Octopussy by Ian Fleming (1966)

There are two collections of James Bond short stories – Quantum of Solace published in 1960 containing five stories – and Octopussy and The Living Daylights containing just those two stories and published in June 1966. When the paperback edition of the latter was published in 1967 another story, The Property of a Lady, was added; and the short sketch, 007 in New York, was added to the Penguin paperback edition in 2002.

1. The Living Daylights

(32 pages) First published in The Sunday Times colour supplement in February 1962.

The barbed wire fence which would evolve into the Berlin Wall was only erected in August 1961. This story a) comes from the period before there was any physical barrier between East and West, b) is the only Bond story set anywhere near the Eastern bloc.

Agent 272 has a been a long-term sleeper inside the Soviet Union. He has accumulated a wealth of information about their atomic missile programme. Now he’s trying to escape and he’s made it as far as East Berlin. He radioed a ciphered message saying exactly where he will run across the line from East to West Berlin on one of the following three evenings. However, the message was intercepted by the Russkies, who have sent their top sharp-shooter, codenamed ‘Trigger’, to be ready & waiting to kill 272 as he makes the crossing.

MI6 know about the message interception, and so have sent Bond to kill ‘Trigger’ before ‘Trigger’ can shoot 272.

So Bond undergoes a few hours intense target practice with a state-of-the-art sniper rifle at a military firing range at Bisley, before driving to London airport and flying to Berlin.

Tired, he is taken by a Foreign Office minder, Sender, to a service flat overlooking the wasteland between the Russian and Western zones (where the Berlin Wall would eventually be built) and here makes a base. The rifle he’ll use can be set up on a stand and Bond can lie on the mattress of a bed set against the window, which is almost completely covered by curtain, so that just the rifle barrel pokes out.

Sender explains that ‘Trigger’ will almost certainly be based in a big, new, concrete block for East German officials which is off to one side of the waste land – hence the rental of this derelict flat and the orientation of the window, and so on, to give Bond good sight over the ‘killing zone’ but also up into the Russian building.

Over the next three days, Bond spends the daylight hours ambling aimlessly round Berlin (which he doesn’t like very much) making sure he is back in the flat ready for the 5pm set-up and for the expected crossing time around 6pm. Two nights in a row he gets tense and hot in his blackout clothes, finger on the trigger, scanning the windows of the big Russian building – but nothing happens.

However, during these trial runs he notices something. Every day a Russian women’s orchestra troops into the Russian building and spends a couple of hours rehearsing. Bond realises that, among all the musicians, the cello player’s cello case is suspiciously light, too easily swung and carried. The woman carrying it is an attractive, vivacious blonde, smiling and joking with her fellow players. Slowly Bond forms the conviction that she may be ‘Trigger’.

On the third evening Bond is all set to go when Sender jumps to life and says he can see through his binoculars a man in the shadows on the other side – must be 272. And, yes, Bond sees a gun barrel being poked out of one of the windows of the Russian building. Bond uses his powerful telescopic sight to zero right in on the protruding gun barrel, as Sender gives him a running commentary of how our man is approaching the wide open stretch of floodlit ground where the dash for safety will take place.

With a last minute look round, 272 makes a break for it, running into the illuminated strip of land. At the same moment Bond sees in his scope a blonde head move forwards over the enemy gun. He hesitates a fraction of a second, allowing ‘Trigger’ to get off a burst from her Kalashnikov, then fires one well-aimed sniper bullet. It hits the enemy gun and sends it spinning out the window to the ground. Bond tells Sender to duck and a fusillade of bullets pours through their window. But 272 is safely across and into the waiting Opal car kept revved up by a British Army corporal, which now speeds off.

Sender and Bond crawl into the relative safety of the windowless kitchen where Sender tells Bond off, saying he will have to report that he hesitated, and then did not kill ‘Trigger’ as ordered. That hesitation could have led to 272’s death!

Bond considers lying but then tells the truth. He had developed a fellow feeling for this beautiful woman, who is his mirror image – also a paid assassin. His shot a) disabled her gun b) probably broke her hand or even arm. And she will be severely punished by the KGB for her failure. It is enough.

Bond is sick of killing. Send your message to my boss, he tells Sender. Maybe it will get me out of the wretched 007 section and into a nice cushy desk job.

Comment

The waiting for someone to cross the neutral zone is reminiscent of the opening of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Bond’s malaise, sick of killing, reflects the illness and depression which afflicted Fleming at the end of his life.

2. The Property of a Lady

(42 pages) First published in The Ivory Hammer (Sotheby’s annual) in November 1963.

Significant that it was published in the Sotheby’s annual since this the whole story is an advert of sorts for the famous auctioneer’s. A valuable Fabergé egg worth anything up to £100,000 has been given to Sotheby’s to auction. It is given as ‘the property of a lady’ but M explains to Bond that it’s actually been put up by one of their own MI6 staff, a certain Miss Freudenstein. Miss F is in fact a double agent working for the KGB. We learned this after she had been hired but before she took up her post, and so MI6 created a special section just for her, the ‘Purple Cipher’ department, which handles worthless information mixed with occasional nuggets of disinformation. For three years Miss F has been cunningly passing secrets to the KGB which are not secrets at all.

Now she has come into possession of the egg, apparently legitimately. An expert who works with Her majesty’s Customs says a parcel insured for £100,000 was stopped by Customs and opened. it contained the egg along with validating documents showing that is had been in Miss F’s family since before the revolution. On the death of her mother, it is being willed to Miss F.

M explains this is probably a legitimate way of rewarding Miss F’s devotion to duty without the messiness of bank accounts. The egg will be sold for a fortune, and thus some ‘capitalist’ collector will be in effect paying a KGB spy. Very droll.

Bond has an idea: the KGB will probably send along to the auction an ‘underbidder’, someone who is paid to make the running on an expensive lot, and push it to the maximum before abandoning the chase just in time. In all probability the ‘underbidder’ at the egg auction will be the KGB’s Resident in London.

So Bond organises for a photographer and other officials to attend the auction and identify their man. Sure enough, after the opening salvoes, the bidding settles down into a battle between someone invisible in the crowd and the very cultured and helpful Fabergé expert, Mr Snowman, who works for the firm. The ‘underbidder’ pushes it all the way to £155,000 then quits. The photographer and Bond both get a view of the stocky, anonymous figure who did the bidding. Outside Bond jumps in an MI5 taxi and tells it to follow the stocky man’s.

Sure enough Mr Stocky’s car turns into Kensington Palace Gardens and he enters the Russian embassy. Bond’s scheme has ensured he will be identified as the Soviets’ Resident in London and expelled. A small victory in the endless chess game of the Cold War.

Comment

I was expecting a clever reverse or unexpected twist – which never came. Maybe Fleming wrote it as a favour or special commission and the real point was to flatter Sothebys.

3. Octopussy

(44 pages) Posthumously serialised in The Daily Express from the 4th to the 8th October 1965.

I think this is Fleming’s second best short story after Quantum of Solace and, seeing as that was a deliberate pastiche of Somerset Maugham, maybe this is the best. It combines a number of Bond themes: it’s set in Jamaica (as so many of his stories); there’s skin diving and the beauty of the undersea world; there’s Bond’s stern, almost Puritanical, sense of duty; and, by complete contrast, Fleming’s feel for the Alps and mountains which he got to know so well as a young man.

What’s missing is sex, gadgets or an overblown baddy. For once a Fleming fiction is a realistic portrait of the failings of human nature.

Major Dexter Smythe was a fine figure of a man during the war in the latter part of which he commanded an Intelligence section. Now he is 54, fat, drinks and smokes too heavily and has had two heart attacks. He is, in other words, something of a self-portrait of Fleming himself, who had a dashing war but by the early 1960s was in failing health.

Since Smythe’s wife died he has let himself go and now only barely manages to stay alive with the help of numerous pills. One of his last pleasures is patrolling the acre or so of foreshore off his beach-front house, where he puts on a snorkel and enjoys feeding the fish and other fauna on the reef. Recently he has been trying to tame an octopus – feebly nicknamed ‘Octopussy’ – who has a home in a certain part of the reef, and is interested in conducting a little experiment – he wants to see how the octopus will react if he offers it a scorpion fish, one of the most poisonous fish in the world.

However, his world has just been turned upside down, because that morning a man from London, a man named James Bond paid him a call. Bond coldly and officially told him that the authorities have uncovered the full story of his wartime crime. The body has been found and the bullets identified as coming from his gun.

As the pair of chaps politely sip their drinks, Smythe slips into a flashback which dominates the rest of the narrative. He begins to explain the situation at the end of the war, and his role of visiting German command bases with a mission to confiscating all their paperwork, assessing it and sending it back to London. Mostly boring, until he found one sheet among thousands, which seemed to refer to hidden Nazi gold.

Smythe pinpointed the location of the stash in a climber’s hut up a nearby mountain, checked the location on Army maps, then burned the incriminating document. He made some casual enquiries and got the name of a local mountain guide, one Herr Oberhauser. Smythe drives out to Oberhauser’s hillside house and terrorises him into accompanying him up the mountain.

It was a tough five hour hike, described by Fleming in gritty detail, but they eventually reached the hut and found the cairn of rocks indicated in the document. At which point Smythe cold-bloodedly shot Oberhauser in the back, threw his body into a crevasse, and dismantled the cairn to find an old ammunition box containing two huge bars of Nazi gold. He lugs it down off the mountain – again described in gruelling detail – and hides it in some woods. Back to base, shower and a deep sleep. Next morning Smythe is up with his unit and travelling on to the next base.

Six months later, well after the end of the war, Smythe returns, find the stash in the forest, and uses his security clearance to fly several times back and forth from Germany to England – with a gold bar each time in his suitcase.

Smythe then he met and married a pretty, middle-class gel, Mary, and told her they were moving to Jamaica. Here he rented a desirable property and made enquiries, quickly discovering that the most powerful underworld figures were a couple of Chinese brothers, the Foos, in Kingston. He approaches them with the bars and they agree to dispose of them for a 10% commission.

And from that day to the present Smythe has lived a merry life – no work, golf all day or skin diving, bridge at the club or dinner parties in the evening. But he has gone to seed. In fact it was his heavy drinking that set Mary against him, nagging him to stop until he took to hiding bottles and lying about them, and then everything else. Finally, Mary made a ‘cry for help’ overdose which actually resulted in her dying – since when he hasn’t cared about anything.

And now this man Bond arrives with his accusations. ‘How did you know?’ Smythe asks. Bond explains: The glacier has given up the dead body of the Oberhauser, along with his identity papers. The bullet holes in the skull made the cause of death obvious. His family identified the British officer he left with, all those years ago. The trail led to the Foo Brothers who have admitted their role in disposing of the gold. It is a cut-and-dried case.

We realise the flashback narrative we’ve just read was also Smythe telling Bond the true story. Confessing. Bond stands; the interview is at an end. He says the police will be here to arrest him in a week at most and prepares to leave. ‘Yes, but why do you care, why are you here?’ Smythe asks him, puzzled.

James Bond looked Major Smythe squarely in the eyes. ‘It just so happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father figure to me at a time when I happened to need one.’ (p.44)

What can Smythe say. Bond looks at him with contempt, and departs.

And so Smythe has a few more stiff drinks, slips on his diving mask and goes out into the sea in search of a scorpion fish to tempt his ‘Octopussy’ with. And sure enough he finds one, with its odd ‘eyebrows’ hanging over its glaring red eyes, and the spine of venomous quills rising from its back. As he goes to spear it, the fish darts up and under Smythe’s stomach and then off into a crevice in the reef. But Smythe spears it a second time and wades out of the sea holding his trophy aloft. Only when he sits on a rock on the beach does he realise there’s a numb patch on his stomach. Christ, the bloody scorpion fish must have stung him with is poisonous barbs! He knows from the books that he could be saved by anti-histamines and antibiotics, but the nearest doctor is an hour away. And he knows he has just fifteen minutes to live.

Smythe pulls on the mask, determined to continue his silly experiment and wades back out into the reef with the dead scorpion fish on his spear. He arrives at the Octopussy’s grotto, but is delirious with pain by now. ‘Octopussy, octopussy, look what I’ve brought for you,’ and he feebly jabs the dead fish at the octopus. But Octopussy recognises a real feast when she sees one and darts out a tentacle which grips Smythe’s arm. And then another tentacle. And, as Smythe screams into his mask, the octopus’s other tentacles close around him, pulling him into range, and the creature’s big sharp beak starts to bite!

Comment

What sets the story apart is the sense of gnawing guilt for his wartime crime which both made and ruined Smythe. He is no typical Bond baddy, no garish ogre. He is an all-too-fallible human being. The gruesome climax of the story has all the elements of the sadistic and macabre which Bond fans could want – but it is the surprising psychological power of Smythe’s wartime narrative which lingers in the memory.


Credit

Octopussy and The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming was published in June 1966 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1985 Panther paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1966

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.

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (1966)

‘Do you believe in God?’
‘I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never been able to understand what it means, you see. It’s the most difficult idea I’ve ever heard about. And yet people seem to get results by it all the time.’
Churchill said animatedly, ‘Only people with no sense of right and wrong. No real sense of it. What would you have to be like to worship something that invented every bad thing we know or can imagine?’ He looked away. ‘Death in particular. If there were no such thing as death the whole human race could be happy.’ (p.228)

This novel is a complete departure for Amis – I kept stopping to check it really was his name on the cover. It is a lot longer than average (304 pages to One Fat Englishman‘s 170) and not funny at all for long stretches (though snips of Amis humour can’t help creeping in at odd moments). Admittedly the plot becomes a bit preposterous towards the end, but for the lion’s share of the text what is happening is compassionate, sensitive and delicate portrayals of very real people, their thoughts and feelings, captured in minute detail through interplay and dialogue.

Milieu and dramatis personae

It is set in the recent past (a scientific paper published in 1963 is referred to) in an Army camp somewhere in England set up to guard a Top Secret Weapon and prepare for a Top Secret Operation. We are introduced to a dozen or so characters, mostly of the officer class, with the occasional batman or servant or private. But for the most part it is chaps talking chaps’ talk – very different in its face value acceptance of upper-middle class values and speech from his early novels which all have a chippy, anti-posh stance. In addition there are two or three posh local women, the head of a nearby lunatic asylum and his staff.

The plot

The book opens with fine upstanding officer James Churchill, accompanied by Ayscue, the haggard padre, and an Indian officer, Mori Naidu, visiting fellow officer Max Hunter, who has been admitted to the local asylum after trying to drink himself to death. It also introduces us to the head of the asylum, Dr Best who, it is quickly conveyed, is himself of questionable judgement (ie bonkers) obsessed with his idées fixes and theories. Thus Best has diagnosed Max’s motive for drinking so recklessly as a method of avoiding confronting his repressed homosexuality. Which makes the other officers burst into laughter since Max is as openly and candidly gay as a man in his position could be in that era.

In the courtyard on the way back from visiting Max, the trio walk past a striking young woman out for a walk with a nurse: she is Catharine Casement, admitted after a nervous breakdown. (True to obsessive form Dr Best as diagnosed her breakdown as caused by her suppressed lesbianism.)

Back at the Army base we meet more characters, notably Brian Leonard, the insecure ‘intelligence officer’ who has been stationed in the unit to sniff out a suspected ‘spy’. His rather ludicrous obsession with finding reds under every bed obviously parallels the obsessive secret-motive-finding of Dr Best.

The novel unfolds slowly in a series of measured and in-depth scenes between variations on all these characters. A few scenes in we meet Lady Lucy Hazell, lady of the rather run-down local manor. She kindly and compassionately takes Catharine into her big echoing mansion, and there are tender scenes of care and compassion between them. About a third of the way in we learn from conversation between the chaps that Lady Hazell has a novel approach to love and sex: she organises evenings when three or four officers congregate in her drawing room, drinking, chatting and smoking, and then are summoned one by one upstairs to have sex with her. Churchill, the nearest thing to a hero in the book, takes us with him when he goes up and we see the thing through his eyes, see how intelligent and clear-headed Lucy is.

There is no snideness about women, none of the vulgarity or crudeness which – arguably – mars this novel’s predecessors. As Lucy explains to more than one of the officers (only officers, naturally) she has been in love before, it always ends badly; this way she gets what she wants with no emotional damage. It is what she wants to do. ‘Be sure to tell the next one to come up on your way out, there’s a dear, now.’ She is a benign and happy version of the malignant nymphomaniac figure, Mrs Gryffudd-Williams, in That Uncertain Feeling. She is treated with complete respect and dignity throughout, and all her officers worship and respect her. Can this be the same Kingsley Amis?

Jumping ahead a bit, there is a comparably respectful and humane treatment of Max’s gay love life. Early in the novel a despatch rider is run over and killed, witnessed by the trio visiting Hunter. It emerges that a common soldier, Pearce, was in love with this rider or at least very good friends. One sub-plot is that Max, restored to health after his spell in the sanatorium, makes a sophisticated play for Pearce. He wines and dines him at an expensive restaurant in the village before walking on to a flat where he claims there was a party but when they get there, oh dear, the flat is empty with a feeble note from the ‘party-giver’ saying it’s cancelled, he’s been called away, please make yourselves at home. It has all been set up by the suave and humorous Max and he begins to slowly seduce Pearce, getting as far as kissing him on the mouth when – the latter pulls away. There follows a really mature and respectful scene where young Pearce apologises and explains that he still isn’t over the death of his friend. Max responds astonishingly respectfully and walks him back to the jeep – although, life being what it is, he pops back into the restaurant under the pretext of having left his watch there, and makes a date with the rather dishy waiter who served them lunch.

James and Catharine

There are roughly two narrative arcs. In one, James Churchill and Catharine fall deeply in love. No tricks, no jokes, a really heart-felt, deeply emotional love story. Lucy gets Catharine a job at a local pub, the White Hart, where both the landlord (Eames) and the other bar staff, informed of her condition and recuperation, go out of their way to be kind and considerate of her. These scenes and characters evince a lovely feeling of warmth and sympathy, I almost wanted to cry at a few moments. Can this be the same man who wrote One Fat Englishman and The Egyptologists? Churchill and fellow officers drop into the White Hart for a drink where Catharine is working, they recognise each other from that fleeting encounter at the asylum, and it is love at second sight.

Their relationship is beautifully and sensitively described and provides a central core to the narrative. There is a frankly wonderful scene where James sits at the bar through one lunchtime while Catharine is serving, then helps wipe the tables and clear away, before they are both thanked and bid goodbye by the landlord and James takes her for a drive in an Army truck up into the countryside. They park in an isolated spot, go through a small fence and clamber down to walk beside a stream to an isolated spot where they lie on the grass and make love.

It is made all the more powerful because in the pub, after the last customer had left, Catharine revealed the secret of why she had her breakdown: it was her abusive and violent husband who, she slowly realised, could only have sex with her if she was hurt, wounded, injured and crying in pain. The gentleness with which James coaxes this out of her, the horrid plausibility of the brutishness of some men, and the support and love he gives her, are as if written by a completely different man, in a completely different tone.

Catharine came out of the pub. She looked so beautiful in her white dress and white shoes and white hair-band that Churchill had an instant of sincere puzzlement at the way the passers-by went on passing by, the farmer climbing into his estate wagon over the road failed to reverse the direction of his climb and come pounding across to cast himself at her feet, the man laying slates on the roof of the barber’s shop managed to stay aloft. Churchill put his arms around Catharine and kissed her. (p.170)

It comes, then, as a shock when James feels a lump in her breast and advises her to go to a doctor straightaway. Things move very fast and she is diagnosed with breast cancer while James is on an exercise and he is devastated. She is taken into hospital and he goes into a deep depression.

The Anti-Death League

Churchill and some of the others, especially after the accident with the despatch rider, and given that one of their number is the padre, Ayscue,  have occasional conversations about God and the meaning of it all, in which Churchill and to some extent Max are revealed as vehement atheists, despising a God who created so much suffering, though there is comedy when the more robust of them point out that they are in the Army, old chap, whose job is to dish out rather a lot of Death when called upon.

Out of nowhere there are two mysterious events: the padre had announced he was going to start up a magazine to try and keep morale up and one day someone leaves an upsetting poem on his desk, titled To A Baby Born Without Limbs which is fiercely anti-religious. Then carbons of a notice are pinned up everywhere informing everyone about the creation of the Anti-Death League, incorporating Human Beings Anonymous. It lists three appalling tragic deaths and says all you have to do to be in the Anti-Death League is be against horrible pointless deaths. There are no fees or rules but if you want to find out more, be at the Base Hall next Thursday.

The ‘meeting’ is a complete anti-climax as four or five of the officers we’ve got to know, plus the camp commander turn up expecting to see the originator of the notice, but there’s no-one there except a handful of bored squaddies who, after a grilling, are let go. It gives the novel its title but nothing else really happens about it, there are no members and no conspiracy and no big revelations. This is true of a number of Amis’s novels which promise Big Things which then peter out. I found it very hard to tell the tone in many places: not funny for long stretches, but not deadly serious, not as thrilling as a spy novel, not as imaginative as a science fiction novel, not as solely about emotions and feelings as, say, D.H. Lawrence – but with elements of all of these mixed together.

Atomic rifles

The other main strand in the novel is the slow revealing of the Big Project the Army unit has been created for and which the officers occasionally mention in hushed tones. For two thirds of the novel I was in suspense wondering if there was going to be the revelation of some Grand Science Fiction Technological Secret Weapon, that that would justify the rather rambling directionless feel to the narrative. About page 230 it is revealed that the big secret weapon stored in the ‘special building’ D4 is a new kind of rifle which fires ‘atomic bullets’. They look normal and require only lightly amended rifles. Load and fire in the normal way and whatever it hits a miniature atomic explosion vaporises. The third part of the novel features a large-scale demonstration of the rifles involving trucks of soldiers accompanying the officers to a firing range accompanied by helicopters overhead etc.

It is here that a number of themes collide, specifically the Brian Leonard spy theme and bonkers Dr Best, for Leonard has become convinced Best is the spy he’s after and that this exercise will flush out the ‘spy’. His worst fears are confirmed when Best is indeed spotted making his way to the perimeter of the exercise, whereupon Leonard feverishly brings all his forces into play, telling his men to pull back and lure Best into a trap. Unfortunately half way through Best literally disappears; and when, after the demonstration of the atomic rifle’s awesome powers, the lorries are trundling back to camp, one of them has an accident and bursts into flames, and in the ensuing confusion, one of the rifles goes missing!!!

This prompts a full-blown panic with all soldiers formed up to scour the countryside and tear the camp to pieces looking for it, and also the arrival of a Man from the Ministry, plump, scruffy, posh Jagger.. He is a little like the Fat Englishman, immediately demanding cold beer, so fat he struggles to get out of a chair and so on. But he appears to be meant to be the real thing, smart, clever decisive. Is this satire? Does this mean it’s turned into a spy novel? Or a (very low-key) science fiction novel? Or both?

Whoever stole the atomic gun terrifies everyone by letting it off later that night and blowing to smithereens a local (already ruined) priory.

Next morning Leonard is tipped off by his men that Best is back in his office at the asylum and the rifle is with him. Leonard and Max tear off there in an Army vehicle with Jagger hiding in the back seat. They gain admission to the asylum and then up to Best’s office where Leonard attempts to arrest Dr Best for espionage and breaching Official secrets etc. To which Best smirks and replies that, on the contrary, his expedition to the test site has confirmed his suspicions that Leonard is mad and he flourishes a sectioning order countersigned by the two other doctors in the room. And so there’s a stand-off as they both stand there shouting that they’re arresting the other: a satire maybe on the fatuousness of human concepts, of law, of authority, of power and legitimacy.

A stand-off solved by brute force for when one of the doctors enters with hypodermic syringes to tranquilise Leonard and Max quite a big complicated fight breaks out with bottles smashed and cupboards knocked over, until Best takes quite a heavy blow to the head. And in a not funny but genuinely weird development he freezes and starts to spout a kind of spy comic narrative: ‘They contacted Dr Best. Only you can save the world from the death rays. Best said he’d do what he could. He recruited his best agents and set off.’ He has gone into a kind of bizarre comic strip psychosis. The other doctors are astonished and sedate him. Max and Leonard return to the base.

The real spy

Leonard returns to his room to be astonished to find his valet, Deering, going through all his things, with all his Top Secret reports open on the bed. Deering attacks him in another prolonged fight which ends with Leonard unconscious amid the wreck of a mirror. When he comes to he dashes down to the officers mess, has the alarm sounded but at that moment a heavy machinegun goes off and the soldiers are rallied round the roof of D4, the Top Secret building, where Deering has coshed a guard and is letting loose. There follows some hair-raising action in which Max Hunter shows himself to be something of a hero, climbing up to the roof, having to duck the bullets, before distracting Deering long enough for him to be finished off by Jagger, not just a fat Englishman.

Operation Apollo

So Leonard had been briefed correctly, there was a spy in the base. It does, however, look very bad that it was his own batman. Jagger says they’ll go gentle on him, he’ll be quietly court-martialled and given a dishonourable discharge, but then quietly slipped some cash. He also confirms that Best was never a spy, his madness was a pure coincidence.

Leonard is then debriefed by a minor character, the stern and logical officer, Ross-Donaldson. He explains briefly that the atomic rifles are an impractical weapon and could never be used in combat. A selected cadre of officers had been told they were taking part in Operation Apollo: this would involve being sent to the Himalayas in pairs with the equipment to spread a lethal new plague among the Chinese Army which intelligence suggested was considering invading India. The teams of officers were to capture and infect Chinese troops, releasing them to go infect their comrades. It wasn’t really expected that any of the officers would return. But this plan was a bluff. HQ had hired an inexperienced and incompetent ‘intelligence officer’, told him to promote his own existence among the men, and to guard the atomic rifles, all the time counting on his incompetence to let the information about the deadly plague be stolen and reported back to China. This has now successfully taken place. The Chinese will be frightened off; the invasion of India will be called off; the Operation was never actually about the plague: it was about Leonard’s incompetence. He is a broken man.

(In an entertaining side scene, fat Jagger – he struggles to get out of chairs or off a bed – corners Hunter, the hero of the hour who took on Deering behind his heavy machine gun nest: Jagger prompts Hunter to confess all – it was he, Hunter, who wrote the poem against God, who posted the note about the Anti-Death League, and who stole the atomic rifle, with the sole intention of blowing up the Priory as a deliberate snub to God. Since he is a hero Jagger says he will forgive and forget, ‘unless you’re planning to do the same kind of thing again, old boy.’ He advises Hunter to leave the Forces and settle down with a nice someone (his homosexuality acknowledged and accepted), but Hunter surprises himself and us by saying he rather enjoyed being under fire, real combat, real bullets – he might volunteer for a genuinely dangerous tour of duty.)

Having learned all this, Leonard realises there is still some good he can do. He drives with Naidu out to Lady Hazell’s mansion to visit Churchill, by now comatose with despair about Catharine’s cancer, lying in a darkened bedroom. They both have speeches about God and life designed to knock James out of his stupor: Leonard saying Operation Apollo is off – it was never on – it was always a ruse to frighten the Chinese – anyway, there is no God to be angry with, Naidu saying he must learn to transcend his own greed and selfishness in order to come to learn to love the world as it is (p.268).

Neither works, so Leonard hacks off in his car and returns an hour later with Catharine, extracted from hospital against her doctors’ advice. She takes him in her lap and pleads with him to return to her, to be a man again, to be there for her. And like the sleeping princess, suddenly he responds, he answers her. He returns to life.

Conclusion

A puzzling blend or confusion of genres. Amis’s style remains quite detached and factual ie rarely becomes emotional and also lacks colour, lacks simile and metaphor, in this respect rather like David Lodge’s. His attitude is capable of flashes of satire and social comedy at almost any point, and all the scenes that include Jagger are more or less funny.

After a couple of abortive tries and a bit of shrieking Jagger pulled a loudly ticking watch out of his top pocket and glared at it. (p.285)

But the vast majority of the text isn’t trying to be funny and it’s quite a puzzle trying to define what it is trying to be, in the end. There’s a continuous thread of chatter about God, about life and the meaning of it all, but hugely inconsequential. Like most novelists, Amis is most profound or thought-provoking about the weirdness of existence, about the mystery and impenetrability of life, when he’s not tackling it head on but dramatising it in strange incidents or conversations or moments which reveal the disjunctions between our cosy expectations, our familiar chat and conventions, and the bizarre biological and psychological ‘reality’ which underlies it.

And this is what novels, literature, texts, do more than any other genre. They can be puzzling, unexpected, quirky and odd in the way film or TV can’t. For me the sci-fi scenes didn’t really convince and the spy plot wasn’t even persuasive as a spoof – much though spy spoofs infested the mediascape in the mid-1960s. The most vivid scenes for me were the long pub-to-streamside walk between Catharine and James, and the equally mature, responsive account of the attempted seduction of Private Spencer by Max. They’re the scenes which will stay with me, and are reminders of how powerfully Amis could write about real human beings and their feelings when he wanted to.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Arthur Robins

I love these cartoon covers of the old Penguin paperback editions of Amis’s novels. They were done by book illustrator Arthur Robins, who is still at work illustrating mostly children’s books.

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.

L.S. Caton

A character named L.S. Caton appears in Lucky Jim. He promises the eponymous hero that he’ll publish his academic paper in a newly-established journal. Instead, Caton flees the country and the journal collapses – delivering a further blow to Jim’s shaky reputation – and Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

But Caton then crops up a number of the subsequent Amis novels, making him a nice running joke:

  • In Take A Girl Like You he appears in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Patrick Standish’s school about his experiences in South America
  • On page 159 of One Fat Englishman Roger Micheldene discovers a letter asking a reviewer to consider Caton’s book about South America for publication
  • In The Egyptoloists Caton appears on page 43, as an agenda item for a meeting of the mysterious Egyptology Society, and then again on page 158 as that night’s guest speaker.
  • In this novel Caton is booked as a guest lecturer to talk about the military in South America and he actually arrives at the Base ready for his talk at just the moment the Chinese spy Deering goes on the rampage, letting loose with a heavy machine gun from the roof of the secret building. To my horror Caton, being driven through the front gates at that instant, is the only victim of Deering’s rampage, a direct hit in the face, instant death (p.279). My God. Is that really the end of this entertaining joke? Will it turn out to be a case of mistaken identity? Will he be miraculously resurrected in the next novel? I hope so.

Sabre-Tooth by Peter O’Donnell (1966)

‘You’ve arranged fine weather,’ she said, and handed him the glass. ‘I didn’t realise the Foreign Office had such influence.’
‘We sacrificed two Civil Servant maidens under a full moon last night,’ said Tarrant. ‘It seems to have worked better than some of our other operations recently,’ he added in a dry tone. (p.25)

Why shouldn’t a thriller be fun? I mean really enjoyable, full of amusing characters and preposterous plots and wacky gadgets and dastardly baddies and urbane toffs? Why shouldn’t it keep a smile on the reader’s lips for hours at a stretch? Why shouldn’t books, in other words, be as childishly pleasurable as James Bond movies?

In 1966 the Beatles released RevolverTime magazine announced that London was ‘swinging’, and Peter O’Donnell published the second novel based on his successful comic strip character, the stunningly beautiful secret agent and crime-fighter, Modesty Blaise.

The first hundred pages

The opening scenes reintroduce us to Modesty, the splendidly sexy but awesomely intelligent and competent master criminal-turned-agent, and her sidekick, Willie Garvin, expert killer, schemer, babe magnet and creator of Bond-ish gadgets; and their contact with ‘The Department’, Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Sir Gerald meets them in Modesty’s penthouse flat overlooking Hyde Park, where he also meets the little girl, Lucille, rescued by Willie after her entire family were killed in some foreign hell hole, and who he has been funding through school. The servant, Weng, looks after little Lucille while the three adults drive in their Rolls Royce to enjoy an afternoon’s fishing on the Thames near Maidenhead, before repairing to Willie’s waterside pub, The Treadmill, where Sir Gerald watches Modesty and Willie work out, practicing armed and unarmed combat in the special ‘workhouse’ behind the pub. All the time Sir G is wondering when’s the best moment to present his proposition…

Meanwhile, in a secret valley somewhere in the Arab world, we are introduced to a small mercenary army recruited from the roughest, toughest, meanest freelance killers the world can offer. They are being assembled by the fearsome Karz, and whipped into shape by his lieutenant, Liebmann, watched by a clutch of new and old recruits – Hamid, Sarrat, Carter – through whose eyes we are introduced to aspects of the tough training and harsh discipline of the camp.

The Twins

Every spy romp has its evil genius but is not complete without a psycho sidekick (Goldfinger and Oddjob). O’Donnell gets top marks for creating Chu and Lok, two enormous killers who were born Siamese twins and only separated well on in life, and who now choose to go around joined by a leather strap joining their chests. Tied together psychologically and physically for life, the twist is that they loathe and hate each other. But not as much as they hate anyone in the mercenary camp who is found out to be ‘Unsound’ ie questions Karz’s orders: any such fool is thrown to the Twins to be torn to pieces in the camp’s amphitheatre, before the drooling audience of hired killers.

***

Back in Berkshire Sir Gerald slips into conversation with Modesty and Willie how he’s been keeping an eye on a political figure of fun, Es-Sabah Solon, leader of the so-called ‘Free Government of Kuwait’, who is doing the rounds of social events, speaking at fringe meetings, popping up on TV. And finally, Sir Gerald begins to outline his problem to them. Word has it there might be a coup against the government of Kuwait. Rumours there’s a mercenary army assembling somewhere. Would Modesty and Willie mind infiltrating it?

After some thought, they agree and begin to concoct a plan. Willie will put it about that Modesty is bored in retirement. Modesty will pretend to have a gambling problem, on a massive scale, enough to bankrupt her, enough to put her on the lookout for a money-making proposition…

The next hundred pages

Modesty fixes it with a friendly casino owner to lose an astronomical sum of money in a well-publicised card game against an American millionaire. Very Casino Royale.

There is then a detailed account of a complicated heist they mount to steal a priceless Watteau painting from a French art gallery; they are smuggling it out of the country when, whoops, the truck crashes and the painting is recovered. As in the previous novel Modesty has a tactical affair with an old flame – the cartoonishly named Mike Delgado – and lets him just close enough to witness her desperation at losing all that money and then, alas and alack, the Watteau caper being foiled.

Of course, it is a cover story, all fabricated to make the mercenaries think she and Willie are available and looking for paid work. And a few days later, they are indeed lifted from the beach by some thugs and locked up in an abandoned villa. Turns out this incarceration has been carefully arranged by the abductors to contain an obvious escape route – cleverly arranged as a test, like something from The Prisoner (1967).

But Modesty and Willie excel expectations by making a hammer and weapons out of the lead piping to the sink, breaking through the roof, knocking out their guard with a lead attached to a strip of blanket, and then taking out the restroom full of armed guards. This is the scene where Modesty deploys ‘The Nailer’ ie appears topless to a room of astonished goons, thus giving herself and Willie a vital 2 to 3 seconds to move into optimum positions to take out the baddies, him with his leaded weights, her with her trusty kongo, before grabbing guns, knives etc to finish them off.

In a scene typical of the broad humour of the whole book, there is no car to escape from the villa but there is an old Victorian carriage rotting in the stables. So, at gunpoint, Willie harnesses the surviving baddies to bridles and traces and gets them to pull them back into town.

A few days later they are relaxing by the pool at Modesty’s house in Tangiers when a phone call tells them the Baddies have seized Lucille and will kill her unless they join the mercenaries. Aha. That changes the tone. They expected to be offered the job for money, that had been their plan. The abduction of Lucille means the army are much more ruthless than they expected – now they’re playing for real stakes. And a qualm enters the reader’s mind: threatening children – even in fiction – leaves a sour taste…

The last 80 pages

So Modesty and Willie are kidnapped and taken to the secret base of the mercenary army, high in the Hindu Kush, north of Afghanistan.

Here they put on another act, pretending to have fallen out as a result of their imprisonment and Modesty’s gambling ‘addiction’. A tad implausibly, they are both allotted squadrons to command. We’d been warmed up for this since it was in conversations about the lack of intelligent captains in his army, that the Evil Genius Karz and his lieutenant, Liebmann, had first mentioned Modesty and Willie as possible recruits.

There’s a great scene where Modesty has to confront her group of 20 or so murdering psychopaths and assert her authority. She does this quickly by identifying the alpha male in the pack and knocking six bells out of him; and then, shrewdly, picking him up and dusting him off and appointing him her second in command.

But when Modesty and Willie grab some time together they assess the scenarios: jointly break out – Lucille dies; alert Britain – Lucille dies; go along with the military coup, in which case a lot of innocent children die and maybe Lucille dies anyway, given how ruthless Karz has shown himself to be. Modesty comes up with a self-sacrificing plan.

She breaks into the radio shack, knocks out the operator and sends a coded radio message to Britain with details of the planned assault on Kuwait. Then arranges for the operator to come round to witness Willie and Modesty fighting, making it look like Modesty is the traitor and Willie caught her at it. They stage manage it that Willie and the operator overcome Modesty (as if!) and then haul her before Karz who, inevitably, condemns her to death.

Which sets up a great scene in the amphitheatre the next day, as the crowd of cheering thugs watch an epic fight between Modesty and the Twins. Guess who wins? But, like all the fight scenes in these books, it is described clinically and precisely and persuasively. Willie pleads for Modesty’s life, using the grim reason that Modesty can be used in the seraglio, the comfort rooms, as one of the army’s sex slaves.

Hmm. In my review of the first MB novel I mentioned the unspoken pact between O’Donnell and the reader: we promise not to burst out laughing at the preposterous plots and cartoon characters, and he promises not to be cheap, vulgar or degrading about his heroine. This pushes the agreement right up to the brink. But I think it works and the novel emerges the stronger for it and even gains a measure of depth and true dignity.

For three hard nights Modesty is made a sex slave in the harem, and Willie has to put up with the taunts and boasts of the men who’ve had her. I think it’s well and persuasively done that Willie suffers most. When his allotted evening comes round, and he goes into her cell/bedroom, the pair keep up the pretence of animosity between them until they’ve disabled the inevitable bug, and then he quickly releases her.

But it is Willie who has suffered. Modesty was raped and abused as a child and is still able to turn it off, to leave her body, making it happening to someone else. It is Willie’s mental torment at knowing what was being done to his ‘princess’, the woman he has pledged to protect with his life, that is dwelt on at length. It isn’t exactly ‘literature’ – but it isn’t pulp played just for exploitation, either. And this new tone lasts to the end of the book, adding a measure of depth to Modesty and Willie’s characters and really bringing to life the special bond they enjoy – much deeper than love or sex or friendship.

Long story short, they find Lucille is being held in the same building as the sex slaves, rescue her, go under dark to the airfield, kill the guards (who just happen to be the ones who boasted about ‘having’ Modesty – ah justice is done).

They mine the huge arms cache hidden in a cave by the side of the dam (yes, dam!) holding back the enormous lake (enormous lake!), set the fuses – oh and there’s just time for them to be caught and held at gunpoint by Modesty’s lover from the early stages of the book, big Mike Dalgado, and some goons – before they take them out, run to the plane, and just manage to take off as the rest of the army comes running up with machine guns. Phew.

As the plane circles over the valley they see the arms dump explode big time, demolishing one wing of the dam and letting the vast lake of water flood through the camp, drowning half the army and wrecking their base.

They crash land in Afghanistan among American contractors building a road, are treated for their wounds and then flown back to Europe. In the final scene Sir Gerald meets them at Modesty’s home in Algiers. She is being courted by the American millionaire to whom she lost at cards in the rigged game at the casino. And now Sir Gerald arrives to apologise for putting her through such a horrendous ordeal.

Dignity

On the drive up the hill Sir Gerald tells Willie that he doesn’t know if he can even face Modesty, knowing what his initial suggestion ended up putting her through. Willie stops the car and explains there is no guilt: he and Modesty went into the ‘caper’ with eyes wide open and it was her plan all along. They’re professionals and they’ve put it behind them and so should Sir G.

O’Donnell conveys real delicacy and sensitivity in both the characters in that scene, and then builds up Sir G’s nervousness and embarrassment as he finally arrives at Modesty’s house – so that there is a real sense of relief and release when she welcomes him in the old polite and civilised way, going out of her way to reassure him and put him at his ease. It is a psychologically important moment in the story, which Modesty, and her author, meet with panache.

Tarrant stood very still, watching the dimly seen figure in white moving down the broad stairs which led up from one side of the living-room. He heard a series of clicks, and wall-lights sprang up in different parts of the room. She was just turning at the angle of the staircase, moving quickly and lightly down the last few steps into the room.

She wore a very simple sleeveless dress in white nylon. It was short, with the hem just above the knees. Her brown legs were bare and she wore open pale-blue sandals with small heels. Her hair was loose and gathered back at the nape of her neck by a jet clip.

She was smiling at him, moving towards him with both hands extended.

‘Sir Gerald.’ Her eyes were warm with welcome. (p.281)

In a number of scenes throughout the book, O’Donnell’s characterisation achieves a kind of dignity and depth which lift it far above its comic-strip origins. I really like these characters. Crisply written, with a good steady pace, a comprehensible plot, and a warm feeling throughout, this is a hugely enjoyable and uplifting novel.

Related links

Paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

US paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.

The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966)

She laughed and held me still and kissed me. I responded as well as I could, but the corpse in the pool seemed to turn our preoccupations into comedy. The corpse of Dr Philipot belonged to a more tragic theme; we were only a sub-plot affording a little light relief. (p.57)

The Comedians is Greene’s longest novel (287 pages in the Penguin edition) and among his most enjoyable. The tone is equable, the style concise and expressive, the text relatively unblemished by the Catholic despair and bucket theology of his other novels, and there is a steady flow of deft descriptions and urbane ironies which, although they intertwine with some gruesome scenes, on the whole keep a slight smile permanently hovering on the reader’s lips.

Plot

It’s narrated in the first person by  a middle-aged Englishman, Brown, the owner of a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He’s been in the States for three months and the novel opens with him aboard a tramp steamer puffing to Haiti, accompanied by a handful of other guests: Mr and Mrs Smith the American evangelists for vegetarianism; the loud and probably fake Englishman ‘Major’ Jones; a travelling pharmaceutical salesman; and a mournful black man named Mr Fernandez. Brown, Smith and Jones – the narrator comments on the comic unlikelihood of these notorious aliases appearing together, and that sets the tone…

As soon as he arrives in Port-au-Prince, Brown re-enters the adulterous relationship with Martha, wife of a South American ambassador. And he returns to the hotel, the Trianon, which he had built up into a 5-star operation and compulsory stop on every well-heeled tourist’s itinerary – until, that is, Papa Doc’s reign of terror destroyed the tourist trade, until his staff were roughed up by the thuggish Tontons Macoute, until he himself abandoned it to flee to the States a few months earlier.

Haiti, Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes

Dr Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957 on a populist and black nationalist platform. After a coup attempt against him in 1959 he sacked senior Army staff and created an alternative police-cum-militia, the terrifyingly ill-disciplined, cruel and sadistic Tonton Macoute. They routinely raped and beat to death anyone who got in their way. As he got older Papa Doc went mad. He turned against the head of the Tontons who went on the run. When Papa Doc was told the fugitive Tonton had turned himself into a black dog, Duvalier ordered all black dogs in Haiti be put to death. Duvalier ordered the head of an executed rebel to be packed in ice and brought to him so he could commune with the dead man’s spirit. Peep holes were carved into the walls of the interrogation chambers, through which Duvalier personally observed Haitian detainees being tortured and submerged in baths of sulphuric acid.

Haiti under this grotesque regime is the macabre setting of the novel. It is not so much a country as a nightmare come to life, a place of perpetual fear.

Comedians

Despite – or because of – all this, the central idea of the novel is that we are all comedians on the great stage of life. In very appealing chapters the narrator tells us about his early life being educated at a Catholic boarding school in Monte Carlo. He had a flair for theatre and it was while made-up for a play that he absconded to gamble in the famous Casino and drew the attention of a middle-aged woman who seduced him and took his virginity. When the Fathers discovered it all, he was expelled. His mother was a great self-dramatist and liar, who routinely changed her name and image and had sent him away to school to free herself for her numerous roles. On the rare occasions he sees her leading up to her death, she is permanently on stage.

I knew very little of her, but enough to recognise an accomplished comedian. (p.76)

So he is an actor, from a line of actors, inclined to think we are all just passing players caught up in the great farce of Life. This theme was strongly present in Greene’s previous novel, A Burnt-Out Case, which descended, at its climax, into absurd farce; here the theme is brought home repeatedly as we witness various characters acting out roles on the grim stage of Papa Doc’s theatre of the absurd. And commenting on it.

‘I remember looking at him one night on the boat from America – it was after the ship’s concert – and wondering, are you and I both comedians?’ (p.133)

‘They can say that of most of us. Wasn’t I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs du Mal, published in hand-made paper at my own expense?’ (p.133)

The ambassador said, ‘Come on, cheer up, let us all be comedians together. Take one of my cigars. Help yourself at the bar. My Scotch is good. Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian.’ (p.134)

The ambassador said, ‘We mustn’t complain too much about being comedians – it’s an honourable profession. If only we could be good ones the world might gain at least a sense of style. We have failed – that’s all. We are bad comedians.’ (p.134)

‘For Christ’s sake,’ Martha said in English as though she were addressing me directly, ‘I’m no comedian.’ (p.134)

There was not a false note in her voice; she was perfectly at ease, and I thought of her anger when we talked of comedians, although now she proved to be the best comedian of us all. (p.140)

Adultery

I’ve recently read novels by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Len Deighton, Peter O’Donnell and Adam Hall, and the novels by Greene are the only ones which feature adultery – not only feature it, but make it a central strand of the plot. I mentioned to my son that the plot of the novel I’m reading is about a middle-aged man having an affair which makes him unhappy, and he said, ‘Not another Graham Greene?’ Quite.

It is his signature tune. Adultery – miserable adultery – is the motor of The Heart of The Matter, The End of the Affair, The Unquiet American and A Burnt-Out Case. From Norman Sherry’s exhaustive biography of Greene we learn that miserable adultery was the almost permanent condition of his private life after about 1940. And so here, in this novel, there are numerous scenes where the lovers (Brown the narrator and Martha, the ambassador’s wife) meet and torment each other with recriminations, guilt, or shabby sex. And the narrator generously shares with us his many insights into the wretched nature of affairs – though thankfully not nearly as intensely, or so drenched in the Catholic guilt, as those which overflow The Heart of The Matter and The End of The Affair.

If a husband is notoriously blind to infidelity, I suppose a lover has the opposite fault – he sees it everywhere. (p.48)

Time was needed for a home as time was needed to turn a mistress into a wife. (p.49)

This is one of the pains of illicit love: even your mistress’s most extreme embrace is a proof the more that love doesn’t last. (p.49)

Sooner or later one always feels the need of a weapon against a mistress. (p.130)

Maybe Greene acquired a reputation for being cosmopolitan, a sophisticate, a man of the world, because a) he travelled widely, and confidently set his novels in a fascinating variety of countries b) he emigrated and lived in the south of France, then Switzerland c) but maybe most of all because he displayed what was then, in the late 50s and 60s, a Continental openness about sex and adultery.

In which case the pose has dated. There is something not liberating but coercive about his continual assumption that adultery is the common condition of all marriages, that infidelity is inevitable.

The Society of Jesus is used to unsettled bills; it works assiduously on the fringes of the aristocracy where returned cheques are almost as common as adulteries. (p.59)

Brown’s affair with Martha dominates this long novel. It provides a central spine to a text which also includes observations about political dissidents and comic sub-plots about Mr and Mrs Smith, the American vegetarians, and the misadventures of the mysterious ‘major’ Jones. The affair is brought under the aegis of the central conceit that we are all ‘comedians’ by being routinely presented as farcical – Brown and the ambassador’s wife drive all round the city trying to find somewhere safe and discreet to have sex and are continually interrupted, by her son, by the Americans, by the Tontons.

It is nonetheless lowering that a great writer can devote such a large percentage of his pages to describing pretty much the same the kind of squalid, hopeless, miserably unhappy affairs which made such a wreck of his own life.

Everything was just as before. After ten minutes we had made love, and after half an hour we had begun to quarrel. (p.50)

Sex

From the start of his career Greene was unsqueamish about / very interested in, writing about sex. I was surprised by the reference in one of the 1930s novels to young couples masturbating each other under the protection of raincoats on park benches or deckchairs. Or by the crudeness of a phrase in The End of The Affair where Bendrix describes his feeling when he is with Sarah, with her ‘or in her’. Or him casually referring to her crying out at orgasm. Same here. It is 1966 and London is swinging but there is no joy whatsoever in Greene’s description of a black woman getting down on her knees, her head on the ground, pulling up her skirts to be taken by a Tonton thug. Or the queue at Mère Catherine’s brothel. Or the protagonist Brown screwing the ambassador’s wife in the cramped back seat of her Peugeot.

Once I had looked out of my window at two in the morning. There was a great yellow moon and a girl was making love in the pool. She had her breasts pressed against the side and I couldn’t see the man behind her. She didn’t notice me watching her; she didn’t notice anything. (p.51)

Some of the younger writers emerging in the 1960s seem to have enjoyed sex. Not Greene, for whom it is a pitiful physical urge, to be sated with illiterate whores in the stable-like brothel or in cramped rooms above a Syrian grocer’s shop.

Hamit watched me, ironic and comprehending. I remembered the stains we had left on his sheets, and I wondered whether he had changed them himself. He knew as many intimate things as a prostitute’s dog. (p.134)

Depth and description

Tedious though the affair with a married woman which forms a major thread of the novel may be, there is much pleasure to be gained from the rest of the book: in his account of his boyhood, of his escapades at the Monte Carlo Casino, how he was thrown out of the Catholic seminary and then made his way in the world, first bluffing his way through a variety of kitchen jobs then selling bogus art for the gullible to invest in. It is a rich, interesting and amusing backstory.

Similarly, his distant relationship with his grande dame of a faking mother is urbane and entertaining, as his brief acquaintance with his mother’s young black lover, Marcel, is urbane and upsetting (Marcel hangs himself after the narrator’s mother dies – it is a first, I think, for a Greene narrator to have to admit that someone else is more despairing and unhappy than he is). Away from the boring affair, the protagonist’s character is one of the most imaginative and filled-in of any Greene hero.

The detailed infilling of his biography is matched by the depth and thoroughness of Greene’s depiction of Papa Doc’s terrifying Haiti: the electricity failing, the demoralising poverty, the appalling physical disfigurements of the beggars, the casual beatings-up or rapes, the pomposity of the smoothly lying Ministers, the trip to the ruins of the new capital, Duvalierville, being built high up and pointlessly in the dry mountains, the dark sunglasses of the moody and violent Tontons.

As travelogue, capturing the grim atmosphere of a weird time and place, the novel is a triumph.

Greene the lecturer

A regrettable but central element in Greene’s style is the wish to lecture and pontificate. His novels are full of would-be quotes and ‘insights’ into human nature, which are nearly crisp enough to adorn a teenage t-shirt or a coffee mug in the office kitchen. They sound good, they have a plausible rhetoric of wisdom but, in my opinion, evaporate as soon as you reflect on them.

Cynicism is cheap – you can buy it at any Monoprix store – it’s built into all poor-quality goods. (p21)

Cruelty’s like a searchlight. It sweeps from one spot to another. We only escape it for a time. (p.162)

I read the message again now; I thought it movingly phrased… And he had died for her, so perhaps he was no comédien after all. Death is a proof of sincerity. (p.253)

What the manic-depressive Greene means by this last phrase is that suicide is a proof of sincerity. The Norman Sherry biography shows that he was obsessed with suicide and on various occasions threatened to kill himself unless his mistresses did what he wanted. The whining tone of the jealous lover comes to the fore in the last 50 pages of the novel when the narrator becomes irrationally consumed with jealousy, suspecting his mistress is sleeping with the con-man Jones who he has helped find political asylum in the embassy.

This drives the dénouement of the novel: the conman ‘Major’ Jones is caught out trying to hoodwink the régime, and comes to Brown’s hotel for asylum. Brown drives him down to the boat they arrived on and there is a comic scene when the Tontons arrive, Jones hides, and the captain in his nightgown has to face up to them. When the captain refuses to let him stay on board, Brown has to smuggle him off the boat again and has the bright idea of driving him to his mistress’s embassy.

Not only is Jones made welcome there, but he becomes the life and the soul of the party, becoming friends with the ambassador, his little boy, and even Brown’s mistress. –Earlier in the novel one of the former guests at Brown’s hotel, disgusted by the régime, says he is heading into the hills to set up an armed resistance. The narrator makes it perfectly clear he thinks this is a ridiculous waste of time which can only end badly. The so-called resistance are one more set of comedians, jokers on a gruesome stage.

Now Brown conceives the rather nasty idea of taking ‘Major’ Jones at his own word (he’s always bragging about his heroics in the War) and smuggling him up to the resistance in the hills – thus conveniently removing him from the embassy and from what his silly jealousy imagines to be the arms of his mistress.

The journey itself involves lying to the Tontons, who have already beaten him up once – and capture would lead to a bad beating or worse. The rendezvous with the resistance is arranged for an isolated cemetery, among the voodoo gravestones – a gruesomely atmospheric setting – but, inevitably, goes wrong.

Unusually for Greene – and an indication of the just-about comic intention of the novel – the major protagonist does not die (unlike the key figures in Heart of The Matter, The Third Man, End of The Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case). Instead, although the Tontons do intercept them, the scene cuts suddenly and unexpectedly to the Dominican Republic across the border a few weeks later. Turns out the resistance saved him and Jones and then smuggled them across the border. The nine-day journey was quite an ordeal – twenty-five years earlier Greene might have described it in excruciating detail rather in the style of The Power and The Glory, which amounts to a 200-page-long gruelling journey.

But instead, we jump to the lightly comic scenes of Brown safe and sound in the Dominican republic where he has the good fortune to bump into Mr Smith the American evangelist for vegetarianism and even his mistress, whose ambassador husband has been expelled from Haiti. After desultory end-of-the-affair conversations with the mistress, the kindly American fixes him up with a job as assistant to the monosyllabic funeral director we first met on the ferry to Haiti, in the opening pages, and that’s that.

Everything: Papa Doc’s Haiti with its absurd new capital built of concrete; Brown’s dreams of running the best hotel in the Caribbean; his affair; Jones’s lies about his military record; the resistance (12 men and three rusty machine guns)’s fantasies about overthrowing the regime. All bitter farce. We are all comedians.

Verbal felicities

The text is a rich interweaving of themes and ideas, some of which (the local description) I prefer to others (the preaching, the adultery). But the thing I really enjoy about Greene is the small verbal affects which crop up throughout the text. Greene is no Chandler, he is not a flashy stylist. Most of his prose is limpid, clear and uncoloured. Concisely effective, occasionally clumsy. But that makes the metaphors and similes, the moments of colour, when they do occur, all the more vivid. A lot of the pleasure of the novel comes from the sharp asides, ironic touches and deft comparisons it displays on almost every page.

[Petit Pierre] giggled up at me, standing on his pointed toe-caps, for he was a tiny figure of a man. He was just  as I remembered him, hilarious. Even the time of day was humorous to him. He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter. (p.44)

A man in a torn shirt and a grey pair of trousers and an old soft hat which someone must have discarded in a dustbin came trailing his rifle by its muzzle to the door. (p.47)

‘I have known your mother many years. I have a great respect…’ He gave me the kind of bow with which a Roman emperor might have brought an audience to an end. He was in no way condescending. He knew his exact value. (p.69)

We quarreled. I told her [her son] was a spoilt child, and she admitted it, but when I said that he spied on her, she was angry, and when I said he was getting as fat as his father, she tried to slap my face. I caught her wrist and she accused me of striking her. Then we laughed nervously, but the quarrel simmered on, like stock for tomorrow’s soup. (p.91)

The sun was almost vertically above us now: splinters of light darted here and there from the glass of the hearse and the bright brass-work of the coffin. The driver turned off his engine and we could hear the sudden silence extending a long long way to where a dog whined on the fringes of the capital. (p.122)

The Duponts were sitting on the verandah with the little boy, and all three were eating vanilla ices with chocolate sauce. Their top hats stood beside them like expensive ash-trays. (p.126)

‘Good-night.’ I put a false friendly hand on his head and ruffled his tough dry hair. My hand smelt afterwards like a mouse. (p.137)

On my right were a line of wooden huts in little fenced saucers of earth where a few palm trees grew and slithers of water gleamed between, like scrap-iron on a dump. An occasional candle burned over a small group bowed above their rum like mourners over a coffin. (p.141)

He handed the revolver to the second officer. ‘You will give it him,’ he said, ‘at the foot of the gangway.’ He turned his back and left the officer’s black hand floating in mid-air like a catfish in an aquarium. (p.216)

For me, this is what a writer should do – not the quotable quotes about love and faith and sin and despair – nor the rather heavy-handed deployment of a dominant theme (we are all comedians on the great stage of life) – but this, the skilful deployment of language to uplift reality and illuminate the reading mind. It is in these apt and expert turns of phrase that Greene, for me, is truly religious, taking the water of mundane life and transforming it into the wine of literature.


The movie

Greene, who had seen about a dozen of his novels turned into movies by this stage, and who famously wrote the screenplay for the classic film The Third Man, himself adapted this novel for the big screen. Directed by Peter Glenville and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness, it should have been brilliant – but it looks rather bad, and can’t have been helped by the bloated running time of two-and-a-half hours.

Related links

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

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

The 9th Directive by Adam Hall (1966)

To respond to the threat of a grenade-burst the sub-conscious has to evaluate a mass of data: the angle of the thrower’s arm, which governs the time-period from the beginning to the end of the throw; the size (and thus the weight) of the grenade – data which affects the time taken to throw it (the heavier the slower) and the degree of explosive force; the distance of the thrower to the intended point of impact; the height of the thrower above that point (gravity aiding momentum); and all factors pertaining, which include mass, inertia, trajectory, air resistance, so forth. (p.152)

Everything that irritated me about the first Quiller novel is here in the second. There’s a big stake – a Royal is making a state visit to Thailand and security have received realistic information that there’ll be an assassination attempt – but not much actually happens – Quiller argues with the supervisor who called him over from France to manage the project and spends a lot of time, nearly two weeks in fact, driving round Bangkok hoping to catch a glimpse of the assassin. Seriously. Just as in The Quiller Memorandum there is a steady, constant amount of ‘tagging’ or following, and counter-tagging, of driving round following other cars or being followed.

The tedium of the eventless plot is routinely interspersed with psychobabble masquerading as tradecraft and spy technique.

A simple rule of mnemonics is that if a face is to be remembered it must be forgotten in its absence. Attempted recall in the absence of the image is dangerously prone to distort it… Most instances of poor memory are examples of retroactive interference producing qualitative changes: the memory, goaded into conscious service, begins making things up. If left alone, the initial neural traces will remain absolutely clear, and will recognise the image immediately the next time it is seen – because no change has taken place. (p.34)

Psychoanalysis is crossed with the shiny new world of computer science to lace the text with themes and threads which must have seemed achingly up-to-the-minute in 1966.

The Maltz system of psycho-cybernetics breaks new ground in that it likens the subconscious to a computer to which the forebrain submits problems for resolution. Some of its concepts derive from accepted disciplines including that of the sleep processes. (p.42)

And, just as there is a detailed but utterly detached, scientific paper-style account of being injected with truth serum in the first novel, so, here, there is a similarly super-detached account of being caught in an explosion.

Reaction time covers three phases: time required to sense the signal, to decide on the correct response, and to respond. Relevant factors: age, state of health, muscle-tone, fatigue, alcohol, caffeine, so forth. Greatest artificial influential factor: training (i.e. habit formation). (p.151)

Old tech

The entire plot turns out to be about this piece of cutting edge technology, known as a ‘laser’.

The project concerned a refinement of the Laser device (Light Amplification by Stimulate Emission of Radiation). This is an electro-magnetic oscillator producing light-waves massed into an ultra-narrow wave-length band and directed along a fixed path in a ray one million times brighter than is possible in any normal way. (p.121)

Trainspotting

The tough-minded and often angry first-person narrator is as humourlessly factual about his gadgets as about every single other aspect of his world.

They let me take my pick from what they had on the shelves and I came up with a compromise: a Pentax X-15 25 mm single reflex with a 135 mm lens that took a 2 Auto teleconverter and a stock adapter for my Jupiters. This 135 x 2 x 8 (lens plus converter plus field-glasses) gave a total focal length of 2160 mm and a magnification of X 16. (p.62)

Don’t worry, there’s plenty more.

All the Husqvarnas are beautiful but the finest they make is the 561. It is a .358 Magnum, centre-fire, with a three-shot magazine, 25½-inch barrel, hand-chequered walnut stock, corrugated butt-plate and sling swivels. The fore-end and pistol-grip are tipped with rosewood. The total weight is 7¾lbs and the beech-pressure is in the region of 20 tons p.s.i., giving a high muzzle-velocity and an almost flat trajectory with a 150-grain bullet. (p.72)

I think what I don’t like about the books (apart from the ludicrous plots which consist of lots of wandering round being tagged or ‘flushing’ your tags or tagging other people) is that the tone is so relentlessly lecturing, haranguing and expounding. If it’s not guns and cameras, it’s long humourless lectures about the forebrain and the unconscious, the stomach-mind versus the head-brain. How an agent should behave before, during and after an ‘overkill’ operation. What you should know about safe houses.

A safe-house is no ordinary place: it is a cornerstone of security and bad security can wreck a mission and kill you off. You’ve got Local Control if you’re lucky but you can’t always rely on getting there if the operation hots up and you’re jumping. A safe-house is a home and sometimes it’s the only place you can run to. We think of it as a shrine, sacrosanct. It’s really a bolt-hole. (p.117)

It is always left to the discretion of the intelligence director in the field whether a killing is reported or not. (p.148)

Got that at the back? There’ll be a test on Friday.

Sex

It’s a spy novel in the 1960s, so of course there’s a dolly bird (sorry, an operative working for Mil. 6 – note the cool way he doesn’t write MI6, no, Mil.6 is what real insiders call it). Turns out she’s been tasked with ‘tagging’ Quiller all along. She is unnerved by the execution which happens in the book and so they drive to a hotel room and mechanically undress with no words.

We had nothing to say to each other; it was now too urgent for that. In the glow from the bedside lamp she moved without awkwardness, revealing her lean body with feline arrogance until she was naked except for the wafer-flat ·22 that was holstered on the inside of her thigh. She unclipped it deftly and dropped it on to her clothes. (p.127)

Ambler, Innes and MacLean wisely have little or no sex in their novels. Len Deighton’s hero refers to it in an oblique and characteristically dry way. Hall’s touch is brutal and humourless and clumsy.

She cried out the first time, and afterwards the heat of her tears touched my hand. (p.128)

The first time, eh? Give her multiples, did you, Mr Big? The next morning she apologises for crying out her boyfriend’s name ‘in the moment of passion’. This made me smile, because it is such a cliché.

But I laughed out loud when she goes on to explain why: ‘At those times we… often say things. It was because you were so… magnificent. I forgot where I was, who you were.’ (p.130) So magnificent, eh? So magnificient he makes a girl forget who she is, where she is. Modest chap, this Quiller. In his mind, the only agent who can save the Royal, an expert at psychological control, a master of all known weapons, a demon between the sheets. —Presumably, this is all meant to be serious? It isn’t all a colossal satire?

Somewhat inevitably, it turns out her man was killed on their last assignment together and, well, she just had to get it out of her system… You know how women are.

Their moment of release past, the agents both dress and get on with the job of going off to ‘tag’ the bad guys, while trying to avoid getting too ‘tagged’ in return.

Oh and more lecturing.

The sole advantage of the spring-gun is silence. It is more silent than any powder-gun, however heavily baffled. At even medium range – six feet and over – it is inefficient it it has to fire through clothing. Even at four feet an overcoat will shield the body from most of the impact. The spring-gun can kill through light clothing at any range below two feet providing it can be aimed to strike at a vital organ without hitting bone. As a useful weapon it has value only if its limitations are known and allowed for. (p.137)

The stupid plan

This continual lecturing, the complete absence of humour, the tedious expounding of Spy Basics, might all be bearable if the plot had pace or intelligence. But the first half of the book describes how Quiller is brought to Bangkok by a controller who tells him the mission is to protect a visiting Royal from a well-known Asian assassin named Kuo. Quiller tags Kuo all over Bangkok until, abruptly, he disappears – then spends over ten days driving round town trying to find him again. He figures out it will be a hit with a long-range rifle and finds the location, a tower in a Buddhist temple close to the route of the Royal car procession.

BUT, despite knowing the identity of the assassin and the location, Quiller and his Control agree a ludicrous plan which is to wait till the last possible moment, until the Royal car is coming down the parade and into view, and until the assassin is lifting his rifle to take aim, and only then giving Quiller a few seconds to shoot the assassin – from the window of a room Quiller has found in a derelict building across the way.

This seems like a bad plan. I explained it to my son and he said, how stupid. Really – you’re not going to tell MI6 (sorry, Mil.6), the local police or military or intelligence – you are going to make saving the life of a senior Royal entirely dependent on your own shooting ability and leave it to the last possible moment? Not have him arrested? Not bump him off earlier in the day? Leave everything to the last possible moment?

The absurdity of this approach closely echoes the absurdity of The Quiller Memorandum wherein Quiller lets himself be picked up twice by the Nazi gang and then lets himself be ‘tagged’ all round town before managing to slip away to make a phone call to his local Control. That’s the plot. How Quiller slips his tail to make one phone call to the office.

I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when the ‘plan’ goes horribly wrong. Who would have predicted that? Despite having cocked things up really badly, the narrator doesn’t leave off his barrage of hectoring, except it is now like trying to keep a straight face in front of a teacher who has hilariously screwed up in front of the whole class. Now you can’t take anything he says seriously, and the more deadly earnest and man-of-the-world he tries to be, the more ludicrous a figure he cuts.

There had been only a slight phuttt from the gun. Its barrel had swung up a degree to meet my hand and the dart had ripped flesh away. A trained athlete reacts as fast as a cat, and muscle-obedience to the motor nerves is almost instantaneous. (p.138)

Ah so.

He held a ·38 automatic and it had a silencer. ‘Silencer’ is a misnomer. No gun can be made silent. A full baffle will absorb a lot of noise but it will also cost a lot of impact and can make the difference between a kill and a maiming wound – and a man with a maiming wound can run and can even fight and can even close in before the second shot comes. This was a half-baffle designed to cut down the noise without costing too much fire-power. (p.140)

In many places this ‘novel’ approaches as close to a textbook or manual as a work of fiction can. And all the people in it are faultless professionals who have all been to the same finishing schools for spies and secret agents.

His hand moved fractionally into the killing-attitude, pressing the gun against his side to cushion the recoil. (p.142)

The Chinese hadn’t moved. Blood came from the hole in his neck. She had shot for the third vertebra in the cervical region, smashing it and severing the nerves. It was a surgically accurate shot, consideration having been taken of the limitations of so small a gun. (p.146)

They were working as a perfectly disciplined cell controlled by a professional of talent. (p.166)

So it’s odd, eerie, then, that the overwhelming impression the narrator makes is of an idiot, permanently angry, always shouting at his calm boss, arrogantly declaring he has the only plan to protect the visiting Royal – a plan which completely misfires allowing the Royal to be kidnapped by the gang – an idiot, and who then deliberately lets himself be cornered in a warehouse, hand grenaded, poisoned by cyanide and then has his car shot away from under him.

There are countless pages of manual-speak but next to no intelligence. Instead the crucial breakthroughs in the plot are complete accidents – he happens to see Kuo going into the temple which will be used for the hit; and he happens to glimpse out the corner of his eye a Rolls Royce with the Union Jack being flown incorrectly on it and so suspects it is being used to smuggle the Royal out of Bangkok.

The narrator goes to great lengths to show off his expertise, but comes across as a technocrat buffoon. On page 174 he accuses himself of gross stupidity and it is hard to disagree.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap him. After much shooting and a high speed road chase the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton (1966)

‘There’s only one General Winter,’ Stok said, ‘and he’s on our side.’ (p.229)

In the year England won the World Cup, Len published the fourth in his series of spy novels about the unnamed employee of the WOOC(P) section (the initials are never explained) of British Intelligence.

First thing you notice is there’s less of the paraphernalia – none of the ‘Secret File 1’ and ‘2’ which were stamped on the covers of its predecessor The Ipcress File and Horse Under Water. Still divided into sections and chapters but these only have children’s nursery rhymes as epigraphs, not the elaborate crossword clues of Horse nor the chess tips of Funeral In Berlin. (Not that I’ve ever heard any of these nursery rhymes. Just possibly he’s made them up. Reading Deighton makes you suspicious of everything.)

Hey diddle dinkety, poppety, pet,
The merchants of London, they wear scarlet,
Silk in the collar and gold in the hem,
So merrily march the merchant men. (p.171)

There are fewer footnotes and only three appendices. The text is longer, with some paragraphs sounding a bit anonymous, just good effective description, lacking the zing of almost every sentence in Ipcress. And I felt in some way there was more of a focus on character, less on style: the young Finnish girl Signe, and the KGB colonel, Stok, both emerge very clearly as strong characters, in a way characters in earlier novels didn’t so much. In the end, the entire novel feels like an enquiry into the fantasy-driven manic-depressive character of Harvey Newbegin, the Russian emigre turned double agent, who struggles to tell fact from fantasy.

Altogether, it feels a tad less ‘zany’ and elliptical than the previous three novels, a tad more traditional – though still very obviously from the same stable.

The plot

Helsinki Snow and cold. The Narrator is told by his boss Dawlish to adopt a false name, Liam Dempsey of Eire, and visit a correspondent, Olaf Kaarna, in Helsinki. Liam finds Olaf dead in his apartment, covered in raw egg (?). As the Narrator explores the apartment, the lift comes up and he encounters a 17-year-old Finnish beauty, Signe Laine. She clumsily tells him she’s working for British Military Intelligence then introduces him to her lover, who is none other than the American ex-agent Harvey Newbegin. We encountered this man in Funeral In Berlin where he was being dismissed from the US State Department, and the Narrator suggested to his boss they recruit him, though this is blocked by higher-ups.

England Instead the Narrator allows himself to be recruited by Newbegin for his organisation. Newbegin explains it’s run by a right-wing American billionaire (General Midwinter) who plans to overthrow the Soviet Union. He despatches the Narrator back to London to make a secret rendezvous with one Pike. Pike takes him to meet his brother, Dr Ralph Pike, a research scientist (though pretending to be posh English, both are obviously foreign, the Narrator finds out Latvian, Stok later reveals, Latvian war criminals). They give him a package to deliver back to Helsinki. Once alone the Narrator takes it to Dawlish and his people – it is a pack of six eggs stolen from the Porton Down Research Institute. Aha. Germ warfare. They switch them for a pack of harmless household eggs and the Narrator sets off to fly back to Helsinki. However, at the airport his luggage and everyone else’s is stolen, including the eggs.

Helsinki Back in Helsinki the Narrator allows himself to be seduced by the teenage Signe. She tells him all about Newbegin’s spiteful wife back in the US and how Newbegin is sending a lot of the money he gets paid back to his wife’s bank account. Seems as if Newbegin is obeying the instructions of his employer but, cynically, doesn’t expect the plan to succeed.

Newbegin tells him more about the organisation – all the missions are worked out by a massive computer, all agents report back to it whether successful or failed, and the computer calculates new plans and orders. They call it the Brain.

Helsinki Newbegin and the Narrator receive the biochemist Dr Pike from London, equip him in parachute gear, rendezvous with a plane on the ice which takes off to parachute Dr Pike over Russia. The Narrator doesn’t know what Dr Pike intends to do there but thinks he’ll be captured immediately. Newbegin is cynical about the whole deal, and is just taking the money.

Leningrad Newbegin and the Narrator fly to Leningrad and rendezvous with an Italian girdle salesman named Fragolli. They exchange the eggs – aha – so the Narrator realises they were stolen at the airport by someone working for ‘the Organisation’. Fragolli says the Narrator has to memorise a message and fly to Riga with it. The Narrator meets up on the Leningrad metro with another familiar face, Colonel Oleg Stok, the joking KGB officer from Funeral In Berlin.

He was a heavy muscular man of about sixty. He had a round face that hadn’t done much smiling until middle age, and an uptilted nose that perhaps had been busted and reset by a plumber. His eyes were small black sentries that marched up and down, and his hands were bunches of bananas unsold over the weekend. (p.91)

The hold-up Stok warns our man not to get caught up with these fantasists but the Narrator travels out to the frozen woods outside Riga to help with the ambush of a Soviet truck carrying supplies: the bald-headed man in charge wants the ration books which will reveal a lot about front line troops dispositions. But the gangsters he’s hired are just thugs and, once they’ve intercepted the truck, they casually kill the bald-headed man and it’s only by assaulting the lead gangster who’s holding a machine gun and then running into the woods that the Narrator survives. Here he bumps into the mounted Soviet army unit which is about to surround the gangsters, and gets hit over the head, knocked unconscious.

Regains consciousness in a barracks under a pile of corpses and terrifies the guard who enters and thought he was dead. Then enters Colonel Stok (he turns up everywhere like the fairy godmother). Told you not to go, he says. He takes the Narrator to a restaurant where they see Dr Ralph Pike enter and spot them. Narrator realises he is being set up – Pike’s arrest will coincide with the Narrator being seen with Stok, and Midwinter’s Organisation will think the Narrator betrayed him.

New York and General Midwinter Next the Narrator leaves Russia and flies in to New York where he meets the short billionaire ‘general’ giving a fancy dress party at which Mozart is being played by a live chamber orchestra. Newbegin is there and very drunk but he and the Narrator dance a duet together. Later that night Signe turns up as he’s eating in a diner. It’s not a chance encounter: the Organisation instruct him to move in with her. She continues to tell the Narrator about her confused love affair with Newbegin, while seducing him.

Texas Next the Narrator flies in Midwinter’s private jet to Houston Texas, is driven north to the general’s big private ranch. Lots of security, and ‘the Brain’ turns out to be a three-storey building, complete with airlocks, compulsory showers and antiseptic white clothing before you can enter the dirt-free white corridors around which are located the vast $100 million servers of the largest computer in the world, all tape and punch cards – very 1960s. The Narrator does the 14-day induction course to enter the Organisation. Also sees the tensions in Newbegin’s marriage from close-up: Mrs N is the general’s right-hand lady, tough and ambitious for her husband, while Newbegin secretly thinks it’s bunk.

New York The General summons the Narrator to his skyscraper, where he’s doing riding an exercise bike in the centre of a vast gym or, later, watches hawks among New York’s high-rise buildings with binoculars. Turns out Newbegin has done a bunk across the Mexican border. The General asks the Narrator to track him down. The Narrator tells the General that his plans are mad, that the Russians will never ‘rise up’ against their rulers, that Newbegin faked the British and Finland ‘networks’, pocketing the funds he was given for fake agents, and stashing all the money in a bank account held by Mrs Newbegin.

Charlotte Street Back in his dingy Charlotte Street office, the Narrator discusses the case so far with his boss, Dawlish (and allows the reader to catch their breath).

  • Newbegin faking agents and salting away their pay
  • Newbegin passing all the Organisation’s information on to the Russians, who are probably also paying him
  • Newbegin arranged assassination of Kaarna at the start of the plot, because he was finding out too much
  • Newbegin arranges the theft of the (switched, non-Porton Down) eggs at the airport
  • Newbegin tries to have the Narrator assassinated by the gangsters on the road outside Riga
  • Newbegin suggests to Stok that he be seen with the Narrator just before Pike is picked up, thus throwing suspicion on the Narrator. (The General had spotted the reason for this last ploy: casting suspicion on the Narrator gave Newbegin just the extra bit of time he needed to make his arrangements to flee across the border into Mexico and then – who knows where?)

Track him down, says Dawlish, if necessary, get rid of him. But in fact Newbegin comes to the Narrator’s flat in London and asks a) can he be given a home by British Intelligence (No) b) can he hide out there for a few days (Yes) c) will the Narrator come to Helsinki to persuade Signe to run away with him (Reluctant yes).

The Narrator takes some other agents and the police to arrest Dr Pike for smuggling the virus eggs out of Porton Down, a broadly comic scene counterpointed with the very smart party his wife struggles to continue hosting downstairs.

Helsinki Newbegin and the Narrator fly back to Helsinki and are met with Signe who has fixed up a dummy apartment to decoy any tails, and a secret apartment where they go and hide out. (How do they do this without British police and/or American agents noticing?) Uncharacteristically, the Narrator tells us what is going on ie Dawlish ordered him to have Newbegin arrested by American agents not on British soil, for minimum embarrassment. Newbegin is convinced he wants to defect. They get on a train to Leningrad, and are kissed goodbye at the station by Signe. On the train journey Newbegin tells the Narrator he really loves Signe, she really loves him. He also says it was Signe who assassinated Kaarna as well as several other agents- in fact, she is the Organisation’s assassin in the region. –As she has told so many flighty fancies it is difficult to know if this is true or not.

On the train Newbegin and the Narrator talk, the latter trying to persuade him not to defect, to do a deal with Midwinter. Russian border guards order Newbegin off the train, then try to shoot him but he just about makes it back to the train as it pulls off. Newbegin accuses them of being his, the Narrator’s agents; the Narrator counters that they were US agents paid to assassinate him. They make it Leningrad and are walking down the Nevsky Prospekt, Newbegin saying he feels ill, his elbow hurts, everything is black, and then he suddenly steps out in front of a bus and is instantly killed. What? Standing behind the Narrator is Colonel Stok (he turns up everywhere) who whistles up a Zis car and takes the Narrator directly to the airport.

Epilogue As with all the other novels, you feel the bulk of the story is over, but there’s a final act. Back in Britain, the Narrator and Jean are ordered to drive down to Salisbury where Dr Pike’s brother is being kept in a mental ward by the Army, overseen by Ross, the Narrator’s boss in The Ipcress File. Reason being, revealing that top secret viruses were being smuggled out of Porton Down would damage our relationship with the Americans. They are to pressurise him into writing a letter to his wife telling her to emigrate – because Ross has tipped off Special Branch who are going to arrest her, for it was she who actually handled the stolen eggs, and evidence has just come in that she couriered another stolen set to Russia just a week earlier.

The Narrator and Jean track Mrs Pike down to a prep school Christmas show and there is another farcical scene where their whispered argument backstage is counterpointed with the innocent children singing nursery rhymes on stage. She agrees to go. In a comic last page Dawlish admonishes the Narrator for turning up at passport control with a child still wearing its panto costume.

Killer?

I personally didn’t understand whether the Narrator did or didn’t push Newbegin in front of that bus. And there’s a suspicion that the assassins who tried to kill Newbegin in the snow might have been British. What to believe? Nothing more is heard of the Midwinter organisation, as if this setback would have neutralised it, which seems unlikely…


Class consciousness

Most of the British agents went to public school, as did the Narrator’s boss, Dawlish (Harrow).

‘What are the socialists going to do about the public schools?’ he asked. I was one of the few grammar-school boys that Dawlish ever came in contact with. He considered me an authority on all aspects of left-wing politics…
‘Send their sons to them,’ I said. (p.188)

Olde England

Just placing a chapter describing New York with its millionaires, 24-hour culture, aggressive, competitive, can-do atmosphere, before a chapter describing the offices of the Narrator’s intelligence unit, with its rickety stairs, badly fitting carpet, peeling wallpaper, and fires that don’t work, is satire without lifting a finger.

Influence of films

Difficult to tell the direct influence of films and the experience of film-making on thriller writers – Greene, Ambler, Innes, MacLean, le Carre, Deighton, all had plenty of movies based on their novels. But what is for the first time slightly detectable in this book is the anxiety, the self-consciousness, which thriller writers acquire, as they realise the kinds of scenarios and scenes and dialogues they are inventing often come perilously close to those used up and turned into clichés by the vast film factory. They then all develop this strange compulsion to highlight the fact that the scenes and dialogue sound as if they’re coming from bad films – as if that somehow defuses the issue instead of highlighting it…

So we meet again, Colonel Stok?’ I said like they say it in films. (p.92)

I splashed more [cold water] over my face. It looks therapeutic in movies but it made me feel worse than ever. (p.107)

[She] sipped at the champagne and narrowed her eyes at me in a gesture of passion that she had seen in some bad film. (p.143)

We show some of them the dirty tricks, but it’s pretty elementary because none of those boys are likely to be used in any sort of field work. They don’t get much more out of it than they would from reading a James Bond paperback. (p.148)

Raymond Chandler

My feeling in the earlier novels that Deighton was channeling Raymond Chandler, especially in the American sections or around American characters, is confirmed by the scenes set in New York and Houston in this book. Not oppressively – he retains his own oblique English attitude. But sometimes:

The prowl-car boys handed me downstairs and gave me the hands-flat-against-the-roof-of-the-car routine while they frisked me. (p.169)

Humour

Still plenty of dead-pan humour.

[The chauffeur] rolled a cigarette across the width of his mouth without using his hands. I followed him. I’d follow anyone who can do that. (p.147)

Jazz

The Narrator is old enough to be a jazz fan, and not to like the still-not-quite-born-yet rock music. When he thinks he might be about to die he jokingly hopes his sister will get his hi-fi and LP collection ‘some of the Goodman ones are quite valuable’, meaning the Benny Goodman albums. Jean sends him a message in New York asking him to bring back discs by John Coltrane, Roland Kirk and Sonny Rollins (p.136).

Related links

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

The movie

This novel was made into the third of the trilogy of movies starring Michael Caine as Deighton’s unnamed spy who, for the purpose of the movies, is named Harry Palmer. It was directed by once-notorious British director Ken Russell and is one of his least preposterous creations. As a reviewer on Amazon pithily puts it:

‘Ipcress’ is brilliant.
‘Funeral’ is good.
‘Brain’ is weird but watchable.

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Wyatt’s Hurricane by Desmond Bagley (1966)

Bagley’s trademark research is on show in this novel about an unusually fierce hurricane hitting the (fictional) Caribbean island of San Fernandez and, because that’s not dramatic enough, coinciding with a rebel uprising against the deranged military dictator, Serrurier.

The novel opens with hurricane expert David Wyatt being flown across the storm by US pilots as part of his ongoing research. All the details of the plane and instruments and satellite readings, and Wyatt’s careful exposition to his air stewardess girlfriend of how a hurricane starts and develops, all shine with the gleam of up-to-date research put prominently on display.

Wyatt goes to persuade the President that the hurricane will strike the island but he is ignored out by a man more intent on defeating his enemies in the field. With his return to the US Navy base blocked by a military curfew, Wyatt falls in with a motley crew of civilians holed up in the only decent hotel in town, the Imperiale.

  • Julie Marlowe – air stewardess and girlfriend
  • Big Jim Dawson – drunk novelist and Hemingway wannabe
  • Causton – shrewd foreign correspondent
  • Eumenide Papegaikos – unreliable Greek
  • Miss Warmington – prickly spinster

Multiple protagonists

As in Citadel so here in Hurricane, Bagley quickly establishes the basic setup, creates half a dozen or so characters, and then splits them into groups whose diverse storylines exploit as many aspects of the situation as possible. In this case:

  • Dawson and Wyatt are arrested by the army and taken for interrogation at headquarters, where the rebels artillery attacks finally blow in the walls and kill most of the guards allowing them to escape
  • Causton rather ludicrously uses boot polish to black up and goes to scout ahead and finds himself rounded up among other deserters and forced into the front line of the battle
  • Julie, Miss Warmington and Papegaikos are rescued from the hotel by the British envoy Rawsthorne who packs them into a car and heads for the hills where they encounter various threats

So the narrative is able to jump from one small group or individual to another as the same sequence of events unfolds, namely the battle for San Pedro and then the disaster of the hurricane.

Style

There isn’t the hysteria of MacLean, the long sentences full of words like ‘despair’, ‘defeat’, ‘savage’, ‘vicious’. There are hardly any metaphors or similes. The prose is concerned to be factual and accurate.

At last all the stores  had been moved and they rested for a while on the ridge-top. On the seaward side they could see the main coast road, still aswarm with refugees heading east away from St Pierre. The city itself was out of sight behind the headland, but they could hear the distant thud of guns and could see a growing smudge of smoke in the western sky. On the other side of the ridge the ground sloped down into a small green valley, heavily planted with bananas in long rows. (Chapter 5, II)

Factual. Precise. The most notable oddity is the occasional use of jolly hockeysticks Englishisms which seem inappropriate to the modern ear. Inadvertently (and wildly improbably) drafted into the front line, Causton has to dig a trench, watch soldiers fleeing through no man’s land getting mown down, before himself coming under sustained artillery bombardment. Nonetheless he is impressed by the sergeant who is keeping his platoon of deserters in their place.

Causton sank back as a tirade of mashed French broke from the sergeant’s foxhole. He had to admire the man – this was a tough, professional soldier who would brook no nonsense about desertion in the face of the enemy – but he was confoundedly inconvenient. (Ch 5, I)

Jeeves and Wooster go to war.

Callousness

And yet the occasional pukka Englishism doesn’t mitigate the overall impression which is one of supreme callousness. As in Citadel individuals we’ve come to like (Rohde in the earlier book, Papegaikos in this one) are horribly and brutally killed. And this micro-brutality is echoed by larger-scale lack of sympathy in the way the author merrily kills off scores and scores of ‘communists’ (in Citadel) and, in Hurricane, really goes to town as the civil war battles kill thousands, then the forced exodus of civilians from the soon-to-be-flooded capital results in scores of deaths, and then the tsunami which accompanies the hurricane completely wipes out the loyalist army, killing thousands of soldiers, and then our characters stumble among the tens of thousands civilians abandoned in the open who are dead or dying from shock and exposure. It is two enormous disasters – civil war, tornado – cobined into one for maximum death & destruction. There’s something unpleasant about it all being used merely as a backdrop to the rather silly adventures of some very shallow characters.

In terms of body count it’s a holocaust of a novel but Bagley treats it with unnerving detachment and a kind of brisk no-nonsense certainty. Battlefields are traditionally immensely confused places but not in Bagley’s novel, where the characters are able to analyse the movements of opposing forces with clinical accuracy, as if studying it in a study decades later. Similarly, being in the middle of a hurricane is probably a severely disorientating experience but it doesn’t stop Wyatt delivering quite a lot of encyclopedia britannica-style information disguised as dialogue. And there is an opportunity to package more up-to-date research when Wyatt and Dawson emerge from their foxhole to see the entire length of the Negrita river valley lined with thousands of civilian survivors of the storm and Wyatt is able to deliver a short lecture about Disaster Shock.

Set against this bloodless detachment from the suffering of scores of thousands of people, is the rather risible psychology of the main characters. There’s a storyline concerning the character Jim Dawson, initially satirised as a big-talking American novelist whose image is created by PR firms but who is actually a coward. During the course of the novel he learns – through being tortured by the dictator’s goons and then surviving the hurricane – ‘true humility’ and to appreciate ‘what really matters in life’. This is such a thin and obvious character, and the lessons he learns so shallow and trite, and the escapades he goes through so risibly improbable, that he epitomises the paper-thin characterisation and thumpingly banal ‘lessons about life’ that these books contain.

MacLean learned not to clutter the stories with cheap author’s messages from the negative reviews of The Last FrontierI wonder if Bagley continues with the twopenny-halfpenny philosophising in his subsequent novels…

Dated

The journalist Causton is a veteran of foreign wars: he says he’s covered Congo, Vietnam, Malaysia. The mercenary Manning says he learned about Favel’s revolt while fighting in the Congo and, now it’s successful, may move on to Yemen. Interesting snapshots of recent troublespots as seen from 1965.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wyatt's Hurricane

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wyatt’s Hurricane

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean (1966)

Alistair MacLean (1922-87) wrote some 26 novels, all action or adventure stories. The first, HMS Ulysses (1955) is the best, because most closely based on his own service in the Second World War on Royal Navy convoys to Russia. The next two, The Guns of Navarone and South By Java Head, are also WWII adventures with a strong naval element. Only with The Last Frontier (1959) did he branch out into the thriller genre which was to be a central strand of all his later work. 11 years after the first, in 1966, he published his 11th novel, When Eight Bells Toll. A brisk 200-page thriller, it grips right from the famous opening page where the ‘hero’ describes the devastating power of the Peacemaker Colt, before revealing that one is pointing at him as he is thinking.

The first-person narrator is Philip Calvert, allegedly the best man in the British Secret Service, and he is on the track of a ruthless gang who are hijacking ships laden with gold or jewels off the British coast. Their trail has led him to the wild seas off the western isles of Scotland and it is here that the nailbiting sequence of events unfolds. Since each chapter is headed with precise times we know the action starts at dusk on Monday and ends at dawn on Friday.

It has what Rider Haggard referred to as grip. The opening paragraph seizes you and – whoosh! – you’re off on a rollercoaster.

Sense off humour Slightly surprising – the hero keeps up a steady patter of jokes, one-liners and self-deprecating asides which give a semblance of plausibility to his character. He likes verbal jokes created by repeating phrases with changes of sense, or for comic affect. Reminds me of Raymond Chandler. Very unlike modern thriller writers who tend to be unrelentingly grim, taut, underwritten.

After a while I shipped the oars and started up the outboard. Or tried to start it up. Outboards always work perfectly for me, except when I’m cold, wet, and exhausted. Whenever I really need them, they never work. So I took to the stubby oars again and rowed and rowed and rowed, but not for what seemed longer than a month. I arrived back at the Firecrest at ten to three in the morning.

Physical punishment Like Marlowe, like Bond, like all protagonists in this genre, the male hero is repeatedly beaten, drowned, shot, strangled etc to within an inch of his life. But after a stiff whiskey, gets up to resume the fight against the bad guys.

Convoluted plot Endings are hard. Like many a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie story it’s better to travel hopefully, your mind confused by the multiple clues and red herrings – than to arrive in the often rather banal light of day. In the last ten pages of 8 Bells there are more twists, turns and reversals than a fairground ride and eventually it leaves all believability far behind. Shame, but unnecessary convolution is as much a part of the genre as lovingly detailed descriptions of guns and anything with a motor (cars, boats etc).

When I was a boy aged 10, 11, 12 I read all the James Bond books and all the Alistair MacLean novels then published. For some reason MacLean’s decline set in as I myself lost interest, with the dodgy Way To Dusty Death (1973) and then the terrible Breakheart Pass (1974). A few years later I was reading Joyce and Solzhenitsyn. Rereading this novel is not only a guilty pleasure, but sets off little bursts of memory, reviving my own self at 12, and the excitement and energy of innocent boyhood.

The movie

Five years after its publication, in 1971, the book was made into a movie starring a young Anthony Hopkins with a truly dire score by the composer Angela Morley and some very bad acting all round. (This was the same year as the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and on TV the Roger Moore & Tony Curtis vehicle, The Persuaders). Many of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, though only a few are worth actively seeking out: Ice Station Zebra, Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, Where Eagles Dare.

Cover of ‘When Eight Bells Toll’

The first 16 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrator

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

First-person narrator

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

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone
1969 Puppet on a Chain – interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew.

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