter Donald aboard the landing craft which is so harrowingly dashed in the terrifying storm and then smashed onto the pitiless rocks, who then staggers back ashore the island, and who helps with the three rescue attempts.

Thus it is that, once all the survivors are back on the mainland, Donald witnesses the press hounding of his brother, the officer in charge of the evacuation who, despite his heroic role in the final rescue attempt, is made the scapegoat for the disaster.

And thus it is that, in the strange atmospheric epilogue to the main disaster narrative, both brothers find themselves drawn back to Laerg for the final act in the tragedy, where Braddock reveals that he is Iain Ross, but tells the true story of what happened on that liferaft 20 years earlier, and what the fate of the real-life Braddock truly was.

Sea descriptions

It takes a little while for the machinery of the narrative to get us there, but from about page 100 the description of the storm which wrecks the landing craft is breath-taking, awesome and terrifying. Innes was a sailor and this novel is up there with The Wreck of The Mary Deare and Maddon’s Rock for its grasp of the detail of seamanship. The text is threaded with intense and prolonged accounts of weather forecasting and meteorology, embodied in the well-worked-out character of Cliff Morgan, since the state of the weather is absolutely vital to the concatenation of decisions which lead to the disaster.

The account of the press victimising the wrong man and then of the court martial are reminiscent of the similar scenes in Maddon’s Rock where the narrator has to prove he didn’t mutiny to a court martial. There is something deeply reassuring, something very comforting about Innes’ pacing and about the way he devotes the same amount of effort to describing the details of the court martial as of the weather reports and sea conditions and build of the landing craft and and the geography and fauna of his isolated island.

But the last 50 pages of the novel make up a surprising and strangely tranquil climax to the plot in that, once Ross’s brother, Iain/Braddock, escapes from custody, Ross is so convinced he’ll make for the fateful island that he himself catches the first train north, buys a rubber dinghy and the necessary equipment, and then makes a ludicrously risky but evocative and beautifully described day and night’s voyage out to Laerg. Although he does meet his brother there, and all is revealed about what happened on the liferaft 20 years earlier (and it is not good), for me the human element (the slightly soap opera element) in the story paled, melted away, by contrast with the factual, accurate, rooted, super-real yet also romantic and symbolic voyage across the flat empty sea, then into the darkest night, and then into impenetrable fog, before he finds himself coming ashore into one of the island’s many secret caves, which is also the location of the novel’s dark secret.

This is a powerful and evocative novel, well-made from seasoned timber, redolent with story and reeking of the treacherous Atlantic waves like a Hebridean fisherman’s boat.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

Hammond Innes’ novels

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

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

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré (1962)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

Everyone is notable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strongest and best

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

Old school tie

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

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

Old man

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

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

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

The dénouement

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

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

Related links

TV adaptation

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

John Le Carré’s novels

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

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler (1962)

This novel starts in Athens but soon moves to Turkey, the scene of Ambler’s pre-war thrillers, Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. There’s even mention of Colonel Haki, who features in both those novels and is memorably played by Orson Welles in the short film version of Journey.

The narrator

The story is told in the first person by unreliable narrator, small-time crook and con artist, Arthur Simpson who, we learn, is fat, sweaty and has bad breath. He lives and works in Athens where he claims to be a journalist. His father was in the British army, married an Egyptian woman and sent young Arthur back to a minor private school where he was caned and bullied and learned how to lie and cheat and hate. There followed a life of petty crime, flogging off his mother’s restaurant when he didn’t actually own it, numerous dodgy deals, a spell in English prison for getting caught smuggling pornography from Egypt to London, and so on.

Tone of voice

Arthur’s pragmatic criminality explains the tone of the book which is calm and calculating, humorously accepting of crime and scams, mixed with a strong dose of self-pity, which is often very funny.

Slowly drawn into more and more nefarious situations, Arthur is very much not the normal Ambler protagonist, the honest white-collar professional plunged into a crisis situation. Instead, a lot of the reader’s pleasure comes from being inside the mind of someone who is constantly calculating the odds, figuring what he can get out of every situation, or feeling comically hard done-by.

The setup

I kept expecting the book to explode into action but not very much happens in the first 220 pages or so of this 280-page book. It is relaxed and urbane. Simpson uses small-time tricks to collect an American tourist at Athens airport and persuade him to be chauffeured around town. He drops him at a seafront restaurant and then goes back to his hotel bedroom to steal some of his travellers cheques.

Unfortunately, the tourist – Harper – catches him red-handed. But instead of turning him over to the police, Harper reveals that he’s realised since he met him that Arthur has been scamming him and is a small-time crook. Would he like to earn a little money by driving a brand-new American car (a Lincoln) from Athens to Istanbul? The owner will meet him there. As an added incentive, Harper makes Arthur write a confession to stealing the travellers’ cheques and says he’ll give it to the police if he refuses. Er, OK then.

Arthur tells his mistress he’ll be away for a bit and sets off the next day. Once he’s sure he’s not being tailed, he pulls over and searches the car – surely there must be something hidden in it – but can’t see anything suspicious. But at the Turkish border, officials notice his Egyptian passport is out of date. There are all kind of amusing low-level crook reasons for this but the result is the police really thoroughly search the car and – find the door panels are full of grenades, pistols and amunition!

Arthur’s thrown into a cell where he waits until a senior security officer – Captain Tufan – arrives. As usual with Ambler, nothing melodramatic happens, there are no shootouts or gadgets. He sits in a cell, is offered horrible food, isn’t allowed to smoke. The interview with the security man is handled with the same detail and total plausibility. Does he want to go to prison for smuggling guns? Or will he co-operate with them? Er, he decides to co-operate.

So Arthur finds himself being suborned into spying for Turkish security. In practice this means he delivers the car to the hotel as arranged and then offers to be chauffeur and tourist guide for Harper and for the car’s supposed owner, the beautiful Miss Lipp, when she arrives. What he discovers is these two have rented a big property just outside Istanbul, along with an aggressive man named Fischer. Later an older man, apparently the boss, named Miller, arrives. Arthur drives Harper and Miller to a ferry across the sea to a small quay where they go out to a boat to meet a man named Giulio – and back again. So he’s got names, and knows about comings and goings – but has no idea what it’s all about.

He quizzes the household servants – the morose drunk cook and the quiet old Turkish married couple who housekeep. But he doesn’t discover much to report back to Captain Tufan, whether by dropping empty cigarette packs with messages inside for his tails to pick up, or on the tiny two-way radio he’s been given, or by making phone calls from a garage or cafe, when he can, to a special phone number.

Things proceed in this leisurely way, with occasional heart-stopping moments – he takes Miss Lipp to the Seraglio Museum in Istanbul and thinks he has plenty of time to unscrew the door panels to see if the guns are still there – but is half way through when he looks up and sees her just a few hundred yards away and walking towards the car! That kind of thing. A bit sweaty but not exactly high-octane adventure.

In his hurried phone conversations with Tufan, the latter becomes obsessed with the idea the gang are ‘politicals’. There had a been a military coup in Turkey and various members of the old regime are in prisons in and around Istanbul, including one on an island near where the gang took the ferry. Arthur himself considers all the angles and comes to the conclusion they are going to set up a heroin refinery and smuggling operation…

The climax

But they’re both wrong. In the final stretches of the novel Harper reveals to Arthur that they are jewel thieves. They are going to break into the Seraglio Museum after it has closed and steal jewels. When one of the gang, Fischer, is wounded in a fight with the surly drunken cook, Arthur finds himself press-ganged into helping out with the actual heist.

The heist is described in Ambler’s characteristic flat factual style. Half a dozen times in the whole novel he uses anticipation – ‘if I’d realised then what was going to happen…’, ‘it was only later I learnd that…’ – to build up tension and to hint at catastrophes to come. But the overwhelming majority of the story is told in straightforward linear narrative with almost no flashbacks or flash forwards. One thing follows another and is described by Ambler coolly and factually.

And so it is with the heist. His style is completely lucid. You feel like you are there, climbing over the rooftops of the Seraglio with the skyline of Istanbul spread out below you, sick with nerves and scared of heights as Arthur is, while the others fix up the pulley by which the thin cat burglar is to descend to the metal shutters on the Museum windows, work them open, slip inside (no alarm system), steal the highest-value jewels, and then be winched up again. It is over in minutes. They descend back into the public section of the museum, then walk silently through the ground avoiding the lazy guards.

The only real excitement in the whole sequence is at the one point where a guard post controls the end of a railway embankment which passes through the Palace grounds. They follow a slow-moving train along the rails and, as they approach the guardroom, their accomplices throw concussion grenades and tear gas. Arthur is stumbling through the fumes when hands reach out to grasp him and he is manhandled into a VW van and they are off. Away. Scot free. They have pulled off the heist. They drive to a quayside, take a dinghy out to the yacht (the one he had previously driven Harper and Miller to meet) and the yacht weighs anchor and putters peacefully down the coast.


The heist is quite tense, but the really nailbiting bit comes the next day when they rendezvous with the Lincoln. They conceal the jewels in the same doorframes they used for smuggling in the weapons. The whole gang embarks and there follows a sweaty twenty pages as Arthur racks his brains and tries every trick in the book to delay and hamper their escape. He wants the Turkish police to catch them. He wants Captain Tufan to pat him on the back and hand him a new, updated passport. He fears the gang will get to the airport and then dispose of him somehow. And then the gang spot that they’re being tailed by two cars. Initially they think it’s another criminal they’d been working with and wouldn’t put it past him now trying to ambush them. They get the guns ready. Arthur is so scared he thinks he’s going to throw up.

But they manage to throw their tails and arrive at the airport. Here most of the gang go to check in their bags and only Harper remains, squatting beside the open door and unscrewing the door panel to remove the loot. And it is now that the fat, smelly coward Arthur Simpson decides to make a stand and be a man. He hadn’t turned the engine off and he suddenly puts the big American car into gear, steps on the accelerator, leaving Harper behind, slows for a moment so that the doors slam shut, and then hares off down the freeway at top speed!

All the way through this urbane, detailed and persuasive book I was rather worried there might be a bloody shootout which would spoil the mood. But it concludes as amusingly as it began. A very entertaining comedy-thriller.

The movie

Within two years it was made into a movie, with the crisper title Topkapi, and with an international cast featuring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley, directed by American film director, Jules Dassin.

It is, alas, dire. The emphasis is on comedy and the scenes with Peter Ustinov as Simpson are generally funny (though it is astonishing that he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it); but the plot is completely reshaped so it starts with Melina Mercouri’s crook having the idea for the robbery, then recruiting her handsome lover Max, the gadget man Morley, hard man Jess Hahn, and human fly Gilles Ségal – only at the end of this process do they pick up the bumbling Simpson.

And whereas in the book the tension is all generated by Simpson’s fear that the gang will find out about him, a tension which generates real fear right up to the final pages – in the movie they find out that he knows about the weapons and is working for Turkish police well before the heist – and, in line with cinematic cliché – it is the theft itself (a mere page in the book) which becomes the centre of the experience – 10 minutes or so of tense scenes as the acrobat is lowered into the jewel room which has a touch-sensitive floor (not in the novel), depicted with no music nor dialogue.

The jewels are to be smuggled out by a travelling circus (not in the book) which is caught, and the gang are all thrown into Turkish prison where they are shown in the final scene, comically traipsing round the exercise yard to a quack quack quack in the orchestra, which has all the subtlety of a Carry On film.

Also, the film is dominated by Melina Mercouri who appears in almost every scene from the opening to the close and who, I’m afraid, we thought was staggeringly ugly. She certainly looked old enough to be Max Schell’s mother wearing a series of terrible wigs. That she seems to have been some kind of ‘sex symbol’ and was considered charismatic enough to carry the entire movie now seems beyond belief.

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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.
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